Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
The boy who takes up the spear and shield of Manhood on this day will become the most renowned of all the warriors of Ireland, men will follow at his call to the world's end, and his enemies will shudder at the thunder of his chariot wheels.
So the prophecy went, and as the boy Cuchulain heard it, he went forward to claim the weapons of his manhood. This is the story of how he became the greatest of heroes â the Hound of Ulster.
With the Author's love, and her apologies for a story
from the wrong side of the Border
THIS IS THE
story of Cuchulain, the Champion of Ulster, the greatest of all the Heroes of the Red Branch. Listen, now.
In the great days long past, there was a King of Ulster whose name was Ross the Red, and Maga his Queen was a woman of the Sidhe, the Lordly Ones, whose home is in Tir-Nan-Og, the Land of Youth. And Fiachtna the Giant was their son, and Fiachtna's son was Conor Mac Nessa, and both of them after Ross were to be Kings of Ulster in their turn. But the time came when Maga was no longer content with Ross the Red, and since no one can hold the Lordly People against their will, they parted, and she became the wife of Cathbad, who, though he had not then a grey hair in his beard, was the wisest of all the Druids in the land. And Ross the Red took a second wife, and the name of that one was Royâa mortal maiden, this time, for he had had his fill of the Lordly Kindâand the son she bore him was Fergus Mac Roy.
And Cathbad and Maga had three daughters, Dectera, Elva and Finchoom. And Finchoom's son was Conall of the
Victories; and Elva's three sons by her husband Usna were Naisi, Ainle and Ardan, and Dectera's son was no other than Cuchulain himself.
And these are the names and kindreds that you must remember, for these, with their comrades and henchmen and the sons who came after them were the Heroes of the Red Branch, because they were all of them sprung from Ross the Red, or linked with him through his first Queen.
One Midsummer Eve when Conor had not long been King, Dectera his kinswoman went down with her fifty maidens to wash their clothes in the stream that ran below the Royal D
n, at Emain Macha. And when the shadows grew long at evening, and still they had not come carrying their new-washed linen back up the hill, search was made for them beside the ford and under the ancient hazel trees. But not so much as a golden hair of them was to be found.
For many days Conor and his warriors searched through the length and breadth of Ulster, and far south into Ireland beyond, but all to no avail. âThey have heard the music of the Silver Branch and gone into the Hollow Hills, into Tir-Nan-Og,' said Cathbad the Druid. âDectera has gone to her mother's kind, and taken the others with her like a flock of birds behind their leader.'
Three years went by, and it was as though Dectera and her maidens had never been; and then on another Midsummer's Eve, a flock of small bright birds descended on the barley fields about Emain Macha and the little stone-walled plots where the half wild fruit trees grew, and began to destroy the ripening fruit. Word of this was brought to Conor Mac Nessa and it seemed to him that there was sport to be had, as well as the
saving of the crops. And so with a band of his household warriorsâwith Fergus Mac Roy and young Laery the Triumphant and Bricrieu of the Bitter Tongue and othersâhe took his pouch filled with sling stones, and set out. But try as they would, they could not hit one of the small bright birds among the apple boughs, and the birds for their part only flew a little way and began to feed again. And when the warriors followed them with fresh pebbles in their slings, they fluttered a little fartherâand the fluttering of them was like laughterâand so drew the hunters on and on, until at dusk when they could no longer see to sling the polished stones, the King and his companions found themselves near to the fairy mound at Brugh-Na-Boyna.
âIt is too far to be going back to Emain Macha tonight,' said Conor. âIt is past cowstalling time, and they will have closed the gates and set free the ban dogs and we shall rouse the whole D
n and bring the women squealing round our ears. We can make a fire and 'twill not harm us to sleep one night fasting.' And so they made a fire of dry thorn branches and lay down about it, wrapped in their cloaks with their feet to the warmth, while one of their number sat up to keep the blaze going, though indeed 'twas little there was to fear from the wolves at Midsummer.
But Fergus Mac Roy was restless and could not sleep, so that at last he said to himself, âAch, the moonlight is in my feet that I cannot be still,' and he drew his legs under him and went off along the banks of the river towards the fairy mound. As he drew towards it, he saw that a little mist lay low about the hillock, snail-silver in the light of the full summer moon; and then it seemed to him that the mist flowered from silver into gold, and that the light came no longer from the moon but from within the mist itself, as though there were a hundred
torches blazing at the heart of it. And as he came to a halt, thinking maybe the thing was best not meddled with, a great burst of light opened upon him, and he saw that the gates of the fairy hill stood wide. Indeed it was no hill at all, but a King's hall greater and more glorious even than the Hall of the High Kings of Ireland at Tara itself; and he moved towards it as though his feet were drawn by the suck of a tide. There were half-seen shapes about him, and half-heard music in his ears more sweet than any harping in any King's hall of the world of men; and on the shining threshold a man stepped out to meet him, golden and fiercely beautiful, so that it seemed the light shone from himself and not from any torches at all, as one would not need torches with the sun blazing in a clear sky. And Fergus knew that even among the Lordly People only one could shine with such a flame, and that was Lugh of the Long Spear, the Sun Lord himself; and he shielded his eyes under his arm. But when he looked at the woman who had come also to stand in the gateway, his eyes grew cool again, for she was like the shadow behind the sun, as graceful and fine-drawn as the shadow of a wild cherry tree.
And looking at her, Fergus saw that she was the lost Princess Dectera.
âYou are welcome, Fergus Mac Roy,' said Lugh the Sun Lord, âmost gladly welcome, tonight of all the nights there are.'
And Dectera said to him âYou are welcome as the rain in a dry summer on the orchards of Emain Macha, for my heart has looked of late for one of my own kin to come to me.'
âNot only I, but Conor himself and others of the Red Branch are close at hand, for a flock of birds led us on this way until we were too far from Emain Macha to return this night, and so we made a fire to sleep by, and there they sleep in their cloaks.
Give me leave now to go back and rouse them and bring them here, for they will weep for gladness to see Dectera again.'
Dectera smiled as though at a secret when he spoke of the birds that had led them. But she shook her head. âYou have seen me and you know that it is well with me and I am happy. Go back to the camp now, and sleep with the rest.'
And then it seemed to Fergus that the mist returned, and he found that he was running back towards the camp. He saw the gleam of the watch fire and ran towards it, between the sleeping warriors who startled awake at his coming, until he was beside Conor the King, who had risen to his elbow, flinging back the cloak from his dark head. âIs there a wolfpack on your heels then, my Uncle?' he demanded, dashing the sleep from his eyes.
And dropping beside him, Fergus told his story, and he was gasping for breath, for he had been running hard. Before all was told, the young King was on his feet, and the rest of the warriors pressing about him, and he chose out several of the men and bade them go swiftly, swiftly to the fairy hill, and bring Dectera back to him with all honour.
And when the warriors were gone, running silently as they would be on the hunting trail, the rest cast more thorn branches on the fire and sat down on their haunches to wait. In a while and a while the warriors returned, but Dectera was not with them. âAch, you need not tell it. There was nothing there but the hillock in the moonlight, and it with a wisp of ground-mist about its loins,' Fergus said disgustedly, pulling up tufts of grass and throwing them in the river.
âAll was as you saw it,' said Laery the Triumphant, and then to the King he said, âMy Lord, we have seen the Lady Dectera, and Himself who is with her. But she bade us to say to you that she is sick, and beg you to forgive her and wait a while;
and she bade us say that when the sickness passes from her, she will come, and bring with her a gift for Ulster.'
Conor's dark brows drew together, for he was not a patient man, but there was no other thing to be done. And so they waited, gathered about the fire, and from waiting they fell at last, every one of them, into sleep, as though the harp of the Dagda had laid its spell on them.
In the first green light of dawn, with the ringed plover calling, the warriors awoke, and stared with startled eyes at the thing they found in the midst of them. For there, wrapped in a piece of golden silk within a dappled fawn skin, and mewing for all the world like the ringed plover, lay a new-born man child!