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.
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.’
Bricriu cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.
‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’
Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.
‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.
Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.
‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’
Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.
‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’
At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.
The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.
‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’
Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus.
Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.
‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.
‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’
Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.
Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.
Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdomno-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.
Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.
Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.
Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.
Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.
Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.
‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’
Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.
‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’
Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.
Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.
Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.
His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.
Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.
The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt.
‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.
Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.
‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’
‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’
‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’
Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.
“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.
“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.
“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.
Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.
The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.
There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.
“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.
“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.
“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”
The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.
“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.
“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”
“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.
“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.
“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”
Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.
“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.
Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”
“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”
“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”
Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.
“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.
“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.
A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.
Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.
“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”
Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.
“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.
Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.
“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.
Conor mac Nessa, the king of the Ulaidh, currently Northern Ireland, more or less, presided over three royal houses at Eamhain Macha – modern day Navan Fort, near Armagh – in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.
In such a society where one individual is paramount, other members of the social group are ranked in relation to that person. In early Iron Age society in Ireland, the hierarchy was most definitely Chieftains & Kings / Nobles, Warriors & Druids / Farmers / Craft-workers, and at the bottom of the heap, slaves.
The bonds holding such a society together depended upon superstition and belief, taboo and powerful social obligations between the differing strata of society and the consequence of breaking those bonds often led to semi-divine retribution.
To maintain this society, virtues such as loyalty and battle prowess, often accompanied by excessive boasting, are exalted and no better place existed for such vauntings than the Red Branch or Craobh Ruadh, one of the three houses within the kingly compound.
Old Irish had two words for “red”: dergh, bright red, the colour of fresh blood, flame or gold; and ruadh, russet, used for the colour of dried blood and for red hair.
The Craobh Ruadh was where the king sat, surrounded by his nobles and warriors while
The Cróeb Derg (modern Irish Craobh Dearg, “bright red branch”) was where severed heads and other trophies of battle were kept.
The third house was called the Téite Brec or “speckled hoard”, where the heroes’ weapons were stored.