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THE FAIRY SWAN-MAIDENS
 ONCE a year, in the autumn days, a great gathering was made
of the men of Ulster, and from all parts men and women
would come to share in the sports and marketing, and to
meet their friends, and make merry. The place was
joyous and full of gaiety with musicians making music
on harps and fiddles, and singers singing, and jugglers
plying their feats, and horse-racing in open spaces.
The warriors, too, were to be seen exhibiting their
trophies of war, and telling tales of their combats and
victories, and all were dressed in their best, and
feasting and eating was to be found in every part of
One day during an autumn feast, in the calm and quiet
evening, Cuchulain and Emer his wife and a band of the
brave men of Ulster who accompanied Cuchulain, and of
the gently bred women who were Emer's companions, were
amusing themselves strolling and sitting beside a lake,
apart from the people who were making merry, when they
saw coming from a distance a flock of white, very
beautiful swans, which settled down upon the lake, and
began to swim out two and two. "How I wish," Emer
said, "that I could have two of those birds, one on
each of my shoulders." "All of us are longing for
those birds," cried her companions, and one woman said,
"If only my husband were here"; and another
 woman said, "If only my husband were here, he would
fetch me the birds."
And Emer looked at Cuchulain, and said, "I think if
anyone should have the birds, it is I who ought to have
But Cuchulain seemed to take no notice of what they
were saying. And Emer was afraid to ask him, so she
went to Laeg, his charioteer, and said, "Come thou and
tell Cuchulain that the women are asking for the
birds." So Laeg spoke to Cuchulain: "The women wish
that you should go and hunt the swans for them to-day."
But Cuchulain looked angry. "Can the women of Ulster
find no better occupation for me," he said, "than to
set me catching birds for their amusement? Let them
set their own husbands to this business, for it is not
a fitting sport for me." "This is their fête-day,"
said the charioteer, "and they would like a gift from
"Bring me my chariot, then," Cuchulain said; "a fine
heroic deed it is to be taking birds for women, and
worthy of a champion's valour."
Angrily he went to the water's edge, and pursued the
swans in his chariot, bringing down a number of them
with his sword and with stones, so that they fell,
flapping their wings against the water. And he picked
them up, and threw them down before the women, and
returned to Emer, but to her he gave not any birds at
"Are you angry?" he said to her. "Certainly I am not,"
said she; "you gave the birds to the women, and this
was the same as though I myself had given them; right
glad I am that you did this to please the women." Then
Cuchulain's brow cleared, and he said, "Whenever birds
come again on our plain, the two most beautiful of all
I will bring down for you."
 Hardly were the words out of his mouth, than slowly
sailing out of the far distance and bearing down
towards them, they saw two noble swans, larger and more
splendid than any of those that had been on the lake
before. The birds were chanting a gentle, mystic song,
that soothed all who listened to it to sleep; and they
were linked together with a golden chain. White and
soft was their plumage, and they seemed to have human
reason, for they moved together, with one mind, towards
Cuchulain and his wife.
"There are your birds, O Emer," said Cuchulain, and he
rose up to pursue them and fetch them down for her.
But Emer was afraid. "Go not against those birds," she
said, "you shall get birds for me another day; there is
some magic power in those birds, and you may come to
"I am not afraid of birds," Cuchulain said, and
laughed; "place a stone in my sling, O Laeg."
So he took the sling and made a very careful aim, but
for the first time in his life he missed his aim, and
the stone when past the birds. "On my word," said
Cuchulain, "this is a strange thing; from the day on
which I first assumed arms till now, never have I
missed a mark. Give me another stone."
Then he aimed again, more carefully than before, but
again the stone went past them, and they sailed along
unheeding. Then Cuchulain was angry, and he seized his
spear, and flung it at the birds. And the aim was so
good that it seemed as though the spear went through
the swans, but for all that they flew away unhurt, save
that the wing of one of them was broken. But when
Cuchulain saw that the swans were taking flight, he
flung off his mantle and ran after them, Laeg following
 hard behind. The swans flew slowly round the bend of
the lake, and disappeared beneath the water; and when
Cuchulain came after them round the point of land, he
saw them no more, and though he gazed far out upon the
water, and up to the passing clouds of heaven, he could
not tell whither the birds were gone.
He looked about him, but he did not recognise the place
in which he was, although he was on the Plain of
Murthemne, in his own country.
"Where are the birds gone, and where are we, O Laeg?"
said Cuchulain, for he was sore perplexed. And a
strange weariness overtook him, and he leaned his back
against a pillar stone that was hard by, and drowsiness
fell upon him. But Laeg seemed to be asleep, for he
gave no answer.
Then in a vision Cuchulain saw two graceful women
approach him, clad in fairy mantles of green and
purple, and they had little switches of osier in their
hands, and they began to strike him gently with the
rods, first one and then the other, as though they
played a game with him, and it seemed to Cuchulain that
all his strength departed from him while they touched
him with their rods.
THE FAIRY SWAN-MAIDENS.
Then he said, but his voice sounded to himself but far
away and strange, "Who are ye, fair ladies, and what do
ye want with me?" "We are come," said the first, "out
of Moy Mell, the Land of all Delight, the radiant
Honey-Plain beyond the waves, to seek thy friendship.
Liban am I, wife of Labra the Swift, the Wielder of the
Sword, the monarch of that land. I come to bid thee
welcome, if thou wilt succour him against his foes; for
Senach the Spectral has challenged him to battle, and
alone he is not strong enough to meet him
 and his gruesome phantom host. Come therefore to his
help. Never until this day has monarch out of
Fairy-land called for the help of any mortal man, but
on the Plain of all Delights thy fame and thy renown
are known; Cuchulain of the hundred feats is known."
"We come," said the second lady, "upon another quest.
With Labra, called the Swift, the Wielder of the Sword,
dwells beauteous Fand, betrothed to old Manannan of the
Waves. Above the splendour of all women of this
earthly world shines out the noble loveliness of Fand,
Manannan's chosen wife. Like the pure crystal
clearness of a tear is the fairness of her face, and
for that reason is she named Fand, that is, 'a tear.'
Now tales of thy renown have come to Fand, the praise
of young Cuchulain, Champion of Murthemne's plain, and
sore she longeth with her own eyes to look on thee, and
see thy warlike, comely form. Therefore we come, that
if thou wilt, we may conduct thee to the Honey-plain,
the Land of all Delights. We are the swans that swam
upon the lake, and see, with thy rough spear, how thou
hast torn and hurt my hand."
"I am in no fit state to-day to contend with men or
demon hosts," Cuchulain said; "let Laeg go with you,
and let him come again and tell me of your land. I am
not strong or well to-day, and over and above all this,
never would I, with any man or host do battle on the
asking of a woman."
"Come thou, then, Laeg," she said; "I will take care of
thee, and bring thee safely back. But it is woe and
alas that thy master will not come."
"Indeed," said Laeg, "never in all my life until to-day
have I been put under a woman's guard. This kind of
woman's rule, I vow, pleaseth me not at all."
 "Nevertheless, O master Laeg," she said, "it is only
under my guidance that thou canst reach Moy Mell.
Haste then, and come, for Labra waits for us." Still
Laeg protested, and would not have gone, but that
Cuchulain urged him; and at the last forward they went,
Laeg and the women, walking together a long while, till
they perceived an island in the lake, and on the near
side lay a skiff of bronze, burnished and very light,
waiting, it seemed, to carry them across. It had no
oar or said or men to guide or ferry it along, but as
they touched it with their feet, swiftly it moved
outward from the bank, and with straight aim across the
lake it bore them to the door of the palace that was in
About the palace-gate they beheld a troop of warriors,
coming out to meet them. "Where is Labra the
Swift-handed?" demanded Liban. "He returns from
gathering his troops and armies for the conflict on the
morrow," they replied; and even as they spoke, the
rattle of a chariot was heard approaching. "He comes,
make way," they cried; "Labra Swift-handed, Wielder of
the Sword, returns from the battle-field."
Then drew near a dark, stern warrior, whose horses
out-stripped the March wind in their swiftness. In his
right hand he held his upright long-shafted spear, and
at his side hung a terrible two-handled sword,
double-bladed, strong. Rugged and full of care was
that warrior's face, and gloom sat on his brow. And
Liban said, "The spirit of Labra is depressed to-day; I
will go out and greet him." She went forward to bid
him welcome, and when he saw her, his face cleared, and
he exclaimed, "Has the Hound of Ulster come?" "The
Hound of Ulster cometh not to-day," she said, "but Laeg
is here, and surely he himself will come to-morrow.
 Fear nothing, Labra, Wielder of the massive sword, King
of the Honey-plain, the hosts shall be hewn down before
thee, and women shall weep their dead, when once
Then Labra called Laeg and said, "Welcome, O Laeg; for
the sake of him from whom thou comest, for the sake of
the lady with whom thou comest, thrice welcome to this
land. But now return to thine own home, O Laeg, and
set my message before thy master, before the Victorious
Hound, and bid him come and help me, for the Plain of
Honey is changed to a plain of slaughter and red war,
and hosts are gathering to destroy us; seest thou
yonder how they come?"
Then Laeg looked, and far off on the plain he saw
armies coming up like hosts of demon men, obscure and
silently; in bands and troops they ranged themselves
across the plain. Afar and farther yet he saw them
crowding on, while over them their dusky pennons flew,
and their great spears pointed aloft. Yet though so
great a host was assembling, never a sound was heard;
but like an army of the dead they moved, noiseless and
swift; only upon the air there came a sound, low and
soft and still, like wailing of the wind in forest
trees, and then Laeg knew that they were playing the
Dord Fiansa upon the pointes of their great spears.
"To-morrow will the battle be joined," said Labra, "and
though our warriors are good, we cannot stand before
this host. Pray therefore thy most valiant lord
without loss of time to come and succour us."
And Laeg said, "Surely he will come," and with that he
set out to return again.
Now when Laeg left his master at the pillar-stone,
Cuchulain lay for a long while in a trance; and there
 Fergus and the men of Ulster found him, and they were
perplexed to guess what had happened to him or whither
Laeg had gone. At length Cuchulain sat partly up, but
all his strength was gone from him. And he said,
"Carry me to the Speckled House of the Red Branch
Champions of Ulster, and lay me there among the
weapons." For the Champions of Ulster were called
'Champions of the Red Branch,' and they had three halls
set apart for them in the palace of the King at Emain
Macha. In the speckled house they hung their weapons
and stored their trophies; it was called the Speckled
House because of the bright spots of light made by the
flickering of the sun as it danced on the weapons round
So they carried Cuchulain to the Speckled House and
laid him there upon a bed with his own weapons hung
above his head; and Fergus and Conall the Victorious,
and the other warriors who were his friends took turns
to watch him as he lay. For a whole year he lay thus
in trance and no word did he speak all that time. For
a year with mortal men is but a day in fairy-land.
At the end of the year Laeg returned, and he found his
master thus asleep and speechless, but he knew not that
he had been away more than a single day. Greatly was
Laeg disturbed at the condition of his master, for he
knew that Labra awaited his coming on the morrow.
Then, as he pondered how he should awaken him, there
came amongst them, silently and unannounced, a noble
youth of princely mien, who stood at the foot of the
bed and looked down on Cuchulain as he lay. They knew
not how he had come in, for the doors were shut, and no
man had seen him enter. Fergus and Conall the
Victorious sprang to their feet and laid hands on their
 swords to protect Cuchulain. But the stranger said, "I
am Angus, god of youth, come out of fairy-land to heal
Cuchulain; if the man who lies there sick were but in
health, he would be a protection to me against all
Ulster. Although he now lies ill, he still is my
protector, and so much the more than if he were in
health, for sure am I that none would hurt me, while he
is until to take my part."
"None here will hurt or injure you," said all; "welcome
art thou for the sake of him for whom thou hast come."
Then the stranger stood up and sang to Cuchulain a
mystic strain, which none of those who stood by could
understand; but in truth, he was calling Cuchulain to
Fairy-land, the Plain of all Delight, for Fand it was
who sent him to invite Cuchulain thither. And as he
sang, lo! Cuchulain sat upright in his bed, and his
vision went from him, and he felt his natural strength
returning to him again. But when they looked, Angus
was gone, and they knew not whither or how he went.
But Fergus and Conall greeted Cuchulain lovingly and
said, "Tell us now what happened unto thee." And
Cuchulain told them all that had come to him, and of
the fairy women with their wands of osier who had met
him, and how his strength departed when they touched
him with the wands.
Then Cuchulain called Laeg, and said, "Go to Emer of
the beautiful hair, who is sorrowing for me in my own
home, in Dun Dalgan, and say to her that the fairy
women have taken my strength from me, and that I am not
able to come to her; but tell her that it goeth better
with me from hour to hour, and that I would have her
come to me to comfort me."
 And Laeg took that message to Emer, and he found her
weeping in Dun Dalgan. And she said, "It is strange to
me, O Laeg, that though for a whole year your master
has been lying ill, not one of you has sought to heal
or succour him. Well known is it that you possess the
power to go away to fairy-land, where all herbs of
healing are to be found, yet never have you sought a
fairy herb to cure your master. Surely some warrior or
wise man of Ulster might have done some heroic deed to
bring him back from the sore sickness in which he lies!
Had Fergus or Conall been sick or wounded, or had they
lost their sleep, or had King Conor been bound down in
enchanted slumber as now Cuchulain is, short would have
been the time till Cuchulain would have done some
mighty deed or have sought some magic means of healing
them. Certain it is he would have gone into the fairy
mounds, or though the solid earth itself; the great
wide world he would have searched from end to end,
until he found some plant of healing that would have
saved and wakened them. But as for me, for a whole
year have I not found one night of sweet repose, since
he, the Hound of Ulster, lay bound down with magic
chains. Sore is my heart and sick; bright music nor
the voice of pleasant friendship strikes my ear; blood
presses on my heart since Cuchulain lay in fairy
Then to the Speckled House she went in haste, and
stayed not until she entered the hall where Cuchulain
lay, weak and prostrate upon his bed.
She seated herself at the side of the bed and touched
Cuchulain's hand, and kissed him, and she called on him
to come back from fairy-land. "Awake, awake, O
champion of Ulster, shake off this fairy sickness; not
 is it that a chariot-warrior should lie upon his bed.
Lo! Ulster calls upon her Hound of Battle. Lo!
friends and comrades call. Lo! I, thy wife, am at thy
side. Awake! awake! O Hound!"
At that, Cuchulain stood up and opened wide his eyes,
and he saw Emer of the beautiful hair seated at his
side. Then he passed his hand across his face, and his
heaviness and weariness passed away from him, and he
arose and embraced his friends and [h]is own and only
wife; and he felt his strength returning to him, and
his old vigour coming to him again.
And he said to Emer, "For one day, O wife, spare me
yet; for there is a deed of battle-valour that I must
perform to-day, and after that I will come home to you.
Go before me to Dun Dalgan, and prepare a feast and
call my comrades and my friends together. I will but
go and come again." Then Emer set out for Dun Dalgan
to prepare the feast, but for a whole year she waited
for Cuchulain, watching day by day, and yet he came