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Author's Note: Written for Lisztful for the Yuletide 2009 Challenge.
They say that had it not been the Brown Bull, Medb would have found another reason to gather the armies of Connacht to descend upon Ulster like black flies on fresh dung. The argument between Medb and Ailill, which began in their bedchambers for pride, brought swords to Ulster for honour.
But now as the broad plain of Muirthemne were blasted and soaked with the blood of heroes, and the men of Ulster were still writhing in their beds and screaming from the geas of Eamhain Macha, there was no honour left.
Only death and destruction.
One day into the battle, three women met on the hill above the plains. The first had white hair, her face lined with years and strife. The second carried a wicked barbed spear, her immortality shining around her like a flickering candleflame in the dark. The last was slender as a willow, with hair pale as wheat.
"I am Deichtire, mother of Sétanta," spoke the first. "When I was newly wed to my husband, I was kidnapped with fifty of my handmaids, changed from our human form and flew on birds wings to Brugh Na Boinne. The Samhildánach had fallen in love with me, and under the starless skies of the Otherworld he lay with me. From this drugged rape, I was conceived of a son."
"I am Aífe, sister of Scáthach," spoke the second. "I waged war against my sister, and was challenged to single combat by one of their students. He was beardless, but in battle the warp-spasm would corrupt his pale limbs until he was twisted like a beast of legend. He spared my life, and together we made a son-- Conlaoch --my only human child. Before his birth, his father lay a geas upon him that he should never turn his back once he began a journey, never reveal his name, nor refuse a challenge. When my son came to Eamhain Macha, his own father called him out on the battlefield, and slew him. He was only seven years old."
"I am Eimhear, wife of Cú Chulainn," spoke the third woman. "I was stolen from my father when I was a virgin girl, and though we have lain together in the marriage bed, he has given me no children that might give me comfort and joy in this life. Then he shamed me when he set me aside for Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir. I sharpened my knife to kill her, but she is an immortal of the Sidhe and cannot be slain."
"He is the greatest hero of the age," said the mother of his child.
"He is the Champion of Ulster," said the woman who bore him.
"And he is a monster," said his wife.
And so they together made the pact to destroy him.
On the second night of the battle, a woman with white hair came to Cú Chulainn with a pitcher of wine. Though she had fed him from her own breast as a babe, he neither saw her nor recognised her.
Three times she filled it, and all three times the wine was changed to blood in the silver vessel.
On the evening of the third day of battle, Cú Chulainn was offered food and drink, and he was bound by a geas never to refuse hospitality, so he accepted. A bowl was set before him by a narrow-hipped woman, her bright hair held back from her forehead with a silver garland. Though he had wed her and promised to be faithful to her, he neither saw her nor recognised her.
He swallowed the meat, then spat onto the ground. For she had served him dog meat, food he had sworn never to eat.
On the morning of the final day of battle, Cú Chulainn came out onto the field and saw a woman standing in the river. She had long black hair hanging down her back like a twister rope and though she was the mother of his child, he neither saw her nor recognised her.
She was washing the gore and ichor from his boiled leather breastplate, the water of the river running red all the way out into the sea.
From their vantage point above the Mag Muirthemne, the women watched the army of Mebd draw in a close circle around the Hound of Ulster, their swords drawn and spears like a forest.
Aífe handed Deichtire her spear. "Take our revenge."
"I am no warrior," Deichtire said, but Aífe pressed the shaft into her blue-veined hand.
"This is the twin to the Gáe Bolga made by my sister, which spilled the life's blood of my son onto the plain of Eamhain Macha. Let it fly, and if it does not hit its mark, it will return to my hand."
Deichtire drew back her arm and threw the spear with all her might. It whistled through the air, but at the last moment instead of piercing the heart of her son, his charioteer Láeg stepped in front of the barbed point which entered his body effortlessly. Before Cú Chulainn could seize the shaft and remove it, it vanished.
When the spear reappeared in Aífe's hands, she handed it to Eimhear, who cast it at her husband's form on the plain below. Again it shrieked as it travelled towards its target, but before it could bury itself in Cú Chulainn's breast his horse Liath Macha reared, spiked bridle flashing in the pale sunlight.
Weeping at the deaths of his friend and his horse, Cú Chulainn reached for the blood-soaked shaft, but again it vanished like smoke before he could close his fingers around it.
Standing on the hill, Aífe hefted the spear herself and drew back her arm to let it fly.
This time it flew home, piercing Cú Chulainn's stomach and giving him the death wound. He wrenched it from his body, and as the army of Connacht parted before him, he tied himself to a standing stone with his own entrails. Men came toward him, to finish the job, but his sword hewed them like a scythe summer wheat and they fell back, afraid to come within the circle of his reach.
For the rest of the night, until the army of Ulster were made whole and well again by the passing of Macha's curse, the three stood on the hill, watching the rise and fall of Cú Chulainn's last breaths.
As dawn broke across the plain, a great black crow flew from the hill to where the smith's hound was tied to the tree. Blood dripped from his many wounds and was lapped up by the hungry soil, and the bird pulled three locks of hair from his head.
The crow flew back to the hill, where the mother, maiden, and crone stood.
One by one, it dropped the locks of blue-black hair into their palms, and then flew back to the battlefield to feast.
"It is done," Eimhear said, wiping the tears from her cheeks.
"We are avenged," Aífe said, wiping blood from her spear.
"My son is dead," Deichtire said as the song of battled renewed broke the silence of the morning.
While Ulster and Connacht still raged against one another on the field below, they parted, never to see one another again.
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