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Mother-Tongue

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So. The honor-women in days gone by
and the men who ruled them had grace and greatness.
We have heard of their sons’ heroic campaigns.

There was Hrethel’s daughter, cup-bearer to the Geats
soother of mead-halls, weaving peace between king and thanes.
The All-Father favored her with beauty.
She was not destined to be a queen in a foreign land;
her father kept her close to home.
Dressed in gold-finery, she served high and low alike
performing the courtesies, setting other women to shame
with her example. She was a right woman.

In time Hrethel gave this gem-woman to mighty Ecgtheow
as reward for his loyalty, sealing the bond between them.
The treasure-giver honored his thane with his only daughter.
She became mistress of her own household,
a balm in bed to the battle-hewn warrior
and a comfort to his people.

Lightly she stepped in the mead-hall, listening
always for words roused in anger or formal boast.
The torque-bearer bestowed her golden favor
with care, heart-sore with worry
for Geat-land was beset with monsters,
the great Hrethel hard-pressed to keep his borders strong.
The Lord of All Things was testing his thane
giving the shield of his people chance to show his courage
and prove his war-band’s might against unnatural foes.
Now noble Ecgtheow was called to keep his oaths,
serve as counsellor to his king
and battle-hand in the clash of combat.
Hrethel’s daughter kept her lord’s hall-fire bright,
beacon for his safe return, and brought mead first
to those men skilled in words who sang the lore of the past.
Sigemund dragon-killer roared forth
in her mind, and she wished one like him would arrive
to deliver her war-weary people from their afflictions.

Deep in the mere, a monstrous hell-bride
gave birth to a shadow-stalker, a God-cursed brute
whose name would be known the whole world wide
as Destroyer of Heorot, tormentor of Hrothgar
and the Spear-Danes. Grendel’s mother
shrieked her pain to uncaring kin, Cain’s clan
who would not raise a claw to ease her suffering.
They cared nothing for ties of blood
or ways of decency; no rings
passed between them, no treasure-giver
shielded them from sorrow or gave seat
at the mead-hall to include them. The Lord God
himself had outlawed them, forced the pain-dealers
down into the cold-depths. So too men
who make themselves anathema
to the tribes are treated, sent away
lordless into lands fit only for demon-kind.
We must be wary always to keep
the favor of the Almighty Father
and not take his bounteous blessings lightly.

Ecgtheow’s wife, moon-full with child,
heard the troll-dam’s cries in her sleep.
She rose from her restless bed,
commanding the hall-defenders post
a double-watch, summoning retainers
to alert the people, bidding her maidens check again
the precious food-stock and mead stored against need.
The good woman tended to her duties,
steadfast in the face of trouble, a credit to her upbringing.
Her first thought was always for others.
As light-gold slew the gloaming,
she let loose the reins of the household,
returning to the shelter of her towering loom.
War-hewn Ecgtheow found her there
weaving story-threads, recording his deeds
for the ages. She soon presented him
with a son, the golden Beowulf.

No shining gold or handsome wall-hangings adorned
the hall of Grendel’s mother. Once the dwelling
of ancient kings, it now stood empty and useless,
play-thing of monster and her monstrous child.
The swamp-thing from hell was father
and mother both to Grendel, teaching him
how to slink and slash, creep and kill
under the wicked cover of darkness.
She praised his courage when he brought back
his first blood-soaked mountain goat
and tended gently to his war-wounds.
The terror-monger grew strong and cruel.
His flesh-lust spurred him to boldness;
his ghastly dam could not dissuade him
from raiding on the Spear-Danes, much
as she feared for his unnatural life.
The war-weaver gifted her son with magic charms
to safeguard him from keen-biting blades
and taught herself to piece together
dragon-skins, making him a strange pouch to
bear his grisly prizes away.
She loved her son as best she could.

Beowulf’s mother did not give her son
edged weapons as a boy-child.
She gifted him with a word-hoard,
honed his mind-trap against the lore
she had memorized since she first served
mead in a gem-encrusted cup to the veterans
in her father’s great hall. She knew too well
what gore his God-given strength might wreck
on a man’s bone-cage, the grisly snap
of bone-lashings and spray of life-blood
in battle. She whispered of whale-beasts instead,
taught her son dragons and sea-creatures
and hell-beasts and giants and all that
the Lord of the Ages cast away from himself as unclean.
Too soon he left her to sit a fosterling
on the benches in mighty Hygelac’s gold-hall.
She had her duties, she could not follow.
Beowulf’s mother waited to hear
her son’s fate from travellers, his youthful deeds
matched to old themes in strict meter.

She heard the death-song
before she saw him: thud-cry and keening
sped before him through the wood
down into the burning mere-depths.
Wrenched from her sleep, Grendel’s mother
tore through the water, fear welling
in her heathen breast, desperate to know
what had happened to her only child.
She came too late: his twisted body
lay broken bleeding on the death-ground.
No accident was this: a gruesome hole
marked the shoulder-joint where his scaled arm
should be. The tarn-hag screamed her raging grief,
vowing vengeance on those who had stolen
her son’s life. Like a man in battle
who has seen his kinsman cut down in his prime,
no blood-price could ever sate her fury.
Grendel’s mother prepared her loathsome self
to take up her son’s feud with the Spear-Danes.

Others can tell of the devastation she wrought
there in Hrothgar’s shining hall. She stole back
Grendel’s limb, Heorot's battle-trophy, and slew
wise Aechere. Knowing she would be pursued,
she left her revenge lying on the ground behind her,
Aechere’s head waiting for his lord to find.
Yet the Lord God sees that justice
comes in the end; Grendel’s mother
did not have long to glory in her daring.
Beowulf, Ecgtheow’s son, took her life
in battle, left her corpse rotting in the mud.

That valiant man found his old foe lying nearby
well-tended in a cave, golden rings
and ancient war-gear piled high over his body.
Beowulf used his stolen battle-light
to hack off Grendel’s head and carry it as a trophy
back to his kind, already anticipating
the praise-songs and feasts to come in his honor.