And now when many years had come and gone and the realm had long time been at peace, sorrow came upon the people of the Goths. And thus it was that the evil came.
It fell upon a time that a slave by his misdeeds roused his master's wrath, and when his lord would have punished him he fled in terror. And as he fled trembling to hide himself, he came by chance into a great cave.
There the slave hid, thankful for refuge. But soon he had cause to tremble in worse fear than before, for in the darkness of the cave he saw that a fearful dragon lay asleep. Then as the slave gazed in terror at the awful beast, he saw that it lay guarding a mighty treasure.
Never had he seen such a mass of wealth. Swords and armour inlaid with gold, cups and vessels of gold and silver set with precious stones, rings and bracelets lay piled around in glittering heaps.
For hundreds of years this treasure had lain there in secret. A great prince had buried it in sorrow for his dead warriors. In his land there had been much fighting until he alone of all his people was left. Then in bitter grief he gathered all his treasure and hid it in this cave.
"Take, O earth," he cried, "what the heroes might not keep. Lo! good men and true once before earned it from thee. Now a warlike death hath taken away every man of my people. There is none now to bear the sword or receive the cup. There is no more joy in the battlefield or in the hall of peace. So here shall the gold-adorned helmet moulder, here the coat of mail rust and the wine-cup lie empty."
Thus the sad prince mourned. Beside his treasure he sat weeping both day and night until death took him also, and of all his people there was none left.
So the treasure lay hidden and secret for many a day.
Then upon a time it happened that a great Dragon, fiery-eyed and fearful, as it flew by night and prowled seeking mischief, came upon the buried hoard.
As men well know, a dragon ever loveth gold. So to guard his new-found wealth lest any should come to rob him of it, he laid him down there and the cave became his dwelling. Thus for three hundred years he lay gloating over his treasure, no man disturbing him.
But now at length it chanced that the fleeing slave lighted upon the hoard. His eyes were dazzled by the shining heap. Upon it lay a cup of gold, wondrously chased and adorned.
"If I can but gain that cup," said the slave to himself, "I will return with it to my master, and for the sake of the gold he will surely forgive me."
So while the Dragon slept, trembling and fearful the slave crept nearer and nearer to the glittering mass. When he came quite near he reached forth his hand and seized the cup. Then with it he fled back to his master.
The slave crept nearer and nearer to the glittering mass
It befell then as the slave had foreseen. For the sake of the wondrous cup his misdeeds were forgiven him.
But when the Dragon awoke his fury was great. Well knew he that mortal man had trod his cave and stolen of his hoard.
Round and round about he sniffed and searched until he discovered the footprints of his foe. Eagerly then all over the ground he sought to find the man who, while he slept, had done him this ill. Hot and fierce of mood he went backwards and forwards round about his treasure-heaps. All within the cave he searched in vain. Then coming forth he searched without. All round the hill in which his cave was he prowled, but no man could he find, nor in all the wilds around was there any man.
Again the old Dragon returned, again he searched among his treasure-heaps for the precious cup. Nowhere was it to be found. It was too surely gone.
But the Dragon, as well as loving gold, loved war. So now in angry mood he lay couched in his lair. Scarce could he wait until darkness fell, such was his wrath. With fire he was resolved to repay the loss of his dear drinking-cup.
At last, to the joy of the great winged beast, the sun sank. Then forth from his cave he came, flaming fire.
Spreading his mighty wings, he flew through the air until he came to the houses of men. Then spitting forth flame, he set fire to many a happy homestead. Wherever the lightning of his tongue struck, there fire flamed forth, until where the fair homes of men had been there was nought but blackened ruins. Here and there, this way and that, through all the land he sped, and wherever he passed fire flamed aloft.
The warfare of the Dragon was seen from far. The malice of the Worm was known from north to south, from east to west. All men knew how the fearful foe hated and ruined the Goth folk.
Then having worked mischief and desolation all night through, the Fire-Dragon turned back; to his secret cave he slunk again ere break of day. Behind him he left the land wasted and desolate.
The Dragon had no fear of the revenge of man. In his fiery warfare he trusted to find shelter in his hill, and in his secret cave. But in that trust he was misled.
Speedily to King Beowulf were the tidings of the Dragon and his spoiling carried. For alas! even his own fair palace was wrapped in flame. Before his eyes he saw the fiery tongues lick up his treasures. Even the Gift-seat of the Goths melted in fire.
Then was the good king sorrowful. His heart boiled within him with angry thoughts. The Fire-Dragon had utterly destroyed the pleasant homes of his people. For this the war-prince greatly desired to punish him.
Therefore did Beowulf command that a great shield should be made for him, all of iron. He knew well that a shield of wood could not help him in this need. Wood against fire! Nay, that were useless. His shield must be all of iron.
Too proud, too, was Beowulf, the hero of old time, to seek the winged beast with a troop of soldiers. Not thus would he overcome him. He feared not for himself, nor did he dread the Dragon's war-craft. For with his valour and his skill Beowulf had succeeded many a time. He had been victorious in many a tumult of battle since that day when a young man and a warrior prosperous in victory, he had cleansed Hart Hall by grappling with Grendel and his kin.
And now when the great iron shield was ready, he chose eleven of his best thanes and set out to seek the Dragon. Very wrathful was the old king, very desirous that death should take his fiery foe. He hoped, too, to win the great treasure of gold which the fell beast guarded. For already Beowulf had learned whence the feud arose, whence came the anger which had been so hurtful to his people. And the precious cup, the cause of all the quarrel, had been brought to him.
With the band of warriors went the slave who had stolen the cup. He it was who must be their guide to the cave, for he alone of all men living knew the way thither. Loth he was to be their guide. But captive and bound he was forced to lead the way over the plain to the Dragon's hill.
Unwillingly he went with lagging footsteps until at length he came to the cave hard by the sea-shore. There by the sounding waves lay the savage guardian of the treasure. Ready for war and fierce was he. It was no easy battle that was there prepared for any man, brave though he might be.
And now on the rocky point above the sea King Beowulf sat himself down. Here he would bid farewell to all his thanes ere he began the combat. For what man might tell which from that fight should come forth victorious?
Beowulf's mind was sad. He was now old. His hair was white, his face was wrinkled and grey. But still his arm was strong as that of a young man. Yet something within him warned him that death was not far off.
So upon the rocky point he sat and bade farewell to his dear comrades.
"In my youth," said the aged king, "many battles have I dared, and yet must I, the guardian of my people, though I be full of years, seek still another feud. And again will I win glory if the wicked spoiler of my land will but come forth from his lair."
Much he spoke. With loving words he bade farewell to each one of his men, greeting his dear comrades for the last time.
"I would not bear a sword or weapon against the winged beast," he said at length, "if I knew how else I might grapple with the wretch, as of old I did with Grendel. But I ween this war-fire is hot, fierce, and poisonous. Therefore I have clad me in a coat of mail, and bear this shield all of iron. I will not flee a single step from the guardian of the treasure. But to us upon this rampart it shall be as fate will.
"Now let me make no more vaunting speech. Ready to fight am I. Let me forth against the winged beast. Await ye here on the mount, clad in your coats of mail, your arms ready. Abide ye here until ye see which of us twain in safety cometh forth from the clash of battle.
"It is no enterprise for you, or for any common man. It is mine alone. Alone I needs must go against the wretch and prove myself a warrior. I must with courage win the gold, or else deadly, baleful war shall fiercely snatch me, your lord, from life."
Then Beowulf arose. He was all clad in shining armour, his gold-decked helmet was upon his head, and taking his shield in hand he strode under the stony cliffs towards the cavern's mouth. In the strength of his single arm he trusted against the fiery Dragon.
No enterprise this for a coward.