ETARCOMAL'S WELL-DESERVED FATE
O Fergus turned his horses to go back where he had left
Cuchulain. He thought to go alone, attended only by
his charioteer, but as he drove along, the sound of
wheels behind him made him turn, and close to him he
saw a youth who, sitting in his chariot, seemed to
follow hard behind, as though to catch him up. Fergus
recognized the rider as a rich young chief, brave but
foolhardy, who was known among the host as one who
thought too highly of himself, considering he had
little experience of war.
"Whither away, Etarcomal?" said Fergus, for that was
the youth's name. "I wish to go with you," replied the
lad; "I hear that you are on your way to seek this
wonderful Cuchulain, of whom all men talk. I feel
inclined myself to have a look at him."
"I give you sound advice," said Fergus, "and best it
were for you to heed my words. Turn round your
chariot, and go home again."
"Why so?" Etarcomal asked. "Because I know full well
that if you, with your light-minded insolence, come
into contact with this great Hound of War, in all his
fierceness and his terrible strength, trouble will
befall. You will provoke him with your childishness,
and ill will come, before I can prevent it. Go home
again, I will
 not have you come." "If we fell out, could you not
rescue me?" Etarcomal said. "No doubt I should
endeavour to succour you; but if you seek a quarrel, or
with your foolish words provoke Cuchulain, I make no
promises; you must defend yourself, and take your
"Truly I seek no quarrel with this valiant mighty
chief; I will but look upon his powerful form and note
his face, and then return with you." "So be it, then,"
said Fergus, "let us on."
Afar off, Laeg espied them as they came. He and his
master sat beneath the trees close on the borders of a
little wood, playing a game of chess; but none the less
he kept a sharp lookout, watching where lay the distant
camp of Meave. A single chariot approaches from the
camp, and furiously it drives across the plain: "I
think he comes to seek us, Cucuc," said the man. "What
sort is the rider in that chariot?" questioned Cu. "I
know him well, and short the time since he was here
before. Like to the side of a massive mountain,
standing sheer from out the plain, the chariot in which
that warrior rides. Mighty as the leafy branching
crown of a kingly tree which grows before a chieftain's
door, the bushy, loose, dark-ruddy locks upon that
warrior's head. Around him is a mantle of a noble
purple hue, with fringes of bright gold, clasped with a
pin of gleaming gold and set with sparkling stones. In
his left hand he bears his bossy shield and in his
right a polished spear, with rings of metal bound from
point to haft. Upon his thigh a sword so long and
great, I took it for the rudder of a boat, or for a
rainbow arched across the skies. Far-travelled and a
man of might, meseems, the guest who cometh here."
"Welcome to me the coming
 of this hero and old friend," Cuchulain cried, "my
master Fergus, who approaches us."
"I see behind a second smaller chariot, which seems to
accompany the massive chariot of Fergus. Spritely and
full of life are the two prancing chariot-steeds, and
young and bright the man who sits within."
"'Tis likely that some one of Erin's youthful chiefs
has ventured out to have a look at me, under the
guardianship of Fergus. I hear they all are talking of
me in the camp. Perhaps he wants to have a bout with
me, good Laeg, but better were it that he stayed at
Up dashed the steeds of Fergus' chariot, and in an
instant he had sprung to earth and stood beside
Cuchulain. "Welcome, O Fergus, old familiar friend.
Welcome, my foster-master and my guardian," Cuchulain
cried, and warmly he embraced him. "Upon this lonely
watch that I am forced to keep all solitary and unaided
day by day against the men of Erin, most welcome the
dear face of an old friend."
"Then thou art glad indeed?" Fergus exclaimed,
"Certainly and indeed, I am right glad! Not much have
I to offer in this wild desert place, but all I have is
fully at your service. When o'er the plain a flock of
wild-duck wings its way, one of them you shall have,
with, in good times, the full half of another; if fish
come up the estuary, a whole one shall be yours, with
all that appertains to it; a handful of fresh cress
straight from the brook, a spray of marshwort or of
green sorrel shall be yours; 'tis all I have to give.
When you are thirsty, from the running stream that
trickles through the sand, you'll get a drink; and if,
some fall of day, a hero calls you to come down and
wage a single combat
 at the ford, you shall take rest and sleep, while I
will fight your enemy or keep watch."
"Truly I well believe it," Fergus said. "Too well I
know what straits for food and drink have fallen on
thee in this raid, and well I know thy hospitable mind.
But at this time we seek not food and drink, nor can we
stay for combats or for rest; I come at Ailill's and at
Meave's command, to tell thee what we think are thy
conditions, and that we will hold and keep to them."
"I too will keep the compact brought by Fergus' hand,
and to the letter I will carry it out," the hero said;
"only abide awhile with me, and let us waste a little
time in talk of olden days."
"I dare not stay to talk at this time, O beloved
foster-son," Fergus replied; "the men of Erin doubt me,
and will think that I am proving traitor to their
cause, and betraying them to thee; for well they know I
love thee, though, alas! at this time I am fighting
with my country's foes and thine. One thing I ask of
thee for old affection's sake, because thou art my
pupil and my friend, that if at any moment in this war,
thou and myself art found opposing each the other face
to face, thou then wilt turn and flee before me, that
upon my pupil and my foster-son I be not forced to
redden my sword in fight. Promise me this."
"Though I be indeed thy pupil and thy foster-son,"
replied the youth, "yet loth am I to promise this;
never have I turned my back on any friend or foe, and
to flee even before thee, O Fergus, likes me not. Ask
me not this, but any other thing gladly and joyfully I
grant to thee." "No need for thee to feel like this,"
Fergus replied; "no shame to thee is what I
contemplate, but only that our ancient love and
friendship be not marred.
 Do in this thing but what I ask, and I in my turn, in
the final battle of the Raid, when thou art wounded
sore and drenched with blood, will turn and flee from
thee. And surely if the men of Erin see Fergus in
flight, they too will fly, and all the host of Meave
will scatter and disperse, like clouds before the sun."
"On these terms willingly I give my word; for so will
Ulster profit by my flight. Now fare thee well, good
Fergus. Bid the host of Meave to send their strongest
and their best to combat with me, one by one, and I
will give a good account to Ulster of them, or will
die." Then a right loving leave they took each of the
other, and Fergus set out to return to the camp.
But the lad Etarcomal sat on still, looking at
Cuchulain, and for the first time the hero noticed him.
"Who are you, and what are you staring at, fellow?" he
asked. "I look at you," he said. "You can see me
easily enough, I am not very big. But if you knew it,
little animals can be dangerous sometimes, and so can
I. But now that you have had a good look at me, tell
me what you think of me."
"I do not think much of you," Etarcomal said. "You
seem to me a very nice, wonderfully pretty youth and
clever at playing sports and feats; but that anyone
should think of you as a good warrior or a brave man,
or should call you the 'Hero of Valour' or the 'Hammer
of Destruction,' that I cannot understand. I do not
know, indeed, why anyone should be afraid of you. I am
not afraid of you at all."
"I am aware," said Cuchulain, "that you came hither
under the protection of my master Fergus, and that he
is surety for your safe return; but by the gods whom I
adore, I swear that if it were not for the honour
 of Fergus, only your broken bones and disjointed
members should have been sent back to Meave after those
"No need to threaten me," said Etarcomal; "I was here
when you made an agreement with Fergus to fight every
day one of the men of Ireland. By that wonderful
agreement that he made with you, none other of the men
of Erin shall come to-morrow to meet you but only I
myself. To-day I do not touch you, but let you live a
"However early you may choose to come to the ford,"
said Cuchulain, "you will find me there before you. I
promise you I will not run away."
Etarcomal turned his chariot to drive back to the camp.
But hardly had he started when he exclaimed, "Do you
know, fellow, I have promised to fight the famous
Cuchulain to-morrow at the dawn? Now, do you think it
best to wait till then, or to go back and fight him
now? I do not know that I can wait."
"I should say," replied the charioteer, "that if you
mean to fight Cuchulain at all, 'twere better to get it
over while he is close at hand." "Turn the chariot,
and drive it left-handwise towards Cuchulain, for by
that sign we challenge him. I swear by all my gods, I
never will go back until I take the head of this wild
youth, and stick it up on high before the host."
Laeg saw the chariot returning over the plain. "The
last chariot-rider who went from us is coming back
again, Cucuc!" said he. "What does he want?" said Cu.
"He is challenging us by driving with the left side of
the chariot towards us," answered Laeg.
"I do not want to fight the boy," Cuchulain said.
"Shamed should I be were I to slay a lad who came
 hither under the guardianship of Fergus. Get me my
sword out of its sheath, however, Laeg; I'll give him a
good fright and send him home."
Etarcomal came up. "What do you want now, fellow?"
cried Cuchulain, vexed. "I am come back to fight you,"
said the lad. "I will not fight you, now or any time,"
Cuchulain said. "By all the rules of war you are
obliged to fight, for I have challenged you."
Then Cuchulain took his sword, and with one stroke he
sliced away the sod beneath Etarcomal's feet, laying
him flat upon the ground, his face turned upwards.
"Now go," Cuchulain said, "I wash my hands of you. Had
you not come under the care of my good master Fergus, I
would have cut you into little bits a while ago.
Beware, for I have given you a warning." Slowly
Etarcomal rose from the ground. "I will not budge a
step until I have your head," he said doggedly, though
in his heart he began to be afraid. Then Cuchulain
played on him another sword-feat; with one clean stroke
he shore off all his hair, from back to front, from ear
to ear, till not a hair remained; but not a single drop
of blood he drew or even scratched his skin. "Now off
with you," he said a second time, "you look absurd
enough, I promise you. The men of Erin and the chiefs
will laugh when you go back, and cool your pride a
"I will not stir until I have your head; either you
gain the victory over me, and win renown, or I take off
your head from you, and get the glory and the praise of
it," he sullenly replied.
"Well, let it be as you desire, then, and I am he who
takes your head from you, and I shall win the glory and
renown of which you make so much." And at that word,
with one stroke of his weapon Cuchulain smote the boy,
 and cut him right in twain, so that he fell divided to
the ground. Terrified, the charioteer turned round the
horse's head and fled back towards the camp. Close to
the tents he came on Fergus, who leisurely and
thoughtfully drove home. He saw the empty chariot
passing him. "Where is your master, fellow?" Fergus
cried. "Has he not come with you?" "Even now he has
been cut in twain by that fierce, powerful hero, at the
ford," the man cried, looking scared; and, waiting not
for any answer, he tore on to the camp.
"O come, my wild young fosterling," thought Fergus to
himself, "this is too bad indeed, to slay a lad who
came under my protection. Turn back the chariot," said
he aloud, "we go back to Cuchulain at the ford."
No sooner had they come where Cuchulain stood brooding
above the body of Etarcomal, and wiping down his bloody
sword, than Fergus called aloud, "What came to you, you
hasty sprite, you hot-headed young fury; could you not
keep your hands from slaying even a lad who came merely
to look at you and under my protection? This act of
yours I do not understand at all. It is not like the
deed or custom of my foster-son."
"Be not so angry, O my friend and master," gently
Cuchulain replied; "all that I could I did to send him
safely home. Ask his own charioteer all that has taken
place. He would not take a warning, and in the end I
must have stood and had my head chopped off without
defence, or, as I did, taken his head from him. Would
it have pleased you better had I let the lad take off
my head from me?"
"Indeed, I should not have been pleased at all; the lad
was insolent and foolhardy, and right well deserved his
ignominious death. Tie his feet to the chariot-tail,
 my charioteer, and I will take him home." So to his
own chariot Fergus tied the boy, and dragged him back
to camp. Meave saw them come, and heard the people
shouting as they passed, the bleeding body draggled in
"Why, how is this?" she cried. "Is this, O Fergus of
the mighty deeds, the fashion in which you bring back
the tender whelp who went out from us but some hours
ago, brilliant in life and gaiety and youth? the whelp
we sent out safely, as we thought, in Fergus'
guardianship? Of wondrous value is the guardianship of
Fergus; and safe is he who trusts himself to it!"
"It is not well, O Queen, that whelps so brazen and
untried as this should face the Hound of War; let them
remain henceforth in safety in their kennels, gnawing
their bones. The lad Etarcomal was bold and insolent;
full well he reaped the fate he brought upon himself!"
Sadly, but with all honour, they buried Etarcomal,
heaping his grave, and rearing a stone above it with
his name engraven thereupon in ogam lines. That night
Cuchulain did not molest the men of Erin because they
were occupied with funeral rites; but provisions and
apparel were sent to him, according to the treaty made
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics