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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

HOW CUCHULAIN WENT TO FAIRY-LAND

[182] WHEN Cuchulain left Emer, he went forward to the fairy-rath where he had seen Liban, and he found her waiting for him to take him to Labra's Isle.

It seemed to him that the way they took was long, for they passed over the Plain of Speech, and beyond the Tree of Triumphs, and over the festal plain of Emain, and the festal plain of Fidga, until they came to the place where the bronze skiff awaited them, to take them to the Isle of all Delights. A noble and right hospitable welcome was prepared for Cuchulain in that Isle, but he would not rest for that, but bade Labra conduct him without delay to the Plain of Combat. So Labra bade him mount his chariot and together they passed on to the Plain of Combat, where the armies of the phantom hosts were assembled for the fight upon the morrow. On one side were the hosts of Labra, very few, but picked and chosen men in splendid garb, with arms of the best in their hands; but on the side of Senach the Spectral, as far as eye could reach on every side, rose lines of black and gloomy tents, with black pennons flying from their poles. Gaunt heroes clothed in black moved about amongst the tents, and all the horses that they rode were red as blood with fiery manes. And over the whole there hung a mist, heavy and lowering, so that Cuchulain [183] could not see how far the host extended for the gloom of that heavy mist.

And sounds rose on the air, like the muttering of a demon host, quarrelling and wrangling, so that a man might well shiver before such a sound. But when he saw the demon host, the spirit of Cuchulain revived within him, and he felt his old force and courage and his strength returning to him, and all his weakness passed away.

And he said to Labra, "I would fain drive round the host and number them." In ever-widening circles he began to drive round the tents. But, as he drove, on every side they sprang up before him innumerable as the blades of grass on a meadow-field, or as the stars on a brilliant summer's night, or like the grains of sand upon the ocean's shore. Black and gloomy they stood on every hand, and grim and gaunt the warriors who moved about amongst them, and terrible their blood-red steeds. It seemed to Cuchulain that the smell of blood was already in the air, and all the plain was dark and dim with mist, so that he could not count or number them, or see the end of them at all.

But the spirit of Cuchulain faltered not, and he returned to Labra, and said to him, "Leave me now alone with this great army and take away wiht you the champions you have brought. This battle I will fight alone."

So Labra and his men departed and Cuchulain remained alone facing the phantom host. Then two ravens, the birds of knowledge and destiny, with whom are the secrets of the druids, came between Cuchulain and the host, and all that night they made a dismal croaking, so that the demon men grew sore afraid.

184 "One would think," they said, "that the Madman of Emain Macha were close at hand, from the croaking of those ravens;" for it was thus they spoke among themselves of Cuchulain, because he changed his aspect in time of combat, and a wild and strange appearance came upon him. And they chased away the ravens, and left no place of rest for them in all that land.

All that night Cuchulain stood with his hand upon his spear, watching the demon host. Very early in the morning, he saw one of their chief leaders going forth out of his tent, to bathe his hands at the spring; and his tunic fell back and left his shoulder bare. At once, with a cast of his spear, Cuchulain transfixed him through his shoulder to the earth.

When the demon host saw their captain fall, they arose, and in swarms and close battalions they came down upon Cuchulain. Then his war-fury came upon him, and wildly and terribly he attacked them, scattering them to right and left; and so furious was he and so deadly were his blows, that they feared to come nigh him. It filled them with awe to see one single man fighting with a host; but as the shining of the sun drives the mist before it on a dewy morn of early spring, so did the radiance of the face of Cuchulain disperse and drive away the army of the demons, for they could not stand before the splendour and the shining of his countenance. Then Senach the Spectral attacked him, and furious was the contest fought between them, but in the end Cuchulain prevailed and slew him; and all the host, when they saw that, turned and fled.

At length Cuchulain returned, his sword dripping with blood; and the heat of his body after the fight was such that water had to be thrown over him, before he could [185] be touched; and the men of Labra feared that his wrath would turn against themselves. They brought him into the house and bathed him and changed his raiment, and slowly his own appearance came back upon him; and after that, they led him to Fand, who awaited his return with her fifty maidens round her. Very beautiful was the house in which Fand and Labra awaited Cuchulain. Couches of copper with pillars of fine gold were ranged around the hall, and soft pillows and cushions of coloured silk were piled on each of them; the flashing of the jewels from the golden pillars giving light to all who were in the house. Noble youths in glossy garments of smooth silk offered drink in golden goblets, and as they drank, the harpers and musicians gave forth sweet music, and the story-tellers, recited their tales. Laughter and merriment were heard throughout the house, while from the eaves the fairy-birds warbled in harmony with the music of the harps. Fifty youths of stately mien, and fifty maidens with twisted hair bedecked with golden coronals waited on Fand, on Labra and his spouse. Near the house to westward, where the sun went down, stood dappled steeds, pawing the ground and ready for their riders. On the east of the house stood three bright apple-trees, dropping ruddy fruit, and in front of the door a tree that gave forth sweetest harmony, such as would sooth wounded men to sleep, or bring health to women in their sickness. Above the well another tree, with silver leaves that reddened in the sunlight, dropped fragrant food, pleasant to all who tasted it. Ever on the gentle breeze the tops of the tree swayed together, and ever they swung wide; and as they met food fell down sufficient for thrice three hundred men. A vat stood in the hall, full to the top [186] of mead and sparkling ale, and all the porch, above its silver posts, was thatched with wings of birds, in stripes of brown and red.

Now Fand sat on a das, waiting for Cuchulain. And when he came before her, clothed as a king, his noble manly form bathed and refreshed, his golden hair gathered above his brow round an apple of bright gold, and all his face aflame with the vigour of the fight, she thought that she had never looked upon a man so brilliant as he.

And he, when he looked on her, knew that never in his life had he seen woman half so fair as Fand. "Art thou he, Cuchulain of Murthemne, the Hound of Ulster?" she asked, and even as she spoke the whole band of youths and maidens rose to their feet, and sang a chant of welcome to Cuchulain.

Then Fand placed Cuchulain at her right hand, and happy and gladsome were they together, and for a while Cuchulain forgot Ulster, and his place at Conor's hand, and all the cares and troubles of the other life; nay, he forgot Emer his own wife and the feast she was preparing for him, and the days passed quickly and joyously in the company of Liban and Labra and Fand. And it seemed to him as though Erin were but a dark unquiet land beside the clearness of Moy Mell, the Fairy-land of all Delights.

At length one night he could not sleep; not all the warbling of the fairy-birds from the branches of the tree and from the caves, nor yet the sound of minstrel's strains could soothe him into slumber. For he remembered Ulster and his duty to his king, and Emer and the feast she was to make for him, and all his warrior deeds which were departing from him, and he felt he [187] must needs forsake the Land of all Delights and go back to his work in Erin once again.

In the morning he called Fand, and told her he must go that day, for he knew not what troubles might be happening to Ulster while he was away, or what was become of Emer, his wife. But Labra and Fand besought him to stay yet awhile, and they called the musicians and bid them chase away the sudden gloom of Cuchulain, and they brought out the playing-games, hurley and chess, and raced the horses to please him, and they harnessed the steeds of the chariots for his delight. But even for all this Cuchulain would not stay. For he said, "My warrior-strength is passing from me as I rest in idleness, my vigour is decaying. Let me then go, for I am not as the little dogs that play about their mistresses' feet; I am a Hound of war and conflicts to stand before the foe, and do battle for my country and my king."

And Cuchulain sang this lay:

"No pup am I to play about the feet of ladies fair,

But where the hounds of war are loosed you'll find me ever there;

No mongrel whelp to watch the fire or crouch beside the hearth,

I stand beside the fords, I scare the champion from his path.


"My bark is not the yelp of curs cowed to the heels by fear,

But the deep bay of winded hounds chasing the leaping deer;

No swathes of wool shall bind my wounds, no cushioned couch have I,

Amidst the carnage of the slain I and my kind shall lie.


"No silky coat of well-combed hair, smooth 'neath the children's hand,

But a fierce mastiff, gaunt and grim, when strife invades the land;

Where fords are weak, where forts blaze red, where trumpets sound for war,

The 'Hound of Ulster' stands at guard, or drives the foe afar."


[188] Then when Fand saw that nothing would content him, she bade him a gentle kind farewell; and all the youths and maidens came about him, sorrowing that he was so soon weary of their land. But Labra thanked him kindly and heartily for his help against the demon host and he bade Liban take Cuchulain safely back across the lake to Erin once again.

But, before he went, Fand lifted up her lovely witching face, and said, "Tell me some place where, at the end of a year from now, I may see your face once more. Never till now have I ventured forth from fairy-land; but, for your sake, for one brief hour I will come to the land of troubled mortal men. Give me a tryst."

Cuchulain was fain to deny her this, for he thought on Emer, and he dreaded her anger against Fand, if she should be aware of it. But when he saw the crystal-fair, witching face of Fand, and her ruby lips and eyes bright as stars on a summer's night, he could not say her nay; and he made a tryst with her on the Strand of the Yew-tree's Head, for a year and a day from then. And after that, they bade one another farewell.

So Cuchulain came home again, and Emer and Laeg and his friends greeted him right lovingly, and he told them that he had been in fairy-land, and of all its splendours and beauty he told them freely, but to Emer he said not anything of Fand.

Now when a year and a day were past, Cuchulain came to the place of tryst at the Strand of the Yew-tree's Head, and he and Laeg sat beneath the ancient yew-tree playing chess, while waiting for the coming of Fand. It chanced that, as Emer walked that way with her fifty maidens to take the air beside the shore, she beheld approaching a dignified lady, radiant as the clearness [189] of a day in June, who came with a troop of maidens towards Cuchulain. Very swiftly and softly they moved across the plain, as though they hardly touched the sod, and all the land was filled with their brightness.

It appeared to Emer that they had come across the lake, yet no sign of skiff or boat was to be seen, and the unknown queen came where Cuchulain sat, and he rose up and made a glad gentle greeting before her, and she sat down by him, and they talked pleasantly and lovingly together.

When Emer saw this, she was filled with jealousy and anger against the fairy-woman, and to herself she said, "This, then, O Cuchulain, was the cause that kept thee so long in fairy-land, when I made that feast to which thou camest not."


[Illustration]

EMER IS FILLED WITH JEALOUSY.

And anger and dark revernge filled Emer's heart, and she turned to her maidens and said, "Bring me here sharp-bladed knives, for I myself will go softly behind them and I will kill the woman who talks with Cuchulain."

Then they went and fetched thin gleaming knives, and they hid them beneath their mantles, and went stealthily behind the place where Cuchulain sat. Now Cuchulain saw not what was going forward, but Fand knew, for she sat over against Cuchulain, facing the way that Emer came. She said to Cuchulain, "Emer thy wife comes here, with fifty maidens, and there are sharp knives hidden beneath their cloaks."

But he said, "Fear nothing, lady, I myself will speak to Emer, my own wife, and do thou wait here till my return."

But Emer came close to Cuchulain and cried, "Why does thou do me this dishonour, O Cuchulain, to leave me for a fairy maid? The women of Ulster will contemn me if they think that Cuchulain loves another [190] woman better than his wife; and what have I done to displease thee, that thou shouldst need to talk with her? Never have I left thee for any other, and well and truly have I loved thee from the day thou camest in thy chariot to the fort of Forgall the Wily, my father, till today; and for ever shall I love thee, and none other but thee alone."

Then Cuchulain said, "You wrong me, Emer, and you wrong this fairy-maid. No thought at all of harm have we, nor can any other be to me what thou hast been. Fair and pure is this maiden, and a worthy mate for any monarch in the world. Her race is noble, her mind is firm and gentle and full of lofty thoughts, no harm or evil will be found in her or me. Moreover, she is betrothed to a noble spouse, Manannan of the Ocean Waves."

"In very truth," said Emer, bitterly, for her heart was sore within her on account of the greatness of the love she bore Cuchulain, "it is ever so with men! All that is new is fair, and all that is old is of little worth; white is the last they see, and the others are but grey or black. Sweet is the thing they have not, but sour the fruit they hold within their hands! Once in peace and love we dwelled together and no one came between us, and in peace and honour we might dwell together again, O Youth, if but I were as dear to thee as once I was!" And great tears rolled down Emer's cheeks, and her grief weighed heavily upon her.

"By my word and truly," cried Cuchulain, "never wast thou more dear to me than thou art to-day, and dear shalt thou be to me for all my life."

"I think," said Fand, "that I had better go away, and return to my own country, for I am troubling you all [191] here." "Nay, nay," cried Emer, smitten with reproach when she saw the nobleness that was in the fairy woman, "go not away, 'twere better I should go."

But Fand said, "Not so, indeed, from my own land they call me to return. Take to thee thy man, O noble Emer, no harm or hurt hath happened him with me. Though in the Land of all Delights warriors and great men sought my friendship, better to me than the affection of them all was the friendship of thy glorious spouse. Need is there, now, that I should go my way, and leave my friend to thee; but though bright and dazzling is the country of Moy Mell, some shadow hath fallen on it since Cuchulain went away."

Then she lifted up her lovely face, and Emer saw that tears like drops of crystal stood within her eyes.

Long years ago had Fand been betrothed to Manannan, Lord of the Ocean and the Waves, a great and hoary god. Ancient wa she, for no man knew his age, and wild and grey his hair, and all his brow rugged and lined with storms. Very kingly and majestic was his tread, but men feared him, because of his strange, tempestuous moods, and his shape-shifting, and his little care for human life. For Manannan was ever restless, wandering in distant lands, moving now this way, now that, and visiting in turn all countries; and years ago, as mortal men count time, he had gone away and returned not, nor did Fand even know where he was to be found. So she thought he had forsaken her, and, when Cuchulain came to fairy-land and she saw his youth and beauty, her mind went out to him, for never had she seen before a noble human man.

But Manannan knew within himself that Fand was in sore grief, and he arose in haste to go and help her.

[192] For, although he had tarried long in distant lands, daily he had news of Fand, and he learned all she was doing and when she needed him. So now he saw her trouble, for he it was who sent Cuchulain to fairy-land that he might test her love for himself; and swiftly over the waves he sped to go and save her. Invisible was he to mortal men, and he rode the white sea-foam as though it were a horse, for no need had he of any vessel, or of said or oar; and as he passed by Fand, she felt his presence and looked up at him as he passed by. But for a moment she knew not that this was Manannan of the Waves, for his look of hoary age had gone from him, and the man she saw was young and strong, with a noble gentleness upon his face, like the sea on a calm summer's day.

For Manannan was a shape-shifter, and at one time he was terrible and cruel to behold, but at another he showed a kindly face, for he looked in to the minds of men, and as he saw them, even so his own face reflected the thing he saw. Then Manannan said to Fand, "O Lady, what wilt thou now do? Wilt thou depart with me or abide here with Cuchulain, if he comes for thee?"

"By my troth," said Fand, "either of you two were a fitting spouse for me, and a worthy friend to stay with; and in neither of you do I see any one thing greater or better than is in the other; yet, O thou princely One, it is with thee that I will go, for I have been promised to thee for a wife; thou hast no consort of worth equal to thine own, while Cuchulain has a noble spouse; therefore take me with thee, for Cuchulain needs me not."

Then Manannan stretched his arms to Fand, and drew her with him, and she followed him. And Cuchulain [193] perceived her drawing away from him, but he knew not whither she went, nor could he see who was talking to her. And he cried out to Laeg, his charioteer, who had knowledge of fairy-land, "What meaneth this, Laeg, that I see? Whither goeth Fand?"

"She goeth with Manannan of the Sea," replied Laeg. "He is drawing her back to the Land of all Delights, but she is weeping as she goes."

The Cuchulain uttered three sharp cries of sorrow and of grief, and he fled away from men into desert places, and would take no meat or drink, and he slept in the open rush-land beside the high-road to Tara.

Emer went then to Emain, and sought King Conor, and told him all that had happened, and that Cuchulain was out of his senses because Fand had gone away; and she prayed him of his love for Cuchulain, and because of her love for him, to send to him men of skill and Druids who might bring him back to health. The king did so willingly, but when they came, Cuchulain fled from them, or sought to slay them, until at length he felt within himself a terrible thirst, and he craved of them a drink. In the drink they mingled herbs of forgetfulness, so that the memory of Fand slowly faded from him, and the rememberance of the time he had spent in fairy-land, and he came to his own mind again.

They gave soothing drinks to Emer also, for she was troubled, too, and stricken, and her natural joyousness had gone from her. But when Manannan heard in fairy-land of the trouble of Emer and Cuchulain, he came unseen of any man, and shook his cloak of forgetfulness between Fand and Cuchulain, so that from both of them the memory passed away, as though it had been a dream, and they thought of it no more.


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