The Last Battle of Iliach of the Clanna Rury

Ethna Carbery
Chapter VIII

THE war-trumpet of Queen Meave has sent forth its challenge from the borders of Uladh, where she lies encamped with her vast army on its march of invasion into the Northern province. She has come to reave the Brown Bull of Coolney from its pasturage and carry it—the pride of the foray—back with her to the valleys of Connacht as a rival to the famous White Bull which her husband, Ailill, numbers amongst his kingly herds. Her challenge had penetrated to the Court of the Red Branch at Emania, where Conor, the King, reigned nobly and well, but alas! it found the son of Nessa and his brave warriors lying in a state of torpidity under the spells of a woman whom they had, once upon a time, wronged. Macha was her name, and sadly did the Ultonians rue the day on which they condemned her to a trial of speed with the swiftest chariot of the King. Her husband's life was the price of the wife's fleet-footedness, and when the woman, having won, sank down, dying in giving birth to her twin children, before Conor, she laid a bitter curse upon him and his knights because of this evil eric they had devised for her undoing. And the curse had wrought itself out in the strange debility which had overtaken them year after year since that day at the same fateful time; so that now, when the red spectre of war came knocking upon their gates and shouting the battle-cry of Connacht in their unheeding ears, they reclined upon their skin-covered couches, half asleep, nor made a move towards the spear and shield that dangled overhead against the wall; nor did even one listless hand stretch gropingly for the short sharp sword that held its place in the leather belt above the thigh of each fallen warrior.

Evil, in truth, was the deed that had brought about this spell on the flower of the Red Branch chivalry; and evil was the curse that had left the borders of Uladh unguarded to the encroachment of a hostile clan. Only the youths who were in training in the great military school of Emania—children of those spellbound chieftains—bright-faced lads with flowing hair and white unwounded limbs, and the very old fighting men whose day of prowess was over long since, were left to meet the onslaught of the fierce fair Queen and her wild tribes from the Western kingdom.

Yet, of those who were untouched in Uladh by the curse of Macha but two came swiftly towards the Ford of Watching at the challenge of the Connacht marauders. One was in the flower of his youth, smooth-skinned and blue-eyed. His golden curls fell down upon his young shoulders and blew backwards on the wind with the speed of his approach. He wore a shirt and tunic of saffron colour closely fastened around his body with a strong supple belt of leather, and over this was his battle-girdle, also of hard-tanned leather, which encircled him from his hips to his arm-pits, so that neither javelins, nor sharp-pointed irons, nor spears, nor darts could pierce through it, but bounded away from it as if from a rock.

In his right hand he held a tall bronze spear, and on his left arm a great curved black-red shield with a scalloped keen-edged rim, so sharp that whenever he used it as a weapon he cut equally with it as with his spear or his sword. As he stood up straight in his chariot behind the flying horses, which guided by the unerring hand of Laegh, his charioteer, bore him like a lightning shaft towards the Ford. Oisin leaning forward in her chariot-seat on the opposite brink of the river, turned her proud eyes, full of questioning, on a tall dark youth who stood near.

"Is it but a boy they send to stay my progress," she exclaimed in scornful wonder. "Dost thou know his name, Ferdia? Thou hadst knowledge of the Ultonian lads in thy younger days."

"I know him, O Queen, and thou wilt find him a foe-man worthy of thy steel. Setanta, the son of Sualtainn, was his name ere he was my comrade at the Military School of the Lady Scathach over the seas in Alba. But afterwards, because of a wondrous feat, in which he tore the watch-dog of Culann, the Armourer of King Conor, asunder when it strove to prevent his entrance into the Smith's house in the wake of the King, he hath been called Cuchulainn, that is the Hound of Culann. His strength shall yet be felt in this battle as I and others have felt it in the wrestle, and his feats of championship are many and marvellous."

"Yet he is but a boy," repeated the Queen softly, "a boy, and oh! the pity that against him our javelins shall fly, and our blue sharp-pointed spears be set. Can he be won to us, O Ferdia?"

"Nay, nay, my Queen, he is pledged to Conor, who is his mother's brother; and Cuchulainn was never known to forsake his friend, or break his plighted word."

While all eyes were fixed upon the young hero, the rumbling noise of another chariot, hastily driven, reached their ears across the Ford. Then a great mocking shout of laughter rose from Maeve and her attendant warriors, and in a moment it had spread throughout the army. A second champion had come to guard the borders of Uladh, and it was at his appearance their mirth had broken forth.

He drove forward to the margin of the Ford beside Cuchulainn, and stayed his horses in full view of the invaders. Their laughter rang louder and longer at nearer sight of him.

Iliach, the Son of Cas, of the Clanna Rury, was his name, and in his youth he had been one of the chief lighters of that royal race. But now, alas, he had grown very old, and being exempted by age from active warfare he had settled down into ways of peace. As he sat by the fireside in his caiséal, he fought once more, in memory, the battles of his youth and manhood. The sword that he never hoped to wield again rusted in its scabbard, his spears swung idly to and fro upon the wall, the two old steeds that had borne him into the core of conflict many a time and oft, were turned out loose for life into the green, wide-spreading meadows round his home, where the river rippled between high banks of sheltering trees, and the battle-car which had withstood the dint of many a shock in his fierce fighting days was lying, almost decaying, hard by in a corner of his bawn.

Yet, when Iliach heard of the hostile descent upon Uladh, the old war-anger wakened in his heart again, until he felt that the strength had come back to his arm and the keen, far-seeing visions to his dimmed and weary eye. He called his clansmen around him from the high hills and deep glens of that Northern tribe-land, exhorting them to follow whither he led, that the Clanna Rury might stand, as it had often stood before, for the defence of Uladh in the face of the enemy.

And while the clansmen were gathering and making ready, the old chieftain, impatient for the fray, set out alone. He had caused the venerable speckled steeds to be yoked once more to the shattered chariot, which had neither cushions nor skins to it, for in his earlier days a warrior looked upon these as luxuries unbefitting his manly hardihood. He slung over his shoulder his rough dark shield of iron with its thick rim of silver, and round his waist, by its leathern girdle, he fastened his gray-tilted heavy-striking sword to his left side. In his hand he took his shaky-headed, many-gapped spears, and because that his armament was ancient and scanty, his people filled the chariot around him with stones and rocks and great flags that he might, with these, defend himself to the last.

It was the sight of this shaggy, strangely-equipped champion beside the young Cuchulainn that awakened the mirth of the Olne-Machta. Great, indeed, was their merriment as he waved his rusty spear threateningly across the water, and Maeve's shrill womanly laughter rang clearest of all.

"A boy and a dotard—Uladh is, in truth, well guarded." She stood up in her seat and looked round upon her immense army which darkened the plain as far as eye could reach.

"The Bull of Coolney is mine, O Ailill," she cried to her husband, "won without blood or loss, only by this pleasant journey from our own territories to those of King Conor. Let us cross the Ford."

But, straight as a young poplar, on the other side stood Cuchulainn challenging her bravest to single combat, and on a level with him, Iliach raised his battle-shout of defiance.

Then the fight began, and it shall be related hereafter how the Hound of Uladh kept his guaranty while the Red Branch slept. It is with Iliach of the Clanna Rury our tale is concerned, and how he fought and died.

When the heat of the fray made men pant and strain and wrestle agonisingly in the trial of single combat with Cuchulainn, Iliach held his own against the lesser champions that approached him. The strength of youth had, indeed, been renewed in him, and he fought as in the bygone days, when his name was revered throughout Uladh as that of a warrior of renown. Nay, he fought better than ever in that heroic time, for it seemed as if a magic skill pervaded his being, so quick-darting was he to avoid a blow, so strong was his body to withstand the assaults of those ferocious Connacians, and so supple was the hand that held his long shaky spear as it darted hither and thither under and above the shields of his enemies, piercing, hacking and hewing them until the dead lay piled in heaps around. And when the spear, through excess of use, broke off in two, he mounted into his chariot again, and, picking up the heavy large stones with which it was filled, hurled them on the heads of Maeve's men, crushing, grinding, and bruising them until those who had fallen were covered as with a cairn.

Many wounds did he receive from lance and javelin as he stood holding the Ford of Watching with Cuchulainn—many and grievous wounds, through which his life-blood swiftly flowed. And when he felt the icy hand of Death clutch at his heart-strings he groped his way, barely alive, to the spot where Doche Mac Magach, of Connacht, stood, one who had been his brother in arms in their boyhood. Now, they were on different sides in this great encounter.

When Doche saw Iliach approach he went to meet him.

"Well hast thou fought this day, old friend," said he. "Yet it has been against heavy odds, and many are the gaping wounds upon thee. Wherefore dost thou seek me?"

"To beg thee for one last favour, O Doche Mac Magach," replied Iliach, "since my day is over and the night of Death is creeping fast in my track. I have fought my last battle, and no longer can I stand against King Conor's foes. In memory of the friendship that was between thee and me, who never lifted hands against one another until this day, I pray thee grant my request."

"It is granted, O my friend," said Doche.

"Then since I would not be led a prisoner to the camp of Oisin, but would rather, of a surety, die upon the field, do thou strike off my head with thy sword that I may pass through the Dark Gates speedily and reach the heroes waiting beyond. And yet another favour I would ask, O Doche, that thou wilt convey my sword, now broken and edgeless, to thy friend and mine, Leury of Uladh, as a parting token of my affection."

"I promise," said the other, mournfully.

"Then farewell, friend of my heart. Strike swift and sure."

He knelt on the bloody ground before Doche and bent his withered neck for the blow. Swift and sure it came, and the head of Iliach of the Clanna Rury bounded forward till it reached the feet of Cuchulainn, who saw it without ceasing one moment in his terrible slaughter of his enemies.

"For thee, and for thee," he cried loudly, "for thee, and for thee, O brave chieftain, who hath been my mainstay, I shall deal havoc on those who have slain thee." And the clansmen of Connacht fell as grass falls beneath the scythe of the mower around him, because of his pity for the old warrior whose last battle was done.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the Northern Glen on the sea-swept eastern coast of Uladh the Clanna Rury raised the caoine for their chieftain, and over his body, which had been tenderly conveyed from the Ford of Watching, they raised the monumental mound.