The cart continued to travel slowly into Pict Cove, the horses trotting on unconcerned with what had passed between the two men. Tim Cecht watched the reins slip out his son's hands and gathered them up in his own. Paddy sat so still, his features frozen. A hundred different emotions boiled inside him, a hundred different reactions to what his father had said. But on the outside he only appeared very still, until he suddenly turned from his father's steady gaze and looked away, and to hide the tears that fell for Angela. A single desperate gasp for air that became a moan escaped him as he recalled how happy he had been to amble down the track only moments earlier, into a waiting future. His sweet Angela was gone forever, he began to realise that he would never ever so much as touch or catch sight of her again. It was too much for him to hold in his mind, and his hurt broke and subsided, began a slow rhythm of numbness and pain that would roll back and forth inside him for many years to come, advancing and receding like the tides of the North Sea, that leave the beaches washed bare.
Tim Cecht watched his boy begin to gather himself together. Such a good boy I have, Tim thought.
"Take me to where we have him, the man who's done this thing to us"
"I will son, I'll take you now, but listen to me Paddy"
"What is it, Da"
"It's not a man did this, it was a woman. We think she's a kind of witch."
Paddy considered this for a moment. "I don't care if she's Queen Mab herself, Da, I'll see her, and I'll see her now"
Paddy, Tim and James walked with Rennie to where a couple of the other men were watching over the woman Rennie had caught on the north shore. There on a patch of common land, Paddy looked at the woman who had taken his Angela away from him. They had lashed each of her arms with stout rope to two oak trees either side of her, low on the trunk and so taut that the woman could not stand up between them, and so she had to kneel or lie with her arms held out at her sides off the ground or sit with her legs crossed beneath her. Earlier that day Rennie had bound her ankles together with the wet cowhide that shrinks air-tight as it dries and told the woman that if she didn't tell them where Angela and the others were, her feet would drop off dead by noon the next day. She had laughed madly and tried to spit at him over her shoulder so he gagged her with some more cowhide and whispered into her ear that he could slowly pop off the top of her head if he decided to. Rennie was unused to feeling the depth of hatred he felt for this woman. And at the edge of that anger he hated and feared her even more for the venom she had set loose inside him. A part of him had enjoyed knocking her down, blacking her eye with his fist and dragging her screaming down the shore to Pict Cove. A part of him would enjoy torturing her even though he suspected she would never tell them what they needed to know.
She had put up a vicious struggle when Rennie had caught her and his arms and face bore deep wounds from her long filthy claws. She had cursed him all the way back to the village and told him that if she had been able to blind him as she'd wanted to, she would have put him to sleep like she had done with the others and he would have woken to her eating the flesh off his bones. He shuddered. Paddy Cecht was been watching him.
"She's a demon, Paddy, a witch. If you're goin' to talk to her you've got to be ready for what she might say. I don't want to think about what she might have done to your Angela, but she might enjoy filling your ears with her evil. I don't think she'll tell us anything worth hearing."
"I understand, Rennie, but I have to go to her. I have to try." Rennie strode straight up to her and the Cecht men faced her at a distance. The instant Rennie took off the gag she looked up at him and spat. It hit him on the cheek and he wiped it with his sleeve, he regarded her for a moment with a curious expression as she stared back at him defiantly, before leaning in to land the heel of his palm hard across her cheek. She rocked back slightly but didn't flinch. He walked back to join the others, without meeting their eyes.
"I spat in the eyes of a man whose son I killed when he came to beat me today as well." she hissed. Paddy eyed the woman as she half lay darting glances at each of the men over and over. She was pale, her face starkly white under her matted tangle of long black hair. The bones of her face were striking and a mouth inclining to a slight sneer. Huge, dark - almost black - eyes. She was neither beautiful or ugly, but strange, different to any woman Paddy had ever seen. In spite of their revulsion the men found it hard to tear their eyes away from her. Her position on the ground before them disguised her size. From her spread-arm reach between the trees and the height of her body off the ground Paddy judged her to be around six feet tall with a broad frame. Her bare arms were strongly muscled as they strained against the ties. As her fists opened and closed convulsively Paddy noticed the long fingernails that had raked Rennie's skin before he had subdued her.
"These are the hands that bled your pretty bitch, boy. Bled her away into the sea" Paddy was stunned but tried to hide it
"What makes you so sure she was mine, witch?"
"My eyes see much, and so do yours I think, for you've named me well."
"I see a little but not enough. Why did you take her from me? What do you want?"
"Ha! I want nothing, my work is done. Pict Cove will not survive the winter. Mark my words well, for I'll tell ye now why I took them all, I want you to know. I've made a curse for Pict Cove from their pain and deaths and my hate. There will be no Spring for you here. This village will lie ruined and empty and its people will wander this land and leave no trace of their passing. I have watched you long and lived to see your ways die, not one of you will even fish your own waters anymore! You are weak and broken. I have taken your good from you and it has seeped away like the piss that ran down the two brats legs as they watched each other die. You can never find them. You cannot undo what has been done. Kill me now and I will die singing praise to the spirits of the forest and the mountains and the great sea that has sustained my life, my revenge."
"How can you speak of revenge to me, hag? We have done nothing but live in peace here. You are..."
"Still your tongue, lest you reveal your ignorance. You speak of peace? There is no peace between you and I. Your people settled on these islands three thousand years ago, Tuatha de Danaan Celts on their way to Inisfail. Spreading westward and stealing everything that was good. My people, the Fomorii, were pushed from our homes into the hard lands. We had to learn to hide in the forests and mountains of these islands, and so we did. Keeping our secret knowledge alive. I have travelled far, listening to the ancient voices that speak on in water and wind, waiting until the time came. Now the revenge of my people is at hand and I will gladly die to seal the curse that holds this place now. It is enough for me to know that you must watch your own lives crumble just as we had watch ourselves become beasts to survive."
"I understand, I do, I understand. You can keep your curse, only please let us bury our dead. I'll promise to leave Pict Cove forever if you'll only give her back to me"
"You understand nothing, boy, it is impossible, what you seek is gone from the world never to return."
Paddy turned, holding his tears, and his father and brother followed him home, Rennie walked around behind the witch to gag her. She opened her mouth wide, allowing him to tie the strip of hide between her teeth. She was smiling.
The village didn't really know what to do with her. The women made Rennie untie the binding from her ankles before her feet died. It was clear that the witch was totally unafraid of death, Rennie had offered her food and drink, but she had ignored him, and had spoken to no-one since Paddy Cecht had turned his back on her. She spent the next two days sitting cross legged between the trees, eyes closed rocking back and forth. On the third day as the last light faded from the sky the peace of the air was torn apart by a horrifying drawn out shriek. Men rushed outside to see what was happening. Old Tom Finnegan, who lived right by where they had tied the witch, was quick enough to see her standing upright and tall, just for a second, before she collapsed to the ground. The snapped ropes hung limp from the trunks. The witch was dead. John Rennie dragged her body out to the forest and cut off her head among the trees with an axe. He left her there for the wolves. A half dozen pairs of hungry eyes watched Rennie turn and leave the forest on his horse, before loping out to claim the corpse of the strange creature that had haunted their forest.
There were no more councils on the Thumb, no more fishing. Outside the Cove and all around the Druid's Hand the North sea was a screaming hell of icy water. The prices had not been good at the market and everyone was running shorter on winter supplies than they would have liked. Even the fires the families huddled around were kept lower because no-one had not been allowed to go into the forest to gather wood, because of the witch's work. The whole village was still in shock; losing Old Luke, Young Tom, Angela and the Hurrish twins the way they had, had devasted their families and paralysed the village. If anyone had walked the lonely paths around the village homes, they would have heard little to cheer them. The raised voices of the young men arguing with their fathers, what sense did it make to stay in a fishing village without fish? Women trying to calm their mothers, they were only talking about maybe moving away from the Cove with some of the other young ones, nothing for sure. And in the darkest, quietest, stillest reaches of the night, if anyone had paused beneath the windows of the houses, they would have heard the muffled sobs of man woman and child mourning the lost. Pict Cove grew more miserable and desperate each day after the witch had died there, not less.
Paddy Cecht and Rennie crossed paths one morning, just before dawn when the rest of the village was asleep. Both had begun waking early and walking along the shores until after the sun rose. When they realised that they shared the habit, it became part of their routine, and both men were glad of the company. They would talk about many things, the past month and how it had affected the village, the things they had lived through, separately and together, more awful than either had ever imagined possible in Pict Cove. They talked about the future of the village, and the witch's warning that the next Spring would not be a time of rebirth, but would bring the end of their way of life. Privately they admitted that neither could see a way through.
"For me Paddy, I don't worry too much that everyone is so low right now. That's only natural. We might have a bigger problem ahead"
"You mean that even if the sea does calm down next year, the fish might not come back?"
"That's it, the swimming ones arent going to be nearly so fat and happy around the Fingers if they have to live with a storm like that every year. The North Sea is wide, and there's plenty of other nets to jump into."
"I know, Rennie, I know. I'm thinking about what the hag said that day, "Not one of you will even fish your own Cove now". She was right. Do you really think it was her that did that to us, cursed us like that?"
"I don't know Paddy, it might well be a curse, it feels enough like one"
"I'd give anything to be able to get out on the water right now. Da says you'd have to be mad to go out in that stuff, but I just want to prove her wrong. We aren't weak. We aren't broken." Rennie looked at the boy sharply. He seemed serious, and more than that he suddenly somehow seemed to be right.
"Paddy, I'd be proud to fish the Cove with you. With or without fish. Let's get quick and we can ride the tide out to the Finger"
"You'll go out with me?"
"Come on, Paddy, You've seen what it's like out there, don't ask me twice!"
Paddy smiled broadly and the men hurried to the shore. They set out aboard "Jenny" one of Rennie's sail-and-oar skiffs. He had made the boat himself, and she was the among the finest in Pict Cove. Sixteen feet from stem to stern with four feet of beam and a planing hull that was stable all but the roughest seas. Well used to the cold, they had stripped to short pants and vests in case one or both of them ended up in the water, they brought one float net which was secured to the boat by passing hitches in the thirty foot of strongly woven rope. When they saw and heard the roaring of the sea past the north and south shores they both grinned and shook their heads at each other, marvelling at their foolish courage. As crazy as it was to be there, it felt good to be out on the sea. It felt good to do something reckless, they each felt that they had escaped the grim aura of the village. To have escaped into the fiercest tempest either had seen, it made them laugh to themselves under the constant howl of water and wind, the first time either had really laughed since it had all began.
It was much too late to turn back now as the tide forced them out towards the rocks of the Druid's Hand. They were both nervous and a little unsure of how they had ended up out there. It felt surreal and somehow they were excited by the raw power all around them as they were swept closer and closer to the Thumb. The wild sea raged about them as the boat tipped and rocked madly end to end and side to side as they rose and fell with each huge wave. They were heading quickly, straight towards the the Thumb. It was far too loud now to speak or be heard and each man measured the rapidly decreasing distance to the rock by the waves. It would be close. They fought for position on the wave that bore them in against the Thumb, the wave that would either hurl them into the stone, or drop them beside it, giving them a chance. They each thought that they must have been mad to come out to the Fingers, but the sheer thrill, the simplicity of their struggle with the oars to ride the wave cut through the clinging remains of the worst month of both their lives. They were free, free to live or die, they were together and they were happy in those sharp, full moments.
Through strength, skill and luck the wave broke at a distance that gave them a chance to land safely and they paddled hard against the backswell to reach the mooring. Ten feet, five feet. They both relaxed by a merest fraction, knowing that they could wait out in the tackle house and try ride the tide back to shore. As they reached the mooring a huge merciless wave surged up from nowhere to smash down on them from behind, pushing their bodies deep below the surface and completely obliterating the skiff. A split second before the wave hit them both Rennie and Paddy realised what was upon them, they were so charged by the exhilaration and danger of the situation that each reacted instantly.
As the shadow rose above Rennie turned and saw the monster wave that was about to sink them. He scrambled for the rope as his other hand found Paddy's wrist. As the water crashed about them and they found themselves dropping fast, each man spread and waved his limbs, slowing their descent. They had spent their lives on the sea, and they knew what they were doing. After their journey through the storm, the underwater world was eerily calm. Paddy opened his eyes as they began to float upwards, he saw Rennie, still holding the rope that led straight up, tied as it was to the float-net and a piece of the wrecked "Jenny". He saw the smooth black rock of the Thumb. There was something else. They were still maybe twenty feet below the surface and he could see something lodged into the rock above. As they passed it he let go of Rennie's wrist and swam. He felt it, it was white cloth, he pulled at it and with some effort, he pulled a long narrow bundle part of the way out of a deep fissure in the rock. When he broke the surface, gasping for air with the salt stinging his eyes the sea around him was at peace. Rennie clung to a mooring ring and the rope,amazed at what he had just seen, the stormy waves had calmed in an instant, without a trace left of the storm that had threatened to kill them only seconds ago. Above in the tackle house Paddy wept out his grief as he never had before. He didn't need to tear away the white sailcloth to know what was inside. His Angela, he knew her shape and weight, he had found her. Around the four Fingers the storm still thundered against the rocks, but he and Rennie both knew that the curse that had settled on Pict Cove could be lifted. They were beginning to see what the witch had done.
They knew that the village would not rest until the unholy magic was dismantled and the souls of the dead were at peace. His thoughts were whirling, he couldn't believe that what he was living through was real. How had she done it, what had she done, did it still matter? He felt Rennie gripping his shoulder gently through the haze,
"Come on now Paddy, let's get her back, there's still work to do"
Rennie was right, the work was not over. it took the young men of the village another week diving from their boats and working from the Little Finger inwards to recover the bodies in their bundles hidden in the Druid's Hand. The danger was constant, but they worked hard and ceaselessly, determined to return the missing ones to their families and the waiting village. Pict Cove slowly came back to life, but it would never be quite the same. The men dived into the rough seas around the Fingers, over and over again from the boats that waited just clear of the rough waters. Using weights and floats and rope and all of the ingenuity and diligence that the long years of living with the sea had given them they marvelled each time one of the four remaining bodies in their shrouds of stolen sailcloth was taken back from its cursed hiding place. Each time the divers rescued one of the lost villagers, the water around the Finger where it had been hidden would calm, as though grateful to be relieved of a burden of evil. The men on the surface would know instantly, sending up a delighted cheer into the sky.
The bodies of Young Tom, the Hurrish Twins, Old Luke and Angela Freeley were each given decent burials by their families. Slowly normal life began to return to Pict Cove, but the village would never be as innocent as it had been, and they could not quite forget the experience that they had paid so dearly for. Mothers still kept their children closer than before, and the villagers were always wary of what may roam in the old forest, where the hunting parties of the village were now charged with keeping a watch, lest another Fomorii witch make their home there. But there was another, more visible reminder apart from the darkness of the woods, or the new graves.
That Spring the fish danced once again in the waters around the Druid's Hand, and the catch was just as it had been before. But nobody knew why the sea had never calmed or why the storm still whirled hard around the highest Finger, which lay in the centre of the strange formation, even after they had pulled Old Luke from it. Why the fish still avoided that black spike of rock that remained a danger to careless fishermen. The people were grateful for the return of their village to peace, they all could feel strongly that the curse had been lifted from them. They gave up their claim on what became known as the Witch's Finger, satisfied not to question its secrets too deeply. Perhaps in their hearts they were afraid of what they might find or disturb, and this was wise of them. Who among them could judge the depth of the mysteries of a witch's curse? Maybe it would have been harder for them to fish their waters if they had known what had happened in the forest the night the witch died. If they had known that one of those wolves had left the feast to carry her head gently in its jaws down to the shore without ever fully knowing why. To drop its burden into the tide and slink away. The villagers would have been chilled to their bones, would not have been able to move on with their lives as well as they did, if they had known that a strange current had borne the witch's head away through the water until the waves breaking around the middle Finger threw it from the sea and hid it away high up in a hollow in the rock. They would never have slept so well in their beds if they had known that her skull still watched them in its nest, and still looks down on the site of the village of Pict Cove today.
Thanks for reading, all feedback appreciated.