Emer

 

The very last of the blackberries and haws had long withered off the stark brambles as a final reminder that the old fruit was truly over and Imbolc, heralded by the blooming of deciduous plants, was not far off. The imminent feis, the time the old gods demanded sacrifice to ensure the birth of animals, renewed crops, along with the rejuvenation of all living things in the coming fertile time of the land, should be a time of joy but Emer knew the preparation for the feasting her father and brothers demanded meant extra work for her. She lived with three older brothers and her father, Forgall Monach the Cunning, in the dreary ráth, on the promontory defended on three sides by the cold grey sea while triple defensive ramparts protected its rear.

Hemmed in by the sea and wattle palisades, Emer longed to leave, to see and be part of the life at the court of Conor, king of the Red Branch warriors at Eamhain Macha, the sacred heart of the Ulaidh, tales of which she had overheard from Breoga, the trader, and she ached to go there.   She hated everything.  She had never known her mother who had died of the bloody flux when Emer was yet an infant and she hated that. She hated her home here – the only place she had ever known.  

She despised and feared her father who either ignored her or vented some unknown rage on her, usually after drinking too much of his favoured black brew.  She detested her hulking and brutal brothers who treated her badly even though she was a fully-grown woman, scaring off possible suitors and bullying her with their constant threat of unprovoked violence. Recently, Scibar, her eldest brother, in a fit of rage at the lack of barley beer he liked to drink, smashed the supporting branches of seasoned ash she used for her loom. Cursing her mindlessly, he had hurled away the heavy stones used for pulling down the strands of wool and scattered her precious purple and red vegetable dyes and the tiny strands of ochre that produced a glowing yellow which Breoga claimed were the stems of flowers.  

Endlessly turning the heavy top stone of the quern to grind the wheat and barley for their pottage and stews, Emer felt irritated beyond all measure by her brothers’ grunts and bellows as they practiced at arms, stamping round and round the trampled yard so it was hard to know if it was two against one or all three against each other. Impulsively, she stood up and wandered down the muddy, rutted track leading from the porch outside the hall to the palisade gates, the woodland sounds of the nearby forest replacing the clash of wooden training swords against light wicker shields.  

From where she sat, outside the entrance to the ráth, she could smell the richness of the soil as the bondsmen tilled their fields of barley and oats bordering the forest where the Ailibine river, swollen now with runoff, marked the end of the territory of the Fingal in the hilly country to the south.

In the other direction, Emer could see the ancient burial mounds of the Fir Bolg at Cerma, which lay, she had been told, north from her home here on the promontory of Benn Etair, to the sacred site of Teamhair and on to Eamhain Macha and she was determined to go there. She knew that she could do anything and was equal to any task.  What she lacked in strength, she made up for with intelligence; what she lacked in skill, she made up for with flexibility and speed.

Sitting by the gates, plaiting her long golden hair, she was pleasantly alarmed by the sight of a chariot skilfully driving over the corrugated log track emerging from the forest.  Squinting into the glare of the noontime sun, she could just make out the seated charioteer, a yellow band around his forehead.  Standing behind him on the open framework of the chariot was a slight figure.  Almost unconsciously, Emer noted his handsome muscled frame and his cocky self-assuredness but what really struck her was his startlingly dove grey eyes which seemed to transfix her.  A flush crept up from her neck, tingeing her creamy pale cheeks with a soft hue while the charioteer reined in his horses effortlessly with one hand.  The youth, beardless and black browed, his hair, thick and smooth as if a cow had licked it, three hanks hanging down over his muscled shoulders, stared at her in open-mouthed admiration, his gaze dropping shamelessly to her breasts pushing up over her tight bodice

Annoyed by his blatant stare, she recovered her poise and stood up, flinging her long plait back over her shoulder.

“May your road be blessed, stranger,” she said boldly, forcing him to meet her eyes. 

“May the apple of your eye see only good,” he replied, dropping his eyes again to gaze at her breasts.  “I see a sweet valley where I could lay my weapon to rest,” he smiled, lighting up his sombre face and showing the dimples in his smooth cheeks.

Blushing despite herself, Emer pulled her linen cloak firmly around herself but before she could reply to his insolence, Scibar, and her two other brothers, Connad and Ecet, appeared from inside the ramparts, still clutching their notched and battered wooden training swords.

“Who is this beardless brat and what does he want here?” Scibar rudely demanded while Connad and Ecet sniggered and grinned, jostling forward to enjoy the stranger’s mortification at the rough hands of Scibar.  

“Put a guard upon your tongue, grimy one, or the tongue that runs so glibly in your head should run the very head off your shoulders,” the stranger replied casually, looking the three brothers up and down from tousled head to dirty feet before returning his gaze to Emer and giving her his full attention.

With a roar of rage, Scibar raised his wooden training sword but before he could begin the downward swing, the stranger vaulted one-handed over the side of his light chariot, stepped inside the swing and punched him hard in the mouth. 

Scibar rocked back on his heels and before he could recover, the stranger with a lithe movement, slipped behind and kicked his legs out from under him, while snatching the wooden training sword from a startled Ecet and smashing the heavy hilt up into his nose, sending a sudden mist of blood to splatter across Connad’s incredulous stare.  

Flipping the sword in the air, the stranger caught it by its blood-smeared hilt and slammed the flat of the blade once, then twice, across Connad’s ribs.  The rounded tip of the training sword digging suddenly into the base of his neck suddenly arrested Scibar, stunned by the suddenness of the attack, from struggling to his feet while the youth winked insolently at Emer,

Before she could gather her wits, Forgall the Cunning, attracted by the noise, appeared at the entrance to the palisade.  Taking in at a glance his bruised and battered sons, he held up a commanding hand to stop further fighting while the youth bowed his head courteously to the older man.

***

Dusk was falling when Forgall, disguised as a pedlar, was admitted through the gates of the great hill fort at Eamhain Macha, home to the Red Branch, defenders of the Ulaidh, before they were closed for the night.  Progress had been slow since leaving the promontory fort until he reached he great road leading directly to Eamhain Macha itself – but even then, it had been a long trek across the plains of Brega and crossing of its numerous fords had all taken time.

Common hospitality now saw his admittance to the hill fort and the heavy packs of trade goods slung on his mule ensured it. Once the gates closed, guards and dogs patrolled the gates and walls and no one would be admitted unless first acknowledged by Scél the gatekeeper but, at last, Forgall smirked, he was inside and led to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Here in the great feasting hall of the once boy king, Conor mac Nessa, it was custom for all visitors to Eamhain Macha to pay their respects in the great feasting hall.  Forgall glanced around the crowded benches where boys, supervised by older women, oversaw the spits on which oxen roasted. Dogs lay panting, around the hall, all looking towards the main fire pit. The trestle tables were almost full and most men were drinking, waiting for their meat.  Girls, the skirts hitched to avoid the soiled rushes strewn on the beaten earth and to avoid the outstretched dogs, scurried among the benches keeping the men’s mugs topped up. Most were drinking the dark drink of hops and barley, flavoured with honey and heather from the western mountains.

 Good, Forgall thought, the pup was there, talking to that old fool, Fergus Mac Rioch. Fergus, who by right of birth had been king, had thrown it all away for the lures of Ness, daughter of the yellow heel, Conor’s mother. Conor became king, for a year once, and then that year had extended until today.  That was many years ago now and people whispered that at the time, Cathbad, the draoidh, had influenced the situation in, as yet, unseen ways. Hunching down slightly, Forgall pulled the hood closer around his face and assumed the humble look of an honest peddler looking for favour from a noble host.

Conor showed the effect of his debauched youth. Long, lank, greying hair framed a foxy narrow face. Thin and restless, he seemed to almost squirm in his seat, bored with the tales of his lords, Conall Cernach the Victorious, red-faced and solid as a block of oak and Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue on either side of him.  Forgall took a space on a bench further down from the head of the hall.  Opposite, but to his left, Phelim the harper, father to the hapless Deirdre long promised to Conor, sat talking to Dáire, lord of the bull of Cooley. Fergus sat further away beside his queen, Ness who was talking to the slack faced youth on her other side.  Other warriors, unknown to Forgall, jostled each other, already noisy with the drink in them. Trenchers of bread were being laid on the tables and Forgall took the opportunity to grasp a serving girl by the wrist as she passed and obtain a mug of the dark brew the men were drinking. Ness, he saw, held a delicate vessel of some semi translucent material into which she had a kneeling girl serve her from a flagon of Gaulish wine.

Deichtine, Conor’s step-sister – or some say, Forgall sniggered to himself, his one time lover and favoured chariot driver – amused herself by the antics of a wolf hound pup rolling on its back at her feet.

Conor’s eye fell on the hooded figure and he leaned forward on the table, rapping the flagon in front of him with the ivory hilt of his knife to gain attention. 

“So, peddler, from where do you come and what news do you bring us from your travels, for we have not seen you here before?” he called out in a high, piping voice.

Standing and bowing slightly but keeping his face averted, Forgall called out, 

“I come from the land to the south of the border with the gracious lady, queen Medb of Connachta and have marvelled at the bounty and grace of the noble lady but rarely have I seen such splendour with which King Conor is surrounded.”

“Well spoken, peddler,” broke in Bricriu, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he sloshed down his mug, “but still we have not heard your news.”

“I am just a plain peddler with some trinkets that might amuse the ladies but I fear I have little of interest for the lords of Eamhain Macha, except, perhaps, tales of a young hero to whom Queen Medb has shown favour.”

“Heroes,” roared Conall Cernach, his stentorian voice in booming contrast to Bricriu’s high-pitched tones.  “Who needs heroes when we have champions enough, for every man here,” he glared along the table, “is a champion while our boys in the Red Branch will take the red cloak of the warrior soon enough?”

“So who is this hero that Medb favours, do tell us, another young bull to add to her herd?” cut in Conor, his voice flat and disinterested.

Forgall paused, taking in quickly the rapt attention of the young man at Fergus’ side – the beardless pup, who did he think he was to attempt robbing Forgall of his golden haired treasure?

“No, my lord,” he murmured.  “A true hero sent by the Lady Medb to train in far Dál Riata, with Domnall Mildemail. Only such a man is fit to be called a hero, much less a champion, one who has mastered the arts of war shown by Domnall the Soldierly. They say,” Forgall paused and glanced sideways at the youth, “he has been promised the hand of Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, the lord of Ben Etair on his return.”

Fergus looked up and grunted, “Aye, I have heard of Domnall of Dál Riata and the warriors he trains at his fortress there.  No finer men would you find in a long day’s march. Aye, I met Domnall in long days past – a hard man, I’d say.”

“His fortress of stone and solitude,” scoffed Bricriu, “a barren wasteland with no pasture for cattle. Let him keep his kingdom there and stay in peace for if the men of the Ulaidh were to rise up, this narrow sea between here and Dál Riata would evaporate from the heat of our passage and reveal the fullness of the dark stone causeway.” boasted Bricriu.

“No doubt that is true,” the peddler assented, his head still bent submissively, “but they say only the hero who has mastered the skills of warfare at Domnall’s rough hands will win the love of the lady Emer.”

“Surely everyone from this kingdom is better than the best that this Domnall can train?” The dark haired youth beside Fergus suddenly erupted angrily.  Up on his feet, one bunched fist grinding against the trestle table in front of him, he glared around the hall.

“Good man, Cú Chulainn,” Bricriu jeered. “You’re the very man to uphold the honour of the Red Branch and Ulaidh.”

Pushing back from the table so that he stood fully erect, before all eyes, the boy shimmered and changed, no longer a callow youth who sat submissively at the side of his sworn lord, his body contorted and transformed into the lean, muscled form of a warrior with the blood lust on him. The thick hanks of dark hair falling to his shoulders caught the light from the tallow lamps behind him and appeared edged with fire while his eyes, hard and grey, flicked from man to man with the harshness of slingshots, dominating the room. Hushed, lords and men, serving girls and even the dogs seemed suspended in motion, like dust motes caught in a ray of sunlight in a darkened porch.

“What talk is this, men of the Ulaidh? Let no man among us, even beyond the borders of the five fifths of Ériu, dare say that Ulaidh does not have a warrior who exceeds any man that this Domnall of Dál Riata can train, excelling even over the hard Domnall himself.”

Cú Chulainn paused and glared down the hall, his immense shadow flickering and shifting on the panelled wall behind him.

“Should any man here doubt that the Ulaidh has the equal and the best part of any so-called hero that comes from the rocky, barren coast of Dál Riata, I myself, Sétanta mac Súaltaim, the hound of Culann, will undertake the voyage over the cold, grey sea to meet and best this master of warfare before returning to the Ulaidh to claim the prize of the hand of the lady Emer.”

“Well spoken, Cú Chulainn, my favoured nephew, but no one here could ever doubt the ability of one such as yourself.” murmured Conor. The momentary silence following the king’s pronouncement was interrupted by a discreet cough and the king turned his jaded eyes on the peddler.

“Well and bravely spoken, young master,” Forgall began hesitantly, as if reluctant to speak frankly of the thoughts that all would behold to be common truths.

“Yes, go on; speak your mind, man,” rumbled Conall.

“Well, it is known that Domnall only accepts the best of the best, men at their battle prime and even then,” Forgall paused for regretful respect, “many are the men who do not return from their training and I say men, because no beardless youth such as the young lord here, could possibly master the feats – the shield vault, and the arts of slaying unknown to most – to even dream of being admitted to such a testing environment.” 

Forgall bowed his head lower in mute subjection to the favour of the king, but not before he saw the youth, now returned to his early form, tense again, only to be restrained by the cautionary hand of Fergus.  

“In fact,” the peddler continued quietly, “I have heard that Lugaid Mac Nois is preparing to undergo the challenge and all know that Lugaid is well–seasoned in the art of warfare and raiding.”

At the mention of Lugaid’s name Cú Chulainn sat up straighter and glared at the hooded peddler.

***

“So, what happened then?” Ferdia mac Damáin, fostered at Eamhain Macha since childhood, had become fast friends with the small, dark-haired boy when he had arrived so unexpectedly at Eamhain Macha the first time. Now, he had ridden up to the heights of Sliabh Fúait, bringing stirabout made with fresh milk and wheaten meal flavoured with honey as well as a flask of red wine, to hear more of Cú Chulainn’s tales from his recent trip south to Laighain.

“Well, the old man made it clear that only a hero would be worthy of his daughter’s hand and that as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t exactly hero material,” Cú Chulainn began.

“But you’d just beaten the cess out of his three sons, wasn’t that enough for the ould fool?” Ferdia put in.

“Arragh, I could have done that with my eyes closed and one arm behind my back!” Cú Chulainn boasted. “Anyway, as I was leaving, Emer, … oh Ferdia, she is so beautiful, if I could just rest my head between … I mean on …” 

“Yeah, yeah, but go on, Emer what?” Ferdia demanded, passing over the wine skin to his foster brother.

“Right, as I leaving, I managed to have a few words with her and she told me that her father would not tolerate any suitor for her hand unless he had killed a score of men at every ford on the river Ailibine and done the salmon leap carrying twice his weight in gold.”

“Is that all?” Ferdia laughed.  “You’re right, you’d have to be a quare ould hero to do all of that stuff, right enough.”

“It’s no laughing matter,” Cú Chulainn snapped, glaring at his friend.  “To make matters worse, she told me that the whole thing is just her father’s way to get rid of suitors.”

“What did you say then?” Ferdia asked, more sympathetically.

“What do you think?”  Cú Chulainn gulped more wine, a trickle running down his smooth chin.  “I said I would do it all and more for her and nothing would keep me from her and she promised that she wouldn’t even look at any other men until I returned for her.”

 “He’s not called Forgall the Cunning for nothing, is he?” Ferdia said, clunking his mug gently against Cú Chulainn’s.  “Does that mean you are going to do it, crazy as it sounds?”

Cú Chulainn paused, gulped from the mug before getting up and pacing up and down beside where Ferdia sat.

“That’s what the peddler said,” he continued. “A suitor to Forgall’s daughter’s hand has to complete training with the warrior chieftain Domnall Mildemail the war-like and the chieftain, Scáthach the Shadowy One, in Dál Riata, as well as being able to perform other wondrous feats, that sort of stuff.” 

“Well, you know, look at it this way, a bit of travel, see a different world, meet new people …, it could be a chance to have some fun.” 

Ferdia leaned back against the boulder and stared up at his friend.  

“She must have been very special, I’ve never seen you like this before, what’s this her name is, again?”

“Emer.” Cú Chulainn spun around and stared at his friend, “I tell you, when I first saw her sitting there, the blue of the sea dulled by the beauty of her eyes as bright as flowers, as I came down the track from Magh Brega, I just knew, she has to be the one. She has the most amazing…,” Cú Chulainn stopped and started again “…she looks so … she’s …,” words failed him and he suddenly sat down opposite Ferdia.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“What can I do? I promised to return, I told her.  You would too if you could have glimpsed that sweet valley.” Cú Chulainn drained his mug and banged it on the ground beside him. “I said that no father or brother or any man alive would stop me the next time I come looking for her.  And I meant it.”

“Lookit here to me,” Ferdia suddenly said, “Cú Chulainn, I’ll go with you, we’ll watch each other’s backs, what do you say?  We are foster brothers, aren’t we, sworn to each other by blood oaths and firm friends?  We’ll go together and take on all comers and make our own mark in the world for how else are heroes made? Not by sitting on our arses here, that’s for sure.”

***

Dusk was falling and Scél mac Bairin had herded the lactating ewes inside the lambing enclosure and was hobbling around inside, busy lighting rush torches in the courtyard around the Craobh Ruadh in celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of the passing of Samhain.  The flares from the torches and the blackthorn fires reminded Cú Chulainn, recently returned from Dal Riata, of the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun over the coming days and Cathbad had already noted the new sprouting of leaves, and the appearance of the first crocus flowers.

Scél, his diminutive shadow bobbing against the wall of the Red Branch lodge, cackled with pleasure at the thought of badgers coming out from their den now that the dark days of Samhain were coming to an end until Cú Chulainn barked at him to find Ibar the charioteer.

Cú Chulainn sat back by the camp fire of blackthorn wood, which burned slowly with good heat and little smoke, his long, dark hair tinged with crimson from the firelight, thinking of the girl he had promised to find when he had returned from his training in Dál Riata. 

Lugaid mac Nois had openly admitted the night before that he had been invited by Emer’s father to court the girl but had manfully refused when Emer had told him of Cú Chulainn’s prior interest.  Cú Chulainn looked up from the flames at the sound of a discreet cough and saw a small man waiting respectfully nearby.

“My father told me to tell you that he can’t come.  He sent me instead.  He’s got a bit old now and says he is not up to your tricks.”

Cú Chulainn glared at the young man for a long moment before he understood the glimmer of humour in his eyes.

“And I suppose you think you are up to it?” he demanded, standing up and pushing the youth in the chest.

Laeg remained stock still under Cú Chulainn’s jabbing finger. He was barely taller than the homunculus, Scél the gatekeeper, but he was broad chested and long limbed with strong arms and he stood firmly on stout legs.

“My name is Laeg mac Ibar mac Ringambra and like my father and his father before him, I wear the yellow band of the master charioteer now,” he said proudly “and anything my father could have done, I can do – and better,” 

“Right then so,” Cú Chulainn grinned, clapping his hands together and rubbing them briskly.  “I need a driver who knows how to leap chasms, not afraid to use the goad and able to back up straight without me being a backseat driver. I fight, you drive, and if you want to give advice, I’ll ask for it.”

“When do you want to leave?” Laeg asked, pleased with Cú Chulainn’s obvious acceptance of him.

“First light in the morning, harness the sickle chariot and we go to Ben Etair in the kingdom of Laigheann where there is a girl I fain would see now and let no man or beast prevent me from doing so!”

***

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies.  At a nod from Cú Chulainn, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Cú Chulainn grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

The watcher on the highest platform behind the palisade blew a long, wavering note on the horn to signify the arrival of armed strangers.  The palisade, Cú Chulainn noted, had been reinforced with outward pointing, sharpened stakes and a crude watchtower had been erected atop the wall beside the gate and he could see the hulking figure of Scibar pushing shut the entry gate to the triple walls closing off the ráth on the promontory. 

“It doesn’t look like they want to see you,” Laeg commented drily, swinging the chariot around so that its left side challenged the watchers on the wall.

Cú Chulainn made no answer but climbed nimbly onto the rim of the chariot and leapt on to the chariot pole and ran its length until he stood astride the yoke as Laeg thundered past, the clods of earth thrown up by the sickle wheeled chariot hammering the walls.  Twisting in the air, Cú Chulainn leapt like a salmon at the first wall, hauling himself up and over in one fluid movement and landed lightly on his feet, his sling shot already sending whirling death to Ecet, Emer’s brother, who was crouched beside an unyoked chariot, feinting with short spear thrusts. Cú Chulainn dropped his slingshot and grabbed his fallen spear and charged the still open gate in the second wall, panicking Connad by his sudden attack.

Connad lunged his spear towards Cú Chulainn’s groin but he swept the point away and down with the butt of his spear before raising it and ramming the iron-tipped point into the man’s unprotected gullet and bounding past him. Sweeping more men aside, he flailed the spear like a staff before him, keeping his movements quick and sharp, blocking thrusts and stabs and immediately attacking faces, throats and groins before moving on towards the final, inner wall. Running forward swiftly, Cú Chulainn reversed the spear in his hand and thrust the pole end into the dirt before the wall and completed a salmon leap so that he was inside the court.

Scibar was waiting there for him, a long iron sword in his hand.  “So the beardless pup is here again,” he bellowed, charging at him, sword extended and Cú Chulainn spun on the balls of his feet to ward off the attack of the overhead swing. Stamping forward, he slashed his blade at Scibar’s ankle before wrenching the keen-edged blade up between his open legs. Scibar staggeredd back, ashen faced, as blood poured from under his tunic, pooling on the ground at his feet. Snarling, he lurched forward, swinging his sword up so that the point flicked towards Cú Chulainn’s throat.  Cú Chulainn swayed to one side, avoiding the cut and moved forward, inside Scibar’s range and thrust his own blade forward into Scibar’s throat. Scibar let his sword fall with a clang from his powerless hand and his breath bubbled wetly in his throat. Cú Chulainn twisted the sword, using both hands before wrenching the iron blade out from his throat so that the blood ran down the grooved blade, streaming over his hands.

Forgall, seeing his sons fallen and his fort taken, scurried around to the back of the ráth, and scrambled up a ladder leaning against the inside wall onto the parapet overlooking the grey sea at the side of the promontory on which the ráth was built, hampered by the heavy sacks of valuables he was lugging over his shoulder. 

Cú Chulainn stopped and looked at the older man, noting the trapped, desperate, look in the old man’s narrow eyes.

“Stay back,” Forgall screamed, waving a short bladed knife in Cú Chulainn’s direction.

“I offer you safe passage in return for the hand of your daughter,” Cú Chulainn cried, thrusting his bloody sword point down into the ground at his feet. 

Forgall turned back to glare at the still warrior,  “Bad cess and short life to you. Never will I surrender my daughter or my gold to your blood-stained hands,” he screamed. The old man scrambled away along the parapet but the weight of the sacks he was carrying caused him to slip and fall to his death on the salt-washed rocks below. 

Cú Chulainn spat after him, plucked his sword from the ground and went to look for Emer in a small area off the main hall.

Retrieving the two sacks of gold and silver Forgall had dropped and putting one bag under each of his oxters and tossing Emer over his shoulder, he leapt the walls again to where Laeg was waiting for him.  Forgall’s men, enraged at the death of their ring-giver and liege lord, pursued them until they reached the ford on the river Ailbine, and Cú Chulainn killed a score of them there. 

Again, they were overtaken at another ford on the Boann, and Cú Chulainn pushed Emer down from the chariot, so that he could more easily follow his enemies along the bank of the river. 

At each of these fords Cú Chulainn killed a score of men, and so he kept his word to Emer, and they came safely to Eamhain Macha, toward the fall of night.

Clay Feet 

Billy was only a little boy when his mummy died; he was so little that he couldn’t remember what she looked like, except that she had a nice smell. Sometimes, in the evening, his daddy would take him on his knee and tell him stories about his mummy and how nice she was. Billy’s daddy’s name was also Billy but the grown-ups always called him Will. Billy called him Bill though because his daddy said he was too big a boy to call him Daddy. Billy liked it when his daddy lifted him up on his knees, especially in the summer when they would sit outside on the porch and watch the boats go by on the river. Billy’s father would drink a funny yellow—brown drink from a big bottle and after a while his breath would have a funny smell. The drink also had a funny taste and Billy was not sure if he liked it or not. Once when he had a pain in his tooth and was crying, his daddy came into his room and picked him up on his strong arms and sang to him and when that didn’t make the pain go away, he dipped some cotton wool into the yellowy brown drink and then put that on the sore tooth. That helped a bit and the next day he want to the dentist with his daddy and got a needle stuck into his gum but it didn’t hurt because his daddy held his hand the whole time. Later, when he got home, he put the bad tooth under his pillow and when he went back soon afterwards he found a shiny piece of money and his daddy told him the faeries had put it there because he was a big, brave boy and didn’t cry when the dentist stuck a needle in his gum. For a few days after that, he could stick his tongue into the hole left by the tooth and it felt soft and jellyish there. He couldn’t see it properly because it was in the back of his mouth and he wasn’t sure if he liked the feel of it or not. Billy could never decide if he liked new things or not. He liked his daddy though and he liked the house he and his daddy lived in. It was a nice house with a big garden with two trees in it. On one tree his daddy had made him a swing with a red seat and Billy liked to just sit there and look at the river which was at the end of the garden. He liked the river also and sometimes he and his daddy would go swimming there when it was very hot. Afterwards they always played football and Billy usually won because his daddy couldn’t run fast because he had hurt his leg when his mummy died and the motor car was taken away by the men in the truck with the crane in the back of it.

All the men in the boats that sailed up and down the river knew Billy and his daddy and they always waved when they saw him in the garden. Billy felt very proud then as he waved back and he sometimes wished he had friends to see him waving to the men in the boats. When he grew up, he and his daddy were going to buy a big boat and sail up and down the river as well and Billy’s daddy said he could be the captain. Billy never felt lonely except when he had no friends to see him waving to the men in the boats. Then he would go in and talk to his daddy. His daddy was always at home, tapping away with his big, brown fingers on a black box with letters and numbers written on little squares. It was called a typewriter and sometimes Billy would sit and watch his daddy working and listen for the little bell that rang every few moments and reminded his daddy to pul a little lever so that the letters would keep on coming in straight lines after lines after lines.

Once a man with a camera came to the house and took a lot of pictures of his daddy sitting beside the typewriter and then they talked for a long time in the living room and drank some of the browny-yellow drink that his daddy called malt and when the man went home, he shook hands with Billy and said the best of luck, Mr. Doyle. A few days later, Billy’s daddy showed him a picture of himself in the newspaper. Billy didn’t think the picture looked a bit like his daddy but he pretended to be pleased because his daddy was very pleased and he said that one day, Billy might have his own picture in the newspaper. Billy wasn’t sure if he wanted his picture in the newspaper if it wasn’t going to look like him. That night they had cake for tea and afterwards sat watching television and Billy’s daddy drank a lot of the malt and fell fast asleep in his armchair with his legs on a small stool and Billy saw that the bottle beside him was empty. Billy couldn’t wake him up when the television was over and the man on it said good night to him. His daddy was snoring very loudly and Billy could see the black hairs inside his nose move gently, just like the strands of river weeds move under water when the boats went by.

Billy didn’t really mind his daddy not waking up because he knew his daddy was very happy. The next morning when he got up for breakfast, his daddy was awake and didn’t mind him eating the rest of the cake, left over from the night before, for his breakfast. His daddy didn’t have anything to eat except for two cups of black coffee and two aspirin from the bottle in the cupboard because he said he had a splitting head. When Billy was a very small boy, he thought that people’s heads actually did crack open when they said that but now he was a big boy and he knew that his daddy only meant that he had a pain in his head.

Later in the morning, they got the little red bus into the village because Billy’s daddy had to buy some food and afterwards, as a surprise, his daddy bought him new ball because he had lost his old one a few days ago. Then they went into the front room of a house where there were plenty of small tables and chairs and a few men drinking. Billy’s daddy had a big, black drink with a creamy white head on it and Billy had an orangeade. Billy’s father laughed and said that the black and white drink was a hair of the dog that bit him. Billy laughed too but didn’t understand what his daddy meant and when he asked him where the dog had bitten him his daddy only laughed again and the man who gave them the drinks laughed too. Billy felt a bit silly then so he laughed too as if he had understood the joke.

*

The weather was very hot and it hadn’t rained for days and days. Billy lay in the garden all day and became very brow and he swam a lot. His daddy was very busy and said he only had time for one swim a day. Every night, after Billy went to bed, he could hear his daddy tap-tapping away on the typewriter and quite often when Billy came down for breakfast, he found his daddy asleep with his head on the table beside the typewriter and there were pages and pages scattered on all the chairs and on the floor as well. But there was no bottle of malt or anything else on the floor and when Billy asked why, his daddy smiled and ruffled his hair and said he had no time as he had to make a deadline. Billy had to make breakfast, dinner and tea for himself and his daddy but he didn’t mind. He was a very good cook as his daddy had shown him how to fry eggs and rashers, spooning the hot fat carefully over the yellow of the egg until he could see a pink tinge to the yellow. Tea and coffee were easy to make and it was simple to heat up tins of beans and spaghetti. Once he cut his finger when he was opening a tin of sardines for the tea, but he didn’t cry as he know his daddy was very busy. However, when his daddy saw the blood on his handkerchief, he kissed Billy and said he was a very good little boy but he must promise to tell his daddy immediately if anything that like that ever happened again. His daddy put a big bandage on his finger and kissed it better and said he didn’t know what he’d do if he didn’t have Billy to look after him.

After the tea, Billy’s daddy said it was time that he had a rest from work so they left all the dirty dishes piled in the kitchen sink and went out for a walk along the riverbank. It was nice in the cool of the evening to walk slowly along and watch the ducks floating quietly along. Billy knew the proper names of the ducks because his daddy had once told him their names and proudly now, he pointed out the brown and green mallards and the speckled widgeons and his daddy said he was the best boy in the world. After a while, they stopped for a rest as daddy’s leg was hurting him and Billy skimmed stones across the water. He could nearly always get a stone to jump over the smooth surface of the water at least once or twice but he could never make the stones jump as far as his daddy did.

On their way home they saw a man sticking up a big coloured poster on the tree beside the road and his daddy waited for him while Billy ran to see what the poster said.  It was a big orange poster with pictures of elephants, lions, dancing horses, clowns and lots of other things and the man told Billy the circus was coming to town next week for one night only. Billy stood staring at the picture of the elephant, balancing on one leg on top of a bucket while horse with girls standing on their backs galloped around in circles for so long that his daddy had to call him several times before he heard. When Billy ran back to him he was so excited  that he had to wait a few minutes until he got his breath back before he could tell his daddy the news.

Billy had never been to the circus or to a zoo and he only knew the animals through his picture books or through the television and he longed to really see all the strange animals. He was little bit frightened too, although he would never have admitted it to anyone, just in case the animals, some of whom were very fierce, ever got loose but he knew that if he was with his daddy he would be as safe as when his daddy tucked him up in his bed.

His daddy was nearly as excited as Billy was and he said that it had been a very long time since he had been to a circus. Billy looked up at his daddy’s face  and realised that he was an old man, far, far older than Billy himself was. Now that he thought of it, on his daddy’s birthday cake last month, there were no birthday candles because, Billy now supposed, there was not enough room to show all the candles needed for his age. As they walked back home, his daddy told him stories about circuses which travelled all over the world and were welcomed wherever they went. Billy half closed his eyes and held his daddy’s big warm hand and listened to the descriptions of all the strange and exciting sights he would see himself next week. He decided that, first of all, he would like to be, when he grew up of course, a captain of a big boat on the river. Then, if he got tired of that, to be like his Daddy who knew such an awful lot about everything and then, perhaps he would like to be the circus ringmaster dressed in a big black coat with a shiny topcoat, cracking a long whip as all the horses danced around him. He was still thinking about the circus when his daddy came into his bedroom later that night to tuck him in.

At breakfast the next day his daddy told him he had a nice surprise for him. Billy couldn’t think of what could surprise him after all he had seen and heard about the circus the previous night. His daddy put down the letter he was reading and told him that his Auntie Fran was coming to stay a few days and that she was especially looking forward to seeing Billy since she hadn’t seen him since he was a tiny baby. Billy wasn’t quite sure if this was a nice surprise or not. Certainly, it was not as nice or as exciting as the circus but it might turn out to be just as good. Billy couldn’t remember Auntie Fran; in fact, he didn’t know any of his uncles or aunts although his daddy had told him he had three or four. A long time ago, Billy didn’t remember when, as he was only a little boy, but his daddy had said it was after the time his mummy died, all his uncles and aunts had stopped coming to visit them. Billy certainly hadn’t missed them and he didn’t think his daddy had either. When he asked his daddy if he were happy Auntie Fran was coming to visit, his daddy gave him a small smile and ruffled his hair and said of course he was, but Billy couldn’t make up his mind. While he was eating his toast and marmalade, his daddy told him about Auntie Fran. She was his mummy’s sister and she lived in Dublin. Her husband was dead and she was very rich. She lived in a very big house with a very small garden with no trees in it at all  near the centre of the city. There was river near her house too, but his daddy said it wasn’t the same type of river that ran past their garden. It was a very big river and the water was dirty and you couldn’t swim in it where Auntie Fran lived. Billy had never been to Dublin and had never seen the big, dirty river  but it didn’t sound very nice. His Auntie also had a large, black car and a man called a chauffeur to drive it but she wasn’t coming down in her big car, his daddy said, but by train instead. When Billy asked why she was coming to visit them, his daddy scratched the side of his face and said that was a very good question but that he didn’t know the answer.

*

Billy had taken his shirt off and was sitting on the swing because it was too hot to play when the taxi drove up to the gate and a fat woman in a long brown coat got out. Billy suddenly felt shy and ran to hide behind the hedge before she could see him. She looked very fat and she had four brown cases with her, three of them were  very big, and the other was quite small. She had a very loud voice and Billy could clearly hear her telling the taxi man not to scuff her cases as he carried them up the path to the hall door. Every few moments she said she wondered where in goodness Will could be and the taxi man didn’t say anything. Then Billy’s daddy came out of the house and gave some money to the taxi man  and Auntie Fran said well it has been a long time Will, and his daddy first of all looked up at the sky and then down at his shoes and said something that Billy couldn’t hear.

When he came in for his tea a while later, his Auntie was saying that the house was like a hovel. Billy didn’t understand what hovel meant but he guessed his Auntie was annoyed about something, maybe because their house had a bigger garden with trees in it, but he wasn’t sure. Then he saw that she was pointing at the kitchen sink with all the dirty dishes piled in it as well as the empty tin of steak and kidney pie they had had for their lunch. His daddy was leaning against the wall with his arms folded and was saying nothing. His Auntie stopped talking when she saw him and they both continued to look at each other for what seemed to Billy to be the longest time. He meant to say something polite to his new Auntie and his daddy had earlier suggested that he ask her if she had a pleasant journey down from Dublin but Auntie Fran was so big that Billy felt a little afraid of her.

His Auntie Fran smiled at him then and asked if he had lost his tongue and was he not going to say hello to his Auntie? Billy didn’t know what to do then and he decided she didn’t have as nice a smile as his daddy had but he said hello without looking at her. He looked at her shoes instead which were brown and seemed to squeeze her fat feet.

‘Say hello properly, Billy’ his daddy said and, with an effort, Billy tore his eyes away from her feet and looked up at her. He meant to ask her how she was but instead blurted ‘When are you going back to Dublin?’ Later his daddy told him that  it wasn’t a nice question to ask someone who has only just arrived.

Auntie Fran didn’t say anything to him but turned to his daddy and said, ‘I declare to my judge, Will, I don’t know what kind of little boy you have here. He doesn’t seem to have any manners on him at all.’ 

Billy wanted to say that he wasn’t a little boy and that he did have manners but his daddy caught his eye  and shook his head slightly so Billy didn’t say anything.

‘Aren’t you going to give your Auntie a kiss, like a good boy?’

Billy slowly went over to the chair where Auntie Fran sat and pressed his lips against her cheek. His lips came away powdery and he rubbed them with the back of his hand.

‘Isn’t he a real man?’ his Auntie Fran said, laughing.’He takes right after you, Will. I must say, however, that hair is much to long for a little boy. If you saw him from behind, you’d think he was a little girl. We’ll have to see about getting it cut nice and short, won’t we?’

Billy was horrified by the idea. He liked his hair long and his daddy often said he looked like the picture of Cu Chulainn that Billy had in one of his books.

“The child likes his hair the way it is, Fran and I see no harm in it’. Billy’s father said quietly from the corner.

‘Nonsense, we’ll have to get it cut in the morning. That’s the way all the corner boys are now in Dublin with long hair and spitting out of them.’

After tea, Auntie Fran said she would make a start on cleaning up the mess and after she had gone into the scullery, Billy’s daddy frowned at the wall and said nothing. Billy excused himself and ran into the living room to watch television but occasionally, when the draught from the open window blew the door into the kitchen open a few inches, Billy could hear his daddy and Auntie Fran talking. Later they both came into the living room and Billy’s daddy offered Auntie Fran a drink. She said she’d have a small sherry but Billy’s daddy only had Malt in the cupboard so she didn’t have anything. For a long while they all sat in silence watching a cowboy film on television but when Billy’s daddy reached for the malt bottle to give himself another drink, Auntie Fran said quietly, ‘Easy Will, remember the last time you had a few drinks’.

Billy didn’t understand this as his daddy had a drink every night and nothing ever happened. Even if something had happened last night or the night before, Billy reasoned, how could Auntie Fran know, seeing as she had only arrived that afternoon.

‘For God’s sake, Fran, don’t rake up old memories. That was more than five years ago. Things are different now.’ his daddy said, a little bit annoyed, Billy thought

‘Even so,’ Auntie Fran insisted. ‘Even so. Anyway, it’s a bad example to give to the child. These are the formative years you know.’

‘He’a no longer a babe in arms, Fran, as you can see and he doesn’t mind me taking a drink. He is quite used to the idea. There is no harm in a man having a drop or two after his tea.’

‘But that’s just the point, he’s not even seven yet and to see you, every night, I suppose, could have a very serious effect on his life later. Anyway, I think you know who is listening so we will talk later.’

‘Fran, there’s no point in …’ Billy’s fathers voice tailed off and Billy looked up but his daddy was looking into the glass he held in his hand.

When the cowboy film was over, Auntie Fran looked up and Billy asked her if she wanted to watch the other channel instead. 

‘Off to bed now, love, aren’y you? I’m sure you have had a tiring day for a little boy.’ Auntie Fran smiled. Billy was going to say that he never went to bed until the television shut down for the night and sometimes he even stayed up later, on Christmas and on his birthdays but his daddy looked over at him and said, ‘Just this once, Billy, like a good man’.

As Billy was going up the stairs, he could hear Auntie Fran saying, ’Will, this has got to stop. You’re spoiling the child. I’m warning you, you’ll get no thanks for it. He’ll turn into another cheeky little monkey. As it is, he looks a disgrace with the length of the hair on him.’ 

For a long time after Billy got into bed, he could hear voices downstairs and sometimes he could make out parts of a sentence – ‘ … got to be firm …’ ‘… advice … him … boarding school … ‘Nothing wrong … Billy …quite happy … ‘ … wreak and ruin … ‘ … naturally a quiet boy …’ ‘ … needs … some manners … ask me …’.

*

The next morning, Billy was playing in the garden with his football when his daddy came out and sat on the swing. After a while he asked Billy how it was going. Billy didn’t have to answer and instead threw his ball at his daddy who caught it and threw it back at him, He jumped up into the air to catch it and then fell into the long, dewy grass and rolled over. He liked the feeling of the wet grass and he liked to see the drops of dew shining in the sunlight. He threw the ball then quickly and his daddy missed. Billy shouted ‘D for Donkey, D for donkey.’ 

His father picked up the ball and sat down again on the swing and, instead of throwing it to Billy, turned it over and over in his  hands.

‘If I asked you, Billy, as a favour to me, would you get your hair cut?’

Billy stopped rolling in the grass and looked at his daddy ‘Why?’

‘Because that old … because Auntie Fran thinks you’d look like a much older and bigger boy if you did.’

‘I don’t want to look older and be bigger. I want to stay like this for always. Anyway, I like my hair.’ Billy said stubbornly.

‘I know you do, Billy, but it’s just this once and then you can grow it again when Auntie Fran leaves. She’s only staying a few more weeks. Besides, it’s good for your hair to have it cut now and then, like the grass in the top paddock. It makes it grow all the stronger. However, if you don’t want to do me a favour … that’s all right.’

Billy waited a while to see if his daddy would say anything else but when he didn’t, he got up and took the ball from his daddy.

‘Alright,’ he said carelessly, ’I will get it cut!’. He kicked the ball the length of the garden and ran after it.

*

The back of Billy’s head felt cold and bristly and when he ran, he could no longer see the shadow of his hair bouncing up and down against the ground. He didn’t like getting his hair cut but, as his daddy said, it was a special favour to him and his daddy very rarely asked him to do  him a favour. Anyway, as a treat, when they left the barbershop, which had an oily smell Billy didn’t like, they went to a café while they were waiting for the bus. Billy’s daddy bought him a bottle of red lemonade which he mixed up with vanilla ice cream in a big glass.The ice cream fizzed and bubbled when the lemonade was poured on top. The mixture was cold, creamy and lovely. Billy thought it was the nicest drink in the world.

When they went home, Auntie Fran said that Billy looked like a nice boy now instead of an old cissy. Billy decided he didn’t care what Auntie Fran thought he looked like and he made up his mind to avoid her as much as possible while she stayed with them.

However, whenever she saw him, at mealtimes and at night when he was watching television, she always had something to say to him about having dirty fingernails or eating his food too fast. He went to bed early every night now and he noticed he was sent off to bed a little earlier than the night before. He didn’t really mind all that much because his daddy had asked him as a favour.

Sometimes, when Auntie Fran was washing the dishes in the scullery and his daddy was in his armchair in the living room, Billy would run to him and sit on his knee and it would be just like before Auntie Fran came to stay. Once she came in when he was on his daddy’s knee and she called him a big cissy.

His daddy frowned but didn’t say anything so Billy got off and sat in his own armchair. Later that same night Auntie Fran told Billy to stop fidgeting in his chair and for a while he stopped but in a few minutes he forgot and started again and Auntie Fran leaned over and smacked him on his bare leg. It wasn’t a hard slap but it was the shock of being slapped in the first place that hurt because Billy’s daddy had never smacked him.

Through the prickling tears that made everything look blurry and far away he could hear his daddy saying if the child needed punishment, he himself would do it and no one else. Auntie Fran said a good slap every now and then did a child a world of good. His daddy didn’t say anything but Billy knew he was annoyed with Auntie Fran.

The next day the circus arrived and in the morning Billy ran down to see the men put up the tents. They all took off their shirts as the sun got hotter  and Billy could see the muscles in their backs and bare arms working as they pulled on the long ropes and suddenly, as if by magic, the big grey tent mushroomed up. People hurried by, shouting and hammering iron spikes deep into the ground but there was no sign of the animals. However, when he asked a man, he was told all the animals were arriving after dinner.

Billy walked home slowly for his lunch but decided he wouldn’t go to the field that afternoon to see the animals arriving because he wanted to see them at their best, parading under the bright lights of the tents. He was so excited about the coming night that he could hardly eat his dinner and Auntie Fran kept asking him what he was smiling at.

After lunch, he didn’t know what to do so he went out into the garden. It wasn’t a nice day any longer, the sky had clouded over with big black clouds and it was very warm but it wouldn’t rain. Billy thought it might thunder and lightning and he hoped it would because he loved to watch it when he was safely tucked up in his bed and could see the trees wildly tossing their heads about in the sudden short flashes of sharp blue light.

The afternoon slowly dragged on and Billy counted each moment of it. After a while, he got tired of rocking on the swing and went in to watch his daddy work. The steady tapping of his father’s fingers on the typewriter, punctuated by the little bell which he could never see, calmed him and before he knew it, he fell asleep, curled up in his armchair. When he woke up it was tea time and immediately after it was all over, Billy wanted to set out for the big field. His daddy, however wasn’t ready as he had to finish off some very important business and besides, he said, they had all the time in the world. Billy was so anxious not to miss a thing that he made his dad ring a man up on the phone and find out the time of the last show that evening at 9:30pm. Restlessly Billy walked up and down the hall, his coat hanging ready on the bannisters.

Then it got very dark and Billy heard a tremendous crash and a noise as if someone was throwing stones on their tiled roof. The thunder began and, pleased with the distraction, Billy ran up to his bedroom and lay on the bed beside the window. It was raining very heavily now and the river was being whipped into a grey and white foam. The next time the thunder roared, Billy was ready and he had only counted three when the room was brilliantly lit with an electric blue light that remained in his closed eyes long after the flash had gone. Sometimes the huge forks of lightning seemed to be coming directly at him and Billy shivered with a terrified pleasure and sometimes they seemed to be running through the sky away from him.

Finally it was time to get ready and Billy ran downstairs for his coat on the bannisters, calling for his daddy. Before he reached the hall, the living room door opened  and Auntie Fran came out. ‘What’s all this noise for Billy, your daddy and I were just ….’

She broke off as she saw Billy struggling into his coat. 

‘I hope you don’t think you are going out into that storm, mister, do you?

‘We’re going to the circus in the field and … 

‘But it’s already well past your bed time  and I am most certainly not allowing you out in this weather, no matter where you think you’re going,’ Auntie Fran said firmly. ‘Will, what’s this nonsense about going to a circus on a night like this?’

Billy’s father came out into the hall and looked at Billy, all dressed and ready to go.’Well’, he said, ‘it is a circus and I did promise the boy …’

‘Are you mad?’demanded Auntie Fran.‘In this weather? Do you want the child to catch his death of cold? Anyway, it is long past his bed time. I really don’t understand you, Will. Just listen to that rain. I’ll tell  you this much – not one or the other of you will leave this house tonight unless it is over my dead body.  There’s more important things than circuses, you know? I’m sure Billy understands, don’t you, love? You can always go to another circus.’

Billy’s dad hesitated and Billy’s heart stood still.

‘I want to go to the circus, Bill, I don’t care,  I want to go. Daddy, you promised’

‘Your Auntie’s right, you know, Billy. Not even a dog would go out in this weather. We can always go to another circus and … ‘

‘You promised’.

‘Besides, Billy, it’s very late and the only place for little boy like you is wrapped up nice and snug in his bed,’ Auntie Fran added.

‘But daddy …’

‘Now Will, you have got to be firm with the child. I told you something like this would happen. You have spoilt him to such an extent that he can’t take no for an answer.’

‘I promise, Billy, I’ll take you to the next circus that comes and that’s a genuine promise, cross my heart, but your Auntie is right, we can’t go out tonight.

For the first time in a long time, Billy made no attempt to hide his tears which flowed freely down his cheeks. Turning, he ran blindly up the stairs, the lightning searing his eyes. 

‘I hate, you, I hate you, you promised me, I hate you.’

Accidents

The sand in the depression between the dunes near the old wooden jetty, where the kids shouted and jumped, was warm from the late afternoon sun. I was looking forward to watching the imminent sunset. I took my shirt off while Maria carefully positioned her towel on the rug before sitting down. I lay down on the sand, wriggling slightly to fit myself in better.

‘God, what happened to you? That looks such a mess!’ She leaned over and touched my stomach lightly.

I shrugged, ‘It’s nothing really, never mind’ and propped my head on the cooler bag so that I could see the water and the horizon towards which western sun was descending.

‘No, I mean, it looks like you were butchered, really. Go on, tell me what happened, baby.’ 

Pushing up her sun glasses, Maria lowered her self down on her hip so that she could run her hand over my chest and stomach.

‘Well, it was a long time ago,’ I said, ‘and it all started because my sister was afraid of dogs.’

‘Really, Why?’ She propped herself up on one elbow and gazed at me before reaching over and brushing a fly off my shoulder.

‘Dunno. Maybe she was bitten once or something, who knows? Anyway, my parents, in their infinite wisdom, and maybe even after they chatted to a trick cyclist – my father managed a large maternity hospital and knew all the quacks there – decided to buy my sister a dog. What I found one afternoon when I came home from school was a tiny squirming ball of fur which rapidly grew into an amazingly high spirited little terrier – a Jack Russell, in fact.’

‘Excuse me for asking,’ Maria sat up and adjusted her glasses. ‘But what does your sister’s phobia with regard to canines have to do with your butchered stomach?’

She reached over and touched the crude scars the original stitching had left below my ribs and across the width of my waist.

‘Hold your horses there for a minute. I’m getting to it but I have to logically present the situation to you – remember, I told you this was all long ago.’ I closed my eyes and shook my head slightly, feeling the cold hardness in the cooler bag.

‘OK, take your time, baby.’

‘While my sister tolerated Scamp, that was the name chosen by – I actually don’t remember who in particular came up with that – but he was little ball of energy and eventually, I suppose, he became my dog by virtue of us doing everything together.’

‘What about your sister?’

I sat up and pulled the cooler bag over and took out a bottle of chilled Kahlua and two shot glasses.

‘She didn’t seem to mind, as I say, she tolerated Scamp sniffing at her, jumping up on her bed, licking her face, that sort of thing but it was always met with ‘Uggh’. Anyway, the road from the bottom of Eaton Square, where we lived, led straight down Belgrave Road for about 600m before meeting Seapoint Avenue and leading on to the beach there, guarded by a squat, round Martello towers, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars when the French once landed an expeditionary force back in 1768!’ 

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‘Was it still military?’ Maria asked, her eyebrows raised in exasperation. ‘Will you please just get to the point.’

‘No, not now of course. Now it is sells ice-cream during the summer’. I passed her a shot glass of the coffee liquor. ‘But yes, it was – one just of many such beacon fortifications along the east coast.’

‘So that’s where you grew up then?’ She sipped the liquor and nodded at me to continue.

‘Yes, and where I learned to swim too.’

‘I thought you told me you nearly drowned three times at Seaport?’

‘Yes, but … I didn’t and … anyway, that’s not the main point.’

‘Ok, Ok, your stomach. Get on with it.’

I lay back and balanced the shot glass on my stomach, staring up at the first fingers of pink beginning to taint the blue of the summer evening.

‘Anyway, a bit further on from Seapoint – The DART Transit System stopped there – but the Irish name is Rinn na Mara  and you might miss it – the next stop was just before the two piers – the east and west which encompassed Dun Laoghaire Bay.’

‘And…?’

I sat up again and topped up my glass and waved the bottle at her before refilling her glass.

‘Anyway, I used to walk beside the railway line with Scamp until I got to the bulwark of the east pier bolstered up with slimy, sea-weedy rocks and in the low tide, there were crabs and ratty looking rats scurrying around below the main wall of the pier. To get down there, there were several doorways cut into the huge granite blocks making up the outside wall of the pier itself along with the sloping embankment leading down into the waters of Dublin Bay.’

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‘It sounds scummy. Why on earth would you ever go there?’ She shuddered and clutched herself.

‘Ahh, Scamp loved it – chasing after the crabs, which rapidly disappeared into pools of water among the rocks and seaweed, while the rats or whatever they were, were far too fast and fleet-footed for my poor Jack Russell.’

‘Go on, so, for God’s sake. Are we nearly at the end?’ She leaned forward and reached for her bag.

‘Of the bottle? God, no!’ I shook my head. ‘Right. Ok. Anyway, as I was going through one of these entrances from the pier down to the sea side embankment three kids, maybe a bit older than me at the time …’

‘How old were you?’

‘Never mind but anyway as these three blokes came through the narrow doorway, although of course, there was no door, Scamp ran forward and one of the guys just booted him. Actually lifted him up in the air on the toe of his boot and then kicked him into the water.’

‘Oh my God, what did you do?’ She sat up and touched my arm.

‘I don’t really remember but I think I straight armed the guy in the chest and shouted something like ‘what the …’ before I heard the sound of breaking glass. In those days, milk was delivered to peoples’ houses every morning in glass pint bottles, capped with foil. Red for full cream milk, gold for extra cream, and while the bottles had no deposit value, everyone used then, left them out for the milkman to collect the next morning when he delivered fresh bottles. Nevertheless, there were loads of loose bottles lying around all over the place at the time and I was the unlucky recipient of a broken one in the stomach …’

‘Oh my God. Are you serious?’

I pointed at my stomach and continued. ‘As soon as the other guys saw the blood, they dropped the bottle and legged it. I remember Scamp crawling out of the water and licking my face while I tried to hold my stomach together. That’s my new Mickey Mouse t-shirt humped, I remember thinking. There! I suppose you could call that a serious accident.’

‘Are you saying a savage delinquent stabbed you in the stomach with a broken bottle and you call that an ‘accident’.’

‘Well, my scarred stomach speaks for itself and it is obvious it was no accident I didn’t die then!’

‘You know what?’ Maria poked me in the shoulder with a slender forefinger before slowly bringing her other long nails into action. ‘I don’t believe a word. I I think you just made that up. ‘

She leaned forward again and brushed her nails across my shoulder towards my chest.

‘No, really, it’s all true – well the story is, I used to tell it to kids who asked me about the scars but the scar comes from something else.’

‘Oh, go on then, I can feel another whopper coming on now. You better give me another shot of that stuff.’

‘Cheeky! No, this is gospel, cross your heart. It was quite a while ago now, as I look back, when I was working out in the Arabian Gulf.’ 

I reached over and filled her glass.

‘I didn’t know you had been in that part of the world.’

I thought of the sun sinking there majestically into the warm waters of the Gulf in an imagined monstrous burst of steam and hiss while I lay in the sand, sipping Kaklua in the company of a beautiful woman, but the sun seemed to make up its own mind and slipped behind an almost invisible cloud bank or haze on the horizon, yet the rays it beamed across the darkening sky were pastel and ephemeral.

‘Yeah, I went to Kuwait in the late seventies, I suppose it must have been and, wouldn’t you know it, the whole place went dry the day I arrived. Prior to my arrival, apparently, you could buy and drink booze in all the major hotels – Sheratons and Hiltons, that kind of thing. I think Kuwait and Saudi were both considered ideal dry-out zones for the hardened boozer trying to recoup a lifetime spent on booze in this so-called lucrative dry area of the world. However, as I quickly discovered, the kingdom was awash in booze, so it was a pity to see so many old fellas absolutely swamped in pirate piss home-brew and trickier distilled drinks.’

‘Yeah? And?’

‘Anyway a few of us went out on a chartered launch one weekend and of course we had all brought along our own supply of booze – Flash was the raw spirit which we could cut with tonic or soda or coke or something and then there were the large flagons of homemade beer, most of it excellent and …’

‘God, you sound like a bit of a hardened gargler yourself.’ 

She looked at the empty glass in her hand and put it down quickly on the rug. ‘Go on anyway, how is this leading up to your stomach?’

‘I’m getting there,’ I said. ‘Don’t rush me. Anyway, look at that sun.’ 

The sun had finally slipped into the ocean and a pale salmon pink showed where it had once been. 

‘We were meant to be fishing but the day was stinking hot, the sea an oily calm so we sat around under the awning, drinking beer and playing cards. Every so often, someone would get up and throw a bucket of bait or stuff overboard in an attempt to attract something for our rods already secured in posts along the deck but we still weren’t catching anything. I knew I was getting a bit pissed, not only that, I was getting sun-burnt and losing at cards so I staggered off to piss over the side of the boat. The water looked rather attractive and on an impulse, I moved to the other side of the boat where I had pissed, jumped up on the rail and dived into the translucent blue waters of the Gulf. It was gorgeous, if a bit too blood-warm for my liking but I swam leisurely around the launch. Looking down through the clear water I suddenly saw something long and dark, shaped like a torpedo heading directly towards me and I let out such a bellow of fear and panic that I choked on a mouthful of water before I started to churn the water around me leaving an actual furrow in the water as I ploughed my way towards the boat.’

‘My God, what was it? Was it a …?’ Maria pushed up her sunglasses so she could stare at me more directly.

‘My watery shout must have alerted the other guys on board and they were all clustered at the rail, shouting and beckoning me on, while one guy brandished a wicked looking fish gaff.’

‘What happened? Did the …?’

‘Wait. As I said, we had all been drinking and the guys had obviously continued while I was in the water. Anyway, I was almost …’

‘Almost, oh my God!’ She reached over and grasped my arm.

‘I actually had my hand on the rail and the guys were reaching down to haul me up when I felt the most agonising pain in my belly. It was like a burning razor blade slicing and jiggling into my belly and the water turned red as I was finally hauled over the rail, gaffed by the eejit who, not only had he cleaned me out at cards, he practically gutted me too.’

‘God, you are the biggest liar, I swear.’ She let go my arm and sat up straighter.

‘My stomach, if you will forgive the pun, backs me up here? What else could have left such scars, unless you think I did it to myself.’

‘Did you? No, don’t tell me another word.’

‘Well, there was the time up in the Kimberley in the far north of Western Australia when I tangled with a saltwater crocodile, The bugger tried to get me in a death roll and …’

‘Stop! Enough!’

Maria interrupted me and refilled her glass again.’

You really are the biggest liar I know. Just tell me what happened to your stomach, ok?’

‘OK, sure, sorry. Actually it happened when I was born, I might even have been a premie – I was just three days old  – anyway my spleen had ruptured unknown to the quacks but my mother always claimed she knew there was something wrong with me …’

‘I’d agree with her there, go on, what happened?’ Maria interrupted again, draining her glass.

I mock glared at her before continuing. ‘Anyway, my spleen had burst and shifted to my other side so, initially the surgery was explorative to find out why I was turning blue. Anyway, once the problem was located, the next problem was how to do me up – remember I was a newborn and there was not much fat or flesh to sew together and the adhesive tapes they use now were not available then so the best option was to staple my stomach closed – hence the rather clumsy look of the scar. Best they could do and I was kept in an incubator for my first six months of life.’

The moon was ripening in the sky when she leaned forward and quickly slapped me on the arm, before trying to bang her shot glass down on the rug . ‘God, you are so mean, I don’t know what to believe now.’

The Champion’s Portion 10

Chapter Ten

Samhain was the start of the Celtic year and a time for sacrifices and community gatherings. The portals between life and that of the world of the Tuatha de Danamm were more apparent at the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and a time when wondrous events could be expected. 

Cú Chulainn had left Eamhain Macha for his own lands and dun at Dun Delga and Conall had gone to Dal Riata to collect his due.

The hunchback, Scél was in the act of closing the outer gates when they were rudely thrust open and a massive churl shouldered his way in past him and made for the hall of the Craobh Ruadh where Conor and his nobles ate and drank. A rank stench rose from his rough hide mantle filled the hall as the churl entered, his yellow eyes flicking around the benches.  In one hand, his thick fingers clutched an axe, the dully-gleaming iron head of which would have weighed that of a bull, its edge honed so that it caught the light.  In the other he carried a splintered chopping block. His stained tunic barely covered his rump and his naked legs were thick as oak stumps.

Without a word the brute stamped his way down the hall and came to a halt, slouched against one of the fork beams near the central hearth.

‘Come stranger, sit at our table for we would liefer hear tales of strangeness which, I warrant, you could tell.’

The churl grunted but did not move from where he leant against the pillar.

‘Far have I travelled on my quest, through Alba and Britannia, even to Gaul, Greece and Scythia and nowhere have I found a man to do me fair play.  But you, men of the Ulaidh, warriors of the Craobh Ruadh, such is your strength and valour, dignity and generosity bruited abroad that I have come here in expectation of my boon.’

‘Tell us that what you seek,’ asked Conor, leaning forward the better to look at the churl.

‘If you guarantee fair play?’

‘There is no man here,’ Sencha intervened, ‘who would rather not die than to break his sworn word.  In this great hall of the Craobh Ruadh, surely you will find many here who are worthy of you, with the exception of Conor on account of his crown and Fergus mac Rioch for the same privilege.’

‘Come then,’ the churl boomed, straightening up, ‘this is what I crave, Come who ever you are, so that, with this axe, I first may sever your head tonight and he mine tomorrow.’

Laoghaire laughed nervously, ‘The other way around, surely you mean?  You to suffer the beheading here now but tomorrow there can be none of that nonsense.

‘If that were my quest, it would have been easily found,’ the churl replied.  ‘But by my troth, then I will honour your request provided that you honour me so on the morrow.’

Laoghaire stood up and took the axe from the churl’s grasp. The brute laid the block on the floor in front of the high table and knelt, stretching his bare neck out on the stained block.

Laoghaire paused and spat on his hands before grasping the axe again.  Taking a deep breath, he raised the axe above his head, the weight making his arms tremble with the strain before smashing the finely honed edge on the churl’s neck.  The head sprang from the trunk as a thick gout of blood poured onto the strewn rushes of the flagged hall.

Scarcely had Laoghaire wrenched the axe free from where it was embedded in the wood of the chopping block when a gasp from the high table made him look over his shoulder as the headless trunk quivered and ponderously pushed itself up onto its knees, its muscular arms sightlessly groping for its head. Having found it and clasping the axe and block to his bloodied chest, the churl moved jerkily down the hall, filling all those who saw the spectacle with awe at the marvel that had witnessed.

‘If that púca, having been lopped tonight, comes back tomorrow, not a man alive will be left among us,’ Bricriu declared.

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The following night, however, the churl returned but Laoghaire was nowhere to be seen. 

‘Where is Laoghaire the Triumphant?  Surely it is not right that he should break his covenant with me?’ The churl demanded looking around the great hall.  ‘Is there anyone else here who would pledge their word with me?’ He raised his great axe above his head and shook it threateningly.

Conall who was sitting there with the other nobles made not a stir out of him and the churl spat noisily on the floor and left after shouting out that he would return the following night for the last time to meet any new challengers.

The next night the churl returned, fierce in aspect and furious in manner and continued to rebuke the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.  The great hall was crowded that evening as everyone craned forward to get a glimpse of the strange marvel.

‘I now know that the men of the Craobh Ruadh, the warriors of Eamhain Macha, the fighting men of the Ulaidh have lost their valour and their prowess is no more.  It has been widely bruited abroad that ye covet the CP yet have you no man that can contest it.  Where is the pup you call the “Hound” I would fain know if his word be better than the bond of others.’

‘I have no lust for adventure and nor do I need a churl such as you to validate my word.’

‘Likely so,’ the churl sneered, ‘as you fear to die like all the others.’

Cú Chulainn sprang up, his face flushed with anger and snatched the axe from the curl’s hand.  Not waiting for the block to be placed on the floor, Cú Chulainn twirled on his heel and leaping in the air, he swung the axe with the full force of his body behind it so that the head crashed against the panel separating the high table from the rest of the hall.  Not content with that, Cú Chulainn scooped up the dripping head on the flat of the axe blade and tossed it in the air before swinging the axe like a hurley, sending the head crashing among the top rafters of the Craobh Ruadh.

The headless body again struggled to its feet, picking up the axe and block and then stumbled down the hall in search of its head.

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Samhain was the start of the Celtic year and a time for sacrifices and community gatherings. The portals between life and that of the world of the Tuatha de Danamm were more apparent at the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and a time when wondrous events could be expected. 

Cú Chulainn had left Eamhain Macha for his own lands and dun at Dun Delga and Conall had gone to Dal Riata to collect his due.

The hunchback, Scél was in the act of closing the outer gates when they were rudely thrust open and a massive churl shouldered his way in past him and made for the hall of the Craobh Ruadh where Conor and his nobles ate and drank. A rank stench rose from his rough hide mantle filled the hall as the churl entered, his yellow eyes flicking around the benches.  In one hand, his thick fingers clutched an axe, the dully-gleaming iron head of which would have weighed that of a bull, its edge honed so that it caught the light.  In the other he carried a stained and splintered chopping block.

His stained tunic barely covered his rump and his naked legs were thick as oak stumps.

Without a word the brute stamped his way down the hall and came to a halt, slouched against one of the fork beams near the central hearth.

‘Come stranger, sit at our table for we would liefer hear tales of strangeness which, I warrant, you could tell.’

The churl grunted but did not move from where he leant against the pillar.

‘Far have I travelled on my quest, through Alba and Britannia, even to Gaul, Greece and Scythia and nowhere have I found a man to do me fair play.  But you, men of the Ulaidh, warriors of the Craobh Ruadh, such is your strength and valour, dignity and generosity bruited abroad that I have come here in expectation of my boon.’

‘Tell us that what you seek,’ asked Conor, leaning forward the better to look at the churl.

‘If you guarantee fair play?’

‘There is no man here,’ Sencha intervened, ‘who would rather not die than to break his sworn word.  In this great hall of the Craobh Ruadh, surely you will find many here who are worthy of you, with the exception of Conor on account of his crown and Fergus mac Rioch for the same privilege.’

‘Come then,’ the churl boomed, straightening up, ‘this is what I crave, Come who ever you are, so that, with this axe, I first may sever his head tonight and he mine tomorrow.’

Laoghaire laughed nervously, ‘the other way around, surely you mean.  You to suffer the beheading tonight for you need not about retribution the following day if you behead your adversary now.’

‘If that were my quest, it would have been easily found,’ the churl replied.  ‘But by my troth, then I will honour your request provided that you honour me so on the morrow.’

Laoghaire stood up and took the axe from the churl’s grasp. The brute laid the block on the floor in front of the high table and knelt, stretching his bare neck out on the stained block.

Laoghaire paused and spat on his hands before grasping the axe again.  Taking a deep breath, he raised the axe above his head, the weight making his arms tremble with the strain before smashing the finely honed edge on the churl’s neck.  The head sprang from the trunk as a thick gout of blood poured onto the strewn rushes of the flagged hall.

Scarcely had Laoghaire wrenched the axe free from where it was embedded in the wood of the chopping block when a gasp from the high table made him look over his shoulder as the headless trunk quivered and ponderously pushed itself up onto its knees, its muscular arms sightlessly groping for its head. Having found it and clasping the axe and block to his bloodied chest, the churl moved jerkily down the hall, filling all those who saw the spectacle with awe at the marvel that had witnessed.

‘If that púca, having been lopped tonight, comes back tomorrow, not a man alive will be left among us,’ Bricriu declared.

The following night, however, the churl returned but Laoghaire was nowhere to be seen. 

‘Where is Laoghaire the Triumphant?  Surely it is not right that he should break his covenant with me?’ The churl demanded looking around the great hall.  ‘Is there anyone else here who would pledge their word with me?’ He raised his great axe above his head and shook it threateningly.

Conall who was sitting there with the other nobles made not a stir out of him and the churl spat noisily on the floor and left after shouting out that he would return the following night for the last time to meet any new challengers.

The next night the churl returned, fierce in aspect and furious in manner and continued to rebuke the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.  The great hall was crowded that evening as everyone craned forward to get a glimpse of the strange marvel.

‘I now know that the men of the Craobh Ruadh, the warriors of Eamhain Macha, the fighting men of the Ulaidh have lost their valour and their prowess is no more.  It has been widely bruited abroad that ye covet the CP yet have you no man that can contest it.  Where is the pup you call the “Hound” I would fain know if his word be better than the bond of others.’

‘I have no lust for adventure and nor do I need a churl such as you to validate my word.’

‘Likely so,’ the churl sneered, ‘as you fear to die like all the others.’

Cú Chulainn sprang up, his face flushed with anger and snatched the axe from the curl’s hand.  Not waiting for the block to be placed on the floor, Cú Chulainn twirled on his heel and leaping in the air, he swung the axe with the full force of his body behind it so that the head crashed against the panel separating the high table from the rest of the hall.  Not content with that, Cú Chulainn scooped up the dripping head on the flat of the axe blade and tossed it in the air before swinging the axe like a hurley, sending the head crashing among the top rafters of the Craobh Ruadh.

The headless body again struggled to its feet, picking up the axe and block and then stumbled down the hall in search of its head.

The following night, the hall was crowded to see if Cú Chulainn would avoid his appointment with the mysterious churl as the other heroes had done.  Conor sat by his side while Fergus busied himself with pouring strong drink for himself and his foster son.

Cú Chulainn sat, sunk in silence, his chin resting upon his chest and Conor knew the youth was scared.  Indeed a gloom had settled on the hall and no amount of candlelight could dispel the darkness that would attend on them when the churl returned.

Cú Chulainn looked up at Fergus and his king.  ‘Stay with me here, I beg you, until my pledge is fulfilled.  I fear death is nigh but I would fain die with honour and not defame the ancient prophesies.’

The door to the hall was suddenly thrown open with a crash and the churl strode in, angrily glaring around him.

‘Where is the pup, Cú Chulainn?’ He demanded.

Cú Chulainn stood up and jumped down from the dais to meet his nemesis.

‘Here, I am here,’ he said shortly.

‘Not so chatty, now, I perceive,’ chuckled the churl, slowly grinding a sharpening stone along the already keen edge of his axe.

‘You are a bit lifeless compared to the previous time we met and yet,’ he paused and the nobles in the hall shrank back from the grinding sound of the whet stone on the iron blade, ‘it is more lifeless I will leave you when I depart. Stretch your neck out now, boaster,’ the churl demanded, testing the edge of his blade with a horny thumb.

Cú Chulainn knelt down and laid his head in the depression in the reeking block.

‘A bit more, stretch out your neck more so that I can see it,’ the churl demanded as he laid the sharp edge on Cú Chulainn’s neck, preparatory to raising the weapon above his head.

‘Don’t jeer at me so,’ Cú Chulainn cried, ‘finish me off if that is what you mean to do but do not delay.’

‘I can’t,’ said the churl ‘for your neck is so small and the depression in the block so deep that the axe cannot reach it properly, stretch your neck out more so that I can see it.’

Cú Chulainn took a deep breath and pushed and strained against the block so that a child’s fist could be inserted between each of his ribs. Again the churl raised the axe above his head and waited a moment before sweeping the blunt side down and touching Cú Chulainn gently with it.

‘Arise Cú Chulainn, most noble and valourous of all men for you alone braved the head test and for that alone I accord you the champion of all the Ulaidh warriors, the CP to be your just reward, disputed by none and that the Lady Emer should take precedence above all the ladies of the court always. And I swear now before you all on the name of the ancient Gods that whoever moves against you in these things, his life will be forfeited accordingly.’

The churl had vanished and in its place stood the mighty Cu Roi mac Dairi who vanished as soon as the nobles had caught sight of him.

The following night, the hall was crowded to see if Cú Chulainn would avoid his appointment with the mysterious churl as the other heroes had done.  Conor sat by his side while Fergus busied himself with pouring strong drink for himself and his foster son.

Cú Chulainn sat, sunk in silence, his chin resting upon his chest and Conor knew the youth was scared.  Indeed a gloom had settled on the hall and no amount of candlelight could dispel the darkness that would attend on them when the churl returned.

Cú Chulainn looked up at Fergus and his king.  ‘Stay with me here, I beg you, until my pledge is fulfilled.  I fear death is nigh but I would fain die with honour and not defame the ancient prophesies.’

The door to the hall was suddenly thrown open with a crash and the churl strode in, angrily glaring around him.

‘Where is the pup, Cú Chulainn?’ He demanded.

Cú Chulainn stood up and jumped down from the dais to meet his nemesis.

‘Here, I am here,’ he said shortly.

‘Not so chatty, now, I perceive,’ chuckled the churl, slowly grinding a sharpening stone along the already keen edge of his axe.

‘You are a bit lifeless compared to the previous time we met and yet,’ he paused and the nobles in the hall shrank back from the grinding sound of the whet stone on the iron blade, ‘it is more lifeless I will leave you when I depart. Stretch your neck out now, boaster,’ the churl demanded, testing the edge of his blade with a horny thumb.

Cú Chulainn knelt down and laid his head in the depression in the reeking block.

‘A bit more, stretch out your neck more so that I can see it,’ the churl demanded as he laid the sharp edge on Cú Chulainn’s neck, preparatory to raising the weapon above his head.

‘Don’t jeer at me so,’ Cú Chulainn cried, ‘finish me off if that is what you mean to do but do not delay.’

‘I can’t,’ said the churl ‘for your neck is so small and the depression in the block so deep that the axe cannot reach it properly, stretch your neck out more so that I can see it.’

Cú Chulainn took a deep breath and pushed and strained against the block so that a child’s fist could be inserted between each of his ribs. Again the churl raised the axe above his head and waited a moment before sweeping the blunt side down and touching Cú Chulainn gently with it.

‘Arise Cú Chulainn, most noble and valourous of all men for you alone braved the head test and for that alone I accord you the champion of all the Ulaidh warriors, the CP to be your just reward, disputed by none and that the Lady Emer should take precedence above all the ladies of the court always. And I swear now before you all on the name of the ancient Gods that whoever moves against you in these things, his life will be forfeited accordingly.’

The churl had vanished and in its place stood the mighty Cu Roi mac Dairi who vanished as soon as the nobles had caught sight of him.

The Champion’s Portion – 9

The penultimate chapter – 9

Their charioteers had the horses already yoked and the heroes left immediately and arrived at Eamhain Macha at the end of long days of hard travel. No one there dared ask news of their visit to Crúachan and to Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn until food and drink had been served in the great hall of the Craobh Ruadh but still the three champions said not a word.  Sualtáim, Cú Chulainn’s father, fearing that things were wrong, gestured at the slaves to ensure the men’s cups were filled and to withhold the champion’s portion from presentation.

All would have gone well but for Bricriu, who sensed that things were not right and he loudly demanded that the champion’s portion be served.

‘We should present the Champion’s portion to someone other than these three fine heroes for they bring no sign from either Connachta or from Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn as to who the champion’s portion should be assigned to.’

The taunting was too much for Laoghaire to bear, he jumped to his feet and brandished the bronze cup that Medb had given him.

‘See here,’ he exclaimed, ‘is this not such a token as you wanted, given to me by Queen Medb’s fair hand.  I claim the champion’s portion by right of this precious cup and none may contest it with me.’

‘Not so,’ growled Conall Cernach, heaving himself to his feet. ‘ From the difference between your bronze cup and this one that I hold here’ – and he held aloft his drinking horn so that the firelight and the candles were reflected back from the brightly polished argent with the gold outline of the bird delicately chased around its width – ‘given to me by the same fair hands, I claim the champion’s portion.’

Cú Chulainn laughed and stood up from the bench.

‘You are both wrong.  Anything that you were given at the hands of that woman serves only to intensify our strife, presenting each of us with what they thought we were worth.  But to me,’ he continued, ‘both King Ailil and his consort gave me this, distinguished above all the rest,’ and with that, he raised the red gold horn so that the dragon stone and other precious stones flashed and glittered in the light.

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Conor and Fergus rose to their feet in the sudden silence and looked down from the high table.

‘There is no doubt as to who the champion’s portion must be awarded to,’ Fergus began only to be loudly challenged by an enraged Laoghaire and Conall.

‘I swear by the ancient gods of our people,’ Laoghaire spat out, ‘that such a cup was bought, not by blood but by costly skins and furs and by the gold amassed from Forgall the Cunning and given to those at Crúachan.’

‘You couldn’t bear to have a defeat marked up against you, could you?’ Jeered Conall?  ‘You had to have the champion’s portion as well, didn’t you?  Well, you will have to go through me to lay your hands on it for the Champion’s portion will not be yours.’

Conall vaulted the trestle table, his sword already drawn as Laoghaire moved around to Cú Chulainn’s flank.

Conor struck the silver balls hanging from the golden shaft above his chair and commanded the men to put up their weapons.

In the silence that followed, Sencha spoke up.

‘As you know the time of Samhain fast approaches.  I tell you now that astonishing events will occur at that time all issues shall be resolved for those who are present over the féis.’

The Champion’s Portion 8

Chapter 8

Leaving Crúachan and mindful of Conor’s command, the three heroes rode on to the dún of Cu Roi in the far south west kingdom of Da Munhainn, each content with the secret they bore. Disappointed at Cu Roi’s absence, the warriors unyoked their tired horses and allowed themselves to be led into the round house by Blathnat, his woman who greeted them warmly preparing food and drink fit for heroes as well as comfortable beds for them to rest in. That night she told them that Cu Roi had left instructions that the warriors must mount night guard in order of their seniority and Laoghaire was deputised to go first, being the oldest of the trio.

As Laoghaire kept watch that night, he heard a distant rumbling and then from the west, where the sun had long since sunk, he saw a giant approaching, misshapen and huge, his head towering above the trees nearby and in the space between his legs Laoghaire cloud discern the far coastline. Stripped oaks, cut with a single stroke at their base, he threw at Laoghaire but they soared far over his head, landing Laoghaire knew not where. Hoisting his spear, Laoghaire stood up on the wall of the dun, prepared to sell his life dearly but the giant brushed his long spear aside and, reaching out grasped him in the palm of his hand.  Mighty and stout though Laoghaire was, he fitted the giant’s hand as he could cradle a game piece within his own palm. With a jerk, the giant flipped him over the high wall of the dun so that he landed in the midden outside the dun.

The following night, the same sad events happened to Conall and he too was thrown over the wall of the dun.

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When it was Cú Chulainn’s turn to guard the dun of Cu Roi, he went with an uneasy sense of foreboding and soon saw indistinct grey shapes in the night moving towards him and he called out. ‘I know not what you are.  If you are friends, desist but if you are foe, beware.’

No sooner had he spoken that a group of nine dwarves launched an attack on him, hewing with short swords and daggers but Cú Chulainn sprang at them, slashing and hacking at them so that nine heads rolled on the ground, spouting blood. Alarmed by the booming sound, as if of a heavy sea was about to sweep over the dun, and standing up, Cú Chulainn saw that the incoming tide was flowing in over the land from the west and riding the surf was a hideous sea serpent of evil aspect.  Rearing up, it opened its fearsome jaws as if in the act of swallowing man and dun in one gulp.  Cú Chulainn, remembering the feats he had learned, swooped down upon the monster in a swallow dive as it neared the walls and clasped both arms around the monster’s slimy neck. Thrusting one arm down the serpent’s gullet he wrenched the beast’s slippery innards out, which he cast, with disgust, on the ground, before hacking the vile creature into bits with his sword.

Sitting there, exhausted and nauseated by the noxious fumes the serpent gave off, Cú Chulainn cursed when he saw, in the first glimmer of light from the east, striding in from the west, the giant Laoghaire and Conall had previously encountered.

‘You’ve had a hard night, by the looks of it,’ the giant commented wryly, looking at the heaped skulls of the dwarves and the scattered remains of the sea monster before the walls of the dun.

‘Well, you are not making it any better,’ Cú Chulainn snapped, springing to his feet and avoiding the giant’s lunge towards him.  

Twisting around, Cú Chulainn made a salmon leap, vaulting over the giant’s head and onto his back, forcing his blade up and under the brute’s throat.

‘A life for a life,’ the giant panted.

‘Grant me three wishes, so,’ demanded Cú Chulainn.

‘Say what you will in the one breath and it will be so,’ the giant said.

Without stopping to think or to ease the pressure with which he held the blade to the giant’s throat, Cú Chulainn rapped out ‘The sovereignty of Eamhain Macha will be mine forever as will be the champion’s portion and the precedence of Emer over the ladies of the Ulaidh will last forever.’

‘And so it will be,’ claimed the giant before suddenly disappearing from Cú Chulainn’s grasp as the sun rose in the eastern sky. Blathnat found him sitting wearily on the guard step shortly afterwards.

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‘Surely that is the tiredness of the valiant hero and not the exhaustion of the defeated.  It is clear to me – and it would be also to Cu Roi, if he were here that the champion’s portion must go to Cú Chulainn for who else has amassed such a collection of spoils as this,’ she said, pointing to the cairn of heaped skulls and the foul carcase of the sea monster.

‘No, we cannot accept the word of a woman here,’ Laoghaire cried out contemptuously.  

‘And lookit here to me,’ Conall pointed out, ‘this was the work of the Sídhe for how else can this serpent be explained as well as the mystery of the giant?’

‘As far as I am concerned,’ Cú Chulainn yawned, ‘I no longer care what anyone thinks of the champion’s portion for it seems to me the effort to get it outweighs the benefits if bestows.’

‘Well, if you cannot accept the judgement offered here, my lord Cu Roi planned for that and instructed me to order you back to Eamhain Macha where he will eventually arrive to pronounce final judgement.’

The Champion’s Portion 7

Chapter 7

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.’

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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.

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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.

The Champion’s Portion 6

Chapter Six

That first night, the three heroes were invited to partake of a fine feast but they had to remain alone in the closed partition. As soon as the food and drink were laid out and the slaves withdrew, a monstrous cave cat from the Sídhe mountains suddenly appeared, its malevolent yellow eyes and teeth gleaming wickedly in the fire and candlelight.

With a bound, both Conall and Laoghaire leapt from their benches to the rafters overhead, abandoning both weapons, food and drink in their haste to avoid the furious attack of the great beast.

Cú Chulainn remained calmly seated at the bench and when the beast stalked nearer, preparing to pounce, Cú Chulainn swiftly drew his sword and slashed at the snarling cat. The iron blade clashed harshly as if he had struck stone and the keen blade slid off the beast’s shoulders.  

The cat remained transfixed in a baleful crouch but evinced no further movement.  Cú Chulainn remained seated and watchful but availed himself to the full of the prepared food and drink.

As sunrise penetrated gaps in the shingled roof overhead, the monstrous beast bestirred itself and vanished as abruptly as it had first appeared just as Ailil swept into the room before Laoghaire and Conall could descent from the rafters where they had spent an uncomfortable and hungry night.

‘Well then?’ inquired Ailil, ‘does that not suffice?  Surely you have your champion here?’

‘Not so,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘Indeed,’ added Conall, ‘it is not against beasts that we are competing but in the strife of combat and battle that we seek a judgement.’

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On the second night, Ailil directed them to the valley of Ercol where they had to fight the black spirits of the Tuatha Dé Danann which guarded it.  Laoghaire went first but could not withstand their assault and fled, leaving his weapons and his chariot there. Conall was served a similar fate and was driven back, barely managing to hold on to his spear.

At the sight of Cú Chulainn, the dread shapes screamed and hissed as they attacked him, hacking at his shield and cloak until both were dented and rent, and his spear blunted.  The black shapes swarmed around him, thrusting and slashing and Laeg braced himself before screaming out, ‘Cú Chulainn, is that the best you can do, you pathetic little bollix, if you let a few empty cloaks get the better of you.’ 

Spurred on by his servant’s words, Cú Chulainn felt the blood course more violently through his veins, pumping him up so that the hair on his head sparkled with energy and light. He bounded forward with renewed valour at the spirits and slashed and stabbed and thrust and stamped forward until he was alone in a pool of black blood but with the trapping of his friends.

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On the third night, Ercol, lord of the valley, challenged each of them to single combat on horseback.  Laoghaire was first to be unseated and Ercol’s horse killed his mount and he fled from the valley back to Crúachan as soon as the beating he received allowed.

Conall also was forced to retire and his horse killed too.

The Grey of Macha killed Ercol’s horse with its mighty iron shod hooves and Cú Chulainn defeated Ercol and bound him by the neck to the back of his horse and set out for Crúachan.

‘Well,’ said Ailil, knowing full well that whatever he decided, nothing would please all three men in front of him. ‘That’s clear, then, isn’t it?  I mean, from what you told me and from what I can see, I award the Champion Portion to Cú Chulainn.’

‘Hold on there just a moment,’ insisted Laoghaire.  ‘We’re not here to fight against wild beasts or the folk of the Tuatha Dé Danann or the Sídhe for it is well known that Cú Chulainn has connections with that lot.’

‘He’s right,’ rumbled Conall, ‘The Champion’s Portion is about battle valour and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of that yet.’

The Champion’s Portion 5

Chapter Five

‘Did you see that?’ Medb, wife of Ailil, king of Connachta, demanded, as the weapons hanging on the wall shifted imperceptibly as if the wall was vibrating.

She stood up, alarmed now at the noise of thunder despite the fact that the sky was clear.

‘Quick, Findabair, go up to your tower and tell me what you can see.’

Findabair, Medb’s daughter scampered up the steps and peered out over the plain before Crúachan.

‘There are chariots tearing along towards us. Two dappled greys are pulling the first polished wicker chariot with large black wheels, its yoke silver mounted.  The warrior has long, curling, fair hair and a forked beard.  A short red cloak, gold striped, billows from his shoulders.  He holds a bronze shield and a five-pronged javelin and there are feathers in his cap.’

‘If he’s coming in anger we are doomed,’ Medb cried, ‘for that sounds like Laoghaire of the red hands.  He will slice us down like you slice a leek at its base unless we make every effort to appease him.  Who else do you see?’

‘A roan and a bay pull another finely carved wicker and wooden chariot.  Like the other, the yoke is silver mounted but the wheels are bound in bronze.  The warrior has wavy brown hair and his cloak is of blue and red, a heavy wooden shield with bronze bosses, and a mighty spear are in his hand.’

‘That must be Conall and as easily as you cut a fish with a sharp knife, will he disembowel each and every one of us that he finds here if we don’t mollify him.  Is there anyone else?’

‘Two stallions, a grey and a black, pull a chariot with iron bound, yellow wheels. The yoke is silver with bronze mountings.  The warrior is a small, dark man, eyebrows black as soot but his teeth gleam like pearls. A crimson shield hangs from his shoulders and he grips a long iron sword. Javelins and spears jut from the high sides of his chariot.’

‘Those other two are the drops before the shower, for that can only be Cú Chulainn,’ Medb said.  ‘Like a ten spoked mill grinds very fine, so too shall we be if we do not accord with his demands.    Make preparations and prepare to receive these mighty warriors of the Ulaidh and let us hope that they come in peace.  Send out a troop of slave girls, comely in looks, full breasted and bare to the waist, along with their brats as well and get ready to serve strong drink.’

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Medb and Ailil waited on the dais in the central room of the great hall at Crúachan for the arrival of the heroes and warriors, for close behind Cú Chulainn, Conall and Laoghaire had arrived a cohort from Eamhain Macha, led by Conor, Fergus and Sencha, Ailil’s own son.

The bench on which they sat had silver designs chased on its front, framed in bronze and looked down on the main hearth but was screened off from the main section of the hall by a partition of red yew with carved bronze facings to waist height.

Overhead, triple bands of polished bronze, running through the roof beams of oak, caught the light from the hearth and reflected it back down on the royal couple so that they appeared bathed in its warm hue.

As musicians played, the might of the Ulaidh strode into the hall at the far end to where Ailil and Medb sat. A great feast for the noble visitors was proclaimed and at the end of three days of feasting and drinking, Ailil finally ventured to enquire as to the nature of their visit.

‘It’s like this,’ said Conor, leaning forward confidentially, ‘That bollix Bricriu, you know who I mean, the one over there with the long puss on him, well, you know he loves to stir up a bit enmity, just for the sake of it, curse him.’ 

‘I know what you mean,’ Ailil nodded, ‘we have a few like that the same.’

‘Anyway, didn’t the eejit promise the champion’s portion to each of my three lads and now, of course, they are bickering and quarrelling among themselves.’

‘And as if that is not bad enough,’ Fergus added, ‘their women are now involved, the bitches fighting over who has precedence over who at the feasts, if you don’t mind!’

Ailil remained silent for a moment before looking at Conor.

‘And why have you come here to me, then?’ He said quietly.

‘Well, we thought that with the three heroes’ rivalry for the champion’s portion and the ladies rivalry for precedence within Eamhain Macha, we thought you might be the best impartial judge of the matter.’

‘But what has it got to do with Ailil and Connachta?’ Medb demanded.  ‘Why should we earn the enmity of your champions by raising one above all?’

Sencha turned towards his father.

‘You really would be the best judge for all know of your moderation and we need to resolve this issue because the boy troop in the Craobh Ruadh need a model to aspire to.’

‘Well,’ his father considered, ‘I’ll have to think about it for it is not a task lightly undertaken.  I’ll need at least three nights and that’s the best I can do.’

Conor leaned forward and grasped Ailil by the forearm.  ‘This will be a seal of our friendship if you do this thing for us,’ he said quietly.

Standing up, the nobles thanked Ailil and Medb, cursed Bricriu for he had caused the quarrels between the heroes and their women and commended their champions into the hands of a rival king.

The Champion’s Portion 4

Chapter Four

No sooner had they left Dun Rudraige and returned to Eamhain Macha, than the old quarrel over the champion’s portion broke out again so much so that Conor, exasperated by the whole affair, ordered the three foremost heroes, Laoghaire the Triumphant, Conall the Victorious and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, to travel to the far southern kingdom of Da Mumhainn to seek the judgement of Cu Roi mac Dáire at Sliabh Mis.  

‘You can be sure,’ Fergus added, ‘that it is a fair judgement you will get there from him for it is well known that he is just and fair-minded but it will be a brave man who questions him for he is well versed in enchantments and mysteries long forgotten, even by the Tuatha de Danamm, and he can do things that no other man can do.’

‘You should go first to my father, Ailil, king of Connachta for that is on your path,’ Sencha advised, ‘for the way to Da Mumhainn is long and treacherous, for you must go on the wooden plank road over the bogs.’

‘So be it,’ Cú Chulainn said, clapping his hands together.  ‘Let us get our horses yoked to the chariots but I would lifer Laoghaire go last as everyone knows his style of driving does not permit others to accompany him both for the clumsiness of his horses and the unsteadyness of his chariot.’

‘You’re right there,’ Conall agreed, ‘and besides, if we let him go first, the ruts his wheels churn up in the turf make tracks not easily followed for more than a season after he has passed that way.’

‘Ah, don’t be jeering out of you at me for that,’ Laoghaire snapped. ‘You both know I am quick enough to cross the fords and watercourses, to storm the shield wall and to outstrip all the warriors of Eamhain Macha, so don’t go comparing me with famed chariot men until I get more practice steering and racing through hard and rocky defiles until I gain the master hand,’

and he leapt unto his chariot and urged Sedlang to lash the horses on their way.  

Not to be out done, Conall followed suit at once but Sétanta dallied where he was, a beaker of wine at his elbow, amused by the chatter of the ladies and amusing them by juggling nine apples above his head never letting the one touch another nor letting one fall to the ground before doing the same with nine feather darts and nine bone handled knives, the iron blades flashing in the morning sun.

Meanwhile, Sedlang urged the grey mares westwards over the slopes of Brega until on a perilous descent from the heights, Laoghaire motioned for the charioteer to slow down as a thick, dank mist enveloped them, making it too risky to proceed.

‘Better stop here,’ Laoghaire ventured, pulling his cloak tighter around him as he surveyed the dismal scene.

Sedlang nodded as he attended to the horse, unyoking them from the chariot and leading them over to some stunted plants in the lee of the cliff.  Startled by his approach, a surly brute emerged from a fissure in the cliff where he had been sleeping. 

Grotesque in both size and deformity, the giant had a patch of coarse black hair growing down in a peek over his forehead which was large and bulbous.  Small close-set eyes glared above a loose, fleshy mouth. Bunched hairy shoulders supported a roughly hewn club while a kilt of crudely tanned skins hung to knees over broad spatulate feet.

‘Whose horse them be?’ He grunted at Sedlang.

Sedlang glanced over his shoulders for Laoghaire, before answering ‘The horses of Laoghaire.

’Ahh, fine fellow he is,’ said the brute, before suddenly swinging his huge cudgel at Sedlang knocking him sideways powerfully.

Laoghaire saw his servant fall from the corner of his eye and he bounded over.

‘What did you do that for?’ He demanded.

The brute eyed Laoghaire furiously.  

‘For the damage ye have done to my property,’ he snarled, before swinging his fearsome club again and laying Laoghaire low.

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Laeg, concerned about the amount of time Cú Chulainn was spending with the ladies, yoked the horses and stacked Cú Chulainn’s weapons in the chariot, before going over to him. 

‘You’re a right eejit, you know, squinting away here at the girls while those other two have gone on ahead of you.  I thought you wanted the champion’s portion.’

‘You’re right,’ Cú Chulainn said, ‘come on, Let’s go.’

Crossing Magh Brega, Laeg gave the horses their head so that they seemed to fly across the whole kingdom of the Ulaidh before beginning their descent in the darkness.

Laeg reined in and eased the Grey and the Dubh into a gentle walk as the dark fog closed in around them. No sooner had he unyoked the horses than a burly figure emerged from the mist. Gross and muscular, the giant held a heavy cudgel over one massive shoulder from which hung a rank kilt barely covering his rump, 

‘Whose horses them be?’ He demanded, nodding at the two stallions

‘They belong to Cú Chulainn,’ Laeg said, leaping back out of range of the giant’s club and calling out for his master. Cú Chulainn was there instantly, standing proudly between his charioteer and the brute.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘Reparation for the damage you have done,’ snarled the giant.

‘Well, take this then,’ smiled Cú Chulainn and in one fluid motion he had plucked the long sword which hung at his side and sliced the giant across the back of his legs, toppling him forward so that he could more conveniently lop the brute’s head off.

Almost instantly, the fog dissipated and Laeg was amazed to find no trace of the giant but in its place, the puzzled looking Laoghaire and Conall as well who appeared to be waking up from a deep sleep, curled beside their patiently waiting horses.

‘What class of enchantment is this?’ Conall demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.  

‘We must have met some of Setanta’s Sídhe friends, I think,’ muttered Laoghaire.

But Laeg could help but notice as the trio rode on towards Crúachan the large bruises they both bore, evidence of the giant’s club.