How dare you. After everything I've done for you.
This is my refrain, and ever will be.
My fathers were not princes and never had been. Our line had no legends to it. My grandfather had been a warrior of some mild reckoning but he had long ago passed into farming and my father slaved the land and we starved some seasons. Ecglaf came to your attention only when he slew the dragon that lay on the heath before our farm. He did not mean to do it but it was eating our goats and we could not afford that. In a rage he spewed arrows into its den and when the thing poked its head out he stabbed it straight through the eye. It expired then, leaking venom onto the ground and burning holes into the grass. I stood there holding the bow, in awe that such a large thing could perish.
And you came over the hills with your host of men - thirty at least - and stared down at this farmer armed with his father's old sword standing prodding at this monster, and you took him into your hold because there were too many witnesses for all to keep quiet if you had murdered him and taken his glory for your own. You took him for the next best thing, the glory of being lord of a dragonslayer.
Of course at the time I thought you were simply impressed.
I in turn became impressed with you, and cleft to you like a snail, and was overjoyed when you but laid an eye on me. Look at your sword-arm, so heavy with muscle that your warriors had to hold it up. Look at the men under you, no longer defeated scraps from the poorer tribes held hostage but fighters of renown. Look at your glittering woman, the lovely Frithuswith, ripe with child. I lusted not after what you had but for you in particular. I wanted the blood of kings coursing through my peasant veins. I wanted to insert myself within you, curled like a maggot, breathe your air, roughen my throat shouting commands, shine astride a black horse stolen from a dead king. I wanted the scars on your arms and your habit of vomiting after the barest drop of mead - don't think I didn't notice that, my lord, Frithuswith bringing you bowl upon bowl of colored water while my father and his new friends sucked down rotten honey. You even let me hold your hair back a time or two.
Do you remember, Hrothgar, the day of the consecration of Heorot? What we chose to bury beneath the cornerstone? A slave-girl well-fucked wasn't enough for you, was it, we had to take a prince from the defeated sea tribes and throng him with gold. I remember him, we talked quite often before I realized what you would do with him. He was shorter than me and had that peculiar softness of a fat boy starved. I was his age and he had heavy-lidded eyes through which he looked at his fate and smiled. The women strew him with plunder from his own fathers and led him to the place where the cornerstone would be and it happened - knife through the ribs, cord around his neck, back of an axe to the top of his skull. As he lay there bleeding and gasping I could only just hear him whisper. A curse, I thought at the time, and ignored it. I didn't know it was a name. Did not know he was issuing an invitation.
Look at me, my lord. Remember that? You remember the feast afterwards, perhaps, the elk slit open and stuffed with other meats, the bowls of colored water, Frithuswith's swelling body and half-heard teeth-gritting as you bade her fond goodnight and went to find one of your many concubines, but do you remember the boy twitching at your feet? You yourself wielded the knife, did it the proper way so his soul would be confused and not know if it was being fed to the spirits by bleeding or crushing or strangling. He vomited a little before the life left his eyes. I felt uncharacteristically bad for him, as I had never mourned one of the great sacrifices on the heath to the Great Thunderer. Perhaps because I had ferreted out his name.
It was Ybro, by the way. It's too late to care now, but I suppose knowing is better than not.
You aimed too high, son of the Dane who was also half-Finn. Maybe if you had spun a slave-girl into the grave, let her claw out her last as the earth covered her, we wouldn't have had those awful years.
It's your fault that Æschere's body was strewn across the hall. Oh, I shouldn't rub salt in that wound, knowing how you loved him - twice more than I loved him, and God, did I love him, the only truth-teller in your band. Yrmenlaf was a brute, an oaf, though his hammer roared like the Thunderer's and squashed almost as many brains as his brother had in his head but Æschere had a serpent's slyness that my father did not respect. Farmers are hardheaded men. My father, set in his ways, befriended ugly Yrmenlaf and I, sixteen, young enough to be cunning, noticed the glint in Æschere's eyes. He was the one who taught me how to watch, and I began to see the little cracks in your throne. I remember Oslaf the Jute seething over how you treated his cousin Frithuswith, and Kokko the Finn rejoicing that you had taken his half-sister Ynda into your bedroom, and how they sparred. I noticed the colored water. I noticed poor Frithuswith and the young and beautiful Ælfswine, the priest who had garroted Ybro. Oh, you winced - you didn't notice that? I'm not going to call Frithuswith a whore for you, not with your slave-girls. She was younger than you, for Christ's sake, and you had her ready to pup for the fifth, maybe for a pregnancy beyond a stillbirth. Christ, yes, we'll get to Christ, I know the name is unfamiliar to you.
And yet I loved you! Seeing all of this made me marvel ever more at your power. That you could rest on such rocky foundations and never tilt. It made me mindful of the blood of heroes; O, son of the line of Scyld, your blood burned through whatever evil could befall you and would keep you safe. Or so we thought.
Remember that day, that awful day, when we woke in blood? Poor Frithuswith didn't deserve that, but you loved her despite forsaking her body during her pregnancy and oh my lord, you did not need to wince, the twins that Grendel ate from her belly were probably yours, idiot, Ælfswine hadn't come to Heorot before the cornerstoning. Ybro had died wearing his father's jewelry, which must have stung, and so he stung you back harder: twenty-seven of your best men, including my poor father the dragonslayer, and the babes, and beautiful little Frithuswith, who had always been so kind to me. You know, you always claimed to love Æschere best but Grendel left him alive. Were you perhaps enamored of Yrmenlaf's hammer? Remember how we found his intestines uncoiled, a mark on a map leading to the footprints? I remember that Æschere bayed at the sky and your lips twitched but you said nothing, merely pointed me to where my father's sword lay in his dead, detached hand. I remember that awful silence from you, the dead silence of the hall, even the birds scared into singing not. The gilded doors spattered with blood, Yrmenlaf's intestines, the footprints, the horses left alone but the men scattered in gnawed piecemeal here and there. We rode to the swamp, and -
Well. I suppose even you remember that.
Frithuswith had to be replaced, of course, and replaced immediately. You considered a Jute wife again but they were leaving by then, weren't they? Useless for allies, even though Oslaf the Jute was a stout man. All told, thirty men was not much, you who commanded thousands. Sails up. Oars down. Across the seas. Odd that you of the colored water did not vomit on the boat. News of the monster's attack had spread and we had to persuade the Helmings. A battle here, a raid there, and we came back with Wealhtheow in the back. Not the best of prizes - she was twenty, lanky, slim-hipped - but she had beautiful dark eyes and had been a wolf-priestess. She came laden with goods, wolf-pelts and wolf-headed ewers and wolves' teeth cast in gold and silver. Cruel to name her what we did but the wily women of the Helming wolf cult did not truck with their birth names and she refused to give us one better. I think Grendel was impressed by her, he scented something that took me a while. Æschere noticed the white wolf headdress in the chest she carried from home and bid me watch. I expected her to do rites to the wolf god, which we were barely aware of down in Denmark, but she instead tore across the land and killed chickens. I had to bite back my laughter when you and Oslaf wondered if Grendel was weakening.
He was not.
He slid into my bed and caressed me. I was eighteen then and only pretended to look when Æschere pointed me towards the more handsome serving-girls. He called me his little traitor. He could smell the dragon's blood left by my father on my soul and cooed over it. "When will you do such a thing, little traitor?"
"I did not betray my lord," I hissed to him, and he quite often laughed. "A lord is only as good as his people, my dear heart, and you certainly betrayed them, didn't you?" His voice dropped into its most sensuous growl. "Oh, to spit on the grave of your father like that...I wonder how it tastes?"
I did what I must. I only did what I must. You knew that and yet you -
Let me catch my breath. Stop moving! Look at me, my lord. Look at your traitor. I am twenty-nine and I cut my tree at the root for you. Tell me my refrain. Tell it to me!
Stop weeping, for Christ's sake, it's too late now.
Anyways. Grendel crept in with me and crept out again to slay the children of Denmark. You stood there purse-lipped on your throne and strew their graves with gold. The people of Heorot wept and Grendel laughed when they killed their own children to beg the Thunderer to stop this evil. Too bad for them, the Thunderer is ever an advocate for those who take matters into their own hands and Ybro had done it first and best. Bouncing Hrethric came from your wolf-queen's womb in much blood and I think if you had killed him Grendel would have walked off into the mists but even then your sour legend was large and you had already failed the sons of your warriors, you could not fathom to fail the son of your own loins.
Remember when Wæhlsted the Frisian came to visit and Grendel broke his head from his shoulders? And remember how the Frisians assumed we had done this ill act? That war was the best time of my life. You came with me, of course, but I do not think you had the great fun that I did. I was twenty then and rared for revenge, revenge I could not take. I instead slaked my bloodlust on the bones of the Frisians. I was foul and fierce and dishonorable and the men began to call me by what Wealhtheow would later snort at. UN-FRIEND. UN-FRIEND, they chanted, as I went bareback astride my charger into the masses of fleeing Frisians. You did not bother to leash me, and for that I thank you.
I don't remember much of that time, to be honest. I remember the massacre at Ytren, how I hurtled a shock of prisoners down to their graves in ways so vile that the Undermother would not recognize them as her children. I remember slaying babies and divesting weeping women of their heads, and I remember Grendel cooing in my ear, or at least he did in my dreams, likening himself to me. You, using me as threat, extracted flesh and bone from the shell-shocked Frisian warlords, and we came home with gold and their witchy pearls.
That night, after our feast, Oslaf the Jute died, his throat torn out. Perfunctory. Grendel simply reminding us that he was not chased off by glory. Wealhtheow held Hrethric tight and shook her head when I looked at her. She had ceased caring.
And that maddened you, that this had become normal. I remember your psychosis, how you waded into the bitter swamps to make a new deal with the demon ravaging your lands. You had almost made it there when I charged through the weeds and crows to cuff you to my horse. You screamed and wailed and beat against my thighs and I held you, poor old man like my father had never had the chance to be, held you as both of us dissolved into black sobs. Grendel watching from atop the hill where his nith-sele, his evil hall, was buried, not laughing but cocking his head and eyes glowing like coins. I took you back to Heorot and you put a babe in Wealhtheow's bright belly as if nothing had happened.
I saved you then from Grendel. For the second time. Did you not appreciate that?
Wealhtheow appreciated me. She killed her second child by forcibly miscarrying it and came to me on her padded feet, her jaws reddened. For a night I slept in the embrace of the wolf god and when I awoke I was filled with peace. I went to the place where the dragon had spilled its venom upon the heath and waited for Grendel to slink out of the mists. I took him by the throat and he let me, surprised enough not to break his promise. And I reminded him of it. And he nodded, and granted me a kiss on the cheek. And that was the third time I saved your life. I don‘t expect you to appreciate that one because you never knew of it but you should best know that Ybro’s spirit was forever niggling in the cracks of our oaths, looking to chew them apart.
We had peace for a time, then, except for Grendel taking his meals, and you sent me on a trip to the Franks. To send Un-Friend! What a story that was in the halls of the Merovingians! They had heard of my atrocities and shied away from me at the feasting-table and their priests, the ones of the new single-god, muttered darkly in my direction, but the old king of them was interested in our audacity. We brought amber, which the once-salty Franks had long since forgotten. I remember coming into the throne room and finding the king lying in a marble tub. His feet were webbed and on his head he had five lumps; two barely broke the skin into horns. Whatever Ybro had summoned had fellows in the sea and the sea was father to the Salt Franks. He licked my amber and shooed Æschere from the room.
“I know what you come to ask,” he said, “even if you don’t.”
“What am I asking?”
“I had my child baptized and he died,” he said. “Those witches my wives call priests might have killed him to freeze my heart, or to annoy me, or perhaps that was really a fever that dragged him away. I know I did stupid things to bring him back.” He absentmindedly touched his horns. They were asymmetrically placed on his head. “These, the priests say, may damn me forever to the embrace of the eternal beast, as you are damned to the beast on this Middle-Earth.”
I understood then. Æschere to paw alliances together, Unfriend to violently wrench a blood-truth from the last monster-blooded warlord. Oh, how I hated you, still trying to undermine me as I tried to save your honor.
“I have no answer for you,” Clovis said, “and I suspect you are not unhappy about that.”
“I will not let my lord be saved by a beast.”
“So you admit he needs saving?”
“The line of Scyld is strong,” I said, and said no more. Æschere wittered away and received some allegiances and we left the next week. Grendel sat atop the roof and waved as we came back in, drumming his heels against the awnings. The wolf came again to me but I shooed her away as Clovis had shooed Æschere. She could be of no more help.
No, no, I didn‘t sleep with your wife. That‘s not what sleeping with the wolf means. And now you ask why I never married. Grendel has whims, after all, and he liked me, so he might have let me grow my line.
You remember that trader who came from the south, the one from Punicia? The one who came to your court speaking bad Frankish asking for succor for the winter? The one who gifted you the lion-skin, whatever a lion is? He preached for a time on the banks of the nearby river and I listened to his nonsense merely because I was intrigued by the wizards who had killed Clovis’ son. He told me that to swear by Christ was the worst thing a man could do. I loved him. I know the Thunderer disapproves of things like that, but I loved him, and said nothing about it to anyone, and ignored him, and gave him barely a glance when he in his bad Danish asked for me to pass the mead-bowl, and Grendel strew his organs over the field, and I did not notice what I was stepping in until I came to his emptied corpse.
That’s why I never married.
I’m tired, old man, as you should be. I’m tired of it all. I gave you three reasons why you should have let it go.
Look. I know it’s confusing to one who looks at it from the outside but you know what I did. I saved your line. Hrethric and Hrothmund lived because of me and I brought back vasts of treasure twice. Æschere was cunning at persuasion, sure, but the Merovingians were terrified of Unfriend, despite their calm king in the bathtub. I sacrificed my brothers to Grendel in that swamp-hall so long ago so that you may live.
And you gave me over to the worst of princes from Geatland.
Did it not occur to you that your death would mean the end of it?
Ybro cursed you, idiot. He called Grendel up from the depths of whatever the sea-tribes worship because you killed him. He had no quarrel with Hrethric or Hrothmund or Wealhtheow or Oslaf or me.
I remember standing there shivering at the age of seventeen with Grendel offering me a choice: end it now, kill the unconscious king in his arms, or let the man live and the country suffer. I chose you because I loved you and because I know that for a man to kill his lord is to suffer a stain eternal. Whatever the Frisians suffered under my wrath would be nothing to me at the hands of the Undermother. I chose you because I know you would die someday but your line would not, your line would survive, and a man is nothing if not his children, and wouldn‘t it be fitting for your children to have been strong enough to survive the best beast that ever did live?
And I thought, perhaps if I outlived you, I might sow again the root and make my father's blood run down another few steps. He killed a dragon, after all.
But you betrayed me. You betrayed me, after all I did for you, swept me into the arms of that little seventeen-year-old swimmer with the outlandish muscles and the bright laugh and let him murder me with his flyt and let him slay the monster that I had been keeping from you for twelve winters. I avenged Frithuswith best I could, I battled the Helmings, I killed the Frisians, I persuaded the Merovingians, I kept Grendel from you I kept Grendel from you I KEPT GRENDEL FROM YOU
And this is my last act, my lord; when I stab myself the piece linked to the garrotte will choke me and the end of the axe-head will fall on mine and I will whisper my last request, which is to let your line die on you. May all your fame be lost. May no one remember anything but Grendel and how you failed so badly to protect your people from him. May your ignominy live forever, and let my name live however it does, I don‘t care, I have no line and had no line to begin with, despite what my dragonslayer father might have attempted.
Hwæt. Look at me. Hwæt. Hwæt. LOOK AT ME. HWÆT. HW--