Cúchulainn and the Sons of Nechta
Cúchulainn takes up arms
'There was a time,' said Fiacha Mac Fir Febe, continuing the exploits of Cúchullainn as a child, 'when Cathbad the Druid, who was also Conchobor's father, came with his one hundred students to stay at Eamain Macha. Cúchullainn, being ever the curious one, used to hover around whenever the druid was teaching. One day he overheard a pupil asking Cathbad what that day would be lucky for.
'A warrior who takes up arms for the first time this day will become legend. This man will be remembered down through the ages as a man who performed mighty deeds.' Cathbad replied.
Cúchullainn seized his chance and went to Conchobor and asked for his weapons. Conchobor replied that the boy was still too young to take up proper arms, and asked who had directed him in this manner.
'Cathbad himself,' brazened the youth. 'He said today was the most propitious time.'
'Well, if it was Cathbad who said this I suppose he knows for the best. Go on to the armoury then and select those that best fit you.'
Cúchullainn hastened to the place where the weapons were stored, and, gaining entrance, proceeded to test all that were there. When he had finished his examinations he had broken all but one set, and these were Conchobor's own, but he took them nonetheless.
On his way back to the main hall proudly displaying his new regalia he was met by Cathbad and Conchobor. Cathbad saw the boy and asked: 'By whose allowance is a youth so young allowed weapons such as these?', to which Conchobor replied: 'By your own, father! Why, didn't you tell the boy to take up arms?'
'I most certainly did not!' replied the druid.
'You little demon,' Conchobor shouted to Cúchullainn, 'and why did you deceive me with a lie?'
'There is no deceit' Cúchullainn replied indignantly. 'I overheard Cathbad telling his pupil that the warrior who took up arms today would be famed forever, and rightly so: it is I!'
'Ah you poor eejit. True it is you are destined to find fame and your name will burn brightly forever, but you are destined a short life.' Cathbad said sorrowfully.
'To me that sound a fair exchange,' said the boy. 'If my name will live forever I would be content to live just for today.'
Cúchulainn mounts his chariot
On another day Cúchullainn overheard another student ask Cathbad what the day was most lucky for, and the druid replied that he who mounted his first chariot on this day would be famed forever in Ireland. The youth went straight to Conchobor and demanded a chariot be given to him. He was sent to the yard and broke twelve chariots and twice that number of horses before he settled on the king's own. Satisfied he had the best of the bunch he called to Ibor, Conchobor's charioteer, to mount beside him. When Ibor did so Cúchullainn ordered him to drive around Eamain's boundaries, which was done. Cúchullainn met with the boy-troop, his old playmates, and he blessed them and received their blessing also.
He then told Ibor to take the chariot towards Slíab Fuait, where he met Conall Cernach, whose duty it was that day to guard that area of the boundary.
'Conall, return to the fort and I will keep watch here.' he told the older man. When Conall said that Cúchullainn was still a bit young to take on such a responsibility, that there was still the risk of a raid which the boy would not be fit to defend against, Cúchullainn said that such a thing might never happen. But he acquiesced, and asked if he could accompany Conall towards Loch Echtra, a place where warriors sometimes gathered.
On their way there Cúchullainn gathered a stone into his sling and sent it flying at Conall's chariot. It smashed the shaft of the vehicle and Conall tumbled to the ground.
'What on earth did you do that for?' he demanded to know.
'Just to test my aim and arm,' the boy replied, laughing, 'and now, Conall, as you well know, it is your Ulster custom that a man may not continue a dangerous journey unless fully equipped. You must return home to Eamain.'
"And so I must," he said, and turned back.
Cuchullainn and Ibor proceeded to Loch Echtra, but there was no-one there. A slightly nervous Ibor, seizing the moment, suggested that now they might return home to get the beer before it was all gone, but the lad would hear nothing of it.
'What is that peak over there?' he asked. Ibor replied that it was Sliab Mondairn, and Cuchullainn ordered him to be taken to it. When they arrived at the base of the mountain he asked Ibor what the heap of white stones at the summit were called.
'That would be the look-out place called Finncarn, the white cairn.' And when Cuchullainn asked what the plain before them was called, Ibor replied that it was Mag mBreg, Breg Plain.
Cuchullainn asked then and there the names of every fort between Temair and Cenannos, and every field and ford, every fastness and fortress.
Cúchulainn fights the Sons of Nechta
Then Ibor came to the fort owned by the three sons of Nechta Scéne, whose name were Foill (deceitfulness), Fanall (the swallow), and Tuachell (the cunning). These came from the mouth of the river Scéne, and Fer Ulli (Lugaid's son) was their father and their mother was Nechta Scéne their mother. It was said that Ulstermen had killed their father and that was why there was hatred against Ulster.
'Is it true,' asked Cúchullainn, 'that these three men claim they have killed as many Ulstermen as are now living?' Ibor replied in the affirmative.
'I want to meet them, then.'
'You're looking for trouble, young lad,' said Ibor.
'Well, I'm not going there to avoid it, stupid!' said the boy, taking the reins, and heading towards the fort.
They went as far as where the bog met the river, and there they loosed their horses to rest and feed. At the river's edge Cúchullainn took the spancel-hoop of challenge which was draped over a standing stone erected on the bank and threw it into the river. The current took down downstream to the fortress, where the sons of Nechta Scéne discovered it and set out to find him.
During this time Cúchullainn had lain down to rest by the standing stone with these orders to Ibor: 'If only one or two come don't wake me. Only if they all come.' And he went to sleep.
In a fit of terror Ibor tried to re-yoke the horses and get away, but before he accomplished much of anything the sons of Nechta Scéne rode up.
'Are you the one challenged us?' they enquired. When Ibor replied negatively, they asked: 'And who is that boy lying there?'
'Only a wee lad out in his chariot for the first time,' stammered the charioteer.
'That is his luck then, to fall asleep here. Get off our land and stop your horses grazing our grass!'
'Look," said Ibor. 'The reins are already in my hand!'
At that moment Cúchullainn rose from his sleep straight to his feet.
'Stay those reins, charioteer!" he called out. 'I have come here to fight you!'
'Our pleasure, boy,' one of them replied, and they dismounted and came towards him.
Ibor took the boy by the shoulder and said to him: 'That one coming at you first is called Foill. If you don't get him straight off you'll be in serious trouble.'
Cúchullainn picked up Conchobor's spear and sent it flying. It pierced Foill and split his spine. Cúchullainn leapt forward and took the trophies of battle, and Foill's head with them.
'Beware the next one, called Fanall. So light of foot is he that he can tread on deep waters and leave not a ripple', warned Ibor.
The youth met Fanall in the ford and he killed the man outright, likewise taking the head and trophies.
'This next, and last, is called Tuachell, and he has never been touched by any man's sword nor spear', Ibor said.
For this Cúchullainn took up the magical del chliss, and threw it at the third and last. This short spear ripped the man asunder, red-riddled him, and Cúchullainn took the final head and trophies.
The three heads and assorted trophies went into the chariot, and the two Ulstermen mounted and started back towards Eamain Macha. As they crested the hill by the river a dreadful wail erupted behind them. Ibor felt the skin slither up his back.
'By the gods! The old mother, Nechta Scéne, has found her son's corpses!' And he lashed at the horses, in terror of the sound, and the chariot flew over the ground with the wailing following after them. Cúchullainn, for his part, was laughing like a crazed man in glee at his first triumph. They flew faster than the clouds and the wind and the birds, and Cúchullainn could catch the shot from a sling before it touched the ground.
Cúchulainn returns to Eamain Macha
Eventually, as they approached Sliab Fuait, Cúchullainn spied a herd of deer.
'Do you think, friend Ibor, that the men of Ulster would like a live one or a dead one brought in to feast on?' he asked.
'A live one would be the more difficult to catch, therefore more of a surprise,' was the answer. 'Every man has brought in a dead one. They cannot be caught alive.'
Taking the reins, Cúchullainn raced around the herd and drove them to a boggy patch on a plain, where the deer became ensnared. Leaping from the chariot then he bounded into the bog and got hold of the handsomest beast. This one he tied to the rear of the chariot and they started off again.
Soon they came to a flock of swans, and again Cúchullainn asked if a live or dead one would be the more impressive to bring before the men of Ulster. Receiving the expected answer, he took two stones and used the sling to stun and bring down first eight, and then twelve. He then ordered Ibor out of the chariot to tether them.
'I dare not leave the chariot, young warrior; if I step off at the back the deer will rake me with his antlers. If I climb off over the front the horses will trample me, they are so maddened with the chase. And I cannot climb over the wheels!'
'Do this then,' ordered Cúchullainn. 'I will fix the stag with such a stare it will root him to the spot. He will be paralysed with fear and will be incapable of moving. Climb out the back, between his antlers.'
This is what Ibor did, and he gathered the swans together and lashed them to the stag's antlers, and climbed back into the chariot and resumed the journey home.
That was the way they returned to Eamain Macha, with a giant of a stag following behind and a flock of twenty swans flying above them. This and the three heads hanging from the chariot was what a sentry at the gates of Macha saw when they neared, and he fled to the great hall.
'We are attacked!' he exclaimed in a great panic. 'A fearsome man in a chariot advances on us. We had best make peace with him before he gets too near. He'll spill our blood unless we send naked women as a tribute to meet him outside the walls!'
Still flying high and maddened by his exploits, Cúchullainn reined up outside the walls and exclaimed a challenge.
'I swear I will slay everyone within these walls unless you send me warriors to fight with!'
Conchobor, seeing the rage in the youth, ordered that the women of the fortress be sent out to him naked. And so they went, with Conchobor's own wife Mugain in the lead, and she said: 'These are the warriors sent to challenge you this night!'
At the sight of the women Cuchullainn hid his face, and the men of Macha rushed out and grabbed him. Others brought out a huge vat of icy water and they plunged the youth into it. The first vat burst with the heat of him, and a second was brought out. This one steamed and boiled away and then burst, but the third one he was immersed in cooled him down 'til he shivered with the chill of it, and he was removed from it shivering but sane.
Mugain herself covered him with a cloak of midnight blue, attached with a silver brooch, and over this draped a hooded tunic. He was taken into the great hall and set on Conchobor's lap.
Concluding the tale, Fiacha mac Fir Febe said: 'No wonder, then, is it, that the boy would could do this in his seventh year can create so much chaos for us now, in his seventeenth year!'
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