Read Orion and King Arthur Online

Authors: Ben Bova

Tags: #Fantasy

Orion and King Arthur (8 page)

I spurred the horse and he took off as if a swarm of hornets were stinging him. I crouched forward in the saddle, my weight on the stirrups, leveled the spear as I galloped straight for that rough-hewn timber. Men and boys scattered out of the way as
I raced forward with my spear jutting out ahead. The smith stood transfixed, staring with eyes so wide I could see white all around his pupils. His boys ran, wailing.

I rammed the spear into the timber. The spear shattered from the force of the impact but its point buried itself in the wood almost to the haft. I wheeled my mount around and trotted back to the center of the courtyard.

“I understand
now,” said Gawain, with a smirk on his handsome face. “That’s the Sarmatian way of breaking a perfectly good spear.”

Clod! I thought. But I had to remember that I was only a squire and had to be respectful to a knight.

“Not so, sir. With these stirrups I can drive a spear through an enemy at full gallop without being knocked out of my saddle.”

“And what good is that if you break the spear?”
Gawain sniffed. He turned and walked away; the two younger knights went with him.

“Wait!” I called. When they turned back toward me I directed the young boys standing off by the woodpile to bring me the thickest, hardest log they could find.

It took two of the lads to carry the massive log to the center of the courtyard, their legs tottering under the load. As I directed them to stand it on
end, I saw Sir Bors came up beside Gawain, a skeptical scowl on his scarred face.

I trotted my horse back to the main gate, then spurred him into an all-out charge, drawing my sword as the steed galloped madly across the packed dirt.

With one swing I split the log in half.

Gawain and the other knights seemed impressed—but only a little.

“You’d make a good woodcutter,” Gawain joked as I got
down from the horse.

“Don’t you understand?” I said. “With the stirrups to hold you in the saddle you could charge into the enemy at full speed and hit with all the power of a thunderbolt.”

“We’ve never used stirrups before,” said Bors. “Don’t see why we need ’em now.”

“Because they can multiply the force of your attack!” I insisted, almost pleading with him to open his mind.

But Bors raised
his thick-muscled right arm, crisscrossed with scars, and said, “This is all the force I need in battle. I’ve killed hundreds of Saxons, Jutes, Danes, Angles—all with this strong right arm. I don’t need fancy contraptions to help keep me in my saddle.”

“But—”

Gawain laughed gently. “Use your stirrups if you want to, Orion. If that’s the Sarmatian way, then go right ahead. But we don’t need such
tricks.”

I felt crushed. They didn’t understand what I was offering them. I looked up toward Merlin’s aerie, but neither the wizard nor Arthur was still watching me. I trotted the horse back to the stables and alit.

I handed the horse to a grinning stableboy, wondering what I could do to convince these men that stirrups would allow them to hit their enemies with the full force of a charging
steed, instead of milling into battle slowly and hoping they could stay mounted by gripping the horse with their legs—while their enemies had plenty of time to fight back.

Out in the courtyard I saw Arthur standing by the blacksmith, talking. I went to him. The blacksmith shied away from me, anger and fear plain to see on his heavily bearded face.

Arthur was fingering the spear point still embedded
deep in the timber.

“I thought you were going to kill yourself,” he said to me, “racing across the courtyard like that.”

I made myself grin ruefully. “I’m sure the smith thought I was going to kill him.”

Arthur laughed lightly. “He did look petrified, didn’t he?”

“My lord, what I’m trying to show—”

“I understand, Orion,” said Arthur. “Those little things on your feet allowed you to stay in
the saddle even when you hit hard enough to shatter your spear.”

He was no fool, this young knight.

I replied, “It could turn your knights into a powerful battle force, my lord.”

“If only they would listen to reason,” he said.

“You are their appointed leader. Can’t you make them accept this new idea?”

He shook his head slowly. “I am their leader, true: appointed by the High King to direct
the defense of this fort. But I can’t force them to do anything.”

“But—”

“This isn’t Rome, my friend,” Arthur said quietly, sadly. “These knights are freeborn Celts. They don’t bend to authority. They follow a leader only as long as they wish to. It’s the curse of the Celts: they treasure freedom even in the face of disaster.”

“Freedom is hardly a curse, my lord,” I said.

“Yes, perhaps. But
discipline is something that we sadly lack.”

“If only one or two of them would
try
the stirrups,” I said. “That would show the others what an advantage they are.”

Arthur smiled at me, the warmth of true friendship in his eyes. “I will try them with you, friend Orion. We will sally out against the Saxons together and show them all what we can do.”

8

“Absolutely not!” Bors thundered. “Your uncle
would have my guts for his garters if I permitted it!”

“Then I’ll go alone,” Arthur said, “with no one beside me but my lowly squire.” He nodded in my direction.

“You’ll get yourself killed!”

We were standing in Arthur’s chamber, nothing more than a small room made of rude logs at the bottom of the fort’s lone tower. Its floor was packed earth, its ceiling of roughly planed timbers a bare few
inches above my head.

Arthur did not argue with the surly Bors. He merely smiled his boyish smile and said gently, “But if you came with us, then you’d probably be killed along with me and you wouldn’t have to face Ambrosius.”

Bors went so red in the face that the scar along his cheek stood out like a white line. He was speechless.

“You will come with me,” Arthur prodded, “won’t you?”

With
a great fuming gasp of exasperation, Bors growled, “You’re determined to do this, are you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur. “I am.”

“Then I have no choice, do I?”

Arthur’s face lit up with delight. “You’ll come?”

Nodding sourly, Bors said, “I’ll come with you.”

“Fine!” Arthur exclaimed. “Now let’s see how many of the others will come.”

I worked all that night, going without sleep to make seven sets
of stirrups and spurs. By the time the sun had climbed almost to its noontime high, Arthur gathered his knights around him in the courtyard and told them what he proposed to do.

Most of the men shook their heads warily, not trusting these Sarmatian innovations to be of any real use against the teeming hordes of barbarians outside the fort’s walls.

“We sallied out against the Saxons three nights
ago and it did little good,” said Sir Peredur, his arm still wrapped in a blood-soaked bandage from that fight.

“But this will be different,” Arthur urged. “We will strike them like avenging angels.”

“I prefer to meet the barbarians from behind these stout walls,” Sir Kay said, in his booming, bombastic voice. “Let them come to us.”

The gathered knights nodded to one another and muttered their
agreement.

Arthur turned to Gawain. “Sir knight, will you let Sir Bors and I ride into the Saxon midst alone?”

Gawain grinned like a man who knew he was being outwitted. “By God, never! Where you lead, Arthur, Gawain will follow. Right into the mouth of hell, if needs be!”

Arthur clasped his shoulder thankfully.

In the end, only five of the knights agreed to join Arthur’s sally. I handed out
six pairs of spurs and rigged seven horses with stirrups, plus my own, hoping we could find a seventh to join us.

One by one I led the horses out into the courtyard. One by one the knights mounted—some of them obviously with great reluctance. The seventh horse remained without a rider. I held the seventh pair of spurs in my hands, waiting.

“Is there no one here who will join us?” Arthur called
out.

The knights and squires standing in the courtyard shuffled uneasily, guiltily, but none moved toward us.

Until one of the squires, a slightly built youth, pushed through the crowd and said, “I will go with you, sir, if you will have me.”

Arthur smiled down at him. At first I thought Arthur would turn the lad away because he was so young, but then I realized that Arthur himself was barely
more than a stripling.

Turning to Sir Kay, who still stood stubbornly off to one side, Arthur commanded, “Kay, find this squire chain mail, shield, and helmet.” Then he leaned toward me and said, “Give him the last set of spurs.”

In a few minutes the lad was mounted on the seventh horse, armed with coat of mail, a helmet that wobbled on his narrow shoulders, a dented, patched shield, a sword
that seemed too big for his delicate hands, and a long spear.

I could no longer see Arthur’s face, hidden by his helmet, but his voice rang out clearly: “Follow me, men, and we will drive the invaders back into the sea!”

9

The fort’s gates creaked open, and the eight of us pricked our mounts into a thundering charge. For a brief instant I wondered what the Golden One was thinking. Was I playing
into his hands and sending Arthur out to his death?

Not while I breathe, I swore to myself. I’ll die before I’ll let Arthur be killed.

As always in battle, the world around me seemed to slow down into a lethargic dreamy languor. My senses raced into overdrive, adrenaline flooding my arteries, everything around me seen in microscopically crisp detail.

The barbarian host had hurriedly formed
a battle line as soon as they heard the fort’s gates begin to creak. They were standing waiting for us as we charged down the hill, hard-muscled men bare to the waist gripping their swords and axes, round wooden shields on their arms, long blond braids running down their powerful chests.

I saw spittle form and drip in slow motion from the foaming mouth of Arthur’s mount, at my left side. He was
crouched forward in his saddle, spear leveled, weight on his stirrups. I picked out one of the Saxon warriors and aimed my spear at his chest.

The barbarian tactic for dealing with a cavalry charge was to absorb the impact with as many men as possible and then, once the horsemen had slowed down, to bring in more men from the flanks to swarm the riders under.

But this time we didn’t slow down.
Arthur was the first to strike, snapping a Saxon’s head off his shoulders with the power of his thundering charger behind the point of his spear. I rammed my spear clear through my man’s shield and hit him squarely in the chest, wrenched the spear free, and charged into the next rank. I could hear our seven men roaring as they drove through the barbarian battle line like a hot knife through butter,
and the death screams of the invaders as those long spears crushed the life out of them.

We smashed through their battle line, wheeled, and charged into them again. This time they broke and scattered before us, wailing with sudden fear.

“Stay together!” Arthur bellowed, and we rode as one terrifying fist of death with seven long spears that smashed flesh and bone wherever they struck.

The barbarians
were scurrying away from us like rats, running in every direction, desperately trying to avoid our bloody spear points. But no matter how fast they ran, our steeds were faster. Spears broke, and knights pulled out their shining swords with the hiss of metal on metal. Those blades licked out the life of every man they reached.

I was spattered with enemy blood up to my thighs; my sword was red
and dripping.

“Look!” I called to Arthur. “Up on the ridge.”

A small band of mounted warriors stood on the crest of the ridge, wearing helmets that bore horns and shone with gold and jewels.

“Aelle!” shouted Arthur. “He who styles himself king of Britain.”

He spurred his mount up the slope toward the Saxon leader and his band of picked guards. I charged up after him, leaving Gawain and Bors
and the others to complete the rout of the terrified invaders.

I wondered how wise it was for Arthur to charge against nearly a dozen mounted warriors, but he was swinging Excalibur over his head, yelling wildly and spurring his steed up the slope. I charged after him.

For several eternally long moments we raced up toward the crest of the ridge. I could see, in slow motion, the troubled looks
Aelle’s men were giving each other. Their horses shifted and stamped, as if sensing the riders’ unease. They all looked toward Aelle. The old man whom they had elected Bretwalda sat on his mount, wide-eyed with shock and sudden terror, stunned at what had happened to his warrior horde, shattered by the charge of a mere eight horsemen.

I expected them to charge downhill at us, eleven against two.
Instead, Aelle abruptly yanked at his reins and turned away from us. He and his men disappeared behind the ridge’s crest.

By the time Arthur and I reached the crest they were already halfway across the glade below, galloping for their lives.

Arthur reined in his mount. “No sense chasing after them, Orion,” he said firmly. “Our mounts are tired, theirs fresh.”

I turned back toward the plain
before Amesbury fort. The invading barbarian army was gone, run away, scattered to the four winds. Arthur’s knights were trotting their spent horses slowly up toward us.

“You’ve won a great victory, my lord,” I said.

Arthur pulled the heavy helmet off his head and shook his thick sandy hair free.

“Thanks to you,” he answered, smiling broadly, “and your Sarmatian tricks.”

“It was your courage
and leadership that won the battle, my lord. Without those qualities, my ‘tricks’ would have been mere scraps of iron.”

Gawain was grinning widely as we walked our mounts back to the fort. “They won’t be back,” he predicted. “Not for a long time.”

Arthur was also in a boyishly jovial mood. “Did you see old Aelle run away! One glimpse of Excalibur and he turned tail!”

Even Bors was pleased.
“My lord,” he said to Arthur, “you should note the bravery of this youngster.” He pointed to the squire who had volunteered to join us. “He fought like Saint Michael the Archangel himself.”

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