Ailil reeled back against the wall and clapped a hand to his forehead as soon as the three heroes had left. ‘I can’t stand this,’ he complained, going over to where Medb was sitting, playing with a small squirrel. ‘No matter what I do or say, I am wrong and it seems foolish to court the anger of men such as these. It’s a poisoned cup Conor has offered me, I can tell you that much.’
‘Coward’! Medb laughed. ‘Look, if you can’t decide, I’ll do it for you, for nothing would appear simpler. And what’s more, it will get those three oafs out of our hair and you will manage to keep your name as an impartial judge too.’
‘No matter what you do, Medb,’ Ailil said, ‘misfortune will follow upon any decision.’
‘Leave it to me,’ Medb smiled, ‘for it is obvious that Laoghaire is as different to Conall as bronze is to argent and Conall and Cú Chulainn are as different as argent is to gold.’
Laoghaire was both surprised and flattered when a messenger summoned him to a private meeting with Ailil and Medb. ‘Welcome, Laoghaire the Triumphant,’ Medb called out, advancing down the aisle towards him, her arms held out in greeting. Taking him by the arm she led him to a recess off the main hall and offered him rich wines.
‘It is our decision that you alone deserve the Champion’s portion, brave Laoghaire. Not only that, we feel you should be set above all the other heroes of Eamhain Macha, and to seal our approval, here is a cup fashioned for a champion.’
Medb gestured impatiently with her hand and a serving girl appeared, bearing a carved drinking horn capped and mounted in polished bronze, an exotic bird outlined in argent twining round from the base to the lip.
‘Keep this, Laoghaire, away from envious eyes until you have come to Conor and the Craobh Ruadh. When the Champion’s portion is brought out, you then produce your cup as token of your position before all the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.’
Medb gestured again and the girl filled the horn to the brim with the dark, rich wine.
Laoghaire drank it back in one draught, well pleased with himself and the token of his supremacy.
‘Now,’ Medb continued, ‘you have the look of a champion. Go now and revel in that position as the champion of the Ulaidh.’
As soon as Laoghaire had left, Medb arranged a similar performance for Conall but this time, the drinking horn was trimmed with argent itself while the bird encircling the vessel was chased in gold. Delighted with the way her plan was working out, Medb summoned Cú Chulainn but her messenger was insulted and kicked away by Cú Chulainn who claimed he had no time for that kind of nonsense.
Infuriated by this behaviour, Medb decided she herself would go to entreat her uncouth guest. Slipping her long, slender white arms around his neck she murmured the promise of what she could offer.
‘You can tell your lies and show your arse to someone else for all I care,’ Cú Chulainn growled, twisting loose from her grasp.
‘Most comely of all champions, it is no lie I tell you when you are the subject. Were the world’s heroes to approach us, we would only choose you for the Champion’s portion for you surpass all in fame, bravery and valour so that the men of the Ulaidh recognise in you a champion of distinction, youth and glory.’
Unable to resist Medb’s seductive charms, Cú Chulainn allowed himself to be led away to where Medb presented him with a drinking horn capped and mounted in red gold with the outline of the bird mosaicked in precious stones. Filling the horn with the dark rich wine, Medb handed him alone a knob, as big as his two eyes, of deep red dragon-stone, saying,
‘Now know that you alone deserve the feast of a champion and not only that, I truly believe that just as it is impossible to compare you with the rank and file of the Ulaidh, so it is impossible to compare the lady Emer with the women of other men. There is no doubt that she should always enter the hall before any other woman should approach.’
Cú Chulainn laughed and, with one gulp, drained the drinking horn, turned on his heel and left.