The Tain Bo Culaigne
The March Of The Host
On the first stage the hosts went
from Cruachan, they slept the night at Cul Silinne, where to-day is Cargin's
Lough. And in that place was fixed the tent of
Ailill son of Ross, and the trappings were arranged, both bedding and
bed-clothes. The tent of Fergus macRoig was on his right hand; Cormac Conlongas,
Conchobar's son, was beside him; Ith macEtgaith next to that; Fiachu macFiraba,
the son of Conchobar's daughter, at its side; Conall Cernach at its side,
Gobnenn macLurnig at the side of that. The place of Ailill's tent was on the
right on the march, and thirty hundred men of Ulster beside him. And the thirty
hundred men of Ulster on his right hand had he to the end that the whispered
talk and conversation and the choice supplies of food and of drink might be the
nearer to them.
Medb of Cruachan, daughter of Eocho Fedlech, moreover, was at Ailill's left.
Finnabair ('Fairbrow'), daughter of Ailill and Medb, at her side, besides
servants and henchmen. Next, Flidais Foltchain ('of the Lovely Hair'), wife
first of Ailill Finn ('the Fair'). She took part in the Cow-spoil of Cualnge
after she had slept with Fergus; and she it was that every seventh night brought
sustenance in milk to the men of Erin on the march, for king and queen and
prince and poet and pupil.
Medb remained in the rear of the host that day in quest of tidings and augury
and knowledge. She called to her charioteer to get ready her nine chariots for
her, to make a circuit of the camp that she might learn who was loath and who
eager to take part in the hosting. With nine chariots she was wont to travel,
that the dust of the great host might not soil her. Medb suffered not her
chariot to be let down nor her horses unyoked until she had made a circuit of
Then, when she had reviewed the host, were Medb's horses unyoked and her
chariots let down, and she took her place beside Ailill macMata. And Ailill
asked tidings of Medb: who was eager and who was loath for the warfare. "Futile
for all is the emprise but for one troop only, namely the division of the Galian
('of Leinster')," quoth Medb. "Why blamest thou these men?" queried Ailill. "It
is not that we blame them," Medb made answer. "What good service then have these
done that they are praised above all?" asked Ailill. "There is reason to praise
them," said Medb. "Splendid are the warriors. When the others begin making their
pens and pitching their camp, these have finished building their bothies and
huts. When the rest are building their bothies and huts, these have finished
preparing their food and drink. When the rest are preparing their food and
drink, these have finished eating and feasting, and their harps are playing for
them. When all the others have finished eating and feasting, these are by that
And even as their servants and thralls are distinguished above the servants
and thralls of the men of Erin, so shall their heroes and champions be
distinguished beyond the heroes and champions of the men of Erin this time on
this hosting. It is folly then for these to go, since it is those others will
enjoy the victory of the host!'' "So much the better, I bow," replied Ailill;
"for it is with us they go and it is for us they fight." "They shall not go with
us nor shall they fight for us," cried Medb. Let them stay at home then," said
Ailill. "Stay they shall not," answered Medb. "They will fall on us in the rear
and will seize our land against us." "What shall they do then," Finnabair asked,
"if they go not out nor yet remain at home?" "Death and destruction and
slaughter is what I desire for them," answered Medb. "For shame then on thy
speech," spake Ailill; "'tis a woman's advice, for that they pitch their tents
and make their pens so promptly and unwearily."
"By the truth of my conscience," cried Fergus, "not thus shall it happen, for
they are allies of us men of Ulster. No one shall do them to death but he that
does death to myself along with them!" "Not to me oughtest thou thus to speak, O
Fergus," then cried Medb, "for I have hosts enough to slay and slaughter thee
with the division of Leinstermen round thee. For there are the seven Mane, that
is, my seven sons with their seven divisions, and the sons of Maga with their
seven divisions, and Ailill with his division, and I myself with my own
body-guard besides. We are strong enough here to kill and slaughter thee with
thy cantred of the Leinstermen round thee!"
"It befits thee not thus to speak to me," said Fergus, "for I have with me
here in alliance with us Ulstermen, the seven Under-kings of Munster, with their
seven cantreds. Here we have what is best of the youths of Ulster, even the
division of the Black Banishment. Here we have what is best of the noble youths
of Ulster, even the division of the Galian ('of Leinster'). Furthermore, I
myself am bond and surety and guarantee for them, since ever they left their own
native land. I will give thee battle in the midst of the camp, and to me will
they hold steadfast on the day of battle.
More than all that," added Fergus, "these men shall be no subject of dispute.
By that I mean I will never forsake them. For the rest, we will care for these
warriors, to the end that they get not the upper hand of the host. "The number
of our force is seventeen cantreds, besides our rabble and our women-folk-- for
with each king was his queen in Medb's company-- and our striplings; the
eighteenth division is namely the cantred of the Galian. This division of
Leinstermen I will distribute among all the host of the men of Erin in such wise
that no five men of them shall be in any one place." "That pleaseth me well,"
said Medb: "let them be as they may, if only they be not in the battle-order of
the ranks where they now are in such great force." Forthwith Fergus distributed
the cantred of the Galian among the men of Erin in such wise that there were not
five men of them in any one place.
Thereupon, the troops set out on their way and march. It was no easy thing
for their kings and their leaders to attend to that mighty host. They took part
in the expedition according to the several tribes and according to the several
stems and the several districts wherewith they had come, to the end that they
might see one other and know one other, that each man might be with his comrades
and with his friends and with his kinsfolk on the march. They declared that in
such wise they should go.
They also took counsel in what manner they should proceed on their hosting.
Thus they declared they should proceed: Each host with its king, each troop with
its lord, and each band with its captain; each king and each prince of the men
of Erin by a separate route on his halting height apart. They took counsel who
was most proper to seek tidings in advance of the host between the two
provinces. And they said it was Fergus, inasmuch as the expedition was an
obligatory one with him, for it was he that had been seven years in the kingship
of Ulster. And after Conchobar had usurped the kingship and after the murder of
the sons of Usnech who were under his protection and surety, Fergus left the
Ultonians, and for seventeen years he was away from Ulster in exile and in
enmity. For that reason it was fitting that he above all should go after
So the lead of the way was entrusted to Fergus. Fergus before all fared forth
to seek tidings, and a feeling of love and affection for his kindred of the men
of Ulster came over him, and he led the troops astray in a great circuit to the
north and the south. And he despatched messengers with warnings to the
Ulstermen. And he began to detain and delay the host.
Medb perceived this and she upbraided him for it, and chanted the lay:--
Medb: "Fergus, speak, what shall we say?
What may mean this
For we wander north and south;
Over other lands we stray!"
Fergus: "Medb, why art thou so perturbed?
treacherous purpose here.
Ulster's land it is, O queen,
Over which I've
led thy host!"
Medb: "Ailill, splendid with his hosts,
Fears thee lest thou
Thou hast not bent all thy mind
To direct us on our
Fergus: "Not to bring the host to harm
Make these changing
Haply could I now avoid
Sualtach's son, the Blacksmith's
Medb: "Ill of thee to wrong our host,
"I will be in the van of the troops no longer," cried Fergus; "but do thou
find another to go before them." For all that, Fergus kept his place in the van
of the troops.
Fergus, son of Ross the
Much good hast thou found with us,
Fergus, in thy
The four mighty provinces of Erin passed that night on Cul Silinne. The
sharp, keen-edged anxiety for Cuchulain came upon Fergus and he warned the men
of Erin to be on their guard, because there would come upon them the rapacious
lion, and the doom of foes, the vanquisher of multitudes, and the chief of
retainers, the mangler of great hosts, the hand that dispenseth treasures, and
the flaming torch, even Cuchulain son of Sualtaim. And thus he foreshowed him
and chanted a lay, and Medb responded :
Fergus: "Well for ye to heed and watch,
With array of arms and
He will come, the one we fear,
Murthemne's great, deedful youth!"
Medb: "How so dear, this battle-rede,
Comes from thee, Roig's
son most bold.
Men and arms have I enough
To attend Cuchulain here!"
Fergus: "Thou shalt need them, Medb of Ai,
Men and arms for
With the grey steed's horseman brave,
All the night and all
Medb: "I have kept here in reserve
Heroes fit for fight and
Thirty hundred hostage-chiefs,
Leinster's bravest champions they.
Fighting men from Cruachan fair,
Braves from clear-streamed
Four full realms of goodly Gaels
Will defend me from this
Fergus: "Rich in troops from Mourne and Bann,
Blood he'll draw
o'er shafts of spears;
He will cast to mire and sand
With the swallow's swiftest speed,
With the rush of biting
So bounds on my dear brave Hound,
Breathing slaughter on his
Medb: "Fergus, should he come 'tween us,
To Cuchulain bear this
He were prudent to stay still;
Cruachan holds a check in store."
Fergus: "Valiant will the slaughter be
After this lay the men of the four grand provinces of Erin marched on the
morrow over Moin Coltna ('the Marsh of Coltain') eastwards that day; and there
met them eight score deer in a single herd. The troops spread out and surrounded
and killed them so that none of them escaped. But there is one event to add:
Although the division of the Galian had been dispersed among the men of Erin,
wherever there was a man of the Galian, it was he that got them, except five
deer only which was the men of Erin's share thereof, so that one division took
all the eight score deer.
Badb's wild daughter
For the Blacksmith's Hound will spill
Showers of blood on
hosts of men!"
It was on that same day, after the coming of the warning from Fergus to the
Ulstermen, that Cuchulain son of Sualtaim, and Sualtaim Sidech ('of the Fairy
Mound'), his father, when they had received the warning from Fergus, came so
near on their watch for the host that their horses grazed in pasture round the
pillarstone on Ard Cuillenn ('the Height of Cuillenn'). Sualtaim's horses
cropped the grass north of the pillarstone close to the ground; Cuchulain's
cropped the grass south of the pillar-stone even to the ground and the bare
"Well, O master Sualtaim," said Cuchulain; "the thought of the host is fixed
sharp upon me to-night, so do thou depart for us with warnings to the men of
Ulster, that they remain not in the smooth plains but that they betake
themselves to the woods and wastes and steep glens of the province, if so they
may keep out of the way of the men of Erin." "And thou, lad, what wilt thou do?"
"I must go southwards to Temair to keep tryst with the maid of Fedlimid
Nocruthach ('of the Nine Forms') Conchobar's daughter, according to my own
agreement, till morning." "Alas, that one should go on such a journey," said
Sualtaim, "and leave the Ulstermen under the feet of their foes and their
enemies for the sake of a tryst with a woman!" "For all that, I needs must go.
For, an I go not, the troth of men will be held for false and the promises of
women held for true."
Sualtaim departed with warnings to the men of Ulster. Cuchulain strode into
the wood, and there, with a single blow, he lopped the prime sapling of an oak,
root and top, and with only one foot and one hand and one eye he exerted
himself; and he made a twig-ring thereof and set an ogam script on the plug of
the ring, and set the ring round the narrow part of the pillar-stone on Ard
('the Height') of Cuillenn. He forced the ring till it reached the thick of the
pillar-stone. Thereafter Cuchulain went his way to his tryst with the woman.
Touching the men of Erin, the account follows here: They came up to the
pillar-stone at Ard Cuillenn, which is called Crossa Coil to-day, and they began
looking out upon the province that was unknown to them, the province of Ulster.
And two of Medb's people went always before them in the van of the host, at
every camp and on every march, at every ford and every river and every gap. They
were wont to do so that they might save the brooches and cushions and cloaks of
the host, so that the dust of the multitude might not soil them and that no
stain might come on the princes' raiment in the crowd or the crush of the hosts
or the throng: these were the two sons of Nera, who was the son of Nuathar, son
of Tacan, two sons of the house-stewards of Cruachan, Err and Innell, to wit.
Fraech and Fochnam were the names of their charioteers.
The nobles of Erin arrived at the pillar-stone and they there beheld the
signs of the browsing of the horses, cropping around the pillar, and they looked
close at the rude hoop which the royal hero had left behind about the
pillar-stone. And Ailill took the withy in his hand and placed it in Fergus'
hand, and Fergus read the ogam script graven on the plug of the withy, and made
known to the men of Erin what was the meaning of the ogam writing that was on
When Medb came, she asked, "Why wait ye here?" "Because of yonder withy we
wait," Fergus made answer; "there is an ogam writing on its binding and this is
what it saith: ' Let no one go past here till a man be found to throw a withy
like unto this, using only one hand and made of a single branch, and I except my
master Fergus.' Truly," Fergus added, "it was Cuchulain threw it, and it was his
steeds that grazed this plain." And he placed the hoop in the hands of the
druids, and it is thus he began to recite and he pronounced a lay:--
"What bespeaks this withe to us,
What purports its secret
And what number cast it here,
Was it one man or a host?
"If ye go past here this night,
And bide not a one night in
On ye'll come the tear-flesh Hound;
Yours the blame, if ye it
"'Evil on the host he'll bring,
If ye go your way past
Find, ye druids, find out here,
For what cause this withe was
A druid speaks: "Cut by hero, cast by chief,
As a perfect trap
Stayer of lords--with hosts of men--
One man cast it with one
"With fierce rage the battle 'gins
Of the Smith's Hound of Red
Bound to meet this madman's rage;
This the name that's on the
"Woes to bring with hundred fights
After that lay: "I pledge you my word," said Fergus, "if so ye set at naught
yon withy and the royal hero that made it, and if ye go beyond without passing a
night's camp and quarterage here, or until a man of you make a withy of like
kind, using but one foot and one eye and one hand, even as he made it, certain
it is, whether ye be under the ground or in a tight-shut house, the man that
wrote the ogam hereon will bring slaughter and bloodshed upon ye before the hour
of rising on the morrow, if ye make light of him!"
On four realms of Erin's
Naught I know 'less it be this
For what cause the withe was
"That, surely, would not be pleasing to us," quoth Medb, "that any one should
straightway spill our blood or besmirch us red, now that we are come to this
unknown province, even to the province of Ulster. More pleasing would it be to
us, to spill another's blood and redden him." "Far be it from us to set this
withy at naught," said Ailill, "nor shall we make little of the royal hero that
wrought it, rather will we resort to the shelter of this great wood, that is,
Fidduin, ('the Wood of the Dun') southwards till morning. There will we pitch
our camp and quarters."
Thereupon the hosts advanced, and as they went they felled the wood with
their swords before their chariots, so that Slechta ('the Hewn Road') is still
the by-name of that place where is Partraige Beca ('the Lesser Partry')
south-west of Cenannas na Rig ('Kells of the Kings') near Cul Sibrille.
According to other books, it is told as follows: After they had come to
Fidduin they saw a chariot and therein a beautiful maiden. It is there that the
conversation between Medb and Fedelm the seeress took place that we spoke of
before, and it is after the answer she made to Medb that the wood was cut down:
"Look for me," said Medb, "how my journey will be." "It is hard for me," the
maiden made answer, "for no glance of eye can I cast upon them in the wood."
"Then it is plough-land this shall be," quoth Medb; "we will cut down the wood."
Now, this was done, so that this is the name of the place, Slechta, to wit. They
slept in Cul Sibrille, which is Cenannas.
A heavy snow fell on them that night, and so great it was that it reached to
the shoulders of the men and to the flanks of the horses and to the poles of the
chariots, so that all the provinces of Erin were one level plane from the snow.
But no huts nor bothies nor tents did they set up that night, nor did they
prepare food nor drink, nor made they a meal nor repast. None of the men of Erin
wot whether friend or foe was next him until the bright hour of sunrise on the
Certain it is that the men of Erin experienced not a night of encampment or
of station that held more discomfort or hardship for them than that night with
the snow at Cul Sibrille. The four grand provinces of Erin moved out early on
the morrow with the rising of the bright-shining sun glistening on the snow and
marched on from that part into another.
Now, as regards Cuchulain: It was far from being early when he arose from his
tryst. And then he ate a meal and took a repast, and he remained until he had
washed himself and bathed on that day. He called to his charioteer to lead out
the horses and yoke the chariot. The charioteer led out the horses and yoked the
chariot, and Cuchulain mounted his chariot. And they came on the track of the
army. They found the trail of the men of Erin leading past them from that part
"Alas, O master Laeg," cried Cuchulain, "by no good luck went we to our tryst
with the woman last night. Would that we had not gone thither nor betrayed the
Ultonians. This is the least that might be looked for from him that keeps guard
on the marches, a cry, or a shout, or an alarm, or to call, 'Who goes the road?'
This it fell not unto us to say. The men of Erin have gone past us, without
warning, without complaint, into the land of Ulster." "I foretold thee that, O
Cuchulain," said Laeg. "Even though thou wentest to thy woman-tryst last night,
such a disgrace would come upon thee." "Good now, O Laeg, go thou for us on the
trail of the host and make an estimate of them, and discover for us in what
number the men of Erin went by us."
Laeg came on the track of the host, and he went to the front of the trail and
he came on its sides and he went to the back of it. "Thou art confused in thy
counting, O Laeg, my master," quoth Cuchulain. "Confused I must be," Laeg
replied. "Come into the chariot then, and I will make a reckoning of them." The
charioteer mounted the chariot and Cuchulain went on the trail of the hosts and
after a long while he made a reckoning of them. "Even thou, it is not easy for
thee. Thou art perplexed in thy counting, my little Cuchulain," quoth Laeg. "Not
perplexed," answered Cuchulain; "it is easier for me than for thee. For I know
the number wherewith the hosts went past us, namely, eighteen cantreds. Nay
more: the eighteenth cantred has been distributed among the entire host of the
men of Erin.
Now, many and divers were the magic virtues that were in Cuchulain that were
in no one else in his day. Excellence of form, excellence of shape, excellence
of build, excellence in swimming, excellence in horsemanship, excellence in
chess and in draughts, excellence in battle, excellence in contest, excellence
in single combat, excellence in reckoning, excellence in speech, excellence in
counsel, excellence in bearing, excellence in laying waste and in plundering
from the neighbouring border.
"Good, my friend Laeg. Brace the horses for us to the chariot; lay on the
goad for us on the horses; drive on the chariot for us and give thy left board
to the hosts, to see can we overtake the van or the rear or the midst of the
hosts, for I will cease to live unless there fall by my hand this night a friend
or foe of the men of Erin."
Then it was that the charioteer gave the prick to the steeds. He turned his
left board to the hosts till he arrived at Turloch Caille More ('the Creek of
the Great Wood') northwards of Cnogba na Rig ('Knowth of the Kings') which is
called Ath Gabla ('the Ford of the Fork'). Thereupon Cuchulain went round the
host till he came to Ath Grenca. He went into the wood at that place and sprang
out of his chariot, and he lopped off a four-pronged fork, root and top, with a
single stroke of his sword. He pointed and charred it and put a writing in ogam
on its side, and he gave it a long throw from the hinder part of his chariot
with the tip of a single hand, in such wise that two-thirds of it sank into the
ground and only one-third was above it in the mid part of the stream, so that no
chariot could go thereby on this side or that.
Then it was that the same two striplings surprised him, namely, the two sons
of Nera son of Nuathar son of Tacan, while engaged in that feat. And they vied
which of the twain would be the first to fight and contend with Cuchulain, which
of them would inflict the first wound upon him and be the first to behead him.
Cuchulain turned on them, and straightway he struck off their four heads from
themselves Eirr and Indell and from Foich and Fochlam, their drivers, and he
fixed a head of each man of them on each of the prongs of the pole.
And Cuchulain let the horses of the party go back in the direction of the men
of Erin, to return by the same road, their reins loose around their ears and
their bellies red and the bodies of the warriors dripping their blood down
outside on the ribs of the chariots. Thus he did, for he deemed it no honour nor
deemed he it fair to take horses or garments or arms from corpses or from the
dead. And then the troops saw the horses of the party that had gone out in
advance before them, and the headless bodies of the warriors oozing their blood
down on the ribs of the chariots (and their crimsoned trappings upon them). The
van of the army waited for the rear to come up, and all were thrown into
confusion of striking, that is as much as to say, into a tumult of arms.
Medb and Fergus and the Manè and the sons of Maga drew near. For in this wise
was Medb wont to travel, and nine chariots with her alone; two of these chariots
before her, and two chariots behind, and two chariots at either side, and her
own chariot in the middle between them. This is why Medb did so, that the turves
from the horses' hoofs, or the flakes of foam from the bridle-bits, or the dust
of the mighty host or of the numerous throng might not reach the queen's diadem
of gold which she wore round her head.
"What have we here?" queried Medb. "Not hard to say," each and all made
answer; "the horses of the band that went out before us are here and their
bodies lacking their heads in their chariots." They held a council and they felt
certain it was the sign of a multitude and of the approach of a mighty host, and
that it was the Ulstermen that had come and that it was a battle that had taken
place before them on the ford. And this was the counsel they took to despatch
Cormac Conlongas, Conchobar's son, from them to learn what was at the ford;
because, even though the Ulstermen might be there, they would not kill the son
of their own king.
Thereupon Cormac Conlongas, Conchobar's son, set forth and this was the
complement with which he went, ten hundred in addition to twenty hundred armed
men, to ascertain what was at the ford. And when he was come, he saw naught save
the fork in the middle of the ford, with four heads upon it dripping their blood
down along the stem of the fork into the stream of the river, and a writing in
ogam on the side, and the signs of the two horses and the track of a single
chariot-driver and the marks of a single warrior leading out of the ford going
therefrom to the eastward. By that time, the nobles of Erin had drawn nigh to
the ford and they all began to look closely at the fork. They marvelled and
wondered who had set up the trophy.
One of their men deciphered the ogam-writing that was on the side of the
fork, to wit: 'A single man cast this fork with but a single hand; and go ye not
past it till one man of you throw it with one hand, excepting Fergus.'
"What name have ye men of Ulster for this ford till now, Fergus?" asked
Ailill. "Ath Grenca," answered Fergus; "and Ath Gabla ('Ford of the Fork') shall
now be its name forever from this fork," said Fergus. And he recited the lay:--
"Grenca's ford shall change its name,
From the strong and
fierce Hound's deed.
Here we see a four-pronged fork,
Set to prove all
"On two points-- as sign of war--
Are Fraech's head and
On its other points are thrust
Err's head and Innell's
"And yon ogam on its side,
Find, ye druids, in due form,
has set it upright there?
What host drove it in the ground?"
(A druid:) "Yon forked pole-- with fearful strength--
thou seest, Fergus, there,
One man cut, to welcome us,
With one perfect
stroke of sword!
"Pointed it and shouldered it--
Though this was no light
After that he flung it down,
To uproot for one of you!
"Grenca was its name till now--
After the lay, spake Ailill: "I marvel and wonder, O Fergus, who could have
sharpened the fork and slain with such speed the four that had gone out before
us." "Fitter it were to marvel and wonder at him who with a single stroke lopped
the fork which thou seest, root and top, pointed and charred it and flung it the
length of a throw from the hinder part of his chariot, from the tip of a single
hand, so that it sank over two-thirds into the ground and that naught save
one-third is above; nor was a hole first dug with his sword, but through a grey
stone's flag it was thrust, and thus it is geis for the men of Erin to proceed
to the bed of this ford till one of ye pull out the fork with the tip of one
hand, even as he erewhile drove it down."
All will keep its
Fork-ford be its name for aye,
From the fork that's in the
"Thou art of our hosts, O Fergus," said Medb; "avert this necessity from us,
and do thou draw the fork for us from the bed of the ford." "Let a chariot be
brought me," cried Fergus, "till I draw it out, that it may be seen that its
butt is of one hewing." And a chariot was brought to Fergus, and Fergus laid
hold with a truly mighty grip on the fork, and he made splinters and scraps of
the chariot. "Let another chariot be brought me," cried Fergus. Another chariot
was brought to Fergus, and Fergus made a tug at the fork and again made
fragments and splinters of the chariot, both its box and its yoke and its
wheels. "Again let a chariot be brought me," cried Fergus. And Fergus exerted
his strength on the fork, and made pieces and bits of the chariot.
There where the seventeen chariots of the Connachtmen's chariots were, Fergus
made pieces and bits of them all, and yet he failed to draw the fork from the
bed of the ford. "Come now, let it be, O Fergus," cried Medb; "break our
people's chariots no more. For hadst thou not been now engaged on this hosting,
by this time should we have come to Ulster, driving divers spoils and
cattleherds with us. We wot wherefore thou workest all this, to delay and detain
the host till the Ulstermen rise from their 'Pains' and offer us battle, the
battle of the Táin."
"Bring me a swift chariot," cried Fergus. And his own chariot was brought to
Fergus, and Fergus gave a tug at the fork, and nor wheel nor floor nor one of
the chariot-poles creaked nor cracked. Even though it was with his strength and
prowess that the one had driven it down, with his might and doughtiness the
other drew it out,-- the battle-champion, the gap-breaker of hundreds, the
crushing sledge, the stone-of-battle for enemies, the head of retainers, the foe
of hosts, the hacking of masses, the flaming torch and the leader of mighty
He drew it up with the tip of one hand till it reached the slope of his
shoulder, and he placed the fork in Ailill's hand. Ailill scanned it; he
regarded it near. "The fork, meseems, is all the more perfect," quoth Ailill;
"for a single stroke I see on it from butt to top." "Aye, all the more perfect,"
Fergus replied. And Fergus began to sing praise of Cuchulain, and he made a lay
"Here behold the famous fork,
By which cruel Cuchulain
Here he left, for hurt to all,
Four heads of his border-foes!
"Surely he'd not flee therefrom,
'Fore aught man, how brave or
Though the scatheless Hound this left,
On its hard rind there is
"To its hurt the host goes east,
Seeking Cualnge's wild Brown
Warriors' cleaving there shall be,
'Neath Cuchulain's baneful
"No gain will their stout bull be,
For which sharp-armed war
At the fall of each head's skull
Erin's every tribe shall
"I have nothing to relate
After this lay: "Let us pitch our booths and tents," said Ailill, "and let us
make ready food and drink, and let us sing songs and strike up harps, and let us
eat and regale ourselves, for, of a truth, never before nor since knew the men
of Erin a night of encampment or of entrenchment that held sorer discomfort or
distress for them than yesternight. Let us give heed to the manner of folk to
whom we go and let us hear somewhat of their deeds and famous tales." They
raised their booths and pitched their tents. They got ready their food and
drink, and songs were sung and harping intoned by them, and feasting and eating
As regards Dechtirè's son.
women hear the tale
Of this fork, how it came here!"
And Ailill inquired of Fergus: "I marvel and wonder who could have come to us
to our lands and slain so quickly the four that had gone out before us. Is it
likely that Conchobar son of Fachtna Fatach ('the Mighty'), High King of Ulster,
has come to us?" "It is never likely that he has," Fergus answered; "for a shame
it would be to speak ill of him in his absence. There is nothing he would not
stake for the sake of his honour. For if he had come hither to the border of the
land, there would have come armies and troops and the pick of the men of Erin
that are with him. And even though against him in one and the same place, and in
one mass and one march and one camp, and on one and the same hill were the men
of Erin and Alba, Britons and Saxons, he would give them battle, before him they
would break and it is not he that would be routed."
"A question, then: Who would be like to have come to us? Is it like that
Cuscraid Mend ('the Stammerer') of Macha would have come, Conchobar's son, from
Inis Cuscraid?" "Nay then, it is not; he, the son of the High King," Fergus
answered. "There is nothing he would not hazard for the sake of his honour. For
were it he that had come hither, there would have come the sons of kings and the
royal leaders of Ulster and Erin that are serving as hirelings with him. And
though there might be against him in one and the same place, in one mass and one
march and one camp, and on one and the same hill the men of Erin and Alba,
Britons and Saxons, he would give them battle, before him they would break and
it is not he that would be routed."
"I ask, then, whether Eogan son of Durthacht, King of Fernmag, would have
come?" "In sooth, it is not likely. For, had he come hither, the pick of the men
of Fernmag would have come with him, battle he would give them, before him they
would break, and it is not he that would be routed."
"I ask, then: Who would be likely to have come to us? Is it likely that he
would have come, Celtchai son of Uthechar?" "No more is it likely that it was
he. A shame it would be to make light of him in his absence, him the
battle-stone for the foes of the province, the head of all the retainers and the
gate-of-battle of Ulster. And even should there be against him in one place and
one mass and one march and one camp, and on one and the same hill all the men of
Erin from the west to the east, from the south to the north, battle he would
give them, before him they would break and it is not he that would be routed."
"I ask, then: Who would be like to have come to us?" asked Ailill. "I know
not," Fergus replied, "unless it be the little lad, my nursling and Conchobar's.
Cuchulain ('the Wolf-dog of Culann the Smith') he is called.
He is the one who could have done the deed," answered Fergus. "He it is who
could have lopped the tree with one blow from its root, could have killed the
four with the quickness wherewith they were killed and could have come to the
border with his charioteer."
"Of a truth," spake Ailill, "I heard from ye of this little boy once on a
time in Cruachan. What might be the age of this little boy now?" "It is by no
means his age that is most formidable in him," answered Fergus. "Because, manful
were his deeds, those of that lad, at a time when he was younger than he now is.
In his fifth year he went in quest of warlike deeds among the lads of Emain
Macha. In his sixth a year he went to learn skill in arms and feats with
Scathac, and he went to woo Emer; in his seventh year he took arms; in his
seventeenth year he is at this time."
"How so!" exclaimed Medb. "Is there even now amongst the Ulstermen one his
equal in age that is more redoubtable than he?" "We have not found there a
man-at-arms that is harder, nor a point that is keener, more terrible nor
quicker, nor a more bloodthirsty wolf, nor a raven more flesh-loving, nor a
wilder warrior, nor a match of his age that would reach to a third or a fourth
the likes of Cuchulain. Thou findest not there," Fergus went on, "a hero his
peer, nor a lion that is fiercer, nor a plank of battle, nor a sledge of
destruction, nor a gate of combat, nor a doom of hosts, nor a contest of valour
that would be of more worth than Cuchulain.
Thou findest not there one that could equal his age and his growth, his dress
and his terror, his size and his splendour, his fame and his voice, his shape
and his power, his form and his speech, his strength and his feats and his
valour, his smiting, his heat and his anger, his dash, his assault and attack,
his dealing of doom and affliction, his roar, his speed, his fury, his rage, and
his quick triumph with the feat of nine men on each sword's point above him,
like unto Cuchulain."
"We make not much import of him," quoth Medb. "It is but a single body he
has; he shuns being wounded; he avoids being taken. They do say his age is but
that of a girl to be wed. His deeds of manhood have not yet come, nor will he
hold out against tried men, this young, beardless elf-man of whom thou spokest."
"We say not so," replied Fergus, "for manful were the deeds of the lad at a time
when he was younger than he now is."