In the country, fishing boats return with their crews mysteriously vanished while farms are left empty, their owners gone into the night, meals still on the table. In the cities, children disappear from the streets or even out of their own beds. The King tells his people that it is the work of selkies – mythical creatures who can turn from seals into men and back again – and witches. But no matter how many women he burns at the stake, the children are still being taken.
Fallon is a man who has always dreamed of being a hero. His wife Bridgit just wants to live in peace and quiet, and to escape the tragedies that have filled her life. His greatest wish and her worst nightmare are about to collide.
When an empty ship sails into their village, Fallon follows the trail to the truth behind the evil stalking their land. But it is a journey that will take them both into a dark, dark place and nobody can tell them where it might end ...
The Last Quarrel: chapter one
by Duncan Lay
Fallon had one last quarrel. One shot to save his family and protect the kingdom. To his left, he could hear Devlin screaming – a hoarse, juddering cry that tore at his eardrums. Behind him, Brendan was smashing at a helmet with his hammer.
“This is it, your one chance to be a hero. Don’t miss!” Gallagher screamed at him.
Fallon nestled the butt of the crossbow into his shoulder, lined it up on the target and let out his breath gently. All his life he had trained for this moment. If he missed, there would be no excuses.
The bolt flew straight up into the air, disappearing into the blue sky.
Fallon lowered his crossbow with a furious curse and spun around to see his son pelting towards him, arms and legs going in all directions.
“You mean I made all that noise for nothing?” Devlin said with disgust.
“Well, it made us laugh. You sounded like a maiden with a hedgehog stuck down her dress,” Gallagher told him.
“Enough!” Fallon cut off his friends. “What is it, son?”
Kerrin slowed to a stop beside them, puffing and red-faced. Fallon groaned inside at the sight. He would be coughing tonight, no doubt about it, and he, Fallon, was going to get the blame for it.
“The Duke’s ship … it’s coming here but there’s something wrong,” Kerrin puffed.
They hurried around the corner of Devlin’s barn until they could look down to the harbor and see the Duke’s ship heading towards tiny Baltimore, every sail crammed onto its masts.
“Don’t tell me, the seals at the headland have turned into selkies and are attacking it.” Brendan grinned.
“What are selkies?” Kerrin asked.
“Evil water spirits. They look like seals but can turn themselves into men and use their magic to drag you down to a watery grave,” Devlin said with relish, hooking his fingers into claws.
“They’re not real. They only exist in old wives’ tales and Devlin’s thick head,” Fallon corrected, knowing that if Kerrin were woken by nightmares, it would be considered his fault.
They looked again at the ship, which was still under full sail rather than slowing as it approached the shore.
“What in Aroaril’s name are they thinking? They’ll never be able to stop in time!” Gallagher cried.
“Come on, we have to get down there!” Fallon led the rush down to Baltimore’s little harbor. As he ran he worried what the Duke was doing, sailing in as if the Dark God Zorva himself were behind him. As the Duke’s man in the village, he was responsible for Baltimore. Was it something about the taxes they should have sent to the Duke’s castle at Lunster? Everyone cheated on taxes!
“Hide some of those fish racks and anything silver! And for Aroaril’s sake put on old clothes!” he shouted at villagers as he ran past.
But most Baltimoreans were racing to the water’s edge to see the ship heading for disaster. The village was nestled where the river Balty met the coast, and a huge hook of shingle- and stone-covered land stretched out from the river mouth into the sea, providing a natural breakwall from the power of the waves for the village’s fishing boats. Except the Duke’s ship was heading right for the end of that hook.
“Dad, what shall we do?” Kerrin asked, puffing.
Fallon muttered another curse. He should have told the lad to run home instead. “Just remember to duck behind Brendan if anything bad happens,” he said.
“That’s what we do anyway,” Devlin added with a wink.
The crowd was starting to back away and shout with alarm as the ship raced towards the end of the hook – right where the villagers had placed extra huge rocks to slow down the power of the sea.
“Aroaril, this is going to be bad,” Fallon groaned, then raised his voice. “I need boats out now! We’ll be fishing the Duke out of the water in a moment! And someone get Sister Rosaleen, because there’ll be men to heal!”
“Most will be dead,” Gallagher warned.
“Were they attacked? Maybe the steering is jammed or something?” Devlin wondered.
“How would that stop them taking down the sails?” Gallagher snorted.
“Maybe they’re all locked in the hold?” Brendan said.
“Shit! And I’ve only got the one quarrel left,” Fallon cursed. “Kerrin, maybe you could –” he cut himself off. It was safer there, where he could keep an eye on him.
The ship ploughed on, then a gust of wind and backwash of wave turned it slightly, so that it just brushed against the rocks with a scream of tortured wood. The ship seemed to stagger and then the sails billowed full of air again and it picked up pace across the bay, heading right for the crowd.
“Get back! Get away!” Fallon shouted, waving his hands in the air.
“Shit! The boats!” Gallagher pointed.
Hidden from the drama by the high bank of the shingle hook, the men Fallon had told to launch boats had just begun to row a pair of fishing vessels out into the small bay.
“Get out of it!” Fallon roared at them.
They gaped at him, then the Duke’s ship had rounded the hook and loomed over them. One crew backed oars furiously, hauling themselves out of trouble, but the others were too close and instead leaped for safety as the tall oak prow of the Duke’s ship crunched over the low sides of the wooden fishing boat, rolling it down and away.
“Something is very wrong,” Devlin muttered as villagers streamed back from the shore, shouting and screaming.
“You only just worked that out, sheepdick?” Brendan shouted.
Crushing the rowboat had not stopped the Duke’s ship at all – in fact it picked up even more speed in the calm water and surged out of the bay and up onto the shore with a grinding crunch, the bow gouging deep into the sand.
The villagers were clear of the area but Fallon feared the ship would topple. Instead, with a creaking of timbers and groaning of ropes, it shifted slightly, leaning over to the right, its sails still billowing. Everyone held their breath but, while it stayed put, nothing and nobody came over the side, and the only calls for help were from the three men who had been thrown overboard when it had crashed through their fishing boat.
Fallon only spared them a glance – the other boat was already moving to rescue them.
“We need to get on board and see what’s happening,” he said loudly. “Soon as we find out, we’ll need a dozen men to go up the mast and bring in those sails.”
“Good idea. But who are the idiots who are going to go on board and get their heads ripped off by whatever killed the crew?” Devlin asked.
“That would be us.” Fallon slapped him over the head. “Remember? You three are my special constables. Time to earn the silvers you get from the Duke each moon.”
“But I thought we just had to sit around making silly noises as you practiced all the time for the day when trouble came to the most boring village in the land,” Devlin said.
“Well, lucky us, because today’s that day,” Fallon said grimly.
“How do you know the crew’s dead?” Brendan grunted.
“You’re right. They’re probably all having tea with the Duke in his cabin and lost track of time,” Devlin thumped Brendan on the arm. “Of course they’re bloody dead. Maybe they angered the selkies and they came over the side and dragged them down to the depths. Or witches came and took them away.”
“Wh-what should we do?” Kerrin asked softly. “Are there really selkies and witches?”
His face had gone white and Fallon could see him shaking. He didn’t blame him. The rest of the village was hiding behind huts and rocks and fish racks and peering out nervously. Where was Bridgit? She knew the Duke’s ship was coming and her absence could only mean she was hurriedly getting dressed to meet the Duke, a process that Fallon knew could take some time. By the time she emerged, it would all be over, one way or another. He could make the watching men join him. They might be fishermen and farmers normally but they all owed the Duke a duty. He just had to order it and they must form the fyrd, a fighting company, with whatever weapons they had. Fallon made them train once a moon for just that eventuality. But maybe this was not the time to call on them.
He dropped to one knee. “Listen to me,” he said softly. “I want you to run back to your mam and tell her the Duke’s ship has crashed and I have to go on board to see what’s happened. Can you do that for me?”
“I don’t know,” Kerrin said, his lower lip quivering and his eyes seemingly full of tears.
“You can do this for me. I know you can. You’re ten summers old now. You are strong and brave. Straight home. Fast as you can now!” He patted him on the shoulder and Kerrin raced off.
He watched the child go for a long moment, then stood and glanced at the ship. “I hope there is something evil lurking on there, ready to tear us apart. Because if it doesn’t rip my head off, Bridgit will.”
“Should we send Devlin on first? He’s so small they wouldn’t even notice him,” Brendan suggested.
“Or Brendan first. Even a pack of selkies wouldn’t be able to eat all of him,” Gallagher said.
“We could dangle Gallagher’s legs on there. They’re so long we could be standing in safety while we see if anything rips them off,” Devlin said.
“We all go together,” Fallon told them, looking them over and thanking Aroaril that he would have the three of them by his side.
Brendan was a massive man, a full hand over six feet, with huge arms and shoulders and a large stomach as well. He had shaved his cheeks, leaving just a moustache and beard under his chin, which made his face look longer. But his eyes were always smiling and he was a true gentle giant. Gallagher spent most of his life on the water and, although he was younger than the rest, his face was browned and lined from years of wind and saltwater and his red hair was faded. He was tall, only inches shorter than Brendan, and thin and quiet compared to the other two. When he spoke, though, it was usually worth listening to. Devlin, on the other hand, was always talking. He was a farmer, and he often said his animals never talked back to him so he needed to speak as much as possible when he was around others. He was a head shorter than Gallagher but nearly as broad across the shoulders as Brendan, his hands huge and roughened from years of working. He had thick black hair and a bushy beard and was always ready with a jest.
Fallon wondered what they saw when they looked at him. He was of average height, falling in between Devlin and Gallagher, with wide shoulders from all the sword and crossbow practice, and a stomach that was only winning the battle against his wife Bridgit’s cooking because of all the running he did. His dark close-cropped hair was fading at the temples, and he scraped his throat clear of bristles, keeping his beard short and only on his face. His nose was too long and his brown eyes set too deep under bristling brows for anyone to ever have called him handsome, and he knew his ears stuck out too much as well. He took a deep breath. Time to stop wasting time and see if all the training was worth it.
“What’s this I hear about selkies attacking the Duke’s ship?” Sister Rosaleen asked, puffing, as she arrived at the run.
“Those boggers are just full of shite, Sister.” Fallon shook his head. “We don’t know what it is.”
The young priestess had arrived at the village two moons earlier, replacing old Father Reece, who had finally been called up to serve his God personally. While they all appreciated her piety, she was far too serious for Fallon’s liking. She was tall too, and her fair hair was scraped back hard from her thin face. Her brow was currently furrowed with concern and her grey eyes were worried.
“There is no such thing as witches. And selkies do not exist either. But I should come with you, just in case,” she said firmly.
“Sister, I appreciate the offer. But this is what we are paid for,” Fallon said, equally firmly.
“They don’t pay us enough for this,” Devlin whispered; Brendan deliberately stepped on his foot.
“I will stay out of the way. But I will be coming along. It is my duty,” Rosaleen said.
“No. Not until we have searched the ship,” Fallon declared and strode towards the ship before Rosaleen could say any more.
As he got closer, he paused for long enough to cock his crossbow and load the last quarrel. Time to see if you really can be a hero, he told himself, then walked around the bow, to the right side, which was slightly lower. The Duke’s ship was slimmer than a fat-bellied trading vessel. It had a high prow, which swept lower down where the rowers would sit. It was usually propelled by sail but there should have been half a dozen oars on either side, big enough to move the ship through calm waters like the bay, or when there was little wind. Nothing showed. He watched the rails of the ship, looking for any movement, his crossbow ready. But there was nothing. At the back was an enclosed cabin where the Duke would normally rest. But there was no movement from there, either. The ship was built out of oak, the timber greying slightly but still immaculate, except for a chunk where it had struck the rock-hook on the way in to the bay, and the bow, which was stove in, timbers pointing in all directions, looking horribly like the jagged teeth of some strange animal.
Fallon walked down the shore to where the side rail was lower and the waves were lapping at his boots. It was lower still further down but he did not fancy wading through seawater to get there. “Give me a hand up,” he ordered.
Devlin kneeled on all fours to make a step, then Brendan cupped his hands together. Fallon took two paces back, then stepped off Devlin, placed his foot in Brendan’s hands and was flipped up by the blacksmith. Fallon grabbed the side rail with his right hand and swung over onto the deck. He stumbled a little on landing, then stopped, levelling his crossbow. Nobody and nothing moved. Everything looked deserted. There were no rowers on benches, and the hatch to the hold was open.
“Fallon! Anything?” Brendan called.
“Nothing! Come on up!”
Gallagher was the next on board, then Brendan lifted Devlin and Gallagher hauled him on board, while Fallon stood guard.
“This one’s going to be tough,” Devlin muttered.
Fallon glanced around to see Devlin and Gallagher trying to haul the heavy Brendan over the side.
“Aroaril but you have a big arse, Brendan,” Devlin gasped as he hauled on the smith’s arm.
“Need a heavy hammer for a long spear!” Brendan called.
“Just for that, I should drop you into the water.”
“A little help here!” Gallagher grunted.
But Fallon had no intention of turning his back on the dark, empty square that was the entrance to the hold. Nothing stirred down there but he wasn’t going to risk it.
A thud and several muffled curses behind him told him that Brendan had arrived. He stole a quick glance to see the three of them picking themselves up.
“Thanks, Sister!” Brendan waved down below.
“If you would just give me a hand in return?” Rosaleen asked.
“No!” Fallon hissed but it was too late. A scrape and a thump told him that the priestess was also on board. Next moment all four were at his shoulder, clustered together for protection.
“We really should have brought torches and maybe some knives and axes,” Devlin said.
“A bit late to mention that, don’t you think?” Gallagher asked pointedly.
“We check the hold first,” Fallon said, walking towards the gaping hole in the deck. If there were answers, he was sure they would be down there.
“Not the Duke’s cabin?” Gallagher suggested.
“That’s not going anywhere. But I won’t turn my back on the hold until we have checked it,” Fallon said. It was very easy to imagine that dark space as the doorway into Zorva’s pits, an image which the old village priest Father Reece had loved to use to terrify his flock.
He crept over to the edge and peered in but could see nothing. A faint sloshing sound suggested there was water below but he supposed it could equally have been a selkie changing form. His aunt used to talk about them: how the seals came to life and granted you wishes if you gave them tribute – and took you to your death if you hurt them.
“What do we do now?” Brendan hissed.
Fallon glanced around and saw all of their faces were white and drawn, especially Sister Rosaleen’s. For the rest of them, it was obviously time to remember that, when all was said and done, they weren’t soldiers. Just a farmer, smith and fisherman who were friends with one.
“You do nothing. I do this,” Fallon said, and jumped into the hold.
Instantly he was plunged into darkness. He braced himself for the landing, but the deck was curved here and he splashed down into water, slipped and fell against the side of the boat. He pushed himself upright, cursing, water slopping over the edge of his low boots, and peered into the darkness. Nothing sprang out at him and, as his heart slowed down, his eyes began to get used to the light penetrating from above as well as filtering in from the jagged opening up the front. A pair of eyes glinted at him from his left and he had brought his crossbow up to his shoulder before he realised they belonged to a fat rat. He and the rat stared at each other for a long moment before it turned and scampered away.
He spun around slowly but the hold was empty. Well, there were a few other rats climbing along the side, keeping out of the water, and a couple of barrels shifting around in the water, but no sign of the twenty or more men needed to sail such a ship. He sloshed through the water, making himself check every dark corner – but there was nothing. Not even a seal, let alone a selkie.
“Fallon?” Gallagher called down.
“It’s empty,” Fallon stood in the patch of sunlight. “No sign of anything.” He held up his free hand. “Give me a lift out.”
They dragged him out and then looked at the stern cabin.
“They must be all in there,” Devlin said.
The door to the cabin was shut, so Fallon took up position in front of it and signaled to Devlin. The farmer grabbed the handle and wrenched it open, Fallon ready to shoot anything that came out.
But nothing did.
Inside it was simple enough. A large bunk, a larger desk and several comfortable chairs, all nailed to the floor to keep them in place, as well as deep lockers on three of the walls. These held clothes, papers and barrels of food but little else. And there was no sign of any crew, let alone the Duke – nor any sign of struggle. The Duke’s jeweled sword lay in a locker, still in its scabbard. Strangest of all, the remnants of a meal were scattered on the table, some of it still on the plate and some obviously thrown off when the ship had struck the land. A fork and knife lay on the table; a hunk of meat was still impaled on the fork.
“He was eating lamb chops. Nice,” Devlin said. “Riona’s cooking them for me this evening.”
“Why did he leave them like this? What was so fast he didn’t finish his mouthful?” Brendan asked. “What could take an entire crew of men and the Duke so fast that they never left so much as a spot of blood?”
“I don’t know,” Fallon said reluctantly.
“It could be witches. Or selkies,” Gallagher said softly.
They all turned to look at Sister Rosaleen.
“It wasn’t.” The priestess shook her head. “I would be able to tell.”
“Had much to do with witches, have you?” Devlin asked.
Rosaleen glared at him. “You will need to recite two Aroaril Save Us prayers for that blasphemy, Devlin, by next full moon. Those tales are not true. Not really.”
“What do you mean, not really? Either it’s true or it’s not,” Fallon said sharply.
“It is a tale that has grown out of a seed of truth. Those who let the evil of the Dark God Zorva into their hearts look like men and women but behave like monsters. And they have powers. From that evil reality grew tales of witches. But if it had been such monsters responsible for this we would see some struggle, some blood at least. And I would be able to sense their evil. Blood magic leaves a stink. I cannot feel any of that.”
“What about selkies then? Everyone has seen one,” Devlin said.
“Really?” Gallagher asked. “Because I’ve been out in boats all my life and never seen one.”
“Everyone has heard a tale of one,” Devlin said. “My grandfather swore he saw one beckon to him.”
“And how many tankards had he downed by then?” Brendan asked.
“There are no selkies. Those are just tales put about so that fishermen could kill off seals without anyone getting angry at them,” Rosaleen said angrily. “How many times do I have to say that to people?”
They looked around the empty cabin again, but it still had no answers. Fallon caught Brendan contemplating the remains of the Duke’s meal.
“Don’t even think it,” Fallon said.
“They’d never miss one chop. And I’ve been running around all afternoon,” Brendan protested.
“I’d miss it. And there will be people coming to see this. The Duke of Lunster is the cousin of the King. He doesn’t just disappear from his ship without a fuss. Mark my words: this is not the end of things. Now, Gallagher, go and grab a dozen men and get the sails down before the ship does itself any more damage.”
“What are we going to do?” Devlin asked.
“You are going to keep people away from it, in case someone gets the idea they should see if there’s anything valuable hidden below. I’m going to ride to Lunster at first light and tell the Duchess her husband is gone.”
“I think I got the better half of that deal,” Devlin admitted.
“What are you going to tell the Duchess?” Rosaleen asked.
“I’m not sure,” Fallon admitted. “Gall, what would you do if you were out there and you saw another ship?”
“Take in the sails, get on the oars and get out weapons,” Gallagher said immediately.
“That’s what I thought. And they did none of that. So what happened here?”
None of them could answer.
“It may not be witches, but there is something strange at work here,” Rosaleen said gently. “I can tell there was no blood magic used but maybe somebody used natural magic. You should ask Padraig to take a look at the ship.”
“He’s the last thing I need right now,” Fallon said with a groan.
“How can he help? He’s an old nutter who lives out in the woods and howls at the moon,” Devlin said.
“We are all Aroaril’s children,” Rosaleen said firmly. “Yes, he is a little stranger than most. But he also knows magic, I can promise you that much. And it might be better to have all the information before you tell the Duchess Dina that her husband has disappeared at sea, leaving behind only a couple of lamb chops. I’m surprised you haven’t thought of him already, Fallon. Isn’t he your wife’s father?”
Fallon rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Sister. I had completely forgotten that.”
Rosaleen smiled. “We all have things sent by Aroaril to try us. I shall pray for you and Bridgit and Kerrin this evening. His cough is better?”
“Much better, thanks.” Fallon nodded and forced a smile.
“Good. Then I shall go and reassure the rest of my flock that there is no pack of selkies waiting on board to devour them.”
Fallon let her walk away and looked around once more. He knew there was something he had missed, so he dropped to one knee and looked on the floor. Nothing. He lay down on the floor and could still see nothing. That was strange in itself. He guessed the Duke would want to keep his ship clean but this was ridiculous. He sighed. The answer to the mystery was not going to appear before his eyes. Then he caught a glint of metal coming from behind one of the lockers pushed against the wall and secured with rope.
He unhooked the rope then signaled to his friends. “Give me a hand here.” He took hold of the heavy wooden locker and, with Brendan and Devlin helping, dragged it out.
“What is it?” Gallagher asked.
They all peered at a small crossbow bolt, the tip stained brown with dried blood, nestling against the wall.
“That could have been there for days, moons even,” Devlin said doubtfully.
Fallon picked it up, then held it up against his own crossbow. “Look at that. It’s less than half the size of the quarrels I use.”
“So? There could be a hundred reasons why it is here.”
Fallon smiled. “And one of them is men were responsible for what happened here. This is what I have been waiting for!”
“What do you mean?” Gallagher asked.
“This means that someone has attacked and killed our Duke and is trying to cover it up,” Fallon said excitedly. “And if we can find out who is behind it, who knows what our reward will be?”
“Maybe just to stay alive?” Gallagher suggested. “If someone has done that, they won’t take kindly to the likes of us interfering. We just need to tell the Duchess what happened here and let others look after it.”
“But it happened in our village. That makes it our business. And I’m going to find out what is going on,” Fallon insisted.
He looked around at his friends and was shocked to see the doubt on their faces.
“Fallon, we’re all happy to make silly noises while you do your thing with the crossbow and flog ourselves stupid pretending to be real soldiers once a moon when you train everyone for the fyrd. But this – this is beyond that,” Devlin said slowly.
“This is serious,” Gallagher said. “If you’re going to kill one of the King’s nobles and then make it look like a mystery then you have big plans. Who are the likes of us to try and stop it?”
“He’s right. We’re just ordinary folk,” Brendan agreed.
“We don’t have to be. We could be heroes,” Fallon growled.
“Heroes have a way of ending up dead,” Gallagher said.
Fallon shook his head. “I’ve waited too long for a chance like this. I’m not going to let it slip past. And if you still call yourselves my friends, you will stand beside me.”
The three of them looked at each other, then Devlin sighed. “We will be by your side. But I hope you know what you are leading us into.”
“That’s what we shall find out. Dev, Gall, go and get Padraig. Maybe he can help us find some answers.”
“The day just keeps getting better,” Devlin muttered as he and Gallagher turned to go.
“Are you sure we wouldn’t be better off handing this to Captain Hagen at Lunster?” Brendan asked.
“I will tell Hagen but I’ll also help him,” Fallon said, unable to keep the grin off his face. He could see it now. This was his ticket out of Baltimore, his big opportunity. This was why he’d trained so long and hard.
Brendan sighed. “Are you sure that is what you mean? I see this and fear it may be the start of something terrible.”
“Terrible for some,” Fallon said, twirling the mysterious crossbow quarrel on his fingers. Already he was thinking what he should say to the Duchess. Then he stopped twirling the quarrel. Perhaps he would be better off thinking of how he was going to explain it all to Bridgit.
END OF EXCERPT
Duncan Lay is the author of two best-selling Australian fantasy series, the Dragon Sword Histories and the Empire Of Bones. He writes on the train, to and from his job as production editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Australia's biggest-selling newspaper. He lives on the Central Coast of NSW with his wife and two children.