Grace released a breath she had unconsciously been holding, then watched Tannicke's diminishing figure disappear from sight. Turning to the river's bank, she quickly slipped out of her soiled shift. As the evening chill swept briskly over her skin Grace felt utterly exposed and winced at the gooseflesh that rose up along her bared limbs. Yet, the air around her had mantled itself in a soft shroud of greys and violets providing her naked form a vaporous cloak as she stepped into the rippling water and sank herself deep into its murky depths.
Beneath the surface, Grace's fingertips skimmed over her body feeling each cut, bruise, and welt - cringing at their plenitude. As her palms ran across her ribs and hipbones she grimly realized how thin she had grown; how gaunt her already-slender figure had become.
Grace had never given much thought to her appearance as it was not customary for young Puritan maidens to focus on such vanities. However, as she felt the hollows around her bones she could only sadly assume her form mimicked that of a scarecrow as opposed to a hale, agreeable young woman.
As she smoothed a hand across the place where her heart resided, the image of Tannicke's lazy grin bestowed upon here mere moments ago sprang into her mind's eye. Immediately Grace quelled the stir of emotions it again triggered within her. Yet, before the image was securely locked away, she shyly allowed the more girlish parts of herself to wonder if her own presence could ever set the tall native's pulse to beating as he had done so effortlessly to her own.
While her features were fair, her eyes clear, and her skin even in tone, Grace had never thought herself a true beauty. Her bosom was small and flat, her legs long and spindly, and her shoulders were too square for her form to be regarded as soft or shapely. Furthermore, she had no knowledge of how to be desirable or coquettish or showcase traits that would be readily admired. Grace recalled how one young woman in her congregation, Lily Williams, would regularly pinch her cheeks and bite her lips to increase their rosy hue before turning to speak to the young townsmen while another girl, Rachel Fairfax, would tilt her head and smile winsomely when fellows sought her out. Grace had always thought the two women too daring in their behavior and had endeavored in her own life to uphold propriety and a chasteness, away from the eyes of men. Yet now, after days away from the strictures of her godly community and having experienced an intimacy with Tannicke and even Daniel that heretofore had seemed to her wholly foreign, she wondered what it would be like to have the confidence that came hand-in-hand with a pretty face.
Nevertheless, the sting of jealousy Grace had begun to feel in regards to the ease with which girls like Lily and Rachel had paraded their wiles was suddenly engulfed by her sadness at the thought that they too had likely perished in the fire. No amount of witty words or winning smiles could have saved their lives in the face of vengeful flames and Grace immediately felt a fool to have been dwelling on such petty and vain thoughts.
Gritting her teeth, Grace set to work scrubbing with riverbed sand the crusted dirt, blood, and sweat from her skin till it ran red. Not even attempting to untangle her snarled hair, she promptly separated the wet locks into three parts and quickly plaited them away from her temples and down her back.
When she had finished, Grace nimbly crawled out of the water and dried herself with the quilt Joseph had provided. Glancing at the buckskin dress he had also handed her, Grace surmised it would hang loose on her frame so she ripped a hands-width length of cloth from her soiled shift and wound it about her breasts to act as a kind of binding bodice. After wearing naught but the thin chemise for more days than she dared account Grace enjoyed the security her makeshift stays provided and wished for a pair of thick stockings to complete the undergarment-ensemble.
Carefully she reached for the tanned-skin garment, slipping it easily over her head. The smooth leather was soft, smelled of wildflowers, and showcased decorative fringe at her elbows and ankles - a sharp contrast to the Puritan uniform of serviceable apron and heavy woolen gown to which she was accustomed. Tiny beads lined the neck of the dress and Grace marveled at the small yet beautiful ornamenting. She tried to imagine the woman to whom the gown had belonged. Instantly she pictured a tall, slim, copper-colored woman with glossy black hair that hung down to her waist, braided with violets, bluebells, and orange wood lilies - blossoms whose fragrances even now lingered upon her clothing like an old memory. Grace wondered how long ago the woman had left, or perhaps died, and how Joseph had come to keep her things. Had they been married? If they had, perchance he and she had lived here, deep in the secluded woods due to their unorthodox match. For where could both a white man and a native woman live together in harmony but away from each other's respective communities?
Grace glanced up towards the direction of the house and thought of Tannicke. She hugged her arms about her, feeling the deerskin slide against her flesh. Had this woman fled and forsaken her tribe as Tannicke appeared to have done?
Grace still could not comprehend why the young native had been so willing to risk his life to save her own and then Daniel's as well. They had shared little time and fewer words in the days before he had rescued her from the fire...what had he to gain from her safety? Indeed, she had believed that it was her presence alone that had led to the death of the elderly healer and Tannicke's violent beating. Why then had they risked so much for her sake? Grace was not conceited or naive enough to believe Tannicke had saved her because of some great ardor he held for her. Certainly an affinity had formed between them and during some of her darkest nights in captivity Grace had at times felt he was the only thing holding her to this world. Nevertheless, their bond had yet to exceed its swaddling bounds and despite her affection for the tall Indian brave, Grace could not escape the nagging feeling that she had somehow overlooked a key element in Tannicke's true reasons for rescuing her.
Furthermore, Grace believed she had much to learn about the young native's relationship with his tribe. She thought again of that terrifying day when the enraged tribesmen had stolen her away from the old healer's hut. Despite the anxiety and pain the memory brought, Grace played the scene over in her mind and continually paused when she recalled the assault on Tannicke.
A line creased her brow. Again, why had the men abused him but then let him escape? The pieces of the puzzle did not fit.
Another image, of her and Daniel's guards crumpled upon the ground with arrows buried in their bronzed skulls, slid next into Grace's mind. If they had been of his own kind, why had Tannicke killed them and then fled the camp without once showing a sign of a turncoat's fear or regret. Grace scrutinized the glances they had shared during their escape and concluded that he had never revealed any expression other than concern for her and their successful evasion.
Grace shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
Suddenly a branch snapped and Grace whirled to find Daniel walking towards her.
His wet mop of yellow hair hung down over his eyes and his fuzzed chin glistened. His skin for once looked fresh and pink. He wore his old clothes, though they looked as if they had at least been shaken out, and parts of his shirt stuck wetly to his chest and arms. Grace noted dismally that he too had lost a great deal of weight, yet with a shot of surprise she realized she had never noticed how broad of shoulder or lean of hip Daniel was. Against Tannicke, the young Puritan paled in stature and physique. Yet, as she stood taking in the shape of Daniel's chest Grace felt a rush of bashfulness knowing she had curled many times into its warm, solid expanse during their imprisonment.
"Feels g-g-g-good to be clean again." Daniel said cheerfully as he approached, not noticing her awkward perusal.
"It does indeed." She replied hastily and tried to hide her sudden embarrassment by bending to gather the damp quilt and the remains of the shift at her feet. When she straightened she noticed Daniel was staring curiously at her dress. "Oh yes," she started. "different, is it not? Just stick a feather in my hair and I'd look just the part of a native squaw!" she jested in an attempt to mask her nervousness and fatigue. Grace immediately regretted the impromptu performance as she watched a frown quickly cross Daniel's features. "I-I mean-" she tried again but Daniel stopped her with a swift and indulgent smile, "Ind-d-d-deed!" he said good-naturedly "A lovely s-s-s-squaw to be sure!" He then gestured towards the way they had come and believing as would a trusting child that she would follow, turned to lead them back to the cabin.
"Should we not wait for Tannicke?" she asked as he made to move away. Daniel came up short and paused. He then turned back and nodded, but not before Grace caught a look of annoyance flash in his eyes. She felt her own brown furrow, but did not have time to think longer on the matter before Tannicke came jogging up to them, his own black mane swinging damply across his shoulders and chest. Instinctively Grace felt her stomach lurch within her and suddenly struggled to maintain steady, even breathing.
When Tannicke noticed Grace's new attire, he too hesitated and Grace saw a curious emotion flit across the gold-flecked darks of his eyes, but it was gone before Grace could clearly identify it. Before she could think to probe him for explanation, the hint of a smile played on his lips and he moved in front of her and Daniel to lead the way back to Joseph's masked abode.
Following his lean back, Grace picked up her pace eager to enter once again the warm protection of the weathered cottage. As the lavender glow of dusk faded with each step into the darkness of night, Grace watched with fascination as the tall Indian moved through the trees and underlying brush with nary a sound to his footfalls.
Watching his movements, Grace suddenly thought of her father. He had been an excellent tracker and when she had on occasion accompanied him on his hunting ventures she had always been transfixed by his stealth and lightness of foot. Although, compared to Tannicke's ethereal tread, her father now seemed a rather lumbering brute of a man.
Grace swallowed quickly at the thought of the austere and solidly-built figure of Richard Lindon.
Her father had never been a gentle or playful sort and while he was less taciturn than their mother, he had nevertheless regarded his task of familial protection and patriarchal guidance with all the staidness of a monarch. While at times his rule over their household verged on totalitarian, Grace knew that his strength of character had likewise toughened his offspring, exposing their fragile femininity to the harsh conditions of the world in which they existed in truth for their betterment. Having experienced a burden of tragedy and yet survived, Grace found she was inexplicably grateful for her father's lessons. Furthermore, Grace was humbled by the realization that despite his dictatorial attitudes, had never let his family fall into the starving desperation that had incessantly hovered like a dark cloud over each townsperson at harvest time. Numerous families had found their crops rotted or infested before they had yet had a chance to taste the fruits of their summer labors and instead of plenty, the unfortunates would have to resort to bartering or begging to supplement what little they had. In those times, Grace found teachings on the mercy or grace of God distant and foreign ideologies that fell on her unhearing ears. Nonetheless, Richard Lindon would consistently gather his women to his knee and speak of the goodness of their Heavenly Father; how blessed they were to live in a land they could plow by their own means and worship freely upon.
Thinking of his surety and unwavering confidence in their favored position then, Grace wondered if he would have likewise approached her own current lamentable state with the same resoluteness.
A lock of hair suddenly slipped from Tannicke's shoulder, catching Grace's eye and she watched as it joined the others that trailed weightily down the dipped channel of his spine. The wet bronze of his skin glistened in the fading light and Grace found the grief in her chest dissipate. Walking in his shadow was like salve to her fears, balming them with unspoken promises of protection and shelter.
She took a steadying breath and glanced over at Daniel. He was looking at his feet as they navigated the tangle of roots and sodden leaves. Droplets of water leapt from the tips of his blonde tresses with each of his well-placed but heavy steps. Unaware of his onlooker, Daniel suddenly glanced up and upon the back of their native guide. Yet in his own blue eyes resided not comfort or relief, but a wariness and barely-concealed dislike that nearly made Grace falter in her own step.
She looked down at her own feet, bare and spotted with mud, as her mind filled with questions. What had come over Daniel?
Finally their small group had arrived back at the cabin and Grace was relieved to see Joseph who was sitting contentedly on a crude wooden chair he had placed outside the cottage doorway.
Perhaps Daniel was merely tired and thus irritable. Indeed, a night's sleep did wonders for the body and mind, as Grace had witnessed during her captive days. Attitudes could change so very drastically with good rest and pains of all sort were given chance to mend.
A thick plume of smoke drifted lazily up from Joseph's pipe but when Grace and the two young men approached him, the grey cloud spread abruptly into vaporous wisps around his head. "Ah so ye weren't eaten by the wolves! Well ye all look quite well and shiny as new halfpennies and as misfit as seabirds in pasture!" he chortled throatily at his own drollery.
Grace smiled despite herself, thinking his description of the trio before him could not be more accurate.
"Pouckshaa," Tannicke muttered in a mocking tone and when Grace looked up to see his expression, he caught her glance and pointed suggestively to his head.
"T'ain't madness, ye misborn mongrel," Joseph retorted sportively and looked slyly to Grace, "T'is mayhap a bit too much sun, aye, but not madness!" he said winking at her on the last word. Grace was not used to being included in witty repartee and promptly found herself without a thing to say in reply. Thankfully, Joseph had already hefted himself from his rough-hewn throne and was beckoning them back inside the cozy cottage.
Grace was again bombarded with the smell of onions leftover from their evening meal though she noticed the bubbling pot, now empty and scrubbed clean, had been moved from the fire to a rusted hook on the stony mantle. Two well-used woven mats also now covered the minimal space between the hearth and the kitchen table and Grace suddenly felt a wave of panic rush over her. Her earlier thrilled reactions to Tannicke's touch and smile had helped staunch the flow of pain and fear yet the thought of laying beside him twisted her gut into a nervous knot. The idea of bedding alongside Daniel, while more palatable also carried with it a shy apprehension emphasized by their lack of imprisonment not to mention her earlier embarrassed perusal of his sodden form. While still injured, they no longer required each other for comfort or warmth out of necessity. The realization left her feeling slightly bereft and tremulous. Grace's fingers suddenly moved restlessly over the stained and torn undergarment in her hands trying desperately to wad it into a tight ball and hide it from view.
"Daniel," Joseph began as he moved nimbly across the room. "Ye shall sleep 'ere aside that savage Tannicke and you m'dear," he beckoned to Grace and she too made her way over the pallets to where he stood,"Ye shall sleep in me own bedchamber, though to call it such is a grave mis-statement." He wheezed amusedly at his quip. She released a sigh of relief. He motioned for her to step through the single tiny doorway and into the small space from which he had emerged earlier with their quilts and her dress. While the room was cramped and musty as a clothespress, the framed bed along its far wall looked comfortable enough and Grace instantly felt her knees weaken at the prospect of laying her head upon a pillow instead of earthen floor.
Grace dragged her hungry gaze away, "I thank you Goodsir Drentwich, but I could never take your own bed from you," she said humbly. The older man smiled, "Joseph, lass," he said genially, "And not to worry, t'is my pleasure to offer it."
"But, where shall you sleep? I cannot allow you to take to the floor in my stead, surely, you must let me take it," Grace urged, concerned for the elderly man's well-being despite her growing desire to forsake niceties and throw herself in exhausted abandon upon the straw-filled mattress before her.
"No lass, I shall be content to lay me head down there if'n ye don't mind," he proposed earnestly, gesturing with his pipe to the end of the bed. "Keep the wolves away, I will." He winked. Grace turned in the direction he indicated and noticed a curtain of yellowed canvas had been hastily tacked into the ceiling above the latter half of the chamber. Grace wondered from where such a length of fabric could have originated for she had never seen its likeness in town or at market. She half-surmised it had been salvaged from the very mast of ship due to a series of holes she noticed along one of its edges. Undoubtedly the brass grommets that had once lined the now-sagging eyelets had been bartered long ago, yet Grace's mind filled with possible reasons for why Joseph had yet conserved the salt-speckled cloth. In any case, the partition it now served as created a small but comfortable enclave for Joseph's own well-layered sleeping pallet. She sighed, both relieved and thankful for the old man's generosity and foresight.
"Of course, Goodsi- Joseph," she amended, returning his smile. "I am indebted,"
"Not at all lass, not at all." he paused and arched his back, "Well, I'd best be seein' te the fire then," he said, backing out of the small room to provide her privacy before they settled in to sleep.
With her shift now naught more than a damp, crumpled mass in her hands, Grace decided to sleep in the deerskin dress and hoped the embroidered beads would not come loose in the bedclothes. Half of her wished to sneak back into the main room, despite her heightened modesty, and at least say goodnight to both Daniel and Tannicke - it seemed the least she could do after all they had experienced together that day. Yet her other, more insistent half soon had her unfurling her quilt and quickly tucking herself into its meager warmth upon the bed. A sigh of utterly corporeal pleasure escaped her lips as her head came to rest upon Joseph's own goose-down pillow. In an instant all thoughts of the men in the other room, her family, and everything else vanished from her mind. Before she even knew whether or not old Joseph had made his way back to the pallet at her feet Grace had fallen soundlessly asleep.
"I see the dress fits ye well then…good use for it after all these long years." Joseph said kindly to Grace over his bowl of porridge the next morning. Grace glanced up from the thick slice of brown bread she had been nibbling at. "Oh...yes, thank you," she uttered and reached to finger the beading at her collar. "Tis beautiful." she added after a moment.
Beneath his thick facial hair Joseph's features revealed little to Grace. Yet at her comment the older man cast his eyes back to his bowl and his bent form reflected a sudden pensiveness. When he did not speak again Grace lowered her own head to her breakfast. She wished to inquire further after the woman to whom the dress had belonged, yet sensing Joseph's reticence she refrained and instead took another bite of bread.
Beside her sat Daniel whose reddened eyes and mussed hair spoke of his fitful night's rest. Grace had hoped he would have slept better, but it seemed the cramped quarters and the hard floor beneath his yet-healing form had kept him from receiving due respite.
Nonetheless, the young man dug into his own porridge with eagerness and Grace was glad to see that at least his appetite had returned. If nothing else, she hoped a full belly and the knowledge that they were, for the time being, relatively safe would grant Daniel relief and allow him to begin his recuperation...whatever such a process might entail. Even now the gash that cruelly lined his temple, although decreased in size and lightened in color from when they had first met in the Indian's camp, still marred his near whisker-less face and she knew it would inevitably leave a thick pearly scar. The swelling of Daniel's eye too had long since dissipated, yet she guessed his body had a lengthy journey back to full vigor - as did his mind and heart.
Grace tore a morsel from the dense wedge of bread and rolled it between the pads of her thumb and forefinger before popping it into her mouth. Unlike Daniel's, Grace's own appetite was lacking and, though she wished it might do the same amount of good for her as she anticipated for her beleaguered companion, the rich wheaty flavor of the bread unfailingly turned to that of sawdust on her tongue.
Grace glanced over to where an empty bowl sat, waiting for the other member of their misfit company to join and take his own part in the morning meal. After having arisen from her own deep slumber and noticing Tannicke was missing, Grace had asked Joseph where the tall native might be found. Joseph had said the young man had left the cottage before dawn to hunt and Grace had immediately felt ashamed for having stayed abed so late. Certainly she knew her body needed the rest, but she had thought Tannicke, like Daniel, was in need of similar recovery. To hear he was traversing the countryside in search of fresh meat left Grace humbled and she marveled at the young man's seemingly endless reserve of strength and fortitude.
As if her thoughts of Tannicke had beckoned him to her, the tall bronzed figure suddenly strode through the front door. Along with a draft of cool morning air, Tannicke brought with him a squirrel which hung by its ruddy tail at the man's hip. Grace watched as Tannicke closed the door behind him and slipped off the wolf-fur mantle she'd worn the previous day, hanging beside it his bow and quiver. Having only seen her father use traps for hunting or on occasion his matchlock rifle for larger game, Grace wondered what it would be like to watch Tannicke let fly one of his slender arrows to bring down beast or fowl.
"Cowompanu sin," Tannicke said brightly in greeting as he sidestepped between the three seated to reach the warm fire crackling in the hearth. "Sleep...well?" he asked as he stood before the flames, directing his question more fixedly towards Grace than the others.
She met his gaze without hesitation and prayed her own voice would sound as light as his, "Indeed, I thank you." she said and was rewarded with Tannicke's soft smile and nod of pleasure.
"Haddo quo dunna moquonash?" Joseph spoke up, not lifting his nose from his own bowl, but nonetheless breaking Tannicke and Grace's shared gaze. His tone was low and amused and Grace noted the curve of a cheeky smile tugged at the corner of his creased lips. Tannicke looked over to the older man with one eyebrow raised. Before he retorted, Tannicke swiftly tugged the squirrel from his belt and tossed it onto the table in front of his elderly friend, making the dishware clack and Daniel flinch in his seat. "Chickachava" Tannicke muttered facetiously. Joseph let out a loud guffaw and Grace felt a tiny bubble of joy flit to the surface within her when she saw Tannicke's face break into a wide grin. She wished to know the meaning of the words that had passed between them but she was content to listen to Joseph's chortling and watch Tannicke shake his head in amused exasperation.
"You s-s-s-s-speak his lang-g-g-g-guage?" Daniel asked abruptly in a tone that was too serious and at odds with the merry air of the room. Grace stared at him in confusion and not a little annoyance. She wondered the same, but Daniel made the inquiry sound accusatory.
Joseph glanced at his questioner. "Aye, I do." he stated obligingly. Daniel watched him expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate.
Sighing and setting down his porridge bowl, Joseph turned to the young man. Grace glimpsed Tannicke's face as he too turned toward Daniel. A line creased the smooth, coppery skin of his forehead but he remained silent and continued to warm himself by the fire.
"'Spose I should start from the beginnin'." Joseph commenced. He reached up to massage the bridge of his narrow nose as if the key to his memories was caught in the bony length and needed coaxing from its hiding place.
"Well, ye see," he started again after a moment, "when I was a young lad, not much older than yerself," he said, waving vaguely in Daniel's direction, "I came o'er to this land with me whole kin. We were hoping to begin anew free and clear of the warring back home. Woefully, before we even heard the cry of land 'oe, me parents had perished from the flux and me younger sisters too. I alone was left to bear me family's name and when we survivors finally reached shore and began establishin' a settlement, well…plague caught us and wiped out near the whole lot of us. We were so hungry we were grabbin' at grass roots and tree bark to keep us alive."
Grace looked down at the slice of bread and suddenly felt a deeper gratitude for it. She cleaved another piece from the crumbly wedge and pushed it between her lips.
Joseph continued, "That's when I met Seaseap. He was a young brave from a nearby village who was next in the way to becomin' his tribe's pow-wow…medicine man, ye ken."
Out of the corner of her eye, Grace saw Tannicke shift uneasily on his feet in front of the hearth.
"Well, he'd been out on a quest to find some rare herbs for conjuring the spirit world," Joseph went on, "when unawares he comes across me scrapin' at the base of some roots for grubs. I don't know what came o'er him to do what he did," he paused to scratch his head, "but he befriended me, showed me where to find water and what plants were easy to stomach. He stayed by me side for a whole week, teaching me how to fend for meself." The elderly man smiled at the memory. "Aye, I know that if Seaseap hadn'a been with me, I'd 'a surely died."
Joseph paused then and his eyes took on the absent look of a man lost in his own musings.
"So what happened to him?" Grace prodded when he did not immediately continue. Joseph blinked his eyes once, bringing his focus back to the reality before him.
He turned to Grace, "Ahh...well lass, we went back to me settlement – was his time to head back to his own tribe ye see and I was able to stand on me own without fallin' o'er meself – but when we arrived, there was no one left. They'd all perished from starvation and the pox."
Grace swallowed, her throat suddenly dry.
"So," Joseph went on, "seein' how he couldn't leave me, Seaseap took me back to his tribe but as soon as they saw me white face and yellah hair, they ran me right out the village." He chuckled ruefully.
A slight shiver ran through Grace's limbs when she thought of her own unwelcomed arrival into the camp of her native captors. Daniel, she noted, began running a hand through his hair in what she imagined was an effort to hide his own unease.
"And Seaseap?" Grace asked softly.
"Aw well, he caught up wi' me that night and helped me make a shelter before headin' back. He knew his place but he visited once and a while to make sure I wasn't yet dead, be it from the elements or his own fellow braves." Joseph chuckled though Grace could not bring herself to feel a similar rush of hilarity at the thought of having to live in the forest, alone and hunted.
"No, he was a good friend as 'ere there was," Joseph said more to himself than his audience. "Taught me how to survive in this wilderness…never have I been taught a more useful lesson. But soon he took his position as pow-wow and couldn't risk checking in on me as often. So he sent his sister, Occone, to bring me messages and gifts of corn or squash,"
Here again Joseph paused and tugged absentmindedly at his beard, the slightest tremor in the movements of his hand.
"She was the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on, ye see," He said finally, a wistful note in his words. "Hair like a raven's wing, eyes of deep violet, and a voice that seeped through yer skin and warmed ye from yer scalp to yer belly. I only knew a few basic ways of their speech, ye ken, but even without many words we fell in love instantly and I knew I had to marry 'er." He laughed to himself. "When we told her brother he nearly ran me through, but even he could see our affection and so, he wedded us in secret in his ways."
Recognizing a similarity in her own captivating encounter with one not of her own kind as well as the thread of rescue in both tales, Grace's breathing had unexpectedly grown shallow and she flicked a furtive glance towards Daniel who had lifted his head to stare at Tannicke's back. Soon Daniel's eyes slid towards her own and feeling uncertain at what he might find in their depths, she stared down at the table, unwilling to meet his gaze.
Not sensing the tension that had quickly clouded the small room, Joseph went on. "Och, there I go rambling like an old goat." He tugged again at his beard and looked to Daniel. "Te answer yer question, son, she - my fair wife - was the one who taught me the language of her tribe and land," he then shifted his gaze to Tannicke, "And she is the one responsible for bringin' this cockeyed flea-bag into this 'ere house in the first place!" he said in an affectionately teasing manner.
Grace lifted her head enough to see Tannicke smile briefly then step away from the fire. Wordlessly he came to the table, grabbed the empty bowl set out for him and returned to the hearth to ladle in a spoonful of porridge from the cooking pot. As he bent, Grace caught the sheen of a thick white scar running two-hands length down his back just to the right of his spine. She hadn't noticed it during their walk last night when she had gazed at his back and now wondered what horrific attack or injury had occurred to inflict such a laceration.
Tannicke straightened then, turning to move back to the table and Grace quickly averted her prying eyes.
"Ah but that's a tale for another day, hm?" Joseph was saying, gathering up his bowl. Grace watched as the elderly man took his dish and spoon over to a small bucket that stood aside the fireplace. Using the coarse sand and damp rag kept inside, he bent down and began scrubbing at his utensils with a zealous industry.
"Here, let me." Grace said, rising from her seat. She had managed to choke down the rest of her bread but believed she might be ill if she did not get some fresh air shortly. "I'll take them to the river, shall I? Clean them up and," she glanced over at a water bucket near the doorway "I can fetch more water while I'm there." she said.
Joseph paused, slightly wide-eyed but quickly smiled and handed her the sand-laced dishes. "Aye lass, that would be a great help, if you're up to it."
She nodded, thrilled at the prospect of even a short-lived escape from the tense, weighty gazes shooting across the room.
Grace swept up the near-empty bucket along with the same fur mantle Tannicke had worn moments before, swinging it about her shoulders.
"I shall come." Daniel's voice clattered across the tabletop to her. Before she could protest, he had snatched up the folded quilt he'd used for his night's bedding, swirled it around his shoulders and pulled open the door for her.
Grace tried to smile at him but it felt strained and forced. She swiftly ducked through the passageway unwilling to meet his eyes or glance back at the other two men.
She clasped the worn leather handle of the bucket, dumping her and Daniel's bowls into the stale water as she walked.
"Who is he?" Daniel asked before they had taken more than ten steps from the cottage.
Grace frowned, knowing of whom he spoke but unwilling to engage in this perplexing, unwarranted animosity of his towards Tannicke.
"Joseph?" she averted. "Oh Daniel, I know not...but he has opened his home to us and truly I believe he has been more-"
"That's n-n-n-n-not who I meant." Daniel interrupted.
Grace sighed, hefting the bucket higher onto her forearm to keep its contents from sloshing. "He saved me, Daniel. I have already told you." she said quietly.
"Where...how...?" He faltered.
"What are you saying?" She tossed her head to look at him, her plait slapping against her back. "Did not you yourself claim it was good he saved me? Why does it matter so now that you have every detail of our past encounters?" she questioned hotly.
"I w-w-w-was confused and just g-g-g-g-glad to see you s-s-s-s-safe. But Grace, w-w-w-w-what if he was involved?"
She stopped in her tracks making the bucket sway precariously, spilling a few droplets of water and making Daniel nearly trip over his own feet. "Involved? In the fire?!" She shook her head once, "Daniel, you speak with no sense. Did you not encourage me to trust he was yet alive? He saved me, Daniel...saved me. He is the only reason I - we - yet live!"
"But why d-d-d-did he save you?" Daniel demanded, a different kind of fury lightening his eyes. "What power d-d-d-does he have over you? Perhaps he d-d-d-did thus to...to..." Daniel waved his hands in agitation, "to entrap you. Cleave you t-t-t-t-to him."
Grace's mouth fell open. She snapped it shut before spitting out her retort. "You wicked hoddypeak! Speak you always thusly of those who come to your aid?"
Daniel winced but the strange angry gleam in his gaze did not diminish, "No, Grace y-y-y-you mishear me, I warn you, that m-m-m-man-"
"Warn me?! I told you," she gritted. "He rescued me from the fire, he did not cause it."
Daniel made to respond but Grace interrupted, "Did we not, Daniel, share mutual hopes for his survival? I risked the reveal of his kindness and methinks found no condemnation in your regard. Then that man steals into the night, risks his own life - takes others, God save him - to bring us safe-haven and now you glower upon him as a magistrate beholds a horse-thief?! I cannot deduce the grounds for your altered convictions, sir. Where do you gain your judgment? I have seen meager fare to warrant it." she spat.
"It is w-w-w-warranted by your b-b-b-brazen affection for him." Daniel replied, tauntingly low. "You g-g-g-gaze at him as m-m-m-more than a mere friend, Grace."
Grace did not know what to say.
What did Daniel believe her to be?
Her anger at his insolence rubbed against her pride, dulled as it was, giving way to a pause in her readied sally.
It was true, she admitted.
Her eyes often tended to the native's tall frame, though she balked at the idea of so precisely defining her nascent feelings as Daniel had.
Perhaps he had spoken half-truth when he claimed he was glad the native had rescued her, keeping his qualms to himself in order to placate her fevered mind in that hellish hut.
Yet, perhaps she had indeed shown too much trust in and regard for a man, in truth, she knew but hardly.
As justification, she had been surviving lately by instinct and grasping at threads of hope and she would not apologize for clinging to those tethered to Tannicke. Nonetheless, Daniel was allowed his upbraiding of her ardent, and to his eyes perhaps hasty faith in one as yet so unfamiliar. Daniel was as fragile as she; frightened, exhausted, uncertain.
Her limbs released their tightened, guarded stances. Her hand went to her hairline smoothing back loosened strands.
"Mayhaps you are right to have scruples, but do not blame him for your misfortune, Daniel." Grace said softly, "I swear to you I met him but twice in the forest. He helped me scavenge for blackberries, if you must know. We exchange perchance six words, innocent in all, and he gave me this," she thrust her free hand boldly down the collar of her dress and rummaged in her chest binding as Daniel's cheeks flamed. Her emerging fist clenched the polished deertooth.
"Take it," she said, placing the gleaming token in Daniel's hand. He frowned and look up at her. "Grace I-"
"I do not give it as a gift. I wish you to cease your brabble and know that I do not take kindly to your mistrust of those who shield and keep you." She looked into his eyes, deliberately shifting her manner. "Daniel, you were always kind and good. You and I have weathered much, 'tis true. Yet, let not our trials taint your sight and poison your pure heart, damaged though it may be."
She looked down at the tooth and wrapped his fingers about her precious memento. "Keep this, Daniel. Use it as a talisman by which to remember that there is still good in this world, that some come to us by God's grace in circumstances that we cannot control or understand. Strangers, akin to the violence we witness but not of it." She let her hand drop from his to hang limply at her side, the argument having exhausted her.
"I know little of him, Daniel. But he is noble and there is warmth in his touch, caring in his eyes. I but cling to the succor he offers."
Daniel's chin tucked into the limp collar of his loose shirt. "Forgive m-m-m-me, Grace. I mean only to k-k-k-k-keep us together and alive." He looked up and reached for her free hand. "You are all that is l-l-l-l-left to me," he breathed hoarsely "blame me n-n-n-n-not for suspecting that man of ill mien. I know him n-n-n-not and his look reminds me t-t-t-too sharply of our recent t-t-t-terrors, despite your assurances."
Grace's eyes grew moist as she watched the young man before her transform from a maddened, thoughtless brute into a weak, frail boy.
She turned her palm against the skin of his wrist, locking their held hands together. "Trust me." she said.
He did not speak for a long moment, instead he searched her face for a sign of what she knew not. Finally he relented. "Alright."
"Alright." Grace repeated, then adjusted the bucket in her hands and moved once more towards the path down to the river.