ars Trygvistson gestured from where he stood at the bow, and ten of the eleven men on each side of the coastal patrol boat drew in and secured their oars. With the helmsman at the rudder calling low-voiced commands, the remaining two rowers kept its stem pointed just north of the two-masted Portuguese caravel. The much larger ship, its four main sails hanging slack, was pitching slightly in a mild following sea, ten fathoms to the west.
A short, plump man with a swarthy complexion and gray hair, apparently the Portuguese captain, appeared at the bow. He stared at Lars over the tall steel shields hiding and protecting the rowers on both sides of the patrol boat.
Lars cupped hands to his mouth and called, in New Norse, “What ship are you?”
The captain answered “Wait!” in English, and disappeared. A moment later a very tall, stout man in good woolen clothes and a thick seaman’s cap appeared, looking sternly across at Lars.
“Are you from Nyscandia?” the tall man shouted in English. “How far is it to land? And why do you bar our way?”
Apparently no one on board spoke New Norse, the mix of Danish, English, Swedish and the original Norwegian that was rapidly becoming the common tongue of Northern European seafarers. But Lars and the helmsman/mate, the only two visible above the shields, had donned their traditional Viking horned helmets and upper body chain-mail when they first sighted the caravel. Their identity should have been obvious.
“This is the Nyscandia coastal patrol boat Thor’s Hammer,” Lars called back, trying to choose New Norse words he knew were taken mainly from the English. “I ask again, who are you? And when and from where did you sail?”
The stout man turned and conferred with the captain. He faced Lars again and said, “I am Sir William Oxenford of Yorkshire, England, and this is the Portuguese ship Ildefonso, operating under charter to me. We sailed from Whitby on August the first, in this year of our Lord 1349. Now what is your business with us?”
Lars understood most of the English words, and could guess at the rest. To himself he thanked Odin, who had sacrificed an eye to gain knowledge, for his ancestors of two hundred years ago. They had agreed on a blended language because it could be more easily grasped by the flood of Scandinavians from throughout Europe -- by then ten times the number of Norwegians -- who were fleeing Kristianity.
“My business is to tell you to turn back,” Lars called. “You may not land on Nyscandia.”
Even from ten fathoms Lars could see Sir William’s face flush a dark red. “By whose authority do you speak, sir?” He turned his head to one side and coughed.
“The Althing of Nyscandia has decreed that we turn back all ships from Europe, until the black death has returned to the hel from which your Kristian priests say their God brought it forth. Turn your ship and depart. There are Spanish colonies three weeks fast sail to the south, in Aztecland. Perhaps they will welcome you.”
Sir William conferred with his captain again, then turned back to Lars. “We cannot. We have a little food left, but we are almost out of water. We must land and fill our casks.”
“And I say again, you may not touch shore. We have no plague in Nyscandia, thank the Gods, and you shall not bring yours here.”
Sir William’s face had faded to a milder red, but his voice was rising in anger when he said, “Man, we have women and children aboard! I brought with me three sons, two daughters, their spouses, and twelve grandchildren! And with us are five more families of friends, with their children. We fled the plague as it was spreading across England, leaving most of our goods and chattels behind. Now we simply must land and take on water.”
“And you have no plague aboard your ship?”
For the first time, Sir William hesitated. When he spoke again, he could barely be heard across the water. “Not now. At the first sign of a buboe or bloody spit, the person was mercifully tapped on the head and thrown into the sea. One of my daughters -- two sons -- half my grandchildren! And others, from all the families on board. We have lost a third of our company, but our ship is free of plague.”
Lars felt as if a cold wind had crept beneath his chainmail. All that was known of the plague had been carefully explained to the ship captains, including that there were two kinds. A fair number of people who had only the buboes survived. No one whose spit had become bloody lived, nor did those around them.
A young woman emerged from a group of people clustered amideck, walking forward to stand beside Sir William. She appeared to be about seventeen, tall, very fair-skinned, with long, golden blonde hair pulled behind her ears by a silver hair band. She wore a heavy blue brocade dress to ward off the early September chill. Unlike the grim faces of the two men, hers wore a slight smile.
The tall blonde resembled his own oldest daughter so strongly that it startled Lars. Then he remembered a bit of folk history told him by his mother; that what was now Yorkshire had once been the largest Viking settlement in England.
The young woman, apparently one of Sir William’s granddaughters, said something to him Lars could not hear. Then she quickly turned her head to one side, and Lars saw her cough into her hand. She brought out a cloth to wipe her mouth and hand as she walked back to the waiting crowd. Although he could not see it from that distance, Lars knew there was blood on the hand and cloth. Sir William was lying. They had stopped throwing plague victims overboard, once close to land.
“How do you plan to keep out others, if they come fleeing the black death?” Sir William called, apparently at his granddaughter’s suggestion. “Nyscandia is huge, larger even than Europe they say, with a coastline thousands of miles long. You cannot patrol every foot of it, day and night.”
In that, Lars knew, Sir William was right. They had a fleet of only 68 boats to patrol the vast area off Markland and Leif’s Island. A larger number protected the heavily forested mainland to the south, but they were also very thinly spread.
When Lars was silent, Sir William sensed an advantage and pressed ahead. “And you say no ship from Europe may land here. Do you turn away Swedes, then? Danes? Icelanders?”
Lars remained silent, suddenly torn by a horrific memory. They had intercepted a single-masted ship of the older Viking type only a month ago. People, including women and children, were strewn about on the half-deck. The steering oar was lashed in place. At first there was no response to their hails. Finally a single man dragged himself to the rail. He shouted that every person on board was either ill or dead. The ship was out of Greenland, and every soul left on the ice island was either dead or dying from the bloody spit plague. They had been three weeks at sea, and thought themselves safe, when the first person became ill. He begged them to sink the ship; he lacked the strength to unfasten the oar.
Several of the people were still alive. Nevertheless, Lars and his crew had fulfilled the man’s request.
Only the early landowning families from the time of Eric the Red had remained in Greenland, eking out a living raising livestock and harvesting the abundant sea animals. Later Norse peoples fleeing Europe bypassed both Iceland and its frozen Western neighbor for the more temperate climes of Nyscandia. They now had colonies on every large island off the coast, and a swiftly growing number of settlements on the mainland. The latest colony of which Lars had heard occupied a small sandy island about where the huge peninsula that ended the continent’s eastern side began.
Sir William was waiting. Lars raised his voice and called, “Yes, Sir William. We turn away our own, if the ship carries plague.”
The burley Englishman stared across the gently rolling sea at Lars, then again conferred with the Portuguese captain. When he turned back, his face was grim but composed. “Very well, sir. We will take our leave with the first favorable wind, and try to stretch our water until we can reach Aztecland.”
Lars knew, as certainly as if it had been Loki speaking, that Sir William was lying again. They were waiting for a good wind. At full sail the caravel could easily leave the much slower patrol boat behind.
Almost as if in answer to English prayers, a breeze suddenly shivered the caravel’s hanging sails. The wind grew quickly into a near gale, causing loud clapping sounds as the sails spread and filled. The caravel went from stillness to fully underweigh in seconds, heading straight for the patrol boat.
In a calm sea, ten fathoms had seemed a safe distance. Now the caravel was bearing down on them with fearsome speed. Lars called a command to the helmsman. Twenty more oars were quickly extended, and bit into the water. The patrol boat surged ahead, starting a hard turn to the north.
Both the Portuguese captain and Sir William were shouting orders. Lars saw a dozen men swarming up ladders to the tall forecastle and sterncastle towers, longbows and quivers on their backs. They appeared to be all English. The archers formed up along the railings. Lars knew arrows from an English longbow could penetrate a knight’s shield, and a good archer could aim and launch four or five a minute. But the shields on Nyscandian patrol boats were triple the thickness of those carried on a knight’s arm.
The caravel captain almost certainly knew they were just outside Leif’s Strait, the wide passage separating Leif’s Island from Markland. It led into the huge Gulf of Five Lakes, named for the great interconnected lakes far inland that emptied into it. This area had been explored by the Vikings earlier, and was now on every sea map in Europe. Once inside the Gulf, two day’s sail to the southwest would bring them to a thousand small bays and inlets, where they could hide their ship, begin building homes, start the hunting and fishing that would keep them alive through the coming winter. The refugees might not understand that the land was already occupied, though thinly, by Skraellings. And their continual conflicts with the Norse, which they almost always lost, had bred a bitter hatred against all white skins. The English and Portuguese would not live out the winter, even if they survived the black death.
Which Lars did not believe possible. The bloody spit plague killed everyone in a community, without mercy or favor. The people aboard this ship were fighting valiantly against the decree of the Norns, but they were doomed.
The patrol boat had completed its turn to the north and was moving ahead. Lars saw with relief that the prow of the caravel would miss them by a few fathoms. He went to his knees on the bottom planking, and was crawling to the narrow slit between the two front starboard shields, when he clearly heard the voice of the Portuguese captain shout a command.
Lars reached the slit in time to see the caravel alter course, turning sharply to the north. The patrol boat helmsman, crouched behind the rearmost shields that also protected the ship’s fixed drum, saw the turn. Holding the tiller with his left hand, the arm exposed to arrows, he seized the hanging drumstick with his right. The first thump! was timed to match the beginning of the next stroke, but then the drumbeat moved slightly ahead as the helmsman ordered the rowers to their best speed.
The patrol boat was slicing through the water, almost out of the path of the caravel. But then Lars saw its prow swing north by a few more degrees. Only seconds later the onrushing wooden wall of the larger ship was looming above him. He heard the captain call something in Portuguese -- and then the bow passed out of his sight as it caught the sixth starboard oar. It was yanked from the rower’s hands, to smash against his chest and break. Before the men could understand their danger or move, the caravel plowed on through the remaining five oars. Each one splintered and broke, but not before it had slammed painfully hard into the body of its rower.
The curving side of the Portuguese ship scraped the stern of the patrol boat, pushing it abruptly aside. As the boat rocked violently from the impact, Lars called a sharp command. The eleven men on the port side, and the five uninjured on the starboard, began to pull in their oars. It was too late. A hail of arrows came winging down from the two high castles on the caravel. The tall shields on the starboard side protected the men there, but the archers could see over them to reach the portside rowers. Half those men suddenly sprouted arrows from their arms or trunks. One was gushing blood from his neck, a fatal wound.
All the port side men able to move secured their oars and dove for the starboard benches, to crowd up against their shipmates. More arrows thudded into the bottom decking and rower’s benches, but the caravel was now past the smaller boat, still rocking heavily in the waves. Only the already badly wounded men unable to move were hit.
Lars stood up, taking his chances that an arrow might reach him, balancing easily on the rocking deck. He ordered the front five rowers on both sides to their posts. The helmsman/mate was back at the tiller, but gripping it with his right hand; an arrow had passed through his exposed left arm. He had broken the shaft and removed it, but the wound was still bleeding freely.
Lars called for a half-speed beat, and ten oars bit into the surging waves. The patrol boat moved forward, the helmsman starting a sharp turn as soon as they were underweigh.
The patrol boat rocked hard for the few seconds it was broadside to the waves and strong wind, then steadied on its new course due west. Lars ordered the able men not rowing to help the wounded. They began moving them to the shelter of the low aft cabin. Those hit only in the arms or legs were moved and treated first; they might survive. Four rowers, two or more arrows buried deep in their trunks, were all dying. The man with the severed vein in his neck was already dead.
The helmsman refused to leave his post, ordering a rower to bandage his wounded arm where he stood.
Lars looked ahead at the caravel, now two hundred fathoms away. To his surprise he saw that it was dead in the water, its four mainsails flapping aimlessly.
When the captain had made that second turn to the north to hit the patrol boat, his ship had reached the limit of its ability to catch the wind. Just a small shift to the north by this near-gale had emptied his sails. When the ship lost weigh, the surging waves had turned him broadside to the wind.
Lars saw men at the caravel’s bow, hastily rigging a flying jib sail. He had only minutes before that would turn it enough for the sails to fill again.
“First cannon crew! To your posts!” Lars called, and watched to see who responded. Two rowers secured their oars and got to their feet. Both were from the port side. The rear starboard man hastily pulled in his own oar and moved to that side, to balance the pull. A third man came hurrying out of the cabin. His head was bandaged where an arrow had sliced across his skull. He was still bleeding, but able to work.
The three gunners removed the stretched canvas hiding the boat’s stubby cannon and its ammunition. It was mounted just back from the bow, its steel-banded barrel pointed straight ahead, the base pressed against a wooden brace on the deck. Its aim was fixed, but the elevation could be changed by driving wooden wedges under its muzzle or base.
Lars gave the order to load cannon, then looked back at the caravel. The small jib was taut with the wind, straining to turn its bow back to the west.
Lars saw several people watching the patrol boat from the side rail, including the tall young blonde girl. She pointed at the exposed cannon and turned, calling to someone hidden from view.
Europeans were always surprised to learn Nyscandians had ship-mounted cannon. They were only now being tried in a few navy ships in the old countries, by the more daring commanders. But a small Viking ship had long ago sailed up a narrow river flowing south from Markland into the Gulf, discovering a rich deposit of iron ore near the shore of a freshwater lake. The land was otherwise very poor, with no Skraellings nearby to defend it. Now a small colony mined ore throughout the year. All months weather permitted, a fleet of small boats fought their way up the narrow river to that lake, returning with ore for a large foundry on the inward shore of Leif’s Island. Nyscandia had no shortage of steel tools or weapons, including cannon to defend their spreading network of forts and adjacent towns on the mainland.
The rower who was also gunner’s mate shoved an eight-pound ball into the barrel through the open trough at the rear. Instantly, the powderman placed a cylindrical package of gunpowder, carefully sealed in waxed parchment, in the trough. Using a brass blade, he cut a slash across the package at the top rear, then pushed it into the barrel, rolling the shot forward. The gunner placed a thick round iron plate, with a narrow vertical groove cut into the inner flat side, across the open barrel, locking it in place with a stout iron bar. The third gunner, rammer already in the barrel, pushed the ball back hard. Powder puffed up to fill the groove to the top, some spilling over into a small depression. Usually, the collapsed parchment also locked the ball in place, if the barrel tipped downward. But the gun crew had seen more than one shot roll back out at a critical moment.
The gunner’s mate used flint and steel to light a matchcord, then stood by his cannon. The helmsman called separate commands to the port and starboard rowers, bringing the bow to bear, then holding the boat steady.
Lars waited, trying to judge the perfect instant when the nose of his boat was elevated just enough for the shot to clear the waves. Although only eight men were rowing, they had closed to within a hundred and fifty fathoms of the caravel. To Lars surprise, he saw a half-dozen English archers lining up along the rail. A moment later a flight of arrows came winging toward him. He had not known the longbow had such a range.
The English archers had to fire upward, and try to estimate where the arrow would come down. Lars was surprised again when three of the six struck the deck or rowing benches, the steel heads deep in wood, their feathered ends quivering. Fortunately, no one was hit.
The flying jib had finally pulled the nose of the caravel around enough that the four mainsails filled. Lars heard the clapping sounds as the canvas pulled taut. The larger ship swiftly gained weigh.
As the boat’s nose started to climb the next wave, Lars waited, trying to allow for the time between command and the shot actually leaving the barrel. He would have no more than two chances.
“Thor!” Lars called. The gunner’s mate touched the matchstick to the powder in the depression. The cannon roared, and a huge cloud of black smoke shot out of the barrel and the loading trough. The patrol boat shuddered from end to end. The gun crew instantly set about clearing the barrel and reloading, ignoring possible arrows.
Their aim had been true. When the smoke cleared, Lars saw the shot had smashed into the side of the caravel, just below the railing.
Another flight of arrows came their way, but the turning caravel was a poor platform, and all went into the sea. Then the larger ship steadied on a course due west, all mainsails full.
“Ready!” the gunner’s mate called. Lars acknowledged, then ordered him to drive the two waiting opposed wedges under the base of the cannon. The retreating stern was a fourth the width of the side they had hit. The lower muzzle elevation made it more difficult to avoid firing through the crest of a wave. Lars watched and waited, trying to judge the moment -- and finally, it came.
“Thor!” Lars called. The cannon bellowed, and the cloud of black smoke again streamed in front of the boat. The steady northeaster quickly blew it away, and Lars could see the caravel.
The iron ball had hit the wooden hull just above the waterline, a devastating blow that tore or ripped loose several planks. Water was pouring into the larger ship’s hold.
Pandemonium erupted on the part of the deck Lars could see. But only a minute later some sailors and a mate appeared, carrying a spare sail. They began trying to slip it down the stern and over the damaged area. Two men dove into the cold water to pull it in place. But already the ship was listing enough that the hole dropped below the surface. On deck, several other men were preparing to launch the single large longboat.
Lars watched, his face as bleak and cold as the wind that blew against his back. But inside, he felt as if he were dying.
The caravel settled deeper at the stern, losing weigh as the masts tilted. The two men in the water were not able to anchor the sail they had pulled over the hole, and stopped trying. Those launching the longboat had succeeded, and it now floated free in the water.
The deck tilted more sharply, and there was a mad scramble of men, women and children toward the longboat. But Lars saw a sudden and sharp division among the people. Only crewmen were in the boat, and they used belaying pins, boathooks and knives to keep away everyone except sailors. Several Englishmen tried to fight their way aboard, but could not. Their bows were useless in the thick crowd. The portly captain was the last to board the crowded boat with his fellow Portuguese. A moment after they pushed off the caravel suddenly turned on its side, throwing all but a few people into the sea.
The longboat put out oars, moving toward the two swimmers who had been trying to seal the hole. “Bring to bear!” Lars called to the helmsman. His voice sounded strange and unnatural, as if someone else were speaking.
The caravel went under with a loud gurgling sound, like that of some giant washing his throat. Lars saw a slim white form dive into the water a few seconds before it sank, but turned his attention back to the longboat. The two swimmers were now aboard. With four oars out, it started moving strongly westward.
This was a tricky shot, one Lars was not certain they could manage. He needed to fire while both the longboat and cannon were on crests, the shot flying in an almost flat line above the intervening waves.
The gun crew had reloaded, and stood ready. Lars waited. He could hoist sail and overtake the longboat, but something deep in his soul revolted at the thought of ramming the crowded vessel. He did not want to look closely at the frightened, despairing faces of doomed men floundering in the water. The Portuguese might be a murderous crew who had abandoned their passengers, but they were also brave men who had fought hard to save their sinking ship.
When the alignment came, it was not quite perfect. Lars feared it was the best he would get. “Thor!” he called sharply, and the cannon thundered again. The ball barely connected with the stern of the smaller boat, but that was enough to rip it away. The longboat sank in seconds, dumping over twenty crewmen into the cold sea. And most, Lars knew, could not swim.
But someone could, a rare ability for a woman. The white form in the water was headed for the patrol boat, stroking well against the tall waves, her long blond hair now streaming out behind her. Sir William’s granddaughter had shed her heavy dress, swimming in only a thin shift. She was close enough for Lars to see that faint smile still on her lips, as if she were enjoying a relaxing swim in some freshwater pool, in the warmth of an English summer day. The shift left much of her upper body bare, showing white breasts large for her slim frame. To Lars she seemed a Valkyrie maiden, a woman out of the most ancient beliefs of the Vikings, riding a spume-tossed wave as her horse.
“Helmsman! Slow ahead!” Lars called. As the boat slowed to a crawl, he told the gunner’s mate to bring him a bow. He would not order a crewman to perform this hateful, necessary task, though he would have preferred death to doing it himself. But neither could he leave this courageous young woman to struggle for agonizing hours in the water, knowing the relentless cold would finally overcome even her strong body and fighting spirit.
When the bow and quiver appeared, Lars nocked an arrow. The girl was only six fathoms away. She looked up at Lars with that faint smile, and paused, hovering upright in the water. Moving very quickly he lifted the bow, drew to the full length of the arrow, and sent the sharp point plunging deep into her chest, squarely between the beautiful young breasts.
The girl gasped, so loudly Lars heard her clearly over the constant sound of the waves. She looked down at the shaft protruding from her body, back up at her killer -- fully smiled, as if in understanding -- and kept smiling as she sank slowly beneath the surface, a scarlet ribbon of blood trailing behind her.
As the lovely face faded from view, Lar’s glance was caught by an odd object back on the surface. At first his eyes could make no sense of it. Then the steady beat of the oars brought the boat closer, and he realized he was seeing a large rat, riding almost clear of the water. Another look, and the ugly creature’s float turned into the bloated body of a cat, its swollen stomach riding high on the waves.
Lars stared at the dead pet and its red-eyed passenger. The rat suddenly dipped its head, as if just deciding to take a bite from his raft of flesh. With no conscious thought an arrow was in Lar’s hand, onto the bowstring, and on its way. The steel point missed the rat, but plowed through the larger body of the cat. The belly burst, the carcass sank at once, and the rat began swimming.
Lars did not waste a second arrow. The rat would die in minutes in the cold Atlantic.
“Lower shields; up sail; resume patrol route,” Lars called to the mate, and headed for the cabin to help treat the wounded men who might yet live.
The rowers lowered the side shields to the retracted position and became sailors, unreefing the single large square sail. The helmsman brought the ship back on course. Behind them, several Portuguese seamen and a few English were still swimming, but the frigid water would soon drain their strength. Not one would live to bring plague ashore on Leif’s Island, out of sight to the west.
Three days later, at dusk, Lars opened the door of his wooden house in Freemensland, on the seaward shore of Leif’s Island. The little fishing village was only a few land leagues southeast of the Great Explorer’s first winter quarters on the northern shore, now a thriving town. The patrol boat crew had three days ashore before resuming another two-week stint of duty.
The first person to see Lars was Olga, his fifteen-year old daughter. She shrieked with joy and came running across the split-log floor to fling her arms around him. The remaining four children came rushing in, Swanhild, eighteen and the eldest, leading the boys. Lars saw now that she was a little more full-bodied than the English girl, but the resemblance was still very strong. He felt his eyes misting over.
The three boys stopped and stood respectfully waiting to be recognized and hugged, which they would then pretend was not something they really wanted. Johanna came hurrying in from the small kitchen, wiping her hands on a colorful apron. She smiled with joy when she saw her husband, once again home safe from the sea, and waited her turn for a hug and kiss. Only the family cat, curled lazily on a thick rag in a corner, ignored Lars.
After a marriage of twenty years, Johanna had put on weight around the hips. There was gray in her red hair, and she carried a noticeable stomach below the full breasts that had nursed five healthy children. To Lars eyes, she was still as beautiful as any slim blonde Valkyrie...
A vivid image of the girl sinking slowly beneath the waves, still smiling, blood trailing from the arrow in her chest, struck hard from memory. Lars took a deep breath; looked around his crude but comfortable home. The children were drifting away; his wife, body warm with promise, was still in his arms. If he was haunted by that forgiving smile until the day the Norns cast his last rune, it was a price he would have to pay. His family, his relatives and friends, were safe for a little longer.