Gaelland is a nation gripped by fear. 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 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, he begins to follow the trail towards 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…
Originally published episodically, the complete edition of Duncan Lay’s The Last Quarrel is available as an ebook April 23rd from Momentum Books.
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,”
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 tiny 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.
Excerpted from The Last Quarrel © Duncan Lay, 2015