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Swear not by the Moon

Chapter Text

Albany, New York

August, 1757

***

What surprised Alice most, upon her arrival in the colonies, was the color . The fields and trees were verdant, with bright sun highlighting every flower dotting the pastures. It was truly glorious. While her beloved Highlands were majestic – truly, one could not surpass the views in Alness – Albany’s wildness quite took her breath away. Shakespeare wrote of painting meadows with delights , and Alice finally thought she understood what he had meant. Every leaf and flower seemed to glow with the warm sunlight. It was certainly far better than the gloom of London, where she and Cora had been exiled since the Battle of Falkirk under the care of a dour spinster aunt, save for a few safe postings when they could stay with Papa in Ireland or Austria for a time. After a harrowing six weeks at sea, Alice felt she had arrived at a veritable Garden of Eden when they settled at Albany.

 

However, the beautiful landscape was sometimes marred by its people. Albany was rustic compared to London, and there was a simmering resentment in town that Alice could not ignore. The Earl of Loudon had assumed command of British forces two years prior, and he had forcibly quartered many of his troops in private homes in Albany, rather than the barracks and inns that were typical of Papa’s previous postings. They were billeted with a widow who seemed not displeased with the situation – probably because hosting a ranking officer and his daughters was less of a nuisance than disorderly soldiers. Alice had heard poor tales of the Black Watch regiment and their brutish behavior. Aside from some merchants and aristocrats, most of the town seemed eager to see the backside of the lot of them. Alice could not blame the sentiment. Billeting soldiers was justified by the Earl in claiming the townspeople to be Dutch, but Mrs. Fraser and her deceased husband had come from Inverness. From what she could discern, very few of the town were truly Dutch. Although Papa would never speak against orders, Alice hoped he found the situation appalling. ‘Twas no way to treat a citizen of the crown.

 

Papa tried his best to maintain discipline with his men. The Orange Lillies were an orderly regiment, and Alice knew he frowned on his men making churlish demands on the townspeople. His efforts did not go unnoticed, thus leaving Alice and her sister better received than other officers’ families at times. When the 35th Foot was dispatched to Fort William Henry, it was decided that she and Cora would bide away with Mrs. Fraser, until he could determine it was safe to join him. Although matters in town were sometimes hostile, it was still far safer than the front lines of a war. Alice wondered if Mrs. Fraser had so keenly advocated for the sisters to stay, as it would prevent other soldiers from being billeted in her home. Alice admired that bit of cunning. She and Cora were to await Major Duncan Heyward’s arrival, and travel with his company’s protection to join Papa once matters were secure at the fort.

 

It was a far cry from Portman Square and the blether of London. Alice spent the summer with the drowsy hum of crickets and cicadas in her ears. She read aloud sometimes, as Cora efficiently cut bandages to be couriered. She embroidered a delicate chemise of fine linen to accommodate the colonies’ heat, as Cora tried to make her tinctures and salves without the benefit of a still. Alice taught little Minnie Fraser to read, while Cora put her brothers Michael and Niall through their paces with arithmetic to prepare for the coming school year. They both wrote long letters home, trying to assuage Aunt Agnes’ many worries and satisfy cousin Eugenie's taste for adventure. Later, Alice would think of this time as an idyll, not realizing it was the calm before a storm.

 

By the time Duncan arrived in August, Alice was truly content in Albany and lacked Cora’s relish for change. She had grown to like Mrs. Fraser and her three mischievous bairns, and preferred her only excitement in a day to be the discovery of a frog in Minnie’s bed. She disliked Duncan’s tendency to monopolize Cora’s attentions, and found him much changed since she had seen him last. Duncan had been a childhood acquaintance in Alness – a distant cousin on his mother’s side, from the cadet branch of Clan Munro. He had joined the Army with Papa’s recommendation, and had quickly ascended ranks. Alice had last seen him five years ago, his good humor then a stark contrast to his solemnity now. As a child, Duncan had been warm-hearted, slow to anger and quick to forgive, and had idolized Papa as a military officer. In Albany, there was little trace of the boy he had been. Duncan was stiff and overly formal, and treated Cora with a solicitousness that Alice could tell rankled her sister. Even that might have been pardonable, if a fraction of that solicitousness had extended to others. Instead, Duncan spoke to everyone in town as if he were a social superior – nay, a commanding officer - from Mrs. Fraser’s children to the Indian trapper at the store. While he was unfailingly polite in his interactions with Alice, she had come to doubt the sincerity of his manners, leaving her with the unpleasant feeling that had she not been Cora’s sister and Colonel Munro’s daughter, she would have been treated with the same contempt. It was an unsettling thought.

 

They had not heard from Papa for several weeks, so although Alice was loath to leave Albany, she was eager to see her father again. He had always been a diligent correspondent during his campaigns, providing advice on their studies or moral lessons to consider, sometimes accompanied by a doll he had ordered for them, or more recently, a lovely new gown. Aunt Agnes had often remarked that he was a doting father, keen to indulge Cora’s interest in the surgery and Alice’s love of poems, even moreso after the death of their mother. He was her lodestar, and Alice felt directionless in this new American wilderness without him to guide her.

 

However, her excitement at leaving Albany to see him again - with a real red man for a guide! - faded quickly in the humidity and heat of the journey. The dense forest trees, so beautiful to sketch, stilled any breeze that might have lifted the oppressive air. Her fine linen chemise, so much lighter than the previous cotton, did little to assuage the heat in her heavy brocade riding habit. Alice could feel her dress sticking to her back and her stays dug unrelentingly into her ribs. She had asked Mrs. Fraser to loosen them when she had been laced, but had been chided for her unladylike desire. Once again, Alice found herself regretting Duncan’s arrival, for Cora never laced her quite so tight – but of course, Duncan had needed to consult with Cora before their departure, leaving Alice with little choice in who assisted her to dress this morn. Alice took a deep breath of air, fighting her growing dizziness as she felt herself sway in the saddle.

 

“Alice?” Cora was studying her intently, looking concerned.

 

Alice took another gasping breath, trying to force more air into her lungs and failing miserably in the damnable heat. “Can we stop?” she asked piteously, hating herself for the weakness. She knew all too well how women were a burden on the army. She had no desire to earn the company’s contempt just hours from Albany. She would not faint, she told herself firmly, her hands gripping the reins tighter and trying to will the dizziness back.

 

And then, suddenly, everything was madness. Their scout who was to lead them to Fort William Henry had turned to attack the company, and shots were coming from all directions in the trees that surrounded the company. Her horse reared, and Alice instinctively threw herself from the saddle, trying to avoid its body in the fall. She took another panicked, gasping breath, feeling as if she were drowning. She did not realize Cora had dismounted until she felt her sister’s arms encircle her. Looking down, Alice could see her own hands were trembling. A horse – or was it a man? – screamed. A savage pulled out a knife and ripped a soldier’s scalp from his head. Alice swallowed bile in the back of her throat, unable to look away from the blood dripping from the dangling flesh to the ground. One by one, the men of the company fell, and the spell broke. Alice shrieked, burying her face in Cora’s lap, hands coming up to cover her ears as she desperately tried to block out the screams. She had heard tales of Indian massacres in Albany. They would surely die.

 

When Cora tensed, Alice raised her head tentatively, fearing the sharp bite of a knife. Instead, she was surprised to find new men fighting in their defense, aiding in the dispatch of their attackers. Following Cora’s lead, Alice stood slowly, letting herself slip behind her sister as she watched the unfamiliar men. One man was older, possibly Papa’s age, and Alice would have been tempted to call him graceful if he were not an Indian in a fight. Another man was not an Indian, although he was dressed in the same buckskin, and Alice blinked as she watched him take Duncan’s rifle. The third man was another Indian, and Alice startled when she realized he was chasing off the horses.

 

“Stop it! We need them to get out of here!” Alice exclaimed, trying to grab one set of reins.

 

Firm hands gripped her arms, and Alice turned to look up at the man who had kept her from catching the horse. He was younger than the other two men, and his face was impassive. His brow was wide and unlined, as if he had never scowled a day in his life, and his eyes were kind as he studied her. He said nothing. Perhaps he did not speak English. Alice dropped her gaze under his inspection and let Cora lead her away, little hearing the conversation around her.

 

Somehow, their party had made the decision to continue on to Fort William Henry, although Albany was only hours away. Alice thought it to be madness. Surely it would be better to return to Albany and report the attack, rather than continue by foot to a fort nearly sixty miles away. With horses, they had planned two days to travel, with a stop at an inn along the George Road for a night. It could take them three days to walk to the fort – if these men even knew where they were going. Alice attempted to sigh in frustration, and realized once more just how tight her stays were laced. She felt a blush creep up her cheeks. She would not be able to walk very far if her stays remained so tightly laced.

 

“Cora,” she whispered anxiously.

 

“Aye?” Cora replied, her voice just as low. She had taken Alice’s hand once more, and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

 

Alice took a few rapid breaths, trying to slow her heart and her lungs. “My stays are much too tight. I cannot breathe.”

 

She was not sure what excuse Cora uttered, but Alice found herself hidden from the other men’s view within seconds. Her stays were positively unbearable, and she tried to be patient as Cora struggled with the pins on her dress. Alice sucked in a deep breath of air and sighed in relief as she felt her laces loosened. Her ribs ached from throwing herself from the horse, but she could blessedly, finally breathe. Suddenly the air seemed far less oppressive than it had a quarter of an hour ago.

 

“Those are frightful bruises, Alice,” Cora hissed, as she adjusted her stays. “Mrs. Fraser laced you far too tight!”

 

Alice sighed again. “I am content to simply breathe,” she reassured her. “I shall leave the stays off at the fort, if I can find a different gown.”

 

“Aye, I suppose our wardrobe may be more limited,” Cora replied, a glimmer of wicked humor in her eyes. The pack horse with their clothing had be loosed with the rest, and Cora was always the type to laugh in the face of calamity. She had to admire Cora’s ability to do so, as Alice tended to cry.

 

“’Tis no excuse to don breeches,” Alice replied tartly, proud that her voice barely wavered. Once, when Cora had been particularly willful as a wee bairn, she had hidden all her dresses in the hayloft and gleefully donned their cousin Dougal’s breeches to go out to play in the paddock. That had been before Mama had died, and Alice remembered her laughing raucously with Papa upon discovering Cora’s new clothes. They had been too amused to give Cora a skelping.

 

“I promise you, I shall not,” Cora said with solemnity, although her eyes gleamed with amusement. Cora threaded an arm through hers in an encouraging manner as they returned from behind the trees. The men were impatient to be moving, Alice could tell. No one had any desire to encounter another war party. Keeping her eyes up, Alice let her sister lead the way, and avoided looking down at the slaughtered men on the ground. If she did not look, she could more easily try to press those panicked moments to the far corners of her mind – to try to forget the screams and the sound of the knife ripping through flesh. Alice pressed her hands into the folds of her skirts to hide their trembling. She could be strong, like Cora. Once they arrived at the fort, she could have a cry and all would be well. Papa would not send for them if there was truly any danger. If she kept telling herself that, Alice might even come to believe it true.

 

It did not take long before Alice’s skirts were manky and heavy with mud. The delicate pink flowers were stained brown, and there was a long rent down one side from snagging itself on a thorny branch, despite all of Alice’s best efforts to hold it aloft. The sweep of her train did nothing but catch mud and burrs. Cora’s dress looked no better. Neither dress was cut for walking, much less slogging sixty miles through heavy woods.

 

Alice studied the men who had helped them, trying to discern a motive from the lines on their faces or the cut of their hair. Their clothing told no tales, other than life on the frontier. It was the typical mix of roughspun and leathers she had seen most trappers wear. Alice stole another glance at the young man with the kind eyes, before steeling herself to do what Duncan and Cora would not. “Thank you for coming to our aid,” she said in a clear, firm tone – and was surprised by how the sound of her voice was swallowed by the trees. “ Merci pour votre...nous aider ,” she added, knowing she had butchered the French. Her mind was whirling far too fast to remember her schoolroom conjugations.

 

The man who was not an Indian turned to look at her, eyes narrowed and face inscrutable. Alice dropped her eyes under his heavy gaze. She had no idea what he was searching for in her face, but he must have found it, for he replied with a terse, “You’re welcome.”

 

Cora looked affronted at the tone of his reply, but Alice could see the wry twist of the man’s mouth that tempered the tone of his voice. Truly, they were indebted to these men who had risked their lives to come to their aid. Alice could forgive far more than blunt speaking for that – particularly in the King's own English. The trees parted, and Alice was faced with the clearest river she had ever seen, like a gift from heaven. They paused, and Alice drank the cool spring water from her hands greedily, feeling a wave of relief at taking a few moments of respite. The older man stooped to refill a canteen while Duncan encouraged Cora to be seated. Before taking a seat herself, Alice turned to the man once more. “I am Alice Munro, and this is my sister Cora. We are accompanied by Major Duncan Heyward, and – and what was his company,” she added haltingly. “While I would not say it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, under the circumstances, I am very grateful all the same. Would you introduce us to your party?” she asked, unsure if the two Indians also spoke English.

 

The corner of his mouth quirked up a little more. “Nathaniel Poe, at your service. This is Chingachgook and Uncas.”

 

Alice bobbed a quick curtsy as if they were not surrounded by wilderness, before taking a seat on another rock. Immediately, she chastised herself for the habit of a curtsy; they must think her a numpty fool. She darted her eyes over to look at the younger man – Uncas – only to notice with surprise that he was studying her just as intently as his brother had a moment ago. She flushed and looked away. Chingachgook , she mouthed to herself. It was a funny word with its guttural g , but it was his name. After coming to their rescue, it would be rude not to afford the men the courtesy of proper address. The light breeze over the stream was cooling, and Alice looked up at the swaying tree branches above her to appreciate the dappled sunshine. She remained in awe with the height of trees in the colonies. It was so different from home. While the Highlands were written off as untamed wildness in London, the forests of New York left her feeling small in a way she had never felt beside her beloved mountains. Every tree stood far upright into the sky, dwarfing their party and the view beyond. She wondered how these men knew their way through the forest, what unmarked trail they followed that she could not see. Were all colonists so adept in the forest or was it some magic of the red men?

 

Their rest was all too brief. Alice found herself lagging further behind Cora and Duncan as the trail began to slope upwards. The soft ground become more rocky and uneven as they followed along the river. Blessedly, the air remained cooler this close to the water. Alice sighed, and tried catch up to her sister. Cora had always outpaced her in their rambles through Hyde Park. Ever since Alice had the fever two winters ago, she had struggled to match Cora’s boundless energy. It should be no surprise to fall even further behind in traversing the wild terrain. Cora and Duncan appeared to be in discussion with Mr. Poe, while Chingachgook ranged ever further ahead of the group. Alice turned to look behind her, and blinked in surprise when she found Uncas in her shadow. Either she was too lost in thought, or the man barely made a sound when he walked.

 

“Och, I did not realize you were there,” she murmured as he came apace to her. “I am sorry, Mr. Uncas. I did not mean to lag behind.”

 

“Do you need an arm?”

 

Alice looked at him in surprise. She had not expected the Indians to speak English so clearly. His voice was mild and smooth, rather than guttural like she had heard from other red men. There was little expression on his face, leaving Alice to worry whether he was frustrated with her slow pace. His eyes still appeared kind, but she hesitated a moment. She could hear her own ragged breaths and frowned. “I do not want to distract you from keeping watch.”

 

“I can still keep watch,” he replied.

 

It was a gentlemanly offer, and unlike what she had heard of America’s savages. Alice could almost pretend she had an officer’s arm in Hyde Park. She gave Uncas a tentative smile – and then promptly tripped over a jutting rock. She threw her arms out to brace for a fall, but found herself for the second time that day caught ‘round the arms by Uncas. He settled her back on her feet, hands lingering for a moment as if to make sure she was truly upright. Alice felt herself flush. “Sorry, Mr. Uncas,” she repeated.

 

He offered his arm again, and she took it gratefully, taking care to watch the ground as she made the next few steps. “I am no mister, Miss Alice.”

 

“But – I dinnae what to call you then,” she said after a moment of wracking her brain, wondering if red men had different titles. She winced at the slip of her brogue, knowing it would have earned a rap across the knuckles from her former governess.

 

She could see him slant a look at her from the corner of his eyes before going back to scanning the trees around them. “Uncas.”

 

“Just Uncas?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But what does it mean?” Alice blurted out. She immediately bit her lip at the impertinence. However, when she snuck a glance up at him, the corner of his mouth was quirked up as if he were amused at her interrogation.

 

“Fox.”

 

Alice studied him for a moment. “It suits you,” she said decidedly, somewhat horrified at her boldness. Aunt Agnes would have chided her for being a hoyden. It was a refrain Cora heard often growing up. Alice could not seem to stop blurting out every thought that crossed her mind, and was dismayed by her lack of manners. The ambush seemed to have knocked all sense out of her.

 

They lapsed into silence. Alice was displeased to see that despite Uncas’ assistance, the rest of their party had continued to outpace her. She sighed before noticing a sweet trill of birdsong. Her spirits lifted when she noticed a white dove perching on a low branch before her, and hoped it to be a good omen. Cora often chided her for being superstitious, but Alice would have been low indeed had it been a magpie instead.

 

“You speak English very well,” she commented as he steered her around a loose rock.

 

“My brother and I went to school. Father thought it would be important.”

 

“Mr. Poe is your brother?” Alice questioned in surprise, then hastily added, “Forgive me, that was rude.”

 

He took a moment to look at her fully. His eyes were not black, she realized, but a very dark brown. “How is that rude? He does not look like my brother,” he replied. He went back to observing the forest, guiding her around another outcropping. Alice was not sure how he could simultaneously watch their path and the trees. “My father adopted him when we were young.”

 

She could see Cora turn around to look back for her, and despite the distance, Alice could picture the worried look on her sister’s face. For all her brashness, Cora had a tendency to be a mother hen. After their mother’s death, she had taken to fretting over Alice, as if through sheer will, she could take Mama's place. Although it could rankle at times, Alice indulged her sister, for Cora was happiest when she had something to do. After Mama’s death, Cora never sat idle, as if she were afraid her grief could then catch up to her. Aunt Agnes had often said despairingly that Cora took after their Papa. It all seemed rather exhausting to Alice. She was so lost in her thoughts that she did not realize the gravel in her path until she felt her feet slide from under her. She stumbled – Uncas’ firm arm the only thing keeping her upright – and stepped on her dress, completely ripping the hem out.

 

“Rest a moment,” Uncas told her, guiding her over to a larger rock. He kept a tight grip on her arm and Alice felt a rush of shame. He must think her an incapable child.

 

He let out a sharp whistle which got the attention of their group. Cora turned to look back at Alice once more, but she was ushered to a seat by Duncan before she could walk back to her sister. Uncas handed her a flagon of water, and Alice gave a sigh of relief before taking a long drink. The water was not cool, but she was so thirsty she did not care.

 

“Thank you,” she murmured, passing it back to him. He took a long drink of his own, and Alice’s eyes traveled downward, noting the tattoos peeking out from the collar of his shirt. Her stomach fluttered, and she looked over at the river, sure that she was blushing once more. She had heard tales of the red men's tattoos, but she had never actually seen one before. Aunt Agnes would be horrified to catch her studying a half-clothed savage. Then again, Aunt Agnes is horrified by everything , a traitorous voice whispered in the back of her mind. It sounded rather like Cora at her most impish. Uncas had nobly risked his life to come to the aid of strangers, and was escorting her with manners better than half the Black Watch . Alice firmly decided to be more like her sister. If admiration for such a man was improper, she resolved not to care.

 

When their trek resumed, Alice took Uncas’ offered arm this time with no hesitation, letting him guide her as best he could over the rough patches. Her body was already beginning to ache and her legs felt leaden and weary. The sun was high enough in the sky that Alice could tell there were hours more of this blistering pace. When they reached a steep cliff, Alice took a moment to look out over the waterfalls to calm herself. They were beautiful. A sunbeam caught the spray of mist in the air, and Alice admired the small rainbows dancing above the rocks. It was hard to reconcile the tranquil beauty before her with the savage ambush in the woods. Firmly, she pushed all thoughts of the scalping she had witnessed aside. She was so focused on turning her thoughts away from the unpleasant that she did not see Uncas studying her intently, eyes traveling over her delicate profile and lithe frame. Turning back, Alice saw Cora’s feet tangle in her skirts as she navigated the climb. It was a small rock face, barely more than a man high, but Alice doubted her ability to ascend. She took a deep breath before reaching for Duncan’s offered hand, feeling her boots slide on the slick, mossy rocks.

 

“I am not sure I can catch your hand, Duncan,” she said tremulously. It took a few moments of scrabbling against unforgiving rock, but eventually she was able to grip his hand to be assisted the rest of the way. Alice gulped in another breath, not realizing she had been anxiously holding it. Cora clasped her hand, and Alice patted it reassuringly, noting another long rent in her gown and tattered hem. By the time they reached the fort, her skirt would be in ribbons.

 

“Can I be helping ye?” Cora murmured, giving Alice’s hand a tender squeeze.

 

“I am fair done in, but we need to keep going,” Alice replied, taking a deep breath as Uncas easily ascended the rock face. Cora frowned. “Uncas has been keeping me from harm.”

 

Cora did not seem reassured, but their party began to walk again. No one spoke for some time. At first, Cora seemed to be determined to stay by Alice’s side, but the desire to keep pace with Duncan and Mr. Poe eventually won out. Alice did not repine. The two men seemed likely to come to blows half the time, and her druthers were to leave peacemaking to Cora, however ill-suited her sister might be to it. Alice found it unlikely that either man would listen to her in the alternative. Closing her eyes for a moment, Alice turned her face up to the sun’s warmth, not realizing the picture she made with her hair lit in gold.

 

They stopped to rest once more at dusk, the air starting to give Alice a chill without the sun to warm her. Sodden skirts and petticoats stuck to her legs, making each uphill step an effort. Alice found herself leaning more heavily on Uncas’ arm, weaving as if she were daft or drunk. It was humiliating in the face of Cora’s unbowed strength. If only she weren’t so damnably frail.

 

As they neared the rest of the party, Alice sighed when she heard Duncan arguing with Mr. Poe about an appropriate pace for the ladies. Duncan wished to cease walking immediately, with Cora hotly disputing the assertion that they could go no further. However, rather than defuse the situation, Cora turned to take umbrage with Mr. Poe’s suggestion that they continue to travel through the night. It was clear to Alice that both men were fighting over Cora herself, rather than the plans for the night. She was loath to interfere, as Alice felt she had burdened the party enough with her inability to keep pace. Alice looked to Uncas and Chingachgook, but neither man’s face indicated their feelings on the matter. Alice bit her lip and turned back to the argument at hand, resigning herself to interference.

 

“Think we should go as far as the northern stretch of caves. Stop there for the night. Rain’s coming,” Uncas said.

 

Alice blinked in surprise, looking back at the two Indians. Chingachgook had slanted his eyes to look at his son, but Alice could not decipher the twitch of his brow. Uncas, for his part, looked unperturbed. Alice wondered if he was accustomed to mediating Mr. Poe’s arguments. The man was decidedly surly at times. Regardless, Alice had no desire to walk in the rain. She gave Uncas a grateful smile before taking her sister’s arm. Cora looked a bit put out over the quick ending to the disagreement, and Alice gave her sister’s arm a gentle pat, knowing that she was just as overwrought as Alice felt. Cora always bickered when she was upset.

 

Their party lapsed once more into silence as Alice meditated on the two men before her. Mr. Poe’s face had already smoothed itself into the calm lines of his father and brother. His anger was like a summer storm, full of thunder and lightning, but clearing the air once it dissipated. Duncan was a disappointment. As a boy, he had been quick to forgive. Now, he was like a pond of weeds and algae, being taken over by his grudges. Alice knew it was hard to be a Scot in the King’s service, but Duncan’s rigid adherence to order was only to his detriment. Those who would doubt his loyalty – or Papa’s for that matter, Alice had seen it before – would never be satisfied by their service. Even perfect obedience would be suspect. Duncan would lose Cora’s respect if he continued to carry on as he had, for though Cora was a loyalist, she did not give a fig for orderly obedience.

 

The rain began not long after that. Alice shivered in her dress, struggling to hold up her sopping skirt and petticoats. The pace increased. Alice kept a tight grip on Cora’s arm, blinking rapidly to keep the water out of her eyes. But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you , Alice told herself. It was not a heavy rain, and she tried to find the spirit to thank God for such a mercy. Instead, her mind turned back to the ambush on the road, wondering why the Lord had allowed those poor soldiers to be butchered and scalped. She shivered, more from the remembrance of that dripping flesh than any chill in the air. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding , Alice tried again. Instead, her spirit mocked her with the remembrance of the screams. She closed her eyes, pressing her lips into a firm line.

 

“Alice?”

 

Alice started, looking at her sister. She must have let her mind wander for too long as Cora was studying her in concern. “I am fine, Cora,” she said, trying to sound reassuring. Even to her own ears, her voice sounded weak. They reached the caves before the rain began to truly pour, and Alice tried to be grateful for the small mercy. Tucked back, far from its mouth, Alice huddled with her sister as the men began to start a fire. Duncan had immediately given Cora his redcoat, apologetic that he had only one jacket to give. Cora bristled and immediately wrapped the woolen coat around Alice as if her own teeth were not chattering. Alice leaned her head against her sister’s shoulder, and clasped her hand with a squeeze. Duncan’s coat would do little to keep her warm with so many layers of sodden skirts about her legs and there was no need for Cora to take umbrage over something so minor. Duncan frowned, and Alice found herself dissatisfied with his incessant tendency to check her sister. If anything, she had expected him to admire Cora’s strength in adversity, as Alice had felt envy for such fortitude many times since the attack.

 

Once the fire had been stoked, Alice and Cora approached, hoping closer proximity to the blaze would help their clothes dry quicker in the damp of the cave. Alice took a moment to peer out into the darkness of the forest, clenching her teeth together to keep from chattering. Their scout – this Magua who had attacked them – had escaped. Would he follow the party to try again? Weakly, Alice let herself slide to the floor, pulling her legs up to rest her head on her knees. She felt utterly helpless and with her faith shaken. Papa would not have sent for them if it was unsafe. Where did matters go so wrong? A warm hand rested at the crown of her head, and Alice jerked her head upright to see Uncas looking down at her. Alice blinked, noticing Cora on the other side of the flames, hands on her hips and ready to distract herself with a squabble. Alice sighed and wearily refocused her attention on Uncas.

 

“Try to sleep. I will keep watch,” he told her, voice mild and low.

 

Alice swallowed the lump in her throat. It felt like her heart gave a giant throb at the promise of safety. “Thank you,” she whispered and lowered her head back to her knees. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the sound of the crackling fire, pushing away worries as they came to her mind. Eventually, she dropped off into a deep sleep, too tired to notice Cora eventually curl up beside her. She did not see Uncas’ frequent looks of admiration through the night, despite her tangled hair and muddy skirts. She did not see the wry twist to Nathaniel’s mouth when he looked at his brother, or Duncan’s many displeased frowns. All she saw, when she awoke, was Uncas in the same place he had been when she went to sleep, this time scanning the forest at dawn’s first light. He had watched over her all night.