Read Orion and King Arthur Online

Authors: Ben Bova

Tags: #Fantasy

Orion and King Arthur (10 page)

The evening before he was to leave, I went out to his wagon, where he was bundling the Saxon booty into rough burlap sacks.

“Are you satisfied with what you’ve gained?” I asked him.

Isaac shrugged in the gathering shadows. “Am I satisfied? Why not?”

“I think you could have bargained harder.”

With a sardonic little smile, Isaac replied, “And make your fine knights angry with me? It’s
bad enough that the priest hates me. I’m not going to make enemies of men who carry swords.”

I helped him lift a bundle and shove it into his cluttered wagon. “You’re very cautious.”

“I’m alive. Killing a Jew isn’t a crime to these people, you know.”

“These people? You don’t think I’m one of them?”

The sun had dipped below the wooded hills, but I could see the crafty expression on Isaac’s
face. “You are taller than the rest of them. Your skin is almost as dark as mine. You’re no Briton.”

“You’re very observant,” I said.

“A Jew needs to be observant,” he said, a tinge of bitterness in his voice. “And compliant. A Jew can’t afford to make enemies. They already hate me.”

“You follow a difficult path.”

With a shrug, Isaac replied, “I manage to survive.”

A sudden thought occurred
to me. “You offered no coin for any of the spoils.”

“Coin?” Isaac looked startled. “If they thought I carried coin with me they’d slit my throat on the spot and ransack my wagon.”

Raising my hands, I said, “Sorry. Forget that I mentioned it.”

“Just don’t mention it to
them,
” Isaac whispered.

Gold was so rare and precious among the Britons that it was the cause of murders, even among the Christians.
Strange, I thought, how easily men forget their religion over gold, or anything else they covet.

By the time Isaac finished packing his wagon it was fully night, cloudy, moonless.

“Will you come into the fort for supper with me?” I asked him.

Shaking his head, he said, “I will stay here with my goods. I have a little bread and a few lentils.”

“I don’t think any of the men would pilfer your
wagon,” I told him. “Arthur wouldn’t allow it.”

With that sad little smile of his, Isaac replied, “Arthur I trust. But the others…” He waggled a hand.

So I stayed with the merchant, shared his bread and lentils—and a pair of ripe apples that he pulled out of a burlap sack—and slept the night on the ground beneath his wagon.

In the morning Isaac yoked his mules and drove off. But not before
saying to me, “You are a good man, Orion. I will tell the others of my people that you can be trusted.”

I thanked him and watched him drive the creaking wagon slowly away from Amesbury fort.

Five days later Lancelot came galloping back from Cadbury, covered with dust and grime, his mount lathered and heaving.

Even as he slid out of his saddle, Lancelot cried, “The High King wants to see Arthur!
He wants Arthur to come to Cadbury castle! I’ve got to tell him!”

And he dashed past me, racing for the rough-hewn tower where Arthur stayed.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Cadbury Castle

1

They attacked us while we were sleeping.

It was our second night on the hard journey from Amesbury to the High King’s castle, and we were all weary, bone tired. That morning we had been forced to turn off the good Roman road that led arrow-straight to Salisbury and instead plunged into a thick, dark forest that seemed endless.

After hours of walking our horses
through the lofty, thick-boled trees, hardly seeing the sun through their dense canopies, Arthur decided to make camp in a small clearing.

“We’ll reach Cadbury castle tomorrow,” he said, trying to cheer the twelve knights he had chosen to accompany him as they sat tiredly on the mossy ground.

Their squires—me included—were tending the horses while the half-dozen churls Arthur had brought with
us were busy gathering firewood and preparing to cook the salted meat and dried beans that the packhorses carried.

The attack that night was meant to kill Arthur.

We were sleeping soundly, even I, who needs very little sleep normally. But the exertions of nearly constant battle and the long wearying days of painfully slow travel across the hilly, forested land had made even me drowsy.

I dreamed
of Anya.

It was more than a dream. I was with her, the goddess whom I loved, the Creator who loved me. For only a few moments I stood in another world, another dimension, on a grassy hill warm with sunshine where flowers nodded happily in the gentle breeze coming in from the nearby sea. Soft puffs of clouds scudded across a brilliant blue sky. In the distance, where the hill sloped down to a
wide sandy beach, there stood a magnificent city filled with gigantic monuments and graceful temples.

But the city was empty, lifeless. It was the city of the Creators, I knew, the beings who traveled through time to manipulate human history to suit their whims.

Anya: supernally beautiful with her lustrous sable-black hair and fathomless gray eyes. In other times she had been worshipped as Athena,
Isis, Artemis. I had given my life for her, more than once.

She stood before me on that sun-dappled hillside, draped in a supple robe of silver threads. I reached out to her, but she raised a warning hand.

“Awake, Orion,” she said, her voice urgent, her lovely face intent with alarm. “Arthur has been betrayed.”

My eyes popped open. I was back in the clearing in the forest, hardly a moonbeam
breaking through the dark canopy of the trees. Our fire was down to feeble embers. I didn’t move a muscle. A chill wind sighed through the boughs so high above. An owl hooted once, then again.

It was no owl, I realized. Men were creeping around our little camp, signaling to each other as they surrounded us.

Furtively, I reached for the sword that lay at my side. My eyes adjusted to the dim light
of our fire’s embers and I could see the shadowy shapes of the attackers edging closer to Arthur’s sleeping men.

“To arms!” I bellowed at the top of my voice, leaping to my feet, sword in hand. “Saxons!”

There were at least forty of them. I ran straight at the nearest ones, a trio of burly men gripping long two-handed swords. My senses went into overdrive; the action before me seemed to slow
down, as if time itself had suddenly altered, stretching like taffy into a sluggish dreamlike pace.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Arthur and his knights rousing themselves. Men were shouting, cursing, and someone screamed his death agony.

All this as the three before me braced themselves and raised their heavy two-handed swords against me. I dove headfirst into the nearest one, leaving
my feet entirely in a leap that buried the point of my sword in his chest. We toppled to the ground together, his blood spurting as I yanked my sword out of him and rolled away from a mighty two-handed clout that would have cleaved me in two if it had landed on me.

Scrambling to my feet, I sliced the villain through his throat before he could swing at me again. He crumpled, gurgling blood, as
I danced away from the powerful swing of his companion, then took off both his hands with a single blow to his wrists. He shrieked, wide-eyed with pain and terror, as his sword fell to the ground with both his hands still gripping it.

Leaving him, I turned to see that Arthur’s knights were giving a good account of themselves. Without shields or helmets, without even their chain mail, they still
were hacking through the attackers with grim efficiency.

I saw one of the attackers standing off, lurking beside the massive bole of a rough-barked tree. Their leader, I thought, and raced toward him. He saw me and turned to flee.

I hefted my sword and threw it at him. It was a clumsy throw and the sword hit with the flat of the blade between his shoulders. The impact was enough to send him
sprawling, but by the time I reached him he was scrambling to his feet, his own sword in his right hand and my sword in his left.

He grinned at me like a wolf. “Now you die, fool.”

I reached for the dagger I always kept strapped to my thigh, the dagger that Odysseos had given me in the Greek camp on the shore of Ilium. Not much against two swords, but better than my bare hands.

Behind me I
heard the din of battle: swords clanging, men screaming in pain, even the panicked horses neighing and stomping, trying to break their tethers and run away from this bloody mayhem.

He advanced upon me, waving his two swords as if trying to hypnotize me. I watched him, my supercharged senses studying every bunching of his muscles, every movement of his eyes. He was stalking me, still grinning
confidently.

I flipped the dagger in my hand so that I held it by the point and, before he could think to move, hurled it into his chest. It hit him with a solid thunk and he staggered. The confident grin faded. His mouth filled with blood. He tried to step toward me, tried to reach me with the swords, but his legs had no strength in them. He collapsed face-first at my feet, driving my dagger
even deeper into his chest.

By the time I had retrieved both my sword and dagger and cleaned them, Arthur, Bors, and Gawain had come up to join me.

“Your warning saved us,” Arthur said, still breathing hard.

Gawain’s chest was heaving, too. “A few of them ran off into the woods, but thirty or so of them will never leave this clearing.”

I nodded. My senses had calmed down to normal. “Did we
lose anyone?” I asked.

Bors answered gruffly, “Not a one. Two of the churls were cut down and several men are wounded, but that’s all.”

Obviously Sir Bors did not consider laborers to be worth counting as real men.

Arthur asked, “These knaves were not Saxons. They were Celts, as we are. Why attack us?”

“Robbers,” said Gawain. “A band of robbers who thought they saw easy pickings.”

“Attacking
armed knights?” I asked. “And an equal number of squires? Robbers are not so bold.”

“A dozen sleeping knights,” Gawain countered.

Arthur added, with a smile, “And most squires are not fighters of your caliber, Orion.”

Bors bent down to examine the dead man at our feet. “This one was no common robber, my lord,” he said to Arthur.

“What makes you say that?” Gawain challenged.

“I know this face.
He was a man-at-arms at Cadbury castle.”

Arthur stared at Bors, dumbfounded. “He served my uncle Ambrosius?”

Bors nodded grimly. “Look here. He still wears the High King’s crest on his tunic.”

“Treachery,” Gawain whispered.

With a shake of his head, Arthur said in a low, hollow voice, “I can’t believe that my uncle would send these rogues upon us. Why would he do so?”

“Jealousy, my lord,”
answered Sir Bors. “Your victory at Amesbury gives the High King pause. He fears for his throne.”

“But I would never…” Arthur seemed thoroughly shocked. “He knows I would never seek his crown.”

“Does he, my lord?” Bors replied. “I wonder.”

2

The next day was sultry, the last touch of summer that we would see that year. Our little column of mounted knights and squires climbed the steep dusty
road slowly, the horses tired, the men sweating and too weary even to grumble about the long journey or the hot sun blazing out of the cloudless sky.

I rode beside young Arthur, as a squire should. Usually Arthur was bright and eager, full of youthful enthusiasm, but this day he was quiet, thinking, worried about the treachery of the night before. The tunic he wore over his chain mail was covered
with dust, stained with sweat. His light brown hair flowed past his shoulders, his amber eyes that usually sparkled with dreams of glory seemed to be focused elsewhere, looking for answers they could not find. Unconsciously he scratched at his bristly beard. It was coming in nicely, but it must have been itchy.

“I wish Merlin were with us,” he said, with a sigh. “I miss his advice.”

We had left
the old wizard behind at Amesbury; too frail to make the trip with us, he would be coming later by wagon, together with the arms and other spoils from the battle Arthur had won.

“Merlin is very wise,” I said.

“He prophesied I would win a great victory and he was right,” Arthur said. He treated me more as a friend than a squire, and often unburdened his inner thoughts to me. “It was a great victory,
wasn’t it?” he said, smiling at the memory of it.

“Indeed it was, my lord.”

“Thanks to you, Orion. And your Sarmatian stirrups.”

“You led the charge, my lord,” I said to Arthur. “It was your vision and courage that convinced the knights to accept the new ideas.”

Arthur nodded, his face going somber. “Now I must convince the High King.”

He had concocted a plan to drive the Saxons and all the
other barbarian tribes completely out of Britain. Only three men knew of it, so far: Arthur, Merlin, and myself. It was a plan that could work, I thought, if Ambrosius was willing to accept it and was not already fearful that Arthur was threatening his position as High King.

There was one other obstacle in Arthur’s path, as well: me. Aten had sent me to this time and place to prevent Arthur from
defeating the barbarians who were invading Britain. To assassinate him if his enemies didn’t kill him first.

“Look!” Arthur stood in his stirrups and pointed. “Cadbury castle!”

It stood at the crest of the steep hill we were tediously climbing. Cadbury was a real castle, built of stone, not one of the rude wooden hill forts that Ambrosius had strung along the countryside to contain the Saxon
invasion.

“It must have been built by giants,” he said, staring at the high stone wall and the towers rising above it.

“No,” I said. “It was built by men.”

“But Orion, mortal men could never lift such stones! Look at them! It’s impossible.”

I had scaled the beetling walls of Troy and helped to burn the fabled towers of Ilium. I had tried to defend triple-walled Byzantium against the ferocious
Turks. Cadbury was nothing compared to them, but to this eager young knight it was the grandest architecture he had ever seen.

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