‘Although the dream left her with a residual feeling of terror, she felt strangely hopeful.’
Extract taken from The Stone of Destiny
By Caroline Logan
Published by Cranachan Books
In her dream, Ailsa could see a golden-haired woman with a crown of branches. The woman held out her arms.
‘Come to me, my child,’ she whispered.
When she didn’t move, the woman’s face became angry. ‘You’ll never escape.’ Behind her, four large wolves appeared with glistening fangs.
Ailsa turned and ran through the forest, the wolves hot on her heels. She could feel their breath on the backs of her calves. Suddenly, there was a thud and the sounds of pursuit ended abruptly. She stopped and waited. Then she heard it.
Throughout the woods, the footsteps echoed. Ailsa turned to run again but realised her feet couldn’t move. When she looked down, they were encased in mud. It shifted around her legs as if alive; creeping up her skin and clothes, gnawing and sucking. Her heart beat wildly in her chest as she struggled to wrench herself free.
I’m going to die, she thought as she sank further into the ground. She tore at the dirt in front of her face, scrambling to find purchase. Her breath came out in desperate sobs but the mud continued to crush her body in a vice grip. As it pinned her arms, she looked up for someone, anyone, to help her.
That’s when she saw them.
Two large, red eyes glowing from between the trees.
Ailsa woke with a gasp, and sat up to remove the blankets that had become tangled around her ankles. She’d had the same nightmare many times before; the blonde woman was a new addition, though. She had probably seen her in the inn somewhere. Ailsa leaned against the headboard and allowed herself to wake up fully.
Although the dream left her with a residual feeling of terror, she felt strangely hopeful. Today, they would be travelling to Dunrigh. She had often wondered what it looked like but had decided not to risk venturing too near in the past. Ten people and a goat in a wee village she could handle. Thousands of men and women, packed closely together, watching and gossiping? She’d have been hounded in the streets if she were lucky. At worst, a mob would have lynched her on the spot. Regardless, she was curious about Dunrigh. There must be something worthwhile about the city, if so many people decided to stay there?
The mouth-watering smell of bacon drifted up to her nose through the crack under the door. The light peeking in through the little window told her that it was just after dawn. No doubt it would be a grey, dreich day, as usual.
Ailsa heard a faint whistling sound coming from Harris and Iona’s room next door. Unsure of who or what was making the noise, she rose to investigate.
The siblings had not locked their door, either in carelessness or anticipation of her visit. Inside, she found a narrow room, a twin to her own. The fresh smell of sea salt and citrus wafted about the room. Hers probably smelled like sweat; she hadn’t bathed last night.
Iona must already be downstairs. Harris, however, was still fast asleep and seemed to be the source of the whistling.
He snores? Ailsa grinned to herself. She’d have to file that useful information away for later. Stepping fully inside Harris’s room, she closed the door quietly behind her. Leaning against the door, she studied the unconscious lump in the bed.
He’d managed to find an undershirt and trousers to sleep in. His messy hair curled around his face, which had formed an unpleasant expression: his mouth was hanging open and drool was pooling onto his pillow.
It was still hard to believe that only yesterday she’d witnessed Harris change from a cute, injured seal into the slevering man that slept before her. She wondered, not for the first time, how his transformation actually worked.
Then, thinking about how infuriating he had been the night before, she stepped around the foot of the bed, creeping quietly across the rug-covered floor. Peering down at his sleeping form, she couldn’t contain her smirk.
Beside the bed, a glass of water sat on top of a side table. With nimble fingers she lifted the tumbler from its place and held it in one hand.
Let’s test some theories.
Ailsa dumped the water on his face.
Harris thrashed and, still half asleep, let out an almost scream. He wiped the water off his face, spluttering in surprise.
‘Sorry, Harris,’ said Ailsa in a honeyed voice, mischief glinting in her eyes. ‘I just wanted to see if you would turn back into a seal.’ She backed away from the bed.
He squinted groggily around the room until his eyes fixed on her.
‘YOU!’ he growled, sitting up. He would have looked menacing, Ailsa thought, if not for the hair plastered to his forehead and the lines his pillow had left on his cheek.
‘Obviously, I was wrong.’ Ailsa’s attempts to stay out of his reach failed when Harris dived towards her with a wail of fury and they thudded to the floor.
‘Let me go,’ she protested. ‘I’m sorry I got you wet!’
She tried to escape his grasp, but he held on strong.
‘Here, you can have some,’ he grumbled, shaking his hair at her. She grunted and pushed at his chest, but he just grinned wickedly.
‘You deserved it, you wretch.’
‘Don’t dish it out, lass, if you can’t take it.’
‘What in the Hag’s name is this?’ Iona shouted, appearing at the door. She towered over them with her hands on her hips, glaring down at their entangled bodies.
It was Harris who started giggling first. With one look at the hair streaked across his face, Ailsa let out a quick bark of laughter. With a gasp, she covered her mouth with her hand. She got up, adjusted her clothes and then marched from the room.
‘See you at breakfast,’ Ailsa threw over her shoulder.
What the hell was that? Ailsa thought. She would need to be more careful. She couldn’t afford to start liking her new companions—and that was a very bad idea. Because when you like people, they have the power to hurt you.
When Ailsa was young, other than her brother, Cameron, she’d only had a few friends. He had alternated between playing the doting older brother and wanting nothing to do with her. The best days had been when he let her tag along on adventures with his friends. The neighbourhood children were talented at sneaking away from their parents and didn’t have the same prejudices. Ailsa had spent her summers wandering around the woods, playing bandits and maidens with a gang of youths, long before the forest embodied her fears. The children knew their parents disapproved of Ailsa, but this had only made her friendship more appealing. They used to hide her round the back of their cottages and feed her treats like a pet. Then, when they played their games, she was always a lovely, good, faerie princess or a wicked pirate queen with her motley crew of cutthroats and scoundrels. Cameron had loved to parade her around them.
But it all came to an end the spring her mother died. Then Ailsa became a wandering orphan: an outsider not tolerated by the villagers. Afraid she would hurt him next, her brother had been taken away and sent to live with distant relatives. She still remembered the sorrow in his panicked eyes as he was led away from the cottage, kicking and screaming her name.
Later, towards the end of that summer, Ailsa returned to her house to find the door kicked down and the walls smashed. She gathered up her belongings, including a few of her mother’s trinkets, and moved on to the next town.
Even now, she couldn’t bring herself to think of the only other time she’d had a friend. He didn’t deserve to be remembered.
If you start to care, you’ll be disappointed when they leave. You can only rely on yourself.
The Stone of Destiny by Caroline Logan is published by Cranachan Books, priced £8.99