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art by Junior McLean

Q is for Quit

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

When I arrive at Heorot, it's worse than I'd imagined. I knew they'd been beset by a monster named Grendel, but I'd underestimated the amount of damage the creature had done--not just to the hall, but to once-proud warriors within. King Hrothgar sits meekly on his wooden throne, his battle-weary men arrayed behind him, his harried women tending the wounded in the long, high-roofed hall.
Even in its saddened state, I can see the glory that once lived in Heorot. The smooth, carved wood, the sturdy tables, the hammered metal decorated in bright enamel. What feasts this mighty hall must have seen! What honors its king must have bestowed on those courageous enough to earn his favor.
The creature that could wound Heorot so, despite the power of its king and his red-stained warriors, must be mighty. Perhaps here, after so much searching, I will finally find my equal, my better.
I meet Hrothgar and his thanes, and we say our pieces, trading war-songs in the dank blood-scented air. My list of past glories stretches to distant lands, and I have long since lost pleasure in its recitation. One of Hrothgar's men, clearly unhappy with my presence, refutes my victories. It is a small thing to put him in his place. I have done so much--too much--in my short life. Killing monsters is all I know, and I am the best.
Eventually, Hrothgar grants me leave to confront the beast, as I knew he would. No man, not even a king, has ever denied me. Such is the power of my growing legend.
They tell me the beast Grendel fights without a weapon, and I vow to do the same. My hubris will bring me more honor if I win, but that's not why I do it. I want to give Grendel an edge.
Queen Wealhtheow enters, graying hair pinned under a circlet of gold, and I see at once the source of Hrothgar's power. Even beaten, she is not broken. She bids me drink, and I do, staring at her sea-filled eyes above the rim of my cup far longer than I should.
A spark flares inside me, and for just a moment, I remember what it is to fight for something. What it feels like to want to win.
The queen smiles and inclines her chin, acknowledging my interest and at the same time telling me, "I am beyond you." At least queens can still tell me no.
It is just as well. Tonight, I will lay my trap for Grendel. I will likely kill him, full of the fury of the moment, blood pumping, hands tearing. If I am lucky, he will kill me. I have thought this before every fight for as long as I can remember, and yet still, I live.
After this monster, there will be another, and another, and another. I was born to fight, to spend my days splashed crimson, muscles hard, heart strong. But some day, I will find it. The beast that is my equal. And on that day, we will fight till the end.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Author Comments

I've always loved the story of Beowulf, but I've never much cared for the man himself. He's better than everyone else and he knows it, and he makes darn sure everyone else knows it, too. This is my attempt to see behind the bravado, at what drives a person to keep fighting day after day, monster after monster, until the monsters finally win. --1/4th of the Alphabet Quartet

- Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, Greg van Eekhout
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