In which a young knight meets an ancient god who makes him stumble on his journey to purity.
The cold wind seared the lad’s skin as he neared the Kingdom’s frontier. Galahad was a young man with tussled black hair that flopped indelicately over his boyish, heart-shaped face. He was a stranger to this part of the Kingdom and, even more so, to the quest he had unwittingly found himself at the heart of.
Truth be told, Galahad was a stranger to any quest and the baggy clothes and spacious armour were testament to that even more than the look of quiet alarm on his face. Nevertheless, he pulled his borrowed cloak about his borrowed cuirass and smiled back at the Svarson Farm, his unexpected refuge on the ancient North Road.
The Svarson’s fare had been meagre but generously given, and Galahad told the child, Tomlin, stories of flashing swords and golden grails and a dragon’s only weak point. Tomlin matched every hero’s triumph with a swing and a slash of his tiny wooden sword. And though none but the husband had poured themselves mead, the last home on the edge of Christendom trilled with laughter that night.
Before reaching the Svarson farm, Galahad had slept five nights under God’s great firmament with nothing but prayer and the memory of his father’s face to keep him warm. He’d heard tales of his father since he was a boy. The brave Sir Lancelot of the Lake, saviour of Logres and fleeting visitor to Corbenic, where he sired a bastard on the princess Elaine. Of course, Lancelot kept the stories of this last ‘adventure’ to himself and far, far away from the alert ears of his lover, Guinevere.
Galahad’s mother told him that his father would not recognise his legitimacy but, even so, he had only ever wanted two things in life: to serve God and do so as a knight at Camelot.
The first time he met his father was on his 18th birthday, in Camelot’s Great Hall where the torches made a halo around the King’s Table. On the journey to Camelot, he’d worn nothing more than ascetic robes and walked barefoot in and out of danger on more than one occasion. Now, walking further and further into the North, the muffled clop of his horse punctuated the memories of that first encounter like thunder.
Clop — his father’s averted eyes. Clop — Guinevere’s searing gaze. Clop — the interruption of a fearful messenger.
As the messenger whispered quick, urgent words into the king’s ear, Galahad implored everyone at the vast table that he had no intention of causing scandal. His heart was content and his singular wish to join them as a knight, and nothing more, was more fervent than ever.
Galahad looked into the face of each member of court and, though some of those faces had stared down dragons and sought out treasures beyond the measure of wealth in this world, now they looked sideways and averted his gaze. The king was as oblivious to the mood as he was of his wife’s liaisons with Lancelot and he dismissed the messenger with a nod of his head. Before he could speak, Queen Guinevere whispered soothingly into his ear, all the while staring out the corner of her eye at the boy her lover had sired on someone else.
The king straightened himself in his chair and addressed the court with the solution he had just come up with ‘all by himself with absolutely no interference from anybody’.
“The borders of my Kingdom are under constant attack from the multitudes of darkness. You may yet gain a seat at my Round Table, young Galahad, but first you must vanquish the demon that terrorises my border to the North. And if you are found unworthy …”
Galahad sighed deeply on his horse and whispered the Queen’s words to the bitter North wind, “ … you shall never set eyes on Camelot again.”
Galahad ruminated on death and the Day of Judgement as the North Road slipped away beneath him like the twine of his life. But he took heart in the chance to fight the forces of evil – to die a martyr’s death, if need be – in the service of His King and Lord, and to become a better man than his father was. Better, it pained him to say, than a Queen’s furtive lover.
Before long, wise oaks and battle-ready ash trees emerged either side of the road. His eyes carried a soft glaze as he envisioned his victory and knighting in Camelot’s Great Hall. His eyes, unfocussed as they were, did not warn him that he had long since entered that storied Northern Forest.
Then his horse tripped. Only slightly, but enough to fracture his reverie and he found himself standing in a large oval glade surrounded by Ash trees. He looked up and found a tall wooden post with a long horizontal sign nailed to it. Galahad stared at the letters but they made no sense to him. They were carved into the wood in harsh lines, jagged and rough. He looked around to focus his eyes and, as he did so, the leaves at the fringe of his vision seemed to ripple and take the form of a thin man reclining atop the sign.
“Hail,” the surprise knocked the depth out of Galahad’s voice, which sounded more like that of a boy than ever. “P-pardon me, good sir, I-I did not see you. Pray tell me, what tongue is written on yonder sign? Is this still the North Road?”
“This?” the man crooned and he turned and stretched like a cat, his lithe body lounging perilously on the ancient and rickety post.
The cold sun darted through the leaves as he moved and made his ice-white hair bristle and shimmer like dawn frost. A pale hand — made for magic not for might — extended from his long black sleeve and his fingers twirled the air into shapes beside the muddled letters on the sign.
“There, is that better?”
The runes danced and transformed into letters Galahad understood. They read ‘Hen Ogledd’.
“Or perhaps this?”
With a flurry of his ice-white fingers they danced again and the letters twirled and wrote‘The Old North’ in the weathered timber.
Galahad gasped and drew his sword uneasily.
“Demon! B-Be gone, wr-wretch of the infernal abyss.” His child’s voice echoed into the empty forest, scaring not even the crows that watched from crooked glances.
The man leaned back and closed his eyes. “Wuddifahcud, pup … buddahcan’t.”
Galahad was shaken. He eyed the glade around him, not a leaf rustled.
“I said, I would if I could, pup, but I can’t.”
“Wh — why not?”
“Because, you impertinent runt, All-Father, in his one-eyed wisdom told me I couldn’t leave this glade until the prophecy was fulfilled.”
“Wh-what prophecy, demon? And speak true!” Galahad almost believed his own courage despite the trembling at the tip of his sword.
The man sighed and swung his legs over the sign.
“Odin’s prophecy, dolt. And you can’t get around that, I’ve tried.”
Swinging his legs he sang:
“Never shall you see Asgard again, Loki, until a virgin ploughs Yggdrasil’s key from his consummated bed.”
Odin? Loki?! Galahad’s insides squirmed. He had heard of the ‘gods’ of the North Men. Cruel, pagan demons with brutal rites. He whispered a prayer under his breath.
“Enough of your tricks and riddles, demon, come down here and fight me with honour.”
“Honour?” Loki laughed, rocking backwards and pointing at Galahad’s sword with a dancer’s toe, “I’m immortal, dolt. That thing will have about as much of an effect on me as a fist on fog.”
Galahad hesitated. What if this demon wasn’t lying, what then? He knew ways to vanquish dragons, trolls, Hobs and Brownies but he had never, not once, read of how to vanquish a demon!
“Y-you said ‘consummated’” Galahad croaked.
“I did. Well heard. You have a fine ear for the obvious, pup.”
“B-but if the bed was consummated the giver couldn’t be a … um … a virgin.”
“You said it, kid.”
Loki reclined again on the signpost and began tossing a stone into the air, which returned to his hand as butterflies and golden rings and snowflakes each time he threw.
“Then the prophecy is nonsense.”
“That’s gods, for you.”
Galahad gripped the hilt of his sword and glared upwards.
“There is but one God, Trickster, and in his name I shall — ”
“Yes, yes,” Loki said, appearing at Galahad’s side in wisp of ice-fog. “You’re a brave … uh … whatever you are — strong willed, can’t deny it. But tell me, wouldn’t you rather use that ardent spirit of yours on a more worthy cause… like her perhaps?”
A woman Galahad would have sworn was an angel appeared in the centre of the glade. Golden hair flowed down the arch of her neck. She wore nothing but a clear chemise and moved lithely in a dance to no music. Galahad felt himself float towards her, tips of his toes hovering over the short grass between them, until the woman’s body was against his, rolling and turning against the curves of his armour.
“No,” he whispered. Then louder, “NO!” and he pushed her away gently with his free hand. She fell lightly, as if falling through water, and then her flowing hair shifted and her head snapped towards him like that of an adder.
Her eyes glowed the green of poison and her supple limbs slithered and writhed until she curled into an enormous snake, twice Galahad’s size. It whipped its tail and wrapped him up, trapping his blade against his chest and began to pull him closer to its furious, dripping maws. But Galahad’s hand was still on the hilt and as he strained to bring it upwards, he sliced the serpent’s tail and gouged a clean line up his weathered cuirass.
The serpent wailed and hissed. Black blood dripped onto the grass and sizzled. Galahad took advantage of its ire — slashing and stabbing and swinging blindly — stripping scales and skin from the enormous beast until its blood oozed towards Loki, who stood watching, smiling. Loki stepped between the small sanguine rivulets that flowed from the snake’s corpse.
“Bravo, bravo,” the icy god clapped slowly as he approached the knight who was heaving for breath. “You’ve outdone yourself, lad. But you might have made a mistake there.”
They both turned and watched the rivers of blood begin to run southwards as if on a steep hill. Then, as one, the glistening red lines delved into the earth and were no more.
Within half a breath there was a great rumbling and the grass was torn asunder by one, then two, then an entire battalion of translucent warriors. The fearsome ghosts formed ranks and marched away, beyond the tree line in the distance towards the kingdom of Camelot and Galahad crumbled to his knees and stared in horror at their backs.
“What in hell are they?”
“Them?” Loki said, kneeling by the serpent’s corpse. He peeled away a single scale from its body. It shimmered in the sunlight and he smirked as it disappeared into a hidden pocket. “Souls of the dead North Men, pup. All those who died on this pitiful rock without an axe in their hands to take them to Valhalla. I reckon, now that you’ve woken them up, they’ll want to reconcile that situation. You’re not having much luck today, are you pup?”
“Why didn’t you tell me that was going to happen?”
“How did I know you were going to kill her?”
“She turned into a snake!”
“Only because you spurned her advances. What’s wrong with you anyway? Never been with a woman before?”
“As a matter of fact … no. I’m a Christian and unmarried and… and that would be a sin!”
“And the murder of a poor defenceless wurm wouldn’t?”
“No. Just … just shut up! Where are they going? What are they going to do?”
“They’re on a raid. They’re going a-viking. Rape. Pillage. Stretch their legs a bit, I expect. It’s been a while.”
Galahad wrung his hair.
“What are we going to do? We have to stop them.” He paused and then said, “how do you stop an army of ghosts?”
“Dunno, never seen one before.” Loki began counting on his fingers, “I’ve met Ice Giants, Dwarves, Völva, and Trolls. Can’t say I’ve met any Ghost Armies, though. Quite pretty when you see them in the light, aren’t they?”
“Pretty? PRETTY?!” Galahad said, turning his back to the marching phantoms. “Bring them back! You brought the woman … snake … thing here, you can send them away again, right?”
“Ha! I can bring these things into existence, sure, but not much more. They’re here at least as long as I am, kiddo.”
Galahad stared. His mouth was dry and his breath shallow, “But … the Svarsons …”
Bethel Svarson was taking advantage of the break in the rain to milk the cow. Her good-for-nothing husband was sleeping off the mead in the barn and her young son Tomlin was swinging his wooden sword at the foes of his imagination.
That was when she noticed a rumbling under the soles of her feet. The milk rippled in the pale and then toppled and spilled into the earth. She got to her feet and, over the cow’s long back, she caught a glimpse of steel glinting in the distance like starlight through fog.
She’d seen those flashes of metal once long ago, before Camelot was a kingdom to be admired and not raided. She grabbed Tomlin’s tiny hand, wriggling in protest, and ran for the house.
Galahad paced around the glade with his hands on his head while Loki sat cross-legged on the stump of a felled tree.
“God help us, what have I done?”
“You’ve ended one city’s rule, nothing more.” Lokie was lying in the grass, propped up by his elbows behind him.
“I’ve ended Camelot … I only ever wanted to become a knight and now I’ve become its downfall.”
“Do you know how many cities, how many kings have risen and fallen in the history of your paltry race’s time? Thousands. At least you played a part in one of them. Congratulations, you’re not insignificant.”
“Shut up! Tell me the prophecy again.”
Loki sighed and swung his head from side to side to punctuate the words. “Never shall you see Asgard again until a virgin hands you Yggdrasil’s key from his consummated bed. Honestly, all I did was say Freyja needed to keep it in her skirt and he goes and — ”
“Loki, shut up.”
Loki sat up, laced his fingers over his bent knee and watched the pacing knight.
“Yggdrasil. Yggdrasil. What is that?”
“Yggdrasil,” Loki scoffed, “is the great ash tree that connects all the worlds: Asgard, Midgard, Jöt — ”
“Ash Tree! Wait … that’s it! Ash seeds! Look around for Ash seeds!”
Loki, without moving, glanced left and right. Satisfied that he had done everything in his power to help the lad, he said “And why are you suddenly interested in seeds?”
Galahad dropped to a knee and plunged his hands into the shallow bed of leaves that covered the glade. “Loki! Look at the leaves, they’re all ash.”
“Good for you. We have ourselves an extremely clever virgin but yet no keys nor consummated beds.”
Galahad’s hands emerged from the rustling leaves with a single flat pod, bulbous at one end, and he held it above his face.
“Ash seeds! Or, as everyone calls them, ash keys!”
“Well well,” Loki looked genuinely impressed, “look at you solving the All Father’s riddles. And the … consummated bed?”
Galahad stared down at his feet and shifted uneasily. Loki followed the lad’s gaze and saw he was staring at the slashed and torn body of the serpent by his side. Then he looked at his bloody sword.
“Those soldiers, they were… you might say they were born out of the earth, right?”
Loki leaned forward. “…re-born, I’d say.”
“Well, if she is a …um … a she, and I put my uhhhh…Lord help me…I killed her with my sword … then um … well …”
“Well, look at you, pup!” Loki grinned.
Bethel tucked Tomlin behind her and looked tentatively out the window. Silver men with sightless eyes surrounded their farm, marching in droves, and though they looked as intangible as nightmares, their weapons were sharp and they seethed with unbridled greed and revenge.
They shattered her fences and kicked open the barn, and she yelped in her throat as a heavy stroke felled the sweet cow that had once sustained them with milk. The brute whirled at her yelp and she dropped to the ground. She patted the space beside her, but Tomlin was gone.
Bethel wept silently for her boy, for her drunken husband and for herself. She allowed herself that much, though there wasn’t much else at hand.
One of the North Men stepped into the the house. He didn’t use the door, just blended through the wall. He upturned the table with his free hand, sending a shower of cutlery thudding to the floor. And then he saw her. He grinned and approached her with long measured steps and raised his iron-grey sword high.
Her skin prickled. The ice-cold fear suddenly burned into rage and she rolled as the axe cracked the wooden planks behind her. The North Man tugged at the axe-shaft embedded in the wood. Bethel planted a foot and forced all her fear, all her sadness, her earth-shattering wrath into the end of her fist and swung it with all her mind and heart deep into the savage’s face. And then through it.
She tumbled forward onto the floor and grazed her chin on the splintered wood. The cold of the dead man’s intangible body took the breath from her lungs but she hurled a choked scream for her son to run, wherever he was, run south as fast as his tiny legs could take him.
Galahad stabbed the earth again and again, ploughing deep trenches towards him. He kept pulling the blade through the blood-wet soil until he unfurled a small, brown, desiccated pod and held it up to his eyes. Loki was standing over him with his hands on his hips, grinning. He leaned forward and plucked the key out of Galahad’s hand.
“Took your time, pup. Got there in the end, though. Can’t fault you at all. Still, now that the prophecy is fulfilled, I have sooo many better things to do than sit around here with a Christian virgin. Then again … I suppose only one of those things applies to you now, eh? Anyway, see ya, pup!”
And with that he melted into the colours of the leaves that covered the glade and, with a chuckle, he was gone. Galahad looked around in an exhausted daze and then he turned towards where the ghost army had marched and waited for … he did not know what.
Bethel heard the crack of wood as the North Man tore his sword from the board. She rolled over, wiped her face with her sleeve and glared like a cornered wolf at the ghost and his weapon. She reached out to her side and grasped a butter knife that had fallen from the table. She knew it would do no good but she would rather die with a blade in her hand than to cower and wait for the thud and the pain and the dark.
She scrambled to her elbows and readied herself for her last attack. He raised his arms high and just as he began the momentum of his swing a sword burst through the ghost’s chest. Long, and thin, and…brown. The Norse Man stared at it incredulously. His arms fell, and axe and man dissipated into mist and nothingness.
When the body disappeared Bethel saw Tomlin standing in the space behind, toy sword gripped in his tiny hand, smiling and triumphant.
There’s not much that needs explaining about the mythological side of this story. Loki being a trickster is news to nobody and you can probably guess that he gets in trouble for insulting other gods pretty often.
The idea of sending sickly-sweet Galahad to meet Loki came from learning about the old term for northern England and southern Scotland, Hen Ogledd. Britain’s North-South divide is always fun to play with, especially in fantasy … just look at Game of Thrones.