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Long ago in the county of Ulster when the kings of men ruled the land and the Aes Sídhe had been driven underground—or at least out of sight—there lived a man name Cruinniuc. Now, Cruinniuc was not a wealthy man, and neither was he poor. He was not a warrior, or a sailor, but rather was a man of the land. He tilled the earth to provide his family with the money they needed to survive and hunted the land around him for the food for their table. Those around him would say he possessed nothing worth bragging about, but he had three healthy children and a loving wife and for Cruinniuc that was enough.

Then one day his wife grew sick and died and things become more difficult for Cruinniuc. His children needed him at home to attend to and care for them, but at the same time they needed him away in the fields and forests providing those things necessary for life. And perhaps for his sanity Cruinniuc needed the time away in the fields as well. It was a tough time for Cruinniuc trying to provide for his children in all the ways a man should and in the tender ways that had come so easily to his wife that he had taken for granted while she was with them.

One day as he was walking home from a long day out working in the fields, exhausted in both mind and body, and wondering where he was going to find the strength to continue in his current predicament—a strange sight filled his gaze. There, coming from his house was the billowing smoke of a roaring fire from within his own hearth. Now, his children were still young and had not been taught to build or tend a fire. Cruinniuc paused outside the door to his home. Where normally he would be greeted with the sounds of anxious children who needed to be fed and coaxed into their beds; he heard silence. Not a sound came to his ears except the quiet muffled steps well-known to anyone who has just placed a child down to sleep. Confused, Cruinniuc opened the door and stepped inside where his confusion gave way to astonishment.

There, clearing the remains of splendid meal off his table, was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She smiled beguilingly at him as he entered and quickly moved to guide him to his chair where she placed a steaming bowl of stew before him. She said her name was Macha, that she had tended to the fire, the children, and the meal and that she was now his wife. Cruinniuc saw no reason to argue.

Once again life resumed the easy pace it had before. Cruinniuc worked in the fields and hunted while Macha tended to the home and children. In every way she was more than perfect. She moved fluidly from task to task with an easy grace and no matter the challenge placed before her she overcame it with ease. On occasion she would go out hunting with Cruinniuc and it was in those moments out in the woods that he came to realize she was something other than human. For when she moved through the woods no living creature could move faster than she. Be they man or beast, four footed or two, nothing could outrun his wife. Cruinniuc quickly realized that Macha was no ordinary woman but rather one of the Aes Sídhe come to be his wife—a fact well worth boasting about. But Macha would have nothing to do with that. She placed him under strict command never to boast of her to another living soul or else it would bring ruin to their family. Once again, Cruinniuc didn’t argue.

In time Macha grew pregnant with twins and as the time grew near for her to deliver, a great festival was announced to take place in Ulster hosted by none other than the king. Cruinniuc wanted them both to attend hoping to celebrate his growing family and exceedingly good fortune with his wife. Macha declined to go given that she was so close to giving birth, but told Cruinniuc he could go enjoy the festival as long as he remembered not to boast of her to anyone. Cruinniuc agreed and made his way to celebrate with the king.

The festival was grand, filled with amazing displays of the prosperity of the kingdom with games, tournaments, and lavish displays of food and wealth. Cruinniuc enjoyed the festivities but kept mostly to himself. Many a man around him boasted over this or that and even when he heard a nearby man boast that his wife was the best cook in all of Ulster, Cruinniuc said nothing. He merely chuckled to himself at the man’s error and drank a silent toast to his wife. Later, he heard another man loudly proclaim that his wife was the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland! Cruinniuc snorted into his drink but still managed to hold his tongue. No other woman compared to Macha in beauty. Many such boasts were given and each time Cruinniuc kept silent. It wasn’t until the night grew late and the drink heavy in his head that Cruinniuc inevitably slipped up.

The king had been competing in chariot races all day with his prized horses and had won every match. Loudly he proclaimed that there was no creature in all of Ireland that could outrace his horses!

“My wife could.”

The words sounded loudly in Cruinniuc’s head as he took another drink. It wasn’t until he realized the crowd around him had gone deathly still and the king himself was staring at him in affronted fury that he realized his mistake. He had said the words out loud.

The crowd around him suddenly disappeared as the king demanded that he take back his foolish boast. He should have backed down, but now that it was already out there, he felt no need to cower from the truth. Heedless of his wife’s warning and foolishly encouraged by his deep inebriation, Cruinniuc doubled down.

“My wife could outrun both you and your horses. She is faster than any thing on four foot or two in all of Ireland!”

The king would not stand such insult and quickly dispatched a man to go and fetch this fleet-footed woman. He told Cruinniuc that his life now rested on the outcome of this race. If his wife lost, then Cruinniuc would lose his life. Cruinniuc didn’t argue. He knew his wife would win.

When the king’s runner arrived at Cruinniuc’s house he told Macha all that had occurred and informed her she was needed immediately to race against the king and his horses to save her husband’s life. Macha, heavy with child, gave the man a sidelong look, but nonetheless followed him to the festival where she stood before the king and all the men of Ulster.

The king demanded she prepare herself to race. Macha in turn pointed out that she was pregnant with twins and due any moment. She apologized for her husband’s foolishness and not wanting to bring too much shame on his boast, she offered to race the king any day after she had given birth. The king had been insulted enough. Not only had Cruinniuc claimed that his wife could outrun his prize horses, but he had done so knowing she was pregnant. The king would not be assuaged. Macha must race and win, or Cruinniuc would die.

Macha turned to the men around her. Surely, they had all boasted in foolishness before and could understand her husband’s predicament. Would they not stand up for her before the king. She only needed time to give birth and then she would gladly race. But the men of Ulster stoically ignored her pleas and remained silent not wanting to further anger their king.

Seeing that none would come to her aid, Macha raised herself up to her full height and faced the king once more. Very well, she would race. Glowering at her husband Macha made her way to the field where the chariots had been racing earlier that day.

The king must have seen something in Macha as she faced him for he stripped his chariot down to nothing more than a single board for him to stand on, significantly lightening the load for his horses to carry allowing them to run all the faster.

When the race began Macha suddenly screamed out in pain as the twins within her began to move. The king took the opportunity to race ahead knowing there was no way he could lose. Macha steadied herself and then she began to run. She moved faster than anything the men of Ulster had ever seen. So swiftly did she glide across the ground that her feet seemed to not even touch the earth. The king’s chariot flew with the swiftness of the wind, his horses reaching a pace that put their previous records to shame, but Macha was swifter still. In the end she beat the king and at such a distance that no one could argue it could have gone any other way.

But even as Macha crossed the finish line she cried out in pain once more, this time tinged with bitter grief. Though she had won the race, the exertion had cost her the life of her twin children. With a final wailing breath, she cursed all the men of Ulster and then in a flash she was gone.

The king and men of Ulster stood still in shock and wonder. The final words of Macha ringing in their ears. From that day forth whenever the strength of the men of Ulster was needed the most, they would all be struck down with the pains of Macha—the pains of a woman in labor. For nine days and nine nights they would lie in pain and agony, unable to move or defend themselves. This would last for nine generations and affect every man old enough to grow a beard upon his chin. This because none of them had used their strength to help her when she was in need. Macha was never seen again, but many were the times the men of Ulster remembered her through all nine generations.

As for Cruinniuc, his life had been saved, but once again he found himself alone with many a burden upon his shoulders, all because he did not listen to his wife.

“Yikes, man am I glad that kind of stuff doesn’t happen today. What’s that? Hold on a sec, I think I hear my wife callling me … I’m just going to see if she needs my help. Never can be too careful. “