Celtic legends collide with modern sensibilities and style in this contemporary gothic tale.
Sarah MacAlpin has always felt like an outsider. Raised by her Scottish grandmother deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Sarah grew up with one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. Her childhood friends were the stuff of ancient Celtic legends.
But Sarah's seemingly idyllic past hides a horrifying secret. As a little girl she watched her mother's inexorable slide into madness. She hasn't let her past stop her from building a good life for herself. She is a graduate student with good friends, a boyfriend and a career preserving Appalachian culture all planned out.
Until she meets Dermot Sinclair. The handsome Scot seems to be dogging her every step. At best he's a colleague who can help her research. At worst, he may be stalking her. All Sarah needs to finish her dissertation is one folk song that proves her thesis. Unfortunately, finding that song also means unlocking some painful childhood memories and a dangerous destiny set in motion generations ago. It's a destiny that might get her killed.
Sarah was still a bit breathless from dancing as she picked her way through the sea of tents and fallen revelers. The music from around the fire wafted over the campsite, and she caught herself wondering if Dermot was still dancing. She told herself that her concerns about him were irrational. In the short time she’d known him, he’d been charming, sardonic, and maybe a little arrogant, which proved nothing beyond the fact that he was Scottish. He’d given her no reason to suspect him of anything other than wanting to be her friend. By the time she reached the tent she and Amy shared, she had determined that she would have to be nicer to the man.
A breeze whisked through the campsite and stirred her hair. It brushed the back of her neck like icy fingers, cold even for the mountains. As Sarah bent down to unzip the tent, a flash of white near the tree line caught her eye. She straightened up and stared into the woods behind the tent, trying to catch a glimpse of the thing. “Hope it’s not a skunk,” she thought, bending down again and opening the tent. She had crawled halfway in when she was stopped by a sound behind her. It was an odd sound, not a gasp, but like air being sucked in quickly between teeth. Sarah turned her head to look over her shoulder just in time to see a woman turning away and walking toward the trees. From her position half in the tent, she only saw the woman’s legs and the trail of her white skirt. Sarah backed out of the tent and took a few steps toward the woods.
“Wait,” she thought…but before she uttered a word the woman turned to look back. Sarah’s breath caught in her throat as she found herself staring into her mother’s eyes. They stood frozen for a moment. Then Molly turned and walked deeper into the forest. Sarah trailed after her. They wound through the trees and around rocks. Molly always managed to stay a few steps out of Sarah’s reach. Even in the dark, she could see the crown of spring flowers ringing Molly’s head, just as they had done nineteen years before when Sarah had put the crown there. Molly was moving faster, almost running, and Sarah tried harder to keep up, afraid she might lose sight of her in the trees. She wanted to call out to her mother, asking the questions that had lingered in her mind for years, but she was nearly out of breath. Sarah threw herself forward, trying to catch Molly, but she disappeared around an ancient and sprawling tree. Sarah rounded the trunk and stopped dead.
Molly was standing in the center of a clearing. Her face was a blend of sadness, fear, and anger. She leaned from the waist toward Sarah and spoke a single word. At first there was no sound, like someone had hit the mute button. Then the word came to Sarah in a gust of frigid wind that hit her square in the face.
Sarah plunged into the clearing, but Molly vanished just as Sarah reached the center. Sarah spun around, looking for her, but there were only trees and stones and silence. On the ground at her feet was the crown of flowers. Sarah knelt to pick it up. When her hand touched it, there was a flash of white light. Sarah looked up and into the eyes of an old woman whose face was kind on the surface, but her eyes were hard. The woman reached down and took Sarah’s hands. She began singing as she pulled Sarah up to stand. The woman’s voice sounded old, older than the giant tree on the edge of the clearing, older than the stone, as Granny used to say. It was a song Granny had taught her about the king lost in the mist. The verse ended with the words that had rolled around in Sarah’s head for five years—her grandmother’s last words, in a language she couldn’t understand.
Another flash of light transformed the clearing into a cave and the old woman was gone. The air was cold and damp. She heard heavy breathing behind her and turned. In a silvery shaft of light, a couple was making love on top of a large square stone. The man’s back was to her, but Sarah could see that he was fit and young with dark hair. Over his shoulder, she caught a glimpse of honey-colored curls. Sarah stepped closer and to the side until she could see more of the woman. She tried to be quiet. The vision seemed so real she was afraid to disturb them. With a gasp of pleasure, the woman raised her head and turned to her. Sarah felt a stab of pain deep in the pit of her stomach, and her breath caught in her throat. She stared aghast at herself there on the stone with this faceless man thrusting into her. Her other self started a second at seeing her, and then her face seemed calm, self-assured. She knew this would happen.
In another flash Sarah was in the upstairs hall of her grandmother’s house. She was standing in front of a door. She didn’t have to wonder what was on the other side. She knew. She started to turn away, but the door opened by itself and Sarah saw Molly fall limp to the blood-soaked bed. She ran to the bed as she had done on that day years before. Knowing she couldn’t stop it but desperate to ask why. Molly lay lifeless before her, unseeing eyes gazing at the wall above. Sarah lifted her head to see what her mother had been looking at. It was there on the wall, scrawled in Molly’s own blood, the only message that her mother had left: Ruith.
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Meredith R. Stoddard is a writer and fiber artist living in Central VA. She studied literature and folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before working as a corporate trainer and instructional designer for 11 years. She now devotes her energy to fiction and creative non-fiction. When her hands are not holding a book or touching a keyboard they are likely knitting, spinning or felting. You can follow her adventures in fiction and fiber on her website.
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