XXI Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgetheow: “Old man, don’t weep. It’s better to take bitter revenge than to hide in sorrow. Each of us must face his end and the warrior grabs what glory he can before death stops him. After his death, that’s what remains. Arise, O King, let’s study the trail of Grendel’s dam. I swear to you that I’ll track her down. No earthly cave nor mountain wood, no ocean bed, will do to hide her. Have patience now, endure your woe, and be the man that I know you are.” The old king leapt to feet and thanked God for those words. He called for a horse, and a handsome mount with braided mane was swiftly bridled. He rode out shining, his shield-bearers marching behind him. The trampled track ran through the forest, plunging straight into murky moorland where the monster had dragged the bloody corpse of Heorot’s champion. The thanes then scrambled up steep screes, trod single file through narrow cliff-ways where demon-haunted waters tumbled far beneath them. Beowulf went on with a few good scouts, and found by chance a stand of ash casting its shadow across grey stone, a dismal wood! The water beneath seethed with blood, and when they found Aschere’s head by the edge of the cliff, each man present felt his grief break newly open. As they stared, the flood welled ruddy with hot gore. A battle horn sang, quickening pulses, and the troop stood and watched the water. Sea-snakes curled there and strange dragons wove through its depths, and on the reefs such water demons as wait their chance to strike the ships on the sail-road. Swollen with rage, the warriors ran to the wailing horn and one of the Geats lifted his bow and struck a monster straight in the vitals, slowing its struggle against the waves. They snagged it hard on sharp-hooked boar pikes and dragged it out of the noisome shallows, staring in wonder at this strange wave-spawn. Fearless Beowulf put on his armour, hand-braided mail cunningly made. No grim malice could pierce his bone-cage to harm his heart or crush him in a deadly wrestle. On his head was a royal helm as bright as when the smiths first made it, rimmed with boar-shapes, iron-encircled, to break the bite of the bitterest brand. Not the least was the ancient blade lent by Unferth, Hrothgar’s spokesman, to meet his need. Its name was Hrunting. Edged with iron, tempered by blood, pattern-welded and scored with runes, this sword had never failed in battle any who bore it, venturing far into enemy strongholds on dark journeys. It was well used to courage-work. Surely that muscle-head forgot how in his cups he had taunted Beowulf when he gave his blade to the better swordsman. He’d never dare to risk his life under the waves, in the water’s tumult. He lost his manhood then and all his chance at glory. Not so Beowulf. XXII Beowulf spoke, the son of Edgetheow: “Half Dane’s son, I am eager for battle. Remember now your earlier pledge, that if I die serving your need, you would be a father to me. If I lose my life, beloved Hrothgar, take in your care my young retainers and send to Hygelac all the treasures that you have given me. Gazing on gold, the lord of the Geats will know my deeds found generous thanks from a good king. Let Unferth have my wave-edged sword, this ancient heirloom, to match his fame. I’ll use Hrunting to forge my glory, unless death takes me.” Waiting no answer, he plunged into the surging waters. Long he sank: a day passed by before he glimpsed the floor of the mere where she watched, wrathful and greedy, ravenous ruler of the flood for a hundred seasons. She knew at once that an alien from the world of air sounded her strange home. Groping upwards, she seized the prince with savage hands, crushing his body. The ringmail kept him from deadly harm, her loathsome fingers fumbled against the handlinked armour. When she touched bottom, the she-wolf bore him back to her lair. For all his courage, Beowulf couldn’t wield his sword as weird sea-beasts thronged about him and tore at his mail with war-like tusks. He found himself then in his enemy’s hall, free of the water, its roof holding back the snatch of currents. A bright fire blazed and in its light he saw his foe, the mighty mere-wife, cursed mistress of the deeps. He hefted his sword, swinging it down with all his strength, and the ring-marked blade sang hungrily for blood. But the stranger found that the battle-flame refused to bite, its edge failed the noble lord in his need. It had endured many hand-to-hand combats, split the helms of many doomed men, but for the first time its glory dimmed. Resolute still, remembering fame, Hygelac’s kinsman angrily hurled that precious sword to the ground, trusting his strength, his mighty hands. So must a man act, careless of life, if he wants to win lasting fame in the fury of battle. He grabbed her hair – keen for the insult – and swollen with rage, the battle-hard man flung Grendel’s mother down to the floor. She quickly repaid him, holding him fast against her hide in her wrathful grip, and then even that sturdy soldier, the strongest of men, stumbled with weariness, and fell. Sitting astride him, she drew her dagger, deadly and edged, to avenge her son, her only offspring. His mailcoat saved him, barring the point its bloody entry. He would have died there, Edgetheow’s son, far underground, but for that war-mesh. And holy God who gives out victory decided easily whose was the win when Beowulf sprang back to his feet.