Hello Print Posse readers…
This month, each of us will post for you a short excerpt from our novels. My excerpt comes from Chapter 7 of The Mark of the Cagairáin.
An historical paranormal romance set in eighteenth-century Scotland, The Mark of the Cagairáin is a story about a girl who can tame the undead with her words and the boy who chose to become undead to keep her safe. If you enjoy your romance sweet, with a dash of suspense, then The Mark of the Cagairáin is for you 😀
Where is that little rascal?
I hovered at the edge of the woods, scanning the knee-high grasses of Duart’s Moor. It was a bonny spot, with tall, scraggly trees speckling the heather-strewn field and a bubbling brook meandering through its middle. Every now and then village markets would clutter the heath, spewing noise and smoke into the highland air. Now all that remained was a broken cart, several shards of wood and a few piles of junk, scattered across the moor like debris washed up on the seashore. Although I could’ve sworn the faint smell of spit-roasted meat mingled with sodden moss lingered in the air like a forgotten thought.
Something flashed white through the grass, rocketing past some boulders and disappearing among the gorse and broom. I took off after it, snagging my skirts on thorny weeds and tripping over rocks and fallen branches. The moor winds assailed me, rifling my sark and lashing my hair across my face. My breath rasped in my lungs.
“Laddie,” I called, between gasps. “Wait!”
I’d almost reached the bridge when my foot rolled in a ditch. Pain speared my leg and I tumbled to the ground, the air rushing from my lungs in an oomph. Overhead, clouds scudded across the sky, wispy ghosts fast on their way to nowhere; a willow warbler mocked me with its cheery song.
I don’t know how long I sat in the grass cradling my ankle. Five minutes. Ten maybe. Long enough for my breath to slow and the pain to dull. Long enough for the moistness of the ground to soak through my skirts and spread across my backside like creeping mould. I pressed my hands to the spongy ground and pushed myself to standing, gingerly applying weight to my injured leg. Fortunately, it didn’t seem too bad. I probably couldn’t run, but at least I wouldn’t have to crawl home.
Oh no! At the thought of home, my stomach sank. I’d left the linen in the churchyard. Mammy was going to kill me.
Awareness tiptoed up my spine, one vertebrae at a time, and I turned, expecting to find somebody standing behind me. But no one was there. Goose bumps erupted across my flesh. I could’ve sworn I’d felt eyes on me.
“Hello?” Sunlight rained from above, warming my arms and the back of my neck. I strained to hear something, anything, over the hiss of the wind, the gurgle of the brook moseying by. “Is anybody there?”
A stiff breeze accosted me from behind and I whirled, my gaze darting left and right and back again. I was alone – at least that’s what my eyes were telling me. But for some reason, I couldn’t shrug off the feeling somebody was lurking nearby – watching me, following me, stalking me. Taking one shaky step backwards and then another, I spun on my heels, lunging for the bridge and the grassy knoll beyond. My ankle shrieked in objection but I managed to stifle a cry.
The beast came out of nowhere, clawing me, shredding me, crippling me with agony. It was so black, as though the deepest, darkest depths of hell had solidified and come to life – a living, breathing nightmare. The impact sent me flying. And when I say flying, I mean literally flying – my feet left the ground. And even though I would’ve only been airborne for seconds, it seemed longer. I was keenly aware of the air howling in my ears, the trees rushing past, the ground hurtling closer, and then the grass tearing at my face. I skidded several feet before I crashed into a tree. Luckily for me, my head cushioned the impact.
Well, maybe not so lucky.
My mouth tasted like dirt and blood. It was murder just to breathe. I rolled onto my back, turned my face to the sky, and every inch of my body screamed. Wind scored my cheeks as sharp as razors. Sundrenched air burned like fire on my skin. And even as the coldness of the earth seeped into my limbs, warmth spread across my chest, thick and wet.
And then I remembered.
The hell beast.
I opened my eyes. Pine needles waving overhead merged into focus and then the bright blue sky beyond. Where was the damned thing? I slowed my breathing, concentrated on the prick of grass into my back, the panicked beating of my heart. The edges of my mind frayed, long strands of cognisance fluttering free, and I honed in on the weak, almost imperceptible pulse of raw hatred radiating from the bushes to my right. The skin at the base of my neck tingled, and very slowly I swivelled my head.
Oh please, oh please, don’t let this be real.
A monstrous dog the size of a small cow crouched among the leaves and thorns. Its eyes were as red as blood, its fur as black as night. And as it crept closer, one big black paw at a time, it was as soundless as the moon. I’d never seen anything like it, but I’d heard stories – stories of giant beasts that roamed the countryside. Phantom dogs. I suddenly had the oddest impulse to laugh. This dog felt pretty damn corporeal to me.
The wretched beast inched closer. My heart beat so fast, I feared it might break through my ribcage. What was I going to do? I didn’t even know if I could move let alone fight off an animal like this. With my eyes fastened on my attacker, I reached for my sgian dubh, stretching my arm, my hand, my fingers as far as they would go. But the knife taunted me – its blade hard against my thigh, but beyond all reach.
Barely a foot away, the beast halted. It lifted its shaggy head and sniffed the air, its hellfire eyes scanning the scrub. I froze, gaping up at long yellowed fangs dripping with saliva, at hackles as shaggy as a lion’s mane. My teeth hurt with every breath it breathed, raw and grating like glass dragged over gravel. Everything inside me screamed at me to flee.
And then the stench hit me, so foul my stomach didn’t stand a chance. Death. Despair. Desiccation. I averted my face, wretched the contents of my guts all over the cold hard ground. When I finally collapsed, red eyes impaled me. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and thought I was going to die.
A snarl so vicious it sent shivers up my arms shattered the quiet, and something white streaked through the heather. The nightmare beast howled and reared up on its hind legs. My ears stung, the cry was so piercing.
Propping myself up on my elbows, I squinted against the glare of the sun. Something was hanging from the beast’s neck, something small and hairy. Whatever it was, it was holding on for dear life and wasn’t about to let go. The beast swung its head, jaws gnashing empty air. Somehow it managed to wrap its paws around the wriggling body and tear it from its throat. The wail that followed ripped my heart in two, high-pitched and distinctly dog-like. I knew that wail.
The beast sank its teeth into Laddie’s body and with one mighty shake of its head, flung him to the ground. Laddie whimpered once, then fell silent. Ignoring the pain, I scrambled towards him, fingers clawing the earth, knees skidding and tangling in my skirts. The beast hulked possessively over the little mongrel. Very slowly, it lifted his head. I stopped still, paralysed. Two searing red eyes burned into me, and then a voice as ancient as the wind whispered in my head.
Perspiration dripped into my eyes, ran down the side of my neck. Hair clung to my cheeks in wet chunks. I stared at the beast. It couldn’t have spoken to me, could it? The beast cocked its head to one side, stared right back at me, silent, unblinking. And then, taking its time, it stepped over Laddie and padded towards me – coming so close I could see beads of moisture congealing on its black velvet nose. Its rotten scent streamed up my nostrils and I gagged. Thankfully this time I kept from puking.
Blood trickled from its mouth, splattered my arm. Laddie’s blood. I lurched backwards. “Get away from me.”
The beast froze. And in the time it took for me to wipe the sweat from my eyes, it vanished. All that was left, a gaping hole in my chest, and Laddie’s lifeless form in the dirt. “Laddie…”
Sobbing, I sagged back into the grass, shock and grief washing over me like the blood saturating my clothes. I was tired, so, so tired. Blackness pushed in around me like an old friend. I closed my eyes and welcomed it, longing for release from the pain. But just before I lost consciousness, I thought I heard something that didn’t seem quite right. Something out of place. Something sinister.
A laugh. A woman’s laugh.
Or maybe it was just the wind.