Highlander Hunted – Rebecca Preston

elena Crane woke slowly, blurry-eyed and disoriented as the strange dreams she’d been having slowly released her from their grasp. For a moment she was confused, but it wasn’t long until she remembered where she was — the low hum of the engines, the low light, the dull murmur of the other passengers… and the little seat she’d been stuck in for what felt like her whole life. Long haul international flights weren’t her favorite part of the job by any means, but she was grateful at least to have gotten a little bit of sleep. She was still going to be mercilessly jetlagged when she got off the plane, but the longer she spent asleep, the closer she was to getting off the damn plane. Planes weren’t good for women her height. Her sister was always comfortable wherever she went — Bec was about five foot four and flexible enough to curl up comfortably in just about any seat. But for Helena, who was just shy of six feet tall and had none of her sister’s stretchiness… well, it sucked to be stuck in a plane seat for any longer than an hour. And the trip from California to Scotland was definitely a bit longer than an hour. She tried to stretch her legs a little now, wrinkling her nose as they almost immediately made contact with the seat in front of her. At least she’d remembered to wear her comfy leggings. Her first long flight she’d made the mistake of jeans, and it had nearly killed her. That had been a long time ago, now — a postgraduate expedition to Australia to check out some of the ancient formations down there. It felt like an eternity ago now, but it really hadn’t been all that long since her college days. It was funny how time passed. As a geologist, she was used to considering time in terms of thousand or even hundreds of thousands of years… her own lifespan of twenty-six years was a blink of an eye in comparison.

But that wasn’t how it felt. Speaking of things that felt a lot longer than they were… she tapped on the screen in the front of the seat in front of her, not enjoying the reflection of her face that was showing in the dark screen. Nobody looked their best at the end of an international flight, and Helena was no exception. Her pale blonde hair drew what color there was in her face right out of it… she looked like a ghost in the reflection, dark shadows under her eyes were not helped much by the sleep she’d managed to get. Irritated, she rubbed her face with her hand… then winced, remembering that she’d been doing her best not to touch her face. It wouldn’t do to catch some horrible bug from the flight. Not when she was finally about to start on the first real holiday she’d had in years. She sat back in her seat after gathering that they still had an hour left before they landed in Scotland. It wasn’t all that long, really… but she was impatient, nevertheless. She wanted to get out into the fresh air, start exploring a country she’d never been to — always the most exciting part of traveling.

She traveled for work a lot — as a geologist, there were plenty of international trips that formed part of her work and study — but this trip was special. This trip was a holiday. That didn’t mean she wasn’t going to spend a little bit of it checking out the local rock formations, of course… there was a network of recently-discovered caves that she was eager to get into. But it wasn’t for work. Nobody would be checking up on her, nobody would be awaiting an email… if she took any notes, they’d be for her own benefit and nobody else’s. It was a wonderful prospect. She was pretty lucky to feel overworked, all things considered. Geology wasn’t exactly the most lucrative field, and scoring a position at the college she’d studied at was quite the feather in her cap. As a result, she’d spent the first few years of her career working incredibly hard to make sure she earned her place. Geology had been her passion ever since she was a little girl digging up rocks in the backyard and dreaming about how old they might be, what kind of impossibly long-term journeys they’d been on… she never let herself forget how privileged she was to be able to make a living in the field she loved.

For thousands of people, that just wasn’t a possibility. Still, she needed a rest. Her sister had been quite clear about that. Bec had spent her life ricocheting between a million different career options. At the moment she was studying to be a paramedic, which seemed like a good fit for her, but then again, so had the previous half a dozen choices, which hadn’t stopped her giving up on them. The problem with Bec was that she was such an enthusiast that she could find justification in pursuing just about anything in life… and then, six months later, she’d find even more enthusiasm on a different path. She’d figure it out eventually, Helena thought with a fond smile. There was something so amusing about the difference between the two sisters… Helena, calm and focused her whole life, steady as a rock on the career she wanted… then Bec, ever-changing as the wind. Earth and air… that was them. They complemented each other perfectly… and sure, they’d driven each other crazy when they’d been younger, but the more time passed, the more Helena appreciated her little sister’s whims.

They balanced her out. And for her part, she helped to keep Bec grounded. She wished her little sister had been able to come with her. They’d talked about it for a little while, back when Helena was still working out what to do with the annual leave she’d accrued. Her colleagues at the college had stressed the importance of avoiding early career burnout — and she knew for a fact she was heading that way, knew from the way stress seemed to build up easier and easier, the way she was getting overwhelmed by work more and more. Bec had suggested she stick a pin in a map at random and go where it landed — as a compromise, she’d agreed on an overseas trip, but insisted on choosing the destination herself. And she’d always wanted to go to Scotland. There was something about it… the pictures she’d seen of the misty moors, the wild beauty of the place. And then she’d stumbled upon an article about a recently discovered network of sandstone caves, made an idle comment to Bec about how she’d love to go spelunking in there… her little sister’s eyes had lit up, and that had been that. The trip was all but planned.

When Bec decided something was a good idea, nothing would stop her. She’d even wanted to come with her… but paramedic science was a demanding course, and it simply wasn’t an option for her to come along. Helena had promised to take plenty of photos. Secretly, she’d been a little relieved. As much as she loved her sister, spelunking was a hobby that required a lot of calm, focus, and planning… not exactly Bec’s strong suits, for all her enthusiasm. Yes — sightseeing and a bit of cave-diving; that was the plan. Helena grinned to herself as she heard the pilot start his announcement, pleased by how much time her daydreaming had killed. Within half an hour, she’d be landing in Scotland… and off on the adventure of a lifetime. She had a full two weeks booked in a little village near the caves, then she was going on a Contiki tour of the rest of Scotland, just to do a bit of more touristy sightseeing before she headed back home. It was going to be great.

Almost as great as it was going to be to finally get up and stretch her legs… The wheels touched down, and she breathed a sigh of relief with everyone else on the plane when the doors were finally opened. Helena got up quickly, wincing at how stiff her legs were, grabbed her bag out of the overhead compartment and headed down the crowded aisle toward the front of the plane. Cold air was already rushing in — she shivered a little as it embraced her, glad she’d packed a warm jacket in her carry-on baggage. Fumbling her phone out of her pocket as the plane’s passengers filtered into the terminal, she snapped a quick picture of the nearest sign — Inverness Airport. She was actually here. After months of planning, months of looking forward to the trip… she’d made it. Grinning, she sent the picture to her sister. No matter what time it was back home in California, she knew Bec would see it — sure enough, her sister replied with an instant stream of emojis. It was nice to know her enthusiasm was shared. It was midmorning, she realized as she fiddled with her phone to make time and date adjustments.

She’d already planned the trip over to the little village where she’d be staying — a cab ride was the easiest way to get there, and with any luck she’d be settled in and ready to make a start on exploring the area the next day. Today was a write-off — she could tell by how exhausted she already felt that the best she could hope for was to stay awake until nightfall, then get a good night of sleep. Jetlag was a killer, but she usually coped with it okay. She pulled her battered suitcase from the carousel, maneuvering it expertly through the crowds as she followed the signs to the exit. Already, she was getting excited about all the accents she was hearing — mostly Scottish, though a good range from all over Europe. She even recognized a few Australian accents — a couple standing by a coffee shop, arguing over where the best place to go for coffee would be. She grinned to herself. One of the things that had surprised her about Australians when she’d visited was what absolute coffee snobs they tended to be. Fair enough, too. She had to admit the coffee in Australia had been pretty damn good.

Speaking of which… she stopped at a little kiosk to order the biggest coffee she could, blinking a little at the man’s thick accent as he greeted her. “Where’ve you come from, then?” he asked cheerfully, his skillful hands flying over the machine with practiced ease as he got her drink ready for her. “America, I’d bet.” “California,” she said with a smile. “Business or pleasure?” “Pleasure, mostly,” she said with a smile. “I’m going cave-diving.” His eyebrows lifted. “Oh, aye? That’s what the young girls are getting up to these days?” “Some of them.” She smiled. “Well, times certainly have changed since my day.

Halfway across the world to go playing about in caves. My word. They don’t have caves back in California?” “Not like these ones.” “Ah, fair enough.” He grinned at her as he handed her a steaming hot coffee and she fumbled for her wallet with the other hand. “You enjoy those caves, then. Try and do a bit of above-ground sightseeing, too.” “Oh, yes,” she said, grinning. “I’ve got a tour booked — going to see a whole bunch of castles once I’m finished in the cave. I think there’s a ruin near the cave, actually,” she said thoughtfully, thinking back to the article she’d read.

The man looked interested. “Oh, aye? D’ye remember which one?” “Mac something. Castle MacClaran? I think it’s not much more than a ruin these days, but the foundations are still there —” But his face had lit up. “Castle MacClaran! Oh, that’s a good start. Watch out for witches,” he added, his eyes twinkling. “That one’s famous around here.” “For witches? Really?” She grinned at the thought, feeling a pang of regret that Bec wasn’t with her after all. Her little sister loved stories about witches and the supernatural. “Present day witches, or ancient ones?” “I guess you’ll find out.” The man chuckled.

She grinned as she paid for her coffee, already looking forward to spending more time in this country. Witches, huh? She’d have to see if she could bring back a witchy souvenir for her little sister. Helena shivered as she stepped outside the airport, feeling the cold air swoop in around her. It was only mid-autumn — far from the coldest Scotland was capable of getting — but still, the gray skies were foreboding, and she was very grateful for the warm jacket that she zipped up to her chin. A whole file of cabs were waiting, and she hastened over to one, waving cheerfully to the driver through the window and smiling as he hopped out to help her with her bags. And before too long they were away, leaving the airport behind them as they headed out onto the streets of Inverness. She had an address — a little bed and breakfast in the closest town to the caves, her room already booked and hopefully waiting for her. The cab driver raised an eyebrow when she gave it to him, a thoughtful look on his face. “Just holidaying, or…?” “I’m hoping to explore a system of caves that have been discovered nearby, actually,” she explained with a grin. “Is that right? All by yourself? What if there’s a cave-in?” She smiled.

“I’ll take all the precautions I need to, not to worry. These caves don’t run too deep, either — worst case scenario I’ll be able to make a phone call for help. It’s pretty safe, as expeditions go.” The driver nodded thoughtfully. There was pop music on the radio, and she leaned her head against the glass window, peering out as the city streets gave way, slowly but surely, to open countryside. It was beautiful here — the road wound through hilly, thickly forested country, and with the window open a crack, she could smell how fresh and clear the air was. It was a nice change from being stuck on the plane, that was for sure — and she was looking forward to stretching her legs. “Do you know much about Castle MacClaran?” she asked after a little time had passed, still curious about what the man in the coffee shop had said about witches. The driver chuckled. “Oh, aye.

It’s famous around here. It’s a ruin, but it’s got some of the best stories of any of the castles in the area.” “Witches, right?” “Witches,” he confirmed with a grin. “Witches and magic and curses and all sorts. It’s said that the Castle was a haven for witches for centuries… that the people of Clan MacClaran sympathized with them and welcomed them inside, despite the attempted interventions of the Church. Some even say that the witches married into the Clan, spreading their abilities through their descendants… mate of mine from school has the last name MacClaran. Gets no end of jokes about it.” She smiled, pulling her phone out to text Bec about these historical witches. Her little sister would no doubt have a take… sure enough, it wasn’t long before her phone buzzed in reply. “My sister thinks they were probably just regular, clever women,” she said aloud.

The cab driver nodded. “Aye, probably. There’s a long history of men calling anything they don’t understand witchcraft, unfortunately.” His blue eyes twinkled at her. “Then again… how do you explain the monsters?” “Monsters?” “Aye, the tales of monsters. Lurking out there in the fog… preying on anyone who gets lost in the fog on the moors…” She couldn’t help but giggle at the theatrical tone in his voice. “You just be careful about when you go walking alone… or the Black Annis might just eat you up like a baby lamb!” He grinned over at her as he pulled the cab over, and she realized with a start that they’d arrived at their destination. “You enjoy your trip, alright?” She paid him, tipping him extra for the stories of witchcraft with a grin, and waved goodbye as the cab pulled off and headed back the way they’d come.

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