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Authors: Ben Bova

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BOOK: Orion and King Arthur
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“My poor darling. I ask so much of you. If I could do this myself, I would.”

Then she kissed me swiftly on the lips. I would have faced an entire continent filled
with monsters for her.

3

The tingle of her lips on mine had not yet faded when the others around us stirred to life once again. And Wealhtheow was somehow back on her throne, on the dais beside her husband, aged Hrothgar.

Her husband. The thought burned in me. Then I realized that one of the men in this timbered mead-hall was one of the Creators, in disguise, controlling the monsters that killed
Hrothgar’s warriors. Why? What was the
purpose
of it all?

That was not for me to know. Not yet. My task was clear. The king and queen left the mead-hall, heading back to Hrothgar’s fortress. The others milled about for a while, then started back through the frigid winter night also.

It was easy for me to slip away from them and start down the rocky trail that led to the sea. The moon scudded
in and out of low dark clouds. In its fitful light I could clearly see the spoor of dark blood that the dying monster had left from the night before. This was the track Beowulf was following. I hurried along it.

The blood spoor ended at the sea, where the waves crashed against the craggy headland. Our longboat was still tucked up on the rocks, I saw, its mast stored along the deck. No one guarded
it. There was no need. The boat was under Hrothgar’s protection; no Scylding would dare touch it.

Bitter cold it was, with a wind coming off the sea that sliced through my chain mail shirt and chilled me to the bone despite my conscious control of my blood circulation.

The rocky cove stretched out to my left. In the moonlit shadows I thought I saw caves in among the rocks at the cove’s far end.
The den of the monster, perhaps.

A growling roar, like the rumble of distant thunder, came across the icy wind. I raced across the rocks toward the caves.

The second cave was the monster’s den, half awash with the incoming tide, dimly lit by phosphorescent patches of lichen clinging to the rock walls.

Female this beast may be, but it was even bigger than its slain offspring, glowing faintly
white in the dimly lit cave, snarling at Beowulf as it reared up on its hind legs. Even mighty Beowulf looked like a pitiful dwarf next to its enormous size.

He was already bleeding from shoulder to waist, his chain mail shirt in shreds from the beast’s raking claws. He clutched Unferth’s sword in both hands and swung mightily at the monster, to no avail. It was like hitting the brute with a
tress of hair.

The monster knocked Beowulf to his knees with a blow that would have crushed a normal man. His sword blade snapped in half. And I realized that Unferth had given Beowulf a useless weapon. Crafty Unferth with his glittering snake’s eyes was the other Creator among the Scyldings.

I ran toward the beast and again the world seemed to slow into dreamy, languid motion.

“Beowulf!” I
shouted. “Here!”

I threw my own sword to him. It spun lazily through the air. He caught it in one massive hand and scrabbled away from the monster on his knees.

I circled around to the side away from Beowulf, trying to draw the brute’s attention before it killed the hero of the Geats. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a gleaming horde of treasure: gold coins and jewels heaped on the dank cave
floor. Swords and warriors’ armor, spears and helmets were strewn in profusion. Whitened bones and gape-mouthed skulls littered the cave floor. The monsters had brought their kills here for many years.

The beast ignored the kneeling Beowulf and bellowed at me, dropping to all fours as it moved to protect its horde. But it moved slowly, as if in a dream. I dashed to the pile of weapons and pulled
out the first sword I could reach.

Barely in time. The monster was almost on top of me. I slashed at its slavering jaws and it howled in pain and fury. I feinted sideways, then stepped back—and tripped on a helmet lying at my feet.

Off balance, I staggered backward. The beast swung at me; I could see those razor-sharp claws coming but there was nothing I could do to stop them. The blow knocked
me onto my back. The monster’s jaws reached for me, teeth like a row of swords. I clutched my own sword in both hands and rammed it upward into the beast’s open mouth, but it did no good. Its teeth closed around me. I was going to be crushed to death, just as I had been all those long eons ago.

But the monster suddenly howled and dropped me. It turned to face Beowulf, bleeding, battered, but
hacking at the beast’s flank with the fury of a berserker.

As the brute turned away from me, I scrambled to my feet and thrust my sword into its neck, angling it upward to find the brain or spine.

It collapsed so suddenly that it nearly smothered Beowulf. For long moments we both stood on tottering legs, gasping for breath, spattered with our own blood and the monster’s, staring down at its
enormous carcass.

Then Beowulf looked up and grinned at me. “Help me take off its head,” he said.

4

It was pearly pink dawn when we staggered out of the cave. Beowulf carried the monster’s gigantic shaggy head on his shoulder as lightly as if it were a bit of gossamer.

We blinked at the morning light. Icy waves lapped at our ankles.

Beowulf turned to me, his cocky grin gone. “Orion, I told
Hrothgar before all his thanes that I would kill the monster myself, with no one’s help.”

I nodded, but said nothing.

Suddenly his broad, strong face took on the expression of a guilty little boy’s. “Will you go on ahead and say that you searched for me, but could not find me? Then I can come later with the beast’s head.”

I glanced down at my bloody arms. “And my wounds?”

“Say you were set
upon by wolves as you searched in the night for me.”

I smiled at his stupid pride, but said, “Yes, I will do it.”

“Good,” Beowulf said. He dropped the monster’s head and sat on a rock. “I will rest here for a while. I could use a little sleep.”

So it was that I returned to Hrothgar’s fortress and told the king that I had searched for Beowulf to no avail. All that long morning and well past
noon we waited in growing gloom. Unferth said confidently that the monster had killed Beowulf.

He was considerably disheartened when the hero of the Geats finally arrived—with the monster’s shaggy head on his wounded shoulder.

That night the feasting at Heorot was without stint. The torches flamed, the mead flowed, the thanes sang praises of Beowulf, and the women vied for his merest glance.
Hrothgar’s bard began to compose a saga. The king promised the British captives that they would be ransomed and returned to their dank, dreary island.

Only Unferth seemed unhappy, slinking in the shadows and glaring at me.

Queen Wealhtheow sat on her throne, smiling graciously at the uproarious celebration. Long past midnight, the king and queen left the mead-hall. Warriors and even churls paired
off with women and strolled off into the darkness.

At last timbered Heorot fell silent. The torches were extinguished. The hearth fire burned low. I was left alone, so I stretched out on the earthen floor next to the fading embers and willed myself to sleep.

I dreamed, yet it was not a dream. I was standing in another place, perhaps a different universe altogether. There was no ground, no sky,
only a silver glow like moonlight that pervaded everything. Wealhtheow stood before me, but now she wore a formfitting outfit of glittering silver metal. Anya, the warrior goddess, she was. In another time, a distant place, she was worshipped as Athena.

“You did well, Orion,” she said in a low silken voice.

“Thank you.”

“Your wounds?”

“They are already healing,” I said.

“Yes, accelerated
self-repair was built into you.”

I wanted to reach out and take her in my arms, but I could not.

Instead, I asked, “Can we be together now?”

In the deepest recess of my memory I recalled a time, a lovely woodland filled with tame, graceful animals that we called Paradise, when we were together and happy. The other Creators, especially the jealous Aten, had torn her away from me.

“Not yet,
my love,” she said, with a sadness in her eyes that matched my own despair. “Not yet.”

“At least, can I know why I was sent to Heorot? Why was it important to slay those beasts?”

“To save the British captives, of course.”

That surprised me. “The captives? Those pimply-faced youngsters and that emaciated old man?”

She smiled knowingly. “One of those pimply-faced youngsters is the son of a Roman
who stayed behind after the legions left Britain. His name is Artorius.”

I shrugged. It made no sense to me.

“He will be important one day. A light against the darkness.” She reached out her hand to me. “The sword you found in the cave. Please give it to me.”

Puzzled, I detached the scabbarded sword from my belt and handed it to her. She slowly drew out the blade, examined the inscription on
it, and smiled.

“Yes,” she said in a whisper, “he will need this later on.”

I read the one word inscribed on the matchless steel blade.

Excalibur.

 

BOOK I

Dux Bellorum

 

CHAPTER ONE

Amesbury Fort

1

“A Sarmatian, you say?” Sir Bors looked me up and down, sour disbelief plain on his scarred, bearded face. “And what is your name?”

“Orion,” I replied. It was the one thing I was certain of. How I came to this time and place I knew not.

“And why are you here?” asked Sir Bors.

We were standing in the dingy courtyard of a hilltop fort named Amesbury, its walls
nothing more than a rickety palisade of timber staves. These Britons had tried to build their forts in the way the Roman legions had, but their engineering skills were poor. They stared at the ruins of Roman aqueducts and monuments and thought that the stonework had been done by giants or magicians.

A few dozen men milled about the bare dirt courtyard, some leading horses, a few practicing swordplay
with one another. The place smelled of dung and sweat. And fear.

“I came to serve King Arthur against the Saxons,” I said.

Bors’ eyes widened. “
King
Arthur? You’ve made him your king, have you?”

I felt confused. “I thought—”

Bors planted both fists on his hips and pushed his scarred face so close to mine that I could smell the stale wine on his breath.

“Ambrosius is our king, Sarmatian! Young
Arthur may be his nephew, but the pup’s still wet behind the ears. King indeed!”

I said nothing.

Bors grumbled, “His uncle’s put him in charge of Amesbury fort here and sent Merlin to watch over him, but that doesn’t make him anything more than an inexperienced babe in the woods.”

“I … I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I meant to say King Ambrosius.”

Bors snorted with disdain.

My mind was spinning.
I remembered Artorius as a skinny, pimply-faced boy, a captive of the Danes when I served Beowulf. I had saved him then, I dimly recalled.

Somewhere in my mind I knew he was to be king of the Britons, and he would lead these island people against the invading barbarians. Britain had been abandoned by the Roman Empire after centuries of their occupation. The legions had returned to Rome to fight
against the hordes of Goths who were slashing into the empire’s heartland. Britain was left to fend for itself, wide open to invasion by the barbarian Angles and Saxons.

Aten had put that knowledge into my mind. But why he had sent me through spacetime to Amesbury fort I did not know. Aten, the Golden One, is my master, my Creator, sneering and superior. I have died many times, in many strange
and distant places, but always he brings me back, revives me to send me on still another task of pain and danger.

“You are my creature, Orion,” he has told me often. “My hunter. I built you and you will do as I command.”

I hate Aten and his mad dreams of controlling all of spacetime to suit his whims. There are other Creators, as well, haughty and demanding, toying with human history like children
playing with dolls. Cruel gods and goddesses, all of them.

Except for Anya.

Anya of the gray eyes and supernal beauty. Anya is the only one among those Creators who cares at all for their creatures. Who cares for me. I love Anya and she loves me. Aten knows this and, vicious with implacable jealousy, sends me far from her, to serve him and die over and over again.

“Well, you’re big enough,”
said Sir Bors, snapping me back to the moment. “Can you fight?”

I smiled tightly. I had led Odysseos’ men over the high stone wall of Troy. I had made Mongol warriors gape at my battle prowess. I had helped Beowulf kill Grendel and its mother.

“I can fight,” I said.

Sir Bors barely reached to my shoulder. He was thick and solid as a barrel, though, his arms heavy with muscle. He wore only a
cracked and stained leather jerkin over his tattered knee-length tunic. But he had a long Celtic broadsword belted at his hip. I was in chain mail and linen tunic, my sword strapped to my back.

Drawing his sword from its leather scabbard, Bors said, “Let me see what you can do.”

“Wait!” a young voice cried from behind me. “Let me test him.”

I turned and saw a handsome tall nobleman walking
toward us, so young that his beard hardly darkened his chin. His eyes were light and clear, flecked with gold, his shoulder-length hair a light sandy brown, almost blond. He was smiling warmly.

“My lord,” Bors said, his tone several notches softer than it had been, “this Sarmatian—”

So this was Arthur. He had grown into a strong young man since the time when he’d been a starveling captive of
Hrothgar, king of the Scyldings, in Daneland.

“He’s got good shoulders, Bors,” said Arthur. Then, to me, he added, “Let us see if you know how to use your sword.”

BOOK: Orion and King Arthur
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