by Graham B.
Three friends leave behind all they know, and sail into history.
|Faint rays of the rising sun struggled through the morning mists and warmed Konrad’s tunic. Standing outside of his cabin he stretched to take it in. Brattahlid was already bustling with activity, for it was a big day, and everyone was out and about, whether they had business to attend to or not.
It was the day Leif, son of Erik, would seek the mysterious lands to the west.
Konrad exulted within, barely able to conceal his excitement despite his stoic nature.
“Hah! So the fates denied you a good night’s rest!”
The massive form of Ludde loomed out of the mist on the frozen mud path to his house, a grin splitting his jet-black beard.
“You and me, brother, together on a voyage into the unknown!”
Ludde slapped Konrad on the back, nearly sending him sprawling.
Recovering, Konrad looked out across the bay as the mists parted and saw the skrælings already far from shore in their kayaks. He knew that the hardy natives of Grænland had been up since before the sunrise, headed Odin knew where.
“Are you ready to leave?” he asked.
Ludde’s eyes gleamed.
“Like an ox cutting off its own tail, we leave our past behind!” he bellowed.
“And if you wake up little Ulrich with that hallooing, Elsa will have your head on a spike.”
Ludde grinned again and lowered his voice.
“May God have mercy on my soul if I cross your lovely little Valkyrie. “
“So you have converted?”
“I have been saved, brother,” Ludde said serenely. “Our own Captain is a missionary, on orders from King Olaf himself. Have you thought about your own salvation?”
Konrad smiled at that.
“It will be good to sail beside you to the unknown lands, whatever god you pray to.”
The door opened behind them and the smells of hearth fire and yesterday’s stew accompanied Elsa out the door.
“Will the men be having breakfast?” she asked, her fists resting on her slender hips.
Konrad turned around and beheld the winter lily of his life. He felt his heart surge in his chest as a faint ray of the sun pierced the clouds and lit her golden hair, as if drawn to it like a twin sister.
For her part, Elsa looked practical and immovable, like a beautiful statue.
“Well? Breakfast will get cold! I’m not leaving the door open!”
Konrad started, realizing he had been staring.
“Yes, my lily!”
“And Ludde, wipe your boots before coming in here.”
“We must eat quickly,” Ludde said as they entered the house. “We sail with the tide, and I’m sure Knut is still asleep. The knave actually offered me a skin of southern wine to load his things aboard the ship!”
“I will get Knut to the ship,” Konrad said. “Make sure they do not leave without us.”
Konrad cursed the fates as he made his way past the farms toward the Larssen longhouse. He knew exactly what Knut was doing there and wondered if there would be any trouble. Konrad keenly felt the absence of weapons as his feet crunched on the gravelly road.
The sun had fled behind a wall of grey as Konrad neared the longhouse. A sigh of relief escaped him as he recognized Knut’s short figure emerging from the front door.
“I thought I would find you being chased by Larssen!” he exclaimed as Knut approached, grinning through his blond beard.
“You underestimate me, friend!” Knut said. “Larssen is desperate to marry off his daughters. He treats me like a lord!”
“We must hurry, the ship leaves within the hour. Ludde is already there.”
“Hah! How is that giant getting on with his new God? I heard he has knelt before the cross!”
“He has taken to the new ways, but it hasn’t seemed to have changed his disposition.”
“What disposition? The man has the personality of a mountain, to go along with the stature.”
“That’s our brother in arms, Knut.”
Knut rolled his eyes.
“I would never dream of insulting a mountain on legs, but you have to admit he is a dullard!”
As the two walked and bickered, three men came into view ahead. Knut slowed and looked around, but there was nothing but wide open fields. Two of the men were almost as large as Ludde, and had longswords at their sides.
“Do you know these men?” Knut asked, wondering at his friend’s consternation.
The third man stepped forward and fixed his beady eyes on Knut, who paled, but managed to thunder out a greeting.
“Mogens, my friend! I was just coming to see you!”
“Indeed?” sneered Mogens. “I don’t live at Larssen’s. But I knew you would show up there.”
Konrad elbowed Knut in the ribs and whispered,”You owe Mogens money? Have you been at the dice games again?”
“They cheated!” Knut whispered back. “Their dice were weighted, I swear it!”
To Mogens, he said, “In fact, I have had the good fortune to embark on a magnificent journey of fortune! You will get your money, with interest, when I get back!”
“I will take it now or take your miserable skin, coward!”
Mogens’s companions started forward.
Konrad almost missed Knut’s swift movements. The man on the left gripped his sword and his throat bloomed bright red. He went down, gurgling, sword still in its scabbard and Knut whirled to face his companion. Steel glimmered as the second man’s sword tried to bite Knut’s head off. Knut stepped under it and his dagger found the thug’s lung through his exposed armpit. He also went down, blood bubbling from his mouth.
Konrad finally found a loose fence post and hefted it like a club, but Mogens had backed away.
“You will pay for this, bastard!” he roared, and hurried off.
Knut wiped his dagger and regarded the two dead men for a moment.
“They’ll have a chance at revenge when we meet in Valhalla.”
“And if they are Christians?”
“Then I suppose we won’t meet, unless our gods and their God decide to meet in battle.”
Konrad dropped his cudgel and cast a wary eye about.
“We should leave. This place has become unfriendly. Mogens has connections, and the magistrate might not understand.”
“I think you are right, brother,” Knut replied, looking sadly at the longhouse. “The Larssen girls will have to content themselves with dreams of me. Back to the ship! I certainly don’t want to miss this tide!”
The longship brooded like a great black whale against the pier. Men swarmed over her, securing the rigging, caulking the seams, and lashing down provisions.
Behind Konrad walked Graeme, one of his father’s thralls, carrying Konrad’s luggage. The man’s sinewy arms held the oaken trunk effortlessly despite his age. He carefully set the trunk down on the pier.
“Thank you, old friend,” said Konrad.
“You will be safe?” asked the grizzled old Scottish warrior. “I didn’t raise you so you could meet a watery grave so young, little frog!”
“Must you call me that? I’m not a babe any longer.”
“Aye, but to me it was only yesterday that your father’s sword was longer than you!”
“I know the ocean better than I know my own mother. And there is none better than our captain.”
“He’s a man of the sea, Erik’s son is! Perhaps the new God will keep his sails filled and protect the lot of you, even the followers of Odin!”
Konrad squinted at the tall figure on deck. It was their captain, and standing next to him was a smaller, older man who was speaking earnestly.
“That would be Bjarni, son of Herjólf,” Graeme said. “He’s the one who owned this ship before your captain. They say he saw it.”
Konrad's eyes widened.
“He saw the new land? Beyond the sea?”
“He did, but did not set foot upon it. Some say Bjarni saw a bad omen which kept him away.
“I hope we do not see such things when we get there,” Knut said.
Bjarni finished speaking, clasped forearms with Leif, then quickly trotted down the gangplank. He regarded the three men with eyes which seem to stare for a thousand miles before hurrying away.
Ludde appeared, striding down the pier carrying two trunks under his burly arms. He stopped near the trio.
“Are you going to board, or have you gotten cold feet?” he rumbled.
“I can see you are a big man,” Graeme said, “But do you really need quite so much of your things for this voyage? I didn’t see a single man bring more than one trunk!”
Ludde’s mouth dropped open.
“These are both Knut’s!”
Konrad and Graeme both turned and looked at Knut, who shrugged.
“Just a few extra things for the trip,” he said haughtily. “Some of us have lifestyles to maintain.”
“Are you a Northman and a warrior?” growled Graeme contemptuously, “Or have you grown fond of womanly comforts?”
Knut favored Konrad with a pained smile.
“Have I ever told you how fond I am of your thrall? In any case, can’t a warrior have taste? Odin himself is known to be a god of particular refinement.”
“As you say,” Ludde snorted and tramped onto the longship. “I still expect that skin of wine you promised.”
A crowd of people now gathered at the pier. Men embraced wives and family members as they bade farewells.
Elsa appeared through the crowd, carrying Ulrich. She reached up and embraced Konrad with one arm, while the baby gurgled from the other one. Her blue eyes were moist, but she refused to cry in front of other men.
“Ulrich will be a formidable warrior,” said Elsa. “You must swear to come back and raise him so.”
“I swear it, my lily.” Konrad bent down and kissed her, then kissed Ulrich on the head. “The places I will see! The tales I will bring back! Upon my return, you will not sleep for a fortnight.”
“I will sleep poorly until I see your sails rising above the horizon,” Elsa replied. “Every day I will look for them. Odin protect you and your honor!”
She grasped Konrad’s neck and pressed her own forehead to his.
“You must board, Konrad,” said Graeme. To Konrad, he suddenly looked old.
Shouts rose as crewmembers began manning the mooring lines. Konrad tore himself away from Elsa and hurried up the gangplank behind Knut. He took his position at an oar, and saw Ludde next to him. The oar looked like a twig in his hands.
Ludde nodded toward the shore.
“It seems our captain’s father will remain behind.”
Konrad followed the gesture and saw a man standing apart from the crowd. His formerly red hair was going iron-gray, but his blue eyes were piercing as they watched the ship.
“Erik fell from his horse this morning,” Ludde continued. “An evil omen. He decided not to bring such ill luck with us.”
As if in response, a light wind started, and the fog began galloping across the bay.
“A noble act,” said Konrad. “I’m sure he wanted very much to come.”
“He still prays to Odin,” said Knut from the oar behind. “Though his wife has converted. I wonder what their dinner conversations are like.”
“The one true God will guide him, if Erik is willing,” said Ludde solemnly.
“Men don’t change gods very often,” said Konrad. “Perhaps where we are going, the old gods cannot follow.”
More shouts now rose from the crew and the mooring lines came away. The lead rower bellowed a command and the men began pulling on their oars in timed rhythm. Slowly, the ship heaved itself away from the pier.
Konrad pulled at his oar, but kept his eyes on the shore where Elsa still stood with Ulrich in her arms. He was still watching her when the mists swallowed the banks of Brattahlid, and the wind gathered in their sails to take them out to sea.
Word count: 1992