Beowulf eText - Chapter XXXII

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Chapter XXXII

HE WENT THAT way, to the dragon's den, not by his own will, but under dire threat of death. Out of deep necessity did that slave of some prince flee—from fear of deadly lashings; seeking shelter as a guilty man would, he entered inside. [But at the sights that guest did quail as fright seized him; yet, in despair, the fugitive regained his courage, taking the cup from the hoard before he fled in terror.] There was a goodly store of such ancient heirlooms in the earthen cavern, carefully hidden away by some old and long-forgotten prince in ancient times—those precious treasures were the legacy of a noble race. For death had driven them all hence, and he alone was left alive; the last one of his clan, he wept for his friends, yet wished to stay, and, even if only for a brief respite, guard the treasure, his one delight.

The barrow had recently been made ready near the shore; the ocean's waves were near, and it was nigh to the cliff, hidden and secured. There within did he place his royal heirlooms, and that guardian of treasure heaped the hoard high with weighty gold. He spoke a few words: “Hold now, oh earth, that which nobles have held, since heroes cannot! Lo! It was first from you that brave men took it! But death in battle cruelly seized and killed all my clansmen, robbing them of life and the joys of a liegeman. I have none left to lift the sword or cleanse the costly carvéd cup, the gleaming tankard. The valiant are departed. That hard helmet, inlaid all about with gold, shall shed its plating, for the polishers who could brighten and burnish the mask of battle now sleep. The battle armor that braved the bite of steel among the clash of shields now rusts with the bearer. No longer can that ringmail travel abroad at the hero's side with the famous chieftain! There is no delight of the harp, no gladness of the merry wood! No good hawk now flies through the hall! No fleet steeds stamp at the fortress entrance! Battle and death have bereaved my race of its flowers.” Sorrowful in his mood, he groans his woes alone for them all and bitterly weeps day and night until death's fell waves rush over his heart.

The dazzling hoard was found standing exposed near that ancient evil one who haunts the burrows, blazing at twilight—the scaly dragonfiend, who flies by night robed in fire; the countryfolk hold him in awful dread. It is his fate to go to the hoard underground, where he passes many winters watching heathen gold; he gains nothing through this! This powerful bane of men thus held the hoard in the earthen house for three hundred winters—until one kindled wrath in his heart by taking that precious cup to the king and entreating him to grant him peace. So the barrow was plundered, and treasure was carried off. The plea of the wretched man was granted; that king saw for the first time that which was fashioned in days of long ago.

When the dragon awoke, this new quarrel was kindled. He immediately sniffed the scent along the stone. The dark-hearted one found the footprints of that foe who had walked undetected by the creature's head. So may a man not doomed elude death and exile, if only he gains the Maker's grace! The guardian of gold went tracking over the ground, eager to find the man who had brought mischief upon his slumber. Savage and burning, he circled 'round the barrow; no man was in that wasteland. Yet he desired war and was eager for combat. He entered and sought the cup, soon discovering that a mortal had sifted through his treasure, the noble gold. The treasure's guardian waited with difficulty until evening came; the barrow-keeper boiled with wrath and wished to pay his foe with flame for the loss of the precious cup. Now the day had fled, as the dragon wanted. It no longer remained by its wall, but, burning and robed in flame, he flew off. The beginning of this was fearful for the sons of earth, and it soon resulted in their lord's fate: a dreadful end.