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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

HOW CUCHULAIN TOOK ARMS

[40]

W
HEN Meave had thought awhile, she said, "Are there yet other stories of this wondrous boy?" "Indeed," cried Fiacra, one of the companions of Cormac, who came with him when he went from Ulster into exile, "the story of his taking arms is not told yet, and I think it more than all the other stories you have heard." "How so?" said Meave; "tell it to us now."

Then Fiacra said, "The very year after Cuchulain got his name, he was playing outside the place where Caffa the magician sat with eight of his pupils teaching them his lore. It chanced that he was telling them, as the magicians and Druids are wont to believe, that certain days were lucky for special acts and other days unlucky. 'And for what,' asked one of the boys, 'would this day at which we now are be counted lucky?' "

"This is the day," said Caffa, "on which any youth who should assume arms, as became a champion of war, should attain eternal fame; beside him, no warrior's name in Ireland should ever more be named, or spoken in the same breath with it, for his glory would transcend them all. For such a youth, however, no happy thing were this, for he should die at an early age, no long-lived warrior he; his life shall be but fleeting, quickly o'er."

[41] Outside the house Cuchulain overheard the conversation of the teacher with his boys. Instantly and without a moment's pause he laid aside his hurley and his ball, and put off his playing-suit. Then, donning his ordinary apparel, he entered the sleeping-house of the King. "All good be thine, O King," said he. "Boy, what hast thou now come to ask of me?" replied the King. "I desire," said he, "to take arms as a warrior and champion to-day." "Who told thee to ask for this?" said the King, surprised. "My master Caffa, the magician," answered he. "If that is so, thou shall not be denied," replied the King, and he called on those who were about him to give the lad two spears and sword and shield: for in Emain the King had always ready seventeen complete equipments of weapons and armature; for he himself bestowed weapons on a youth of the boy-corps when he was ready to bear arms, to bring him luck in using them. Cuchulain began to try those weapons, brandishing and bending them to try their strength and fitness to his hand; but one after another they all gave way, and were broken into pieces and little fragments. "These weapons are not good," said he; "they are but the equipment of a common warrior, they suffice me not." Then when he had tried them all, and put them from him, the King said: "Here, my lad, are my own two spears, my own sword and shield." Then Cuchulain took these weapons, and in every way, by bending them from point to hilt, by brandishing them, by thrusting with them, he proved their strength and mettle. "These arms are good," said he, "they break not in my hand. Fair fall the land and country whose King can wield armour and weapons such as these!"


[Illustration]

CUCHULAIN DESIRES ARMS OF THE KING.

Just at the moment Caffa came into the tent. Won- [42] dering, he asked: "Is the little boy so soon assuming arms?" "Ay, so it is," said the King. "Unhappy is the mother whose son assumes arms to-day," said the magician. "How now?" cried the King; "was it not yourself who prompted him?" "Not so, indeed," said Caffa. "Mad boy, what made you then deceive me, telling me that Caffa it was who prompted you to ask for arms?" "O King of Heroes, be not wrath," replied the lad. "No thought, indeed, had I to deceive. When Caffa was instructing his pupils in the house to-day, I overheard, as I was playing with my ball outside, one of the lads asking him what special virtue lay in this day, and for what it was a lucky day. And he told them that for him who should assume arms this day, his luck should be so great that his fame would outstrip the fame of all Ireland's heroes, and he would be the first of Ireland's men. And for this great reward no compensating disadvantage would accrue to him, save that his life should be but fleeting."

"True is that, indeed," said Caffa, "noble and famous thou shalt be, but short and brief thy life." "Little care I for that," replied the lad, "nor though my life endured but for one day and night, so only that the story of myself and of my deeds shall last."

"Then get thee into a chariot, as a warrior should, and let us test thy title to a future fame."

So a chariot of two horses was brought to Cuchulain, and every way he tried its strength, driving it furiously round and round the green, goading the horses and turning suddenly. But for this usage the chariot was not fit, and it broke beneath him. Twelve chariots were brought to him, and he tested them all in this manner, but all of them he reduced to fragments. "These chariots of [43] thine, O Conor, are no good at all, they serve me not, nor are they worthy of me, thy own foster-son."

Then the King cried: "Fetch me here Ivar, my own charioteer, and let him harness my steeds into the kingly chariot, and bring it here to serve Cuchulain." Then the kingly chariot of war was brought and Cuchulain mounted, testing it every way; and well it served him at every test. "The chariot is good, and the steeds are good, they are worthy of me," said the boy; "it is my worthy match."

"Well, boy, it is time that thou wert satisfied at last; now I will take the horses home and put them out to graze," said Ivar.

"Not yet awhile," said Cuchulain. "Drive but the horses round the kingly fort." Ivar did so, and then he said again: "Be satisfied now, my lad; I go to turn the horses out to grass." For it was but seldom that King Conor went forth in his war-chariot, because the men of Ulster willed not that the King should expose his person in battle; so Ivar was grown idle, and fat through his idleness, and he liked not at all the unwonted exertion that the wee boy asked of him.

"Not yet awhile," said Cuchulain again; "too early is it to turn in; drive now towards the playing-fields that the boy-corps may salute me on this the first day of my taking arms." They did so, and the boy-corps gathered round. "These are a warrior's arms that thou hast taken!" cried they all, surprised to see him thus equipped in the King's own warrior-gear, and driving in the chariot of the King. "Just so, indeed," replied the boy. Then they wished him well in his warrior-career. "May success in winning of spoils, and in blood-drawing, be thine," they cried. "But all too soon it is

44 thou leavest us and our boyish sports for deeds of war." "In no way do I wish to part with the beloved boy-corps," replied the lad; "but it was a sign of luck and good fortune that I should take arms to-day; therefore I thought not well to miss my luck."

Then Ivar urged the child again, for he was growing tired of the thing, to let him take the horses out to graze. " 'Tis early yet, O Ivar," said the boy; "whither then goes this great High-road I see?" "That is the High-road to the borders of the Province, and to the Ford of Watching or the Look-out Ford," replied the charioteer. "Why is it called the Look-out Ford?" asked then the boy. "Because there, on the extreme limits of the Province, a watcher who is a prime warrior of Ulster always stands, prepared to challenge any stranger, before he pass the ford, of his business in the Province: if he who comes be a bard or peaceful man, to grant him protection and entertainment; but if he be a foe, to challenge him to combat at the ford. And seldom," said the charioteer, "does a day pass, but at the ford some enemy is slain. As to the bards who pass in peace, no doubt it is the kindness of that warrior they will praise when once they come to Emain, and stand before the King." "Who guards the ford this day, if thou dost know?" inquired Cuchulain. "Conall the Victorious, Ulster's foremost man of war, it is who holds the ford this day." "Away then," cried the lad, "goad on thy steeds, for we will seek the ford and Conall."

[45] They come at last to the ford's brink, and there beside the Ford of Watching stood young Conall, at that time Ulster's foremost man of war.

When he saw the lad driving fully equipped for war in the chariot of the King, he felt surprise. "Are you taking arms to-day, small boy?" he said. "He is indeed," said Ivar. "May triumph and victory and drawing of first blood come with them," answered Conall, for he loved the little lad, and many a time he had said to his fellows: "The day will come when this young boy will dispute the championship of Ireland with me." "Nevertheless," said he to Cuchulain, "it seems to me that oversoon thou hast assumed these arms, seeing that thou are not yet fit for exploits or for war." The boy heeded not this, but eagerly asked, "What is it thou doest at the Ford of Watching, Conall?" "On behalf of the Province I keep watch and ward, lest enemies creep in."

"Give up thy place to me, for this one day let me take duty," said Cuchulain. "Say not so," replied the champion, "for as yet thou art not fit to cope with a right fighting-man."

"Then on my own account must I go down into the shallows of yon lake, to see whether there I may draw blood on either friend or foe." "I will go with thee, then, to protect thee, to the end that on the border-marshes thou run not into danger." "Nay, come not with me, let me go alone to-day," urged the lad. "That I will not," said Conall, "for, were I to allow thee all alone to frequent these dangerous fighting grounds, on me would Ulster avenge it, if harm should come to thee."

Then Conall had his chariot made ready and his horses harnessed; soon he overtook Cuchulain, who, to cut [46] short the matter, had gone on before. He came up abreast with him, and Cuchulain, seeing this, felt sure that, Conall being there, no chance for deed of prowess would come his way; for, if some deed of mortal daring were to be done, Conall himself would undertake the same. Therefore he took up from the road a smooth round stone that filled his fist, and with it he made a very careful shot at Conall's chariot-yoke. It broke in two, and the chariot came down, Conall being thrown forward over his horses' heads.

"What's this, ill-mannered boy?" said he.

"I did it in order to see whether my marksmanship were good, and whether there were the makings of a man-at-arms in me." "Poison take both thy shot and thyself as well; and though thy head should now fall a prize to some enemy of thine, yet never a foot farther will I budge to keep thee."

"The very thing I asked of thee," replied the boy, "and I do so in this strange manner, because I know it is a custom among the men of Ulster to turn back when any violence is done to them. Thus have I made the matter sure." On that, Conall turned back to his post beside the Look-out Ford, and the little boy went forward southward to the shallows of the marshy loch, and he rested there till evening-tide.


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