Highlander’s Cursed Heiress – Kenna Kendrick

Gale looked up at the sun. The last time she checked to see how much light she had left in the day, it seemed as if she would have more time to find somewhere to sleep for the night. Now, as the sun melted behind the mountain tops, there were still hours before full nightfall, but she’d failed to account for the mountains. Dusk flooded the valley, threatening to blind her with darkness within an hour. A stray wind whipped down and pulled at Gale’s cloak. She pulled it close to her body, shivering against the sudden temperature drop. Her heart pounded as she looked around. Hours had passed since the last time she saw a house or a human at all. The road wound across the valley. In the distance, she could see the dark sponging of a forest, well out of her way. Yet for miles ahead, the land was open and vulnerable, save the occasional outcropping of rocks piercing through wildflowers and moss. What have I done? Gale thought. She’d not accounted for the mountains stealing so much day, and now the thought of making camp in the open frightened her. The other nights were hard, but she’d lucked out, and the days stretched on longer. Gale stared at the dark tree line, now only a shadow.

The roughhewn road reflected some light, a pallid snake curling through the dusk. Her mind filled with horrible thoughts— bandits, travelers drunk and cold and aggressive—and of course, wild animals hunting for a meal. There was no way she could sleep out in the open. Her fire would beckon one and all nearby, and at this point in her journey, strangers terrified her. She remembered the cruelty she’d met from the first villagers she solicited for help. With the respects of her title stripped from her, she was a common girl, now filthy and hungry from traveling in the same clothes for weeks. I should have never sold the horse Gale chastised herself as she walked faster. It had been necessary, though. The horse would have given her company and helped her, but she would have starved or frozen. Each night was colder than the previous as she made it further north.

She had a blanket and a dwindling supply of food. The cheat robbed me. Gale tried to push the memory from her mind. She didn’t know anything’s price. She knew her horse was worth more than she received, but it was her first time haggling. Her fear of the darkness and what danger might come with it fueled a million terrible thoughts in her mind. Anger coursed through her as she remembered the farmer’s stoic face while she begged him for an honest trade—a feat in itself that injured her pride. If not for how hungry she was at that point, she would have waited, but she had never gone two days without food before. The man knew she was desperate and naïve. A small rock tripped up her foot.

“God’s teeth!” Her heart dropped into her stomach as she stumbled forward. The palms of her hands tore against the packed earth and small pebbles. Tears gripped at her. She sniffed them back, remembering how much harder they made it for her to think and make good time. Gale tipped her matted blonde head up to the heavens and let out a sigh. The clouds were too thick. Even when the stars peeked out, it was unlikely for her to receive much light. Her hands trembled as she wiped her nose on the edge of her cloak. Calm down. She forced herself to take a deep breath and step forward.

Just get to the trees. The thought of her bed, so warm and comfortable with fire blazing in the hearth, came to mind. Gale squeezed her eyes shut hard enough for specks of light to spark against her dark eyelids. She couldn’t think about home. She knew what memories would come next. There was no use in thinking about how nice it would be to eat a full meal and sleep in a real bed. It was not going to happen. She could never go back home. Gale took one more breath, and as she exhaled, she focused her full attention on the forest. I can make a bed of pine and leaves.

What about animals? It felt as if some small creature crept from the nape of her neck to her spine. She shook the thought of bugs and creeping things from her mind. Out here is worse. The hours passed. One foot at a time, one small step at a time, she drew closer. Darkness enveloped her until even her pale hands were hardly visible in front of her. When the forest was near enough to tower above her, she started to run. She ran as if all her fears were right behind her. It was if, at any moment, the hand of a strange man or a bloodthirsty thief would snatch the collar of her cloak and rip her to the ground. Her feet slipped on the moisture slicked grass.

She let out a soft cry, catching herself and carrying on. Just a little further. Her hands reached out. The rough bark gripped at her fingertips. She let the momentum of her sprint wrap her around the tree as she caught her breath. The forest was instantly darker than the road. She groaned as she looked into the blackness before her, hoping for her eyes to adjust. Gale looked back and forth between the open stretch of land behind her and the darkness of the forest. The black branches spread out like claws. The rustling of small animals piqued her ears and stirred dark imaginings in her mind.

She heaved her rucksack onto her shoulder, cringing as the rope cut into her tender flesh. The young woman mustered up the courage to take a few steps into the trees. She didn’t want to lay in the open, easy for a passerby to accost, her few items too valuable to lose. The darkness was worst, though. She stopped when she could no longer see the road, hoping it was good enough to keep her safe. Gale pulled the foliage into a pile and wrapped herself tightly in the wool blanket. The cold air bit at her nose, and her body ached from walking and carrying all that she owned. She pulled the blanket over her head, creating a cocoon for her breath to warm. The nights were always the hardest. She was tired and frightened and overwhelmed.

Without the landscape and focus of her journey to keep her mind occupied, the past haunted her. Don’t cry, don’t cry, Gale tried to tell herself as she felt the lump swell in her throat. She promised herself she would not cry anymore. It was of no use, no matter how much she felt she had mourned enough, the nights always broke her. The image of her father’s face —distorted, swollen, and blue came to her as clear as if she had found him the night before. She pulled her blanket closer and wiggled deeper into the dried leaves and bits of brush. Visions of her home swirled up. She could not remember her father’s laugh or the sound of his voice. Guilt coursed through her as she struggled to recall the only person who’d made her feel loved. She remembered how she saw her mother the night of his death.

Even though there was nothing she could have done, she should have known something was terribly wrong. Heavy sobs wracked her body. She let them come, crashing over her like waves. Gale choked on her cries, wailing soft into the silent privacy of the night. When her throat dried and she choked, coughing until she was forced to breathe and calm down, a nervous sleep overcame her. Since leaving home, she hadn’t slept soundly. It was easy to recount all the ways she took her plush life for granted. There was constant fear on the road, and it came into her dreams. A branch snapped in the distance. Gale’s eyes flew open, and her body stiffened.

She clung tight to the wool cloth, afraid to move, straining her ears for another sound. Another broken branch—barely audible—cracked. With trembling fingers, Gale pulled the blanket down just enough to peek at the woods around her. She dared not to move more than necessary. Within a few yards, big yellow eyes stared at her. They floated in the darkness like hungry spirits and froze the blood in her veins with their ravenous gaze. The rustle of foliage whispered behind her. She dared not look, but she knew she was surrounded. She could feel the tension hanging in the air. The smell of dank fur carried on the breeze sending the hair on her arms and neck prickling up at attention.

Up above, the wide branches of a mighty oak stretched out. It was her only hope. Gale curled her fingers around the edge of the blanket, knowing the second she moved, they would attack. She closed her eyes for a moment to calm her heart and imagine what she needed to do. Gale tore the blanket from her body and jumped as fast as she could to the nearest branch. Her fingers threatened to slip as she hugged the wide bough curving outwards above her makeshift bed. The trees exploded with movement. She struggled to pull herself up. There was no thinking or lapse in time as she jumped to the next branch, hoping it was strong enough to hold her. Jaws snapped in the darkness below.

She squealed as claws scraped the bark just beneath her, unable to see anything except their eyes in the dark woods. The young woman thought she was dead. She muttered prayers under her breath. “Ach! Please, God, please no.” The bark roughed up her small palms and cut at her knees as she scrambled up the tree. Gale did not look down. She jumped in her skin, almost losing balance as one of them leaped, jowls snapping close enough for her to feel its hot breath. Gale’s hand reached up for the next branch. It snapped in her hand. She screamed out and clung to the trunk.

Holding herself there, too scared to move. Never in her life had she climbed a tree—not like this. In her youth, the farthest she dared to clamber up was the occasional low branch swooping towards the mossy floors— even that was a private, naughty endeavor for a lady. To think, that filled her with adrenaline and a sense of adventurous mischief—and now, she was high enough to kill herself, and surrounded by wolves. Her heartbeat calmed enough for her to look down. She could make out the faint movement below her. The darkness slithered back and forth, circling the trunk. Occasionally those eyes would flash up at her, bright and vexed at missing their meal. The pack started to howl. “Go away!” More tears choked her in her panic.

Her voice was weak and unconvincing. She tried to calm it’s nervous shake, “Get out o’ here!” she screamed. It was no use. Gale stood there, clinging to the trunk until their howls calmed down, and her arms ached enough to shake. She looked around her. There was a branch adjacent, wide enough for her to sit. Her fingers stretched out, barely grazing the limb. She would have to jump. Her eyes looked down. They were tearing through her things.

She stayed clinging to the trunk as long as she could, knowing if she didn’t leap to the other branch, she was sure to have her muscles give out beneath her and land amongst the hungry, waiting wolves. With a deep breath, Gale took the leap of faith. Her chest slammed hard against the bough. She gasped for air and clung for dear life, her legs kicking beneath her. Tears squeezed from her eyes as her feet flailed below. She could hear the wolves’ excitement, whimpering, and growling. She tried to pull herself up, but her muscles ached. Teeth snapped, clipping her boot. Gale screamed. Terror and primal instinct ripped through her.

She pulled with all of her might and wiggled her chest above the branch. With newfound courage and focus, fueled by fear, Gale managed to swing her feet up. She laid there panting, terrified of moving, hugging the tree for security. She opened her eyes to see the wolves leaping at her, taking turns. Each one startled her, and she cried out anew, afraid that the next jump would be the one to reach her. The wolf’s leap fell short by a couple of feet. “Please, jus’ leave me alone,” she begged. The wolves ignored her pleas. Hopelessness clasped her heart. She was too scared to sit up despite the branch being wide enough to hold her.

Gale was terrified of moving at all, and despite how exhausted she was, she knew to fall asleep likely meant her death. There goes the last of the meat, she thought after her heart stilled a bit. The sounds of the wolves tearing through her belongings dragged her heart down. The most she could hope for was that the blanket was not torn to shreds, and her waterskin remained intact. To comfort herself, Gale imagined what her destination might look like. She imagined Rosalie’s new home to be extravagant now that she was married to the McGregor’s clan chief. The thought of tender meat and a warm bed kept her from giving up and letting her muscles to relax. The problem was, it was hard to find comfort when she didn’t know how far she had come. It felt as if she’d spent months walking from her keep on the Scottish border. There was no telling how long she still had to go until she reached Loch Awe in the highlands.

In her mind, she tried to replay the journey. Years passed since the last time her father and mother traveled together to Loch Awe. The memory was painful—not only because of the deep longing in her chest for her beloved father but for all of the dramatic madness which ensued on that journey. They traveled in a cart then. What she would do for a chance to be holed up in a cart right then, an experience she’d loathed and complained about in the past. Confused and overwhelmed, exhaustion made her eyelids heavy. She struggled to keep them open. The wolves refused to leave. Despite her struggles, sleep arrested her. She snapped wide awake as one of her toes slipped from the branch, reawakening the fear inside of her.

Down below, the wolves howled, waiting for her to lose her grip and fall so they could feast.

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