Prologue

The Black Hills, America, 1797

It was time to seek the vision.

The shaman waited for the Great Spirit to send him a sign. One month passed, then another, and still the gods ignored him. But the shaman was a patient man. He continued his daily prayers without complaint and waited for his humble petition to be heard.

When the moon was covered by a thick mist for four consecutive nights, the holy man knew the time had arrived. The Great Spirit had heard him.

He immediately began his preparations. After gathering his sacred powders, rattle, and drum, he made the slow climb to the top of the mountain. It was an arduous journey, made more difficult by his advanced years and the dense fog the evil spirits had surely sent to test his determination.

As soon as the old man reached the summit, he built a small fire in the center of the ledge overlooking the valley of the bitterroot. He sat down beside the flames with his face turned toward the sun. Then he reached for his powders.

First he sprinkled sage over the fire. The shaman knew all evil spirits hated the bitter smell. The scent would make them stop their mischief and leave the mountain.

The mist left the mountaintop the following morning, a signal to the holy one that the mischief makers had been chased away. He put the remaining sage powder away and began to feed incense to the flames. The scent was made sweet by the addition of sacred buffalo prairie grass. Incense would purify the air and was known to attract benevolent gods.

For three days and nights the shaman stayed close to the fire. He fasted and prayed, and on the fourth morning he reached for his rattle and drum. He then began the chant that would bring the Great Spirit closer.

During the black hours of the fourth night, the shaman's sacrifice was rewarded. The Great Spirit gave him his dream.

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While the holy man slept, his mind was suddenly awakened to the vision. The sun appeared in the night sky. He saw a speck of black that grew and took shape, until it was magically transformed into a vast herd of buffalo. The magnificent animals thundered above the clouds towards him. An eagle, gray with white-tipped wings, flew overhead, leading them on.

As the buffalo drew closer, some of their faces became those of the holy man's ancestors who had traveled to the Afterlife. He saw his father and his mother, his brothers, too. The herd parted then, and in the middle stood a proud mountain lion. The animal's coat was as white as lightning, the spirit Thunderbolt's work no doubt, and the Great Spirit had given the lion's eyes the color of the sky.

The herd of buffalo again enclosed the lion before the dream abruptly ended.

The holy man returned to his village the following morning. His sister prepared a meal for him. Once he'd taken his fill, he went to the leader of the Dakota, a mighty warrior named Gray Eagle. He told his leader only that he must continue to guide his people. The holy man kept the rest of his vision to himself, for the full meaning had yet to be revealed to him. And then he returned to his tipi to remember his vision with his dyes. On a soft deerskin hide he painted a circle of buffalo. In the center he drew the mountain lion, making certain the color of the animal's coat was just as white as he could recall, the color of the eyes just as blue as a sky in summer. When the rendering was completed he waited for the dye to dry, then carefully folded the skin and put it away.

The dream continued to haunt the shaman. He'd hoped to be given some comforting message for his leader. Gray Eagle was grieving. The shaman knew his friend wanted to pass leadership on to a younger, more fit warrior. Since his daughter and grandson had been taken from him, the leader's heart hadn't belonged to his people. He was filled with bitterness and anger.

The holy man could offer his friend little comfort. And no matter how he tried, he couldn't ease his anguish.

From anguish came the legend.

Gray Eagle's daughter Merry and her son were returning from the dead. The Dakota woman knew her family believed both she and White Eagle had been killed. Gray Cloud, bastard leader of the tribe's outcasts, had deliberately provoked the battle near the river's edge. He'd left bits of Merry's clothing on the riverbank, too, in hopes Merry's husband would believe his wife and son had been swept away with the others by the swift current.

The tribe would still be in mourning. Though it seemed an eternity to Merry, it had actually only been eleven months since the attack. She'd kept careful count on her reed stick. There were eleven notches now. Two more were needed to complete a full year by the Dakota reckoning.

It was going to be a difficult homecoming. The tribe would welcome White Eagle back into the family. Merry wasn't worried about her son. He was, after all, first grandson of their chief, Gray Eagle. Yes, there'd be much rejoicing with his return to the fold.

The fear, of course, was for Christina.

Merry instinctively tightened her hold on her new daughter. "Soon, Christina," she crooned softly to the baby. "We'll be home soon."

Christina didn't appear to be paying any attention to her mother's promise. The fidgety two-year-old was trying to wiggle out of her mother's lap and off the speckled mount, determined to walk beside her older brother. Merry's six-year-old son was leading the mare down the slope into the valley.

"Be patient, Christina," Merry whispered. She gave her daughter another gentle squeeze to emphasize her order.

"Eagle." The baby wailed her brother's name.

White Eagle turned when his sister cried out to him. He smiled up at her, then slowly shook his head. "Do as our mother orders," he instructed.

Christina ignored her brother's command. She immediately tried to hurl herself out of her mother's lap again. The little one was simply too young to understand caution. Though it was a considerable distance from the top of the horse to the hard ground, Christina didn't appear to be the least intimidated.

"My Eagle," Christina shouted.

"Your brother must lead us down into the village, Christina," Merry said. She kept her voice soft, hoping to calm the fretful child.

Christina suddenly turned and looked up at her mother. The little girl's blue eyes were filled with mischief. Merry couldn't contain her smile when she saw the disgruntled expression on her daughter's face. "My Eagle," the child bellowed.

Merry slowly nodded. "My Eagle," Christina shouted again, frowning up at her mother.

"Your Eagle," Merry acknowledged with a sigh. Oh, how she wished Christina would learn to imitate her soft voice. Thus far, that lesson had failed. Such a little one she was, yet gifted with a voice that could shake the leaves off their branches.

"My mama," Christina bellowed then, jabbing Merry's chest with her chubby fingers.

"Your mama," Merry answered. She kissed her daughter, then brushed her hand across the mop of white-blond curls framing the baby's face. "Your mama," Merry repeated, giving the child a fierce hug.

Comforted by the caress, Christina settled back against her mother's chest and reached for one of Merry's braids. When she'd captured the tip of one braid, she put her thumb in her mouth and closed her eyes, using her other hand to rub Merry's hair across the bridge of her freckled nose. In a matter of minutes, she was sound asleep.

Merry pulled the buffalo hide up over the baby so that her delicate skin would be shielded from the summer's midday sun. Christina was clearly exhausted from their long journey. And she'd been through so much distress in the past three months. It was a wonder to Merry that the child could sleep at all.

Christina had taken to trailing behind White Eagle. She mimicked his every action, though Merry noticed the baby always kept her in sight as well. One mother had left her, and Merry knew Christina was worried she and White Eagle would also disappear. The little girl had become extremely possessive, a trait Merry hoped would lessen in time.

"They watch us from the trees," White Eagle told his mother. The boy stopped, waiting for his mother's reaction.

Merry nodded. "Keep going, son. And remember, stop only when you've reached the tallest tipi."

White Eagle smiled. "I still remember where my grandfather's tipi is," he said. "We've only been away eleven months," he added, pointing to the reed stick.

"I'm pleased you remember," Merry said. "Do you also remember how much you love your father and your grandfather?"

The boy nodded. His expression turned solemn. "It will be difficult for my father, won't it?"

"He's an honorable man," Merry announced. "Yes, it will be difficult for him, but in time he'll see the lightness in it."

White Eagle straightened his shoulders, turned, and continued on down the hill.

He walked like a warrior. The boy's arrogant swagger was almost identical to his father's. Merry's heart ached with pride for her son. White Eagle would become chief of his people when his training was completed. It was his destiny to rule the warriors, just as it had now become her destiny to raise the white-skinned baby girl sleeping so innocently in her arms.

Merry tried to clear her mind of everything but the coming confrontation. She kept her gaze directed on her son's shoulders as he led the mare into the center of the village. Merry silently chanted the prayer her shaman had taught her to chase away her fears.

More than a hundred Dakota stared at Merry and White Eagle. No one said a word. White Eagle walked straight ahead and came to a halt when he'd reached the tipi of his chief.

The older women edged closer until they surrounded Merry's horse. Their faces mirrored their astonishment. Several women reached out to touch Merry's leg, as if the feel of her skin beneath their hands would confirm that what they saw was real.

They petted and sighed. Merry smiled over their show of affection. She glanced up and saw Sunflower, her husband's younger sister. Her good friend was openly weeping.

Thunder suddenly broke the silence. The ground trembled from the pounding of horses being ridden back down into the valley. The warriors had obviously been informed of Merry's return. Black Wolf, Merry's husband, would be leading them.

The flap of the chief's tipi opened just as the braves dismounted. Merry watched her father. Gray Eagle stood at the entrance and stared at her a long while. His leathered face showed his stunned reaction, but his eyes, so warm and kind, soon misted with emotion.

Everyone turned to watch their leader now. They waited for him to give the signal. It was Gray Eagle's duty to be the first to welcome Merry and her son back into his family.

Gray Eagle turned just as Merry's husband walked over to stand by his side. Merry immediately lowered her head in submission. Her hands started trembling, and she thought her heart was pounding loud enough to wake Christina. Merry knew her control would vanish if she looked at her husband now. She would certainly start to cry. That wouldn't be dignified, of course, for such a show of emotion would shame her proud husband.

It wouldn't be honorable either. Merry loved Black Wolf, but the circumstances had drastically changed since she'd last seen him. Her husband would have to make an important decision before he welcomed her back into his arms.

The chief suddenly raised his hands to the Great Spirit above. His palms faced the sun.

The signal was given. A resounding cheer echoed throughout the valley. Chaos erupted as Merry's son was embraced first by his grandfather and then by his father.

Christina stirred in Merry's arms. Though the buffalo skin concealed the baby, there were several startled gasps when the movement was noticed by some of the women.

Black Wolf held his son, but his gaze was directed at his wife. Merry dared a timid look up at him, caught his pleased smile, and tried to smile back.

Gray Eagle nodded several times, showing her his joy and his approval, then slowly made his way over to her side.

The holy man stood outside the purifying tipi, watching the reunion. He understood now why he hadn't seen Merry's face or White Eagle's in his vision. The rest of the dream's meaning continued to elude him. "I am a patient man," he whispered to the spirits. "I will accept one gift at a time."

While the shaman watched, a path was made for the chief. The braves ignored Merry and gathered around Black Wolf and his son. The women swelled forward again, for they wished to hear what their leader would say to his daughter.

Some of the more enthusiastic braves began to shriek with joy. The shrill noise jarred Christina awake.

The baby had little liking for her dark confinement. She pushed the buffalo hide away from her face just as Gray Eagle reached Merry's side.

Merry couldn't decide who looked more surprised. Christina seemed to be quite fascinated by the huge man watching her so intently. She was a bit uncertain, too, for she put her thumb back into her mouth and scooted up against her mother's chest.

Gray Eagle didn't even try to mask his astonishment. He stared at the child a long moment, then turned to look up at his daughter. "There is much for you to tell us, daughter," he announced.

Merry smiled. "There is much I would explain, Father."

Christina caught her mother's smile. She immediately pulled her thumb out of her mouth and looked around her with curiosity. When she found her brother in the crowd of strangers, she reached out with both hands for him. "Eagle," she shouted.

Gray Eagle took a step back, then turned to look at his grandson.

Christina fully expected her brother to come and fetch her. When he didn't immediately obey her order, she tried to squirm out of her mother's lap. "My Eagle, Mama," she bellowed.

Merry ignored her daughter now. She stared at her husband. Black Wolf's expression was hard, impassive. He stood with his legs braced apart and his arms folded across his chest. She knew he'd heard Christina call her mama. The baby spoke the Siouan language as well as any Dakota child and had shouted her claim loud enough for the entire village to hear.

Sunflower rushed over to help her friend dismount. Merry handed Christina to her, thought to caution her friend to keep a firm hold, but it was already too late. Christina easily slipped to the ground, landing on her padded backside. Before Sunflower or Merry could reach for her, the little one grabbed hold of Gray Eagle's legs, pulled herself up, and ran to her brother. The baby's laughter trailed behind her.

No one quite knew what to make of the beautiful white-skinned baby. A few older squaws reached out to touch Christina's golden curls, for their curiosity was too great to contain. The little girl allowed their pawing. She stood beside her brother, barely reaching his knees, mimicking his stance, and clung to his hand.

While Christina didn't mind being touched, she made it quite clear she didn't want anyone near her brother. When the chief tried to embrace his grandson again, Christina tried to push his hands away. "My Eagle," she shouted up at him.