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Storyline - 32: Seek the Stars

The story here is a complete fabrication by me as a response to Bill Holland's challenge here on Hub Pages. Following on from this tale is your opportunity to read one of mediaeval Scandinavian history's most learned works by Icelanders Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson on the discovery of the New World before the Spaniards' later mediaeval ventures in the mistaken belief Columbus had landed in India ...

Our ship glided down the fjord that night, our oars gently rippling the waters lest the king's spies gave chase in their fast karves

Harald Harfagri - 'Fairhair' - was no fool. He knew each and every man, high or low born, through his chieftains and their jarls. He also knew many  hated his high taxes, his grasping underlings who roamed the fjords to gather them ...

Harald Harfagri - 'Fairhair' - was no fool. He knew each and every man, high or low born, through his chieftains and their jarls. He also knew many hated his high taxes, his grasping underlings who roamed the fjords to gather them ...

Another ship accompanied ours, 'Star Follower' was Gisli's fine new vessel.

Our ship, 'Wave-breaker' slid quietly ahead of 'Star Follower'. Our master saw me near the stern behind the last oarsmen, staring at the deep blackness, the steady rhythm of the oar blades as they kissed the surface, cut into and skipped the waters.

"Olaf, this is the first time you have been to sea. How do you feel?"

"I feel fine master", I wondered what lay ahead.

"We are almost clear of the fjord's cliffs", he went on. "If you need to be sick feel free ..."

"I feel fine", I nodded to make sure he knew I meant what I had said. Out on the open sea might be different. But here, with the cliffs now left behind us, here the waters still made me feel drowsy as the waves gurgled beneath us. I thought only of owning a piece of my own land, of gathering stones for walls and beams from the wrecks of earlier ships on a lee shore. I would be my own master in the new land, taxed I know, but nothing like by our king, who hired men built like the ships they came in from far and wide to serve a king they knew would pay them well - from our hard graft.

"Olaf", the fellow ahead of me turned and asked, "You would like to learn how to handle a fine ship such as Eirik's, would you not? Come here and put yourself as I do at the ship's wall, with your hands on the tiller like so". Arnhelm showed me and knew I was an able learner.

"He has spirit, the lad, has he not?" Eirik stood watching as Arnhelm guided my hands lightly. I kept a steady line ahead, our wake straight astern.

Gisli called across the gap between the ships,

"I can see it is not Arnhelm who guides your vessel Eirik. He may be a learner but he is no slouch!"

"It is Olaf", Eirik called back between cupped hands in a stiffening wind. "You know, Olaf Bjornsson from the steading above mine.

"Bjorn's son ..." Gisli thought for a short time then smacked the side of his jaw with a bear's paw of a hand that I could almost hear. "Ah! I have you. 'Wolf' Bjorn!"

My father had made a name for himself fighting off ravening wolves when on his sled, crossing the Kjolen mountains as a young man before I was born. The tale of his bravery had travelled the length of the kingdom, to the ears of the king. He nevertheless demanded the taxes on the sale of the wolf pelts to an Irish trader. 'Fairhair' had his ears to the ground!

"So how goes it young Olaf?" Gisli roared between his cupped hands.

"You can see he has both hands on the steering. He does well ... Will make a fine steersman!" Eirik bellowed back, No more could be heard after that.

The wind had picked up and groaned around the mast. The sail was pulled in and several oars were run out to steady the ship and make my work a little easier. Arnhelm took over a while later and shouted into my ears over the groaning gale,

"You have done well, Olaf. Go get yourself something to eat and drink and take shelter behind the ship wall here", he pointed with a jerk of his head behind him. Our other steersman will take over when I tire, and then you can have another crack at it, right?"

I nodded and found my way to where Gunnar held out meat and a flagon of ale to me.

"Seat yourself there against the mast Olaf. Pull this whaleskin coat over yourself, you would not want your meat and bread to go soggy in the rain, eh? Keep the coat for when you go back stern to sleep".

I thanked Gunnar and sat myself square to the mast, the wet timbers pushing on my back as I huddled under the weight of the thick coat, watching Arnhelm battle with a steering oar that had a mind of its own. As my first sea crossing this one left a lot to be desired. I wondered at Eirik's firm resolve in making this crossing in the teeth of a storm Njord had plainly sent to test me as well as every man aboard both our ships. I looked to steerboard, to see if 'Star Follower' could still be seen and spotted a dim golden glow. She would have been perhaps three or four ship's lengths away but in this storm it would seem further.

At last the night left us battered but unbeaten. We had weathered perhaps the worst of what the sea god Njord could muster. So what lay ahead? Rocks jutted out of the still waters as we drifted on a slight wind. A rocky foreshore covered by the tide showed little. Cliffs of what looked like standing stones met our gaze, but I do not think we were ready for what greeted us next.

'Star Follower' was nowhere to be seen as we passed the last cliff. And then we were greeted by a bone-chilling sight...

A storm played with our ship, tossed our craft like a child's toy, then left us adrift without wind ...

We passed a rocky outcrop, a rocky shore held a wreck to remind us who really ruled the waves. Njord liked to show men we were in his fiefdom

We passed a rocky outcrop, a rocky shore held a wreck to remind us who really ruled the waves. Njord liked to show men we were in his fiefdom

Could this really be the fate that met Gisli's ship?

We were awe-struck. The wreck sat almost straight between furrows of rock. Without sailing too close - our oars would have splintered, had we erred - and Arnhelm steered. Our fate could be sealed if our keel were to be twisted by the skerries.

"She has been here for some time", Eirik called out aloud for those at the prow to be able to hear him and be calmed. I was not the only one on 'Wave-breaker' who had never put to sea before. "Arnhelm will make sure we do not share this crew's fate".

True enough, Arnhelm's deft hands on the steering oar kept us from harm and we passed, untouched away from the skerries.

"Who knows", Arnhelm said, one thumb arched, "Had we come this way at any other time, we might not have seen the jagged rocks. We must keep a weather eye on the sea around us lest any real harm come to us!"

I looked away and saw a different white from patches of ice around us. Behind a cliff a sail moved slowly, roughly along the same path our prow followed,

"Sail!" I called out to Eirik and jabbed a hole in the cold air where I had seen it.

"Well done Olaf!" Eirik held a hand over his brow and nodded,"Gisli's crew will eat with us this evening when we find land".

"If we find land", Arnhelm's wry grin did not mean he disbelieved Eirik. He was more of a realist, and trusted only what his eyes told him. The days are short here I would say. I believe we are much further north than our homeland fjord.

"Let us jut say "If" and 'when' Eirik beamed at his main steersman, and slapped a hand on Arnhelm's back.

Gisli's ship had rounded the headland first, and was being steered toward us.

"Back!" Eirik yelled through cupped hands he thought 'Star Follower' was close enough. "Row backward!".

Gisli shrugged and yelled for the oars to be run out,

"Row to sternward!" As 'Star Follower' pulled back and her steersman brought his ship around to follow the same bearing as 'Wave-breaker' I could hear Gisli call to Eirik. "What is the meaning of this?"

"You might have met the same fate as another ship we saw not long ago, back there", Eirik jabbed a thumb over one shoulder.

Gisli's chin jerked to show he understood, and he added,

"Well keep your eyes peeled over there", he nodded ahead. "This area is infested with rocks and islets. I shall be happy to find somewhere to moor this ship of mine. She cost me enough to throw her away. I hear white bears swim in the sea between ice floes. By all accounts they have an appetite for men's tender parts!"

"Who told you that?" Eirik asked, his hands still cupped.

"One of my men has been to the Northern Sea and seen the bones of men, still with sinews and blood, scattered across the ice!"

"Are they here?" Eirik asked again. "And who is it told you about that?"

"Arnbern it was, who told me ... Do you doubt his word?" Gisli looked over one shoulder at one of his crew, whose face was set in a grim scowl. "Arnbern what do you say?"

"I say I hope Eirik does not have to pay for his doubts with his life ..." Arnbern said no more.

Eirik's brow rose ... and fell. He shrugged,

"True, Arnbern. Let us hope not".

'Let us hope not' was my thought too.

"A strand ahead", Gunnar called from near the prow.

"If there is not enough water for the ships we can drag them onto the shore" Eirik nodded and turned to Arnhelm. "Be ready to ground - sail in, oars out!" I heard Gisli call out the same to his crew.

They would row hard and beach the ships,

"How does the ground look yonder?" Eirik asked Gunnar.

"It looks like small pebbles amongst mainly sand, master", Gunnar turned to look ahead again and planted his feet so that he would not be thrown when we grounded on the shallow slope of the strand.

Some of the men leapt - I as well - into the shallows and manhandled the ship over the pebble-strewn sand to where the prow sat upright. Gisli's men did the same as they followed suit and pebbles under their ship's hull made a dull scraping sound. No harm had been done and we were ashore again after what must have been a week at least. Where we were was still unknown.

Fires were made, a great black iron cauldron was half filled with water from our oak butt in front of the mast. We would look inland for fresh water to replenish our supply. For now food and ale was first and foremost in our thoughts.

Night was upon us again, where none knew us and we knew no better. The day dawned on an unknown shore ...

Where was this wooded land? We knew from the tellings in the chieftain's hall where his hearth fire sparked and danced. The words left us wondering

Where was this wooded land? We knew from the tellings in the chieftain's hall where his hearth fire sparked and danced. The words left us wondering

As morning came slowly over us we were woken by rustling amongst the trees ...

Many of us were up, standing, agape at the numbers of men - wretches really, unfed or near starving by the look of them. Those still not awake are prodded by the 'skraelings' until they also stand, dazed at the sight of so many men who seem like youths until you look closely and see their lined features.

They ring us, what look like hunting bows at the ready. Some stand aside to let through a tall, very lean, shaven fellow with white hair. He stands before Gisli and says something none of us understand. Gisli and Eirik shrug, look at each other and back at the tall fellow who looks as if he might be from our lands. He then says something else, that sounds like our Norse tongue.

"Have you come far?"

Eirik answers,

"We are from the kingdom of King Harald 'Fairhair' and we were headed to Iceland ... Er, Thule?"

The man nods. He knows the land from his forefathers maybe.

"You are a long way from where you are meant to be then".

"You could say that, er -"

"I am Father Brendan. And you are -?

"I am Eirik, and my friend here is Gisli. Our ships were caught in a storm and we were able to steer a way through the skerries. How do you know our tongue, Father Brendan?"

"I set sail with some of my Brothers years ago, as you did Eirik. We met a number of sea monsters, stayed a while on the 'Sheep Islands' - I think you call them the Faeroe Islands - until more of your fellows came and settled, so we went on, north to Thule where the same happened. We put to sea on our great coracle and after a week, more perhaps, we reached this land of trees. It is an island, like the one to the east of here that has not seen any settlers, but has high ice cliffs inland. The coastal plain has no trees, so we thought this would be better. I and Father Ioann are the only ones left".

"Brendan, my friend, where is your friend Father Ioann?" Gisli asks.

Father Brendan seems taken aback at being spoken to merely as 'Brendan', but rallies when he realises we are not Christian, as he is and King Harald wants everyone to be back home.

"Father Ioann is ill, Gisli. You can see I am old a frail but have kept myself able. These folk around you are friendly, but they do not trust you - not yet - which is why they have their bows at the ready with arrows across them. He turns to the 'skraelings' and says something to the nearest one, who in turn waves his arms downward for them to lower their bows. They nevertheless keep the arrows over their bows.

"They are wretches, really", Father Brendan agrees with us. "Their hunting skills are not so good so they live on fish and grain. They make a grain spirit that they pass around by the open fire at night and sing of times past, in a land far away, where game and food were plentiful"

"There are creatures in the woods, surely?" Eirik wonders aloud. "I saw a few in the shadows before darkness overcame us. They only need to sharpen their stalking skills".

"Could you teach them?" Father Brendan almost begs. He seems to be their chieftain and mentor.

"We will stay a couple more days, show them how to set traps, how to aim and how to stalk. But they must mark where the traps are so they do not fall to them", Gisli answers. "I am sure our men will willingly show yours in return for a share in the meat".

It is agreed, and after we have eaten from our pot, broken bread and drunk ale - which some of the men share with the 'skraelings' to their great delight - we team up with them, with Father Brendan to tell them what we expect from them. A show of nodding lets us know they want to learn as much as we are willing to show them in return for some of the spoils.

Eirik, Arnhelm, Gunnar and I take four of the 'skraelings' and scout for prey. Another party shows how to set baited traps and one of the 'skraelings' reaches for the bait. Arnhelm pulls him back just as the killing spike strikes home, so close to the man's hand I thought he had been unlucky! The fellow shrinks back, looking at his hands. He has plainly never seen the like, and Father Brendan is left to tell the man to be careful henceforth, a lesson he will no doubt take to heart!

By the second day they show signs of becoming good hunters and trappers. We have done our part of the deal, and they theirs. The meat is shared out and our pot soon simmers with the smells of Eastern spices rising in the evening air. One of their men, as such they have become and can no longer be called wretches, looks longingly at our pot and Father Brendan need not say why. Eirik hands over a small bag of herbs and a pot of cooking fat,

"Father Brendan", he grins. "So your men enjoy their meat more, I give you these herbs and cooking fat. The fat your men could make for themselves from the fat of the animals they kill. The herbs they could grow from the seeds in the spices. Tell them to sow the thin soil in lines, drop the seeds and cover them. They will have spices aplenty in the late summer. In the morning we must be off to catch the tide. We have marked the sea lanes between the skerries ..."

"And I must reward you, Eirik. You are no doubt a fine seaman, but as you have never been in these waters before I should tell you, seek the stars that cross the heavens overnight. The North Star you keep to your left. I am not a seaman, merely a simple Brother of the spirit, and you will know what I mean. We will see each other in the morning".

Morning comes, we have packed our tents and belongings, stowed them aboard and are ready to leave. True to his word Father Brendan shows again, and this time the men with him look better fed, he looks better and he has brought Brother Ioann.

"Look how well Brother Ioann is now, thanks to you, Eirik and Gisli and your crews. We are all well fed, happier, looking ahead to reaping the rewards of your help. You are honest men, may your gods lead you to where you will go". He pulls forward a bag made from beaver skin, and brings out a small token, "To remind you of your stay here I have fashioned a pair of crosses to wear around your necks. You need not wear them, just keep them about you to show our deeply felt thanks. You have turned wretches, or 'skraelings' as you called them", he winks. "Aye, I know the meaning of the word. You have turned them into well fed hunters and their sons and grandsons will live better lives for your passing. Go well ..."

"And seek the stars", Gisli finishes for him amid broad smiles and waving hands as we push our ships back into deeper waters.

Days and nights we will look back on for the rest of our lives, I think briefly until Eirik bids me to the steering oar,

"You have done well Olaf. I am proud of you", he slaps - thumps is a better way to put it! - my back and walks forward down along the spine of the ship as the oarsmen heave with the incoming tide trying to push us back. I am a full member of this man's crew and shall be for many years to come ...

A rare find ... A 1965 Penguin publication: Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson combined to bring you the translated texts of 'The Vinland Sagas'


How the West was found ...

Bjarni Herjolfsson was the first European to see Vinland - the land of wild vines and rye grass as tall as a man's chest.

He was the son of Bard Herjolfsson and kinsman of Ingolf, settler on Iceland. Ingolf gave Herjolf land between Vog and Reykjanes (western Iceland, where Reykjavik was built). Herjolf farmed originally at Drepstokk. He hade a wife, Thorgerd, and a son Bjarni, a promising young fellow. In his youth he yearned to set sail overseas, soon earning himself a handsome wealth as well as a good name, spending winter overseas or with his father. Before long Bjarni had his own ship and earned his fortune in trading overseas....

Thus we learn of Bjarni's enterprise, throwing caution to the wind in his desire to overwinter with his father on Greenland, along with Eirik 'the Red'. Never having sailed to Greenland he was at a loss as to how to get there. They came across land several times, each time wondering whether they were in Greenland waters. They eventually found Herjolf and Greenland's western settlement. Bjarni named the point of land Herjolfsnes. He stayed on his father's steading whilst Herjolf lived and took it over on his father's death. Bjarni soon sailed east from Greenland to pay his respects of Jarl Eirik. He was well received and Bjarni spoke of his sea crossings, sighting many lands but many thought him oddly incurious. He could tell them nothing of what lay on those lands and the folk who dwelt there, for which he was thought of as sadly lacking. He became one of the jarl's followers, sailing west again to Greenland the next summer.

Meanwhile things had begun to stir on Greenland. there was talk of setting out for new horizons. One would-be explorer was the son of Eirik 'the Red'. He was Leif Eiriksson ... The stories of his epic westward crossings between Greenland and Vinland can be found in a book in the Penguin Classics series, 'The Vinland Sagas - the Norse Discovery of America', translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, ISBN 0-14-044154-9, published 1965

© 2022 Alan R Lancaster