Midori looked at her daughter, green eyes big and pleading in her round little face, and tried to stay strict. It was difficult because she wanted to give Naomi everything she wanted, but there were just some things that weren’t practical at all. Not even safe, in this instance!
‘Naomi, I mean it,’ she said firmly, focusing on the deep scratches up the seven-year-old’s arms. ‘You cannot keep it, and that’s final.’
It was hard not to flinch at the utter betrayal on the child’s face at her words, and Midori didn’t miss the way she moved to stand protectively between her mother and the monstrosity she had apparently been keeping in her room for the past three moons. When Gerrard had come to tell her about the mysterious injuries Naomi had been collecting recently, her mind had automatically turned to darker places, to people harming her child, people who wanted her out of the way. She most certainly hadn’t expected to find Naomi had been keeping a Griffin in her chambers as a secret pet!
‘It doesn’t belong here, my darling,’ Midori tried to reason. ‘It belongs out in the forest, where it can grow big and be free.’
…Where it couldn’t further hurt the little girl who so adamantly defended it, she added in the privacy of her own mind. Where had she even found the creature? How had she managed to sneak it into the Keep without a single person noticing, even? It was about the size of a very large dog already, and for all Gerrard had told her Griffin weren’t given to killing people, Midori could see it had already attacked her daughter, and would likely do so again. Naomi, however, remained unmoved.
‘Mama, please!’ she begged, and Midori felt her resolve waver. ‘Please, please! I won’t ask for anything ever again!’
‘It ain’t yours to ask for, lass,’ Master Gerrard spoke up from where he was standing in front of the closed door, making certain no one could get in. She hated having to involve him in this, knowing full well that if they were caught he would be in a great deal more trouble than any of them, but she had no one else to trust here. Gerrard cared for Naomi, and he wasn’t afraid to be firm with her where Midori disliked it intensely, but she knew he stood to lose a great deal more than she did if he was found out by her husband, covering for her daughter.
Glancing across at him, Midori shook her head minimally, indicating to leave this to her, and he stood down. She turned back to her daughter and the snoozing creature behind her with a sigh.
‘If you want a pet, we could find you a puppy or a kitten, perhaps?’ she asked, wondering if the child was just lonely. Naomi didn’t have any friends her own age here in Ffion, and Midori was sure it must be difficult to only have Master Gerrard and Midori herself for company.
‘I don’t want a pet, that’s not why I want to keep it,’ the little girl shook her head vigorously, little brows furrowed and jaw clenched. ‘It was father’s fault! I saw him! He killed her mama out on a hunt, and he didn’t even care that she had a baby who would die! He just laughed!’
Well, that explained where she’d found it, at least. Her father had been taking her out on occasion to make a warrior out of her, which by all accounts had usually involved some kind of humiliation or cruelty for the child. Naomi was doing her best, and Gerrard said he was already so pleased with her progress in archery and fencing, but her father seemed less intent on helping her grow and far more interested in teaching her that he was in charge.
‘I nursed her,’ the little girl pressed. ‘I brought her back here to keep her safe and feed her, but she’s still not big enough to go back into the forest yet. She can’t fly, and she has to learn to hunt, but I don’t know how to get her back outside again…’
Midori looked back at Gerrard again and saw her own indecision mirrored in his expression. Of course Naomi had wanted to help the baby, of course she’d taken it under her own proverbial wing to raise it, and of course Midori couldn’t be angry with her for that, but it didn’t make the situation any easier.
‘Mama,’ her daughter pulled her attention back again, and she was surprised to see the hard determination in her little one’s emerald eyes. ‘Mama, if you and Master want me to send her back into the forest now, then I should just kill her. If she goes back outside by herself she’s going to die, so it would be more kind to do it quickly.’
Midori was so shocked by this, she was glad when Gerrard spoke once again. ‘Do you mean that, lassie?’
‘Yes,’ Naomi nodded. ‘I don’t want to be cruel like father. I don’t want to leave her to suffer.’
Gerrard seemed to consider this. ‘You’d do it yourself?’
‘Gerrard!’ Midori gasped, appalled that he was even considering this as a viable option. Her daughter was growing up so fast, growing up into a pillar of strength that she knew she would be proud of forever, but she was still just a child. Everyone seemed to forget that she was only seven!
‘No mama, I don’t want to be like him!’ Naomi cried out. ‘All father cares about is what other people think of him, but I won’t be like that! I won’t care what anyone thinks of me! I only care about doing what’s right, and letting her starve isn’t right! It isn’t!’
Unable to stand it anymore, Midori knelt down and opened her arms to her daughter. Naomi immediately ran to her, cuddling up as a child her age should be able, and allowed her mother to whisper placations and promises that everything would be alright. She expected Gerrard to be disapproving, but when she glanced across at him he simply shrugged one shoulder and sighed.
‘I can get a few of the lads in here tonight,’ he said. ‘Try and sneak the thing to the stables for now until I can ask for a bit of leave and take it out to learn how to hunt.’
‘Really?’ Naomi gasped, looking up at her teacher with wide eyes. ‘You’re going to do that? You really are?’
Gerrard wagged his index finger at her. ‘So are you, lass. This is your mess, and I ain’t cleaning it up alone, you hear? Now you go get what you need for the night so you can stay with your mama while your charge here is taken care of.’
Naomi whooped with glee and went running into the adjacent room where her clothes were kept. Watching her go, seeing the return of innocence in her behaviour, Midori smiled at the guardsman. It would be easy enough to get permission to take Naomi out into the forest for training purposes, and she knew he had friends in the garrison that would help him get the beast out of the Keep again. Still, he was taking a huge risk, and she wanted to thank him.
‘Don’t bother,’ he grumbled, cutting across before she could even finish drawing breath. ‘I think she’d have done it, killed it I mean, but as much as I want her tough, I don’t want her jaded any more than you do. There’ll be plenty of blood on her hands in years to come, and there ain’t no call to start early.’
Midori held her peace out of respect for him, but knew she might never be able to thank the grumpy swordsman for all he had done for her daughter already. It brought her a great deal of comfort to know that he would be there for Naomi if ever she couldn’t.
‘Look at the cussing thing, though,’ he tutted, indicating the sleeping Griffin, perfectly comfortable and at ease on Naomi’s bed. ‘It don’t give a single, solitary damn.’
Midori could only laugh quietly. ‘We should thank our lucky stars. Next time she might bring home a dragon!’