Authors: Ben Bova
The lad drooped his chin timidly, hardly daring to look at Arthur.
“Don’t be shy, youngster,” said Arthur. “Praise from Sir Bors is as rare as snow in July.”
Everyone laughed, except the youngster.
Once inside the fort, the knights began to hand their shields and weapons to their squires—while the knights who had remained behind watched in envious, shamefaced silence.
The youngster walked through the men to Arthur, and held out the spurs he had worn.
“Here, my lord. Thank you for allowing me to wear them.”
“Keep them,” Arthur said. “You went into battle a lowly squire, but your courage
and skill demands better for you. Kneel.”
Dumbfounded, the boy dropped to one knee.
Arthur drew out Excalibur, still caked with barbarian blood. Then he hesitated.
“I don’t know your name,” he said.
“Lancelot, my lord.”
Arthur smiled and tapped him on each shoulder with the blade, leaving two dark red smudges.
“Rise, Sir Lancelot. And welcome to the company of knighthood.”
hung open. He swallowed visibly before he could utter, “Bless you, my lord.”
The other knights crowded around to congratulate the lad.
But that night, as I unrolled my sleeping blanket in the shadows of Amesbury’s palisade, I thought I heard in the far-off echoes of my mind the Golden One laughing mockingly and saying, “The seed of destruction has been sown, Orion. Arthur’s days are numbered.”
Not while I live, I answered silently. Then I lay down to sleep. But as soon as I closed my eyes I felt a wave of utter cold take hold of me and I was falling, falling through a black infinity.
I opened my eyes and saw clouds scudding past in a windswept sky above me. I was lying on the hard wet planks of the deck of a ship that was heaving up and down sickeningly. I smelled the salt tang of the sea and the stench of vomit and human sweat. Our little cockleshell bobbed in the choppy waters of the Channel so hard that we were all soaked to the skin from the spray coming
over the gunwales.
“Up! Wake up!” a clear tenor voice called. “All hands to their stations!”
Scrambling to my feet, I saw my crewmates staring across the water at the awesome procession of Spanish men-of-war heading through the Channel for Gravelines, on the Belgian shore.
“There they are, lads,” said our skipper, pointing. “Take a good look at the Pope-kissing bastards.”
He was young to be
a ship’s captain, but then our ship was just an unarmed riverboat, wallowing in the swells of the heaving sea. As I looked around at the rest of us, I saw that they were all barely old enough to start their beards.
How or why I was here I didn’t know. My last memory was of Arthur and his victory over Aelle and his Saxon host at Amesbury fort. Somehow I was now aboard a small English merchantman,
part of a pitiful little squadron of ships that had been sent out to face the mighty Spanish Armada.
Britain was again threatened with invasion, and there was our youthful skipper grinning defiantly at the enemy. He looked very much like the Arthur I had known from a thousand years earlier: broad of shoulder, handsome features with gold-flecked amber eyes and the beginnings of a light brown beard.
It was near sunset. The sky was low and glowering red; a storm was brewing to the west out in the wild Atlantic. The Spanish fleet proceeded through the Channel in a stately line, big, square-backed galleons leading the way, followed by smaller galleys, their oars sweeping steadily, like rows of metronomes.
“Some o’ them sweeps is Englishmen,” said the sailor next to me, his voice harder than
his round, youthful face. “They caught me brother off Jamaica last year, chained ’im to the oars.”
“Do you think he might be aboard one of those galleys?” I asked.
The youngster nodded grimly. “Could be. But if he is, drownin’ in th’ Channel’s better’n years as a bloody galley slave.”
“Quit the chatter and look lively now!” the skipper commanded. “Get about your business, men, and best be quick
was to be a fireship. We were to set her ablaze and sail her into the Spanish ships when they tried to moor at Gravelines. The plan was to scatter the Armada so that Drake and Frobisher and the other Seahawks could deal with the big Spanish men-of-war individually.
We set about hauling the tinder and firewood up from below deck, each of us casting uneasy glances
at the rowboats we would use to try to get away once we had lit the fires.
It was a desperate plan. Although the ramshackle collection of British ships sailing out from harbors all along the Channel actually outnumbered the Armada, the Spanish fleet was far superior in firepower and its ships were much bigger than ours. They were slower and less maneuverable than our tumble homes, and that could
make all the difference in the tricky waters of the Channel.
“Smoothly, lads, smoothly,” Arthur coaxed us as we worked. “We’re going to give them hell.”
I thought it might be the other way around. Our only hope was to be nimble enough to avoid their broadsides, and I knew we couldn’t be lucky enough to escape them forever.
As if to prove my point, the nearest galleon fired a salvo at us. Even
at the distance between us the roar of their guns shook the air. I heard the deep growling whistle of cannonballs swooping overhead, like evil meteors intent on smashing us to splinters. But instead they soared past us and splashed harmlessly into the sea, although one of them pocked through our topsail.
“They’re just trying to warn us off,” Arthur tried to reassure us. “Pay them no mind.”
“Pay ’em no mind, eh?” grumbled the sailor hauling timbers next to me. “Not ’til they sink us, by damn.”
All through the deepening twilight our skipper kept us on the edge of the galleons’ cannon range while the sun sank below the horizon and darkness settled on the choppy waters. We could see the lights of Gravelines low on the horizon in the distance and the lanterns along the decks of the Armada’s
The hours stretched on. Arthur had us check the rowboats, make sure their oars were in place.
“Sir Francis and the other Seahawks will attack once the fireships have scattered the Spaniards,” Arthur said confidently.
“Aye,” whispered my grumpy fellow sailor, “and we’ll be sittin’ in the bloody dinghies, tryin’ to row our way back t’ Dover.”
I smiled grimly at him. “That’s better than
being chained to a galley’s oars, isn’t it?”
It was too dark to see the expression on his face, but I heard his reply: “Bloody suicide job, that’s what we’ve got.”
Arthur must have heard him, because he said into the darkness, “We’ve a hard task, lads, true enough, but England needs our best and nothing less.”
As the night wore on the wind freshened. “That storm coming in from the Atlantic,”
Arthur said, his voice brimming with youthful hope, “is going to blow our little fireball right into their midst. You’ll see!”
“And we’ll hafta row against the wind,” my companion groused. “We’ll be lucky if we make landfall in France.”
Clouds were scudding across the face of the moon, making the night even darker. Stars winked out as the clouds built up.
“Get some rest, men,” said Arthur,
moving through the darkness among us. “Try to sleep for a while. I’ll stand watch and when the time comes to light the fire, I’ll wake you.”
“That’s for sure,” my sour-voiced companion whispered hoarsely.
I stretched out on the wet planks of the deck and closed my eyes. And again felt the clutch of absolute cold, unfathomable darkness. I was hurtling through spacetime again as the universe shifted.
Spoils of War
I woke up back at Amesbury fort, wrapped in my bedroll at the base of the palisade. It was sunrise, a clear warm day was in prospect. I blinked in confusion. How did I get to the English Channel in 1588? Why? Who had sent me there?
It couldn’t have been Aten, I thought. Or, if it was, why would he return me here to Amesbury, where I can protect Arthur? Was
it Anya? I tried to contact her, reached out with my mind all that morning as I went through my usual ritual of bathing in the horse trough, to the usual jibes and jeers of the other squires.
Nothing. Not even a hint of her presence. Aten is blocking my effort to reach her, I told myself. He doesn’t want me to be with her.
It didn’t take long for the news of Arthur’s victory over the Saxon host
to spread beyond the fort’s confines. The second day after he had scattered the barbarians, an itinerant Jewish merchant arrived at the gates of Amesbury fort in a creaking, lopsided wagon pulled by a pair of mangy mules.
His name was Isaac. He was short and wiry, all bones and tendons. His face was swarthy, as if permanently suntanned, and his lean jaw was covered with a luxuriant dark beard.
His cheeks were hollow, but his deep-set brown eyes were alert and keenly intelligent.
Arthur sent Sir Kay, his chamberlain, to meet the visitor and look over his wares. Apparently the peddler had learned that we had taken a fair amount of booty from the Saxons that had been slain: weapons mostly, heavy swords and sharp-edged axes that the barbarians could throw like missiles. Dozens of helmets,
many sporting polished horns. A few shields and several strange seashell pendants carved with curious runes. If they were meant to be magical amulets they had done little good to the men who wore them: they had been ripped from the corpses of the slain.
Merlin was curious about the visitor and whatever news he might have about the world beyond the stakes of Amesbury’s palisade. Curious myself,
I followed the white-haired wizard through the open gates of the fort and up to the merchant’s top-heavy wagon.
“Greeting, oh wise one,” said the peddler, bowing respectfully. “I am Isaac the Jew, a poor wandering merchant striving to eke out a living for my family. I have four children.” Here Isaac paused and added, with a resigned shrug, “All daughters.”
“I am Merlin,” the wizard replied,
“adviser to the High King, Ambrosius Aurelianus.”
“Adviser to the High King? Indeed?”
A small crowd of inquisitive knights, squires, and footmen was gathering at the gate, ogling the pots and blankets and trinkets dangling from the sides of Isaac’s overladen wagon.
I noticed Lancelot among them, and beside him stood brown-robed Friar Llunach, the fort’s chaplain, his jowly face grim with dislike
for the Jewish Isaac.
Pointing to the mound of spoils, Isaac said to Merlin, “You have won a great victory here. News of it is spreading throughout the land.”
Merlin nodded. “It will be a long time before Aelle tries to test young Arthur in battle again.”
“Indeed,” said Isaac. “Aelle will never again challenge Arthur or anyone else. The man is dead.”
“Dead?” Merlin’s eyes went wide. Everyone
in the small knot of onlookers was startled by the news.
Isaac explained, “Some say he was slain by his own men, who felt shamed when their Bretwalda fled in panic from Arthur’s charge.”
“You must tell Arthur himself of this,” Merlin said, gesturing toward the open gate.
“Hold!” cried Friar Llunach. “The Jew may not enter the fort.”
“And why not?” Merlin snapped.
Frowning, the priest said,
“He’s a Jew! An unbeliever. One of Christ’s murderers.”
Many of the onlookers stepped back, as if afraid they would be polluted if they stayed near the merchant. Lancelot stood firm, though. As did I.
Merlin shook his head sadly. “This man is nothing more than an itinerant peddler. He no more murdered your Christ than you did yourself.”
“Blasphemy!” hissed the friar.
For an instant I thought
that Merlin was going to laugh in the priest’s face. Instead, the old wizard drew himself up in his long, dingy robe and said merely, “This news must be told to Arthur.”
Beckoning Isaac to follow him, Merlin went through the gate and into the fort, the little crowd parting like the Red Sea before the pair of them.
Friar Llunach stood there, radiating fury. Turning to young Lancelot, he half
whispered, “That old magician is no Christian. He still follows the old gods.”
I smiled to myself. If I had it right, Merlin was himself one of the old gods. But was he aiding Aten or not? Would he one day assassinate Arthur or try to protect him from Aten’s murderous plans, even as I was?
“Aelle is dead?” Arthur blurted, delighted surprise wreathing his smiling face.
Isaac stood respectfully
before the young commander, who sat in an ancient Roman camp chair behind the rough trestle table that took up much of his room. Sir Bors stood behind him, looking suspicious, as usual.
Merlin, standing beside the merchant, said, “Apparently he was killed by his own men, who were shamed by his flight at the battle.”
Arthur leaned back in the creaking chair. Stroking his light beard, he muttered,
“So much for the self-styled Bretwalda.” Then he looked up at Isaac once again and asked, “Does my uncle know of this?”
“Your uncle, sir?”
“Ambrosius, the High King.”
Isaac’s eyes slid toward Merlin, then back to Arthur. “The High King is your uncle?”
“He is,” said Arthur. “And he must be told of Aelle’s death immediately.”
As soon as Arthur asked his knights for a volunteer to carry the
news to the High King, young Lancelot begged for the mission.
“It won’t be easy,” Arthur warned the youth. “You’ll have to ride alone through deep woods and dark nights.”
Lancelot was practically quivering with enthusiasm. “I can do it, lord! Please let me do it!”
Before the sun set, Lancelot galloped off for Cadbury on the fastest horse in our fort, trailing two other mounts behind him. Arthur,
Bors, and I watched him disappear over the ridgeline from the parapet.
Bors shook his head. “That lad has more guts than brains,” he muttered.
Isaac took his pick of the battle spoils, offering in return fine linen tunics, iron cook pots, blankets that looked newly weaved. The knights bargained with him day and night; Isaac never pressed them, he seemed content to accept whatever they demanded