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252
A BOOK OF MYTHS

sat the old king, gloom overshadowing his soul. And fit leader for a band of heroes was Beowulf, a giant figure in ring-mail, spear and shield gleaming in his hand, and by his side the mighty sword, Nägeling. To Hrothgar, as to the warden, Beowulf told the reason of his coming, and hope began again to live in the heart of the king.

That night the warriors from the land of the Goths were feasted in the great banqueting-hall where, for twelve unhappy years, voices had never rung out so bravely and so merrily. The queen herself poured out the mead with which the king and the men from Gothland pledged each other, and with her own hand she passed the goblet to each one. When, last of it all, it came to the guest of honour, Beowulf took the cup of mead from the fair queen and solemnly pledged himself to save the land from the evil thing that devoured it like a pestilence, or to die in his endeavour.

"Needs must I now perform knightly deeds in this hall,
"Or here must meet my doom in darksome night."

When darkness fell the feast came to an end, and all left the hall save Beowulf and his fourteen followers. In their armour, with swords girt on their sides, the fourteen heroes lay down to rest, but Beowulf laid aside all his arms and gave his sword to a thane to bear away. For, said he,

"I have heard
"That that foul miscreant's dark and stubborn flesh
"Recks not the force of arms…
"Hand to hand … Beowulf will grapple with the mighty foe."