Alice woke to the warmth of a glistening morning sun and the sound of hushed voices. She rose slowly and stretched, with the realization that the night had passed without dreams, without wakefulness.
"Mornin'," said Nathaniel, who was sitting cross-legged several paces from her. "Hungry?" He indicated the small pile of dried deer meat in front of him.
She shook her head. Rationally, she knew she should eat, yet she felt her stomach tingle and turn skittish, not with the violent upset of the day before, but rather with a sense of anticipation, of the sensation that something had shifted within her formation of the world, bringing newness and possibility.
Cora was kneeling by a small fire, feeding small branches and twigs into the flame. She looked up at Alice through the wispy streams of smoke.
"How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine," Alice replied. Her eyes quickly glanced over the open space around them, looking for Uncas, but not wanting to be obvious. He was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Chingachgook.
"They went to town." Nathaniel was not even looking at her as he spoke, and she blushed to have been found out so easily.
"Supplies, food. We're near out of powder. We need to restock before we go."
"Where are we going?"
"West, to Cantuckee."
"To the Delaware?"
He paused and looked at her askance, through slightly narrowed eyes.
"Yes, to the Delaware."
"Why can't we go back to the cabin?"
"There's not enough winter meat. Not for the five of us. And the repairs we made were fine for summer, but not for when the snow starts falling and the wind picks up. With the Delaware there'll be enough food and a spare wiquoamor two."
She tried to envision herself living in an Indian camp and found it increasingly difficult. Even recalling the camp of the Huron did not help very much, as she could only picture it through the reflections of her own half-remembered fear. Everyone had stared at them, Cora, Duncan and herself, jeering in a language she could not understand…
She was pulled from her thoughts by the sound of her name, which he almost never used.
"If you want to stay with us, you need to understand what you're doing."
"I do understand…"
"I don't think you do. This is not an easy life. Especially for someone…" – he paused, staring at her, head cocked to the side – "…for someone not born to it."
Alice felt as if her insides were slowly crumbling. Is this what they all thought of her? That she was weak, that she would run at the slightest difficulty? Yet a spark of defiance began to smolder within her.
"Have I been idle these past months? Did I once complain?"
"It's not the same. We're trappers, nomads. I know Cora will want a home and a roof over her head, but until that point, there'll be no place of our own. There may be weeks, or even months, when you won't see walls around you. No hearth. No bed."
She swallowed, and bit the insides of her lips. Had she been too hasty in her decision? But then she thought of him, the lightness of his fingers as they had curled tentatively around her waist.
"I want to stay…with my sister. I can do what is necessary."
"Don't misunderstand. We're happy you're going to stay. Cora, myself…all of us. But it will be hard."
Alice nodded a little and gazed into the growing flames of the fire. A feeling of trepidation quelled the excitement she had felt earlier. This was her life now. But where did she belong? Where was her home? She wanted, as was the way with women, to one day be married, to have a family; would this be denied to her? She envisioned for one moment a child with her rounded chin and straight black hair bound up in braids, but then dismissed it, shocked even at her own wayward thoughts.
She could no longer deny that a connection had been formed between herself and Uncas, something that drew her mind towards him unbidden, something that caused her breath to quicken when he looked down on her with his dark and tranquil eyes. He was not a man like any she had known before, but for some reason the differences no longer seemed to matter. He had established himself as her protector, and she had clung to him, trusting him as she had no other. Beyond this, however, was a great unknown. What would a future between them even look like? Her eyes still fell absently on their campfire, their surface cloudy and pensive.
The rest of the morning and the afternoon passed slowly, in an unceasing quiet that Alice found difficult to bear. As soon as she sat down, she felt the need to stand up and move, and once she was up, all she wanted was to be still. Perhaps if her hands had been occupied, if there had been something to do, she might have felt less agitated. But she knew, truthfully, that she was waiting for him, and as her eyes glanced up with every sound and movement of the forest, she was disappointed to not see him approaching.
She was therefore surprised to see Chingachgook alone striding almost silently through the center of the camp, his weathered face hard and set. The heavy packs that had been carried across his shoulders were soon slung to the ground with considerable forcefulness.
Uncas followed soon after, almost running to catch up. He called out to his father, almost plaintively, in Mahican, but the older man did not turn around. Instead, his eyes shifted over and caught Alice's, with a look that made her realize exactly what had been the cause of such discord. She froze, not knowing what do to, and wished that, just for a moment, she could disappear completely.
Chingachgook finally turned around to face his son. He murmured a few words, the grim line of his mouth nearly motionless, and then waited, as if expecting no further challenge to his declaration.
But even with lowered eyes, Uncas answered him, and as the words were spoken, she could see Chingachgook's broad shoulders begin to sag, the determination cleanly wiped from his face. He turned away and walked off into the trees, not looking back.
Slipping his pack off his shoulder, Uncas dropped to a crouch and gazed off to where his father had disappeared. She watched as he tiredly rubbed his hands against his face. There was something in his posture, in the lost expression in his eyes, that made her want to go to him; had they been alone, she might have, but with the others nearby, she could not be free with her sentiments.
"What happened?" Cora murmured towards Nathaniel.
"Ask him," he replied, his face solemn as he nodded towards Uncas.
But Uncas simply shook his head a little as he got to his feet. He looked over at Alice, seemingly seeing her for the first time, and his face softened, warmth seeping back into his eyes. He approached her slowly, and dropped to the ground next to where she sat. They remained in silence for a time, both looking out into the distant landscape beyond.
"I don't understand…what you said to each other," she said quietly.
"I tried to talk to him, to tell him…" He paused, taking a breath. "He was angry, disappointed that I had not chosen as he would have me choose. He said…that you weren't of our people."
"And what did you tell him?"
"That Nathaniel was not of our people, but he was still his son."
Alice's heart broke a little; she had no wish to come between Uncas and his father, although she clearly was. But what could she do? She could not change who she was, nor how she felt.
With a motion so slow it went almost unnoticed, she placed her palm down onto the ground next to where his lay, and curled her fingers around his.
"Will he come back?" she asked.
As the sun made its last steps towards the horizon, Chingachgook did, in fact, return, and took his place at the edge of the fire. He did not look at either Uncas or Alice, who were sitting across from each other, but remained silent, while they all tucked into a hastily-prepared evening meal.
Even as she stared into the twisting movement of the flames, Alice realized that Uncas was looking at her, and she felt her cheeks turn warm. She wished she could explain it simply by her proximity to the fire's reach, but she knew better. His eyes were playful, the hint of a smile flashed across his mouth, stretching towards his broad cheekbones, and, even with Chingachgook so nearby, she could not help but smile back before she looked away. The warmth continued to spread through her body, into her chest and belly, down her arms and through her fingertips. It was as if her heart was a lantern, illuminating the night with her happiness.
She knew she could not see the future, and what difficulties it might bring, but she had this moment. It would always be hers.
A/N: This marks the end of the adventures of Alice and Uncas, at least for now. This story has been such a sprint that I think I need a little bit of a break! But I'm thinking I may bring them back for another round in the summer when I've got more free time – I really want to find out what happens to them in Cantuckee! Thanks to everyone who has read (and reviewed). I am, as always, eternally appreciative.