Highlander Made of Stone – Alisa Adams

She sighed. This was all because she had refused to get back on the ship—any ship, for that matter. She could have sailed down the firth right to where she needed to go, but instead, she had chosen to ride this bullheaded, stubborn horse who would not listen to her. And now she was lost. The woods were so thick and tangled with low-hanging branches and dark limbs that her gown and tartan were snagged with every step of her horse. Even her hair had come undone of its neat braids and coils from the branches and thorny vines hanging between the trees. She clung to her horse’s mane as she tried to duck beneath the overhanging limbs, but it was as if they had a life of their own and were determined to reach out to her like bark-covered claws to snatch at her clothing, her hair, and even her skin. She tried in vain to hurry her horse on, but he would not, or perhaps he could not. The forest was only getting denser, making it hard for her horse to walk over the fallen, rotting logs, and around the many thick brambles. They had trekked up and down the ravines and hills. She had not been skilled enough to guide her horse in the forest and had lost the path and her guards long ago. The horse had taken over, choosing the way, until she could barely see in front of her, much less behind her. She dared not call to her men, for there was something about the Black Forest that felt…oppressive, forbidding. Ominous. The sun had been lost as well.

The thick canopy over her head blocked out any attempt of golden luminescence to cheer her normally happy spirit. Suddenly, thunder boomed, reverberating through the dim forest and startling her horse. Rain began to fall, making its way down to her through the tangled trees. She was wet and shivering before the boom of thunder was followed by a sky-splitting, earthshattering, crack of lightning. In that tiny moment of starkly glowing, eerie blue-white light, she thought she saw something moving deep in the woods parallel to her. It was not one of her guards. No. This was something else. Something not of this earth. It moved slowly, crouching low to the earth.

Her horse grew increasingly restless, snorting and breathing heavily with fear. His head lifted high, and his ears pricked forward, listening to the silence of the shadows. He sensed something evil. She had been told not to come, that this was a haunted place. Her horse suddenly gathered his muscular body under her and sat back on his haunches and reared in terror. His front hooves pawed at the air as it screamed. When his front hooves touched the ground again, he immediately bolted sideways with a snort of fear. She had managed to stay in the saddle when he reared, but when he bolted to the side, she lost her hold on his mane as her horse went one way and she went the other. She landed hard in the wet leaves and dying, decaying debris that made up the floor of the Black Forest. She let out a painful “Whoop!” as she landed and immediately clamped her mouth tightly shut as she sat there, holding her tartan tightly around her shoulders.

Whatever that creature was had frightened her horse, for her horse was gone now too. She could hear his hoofbeats as he trotted quickly away from her as he crashed through the undergrowth. She peered into the forest. It appeared that the creature was gone as well. She hoped. She looked down at her skirts, all muddied and torn, and saw that her hose had come untied from its ribbons and had fallen down her skinny legs. It was puddled around her ankles with the pretty little ribbons frayed and covered in mud. She snorted softly and tried to laugh as she shook her head and pulled her hose back up each leg and retied the ribbons as best she could. She touched her light brown hair. It was spilling down her back, having come all undone from the fancy coils she had attempted.

She had wanted to arrive looking like the lady her brother insisted she be. Instead, she knew she looked a mess—a clumsy, tattered, muddy mess. She looked around again. She was all alone in the Black Forest. She sighed heavily. Her sister had told her not to do this. She had been told she was too trusting in her desire to respond to the vague message. She had wanted her own adventure, just like her sisters. She had wanted to do something—anything—important and helpful before her brother wed her to some overbearing Highland laird. This was not what she had imagined in her fairy-tale dreams.

Her sister had tried to tell her she was foolish. She had not listened. She had laughed it off, as usual. A twig snapped somewhere behind her just as thunder boomed and rumbled in the sky again. She whirled her head around to try to look behind her as she struggled to rise from the muddy ground. Just then, lightning split the sky open with a sharp, discordant, crackling sound. She peered into the eerie, white light, and in that brief moment, she thought she glimpsed a massive, huge body with grey fur coming toward her. But were those hands or were they claws she saw? And then her eyes met the creature’s eyes. She reeled back in horror, just as her world went dark. A sack had been thrown over her head as she screamed.

Lady Gracie Douglas’s last thoughts were of her sister Mary’s words. “Dinnae be so trusting, Gracie…” O 1 rmond Castle Several weeks earlier… Lady Gracie Douglas strode into Ormond Castle with the long-legged gait of a young boy and slammed right into her brother Bhaltairs’s chest. She bounced off him and fell backward to the stone floor onto her bum in a flurry of skirts, which had been tied up in a knot at her knees. She snorted out a laugh as she leaned back with her hands on the floor on either side of her. She looked up at her brother with twinkling mirth in her greenish-blue-colored eyes. Her laughter died at his dark look. Her brother slammed his hands to his hips. He was glaring down at her, looking over her messy hair, down to her dusty, dirt-stained, raised skirts, and over to her chipped fingernails. His glare stopped at her hose and turned to a fierce, disappointed scowl. She followed his angry gaze.

She smiled slightly. Only one of her hose was around her ankles! It had come untied from a new pink ribbon she had just used for the first time that very morn. The ribbon was too slippery and delicate to hold her hose, and it didn’t help that her legs were shapeless and skinny. She wrinkled her nose as she quickly pulled the hose up and hastily retied it. She inspected the other leg without any modesty in front of her brother. That hose was still in place, though bagging terribly beneath the knee. She yanked that one higher up her leg and tightened the bright green ribbon holding it in place. Then she untied the knot in her skirts and shoved her gown back down inelegantly to her ankles, and looked up with a smile at her brother once more. He was still frowning. “What?” she asked him with a wary frown.

She hoped it would not be another lecture about being so unladylike. I am trying. I truly am. Her brother Bhaltair sighed. “Really, Gracie?” His voice dropped to an angry whisper as he leaned down to her. “Must ye be so clumsy and show yer legs? Ye need tae learn tae act like a lady else I will never be able to find ye a husband,” he hissed at her just as a gentleman walked up to him. The man paused with a look of distaste down at Gracie, still sitting on the floor. He turned his head to her brother, lifted his chin high, wrinkled his nose, and sniffed as he gave an imperceptible shake of his head and left. He gave Gracie a wide berth as he went around her and out the door. “Who was that priggish fellow?” Gracie asked with a snort as she watched him hurry out the door and down the steps of their castle.

“And what color was that atrociously bright kilt he was wearing?” she exclaimed. “Orange and red?” Bhaltair reached down and yanked her to her feet. Rather roughly, Gracie thought with a huff of breath. Certainly not how one should treat a lady, nay, not at all. “That,” Bhaltair said in a curt voice, “was the tenth man I have beseeched tae come meet ye for a possible betrothal.” Gracie edged backward from her brother. “I see.” She put her hands behind her back and clutched them nervously together, tangling them in her pale blue gown. She knew her tartan was falling off her shoulder, and her hair was hanging down on one side of her head, having come undone from its plaited coil. Bhaltair advanced on her, looking down at her angrily.

“He saw ye out in the courtyard. When ye were running and knocked intae the manure wagon, and it dumped out, and ye slipped and fell in the…pile,” he ground out. Gracie cringed and nervously reached up to her hair. She was happy to feel that her plaited coil was still tightly in place on this side of her head. Only one side was hanging down. That was something to be glad of, at least. She took a breath and looked up at her brother. “I was chasing after a loose piglet for Mr. Fergus, and I didnae see the wagon,” she offered weakly. Bhaltair’s eyebrows rose on his forehead.

His face turned red as he sputtered and fumed. “Ye were chasing a pig?” he roared. “What kind of lady chases pigs?” he demanded loudly. Gracie backed away again. “’Twas only one pig…a tiny pig. A piglet, in fact. Nae a group of pigs,” she whispered guiltily. “I couldnae catch a full-grown, entire group of pigs. Ye are being silly, Brother.” She attempted some levity in what now did seem to be a foolish thing she had done.

Again. Drat it. Her brother Bhaltair’s face turned even redder, if that were possible. “Silly? I am being silly?” He looked her up and down with terrible disapproval. “At least ye arnae in breeks! Broc should never have let ye play at sailing! A lady, climbing intae the rigging and chasing a pirate!” “Ye sent me!” Gracie burst out as she took a step forward. “Ye sent me on the ship with Mary! And ye had tae know that ye were sending her tae a pirate. Ye had tae!” It was her brother this time who took a step back from her. His face changed, going blank and calm. “Ye will return tae Mary and help her with her new babe and those four wildling boys of hers. She is the only one that can teach ye tae be a lady.

Sadly, our mother passed before she could impart this knowledge ontae ye.” He sighed and placed his hands behind his back as he marched back and forth in front of her. “The lairds around the firth will be headed tae a meeting with the king, so I wilnae be here tae keep ye out of trouble. I will take ye tae Orcadian Castle, where I will meet Captain Broccin Orcadian and Laird Calder of Beauly Castle, and depart from there. I will tell Mary what I expect of ye.” He stopped and gave her a stern look. “And when I return, ye will be married tae the man I choose. No more coddling yer demand tae ‘meet him first.’ I shouldnae have allowed it in the first place.” He stared hard at her, like a commander to one of his lowliest men.

Gracie realized he was waiting for her to nod her head, so she did. She would indeed be glad to see Mary again. Perhaps she could put on her old breeks and sail one of the small boats out intae the firth. She frowned. No, she had had enough of the sea for some time. It had been an exciting adventure attacking the pirate and then sailing from the pirate intae the Corryvreckan whirlpool, but also harrowing and terrifying. Perhaps Mary can teach me how tae do my hair better so it doesnae always fall down, and a better way tae keep my hose up. Perhaps she could really become a true lady. It hurt her to see her brother so disappointed in her. That pain was greater than the thought of marrying a stranger and not having a loving marriage like both her sisters, Mary and Cairis, and even her brother Bhaltair had.

“What are ye thinking, Gracie?” her brother Bhaltair asked in a warning voice, interrupting her thoughts. “I was thinking how nice it would be tae see Mary again,” she said in a sweet, ladylike voice as she clasped her hands meekly together in front of her. Her brother steeled his eyes on her. He took a deep breath. “Ye will learn tae be a lady. Ye will learn tae run a household. Ye will learn nae tae run about free, like a boy. Ye are good for nothing as ye are now, Gracie. What can ye do? What have ye ever done but please yerself?” he said quietly with deep disappointment. He gave her one last sad look and turned and walked away without waiting for an answer.

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