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The Saga of Beowulf (Complete Edition)

THE UNEDITED FIRST CHAPTER

Below is the entire opening chapter of "The Saga of Beowulf" as it was first written, with "Edgtheow's Tale" included. It is a fairly late draft, from June 2008, but it still received a few more rounds of polishing before its publication in October. A comment from queried agent Nathan Bransford prompted the removal of the Edgtheow sequence, as well as some further tightening up. In retrospect, it still could use a lot more, but here it is as first conceived, blemishes and all.

[13,411 Words - 28 Pages]

A NOTE ABOUT THE LENGTH: I've always loved long stories. The longer, the better, as far as I'm concerned. If a story is good, populated with interesting characters and places I'd like to visit, then I want to stay there for awhile. So when it came to writing a prose adaptation of Beowulf, I put no limits on my imagination, venturing beyond the horizon as the needs of the adventure dictated. The published edition of "The Saga of Beowulf" weighs in at 354,535 words, which is around 750 pages in standard text. To reduce the page count for the print edition the font size was reduced from 12 to 10 point type, using Georgia, which has a high per-page word count. In addition, the text area was increased by using 1/2" rather than 3/4 or 1" margins. This removed well over 100 pages from the length, although the word count is the same. So when you read the 618-page "Complete Edition" you're really reading a 750 page novel!

* * *

I. THE COMING OF GRENDEL

Flames rose in the darkness, illuminating the scarred face of a grim warrior. Light and shadow waged war upon the rugged features of his face, battling to and fro across the braided locks of his blood-red hair. Piercing, steel gray eyes gazed recklessly into the blazing fire as bright resounding sounds of battle echoed all around him: the ringing clash of steel and crushing blows of iron; the swish of sundered air abruptly cut by swinging sword and axe; the hiss and crack of raging flame consuming wood and sizzling flesh; wild cries of joyous victory, interwoven with the agonizing wails of pain and final, ultimate defeat.

Eyes bright with ravenous brutality, the warrior grimaced – and bit into a leg of roasted pig. Rising slowly to tower tall and broad above the stone-lined fire pit, he turned the iron spit upon which hung the fragrant carcass of a slaughtered boar, its golden skin now glistening in the flickering glare of crackling firelight.

A flailing figure suddenly flew past, followed by the thunderous crash of splintered wood. Edgtheow bellowed with laughter, spewing gobbets of meat upon the flagstone floor.

“Ha! Nice move, Æschere,” he cried out mockingly. “My mother could do better!”

From amidst the shattered remains of a nearby mead-hall bench, the prone figure of young Æschere glared up at the swarthy warrior.

“Your mother beat you, didn’t she?” Æschere replied, as all about him Danish house-wolves descended rapidly upon the scene, snatching up the scattered morsels of roasted meats that had fallen to the floor.

All around the crowded hall now eyes were turned their way as other competitions quickly sputtered to a halt, arrows nocked and daggers poised for flight towards the sundry targets hung upon the walls. To one side of the Golden Hall a straw-stuffed mannequin with flowing snow-white hair stood pierced and pinned against a timbered wall by many feathered shafts and half a dozen six-foot spears. Very few had missed their mark.

The war-like din as quickly ceased, the raging martial contests stilled as men glanced surreptitiously at one another, marveling at the bold audacity of Æschere’s words and wondering each if he might survive the night. Edgtheow’s mother was a subject better left alone, and one that few would dare to breach.

But Æschere only laughed as Edgtheow roared his indignation at the seeming insult and lunged across the intervening space, wrestling Æschere madly back and forth across the hall until the two had nearly rolled into the fire.

 

* * *

 

At twenty-nine, Edgtheow of Geatburg had long-since been a veteran of many bloody wars, a fact to which his creviced face bore vivid witness, for he had been carved on by his many enemies as he had carved upon this pig. Beneath his blood-red braids but one ear now remained, its mate replaced by five deep fissures running parallel across the breadth of his right cheek: a pale and deathly hand that reached out even now to grip the twisted angle of his nose. It had been left there by the iron-spikes adorned upon the heavy end of a four-foot oaken club once wielded by an angry Forest Troll intruded on while traveling through the frozen Winter wastelands far off in the North. Three fingers only had he left upon one hand, and but a stump of his right foot: the reminders of what a Norseman’s axe can do.

Yet Edgtheow lived, and dwelt here now among these dark-haired Danes, far away across the waves from his own home and clan. And though many of his foes had left their mark upon his flesh, each had fared less well than he; for he was skilled with many weapons, and had much practice in their use. Nor did his impairments seem to hinder him in any way, save perhaps that the ladies did not look on him as once they had. Handsome had he been in younger years, and not a few had been the women that desired to be his mate, and gazed on him with lustful eyes. But little did he now resemble of his former self, for the years had made of him a lean and bitter man. Hard had gone his Fate, and little of his former life was left to him. Bit by bit, it, too, had been carved away.

Young he was when he had made his mark, and life was full of many wonders and the promise of adventures yet to come: of fame and glory and the honor given one who has achieved great deeds. A son of Wolfric, heir of Wægmund of the Wendels he had been, born the eldest of his clan and destined to become its Chieftain in his time. From their earth and woodwork fort at Vendel far abroad he roamed and many battles fought beside his lord. Freely they plundered, taking as they would from those less strong than they, for Northern law made slaves of any man unfortunate enough to lose a battle and live on, and all that he once owned was claimed as spoils of war and seized by he who was the victor: his pigs, his plows, his wife, all taken from him in a stroke, leaving just the charred and smoking wreckage of his life behind.

Many pigs had Edgtheow claimed, and many wives had taken.

Such were Edgtheow’s early years, as swiftly he had grown into a war-famed warrior approaching manhood, and the time when he would take a wife and build a homestead of his own upon the rich lands he had won by his sword-hand. Rich rewards, indeed, had he been given by his lord and father, Wolfric, Chieftain of the clan. Gold and lands enough he had already at the age of fifteen that any unwed maiden he might choose would certainly be given gladly with her father’s blessing, and a handsome bonding-fee to boot.

Only he awaited on his mother’s choice.

For his own part, he was more than satisfied with any number of the many wenches he had coupled with already: Signy, Hogrid’s daughter, who had fattened up as well as any wild boar before a feast; or Olga, the blacksmith’s only offspring, thin and wispy though she was (but lusty and full of fire like her father); or even Gerta, Gottard’s ugly runt, so short and stout, but sweet as Summer honey like her mother Hediwig, who cared as much for Edgtheow as she had her only son (who died in battle with the Finns when he was only ten). But none of these were fit for Wolfric’s son, according to his mother Wilhelmina. And with each passing battle her sights grew ever greater and her goal more lofty for her eldest child, until such time as she was thinking he should wed no lower than the daughter of a King.

As for Weohstan, her younger son, she cared not where he spread his seed, for he was ever less than Edgtheow in her eyes, a thin and fleeting shadow ever nipping at his heels. Where Edgtheow led, Weohstan was sure to follow, never one to lead himself, but always right behind his older brother; ever at the ready with a sturdy weapon, yet never at the forefront of a fray. To many, as to Wilhelmina, this seemed a mark of weakness, and she was glad that Edgtheow was the elder son, for he would make a mighty Chieftain in his time.

Yet where would leaders be without their war-band at their back? Edgtheow was well aware, as Weohstan was too, that either man was less without the other at his side, and Edgtheow was always sure to share the spoils of war among his loyal followers when victory was theirs, as it more than often was. But still the fame and glory came to Edgtheow, and Weohstan was left behind when Wolfric gave rewards and handed out his share of gold and lands.

Little by little, Weohstan began to draw away and grow resentful, letting Edgtheow fight his battles on his own, until at last he found another path to tread that he could call his own. Weohstan would wed into another clan and go to dwell among the Swedes far to the north and east, as far from Wilhelmina as he could flee. And little sorrow did she feel at his departure.

But little did she think what Fate might lay in wait for Weohstan, or for the offspring that he bore, and how it would affect the future of their race.

So it was that Edgtheow the Red achieved great deeds and came into his manhood certain of his Fate, leading raiding parties of his own along the Baltic coast and looking to the day when he would be the Chieftain of his clan. Many women he had had, and gold he gave them from his growing hoard to grace their silk-soft shoulders and adorn their golden locks. None could stand before his crimson blade, nor stay his hand in battle when the fiery rage came to his ruddy face. All the Middle-World was green and new, and gold lay on the path before his feet.

 

Until the day when he returned from raiding in the South to find his own home only so much ash and charcoal on the black and blood-soaked land that once had been his father’s realm. No trace was left then of the path he’d trod so purposefully, no means to reach his once-sure goal, for there amidst the rubble of his father’s hall the blackened bones that once had been the people he would rule lay scattered all about the ash-black throne. And on that throne sat Wolfric’s crown upon a black and gaping skull, an ashen spear thrust through his jutting ribs.

And so Edgtheow had done just as his younger brother had before and turned his back upon his own homeland, forsaking Fate, and seeking out instead another life among another clan far from that place, for it seemed to him that there was no one left among his kin to rule. The men lay dead about his feet, the women gone, made lawful slaves by they who came to rape and slay while he was gone. All about him stood the burned-out shells and smoking huts that once had housed the only friends and folk that he had ever known, and naught was left of them but ghosts and bones.

Indeed, his own adventure had not gone as planned that day, and only he among the six young warriors who crept into the village further south at Valsgärde found his way back home again. A sable raven dogged his steps all day, “an omen of impending doom,” the oarsman muttered as they sailed their skiff along the intervening waterway that filled the shallow valley leading down from Vendel to the open grassland region north of Upsala, the site of Freyr’s hall, where every Winter captive slaves were sacrificed in payment for the withheld sun. Edgtheow himself had made an offering last Mid-Winter when darkness held the land in sway so long it seemed the sun would not return again. In Valsgärde he had taken slaves and driven them half-naked through the ice and snow to Upsala where Freyr waited on his feast.

He alone had done this deed, and brought the sun again to Middle-Earth.

Now with Winter past he thought to gain more slaves to work his fertile fields, and Valsgärde came once more into his mind. There among the sties and sheds were born the thralls whose duty was to turn the soil and tend the crops, and it was only left for thanes and jarls such as he to give them work to do to. Little did it matter where they toiled or who it was that owned the land they worked, for they were naught but cattle and could not own land themselves. And like the livestock and the women, they belonged to whoever held the victor’s sword.

The Uplands at that time were peopled as with falling rain, which comes together in each isolated bog and hollow to form an independent pool, and by each pool and stream a people grew. Each of these clove to themselves and dwelt alone, adhering to the rule of none but he who was the master of the house or hall. Some comprised a quite diverse and complex blend of distantly related tribes that had banded together about some great and mighty warrior whose rule was law, while most were little more than family clans that honored and obeyed the eldest man among them. All were indebted to the land they lived upon, and only the relative proportion of their swords to spades made the blood of any one more noble than another.

But many spades may dig the grave of one who wields a sword. And they whose days are filled with turning earth know well the way of filling graves.

Edgtheow and his band of boatmen came upon the peaceful farm as Summer thunder from the mountains, full of raging noise and raining silver showers down upon them from above. A dozen serfs they quickly cast in chains, and passed away as swiftly as the storm, returning to the shore where lay their little ship.

But there they found the boat all beat upon and bored with holes so that it quickly sunk beneath them as they rowed away, leaving them at the mercy of the mob of angry thralls that swarmed the shore. One by one they were drowned or dragged to land and treated much as was their ship, all bruised about the ribs till they could navigate no further; while their captive friends were given aid and liberation from their bonds and plight: the slaves made free, the freemen bound in chains to take their place.

Yet Edgtheow fled his persecutors by a strength of arm and skill at swimming none among the others had possessed, and swam the greater length of the journey home, some many miles, a feat for which he would most surely have attained great fame, save that it came upon the heels of such a grave and ignominious defeat and in the course of fleeing for his very life – and that there was none left to tell his story to when he returned.

And so, indeed, although his life was spared, it was not the life he once had known, for he returned to find his home a smoking heap of ash and dust: a home no more, but black and barren as the endless night, a silver sable raven shadow that followed as he fled.

Thus it was that Edgtheow left his former life behind, traveling onward north and west, then south again, across a broad expanse of rugged wilderness and many lakes, until at last he made his way into a land of men with red hair like his own who knew him not, nor of his tainted fame. And there he became a vassal of the Geat King Hrethel who dwelt there on those windswept coastal lands, not knowing all the while his mother yet lived on.

But to his former home he now would go no more.

 

Wilhelmina fled the blond-haired raiders when they came out of the North, and hid amid the dark surrounding woodlands with as many of the younger ones as she could find, hoping for her elder son’s return. Long she waited there, not knowing if the enemy were near at hand, until at last she saw her son for one last time.

Between the clinging vines that draped the hanging boughs she glimpsed him of a sudden with his head hung low, clutching in his trembling fingers his father’s bent and broken crown. But it was just then as she spied him from the shelter of the darkened forest and about to cry out that a hand clamped down upon her mouth and she was jerked about to face a death-pale face with blood-red eyes and snow-white main. Thus it was that Wilhelmina was taken by surprise and bound in chains, together with the others there, to be made captive slaves of the very men that burnt their homes and slew their sons before their eyes.

And as she lashed out from the savage clutches of the grinning man that gripped his bulky arms about her waist and dragged her backwards by the hair, she glanced askance and saw her son, unheeding of her sudden violent cries, had turned and walked away.

So it is that noble blood sometimes will seek again it humble roots. As a drudge his mother lived, a chain-bound slave held captive in the very lands that once had been her own, and after many years of bitter toil she died, not far off from the place she last had seen her eldest son, and with her final breath she cursed him on his father’s grave.

Yet never did she know it was her younger son who led the Swedes to them in vengeance of her slight.

 

So Edgtheow lived on, and found a new home to replace the one that he had lost, a clan of mighty men with blood-red hair just like his own, and strength enough to stay their greatest foe. There he forged with fierce determination a place among their clan, where he could once again achieve the battle-fame that he had lost, and with his crimson sword forget the battle that he had not fought.

Never again would he be gone when enemies came to his door.

No more would he wait until they came to burn his home.

Instead, he took the war to them, and made them pay in blood for every man that waited for him now in Valhalla. Thrice as many men he sent to join them there before his thirst was slaked, and by that time few men would dare to cross him with a look or word, lest they might undertake that journey to the After-World.

Only Æschere did so now and lived, for he and Edgtheow had become fast friends. Though as they rolled across the stone-laid floor of Heorot he had to wonder if his luck had passed, for Edgtheow now howled with rage as if Æschere truly were the enemy, and in his eyes a fire burned from somewhere deep within, a gaze of wild abandon he had never seen before.

Long since Edgtheow had paid in blood the man-price of his father’s death so long ago, though still he felt the guilt of it within his weary bones. Never had he known who it had been that laid his town to waste, for he had never set his foot within that land again.

But one day they had come to him.

 

So he lived and gained again his fame. Yet every victory had its price, and with each passing battle there was less of Edgtheow to fight the next.

Then in the year 493 the Geats were greeted with a new-found enemy: a blond-haired, blue-eyed race that came upon them from the East. And they were led by one whose eyes were red as flesh-drawn blood, with snow-white hair and ashen skin, the young son of the Swedish King. Ongentheow was his name, the son of Oní of the Swedes, and hard they fought and long, until the daylight waned and blood of both men stained the ground.

But on that field of battle was another warrior whose face was known to Edgtheow, and nearly their reunion cost Edgtheow his life, for there he met again his brother Weohstan, and in that moment stayed his sword and lost two fingers from his hand.

Then the battle rage came on him, and the tide of war was turned. The crimson blade flashed out and deep it drank of Swedish blood, until the King of Swedes lay dead, his own sword only inches from King Hrethel’s neck when Edgtheow had run him through. The enemy had fled, their newly-made King Ongentheow shouting out that they would one day come again to seek their vengeance for his father’s death.

But Weohstan said nothing as he once more fled the shadow of his elder brother’s victory.

 

Thus it was that Edgtheow was dubbed the Crimson Warrior of the North. And having saved in battle the life of his sworn lord, King Hrethel of the Geats, he was awarded with the hand of Hrethel’s only daughter, the fair and radiant Hælena, the daughter of a King, as Wilhelmina wished. With her he had lived a happy life for many years, and to him she had born a sturdy son.

Bear-Wolf they had named the boy, for at his birth already he was huge of bulk and bone – the very image of a bear – and from the very day he came into this Middle-World he had amazed them with his size and strength. No bed was big enough, no woven clothing strong enough to contain his swiftly growing girth. By the time that he had seen eight winters Beowulf had reached the stature of a normal man, and still he grew. Though all the men of Hrethel’s clan were born, they said, ‘with bones as big as oaks,’ few there were among them that had ever matched this bear-like boy, save only Hygelac, his mother’s kin, son of the mighty King himself, a warrior who proudly stood some seven heads above the ground.

Yet Beowulf was given by the Gods the cunning of the wolf as well, and used his wits as often as his bulk and brawn, great though these were, and this had made of him a bold and brave young lad in whom his father had great pride.

But long it seemed since Edgtheow had seen his son, and longer still his wife, for nearly it had been a year since he was forced to leave his home once more behind. Long had been the days since he had hunted with his cunning son up in the far dark Northern lands that once had been his own, and watched in awe and wonder how the boy had fought the wild beasts with naught but bravery and his own bare hands, confronting death with seeming ease and disregard. Never once had Beowulf shown fear, but faced the savage world at every step with a grin upon his lips and a look of stern intent upon his brow.

Long indeed it seemed since together they had traveled, a father and his son, traversing skillfully the still and silent forests of the North beyond the rocky highland hills of Geatland far away, gazing over lands they both had come to know so well – lands where he now longed to be. But Hrethel now was dead, and Hygelac his only living son now ruled those lands instead, and Edgtheow could not set foot again in Geatland so long as this was so. Each day he hoped and waited for the word to come that Hygelac had fallen, or had at last withdrawn the ban against his coming home.

But though he could not know it then – for who can say what Fate awaits him on the morrow? – never more would Edgtheow see those shores again. Never would he see his wife and child, nor return to the humble home that he had built with his own hands, for this day he was doomed to die.

Yet the deed that he was soon to do would long be heard in song beside the hearth in ages yet to come, and his honored name would still live on when he had passed beyond these shores to dwell in Odin’s Hall of Heroes in the land of Æsgard far away.

 

* * *

 

The crowd about the wrestling men cried out with taunts and jeers, laughing loudly as they cheered their favored victor.

“Two gold rings says Æschere takes the old man down!” called Yrmenlaf from the table where the nobles sat, just beneath the feet of Hrothgar, their High King.

The royal table sat upon a raised dais at the furthest end of the long and sprawling hall, directly opposite the entryway. There upon his Golden Throne the Danish King now sat, feasting with his Queen and kin, and laughing loudly at the scene of merriment spread out before his glassy eyes.

Four long rows of benches ran the full length of the hall to either side of a broad and spacious central aisle, the outermost pair set upon a platform running all along the outer walls some foot or more above the central floor (yet lower than the King’s high dais), so that those behind could better see above the heads of those who sat in front. Between these pairs of benches trestle-tables had been set up for the evening’s feast, and these were now a sea of half-filled mugs and spilt foodstuffs.

Every man that came into the Danish hall was given a seat assigned a certain distance from the royal table according to his rank and stature in the King’s own eyes. To sit at table just beneath the King was the highest honor one could gain, and reserved for those who proved themselves most worthy on the battlefield. These, indeed, were the King’s own chosen men, councilors and companions whose advice he sought in times of need, and who would ever stand by him in times of war. Ten men were seated at that bench, but only two now held the gaze of those around them.

“I’ll take that wager,” said the dark-clad man across from Yrmenlaf, clenching his teeth as he tensed his grip upon the other’s tightened hand.

“You only wish your brother could defeat Edgtheow, but no man has done it yet.”

The two young warriors were locked in competition, wrestling with their arms in the Norseman’s favored way: with sharpened daggers held point-upwards in the grip of their left hands, while with their clenched right fists they strove to force the other’s flesh down on the waiting blade. He whose blood was drawn would bear the mark of that defeat upon the back of his right hand for the remainder of his days.

“Every man’s days are numbered,” Yrmenlaf replied, pressing ever harder on Unferth’s unrelenting grip, gazing steadily all the while into his opponent’s slate black eyes. The veins on Unferth’s forehead throbbed and pulsed with increased intensity as beads of sweat dripped down upon their gripped and straining fists.

A thin dark man with hard dark features, Unferth was a mystery among the Danes. Few men knew from where he’d come, and fewer dared to ask. How he had come to be among them only Hrothgar knew for sure, for Unferth was not by blood a member of their clan. Thin and slight of frame, he seemed at first sight small and frail against the hefty stature of the average Danish man; yet his smaller size concealed a strength and speed that few would guess he had. His jet black hair was dark as deepest night like every other Dane’s, but hung about his hunching shoulders thin and lank like stone-washed seaweed, hiding much of his unsavory face from public view. Pointed ears and piercing eyes peered out beneath the dangling strands from either side of a protruding nose that ever seemed alert to all the scents and sounds surrounding him. And always there were his searching eyes, roving ever side to side as if they did not trust just what they saw, or were keeping constant watch for something they hoped not to find. A narrow line of close-cropped beard augmented the angled line of his jaw, drawing to a sharpened point that gave to him the appearance of an arrow poised to strike.

But small and thin though Unferth was, there burned within him a desire unknown to all the others there that gave to him a strength surpassing that which one would think to find in such a man: the yearning need to be acknowledged and accepted in a world that was not his, to find a place where he belonged within this cold, hard rugged land that honored and rewarded all that he was not. It often drove him on long after stronger men had given in. Fate had forced his hand and made him seek out other means by which to achieve his own ambitions.

He, too, was cunning like the wolf, and could be just as deadly.

“Some men’s days are shorter than they might be,” Unferth said beneath his breath.

 

“Gods, Edgtheow, you fight just like my wife!” Æschere cried, his head lodged firmly in the nook of Edgtheow’s arm.

“Ah!” scoffed Edgtheow. “Your wife gave me no trouble at all, I can assure you!”

The nearby crowd roared out with raucous laughter as Æschere bellowed out his rage, slamming an elbow hard into Edgtheow’s ribs, loosening his captor’s grip just long enough to break free. Spinning quickly about, the younger and more agile Æschere caught Edgtheow off guard, crushing into him with ferocious force, sending the older warrior reeling across the hall — headlong into Unferth’s back.

Unferth howled with pain and rage, a dagger imbedded deep into the back of his right hand.

“Two rings!” cried Yrmenlaf, throwing up his hands in victory.

The boisterous crowd fell silent suddenly as Unferth turned on Edgtheow with the quickness of a rabid wolf trapped in the wild, the hilt of Yrmenlaf’s dagger now clutched firmly in his other hand, its bloodstained tip pointed threateningly in the direction of his new foe. In Unferth’s eyes there was that glare of death that few had seen and lived to repent another day.

But Edgtheow was not so easily dismayed. Never in his life had he backed down from a battle, nor would he now. He neither fled nor flinched, but faced his assailant with a steady gaze. Easily might Unferth slay him where he stood, for Edgtheow was not at the moment armed. Yet Unferth would not do so before Edgtheow made him pay for the error of his ways, and leave upon him a lasting mark by which to remember him in future days.

But, in truth, Edgtheow was not entirely unarmed. No living warrior ever was. Three weapons were now within his reach: the iron spit stuck through the roasting pig upon the fire-pit by his side; a burning torch ensconced upon the oaken pillar at his back; and the gleaming dagger Unferth himself held – any one of which he could have in hand within an instant. The potential use of each flicked quickly though Edgtheow’s agile mind, and before a moment passed he had determined the proper one to choose and was prepared to do so.

Yet the need passed with the moment.

 

“Easy now, Unferth,” came the voice of the King. “You’ll spoil the fun of our first night in the new hall!”

A powerful warlord at the height of his reign, King Hrothgar wore his captured wealth for all to see. He was a rugged man with rugged features, all angles and hard lines, who bore no quarter for any foe. Dark were his eyes and dark at times his deeds, yet it was ever for his people that he fought – and for the immortal glory of his name as the leader of this great and mighty clan.

For dark, indeed, were the Danes in those dark days, dark as the days themselves in that cold, vast Northern realm. Slate black was their hair, and deep set were their eyes, as steely as the shining iron from which they forged their swords: the burning blades that would carve for them a hallowed place in the annals of history and a seat beside their fathers in the Hall of Heroes in after days. Cobalt were their cloaks, the hue of midnight blue, and sapphire touched with gold the colors of the flapping banner that ever flew above their heads.

Reluctantly, Unferth returned to his seat at Hrothgar’s feet. For right or wrong, no man could defy a King and live – save maybe he who had a troop of warriors standing at his back and the Gods upon his side. But these Unferth knew he did not have. For to defy a King was to defy the Fates themselves, and that feat only the Gods themselves had the strength to try, and to its will even they must bow at last.

Not for the last time did Hrothgar save Unferth’s life that day.

“Now let us drink to Heorot!” King Hrothgar cried, “the Hall of the Hart, mightiest of mead-halls in all the Northern realm. Never will she fall!”

A rousing cry went up and much golden mead went down. Great was the work these Danes had undertaken, long the days and hard the toil they had endured to shape these walls of wood and stone, to raise above their heads this mighty golden hall. Rightly were they proud of her, for none there were in all the Northern lands that had ever seen her like before, nor ever would again.

“A drink to Æschere, and to Yrmenlaf!” called out the King, raising high his shining cup in salute to those two mighty fighters. “Foremost among the Heroes of the Danes, ever at the forefront of every battle, on every battlefield. Much is the blood that they have spilled among our enemies!”

“And most of it their own!” added Edgtheow to a rousing round of cheers. Sitting to either side of him, the two warrior brothers upended their own mead-cups over Edgtheow’s flame-red hair, dousing him in a shower of golden ale – though hardly could one tell, so much of his own mead had Edgtheow spilled upon himself throughout the night.

“Let us drink to those that have fallen on those fields,” Queen Wealtheow announced, rising to her feet at Hrothgar’s side, “that they might never be forgotten. Valiant are the dead who now dwell in Valhalla!”

Again they raised their cups and drank, and that drink was deep and long. Many were the seats that now stood empty in the Golden Hall, and many the cups that would never again be drained. As was their custom, the surviving Danes would fill the cups of the fallen after every battle, though no man would ever drink from them again, for the cups were taken then to the barrow field and buried with the dead.

“A drink as well to Unferth, our Chief Advisor,” called out the jubilant ruler of the Danes, “whose battle strategy has ever brought us victory! Wise is he who heeds his words!”

The Keeper of the Mead was kept breathlessly busy filling and refilling cup and horn, crossing and re-crossing once again the Golden Hall to replenish their silver-pewter pitchers, drawing deeply from the store of casks and wooden barrels kept ever at the ready in the storerooms just behind the hall. There the honeyed mead and barley-beer were stacked in rows of oaken kegs once they had brewed in coppered vats beneath the Summer sun, over open fires of ash and oak. Long had the Sea-Land region been renowned throughout the North for the size and productivity of its honey bees, and their industry in producing thick and dripping combs of golden honey was matched only by that with which the Danes themselves produced (and then consumed) the amber mead and ale they made of it. Indeed, it seemed a ceaseless battle for the bees even to keep up.

“And to Edgtheow the Geat!” the King went on, reveling deeply in his great achievement, wrought by many hands though it had been. “Without whose battle prowess we might yet be at war with our defeated foe, or be sleeping deeply now ourselves beneath these stones instead of they. Mighty are the blows of Edgtheow! Thirsty is his war-famed sword, and deeply does it bite!”

Again a loud rejoicing cry broke through the hall, shaking the timber-crested stones of Heorot, disturbing the restless slumber of the Dead beneath their feet. In the ears of the vanquished rang the name of Edgtheow, the Crimson Warrior of the North, whom all men feared that were accounted wise, and of his war-famed broadsword known as Nægling, the Foe-Nail, that had sent them to their graves. Many were the men in Heorot this night who had seen that sword at play upon the blood-stained battlefields of Dane-Mark, and had rejoiced in that blood-sport.

“Even he has much to celebrate this day,” King Hrothgar said as he turned a solemn gaze upon the red-haired Geat. “For among us he is now as our own kin, and our new home is his. Great have been your deeds, Edgtheow, and as great will be your just reward. A hall and lands you shall have, and a ring of gold upon each hand for every man that you have slain, for these at the very least you have earned.”

“Would, then, that he yet had all the fingers on his hands!” laughed Æschere loudly in reply.

King Hrothgar laughed aloud with the rest, for this day his mirth was great, and little did he guess the terror that was soon to come. Here in this great hall, with these great men, he felt invincible and unassailable by any foe.

“Yet greater still is the honored place that you now share upon this mead-hall seat,” he went on, “here with me among the best of men!”

Again a mighty roar resounded through the hall, a single voice a thousand strong, rejoicing in its might.

The sound died down as Wealtheow held up a hand.

“Should you desire to bring your wife and son across the sea,” Queen Wealtheow added in a solemn voice, holding Edgtheow’s gaze, “they, too, will find their welcome here.”

A gleam of light was kindled then in Edgtheow’s eyes that none had seen there for a seeming age, for the glimmer of that light had slowly died within him with the passing of the days. But it had not failed altogether, for hope yet dwelled within his breast, deeply buried though it might have been. How he longed to see again his fair Hælena, and to hunt once more with his young son. That these things might yet be once more was more than he dared hope.

“Aye,” cried Æschere, slapping Edgtheow hard upon the back. “Bring your wife on over, so I can fight a real Geat warrior!”

“Nay, good Æschere,” chided Edgtheow in return. “Were I to bring her here, she would surely beat us both!”

“Ah, but do not be afraid, brother,” said Yrmenlaf to Æschere. “Your own wife will protect you from Hælena’s wrath!”

“Don’t count on that,” said Æschere’s wife from where she stood just a few short steps behind him, holding a new-filled earthen pitcher in her hand. “I would just as likely help her!” And laughing, she grabbed Æschere by the ear and spun him round to face her glaring gaze. “Not that I have ever needed any help in that regard,” she added with a wink as she poured the pitcher’s contents down his gaping mouth, then kissed him hard upon his sputtering lips.

“Then perhaps you should leave your wife in Geatland,” laughed the King. “Else she might do what no one else has done, and beat my bravest men!”

“That could she do, no doubt!” said Edgtheow, only slightly in jest. “For Hælena is a daughter of Hrethel’s line, in whose veins, they say, ran Giant’s blood. King Hygelac, her brother, is himself a giant of a man, a son by blood of Hrethel, huge of bulk and bone. None can stand against him on the battlefield, save perhaps my wife, whose wrath no man can long endure! Great, indeed, is her battle spirit, and for that do I greatly miss her at my side.”

“Then should you wish again to seek those Geatish shores,” said Hrothgar in a suddenly sober tone, “we will send to Hygelac whatever proofs he may require to show that we have satisfied the blood-feud you began, that you might once again return to your own kin.”

“Though we would not have you go, were it ours to choose,” Wealtheow quickly added in.

“Indeed, it is your choice now to make,” King Hrothgar said, when Edgtheow did not at once reply. “Would you sail from these shores if you were once more free to seek those lands you left behind? Or will you remain among us here, with those you now call friend and brother on the battlefield?”

The hall was now as quiet as it had been clamorous before, as all among that crowd waited for the answer of the Geat. But the light in Edgtheow’s eyes had been supplanted by a hardened glare that glistened as of icy stone, a look that some there took for stern and solemn contemplation in a man who had to choose between his family and friends, bonds that were not broken lightly, nor oaths so easily undone. And yet, had they known it, in his mind there was no choice left there to make, for Edgtheow had made a solemn vow never again to return to Geatland, from whose shores he had been exiled by his King, the brother of his wife.

“Why should I return?” said Edgtheow in a bitter tone. “To serve a King who would not stand by me when I had need of him? When it was I who saved the life of his own sire? When his very sister is my wife, the uncle of my son? And yet a foreign Lord who knew me not would feed and house me as a friend, and pay the man-price for my feud, even though the man I slew was clan and kin to his own Queen, defeated fairly by the rules of single-handed combat on the battlefield—”

Edgtheow stopped short and turned to face the Queen, as if he had only just become aware of her presence there, bowing low to avoid her gaze. “My apologies, my lady, for speaking of it openly. I meant no disrespect, and hold no grudge, nor any ill will toward your kin.”

“And I bear none for yours,” replied the Queen from her place beside the King, bowing in return. “Such are these days that we now live in, that men must fight and fall at one another’s hands. We are all of us a friend to some and enemies to others, and often it is not for us to say which is the one and which the other. Would that we could ever dwell in peace, but such has never been the way of man, nor ever will, I fear.”

“Aye, indeed, this is likely true,” said the King. “For a warrior to enter Odin’s halls another man must send him there. Yet Heatholaf could not have met his end at the hands of a better man.”

“Heatholaf was a worthy foe,” said Edgtheow. “And one I hope to meet again in Valhalla.”

“As I’m sure you shall,” said Wealtheow. “The Fates can but be kind to such a brave and noble man as you have shown yourself to be.”

“My thanks to you, my Queen,” said Edgtheow as he looked at last into the sea-green eyes that so painfully reminded him of his Hælena’s gaze.

“But do not harbor ill will for your own King,” said Wealtheow pointedly. “To rule a people is not so easy as you might think, and all things do not go as we would have them. Many are the times that we would take back that which we have given, or give again that which we once took.

Yet too few are the times that this may be. Such may well be the choice of Hygelac.”

“Not all desires are granted even to a King,” Hrothgar ruefully agreed, uncharacteristically reflective. “At times we must choose ourselves that which we are loathe to do. Nor are all our choices good or wisely made, and often we regret them in the end. Much have I myself done in days now past that I would fain undo, were it possible for such a thing to be, even though it meant that I might not be King of such as hall as this – if a King at all.”

“Let us then give an offering to Odin,” called out Unferth suddenly, rising to his feet once more to stand before the throne, “in thanks for our good fortune on this night of celebration!” The King was veering into stormy seas too rough for Unferth to maneuver comfortably, when all that they had striven for had come to pass at last. Much had he himself done that he would rather not be held accounted for, even if it was at the bidding of a King.

“And to Freya of the Fertile Fields,” added Wealtheow. “That our blessings might continue yet for many winters more. Perhaps we shall have our peace at last.”

“Aye, let us drink indeed!” cried the King, standing tall before his people as he raised his golden cup. His booming voice rolled like a mighty wave across the Golden Hall, breaking on the iron-fastened walls as on a rocky shore.

“Let us drink now deeply to our fallen friends,” he said. “Let us drink to those that yet live on! Drink now to these days of fame and fortune, and the many golden days to come, for none there are now left within this land who can withstand our battle cry. All our foes have we defeated; every enemies lies dead! No more now shall we bow low beneath the feet of our oppressors! No more shall we wander lost through foreign lands! Never more will any man take from us our sons and wives and daughters! Death to all our foes! Death to every enemy of Daneland! Death to any man that walks upon this Middle-Earth without our leave!”

A thunderous roar burst from the hall, breaking as a raging storm upon the land, a tumultuous outpouring of pride in clan and kin. And Edgtheow’s voice was not the least among that throng.

 

“A song! A song!” cried the gathered crowd as the smoke of Odin’s offering wafted upwards to the overhanging eaves. Herbs were sprinkled on the hearth to sweeten up the fragrant odors of the burning flesh and sizzling wine that they had freely given to the Gods.

“Aye, good Song-Smith,” Hrothgar called. “Tell us a tale to wear the night away!”

To the center of the hall now moved a bent and agéd Bard, cradling in his arms a golden harp as if it were to him his dearest child. Low he bowed before the King, and struck a chord to still the crowd. For this moment he had prepared for many years, and for it crafted with great care a song of special meaning to the King: this Danish warlord who had sheltered him and given him a home, with whom he had seen many wonders wrought by mighty hands, and who to him had been both as a friend and father. To him he would sing that song for which he had striven all his days to craft, weaving his words together with a poet’s skill: a song of sovereign Kings, a song of mighty clans, a song that would endure, and with it live the King and clan of which it sung:

 

Listen now friends!
To the glory of the Danes in days gone by,
Of the Kings of our clan, leaders of men!
Hear now of Heroes and the clash of steel,
The feats of courage of kith and kin,
Our noble ancestors, gone before!
Though they have fallen, their deeds remain,
Recorded in song, remembered by all!

Thus began Harthbard’s final tale. Alone he stood now in the center of the hall before the throne of Hrothgar of the Danes, weary of years, yet not weak of voice. Around him there arose a deafening roar as twice five hundred warriors bellowed out their proud approval of his fitting prologue.

It was indeed a mighty gathering, greater yet than any seen in all the Northern realms before that day, for no man there had seen such a noble hall as Heorot, newly-risen in this new-born land. Rousing cheers and ringing laughter filled the feasting hall. Drinking horns were raised and ale mugs clanked, spilling out their contents on the merry throng. Knife butts beat down hard on heavy oaken tables as leather-booted feet stomped loudly along in time. The sound of it shook the very roots of the stone and timber hall, resonating with a thunderous echo through its heavy high-beamed rafters.

It seemed to Harthbard then that the force of that sound alone might topple a lesser hall. But Heorot was built from the sturdy bones of a rough and rugged land. High above him now it towered, three levels rising one upon the other, with open galleries around the full circumference of both upper stories, where ranks of Guards were stationed at high windows with spears and arrows ever at the ready to fire either in or out. Vast and cavernous it was, tall and strong and graceful in the swirling spirals of its carven bones, elegant and regal as her Queen, gleaming in the golden glow of flickering firelight that danced and shone upon the polished swords and brightly painted shields that hung upon her walls. Bench and plank and pillar all were gilt with gold, inlaid with sparkling gems and silver-bordered ebony. And all about its walls, both outside and within, the heavy iron bands that bound it firm and held it strong were twined about with magic spells in carven Runes that told its wondrous tale.

Here stands Heorot, the Golden Hall of the Hart, mightiest of Mead-Halls in all the Northern Realm. Never will she fall!

 

Harthbard gazed about him at the wealth and splendor of the Danish King’s domain, lush and rich beyond the dreams of mortal men, Valhalla born of wood and stone in Middle-Earth. To each side of the central aisle ran heavy-laden tables down the full length of the hall, some hundred foot strides end to end between her oaken doors. The trestle tables bore upon their sturdy backs the weight of silver jewel-encrusted goblets filled with honeyed mead and golden platters piled high with foodstuffs gathered from afar across the furthest reaches of the Danish realm, plundered from the halls of lesser tribes that had been routed in open combat and driven from their lands by these battle-proud Shield-Danes.

All about him now they sat, feasting on the spoils of war, a brooding band of rugged men with raven hair and foam-drenched beards; hard men with steel shirts and piercing eyes; bold men with strong limbs and stout hearts; living, breathing men, bearing brutal scars that bespoke their victories over men now lying cold and still beneath a darkened sky.

Shimmering tapestries spun of gold and silver thread told in dazzling splendor the events that brought these brave men here. Upon the timber roof beams and the sturdy oaken pillars that supported them there were engraved entwining lays, inlaid with red enamels set in golden filigree, wound about with burnished bronze, binding them with the mystic force of the Rune-Spells written there. Every facet of this great and gleaming hall was covered over with the lavish work of skilled and celebrated artisans that rivaled even the legendary Dwarven halls of Nidavellír. Even the floor beneath their feet on which they trod with muddy boots was laid with polished stone, its patterned tiles embellished with the royal symbol of the Danish King that could be seen on every shield and banner hung upon her golden walls: the mighty Hart with its crown of branching horn.

Upon King Hrothgar’s head those branching antlers rose, a crown of gleaming gold crafted in the likeness of the mighty stag’s great horns. Heorot herself was crowned likewise upon the gables rising high above her outer entry doors – an arcing rack of antlers cast in solid gold reaching up to touch the sky with grasping hands: the symbol of the royal seat for all to see who came into this sea-drenched land.

Beside King Hrothgar sat his Celtic Queen, the fair Wealtheow, her red hair flowing down in tongues of flickering flame, a blazing beacon set amidst a deep dark sea of Danes. Born among the clan of Helming Celts from far across the Northern Sea, she had been sent to Hrothgar as a bride-prize in a suit for peace, to weave a bond between their warring clans. And peace there was these many years since she had come, for well she did her duty to her King. Wise and kind she was, and held in high esteem by all who once had looked upon her radiance and seen the sea-green glimmer in her shining eyes.

One other only among that gathered crowd had fiery crimson hair the like of hers, and that was Edgtheow of Geatburg from the Northern realm of Geatland far across the sea, who now dwelt here among these Danes and called this hall his second home. Yet little did Edgtheow care for song and story by the fireside as Wealtheow did, for he himself was a man of deeds and action, and to him such songs were made for old men and women to listen to as they sat beside the hearth and watched their lives pass by, while true men forged their Fates with axe and sword and strength of arms beneath a shining sun. Each man’s story was his own to tell, Edgtheow had always said, and none could speak with truth about another’s Fate, save maybe they who read the Runes. But even these he did not oft believe.

 

Yet it was of Fate that Harthbard spoke as he stood before the King, caressing still his golden harp, urging it to song. It was of deeds and actions that he sang, to celebrate these men of axe and sword. And as he sang the gathered crowd fell still, enraptured by the undulating waves that rose and fell upon them as an ocean flowing out upon the stony shores of Heorot, lulling them to sleep with its haunting melody as did the sweet voice of the sea, calling the mind back down the years to days long sped. Sometimes that voice lapped softly on some foreign shore, while at others it was this Danish sea speaking with a soothing rapture so melodious and calm it drew away all fear of crashing storms and swayed the mind to ease and peace.

Then the notes would scream and cry, vigorous and dissonant, and break upon them as a raging tempest on the rocky shore, with the surging crush of a thousand charging warships bearing down upon the naked strand. At such times as these the firelight would seem to flare and flame up in the warriors’ eyes, melding with the silver moonlight as it shone down through the open casements from above the rugged highland hills, reflecting shimmering images of far off places in a far off distant age.

 

Hear now of Scyld, bold son of Sceaf,
Mightiest of men, fearsome in war!
How he grew great in honor, rich in reward,
Drove clans from their Kingdoms,
      Struck fear to their hearts!
Far spread his name in the lands of the North,
Great is his glory both living and dead!
Rich were his gifts, the giver of rings,
He terrified his foes – that was a good King!

Again the Danes greeted his words with a rousing cry. Many times had Harthbard sung the Song of Scyld in his many years among the Danes, as it was shaped and wrought and grew with every telling, as did the deeds of which it told, and always it was greeted with a joyous welcome by this mighty clan. For what man does not wish to hear recounted the glory of his far ancestors and their immortal fame? What man does not wish to have his own name added to that role? Well did Harthbard know this truth – and knew well, too, that this would be the night to tell that tale, to recount in song the rise of the glorious Shield-Danes to the place of prominence they now held in this new land. The tale was complete at last, the song-cycle fully woven, and the greatest of the Danish Kings now sat upon the Golden Throne.

After many years of battle over land and sea, the rival Heruli clan had fallen at the last, defeated here upon their own shores, where no other tribe had even dared to tread, by the valorous sons of Scyld. On that battlefield King Hrothgar’s golden hall now rose, towering high above the dark and rugged moorlands. The Scylding clan now claimed this island as their own, naming it anew the Dane-Mark, for here it was that they had made their mark, and from here it would be that they would march out across the vast, rich Northern world, trampling all who dared to tread upon their path.

The King himself was pleased, and smiled warmly in appreciation of the Bard’s selection, knowing it was chosen to commemorate his own achievement as much as those of his forefathers. Perhaps this night there would be sung a new line, he thought, recounting his own deeds: how he had overcome his enemies and seized their mead-hall, how he had burned it to the ground and built another in its place, grinding the charred and broken bones of his defeated foe beneath the new-hewn stones of Heorot.

Hrothgar gazed out over the crowded hall. Before him were gathered the best of men, the boldest and bravest of warriors whom not even the fierce Heruli could withstand. They were rugged, brutal, blood-proud. They were Hrothgar’s kin and clansmen, and none could now stand before them and not feel fear. Many a tribe would pay him rich reward to avoid the battle-wrath of their blood-bold war fury. Scyld would be proud of his sons, indeed.

 

Harthbard sang on as strands of silvery light shimmered from beneath his nimble fingers, casting their melodic enchantment upon the still and silent crowd, telling the wondrous tale of their ancient kin, and speaking, too, of greater wonders yet to come. The Golden Hall was as quiet now as it had been clamorous before, the audience enthralled, entranced, unmoving in their silent reverie.

Rare are these times, thought Harthbard as he searched back through the years. Seldom do men of action stand thus still and yet live on. The Minstrel scanned the crowd as he wandered through the hall, weaving his melodious spell. Serving women stood as carven statues, frozen in mid-stride, platters of steaming foodstuffs now forgotten, flagons filled with mead and ale unmoving in their hands. Men sat with mouths half open, a leg of lamb or apple tart held motionless in mid-air. It seemed to Harthbard then that he beheld a feast of fallen men, that he alone yet drew living breath, while all around had perished and had only yet to pass beyond into the golden halls of the war-famed dead in far Valhalla.

Or was this indeed that place? Had he himself ceased to live and crossed the rainbow bridge Bifröst to stand among the slain in Æsgard and recite his lay to those of whom it spoke?

No, it was not so, for there before him sat the Scylding King upon his Golden Throne, yet alive, and master of these living men. Tonight Hrothgar’s name would live among the legends in the annals of his clan. There beside him sat his Celtic Queen, the graceful Wealtheow, fire-hearted daughter of war-fierce Helm, her red hair gleaming as bright and wild as the burning torches ensconced throughout the dark and brooding hall.

And there beside the Queen sat Freawaru, only daughter of the King, a child of but six winters tide who possessed already her mother’s regal poise. At her mother’s side she ever sat, imitating her every move with solemn dignity. In Freawaru’s fierce and fiery eyes there was the strength of Kings, the blood of Hrothgar’s line, and already it was certain hers would be a life that would affect the Fate of many nations.

Not so still or silent were her younger brothers, the brash and boisterous Hrethric and their youngest sibling Hrothmund, who had been locked in seeming constant combat ever since the day of Hrothmund’s birth four years before. Even now they strove for domination, tugging upon opposing ends of a juicy mutton shank, fighting tooth and nail for the bigger piece of meat, though there was food enough before them for a host of men, more than either one could eat in many months of heavy feasting. Yet feast and fight they did, for it was in the very nature of their Northern blood. Indeed, feasting and fighting were much the same to proud men such as these, and the line between the two was thin and frail and often hardly to be seen. For battle was the warrior’s way, and even while they celebrated were they ever in competition, vying as the dark against the light for dominance in this world of mortal men.

The high table itself was divided naturally at its center, where sat the King and Queen upon their golden thrones, commanding the respect of all they gazed upon. To the King’s side sat the males of his bloodline, whereas the women sat beside the Queen. Three only sat beside the King, though there was space for more; yet only Freawaru graced the table of the Queen.

To the furthest right beside the royal sons sat a brooding youth, darkly eyeing from a distance the Danish heirs. Here was Hrothulf, nephew of the King, the only son by blood of Halga, Hrothgar’s younger brother. Hrothulf’s eight harsh years had made of him a rough and rugged youth, renowned for fits of violent temper which would send him deep into a frenzied rage – a born Berserker like his father was, though where his father was now none could say. Halga had fled the Danish lands some years before, some said because he tried to seize the Danish throne, while others said he feared the very child that he had bred. But those who knew the truth were few.

Already at the age of eight this son of Danes had slain his first antagonist in single-handed combat, and made himself the bear-shirt that he ever wore from the carcass of a raging beast that he had killed with his own hands. He was among the youngest ever to be taken in and trained in the ways of the elite Berserker warriors, among whom he was held in high regard, accounted of much skill, and greatly to be feared.

But that was soon to change.

Hrothulf glared with undisguised annoyance at the King’s young sons beside him, then with swift reflexes reached out with his sword hand and tore the mutton joint from the brothers’ tugging grip, sinking his teeth deep into its juicy flesh. A single glance from his narrowed eyes silenced the angry words poised on Hrethric’s lips. Hrothmund, ever the wiser of the two brothers, simply reached for another piece.

 

Still Harthbard played on as dancing shadows rose and fell upon the towering walls surrounding him, moving with the flickering of the flames, looming dark and ominous above the silent Danes. He could hear them now, the Voices of the Dead, rising from their barrow tombs, speaking to him from the lands beyond, telling him of battles past and battles yet to come. Mingled with them then he heard his own voice singing still, coming to him as if from afar, joined with theirs, rising through the darkness of the night. And he knew it spoke of Doom.

He sang of how the mighty Scyld had come to them, alone and lost, a child bedecked in gold, set adrift upon the swelling tides in a funeral ship, heavy-laden with a nation’s wealth for the fallen King that lay amidst her bow, with his household slaves laid down in death beside him – and yet somehow the helpless child lived on. How at that time the Danes were helpless too, a clan without a King, for the evil chieftain Heremod had fled, having been driven from their midst, a savage ruler who had brought them only death and pain. Behind him Heremod had left no heir, and soon dissention split their ranks, threatening to tear their tribe asunder. Many there were among them then who perished in angry pools of blood, who fell into the flickering flames, or died of hunger and the freezing blasts of Winter’s bitter frost. Hard, indeed, had been those evil times, and little was their hope.

But Scyld had come among them then, as if he was a gift that had been given by the Gods. And as he grew in strength and stature he united them once more, made them strong and brought them battle-fame. Many wars were fought and many won, and the Danes again grew fierce and proud.

It was then that the Heruli had come upon them from their foreign home, fearsome, dark and deadly, thinking these Danes to be an easy mark for spoil and plunder. And so again war raged throughout the lands. Many mighty deeds did Scyld perform in those dark days, feats of courage and of battle prowess on the fields of blood, and great was the glory of his name.

But Scyld fell too, and into Legend passed, and only now in song lived on. And Scyld’s son fell, and his son’s son, and many long years passed while the harsh Heruli held the land, exacting tribute in gold and gems and offerings of flesh and blood. Many men were sent to evil deaths in watery bogs, in supplication to the ancient Gods at the hands of the vile Herulian warlords. And the Danes lived in hiding among the hills, ever wary and watchful, as rival Kings sat upon the throne that they swore one day would be their own.

And now upon that throne King Hrothgar sat, bold warrior son of Scyld’s son’s son, leader of a mighty people who would never more bow down, nor be deterred from the vengeance they deserved.

Harthbard stood before that throne as his golden harp cried out its mournful lay, and his eyes met those of Scyld’s living heir, a man now with young sons of his own who one day would sit here at his feet, and one day more where he now sat. After that no man could say. In the end a funeral boat would carry each of them away.

The ominous and ever-present specter of Man’s final Fate lurked in every hidden corner of Harthbard’s song, and a shadow of gloom fell upon the silent hall. No warrior wished to be reminded of that which hovered ever over him, and least of all a King, whose strength and valor was the lifeblood of his clan. A fighter faced his Fate each day, and every star-filled night that he beheld was a victory to be celebrated with boundless joy and vigor, for he knew it might well be his last.

Through the open casements blew a breeze in from across the quiet fens, encircling the room and bringing with it the dark, dank reek of still and sullen waters. Torches flared and flickered, casting lurid light over Harthbard’s darkened face.

And the shadows lengthened.

 

So Scyld fell as Fate decreed,
Strong in arms, yet bold in deeds!
Among the Gods and Heroes fallen,
With Odin now in Valhalla.
A ring-carved prow in icy bay,
Stood fast to bear him o’er the waves.
A golden hoard around him lay,
Where sped that ship no man can say!

A sudden thunderous roar burst through Heorot. Yet it was not the jubilant sound of cheerful cries or clapping hands among a raucous crowd that came to Harthbard’s ears: no shouted words of praise, nor beating boots upon the mead-hall bench.

As Harthbard scanned the sea of faces from his place beside the fire he saw that the Danes sat frozen still, as still and silent as the crisp Midwinter night outside the Golden Hall. Yet their eyes were widened now with fear and focused not on him, but on the entryway behind.

Slowly he turned to face the entry doors – too slowly as it happened – for he was an old man now and no longer did he move with the swiftness and the surety of Hrothgar’s young retainers: fighting men who were rising now as one – slowly, too, it seemed to him – throwing back their gold-twined oak mead-benches, reaching for the round-shields hung upon the walls behind, drawing silver swords and leaping from their seats to stand before him with their weapons drawn.

In that moment just before he turned, Harthbard wondered at this strange reaction to the song of Scyld’s sad fall, for he had never met before with such a grave response to the tale he oft had told. Should he have altered the ending? Excised Scyld’s brutal death? Elaborated on the glory of his deeds? And yet somehow he knew in that same moment, long before he had ever come to Hrothgar’s honored place within his long and winding saga, the song had already been forgotten.

Such is a Scop’s life, he thought. Told with the passing swiftness of a song, granted the warmth of the mead-hall seat but for a fleeting moment and then sent again into the cold dark Winter’s night, fading at last as all things must into empty silence.

Harthbard turned then to meet his own Fate, for it came upon him swiftly, as he had foreseen it in the lurking shadow-vision of his song.

And he remembered, too, in that brief instant, how the great Lore-Masters spoke of it: how the Rune-Seers said that when a warrior doomed to die upon the battlefield stands face to face with the Bearer of his Doom, and in that final fleeting second knows his Death-Day has arrived, then is he of a sudden aware of all that is and all that was and all that ever once shall be, as if the After-World had opened up its gates to him and he could see beyond. And beyond himself he passes then, and watches from afar the end of what he once had been.

So it came upon the agéd Story-Teller as he stood upon the threshold of that hall and turned to greet the Bringer of his Doom.

 

Those who have looked upon the wonder of the Golden Hall all say the entry gates of Heorot were not its least impressive sight. Barred as it was with double oaken doors rising twelve feet high and standing half again as wide; wrought from solid beams held fast with heavy iron hinges, which themselves had been embedded into solid stone; carved upon on either side with elaborate designs depicting in vivid imagery the many great adventures of the mighty Gods; and covered over in a laminate of gold – it was difficult to see the hall as little more than a framework for its wondrous doors.

But now those great gates hung askew, rent and torn, wrenched from their iron moorings by the Creature that now stood before the Bard. Through the gaping entryway a cold moon shone down on a silvery land, hanging suspended in a starlit sky, silhouetting in the deepest jet the dark Death-Shadow that now hovered over him.

Night has come at last, thought Harthbard as the Blackness reached out swiftly to embrace him in its deadly grasp. In peace now can I rest.

It took him then in its crushing grip, rending flesh and bone, sundering the sinew from the soul. Harthbard’s golden harp gave out a final cry as it shattered on the cold blood-spattered stone and fell forever silent at his feet.

 

“Arm yourselves!” shouted Hrothgar, leaping up atop the royal table to stand guard before his Queen and kin. “Defend the hall!”

A barrage of iron spears slammed into the hulking figure that strode into the Golden Hall, bouncing back ineffectively to clatter on the cold stone floor, their forged tips bent and broken, the ashen shafts crushed to dust beneath the demon’s grinding feet. Mouths gaped wide in wonder and astonishment as sharpened iron arrowheads struck flesh and shattered as if hitting solid stone. Serving trays crashed to the ground as chaos erupted through the hall.

Eight feet tall the ogre Grendel stood, towering over the tallest of the Danes, dwarfing even the biggest both in girth and height. Fiery eyes burned crimson red beneath the demon’s stringy hair. Sharp teeth stuck out at angles from slavering jaws that reeked with the stench of death. Razor-sharp claws ripped through human flesh, tearing life from limb, each piece greedily devoured by the ravenous, eager Beast, its gaping maw gurgling grotesquely as it drank down hot blood.

“Odin protect us,” Æschere said aloud, though Odin did not hear him there that day. Nor did Odin save them, for the Danes had been abandoned by their Gods. Or so it seemed to them.

Beyond the fire pit the Ogre cut a swath through the intervening crowd, making for the Golden Throne.

“Swords, men!” King Hrothgar cried as he tore a broadsword from its berth upon the wall. Leaping down from the High Table, he advanced toward the entry doors, brandishing the polished steel before him as he crossed the Golden Hall.

Æschere was at his side in an instant, as was Edgtheow the Geat, for he was never one to flee in the face of any enemy. A dozen warriors closed in on either side of the gigantic foe, each with his weapon drawn, but little did that sharpened steel avail them then, nor even slow the coming of the evil Beast.

Twenty men lay dead before King Hrothgar reached the center of the hall. Five more fell as all around the walls were splashed with gore.

And there before the fire-trough he stopped.

From behind him had come a sudden, thunderous crash, and turning, Hrothgar saw his young son Hrethric dragging a heavy, double-bladed broad-axe with stern determination across the flagstone floor. Had he time to consider this, the King could but have been proud of the bold warrior spirit that burned within the boy. But time he did not have for such astute reflection.

“Unferth!” shouted Hrothgar. “Get them out of here!”

Unferth needed no further motivation, if so much as this, for he was halfway to the exit at the rear of the hall already, pushing along ahead of him Queen Wealtheow and young Freawaru, for their protection was his foremost charge. With one hand Unferth grabbed the cringing Hrothmund from behind the throne where he had hid, and with the other dragged the defiantly kicking older boy towards the open door that led into the storerooms at the back end of the hall. The howling of the house-wolves turned to whimpers as they cowered and quickly fled.

Hrothgar turned back to the battle and his eyes went wide once more, for there he saw another figure standing in the path of the raging Beast.

“Hrothulf! No!” the King cried out.

But Hrothulf did not hear him as he stood before his foe, frozen in the grip of fear. For the Berserker rage did not come on him there that day, and for the first time in his life the son of Halga knew what it was to be afraid. Twice his height the Ogre stood, and Hrothulf knew with certainty his Day of Death had come.

Never in his life had he felt such fear before, and in the days to come when he was praised for courage that he did not now possess, and counted among the few who had bravely faced the dark Death-Bringer and yet lived on, he would never speak to any man of what he had truly felt in the deepest corners of his quaking heart, in this moment which he knew must surely be his last.

Darkness closed in about him as alone he stood in battle with the Demon-Beast, the two of them together, encircled by a void through which no sound or motion came, only a slow and seeping warmth that trickled down his leg. He did not hear the rising cries of his Uncle-King behind him as the Ogre’s arm bore down, or see how many others had that same fear in their eyes. Nor did he wonder at the sound of steel that came not from the creature’s sharpened claws or his own sword, but from another blade that suddenly appeared above his head, mid-way between the Ogre and himself as he was hurled aside by Edgtheow the Geat.

 

It was said that Edgtheow’s sword was forged in the fires of Wayland’s Smithy. Four feet of molten iron made it a blade few men could wield; for not only was it large in size, but it was wide as well and thick, better than the width of a large man’s hand where it met the hilt. Engraved upon it were the Runes of Strength put there by Wayland at his forge in Æsgard, and still they glowed bright red. The Midgard Serpent wove its way along the blade’s sharp edge, entwined about its length from end to end, that it might bite any enemy that came against its bearer. Down the center of the blade on either side a channel ran, ground deep into the steel to lighten it and give it greater speed – and leave a space through which hot blood might freely flow as it was plunged deep into living flesh. Yet still it took a man of massive strength to handle it with any skill. Many foes indeed had that blade seen, and many weapons clashed upon, but none it touched had ever lived to fight another day.

That blade alone now stood between the Ogre and the King, and its twisted edge shone with the fire of that mystic smithy in which it had long ago been forged.

Grendel glared at this new foe standing resolutely before him, and the Ogre’s eyes burned fiercely with an evil fire. The Crimson Warrior stared back unflinching as the Demon screamed defiance, spewing out its rage. And in that brief and fleeting instant just before he died, as he gazed into the Ogre’s blood-red eyes, Edgtheow felt he knew this Beast, for he had seen that look of dark despair before, the gaze of he for whom both Life and Death were one. He himself had felt its pain.

Then Grendel’s claws were gripped about his throat, and Edgtheow of Geatburg lived no more.

Hardened though they had been in the blood of many battles, Hrothgar’s men then turned from the grim sight that confronted them and fled in fear and panic from the hall. Shattered steel caressed cold stone as armor clanked and clattered on the flagstone flooring. Linden round-shields rolled across the polished stone to lie deserted under upturned tables. Platters of steaming sweetmeats, pudding pies and honeyed cakes lay forgotten even by the wolves, spilled and splattered underfoot.

 

Inside the silent hall Grendel stood alone.

Thirty Danes lay dead upon the blood-soaked stones about its feet. On their bones the Beast now crunched, feasting greedily upon their flesh. From the corners of its cruel mouth oozed the sticky liquid of their lives, its matted fur thick with the foul reek of Death.

The Golden Throne stood empty as the creature gazed upon it. Then, rising slowly from its gory feast, it turned and walked away.

Outside, the chill Mid-Winter air was splintered with a heart-rending howl that echoed across the fog-choked fenlands, rumbling down the mountain valley to be joined by another somewhere in the deepest recesses of the night.

 

* * *

 

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