Orion and King Arthur Online - Ben Bova

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For the first time that bitterly cold winter, Heorot was bright again, ringing with song and a king’s gratitude to the hero.

And then the beast roared, out in the icy darkness.

“But he’s dead!” King Hrothgar bellowed, pointing to the shaggy monster’s arm that now was affixed over the mead-hall’s entrance doorway.

“I killed him,” exclaimed Beowulf, “with these bare hands.”

Hrothgar turned to his queen, Wealhtheow, sitting beside him on the dais between the royal torches. She was as beautiful as a starry spring night, her raven-dark hair tumbling past her shoulders, her lustrous gray eyes focused beyond the beyond.

Wealhtheow was a seer. Gripping the carved arms of her throne, shuddering under the spell of her magic, she pronounced in a hollow voice, “The monster is truly dead. Now its mother has come to claim vengeance upon us.”

Hrothgar turned as white as his beard. His thanes, who had been sloshing mead and singing their old battle songs, fell into the silence of cold terror.

The captives from Britain huddled together in sudden fear in the far corner of the hall. I could see the dread on their faces. Hrothgar had sworn to sacrifice them to his gods if Beowulf had not killed the monster. For a few brief hours they had thought they would be freed. Now the horror had returned.

I turned to gaze upon the lovely Queen Wealhtheow. She was much younger than Hrothgar, yet her divine gray eyes seemed to hold the wisdom of eternity. And she was staring directly at me.

How and why I was in Heorot I had no idea. I could remember nothing beyond the day we had arrived on the Scylding shore, pulling on the oars of our longboat against the freezing spray of the tide.

My name is Orion, that much I knew. And I serve Beowulf, hero of the Geats, who had sailed here to Daneland to kill the monster that had turned timbered Heorot, the hall of the stag, from King Hrothgar’s great pride to his great sorrow.

For months the monster had stalked Heorot, striking by night when the warriors had drunk themselves into mead-besotted dreams. At length none would enter the great hall, not even stubborn old Hrothgar himself. Until Beowulf arrived with the fourteen of us and loudly proclaimed that he would kill the beast that very night.

Beowulf was a huge warrior, two axe handles across the shoulders, with flaxen braids to his waist and eyes as clear blue as the icy waters of a fiord. Strength he had, and courage. Also, he was a boaster of unparalleled brashness.

The very night he came to Heorot with his fourteen companions he swaggered so hard that narrow-eyed Unferth, the most cunning of the Scylding thanes, tried to take him down a peg. Beowulf bested him in a bragging contest and won the roars of Hrothgar’s mead-soaked companions.

After midnight Hrothgar and his Scyldings left the hall. The torches were put out, the hearth fire sank to low, glowering embers. It was freezing cold; I could hear the wind moaning outside. Beowulf and the rest of us stretched out to sleep. My shirt of chain mail felt like ice against my skin. I dilated my peripheral blood vessels and increased my heart rate to make myself warmer, without even asking myself how I knew to do this.

I had volunteered to stay awake and keep watch. I could go for days without sleep and the others were glad to let me do it. We had all drunk many tankards of honey-sweetened mead, yet my body burned away its effects almost immediately. I felt alert, aware, strong.

Through the keening wind and bitter chill I could sense the monster shambling about in the night outside, looking for more victims to slaughter.

I sat up and grasped my sword an instant before the beast burst through the massive double doors of the mead-hall, snarling and slavering. The others scattered in every direction, shrieking, eyes wide with fear.

I felt terror grip my heart, too. As I stared at the approaching monster I recalled a giant cave bear, in another time, another life. It had ripped me apart with its razor-sharp claws. It had crushed my bones in its fanged jaws. It had killed me.

Beowulf leaped to his feet and charged straight at the monster. It rose onto its hind legs, twice the height of a warrior, and knocked Beowulf aside with a swat of one mighty paw. His sword went flying out of his hand as he landed flat on his back with a