Alice quietly stole out of the kitchens, an apple clutched in her hand. Tears smarted still in her eyes, but it was as if this pain had awoken all of her senses. She ached from their punishing terk to the fort, and although she still felt nauseous with fear, she was also hungry. She stole down to the parade grounds, knowing she would find a nook to hide. All forts were the same – full of shadows where you could hide unseen. She tucked herself next to a stack of kindling. The smoke from the nearby fires made her eyes sting even more, and she took a halfhearted bite of her apple. It was felt mealy in her mouth, and she had a hard time swallowing. She took a shuddering breath and put her head down on her knees, letting out a sob. She was trying to be brave, truly.
Once she had cried – hard, painful and gut-wrenching sobs – she felt lighter. Dread was still settled deep in her bones, but she felt stronger, as if she could finally close her eyes and not see those gleaming scalps behind her eyes. She took another bite of her apple, finding it a little easier to swallow around the lump in her throat.
Uncas was so quiet, she did not hear his approach until he was there, next to her, settling himself with his back against the kindling. She was still holding that half-eaten apple when he found her, curled up with her legs tucked under her skirts, but he said nothing at first, listening only to the sounds of the fort and the apple's crunch.
Alice knew she should be dutiful, she should be meek, but Cora had cultivated such outspokenness in her, she could not help but ask Uncas about himself. "How is your side?" she said, flushing slightly at the thought of his torso. She was grateful for the shadows to hide her blush. She should pretend she had never seen him without a shirt, but Alice could not let her concern go unspoken. This man had saved her life. It was Cora's influence, but she could not let herself pretend she knew nothing of his wound for propriety's sake.
"Better, thanks to your sister," he said quietly. His face was serene, betraying no outward emotion. Alice marveled at his calm. She wondered how so many could face unflinching what caused her terror.
"I am glad," Alice said, very soft. Her words were sincere, even if she were not the type to announce it to the fort. Cora had not influenced her that much.
They sat in silence a few moments more. "What are you doing here? I thought you would be in Colonel Munro's chambers," Uncas said.
Alice turned the apple in her hand a few times, mulling her answer. "Duncan wanted to speak to Cora. And I – I did not want Cora's pity any more. I am scared, but I am not shattered," she said honestly. "It is my body that is frail. Not my mind."
Uncas did not reply immediately. "I think she wants to protect you," he said, voice low. "Not because she pities you, but because she does not want you to see what she has. She knows you are not weak." His voice had a conviction to it that made Alice wonder if he were truly speaking of Cora.
Alice smiled shyly. "Thank you," she said softly. "I really cannot say this enough, but thank you for saving us. 'Tis terrible, here at the fort, but we would have surely perished without your aid on the road." She paused, then added just as quietly, "I cannot believe you were stabbed. I was so worried for you."
Uncas' lips curved into a slight smile, and her stomach fluttered slightly. She flushed, hoping again that the shadows would hide the color in her cheeks. Instead, his hand slipped into hers, fingers entertwining. She flushed scarlet but did not drop his hand. It was brazen, but Alice could not find it in herself to care. Truly, these men had saved her life. The overwhelming desire to forget propriety took her breath away. The apple she had been loosely holding in her other hand dropped, unnoticed by either.
"'Twas not deep. You needn't worry, Miss Alice," he said, pressing her hand. He paused, then said lowly, "I promised to keep you safe."
She kept her grip on his hand, dropping her head to her knees, pulled tight to her chest. "You will not have as much luck against the French," she said with a whisper. He squeezed her hand in response.
"I can try," he said seriously.
Alice was silent for a moment, then lifted her head to look at him. His face was set, resolved. "Why?" she asked, biting her lip. It sounded childish.
Uncas did not immediately answer. After a moment, he loosened his grip on her hand, which made her spirits fall slightly. That feeling was immediately forgotten, however, when his fingers tangled in her hair. She was astonished, but hesitant to make him stop. Deftly, he began a small braid. "My people, our hair is our spirit. We weave our past, present, and future together." He took a leather thong from the end of one of his braids and wove it into her hair. "You are always tied to your ancestors and your descendants. Your spirit is strong, because you have their strength."
Alice was not sure she understood. "I cannot be that strong, not like Papa or Cora," she said softly.
He finished knotting the thong into her hair. "You will be strong, Miss Alice," he said. "And I will be strong for you when you cannot," he added, trailing his fingers gently down the completed braid. "You have part of my power now." He took her hand again and Alice felt her mouth go dry. Her heart was pounding louder in her ears than the cannons from the French. He leaned toward her, pressing warm lips to hers and Alice felt as if she were vibrating from the fluttering low in her stomach. She could feel heat creeping up her cheeks, sure she was blushing heavily.
And then it was over – she had been kissed for the first time. She raised tentative eyes up to meet his, letting out the breath she did not realize she had been holding. She ached to throw herself at him and press her lips against his once more, but felt bound by propriety. She could never be so wanton. She could not find it in her heart, however, to run back to Papa's chambers as she ought.
Her ear caught strains of fiddle, and she remembered the dancing she had passed what seemed a lifetime ago. Resolute, she stood, her legs feeling wobbly. She tugged lightly at Uncas' hand. "Come dance with me?" she asked hesitatingly.