5. Medb

‘Isn’t it well for you,’ Ailil Mac Mata, king of Connachta laughed, nudging Medb in the ribs, ‘that you have a man like myself to keep you safe from fostering monsters while at the same time making you the richest and most powerful woman in the land’.

Medb, consort to the king, rolled her eyes in exasperation, and pushed away the ape which the trader had recently presented to her. The ape, a tiny homunculus from the hot lands to the south of Breoga’s homeland, sprang from the couch in the hall and scrambled, chattering angrily, up the wicker partition in their private quarters within the great royal hall of Cruachan, where finely hewn pillars of oak supported the arching roof.

‘Arr-aagh, would you go on with you out of that,’ she murmured lazily, ‘Sure, wasn’t I a queen in my own right in my father’s house, well off enough without you and the talk out of you.  Didn’t I have fifteen hundred armed men paid for myself out of my own pocket, and that was just my own household at the time.  And then sure I was never short of a gold torc or a finely fashioned comb of wrought ivory brought to me by Breoga from the far-flung lands to the east.’

‘Oh-ho, is that the way it was, then?  Your wealth was something I didn’t know or hear about, except, of course, for your woman’s things –  your combs and chains and such like.’

‘You’re a great one to be talking so,’ Medb replied, pushing Ailil back.  ‘Sure isn’t it talk I can get from any fool at any time of the day or night?’

‘Fool, is it?  Aren’t you the one that is much better off today than the day I married you, despite your fostering those monstrous daughter of Calátin.’

Medb shook back her long squirrel-brown hair and thought back to the three girls she had fostered so long ago now. Blind, deaf and dumb as each of the children were in turn, totally dependant on one another to be their eye, the ear and tongue, they were already well versed in black arts. Their father, Calatin Dana, a thickset, swarthy brutish man, widely known for his venom coated weapons, ferocity in battle, and the force of kinsmen that always accompanied him and fought as one, had merely grunted when Medb swept into his ill-kempt rath and arranged to foster the triplet girls, at the royal court at Cruachan. 

Ailil had scorned her choice then and demanded they foster Calátin’s sons.  What was gained by fostering three monstrous girls at the royal court? They could do nothing for us and he could not abide them within his sight, he had claimed.

The ape jabbered beside her as Medb pushed away Ailil’s hand and stood up abruptly.

‘Do you know what it is that I’m going to tell you?  I didn’t marry you for your wealth or your power – for didn’t I have both already myself – but for a wedding gift few women could ever get from their husband – the absence of meanness, jealousy and fear.  

Moving to the curved couch opposite Ailil, she reclined, caressing the hairy creature crouched at her side.

‘A mean man I would never marry either because it would look so bad, me being generous and giving. As for a frightened fellow, it would be a disaster too because, as you know, I’ve never shied away from a bit of danger or a wild gallop.’  

Ailil beckoned for the slave girl to refill his goblet as he looked at Medb

‘As for a jealous man, that wouldn’t do me either as I’m used to getting what I want’ Medb sat up suddenly, startling the ape. ‘What I wanted was to raise the triplets and provide all they needed. They desired to further their dark arts so blackly taught by the old gods in the far cities of the eastern world, Memphis, Petra, Ctesiphon, Artaxata and Tarsus and I arranged and provided them with all they had needed. Think of it, my love,’ she continued, ‘It will be a matter of honour for them to come to our aid when we require it. I assisted them to journey through the whole world, to get knowledge of spells and enchantments from those that have it, the way they will be able to do our bidding when the time comes.’


‘Who are here?’ Ailil demanded.

Mac Roth, the court steward looked away from the king, and turned hastily towards Medb, ‘The daughters of Calátin are here now and demanding to see you,’ Mac Roth, shook his bald head ponderously.

Ailil gave a  discrete cough, ‘Your monstrous fostering, all of them, the triplets are back.’

‘Well, what do they want?’ Medb snapped. She knew full well what the arrival of the triplets meant.

‘They won’t say – they insist on speaking to you alone.’ Mac Roth said hesitantly.

‘Remind me of what was agreed,’ Medb demanded, speaking directly to the steward and ignoring Ailil, ‘and what arrangements we might have made with these three hags, for that is what they were, when last we laid eyes on them and, I have no doubt, hags they remain at best. Given that they are still alive and back here, I can safely assume that they have returned for a reason and also to impose in some way on us but,’ she paused here and looked sharply at her steward. ‘If we can find a way to turn their purpose away from us to a far worthier target, then let us by all means see them shortly and listen to their plaint.  Don’t you agree, darling?’ Medb flashed a bright, brief smile at Ailil who was occupying himself with feeding his gyrfalcon further down the long trestle table on the dais at the head of the hall ‘These very monsters, as you call them, they will be our monsters to do our bidding when the time comes.’

Mac Roth stood to the side, his head bowed respectfully.

‘You willingly listened to their demands and arranged for them to learn the darker arts of poison and invocation in those havens of power and blood, across the inland sea from Alexandria and they swore to put their dark arts at the hands of their lord.’

‘Yes, yes,’ snapped Medb impatiently, ‘but what about the bitches – what do we do with them now, you fool.’

‘Their lord?’ Ailil swung around suddenly; upsetting the bird perched on the stand beside his stool.  ‘And they now can be used as we will? Against whoever dares to infringe upon our rights?’

‘My lady,’ Mac Roth said respectfully, ‘may I caution you against using these triplets.  Evil beyond words they were before, respecting neither honour nor loyalty, imagine how much more so they are now that they have returned so many years later.  Placate them by all means, please them if you have to, but above all, be wary of them and their dark skills for they have on them the aspect of fury and battle and venom and I advise you to avoid any enticement they might possibly offer.’

‘Well spoken, Mac Roth, like the true counsellor you are,’ Ailil clapped his hands ironically. ‘Know Medb and I treasure your words and advice but now that the daughter of Calátin are here and even demanding my lady’s presence, we would do well to greet them.’

Medb beckoned Mac Roth closer and when he approached, she gripped the front of his tunic in a tiny, bunched fist and wrenched the taller man’s face down level to hers where she lay on the leather covered bench.

‘Make sure a score of the Galeóin, fully armed, are to be placed behind the screens there so that they may not be observed by the hags for I understand their one eye is more than equal to the task of surveying all around them.’

Released suddenly, Mac Roth stood back and glanced quickly at Ailil before turning and leaving the royal apartment.

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.’