Retold by Jenny Bennett
The spears flew towards the youth on the hill, whistling as they cut through the air. Grinning, Queen Medb’s general drew his sword, eager to take back to his Queen the head of this warrior whom they called the Hound of Ulster. He had no doubt his spears would find their mark.
They always did. Within seconds the young warrior, who had caused the army of Queen Medb so much grief and frustration over the past weeks, would be riddled with spears and then he, Nad Crantail would take the youth’s head, his sword and his armour and return to his queen, a hero.
An image flitted across the soldier’s mind: an image of a girl, auburn hair hanging loose down her back and grey-blue eyes shining out of a face so white it seemed to have been carved out of ivory. The Queen’s only daughter and soon, his bride. The death of Cuchulain would ensure that.
Findabair, as the girl was called, had been promised by her mother to any man who could kill Cuchulainn, the Hound of Ulster, who had already claimed the lives of five of the Queen’s finest men. And Nad Crantail, watching his spears fly so swiftly towards their target, could almost feel the princess’s soft skin beneath his calloused fingers. So sure was he of victory!
But what was this? The youth, laughing aloud had jumped high into the air and just as the first spear reached where he had been standing, he stepped upon it with one foot. As though he weighed no more than a feather, he proceeded to jump upon the next spear and the next and the next, each jump bringing him closer to the general who stood watching, mouth ajar in disbelief.
Just as Nad Crantail began to realize that Cuchulainn was not as easy to kill as he had hoped, and the image of Findabair in a wedding dress began to dissolve into the air, the young warrior was before him.
Nad suddenly found himself on the defensive, blocking and parrying and struggling to fend off the blows of the young hound’s sword.
‘So Nad Crantail!’ the youthful warrior was saying with a grin. ‘Where are the fine skills you were boasting of earlier, when you declared to the forest your name and your intentions? “I have come to kill the Ulster dog Cuchulainn!” you kept saying. Well? What’s stopping you?’
Nad could not answer. Not only did he not know what to say to such a taunt, he hadn’t the time to speak between dodging and blocking and trying to avoid the boy’s sharp blade. He merely grunted and tried in vain to aim a blow at the young man’s neck.
He heard the impact before he felt it: the sharp clanging of iron followed by the dull thud as metal struck earth. Fire exploded in his wrist and spread out to his fingertips and shoulder.
He heard himself groan as he fell to his knees clutching at his broken wrist, his sword lying broken in the grass. His opponent’s blade was an inch away from his neck, still for the moment. Then it was lowered, leaving him unharmed.
‘Well that was disappointing,’ the warrior said. Nad looked up into the face of the victor. A young face, framed by a mass of disheveled curls; a chin strong and square and eyes that were as intense as they were intelligent. He had seen these eyes before and the memory made him gasp and lower his own.
Just this morning when he had entered the forest to challenge the mighty Cuchulainn, these same eyes had greeted him in the smooth beardless face of a boy who had emerged from the wood in response to his call.
‘Where is your master?’ he had asked the boy. ‘Tell him to come out and fight me!’
‘But I have come!’ the boy said, his smooth brow creasing with what was apparently confusion. ‘I am the warrior you seek!’
‘Insolent pup! How can you be the mighty Cuchulainn? The warrior who singlehandedly killed our finest warriors and with one hand cast the great fork into the ford of Gabla?’
‘That was me, yes,’ the boy had said with a laugh. ‘And here I am. Have you not come to fight and kill me? Those were your bold words, weren’t they? Or are you just going to stand there and bore me with the detail of my own deeds?’
Nad Crantail had looked over the youth in disbelief. The boy was younger than his own youngest son and did not look any different from the many ordinary boys he had trained in his time. No, the boy was a liar. And beardless! That chin was as smooth as a woman’s. It was impossible.
‘You are nothing but a smooth faced, beardless pup!’ Nad had replied. ‘And if you think I will fight you, then you are a fool. I do not fight children. Now go and tell your master that I, Nad Crantail, a general of the armies of Queen Medb of Connaught, have come to fight him. But first he should give you a sound beating for daring to impersonate so great a warrior.’
A strange look had flickered across the boy’s face and without another word, he had disappeared into the forest. And then Cuchulainn had come, his black beard visible even from a distance. And Nad Crantail had notwasted time on words. This was the man he had come to fight. And kill.
But now, this warrior before him with those same eyes... No, it couldn’t be!
‘Do you like my beard, General?’ Cuchulainn was saying. And Nad found himself raising his eyes to his opponent’s face once again.
‘It’s made from blackberry juice!’ the youth laughed. ‘I’m glad you found it sufficient!’
‘You?’ Nad heard himself stammer. ‘You are the boy? The boy from this morning?’
‘I’m the only person in these woods for many miles around,’replied Cuchuainn. ‘And my chin is as smooth as it was when you saw me this morning, just stained black with berries!’
Nad Crantail groaned and lowered his eyes. So he had fought a beardless boy after all. And lost to him. The shame was too great to bear. For a moment he wished the youth would finish his work quickly but then the thought of his own boys summoned a sob from deep within his chest.
‘My sons!’ he wept. ‘I have not bidden them farewell. If I could have but one hour with them…but it is impossible now. I am a dead man already.’
Cuchulainn stepped back and examined the man who knelt before him.
‘How old are your sons?’he asked, his voice softening.
‘A little older than you, lad, but nowhere near as powerful or as skilled.’
‘Don’t try to flatter me, old man,’Cuchulainn replied, but he had sheathed his sword already.
‘Go home to your sons and bid them farewell,’ he said quietly. ‘But tomorrow, you will return to me here in this forest and we’ll finish what we started.’
Nad Crantail could not believe what he had heard, but Cuchulainn was already disappearing into the forest before him.
Would the old general do as the Hound of Ulster had bidden? Would he return to face his fate? We will find out next time…
*Based on the Ancient Irish Epic Tain Bo Cualnge