Prologue

The Blowing Rock, 1809

Shotik’s entire body shook as she neared the edge of the cliff. The fear, as relentless and powerful as the wind that blew endlessly up here, grew stronger with each step she took. Refusing to let it stop her from doing what she had to do, she closed her eyes and thought of the many times she’d pranced right up to the brink of that terrifying drop, the wind whipping her hair and dress in a frenzied madness as she laughed and danced with Tsa-si. With him by her side, the reassuring feel of his strong arms around her, the security of his love holding her heart, she’d never felt the slightest hint of anxiety.

No, the panic hadn’t hit until his despair drove him to leap from the rock and end his life. Torn between his duty to his tribe and his love for her, he couldn’t see any other way.

She’d been too late to stop him, too late to talk him through the despondency and perhaps give him a reason to live, too late to save her love.

Her father carried her down from the mountain that day and she hadn’t been able to bear the thought of coming back…until now. Despite the overwhelming terror, she had to keep going. She would not let it stop her. If she wanted any chance at happiness again, she had to do this.

She would crawl to the edge if she had to. Taking a deep breath, she dropped to her hands and knees then crept forward, coming ever closer to the object of her fear, the sheer drop off at the edge of Blowing Rock, as some of the white settlers called it. To her, no matter what happened tonight, it would always be the place where she first found love. It didn’t matter that she’d also lost her love here because if things went as planned tonight, she would have him in her arms once more.

The rock scraped her palms as she slid them forward, feeling her way like a blind woman. Her hands would be raw after this night, but she welcomed the pain. It gave her something else to think about besides the fear and the grief she suffered since Tsa-si died.

No, not died, he left, that’s all, and if the North Wind Messenger answered her plea as the Shaman promised, he would be with her again before sunrise.

If not, she knew in her heart she had no choice but to follow him. Her stomach rolled at the thought of flinging her body into the air and living through that terrifying drop to the forest below. But she would do it, and after that final agony, perhaps she would have peace again.

She would gladly give her life for his if that’s what it took. After all, she had no life without Tsa-si and there was always the possibility if she died, wherever she ended up afterwards, he would be there waiting for her.

When her hand reached out and encountered nothing but air, she froze. On another deep breath, she shoved the terror aside, straightening her back as she sat back on her heels. The moon appeared from behind the clouds just as the wind spun around, gusting from behind her now, pushing her body forward so that she leaned out over the chasm below.

Don’t look down, don’t look down. The thought careened through her mind. She shut her eyes, but even with them closed she could picture that terrifying drop and the nausea gripped her with frigid fingers, seeming to cut through her body to her very soul.

She clenched her teeth and fought against it.

She would do this. She had to do this if she wanted to love again, if she wanted to live without this wrenching heartache that had been with her for the last two moons.

Pressing back against the wind, still on her knees as if praying to the white man’s God, she forced her eyes open. Looking up, she focused on the feeble light of the full moon bleeding through the shifting clouds. The prayer she’d been told to prepare to the North Wind Messenger ran through her mind, but she didn’t speak it out loud. Not yet. The Shaman said she must wait until the moon shone bright without even a trace of cloud to dim its light. Only then would the North Wind Messenger hear her plea.

As the wind grew even stronger, the clouds danced, shredding away under its power. When the last of the misty slivers melted away, the brilliant orb hung in the sky like a perfect dandelion after the bright yellow petals had gone to seed. Watching it, she waited for it to shatter into tiny bits and float away on the wind too.

When it stayed a solid mass, she tried to stand but couldn’t make herself do it and she doubted her legs would support her anyway. Perhaps it was best to be down on her knees as she implored the North Wind Messenger to bring Tsa-si back to her. Kneeling, at least to the white settlers, was a sign of respect.

Without looking down, she fumbled for the bag tied at her waist, opened it and pulled out a piece of the raw deer meat she’d placed in it before leaving home. Remembering the Shaman’s instructions, she flung it to her left to appease the West Wind Messenger, then withdrew another piece and threw it over her shoulder for the South Wind Messenger. The third piece went to her right for the East Wind Messenger. All that remained in the pouch was the offering to the North Wind Messenger. The Shaman told her that would normally be given first, but that she should reverse the order of the gifts and save the North Wind Messenger for last, because on this night, the North Wind was all important.

She pulled the last chunk of deer meat out of her pouch and held it before her as she looked up at the moon. Kawoni, Tsa-si’s people called it, the Flower Moon. Traditionally, it was a time of birth and a time of renewal for the earth, a new season filled with endless hope. Her heart beat so hard and fast she could feel it in her breast. With every beat, she wished for the traditions of Kawoni to hold true, bringing her love back to her.

Lifting her hands, she held the meat up and spoke at last. Her words, slow and halting as she struggled with the Cherokee language, were directed to the North Wind Messenger and begged for his mercy.

“Yah-wi-gu-na-he-da, Long Human Being, spirit of the rivers, Messenger of the North Wind, my soul implores you, return my love to me, gather your winter winds and restore him to my arms.”

The wind gusted around her, blowing more fiercely now, colder than before. She shivered then tossed the meat over the edge of the cliff before once again raising her arms to the sky. She repeated the chant over and over, louder each time, to be heard over the howling of the wind which seemed to grow stronger with each word.

When the clouds veiled the moon again, she lowered her body to the rock. Still whispering the prayer, she cried as what was left of her heart shattered. The North Wind Messenger hadn’t granted her desire and she could see no other option but to die.

Keeping her eyes closed, she rose to her feet. Her breathing ragged, she tried to prepare herself for the pain, picturing her beloved Tsa-si in her mind.

“Bring him back and take me instead. Bring him back and let him live again…”

“Shotik, my love, come away from the edge.”

Her body jerked and she whirled around, forgetting she stood on the precipice of her greatest fear. Tsa-si stood before her. Her knees buckled as she looked at him, strong and tall, as if he’d never died, as if he’d never left her. Tsa-si, her love, her heart, her life.

He swung her into his arms and strode down the rock face away from the edge before he set her down and kissed her. And she knew everything would be all right even as the rock trembled as if about to crumble under the force of the furious wind.