Come follow Gwen's foray into lands near the east coast of Brytain,
now held by Anglo-Saxons, while the rightful Brytish king stews in exile.
Beware the shape-shifters, bogans, and worst of all,
the great ram-skulled serpent of Celtic legend!
"Something you need to know, Oh Giver of Honey!"
came a cry from above.
A goat perched on an outcropping overlooking the road.
Its ears flicked russet-red,
and its fleece ruffled like swan feathers in the rising wind.
"Come up and talk with me!"
Gwen glanced at Trystan who stood with arms folded and eyes narrowed,
mustache not quite hiding the wry crook of his mouth.
"It wants me to come up and talk," she told him.
One brow arched higher.
She shrugged. "Otherworldly creature," she said.
"Mustn't risk offending it."
She clambered up the steep slope.
"Higher, higher!" cried the goat.
"Up hi-i-igh with me."
Gwen hiked her pale green skirts
and scrambled up the last precarious stretch.
The wind whipped at hair and gown,
and stung her eyes as she peered into the surly northwest.
Dark clouds crept low over a landscape of rock and rill,
brush and shrub, sweeping their way with brooms of rain.
She crouched there, holding to a boulder to brace against the gusts.
"Oh Nimble One," she panted.
"Could you not have met me halfway?
I don't have such sure, clever feet as you."
The goat reared up, and in the blink of an eye
changed to the two-footed half-human form of the night before.
"Let us dance on the pinnacle to greet the storm!"
"You dance. I'll catch my breath."
Gwen could see Trystan below,
still standing with arms crossed and keeping an eye on her,
the wind flapping his red cloak to hide then reveal his sword.
"What is it I need to know?"
The goat-maid took one last spin,
her slender body garbed still by her own long fleece,
then clattered down to squat beside Gwen, face suddenly solemn,
the goat-like sideways slits of her pupils so eerily not human.
"The Huntsman still rages, I to-o-old you so.
He is gravely wounded in the leg and cannot run or leap in the hunt.
He vows to take himself a mount so he can return
and wreak ha-a-avoc on your kind. What is havoc?"
Gwen shuddered. "Terror. Torment. Death."
"He would take you, if you still wore horse skin."
"Why? I never did him any harm!"
"You stole from him, says he."
"You stole from him the triumph of the hunt.
By slipping his grasp."
Gwen's jaw dropped. "I did my utmost to stay alive,
and he calls that theft?"
The goat-maid shrugged. "He be the wildest of the Wild.
If he want a thing, then have it he must.
But you wear your own skin now,
so he looking elsewhere for a mount.
A riverhorse he may take,
or perhaps a kelpie."
Gwen sagged back against the boulder
and blew a breath of relief.
"All he want from you now, Giver of Honey,
be your fire-bright tresses to add to his kilt."
The goat-maid ran one finger down Gwen's plait
with its ragged, knife-hacked end.
Gwen snatched back her braid, skin prickling with new alarm.
She had seen that kilt,
patched together with his victims' scalps.
The goatling glanced from side to side,
then leaned in and whispered,
"He has sent the serpent to fetch you, he ha-a-as."
"Not so!" Gwen gasped.
The goat-maid nodded and hitched closer still,
eyeing Gwen's braid and snuffling her scent through those goatly nostrils.
"But the serpent be slow from wounds.
Quick wits will keep you sa-a-afe."
In the distance, thunder rumbled.
Gwen looked down from her perch, scanning the stretches of heather
and gorse and peaty bogs all around,
looking for any sign of the gigantic serpent,
its head the horned skull of a ram.
Trystan and Teg waved at her, shouting into the wind,
which carried their words away.
The packhorse tossed its head.
"I must go. My thanks for your warning, Nimble One."
Gwen edged her way down the crag,
the stray locks of her fire-bright hair
whipping her cheek in the rising gusts.
two bonus tales: flash fiction set in Cumbria
the setting of VAGABOND'S DAGGER
flash fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England
Alfgifu pointed through the underbrush. "I see a hazel tree."
"Not just one." Rothmund ran ahead, lugging his bucket. "A whole grove! We'll find plenty of nuts here."
"What story shall I tell while we gather?"
Alfgifu launched into the tale while they scuffed through duff beneath the trees, hunting for hazelnuts. "News spread far and wide about the troubles of King Hrothgar of the Dane-Mark. Every night a horrid monster rose from the marshes, broke into the king's hall, and carried off a warrior to devour. None could stand against Grendel the terrible."
"I bet I could have!" Rothmund tossed another handful of nuts into his bucket.
"Perhaps when you're full grown." Alfgifu went on with the tale about the young hero from across the channel who came to the aid of his father's friend. When Grendel next attacked, Beowulf fought the monster. By incredible strength the unarmed hero ripped Grendel's arm from his body. Now who was unarmed?
The monster fled back to the swamps, gushing its lifeblood with every step. It plunged into the mire and never rose again.
"Hrothgar's hall rang with celebration for three days," Alfgifu said. "The monster's arm hung from the rafters, a gory trophy. Everyone thought their troubles were over. But the next night--" She broke off, turned, listened.
"You can't scare me, sister!" Rothmund said. "I know what comes next. Grendel's mother!"
Alfgifu cried out, "Danger! Up the tree, now!" She pushed him toward the sturdiest of the hazel trees.
He giggled as he climbed. "She was a huge, big monster. How high must we climb to get out of her reach?"
"This is high enough. Look!"
A mob of wild boars burst from the brush, jostled, snorted, rooted in the duff.
"Hey! We weren't done! They're going to get our nuts." Rothmund started down.
Alfgifu grabbed his arm. "Remember the scar on Papa's leg? These Grendels might be small as calves, but they're vicious, and you don't even have a boar-spear."
"I've got a knife!"
"So do the boars. See their tusks? They'd rip you open, like Beowulf ripped Grendel's mother!"
"When will it be my turn to fight a monster? I want to be a hero, too!"
"You don't have your man's strength yet, Rothmund! And when a young hero-to-be doesn't have might, he must use wits instead. Now be wise. Sit down. Want to hear about Beowulf and the dragon?"
"No." He pouted.
"Or about Hengist and Horsa with their sleek longships, bringing the first Angle-kin here to Englaland?"
Down below, two pigs scuffled, squealed, fought over a nut. Rothmund's eyes widened at the sight of blood spilling.
"How about this." Alfgifu showed him how to carve his name. While he worked, she kept an eye on the boars below, teaching him more runes from time to time.
The boars finally went on their way. Alfgifu stretched. "Now we can climb down and hurry home! Papa and Mama will be wondering where we are."
"Read this first." He grinned.
"Here Rothmund outwaited seven Grendels and their mother."
"No, no," the boy sputtered. "That's not 'outwaited' -- it's 'outwitted'!"
"By outwaiting, you outwitted. Very good, my wise young hero!"
life in an Anglo-Saxon village
a retelling of
Wiglaf and his nine companions stood at the crest of the hill, sea wind blowing in their hair, while the slave who had guided them huddled in misery at their feet. In silence they watched their king march toward the next headland up the coast, a headland crowned by an ancient barrow.
Beowulf strode toward death. He knew it, had said so himself, ordering them to stay behind.
They heard him across that windy expanse, his mighty voice rising in a furious challenge to the creature dwelling within the great grave mound.
The slave clapped hands over ears. "No, no, don't call it out! The monster will kill us all!"
A gash in the barrow lit up. A gout of flame blazed forth.
Beowulf sheltered behind his great iron shield, a solid slab of metal. How that must weigh his arm down! Wiglaf thought as he hefted his own yellow-painted wooden shield. No metal to his own but the boss at the center.
Out of its lair crept the dragon, length after length of long, sinuous winged wyrm. It reared back its head, it gathered its haunches, it sprang forth, again spouting fire at the small figure of Beowulf.
Iron shield, iron corselet -- would that be enough protection?
Wiglaf saw the famous sword Naegling flash out, but fling back again from the monster's hide. The wyrm pulled back, swung around, gouting flames in all directions, then turned again to face the aged hero.
"My lord, my king!" Wiglaf moaned. Beowulf had ruled the Geats for fifty years, overcoming all foes. But how could he stand against a dragon?
The wyrm attacked again.
Beowulf staggered, fell to one knee. Naegling sagged.
The other nine warriors wailed like children, turned, fled to the woods just downhill, the slave stumbling after them. Only one remained, his heart thundering in despair and outrage. Their beloved king should not die alone!
Wiglaf burst into a run. His own iron corselet jangled and jarred as he pelted down one hill and up another. The air reeked of brimstone and his own terror as he raced to what would surely be his own death. Billows of smoke flowed down from the hilltop, but he plunged onward, half-blinded. "Dear Beowulf!" he cried. "Defend your life with all your might! I am coming to your aid!"
To his horror, the dragon's head appeared from the reeking clouds, peering after this new voice. It blew a flame-blast which set his wooden shield ablaze until nothing was left but the metal boss. Wiglaf saw the arch of metal to one side, and dived into the shelter of Beowulf's iron shield. He crouched there with his king, and beat with a raw, blistered hand at flames in his hair and clothing.
A fanged snout came plunging.
Beowulf leaped up and thrust Naegling deep into the dragon's head with a grip so hard the blade shattered. "I've yet to find a decent sword," the king muttered just before the dragon struck again.
Fangs pierced the hero's neck. Beowulf's blood spurted.
"No!" Wiglaf screamed, bounding up, stabbing below the head with his golden sword, deep into the neck, cutting off the flow of fire, startling the wyrm into releasing its prey.
Beowulf drew his dagger, razor-sharp, and sliced open the belly of the beast.
The dragon writhed in death throes, brought down at last by two heroes. But Beowulf lay dying, too. Dragon venom burned him up from within. "Fetch the treasure," he croaked to Wiglaf. "Let me see the hoard I have won for my people, before I die."
Wiglaf staggered away, down into the grave-mound. He piled his arms with jeweled goblets and golden dishes and a banner that shone with its own light, and brought them back to the king's side.
Beowulf gasped for breath. "Now that I have bartered my worn-out life for the treasure-hoard, look after my people. Rule well. And build me a grave-mound high upon Hrones Headland. Beowulf's Barrow, seamen will call it when they spy it through the mists. Ah Wiglaf."
With trembling hands he gave his young companion his golden collar, his golden helmet, his ring. "You are the last survivor of our family. The last of the Waegmundingas. Fate has swept away all my kinsmen. Princes and nobles -- all dead. Their path I too must tread."
Wiglaf cradled his king's gifts, bowed his head, and wept.
a clasp from the diggings at Sutton Hoo
"Thou art, of our lineage, the last,
Noble Waegmundingas, wyrd-driven all,
To dire doom cast, kith and kin -- dead!
Princes perished. Their path now I shall tread."