Near Albany, New York, 1757
Alice Munro was nothing like her sister.
Cora, a dark-haired beauty, was the antithesis of Alice's pale, refined features and golden hair. She was also the opposite in terms of temperament. Where Alice was cheerful, her disposition one of sweetness and contentment, (and often referred to as naive by her beloved sister) Cora was serious, outspoken and unflappable, traits that Alice secretly admired when she wasn't finding them equally intimidating.
She knew she was considered to be the weaker of the two, delicate and fragile, virtues she sometimes resented being labelled as even though she couldn't deny that they weren't completely without merit. Always chaperoned as a young debutante ought to be, her life was pampered and mostly idle, though she was proud to admit, if only to herself, that her knowledge of the world outside of England wasn't as sheltered and rudimentary as most of her acquaintance would assume. While she had no practical experience to speak of, she was very well read and took pride in the fact that her interests were vast and varied.
Naturally shy, she didn't often engage in unnecessary discourse, unintentionally creating the impression that she was aloof rather than merely reticent. As such, she had a small circle of close friends, with no more than two or three of them actually knowing or understanding her completely.
Despite the fact that no one would ever believe it, she quietly longed for adventure, for something to break the occasional monotony of London society. When her father had sent for them, asking the sisters to join him in the Americas, her heart had leapt with excitement, though tempered slightly by a small measure of fear. Here, finally, was the chance to explore, the chance to see, from a safe and proper distance of course, those intriguing red skinned men she'd read so much about. Alice wasn't brave by nature, not like Cora, although she secretly wanted to be. She was cautious and circumspect in all things, having been raised to behave in a manner befitting a woman born into the upper echelon.
However, in those books she'd kept hidden from her formidable governess and even from her sister, she'd seen scandalous drawings of them; wild savages dressed so indecently she'd felt her cheeks grow warm, some with shaved heads and war paint streaked across their hardened faces, others wearing ornate jewellery and large headdresses made of beads and feathers. Initially, the idea of ever coming face to face with one of them had been frightening, but over time she'd convinced herself that her father would not have asked them to travel all that way if he'd been concerned for their safety. Thus, having established that danger would not be imminent, the idea of seeing the Indians had secretly become a little thrilling too.
She could hardly wait to return to Portman Square; she had so much to tell her friends.
That anticipatory thought kept playing over and over in her head, providing some comfort as she absently swatted another fly away. It was a beautiful late summer's day, the weather clear and bright. Over the din of horses and the soldiers on foot, she could hear the harmonious chirping of birds and the steady gush of running water from somewhere up ahead.
Despite those pleasantries, the heat on the road from Albany to Fort William Henry was suffocating. They'd only been travelling for a few hours but already her hair was limp, hanging lifelessly against the sides of her face, her corset tight and restrictive, making it hard to breath. Even with the stiff straw hat shielding her face from the harsh rays of the sun, she could still feel an unladylike sheen of sweat coating her brow. A little drowsy too, a result of the constant and repetitive beat of the drums as the troops marched around them as well as the gentle sway of her horse as she trotted along the well-defined forest path, she felt her eyes begin to droop.
"Alice?" Cora asked concerned, reaching a hand towards her.
Her sister's voice shook her out of her stupor. "Can we rest?"
"Of course," she heard Duncan reply.
He was a dear man. It was obvious that he was in love with Cora, but she wasn't sure what her sister's feelings were. Never one to wear her heart on her sleeve, Cora was reserved when it came to revealing matters of an intimate and personal nature. She was sure that Duncan must have proposed, but since there had been no announcement of an engagement, Cora had either turned him down or agreed to at least consider his offer. Either way, Alice wouldn't ask about it, confident that her sibling would tell her what she'd decided, whatever the outcome, when she was ready.
Upon her request, Duncan rode slightly ahead and called to the native who was leading their party as a scout. She'd caught glimpses of him as they'd left Albany, frightened by his outward appearance. He was a fearsome man, something eerie in the way he'd looked at her as they'd departed having caused a chill to run through her veins. He'd masked it quickly, making her wonder if she'd only imagined it but that gander had made her wary of him. He looked cold and uncompromising and although he spoke to Duncan and the other officers readily enough, she couldn't help but think that often times he seemed to be mocking them. But she couldn't be sure and honestly, what did she know about the nature of men? At sixteen she'd only had a few suitors, and quite frankly, there was no commonality between an English gentleman and an Indian savage. Ergo, she was in no way qualified to comment on the ferocious man's demeanor.
Unceremoniously jolted from her thoughts by the echoing sound of gunfire, her horse reared in fright and pitched her backward dangerously. In vain, she reached for Cora's outstretched hand, but it was too late. She fell to the ground, the voluminous skirts of her light pink riding habit softening her landing somewhat, before she scrambled away from the trampling hooves of the skittish animal.
Shocked by the rapidness at which the peace of a few moments before had been shattered, she stared in mute horror as hordes of Indian men descended upon them, their high pitched shrieks causing her blood to run cold. Panic-stricken, she was unable to stop herself from watching as the soldiers were attacked, their screams of pain and torment lifting high into the sky as one after the other was brutally dispatched. She was vaguely aware of Cora reaching her side and pulling her back, turning her away from the savagery unfolding around them, her mind numb and frozen in disbelief.
The gunshots grew louder as the inconceivable madness made its way towards them. Clutching at Cora, she buried her face in her sister's lap, hysterical sobs wracking her body. They were going to die. Here, in this harsh and uncompromising part of the world, without ever having seen their father again. Her adventure, meant to add some excitement to her otherwise predictable existence, had turned into a nightmare, one she was afraid she'd never wake from.
She knew Duncan was still at their side, trying to protect them. She also knew that his efforts would be for nothing. She'd seen the barbarity with which the red men fought and knew that within minutes they would all be dead. Silently she prayed for a clean shot through the heart, begging God for a swift ending. That would surely be preferable to being hacked to pieces or worse, having one or more of those beasts force themselves upon her. Shuddering at the horrifying thought, she burrowed deeper into her sister's lap.
Terrified, but resolved, she waited.
"No, Duncan," Cora called suddenly.
There was a pause and then a man spoke, "In case your aim's any worse than your judgement."
Her heart beating wildly against her ribs, she lifted her head and peeped beneath the protective arm Cora had curled around her. There was a man walking away from Duncan, his clothing suggesting he was one of the Indians inhabiting this untamed frontier. Further away she could see an older man, pulling a dangerous looking weapon from the back of one of the red skins he'd just killed and yet another man following close behind, slightly hidden from her view.
We've been rescued? she thought, her mind still fraught with fear.
Cora was getting to her feet, pulling Alice up alongside her. Using her sister as leverage, she raised herself from the ground and watched as their three saviours approached. Shocked, she noticed that the one who'd spoken to Duncan was white, despite the fact that his skin was several shades darker than what was considered proper. Dressed in buckskins and a long shirt, his belt tied loosely around his waist, he was tall and imposing.
"Your wounded should try walking back to Albany. They'll never make the passage north." He bent to retrieve a powder horn as he spoke.
Furtively, since staring outright would be considered impolite, her gaze shifted to the man to his left, the eldest of the trio, who at a glance appeared shorter and squatter than the other two. Despite this, his bearing was proud, almost regal.
Frowning, but still maintaining the cover of her lashes, she transferred her attention to the last man. Clearly the youngest, he was also tall and lithe like the American, but he moved with a quiet economy and grace that she might have admired if he hadn't been an Indian and if, at that moment, he hadn't been heading directly towards her. Eyes widening in fright, she shrank against her sister, but all he did was pass by silently, hitting the rumps of the horses behind her and shooing them off into the forest.
The sound of their departing gallops, their best means of escape, spurned her into action. Running after him she shouted, "Don't! Stop it! We need them to get out!"
Firmly, but with surprising care, the young Indian caught her by the arms to stay her movements. Panic took hold of her as she looked up into his face, her breath hitching in the back of her throat.
Vaguely she heard Duncan ask, "Why is he losing the horses?"
"Why don't you ask him?" the white man replied, outside of her line of sight.
Up close his skin was the colour of burnished copper, warm and smooth, her immediate impulse being to reach out to touch it. Appalled by her wayward thought; refined ladies did not touch savages, she outwardly cringed and clenched her hands instinctively, registering the gold earring dangling rakishly from one ear. Entranced despite her fear and better judgement, she watched as the yellow teardrop swung to and fro hypnotically. Anxious eyes met his, her stomach a nauseous riot of terror and something else she couldn't define, as his dark and stoic gaze looked deeply into hers. Despite her alarm, she detected no threat in them.
Gently pushing her towards her sister, his long, impossibly dark hair, fluttered behind him as he turned from her suddenly and walked away. The breath she hadn't realised she'd still been holding, expelled loudly as she sagged against Cora. For some inexplicable reason she could still feel the imprint of his hands on her shoulders.
Surprised, she heard the young Indian's deep voice as he responded to Duncan's question. "Too easy to track...they'll be heard for miles." As he searched the carnage before them for anything salvageable, he added, "Find yourself a musket." Her eyes unwittingly tracked him as he bent over the corpses strewn everywhere, periodically picking up items and shoving them into his pockets.
"We were headed to Fort William Henry," Duncan explained, as he too watched them.
The American and the older Indian exchanged words in their native tongue, words she wasn't capable of deciphering, though they sounded crude and dissonant to her untutored ears.
Tense and wondering what would happen next, she couldn't hide her apprehension when she heard, "We'll take you as far as the Fort."
These men, whoever they were, were offering their help. Could they be trusted? After all, weren't they savages too? But what choice do we have? she thought as panic lodged in her chest. They didn't know this place, had no hope of possibly navigating their way to the Fort on their own.
"We're walking out of here, fast," continued the American who she'd heard the older man refer to as Nathaniel.
When they didn't make a move to follow him, he added, "Unless you're waiting for the next Huron war party to pass on by?" His tone was slightly insolent.
Duncan glanced at Cora and then at her. When her sister nodded her assent, they quickly pursued. Alice could feel Cora's arms around her as she guided them around the fallen men, bending briefly to retrieve a musket from the ground before steering their way through the wreckage.
Her mind still reeling as she tried to process what had befallen them moments before, she stumbled unconsciously alongside her sibling as they expeditiously followed their rescuers.
A/N: I plan for this story to be around 10 chapters. It will hit all the canonical points en-route to the cliffs, but I endeavour to add more scenes that I believe will make Uncas and Alice's love story all the more believable. There will be a HEA.