Beowulf left his comrades upon the rocky point jutting out into the sea, and alone he strode onward until he spied a great stone arch. From beneath the arch, from out the hillside, flowed a stream seething with fierce, hot fire. In this way the Dragon guarded his lair, for it was impossible to pass such a barrier unhurt.
So upon the edge of this burning river Beowulf stood and called aloud in anger. Stout of heart and wroth against the winged beast was he.
The king's voice echoed like a warcry through the cavern. The Dragon heard it and was aroused to fresh hate of man. For the guardian of the treasure-hoard knew well the sound of mortal voice. Now was there no long pause ere battle raged.
First from out the cavern flamed forth the breath of the winged beast. Hot sweat of battle rose from out the rock. The earth shook and growling thunder trembled through the air.
The Dragon, ringed around with many-coloured scales, was now hot for battle, and, as the hideous beast crept forth, Beowulf raised his mighty shield and rushed against him.
Already the king had drawn his sword. It was an ancient heirloom, keen of edge and bright. Many a time it had been dyed in blood; many a time it had won glory and victory.
But ere they closed, the mighty foes paused. Each knew the hate and deadly power of the other.
The mighty prince, firm and watchful, stood guarded by his shield. The Dragon, crouching as in ambush, awaited him.
Then suddenly like a flaming arch the Dragon bent and towered, and dashed upon the Lord of the Goths. Up swung the arm of the hero, and dealt a mighty blow to the grisly, many-coloured beast. But the famous sword was all too weak against such a foe. The edge turned and bit less strongly than its great king had need, for he was sore pressed. His shield, too, proved no strong shelter from the wrothy Dragon.
The warlike blow made greater still the anger of the fiery foe. Now he belched forth flaming fire. All around fierce lightnings darted.
Now he belched forth flaming fire
Beowulf no longer hoped for glorious victory. His sword had failed him. The edge was turned and blunted upon the scaly foe. He had never thought the famous steel would so ill serve him. Yet he fought on ready to lose his life in such good contest.
Again the battle paused, again the king and Dragon closed in fight.
The Dragon guardian of the treasure had renewed his courage. His heart heaved and boiled with fire, and fresh strength breathed from him. Beowulf was wrapped in flame. Dire was his need.
Yet of all his comrades none came near to help. Nay, as they watched the conflict they were filled with base fear, and fled to the wood hard by for refuge.
Only one among them sorrowed for his master, and as he watched his heart was wrung with grief.
Wiglaf was this knight called, and he was Beowulf's kinsman. Now when he saw his liege lord hard pressed in battle he remembered all the favours Beowulf had heaped upon him. He remembered all the honours and the wealth which he owed to his king. Then could he no longer be still. Shield and spear he seized, but ere he sped to aid his king he turned to his comrades.
"When our lord and king gave us swords and armour," he cried, "did we not promise to follow him in battle whenever he had need? When he of his own will chose us for this expedition he reminded us of our fame. He said he knew us to be good warriors, bold helmet-wearers. And although indeed our liege lord thought to do this work of valour alone, without us, because more than any man he hath done glorious and rash deeds, lo! now is the day come that hath need of strength and of good warriors. Come, let us go to him. Let us help our chieftain although the grim terror of fire be hot.
"Heaven knoweth I would rather the flame would blast my body than his who gave me gold. It seemeth not fitting to me that we should bear back our shields to our homes unless we may first fell the foe and defend the life of our king. Nay, it is not of the old custom of the Goths that the king alone should suffer, that he alone should sink in battle. Our lord should be repaid for his gifts to us, and so he shall be by me even if death take us twain."
But none would hearken to Wiglaf. So alone he sped through the deadly smoke and flame, till to his master's side he came offering aid.
"My lord Beowulf," he cried, "fight on as thou didst in thy youth-time. Erstwhile didst thou say that thou wouldest not let thy greatness sink so long as life lasteth. Defend thou thy life with all might. I will support thee to the utmost."
When the Dragon heard these words his fury was doubled. The fell wicked beast came on again belching forth fire, such was his hatred of men. The flame waves caught Wiglaf's shield, for it was but of wood. It was burned utterly, so that only the boss of steel remained. His coat of mail alone was not enough to guard the young warrior from the fiery enemy. But right valiantly he went on fighting beneath the shelter of Beowulf's shield now that his own was consumed to ashes by the flames.
Then again the warlike king called to mind his ancient glories, again he struck with main strength with his good sword upon the monstrous head. Hate sped the blow.
But alas! as it descended the famous sword Nægling snapped asunder. Beowulf's sword had failed him in the conflict, although it was an old and well-wrought blade. To him it was not granted that weapons should help him in battle. The hand that swung the sword was too strong. His might overtaxed every blade however wondrously the smith had welded it.
And now a third time the fell Fire-Dragon was roused to wrath. He rushed upon the king. Hot, and fiercely grim the great beast seized Beowulf's neck in his horrid teeth. The hero's life-blood gushed forth, the crimson stream darkly dyed his bright armour.
Then in the great king's need his warrior showed skill and courage. Heeding not the flames from the awful mouth, Wiglaf struck the Dragon below the neck. His hand was burned with the fire, but his sword dived deep into the monster's body and from that moment the flames began to abate.
The horrid teeth relaxed their hold, and Beowulf, quickly recovering himself, drew his deadly knife. Battle-sharp and keen it was, and with it the hero gashed the Dragon right in the middle.
The foe was conquered. Glowing in death he fell. They twain had destroyed the winged beast. Such should a warrior be, such a thane in need.
To the king it was a victorious moment. It was the crown of all his deeds.
Then began the wound which the Fire-Dragon had wrought him to burn and to swell. Beowulf soon found that baleful poison boiled in his heart. Well knew he that the end was nigh. Lost in deep thought he sat upon the mound and gazed wondering at the cave. Pillared and arched with stone-work it was within, wrought by giants and dwarfs of old time.
And to him came Wiglaf his dear warrior and tenderly bathed his wound with water.
Then spake Beowulf, in spite of his deadly wound he spake, and all his words were of the ending of his life, for he knew that his days of joy upon this earth were past.
He knew that his days of joy upon this earth were past
"Had a son been granted to me, to him I should have left my war-garments. Fifty years have I ruled this people, and there has been no king of all the nations round who durst meet me in battle. I have known joys and sorrows, but no man have I betrayed, nor many false oaths have I sworn. For all this may I rejoice, though I be now sick with mortal wounds. The Ruler of Men may not upbraid me with treachery or murder of kinsmen when my soul shall depart from its body.
"But now, dear Wiglaf, go thou quickly to the hoard of gold which lieth under the hoary rock. The Dragon lieth dead; now sleepeth he for ever, sorely wounded and bereft of his treasure. Then haste thee, Wiglaf, for I would see the ancient wealth, the gold treasure, the jewels, the curious gems. Haste thee to bring it hither; then after that I have seen it, I shall the more contentedly give up my life and the kingship that I so long have held."
Quickly Wiglaf obeyed his wounded lord. Into the dark cave he descended, and there outspread before him was a wondrous sight. Treasure of jewels, many glittering and golden, lay upon the ground. Wondrous vessels of old time with broken ornaments were scattered round. Here, too, lay old and rusty helmets, mingled with bracelets and collars cunningly wrought.
Upon the walls too hung golden flags. From one a light shone forth by which the whole cavern was made clear. And all within was silent. No sign was there of any guardian, for without lay the Dragon, sleeping death's sleep.
Quickly Wiglaf gathered of the treasures all that he could carry. Dishes and cups he took, a golden ensign and a sword curiously wrought. In haste he returned, for he knew not if still he should find his lord in life where he had left him.
And when Wiglaf came again to where Beowulf sat he poured the treasure at his feet. But he found his lord in a deep swoon. Again the brave warrior bathed Beowulf's wound and laved the stricken countenance of his lord, until once more he came to himself.
Then spake the king: "For this treasure I give thanks to the Lord of All. Not in vain have I given my life, for it shall be of great good to my people in need. And now leave me, for on this earth longer I may not stay. Say to my warriors that they shall raise a mound upon the rocky point which jutteth seaward. High shall it stand as a memorial to my people. Let it soar upward so that they who steer their slender barks over the tossing waves shall call it Beowulf's mound."
The king then took from his neck the golden collar. To Wiglaf, his young thane and kinsman, he gave it. He gave also his helmet adorned with gold, his ring and coat of mail, and bade the warrior use them well.
"Thou art the last of our race," he said. "Fate hath swept away all my kinsmen, all the mighty earls. Now must I too follow them."
That was the last word of the aged king. From his bosom the soul fled to seek the dwellings of the Just. At Wiglaf's feet he lay quiet and still.