The metal axe blades spun wildly, meeting, so Alice thought, like a clap of thunder, and just as ominous.
Her heart fell into itself, watching Uncas, knowing he stood little chance against the skilled savagery of the Huron captain, that he would most certainly die here on the rocky promontory. Still, a small voice cried within her, he came for me. An unforgiving reply came from her anguished heart: And he will die for you too, you little fool.
She didn't want to watch, turning her head in stubborn self-denial, the veil of her hair making their movements blurred and indistinct. But not watching was harder.
The force with which they struck was powerful, a flurry of sinew and stark determination. In another world, lifetimes ago, she had sat perched in an oak-lined library, her eyes widening at the etched illustration as her lips mouthed the caption: Sauvages in a State of War. Her fingertips had traced the rough surface of the paper, lingering over the darkened, half-clad bodies locked in perpetual combat. She had felt slightly wicked, the momentary thrill of looking upon such strangeness bringing color to her cheeks. But here, everything was different. What were pictures, what were books, what was anything in her little life before she came to this place?
She didn't understand. Where was Cora? Where was Nathaniel? Why had he come alone to fight these men with nothing but a gun and an axe?
She had not seen him since the falls, as he disappeared into the roar of the water, leaving her alone, a vast emptiness still within her. His arms had wrapped firmly around her trembling body, the warmth of him, of his presence, lingering on her skin. He had murmured softly in her ear in a language she didn't know, while her numbness – a shield keeping her from blood and cannon fire and animalistic screams – melted from her. She shuddered and sobbed and cried out to no one, to everyone, to her long-dead mother, to a father she would never see again. All was terror and fear and darkness, until at last, it was not, and she was spent. She had looked up into his face, realizing that he was still there, that he had never let go, and she had closed her eyes, laying her cheek upon his chest, feeling the steadiness of his heart. And then he had gone, like a star cascading across the sky. And now he had come, to die here for her.
The last clash of metal drew her from her thoughts. And then a sound more terrible: a slice through flesh stinging the air. She saw as he looked down, the blood beginning to pool on his torso, shock and disbelief now painted upon his face. The Huron captain stood on, gazing upon his handiwork, while Uncas's eyes met hers, traveling the space between them, as if he were by her side once again. He seemed to be silently asking for forgiveness, for absolution. I failed you, he seemed to whisper.
She held her breath as she tried to keep herself from crying, the pools of tears in her lower lashes threatening to spill. Why must it end this way?
But even so injured, he would not give in, attacking the Huron once again, forcing him to retreat, their bodies locked together and tumbling down towards the edge of the precipice. The Huron drew himself up, knife in hand, taking advantage of the young man's weakness, and raised his arm in readiness.
A gunshot rang across the cliff tops, reverberating like the peal of a church bell, the path of it so close Alice felt the hush of its breeze across her cheek. The Huron captain, poised to strike, remained still for half a moment, then collapsed upon Uncas, his unclenched knife clattering to the stone shelf and then disappearing over the edge.
Her captors turned behind them, eyes searching and fear written in their narrowed gazes. She would have seen, if she turned back, the Hurons parting in half as they fled to the safety of the cliff side and the rocks, the bodies of the ones farthest from her stumbling and gasping towards the earth. Had she been listening, she would have heard the crack of musket fire, the heavy crunch of the war club meeting flesh and bone. She would have felt the faint pull on her sleeve as the warrior beside her collapsed, his hand still reaching for her, the seizure of his gurgling breath at last fading into stillness. But Alice did not. She had not stirred.
She took a small step towards the rocky shelf, her brown eyes wide and placid as a summer sky. The Huron captain lay unmoving, blood pouring from a small hole in his back. A faint groan emerged from underneath the body. He's alive.
In a tangle of skirts, Alice leapt onto the rock, her small hands pushing the Huron, however ineffectually, away from Uncas. The weight of it seemed too much, as she shoved and finally rolled him onto his back and then out of reach. With one glance downwards, she cried out. Blood was everywhere, staining her hands and knees with smears of crimson.
A hand clutched at her wrist, entwining her alabaster skin in a grasp of burnished copper.