A Book of Myths
The hero’s sword flashed, and smote a stark blow upon its scaly head. But Beowulf could not deal death [Pg 263] strokes as once he had done, and only for a moment was his adversary stunned. In hideous rage the monster coiled its snaky folds around him, and the heat from his body made the iron shield redden as though the blacksmith in his smithy were welding it, and each ring of the armour that Beowulf wore seared right into his flesh. His breast swelled with the agony, and his great heart must have come near bursting for pain and for sorrow. For he saw that panic had come on his followers and that they were fleeing, leaving him to his fate. Yet not all of them were faithless. Wiglaf, young and daring, a dear kinsman of Beowulf, from whom he had received many a kindness, calling shame on the dastards who fled, rushed forward, sword in hand, and with no protection but that of his shield of linden wood. Like a leaf scorched in a furnace the shield curled up, but new strength came to Beowulf with the knowledge that Wiglaf had not failed him in his need. Together the two heroes made a gallant stand, although blood flowed in a swift red stream from a wound that the monster had made in Beowulf’s neck with its venomous fangs, and ran down his corselet. A stroke which left the Firedrake unharmed shivered the sword that had seen many fights, but Wiglaf smote a shrewd blow ere his lord could be destroyed, and Beowulf swiftly drew his broad knife and, with an effort so great that all the life that was left in him seemed to go with it, he shore the Firedrake asunder.
Then Beowulf knew that his end drew very near, and when he had thanked Wiglaf for his loyal help, he bade him enter the cave and bring forth the treasure [Pg 264] that he might please his dying eyes by looking on the riches that he had won for his people. And Wiglaf hastened into the cave, for he knew that he raced with Death, and brought forth armfuls of weapons, of magnificent ornaments, of goblets and of cups, of bars of red gold. Handfuls of sparkling jewels, too, he brought, and each time he came and went, seizing without choosing, whatever lay nearest, it seemed as though the Firedrake’s hoard were endless. A magical golden standard and armour and swords that the dwarfs had made brought a smile of joy into the dying King’s eyes. And when the ten shamed warriors, seeing that the fight was at an end, came to where their mighty ruler lay, they found him lying near the vile carcase of the monster he had slain, and surrounded by a dazzlement of treasure uncountable. To them, and to Wiglaf, Beowulf spoke his valediction, urging on them to maintain the honour of the land of the Goths, and then he said: