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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE DEER OF ILL-LUCK

[94]

W
HEN Meave heard that already the Hound of Ulster stood upon her path, the words spoken by the fairy Feidelm and the Druid came back into her mind, and she resolved that not a moment would she linger by the way, but now at once, before the men of Ulster were risen from their weakness, she would push on direct to Emain Macha. "If one man alone and single-handed be formidable to us," she said to Ailill, "still more formidable will he be with the gathered hosts of Ulster at his back, fighting for their country and their fatherland."

So that very night she gave command that the army should move on, taking the direct way into Ulster; and when the men complained there was no road, she bid her soldiers take their swords and hew for the chariots a path straight through the forests. Haughtily she cried, "though mountains and high hills stood in my way, yet should they be hewn down before me and smoothed to level lands. So by new paths mayhap we shall slip by Cuchulain unperceived, and fall on Ulster sleeping; thus shall we take Cuchulain in the rear."

But whichever way the army turned, from that night forward Cuchulain was on the path before it, and though the warriors could not catch sight of him, at ever point he cut off twos and threes, whenever scouts were sent [95] before the host. At length they could not get the scouts to go, and whole bands went out together, but even so but few returned alive. And strange things happened, which alarmed the men, and Meave herself at last grew sore afraid. One evening, thinking that all was safe, Meave and her women walked to take the air, she carrying on her shoulders her pet bird and squirrel. They talked together of the wonders that Cuchulain wrought, and how that very day he had fallen alone upon a troop of men who cut a path through woods some miles away beyond the camp to eastward, and how but one of them escaped to tell the tale. Just as they spoke, a short sharp sound was heard, as of a sling-stone passing near their heads, and at Meave’s feet the squirrel dropped, struck through the heart. Startled, she turned to see whose hand had killed her pet, but as she turned, down from the other shoulder dropped the bird, slain also by a stone. "Cuchulain must be near," the women cried; "no other hand but his so surely and so straight can sling a stone," and hastily they turned and sought the shelter of the camp again. Meave sat down beside the King to tell him what had happened. "It could not be Cuchulain," said the King; "he was far off on the other side of the host to-day." Even as the words passed from his lips, close to them whizzed a hand-sling stone, carrying off the coronet or golden ‘mind’ that bound Meave’s hair, but hurting not so much as a lock upon her head. "A bad stroke that," laughed out the fool that gamboled round the King, joking to make him merry; "had I been he who shot that stone, the head I would have taken off and left the ‘mind’ behind."

Hardly were the words out of his foolish mouth, than a second stone, coming from the same direction as [96] the first, in the full middle of the forehead struck the fool, and carried off his head, while at Meave’s feet dropped down his pointed cap. Then Ailill started up and said, "That man will be the death of all our host, before we ever step on Ulster’s soil. If any man henceforth makes mock at Cuchulain, ‘tis I myself will make two halves of him. Let the whole host press on by day and night towards the coasts of Ulster, or not one of us will live to see the gates of Emain Macha."

So day and night the camp moved on, but not thus could they outstrip Cuchulain; march as they would, he still was there before them. Yet, though they chased and sought him day and night, they caught no sight of him; only he cut off their men.

One day a charioteer of Orlam, Ailill’s son, was sent into a wood to cut down poles to mend the chariots broken by the way. It happened that Cuchulain was in this wood, and he took the charioteer to be a man of Ulster come out before their host to scout for them.

"The youth is foolhardy who comes so near the army of Queen Meave," Cuchulain thought; "I will e’en go and warn him of his danger."

So he went forwards, and said, "And what, my lad, art thou doing here?" Not knowing who it was who spoke to him, the lad replied, "I am come out to polish chariot-poles, because our chariots have been sorely damaged in our chase of that famous wild deer, Cuchulain; and indeed, good warrior, I am making all the haste I can, for fear this same Cuchulain may pounce down on me. Certainly he would make short work of me; therefore, O Youth, if thou hast time, lend me a hand and help me with my task." "Willingly," said Cuchulain, "will I help thee. Take thou thy choice; shall I [97] cut down the holly-poles? Or shall I smooth them for thee?" "To trim them is the slowest work; therefore while I hew down the trees do thou smooth off the branches and the twigs."

Cuchulain set to work to trim the holly-poles, and quickly were they done. Simply by drawing them between his fingers and his toes, he finished them to perfect smoothness, and threw them down without a twig or bit of bark or any rough excrescence on the ground. Closely and with surprise the young man watched this feat. At last he said: "I am inclined to think that thou art accustomed to some higher work than cutting chariot-poles. Who art thou then at all?"

"I am that notable Cuchulain of whom just now thou spakest," the hero said. "Art thou indeed? Then am I but a dead man," the youth cried, trembling as he spoke; "no one escapes Cuchulain’s hands alive."

"Fear nothing," replied Cuchulain, "for I never slay a man unarmed or charioteer. Whose man art thou, and where is thy master to be found?" "A servant I of Orlam, son of Meave, who awaits my coming near at hand," replied the charioteer. "Take him this message then," Cuchulain said. "Tell him the Hound of Ulster is at hand, and bid him guard his head, for if we meet, his head will surely fall."

Then the charioteer, right glad to get away, sought out his master with all haste; but before he could reach him, Cuchulain had outstripped him, and struck off the head of Orlam, holding it aloft and shaking it before the men of Erin.

From that time forward Cuchulain took up his position nearer to the host, cutting off and destroying [98] them, and at evening he would brandish and shake his weapons before the army, so that men died of pure fear of him.

"Our army will be destroyed before ever we reach Emain Macha," said Meave at length. "If I could but see this hero who troubles our armies, and speak to him myself, I would offer him terms; for if we could persuade him to forsake Ulster, and come over to our side, it would go hard with us, if all Ulster would not be subdued before us, and ourselves return from this expedition the greatest monarch in Ireland." Calling Mac Roth, her herald, she said to him, "Prepare your chariot, Mac Roth, and seek out for us this Deer of Ill-luck who is pursuing our army and bringing misfortune upon us. Offer him terms to forsake the service of Conor and to enter our own service. Give him whatever terms he asks, and bid him come himself to-morrow to confer with me, but not to cross the glen. Well should I like to see this mighty man, but I would not have him come too near."

"I care not to go on this embassy," quoth Mac Roth; "besides, I know not where to find Cuchulain." "Fergus will know," said Meave, for she believed that Fergus was in league with his foster-son, and she forgave him not that he loved Ulster still, in spite of all that she had done for him; so she said, "Fergus will surely know."

"I know not," said Fergus, "but this I know, that after any feat of war or combat with an enemy it is not by sleep or lazy loitering Cuchulain rests himself, but by exercising in the open air and sun, letting the cool breezes blow upon his wearied body. Likely it is, that somewhere ‘twixt the mountains and the sea he will be found."

[99] Mac Roth set off. Now all the land was covered with a mantle of fresh snow, and, true enough, Cuchulain warmed himself by practicing javelin feats out on the mountain-side, in the full air and sun.

His charioteer looked forth and saw a man approach. "A warrior comes, O little Cu," he said. "What sort of warrior is he who comes?" Cuchulain asked, but did not cease to fling his javelins in the air. "A massive, goodly, dark-faced man, clad in an ample mantle of dark brown, that fastens at his throat with a delicate, richly ornamented pin of bronze. Beneath the mantle a strong coat of skins, and sandals bound with leather thongs are on his feet. A sharp-edged sword he carries in one hand, and in the other holds a hazel-switch, to keep in order two great noble hounds that play around his steps."

"These are the trappings of a herald," said Cuchulain; "no doubt he comes from Meave and Ailill to propose terms to us."

Mac Roth came to the place where Laeg was awaiting him. "Who is your master, man?" said he. "My master is the young man over there; I am his charioteer," replied Laeg. Mac Roth turned half round and saw Cuchulain. "And who may you serve, my young man?" quoth he. "I serve King Conor," said the hero. "Cannot you tell me something more precise than that?" inquired Mac Roth again. "That much will serve your turn," replied the youth. "Can you then tell me where I could find this renowned Cuchulain, who is so frightening the men of Erin now?" pursued Mac Roth. "What do you want to say to him that cannot be said as well to me?" "I come in embassage from Ailill and from Meave, with power to propose terms of truce, [100] and with an invitation from the Queen that Cuchulain should meet and confer with her." "What terms do you propose?" he asked again. "With bounteous offers I am come from Meave, promise of wealth in cattle and in flocks, and welcome of an honoured guest to Cruachan and a place near Meave’s own side; all this and more, if he will quit the petty chieftain Conor, and will enter her service, and if, moreover, he will hold his hand from smiting down our hosts; for, in good sooth, the nightly thunder-feats he plays upon the warriors please not the host at all."

Anger came upon Cuchulain to hear King Conor styled a petty chief by this contemptuous messenger of Meave. "Go back to those who sent you," he replied, "for if in truth Cuchulain heard your terms, he would reject and fling them back with scorn. To-morrow I engage that the hero will confer with Meave herself, but only if she come under the escort and the charge of Fergus."

Mac Roth returned with haste, and in the camp he sought out Connaught’s Queen. Eagerly she asked, "Well, did you find the champion, Mac Roth?" "All that I found was a terrible, angry, surly fellow airing himself between the mountains and the sea; but whether it were the formidable hero of whom men speak or no, indeed, I know not."

"Did he accept our terms?" pursued the Queen. "The man I saw rejected them outright, flinging them back at us with angry scorn. Only he promised that to-morrow, in the glen, Cuchulain would be found to talk of terms, but that you needs must go in company with Fergus."

"To-morrow I myself will offer terms," said Meave, "and he will not refuse." So on the morrow Meave and [101] Fergus sought the glen, the Queen keeping carefully to the far side of the valley, with the wooded dell between themselves and the place where she believed Cuchulain would be found. Eagerly she scanned the glen on every side, expecting on the opposite ridge to see a mighty, ugly warrior, fully armed, who waited for her coming. "Why comes he not, Fergus?" she said at last. But Fergus answered not, for he was standing all engrossed in watching a young stripling, lithe and radiant, who on the other side of the glen was practicing sling-feats, shooting at the passing birds that flew above his head, and bringing them down alive.

"Cuchulain is there before you," Fergus said. "I see no one at all save one young lad, who seems expert in feats," replied the Queen; "I cannot see a warrior near or far."


[Illustration]

QUEEN MEAVE MEETS WITH CUCHULAIN.

"That young lad it is who has done damage to your hosts, however," was the reply. "Is that boy, the young boy yonder, the famous hero of whom all men speak?" Meave cried astonished. "Small need, methinks, to be afraid of him, myself will speak to him and offer him my terms." Then in a high and haughty voice, as when a Queen speaks to an underling, Meave called across the valley to Cuchulain. She set before him honourable terms if he would leave the service of King Conor and enter hers. Promptly, without an instant’s thought, he set them all aside. Then as he seemed about to turn away to practise feats again, in despair the Queen called out, "Are there no terms whatever that you will accept? it is not pleasant to our people, nor likes it them at all, to be cut off and slaughtered night by night and harassed by your precious thunder-feats."

[102] "I tell you not my terms," replied the youth; "it is for you to find them out yourself."

As Meave and Fergus drove back to the camp, the Queen asked Fergus if he knew the terms Cuchulain would accept.

"I do not know," said Fergus, "but just now there came into my mind a conversation that I had when Cuchulain was yet a child and in my house as foster-son. We spoke together of a champion who had accepted conditions of his country’s foes, and I remember that Cuchulain thought not well of him for doing so. He coloured up and said, ‘If I were offered conditions by my country’s enemies, these are the sort of terms I would accept. I would demand of them each day one of their foremost warriors to meet me at the ford in single combat; and for the space of time while I am hewing down that man, I would permit them to march onwards with their host, and short would be that space of time, I ween! But when the man was dead, until the sunrise on the morrow’s morn, I would not have them move. Thus I would keep them well in sight, and would pluck off their warriors one by one. Also,’ he said, and laughed, ‘I would require my enemies to keep me well supplied with food and raiment while I fought with them; so would there be much trouble saved, and with their food I would grow strong to fight against themselves. These are the terms that I would ask, O foster-father Fergus, of my foes.’ Those were his words, O Queen, when he was but a child; I trow he will not be contented now with less."

Then Meave said thoughtfully: "It seems not worse that one man should be slain each day than that a hundred men should fall at night, even were that one [103] man a champion of our host. I think it better to accept his terms. Go back to him, O Fergus, and if he is agreed, say we accept and will abide by those conditions. So we may find at length a little peace."


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