Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

Deirdre of Contentions

Years passed away, and the memory of their old feuds died down between Fergus mac Roy and King Conor mac Nessa. Fergus in his old age wearied for his home and country, and for the comrades of his youth. The private wars of Meave had little interest for him, and the tidings that came from time to time from his own province stirred in him a longing to be back. So at length he bade farewell to Meave, and with the most part of his followers he returned to Ulster, and settled in his own fort again. In order to keep his allegiance, King Conor gave him a position next himself, and in all outward things showed him honour, but all the while he watched him jealously, and Fergus knew well that the King would be glad to find a good excuse to shut him up in bonds or to put him to death. Conor feared his power with the people, and their pride and affection for him who once had been their king, and in his mind Conor knew well that he sat in Fergus' seat, and that many of the older chiefs would willingly have seen their rightful prince once more upon the throne. As old age came on him, Conor grew more wily and suspicious year by year, so that some men dreaded and some hated him, and few felt for him affection or true reverence. Yet among the youthful generation growing up, the reign of Fergus and his mighty deeds were but a tale told by their fathers of their own youthful days; and though they looked with awe upon his mighty stature and his massive form, Fergus seemed to them more like a giant of the ancient time, or like a hoary god, than like a being of human kind as they were, feeling the needs and passions of a man.

Ulster was now at peace, and quietly the days rolled by. Once more the sound of laughter rang out from the playing-fields. New boys, grown out of babyhood, played the old sports, lads brave and manly as those of other days; but older men, passing, would shake their heads and wipe away a tear, for still the shadow of the tragedy that met the boy-corps at the ford hung over them. And many a mother wept at night remembering a bright boy, her pride and darling, swept away contending for Cuchulain and for Ulster against the warriors of Meave.

From time to time, in days of peace, the chiefs of Ulster, each in his turn, made a feast for Conor and the nobles in his company, the famous Champions of the Red Branch. In his turn, Felim, son of Doll, the chief of the King's story-tellers and his close friend, made such a feast for Conor.

For a whole year had Felim been preparing for the coming of the King. He built a noble banqueting hall close to his house, and sleeping rooms for the King's followers, and stables for their steeds. From all the country round the farmers brought butter and cream, fresh curds and cheeses, cakes and wheaten bread. Cattle and sheep and swine worthy of the royal banquet were brought in, and fruits and onions, honey and strong ale were stored in plenty in Felim's vats and storehouses.

He gathered together singing men and singing women, musicians who played upon the fiddle and the harp, and the best tellers of stories that were to be found in all the country-side.

On the day appointed, the King set out in state from Emain, with the Champions of the Red Branch in his train.

Fair was the day and bright when Conor and his followers set out, each in his chariot drawn by two spirited steeds, each decked in his festal array, in mantles of rich crimson, blue or purple, fastened with massive brooches of pure gold, wondrously chased and set with stones of price brought out of distant lands. Upon their heads their helmets of bright bronze shone in the sun, and on their spear-points the sunlight danced so that they seemed to move along beneath a flashing line of gold.

But as they neared the hall the sky grew overcast and black with clouds, and at the fall of night a wind arose and blew up clouds of heavy dust that dimmed their brilliancy, so that they reached the mansion of Felim besmirched and blown about and very weary.

Hardly had the chariot of the King drawn up within the court, than a roll of thunder, loud and terrible, resounded overhead, while floods of rain poured down, and a fierce tempest seemed to shake the building to its foundations. "An awful night is this," said Felim; "close to the doors and bid the singing men and women make bright cheerful music in the hall." But all in vain they tried to cheer the guests. Louder the tempest roared, and peal on peal of thunder, such as none of them had ever heard before, made all hearts quail. "No common storm is this," the monarch said, "I have

forebodings that some ill will fall upon the province from this night." But Felim busied himself to push on the feast, and when all were seated at the board, with servers carving the great joints and wine poured out, a lull came in the storm, and Felim thought that all was well at last. But scarcely had the King begun to eat, when a swift messenger came running in. "O King," he proclaimed, "a child is born to Felim, a fine fair-fashioned girl; let Felim come and see his wife and child." But Felim said, "Be silent now, let not the feast be broken by your news. When once the feast is done and the King served, I'll come and see the child."

Beside the King sat Caffa, the first Druid of the province, an aged man. He heard the message, and up-rose. "A child is born to our host, O King, while we are present here. I will go forth and by the stars find out her destiny, whether to Felim and his wife comes joy or woe with this girl's birth." "Go forth," the King replied, "not less than this is due to our good host. Fair be the fate that will befall to him and all his house because this child is born."

Then Caffa went far out beyond the house, and at the outer rath he stood awhile, trying behind the drifting clouds to read the stars. The quarter of the moon he calculated carefully, and in what constallations the wandering stars, the planets, lay. In his old books and tablets, carried within the folds of his wide flowing robes, was gathered all the ancient wizard's lore, the wisdom of his craft. Closely he scanned the lines, and with unusual care he drew the horoscope. And now and then he started, as though things surprising to himself were found therein.

So long he lingered, that, when at length he closed his tablets made of soft wood and written o'er with runes, and turned him to the house, the King and all his company had quite forgot the child, and loud uproarious laughter rang throughout the hall, and sallies of keen wit and merry song as the full horns of mead and ale passed round from hand to hand. So at the door a moment Caffa stood; and in his face was dreadful warning, and a look so strange, that all the laughter died away, and silence, sudden and complete, fell on the company.

"Well," said the King, and laughed, though fear smote on his mind, "we hope the omens prophesy good luck; we drink a horn of mead to the maid's good health; may she thrive, grow fair and marry well, and to her parents bring no harm or ill."

"Not to her parents will this child bring ill, but to the province, and to Ulster's king and chiefs. Fair she will be, so fair that queens will soon grow jealous of her beauty, and kings will wage red war to gain her hand. I see her, tall and stately as a swan or as the sapling of the mountain-side; her cheek the ruddy foxglove puts to shame, her skin is white as winter's driven snow. Like the soft hyacinth is the deep, liquid blue of her sweet eyes, and teeth, like pearls, gleam between crimson lips. Like to a crown of gold her clustering hair, gathered in rolls about her shapely head. She walks apart, alone, like a fair flower hidden within a dell, yet all around her and where'er she comes are tumults and the sounds of rolling war, and broken friendships and black treachery. I see that she is destined to a king, but something comes between her and her fate. Beware, O King; this maid is born for ill to Ulster, and the downfall of the Red Branch and its noble Champions."

Up-sprang the Heroes of the Red Branch then, and one and all cried out that if upon the province ill must fall because of this one babe, 'twere better far to put the child to death while she was young, and rid the land of her. But the King held them back. "Bring the babe hither," he said, "and let us see this harbinger of ill."

Then came the babe all swathed in white and lying, soft and fair, within her nurse's arms. And when the infant saw the lights and heard the sounds of singing, she was pleased, and puckered up her baby face and looked up at the King and crowed and smiled. At this the King was moved to gentleness; he rose up from his seat and took the babe out of her nurse's arms and loudly he proclaimed before them all: "The prophecies and omens of the seers I do most strictly honour and believe. No man can fly from fate, nor can man set aside his destiny. The mandates of the gods of earth and air and fire, the Unchanging Elements, must be fulfilled. Yet will I not believe that any good can come of an ignoble act. No man or hero of noble mind for his own good would slay a helpless babe, neither then for the good of Ulster shall this foul, cowardly deed be done. The child shall live, and if she prove as fair as Caffa says, one part at least of his grim prophecy shall be fulfilled, for I will take the girl as my own wife when she is come to marriageable age, and so she shall be wedded to a king. And here I do declare to one and all, I take this child under my special charge and make myself responsible for her. I bring her up in my own way, and he who lifts his hand against the child must after reckon with the king himself."

Then Fergus, Conall Cernach, and the rest arose and said: "The King's protection is a circling wall through which no man may break. We, the Champions of the Red Branch and thy own chiefs, do well observe and will fulfil your will. Even though trouble happen through her life, the child shall live." So said they all. Then Caffa said: "Alas! Alas! O King, you and your chiefs will live to rue this day. Great woes are bound up with the destiny before this little maid, and all the world will hear of them and weep. A child of sorrow is this child, and 'Deirdre of Contentions' is her name." "So be it," said the King, "I like the name; when Deirdre is of age to foster with a nurse, bring her to me."

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