BUT the day following, there suddenly arrived before Hrothgar a messenger, his face all twisted with fear, and his legs so shaking beneath him that they could scarce support his frame. And so distraught was this wild-eyed man that Hrothgar and Wealhtheow and Beowulf and all those who were then in Heorot clustered about him.
“Speak!” cried the queen, whose face was pale. “What new horror have you come to relate? For you have fear written black in your eyes. Speak!”
Turning to Hrothgar, the messenger fell upon his knees and lifted a stricken face to his master:
“My lord, I bring terrible news to you. I have just come from the great hall, where I have beheld a most grievous sight. My lord Aescher, the Good and Wise, lies dead upon the threshold of Heorot, most foully murdered by some new fiend, his head severed from his body, his limbs crushed to nought. Haste you, my lord, for this is the greatest of all disasters.”
Forthwith Hrothgar and his queen hastened to Heorot and there too came Beowulf and his earls, not knowing of the new misfortune. And once again they found the vast hall a scene of death and destruction. Grendel’s arm was missing from the roof-tree and the body of Aescher lay mangled before their horrified gaze.
Then Hrothgar turned away and folding his mantle about his head, wept silently, for Aescher was the most cherished of all his earls, the wisest of counselors, the dearest of friends.
Wealhtheow turned to the wide-eyed Beowulf.
“This,” cried she, “is the work of dead Grendel’s monster-mother, avenging her monster-son. O Beowulf, your work is not yet done. We had forgot this other curse in our too-soon happiness. Will you seek out this fiend and slay her as you have slain her dreaded offspring? Already you have rid us of Grendel, and now we look to you to save us from his mother’s vengeance. I fear unending desolation for all of us unless she, too, is destroyed.”
At these words Beowulf cast his scarlet cloak from his broad shoulders and seized his sword. He called to his valiant earls:
“Come, men! Let us seek this new monster before the world darkens again into night.”
Then to the shaken king he said, “O Hrothgar, I pray that you will let horses be brought to carry us, for we must hasten to track the foul thing to her lair ere the scent is cold on the ground.”
At this, Black Unferth, son of Ecglaf, stepped forth from among the crowding earls, and in his hands was the mighty shaft of his black sword, called Hrunting.
“Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow,” he cried, “you came amongst us a stranger, and I am filled with shame in that I doubted you. Take my good sword Hrunting, my magic sword, for it will aid you in this new adventure that comes to try your strength, a strength that comes, surely, from the gods themselves. Let us bury our past differences and be friends, and I will follow you to the very edge of the world.”
Then Beowulf embraced Unferth like a brother, and holding aloft the dark Hrunting, and with Hrothgar upon one hand and Wealhtheow upon the other hand he passed out through the great door of Heorot. Down the flight of long shallow steps they walked, and mounted at once the fine swift horses that awaited them below in the streaming sunshine.
SWIFTLY, swiftly they rode, Beowulf upon a great white charger and the king beside him on a horse as black as midnight. Their trappings and harness glinted with gold and silver and precious jewels, and behind them rode the Danish lords and the earls of Geatsland, their armor gleaming in the sun as they rode after their leaders.
Huge dogs flung their enormous bodies along the way, having quickly picked up the powerful scent of Grendel and his monster-mother.
On and on they rode, but the sun at last was clouded over and the heavens lowered upon them, while distant thunder sounded and forked lightning streaked blue the inclosing gloom.
All day they rode, nor did they once pause to refresh their horses or themselves.
On and on, over moor and fenland, through wide valleys they rode, until finally they came to a mere, deep hidden in an encircling wood of tangled burnt-out trees. The lake was small, but strange and evil vapors rose from its surface and the water moved as though things of monstrous shape and size swam just below the water, waiting for whatever prey might fall to them.
Above the mere two great vultures with blood-red wings hovered in the foul-rising vapors, crying hungrily to each other, circling and circling.
The tracks of the monsters stopped short at the water’s edge and the great dogs ran round and round the mere, but there was no further scent, and, sitting down upon their haunches, the hounds mournfully gave tongue.
The darkness thickened, and while the lords and their retainers lined the shores of the lake, looking for they knew not what, Beowulf threw off his scarlet cloak and was buckling the black sword Hrunting to his belt.
“I go into the mere,” he cried, “after this monster-woman.”
A murmur of horror went up from those assembled on the strand.
“Yes, but I go alone,” he warned, as several stepped to his side, casting off their cloaks. “I go alone. Wait here upon the shore for me. I will return, but when, I know not.”
Then he fell on one knee before Hrothgar in homage, and embraced each of his followers. They crowded round him, protesting at his folly, but Beowulf was firm in his resolve and bade them wait upon his returning.
Fully armed, he ran swiftly into the lake, a shout on his lips, his fair hair streaming like light, and the leaden waters closed thickly over him, and the lake shuddered on all its surface, and Beowulf disappeared from sight.
From “The Story of Beowulf”