34. Child of Valhoal

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Mana saw to the Gryphons while the rest of the tribe trooped into the village with their prizes. Given that the elsoans were as large as Gryphons, it was a slow process and the people came in waves. Thus, we were not surprised when it seemed to take our father longer to arrive than many other villagers. When he did, he pushed through the door with perfect ease.

If the events that had transpired had not been so horrific, his shock at finding the boys returned and the child clinging tightly to Cardan would have been humorous. Alas, none of us were laughing when his eyes landed on Ryin and he demanded an explanation. Once more, I was grateful to my brother for explaining what had occurred. Especially when my father's face grew more horrified as he talked.

At last, he looked between Cardan and the girl and me. "You bound yourselves into servitude to save us all."

For the first time since it happened, I found myself searching for my voice. "I would rather no one knew."

Even the little girl turned to look at me. "Why? You are a hero," Ryin said.

"Am I? There was an easier way to save everyone, but it would have made me a monster. Instead, I sold the very freedom our mother would have died to give us. The most precious thing we have in Valhoal ... and I bartered it away. Though I may have saved Cardan and the girl, it still feels as if part of my soul has withered in my chest and died. If no one knows of that heartache, I will feel all the better for it."

Silence filled the house and I could not bear to meet the gaze of the three men. Instead, I stared into the eyes of the child I had saved through enslavement. The thought left me ill. One day, when the dragon came to call on her, would she thank me then for saving her life? Or would she curse that I had ever let her draw a breath beyond this day?

As if she could hear my thoughts—and perhaps she could—the child surprised me by slowly moving away from Cardan and toward me. Her eyes seemed so luminous and bright. As any child's should be. But there was great fear in her haunted gaze and I wanted nothing more than to banish it.

For the rest of our lives, that would be my goal. Until my last breath, I would do my best to ensure that this small creature knew more than fear and servitude. She would know joy and happiness and whatever measure of freedom I could provide her.

She would be a child of Valhoal.

While I thought it over, my father took a seat beside me on his cot a moment before Mana entered the house. Ryin was then given the responsibility to repeat events once more—with my request that it remain a family matter. When he was finished, she peered long and hard at each of us. Father covered in the blood of elsoans. Ryin still in his riding clothes with sweat causing his hair to stick to his forehead. Cardan whose own clothes were charred and blackened on his body. The girl in her leather sack that was clearly made of an old shirt laboriously sewn down to fit her by unskilled hands. And me.

"You lot are a mess. A smelly set, too. Now, the Gryphons will escort you all down to the river where you are to bathe. Azrael and Kiethe with the men, and Maphail with the girls. Come now. The whole village will be there soon after the events of the hunt."

Relief flowed through me. Mana did not care that I sold myself and a child to a dragon in order to save our tribe. She cared that we smelled and were each in need of a bath. While I could not help but agree, I glanced askance at the child who had gone back to the safe embrace of Cardan's arms. Would she allow me to bathe her without him present?

"It must wait, Mana. The little one was raised to hate our kind, and she will run if she is too near the Gryphons. If she runs, she will die."

"If she cannot pass by the Gryphons, how are we to get her to my house? That is where she must sleep if she is to remain close to you."

"We will take her at night. For now, I think it best that we all recover."

"I cannot stay," my father said. "Someone must be present to accept our portion of the kills today."

"I will go with you, Father," Ryin said, pushing to his feet.

"Before you go," Mana said, "we must decide what to tell the people, if not the whole truth. How are we to explain the child? What is her name?"

All eyes invariably shifted to the girl, and she squirmed under the attention. Cardan's arms tightened around her. "I call her Little Rabbit. Until she is ready to tell us her name, it will do."

The girl and I were staring at one another once more, and I found that a plausible story was forming in my mind. "The dragon has finished its business in the Forest. Unfortunately, the Treskess village was burned. Cardan found a young orphan there and I have chosen to take her as my ward. Apologies, Mana, but I do not think you will find a suitor willing to take us both."

She harrumphed as if that were the last thing on her mind and I smiled a little. At last, the three of them left the house to aid the rest of the village in preparing the elsoans. When Cardan and I looked at each other over the head of the girl, I could feel the exhaustion settle in.

"We should rest while we are able," Cardan suggested.

"You shall."

"Is that an order?" he asked even as he eased down onto his mat.

"It is." I waited a heartbeat more before I whispered, "You almost died today."

The girl dropped down beside him and he wrapped an arm around her. "We all almost died today, Tallie."

"Only one of us would have died for a noble reason. You did the right thing, Cardan. Do not doubt it."

"As did you," he assured me.

My gaze strayed to the dark strands of hair that had once been silver. "That remains to be seen. One day, I would like for her to tell me so."

"One day, she will."

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