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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull

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ULSTER, AWAKE!

[143] AFTER the combat with Ferdia weariness and great weakness fell upon Cuchulain. From the beginning of winter to early spring he had watched and safe-guarded the frontier of Ulster, alone and single-handed, and all that time he had never slept a whole night through. Saving only a brief snatch at midday, he often did not sleep at all, and even what he had was taken sitting, with his spear ready in his hand, and his head resting upon the shaft, as it stood between his knees.

The host of Meave was encamped on the plain of Murthemne, in Cuchulain's district, but the Brown Bull and the cattle they had sent away northward for safety into the hill passes of eastern Ulster.

Beside the grave of Lerga, overlooking the camp of the men of Erin, Cuchulain lay beside a fire that Laeg had kindled. Now, as the shades of evening fell, the hero looked abroad, slowly and with pain raising himself upon his elbow, and on every hand he saw the glint and gleam of the weapons of the men of Erin, caught by the light of the setting sun. Before him lay the great expanse of tents, and the multitude of the host, and he would have rushed upon them then and there, but all his body was riddled with wounds, and is strength was utterly gone from him. In his anger and despair he brandished [144] his sword and waved his shield and uttered forth his hero's shout. So horrible was that shout that the goblins and sprites and daft people of the air and of the glens answered it, and many of the men of Erin died of pure terror at the sound. Then across the camp of the enemy Laeg descried a figure, as of a tall and stately champion advancing calmly towards them. Straight through the tents of Erin he passed on, but no man seemed to see; no head was turned as he went by, nor did the sentries bar his way, yet in his hand he carried a drawn sword.

Astonishment and awe fell upon Laeg as, from his seat beside his master, he beheld the warrior draw near.

"It seems to me, O little Hound," he said, "as though a visitant from a fairyland drew near. Like one in high authority is this young man, and like the sun at junction of the day and night the gentle radiance of his lofty brow; methinks that in its midday glow no mortal eyes could bear the shining of its wondrous light. The armour of Manannan clothes him round, and none can pierce or wound him through its joints; the sword of Manannan is in his hand, from which no enemy returns alive, while on his head the jeweled helmet of Manannan gleams."

" 'Tis true, indeed," replied the wounded man, "Lugh the Long-handed, mightiest of the gods, is come to succour me. Bright as the sun rising at early dawn out of the glowing east the hero's face, giver of light and warmth to human-kind; with his long arms stretching across the sky he floods the world with light. In his right hand he bears the sword of day, though now in shades of night his face is veiled. No human eye, save his whose inward mind has pierced the realms of fairy mysteries, can see the god, when in Manannan's helmet [145] of invisibility he comes to earth. To comfort and to solace me he comes, for well he knows my plight. My comrades of the fairy-folk have pity on my pain and my despair."

The warrior stood close beside Cuchulain's bed and gazed upon his wounds, and noble pity stood within his eyes. "A manly fight, I see, you made, my son, and worthy are those wounds."

"I think not much about the wounds, O Lugh, but this is troubling me; behold, below, yon host of mighty men who threaten Ulster's land, and here I lie, as weary as a child, and cannot rise to wreak my wrath on them. Were but my strength returned and my wounds healed, I would not long be lying here in grief, idle and cast away. But if, O Father Lugh, for this one night you would keep watch and ward for me the while I sleep, then could I for a space take peaceful rest."

"I come for that," said Lugh, "from fairy land. Sleep then, O Ulster's Hound, and by the grave of Lerge deeply rest; no harm shall come to Ulster while you sleep, for I will watch and battle with the host." Then in deep peace and slumber Cuchulain took his rest, and for three days and nights he stirred not once, but slept a dreamless, torpid sleep. And fairy-folk brought magic herbs to put into his wounds, to soothe and heal him while he slept, and all the while Lugh sat at his right hand, guarding his rest, save when some feat of slaughter was to do upon the men of Erin.

But Sualtach, father of Cuchulain, heard of the distressed condition of his son, and well he knew that unless the warriors of Ulster woke from their magic sleep, and gathered to his help, the hero must give way before his foes. Now Sualtach was no battle-champion or warrior [146] of renown, but just a passable good fighting-man; he had no thought or wish to stand by his son when he fought single-handed with the choicest of Meave's host; nor had he gone to help him even when he heard that between life and death he lay, covered with gaping wounds. Yet still the news stirred some increase of courage in him, and though he would not fight in an uneven war, he now resolved to arm himself and ride to Emain's gates and call the sleeping Ulstermen to rise and hurry down to aid Cuchulain, before it was too late. He caught the Grey of Macha, Cuchulain's horse, and mounted him, and, spear and shield in hand, he rode straight up within the gates of Emain Macha. Silent and still as death was all the kingly fort. No sentinel looked forth to guard the door, no warrior strode round the deserted walls, and all within was silent as the grave, save for the weeping women and the little children's play, and lowing of the untended cows wandering between the outer and the inner raths. Within, in Emain's halls, each warrior sat apart sunk deep in sleep, his head upon his hands, his arms clasping his knees, or stretched in slumber full-length upon the floor; and round them lay their weapons, idle and rusting from long want of use, dropped from their nerveless hands. Mighty they looked, well-built and good men all, but no more strength had they than little babes but newly come to birth. Even when the women shook them, they looked up but for one moment with lack-lustre eyes, and straightway sank to sleep again. Young children played about and over them, as though they had been statues made of stone, and yet they heeded not. Beside them, at their feet, lay crouched their noble hounds, loose from the leash, stretched out asleep, each one his muzzle lying [147] on his paws. From time to time, the war-dogs turned and growled, as though they dreamed bad dreams; the warriors moaned as if they were in pain, but no one moved or rose.

Within the inner fort King Conor lay, surrounded by his chiefs, sunk deep in coward slumber each upon his couch; for Macha's hand lay heavy on them all, and her revenge was come.

But in the playing-fields outside, the Boy-corps still kept up their sports, and played at mimic warfare as of yore, though all their chiefs and teachers were asleep; and still their laughter, shrill and bright, rang through the silent halls, as one boy caught the hurley ball a good swing with his club, or threw his fellow in their feats of strength. The little son of Conor, Follaman, had made himself their leader, and willingly they mustered under him.

Then up rode Sualtach upon the Grey, and three times over he gave forth his cry. The first shout went up from the playing-fields, the second from the rampart wall, the third he gave standing aloft upon the summit of the mound where lay imprisoned the hostages of Ulster chained in their hut beside the kingly fort.

"Your men are being slain," he cried, your cattle driven away, your women fall as captives to the men of Erin. In wild Murthemne's plain Cuchulain all alone still held the foemen back until the fight with Ferdia robbed him of his strength. Wounded in every joint Cuchulain lies, his gaping sores stuffed in with sops and bits of grass, his clothes held on with spikes of hazel twigs. On Emain Macha press the enemy, all eastern Ulster is in their hands; Ailill and Meave have harried all your coasts. Ulster, Arise, arise!"

[148] Three times he gave the shout, ringing and clear upon the silent air, but still no watchman's voice gave forth reply.

Now in the kingly fort a rule of courtesy forbad that any man should speak before the King, save only his three Druids, who were his counsellors. After a while, as for the third time the voice of Sualtach came floating through the hall, one of the Druids stirred and said, "Who is the fellow brawling in the court? Fitting it were to take his head from him." "Fitting it were, indeed," replied the King, "and yet I think the thing he says is true." And all the warriors muttered in their sleep, "Fitting it were, indeed."

When Sualtach found that no man answered him, in violent anger he turned back again. In his fierce wrath he dragged the bridle-rein, so that the Grey of Macha reared, and stumbled on a sleeping man, and swerved aside, flinging Sualtach forward on its neck. His head struck on the sharp edge of his missile-shield, so that it sheared it off, and the shield fell from his hand, his head within it, at the horse's feet, the body hanging yet upon its back. At that the Grey turned round, and made its way into the inner court and onward to the hall, the lifeless body still upon its neck, dragging the head along upon the shield, whose strap had caught into its feet. And all the way they went, passing the outer and the inner courts into the very presence of the King, the voice of Sualtach from the dissevered head still called aloud, as though he were alive, "Your men are being slain, your cattle driven away; your women fall as captives to the men of Erin. In wild Murthemne's plain Cuchulain all alone still holds the foemen back. Ulster, Arise, arise!"

[149] "Too noisy is that head," King Conor said, moving again and stirring in his sleep; "put it upon the pillar of the house that it may go to rest." Then one of the warriors, hearing his King's voice, bestirred himself, and lifted up the head and set it on a pillar; but again, and even louder than before, the head cried out: "Your men are being slain, your cattle driven away, your women fall as captives. Ulster, Arise, arise!" So noisy was the head, that one warrior and then another rose upon his elbow and looked up at it, and bade it hold its peace, but when they spoke the head but called out louder than before. Then, looking round, they saw the mighty horse standing, gaunt and stock-still, within the very centre of the hall, the headless rider sitting on its back. And when they saw the horse bearing the headless rider in their midst, and heard the head still calling from the pillar top, as though it were alive, a shout of laughter, as of olden days, went up from one and all, and the King bestirred himself at the unwonted sound. Then all the chiefs, seeing the King arise, shook themselves lightly and began to stand or sit up where they slept. They stooped to pick their weapons from the ground, to try the edges of their swords, to rub the rust that dulled their scabbards and the fine points of their spears. For memory and the love of life and war began to stir in them, and wonder at their own long idleness. And at the last the King stood up and cried, "True is the message that the head has brought. Ulster lies bound before her enemies, while we rust here in sleep. By all the gods my nation loves, I swear, unless the stars of heaven shall fall upon our heads, or the strong solid earth give way beneath our feet, I and my chiefs will restore each captive woman to her child [150] and home, each cow to her own meadow, and each stolen piece of land to its own lords, so that in shame with heavy loss the foes of Ulster shall return to their own country."


[Illustration]

SUALTACH AWAKES THE KING.

Then a great shout went up from the men of Ulster, and their warrior spirit began to revive in them. And to each in turn the King applied, bidding him go forth and summon his clan and followers to meet him that day week upon the Hill of Slane in Meath, for he himself would call a muster there.

Gladly and eagerly the chiefs issued forth, for they heard the sounds of stirring men and the welcome bark of the hounds without.

As for the King himself, his mind was so confused with the magic sleep in which he had lain, that he remembered not the dead from the living, but stood, calling on the dead to come to his aid, as though they had been yet alive.

Throughout all the land he sent heralds to call together his men-at-arms; and with one heart and mind the men of Ulster responded to his call. Troop on troop they flocked to Emain, from North and West and East, each mighty leader surrounded by his host clad in the kilt and colours of his clan. As for the clans that were south of Emain, they tarried not to assemble at the kingly fort, but made their way, each by his own route, straight forward to the Hill of Slane.

For after their long rest and weakness their hands itched to be upon their swords again.


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