Isle of Sky · Scotland · Travel · Writing

Cú Chulainn and Scáthach Part II

IMG_1887Scáthach’s daughter wiped the tears from her eyes as she heard the horrendous screech and cry of battle, her mother’s cry echoed fearsomely through the hills but it was more than matched by the roar of the man that she fought. She crept out of their home and to the edge of the hill where she could see them battling in a valley below. She could smell the sweat sour on the air as the two of them fought fiercely. It was her mother who drew first blood but it wasn’t long before the brute had managed to make her bleed as well. Scáthach’s daughter wanted more than anything in the world for them to stop, she knew with a deep and frightening certainty that the two of them were evenly matched. She was certain that the battle would only end with both of them dead. She could not fathom a world without her mother in it, her daughter could not watch her die. Filled with shame Scáthach’s daughter fled down the hillside away from the battle. She began to cry as she ran, hot tears seeped out of her swollen eye, her cracked lip stung and she cried all the harder remembering the great hand that had administered the blow. As she ran and cried her vision blurred so that she no longer knew where she was going. She did not see the stone that seemed to rise out of nowhere but her foot found it and she went flailing forwards. She braced herself for hitting the ground but instead found herself splashing into the rushing river. It was shallow enough that she was able to find her footing and sit up but she only cried all the harder for being wet and cold as well as a soon to be orphan.

“Scáthach’s daughter why do you cry?” the voice was light and musical like the babbling of a brook,

“Scáthach’s daughter whatever happened to your face?” another voice joined the first it was stronger and colder and deep like the waters of a loch. Scáthach’s daughter wiped the tears and water from her eyes and looked around herself trying to locate the voices. Two water sprites sat on a rock a little ways from where she sat. They were painfully beautiful to look at with long silvery hair, skin so white it was nearly translucent, wide eyes the flashing blues and greys of a rushing river. A long silvery tail lay where legs should have been. Scáthach’s daughter immediately unburdened herself,

“Scáthach is fighting Cú Chullain and they are sure to kill one another and I don’t know what to do!” She began to cry all over again, she could hear the water sprites conferring with one another and then they laughed loud and freely as though they held all the secrets in the world.

“All you have to do is make them realize how useless their fight is!” the first sprite said, the second one nodded sagely,

“Cook them roast venison and fill it with hazelnuts. They are starving for they have been battling for a half an hour. When they smell the food they will come to you!” The first one took over again,

“And when they eat the hazelnuts, the nuts of wisdom will do their work and they will see that they need not fight one another. That they should respect one another!” The second one giggled,

“Now stop crying!” Scáthach’s daughter saw their tails slap the water, they splashed over and grasping her by the shoulders pushed her under the water. She rose again to the surface sputtering and indignant but there was no sight of the sprites. She blinked in surprise, her eye that had been swollen felt perfectly normal again. She probed her split lip with her tongue and found it healed. She climbed sodden out of the river and leaned over to catch a glimpse of her reflection. Her face was wholly restored and she would have ventured to say, more beautiful than before. She could not waste time gazing at her own reflection. She needed to set to work putting the sprite’s plan into action. She rushed home and began her work.

Scáthach was sweating hard, every muscle in her body screamed for mercy and her breath was coming in gasps. The only thing that kept her going was the knowledge that her opponent was in exactly the same shape she was. He too was gasping for breath, his attacks were becoming less precise and more leaden. His arms were beginning to shake just as hers were. And yet he did not give up and neither would she. She set her teeth and attacked anew, if this was how and where she would die than so be it. She would not shy from death. The smell seemed to hit both of them simultaneously. It was sweet and savory, the rich succulent smell of roasted meat. Scáthach’s mouth began to water and she paused for a breath. She cursed herself for stopping and expected to feel the death blow hit her but none came, she looked over and saw that Cú Cuhllain was also frozen in place. The two of them locked eyes and slowly lowered their weapons. Without a word they set off in the direction of the smell. The rumbling of their stomach’s seemed to be trying to compete with one another for volume. Scáthach kept an eye on Cú Cuhllain as they made their way up the hillside towards the direction of her home where the smell appeared to be emanating from. She had to begrudgingly admit to herself that she had underestimated him. He was much stronger than she had believed. He was also far cleverer than she had anticipated. He was a seasoned warrior, she had no doubt that if he hadn’t killed every Ulsterman it was only due to another’s interference. When they reached the doorway of the keep it was open, Scáthach led the way into the hall. A table was set with roast venison and a bevy of other delicacies. Two places were set at the trestle table with goblets filled with good wine. The two of them barely managed to keep any semblance of manners as they rushed to sit at the table. Scáthach quickly cut herself a healthy section of venison and began to eat, too ravenous to do more than shove the meat into her mouth and chew hurriedly. The venison had been stuffed and Scáthach could detect a multitude of spices and a sweet nuttiness amongst them. As her hunger began to abate she began to slow her eating down and regard Cú Cuhllain once again. She had never before had cause to pause a battle, never had an adversary found themselves supping with her in her keep. As she raised her eyes she saw that he too was regarding her, but the animosity and derision with which he had looked at her as she came tearing down the hillside was gone. His eyes held respect and even a little awe. Scáthac lay down the bones of her meal. The two of them began to speak as one and a genuine laugh overrode their jumbled attempts at speech. Eventually Scáthach was able to make herself heard,

“I have underestimated you Cú Cuhulalin. It appears that in you I have finally met my match.” Cú Cuhllain raised a bushy eyebrow and nodded his great head,

“I agree Scáthach. I have no hope of beating you we are as evenly matched as ever two warriors could hope to be.” Scáthach and Cú Chullain regarded one another unsure of how to proceed. Then Cú Cuhllain raised himself from the bench and took his broadsword and with a bow he lay it on the table before Scáthach, “I concede to you my sword,” he said. Scáthach took her shield from her arm and bid him follow her, he followed her to a window in her keep that showed the mountains that surrounded her,

“This is my true shield” Scáthach said gesturing to the hills, “I will teach you every inch of them if you are willing.” Cú Cuhllain nodded his head,

“I should be honoured to learn from you Scáthach.”

And so it came to be that Scáthach the greatest warrior in all of Elba should train Cú Cuhllain the greatest warrior in all of Ireland. And when he left she named one of the mountains for him and it is known as Cuillin to this day.

 

 

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Isle of Sky · Scotland · Travel · Writing

Cú Chulainn and Scáthach Part 1

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This story grabbed hold of me many years ago when I was backpacking through the Scottish Highlands. I was staying in a hostel on the Isle of Skye and the story was painted on the wall of the bathroom. I heard the story again standing amongst the mountains and at the foot of the river that are integral to the story. It is said that if you dunk your face in the river you will be eternally young and beautiful. I believe dunking my face in that river is the reason people often think I’m about a decade younger than I actually am! I am always drawn to stories with a female heroin and it is seriously bad ass that the most fearsome warrior in Scottish mythology was a woman. Without further ado here is part one of the story:

 

Scáthach was brushing her daughter’s long hair, patiently working out the burs and elflocks that the child seemed to attract. Her daughter held the same fierce independent will and the same wild joy at galloping about through the mountains that were their home as she did. The child surely held some of her father inside her as well, there was a softness, a kindness what some might venture to call a weakness inside of her that worried Scáthach. Her daughter was the only person in the world that Scáthach would one day entrust her shields to and she worried if the child would be up to the task. The girl was twelve now and growing restless in their isolated existence. She longed for others to play with and Scáthach would catch her making dolls out of bits of grass and twine and whispering her secrets to them. Her daughter let out a yelp as Scáthach pulled sharply on a particularly stubborn knot, the yelp found an answering call and Scáthach froze. Her daughter turned to her, her eyes wide, her mouth curving upwards in a smile. The two of them did not speak a word as they listened to hear if the call would sound again. Scáthach was soon rewarded by a great booming voice echoing through her valleys and hills.

“Scáthach!” the voice commanded as though she was a dog to be brought to heel. Did he not know who he called? Did he think that she was a maiden to come running to do his bidding?

“Scáthach! I hear you are the greatest warrior in all of Elba come and meet your match!” at this Scáthach let out a booming laugh of her own. It was just another stupid man come to prove his mettle against her. They had come every so often when she was younger. Hearing of her power and prowess in battle they had come to put her in her place, to prove that no woman could be the greatest warrior in all of Elba. Many had paid for their hubris with their life, the ones she had allowed to live had further spread the stories of her greatness and her power. None had dared to cross her in many a year. She flexed her fingers and felt the stiffness that had come with age. Carefully she stood from her stool and stretched her body. If he would not go away she would have to send him away and for that she would need to ready herself.

“Scáthach! I am the greatest warrior in all of Erin and I have come to take your title!” the man shouted, this gave Scáthach pause. Her legend had spread across the sea then. She took this as a good omen, she looked down at her young daughter thoughtfully and a wicked smile spread across her face.

“Daughter, go tell that man to leave. I will not fight him, he is not worth my time.” Her daughter’s face split into a grin and she sped down the hillside her giggle dancing on the wind. Scáthach wandered into her armory and slid out of the light shift she had been wearing. Her hands slid over the various vests and leggings that filled the shelves. Settling finally on a thick plated vest that allowed for movement and a pair of soft stockings she began to dress herself. Her daughter reappeared a look of concern replacing the smile,

“Mother, I do not think that you can send him away so easily. He is much stronger than any man who has come here before. I can sense from him that he is like us.” Scáthach only smiled at this, happy to hear that her instincts had not failed her. She had heard it immediately in the timber of his voice. She had not lost her edge in the years of peace. She began to stretch each muscle in her shoulders as she spoke to her daughter again,

“Daughter, go and tell him that I do not have time for boys who want to be men. Tell him to come back when he has proven himself in battle.” With a slight sigh her daughter left the armory. Scáthach wondered how many times this man would allow himself to be insulted in this way, how long it would be before she would have to go down and face him. She hoped that she would at least be able to finish her stretching. She was not as young as she used to be and tearing a muscle simply would not do. Her daughter came back into the room, her look of concern replaced by a frown and genuine fear in her eyes. Scáthach calmly continued to stretch as her daughter spoke,

“Mother! He is so angry that the clouds have begun to darken and I am afraid to go back down to him without you. He says he is Cú Chulainn and that he has been fighting since he was seven years old, that he has killed the three sons of Nechtan Scéne that his battle rage is such that he has boiled barrels of water with it. He says that-” Scáthach held her hand up to silence her daughter,

“Tell him to come back next year when he has killed all the Ulsterman and then maybe I will come down and fight him.” Her daughter let out a great heart rending sigh and Scáthach hardened her mother’s heart against it. If her daughter was to survive when Scáthach was no longer alive she would need to be able to face down more frightening beasts than a mere man. Scáthach pulled her shields down from the wall one by one testing their weight and balance before selecting her favourite one. She had just settled it on her arm when her daughter came running back into the room crying, her eye was swollen and her cheek bright red,

“He hit me mother!” she cried and Scáthach knew she could avoid the fight no longer. She pushed her daughter roughly aside, a smack across the face was but a little injury and if she could not manage it then Scáthach could never have her as her heir. She came down the hillside at a run, her senses taking in everything around her. She knew the direction and strength of the wind, the sturdiness of the ground, the angle of the sun and the temperature of the air. She sniffed out the man before she saw him, big and brawny with a nasty snarl on his face. His eyes lit up at the sight of her and she saw him set himself for her attack. Scáthach’s eyes noted the strength of his pose and she knew that this would not be a battle easily won.