Cuchulain of Muirthemne

V. The Championship of Ulster

   After they were gone back to Emain after Bricriu's feast, a quarrel began between Conall and Laegaire and Cuchulain about the Champion's Portion, and Conchubar and the chief men of Ulster came between them to settle it. And Conchubar bade them to go to Cruachan in Connaught, to have the matter judged by Ailell and by Maeve. "And if that fails you," he said, "what you have to do is to go to Curoi, son of Daire, at Slieve Mis, in Munster. And it is a true judgment he will give, for he is just and fair-minded, his house is open to guests, his hand is good in battle, in leading he is a king. He will give you a right judgment, but it is only a brave man will ask it from him, for be is wise in all sorts of enchantments, and can do things that no other man can do."
   "We will go first to Cruachan," said Cuchulain. "I agree to that," said Laegaire. "Let us go then," said Conall Cearnach. "Let horses be brought, and your chariot yoked, Conall," said Cuchulain; "and go on the first." "I would not like that," said Conall. "That is no wonder," said Cuchulain, "for every one knows the awkwardness of your horses, and the unsteadiness of your chariot; it is so heavy that each of the wheels raises the sod on each side wherever it goes, the way that for the length of a year it is easy for the men of Ulster to know the track it has left after it."
   "Do you hear that, Laegaire?" said Conall "It is for you to go first." "Do not begin to mock at me," said Laegaire, "for I am good at crossing fords, and I am ready to go up and face a storm of spears before any man. But do not put me beside chariot kings till I practise going through hard and narrow places, and racing against single chariots, till the champion of a single chariot will be afraid to pass me."
   With that Laegaire had his chariot yoked, and leaped into it. He drove over Magh da Gabal, the Plain of the Two Forks, over Bernaid na Foraire, the Gap of the Watch, over the Ford of Carpat Fergus, over the Ford of the Morrigu, to Caerthund Cluana da Dam, the Rowan Meadow of the Two Oxen, in the Fews of Firbuide; by the four ways, past Dundealgan across Magh Slicech, the Peeled Plain, westward by Bregia. And it was not long till Conall Cearnach followed after him, and many of the chief men of Ulster with them.
   But Cuchulain stayed behind the others, amusing the women of Ulster with his feats. He did nine feats with apples, nine with spears, and nine with knives, without ever letting one touch the other. And he took three times fifty needles from the women, and threw them up, one after the other, so that each needle went into the eye of the other, and in that way they were all joined together. Then he gave every woman her needle back into her own hand.
   But Laeg, son of Riangabra, went to look for him, and reproached him, and said: "You pitiful squinter, your courage has gone from you! The Champion's Portion is lost to you, the men of Ulster have got to Cruachan before this." "I never thought of it, my Laeg," said Cuchulain; "but yoke the chariot for me now." So Laeg yoked it, and they set out on their journey. By that time the men of Ulster were come to Magh Breagh, the Fine Meadow; but Cuchulain, after he was roused up by Laeg, travelled so fast, and the Grey of Macha and the Black Sainglain went racing in such a way with his chariot across the whole province of Conchubar, across Slieve Fuad and the plain of Bregia, that he came up with the others before they came to Cruachan.
   The noise the whole troop made was so great, going at such speed as they did, that a great shaking came on Cruachan, and the arms fell from the racks to the ground, and the whole of the dun began to shake, so that every man was trembling like a rush in a stream. On that Maeve said: "Since the day I first came to Cruachan I never before heard thunder, there being no clouds in the sky." Then Findabair of the Fair Eyebrows, daughter of Ailell and of Maeve, went up, for she had a bird's sight, to her sunny parlour over the great door of the fort, to tell them what was coming.
   "Dear mother," she said, "I see a chariot coming over the plain." "Tell me what is its appearance," said Maeve, "and the colour of its horses, and the appearance of the man that sits in it." "I see well," said Findabair, "the two horses that are in the chariot. Two fiery dappled greys, of the one colour, shape, and goodness, having the one speed, keeping the one pace; their ears pricked, their heads high, their nostrils broad, foreheads broad, manes and tails curled, thin-sided, wide-chested, galloping together. The chariot is made of fine wood with wicker-work newly polished, the yoke curved, with silver ornaments on it; it has two black wheels, soft looped yellow reins. I see in the chariot a big stout man, with reddish yellow hair, with long forked beard. He has a soft purple coat about him, and it striped with bright gold. His bronze shield is edged with gold; there is a five-pronged javelin at his wrist, a cover of strange birds' feathers over his head."
   "I know well who that man is," said Maeve, and it is what she said: "A companion of kings, an old bestower of victories, a storm of war, a flame of judgment, a long knife of victory that will cut us to pieces, mighty Laegaire of the Red Hand. His sword cuts through men as a knife cuts through a leek; his stroke is the back stroke of the wave to the land. And I swear by the gods my people swear by," she said, "if it is in anger and for fighting Laegaire Buadach is coming at us, that as leeks are cut close to the ground with a sharp knife, the same way we will be cut down, as many of us as are in Cruachan, unless we smooth down his anger by giving in to everything he asks."
   "Good mother," said Findabair, "I see another chariot as good as the first coming over the plain." "Tell me what is its appearance," said Maeve.
   "I see," she said, "yoked to the chariot, on the one side a red horse, taking strong, high strides across fords and splashes, over banks and gaps, over plains and hollows, with the quickness of birds that the quick eye loses in following. On the other side a bay horse of great strength; it is at full speed he races over the plain, between stones and hard places; he finds no hindrance in the land of oaks, hurrying on his way. A chariot of fine wood with wicker-work, on two wheels of bright bronze; its pole bright with silver, its frame very high and creaking, having a curved, firm yoke, with looped yellow reins.
   "In the chariot a fair man, with wavy, hanging hair; his face white and red, his vest clean and white, his cloak blue and crimson, his shield brown with yellow bosses, its edge worked with bronze. In his hand a bright spear; a cover of the feathers of strange birds over the wicker frame of his chariot"
   "I know who that man is," said Maeve, and she said then: "The growling of a lion; a flame that can cut like a sharpened stone; he heaps head on head, battle on battle. As a trout is cut upon red sandstone, so would the son of Finchoem cut us if he came on us in anger.
   "For, by the oath of my people," she said, "as a speckled fish is beaten upon a shining red stone with iron rods, so would we be broken by Conall Cearnach, if he came against us."
   "I see another chariot coming over the plain," said Findabair. "Tell me what its appearance is," said Maeve. "I see two horses of the one size and beauty, the one fierceness and speed, with ears pricked, heads high, spirited and powerful, with fine nostrils, wide foreheads, mane and tail curled, leaping together. The one grey, handsome, with broad thighs, eager, leaping, thundering, and trampling. As he goes, his fierce hoofs throw up sods of earth like a flock of swift birds after him. As he gallops on his way, he breathes out a blast of hot breath, a fire comes from his curbed jaws. The other, dark, small-headed, well-shaped, broad-hoofed, thin-sided, high-couraged, broad-backed, sure-footed, spirited; he takes long strides in the race; he leaps over streams, he throws off heaviness, he crosses the plains of the middle valley. They come together with fast, joyful steps, moving over the plain like a swift mountain mist, or like the speed of a bill hind, or like a hare on level ground, or like the rushing of a loud wind in winter.
   "The chariot is of fine wood with wicker-work, having two iron wheels, a bright silver pole with bronze ornaments, a frame very high and creaking strengthened with iron, a curved yoke overlaid with gold, two soft looped yellow reins.
   "I see in the chariot a dark, sad man, comeliest of the men of Ireland. A pleated crimson tunic about him, fastened at the breast with a brooch of inlaid gold; a long-sleeved linen cloak on him with a white hood embroidered with flame-red gold. His eyebrows as black as the blackness of a spit, seven lights in his eyes, seven colours about his bead, love and fire in his look. Across his knees there lies a gold-hiked sword, there is a blood-red spear ready to his hand, a sharp-tempered blade with a shaft of wood. Over his shoulders a crimson shield with a rim of silver, overlaid with shapes of beasts in gold.
   "There is before him in the chariot a driver, a very thin, tall, freckled man; very bright red hair, kept back from his face with a golden thread, a cup of gold at each side of his head. A short cloak about him with sleeves opening at the two elbows; in his hand a goad of red gold to guide his horses."
   "That is truly a drop before a downpour," said Maeve. "I know well who that man is." And it is what she said: "Like the sound of an angry sea, like a great moving wave, with the madness of a wild beast that is vexed, he leaps through his enemies in the crash of battle, they hear their death in his shout He heaps deed upon deed, head upon head; his is a name to be put in songs. As fresh malt is ground in the mill, so shall we be ground by Cuchulain.
   "For I swear by the oath of my people," she said, "that as a mill of ten spokes grinds very hard malt, so he, with only himself, would grind us to dust and to gravel, if we had the whole province with us, unless his anger and his heat go down.
   "And what way are the rest of the men of Ulster coming?" she said. And Findabair answered her, and it is what she said: "Hand to hand, arm to arm, side to side, shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel, axle to axle, that is the way they are coming. Their horses are coming on us like thunder on the roof, like heavy waves stirred by the storm; the trampling of their feet makes the earth shake under them."
   And Maeve said, "Let our women be ready before them with vats of cold water; let the beds be made ready, bring the best of food, the best of ale. Open the courtyard, have a welcome before them, and surely they will not harm us."
   Then Maeve went out by the high door of the dun into the courtyard, and three limes fifty young girls attending her, with three vats of cold water to cool the beat of the three heroes in front of the rest. And she gave them their choice, would each man have a house for himself, or would they have one house for the three? "A house for each to himself," said Cuchulain. And when the rest of the men of Ulster came, Ailell and Maeve with their whole household went out and bade them welcome. "We are well pleased with the welcome," said Sencha for them.
   After that, they all came into the fort and into the palace. They went round from one door to the other, and there was room for them all, and the musicians were playing music while everything was being made ready. And Conchubar, and Fergus, son of Rogh, were in Ailell's division, with nine others along with them, and there was a great feast made ready then, and they stopped there the length of three days and three nights.
   At the end of that time Ailell asked Conchubar what was the business that had brought them there. And Sencha told him the whole story, about the quarrel of the women as to who should walk first, and the quarrel of their husbands for the Champion's Portion. "And they were not satisfied to be judged by anyone but yourself," he said. Ailell did not seem to be well pleased at that. "Indeed, it was no friend of mine that left this judgment on me," he said. "There is no better judge than yourself," said Sencha. "Well," said Ailell, "you must give me time to think upon it." "Do not make too much delay," said Sencha, "for we cannot spare our heroes long from us." "Three days and three nights will be enough for me," said Ailell. "That much will not break friendship," said Sencha.
   With that the men of Ulster went home to Emain, leaving Laegaire and Conall and Cuchulain to be judged by Ailell, and they left their blessing with Ailell and with Maeve, and their curse with Bricriu, because it was he had first started the quarrel.

   That night the three heroes were given as good a feast as before, but they were put to eat it in a room by themselves. When night came on, three enchanted monsters, with the shape of cats, were let out from the cave that was in the hill of the Sidhe at Cruachan, to attack them. When Conall and Laegaire saw them, they got up into the rafters, leaving their food after them, and there they stayed till morning. Cuchulain did not leave his place, but when one of the monsters came to attack him, he gave a blow of his sword at its head; but the sword slipped off as if from a stone. Then the monster stayed quiet, and Cuchulain sat there through the night watching it. With the break of day the cats were gone, and Ailell came in and saw what way the three heroes were. "Are you not satisfied to give the Championship to Cuchulain, after this?" he said. "We are not," said Conall and Laegaire; "it is not against beasts we are used to fight, but against men."
   Then Maeve said to them, "Go and spend the night with my foster-father, Ercol, and his wife Garmna." So they went, but first they were given their choice of food for their horses. Conall and Laegaire chose oats two years old for theirs, but Cuchulain chose barley grain for his. Then they set out, racing all the way, and Cuchulain winning the race.
   Ercol and Garmna bade them welcome, and they knew it was to try them they bad been sent there, so they sent them out that night, one after the other, to fight with the witches of the valley.
   Laegaire went first, but he could not stand against them, and he came back, and left his arms and his clothes with them.
   Then Conall went, and he was driven back, and left his spear with them, but he brought his sword that was his best weapon away with him.
   Then Cuchulain went down into the valley and the witches screamed at him and attacked him, and he and they fought together till his spear was in splinters, his shield broken and his clothes torn off him. The witches were beating him and getting the better of him, but Laeg saw it, and he called out "O Cuchulain," he said, "you poor coward, you squinting clown! Your courage is gone from you, witches to be beating you!" Then great anger came on Cuchulain, and he turned on the witches and cut and gashed them till the valley was filled with their blood, and he brought away their cloaks of battle with him, and went back to the house where his comrades were. And Garmna and her daughter Buan made much of him and bade him welcome.
   They slept there that night, and the next day Ercol challenged them to come one by one, each man with his horse, to fight against himself and his horse. Laegaire was the first to go against him, and his horse was killed by Ercol's horse, and he himself was overcome by Ercol, so that he took to flight, and did not stop till he got back to Cruachan, and he brought the story there that both his companions had been killed by Ercol. Conall was the next to run away, after his horse being killed by Ercol's horse; and his servant Rathand was drowned in the river as he ran, and it takes its name after him, Snam Rathand, from that day.
   But the Grey of Macha, killed Ercol's horse, and Cuchulain put down Ercol and tied him behind his chariot and set out for Cruathan. And Buan, Garmna's daughter, ran out after the chariot for love of Cuchulain to follow him. And she knew the track of his chariot, for it was no roundabout track it used to take, but to be breaking through gaps or going over them; and in following it at last she gave a great leap and fell, and her forehead struck against a rock, and she died; and it is from this the place was given the name of Buan's Grave.
   And when Conall and Cuchulain got back to Cruachan, they found the people of the dun keening them, for by the report Laegaire brought, they were sure they had been killed.
   Then Ailell went to his inner room, and leaned his back against the wall, for he was not quiet in his mind, and he knew there was danger in whatever judgment he might give; and he had not eaten or slept for three days and three nights. Then Maeve said to him, "It is a coward you are, and if you do not settle this matter I will settle it myself." "It is hard for me to give judgment," said Ailell, "it is a misfortune for any one to have to do it." "It is easy enough," said Maeve, "for Laegaire and Conall Cearnach are as different as bronze and silver, and Conall Cearnach and Cuchulain are as different as silver and red gold."
   After a while, when Maeve had searched her mind, Laegaire Buadach was called to her. "Welcome, Laegaire Buadach," she said, "it is right for you to have the Champion's Portion. We give you the headship of the heroes of Ireland from this out, and the Champion's Portion, and along with that this cup of bronze, having a bird in raised silver on the bottom. Take it with you as a token of the judgement, but let no one see it till you come to Conchubar and his Red Branch at the end of the day. When the Champion's Portion is set out, then bring out your cup in the presence of all the great men of Ulster, and not one of them will dispute it with you any more, for they will know by this token that the Championship has been given to you." With that, the cup was given to him with its full of rich wine, and he drank it off at a draught "Now you have the Championship," said Maeve; "and I wish you may enjoy it a hundred years at the head of all Ulster."
   So Laegaire left her, and Conall Cearnach was called up to the queen. "Welcome, Conall Ceamach," she said; "it is right for us to give you the Champion's Portion, and a silver cup along with it, having a bird on the bottom in raised gold." And she said the same to him as she had said to Laegaire before.
   Then Conall went away, and a messenger was sent to bring Cuchulain. "Come up to speak with the king and queen," said the messenger.
   Cuchulain was playing chess at the time with Laeg, his chariot-driver. "I am not a fool to be mocked at," he said, and he hurled one of the chessmen at the messenger, and hit him between the eyes, so that it is hardly he could get back to Ailell and Maeve.
   "By my word," said Maeve, "this Cuchulain is hard to deal with." And then she came down herself to Cuchulain, and put her two arms round his neck. "Give your flattery to some other one," said Cuchulain.
   But Maeve said, "Great son of Ulster, flame of the heroes of Ireland, there is no flattery in our mind when it is you we have to do with. For if all the heroes of Ireland should come here, it is to you we would give the Champion's Portion, for as to bravery and a great name, and as to youth and great deeds, it is well-known that you are far beyond all the men of Ireland."
   Cuchulain rose up then, and went with Maeve into the palace, and Ailell gave him a great welcome. And be was given a gold cup full of wine, and it having on the bottom of it a bird in precious stones. "Now, you have the Championship," said Maeve, "and it is my wish you may enjoy it a hundred years at the head of all the heroes of Ulster." "And besides that," Ailell and Maeve said, "it is our judgment, that as much as you are beyond the heroes of Ulster, so far is your wife beyond their wives. And we think it right that she should walk before the women of Ulster when they go together into the drinking-hall."
   Then Cuchulain drank at one draught the full of the cup, and bade farewell to the king and the queen and the whole household. And he went till he came to Emain Macha at the end of the day. and there was no one among the men of Ulster would venture to ask news of any of the three until the time came to eat and to drink in the great hall.
   When the feast was laid out, they all stopped their arguing and their talking, and gave themselves up to eating and to enjoyment. It was Sualtim, son of Roig, father of Cuchulain, was attending the feast that night, and Conchubar's great vat had been filled for it. The distributors began serving out the meat, but at first they kept back the Champion's Portion. Then Dubthach of the Chafer Tongue said, "Why is not the Champion's Portion given to one of these three heroes that are come back from Cruachan? They must surely have brought some token with them, that we may know which one is to have it."
   Upon that, Laegaire Buadach rose up and held out the bronze cup with the silver bird on it. "The Champion's Portion is mine," he said, "and no one can dispute it with me."
   "That is not so," said Conall Cearnach; "here is my token. Yours is a bronze cup but mine is a silver cup. You see by the difference in them it is to me the Champion's Portion belongs."
   "It belongs to neither of you," said Cuchulain, and he rose up and he said, "It was only to deceive you and to keep up the quarrel between us, the king and queen we went to gave you those. It is to me the Champion's Portion belongs, foe you see my token, that it is far above the others."
   With that he lifted high up the cup of red gold, with the bird on it of precious stones, and all the men in the feasting-hall saw it. "It is I myself that will get the Championship," he said, "if I get fair play." "It is yours indeed," said Conchubar, and Fergus, and all the chief men. "It is yours by the judgment of Ailell and Maeve." "I swear by the oath of my people," said Laegaire, "that the cup you have with you was not given to you, but bought. You gave riches and treasures for it to Ailell and Maeve, the way the Championship would not go to any other person; but by my hand of valour," he said, "that judgment shall not stand."
   Then, with their swords drawn, they sprang at one another, but Conchubar went between them, and then they let down their hands and sheathed their swords. "It is best," said Sencha, "for you to go to Curoi for judgement." "We agree to that,' said they.
   So on the morning of the morrow, the three--Cuchulain, Conall, and Laegaire--set out for Curoi's dun. At the gate of the dun they unyoked their chariots, and they went into the courtyard, and Blanad, daughter of Mind, Curoi's wife, gave them a good welcome. Curoi was not at home that night, but knowing, by his enchantments, they would come, he had left instructions with his wife how to entertain them; and she did according to his wish, giving them water for washing, and drinks for refreshing, and beds of the best, so that they were well satisfied.
   When bedtime came, Blanad told them they were each to take a night to watch the fort, till Curoi would come back. "And it is what he said, that you should take your turn according to age."
   Now in whatever part of the world Curoi was, he made a spell every night over the dun, so that it went round like a mill, and no entrance could be found in it after the setting of the sun.
   The first night Laegaire Buadach took the watch, for be was the oldest of the three. As he was keeping watch, towards the end of the night he saw a great shadow coming towards him from the sea westward. Very huge and ugly and terrible he thought it, and it took the shape of a giant and reached up to the sky, and the shining of the sea could be seen between its legs. It is how it came, its hands full of what had the appearance of stripped oaks, and each of them enough for a load of six horses; and he hurled one of them at Laegaire, but it went past him. He did this two or three times, but the beam did not reach either the skin or the shield of Laegaire. Then Laegaire hurled a spear at him, and it did not hit him.
   He stretched out his hand then to Laegaire, and the length of it reached the three ridges that were between them while they were throwing at one another and he gripped hold of him. Big and strong as Laegaire was, he fitted like a child of a year old into his hand.
   The giant turned him round between his two palms as a chessman is turned in a groove, and then he threw him half dead over the wall of the fort, into a heap of mud. There was no opening there, and the people inside the dun thought he had leaped over from outside, as a challenge to the others to do the same.
   There they stayed until the end of the day, and at the fall of night Conall went out to take the watch, as he was older than Cuchulain. Everything happened as it did to Laegaire the first night And when the third night came, Cuchulain went into the seat of the watch.
   When midnight was come he heard a noise, and by the light of the cold moon he saw nine grey shapes coming towards him over the marsh. "Stop," said Cuchulain, "who is there? If they are friends, let them not stir; if they are enemies, let them come on."
   Then they raised a great shout at him, and Cuchulain rushed at them and attacked them, so that the nine fell dead to the ground, and he cut their heads off and made a heap of them, and sat down again to keep the watch. Another nine and then another shouted at him, but he made an end of the three nines, and made one heap of their heads and their arms.
   While he was watching on through the night, tired and downhearted, he heard a sound rising from the lake, like the sound of a very heavy sea. However tired he was, his mind would not let him keep quiet, without going to see what was the cause of that great noise he heard. Then he saw a great worm coming up from the lake, and it raised itself into the air over him and made for the dun, and opened its mouth, and it seemed to him that one of the houses would fit into its gullet.
   Then Cuchulain with one leap reached its head and put his arm round its neck, and stretched his hand across its gullet, and tore the monster's heart out and threw it to the ground. Then the beast fell down, and Cuchulain hacked it with his sword, and made little bits of it, and brought the head along with him to the heap of skulls. He was sitting there, towards the break of day, worn out and discouraged, and he saw the great shadow shaped like a giant coming to him westward from the sea. "This is a bad night," he said. 'It will be worse for you yet," said Cuchulain. Then he threw one of the beams at Cuchulain, but it passed by him, and he did that two or three times, but it did not reach either his shield or his skin. Then he stretched out his hand to grip Cuchulain as he did the others, but Cuchulain leaped his salmon leap at the head of the monster, with his drawn sword, and brought him down. "Life for life, Cuchulain," he said, and with that he vanished and was no more seen.
   Then Cuchulain wondered to himself how his fellows had made their leap over the fort, for the wall was big and broad and high, and twice he tried it and failed. Then anger came on him, and he went a good way back and made a run, and with the dint of the anger that was on him, and the courage of his heart and of his mind, he hardly took the dew off the tips of the grass in the run, and he made one leap over the wall, and lit in the middle, at the door of the house. Then he went in through the door and gave a sigh. And Blanad, wife of Curoi, said, "That is not the sigh of a beaten man, but a conqueror's sigh of triumph." For the daughter of the King of the Isle of the Men of Falga knew well all Cuchulain had gone through that night.
   "The Champion's Portion must now go to Cuchulain," she said to the others; 'for you see by this that you are not equal to him." "We do not agree to that," said they; "for we know it was one of his friends among the Sidhe came to put us down and to put us out of the Championship. We will not give up for that," they said.
   Then she gave them a message she had from Curoi, that the three champions were to go back to Emain, until he would bring his judgment there himself. So they bade her farewell, and went back to the Red Branch

   It was a good while after this, as the men of Ulster were in Emain, tired. after the gathering and the games, Conchubar and Fergus, son of Rogh, with the chief men, went from the field of sports outside, and sat down in the house of the Red Branch; but Cuchulain was not there that night, or Conall Cearnach, but all the rest of the chief heroes were in it.
   As they were sitting there towards evening, and the day wearing to its close, they saw a big awkward fellow, very ugly, coming to them into the hail. It seemed to them as if none of the men of Ulster could reach to half his height. He was frightful to look at next his skin he had an old cow's hide, and a grey cloak around him, and over him be had a great spreading branch the size of a winter shed under which thirty cattle could find shelter. Ravenous yellow eyes he had, and in his right hand an axe weighing fifty cauldrons of melted metal, its sharpness such that it would cut through hairs, if the wind would blow them against its edge.
   He went over and leaned against the branched beam that was beside the fire.
   "Who are you at all?" said Dubthach of the Chafer Tongue. "Is there no other place for you in the hall that you come up here? Is it to be candlestick to the house you want, or is it to set the house on fire you want?"
   "Uath, the Stranger, is my name," said he; "and neither of those things is the thing I want The thing I want is the thing I cannot find, and I after going through the world of Ireland and the whole world looking for it, and that is a man that will keep his word and will hold to his agreement with me."
   "What agreement is that?" said Fergus. "Here is this axe," he said, "and the man into whose hands it is put is to cut off my head to-day, I to cut his head off to-morrow. And as you men of Ulster have a name beyond the men of all countries for strength and skill, for courage, for greatness, for highmindedness, for behaviour, for truth and generosity, for worthiness, let you find one among you that will hold to his word and keep to his bargain. Conchubar I put aside because of his kingship, and Fergus, son of Rogh, for the same reason. But outside these two, come, whichever of you will venture, he to cut off my head to-night, I to cut off his head to-morrow night"
   "It is not right for dishonour to be put on a whole province," said Fergus, "for the want of one man that will keep his word." "Sure there is no champion here after these two are left out," said Dubthach. "By my word, there will be one this moment," said Laegaire, and he leaped out on the floor of the hail. "Stoop down, clown, that I may cut off your head to-night, you to cut off mine to-morow night." "By the oath of my people," said Dubthach, "it is no good prospect you have if the man killed to-night comes to kill you to-morrow."
   Then Uath put spells on the edge of the axe and laid his neck down on a block, and Laegaire struck a blow across it with the axe, till it went into the block underneath, and the head fell on the floor and the house was filled with the blood. But presently Uath rose up and gathered his head and his axe to his breast and went out from the hall, his neck streaming with blood, so that there was terror on all the people in the house.
   "I swear," said Dubthach, "if this stranger, being killed, comes back to-morrow night, he will not leave a man alive in Ulster."
   Back be came the next night to have his agreement kept. But Laegaire's heart failed him, and be was nowhere to be found. But Conall Cearnach was in the hall, and he said he would make a new agreement with him. So all happened the same as the night before, but when Uath came the next day, it was the same with Conall as with Laegaire, his heart failed him when it came to the keeping of his bargain.
   Cuchulain was there that night when Uath came in and began to reproach and to mock at them all. "As for you, men of Ulster," he said, "all your courage and your daring is gone from you; you covet a great name, but you are not able to earn it. Where is that poor squinting fellow that is called Cuchulain," he said, "till I see if his word is any better than the word of the others?" "I will keep my word without any agreement," said Cuchulain. "That is likely, you miserable fly, it is in great fear of death you are."
   On that, Cuchulain made a leap towards him and gave him a blow with the axe, and hurled his head to the top rafter of the hail, so that the whole house shook.
   On the morrow the men of Ulster were watching Cuchulain to see if he would break his word to the stranger, as the others had done. As Cuchulain sat there waiting for him, they saw that he was very down-hearted, and they made sure his life was at its end, and that they might as well begin keening him. And then Cuchulain said to Conchubar, and there was hanging of the head on him, "Do not go from this till my agreement is fulfilled, for death is coming to me, but I would sooner meet with death than break my word."
   They were there till the close of day, and then they saw Uath coming. "Where is Cuchulain?" he said. "Here I am," be answered. "It is dull your speech is to-night," said the stranger; "it is in great fear of death you are. But however great your fear, you have not failed me."
   Then Cuchulain went to him and laid his head on the block. "Stretch out your head better," said he. "You are keeping me in torment," said Cuchulain; "put an end to me quickly. For last night," he said, "by my oath, I made no delay with you." Then he stretched out his neck, and Uath raised his axe till it reached the rafters of the hail, and the creaking of the old hide that was about him, and the crashing of the axe through the rafters, was like the loud noise of a wood in a stormy night. But when the axe came down, it was with its blunt side, and it was the floor it struck, so that Cuchulain was not touched at all. And all the chief men of Ulster were standing around looking on, and they saw on the moment that it was no strange clown was in it, but Curoi, son of Daire, that had come to try the heroes through his enchantments.
   "Rise up, Cuchulain," he said. "Of all the heroes of Ulster, whatever may be their daring, there is not one to compare with you in courage and in bravery and in truth. The Championship of the heroes of Ireland is yours from this out, and the Champion's Portion with it, and to your wife the first place among all the women of Ulster. And whoever tries to put himself before you after this," he said, "I swear by the oath my people swear by, his own life will be in danger."
   With that he left them. And this was the end of the Women's War of Words, and of the quarrel among the heroes for the Championship of Ulster.


Cuchulain by John Duncan
Cuchulain by John Duncan