The shrieking cry sprang from the doorway of the weather-blown cottage.
Grace smoothed a strand of honey-blond hair back beneath her starched cap. She brushed her hands on her apron and grabbed the twisted basket beside her. Tucking in the vegetables she had dug up from their little garden, Grace hurried back towards the house.
"Yes mother?" Grace said breathlessly as she entered the dark kitchen where her mother stood, bent over the cookfire. The older woman looked up at her daughter's approach.
"Grace, I need a basket of blackberries this instant," she took the one Grace held and replaced it with an empty one. "If I am to finish this pie in time for our guests this evening, I need those berries now." She looked into her eldest daughter's face. "Why do you tarry? Make haste, child!" she cried. Grace jumped and nodded quickly before fleeing out the door.
"Grace!" Charity, the youngest of Grace's sister's cried out, pausing in her pursuit of a young turkey she was to be feeding.
"Oh, Charity no," Grace cried in dismay when she realized her sibling's foolery. "What do you do there? Stop this instant! You know you aren't to vex the animals! Father will punish you if you do not cease!" She reached out and grabbed her sister, pulling her away from the frenzied bird. Charity let out a whimper. "Grace stop, you're hurting me!" Yet, not until the two had returned to the house did Grace relax her grip.
"Now, go and tell mother what you have done. Then you must kneel and pray for the sin you committed and ask for God's mercy."
Charity's brown eyes turned wide. She smeared a tear across a plump, dirty cheek.
Grace's face did not soften. "Go now." She pointed towards the door and Charity scurried inside.
With shaky hands, Grace smoothed her skirts and hurried toward the forest.
The rich smell of pine trees overwhelmed Grace as she walked deeper into the thick wood. The air was quiet. Grace paused for a moment at a break in the trees where two narrow beams of sunlight split the needled canopy. She closed her eyes, letting the warmth heat her skin, the still rawness of her surroundings calm her nervous mind.
Her life was unsuitable for the weak of heart and limb. Her hands were calloused and her skin freckled. She, like the others, battled this yet-nascent land for survival while rules of propriety and holiness dominated her mind and soul. For her family and for the keeping of peace, Grace followed each commandment with discipline and commitment. In return, her father and mother respected her, her peers praised her, and the townsfolk hailed her as an example for their own children. She should have been content. She should have rejoiced at the achievements her abnegations had brought. Yet, for so many years a blackish, latent humor abided deep within her, a guarded vaporous element residing within the darkest marrow of her bones. One that even the most earnest of prayers could not entirely reveal nor purge from her spirit...
Grace shook her head of the devilish musings and picked up her step.
Finally, she reached a small thicket where the small, dusky berries clustered abundantly, easy to pick. Setting down her small basket, Grace loosened the lacings on her tight cap and knelt to her task. Juice seeped out from the swollen, inky globes, staining her fingers and creeping underneath the white crescents of her nails. She sighed, knowing that she would have to scrub till her knuckles were red in order to remove the signs of unseemliness and ungodliness from her wicked hands. Fortunately, she and her mother had made a small batch of lye soap only a few days prior that was more than ready to be put to use. Chaffed hands were a small price to pay in light of the lashing she would receive with soiled fingers.
Suddenly, a curious noise sounded from the trees. Her violet-blue eyes shot up from her fingers and swiftly scanned the foliage around her looking for anything amiss, any movement or rippling shadow.
Taking a deep, reassuring breath, Grace turned back to the berries, hurrying to finish and leave the place. Unfortunately, her shaking hands were no help and soon dark spots not only stained her hands, but her dress too. Grace choked back a wave of nausea as she envisioned the wrath her mother would bring down upon her head for such carelessness.
At last, most of the berries had been plucked and more than enough for two pies filled her small basket. At least her mother should be pleased with this amount, despite her mess and the lamentable length of time the task had taken.
Just before she was about to rise and leave Grace glimpsed one last berry, plumper than the rest, winking at her from deep within the bush. Loathe to leave the place without the sweet prize, Grace pursed her lips and nimbly stuck her small hand deep into the leaves to retrieve the hiding fruit.
She grinner ruefully when she pulled her clenched hand from the thicket, the glistening trophy resting delicately in her palm. She reached for her basket but fumbled when another strange, rustling sound struck her ears.
Grace jerked her head up and stifled a scream with one hand as her own widened eyes came face to face with another, darker pair set in the brown-skinned visage of an man. Grace's heart began to pound as she sat, still as possible, desperately praying she would not be killed.
The man above her was leaning over the thicket, watching her intently. Grace felt all the blood drain from her cheeks and lips as she realized he surely had been standing less than a few feet from her, gazing for who knew how long upon her unknowing form. The hair at the crown of her head tingled as she remembered a scalp she had once seen as a child. It had hung from the leather belt of a slayed savage whose bloodied form had been paraded through the town commons as warning. Its puckered skin and knotted length of hair sheared from a local farmer her father had spoken with a month before. The sight had haunted her dreams for many weeks to follow.
Grace swallowed, willing the image away, and watched as the man's dark eyes scanned her colorless face, her dark homespun dress, the forgotten basket of berries. Suddenly the man took a step closer and bent down. Grace steeled herself for a killing blow, but instead of bringing a length of sharp metal to her rigid neck, his hand reached out empty, lightly lifting a strand of her yellow hair from her cheek. She held her breath as he gently rubbed it between two fingers.
It seemed an eternity passed as the man stroked the tiny strands so unlike his own thick black mane. Grace soon felt her breathing return and, though shallow, she soon began to entertain the idea that perhaps the man meant her no immediate harm.
Fervently praying she was not mistaking the intent of his tender attentions, Grace closed her eyes and mustered up the grain of quivering strength to which she clung. "Please…If you don't mind, sir. I…I wish to be left alone." She said directly but with a trembling voice she cursed even as it left her lips. The native seemed to not understand her words, yet he sensed her discomfort. Respectfully he let his hand drop back to his side.
Grace opened her eyes once more, hope of escape blooming within her chest."Th…thank you." She whispered hoarsely. The native merely stared.
Grace remained as still and steadfast as a stone weighing her next move. Run? She was not sure her legs could hold her weight standing let alone in a fleeing departure. Scream? If she did scream, who knew if there were others standing near waiting for this man's signal to attack? He had been calm and merely inquisitive thus far, but a scream could incite a panic, resulting in a swift hatchet to her skull. No, even if it meant a few moments longer in the presence of this strange individual, she could not scream.
She looked back up and carefully met his eyes, feeling akin to a young doe meeting the unyielding gaze of a majestic yet deadly wolf. The man's brown orbs glimmered in the sunlight that slanted through the tree branches overhead and Grace instantly noticed the amount of gold that streamed in curving lines from the tiny black iris at the center of his left eye, unequal to that of his right.
Suddenly a cardinal's high-pitched chirp sounded from nearby and Grace nearly lost her balance as their locked gazes broke. The man's eyes darted to the place the trill had sprung from, narrowing to seek out the exact position of the crimson bird.
This was her opportunity to run, but she found her gaze unwilling to unfetter itself from his yet-threatening form, Grace swiftly took in the full length of the distracted native. His skin, she noticed, was a reddish brown. Yet, across his shoulders, arms and the lower part of his face the skin was painted in different, darker pigments. His hair was raven and glossy, shaved on one side of his head and separated only by a thick mohawk that ran down the center of his bronzed crown. The rest was secured by a length of soft leather and from it hung two large eagle feathers that fluttered in the soft breeze. His tinkling necklace also caught her attention and with a barely-suppressed gasp she realized it was made up of ivory animal teeth. Their bleached color stood in stark contrast to his copper chest.
With a start, Grace realized her gaze had been lingering overlong on the sinewy lines of his stomach, shoulders, and forearms. A flood of embarrassed heat crept up from her chest along her throat, spilling into her cheeks and forehead.
Suddenly the man above her moved, as if he sensed her discomfort, and her eyes snapped back to his face. He paused and looked at her one last time before turning away and silently escaping back into the forest.
Grace's mouth opened in surprise and, to her complete confusion, protest. The space he had once occupied so completely, now appeared before her as if untouched.
Grace waited unmoving for a clutch of heartbeats abstractly wondering if the native would return and, though it baffled and unsettled her, half-hoping he would. He did not. Still keeping her eyes locked on the trees before her, Grace let out a quaking breath and reached up to her fluttering white collar, smoothing it in the breeze that had begun to blow earnestly. She felt the frantic thump beneath her palm and tried desperately to quiet it.
With fingers still quivering, she leaned forward to retrieve her basket of berries. She marveled then at how the task she had found so consuming mere minutes ago now seemed somehow so very insignificant.
Gingerly, Grace hoisted herself up from the ground, her legs feeling weak and numb beneath her. She smoothed her skirts and threaded her arms through the basket's handle then finally turned to leave the thicket. It took more than a few steps until all the feeling returned to her feet as they carried her back towards the settlement.
As her leather boots left light prints in the soil a fly-away strand of hair flew across her face, yet for the first time Grace made no move to restrain it. Instead, she let it curl and twist freely in the breeze tickling her cheek all the while remembering how the painted man had held it so very gently between his fingers.