He roared in response, which brought back the

“He roared in response, which brought back the ringing in my ears. I paid his anger little mind as I sought refuge from my pain in the cool grass and closed my eyes.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to sleep.”

“The witch said not to.”

“And you just roared at me. So what? If I die, I die. I’m tired of being bullied by you and the idiots in the village. If I live, so be it. At least, I’ll have had a few moments of peace.”

His feet padded softly, rustling the grass and scraping the dirt until he stopped behind me. Lying on my side with my face cushioned by my arm, I’d saved the back of my head from touching the ground, but also left it open to the beast’s inspection. He huffed a great breath, blowing my hair over my face. Then he began to lick the lump he’d made.

I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped me as the ache eased and the twisting in my stomach faded.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

He grunted and kept licking for several more minutes. Without the nausea, it lulled me to sleep.

Four

“CAW!”

I bolted upright at the loud cry in my ear. My stomach muscles protested at their overuse, and I suffered a brief period of disorientation. I recalled the night before and studied my surroundings. The shaded glade only sported a few tufts of low growing grass on the outskirts. A soft patch grew in the center where the sun struck at midday, the very patch on which I’d previously reclined until the crow, hopping on the ground a few feet away, had rudely woken me.

The crow cawed at me again, but I ignored it as I struggled to my feet. The aches of the night before lingered in my shoulders and stomach but remained absent elsewhere, drawing my attention to the smooth and unblemished skin of each wrist. The memory rose of how the beast had eased the ache in my head. I glanced around the glade but felt certain only the crow and I entertained it now.

Given the dangerously unpredictable nature of the beast, I thought it best to keep my company to myself, and I began to carefully pick my way through the trees, heading toward the general area of the gate. As soon as I started walking, the crow took flight only to land on a branch ahead of me. I ignored the bird for the most part since it kept quiet when it flew but listened closely to the surrounding wood as I made slow progress through the estate lands.

It didn’t surprise me when I spotted the gate ahead and it grated open on its own, the estate obviously ready to be rid of me. Of the beast, there was no sign. Muddied and disheveled, I made my way home in dawn’s first light.

* * * *

A familiar gasp greeted me when I opened the kitchen door. Behind me, a furious flutter of wings sounded, prompting me to ignore Bryn’s incredulous stare and quickly close the door before the annoying crow decided to let itself in. It cawed at me through the wood.

“Benella,” Bryn finally managed to cry. “Father’s been so worried.” She stood by the stove with an apron wrapped around her dress. Eggs fried in a pan, and a small crock of fresh goat’s milk already rested on the table, waiting for Father.

The study door opened, and Father hurried out fully dressed for the day, his expression putting truth to Bryn’s statement. His eyes swept me and relief erased the worry.

“When I mentioned a walk, I didn’t think you’d stay out all night, child,” he said mildly, seeing me whole and healthy.

“An unplanned event to be sure,” I said. “I ran into a bit of dirt and will need another bath.”

Bryn gave a small, exasperated huff.

“I can’t haul water for you again, Benella. I’m supposed to go with Tennen to—”

“Bryn,” Father said softly. “I’m sure it wouldn’t over trouble you to help with two small buckets, just enough to rinse the dirt from your sister’s hair.” As he spoke, he circled me and lifted the hair on the back of my head.

“Surely this unplanned event had a few interesting turns,” he murmured for my ears only.”