Extract from The Shining Stone

The Sentinel loomed out of the snow mist like a wraith from its grave. It was just a rock, with little to justify the skull mark that Grandfather Annan had given it on his sketch map. Danger from what, I wondered. Snowflakes?

 I hadn’t seen a single soul for well over a moon, let alone the fearsome bogles he’d warned me about. ‘The Skraeling will rob you, the Skarag will tear the skin from your back,’ he’d said. ‘But I’ve taught you how to fight, and you know how to hide well enough.’

 But snow? Here in a rock desert? It was the Moon of the Ripening Fruit. Winter proper was surely four, if not five, whole moons away. The flakes were getting larger and falling more thickly, the cold gnawing at my bones. I hadn’t seen the sun for a whole moon and the night-black cloudbank now gathering in the eastern sky meant one thing – a big storm was coming.

 It had taken me over thirty days to cross the White Mountains on the trail of my missing kin, another sunless five across the Karst, and it would at least be one more, I reckoned, before I’d reach the river crossing for Erainn. Hopefully there, along the pilgrim way, I’d pick up their trail. Meantime, I needed to find shelter from the approaching storm. In strong winds, in a landscape this open, I feared for my little goatskin bender.

 The Sentinel’s bent-over tip, like the proboscis of some giant insect, pointed down towards a huddle of jagged stones. Approaching them, I came to a yawning crevasse: a Karst sinkhole, but far bigger and wider than any I’d seen before. Its sides were packed with boulder scree running down to where a fast stream tumbled among the rocks. On the nearside was a pebble beach – a good place to set up camp, and there might even be fish in the falls and pools.

I wondered about Grandfather’s danger mark and his warnings about predators, robber ghosts, flying lizards and the like. Bogle bosh! I decided I’d take my chances.

 I clambered over the lip and yelped as I slid down the scree, stones flying around me. At the bottom, I picked myself up  and stood for a moment on the pebble beach. Previous travellers had made a fire- circle by the water, a neat ring of rocks. The stones were blackened from use, but the spent coals in the centre were green – many moons old. I jammed my alder poles between two large boulders and stretched the goatskin over to make a roof. Then, using streamside flotsam, I made a pyramid inside the fire-circle, sparked it alight with my flint and was soon warming beside the flames, congratulating myself on my choice of campsite. It occurred to me that if my kin and their Aguan guides had spent any nights in the Karst, it might well have been here.

 ‘Look for a god stone,’ Grandfather had explained. ‘Everything – as it moves, now and then, here and there – makes stops. Even the sun, wind and moon. So, a wanderer must also stop, make a prayer there to Yahl to win a blessing and place a god stone.’

 Perhaps my father had done this right here. I looked about for the signature god stone of our tribe – a thin rock placed upright with a forked twig and single pebble at its base. But there were none to be seen.

 Collecting water from an eddy at the side of the stream, I looked at my firelit reflection on the surface – the white skin, pale blonde mane and long nose of the Albin with the blue eyes of the Eronn, the tribe of my mother. I was every inch fully fledged, a hunter–warrior taking his place in the wider world, confident in my skin. But I was here alone in a lonely place; and seeing my face in the water, together with the absence of the stone that might have connected me to others of my kind, I felt suddenly homesick.

 My thoughts were interrupted by flickers of movement in the stream. Fish!

 I threw off my robe and fur collar, stowed them together with my sword, small bow and quiver inside the bender, took a deep breath and dived into the chilly waters – right into a shoal of darters. I swooped towards the largest, the water tugging against my limbs. Suddenly I was in the grip of a strong current. It was pulling me down. What felt like walls closed round me – I was hurtling through a tunnel. I tried to turn, kicking backwards and scraping at the rock walls with my fingers. But it was useless: the vortex sucked me along as if I were a dried-up twist of grass.

 Water seeped into my lungs, forcing the oxygen from my body. Something thudded into me. I was tossed onto my back, and I glimpsed a dull red light above. I lunged towards it with all my might, my very last breath – and shot upwards.

 My head broke the surface. I gulped in welcome breaths and coughed out water, my vision blurry and my head ringing. As I began to breathe normally, I looked about me. I’d emerged into an underground rock pool, in the centre of a gigantic cavern. Pale jagged rocks jutted all around, some thrusting up from the floor, others hanging from the roof like the teeth of a huge beast. They flickered red, as though tipped with blood. The air was heavy and sour-smelling, sulphurous. I shook water from my ears, and they picked up a wave of cackling and humming – and something else, repetitive – like chanting.

 My heart began to pummel. Someone – something – else was here!

 I paddled soundlessly to the side. There was a rock shelf just below the surface of the water. I heaved myself on to it and peered out over the edge of the pool.

 Some way away from me, over by the wall of the cavern, was a fire – the source of the red light. Beside it was a pyramid of – were they bones? A stream of dark red liquid, flecked with black foam, trickled from the pyramid’s base. On a rock pedestal above, three huge bird-like creatures stretched their necks and nodded at the wall beyond the fire.

 I caught my breath as realisation dawned. Skarag, exactly as Grandfather had described them – the size of wild pigs, covered in dark scales with huge yellow talons and long black beaks. Winged snakes – not bogles.

 The sight of them, the realness of them, was revolting to the eye. But worse was the smell that came from them, sickening to my stomach, a stink of ordure and rotting flesh that made me retch. One of them whipped its head in my direction. I ducked my head below the pool edge and hand over mouth, crouched on the shelf and waited, shivering with cold and fear. But nothing happened, no attack or burst of flame from its horrid throat. Gradually, I inched upwards and peeped over the edge again. But the Skarag was looking the other way – at a large hollow in the cavern wall.

 Two figures in dark robes lurked there. One was on his knees, yellowed arms held above his head, palms together in prayer pose, shaking so much he looked like he might fall over. The other stood, waving a smoking bowl. They chanted and bowed at an object draped in a dark cloth which sat at the edge of the hollow on a platform that looked to me like a temple altar.

 I stretched higher out of the pool to get a better view. And froze.

 A bulbous, spider-like beast with a myriad of slit eyes, gaping mouths and writhing tentacles was slithering from the hole towards the altar, humming and snapping. One of its tentacles whipped out and pulled the cloth off the object. I glimpsed something crescent in shape that glimmered bright silver-gold like a small sun. There was   a flash, like lightning, but weak and short-lived, before the tentacle engulfed it and drew it into its foul gullet. Then I heard a cry – a desperate high-pitched keening like someone trying to hold on in the final throes of life.
 Impossible though it seemed, this was a cry for help. The object, whatever it was, was calling to me – trying to draw me out of the water, urging me to intervene. My eyes filled with tears; I felt a tugging on my chest. A fellow creature was in distress. Without thinking, I began to crawl out of the water – then caught myself. Whatwas I doing? I had no sword or bow. Nothing to take on any of these creatures. What would I be rescuing anyway? I could no longer even make out what it was! I paused, half in, half out of the water and stared at the awful scene playing out before me, unable to look away, yet unable to act.

 The keening stopped, replaced by a trumpeting sound that rattled and vibrated around the cavern. There followed a silence so complete that all I could hear was the drip-drip of water falling from a stalactite into a puddle on the rock floor. The beast was quiet, its horrid jelly-like form quivering on the spot.

 Suddenly, it broke the silence with another trumpeting roar, and then with a massive squelching sound it disgorged something that flew into the air, landed with a dull thud, bounced a few times and slid across the cavern floor towards the two robed figures, coming to a stop at their feet. They threw up their arms and shrieked an unearthly invocation while the beast scuttled back into its cave, tentacles trailing, until it was no longer in sight.

 One of the figures picked up the object and examined it, rolling it over and over in its claw-like hands. It was the crescent-shaped object, no longer shining, but coated black with a strange slime. The other brandished a red-hot, three-pronged iron shaped like a claw, and pressed it to the object. Thick smoke poured upwards. The smell was horrific, like burning putrid flesh. The Skarag set up a fearsome screeching, so shrill I had to cover my ears.

 The figures turned away, but before they left, one stooped to pick up a flaming brand from the fire, then rushed towards the cave where the monster had retreated and threw the brand in. There was a howl of pain and fury, followed by a loud crack that echoed and rolled like thunder around the cavern walls, the vibrations so severe I felt the ground shifting under my feet; the rock shelf I was crouching on began to crumble. I fell backwards into the water, rocks cascading and splashing all around me. The bird-lizards shrieked, dropped from their pillar and flew towards me, barbed talons raking the air.

 I dived deep; my only thought was to get away. But I was back in the vortex, being hurled downwards, the breath knocked from my lungs, a stabbing pain between my ears. I’d escaped those dreadful creatures only, it seemed, to drown like a rat. My chest burned. Lights exploded behind my eyes. My body stiffened.

 Then the most extraordinary thing, a shadow, seemed to wrap around me and, claiming my body, lifted me up.

 I was being taken.


The Shining Stone is available from Amazon