The Raid

A Dramatic Retelling of Ireland's Epic Tale

Ulster Cycle (Volume 1)

Randy Lee Eickhoff

Forge Books

Chapter 1
 
The Bed Argument
 
 
One night after the royal bed had been laid in Cruachaín of the Enchantments in the province of Connacht for the rulers Ailill and Maeve, known as “She-Who-Makes-Men-Drunk,” they began to argue while lying spent upon the richly embroidered pillows. In the comfortable rubble of their bedclothes Ailill nestled his head, damp from fervent lovemaking, upon Maeve’s lap, admiring her naked breasts above him.
“It is true, my love, what they say about things being good for a woman if she is the wife of a wealthy man,” Ailill boasted. He moved his heavy shoulders, twisting them to crush the sharp quill of a feather that poked him through the cushion he lay upon. He reached up and tweaked the nipples of her breasts, admiring how they leaped out for his attention. Maeve’s breath quickened. Her lips touched his briefly, and he tasted honey on the tantalizing flicker of her tongue.
“Perhaps,” Maeve answered. “But what made you think of that at a time like this?”
She lazily twined her long fingers through the thick hair of his chest, tugging gently. He pushed a heavy curl of her thick red hair away from her cheek and caressed it with the backs of his fingers.
“It just struck me how much better off you are today than the day I married you,” Ailill said. “Far more fortunate with me than you were with your other husbands, Conchobar Mac Nessa, Tinne Mac Connrach, and Eochaid Dála.”
“I was well enough off without you,” Maeve said arrogantly, slapping him lightly upon the forehead. He grinned and tweaked her breast again. Her eyes became heavy, her pale skin blushing rosily beneath its alabaster, her red lips curling up toward her high cheekbones. Her long, flowing hair glowed golden-red in the pale light emanating from the guttering candles in sconces upon the polished wood of the walls and she swung it forward, brushing it lightly over his naked flesh.
“Then you must have kept your wealth well hidden,” Ailill said huskily. “Your neighbors had made off with all of your plunder—except for the things that a woman has that are hers alone—before I came to your father’s house to seek your hand. Your father was grateful, indeed, that I would bring my wealth and my armies into his family. Of course,” he added slyly, caressing the roundness of her hip with his palm, “I found the prize well worth my trouble—even though there were other women with far richer dowries begging for my bed.”
Maeve sat up, her eyes flashing with anger, her breasts heaving indignantly.
“Then you should have taken them for your wife!” she snapped. She slapped his hands away when he tried to caress her. “And what do you mean by suggesting I was a beggarly mist-wanderer? No! My treasure room bulged with riches. You forget that I had the High King of Ireland for my father: Eochaid Feidlech the Steadfast, the son of Finn, the son of Finnoman, the son of Finnen, the son of Finngoll, the son of Roth, the son of Rigéon, the son of Blathacht, the son of Beothacht, the son of Enna Agnech, the son of Aengus Turbech. My father had six daughters: Derbriu, Ethne, Ele, Clothru, Muguin, and myself, Maeve, who became the greatest of all. None were as graceful, more generous than I! I could easily defeat them in battle for I knew more about war than they. And my beauty drew men to my side as a candle flame draws a moth. My court dwarfed theirs: fifteen hundred soldiers served me, drawing their wages from my war chest. All were the sons of Exiles, and the same number of freeborn Irishmen. For every mercenary in my service, I had fifty-five others, and that was only my ordinary household.”
She drew a deep breath, eyeing him arrogantly. “My father recognized my worth and gave me a whole province including this one that I ruled from Cruachain. That is why some call me Maeve of Cruachain. Many kings sent their sons to woo me. One came from Finn, the king of Leinster, Rus Ruad’s son. And from Coirpre Niafer, the king of Temair, another of Rus Ruad’s sons. The son of Conchobar, king of Ulster, son of Fachtna, came and others came from Eochaid Bec. But none could win my hand for I asked a harder wedding gift from them than had been asked by any other woman in Ireland: whosoever claimed my hand would never display meanness or jealousy or fear.
“I knew what I was doing, Ailill, for if I married a mean man, our union would most certainly fail. I am too full of grace and giving for one man. It would be an insult to my husband to have a wife more generous than he, but not if both were equal. Likewise, it would not do for a wife to be more spirited than her husband and I need a man my equal in temper. Nor could my husband be jealous for I have never slept with one man without another waiting in the shadows to take his place.
“That is why I chose you, Ailill, for you are not niggardly, jealous, or afraid. But apparently you have forgotten that I brought with me the highest wedding gift a bride has ever brought her husband: enough garments to clothe a dozen men, a chariot easily worth three times the price of seven serving maids, enough red gold to cover the width of your face and the equal of the weight of your left arm in white gold.” She drew a deep breath, fondly slapping his hands away from her. “But this does not mean that you should feel as if you are a kept man. I would not have chosen you had you not been my equal. And if one has taunted you, saying that it is your wife who is the more important one in the marriage bed, you should ignore him,” Maeve said patronizingly. “The one who would be insulted is me for suggesting I would settle for an inferior.”
Ailill laughed and leaned back upon the cushions, moving away from another quill’s stab.
“In this you are very wrong,” he said. “I am a king’s son and I have two kings for brothers: Cairpre in Temair and Finn in Leinster. They rule only because they are older than myself. Neither is better than I in grace or giving. The reason why I came here to claim your hand, Maeve, is not because you were wealthy, but because I had never heard in all of Ireland of a province being ruled by a woman. Now, I rule this province as the successor to my mother, Mata Muires, Mágach’s daughter. You are my queen because who would be better than a daughter of the High King of Ireland? Not because of your wealth. And as for your generosity, well, Maeve, all know you enjoy men between your legs, drinking the honey-mead from your lips. As many as thirty a night!”
“You can make all the claims that you wish,” Maeve answered haughtily. “But the fact remains that my wealth is far greater than yours.”
“How delightful,” Ailill said, laughing and shaking his head. “Surely you jest! No one owns more property than I or more jewels and riches. This is fact. I know it.”
Maeve’s lips thinned, her eyes glinting like gray ice. She leaned back away from his questing hands, her heavy breasts swinging tautly away, rosy nipples defiant. “Then,” she purred, “let’s have an accounting to see who is the richer.”
“I think,” Ailill said, laughing again, “you are making too much of this. But if you really want to do this, then we will. But later,” he said coaxing, rolling his eyes up, the blue dancing with tiny lights.
For a moment, she resisted, then she caught her breath as his hands brought a rosy flush to her skin. “One night won’t make any difference,” Maeve relented, smiling roguishly at him.
And so, on the next day, they began with the challenge. Orders went out among the many rooms of the hall and servants scurried back and forth through the kitchens and the corn kiln and buttery, the ale-brewing house, the baking house, through the storage sheds and the guest houses, tripping over the rushes on the floor of the great hall, gathering the belongings of Ailill and Maeve. Servants first brought out the lowliest of their possessions: buckets and tubs, iron pots, washbasins, and ewers and drinking vessels, but all were found to be equal. Next came servants with caskets containing their rings for both fingers and thumbs, bracelets, and intricately carved gold brooches and pins mounted by fine jewels, followed by servants staggering under armloads of clothing dyed in solid colors: crimson, saffron, purple, blue, black, green, yellow, and plain gray. These were followed by clothing dyed in various colors: brown-yellow, checked, and striped. Shepherds brought folds of sheep in from the fields, their wool heavy and unshorn, and meadows and plains to be counted and matched and paired to be certain that they were of equal size. All, however, decided one to be equal to the other. Even Maeve’s prize ram, worth the price of one bondmaid himself, was matched by another belonging to Ailill.
Next, their herds of horses and teams were led in from paddock and pasture. Maeve’s finest stallion was easily matched by another from Ailill’s herds. Then swineherders scoured the woods and gullies and refuse piles and drove in vast herds of pigs, but all were found equal. Maeve had a fine boar, but Ailill had another easily his equal. Finally, herdsmen rounded up their cattle from the woods and wastelands of the province and brought them in to be matched and measured, and they too were found to be of the same size and numbers with one exception: a great bull in Ailill’s herd that had once been a calf of one of Maeve’s cows. His name was Findbennach, the White Bull, and so proud was he that he refused to belong to a herd owned by a woman and moved in with Ailill’s herd. Maeve ordered her herdsmen to search for his equal among her herds, but their search was in vain, and Maeve’s spirits fell into black melancholia as if she had not a single brass bracelet.
She had the messenger Mac Roth, a masterful maker of suggestions, called to her chambers and ordered him to find the match of Findbennach even if he had to search out every province in Ireland. Mac Roth, however, already knew where the equal of Findbennach lived.
“In the province of Ulster, in Cuailnge’s territory, in the house of Dáire Mac Fiachna, lives the bull called Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley,” he said. “This bull is easily the equal of Findbennach; perhaps even better,” he added.
Maeve’s pulse quickened with excitement. One finger rose to wrap a long strand of her golden-red hair around it. She nibbled at her full lower lip. Finally, she leaned forward on her cushion, giving Mac Roth a full look at white hillocks on a much traveled land.
“Go there,” she ordered him. “Ask Dáire for the loan of the Donn Cuailnge for a year. Tell him that I will give him fifty yearling heifers in payment for the loan of his bull at the year’s end when I return him. If his people argue about losing the Donn Cuailnge for so long, I will give Dáire a portion of the Plain of Ai equal to his own holdings, a chariot worth the price of twenty-one bondmaids, and”—she paused, a lustful glint coming into her eyes; her nostrils widening—“and my own friendly thighs will be his as well.”
Mac Roth immediately left with nine men, bearing Maeve’s message with him, his mind crowded with envious thoughts of Dáire’s luck, for Maeve’s skill in lovemaking was well known among her household and troops, her bed being visited by thirty men a day until Fergus Mac Roich’s arrival with the Ulster Exiles. Maeve found herself well sated by Fergus, whose own lust demanded seven women or one Maeve in his bed a night. When Mac Roth arrived at Dáire’s house, he was well met as was his right for being the chief herald of all Ireland. After Dáire had treated him to a chalice of spiced wine, Mac Roth told Dáire of the challenge between Maeve and Ailill.
“Therefore,” he concluded, “I am here to request the loan of the Donn Cuailnge to breed and match against Ailill’s Findbennach. For this, you will be paid fifty yearling heifers upon the return of the Donn Cuailnge at the end of the year. If you come with the bull, you will also receive a portion of the fine Plain of Ai equal to your own lands, a chariot worth the price of twenty-one bondmaids, and”—he paused, his eyes twinkling knowingly—“Maeve’s own friendly thighs.”
Dáire felt the strength of his manhood rise with the last promise, for he had heard many stories about the lust of Maeve and her skill at pillow dancing. He clapped his great calloused feet together in delight as he rocked back and forth upon his cushion until it burst at the seams from his joy, feathers floating through the air like a winter snowstorm.
“By my beard!” he cried. “I care little what the Ulstermen may think! My treasure, the Donn Cuailnge, and I will accompany you to Ailill and Maeve in Connacht!”
Mac Roth grinned with pleasure at Mac Fiachna’s decision. Dáire ordered his servants to see that Mac Roth and his fellow messengers were well cared for with clean rushes and fresh straw piled smoothly as bedding for them. He ordered his cooks to prepare the best of food and his steward to bring his best wine for them. Together, they celebrated the pact until they grew so drunk that their wits left them and they became loud with their boasts. But Mac Roth’s men were not as tactful as their leader and Dáire’s chief steward overheard two of them talking loudly:
“Ah, this is a fine way to treat guests! The man of this house is certainly one of the best hosts that we have met on our travels,” one said merrily.
“Oh, yes, he is a good man. No doubt about that,” the other said.
“Would you say there was a better host in all of Ulster?” the first asked drunkenly. Mead dribbled from his mouth, matting his beard as he drank from his bronze cup.
“His king, Conchobar, is by far better,” the second replied. “All of Ulster bows to him. But it was good of Mac Fiachna to agree to give us the Donn Cuailnge. Otherwise, it would have taken four of our best provinces to carry it off from Ulster.”
Another of the messengers drinking near them overheard this last and asked: “What are you two talking about?”
The first messenger looked at him and said: “I said that the man of this house is a good man whereupon our friend here agreed and when I asked if there was a better man in all of Ulster he replied, ‘Certainly. His leader, Conchobar, is a better man and all in Ulster would bow before him.’ Whereupon we agreed that this was a good thing for it would have taken four of our best provinces to carry the Donn Cuailnge away from Ulster.”
The third messenger laughed and drained his goblet before replying.
“His mouth should spout blood for saying such a stupid thing! We would have taken the Brown Bull with or without Dáire’s agreement. We would not have needed the strength of four provinces for that!”
The steward, who had been bringing them fresh wine and food, grew incensed at the ill manners of the guests and rudely slammed the pitchers of wine and trays of food in front of them without a word and went straight to Dáire Mac Fiachna’s hut. Upon entering, he stared directly into Dáire’s eyes and demanded:
“Did you or did you not give Maeve’s messengers our most valuable treasure, the Donn Cuailnge?”
“I did,” Dáire said, his brows knitting in wonder at the other’s fury. “But only as a loan. And what is it to you? He is mine to do with as I wish,” he added threateningly for never had a servant spoken to him in this manner before.
“You may be our king, but that was not what a wise ruler would have done,” the steward said stoutly. “What our guests said must be true: if you had not given him up freely, then the armies of Ailill and Maeve, along with the cunning of Fergus Mac Roich, would have taken him anyway.”
Dáire became angry at the steward’s words. Stung by the insinuation that he was weak, he replied: “God’s balls! Nothing leaves my lands unless I choose!”
“That is not what the others say,” the steward taunted.
“Then they will leave and take with them only their empty words,” swore Dáire, fuming.
The next morning, the messengers rose early and went to Dáire’s hut, anxious to be away to Connacht with the Brown Bull.
“Greetings, Dáire,” they said cheerfully upon entering his room. “We will be leaving shortly if you will tell us where we may find the Donn Cuailnge.”
“No,” Dáire growled abruptly, glowering at them. “And you may thank your gods that only my rule of hospitality keeps me from murdering messengers or travelers or any other wayfarers, for that matter. Otherwise, none of you would leave here alive.”
“What is this?” Mac Roth said, an icy coldness driving away the last of the night’s revels from his mind.
“You abused my hospitality last night with your brag that you and the armies of Ailill and Maeve, with the help of Fergus’s cunning, would make me give you the Donn Cuailnge had I not agreed willingly to do so,” Dáire said indignantly.
“Come now,” Mac Roth replied, laughing. “Surely you do not pay attention to what drunken messengers say! It was the drink doing the talking! Ailill and Maeve cannot be blamed for the ill manners of their messengers.”
“Sometimes wine brings the truth of men’s thoughts out when lips would otherwise remain silent. How do I know that the Donn Cuailnge will be returned after the promised year is over? No, I won’t give you the Brown Bull of Cuailnge, Mac Roth. Not now or ever. You may take these words back to Ailill and Maeve and tell them that it will do no good to send wiser messengers back to me,” Dáire said firmly. He lifted a massive cheek from his cushion, farting horrendously in dismissal. The smell of rank onions filtered through the room.
And so Mac Roth withdrew with as much dignity as he could and returned empty-handed to Cruachain, the stronghold of Connacht, bringing his chastened men, now sober and fearful of their reception from temperamental Maeve. They traveled with heavy hearts through the cold, gray mist, fearful of the Connacht trull’s rage. When Maeve asked them for Dáire’s reply to her request, Mac Roth told her that Mac Fiachna had refused her offer.
Annoyed, Maeve asked, “Why?”
Mac Roth told her how the drunken brag of the other messengers had angered Dáire.
“Very well,” Maeve said icily. “We do not have to smooth the knots and polish the knobs in this. I have no intention of sending other messengers to apologize for the poor tact and behavior of our first messengers.” (Mac Roth breathed a silent sigh of relief.) Her eyebrows drew down in a fine line across her smooth, white brow, her eyes becoming flat and cold. “Dáire was well aware that if he did not agree to my offer, then I would bring my armies to his land and take what I had tried to gain by more peaceful means.” Her lips tightened into an attractive pout. “The Brown Bull of Cuailnge will come to Connacht. I have spoken.”
She did not give words, however, to the cold fury burning inside her at Dáire’s refusal of her own thighs. This angered her as well and so it is best that we remember wars are often begun from the bed.
 
Copyright © 1997 by Randy Lee Eickhoff