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Title: The Coming of Cuculain
Author: O'Grady, Standish
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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THE COMING OF CUCULAIN

By Standish O’grady


Author of

“THE TRIUMPH AND PASSING OF CUCULAIN”

“IN THE GATES OF THE NORTH”

“THE FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE”

ETC.



PREFACE

There are three great cycles of Gaelic literature. The first treats
of the gods; the second of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster and their
contemporaries; the third is the so-called Ossianic. Of the Ossianic,
Finn is the chief character; of the Red Branch cycle, Cuculain, the hero
of our tale.

Cuculain and his friends are historical characters, seen as it were
through mists of love and wonder, whom men could not forget, but for
centuries continued to celebrate in countless songs and stories.
They were not literary phantoms, but actual existences; imaginary and
fictitious characters, mere creatures of idle fancy, do not live and
flourish so in the world’s memory. And as to the gigantic stature and
superhuman prowess and achievements of those antique heroes, it must not
be forgotten that all art magnifies, as if in obedience to some strong
law; and so, even in our own times, Grattan, where he stands in artistic
bronze, is twice as great as the real Grattan thundering in the Senate.
I will therefore ask the reader, remembering the large manner of the
antique literature from which our tale is drawn, to forget for a
while that there is such a thing as scientific history, to give his
imagination a holiday, and follow with kindly interest the singular
story of the boyhood of Cuculain, “battle-prop of the valour and torch
of the chivalry of the Ultonians.”

I have endeavoured so to tell the story as to give a general idea of
the cycle, and of primitive heroic Irish life as reflected in that
literature, laying the cycle, so far as accessible, under contribution
to furnish forth the tale. Within a short compass I would bring before
swift modern readers the more striking aspects of a literature so vast
and archaic as to repel all but students.



STANDISH O’GRADY -- A TRIBUTE BY A. E.


In this age we read so much that we lay too great a burden on the
imagination. It is unable to create images which are the spiritual
equivalent of the words on the printed page, and reading becomes for too
many an occupation of the eye rather than of the mind. How rarely--out
of the multitude of volumes a man reads in his lifetime--can he remember
where or when he read any particular book, or with any vividness recall
the mood it evoked in him. When I close my eyes, and brood in memory
over the books which most profoundly affected me, I find none excited my
imagination more than Standish O’Grady’s epical narrative of Cuculain.
Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass, “Camerado, this is no book: who
touches this touches a man” and O’Grady might have boasted of his Bardic
History of Ireland, written with his whole being, that there was more
than a man in it, there was the soul of a people, its noblest and most
exalted life symbolised in the story of one heroic character.

With reference to Ireland, I was at the time I read like many others who
were bereaved of the history of their race. I was as a man who, through
some accident, had lost memory of his past, who could recall no more
than a few months of new life, and could not say to what songs his
cradle had been rocked, what mother had nursed him, who were the
playmates of childhood or by what woods and streams he had wandered.
When I read O’Grady I was as such a man who suddenly feels ancient
memories rushing at him, and knows he was born in a royal house, that he
had mixed with the mighty of heaven and earth and had the very noblest
for his companions. It was the memory of race which rose up within me as
I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children
of kings. That is what O’Grady did for me and for others who were my
contemporaries, and I welcome these reprints of his tales in the hope
that he will go on magically recreating for generations yet unborn the
ancestral life of their race in Ireland. For many centuries the youth
of Ireland as it grew up was made aware of the life of bygone ages, and
there were always some who remade themselves in the heroic mould before
they passed on. The sentiment engendered by the Gaelic literature was an
arcane presence, though unconscious of itself, in those who for the
past hundred years had learned another speech. In O’Grady’s writings the
submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent,
and I realised as I bathed in that stream, that the greatest spiritual
evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the
story of the national soul. For not all music can be played upon any
instrument, and human nature for most of us is like a harp on which can
be rendered the music written for the harp but not that written for the
violin. The harp strings quiver for the harp-player alone, and he who
can utter his passion through the violin is silent before an unfamiliar
instrument. That is why the Irish have rarely been deeply stirred by
English literature though it is one of the great literatures of the
world. Our history was different and the evolutionary product was a
peculiarity of character, and the strings of our being vibrate most in
ecstasy when the music evokes ancestral moods or embodies emotions akin
to these. I am not going to argue the comparative worth of the Gaelic
and English tradition. All I can say is that the traditions of our own
country move us more than the traditions of any other. Even if there was
not essential greatness in them we would love them for the same reasons
which bring back so many exiles to revisit the haunts of childhood. But
there was essential greatness in that neglected bardic literature which
O’Grady was the first to reveal in a noble manner. He had the spirit
of an ancient epic poet. He is a comrade of Homer, his birth delayed
in time perhaps that he might renew for a sophisticated people the
elemental simplicity and hardihood men had when the world was young
and manhood was prized more than any of its parts, more than thought
or beauty or feeling. He has created for us or rediscovered one figure
which looms in the imagination as a high comrade of Hector, Achilles,
Ulysses, Rama or Yudisthira, as great in spirit as any. Who could extol
enough his Cuculain, that incarnation of Gaelic chivalry, the fire and
gentleness, the beauty and heroic ardour or the imaginative splendour
of the episodes in his retelling of the ancient story. There are writers
who bewitch us by a magical use of words, whose lines glitter like
jewels, whose effects are gained by an elaborate art and who deal with
the subtlest emotions. Others again are simple as an Egyptian image and
yet are more impressive and you remember them less for the sentence than
for a grandiose effect. They are not so much concerned with the art of
words as with the creation of great images informed with magnificence of
spirit. They are not lesser artists but greater, for there is a greater
art in the simplification of form in the statue of Memnon than there
is in the intricate detail of a bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Standish
O’Grady had in his best moments that epic wholeness and simplicity, and
the figure of Cuculain amid his companions of the Red Branch which he
discovered and refashioned for us is I think the greatest spiritual gift
any Irishman for centuries has given to Ireland.

I know it will be said that this is a scientific age, the world is so
full of necessitous life that it is waste of time for young Ireland to
brood upon tales of legendary heroes, who fought with enchanters, who
harnessed wild fairy horses to magic chariots and who talked with
the ancient gods, and that it would be much better for youth to be
scientific and practical. Do not believe it, dear Irish boy, dear Irish
girl. I know as well as any the economic needs of our people. They must
not be overlooked, but keep still in your hearts some desires which
might enter Paradise. Keep in your souls some images of magnificence
so that hereafter the halls of heaven and the divine folk may not seem
altogether alien to the spirit. These legends have passed the test
of generations for century after century, and they were treasured
and passed on to those who followed, and that was because there was
something in them akin to the immortal spirit. Humanity cannot carry
with it through time the memory of all its deeds and imaginations, and
it burdens itself only in a new era with what was highest among the
imaginations of the ancestors. What is essentially noble is never out of
date. The figures carved by Phidias for the Parthenon still shine by the
side of the greatest modern sculpture. There has been no evolution of
the human form to a greater beauty than the ancient Greeks saw and the
forms they carved are not strange to us, and if this is true of the
outward form it is true of the indwelling spirit. What is essentially
noble is contemporary with all that is splendid to-day, and, until the
mass of men are equal in spirit, the great figures of the past will
affect us less as memories than as prophecies of the Golden Age to which
youth is ever hurrying in its heart.

O’Grady in his stories of the Red Branch rescued from the past what was
contemporary to the best in us to-day, and he was equal in his gifts
as a writer to the greatest of his bardic predecessors in Ireland. His
sentences are charged with a heroic energy, and, when he is telling a
great tale, their rise and fall are like the flashing and falling of
the bright sword of some great champion in battle, or the onset and
withdrawal of Atlantic surges. He can at need be beautifully tender
and quiet. Who that has read his tale of the young Finn and the Seven
Ancients will forget the weeping of Finn over the kindness of the
famine-stricken old men, and their wonder at his weeping and the
self-forgetful pathos of their meditation unconscious that it was their
own sacrifice called forth the tears of Finn. “Youth,” they said, “has
many sorrows that cold age cannot comprehend.”

There are critics repelled by the abounding energy in O’Grady’s
sentences. It is easy to point to faults due to excess and abundance,
but how rare in literature is that heroic energy and power. There is
something arcane and elemental in it, a quality that the most careful
stylist cannot attain, however he uses the file, however subtle he is.
O’Grady has noticed this power in the ancient bards and we find it in
his own writing. It ran all through the Bardic History, the Critical
and Philosophical History, and through the political books, “The Tory
Democracy” and “All Ireland.” There is this imaginative energy in the
tale of Cuculain, in all its episodes, the slaying of the hound, the
capture of the Laity Macha, the hunting of the enchanted deer, the
capture of the wild swans, the fight at the ford and the awakening of
the Red Branch. In the later tale of Red Hugh which he calls “The Flight
of the Eagle” there is the same quality of power joined with a shining
simplicity in the narrative which rises into a poetic ecstacy in that
wonderful chapter where Red Hugh, escaping from the Pale, rides through
the Mountain Gates of Ulster, and sees high above him Slieve Mullion,
a mountain of the Gods, the birthplace of legend “more mythic than
Avernus” and O’Grady evokes for us and his hero the legendary past, and
the great hill seems to be like Mount Sinai, thronged with immortals,
and it lives and speaks to the fugitive boy, “the last great secular
champion of the Gael,” and inspires him for the fulfilment of his
destiny. We might say of Red Hugh and indeed of all O’Grady’s heroes
that they are the spiritual progeny of Cuculain. From Red Hugh down to
the boys who have such enchanting adventures in “Lost on Du Corrig” and
“The Chain of Gold” they have all a natural and hardy purity of mind,
a beautiful simplicity of character, and one can imagine them all in an
hour of need, being faithful to any trust like the darling of the Red
Branch. These shining lads never grew up amid books. They are as much
children of nature as the Lucy of Wordsworth’s poetry. It might be said
of them as the poet of the Kalevala sang of himself,

   “Winds and waters my instructors.”

These were O’Grady’s own earliest companions and no man can find better
comrades than earth, water, air and sun. I imagine O’Grady’s own
youth was not so very different from the youth of Red Hugh before his
captivity; that he lived on the wild and rocky western coast, that he
rowed in coracles, explored the caves, spoke much with hardy natural
people, fishermen and workers on the land, primitive folk, simple in
speech, but with that fundamental depth men have who are much in nature
in companionship with the elements, the elder brothers of humanity: it
must have been out of such a boyhood and such intimacies with natural
and unsophisticated people that there came to him the understanding of
the heroes of the Red Branch. How pallid, beside the ruddy chivalry
who pass huge and fleet and bright through O’Grady’s pages, appear
Tennyson’s bloodless Knights of the Round Table, fabricated in the study
to be read in the drawing-room, as anaemic as Burne Jones’ lifeless men
in armour. The heroes of ancient Irish legend reincarnated in the mind
of a man who could breathe into them the fire of life, caught from sun
and wind, their ancient deities, and send them, forth to the world to
do greater deeds, to act through many men and speak through many voices.
What sorcery was in the Irish mind that it has taken so many years to
win but a little recognition for this splendid spirit; and that others
who came after him, who diluted the pure fiery wine of romance he gave
us with literary water, should be as well known or more widely read. For
my own part I can only point back to him and say whatever is Irish in me
he kindled to life, and I am humble when I read his epic tale, feeling
how much greater a thing it is for the soul of a writer to have been the
habitation of a demigod than to have had the subtlest intellections.

We praise the man who rushes into a burning mansion and brings out its
greatest treasure. So ought we to praise this man who rescued from the
perishing Gaelic tradition its darling hero and restored him to us,
and I think now that Cuculain will not perish, and he will be invisibly
present at many a council of youth, and he will be the daring which
lifts the will beyond itself and fires it for great causes, and he will
also be the courtesy which shall overcome the enemy that nothing else
may overcome.

I am sure that Standish O’Grady would rather I should speak of his work
and its bearing on the spiritual life of Ireland, than about himself,
and, because I think so, in this reverie I have followed no set plan but
have let my thoughts run as they will. But I would not have any to think
that this man was only a writer, or that he could have had the heroes
of the past for spiritual companions, without himself being inspired to
fight dragons and wizardy. I have sometimes regretted that contemporary
politics drew O’Grady away from the work he began so greatly. I have
said to myself he might have given us an Oscar, a Diarmuid or a Caoilte,
an equal comrade to Cuculain, but he could not, being lit up by the
spirit of his hero, be merely the bard and not the fighter, and no man
in Ireland intervened in the affairs of his country with a superior
nobility of aim. He was the last champion of the Irish aristocracy and
still more the voice of conscience for them, and he spoke to them of
their duty to the nation as one might imagine some fearless prophet
speaking to a council of degenerate princes. When the aristocracy failed
Ireland he bade them farewell, and wrote the epitaph of their class in
words whose scorn we almost forget because of their sounding melody
and beauty. He turned his mind to the problems of democracy and more
especially of those workers who are trapped in the city, and he pointed
out for them the way of escape and how they might renew life in the
green fields close to Earth, their ancient mother and nurse. He used
too exalted a language for those to whom he spoke to understand, and it
might seem that all these vehement appeals had failed but that we know
that what is fine never really fails. When a man is in advance of his
age, a generation unborn when he speaks, is born in due time and finds
in him its inspiration. O’Grady may have failed in his appeal to the
aristocracy of his own time but he may yet create an aristocracy of
character and intellect in Ireland. The political and social writings
will remain to uplift and inspire and to remind us that the man who
wrote the stories of heroes had a bravery of his own and a wisdom of his
own. I owe so much to Standish O’Grady that I would like to leave it on
record that it was he who made me conscious and proud of my country, and
recalled my mind, that might have wandered otherwise over too wide and
vague a field of thought, to think of the earth under my feet and the
children of our common mother. There hangs in the Municipal Gallery of
Dublin the portrait of a man with brooding eyes, and scrawled on the
canvas is the subject of his bitter meditation, “The Lost Land.” I hope
that O’Grady will find before he goes back to Tir-na-noge that Ireland
has found again through him what seemed lost for ever, the law of its
own being, and its memories which go back to the beginning of the world.



THE COMING OF CUCULAIN



CHAPTER I

THE RED BRANCH


     “There were giants in the earth in those days, the same
     were mighty men which were of yore men of renown.”


The Red Branch feasted one night in their great hall at Emain Macha.
So vast was the hall that a man, such as men are now, standing in
the centre and shouting his loudest, would not be heard at the
circumference, yet the low laughter of the King sitting at one end was
clearly audible to those who sat around the Champion at the other. The
sons of Dithorba made it, giants of the elder time, labouring there
under the brazen shoutings of Macha and the roar of her sounding thongs.
Its length was a mile and nine furlongs and a cubit. With her brooch pin
she ploughed its outline upon the plain, and its breadth was not much
less. Trees such as the earth nourished then upheld the massy roof
beneath which feasted that heroic brood, the great-hearted children of
Rury, huge offspring of the gods and giants of the dawn of time. For
mighty exceedingly were these men. At the noise of them running to
battle all Ireland shook, and the illimitable Lir [Footnote: Lir was the
sea-god, the Oceanns of the Celt; no doubt the same as the British Lear,
the wild, white-headed old king, who had such singular daughters; two,
monsters of cruelty, and one, exquisitely sweet, kind, and serene, viz.:
Storm, Hurricane, and Calm.] trembled in his watery halls; the roar of
their brazen chariots reverberated from the solid canopy of heaven, and
their war-steeds drank rivers dry.

A vast murmur rose from the assembly, for like distant thunder or the
far-off murmuring of agitated waters was the continuous hum of their
blended conversation and laughter, while, ever and anon, cleaving the
many-tongued confusion, uprose friendly voices, clearer and stronger
than battle-trumpets, when one hero challenged another to drink, wishing
him victory and success, and his words rang round the hollow dome.
Innumerable candles, tall as spears, illuminated the scene. The eyes
of the heroes sparkled, and their faces, white and ruddy, beamed with
festal mirth and mutual affection. Their yellow hair shone. Their
banqueting attire, white and scarlet, glowed against the outer gloom.
Their round brooches and mantle-pins of gold, or silver, or golden
bronze, their drinking vessels and instruments of festivity, flashed and
glittered in the light. They rejoiced in their glory and their might,
and in the inviolable amity in which they were knit together, a host
of comrades, a knot of heroic valour and affection which no strength or
cunning, and no power, seen or unseen, could ever relax or untie.

At one extremity of the vast hall, upon a raised seat, sat their young
king, Concobar Mac Nessa, slender, handsome, and upright. A canopy
of bronze, round as the bent sling of the Sun-god, the long-handed,
far-shooting son of Ethlend, [Footnote: This was the god Lu Lam-fada,
i.e., Lu, the Long-Handed. The rainbow was his sling. Remember that
the rod sling, familiar enough now to Irish boys, was the weapon of the
ancient Irish, and not the sling which is made of two cords.] encircled
his head. At his right hand lay a staff of silver. Far away at the other
end of the hall, on a raised seat, sat the Champion Fergus Mac Roy,
like a colossus. The stars and clouds of night were round his head and
shoulders seen through the wide and high entrance of the dun, whose
doors no man had ever seen closed and barred. Aloft, suspended from the
dim rafters, hung the naked forms of great men clear against the dark
dome, having the cords of their slaughter around their necks and their
white limbs splashed with blood. Kings were they who had murmured
against the sovereignty of the Red Branch. Through the wide doorway
out of the night flew a huge bird, black and grey, unseen, and soaring
upwards sat upon the rafters, its eyes like burning fire. It was
the Mor-Reega, [Footnote: There were three war goddesses:--(1) Badb
(pronounced Byve); (2) Macha, already referred to; (3) The Mor-Rigu
or Mor-Reega, who was the greatest of the three.] or Great Queen, the
far-striding terrible daughter of Iarnmas (Iron-Death). Her voice was
like the shouting of ten thousand men. Dear to her were these heroes.
More she rejoiced in them feasting than in the battle-prowess of the
rest.

When supper was ended their bard, in his singing robes and girt around
the temples with a golden fillet, stood up and sang. He sang how once a
king of the Ultonians, having plunged into the sea-depths, there slew a
monster which had wrought much havoc amongst fishers and seafaring men.
The heroes attended to his song, leaning forward with bright eyes. They
applauded the song and the singer, and praised the valour of the heroic
man [Footnote: This was Fergus Mac Leda, Fergus, son of Leda, one of the
more ancient kings of Ulster. His contest with the sea-monster is the
theme of a heroic tale.] who had done that deed. Then the champion
struck the table with his clenched hand, and addressed the assembly.
Wrath and sorrow were in his voice. It resembled the brool of lions
heard afar by seafaring men upon some savage shore on a still night.

“Famous deeds,” he said, “are not wrought now amongst the Red Branch.
I think we are all become women. I grow weary of these huntings in the
morning and mimic exercises of war, and this training of steeds and
careering of brazen chariots stained never with aught but dust and mire,
and these unearned feastings at night and vain applause of the brave
deeds of our forefathers. Come now, let us make an end of this. Let us
conquer Banba [Footnote: One of Ireland’s many names.] wholly in all her
green borders, and let the realms of Lir, which sustain no foot of
man, be the limit of our sovereignty. Let us gather the tributes of all
Ireland, after many battles and much warlike toil. Then more sweetly
shall we drink while the bards chaunt our own prowess. Once I knew a
coward who boasted endlessly about his forefathers, and at last my anger
rose, and with a flat hand I slew him in the middle of his speech, and
paid no eric, for he was nothing. We have the blood of heroes in our
veins, and we sit here nightly boasting about them; about Rury, whose
name we bear, being all his children; and Macha the warrioress, who
brought hither bound the sons of Dithorba and made them rear this mighty
dun; and Combat son of Fiontann; and my namesake Fergus,[Footnote: This
was the king already referred to who slew the sea-monster. The monster
had left upon him that mark and memorial of the struggle.] whose crooked
mouth was no dishonour, and the rest of our hero sires; and we consume
the rents and tributes of Ulster which they by their prowess conquered
to us, and which flow hither in abundance from every corner of the
province. Valiant men, too, will one day come hither and slay us as I
slew that boaster, and here in Emain Macha their bards will praise them.
Then in the halls of the dead shall we say to our sires, ‘All that you
got for us by your blood and your sweat that have we lost, and the glory
of the Red Branch is at an end.’”

That speech was pleasing to the Red Branch, and they cried out that
Fergus Mac Roy had spoken well. Then all at once, on a sudden impulse,
they sang the battle-song of the Ultonians, and shouted for the war
so that the building quaked and rocked, and in the hall of the weapons
there was a clangour of falling shields, and men died that night for
extreme dread, so mightily shouted the Ultonians around their king and
around Fergus. When the echoes and reverberations of that shout ceased
to sound in the vaulted roof and in the far recesses and galleries, then
there arose somewhere upon the night a clear chorus of treble voices,
singing, too, the war-chant of the Ultonians, as when rising out of the
clangour of brazen instruments of music there shrills forth the clear
sound of fifes. For the immature scions of the Red Branch, boys and
tender youths, awakened out of slumber, heard them, and from remote
dormitories responded to their sires, and they cried aloud together and
shouted. The trees of Ulster shed their early leaves and buds at that
shout, and birds fell dead from the branches.

Concobar struck the brazen canopy with his silver rod. The smitten brass
rang like a bell, and the Ultonians in silence hearkened for the words
of their clear-voiced king.

“No ruler of men,” he said, “however masterful and imperious, could
withstand this torrent of martial ardour which rolls to-night through
the souls of the children of Rury, still less I, newly come to this high
throne, having been but as it were yesterday your comrade and equal,
till Fergus, to my grief, resigned the sovereignty, and caused me, a
boy, to be made king of Ulla and captain of the Red Branch. But now
I say, ere we consider what province or territory shall first see the
embattled Red Branch cross her borders, let us enquire of Cathvah the
Ard-Druid, whether the omens be propitious, and whether through his art
he is able to reveal to us some rite to be performed or prohibition to
be observed.”

That proposal was not pleasing to Fergus, but it pleased the Red Branch,
and they praised the wisdom of their king.

Then Cathvah the Ard-Druid [Footnote: High Druid, or Chief Druid.
Similarly we have Ard-Ri or High King.] spake.

“It hath been foretold,” he said, “long since, that the Ultonians shall
win glory such as never was and never will be, and that their fame shall
endure till the world’s end. But, first, there are prophecies to be
accomplished and predictions to be fulfilled. For ere these things may
be there shall come a child to Emain Macha, attended by clear portents
from the gods; through him shall arise our deathless fame. Also it hath
been foretold that there shall be great divisions and fratricidal strife
amongst the children of Rury, a storm of war which shall strip the Red
Branch nigh bare.”

Fergus was wroth at this, and spoke words of scorn concerning the
diviner, and concerning all omens, prohibitions, and prophecies.
Concobar, too, and all the Red Branch, rebuked the prophet. Yet he stood
against them like a rock warred on by winds which stand immovable, let
them rage as they will, and refused to take back his words. Then said
Concobar:

“Many are the prophecies which came wandering down upon the mouths
of men, but they are not all to be trusted alike. Of those which have
passed thy lips, O Cathvah, we utterly reject the last, and think the
less of thee for having reported it. But the former which concerns the
child of promise hath been ever held a sure prophecy, and as such passed
down through all the diviners from the time of Amargin, the son of
Milesius, who first prophesied for the Gael. And now being arch-king of
the Ultonians, I command thee to divine for us when the coming of the
child shall be.”

Then Cathvah, the Ard-Druid, put on his divining apparel and took his
divining instruments in his hands, and made his symbols of power upon
the air. And at first he was silent, and, being in a trance, stared out
before him with wide eyes full of wonder and amazement, directing
his gaze to the east. In the end he cried out with a loud voice, and
prophesying, sang this lay:

    “Yea, he is coming. He draweth nigh.
    Verily It is he whom I behold--
    The predicted one--the child of many prophecies--
    Chief flower of the Branch that is over all--
    The mainstay of Emaiti Macha--the battle-prop of the Ultonians--
    The torch of the valour and chivalry of the North--
    The star that is to shine for ever upon the forehead of the Gael.
    It is he who slumbers upon Slieve Fuad--
    The child who is like a star--
    Like a star upon Slieve Fuad.
    There is a light around him never kindled at the hearth of Lu,
    The Grey of Macha keeps watch and ward for him,

        [Footnote: Madia’s celebrated grey war-steed. The meaning
         of the allusion will be understood presently.]

    And the whole mountain is filled with the Tuatha de Danan.”

       [Footnote: These were the gods of the pagan Irish.
        Tuatha=nations, De=gods, Danan=of Dana. So it means
        the god nations sprung from Dana also called Ana. She
        is referred to in an ancient Irish Dictionary as Mater
        deorurn Hibernensium.]

Then his vision passed from the Druid, he raised up his long white hands
and gave thanks to the high gods of Erin that he had lived to see this
day.

When Cathvah had made an end of speaking there was a great silence in
the hall.



CHAPTER II

THE BOYS OF THE ULTONIANS

   “And dear the school-boy spot
   We ne’er forget though there we are forgot.”

                  BYRON.


   “There were his young barbarians all at play.”

                  BYRON.


In the morning Fergus Mac Roy said to the young king, “What shall we do
this day, O Concobar? Shall we lead forth our sweet-voiced hounds into
the woods and rouse the wild boar from his lair, and chase the swift
deer, or shall we drive afar in our chariots and visit one of our
subject kings and take his tribute as hospitality, which, according to
thee, wise youth, is the best, for it is agreeable to ourselves and not
displeasing to the man that is tributary.”

“Nay,” said Concobar, “let us wait and watch this day. Hast thou
forgotten the words of Cathvah?”

“Truly, in a manner I had,” said Fergus, “for I never much regarded, the
race of seers, or deemed the birds more than pleasant songsters, and the
stars as a fair spectacle, or druidic instruments aught but toys.”

“Let us play at chess on the lawn of the dun,” said the king, “while our
boys exercise themselves at hurling on the green.”

“It is agreeable to me,” said Fergus, “though well thou knowest, dear
foster-son, that I am not thy match at the game.”

What the champion said was true, for in royal wisdom the king far
excelled his foster-father, and that was the reason why Fergus had
abdicated the supreme captainship of the Red Branch in favour of
Concobar, for though his heart was great his understanding was not fine
and acute like the understanding of his foster-son.

The table was set for them upon the lawn before the great painted and
glowing palace, and three-footed stools were put on either side of that
table, and bright cloths flung over them. A knight to whom that was a
duty brought forth and unfolded a chess-board of ivory on which silver
squares alternated with gold, cunningly wrought by some ancient cerd,
[Footnote: Craftsman.] a chief jewel of the realm; another bore in his
hand the man-bag, also a wonder, glistening, made of netted wires of
findruiney, [Footnote: A bright yellow bronze, the secret of making
which is now lost. The metal may be seen in our museums. In beauty it
is superior to gold. ] and took therefrom the men and disposed them
in their respective places on the board, each in the centre of his own
square. The gold men were on the squares of silver, and the silver on
the squares of gold. The table was set under the shadowing branches of
a great tree, for it was early summer and the sun shone in his strength.
So Concobar and Fergus, lightly laughing, affectionate and mirthful, the
challenger and the challenged, came forth through the wide doorway of
the dun. Armed youths went with them. The right arm of Fergus was cast
lightly over the shoulder of Concobar, and his ear was inclined to him
as the young king talked, for their mutual affection was very great and
like that of a great boy and a small boy when such, as often happens,
become attached to one another. So Concobar and Fergus sat down to
play, though right seldom did the Champion win any game from the King.
Concobar beckoned to him one of the young knights. It was Conall Carna,
[Footnote: Conall the Victorious. He came second to Cuculain amongst the
Red Branch Knights. He is the theme of many heroic stories. Once in a
duel he broke the right arm of his opponent. He bade his seconds tie up
his own corresponding arm.] son of Amargin, youngest of the knights of
Concobar. “Son of Amargin,” said the king, “do thou watch over the boys
this day in their pastimes. See that nothing is done unseemly or unjust.
Observe narrowly the behaviour and disposition of the lads, and report
all things clearly to me on the morrow.”

So saying, he moved one of the pieces on the board, and Conall
Carna strode away southwards to where the boys were already dividing
themselves into two parties for a match at hurling.

That son of Amargin was the handsomest youth of all the province. White
and ruddy was his beardless countenance. Bright as gold which boils over
the edge of the refiner’s crucible was his hair, which fell curling upon
his broad shoulders and over the circumference of his shield, outshining
its splendour. By his side hung a short sword with a handle of
walrus-tooth; in his left hand he bore two spears tipped with glittering
bronze. Fergus and Concobar watched him as he strode over the grass;
Concobar noted his beauty and grace, but Fergus noted his great
strength. Soon the boys, being divided into two equal bands, began their
pastime and contended, eagerly urging the ball to and fro. The noise
of the stricken ball and the clash of the hurles shod with bronze, the
cries of the captains, and the shouting of the boys, filled all the air.

That good knight stood midway between the goals, eastward from the
players. Ever and anon with a loud clear voice he reproved the youths,
and they hearkening took his rebukes in silence and obeyed his words.
Cathvah came forth that day upon the lawn, and thus spoke one of the
boys to another in some pause of the game, “Yonder, see! the Ard-Druid
of the Province. Wherefore comes he forth from his druidic chambers
to-day at this hour, such not being his wont?” And the other answered
lightly, laughing, and with boyish heedlessness, “I know not wherefore;
but well he knows himself.” And therewith ran to meet the ball which
passed that way. There was yet a third who watched the boys. He stood
afar off on the edge of the plain. He had a little shield strapped on
his back, two javelins in one hand, and a hurle in the other. He was
very young and fair. He stood looking fixedly at the hurlers, and as he
looked he wept. It was the child who had been promised to the Ultonians.



CHAPTER III

DETHCAEN’S NURSLING


     “Very small and beautiful like a star.”

                    --HOMER.


     “I love all that thou lovest,
     Spirit of delight;
     The fresh earth in new leaves drest,
     And the blessed night;
     Starry evening and the morn,
     When the golden mists are born.”

                    SHELLEY.


Sualtam of Dun Dalgan on the Eastern Sea, took to wife Dectera, daughter
of Factna the Righteous. She was sister of Concobar Mac Nessa. Sualtam
was the King of Cooalney [Footnote: Now the barony of Cooley, a
mountainous promontory which the County of Louth projects into the Irish
Sea.] a land of woods and mountains, an unproductive headland reaching
out into the Ictian Sea.

Dectera bare a son to Sualtam, and they called him Setanta, That was his
first name. His nurse was Dethcaen, the druidess, daughter of Cathvah
the druid, the mighty wizard and prophet of the Crave Rue. His
breast-plate [Footnote: A poetic spell or incantation. So even the
Christian hymn of St. Patrick was called the lorica or breastplate of
Patrick.] of power, woven of druidic verse, was upon Ulla [Footnote:
Ulla is the Gaelic root of Ulster.] in his time, upon all the children
of Rury in their going out and their coming in, in war and in peace.
Dethcaen [Footnote: Dethcaen is compounded of two words which mean
respectively, colour, and slender.] sang her own songs of protection
for the child. His mother gave the child suck, but the rosy-cheeked,
beautiful, sweetly-speaking daughter of Cathvah nursed him. On her
breast and knee she bare him with great love. Light of foot and
slender was Dethcaen; through the wide dun of Sualtam she went with
her nursling, singing songs. She it was that discovered his first ges,
[Footnote: Ges was the Irish equivalent of the tabu.] namely, that no
one should awake him while he slept. He had others, sacred prohibitions
which it was unlawful to transgress, but this was discovered by
Dethcaen. She discovered it while he was yet a babe. With her own hands
Dethcaen washed his garments and bathed his tiny limbs; lightly and
cheerfully she sprang from her couch at night when she heard his voice,
and raised him from the cradle and wrapped him tenderly, and put him
into the hands of his mother. She watched him when he slumbered; there
was great stillness in the palace of Sualtam when the child slept. She
repeated for him many tales and taught him nothing base. When he was
three years old, men came with hounds to hunt the stream which ran past
Dun Dalgan. [Footnote: Now Dundalk, capital of the County of Louth.]
Early in the morning Setanta heard the baying of the hounds and the
shouting of the men. They were hunting a great water-dog which had
his abode in this stream. Setanta leaped from his couch and ran to the
river. Well he knew that stream and all its pools and shallows; he knew
where the water-dog had his den. Thither by circuit he ran and stood
before the month of the same, having a stone in either hand. The hunted
water-dog drew nigh. Maddened with fear and rage he gnashed his teeth
and growled, and then charged at the child. There, O Setanta, with the
stroke of one stone thou didst slay the water-dog! The dog was carried
in procession with songs to the dun of Sualtam, who that night gave a
great feast and called many to rejoice with him, because his only son
had done bravely. A prophet who was there said, “Thou shalt do many
feats in thy time, O Setanta, and the last will resemble the first.”

Setanta played along the sand and by the frothing waves of the sea-shore
under the dun. He had a ball and an ashen hurle shod with bronze;
joyfully he used to drive his ball along the hard sand, shouting among
his small playmates. The captain of the guard gave him a sheaf of toy
javelins and taught him how to cast, and made for him a sword of lath
and a painted shield. They made for him a high chair. In the great hall
of the dun, when supper was served, he used to sit beside the champion
of that small realm, at the south end of the table over against
the king. Ever as evening drew on and the candles were lit, and the
instruments of festivity and the armour and trophies on the walls and
pillars shone in the cheerful light, and the people of Sualtam sat down
rejoicing, there too duly appeared Setanta over against his father by
the side of the champion, very fair and pure, yellow-haired, in his
scarlet bratta fastened with a little brooch of silver, serene and grave
beyond his years, shining there like a very bright star on the edge of a
thunder-cloud, so that men often smiled to see them together.

While Sualtam and his people feasted, the harper harped and trained
singers sang. Every day the floor was strewn with fresh rushes or dried
moss or leaves. Every night at a certain hour the bed-makers went round
spreading couches for the people of Sualtam. Sometimes the king slept
with his people in the great hall. Then one warrior sat awake through
the night at his pillow having his sword drawn, and another warrior sat
at his feet having his sword drawn. The fire-place was in the midst of
the hall. In winter a slave appointed for that purpose from time to time
during the night laid on fresh logs. Rude plenty never failed in the dun
of Sualtam. In such wise were royal households ordered in the age of
the heroes. For the palace, it was of timber staunched with clay and was
roofed with rushes. Without it was white with lime, conspicuous afar
to mariners sailing in the Muirnict. [Footnote: The Irish Sea or St.
George’s Channel. Muirnict means the Ictian Sea.] There was a rampart
round the dun and a moat spanned by a drawbridge. Before it there was
a spacious lawn. Down that lawn there ever ran a stream of sparkling
water. Setanta sailed his boats in the stream and taught it here to be
silent, and there to hum in rapids, or to apparel itself in silver and
sing liquid notes, or to blow its little trumpet from small cataracts.



CHAPTER IV

SETANTA RUNS AWAY


     “For a boy’s way is the wind’s way.”

                      --LONGFELLOW


And now the daily life of that remote dun no longer pleased the boy, for
the war-spirit within drave him on. Moreover he longed for comrades and
playfellows, for his fearful mother permitted him no longer to associate
with children of that rude realm whose conversation and behaviour she
misliked for her child. She loved him greatly and perceived not how he
changed, or how the new years in their coming and their going both gave
and took away continually.

In summer the boy sat often with the chief bard under the thatched eaves
of the dun, while the crying swallows above came and went, asking many
questions concerning his forefathers back the ascending line up to Rury,
and again downwards through the ramifications of that mighty stem, and
concerning famous marches and forays, and battles and single combats,
and who was worthy and lived and died well, and who not. More than all
else he delighted to hear about Fergus Mac Roy, who seemed to him the
greatest and best of all the Red Branch. In winter, cradled in strong
arms, he listened to the reminiscences and conversation of the men of
war as they sat and talked round the blazing logs in the hall, while the
light flickered upon warlike faces, and those who drew drink went round
bearing mead and ale.

Upon his seventh birthday early in the morning he ran to his mother and
cried, “Mother, send me now to Emain Macha, to my uncle.”

Dectera grew pale when she heard that word and her knees smote together
with loving fear. For answer she withdrew him from the society of the
men and kept him by herself in the women’s quarter, which was called
grianan. The grianan was in the north end of the palace behind the
king’s throne. In the hall men could see above them the rafters which
upheld the roof and the joining of the great central pillar with the
same. From the upper storey of the grianan a door opened upon the great
hall directly above the throne of the king, and before that door was a
railed gallery.

Thence it was the custom of Dectera to supervise in the morning the
labours of the household thralls and at night to rebuke unseemly
revelry, and at the fit hour to command silence and sleep. Thence too
in the evening, ere he went to his small couch, Setanta would cry out
“good-night” and “good slumber” to his friends in the hall, who laughed
much amongst themselves for the secret of his immurement was not hid.
Moreover, Dectera gave straight commandment to her women, at peril of
her displeasure and of sore bodily chastisement, that they should not
speak to him any word concerning Emain Macha. The boy as yet knew not
where lay the wondrous city, whether in heaven or on earth or beyond
the sea. To him it was still as it were a fairy city or in the land of
dreams.

One day he saw afar upon the plain long lines of lowing kine and
of laden garrans wending north-westward. He questioned his mother
concerning that sight. She answered, “It is the high King’s tribute
out of Murthemney.” [Footnote: A territory conterminous with the modern
County of Louth.]

“Mother,” he said, “how runs the road hence to the great city?”

“That thou shalt not know,” said his mother, looking narrowly on the
boy.

But still the strong spirit from within, irresistible, urged on the lad.
One day while his mother conversed with him, inadvertently she uttered
certain words, and he knew that the road to Emain Macha went past the
mountain of Slieve Fuad. [Footnote: Now the Fews mountain lying on the
direct way between Dundalk and Armagh.] That night he dreamed of Emain
Macha, and he rose up early in the morning and clambered on to the roof
of the palace through a window and gazed long upon the mountain. The
next night too he dreamed of Emain Macha, and heard voices which were
unintelligible, and again the third night he heard the voices and
one voice said, “This our labour is vain, let him alone. He is some
changeling and not of the blood of Rury. He will be a grazier, I think,
and buy cattle and sell them for a profit.” And the other said, “Nay,
let us not leave him yet. Remember how valiantly he faced the fierce
water-dog and slew him at one cast.” When he climbed to the roof, as his
manner was, to gaze at the mountain, he thought that Slieve Fuad nodded
to him and beckoned. He broke fast with his mother and the women that
day and ate and drank silently with bright eyes, and when that meal was
ended he donned his best attire and took his toy weapons and a new ball
and his ashen hurle shod with red bronze.

“Wherefore this holiday attire?” said his mother.

“Because I shall see great people ere I put it off,” he answered.

She kissed him and he went forth as at other times to play upon the
lawn by himself. The king sat upon a stone seat hard by the door of the
grianan. Under the eaves he sat sunning himself and gazing upon the sea.
The boy kneeled and kissed his hand. His father stroked his head and
said, “Win victory and blessings, dear Setanta.” He looked at the lad as
if he would speak further, but restrained himself and leaned back again
in his seat.

Dectera sat in the window of the upper chamber amongst her women. They
sat around her sewing and embroidering. She herself was embroidering a
new mantle for the boy against his next birthday, though that indeed was
far away, but ever while her hands wrought her eyes were on the lawn.

“Mother,” cried Setanta, “watch this stroke.”

He flung his ball into the air and as it fell met it with his hurle,
leaning back and putting his whole force into the blow, and struck it
into the clouds. It was long before the ball fell. It fell at his feet.

“Mother,” he cried again, “watch this stroke.”

He went to the east mearing of the spacious lawn and struck the ball
to the west. It traversed the great lawn ere it touched the earth and
bounded shining above the trees. Truly it was a marvellous stroke for
one so young. As he went for his ball the boy stood still before the
window. “Give me thy blessing, dear mother,” he said.

“Win victory and blessing for ever, O Setanta,” she answered. “Truly
thou art an expert hurler.”

“These feats,” he replied, “are nothing to what I shall yet do in
needlework, O mother, when I am of age to be trusted with my first
needle, and knighted by thy hands, and enrolled amongst the valiant
company of thy sewing-women.”

“What meaneth the boy?” said his mother, for she perceived that he spoke
awry.

“That his childhood is over, O Dectera,” answered one of her women, “and
that thou art living in the past and in dreams. For who can hold back
Time in his career?”

The queen’s heart leaped when she heard that word, and the blood forsook
her face. She bent down her head over her work and her tears fell.
After a space she looked out again upon the lawn to see if the boy had
returned, but he had not.

She bade her women go and fetch him, and afterwards the whole household.
They called aloud, “Setanta, Setanta,” but there was no answer, only
silence and the watching and mocking trees and a sound like low laughter
in the leaves; for Setanta was far away.

The boy came out of that forest on the west side. Soon he struck the
great road which from Ath-a-clia [Footnote: Ath-a-cliah, i.e., the
Ford of the Hurdles. It was the Irish name for Dublin.] ran through
Murthemney to Emain Macha, and saw before him the purple mountain of
Slieve Fuad. In his left hand was his sheaf of toy javelins; in his
right the hurle; his little shield was strapped upon his back. The boy
went swiftly, for there was power upon him that day, and with his ashen
hurle shod with red bronze ever urged his ball forward. So he went
driving, his ball before him. At other times he would cast a javelin
far out westward and pursue its flight. Ever as he went there ever flew
beside him a grey-necked crow. “It is a good omen,” said the boy, for he
knew that the bird was sacred to the Mor-Reega.

He was amazed at his own speed and the elasticity of his limbs. Once
when he rose after having gathered his thrown javelin, a man stood
beside him who had the port and countenance of some ancient hero, and
whose attire was strange. He was taller and nobler than any living man.
He bore a rod-sling in his right hand, and in his left, in a leash of
bronze, he led a hound. The hound was like white fire. Setanta could
hardly look in that man’s face, but he did. The man smiled and said--

“Whither away, my son?”

“To Emain Macha, to my uncle Concobar,” said the boy.

“Dost thou know me, Setanta?” said the man.

“I think thou art Lu Lam-fada Mac Ethlend,” [Footnote: Lu the
Long-Handed son of Ethlenn. This mysterious being, being one of the
deities of the pagan Irish, seems to have been the Sun-god.] answered
Setanta.

“I am thy friend,” said the man, “fear nothing, for I shall be with thee
always.”

Then the man and the hound disappeared as if they had been resolved
into the rays of the sun; Setanta saw nothing, only the grey-necked crow
starting for flight. Then a second man in a wide blue mantle specked
with white like flying foam came against him and flung his mantle over
Setanta. There was a sound in his ears like the roaring of the sea.
[Footnote: This man was Mananan son of Lir. He was the Sea-god.]
Chariots and horses came from the east after that. Setanta recognised
those who urged on the steeds, they were his own people. “Surely,” he
said, “I shall be taken now.” The men drave past him. “If I mistake
not,” he said, “the man who flung his mantle over me was Mananan the son
of Lir.”

Divers persons, noble and ignoble, passed him on the way, some riding in
chariots, some going on foot. They went as though they saw him not.

In the evening he came to Slieve Fuad. He gathered a bed of dried moss
and heaped moss upon his shield for a pillow. He wrapped himself in his
mantle, and lay down to sleep, and felt neither cold nor hunger. While
he slept a great steed, a stallion, grey to whiteness, came close to
him, and walked all round him, and smelt him, and stayed by him till the
morning.

Setanta was awaked by the loud singing of the birds. Light of heart the
boy started from his mossy couch and wondered at that tuneful chorus.
The dawning day trembled through the trees still half-bare, for it was
the month of May.

“Horses have been here in the night,” said the boy, “one horse. What
mighty hoof marks!” He wondered the more seeing how the marks encircled
him. “I too will one day have a chariot and horses, and a deft
charioteer.” He stood musing, “Is it the grey of Macha? [Footnote: The
goddess Macha, already referred to, had a horse which was called the
Grey of Macha--Liath-Macha. He was said to be still alive dwelling
invisibly in Erin.] They say that he haunts this mountain.” He hastened
to the brook, and finding a deep pool, bathed in the clear pure water
and dried himself in his woollen bratta [Footnote: The Gaelic word for
mantle.] of divers colours. Very happy and joyous was Setanta that day.
And he spread out the bratta to dry, and put on his shirt of fine linen
and his woollen tunic that reached to the knees in many plaits. Shoes he
had none; bare and naked were his swift feet.

“This is the mountain of Fuad the son of Brogan,” [Footnote: An ancient
Milesian hero. Brogan was uncle of Milesius.] said he. “I would I
knew where lies his cairn in this great forest that I might pay my
stone-tribute to the hero.” Soon he found it and laid his stone upon the
heap. He climbed to the hill’s brow and looked westward and saw far away
the white shining duns of the marvellous city from which, even now, the
morning smoke went up into the windless air. He trembled, and rejoiced,
and wept. He stood a long time there gazing at Emain Macha. Descending,
he struck again the great road, but he went slowly; he cast not his
javelins and drave not his ball. Again, from a rising ground he saw
Emain Macha, this time near at hand. He remained there a long time
filled with awe and fear. He covered his head with his mantle and wept
aloud, and said he would return to Dun Dalgan, that he dared not set
unworthy feet in that holy place.

Then he heard the cheerful voices of the boys as they brake from the
royal palace and ran down the wide smooth lawn to the hurling-ground.
His heart yearned for their companionship, yet he feared greatly, and
his mind misgave him as to the manner in which they would receive him.
He longed to go to them and say, “I am little Setanta, and my uncle is
the king, and I would be your friend and playfellow.” Hope and love and
fear confused his mind. Yet it came to him that he was urged forwards,
by whom he knew not. Reluctantly, with many pausings, he drew nigh to
the players and stood solitary on the edge of the lawn southwards, for
the company that held that barrier were the weaker. He hoped that some
one would call to him and welcome him, but none called or welcomed.
Silently the child wept, and the front of his mantle was steeped in his
tears. Some looked at him, but with looks of cold surprise, as though
they said, “Who is this stranger boy and what doth he here? Would that
he took himself away out of this and went elsewhere.” The boy thought
that he would be welcomed and made much of because he was a king’s son
and nephew of the high King of Ulla, and on account of his skill in
hurling, and because he himself longed so exceedingly for companions and
comrades, and because there were within him such fountains of affection
and loving kindness. And many a time happy visions had passed before
his eyes awake or asleep of the meeting between himself and his future
comrades, but the event itself when it happened was by no means what he
had anticipated. For no one kissed him and bade him welcome or took him
by the right hand and led him in, and no one seemed glad of his coming
and he was here of no account at all. Bitter truly was thy weeping, dear
Setanta.



CHAPTER V

THE NEW BOY


“I to surrender, to fling away this! So owned by God and Man! so
witnessed to! I had rather be rolled into my grave and buried with
infamy.”--Battle-chaunt of a hero of the Saxons.

Once, struck sideways out of the press, the ball bounded into a clear
space not far from Setanta. “Thou of the Javelins,” cried the captain
of the distressed party, “the ball is with thee.” He roared mightily at
Setanta. On a sudden Setanta, filled with all the glow and ardour of the
mimic battle, cast his javelins to the ground, slipped the strap of his
shield over his head, flung the shield beside his javelins on the grass
and pursued the bounding ball. He out-ran the rest and took possession
of the ball. Now to the right he urged it, now to the left. He played it
deftly before every opponent who sought to check his career, and swiftly
and cunningly carried it past each of these, and finally with a clear
loud stroke sent it straight as a sling-bolt through the middle of the
north goal. The boys of his adopted party shouted, and they praised his
playing and that final victorious stroke. Setanta went back after that
and stood by himself near the south goal. His face was flushed and his
eyes sparkled, and he himself trembled with joy, yet was he not in the
least exhausted or out of breath.

The captain of the northern company came down with his boys and all the
boys who were chief in authority, and they surrounded Setanta and said,
“Thou art here a stranger and on sufferance. We know thee not, but thou
art a good hurler and not otherwise, as we think, unmeet to bear us
company. Receive now our protection, and we will divide the sides again
with a new division and continue the game, for thou art very swift and
truly expert in the use of thy hurle.”

The boys regulated all things according to the laws and customs of their
elders. And everywhere it was the custom that the weak should accept
the protection of the strong and submit themselves to their command.
So slaves received masters, so runaways and fugitives got to themselves
lords, and sheltered themselves under their protection and paid dues.
Setanta’s brow fell, and he answered, “Put not upon me, I pray you,
these hard terms. I would be your friend and comrade, I cannot be your
subject being what I am.”

And they said, “Who art thou?”

And he answered, “I am the son of Dectera of Dun Dalgan, and nephew of
the king.”

Then the boy who was captain of the whole school, and the biggest and
strongest, stood over him, and said--

“Thou, the king’s nephew! the son of Sualtam and Dectera of Dun Dalgan!
and comest hither without chariots and horsemen and a prince’s retinue
and guard. Nay, thou art a churl and a liar to boot, and hie thee hence
now with wings at thy heels or verily with sore blows I shall beat thee
off the lawn.”

Thereat the blood forsook thy face, O Setanta, O peerless one, and thou
stoodest like a still figure carved out of white marble, with the pallor
of death in thy immortal face. But that other, indignant to see him
stand as one both deaf and dumb, and mistaking his pallor for fear,
raised his hurle and struck with all his might at the boy. Setanta
sprang back avoiding the blow, and ere the other could recover himself,
struck him back-handed over the right ear, whose knees were suddenly
relaxed and the useless weapon shaken from his hands. Then some stood
aside, but the rest ran upon Setanta to beat him off the lawn and struck
at him all together, as well as they could, for their numbers impeded
them, and fiercely the stranger defended himself, and many a shrewd
stroke he delivered upon his enemies, for the slumbering war-spirit now,
for the first time, had awaked in his gentle heart. Many times he was
overborne and flung to the ground, but again he arose overthrowing
others, never quitting hold of his hurle, and, whenever he got a free
space, grasping that weapon like a war-mace in both hands, he struck
down his foes. The skirts of his mantle were torn, only a rag remained
round his shoulders, fastened by the brooch; he was covered with blood,
his own and his enemies’, and his eyes were like burning fire. Then
Conall Carna being enraged ran towards the boys, meaning to rebuke
their cowardice and with his strong hands hurl them asunder and save the
stranger boy. There was not a knight in all Ireland those days who loved
battle-fairness better than Conall Carna. Truly he was the pure-burning
torch of the chivalry of the Ultonians in his time. But as he ran one
withheld him and a voice crying “Forbear” rang in his ears. Yet he saw
no man. He stood still, being astonished, and became aware that
this tumult was divinely guided, for as in a trance he saw and heard
marvellous things. For the war-steeds of the Ultonians neighed loudly
in their stables, and from the Tec Brac, the Speckled House of the Red
Branch, rose a clangour of brass, the roar of the shield called Ocean,
and the booming of the Gate-of-Battle, and the singing of swords long
silent, and the brazen thunder of the revolution of wheels; and he saw
strange forms and faces in the air, and the steady sun dancing in the
heavens, and a man standing beside the stranger whose face was like
the sun. The son of Amargin saw and heard all, for he was a seer and a
prophet no less than a warrior. But meantime his battle-fury descended
upon Setanta, his countenance was distraught and his strength was
multiplied tenfold, and the steam of his war-madness rose above him. He
staggered to no blow, but every boy whom he struck fell, and he charged
this way and that, and wherever he went they opened before him. Then
seeing how they closed in behind him and on each side, he beat his
way back to the grassy rampart in which was the goal, and, facing his
enemies, bade them come against him again in their troops, many against
one. “You have offered me your protection,” he said, “and I would not
endure it, but now I swear to you by all my gods that you and I do
not part this day till you have accepted my protection, or till I lie
without life on this lawn a trophy of your prowess and a monument of the
chivalry and hospitality of the Red Branch.” Then a boy stood out from
the rest. He was freckled, and with red hair, and his voice was loud and
fierce.

“Thou shalt have a comrade in thy battle henceforward,” he said,
“O brave stranger. On the banks of the Nemnich, [Footnote: Now the
Nanny-Water, a beautiful stream running from Tara to the sea.] where it
springs beneath my father’s dun on the Hill of Gabra, nigh Tara, I met a
prophetess; Acaill is her name, the wisest of all women; and I asked
her who would be my life-friend. And she answered, ‘I see him standing
against a green wall at Emain Macha, at bay, with the blood and soil of
battle upon him, and alone he gives challenge to a multitude. He is thy
life-friend, O Laeg,’ she said, ‘and no man ever had a friend like him
or will till the end of time.’”

So saying he ran to Setanta, and kneeling down he took him by his right
hand, and said, “I am thy man from this day forward.” And after that he
arose and kissed him, and standing by his side cried, “O Cumascra Mend
Macha, O stammering son of Concobar, if ever I was a shield to thee
against thy mockers, come hither; and thou too come O Art Storm-Ear, and
thou Art of the Shadow, and thou O Fionn of the Songs, and you O Ide and
Sheeling, who were nursed at the same breast and knee with myself.” So
he summoned to him his friends, and they came to him, and there came to
him, uninvited, the three sons of Fergus and others whose hearts were
stirred with shame or ruth. Yet, indeed, they were few compared with
the multitude of his enemies. Then for the first time the boy’s soul was
confused, and he cried aloud, and bowed his head between his hands, and
the hot tears gushed forth like rain from his eyes, mingled with blood.
Soon, hearing the loud mockery and derisive laughter of his enemies, he
hardened his heart and went out against them with these his friends, and
drove them over the whole course of the playing-ground, and, hard by
the north goal, he brake the battle upon them and they fled. Of the
fugitives some ran round the King and the Champion where they sat,
but Setanta running straight sprang lightly over the chess table. Then
Concobar, reaching forth his left hand, caught him by the wrist and
brought him to a stand, panting and with dilated eyes.

“Why art thou so enraged?” said the King, “and why dost thou so maltreat
my boys?”

It was a long time before the boy answered, so furiously burned the
battle-fire within him, so that the King repeated his question more than
once. At last he made answer--

“Because they have not treated me with the respect due a stranger.”

“Who art thou thyself?” said the King.

“I am Setanta, son of Sualtam and of Dectera thy own sister, and it is
not before my uncle’s palace that I should be dishonoured.”

Concobar smiled, for he was well pleased with the appearance and
behaviour of the boy, but Fergus caught him up in his great arms and
kissed him, and he said--

“Dost thou know me, O Setanta?”

“I think thou art Fergus Mac Roy,” he answered.

“Wilt thou have me for thy tutor?” said Fergus.

“Right gladly,” answered Setanta. “For in that hope too I left Dun
Dalgan, coming hither secretly without the knowledge of my parents.”

This was the first martial exploit of Setanta, who is also called
Cuculain, and the reward of this his first battle was that the boys at
his uncle’s school elected him to be for their captain, and one and all
they put themselves under his protection. And a gentle captain made he
when the war-spirit went out of him, and a good play-fellow and comrade
was Setanta amongst his new friends.

That night Setanta and Laeg slept in the same bed of healing after the
physicians had dressed their wounds; and they related many things to
each other, and oft times they kissed one another with great affection,
till sweet sleep made heavy their eyelids.

So, impelled by the unseen, Setanta came to Emain Macha without the
knowledge of his parents, but in fulfilment of the law, for at a certain
age all the boys of the Ultonians should come thither to associate there
with their equals and superiors, and be instructed by appointed tutors
in the heroic arts of war and the beautiful arts of peace. Concobar Mac
Nessa was not only King of Ulster and captain of the Red Branch, but was
also the head and chief of a great school. In this school the boys did
not injure their eyesight and impair their health by poring over books;
nor were compelled to learn what they could not understand; nor were
instructed by persons whom they did not wish to resemble. They
were taught to hurl spears at a mark; to train war-horses and guide
war-chariots; to lay on with the sword and defend themselves with sword
and shield; to cast the hand-stone of the warrior--a great art in those
days; to run, to leap, and to swim; to rear tents of turf and branches
swiftly, and to roof them with sedge and rushes; to speak appropriately
with equals and superiors and inferiors, and to exhibit the beautiful
practices of hospitality according to the rank of guests, whether kings,
captains, warriors, bards or professional men, or unknown wayfarers; and
to play at chess and draughts, which were the chief social pastimes
of the age; and to drink and be merry in hall, but always without
intoxication; and to respect their plighted word and be ever loyal to
their captains; to reverence women, remembering always those who bore
them and suckled when they were themselves helpless and of no account;
to be kind to the feeble and unwarlike; and, in short, all that it
became brave men to feel and to think and to do in war and in peace.
Also there were those who taught them the history of their ancestors,
the great names of the Clanna Rury, and to distinguish between those who
had done well and those who had not done so well, and the few who had
done ill. And these their several instructors appointed by Concobar
Mac Nessa and the council of his wise men were famous captains of the
Ultonians, and approved bards and historians. And over all the high king
of Ulster, Concobar Mac Nessa, was chief and president, not in name
only but in fact, being well aware of all the instructors and all the
instructed, and who was doing well and exhibiting heroic traits, and who
was doing ill, tending downwards to the vast and slavish multitude whose
office was to labour and to serve and in no respect to bear rule,
which is for ever the office of the multitude in whose souls no god has
kindled the divine fire by which the lamp of the sun, and the candles
of the stars, and the glory and prosperity of nations are sustained and
fed. Such, and so supervised, was the Royal School of Emain Macha in the
days when Concobar Mac Nessa was King, and when Fergus Mac Roy Champion,
and when the son of Sualtam, not yet known by his rightful name, was a
pupil of the same and under tutors and governors like the rest, though
his fond mother would have evaded the law, for she loved him dearly,
and feared for him the rude companionship and the stern discipline, the
early rising and the strong labours of the great school.



CHAPTER VI

THE SMITH’S SUPPER PARTY


  “Bearing on shoulders immense
    Atlantean the weight,
   Well nigh not to be borne,
    Of the too vast orb of her fate.”

               MATTHEW ARNOLD.


One day, in the forenoon, a man came to Emain Macha. He was grim and
swarthy, with great hands and arms. He made no reverence to Concobar or
to any of the Ultonians, but standing stark before them, spake thus, not
fluently:--“My master, Culain, high smith of all Ulster, bids thee to
supper this night, O Concobar; and he wills thee to know that because
he has not wide territories, and flocks, and herds, and tribute-paying
peoples, only the implements of his industry, his anvils and hammers and
tongs, and the slender profits of his labour, he feareth to feast all
the Red Branch, who are by report mighty to eat and to drink; he would
not for all Ireland bring famine upon his own industrious youths, his
journeymen and his apprentices. Come therefore with a choice selection
of thy knights, choosing those who are not great eaters, and drinkers,
and you shall all have a fair welcome, a goodly supper, and a
proportionate quantity of drink.” That speech was a cause of great mirth
to the Ultonians; nevertheless they restrained their laughter, so that
the grim ambassador, who seemed withal to be a very angry man, saw
nothing but grave countenances. Concobar answered him courteously,
saying that he accepted the invitation, and that he would be mindful of
the smith’s wishes. When the man departed the Red Branch gave a loose
rein to their mirth, each man charging the other with being in especial
the person whose presence would be a cause of sorrow to the smith.

Culain was a mighty craftsman in those days. It was he who used to make
weapons, armour, and chariots for the Ultonians, and there was never in
Ireland a better smith than he. In his huge and smoky dun the ringing of
hammers and the husky roar of the bellows seldom ceased; even at night
the red glare of his furnaces painted far and wide the barren moor
where he dwelt. Herdsmen and shepherds who, in quest of estrays, found
themselves unawares in this neighbourhood, fled away praying to their
gods, and, as they ran, murmured incantations.

In the afternoon Concobar, having made as good a selection as he could
of his chief men, set forth to go. As they passed through the lawn he
saw Setanta playing with his comrades. He stopped for a while to look,
and then called the lad, who came at once and stood erect and silent
before the King. He was now full ten years of age, straight and
well-made and with sinews as hard as tempered steel. When he saw the
company looking at him, he blushed, and his blushing became him well.

“Culain the smith,” said Concobar, “hath invited us to a feast. If it is
pleasing to thee, come too.”

“It is pleasing indeed,” replied the boy, for he ardently desired to see
the famous artificer, his people, his furnaces, and his engines. “But
let me first, I pray thee, see this our game brought to an end, for the
boys await my return. After that I will follow quickly, nor can I lose
my way upon the moor, for the road hence to the smith’s dun is well
trodden and scored with wheels, and the sky too at night is red above
the city.”

Concobar gave him permission, and Setanta hastened back to his
playmates, who hailed him gladly in his returning, for they feared that
the King might have taken him away from them.

The King and his great men went away eastward after that and they
conversed eagerly by the way, talking sometimes of a certain recent
great rebellion of the non-Irian kings of Ulla, [Footnote: The Ultonians
were descended from Ir, son of Milesius.] and of each other’s prowess
and the prowess of the insurgents, and sometimes of the smith and his
strange and unusual invitation.

“Say no word and do no thing,” said Concobar, “at which even a very
angry and suspicious man might take offence, for as to our host and his
artificers, their ways are not like ours, or their thoughts like our
thoughts, and they are a great and formidable people.”

The Red Branch did not relish that speech, for they thought that
under the measureless canopy of the sky there were no people great or
formidable but themselves.



CHAPTER VII

SETANTA AND THE SMITH’S DOG


                  “How he fell
 From heaven, they fabled, thrown by angry Jove
 Sheer o’er the crystal battlements; from morn
 To noon, from noon to dewy eve,
 A Summer’s day, he fell; and with the setting sun
 Dropped from the zenith like a falling star,
 On Lemnos.”

                  MILTON.


When Culain saw far away the tall figures of the Ultonians against the
sunset, and the flashing of their weapons and armour, he cried out with
a loud voice to his people to stop working and slack the furnaces
and make themselves ready to receive the Red Branch; and he bade the
household thralls prepare the supper, roast, boiled and stewed, which
he had previously ordered. Then he himself and his journeymen and
apprentices stripped themselves, and in huge keeves of water filled by
their slaves they washed from them the smoke and sweat of their labour
and put on clean clothes. The mirrors at which they dressed themselves
were the darkened waters of their enormous tubs.

Culain sent a party of his men and those who were the best dressed
and the most comely and who were the boldest and most eloquent in the
presence of strangers, to meet the high King of the Ultonians on the
moor, but he himself stood huge in the great doorway just beyond the
threshold and in front of the bridge over which the Red Branch party was
to pass. He had on him over his clothes a clean leathern apron which was
not singed or scored. It was fastened at his shoulders and half covered
his enormous hairy chest, was girt again at his waist and descended
below his knees. He stood with one knee crooked, leaning upon a long
ash-handled sledge with a head of glittering bronze. There he gave a
friendly and grave welcome to the King and to all the knights one by
one. It was dusk when Concobar entered the dun.

“Are all thy people arrived?” said the smith.

“They are,” said Concobar.

Culain bade his people raise the drawbridge which spanned the deep
black moat surrounding the city, and after that, with his own hands he
unchained his one dog. The dog was of great size and fierceness. It was
supposed that there was no man in Ireland whom he could not drag down.
He had no other good quality than that he was faithful to his master
and guarded his property vigilantly at night. He was quick of sight and
hearing and only slept in the daytime. Being let loose he sprang over
the moat and three times careered round the city, baying fearfully.
Then he stood stiffly on the edge of the moat to watch and listen, and
growled at intervals when he heard some noise far away. It was then
precisely that Setanta set forth from Emain Macha. Earth quaked to the
growling of that ill beast.

In the meantime the smith went into the dun, and when he had commanded
his people to light the candles throughout the chamber, he slammed to
the vast folding doors with his right hand and his left, and drew forth
the massy bar from its place and shot it into the opposing cavity. There
was not a knight amongst the Red Branch who could shut one of those
doors, using both hands and his whole strength. Of the younger knights,
some started to their feet and laid their hands on their sword hilts
when they heard the bolt shot.

The smith sat down on his high seat over against Concobar, with his
dusky sons and kinsmen around him, and truly they contrasted strangely
with the bravery and beauty of the Ultonians. He called for ale, and
holding in his hands a huge four-cornered mether of the same, rimmed
with silver and furnished with a double silver hand-grip, he pledged
the King and bade him and his a kindly welcome. He swore, too, that no
generation of the children of Rury, and he had wrought for many, had
done more credit to his workmanship than themselves, nor had he ever
made the appliances of war for any of the Gael with equal pleasure.
Concobar, on the other hand, responded discreetly, and praised
the smith-work of Culain, praising chiefly the shield called Ocean
[Footnote: Concobar’s shield. When Concobar was in danger the shield
roared. The sea, too, roared responsive.], which was one of the wonders
of the north-west of Europe. The smith and all his people were well
pleased at that speech, and Culain bade his thralls serve supper, which
proved to be a very noble repast. There was enough and to spare for
all the Ultonians. When supper was ended, the heroes and the artificers
pledged each other many times and drank also to the memory of famous men
of yore and their fathers who begat them, as was right and customary;
and they became very friendly and merry without intoxication, for
intoxication was not known in the age of the heroes.

Then said Concobar: “We have this night toasted many heroes who are
gone, and, as it is not right that we should praise ourselves, I propose
that we drink now to the heroes that are coming, both those unborn, and
those who, still being boys, are under tutors and instructors; and for
this toast I name the name of my nephew Setanta, son of Sualtam, who,
if any, will one day, O Culain, if I mistake not, illustrate in an
unexampled manner thy skill as an artificer of weapons and armour.”

“Is he then a boy of that promise, O Concobar?” said the smith, “for if
he is I am truly rejoiced to hear it.”

“He is all that I say,” answered the King somewhat hotly, “and of a
beauty corresponding. And of that thou shalt be the judge to-night, for
he is coming, and indeed I am momentarily expecting to hear the loud
clamour of his brazen hurle upon the doors of the dun, after his having
leapt at one bound both thy moat and thy rampart.”

The smith started from his high seat uttering a great oath, such as men
used then, and sternly chid Concobar because he had said that all his
people had arrived. “If the boy comes now,” he said, “ere I can chain
the dog, verily he will be torn into small pieces.”

Just then they heard the baying of the dog sounding terribly in the
hollow night, and every face was blanched throughout the vast chamber.
Then without was heard a noise of trampling feet and short furious yells
and sibilant gaspings, as of one who exerts all his strength, after
which a dull sound at which the earth seemed to shake, mingled with a
noise of breaking bones, and after that silence. Ere the people in the
dun could do more than look at each other speechless, they heard a clear
but not clamorous knocking at the doors of the dun. Some of the smith’s
young men back-shot the bolt and opened the doors, and the boy Setanta
stepped in out of the night. He was very pale. His scarlet mantle was in
rags and trailing, and his linen tunic beneath and his white knees red
with blood, which ran down his legs and over his bare feet. He made a
reverence, as he had been taught, to the man of the house and to
his people, and went backwards to the upper end of the chamber. The
Ultonians ran to meet him, but Fergus Mac Roy was the first, and he took
Setanta upon his mighty shoulder and bore him along and set him down at
the table between himself and the King.

“Did the dog come against thee?” said Culain.

“Truly he came against me,” answered the boy.

“And art thou hurt?” cried the smith.

“No, indeed,” answered Setanta, “but I think he is.”

At that moment a party of the smith’s people entered the dun bearing
between them the carcass of the dog from whose mouth and white crooked
fangs the blood was gushing in red torrents; and they showed Culain
how the skull of the dog and his ribs had been broken in pieces by some
mighty blow, and his backbone also in divers places. Also they said:
“One of the great brazen pillars which stand at the bridge head is bent
awry, and the clean bronze denied with blood, and it was at the foot of
that pillar we found the dog.” So saying, they laid the body upon the
heather in front of Culain’s high seat, that it might be full in his
eye, and when they did so and again sat down, there was a great silence
in the chamber.



CHAPTER VIII

SETANTA, THE PEACE-MAKER


   “The swine-herd
      [Footnote: One of the minor gods. He resembles Mars
      Sylvanus of the Romans to whom swine were sacrificed.]
     of Bove Derg, son of the Dagda,
    The feasts to which he came used to end in blood.”

              GAELIC BARD.


Culain sat silent for a long time looking out before him with eyes like
iron, and when at last he spoke his voice was charged with wrath and
sorrow.

“O Concobar,” he said, “and you, the rest, nobles of the children of
Rury. You are my guests to-night, wherefore it is not lawful that I
should take vengeance upon you for the killing of my brave and faithful
hound, who was a better keeper of my treasures than a company of hired
warriors. Truly he cost me nothing but his daily allowance of meat, and
there was not his equal as a watcher and warder in the world. An eric,
therefore, I must have. Consult now together concerning its amount and
let the eric be great and conspicuous, for, by Orchil [Footnote: The
queen of the infernal regions.] and all the gods who rule beneath the
earth, a small eric I will not accept.”

Concobar answered straight, “Thou shalt not get from me or from the
Ultonians any eric, small or great. My nephew slew the beast in fair
fight, defending his life against an aggressor. But I will say something
else, proud smith, and little it recks me whether it is pleasing to thee
or not. Had thy wolf slain my nephew not one of you would have left this
dun alive, and of your famous city of artificers I would have made a
smoking heap.”

The Ultonians fiercely applauded that speech, declaring that the smiths
should get no eric, great or small, for the death of their monster. The
smiths thereupon armed themselves with their hammers, and tongs, and
fire-poles, and great bars of unwrought brass, and Culain himself seized
an anvil withal to lay waste the ranks of the Red Branch. The Ultonians
on their side ran to the walls and plucked down their spears from the
pegs, and they raised their shields and balanced their long spears,
and swords flashed and screeched as they rushed to light out of the
scabbards, and the vast chamber glittered with shaking bronze and shone
with the eyeballs of angry men, and rang with shouts of defiance and
quick fierce words of command. For the Red Branch embattled themselves
on one side of the chamber and the smiths upon the other, burning with
unquenchable wrath, earth-born. The vast and high dome re-echoing rang
with the clear terrible cries of the Ultonians and the roar of the
children of the gloomy Orchil, and, far away, the magic shield moaned at
Emain Macha, and the waves of the ocean sent forth a cry, for the peril
of death and of shortness of life were around Concobar in that hour.
And, though the doors of thick oak, brass-bound, were shut and barred,
there came a man into the assembly, and he was not seen. He was red all
over, both flesh and raiment, as if he had been plunged in a bath of
blood. His countenance was distraught and his eyes like those of an
insane man, and sparks new from them like sparks from a smith’s stithy
when he mightily hammers iron plucked white from the furnace. Smoke
and fire came from his mouth. He held in his hand a long boar-yard. The
likeness of a boar bounded after him. He traversed the vast chamber with
the velocity of lightning, and with his boar-yard beat such as were
not already drunk with wrath and battle-fury, and shot insane fire into
their souls. [Footnote: This was the demon referred to in the lines at
the head of the chapter.]

Then indeed it wanted little, not the space of time during which a man
might count ten, for the beginning of a murder grim and great as any
renowned in the world’s chronicles, and it is the opinion of the learned
that, in spite of all their valour and beautiful weapons, the artificers
would then and there have made a bloody end of the Red Branch had the
battle gone forward. But at this moment, ere the first missile was
hurled on either side, the boy Setanta sprang into the midst, into the
middle space which separated the enraged men, and cried aloud, with a
clear high voice that rang distinct above the tumult--

“O Culain, forbear to hurl, and restrain thy people, and you the
Ultonians, my kinsmen, delay to shoot. To thee, O chief smith, and thy
great-hearted artificers I will myself pay no unworthy eric for the
death of thy brave and faithful hound. For verily I will myself take thy
dog’s place, and nightly guard thy property, sleepless as he was, and I
will continue to do so till a hound as trusty and valiant as the hound
whom I slew is procured for thee to take his place, and to relieve me
of that duty. Truly I slew not thy hound in any wantonness of superior
strength, but only in the defence of my own life, which is not mine but
my King’s. Three times he leaped upon me with white fangs bared and eyes
red with murder, and three times I cast him off, but when the fourth
time he rushed upon me like a storm, and when with great difficulty I
had balked him on that occasion also, then I took him by the throat and
by his legs and flung him against one of the brazen pillars withal to
make him stupid. And truly it was not my intention to kill him and I am
sorry that he is dead, seeing that he was so faithful and so brave, and
so dear to thee whom I have always honoured, even when I was a child at
Dun Dalgan, and whom, with thy marvel-working craftsman, I have for
a long time eagerly desired to see. And I thought that our meeting,
whensoever it might be, would be other than this and more friendly.”

As he went on speaking the fierce brows of the smith relaxed, and first
he regarded the lad with pity, being so young and fair, and then with
admiration for his bravery. Also he thought of his own boyish days,
and as he did so a torrent of kindly affection and love poured from his
breast towards the boy, yea, though he saw him standing before him with
the blood of his faithful hound gilding his linen lena and his white
limbs. Yet, indeed, it was not the hound’s blood which was on the boy,
but his own, so cruelly had the beast torn him with his long and strong
and sharp claws.

“That proposal is pleasing to me,” he said, “and I will accept the eric,
which is distinguished and conspicuous and worthy of my greatness and of
my name and reputation amongst the Gael. Why should a man be angry for
ever when he who did the wrong offers due reparation?” Therewith over
his left shoulder he flung the mighty anvil into the dark end of the
vast chamber among the furnaces, at the sound of whose falling the
solid earth shook. On the other hand Concobar rejoiced at this happy
termination of the quarrel, for well he knew the might of those huge
children of the gloomy Orchil. He perceived, too, that he could with
safety entrust the keeping of the lad to those people, for he saw
the smith’s countenance when it changed, and he knew that among those
artificers there was no guile.

“It is pleasing to me, too,” he said, “and I will be myself the lad’s
security for the performance of his promise.”

“Nay, I want no security,” answered the smith. “The word of a scion of
the Red Branch is security enough for me.”

Thereafter all laid aside their weapons and their wrath. The smiths with
a mighty clattering cast their tools into the dark end of the chamber,
and the Ultonians hanged theirs upon the walls, and the feasting and
pledging and making of friendly speeches were resumed. There was no more
any anger anywhere, but a more unobstructed flow of mutual good-will and
regard, for the Ultonians felt no more a secret inclination to laugh at
the dusky artificers, and the smiths no longer regarded with disdain the
beauty, bravery, and splendour of the Ultonians.

In the meantime Setanta had returned to his place between the King and
Fergus Mac Roy. There a faintness came upon him, and a great horror
overshadowed him owing to his battle with the dog, for indeed it was no
common dog, and when he would have fallen, owing to the faintness, they
pushed him behind them so that he lay at full length upon the couch
unseen by the smiths. Concobar nodded to his chief Leech, and he came
to him with his instruments and salves and washes. There unobserved he
washed the cruel gashes cut by the hound’s claws, and applied salves and
stitched the skin over the wounds, and, as he did so, in a low voice he
murmured healing songs of power.

“Where is the boy?” said Culain.

“He is reposing a little,” said Concobar, “after his battle and his
conflict.”

After a space they gave Setanta a draught of mighty ale, and his heart
revived in him and the colour returned to his cheeks wherein before was
the pallor of death, and he sat up again in his place, slender and fair,
between Concobar and Fergus Mac Roy. The smiths cried out a friendly
welcome to him as he sat up, for they held him now to be their
foster-son, and Culain himself stood up in his place holding in both
hands a great mether [Footnote: A four-cornered quadrangular cup.] of
ale, and he drank to all unborn and immature heroes, naming the name
of Setanta, son of Sualtam, now his dear foster-son, and magnified his
courage, so that the boy blushed vehemently and his eyelids trembled
and drooped; and all the artificers stood up too and drank to their
foster-son, wishing him victory and success, and they drained their
goblets and dashed them, mouth downwards, upon the brazen tables, so
that the clang reverberated over Ulla. Setanta thereupon stood up while
the smiths roared a welcome to their foster-son, and he said that it
was not he who had gained the victory, for that someone invisible had
assisted him and had charged him with a strength not his own. Then he
faltered in his speech and said again that he would be a faithful hound
in the service of the artificers, and sat down. The smiths at that time
would not have yielded him for all the hounds in the world.

After that their harpers harped for them and their story tellers related
true stories, provoking laughter and weeping. There was no story told
that was not true in the age of the heroes. Then the smiths sang one
of their songs of labour, though it needed the accompaniment of ringing
mettle, a song wild and strange, and the Ultonians clear and high sang
all together with open mouths a song of battle and triumph and of the
marching home to Emain Macha with victory; and so they spent the night,
till Concobar said--

“O Culain, feasting and singing are good, but slumber is good also.
Dismiss us now to our rest and our slumber, for we, the Red Branch, must
rise betimes in the morning, having our own proper work to perform day
by day in Emain Macha, as you yours in your industrious city.”

With difficulty were the smiths persuaded to yield to that request, for
right seldom was there a feast in Dun Culain, and the unusual pleasure
and joyful sense of comradeship and social exaltation were very pleasing
to their hearts.

The Ultonians slept that night in the smiths’ hall upon resplendent
couches which had been prepared for them, and early in the morning,
having taken a friendly leave of the artificers, they departed, leaving
the lad behind them asleep. Setanta remained with the smiths a long time
after that, and Culain and his people loved him greatly and taught him
many things. It was owing to this adventure and what came of it that
Setanta got his second name, viz., the Hound of Culain or Cu-Culain.
Under that name he wrought all his marvellous deeds.



CHAPTER IX

THE CHAMPION AND THE KING


     “Sing, O Muse, the destructive wrath of Achilles, son
     of Peleus, which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans.”

                           --Homer.


Concobar Mac Nessa sat one day in his high chair, judging the Ultonians.
His great Council sat before him. In the Champion’s throne sat Fergus
Mac Roy. Before the high King his suitors gave testimony and his brehons
pleaded, and Concobar in each case pronounced judgment, clearly and
intelligently, briefly and concisely, with learning and with equity.

“Right glad am I, O Concobar,” said Fergus, “that thou art in the King’s
throne, and I where I sit. Verily, had I remained in that chair of
honour and distress, long since would these historians and poets and
subtle-minded lawyers have talked and rhymed me into madness, or into my
grave.”

Concobar made answer--“Dear foster-father, the high gods in their wisdom
have fashioned us each man to illustrate some virtue. To thee they have
given strength, courage, and magnanimity above all others; and to me,
in small measure, the vision of justice, and the perception of her
beautiful laws. A man can only excel in what he loves, and verily I love
well the known laws of the Ultonians.”

A great man just then entered the hall. His mantle was black. In the
breast of it, instead of a brooch, he wore an iron pin. He came swiftly
and without making the customary reverences. His face was pale, and his
garments torn, his dark-grey tunic stained with blood. He stood in the
midst and cried--

“O high King of the Ultonians, and you the wise men and sages of the
children of Rury, to all of you there is now need of some prudent
resolution. A great deed has been done in Ulla.”

“What is that?” said the King.

“The abduction of the Beautiful Woman by Naysi, son of Usna. Verily,
she is taken away and may not be recovered, for the Clan Usna came last
night with a great company to the dun and they stormed it in their might
and their valour, and their irresistible fury, and they have taken
away Deirdre in their swift chariots, and have gone eastwards to the
Muirnicht with intent to cross the sea northwards, and abide henceforth
with their prize in the land of the Picts and of the Albanah, beyond the
stormy currents of the Moyle.”

Fergus Mac Roy, when he heard that word, sat up with eyes bright-blazing
in his head. Dearer to him than all the rest were those sons of Usna,
namely--Naysi, Anli, and Ardane, and dearest of the three was Naysi,
who excelled all the youth of his time in beauty, valour, and
accomplishments.

“Bind that man!” cried Concobar. His voice rang terribly through the
vast chamber. Truly it sheared through men’s souls like a dividing
sword.

His guards took the man and bound him. “Lead him away now,” said
Concobar, “and stone him with stones even to the parting of body with
soul.”

The man was one of Deirdre’s guard.

A great silence fell upon the assembly after that and no man spoke, only
they looked at the King and then again at the Champion, and, as it were,
questioned one another silently with their eyes. It was the silence
behind which run the Fomorh, brazen-throated and clad with storm. Well
knew those wise men that what they long apprehended had come now to
pass, namely, the fierce and truceless antagonism of the King and of the
ex-King. Well they knew that Concobar would not forgive the Clan Usna,
and that Fergus Mac Roy would not permit them to be punished. Therefore,
great and mighty as were the men, yet on this occasion they might be
likened only to cattle who stand aside astonished when two fierce bulls,
rending the earth as they come, advance against each other for the
mastery of the herd. In the high King’s face the angry blood showed as
two crimson spots one on either cheek, and his eyes, harder than steel,
sparkled under brows more rigid than brass. On the other hand, the face
of the Champion darkened as the sea darkens when a black squall descends
suddenly upon its sunny and glittering tides, wrinkling and convulsing
all the face of the deep. His listlessness and amiability alike went
out of him, and he sat huge and erect in his throne. His mighty chest
expanded and stood out like a shield, and the muscles of his neck,
stronger than a bull’s, became clear and distinct, and his gathering ire
and stern resolution rushed stormfully through his nostrils. The King
first spoke.

“To the man who has broken our law and abducted the child of ill omen, I
decree death by the sword and burial with the three throws of dishonour,
and if taken alive, then death by burning with the same, and if
he escapes out of Erin, then sentence of perpetual banishment and
expatriation.”

“He shall not be slain, and he shall not be burned, and he shall not be
exiled. I say it, even I, Fergus, son of the Red Rossa, Champion of the
North. Let the man who will gainsay me show himself now in Emain Macha.
Let him bring round the buckle of his belt.”

His eyes, as he spoke, were like flames of fire under a forehead dark
crimson, and with his clenched fist he struck the brazen table before
his throne, so that the clang and roar of the quivering bronze sounded
through all the borders of Ulla.

“I will gainsay thee, O Fergus,” cried the King, “I am the guardian and
the executor of the laws of the Ultonians, and those laws shall prevail
over thee and over all men.”

“All laws in restraint of true love and affection are unjust,” said
Fergus, “and the law by which Deirdre was consigned to virginity was the
unrighteous enactment of cold-hearted and unrighteous men.”



CHAPTER X

DEIRDRE


     “Beautiful the beginning of love,
      A man and a woman and the birds of Angus above them.”

                    GAELIC BARD.


The birth of the child Deirdre, daughter of the chief poet of Ulla, was
attended with a great portent, for the child shrieked from the mother’s
womb. Cathvah and the Druids were consulted concerning that omen. They
addressed themselves to their art of divination, and having consulted
their oracles and gods and familiar spirits, they gave a clear counsel
to the Ultonians.

“This child,” they said, “will become a woman, in beauty surpassing all
the women who have ever been born or will be born. Her union with a man
will be a cause of great sorrow to the Ultonians. Let her, therefore,
be exposed after birth; or, if you would not slay the Arch-Poet’s only
child, let her be sternly immured; let her be reared to womanhood in
utter and complete and inviolable solitude, and live and die in her
virginity.”

The Ultonians determined that the child should live and be immured.
These things took place in the reign of Factna the Righteous, father of
Concobar. When the child was born she was called Deirdre. The Ultonians
appointed for her a nurse and tutoress named Levarcam. They built for
her and for the nurse a strong dun in a remote forest and set a ward
there, and they made a solemn law enjoining perpetual virginity on the
child of ill omen, and the Druids shed a zone of terror round the dun.

Concobar Mac Nessa in the wide circuit of his thoughts consulted always
for the inviolability of that law, and the stern maintenance of the
watching and warding.

Unseen and unobserved, forgotten by all save the wise elders of the
Ultonians and by Concobar their King, whose thoughts ranged on all sides
devising good for the Red Branch, the child Deirdre grew to be a maiden.
Though her beauty was extraordinary, yet her mind was as beautiful as
her form, so that the Lady Levarcam loved her exceedingly.

One day when the first flush of early womanhood came upon the maiden,
she said to her tutoress as they sat together and conversed--

“Are all men like those our guards who defend us against savage beasts
and the merciless Fomorians, dear Levarcam?”

“Those our guards are true and brave men,” said Levarcam.

“Surely they are,” said the girl, “and we lack no courtesy and due
attention at their hands, but dear foster-mother, my question is not
answered. Maybe it is not to be answered and that I am curious overmuch.
Are all men grim, grave, and austere, wearing rugged countenances scored
with ancient wounds, and bearing each man upon his shoulders the weight
of some fearful responsibility? Are all men like that, dear Levarcam?”

“Nay, indeed,” said the other, “there are youths too, gracious, and gay,
and beautiful, as well as grave men such as these.”

They sat together in their sunny grianan, [Footnote: A derivative
from Grian, the sun. The grianan was an upper chamber, more elegantly
furnished than the hall, usually with large windows and therefore
well lit and reserved for the use of women.] embroidering while they
conversed. It was early morning and the air was full of the noises and
odours of sweet spring-time.

“I know that now,” said the maiden, “which I only guessed before, for
waking or sleeping I have dreamed of a youth who was as unlike these
men as the rose-tree with its roses is unlike the rugged oak-tree or the
wrinkled pine that has wrestled with a thousand storms. I would wish to
have him for a playfellow and pleasant acquaintance. Of maidens, too,
such as myself I have dreamed, yet they do not appear to me to be so
alluring or so amiable as that youth.”

“Describe him more particularly,” said Levarcam. “Tell me his tokens one
by one that I may know.”

“He is tall and strong but very graceful in all his motions; and of
speech and behaviour both gay and gracious. He is white and ruddy,
whiter than snow and ruddier than the rose or the fox-glove, where the
heroic blood burns bright in his comely cheeks. His eyes are blue-black
under fine and even brows and his hair is a wonder, so dense is it, so
lustrous and so curling, blacker than the crow’s wing, more shining than
the bright armour of the chaffer. His body is broad above and narrow
below, strong to withstand and agile to pursue. His limbs long and
beautifully proportioned; his hands and feet likewise, and his step
elastic Smiles seldom leave his eyes and lips, and his mouth is a
fountain of sweet speech. O that I were acquainted with him and he with
me? I think we should be happy in each other’s company. I think I could
love him as well as I do thee, dear foster-mother.”

As she spoke, Deirdre blushed, and first she stooped down over her
work and then put before her face and eyes her two beautiful hands,
rose-white, with long delicate nails pink-flushed and transparent; and
tears, clearer than dewdrops, gushed between her ringers and fell in
bright showers upon the embroidery. Then she arose and flung her soft
white arms around Levarcam and wept on her bosom.

“There is one youth only amongst the Red Branch,” said Levarcam, “who
answers to that description, namely Naysi, the son of Usna, who is
the battle-prop of the Ultonians and the clear-shining torch of their
valour, and what god or druid or power hath set that vision before thy
mind, I cannot tell.”

“Would that I could see him with eyes and have speech with him,”
 answered the girl. “If but once he smiled upon me and I heard the sweet
words flow from his mouth which is beyond price, then gladly would I
die!”

“Thou shall both see him and have speech with him, O best, sweetest,
dearest, and loveliest of all maidens. Truly I will bring him to thee
and thee to him, for there is with me power beyond the wont of women.”

Now Levarcam was a mighty Druidess amongst the Ultonians. So the lady in
whom they trusted forgot the ancient prophecies and the stern commands
of the Red Branch and of their King, owing to the great love which she
bore to the maiden and the great compassion which grew upon her day by
day, as she observed the life of the solitary girl and thought of the
cruel law to which all her youth and beauty and wealth of sweet love
beyond all the jewels of the world were thus barbarously sacrificed by
the Ultonians in obedience to soothsayers and Druids.

Naysi, son of Usna, once in a hunting became separated from his
companions. He wandered far in that forest, seeking some one who should
direct him upon his way. Oftentimes he raised his voice, but there was
no answer. Such were his beauty, his grace, and his stature, that he
seemed more like a god than a man, and such another as Angus Ogue, son
of Dagda, [Footnote: Angus Ogue was the god of youth and beauty, son of
the Dagda who seems to have been the genius of earth and its fertility
or perhaps the Zeus of our Gaelic mythology.] whose fairy palace is
on the margin of the Boyne. His head and his feet were bare. His short
hunting-cloak was dark-red with flowery devices along the edge. On his
breast he wore a brooch of gold bronze; carbuncles and precious stones
were set in the bronze, and it was carved all over with many spiral
devices. His shirt below the mantle was coloured like the tassels of the
willow trees. His hair was fastened behind with a clasp and an apple of
red gold, and that apple lay below the blades of his ample shoulders.
In one hand he bore a broken leash of red bronze, and in the other two
hunting spears with blades of flashing findruiney and the hafts were
long, slender, and shining. By his thigh hung a short sword in a sheath
of red yew and beside it the polished and nigh transparent horn of the
Urus, suspended in a baldrick of knitted thread of bronze. The grass
stood erect from the pressure of his light feet. His manly face had not
yet known the razor; only the first soft down of budding manhood was
seen there. His countenance was pure and joyous with bright beaming
eyes, and his complexion red and white and of a brilliancy beyond words.
In his heart was no guile, only indomitable valour and truth and
loyalty and sweet affection. He had never known woman save in the way of
courtesy. The very trees and rocks and stones seemed to watch him as he
passed.

Then suddenly and unawares an ice-cold air struck chill into his inmost
being, the bright earth was obscured and the sun grew dark in the
heavens and menacing voices were heard and horrid forms of evil,
monstrous, not to be described, came against him, and they bade him
return as he had come or they would tear him limb from limb in that
forest. Yet the son of Usna was by no means dismayed, only he flushed
with wrath and scorn and he drew his sword and went on against the
phantoms. In truth Naysi was at that moment passing through the zone of
terror which the Ultonian Druids had shed around the dun where Deirdre
was immured. The phantoms gave way before him and Naysi passed beyond
the zone. “Surely,” he said, “there is some chief jewel of the jewels of
the world preserved in this place.”

He came to an opening in the forest. Beyond it there was a great space
which was cleared and girt all round by trees. There was a dun in
its midst. Scarlet and white were the walls of that dun. There was
a watch-tower on one side of the dun and a man there sitting in the
watchman’s seat; a grianan on the other with windows of glass. The roof
of the dun was covered all over with feathers of birds of various hues,
and shone with a hundred colours. The doorway was the narrowest which
Naysi had ever seen. The door pillars were of red yew curiously carved,
having feet of bronze and capitals of carved silver, and the lintel
above was a straight bar of pure silver. A knotted band or thickening
ran round the walls of the dun like a variegated zone, for the colours
of it were many and each different from the colours on the walls. In
the world there was no such prison as there was no such captive as that
prison held. Armed men of huge stature and terrible aspect went round
the dun. Their habiliments were black, their weapons without ornament,
the pins of their mantles were of iron. With each company went a slinger
having his sling bent, an iron bolt in the sling, and his thumb in the
string-loop, men who never missed their mark and never struck aught,
whether man or beast, that they did not slay. Great hounds such as were
not known amongst the Ultonians went with those men. They were grey
above and tawny beneath, as large as wild oxen after the growth of
one year. They were quick of sight and scent, fiercer than dragons and
swifter than eagles; they were not quick of sight and scent to-day. The
Lady Levarcam had great power. In and around that dun were three hundred
men of war, foreigners, picked men of the great fighting tribes of
Banba. Such was the decree of the Ultonians and their wise King,
so greatly did they fear concerning those prophecies and omens and
concerning the child who in Emain Macha shrieked out of her mother’s
womb. Naysi regarded the dun with wonder and amazement, and with
amazement the astonishing rigour of the watch and ward which were kept
there, and the more he looked the more he wondered. It seemed to the
hunter that he had chanced upon one of the abodes of the enchanted races
of Erin, namely the Tuatha De Dana or the Fomorians, whom the sons of
Milesius by their might had driven into the mountains and unfrequented
places and who, now immortal and invisible, and possessing great druidic
power, were worshipped as gods by the Gael. He knew he was in great
peril, but his stout heart did not fail; he was resolved to see this
adventure to an end.

As he was about to step out into the open two women came from the door
of the grianan. One of them was old; she leaned upon her companion and
in her right hand held a long white wand squared save in the middle
where it was rounded for the hand grip, very long, unornamented, and
unshod at either extremity. Naysi paid slight attention to her, though,
as she was the first to come forth, he observed these things. The other
was young, tall, slender, and lissom, her raiment costly and splendid
like a high queen’s on some solemn day, and like a queen’s her behaviour
and her pacing over the flowery lawn. Never had that hunter seen such a
form, so proudly modest and virginal, such sweetness, grace, and majesty
of bearing. Presently, having passed a company of the guards, she flung
back the white, half-transparent veil that concealed her face. Then the
sudden radiance was like the coming unlocked for out of a white cloud of
that very bright star which shines on the edge of night and morning. All
things were transfigured in her light. Before her the grass grew greener
and more glittering and rare flowers started in her way. A silver basket
of most delicate craftsmanship, the work of some cunning cerd, was on
her right arm. It shone clear and sparkling against her mantle which
was exceedingly lustrous, many times folded, darkly crimson, and of
substance unknown. She towered above her aged companion, straight as
a pillar of red yew in a king’s house. So, unwitting, jocund, and
innocent, fresh and pure as the morning, she paced over the green
lawn, going in the direction of that youth, even Naysi, son of Usna the
Ultonian. Naysi’s loudly beating heart fell silent when he saw how she
came straight towards him; he retreated into the forest, so amazing and
so confounding was the radiance of that beauty. A company of those grim
warders, silent and watchful, followed close upon the women. As they
went they slipped the muzzles from the mouths of their dogs and lead
them forward leashed. The countenances of the men shewed displeasure.
From the tower the watchman cried aloud words in an unknown tongue,
hoarse, barbaric accents charged with energy and strong meaning. His
voice rang terribly in the hollows of the forest. There was a counter
challenge in the forest repeated many times, the voices of men mingled
with the baying of hounds. There was a ring of sentinels and dogs far
out in the forest. The son of Usna had gone through the ring. For twice
seven years and one that astonishing watch and ward had been maintained
day and night without relaxation or abatement. When they came to the
edge of the forest Levarcam addressed the commander of that company.
She said, “The Lady Deirdre would be alone with me in the forest for a
little space to gather flowers and listen to the music of the birds
and the stream, relieved, if but for one moment, of this watching and
warding.”

The man answered not a word. He was of the Gamanrdians, dwellers by the
Sue, which feeds the great Western River; [Footnote: The Shannon.] his
people were of the Clan Dega in the south, and of the children of Orc
[Footnote: In scriptural language “of the seed of the giants,” huge,
simple-hearted and simple-minded men, who could obey orders and ask no
questions.] from the Isles of Ore in the frozen seas. [Footnote: The
Orkney Islands.] The blood of the Fomoroh was in those men. The women
went on, and that grim company followed, keeping close behind. When they
gained the first cover of the trees Levarcam turned round and stretched
over them her wand. They stood motionless, both men and dogs. Then the
women went forward, and alone.

“Fill thy basket now with forest flowers, O sweetest, and dearest, and
fairest of all foster-children, and listen to the songs of the birds
and the music of the rill. Cull thy flowers, darling girl, and cull the
flower of thy youth, the flower that grows but once for all like thee,
the flower whose glory puts high heaven to shame, and whose odour makes
mad the most wise.”

“Where shall I gather that flower, O gentlest and most amiable of
foster-mothers? Is it in the glade or the thicket, or on the margent of
the rill?

“It is not to be found by seeking, O fairest of all maidens. Gather it
when thou meetest with it in the way. Wear it in thy heart, be the end
what it may. Verily thou wilt not mistake any other flower for that
flower.”

“I know not thy meaning, O wise and many-counselled woman, but there is
fear upon me, and trembling, and my knees quake at thy strange words.
Now, if the whole world were swallowed up I should not be surprised.
Surely the end of the world is very nigh.”

“It is the end of the world and the beginning of the world; and the end
of life and the beginning of life; and death and life in one, and death
and life will soon be the same to thee, O Deirdre!”

“There is amazement upon me, and terror, O my foster-mother, on account
of thy words, and on account of the gathering of this flower. Let us
return to the dun. Terrible to me are the hollow-sounding ways of the
unknown forest.”

“Fear not the unknown forest, O Deirdre. Leave the known and the
familiar now that thy time has come. Go on. Accomplish thy destiny. It
is vain to strive against fate and the pre-ordained designs of the high
gods of Erin. Truly I have failed in my trust. I see great wrath in
Emain Macha. I see the Red Branch tossed in storms, and a mighty riving
and rending and scattering abroad, and dismal conflagrations, and the
blood of heroes falling like rain, and I hear the croaking of Byves.
[Footnote: Badb, pronounced Byve, was primarily the scald-crow or
carrion-crow, secondarily a Battle-Fury.] Truly I have proved a brittle
prop to the Ultonians, but some power beyond my own drives me on.”

“What wild words are these, O wisest of women, and what this rending and
scattering abroad, and showers of blood and croaking of Byves because I
cull a flower in the forest?”

“Nay, it is nothing. Have peace and joy while thou canst, sweet Deirdre.
Thus I lay my wand upon thy bosom and enjoin peace!”

“Thou art weary, dear foster-mother. Rest thee here now a little space,
while I go and gather forest flowers. They are sweeter than those
that grow in my garden. O, right glad am I to be alone in the forest,
relieved from the observation of those grim-visaged sentinels, to stray
solitary in the dim mysterious forest, and to think my own thoughts
there, and dream my dreams, and recall that vision which I have seen. O
Naysi, son of Usna, sweeter than harps is the mere sound of thy name, O
Ultonian!”

Deirdre after that went forward alone into the forest.

Naysi, when he had started back into the forest stood still for a long
time in his retreat. It was the hollow of a tall rock beside a falling
stream of water, all flowing snow or transparent crystal. Holly trees
and quicken trees grew from its crest, and long twines of ivy fell down
before like green torrents. Behind them he concealed himself, when he
heard the cries and the challengings and the baying of the hounds. Then
he saw the maiden come along the forest glade by the margent of the
stream, her basket filled and over-flowing with flowers. The sentient
stream sang loud and gay to greet her approaching, with fluent liquid
fingers striking more joyously the chords of his stony lyre. Light
beyond the sun was shed through the glen before her. Birds, the
brightest of plumage and sweetest of note of all the birds of Banba,
[Footnote: One of Ireland’s ancient names.] filled the air with their
songs, flying behind her and before her, and on her right hand and on
her left. Through his lattice of trailing ivy the son of Usna saw her.
Her countenance was purer and clearer than morning-dew upon the rose or
the lily, and the rose and lily, nay, the whiteness of the snow of one
night and the redness of the reddest rose, were there. Her eyes were
blue-black under eyebrows black and fine, but her clustering hair was
bright gold, more shining than the gold which boils over the edge of the
refiner’s crucible. Her forehead was free from all harshness, broad and
intelligent, her beautiful smiling lips of the colour of the berries of
the mountain ash, her teeth a shower of lustrous pearls. Her face and
form, her limbs, hands and feet, were such that no defect, blemish or
disproportion could be observed, though one might watch and observe
long, seeking to discover them. In that daughter of the High Poet and
Historian of the Hound-race of the North, [Footnote: The hound was the
type of valour. Though Cuculain was pre-eminently the Hound, the Gaelic
equivalents of this word will be discovered in most of the famous
names of the cycle.] child of valour and true wisdom, the body did not
predominate over the spirit, or the spirit over the body, for as her
form was of matchless, incomparable, and inexpressible beauty, so her
mind was not a whit less well proportioned and refined. Jocund and
happy, breathing innocence and love, she came up the dell. The birds
of Angus [Footnote: Angus Ogue’s kisses became invisible birds whose
singing inspired love.] unseen flew above her and shed upon her
unearthly graces and charms from the waving of their immortal wings.
A silver brooch lay on her breast, the pin of fine bronze ran straight
from one shoulder to the other. On her head was a lustrous tyre or leafy
diadem shading her countenance, gold above and silver below. Her short
kirtle was white below the rose-red mantle, and fringed with gold thread
above her perfect and lightly stepping feet. Shoes she wore shining with
brightest wire of findruiney. As she came up the dell, rejoicing in her
freedom and the sweetness of that sylvan place and the solitude,
she contemplated the bright stream, and sang clear and sweet an
unpremeditated song.

Naysi stepped forth from his place, putting aside the ivy with his
hands, and came down the dell to meet her in her coming. She did not
scream or tremble or show any signs of confusion, though she had never
before seen any of the youths of the Gael. She only stood still and
straight, and with wide eyes of wonder watched him as he drew nigh, for
she thought at first that it was the genius of that glen and torrent
taking form in reply to her druidic lay. Then when she recognised
the comrade and playfellow of her vision, she smiled a friendly and
affectionate greeting. On the other hand, Naysi came trembling and
blushing. He bowed himself to the earth before her, and kissed the grass
before her feet.

They remained together a long time in the glen and told each other
all they knew and thought and felt, save one feeling untellable, happy
beyond all power of language to express. When Deirdre rose to go, Naysi
asked for some token and symbol of remembrance.

As they went she gathered a rose and gave it to Naysi.

“There is a great meaning in this token amongst the youths and maidens
of the Gael,” said he.

“I know that,” answered Deirdre. Deirdre returned to Levarcam.

“Thou hast gathered the flower,” said Levarcam.

“I have,” she replied, “and death and life are one to me now, dear
foster-mother.”

Naysi went away through the forest and there is nothing related
concerning him till he reached Dun Usna. It was night when he entered
the hall. His brothers were sitting at the central fire. Anli was
scouring a shield; Ardane was singing the while he polished a spear and
held it out against the light to see its straightness and its lustre.
They were in no way alarmed about their brother.

“I have seen Deirdre, the daughter of Felim,” he said.

“Then thou art lost!” they answered; the weapons fell from their hands
upon the floor.

“I am,” he replied.

“What is thy purpose?” they said.

“To storm the guarded dun, even if I go against it alone, To bear away
Deirdre and pass into the land of the Albanagh.” [Footnote: The Albanagh
were the people who inhabited the north and west of Scotland, in fact
the Highlanders. In ancient times they and the Irish were regarded as
one people.]

“Thou shalt not go alone,” they said. “We have shared in thy glory and
thy power, we will share all things with thee.”

They put their right hand into his on that promise. One hundred and
fifty nobles of the nobles of that territory did the same, for with
Naysi as their captain they did not fear to go upon any enterprise. They
knew that expatriation awaited them, but they had rather be with Naysi
and his brothers in a strange land than to live without them in Ireland.
So the Clan Usna with their mighty men stormed the dun and bore off
Deirdre and went away eastward to the Muirnicht. And they crossed the
Moyle [Footnote: The sea between Ireland and Scotland. “Silent, O Moyle,
be the roar of thy waters,”] in ships into the country of the Albanagh,
and settled on the delightful shores of Loch Etive and made swordland of
the surrounding territory. Great, famous, and long remembered were the
deeds of the children of Usna in that land.



CHAPTER XI

THERE WAS WAR IN ULSTER


 “Each spake words of high disdain
  And insult to his heart’s best brother,
  They parted ne’er to meet again.”

          --COLERIDGE


It was on account of this that there arose at first that dissidence
and divergence of opinion in the great Council at Emain Macha between
Concobar Mac Nessa and Fergus Mac Roy, Concobar standing for the law
which he had been sworn to safeguard and to execute, and Fergus casting
over the lovers the shield of his name and fame, his authority and his
strength, and the singular affection with which he was regarded by all
the Ultonians.

After Fergus had made that speech in disparagement and contempt of the
solemn enactment and decree in accordance with which Deirdre had been
immured, Concobar did not immediately answer, for he knew that he was
heated both on account of the abduction and on account of the words of
Fergus. Then he said--

“The valour of the Red Branch, whereby we flourish so conspicuously
herein the North, doth not spring out of itself, and doth not come by
discipline, teaching, and example. It has its root in a virtue of which
the bards indeed, for bardic reasons, make little mention though it hold
a firm place in the laws of the Ultonians both ancient and recent. This,
our valour, and the famous kindred virtues through which we are strong
and irresistible, so that the world has today nothing anywhere of
equal glory and power, spring from the chastity of our women, which is
conspicuous and clear-shining, and in the modesty and shamefastness of
our young heroes, and the extreme rarity of lawless relations between
men and women in Ulla, the servile tribes excepted, of whom no man
maketh any account. Against such lawlessness our wise ancestors have
decreed terrible punishments. According to the laws of the Ultonians,
those who offend in this respect are burned alive in the place of the
burnings, and over their ashes are thrown the three throws of dishonour.
And well I know that these laws ofttimes to the unthinking and to those
who judge by their affections merely, seem harsh and unnatural. Yea
truly, were I not high King, I could weep, seeing gentle youths and
maidens, and men and women, whom the singing of Angus Ogue’s birds have
made mad, led away by my orders to be devoured by flame. But so it is
best, for without chastity valour faileth in a nation, and lawlessness
in this respect begetteth sure and rapid decay, and I give not this
forth as an opinion but as a thing that I know, seeing it as clearly
with my mind, O Fergus, as I see with my eyes thy countenance and form
and the foldings of thy fuan [Footnote: Mantle.] and the shape and
ornamentation of the wheel-brooch upon thy breast. Without chastity
there is no enduring valour in a nation. And thou, too, O Fergus,
sitting there in the champion’s throne, hast more than once or twice
heard me pronounce the dread sentence without word of protest or
dissent. But now, because it toucheth thee thyself, strongly and
fiercely thy voice of protest is lifted up, and unless I and this
Council can over-persuade thee, this thy rebellious purpose will be thy
own undoing or that of the Red Branch. Are the sons of Usna dear only to
thee? I say they are dearer to me, but the Red Branch is still dearer,
and it is the destruction of the Red Branch which unwittingly thou
wouldst Compass. Nor was that law concerning the inviolable virginity
of the child of Felim foolish or unwise, for it was made solemnly by the
Ultonians in obedience to the united voice of the Druids of Ulla,
men who see deeply into the hidden causes of things and the obscure
relations of events, of which we men of war have no perception.”

So spoke Concobar, not threateningly like a sovereign king, but
pleadingly. On the other hand Fergus Mac Roy, rearing his huge form,
stood upon his feet, and said--

“To answer fine reasonings I have no skill, but I swear by the sun and
the wind and the earth and by my own right hand, which is a stronger
oath than any, that I will bring back the sons of Usna into Ireland, and
that they shall live and flourish in their place and sit honourably in
this great hall of the Clanna Rury, whether it be pleasing to thee or
displeasing. For I take the Clan Usna under my protection from this day
forth, and well I know that there is not in Erin or in Alba a man
born of a woman, no nor the Tuatha De Danan themselves, who will break
through that protection!”

“I will break through it,” said the King.

After that Fergus departed from Emain Macha and went away with his
people into the east to his own country. There he debated and considered
for a long time, but at last, so great was his affection for the
Clan Usna, that he went over the Moyle in ships to the country of the
Albanagh and brought home the sons of Usna, and they were slain by
Concobar Mac Nessa, according as he had promised by the word of
his mouth. Then Fergus rebelled against Concobar, drawing after him
two-thirds of the Red Branch, and amongst them Duvac Dael Ulla and
Cormac Conlingas, Concobar’s own son, and many other great men, but
the chiefest and best and most renowned of the Ultonians adhered to
the King. The whole province was shaken with war and there was great
shedding of blood, but in the end Concobar prevailed and drove out
Fergus Mac Roy. After that expulsion Fergus and three thousand of the
Red Branch fled across the Shannon and came to Rath Cruhane, and entered
into military service with Meave who was the queen of all the country
west of the Shannon.

There is nothing told about Cuculain in connection with this war. It is
hard to imagine him taking any side in such a war. But, in fact, he
was still a schoolboy under tutors and governors and could not lawfully
appear in arms, seeing that he was not yet knighted. He was either with
the smiths or, having procured a worthy hound to take his place, he had
gone back to the royal school at Emain Macha. But the time when Cuculain
should be knighted, that is to say, invested with arms, and solemnly
received into the Red Branch as man to the high King of all Ulla, now
drew on, and such a knighting as that, and under such signs, omens,
and portents, has never been recorded anywhere in the history of the
nations.

In the meantime, Fergus and his exiles served Queen Meave and were
subduing all the rest of Ireland under her authority, so that Meave,
Queen of Connaught, became very great and proud, and in the end
meditated the overthrow of Ulster and the conquest of the Red Branch.
Queen Meave and Fergus leading the joined host of the four remaining
provinces, Meath, Connaught, Munster, and Leinster, certain of success
owing to a strange lethargy which then fell on the Ultonians, did invade
Ulster. But as they drew nigh to the mearings they found the in-gate
of the province barred by one man. It is needless to mention that man’s
name. It was Dethcaen’s nursling, the ex-pupil of Fergus Mac Roy, the
little boy Setanta grown into a terrible and irresistible hero. It was
by his defence of Ulster on that occasion against Fergus and Meave
and the four provinces, that Cuculain acquired his deathless glory and
became the chief hero of the north-west of the world. So these chapters
which relate to the abduction of Deirdre and the rebellion and expulsion
of Fergus, are a vital portion of the whole story of Cuculain. We must
now return to the hero’s schoolboy days which, however, are drawing to a
memorable conclusion.



CHAPTER XII

THE SACRED CHARIOT


     “He dwelt a while among the neat-herds
     Of King Admetus, veiling his godhood.”

                 Greek Mythology.


     “At Tailteen I raced my steeds against a woman,
     Though great with child she came first to the goal,
     Alas, I knew not the auburn-haired Macha,
     Thence came affliction upon the Ultonians.”

                 CONCOBAR MAC NESSA.


Concobar Mac Nessa on a solemn day called Cuculain forth from the ranks
of the boys where they stood in the rear of the assembly and said--

“O Setanta, there is a duty which falls to me by virtue of my kingly
office, and therein I need an assistant. For it is my province to keep
bright and in good running order the chariot of Macha wherein she used
to go forth to war from Emain, and to clean out the corn-troughs of
her two steeds and put there fresh barley perpetually, and fresh hay
in their mangers. Illan the Fair [Footnote: He was one of the sons of
Fergus Mac Roy slain in the great civil war.] was my last helper in this
office, till the recent great rebellion. That ministry is thine now, if
it is pleasing to thee to accept it.”

The boy said that it was pleasing, and the King gave him the key of the
chamber in which were the vessels and implements used in discharging
that sacred function.

Afterwards, on the same day, the King said to him, “Wash thyself now in
pure water and put on new clean raiment and come again to me.”

The boy washed himself and put on new clean raiment. The King himself
did the same.

Concobar said: “Go now to the chamber of which I have given thee the key
and fill with oil the silver oil-can and take a towel of the towels of
fawn-skin which are there and return.” He did so; and Concobar and his
nephew, armed youths following, went to the house of the chariot.

Ere Concobar turned the wards of the lock he heard voices within in the
chariot-house. There, one said to another, “This is he. Our long watch
and ward are near the end.” And the other said, “It is well. Too long
have we been here waiting.”

“Hast thou heard anything, my nephew?” said Concobar.

“I have heard nothing,” said the lad.

Concobar opened the great folding-doors. There was a sound there like
glad voices mingled with a roar of revolving wheels, and then silence.
Setanta drew back in dismay, and even Concobar stood still. “I have not
observed such portents before in the chariot-house,” he said. The King
and his nephew entered the hollow chamber. The chariot was motionless
but very bright. One would have said that the bronze burned. It was of
great size and beauty. By its side were two horse-stalls with racks
and mangers, the bars of the rack were of gold bronze which was called
findruiney, and the mangers of yellow brass. The floor was paved with
cut marble, the walls lined with smooth boards of ash. There were no
windows, but there were nine lamps in the room. “It will be thy duty to
feed those lamps,” said Concobar.

Concobar took the fawn-skin towel from the boy and polished the chariot,
and the wheels, tyres, and boxes, and the wheel-spokes. He oiled the
wheels too, and mightily lifting the great chariot seized the spokes
with his right hand and made the wheels spin.

“Go now to the chamber of which I have given thee the keys,” he said,
“and bring the buckets, and clear out the mangers to the last grain,
and empty the stale barley into the place of the burning, and afterwards
take fresh barley from the bin which is in the chamber and fill the
mangers. Empty the racks also and bring fresh hay. Thou wilt find it
stored there too; clean straw also and litter the horse-stalls.”

The boy did that. In the meantime Concobar polished the pole, and the
yoke, and the chains. From the wall he took the head-gear of the horses
and the long shining reins of interwoven brass and did the same very
carefully till there was not a speck of rust or discolouration to be
seen.

“Where are the horses, my Uncle Concobar?” said the boy.

“That I cannot rightly tell,” said Concobar, “but verily they are
somewhere.”

“What are those horses?” said the boy. “How are they called? What their
attributes, and why do I fill their racks and mangers?”

“They are the Liath Macha and Black Shanglan,” said Concobar. “They have
not been seen in Erin for three hundred years, not since Macha dwelt
visibly in Emain as the bride of Kimbaoth, son of Fiontann. In this
chariot she went forth to war, charioteering her warlike groom. But they
are to come again for the promised one and bear him to battle and to
conflict in this chariot, and the time is not known but the King of
Emain is under gesa [Footnote: Terrible druidic obligations.] to keep
the chariot bright and the racks and mangers furnished with fresh hay,
and barley two years old. He is to wait, and watch, and stand prepared
under gesa most terrible.”

“Maybe Kimbaoth will return to us again,” said the boy.

“Nay, it hath not been so prophesied,” answered the King. “He was great,
and stern, and formidable. But our promised one is gentle exceedingly.
He will not know his own greatness, and his nearest comrades will not
know it, and there will be more of love in his heart than war.” So
saying Concobar looked steadfastly upon the boy.

“Conall Carnach is as famous for love as for war,” said Setanta. “He
is peerless in beauty, and his strength and courage are equal to his
comeliness, and his chivalry and battle-splendour to his strength.”

“Nay, lad, it is not Conall Carnach, though the women of Ulla sicken and
droop for the love of him. Verily, it is not Conall Carnach.”

Setanta examined curiously the great war-car.

“Was Kimbaoth assisting his wife,” he asked, “when she took captive the
sons of Dithorba?”

“Nay,” said the King, “she went forth alone and crossed the Shannon
with one step into the land of the Fir-bolgs, and there, one by one, she
bound those builder-giants the sons of Dithorba, and bore them hither in
her might, and truly those five brethren were no small load for the back
of one woman.”

“Has anyone seen her in our time?” asked the lad.

“I have,” said Concobar. “I saw her at the great fair of Tailteen. There
she pronounced a curse upon me and upon the Red Branch. [Footnote: At
Tailteen a man boasted that his wife could outrun Concobar’s victorious
chariot-steeds. Concobar compelled the woman to run against his horses.
She won the race, but died at the goal leaving her curse upon the Red
Branch.] The curse hath not yet fallen, but it will fall in my time,
and the promised one will come in my time and he will redeem us from its
power. Great tribulation will be his. Question me no more, dear Setanta,
I have said more than enough.”

They went forth from the sacred chamber and Concobar locked the doors.

As they crossed the vacant space going to the palace, Concobar said--

“Why art thou sad, dear Setanta?”

“I am not sad,” answered the boy.

“Truly there is no sadness in thy face, or thy lips, in thy voice or thy
behaviour, but it is deep down in thine eyes,” said the King. “I see it
there always.”

Setanta laughed lightly. “I know it not,” he said.

Concobar went his way after that, musing, and Setanta, having replaced
the sacred vessels in their chamber and having locked the door, strode
away into the boys’ hall. There was a great fire in the midst, and the
boys sat round it, for it was cold. Cuculain broke their circle, pushing
the boys asunder, and sat down. They tried to drag him away, but
he laughed and kept his place like a rock. Then they called him “a
Fomorian, and no man,” and perforce made their circle wider.



CHAPTER XIII

THE WEIRD HORSES


   “On the brink of the night and the morning
    My coursers are wont to respire,
    But the earth has just whispered a warning,
    That their flight must be swifter than fire,
    They shall breathe the hot air of desire.”

                    SHELLEY.


One night when the stars shone brightly, Setanta, as he passed by
Cathvah’s astrological tower, heard him declare to his students that
whoever should be knighted by Concobar on a certain day would be famous
to the world’s end. He was in his coming out of the forest then with
a bundle of young ash trees under his arm. He thought to put them to
season and therewith make slings, for truly he surpassed all others in
the use of the sling. Setanta went his way after that and came into the
speckled house. It was the armoury of the Red Branch and shone with all
manner of war-furniture. A fire burned here always, absorbing the damp
of the air lest the metal should take rust. Setanta flung his trees into
the rafters over the fire very deftly, so that they caught and remained
there. He said they would season best in that place.

As he turned to go a man stood before him in the vast and hollow
chamber.

“I know thee,” said the boy. “What wouldst thou now?”

“Thou shalt go forth to-night,” said the man, [Footnote: This man was
Lu the Long-Handed, the same who met him when he was leaving home.] “and
take captive the Liath Macha and Black Shanghlan. Power will be given to
thee. Go out boldly.”

“I am not wont to go out fearfully,” answered the lad. “Great labours
are thrust upon me.”

He went into the supper hall as at other times and took his customary
place there, and ate and drank.

“Thy eyes are very bright,” said Laeg.

“They will be brighter ere the day,” he replied.

“That is an expert juggler,” said Laeg. “How he tosseth the bright
balls!”

“Can he toss the stars so?” said Setanta.

“Thou art strange and wild to-night,” said Laeg.

“I will be stranger and wilder ere the morrow,” cried Setanta.

He stood up to go. Laeg caught him by the skirt of his mantle. The piece
came away in his hand.

“Whither art thou going, Setanta?” cried the King from the other end of
the vast hall.

“To seek my horses,” cried the lad. His voice rang round the hollow
dome and down the resounding galleries and long corridors, so that men
started in their seats and looked towards him.

“They are stabled since the setting of the sun,” said the chief groom.

“Thou liest,” answered the boy. “They are in the hills and valleys of
Erin.” His eyes burned like fire and his stature was exalted before
their eyes.

“Great deeds will be done in Erin this night,” said Concobar.

He went forth into the night. There was great power upon him. He crossed
the Plain of the Hurlings and the Plain of the Assemblies and the open
country and the great waste moor, going on to Dun-Culain. Culain’s new
hound cowered low when he saw him. The boy sprang over moat and rampart
at one bound and burst open the doors of the smith’s house, breaking the
bar. The noise of the riven beam was like the brattling of thunder.

“That is an unusual way to enter a man’s house,” said Culain. He and his
people were at supper.

“It is,” said Setanta. “Things more unusual will happen this night. Give
me bridles that will hold the strongest horses.” Culain gave him two
bridles.

“Will they hold the strongest horses?” said the boy.

“Anything less than the Liath Macha they will hold,” said the smith.

The boy snapped the bridles and flung them aside. “I want bridles that
will hold the Liath Macha and Black Shanglan,” said he.

“Fire all the furnaces,” cried Culain. “Handle your tools; show your
might. Work now, men, for your lives. Verily, if he get not the bridles,
soon your dead will be more numerous than your living.”

Culain and his people made the bridles. He gave them to Cuculain. The
smiths stood around in pallid groups. Cuculain took the bridles and
went forth. He went south-westwards to Slieve Fuad, and came to the Grey
Lake. The moon shone and the lake glowed like silver. There was a great
horse feeding by the lake. He raised his head and neighed when he heard
footsteps on the hill. He came on against Cuculain and Cuculain went
on against him. The boy had one bridle knotted round his waist and
the other in his teeth. He leaped upon the steed and caught him by the
forelock and his mouth. The horse reared mightily, but Setanta held him
and dragged his head down to the ground. The grey steed grew greater and
more terrible. So did Cuculain.

“Thou hast met thy master, O Liath Macha, this night,” he cried. “Surely
I will not lose thee. Ascend into the heavens, or, breaking the earth’s
roof, descend to Orchil, [Footnote: A great sorceress who ruled the
world under the earth.] yet even so thou wilt not shake me away.”

Ireland quaked from the centre to the sea. They reeled together, steed
and hero, through the plains of Murthemney. “Make the circuit of Ireland
Liath Macha and I shall be on the neck of thee,” cried Cuculain. The
horse went in reeling circles round Ireland. Cuculain mightily thust the
bit into his mouth and made fast the headstall. The Liath Macha went a
second time round Ireland. The sea retreated from the shore and stood in
heaps. Cuculain sprang upon his back. A third time the horse went round
Ireland, bounding from peak to peak. They seemed a resplendent Fomorian
phantom against the stars. The horse came to a stand. “I think thou art
tamed, O Liath Macha,” said Cuculain. “Go on now to the Dark Valley.”
 They came to the Dark Valley. There was night there always. Shapes of
Death and Horror, Fomorian apparitions, guarded the entrance. They came
against Cuculain, and he went against them. A voice from within cried,
“Forbear, this is the promised one. Your watching and warding are at
end.” He rode into the Dark Valley. There was a roaring of unseen rivers
in the darkness, of black cataracts rushing down the steep sides of the
Valley. The Liath Macha neighed loudly. The neigh reverberated through
the long Valley. A horse neighed joyfully in response. There was a
noise of iron doors rushing open somewhere, and a four-footed thunderous
trampling on the hollow-sounding earth. A steed came to the Liath Macha.
Cuculain felt for his head in the dark, and bitted and bridled him ere
he was aware. The horse reared and struggled. The Liath Macha dragged
him down the Valley. “Struggle not, Black Shanglan,” said Cuculain, “I
have tamed thy better.” The horse ceased to struggle. Down and out of
the Dark Valley rodest thou, O peerless one, with thy horses. The Liath
Macha was grey to whiteness, the other horse was black and glistening
like the bright mail of the chaffer. He rode thence to Emain Macha with
the two horses like a lord of Day and Night, and of Life and Death.
Truly the might and power of the Long-Handed and Far-Shooting one was
upon him that night. He came to Emain Macha. The doors of Macha’s
stable flew open before him. He rode the horses into the stable. Macha’s
war-car brayed forth a brazen roar of welcome, the Tuatha De Danan
shouted, and the car itself glowed and sparkled. The horses went to
their ancient stalls, the Liath Macha to that which was nearer to the
door. Cuculain took off their bridles and hanged them on the wall. He
went forth into the night. The horses were already eating their barley,
but they looked after him as he went. The doors shut to with a brazen
clash. Cuculain stood alone in the great court under the stars. A
druidic storm was abroad and howled in the forests. He thought all that
had taken place a wild dream. He went to his dormitory and to his couch.
Laeg was asleep with the starlight shining on his white forehead; his
red hair was shed over the pillow. Cuculain kissed him, and sitting on
the bed’s edge wept. Laeg awoke.

“Thou wert not well at supper,” said Laeg, “and now thou hast been
wandering in the damp of the night, and thou with a fever upon thee, for
I hear thy teeth clattering. I sought to hinder thee, and thou wouldst
not be persuaded. Verily, if thou wilt not again obey me, being thy
senior, thou shalt have sore bones at my hands. Undress thyself now and
come to bed without delay.”

Cuculain did so.

“Thou art as cold as ice,” said Laeg.

“Nay, I am hotter than fire,” said Cuculain.

“Thou art ice, I say,” said Laeg, “and thy teeth are clattering like
hailstones on a brazen shield. Ay, and thine eyes shine terribly.”

Laeg started from the couch. He struck flintsparks upon a rag steeped in
nitre, and waved it to a flame, and kindled a lanthorn. He flung his
own mantle upon the bed and went forth in his shirt. The storm raged
terribly; the stars were dancing in high heaven. He came to the house of
the Chief Leech and beat at the door. The Leech was not in bed. All
the wise men of Emain Macha were awake that night, listening to the
portents.

“Setanta, son of Sualtam, is sick,” said Laeg.

“What are his symptoms?” said the Leech.

“He is colder than ice, his eyes shine terribly, and his teeth clatter,
but he says that he is hotter than fire.”

The Leech went to Cuculain. “This is not a work for me,” he said, “but
for a seer. Bring hither Cathvah and his Druids.” Cathvah and and his
seers came. They made their symbols of power over the youth and chanted
their incantations and Druid songs. After that Cuculain slept. He slept
for three days and three nights. There was a great stillness while
the boy slept, for it was not lawful at any time for anyone to awake
Cuculain when he slumbered.

On the third morning Cuculain awoke. The bright morning sunshine was
all around, and the birds sang in Emain Macha. He called for Laeg with a
loud voice and bade him order a division of the boys to get ready their
horses and chariots for charioteering exercise and fighting out of their
cars.



CHAPTER XIV

THE KNIGHTING OF CUCULAIN


     “Then felt I like a watcher of the skies
     When a new planet swims into his ken.”

                        KEATS.


The prophecies concerning the coming of some extraordinary warrior
amongst the Red Branch had been many and ancient, and by certain signs
Concobar believed that his time was now near. Often he contemplated his
nephew, observed his beauty, his strength, and his unusual proficiency
in all martial exercises, and mused deeply considering the omens. But
when he saw him slinging and charioteering amongst the rest, shooting
spears and casting battle-stones at a mark before the palace upon the
lawn, and saw him eating and drinking before him nightly in the hall
like another, and heard his clear voice and laughter amongst the boys,
his schoolfellows and comrades, then the thought or the faint surmise or
wish that his nephew might be that promised one passed out of his mind,
for the prophesyings and the rumours had been very great, and men
looked for one who should resemble Lu the Long-Handed, son of Ethlend,
[Footnote: This great deity resembled the Greek Phoebus Apollo. He led
the rebellion of the gods against the Fomorian giants who had previously
reduced them to a condition of intolerable slavery. Some say that he was
Cuculain’s true father. His favourite weapon was the sling, likened here
to the rainbow. It was not a thong or cord sling, but a pliant rod such
as boys in Ireland still make. The milky way was his chain.] whose sling
was like the cloud bow, who thundered and lightened against the giants
of the Fomoroh, who was all power and all skill, whose chain wherewith
he used to confine Tuatha De Danan and Milesians, spanned the midnight
sky. The rumours and prophecies were indeed exceeding great and
Cuculain, though he far surpassed the rest, was but a boy like others.
He stood at the head of Concobar’s horses when the King ascended his
chariot. His shoulder was warm and firm to the touch when the King
lightly laid his hand upon him.

One night there were terrible portents. All Ireland quaked; there was
a druidic storm under bright stars; the buildings rocked; a brazen
clangour sounded from the Tec Brac; there were mighty tramplings and
cries and a four-footed thunder of giant hoofs, and they went round
Ireland three times, only the third time swifter and like a hurricane
of sound. Cuculain was abroad that night. There was deep sleep upon the
people of Emain, only the chiefs were awake and aware. Cuculain was sick
after that. The Druids stood around his bed.

“The world labours with the new birth,” said Concobar. “Maybe my nephew
is the forerunner, the herald and announcer of the coming god!”

One evening, after supper, when the lad came to bid his uncle good-night
as his custom was, he said, “If it be pleasing to thee, my Uncle
Concobar, I would be knighted on the morrow, for I am now of due age,
and owing to the instructions of my tutor, Fergus Mac Roy, and thyself,
and my other teachers and instructors, I am thought to be sufficiently
versed in martial exercises, and able to play a man’s part amongst the
Red Branch.”

He was now a man’s full height, but his face was a boy’s face, and his
strength and agility amazed all who observed him in his exercises.

“Has thou heard what Cathvah has predicted concerning the youth who is
knighted on that day?” said the King.

“Yes,” answered the lad.

“That he will be famous and short-lived and unhappy?”

“Truly,” he replied.

“And doth thy purpose still hold?”

“Yes,” he answered, “but whether it be mine I cannot tell.”

Concobar, though unwilling, yielded to that request.

Loegairey, the Victorious, son of Conud, son of Iliach, the second best
knight of the Red Branch and the most devoted to poetry of them all
came that night into the hall while the rest slumbered. The candles
were flickering in their sockets. Darkness invested the rest of the vast
hollow-sounding chamber, but there was light around the throne and couch
of the King, owing to the splendour of the pillars and of the canopy
shining with bronze, white and red, and silver and gold, and glittering
with carbuncles and diamonds, and owing to the light which always
surrounded the King and encircled his regal head like a luminous cloud,
seen by many. He was looking straight out before him with bright eyes,
considering and consulting for the Red Branch while they slept. Two
great men having their swords drawn in their hands, stood behind him, on
the right and on the left, like statues, motionless and silent.

Loegairey drew nigh to the King. Distraction and amazement were in his
face. His dense and lustrous hair was dishevelled and in agitation round
his neck and huge shoulders. He held in his hand two long spears with
rings of walrus tooth where the timber met the shank of the flashing
blades; they trembled in his hand. His lips were dry, his voice very
low.

“There are horses in the stable of Macha,” he said.

“I know it,” answered the King.

Concobar called for water, and when he had washed his hands and his
face, he took from its place the chess-board of the realm, arranged the
men, and observed their movements and combinations. He closed the board
and put the men in their net of bronze wire, and restored all to their
place.

“Great things will happen on the morrow, O grandson of Iliach,” he said.
“Take candles and go before me to the boys’ dormitory.”

They went to the boys’ dormitory and to the couch of Cuculain. Cuculain
and Laeg were asleep together there. Their faces towards each other and
their hair mingled together. Cuculain’s face was very tranquil, and his
breathing inaudible, like an infant’s.

“O sweet and serene face,” murmured the King, “I see great clouds of
sorrow coming upon you.”

They returned to the hall.

“Go now to thy rest and thy slumber, O Loegairey,” said the King. “When
the curse of Macha descends upon us I know one who will withstand it.”

“Surely it is not that stripling?” said Loegairey. But the King made no
answer.

On the morrow there was a great hosting of the Red Branch on the plain
of the Assemblies. It was May-Day morning and the sun shone brightly,
but at first through radiant showers. The trees were putting forth young
buds; the wet grass sparkled. All the martial pomp and glory of the
Ultonians were exhibited that day. Their chariots and war-horses ringed
the plain. All the horses’ heads were turned towards the centre where
were Concobar Mac Nessa and the chiefs of the Red Branch. The plain
flashed with gold, bronze, and steel, and glowed with the bright mantles
of the innumerable heroes, crimson and scarlet, blue, green, or purple.
The huge brooches on their breasts of gold and silver or gold-like
bronze, were like resplendent wheels. Their long hair, yellow for the
most part, was bound with ornaments of gold. Great, truly, were those
men, their like has not come since upon the earth. They were the heroes
and demigods of the heroic age of Erin, champions who feared nought
beneath the sun, mightiest among the mighty, huge, proud, and
unconquerable, and loyal and affectionate beyond all others; all of
the blood of Ir, [Footnote: On account of their descent from Ir, son of
Milesius, the Red Branch were also called the Irians.] son of Milesius,
the Clanna Rury of great renown, rejoicing in their valour, their
splendour, their fame and their peerless king. Concobar had no crown. A
plain circle of beaten gold girt his broad temples. In the naked glory
of his regal manhood he stood there before them all, but even so a
stranger would have swiftly discovered the captain of the Red
Branch, such was his stature, his bearing, such his slowly-turning,
steady-gazing eyes and the majesty of his bearded countenance. His
countenance was long, broad above and narrow below, his nose eminent,
his beard bipartite, curling and auburn in hue, his form without any
blemish or imperfection.

Cuculain came forth from the palace. He wore that day a short mantle of
pale-red silk bordered with white thread and fastened on the breast
with a small brooch like a wheel of silver. The hues upon that silk were
never the same. His tunic of fine linen was girt at the waist with a
leathern zone, stained to the resemblance of the wild-briar rose. It
descended to but did not pass his beautiful knees, falling into many
plaits. The tunic was cut low at the neck, exposing his throat and the
knot in the throat and the cup-shaped indentation above the breast. On
his feet were comely shoes sparkling with bronze plates. They took the
colour of everything which they approached. His hair fell in many curls
over the pale-red mantle, without adornment or confinement. It was the
colour of the flower which is named after the dearest Disciple, but
which was called sovarchey by the Gael. A tinge of red ran through the
gold. As to his eyes, no two men or women could agree concerning their
colour, for some said they were blue, and some grey, and others hazel;
and there were those who said that they were blacker than the blackest
night that was ever known. Yet again, there were those who said that
they were of all colours named and nameless. They were soft and liquid
splendours, unfathomable lakes of light above his full and ruddy
cheeks, and beneath his curved and most tranquil brows. In form he was
symmetrical, straight and pliant as a young fir tree when the sweet
spring sap fills its veins. So he came to that assembly, in the glory of
youth, beauty, strength, valour, and beautiful shame-fastness, yet proud
in his humility and glittering like the morning star. Choice youths, his
comrades, attended him. The kings held their breaths when he drew nigh,
moving white knee after white knee over the green and sparkling grass.
When the other rites had been performed and the due sacrifices and
libations made, and after Cuculain had put his right hand into the right
hand of the King and become his man, Concobar gave him a shield,
two spears and a sword, weapons of great price and of thrice proved
excellence--a strong man’s equipment. Cuculain struck the spears
together at right angles and broke them. He clashed the sword flat-wise
on the shield. The sword leaped into small pieces and the shield was
bent inwards and torn.

“These are not good weapons, my King,” said the boy. Then the King gave
him others, larger and stronger and worthy of his best champions. These,
too, the boy broke into pieces in like manner.

“Son of Nessa, these are still worse,” he said, “nor is it well done, O
Captain of the Red Branch, to make me a laughing-stock in the presence
of this great hosting of the Ultonians.”

Concobar Mac Nessa exulted exceedingly when he beheld the amazing
strength and the waywardness of the boy, and beneath delicate brows his
eyes glittered like glittering swords as he glanced proudly round on
the crowd of martial men that surrounded him. Amongst them all he seemed
himself a bright torch of valour and war, more pure and clear than
polished steel. He then beckoned to one of his knights, who hastened
away and returned bringing Concobar’s own shield and spears and sword
out of the Tec Brac, where they were kept, an equipment in reserve. And
Cuculain shook them and bent them and clashed them together, but they
held firm.

“These are good arms, O son of Nessa,” said Cuculain.

“Choose now thy charioteer,” said the King, “for I will give thee also
war-horses and a chariot.”

He caused to pass before Cuculain all the boys who in many and severe
tests had proved their proficiency in charioteering, in the management
and tending of steeds, in the care of weapons and steed-harness, and
all that related to charioteering science. Amongst them was Laeg, with
a pale face and dejected, his eyes red and his cheeks stained from much
weeping. Cuculain laughed when he saw him, and called him forth from
the rest, naming him by his name with a loud, clear voice, heard to the
utmost limit of the great host.

“There was fear upon thee,” said Cuculain.

“There is fear upon thyself,” answered Laeg. “It was in thy mind that I
would refuse.”

“Nay, there is no such fear upon me,” said Cuculain.

“Then there is fear upon me,” said Laeg. “A charioteer needs a champion
who is stout and a valiant and faithful. Yea, truly there is fear upon
me,” answered Laeg.

“Verily, dear comrade and bed-fellow,” answered Cuculain, “it is through
me that thou shalt get thy death-wound, and I say not this as a vaunt,
but as a prophecy.”

And that prophecy was fulfilled, for the spear that slew Laeg went
through his master.

After that Laeg stood by Cuculain’s side and held his peace, but his
face shone with excess of joy and pride. He wore a light graceful frock
of deerskin, joined in the front with a twine of bronze wire, and a
short, dark-red cape, secured by a pin of gold with a ring to it. A band
of gold thread confined his auburn hair, rising into a peak behind his
head. In his hands he held a goad of polished red-yew, furnished with
a crooked hand-grip of gold, and pointed with shining bronze, and where
the bronze met the timber there was a circlet of diamond of the diamonds
of Banba. He had also a short-handled scourge with a haft of walrus
tooth, and the rope, cord, and lash of that scourge were made of
delicate and delicately-twisted thread of copper. This equipment was the
equipment of a proved charioteer; the apprentices wore only grey capes
with white fringes, fastened by loops of red cord.

Laeg was one of three brothers, all famous charioteers. Id and Sheeling
were the others. They were all three sons of the King of Gabra, whose
bright dun arose upon a green and sloping hill over against Tara
towards the rising of the sun. Thence sprang the beautiful stream of the
Nemnich, rich in lilies and reeds and bulrushes, which to-day men call
the Nanny Water. Laeg was grey-eyed and freckled.

Then there were led forward by two strong knights a pair of great and
spirited horses and a splendid war-car. The King said, “They are
thine, dear nephew. Well I know that neither thou, nor Laeg, will be a
dishonour to this war equipage.”

Cuculain sprang into the car, and standing with legs apart, he stamped
from side to side and shook the car mightily, till the axle brake, and
the car itself was broken in pieces.

“It is not a good chariot,” said the lad.

Another was led forward, and he broke it in like manner.

“Give me a sound chariot, High Lord of the Clanna Rury, or give me
none,” he said. “No prudent warrior would fight from such brittle
foothold.”

He brake in succession nine war chariots, the greatest and strongest in
Emain. When he broke the ninth the horses of Macha neighed from their
stable. Great fear fell upon the host when they heard that unusual noise
and the reverberation of it in the woods and hills.

“Let those horses be harnessed to the Chariot of Macha,” cried Concobar,
“and let Laeg, son of the King of Gabra, drive them hither, for those
are the horses and that the chariot which shall be given this day to
Cuculain.”

Then, son of Sualtam, how in thy guileless breast thy heart leaped, when
thou heardest the thundering of the great war-car and the wild neighing
of the immortal steeds, as they broke from the dark stable into the
clear-shining light of day, and heard behind them the ancient roaring
of the brazen wheels as in the days when they bore forth Macha and her
martial groom against the giants of old, and mightily established in
Eiriu the Red Branch of the Ultonians! Soon they rushed to view from
the rear of Emain, speeding forth impetuously out of the hollow-sounding
ways of the city and the echoing palaces into the open, and behind them
in the great car green and gold, above the many-twinkling wheels, the
charioteer, with floating mantle, girt round the temples with the gold
fillet of his office, leaning backwards and sideways as he laboured
to restrain their fury unrestrainable; a grey long-maned steed,
whale-bellied, broad-chested, with mane like flying foam, under one
silver yoke, and a black lustrous, tufty-maned steed under the other,
such steeds as in power, size, and beauty the earth never produced
before and never will produce again.

Like a hawk swooping along the face of a cliff when the wind is high, or
like the rush of March wind over the smooth plain, or like the fleetness
of the stag roused from his lair by the hounds and covering his first
field, was the rush of those steeds when they had broken through the
restraint of the charioteer, as though they galloped over fiery flags,
so that the earth shook and trembled with the velocity of their motion,
and all the time the great car brayed and shrieked as the wheels
of solid and glittering bronze went round, and strange cries and
exclamations were heard, for they were demons that had their abode in
that car.

The charioteer restrained the steeds before the assembly, but
nay-the-less a deep purr, like the purr of a tiger, proceeded from the
axle. Then the whole assembly lifted up their voices and shouted for
Cuculain, and he himself, Cuculain, the son of Sualtam, sprang into
his chariot, all armed, with a cry as of a warrior springing into his
chariot in the battle, and he stood erect and brandished his spears, and
the war sprites of the Gael shouted along with him, for the Bocanahs and
Bananahs and the Geniti Glindi, the wild people of the glens, and the
demons of the air, roared around him, when first the great warrior of
the Gael, his battle-arms in his hands, stood equipped for war in his
chariot before all the warriors of his tribe, the kings of the Clanna
Rury and the people of Emain Macha. Then, too, there sounded from the
Tec Brac the boom of shields, and the clashing of swords and the cries
and shouting of the Tuatha De Danan, who dwelt there perpetually; and Lu
the Long-Handed, the slayer of Balor, the destroyer of the Fomoroh, the
immortal, the invisible, the maker and decorator of the Firmament, whose
hound was the sun and whose son the viewless wind, thundered from heaven
and bent his sling five-hued against the clouds; and the son of the
illimitable Lir [Footnote: Mananan mac Lir, the sea-god.] in his mantle
blue and green, foam-fringed passed through the assembly with a roar of
far-off innumerable waters, and the Mor Reega stood in the midst with a
foot on either side of the plain, and shouted with the shout of a host,
so that the Ultonians fell down like reaped grass with their faces to
the earth, on account of the presence of the Mor Reega, and on account
of the omens and great signs.

Cuculain bade Laeg let the steeds go. They went like a storm and three
times encircled Emain Macha. It was the custom of the Ultonians to march
thrice round Emain ere they went forth to war.

Then said Cuculain--“Whither leads the great road yonder?”

“To Ath-na-Forairey and the borders of the Crave Rue.”

“And wherefore is it called the Ford of the Watchings?” said Cuculain.

“Because,” answered Laeg, “there is always one of the King’s knights
there, keeping watch and ward over the gate of the province.”

“Guide thither the horses,” said Cuculain, “for I will not lay aside my
arms till I have first reddened them in the blood of the enemies of my
nation. Who is it that is over the ward there this day?”

“It is Conall Carnach,” said Laeg.

As they drew nigh to the ford, the watchman from his high watch-tower on
the west side of the dun sent forth a loud and clear voice--

“There is a chariot coming to us from Emain Macha,” he said. “The
chariot is of great size; I have not seen its like in all Eiriu. In
front of it are two horses, one black and one white. Great is their
trampling and their glory and the shaking of their heads and necks.
I liken their progress to the fall of water from a high cliff or the
sweeping of dust and beech-tree leaves over a plain, when the March wind
blows hard, or to the rapidity of thunder rattling over the firmament. A
man would say that there were eight legs under each horse, so rapid and
indistinguishable is the motion of their limbs and hoofs. Identify those
horses, O Conall, and that chariot, for to me they are unknown.”

“And to me likewise,” said Conall. “Who are in the chariot? Moderate, O
man, the extravagance of thy language, for thou art not a prophet but a
watchman.”

“There are two beardless youths in the chariot,” answered the watchman,
“but I am unable to identify them on account of the dust and the rapid
motion and the steam of the horses. I think the charioteer is Laeg, the
son of the King of Gabra, for I know his manner of driving. The boy who
sits in front of him and below him on the champion’s seat I do not know,
but he shines like a star in the cloud of dust and steam.” Then a young
man who stood near to Conall Carna, wearing a short, red cloak with a
blue hood to it, and a tassel at the point of the hood, said to Conall--

“If it be my brother that charioteers sure am I that it is Cuculain who
is in the fighter’s seat, for many a time have I heard Laeg utter foul
scorn of the Red Branch, none excepted, when compared with Sualtam’s
son. For no other than him would he deign to charioteer. Truly though he
is my own brother there is not such a boaster in the North.”

Then the watchman cried out again--

“Yea, the charioteer is the son of the King of Gabra, and it is
Cuculain, the son of Sualtam, who sits in the fighter’s seat. He has
Concobar’s own shield on his breast, and his two spears in his hand.
Over Bray Ros, over Brainia, they are coming along the highway, by the
foot of the Town of the Tree; it is gifted with victories.”

“Have done, O talkative man,” cried Conall, “whose words are like the
words of a seer, or the full-voiced intonement of a chief bard.”

When the chariot came to the ford, Conall was amazed at the horses and
the chariot, but he dissembled his amazement before his people, and when
he saw Cuculain armed, he laughed and said,--

“Hath the boy indeed taken arms?”

And Cuculain said, “It is as thou seest, O son of Amargin; and moreover,
I have sworn not to let them back into the Chamber-of-Many-Colours
[Footnote: Tec Brac or Speckled House, the armoury of the Ultonians.]
until I shall have first reddened them in the blood of the enemies of
Ulla.”

Then Conall ceased laughing and said, “Not so, Setanta, for verily thou
shalt not be permitted;” and the great Champion sprang forward to lay
his fearless, never-foiled, and all conquering hands on the bridles
of the horses, but at a nod from Cuculain, Laeg let the steeds go, and
Conall sprang aside out of the way, so terrible was the appearance of
the horses as they reared against him. “Harness my horses and yoke my
chariot,” cried Conall, “for if this mad boy goes into the enemies’
country and meets with harm there, verily I shall never be forgiven by
the Ultonians.”

His horses were harnessed and his chariot yoked,--illustrious too were
those horses, named and famed in many songs--and Conall and Ide in their
chariot dashed through the ford enveloped with rainbow-painted clouds
of foam and spray, and like hawks on the wing they skimmed the plain,
pursuing the boys. Laeg heard the roar and trampling, and looking back
over his shoulder, said,--

“They are after us, dear master, namely the great son of Amargin and my
haughty brother Ide, who hath ever borne himself to me as though I were
a wayward child. They would spoil upon us this our brave foray. But they
will overtake the wind sooner than they will overtake the Liath Macha
and Black Shanglan, whose going truly is like the going of eagles. O
storm-footed steeds, great is my love for you, and inexpressible my
pride in your might and your beauty, your speed and your terror, and
sweet docility and affection.”

“Nevertheless, O Laeg,” said Cuculain, “slacken now their going, for
that Champion will be an impediment to us in our challengings and our
fightings; for when we stop for that purpose he will overtake us, and,
be our feats what they may, his and not ours will be the glory. Slacken
the going of the horses, for we must rid ourselves of the annoyance and
the pursuit of these gadflies.”

Laeg slackened the pace, and as they went Cuculain leaped lightly from
his seat and as lightly bounded back again, holding a great pebble in
his hand, such as a man using all his strength could with difficulty
raise from the ground, and sat still, rejoicing in his purpose, and
grasping the pebble with his five fingers.

Conall and Ide came up to them after that, and Conall, as the senior and
the best man amongst the Ultonians, clamorously called to them to turn
back straightway, or he would hough their horses, or draw the linch-pins
of their wheels, or in some other manner bring their foray to naught.
Cuculain thereupon stood upright in the car, and so standing, with feet
apart to steady him in his throwing and in his aim, dashed the stone
upon the yoke of Conall’s chariot between the heads of the horses and
broke the yoke, so that the pole fell to the ground and the chariot
tilted forward violently. Then the charioteer fell amongst the horses,
and Conall Carna, the beauty of the Ultonians the battle-winning and
ever-victorious son of Amargin, was shot out in front upon the road, and
fell there upon his left shoulder, and his beautiful raiment was defiled
with dust; and when he arose his left hand hung by his side, for the
shoulder-bone was driven from the socket, owing to the violence of the
fall.

“I swear by all my gods,” he cried, “that if a step would save thy head
from the hands of the men of Meath, I would not take it.”

Cuculain laughed and replied, “Good, O Conall, and who asked thee to
take it, or craved of thee any succour or countenance? Was it a straight
shot? Are there the materials of a fighter in me at all, dost thou
think? Thou art in my debt now too, O Conall. I have saved thee a
broken vow, for it is one of the oaths of our Order not to enter hostile
territory with brittle chariot-gear!”

Then the boys laughed at him again, and Laeg let go the steeds, and
very soon they were out of sight. Conall returned slowly with his broken
chariot to Ath-na-Forairey and sent for Fingin of Slieve Fuad, who was
the most cunning physician and most expert of bone-setters amongst the
Ultonians. Conall’s messengers experienced no difficulty in finding the
house of the leech, which was very recognisable on account of its shape
and appearance, and because it had wide open doors, four in number,
affording a liberal ingress and free thoroughfare to all the winds. Also
a stream of pure water ran through the house, derived from a well of
healing properties, which sprang from the side of the uninhabited hill.
Such were the signs that showed the house of a leech.

When they drew nigh they heard the voice of one man talking and of
another who laughed. It happened that that day there had been borne
thither a champion, in whose body there was not one small bone unbroken
or uninjured. The man’s bruises and fractures had been dressed and set
by Fingin and his intelligent and deft-handed apprentices, and he lay
now in his bed of healing listening joyfully to the conversation of
the leech, who was beyond all others eloquent and of most agreeable
discourse.

When Conall’s messengers related the reason of their coming, Fingin
cried to his young men, “Harness me my horses and yoke my chariot. There
are few,” he said, “in Erin for whom I would leave my own house, but
that youth is one of them. His father Amargin was well known to me. He
was a warrior grim and dour exceedingly, and he ever said concerning
the boy, ‘This hound’s whelp that I have gotten is too fine and sleek
to hold bloody gaps or hunt down a noble prey. He will be a women’s
playmate and not a peer amongst Heroes.’ And that fear was ever upon him
till the day when Conall came red out of the Valley of the Thrush, and
his track thence to Rath-Amargin was one straight path of blood, and
he with his shield-arm hacked to the bone, his sword-arm swollen and
bursting, and the flame of his valour burning bright in his splendid
eyes. Then, for the first time, the old man smiled upon him, and he
said, ‘That arm, my son, has done a man’s work to-day.’”



CHAPTER XV

ACROSS THE MEARINGS AND AWAY


   “Say, rushed the bold eagle exultingly forth.
   From his home, in the dark rolling clouds of the North?”

                  CAMPBELL.


As for the boys, they proceeded joyfully after that pleasant skirmish
and friendly encounter, both on account of the discomfiture of him who
was reckoned the prime champion of the Ultonians, and because they were
at large in Erin, with no one to direct them, or to whom they should
render an account; and their happiness, too, was increased by the
mettle, power and gallant action of the steeds, and by the clanking of
the harness and the brazen chains, and the ringing of the weapons of
war, and the roar of the revolving wheels, and owing to the velocity of
their motion and the rushing of the wind upon their temples and through
their hair.

Then Cuculain stood up in the chariot, and surveyed the land on all
sides, and said--

“What is that great, firm-based, indestructible mountain upon our left
hand, one of a noble range which, rising from the green plain, runs
eastward. The last peak there is the mountain of which I speak, whose
foot is in the Ictian sea and whose head neighbours the firmament.”

And Laeg said, “Men call it Slieve Modurn, after a giant of the elder
time, when men were mightier and greater than they are now. He was of
the children of Brogan, uncle of Milesius, and his brothers were
Fuad and Eadar and Breagh, and all these being very great men
are commemorated in the names of noble mountains and sea-dividing
promontories.”

“Guide thither the horses,” said Cuculain. “It is right that those who
take the road against an enemy should first spy out the land, choosing
judiciously their point of onset, and Slieve Modurn yonder commands a
most brave prospect.”

Laeg did so. There, in a green valley, they unharnessed the horses and
tethered them to graze, and they themselves climbed the mountain and
stood upon the top in the most clear air. Thence Laeg showed him the
green plain of Meath extending far and wide, and the great streams of
Meath where they ran, the Boyne and the Blackwater, the Liffey and the
Royal Rye, and his own stream the Nanny Water, clear and sparkling,
which was very dear to Laeg, because he had snared fish there and
erected dams, and had done divers boyish feats upon its shores.

Cuculain said, “I see a beautiful green hill, shaped like an inverted
ewer, on the south shore of the Boyne. There is a noble palace there.
I see the flashing of its lime-white sides, and the colours of the
variegated roof and around it are other beautiful houses. How is that
city named O Laeg, and who dwells there?”

“That is the hill of Temair,” answered Laeg, “Tara’s high citadel. Well
may that city be beautiful, for the seat of Erin’s high sovereignty is
there. The man who holds it is Arch-king of all Erin.”

“Westward by south,” said Cuculain, “I see another city widely built,
and unenclosed by ramparts and defensive works, and hard by there is a
most smooth plain. At one end of the plain I see a glittering, and also
at the other.”

And Laeg said, “That is the hill of Talteen, so named because the mother
of far-shooting Lu, the Deliverer, is worshipped there, and every year,
when the leaves change their colour, games and contests of skill are
celebrated there in her honour. So it was enjoined on the men of Erin
by her famous son. Chariot races are run there on that smooth plain.
The glittering points on either side of it are the racing pillars of
burnished brass, the starting-post, and that which the charioteers graze
with the glowing axle. Many a noble chariot has been broken, and many
a gallant youth slain at the further of those twain. It was there that
Concobar raced his steeds against the woman with child, concerning which
things there are rumours and prophesyings.”

So Cuculain questioned Laeg concerning the cities of Meath, and
concerning the noble raths and duns where the kings and lords and
chief men of Meath dwelt prosperously, rejoicing in their great wealth.
Cuculain said, “None of these kings and lords and chief men whom thou
hast enumerated have at any time injured my nation, and there is not one
upon whom I might rightly take vengeance. But I see one other splendid
dun, and of this thou hast said no word, though thrice I have questioned
thee concerning it.”

Laeg grew pale at these words, and he said,

“What dun is that, my master?”

Cuculain said, “O fox that thou art, right well thou knowest. It is not
a little or mean one, but great, proud, and conspicuous, and vauntingly
it rears its head like a man who has never known defeat, but on the
contrary has caused many widows to lament. Its white sides flashed
against the dark waters of the Boyne, and its bright roofs glitter above
the green woods. There is a stream that runs into the Boyne beside it,
and there are bulwarks around it, and great strong barriers.”

Laeg answered, “That is the dun of the sons of Nectan.”

“Let us now leave Slieve Modurn,” said Cuculain, “and guide thither my
horses, for I shall lay waste that dun, and burn it with fire, after
having slain the men who dwell there.”

Then Laeg clasped his comrade’s knees, and said, “Take the road, dear
master, against the royalest dun in all Meath, but pass by that dun.
The men are not alive to-day who at any time approached it with warlike
intent. Those who dwell there are sorcerers and enchanters, lords of all
the arts of poison and of war.”

Cuculain answered, “I swear by my gods that Dun-Mic-Nectan is the only
dun in all Meath which shall hear my warlike challenge this day. Descend
the hill now, for verily thither shalt thou fare, and that whether thou
art willing or unwilling.”

Now, for the first time, his valour and his destructive wrath were
kindled in the soul of Dethcaen’s nursling. Laeg saw the tokens of it,
and feared and obeyed. Unwillingly he came down the slopes of Slieve
Modurn, and unwillingly harnessed the horses and yoked the chariot,
and yoked the horses. Southwards, then, they fared swiftly through the
night, and the intervening nations heard them as they went. When they
arrived at the dun of the sons of Nectan it was twilight and the dawning
of the day. Before the dun there was a green and spacious lawn in full
view of the palace, and on the lawn a pillar and on the pillar a huge
disc of shining bronze. Cuculain descended and examined the disc, and
there was inscribed on it in ogham a curse upon the man who should enter
that lawn and depart again without battle and single combat with the men
of the dun. Cuculain took the disc from its place and cast it from him
southwards. The brazen disc skimmed low across the plain and then soared
on high until it showed to those who looked a full, bright face, like
the moon’s, after which, pausing one moment, it fell sheer down and sank
into the dark waters of the Boyne, without a sound, or at all disturbing
the tranquil surface of the great stream, and was no more seen.

“That bright lure,” said Cuculain, “shall no more be a cause of death to
brave men. This lawn, O Laeg, is surely the richest of all the lawns in
the world. Close-enwoven and thick is the mantle of short green grass
which it wears, decked all over with red-petalled daisies and bright
flowers more numerous than the stars on a frosty night.”

“That is not surprising,” said Laeg, “for the lawn is enriched and made
fat by the blood that has been shed abundantly now for a long time, the
blood of heroes and valiant men--slain here by the people of the dun.
Very rich too, are the men, both on account of their strippings of the
slain, and on account of the druidic well of magic which is within the
dun. For the people come from far and near to pay their vows at that
well, and they give costly presents to those sorcerers who are priests
and custodians of the same.”

“Noble, indeed, is the dun,” said Cuculain. “But it is yet early, for
the sun is not yet risen from his red-flaming eastern couch, and the
people of the dun, too, are in their heavy slumber. I would repose now
for a while and rest myself before the battles and hard combats which
await me this day. Wherefore, good Laeg, let down the sides and seats
of the chariot, that I may repose myself for a little and take a short
sleep.”

For just then precisely an unwonted drowsiness and desire for slumber
possessed Cuculain.

“Witless and devoid of sense art thou,” answered Laeg, “for who but
an idiot would think of sweet sleep and agreeable repose in a hostile
territory, much more in full view of those who look out from a foeman’s
dun, and that dun, Dun-Mic-Nectan?”

“Do as I bid thee,” said Cuculain. “For one day, if for no other, thou
shalt obey my commands.”

Laeg unyoked the chariot and turned the great steeds forth to graze on
the druidic lawn, which was never done before at any time. He let
down the chariot and arranged it as a couch, and his young master laid
himself therein, composing his limbs and pillowing tranquilly his head,
and he closed his immortal eyes. Very soon sweet slumber possessed him.
Laeg meanwhile kept watch and ward, and his great heart in his breast
continually trembled like the leaf of the poplar tree, or like a rush in
a flooded stream. The awakening birds unconscious sang in the trees, the
dew glittered on the grass; hard by the royal Boyne rolled silently.
The son of Sualtam slumbered without sound or motion, and the charioteer
stood beside him upright, like a pillar, his grey bright eyes fixed upon
the house of the sorcerers, the merciless, bloody, and ever-victorious
sons of Nectan, the son of Labrad.

Of the people of the dun, Foil, son of Nectan, was the first to awake.
It was his custom to wander forth by himself early in the morning,
devising snares and stratagems by which he might take and destroy men at
his leisure. He was more cruel than anything. By him the great door of
the dun, bound and rivetted with brass, was flung open. With one hand he
backshot the bar, which rushed into its chamber with a roar and crash
as of a great house when it falls, and with the other he drew back the
door. It grated on its brazen hinges, and on the iron threshold, with a
noise like thunder. Then Foil stood black and huge in the wide doorway
of the dun, and he looked at Laeg and Laeg looked at him. The man
was ugly and fierce of aspect. His hair was thick and black; he was
bull-necked and large-eared. His mantle was black, bordered with dark
red; his tunic, a dirty yellow, was splashed with recent blood. There
were great shoes on his feet soled with wood and iron. In his hand he
bore a staff of quick-beam, as it were a full-grown tree without its
branches. He being thus, strode forward in an ungainly manner to Laeg,
and with a surly voice bade him drive the horses off the lawn.

“Drive them off thyself,” said Laeg.

He sought to do that, but owing to the behaviour of the steeds, he
desisted right soon, and turned again to Laeg.

“Who is the sleeping youth?” said he, “and wherefore hath he come hither
in an evil hour?”

“He is a certain mild and gentle youth of the Ultonians,” replied Laeg,
“who yester morning prosperously assumed his arms of chivalry for the
first time, and hath come hither to prove his valour upon the sons of
Nectan.”

“Many youths of his nation have come hither with the same intent,” said
the giant, “but they did not return.”

“This youth will,” said Laeg, “after having slain the sons of Nectan,
and after having sacked their dun and burned it with fire.”

Foil hearing that word became very angry, and he gripped his great
staff and advanced to make a sudden end of Laeg first, and then of the
sleeper, Laeg, on his side, drew Cuculain’s sword. Hardly and using all
his strength, could he do so and at the same time hold himself in an
attitude of defence and attack, but he succeeded. His aspect, too, was
high and warlike, and his eyes shone menacingly the while his heart
trembled, for he knew too well that he was no match for the man.

“Go back now for thy weapons of war,” he cried, “and all thy
war-furniture, and thy instruments of sorcery and enchantment. Truly
thou art in need of them all.”

When Foil saw how the enormous sword flashed in the lad’s hand, and saw
the fierceness of his visage and heard his menacing words, he returned
to the dun. The people of the dun were now awake, and they clustered
like bees on the slope of the mound, and in the covered ways beneath
the eaves and along the rampart, and they hissed and roared and shouted
words of insult and contumely, lewd and gross, concerning Laeg and
concerning that other youth who slept in such a place and at such a
time. But Laeg stood still and silent, with his eyes fixed on the dun,
and with the point of his sword leaning on the ground, for his right
hand was weary on account of its great weight. Very ardently he longed
that his master should awake out of that unreasonable slumber. Yet he
made no attempt to rouse him, for it was unlawful to awake Cuculain
when he slept. Conspicuous amongst the people of the dun were Foil’s
brethren, Tuatha and Fenla, Tuatha vast in bulk, and Fenla, tall and
swift, wearing a mantle of pale blue. Around Fenla stood the three
cup-bearers, who drew water from the magic well, Flesc, Lesc, and Leam
were their names. At the same time that Foil reappeared in the doorway
of the dun, fully armed and equipped for battle, Cuculain awoke and
sat up. At first he was dazed and bewildered, for divine voices were
sounding in his ears, and fleeting visionary presences were departing
from him. Then he heard the people how they shouted and saw his enemy
descending the slope of the dun, sights and sounds indeed diverse from
those his dreams and visions. With a cry he started from his bed, like
a deer starting from his lair, and the people of the dun fell suddenly
silent when they beheld the velocity of his movements, the splendour of
his beauty, and the rapidity with which he armed himself and stood forth
for war.

“That champion is Foil, son of Nectan,” said Laeg, “and there is not
one in the world with whom it is more difficult to contend both in other
respects and chiefly in this, that there is but one weapon wherewith he
may be slain. To all others he is invulnerable. That weapon is an iron
ball having magic properties, and no man knows where to look for it,
or where the man hath hidden it away. And O my dear master, thou goest
forth to certain death going forth against that man.”

“Have no fear on that account,” said Cuculain, “for it has been revealed
to me where he hides it. It is a ges to him to wear it always on his
breast above his armour, but beneath his mantle and tunic. There it is
suspended by a strong chain of brass around his neck. With that ball I
shall slay him in the manner in which I have been directed by those who
visited me while I slept.”

Then they fought, and in the first close so vehement was the onset of
Foil, that Cuculain could do no more than defend himself, and around the
twain sparks flew up in showers as from a smithy where a blacksmith and
his lusty apprentices strongly beat out the red iron. The second was
similar to the first, and equally without results. In the third close
Cuculain, having sheathed his sword, sprang upwards and dashed his
shield into the giant’s face, and at the same time he tore from its
place of concealment the magic ball, rending mightily the brazen chain.
And he leaped backwards, and taking a swift aim, threw. The ball flew
from the young hero’s hand like a bolt from a sling, and it struck the
giant in the middle of the forehead below the rim of his helmet, but
above his blazing eyes, and the ball crashed through the strong frontal
bone, and tore its way through the hinder part of his head, and went
forth, carrying the brains with it in its course, so that there was a
free tunnel and thoroughfare for all the winds of heaven there. With a
crash and a ringing, armour and weapons, the giant fell upon the
plain and his blood poured forth in a torrent there where he himself
invulnerable had shed the blood of so many heroes. Laeg rejoiced greatly
at that feat, and with a loud voice bade the men of the dun bring forth
their next champion. This was Tuatha the second son of Nectan, and the
fiercest of the three, he buffeted his esquires and gillas, while they
armed him, so that it was a sore task for them to clasp and strap and
brace his armour upon him that day, for their faces were bloody from his
hands, and the floor of the armoury was strewn with their teeth. That
armour was a marvel and astonishment to all who saw it, so many thick,
hard skins of wild oxen of the mountains had been stitched together to
furnish forth the champion’s coat of mail. It was strengthened, too,
with countless bars and rings of brass sewed fast to it all over, and
it encompassed the whole of his mighty frame, from his shoulders to his
feet. The helmet and neckpiece were one, wrought in like manner, only
stronger. The helmet covered his face. There was no opening there
save breathing slits and two round holes through which his eyes shone
terribly. On his feet were strong shoes bound with brass. To any other
man but himself this armour would have been an encumbrance, for it was
good and sufficient loading for a car drawn by one yoke of oxen; but so
clad, this man was aware of no unusual weight. When they had clasped him
and braced him to his satisfaction, and, indeed, that was not easy, they
put upon him his tunic of dusky grey, and over that his mantle of dark
crimson, and fastened it on his breast with a brooch whose wheel alone
would task one man’s full strength to lift from the ground.

Then Tuatha went forth out of the dun, and when his people saw him they
shouted mightily, for before that they had been greatly dismayed, and
cast down on account of the slaying of Foil, whom till then they had
deemed invincible. They were all males dwelling here together in sorcery
and common lust for blood. No woman brightened their dark assemblies
and the voice of a child was never heard within the dun or around it. So
they rejoiced greatly when they beheld Tuatha and saw him how wrathfully
he came forth, breathing slaughter, and heard his voice; for terribly
he shouted as he strode down from the dun, and he banned and cursed
Cuculain and Laeg, and devoted them to his gloomy gods. Beneath his feet
the massive timbers of the drawbridge bent and creaked.

Said Laeg, “This man, O dear Setanta, is far more terrible than the
first, for he is said to be altogether invulnerable and proof against
any weapon that was ever made.”

“It is not altogether thus,” said Cuculain, “but if the man escapes the
first stroke he is thenceforward invincible, and surely slays his foe.
Therefore give into my hand Concobar’s unendurable and mighty ashen
spear, for I must make an end of him at one cast or not at all.”

Tuatha now rushed upon Cuculain, flinging darts, of which he carried
many in his left hand. Not one of them did Cuculain attempt to take upon
his shield, but altogether eluded them, for now he swerved to one side
and now to another, and now he dropped on one knee and again sprang
high in air, so that the missile hurtled and hissed between his gathered
feet. Truly since the beginning of the world there was not, and to the
end of the world there will not be, a better leaper than thy nursling,
daughter of Cathvah; and behind him all the lawn was as it were sown
thick with spears, and these so buried in the earth that two-thirds of
their length was concealed and a third only projected slantwise from the
green and glittering sward. When the man with all his force, fury, and
venom had discharged his last shaft and seen it, too, shoot screaming
beneath the aerial feet of the hero, he roared so terribly that the
shores and waters of the Boyne and the surrounding woods and groves
returned a hollow moan, and, laying his right hand on the hand-grip of
his sword, he rushed upon Cuculain. At that moment Cuculain poised the
broad-bladed spear of Concobar Mac Nessa and cast it at the man, who was
now very near, and came rushing on like a storm, having his vast sword
drawn and flashing. That cast no one could rightly blame whether as to
force or direction, for the brazen blade caught the son of Nectan full
on breast under the left pap and tore through his thick and strong
armour and burst three rib bones, and fixed itself in his heart, so that
he fell first upon his knees, stumbling forward, and then rolled over
on the plain and a torrent of black blood gushed from his mouth and
nostrils.

“That was indeed a brave cast,” said Laeg, “for the coat is the
thickness of seven bulls’ hides, and plated besides, and the rib-bones,
through which Concobar’s great spear impelled by thee hath burst his
victorious way, are stronger than the thigh-bones of a horse; but pluck
out the spear now, for it is beyond my power to do so, and stand well
upon thy guard, for the two combats past will be as child’s play to
that which now awaits thee. Fenla, the third son of Nectan, is preparing
himself for battle. He is called the Swallow, because there is not a
man in the world swifter to retreat, or swifter to pursue. He is more at
home in the water than on the dry land, for through it he dives like a
water-dog, and glides like an eel, and rushes like a salmon when in the
spring-time he seeks the upper pools. Greatly I fear that his challenge
and defiance will be to do battle with him there, where no man born of
woman can meet him and live.”

“Say not so, O Laeg,” said Cuculain, “and be not so afraid and cast
down, but still keep a cheerful heart in thy breast and a high and brave
countenance before the people of the dun. For my tutor Fergus paid a
good heed to my education in the whole art of war and especially as to
swimming. He is himself a most noble swimmer and I have profited by his
instructions. Once he put me to the test. It was in the great swimming
bath in the Callan, dug out, it is said, by the Firbolgs in the ancient
days, and the trial was in secret and its issue has not been revealed to
this day. On that occasion I swam round the bath holding two well-grown
boys in my right arm and two in my left, and there was a fifth sitting
on my shoulders with his hands clasped on my forehead, and my back was
not wetted by the Callan. Therefore dismiss thy fear and answer thou
their challenge with a strong voice and a cheerful countenance.”

Laeg did that and he answered their challenge with a voice that rang,
striking fear into the hearts of those who heard him. Forthwith, then,
Fenla, wearing sword and shield, sprang at a bound over the rampart and
foss, and his course thence to the Boyne was like a flash of blue and
white and he plunged into the dark stream like a bright spear, and
diving beneath the flood he emerged a great way off, and cried aloud for
his foe.

“I am here,” cried Cuculain, at his side. “Cease thy shouting and look
to thyself, for it is not my custom to take advantage of any man.”

Marvellous and terrible was the battle which then ensued between these
champions. For the spray and the froth and the flying spume of the
convulsed and agitated waters around that warring twain, rose in white
clouds, and owing to the fierceness of the combat and the displacement
of the waters around them, the Boyne on either hand beat her green
margin with sudden and unusual billows, for the divine river was taken
with a great surprise on that occasion. Amid the roar of the waters ever
sounded the dry clash of the meeting swords and the clang of the smitten
shields and the ringing of helmets. Sometimes one champion would dive
seeking an advantage, and the other would dive too, in order to elude
or meet the assault. Then the frothing surface of the stream would
clear itself, and the Boyne run dark as before, though the mounted water
showed that the combat still raged in its depths. The swallows, too, had
been scared away, returning, skimmed the surface, and the bird which
is the most beautiful of all darted a bright streak low across the dark
water. Anon the submerged champions, coming to the surface for breath,
renewed their deadly combat amid foaming waters and clouds of spray.
The full particulars of this combat are not related, only that the
wizard-champion grew weaker, while his vigour and strength continued
unabated with the son of Sualtam, and that in the end he slew the other,
and in the sight of all he cut off his head and flung it from the middle
Boyne to the shore, and that the headless trunk of Fenla, son of Nectan,
floated down-stream to the sea. When the people of the dun saw that,
they brake forth west-ward and fled. Then Cuculain and Laeg invaded the
dun, and they burst open the doors of the strong chambers, and of the
dungeons beneath the earth, and let loose the prisoners and the hostages
and the prepared victims, and they broke the idols and the instruments
of sorcery, and filled in the well. After that they replenished the
vacant places of the war-car with things the most precious and such as
were portable, and gave all the rest to the liberated captives for a
prey. Last of all they applied fire to the vast dun, and quickly the
devouring flames shot heavenward, fed with pine and red yew, and rolled
forth a mighty pillar of black smoke, reddened with rushing sparks and
flaming embers. The men of Tara saw it, and the men of Tlatga, and
of Tailteen, and of Ben-Eadar, and they consulted their prophets and
wizards as to what this portent might mean, for it was not a little
smoke that the burning of Dun-Mic-Nectan sent forth that day.



CHAPTER XVI

THE RETURN OF CUCULAIN


     “The golden gates of sleep unbar
     When strength and beauty met together
     Kindle their image like a star
     In a sea of glassy weather.”

                      SHELLEY.


Then Laeg harnessed the horses and yoked the chariot. To the brazen
peaks of the chariot he fastened the heads of Foil and of Tuatha, with
Foil’s on the left hand and Tuatha’s on the right; and the long-haired
head of the water-wizard he made fast by its own hair to the ornament of
silver that was at the forward extremity of the great chariot pole. When
this was done, and when he had secured his master’s weapons and warlike
equipments in their respective places, the youths ascended the chariot,
and Laeg shook the ringing reins and called to the steeds to go, and
they went, and soon they were on the hard highway straining forward to
the north. The sound of the war-car behind them outroared the roaring
of the flames. Cuculain was a pale red all over, for ere the last combat
was at an end that pool of the Boyne was like one bath of blood. His
eyes blazed terribly in his head, and his face was fearful to look upon.
Like a reed in a river so he quaked and trembled, and there went out
from him a moaning like the moaning of winds through deep woods or
desolate glens, or over the waste places of the earth when darkness is
abroad. For the war-fury which the Northmen named after the Barserkers
enwrapped and inflamed him, body and spirit, owing to those strenuous
combats, and owing to the venom and the poison which exhaled from those
children of sorcery, that spawn of Death and Hell, so that his gentle
mind became as it were the meeting-place of storms and the confluence of
shouting seas. A man ran before him whose bratta on the wind roared
like fire, and there was a sound of voices calling and acclaiming, and a
noontide darkness descended upon him and accompanied him as he went, and
all became obscure and shapeless, and all the ways were murk. And
the mind of Laeg, too, was disturbed and shaken loose from its strong
foundations.

“But now,” said Cuculain, “there ran a man before us. Him I do not see,
but what is this herd of monstrous deer, sad-coloured and livid, as with
horns and hoofs of iron? I have not seen such at any time. Lurid fire
plays round them as they flee.”

“No deer of the earth are they,” said Laeg. “They are the enchanted herd
of Slieve Fuad, and from their abode subterrene they have come up late
into the world surrounded by night that they may graze upon Eiriu’s
plains, and it is not lawful even to look upon them.”

“Pursue and run down those deer,” said Cuculain.

“There is fear upon me,” said Laeg.

“Alive or dead thou shalt come with me on this adventure, though it lead
us into the mighty realms of the dead,” cried Cuculain.

Laeg relaxed his hands upon the reins and let the steeds go, and they
chased the enchanted herd of Slieve Fuad. There was no hunting seen like
that before in Erin. So vehement was the chase that a twain of the herd
was run down and they upon their knees and sobbing. Cuculain sprang from
the chariot and he made fast one of the deer to the pole of the chariot
to run before, and on to the hinder part of it to run behind. So they
went northward again with a deer of the herd of Hell running before them
and another following behind.

“What are those birds whiter than snow and more brilliant than stars,”
 said then Cuculain, “which are before us upon the plain, as if Heaven
with its astral lights and splendour were outspread before us there?”

“They are the wild geese of the enchanted flocks of Lir,” answered Laeg.
“From his vast and ever-during realms beneath the sea they have come up
through the dim night to feed on Banba’s plains. Have nought to do with
those birds, dear master.”

Cuculain stood up in his chariot with his sling in his hand, and he
fitted thereto small bolts, and slang. He did not make an end before he
had overthrown and laid low three score of the birds of Lir.

“Go bring me those birds,” said he to Laeg. The horses were plunging
terribly when he said that.

“I may not, O my master,” said Laeg. “For even now, and with the reins
in my hand, I am unable to restrain their fury and their madness, to
such a degree have their noble minds been disturbed by the sorcery and
the druidism and the enchantment with which they are surrounded. And
I fear that soon the brazen wheels will fail me, or that the axle-tree
will fail me by reason of their collidings with the rocks and cliffs of
the land, when the horses shall have escaped from my control and shall
have rushed forth like hurricanes over the earth.”

Forthwith Cuculain sprang out in front of the chariot, and seized them
by their mouths and they in their rearing, and with his hands bowed down
their heads to the earth, and they knew their master and stood still
while they quaked. Laeg collected the birds, and Cuculain secured
them to the chariot and to the harness. The birds returned to life
and Cuculain cut the binding cords, so that the birds flew over and on
either side of the chariot, and singing besides.

In that manner, speeding northward, Cuculain and Laeg drew nigh to
Emain Macha. Concobar and the Ultonians happened at that very time to
be seeking a druidic response from the prophetess Lavarcam concerning
Cuculain and concerning Laeg, for their minds misgave them that beyond
the mearings of the Province the lads had come to some hurt, and
Lavarcam, answering them, said:

     “Look to yourselves now ye children of Rury,
     Your destruction and the end of your career are at hand.
     Close all gates, shoot every bar.
     For Dethcaen’s nursling, Sualtam’s son, draweth nigh.

     “Verily he is not hurt, but he hath wounded.
     Champions the mightiest
     he hath victoriously overthrown.
     Though he come swiftly it is not in flight.
     Take good heed now while there is time.
     He cometh like night in raiment of darkness,
     Starry singing flocks are round his head,
     Soon,O Concobar, his unendurable hand will be upon you;
     Soon your dead will outnumber your living.”

“Close all the gates of Emain,” cried Concobar, “and treble-bar all
with bars. Look to your weapons ye heroes of the Red Branch. Man the
ramparts, and let every bridge be raised.”

So the high king shouted, and his voice rang through the vast and high
dun and rolled along the galleries and far-stretching corridors, and was
heard by the women of Ulla in their secluded chambers. And at the same
time the watchman from the watch-tower cried out. Then the women held
council together, and they said:

“Moats and ramparts and strong doors will not repel Cuculain. He will
surely o’erleap the moat and burst through the doors and slay many.”

And as they debated together they said that they alone would save the
city and defeat the war-demons who had Cuculain in their power. For they
said--“His virginity is with him, and his beautiful shamefastness, and
his humility and reverence for women, whether they be old or young, and
whether they be comely or not comely. And this was his way always, and
now more than formerly since young love hath descended upon him in the
form of Emer, daughter of Fargal Manach, King of Lusk in the south.”

Then the women of the Ultonians did a great and memorable deed, and such
as was not known to have been done at any time in Erin.

They bade all the men retire into the dun after they had lowered the
bridge; and when that was done three tens of them, such as were the most
illustrious in rank and famous for accomplishments, and they all in the
prime of their youth and beauty, and clad only in the pure raiment of
their womanhood, came forth out of the quarters of the women, and in
that order, in spite of shame they went to meet him. When Cuculain saw
them advancing towards him in lowly wise, with exposed bosom and hands
crossed on their breasts, his weapons fell from his hands and the
war-demons fled out of him, and low in the chariot he bent down his
noble head. By them he was conducted into the dun, into a chamber which
they had prepared for him, and they drew water and filled his kieve, and
there Laeg ministered to him. He was like one fiery glowing mass--like
iron plucked red out of the furnace.

When he had entered his bath the water boiled around him. After he had
bathed and when he became calm and cool Laeg put upon him his beautiful
banqueting attire, and he came into the great hall lowly and blushing.
All were acclaiming and praising him, and he passed up the great
hall and made a reverence to the King, and he sat down at the King’s
footstool. All who saw him marvelled then more at his beauty than at his
deeds. He was sick after that, and came very near to death, but in
the end he fell into a very deep sleep from which he awoke whole and
refreshed, though it was the opinion of many that he would surely die.
Cuculain was seventeen years of age when he did these feats.





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