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Judith E French

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AFTERMATH
“Will he be back?” Brandon asked.
Leah relaxed her bow and returned the arrow to its quiver. “I dinna think so. He didna know we were here.” She was trembling. “We must find water and a place . . .”
Brandon took the bow from her hands and leaned it against a tree.
“We have to . . .”
He shook his head.
“But . . .”
Brandon took her in his arms and kissed her. Shuddering, she clung to him, letting the fear drain out of her mind and body.
His lips were hard on hers. His tongue plunged into her mouth.
“Little Leah.” His words were a caress as his strong hands moved in slow, sensuous circles down her back. “I need you.” She sighed as reason fled and she was overwhelmed with the feeling that her muscles had turned to water.
Together, they sank onto the soft forest floor . . .
Books by Judith E. French
 
 
 
MOONFEATHER
 
HIGHLAND MOON
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Moonfeather
Judith E. French
eKENSINGTON
Kensington Publishing Corp.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For my mother,
M
ILDRED
F
AULKNER
B
ENNETT
,
with all my love.
Thank you.
PART 1
America
Prologue
Maryland Colony, Spring 1706
 
P
ale moonlight filtered through the thick canopy of tangled branches and whispering green leaves to illuminate the child’s tearstained face. “Father,” she pleaded in a soft, lisping tone. “Father, do not go and leave me.” Her small fingers grasped the folds of his faded tartan as she pressed herself tightly against him. “I know—”
“English, lassie,” Cameron prompted. “You know I dinna ken your Shawnee when ye cry.”
Smoothly, Moonfeather switched to fluent English, delivered with the burred accents of the heather-covered Scottish Highlands she had never seen. “I try nay t’ be bad, Papa. I promise I’ll be a good lass if ye stay.” Her lower lip quivered, and the tears that welled up in her huge, dark eyes spilled down the dimpled, honey-colored cheeks.
“Shhh, shhh,” he crooned, rocking her warm body against his chest. “Dinna think you are the reason, bairn. Never, never think it.” He swallowed hard, blinking back his own tears. “It breaks my heart to leave you, darlin’, but my place is across the sea with my own people.”
She buried her face in his neck. “Take me with ye, Papa. Please . . .”
“Nay.” Shaken, Cameron rose to his feet, unclasped his five-year-old daughter’s fingers, and held her at arm’s length. “’Twould break your mother’s heart, love. You are Shawnee, little Moonfeather. This unspoiled forest, this untamed wilderness—this is your world.” Gently, he lowered her to the ground and shook his head. “Ye’d nay be happy in my land.”
Her small hands perched defiantly on tiny hips, and her heart-shaped face took on a look of stubborn determination. “But ye said I be Scot . . . a Stewart, ye said. Leah Moonfeather Stewart, ye said to the black-frocked priest. He wrote it in his holy book when he sprinkled me with water.”
Cameron dropped to his knees, bringing his eyes level with hers. “Aye, that I did say,” he agreed, “and ’twas true. You are as much Scot as Shawnee, but . . .” He trailed off, fumbling with the chain around his neck.
The child stared wide-eyed as her father removed his pendant necklace and laid it across a rock. “Aiyee,” she hissed. Never had she seen him take it off before. Her mother had told her that it was powerful medicine. The amulet glittered in the moonlight . . . beckoning her.
Moonfeather held her breath and tiptoed close to see. She glanced up at her father for permission. He smiled, and she cautiously extended a delicate finger to touch the beautiful necklace. Suspended on the bronze chain was a flattened oval pendant, wider than the palm of her hand. Four linked sections were covered with strange designs etched into the beaten gold. Together, the pieces formed a giant eye, complete with staring pupil.
“The Eye of Mist,” Moonfeather whispered.
“Pictish gold,” Cameron said. “Made when the world was young and innocent . . . so my mother told me.” He drew his dirk from its embroidered sheath and laid the steel blade carefully against the top link that held the right section of the amulet to the whole, then bore down with all his weight.
The link parted and Moonfeather gasped. “Papa, no!”
Quickly he repeated the process with the lower length, then slid the triangular-shaped end piece off the chain. “Listen to what I tell you,” he said urgently. “Listen and remember well.” He slipped an arm around his daughter and pulled her so close she could feel the prickle of his beard against her cheek.
“The Eye of Mist has been handed down from mother to daughter in my mother’s family for two thousand years. I had no sister, so when my mother died, she gave the necklace to me to give to my true daughter.” He stared into the child’s almond-shaped obsidian eyes. “This is hard for you, I know, but you must try to understand. Do you remember that I told you I had another family across the sea . . . another daughter?”
Moonfeather nodded. “Aye, Papa, ye said I had a sister bigger than me.”
Cameron’s lips tightened into a thin line, and he drew in a deep, ragged breath. “If . . . if I give you all the necklace, there will be nothing for your sister.” He put the end section of the pendant into her tiny hand and squeezed tight. “My mother told me that the necklace is magic, and that I must tell you a secret. She said you must remember to tell your own daughter when you pass it on to her. Can you?”
“I swear to thee I shall remember,” she said solemnly, lapsing into the formal Shawnee tongue. “So long as the earth gives forth grass and the heaven rain.”
“The legend says that whosoever possesses the Eye of Mist shall be cursed and blessed. The curse is that you will be taken from your family and friends to a far-off land. The blessing is that you will be granted one wish. Whatever you ask you shall have—even unto the power of life and death.”
Her golden charm glowed hot in her fist. “If I get a wish, I want ye t’ stay with Mama and me forever and ever,” Moonfeather proclaimed stoutly.
Cameron chuckled. “The wish is not for the bairn ye be, but for the woman ye will become. The Eye of Mist will not work for a wee lassie like yourself.” He kissed the soft fringe of hair on her forehead beneath her beaded headband. “Like as not, the legend is no more than tales told around a winter fire—just a story, no more.”
Moonfeather uncurled her hand and stared at the gleaming amulet. “When I am big, I’ll wish ye home again.”
“Aye,” he answered hoarsely. “Do that, little Moonfeather. And mayhap, if the magic be strong enough, your wish will come true.”
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness.
Song of the Sky Loom Tewa—
Native American
Chapter 1
Maryland Colony, Summer 1720
 
M
oonfeather moved from the shadows of her wigwam into the glow of the orange-red firelight, then slipped silently beneath the overhanging boughs of the ancient cedar tree. No one glanced her way; no one took note of the sleek hickory bow clenched in her left hand—or of the feathered shaft she notched into the bowstring. All eyes were on the fierce, painted warriors that circled the captive bound to the blackened stake in the center of the clearing and on the victim—the hated
Englishmanake
who would soon writhe in the flames of Shawnee vengence.
War drums muted the thud of pounding feet as the young men danced and chanted themselves into a white-hot frenzy. Already the women had gathered their children, retreating to the shelter of their darkened wigwams, covering the little ones with blankets despite the heat of the summer night, trying futilely to shut out the chilling war whoops that resounded through the encampment.
Moonfeather’s intense gaze was focused on her yellow-haired enemy. The Englishman faced his tormentors bravely, refusing to cry out, despite the blood that trickled down his half-naked body from a dozen wounds—despite the threat of a steel war axe hurled into the post beside his head by a howling Delaware brave.
Unconsciously, she swallowed the lump that knotted the back of her throat and moistened her dry lips with her tongue. Moonfeather had witnessed a man’s death by burning once before, and the sights and sounds had haunted her dreams. It was a cruel death, even for an
Englishmanake
.
Pity for the prisoner clouded her vision, and she blinked back tears. The man bound so tightly to the tree of death was tall and well muscled, a young man in his prime. She could not see the color of his eyes, but the taunts of the war party echoed in her ears. “Sky Eyes!” they called him. She drew in a ragged breath, remembering the vivid blue of her father’s eyes.
Heedless of her own safety, Moonfeather raised the bow and drew back the arrow. A brave man, even an enemy, deserves a warrior’s death, she thought. Such courage should not earn the agony of crackling flames. I would do as much for a dying wolverine.
In the split second between her decision to end the war party’s sport and the release of her arrow, the captive turned his head in her direction. His defiant gaze met hers, and in that heartbeat of time, Moonfeather’s compassion conquered her common sense. She raised the bow a fraction of an inch and let the feathered shaft fly.
The arrow sped past a startled Delaware brave’s ear and grazed a furrow along the prisoner’s neck as it plunged into the post. The Delaware screamed in rage and whirled toward the unseen bowman. The war drums stopped.
Head high, Moonfeather stepped from the shelter of the cedar and walked slowly across the hard-packed earth toward the prisoner, bow in hand.
The Delaware raised his fist in anger at the intruder. “Whose woman is this?” he cried. “To interfere with—”
A Shawnee warrior laid a hand on the Delaware. “Take care, brother,” he cautioned. “She is no ordinary woman.”
Moonfeather’s almond-shaped eyes narrowed in silent warning as she slung the bow across her back. The force of her gaze struck the Delaware. Fishmouthed, gasping for air, he stepped back to let her pass.
The captive raised his head to stare at the slight figure in fringed white buckskins coming toward him through the circle of warriors. Firelight illuminated her heart-shaped face, her dark, waist-length braids, and the glittering gold pendant suspended around her neck.
A gray-haired Shawnee brave challenged the woman loudly. “What do you do here? This is not your affair,
equiwa.
This man has been tried by the council and sentenced to death by burning.”
Moonfeather stepped past the grizzled warrior and stopped directly in front of the prisoner. For a long minute, she stared into his face, her own features as expressionless as though she were carved of rose granite. Then she laid a small hand on the arrow that protruded beside his head and glanced back at the crowd. “I claim this man,” she stated clearly in Algonquian. “By my right as widow, I claim him as my own.” She turned again to the captive and spoke in English for his benefit. “I take ye, Englishman,” she said, “as my husband. Will ye accept, or do ye choose to wed the flames of hell instead?”
The prisoner blinked and tried to form words with his cracked lips. “Do . . . do I look mad?” he croaked. “I’d take that”—he raised his chin in the direction of the scowling Delaware brave—“that painted devil to wife if it would cut me loose from this stake.”
Heated shouts of “No” and “She has no right” rose from the warriors as they pressed tightly around the prisoner. A lone drummer beat a frenzied rhythm, then let his drum fall silent.
One brave pushed his yellow and black painted face close to Moonfeather’s and delivered a volley of insults laced with English curses. She ignored him, and within seconds an older warrior seized the young man by the arm, berated him loudly, and dragged him away.
The gray-haired leader who had spoken earlier raised his hand for silence, and the protests faded to a muted grumbling. “Are you men or beasts,” the warrior demanded, “that you would forget the law?” He turned hooded eyes on Moonfeather. “You claim this man to take the place of your husband who fell in battle?”
She cast her gaze demurely down toward the toes of the honored speaker’s quill-worked moccasins.
“Kihiila.”
“Louder, that all may hear,” he commanded.
She raised her head. “I, Nibeeshu Meekwon, Leah Moonfeather Stewart of the Wolf Clan, take this captive as husband. My claim is greater than the stake. Give him to me, or risk the wrath of Inu-msi-ila-fe-wanu.”
 
An hour later, Robert Wescott, Viscount Brandon, only son and heir of the Earl of Kentington, lay facedown on the floor of Moonfeather’s wigwam with his hands tied behind him. Blood oozed from the fresh gash on his neck and from the wound to his head. Welts on his arms and legs ached, and his bones felt as though he’d survived three score years instead of barely half that.
Lifting his head required a major effort, one Brandon wasn’t certain he was up to. It was easier just to lie there and try to suppress the waves of dizziness that assailed him. His mouth and throat were dry, and he longed to ask the woman for water when she came back into the hut, but if she gave it to him, he was certain he’d shame himself by vomiting all over her deerskin rug.
Brandon swallowed, trying to quell the queasiness in his stomach. It’s been a hell of a day, he thought caustically, and I’ll venture it’s going to be a hell of a night.
He tried to remember why the idea of coming to America had seemed a good one. His father had suggested it. “To keep you out of trouble, boy,” the old earl had said. Naturally, his father had been furious about the scandal with Lady Anne, and nothing Brandon said could persuade him that it was more idle gossip than fact. Worse, the lady’s husband was kin to King George. The lovely Anne, and even the danger from the king, seemed inconsequential compared to those howling savages outside the hut. What would you say if you could see me now, Father?
Someone pulled back the deerhide that covered the entranceway, and a ribbon of firelight spilled across the hut. Brandon opened his eyes in time to see the woman’s form outlined against the flames. An armed warrior stood close behind her.
Brandon’s muscles tensed. If they’ve changed their minds and want to make me the main course at supper, they’re going to have a hell of a fight on their hands. His hands clenched into tight fists as he strained at the rawhide bonds. Sweat poured down his face; the salt stung his raw scrapes and bruises, but he paid no heed to the pain. He pulled his knees up under him. If he could just get to his feet.
“Nay,
Englishmanake,”
the soft voice admonished. “Be still. I’ve not come t’ harm ye. Are your wits addled that ye’ve forgotten so soon? I’ve taken ye as husband. You’ll meet nay death this night, ’less ye be more stupid than ye look.”
“You do speak English,” he rasped. I wondered if I’d imagined it, he thought.
“Aye, I do.” Her voice was low and clear, the Scottish accent oddly enhanced by a musical cadence.
Brandon felt as though he had wandered into a mad ward at Bedlam. The exotic beauty before him looked like a savage, but her voice was that of a gently bred Edinburgh lady. “You’re not Scottish.”
“Nay. I am Shawnee.” She dropped to her knees and fumbled with something in the darkness. Seconds later a spark sprang to life. She blew gently, and Brandon heard a faint swish and a crackle. Brandon recoiled as a flame leaped up in the fire pit inches from his face. Moonfeather patiently fed a few pieces of wood into the flames. “My father was a Scot,” she explained. “I learned your tongue from him as a bairn and later from Alex.”
Brandon struggled to a sitting position. “I owe you thanks for saving my life, m’lady.”
“It is not saved yet,” she warned, rising to her feet and brushing off her hands. “There are many who would like to hang thy yellow scalp fra’ their lodgepole.” She circled the fire and crouched warily before him. “I will untie ye as soon as I am certain ye will do nothing stupid. Two warriors wait outside wi’ full quivers of arrows. If ye try t’ escape, they will kill ye. Do ye ken,
Englishmanake?”
“I’m not certain I could stand, let alone walk.” God, but his head ached. He felt as though he’d been run over by the London mail-coach. Waves of nausea made him faint. “You’re safe . . . safe enough in untying me,” he managed hoarsely.
She sighed. “My English name is Leah. In nineteen summers Alex has not learned to say my Shawnee name properly. It is best if ye call me Leah.” She extended a hand toward his battered face, then pulled it back. “I will tend your hurts when I can.”
“You need not fear me m’la—Leah. I’ve never harmed a woman yet.” He exhaled softly. “So long as you don’t try to slice the hair from my head, I won’t start now.”
“If you try to hurt me—if I utter a single cry—they”—she motioned toward the entrance—“would cut ye t’ pieces. Slowly . . . very slowly.” Her expression grew solemn. “Ye must believe me, Sky Eyes. I dinna trust ye—and I know ye dinna trust me, but I am your only hope of seeing tomorrow’s sunrise.”
“Why?”
She ignored his question. “Where were you two moons . . . two months ago?” she corrected. “Were you among the English soldiers who attacked the camp of our cousins the Delaware, beside the Sweet Water? Were you one of the white men who burned women and old people in their wigwams? Did you crush the heads of Delaware babies to save your musket balls?”
Brandon’s mouth tasted of ashes. “No,” he replied honestly. “Two months ago I was in Annapolis, beside the Chesapeake, and I wish to God I was still there.”
She stared at him intently for several minutes, then nodded. “Ye tell the truth. I’d know if ye lied.”
“How would you know?”
She sniffed daintily. “A liar gives off the scent of evil.” Moving behind him, she began to untie the leather thongs that bound his wrists. “Rub your hands together,” she ordered when he was free. She retreated to the far side of the fire. “Quick, before the pain comes.”
He did as she told him, as common sense would decree, but the numbness in his hands gave way to agony as blood surged into his cramped fingers. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he clenched his teeth together to hold back the moans that rose in his throat.
“There has been peace between us and the English for two winters,” Leah said softly as she unhooked a basket from its peg along the far wall. “Most of the Delaware braves were hunting a bear. They thought the village was safe because many of the people in it had converted to Christianity. Forty-one were slain, forty-two if you count the unborn babe that was cut from his mother’s belly.” Her voice grew hard. “The English soldiers did not kill the young women right away. They left their bodies one by one beside the trail when they were done with them.”
Brandon shut his eyes. “I tell you I was in Annapolis. I know nothing about this . . . this atrocity. I’m not a rapist, and I’m not a murderer.”
“If I thought ye were, I would have lit the wood at your feet myself,” she answered coldly.
He continued to rub his hands and wrists. The pain was easing now, the numbness slowly dissipating. “We heard nothing in the Chesapeake colonies about war on the frontier.”
She made a small sound of derision. “Perhaps the death of forty-two
savages
is not important to the English king.”
“You can’t blame me for what the soldiers did.”
She sighed again. “No. And ye canna blame me for the warriors’ anger. In war, many suffer. Will ye weep for those four who were with you?”
Brandon’s eyes snapped open. “Hayden, Lynch, and the others? They’re dead?”
“Aye. They did not die well.”
“Damn.” He shuddered inwardly. Scum they were and common thieves, but he’d not wished their deaths at the hands of these savages. He’d wanted to kill them himself; he’d fought, but there were just too many. He’d managed to land a few good punches to the ringleader’s face before they’d beaten him insensible. Brandon supposed that Lynch had carried the marks of his fists to his death. “I hired Lynch and the other three to guide me into this country. A man in Annapolis said they were experienced woodsmen.” Brandon shook his head slowly. “I was a fool to trust them. They jumped me when I was asleep, beat me, and left me for dead. They took the horses and the muskets and everything I had.”
The gold could be replaced once he got back to Annapolis—if he lived to get back. But my surveying equipment . . . By the bloody wounds of Christ! I’ll not find the match of those instruments in America.
Leah held out a tiny wooden dipper. “Drink this. I do not know what it is called in English, but it will dull the pain.”
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