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 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 4

Chapter Four

No sooner had they left Dun Rudraige and returned to Eamhain Macha, than the old quarrel over the champion’s portion broke out again so much so that Conor, exasperated by the whole affair, ordered the three foremost heroes, Laoghaire the Triumphant, Conall the Victorious and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, to travel to the far southern kingdom of Da Mumhainn to seek the judgement of Cu Roi mac Dáire at Sliabh Mis.  

‘You can be sure,’ Fergus added, ‘that it is a fair judgement you will get there from him for it is well known that he is just and fair-minded but it will be a brave man who questions him for he is well versed in enchantments and mysteries long forgotten, even by the Tuatha de Danamm, and he can do things that no other man can do.’

‘You should go first to my father, Ailil, king of Connachta for that is on your path,’ Sencha advised, ‘for the way to Da Mumhainn is long and treacherous, for you must go on the wooden plank road over the bogs.’

‘So be it,’ Cú Chulainn said, clapping his hands together.  ‘Let us get our horses yoked to the chariots but I would lifer Laoghaire go last as everyone knows his style of driving does not permit others to accompany him both for the clumsiness of his horses and the unsteadyness of his chariot.’

‘You’re right there,’ Conall agreed, ‘and besides, if we let him go first, the ruts his wheels churn up in the turf make tracks not easily followed for more than a season after he has passed that way.’

‘Ah, don’t be jeering out of you at me for that,’ Laoghaire snapped. ‘You both know I am quick enough to cross the fords and watercourses, to storm the shield wall and to outstrip all the warriors of Eamhain Macha, so don’t go comparing me with famed chariot men until I get more practice steering and racing through hard and rocky defiles until I gain the master hand,’

and he leapt unto his chariot and urged Sedlang to lash the horses on their way.  

Not to be out done, Conall followed suit at once but Sétanta dallied where he was, a beaker of wine at his elbow, amused by the chatter of the ladies and amusing them by juggling nine apples above his head never letting the one touch another nor letting one fall to the ground before doing the same with nine feather darts and nine bone handled knives, the iron blades flashing in the morning sun.

Meanwhile, Sedlang urged the grey mares westwards over the slopes of Brega until on a perilous descent from the heights, Laoghaire motioned for the charioteer to slow down as a thick, dank mist enveloped them, making it too risky to proceed.

‘Better stop here,’ Laoghaire ventured, pulling his cloak tighter around him as he surveyed the dismal scene.

Sedlang nodded as he attended to the horse, unyoking them from the chariot and leading them over to some stunted plants in the lee of the cliff.  Startled by his approach, a surly brute emerged from a fissure in the cliff where he had been sleeping. 

Grotesque in both size and deformity, the giant had a patch of coarse black hair growing down in a peek over his forehead which was large and bulbous.  Small close-set eyes glared above a loose, fleshy mouth. Bunched hairy shoulders supported a roughly hewn club while a kilt of crudely tanned skins hung to knees over broad spatulate feet.

‘Whose horse them be?’ He grunted at Sedlang.

Sedlang glanced over his shoulders for Laoghaire, before answering ‘The horses of Laoghaire.

’Ahh, fine fellow he is,’ said the brute, before suddenly swinging his huge cudgel at Sedlang knocking him sideways powerfully.

Laoghaire saw his servant fall from the corner of his eye and he bounded over.

‘What did you do that for?’ He demanded.

The brute eyed Laoghaire furiously.  

‘For the damage ye have done to my property,’ he snarled, before swinging his fearsome club again and laying Laoghaire low.

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Laeg, concerned about the amount of time Cú Chulainn was spending with the ladies, yoked the horses and stacked Cú Chulainn’s weapons in the chariot, before going over to him. 

‘You’re a right eejit, you know, squinting away here at the girls while those other two have gone on ahead of you.  I thought you wanted the champion’s portion.’

‘You’re right,’ Cú Chulainn said, ‘come on, Let’s go.’

Crossing Magh Brega, Laeg gave the horses their head so that they seemed to fly across the whole kingdom of the Ulaidh before beginning their descent in the darkness.

Laeg reined in and eased the Grey and the Dubh into a gentle walk as the dark fog closed in around them. No sooner had he unyoked the horses than a burly figure emerged from the mist. Gross and muscular, the giant held a heavy cudgel over one massive shoulder from which hung a rank kilt barely covering his rump, 

‘Whose horses them be?’ He demanded, nodding at the two stallions

‘They belong to Cú Chulainn,’ Laeg said, leaping back out of range of the giant’s club and calling out for his master. Cú Chulainn was there instantly, standing proudly between his charioteer and the brute.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘Reparation for the damage you have done,’ snarled the giant.

‘Well, take this then,’ smiled Cú Chulainn and in one fluid motion he had plucked the long sword which hung at his side and sliced the giant across the back of his legs, toppling him forward so that he could more conveniently lop the brute’s head off.

Almost instantly, the fog dissipated and Laeg was amazed to find no trace of the giant but in its place, the puzzled looking Laoghaire and Conall as well who appeared to be waking up from a deep sleep, curled beside their patiently waiting horses.

‘What class of enchantment is this?’ Conall demanded, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.  

‘We must have met some of Setanta’s Sídhe friends, I think,’ muttered Laoghaire.

But Laeg could help but notice as the trio rode on towards Crúachan the large bruises they both bore, evidence of the giant’s club.

The Champion’s Portion 3

Chapter Three

Bricriu cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.  The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.

‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.  If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’

Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.

‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.  Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.  I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.

Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.

‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’

Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.

‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.  It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.  Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’

At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.

The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.

‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’

Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus. 

Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.

‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.

‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’

Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.

Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.  Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.

Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdom  no-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.

Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.  Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.

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Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.

Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.

Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.  Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.

Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.

‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’

Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.

‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.  After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’

Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.  He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.

Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.  If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.

Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.

His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.  His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.

Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.

The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt. 

‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?  For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.  

Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.

‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’

‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’

‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’

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The Champion’s Portion 1

Chapter One

(I made a recording of chapter 1 if you care to listen.)

Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slamming  the door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.

Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.

Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.

Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.

‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?  Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.

‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.

‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.  ‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’ 

Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him

‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.  I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.

‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’

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Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.

‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’

‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’

Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.

Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.  Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.  The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.

The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.  

The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groups  separated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.

Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.

All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.

Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.

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Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.

Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.  They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going. Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.

‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’

‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.

Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’

‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.  ‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.  But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’

Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.

‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’  

‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’

Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist. 

Document_2021-07-21_174214 (2) 2Detail from a 9th century Irish manuscript illumination in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Auct D 2 19, f.52r]

Celtic Iron Age Chariots

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According to Caesar, the European Celts made wide use of chariots in warfare with a warrior standing behind the seated driver. The Celts extolled virtues in a chariot driver such as turning in a tight circle, backing up straight and leaping over chasms. Caesar also claimed to witness reckless and dangerous feats such as the warrior running along the pole to stand on the yoke of the horses or the driver urging the horses to jump logs and ditches at full speed. The latter, a back and neck-breaking stunt if performed in a farm-cart, might work with a chariot if it had a flexible spring suspension allowing the vehicle to actually lift off the ground. So, what were the chariots like and how were they used?

Rather than use the chariots as an attack vehicle, they were more likely to be used as a mode of delivery to the battle line. Racing up and down between the opposing forces, warriors would bellow out their battle cries and challenges above the roar of the heavy iron rimmed wheels, to intimidate their opposite number before dismounting and advancing on foot to accept an offer of single combat. The chariot driver would then retreat to a safe distance and wait for the return of victorious warrior or make ready for a speedy retreat if things went badly.

Made from sturdy ash wood, apart from the one-piece, iron rimmed wheels, which was probably a Celtic innovation – and hub fittings, chariots had double arched sides with the main frame lashed to the axle and the pole using wet rawhide which shrank tight, pulling joints together securely. Inside the arched sides was a Y shaped rawhide strap suspending an independent platform within the main frame. Leather slings supporting a carriage body were a tried and tested method of suspension and were still widely used in the stagecoaches of the Wild West.

chariotThe wooden spoked wheels were positioned beyond the edge of the body, offering greater stability and better cornering while the hilly, bumpy, boggy and rutted rough terrain made the need for a driver to be seated as he would have had a lower centre of gravity, adding to the overall stability.

The internal platform frame, again made from ash, was suspended from the main frame by leather straps and supported by two underneath battens fastened to the Y straps. A long strip of rawhide made the warp and weft of the platform, on which the warrior would stand, giving just the right amount of give and springiness to counteract a rough ride.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence of the Irish Celts ever having used chariots but I am afraid historical accuracy did not prevent me from making extensive use of chariots, as evidenced in the following excerpt from the chapter Claiming Emer in Part Two of my novel, Raiding Cúailnge.

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 Sétanta, 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. Sétanta 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.

Illustration: British Museum.