Patrick E. McLeanAuthor: Patrick E. McLean
26 Oct 2021

Patrick E. McLean

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The podcast of author and consultant Patrick E. McLean. Currently writing and podcasting How to Succeed in Evil. And taking interesting digressions in essay and interview form.

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    Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 7

    The King paused in the telling. Gripping the sword in his right hand, he rose and threw a few more coals in the brazier with his left. The stable boy, to pretend he wasn’t interested, resumed sharpening his knife.

    The King returned to his seat and asked the stable boy, “So what happened then, did I kill him? Did the Dragon? Does it matter?”

    “Yes.”

    “Yes, what?”

    “You took your revenge, as I will take mine.”

    “Did I now? How can you be sure? We haven’t gotten to that part yet.”

    “You stuck the blade in Beowulf and twisted it. I know because that is what I am going to do to you. That’s why you’re so proud of that sword. Finish your tale and don’t forget our wager. Or are not going to keep your word?”

    “Very well,” said the King, “Beowulf drew his sword and gave it to me. This sword, in fact.” The King tapped the naked blade against his thighs for emphasis.

    “We charged the dragon where it lay on the turf. Beowulf with shield raised, and I with sword. The beast lashed out and struck at Beowulf as a snake does, closing around the King’s leg. Beowulf brought the shield down upon the Dragon’s neck. As the Dragon held fast to his leg and engulfed him in fire, Beowulf held the beast to the ground.

    “Battered by its wings I charged in and shoved this sword into the soft place of its armpit and deep into the heart. It died quickly, just like anything will when you stab it in the heart.

    “Then, I held the dying, charred Beowulf across my knees and begged him not to go. But he died anyway.”

    “You didn’t?” asked the boy, “You didn’t kill him?”

    “I did not.”

    “Why?”

    “I am not at tenth or even a hundredth of what he was, but what I am, I am. You have that same thing in you, boy, that angry, unrelenting thing. That thing which strives, which seeks, that which would not yield without struggle to god or monster. And that thing is a flame I would not extinguish lightly. Not in him. Not in you.”

    For a time there was only the sound of the knife on stone. Then, from far away, the sound of a cock crowing.

    The King said, “It is morning, and I don’t think I’ve convinced you.”

    “You haven’t.”

    “Then enough games with your knife boy. You can sharpen ’til the end of days and it still won’t be a tool fit to your task.”

    The King stood and tossed his sword in the straw. He undid the sword belt and took off his tunic. His bare belly hung, soft, white and heavy over his hips, but the King’s arms and shoulders were knotted with ropy muscle.

    “I’ve lived long enough. So if you won’t fight for me, then it’s time for you to kill your monster.”

    The stable boy stood with his knife. He pointed at the King’s stomach. Then he lunged a little, to see if the King would flinch. Wiglaf stood his ground and smiled, his fear falling away from him at last.

    “Ah,” said the King, “battle.”

    The boy lunged. 

    * * *

    Naked from the waist up and smeared with blood, King Wiglaf strode into the courtyard. The men saw the head he carried and murmurs swept through the ranks. He climbed a wagon next to the main gate and held his trophy high. Without ceremony, he said, “The Scyllan’s sent an assassin.” Then he threw the head to the ground.

    The King said, “I am old. I am tired. And last night I was afraid that I did not have another battle left in me. Against odds like these, who would not tempted by a clean death and a forever after in the mead-hall?

    “But then I thought of spring. And your mother,” he said pointing to young man in the front rank. “And yours, and yours, and yours. And how much I loved them all. And I realized, you dog-faced, unloved b******s, that I had one more rutting spring left in me.

    "So fight with me now, and I will promise you two things. Victory and a fresh crop of brothers come January.” He waited for the laughter to die down. “Or do not fight and go your slaughter, meek as lambs. For me, it changes nothing. I  wait here no longer. I go to meet my fate.”

    He drew his Dragon-killing sword and with a mighty stroke, he sundered the timber that barred the gates. As the cold wind of morning swung the heavy wood gate open, Wiglaf charged and the Geats followed with him.

    THE END.

    If you’ve enjoyed this tale, why not leave a review on Amazon. It would be a tremendous help.

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  • Posted on 26 Sep 2021

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    Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 6

    The men panicked and fled. As Beowulf had foretold, not a one went for a spear. Some dived back into the barrow. Others ran up or down the coast. Only the Dragon was not in a hurry. I remember that dread shape against that grey winter sky, flapping lazily as if it had all the time in the world. It wheeled off to the left of us in pursuit of some of the Thanes. Over the hill, I heard the roar of its flames and men screaming.

    With a calm equal to the Dragon’s, Beowulf strolled down the hill to where the ponies had been. The beasts had also had fled, but the poor pony that carried the mighty shield was trapped. The bronze and iron had slid free from the pack and dragged behind the whinnying beast like an anchor. Foam flecked the pony’s lips and madness roiled in her eye.

    Beowulf cut the lashing and the pony ran down into the valley. Then he shouldered the giant shield. As I watched the pony run, I hoped that she would make it, but somehow I knew that she would not. In that moment,  knew, with certainty, that none of us would make it out alive.

    And it was then that I understood what Beowulf had meant when he had spoken of hatred in the heart. For men to war with men, courage is enough and greed will do. But to do battle with monsters, one must meet fear with something stronger.

    The dragon flew low across the bottom of the hill, and snatched up the fleeing pony up with a lazy whip of its neck and a snap of its jaws. Then it breathed fire and spit the burning animal back at the Earth like a curse. It dove over the cliff and disappeared.

    This was not a falcon on the hunt — terrible, beautiful, but still a part of the same skien as you or I.  This Dragon was a withering, animated greed for the suffering and end of all living things. Its joy was burning of crops, the eradication of species, the extinction of the sun. How could men who fought for treasure or power or glory in the eyes of other men stand against this monstrosity?

    I looked to Beowulf, and saw him leaning on his shield as if all of this bored him. He felt my gaze upon him, turned, and saw that I had not fled. He nodded once. As much as I hated the man, I felt that I had just been awarded an honor worth having. Then he pointed to one of the spears the Thanes had abandoned.

    As I took my first step towards the weapon, the hill beneath me erupted in flame. Where I had clawed an opening in the turf, a torrent of fire now poured forth. Smaller tendrils of smoke and flame welled up from the shaking ground. I fell and rolled down the hill, managing to stop near a spear. I picked it up and ran to Beowulf. I did not look back until I was behind the tower of his shield.

    The Dragon’s head rose up over the edge of the cliff. It swiveled, snake-like, and filled me with an ancient revulsion. It clacked its jaws together twice, then vaulted into the air.  The Dragon blasted the unburnt oak tree with its flame, then settled onto a burning perch.

    Beowulf’s eyes were filled with tears of fierce joy. The beast and the man roared as one and Beowulf advanced behind the shield. The Dragon dropped from the tree and breathed fire. As the flames surrounded us in the lee of the shield, Beowulf shouted, “When he passes!”

    When the Dragon came, I stood and jammed the spear into its belly. The point scraped scales and caught between them. The force of the beast’s passage slammed the haft of the spear into the earth and it shattered. A splinter of wood lodged in my left hand. As I pulled it free, Beowulf roared for another spear and shoved me out from behind the shield.

    As I ran, mostly falling toward the next weapon, the shadow of the beast passed over me. I dove for the spear, and when I came up again, I saw the Dragon, over the ocean, roiling around itself in a turn and lining up for another pass.

    As it dove on me, I thought to myself, this is when I die. But the Dragon passed over me and struck at Beowulf with its claws. The bronze shield rang like a bell. Beowulf was cast one way and the shield the other. He landed hard and did not rise.

    Now, I thought, Now is my chance to snatch revenge even from the jaws of my own death! I leveled my spear and charged. Beowulf raised himself wearily to hands and knees, the chainmail and the years weighing on him at last. The mouth! If he lifts his head, spear him in the mouth. But in the sky beyond Beowulf, I saw the Dragon turn again. No you damned worm, I thought I will take him first!

    But when the Dragon dove, I could not tear my gaze from the  horrible thing. As I charged Beowulf, the beast opened its mouth to burn us both down. In that moment, my choice was made. I threw the spear not at Beowulf, but into the maw of the beast. It struck home in the jaw, and the creature veered off to the side, crashing into the slope and rolling away, screaming pain and fire as it went.

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  • Posted on 24 Sep 2021

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    Beowulf and the Dragon Chapter 5

    At the end of a long, upward march we found an old oak tree on a cliff facing the sea. It was gnarled and had grown at an angle from being blown inland by constant punishment of the sea wind. The base of the trunk was wider than three men could wrap their arms around, while the top of the tree was wispy branches that I could scarce believe could hold their leaves in that wind. But we saw nothing that looked like a barrow.

    Beowulf asked, “Where?”

    “A path, down the cliff face,” came the answer.

    Beowulf commanded me to go and see. 

    Fear fueled my impudence, so that when I spoke, it was to say, “Should I kill the beast if I find it?”

    Beowulf said, “Leave your spear so that you won’t be tempted.”

    Defenseless, I crawled over the edge of the “path” and clung to the cold rock, as the ocean crashed against the cliff face far below. Everywhere was slick with the leavings of sea birds, but the birds were gone. I realized the last time we had seen animal life of any kind was before we had reached the burning forest.

    I came to a hole in the cliff. As I moved and slipped my way closer I could see that that it was ringed by blackened rocks. A foul, sulfurous smell hurt my lungs. The fresh ocean air could not take it away.

    The hole had been created where the rock had been blown outward, and a narrow path led into the depths. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was the keening of the wind in the rocks. Was the beast within? I am not ashamed to say that my hands shook as I lit the torch.

    The walls of the passage were scorched. As I pressed deeper into the crypt, my feet scraped piles of melted gold and silver. Gems littered the floor.

    The passage opened into a high vault. I saw a company of dead men in stone chairs. They must have been important in their day. Now they were skeletons in rusted armor and once fine jewelry. The one closest to the entry had been burned and knocked over. I listened again, but heard nothing. So I made my way through the crumbled chests and the caches of coins and the pillars that held up the roof.

    At the head of the room, was the one who must have been their leader in life. At his side still dangled a fine sword. Without weapon and afraid, I tried to draw it from its sheath. It came easily, as if it had just been oiled.

    I heard… Well, I don’t know what I heard. I imagined that it was  the scraping of claw across stone. I turned quickly and knocked the torch against a pillar. It exploded in a shower of sparks and went out.

    In the darkness, I panicked. I lost my reason and screamed and ran. I blundered through the barrow until I found a pillar with my head, and was knocked senseless.

    When I opened my eyes I saw my salvation. Lying flat on my back on the floor I could see a space in the ceiling where roots of the oak tree had pushed a few of the ceiling blocks free. There was the faintest glimmer of daylight. I rose and maneuvered a chest under the lightest patch in that dark room. Hacking with the fine blade, I climbed up in to the space among the roots. I moved through the earth as an apprentice mole, and  was just as blinded by the sunlight when I emerged.

    The men recoiled in horror, fearing, I suppose, that I was the Dragon, Harrower of the Dark. When they lifted me clear, laughter rippled through the company. I did not join them, for the terror of that dark place was still on me. For fear of crying out, I did not speak.

    Beowulf did not join in the merriment. He grabbed me by the shoulder and shook me so hard my teeth rattled. Then looked me in the eye and said, “Master your fear.” I managed a nod of assent. Then he asked me what was in the tomb.

    “Riches,” I said.

    “Go and see,” he told the men.

    They clawed their way into the underground chamber. There were shouts of delight as they discovered the treasures below. But Beowulf paid them no attention. He strode up the hill to the tree and considered it. Then he said, “It is unburnt.”

    I sat and hugged my legs to my chest. I did not want him to see my knees knocking together.

    “All of the trees we have seen, entire forests of them, were charred. But this tree was spared.”

    I looked up to see that what he said was true. In the whole of the valley laid out below us all the trees had been burned.

    Then came the sound of edge against edge. The men fighting over the treasures they had just hauled out into the light, greed turning man against man.

    “Should you stop them?” I asked.

    "Let them fight. Their blood may yet bring the beast,” said Beowulf, scanning the horizon. “See squire, they have dropped their spears,” he said, repeating it as a grim prophecy.

    I watched one Thane fight another over a golden hunting horn. The bigger man laughed mockingly as he wrested the horn from his smaller companion. The smaller man drew his sword and hacked the man’s hand from his forearm. As the larger man screamed in rage and pain, the smaller retrieved the horn and put it to his lips. The note he sounded was of bone ground against bone, yet it swelled until it filled the whole of that blasted valley. As the echoes of that terrible sound died away, I could hear the sobs of the now one-handed man again.

    Beowulf pointed and cried, “There!”

    Far below, one of the charred trunks of a tree unraveled from itself. Three flaps took the beast into the sky. The Dragon screamed fire, and rose to meet us.

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  • Posted on 19 Sep 2021

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    Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 4

    Neither Beowulf nor I slept that night. On his order, I found and woke the Blacksmith and brought him to where the King waited by the forge. Beowulf explained what he wanted. The Blacksmith understood, for it was simple enough, but he protested that the result would be too heavy for a man to lift. In response to this, Beowulf picked up the anvil with one hand and tossed it into the corner. The Blacksmith, his 'prentice and I stared at this with our mouths open. Beowulf said to the Blacksmith, "by dawn" and to me, "stay and help."

    After the three of us had wrestled the anvil back to its place. The Blacksmith relit the forge. His ‘prentice and I worked the bellows. There was no time for steel and no time to cast, so the Smith worked it in iron and bronze. The iron formed a frame, slightly curved and taller than any man. As he wrought, he hammered like a man possessed, yelling at us any time we faltered on the bellows. Drops of sweat fell from his brow onto the hot metal, but still he hammered.

    By the clock of my aching arms and back, the work seemed to take forever. But every time I looked outside, the night was still dark.

    When the frame was done, he granted me a respite — I was not used to such labors — and sent his apprentice for the bronze. He brought it in ingots and hunks, and I was put to the bellows once again. And in no time at all they had heated, hammered, and drawn it into long strips. They wove the strips into the frame and formed a towering shield made entirely of metal.

    As rosy-fingered dawn clawed its way through the dark, the blacksmith fixed a strap of leather to the back of the shield and tried to lift it. Using both hands, He was just able to get it off the ground. He held it for a moment and then it crashed into the earthen floor of his shop.

    Beowulf came and shouldered the shield as if it weighed nothing. “Good,” was all he said.

    * * *

    As we loaded the stout, shaggy ponies, I saw one of Handclaf's men bring him the charred hand of the dead slave, still admixed with the gold of the cup. With a furtive glance. he stowed it in his saddlebag. When he saw that I was looking at him, he glared at me. I did not look away.

    Many of the men had sought courage in their cups. Whatever temporary valor they had found had deserted them by mid-morning. From our column, I heard a men vomiting and moans from all around. The party was a score and ten, each mounted, plus the shield, mounted on a pony of its own.

    The first night, we dug our camp in the snow and used some evergreen trees as a windbreak. The men drank and were brave again. I crawled underneath one of the fir trees and wrapped myself in sheepskin. I fell asleep to the sounds of their boasting and their laughter. I woke just before dawn and saw Beowulf standing in the smoke of a freshly rekindled fire.

    He turned when he heard me coming out through the branches. Seeing it was me, he nodded and turned back to his contemplation of the flames.

    That day, he drove the Thanes mercilessly. He taunted them. Saying that they were not even fit to carry my spear, let alone his. He all but begged them to challenge me to a contest of strength or skill. I was certain I would be getting a beating one way or another. I didn’t much care, as long as it left me capable of exacting my revenge. I had, as Beowulf had pointed out, nowhere to go and nothing to live for. My one hope of a good death lay in him.

    But the beating never came. On the second day, we came to The March, Handclaf’s domain. What we saw there was filled us with awe and terror. From the high pass we could see the valley beyond, and to the sea. Large swaths of the forest were burning.  Many of the open fields had been plowed by fire and the scorched earth was open to the sky. It was the heart of Winter, but by the light of a burning village, this destruction seemed to us like a Spring in hell.

    As we drew closer to the barrow, the men became more sullen and fearful. Yet, Beowulf’s spirits rose. He jibed at Handclaf even more, but the Thane would not answer his challenges. My spirits rose with my King. Of our company, only he and I did not put any of our hopes in survival.

    We did not see the Dragon that day, although a burned farmer and his wife shared their tale of woe with us. They told us that there had been children and livestock. It was a halting tale, punctuated by fearful glances towards the sky. Beowulf offered our protection and invited them to spend the night with the company. The farmer declined. His wife, mad from grief, laughed at us and fled. The farmer made apology and hurried to catch up with her.

    Our progress was halted by the inferno of a forest fire. We made camp some distance away in a muddy field and needed to clear no snow nor build no fire for warmth. By dawn the fire had subsided enough for us to pick our way through the ashes. The ponies shied and grew wild, biting at us and each other. So we spread out and each man made his own way through the desolation.

    At the end of the day, we broke out into a large pasture of scorched grass and melting snow that led up to the headland and the sea beyond. Handclaf, the first to speak in hours said, “The Barrow is there, facing the waters.”

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  • Posted on 17 Sep 2021

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    Beowulf and the Dragon: Chapter 3

    If you’ve jumped in the middle, here’s Chapter One.

    After I killed the wolves, Beowulf took a liking to me, as much of a liking as he took to anyone. It became my job to pour Beowulf’s mead. That first night, very drunk, he said to me, “I would make you my squire, were there any more battles to fight.” I remember thinking he was silly for saying this. A foolish old drunk with his glory days behind him. Still, it was with trepidation that I answered, “Does my Lord mean to say that I am no longer a slave?”

    Beowulf asked me, “Do you have any place else to go?”

    “No,” I told him.

    “Nor do I,” he said, lifting his cup. 

    For a while, I thought poison would be the way. But I knew nothing of poisons or herbs. I didn’t even know who to ask. Even young, and foolish as I was, I knew it would not do for the King’s cupbearer to be heard asking questions about poisons.

    I wonder if Beowulf thought me a coward. It's not a bad guess. Most men are, after all. Or maybe he wanted me to try to kill him. He was old, and tired and perhaps all he wanted was one last fight so he could take his place in that mead hall in the sky. He had outlived all his enemies, and all around him were cowed. The Thanes and Jarls jockeyed for position, politick’d among their meat and mead, and prepared for that day when their ring-giver would give no more. They would fight amongst themselves, as dogs do for scraps, but even though Beowulf was old, they were all afraid to contest with him.

    I decided I would slit his throat in the middle of the great feast for the visit of Hanclaf, Beowulf’s most powerful Thane. Hanclaf lived three days' ride to the East. He was a Lord of the March, that strip of land that lay between the territory of the Sea-Geats and the unruly tribes beyond. In the absence of Beowulf, Hanclaf would have been a king in own right. But he had seen what had happened to the others, and sworn fealty. Now I can see that was just good sense, but the younger version of myself thought that we would be supping with a coward and his men.

    My plan, such as I had formulated one, was to wait until late in the night. When Beowulf was well and truly drunk, then I would slit his throat where all could see.

    But there was no feast.

    When Hanclaf’s men came, they entered carrying a dying man and presented him as if he was a gift. From underneath the sheepskins came moans and the stench of burned flesh. There were no long speeches. No gifts, no ritual greetings. Hanclaf stopped in the doorway, blocking most of it with his great size and said but one word. “Dragon.”

    They had greased the burned man with chunks of melted animal fat. I have not seen, before or since, a man so harmed yet still living. When the cover slipped from his legs, I could see that  flesh of them was charcoal. The warmth of the hall melted the fat they had slathered his wounds with and it ran down his legs and dripped thick blackness onto the stone floor.

    With some tenderness Beowulf went to the man and knelt beside him.

    In pained whispers the man told his tale to Beowulf. He had been taken as a slave by Hanclaf. Then he escaped and had fled to the coast. There, while searching for a place to hide from pursuers, he had found he an ancient barrow that containing the riches of a people who had been forgotten long ago.

    But that was not all he found. There also was a burning one, an old harrower of the dark, the worm of fire called by men a Dragon. So the slave had run, taking with him, only a cup of the finest gold.

    “How do you know this wretch he tells the truth?” one of Beowulf’s worthless, drunken Thanes had demanded.

    Beowulf stepped to the side, and revealed the burned man’s hand. It too was charred, and melted into the very bones of it was thick layer of gold that had once been a cup.

    The burned man shivered uncontrollably and Beowulf commanded that he be moved closer to the fire. The slave started screaming before the pallet was even lifted. Beowulf steadied the man with a gentleness that I had never seen in him before.

    Hanclaf watched all of this moment and then asked, “My King?”

    Beowulf waved him off and continued whispering to the slave. The sounds of the burned man’s misery grew quieter. And all of us searched each other’s faces, for some sign of what should be done next.

    Finally, Hanclaf said “When we rode here, three farms had been burned and a small village. The gods alone know how many have been ruined since. I have come for men, men brave enough to face this Dragon. Such men will I lead back in the morning. I will gather the Thanes, and destroy this monster.”

    It wasn't much of a speech, but the Thanes cheered it anyway. When the cheering died out, then everyone heard the low, phlegmy chuckling, that sounded more volcanic than human. Laughing, Beowulf rose from beside the slave.

    “What jest is this my King?” Hanclaf asked.

    But Beowulf's laughter grew and grew. I saw that the slave was dead and that Beowulf held in his hand a freshly-blooded dagger. He asked, “How can you face a Dragon when you don’t even have the stomach to spare a dying man his misery? There is your slave, Hanclaf. There is your cup. Why not take them and go? Better yet, why bring them at all, if you are such a hero? Why not face your dragon alone?”

    Hanclaf had no reply.

    Into the silence, Beowulf said, "Not one of you is even fit to be my squire. You have warred with men, but none of you have the strength, the tempered hate in your heart to do what is required." Then he pointed the bloody dagger at me and said, "Except for you.”

    That was the happiest moment of my life. That was the moment I knew I would have my revenge. Many things happen in the heat of battle which can not be remembered or explained afterwards. This battle with the Dragon would be the perfect concealment for my bloody and most deserved revenge.

    “Bring your spear,” he told me. As he said it, he smiled.

    “What about us?” one of the Thanes asked.

    Beowulf said, “Yes. Bring spears. When you drop them and flee it will give Wiglaf something to pick up.”

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  • Posted on 12 Sep 2021

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