Her Highness and the HighlanderBy: Tracy Anne Warren
The Scottish Highlands
“Run, Your Highness! Run!”
Princess Mercedes plunged through the forest, barely aware of the stinging scrapes to her arms and face as she pushed past leafy bushes and low-hanging tree branches. Her lungs burned as she forced herself onward, her feet aching inside thin silk slippers that were no match for the rough, uneven terrain beneath her. She staggered slightly as the hem of her gown snagged on a piece of nettled undergrowth. With her heart drumming like a frantic bird’s, she yanked the garment free, not caring when the elegant green silk tore along one edge. On she ran, knowing that her pursuers were only yards behind, each of their long strides surely gaining on her own shorter ones.
Images of the attack flashed again through her mind—of her guard as they fought bravely against the band of ruthless highwaymen who had waylaid their coaches along the road.
Before that, everything had been calm, boring even, as she, her cousin Herr von Hesse, her maid, and the men sent to escort her on the long journey to London had traveled south. Only that morning she had set off from Countess Hortensia’s Academy for Elegant Young Ladies of Royal and Noble Birth and the Highland castle that had served as her surrogate home for the past six years.
Inside her coach, she’d been on the verge of dozing off, with the book she was reading lying slack in her hands when the first gunshots sounded. The horses had whinnied in terror and the men had shouted as the coaches drew to shuddering halts. More gunfire, then rough voices that mingled menacingly with those of her guard, before the metallic clash of swords began to ring out.
Suddenly the coach door on the side farthest from the fighting was wrenched open. The captain of the guard stood before her, his eyes fierce as he reached in to pull her out and onto the ground. “It’s you they want,” he said, urging her toward the thick woods that spread outward like a vast green ocean. “Go. Hide. We’ll search for you when this is over.”
“Yes,” her cousin said as he exited the coach after her. “Do as the captain says, my dear. We’ll find you once these thieves have been subdued.”
But she knew there was no one left to search for her—except her pursuers. For in spite of her guard’s best efforts, her last glimpse had been of them losing the fight. Even her cousin and her poor maid were dead, she realized with an anguished pang.
She was alone now and no one would be coming to her rescue.
She stifled a whimper as she heard the brigands crashing through the foliage behind her. They called to one another, their voices carrying on the wind with taunting ease, as if they had no doubt they would find her.
Did they want to kill her too?
Or worse? Because even she wasn’t naive enough not to understand that there were things in this world worse than death.
Her breath rasped loudly in her ears and a cruel stitch burned in her side as she forced her feet to keep moving ahead.
But ahead to where?
The forest all looked the same, dense and green and rough. She’d given up making any sense of her path and was hopelessly lost.
Hide, the guard captain had said.
But hide where?
She scanned the area, the nearby trees and bushes and rocks seeming to offer no likely place of concealment.
Then, without warning, she stumbled, the edge of her toe catching on an exposed tree root. Her hands flew out instinctively to break her fall and she landed with a muffled thud against the loamy earth, a tiny cry escaping her mouth before she could prevent it.
Everything grew silent—everything, that is, except the thunderous pounding of her heart. She heard the highwaymen stop and call to one another again. Her mouth went dry when she realized they had changed direction and were beating their way through the woods toward her.
This is the end, she thought as she bit her lip to hold back a sob. Any second now they’ll have me.
But then she saw it—a dark, narrow fissure created by a pair of large boulders. The opening wasn’t obvious, certainly not from a standing position. If not for the fact that she was lying on the ground, she would never have even noticed it. Better still, the opening was obscured by a wide tree trunk that had fallen at a slant in front of the rocks. The decaying wood was covered in a velvety carpet of lichen, moss, and mushrooms, the greens and browns causing it to blend into the surrounding foliage so that it appeared all but invisible.
With only moments remaining, she crawled as fast and quietly as she could. She ducked beneath the trunk’s surface, passing only a hairbreadth away from the wood, which was pungent with decay. She shuddered at the small army of insects moving in winding trails over the trunk, and did her best to ignore the creeping sensation that chased across her skin at their nearness. Reaching the other side of the fallen tree, she squeezed herself into the cold stone fissure beyond, then worked quickly to make herself as small and invisible as possible.