Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 97

Then at last they gave over, and threw away their weapons. And they kissed each other as before, and as before they shared all things at night, and slept peacefully till the morning.

When the third day of the combat came Ferdia wore an evil and lowering look, and Cuchulain reproached him for coming out in battle against his comrade for the bribe of a fair maiden, even Findabair, whom Maev had offered to every champion and to Cuchulain himself if the Ford might be won thereby; but Ferdia said: “Noble Hound, had I not faced thee when summoned, my troth would be broken, and there would be shame on me in Rathcroghan.” It is now the turn of Ferdia to choose the weapons, and they betake themselves to their “heavy, hard-smiting swords,” and though they hew from each other's thighs and shoulders great cantles of flesh, neither can prevail over the other, and at last night ends the combat. This time they parted from each other in heaviness and gloom, and there was no interchange of friendly acts, and their drivers and horses slept apart. The passions of the warriors had now risen to a grim sternness.

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Death of Ferdia

On the fourth day Ferdia knew the contest would be decided, and he armed himself with especial care. Next his skin was a tunic of striped silk bordered with golden spangles, and over that hung an apron of brown leather. Upon his belly he laid a flat stone, large as a millstone, and over that a strong, deep apron of iron, for he dreaded that Cuchulain would use the Gae Bolg that day. And he put on his head his crested helmet studded with carbuncle and inlaid with enamels, and girt on his golden-hilted sword, and on his left arm hung his broad shield with its fifty bosses of bronze. Thus he stood by the Ford, and as he waited he tossed up his weapons and caught them again and did many wonderful feats, playing with his mighty weapons as a juggler plays with apples; and Cuchulain, watching him, said to Laeg, his driver: “If I give ground to-day, do thou reproach and mock me and spur me on to valour, and praise and hearten me if I do well, for I shall have need of all my courage.”

“O Ferdia,” said Cuchulain when they met, “what shall be our weapons to-day?” “It is thy choice to-day,” said Ferdia. “Then let it be all or any,” said Cuchulain, and Ferdia was cast down at hearing this, but he said, “So be it,” and thereupon the fight began. Till midday they fought with spears, and none could gain any advantage over the other. Then Cuchulain drew his sword and sought to smite Ferdia over the rim of his shield; but the giant Firbolg flung him off. Thrice Cuchulain leaped high into the air, seeking to strike Ferdia over his shield, but each time as he descended Ferdia caught him upon the shield and flung him off like a little child into the Ford. And Laeg mocked him, crying: “He casts thee off as a river flings [pg 220] its foam, he grinds thee as a millstone grinds a corn of wheat; thou elf, never call thyself a warrior.”

Then at last Cuchulain's frenzy came upon him, and he dilated giant-like, till he overtopped Ferdia, and the hero-light blazed about his head. In close contact the two were interlocked, whirling and trampling, while the demons and goblins and unearthly things of the glens screamed from the edges of their swords, and the waters of the Ford recoiled in terror from them, so that for a while they fought on dry land in the midst of the riverbed. And now Ferdia found Cuchulain a moment off his guard, and smote him with the edge of the sword, and it sank deep into his flesh, and all the river ran red with his blood. And he pressed Cuchulain sorely after that, hewing and thrusting so that Cuchulain could endure it no longer, and he shouted to Laeg to fling him the Gae Bolg. When Ferdia heard that he lowered his shield to guard himself from below, and Cuchulain drove his spear over the rim of the shield and through his breastplate into his chest. And Ferdia raised his shield again, but in that moment Cuchulain seized the Gae Bolg in his toes and drove it upward against Ferdia, and it pierced through the iron apron and burst in three the millstone that guarded him, and deep into his body it passed, so that every crevice and cranny of him was filled with its barbs. “'Tis enough,” cried Ferdia; “I have my death of that. It is an ill deed that I fall by thy hand, O Cuchulain.” Cuchulain seized him as he fell, and carried him northward across the Ford, that he might die on the further side of it, and not on the side of the men of Erin. Then he laid him down, and a faintness seized Cuchulain, and he was falling, when Laeg cried: “Rise up, Cuchulain, for the host of Erin will be upon us. No single combat will they give after Ferdia has fallen.” But Cuchulain said: “Why should [pg 221] I rise again, O my servant, now he that lieth here has fallen by my hand?” and he fell in a swoon like death. And the host of Maev with tumult and rejoicing, with tossing of spears and shouting of war-songs, poured across the border into Ulster.

But before they left the Ford they took the body of Ferdia and laid it in a grave, and built a mound over him and set up a pillar-stone with his name and lineage in Ogham. And from Ulster came certain of the friends of Cuchulain, and they bore him away into Murthemney, where they washed him and bathed his wounds in the streams, and his kin among the Danaan folk cast magical herbs into the rivers for his healing. But he lay there in weakness and in stupor for many days.

The Rousing of Ulster

Now Sualtam, the father of Cuchulain, had taken his son's horse, the Grey of Macha, and ridden off again to see if by any means he might rouse the men of Ulster to defend the province. And he went crying abroad: “The men of Ulster are being slain, the women carried captive, the kine driven!” Yet they stared on him stupidly, as though they knew not of what he spake. At last he came to Emania, and there were Cathbad the Druid and Conor the King, and all their nobles and lords, and Sualtam cried aloud to them: “The men of Ulster are being slain, the women carried captive, the kine driven; and Cuchulain alone holds the gap of Ulster against the four provinces of Erin. Arise and defend yourselves!” But Cathbad only said: “Death were the due of him who thus disturbs the King”; and Conor said: “Yet it is true what the man says”; and the lords of Ulster wagged their heads and murmured: “True indeed it is.”