Mountain Lovers, by Fiona Macleod, 1895

 

XI

THAT night, any wayfarer going down Strath Iolair, between the Pass of the Eagles and Inverglas, most have been startled by a windy blaze of flame against the slope of Tornideon.

Since sundown the wind had increased in strength. The loud clarion-call could be heard unceasing on the hills. Through the pass it came with long wail or dreary sough, then with a howl would swoop along Mairg Water, with a noise that washed away the roar of the Linn.

One man, at least, saw it. Under an arch of rock, in a space half filled with fragrant dry bracken, Murdo the shepherd watched.

Doggedness was at once Murdo's strength and weakness. He had been convinced that Anabal Gilchrist, guilty or innocent, had perished along with Torcall Cameron. He had come to the Linn, and till he found her he would wait. Moreover, had he not the word of the Scriptures for it, bidding him be silent? What need, then, for him to go about as an idle rumor? All would be known in time, without his telling.

When at last the twilight came, he was still there. If he could not see the body of Anabal in Mairg Water—and he knew that, if there, it would soon or late be swirled out of the Linn or the Kelpie’s pool— he would wait till he saw her wraith.

There were many things ___ like certain stories told of the speed of great vessels at sea, and about what the electricity, out of which the lightning came, could be made to do — which he doubted, or at least discounted in the telling. But in the sure wisdom of his fathers, he knew there was no rock of stumbling; therefore he was well aware that the wraith of the dead comes to and fro between its death-place and that darkness which is deeper than the mirk of the blackest night, on the night following its severance from the body. So, he would wait and see. If her wraith camre from up the strath or from down the Linn he would know that she had not died in the water. Wherever it came from, he would follow it.

He had seen too much, he muttered again and again to himself, with quaking, heart: he had seen too, much in hill-gloamings and drear mountain nights to have fear of the wraith of a poor widow-body, who lived no further away than over against Cnoc-Ruadh on Tornideon. The moaning and loud soughing of the wind tried him sore. But the night was cloudless, and the moon hung, above Iolair, a beacon everywhere in the dark. Thin, too, as the hours went, he grew warm and comfortable in his rocky lair; moreover, fresh text after text came into his mind. In multiplicity of these was safety; even were some of them no more than “And Chelub, the brother of Shunah, begat Mehir,” or than that (to Murdo, blasphemously familiar) saying in Isaiah, “In that day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired,” — though, sure, to his shepherd mind, there was comfortable word as of home, as well as sacred influence, in “And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep.”

He had been dozing, when the first sport of flame broke out upon Tornideon. A little later he roused with a start, and looked out upon the pool. There was a gleam there, or somewhere; could it be the woman Anabal?'

Then his gaze was drawn swift and steadfast, as iron to a magnet. He realized what and where the flames were. Ardoch-beag was on fire.

In a moment there flashed upon him the recollection of Mm-Gorm, on the white mare Raoilt, in the byre there.

With the thought came another, that he had been mad to believe Anabal was in the pool at all. She must have discovered the body of Torcall, and set fire to the place --- corpse, mare, and byre!  There was not a moment to lose. Yet, perhaps it was Alan; well, even then, he muttered, he must go.  But supposing . . . but supposing . . . that Mm-Gorm himself . . .

Murdo did not know what to do. The dogs would help him, he thought. Crawling from his hiding-place, he whistled to Donn and Loath. Both collies had already crept from the fern, and were sanding, with stiffened tails and rigid bodies, intently matching the shooting, darting, leaping, ever-spreading flame on the hill opposite. Abruptly, Luath began to growl. Then Donn stole, whining, to the shepherd's feet.

"What ails the dogs?" he muttered, half angrily.

A few minutes later his keen eye discerned the cause of their uneasiness. The full flood of the moonlight was upon the flank of Tornideon, and it was now possible to see along the whole path from Ardoch-beag to the ford, glan mar a ghriam, as he said to himself—clear as in the sunlight.

And this was the thing that Murdo the shepherd saw, to be with him to his death day, and to be forever in Strath Iolair a legend of terror.

Down the steep descent that began to fall away a few yards beyond Ardoch-beag, he saw a tall, gaunt woman, with rent garments and long, loosened hair fluttering in the wind, striding down the hill-way, often with wild gestures. And before the woman trampled and snorted a horse, mad with the fear of the flame, and knowing, too, it may be, the awful burden of death it bore, now swung crosswise, upon its back. As a mad horse will do, it pranced in a strange, stiff, fantastic way: wild to leap forward and race like the wind from what lay behind, from what jerked and jolted above; yet constrained as by another than human force.

Ever and again, in a momentary loll of the wind, Murdo could hear its shrill, appalling neighing. Once, too, he shrank, because of the screaming laughter of the woman.

Furlong by furlong he watched this ghastly march of the dead and dying. Were it not for the flames at Ardoch-beag, where both house and byre were now caught in a swirling blaze, he would have believed the other to be no more than a vision.

With difficulty he silenced the dogs. He would stay where he was now, and see what was going to be done that night: for it was clear that Anabal, seemingly mad, and having set fire to Ardoch-beag, was now driving Raolit and its corpse-burden either down to Mairg Water, or with intent to cross and go up the mounlain of Mm-Gorm.

This last, indeed, was evidently her aim: for, when at last the ford was reached, Murdo could see her striving to make the affrighted mare enter the shallows. Raoilt, however, would not budge. With forelegs planted firmly, with head thrown up, quivering flanks, and long tail slashing this way and that, the white mare showed some strange horror of the swift-running ford-water. Suddenly she swung round, and with a grotesque prancing moved along, the north bank towards the Linn.

They were now close to him. Murdo could see the bloodshot, gleaming eyeballs of Raoilt the white, set face and staring eyes of Anabal. Either the roar of the whirlpool, or the sight of one of the collies slinking terrified through the fern, added a new terror to the mare. She swerved wildly. The burden she bore became still further unloosed. With scraping hoofs she pawed at a bank of heather, in a vain attempt to find solid footing-. A plunge . . . a fall backward . . . a staggering recovery among the very rocks of the Linn . . . and . . . freedom at last!

But, for the second time since Murdo had last seen him in life, Torcall Cameron was hurled headlong, into the Linn o’ Mairg.

With a cry, the shepherd sprang forward. Anabal heard, butt did not see. All she knew was the roar of the Linn, the wail of the kelpie, and that—that withering scream of the dead man.

For a moment she stood on the verge of the cataract. Her arms were upraised: her whole body moved with one unutterable supplication:

Fergus!  Fergus!”

The wild appeal rang through the night, above the turmoil of the falling watcr, the increasing moan and loud blasting vehemence of the wind.

Murdo did not see her leap or fall. His gaze hadd for a moment sought the mare, who, at that cry, had leaped as though stung by fire, and was careering at break-neck speed up the boulder-strewn bank by which she had come.

But when the shepherd looked again, Anabal Gilchrist was gone.

Throughout that night there was a wilder sound on the hillside than any wail of the wind. This was the screaming of the white horse, as, wrought now to a death-madness, it leapt waywardly through the dark, so passing from height to height upward along the whole mountainal flanks of Iolair.

At dawn, in the sheiling high up on Druim-nan-Damh, Sorcha awoke, trembling.

For a time she listened in awn to the majesty the wind, a vast choric chant that filled the morning-twilight with an ocean of flowing sound. Then, again and again, she heard that strange, horrible scream.

Alan stirred. She whispered, as she drew closer to him. He, too, listened. A great fear lay upon both. This screaming voice in the night was an omen of sorrow, of doom. Who could it be but the Bandruidh — that evil sorceress of the hills, dark daughter of the Haughty Father, who had already won the soul out of Nial?

Sleep was impossible. It was banished even from thought, when a wild neighing close to the walls of the cot made Sorcha cry out, and cling to Alan as though death were already upon them.

They lay shuddering. Clearly this was one of the water-bulls or water-horses which roam the mountain-ways on nights of storm: dread demon-creatures, to see whom even is almost certain death.

“It will not he long till sunrise,” Alan whispered; and by that Sorcha was comforted, for she knew that the ravening thing outside would have to haste back to loch or river or sea.

And by daybreak, in truth, the beast was already away. They heard the clamor of its hoofs against the granite stunts and rock, as it sped upward still.

When, hand clasping hand, they ventured to go out, they could see no living thing but an eagle soaring high above the extreme peak of Iolair: for the light of the new glorious day was in their eyes as they faced the Ridge of the Stags.

But suddenly Sorcha caught sight of something white leaping against the sunrise.

Alan's gaze followed her trembling arm and outstretched linger, he, too, saw, but unrecognizingly, a white horse, prancing and screaming along the verge of the granite precipice of Sgrr-Glan.

The mad beast was now on the Sgrr itself. Behind were deep corries and ravines: in front, nothing but the flaming disk of fire, nothing but that sheer blank wall of granite, straight from the brow of the Sgrr to where the Srantsrh surged darkly its tortuous way, two thousand feet below.

A faint impalpable mist was in the air. This, doubtless, it was that made the white horse loom larger and larger, till it stood out against the morning, vast as Liath-Macha, the untamable phantom steed "gray to whiteness," that Cuculain the Hero rode triumphantly through the valley of the shadow of death.

Then it was as though it leaped against the sun itself.

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