Emerald Isle

Ferdiad Crosses the Ford

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Ulster Cycle

The fortunes of war when Ferdiad Crosses the Ford

Queen Medb had invaded Ulster and the lands of the north, thinking it would be an easy victory since the men of Ulster were crippled with birth pangs as a result of a curse place on them, but Cúchulainn had dogged her every step savagely.

Attacking her supply wagons, ambushing her men from the trees, burning tents at night, he fought single handedly with the might of an army by using his talents well. Finally having enough of it, Medb decided to call out to him when she knew he was lurking around, for his slingshot had taken another dozen heads that very morning.

She cried that she would send her champions to do battle with him, and her forces wouldn't move until he was defeated. Cúchulainn shouted back his agreement, since he was weary with running about like a rabbit from hounds, then becoming the hound himself.

And so the best men of Connacht stood against him, and each was struck down without delay. Day after day the duels continued, but Cúchulainn wasn't bothered since he knew all he had to do was delay Medb long enough for the warriors of the Red Branch to recover from their pregnancy pains.

Stumped, Medb took counsel with her wisest druids and they agreed on a plan – they'd call Ferdiad, who had trained with Cúchulainn, and ask him to do the deed. At first their messengers were sent back empty handed, as Ferdiad didn't much like the notion of killing his boyhood friend, but Medb threatened him with satire and blackening his name, so that his memory would be one of shame for all time, and he eventually agreed to meet her.

They plied him with fine strong rich mead, not that stuff you can get today but real honey ambrosia, and played sweet music for him, and Medb's daughter Finnabair toyed with him seductively. Medb asked if he was enjoying himself, and Ferdiad grinned a foolish grin, and said he was.

Well, said Medb, you can have all this, a chariot worth a herd of fine cattle, the best lands in Connacht without taxes for the next three generations, her golden ring showing her love, and her daughter's hand in marriage if he would but fight Cúchulainn.

The cheer draining from him in a moment, Ferdiad became solemn and said he would never fight  Cúchulainn.

“Ah,” said Medb, who knew well the hearts of these warrior-men, “and so Cúchulainn spoke the truth!”

“What truth was that?” demanded Ferdiad.

“Well, he said you'd never fight him for you knew he'd kill you, as he was the best warrior in all of Ireland!”

At that Ferdiad stood in a rage, and swore he'd do battle with the braggart Cúchulainn the very next day, so who should Cúchulainn see coming across the ford the following morning but Ferdiad himself!

And his heart was struck low and through with sorrow, for to kill this man would be like piercing his own heart. He entreated Ferdiad not to fight, reminding them of all the happy times they'd had together, of all the skills they'd learned from one another, the adventures they'd had.

But Ferdiad, perhaps the worse for his previous night's drinking, still burning from his humiliation before Medb's daughter, threw the words back in his face and added a few of his own, choice insults fit to boil the blood of any man.

Well, Cúchulainn's feet became unstuck at that, and he stepped forward to give battle! Not only were himself and Ferdiad almost equally matched, but Ferdiad's skin became hard as a bull's horns when he did battle, so no weapon could pierce him. Cúchulainn had his Gae Bolg, the fearsome spear of fifty thorns made of a sea monster's bones, but he didn't want to use it and slay his friend.

For three long days they did battle, first with light swords, then with darts and long spears, then with javelins hurled hard enough to split a tree, but neither could gain the upper hand. And rach night they bound one another's wounds and slept back to back uneasily, neither quite sure how they'd gotten here.

Towards the end of the third day however the hero-light began to shine around Cúchulainn, and the warp spasm came upon him. One eye bulged out to the length of a horse, and the other sank deep into his gut. Blood and fumes spouted from the top of his head and his teeth splayed out like grotesque fingers, sharp and jagged. His muscles moved like water in a sack and his skin like the sack itself, and the heat from him set nearby trees on fire.

Alarmed, Ferdiad fell back as Cúchulainn jumped onto his shield with a mighty salmon-leap, all set to plunge his sword into Ferdiad's brain, but Ferdiad slipped him off it and dropped him in the icy water, cooling the fury he felt.

As Cúchulainn climbed back up, Ferdiad saw his chance and took it, stabbing Cúchulainn hard in the chest several times. Cúchulainn howled out for Laeg his charioteer to give him his spear. Laeg threw it into the river and floated it downstream, and Cúchulainn picked it up between his toes and stabbed Ferdiad in the only place he was vulnerable, in the nethers.

Into every part of him went the spear's barbs, piercing his joints and his internals until he lay stricken and dying on the ground, and Cúchulainn held him until he passed, the pair of them cursing Medb and her dark ways.

The ford where Cúchulainn and Ferdiad fought can be found on the map below.

Further Tales from the Ulster Cycle

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