Nature of the BeastBy: Hannah Howell
Firmly reminding himself that a child awaited his aid, Berawald wrestled his craving into submission. It was possible he had ignored his need for too long. As soon as he healed or buried the woman beneath the leaves, he would have to tend to that matter. MacNachtons might have ceased to be the dreaded Nightriders of old, but some things never changed.
Kneeling by the pile of brush, he began to remove it. David moved quickly to help him. Berawald had no idea what to do with the boy if the woman they worked to uncover was dead, but he decided he would face that problem when, and if, it was necessary. When the last of the forest debris was removed, Berawald abruptly lost all interest in the little boy. All of his concentration became intently fixed upon the woman sprawled on the ground.
Once his shock eased a little, he tried to convince himself that his fascination was with all that red hair that swirled around her slender body, but he knew it was more. Much, much more. Berawald could not even see her face clearly, but that did not dim any of the strong pull he felt toward her. He suddenly realized he was praying, heartily and continuously, that she was not dead or dying, and forcefully shook himself free of the fascination that held him so tightly in its grip.
“Is she dead?” David asked in a tremulous whisper, his small hand held a few inches away from his sister as if he both ached and feared to touch her.
Berawald listened closely and silently breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the faint but distinct sound of a heartbeat. He told himself that bone-deep relief he felt was because he did not wish to have to tell the child that his sister was dead. A soft, inner voice mocked him as a liar, but he ignored it. Now was not the time to figure out all the strange feelings and thoughts besieging him.
“Nay, she isnae dead,” he answered, “but she is wounded and bleeding. How did this happen?”
“Some men came after us. They hurt her but we got away.”
“Before we go any further, lad, ye should tell me why they hurt her. I cannae risk sheltering someone guilty of some crime. I may wish to help, but there are others close by whose safety could be put at risk. I must think of them.” Even as he spoke the hard words, Berawald found himself trying to think of some place he could take her that would ensure her safety as well as his clan’s.
“Evie has ne’er broken a law!”
“Yet ye were chased away from your home, aye?”
The boy’s small shoulders slumped and he began to idly stroke his sister’s hair. “Aye. They killed my fither. He made me and Evie run when the men came stomping up to the door. Some men killed Maman when I was just a bairn. Fither escaped with me and Evie that time. He didnae escape this time.”
“I am sorry for your loss, laddie, but ye still havenae told me why this happened.”
“They say we are witches or demons.” David’s expression and tone of voice were belligerent, but Berawald saw the fear in his eyes. “We arenae. We are just a wee bit different, ye ken? There be nay evil in just being a wee bit different.”
“Nay, there isnae. Mayhap later ye will tell me why, aside from all that red hair ye and your sister have, anyone would cry ye and her demons or witches. First, we must get your sister warm, dry, and mended. I promise I will do all I can to heal her.”
The moment Berawald turned the young woman over onto her back, he began to regret that promise. Despite the paleness of her skin, despite all the scratches and bruises marring it, she was beautiful. Breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. In fact, her loss of color only enhanced the fine bones of her face, adding a heart-wrenching ethereal look to her beauty. It was not easy for him to tear his gaze from that face and look for the wound that scented the air with her blood. When he found that wound low on her side, he reached for his knife and saw David grow very pale.
“I must cut away some of the bodice of her gown, lad, so that I may bandage her wound,” he said in as low and soothing a tone as he could manage. “’Tis best if I try to ease the bleeding ere I carry her to my home. Where are your belongings?” he asked as he started to bandage what appeared to be a sword cut at her waist.
“On t’other side of the burn,” David replied. “Evie was going to go back to get them after she set me down here but then she fell down. I couldnae wake her up.”
Glancing at the swiftly flowing, rain-swollen burn, Berawald had to marvel at the strength of the woman. It would not have been easy for even a full-grown man to cross those rough waters carrying a child. The small, slender body he tended to certainly did not look capable of such a feat of strength.
“After I have your sister settled I will go and collect your belongings,” Berawald said.
“The water is verra cold, ye ken.”
“Aye, I suspicion it is, but I am neither a wee lass nor wounded. I will survive.”
“Will Evie?” David whispered.
“I believe so if we hurry to get her warm and dry. Carry the lantern and my bag. I will carry your Evie.”
Berawald picked up Evie and, after assuring himself that David could manage the sack and the lantern by himself, headed back toward his home. Carrying the woman proved to be a torment for him. Even though she was bandaged he could still smell her blood. It was mixed with the equally heady scent of her skin. A man should not be presented with so much temptation at once, he thought wryly. He had to be insane to take her right into his home, but there was no other choice. Just because she plucked at all of his weaknesses, some he had not even known he possessed, he could not leave her outside to die. Nor could he turn his back on the little boy who had asked him for help.