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The Boys' Cuchulain by  Eleanor Hull


 

 

THE WILES OF KING CONOR

[217] BUT all this while the cunning, cruel heart of Conor was planning his revenge. For though he was an old man with grown-up sons of middle age, he had begun to feel affection for the child who had been sheltered by his care, and who looked to him as her protector and her friend. And after all the years that he had waited for the girl, to have her plucked away beneath his eyes just when she was of age to be his wife, aroused his bitter wrath and jealousy. Deep in his heart he plotted dark revenge, but it was hard to carry out his plan, for well he knew that of his chiefs not one would lift his hand against the sons of Usna. Of all the Red Branch Champions those three were loved the best; and difficult it was to know which of the three was bravest, or most noble to behold. When in the autumn games they raced or leaped or drove the chariots round the racing-course, some said that Arden had the more majestic step and stately air; other, that Ainle was more graceful and more lithe in swing, but most agreed that Naisi was the princeliest of the three, so dignified his gait, so swift his step in running, and so strong and firm his hand. But when they wrestled, ran or fought in combats side by side, men praised them all, and called them the "Three Lights of Valour of the Gael."

When his plans were ripe, King Conor made a festival [218] in Emain Macha, and all his chiefs were gathered to the feast. The aged Fergus sat at his right hand, and Caffa next to him; close by sat Conall Cernach, a mighty warrior, still in his full prime, and by his side, as in old times, Cuchulain sat. He seemed still young, but of an awesome aspect, as one who had a tragedy before him, and great deeds behind; and, for all that he was the pride of Ulster's hosts, men stood in dread before him, as though he were a god.

Around the board sat many a mighty man and good prime warrior seasoned by long wars. But in the hall three seats were empty, and it was known to be the king's command that in his presence none should dare to speak the names of Usna's banished sons.

This night the King was merry and in pleasant humour, as it seemed. He plied his guests with mead and ale out of his golden horns, and led the tale and passed the jest, and laughed, and all his chiefs laughed with him, till the hall was filled with cheerful sounds of song and merriment. And when the cheer was bravest and the feast was at its height, he rose and said: "Right welcome all assembled here this night, High Chiefs of Ulster, Champions of the Branch. Of all the kingly households in the world, tell me, O you who travel much and see strange distant lands and courts of kings, have ye in Alba or in Erin's realms, or in the countries of the great wide world, e'er seen a court more princely than our own, or an assembly comely as the Red Branch Knights?"

"We know not," cried they all, "of any such. Thy court, O High King, is of all courts on earth the bravest and the best."

"If this be so," said wily Conor, "I suppose no sense [219] of want lies on you; no lack of anything is in your minds?"

"We know not any want at all," they said aloud; but in their minds they thought, "save the Three Lights of Valour of the Gael."

"But I, O warriors, know one want that lies on us," the King replied, "the want of the three sons of Usna fills my mind. Naisi and Ainle and Arden, good warriors were they all; but Naisi is a match for any mighty monarch in the world. By his own strength alone he carved for him and his a princely realm in Alba, and there he rules as king. Alas! that for the sake of any woman in the world, we lose his presence here."

"Had we but dared to utter that, O Warrior King, long since we should have called them home again. These three alone would safely guard the province against any host. Three sons of a border-king and used to fight are they; three heroes of warfare, three lions of fearless might."

"I knew not," said King Conor craftily, "you wished them back. Methought you all were jealous of their might, or long ere this we should have sent for them. Let messengers now go, and heralds of the king to bring them home, for welcome to us all will be the sight of Usna's sons."

"Who is the herald who shall bear that peaceful message?" cried they all. "I have been told," said Conor, "that out of Ulster's chiefs there were but three whose word of honour and protection they would trust, and at whose invitation Naisi would come again in peace. With Conall Cernach he will come, or with Cuchulain, or with great Fergus of the mighty arms.

[220] These are the friends in whom he will confide; under the safe-guard of each one of these he knows all will be well."

"Bid Fergus go, or Conall or Cuchulain," the warriors cried; "let not a single night pass by until the message goes to bring the sons of Usna to our board again. Most sorely do we need them, deeply do we mourn their loss. Bring back the Lights of Valour of the Gael."

"Now will I test," thought Conor to himself, "which of these three prime warriors loves me best." So supper being ended, the King took Conall to his ante-room apart and set himself to question cunningly: "Suppose, O royal soldier of the world, thou wert to go and fetch the sons of Usna back from Alba to their own land under thy safeguard and thy word of honour that they should not be harmed; but if, in spite of this, some ill should fall on them—not by my hand, of course—and they were slain, what then would happen? what wouldst thou do?"

"I swear, O King," said Conall, "by my hand, that if the sons of Usna were brought here under my protection to their death, not he alone whose hand was stained by that foul deed, but every man of Ulster who had wrought them harm should feel my righteous vengeance and my wrath."

"I thought as much," said Conor, "not great the love and service thou dost give thy lord. Dearer to thee than I are Usna's sons."

Then sent he for Cuchulain and to him he made the same demand. But bolder yet Cuchulain made reply: "I pledge my word, O King, if evil were to fall upon the sons of Usna, brought back to Erin and their homes [221] in confidence in my protection and my plighted word, not all the riches of the eastern world would bribe or hinder me from severing thine own head from thee in lieu of the dear heads of Usna's sons, most foully slain when tempted home by their sure trust in me."

"I see it now, Cuchulain," said the king, "thou dost profess a love for me thou feelest not."

Then Fergus came, and to him also he proposed the same request. Now Fergus was perplexed what answer he should give. Sore did it trouble him to think that evil might befall brave Usna's sons when under his protection. Yet it was but a little while since he and Conor had made friends, and he come back to Ulster, and set high in place and power by the King, and well he knew that Conor doubted him; and such a deed as this, to bring the sons of Usna home again, would prove fidelity and win the King's affection. Moreover, Conor spoke so guardedly that Fergus was not sure whether the King had ill intent or no towards the sons of Usna. For all he said was: "Supposing any harm or ill befall the sons of Usna by the hand of any here, what wouldst thou do?"

So after long debate within himself, Fergus replied: "If any Ulsterman should harm the noble youths, undoubtedly I should avenge the deed; but thee, O King, and thine own flesh and flood, I would not harm; for well I know, that if they came under protection of thy sovereign word, they would be safe with thee. Therefore, against thee and thy house, I would not raise my hand, whatever the conditions, but faithfully and with my life will serve thee."

"'Tis well," the wily king replied, "I see, O royal warrior, that thou lovest me well, and I will prove thy faithfulness and truth. The sons of Usna without doubt [222] will come with thee. To-morrow set thou forward; bear the King's message to brave Usna's sons, say that he eagerly awaits their coming, that Ulster longs to welcome them. Urge them to hasten; bid them not to linger on the way, but with the utmost speed to press straight forward here to Emain Macha."

The Fergus went out from the King and told the nobles he had pledged his word to Conor to bring back the sons of Usna to their native land. And on the morrow's morn Fergus set forth in his own boat, and with him his two sons, Illan the Fair and Buinne the Ruthless Red, and together they sailed to Loch Etive in Alba.

But hardly had they started than King Conor set to work with cunning craft to lure the sons of Usna to their doom. He sent for Borrach, son of Annte, who had built a mighty fortress by the sea, and said to him, "Did I not hear, O Borrach, that thou hadst prepared a feast for me?" "It is even so, O King, and I await thy coming to partake of the banquet I have prepared." And Conor said, "I may not come at this time to thy feast; the duties of the kingdom keep me here at Emain. But I would not decline thy hospitality. Fergus, the son of Roy, stands close to me in place and power; a feast bestowed on him I hold as though it were bestowed on me. In less than a week's time comes Fergus back from Alba, bringing the sons of Usna to their home. Bid Fergus to thy feast, and I will hold the honour paid to him as paid to me."

For wily Conor knew that if his royal command was laid on Fergus to accept the banquet in his stead, Fergus dare not refuse; and by this means he sought to separate the sons of Usna from their friend, and get them fast [223] into his own power at Emain, while Fergus waited yet at Borrach's house, partaking of his hospitality. "Thus, thought the King, "I have the sons of Usna in my grasp, and dire the vengeance I will wreak on them, the men who stole my wife."


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