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Days of the Discoverers Part 2

Life was a thing to play with,--oh, then the world was wide, With room for man and mammoth, and a goblin life beside.

Now we have slain the mammoths, and we have driven the ghosts away, And we read the saga of Vinland in the light of a new-born day.

We have harnessed the deadly lightnings; we have ridden the restless wave.

We have chased the brood of the werewolf back to their noisome cave.

But far in the icy Northland, with weird witch-lights aglow, Locked in the Greenland glaciers, is a tale we do not know.

Out of Brattahlid's portal, southward from Herjulfsness, They came to their new-found kingdom, their Vinland to possess.

Armored with careless laughter, strong with a stubborn will, The Vikings found it and lost it--it is undiscovered still!

Where did they beach their galleys? How were their cabins planned?

Who were the fearful Skroelings? What was the Furdurstrand?

What were the grapes of Tyrker? For all that is written or said, The Rune Stones hold the secret of the days of Eric the Red!

II

THE RUNES OF THE WIND-WIFE

Salt and scarred from the northern seas, the _Taernan_, deep-laden with herring, nosed in at the Hanse quay in Bergen. Thorolf Erlandsson looked grimly up at the huge warehouses. Since the Hanseatic League secured a foothold in Norway, in 1343, most Norwegian ports had been losing trade, and Bergen, or rather the Hanse merchants in Bergen, had been getting it. Between the Danes and the Germans it looked rather as if Norwegians were to be crowded out of their own country.

The Hanse traders not only received and sold fish for the Friday markets of northern Europe, but sold all kinds of manufactured goods. It was said that they had two sets of scales--one for buying and one for selling. Norwegians had either to adapt themselves to the new methods or give their sons to the ceaseless battle of the open sea. From the Baltic and Icelandic fisheries, the North Sea and the Lofoden Islands, their ships got the heaviest and the hardest of the sea-harvesting.

But it takes more than hardship to break a Norseman. In his four years at sea Thorolf had become tall, broad-shouldered and powerful, and at eighteen he looked a grown man. He did more than he promised, and listened oftener than he talked, and his only close friend was Nils Magnusson, who was now coming down to the wharf. They had known each other from boyhood.

Nils had been for three years a clerk in Syvert Thorolfsson's warehouse.

While not tall he was neither stunted nor crippled, and easily kept pace with Thorolf. As he set out the silver-bound horn cups to drink _skal_[1] with his friend in his own lodging, the croak and sputter of German talk sounded in the street below.

"Behold a new Bergen," observed Nils whimsically. "Let us drink to the founding of a new Iceland. Did you go to Greenland?"

"We touched at Kakortok with letters for the Bishop. The people are sick and savage with fighting against the Skroelings."

"Now," said Nils, rubbing his long nose, "it is odd that you say that, for I was just going to tell you some news. The King has given Paul Knutson leave to raise a company to fight against the Skroelings in Greenland--and parts beyond. He sails in a month."

"I wish I had known of it."

"I thought you would say that. This is between us two and the candle, but Anders Amundson is going, and I am going, and you may go if you will."

Thorolf's gray eyes flamed. "What is Knutson like?"

"Well, they may call him Chevalier, but he has the old Viking way with him. I said that I had a friend who had long wished to lay his bones in a strange land, and he answered, 'If your friend sails with me I would prefer to have him bring his bones home again.' He kept a place for you."

Three weeks later Thorolf, looking backward as the _Rotge_, (little auk or sea-king) stood out to sea, saw the familiar outline of Snaehatten against the sunrise and wondered when he should see it again. Like a questing raven his mind returned to the summer spent at the saeter, and recalled that dark saying of the Wind-wife,--

"In the land of Klooskap shall you be Klooskap's guest."

The galley[2] rode the waves with the bold freedom of her kind. Her keel was carved out of a single great tree. Her seasoned oaken timbers, overlapping, were riveted together by iron bolts, with the round heads outside. Where a timber touched a rib, a strip was cut out on each side, forming a block through which a hole was bored. Another hole was bored in the rib to match and a rope twisted of the inner bark of the linden was put through both holes and knotted. In surf or heavy sea, this construction gave the craft a supple strength. Calking was done with woolen cloth steeped in pitch. The mast, of a chosen trunk of fir, was set upright in a log with ends shaped like a fishtail. The long oarlike rudder was on the board or side of the ship to the right of the stern, called the starboard or steerboard. The lading was done on the opposite side, the larboard or ladderboard. There were ten oars to a side, and a single large triangular sail.

Long and narrow, hardly ten feet above the water-line at her lowest, her curved prow glancing over the waves like the head of a swimming snake, she was no more like the tumbling cargo-ships than a shark is like a porpoise. When they were two days out, Nils said to Thorolf,

"A Viking in such a galley would sail to the end of the world. By the way, did the Skroelings in Greenland understand that language the Wind-wife spoke?"

"I was not there long enough to find out. I once asked a man who knows their talk well, and he said it was no tongue that ever he heard."

The Greenland folk welcomed them heartily. Finding that the white men had not after all been forgotten by their own people, the natives drew off and gave them no more trouble. The Northmen spent the winter in sleep, talk, song, and hunting with native guides. Besides the old man in white fur, as the polar bear was respectfully called, Arctic foxes, walrus, whales and seal abounded. Many of the new-comers became skilful in the making and the use of the skin-covered native boats called Kayaks. Nils had some skill in carving wood and stone, and could write in the Runic script of Elfdal. In the long evenings when winds from the cave of the Great Bear buffeted the low huts, he taught Thorolf and Anders what he knew, and talked with the Skroelings. But none of them understood the runes of the Wind-wife. Their speech was quite different.

Spring came with brief, hot sunshine, and the creeping birches budded on the pebbly shore. Encouraged by the reports from Greenland, new colonists ventured out, and house-building went on briskly. One day Thorolf was summoned to Knutson's headquarters.

"Erlandsson," began the Chevalier, "they say that you have information about Vinland[3] and the Skroelings there, from an old woman who lived among them. What can you tell me?"

Thorolf told the story of the Wind-wife. Knutson looked interested but doubtful.

"I have talked with the oldest colonists," he said, "and they know nothing of any Skroelings but those hereabouts. They say also that Vinland is hard to come at. Boats venturing south return with tales of heavy winds, dense fogs and dangerous cliffs and skerries--or do not return at all. One was caught and crushed in the ice, and the crew were found on the floe half starved and gnawing bits of hide. In the sagas of Vinland the Skroelings are spoken of as fierce and treacherous. To hold such a land would need a strong hand. The old woman may have forgotten--or the stories may be those of her own people."

Thorolf shook his head. "Nay, my lord. She was not a forgetful person--and the language is neither Lapp nor Finn."

"She was very old, you say?"

"I think so. I do not know how old."

"Old people sometimes confuse what they have heard with what they have seen. But I shall remember what you have said."

"If he had known the Wind-wife," said Nils when told of this conversation, "he would have no doubt."

Knutson wrote to the King, but got no reply for a long time. A ship with a cargo of trading stores was sent for, and was wrecked on the Faroes.

But in the following spring an expedition to Vinland was really planned.

There was no general desire to take part in it. Many of Knutson's party now longed for their native land, where the mountains were drawn swords flashing in the sun, and the malachite and silver waters and flowery turf, the jeweled scabbards. They dreamed of the lure sounding over the valleys, of bright-paired maidens dancing the _spring dans_.

Nevertheless in due season the _Rotge_ left the Greenland shore and pointed her inquiring beak southeast by south. In the _Gudrid_ sailed Knutson and his immediate following, with the trading cargo and most of the provisions. By keeping well out to sea at first the commander hoped to escape the perils of the coast.

This hope was dashed by an Atlantic gale which drove them westward. For two days and two nights they were tossed between wind and tide. Toward the end of the second night the sound of the waves indicated land to starboard. In the growing light they saw a harbor that seemed spacious enough for all the ships in the world, sheltered by wooded hills. If this were Vinland, it was greater than saga told or skald sang.

They landed to take in fresh water, mend a leak and see the country, but found no grapes, no Skroelings nor any sign of Northmen's presence. On the rocks grew vineberries, or mountain cranberries, and Knutson thought that perhaps these and not true grapes were the fruit found in Vinland.

He sent a party of a dozen men, Anders and Thorolf leading, to explore the forest, ascend some hill if possible and return the same day. He himself remained with the ships and kept Nils by him. He rather expected that the natives, learning of the strangers' arrival, would be drawn by curiosity to visit the bay.

The scouting party followed the banks of the little stream that had given them fresh water, Anders leading, Thorolf just behind him. Wind stirred softly in the leaves overhead, unseen birds fluttered and chirped, sunshine sifting through the maple undergrowth turned it to emerald and gold and jasper. Once there was a discordant screech from the evergreens, but it was only a brilliant blue jay with crest erect, scolding at them. A striped squirrel flashed up the trunk of a tree to his hole. Then sudden as lightning, from the bushes they had just passed, came a flight of arrows.

Two men were slightly wounded, but most of the arrows were turned by the light strong body armor of the Norsemen. The foe remained unseen and unheard. Nothing stirred, though the men scanned the woods about them with the keen eyes of seamen and hunters.

Thorolf was seized with an inspiration. He went forward a step or two, lifted his hand in salutation, and called,--

"Klooskap mech p'maosa?"[4] (Is Klooskap yet alive?)

There was a silence stiller than death. The Norsemen faced the ominous thicket without moving a muscle. Some one within it called out something which Thorolf did not understand. But no more arrows came. He tried another sentence.

"Klooskap k-chi skitap, pechedog latogwesnuk." (Klooskap was a great man in the country far to the northward.)

This time he made out the answer. In a swift aside he explained to his comrades,--

Chapter end

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