The world ended yesterday.
In the cold, bright morning of the new day, Beowulf found Unferth’s arm and brought it to him.
Unferth lay groaning from his wounds in the Great Hall of Heorot. He had gone down like a true warrior, fighting Grendel’s Dam with great skill, but to no avail. The monstrous hag had ripped Unferth’s arm off at the shoulder, leaving the torn ends crimson, and sticky with the warrior’s half-frozen blood.
She liked to do that, Beowulf thought. She’d done the same to his own arm not two nights before, and he had only just healed.
Unferth woke as Beowulf knelt over him.
“So it begins again,” he said, with a bleak expression on his blood-streaked face. He sat up clumsily, trying to balance with his remaining arm.
Tenderly, Beowulf pressed Unferth’s severed arm against his shoulder and watched as the flesh knit itself back together, accompanied by Unferth’s groans of pain. The healing always hurt.
The cry of an infant echoed through the Great Hall. But it sounded all wrong: wet and bubbly.
Unferth’s pale blue eyes widened. “Gods,” he said. But he need not have said anything, for Beowulf already knew what had happened. As they had lain senseless and torn, the fiend had gone for Wiglaf, Beowulf’s son.
Each night for six moons, Grendel’s Dam had laid waste to the warriors of Heorot and their women. Yet because they had hidden him with care and skill, Wiglaf alone had survived. Not only survived, but grown!
And each night of that six-month, the fiend had smelled Wiglaf’s infant scent, but could not find him. Beowulf knew that the monstrous crone wanted his son’s baby blood. She lusted for it more dearly than lovers lust for each other. It was only natural, Beowulf reflected. Wiglaf’s suffering would revenge her for her monstrous son Grendel’s death. The night before, it had first been Unferth who had distracted her, and then Beowulf.
But Unferth had failed. Beowulf had failed.
Grendel’s Dam was unlike any other monster Beowulf had ever known, though he had fought sea monsters, and dragons, and had truly vanquished the hag’s own son, Grendel.
Grendel’s thick, dying blood had blackened Heorot’s lake, but as they feasted in victory, the hag issued forth from the dark and brackish mess, screaming her loneliness and fierce rage, and cursing them all, Danes and Geatish hero alike.
“Fight and die each night. Live again next morn. Blood and misery be your dominion until you learn to live.”
The learning of it hardly made any sense. If only they could stop living. Every morning, they would wake to find themselves torn limb from limb. And though they screamed with pain, and yearned for death, their torn, broken bodies would knit themselves together; and then they did it all again.
Unferth had healed enough to walk. He grasped Beowulf’s wrist as the infant’s cries grew desperate, rising into a keening wail of agony. The warrior-friends searched the carnage-strewn hall for Beowulf’s son. They stepped over the severed limbs of yet-to-be healed Danelaw warriors as they searched for Wiglaf, finding his tiny, broken body near the ashes of the women’s hearth.
“May the Gods destroy her,” Unferth said, as Beowulf gathered his infant son in his arms.
Beowulf forced himself to watch the ragged, bloody tissues of his child’s tiny chest as the flesh rippled in the cold air, struggling to knit itself together.
“This must stop,” Beowulf said, his teeth clenched.
“But what shall we do?” Unferth asked. “We fight her every night. Are we not brave men? Did you not vanquish her son? And he was more powerful than she, I swear it.”
Beowulf shook his head. “In body, perhaps,” he said. “But her rage has fueled this curse.”
“The Gods have turned from us,” Unferth said, lowering his head in shame.
Beowulf felt himself smiling cheerlessly as he held Wiglaf close to his chest, and the child’s desperate cries quieted.
“Do you think they have forsaken us, brother?”
Unferth’s blue eyes were clouded with uncertainty, and fear. “I do not know. We are responsible for our own lives, I do know that.”
“Look,” Beowulf said, pointing to the rest of the Danes, groaning as they gathered their torn limbs and put themselves back together in silent, tight-lipped agony. “Do you think that the world can end each night and come back every morning forever? There has to be an end to this,” he said. “Even if it means a true death. For all of us.”
Unferth said nothing.
Wiglaf’s innocent face, eyes shut tight, cheeks streaked red with blood, his hair dark and knotted with dried blood, and caked gray ashes from the hearth, made Beowulf’s throat tighten in anger and grief.
“I would do anything to keep my son from this,” he said. “Even kill him with Hrunting, my own sword.”
“No,” Unferth replied. He grabbed Beowulf’s wrist. “That cannot be. Such a death cannot be right.” Beowulf stopped, suddenly wondering if he could kill Wiglaf. Or kill anyone any longer. Whatever died rose again. And again, and again.
As if she knew what they spoke, and thought, the cackling cry of Grendel’s dam echoed from her lair deep in the black waters of the nearby lake.
Unferth’s expression turned to horror. Beowulf watched him gather what courage he could find. Then he spoke. “We hid your son from her for a long time. He grew, Beowulf. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Beowulf nodded. Unferth was right. “Perhaps there is some hope.”
“Let us try again to fight her. Tonight we will go to the lake and attack her in her lair.”
Beowulf shook his head. “That did not work before,” he said. She’d slain them all, and it had taken the warriors the better part of that day to gather their strewn parts from the lakeshore and return to Heorot, where they finally healed. “That will not work. But perhaps, something else will.”
“What other plan have you?” Unferth asked.
“Perhaps we should not fight her at all,” Beowulf said.
Unferth stepped back, astonished.
“Perhaps it is not only her blood lust which fuels this curse,” Beowulf said, smoothing his son’s delicate curls.
“You mean that we have a part, too?” Unferth asked. This was much like him, for he was the Danish teller of tales, quick when he chose to be so.
Beowulf nodded. He loathed Grendel’s Dam so fiercely that he even forgot Wiglaf for hours at a time. Such hate ate away at a man. It could bring no good. Beowulf wondered if the hag would fight and hate as long as they fought and hated. As if six months of hell weren’t proof enough that the battle with the monster was a fight they could not possibly win.
But to give up? The men of Heorot were Danish warriors, and he the Geatish hero. It was a strange thought. He turned it over in his mind, holding Wiglaf tight to his chest, smoothing the child’s tangled hair.
“Unferth, they say that true madness is doing the same thing over and over when it does not give a man any benefit.”
Unferth rubbed his shoulder and looked back at Beowulf, eyes glittering.
“Let’s welcome the hag to Heorot this evening,” Beowulf said. “Let us prepare her a feast, and have her sit at our table.”
“Gods!” Unferth exclaimed.
Beowulf looked steadily in his friend’s hooded eyes. In a moment, he saw those eyes flicker, and knew that Unferth came to understand his plan.
“You mean that if we do not fight her, she will not fight us,” he said.
Beowulf laughed. “I do not know,” he said. “But I know that we cannot go on like this. Unless you care to lose any limb you’ve got every night, and all your blood.” Beowulf cut himself short. He had been about to add, “And I, my son.”
“No,” Unferth said. “I do not care for that.”
“Then let us tell everyone. We will greet the fiend with smiles and open arms. Her feast will be as grand as if she were the visiting King of the Geats.”
King of the Geats. Beowulf had hoped to gain that title by killing the monster Grendel. Now--he was King of--undeath.
Worst of all, he had lost his wife, slaughtered by the fiend Grendel, with no new life for her--only a fire in the dark Danish night.
Again the rage filled him. Had he no right to slay Grendel? And now, to slay his hag of a mother?
But he said nothing to Unferth. He pushed the anger down deep, to a place where he could not name what it was, nor speak a word of it. He turned his thoughts toward the feast that they must prepare for the monster, for that was where hope lay. Meat they had aplenty, for Grendel’s Dam had torn out the throats of Heorot’s cattle, broken the backs of the goats, and shredded the bellies of the pigs. The animals were barely beginning to heal, so Beowulf and Unferth had meat aplenty for the feast.
That evening, the healed Danes of Heorot and their bitter Geatish hero sat along the long table. The smell of roast goat and pig and beef filled the hall, and the torches were lit, flickering red light across their broad-cheeked faces, glistening over their blond braids and casting little dancing flames in the eyes of the beautiful Danish women. Beautiful now, Beowulf thought, though they were not so once Grendel’s Dam took hold of them.
But tonight she would not do that, he thought. He had to keep hope in his heart. Somehow.
Beowulf took his seat at the head of the long table, his sword Hrunting sheathed behind his back and little Wiglaf at his side in a willow cradle. Nearby, Unferth lifted a horn of mead to his lips with an unsteady hand, but his black eyes were hard and brave.
When Grendel’s Dam came, ravening, Beowulf greeted her with forced heartiness.
“Come in,” he said. “Welcome to Heorot. Sit with us. Eat and drink.”
The monster’s hair snaked in her eyes, tangled and dripping dark water like clotted blood. She tossed her hair aside and surveyed the Great Hall, hissing.
“Why are your weapons sheathed?” she asked in a wet, awful voice. “Make you to trick me?”
Beowulf stood steady. Every instinct cried for him to unsheathe Hrunting and leap at her. He saw the same urge to battle on the faces of all of the Danish men, especially on Unferth’s honest face.
Little Wiglaf stirred in his cradle beside the long table, then cried out.
“There is the precious little one,” Grendel’s Dam said in a dry, ominous whisper, like leaves crackling underfoot.
“Come and feast with us,” Beowulf said, forcing a smile.
Her horrible red eyes twinkled as her mouth twisted in a snarl. Strands of foul weeds from the bottom of the lake dangled between her sharp yellow teeth.
“The food smells good,” she said, after a moment. Beowulf realized that the expression on her monstrous face was no snarl--the monster had been trying to smile.
“I will sit with you and eat,” she said.
Beowulf looked about the table. On each warrior’s face he saw a reflection of his own feelings: equal parts of hope and fear.
Beowulf led the hideous crone to the table. She was light green and scaled all over, with a long fish-skin robe thrown over her shoulder, then wrapped around her waist. Half again as tall as Beowulf, himself taller than any Dane, she seemed to stoop, and looked about almost shyly as she sat in the carved oaken seat set aside for her, and sniffed at a joint of roasted goat.
The Great Hall was silent, for no one dared to speak. Grendel’s Dam grabbed the goat haunch and commenced gnawing on it, her lips smacking with relish. From time to time, she paused in her gluttony, gulping a long draught of mead.
“Good,” she said, after she drank. She belched.
Beowulf motioned for the others to eat, though he saw no hearty appetites around the table. Then Unferth asked to tell a story. Beowulf nodded. He was a brave one, Beowulf thought. His voice was strong and clear, though Beowulf caught the fear flickering in his friend’s kind eyes.
“I will tell the story of Leir,” Unferth said. And this is the tale that he told:
All know the tale of Leir, the king of the Britons in days long past. He had three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Leir was a great king in his youth, but in his age, he grew foolish and weak. He did not understand the greed, and the lust, in the hearts of his daughters. And when Leir grew very old, he wearied of the kingship and wished to pass it on, but he had not declared an heir. He thought to divide his kingdom equally between the three daughters. He called them to him, and told them of his great plan.
“Stop!” cried Grendel’s Dam, rising from her chair. Her red eyes flashed. She froze Unferth with a single, terrible glare, then turned her eyes on Beowulf.
“This is how you welcome me?” she asked. “A tale of a father and his wretched daughters? What of the tale of a mother...and her son?”
Beowulf nodded toward Unferth, saying, “This is one of our best-known tales. Surely there is--”
“You are sure of nothing, hero,” the hag snarled. “There is your pretty boy in his cradle. How nicely he has healed since this morn.”
Beowulf grasped Hrunting’s cold iron grip. “We welcomed you in good will,” he said, the muscles in his thighs tensing.
Grendel’s Dam had a strength born of rage and grief and hardened by spells cast in her deep, dark caves at the bottom of the black-water lake. And she had no need of extra magic for speed, for she had always been quick, or so the tales went.
Beowulf was hardly out of his seat when she’d leapt past him, snatching the willow cradle. Beowulf reached for his son, grasping a branch from the cradle, which snapped in his fingers.
Wiglaf wailed, his tiny hands clutching for his father, a few inches beyond Beowulf’s grasp.
It may as well have been leagues. Grendel’s Dam thrust out her free arm and struck Beowulf below his throat, shattering his collarbone into pulp. Beowulf fell to one knee, clutching at his neck, gasping in pain. Unferth started forward, but she drove him back by unsheathing one pale green, blade-sharp claw, poising it right above Wiglaf’s soft, white neck.
She shielded her chest and neck with the screaming, cradled infant. Her vicious red eyes mocked Beowulf as he struggled to his feet.
“I have your prize,” she said. “Catch me if you can...brave hero.”
The other Danes advanced warily, swords unsheathed. Beowulf held up his hand.
“No,” he rasped, barely able to speak, for her blow had done that much damage. She had struck carefully, wanting to silence him.
“Does it hurt?” she asked Beowulf, smiling to show all of her snaggled yellow teeth.
“No,” he lied. Then, spoke to the gathered warriors. “Get back. She’ll spill his blood if we don’t let her pass.”
“Madness!” Unferth cried out, stepping in the hag’s way and wielding his short, broad Danish blade. “This is your son, Beowulf. You see how she repays our hospitality.”
Grinning with contempt and rage, Grendel’s Dam rushed forward, grabbing Unferth’s wrist. He blanched. Beowulf heard the bones of his wrist snapping, and the clatter of his sword hitting the stone floor. Unferth’s eyes widened as the hag, clutching Wiglaf with one arm, whipped her scaly forearm toward his face. Unferth tried to shy away, but he was too slow. His neck snapped back, the bones cracking like a dry faggot being broken for a fire, and his body dropped limply to the floor.
Looking once about the room, Grendel’s Dam said two words, very softly.
“Follow me.” Then she was silhouetted in the door and she disappeared into the black night.
Beowulf looked down at his friend’s body in uncertain grief. He did not know if a broken neck would heal in the morning. Pray to the Gods it would.
Pushing the Danelaw warriors and women from his path, Beowulf ran after the fiend, his shattered bones grinding agonizingly as he forced himself forward.
The warriors started after him. He turned back at the door.
“Let me take her,” he said. “On my honor.”
Several of the bravest stepped forth, shaking their heads, their blades unsheathed.
“On my honor,” he repeated.
Slowly, the Danelaw warriors nodded.
“All right,” one of them said, crossing his arms, his pale face hard in the flickering torchlight. “But don’t come back if you fail. You and your boy are no longer welcome here. We’ll take our own chances with this beast.”
So, it had come to this, at last. They’d called him forth to rescue them, and now they all blamed him. If he had not killed Grendel, no curse would have come down. And his plan to make peace with her? A miserable failure. And she had Wiglaf.
If he somehow survived without vanquishing her, Beowulf did not want to come back. He nodded once, shattered bones grinding brutally, then he turned and went after her, trotting steadily, breathing as carefully as he could despite the pain.
The hag was quick, but Beowulf had Hrunting’s sharp blade and courage.
And he was a hero. Wasn’t he?
He entered the forest which lay between Heorot and the lake. Once it had been a lovely place of linden and birch. Now the trees were dead and leafless. Winter had fallen upon these Danish lands along with the curse, and it showed no signs of lifting. A light snow dusted the ground. As Beowulf ran, it began to snow harder, tiny razors of ice cutting at his cheeks.
“You bitch,” he rasped. “Where are you?”
A distant cackle sounded through the trees.
Beowulf paused, listening. Again, the cackle.
He followed the hag’s voice deeper into the forest.
“Here I am,” she said.
Beowulf looked up to see Grendel’s Dam perched in a linden tree. She was empty-armed.
“Wiglaf!” he cried.
“The boy is safe,” she said.
Beowulf couldn’t believe her. She’d savaged his son. He’d kill her, or die trying.
He raised Hrunting over his head, ignoring the hot spikes of pain searing through him, and brought the great sword down on the Linden branch where she sat, cleaving it in two.
She tumbled down, but there was a smile on her face. A smile! And she did not leap up, but lay there helplessly.
Beowulf straddled her with his powerful legs, sword poised to pierce her awful body.
“Kill me and your son is lost forever,” she said.
The sword point pressed into her foul flesh. Beowulf’s vision clouded with fury. Her form was vague and hazy.
“Blood lust,” she hissed. “Go on.”
“Wiglaf,” he whispered, blinking to clear his eyes and push back the rage.
Then, he heard the cry of an infant. He turned, and she leapt up, then shoved him to the ground. With a grunt of disgust, she tore Hrunting from his grasp and with her long arms, easily held it out of his reach.
Grendel’s Dam loomed over Beowulf, as he’d stood over her a moment earlier. Her claws glittered in the moonlight.
“Kill me,” he said. “That’s just. That will end it, won’t it?”
She said nothing, merely baring her teeth.
Beowulf spoke. “You’ve taken my son’s life for your son Grendel’s. You’ve taken my wife, son, my honor. Now take my head and bury it deep so I will not come alive again.”
He closed his eyes and turned his head, showing her his throat.
He felt her hot breath on his neck. He turned back, opening his eyes to see her kneeling over him.
“I have not killed your son,” she said. “I am not...like that.”
“You’re a monster,” Beowulf said.
“And you are a fool,” she replied, kneeling heavily on his chest. She grabbed his hair and raised his head, looking straight in his eyes.
“Kill me now,” he said roughly.
She smiled. “Don’t you understand?”
Beowulf did not.
“Haven’t you ever looked in the hearts of those you fight? Do you think that my soul is as twisted as my body?”
“A monster has no soul,” Beowulf said. “Only men have souls.”
“Not monsters or women?”
“Pah! I meant--”
“Too ugly to have a soul, is what you meant,” she said. She began to toy with his hair. Her breath was hot and foul in his face.
“Yes,” he said. “Things like you should never have been born.”
“And it’s your job to rid the world of us?” she asked.
“You kill me now, or I’ll kill you,” he said.
She drew one of her claws across his throat. The pain was sharp, but the cut was not deep. As she raised her hand, the blood glittered darkly.
“Why?” he asked. Why had she hunted them each night like animals? Why had she not killed them all outright to avenge her son’s death? What was this mad game? She was--
Hot tears mixed with Beowulf’s blood, stinging and burning. The tears of a woman, not a monster.
Beowulf could never abide a woman’s tears.
“Stop,” he said. “Please.” And, almost unknowing, he raised his arm, for she had moved back and no longer held him fast. He touched her cheek.
She stroked his hand with one of her vile, bloody claws. Gently.
Beowulf’s chest knotted. He scarcely knew what he felt for a moment, then he realized suddenly what was coursing through his chest. Compassion. For she was so bereft.
“You grieve,” he said.
She nodded, holding his hand against her cheek.
“What’s to be done?” he asked.
The infant’s wail came through the forest again. He turned toward the sound.
“Go,” she said, getting to her feet. “He’s not far.”
Beowulf thought that he began to understand. A little. “I still have my son,” he said. “But yours is gone--forever.”
She crossed her arms, holding her chest. She would not meet his eye.
“That’s it,” he said. “What you wanted me to understand.”
“No,” she said softly.
Wiglaf began to shriek. Beowulf retrieved Hrunting, ready to run toward the source of the child’s desperate cries.
She spoke again as he started into the forest. “He was a poor, misbegotten thing, my son. But he was all I had.”
“He was laying waste to the lands of the Danes. He had to be stopped,” Beowulf said. “They called me forth to stop the menace.”
“And you did,” she said, bitterly.
“He killed my wife,” Beowulf replied.
“Yes,” she said. “I know.”
“I did what I had to do,” Beowulf said.
She raised her tear-stained face and looked steadily at him. Grief was plain on her face, but of her former fury and rage there remained no trace.
“So answer me this,” she said in a level voice. “What makes you any less the monster than he?”
“Hero?” she asked.
Wiglaf howled. He sounded closer than ever.
“Yes, hero,” Beowulf said. And he started away.
“I’ll come for you,” she said. Her voice was full of chill certainty. It followed him as he searched for Wiglaf.
Finding him unharmed, yet out of breath from crying. He was snug in his cradle beneath a linden tree like the one where he’d found Grendel’s Dam perched.
Beowulf took Wiglaf from the cradle and held him close. The child’s cries did not quiet, though, for he saw the blood on Beowulf’s neck, and felt his father’s uneasy fear, and shrieked.
Then Grendel’s Dam was beside them.
“Now it ends!” In a rush of anger, Beowulf raised his sword, holding Wiglaf close, as much behind his body as he could manage.
“You fight with the child in your arms?”
“Why not?” He slashed at her. She leapt nimbly aside.
“Why don’t you let me kill you, and then I’ll take the child. To replace the one I’ve lost.”
Beowulf roared at her and charged. She leapt out of his way once more. His boot caught on a root hidden beneath the forest leaves and he fell flat. Wiglaf screamed. Hrunting slipped from his grasp. He struggled to reach the sword, but her scaled foot, rough and icy-cold, came down on his wrist.
“No,” she said. “Give me the child now. It’s at an end.”
“I’ll kill him first,” Beowulf said, tearing his hand from under her foot and rolling away, giving no thought to the fact that he nearly crushed Wiglaf as he did so. He got to his feet and held Wiglaf high. The boy’s face was smeared with Beowulf’s blood. His eyes were shut tight, his mouth open and gasping.
“Go ahead,” Grendel’s Dam said. Then, in a whisper, she added, “Hero.”
Wiglaf’s eyes opened. He’d been holding his breath, but it rushed out in a sigh, then he shrieked in absolute terror, his baby eyes fixed--on Beowulf’s face.
Wiglaf was terrified, but not of the hag. Of him. His own father.
“Gods,” Beowulf said. “I can’t--”
Now Grendel’s Dam looked on Beowulf with compassion in her monstrous red eyes.
“No,” she said. “Nor could I.”
Beowulf gazed at her, wondering.
“Yes, I knew my son should not live. He was truly a monster, and knew no law or honor. But how could I kill him with my own hands? My own flesh, my own blood.”
“I killed him,” Beowulf said.
“But all unknowing,” she said. “Unthinking. For revenge, not justice. And you’ve reaped the rewards.”
Beowulf nodded. He held Wiglaf more gently, cradling him once more.
“So how do we end this?” he asked.
She gazed at him a long moment. “Come with me,” she said. “Learn justice, and what monsters and heroes really are.”
Beowulf shivered. “To the lake?” he asked. He would become a monster, for he could imagine no hero in him any longer.
She nodded. He closed his eyes and thought. Yes. He must go with her. It was the only way.
“Do not worry about your son,” she said. “He will grow strong. He will be a great king, of both the Danes and the Geats. So I have dreamed.”
Beowulf put Wiglaf gently into the soft leaves of the forest.
“Your friend Unferth will find the child in the morning and be as a father to him.” Grendel’s Dam knelt and covered Wiglaf with her fish-skin cloak.
They walked together through the forest to the shore of the black-water lake. Snow fell lightly, glittering in their hair, and dusting their shoulders.
Beowulf took her monstrous hand in his. As the sun rose fresh upon the lands of the Danes, the Geatish hero and Grendel’s Dam descended into the deep.