Laoghaire Buadach, son of Connad mac Iliach was the first to arrive at Bricriu’s new feasting hall at Dun Rudraige.
‘Laoghaire, valiant warrior of the Ulaidh, the fiery thunderbolt of Midé, Welcome to my hall. Come in and tell me why it is you have never been given the champion’s portion at Eamhain Macha?’
Laoghaire glared at Bricriu before grunting and looking down at his muddy sandals. ‘Ahh sure, I suppose I could get it any time I want, for there are few warriors of my stature at any table.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t care to be the one trying to stop you from claiming the bounty which should rightfully be yours.’ Bricriu laughed.
‘What do you mean?’ Laoghaire asked, his thin frame hunched as if to attack.
‘Sure don’t you know that the champion’s portion is an amphora of fine wine, enough for a host of champions, a boar, fine fed for seven feis, stuffed and roasted, a bull calf simmered in broth of curds, nuts and wheat since last Imbolc. Add to that five score oat cakes cooked in honey. The champion’s portion proves that you are the champion of Eamhain Macha surely and I know you are worthy of it. If I were you, I’d just tell my charioteer to serve it to me before anyone else can get up for it.’ Bricriu explained.
‘There will be fresh hot blood if anyone tries to stop me, I tell you,’ Laoghaire scowled, his hand on the blade at his side.
Bricriu laughed and clapped him on the back.
Burly Conall Cernach was the next to arrive at the head of a troop of men in blue and red cloaks, heavy wooden shields with brass bosses and mighty spears in their hands.
‘Conall, may the track rise easy before you,’ Bricriu greeted him effusively. ‘Hero of a five score battles and combats, it is said you have been victorious more than any other man in the Ulaidh, and when you raid into the neighbouring kingdoms, you are a night’s march before the men of the Ulaidh can catch up with you. On the return, you are always in the rear, harrying the enemy. What stops you, I’d like to know, from being given the champion’s portion of Eamhain Macha to hold forever more?’ Bricriu demanded, laying it on as twice as thickly as he had for Laoghaire. Satisfied that he had piqued Conall’s interest and pride, Bricriu waited impatiently until he could single the last of the vaunted heroes, Sétanta. So-called Hound of the North, named after, as a child, he had strangled the wolf hound of the smith, Cullain guarding the passages to the Ulaidh.
‘Welcome Sétanta, the heart of Eamhain Macha, beloved of the fairest, the ancient prophecies foretell your fame and glory and your name of the Hound is justifiably earned as the Ulaidh is well guarded by you as all men acknowledge that you surpass them all. Why then have you left the champion’s portion for other, lesser men to claim when none can contest it with you?’
‘By the blood of my father Lugh, I swear that any who contested against me would soon be a head shorter.’ Sétanta snorted.
Saying nothing further, Bricriu excused himself and left, waiting impatiently as Conor and his son, Crúscraid the stammerer, led the nobles, Fergus, the once king of the Ulaidh, Uísliu and his three sons, Sencha the draoidh, son of Ailell, King of Connachta, Amergin the poet, Dubhtacht, the beetle browed, Illand, son of Fergus and Cethirn son of Fintain among others to the long trestle table on the dais at the back end of the hall. The heroes of the Craobh Dearg took over the benches closer to the central hearth while the noble women were already in the rearmost bower outside the main hall.
Female slaves plied the trestle tables with bowls of savoury meats, and the men helped themselves to the jugs and ewers of both wine and ale that littered the long trestles while musicians and gleemen tumbled and cavorted before the king’s raised platform.
Fergus nodded to his son, Illand and he and Cethirn quickly moved to where Bricriu was standing, over seeing the spit-roasts of boar and bull.
‘You remember the conditions?’ Cethirn said grimly, his hand on the hilt of the heavy blade hanging at his side.
Bricriu looked up from what he was doing and scowled at the warriors facing him.
‘The feast cannot begin until you withdraw.’ Illand reminded him
Bricriu muttered something to one of the boys tending the spitted boar and then, without looking at either of the men, he turned and left the feasting area, going directly to the loft he had planned for himself. At the foot of the ladder, he turned and hailed the assembled company.
‘May you enjoy the largesse which I bestow upon you from the heart but I leave you all to give the champion’s portion to whoever you think is the foremost champion of the Ulaidh,’ he called out before ascending the ladder.
As befitted his status as king of the Ulaidh, his steward served the hind haunch of the boar to Conor and stepped back awkwardly as, at a nod from Laoghaire, Sedlang his charioteer, grasped his knife and moved to sever the remaining haunch.
‘This, the champion’s portion, I take for my master, Laoghaire the triumphant, for he of all the lords of the Craobh Ruadh deserve it so,’ he cried boldly.
Hardly had he finished speaking before both Id and Laeg, the charioteers of Conall and Sétanta, were on their feet, loudly claiming the haunch for their masters.
‘Give it here to Cú Chulainn,’ shouted Laeg ‘for it is well known by all here that he is the most valiant and heroic among you all.’
‘That is not true,’ both Conall and Laoghaire shouted proudly, their voices almost drowned out by long blades rasping half out of metal-lipped sheaths, as warriors pushed back benches and surged to their feet. Both Conor was on his feet at the end of the hall livid with rage at the outbreak of hostility and vaunting pride among the noble warriors. Sétanta stood firm, his arm around the shoulders of his wiry charioteer, Laeg while Sedlang, Id, Conall and Laoghaire pushed their way forward towards the dais.
Conor’s voice rang out, clear and authoritative above the melee, ‘Part yourselves,’ he ordered.
Faced with the wrath of their king and their battle leader, the men stepped back a pace, shame-facedly. At a discrete cough from Sencha, Conor gestured at the draoidh. ‘Listen well, for Sencha will decide this contentious issue, if you do as I say.’
Mumbling, the men nodded their heads, but most eyes remained on the leg of pork remaining on the table.
‘Tonight,’ Sencha boomed, ‘we will all share in this champion’s portion so that no one of us will be deemed inferior, in place among the Craobh Ruadh or in valour and strength in the Craobh Dearg. Later, this matter can be more fully resolved through the wisdom of my father, Ailil mac Mata, king of Connachta. Until then, we eat and drink and act as the band of warriors we are, the heroes of the Ulaidh.’