Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 85

Next day he went to the dūn of Forgall the Wily, father of Emer, and he leaped “the hero's salmon leap,” that he had learned of Skatha, over the high ramparts of the dūn. Then the mighty men of Forgall set on him, and he dealt but three blows, and each blow slew eight men, and Forgall himself fell lifeless in leaping from the rampart of the dūn to escape Cuchulain. So he carried off Emer and her foster-sister and two loads of gold and silver. But outside the dūn the sister of Forgall raised a host against him, and his battle-fury came on him, and furious were the blows he dealt, so that the ford of Glondath ran blood and the turf on Crofot was trampled into bloody mire. A hundred he slew at every ford from Olbiny to the Boyne; and so was Emer won as she desired, and he brought her to Emain Macha and made her his wife, and they were not parted again until he died.

Cuchulain Champion of Erin

A lord of Ulster named Briccriu of the Poisoned Tongue once made a feast to which he bade King Conor and all the heroes of the Red Branch, and because it was always his delight to stir up strife among men or women he set the heroes contending among themselves as to who was the champion of the land of Erin. At last it was agreed that the championship [pg 196] must lie among three of them, namely, Cuchulain, and Conall of the Victories and Laery the Triumphant. To decide between these three a demon named The Terrible was summoned from a lake in the depth of which he dwelt. He proposed to the heroes a test of courage. Any one of them, he said, might cut off his head to-day provided that he, the claimant of the championship, would lay down his own head for the axe to-morrow. Conall and Laery shrank from the test, but Cuchulain accepted it, and after reciting a charm over his sword, he cut off the head of the demon, who immediately rose, and taking the bleeding head in one hand and his axe in the other, plunged into the lake.

Next day he reappeared, whole and sound, to claim the fulfilment of the bargain. Cuchulain, quailing but resolute, laid his head on the block. “Stretch out your neck, wretch,” cried the demon; “'tis too short for me to strike at.” Cuchulain does as he is bidden. The demon swings his axe thrice over his victim, brings down the butt with a crash on the block, and then bids Cuchulain rise unhurt, Champion of Ireland and her boldest man.

Deirdre and the Sons of Usna

We have now to turn to a story in which Cuchulain takes no part. It is the chief of the preliminary tales to the Cattle-spoil of Quelgny.

There was among the lords of Ulster, it is said, one named Felim son of Dall, who on a certain day made a great feast for the king. And the king came with his Druid Cathbad, and Fergus mac Roy, and many heroes of the Red Branch, and while they were making merry over the roasted flesh and wheaten cakes and Greek wine a messenger from the women's apartments [pg 197] came to tell Felim that his wife had just borne him a daughter. So all the lords and warriors drank health to the new-born infant, and the king bade Cathbade perform divination in the manner of the Druids and foretell what the future would have in store for Felim's babe. Cathbad gazed upon the stars and drew the horoscope of the child, and he was much troubled; and at length he said: “The infant shall be fairest among the women of Erin, and shall wed a king, but because of her shall death and ruin come upon the Province of Ulster.” Then the warriors would have put her to death upon the spot, but Conor forbade them. “I will avert the doom,” he said, “for she shall wed no foreign king, but she shall be my own mate when she is of age.” So he took away the child, and committed it to his nurse Levarcam, and the name they gave it was Deirdre. And Conor charged Levarcam that the child should be brought up in a strong dūn in the solitude of a great wood, and that no young man should see her or she him until she was of marriageable age for the king to wed. And there she dwelt, seeing none but her nurse and Cathbad, and sometimes the king, now growing an aged man, who would visit the dūn from time to time to see that all was well with the folk there, and that his commands were observed.

One day, when the time for the marriage of Deirdre and Conor was drawing near, Deirdre and Levarcam looked over the rampart of their dūn. It was winter, a heavy snow had fallen in the night, and in the still, frosty air the trees stood up as if wrought in silver, and the green before the dūn was a sheet of unbroken white, save that in one place a scullion had killed a calf for their dinner, and the blood of the calf lay on the snow. And as Deirdre looked, a raven lit down from [pg 198] a tree hard by and began to sip the blood. “O nurse,” cried Deirdre suddenly, “such, and not like Conor, would be the man that I would love—his hair like the raven's wing, and in his cheek the hue of blood, and his skin as white as snow.” “Thou hast pictured a man of Conor's household,” said the nurse. “Who is he?” asked Deirdre. “He is Naisi, son of Usna,140 a champion of the Red Branch,” said the nurse. Thereupon Deirdre entreated Levarcam to bring her to speak with Naisi; and because the old woman loved the girl and would not have her wedded to the aged king, she at last agreed. Deirdre implored Naisi to save her from Conor, but he would not, till at last her entreaties and her beauty won him, and he vowed to be hers. Then secretly one night he came with his two brethren, Ardan and Ainlé, and bore away Deirdre with Levarcam, and they escaped the king's pursuit and took ship for Scotland, where Naisi took service with the King of the Picts. Yet here they could not rest, for the king got sight of Deirdre, and would have taken her from Naisi, but Naisi with his brothers escaped, and in the solitude of Glen Etive they made their dwelling by the lake, and there lived in the wild wood by hunting and fishing, seeing no man but themselves and their servants.