Blood dripped from the benches, the sheer smell leaving a metallic taste in my throat. It was beginning to dry in the morning sun, the wood staining red as the clots rose and grew sticky. Golden treasures and armour engraved with the boar scattered the hall, but nothing seemed to be missing. The warriors had already carried out the dead, left to await burial once preparations could be carried out. I watched as the slaves scrubbed, muttering angrily as they worked. It was a nasty chore, and I was glad it wasn’t mine.
As the sun set, people came from all over, wanting to escape the unforgiving land and join the community in this hall King Hrothgar had built for us. It felt safer here, with the warriors around, in a place we knew God had blessed. But the monster still came, and it was not at all safe, not while the monster roamed free.
The warriors surrounded the hall, sharpening their swords and muttering under breath some new strategy. Some slept, their armour over their heads, ready in the case danger came. The more senior sat, circling the gold rings the King had gifted them around their fingers, and sharing a prayer for protection. However they dealt, the feeling of hopelessness was clear. Loyal to the King, they would fight regardless of their chance of survival, but there had been much loss, much bloodshed already. They were ready for battle, but not ready for the dragon. Their swords required them to be too close to the monster, and an attempt to hit usually meant being lifted by giant claws and carried away, or being slain on the spot. The wooden shields were useless against flames, and the ones covered in metal so heavy it was difficult to both defend and attack simultaneously. Despite it, they had to hope that one day, the Gods would offer victory to the side of the light, and good, and condemn the monsters back to the depths of hellfire.
My wife, Faline, owned land near here, were serfs tended to the crops and grew our food. She was a warrior, one of the best, and she brought bounties of gold and made us safe. I was not a good warrior, better with my hands. I turned wool into tunics, cloth into battle wear, and engraved metals into weaponry. My name, Boden, was known through the land, the one who made the softest tunics, the finest wares.
The Cow Herd
It was cold out, the land covered in frost. The grass was crunchy underfoot, dew clinging to the leaves. I sat in the hollow of the trunk, watching. The monsters had only come for human life thus far, but we had not feasted on meat in a long time, these cattle too good at producing milk – to make the creamiest cheese, and besides, they were my friends. So I kept a watchful eye, my sword by my side. The light of the fire cast a bright glow, even as far away as it was. It turned the eyes of cattle red in the darkness. They were dark and shapeless, but knowing they were there made me feel a little safer. I had raised them since they were tiny things, refused the offers from thanes to buy them for vellum. They would stay with me, and their mum, while they brought us milk, and until they were old. And then, once they had lived a good life… well then I would have to say goodbye to them then, and we would have a feast for the village and give our thanks.
As the midday came, the world warmed, and frost was long gone. I took an axe to a tree, and began working on a pile of wood, ready to build another fire when the night again came. It took a long time, and I stopped frequently to sharpen the blade, but eventually the pile was ready and high. I turned my attention to the cows, who had moved down to the river to take advantage of the fresh flowing water. They drank from a small dip, where it pooled and was still. It was now, that I would rest a while, nap in the now late afternoon sun, and await the cold of darkness to awake me.
At every rustle of the leaves a shiver ran through the hall, a tingle of electricity that, while imaginary, seemed to wake the babies into tears. It seemed as through the whistle of a pine tree was synonymous to the sound of a dragons wing, slicing through the silence and into our hearts. Since the dragon came, the men had begun to disappear into the night. Just there at nightfall, and gone by sunrise. We had never even seen it, just in our nightmares. It changed colour, from purples to greens to blacks, but always had yellow eyes, haunting and sharp, with sucking breath and a tail with spikes, and a fire breath that I always saw just before I was thrown back into the real world, shaking and covered in sweat.
Our babies were not old enough to understand yet, could not comprehend our fear. They were old enough to know to stay quiet, young enough to not understand why. I just told them they would be safe as long as they were good and reminded them of our blessings. Their grandmother was a warrior, and we were safe and protected. It was a good arrangement, as good as it could be, and knowing the Gods had blessed us to safety, and out of servitude, helped me sleep as the babies nestled in close.
The stood in a circle, digging deeper and deeper into the earth. The ocean crashing against the shore behind them as the pile of dirt grew bigger and bigger, their shovels moving in a perfect rhythm. They hummed as they worked, as the bees do, focusing on the chore at hand.
The rich were sent out to sea on boats filled with gold, the ship ablaze to help the spirit pass from one world to the next. The poor would be buried here, once the holes were deep enough. For now they lay in a pile behind them, awaiting ‘preparations’, or at least, for their loved ones to offer their gifts and send them off. Since the dragon came, the bodies came more frequently, the piles grew larger, and the holes needed to be deeper and deeper. Each one was marked by a small stone, a remembrance of those lost for those in grief, but more realistically to mark the dirt that should be left untouched. The stones filled half the forest now, gifts of gold and tokens from this life buried with them.
From atop the highest hill I watched the shore, a line of warriors tracing back from me to the King, ready for the first sighting of trouble. The waves crashed into the shore, as the sun moved through the sky, but nothing appeared. The fishing boats sat in the calm, occasional shouts breaking the monotony as a particularly large fish was caught in their nets. Some men speared closer to shore, bringing in smaller catches, but with a higher adrenaline rush. Salmon and eel and trout had been common lately, the colder weather driving them into the rivers. The shoreline remained clear, the coast safe. Any movement, they were ready.
A clay pot sat over the fire, a broth made from freshly harvested vegetables brewed. There would be a feast soon, not tonight but the catch today had been good, and they were hungry. As they sat, the fire began to crackle, growing rapidly in heat and size as it caught on to the surrounding logs. A woman spun wool while she told stories, the children gathered close to her side. She told tales of warriors who fought with their hands, so strong they could tear even the most ungodly of monsters limb to limb. She told of magic swords that burned red hot, and could end a dragon with the lightest touch. The children leaned in so close, cheering as these super-warriors won over the monsters, and kicking their feet in excitement.
Soon the villagers began to arrive, and the crowd grew bigger as bowls began to be passed out. Bread and cheese and broth circled, first to the King, and his warriors and thanes, and then to the villagers, and finally to the serfs and slaves. All ate hungrily, until their bellies were full and the pot was emptied, and the bread was all devoured.
The woman began her stories again, this time though, her voice was gentle and lulling, the words like poetry, rhythmic and smooth. She told stories of all the times the gods had intervened for them, and lead them to victory, stories she had recited so many times they were empty of excitement, and simply soothing from repetition. Soon all the children snored, and even the warriors showed sign of fatigue.
Behind them, inside Heorot, the torches were lit, awaiting their return to the safety of the mead hall. Thunder rumbled in the distance, as a raven flew overhead. Messages from the gods, a storm was on its way. In the lightning would come more warnings, as the sky lit up in anger. The gods were on the side of the good, and good was not winning, not while the monsters roamed and dragons flew, and our hall was soaked in blood during the dark of night.
The sword thrust up. The dragon yowled in what sounded like excruciating pain, and fire lit up the forest as it flew, writhing and flipping, trying to gain traction and rhythm with it’s enormous wings. The King called for silence, but chaos had erupted, the whole village screaming in anger, chasing after it as blood dripped from the sky. Warriors grabbing armour and looking to their king, the children crying, the slaves looking defeated at the mess now theirs to clean. Nobody quite knew what was going on. The King looked to Aldin, his must trusted warrior, and pointed at the path the dragon had taken. No words were needed, the warriors were off.
This time the ground was covered in small pools of sticky blood, darker than red, but not quite black – like a ruby held in the shade. Some of the warriors had coated their wooden shields in bronze, an attempt to make them fire repellent. They looked silly though, the armour much heavier than they were used too – not light weight like the willow they were used to. Only time would tell who made the better choice, between speed and a proper defence. Truthfully, against a dragon such defences seemed a waste. It had taken months to even injure the beast, and the lives it had taken were such that the graves were full and reused, the smell of decay apparent in the summer months. The gold had gone with them, Heorot becoming emptier by the day, pillars damaged by huge wings, benches still stained with the life blood of those the dragon had claimed.
They stalked along the path, the metallic smell of blood still thick and strong in the air. Ahead of them appeared a clearing, trees destroyed, bent and snapped, leaves creating a thick blanket where they had fallen. Claw marks snaked through the ground, as though the dragon had fallen here, trying to fly unsuccessfully. Perhaps it was a wing that had been clipped.
The blood grew thinner, and the excitement of the chase had long died off. The clearing with all the signs of destruction eventually turned into thick bush, but still no monster came into sight. Whatever injury had been inflicted, it seemed it was not enough to maim the dragon, and so, with their heads down, they turned and began the long hike home.
Gold smelted into a pot, liquid and shimmering, awaiting the process of shaping and hammering and engraving that would turn it into golden treasures. The King was kind and generous, and showed it by gifting his warriors and his people with the finest of handcrafted creations. Some set with garnet, amethyst, or amber – but most were just carefully engraved to be more personal.
My partner had made new helmets, and they sat ready to be carved. Our speciality was the boar, a sign of strength and courage in battle. The King had requested each to be identical, a sign of comradery and togetherness, that all were equal.
In the pumpkin patch, a young boy parried. I looked upon him with pride. He was clumsy, not yet old enough or strong enough to wield such a heavy sword, but even in his youth, he understood the honour it was to serve the king, and to join his team of warriors as they fought to protect the community. I should call out to him, pull him back to his work harvesting, but it was not the time. Faline was preparing to join the other warriors in the hall, to seek out the monstrous dragon that had taken so much from us. Success was not likely, not unless God decided to grant us victory. I just hoped she would return to my family today, and that her name would retain its honour. I helped her dress, finding the softest tunic, and the most hardy mail coat. Carefully knotting a leather band around her waist, so she could carry her knife, and sword sheath. Then I wrapped my arms about her, holding her close, whispering a prayer, and then she went on to the hall, to join the rest, hoping fate would be kind tonight.
The other warriors stood around, ready and at attention. Our fears were left at home, our strength and loyalty to the King all that mattered now. Our swords were ready, sharp and polished. Together we surrounded the hall, shoulder to shoulder, ready for the onslaught of the dragons. In the woods, our men had made arrows, and waited to shoot into the air, hoping to bring down the giant beast. Ropes waited to bind it, in the case it did fall. From the sky the dragon came, suddenly, and at great speed. It was difficult to see in the night, but the sheer size of its wings blocked out the stars and contrasted with the milky way like a giant shadow. It came closer, and closer, and as it was a cows length above us the arrows began to fly, raining down thick and fast. They made a pinging sound as they hit the dragon, his scales too thick for them to penetrate, but they distracted it, and as it turned to breathe fire into the forest, we rushed in, swords ahead, praying we had time to maim it before it could turn its head. Our shields were too heavy, and it was our one and only chance, and in a split second swords were slicing, and stabbing, and blood spurted everywhere, but the dragon did turn, and the smell of burning flesh hit us before the pain did, and the dragon flew up into the air again, flying uninjured and strong, with men in his claws and evil in his eyes. I had dived backwards, narrowly avoiding the worst of the flames, protected by the pillars of Heorot.
The next morning the mood was sombre, blood still seeping into the dirt, bodies still surrounding the hall while graves were dug. The survivors lay wounded, with aloe and tinctures helping their burns. Surviving the shock meant they stood a good chance. The day was spent deep in thought and reflection, dressing wounds of the injured and attempting to come to grasps with the battle of the night before.
Around we sat, night fast approaching us. The dragon was not possible to defeat, no plans remained, nothing left to try. The King had called us into Heorot, and we sat in the mead hall on benches, our heads down. ‘An offering must be made,’ said the king, ‘we have had enough life blood taken from us.’ And so we gathered the gold, racing against the descent of the sun, as the gravediggers dug a pit around the hall, and we filled it dutifully with gold, and with treasures. We sat between the hall and the pit, our shields in front of us, our King standing, defenceless, in wait. Night came and we still waited, until eventually, as it was at it’s blackest hour, a bobbing flame lit up the sky, sailing furiously towards us. The dragon, big and fierce, landed before us, the golden glow enough to call him to the table. And so the king bartered, ‘an offering’, he shouted, ‘you shall be gifted with gold so long as you leave us in peace.’ The dragon did not speak, but took a handful in his giant clawed talon, and retreated. The warriors stood and cheered, and the king declared a feast. From then on, the gifts were laid out each night, and the dragon did not bother them again, and the town lived peacefully. The feast was an uproarious affair, enough meat and bread and cheese to fill all their bellies over. A bard sang, and those with musical talent created a band, and ale was poured too.