W

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

THE FLIGHT OF THE CULDEES

On the wane of noon, on the day following the ruin of Bail'-tiorail, sails were descried far east of Skipness.
Olaus called his men together. The boats coming before the wind were doubtless the galleys of his own fleet which he had lost sight of when the south-gale had blown them against Skye: but no man can know when and how the gods may smile grimly, and let the swords that wbirl to be broken, or the spears that are flat become a hedge of death.
An hour later, a startled word went from viking to viking. The galleys in the offing were the fleet of Sweno the Hammerer. Why had he come so far southward, and why were oars so swift and with the sails strained to the utmost before the wind?
They were soon to know.
Sweno himself was the first to land. A great man he was, broad and burly, with a sword-slash across his face that brought his brows together in a frown which made a perpetual shadow above his savage blood-shot eyes.

In a few words he told how he had met a galley, with only half its crew, and of these many who were wounded. It was the last of the fleet of Haco the Laugher. A fleet of fifteen war-birlinns had set out from the Long Island, and had given battle. Haco had gone into the strife, laughing loud as was his wont, and he and all his men had the berserk rage, and fought with joy and foam at the mouth. Never had the Sword sung a sweeter song.

" Well," said Olaus the White, grimly, "well, how did the Raven fly? "
" When Haco laughed for the last time, with waving sword out of the death wherein he sank, there was only one galley left. Of all that company of vikings there were no more than nine to tell the tale. These nine we took out of their boat, which was below waves soon. Haco and his men are all fighting the seashadows by now."
A loud snarling went from man to man. This became a wild cry of rage. Then savage shouts filled the air. Swords were lifted up against the sky, and the fierce glitter of the blue eyes and the bristling of the tawny beards were fair to see, thought the captive women, though their hearts beat against their ribs like eaglets against the bars of a cage.
Sweno the Hammerer frowned a deep frown when he heard that Olaus was there with only the Svart-Alf out of the galleys which had gone the southward way.
"If the islanders come upon us now with their birlinns we shall have to make a running fight," he said.
Olaus laughed.
" Ay, but the running shall be after the birlinns, Sweno."
" I hear that there are fifty and nine men of these Culdees yonder under the swordpriest, Maoliosa ? "
" It is a true word. But to-night, after the moon is up, there shall be none."
At that, all who heard laughed, and were less heavy in their hearts because of the slaying and drowning of Haco the Laugher and all his crew.
"Where is the woman Brenda that you took?" Olaus asked, as he stared at Sweno's boat and saw no woman there.
" She is in the sea."
Olaus the White looked. It was his eyes that asked.
" I flung her into the sea because she laughed when she heard of how the birlinns of Somhairle the Renegade drove in upon our ships, and how Haco laughed no more, and how the sea was red with Lochlin blood."
" She was a woman, Sweno--and none more fair in the isles, after Morna that is mine."
" Woman or no woman, I flung her into the sea. The Gael call us the Gall: then I will let no Gael laugh at the Gall. It is enough. She is drowned. There are always women: one here, one there--it is but a wave blown this way or that."
At this moment a viking came running across the ruined town with tidings. Maoliosa and his Culdees were crowding into a great birlinn. Perhaps they were coming to give battle: mayhap they were for sailing away from that place.
Olaus and Sweno stared across the fjord. At first they knew not what to think. If Maoliosa thought of battle surely he would not choose that hour and place. Or was it that he knew the Gael were coming in force, and that the vikings were caught in a trap?
At last it was clear. Sweno gave a great laugh.
"By the blood of Odin," he cried, "they come to sue for peace! "
Slowly across the loch the birlinn, filled with white-robed Culdees, drew near. At the prow stood a tall old man, with streaming hair and beard, white as sea-foam. In his right hand he grasped a great Cross, whereon was Christ crucified.
The vikings drew close one to the other.
" Hail them in their own tongue, Sweno," said Olaus.
The Hammerer moved to the water-edge, as the birlinn stopped, a short arrow-flight away.
" Ho, there, druids of the Christ-faith! "
" What would you, viking-lord? " It was Maoliosa himself that spoke.
" Why do you come over here to us, you that are Maoliosa? "
" To win you and yours to God, Pagan."
" Is it madness that is upon you, old man ? We have swords and spears here, if we lack hymns and prayers."
All this time Olaus kept a wary watch inland and seaward, for he feared that Maoliosa came because of an ambush.
Truly the old monk was mad. He had told his Culdees that God would prevail, and that the Pagans would melt away before the Cross.
The ebb-tide was running swift. Even while Sweno spoke, the birlinn touched a low sea-hidden ledge of rock.
A cry of consternation came from the white-robes.
Loud laughter went up from the vikings.
" Arrows! " cried Olaus.
With that, three-score men took their bows. There was a hail of death-shafts. Many fell into the water, but some were in the brains and hearts of the Culdees.
Maoliosa himself stood in death, transfixed to the mast.
With a despairing cry the monks swept their oars backward. Then they leaped to their feet, and changed their place, and rowed for life or death.
The summer-sailors sprang into their galley that they had pulled through the narrow strait. Sweno the Hammerer was at the bow. The foam curled and hissed.
The birlinn grided upon the opposite shore at the self-same moment when Sweno brought down his battle-axe upon the monk who steered. The man was cleft to the shoulder. Sweno swayed with the blow, stumbled, and fell headlong into the sea. A Culdee thrust at him with an oar, and pinned him among the sea-tangle. Thus died Sweno the Hammerer.
Then all the white-robes leaped upon the shore. Yet Olaus was quicker than they. With a score of vikings he raced to the Church of the Cells, and gained the sanctuary. The monks uttered a cry of despair, and, turning, fled across the moor. Olaus counted them. There were now forty in all.
" Let forty men follow," he cried.
Like white birds, the monks fled this way and that. Olaus, and those who watched, laughed at them as they stumbled, because of their robes. One by one fell, sword-cleft or spear-thrust.
At the last there were less than a score--twelve only--ten!
" Bring them back! " Olaus shouted.
When the ten fugitives were captured and brought back, Olaus took the crucifix that Maoliosa had raised, and held it before each in turn.
" Smite," he said to the first monk. But the man would not.
" Smite! " he said to the second; but he would not. And so it was to the tenth.
" Good," said Olaus the White, " they shall witness to their god."
With that he bade his vikings break up the birlinn, and drive the planks into the ground, and shore them up with logs.
When this was done he crucified each Culdee. With nails and with ropes he did unto each what their god had suffered. Then all were left there by the water-side.
That night, when Olaus the White and the laughing Morna left the great bonfire where the vikings sang and drank horn after horn of strong ale, they stood and looked across the loch. In the moonlight, upon the dim verge of the farther shore, they could discern ten crosses. On each was a motionless white splatch.

Return to Seanachas: Contents

11/24/01