Washer of the
Ford, by Fiona Macleod,
1896 Geddes edition
OF THE SWORD
These are of the Seanachas told me by Ian Mòr,
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
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 dûn 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 Rùm 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
"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 häar, 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
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 dûn of Ramon a wall of swords flashed.
All had taken refuge in the dûn, 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
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 dûn, 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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