'It's a fool who meddles with the old stanes. Tae become enthralled by the hush of their call is to change your Fate forever - to harm them, the peril o' yer kingdom…'
Ash 'n Bone
Now is answered what you ask of the runes:
It is the fool who meddles with the Stanes
Cold air nipped at her fingertips, sharp as knives. All around her the darkness moved like a living shadow, threaded with long fingers of mist. It was an awful place. An in-between place, neither night or day. The air tasted rotten, like mouldering leaves at the back of a graveyard, and her breath rose up in trembling little white clouds around her head. Merida shivered. Ice crystals had begun to form on her hair and eyelashes. The cold was unbearable, but worse was the panic beginning to thrum against her breastbone. She wasn't alone in this lonely place, and the realisation chilled her to the bone more than the crunch of snow beneath her boots. Slowly, she turned, forcing herself to face the thing lurking in the har, and almost cried out in fright.
It took a second for her to adjust to the light, and another to realise the fourteen figures standing in a ring around her were not human. She stood at the centre of the stone circle - a place all too unpleasantly familiar. The old folk of Dunbroch called them the Clanach Sluagh; a foul set of jagged black teeth grinning out of the hillside, their roots buried deep in the rock. The presence of the stones seemed to thrum with energy and brought to mind an image of twisted, deformed figures- creatures frozen for all time at the very moment of their death.
A rumble of thunder rolled over the land, followed by a flicker of sheet lightning as Merida counted swiftly, puzzled. There were fourteen stones in total.
"There should only be thirteen," she whispered to no one in particular.
She counted again.
The fourteenth stane had been brought down five years ago by her mother, Queen Elinor of Dunbroch, crushing the demon bear Mor'du beneath its immense weight. And yet there it was before her. She recognised the standing stone by its crooked back, taller than its brothers by a good four feet. There was something strange about the inky blackness of its surface against the grey in-between world. Loneliness radiated from the megalith; of more than that, something troubled, but cunning.
And angry, so very angry.
Merida did not notice she was reaching for it before she snatched her hand back, as if burned.
She looked down at her hand in shock. Her body had seemed to move without her permission. Even now, the giant megalith was drawing her in. It had a magnetic quality that was impossible to resist, even though every fibre of her body was now screaming at her to stop, to run, to hide. There was something human about the way it bent its crooked peak into the wind, and the air whistling through the stane's nooks and crannies almost sounded like pleas to her ears.
She crept closer, unable to resist. If she touched it.. if she touched it, would it turn to look at her? Would a face appear in those sharp angles and jagged edges? It was so much darker than its brethren and the spider-webbing of cracks across its surface pulsed like tiny veins. The whispering was growing louder. Now she was sure it wasn't the wind, and her heart caught in her throat. Her eyes drew upward and in that moment a thunder clap split the sky, followed by a flash of lightning which drained the remaining colour from the land. Blinding light transformed shadows to ink and pale to white, and then she saw it:
Black hands like thorny branches, great maws like gaping caves. A dreadful gawping face in the rock.
Merida heard herself screaming even as she woke, her bed sodden with sweat as she scrambled to untangle herself from the sheets. Her mouth was dry and her tongue felt thick and furry. There was a metallic taste at the back of her throat as she gulped down great lungfuls of air. It took her a second to realise she was still in her bedroom, safe inside the protective walls of Castle Dunbroch.
"Only a nightmare," she whispered breathlessly to herself. "Only a bad dream. Pull yourself together, you big jessie." She forced a laugh, but it sounded hollow even to her ears.
She looked around, drinking in the familiarity of her bedroom with hungry eyes. The room was lit with a cosy orange glow from the fireplace, where red embers still crackled lazily away. The castle was silent, but it was a full, peaceful kind of silence. Comforting, like an extra layer of protection to Dunbroch's walled citadel.
Merida curled her knees up to her chest, wrapping goose-pimply arms around her shins and hugging them tight. She was surrounded by people in every room, the castle full of sleeping bodies warm in their wee beds, but the loneliness of that awful place in her dream had followed her into waking, clinging like long tendrils of mist to her hair. Every alien sound - a creak of floorboards, a distant fox's cry - became the menacing chant of the Clanach Sluagh.
And every dark shadow became that dreadful face.
Merida was a Princess of Dunbroch. She had responsibilities, duties, expectations. She was surrounded by people day and night.
But right now, she never felt so alone.