Roy Bennett had slept uneasily, haunted by strange visions and bloodcurdling screams. Not the reeking, gas-drenched screams of the battlefield, for once, but something else. The veldt, his adopted home, was lashed by a storm unlike any he’d experienced, where winds laid the tall grass flat and water mixed with the red soil, running like blood across the savanna. The gray landscape had been empty of all living things save a young lion who’d jumped down from the branches of an ancient tree to land on human hands and feet.
Roy used the physical exertion that characterized life on the veldt to banish the dream from his waking mind and turned his body to a hard trek across the land. The sun was high in the sky by the time he reached the sparse stand of butterfly-leaved mopane trees deep in the heart of the veldt. Mopane seeds, leaves, and bark were a far cry from the medicines he’d studied in college, but, correctly prepared, were just as efficacious.
Roy half filled his knapsack with the vital supplies; then a wild shriek made him look skyward. A vast black Bateleur swooped down low, circling on the lazy African wind. Bateleurs were a relatively common sight on the veldt, but this one was truly magnificent, giant beyond proportion, with massive wings that nearly blotted out the sun. And that cry...
As if he’d called her, Mambokadzi’s own familiar, Onai, shrieked again, her voice sounding the length and breadth of the land. Roy raised his canteen in salute. He’d never known a fiercer bird, nor one as smart. “Good day to you, too, Onai.”
But the haunting cry was repeated a third time, and Onai swept back down over the tree lending Roy its shade. She settled in the highest branch, and as he craned his neck up to keep her in view, Roy could swear an angry glint shone from the startling green eyes.
She opened her mouth and gave another raucous cry.
Roy stoppered his canteen and restored it to his belt. “You have my full attention, Onai. What’s got your feathers so nettled, hey?”
As if in answer, the great bird took to the sky, staying low over the savanna but heading for the distant edge of the tree line.
Roy watched her go, puzzled. She seemed to be making a beeline for the Finder’s Tree, an ancient and distinctive baobab that thrust its branches to the sky like angry fingers.
Roy squinted against the bright afternoon light, keeping Onai in sight. He was right; she’d headed straight there, alighting in a topmost branch. Roy followed the twisted, odd-looking branches down to the thick trunk and froze.
A young white man with a shock of golden hair lay sprawled facedown at the foot of the tree.
Roy cursed and ran.
He covered the distance between them as fast as he could, but still too damned slow. He had no idea what the boy could be doing out here, but it didn’t matter. Africa’s wilds took no prisoners.
As he reached the tree, Roy dropped to his knees in the dirt. He fumbled for the canteen at his belt even as he cataloged the meager supplies he carried by necessity: water, splint, bandage, gin, petroleum jelly. Revolver.
“Here, friend.” He shook the young man’s shoulder.
A weak moan was the only response.
“Come on,” Roy encouraged. “Come on, I’m here to help.”
The injured man was rolled into a fetal position. Roy got an arm around his shoulders and half raised him, then froze. The youthful blond in his arms was Ash Haywood.
Roy pulled himself together, grabbed the leather canteen from his belt, and held it to Ash’s parched lips. “Water.”
Ash choked a little at first, then seemed to get the hang of swallowing, his head supported by Roy’s shoulder. A little water trickled from his mouth and ran down Roy’s arm.
Roy took the canteen away before his patient had drunk his fill, and Ash whimpered, moving his head restlessly. “Take it easy. Not too much now. More later. Take it easy.” Gently, he ran a hand down Ash’s limbs and over his body, checking for injuries.
Ash yelped and jerked in his arms, and Roy looked more closely, surprised. He’d been running his hands over his patient’s ribs, part of the army medical examination that was still second nature to him. And these ribs were cracked, possibly broken.
But what Roy found next made him see red. Lifting Ash gently, Roy confirmed his suspicion. Ash had been beaten thoroughly and recently, with a coarse and heavy whip.
“No! No, I won’t go!”
“Easy.” Roy held on. “Nothing’s going to hurt you now. It’s all right.”
Ash’s eyes opened slowly, turning up to Roy’s face, focusing with difficulty. “You found me,” he whispered.
“Yes, I found you. It’s all right now.”
Then Ash passed out cold.
* * * *
Ash awoke slowly and lay still, eyes closed. He shifted his hand and realized he was lying on something soft. Fingering it, he recognized it as a rough blanket, nothing like the expensive bed linen he’d slept in at the Thornside estate.
“How are you feeling?”
Ash opened his eyes. “Roy,” he whispered, blinking at the man bending over him. “You came. I was afraid...” He stopped, looking up at the intense blue eyes locked on his. “You’re real? I’m not dead?”
“You’re not dead.” Roy pushed dark hair back from his tanned forehead and perched on the edge of Ash’s cot. “I found you out on the veldt and brought you back here to my compound. You were hurt...alone. Ash, what happened?”
Ash opened his mouth, then closed it again. There were no words to explain the rage he had seen in his father’s eyes, his own certainty that Sir Roland had meant to kill him. “An accident,” he said faintly. “We were, uh, hunting.”
“An accident.” Roy sounded grim. “I see. Gerald Haywood has a talent for...accidents.”
Gerald and his father...coming for him... Ash curled in on himself, scrabbling for purchase at the rough mud wall.
Roy had him in a firm grip in a second, voice low and soothing. “Easy, Ash, easy. Easy. I didn’t mean to frighten you. Shh.” He held Ash close, and Ash let him. Roy was little more than a stranger, but he felt so right, so comforting. Ash leaned into Roy’s chest and luxuriated in the sensation of being held.
“I see I’ve said the wrong thing,” Roy murmured. “You get something of a talent for it, living out here so far from anywhere. But I promise you, Ash, whatever your demons are, I’m not one of them.”
Ash closed his eyes, breathing in Roy’s masculine scent, enjoying Roy’s body against his own, no matter how odd the circumstances. “They made me hunt the lions,” he said after a moment. “I didn’t want to. And then...” Ash stopped and closed his eyes again, memories overwhelming him. The huge, black-maned lion roaring on a rock, the cold fury in his father’s eyes, the lash singing its way through the air.
“It’s all right,” Roy said. “Don’t try to talk about it yet. I have a feeling that whatever you were supposed to be hunting, the tables got turned.”
More images flashed behind Ash’s eyes, and he burrowed his head against Roy’s chest, uncaring of whether it seemed weak. Roy had already shown him more kindness than anyone else in his whole life. There was something about Roy that spoke of the kind of honor Ash’s father and uncle paid lip service to but could never, ever achieve.
“If you’re feeling up to it, I’ll leave you for a minute. You need food.” Roy lowered Ash back to the rude cot, and Ash watched as Roy ducked under the heavy curtain at the room’s sole entrance, letting it fall back into place behind him.
Ash looked around the rest of the space, taking in the rough red walls and the dirt floor. The room contained only the cot, a workmanlike washstand, and an army trunk. Light came from a small, rectangular window covered by mosquito netting, set high in the far wall. A small, functional space, so far a cry from Thornside yet entirely in keeping with the spare, focused demeanor of Roy Bennett. Beyond the curtain, Ash could hear Roy rustling about, stoking a fire, it sounded like, whistling all the while under his breath, a song at once unknown and yet hauntingly familiar.
And with those pleasant, domestic sounds washing over him, Ash found himself drowsy and, despite the throbbing pain of his injuries, somehow content. He lay back on the cot, giving in to a deep and dreamless slumber.
* * * *
Ash sat up slowly, wincing at a sharp pain in his side. He touched the place delicately. Another cracked rib. Thank you, Father.
The skin over the rib was broken, and Ash’s fingers came away sticky, not with blood but with some type of salve. His wounds had been thoroughly and efficiently cared for, and the sensation was foreign but not unwelcome. His shirt hung in bloodstained ribbons on the edge of the washstand, and between it and the wide cuts across his back and ribs, Ash knew his intuition out on the veldt had been right: his father had meant to kill him, heir or no. Not for the first time, Ash wondered what secret grudge Sir Roland held against him. Surely his father’s anger had some root cause.
The leather curtain was roughly thrust aside, and Roy strode into the room, brow furrowed.
Ash panicked. The events of the morning and the strange surroundings overwhelmed him. He jumped to his feet, heedless of the stabbing pain in his ribs and knee, and cowered back against the wall. He knew better than to speak, to cry--all he could do was wait for the expected blows to fall.
Roy slammed to a halt in the middle of the room as if running into a wall, his expression softening instantly, sadness written across his face. “I’m so sorry.” He reached out a hand. “You’re safe here; I promise.”
Ash was suddenly overcome by weakness and exhaustion. And shame. What must his rescuer think of a grown man who cowered in corners? Every insult his father had ever thrown at him came streaming back to him. Taking a deep, cautious breath against the ache in his side, Ash reached for Roy’s hand.
“I’m sorry. For a minute there, I didn’t really know... I just thought...” Ash’s voice cracked.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Roy said softly, guiding Ash back to the cot. “You’ve had a rough day.”
Ash sank onto the bed gratefully, leaning away from his cracked rib. He was too tired to pretend anymore. Roy sat behind him on the edge of the bed, and Ash gave in to the touch of Roy’s hands on his skin. Roy’s palm slid gently up his back, avoiding all the places Sir Roland’s whip had bit and stung.
“You didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Ash felt Roy’s breath on the bare skin of his shoulder blades. “And no one’s ever going to do this to you again, you hear me?”
Ash nodded, consumed more by the pain of his injuries than by the concern in Roy’s voice. Now that the shock had worn off, he was party to the full extent of his father’s rage. He made to get up off the cot, but the swell of agony knocked him back down and forced his breath out in a hiss.
“Let me take a look at that cut. I’m worried about infection.” Roy frowned at the wound, his hands probing deftly. The throb crescendoed, and Ash took a sharp breath. Roy looked up. “Sorry about that. I wasn’t sure how bad it was, earlier, when you were out.” Roy stood and took a pot of ointment off the washstand, uncapped it, and returned to the cot.
“I’ll try to be gentle,” Roy said, meeting Ash’s gaze, “but this is a pretty bad cut.” He spread the salve thickly across the wound, sealing it up with gentle circles. “It looks like it was made--” He paused, his fingers leaving Ash’s side for a second. “Ash, do you want to tell me what happened?”
Ash looked away. He wasn’t sure how to explain Sir Roland’s anger. He’d never had to before, had never tried. It was simply the way things were. “My father...when I make a mistake...” Ash hesitated, then finished in a rush. “Roy, I didn’t want to shoot the lions. But they made me take the gun. I was going to try and scare them with a warning shot, but one roared, and I dropped the gun. It went off...”
Ash looked at him. There was a grim set to Roy’s mouth, but his eyes were all gentleness. “The lions ran off. And my bullet hit Uncle Gerald. He gave my father his bullwhip.” Ash stopped.
The grimness around Roy’s mouth was unmistakable now. “It wasn’t the first time,” he said quietly.
Ash shook his head.
“So Gerald Haywood’s wounded. Do you know where you hit him?”
“He said it was a flesh wound. I think they were going to continue the hunt. I hit him about...there.” Ash indicated his right buttock.
Roy stared for a minute, then gave a crack of laughter. “You shot him in the ass? Ash, that’s a bag you can be proud of.”
Despite himself, Ash found laughter bubbling up in his chest. “You’re right,” he said, grinning at Roy. “I hadn’t thought of that.” After a few moments, he sobered. “The thing is, Roy, I don’t think...that is, I don’t want to go back. Even if it would be safe.”
“I don’t think for a moment it would be safe. Gerald Haywood’s a vengeful man, and it sounds as if his brother’s cut from the same cloth. You can’t go back there, Ash.”
Ash glanced around the tiny room.
“No, no, I won’t keep you here in a hut,” Roy said. “As soon as you’re well enough, I can take you up to Victoria Falls to the district commissioner. You can settle out here, if you wish, or take passage back to England.”
Ash looked at Roy uncertainly. He wanted to be safe, free from Sir Roland’s rage, his disappointment and violence, the whole stifling atmosphere of Thornside and its way of life, so alien from Ash’s true nature. He wanted to be free. The last thing he wanted was to be brought to anyone’s attention. Except possibly the handsome doctor who’d rescued him.
“Sorry. I’m throwing way too much at you right now, hey? For now, all that matters is you’re not going back to Thornside, and anyone who thinks differently has to come through me. You got that?” For a moment, Roy looked as if he would say more, his fierce blue eyes flashing with heat. Ash took a deep breath, wincing against the pain in his side, but Roy looked away and rose, heading for the door. “You’ve had a long day. Stay here and I’ll bring you some soup.”
With that, he was gone, back out to the fire.
Ash stared at the space where Roy had just been, lingering in the warmth. He’d thought for an instant of protesting, but just drawing a breath reminded him sharply of his injuries. He maneuvered himself to a sitting position, leaning back against the wall, but even that simple movement was excruciating. Ash was extremely glad of the rude comfort of the cot, the light blanket covering his legs.
Roy returned and squatted beside the cot. “How are you feeling?”
“A little dizzy.”
“Maybe a touch of sunstroke.” Roy placed a steaming tin mug in Ash’s hands. “Here. Try a little soup.”
The mug gave off an enticing aroma, something like chicken combined with a mouthwatering scent Ash couldn’t name. He hesitated, then took an experimental sip.
It was good. Very good. Ash swallowed one mouthful, then another. He finished the soup quickly, finding his appetite returning.
Ash opened his mouth to reply and yawned instead. He blushed.
Roy grinned. “You won’t need your company manners on the veldt. But what you do need is sleep. Take a nap. The soup’ll still be here when you wake.”
Hopefully, you will too
. A little shaky and still aching from Sir Roland’s beating, Ash stretched full length on the cot. As his eyes closed, he was aware of Roy covering him with the blanket. A feeling of safety enveloped him, and he slid over the edge of sleep.