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.