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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE FAIRY SWAN-MAIDENS

[171] 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 the assembly.

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 [172] 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 them first."

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 you."

"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 all.

"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."

[173] 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 harm."

"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 [174] 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.


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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 [175] 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."

[176] "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 the island.

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.

[177] 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 Cuchulain comes.

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

[178] 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 the wall.

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 [179] 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."

[180] 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 toils."

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 fit [181] 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 not.


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