Boys' Cuchulain - Eleanor Hull

The Red Rout

Daily upon the ramparts of Dun Dalgan Emer of the beauteous hair looked out and waited for Cuchulain, for nought of Laeg's grim tale, that he was dead or dying on the Plain, would take hold on her mind. But still and evermore he came not home.

Upon a certain day, far off she saw a single horseman coming towards the fort, upon a horse that wearily and weakly moved along, dropping red blood at every step. Weary the horseman seemed, and in his hand he bore a rod made out of osiers of the stream, and on it hung the gory heads of lately slaughtered men. Then trembling and affright fell on the queen. Full well she knew the horse that dripped with blood, the Grey of Macha, Cuchulain's chariot-steed, but on his back another rider sat. " 'Tis Conall the Victorious," she exclaimed, "he rides Cuchulain's horse. With evil news he comes to me this day. The tale is true that Laeg told, Cuchulain in his blood lies on Murthemne's Plain, dying or dead. Woe that another rides Cuchulain's steed! Woe that the Hound of Ulster draws not near. Full many a day in triumphant pride by this same path he hath come home to me! Full many a day along this beaten way in gallant glee he hath gone forth to war!" Sadly and sorrowfully drew Conall near and greeted Emer. And Emer said, "What gory heads are those thou bearest on the withe? How and in what fight didst thou come by them?" "These are the heads of those who slew thy hero and my friend! Alas! that I in distant lands was wandering when Cuchulain died. Too late I came to save him, if perchance he still might shun the hour of his death; but not too late my promise to redeem and to avenge his fall. See here upon the withe is Luga's head, and here the head of dark Curoi mac Daire, and here is Erc's, the fair young lad who stained his youth with blood, the blood of Ulster's Guardian and its Hound. These and the others I bear here with me in token of my duty well performed, my promise kept. Where'er men speak the praise of Ulster's Hound and tell his deeds, there also shall they speak of the Red Rout of Conall Cernach, in vengeance of his death!"

Then trembling Emer said, "One head I see not here upon the withe; yet in thy bosom surely thou hast yet one head for me. I see fair hair, O Conall, bring it forth; give back to me my lover and my friend."

Then Conall said: "Listen, O Emer, to the tale I tell. When round the men of Erin in my wrath and battle-fury I had passed, cutting and hewing down their chiefs and leaders and their mighty men, close up to Tara's wall I made my way, seeking for Erc, who fled before my steps surrounded by his chosen counsellors. Passing the playing-fields without the fort, I saw men playing hurley with a head, a human head in place of hurley-balls, a human head yet fresh and wet with blood. My own blood froze within my veins! It was the head of Ulster's Hound they struck and flung from hand to hand! And at the shame of it methought its cheeks blushed hot and rosy red. Even as I came the head was struck; it bounded up, and nobly took the goal. A shout went up from all those reckless men. 'So, so, the Hound of Ulster wins again; good man, good man, we hit him under once and took his head from him, but he would take revenge upon us now.'

" 'Revenge,' I cried, 'revenge he'll find indeed,' and at that word into their midst I sprang, dealing on every hand death-bringing blows. Like corn before the mower's scythe, or like grown grass beneath the feet of many hosts, I hewed them down. Harsh cries went up, for all unarmed they fell, helpless and with no power to withstand, and Erc came out upon the green, and stood there in dismay. I held Cuchulain's head on high in my left hand. 'Thy head to match with his,' I cried, and ere he raised a sound his head was rolling at my feet. I picked it up and hither came to seek thee, gentle queen."

Then Emer, white as death, and trembling as a rush that bows before the onward-flowing stream, put forth her hands, and said, "Give me Cuchulain's head." But when with reverence Conall placed within her hands Cuchulain's head, a cry of sorrow and of grief rang out from Emer's lips, and she pierced the souls of all who heard it in the fort. She bent to kiss the head, and at that moment her sad heart broke within her breast, and o'er Dun Dalgan's rampart Emer fell, her fair hair mingled with the hair of Cuchulain, her mantle rent and torn, and all her lovely face splashed o'er with blood. Gently and reverently they raised her up, and bore her, with the head still clasped within her arms, to where the body of Cuchulain lay. There on Murthemne's plain they buried them, two lovers and two friends within one tomb, husband and wife. And when the grave was digged and filled again, the Grey of Macha roamed away; through all the fields and furrows of the plain, through all the glens and hills in Erin's bounds he seemed to search and closely scrutinise, as though to find some being he had lost. But when he found him not, back to the lonely loch among the reeds, where first Cuchulain found and mastered him, he came again; and with one bound he leaped into the very centre of the loch, and so appeared no more. This witnessing, the Black Steed neighed in mournful wise, and went back to the glen in Donegal, and no man dared to seek or follow him, nor ever found they trace of him again.

But to the three times fifty queens who wept for him, the soul of Cuchulain, radiant and noble as in life, appeared once more; and on the ramparts of Emain by night, old warriors tell how, when men are asleep, the spirit-chariot of a spirit-chief, clad in his battle armour as of yore, moves round the walls, guarding the outer ramparts from the foe; and all men sleep in safety, for the Hound of Ulster wakes.

And as, with slow and stately pace the chariot moves, drawn by two noble horses, white and black, a chant goes up upon the midnight air, not like the pagan chants of other days, but sweet and gentle as a summer-song, and with a note of triumph in its sound, telling the coming of a hero-chief, who shall be called the Christ, and who will bring great peace and rest to men. And when that song is heard, rising with its sweet strain o'er all the fort, the fires of war and hate are softened in the chieftains' hearts, and women smile upon their little babes and hug them to their breasts. And all, the young and old, set forward minds to welcome the new time when wars shall cease, and peace shall come to men.