Nature of the Beast

By: Hannah Howell

It astonished her that, after so short a time, she could feel such a strong, deep need for him to look upon her with favor. Evanna thought it a little cruel of fate to deliver her into the hands of the first man to stir her interest now, when she had no time to play flirtatious games or see if the feelings he stirred within her were reciprocated. She wanted Berawald MacNachton, liked everything she had seen and learned about him so far, but she could not allow herself the luxury of learning any more. Her brother’s safety was all she could think about or act on, at least until their enemies no longer hunted them.

“We are different from them,” she answered softly. “’Tis all that is needed sometimes, aye?”

“Aye, but just how are ye different? E’en the most ignorant need some reason to fear or hate ye enough to want to kill ye, to want to kill David who is naught but a bairn.”

“As ye have seen, I heal quickly, quickly enough to rouse suspicion.” Pleased that her bed now rested against the wall near the fire, Evanna sat up and leaned against the cool stone.

“David is the same?” Hearing a slight rasp in her voice, Berawald rose to pour her a tankard of cider.

“He is. Thank ye,” she murmured, accepting the drink and taking a deep swallow before continuing. “’Tis so plain that such a gift must be a blessing, nay a curse, yet it troubled people. We tried to hide it, but ’tis nay always possible to hide such a gift. Once when my father was gone away, my mother was badly injured in a fall. The village healing woman cared for her.”

“And your mother recovered from her injuries with a suspicious speed.”

“Aye. The whispers began then and soon superstition began to stir in the hearts of the villagers. In the end the verra gift that helped my mother survive such a hard life as we had, killed her. They came in the night intending to kill all of us and caught my mother outside fetching water. Our father got me and David to safety, but I think he left his heart with my mother’s body. We moved away to another village and enjoyed a few years of peace, but it soon began all over again. This time superstition killed my father. He stood firm when the attack came, giving me the chance to get David away from there.”

“But ye are still nay safe, are ye? Moving away willnae stop it this time, aye?”

“Nay, we arenae safe. I am nay sure we will e’er be safe, but I must try. For David. As ye said, he is naught but a bairn.”

“’Tis hard to think that a healthy body and a quickness of healing could set a mob at your heels.”

He was not exactly calling her a liar, but Evanna barely subdued a flinch of shame nevertheless. She truly hated lying to this man, to see in his fine eyes the knowledge that she was lying to him. Even assuring herself that she was not really lying, was just omitting a few facts, did not ease the guilt she felt. She also knew she would have to give him more, enough to satisfy his curiosity and his doubts, but not enough to rouse fear or superstition. It would not be easy, especially when she was so loath to lie to him.

“Weel, there is all this red hair,” she said.

Unable to stop himself, Berawald reached out to stroke the thick, deep red braid that was draped over her slender shoulders. “True, but I havenae heard of many who were killed simply because of the color of their hair. Red hair isnae so verra rare in this land as to cause immediate alarm.”

“True. Weel, ye do ken that redheads have fair skin.” The way he moved his long fingers from her hair to lightly brush them down her cheek made her insides clench with the need to touch him back, with what she suspected was a fierce, white-hot lust. “This fair skin is, weel, easily damaged by the sun. ’Tis nay just slowly darkened as so many others’ skin is; it burns. David and I try to stay out of the midday sun, as my mother did. For reasons I cannae e’en guess at, some people felt all those things, all those wee differences, marked us as demons.”

Berawald said nothing for a moment, just nodded and tried to look sympathetic as he clasped his hands together in his lap and savored the lingering feel of her skin against his fingertips. He knew superstition well, and the fear it bred could indeed be stirred by such small things, but he also suspected there was a lot more to it all. His clan was being hunted, the hunters gaining strength and becoming more organized every year. It was very possible that one of those hunters had discovered the Masseys, seen their differences, and realized how closely those differences matched those of the MacNachton clan. That would be enough to set those dogs on the heels of the Masseys. In finding the Masseys they would be very close to finding the MacNachtons.

It was certainly enough to make him think that, somewhere in her lineage, Evanna would find a MacNachton. He needed to talk to his kinsmen. Several of them were diligently searching for all who might have a connection to or knowledge of their clan. A few instances in the past had revealed that some MacNachtons had bred children with Outsiders and, either uncaring or not knowing, left those children unclaimed. Being that their clan was very small, few children being born, the laird was calling on every MacNachton to search out all who might have some blood tie to their clan. The existence of the hunters had made it even more important to gather all their kinsmen into the fold. Berawald could not shake the feeling that the Masseys were some of those unknown and distant kinsmen. It would be tricky to gain the information needed to ascertain that without telling Evanna more than he wanted her to know right now.

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