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Authors: Don Coldsmith

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BOOK: Runestone
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“Is that where your people are?”

“I do not know. Somewhere. It has been many winters.”

“Your people are hunters? Fishers? What?”

“Both. We grow some pumpkins, beans.”

“They use boats?”

“Yes. Not like this. Skin boats. Two, three men.”

Nils nodded, and fell silent. There was so much he wished to know, and he did not know where to begin.

Odin watched the shoreline, occasionally pointing out a geographic feature. Again they saw smoke in the distance two or three times, which sparked great interest on the part of the
Skraeling. Then, midway through the afternoon, they sighted a village on the shore. Everyone who was not otherwise occupied stood staring with interest.

The structures appeared to be of logs with thatched roofs, little different from the familiar Norse longhouse. Even at this great a distance, they could see people moving excitedly and gathering to watch the ships pass. Nils wondered if Helge Landsverk would put in to contact the natives, but there was no change in the smooth run of the
. The village slipped behind with the rest of the scenery. Odin had said nothing, but had only stood and stared.

“Your people?” asked Nils.

Odin seemed to emerge from his reverie.

“No. We are kin to them, but different.”

An opportunity lost, thought Nils. He was becoming a trifle concerned about Helge’s approach to the whole expedition. There seemed to be a driving urgency in the man, an urge to explore and conquer. Nils was afraid that it was not balanced with caution and reason. This village, for instance. It might have been a great advantage in the future to have a port on this coast, a place to stop and trade as allies. It would have cost them less than a half-day’s travel, and provided a place to moor for the night. Especially when they had an interpreter on board the

It was the next day that the fog bank rolled in. Until now, they had seen only favorable weather. The fog was thick and lay close to the water, making progress impossible. The wind was light and changeable, and in a very short while they had completely lost sense of direction.

By shouting, they maintained contact between the two ships long enough to furl the sails and use the oars to come closer together. Here, they would ride out the overcast before proceeding. It would be too risky to move into uncharted waters with poor visibility. They would wait for the fog to lift.

came alongside, and a sailor tossed a line to the
. This would eliminate the risk of drifting apart. There were old seamen’s tales of ships losing each other in a fog at sea, with one missing when the fog lifted,
never to be seen again. This, with the threat of the
, made the company of the other ship a reassuring thing. The men joked and called across to the other ship, while they rocked gently on the waves. Nils wanted to ask Helge about the village, and whether it might be good to stop if another opportunity offered. It seemed inappropriate, however, to shout such a conversation, in the hearing of the crews. Instead, they made small talk, and tried to estimate when the fog would lift. Probably not until morning, they agreed.

“The sun-stone!” said Helge suddenly. “We can try it!”

He fumbled in his pouch and drew out the stone. There was much interest as the sailors gathered to watch. Nils could not see the stone itself, but there was no question about when it indicated north. There was an audible gasp from the cluster of men on deck.

“It works!” Helge chortled, pointing. “That is north. The land is there.” He indicated a slightly different direction.

Nils was delighted. This would be a great step forward for the oceangoing ships.

“What is it?” asked the puzzled Skraeling.

“Nothing,” Nils brushed the question aside.

Then he reconsidered.

“It is a stone,” he explained. “A sun-stone. It can tell north.”

The one eye widened considerably.


“I do not know,” answered Nils irritably. “It turns blue when pointed north.”



That was an answer close enough for an uneducated savage, he decided. However, he saw that Odin realized the importance of the sun-stone. He would have reason to appreciate that understanding in the weeks to come.


he Talking Water,” said Odin simply.

Nils listened, and in the silence of the wilderness came the whisper of sound. Water, tumbling and murmuring over the rocks as the river sought a lower level. It was still wide and deep, but at this point it spread out to find its way over a rocky slope. Only now did he understand Odin’s reference. They could sail, the Skraeling had said, as far as the Talking Water. Here, the ships could go no farther.

They had been on the river for several days, a fine, majestic stream. The bay had narrowed, and one morning they were surprised to find that they were sailing on the fresh water of a deep, clear river. They had explored it to the point of these rapids. Now, it appeared, they would have to turn back. The ships lay at rest, sails furled, while they tried to plan their next move. Nils had a thought.

“Odin,” he asked, “you know this place?”


“Your people travel this river in skin boats, you said?”

The Skraeling nodded.

“How do they get across the rapids, the Talking Water?”

“Go around.”

“Carry their boats?”

“Yes. That way.”

He pointed to a well-used trail that led away from the water and into the woods. It would be worth a half-day’s effort to send a party around the rapids for a look. Odin had been lavish in his praise of the upper river, and the country of his people.

Nils called across the water and drew closer to the
to discuss it with Helge.

“Yes, of course!” Landsverk called excitedly.

His enthusiasm had grown daily. Sometimes Nils was just a trifle concerned about his friend’s exuberance. There was a point somewhere, a circumstance that might result in a wrong decision, when emotion would override calm judgment. Still, Nils was glad for the opportunity to explore a little farther.

Preparations were brief. It was possible to draw near enough to shore to lay the planks across. Both Nils and Helge would go, accompanied by Odin and a dozen well-armed men. The main force would stay with the ships.

The path around the rapids was easy and plain. Centuries of use by men carrying boats had resulted in the best and easiest route, the path of least resistance. The slopes were gentle, the way between the pines wide and open. Nils was surprised that the trail was no longer than it was. They came into the open above the rapids within two or three bowshots.

Here the river widened into a lake, cool and clear, stretching into the distance upstream. Odin was as pleased as if he had created it himself.

“You see? It is as I said!”

“Your people live here?” Nils asked.

“Farther upstream. They come this far, sometimes.”

“And this river goes on like this, like a lake?” Landsverk demanded.

Nils became uneasy. He hated to see such a driving emotion in his friend as he saw now reflected in Helge’s eyes.

“Yes,” the Skraeling was answering. “Many sleeps.”

Many days’ travel. This was surely a remarkable country, Nils thought. An unusual land formation, with a great river flowing to the sea.

“We can do it!” Helge Landsverk announced suddenly.

“Do what?”

“Explore the river!”

“Helge, we have no boats.”

“We will bring one of the ships around.”

“Have you gone mad?” Nils blurted.

“No! Look. A wide path, easy slopes. We cut a tree there, another where the path turns, use them for rollers. We have enough men to move a ship with ropes and levers.”

Landsverk’s face was shining, his eyes glittering with excitement.
The faint warning sounded again in the dim recesses of Nils’s consciousness. Still, how exciting, if they could manage to launch a ship on this beautiful expanse of water.

“Maybe,” he said cautiously, “it could be done.”

“We will do it!” Helge announced positively.

He immediately started back down the trail, pausing to mark a tree here and there for cutting, to straighten the path. It was easy to be caught up in Helge’s exuberance. The men were already beginning to chop trees, their axes ringing through forests where such a sound was never heard before. At least, not with modern tools, Nils thought to himself. From what he had heard, the Skraelings had only primitive stone implements. He glanced over at Odin, who seemed as excited as anyone over this project. That, Nils reflected, was what made a good leader of men. Helge could inspire men to do their best, accomplish more than could be expected. Helge was much like Thorwald Ericson, or Thorwald’s brother Leif, who could do great things. Nils did not understand what it was, that driving force that could make men undertake the impossible, and
it, but his friend Helge Landsverk possessed it.

By evening, the trees were felled and trimmed, the trunks cut into short sections for rollers. The
was gently nosed up on the shore, but left there for the night, resting mostly in the water. She was emptied of all cargo to lighten the pull. Water casks would be unnecessary, so they would be left behind on the shore near the
. Other supplies would be carried around the trail and reloaded. Ropes and pulleys were put in place and readied for the task that would begin as soon as it became light enough in the morning.

Nils slept little that night. Aside from the excitement of the coming day, he had much to think about. He had now overcome his doubts about the beautiful Ingrid. He managed to rationalize her treatment of her husband, and to dismiss her reputation as mere gossip. Her failure to come to the dock to see him off was, after all, only good judgment. He thought with longing of her warmth pressed against him in his blankets, and the soft urgency of her kisses. Again he wondered how long it would be before they would return to Straumfjord and he could fulfill his promise to help her, to
take her away, out of her intolerable situation. Finally, he fell asleep, out of sheer physical exhaustion.

   Some distance away, a runner trotted into a village and made his way to a longhouse where three elders of the tribe waited. He paused to catch his breath, while the elders, after nodding in greeting, sat and smoked and waited.

“We have watched them,” Gray Owl announced finally. “They are camped below the Talking Water.”

“They are in two boats, we are told?” one of the chiefs inquired.

“Yes. Great boats, longer than this lodge. They carry many warriors, maybe seventy.”

“Who are these men? What is their purpose?”

“We do not know. Today they cut down trees.”

“Cut trees?”

There was a murmur of nonunderstanding.

“Yes. Along the path around the Talking Water,” Gray Owl reported.

He paused self-consciously.

“Blackbird and I think they will take the great boats around.”

“But how?”

The scout shrugged.

“Sometimes these boats, long and narrow, seem to have many legs, like a caterpillar. Maybe they will crawl around.”

There was a chuckle of disbelief, and Gray Owl was embarrassed. The presiding elder looked at the others.

“What shall be done?” he asked. “Shall we meet these outsiders and talk to them?”

There was quiet around the fire for a moment.

“They have shown no hint of purpose?” one asked.

“No, they just travel,” Gray Owl answered. “Yesterday they killed a deer for meat.”

“How? How was it killed?”

“With an arrow,” Gray Owl answered.

“Then their weapons are like ours?”

“Maybe. Their axes cut fast.”

“Let us watch them a little longer,” one suggested. “Let us
see if they can bring these great boats around the Talking Water.”

“It is good,” said the elder chief. “Then we are agreed?”

The others nodded.

“Continue to watch, then,” he instructed Gray Owl, “until we see what they mean to do. But first, get some food and sleep.”

Tired and hungry, Gray Owl turned away and headed for his own lodge.

BOOK: Runestone
13.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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