Historical Romance Novel Through the Fire is revised and relaunched!
June 1758, the Colonial Frontier, the Allegheny Mountains of Western Virginia
Reining in her mare, Rebecca Elliot patted its heated neck and gazed up at the blue-green ridges looming above her like the storm swells of an uncharted sea. The primal beauty of the Alleghenies awed her unlike anything else she had ever seen. Still, the breathtaking grandeur couldn’t overcome her gnawing apprehension, in spite of the two dozen frontiersmen riding in a protective phalanx on every side. Mountains were decidedly wilderness and as unfamiliar to her as might be caverns hidden deep within the earth. Even the scent was different here, an earthy musk as ancient as the giant chestnuts, and older.
A bird’s high-pitched cry shrilled overhead. Rebecca glanced up to see a red-tailed hawk plummet through the blue. She caught her breath as it snatched a hapless dove on the wing. Buff-colored feathers exploded in a small cloud, then, nothing. Limp dove in its talons, the hawk flew out of sight.
Chills prickled down her spine. How swiftly it had killed. What other predators lurked in this ocean of trees, and what did they regard as prey? The stout walls of the log cabin she’d passed by earlier seemed a haven; a sturdy fort would be safer still. The sooner they arrived at Fort Warden, the better.
Urging her mare into a canter, she caught up with her younger sister, Kate, riding just ahead of her. The winding road narrowed as it climbed into the mountains. Soon the whole company had slowed, forced to ride single file.
High above the rutted trail, the tree branches met in a sun-dappled arch, charming if this leafy canopy were lining the stately avenue to a grand estate. As it was, Rebecca felt cut off from every vestige of civilization. Wasn’t that what she’d wanted, though, to escape her past and start a new life in the frontier?
No turning back now. Going forward was challenging enough with branches snagging her skirts. Rebecca freed her hem only to have a limb grab her wide-brimmed straw hat as she ducked beneath, pulling its ribbons tightly enough to choke under her chin. Halting the mare, she tugged at the satin ties, arching in the sidesaddle to disentangle her hat.
“Easy, Ma’am,” Lieutenant McClure cautioned in low tones from behind. He guided his roan horse alongside hers. “Allow me.”
“My pleasure, Mrs. Elliot.”
She studied the young officer in his homespun shirt, breeches, and worn riding boots. The angle of his firm jaw, roughened with brown whiskers, reminded Rebecca of her late husband, John. But no man could be as handsome as her English captain, she thought, with the familiar ache.
Lieutenant McClure freed her hat and handed it to her. “Best leave it in your lap and keep your skirts tucked up.”
Nodding, she smoothed back tendrils of blond hair that slipped loose from the knot at the nape of her neck. “Tell me, does this first rise have a name?” To know it would make this strange land seem somewhat tamed.
His watchful gray eyes met hers. “Shenandoah, Ma’am. Like the valley.”
Roads running through the lush valley had led them here. “I’m told Shenandoah means Daughter of the Stars. Such a lovely name.”
His mouth tightened. “Suppose so. It’s Indian.”
“God, I hope not,” he muttered. Holding a finger to his lips, he waved them on.
Rebecca didn’t expect further conversation. Lieutenant McClure had warned her at the outset to speak seldom and then to keep her voice soft.
In contrast to his wary silence, a gold warbler chattered merrily as it darted from branch to branch until it disappeared among the leaves. Her eyes lingered on the mountain laurel trailing rosy blooms into fern-filled shadows. Rays of sunshine streamed through breaks in the trees to touch the nodding heads of red and yellow columbine, bright daises, plumy white goat’s beard, and blue phlox. Everywhere iridescent wings fluttered from blossom to blossom. The woods were reminiscent of an abandoned garden she’d once wandered, tenacious flowers competing with brambles for the patchy sunlight.
The militiamen in the lead slowed suddenly before a large black bear lumbering across the path not far ahead, its paws as big as plates and lustrous fur thicker than any fine coat. It glanced their way, then, thankfully, moved on and sent a flock of wild turkeys flapping from the laurel thicket. Rebecca steadied her nervous mare. This was not some idyllic garden. Nor could the dazzling beauty relieve her growing fatigue. Legs and back aching, she shifted uncomfortably in the saddle.
Kate turned and furrows creased her smooth brow under the glossy brown hair peaking from a lace cap. “Are you dreadfully weary?” she asked softly.
“A bit. I’m not the horsewoman you are. I prefer a coach, despite its jounces.”
“Perhaps we’ll make camp early,” Kate offered.
“Not if yesterday’s journey is the standard to judge by.” Several hours of daylight yet remained. These soldiers would not pause until dusk, and Rebecca had promised not to slow their pace. A promise she was coming to regret.
“I’ll manage, dearest.” Somehow, she always had.
She looked beyond Kate to the soldiers guiding their mounts over the rocky trail. What did this rugged militia, sent to reinforce Fort Warden, think of the two unescorted English ladies traveling under their protection? No one had said anything. Some even cast occasional admiring glances their way, especially Lieutenant McClure. Still, he must have his suspicions. They all must.
The women at Fort Loudoun in Winchester had worn simple short gowns, over plain or checked petticoats with little adornment, while Rebecca’s blue and Kate’s green gowns were expertly tailored of the finest linen. She knew their dress was inappropriate for a trek into the frontier, but none of the more formal gowns left behind in leather bound trunks were any better suited. She had to admit the mannish riding habit Kate had wanted to wear would have been a wiser choice.
How far away Philadelphia seemed now and London unspeakably distant. Was she mad bringing her sweet sister into this remote place to seek an uncle they barely remembered?
Whatever lay ahead couldn’t be worse than the life she and Kate had left behind. Still, doubt plagued Rebecca as the company rode into a grassy clearing among the trees. Grazing deer lifted their heads in the soft evening light and bounded away on slender legs. Undisturbed by the troops’ arrival, a thrush high up in the boughs trilled its liquid song. A fair spot to make camp—
Militiamen struck by the deadly hail of lead shot screamed out. Some slumped over their horses. Others tumbled to the ground. Wounded men writhed in the crushed grass, their piteous cries in her ears, while the dead lay where they’d fallen, crimson stains pooling beneath them.
“Dear God!” Rebecca cried, wheeling her frightened mare toward Lieutenant McClure.
He snatched the musket from his shoulder. “Stay low in the saddle!” he yelled, leaping from his horse.
Heart in her throat, she scoured the dense foliage for the hidden menace.
Other soldiers scrambled to the ground to meet the unseen foe, but Rebecca and Kate crouched in their saddles fighting to control their skittish mounts. Another volley of shots flung more men to the grass. Acrid gun smoke filled the clearing as bloodcurdling war cries rent the air. Nothing could have prepared Rebecca for such an enemy. Elusive as ghosts one minute, a second later, half naked warriors swept from the trees.
Those soldiers still able to stand fired into the surging tide, bloodying one brave’s shoulder, grazing another’s leg. Lieutenant McClure planted himself before the two women, musket leveled. He fired, hurling one warrior back, but had no time to reload. Wounded men heaved themselves up from the grass, long knives raised to strike at their attackers. Most fell swiftly under the brutal tomahawks. Rebecca cringed as the blows rained down on them. Sightless eyes stared up. The stench of battle filled her nose.
She gaped in horror through the haze of gun smoke—the taste of burnt powder in her mouth—then shrieked as a warrior tore straight at her and Kate.
Lieutenant McClure threw down his musket, grasped his own tomahawk and charged the brave. “Get out of here, Mrs. Elliot!” Then he disappeared, swallowed up by the smoky chaos of clashing men and bolting horses.
“God help us, Kate!” Rebecca turned in a panic to her sister.
Kate sat wide-eyed and mute atop her mount, dazedly riveted on the warriors as they wielded bloody scalping knives and stripped hunting shirts and powder horns from the fallen men. Rebecca’s mare reared beneath her, eyes rolling, and she wrestled the reins for control. Staying in the saddle was their only hope. Kate’s big gelding was also frantic, but she checked him with the instinct born of superb expertise.
“Kate! Listen to me. We’re riding now! Give him his head! Go!” Rebecca’s shout sliced through the paralysis that gripped her sister.
Kate’s gelding sprang away, galloping past several riderless horses and two warriors who lunged at the reins. Bent low over the horse’s straining neck, she flew across the hazy clearing into the woods beyond.
Wrestling the reins, Rebecca turned her mare in the same direction. “Come on, girl!”
Bare arms outstretched, mouth gaping as he let loose a fierce war cry, a sinewy brave dove at her.
He wrenched it away and twisted a quick bunch of her skirts to rip her off the horse. Jerked down by the force, she clung to the saddle with one hand and smashed her fist up under his chin. His head snapped back and she raked his painted cheek with her fingernails. She kicked out for all she was worth and caught him on the chest. He stumbled back, surprise on his bloodied face.
She thrust trembling fingers into the saddlebag and pulled out a loaded pistol. She pointed the gleaming wooden barrel at him and cocked the hammer. “Get away!”
He jumped up and knocked her arm aside. The shot exploded uselessly overhead. The mare whinnied, dancing sideways, pitching like a ship. Rebecca clung shrieking to the sidesaddle. If she fell, she’d be trampled—or worse.
A soldier? Clinging to the sidesaddle, Rebecca turned and stared in shock at the powerful warrior running to her.
Black hair flying, he dodged a runaway horse. His long legs vaulted over downed soldiers as he shoved other warriors out of his path. “Naga! Ambelot!” Shouting alien words, he seized her assailant and flung him reeling over the grass. The lesser man lifted conciliatory hands and spun away.
Breathless, she met her champion’s black eyes. Did he truly think to help her, or was he just more determined than the other to yank her off? She might get off a clout to his jaw with the pistol butt before she fell.
He extended one hand toward her horse. “Easy. Steady.” The English words and his calm manner had a soothing effect on the frenzied mare. But only for an instant.
Triumphant cries of victory rose around them. The horse tossed her head and reared again, shod hooves pawing the air.
With a despairing cry, Rebecca flew from the saddle and tumbled to the unforgiving ground. Knocked nearly senseless, she lay in a fog. The riotous jubilation reached her as if from a distance. Vaguely, she sensed someone near.
“So fair you are,” a low voice said near her ear.
Strong arms lifted her, and she had the comforting sensation of being safe before blackness claimed her.~
*I’m on the lookout for historical images, especially Native American, but also 18th century America in general. I’ve bought everything istock has to offer, so if you are aware of a good source that’s for sale, please let me know.
***Historical romance novel Through the Fire is available in Amazon Kindle.
In the top ten Publisher’s Weekly BHB Reader’s Choice Best Books of 2009