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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE HOUND AT BAY

[252]

Y
ET all this while Cuchulain's foes drew closer round him, watching their opportunity, and the land was filled with smoke and flame, and omens foretold that the Hound was at bay at last, and that the King of the Heroes of Erin was doomed to die. For though Meave entered not again into open war with Ulster, never had she forgotten the disgrace put upon her armies by Cuchulain, in that he alone had beaten and held back her troops during the whole winter's length, slaying and destroying her chosen men. His kindness to her in the weakness she soon forgot, or if she remembered it, it was made bitter by the laugh of Fergus; she felt humiliated that she, the mighty warrior queen, and leader of her forces, had stooped to ask help from the hands of her enemy. So she awaited the moment of revenge.

Throughout all Ireland she sent messengers to stir up strife against Cuchulain, so that he was harassed and pursued on every hand; nor did he ever sleep a night in peace. To all those men whose fathers or brothers or sons Cuchulain had slain she whispered of revenge, and glad and pleased she was when one and another fell upon him unawares or led a raid into the country of Murthemne, to urn and spoil the land. Above all, she stirred up Luga, son of Curoi, prince of Munster, and

[253] Erc, the son of Tara's royal king; and these awaited but a chance to fall upon Cuchulain unawares.

But worst of all, she sent a brood of monstrous, ill-shaped sprites, half-women, half goblins, in their forms and minds, to learn throughout the whole wide distant world some secret way to bring Cuchulain to his death. Monstrous they were, for but one single eye was in their foreheads, and their right legs and left arms were lopped off at the stump. They did not move along the earth like men, but on the broad back of the whistling winds and wrapped in magic clouds of their own making, they sped o'er land and sea.

Hideous and frightful were they to behold, and hideous were their thoughts and their designs. When they drew near, a poisonous ill-wind preceded them, and all the sky was dark with venomous clouds about them and above, so that although they saw them not, men shrank with fear and felt but ill at ease. These creatures then she sent through the wide spaces of the universe to learn all cruel magic arts that hurt and trouble men. And for five years they wandered through the earth, until they reached the fearful realm where Vulcan forged his weapons in the fire.

The secret of all poisonous herbs they learned, the use of every charm that spoils men's lives and drives them to despair; they learned to raise a magic stormy sea upon dry land, in which men might be drowned; and out of forest twigs and fluttering leaves they learned to form a host of fighting-men and armed them w the spiked thorn of the thistle leaves or with the blackthorn's barb.

From Vulcan's hand three cruel spears they took, their names, 'Wind,' 'Good-luck,' and 'Cast'; [254] three swords of magic power, too, they got, the 'Wounder; and the 'Hacker,' and the 'Hewer." "By these three spears or these three swords the splendid Hound shall die," was Vulcan's word; "each one of them shall kill a king of Erin, and among those kings will be the mighty king of Erin's hero-chiefs, the triumphant, heavy-smiting, noble youth, whom men call "Ulster's Hound."

Then with a fierce and cruel glee those hideous children of the storm bade Vulcan and his crew farewell, and on the rough and whistling blast that blows keen from the east, they rose on high and made their way to Erin's coasts, alighting on the plain before the fort of Meave. She, rising early on the morrow, looked forth out of her bower, and saw them resting, each upon one leg perched on the rampart's top. Her five-fold crimson mantle flung about her, straightway she stepped forth and made them welcome, and with a cruel joy she heard their news. The venomed spears and hard-wrought swords she took into her hands, and waved and brandished them to try their power, but though from point to hilt she bent them back, no sign of crack or failure could she find. "Well-tempered swords are these, indeed," she cried, "by these my deadly foe shall fall at last."

Then straight to Ulster she sent forth the brood of ill-formed goblin women. "Seek out Cuchulain where he lies," she said, "and on him try your spells. Set right before his face your magic tide of ocean-waves that he may rush into the flood and come thus to his death; or, if that fail, tempt him with magic troops and armed battalions made out of puff-balls or of fluttering leaves and armed with sharp and prickly thistle-spikes. Thus lure him forth, for I have heard it said that Emer [255] and her women hold him with their gentle wiles within his own strong fort, till he be healed of all his pain and wounds. Tempt you him out into the open plain, and there his foes will find and speak with him and utterly and for ever strike him down. My hosts are there, and Luga's hosts and Erc's. Give to each one of them your magic spears, that he may not escape. Thus shall the strength of Ulster fall at last! Thus shall our vengeance come! Within the space of three short days bring in his head to me."

So with deep wiles Meave laid her cruel plans, plotting Cuchulain's death; Murthemne and Cuchulain's country she filled with war-bands, marching through the land wasting and marauding, and they burned the villages and the forests of the plain, so that the whole region was a cloud of fire about them. Now the friends of Cuchulain, and Emer, his dear wife, had taken the hero away with them from his own home at Dun Dalgan to a secret glen in Ulster, that is called the Glen of the Deaf, because no sound of war or tumult reached it, where was a pleasant summer palace retired from mankind. There they entertained him with sweet music and pleasant tales and games of chess, to hold him back from rushing to meet the foe; and they took from him his chariot and his weapons, and turned his chariot-steeds out into the fenced green, for they knew that if he should go forth at this time, he must surely fall. But the hero was restless and unhappy, and save that he had plighted his word to Emer and to all his friends he would not have entered the Glen. For Emer's sake and theirs he went with them to the lightsome summer palace, and sat down with the poets and artists and the women-folk to listen to [256] sweet beguiling music and tales of ancient deeds to while away the time.

Everywhere throughout the Province the horrid brood of mis-shaped children sought him, but they found him not, neither in Dun Dalgan nor in Emain, nor in his own country of Murthemne's Plain; but at last one of them soared up to the very clouds of heaven and surveyed the whole wide land of Ulster, and from a hidden forest glen she heard the sound of joyous revelry and the high, shrill voice of women's laughter, and the cheerful noise of a great company keeping festival together.

Then she transformed herself into the shape of a black raven, and swooped down and perched above the seat on which Cuchulain sat. And it seemed to Cuchulain that he heard words, inciting him to go forth.

"Dun Dalgan is burned," they said to him, "and all the province is laid waste; the war-bands and the hosts of Meave have ravaged all the land, and everywhere but smoke and flames are seen. Arise, O Hound, arise!"

But to the rest it seemed as though the raven croaked, and they laughed loud to hear the bird of ill-omen croaking in the house. Cuchulain sprang to his feet to rush forth; but, as he rose, his mantle caught beneath his feet, and he was thrown backwards on his seat. Once more he rose in haste and red with shame, but the great kindly brooch that fastened his mantle, being loosened by his fall, dropped on his foot, and dropping pierced his skin. "Alas! alas!" he cried, "even my mantle warns me of ill-luck!" And Emer said, "'Tis even so; heed now the warning of a friend. Let this pass, Cu; for three days stay with us, and then in peace thou mayest go forth to fight. For three days only have the Children of the Blast their fatal power. Not for thyself or thine [257] own safety do we thus entreat, but for the sake of Ulster and her king. For Ulster is destroyed if Cuchulain falls. For three days then abide." And for the sake of Ulster Cuchulain stayed, though heaviness and shame sat deep upon him, and in his heart he longed to go. And wearily he sat down again to play his game of chess.


[Illustration]

THE RAVEN OF ILL-OMEN.

For that night the Wild Women of the Blast went back, and they waited until another day was past, but towards the fall of night the horrid brood of mis-shaped children betook them to the Glen. On the swift magic wind of their own making they soared aloft, and at the very entrance to the Glen they lighted on the ground. There they began to work their noisome spells. Out of the light wee puff-balls and the rustling forest leaves they formed great lines of fighting-men, all armed with battle-weapons of the hooded sharp-spiked thistle-stalks. All round the lightsome, pleasant house the army stood, in marshalled band on band, and all the country rang with battle-shouts and cries of war and trumpetings, and loud pealing laughter, and the taunts of strong men when they mock at cowards.

In the palace Cuchulain caught the uproar and the mocking laughter of the phantom fairy hosts. He started up and would have rushed madly from the hall, but those around him stayed and hindered. "Close fast the doors," they said, "if for this one day and to-morrow we can keep him fast, the magic evil spell is past." And Emer came to him and said, "This one day yet abide, O dear one, noblest of the whole world's race, my one and only love. These are but shows and phantoms that thou hearest wrought by the sprites to lure thee to thy doom. To-morrow, or the next day, or the next, comes Conall Cernach back from travelling. [258] Alone, thou fallest; with him thou art a match for any host. For Ulster's sake and ours, and for thine own, abide."

Then at this Cu felt a mighty shame; his soul was filled with storms of anger and reproach. "Alas! alas!" he cried, "henceforth there is no cause to guard my life. My span is ended, my honour is destroyed. Better for me than all the gold and riches of the world, if I had died before there fell on me this shame. In every tongue this noble saying is recorded, "Fame outlives life"; but by your urgency I keep my life, when all my fame and honour is destroyed. Come death, come life, to-morrow I go forth."

And gloomily and sadly he sat down, nor would he play or listen to the music of the bards, or hold sweet converse with the women, but all that night, till break of day, he tried and proved his weapons, and his spears and sword he polished lovingly, and he sent Laeg out to catch his chariot-steeds and bring them to the green beside the house. And his heart revived within him when he heard without the neigh of the City of Macha and the Black Steed of the Glen.

But the foul Children of the Blast were disappointed and dismayed because they could not tempt Cuchulain out. And all that night they sat in council, devising plans to snare him. "We have but one day more," they said, "before our power is lost. To-morrow then and verily, we lure him forth."

Before the morning's sun was well arisen, on the blast of the swift moaning wind of their own making, and all unseen, they came around the glen. Then they put forth their magic spells and round the house they made the likeness of a mighty sea that wave on wave rolled ever [259] nearer to the pleasure-house, threatening to overwhelm it as it stood. Amid the woman's talk and loving laughter, and the sweet music of the harps and singing men, Cuchulain heard the lapping of the waves, and the low distant ocean's roar, and whistling of the wind upon the sea. Then he rose up and seized his weapons in his hand, and for all Emer and the rest could do, he rushed forth from the house. And madness came upon him when he saw the rolling billows rising ever towards the house, and all the land covered with mist and spray; and he called Emer, and would have lifted her up above the waves to carry her in safety through the billows. But Emer and the rest could see no waves, only the green waving grasses of the pleasure-field, and nought they heard save the soft rustling breath of spring that whispered through the leaves. And Emer said: "Little Cu, O my first love and darling of all earth's men, never until this hour have I or any of thy women-folk put hindrance in thy way in any exploit or battle-raid that thou didst desire. Though oft we wept, and many a time we thought thou never wouldst return, we never held thee back. But now for my sake, my own chosen sweetheart, go not forth. No sea is that thou seest upon the green, but only waving grasses and the fluttering leaves. Heed not the magic noisome spells of those thy enemies, but one day more abide. Then never till the end of life or time will we restrain or hold thee back again." But Cuchulain said, "Emer, restrain me not; I see the horses of Manannan riding on the waves; I hear Manannan's fairy harp play gently o'er the billows; Manannan's ancient face I see beckoning me o'er the main."

Then Emer knew that the hour of Cuchulain's fate [260] was come, and that nought of all that ever they could do would avail to turn him back. For the seer had prophesied that when Cuchulain should see the horses of the ancient Ocean god upon the waves, and when he should hear Manannan's harp play sweetly, the hour of his fate was come, and he must e'en go back to Shadowland.

Then she herself called Laeg to prepare his chariot and harness his horses, and to set his fighting-gear in order, that not by phantasies or magic wild imaginings, but as a chariot-chief and champion facing his foes he might go forth to die; and she brought out his helmet and set it upon his head, and placed his mighty shield within his hand, that he might die as a hero should.

And when Cuchulain saw his chariot standing ready for him, and Laeg therein awaiting him, and the noble steeds pawing the ground, the phantoms of his brain passed away from him, and his warrior strength and joyousness of mind came back, and he donned his armour with good-will and gladness, and made to spring into the chariot. But for the first time since the day when they rose out of the magic lake, the steeds obeyed not his hand, but started from him and turned the chariot round, evading him. And when Laeg drew them back, and Cuchulain prepared to spring again into the chariot, they fled away before him. "How now, how now is this, good steeds?" said Laeg; "full oft before ye two came bounding at your master's call, nor ever turned away. Ill deed is this of thine, for never upon any former day did he and I need help from you as now we need it. Presage of evil is this freak of thine!" This when the Grey of Macha heard he stood quite still, the Black Steed by his side, and they let Cuchulain mount into the [261] chariot; but even as he sprang to take his seat, his weapons all fell down about his feet; to him a grim foreshadowing of ill. He saw, moreover, that from the horses' eyes and down their cheeks coursed tears of dusky blood.

Yet for all that he stayed not, but without farewells or partings of any kind at all, joyously he set forth towards Murthemne's Plain, to meet the hosts of Meave. But when the cruel Children of the Blast saw the imprisoned champion go forth and take the level road across the plain, up to the highest heavens they rose aloft with wild shrill cries and shriekings of delight, and through the air upon the whistling wind they sped before him, hastening to arouse the hosts of Meave to meet him in their strength. Before Cuchulain's eyes they raised a vision of battle-troops and marshalled lines standing round Emain, with chariots, steeds and weapons in great plenty. He saw the city red and dark with flames, and heard the shouting of the foe as Emain sank in ashes. That vision passed away, and then another came before his mind. He saw Dun Dalgan, his own home, aglow, like Emain, in the ruddy flame. He saw the women flying from the flames, with hair dishevelled, and with streaming eyes. He heard the crashing of the blazing walls, as inward one and then another fell. He saw the foe behind with swords upraised, slaying and cutting down the women as they ran. Then he saw Emer, his own loving wife, standing alone upon the outer wall, scanning the distant plain. She raised her hands and called on him for help, and down her face ran torrents of salt tears. Then he could see behind her, creeping slowly on, a fierce relentless warrior of Meave's host. And with one spring he saw him seize her hair, the soft long locks Cuchulain loved to touch, and back- [262] ward with his cruel pitiless hand he drew her head, and with a single blow he sheared it off, flinging it in disdain out o'er the rampart's wall, and trampling her fair body under foot. When he had seen that deed, Cuchulain groaned, and sped along the plain with greater haste.

Then passing o'er a stream they saw a maiden stooping on the brink, as though she washed and rinsed the garments of the slain. Slender and white her body and her hands, but all the waters ran with crimson blood, and still she washed, and wept, and wrung her hands, and all her yellow hair hung down in tresses slowly dropping blood. Sharply and quick, without a word or pause, Laeg turned the chariot when he saw the girl, and made as though to flee. "How now?" said Cu; "what dost thou, Master Laeg? What spoils are these the maiden wrings and washes in the stream? and who and what is she?" "She is the Watcher of the Ford," Laeg cried, "the daughter of the goddess of grim war. She wrings the garments of the slain, or those about to die. Dost thou not see that they are thine own garments that she washes out to-day; that it is thine own sword that runs with blood, dying the river red? Alas! alas! while there is time, let us now turn and flee."


[Illustration]

THE WATCHER OF THE FORD.

"Dear comrade, it is well," the hero said, "I may not turn me back from this my hour of vengeance on the men of Erin, revenge for all the ill that they have wrought on us. What though the fairy woman wash my spoils? great spoil of arms, of armour and of gear, is that which by my spear shall shortly fall and lie there drenched in blood. None knows it better than I know myself that in this coming onslaught I must fall; whether I stay I am devoted to death, or whether I go, the span of my life is run out. No more then hinder or [263] delay my course, for sad as you may be to see me go to Death, even so glad and cheerful I myself go forth to meet my fate. Let me but once more thus avenge my country's wrongs, and gladly and with joy I give my life."

So he turned again and faced the enemy, and all his gloom and heaviness passed from Cuchulain, and the delusions of the gruesome fairy folk troubled him no more. Cheerfully and free from care he rode on towards the host, and from his forehead, brighter than the sun, shone out the Hero's Light. Right terrible and beautiful he stood, his mighty sword uplifted in his hand, his eyes beneath his helmet flashing fire. And when they saw him coming thus alone, a shout of triumph rose from all the host, and mounted to the very clouds of heaven.


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