Nature of the Beast

By: Hannah Howell



by Hannah Howell


by Adrienne Basso


by Eve Silver

Dark Hero

Hannah Howell


Scotland, summer 1512

Berawald MacNachton ignored the little spirit cautiously approaching him and continued to watch the sun set. He was safely tucked just inside the mouth of his cave enjoying all the colors of the waning day and had no inclination to deal with spirits now. He took a deep breath to inhale the sweet scent of the summer air heady with the aroma of the flowers growing close to the opening of his new home.

He frowned and took another sniff. The pleasant aroma of flowers was tainted by a far less pleasing scent. He sniffed again. It smelled like a dirty little boy.

Looking toward the small spirit he had been calmly ignoring, Berawald studied it more closely. It had inched to within a few feet of him and he began to suspect that this was no spirit. Pale and dripping with mud as it was, he had thought it was the spirit of some poor, drowned child. Most areas near water, as his home was, had a few ghosts of the drowned wandering around. Instead, it appeared that he was being cautiously approached by a cold, wet little boy who had almost drowned.

Now that the child was nearly close enough to touch, it was easy to see that he was too solid to be a spirit. And spirits rarely smelled like wet little boys. Berawald sighed. He was not really in the mood to play the child’s savior, but his conscience gave him no choice in the matter.

“Child, what is it that ye want?” he asked the boy. “Are ye lost?”

“Nay, I dinnae think so,” the boy replied in a trembling voice. “Evie kens where we are, I am thinking.”

“Evie? Who is Evie?” Berawald looked around but saw no one else.

“My sister.”

“And she has allowed ye to wander off alone?”

“Nay, she is ill, I think. She carried me ’cross the water, then fell down and wouldnae get up and I waited and waited but she still didnae get up and so I covered her up with some leaves and branches and all and came looking for some help because I am too little to carry her about.”

Berawald was not surprised when the little boy took a deep breath. He had not taken a single one during that avalanche of words and was probably desperately in need of air. As he sorted through all that the boy had just said, he began to frown. There was a good chance the child’s sister was dead, yet Berawald saw no spirit lurking around the boy. In his experience, the spirit of a woman who died trying to protect a child tended to cling to that child even after death, at least until she was certain the child was safe and cared for.

He sighed again and cast a last look at the sky. The sun was nearly gone now. It appeared he was about to rescue a damsel in distress. He had only been in his new home for a month and already trouble had found its way to his door. Silently scolding himself for such uncharitable thoughts, Berawald stood up and waved the boy closer to him.

“And what is your name, lad?” he asked the boy.

“David Massey,” the child replied as he took a deep breath and stepped closer to Berawald.

“Come with me, then, David, and we will see if we can quickly get ye dry. After that we shall go and find this sister of yours.” Berawald smiled faintly as the boy quickly stepped up to his side. Few people hurried closer to a MacNachton.

It was fully dark by the time Berawald got David a little cleaner, dry, and dressed warmly in one of his old shirts. Ready to go hunt down the boy’s kinswoman, he reached for a lantern only to see the boy already striding out of the cave, unafraid and clearly unhindered by the shadows. Grabbing his bag of healing supplies, Berawald hurried after the boy.

“Can ye find your sister in the dark?” he asked David, following the boy but still carrying the lantern just in case it was needed.

“Och, aye. The dark doesnae trouble me.” David cast a quick, nervous look at Berawald. “Nay much. Nay when someone is with me. Evie isnae far away. We best hurry.”

“I could carry ye and we could move faster.”

“Nay, I can walk verra fast.”

The boy was nearly running by the time he finished speaking. Berawald knew he had no right to claim any great knowledge of, or experience with, children, but he felt certain the child’s confident stride and lack of fear in the dark were very odd. Even most adult Outsiders tended to scurry home once the sun set. If they had to venture out at night they always took a light with them, as well as a few sturdy friends if they could. He also sensed a lie, could see it in the hasty, almost timid glances the child kept casting his way. As far as he knew none of his kinsmen had a small, blue-eyed, red-haired child, and certainly not one who would be allowed to run about without a very heavy guard. MacNachtons cherished each of the few children they were blessed with. But before he could ask a few probing questions, David stopped.

“Weel, where is your sister?” Berawald asked after looking around and seeing no one.

“Right there.” David pointed to the ground.

Berawald looked down. Just a few inches from the tip of his boot was a pile of branches and leaves. He crouched down and immediately tensed. Mingled in with the smell of dead and dying leaves was another scent, one that knotted his belly with a sharp hunger. Sweet, rich, and temptingly fresh. The woman beneath the brush was bleeding.

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