The penultimate chapter – 9
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.’