“This saga I had from Thorfinn Fairhair, who sailed with Leif the Lucky when he was but a boy of sixteen summers. Mighty were those men who followed the whale’s path to Vinland the Good. Thorfinn is old now and in his dotage but his eye still brightens and his sinews stiffen whenever this story is told. If it please you, Lords, I will recount the tale.
Now it happened that there was a man of Eyrar, in Iceland, named Biarni Heriulfson. It was Biarni’s habit to spend one season trading and the next with his father, who had settled in Greenland with Erik the Red. This one year, the fourth of Olaf’s reign, Biarni sailed from Eyrar bound for Heriulfsness. They had sailed but three days when the wind turned to the north and clouds covered the sun. Bitter was that wind and it blew stouthearted Biarni beyond the ken of men. Biarni’s crew were much afraid and neither the sunstone nor the sunshadow-board could help them. This Biarni was a man of valour and through those desolate days he stood by the styri and guided them ever on, past mountains made of ice until, at length, the welcome sun burst through once more and they could discover their position.
Biarni steered them ever westwards until they sighted land. It was in Biarni’s mind to sail close to this land, which was much wooded, but they saw no place to land. He sailed onwards for another day and they discovered another land with white beaches that promised fair, but this was no more like Greenland than the first. Biarni would not beach the knarr nor allow his crew to go ashore for wood and water, both of which he had in plenty. Instead, he ordered them to turn their faces to the east and, after several days of sailing and the finding of two more unknown lands, came safe once more to Heriulfsness. And thus it was that Leif Eriksson, whom men now call ‘the lucky,’ first came to hear of that far off place beyond the western sea….”
Leif Eriksson stood on a bale of wool and raised his voice to carry to the back of the crowd gathered in front of him.
“As many of you know, I plan another voyage. I have bought a knarr from Biarni Heriulfson – that same knarr that Biarni sailed beyond where the sun sets to a strange land. It is in my mind to see that place and harvest some of the timber Biarni saw growing in plenty. Are there men among you who would voyage with me?”
The crowd murmured and a few questions were shouted. Leif answered them directly, in plain speech, for such is our way. This was no call to go a-viking with promises of plunder. This was something new – a voyage of exploration beyond the lore of sailing men. There would be much danger and no certainty of riches at the end. It was just the sort of prospect to fire my young heart with dreams of glory and sagas yet to come. I was one of the first to move and stand before our captain and swear the oath of comradeship.
My name is Thorfinn Hanarrsson, whom men call Fairhair; a Greenlander born, for Hanarr, my father, was among those who first came here with Erik. When I was but twelve summers, my father’s ship was lost on a voyage to Norway. It was a drakkr, a long ship, not one of the fatter, trading knarrs; it should have been mine, had he lived. That same year my mother succumbed to the winter sickness and I was alone in the world. I could have returned to my foster-father’s hearth but I thought myself too much the man. I chose instead to go fishing and took my skiff in search of codfish among the skerries that dot the sea around the coast hereabouts. I got to know each rock and reef and the way the tides set. I ventured far and wide in search of fish but had never been out of sight of land. Now Leif was offering the chance of a real voyage, I leapt at it like a returning salmon. I was young, had no family and yearned for the adventure of it.
From the first, Leif asked his famous father to be our leader. Erik pleaded his years weighed too heavy on him but Leif silvertongue talked him round. Now, as some of you know, the knarr is a trading ship with a high freeboard and fixed mast. It needs fewer men than a drakkr and has fewer oars. We only row a knarr in and out of port. Nigh on ten hands of men stepped forward to answer Leif’s call but he chose only four and thirty to be his companions. We gathered together to haul the knarr onto the beach and worked some days careening her and re-caulking the planks. She was a stout ship, Norway-built of strong pine with a mast and yard of finest spruce. From stem to stern she measured twenty-one paces and from keel to tholepins she was a head higher than the tallest man. She could ride the sea anywhere it reached a man’s waist and was fast enough under sail but a devil to row, which a man must do standing, pacing forward twice on each sweep, on account of her high freeboard. Still, it made her a dry ship, for which we would have cause to be grateful.
By early summer all was prepared. The knarr smelt of fresh pine and tar and Leif had caused a new sail to be sewn from fine linen. All was in readiness and the day dawned when we were to leave upon our great adventure. Leif rode over the hill to his father’s steading at Brattahlid to bring the great man to us and then set sail. On the return, Erik’s horse stumbled and threw him. The old man hurt his ankle and cried out to Odin that he was not meant to voyage more but see his days out on the land. Even Leif, who was a follower of the White Christ, could not ignore such omens and thus it was Leif became our leader and five and thirty sailed that day for the West.
Leif had chosen me for my knowledge of the skerries and my keen sight. I could spot a half-tide rock by the way the sea swirled and so I found myself at the prow, guiding the knarr from port and out into the ocean. Leif himself took the styri and set our course – due west. The sun shone and the wind was light and out of the east so we made good time. I listened to the sea chuckling under the knarr’s forefoot and sang in my heart. Gulls wheeled and shouted their harsh cries above us and two porpoises kept station as we glided over the water. All that day, Greenland grew smaller in our wake until all we could descry were the very mountaintops, gleaming white in the setting sun. It was strange to see the sun still upon them when all around us the night had fallen. Leif said this is because the world is curved like an upturned dish, but I know not.
I don’t believe I slept at all that first night. The old salts bedded down as soon as it grew dark but I was too excited. I stood beside Snorri, who had replaced Leif at the styri, and talked so much nonsense he gave me a clout and bade me be silent. I took it in good part, though, and even relieved him of the steering when his head started to nod. I was still there when the sun came up. The dawn is different at sea. There is no gradual transition from night to day, no mountains for the sun to hide behind. A golden glow lit the few clouds and then the sun appeared over the horizon, striking fire from our wake. I could not credit how swiftly the sun climbed. I held out my hand to cover it and it moved as I watched. I vow it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Oh yes, I’ve been up with the dawn many times to launch my skiff, but watching the sun crawl its way over the mountains was never as thrilling as the first dawn at sea, out of sight of land with only the grey-blue ocean all around us.
We broke our fast and I was set to bailing. No seas had come inboard in that gentle lop, but we had taken on some water before the caulking grew tight, as always happens at first. By then I was tired to the bone and could scarcely keep my eyes open but I had to wait for Leif to take the noon sight. He took up the sunshadow-board and measured where the shadow fell at noon. It was a mite longer than it had been when he took the sight at Heriulfsness for we had drifted a little south during the night. So we altered course to west with a touch of north in it.
I slept the afternoon away and the sun was low when I woke again. The wind had stiffened and there were whitecaps dusting the sea. The knarr’s motion was stronger and now the water frothed and hissed at the planking as we sped along. The sky was still clear of clouds and the last of the gulls had departed; we were quite alone. I made my way to the prow once more and stared ahead, straining my eyes against the glare for any sign of land. Of course there was none! We were as far from any land as it is possible to be. It was then I saw one of the great crystal mountains that aren’t anchored land but drift about the ocean. The falling sun had painted it with rose and gold and I cried out in wonder, pointing to my comrades to witness this strange miracle. The older men had seen such bergs before, but there were more than a few of us seeing the sight for the first time. Leif altered course to take us closer in but we dare not venture too near. More than one ship has found itself stranded on a shelf unseen below the surface and suffered to be crushed by falling chunks of ice.
Close to, the berg was not the brilliant white lent by distance, but took on a greenish hue. We could discern great boulders trapped within the ice and it had a forbidding look. If one part of that great berg showed above the sea then we knew there were six parts below, so we steered well clear and circled outside hailing distance before resuming our westward path. The berg receded in our wake and I, for one, was glad of it. Leif gave orders for a double watch that night lest we encounter more of the floating monsters. I took my turn at the prow but saw nothing in my shift.
The next three days passed uneventfully, each followed the last in procession. The wind held steady and we kept our course, confirmed each noon by the sunshadow-board. Thus it was that on the sixth day, I was bailing again when a great cry went up “Land!” I rushed to join the others at the prow and there it was! I thought at first there was some trick; that we had gone full circle and returned to Greenland, for white mountains rose on the horizon. I soon saw my mistake, though. This land was not as great as Greenland.
“I shall go one better than Biarni,” said Leif. “Make ready to land.”
We closed with the shore but saw no shelving beach to take our keel. Leif then ordered the after-boat launched and he went ashore with a few picked men to survey the scene. I was not one of those chosen and spent an hour or two grinding my teeth in frustration. When the captain returned we weighed anchor and nosed our way coastwise. Once more I was set to watch for skerries and there were plenty to be seen. Leif told us that the place was inhospitable. No grass grew and there was little to keep a man there. It was a place of flat rocks and boulders as far as the eye could see. Inland rose great icy mountains, desolate and forbidding. Leif said we should call the place ‘ Helluland’ - meaning ‘land of stone.’ I was glad when we found its southern cape and slipped out into the ocean once more.
The winds grew contrary then. It was likely the shadow of Helluland that caused it but we were constantly taken aback and made slow progress. We tacked back and forth to make our westering while the bulk of the land lay behind us all that day and the next. Leif thought some tide impeded our progress. I searched the sea from dawn till dusk for hidden skerries and more than once we had to alter course where I suspected some reef may lurk beneath the surface. It was there we saw a great number of whales – more than there were crew upon our knarr. They were heading south and I marked their passage by their spoutings.
Four days after leaving Helluland behind us, we once more sighted land. This was a different place with thick woods girdling the rolling hills. Again Leif was loath to risk beaching the knarr and called away the after-boat. This time I was included in the crew and we rowed ashore. It felt strange to stand once more upon the land after so many days at sea. It seemed to me that the land rocked with a gentle motion and I almost fell and cried out that the earth was moving under my feet. The old hands laughed at me and said it was always thus when first you step ashore. We spent an hour or two gathering firewood and refilled the water butts. The land was covered with a thick forest of spruce and pine and there was no sign of any life beyond the seabirds. Leif named this place ‘Markland’ for the woods that were so abundant and determined we would anchor there that day. He set me to fishing in the afternoon and we feasted well that night, sitting round our fire on the shore.
We left Markland behind us and travelled on; another day and a night and half a day more before we sighted yet a third land. There we turned to the south and followed the coast, looking for a place to beach our ship. I was at my position at the prow again but had many willing helpers looking out. This land was the fairest by far. We could make out birch and beech trees and swathes of green grass and Leif expressed himself well pleased. Towards the evening, we sighted a white strand and carefully approached. We spotted a passage between an island and a cape and eased through in all vigilance. The passage opened out into a sheltered bay and there we made our landing on a gently shelving beach of fine sand. There was a river mouth to the north of us and we later found this river debouched from a pleasant lake.
It was too late to do much that first night but the next day we began to explore. The river teemed with salmon and the grass along the banks was lush and would be fine for cattle. Later, when the tide had risen again, we moved the knarr upriver and anchored in the lake. It was there Leif determined to make our camp and we unloaded the ship and set to making bothies for our shelter. That night as we dined on fresh salmon far bigger than any I had ever seen, Leif rose and addresses us.
“It seems to me that this is a fair place. I propose to winter here and will make this our steading. Tomorrow we will raise a hall. Are all agreed?”
We gave him our ready assent. This was a fair land and we were happy to be there. So it was we came to raise the hall that would be our home for the next few months. Trees there were in abundance and reeds for thatch grew deep around the lakeshore. I took a hand axe and was given the task of trimming the felled timber. Some of the men wanted to explore but Leif would have us build the hall first and contain our impatience. He was a big man and full of good humour and fair dealing so none complained. He had seen us safe thus far and we trusted to his luck.
Over the next few days the great hall took shape and Leif named it ‘Fellowship.’ Once it was weatherproof, he divided the party into two. One group would remain and work on the hall while the other went exploring.
“Stay together and do not venture so far that you can’t get back by sunset,” Leif ordered.
We took it turn and turn about, Leif also. He did his share of work on the hall. Each night we would sit around the fire and tell of what we had seen that day or listen to the telling. It is our custom that every man should have a voice, even one so young as me. I told them how I had seen the tracks of deer and bear within the forest and thought there was a place by the lake where all came to drink. We saw conies also and other animals we couldn’t name but which showed rich pelts. Once or twice we heard wolves but they didn’t bother us and we never saw them. The more we saw, the fairer did the land seem to us and all agreed that this was a better place for men to live than Greenland.
Now there was among our party a man named Tyrker. He was a German who had been taken as a slave by Erik but grew to be a member of the household and a companion to Leif in his boyhood. This Tyrker was a small man with dark eyes and a wizened face but was much beloved of Leif. It happened this day that when the explorers returned to camp, Tyrker was missing and Leif was very angry. He roused us all to go and search and we had gone out from the camp but a little way when he appeared, waving his arms and greatly excited. He called out to us, but in the German tongue, such was his agitation, and none could make sense of what he was shouting. When we came up with him he was grinning and capering like a madman and it took a while before he calmed enough to make himself understood.
“Vines! And grapes! I found them! As good as any grape that grows in Germany. Come, look!”
We followed the dancing little man and, sure enough, there was a little valley full of vines, just as he said. The grapes were tart and not yet ripe but we gorged ourselves nonetheless, for this was a rare treat and few had ever tasted the fruit before. That night at the moot, Leif arose and spoke to us:
“I have been wondering for some days what we should call this place. It is now clear. I name this land ‘Vinland the Good’ for the vines that grow and the soft and gentle nature of the land.”
We all acclaimed this announcement many started to plan aloud for the future: the bringing of families and cattle and the making of a settlement. The talk went on late into the night and it was but an hour or two before dawn when we retired at last. I was awoken early by the gripes in my stomach – too many unripe berries – and made my way in the clear light to take care of things. I had barely finished and cleaned myself when I saw the skraeling.
At first I thought my eyes played me false for he was there one instant and gone the next. Truth to tell, I was much afraid and could not be certain that what I had so narrowly glimpsed was not a troll or dwarf. Then I saw him again and realised it was but a half-grown boy staring at me with the same amazement I afforded him. Once or twice on our explorations men had reported the feeling of eyes upon them, but we had seen no trace of any habitation nor any other sign of man. Now I was confronted with the living evidence. The skraeling youth stared a while longer and then vanished as silently as he appeared. I ran back and roused the company. Few believed me. Most said I had been dreaming still, but I led them back to where the skraeling had appeared and, sure enough, there in the wet grass were the clear footprints. That caused the doubters to sing another saga!
Leif set a watch that day and the next and the explorers went armed, for we didn’t know what manner of men these skraelings might be, but there were no further encounters for two days. On the third day, I was in the camp and cutting wood for the fire when there came a hail from one of the sentries. We ran to him and followed his pointing finger. At the edge of the clearing stood four or five men. By their gestures we could tell they asked for leave to approach and Snorri, who commanded in Leif’s absence, beckoned them forth. They were unlike any men I have ever seen, before or since. They were clad in some sort of trews made from animal skin and went bare above the waist. They moved with a solemn dignity and approached us cautiously but displayed no great fear – more curiosity. They had flat faces and long dark hair bound back from their faces with fillets of hide. It was a warm day and many of us had shed our shirts. The contrast was obvious. Their skin had a coppery hue and they were almost entirely without body hair.
One among us, a man named Ingolf but known as ‘Bjorn,’ meaning ‘Bear,’ because he was so hairy, seemed to amaze them the most, and they pointed at him and chattered among themselves in a tongue that none could recognise. I looked at our men and tried to see them anew, through the eyes of these strangers. We made an odd picture. Most of us had weathered arms and faces but our torsos were white or even pink where the sun had begun to burn us. All of us were bearded after one fashion or another, even me, whose cheeks and chin now sported a red fuzz even if my chest was still innocent of manly growth. Our visitors were all beardless with as pronounced a lack of hair upon their cheeks as on the rest of their bodies. Even their arms seemed naked. We stood and gawped at each other for some time.