The sea was worse than it had ever been at the Cove, and the people were afraid. It was a pretty and almost unusually well-kept place. Most of the fishing villages at that time had their share of squalor and poverty, but not Pict Cove. The same thing that had kept its people there through the ages, as far back as the first Celts who had settled in Britain, was the source of the village's wealth. It was a secret that was running away through its fingers with each tide.

 

The Cove itself was deep and lay crescent shaped between a northern and southern stretch of shore, a natural harbour from the sea. Just outside it stretched a chain of five rocks known as the Druid's Hand. If you saw at the five of them, you would immediately have thought of fingers rising up out of the cold North Sea. The first island was the widest, squat and rounded-flat compared its brothers. Many years ago the old men had built a fine tackle house and a mooring there to keep their spare fishing gear and to have a place to be men away from the village. To sip on their apple brandy and smoke and be silent. No women or children under eighteen had ever set foot on the rock known as the Thumb, as far back as anyone could remember. In Pict Cove, apart from swimming and splashing in the shallows by the village, the sea and the islands were a place to work.

 

As for the rest of the Fingers that made up the Druid's Hand, the next four islands rose much higher and more sharply from the sea than the Thumb. They were jagged spires of bare black rock above the waterline, and sinister looking compared to the rounded Thumb. The Fingers were just as important to the village's secret though. People had been fishing to live at Pict Cove for thousands of years, but they kept the abundance of its waters very very quiet, knowing as they did that outsiders could come and destroy their carefully built up ways. The men of the village could fish like no-one else in Britain because of the Druid's Fingers and the Cove. They would row out in crews, it was a tradition that sons would learn to fish with their fathers. They would let loose their trawling nets or trolling lines and the seas around the Fingers could be teeming with so many fish that they would drop off their catch at the Thumb and go back out for more. The men got to know their Cove so well that they could drift into harbour on the tide, towing another boat and fully loaded with fish and men and gear with nothing but the starlight reflected off the wavetips to show them the way.

 

This all happened about six or seven hundred years ago when you could still catch almost anything in the North Sea. The haul was full nets of cod, mackeral, herring (they caught herring by the tonne in Pict Cove) and once a year the boats would go out to intercept the eels on their way to their spawning grounds thousands of miles away in the Sargasso Sea. For a month afterwards Cockneys from Mile End to the Bow Bells would pause to remark on how tasty the London pies were, never knowing that their eels had been sailed down as fast as the wind from the Cove, the only place in the British Isles where the strong and lithe Sargasso eels would allow themselves to be caught. This was the great secret of Pict Cove, those five islands and the Cove anchored the sea-plants and broke up the currents and tides, making a haven of shelter and food for fish and man. The fishermen riding the tide with shipped oars to slip into harbour knew to never tax the fish too heavily, and over the years Pict Cove grew into the happiest and healthiest of villages, knowing no lack or ill, caring little for the world beyond the deep forest which surrounded its fields and homes. The sea and the village were in harmony and for many many years it was as perfect as any could wish.

 

When it all began to fall apart, so easily and suddenly, they were helpless.

 

The first sign that things were changing was noticed after the Sabbath rest of Sunday. As the dark grew thicker the sea around the Little Finger was rougher than it had ever been. The night-fishermen were all good sailors, but they were totally unused to hearing that familiar rock no taller than their own houses being battered by the waves in such a manner. Back on the Thumb the old men had muttered that the sea seemed angry, that it was a bad omen, nothing was said in the village.

 

The second sign came the next day. Most of the villagers awoke to a search for a missing young man. Word had spread fast that Tom Finnegan returned from a journey to the nearest market town around noon the day before and that he had left the ale house early that evening. Now he was nowhere to be found. His family were worried, and a rumour began to spread in the village that bandits might have followed Tom back to the village and waylaid him after sunset. Nothing of the kind had ever happened before in the small isolated village, it was just a rumour. Nobody fished that day, the whole of Pict Cove went out looking for Tom. Just before nightfall three men, good friends of Tom's father, found the remains of a small fire outside the village on the rocky shore just below the high tide line. In the firepit were some pieces of cloth and leather and some small hobnails, the kind Chapman the cobbler had used to make their own boots. They gathered up the scraps. Tom's mother cried when she saw the pieces of the red shirt her son had worn to market. His father's strong jaw tightened as out on the south shore the sea crept over the ashes that remained.

 

"Someone did this! Someone took my boy! What is to be done?" Pa Finnegan's barely held rage growled out from between clenched teeth at the council of men from each of the families. They sat around a flickering stove in the tackle house on the Thumb.

"Tom, we got to be sure about this...we got to be careful and do right" this was said by John Rennie, Finnegan's closest friend. The men were grateful that he had spoken.

"Rennie's right, we got to be careful over this" Old Luke now spoke, the eldest and wisest there, Old greybearded Luke Boru who all the others listened to.

"What can I do Luke? How can I be careful? With my eldest boy gone?"

"You got to be careful now, Tom, if you want ever to do anything for your son. Now, as I reckon. A man did this, young Tom didn't disappear himself..."

"!!!" Pa Finnegan started forward at this, Old Luke raised his right hand and looked at him mildly.  Finnegan and the man next to him fell back.

"Quiet now, and let me speak . . . A man did this to young Tom. We don't know why or how or even really what he did, but young Tom is gone and his clothes are burned up and I should say we all think he's dead without seeing it. Now someone done it, an' they're either from the Cove or not. But either way, we men got to be careful. We got to be careful now for our village. Finnegan done right getting us all out here to talk, and that's careful. There may be a manhunter abroad, and they may even still be in Pict Cove. We need the village to keep goin', but careful. We all got to go back and keep our eyes out and our families safe. Got to try an' stop this from happenin' again, and I can't see rightly how...apart from looking out for each other. It may be that some outlaws were passing close by and took Young Tom for his wealth, and they've moved on now. Aye, or it could be that they're after thinking there's more of the good to take from us. Either way, all we can do is to be careful now...be careful and keep our heads"

 

The men murmured their agreement around the dancing glow of the stove. " Da, can I speak?" it was Paddy Cecht, a blonde haired youth who had come of age the same year young Tom Finnegan had. They had been good friends, in a village where everyone was close to each other.

"Go on, son"

"We all know old Luke is right, as hard as it seems, we got to be careful and not tear ourselves apart over what's happened to Tom. Our village takes care of itself, always has, and we've never had no trouble like this before - ever. I just want to say that I think this wasn't just some passing bandits, an' I just don't think it can be someone from Pict Cove. Like Old Luke said, I think whoever did this wants to take more good away from us."

"Paddy, now, don't be getting swept out to sea, we're all shocked over Tom..." Old Luke was shaking his head, the other men were listening carefully to the young man, trying to follow his meaning.

"No, Luke, listening to you made me think on it. Someone took young Tom. They left his horse and cart, but they took him after he left the ale house. Then we know they stripped him and they burnt his clothes and boots out on the south shore. A robber, or even a killer, wouldn't have gone to all that trouble, would they? We should have found Tom by now. I reckon this is summat else, summat wicked." 

There was a little more talk after that, but everything that mattered had been said by Old Luke and Paddy Cecht. The men drifted away from the island in their little rowing boats, finding their way in the night by instinct. The journey almost silent, each alone with his dark thoughts and the lapping tide. Each hoping in his heart that Young Cecht was wrong.

 

A change had fallen on the village like the fog that sometimes hangs over the North Sea in Winter. The fog that drains a little of the colour from the world. The women of the village were sad at heart and could not bear to hold Ma Finnegan's eyes, lest they saw their own reflection there. Ma Finnegan floated numbly through her daysand through Pict Cove like a ghost, a reminder of loss. The women all kept their own children closer, now, watched over them fretfully. The children felt the change in the village perhaps most keenly, accustomed as they had been to a simple, carefree world of the young that has almost disappeared now from the island of Britain. The men kept their own counsel, but it pained them all to see the change wrought over the home they had all built together. A disquiet lodged in each man's heart like a splinter, and in the tackle house they discussed in low tones the Little Finger, that was pounded now every hour of day and night by the surf. There were no fish to be had around the Little Finger now, so the men avoided it, lest the no longer predictable currents and winds threatened to smash their skiffs against the blade of black rock. All the men were troubled deeply by the change in their sea, without the sea's blessings on which they all depended the men knew that Pict Cove could not survive.

 

Eileen Hurrish wasn't worried too much by the times. She felt terrible for Josie Finnegan losing young Tom, she really did, but it was in her nature to take the bad with the good. She knew they all had a lot to be grateful for. She thought that young Tom must've had awful luck, weren't the men coming back from market always saying what a shower of bastards "the English" outside the village were? She knew that an accident like that could have happened to anyone, but all they could do was be a bit more careful and get on with their lives, not that poor Josie would ever get over the loss of a son. The Cove was special and different to the outside. The same families had always been here, descendants of the original Celtic migrants passing West to Ireland, and while the villagers all loved each other like family, something of the bad was bound to creep into Pict Cove from outside sooner or later. It was risky for the young men to go to market alone like that anyway, and there was never any reason why they should, sure wasn't Ma Cecht only saying the other day that her Paddy felt guilty that he hadn't gone along with young Tom? He had stayed behind to court the pretty Freeley girl. She was glad her babies, her twins, would always have each other, they never were apart. That might change a bit when they grew up and realised they weren't two halves of the same person, she smiled at the thought as she looked out of her kitchen window into the garden where they were playing. Eileen Hurrish didn't think there had ever been a brother and sister who looked more alike. Born one right after the other seven years ago, and it could have been just seven days ago to Ma Hurrish. Where were those two little ones, now? It would be dark soon and they knew better than to worry their mother.

 

She went outside and called them, but they did not come. She looked for them in the thick bushes at the bottom of the garden, but she couldn't find them. She began to scream, but they were gone.

 

Later that night, when Rennie smelled the still-warm ashes and singed cloth-scraps of another burned out fire far out on the south shore, his stomach dropped and he knew in his heart that the twins were lost to the village. He found the fire the same day their mother had let them out to play in their garden. 

 

Despite what the men had agreed after Young Tom had disappeared, there was no more being careful in the village, and the first thing the men and women did was tear Pict Cove apart looking for the Hurrish twins. Nobody cared anymore about frightening the children, who were taken by their teachers to look for the twins around the outskirts of the village in the wild countryside where they had loved to play before young Tom had disappeared. They spread out wider and searched everywhere, young men and women climbed the rocky hills around the North and South shores of the Cove that spread out into the sea, and deeper inland the women tore the skin of their arms pushing through the heavy thorny briars of the fields around the village. The men in a skirmish line slipped silently through the shadows of the thickly wooded forest that lay to the west and surrounded Pict Cove, scanning for sign like the wolves of the forest track their prey, as much looking for the manhunter as the children that had been taken. The thing they were looking for had been living in that forest for years, but there was no trace of it to be found that day. It was concealed, watching the villager's search from elsewhere.

 

"Ahh, Rennie! Dia duit!"

"Dia duit, Ma Boru...will you not come in?"

"I can't stop, Rennie, I'm looking for my Luke, have you seen him?"

"Ah now, Ma Boru, come on, come in and sit down, I only just got back from the forest myself now and Aoife's making some tea and cakebread to warm us up"

"Alright so, Rennie..." Old Luke's wife came in and sat by the fire with John Rennie, who was still warming himself from the search.

"There, what's got you so worried about that big ugly man of yours? Sure he's out somewhere still looking for those two babies?"

"Was he not out with you men away in the forest? Oh! I can't stand not knowing where he is with all this trouble..."

Without a word Rennie's young wife Aoife came in and put the tea hat warm bread in front of Ma Boru and Rennie. She poured Ma Boru a cup and kissed her softly on the cheek, drawing a smile from the old woman before disappearing back to the kitchen. Aoife thought it was sweet that Ma Boru was missing her Luke. It didn't cross her mind for a second that anything could have actually happened to Old Luke Boru, a tough man most of the villagers thought of as their second father.

"Well now, Mother, I don't think Luke was out with us in the forest, but knowing him he would have spread himself about. Are his horses all at home?"

"They are. Oh, John! Do you think me a fool for worrying so? It's nearly pitch black out there and he's not as young as he was. He won't know when to come back if he thinks he might find those poor little ones."

John leaned forward and held the old woman's hands in his own, smiling gently, "Now, Mother, I know you're no fool just like everyone in Pict Cove does. You know Old Luke better than anyone and you're right, he'd climb up every chimney in the village if he thought he'd find a hair off those little heads. I'll get a couple of the boys together and hurry him up on his way, save you worryin'. Now will you do me a favour?"

"If it's in my power, I will"

"Would you stay here with Aoife and drink this teapot dry until I get back with your man? I'll leave a message for Old Luke just inside the door at your place"

"I will, and there might be something baking in your oven here for you when you come back"

"Aoife, love! I'm heading out, don't you be worrying about me now while I'm gone!"

"I won't. And don't you be mocking the sweetest lady in Pict Cove, John Rennie!" Aoife called in reply from the kitchen. Rennie's smile faded as he slipped his arm into his coat and closed the door. He crossed the path to Old Cecht's house, Cecht's youngest, his daughter, held open the door to him and he noticed that Cecht's eldest son, Paddy, was holding the hand of the Freeley girl in the parlour. So those two were still courting, he thought.

"Now, Paddy, there's some work to be done, and as I've no son's of my own, I'm borrowing you. Tear yourself away from that pretty young thing, I dare say she'll be here when you get back. Old Luke's still out looking for the twins and Ma Boru wants him picked up. Will you meet me on the path with your horse?"

Old Cecht stood up. "He will, with his brother and father."

"Good man, Tim, I'll go and get Doxy" With that, John Rennie left to saddle his horse.

"Can I ride out with you, Da?" the little girl was still holding the door. Tim Cecht's heart shone in his breast as he smiled at his precious only daughter.

"Will you promise to dress quickly and not to let go of the horse's hair?" The little girl ran up the stairs to put on more clothes. The party met on the path that ran through the village and split up on four good fast horses. Old Cecht and his daughter would work westward from the eastern side of the village, ending up at Old Luke's house, Paddy Cecht's younger brother James was to circle the village twice before passing through west to east, and Paddy would head through the village to the north shore of the Cove and back, Rennie would take the south, checking the Boru house.

 

They thought that if they kept to the well worn paths that they knew the old man would use then they must surely bump into Old Luke on his way home as they covered the village. If they didn't see him they could meet back outside the Cecht house. Paddy Cecht noticed that Rennie seemed to want to make sure there had been no more fires on the south shore, but he said nothing. Paddy and Rennie shot off into the night, their pitch and tinder torches streaming sparks behind them. The other two Cecht men cantered off in opposite directions, with only the old familiar paths and the half moon to guide them through the dark.

 

Old Tim Cecht made it back first and waited outside his home for Rennie and his sons. He had sent his daughter inside and it felt like he had been waiting a long time. He was a measured, serious man, and he was wondering now what was holding the others up when his younger son came galloping, streaking wildly down the path towards him. When he saw that, he knew. "Da! Paddy's found something!"

 

Pict Cove stood silent and still in the drizzling rain. The fine mellow Autumn was changing into a harsh Winter. The village lost more than a man the night Paddy Cecht rode up to meet the blazing fire as it burned on the far slope of the hill out on the north shore. The only trace of Old Luke were the smouldering remains of his clothes and the contents of his pockets. There was no blood that could be seen and there was no body. In the days that followed men had gone and stood on the harbour and for the first time in their lives they could not bring themselves to go out on the water, their will and the love they had for their way of life was being taken from them. Of the men who did go out to fish few made it further than the Thumb. The sea had been transformed. The Fingers were shrouded in a mist haze and roared as if in terrible pain as the freezing waves lashed and crashed about them, attacking them over and over again. The fury of the great North Sea as it smote the rocks was a fearful and terrible thing for any fisherman to look upon. There were no fish there, no fish could live inside that storm. Around the south side of the Thumb there were still some calmer water, but on the north, the side next to those four dark Fingers, nothing swam beneath the surface of the water.

 

Most of the young men were sent out to the market towns to buy winter supplies, as they were every year. This year they had been asked to get much more than the village usually needed. The men told their wives that there was an early squall by the Fingers and it wasn't worth going out into it. The truth was that many were afraid, men and women had begun to whisper together that the village was cursed. The good that Old Luke had spoke of to the other men on the Thumb that night was indeed being stolen from Pict Cove. The children were held even more closely, new strain showing on their parents faces and in their ways with one another. The young girls were muted and afraid, their young men sent away to bring back the means to last the Winter. The village fathers were silent in their homes, feeling helpless and useless, unmanned by the nameless fear that stalked the dusk. Some grew bold and swore revenge in the alehouse, but their threats rang empty in their own ears. What could they do? How could they grip and shake off the threat that hung over their home. Privately some wondered whether it was a flesh and blood man that had struck at the village, or a demon. Could it be caught? Could it be stopped? Others felt ice in their bones at the thought that it could already be over, what if some threat could appear, and tear apart any of their families, before disappearing forever? They would never know if the evil would return. The village that had been so special, so unique in all the world, was now merely alone.

 

Paddy Cecht was happy to be coming home to Pict Cove. He was riding his horse and cart in a little convoy with some of the other young men who had been sent by their families to market towns deeper inland. His younger brother James had gone ahead ahead to let the family know he would be back this afternoon. The sun was shining down on him and he was thinking about Angela Freeley, the girl he would marry. She would have been visiting the Cecht house while he was away this past week, she was teaching his little sister how to knit and sew. His mother was starting to love her almost as much as he did. He thought of her soft pale hands that were so pretty in his, and always so cool. If she were here now, on this that might be the last warm day of the year he would reach her arm around him, she would stroke his face and neck gently, hold her head against his own.

 

Paddy smiled, he could feel her head there on his chest. He would spend the rest of the year keeping her hands warm in his own. He looked ahead, his father was waiting for him at the entrance to the village. Old Tim Cecht climbed up into the cart alongside his son. His face was grave.

"What's the matter Da?"

"Paddy. We've got the person who took Tom and Old Luke and the twins. We've got them bound up in the village."

"Oh, Da! That's the best news I've heard in a long time! How did we get them?"

"Someone else was taken. As soon as he heard, Rennie rode straight up to the north shore. He caught them by another one of those fires on the shore and dragged them back to the village tied up to his horse"

"Bless him! Who else went missing though? Are they alright?"

"No, Paddy, we can't find them anywhere."

"That can't be right, surely we can beat it out of the devil Rennie caught?"

"You'll see how it is when we get right into the village..."

"Da, aren't you going to tell me who was taken?"

"Oh son, I'm so sorry, it was your Angela, we can't find your Angela anywhere"

 

 

Part 2, Conclusion

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