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.