Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

The Fall of Ferdia

On that night before the conflict, Cuchulain also was preparing himself for what lay before him on the morrow. No sooner had Fergus left him, than Laeg his charioteer came to him, and said, "How, my master, will you spend this night?" "I had not thought," said Cuchulain, "of spending it in any other way than other nights. What would you have me do?"

"I am thinking," said the charioteer, "that Ferdia will not come alone to the ford to-morrow, but that in such a fight as this, the chief warriors and nobles of Ireland will be present to see the combat. And sure am I that Ferdia will come to the combat washed and bathed, with his hair fresh cut and plaited, in all the magnificence of a battle-champion; but you are fatigued and worn after these combats, unwashed and uncombed, for it has not been possible to adorn yourself in these times of strife and lonely living. Glad should I be, therefore, if you would return to your wife, to Emer of the beautiful hair, where she is awaiting you at Slieve Fuad, and there adorn yourself, so that you may not appear disheveled and distressed before the men of Erin." So that night Cuchulain went home to Emer, and gentle and loving was she to him after their separation from each other; and very early in the morning he returned refreshed and comforted to the place where he had been encamped. "Harness our horses for us now, O Laeg, and yoke our war-chariot, for an early-rising champion was Ferdia in the old time. If he is waiting for us at the ford, maybe he is thinking the morning long."

So the chariot was yoked and Cuchulain sprang into it, and with the speed of a swallow, or of a wild deer flying before the hounds, he set forth to the place of conflict. And round the head of the High Rock and Bulwark of Ulster, even Cuchulain, there gathered the Fairy People of the Glens and the Wild Wizard Folk of the air and mists, and the demon sprites of war and battle, shouting and screaming before the impending conflict; they hovered over him and around him, as it was their wont to do when he went to mortal combat, and the air was filled with their noises and hoarse wailings, rejoicing in the slaughter.

Soon, indeed, the charioteer of Ferdia heard the uproar, and he arose and began to awaken his master, chanting a song in praise of Cuchulain, and calling on Ferdia to arise and meet him. Then Ferdia sprang up.

"How looks Cuchulain this morning?" he cried. "Surely weak and faint he comes to the ford, after a whole winter passed in combating the men of Erin."

"Not with signs of weakness or of faintness advances the warrior towards us," the charioteer replied, "but with clangour of arms and clatter of wheels and the trampling of horses equal to a king’s, this warrior draweth nigh. The clanking of the missile-shields I hear, and the hiss of spears, the roll of the chariot with the beautiful silver yoke. Heroic the champion who urges on the steeds, a noble hawk of battle, a martial hero, a Hound of Combat. A year agone I knew that he would come, the stay of Emain, Ulster’s watchful Hound. Over Bray Rossa I perceive him come, skirting the hamlet of the Ancient Tree, along the broad highway; the Hound, the Hound of Ulster in his might."

"O come, fellow, have done with this belauding of our enemy; methinks a bribe has passed from him to you, to bid you sing his praises. He has slept sound, no doubt, for he is late. I tire of waiting here to kill him. Let us get ready now at once to meet him."

Then Cuchulain drew up on the borders of the ford. And on his way he had appealed to his charioteer, instructing him that should he grow weak in the fight, or seem to be giving way before Ferdia, he was to taunt him with cowardice, and fling reproaches and bad names at him, so that his anger would arise and he would fight more valiantly than before; but if he were doing well, his charioteer was to stand upon the brink and praise him, to keep his spirits up. And Laeg laughed and said, "Is it on this wise that I must taunt thee? ‘Arise, Cuchulain, a yearling babe would fight better than thou; that man Ferdia overthrows thee as easily as a cat waves her tail; like foam dancing on the water he blows thee along; he pulls thee about as a mother might play with her little boy!’ How will that do?"

"That will do very well," said Cuchulain, laughing also; "surely I shall fight better after that." And with that they came to the ford, and Cuchulain drew up upon the north side, and Ferdia on the south side of the stream.

"What has brought thee hither, O Cua?" said Ferdia. Now Cua means "squint-eyed," and Ferdia called him by this scoffing name, because he wished to appear bold and unconcerned, though in his heart he feared and was ashamed; yet he liked not to show his fear. "Welcome thy coming, O squint-eyed one."

But Cuchulain answered seriously, "Up to to-day, O Ferdia, no greeting would have been more welcome than greeting of thine, for I should have esteemed it the welcome of a friend. To-day, however, I do not count it such. And indeed, Ferdia, more fitting would it have been that I should offer welcome to thee, than that thou shouldst offer it to me, seeing that it is thou who hast intruded into my province and not I into thine. It was for me to challenge thee to fight, and not for thee to challenge me."

"What induced thee to come to this combat at all, O Cuchulain," replied Ferdia, "as though thou wert mine equal? Dost thou not remember, that in the old days when we were with Scáth, thou wast in attendance on me as my pupil, and thy place it was to tie up my javelins for me and to make my couch?"

"That indeed is true," Cuchulain answered gravely; "for I was in those years thy junior in age and standing, in feats and in renown. I did then but my duty. But to-day it is no longer so; there is not now in the world any champion to whom I am not equal, or whom I would refuse to fight. O Ferdia, my friend, it was not well for thee that thou didst listen to the enticements of Ailill and of Meave, urging thee to come out and fight with me. When we were with Scáth it was side by side that we went to every battle and every battle-field, to conflicts and to feats of war. Together we wandered through strange unknown lands, together we encountered dangers and difficulty; in all things we stood side by side, aiding and supporting one another.

"We were heart’s companions,

Comrades in assemblies,

Brothers, who together

Slept the dreamless sleep.

In all paths of peril,

In all days of danger,

Each of us, as brothers,

Would his brother keep."

"O Cuchulain of the beautiful feats," Ferdia replied, "though together we have learned the secrets of knowledge, and though I have listened now to thy recital of our bonds of fellowship, it is from me that thy first wounds shall come; think not upon our old comradeship, O Hound, for it shall not profit thee; O Hound, it shall not profit thee. We lose our time in this wise; let us choose our weapons and begin. What arms shall we use to-day, O Cuchulain?"

"It is thine to choose our arms to-day, for it was thou who first didst reach the ford."

"Dost thou remember," said Ferdia, "the missile weapons we used to practice with Scáth?" "Full well I remember them," said Cuchulain.

"If thou dost remember them, let us have recourse to them now," said Ferdia.

So they took in their hands their two great protecting shields, engraved with emblematic devices, to cover their bodies, and their eight small sharp-edged shields to throw horizontally, and their eight light javelins, and their eight dirks with ivory handles, and their eight little darts for the fight. Backward and forward flew the weapons between them like bees on the wing on a sunny day. From the dim light of early dawn until midday they continued to throw those weapons, yet although their aim was so good that not one of them missed its mark, so skilful also was the defence, that not a drop of blood was drawn on either side; all the missiles being caught full on their protecting shields.

"Let us drop these feats now, O Cuchulain," said his adversary, "for it is not by them that our contest will be decided."

"Let us drop them, indeed, if the time be come." Then they ceased from casting, and threw their weapons into the hands of their charioteers.

"What weapons shall we resort to next, O Cuchulain?" said Ferdia.

"With thee is the choice of weapons to-day," said Cuchulain again.

"Let us then take our straight, polished, hardened spears," said Ferdia, "with their flaxen strings to cast them with." So they took their great protecting shields in their hands, and their well-trimmed spears, and they continued to shoot and harass each other from the full middle of the day till eventide. And although the defence was not less careful than before, yet was the casting so good, that each of them drew blood and inflicted wounds upon the other that afternoon.

"Let us now stop casting for the present, O Cuchulain," said his adversary. "Let us stop, indeed, for the evening has come."

They ceased, and threw their weapons into their charioteers’ hands, and they ran towards each other, and each put his hands round his comrade’s neck, and they gave three loving kisses of old-time friendship to each other before they separated for the night. That night their horses were stabled in the same paddock, and their charioteers lay beside the same fire; and for the two combatants their charioteers spread beds of green rushes, with pillows such as are needed for wounded men. And the wise physicians and men of healing came to heal and tend them, and they applied salves made from plants, such as wise men know, to their hurts and gashes, and soothing herbs to their wounds; and of every herb and soothing salve that was applied to the wounds of Cuchulain, he sent an equal portion over the ford to Ferdia, so that no man among the host of Meave should be able to say, if Ferdia fell by him, that it was because Cuchulain had better means of healing than he. Also of every kind of food and of pleasant delicious drink that the men of Erin sent to Ferdia, he would send a fair half over the ford northward to Cuchulain, because Cuchulain had few to attend to his wants, whereas all the people of Meave’s host were ready to help Ferdia.

So for that night they rested, but early the next morning they arose and came forward to the ford of combat. "What weapons shall we use to-day, O Ferdia?" said Cuchulain. "Thine is the choice to-day," said Ferdia, "because I chose yesterday."

"Let us then take our broad-bladed heavy spears to-day, for more grave will be the fight between us from the thrusting of our massive spears, than from the shooting of our light casting weapons yesterday, and let our chariots be yoked and our horses harnessed, that we may fight to-day from our chariots." "Let us do so," said the other.

Then the two warriors took their great protecting shields in their hands, and their broad-bladed spears, and they continued to thrust at, to wound and pierce each other from the dim light of early morning till the close of day.

Great and gaping cuts and wounds were upon both of them before the evening-tide. Even their horses were exhausted, and the heroes themselves were fatigued and worn out and dispirited. At length Cuchulain said, "O Ferdia, let us now cease from this, for even our very horses are fatigued, and our charioteers are exhausted. We are not like the Fomors, the giants of the sea, who must be for ever combating against each other; let the clamour of battle now cease between us, and let us be friends once more."

And Ferdia said, "Let us be at peace, indeed, if the time has come."

Then they ceased fighting, and threw their arms into the hands of their charioteers, and they ran to each other, and each of them put his arms about the neck of the other, and gave him three loving kisses of old friendship.

Their horses were again in the same paddock that night, and their charioteers slept by the same fire; and beds of green rushes were made for the warriors, with pillows to ease their wounds; for their injuries that night were so terrible, that the men of healing and the physicians could do nothing for them except to try to stanch the blood that flowed from them with charms and incantation.

And of all the charms and healing salves that were applied to sooth Cuchulain, he bade them take the same to Ferdia, and of every sort of dainty food and of pleasant satisfying drink that Ferdia received, he sent a good half to Cuchulain.

That night they rested as well as they could for their wounds, but early in the morning they arose and repaired to the ford of combat. Cuchulain saw an evil look and a dark lowering brow upon the face of Ferdia that day. "Ill dost thou look to-day, O Ferdia," said Cuchulain. "Thy hair seems to have become darkened, or is it clots of blood I see? Thine eye is dimmed, and thy own bright face and form have gone from thee. A deep disgrace it is in thee to have come out to fight with thy fellow-pupil; not Finnabar’s beauty, nor the praises of Meave or Ailill, nor all the wealth of the world, would have brought me out to fight with thee, my comrade and my friend. Turn now back from this fight to-day, for a fight to death it must be between us, and I have not the heart to fight against thee; my strength fails me when I think of the evil that will befall thee; turn back, turn back, O friend, for false are the promises of Finnabar and Meave."

"O Cuchulain, gentle Hound, O valiant man, O true champion, bid me not return till the fight be done. Ill would it become me to return to Ailill and to Meave until my task be done. It is not thou who dost work me ill, O Cu of gentle ways; take the victory and fame that are thine by right, for thou art not in fault. Meave it is who is my undoing; but for all that I shrink not from the contest. My honour, at least, will be avenged; no fear of death afflicts me. There is a fate that brings each one of us to the place of our final rest in death, a fate none may resist. Reproach me not, O gentle friend and comrade, but let us fight the combat out to-day, as becomes two valiant men and warriors."

"If it must be so, what weapons shall we use?"

"Let us to-day take to our heavy smiting swords; for sooner shall we attain the end of our conflict by hewing with our swords, than by the thrusting of our spears yesterday." "Let it be so," said Cuchulain. So all that day they hewed and hacked each other with their long, two-edged heavy swords, and at evening they were wounded and torn from head to foot, so that it was hard to see a whole place on either of them.

"Let us cease now, O Cuchulain," said Ferdia. "Let us cease, indeed, if the time be come," he said.

They threw their arms into the hands of their charioteers, and, though pleasant and cheerful had been the first meeting of those two, it was in sadness and misery that they parted that night.

That evening their horses were not placed in the same paddock, nor did their charioteers sleep beside the same fire, but the charioteer of Cuchulain slept with his master on the north of the ford, and the charioteer of Ferdia slept on the south side of the ford.

Next morning Ferdia went forth alone to the ford of battle, for he knew that on that day the combat would be decided; that then and in that place one of them or both of them would fall.

On that day both heroes put on their full fighting array, their kilts of striped silk next their skin, and a thick apron of brown leather above that to protect the lower part of the body. And they put on their crested battle-helmets, with jewels of rubies and carbuncles and crystals blazing in the front, gems that had been brought from the East to Ireland. And they took their huge shields which covered the whole body, with great bosses in the centre of each shield, and their swords in their right hands, and thus they came forward to the battle. And as they went they displayed the many noble, quick-changing feats that Scáth had taught them, and it was difficult to tell which of them exceeded the other in the performance of those skilful weapon-feats.

Thus they came to the ford. And Cuchulain said:

"What weapons shall we choose this day, O Ferdia?"

"Thine is the choice to-day," said he. Then Cuchulain said, "Let us then practise the Feat of the Ford."

"We will do so," said Ferdia; but though he said that, sorrowful was he in saying it, for he knew that no warrior ever escaped alive from Cuchulain when they practised the Feat of the Ford.

Terrible and mighty were the deeds that were done that day by those two heroes, the Champions of the West, the pillars of valour of the Gael. Quietly they used their weapons in the early morning, parrying and casting with skill and warily, and neither did great harm to the other; but about midday, their anger grew hot, and they drew nearer to each other, and Cuchulain sprang upon his adversary, and made as though he would cut off his head over the rim of his shield. But Ferdia gave the shield a stroke upward with his left knee, and cast Cuchulain from him like a little child, and he fell down on the brink of the ford. Now Cuchulain’s charioteer, who was watching the combat from the bank, saw this, and he began to reproach Cuchulain as his master had bade him do, if he should give way in the fight.

"Ah, indeed," said Laeg, "this warrior can cast the Hound of Ulster from him as a woman tosses up her child; he flings thee up like the foam on a stream; he smites thee as the woodman’s axe fells an oak; he darts on thee as a hungry hawk pounces on little birds. Henceforth thou hast no claim to be called brave or valorous as long as thy life shall last, thou little fairy phantom!"

When Cuchulain heard these scoffing words, up he sprang with the swiftness of the wind, with the fierceness of a dragon, and with the strength of a lion, and his countenance was changed, and he became mighty and terrible in appearance, towering like a giant or like a Fomor of the sea above Ferdia. A fearsome fight they made together, gripping and striking each other from middle day to fall of eve; and their charioteers and the men of Erin who stood by shivered as they watched the conflict. So close was the fight they made that their heads met above and their feet below, and their arms around the middle of their mighty shields. So close was the fight they made, that their shields were loosened at their centers, and the bosses that were on them started out. So close was the fight they made, that their spears and swords were bent and shivered in their hands. The fairy people of the glens and the wild demon folk of the winds, and the sprites of the valleys of the air, screamed from the rims of their shields and from the points of their spears and from the hafts of their swords. So closely were they locked together in that deadly strife, that the river was cast out of its bed, and it was dried up beneath them, so that a king or a queen might have made a couch in the middle of its course without a drop of water falling on them, though drops of blood might have fallen on them from the bodies of the two champions contending in the hollow of the stream. Such was the terror of the fight they made, that the horses of the Gaels broke away from their paddocks, bursting their bonds and rushing madly in their fright into the woods, and the women and young people and camp followers fled away southwards out of the camp.

Just at that time Ferdia caught Cuchulain in an unguarded moment, and he smote him with a stroke of his straight-edged sword, and buried it in his body, so that his blood streamed down to his girdle, and all the bottom of the ford became crimsoned with his blood. So rapid were the strokes of Ferdia, blow after blow, and cut after cut, that Cuchulain could abide it no longer. And he turned to Laeg, and asked him to give him the Gae Bolga. Now, when the Gae Bolga was laid upon the water, it would move forward of itself to seek its enemy, and no one could stand before its deadly dart. So when Ferdia heard Cu ask for the Gae Bolga, he made a downward stroke of his shield to protect his body. But when Cuchulain saw that, he flung his spear above the shield and it entered the hero’s chest; and as he fell, the Gae Bolga struck him and entered his body from below. "It is all over now, I fall by that," said Ferdia. "But alas that I fall by thy hand. It is not right that I should die by thee, O Hound."



But Cuchulain ran towards him, and clasped him in his two arms, and carried him in his fighting array across the ford to the Northern side of the stream and laid him down there. And over Cuchulain himself there came a weakness and faintness when he saw Ferdia lying dying at his feet, and he heeded not the warnings of his charioteer telling him that the men of Erin were gathering across the ford to do battle with him and to avenge the death of their champion. For Cuchulain said, "What availeth me to arise, now that my friend is fallen by my hand? For when we were with Scáth, Mother of great gifts, we vowed to each other that for ever and for ever we should do no ill to each other. And now alas! by my hand hast thou fallen, my comrade, through the treachery of the men of Erin, who sent thee to thy fate. And oh! Ferdia, ruddy, well-built son of Daman, until the world’s end will thy like not be found among the men of Erin; would that I had died instead of thee, for then I should not now be alive to mourn thy death. Brief and sorrowful will be my life after thee.

"Dear was to me thy comely form,

Dear was thy youthful body warm,

Dear was thy clear-blue dancing eye,

Dear thy wise speech when I was by.

"Let me see, now, O Laeg, the brooch that was given to Ferdia by Meave; the brooch for which he lost his life, and did combat with his friend." Then Laeg loosened the brooch from the mantle of Ferdia, and Cuchulain took it in his hand and looked upon it, and tears such as strong warriors weep poured from his eyes, and he lamented over Ferdia, and over the brooch for which he had given his life.

"And now," said Cuchulain, "we will leave the ford, O Laeg; but every other fight that I have made till now when I came to fight and combat with Ferdia, has been but play and sport to me compared with this combat that we have made together, Ferdia and I." And as he moved away he sang this lay:—

"Play was each, pleasure each,

Till Ferdia faced the beach;

One had been our student life,

One in strife of school our place,

One our gentle teacher’s grace

Loved o’er all and each.

"Play was each, pleasure each,

Till Ferdia faced the beach;

One had been our wonted ways,

One the praise for feat of fields,

Scáthach gave two victor shields

Equal prize to each.

"Play was each, pleasure each,

Till Ferdia faced the beach;

Dear that pillar of pure gold

Who fell cold beside the ford.

Hosts of heroes felt his sword

First in battle-breach.

"Play was each, pleasure each,

Till Ferdia faced the beach;

Lion fiery, fierce, and bright,

Wave whose might no thing withstands,

Sweeping, with the shrinking sands,

Horror o’er the beach.

"Play was each, pleasure each,

Till Ferdia faced the beach;

Loved Ferdia, dear to me;

I shall dree his death for aye

Yesterday a Mountain he,—

But a shade to-day."