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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

THE END OF THE BOY-CORPS

[151] HARDLY had the King arisen from his sleep, than he remembered the Boy-corps. "Go," said he to one of his heralds, "and see how the Boy-corps fares. Tell the youths that we depart hence within a while to battle on the Hill of Slane in Meath, but that before we set forth on our march, we fain would see them once again at play. Bid Follaman and bid them all prepare." So the herald went out to warn the Boy-corps, but the playing-field was silent and deserted, nor was there any sign of Follaman or of the boys. "What is become of the corps?" he asked, alarmed, for among the boys were the sons of the bravest chiefs of Ulster and the King's own son besides. But none could give him a reply. In one corner of the playing-field he espied a little lad, the youngest of the corps, who sat alone, crying by himself. The herald asked him what it was that ailed him, and where were all the others, his companions. "The boys are gone to help Cuchulain, their comrade, who is sorely wounded," said the child; "they heard the words of Sualtach, calling on the Ulstermen to rise and come to Cuchulain's help against the men of Erin. But all the champions were asleep and heard not; only they, the Boy-corps, heard. And Follaman their leader said, ‘Cuchulain, our comrade, is in sore distress, and none are ready to go [152] to his aid; therefore we ourselves will go.' And all the Boy-corps said that they would follow him, and protect the coasts of Ulster while Cuchulain was asleep, and do combat for him with the enemy. But me they left behind," the child continued, weeping, "because they said I was too young to go; but I would have handled my little sword as well as any of them. I heard Follaman say that he would never return to Emain unless he brought with him Ailill's head, with its coronet of gold, to lay at Conor's feet."

When the herald heard this tale, he went hurriedly to the palace and told the King what the child had said. A great cry arose in the palace when it was known that the boys had gone to do battle with grown warriors of Erin; for each chief and each champion had a son, or two or three sons, among the corps, and the King himself had Follaman, his youngest and his darling. Then the King sent out word that before one hour should be past, he and his troops would take the road to Slane; if so perchance they might arrive in time to save the Boy-corps from its fate. For all his strength and vigour returned to Conor when he heard of the peril which beset the Boy-corps, and bitterly did he rue the inaction in which he and his warriors had lain, when the children had gone forth to fight.

Now at the end of his three days' sleep, Cuchulain had awakened from his trance; he passed his hand across his face, and opened his eyes and saw Lugh sitting beside him. From head to foot he blushed a rosy red, for he felt shame that a champion like himself should be found sleeping before his foes. "Warrior, how long have I been sleeping here?" said he. "Three days and three nights," said Lugh, "and no shame to thee that [153] thou shouldst sleep, for even yet thou art not fit to rise." "That indeed is true," replied Cuchulain, for he tried to sit up on the couch, and fell back again. "Though my wounds are closed and healing, my strength has not returned; and all this time the hosts of Erin have been unmolested."

"Nay, nay, indeed," cried Lugh, "no step forward have they made; my hand hath held them back. Moreover," but here his voice grew grave and stern, "the Boy-corps from Emain were here last night." "The Boy-corps from Emain," Cuchulain cried; "what did they here? No games or child's play have we here suited to their age, but grim and deadly deeds of war. I trust no hurt or damage came to them." "Alas, alas," said Lugh, "they came at night; I knew not they were here. Straight to the tent of Ailill and of Meave marched on the boys, clad in their mimic armour, with all their pennons flying in the wind. Follaman, Conor's son, was at their head, a brave and dauntless lad; and on them all, although they were but growing boys, men say was seen the dignity of heroes, and the fearlessness of seasoned warriors. Follaman demanded combat with Ailill himself, he being a King's son, and thus, he said, unfit to fight with common men.

"With jeers and taunts they drove the brave lads back out of the camp and downward to the ford; but there at last the Boy-corps took its stand. ‘Here wait we,' cried the lads, ‘here stand we to the death; the honour of Cuchulain and of Ulster is in our hands. Come out and fight!' Alas, alas," said Lugh again, "this morning when I walked beside the ford, to guard the banks from any man of Meave's, all up and down the strand fair bodies lay, mangled and cut and hewn by cruel hands, [154] and on the stream bright hair was tossing from fair severed heads. Follaman lay prone on the farther side, his cold hand grasping still a warrior's hair, his arms locked tightly in that warrior's arms, dragged down together and o'erwhelmed beneath the wave. And all around a bloody fight had been. Many a good warrior had gone down before those hero boys; many a strong arm by them was stilled in death. Brave lads! The pride of Ulster and of Ulster's chiefs!"

"The Boy-corps dead!" Cuchulain cried, "dead to retrieve my honour and the darkened fame of Ulster's chiefs! Ill is the deed that thou hast done me, O my Father Lugh; had I been roused from sleep the Boy-corps had not perished thus. Follaman, Conor's son, would not have fallen, and this shame would not have been added to Ulster's other shames. Alas, and thrice alas! And now, my Father Lugh, hark to my prayer; stay but one night beside me, and together we will avenge the fall of the Boy-corps. Before the arm of Lugh the Long-handed and the might of Ulster's Hound, no foe could stand; let us then do a glorious deed, that Ulster's honour be by us avenged."

"Nay, not so," said Lugh, "for thine own strength is not come back to thee, and I must back to fairy-land again. My work is done, the gods await me there. The wrong will be avenged, as is most meet, by Ulster's champions, the fathers of the boys. See, even now over the Hill of Slane their pennons wave."

Most true it was; Cuchulain looked and saw, right in the north and passing out beyond him to the west, the gathering of a mighty host. Far as the eye could reach they came with swinging gait, battalion on battalion, up the hill; their tents on every side they pitched, [155] and martial strains and trampling of men's feet resounded through the plain. Beneath their heavy tread the very earth seemed quivering as they moved; the trees of the forest crashed their branches, and their tops swung together in the violence of the wind they made in passing up the glen. In the dim mist of early morn their spearpoints glittered like sparks of fire, caught by the first beams of the rising sun; the thunder of their chariots, the clatter of their arms and horses' hoofs, so terrified the wild things of the woodlands, that they fled panting before them to the open plain.

"Carry me where I can mark the clans as they come up, O Laeg," Cuchulain said. Laeg lifted up the wounded hero in his arms, and laid him on the north side of a rising mound whence he could see the path by which the armies came. He marked the Druids marching on in front, scanning the sky for portents and muttering their spells. Then came the bards, pouring forth rhapsodies, and singing battle-chants, and near them were the bright-faced men of healing, carrying salves and medicines in their bags, to succour wounded men.

Right well Cuchulain recognized them all, the corps of Laery, named Triumphant, marching in impetuous style; the clan of Conall the Victorious, his early friend, all young and hardy men; the clan of Conor's son, he whom men called "The Stutterer," because he stammered in his speech. These latter were so eager for the fray, that, fearing to spring forth before the time, they knelt upon the ground, their chins resting on the rims of their enormous shields. All day they came, from morn to fall of night, till the whole hill and wide surrounding plain were covered with their tents. But in the midst [156] Cuchulain saw his own corps swinging up the hill, brilliant in their flying plaids, all mighty men and strong. They only, among all the host, marched mournfully and sadly to their camp; no sound of music, no martial warrior-chant, rose from their lips, for they as orphans marched without a father, or as a body left without a head. Now when Cuchulain marked his own corps coming up, no words of Laeg could stay him, nor could his bands and shackles tie him down. Violently and with tremendous force he sought to rise, to greet his own battalion. So vigorous were the efforts that he made, that even Meave and Fergus heard. "Surely it is Cuchulain trying to arise and join his own battalion!" Fergus said; "well is it for us that he is lying ill! Happy the men who have the aid of Cuchulain's corps, and woe to those whom they oppose! Were but their chief amongst them at this time, no other clan had need to be called out against the men of Erin."

"I fear them not," said Meave; "we have good men and brave to answer them."

"I swear by Ulster's gods," Fergus replied, "that when once Ulster is aroused, no host on earth can answer them."

"Send satirists and men of evil nature from us to Cuchulain," said Meave to her attendants, "and let them jeer him in his weakness, saying to him that Conor will be routed, Ulster put to shame, and Fergus slain while he is lying on his couch in idleness. Let him not think that it is we who send, but his own people jeering at his wounds. Tell him his own corps call on Ulster's Hound, but, like a pet-dog in a lady's lap, he lies down to be fondled and caressed. Send women [157] mourners to weep over him false noisy tears, and tear their hair, and keen, as though he even now were dead. Thus will he fall into despair and do himself some harm, and so our victory will be assured. Away, and spare him not."

So keening women and hired mourning men went to the mound whereon Cuchulain lay, exhausted with his effort to arise; for Laeg had bound the hero fast with cords, so that he might not struggle to get up. For much he feared that he might inflict some injury on himself in trying to rejoin his corps. But Cuchulain thought not on his wounds at all, for all his mind was bent in following Laeg's account of what was passing in the camp; and when the messengers of Meave came close, and began to weep and wail, and hurl at him abuse and scornful words, he neither saw nor heard them, so that at length they ceased, disheartened and ashamed.

Eagerly Cuchulain addressed himself to Laeg. "Tell me, O Laeg, how stands our host together, and what do they now?"

"So close stand now the serried ranks, that though Conall's charioteer and mine tried side by side to force our way across the clustered spearpoints of the host, no smallest object from our chariots dropped among the men could find its way between them to the ground. I see King Conor's chosen men-at-arms coming toward the hill, where Conor's tent is pitched, higher and far more spacious than the rest. I see Meave's warriors withstanding them; they make a hollow circle, hoping, I think, to take the King alive. But, as though they hardly saw the opposing band, the King and his brave followers stride on. I see them now entering the hollow [158] mass of fighting men; alas, they will be caught and fall. But no! I see, I see them soon emerge again, unharmed and safe. Right through the enemy they have forced their way, to join the main contingent of the troops. The clans of Ulster rise on every side as Conor gains his tent upon the utmost summit of the hill, and in a mighty shout, rending the clouds of heaven, the men of Ulster now acclaim their King."

"There is the stuff for a great battle among those hosts," Cuchulain cried; "bloody the deeds that will be wrought at sunrise on the morrow's morn. Let nothing pass you; tell me all you see."

"So far as I can mark, you shall know all," replied the charioteer; "but shades of evening fall apace on us, and hard it is to distinguish friend from foe. The warriors all betake them to their rest. Watchfires are lighted, and around their blaze they sit in peace and eat their evening meal. Far in the west, I see a little head emerge upon the plain, a great Bull at its head, and all around a troop of cows and heifers, fifty or more, their heads held well in air. A band of youths are trying to restrain them and turn them back into the camp of Meave; but still they advance, careering o'er the plain, as though to join the hosts of Ulster's King. The youths of Ulster are battling with those other youths, trying to gain possession of the Bull." "And so indeed they may," Cuchulain said, "the Dun of Cooley is that Bull you see, for whom this war is fought. How are the youths of Ulster bearing themselves in this fray?" "They fight like men," said Laeg, "but now I see the Bull has broken from them all. Away he goes, toward the west, making as though for Connaught." "He feels in him the call of war," replied the wounded man; "he seeks the White- [159] horned, left in Cruachan. No man, nor any band of men can stay the Dun, when once the time is come for his great onset on the Connaught Bull. Fearful will be the war between those twain. All Ireland will hear their furious charge, and tremble at their fall."


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