35. Solution

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We waited until dark had fallen before Cardan and I removed the child from my father's house. She was wide awake, and more terrified than ever to traverse the village at night. Only the assurance that most of the Gryphons were asleep brought her out of the house.

Kiethe was still awake. As was Azrael. Leaving Cardan and the girl, I walked over to the boys and touched each of their faces, silently thanking them for saving my family. They took turns pressing their giant heads to my midsection before I stepped back.

"One day," I told the child, "you will not look on them with fear, but admiration. They are noble creatures that demand honorable companions and they make wonderful additions to any family."

Shaking her head, it was obvious that she did not believe me. It was worth it to let her have her doubts. For now. Yet, I could not hide her forever, and she would soon have to grow used to the world of Gryphons. Even in the desert, there was still Xzaryth to contend with.

When Cardan and I reached Mana's house, we were surprised to find her standing beside the old shelter that had housed her husband and sons' Gryphons. More surprising yet was finding the trough filled with steaming water.

"About time. Now, I welcome the child to bed with us, but it is important that she bathe first. Tallie, you will do the honors. I have wheedled some clothes out of Zara that her youngest has outgrown. Well, what are you waiting for?"

A fit, if I was to be honest. The only time the girl had willingly come to me was when she learned I was going to save her life by promising her to a dragon. After that, Ryin and Cardan had been greater sources of comfort to her. Now, I was not only meant to take her from Cardan's arms, but to strip her of the rotting sack she wore and dunk her in hot water while I scoured her skin until it was clean. Was there a greater torment for a child so young?

"Cardan..."

"I will remain close by. Kiethe, too." Just in case she tried to run.

Mana gave a nod. "I will fetch him," she said before marching off.

I nodded as I held out my arms to the girl. Her grip around his neck tightened as she glared between me and the water trough. Lowering my voice, I said, "It is warm and will take off most of the grime much easier than river water. Mana even thought to add flowers so that it will smell nice. Would you like to smell like flowers?"

Again, she shook her head in stubborn silence. My eyes raised to Cardan's. He nodded and said, "I think I will use the water to wash my face and neck. Would you watch out for me while I did so?"

This time, she nodded and Cardan eased her to the ground. At once, her little arms wrapped around his leg in a mighty grip as Kiethe glided through the air to land at our sides.

"Was she this frightened when you were saving her life?" I wondered aloud.

"We were the lesser of two evils. That does not mean the dragon was wrong. Whoever put that sack on her back also bred in her a hatred and fear for the Gryphons."

"Wraiths," I said, my lips twisting on the word.

"It is possible. Only through time will she learn that jealousy often breeds lies."

No more words were said as Cardan took a breath and dunked his head into the trough. Then he flung his head back and caused the water to fall down onto the girl's head. She flinched on instinct, but otherwise made no sound. No laugh or squeal common of children. Almost as if she learned her silence was the only way for her to survive.

"How am I to raise her?"

I did not realize the words were spoken aloud until Cardan replied, "As your own, Tallie. Raise her as you would a child born of your own body, and love her just as much. Otherwise, what did we save her for?"

"What if she does not want my love?"

In the dim light of the watch torches, I could see the barest hint of a smile cross his face. "Is it not the nature of love that it is bestowed without permission or acknowledgment as often as it is openly expressed?" Looking down at the child still clinging to his legs, he smiled and told me to love her anyway. At this, the little girl looked nothing short of mulish.

He merely kept smiling at her as he eased the sack over her head and tossed it aside. Her eyes narrowed into a glare and her teeth bared in an animalistic warning. Cardan ignored her and grabbed her beneath her arms before easing her into the trough. The steam had gone out of it so I knew that the temperature would no longer cause her discomfort. At a look from him, she eased down onto her bottom and hugged her knees.

"Come, Tallie. Help me bathe her. I have never done this before."

I snorted. "Nor have I. You keep her from bolting and I will do the scrubbing."

As gently as possible, I took up the scrap of leather Mana had left out and set to work. Nothing was more disconcerting to me than to scrub at the girl's feet, hands, and body and not hear a whimper out of her. She glared, scowled, and let loose a hiss when I passed over a scrape, but otherwise she was stoic. Only when it was time to scrub her hair did she begin to fight us.

Then my patience snapped and I grabbed her face in my hand. "Settle down right now! Either I wash it so it will be as pretty and soft as mine, or I cut it off shorter than Cardan's. It is your choice, but I think I can save this rat's nest if you sit still for five more minutes."

To both of our great surprise, she bit her trembling lip and nodded. I released a sigh, nodded to Cardan, and forced her to lay back. After almost ten minutes—which I lied to her about—I thought I had most of the muck washed out. By the time Cardan lifted her from the trough, Mana had returned with the clothes and we quickly got her dressed.

The hardest part came when we were about to say goodnight. Despite Mana's decree that it was improper for Cardan to sleep in her house, my reassurance that I would be there beside her, and Cardan's promise to be back at first light, she began to cry. Again, it was the disconcerting quiet crying of a creature who thought her life forfeit if she grew too loud. Instead of sobs and screams, we were treated to a soft mewling that came with many tears. Even still, I would not have caved to it had I not been able to feel her fear.

"It is no use. Cardan will either have to stay, or she and I will have to sleep in my father's house," I told Mana.

"Neither is possible. She is a child. Exert your will and she will thank you for it later."

"Mana she is no ordinary child and I will do what is best for her," I found myself snapping. Then I knelt before her and took her face in my hands. "Little Rabbit, I know your fear. I can feel it here. But look into me. Know that I do not mean you harm. Know that I wish only to comfort you."

It was the first time I thought I might stand a chance against her automatic hatred of me. Her crying muffled to sniffles and her eyes stared into mine. But still she clung to Cardan.

"I have a solution," he finally said. "I will stay in the old shelter with Kiethe. We will be mere feet from the house and within calling distance. Will that suffice?"

At this, even I put my foot down. Moving my bedding near the wall closest to the Gryphon roost, I tucked the child in my arms and laid down to sleep with her the same way Cardan had done earlier. It was the first step in a long adjustment, but it was worth it.

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