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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE HUMBLING OF QUEEN MEAVE

[167]

T
OWARDS the fall of day, Cuchulain reached the ford of the Shannon at the place that is now called Athlone. He saw the army of Meave flying, broken and disbanded, across the river, and weariness and dislike of the rout overtook him, so that he turned aside into a wood close by to rest awhile, for of his chariot there remained but a few bent ribs, and the wheels were loosened from the pole. "I will watch the flying host," he thought, "until the Ulstermen come up, and together we will smite them and cut off their rear." As he pushed his way into the wood, he saw before him, in the dimness of the fading light, Queen Meave herself, fallen, forsaken and exhausted, on the ground. So close was she that he could have smitten her from behind, and taken off her head, had he so willed. But it was not the wont of Cuchulain to smite from behind, or ever to hurt a woman. But he stood over her, and sternly spoke.

"What dost thou here, O Meave, O captain of the host of Erin? Behold thy army flies, broken and discomfited, across the stream, seeking its native province, and the army of the men of Ulster presses hard upon their rear. No leader have they to guide their flying bands; why liest thou here alone?"

Then the haughty queen replied sadly, and with all her [168] spirit gone: "Queen as I am, and captain of mine host, yet have I but a woman's strength; my forces are exhausted, and my power is gone; fain must I lie and rest. Help me, O generous foe, I claim a boon from thee!"

"What boon is this that thou dost crave of me, O Meave, mine enemy?"

"I ask of thee to take myself and all my host under the strong protection of thy arm; keep thou the ford for them; ward off the men of Ulster who press on us from behind; let Connaught's bands return in peace and safety to their homes. Guard me besides till to my help Ailill and Fergus come, and safe to Cruachan escort me back again. Full many and many a time have I, in folly, bragged about my strength and all the power of my enormous host; now all is come to nought, and I am spent and ill. To thee, my foe, I turn; protect me now."

"Never shall it be said," Cuchulain replied, "that I was heedless of a woman's appeal. Lie there in peace. I will protect the host."

So while the twilight deepened into night, Cuchulain stood up, dauntless and alone, between the men of Erin and their foes. Safely they crossed the stream, while his own followers Cuchulain held at bay, hindering and staying them from cutting off the rear. Chafing and vexed they stood, yet at Cuchulain's command they restrained themselves, nor was one man of Erin's host cut off till all in safety reached the further side.

Late in the evening came Fergus up, looking for Meave to conduct her back to Cruachan. Strange was the sight he saw. In peace and quiet, Meave was taking rest beneath the forest trees; her troops all passed across the ford, save for late stragglers who came safely through the Ulster troops, no one destroying them. There on [169] the brink Cuchulain stood, leaning upon his sword the 'Little Hard,' his face lined deep with toil and thought. He seemed to guard the enemy's troops from his own men. Amazed, and uttering not a sound, Fergus stood still awhile to watch. Then in a mighty laugh that reached the firmament he burst forth: "Verily and indeed," he cried, "strange is the ending of this day. A woman's lead we followed in this war, fighting against the bands of our own kith and kin, to gratify a woman's jealousy. To-day our host is cleared and swept away; it flies without a path, without a lead, caring for nought but safely to reach home. Our queen lies at her ease, and our worst enemy is he who guards and shields our troops. Surely and in truth, 'tis wise and champion-like to follow where a woman leads the way."

Cuchulain heard that scornful laugh, and looking up, saw Fergus standing contemplating him and them.

"High time thou camest, my foster-father Fergus, to guard and help thy queen. I leave her now to thee; my task is done. Yet that it never may be said that cowardice or weakness made Cuchulain spare the flying troops of Ulster's foes, one blow I strike in Ulster's honour here." Then turning quickly, his 'Little hard' he swung aloft, and on the summit of a hillock near at hand he brought it down, shearing its top clean off. "Between Connaught and Ulster let that hill stand evermore, a witness to our strength and to our gentleness!"

Then once again into his ruined chariot he sprang, and fast as his two steeds would bear him on, he hurried back to Ulster and the king, returning glad and full of victory among his troops to Emain and to Emer once again. And from that time Connaught withheld its [170] hand, nor did Meave venture ever again to dispute or war with Ulster.

Now the Brown Bull had passed over the Shannon westward, accompanied by his fifty heifers. With head in air and bellowing loudly he surveyed the great trackless land that lay before him. The Whitehorned heard his bellowing and came to meet him, and when they saw each other, straightway with terrific force they rushed together.

A paroxysm of exceeding fury came upon them, and up and down they moved, their nostrils distended and with lowered horns, pushing and driving and goring, until the ground was red with blood and the sods torn up and flung on high. Had any ventured near them, he would without doubt have been crushed to death beneath their hoofs; and when night came, no one in all the country dared to sleep, for terror at the bellowing and noise they made. But at length the Whitehorned gave way before the Brown Bull, and by him was chased and gored until no spark of life was left in him, and portions of his flesh were caught upon the Brown Bull's horns. Then, as he was, all red with blood and fearful to behold, the Brown Bull took his path back to his native home, scattering the people right and left before him, or trampling them into the earth beneath his hoofs. And, at the last, exhausted with his flight, the spirit fled from him, and with a mighty roar and fearful bellowings, the great Brown Bull of Cooley's raid fell dead.


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