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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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OF CUCHULAIN'S FIRST FEATS OF CHAMPIONSHIP

[47]

T
HEN Ivar said, "If one might venture to make a suggestion to such a little one, I should rejoice if we might now turn back and find our way home to Emain again. For at this moment in the hall supper is being carved and the feast has just begun; and though for you your appointed place is kept at Conor's side until you come, I, on the contrary, if I come late must fit in where I may among the grooms and jesters of the house. For this reason I judge it now high time that I were back to scramble for my place."

"Harness the horses and prepare the chariot," Cuchulain said, and thinking that they now were going home, the charioteer most gladly hastened to obey. "What mountain is that over there?" inquired the boy. "Slieve Mourn," replied the driver. "Let us go thither," said the lad. They reach the mountain's foot and, "What is that cairn I see upon the top?" said he again. "The White Cairn is its name," quoth Ivar sulkily. "I would like to visit the White Cairn," said the boy. "The hill is high, and it is getting late," replied the charioteer. "Thou art a lazy loon," Cuchulain says," and the more so that this is my first day's adventure-quest, and thy first day's trip abroad with me." "And if it is," cried Ivar, "and if ever we get home again, for ever and for ever may it be my last!"

[48] They gained the topmost peak, and far away descried a stretch of lovely country. "Come now, driver," said the lad, "describe to me from here the whole of Ulster's wide domain; its forts and dwellings, fords and meadowlands, its hills and open spaces. Name every place in order, that thus I may the better know my way about.

"What is yon well-defined plain with hollow glens and running streams before us to the south?" "Moy Bray," replied the charioteer. "The names, again, of all the forts and palaces scattered over it?" Then Ivar pointed out the kingly dwelling-places of Tara and Taillte, and the summer palace of Cletty on the river Boyne; the Fairy Mound of Angus Og, the god of Youth and Beauty, and the burial-tomb of the Great God or Dagda Mór. And at the last he showed beneath the hill where lay the fort of the three fierce and warlike sons of Nechtan the Mighty.

"Are those the sons of Nechtan of whom I heard it said that the Ulstermen who are yet alive are not so many as have fallen by their hands?" "The same," said Ivar. "Away then, with us straight to Nechtan's fort," Cuchulain cried. "Woe waits on him who goes to Nechtan's fort," replied the charioteer; "whoever goes or goes not, I for one will never go." "Alive or dead thou goest there, however," said the boy. "Alive I go then, but sure it is that dead I shall be left there," replied the charioteer.

They make their way then down the hill and reach the green before the fort at the meeting of the bog-land and the stream; and in the center of the green they saw an upright pillar-stone, encircled by an iron collar on its top. Words were engraven on the collar forbidding any man-at-arms or warrior to depart off the green, once [49] he had entered it, without challenging to single combat some one of those living within the fort. Cuchulain read the writing, and he took the collar off the pillar-stone, and with all his strength he hurled it down the stream, for it was thus the challenge should be made.

"In my poor opinion," said the charioteer, "the collar was much safer where it was, and well, I know that this time, at all events, thou wilt find the object of thy careful search, a quick and violent death." "Good, good, O driver, talk not over much, but spread for me the chariot coverings on the ground, that I may sleep a while."

Now the charioteer was frightened, for he knew the fierceness and ill-fame of the sons of Nechtan, and he grumbled that Cuchulain should be so rash and fool-hardy in a land of foemen as to sleep before their very door; but for all that he dared not disobey, and he took the cushions out of the chariot and spread them on the ground, and covered Cuchulain with the skins; and in a moment the little fellow was asleep, his head resting peacefully on his hand. Just then Foll, son of Nechtan, issued from the fort. Ivar would well have liked to waken up Cuchulain, but he did not dare, for the child had said before he fell asleep: "Waken me up if many come, but waken me not for a few;" and Foll mac Nechtan came alone. At sight of the chariot standing on his lands, the warrior thundered forth, "Driver, be off at once with those horses; let them not graze upon our ground; unyoke them not." "I have not unyoked them," said the charioteer. "I hold the reins yet in my hands, ready for the road." "Whose steeds and chariot are they?" enquired the man. "The steeds of Conor, King of Ulster," said Ivar. "Just as I thought," said Foll; "and who has brought them to these borders?" [50] "A young bit of a little boy," said Ivar, hoping to hinder Foll from fighting him. "A high-headed wee fellow, who, for luck, has taken arms to-day, and come into the marshes to show off his form and skill as though he were a grown champion." "Ill-luck to him, whoever he is," said Foll; "were he a man capable of fight, I would send him back to the King dead instead of alive." "Capable of fight he is not, indeed, nor a man at all," said Ivar, "but only a small child of seven years, playing at being a man."

Cuchulain in his sleep heard the affront that the charioteer put upon him, and from head to foot he blushed a rosy red. His face he lifted from the ground and said: "I am not a child at all, but ripe and fit for action, as you will see; this 'small child' here has come to seek for battle with a man." "I rather hold that fit for action thou art not," replied Foll, surprised to find the little fellow rising from his sleep and speaking with such boldness. "That we shall know presently," replied the boy; "come down only to the ford, where it is customary in Ireland that combats should take place. But first go home and fetch your arms, for in cowardly guise come you hither, and never will I fight with men unarmed, or messengers, or drivers in their cloaks, but only with full-weaponed men-of-war."

"That suits me well," said Foll, and he rushed headlong for his arms. "It will suit you even better when we come to the ford," said Cuchulain. Then Ivar warned Cuchulain that this Foll was no ordinary foe; "he bears a charmed life," said he, "and only he who slays him with one stroke has any chance of killing him at all. No sword-edge can bite or wound him, he can only be slain by the first thrust of a spear, or blow of a weapon [51] from a distance." "Then I will play a special feat on him," returned the boy; "surely it is to humble me you warn me thus." With that he took in his hand his hard-tempered iron ball, and with a strong and exact throw just as Foll was coming forth, full-armored from the fort, he launched the ball, which pierced the warrior's forehead, so that he fell headlong on the ground, uttering his last cry of pain, and with that he died.

Within the fort his brothers heard that cry, and the second brother rushes out. "No doubt you think this is a great feat you have done, and one to boast of," he cried. "I think not the slaying of any single man a cause to boast at all," replied the boy; "but hasten now and fetch your weapons, for in the guise of any unweaponed messenger or chariot-boy come you hither." "Beware of this man," said Ivar; "Tuacall, or 'Cunning' is his name, for so swift and dexterous is he, that no man has ever been able to pierce him with any weapon at all."

"It is not fitting that you speak like this to me," said Cuchulain. "I will take the great spear of Conor, and with it I will pierce his shield and heart, before ever he comes near me."

And so he did, for hardly was the Cunning One come forth out of the fort, than Cuchulain threw the heavy spear; it entered his heart and went out behind him. As he fell dead, Cuchulain leaped on him, and cut off his head.

Then the third son of Nechtan came out, and scoffed at the lad. "Those were but simpletons and fools with whom thou hast fought hitherto," he said; "I challenge thee to come down to the ford, and out upon the middle of the stream, and we will see thy bravery there." [52] Cuchulain asks him what he means by this, and Ivar breaks in: "Do you not know that this is Fandall, son of Nechtan, and Fainle or Fandall, a 'Swallow,' is his name, because he travels over the water with the swiftness of a swallow, nor can the swimmers of the whole world attempt to cope with him. Beware of him and go not to the ford."

"Not fitting are such words to be spoken to me," replied the lad, "for do you not remember the river we have in Emain, called the Callan? When the boy-corps break off their sports and plunge into the stream to swim, do you not know that I can take one of them on either shoulder or even on my palms, and carry them across the water without wetting so much as their ankles? For another man, your words are good; they are not good for me."

Then came Fainle forth, and he and the lad entered the stream together, and swam out and wrestled in deep water. But suddenly, by a swift turn, the youngster clasped his arms about him, laid him even with the top of the water, and with one stroke of Conor's sword cut off his head, carrying it shoreward in his hand, while the body floated down the current. Behind him he heard the cry of their mother, the wife of Nechtan, when she saw her three sons slain. Then Cuchulain sent her out of the fort, and he and his charioteer went up and harried it, and set it all in flames; for an evil and a pirate fort had that fort been to Ulster, bringing many of their warriors to death, and spoiling all their lands. Then Cuchulain and Ivar turned to retrace their steps, carrying in their hands the heads of Nechtan's sons. They put their spoils and the three heads into the chariot, sticking the dripping heads upon the chariot-pole that [53] passed out behind, and set out in triumph towards Emain and the palace of the King.

"You promised us a good run to-day," said Cuchulain to the charioteer, "and we need it now after the contest we have made; away with us across Moy Bray, and round the mountain of Slieve Fuad." Then Ivar spurred the horses forward with his goad, and so fast did they race onward that they outstripped the wind in speed, and left the flying birds behind them. To while away the time, Cuchulain sent stones speeding before him from his sling; before the stone could reach the ground, the chariot had caught it up and it fell again into the chariot floor.

At the foot of Slieve Fuad a herd of antlered deer were feeding beside a wood. Never before had Cuchulain seen a herd of deer; he marveled at their branching antlers, and at the speed and lightness with which they moved from place to place. "What is that great flock of active cattle yonder?" enquired the boy. "Those are not cattle, but a herd of wild deer that wander in the dark recesses of the hills," replied the charioteer. "Which would the men of Ulster think the greatest feat, to capture one dead or to bring one home alive?" "Assuredly to capture one alive," said Ivar. "Dead everyone could bring one down, but seldom indeed can one be captured alive." "Goad on the horses," said the lad; and this the driver did, but the fat horses of the King, unused to such a drive and rate of motion as they had had that day, turned restive and plunged into the bog, where they stuck fast. Eagerly Cuchulain sprang down, and leaving the charioteer to struggle with the horses, he set off after the flying deer, and by sheer running came up to them, caught two of the largest stags by the horns, and [54] with thongs and ropes bound them behind the chariot between the poles.

Again, on their way to Emain, a flock of swans passed overhead, flying before them. "What birds are those?" enquired the boy. "Are they tame birds or wild?" "Those are wild swans," said Ivar, "that fly inland from the rocks and islands of the sea to feed." "Would the Ulstermen think better of me if I brought them in dead or if I captured them alive?" again enquired the boy. "Assuredly to bring them down alive."

Then Cuchulain took his sling and with a well-aimed shot he brought down one or two of the swans. Again and again he aimed until several of the birds were lying on the path before them. "Ivar, go you and fetch the birds alive," said the boy. "It is not easy for me to do that," he said. "The horses are become wild and I cannot leave them or leap out in front of them. If then I try to get out at the side, I shall be cut to pieces with the sharp rims of the chariot-wheels; if I get out behind, the stags will gore me with their horns." "That is not a warrior's speech, but the speech of a coward," said the lad. "But come now, step out fearlessly upon the antler of the deer, for I will bend my eye on him, so that he will not stir or harm you, nor will the horses move when I have overlooked them." This then was done. Cuchulain held the reins, while Ivar got out and collected the fallen birds. With long cords the birds were fastened to the chariot, and thus they went on to Emain, with the wild stags running behind the chariot, and the flock of birds flying over it, and on the poles the bleeding heads of the three sons of Nechtan the Mighty.

On the walls of Emain a watchman was at the look- [55] out post. "A solitary warrior draws near to thee, O Conor, and terribly he comes! Upon the chariot pole are bleeding heads; white birds are flying round the car, and wild unbroken stags are tethered fast behind. Wildly and with fury he draws near, and unless some means be taken to abate his rage, the young men of Emain's fort will perish by his hand."

"Warriors will not stay his hand. I know that little boy; it is my foster-son, who on this day has taken arms and made his first champion-raid. But before women he is ever courteous and modest; let then the women-folk of Emain's fort, and our noble wives, go forth to meet him, for that will tame his rage." So the champion's wives and the women of Emain went out in a troop to meet him, and when he saw them come, the fury of war passed from Cuchulain, and he leaned his head upon the chariot-rail, that they might not see the battle rage that was upon his face. For in the presence of women Cuchulain was ever calm and gentle-mannered.

Yet so warm and ardent was he from his warrior-raid, that the champions of Ulster bathed him in three baths of cold water before his heat and travel-stains were passed away from him. And the water of the baths was heated fiery-hot by his plunge into it. But when he was washed, and arrayed in his hooded tunic and mantle of bright blue, fastened with its silver brooch, the little man's fury had all gone from him; he blushed a beautiful ruddy hue all over, and with eyes sparkling, and his golden hair combed back, he came to take his place beside the King. And Conor was proud of the boy, and drew him between his knees and stroked his hair; and his place was ever beside the King after that.

Now a little boy that at the age of seven years— [56] continued Fiacha, who told the tale—could kill a man, yea, two or three men, whom all the champions of Ulster feared, and who could do such deeds, it were not wonderful if, in your war with Ulster, O Queen Meave, he should prove a formidable foe.

And Meave said thoughtfully, "It were not wonderful indeed."

Then the company broke up, preparing for the march upon the morrow. But that night Meave said to her spouse: "I think, O Ailill, that this young champion of Ulster is not of the make of mortal men, nor is he quite as other champions. And though our host is good and sufficient for ordinary war, to meet a foe like this, it seems to me that a great and mighty force is needed; for I am of opinion that the war on which we are now come will not be a battle of a night or a day, but that it will be a campaign of many days and weeks and months against that lad. Therefore, at this time, let us return home again, and when a year or two is out, I shall have gathered such a host that the gods themselves could not withstand it." Thus Meave spoke boastfully, and Ailill was well content, for he liked not the war. So for that time, they all turned home again.


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