Patrick E. McLean
Beowulf and The Dragon
Beowulf and the Dragon Chapter 5

Beowulf and the Dragon Chapter 5

At the end of a long, upward march we found an old oak tree on a cliff facing the sea. It was gnarled and had grown at an angle from being blown inland by constant punishment of the sea wind. The base of the trunk was wider than three men could wrap their arms around, while the top of the tree was wispy branches that I could scarce believe could hold their leaves in that wind. But we saw nothing that looked like a barrow.

Beowulf asked, “Where?”

“A path, down the cliff face,” came the answer.

Beowulf commanded me to go and see. 

Fear fueled my impudence, so that when I spoke, it was to say, “Should I kill the beast if I find it?”

Beowulf said, “Leave your spear so that you won’t be tempted.”

Defenseless, I crawled over the edge of the “path” and clung to the cold rock, as the ocean crashed against the cliff face far below. Everywhere was slick with the leavings of sea birds, but the birds were gone. I realized the last time we had seen animal life of any kind was before we had reached the burning forest.

I came to a hole in the cliff. As I moved and slipped my way closer I could see that that it was ringed by blackened rocks. A foul, sulfurous smell hurt my lungs. The fresh ocean air could not take it away.

The hole had been created where the rock had been blown outward, and a narrow path led into the depths. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was the keening of the wind in the rocks. Was the beast within? I am not ashamed to say that my hands shook as I lit the torch.

The walls of the passage were scorched. As I pressed deeper into the crypt, my feet scraped piles of melted gold and silver. Gems littered the floor.

The passage opened into a high vault. I saw a company of dead men in stone chairs. They must have been important in their day. Now they were skeletons in rusted armor and once fine jewelry. The one closest to the entry had been burned and knocked over. I listened again, but heard nothing. So I made my way through the crumbled chests and the caches of coins and the pillars that held up the roof.

At the head of the room, was the one who must have been their leader in life. At his side still dangled a fine sword. Without weapon and afraid, I tried to draw it from its sheath. It came easily, as if it had just been oiled.

I heard… Well, I don’t know what I heard. I imagined that it was  the scraping of claw across stone. I turned quickly and knocked the torch against a pillar. It exploded in a shower of sparks and went out.

In the darkness, I panicked. I lost my reason and screamed and ran. I blundered through the barrow until I found a pillar with my head, and was knocked senseless.

When I opened my eyes I saw my salvation. Lying flat on my back on the floor I could see a space in the ceiling where roots of the oak tree had pushed a few of the ceiling blocks free. There was the faintest glimmer of daylight. I rose and maneuvered a chest under the lightest patch in that dark room. Hacking with the fine blade, I climbed up in to the space among the roots. I moved through the earth as an apprentice mole, and  was just as blinded by the sunlight when I emerged.

The men recoiled in horror, fearing, I suppose, that I was the Dragon, Harrower of the Dark. When they lifted me clear, laughter rippled through the company. I did not join them, for the terror of that dark place was still on me. For fear of crying out, I did not speak.

Beowulf did not join in the merriment. He grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me so hard my teeth rattled. Then looked me in the eye and said, “Master your fear.” I managed a nod of assent. Then he asked me what was in the tomb.

“Riches,” I said.

“Go and see,” he told the men.

They clawed their way into the underground chamber. There were shouts of delight as they discovered the treasures below. But Beowulf paid them no attention. He strode up the hill to the tree and considered it. Then he said, “It is unburnt.”

I sat and hugged my legs to my chest. I did not want him to see my knees knocking together.

“All of the trees we have seen, entire forests of them, were charred. But this tree was spared.”

I looked up to see that what he said was true. In the whole of the valley laid out below us all the trees had been burned.

Then came the sound of edge against edge. The men fighting over the treasures they had just hauled out into the light, greed turning man against man.

“Should you stop them?” I asked.

"Let them fight. Their blood may yet bring the beast,” said Beowulf, scanning the horizon. “See squire, they have dropped their spears,” he said, repeating it as a grim prophecy.

I watched one Thane fight another over a golden hunting horn. The bigger man laughed mockingly as he wrested the horn from his smaller companion. The smaller man drew his sword and hacked the man’s hand from his forearm. As the larger man screamed in rage and pain, the smaller retrieved the horn and put it to his lips. The note he sounded was of bone ground against bone, yet it swelled until it filled the whole of that blasted valley. As the echoes of that terrible sound died away, I could hear the sobs of the now one-handed man again.

Beowulf pointed and cried, “There!”

Far below, one of the charred trunks of a tree unraveled from itself. Three flaps took the beast into the sky. The Dragon screamed fire, and rose to meet us.

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.