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Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff

Beowulf

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Contents  Cover  Title Page  1. The Seafarers  2. The Danish Shore  3. Hrothgar's Hall  4. Grendel  5. Terror Comes Again  6. The Sea-Hag  7. The Sail-Road Home  8. The Fire-Drake's Hoard  9. The Death of Beowulf  About the Author  Also available in Red Fox Classics  Copyright  BEOWULF:DRAGONSLAYERRetold byROSEMARY SUTCLIFFIllustrated by Charles Keeping1. The Seafarers1. The SeafarersINthe great hall of Hygelac, King of the Geats, supper was over and the mead horns going round. It was the time of evening, with the dusk gathering beyond the firelight, when the warriors called for Angelm the King's bard to wake his harp for their amusement; but tonight they had something else to listen to than the half-sung, half-told stories of ancient heroes that they knew by heart. Tonight there were strangers in their midst, seafarers with the salt still in their hair, from the first trading ship to reach them since the ice melted and the wild geese came North again. And their Captain sat in the Guest Seat that faced the High Seat of the King, midway up the hall, and told the news of the coasts and islands and the northern seas.He leaned forward in the great carved seat, a small man with his hands on his knees, and his long-sighted seaman's gaze coming and going about the smoky hall, and told amongst lesser matters, how Hrothgar, the great warrior king of the Danish folk, had built for himself a mighty mead-hall where he and his household warriors might feast and make merry, and give a fitting welcome to any strangers and wayfarers who came among them.‘A great hall, a most fine hall!' said the Sea Captain, while the rest of his crew on the mead benches nodded and muttered their agreement. ‘Longer and loftier even than this in which my lord Hygelac has feasted us so royally tonight. And Hrothgar set up high on its gable end the gilded antlers of a stag, and called the place for that reason, Heorot the Hart. Aye, but he might have done better to have lived out his days in a shepherd's bothie; for small joy has the Danish King of his mead hall.' And he drank deep from the mead horn as it was handed to him, and shook his head, and waited to be asked why.Hygelac laughed a little, playing with the ears of Heardred his small son, as though the boy had been a favourite hound propped against his knee. ‘And why has the Danish King such small joy of his mead hall?'‘Because,' said the Sea Captain, ‘before even a King makes merry, it is as well that he should know who may hear the laughter in the dark outside.' And eager as he was to tell the story, he glanced aside into the blue dusk that thickened beyond the foreporch doorway.‘Who heard?' demanded Hygelac, no longer laughing; and the sea beyond the keel-strand sounded very near as they waited.The Sea Captain looked about him as though gathering his hearers closer; he would have made a story-teller to equal Angelm, if he had chosen the harp instead of the steering-oar. ‘Grendel, the Night Stalker,' he said at last. ‘Grendel the Man-Wolf, the Death-Shadow, who has his lair among the sea inlets and the coastal marshes. He heard the laughter and the harp-song from the King's high hall, and it troubled him in his dark dreams, and he roused and came up out of the waste lands and snuffed about the porch. The door stood unfastened in the usual way—though it would have been little hindrance tohimhad it been barred to keep out a war-host.' His listeners nodded, and huddled closer to the long fires, and here and there a man glanced behind him into the shadows. They all knew that bolts and bars could no more keep out the Troll-kind than blade of mortal forging could bite on their scaly hides.‘Grendel prowled in, hating all men and all joy, and hungry for human life. So swift was his attack that no man heard an outcry; but when the dawn came, thirty of Hrothgar's best and noblest thanes were missing, and only the blood splashed on walls and floor, and the monster's footprints oozing red, remained to tell their fate.'A deep murmur ran from man to man all up and down the crowded hall, and Hygelac said, ‘This is an evil story that you tell, my friend.'‘Aye, evil enough, and the end is not yet reached, for having once roused, the Night Stalker does not sleep again, but comes back and back and back; and to this day after the dark comes down Heorot is a place forsaken and accursed.'‘But can Hrothgar find no champions in all Denmark strong enough to rid him of this horror?'The Sea Captain shook his head. ‘At first there were plenty bold enough to spend the night in Hrothgar's hall—especially when the mead was in them. But in the morning nothing was ever left of them save the blood splashed on the floor. And so the time came long since when no more champions could be found.'‘And still he comes, this monster, even though the hall is empty?'‘Perhaps he hopes always for the time when some man sleeps again in Heorot the Hart. Still he comes; and every morning the mirey footprints and the salt-marsh smell are left to tell where Grendel prowled among the mead benches in the last night's dark. And Hrothgar the King grows old in sorrow, and in the hope—but he can have little hope left him now—that one day Wyrd who weaves the fates of men may send him a champion strong enough to free him and his people from the Death-Shadow that fills their nights with horror.'Among the thanes crowding the long benches, one leaned forward, his arms across his knees and his eyes levelled on the Sea Captain's face, as though the dark tale struck closer home to him than to the rest. A young man, fair-headed and grey-eyed as most of his fellows were, but taller than they by half a head, and with strength that could out-wrestle the great Northern bear showing in the quiet muscles of his neck and shoulders. He sat in a place that was not particularly high, nor yet particularly lowly; indeed he was one who seldom cared about his rightful place unless another man thought to deny it to him. Yet there was something in his face and his whole bearing that would have marked him for what he was, even to the passing glance of a stranger. For this was Beowulf, sister's-son to the King and foremost among his warriors.To the other men in Hygelac's hall that night the seafarer's story had been no more than a far-off tale, though one to raise the neck-hair and set one glancing into the shadows; but to Beowulf it was word of a friend in dire trouble, and an old debt waiting to be paid.Long since, before Beowulf was born, Ecgtheow his father had killed one of the powerful tribe of the Wylfings; and, like many another man who had become embroiled in a blood feud, he had taken to the wild life of a sea-rover, carrying off his young wife to share it with him. Storm-driven, they had come to the court of Hrothgar, and there, through the years that followed, the young rover had found such a friend in the Danish King as few men find in their need. Ecgtheow was dead now, but his son, born at the Danish court, had not forgotten. Besides, he himself knew well the life of a sea-rover, and the longing for adventure that was in his blood had been stirring in him these past weeks, as it did every year when the thaw came and the birch buds thickened. He thought of his long war-boat, freshly caulked and painted after the storms of last year, waiting for him in the boat shed as a mare waits for her rider; and he took his gaze from the Sea Captain's face and glanced about him at the faces of his companions, his shoulder-to-shoulder men who had taken the seaways with him in other summers.And out of the shadows and the firelight and the flare of the torches, Waegmund his kinsman and young Hondscio and Scaef and the rest looked back at him with brightening eyes, once more a brotherhood and a war-boat's crew.Then Beowulf got to his feet, and strode up the hall to stand before the High Seat where Hygelac sat with his small son against his knee. ‘My lord Hygelac, I ask your leave to go on a sea-faring.'Hygelac looked at his young kinsman keenly. ‘Maybe I will give you leave to follow the sea-roads again; but first tell me what is in your heart.'‘When my father needed a friend at his shoulder, he found such a one in this Hrothgar of the Danes,' Beowulf said. ‘Shelter he gave to my father and my mother, and to me also when the time came that she bore me; and my first memories are of lying on a wolfskin before his fire. He paid the Wergild, the fine, for the man my father slew, and made peace between him and the Wylfings, so that a time came in my sixth summer, when my father might return home to his own kind again. Now it seems that Hrothgar himself stands sorely in need of a friend and it is time for me to repay the debt.'Hygelac bent his head, and trouble lay like a shadow on his face. ‘I thought so. I thought so . . . Beowulf, sister's-son, you are foremost among my warriors, and save for the boy here, you are almost the only kinsman left to me; and I grieve to see you go upon such a perilous sea-faring. Yet a man should pay his debts. Go then, but remember that there will be anxious eyes watching here from the cliff tops for your returning sail at sea.'2. The Danish Shore2. The Danish ShoreHROTHGAR'SCoast Warden, sitting his horse on the cliff top northward of Heorot, saw a strange vessel running in from the open sea, between the high headlands at the mouth of the fjord. A war-galley, long and slim and swift; and the light blinked on the painted shields hung along her bulwarks and the grey battle-gear of the men who swung to her oars. Her square striped sail fell slack as the headland took the wind from it, and then came rattling down, and urged by her rowers she headed like some eager many-legged sea creature for the low shelving beach where the cliffs dropped at the head of the fjord.Frowning, the Coast Warden wheeled his horse, and touching his heel to its flank, urged it into the cliff path that looped down in the same direction. He came out through the furze and the salt-burned bush-tangle above the shore, just as the strange war-boat came lightly in through the shallows. Her crew unshipped their oars and sprang overboard into the white oar-thresh while it still foamed along her sides, and now they were running her up the shingle to strand on the tide-line.Fifteen of them, the Coast Warden counted; and the sunlight sparkled on their weapons as they swung their painted linden shields clear of the bulwarks; and yet they had not the wolf-pack look of a raiding band. Again he touched his heel to his horse's flank and, spear in hand, rode down into their midst, where they turned at the sound of hooves and stood waiting for his coming, gathered about the upreared dragon prow of their vessel.To one who was clearly the leader among them, a very tall man whose eyes were coloured like deep water on a cloudy day, the Coast Warden spoke boldly, yet courteously enough. ‘Who are you, strangers from across the sea, and what purpose brings you to this landfall on the Danish shore? You come in war array, armed as for battle, yet you have not the look of those who come to burn farms and drive off women and cattle.'‘In truth, though we come in war array, the battle that we seek is not with the Danish folk,' the tall man said. ‘As to who we are—I am Beowulf, sister's-son to Hygelac King of the Geats, and these with me are my sword-brothers and hearth-companions. As to our purpose—a few days since, word came to Hygelac's Court that Hrothgar of the Danes was in need of champions to rid him of the monster that walks his hall at night; and so we are come, following the Whale's Road southward across the grey Baltic from our own strand.'For a long moment, while the surf creamed on the shore, the Coast Warden sat his horse and looked at them, his eyes narrowed under his brows; he was old and a judge of men. Then he nodded. ‘So. It is long and long that Hrothgar and all his folk have waited for such champions. Come then, and I will set you on your way to the King's hall.'‘First we must make all secure here,' said Beowulf, and he reached up his hand and set it on the swell of the painted dragon-prow above him, caressingly as though it were a living thing. ‘Horse or vessel should be tended first of all things at a journey's end.'‘Have no fear for your proud vessel. I will send trustworthy men of my own to make all fast with a barricade of oars against the high tide.' The old man was eager now. ‘If you are indeed the champions you seem, let Hrothgar my lord wait no longer, for he has waited over long already for help,' and he pointed along a rough track that wound up from the beach through the furze and the hazel thickets. ‘See, our way lies yonder.'In single file, for the track was too narrow to walk abreast, Beowulf and his comrades followed the old Warden on his horse up from the head of the fjord, a grey mailed serpent of men, the forged rings of their battle-sarks ringing as they moved. On the crest of the ridge where the wind-shaped trees fell back, the track changed abruptly into a paved road, and there they checked, with the sea wind humming against their mailed shoulders. Behind them was the way home, the fjord running out between its nesses to the open sea, and the war-boat lying like a basking seal among the brown sea-wrack and the drift-wood on the high tide line. Ahead of them lay the unknown and the hazard that they had come to seek. From their feet the land dropped away into a shallow vale, then rose again to sombre moors inland, and a mile off, in the trough of the vale between the coast and the moors, Beowulf, narrowing his eyes into the sunlight, could see a great hall rising among a scatter of lesser roofs, the green and brown of tilled land, the darker dapple of orchard trees. And straight towards the hall, purposeful as the flight of an arrow, ran the paved road on which he stood.‘Yonder is Heorot,' said the Coast Warden's voice in his ear. ‘The road will take you to the very door-sill. I must be away back to the coast, but do you go forward now, my friends, and have no fear for your ship; she shall be well tended.' And without another word he swung his horse in a half circle and was gone, trampling away down the rough track behind them. And Beowulf and his companions went forward alone.Down from the high coast-wise ridge they strode, into the green pasture lands where the cattle and horses grazed, through the cornland where the young barley was already a mist of green over the dark earth, between the first heather-thatched homesteads of the settlement, each with its bee skeps along the wall and its few apple trees, where children and dogs and lean pigs were playing together, and women grinding corn or spinning in their doorways looked up to watch the strangers pass.It all seemed peaceful enough—now, with the sun still high in the sky.In the midst of the settlement the roof of the King's hall rose higher and higher as they drew towards it; Heorot the Hart, heather-thatched like all the rest, but with the gilded antlers on the gable ends proudly up-tossed towards the sky. Straight to the foreporch doorway ran the paved road; and up it, their war-gear sounding on them as the feathers of wild swans sound in flight, strode the fifteen Geats.In the doorway one of the household thanes stood leaning on a spear; a dark man with beads of yellow sea-washed amber round his neck. His gaze was upon them as they came to a halt before him; and he asked, as the Coast Warden had asked, ‘Who are you, strangers who come in war-harness to the threshold of Hrothgar the King? And what is it that you seek here?'‘As to who we are—I am sister's-son to Hygelac, King of the Geats, and these with me are my sword-brothers and hearth-companions,' Beowulf replied, as he had done before. ‘As to what we seek here—we would have word with Hrothgar the King, for our business is with him.'‘Wait then, and I will carry your name to Hrothgar,' said the man, and turned back into the fire-flickered shadows behind him, from which came men's voices and the smell of roast meat.Beowulf and his comrades sat down on the guest-bench in the sunlight before the door, but they had only a short time to wait before the door-thane returned, and at his bidding they stacked their shields and ashen spears against the wall, and followed him into the hall where Hrothgar's house-thanes sat at meat.Great and splendid indeed was Heorot to the gaze of Beowulf as he stepped across the door-sill on to the many-coloured flagstones of the floor. Down the midst of the hall the fires blazed on their three hearths, and the smoke curled upwards to find its way out through the openings in the roof high overhead, and through the drifting haze that hung about the place he saw the warriors at the long tables, with mead horns and boar flesh and huge piles of barley cakes before them; saw too the walls and roof-trees rich with worked hangings and ornaments of white walrus ivory, and the shields and spears of the warriors hung above the mead benches.Hrothgar's High Seat was not midway up the hall, as was the High Seat in Hygelac's hall, but on a raised dais at the far end, and so the Geatish warriors must walk the full length of the place, between the long trestle tables, to come to him; and all tongues fell silent and every eye was turned upon them, but especially upon their tall leader, as they passed.At the step of the dais Beowulf halted and stood proudly confronting Hrothgar; and the Danish King leaned forward, hands clenched on the foreposts of his great carved seat, to stare down at him.3. Hrothgar's Hall
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