The icy water trimmed a distant horizon with an iron-grey depression, its gloomy restlessness only broken by a myriad of irritated whitecaps that flecked the surface in a thousand places.
Omens meant a great deal and the portents on this day were not favourable, the silent observer decided sadly. Seated alone on a vast, sandy beach strewn with pebbles and shells, his green-eyed gaze burned intently from beneath a thick fringe of ebony hair, overflowing across a pair of broad, muscular shoulders and falling down his back nearly to his waist, with some of the greasy ends trailing in the sand as he sat. A long, bushy, unkempt beard added to the aura of self neglect.
The man continued to stare out across the water as if he could somehow magically see beyond its vast expanse, back beyond the many weeks of hard sailing; back to his home and a family he knew he was unlikely ever to see again, not in this life anyway.
Gunnar Hulfbrok was nearing his thirtieth year, which was quite an achievement for a Viking warrior with an infamous appetite for wealth and war. From his early teenage years, he had spent more time away from the hearths of his kin than any other adventurer, save possibly for the great Leif Eriksson, in whose footsteps he had just spend the past year following.
Vinland had been lost, to all intents and purposes, fifty years before Hulfbrok's insatiable desire to explore had led him across the deadly waters to its less than favourable shores. The few temporary settlements had only lasted a few seasons before being overrun by Skraelings (Viking name for the natives) after Leif's brother; Thorvald, had made the fatal error of antagonising them.
Despite the superiority of Viking weaponry and armour, Thorvald's party had been overwhelmed by sheer numbers and many of his warriors had been called back to Valhalla, to feast with the Gods. Any traces of Eriksson's initial settlement; Leifsbúðir, had also long since disappeared.
In fact, Hulfbrok had found no sign of anything Viking when he finally reached the fabled land, despite having meticulously followed Eriksson's original route from the first landfall on the rocky Helluland, then down to the heavily-forested Markland before finally alighting in more temperate, grape-infested Vinland.
Although his people were known to still make regular journeys across the ocean, they were no longer well-provisioned raiding parties but simply trading vessels looking to stock up on timber and any grapes that could be quickly harvested close to shore, before the natives could be alerted. These Skraelings were skilled warriors, especially with the bow and spear, and numbered in the many hundreds. Any thoughts of renewed settling of Vinland were pointless and now expressly forbidden.
Yet Hulfbrok's thirst for blood and spoils were not the main reasons driving him this time. He had been a highly successful raider of the English coastline for the past decade and had accrued enough gold and silver to live a very comfortable life without ever needing to step aboard a longship again. With a good wife and three strong sons to his credit, and a large farm back at home, his decision to set sail one last time had been met with quiet dismay.
Already heavily scarred from fighting too many battles; missing one ear and with a permanent ache in his right shoulder from an old arrow wound, Hulfbrok had tempted Odin once too often in his wife's eyes so she had said her farewells to her husband with a heated, sweating, frenzied passion the night before he'd sailed; sensing that she would never lay eyes on his face again.
Now, with his own call to the great hall of Valhalla close at hand, Gunnar Hulfbrok thought back on that night with fondness; his wife's scent and warmth were so real to him as to be almost tangible. They had made love all night long, over and over; her moist depths sucking him inside her for hours and draining him dry, perhaps willing the Gods to bless her belly with one more son from her soon-to-be-dead husband.
A rustle in the long grass behind his back, which trimmed the inland edge of the beach for miles along its length, pricked his one good ear and he sighed deeply. The air around him was hot and calm, with barely a breath of wind to shield their approach. Hulfbrok knew that he was no longer alone and steeled himself.
Standing up, yet keeping his back to the grass, the Viking prepared to fight yet again, as he had done for many months since first landing in this accursed place. To any of his crew; all long dead and now simply a jumble of bleaching bones strewing the path of their journey inland, Hulfbrok would not even have been recognisable as the tall, powerful warrior who had led their party of fifty souls ashore nearly a year earlier.
Stepping slowly towards the gently rolling surf, putting some additional distance between himself and whatever was lurking in the long grass, his bare feet were soon being chilled by the tide as he prepared for the battle.
The terrain had been so hard that he had worn out his boots and two replacement pairs he had managed to fashion on the journey, from the skin of deer and rabbits they had hunted. When he had finally found himself alone three weeks earlier; the last survivor of his murdered longship crew, his sole focus needed to be survival. Pausing to fashion another set of boots was a luxury he could ill afford. Barefoot since then, with the skin on the soles of his feet now calloused and hard, Hulfbrok barely noticed any discomfort.
Devoid of his heavy armour, that he had ditched many weeks earlier in favour of his simple woollen shirt, leggings and blood-red leather tunic, he looked like a Saxon peasant. Hardly much to choose between his own attire and that of the Skraelings; who had been hunting him for months.
His Saxon appearance was further enhanced by the absence of the traditional Viking axe, spear or round shield. Hulfbrok carried only a long, bone-handled butcher knife in his belt, a simple hunting bow and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder. His prized possession; a beautifully forged long sword in an iron-studded leather scabbard, hung at his hip.
Once belonging to an English sheriff, the blade was so strong and sharp that it had immediately replaced Hulfbrok's faithful old axe. Since acquiring it on one particularly successful raid against an English coastal town, he had split many foes from throat to belly with it, including at least two dozen Skraelings.
Despite the weakness in his body from not having eaten for several days; subsisting on berries and fallen fruit just so he could keep up a relentless pace back to the sea, Hulfbrok's sudden, explosive spinning motion took the creeping Skraelings by surprise, especially as his bow had miraculously found its way into his grip and was already drawing back with an arrow notched.
There were six of them, which was a fairly typical number for a hunting party, Hulfbrok knew. In a strange way, he had expected to see many more of them but perhaps his speedy flight had kept the rest of them at bay or forced the groups to separate to try and cut him off before he could escape.
For all he knew, there could be another hundred Skraelings about to come charging through the long grass to send him, finally, to Valhalla. There, he would feast with the Gods and the many friends and kin who he'd seen fall in a hundred battles.
Masters of stealth, the Skraelings had decided to approach from behind and take their prey quickly, before he could use his fearsome blade on their flesh. The first four men, faces all garishly painted in red and blue patterns; wore simple deer-hide tunics and carried sharpened stone axes. The two bringing up the rear held roughly hewn wooden spears, tipped with sharpened flint.
Hulfbrok eyed the approach with the calculating, dispassionate eye of an experienced warrior. If this was all he had to contend with, the fight would be easily won, he decided. Without even pausing for deliberate thought, he sent two arrows into the spearmen, taking each accurately in the throat, killing them instantly in theatrical gouts of spraying crimson.
Hearing the gurgles of agony behind them served to slow the already faltering advance of the others. With surprise gone, his assailants had heard enough stories from their tribe about the demon they now faced to be wary.
Their uncertainty proved fatal. Two more arrows whistled away from Hulfbrok's hunting bow and another two living humans became food for the crows.
Committed and with rising blood-lust, the remaining Skraelings came at him fast and low. As they reached him simultaneously, his sword hissed from its scabbard and sung through the air. Slice, stab. Then it was over and the two natives lay dead at his feet; twitching in their death throes as their spilt blood began to colour the foaming water around Hulfbrok's ankles a vivid, churning scarlet.
Stepping out of the sea and heading up the beach, he checked that all six were dead and retrieved his arrows. They were metal tipped and had travelled with him all the way from his own forges, where he had created them himself. Whenever he used them, he tried to recover them. Sadly, he realised, he only had six of his original thirty left now. On several occasions, in running battles with the Skraelings, he and his men had been lucky to escape alive let alone have the chance to go back and retrieve arrows from the cooling corpses of the dead.
The victory would be short-lived he knew. He had to get away immediately and began to trot up the beach, settling into an easy lope that he had perfected after being on the run constantly for over three months. It was a speed he would be able to keep up for hours and take him many miles from that place before darkness fell.
The next morning, after passing a restless, cold night secreted in the upper boughs of a large tree set a few hundred feet back from the ever-present beach; Hulfbrok took stock of his situation for the thousandth time.
The good news was that he was not far from his destination. Taking regular fixes from the sun and the stars, he had used his considerable navigation skills to guide his men out into the dreaded Shadowland and then back again, aiming for the place where they had hidden their longship.
This fabled land of misery and terror; Hulfbrok's destination and reason for coming, was never mentioned in the stories and sagas, having deliberately been omitted by Leif Eriksson and his company upon their return from Vinland all those years before. The other elements of the adventure had all been immortalised in verse and song but not this foul land, beset by death and disease.
Hulfbrok knew the truth about why the place had been given its depressing name but he was one of only a handful of living Vikings who knew why the Skraelings had really turned on Eriksson's brother; Thorvald. Unlike the stories, it had nothing to do with the natives trying to steal Viking weapons and armour, or the milking cows that seemed to so enrapture them.
In fact, the history of Vinland and the relationship between the native population and the exploring Norsemen never needed to have deteriorated into bloodshed. The land was vast and the Skraelings; though many, had been initially very happy to offer a share of the land's bounty to the strange visitors.
The information had come from his grandfather, who had sailed with Thorvald on his final, ill-fated expedition across the great sea. Barely into manhood, his grandfather had been included in the party as his first ever adventure and had been one of the few survivors to return home again.
When Hulfbrok was a boy, his grandfather had regaled him with a fanciful tale which he had initially believed to have been created to rival the traditional sagas. The story of Thorvald was already legendary by then and being the grandson of one of his crew would have been exciting enough for any young Viking, regardless of the yarn. Interestingly enough, the tale only came out when his parents were away and his grandfather was in charge of the farm.
According to the story, Thorvald had travelled to Vinland with a small fleet of longships, with five longships part of the fleet which were expressly filled with a great treasure.
His grandfather had never told him what the treasure was, just that it was so valuable that the entire expedition had been undertaken in secrecy; setting out from a range of different points and rendezvousing just off the coast of Norway before setting out across the sea for Vinland.
'Vinland was not our destination,' his old grandfather had explained, one night. 'You see, boy, Leif Eriksson had realised just how vast the lands truly were and his initial scouting parties travelled for weeks at a time, bringing back news of the wonders of the interior. Helped by the Skraelings.'
'I thought they slew all our men, sending them back to Valhalla to feast with Thor and Odin, grandfather?'
'Not at first.' His grandfather's expression had frozen into a mask of sad reflection at that point, cast in a dozen flickering shadows from the open fire pit. 'The Skraelings were kind and generous. They shared their food and knowledge of the land in ways we would not have done if the roles had been reversed.' Another sigh followed, rattling with the approaching fever that would soon take him from the world. 'They led us far inland, into a dark realm that promised an eternal sanctuary for the treasure we bore across the water.'
'Ah…only the Gods know this now, boy. I am the last of Thorvald's crew and my days under the sun will soon be done,' he had prophesised. 'You do not need to know. All I can tell you is that the journey was long and hard, and the mountains we finally reached offered the perfect resting place, in a cave so deep that it has never seen the light of day.'
Hulfbrok ran through the memories of his grandfather's last telling of the story and felt a faint smile wander involuntarily across his lips. The old man had steadfastly refused to tell him any more about the treasure but had explained why the relationships between the Vikings and the Skraelings had soured so violently. It was simple and brutal.
So important was whatever treasure they'd just carted hundreds of miles into the depths of an unchartered land that Thorvald had needed to protect its final resting place in the only permanent way he knew how. Death.
Thirty Skraeling guides had led the Vikings safely through the most treacherous terrain and even carried some of the treasure on their own backs. In a journey lasting many weeks, the entire host of warriors and merchants had lost only three of their number to accident and illness. Upon secreting their treasure in a deep cave network, Thorvald had given the order to murder their guides. An unpleasant step, he knew, but one that would guarantee this most precious of cargoes was never be disturbed again, nor ever find its way back to Norway.
When the deed had been done and the bodies disposed of in the same deep cave, the Norsemen had begun the long, hazardous return trek to the coast, and the boats which would carry them joyfully home.
By the time they arrived back at Leifsbúðir, however, three long winters had passed and two hundred men had been savagely culled to barely eighty. As the Skraelings tribes along the return path became aware that their own kin no longer walked with the strangers, and had not been heard from, the realisation of treachery sank in and there began a merciless harrying of the Viking column all the way back. Attacks came by day and by night in a never ending succession.
Travelling became impossible for great lengths of time, even in spring and summer. In the winter, friend and foe alike hunkered down in makeshift camps to ride out the blizzards and ice.
Despite their skill at arms and, initially, strength of numbers, the Vikings had been slowly, inevitably whittled down.
By the time Thorvald made his final stand against the Skraelings, there were barely thirty of his men left. Barely enough to man two of the longships, in which they eventually managed to escape. None of the survivors would ever see the shores of Vinland again, nor wish to.
For Thorvald himself, there would be no such escape. Legends told of him falling in defence of the longships; killed by an arrow strike beneath his arm.
With the surrounding birds calm in the treetops and soothed by the clear rhythm of the crashing waves against the shore, Gunnar Hulfbrok took a chance and slipped quietly down from his sleeping spot to continue running up the beach, eyes scanning all around as he moved.
He had envisioned the moment for many days yet hardly dared to believe it would come to pass. Suddenly, rounding a curve on the shore, recognition of a place came hammering home to him as clearly as if the great God Thor had delivered a mighty blow to his skull with Mjolnir, his lightning-spewing hammer.
A small grove of oak trees sat back from the water's edge a good fifty feet and three large mounds of sand sat just in front of it, on the seaward side. A line of grey granite boulders protruded around the grove, forming a vague horseshoe shape, as if cradling the trees in a protective embrace.
When he had last been there, he and his crew had worked together to first overturn, and then completely bury, three of the boats in which they had travelled across the sea. As the last survivor, he needed to work fast if he was to have any chance of staying alive. There were others buried further up the beach but he was alone now and only needed one of them.
Using his bare hands, Hulfbrok began to dig one of the boats out. Strong winds had already done much of the hard work for him luckily and most of the upturned, clinker-built wooden hull was only covered by a thin layer a few inches deep.
An hour of hard work and the boat was fully exposed. Small, even for a knarr vessel, it was still nearly fifteen feet in length and it took every ounce of sinew and muscle he possessed to turn it over and drag it down to the lapping water.
By the time he pushed it free from the grip of the sand, releasing it to float freely on the waves, he was dripping in sweat and his heart pounded so rapidly in his chest that he feared it would explode.
The sudden thunking and plinking of flint-tipped arrows into the sand all around him offered him no time to rest, or recuperate. Instead, he summoned his last dregs of energy, pushed the knarr out until he was up to his chest in water, then clambered aboard and grabbed a pair of oars.
One set of oars was woefully inadequate for the journey ahead of him but, with an outgoing tide, it provided just enough power to quickly distance himself from the shore. Facing the beach, as he rowed out to sea, he shuddered to see a wave of angry, shrieking Skraelings surge down onto the beach; numbering in their hundreds.
With their quarry already too far out to reach by swimming, they resorted to a hail of arrows that rained down on the open boat mercilessly for the next few minutes; impaling the little vessel until it resembled a fleeing porcupine.
Inside the knarr; with the light, beautifully-crafted boat being pulled inexorably away from danger by the tide, Hulfbrok abandoned his oars and slipped beneath the protection of a large, round shield that he'd pulled from the floor of the boat. At least two dozen arrows would have struck him if it had not been for this shield.
Once the arrows stopped coming, he sat back up and eyed Vinland for the last time himself, understanding exactly how Thorvald's fleeing crew must have felt upon their own escape from the Skraelings, fifty years earlier.
With the sun beating down from a surprisingly blue sky, and with a keen sea breeze now beginning to get up, Hulfbrok allowed himself a moment to celebrate his escape before turning his mind over to the arduous ocean crossing that lay ahead of him. Greenland was many days away, even if the conditions were favourable.
Securing the centre mast, Hulfbrok unfurled the single, large sail. With only himself aboard, he would be needed at the tiller so his survival depended now upon the wind. Rowing was not an option.
Setting the sail; a bold, striped design in red and cream, Hulfbrok settled in at the stern and headed out towards the distant horizon; his way pointed out by the carved dragon's head on the front of the boat.
If he perished, then the secret of the treasure would finally be lost forever. He had seen enough to know that his grandfather's tale was true. Many good, brave men had died and it had all ended up being for nothing. True, he had finally found the cave and feasted his eyes upon wonders he had never dreamed could have existed. Yet, the wrath of the Skraelings had not been dimmed by the passing of time since Thorvald's doomed trek. Their memory ran as deep as a clear, icy fjord back home and his expedition had fled, empty-handed save for a few trinkets he carried with him.
Hulfbrok had planned to return home with the treasure, to a hero's welcome and a comfortable retirement. Now, he decided, he would just be grateful to survive to hold his wife once more and to tell stories to his children.
It was all up to the Gods.