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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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QUEEN MEAVE AND THE WOMAN-SEER

[18]

C
RAFTILY Fergus wrought upon Queen Meave that she should espouse his cause and lead an army into Ulster's coasts, to win the kingdom back for him again. And Meave was no way sorry to make war, for Connaught and the North at all times were at strife, and frays and battle-raids were common between them. So with light heart Queen Meave sent heralds out and messengers through Connaught to collect her armed bands, bidding them meet her within three months' space before her palace-fort of Cruachan. And in three months a goodly host was gathered there, and tents were pitched, and for awhile they tarried round the palace-courts, eating and drinking, so that with good heart and strength they might set forth to march towards Ulster's borders.

Now, in the dark and dead of night before the break of day when all the host should start their forward march, Meave could not sleep; and stealthily she rose and bid them make her chariot ready, that she might seek a Druid whom she knew, and learn from him the prospects of the expedition and what should be the fate before her hosts.

Far in the depths of a wide-spreading wood the Druid dwelt. An old and reverend man was he, and far and wide men knew him for a prophet and a seer. The "Know- [19] ledge that enlightens" he possessed, which opened to his eyes the coming days and all the secret things the future held. Gravely he came out to meet the troubled Queen, and he from her chariot handed her, as proudly she drew up before his door.

"We have come to thee, O Druid and magician," said the Queen, "to ask of thee the fate and fortune of this expedition against Ulster which we have now in hand, whether we shall return victorious or not."

"Wait but awhile in patience," said the aged man, "and I will read the future, if the gods allow."

For two long hours Meave waited in the hut, while on the hearth the fire of peat burned low, and a strange dimness spread about the house as though a mist had risen between herself and the magician, who, on his palms performed his curious rites, and in a slow and solemn chant sang charms and incantations; by strange and magic arts known to his craft seeking the "Knowledge that enlightens." And, at the last, when all was still, he rose to his full height, stretched out his arms, and called upon the gods of fire, and air, and wind, and light, to open up and lay before his gaze the future things that were in store for Meave and for her hosts.


[Illustration]

QUEEN MEAVE AND THE DRUID.

Then he made total darkness in his hut, and ate a curious food, concocted by magicians; and when he had eaten, he fell into a sleep, his servant watching over him, his two palms laid upon his cheeks. Then in a minute or two minutes, he uttered sounds, but like one talking in his sleep, and the servant bade Meave question him, for his sleep of inspiration was upon him. So Meave said: "In mine host this day are many who do part from their own people and their friends, from their [20] country and their lands, from father and from mother. Now, if these all return not safe and sound, upon me will be the anger of their friends, and me they will upbraid. Tell me, then, will these return alive?"

And the magician said: "These might return; but yet I see a little boy who stands upon the way to hinder them. Fair he is and young and but a boy; and yet on every path I see him, holding back thy hosts, slaughtering and pursuing, as though the strength of the gods were in his arms. On every path they fall, in every battlefield the ground is strewn with dead, and in the homes of Connaught men and women weep the sons and husbands who return no more. Who this youth may be I know not, but I see that he will bring trouble on thy hosts."

Then Meave trembled at the saying of the Druid; but she asked again, "Among all those who will remain behind and those who go, there is none dearer to us than we are to ourselves; inquire therefore of thy gods if we ourselves shall come alive out of this hosting?"

The wizard answered: "Whoever comes or comes not, thou thyself shalt come."

Then Meave mounted her chariot again, and turned her horses' heads towards Cruachan. But heaviness was at her heart, and deep dejection lay upon her mind, and moodily she thought of what the Druid prophesied to her.

They had not driven far when suddenly the horses swerved aside and reared and snorted with affright. Meave started up, and shaking off her reverie, in the dim twilight of the breaking dawn, close beside her chariot-shaft, she saw a woman stand. Red as a fox- [21] glove were her cheeks and blue as the spring hyacinth beneath the forest trees her sparkling eyes. Like pearls her teeth shone white between her lips, and all her skin was fair as the white foam that dances on the wave. Around her fell, in waving folds of green, a cloak such as the fairy women wear, which hides them from the eyes of mortal men.

But while she looked in wonder on the maid, astonished at her lovely face and mien, Meave saw her garment change to dusky red. And in the dimness, she perceived the maiden held a sword, point upward, in her hand, a massive sword, such as a mighty man-of-war might wield. And from the point blood dripped, and one by one the drops fell on the Queen, till all her cloak and garments, and the chariot-floor ran red with streams of blood.

And terror came on Meave, and all in vain she sought to force her horses forward, but still they reared and curvetted, but would not advance. "Girl," cried the Queen at last, "what doest thou here, and who and what art thou?"

"I am a woman of the fairy race," the maid replied; "I come to-night to tell thee of thy fortunes, and the chance that shall befall thee and thy hosts upon this raid that thou dost make on Ulster."

"What is thy name, and wherefore thus, without my will, hast thou presumed to come and speak with me?" replied the angry Queen.

"Great cause have I to come; for from the fairy-rath of thine own people, near to Cruachan, am I here; and Feidelm the prophetess my name."

"Well, then, O prophetess Feidelm," said Queen Meave, "how seest thou our host?" but yet she [22] trembled as she spoke. And Feidelm said, "I see thy hosts all red, I see them all becrimsoned."

"Thou seest ill, O prophetess," said Meave; "for in the courts of Emain now the king lies sick and ill; my messengers have been to him, and nought there is that we need fear from Ulster. Therefore, O Feidelm, woman-prophet Feidelm, tell us now but the truth; how seest thou our hosts?"

"I see them all dyed red, I see them all becrimsoned," said the girl again.

"It cannot be," said Meave. "For many months my spies have been in Ulster, and this well I know; that in Ulster they dream not of the coming of a host. Now tell us this time true, O Feidelm, O woman-prophet Feidelm, how seest thou our host?"

But again the maiden answered as before: "I see all red on them, I see them all becrimsoned."

Then Meave grew angry, and fury came upon her, and she called on her charioteer to slay the fairy maid. But the man was afraid to touch her, so strange and formidable did she stand there, holding the dripping sword upright.

Then once again Meave answered her: "Girl, I care not for thy threats, for well I know, that when the men of Ulster come together, frays and quarrels will arise among themselves, either as regards the troop which shall precede the host, or that one which shall follow; or about precedence among the leaders, or about forays for cattle and for food. Therefore, I conclude that they will fall upon each other, and that it will be but a little matter for me to disperse them, and return again with spoils to Cruachan."

Then the maiden's face grew grave, and she spoke as [23] though she saw a vision, and Meave trembled as she listened to her words. "I see thy host," she said, "crimson and red, fall back before the men of Ulster, Yet the host of Ulster seems not a mighty host, but faint and weak through sickness, and the King of Ulster lies on his bed. Through all my dreams there comes a lad, not old in years, but great in weapon-feats. Young though he is, the marks of many wounds are on his skin, and round his head there shines the 'hero's light.' A face he has the noblest and the best, and in his eyes sparkle the champion's gleams; a stripling, fair and modest in his home, but in the battle fierce and tough and strong, as though he wore a mighty dragon's form. In either of his hands four darts he holds, and with a skill before him unknown, he plies them on your host. A formidable sword hangs by his side, and close beside him stands his charioteer, holding his pointed spear. A madness seems to seize him in the fight; by him your hosts are all hewn down, and on the battle-field the slain, foot laid to foot and hand to hand, do thickly lie. Before the hosts of Ulster all unmoved he stands as if to guard them from the fight; all on himself the burden of the uneven contest falls. Strong heroes cannot stand before his blows, and in the homes of Connaught women weep the slain who come not back. This is the vision that I see, and this the prophecy of Feidelm, Cruachan's woman-seer."

Then all her pride and courage fled from Meave, and fearfully she asked the woman-seer, "What is the name by which this youth is known?"

And Feidelm said: "To all the world the youth's name will be known, Cuchulain son of Sualtach, of the Feats; but in the North, because he guards their homes [24] as a good watch-dog guards the scattered flocks upon the mountain-side, men call him lovingly, 'The Hound of Ulster.' "

Then to her fairy-dwelling Feidelm returned, and Meave went to her tent again.


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