An excerpt from Unsolved by Heather Critchlow

An excerpt from Unsolved (Canelo) by Heather Critchlow one of the shortlist authors for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize.

Click HERE to read our interview with Heather.


LAYLA, 1986

Layla presses her face against the horse’s flank, soothed by the warmth of her body, the softness of the chestnut hair. Eager to be out, Ruby skitters; her hooves clatter on the chuckies and she traps Layla against the fence. As she pushes the animal’s side to move her away, Layla feels the thoroughbred’s coiled energy, a sense of danger and unpredictability. Quick to temper when crossed, the mare has bitten other riders in the past. Layla understands the impulse. Some days she wants to tear chunks off everyone around her, to gnaw her way out of her life.

She tightens the girth and springs into the saddle, a fluid, effortless movement. Stephen has told her more than once that she looks at home on the back of a horse, though these days his admiration is tinged with something else, resentment at the way she treats him, or maybe envy – that there is one place she feels happy and it isn’t with him.

She doesn’t need to press her legs into Ruby’s sides, just takes the reins and thinks forward and they are away, trotting out of the yard. She relishes the feeling of power beneath her. One touch and they could fly and be free.

Then Jim rounds the end of the block, carrying a full hay net over each shoulder, wisps trailing in the breeze. She had hoped to make it up the track before he came back.

‘Layla, wait,’ he calls, his face dark with anger that she has left him the byres to muck out, the ricks to fill. It isn’t just that, she is sure. His words still echo in her mind. Cock tease. It makes her stomach clench, but she swivels in the saddle, waves, pretends not to hear or to care. She doesn’t have time for him today. She doesn’t have time for any of them.

‘Bitch.’ Jim spits the word but, thanks to Ruby’s rising stride, by the time it reaches her it has lost its power, falls to the ground, flaccid.

At the top of the track she pauses to look back at the view, holding the side-stepping mare in place. Twenty-one years of growing up beneath these hills and the landscape is never static. Beyond the stables, she sees clouds racing across the patchwork Aberdeenshire countryside, notes the purple smudge of a distant rain shower. Now that she is free, her anticipation releases – delight spins beneath her navel at the thought of what lies ahead.

She scans the yard below, makes sure no one is watching, then she turns the horse up towards the wood, gathers her for a burst of speed and the jump – up and over the ditch, wall and wire. Layla’s breath catches at what feels like a vertical spring. The breath-holding danger, and then she is out of sight, her heart galloping.

They weave through the tight-knit trees, following the path that is not a path, the one only they use. The forest is close and primeval – alive with brilliant moss, neon-green and soft where it covers rocks in thick layers. Above her head, lichen is strewn among branches, as if some forgotten river rose here and left it stranded. The trees drip with moisture and the air feels alive, as if everything is pushing her forward, conspiring, leading her astray. Layla shivers at the notion.

But then Ruby snorts, shakes her head to loosen the pull of the reins, and the feeling vanishes. The horse’s hooves slip a little on the sodden ground and Layla has to concentrate – must take care not to catch her leg on one of the tree trunks that crowd the narrow gaps they shimmy between.

As they leave it all behind, she starts to breathe more evenly, to allow the tight defensiveness she wears to loosen a little. The horse walks more easily; they flow together, away from the things and the people that try to hold them down.

She glances at her watch. Still an hour before she has to be there and the thought of it makes the hairs rise on her arms. She has time to take Ruby to the edge of the trees, to the wide fields where she can let the horse loose and her hooves will churn the soft ground. When the gallop is fast enough that fear flashes through Layla and the wind makes tears pour down her cheeks, then she can forget the world for a moment, forget her place in it and the cage closing in on her. There is only movement, nothing more.


It is dark when Ruby thunders into the stable yard: riderless, panicked. The horse’s red coat is dark with sweat; her eyes roll white and she foams at the mouth, her whole body shaking. The stable hands come running.

Jim catches her bridle but she wrenches her head away from him and rears, squealing in pain. It is only then they see the deep gash on Ruby’s back leg, the blood pouring from her hock. It takes four of them to coax her into a stable but they cannot get near her. At midnight the decision is made. A vet shoots the horse.

The decision to stop looking for Layla takes longer.


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