April 1917: Beginnings
Kelly Doyle coughed in the chill morning air. His lungs hadn’t been the same since the gas. Rolling stiffly out of bed, he lit the oil lamp and fumbled for some breakfast. The only decoration on the bare cottage wall was a calendar showing April, 1917.
Stretching against the aches, he headed out of the cottage to his little boat. The village hadn’t really changed in five hundred years. Kelly’s cottage stood away from the rest; he hadn’t exactly received a warm welcome home. The Doyle family had a history of strangeness. This hadn’t been helped by Kelly running off to London as soon as he could or that his sister insisted on being called Harry and spending too much time with Joseph Wright’s daughter.
Kelly no longer cared. The promises of London had ended in a muddy, bloody trench. If he never doctored again it would be too soon. Fishing was in his blood, so that’s what he’d returned to. Twenty-four and his life was over.
The small rowboat slipped quietly into the water. His shoulder ached as he bent to the oars. He was alive, by some miracle. Too many others weren’t. His mind skidded from those dangerous thoughts as he moved into the low sea fog. Most of the villagers fished in the same place, but Kelly had his own places. They’d been shared on many cold mornings with his father, passed down from his grandfather and before. Up ahead he saw a seal and decided it must mean good luck.
Swimming over, the seal hung around his boat as Kelly got to work. The rhythms of fishing came as easy as breathing, driving out the echoes of the war. He tossed the creature a few fish while he worked, humming an old, old song without thought.
Just as the morning fog started to burn away, the peal of a church bell rang across the water. Kelly started and turned, squinting towards the village. The seal vanished with a splash. The bell came again, urgent, an alarm. He picked up the oars and started to turn for shore.
Only a few strokes away from his fishing spot the seal appeared again, throwing itself at the bow of his boat, rocking it so violently Kelly had to grab on and nearly lost an oar.
“Bloody hell!” Kelly cursed. The seal barked and dove. It came up again a few meters away, barking again.
Kelly stared at it as it swam away on its back, watching Kelly. He looked back towards the village and the seal rushed back to bump his boat again, not quite so violently, then took off again.
Wondering if he’d cracked after all, Kelly set off after it, bending to row as fast as he could, wondering just where in the hell the creature was leading him. There were no fairy stories, not in this life, but he found himself following a seal when every instinct told him to get back to the village and help with whatever emergency it was.
They moved quickly through the choppy gray water. Kelly knew these outcroppings and small islands better than anyone else in the village, thanks to an adventurous spirit his father had encouraged.
Kelly’s arms ached with the strain as they came around an island to a small sandy cove, surrounded by near cliffs. The seal gave a quiet bark and went right up on the beach, looking back at Kelly.
Bringing the boat close to shore, Kelly pulled it up behind some brush. The seal watched him as he took his club from the boat and checked the knife on his hip. Satisfied, he crept up the steep path, looking for trouble.
It didn’t take long for Kelly to hear the too loud voices with an accent that told him they came from nowhere near here. Forcing himself to stay calm, Kelly crept closer, keeping himself low to the scrubby grass as if he were trying to cross no man’s land. Stupid, these men. They had a small fire. Six of them, lounging around, clearly unafraid of anything. The seventh was looking down at a small figure. Kelly’s heart stopped as he recognized Jessie from the village. She seemed unhurt so far, but her arms were wrapped tightly around her legs.
Kelly crouched low, watching them. They all had guns and knives and carried themselves like killers. But not soldiers. Nodding silently to himself Kelly moved to where he could observe without being seen. His blood hummed as his hand flexed around his sturdy club. Patience he could do after so many hours in the trenches waiting for the artillery to begin again, or for another order, or another stream of wounded men. Shaking his head and focusing on the now, he waited for a mistake.
One of the six stretched and scratched himself, muttering about taking a piss. Kelly watched as he moved away from the others and down the hill towards a copse of trees. Kelly counted to ten and followed him nearly silently. The man stumbled and Kelly realized he was at least a little drunk. Good. Reaching the trees the man rested his rifle against a tree and started to undo his flies. A seal barked somewhere in the trees and the man chuckled and reached for his gun, moving towards the sound. Kelly took four fast steps and brought his club down hard on the back of the man’s head.
The man collapsed in a heap. Kelly bent down and picked up the man’s rifle, checking it. Four bullets were in it. He glanced back up the hill, but so far there wasn’t any movement from the others. Moving away from the stranger he hid himself again, expecting someone would miss the man and come looking for him.
Sure enough, after a few long minutes, someone else came moving towards the trees, grumbling and calling a name. He nearly tripped over the first man. Cursing he turned to yell for the others, but Kelly stepped out and hit him with the club, cutting him off.
The blow came a moment too late though, as there were shouts from the camp. Kelly cursed to himself as he moved into the trees, taking position behind a rock and resting the length of the barrel on it to take careful aim. He waited until the men were close, then shot the one running a bit behind. The first one turned and Kelly took him out, then the third and fourth in rapid succession.
The rifle was empty, and that still left the leader and Jessie. Kelly breathed, but remained where he was, watching and waiting. The men had to have a boat somewhere near the island, he just prayed the man wouldn’t leave without a sign of where he was going next.
The seal gave a loud bark to his left. Kelly jumped up, hurried forward just long enough to grab a pistol from one of the dead men, then took off towards the sound. There was a gunshot and Kelly nearly tripped in his hurry. Coming out of the trees he saw the leader with one arm around Jessie, trying to take aim at the seal again as Jessie struggled and kicked at him. Barely slowing, Kelly took a breath, brought the gun up and fired, hitting the man between the eyes.
Jessie screamed and jerked away. Kelly lowered the gun, running towards her and the seal. The seal gave another bark and made for the water, vanishing beneath the waves before Kelly could even see if it was hurt. Shaking his head, he turned his attention to Jessie. She was shaking, so he pulled off his coat and put it around her. “Come on, let’s get you home.”
Kelly sank the other men’s boat, leaving their bodies where they had fallen. They weren’t going to bother anyone else now, though he wondered why they’d had Jessie. As Kelly rowed them back to village, Jessie explained that she’d run from home and the strangers had caught her. She didn’t say why she’d run. It was afternoon when he pulled up to the familiar shore. Immediately the villagers spotted Jessie and hurried forward to help her. Someone thrust Kelly’s coat back to him and he took it without comment.
Jessie’s father pushed through the crowd, hugging her tightly. Kelly tried to slip away, but Arthur Wills, who’d never liked him anyway, grabbed his arm and made sure Kelly came to the village square with the others. By the time they got there, Jessie had started crying as her father frowned. “What happened?” Someone asked.
“She’s pregnant,” growled Jessie’s father. Eyes turned to Kelly. His own eyes went wide and he raised his hands.
“Now wait I…”
“What did you do, Kelly Doyle?” Jessie’s mother stepped close and slapped him hard enough to sting. Kelly’s mind reeled.
“No daughter of mine is marrying a Doyle,” announced her father.
Arthur gripped Kelly’s arm tighter, bruising. “Told you, blighter was half crazy before he came home from the war.”
Kelly sought Jessie’s eyes, but she was turned away. Kelly’s shoulder’s sagged. Whoever the father truly was, it was less dangerous if it were Kelly. “Please, let me do my duty.”
Jessie’s father hauled off and punched him. No one held him back. Another blow came that would have driven him to his knees if Arthur wasn’t still holding him up.
“That’s enough,” the mayor stepped in. He took Kelly’s chin and forced him to look up at him. “You are banished, Kelly Doyle. Leave this village. Now.”
Kelly made no protest as Arthur dragged him to the edge of the village. He threw a ringing punch. “Why don’t you do yourself a favor and throw yourself off a cliff?”
He let go and Kelly fell to his hands and knees. Why didn’t he? Harry might find him in a little while, or she might not, and even if she did, no point in them both being banished. Finding his feet again, he headed away from the village, stumbling towards the sound of the sea.
He reached the edge and looked down. The tide was coming in, covering the tiny spit of beach. Not that far of a drop, but, like most, he couldn’t swim. The tide would carry him out and no one would ever have to bother about him again. Salt air stinging his eyes, he stepped off.
The water was cold and drove the air from his lungs. The salt burned his fresh cuts. He sank as the waves dragged him away from shore. Suddenly, something came up from below and pushed his head back above water. He gasped on instinct, opening his eyes for a moment before sinking again. Another shove, then another, gasping precious tastes of air. The fourth shove his hands landed on something wooden and solid. He hauled himself up with his last bit of strength, finding himself clinging to the bottom of an overturned boat.
When Kelly’s eyes opened again, he was on solid ground, waves still lapping at his feet. A pale man with dark curly locks was leaning over him, worry in his sea-blue eyes. Glancing at the man’s arm, Kelly could see a bullet graze. “You’re…a selkie?”
A tiny smile twitched across the man’s mouth as he touched Kelly’s cheek with tenderness. “Obviously.”