“Ragnard! Fetch table and chairs.” Aschere ordered for the king whose eyes were all on Beowulf apart from shifting once or twice toward Festuscato.
“Hail great king!” Beowulf began, and Seamus wrote furiously. Bran watched and smiled while a flushed Mirowen translated. Mousden slept. Luckless licked his fingers. Gregor mumbled. “Now we might see some action.” And Festuscato interjected the occasional, “Here, here!”
“I knew you as a child, a mere babe in arms,” the king said and smiled with great love and hope. Indeed, everything appeared to be going swimmingly until Unferth the drunk shuffled back his chair to stand. Hrugen sat with his father at that point, but there was no stopping the old man from acting like the bitter old drunk that he was.
“Braggart’s words.” He shouted to gain everyone’s attention. “The way I heard the tale, you lost in a simple swimming match to Brecca.”
“That wasn’t the way of it,” Beowulf growled and fingered his sword, but resisted his inclinations for the sake of the king. “You tell a drunkard’s tale.” He returned the insult before he returned his eyes toward the king. “True, Brecca came ashore first, but I could have beaten him if it was a race. In truth, we were both young and headstrong and full of the vigor of youth, not likely to heed the words of our elders, and thinking we could conquer the world, just us alone. We were far out to sea in the midst of a roil of whales when the storm came up suddenly, as such storms are wont to do. In truth, Brecca got washed overboard and cried for help and I dove in to rescue him. And I might have, if the cold and cruel spirit of the nor’easter had not come up with a big blow. We were separated then, and I saw no more of him.
“Here, here!” Festuscato said, and Beowulf took that moment of distraction to look around the room. He had an audience and he was not slow to take advantage of that. “There I was in the churning deep, surrounded by monsters and the water nearly frozen. The waves were as high as Heorot, the hall of Hrothgar itself. And there I was in my chain with my sword at my side, struggling hard just to keep clean air in my mouth when I felt a slithering beast grab hold of my leg as if to drag me to my doom. Glad I was then of my chain as the beast wound itself around me to crush my life and drag me back to its’ bottomless lair. By the sword, I slew it and breathed again. And nine others I killed after that first until at last, the sea itself had enough and spewed me out upon the shore.”
Beowulf paused to look again in Unferth’s direction. “I could have won a simple race, if we had raced. But I have heard no such glory come from your lips. If you were half a man, this Grendel beast would not haunt the hall of your king.” He went back to fingering his sword, hoping Unferth would make the first move, but Hrugen managed to pull his father back to his seat without further words, and the king spoke into the silence.
“Pay no attention to Unferth and his loose and envious tongue. I am glad of your coming. It was foretold to me by.” He paused to look down. “I cannot say, but I am glad you are here. Only, I must warn you. Your steel may have proved well against the serpents of the deep but it will not avail you against the Grendel. They say the beast cannot be hurt by any weapon forged by man. You must face this monster hand to hand.” He shook his head while a voice spoke quietly in the hall.
“Hand to claw.”
Beowulf said nothing, but shot a sharp glance in Festuscato’s direction. Festuscato stared back, dumbly, so Beowulf turned his gaze toward Mirowen. He smiled and nodded slightly as if making a pledge to his lady. Mirowen smiled a little in return, did her best not to fear for him, and covered her reddening ears at the same time.
“But for now.” The king still spoke. “Let us eat drink and be merry.”
“Here, here!” Luckless said.
“For tomorrow we may die,” Festuscato finished the quote.
“Die?” Mousden lifted his head, but Bran laid his big hand against the back of the Pixie’s head for reassurance, and Mousden drifted off to sleep again.
“But will he kill the beast?” Mirowen asked Festuscato quietly.
Festuscato shrugged. “I don’t remember, exactly,” he said. “I don’t think so. Not entirely. I seem to remember it goes strange.” Mirowen put her hand on Festuscato’s arm. She looked upset. Festuscato reached down and patted her hand. “But he will be all right. At least I’m pretty sure.”
“The queen.” The word went up as Wealtheow came in bearing a cup of mead. She smiled, went first to the Geats, and starting with Beowulf she offered a sip to each of their new guests, as was the custom. One of her eyes, though, stayed on the king to be sure he took the medicine Ragnard brought.
The king sipped a little before he pushed Ragnard away and almost knocked him to the floor. He looked up at the crowd. “Roman,” he said. “Have you a tale for us today?” Heinrich the Bard always got the last telling.
“I do.” Festuscato spoke up quickly. “But better still, allow my Lady Mirowen to sing the tale of the young lovers. Her voice is far more pleasant than mine.” The men in the hall were quick to ascent, but Mirowen pulled back a bit.
“How could you!” she whispered, accusing, but Festuscato’s eyes appealed to the queen. The queen responded.
“Mirowen, dear. Come and sing it for me,” she said, assuming that Mirowen was shy in front of such a crowd of men. Little did she know, only one man made Mirowen shy. “Say we two are in my room alone. Come sing for me.” The queen requested. Mirowen growled at Festuscato, but now she felt trapped. Festuscato merely smiled, knowing full well the one to whom she would be singing of young lovers. So what if Mirowen was nearly seven hundred years old? She was an elf, albeit disguised; but elves were always young lovers, when they were in love.
As it turned out, the song got so well sung, and with hardly a touch of magic, the men merely smiled when she finished, and didn’t dare to breathe for fear of breaking the spell. The king and queen were holding hands and teary-eyed. Even Unferth paused for a time to soak in something far more powerful than drink. Poor Heinrich would have a tough act to follow.
Men began to leave the hall as the twilight came on. Ragnard brought plenty of soft cushions and blankets for the Geats and then absented himself quickly. Wulfgar paid his respects to Festuscato and even Aschere said that he finally understood why Lord Agitus took the woman aboard ship.
Festuscato and his crew were near the last to leave. Only the king stayed to the bitter end to wish Beowulf and his Geats the best of fortune. Then all was dark and quiet.
Seamus got left to guard the rooms where he could make sense of his notes before he forgot everything that had been said on that day. Gregor, Luckless, Vingevourt and Mousden were left with the horses, well back from the city gate. Mirowen was supposed to be with them, but she insisted on hiding in the bushes with Bran and Festuscato, not far from the main door to the hall. They waited for hours.
Mousden fluttered up every once in a while, to look over Festuscato’s shoulder, to keep an eye on what might be happening at the hall. Every time he came back to the others, though, he always reported the same. “Nothing.” One time he tried to relieve the boredom. “I spy with my little eye something that is gray.”
“It’s all gray, you dingbat. It’s night.” Gregor ended the game.
It got near two in the morning before they heard noises in the hall. A man screamed. They heard a loud crashing and stomping of feet, and then a roar. Then the hall seemed to erupt in a kind of madness of men shouting and what sounded like furniture breaking. Mirowen hid her face in her hands.
“Courage,” Festuscato said. “Wait for it.”
They heard a loud snap, like the sound of a great limb of a tree being broken, and it got followed by a howl such as they heard on that night in Mirowen’s room, only this sounded much louder and much more frightening. A moment later, the front doors of the hall got broken down and the Grendel came running out into the night, still howling but obviously trying to keep quiet. The beast appeared to be missing an arm, but the acidic blood came slowly.
The Grendel rushed toward the main gate of the city, and Festuscato stood. “Shall we go?” He asked the rhetorical question. Mirowen wanted to rush to the hall, but Festuscato grabbed her hand. “We are not here, remember?” She reluctantly followed her Lord.