Táin Bó Cúailnge

10. The Violent Death of Etarcumul

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  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Joseph Dunn

Fergus’ horses were brought and his chariot was hitched and and Fergus set forth on that errand. And two horses were brought for Etarcumul son of Fid and of Lethrinn, a soft youth of the people of Medb and of Ailill. “Whither goest thou?” Fergus demanded. “We go with thee,” Etarcumul made answer. “And why goest thou with me?” asked Fergus. “To behold the form and appearance of Cuchulain, and to gaze upon him, for he is unknown to me.” “Wilt thou do my bidding,” said Fergus, “thou wilt in no wise go thither.” “Why shall I not, pray? “I would not have thee go,” said Fergus; “and it is not out of hatred of thee, only I should be loath to have combat between thee and Cuchulain.

Thy light-heartedness, thy haughtiness and thy pride and thine overweeningness (I know), but (I also know) the fierceness and valour and hostility of the youth against whom thou goest, even Cuchulain. And methinks ye will have contention before ye part. No good will come from your meeting.” “Art thou not able to come between us to protect me?” “I am, to be sure,” Fergus answered, “provided thou thyself seek not the combat and treat not what he says with contempt.” “I will not seek it,” said Etarcumul, “till the very day of doom!”

Then they went their ways in two chariots to Delga, to come up to Cuchulain where Cuchulain was between Fochain and the sea. There it is that he was that day, with his back to the pillar-stone at Crich Rois playing draughts with Laeg, to wit, his charioteer. The back of his head was turned towards them that approached and Laeg faced them. And not a living thing entered the entire plain without Laeg perceiving it and, notwithstanding, he continued to win every other game of draughts from Cuchulain. “A lone warrior cometh towards us over the plain, my master Cucuc,” spake Laeg. “What manner of warrior?” queried Cuchulain. “A fine, large chariot is there,” said he. “But what sort of chariot?”

“As large as one of the chief mountains that are highest on a great plain appears to me the chariot that is under the warrior; and I would liken to the battlements of one of the vast, royal seats of the province the chariot that is in the trappings of those horses; as large as one of the noble trees on a main fort’s green meseems the curly, tressed, fair-yellow, all-golden hair hanging loose around the man’s head; a purple mantle fringed with thread of gold wrapped around him; a golden, ornamented brooch in the mantle over his breast; a bright-shining, hooded shirt, with red embroidery of red gold trussed up on his white skin; a broad and gray-shafted lance, perforated from mimasc to horn, flaming red in his hand; over him, a bossed, plaited shield, curved, with an engraved edge of silvered bronze, with applied ornaments of red gold thereon; and a boss of red gold; a lengthy sword, as long as the oar of a huge currach on a wild, stormy night, resting on the two thighs of the great haughty warrior that is within the chariot.”

“Holla! Welcome the coming of this guest to us!” cried Cuchulain. “We know the man; it is my master Fergus that cometh hither.” Empty is the great paddle that my master Fergus carries,“ said Cuchulain; “for there is no sword in its sheath but a sword of wood. For I have heard,” Cuchulain continued, “that Ailill got a chance at him and Medb as they lay, and he took away Fergus’ sword from him and gave it to his charioteer to take care of, and the sword of wood was put into its sheath.”

“Yet another single chariot-fighter I see coming towards us. With fulness of skill and beauty and splendour his horses speed.” A young, tender gilla in armour is in the chariot.” “One of the youths of the men of Erin is he, O my master Laeg,” responded Cuchulain. “To scan my appearance and form is that man come, for I am renowned amongst them in the midst of their camp, and they know me not at all.”

Fergus came up to where Cuchulain was and he sprang from the chariot, and Cuchulain bade him a hearty welcome. “Welcome to thine arrival and thy coming, O my master Fergus!” cried Cuchulain; “and a night’s lodging shalt thou have here this night.” “Thy hospitality and eke thy welcome I take for true,” Fergus responded.

“Verily, it is truly meant for thee,” said Cuchulain; “for comes there a brace of birds into the plain, thou shalt have a wild goose with half the other. If fish rise to the river-mouths, to the stones or waterfalls, thou shalt have a salmon with as much again. Thou shalt have a handful of watercress and a handful of sea-grass and a handful of laver and a drink from the sand afterwards. If thou hast a fight or combat with warrior before thee, I myself will go in thy stead to the ford. I will bear the fight that thou mayest return safe to the camp and the fort of the men of Erin on the morrow, and thou shalt lie on a litter of fresh rushes till heavy sleep and slumber come on thee, and I will watch and guard thee as long as thou sleepest.”

“Well, then, mayest thou have victory and blessing, O fosterling,” said Fergus. “We know of what sort is thy hospitality on this occasion, on the Cow-spoil of Cualnge. But, not to claim that are we come, a night’s hospitality of thee, but to fulfil and make good the terms thou askest. As for this compact which thou hast asked of the men of Erin, single-handed combat with one man, thou shalt have it. It is for that I am come, to bind thee thereto, and do thou take it upon thee.” “I pledge myself truly,” said Cuchulain, provided fair play and single-handed combat be granted to me. “And, O, my master Fergus,” do thou take upon thee the pact,” said Cuchulain. “I bind myself to it,” replied Fergus. And no longer than that did he remain in parley, lest the men of Erin should say they were betrayed or deserted by Fergus for his disciple. Fergus’ two horses were brought and his chariot was harnessed and he went back.

Etarcumul tarried behind gazing for a long time at Cuchulain. “At what starest thou, gilla?” asked Cuchulain. “I look at thee,” said Etarcumul. “In truth then, thou hast not far to look,” said Cuchulain. “There is no need of straining thine eye for that; not far from thee within sight, thine eye seeth what is not smaller than I nor bigger. If thou but knewest how angered is the little creature thou regardest, myself, to wit! And how then do I appear unto thee gazing upon me?” “Thou pleases me as thou art; a comely, shapely, wonderful, beautiful youth thou art, with brilliant, striking, various feats. Yet as for rating thee where goodly warriors are or forward youths or heroes of bravery or sledges of destruction, we count thee not nor consider thee at all. I know not why thou shouldst be feared by any one. I behold nothing of terror or fearfulness or of the overpowering of a host in thee. So, a comely youth with arms of wood and with showy feats is all thou art!”

“Though thou reviles me,” said Cuchulain, “it is a surety for thee that thou camest from the camp under the protection of Fergus, as thou well knowest. For the rest, I swear by my gods whom I worship, were it not for the honour of Fergus, it would be only bits of thy bones and shreds of thy limbs, thy reins drawn and thy quarters scattered that would be brought back to the camp behind thy horses and chariot!” “But threaten me no longer in this wise, Cuchulain!” cried Etarcumul; “for the wonderful terms thou didst exact of the men of Erin, that fair play and combat with one man should be granted thee, none other of the men of Erin but mine own self will come to-morrow at morn’s early hour on the ford to attack thee.”

“Come out, then,” said Cuchulain, “and how so early thou comest, thou wilt find me here. I will not fly before thee. Before no man have I put foot in flight till now on the Plunder of the Kine of Cualnge and neither will I fly before thee!”

Etarcumul returned from Methè and Cethè, and began to talk with his driver. “I must needs fight with Cuchulain to-morrow, gilla,” said Etarcumul, “for I gave my word to go.” “’Tis true, thou didst,” quoth the charioteer. “Howbeit, I know not wilt thou fulfil it.” “But what is better for us, to fulfil it to-morrow or forthwith tonight?” “To our thinking,” said the gilla, “albeit no victory is to be won by fighting to-morrow, there is still less to be gained by fighting to-night, for thy combat and hurt is the nearer.” “Be that as it may,” said he ; “turn the horses and chariot back again from the hill for us, gilla, till we go to the ford of combat, for I swear by the gods whom I worship, I will not return to the camp till the end of life and time, till I bring with me the head of that young wildling, even the head of Cuchulain, for a trophy!”

The charioteer wheeled the chariot again towards the ford. They brought the left board to face the pair in a line with the ford. Laeg marked this and he cried to Cuchulain: (“Wist thou) the last chariot-fighter that was here a while ago, O Cucuc?” “What of him?” asked Cuchulain. “He has brought his left board towards us in the direction of the ford.” “It is Etarcumul, O gilla, who seeks me in combat. I owe no refusal, but far from pleased am I thereat that he should come and seek combat of me. And unwelcome is his coming, because of the honour of my foster-father Fergus under whom he came forth from the camp, of the men of Erin. But not that I would protect him do I thus. Fetch me my arms, gilla, to the ford. Bring me my horse and my chariot after me. I deem it no honour for myself if the fellow reaches the ford before me.” And straightway Cuchulain betook himself to the ford, and he bared his sword over his fair, well-knit spalls and he was ready on the ford to await Etarcumul.

Then, too, came Etarcumul. “What seekest thou, gilla?” demanded Cuchulain. “Battle with thee I seek,” replied Etarcumul. “Hadst thou been advised by me,” said Cuchulain, “thou wouldst never have come. I do not desire what thou demandest of me. I have no thought of fighting or contending with thee, Etarcumul. Because of the honour of Fergus under whom thou camest out of the camp, and station of the men of Erin, and not because I would spare thee, do I behave thus.” “Thou hast no choice but to fight,” replied Etarcumul.

Thereupon Cuchulain gave him a long-blow whereby he cut away the sod that was under the soles of his feet, so that he was stretched out like a sack on his back, and his limbs in the air and the sod on his belly. Had Cuchulain wished it, it is two pieces he might have made of him. “Hold, fellow. Off with thee now, for I have given thee warning. It mislikes me to cleanse my hands in thee. I would have cloven thee into many parts long since but for Fergus.” “I will not go. We will fight on,” said Etarcumul.

Cuchulain dealt him a well-aimed edge-stroke. With the edge of his sword he sheared the hair from him from poll to forehead, from one ear to the other, as if it were with a light, keen razor he had been shorn. Not a scratch of his skin gave blood. “Hold, fellow. Get thee home now,” said Cuchulain, “for a laughing-stock I have made of thee.” “I go not,” rejoined Etarcumul. “We will fight to the end, till I take thy head and thy spoils and boast over thee, or till thou takest my head and my spoils and boastest over me!” “So let it be, what thou saidst last, that it shall be. I will take thy head and thy spoils and boast over thee!”

When now the churl became troublesome and persistent, Cuchulain sprang from the ground, so that he alighted on the edge of Etarcumul’s shield, and he dealt him a cleaving blow on the crown of the head, so that it drove to his navel. He dealt him a second crosswise stroke, so that at the one time the three portions of his body came to the ground. Thus fell Etarcumul son of Fid and of Lethrinn.

Then Etarcumul’s charioteer went his way after Fergus, and Fergus knew not that the combat had been. For thus was his wont: From the day Fergus took warrior’s arms in hand, he never for aught looked back, whether at sitting or at rising or when travelling or walking, in battle or fight or combat, lest some one might say it was out of fear he looked back, but ever he looked at the thing that was before and beside him.

Fergus saw the chariot go past him and a single man in it. And when Etarcumul’s squire came up abreast of Fergus, Fergus asked, “But, where is thy lord, gilla?” “He fell a while since at the ford by the hand of Cuchulain,” the gilla made answer. “That indeed was not fair!” exclaimed Fergus, “for that elf-like sprite to wrong me in him that came under my safeguard and protection from the camp and fort of the men of Erin. Turn the chariot for us, gilla,” cried Fergus, “that we may go to the ford of fight and combat for a parley with Cuchulain.”

Thereupon the driver wheeled the chariot. They fared thither towards the ford. Fergus turned to rebuke Cuchulain. “How darest thou offend me, thou wild, perverse, little elf-man,” cried Fergus, “in him that came under my safeguard and protection? Thou thinkest my club short.” “Be not wroth with me, my master Fergus,” said Cuchulain. “After the nurture and care thou didst bestow on me and the Ulstermen bestowed and Conchobar tell me, which wouldst thou hold better, for the Ulstermen to be conquered without anyone to punish them but me alone and for him to triumph and boast over me, or for me to triumph and boast over him? And yet more, of his own fault he fell. Ask his own gilla which of us was in fault in respect of the other; it was none other but he. Reproach me not, O Fergus my master.” He bent down so that Fergus’ chariot went past him thrice. “Ask his charioteer, is it I that have caused it?” “Not thou indeed,” answered his charioteer. “He said,” Cuchulain went on, “he would not go till either he took my head or he left me his own.” Then Etarcumul’s gilla related to Fergus how it all befel. When Fergus heard that, what he said was: “Liefer to me what thou hast done, O fosterling,” said Fergus, “that Etarcumul is slain, and a blessing on the hand that smote him, for it is he that was overweening.”

So then they bound two spancels about the ankle-joints of Etarcumul’s feet and he was dragged along behind his horses and chariot. At every rock that was rough for him, his lungs and his liver were left on the stones and the rugged places. At every place that was smooth for him, his skilfully severed limbs came together again round the horses. In this wise he was dragged through the camp to the door of the tent of Ailill and Medb.

“There’s your young warrior for you,” cried Fergus, “for ‘Every restoration together with its restitution’ is what the law saith.” Medb came forth to the door of her tent and she raised her quick, splitting, loud voice of a warrior. Quoth Medb: “Truly, methought that great was the heat and the wrath of this young hound on leaving us awhile since at the beginning of the day as he went from the camp. It is no fortune for a tender youth that falls on thee now. We had thought that the honour under which he went, even the honour of Fergus, was not the honour of a dastard!”

“What hath crazed the virago and wench?” cried Fergus. “Good lack, is it fitting for the mongrel to seek the Hound of battle whom the warriors and champions of four of the five grand provinces of Erin dare not approach nor withstand? What, I myself was glad to escape whole from him!”

Etarcumul’s grave was then dug and his tombstone erected; his name was written in ogam and they raised the keen over him. Cuchulain shot not from his sling at them that night and the women and maidens were brought over to him and half the cattle, and they brought provision to him by day. In this manner fell Etarcumul and such was the combat of Etarcumul with Cuchulain.