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The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows

One summer night, when there was peace, a score of Puritan troopers
under the pious Sir Frederick Hamilton, broke through the door of the
Abbey of the White Friars which stood over the Gara Lough at Sligo.
As the door fell with a crash they saw a little knot of friars,
gathered about the altar, their white habits glimmering in the steady
light of the holy candles. All the monks were kneeling except the
abbot, who stood upon the altar steps with a great brazen crucifix in
his hand. 'Shoot them!' cried Sir Frederick Hamilton, but none
stirred, for all were new converts, and feared the crucifix and the
holy candles. The white lights from the altar threw the shadows of
the troopers up on to roof and wall. As the troopers moved about, the
shadows began a fantastic dance among the corbels and the memorial
tablets. For a little while all was silent, and then five troopers
who were the body-guard of Sir Frederick Hamilton lifted their
muskets, and shot down five of the friars. The noise and the smoke
drove away the mystery of the pale altar lights, and the other
troopers took courage and began to strike. In a moment the friars lay
about the altar steps, their white habits stained with blood. 'Set
fire to the house!' cried Sir Frederick Hamilton, and at his word one
went out, and came in again carrying a heap of dry straw, and piled
it against the western wall, and, having done this, fell back, for
the fear of the crucifix and of the holy candles was still in his
heart. Seeing this, the five troopers who were Sir Frederick
Hamilton's body-guard darted forward, and taking each a holy candle
set the straw in a blaze. The red tongues of fire rushed up and
flickered from corbel to corbel and from tablet to tablet, and crept
along the floor, setting in a blaze the seats and benches. The dance
of the shadows passed away, and the dance of the fires began. The
troopers fell back towards the door in the southern wall, and watched
those yellow dancers springing hither and thither.

For a time the altar stood safe and apart in the midst of its white
light; the eyes of the troopers turned upon it. The abbot whom they
had thought dead had risen to his feet and now stood before it with
the crucifix lifted in both hands high above his head. Suddenly he
cried with a loud voice, 'Woe unto all who smite those who dwell
within the Light of the Lord, for they shall wander among the
ungovernable shadows, and follow the ungovernable fires!' And having
so cried he fell on his face dead, and the brazen crucifix rolled
down the steps of the altar. The smoke had now grown very thick, so
that it drove the troopers out into the open air. Before them were
burning houses. Behind them shone the painted windows of the Abbey
filled with saints and martyrs, awakened, as from a sacred trance,
into an angry and animated life. The eyes of the troopers were
dazzled, and for a while could see nothing but the flaming faces of
saints and martyrs. Presently, however, they saw a man covered with
dust who came running towards them. 'Two messengers,' he cried, 'have
been sent by the defeated Irish to raise against you the whole
country about Manor Hamilton, and if you do not stop them you will be
overpowered in the woods before you reach home again! They ride
north-east between Ben Bulben and Cashel-na-Gael.'

Sir Frederick Hamilton called to him the five troopers who had first
fired upon the monks and said, 'Mount quickly, and ride through the
woods towards the mountain, and get before these men, and kill them.'

In a moment the troopers were gone, and before many moments they had
splashed across the river at what is now called Buckley's Ford, and
plunged into the woods. They followed a beaten track that wound along
the northern bank of the river. The boughs of the birch and quicken
trees mingled above, and hid the cloudy moonlight, leaving the
pathway in almost complete darkness. They rode at a rapid trot, now
chatting together, now watching some stray weasel or rabbit scuttling
away in the darkness. Gradually, as the gloom and silence of the
woods oppressed them, they drew closer together, and began to talk
rapidly; they were old comrades and knew each other's lives. One was
married, and told how glad his wife would be to see him return safe
from this harebrained expedition against the White Friars, and to
hear how fortune had made amends for rashness. The oldest of the
five, whose wife was dead, spoke of a flagon of wine which awaited
him upon an upper shelf; while a third, who was the youngest, had a
sweetheart watching for his return, and he rode a little way before
the others, not talking at all. Suddenly the young man stopped, and
they saw that his horse was trembling. 'I saw something,' he said,
'and yet I do not know but it may have been one of the shadows. It
looked like a great worm with a silver crown upon his head.' One of
the five put his hand up to his forehead as if about to cross
himself, but remembering that he had changed his religion he put it
down, and said: 'I am certain it was but a shadow, for there are a
great many about us, and of very strange kinds.' Then they rode on in
silence. It had been raining in the earlier part of the day, and the
drops fell from the branches, wetting their hair and their shoulders.
In a little they began to talk again. They had been in many battles
against many a rebel together, and now told each other over again the
story of their wounds, and so awakened in their hearts the strongest
of all fellowships, the fellowship of the sword, and half forgot the
terrible solitude of the woods.

Suddenly the first two horses neighed, and then stood still, and
would go no further. Before them was a glint of water, and they knew
by the rushing sound that it was a river. They dismounted, and after
much tugging and coaxing brought the horses to the river-side. In the
midst of the water stood a tall old woman with grey hair flowing over
a grey dress. She stood up to her knees in the water, and stooped
from time to time as though washing. Presently they could see that
she was washing something that half floated. The moon cast a
flickering light upon it, and they saw that it was the dead body of a
man, and, while they were looking at it, an eddy of the river turned
the face towards them, and each of the five troopers recognised at
the same moment his own face. While they stood dumb and motionless
with horror, the woman began to speak, saying slowly and loudly: 'Did
you see my son? He has a crown of silver on his head, and there are
rubies in the crown.' Then the oldest of the troopers, he who had
been most often wounded, drew his sword and cried: 'I have fought for
the truth of my God, and need not fear the shadows of Satan,' and
with that rushed into the water. In a moment he returned. The woman
had vanished, and though he had thrust his sword into air and water
he had found nothing.

The five troopers remounted, and set their horses at the ford, but
all to no purpose. They tried again and again, and went plunging
hither and thither, the horses foaming and rearing. 'Let us,' said
the old trooper, 'ride back a little into the wood, and strike the
river higher up.' They rode in under the boughs, the ground-ivy
crackling under the hoofs, and the branches striking against their
steel caps. After about twenty minutes' riding they came out again
upon the river, and after another ten minutes found a place where it
was possible to cross without sinking below the stirrups. The wood
upon the other side was very thin, and broke the moonlight into long
streams. The wind had arisen, and had begun to drive the clouds
rapidly across the face of the moon, so that thin streams of light
seemed to be dancing a grotesque dance among the scattered bushes and
small fir-trees. The tops of the trees began also to moan, and the
sound of it was like the voice of the dead in the wind; and the
troopers remembered the belief that tells how the dead in purgatory
are spitted upon the points of the trees and upon the points of the
rocks. They turned a little to the south, in the hope that they might
strike the beaten path again, but they could find no trace of it.

Meanwhile, the moaning grew louder and louder, and the dance of the
white moon-fires more and more rapid. Gradually they began to be
aware of a sound of distant music. It was the sound of a bagpipe, and
they rode towards it with great joy. It came from the bottom of a
deep, cup-like hollow. In the midst of the hollow was an old man with
a red cap and withered face. He sat beside a fire of sticks, and had
a burning torch thrust into the earth at his feet, and played an old
bagpipe furiously. His red hair dripped over his face like the iron
rust upon a rock. 'Did you see my wife?' he cried, looking up a
moment; 'she was washing! she was washing!' 'I am afraid of him,'
said the young trooper, 'I fear he is one of the Sidhe.' 'No,' said
the old trooper, 'he is a man, for I can see the sun-freckles upon
his face. We will compel him to be our guide'; and at that he drew
his sword, and the others did the same. They stood in a ring round
the piper, and pointed their swords at him, and the old trooper then
told him that they must kill two rebels, who had taken the road
between Ben Bulben and the great mountain spur that is called Cashel-
na-Gael, and that he must get up before one of them and be their
guide, for they had lost their way. The piper turned, and pointed to
a neighbouring tree, and they saw an old white horse ready bitted,
bridled, and saddled. He slung the pipe across his back, and, taking
the torch in his hand, got upon the horse, and started off before
them, as hard as he could go.

The wood grew thinner and thinner, and the ground began to slope up
toward the mountain. The moon had already set, and the little white
flames of the stars had come out everywhere. The ground sloped more
and more until at last they rode far above the woods upon the wide
top of the mountain. The woods lay spread out mile after mile below,
and away to the south shot up the red glare of the burning town. But
before and above them were the little white flames. The guide drew
rein suddenly, and pointing upwards with the hand that did not hold
the torch, shrieked out, 'Look; look at the holy candles!' and then
plunged forward at a gallop, waving the torch hither and thither. 'Do
you hear the hoofs of the messengers?' cried the guide. 'Quick,
quick! or they will be gone out of your hands!' and he laughed as
with delight of the chase. The troopers thought they could hear far
off, and as if below them, rattle of hoofs; but now the ground began
to slope more and more, and the speed grew more headlong moment by
moment. They tried to pull up, but in vain, for the horses seemed to
have gone mad. The guide had thrown the reins on to the neck of the
old white horse, and was waving his arms and singing a wild Gaelic
song. Suddenly they saw the thin gleam of a river, at an immense
distance below, and knew that they were upon the brink of the abyss
that is now called Lug-na-Gael, or in English the Stranger's Leap.
The six horses sprang forward, and five screams went up into the air,
a moment later five men and horses fell with a dull crash upon the
green slopes at the foot of the rocks.

William Butler Yeats