Read Orion and King Arthur Online

Authors: Ben Bova

Tags: #Fantasy

Orion and King Arthur (5 page)

“No, Orion. If we don’t kill this dragon it will ravage the countryside. It will kill the villagers and their livestock. We must protect them.”

Two puny men armed only with swords against a
twenty-ton killing machine.

But I nodded and edged off toward the water. Arthur sidled in the other direction, his eyes on the “dragon,” his new sword held high in his right hand.

The dinosaur looked from him to me, swiveling its ponderous head slowly. It stepped toward me, hesitant, its tiny brain perhaps puzzled by the maneuvers of intelligent prey.

I dared not go so far out into the water
that I could not move swiftly. I yelled at the dinosaur and waved my sword in the air, trying to hold its attention while Arthur moved stealthily behind it. It leaned down in my direction, as if to see me more clearly. I felt its breath, hot enough to make me almost think it could actually breathe fire.

I waited until those monstrous teeth were gaping just above me, then thrust my sword into
the beast, into the base of its jaw, with all the power I could muster from both my arms.

The dinosaur howled and reared, lifting me completely off my feet. My sword was lodged in its jaw and I clung to the hilt with both hands, my legs dangling uselessly in midair.

Arthur dashed in and slashed at the beast’s belly. Even in the pale moonlight I could see his blade redden.

The dinosaur bellowed
and shook its head so viciously that I was dislodged and flung to the ground, my sword still wedged in its jaw. Stunned, I saw through a red haze of pain the dinosaur turn on Arthur, raking his shield with the powerful claws of one hind foot. Arthur tumbled onto his back and the beast bent over him, jaws gaping wide.

But Arthur still clutched Excalibur and slashed at the dinosaur’s snout as he
scrambled backward, trying to rise to his feet. The dinosaur yowled and tried to pin Arthur to the ground with one foot, but Arthur scrabbled out of the way once, twice …

I pulled myself to my feet and, avoiding the beast’s heavy swinging tail, leaped upon its back. Like a monkey clambering up a tree I scaled along the dinosaur’s spine, climbing toward its massive bony skull.

It must have felt
me on its back, for it stopped trying to crush Arthur and reared up to its full height, nearly throwing me off. But I wrapped my legs around its neck and swiftly drew Odysseos’ dagger. Plunging it into the back of its neck at the base of the thick skull, I hacksawed madly, searching for the spinal column.

Below me I saw Arthur, on his feet now, plunging Excalibur into the beast’s exposed belly
again and again, working madly, frenziedly, spattered with the dinosaur’s dark blood again and again.

My blade found the spinal cord at last and cut it. The monster collapsed, nearly crushing Arthur as it fell.

I slid off its back and tumbled to the grassy ground, exhausted, gasping.

Arthur stood blinking at the dead carcass for a few moments, then raised both arms over his head and screamed
an exultant victory cry at the distant moon. It was an eerie sight: the young warrior bathed in the beast’s blood, holding his sword and shield aloft and shrieking like a banshee. Beside him the dead “dragon” lay, a mountain of scaly flesh, teeth, and claws.

“Did you see me, Orion?” he called triumphantly as he hurried over to where I lay. “Did you see me kill it?”

Slowly I pulled myself up
to a sitting position. The dagger was still in my hand, but Arthur paid no notice to such a puny weapon.

He brandished Excalibur in the night air. “I must have struck its heart,” he said, bubbling with excitement. “With this steel I can conquer anything!”

I smiled inwardly. Arthur had found his steel; not merely a sword, but the inner steel that would one day make him king of the Britons. If
I could keep him alive that long.

I could sense Aten scowling angrily at me. He wanted Arthur removed from this timeline, and he would do all he could to work his will. And punish me for defying him.

All I really wanted was to spend the eternities with Anya. But for now, I was at Arthur’s side, ready to battle men and gods to protect him.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The Bretwalda

1

Three days after we returned to Amesbury, with Excalibur belted at Arthur’s side, a large band of Saxons made camp outside the fort. The next day they were joined by others. Day after day their numbers grew and we sat inside the fort. Arthur seemed uncertain of what he should do.

One evening I looked out over the parapet of the fort’s flimsy palisade and watched
the campfires of the Saxon invaders dotting the twilight landscape like a thousand angry red eyes. As far as the hilly horizon they stretched, more of them each night.

“They’ve never done this before,” whispered Arthur, standing grimly beside me. I heard bewilderment and deep foreboding in his hushed voice.

“What are they waiting for?” grumbled Sir Bors, standing on Arthur’s other side. “Why
don’t they attack?”

“Each night their numbers grow,” Arthur murmured, staring transfixed at the Saxon campfires. “Their leader, Aelle, calls himself Bretwalda now—king of Britain.”

“Hmph,” Bors snorted.

“Other barbarian tribes are joining his host: South Saxons, West Saxons, Jutes, Angles—they’ve all sworn their allegiance to Aelle.”

We stayed hemmed up inside Amesbury fort for nearly two
weeks. Usually the barbarians raided a village or farmstead and ran away before the British defenders could find them. But now they were camped outside this hilltop fort, with more and more of the raiders joining the besiegers every day. These were not mere raiders, they were a powerful army, under the leadership of Aelle, who obviously intended to destroy Amesbury fort and its defenders.

I looked
up into the darkening sky. A fat gibbous moon grinned mockingly at me, while the Swan and the Eagle rode low off in the west. My namesake constellation of Orion was climbing above the eastern horizon. Autumn chill was in the air, yet the barbarian invaders showed no sign of heading back to their settlements on the coast and leaving Britain a season of peace and healing.

Wheezing old Merlin joined
the three of us up on the parapet, climbing the creaking wooden stairs slowly, painfully. In the starlight his tattered white beard seemed to glow faintly. With his long robe he seemed to glide along the platform toward us, rather than walk.

“I have determined when the Saxons will attack,” he pronounced in his quavering, thin voice.

“When?” Arthur and Bors asked as one.

“On the night of the
full moon,” said Merlin.

“A week from now.”

Bors growled, “It makes sense. They know we’re starving in here. They’ll wait until they figure we’re too weak to fight.”

“Then we’ve got to do something,” Arthur replied. “And soon.”

“Yes,” Bors agreed. “But what?”

Arthur had been put in charge of the hill fort’s defense by his uncle, Ambrosius, who styled himself High King of the Celtic Britons.
The Saxon barbarians had been raiding the coasts of Britain for years, decades, ever since the Roman legions had left the island. Now the Saxons and their brother tribes of barbarians were building permanent settlements in the coastal regions.

And moving inland. Amesbury was one of a string of hilltop forts that Ambrosius had hoped would stand against the Saxon tide. Some called it a castle,
but it was nothing more than a wooden palisade enclosing a few huts and stables, with a single timbered tower, a rude wooden chapel, and a blacksmith’s forge. Even so, it stood against the barbarians well enough. They knew nothing of siege warfare, had no knowledge of rock-throwing ballistae or any devices more complicated than a felled tree trunk for a battering ram.

Yet crafty old Aelle had
decided to bring all their strength to Amesbury and destroy the fort. And afterward? I wondered. Would they methodically reduce each of Ambrosius’ forts and leave the interior of Britain open to their ravages?

The dark night wind whispered to me and I looked up at the stars scattered across the black sky. I had seen the same stars at ancient Ilium, I remembered, in another life. I had built a
siege tower there, under the watchful eye of wily Odysseos, and led my men over the high stone wall of mighty Troy.

In another life. I have lived many lives, and died many deaths. I have traveled among those far-flung stars bedecking the night sky. I have fought battles on distant worlds under strange suns.

My Creator Aten, the Golden One, has sent me to this place and time to serve Arthur until
the moment comes when I must stand aside and let him be killed. Or perhaps the Golden One plans for me to murder Arthur. I have assassinated others for him, in other lifetimes. I knew that I must obey my Creator’s commands, yet with every fiber of my being I wanted to defy those commands, to disregard his murderous orders and raise young Arthur to the power and authority that would save Britain
from these barbarians.

Yet I stood helplessly in the gathering darkness beside Arthur, the son of an unknown father, adopted by Ambrosius and guided by Merlin. Barely old enough to begin growing a beard, Arthur had been marked by my Creator for a brief moment of glory—and then ignominious death.

To Bors and Merlin and all the others I was Arthur’s squire, a servant, a nonentity. Arthur knew
better, but we kept our friendship a secret between us. It was easier for me that way: I could remain at Arthur’s side and provide him with advice and guidance—and help in the fighting, when it was necessary.

“Well, what do you want to do?” Bors asked again, gruffly. He was a blunt, hard-faced man, scarred from many battles, his thick beard already showing streaks of gray.

Without taking his
eyes from the hundreds of Saxon campfires dotting the night, Arthur replied softly, “Instead of waiting for the barbarians to build enough strength to bring down this fort, we should sally out and attack them.”

Bors said flatly, “There’s too many of ’em already. We’d be massacred.”

But some of Arthur’s youthful enthusiasm was returning. “If a strong group of us charged out at them on horseback,
we could do them great hurt.”

“We could get ourselves killed and save the Saxons the trouble of scaling the walls,” Bors snapped.

“Not if we surprised them,” Arthur insisted. “Not if we attacked them tonight, after the moon sets, while most of them are sleeping.”

“At night?” Bors frowned at the idea.

“Yes! Why not?” Eagerly, Arthur turned to Merlin. “What do you think, Merlin? What do you
foresee?”

Merlin closed his eyes for several long moments, then wheezed, “Blood and carnage. The barbarians will fly before your sword, Arthur.”

“You see?” Arthur said to Bors.

Bors glowered at the mystic. “Do you see the Saxons running away and heading back to their ships?”

Merlin shook his head slowly. “No … the mists of the future cloud my vision.”

Bors grumbled with disdain.

But Arthur
would not be denied. Bors had more battle experience, but Arthur had the fire of youthful vigor in him.

“Orion,” he commanded, “get the horses saddled and fit. And ask all the knights which of them will honor me by joining in this sally against the enemy.”

As a squire, of course, I went where my master went. Knights could offer excuses to remain safely inside the fort. There were no excuses
allowed for squires.

2

It was well past midnight by the time we were armed and mounted, thirty-two knights and squires on snorting, snuffling horses that pawed impatiently on the packed earth of the courtyard. Arthur and the other knights were helmeted and wore chain mail and carried spears as well as their swords. The moon was down. Firelight glinted off the emblems painted on their shields:
Arthur’s red dragon, Bors’ black hawk, the green serpent of Gawain, lions and bears and other totem symbols.

I was the only squire who wore a chain mail shirt. The others, mostly beardless youths, went into battle in their tunics, protected only by their helmets and shields. I carried neither helmet nor shield nor spear, only the sword strapped to my back, as I sat on my mount at Arthur’s side.

Sir Bors, still grousing, nosed his horse up to Arthur’s other side. “This is madness,” he muttered. “They outnumber us a hundred to one.”

Arthur smiled grimly in the starlight. “Their numbers will be smaller before the sun rises again.”

“As will ours,” Bors mumbled.

Arthur pointed with his spear and a pair of churls lifted the heavy timber bar from the palisade gates, then slowly swung the
gates open. They creaked horribly in the stillness of the night. I thought that any chance of surprise was mostly lost already.

But Arthur bellowed, “Follow me!” and we charged out into the night, each man screaming his own battle cry.

The barbarians were truly surprised. We thundered down into their camp at the base of the hill, trampling the embers of their campfires and scattering the startled
men like dry leaves before the wind. I stayed close behind Arthur, saw him transfix a running Saxon with his spear and lift the shrieking barbarian off his feet. Arthur was nearly knocked off his horse by the shock of the impact, and he had to let go of the spear. The barbarian warrior, clutching the shaft where it penetrated his chest, fell over backward, already dead.

I rode close behind Arthur,
my sword in hand, ready to protect him against anything. Once more my senses went into overdrive and everything about me seemed to slow down into a sleepy, sluggish torpor. I saw a naked barbarian run in dreamlike slow motion at Arthur’s left side, his long blond braids flying behind him. Arthur took his sword stroke on his shield and, while drawing Excalibur from its jeweled scabbard with his
right hand, bashed the warrior’s head with the edge of the shield. The man staggered back and Bors pinned him to the ground with his spear.

Another warrior hurled his axe at Arthur’s unprotected right side. I saw it turning lazily through the flame-lit air and reached out with my sword to flick it harmlessly away. Then I drove my mount at the barbarian and slashed him from shoulder to navel with
a stroke that nearly wrenched me out of my saddle.

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