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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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THE "RISING-OUT" OF ULSTER

[160]

B
EFORE the dawn of the ensuing day, Sencha the Druid seated himself upon the summit of the Hill of Slane, beside the tent of Conor, to watch for the first ray of light arising in the east. The Druids had foretold that if the men of Ulster went into battle before the break of day, they must fall before their enemies, but if they waited till the early dawn flooded the hills and vales of Ireland, then it was they who would come off victorious.

So eager were the warriors for the fight, that it was hard to hold them till the night was past. On every side, long ere the dawn had broken, they pushed aside their tent-doors and came forth. Nay, many of the host there were, who would not wait their turn to issue from the doors; but all unclothed, their weapons in their hands, they rushed out from their tents, forcing their way through every side at once.

King Conor gave command, "Bid them to halt until the word be given." And all the host stood silent where they were, gazing toward the summit of the hill whereon the bearded Druid stood erect.

At length in the dim east the sun arose, its first rays shooting up along the sky. Then to his full height Sencha arose and raised his arms on high, his snowy garments waving in the wind.

[161] "The moment of good-luck is come," he cried. "Let Ulster's heroes meet their enemies! Let Macha's king arise!"


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"THE MOMENT OF GOOD-LUCK IS COME."

Then with their weapons brandished in their hands, and with a horrid whoop of war, the men of Ulster rushed into the fight. The men of Erin arose on every side, and furiously and fiercely was the battle joined. From dawn to noon the conflict raged, now here, now there, across the plain of Meath. At length Meave said, "Call Fergus to me. I would send him to the fight"; for Fergus had remained behind, among Meave's bodyguard, for loth he was to lift his hand against the men of his own province. "It is the part of a true hero, O Fergus," said Meave, deriding him, "to remain behind within the tents when a conflict to the death is going forward. Many good things, our hospitality and love, you took from our hand when Ulster exiled you. We fed and clothed your troops, we offered you a home. For many years you lingered in our land, wanting neither for wealth or honour while you were with us; now when the moment of our peril comes, when in your cause we come to fight with Ulster, to restore yourself and all the exiles to their homes, ‘tis Fergus lags behind. The common men and chiefs may die, you say, so I remain in peace among the tents. Now I myself, Queen Meave, descend into the fray; in my own person I will lead my troops, like any valiant captain of my host. I go to seek out Conor, who supplanted Fergus on the throne; will Fergus stay behind?"

When Fergus heard of Conor he exclaimed, "My hand I will not lift against the chiefs of Ulster, who are all my friends; but against Conor will I lift my hand, the wily, bad, supplanting king who stands where I should stand. [162] By all my gods I swear, had I but my own sword, the mighty ‘Hard One' whose blade is like a beam, or like a rainbow stretched across the sky, I now would ply it upon Conor's shield. Fetch me my sword!" Then Ailill commanded that the sword of Fergus, called the Calad-cholg, or the ‘Hard-sword,' brought by MacLeda out of fairy-land, should be given to him, for he had hidden it, until the time should come. So Fergus' sword was brought, and Ailill put it into Fergus' hand; and with a shout of welcome, Fergus grasped his sword, huge-handled, double-bladed, terrible; so that no hand but Fergus' hand could hold it in its grasp. "Welcome, Calad-cholg; welcome, O Leda's sword! Woe to the fosterling of war who feels thy edge to-day! On whom now shall we try thy might?"

"Upon the host that rings us round, O Fergus," said the Queen; "none shall turn back in peace before thy sword, none may it spare, save only some dear friend of other days."

Then into the battle-field, standing erect within her chariot, with all her champions round her as she rode, went queenly Meave, her golden circlet on her head, her weapons in her hand. On either side, holding aloft their swords, rode Ailill and Fergus, each with his own bodyguard. Terrific was their onset and before their chosen men, rushing like winds of March into the fray, Ulster gave way and fled. Three times they led their men into the very centre of the host, scattering it right and left, till Conor cried: "Who is this foe, who, three times to the North has scattered all mine host?" "Fergus it is and Meave," they all reply; "furiously they cut their way across the clans, who fly before them as they come." Now by the rules of Ulster's warfare, the king [163] might never expose his person in battle, but only, from some post of vantage, watch the onset of his men. But now King Conor said, "Hold you this hill, I will myself go down and rally to their duty the flying hosts of Ulster." And when they found the king determined to go down, with one mouth his bodyguard replied, "Unless the earth should burst beneath our feet, or the blue sky fall on us from above, we steadfastly will hold this post for you, O King."

Then round the king a body of his bravest warriors locked their shields, and made a rampart; thus the king went down into the battle with his followers around him, he himself holding his mighty horned shield, the Ochain, in the midst. For they knew that if the king should fall, the men of Ulster would, as one man, take to flight.

Fergus was seeking everywhere throughout the host for the king of Ulster, and when he saw the linked shields of Ulster's greatest champions he knew that the king was in their midst. He made a mighty onslaught on the rampart of shields, and broke through it, scattering the chiefs to right and left. Then he approached the king and with his ‘Hard-Sword' smote three mighty blows on Conor's shield. And the shield screamed aloud and roared, as was its wont when Conor was in peril or distress; and when the warriors of his host heard the screaming of the shield, all their weapons echoed in reply, and the shields that hung on the walls of Emain Macha fell down flat upon the ground. Far off, where he lay, Cuchulain heard the sound. "Surely," he cried, "I hear the shield of Conor roar; some deadly peril must beset the king, and I lie here alive and help him not! Set free my bonds, or, on my word, I will break loose [164] from them!" Then with a mighty effort, putting forth all his strength, Cuchulain wrenched his bonds, breaking and scattering them; and when he saw that nothing would avail to hinder him, Laeg cut the cords, and with one cry, the hero sprang upon his feet. "My weapons and my war-chariot," he cried, and Laeg brought out his chariot, sorely broken as it was after the fight with Ferdia at the ford. In it he fixed the iron spikes and points and nails that strengthened it in time of war, and made men fear to approach too near; into its wheels on either side, the sweeping scythes were fastened that mowed the enemy like grass as it swept through the host. The Grey of Macha and the Black Steed of the Glen neighed loudly, and came whinnying to Laeg's call, and slowly Cuchulain's old strength returned to him again. He sprang into the seat, and with a noise like thunder dashed onward to the place whence came the tumult of King Conor's shield. Standing erect, it was as though a light streamed from his hair, rising up toward the heavens; while on either hand the sods flew from the chariot-wheels, making the air dark about him as he came. His own corps perceived him coming through the host, and loud their shout of welcome rose, and all the men of Ulster sent forth a cry of exultation and of joy. Even the enemy held his hand awhile, and Fergus himself fell back before the king.

"Away with you, my Master Fergus," Cuchulain cried, "turn about, and begone; dare not to strike King Conor's shield." But Fergus answered not, until a third time Cuchulain cried. And then he said, "Who is this, of Ulster's host, who dares to address me in strong warrior words?"

" 'Tis even I, thy foster-son, Cuchulain, son of Sualtach, [165] loved of the great god Lugh! Dost thou not remember, Fergus, how thou didst promise that what time I should be wounded in the fight thou wouldst turn and make as though to flee before me, so that the host of Erin should follow after thee? The time is come, turn now and flee, or else stand fast and try thy strength with mine."

"I promised that, indeed," said he, "and truly I will now fulfil my words. Not fit or strong enough art thou at this time to contend with me. Stand back awhile, and I will make as though I fled before thy onset."

Then Fergus turned, and fell back three full warrior-paces before Cuchulain, as if he fled before him, trailing his mighty sword behind him on the ground. And when the host of Meave saw Fergus turn, they thought that all was lost, and with one consent they turned about and fled.

Breaking their ranks, in wild disorder they streamed westward o'er the plain, each man making for his home. On every side they cast away their arms, so that the ground was a strewn with shields and spears, and vainly Meave and Ailill called on them to turn. Seeing the rout, the men of Ulster followed hard, pressing upon their rear, and cutting off a multitude of men. From noon till twilight's fall they fled, nor halted till they reached the Shannon's ford, to pass across it and regain their homes. And, haughtily and undauntedly, Cuchulain pursued the host, making a red rout of the flying men, so that the way was strewn with dying and with dead.

Close at his side, urging on his withered steeds, rode aged Iliach, Ulster's valiant chief. Old and beyond the fighting-age was he, yet, when the muster of the corps was made, he would not stay behind. "Bring me my chariot and my steeds," said he. Now many years had [166] passed since last the old man went into the field. Rusted and broken was his chariot, his weapons bent and worn; as to his ancient chariot-steeds, they were but lean and wasted beasts, long since turned out to grass. No cushions had the chariot, nor any seat at all; just as it was the steeds were harnessed to the metal frame, and in his hand he took his blunt and rusty spears. All round him on the chariot-floor were piled up flags and rocks and stones; with these, when his old worn-out weapons broke in twain, he plied and mightily discomfited the enemy.

Yet, as he stood erect, his white hair streaming on the wind, so strange and formidable was his look, so flashing was his eye, that all the men of Erin shrank before him as he passed. At length his vigour ebbed, his strength gave out, the handle of his sword dropped useless from his hand. He called upon his charioteer. "My work is done," he said, "take thou my head from me upon my chariot's rim; I would not fall into the enemy's hand. My honour and the honour of my country is avenged. I die content." Then with his own old sword, upon the side-edge of the chariot his charioteer hewed off his head. Cuchulain turned and saw what had been done. "Bear thou the head to Emain," said he, "and let his body be buried with all honour near his home. Iliach died as a hero should. So die all Ulster's heroes, avenging Ulster's honour on her foes."


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