Cora Munro was seated as perfectly poised upon her ebony horse as if she were attending the Royal Ballet. Her skin was as cool as porcelain, her velvet brown eyes the same rich coffee shade as her wavy hair, which was swept elegantly beneath an arced straw hat, laced with ivory ribbon. Subtle pearl droplet earrings were her only decoration, so as not to distract from the plunging cut of her pewter riding coat, displaying her swan like neck and the slight rise and fall of her bosom. Her pewter riding skirts were gathered effortlessly into a bustle behind her, revealing glimpses of tailored black riding boots beneath. Cora's taste was understated yet elegant, something many of the young women in London and America failed to demonstrate, and she was all the more attractive for it.
Cora's regal beauty mirrored her dignified and aloof manner as she rode along the forest floor, providing a perfect guise for her pre-occupied state. It was only if one looked closely enough that they would notice the set of her mouth was a little too hard and her hold of the reigns unnecessarily firm, for her to be truly so composed. Fot though her sensible mind counselled her that the military troupe on either side of their small party was only for their own protection, she could not help but feel like a prisoner being marched towards a future she found it impossible to submit to. Though she had not formally accepted Duncan's proposal of marriage, Cora knew she had only delayed the inevitable moment and that everyone was waiting for her to follow social convention and agree to such a favourable offer, regardless of the small detail that she did not love him. Cora Munro had always been a strong willed and outspoken young woman but until now her feelings had married with the expectations and aspirations of her class. She had never thought herself romantic or naïve and had therefore been as surprised as everybody else when she had resisted Duncan's offer, yet some inner core of steel had refused to submit to social convention in the matter of her own heart. As her companions looked about them in awe, Cora stared coldly ahead, not seeing the fascination of the unknown that her little sister Alice had not stopped enthusing about since they'd boarded the ship from England; all she saw was the troupe of red that snaked conformingly into the distance, wondering when her privileged and familiar existence had begun to feel quite so repressive.
A chestnut mare followed a few feet behind Cora's horse, carrying her younger sister Alice who, despite the day's journey, still resembled a lovely English flower amidst the raw untamed beauty of the frontier. She was wearing a fresh white riding dress, trimmed at the elbows and neck with dainty white lace, her neckline noticeably higher than her sisters to reflect their difference in age, for she was just seventeen. Her heavy white skirts were exquisitely embroidered with mint green vines trailing upwards, adorned with tiny pink blossoms upon their branches, and her honey kissed hair was twisted beneath a dainty flat straw hat pinned to the top of her head. She wore a pretty pink ribbon tied in a bow at her neck, quite the fashion in England before they had departed for the Colonies. Soft fawn gloves protected her hands at the reigns and tall brown boots her feet in the stirrups. She was absolutely charming and although still a year or two away from true beauty like her sister, there were already flashes of it for all to see.
At the start of their journey, Alice's delightful appreciation for everything they saw made Cora and Duncan smile at her with amused affection, but after such an early start, the endless travelling on horseback and feeling she had to continually compensate for her sister's withdrawn demeanour, her initial enthusiasm had been replaced with subdued fatigue. She continued to gaze about her, determined to absorb every detail of her first adventure abroad, but did so with such bleary eyes that when her sister eventually turned to speak with her, she was reminded of when Alice was a little girl refusing to admit it was past her bedtime, and the sight of her instantly softened Cora's mood.
"May we rest soon?"
"Absolutely", Duncan cut in gallantly, charging immediately ahead on his impressive white stallion to make arrangements. Cora looked again to Alice with concern, her troubles momentarily forgotten as she realised that she too was aching and weary after so many hours on horseback, her practical mind registering that the light was beginning to fade from the day. Surely it must soon be time to set up camp for the night? She knew from her experience of previous campaigns abroad that it would be a humble affair but it would certainly provide more refined comfort than the back of a horse. She was impatient to halt immediately but being a woman, resisted the urge and waited with stifled frustration for Duncan to assist them in the proper manner.
Mayor Heyward reached the head of the Cavalry and drew up beside their native guide, Magua.
"Magua. Must stop soon. Women are tired" he ordered, turning to leave as he was used to his orders being carried out immediately.
"Not here. Two leaves. Better water", Magua's reply was brief and final as he disregarded the Major's command.
Assuming it was merely a language barrier, Duncan continued to trot beside him in order to match his unyielding pace, as he re-iterated, "No. Stop in the glade just ahead. When the women are rested we will proceed. Understood?"
Magua carried on, never taking his eyes from an invisible point in the distance as he delivered his lengthy reply in his own tongue, baffling Duncan even further, "Sorry, what did you say?"
"Magua said, understand English very well", he paused, finally, giving Duncan a meaningful look as the two men faced one another, and the Major sat back in his saddle, disconcerted. He knew perfectly well that the man had said far more than that and was quite sure he had just been insulted in some way. He was tempted to reprimand this Magua for his total lack of respect for authority, but training and experience warned Duncan that they were relying on the good will of the guide to lead them safely to Fort William Henry, so he reluctantly let it pass, snapping "Just make sure to obey my order".
Duncan circled his horse testily back towards the Munro sisters, feeling his anger slide from his shoulders at the sight of the two young women riding side by side. What an irresistible pair they made, he thought to himself, as he unconsciously puffed up in his saddle, self-importance and composure regained in his duty to protect his Commander's precious cargo. His dedication to his duty was admirable though not entirely selfless, for Duncan relished this opportunity to prove to both Colonel Munro and his infuriatingly headstrong eldest daughter that he made an honourable suitor. Bridging the distance between them, he nodded to Cora, who dipped her head politely in acknowledgement-
"Alice, it looks as though we are stopping, finally", Cora's tone was critical, partly due to her frustration but also on behalf of her younger sister, who was now dozing lightly in her saddle.
"Mmmm thank goodness" Alice murmured dreamily, but before either one could say anything further, the world around them erupted in confusion and horror.
It all happened so fast. Alice couldn't tell if she were even awake or having a terrifying nightmare. Her horse had reared up uncontrollably and then flung her loose, hurling her violently to the ground where she lay dazed. The sound of gunfire and wild screams assaulted her senses as she endeavoured to sit up, disorientated, her innocent grey eyes widening in horror at the sight of soldiers being brutally hacked, gutted and scalped right in front of her. Before she could move, Cora was by her side, her brusque manner keeping her firmly collected as she methodically removed both her own hat and then Alice's, tossing the useless accessories aside before shielding her younger sister's head, though Cora could not to tear her own eyes from the brutal killings of so many. Fear ripped through her as she looked to Duncan, their final defence against an endless onslaught of wildly painted savages, slicing and scalping a path towards them. She balked as his horse was killed beneath him, a scream escaping her as she hid her face momentarily against Alice's convulsing body, but it was more fearful not to see what was coming, so she lifted her head once more and watched in disbelief as the first attacker raised his bloody hatchet to kill Duncan.
Three shots cut clearly through the mayhem. Even Alice looked up, somehow distinguishing between the bloodthirsty violence and such measured control, and there was a moment of calm as their attackers paused to look uncertainly about them. A tiny ray of hope expanded in Alice's chest as she searched through tear misted eyes, hoping to see more red coats appear through the trees and perhaps even hear the familiar commanding voice of her father, but any such hope was soon shattered by the sudden vision of yet another native leaping through the air, followed by two more who broke unexpectedly into the clearing. She could stand no more, burying her face again in her sister's lap, her body sagging instinctively with the realisation that she was going to die. She did not hear Cora coldly reprimand Duncan for aiming his rifle at the back of one of the three strangers, nor did she hear a voice sarcastically warn him, "In case your aims any better than your judgement." She did not know how long she lay there, time becoming strangely unearthly as her mind disconnected from her helpless body.
Everything had turned peaceful again. If it weren't for the grotesque corpses strewn about, she might have thought she had woken from a terrible nightmare. The silence was deafening in the small forest clearing now so many lay dead, the stillness thundering in Alice's head along with her own heartbeat as she tried to ignore the bile rising dangerously in her throat. Some sense of propriety from her upbringing distantly reminded her that she needed to recover herself as her sister and Duncan had so ably managed to do, but it felt as if she weighed as heavy as lead, so she continued to sit in a most unladylike manner as the three strangers walked towards them.
Chingachgook, Nathaniel and Uncas approached the three survivors, silently noting their expensive but impractical clothes and complete lack of preparedness for surviving on the frontier. Cora and Duncan looked warily at the strangers, Duncan's sword still half raised in readiness to protect his female companions if it became necessary. Alice could not tear her gaze from the front man, Chingachgook. He had a tribal tattoo of a snake above his left eyebrow and even more tribal markings just visible beneath his open blue shirt. His raven black hair was as long as a lady's but was spiked strangely into a tuft on his head. He wore jewellery and his ear was pierced many times over and he was unusually dressed in strange animal skin leggings like the two younger men behind him. He may have been shorter and stockier than the other two, but his bronzed face was aged with such quiet wisdom and strength that Alice could not help but compare his stoic presence with what she had always imagined the red men to be like in all her girlish fantasies. Remembering the violence she had just witnessed she felt conflicted and confused and a little ill again, all she could really understand at that moment was how hopelessly foolish and naïve she was.
That was when Uncas' gaze fell on Alice Munro, sat in a crumple of fine fabric upon the ground, reminding him of a delicate petal fallen from a rare and exquisite flower. She looked startled, bewildered and so close to tears that Uncas imagined her having just turned into a girl as the petal touched the ground and that she was distressed because she wanted to be a flower again. His observant dark eyes drank in her beautifully embroidered dress, the mint and pink detail of her skirts, the crisp white lace trim and pale pink bow tied so neatly in place at her throat. His head tilted a little to the side as he studied the features of her youthful face, caught somewhere between childhood innocence and feminine allure, her rosebud mouth, soft dewy skin and huge moon eyes all contributing to her enchantment. As he gazed intently down at this strange being, his searching eyes and furrowed brow could easily have been misinterpreted as the silent disapproval that his brother so clearly felt when he curtly informed them-
"Your wounded should try walking back to Albany. You'll never make the passage north."
The spell was broken and Uncas coolly dismissed the foreigner from his thoughts as he set about the more important task of keeping them safe. Walking purposefully to their horses, he slapped them on their flanks with a "Ha!" which sent them hurtling out of sight. Alice watched in horror as the young warrior dispatched their only hope of safe passage back to civilisation. Spurred on by fear, she leapt to her feet and bunching her skirts in her hands, tried chasing frantically after them. Uncas caught her easily as she moved past him, pulling her safely back by her upper arm, but both were caught off guard by the intensity of such a brief encounter. Alice's awkward, skittish movements would have caused them to collide if it weren't for his quick and steadying hold on her. Time slowed as they gazed openly at one another, entranced, and she stilled under his intense scrutiny as he guided her backwards into the waiting arms of her sister. As he turned away, Uncas' striking features were impossible to read, unlike Alice, whose shame and embarrassment were clearly visible for all to see. Blushing, the young girl looked down at the ground, shocked by her impulsive actions and overwhelmed at the sensations that had stirred within her at his touch. Even so, relieved as she was to be led safely back to Duncan's side by Cora, Alice's uncertain gaze followed the young warrior's retreating back, lost in the details of his berry coloured shirt and raven long hair that streamed silkily down his back like a waterfall, tied with a small braid and red feather.
"Why did he lose us the horses?" Duncan demanded angrily.
Nathaniel regarded him for a moment before bluntly replying, "Why don't you ask him".
Before Duncan could react, Uncas's mellow voice vibrated through the air "Too easy to track, they can be heard for miles", apparently seeming not to notice their shocked expressions, he indicated to Duncan's sword held limply at his side, "Find yourself a musket." Uncas was long used to the ignorant judgement of white people towards his own, and though his white brother got a kick out of proving them wrong, Uncas did not care enough about their opinion to concern himself, yet for a brief moment his gaze met the young girl with the astonished baby face and his eyes burned in acknowledgement before she looked quickly away.
"We were headed to Fort William Henry" Duncan blurted out and the way in which he said it with such desperate pride made Alice feel suddenly protective of him. He looked more like the boy she and Cora had grown up with and less like a commanding officer. Even in their present situation Duncan struggled to ask for help, but he did not have to. Chingachgook's words in Mohican were brief and once again Cora, Duncan and Alice were surprised that it was a native who spoke, deciding their fate.
"We'll take you as far as the fort", Nathaniel translated for their benefit. "Movin' outta here fast" he bluntly informed them but when they still hadn't moved, added wryly "Unless you'd rather wait for the next Huron was party to come by?" He resembled his companions in his long tied back hair and clothes, though it was now obvious that his hair was lighter, thicker and wavier and his skin, though tanned, was as white as theirs. Also, his facial expressions were far more revealing and Alice felt uncomfortable, sensing that Cora had bristled at his slightly mocking stare. There was a charged moment before he turned and walked casually into the dense forest, following the point where Chingachgook's blue shirt had disappeared moments before. Cora, Duncan and Alice were all slightly startled at the lack of concern for their well-being as the men set off without a backwards glance. It was not how they were used to being treated. Duncan nodded urgently to Cora over Alice's head; they had no choice but to trust these rough men. He stepped gallantly but somewhat unnecessarily in front of the women, acting as a symbolic barrier between them and their new guides. Even so, Cora stooped to pick up a pistol from the ground, her steel core having returned under pressure as she pocketed it soberly. She did not know what irritated her more, their reliance on the goodwill of that unpleasant man or Duncan's assiduous overprotectiveness. Alice was shivering by her side, entranced by the dead bodies that no one else seemed to have noticed nor cared about but Cora mistook her shudder for coldness-
"Alice, where is your coat?" Cora had not meant it to sound so critical but in her vulnerable state Alice felt struck by the comment, stunned that she could be held at fault for losing something after everything that had occurred. She felt the tears begin to sting again and hated herself for being so childish. She wished more than anything that she could be like Cora, whom she had never seen cry and who even now was so resilient that she did not feel Alice's sensitivity.
Uncas was taking a last look around before following after his father and brother and had overheard the two women. His quick eyes noticed a sage green velvet riding jacket lying where it had fallen from Alice's frightened horse. He picked it up under Duncan's frowning suspicion and returned it to her casually as he passed them, briefly adding in his rich tones, "Here Miss."
He was gone in an instant, blending in to the forest before Alice's bewildered voice managed to form the shaky words to thank him. She had no time to waste putting it on but felt comforted just holding it. Cora was filled with purposefulness and determination and her legs itched to be moving forwards. Leading Alice onwards on tottering legs, she followed Duncan's bright red military coat through the fading light as they followed their new guides into the unknown.