The moon went down and the sun got ready to rise as people gathered in the hall. Hrothgar looked like a man defeated. The Danes looked to Beowulf and Beowulf looked to Festuscato who simply stood and seemed to look at nothing in particular.
“Mother.” Gregor mouthed the word as he closely examined the blood splattered around the room.
“But with all that red, the trail should be easy enough to follow,” Bran said.
“What do you mean, mother?” Wulfgar asked.
Beowulf turned his head and looked again at Festuscato.
Unferth said, “You failed.” He shot the words at Beowulf but people ignored him. Hrugen took him to a table.
“Aschere’s missing.” Svergen pointed out.
“Lord, there are signs of forced entry at the gate.” One of the Geats reported. Festuscato smiled. Beowulf had not been entirely just waiting.
“Damn gate’s about off its hinges,” the Gatekeeper said to no one in particular.
“About to let go of yesterday’s lunch,” Luckless said. “Can’t imagine there’s much left in there.”
“Poor little guy.” Mirowen soothed his brow.
Wulfgar yelled and verbalized the fear that everyone felt.
Festuscato moved. Beowulf followed, and because of that, Wulfgar and Svergen followed as well. Unferth watched, and the entrance by the kitchen cook did not distract an eye.
“Sorry your majesty,” the cook apologized. “Ragnard must have run off. I guess the Grendel finally became too much for him, screams in the night and all.”
“Shh!” The king watched as well while Festuscato picked a few hairs from a table. They were not human hairs. He brought them up to the wall where the arm of the Grendel had been hanging and where a few of the Grenfell’s hairs still clung to the nail.
“The Grendel was gray,” Festuscato said. “These are brown and much coarser.” Beowulf saw, but Wulfgar had to shove up front for a closer examination. Festuscato gave him the hairs to examine to his heart’s content. “Ragnard was the Grendel,” he said.
“Ragnard?” Svergen spoke for many.
“But what does this mean?” Wulfgar asked. He seemed terribly confused.
“Mother.” Bran and Gregor spoke together, Mirowen dutifully translating into Dane and then Geat. Festuscato could see the light slowly dawn in the faces of the men around the room.
“No.” The king objected. “I knew the woman.”
“She has the wolf disease,” Mirowen said on her own.
“Are you saying we track down this ravenous beast?” Svergen questioned their sanity.
“Such a wolf would be most vulnerable in the daytime,” Beowulf spoke at last.
“I’m coming,” Unferth yelled. “Me and my son.” Hrugen stood with a strange expression on his face. His father finally accepted him, but he would have the burden of an alcoholic father for the rest of his days.
“We’re all coming.” The king said, and no one said anything more.
Forty horses left the city around ten in the morning. Festuscato lead the pack, tracking the beast, though he already assumed they would end up by the lake that Vingevourt had called “bad water.” Vingevourt rode on his blanket behind Bran. Mousden rode with Gregor, and needed until ten to settle his stomach and his mind for the adventure. Seamus rode his own horse, and Luckless his pony. Mirowen rode beside Beowulf and they were followed by the thirteen Geats, one having been killed by the Grendel. There were eighteen Danes lead by the king and Wulfgar, Svergen having taken his place along the coast. Unferth rode behind the king and Hrugen rode beside his father.
Festuscato thought the trail too easy. He briefly wondered if the woman deliberately wanted to be found. He changed his mind around noon. They found Aschere’s head in a tree branch.
“It is a warning.” Many felt it, but Festuscato shook his head.
“Probably all that was left of the man when the sun rose and the wolf changed.” He eased a few minds saying that, whether he believed it or not. All the same, the sight seemed enough to unnerve a man, whatever the reason for Aschere’s head being there. Two of the Danes got it down and one wrapped it quickly in his cloak.
“Bad water.” Vingevourt took the moment to sniff the air. They were near.
“Dead water,” he called the lake.
“Why have we stopped here?” The king came up. “I see no dwelling.”
“The beast entered the water at this point,” Festuscato said. “My guess would be an underwater cavern or cave of some sort.”
“No, Lord. Don’t ask me.” Vingevourt spoke up quickly.
“No fear,” Festuscato said. He had no intention of risking the water sprite.
Wulfgar prepared to send men around the lake to see if the beast came up again at some point, but Beowulf stopped him with his hand. “No need,” Beowulf said. “It appears as if the lake is coming to us.” He pointed.
The lake looked to be boiling. Serpents came, and not a small one in the lot. Men stepped back, and some barely kept from bolting when the boldest snake reared ten feet up. Festuscato pulled his bow to the ready, but Mirowen shot first, a perfect shot that entered the lower jaw and exited the top of the skull. The snake stayed up a moment before it collapsed. In that moment of distraction, however, another serpent came up alongside them. Beowulf and Wulfgar both hacked at it with their swords. The snake shriveled under their blows and finally got cut in two.
With that, the other snakes hesitated, as if some intelligence guided them. The bubbling began again, and soon they were lost from sight under the murky water.
“Beowulf.” Festuscato pulled the man aside while Seamus distracted the king and Wulfgar stood with Gregor and Bran, looking for more serpents in the water. Mirowen followed with Vingevourt who wanted no part of that slime. Festuscato had to wave Luckless and Mousden to join them as they sought out a place apart from the others. Hrugen and Luckless had been conversing, and so Hrugen followed, and his father followed after him.
“Vingevourt,” Festuscato said. “He will need to breathe under the water.”
Beowulf grabbed Festuscato’s arm, and not too softly. Beowulf stared at him as if protesting. He did not want to have to do this, but then he glanced at Mirowen and he knew, without a doubt, that he had to finish the job. He surrendered to the inevitable.
Vingevourt floated up to face the man and laid his wet, gingerbread-like hands against Beowulf’s cheeks. Then the sprite returned to the earth and spoke. The water will not drown him. Breathe normally. And the weight will not crush him, no matter how deep he goes.”
“I don’t feel different,” Beowulf admitted, but Festuscato already moved on to the next step.
“Mousden. The man will need to be able to see in the dark. It may be black as tar down there.”
“But Lord,” Mousden protested. “I can’t with my big form gumming everything up. And there are too many men around.”
Festuscato laughed without explanation. After the Grendel, these men were on a hunt for a werewolf. What would a couple of elves and a dwarf be compared to that? “You will have to guide him, then,” Festuscato said with a smile.
“Lord!” Mirowen protested while Luckless and Hrugen chuckled.
“No!” Mousden shouted. “Ungh!” He really tried.