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Chapter 10

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* * *

The carriages were waiting for them in the early morning. They'd decided to let Tash sleep in Thorne's old chambers--Thorne had more or less officially moved into Kaven's bed, though they hadn't...well, done anything since the afternoon under the willow, and it meant they wouldn't have to disturb the other pages, waking him. The boy had been excited to tag along, but standing next to the royal coach now, he looked less than thrilled. In fact, he looked like he was about to topple over and fall asleep in the dew-covered grass.

Thorne chuckled, resting a steadying hand on the boy's shoulder when he swayed yet again. "Go ahead and climb in, lad," he said. "You can nap, for now." It was a two-day journey to Itharia; the stronghold was situated in the heart of the mountains, and it was a difficult trip. They'd be camping overnight outside, and Thorne knew how taxing that would be for the palace-bred page. He might as well sleep now, while he could.

Tash obeyed, climbing in and disappearing into the back, where he coiled into a tight ball and was snoring in moments. Thorne chuckled, then glanced up toward the palace again, watching for Kaven while the rest of the entourage assembled itself. Along with Makah and a tan naga named Mikkel, there were two large soldiers Thorne didn't recognize, each bearing the crest of the king along with the royal insignia. They did not speak to Thorne, despite Thorne's attempts to engage them in casual conversation, and the minstrel had finally given up, tired of their cool stares and stone faces.

He folded his arms over his chest, drawing his fur-lined cloak in a little closer to his body and leaning back against the carriage, the tip of his tail tapping against the grass. Kaven had to check in with the king and Othalion, he knew, to get last-minute orders, and both nagas were known to be windbags, when the mood took them. Thorne rather suspected it must have, because when Kaven finally DID appear, he looked rather harried.

"Sorry," he muttered, after nodding to the four soldiers of the escort, each of whom saluted him promptly. "They wanted to redirect our route a little. It takes us a bit closer to the border, but it's faster, and apparently it's urgent I arrive 'as quickly as possible.'" He rolled his eyes, climbing into the carriage. "By all means. Let's hurry up and have our war!"

Thorne shushed him, inclining his head at Tash, and sighed. "As long as we're still safe, I don't see a problem with it. The border relations can't be that bad yet, can they? And we'll be able to head to the farm sooner, if you finish with this sooner, as well."

Kaven sighed, pressing a hand to his brow, but nodded, settling back against the cushions. "Yeah, I guess," he murmured. "I'm just...frustrated. Sorry."

"I don't blame you," Thorne replied, twitching the curtains closed and moving to rub Kaven's temples, his voice dropping. "But I don't think we should talk about it in front of your father's guards."

"They can't hear us, but...yeah, all right. Let's not talk about it at all." He shifted, nodding toward the pack. "Care to show me the ballad you're working on?"

Thorne pulled out his lyre, deciding distracting Kaven was probably best, and curled around it, playing what he had of the love ballad between a farmboy and a prince. He'd never before been quite as grateful that it was a common theme.

One song led to another, and Kaven seemed to have relaxed by the time Tash woke up again and they all shared the midday meal. The time after that was devoted to Tash's lessons and playing, Thorne patiently correcting him, and praising him when it was deserved. The boy had improved quickly, and Thorne had found he truly enjoyed teaching.

Thorne felt all together more relaxed and better about their journey, by the time the carriage slowed that night, finally pulling in to their camping spot. He slid from the carriage and stretched, groaning, as Kaven followed and turned to help Tash. "I know I've said it before, but what is it about traveling that's so tiring?"

Kaven snorted. "The mountain roads aren't the greatest," he offered. "That didn't help any."

Thorne shook his head, gazing around at the darkening wilderness. "It's pretty, though," he murmured, taking in the towering trees--much taller than those in the valley--and the sky, the stars seeming all the more brilliant for the chill in the mountain air. He drew his cloak more tightly around his shoulders, waiting as the soldiers moved to the clearing they'd selected and began preparing a fire.

"It is," Kaven agreed softly. "My mother's tribe lives near here."

"They do?" Thorne smiled, looking around as if expecting to see pale naga all around them. "I don't suppose we have time to seek them out..." He frowned, then. "Kaven...surely you have family there."

Kaven frowned, looking thoughtful. "Yeah, I...I guess I would," he said finally. "But I don't know how...I mean, none of them would know me. I've never met them."

"They'd still be your kin," Thorne pointed out. "That always counts for something. We should find them, sometime, and see..." He yawned, pulling his cloak tighter again, shivering. "And bring more clothes, when we do. I forgot how much later spring arrives, up here..."

"At least at night," Kaven agreed, coiling his tail around Tash, who'd pressed unconsciously into his side. He reached out, and Thorne slid closer, huddling next to him. "I guess we'll be sleeping cozy tonight."

"Can we?" Thorne asked, pressing cautiously against Kaven, looking over at the soldiers. "I mean..."

Kaven glanced at them, then sighed. "I want to," he said. "I don't think it's really any of their business."

"It's not, but they're still going to report back to your father," Thorne pointed out gently. "I want to stay with you, too, and I will if you're sure it's all right, but I don't want to cause trouble..."

Kaven sighed again. "Damn," he muttered. "You're right. We want to stay low profile, and if Father suspects..." he shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said.

"So am I," Thorne replied, wrapping his arms around himself. "You'll have enough furs, right? To be warm enough?"

"There are plenty," Kaven assured him. "And you and Tash can curl up together by the fire. You'll be warm, Thorne, I promise."

Thorne laughed softly. "I was asking for your sake, but thank you. I'm tired enough I don't think it'd matter, though. Just want to eat and sleep..."

"Sounds like a very good plan," Kaven said, drawing Thorne and Tash forward as Mikkel finally got a fire lit, and he and Makah started feeding it kindling. They curled around it, watching as it grew, then began to eat. Tash had the idea of sticking their salted meat on the ends of sticks and warming them over the fire, which got them all laughing as they tried not to catch it on fire or drop it into the coals. After eating, Thorne picked up his lyre and began to play, taking requests and even making up a song on the spot when Kaven challenged him to do so, which turned out better than he'd expected and left them all cheering (save Othalion's soldiers, who were taking the first guard shift and were too far from the fire to really hear the songs).

Eventually, tired, they coiled up and one by one began to drowse. Thorne and Tash were coiled together, the child pressing into Thorne's side, and Kaven slid forward, covering each of them with a fur, then wrapping them together in a larger blanket woven of some sort of wool. Thorne kept his eyes open long enough to make certain Kaven was well wrapped himself before he sighed, tightening his grip on the child in his arms and drifted into sleep.

* * *

Thorne wasn't sure how late it was--or early, perhaps--when he suddenly was awakened by Tash nudging his shoulder urgently. "Thorne!" the child hissed. "Master Thorne, wake up!"

Thorne's eyes snapped open and he looked around quickly. "What?" he hissed, seeing nothing amiss. "Tash, what is it?"

Tash bit his lip, eyes wide, and Thorne realized he was staring at the pile of blankets and furs where Kaven had been sleeping. The prince wasn't there.

"Where is he?" Thorne whispered, looking back at Tash.

Tash shook his head. "Dunno," the child said. "He got up awhile ago and went into the woods, but he's not come back yet."

Thorne's frown deepened. "How long ago?"

"Um..." Tash thought, looking worried and frightened. "Maybe twenty minutes?"

Thorne swore lightly, but nodded to the child. "All right," he murmured, trying not to panic. Tash was still very young, after all--sometimes children believed more time had passed than actually had, particularly when they were waiting for something as anxiously as Tash had apparently been waiting for Kaven to return. "You wait here. I'm going to go make sure he's all right. Which way did he go?"

Tash pointed into the forest to the north of the clearing, and Thorne nodded once, rising from his coils and sliding forward, trying to move as silently as possible as he slipped into the trees.

It was dark, and he blinked, trying to get his eyes to adjust to the sudden change. He drew his tongue back into his mouth and let the snake tongue beneath it flicker out, testing the air for Kaven's scent, and catching it almost instantly. He'd passed through here, of that there was no doubt in Thorne's mind. Looking for his clan, perhaps?

Thorne frowned and slid further forward, biting back the urge to call the prince's name. Some impulse stayed him, urging him not to announce himself, and he obeyed it, letting the more instinctual part of him take over as he hunted.

His eyes finally shifted, pupils elongating, and instead of seeing in color, he saw in temperature. The forest was cold, but he could half-hear, half see the beating hearts of the warm creatures curled into burrows and in hollow logs. As he hunkered down further, sliding carefully through the foliage, his fangs emerged automatically from where they had been retracted into the roof of his mouth, behind his incisors. He didn't stop to think about any of it--didn't question the way the hair on the back of his neck had stiffened, or the way he was growing more and more certain, with each passing instant, that something was very, very wrong.

Soon--and not a moment too soon--he realized why.

He heard their voices only an instant before he saw them--the two soldiers Othalion had sent. And a muffled, angry voice that could only be Kaven's. Thorne pushed through a small tangle of undergrowth and saw them, at last, in a tiny clearing beneath a large oak: Kaven, bruised, face bloodied and hair askew, gag in his mouth and hands roped behind his back. His tail they'd also immobilized, and Thorne barely bit back a cry of horrified anger when he realized how: they'd driven a sword through the tip, pinning it to the ground.

The soldiers were arguing with each other, a knife held on the open palm of the larger one, and as Thorne strained to pick up their voices, he realized what they were arguing about: which one of them was going to kill Kaven.

Thorne hissed softly, unable to help himself, hands already reaching for the sling at his side, the shot in its small pouch. He'd have to get them both before either could reach the prince...it'd be close. Terribly close, but he didn't have a choice. He had to do it, or Kaven was dead.

At least he had a clear shot, they were both facing into the clearing, their backs to him, and no trees directly between. Grateful for their distraction, and his own dark cloak, Thorne rose up, arm swinging the sling above his head, letting the shot fly at the appropriate moment.

One guard hit the ground, dead or stunned, but either way no longer a threat. Thorne had no time to celebrate, however, already loading his sling again as the other came for him. His fingers fumbled and he wished he had his sword on him, though he knew he'd have little chance against a naga so much larger than he was.

Moving faster, he still knew he wasn't going to make it. Grabbing his dagger from its sheath, he sent up a prayer to the lady and prepared to fight the warrior barreling down on him.

Three feet away, just the reach of the huge sword, the guard fell, a red feathered arrow buried in his throat.

"That was close, little one," came a voice from behind him, and Thorne turned to see a pale stranger, fitting another arrow to her bow. "Where is Aeriana's son?"

Thorne blinked, looking from her to the dead guard on the ground, thinking absurdly that everyone had been right, he'd be no good as a soldier. "Aeriana? Oh! He's...Kaven!" Throwing caution aside, Thorne ignored the nagi behind him, slithering into the clearing as fast as he could. "Kaven..."

He reached the prince's side, and tried to fight back the urge to sob. Kaven was badly beaten, bruises covering his torso and a large purpling swelling, crusted with blood, was at his right temple. They'd knocked him out, the bastards, then beaten him--but why?

He reached forward with trembling hands, and Kaven blinked up at him, eyes wide, chest heaving. "Kaven, it's all right, they're...they're gone." He undid the gag, tossing the dirty cloth aside, and started in on Kaven's bonds, supporting the other naga as best he could.

He looked up at a sickening thunk behind him, to see the pale naga had put away her bow, only to have coolly taken the head off the other guard. "Always make sure your enemy is dead, little one." She turned to them both, frowning. "So this is result of Othalion's pride...I will send the loyal ones to you, and our healers will come for him soon enough. I am Brilara, daughter of Riahnon, sister to Aeriana. And we take care of our kin."

With that she was gone, and Thorne stared after her for a moment, before turning back to Kaven. "Guess that was your cousin..."

"Thorne," Kaven gasped, reaching for him weakly. "Were...th-they were g-going to..."

"They were going to kill you," Thorne replied, seeing no point in denying it. "But they're dead, now." He looked at the sword sticking through Kaven's tail and bit his lip. He wasn't sure he should remove it--if nothing else, the bit in the ground would be filthy, and that should hardly go through a wound, so he decided reluctantly to let it be for now and hope the healers arrived soon. "You're going to be all right, your clan is sending help."

"No," Kaven whispered, eyes filling abruptly. "They were going to kill you too. And...and T-tash, and Makah and Mikkel..."

Thorne swallowed hard, suddenly understanding why Makah had been sent. Of course. Someone had seen him with Selria... "They didn't. Everyone else is safe, they took you first. Tash saw you leave and woke me. It's all right, love, we're safe now."

"F-father...my father ordered it," Kaven whispered, curling in against Thorne's chest. "He...wanted me dead. T-to...he was going to frame the centaurs and use it to g-generate public su-support for the...for the war..."

"Sweet Lady..." Thorne's hold on Kaven remained gentle, but he hissed, feeling his fangs drop once more, knowing if Othalion had been in front of him just then he'd've tried to rip him to shreds, size difference or no.

"He...what?"

Thorne turned, seeing Makah and Mikkel, Tash between them, the three of them looking on in horror.

"Tash, come here," Thorne said quickly, wanting to get the lad away from the corpse between them. "I need you to help me hold Kaven, all right? There, just like that..." Thorne waiting until Tash was supporting the prince, before sliding over to Makah and Mikkel and explaining in low tones just what had happened. "We're waiting for the healers, now. I'll admit I don't know much about this clan, but everything Kaven's said of them has been positive, and at the least Brilara saved our lives. I'll stay with him; you gather what you can from the campsite, and let's be ready to leave when they arrive."

Mikkel nodded, spinning around and heading back, but Makah was still staring at Kaven in horror, watching as Tash ran his hands gently over the prince's long hair. Kaven's head was supported in the child's lap, and his breathing was still ragged, pain clearly etched onto his features, and a strange despair as well. Remembering what Kaven had said about family, about not wanting to come to blows with his father, Thorne felt a more powerful surge of anger wash through him.

"This is why they redirected our route, isn't it?" Makah whispered, still looking stricken. "So it would be easier to frame the centaurs...Sweet Lady, Prince Kaven...!"

Thorne nodded, his hands clenched into tight fists. "It was. Othalion and Ipson want a war, and they've decided they don't want Kaven as the next king, not now that he's standing up to them. It solved two of their problems at once." His voice was flat, cold, but his tail wouldn't stay still, tapping over the grass, and there was a hiss to his words that betrayed his anger. "We're supposed to be dead. Somehow I doubt our survival would be welcome news, and his least of all. Lady, I'd kill them myself if they were here..."

"I'd help you!" Makah cried. "He's...he's done more good for us in six months than Ipson has in the past thirty years!"

"He has," Thorne agreed, forcing himself to calm down, running through several breathing exercises he knew. "This...this is bad business, Makah. I'm sorry you're caught up in it, too...though I imagine Ipson didn't mind the idea of disposing of Selria's lover along with her fiancé and his."

Makah's eyes were impossibly wide. "You...knew about me and Selr--" he broke off. "Her fiancé and his what?" he asked, slowly.

"Her fiancé and his lover," Thorne replied, shrugging, though he blushed as well. "Kaven and I..."

He was interrupted by the arrival of several pale nagas, appearing like ghosts in the moonlight. He turned, startled and a little wary about announcing his relationship to one of their kinsman, and the nagi who'd saved them earlier approached, with an older nagi who bore an odd resemblance to Kaven himself.

Kaven's aunt!

"You saved his life," she said, voice lower than Thorne would have expected, rich and husky and possessing a commanding quality that told him she was of some importance in her clan.

Thorne bowed before her, feeling no awkwardness in doing so. "Yes, lady. He is dear to me."

Her eyes flickered to his left arm, and the royal insignia there. "You bear the mark of Ipson's palace," she said, and her voice hardened a little.

"I serve Kaven, and no other," Thorne replied as respectfully as he could. "I have nothing but contempt for a king who mistreats his people, and a general who plots his own son's death for his own selfish aims."

"Thorne..." Kaven's voice was weak, pleading.

Thorne bowed again, and slid over to Kaven, taking his hand. "I'm here, love," he said softly, brushing stained hair back from his lover's cheek, looking up. "He needs help, can we debate this later? I will gladly go through whatever ceremony is required then, but he is in pain..."

The nagi lifted her chin, a spark in her eye and the slightest of smiles on her lips. "Very well," she murmured, sliding forward herself and lowering herself next to Kaven. "Oh, child of my sister, what have they done?" she whispered, reaching up to press her hand on Kaven's brow.

Kaven's eyes opened, and he blinked, squinting. "Momma?" he whispered, and suddenly Thorne was transported back to Merric's bedroom, seven and a half years prior, watching the wounded, feverish warrior ask for his mother.

The nagi--Riahnon, had Brilara called her?--pressed her lips together sadly, still smiling down at him. "No, love, but she is never far from you," she whispered, bending to kiss Kaven's brow.

Kaven blinked, and for a moment his eyes cleared a little. "Wh-who are you?" he whispered, his hand tightening around Thorne's.

"I'm your aunt, child," she replied. "But as your lover has pointed out, formalities must wait until you are seen to."

Thorne blushed, but nodded firmly, still holding Kaven's hand, watching as the healers came forward. Both nagi, of course, and both as pale as the other two, only faint spots of color on them. Thorne supposed they would disappear in the mists, and shivered slightly.

"You will do him good to hold him," one said, studying the sword that impaled Kaven's tail, "while we remove the sword. You can offer him your strength."

Thorne nodded, wrapping himself around Kaven, holding him close. "I love you," he murmured softly, not really caring if he was overheard. These pale nagi seemed to know he was Kaven's lover already, and he was through with hiding. Kaven would never marry Selria now, that seemed certain, no matter what else was in store for them.

"Love you," Kaven whimpered. "Thorne--ah!--Thorne, please, stay...don't go, please don't..."

"I'm not going anywhere, love," Thorne promised, resolutely turning his face away from whatever the healers were doing. He didn't want to know. "I'm here, and I won't leave you. I promise."

Kaven turned his head into Thorne's chest, shaking, and Thorne realized there were muffled sobs coming from the prince. Or is he even a prince now?

"Only...only one I have left, Thorne, I--aagh!" There was a ring of metal, and Kaven arched in Thorne's arms, a cry of pain ripping from his throat. Thorne couldn't help but look, but his view was obstructed by the two pale nagi, who were bent over Kaven's tail.

They didn't quite block the bloody sword that was lying in the grass, however.

"Thorne," Tash whimpered, reaching with trembling hands to stroke Kaven's back. "He'll be all right, won't he?" The child's eyes were wide, terrified, and there were tears streaking his pale cheeks.

"He'll be fine," Thorne said with a firm conviction he wasn't sure he felt. But he held onto the hope, holding Kaven close, smiling reassuringly for Tash. Poor kid was an outcast now, too, surviving when he shouldn't have. But it was better than death. Besides, if he could get him to his family...he could live with them.

Kaven suddenly slumped in Thorne's arms, and Thorne looked down, seeing his lover had passed out. He glanced up quickly, but one of the healer nagi glanced at him and shook her head. "He sleeps," she said softly. "It'll be better for him, but he is not in any danger. The weapon went through cleanly, and he will recover."

Thorne slumped slightly himself, hoping Kaven's sleep would be more restful than his reality. "Thank you," he said softly, shifting to support Kaven more thoroughly.

Brilara appeared with Mikkel, her bow slung over her shoulder, eyes alert. Thorne wondered if the light markings on her tail were a variation, or merely a sign that she was younger than the other nagi, who were all pure white. Would Kaven pale as he aged, too?

Thorne shook his head, realizing his mind was wandering to combat his fear and his exhaustion. "Where will you take us?" he asked, his voice sounding weary even to himself.

"Home," Riahnon said. "He needs rest, and he will need food." She glanced up at him, then at his tail, and for the first time in his life, Thorne felt like an outsider due to his coloring.

"You are not of our kind," Riahnon said after a moment. "Normally you would not be permitted within our walls. But he rests easier when you are nearby, so an exception can be made for you. For the child as well, as we would not leave a child to fend for himself in the mountains. But the others..." she turned to Mikkel and Makah, who shrank a little under her gaze, "will have to return to their own kind."

Mikkel's eyes widened, and he looked up at Makah, who had paled a little; Thorne was about to speak, about to plea with her that they were Kaven's friends and loyal guard, that they would be hunted nagas and could not return--but before he could speak, Makah himself shook his head, sliding forward and pushing a lock of his dark brown hair behind his ear.

"I'm sorry, ma'am," he said, bowing low, voice soft but firm, "but we serve Prince Kaven, and swore to do so no matter what. If we aren't permitted in your city, we will wait outside the doors, but we will not abandon him."

Thorne blinked back a sudden rush of grateful tears, wishing Kaven were awake to see how devoted his men were to him.

Mikkel nodded, though he looked too flustered (or perhaps to intimidated by the large, powerful female nagi around him) to speak.

Riahnon's expression remained stony for only a moment. Then, suddenly she smiled.

"You are loyal," she said. "Fine. You may enter."

Thorne's eyes widened, when he realized it had simply been a test. Makah and Mikkel looked surprised but grateful, and Makah slid forward, bending down next to Thorne and touching his fingers briefly to Thorne's shoulders. "We won't abandon you," he said softly. "Whatever it is we need to do, whatever you need from us, you'll have it."

"Thank you," Thorne murmured, reaching up to squeeze Makah's hand briefly. "That means more than I can say." He straightened, brushing Kaven's hair back again, wondering if his love could finally cut it, like he'd wanted to. He hoped so.

"Come," Riahnon said, rising, as the healers unrolled two long poles with a stretch of leather hide between them. "We must carry him back."

Thorne sighed, reluctantly releasing Kaven while the much larger females, with the help of Makah and Mikkel, hoisted the unconscious prince onto the stretch of leather carefully coiling his bound, injured tail tip so it didn't hang over the edge. Then, hoisting the poles up to their shoulders, they began to slide toward the trees, following some path invisible to Thorne, moving quickly and easily through the thick underbrush. He followed, Tash close at his tail, Riahnon and Brilara bringing up the rear. He rather suspected that was a breach in protocol--Riahnon was obviously an important nagi, after all, and Thorne doubted she would normally be at the end of a procession--but he was glad the clan were not so staunch about their traditions as to not recognize when one needed to be broken. After all, if Tash and the others couldn't keep up, they would need someone to lead them back. The healers weren't slowing down, and Thorne didn't want them to--Kaven needed tending, needed to be in a real bed, warm and safe and dry, and nothing, not even his own smaller size and lesser speed, would stop Thorne from insisting he get it.

But he found his worry was such that he kept up pretty well, ignoring most of the passing forest in favor of keeping his eyes upon the white tails in front of him, the long strands of silvery white hair falling from the edge of the stretcher, the pale forearm and hand resting along one of the bars. Though he knew, intellectually, that Kaven's injuries weren't serious, and that he would recover perfectly well, he couldn't help but feel afraid for him. What would this do to Kaven? The warrior had felt so alone all his life, and had clearly wanted so badly to cling to the idea of a family, even if Othalion had proven time and time again that he never deserved his son. He scowled, feeling his fingers curl into fists. What he wouldn't like to do to the general, if he had the chance...

It was past midnight before they rounded the final bend in the path, which Thorne had finally realized was strung in vines above them, not on the floor below. It made sense--they could find their city, but no one passing through would recognize the trail, or think anything of the vines winding overhead, tangled as they were with all the rest. And even up close, it was hard to see the city--they were nearly upon it before Thorne realized the dense vegetation wasn't simply dense vegetation, but a carefully-concealed stone wall. and the entrance, instead of being a door that went straight through said wall, was placed at an angle, curved in a spiral pattern like the coil of a tail, a feat which cleverly masked it from any unobtrusive observer. In fact, when he saw the two nagi healers bearing the stretcher enter the city, he had to bite back a yelp--it looked like they'd simply vanished into the wall of greenery.

He learned the wall's secret soon enough, however, and after feeling his way through a darkened, dense shroud of eaves and other leafy vines, he found himself sliding into what easily could have been the upper gardens of the palace.

"Oh," he gasped, eyes widening as he looked around.

There were trees everywhere--the roads wound around them, instead of cutting through, and everywhere there were soft pools of trickling water, fountains made of natural springs and rock formations, paths of carefully kept grass instead of cobblestone and dirt. There were flowers, but they were wild, allowed to grow freely instead of organized into unnatural rows, and the structures where the clan members lived were made to look like a part of the landscape--stone walls that receded into rocky hills, burrows covered in grass, and even one home that seemed to be built in the root system of a gigantic tree.

Thorne realized, suddenly, why Kaven had been so drawn to the upper gardens, and why his mother had spent most of her time there. But he did not allow himself much time to take it in, keeping his attention focused instead on the healers bearing his lover toward a large circular building of logs and stone and grass.

As soon as he ducked inside after them, he realized the enclosures were more clever than they appeared from the outside. Built into hills as they were, they looked rather small, but they extended back into the mountain--a series of caverns that had been carefully and meticulously carved, then carpeted with woven rugs and furnished with artistically carved wooden furniture. The healers had carried Kaven to one of the beds, padded with what looked like animal hide stuffed with down feathers, and arranged him carefully so his injured tail was easily accessible to them. Then, rolling the stretcher again, they backed away, passing him with a nod, and Thorne noted with no little astonishment that they hadn't even broken a sweat.

No wonder Kaven is so strong, he thought to himself, impressed. If he's from this clan...

He slid forward, approaching the bed and reaching for Kaven's hand, curling his own around it gently. "Hi, princeling," he murmured softly, biting his lip. "You're safe now. You're home, actually--or where you would've been, if your mother hadn't been..." he shook his head, cutting himself off. "You have family here," he added, hoping that Kaven would realize that quickly, and not let the incident with Othalion send him back into the depressive spirals to which he seemed so prone. "You have an aunt, and a cousin, and I'm sure more kin, distant, maybe, but they're family, Kaven, real flesh and blood. And they're all so beautiful, like you...not as beautiful as you are, of course, but they're kind and they're taking care of you, and you'll be all right, you just have to be all right..."

"Redling, if your tail moves as fast as your mouth, it is no wonder you were built so small," came a voice from behind him, and Thorne turned, blinking at the large, older male naga who had slid up behind him, looking amused.

Thorne blushed, brushing a hand back through his hair, his exhaustion quickly catching up with him. "It doesn't, quite. I'm Thorne."

The naga bowed slightly. "Thorne, it is my honor," he said. "My name is Katha." His eyes crinkled slightly at the edges as he smiled, then sobered again as he looked over at Kaven. "So this is Aeriana's son," he said softly.

Thorne nodded, not letting go of Kaven's hand, though he bowed back in acknowledgment. "Yes. Or at least I assume so, he's never told me his mother's name, but she was from your clan. He's always wanted to come here, but not like this..."

"It's him," Katha murmured softly, reaching out to stroke Kaven's face. "I would know those eyes anywhere, even closed. I'd always hoped they'd..." he swallowed, closing his eyes and shaking his head. "But I don't suppose there was anything I could have done. I promised her I wouldn't put myself in danger, but..."

"Forgive me, sir, but...how did you know her? Kaven knows nothing of his family here, so I'm afraid I don't recognize your name..."

Katha smiled sadly. "No," he said. "No, I don't suppose he would...she wouldn't have told him. It would have been dangerous..." he drew a breath, then turned to look at Thorne. "I'm his father," he said softly.

Thorne's jaw dropped. "You...Oh! Oh Lady..."

Katha chuckled. "I'm afraid his reaction won't be much better," he sighed. "I wanted to come after him, but...well..." he looked around behind himself, prompting Thorne to do the same, and Thorne gasped, hand flying to his mouth, when he realized that Katha was missing nearly half his tail. It ended in a scarred stump only about ten feet from the base, and he realized that Katha was leaning heavily on the wall beside the bed. "I fought, when they came for her," he murmured. "It did not end well. She...as they were dragging her away, she begged me to stay. Said she would send him for me one day. I didn't know she was with child until I heard news that the great general's new bride had given birth to a pale son." He smirked sadly, looking up at Thorne. "We are only pale if our parents are both pale," he said. "We cannot remain so if one of them is dark. I knew, then, he was mine, and that Aeriana had gone with them instead of accepting death to preserve the life of our child."

It seemed almost too much to take in, but Thorne reached over and lightly squeezed Katha's hand. "I think he will be glad to know you, sir, I truly do. Kaven...he's always felt like a disappointment to Othalion, even though he has no wish to be like him, and family is incredibly important to him. To find out he has such close family, and that the general wasn't his father...I think he'll be relieved, and glad. And...you remember Aeriana, can talk to him about her. You loved her, too, and he's...he hasn't had someone like that since Meema died."

Katha's smile remained sad. "Ah," he said softly. "She must have known, I think. Perhaps Aeriana told her..." he shook his head. "Meema was my mother."

Thorne smiled, suddenly, widely. "So she was his grandmother! No wonder she was so worried..."

"Thorne?"

The murmur was weak, roughened, but unmistakable, and when Thorne turned, Kaven's eyes were half-lidded, confused.

"I'm here, love," Thorne replied immediately, squeezing Kaven's hand lightly, leaning down to kiss his forehead. "The healers should be in to finish seeing to you soon," he added, frowning a little. He would've thought someone would've arrived before now...but then Kaven's wounds weren't that serious, and no doubt they'd wanted to give Katha a moment with his long lost son.

"Actually, that's me," Katha said, moving forward. "I'm the primary healer of the clan. I would have come myself, but...well." He shrugged, glancing at his mauled tail.

Thorne blinked at him. "But...you're male," he blurted, before blushing. "Sorry, I don't always manage to think before I speak."

Katha lifted his eyebrow. "And a talented healer," he said. "Should I withhold my talent, just because of my gender?" But there was no malice in his voice, just gentle amusement, as he came forward and bent over the bed, taking in the bruises on Kaven's body. The prince was blinking up at him, looking a little confused.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "But...who are you...? You seem familiar, somehow."

Katha smiled at him, but shook his head. "I am of your clan," he said. "All faces will feel familiar to you, for that reason alone."

Thorne was bursting with the news, wanting to tell Kaven that Othalion wasn't his father, but knew that it was not the time. And besides that, it was not his news to relay. "I'm sorry, sir," he offered softly. "Healers must be nagi, at home. I'd wanted to be one, but I wasn't allowed and it...surprised me. I think your clan has a more practical view of most things, though, from what I've seen."

Katha smiled back at him, nodding briefly, before returning his attention to Kaven, checking him over carefully. He looked a little paler, when he got to the wound on Kaven's tail, but after he undressed it and examined it, he slumped, relieved. "You'll recover, lad," he said gently, rewrapping the wound. "None the worse for it, I should think, though you may have a scar or two to show for your troubles. And you'll be sore for a few days. But they didn't break any ribs, and that cut on your head looks pretty superficial. How's your headache?"

Kaven blinked, and Thorne knew he was wondering when he'd said he had a headache. "It's...all right," he said after a moment. "Not unbearable."

Katha lifted his eyebrows dubiously, and waited. After a moment, Kaven cringed and said, "All right, it feels like centaurs are trying to escape my skull."

Katha chuckled lightly, but turned away, mixing a packet of some pungent herb into a cup of water poured steaming from a kettle. "Lavender extract and willow bark, along with a few crushed seeds from the poppy," he murmured. "Best headache cure there is. Your mothe--I mean, it's been in the clan for generations. Here."

He handed the cup over to his injured son, who accepted with a grateful, if ginger, nod, and sipped at the concoction. His face cleared after a moment, and he took a longer drag. "Tastes better than most of our headache remedies," he said after a moment.

"No harm in sugar, I say," Katha said with a nod to Kaven and a wink to Thorne, who giggled a little. "I'll leave you two alone. But Kaven..." when Kaven looked up, Katha smiled again. "Welcome home, lad."

Kaven nodded again, looking surprised but more than a little grateful for the sentiment. Katha nodded one last time then turned and slid from the room in an odd, awkward gait, leaning frequently upon the wall.

Kaven looked up at Thorne, once the healer had gone, and squeezed his hand again. "Hey," he said softly. "Thanks for...you know. Saving my life. Again."

Thorne blushed, settling himself carefully beside Kaven. "Brilara did most of the actual saving, I just provided needed distraction. But you're welcome. Not sure how much I'd want to be around, if you weren't. We're lucky your clan was nearby..."

"I can't believe they found us," Kaven murmured, resting his head against Thorne's chest, then making a face as his hair got in the way. "This damned stuff..."

"Want to cut it off?" Thorne asked, brushing Kaven's hair back from his face. "I don't think you need to keep it any longer than you'd like, now...And I imagine we were being watched as soon as we ventured into their lands."

Kaven blinked up at him, then down at his hair. "You're right," he said, but he didn't sound terribly happy about it. "I don't have to do what he wants, do I? Not after...not anymore." He sighed, picking up a lock of hair and staring at it. Then shook his head, lips twisting wryly. "Why does it bother me so much? It shouldn't...he wasn't exactly the greatest of fathers."

"Because he betrayed you," Thorne said softly, lightly stroking Kaven's cheek, around a rising bruise. "Of course it bothers you, you thought he was the only family you had and to do that..." He clenched his jaw. "I can't believe it, myself. I just can't...and I don't think I've ever been so angry."

"Thank you," Kaven whispered. "I just...I knew I disappointed him, but...I never knew I was that...expendable, you know?"

"He's insane, Kaven," Thorne replied, wishing he could just tell his lover that Othalion had no claim on him, anyway. "We already knew that, pushing this war for no reason...there's no telling what he's thinking, now. And you're not expendable, and he picked the wrong person to mess with. You have friends, and a network of musicians who'll be willing to spread the true story." He bit his lip. Othalion had just guaranteed himself a revolution.

"If we can ever get back to tell it to them," Kaven said. "For all he knows, I'm dead, and he and Ipson will start telling people the centaurs killed me and he'll get his war."

"We can," Thorne replied assuredly. "Or at least...I can. I can write a few songs, go to the nearest town, and have them circulating within a week. The minstrels will spread the word, Kaven. It's what we do, aside from entertainment. They'll know you're alive and safe, after an attack from the king's own men, and soon so will your people."

"We'll still have to warn the centaurs," Kaven said slowly, frowning. "But...I'll have to heal, anyway, and..." he looked up at Thorne. "You would really do that?"

"Of course," Thorne replied, surprised. "Kaven, that's what I do. That's why you have me in your staff. Aside from the whole liking me thing. I'm not much of a fighter, but I can write a few songs that will get the people on your side. And honestly...it won't take much, anyway. Ipson's not exactly well liked and neither is Othalion."

"That's true," Kaven said, then sighed again. "I was stupid to want their approval so much, I know. I guess I just..." he shrugged. "It's...your parents are supposed to love you, no matter what, right? And I just never understood what could be so...so wrong with me, that he couldn't."


"It wasn't stupid," Thorne said softly. "I think it was natural, and part of what made you so sad, when you realized you didn't want to be like them. And...it's not my place to say anything, love, but maybe...maybe there's a reason you're not like Othalion. And your mother loved you."

Kaven drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "Maybe," he said. "And yeah...yeah, she did. I just wish..." he shook his head. "Well. I wish Othalion had never found her. I mean...if she'd stayed here, she might've been...happy."

"But you wouldn't be who you are now," Thorne pointed out gently. "We can't change the past, love, just make sure the future is better with what we've learned from it. And either way, you need to get some rest. I'll be right here, and Tash, Mikkel and Makah are close. So is your family, and they'll look out for the lot of us."

Kaven nodded slowly. "Yeah. I'm getting kinda sleepy, anyway. Thorne?"

"Yes?"

"Would you please...I mean, would you stay? Here?" Kaven looked up at him, eyes cloudy with drowsiness but pleading. "I just...I want to feel you here. They..." he broke off, biting his lip. "They told me, while they were--you know--they told me if I struggled, they'd make it more painful for you, and..." he swallowed, tears gathering in his eyes again. "I want you close," he finished, voice a near-whisper. "I love you so much, and I was so scared for you..."

Thorne kissed him, very softly, cutting off the flow of words. "I won't leave you, Kaven. I'll stay right here. And I'm safe, and so are you, and you'll heal. They didn't win. I won't go any further than the privy until you're ready, all right? Now sleep, love." He took Kaven's hand again, singing a soft lullaby as he stroked the other naga's hair.

Kaven sighed, a bit shaky, and closed his eyes, burrowing into Thorne's side, head resting on his chest again. In moments, his breathing grew deep and even, and he drifted into sleep.

Thorne remained for a time, stroking his lover's hair, drawing his fingers through it and thinking. A few moments later, there was a movement from the doorway, and he looked up, seeing Katha braced there, looking weary.

"You didn't tell him," Katha said softly.

Thorne shook his head. "It's not my place to tell him," he said, just as softly. "But Katha...he needs to know. He's...it still hurts him, that Othalion didn't love him, and he needs to know..."

Katha nodded. "I know," he said. "I just...lad, I lost him once. If I tell him now, I may lose him again, and worse than before because he will have left me deliberately. Just..." he shook his head. "He needs to heal," he said, voice a little firmer. "And I would just...I would like to spend some time with him, get to know him, before I tell him who he really is." He broke off, suddenly, and smiled, though it was sad. "He really is a prince, you know."

Thorne's eyebrows went up. "He is?"

Katha nodded. "Aeriana was the daughter of the tribe's matriarch. The eldest daughter. When she left us, it fell to Riahnon, but...well." He smiled. "Your prince was always meant to be a prince. And Thorne?"

"Yes?"

Katha gazed at his son, then at the smaller naga holding him cradled protectively in his coils. "Never let him believe he is any less."

Thorne somehow curled tighter around Kaven, holding him closer. "I won't," he replied softly, but firmly, still stroking Kaven's hair. "I won't ever let him doubt his worth."

Katha studied him for a moment, then nodded approval. "Good," he said. Then, smiling, he added, "Don't doubt your own either, lad."


Then he was gone, pulling the door closed behind him.

Thorne blushed, shifting carefully around Kaven and relaxing himself back against the bed. "I like him. I hope you like him, too, love. I think you will. I think, when everything's said and done, that you'll be glad...But it might take you awhile to get there, too. Oh my poor princeling...the world doesn't seem to want to leave you content, does it?"

He continued to speak softly, letting his eyes close, his voice eventually trail off, falling asleep to tunes in head. That became full fledged songs of revolution in his sleep.

* * *

Previous Chapter * Next Chapter

Comments

Poor, poor Kaven:( I'm so glad we found his clan and I can't wait to learn more about them. I love Thorne being able to use his songs to let people know what really happened. I hope his family will know he is safe.
WAUGH. Holy CRAP, so much action!

Oh Kaven. D: Poor guy! Ooh, but his mom's family (and his dad's too, I see ^.^) is freaking awesome. And Thorne got to be badass! Wow, busy day for everybody.

Is it can be civil war time now? >.> Methinks it be so.

Those two boys are so bloody cute. <3

(Anonymous)

@_@

WOW... just, absolutely freaken wow. I was FLOORED to see that Kaven actually has a decent biological father? And he's a healer too... That was quite the shocker.

Not to mention the fact that it was Othalion and Ipson who had plotted against him. From the picture on Y!, I thought that maybe thieves had caught up with the royal caravan, but it really doesn't surprise me. Ipson and Othalion are power hungry beastards who will stop at NOTHING to get what they want.

I love who Thorne has thought his actions through, knowing that it wasn't his place to break the news to Kaven. I bet that took quite a bit of will power to hold back, seeing how much of a blabbermouth he really CAN be.

I really hope that Katha can bring some light into his newfound son's darkening world. I know it will take time for him to trust someone like a father again, seeing what Othalion has put him through, but I'm glad that Kaven's clan all seem to accept the fact that Thorne and he are lovers. Katha seemed pleased with the way the two interacted, and I'm glad that they've trusted Tash, Makah and Mikkel in their private city as well. This does seem to be turning for the better in Kavens favor.

Poor Selria though. I can't imagine what this is going to do to her either though. Her and Kaven were friends, but to find out that both he and her lover, Makah were killed? At least supposedly, that's what they're going to be saying. I love how cunning Thorne was about this, hiding messages in verses to spread. The sweet little sneak!

Anyways, can't wait for more naga lovin'! I honestly didn't think I would like this story as much as I've been drawn into it at the beginning of it. I've never really enjoyed the mythological creatures much, but I love these two so much now

Your story really is a compelling read, and I for one have loved every minute of it. I hope that you both continue this.

DG is aDisasterN_TH3making

(Anonymous)

check me out!

http://i43.tinypic.com/13zdcso.jpg <- picture is only 25% size, that's all I could load on my connection.
DG
Oh Kaven, it's just pain after pain after pain for that poor boy. Even if not by blood, damn Othalion for being so cruel and heartless to his son, disappointment or NOT!!

And I'm so glad that now Kaven and the others are safe with his mother's clan- his TRUE family. They'll be ok.

And Thorne's about to get to work. Othalion and Ipson messed with the wrong naga.
I've been meaning to read this story for MONTHS, especially after reading Changeling, but I just got around to it today and I love it! I'm totally addicted to it, too =]

I can't believe that Kaven has a biological father! Othalion was so cruel >=[ I'm looking forward to Thorne spreading the word through song!

I can't wait to read more =]
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October 2009

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