Patrick E. McLean
Beowulf and The Dragon
Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 3

Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 3


If you’ve jumped in the middle, here’s Chapter One.

After I killed the wolves, Beowulf took a liking to me, as much of a liking as he took to anyone. It became my job to pour Beowulf’s mead. That first night, very drunk, he said to me, “I would make you my squire, were there any more battles to fight.” I remember thinking he was silly for saying this. A foolish old drunk with his glory days behind him. Still, it was with trepidation that I answered, “Does my Lord mean to say that I am no longer a slave?”

Beowulf asked me, “Do you have any place else to go?”

“No,” I told him.

“Nor do I,” he said, lifting his cup. 

For a while, I thought poison would be the way. But I knew nothing of poisons or herbs. I didn’t even know who to ask. Even young, and foolish as I was, I knew it would not do for the King’s cupbearer to be heard asking questions about poisons.

I wonder if Beowulf thought me a coward. It's not a bad guess. Most men are, after all. Or maybe he wanted me to try to kill him. He was old, and tired and perhaps all he wanted was one last fight so he could take his place in that mead hall in the sky. He had outlived all his enemies, and all around him were cowed. The Thanes and Jarls jockeyed for position, politick’d among their meat and mead, and prepared for that day when their ring-giver would give no more. They would fight amongst themselves, as dogs do for scraps, but even though Beowulf was old, they were all afraid to contest with him.

I decided I would slit his throat in the middle of the great feast for the visit of Hanclaf, Beowulf’s most powerful Thane. Hanclaf lived three days' ride to the East. He was a Lord of the March, that strip of land that lay between the territory of the Sea-Geats and the unruly tribes beyond. In the absence of Beowulf, Hanclaf would have been a king in own right. But he had seen what had happened to the others, and sworn fealty. Now I can see that was just good sense, but the younger version of myself thought that we would be supping with a coward and his men.

My plan, such as I had formulated one, was to wait until late in the night. When Beowulf was well and truly drunk, then I would slit his throat where all could see.

But there was no feast.

When Hanclaf’s men came, they entered carrying a dying man and presented him as if he was a gift. From underneath the sheepskins came moans and the stench of burned flesh. There were no long speeches. No gifts, no ritual greetings. Hanclaf stopped in the doorway, blocking most of it with his great size and said but one word. “Dragon.”

They had greased the burned man with chunks of melted animal fat. I have not seen, before or since, a man so harmed yet still living. When the cover slipped from his legs, I could see that  flesh of them was charcoal. The warmth of the hall melted the fat they had slathered his wounds with and it ran down his legs and dripped thick blackness onto the stone floor.

With some tenderness Beowulf went to the man and knelt beside him.

In pained whispers the man told his tale to Beowulf. He had been taken as a slave by Hanclaf. Then he escaped and had fled to the coast. There, while searching for a place to hide from pursuers, he had found he an ancient barrow that containing the riches of a people who had been forgotten long ago.

But that was not all he found. There also was a burning one, an old harrower of the dark, the worm of fire called by men a Dragon. So the slave had run, taking with him, only a cup of the finest gold.

“How do you know this wretch he tells the truth?” one of Beowulf’s worthless, drunken Thanes had demanded.

Beowulf stepped to the side, and revealed the burned man’s hand. It too was charred, and melted into the very bones of it was thick layer of gold that had once been a cup.

The burned man shivered uncontrollably and Beowulf commanded that he be moved closer to the fire. The slave started screaming before the pallet was even lifted. Beowulf steadied the man with a gentleness that I had never seen in him before.

Hanclaf watched all of this moment and then asked, “My King?”

Beowulf waved him off and continued whispering to the slave. The sounds of the burned man’s misery grew quieter. And all of us searched each other’s faces, for some sign of what should be done next.

Finally, Hanclaf said “When we rode here, three farms had been burned and a small village. The gods alone know how many have been ruined since. I have come for men, men brave enough to face this Dragon. Such men will I lead back in the morning. I will gather the Thanes, and destroy this monster.”

It wasn't much of a speech, but the Thanes cheered it anyway. When the cheering died out, then everyone heard the low, phlegmy chuckling, that sounded more volcanic than human. Laughing, Beowulf rose from beside the slave.

“What jest is this my King?” Hanclaf asked.

But Beowulf's laughter grew and grew. I saw that the slave was dead and that Beowulf held in his hand a freshly-blooded dagger. He asked, “How can you face a Dragon when you don’t even have the stomach to spare a dying man his misery? There is your slave, Hanclaf. There is your cup. Why not take them and go? Better yet, why bring them at all, if you are such a hero? Why not face your dragon alone?”

Hanclaf had no reply.

Into the silence, Beowulf said, "Not one of you is even fit to be my squire. You have warred with men, but none of you have the strength, the tempered hate in your heart to do what is required." Then he pointed the bloody dagger at me and said, "Except for you.”

That was the happiest moment of my life. That was the moment I knew I would have my revenge. Many things happen in the heat of battle which can not be remembered or explained afterwards. This battle with the Dragon would be the perfect concealment for my bloody and most deserved revenge.

“Bring your spear,” he told me. As he said it, he smiled.

“What about us?” one of the Thanes asked.

Beowulf said, “Yes. Bring spears. When you drop them and flee it will give Wiglaf something to pick up.”

Patrick E. McLean
Beowulf and The Dragon
A retelling of the classic tale of Beowulf's end as told by his squire Wiglaf, who plots to kill Beowulf in the crush of battle.