Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 110The First Test
That night Ailill put them to an unexpected test. Their feast was served to them in a separate room, and the king went to his protectors, the Fairy People of the Hills, in the Good People’s Hill at Cruachan, and begged some help in his judgment. They willingly aided him, and three magic beasts, in the shape of monstrous cats, were let into the room where the heroes feasted. When they saw them Laegaire and Conall rose up from their meal, clambered up among the rafters, and stayed there all night. Cuchulain waited till one attacked him, and then drawing his sword, struck the monster. It showed no further sign of fight, and Cuchulain kept watch all night, till the magic beasts disappeared at daybreak. When Ailill came into the room and saw the heroes as they had spent the night he laughed as he said:
“Indeed no,” said Conall and Laegaire. “We are used to fighting men, not monstrous beasts.”
The Second Test
The next day King Ailill sent the heroes to his own foster-father, Ercol, to spend a night with him, that he also might test them. When they arrived, and had feasted, Laegaire was sent out that night to fight the witches of the valley. Fierce and terrible were these witches, and they beat Laegaire, and took his arms and armour.
When Conall went to fight them the witches beat him and took his spear, but he kept his sword and brought it back with honour. Cuchulain, who was the youngest, went last, and he too was being beaten, when the taunts of his chariot-driver, who was watching, aroused him, and he beat the witches, and bore off in triumph their cloaks of battle. Yet even after this the other two heroes would not acknowledge Cuchulain’s superiority.
The next day Ercol fought with each champion separately, and conquered both Laegaire and Conall, terrifying the former so much that he fled to Cruachan and told Meave and Ailill that Ercol had killed the other two. When Cuchulain arrived victorious, with Ercol tied captive at his chariot-wheels, he found all men mourning for him and Conall as for the dead.
Meave’s Plan to Avoid Strife in Cruachan
Now indeed Ailill was in great perplexity, for he durst not delay his decision, and he dreaded the wrath [Pg 195] of the two disappointed heroes. He and Queen Meave consulted long together, and at length Meave promised to relieve him of the responsibility of judgment. Summoning Laegaire to the king’s room, she said:
“Welcome, O Laegaire! You are greatest of the warriors of Ulster. To you we give the headship of the heroes of Ireland and the Champion’s Portion, and to your wife the right to walk first of all the women of Ulster. In token thereof we give you this cup of bronze with a silver bird embossed, to be seen by no man till you be come to King Conor in the Red Branch House at Armagh. Then show your cup and claim your right, and none will dispute it with you.”