Braden led her beneath the crossbar spanning a narrow path between two of the stones. Atop the limestone altar in the center of the site set her basket, the long stems of several plants sticking over the sides. The edge of her tartan shawl, bunched beside it, fluttered in the breeze. Braden paused in the shade of one of the slabs, a sudden wary tension in his stance.
Warm moist air looped around them. A prickling sensation fluttered over Coira’s skin as though a lightning strike had just dispersed. The smell of smoke lingered on the breeze. Braden’s grasp tightened upon her hand, holding her at his side.
More curious than alarmed, she ran a soothing hand down his arm. “Be at ease. There is nothing to fear in this place.”
She closed her eyes and embraced the power that lingered on the air like mist. Pulling away from Braden’s grasp, she walked clockwise along the edge of the circle. A low hum traveled through the bottoms of her feet to the top of her head, the vibration intensifying as she neared one particular stone. The Ogham designs carved into the pillar writhed black, against the reddish light the setting sun painted upon the slab’s surface.
The air grew still and weighted with moisture. She tasted it, like dew, on her tongue. Her skin grew damp. The sound of the wind, the movement of the trees, her own breathing, ceased. Her ears felt full as if she had climbed a tall peak and needed to swallow to clear them. What was about here?
“Coira—” Braden spoke behind her, his tone taut with wariness.
An area, head high, on the block wavered like something live wrestled within it. A bulge appeared pulsing, panting, as if the stone were giving birth. A shape thrust forward. Coira staggered back in surprise and fear, a startled cry torn from her.
Shoulders bowed, the figure stretched its neck back as though attempting to relieve the cramped pain of release. The head turned. A strange oval structure covering the top third of the face, a round disk covered the mouth with a black piece as thick as an eel attached to it. For a moment, the form retained the gray color of the limestone in which it was imbedded, and then the stone slid away like liquid leaving the flesh exposed. The features were feminine, her head, neck, and shoulders encased in something gray-black as a seal’s pelt. With a wiggle, and a sound like the release of suction, a single arm and hand flopped free reaching toward her.
The pale blue eyes that gazed at her from behind the strange mask reflected her same horror and fear. The wide cheek bones, the dark slash of her brows, the narrow bridge of her nose, mirrored hers in exact detail, and for a moment Coira thought she gazed at her own image.
With a twisting movement, the woman tried to break free of the stone, her chest heaving in and out as she attempted to breathe. Coira’s eyes stung with tears of pity. She could not stand aside and watch her die. She had to pull her free. Coira reached up to grasp the hand extended toward her.
“Nay!” Braden bellowed.
A current passed through Coira’s fingers and a force, invisible but strong, looped around her wrist like a rope and pulled. Fear lanced through her, bone deep. She braced her feet and leaned back, fighting against the power that sucked her forward against her will. As she looked up, the hand above her reached out like a black claw to grab her.
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Teresa J. Reasor