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.’
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.
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.’