Orion has fought across time and space at the whims of his Creators, godlike beings from the future who toy with human history like spoiled children playing with dolls. Orion has been both assassin and hero, all the while striving to be reunited with Anya, the ageless goddess who is his one true love.Now Orion finds himself in Britain in the years after the Romans abandoned the island kingdom. Minor kings and warlords feud among themselves even as invading hordes threaten to sweep over the land. There Orion befriends a young warrior named Arthur, who dreams of uniting his quarreling countrymen and driving the invaders from their lands. Along with a few brave comrades, Arthur hopes to the stem the tide of barbarism and create a new era of peace and prosperity. But Orion's Creator, Aten, has other plans for the timeline. Arthur's noble ambitions interfere with Aten's far-reaching schemes to reshape history to his own ends. He wants Arthur dead and forgotten--but Orion does not.Orion will battle the gods themselves to see that Arthur fulfills his destiny. But can even he save Arthur from the tragedy that awaits him?Orion and King Arthur is a thrilling new chapter in Ben Bova's unforgettable cosmic saga. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 03, 2012
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Excerpt from Orion and King Arthur by Ben Bova
"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."
Bors objected, "But, my lord, you shouldn't engage yourself with a stranger. He might be an assassin, sent to kill you!"
Arthur laughed aloud. He had no fear of an assassin. He did not know that I had murdered men in other eras, at Aten's behest.
A squire, not much younger than Arthur himself, trudged up and handed him his helmet and a shield with a blood-red dragon painted on it. I drew my own sword, heard its steel tongue hiss as it came out into the sunlight. My fingers tightened on its leather-wrapped hilt.
"Where is your helmet, friend, your shield?" Arthur asked as he stood before me. His iron helmet covered his cheeks and had a nosepiece shaped like an upside-down cross.
"I won't need them," I said.
His smile turned down a little. "Pride goes before a fall, Sarmatian."
"Then I will fall," I replied.
Arthur shrugged, then put his shield up and advanced toward me, sword cocked in his right hand.
My senses went into overdrive, as they always do when I face battle. The world around me seemed to slow down, as if everything was happening in a dream. I could see Arthur's gold-flecked amber eyes blinking slowly over the rim of his shield. And Sir Bors stepping sideways to keep at my side. His sword was still in his hand, ready to strike me down if I endangered Arthur. I thought he was more worried that Arthur did not have the skill or experience to face a true fighting man than fearful that I was an assassin.
Arthur swung at me in lethargic slow motion, a powerful overhand cut that would have sliced me down to the navel if I hadn't danced lightly out of harm's way. He grunted, frowned, and advanced upon me in sluggish slow motion.
I feinted once to the left, then slashed at his shield, splitting it in two with a loud cracking sound. My blade would have taken Arthur's arm off if I hadn't pulled back in time.
Arthur's eyes went wide with surprise. After only a moment's hesitation, he tossed away the broken shield and came at me again. He smashed another mighty overhand slash at me. I parried it easily and his blade shattered into several pieces with a brittle snap.
"Hold!" Bors shouted, sticking his sword between us.
I stepped back.
If Arthur had feared that I would kill him he gave no sign of it. Instead, he tossed away the broken stub of his sword and then reached out for mine.
"That's a fine piece of steel," he said admiringly as I handed the sword to him.
Without thinking of why, I answered, "I know where you can get one that's even better, my lord."
It took hours of arguing and cajoling, but at last Arthur and I set out for the distant lake in search of the sword I promised him. Sir Bors and the other knights were dead set against the king's nephew traveling alone with a stranger from a distant land. Bors complained that the fort might be attacked by Saxon raiders at any time, and Arthur's place was where his uncle had put him. But wizened old Merlin was on my side.
"The Sarmatian brings good fortune to Arthur," the old wizard said, stroking his long white beard as he spoke. The beard was knotted and filthy, his homespun robe even dirtier, but all the knights and squires stared at him with wide-eyed awe. They would not step closer than five paces to him; Merlin walked through the little fort's dung-dotted courtyard as if protected by a magical aura.
In truth, I saw a burning intelligence in the old man's narrowed eyes, a keen awareness that belied his wrinkled, ragged appearance. Beneath those shaggy gray brows his eyes were shrewd, sharp, penetrating. Was he one of the Creators in disguise?
To satisfy the suspicious knights, Merlin cast a spell to protect Arthur, nothing but hand-waving and muttering as far as I could see. But it seemed to satisfy Sir Bors and the others, at least enough to allow their young leader to leave the fort with me and no one else.
For two days we rode, and I got to know Arthur a little. He was burning for fame and glory. His highest hope was to one day be named Dux Bellorum: battle leader of his uncle's forces.
Yet, like many an untried youth, he doubted his own abilities.
"I can see it in the faces of Bors and the others," he told me as we camped for the night in a dark, dank forest. The huge, broad-boled trees grew so thickly that much of the day we had been forced to lead our horses afoot. "They would never follow someone so young."
"They will, my lord," I said, "once you prove yourself in battle."
He shook his head mournfully. "The curse of the Britons, friend Orion, is that they will not follow anyone for long."
"They will follow you, my lord. I'm sure of it."
In the darkness of the forest night I heard him make a sound that might have been a sigh. "No, Orion. Look at us! Ambrosius calls himself high king, but who follows him? A handful, that's all. You travel for two days in any direction and you pass through two or three different kingdoms. We have kings every few miles, each of them jealous of all the others."
"No wonder the Saxons can raid and plunder as they wish."
"Yes," he said grimly. "Our people shatter like the sword I used against you. One blow and they break."
He was silent for a moment. Then, "But if I could bring all the Britons together, unite all these petty kingdoms..."
"You could clear the land of the barbarian invaders," I finished his thought.
This time he sighed unmistakably. "It's a pretty dream, Orion. But only a dream."
The ambition was there. He had the dream. But he needed the courage to make it come true. I could sense that he was longing for the daring, the tenacity, the strength to become the true leader of all the Britons.
Again Arthur fell silent, this time for many moments. At length, he spoke up again.
"That sword of yours," he said, changing the subject because it was too painful for him to continue, "a sword such as that is a rare treasure, Orion. A man would travel to the ends of the earth to get such fine steel for himself."
Like so much else, the art of steel had been lost when the Romans departed. In centuries to come the Celts would learn the art of fine steel-making, but that time was far in the future of these dark years.
"You could have taken my sword from me," I said.
He laughed softly as he lay in his blankets. "I'd have to kill you for it, I wager."
Lying on the ground a few feet from him, with the dying embers of our tiny fire between us, I replied, "Not so, my lord; I would give it to you willingly."
It was too dark to see the expression on his face. The night wind keened above us like an evil spirit, cold and harsh, setting the trees to moaning.
"No," Arthur said at last. "If I am meant to drive the Saxons out of our island, I will not do it with another man's steel. I must have my own. Merlin prophesied that I would, when I was just a lad."
He was hardly more than a lad now, yet this young man wanted to drive off the Saxons and other barbarians who had seized most of the coast of what would one day be England.
I dreamed that night, but it was not a dream.
I found myself in an emptiness, a broad featureless plain without hill or tree or even a horizon: nothing but an endless flat plain covered with a softly billowing golden mist stretching out in every direction to infinity.
Vaguely, I remembered being there before, in other lives, other eras. And, just as I expected, I saw a tiny golden glow far off in the distance, like a candle's warm beckoning light, but steady, constant, without a flicker.
I began to walk toward it. I was clad as I had been when awake, in a simple tunic and chain mail. But my sword was gone. Except for the little dagger that Odysseos had given me during our siege of Troy, I was unarmed.
Something drew me to that beacon of light. Despite myself, I began to run toward it. Faster and faster I raced, legs churning through the ground mist, arms pumping, my lungs sucking in air. After what seemed like hours I was gasping, my throat raw, my legs aching from exertion. But I could not stop. I wanted to rest, but I was unable to stop. I was drawn to the light, like an insect obeying an inbuilt command.
The tiny distant glow became a golden sphere, a miniature sun, so bright and hot that I could not look directly at it. I raised my arms to shield my eyes from its glare, yet still I ran, racing toward it as if it were an oasis in a world-covering desert, a magnet pulling me with irresistible force.
At last I could run no more. Soaked with sweat, exhausted, panting as if my lungs would burst, I collapsed onto the strangely yielding ground, still blanketed with the perfumed golden mist.
"Are you tired, Orion?" a mocking voice asked. I knew who it was: Aten, the Golden One. My Creator.
The blazing bright golden sphere slowly dissolved to reveal him. He stood over me, strong and handsome: thick golden mane of hair, eyes tawny as a lion's, perfectly proportioned body encased in a formfitting suit of golden mail.
He sneered down at me. "What is this madness you are engaged in, Orion? Where are you leading that young pup?"
I blinked up at him. His radiance was so brilliant it made my eyes water. "I thought you wanted me to--"
Angrily, Aten snapped, "You are not supposed to think, creature! Your purpose is to do what I instruct you to do. Nothing more. And nothing less."
"But Arthur needs--"
"I will decide what Arthur needs, not you!" Aten snarled. "I want you to help him win a few battles, not take him on a foolish excursion through such dangerous territory."
I bowed my head, my eyes burning at the radiance streaming from him.
"Arthur's only purpose is to resist the Angles and Saxons well enough to force them to unite against the Britons. Then they will drive the Celtic oafs into the western sea and take the island for themselves."
"But what will happen to Arthur?"
"He will be killed."
Aten's voice hardened. "All men die, Orion. Only my own creatures, such as yourself, are revived to serve me again."
"He could make a nuisance of himself," Aten said. "He could become too powerful. For the time being, I allow him to live. But that time will end soon enough."
"Then the Angles and Saxons and other barbarian tribes will create a mighty empire, Orion. An empire that spans the globe and begins to reach out into space."
"But can't Arthur be permitted--"
"Stop pleading for him, Orion! Obey my commands. That is your destiny. Arthur's destiny is death and obscurity."
I wanted to argue with him. I wanted to tell him that I would not obey his commands, that I would help Arthur and save him.
But suddenly I was sitting on the ground at our forest camp again, soaked with sweat, breathing heavily. The first milky light of the coming dawn was just starting to filter through the tall trees. Arthur slept across the ashes of our dead campfire from me, as blissfully as a man without a care in the universe.
Should I turn back to Amesbury fort? Abandon this quest for a sword for young Arthur?
His eyes snapped open, bright and clear as the finest amber. He was awake instantly.
"How far are we from my sword, Orion?" he asked as he sat up, all youthful eagerness.
"Not far, my lord," I replied. "We will reach the lake today."
I couldn't turn back now. I couldn't disappoint Arthur. He trusted me, and I would not betray him, not even for Aten and all his haughty demands.
Yet I should have known that Aten would not willingly allow us to reach our goal.
The forest was like a maze of giant trees, their boles as massive as the pillars of a mighty cathedral, their thick leafy canopy so high above us that it was like a dark green roof that blotted out the sun. We had to walk our horses most of the morning, picking through the sturdy trees while birds whistled far overhead and tiny furred creatures chattered at us.
The ground sloped gradually downhill. We were nearing the lake, I realized, although how I knew about the lake and its location was beyond me. Something in my mind told me that we would find the sword for Arthur there; but just how and why--I had no idea.
The forest thinned out as we led the horses, but the underbrush became thicker between the trees. I saw a clearing up ahead, strong morning sunlight slanting through it, and smelled smoke. It was rising from a tiny thatched farmhouse.