Cú Chulainn gripped the hilt of his broadsword and, pivoting his hips, struck down the twelfth champion Queen Mebd sent to challenge him in as many days. He had no choice. It was his fault the queen of Connacht had overtaken Ulster.
But the city was not her prize. It was Donn Cúailnge, the most fertile stud bull in the isles. Take down a city for a single bull? A strong bull means a strong herd which means warriors who were not only virile but satisfied. Donn Cúailnge was more than another head in a herd. He gave whoever possessed him a distinct advantage over the other clans.
Cú Chulainn knelt at the edge of the ford. With a rag torn from his tattered shirt, he wiped the former champion's blood from his blade.
"I should have struck down the queen when I had the chance," Cú Chulainn muttered under his breath. He hadn't chosen his words carefully. Evoking the rite of single combat—in lieu of a bloody battle —meant the greatest champion of each would do battle in their stead.
If accepted, in a battle to the death, the winner would claim victory for the whole army. Only Cú Chulainn failed to ensure Mebd named a single champion to face him before the rite was agreed to. Thus, in Mebd's understanding, he'd agreed to face all of her champions, one-by-one, not only her strongest and fiercest.
Sure, it wasn't fair. But there was no authority to appeal to. The traditions of war were exactly that—traditions, governed by honor. Apparently, honor was one of the many virtues Queen Mebd lacked.
There was a time, Cú Chulainn remembered, when a dishonorable monarch risked the wrath of Fionn MacCumhail, chief warlord and leader of the Fianna. But Fionn disappeared—and with him went any semblance of civility between lords and monarchs.
So far, none of Mebd's champions had challenged Cú Chulainn. He defeated each of them with ease. He was, after all, the greatest warrior in the isles. It soon became clear, however, what Mebd's strategy was. She was not sending her strongest and best champions against Cú Chulainn first. She was starting with her weakest—gradually exhausting Ulster's champion so that once her strongest fighter came against him, they might be more evenly matched.
His blade clean, Cú Chulainn grabbed Mebd's fallen warrior around the waist and tossed his body into the river. He'd be carried by the current back into Ulster—the city that had been his own, the one Mebd had claimed—and the arrival of the corpse would signal Cú Chulainn's short-lived victory. There was no telling how long it would take before another one of Mebd's champions—one undoubtedly more skilled than the last—would show up to challenge him.
Cú Chulainn wiped his brow with his sleeve. His sweat was stained with blood—not his own, but it was blood no less. Cú Chulainn had seen his share of blood—his gifts in battle ensured he would in the course of doing his duty—but it still unsettled him. He had all the skill and physical prowess to make for a warrior. His body endured it, but his mind exhausted him. He did not enjoy taking lives—even the lives of his enemies.
And while he'd killed hundreds, he still remembered every man's face whom he'd ever cut down. Did these men have wives and children praying to the gods for their return? Did they have lovers? Never again would they enjoy the touch of a woman. Never again would these men experience the thrill of a fleeting tryst.
For many warriors, it takes many years of battle before the weariness sets in. For Cú Chulainn, he'd grown tired of battle the first time his blade struck another man's flesh. A warrior wasn't what he wanted to be. But he was what he was.
And the moment he allowed himself an evening off patrol, a single night to enjoy a woman. But she wasn't just any woman. She was one of the most enchanting women he'd ever seen.
And she was familiar. Her touch. Her voice. Even her appearance. Why couldn't he place her? Perhaps he'd only dreamed of her...
And while he was with her, Queen Mebd's soldiers stole Donn Cúailnge and overtook Ulster. But he wasn't fighting for Ulster. He was fighting for her.
No, not the mysterious creature whom he knew the night before. He was fighting for his wife...
If only I'd listened to her... if only I'd left Ulster with her long ago...
Cú Chulainn dipped his rag into the water again. As he brought it to his chest he looked up and saw a beautiful woman—nude, but her body draped in vines of blossoms. He'd been tempted once. He wasn't about to fall for yet another woman's seductions. Her hair was dark, falling over her shoulders, barely covering her breasts. She was nearly as beautiful as the woman he'd known the night before. Beautiful enough that any other man might have found her irresistible.
Cú Chulainn quickly stepped ashore.
"Pardon me, miss? This is no place for a maiden."
The young woman cocked her head and with wide eyes examined the young warrior. "Cú Chulainn, do you not find me beautiful?"
Cú Chulainn scratched his head. Of course he did. Not that the woman didn't recognize him—he was the mighty Cú Chulainn! But a woman whose narrow hips suggested she be a maiden, but who approaches a man unclothed, was an undeniable source of curiosity. Most maidens exhibited more modesty than this one.
"Your beauty is not in question," Cú Chulainn responded. "But this is a river tainted with blood. This is a place of battle. It is no place for a maiden."
The young woman narrowed her eyes. It was not an uncommon view that women have no place in battle. Why should this maiden take offense at the notion? "A man such as you whose life is dominated by war could use some balance. A woman's hand at your side, one that might touch you gently, even as others raise their blades against you. And one who might fight beside you."
Cú Chulainn smirked. A woman, fight beside the great Cú Chulainn? There were only a few with the skill—the warrior women of Scotland—but such women were not typically found in these parts. And after his last experience with such a woman, he wasn't of a mind to fight beside another one. Not after what she'd done...
"There is one woman's touch I desire. It was on account of my desire for such... balance... that the Queen seized the Bull and thereafter all of Ulster. This is my battle to fight, maiden. I have no use for you as a lover and even less use for a companion in battle."
Again, the young woman narrowed her eyes. "You do not imagine a woman capable of battle?"
"No offense, maiden," Cú Chulainn said. "But war is not suitable for men, much less women. I would not wish the curse of battle on anyone."
The young woman laughed. She approached Cú Chulainn and took his hand in hers. With the sweep of her leg and a flick of her wrist, Cú Chulainn found himself on his back, the maiden on top of him, with a blade pressed to his throat. Cú Chulainn had no idea where she'd drawn it from being that she was naked. But never in as many cycles he'd lived had he been so easily bested—not by another warrior, and certainly not by a woman.
"You must be a witch!" Cú Chulainn shouted.
The woman laughed. "A witch? I am so much more than that, young hero. But you have rejected my offer—an offer that might have been your salvation. For that reason, I tell you, the time will soon come when you will fall in battle. Your blood will be evermore a curse on the land—for it will be the blood of a warrior who spurned the invitation of the Morrigan."
A black cloud of smoke surrounded the woman. A black crow flew out of the cloud—and when the smoke dissipated the woman was gone.
Cú Chulainn returned to his feet. How many times had the Morrigan interfered in his affairs before? He hoped this time would be the last. But to propose she become his lover? Cú Chulainn thrust his blade into the ground in anger. To spurn a goddess... he'd be cursed! But to accept the advances of the phantom queen, the wife of the Dagda? He'd never escape the good god's wrath. He was damned either way.
"Cú Chulainn, hero of Ulster!" a man's voice spoke.
Cú Chulainn gripped his broadsword by the hilt and pulled his blade from the ground. Eventually, Cú Chulainn thought, Mebd's final champion will fall. Cursed by the Morrigan, or not, I will see this through.
Cú Chulainn's thoughts drifted to the woman from the night before. Was she even human? He couldn't recall ever having met her before, yet she seemed familiar. The woman's whose touch, whose desire, had coursed through his body like electricity. The one for whom his lusts had distracted him for only a night, a night that allowed Mebd to make her move. A steep price to pay for a single night of passion with the creature, the woman, whom he'd desired... But for Cú Chulainn, she was worth it.