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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

THE PLUCKING OUT OF THE FOUR-PRONGED POLE

[88]

T
HEN Meave gathered her hosts together and set out from Cruachan, each party under its own leader, marching in order of rank, with Fergus mac Roy guiding the entire army, and Meave bringing up the rear, in order that she might keep all her troops under her own eye. Meave's way of traveling when she went into battle was in a chariot, with her bodyguard of chosen warriors around her, who, in any time of danger, interlocked their shields to form a rampart and protection on every side as she moved along.

Gaily her troops marched in their many-coloured garb, their short kilts falling to the knee, their long cloaks over that. And the colour of the kilts of each troop was different, so that each man knew his own comrades by the pattern of his kilt. In their hands they carried shields and spears upon long shafts, while others had five-pronged spears, or mighty swords, or javelins.

It was in the beginning of winter that they set out, and already snow lay heavy on the ground; on the very first night it fell so thickly, that it reached to the chariot-wheels and almost to their very shoulders, nor could they find any track or way.

Meave called Fergus, and said to him: "Go on before the hosts, O Fergus, and find us out the shortest road into Ulster, for in such weather as this, it is not well that we [89] lose time by wandering out of the right way." So with a few companions Fergus went on ahead; but as he drove along, the memory of old friends and of his home and country came upon him, and an overwhelming affection for Ulster took hold on him, and in his mind there arose shame and bitter self-reproach that he, the former King of Ulster, should be leading Ulster's foes against her. For he liked Meave and he liked her not; her kindness to himself and the exiles of Ulster had prevailed with him to aid her in her war upon the province; but her wiles and cunning and manlike ways he cared not for, and in his heart he had no wish to see the province subdued to her. So to the North and the South he misled the host, making them walk all day by difficult paths far out of their way, while in the meantime he sent swift messengers to Conor and the Ulster chiefs, but especially to his own foster-son Cuchulain, whom he loved, to call their men at arms together, because Meave and a host of warriors from all the provinces of Ireland were on their borders. At night, after a long day's march, the army found itself back in the very spot from which it had set out, not far beyond the banks of the River Shannon. Then Meave called Fergus, and angrily she spoke to him: "A good guide to an army art thou, O Fergus, bringing it back at night to the very place from which in the morning it set out. A good enemy of Ulster this. A good friend to Connaught and its queen!" "Seek out some other leader for your troops, O Meave," said Fergus, "for never will I lead them against the province of Ulster and against my own people and my foster-son! But this I tell you, beware and look out well for your troops to-night and every night from this; for it may be that Cuchulain will stand between you and [90] Ulster, and the standing of Cuchulain will be as the crouching of the Hounds of War upon your path; therefore beware and guard yourselves well before him!"

Now that very night Cuchulain got the message of Fergus, for he was with his father, Sualtach, not far from this place. Together in their chariot they drove to the borders of the country where the army was encamped to seek for the trail of the hosts; but they found it not easy to discover the trail, because of the snow and because of the wandering path that Fergus had taken the troops. They unyoked the chariots, and turned the horses out to graze at a certain pillar-stone beside a ford; and on one side of the pillar-stone the horses of Sualtach cropped the grass down to the very ground, and on the other the horses of Cuchulain did the same. Then Cuchulain said: "To-night, O father, I have a shrewd suspicion that the host is near; depart thou therefore to warn Ulster, and to bid them arise and come by secret ways to meet the men of Erin."

Now in his heart was Sualtach glad and pleased to be gone, because he was not a man who loved to stand in the gap of danger, nor to risk his life before an enemy stronger than himself; but yet he was loth to leave his son alone. So he said, "And thou, beloved, what wilt thou do?"

"I will stand between the men of Ireland and the province of Ulster," said the boy, "so that no harm or hurt befall the province until Ulster be ready for battle; here on the borders do I take my stand, and I will so harry and trouble the hosts of Meave that they will wish the expedition had never been undertaken."

So Cuchulain hastened his father, and Sualtach bade him farewell, and slipped away to Emain Macha. But [91] when he found the warriors were asleep, his old lethargy came over Sualtach, and he forgot the message of Cuchulain, and under Emain's ramparts he took up his abode. "Here will I wait in safety," he thought; "and when the King and chiefs awake, I, with the first of them, will march to war with Meave. I will not be behind, but all alone I have not the heart to fight."

No sooner had Sualtach gone his way than Cuchulain entered a forest close at hand and out of an oak sapling cut a four-pronged pole, which with one sweep of his swift sword he cleared of all its twigs and leaves and small branches. With the finger-tips of his right hand he hurled it out behind his chariot, going at full pace, so that it sank into the ground in the middle of the stream, and stood up just above the water. Upon the pole he flung a ring or twisted collar of young birch, and on the ring he carved his name and a message in secret runes. Just at that moment two young men of the host of Meave, gone out before the troops to scout, came near and watched him. No time had they to turn and flee, for with one leap Cuchulain was upon them, and both their heads struck off. These and the two heads of their charioteers were soon impaled on the four points of the forked pole; but the chariots he turned back, driving them towards the host of Meave. When the warriors saw the chariots return with headless men, they thought the army of Ulster must be close before them, waiting their coming at the ford. Therefore a great company of them marched forward to the stream, ready and armed for battle, but nothing did they see but a tall pole that stood upright in the swirling waters of the stream, bearing a rude carved collar on its top, and on the point of every branching prong a bleeding new-slain head.

[92] "Go now," said Ailill to his man, "fetch me the collar here." But all in vain he tried to read the words engraven on the ring. "What, Fergus, are the words inscribed upon this ring?" said he. "Who could have written them? A strange thing, verily, it seems to me, that two brave scouts could have been slain like this, well-nigh within the sight of all our men. A marvel, I confess, this thing to me."

"Not that it is at which I marvel," Fergus said; "I marvel rather that with one sweep of the sword this tree was felled and cleaned of all its twigs. See, it is written on the ring that with one hand this pole was thrown, and fixed firmly in its bed; it is written here, moreover, that the men of Erin are forbidden to pass this ford, until in exactly the same manner it is plucked up again."

"One man only in the army can do that, namely, you yourself, O Fergus!" answered Meave. "Now help us in this strait and pluck the pole out of the river's bed for us."

"Bring me a chariot, then, and I will see what I can do."

A chariot was brought and Fergus mounted into it. With all his force he dashed down into the water, and with his finger-tips in passing by he tried to draw the pole out of its place. But all in vain; the pole stood fast, and though he tugged and strained, so that the chariot flew into little bits and fragments, he could not stir or move the pole an inch. One chariot after another he essayed, and all of them went into splinters, but not one whit the looser was the pole. At last Meave said: "Give over, Fergus; enough of my people's chariots are broken with this game. Get your own chariot and pull out the pole. Right well I guess your purpose; for [93] you have in mind to hamper and delay the progress of our host till Ulster be aroused and come to meet us; but that your guidance led us all astray, we might be even now in Ulster's border-lands."

Then Fergus's own mighty chariot was brought, all made of iron, studded o'er with nails, heavy and massive in its make. Upright he stood in it, and with a powerful, superhuman pull he wrenched with one hand's finger-tips the pole from out its bed, and handed it to Ailill.

Attentively and long the King considered it, and then he asked, "Whom thinkest thou, O Fergus, it might be who threw this pole into the river-bed and slaughtered our two scouts? Was it Conall the victorious, or Celtchar, or even Conor himself? Surely it was some brave, well-seasoned man, some warrior of old renown, who did a deed like this!" "I think," said Fergus, "that not one of these three heroes would have come alone from Ulster, unattended by their bodyguard and troops." "Whom, then, thinkest thou was here?" persisted Ailill; "who could have done this deed?" "I think," said Fergus, "that it was Cuchulain, Ulster's Hound."


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