Patrick E. McLean
Beowulf and The Dragon
Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 2

Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 2

This is Chapter Two of Beowulf and the Dragon. If you missed it, here’s Chapter One.

After I was captured, it was ten years before Beowulf spoke to me again. I would hear him, singing in the mead hall, berating his Thanes even as he showered them with rings. His cries were louder even than the mighty horns that blew when he rode to battle, and he would wake everyone yelling for the gate to open when he came back from a raid. In those days, they would straggle in for hours behind him. I remember, as I collected what was left of the horses, thinking maybe those who didn’t come back had been the lucky ones.

And understand, this would be from a fight they had won. Beowulf, it seemed, never lost. But I don’t ever remember seeing him enjoy a victory. He was never nervous before a fight, but he was never sated after. If anything, he returned more ill at ease. He paced the length of his great hall like a trapped animal, only settling when he had managed to drink himself into a stupor.

The night he broke his silence with me, I was clearing the wreckage of a victory feast. The few men who were left had gathered by the fire. Vulfgar had thrown one of the benches onto the blaze, and all the men cheered as it burned. They told each other stories about how brave and strong they were, and cheered in acclaim of each other’s untested mettle.

At the center of it all , sat the mighty Beowulf. He ignored the foolish boasting, drank his mead and stared into the fire.

These were not the men who had done deeds and fought in the battles, you see. These were the younger men. The ones who enjoyed the spoils without paying the price. The sons of warriors. The warriors were almost all dead and gone. Few on either side of a battle fared well when Beowulf was involved. Yet, he was thought a good King for the numbers of brave men he led to their place in Valhalla.

The door to the meadhall was thrown open and a man in a blood-covered sheepskin burst in. The cold wind sucked the warmth out of the hall in an instant. The men cried out to complain, but when they saw the blood-soaked man, they fell silent. The man knelt before the King and said but one word. ‘Monster.'

Beowulf smiled.

He rose from his seat and the years seemed to fall away from him. He glanced around the hall to see who would sally forth with him. But none would meet his eye. Their boasts were hollow and their manhoods cheap.

But I did not look away. At the time I thought he mistook the murderous gleam in my eye for bravery. I was on fire with the hope that this was the night that the mighty Beowulf would be murdered by a horrible thing in the cold dark.

You may not believe me when I tell you that the dark was darker and the cold was colder back then. And those things lurked in those long winter nights. The open oceans were ruled by monsters, as were the deeps of the earth and the forests. Men stamped a less confident tread across the skin of the Earth. Many sneer at such tales now, but that is a luxury. In that day there were still those alive who had lost loved ones to the things that gnashed their teeth beyond the the feeble torchlight of man.

Beowulf told me to fetch a spear. But he would not take it when I brought it to him. We rode upland, to what was then the farthest pasture. He made his Thanes bring torches, but he would not allow them to carry weapons. He said, ‘One is enough. One spear for each monster.’ And then he laughed like thunder in the falling snow.

The frightened shepherd took us to where his animal lay, torn apart. The entrails had been dragged off towards the glacier. The smell was terrible. I still don’t understand how something that ate only sweet hay could smell so foul. I think all of us believed that the man's sheep had been the victim of some creature from the wrong side of the night.

Beowulf, barely gave the mess in the snow a glance, and said, "It is a wolf. No more."

The Thanes, both hungry for glory and fearing for their lives, disagreed. How could he be certain? There were, it was widely known, all manner of monsters.

Beowulf silenced them with a look.

The Shepherd came forward and beseeched Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, Lord of the Meadhall. "You take my mutton your table, my Lord. I ask you to protect my home from the monsters of the night."

Beowulf nodded to the man and patted him on the shoulder. Then he looked to us and said, "There are no more monsters. Which of you will stay?”

The Thanes turned away and babbled excuses. Beowulf laughed and said, "I will leave Wiglaf and his spear.” This shocked me. Not the least because, I didn’t know he knew my name. Beowulf added, “If the creature comes back and eats another sheep, it is a wolf. If the creature comes back and eats Wiglaf, it is a monster.”

“So they left me with a spear to wait out the cold night. The shepherd was kind enough to give me sheepskins, uncured and smelly, but warm enough. I piled them on and sat. I must have slept, but I do not remember it. When the dawn came I was still alive, but something had come and drug the carcass away without me seeing it.

I became afraid for what might happen to me for failing in my duty. I know now that Beowulf was just using me to shame the others. In his heart, he probably hoped that a monster would take me, just so another monster would exist for him to conquer.

At dawn, I ranged along the base of the glacier, until I found wolves living in a cave. They were pathetic creatures, and winter had driven them to the edge of starvation. There were no pups among them.

But the biggest one, would not retreat into the back of the cave with the others. He would not even growl. He looked at me as Beowulf had looked at me when he had captured me. No rage, no foolishness. Just empty and ready for whatever might come. An endlessness in his eyes.

For that look, I killed the old wolf. Out of pity, I killed the rest. Starved as they were, they would not have lasted another week. Weakness is a tragedy in savage things.

When I returned to the hall I threw the wolf’s head on the table, leaving it to bounce and splatter amid the Thanes’ breakfast. Then I had no troops, no crown, no holdfast, no ring hoard. I had nothing to lose, so I was fearless. Now I have much to lose and I fear almost everything.

I told the room that they need not be afraid anymore, for I had killed their monster. Beowulf laughed and laughed.

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.