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Washer of the Ford, by Fiona Macleod,
1896 Geddes edition

THE SONG OF THE SWORD

These are of the Seanachas told me by Ian Mr, before the flaming peats, at a hill-shealing, in a season when the premature snows found the bracken still golden, and the ptarmigan with their autumn browns no more than flecked and mottled with grey.
He has himself now a quieter sleep than the sound of that falling snow, and it is three years since his face became as white and as cold.
He had pleasure in telling sguel after sguel of the ancient days. Far more readily at all times would he repeat stories of this dim past he loved so well than the more intimate tales which had his own pulse beating in them, that I have given elsewhere. Often he would look up from where he held his face in his hands as he brooded into the dull, steadfast flame that consumed the core of the peats; and without preamble, and with words in no apparent way linked to those last spoken, would narrate some brief episode, and always as one who had witnessed the event. Sometimes, indeed, these brief tales were like waves; one saw them rise, congregate, and expand in a dark billow-and the next moment there was a vanishing puff of spray, and the billow had lapsed.

I cannot recall many of these fugitive tales--seanachas, as he spoke of them collectively, for each sgeul was of the past, and had its roots in legendary lore--but of those that remained with me, here are four. All came upon me as birds flying in the dark: I knew not whence they came, or upon what wind they had steered their mysterious course. They were there, that was all. Ancient things come again in Ian's brain, or recovered out of the dim days, and seen anew through the wonder-lens of his imagination.W

It was in a white June, as they call it, in the third year after the pirates of Lochlin had fed the corbies of the Hebrid Isles, that the summer-sailors once more came down the Minch of Skye.
An east wind blew fresh from the mountains, though between dawn and sunrise it veered till it chilled itself upon the granite peaks of the Cuchullins, and then leaped north-westward with the white foam of its feet caught from behind by the sun-glint.
The vikings on board the Svart-AIf laughed at that. The spray flew from the curved black prow of the great galley, and the wake danced in the dazzle--the sea-cream that they loved to see.
Tall men they were, and comely. Their locks of yellow or golden or ruddy hair, sometimes braided, sometimes all acurl like a chestnut tree bud-breaking in April, sometimes tangled like sea-wrack caught in a whirl of wind and tide, streamed upon their shoulders. In their blue eyes was a shining as though there were torches of white flame behind them and that shining was mild or fierce as home or blood filled their brain.
The Svart-Alf was the storm-bird of a fleet of thirty galleys which had set forth from Lochlin under the raven-banner of Olaus the White. The vikings had joyed in a good faring. Singing south winds had blown them to the Faroe Isles, where from Magnus Cleft-Hand they had good cheer, and the hire of three men who knew the Western Isles, and had been with the sea-kings who had harried them here and there again and again.
From Magnus-stead they went forth swelled with mead and ale and cow-beef; and they laughed because of what they would give in payment on their way back with golden torques and bracelets and other treasure, young slaves, women dark and fair, and the jewelhilted weapons of the island-lords.
Cold black winds out of the north-east drove them straight upon the Ord of Sutherland. They sang with joy the noon when they rounded Cape Wrath and came under the shadow of the hills. The dawn that followed was red not only in the sky but on the sheen of the sword-blades. It was the Song of the Sword that day, and there is no song like that for the flaming of the blood. The dark men of Torridon were caught unawares. For seven days thereafter the corbies and ravens glutted themselves drinking at red pools beside the stripped bodies which lay stark and stiff upon the heather. The firing of a score of homesteads smouldered till the rains came, a day and two nights after the old women who had been driven to the moors stole back wailing. The maids and wives were carried off in the galleys: and for nine days, at a haven in the lone coast opposite the Summer Isles, their tears, their laughter, their sullen anger, their wild gaiety, their passionate despair gave joy to the yellow-haired men. On the ninth day they were carried southward on the summer-sailing. At a place called Craig-Feeach, Raven's Crag, in the north of Skye, where. a Norse Erl had a great dn that he had taken from the son of a king from Eireann whose sea-nest it had been, Olaus the White rested awhile. The women were left there as a free spoil; save three who were so fair that Olaus kept one, and Haco and Sweno, his chief captains, took the others.
Then, on an evening when the wind was from the north, Olaus and ten galleys went down the Sound. Sweno the Hammerer was to strike across the west for the great island that is called the Lews; Haco the Laugher was to steer for the island that is called Harris; and Olaus himself was to reach the haven called Ljotr-wick in the Isle of the Thousand Waters that is Benbecula.
On the eve of the day following that sailing a wild wind sprang up, blowing straight against the north. All of the south-faring galleys save one made for haven, though it was a savage coast which lay along the south of Skye. In the darkness of the storm Olaus thought that the other nine wavesteeds were following him, and he drove before the gale with his men crouching under the lee of the bulwarks, and with Finnleikr the Harper singing a wild song of sea-foam and flowing blood and the whirling of swords.
The gale was nigh spent three hours after dawn; but the green seas were like snowcrowned hillocks that roll in earth-drunkenness when the flames surge from shaken mountains. Olaus knew that no boat could live in that sea except it went before the wind. So, though not a galley was in sight, he fared steadily north-westward.
By sundown the wind had swung out of the south into the east; and by midnight the stars were shining clear. In the blue-dark could be seen the white wings of the fulmars, seaward-drifting once again from the rocks whither they had fled.
Then came the dawn, when the sun-rain streamed gladly, and a fresh east wind blew across the Minch, and the Svart-Alf, that had been driven far northward, came leaping south-westwardly, with laughter and fierce shining of sky-blue eyes, where the vikings toiled at the oars, or burnished their brine-stained swords and javelins.
All day they fared joyously thus. Behind them they could see the blue line of the mainland and the dark-blue mountain crests of Skye; southward was a long green film, where Coll caught the waves ere they drove upon Tiree; south-eastward, the grey-blue peaks of Halival and Haskival rose out of the Isle of Terror, as Rm was then called. Before them, as far as they could see to north or south, the purple-grey lines that rose out of the west were the contours of the Hebrides.
" Dost thou see yonder blue splatch, Morna? " cried Olaus the White to the woman who lay indolently by his side, and watched the sun-gold redden the mass of ruddy hair which she had sprayed upon the boards, a net wherein to mesh the eyes of the vikings: " Do you see that blue splatch? I know what it is. It is the headland that Olaf the Furious called Skipness. Behind it is a long fjord in two forks. At the end of the south fork is a place of the white-robes whom the islanders call Culdees. Midway on the eastern bend of the north fork is a town of a hundred families. Over both rules Maoliosa, a warrior-priest; and under him, at the town, is a greybeard called Ramon mac Coag. All this I have learned from Anlaf the Swarthy, who came with us out of Faroe."
Morna glanced at him under her drooped eyelids. Sure, he was fair to see, for all that his long hair was white. White it had gone with the terror of a night on an ice-floe, whereon a man who hated the young Erl had set him adrift with seven wolves. He had slain three, and drowned three, and one had leaped into the sea; and then he had lain on the ice, with snow for a pillow, and in the dawn his hair was the same as the snow. This was but ten years ago, when he was a youth.
She looked at him, and when she spoke it was in the slow, lazy speech that in his ears was drowsy-sweet as the hum of the hives in the steading where his home was.

"It will be a red sleep the men of that town will be having soon, I am thinking, Olaus. And the women will not be carding wool when the moon rises to-morrow night. And---"
The fair woman stopped suddenly. Olaus saw her eyes darken.
" Olaus! "
" I listen."
" If there is a woman there that you desire more than me I will give her a gift."
Olaus laughed.
"Keep your knife in your girdle, Morna. Who knows but you may need it soon to save yourself from a Culdee! "
" Bah! These white-robed men-women have nought to do with us. I fear no man, Olaus; but I have a blade for any woman that will dazzle your eyes."
"Have no fear, white wolf. The sea-wolf knows his mate when he has found her."

An hour after sun-setting a mist came up. The wind freshened. Olaus made silence throughout the war-galley. The vikings had muffled their oars, for the noise of the waves on the shore could now be heard. Hour after hour went by. When at last the moonlight tore a rift in the har, and suddenly the vapor was licked up by a wind moving out of the north, they saw that they were close upon the land, and right eastward of the headland of Skipness.
Anlaf the Swarthy went to the prow. Blackly he loomed in the moonlight as he stood there, poising his long spear, and sounding the depths while the vessel slowly forged shoreward. By the time a haven was found, and the vikings stood silent upon the rocks, the night was yellow with moonshine, and the brown earth overlaid with a soft white sheen wherein the long shadows lay palely blue.
There was deep peace in the island-town. The kye were in the sea-pastures near, and even the dogs slept. There had been no ill for long, and Ramon mac Coag was an old man, and dreamed overmuch about his soul. This was because of the teaching of the Culdees. Before he had known he had a soul he was a man, and would not have been taken unawares, and he over-lord of a sea-town like Bail'tiorail.

Olaus the White made a wide circuit with his men. Then, slowly, the circle narrowed.
A bull lowed, where it stood among the seagrass, stamping uneasily, and ever and again sniffing the air. Suddenly one heifer, then another, then all the kye, began a strange lowing. The dogs rose, with bristling felts, and crawled sidelong, snarling, with red eyes gleaming savagely.
Bethoc, the young third wife of Ramon, was awake, dreaming of a man out of Eireann who had that day given her a strange pleasure with his harp and his dusky eyes. She knew that lowing. It was the langanaich an aghaidh am allamharach, the continued lowing against the stranger. She rose lightly, and unfastened the leather flap, and looked down from the Grianan where she was. A man stood there in the shadow. She thought it was the harper. With a low sigh she leaned downward to kiss him, and to whisper a word in his ear.
Her long hair fell over her eyes and face and blinded her. She felt it grasped, and put out her hand. It was seized, and before she knew what was come upon her she was dragged prone upon the man.
Then, in a flash, she saw he had yellow hair, and was clad as a Norseman. She gasped. If the sea-rovers were come, it was death for all there. The man whispered something in a tongue that was strange to her. She understood better when he put his arm about her, and placed a hand upon her mouth.
Bethoc stood silent. Why did no one hear that lowing of the kine, that snarling of the dogs which had now grown into a loud continuous baying? The man by her side thought she was cowed, or had accepted the change of fate. He left her, and put his foot on a cleft; then, sword under his chin, he began to climb stealthily.
He had thrown his spear upon the ground. Soundlessly Bethoc stepped forward, lifted it, and moved forward like a shadow.
A wild cry rang through the night. There was a gurgling and spurting sound as of dammed water adrip. Ramon sprang from his couch and stared out of the aperture. Beneath he saw a man, speared through the back, and pinned to the soft wood. His hands claspt the frayed deerskins, and his head lay upon his shoulder. He was laughing horribly. A bubbling of foam frothed continuously out of his mouth.
The next moment Ramon saw Bethoc. He had not time to call to her before a man slipped out of the shadow, and plunged a sword through her till the point dripped red drops upon the grass beyond where she stood. She gave no cry,but fell as a annet falls. A black shadow darted across the gloom. A crash, a scream, and Ramon sank inert, with an arrow fixed midway in his head through the brows.

Then there was a fierce tumult everywhere. From the pastures the kye ran lowing and bellowing in a wild stampede. The neighing of horses broke into screams. Here and there red flames burst forth, and leaped from hut to hut. Soon the whole rath was aflame. Round the dn of Ramon a wall of swords flashed.
All had taken refuge in the dn, all who had escaped the first slaying. If any leaped forth, it was upon a viking spear, or if the face of any was seen it was the target for a swift-sure arrow.
A long, penetrating wail went up. The Culdees on the farther loch heard it, and ran from their cells. The loud laughter of the sea-rovers was more dreadful to them than the whirling flames and the wild screaming lament of the dying and the doomed.
None came forth alive out of that dn, save three men, and seven women that were young. Two of the men were made to tell all that Olaus the White wanted to know. Then they were blinded, and put into a boat, and set in the tide-eddy that would take them to where the Culdees were. And for the Culdees they had a message from Olaus.
Of the seven women none were so fair that Morna had any heed. But seven men had them as spoil. Their wild keening had died away into a silence of blank despair long before the dawn. When the light came, they were huddled in a white group near the ashes of their homes. Everywhere the dead sprawled.

At sunrise the vikings held an ale-feast. When Olaus the White had drunken and eaten, he left his men and went down to the shore to look upon the fortified place where Maoliosa the Culdee and his white-robes lived. As he fared thither through what had been Bail'-tiorail, there was not a male left alive, save the one prisoner who had been kept, Aongas the Bowmaker, as he was called; none save Aongas, and a strayed child among the salt grasses near the shore, a little boy, naked, and with blue eyes and laughing sunny smile.

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11/24/01