Daughter of the HallJennifer-Oksana
Note/Disclaimer: The concept of Slayers is part of Joss Whedon's Buffyverse; however, Beowulf is *long since* out of copyright, so that doesn't have to be disclaimed as not mine. ;)
The hall gleams gold, as it ever did, and my mother and I stare upon it in despair, as we ever have for these twelve long winters.
"The scops now say the hall is cursed," my mother whispers, her long golden hair twisted and matted in filthy ropes, reminiscent of the beast she has become in our disdain. "They claim that a monster comes to ravage the good thanes of Heorot so that they dare not sleep there, that Hrothgar himself fears the hall."
I stare at Heorot, the bright hall of my childhood, dreaming of the mead benches and the warriors who knew me by name. A despised gaest I am now, neither ghost nor guest of the hall, merely its ravager, but I do it for the beloved thanes, lovers of the bright gold, and for my father, their lord, all dead these twelve winters, though the common Scyldings do not realize it. They blame the horrors of our land upon a monster they call Grendel, if they dare give it name. Every disappeared thane, every child that is found eaten in the fields, they blame it upon the Grendel-beast.
If I had a goblet to lift, I would lift it to the true gaests of Heorot, who do all this in my name, so that only a cursed and blessed few would know the truth of what became of the great hall, why Grendel descends every winter, and why he hides in the meres, never coming out in daylight.
I track shadow-stalkers who rise with the twilight and feast in cowardly ways, still playing at the old ways. How long will it be, son of Healfdene, before your lack of war raises suspicion? How long will it be before some gold-loving fool comes to your aid and discovers your secret?
"It is cursed," I said with a smile. "And cursed it shall remain until the day I burn it down over the head of Hrothgar and his troop."
We slink back into the mere, invisible in all the cover. They do not dare to follow me, not so near the full moon when my mother will turn, not so near the time of year when the so-called Grendel strikes at the ring-bright hall. They fear me still, and have all these twelve years, despite my failures.
"You will be twenty-five at the new year," my mother says as she searches for the barge we use to cross the water to our miserable home. "And still you are as powerful and canny as you were when you first recognized the monsters who stole our beloved Hrothgar's form and those of his thanes."
I smile, but it is a lie. I am no longer as powerful as I once was, simply wiser to the ways of the gaests. I rely heavily upon their fear of the mere and of my dear mother, who fled with me into this heavy exile and was rewarded by the bite of a horrible monster that transformed her into the beast-woman she is now.
I live now for two reasons: one, to protect my people, the Scyldings, as best I can, and two, to kill the betrayer who gave this curse to my father and his men. Even as I close my eyes to fall into dreaming, I whisper his name, as though praying to him: Unferth. I will kill him yet.
The coast-guard is still human; he must be, to keep his job, though the day is so grey and misty that near Heorot, I know the king and his thanes may lumber about, giving the illusion that they are men yet. The coast-guard knows and is a boon to my mother and I; he gives us news and warm food as he can.
"Waes hal," he says to me, looking at me with gentle eyes. "How goes your hunt?"
"Cold and long yet, as wyrd dictates," I reply formally. "What news?"
"There is a new hunter come to seek the Grendel and end his ravages against Heorot: a Weder-Geat and his band of fourteen," the coast-guard says. "His name is Bear-wolf, Beowulf, and he is a strong and mighty warrior, son of Ecgtheow."
"A Geat," I say contemptuously. "I bid him good hunting, and may he find the monster he seeks."
"But the beast he seeks is you," he says with surprise.
"I long to die, good sir," I tell him. "My mind is heavy with grief and I have fought twelve long years against the gaests who inhabit Heorot. Perhaps if this Bear-wolf's wyrd is to succeed in his hunt, it will also be to hunt the true gaests."
Tears come to the eyes of the coast-guard; he was a good warrior! Briefly he embraced me, his beard as scratchy as the wool my mother spun in our cave. "You must not wish to die, lady," he repeated over and over. "For you are our only protection and our lone hope."
"Wyrd goes as it must," I say, dry-eyed. "If I am to die, I will, whether I wish to or not. If I am not to die, I will not die, whether I hope it or no."
He nods and hands me a large pouch of spears and food and if I am lucky, new cloth for my mother to work into warmer garments. Mine are weather-worn and a poor protector against the cold. I take it and smile at the guard with gratitude.
"I will be at the hall tonight," I say. "Warn those who are not gaest, for I may choose to burn the high beams of Heorot to cinder if the gaests do choose to sleep in the hall and not in their hidden nest."
The guard pales but nods, loyal to the end. "It shall be done -- but what of the Geats?"
"Let them join me or die with the gaests," I reply. "Now, I must return to my mother. Be well, and may we meet again."
I returned then to my mother's hall, weary and wet. Waited she in the warmest corner of the cave, her eyes yellow in the fog and mist. The full moon was soon upon us and her change came soon.
"I brought food and cloth," I say. "I go to the hall tonight. There are Geatish warriors come to slay the monster Grendel."
My mother's face is full of woe and confusion; she cannot understand my meaning. "But you are called the monster Grendel."
"I am, and I am not." My face is set; I will go to heaven-bright Heorot tonight and see this brave Geat, Bear-wolf. If he is as brave and wise a warrior as the guard thinks he is, he will realize that I am not the monster, that the men of the hall are not men, but gaests. And then we will proceed to destroy the hall and all its cursedness.
Bright with hope, I make for the hall. The Bear-wolf will aid my cause and at last I can rest.
The dawning comes and I am in the mere, gasping and choking with rage and agony. I will slay them, burn them all in their hubris in the hall, I will kill them as they sleep in Heorot's high walls.
Bear-wolf, Beowulf, is a man of strange, uncanny strength. I would have joyed to fight at his side, to kill the gaests in their nest, for there is no doubt in my heart and my mind that were he to follow, we would search out the gloomy dampness where Hrothgar and his unholy thanes hide from the sun, and they should have no dominion over us.
But wyrd is against me, wyrd has decreed that I will fight the warrior in the meres and caves and dark. I went up to the hall, dear Heorot of my childhood, and heard I the scops singing to the hero, and feasting as of old, but as I peered through gap and window, I knew that it was not a true feast. Only the Geats, wine-drunk on mead, ate more than a mouthful of the meat and dainties set before the party. Hrothgar and his gaests were laughing behind their faces at these brave ones, knowing that there would be a better feast for them when darkness truly came.
The Bear-wolf did not drink. I knew that he could feel the presence of gaests, but he did not believe that a great lord such as Hrothgar could harbor such devils. Wary he made boasts and shamed foul Unferth, my father's betrayer who sat at the feet of the lord. And I waited, as he did, for the darkness to come and for the gaests to strike.
They found the weakest and most wine-drunk of men, and set upon him. I sprang to my work, my wood-spear in hand, but there was no time to catch the gaest. The champion had set upon me and his grip was as stern as steel.
"Let go!" I cried. "Let go!"
He wouldn't let go and in his iron-grasp, my arm creaked and ached. I screamed in agony.
"I am not the gaest who ravaged your man!" I protested. "I have come to slay those who take the form of Lord Hrothgar and his thanes. They blame me for their own evil, let me go and let me aid your hunt, Lord Beowulf!"
In his grasp, I heard the bones of my arm begin to shatter and break. "I know who you are, girl," said the hero in tones of deepest dread. "I know you seek the king's death for you are the king's unwanted. I know that with your unholy mother you haunt the meres and torment the bright Spear-Danes, the Victory Scyldings dare not sleep--"
"Because of the gaest!" I screamed, trying to pull away. "You fool, it is not me, it is the thanes! Did you see them? They do not eat and drink except the flesh and blood of man!"
He laughed then and we grappled, his strength not greater than mine except for the hold he held on my arm, but as the moon rose, I saw indeed why he was so feared a warrior, why he had smelled the gaest.
"Wolf!" I accused him. "Monster!"
The sleeping warriors, mead-drunk beyond all measure, did not hear my cry and as the man became wolf, his teeth sank into my arm and I, in a panic, pulled so hard that I left half my arm in the monster's mouth.
Bear-wolf, with his last human breath until dawn, unlocked his word-hoard and cried to me: "Run, little girl, run now."
I ran the night in terror and panic, knowing that somewhere beyond the lake, my mother, also wolf now, ravened, and that in their caves, the gaests laughed at the hunter being hunted by the great wer-bear-wolf hero. I wept as my life blood would leak from my ruined arm, yet the bloodflow stopped and I could still run, still hide in tree and water and fog and avoid the champion in his monstrosity.
Wyrd was with the man, and I had been cast aside, left to die, my arm a trophy in the high hall of Heorot that I still dream of after twelve long winters in exile...
At the edge of the water, at dawn, I am alone and dying. My mother will find me and hide me, as she has when I have been sore wounded by my enemies. Tonight I will whisper to the wolf she becomes to find the gaests, to attack the man-wolf herself.
I will be avenged, for my blood cannot be spilt in vain. I protect these woods; I will not die until they are safe.
Fever attacks my mind and thought; I cannot tell present from past in this damp cave, made ill by misty winds and swamp stink. It is too cold to survive, yet I have survived twelve winters in the coldest hell, woken by ravens and sung to sleep by dawn-light.
I am blue with cold.
"They can smell blood," wails my mother. "They will find you, daughter, they will kill you. You must run."
"I cannot run," I say, the tiredness of midnight coursing in my bones. I am mangled now, a one-armed warrior who still needs to seek her prey. I cannot hunt, but needs must still hunt. "I will die if I move tonight. I may die anyway."
"They will make gaests of us both!" my mother warns, and could I move, I would slit her throat so as not to hear any more words of woe. I know I will die tonight; wyrd has decreed it and I cannot fight wyrd. But I will not die unless they die as well.
But I am no longer in the cave; I am in the hall, Heorot as it once was, light with laughter and bright with ring-giving. The warriors crash against the mead-benches, singing of triumph, and I am the daughter of Hrothgar, greatest of the Victory-Scyldings, Healfdene's son, builder of a glorious hall.
"You are my little warrior," my father says, giving me a spear to play with. "You will brighten the hall as its loveliest ornament."
We could not know I was too strong too young, we could not know that our own beloved Unferth would betray us with an emissary who claimed to be from Onela's court, how could we know that all our wishes would be turned against us? I would be the brightest ornament of the hall; my head would grace the wall of Heorot before the hall ran blood-red.
I scream. My mother has put a flame-heated knife against the wound where my hand was once. She is only trying to help, but I already burn within; I would much rather not burn without.
"I don't want to die," I moan to my mother, who is dark-eyed with rage and fear. "I don't want my head to be cut off."
"You will be avenged," my mother says calmly, the wolf animating her heart and mind. "I will go to the hall tonight and there will be blood."
I slew the betrayer that came with Unferth, believing that his evil would leave us with his death; I had been wrong, so horribly wrong. In my heart-thoughts, I knew my mother's desperate vengeance would come to sorrow beyond words.
I am cold like the depths of the whale-road, the sea the Weder-Geats crossed in their proud ships to come to this cursed land with its cursed hall and cursed gaests. Only I, of all my father's children, have rebelled against him, and I will die in my hatred of my father, though I loved him best.
"There is always blood," I say, the skin of my arm black and red. There is only pain and blood in my life, and none of the life-sweetness the scops say belong to a beautiful daughter of the hall with golden hair.
Wyrd goes as it will; I will die tonight. He is coming for me, the man-wolf. He has a taste for my blood.
It is Unferth's sword he brings to kill me, though how it has survived through a fight that lasted the night between two wolves I cannot say. Perhaps it is true and wyrd goes with him. I am sick to death and cannot care. I would rather a champion than the shadow-stalkers who wear beloved faces take this despised life from me.
My mother's body lies near; her face still in its change. She appears to be a monster, a monster with some human grace and form, but with hideous nakedness and alien features. If the wolf takes her to Heorot, the people will scream at the monstrous mother of Grendel.
But I am not a monster; I am less monster than the wolf-man standing above me with a sword I know of old.
"I am a true daughter of the hall," I croak as he comes to me, my life almost ebbed out in my pathetic nest. "I am no monster."
"You seek to destroy a true king," says he, resolute and brave, great hero Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, sister-son of Hygelac. "That is a crime that cannot be forgiven."
"The king is dead," I protest, too weary to move, to fight. "Ask the gaest to stand beside you at noon and see who is man and who is gaest."
"You are not woman any more than the king is man or I am man," the hero says. "This land is cursed and when you are dead, I will return to Geatland with Hrothgar's treasure and warning for my lord Hygelac."
"I tried to save my people," I say. "Death is better than their betrayal."
His eyes are human again; he pauses.
"I will do what I can, lady, to reveal the gaests at the hall, but I am Hygelac's thane," he says, ready to toss away the blade and leave me to a slow death.
"No," I cry. "Do it quickly, for I am hero as much as you. I have kept the death away for twelve winters; I have killed many gaests, and I have fought against great warriors. I wish to die well, and you will grant this to me."
He nods, and lifts his sword. I close my eyes. The blade is sharp; I will die well.