Nature of the BeastBy: Hannah Howell
The worst of her pain was low on her right side. She suddenly remembered barely escaping being cut in two by Duncan Beaton’s sword. She had feared that the slow, continuous loss of blood from that wound would kill her. However, it appeared that someone had tended to the wound well enough to keep her alive. As far as she could tell she had no broken bones, but there were a lot of bruises that would keep her in pain for a while longer.
One thing firmly grabbed her attention despite her concern over her injuries. She was not wearing her clothes. Moving as little as possible, Evie stared down at her body and had her worst suspicions confirmed. She was wearing a man’s shirt and nothing else. Evie sincerely hoped some plump, graying shepherd’s wife had cared for her, giving her the old shepherd’s only clean shirt. That calming hope was just taking root when a low male chuckle kicked it in the teeth. That was not the laugh of some old, gnarled shepherd.
There was no longer any time left to ignore her surroundings. David sounded content and safe, but now that she knew a man was with her brother, Evie had to make certain of her brother’s safety herself. For weeks now, no man had been safe — for her or for David. After cautiously testing that she could move all her body parts, even though too many of them protested the movement, she began to turn her head toward the sound of David and the man talking softly.
It took all of Evie’s willpower to smother a gasp when her gaze finally settled on David and his companion — his tall, dark, and incredibly handsome companion. They were seated across from each other at a table set only a few feet away from her, a chessboard set between them. The strange urge to warn the man that playing chess with David was a waste of time swept over her. Then she noticed that David seemed to be studying his pieces with a knowledge he had never revealed before.
Pushing aside a pinch of jealousy that made no sense, she decided to ask for two things she desperately needed — a drink and a privy bucket. Evie was startled when all that emerged from her open mouth was a hoarse croak. It proved enough to catch the attention of David and his companion, however. Before she could more carefully study the man, David cried out in delight and rushed toward her. One soft-spoken but concise command from the man was all that kept David from hurling himself upon her bruised and aching body. David stumbled to a halt, knelt by her rough bed, and very cautiously leaned forward until he could give her the gentlest of embraces.
“I feared ye were going to die and then I would be all alone,” David said, his voice uneven.
Evie felt the damp of tears where her brother nestled his face against her neck. She winced as she moved her hand up to stroke his bright curls, but ignored the pain. David needed comfort. He had just lost his father. Evie swallowed her own grief over that loss, wondering when and if she would ever have the chance to face it, release it, and then put it aside. Silently scolding herself for being selfish, she forced her mind back to her grieving, frightened brother and, much more importantly, the man who now stood next to David and watched her with the darkest eyes she had ever seen.
“Hush, David, I will heal,” she said, and then looked up at the man. “’Tis ye I owe my life to, is it?”
“I think ye would have survived anyway,” he said. “The bleeding was easing and it was a shallow cut.”
David sat up, keeping his hand on Evie’s arm as he shook his head. “He did a lot, Evie. He got me all dry and warm and then we went back to the burn where I had left ye and he stopped the bleeding, then carried ye back here and stitched ye all up and e’en cleaned ye up a wee bit and he has been taking care of ye for three days.”
All thought of reminding David yet again that he should not string so many words together without at least taking a breath fled Evie’s mind as his last words finally sank into her mind. “Three days?” She looked at the man still watching her so closely. “Did I have a fever?” Even as she cursed herself for the sin of vanity, it took all of her willpower not to reach for her hair to make certain she still had it.
“A wee one but mostly ye just slept.” Berawald clasped his hands behind his back to stop himself from giving in to the strong urge to touch that hair she was so obviously worried about. “I am Berawald MacNachton.” He noticed no sign of alarm over the name and so continued. “And e’en if ye had been taken severely ill, I wouldnae have cut off your hair. Ne’er understood the need for it and ne’er saw that it did much good.”
“He didnae put leeches on ye, either, Evie,” David assured her, casting a brief look of awe at Berawald. “Didnae bleed ye at all. He said ye had already bled enough.”
“Something I wholeheartedly agree with and nay just because I am the one in need of healing this time,” Evie murmured, and then tried to hold out her hand to the man. “I am Evanna Massey.”
“I already told him that.”
“I am sure ye have, David, but ’tis still a courtesy that should be followed.”
Berawald took her faintly shaking hand in his and kissed her knuckles. “Pleased to meet ye, Evanna Massey.”