The Story of Beowulf, by Strafford Riggs , at sacred-texts.com
WHIGH TELLS of Beowulf's reception among the Danes, his encounter with GRENDEL and with GRENDEL'S MOTHER.
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ON AND ON, through the vast, dense forests of Daneland, Beowulf and his companions toiled, until the sweat stood out in drops upon their faces, and their strong legs ached with the weariness of tramping. Their way led through dense underbrush and deep thicket, and Beowulf thought that it must have been many a long day since this passage to the sea had been used.
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Finally the path straightened out, and they entered a long vale which suddenly broadened into a marshy meadow, dank and evil-smelling from the vapor which curled from its soggy earth. At the end of this swampy place stood the vast hall of Heorot, the greatest mead-hall in all the wide Northland. About it were clustered the abodes of Hrothgar and his retainers, and scattered here and there, desolate and forsaken, were the farms and dairies of the ill-fated king.
Over all this sad scene there was the odor of death and decay. The fields were untilled, the houses falling down for want of repair, and no human being was to be seen anywhere. Beowulf and his men entered a lane, and the clanking of their armor and their swords was the only sound to be heard as they picked their way along the weed-grown path toward Heorot.
They came to the hall gates, which stood ajar and swinging loosely on their hinges. For twelve long years the plague of Grendel had haunted the vast hall till it became a place of death instead of feasts and rejoicing.
Thrice Beowulf knocked upon the gates, until the king's Herald appeared and asked in a frightened voice whence they came and what they wanted. Beowulf ordered the man to inform his master the king that warriors from Geatsland were come to visit him, and craved food and a place to sleep. The man hurried away, with many a backward glance of fear at the proud array of these fifteen noble visitors in their shining armor.
While they waited for the king, the men from Geatsland looked curiously about them, and peered into the dismal hall which in other days had been so famed throughout the countries of the North. Its once shining goldbright pillars were now cobwebbed with the years. The benches were mossgrown. No fine hangings were upon the walls. And on the hearths no fires were blazing.
Then presently there was the sound of footsteps, the clanking of armor, and Beowulf and his earls stood ready to greet Hrothgar the king.
First came a company of elderly warriors (for Grendel had killed and eaten all the young heroes of the court). Then the king himself appeared, wrapped in a rich mantle. He was an old man, with flowing white beard, strong hands, and eyes that told their own story of sleepless nights and harassed days. As the party approached Beowulf, the king, with hands outstretched, advanced with firm steps toward the Geatish lords.
"I bid you welcome, O Strangers," was his greeting, "for I can see at once that you come upon a friendly errand into this unhappy kingdom. Tell me, I pray, whence you have journeyed, for my trusty Herald tells me that you ordered him to me, and would say nothing of yourself or of your business. Speak, my friends, for it is not proper that I should remain in ignorance of your identity."
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Then Beowulf answered in a loud voice, "I am Beowulf, Prince of Weders, son of Ecgtheow and nephew to that good man Hygelac, King of Geatsland. These my fellows have joined me in coming to the land of the Danes, that we may deliver you from this arch-fiend Grendel of whom we have heard dread things."
"Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow!" cried Hrothgar. "'Why! this is in truth the son of my old war-brother, my friend! For Ecgtheow and I were comrades in arms many years ago, before sorrow came to Daneland. I knew you, Beowulf, when as a child you played about your father's hearth, pulling the ears of his dogs so that they cried out in pain and astonishment that one so young could have such strength in him.
"Welcome, son of my old friend! You are very welcome in Daneland, and from this day Heorot shall be yours. But I warn you, it is to Heorot that Grendel comes so frequently, greedy for youths to devour, and it is in Heorot that you will meet the demon.
"But come, let your earls lay down their weapons, and remove their armor, and seek rest. There will be feasting to-night in Heorot, and Wealhtheow, my queen, will pass the drinking-horn among you in token of our friendship for you and your brave companions."
Thus speaking, Hrothgar turned to his attendants and bade them prepare the hall for Beowulf and his warriors, and there was preparation everywhere for the feast that was to be held for these visitors from far-off Geatsland.
THAT night, after Beowulf and his companions had rested, for the first time in twelve years there was a great banquet in the hall of Heorot. The place was decorated with fine hangings, the goldbright roof burnished until it shone like the sun, and the benches scraped and polished by many willing hands. Huge fires were built on the hearths, and the smell of roasting meats pervaded the hall.
Then the company assembled to partake of the meat and wine of Hrothgar, although the ranks of the king's earls had been sadly diminished through the evil deeds of Grendel. In all, it was not a very joyful gathering that night in Heorot, and the twelve-year dread of Grendel lurked in the hearts of the Danes.
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In the king's high place sat Hrothgar, arrayed in a fine red robe of lamb's-wool, a golden crown upon his white locks. Beside him was his queen, Wealhtheow the Beautiful, dressed in garments of snowy whiteness, embroidered with bands of silver, a silver circlet on her fair brow, silver bracelets on her slim wrists. Her hair was the color of bright copper, and she wore it in two straight braids which fell on either side her face.
The tables were spread with viands such as warriors crave and there was much mead in great cups. The drinking-horns were passed from hand to hand, and many healths were drunk that evening to Beowulf and his earls, and many cups were raised to the destruction of Grendel.
Beowulf sat in the place of honor at Hrothgar's feet. He was clothed in scarlet and gold, with gold bracelets upon his mighty arms, a golden wire necklet of his king's giving about his throat.
To his right sat Aescher, the close companion and trusted counselor of Hrothgar. He wore a blue mantle over his broad shoulders and costly jewels glinted on his breast.
On Beowulf's left was Unferth, the king's favorite, of whom the Wanderer had sung in no uncertain terms concerning his lack of bravery. He was lean and black of hair, with a black divided beard, and he was dressed from head to foot in black and silver.
Aescher leaned toward Beowulf and engaged him in deep converse, enjoying his company, and praising him for his valor. But Unferth, the black son of Ecglaf, sat moody in his place, scarcely touching the meats before him, and drinking only lightly of the mead as it was passed to him.
A gloom hung over the vast hall, and only the noble lords of Geatsland were gay in that sad company. They talked a great deal, and praised everything about them, especially the hall of Heorot with its gold-bright roof, a hall larger and more magnificent than anything they had ever seen before.
Then they fell to boasting of their leader Beowulf, and spoke pridefully of his strength and virtue. In this they were upheld by Aescher, who had heard of Beowulf's feats of strength. And while they talked and toasted one another in the bright ale, Unferth the Black lapsed more and more into sullen silence, and offered no word of praise to Beowulf, and never once lifted his beaker to the lord of Geatsland.
Beowulf noticed this presently, and turning to Unferth said, "You are very silent, O valiant son of Ecglaf. Come, let us hear your deeds of valor, that we may in turn praise you. Speak, friend Unferth, that I may drink from your cup with you."
Then Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, rose in his place, and his look was blacker than the night which hung over the land of the Danes. The torches flaming against the walls flickered on his cheeks, which were paler than the cheeks of a dead man.
"Beowulf!" he cried, and there was scornful anger in his tones, "Beowulf! Look you, my noble earls of Daneland, at this stripling who comes so proudly among us, saying that he will deliver us from Grendel's toils and spells!
"Who is this boy, beardless and white of skin, that he should come over the sea-fields in a boat with his fourteen thanes? Where are his vaunted courage and strength, I ask?
"For let me tell you: Once upon a time this same Beowulf swam a race with one Breca, another young lord of the Geats, called the Bronding, and the story of that race is a shameful thing for honest men to hear. For in this race with Breca the Bronding, Beowulf failed almost before he had started, and the Bronding beat him sorely, so that my lord Beowulf was the laughing-stock of his uncle's court, and ever since he was a boy he has been known for his sluggard nature and his avoidance of battle and his sloth in hunting.
"And I say to you, my brothers, put no trust in this pale upstart. What the Danes have been unable to accomplish, this stripling from Geatsland cannot hope to achieve. Let him, I say, go back to his own country and swim honest races with his fellows, and not remain here to mock those in sorrow."
And Unferth folded his hairy arms over his silver breastplate and glared at Beowulf in rage and hatred. For it must be remembered that this same Unferth, the son of Ecglaf, had never undertaken to fight for Hrothgar the king, against the fiend Grendel, and he was wroth with all those who had done so in his stead. Many words of advice had he offered, to be sure, concerning this attack, but never once the strength of his black arms.
Now Beowulf rose in anger, also, and faced the dark brooding Unferth, but he had his anger and his tongue in better control than his adversary, because he knew the words spoken against him to be false, and he replied softly, but in a clear voice, to the accusations against him.
"It is true," he began, "that I was called Sluggard when I was a boy, but I have killed my dragons with the best of my companions, and no one has ever called me coward. What have you done, O Black Unferth, against the arch-demon Grendel?"
Unferth made no answer, and sulked shamefully in his seat, his face averted from the gleaming Beowulf who stood so tall above him.
"And as for Breca," Beowulf went on, "that man and I swam a great race, and all know that during it I battled against vast odds, and came out victor. We plunged into the sea, the Bronding and I, and we were in full battle array, and carried swords in our hands to ward off the dangers of the deep. And for five days and nights we fought the sea-demons and the winds and the waves. Until finally I was cast ashore in some place far from home and I was forced to make my way back on foot, and alone. All Geatsland can swear to my valor, O son of Ecglaf, and no one until to-night has ever dared call me coward. I charge you, Unferth, to take back those foul words. It is not honorable that I should come to Daneland with my lords, in all friendliness offering to render service to your country and to your king, and be called a coward!"
From both Danes and Geats a murmur of approval went up for these noble words, and Hrothgar the king stood up in his place and spoke for the discomfited Unferth.
"All have heard," he said, "the temperate words of Beowulf, and they are the words of a hero. Beowulf will, I know, forgive us if one among us has spoken unwisely, for in our hearts there has been sorrow these twelve long years, and sorrow long continued oft wears down the spirit and makes the tongue bitter with reproaches that we do not truly feel.
"Come now, my queen," he said to Wealhtheow, "pass the great cup among the lords of Geatsland, and give Beowulf first to drink. This is no time for foolish quarrels, and I enjoin you all to be of one mind and grateful to these young and noble men who have braved the wind and the waves to come to us in a time of need."
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With these words, Hrothgar lifted to his lips the jeweled cup that Wealhtheow brought him, and then his lady took it again from his hands, and went down from the king's high table and came near to Beowulf.
He took the cup from her and drank deep from its golden depths, and then Wealhtheow went from one to another of the Geatish earls, and each drank in his turn to the glory of Hrothgar and his queen, and to the destruction of Grendel.
After this exchange, the banqueting was resumed with a good will, and many were the speeches made by the Danes praising the land of the Geats, and the earls of Hygelac were loud in their praise of the noble and venerable Hrothgar and his lady, Wealhtheow the Beautiful.
Then the king rose and gave the signal for their withdrawal. Taking his queen by the hand, to lead her from the hall, he turned to his retainers and said:
"It is time, now, that we hasten to our bowers. Come, my friends, let us away from here, that Beowulf and his earls may rest after their travel. And the gods grant that Grendel come not this night to trouble their sleep."
Then summoning Aescher and Unferth to his side, and with his hand upon his queen's wrist, Hrothgar departed from Heorot and left Beowulf and his companions to whatever fate might await them in the darkness of the deep night.
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THE fires were burnt out on the hearths when the last of Hrothgar's train had departed. Then Beowulf and his companions set themselves to fastening tightly the door of the hall. They secured it with wooden bolts and tied it with leathern thongs, and so strong was it that no mortal could have passed through.
Then the warriors of Geatsland unfolded their cloaks upon the benches and laid themselves down to slumber, and Beowulf stretched his great length upon the dais of the king, and resolved that through the long night he would never once close his eyes. Near the door lay the young Hondscio, Beowulf's favorite earl, who swore that if any one broke through the door of Heorot he would be the first to give the intruder battle.
Silence, crept over the shrouded forms where they lay upon the floor and benches, and there was no sound save their steady breathing and the faint sighing of the night-wind in the trees about the hall.
Beowulf, upon his couch, lay still as death, but his eyes moved here and there in the deepening gloom of the hall, and his breast rose and fell evenly with his breathing.
Outside, a fog was creeping up from the sea, obscuring the moon in milky eclipse, and at last there was not even the sound of the wind in the trees. To Beowulf the deep silence seemed full of moving things invisible to human eyes.
Gradually there came over him a kind of drowsiness that he fought to ward off. His eyelids fluttered against his eyes, and then he swooned with a sleep that lay upon his weary limbs like a heavy garment.
And the fog thickened and wound itself about the vast mead-hall in thick veils of damp gloom. The moon faded in the fog's depth, and the trees dripped with moisture, and the sound of this dripping was the only sound that came through the night.
But suddenly there was a rustling among the wet trees, and a noise like the deep grunt of a pig, but soft and low, startled the fog-bound night, and the drops of mist-water on the trees fell sharply to the ground like heavy rain. Then the fog parted evenly, and in the wide path it made through the night a Shadow loomed gigantic in all that was left of moonlight.
Slowly, slowly it neared the great hall of Heorot, and the night shuddered at its coming, and behind it, as it moved, the fog closed again with a sucking sound. And the Shadow stood before the great door of the hall, and swayed hideously in the ghastly light.
Within Heorot there was a deep stillness, and Beowulf and the Geatish earls slept soundly, with no knowledge of what stood so evilly beyond the door. For the monstrous Shadow was the fiend Grendel, and standing there in the fog-strewn night he placed a spell upon those who slept in Heorot, and the spell he wove was a spell to make sleep more soundly those who already slept.
But Beowulf hung between sleeping and waking, and while the spell did not completely deaden his senses, it so ensnared his waking dream that he fought desperately against it in his half-sleep and was not quite overpowered. This Grendel did not know as he placed his great shoulder to the door of Heorot, while Beowulf on his couch tossed in the nightmare that possessed him.
Little by little the thongs that secured the door gave way, and the huge wooden bolts yielded under the pressure that was strained against them, but no sound broke upon the silent struggle that went on between Grendel and the door.
Beowulf tossed and turned in waking, but the other earls of Geatsland fell deeper and deeper into the swooning sleep.
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Then with a rush, the door flew wide, and the fog and salt-smelling night swept in and filled Heorot with strange odors. And in the doorway, swaying this way and that, stood Grendel, huge and dark against the dark night, the fog weaving about him in white veils, and the door of the hall limp on its hinges.
And Beowulf came out of his dream-spell and saw what stood so vast and evil in the doorway. But his eyes were heavy with the spell that clung to him as the wisps of fog clung about the body of Grendel, and only slowly was he able to distinguish the monster. Through his nightmare, now, there came the sense of what had befallen him, and he strove to cast the last remnant of the magic from him as he saw the great form of Grendel swoop down upon the innocent form of young Hondscio, catch him up in enormous hands, and tear him limb from sleeping limb.
And Beowulf struggled, and on the earthen floor of Heorot Grendel swayed with his prey.
And now at last Beowulf saw what manner of thing this Grendel was. His legs were like the trunks of trees and they were covered with a kind of gray dry scale that made a noise like paper as the fiend moved this way and that. The body of the beast was shaped like that of a man, but such a man as no mortal eyes had ever before beheld, and the size and shape of it were something to be marveled at.
The head was the head neither of beast or man, yet had something of the features of both, and the great jaw was filled with blunt fangs that ground the bones of the unhappy Hondscio to pulp. Shaggy matted hair hung over the low forehead, and the eyes in the face of Grendel were the color of milk.
Horror-struck upon his couch, Beowulf felt his limbs in thrall and could move neither leg nor arm to raise himself as Grendel devoured the body of the young Hondscio.
And when Grendel had finished his horrid meal, the beast straightened a little his vast form and looked now to the left, now to the right, until his gaze fell upon the length of Beowulf. Then the milk-white eyes burned with a dull light that was like the light of the moon, and slowly, slowly Grendel moved toward the dais.
But Beowulf, stung with loathing, leaped from his bed.
SILENTLY they fought in the fog-strewn hall of Heorot. Silently their bodies twisted and bent, this way and that, and Beowulf kept Grendel's huge hands with their long claws of sharp bone from him, and Grendel in turn sought to tear apart the quick body that slipped so easily through his arms and legs.
All about them lay the sleeping earls, and not one moved in the deep magic of his slumber as the two fought that silent fight.
Their bodies wove in and out among the sleepers, and Beowulf felt the hot reek of Grendel's breath upon his cheek, and the sweat stood out on Beowulf's broad brow and ran down into his eyes and blinded him. And Grendel's huge hands sought over and over again to clasp his opponent's head, to crush it in their iron grip.
Then the fight became a deadly struggle in one far corner of the hall, and neither one gained any advantage over the other. Then Beowulf slipped. On the earthen floor of Heorot they fell together and the force of their fall made the earth tremble, as when two giants fight in mortal combat. But Grendel's hold lessened, and fear smote the heart of the fiend. He strove only to free himself from Beowulf's grasp and flee into the night, away from this white youth whose strength was the strength of thirty men.
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And now Beowulf had the upper hand, and flew at the giant's throat. But here his hands clutched at thick scales upon which he could get no grip. Grendel nearly took the advantage, but before he could seize Beowulf, the lord of Geatsland had fastened both mighty hands upon the monster's arm, and with a sudden twist that forced a groan of agony from Grendel's lips, leaped behind him, forcing the imprisoned arm high up Grendel's back, and the beast fell prone on the floor.
Now came the final struggle, and sweat poured from Beowulf, while from Grendel there oozed a slimy sap that smelled like vinegar, and sickened Beowulf. But he clung to the monster's arm, and slowly, slowly he felt its great muscles and sinews give way, and as his foot found Grendel's neck, he prayed to all the gods for help, and called upon his father Ecgtheow for strength to sustain him in this desperate effort.
And the mighty arm of Grendel gave way in the terrible hands of Beowulf, and, with a piercing shriek that shook the gilded rafters of Heorot, Grendel stumbled forward, leaving in Beowulf's hands the gory arm.
At that very moment the spell that lay upon the sleeping warriors of Geatsland was broken, and the thirteen remaining earls struggled, as Beowulf had lately struggled, with the nightmare that was in their eyes, and swam out of sleep into waking.
Beowulf fell back upon the dais, the bleeding arm of Grendel in his hands. And Grendel, with a prolonged and ghastly wail, his blunt fangs gnashing together in dumb fury, stumbled toward the door, and before Beowulf could recover, the fiend was away into the fog which swallowed him as surely and completely as though he had plunged into the everlasting sea.
And Beowulf, his magic-dazed companions crowding and babbling behind him in the doorway of Heorot, looked out into the fog-wet night, and the only sound that came to their dulled ears was the steady drip, drip, drip of the mist from the black trees.
WHEN dawn crept clear and untroubled across the woodland and touched the gold-bright hall of Heorot, there came from all quarters the subjects and servants of Hrothgar the king. In twos and threes they came at first, then in a great crowd, for the sleep of the world had been troubled the previous night, and now, half eager, half in consuming fear, the lords and peasantry of Daneland hurried to great Heorot.
At the wide doorway they rushed, and then, in amaze and wonder, they stopped: for within the hall there was a sight which for a moment made them afraid to enter, and those in front were held spellbound by what they saw, and those behind pushed eagerly forward in order to see.
For high toward the roof-tree of Heorot the brawny men of Geatsland were hoisting the mangled arm and torn shoulder of Grendel, and the people marveled at the sight of this arm, the largest and most terrible arm in all the world, the torn sinews hanging dead, the red ooze of the beast's blood clotted and caked on the cruel curved fingers with their hooked talons of bone.
Upon the dais of the king stood Beowulf, wrapped close in his scarlet mantle, his yellow hair about his head like a golden cloud, and his sea-blue eyes flashing with the pride of a conqueror.
Then the crowding people flocked into the hall, and a shout went up from a hundred throats as the arm swung high from the roof. And men hastened away to the bower of Hrothgar, and summoned the king and his lady Wealhtheow to view this token of the stricken Grendel.
And the king and queen entered Heorot speedily, and hastened to Beowulf. They grasped his two hands in theirs, and Hrothgar spoke in a loud voice, praising him:
"Beowulf, son of strong Ecgtheow, hall! This is truly an end to Grendel. Thrice blessed are you, my son, and upon you may all the rewards of the gods be showered. You have delivered Daneland from a curse that has been the undoing of our people and of our power during twelve long years. Again and yet again, hall to you, Beowulf, great hero of Geatsland!"
Then the lady Wealhtheow the Beautiful praised him also, and hung upon his arm, and called her servants to prepare a great feast for all the people. And the feasting and drinking lasted all that day and well into the night.
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BUT the day following, there suddenly arrived before Hrothgar a messenger, his face all twisted with fear, and his legs so shaking beneath him that they could scarce support his frame. And so distraught was this wild-eyed man that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow and Beowulf and all those who were then in Heorot clustered about him.
"Speak!" cried the queen, whose face was pale. "What new horror have you come to relate? For you have fear written black in your eyes. Speak!"
Turning to Hrothgar, the messenger fell upon his knees and lifted a stricken face to his master:
"My lord, I bring terrible news to you. I have just come from the great hall, where I have beheld a most grievous sight. My lord Aescher, the Good and Wise, lies dead upon the threshold of Heorot, most foully murdered by some new fiend, his head severed from his body, his limbs crushed to nought. Haste you, my lord, for this is the greatest of all disasters."
Forthwith Hrothgar and his queen hastened to Heorot and there too came Beowulf and his earls, not knowing of the new misfortune. And once again they found the vast hall a scene of death and destruction. Grendel's arm was missing from the roof-tree and the body of Aescher lay mangled before their horrified gaze.
Then Hrothgar turned away and folding his mantle about his head, wept silently, for Aescher was the most cherished of all his earls, the wisest of counselors, the dearest of friends.
Wealhtheow turned to the wide-eyed Beowulf.
"This," cried she, "is the work of dead Grendel's monster-mother, avenging her monster-son. O Beowulf, your work is not yet done. We had forgot this other curse in our too-soon happiness. Will you seek out this fiend and slay her as you have slain her dreaded offspring? Already you have rid us of Grendel, and now we look to you to save us from his mother's vengeance. I fear unending desolation for all of us unless she, too, is destroyed."
At these words Beowulf cast his scarlet cloak from his broad shoulders and seized his sword. He called to his valiant earls:
"Come, men! Let us seek this new monster before the world darkens again into night."
Then to the shaken king he said, "O Hrothgar, I pray that you will let horses be brought to carry us, for we must hasten to track the foul thing to her lair ere the scent is cold on the ground."
At this, Black Unferth, son of Ecglaf, stepped forth from among the crowding earls, and in his hands was the mighty shaft of his black sword, called Hrunting.
"Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow," he cried, "you came amongst us a stranger, and I am filled with shame in that I doubted you. Take my good sword Hrunting, my magic sword, for it will aid you in this new adventure that comes to try your strength, a strength that comes, surely, from the gods themselves. Let us bury our past differences and be friends, and I will follow you to the very edge of the world."
Then Beowulf embraced Unferth like a brother, and holding aloft the dark Hrunting, and with Hrothgar upon one hand and Wealhtheow upon the other hand he passed out through the great door of Heorot. Down the flight of long shallow steps they walked, and mounted at once the fine swift horses that awaited them below in the streaming sunshine.
SWIFTLY, swiftly they rode, Beowulf upon a great white charger and the king beside him on a horse as black as midnight. Their trappings and harness glinted with gold and silver and precious jewels, and behind them rode the Danish lords and the earls of Geatsland, their armor gleaming in the sun as they rode after their leaders.
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Huge dogs flung their enormous bodies along the way, having quickly picked up the powerful scent of Grendel and his monster-mother.
On and on they rode, but the sun at last was clouded over and the heavens lowered upon them, while distant thunder sounded and forked lightning streaked blue the inclosing gloom.
All day they rode, nor did they once pause to refresh their horses or themselves.
On and on, over moor and fenland, through wide valleys they rode, until finally they came to a mere, deep hidden in an encircling wood of tangled burnt-out trees. The lake was small, but strange and evil vapors rose from its surface and the water moved as though things of monstrous shape and size swam just below the water, waiting for whatever prey might fall to them.
Above the mere two great vultures with blood-red wings hovered in the foul-rising vapors, crying hungrily to each other, circling and circling.
The tracks of the monsters stopped short at the water's edge and the great dogs ran round and round the mere, but there was no further scent, and, sitting down upon their haunches, the hounds mournfully gave tongue.
The darkness thickened, and while the lords and their retainers lined the shores of the lake, looking for they knew not what, Beowulf threw off his scarlet cloak and was buckling the black sword Hrunting to his belt.
"I go into the mere," he cried, "after this monster-woman."
A murmur of horror went up from those assembled on the strand.
"Yes, but I go alone," he warned, as several stepped to his side, casting off their cloaks. "I go alone. Wait here upon the shore for me. I will return, but when, I know not."
Then he fell on one knee before Hrothgar in homage, and embraced each of his followers. They crowded round him, protesting at his folly, but Beowulf was firm in his resolve and bade them wait upon his returning.
Fully armed, he ran swiftly into the lake, a shout on his lips, his fair hair streaming like light, and the leaden waters closed thickly over him, and the lake shuddered on all its surface, and Beowulf disappeared from sight.
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DOWN, down, down he sank. At first he could see nothing, and the dark water sang in his ears and lay about his body like a thick mantle. He felt things brushing against his legs and body, soft things that slipped and glided. At these he swung the sword Hrunting, but so noiseless and slimy were the invisible creatures at which he slashed that he could not tell whether his blows found their mark or not.
But, gradually, as he sank, the darkness lessened, and he looked about him with wonder.
The water was now luminous, as if lighted by unseen fires of phosphorus and sulphur. Immense sea-animals and fish swayed past him in the mysterious light, and each, as he passed, threw at him an evil glance from its glowing eyes of red or green or sapphire blue. Their scales glinted like beaten gold, and his sword glanced from their sides as from fine armor.
Below him he saw fantastic forests of living coral, and many-colored sea-flowers, but (this was a strange thing) he never seemed to reach those deep sea-forests, for ever as he sank, the tops receded from him.
He was attacked by huge swarms of poisonous jelly-fish which sparkled in their strange whirlings. These he cut through valiantly, and tore their clinging masses from his limbs.
Once a hundred-armed monster caught him from behind, and he thought that he was lost. The snake-like tendrils coiled and twisted about his body, but he turned in a flash and sank Hrunting into the vile body until the long arms were loosened and the water was stained black from its blood.
Down, down, down he sank, through that shimmering and silent world, till he began to wonder when he would come upon what he sought so eagerly.
Again he looked below, and this time he saw in the far depths a ruddy glow, as from, this time, a real fire of coals. He found himself sinking more rapidly now, and the water lay more lightly about him.
He looked up, trying to pierce the blue gloom through which he had come, but as he looked something seized him about the waist fiercely, and before he could recover from this new attack he found himself swiftly dragged into a glowing cave, brilliantly lighted from a great fire on a hearth, and clinging to his body the most loathsome hag he had ever beheld.
Her hair was a growth of long hissing snakes that twisted and writhed about her head. Her face was almost completely hidden by them, and all he could see was a hideous gaping mouth filled with sharp green fangs, and eyes that burned at him like live silver.
He was clutched by bony arms covered with thick rank hair, and the powerful lean body of the hag was clothed in strips of blackened fish-skins, foul-smelling and slimy.
She was of great height, Beowulf saw, but so bent was she that he looked down into her eyes, gleaming through the knotted coils of serpents. Her great jaws snapped at him and a horrid slime dripped from her purple lips.
All this Beowulf saw in a moment as he stood in her vicious grip, and while she devoured him with her eyes he had time to gage his position.
The fire in the waterless cave burned on an open hearth, and the place curved high above them as though within a giant bowl. The floor was covered with black sand, dry underfoot. And in a far corner Beowulf saw a massive shape which he knew to be Grendel.
The snakes of the monster-mother's hair hissed at him, her breath came hot and evil upon his face, and so slimy was her foul lean body that he could not hold her.
Her great claw-fingers sank into his flesh, his skin crept with the sickening touch of her, and they struggled there at the bottom of the world, in a cave under the water, and the great heart of Beowulf smothered him in his breast with a fear that was like nothing he had ever felt. Sweat poured from him, his legs melted under him like wax, there was a spell upon him that drained him of all strength.
He managed to draw his sword Hrunting, but so protected by magic was that mother of Grendel that try as he would Hrunting would not pierce her body and at last clattered to the floor from his numb hand. The fiend twisted this way and that, and with each twist the horrible hands reached nearer and nearer to his throat, and he grew weaker and weaker, and shorter and faster came his stifled breath.
He managed to lock his leg round one of the monster's, and then with all his fast-fleeing strength he seized the hag and threw her. But in falling she fell upon him, and now the loathsome, grinning jaws were close above his face, and the sharp claws found his throat.
But for a moment, the smallest moment in the world, she relaxed her hold, so sure was she of her prey, and in that little moment the magic was lifted, and Beowulf with a great cry hurled her from him.
Once more on his feet, he staggered to the wall of the cave, and found, suddenly, in his grasp, the hilt of an old sword which was driven deep into the wall. But the fiend was on him again now with a strangled cry of terror. Beowulf clutched the old sword with both hands, and with a great heave drew it from the wall, and so great was the force of the blow he struck Grendel's mother that he cut clean through her body.
Then all the spells dropped from him, and he stood panting above the dead monster. And he saw that the fire of the hearth had leaped high to the roof of the cave. Quickly Beowulf cut off Grendel's head where he lay in the corner of the cave, and then threw the two bodies to the flames.
Holding in one strong hand the head of Grendel, and in the other the magic sword he had found, Beowulf ran to the entrance of the cave and surged up through the black night of the water.
But on his way up he noticed that he was no longer attacked by the water-beasts and fish, while in his hand the blade of the magic sword, dissolved by the poison blood of Grendel's mother, melted away, until only the carven hilt remained in his grasp.
Up, up, up through the dark waters he floated, and all about him was a silence red from the blood of his victims.
ON THE shore of the lake into which Beowulf had plunged Hrothgar and his retainers had stayed for some time, but at last, giving up all hope of ever beholding the hero again, they returned to their homes. Only the thirteen Geatish earls remained, waiting for their lord. Some of these, it is true, wished to go back, saying that their leader had drowned in the lake, or that some demon had destroyed him. But these sad doubts were not held by all, and they finally agreed to remain for the longest possible time, in accordance with their lord's request.
Then suddenly one of their number, who had been watching the surface of the lake more hopefully than the others, cried out:
"See, my comrades, the water is stained with blood! What can it be? Is this the blood of Beowulf or of some monster with whom he has fought?"
And as all the earls gathered at the lakeside, a great heaving of the reddened water now took place, and under the astonished gaze of those who watched, the waters parted and Beowulf rose to the surface with a tremendous shout of joy.
When he reached the shore, they clustered about him, eager to hear what had happened. But he would tell them nothing, save that he had slain the monster-mother, and he showed them the hilt of the magic sword and the gory head of Grendel. The rest of the story, he told them, they would hear in Hrothgar's presence, and he urged them to make ready and post quickly thither with their glad news.
They mounted their horses, and singing the songs of conquerors, they rode toward the hall of Heorot.
There was great rejoicing when at last they arrived at the great hall, and a banquet was prepared, such a banquet as had never before been seen in all the land of the Danes or throughout the North.
The feasting and drinking went on far into the night, and many were the speeches made praising the courage and strength of Beowulf. And loudest of all praise came from the lips of Black Unferth, and all the earls marveled at his shining words.
Dawn broke upon the vast company, and at last Beowulf declared that now his mission in the land of the Danes was over, and that he and his earls must take their departure for their own shore.
Then Hrothgar the king rose in his place and said:
"Beowulf, my adopted son, you have accomplished great things for me and my countrymen. We thank the gods for your sending, and we wish to make some return to you and your earls for your valorous deeds."
And he commanded his servants and they came forward bearing rich presents of armor and harness for horses. There were goodly swords for the lords of Geatsland, and coffers of gold and silver and rare jewels, more than each man could carry on his own back, for himself.
There were carven drinking-horns for the King of Geatsland and fleecy woolens for Hygd the queen, stout shields of hide, bound with precious metal, helmets of beautiful workmanship and plumed with great wings, belts studded with gems, and many other gifts of surpassing value.
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Later that morning Beowulf, together with his earls, and all the great treasure that Hrothgar had bestowed on him, set sail.
A vast multitude collected upon the shore of the sea to see the noble earls embark, and among them was none happier than that ancient Guardian of the Beach who had watched over their boat in their absence.
As the sails filled with the fresh wind, the shouts from those upon the beach thundered out with immense good-will. Banners fluttered in the morning breeze, and Beowulf's ship was turned toward distant Geatsland.
And thus ended, in surpassing joy and thanksgiving, Beowulf's adventures among the Danes.