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 7

Chapter 7

Ailil reeled back against the wall and clapped a hand to his forehead as soon as the three heroes had left. ‘I can’t stand this,’ he complained, going over to where Medb was sitting, playing with a small squirrel. ‘No matter what I do or say, I am wrong and it seems foolish to court the anger of men such as these.  It’s a poisoned cup Conor has offered me, I can tell you that much.’

‘Coward’! Medb laughed.  ‘Look, if you can’t decide, I’ll do it for you, for nothing would appear simpler. And what’s more, it will get those three oafs out of our hair and you will manage to keep your name as an impartial judge too.’

‘No matter what you do, Medb,’ Ailil said, ‘misfortune will follow upon any decision.’

‘Leave it to me,’ Medb smiled, ‘for it is obvious that Laoghaire is as different to Conall as bronze is to argent and Conall and Cú Chulainn are as different as argent is to gold.’

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Laoghaire was both surprised and flattered when a messenger summoned him to a private meeting with Ailil and Medb. ‘Welcome, Laoghaire the Triumphant,’ Medb called out, advancing down the aisle towards him, her arms held out in greeting. Taking him by the arm she led him to a recess off the main hall and offered him rich wines. 

‘It is our decision that you alone deserve the Champion’s portion, brave Laoghaire.  Not only that, we feel you should be set above all the other heroes of Eamhain Macha, and to seal our approval, here is a cup fashioned for a champion.’  

Medb gestured impatiently with her hand and a serving girl appeared, bearing a carved drinking horn capped and mounted in polished bronze, an exotic bird outlined in argent twining round from the base to the lip.

‘Keep this, Laoghaire, away from envious eyes until you have come to Conor and the Craobh Ruadh.  When the Champion’s portion is brought out, you then produce your cup as token of your position before all the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.’

Medb gestured again and the girl filled the horn to the brim with the dark, rich wine.

Laoghaire drank it back in one draught, well pleased with himself and the token of his supremacy.

‘Now,’ Medb continued, ‘you have the look of a champion.  Go now and revel in that position as the champion of the Ulaidh.’

As soon as Laoghaire had left, Medb arranged a similar performance for Conall but this time, the drinking horn was trimmed with argent itself while the bird encircling the vessel was chased in gold. Delighted with the way her plan was working out, Medb summoned Cú Chulainn but her messenger was insulted and kicked away by Cú Chulainn who claimed he had no time for that kind of nonsense.

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Infuriated by this behaviour, Medb decided she herself would go to entreat her uncouth guest.  Slipping her long, slender white arms around his neck she murmured the promise of what she could offer.

‘You can tell your lies and show your arse to someone else for all I care,’ Cú Chulainn growled, twisting loose from her grasp.

‘Most comely of all champions, it is no lie I tell you when you are the subject.  Were the world’s heroes to approach us, we would only choose you for the Champion’s portion for you surpass all in fame, bravery and valour so that the men of the Ulaidh recognise in you a champion of distinction, youth and glory.’

Unable to resist Medb’s seductive charms, Cú Chulainn allowed himself to be led away to where Medb presented him with a drinking horn capped and mounted in red gold with the outline of the bird mosaicked in precious stones.  Filling the horn with the dark rich wine, Medb handed him alone a knob, as big as his two eyes, of deep red dragon-stone, saying, 

‘Now know that you alone deserve the feast of a champion and not only that, I truly believe that just as it is impossible to compare you with the rank and file of the Ulaidh, so it is impossible to compare the lady Emer with the women of other men.  There is no doubt that she should always enter the hall before any other woman should approach.’

Cú Chulainn laughed and, with one gulp, drained the drinking horn, turned on his heel and left.