Patrick E. McLean
Beowulf and The Dragon
Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 4

Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 4

Neither Beowulf nor I slept that night. On his order, I found and woke the Blacksmith and brought him to where the King waited by the forge. Beowulf explained what he wanted. The Blacksmith understood, for it was simple enough, but he protested that the result would be too heavy for a man to lift. In response to this, Beowulf picked up the anvil with one hand and tossed it into the corner. The Blacksmith, his 'prentice and I stared at this with our mouths open. Beowulf said to the Blacksmith, "by dawn" and to me, "stay and help."

After the three of us had wrestled the anvil back to its place. The Blacksmith relit the forge. His ‘prentice and I worked the bellows. There was no time for steel and no time to cast, so the Smith worked it in iron and bronze. The iron formed a frame, slightly curved and taller than any man. As he wrought, he hammered like a man possessed, yelling at us any time we faltered on the bellows. Drops of sweat fell from his brow onto the hot metal, but still he hammered.

By the clock of my aching arms and back, the work seemed to take forever. But every time I looked outside, the night was still dark.

When the frame was done, he granted me a respite — I was not used to such labors — and sent his apprentice for the bronze. He brought it in ingots and hunks, and I was put to the bellows once again. And in no time at all they had heated, hammered, and drawn it into long strips. They wove the strips into the frame and formed a towering shield made entirely of metal.

As rosy-fingered dawn clawed its way through the dark, the blacksmith fixed a strap of leather to the back of the shield and tried to lift it. Using both hands, He was just able to get it off the ground. He held it for a moment and then it crashed into the earthen floor of his shop.

Beowulf came and shouldered the shield as if it weighed nothing. “Good,” was all he said.

* * *

As we loaded the stout, shaggy ponies, I saw one of Handclaf's men bring him the charred hand of the dead slave, still admixed with the gold of the cup. With a furtive glance. he stowed it in his saddlebag. When he saw that I was looking at him, he glared at me. I did not look away.

Many of the men had sought courage in their cups. Whatever temporary valor they had found had deserted them by mid-morning. From our column, I heard a men vomiting and moans from all around. The party was a score and ten, each mounted, plus the shield, mounted on a pony of its own.

The first night, we dug our camp in the snow and used some evergreen trees as a windbreak. The men drank and were brave again. I crawled underneath one of the fir trees and wrapped myself in sheepskin. I fell asleep to the sounds of their boasting and their laughter. I woke just before dawn and saw Beowulf standing in the smoke of a freshly rekindled fire.

He turned when he heard me coming out through the branches. Seeing it was me, he nodded and turned back to his contemplation of the flames.

That day, he drove the Thanes mercilessly. He taunted them. Saying that they were not even fit to carry my spear, let alone his. He all but begged them to challenge me to a contest of strength or skill. I was certain I would be getting a beating one way or another. I didn’t much care, as long as it left me capable of exacting my revenge. I had, as Beowulf had pointed out, nowhere to go and nothing to live for. My one hope of a good death lay in him.

But the beating never came. On the second day, we came to The March, Handclaf’s domain. What we saw there was filled us with awe and terror. From the high pass we could see the valley beyond, and to the sea. Large swaths of the forest were burning.  Many of the open fields had been plowed by fire and the scorched earth was open to the sky. It was the heart of Winter, but by the light of a burning village, this destruction seemed to us like a Spring in hell.

As we drew closer to the barrow, the men became more sullen and fearful. Yet, Beowulf’s spirits rose. He jibed at Handclaf even more, but the Thane would not answer his challenges. My spirits rose with my King. Of our company, only he and I did not put any of our hopes in survival.

We did not see the Dragon that day, although a burned farmer and his wife shared their tale of woe with us. They told us that there had been children and livestock. It was a halting tale, punctuated by fearful glances towards the sky. Beowulf offered our protection and invited them to spend the night with the company. The farmer declined. His wife, mad from grief, laughed at us and fled. The farmer made apology and hurried to catch up with her.

Our progress was halted by the inferno of a forest fire. We made camp some distance away in a muddy field and needed to clear no snow nor build no fire for warmth. By dawn the fire had subsided enough for us to pick our way through the ashes. The ponies shied and grew wild, biting at us and each other. So we spread out and each man made his own way through the desolation.

At the end of the day, we broke out into a large pasture of scorched grass and melting snow that led up to the headland and the sea beyond. Handclaf, the first to speak in hours said, “The Barrow is there, facing the waters.”

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.