Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

Etarcomal's Well-Deserved Fate

So Fergus turned his horses to go back where he had left Cuchulain. He thought to go alone, attended only by his charioteer, but as he drove along, the sound of wheels behind him made him turn, and close to him he saw a youth who, sitting in his chariot, seemed to follow hard behind, as though to catch him up. Fergus recognized the rider as a rich young chief, brave but foolhardy, who was known among the host as one who thought too highly of himself, considering he had little experience of war.

"Whither away, Etarcomal?" said Fergus, for that was the youth's name. "I wish to go with you," replied the lad; "I hear that you are on your way to seek this wonderful Cuchulain, of whom all men talk. I feel inclined myself to have a look at him."

"I give you sound advice," said Fergus, "and best it were for you to heed my words. Turn round your chariot, and go home again."

"Why so?" Etarcomal asked. "Because I know full well that if you, with your light-minded insolence, come into contact with this great Hound of War, in all his fierceness and his terrible strength, trouble will befall. You will provoke him with your childishness, and ill will come, before I can prevent it. Go home again, I will not have you come." "If we fell out, could you not rescue me?" Etarcomal said. "No doubt I should endeavour to succour you; but if you seek a quarrel, or with your foolish words provoke Cuchulain, I make no promises; you must defend yourself, and take your chance."

"Truly I seek no quarrel with this valiant mighty chief; I will but look upon his powerful form and note his face, and then return with you." "So be it, then," said Fergus, "let us on."

Afar off, Laeg espied them as they came. He and his master sat beneath the trees close on the borders of a little wood, playing a game of chess; but none the less he kept a sharp lookout, watching where lay the distant camp of Meave. A single chariot approaches from the camp, and furiously it drives across the plain: "I think he comes to seek us, Cucuc," said the man. "What sort is the rider in that chariot?" questioned Cu. "I know him well, and short the time since he was here before. Like to the side of a massive mountain, standing sheer from out the plain, the chariot in which that warrior rides. Mighty as the leafy branching crown of a kingly tree which grows before a chieftain's door, the bushy, loose, dark-ruddy locks upon that warrior's head. Around him is a mantle of a noble purple hue, with fringes of bright gold, clasped with a pin of gleaming gold and set with sparkling stones. In his left hand he bears his bossy shield and in his right a polished spear, with rings of metal bound from point to haft. Upon his thigh a sword so long and great, I took it for the rudder of a boat, or for a rainbow arched across the skies. Far-travelled and a man of might, meseems, the guest who cometh here." "Welcome to me the coming of this hero and old friend," Cuchulain cried, "my master Fergus, who approaches us."

"I see behind a second smaller chariot, which seems to accompany the massive chariot of Fergus. Spritely and full of life are the two prancing chariot-steeds, and young and bright the man who sits within."

"'Tis likely that some one of Erin's youthful chiefs has ventured out to have a look at me, under the guardianship of Fergus. I hear they all are talking of me in the camp. Perhaps he wants to have a bout with me, good Laeg, but better were it that he stayed at home."

Up dashed the steeds of Fergus' chariot, and in an instant he had sprung to earth and stood beside Cuchulain. "Welcome, O Fergus, old familiar friend. Welcome, my foster-master and my guardian," Cuchulain cried, and warmly he embraced him. "Upon this lonely watch that I am forced to keep all solitary and unaided day by day against the men of Erin, most welcome the dear face of an old friend."

"Then thou art glad indeed?" Fergus exclaimed, surprised.

"Certainly and indeed, I am right glad! Not much have I to offer in this wild desert place, but all I have is fully at your service. When o'er the plain a flock of wild-duck wings its way, one of them you shall have, with, in good times, the full half of another; if fish come up the estuary, a whole one shall be yours, with all that appertains to it; a handful of fresh cress straight from the brook, a spray of marshwort or of green sorrel shall be yours; 'tis all I have to give. When you are thirsty, from the running stream that trickles through the sand, you'll get a drink; and if, some fall of day, a hero calls you to come down and wage a single combat at the ford, you shall take rest and sleep, while I will fight your enemy or keep watch."

"Truly I well believe it," Fergus said. "Too well I know what straits for food and drink have fallen on thee in this raid, and well I know thy hospitable mind. But at this time we seek not food and drink, nor can we stay for combats or for rest; I come at Ailill's and at Meave's command, to tell thee what we think are thy conditions, and that we will hold and keep to them."

"I too will keep the compact brought by Fergus' hand, and to the letter I will carry it out," the hero said; "only abide awhile with me, and let us waste a little time in talk of olden days."

"I dare not stay to talk at this time, O beloved foster-son," Fergus replied; "the men of Erin doubt me, and will think that I am proving traitor to their cause, and betraying them to thee; for well they know I love thee, though, alas! at this time I am fighting with my country's foes and thine. One thing I ask of thee for old affection's sake, because thou art my pupil and my friend, that if at any moment in this war, thou and myself art found opposing each the other face to face, thou then wilt turn and flee before me, that upon my pupil and my foster-son I be not forced to redden my sword in fight. Promise me this."

"Though I be indeed thy pupil and thy foster-son," replied the youth, "yet loth am I to promise this; never have I turned my back on any friend or foe, and to flee even before thee, O Fergus, likes me not. Ask me not this, but any other thing gladly and joyfully I grant to thee." "No need for thee to feel like this," Fergus replied; "no shame to thee is what I contemplate, but only that our ancient love and friendship be not marred. Do in this thing but what I ask, and I in my turn, in the final battle of the Raid, when thou art wounded sore and drenched with blood, will turn and flee from thee. And surely if the men of Erin see Fergus in flight, they too will fly, and all the host of Meave will scatter and disperse, like clouds before the sun."

"On these terms willingly I give my word; for so will Ulster profit by my flight. Now fare thee well, good Fergus. Bid the host of Meave to send their strongest and their best to combat with me, one by one, and I will give a good account to Ulster of them, or will die." Then a right loving leave they took each of the other, and Fergus set out to return to the camp.

But the lad Etarcomal sat on still, looking at Cuchulain, and for the first time the hero noticed him.

"Who are you, and what are you staring at, fellow?" he asked. "I look at you," he said. "You can see me easily enough, I am not very big. But if you knew it, little animals can be dangerous sometimes, and so can I. But now that you have had a good look at me, tell me what you think of me."

"I do not think much of you," Etarcomal said. "You seem to me a very nice, wonderfully pretty youth and clever at playing sports and feats; but that anyone should think of you as a good warrior or a brave man, or should call you the 'Hero of Valour' or the 'Hammer of Destruction,' that I cannot understand. I do not know, indeed, why anyone should be afraid of you. I am not afraid of you at all."

"I am aware," said Cuchulain, "that you came hither under the protection of my master Fergus, and that he is surety for your safe return; but by the gods whom I adore, I swear that if it were not for the honour of Fergus, only your broken bones and disjointed members should have been sent back to Meave after those insolent words."

"No need to threaten me," said Etarcomal; "I was here when you made an agreement with Fergus to fight every day one of the men of Ireland. By that wonderful agreement that he made with you, none other of the men of Erin shall come to-morrow to meet you but only I myself. To-day I do not touch you, but let you live a little longer."

"However early you may choose to come to the ford," said Cuchulain, "you will find me there before you. I promise you I will not run away."

Etarcomal turned his chariot to drive back to the camp. But hardly had he started when he exclaimed, "Do you know, fellow, I have promised to fight the famous Cuchulain to-morrow at the dawn? Now, do you think it best to wait till then, or to go back and fight him now? I do not know that I can wait."

"I should say," replied the charioteer, "that if you mean to fight Cuchulain at all, 'twere better to get it over while he is close at hand." "Turn the chariot, and drive it left-handwise towards Cuchulain, for by that sign we challenge him. I swear by all my gods, I never will go back until I take the head of this wild youth, and stick it up on high before the host."

Laeg saw the chariot returning over the plain. "The last chariot-rider who went from us is coming back again, Cucuc!" said he. "What does he want?" said Cu. "He is challenging us by driving with the left side of the chariot towards us," answered Laeg.

"I do not want to fight the boy," Cuchulain said. "Shamed should I be were I to slay a lad who came hither under the guardianship of Fergus. Get me my sword out of its sheath, however, Laeg; I'll give him a good fright and send him home."

Etarcomal came up. "What do you want now, fellow?" cried Cuchulain, vexed. "I am come back to fight you," said the lad. "I will not fight you, now or any time," Cuchulain said. "By all the rules of war you are obliged to fight, for I have challenged you."

Then Cuchulain took his sword, and with one stroke he sliced away the sod beneath Etarcomal's feet, laying him flat upon the ground, his face turned upwards. "Now go," Cuchulain said, "I wash my hands of you. Had you not come under the care of my good master Fergus, I would have cut you into little bits a while ago. Beware, for I have given you a warning." Slowly Etarcomal rose from the ground. "I will not budge a step until I have your head," he said doggedly, though in his heart he began to be afraid. Then Cuchulain played on him another sword-feat; with one clean stroke he shore off all his hair, from back to front, from ear to ear, till not a hair remained; but not a single drop of blood he drew or even scratched his skin. "Now off with you," he said a second time, "you look absurd enough, I promise you. The men of Erin and the chiefs will laugh when you go back, and cool your pride a bit."

"I will not stir until I have your head; either you gain the victory over me, and win renown, or I take off your head from you, and get the glory and the praise of it," he sullenly replied.

"Well, let it be as you desire, then, and I am he who takes your head from you, and I shall win the glory and renown of which you make so much." And at that word, with one stroke of his weapon Cuchulain smote the boy, and cut him right in twain, so that he fell divided to the ground. Terrified, the charioteer turned round the horse's head and fled back towards the camp. Close to the tents he came on Fergus, who leisurely and thoughtfully drove home. He saw the empty chariot passing him. "Where is your master, fellow?" Fergus cried. "Has he not come with you?" "Even now he has been cut in twain by that fierce, powerful hero, at the ford," the man cried, looking scared; and, waiting not for any answer, he tore on to the camp.

"O come, my wild young fosterling," thought Fergus to himself, "this is too bad indeed, to slay a lad who came under my protection. Turn back the chariot," said he aloud, "we go back to Cuchulain at the ford."

No sooner had they come where Cuchulain stood brooding above the body of Etarcomal, and wiping down his bloody sword, than Fergus called aloud, "What came to you, you hasty sprite, you hot-headed young fury; could you not keep your hands from slaying even a lad who came merely to look at you and under my protection? This act of yours I do not understand at all. It is not like the deed or custom of my foster-son."

"Be not so angry, O my friend and master," gently Cuchulain replied; "all that I could I did to send him safely home. Ask his own charioteer all that has taken place. He would not take a warning, and in the end I must have stood and had my head chopped off without defence, or, as I did, taken his head from him. Would it have pleased you better had I let the lad take off my head from me?"

"Indeed, I should not have been pleased at all; the lad was insolent and foolhardy, and right well deserved his ignominious death. Tie his feet to the chariot-tail, my charioteer, and I will take him home." So to his own chariot Fergus tied the boy, and dragged him back to camp. Meave saw them come, and heard the people shouting as they passed, the bleeding body draggled in the dust.

"Why, how is this?" she cried. "Is this, O Fergus of the mighty deeds, the fashion in which you bring back the tender whelp who went out from us but some hours ago, brilliant in life and gaiety and youth? the whelp we sent out safely, as we thought, in Fergus' guardianship? Of wondrous value is the guardianship of Fergus; and safe is he who trusts himself to it!"

"It is not well, O Queen, that whelps so brazen and untried as this should face the Hound of War; let them remain henceforth in safety in their kennels, gnawing their bones. The lad Etarcomal was bold and insolent; full well he reaped the fate he brought upon himself!"

Sadly, but with all honour, they buried Etarcomal, heaping his grave, and rearing a stone above it with his name engraven thereupon in ogam lines. That night Cuchulain did not molest the men of Erin because they were occupied with funeral rites; but provisions and apparel were sent to him, according to the treaty made between them.