Orion and King Arthur Online - Ben Bova Page 0,1

thud that shook the pounded-earth floor.

Everything seemed to slow down into a dreamy, sluggish lethargy. I saw Beowulf scrambling to his feet, but slowly, languidly, as if he moved through a thick invisible quagmire. I could see the beast’s eyes moving in its head, globs of spittle forming between its pointed teeth and dropping slowly, slowly to the earthen floor.

Beowulf charged again, bare-handed this time. The monster focused on him, spread its forelegs apart as if to embrace this pitiful fool and then crush him. I ducked beneath those sharp-clawed paws and rammed my sword into the beast’s belly, up to the hilt, and then hacksawed upward.

Blood spurted over me. The monster bellowed with pain and fury and knocked me sideways across the hall. Beowulf leaped on its back, as leisurely as in a dream. The others were gathering their senses now, hacking at the beast with their swords. I got to my feet just as the brute dropped ponderously back onto all fours and started for the shattered door, my sword still jammed into its gut.

One of the men got too close and the monster snatched him in its jaws and crushed the life out of him. I shuddered at the memory, but I took up Beowulf’s dropped sword and swung as hard as I could at the beast’s shoulder. The blade hit bone and stuck. The beast howled again and tried to shake Beowulf off its back. He pitched forward, grabbed at the sword sticking in its shoulder, and wormed it through the tendons of the joint like a butcher carving a roast.

Howling, the monster shook free of him again, but Beowulf clutched its leg while the rest of us hacked away. Blood splattered everywhere, men roared and screamed.

And then the beast shambled for the door, with Beowulf still clutching its leg. The leg tore off and the monster stumbled out into the night, howling with pain, its life’s blood spurting from its wounds.

That was why we feasted and sang at Heorot the following night. Until the beast’s mother roared its cry of vengeance against us.

“I raid the coast of Britain,” Hrothgar cried angrily, “and sack the cities of the Franks. Yet in my own hall I must cower like a weak woman!”

“Fear not, mighty king,” Beowulf answered bravely. “Just as I killed the monster will I slay its mother. And this time I will do it alone!”

Absolute silence fell over Heorot.

Then the king spoke. “Do this and you can have your choice of reward. Anything in my kingdom will be yours!”

Before Beowulf could reply, sly Unferth spoke up. “You have no sword, mighty warrior.”

“It was carried off by the dying monster,” Beowulf said.

“Here then, take mine.” Unferth unbuckled the sword at his waist and handed it to the hero.

The hall fell absolutely silent. Giving one’s sword to another was a mark of the highest respect, even admiration. Unferth could pay Beowulf no higher honor. Yet it seemed to me that Unferth was dissembling. I saw hatred glittering in his cold reptilian eyes.

Beowulf pulled the blade from its scabbard and whistled it through the air. “A good blade and true. I will return it you, Unferth, with the monster’s blood on it.”

Everyone shouted approval, especially the British captives. There were an even dozen of them: eleven young boys and girls, none yet in their teens, and a wizened old man with big, staring eyes and a beard even whiter than Hrothgar’s.

The monster roared outside again, and silenced the cheers.

Beowulf strode to the patched-up door of the mead-hall, Unferth’s sword in his mighty right hand.

“Let no one follow me!” he cried.

No one did. We all stood stunned and silent as he marched out into the dark. I turned slightly and saw that Unferth was smiling cruelly, his lips forming a single word: “Fool.”

2

“Orion.” Queen Wealhtheow called my name.

She stepped down from the royal dais and walked through the crowd toward me. The others seemed frozen, like statues, staring sightlessly at the door. Hrothgar did not move, did not even breathe, as his queen approached me. The Scylding thanes, Beowulf’s other companions, even the frightened British captives—none of them blinked or breathed or twitched.

“They are in stasis, Orion,” Wealhtheow said as she came within arm’s reach of me. “They can neither see nor hear us.”

Those infinite gray eyes of hers seemed to show me worlds upon worlds, lifetimes I had led—we had led together—in other epochs, other worldlines.

“Do you remember me, Orion?”

“I love you,” I whispered, knowing it was true.