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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE FIGHT WITH SPITS OF HOLLY-WOOD

[113] THENCEFORWARD Day by day some warrior of the camp of Meave and Ailill went forth to fight Cuchulain, and day by day they fell before him. But at first, because he was young, the prime warriors of Connaught despised him, and refused to fight with him, and Meave offered them great gifts and made large promises to persuade them to contend with him. Among the chiefs was a rough burly man and a good fighter, whose name was Nacrantal, whom Meave used all her arts to force to challenge Cuchulain. And in the end, when she had promised him large gifts of land and even Finnabar, her daughter, to be his wife, he was induced to go. But even so he went not out as though to fight an equal. No arms or armour would he take, but for his sole protection nine spits of holly-wood, sharp at the points and hardened in the fire.

With these small weapons in his hand, one morning early he set forth to seek Cuchulain. He found the hero busied in pursuing wild-fowl that were flying overhead; for from the birds of the air and fish of the streams, and from the berries of the hedge and cresses of the brook, long had he been obliged to get his daily meal. And even now although at times Meave kept her word and sent provision over to her foe, yet often she forgot or failed to keep her promise, so angry was she when from day [114] to day her strong men were cut down before his sword.

He spied Nacrantal advancing thus unarmed, and, all as though he had not seen him come, he went on with the stalking of the birds.

Closer the warrior drew and with good aim he flung his spits of wood to pierce Cuchulain. But still the youth, not stopping for a moment in his task, leaped lightly over each spit as it fell, so that they struck the ground quite harmlessly, not one of them so much as touching him. The nine spits thrown, Nacrantal turned away and sought the camp. "Not much I think of this renowned Cuchulain of whom men talk to big; hardly had he perceived me coming up, than off he ran as fast as he could go!"

"We thought as much," said Meave; "right well we knew that if a warrior brave and fully trained were sent against him, soon would this beardless braggart take to his heels."

"When Fergus heard these boasts of Meave, he grew ashamed; for strange, indeed, it seemed to him to hear it said that his young foster-son would flee from any single man, however bold or stout that man might be. Say to Cuchulain that not greater is the shame that falls upon himself, [115] than Ulster’s shame and ignominy and disgrace, because he stands to watch the border-land in Ulster’s stead."

"Who said I ran away?" Cuchulain said, surprised, when the message was delivered to him. "Who dared to brag and tell such tales of me?"

"Nacrantal told this story in the camp, and all the warriors boast among themselves that at the very sight of a trained warrior you were afraid and quickly put to flight."

"Did you and Fergus heed a boast like that?" replied the youth. "Do you and Fergus not yet understand that I, Cuchulain, fight no men unarmed, or messengers, or charioteers, but only men-at-arms, fully equipped? That man came out against me all unarmed; no weapons in his hand but bits of wood, with which he played some childish games, throwing them in the air. Let but Nacrantal come to-morrow morn and fight me like a warrior at the ford, with all his weapons, man-like, in his hand; he then shall take his answer back from me. And tell him, that if he comes before the day dawn, or long after it, he will find Cuchulain waiting there for him."

Long and tedious seemed that night to Nacrantal, for eagerly he watched the coming of the hour when he should meet Cuchulain at the ford, and make an end of him. Early he rose, and bade his charioteer to bring his heavy weapons in a cart, while he went forwards to the meeting-place. There at the ford he saw Cuchulain stand, awaiting his coming, as he had promised.

"Are you Cuchulain?" said Nacrantal, for now he stood much closer to him and observed his youthfulness.

"What if I were?" said he. "If you are Cuchulain, indeed, I am come here to tell you that I will not fight [116] with any beardless boy; not in the least inclined am I to carry back to camp the head of a little playful lamb!"

"I am not the man you seek at all," Cuchulain cried; "go round the hill and you will find him there."

Now while Nacrantal made his way to the other side of the hill, Cuchulain came to Laeg, his charioteer. "Smear me a false beard with blackberry juice," he said. "No warrior of fame with fight with me, because I have no beard." Laeg took the juice of blackberries, and sheep’s wool, and with it made a long two-pointed beard, such a prime warriors wore, and twined the ends and caught them in his belt, dyeing it black with juice. Then on the hero came anger and his battle-fury, such as came on him when a combat lay before him with a good warrior, or when he alone should fight a host.

A subtle change came over all his face. The radiant youthfulness passed away, and all the boyishness Nacrantal had seen a while ago, and in its place a stern ferocious look, as of a prime warrior waiting for his foe. His stature seemed to grow, his form to enlarge, and terrible in its strength and fierceness was his aspect as he donned his fighting-gear. He grasped his weapons in his hand, and with great strides he hastened round the hill.

So great his wrath and eagerness for combat, that as he passed a standing pillar-stone no smaller than himself, in flinging his mantle round him as he went he caught the stone up in his mantle’s folds and carried it along with him, but never was he conscious of its weight, or even knew he carried it.

Now in this guise Nacrantal knew him not. "Where is Cuchulain?" inquired he of the men who came with him. "The lad said that we should find him round the hill."

[117] "Cuchulain stands before you yonder," said the Ulstermen who had come out to watch the fight.

"It was not thus that he appeared before me yesterday," Nacrantal said. "Cuchulain seemed a stripling, and his beard not grown, but this prime warrior hath a mighty beard."

"Nevertheless, I counsel you, defend yourself from this prime warrior," Fergus replied; "that will be much the same to you as though you did contend with Cuchulain himself."

Then Nacrantal made a furious onset at Cuchulain with his sword, but it struck on the pillar-stone that he carried beneath his cloak, and broke off short, close to his hand. Before he could recover from the thrust, Cuchulain sprang upon him, and lifting his sword on high with both hands, he brought it down on his adversary’s head, and there on his own shield he fell dead, smitten with one blow. "Alas!" said Nacrantal as he fell, "they said true who said that you were the best warrior in all Ireland."

From that time forward, it was not easy for Meave to get her men of war to enter into combat with Cuchulain; for each one of them said, "Not I; I will not go, why should my clan furnish a man to go out to certain death?" So Meave was forced to promise great rewards and possessions to her warriors before she could induce them to take arms against Cuchulain.


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