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 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.’