“I am Ullr, and the bear is mine.” Ullr pointed one of his axes at Lancelot. “Now stand aside, mortal – or become my prey as well.”
Lancelot considered this. His first impulse was to draw his sword and make a threat of his own. Instead, he simply leaned his lance across his shoulders and said, “Welcome to Camelot, Ullr. I am Lancelot du Lac, and you are far from your lands.” As he spoke, he wracked his brain, trying to recall what he knew of the gods of the north. Ullr was one of them, but which one? What was he the god of?
“I go where the hunt takes me,” Ullr said, as he took a step towards the bear. “Move aside, I said. I have hunted this creature for many days and I would claim my due.”
“These lands are not yours,” Lancelot said, putting himself between the injured animal and the god. “They belong to King Arthur.”
Ullr paused. “And what is a king to me?” he asked.
“You are trespassing. It could be construed as an act of war.”
Ullr snorted. “I am a hunter, mortal. That is my quarry. Nothing else is of any importance. Now, for the last time, I demand that you step aside.” He clashed his axes together, and Lancelot felt a moment of indecision. Was this what Merlin had seen in his vision? If so, what was he supposed to do – fight a god?
His hand tightened around the haft of his lance. He had to admit, the idea intrigued him. If nothing else, it would be a true test of his skill as a knight. It was that which decided him. It was obvious to him now that Merlin had sent him to confront Ullr.
He levelled the lance like a spear. He was tempted to draw his blade, but he thought keeping Ullr at a distance was the wiser course. “No. These are not your lands, mighty Ullr. They belong to Camelot, and you are trespassing.” He hoped he sounded more authoritative than he felt.
Ullr studied him. “You think to match steel with me, mortal?”
“My king sent one of you Asgardians fleeing not long ago,” Lancelot said. “Tyr, I think he was called. You do not look half so fearsome.” Ullr scowled. “Are you mad? You must be, to taunt a god.” He inhaled and nodded. “Fine. I gave you a chance. But I will not be deterred from my hunt.” With that, he charged. He plied his axes so swiftly that Lancelot was hard-pressed to counter the blows the god sent his way. But counter them he did.
Even so, Ullr’s assault drove him backwards, towards the bear. He hoped the animal wouldn’t take offense, given that he was trying to protect it. But as he retreated, he heard a strange sound – as if some unseen presence had inhaled suddenly and loudly. He risked a glance towards the wounded animal, and saw that it was rising ponderously to its feet, eyes blazing with unearthly fire. The bear roared, and Ullr stopped in his tracks, a perplexed look on his face. “What trickery is this?” he growled. His gaze flicked to Lancelot. “Explain yourself, mortal. What have you done?”
“This is no doing of mine,” Lancelot said, staring at the bear. Its form shimmered strangely, and for half a moment, he wondered if it were some trick of Morgan Le Fay’s. But the moment passed in an instant, as the bear shrugged its shoulders and cast off its arrow-pierced hide, revealing the form of a tall, crimson-haired woman, clad in Celtic raiment.
“You,” she snarled, glaring at Ullr. With a roar like that of her previous form, she sprang for the god. As she did so, a curved staff coalesced in her hands. Ullr blocked a blow from the staff and retreated, his expression turning from puzzlement to anger.
“Trickery,” he said, stepping back. He looked from her to Lancelot. “Is this a trap then? If so, you will regret it. The Aesir will not stand for it.”
Lancelot ignored him, and looked to the woman. “Who are you? How did you come to be in the form of a bear?” As with Ullr, he could feel her power. She was as divine as Ullr, but he didn’t recognize her.
The woman peered at him, as if noticing him for the first time. “I am Artio, Guardian of the Cycle. The bear is me and I am the bear.” She drew herself up. “You aided me, mortal. For that, I will offer you a boon – and a warning. Do not interfere.” She looked at Ullr. “I will have my vengeance on the one who hurt me before I leave this place.”
Ullr tensed. “I was hunting a bear. Not some wild goddess of the Celts. I meant no offense, Lady Artio.”
“That may as be, but offense was taken nevertheless,” Artio said. With that, she slammed the ferrule of her staff against the ground. A moment later, the snow-covered earth erupted in strands of thorny greenery. Vines shot upwards towards Ullr and sought to ensnare him. Lancelot stepped back, and the two gods ignored him, focusing on one another.
Roaring, Ullr leapt aside and chopped through the vines with his axes. Artio swung her staff and the vines pursued her opponent as he retreated through the trees, trying to put some distance between himself and the bear-goddess. Artio followed, enveloped in the shimmering outline of a great she-bear. The trees swayed aside at her gesture.
Ullr turned. He’d sheathed his axes on his belt, and readied his bow. As Lancelot watched, he loosed a volley of shimmering arrows more swiftly than any human archer. Artio spun her staff, deflecting the volley. Lancelot was forced to duck as one whizzed past.
The battle soon carried the two gods deeper into the forest. They were moving more swiftly than a human could follow. Lancelot ran to his horse, standing nervously nearby. “Fine fellow,” he murmured encouragingly, as he climbed into the saddle. He hauled on the reins, turning the animal in the direction the battle had gone, and thumped its flanks with his heels even as he hefted his lance. The horse leapt forward with a great whinny, and soon they were galloping through the forest, on the trail of the battling gods.
It was easy enough to track them. They left a trail of destruction behind them that a blind man could follow. Everywhere around him were broken trees and torn ground. The forest wouldn’t survive if their skirmish went on much longer. He hated to imagine what might happen if the battle spread to a village. Or even to Camelot itself.
And it would spread. Things were too volatile in these lands for it not to do so. Arthur had told him more than once that peace was balanced on a knife’s edge. The Celts against the Northmen, the Northmen against Camelot. Round and round they went, and so too did their gods. Where mortals went, gods followed and vice-versa. Merlin had explained some of it to him, though he did not pretend to understand all of it.
But he knew enough to know that this was not merely a skirmish. Whatever Ullr’s intentions, his actions might well spark a war between the pantheons. The Celtic pantheon would see it as an attack on their sovereignty, and react in kind. Lancelot knew that he had to stop them, before things went too far. But how?
He was still looking for an answer when he caught up with them in another clearing – a newly-made one, given the uprooted trees and ravaged ground. The two deities came together with a crash, axe against staff. He was nearly knocked from his feet by the force of the impact. They broke apart, Artio slicing at Ullr with shimmering claws.
Ullr was sent sprawling. He hurled an axe, forcing her to dodge aside. “I will punish you for the indignity you inflicted upon me,” Artio cried. She drove her fist into the ground, and it ruptured. Tendrils of green lashed at Ullr as he scrambled to his feet.
Lancelot slid from his saddle and reached for his sword, but hesitated. Another weapon here would make no difference. To strike at one would be to side with the other. There had to be another way. Nonetheless, he kept his lance to hand. He swatted his horse on the flank. “Go, get some distance,” he said, starting towards the battle. He had the beginnings of an idea. Not a good one, perhaps, but it was the only one he had.
Ullr moved, loosing another arrow. It tore through the weaving vines that Artio summoned to intercept it, and would have struck her had Lancelot not interposed his lance at the last moment. Artio glanced at him, wide-eyed. Ullr too stopped, a look of consternation on his face. “I thought I told you not to interfere,” Artio said, after a moment’s silence.
“You’re welcome,” Lancelot said. “This must end.” He turned to Artio. “Lady Artio, earlier you said you owed me a boon. I wish to claim it now.”
“Now?” she asked, incredulous. “You cannot wait for a more convenient time?”
Artio frowned, but glanced at Ullr. He nodded tersely. “It is his right, annoying though it might be,” he said. “Claim your boon, mortal. I will not interfere.”
Artio took a deep breath. “Fine. What do you wish of me?”
Lancelot hesitated, hoping his idea would work. If it didn’t, he was going to have to think very quickly indeed. “I ask that you stay your hand, and return to your own lands.”
Artio glared at him. She was silent for a moment, then growled, “You side with him then, man of Camelot?”
“My life is not yours to bargain for mortal,” Ullr said in harsh tones, reaching for his axes again. Lancelot frowned and shook his head. Were all gods so stubborn? A part of him wanted nothing more than to challenge them both. But he forced that part down.
“I meant no offense to either of you, but I have made my request. By your own word, you are bound to fulfill it.” The two gods looked at him, and he wondered if he had overstepped. He hesitated, and then added, “This was a mistake, nothing more. It does not have to become something greater.”
“He insulted my person,” Artio said. “He harried me like a beast!”
“You did look like a bear,” Lancelot interjected. She glared at him. He raised his hand in a placatory gesture, even as he tried to think of how Arthur might handle this situation. He cleared his throat. “Even so, you are right.” He looked at Ullr. “I have always been told that gods can sense one another. Did you not recognize her?”
Ullr’s eyes narrowed and he stroked his beard, considering the point. “No. I did not. Her animal shape must have cloaked her divinity from my perceptions.”
“He is lying,” Artio growled. But she sounded uncertain.
With the heat of battle fading, Lancelot could tell they were beginning to think. And perhaps to see the foolishness of their actions. “Why didn’t you change back when he first attacked?” he asked her.
She hesitated. “I…could not. Not until you pulled the arrow from me.” She rubbed her shoulder, as if to soothe an ache. “It was as if I could not remember how. Perhaps my wits were addled by his treacherous attack.”
“Treacherous…” Ullr began, incensed.
“Or perhaps you were ensorcelled,” Lancelot said, quickly. It was no more than the shadow of a theory. But it was an answer that would allow them both to save face. “Perhaps someone worked mischief upon you both. Perhaps neither of you was at fault.”
Artio hesitated again, and then nodded reluctantly. “Yes. It is possible.”
“A trick,” Ullr said, looking at Lancelot. “But why would someone do such a thing?”
Lancelot shook his head. “That I cannot say. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there was no trick, no ensorcellment. Maybe it was simply bad luck. Getting an arrow stuck in you is enough to distract anyone. But either way, it was a mistake. Nothing more.” He turned to Artio. “You have sufficiently vented your wrath, Lady Artio. I am sure Lord Ullr regrets the harm he did.” He glanced at Ullr, who sighed.
“I do. Had I known who you were – what you were – I would not have loosed my arrow.” He gave a wry smile. “I certainly would not have pursued you all this way.”
Artio snorted. “I should hope not.” She looked at Lancelot. “I will give you your boon, Lancelot of Camelot. And my thanks, besides.” She looked at Ullr. “To you, I give a warning. Do not let me catch you in my lands again, hunter. I will not be so merciful next time.” With those words, her form shimmered and vanished. From somewhere far above came the cry of a hawk, as it wheeled towards the lands of the Celts.
Ullr grunted. “I preferred her as a bear, I think.” He peered at Lancelot. “Until next time, Lancelot du Lac. I look forward to seeing whether it is as friends, or as enemies.” He turned and with a single step vanished into the surrounding trees.
Lancelot sighed and tapped the pommel of his sword. He thought back to Morgan Le Fay’s unannounced visit, and how she’d sent his steed running right to the spot where he needed to be in order to avert a possible tragedy. Had that been her intention all along – or was it just luck? For that matter, had Merlin known that Morgan would be there?
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed again. “Too many questions,” he murmured. “Give me a straight up fight any day.” Then, he turned and went to his horse. Arthur and Merlin were no doubt anxiously awaiting his return. He climbed wearily into the saddle. His horse whickered and he patted the animal’s neck.
“Let’s go home,” he said, and nudged his steed in the direction of Camelot.