Basically, someone at Jutes University was being a dick. Colorfully being a dick-the illegible graffiti climbed all over the student dormitories like a posturing baboon and striped uneven lines along the cars in the paid parking, so that it was impossible for even a single one of the Jutes not to notice. But not a single one of the Jutes mattered, because the day the mystery vandal decided to spray-paint the Make-Out Tree was the day that Hrothgar was visiting his girlfriend there and he noticed, and incidentally that was the day that Beowulf noticed. And, as with most things involving Beowulf, the day Beowulf noticed was the day things began to go poorly for both parties.
Beowulf was a proud (some might say too proud, but the "some" were not Beowulf) member of the Ecgtheow fraternity, which was known for its spontaneous ability to absolutely destroy everything it encountered. He was a chronic crew-neck-wearer whose upper arms thudded instead of smacked when you hit them. He wore just the right amount of hair gel to make his hair appear as thought it was constantly being buffeted in the wind, while at the same time ensuring no actual wind could so much as stir it, and he wore just the right amount of body spray to be mortally afraid of birthday candles. What he lacked in basic intelligence, he made up for impulsive psychoticism, and was by every account of the fraternity a leader among men.
And so, as soon as Hrothmund realized he had spotted the dreaded vandal of Jutes University, and as soon as he realized he was too shirtless and too afraid of individual confrontation to do anything about it, he did what all men do when in need of guidance: he texted someone else about it. In this case, he texted his brother Hrethric who in turn considered the list of authorities he could inform and settled sensibly on Beowulf, who was in the process of being persuaded by his peers to see if he could down a bottle of cinnamon without dying.
"Hrothmund saw the guy, apparently. His girlfriend says his name is Grendel, and he's the one who's been harassing the Jutes."
"The Jutes?" Beowulf frowned the square-jawed frown of the manfully troubled.
"Yeah, you know, the Jutes."
Beowulf still looked troubled.
"Our rival school," he elaborated. "Don't you remember initiation? You had to wear a blindfold and run into a flagpole with their banner on it until it fell over."
Beowulf did not, in fact, remember initiation. Or actually, he did sort of remember intense head pain-in the forehead, specifically-and the taste of what might have been ground. It was possible that had something to do with why he didn't remember. Then again, shit-wrecking hangovers were usually Beowulf's order of the day, so it was also possible that it didn't.
"I thought the team was the Giants," he said instead.
"Nah, bro," Hrethric said. "Well, it is, but it's Jutes University, so we just call them the Jutes."
The Giants or Jutes of whatever they saw fit to be called were long-standing enemies of the Beewolves of the University of Gaets not because of regional competition but because they were about equal in meat-headedly stubborn qualities, and their cheerleaders were about the same level of attractiveness. Hrethric wasn't sure he was obligated to be involved in their affairs, but at the same time it seemed like he must be obligated to do something now that the identity of the vandal was discovered. Like his brother, he decided to let someone else do the deciding.
He looked between his phone screen and Beowulf. "Should we…do something?"
"Hell yeah," said Beowulf, pounding back twenty-five grams of creatine with a Jägerbomb shot and automatically gaining the allegiance of everyone in the room who witnessed it.
Seamus Heaney was the dorm supervisor for Ecgtheow. He'd been given the position because he threw around dangerous concepts like "having a plan for the future" and "going to sleep, goddammit." Allegedly, his parents said they were proud of his life decisions, which, like the guy who said he'd enjoyed chess club in high school or the guy whose laptop porn collection featured colorfully animated girls with cat ears and eye sockets big enough to fit your wrist through, made him very difficult for the others to relate to. He was known for being straightforward, aggressively verbose, and for starting every conversation with an uncompromising "so", and also being constantly exasperated by their antics. He had a faintly tragic air to him that was especially tangible whenever he tried reasoning with Beowulf.
"So. Let me get this straight."
Beowulf nodded, like he'd been told to do when people talked to him.
"You-and all the rest of you idiots-plan to go camp out at another college, every night, in an attempt to catch a vandal who may or may not show up."
The rest of the boys nodded, like they'd been told to do when people talked to them.
Seamus could have been less pleased. He also could have been much, much more pleased. "So, even assuming you do catch him, you plan to…what?"
Beowulf looked around for somebody else to supply an answer, while everyone else looked around to Beowulf to supply an answer.
"…Challenge him," Beowulf eventually decided, and Seamus couldn't really say anything to that because he was compelled to go take medication for his rapidly worsening headache.
And so Beowulf and the brothers of the Ecgtheow fraternity set off the challenge Grendel. But mostly Beowulf.
Just on the forested edges of Jutes campus territory they arranged the loudest, least thoughtful stake-out of all time. One might indeed hesitate to call it a "stake-out", as they would have to stop and wonder why that word had come into their head at all. There was a bonfire, a cooler, a table, and a herd of rambunctious males. No one was doing anything in particular to actually watch for the vandal, either.
Someone tried to fart into the fire, and admitted no injury afterwards. Someone else tried to crumple a beer can against his head, and he didn't admit to injury, either, but the beer can was full and he didn't get off the grass. If they were both alright enough to mumble when they were prodded, the others reasoned, then they were probably alright enough not to take to the hospital.
Amidst the chaos, Beowulf shot a text to Hrothgar, who was one of their senior members staying behind to talk Seamus out of reporting anything about their actions.
What's up, he sent, certain that his concern and interest came across in the words and lack of punctuation.
Seamus says he hates you, his phone dinged cheerfully back at him a few moments later. Any sign of the vandal raising Cain yet?
Beowulf's brow furrowed as he realized he wasn't sure how to answer that. "Hey," he called to the group. "Was Grendel raised by Cain?"
That was enough to pause the camp altogether.
"What is that, like, denominational?" Hrethric said, unsure he knew what he was talking about but definitely wanting to sound like it.
His brother elbowed him and give him his best superior look. "Yeah, man, it was Cain. Like, the guy who didn't keep his brother or whatever."
If there was one thing Hrethric was certain about in life, it was that his brother was made to be argued with. "What, no, you mean that Noah's ark guy who didn't want to build the ark. Cam. Cam, not Cain."
Hrothmund scoffed, figuring that if he hadn't heard of it, then no one else but Hrethric had either. "Who the hell is Cam, your girlfriend?"
There was manful chuckling for a jibe well-delivered and Hrethric sulked, but before he could become too bitter the young Wiglaf quickly broke in, switching attention to the only thing he thought was really worth paying attention to: Beowulf.
"Hey, Beowulf," he piped up, startling the de facto leader out of a long, vacant stare at the tree trunks. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
Beowulf, who had never really been interested in anything curvier than the blender he made his protein shakes in, had to think about this. Beowulf, unfortunately, was not the greatest thinker.
"I guess so," he said, and before the conversation could go any further, Lady Fortune endeavored to prove she favored no one, and a shout went up suddenly from the camp outskirts.
Heads went around and leaf litter was upset as the gathered Gaets all jockeyed to catch a glimpse of the baffled-looking, sweater-wearing new arrival.
"Who…are you all?" He asked hesitantly, eyeing them.
Hrothmund jabbed a finger that startled all who were close to him. "Woah, that is him! It's Grendel!"
Hrethric saw a chance to redeem himself. "We're here to challenge you," he said with utmost seriousness.
"Challenge me," Grendel repeated nervously, having flashbacks to the horror-survival game he'd been playing the previous week. "Like in arm-wrestling, or finger-painting, or what?"
Beowulf had not thought that far. But Beowulf understood that it was important to accept help when it was needed, even if someone didn't know they were offering it. "Yes," he said confidently, leaving Grendel very confused as to which option he meant.
Beowulf, however, was immune to the confusion of others, and had bigger plans than justifying his actions. Grendel watched him dubiously, until-
"Oh my God, he's taking his shirt off."
"Oh my God, now he's taking his pants off."
He was doing that too.
"I'll arm-wrestle you," Beowulf declared, and when faced with a naked, well-muscled man and several eager adolescents crowding him toward the stage of tree trunks and wobbling table, Grendel wasn't sure how he could say no. He sat down tentatively onto the least splintery tree trunk, and was both impressed and deeply terrified when Beowulf chose the most. The plastic table was adjusted between them, and then Beowulf's assertive elbow slammed it down into place. Grendel, still not convinced this was all happening, awkwardly joined his hand into the stranger's large one, knowing as soon as he did that it was a bad decision-his opponent was built like Disney's Hercules, with the huge, broad shoulders, the waspish waist, and the potential for a heroic, winning smile on his face.
"Seriously," Grendel said, eyes darting around again between the members of the captive audience-or maybe he was the captive here. "Who are-"
Beowulf smashed him into the table shoulder-first.
"Vaguely Christian Pagan hybrid Jesus, I think a ligament just tore!" Grendel howled, doubling violently over into the tabletop and clutching his arm. The Ecgtheow members erupted into guttural cheering, assured of their champion's prowess. Beowulf, deaf to the world's complaints and also used to people screaming things like lawsuits and obscenities around him, stared with interest at the lone varsity sweater sleeve dangling from his hand.
"Huh," he said. "Didn't know you played with the Pagans."
Grendel writhed. "You ripped my arm off!"
Beowulf shrugged. "I guess."
All in all, it had been a good night. You could tell by the criminal amount of litter and the snoring bodies all around the remnants of the fire, especially because the remnants of said fire appeared to have spread to some of the surrounding woodland. The morning smelled like roasted squirrel and blind optimism when the Ecgtheow brothers began to rouse.
Grendel had…well, no one was quite sure what had happened to Grendel. He was grown-ass adult, they reasoned, and had the discretion necessary to judge for himself whether or not he wanted to go to the hospital. Probably after he stopped crying.
It was a jubilant and consequence-oblivious party who returned to their dorm, completely ignoring any and all classes for the day. Both Hrothgar and Seamus were waiting for them, but only Hrothgar was happy to see them. But who knew, maybe Seamus expressed happiness by turning chalk-white and adopting a deathly, thousand-yard stare.
"So you're being sued," he informed the grinning band.
"Being what?" Beowulf inquired, still grinning.
"Being sued. By Grendel's mother."
Beowulf, Hrethric, and Hrothmund all did their best impressions of frozen computer screens. Wiglaf did his best impression of an acolyte staring in rapture at his god, which everyone did their best not to notice. Seamus couldn't tell if they had forgotten the meaning of the word "sued" or if they had forgotten the name "Grendel", since both were equally possible. Thankfully, Hrothgar saved him from having to start digging himself into the hole that was getting answers out of Beowulf, or at least, he thought darkly, for the moment.
"Sued?" Hrothgar said, with a hint of what Seamus dared to call outrage. "For what?"
"Well, that depends," Seamus said, making direct eye contact with Beowulf. "What'd you do to Grendel?"
Beowulf thought back. He remembered something vaguely about yelling and a sweater sleeve. "Ripped his arm off," he said decisively.
Seamus Heaney quit his job.
Grendel's mother, however, did not quit suing them.
Hrothgar approached Beowulf about it later in the day, after Seamus's things had all miraculously disappeared and the Ecgtheow boys had already begun to forget he existed. "Hey, Beowulf, it looks like you're dorm supervisor now. The paperwork from Seamus says so."
Beowulf peered at the stack Hrothgar handed him. The paperwork did say so, in no uncertain terms. Interestingly, the paperwork also seemed to say that Beowulf had been dorm supervisor since before the whole Grendel incident had begun, and went to great lengths to emphasize how immensely responsible for everything Beowulf was, and how willing to accept any potential consequences on behalf of Ecgtheow.
Wiglaf appeared from Beowulf's shadow to peer at it, too. "This is bad," he commented. "From an outside perspective, this whole thing looks like it was your fault, Beowulf. When Dean Hygelac finds out about this…"
Hrothgar thought it sort of looked like Beowulf's fault from every perspective, but that couldn't be right. "Well, when my mom is angry, it always calms her down when I apologize to her. So if we apologize to Grendel's mom, then everything should turn out okay, right?"
"Right," Wiglaf agreed immediately.
"Right," Beowulf added belatedly, suddenly aware a response was required of him. He gave his brain a moment (a few, really) to let it catch up to what had been said. "Where does she live?"
"She's actually pretty well-known," Hrothgar said, obviously having been looking into this before. He opened his phone to a Wikipedia page with a picture of a tartly smiling woman with wire glasses and tightly-curled hair, and a sweater that had obviously weathered several cats. "She's an Old English teacher at a private college, but Google maps says she lives pretty close around here. I mean, pretty close. Like, definitely close enough to find it eventually."
"She is old," Beowulf admitted, only paying half-attention, and to only half of what was being said. "But she doesn't really look English to me. More German, maybe. She has that mean jawline."
"You're completely right," Wiglaf said, paying no attention to what was being said but all of his attention to Beowulf being the one saying it.
They all looked determinedly at the picture some more, until the screen on Hrothgar's phone timed out.
Hrothgar pondered the black screen for a second. "Who's the fastest driver in Ecgtheow?"
Wiglaf and Beowulf debated silently, or Wiglaf pretended they were debating silently and Beowulf wondered why Wiglaf kept looking at him like that.
"Probably Hrethric," Wiglaf offered when he understood that Beowulf's input would not be forthcoming. "On account of his suspended driver's license and all."
"Perfect," Hrothgar said.
In the end, Hrethric's car-or, more appropriately, Hrothmund's car with its different license plate-could only fit six people (un)comfortably, so the only ones who set out to face Grendel's mother were Beowulf, Hrethric, Hrothmund, Hrothgar, some guy named Unferth who still had data available on his phone to use Google maps, and Wiglaf, had ways of going where Beowulf did-to the same college, for instance.
"Alright," Hrothgar said, navigating from Unferth's phone and ignoring Unferth himself. "Is everyone clear on the plan?"
"Crystal," Hrethric said, spinning the steering wheel like a pizza pie and almost throwing them into a ditch. "We should be there before midnight. Could be earlier, if I find any shortcuts."
Beowulf's head bobbed in affirmation, or maybe just from the turbulence of the tires rolling over a possum. "Don't worry, guys, I'll go it alone once we get to the lake. She'll never see me coming from the water."
"That should give you enough time to get into her house before she can get you out," Hrothmund said with far too much glee.
"Or pick you up in the security cameras," Wiglaf tagged on. He wasn't joking.
Unferth, jammed between the side of the car-which was rattling rather alarmingly from Hrethric's ambitious handling-and Beowulf's rock-solid bulk, gave a short cough. "That's some Leeroy Jenkins shit," he muttered, wondering why he was here and if he would have to participate in what was sounding more and more like a heist.
"Don't worry, I've done this before," Beowulf said, mistaking his worry. "My buddy dared me to race him in the water wearing a parka once so I said yeah."
There were nods around the car. "Of course you did."
"And then I almost got eaten by a 'gator, but it was cool because I had the swiss army knife on my keychain-that parka was dense, man. Nine of them died and I didn't even bleed that bad."
"Cool," said Hrethric. And then, with no warning, "I found a shortcut."
Beowulf and the rest all squinted out into the darkness, trying to discern any routes that split from the road-well, the rest except for Hrothmund, who had spent many years with his brother and latched onto the overhead handle with speed born of both instinct and fear.
Unferth moved his face closer to the window. "I don't see any-"
Hrethric pulled straight across the other lane and into the black, tangled forest they were driving alongside, and Unferth's face smacked directly into the glass. There was no screaming, because there were only manly exclamations, and there was no vomiting because there was only pure adrenaline and tree branches against the windshield, but there was a great deal of swearing.
"Hrothgar," Hrethric said like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. For him, nothing was. "How much farther does the map say it is?"
"Uh." Hrothgar gathered himself and fumbled the phone back up off the floor, punching at the sides until he found the button and it came on again. "Give it…maybe ease up on the gas a little, Hrethric, hang a left-"
Hrethric, for lack of a better term, hung a left.
Hrethric, for lack of a better term, stopped. And everyone else slowly recovered from whiplash. "We're here," Hrethric said.
They were indeed. A large, stately house rose up in small lights across a dark, long lake, which was the unmistakable color of positively freezing water. Everyone clambered out, some more steadily than others, and scrutinized their target. They were at the back of the house, and Google satellite images said that there was a deck at the edge of the lake with a sliding glass door to the house which might be easily broken.
"Let me get ready," Beowulf said, reaching back into the car for another jacket.
Seeing the lake, and thinking back on what he'd heard earlier, Unferth felt the need to speak up. "Beowulf!"
Beowulf turned back over his shoulder noncommittally. "Yeah, what's up?"
Unferth glanced to his fellows for support, not entirely sure he wasn't about to ask a stupid question. "Blindingly stupid," his brother liked to say, shaking his head. "That must be the only reason you get any." But Unferth had to ask. The lake was huge.
"Don't you need to, well, breathe?"
Beowulf gave the deep, slow blink of the truly unaware.
"No," he said.
Blindingly stupid, Unferth heard his brother's voice echo in his head. Unferth was used to hearing to echoes in his head, but, strangely, he didn't think this one was talking about him.
Huh. He wondered who it meant.
Meanwhile, Beowulf was pulling parachute pants over his jeans. "Just like the parka," he was explaining. "More bulk will keep me warm when I swim."
"Someone stop him," Unferth said half-heartedly, but no one did. They couldn't be blamed-Beowulf was a blind flailer. And more than that, they believed in him. Stupidly, but they did.
Unferth sighed, knowing defeat when it was facing him.
"Hey, listen," he said to Beowulf. "I'm sorry for doubting you, man, it's nothing personal. I just want you to take my flashlight with you. So that you can, I don't know, use it, I guess. It saved my father's life in a similar situation, so you should have it instead of me."
Unferth held up his keychain with a small waterproof flashlight attached to it, and Beowulf regarded it with great solemnity as it dangled in front of his face. "That's gay," he said, and then jumped into the lake.
Wiglaf glared at Unferth. Beowulf disappeared into the depths.
Since Beowulf, indeed, did not need to breathe, and had a natural talent for not being limited by laws of physics when he didn't know they existed, surfaced with the grace of a walrus just at the lake. He levered himself up, dripping and misshapen like a sea monster, and wrung out his parachute pants before he unceremoniously punched a hand through the glass. Right away, a security alarm started screaming, so Beowulf stepped calmly into the house, and dripped, and waited.
Grendel's mother came rushing down the stairs in her nightgown, wild-eyed and frazzle-haired.
"Hi, Mrs. Grendel's mom, I'm Beowulf-"
But Mrs. Grendel's mom was not in the mood to listen. She was in the mood to fight. Snatching up a decorative fruit bowl from a coffee table next to the couch, she brought the rim whistling at his face like the edge of a guillotine. Beowulf, acting on pure self-preservation, seized up a tall antique lamp in the shape of a bluebell to knock it away so hard the bowl shattered into a family portrait, and the ancient lamp disintegrated in his hands after just the one swing.
"Dammit," he said to the antique dust on his hands, mindless of the way the lady stopped dead in her slippers, and her eyes popped huge out of her face.
"My priceless lamp," she gasped, and then she died where she stood.
Well, actually, she fainted where she stood. But then she tottered to the side and cracked her head on the polished corner of the coffee table, and then she died.
If nothing else, the lawsuit was over.
Two weeks later found an abandoned car outside the woods on the private property of an Old English teacher, and two young men passing under the deceptively pleasant tinkling bells of a tiny back-alley that smelled of old meat. Or maybe fresh meat, if it was diseased.
"Don't worry," one of them was saying, while the other admired the small shifting shinies over his head. "This guy is supposed to be the best at what he does. He'll get you an ID that'll get you clean away into Kazakhstan."
"Cool," said Beowulf. He had discovered in recent days that answering Wiglaf that way was the easiest.
As if on cue, a small man in Renaissance Fair chic emerged from behind the counter, upon which were lined all sorts of oddities, including a Buddha in Hawaiian shorts and a pile of rubber bands. There was a reptilian quality to him that was impossible to place.
"I have what you need," the man said with no preamble whatsoever.
"Cool," said Beowulf again. If it worked on Wiglaf, why not this man? "What's the price?"
"A curse until the end of your days," the man replied candidly.
"Cool," said Beowulf for a third time, and took the grungy manila envelope the man slid across the counter to him without noticing at all his nonplussed expression.
"We'll light a crazy bonfire for you," Wiglaf promised. "Crazy."
"Thanks," said Beowulf, and then, because he could not remember his name at all, "Ecgtheow forever."
"Yeah, man," said Wiglaf, going in for the masculine hand-clasp. "Brothers forever."
"Epic," said Beowulf, returning the clasp. And that was really about the size of it.
But as he sauntered out to face the world with a new face, he stopped and turned back to Wiglaf with his hand pressing on the door, the bells threatening to catch on the peak of his gelled hair.
"You know," he said with a startling hint of real emotion, "once I'm gone, I want 'em to say-I want everybody to say I was, you know, the most gracious, and the most fair-minded and stuff. And I want 'em to say that I was the kindest to the peeps, and the keenest to win fame."
Wiglaf looked into his eyes and saw the sincerity there.
"The hell, man," he said, and Beowulf shrugged and left and then that was really about the end of it.