Mild breezes caressed Rebecca’s face, wafting the tang of wood smoke and the meaty aroma of roasting venison, nudging her from a place of no dreams. Water gurgled over stones. She must lie near a stream. Earthy humus cushioned her beneath, and a woolen blanket covered her. She traced the cloth with her fingertips. The ache in her head made it hard to think.
Groaning softly, she opened her eyes to the branches of a great oak silhouetted against the saffron sky. Sunset. How had she come to be lying sore and bruised on the forest floor? Was Kate here?
Men’s voices drew her. She strained to understand their words. Bewildered and frightened, she shifted gingerly onto her side, peering through smoky shadows at a series of campfires.
All heads turned, and a host of dark eyes glinted at her. She went rigid with dread, her heart pounding. She was as good as dead. Why did she yet live?
After an agonizing moment, the men resumed their banter, some smoking pipes. One tall warrior rose from the cluster seated around the nearest campfire. His muscular body was clad only in an elk skin breechclout, blue cloth leggings, and buckskin moccasins that reached well up his calves; the same skins fashionable men wore with a far more primitive use. A sheathed knife hung from the woven belt at his waist. He’d slung a tomahawk at his side. The blade protruded above his belt and the carved handle below, ready to grasp in an instant.
She watched him intently. Her life hung on his every move. But he didn’t reach for either weapon. Rather, he bent to dip a cupful of steaming liquid from the kettle near the fire then walked to her. Icy fingers clenched, every muscle taut, she stared up at him. Even without dry-mouthed fear, her eyes would have been fastened on this formidable male, like some New World god sprung from this wild land. A shudder coursed through her rigid body as he knelt beside her.
“I’ll not harm you,” he said.
His assurance in clear English took her by surprise. Not only that, but there was a familiar quality about his face, his voice. Striving to remember, she searched every contour: eyes as black as a night without stars, high cheekbones, sculpted nose, strong chin. His lightly tanned skin was unstreaked by red and black paint. No silver cones hung from his ears. No ornament pierced his nose. Instead of the scalp lock worn by most braves, his black hair hung loose around his shoulders.
She shifted her gaze to the muscled planes of his bare chest, an eye-opening sight for a woman accustomed to long-sleeved shirts, waistcoats, and cravats. She let her eyes drop lower. His narrow breechclout revealed a great deal of masculine thighs. She hurriedly returned her widened stare to his dark scrutiny. Gaping at a man, even a potentially deadly warrior, wasn’t her nature.
For a moment, he simply looked at her. What lay behind those penetrating eyes?
He held out the cup. “Drink this.”
Did he mean to help her? She’d heard hideous stories of warriors’ brutality, but also occasionally of their mercy. She tried to sit, moaning at the effect this movement had on her aching body. She sank back down.
Weren’t deadly herbs acrid? Dear Lord. Had he tricked her into downing a fatal brew? She eyed him accusingly. “’Tis poison.”
He arched one black brow. “No. It’s good medicine. Will make your pain less.”
Unconvinced, she clamped her mouth together.
“I will drink. See?” he said, and took a swallow.
She parted her lips just wide enough to argue. “It may take more than a mouthful to kill.”
He regarded her through narrowing eyes. “You dare much.”
Though she knew he felt her tremble, she met his piercing gaze. If he were testing her, she wouldn’t waver.
His sharp expression softened. “Yet you have courage.” Setting the cup aside, he lifted his hand to her head.
She hardly dared to breathe.
He loosened the remains of her knot and spilled her hair over her shoulders and down her back. Gold streaks shone in the firelight as he wound the abundant lengths around his fingers. “If I wished your death, fair one, you would already lie dead. Your scalp mine. I wish you to live. Drink now.”
His firm tone suggested that he wouldn’t tolerate further refusal. She drained the vile brew, wrinkling her nose. “What is this?”
“Tea from the bark of the tree you call willow. We give this to our injured.” He wrapped the navy blue blanket snugly around her. “You fell hard from the horse.”
Only a dim recollection of those final moments surfaced, but he stood out with growing clarity. “You brought me here?”
He gave a nod and stood.
She followed him with her eyes. “What is your name?”
“Shoka.” It rolled out in his quiet baritone.
He glanced at her with the ghost of a smile. “Mine now. I left your necklace.”
She patted at her throat for the locket, reassured to find the precious keepsake hanging just inside her bodice beneath the ivory kerchief tucked around her lacy neckline.
He scrutinized her with the barest hint of amusement in his dark eyes. “I could have taken it, your earrings, all.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Shoka made no reply, just left her to wonder as he strode back to his companions and the haunch of venison roasting over their fire. An older man, scarred and fierce, his braided scalp lock heavy with silver brooches, greeted him with disapproval. The scowl he fired at Rebecca made her cringe. If it were up to this warrior, she had no doubt she’d already lie dead, her bloody scalp in his possession.
A younger brave, however, regarded her with friendly curiosity. He rested his hand on Shoka’s broad shoulder and spoke to him, eliciting a smile and a response too soft to hear. The youth smiled in return. His face bore an appealing resemblance to Shoka’s. Were they brothers? Clearly, the younger man admired the warrior. He also wore his hair long, and his lean body was free of piercings and paint.
Laughter erupted from the larger gathering, the high spirits an evident result of their success against the militia. The war party’s injuries had been minimal, unlike the soldiers cut down in the clearing, left to wild animals.
Dearest Kate, what had become of her? How could Rebecca bear not knowing? Somehow, she must find her sister. Only she could aid Kate now that the militia had fallen. A pang of regret cut through Rebecca as she thought of Lieutenant McClure lying in the bloodied grass. Unwilling to look any longer upon the warriors’ revelry, she rolled onto her side facing the stream. Gradually, her inner turmoil diminished a little as the willow tea eased her physical pain, and woodland beauty soothed her wounded spirit.
Hues of green cloaked the trees like the softest mantle. Hay-scented fern carpeted the ground, drifting down the bank to the stream. If she blocked out the strange voices and listened only to the water spilling over stones as it rushed along and the call of night birds, she could almost pretend the attack hadn’t happened. Almost.
Pearly flowers glowed in the dusk. White, queen of the night, was the last color to fade as darkness enveloped the ridges. “God keep you, Kate. Forgive me,” she whispered.
The first stars somehow seemed closer here, peeking out from between the tossing branches. The cold settled in with the breezy night, and the blanket wasn’t enough to stop her from shivering. If only she had the cloak left in her saddlebag. At least Kate should still have provisions.
Rebecca startled at the touch of a hand on her shoulder.
She twisted to look at him. The flames at his back flickered over a tan hunting shirt overlapped in the middle and held together with his blue woven belt. Was the shirt his or torn from one of the militia? She saw no fresh bloodstains. “I didn’t hear you come.”
“Why should I wish you to hear?”
Panic fluttered in her chest as he slid his arms beneath her. She wanted to be no nearer the others, particularly that scarred warrior. “Wait. I’m not cold.”
“Your body does not agree with your words.”
“Even so. Let me remain here.”
“Warriors will not harm you.”
She pointed shakily at the scratched features of the brave who’d tried to yank her from the horse. “He would.”
Shoka snorted. “Amaghqua will trouble you no more,” he said and lifted her, blanket and all.
“Put me down! The others—”
“Will do you no evil.”
“No. Don’t take me any closer.”
“Do you think they do not see you? Not hear you?”
“You are foolish,” he said, and carried her out from beneath the tree.
“Leave me here, Shoka.”
He paused and pursed his lips as if considering her plea.
Surrounding warriors regarded them with the intensity of a wolf pack. The fierce warrior shot her a scorching look.
She threw her arms around Shoka’s neck, shrinking against her new protector. He smelled of wind, sun, and a masculine scent she found both attracting and oddly comforting.
“No nearer. No nearer.”
He pivoted and stepped back under the tree. “Eat first,” he relented and set her down against the trunk. Raising his arm, he beckoned to the young warrior she’d seen him with earlier. “Bring meat.”
The brave drew his knife and sawed off a hunk of venison. He skewered it on a sharpened stick and walked over to them, smiling shyly. “Take, lady,” he said, offering it to her.
Her stomach in knots, she held the spear in her fingertips. What was she to do with such an unwieldy chunk?
“Are you hungry?” Shoka asked.
“Some. Yes,” she whispered, beneath her gutclamping fear.
Shoka took the stick from her and waved the youth off. He trailed back to the others.
“Who is that brave?”
“Meshewa, the son of my uncle.” Shoka drew his knife and knelt beside her. He sliced a manageable piece, snagged it on his blade, and held it out to her, but kept a firm grip on the deerskin-wrapped handle. “Even a fine lady can chew this.”
Ignoring his sarcasm, she bit into the warm venison. The smoky meat tasted good, and she was emptier than she’d realized. She chewed, swallowed, and took another bite, all the while slanting glances at his dimly lit face. He’d saved her life and was her best hope of staying alive.
“Thank you, also for the willow. I am improved.”
Though he made no reply, she sensed her gratitude pleased him. “How is it that you speak English so well?”
“Not all warriors are ignorant of your tongue. I also speak Mohawk, Cherokee, Ojibwa, and French.” Scorn underlay his tone.
She refused to be put off. “Even so, there’s something highly unusual about you.”
“Ah. You know much of me?”
“You stand apart from the others.”
He swept his hand at the men. “I stand with my people.”
She pushed back the hair blowing across her eyes. “You have not always been with them.”
“No, clever one. Before we went to war, I was a guide for the English. They taught me much of English ways. A priest taught me the most.”
“You spent all that time with a priest, and you’re still doing these dreadful things? How can you fight your friends?”
He tensed beside her. “I have killed no friends.”
“Perhaps not, but you’ve battled many of their comrades. This war—” she shuddered, “—is terrible.”
“Have your eyes ever looked on battle?”
“Not like this.”
“This war is like others,” he said.
“It’s far worse. Your warriors kill women and children.”
“Not all. Many are taken captive and adopted. Do you even know who we are?”
“Your people have killed no one?” he countered.
“Not women and children.”
“You are certain?”
“You come from plenty. If all is taken from you, will you still speak this way? More and more settlers come, like birds covering the sky. If Shawnee do not fight, no land will remain. Where will we go then to hunt, to live?”
“I never thought—I know nothing. I’m a newcomer.”
Shoka sat back against the oak. “I see this.”
She chafed at his disdain. “I’m also English. If you’re so bent on killing us, why did you save my life?”
“I do not like to see a woman struck down. To make you my captive is better.”
He took a smooth stone from the fringed beaded pouch at his waist and slid his knife across it to sharpen the blade. “Tell me your name.”
“Rebecca Elliot,” she said, flinching at each scrape of the blade. She twisted the gold and onyx ring on her middle finger. “What will you do with me?”
He sliced another piece of venison and handed it to her. “Feed you. Keep you safe.”
She relaxed a little, a very little. “Is that all?”
“I mean—” she hesitated, “men usually require something more for their protection.”
“Ah.” He wiped his blade on a leaf and sheathed his knife.
She bit into the meat as he said, “I will not keep you with me. You will go to the French.”
~The French and Indian War, a Shawnee warrior, an English lady, blood vengeance, deadly pursuit, primal, powerful, passionate…
THROUGH THE FIRE~