11. The Slaying of Nathcrantail
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- Joseph Dunn
Then the men of Erin held counsel who would be fit to fight and contend with Cuchulain and drive him off from the men of Erin. “What man have ye to face Cuchulain to-morrow?” asked Lugaid. “They will give him to thee to-morrow,” answered Manè son of Ailill. “We find no one to meet him,” quoth Medb; “let us have a truce with him then till a man be found to oppose him.” This they obtain. “Whither will ye turn,” asked Ailill, “to find the man to oppose Cuchulain?” “There is not in Erin,” Medb answered, “one that could be got to meet him unless Curoi macDarè come, or Nathcrantail the warrior.” A man of Curoi’s people was in the tent. “Curoi will not come,” said he; “he weens enough of his people have come!” “Let a message be sent then for Nathcrantail.”
Then arose a huge warrior of Medb’s people, Nathcrantail by name. Manè Andoe (‘the Unslow’) goes to him. They tell him their message. “Come with us for the sake of the honour of Connacht.” “I will not go,” said he, “unless they give Finnabair to me.” Afterwards he goes with them. They bring his armour in a car from the east of Connacht and place it in the camp. Then was Nathcrantail called into the tent of Ailill and Medb. “Wherefore am I summoned to ye?” Nathcrantail asked. “It would please us well,” Medb replied, “werest thou to fight and contend with Cuchulain on the ford and ward him off from us at the morning hour early on the morrow. Thou shalt have Finnabair,” said Medb, “for going to fight yonder man.” “I will do it,” said he. He engaged to undertake the battle and combat and that night be made ready, and early on the morrow Nathcrantail arose for the battle and combat and he took his warlike implements with him to the fight, and though early he arose, Cuchulain arose still earlier. That night Lugaid came to Cuchulain. “Nathcrantail comes to meet thee to-morrow. Alas for thee, thou wilt not withstand him.” “That matters not,” Cuchulain made answer.
On the morrow Nathcrantail went forth from the camp and he came to attack Cuchulain. He did not deign to bring along arms but thrice nine spits of holly after being sharpened, burnt and hardened in fire. And there before him on the pond was Cuchulain, a-fowling and his chariot hard by him, and there was no shelter whatever.
And when Nathcrantail perceived Cuchulain he straightway cast a dart at Cuchulain. Cuchulain sprang from the middle of the ground till he came on the tip of the dart. And he performed a feat on the point of the dart and it hindered him not from catching the birds. And again Nathcrantail threw a second dart. Nathcrantail threw a third dart and Cuchulain sprang on the point of the second dart and so on till he was on the point of the last dart.
It was then, when Nathcrantail threw the ninth dart, that the flock of birds which Cuchulain pursued on the plain flew away from Cuchulain. Cuchulain chased them even as any bird of the air. He hopped on the points of the darts like a bird from each dart to the next, pursuing the birds that they might not escape him but that they might leave behind a portion of food for the night. For this is what sustained and served Cuchulain, fish and fowl and game on the Cualnge Cow-spoil.
Something more remains to be told: Nathcrantail deemed full surely that Cuchulain went from him in rout of defeat and flight. And he went his way till he came to the door of the tent of Ailill and Medb and he lifted up his loud voice of a warrior: “That famous Cuchulain that ye so talk of ran and fled in defeat before me when he came to me in the morning.” “We knew,” spake Medb, “it would be even so when able warriors and goodly youths met him, that this beardless imp would not hold out; for when a mighty warrior, Nathcrantail to wit, came upon him, he withstood him not but before him he ran away!”
And Fergus heard that, and Fergus was sore angered that any one should boast that Cuchulain had fled. And Fergus addressed himself to Fiachu, Feraba’s son, that he should go to rebuke Cuchulain. “And tell him it is an honour for him to oppose the hosts for as long or as short a space as he does deeds of valour upon them, but that it were fitter for him to hide himself than to fly before any one of their warriors, forasmuch as the dishonour would be not greater for him than for the rest of Ulster.”
Thereupon Fiachu went to address Cuchulain. Cuchulain bade him welcome. “I trow that welcome to be truly meant, but it is for counsel with thee I am come from thy fosterer Fergus. And he has said, ‘It would be a glory for thee to oppose the hosts for as long or as short a space as thou doest valiantly with them; but it would be fitter for thee to hide thyself than to fly before any one of their warriors!’”
“How now, who makes that boast among ye?” Cuchulain asked. “Nathcrantail, of a surety,” Fiachu answered. “How may this be? Dost not know, thou and Fergus and the nobles of Ulster, that I slay no charioteers nor heralds nor unarmed people? And he bore no arms but a spit of wood. And I would not slay Nathcrantail until he had arms. And do thou tell him, let him come here early in the morning, till he is between Ochainè and the sea, and however early he comes, he will find me here and I will not fly before him!”
Fiachu went back to the camp and to the station of the men of Erin, and he bound Nathcrantail to go to the ford of combat on the morrow. They bided there that night, and it seemed long to Nathcrantail till day with its light came for him to attack Cuchulain. He set out early on the morrow to attack Cuchulain. Cuchulain arose early and came to his place of meeting and his wrath bided with him on that day. And after his night’s vigil, with an angry cast he threw his cloak around him, so that it passed over the pillar-stone near by, the size of himself, and snapped the pillar-stone off from the ground between himself and his cloak. And he was aware of naught because of the measure of anger that had come on and rage in him.
Then, too, came Nathcrantail. His arms were brought with him on a wagon, and he spake, “Where is this Cuchulain?” shouted Nathcrantail. “Why, over yonder near the pillar-stone before thee,” answered Cormac Conlongas son of Conchobar. “Not such was the shape wherein he appeared to me yesterday,” said Nathcrantail. “Repel yon warrior,” quoth Cormac, “and it will be the same for thee as if thou repellest Cuchulain!”
“Art thou Cuchulain?” “And if I am?” answered Cuchulain. “If thou be truly he,” said Nathcrantail, “I would not bring a lambkin’s head to the camp. I will not take thy head, the head of a beardless boy.” “It is not I at all,” said Cuchulain; “go find him around the hill!” Cuchulain hastens to Laeg. “Rub a false beard on me; I cannot get the warrior to fight with me beardless.” This was done for him. He goes to meet Nathcrantail on the hill.
“Methinks that more fitting. Now fight with me fairly,” said Nathcrantail. “Thou shalt have thy wish, if only we know it,” Cuchulain made answer. “I will make a cast at thee,” said Nathcrantail, “and thou shalt not avoid it.” “I will not avoid it except on high,” said Cuchulain. Nathcrantail makes a cast at him. Cuchulain springs on high before it. “’Tis ill of thee to avoid the cast,” cried Nathcrantail. “Avoid then my cast on high!” quoth Cuchulain. Cuchulain lets the spear fly at him and it went on high, so that from above it alighted on Nathcrantail’s crown and through him it went to the ground. “Alas,” said he, “the best warrior in Erin art thou,” spake Nathcrantail. “Four and twenty sons have I in the camp. I will go and tell them what hidden treasure I have and then return for thee to behead me, for I shall die if the spear be taken out of my head.” “It is well,” quoth Cuchulain; “thou shalt come back.”
Then Nathcrantail returns to the camp. They all come to meet him. “Where is the madman's head with thee?” every one asks. “Wait, ye warriors, till I tell my tale to my sons and return to do battle with Cuchulain.”
Soon came Nathcrantail to seek Cuchulain and he made a wide sweep with his sword at Cuchulain. Cuchulain leaps on high, so that the sword encountered the pillar of stone that was between Cuchulain and his cloak, and the sword broke atwain on the pillar-stone. Then Cuchulain became filled with rage, as he had been with the boys in Emain, and he sprang from the ground and alighted on the top of the boss of Nathcrantail’s shield and dealt him a side stroke over the upper edge of the shield, so that he struck off his head from his trunk. He raised his hand quickly again and gave him another blow on the top of the trunk so that he cleft him in twain down to the ground. His four severed parts fell to the ground. Thus fell Nathcrantail slain by Cuchulain. Whereupon Cuchulain spoke the verse:—
“Now that Nathcrantail has fallen,
There will be increase of strife!
Would that Medb had battle now
And the third part of the host!”