Woken By The Highlander – Rebecca Preston

Julia Andersen took a deep breath of the crisp fall air, pausing with her leg on a log just to take a good look at the view before she got more immersed in fine details. It was absolutely beautiful this time of year in the Adirondacks – it was beautiful every time of year, of course, but fall was especially gorgeous. The changing colors of the leaves, the wildlife making the most of the last of the summer warmth before winter set in… she just adored it. She could have lived without the half-drunk hunters she seemed to run into at every twist and turn of the trail, of course, but not everything could be perfect, after all. It was almost enough to take her mind off her breakup. It still stung, even though it had been nearly a month since she’d called it quits with Joseph. The relationship had lasted barely a year – though it was hard to say how long it really was, given how notoriously awful he’d been with commitment. He hadn’t even called her his girlfriend until two months after they’d started sleeping together. A parade of red flags, looking back on it, that at the time had just seemed like quirks she had to wade through to get to the golden heart she knew he was hiding from her. He was just damaged, she’d told herself. He was just waiting to make sure she could be trusted. If she just proved that she could be everything he’d ever dreamed of in a woman, then he’d finally come good and surprise her with all the romantic gestures and words of love she’d dreamed of. In the end, he’d dumped her via text message. So much for fancy words. At least she was out of the city.

New York was exciting, but unbelievably draining … especially over summer, when the wet heat and swarms of tourists had been especially grating on her. Working as a freelance wildlife photographer was a stressful gig, never sure where your next paycheck was coming from, relying mostly on residual income from her various online platforms to make rent and make sure she could eat for the next week at a time. So, when she’d been offered this gig upstate, exploring the Adirondacks and getting some spectacular fall footage for the state’s tourism board, she’d leapt at the chance. The timing had been absolutely perfect, too. She didn’t want to be in the city – not when it reminded her so much of Joseph. All his ideas for dates had just been walking the streets of the city – promises to ‘show her the real New York’. She’d been living there twice as long as he had, but she’d gone along with it anyway, pretending to be amazed by the fairly pedestrian attractions he ‘showed’ her… Julia gritted her teeth, aware that her mind was straying back to resentful thoughts of the breakup again. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t do this. Joseph had always hated nature – that was why getting away upstate to get some shots of the Adirondacks was such a great idea for her healing process. Besides, the hefty paycheck she’d been offered was enough to cover her steep studio rental for a full six months.

Not bad for a fortnight of work… so long as she delivered on her promises of great footage. So far, she was doing okay. She’d gotten lucky a few times – earlier that day, she’d got some gorgeous shots of a couple of squirrels who seemed to be playing in the fallen autumn leaves. The nature shots were a piece of cake, too. There was a creek around here, surrounded by red-bedecked trees reaching up into the clear, flawless fall sky… she’d spent an hour there getting more footage than the tourism organization could use in a year. But the hunters were making it difficult. They always did, but this year seemed particularly bad. Barely an hour went past when she didn’t hear a distant – or not-sodistant – shotgun blast, followed by shouts and cheering. Julia had always hated hunting. She’d had a soft spot for animals her whole life – it was a huge part of why nature photography had always drawn her.

Knowing that there were people who reveled in shooting the animals she so admired with lead, not with cameras… well, it always made her feel sick to her stomach. She could take solace, this year, in the fact that none of the hunters she’d encountered seemed sober enough to hit anything at all, much less the swift wildlife she was encountering. Still, she whispered silent prayers of protection after every encounter with a bird or an animal, hoping against hope that her will could somehow keep the animals safe from the hunters and their rifles. She grimaced now as she heard another few shots echo through the trees, closer now. They must be following the same trail as her. Well, it had been a long and very successful day… and if she was about to get caught up by a pack of noisy hunters, it might be best to call it quits for the afternoon. The shadows were getting long, and she’d already gotten a good range of dusk shots over the last few days. And she was pretty worn out. She’d been pushing herself pretty hard the last few days, trying to get as much work done as possible, and she could tell by the way her thoughts were growing anxious and repetitive that the strain was hitting her. Maybe that was why her mind kept returning to Joseph… Was it really too much to ask for a little romance? she wondered.

Her boots crunched through the fallen fall leaves as she set off walking again, this time making her way toward where she’d parked her hire car – she’d been doing loops of all the various walking tracks this particular part of the national park offered, and had just about covered the whole park’s worth. She was more than earning the big meals she was putting away at the bed and breakfast she was staying at – maybe all the extra walking was why her athletic figure wasn’t yet showing the pints of ice-cream she’d been treating herself to as breakup consolation prizes. Ice-cream treated her better than Joseph ever had… and satisfied her a lot better too, she thought savagely, a smile coming to her lips as she headed down the gradual incline of the trail she’d hastened up earlier that morning. He’d regret it, she knew that much. She was out of his league, professionally and physically. He was some boring finance dude with a FiDi job he hated and a beer belly that didn’t seem to budge no matter how much he bragged about biking to work every day. She was a cute-as-a-button redhead who still got flirted with on the subway just about every day… often with words a lot sweeter than the ones her so-called boyfriend used for her. Great job, great personality, great figure… how the hell had she let herself settle for someone as shitty as Joseph for so long? Some kind of spell he’d cast, no doubt… some kind of weird attraction he’d exercised, something about how distant he’d seemed, how she’d had to work for every scrap of affection, to pierce his gruff, disinterested demeanor. Well, his gruff demeanor hadn’t hidden a heart of gold – it had hidden yet more asshole. Asshole all the way down.

He’d done her a favor by dumping her. Which didn’t mean it didn’t hurt… and didn’t mean that the pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the minifridge in her room wasn’t going to get absolutely demolished tonight. The sun was lower in the sky than she’d thought, and she was just thinking that it was a good thing she was heading back – the air was beginning to get that tell-tale chill that spoke of winter being on its way – when she heard a sudden fluttering of wings in the trees to her right. Julia automatically lifted the camera around her neck, knowing even as her muscles leapt into action that it was too late to get the shot… but something was wrong. The sounds the birds were making were urgent, desperate… and her eyes widened when she heard the sounds of crashing footsteps close to her. Had the hunters really caught up with her that quickly? No – she realized the footsteps weren’t coming from the path behind her. Had they cut through the forest? Julia frowned at the thought of the damage they were probably doing with their enormous boots, turning and striding away toward the carpark, knowing that if they caught up with her properly she wouldn’t be able to resist picking a fight… Then an unbelievably loud noise went off, so close to her that she felt her whole body flood with adrenaline. Like it belonged to another person entirely, she felt her body hurl itself to the ground to get below the gunshot’s range… and just like that, terrifyingly quick, there was nothing but blackness. C CHA PTE R 2 old. Cold, wet, damn… Julia wrinkled her nose as her consciousness came back to her in a rush, and absolute befuddlement haunted her for a moment or two as her eyes flickered open.

Had she fallen asleep on the trail somewhere? She didn’t remember lying down to rest… and she’d have known better, with upstate New York’s reputation for ticks and Lyme disease… but as her eyes slid open those concerns were replaced almost instantly with far more immediate ones. Like the enormous body of water she’d just found herself immersed in. Confusion mounted as she suddenly started paddling her arms and legs, feeling a jolt as she realized her head had been just about to slip beneath the surface. But where the hell was she? This wasn’t where she remembered being… there was a stream that ran through the park she’d been walking through, sure, but it was nowhere near this big. From the moonlight that shone down on the waters around her, she could just about make out that the body of water was much bigger than even the little lake that the stream ended up in… which she’d been miles away from, at any rate. And it hadn’t been the middle of the night, that was for sure. The cold, more than anything, prompted her to start swimming, a shiver that was wracking her body and making her feel concerned by the numbness beginning to set in around her extremities. The knowledge that her phone was in her hip pocket and probably ruined set in a few strokes in, and she opened her mouth to swear… just in time for a little wave to slap her in the face and fill her mouth with water. She closed it, wisely. Her camera around her neck was less of a worry – it was water-resistant to several feet underwater, a decision she’d made when her last camera had been lost during an afternoon trying to capture images of salmon swimming upstream over rapids.

Her camera had dropped into the water and that had been that. Honestly, sometimes she thought she mourned the shots she’d lost more than she mourned the expensive camera she’d had to replace. Julia didn’t let herself panic. She wasn’t in the habit of allowing herself to panic about anything – she just focused on the next step, on whatever she needed to do to get into a situation where panic was no longer necessary, and action, as a general rule, would short-circuit the desire to freak out. Swimming was doing that, for now. She could see the shore of the lake, or whatever body of water it was she was in, in the middle distance, knew that she’d make it comfortably – she’d always been athletic, a strong swimmer and a good runner, too. Once she was there, with her feet on solid ground, she’d give some thought to just where the hell she was – and how she’d managed to lose several hours of her memory. Within twenty minutes, she felt her feet hit rough, stony lake bottom, and she breathed a sigh of relief as she began to trudge uphill toward the shoreline, water cascading from her sodden clothing as she neared the sandy shore of the lake. Beyond the crescent of sand, she could make out a flat area that might have been a road… but not one made of asphalt that was for certain. A dirt road, running alongside the lake.

And in the distance – light. She peered in that direction as she shook one leg then the other, waiting for the water to rush out of her sodden clothes, shivering in the chilly night air. It was definitely autumn, she could tell by the chill in the air… at least the season hadn’t gone and changed on her. What the hell had happened over the last few hours? Where was she? The backpack she’d been wearing was gone, she realized with a grimace. No real loss there – it had just been snacks and a few extra layers of clothing in case a chill set in or it came over rainy, as it so often did without warning in the Adirondacks. There was something different about the climate right now, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on… but she chalked it up to her sodden state, to the slight shock her body was experiencing. She did a few jumping jacks, trying to keep her body temperature up as she worked through the last hours. That huge noise, close to her. She’d dived to the ground to avoid being shot… very action hero, she thought, amused despite herself. Then… nothing.

No. Not nothing. She frowned, water dripping from the tip of her nose, as a memory came floating back to her, as nebulous and hard to grasp as a dream the morning after. Something about… something about tall, elongated figures who seemed to shine from within with such a bright light that their features were obscured. Something strange about them… something ethereal, ephemeral, and yet paradoxically eternal. Something about them that made her mind automatically flinch away, knowing she’d never quite understand. But under it all… something that told her they were friends. What kind of bizarre hallucination…? Was it possible she was shellshocked as a result of the gunshot that had gone off so close to her? Had she suffered some kind of trauma? Biting her lip, she looked down at her body, half expecting to see an enormous gunshot wound that she’d somehow managed to avoid feeling with the cold of the water… but no, she was completely intact, clothing and all. Her boots were soaked through – they’d take the longest to dry – but thankfully she was dressed in wilderness gear that was designed to get wet but still keep her warm. She wouldn’t be dying of exposure any time soon.

Still, it was chilly out here.

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