Friday, November 19, 2010


Gwa'ni River, 'Namgis Territory
August, 1000 AD

The oars of the Norse knarr rose and tipped and fell, catching the evening sun with each sweep. Leif stood near the prow, watching the tall hills glide past. The interminable rains of the last few weeks had blown away on a warm wind from the sea, and the knarr had made good time by the morning's sail, but now the air was calm, and they had to row if they were going to reach land by nightfall.

For days they had sailed south along a rugged coastline that looked so much like Norway's he had almost wondered if he'd sailed the wrong direction by mistake. But the native skraelings -- wretches -- were certainly not European: brown-skinned and black-haired, with no hint of writing or knowledge of iron. Leif wondered if this land were somehow connected to Africa. Fjord after fjord they had passed, each lusher and greener than the one before. This last inlet was the biggest yet, and the air was warm and humid. Leif had high hopes.

Upon a time, Odin and Loki and Hoenir were out walking, and passed a bright pool of water, in which an otter was playing. Loki threw a stone and killed the otter, and threw it over his shoulder. Then the three gods came to a fine house, and they asked to stay there for the night. The house was owned by a man named Hreidmar, who welcomed them warmly at first. But then he saw the otter skin over Loki's shoulder, and cried out, for the otter was his son. "I will kill you!" he cried, and bound the gods round with magic -- for he was a powerful magician.

At first the gods feared that they would be killed. But then Odin, the god of promises and fair dealing, offered to pay a ransom in exchange for his son's life; for although it was an accident, still justice must be done. The man Hreidmar agreed, saying, "Bring me a ransom of gold great enough to stuff the otter's skin, and pile up over it until not even a whisker shows."

Leif's foster-father, Tyrker, came and stood next to him in the prow. Tyrker, short and black-haired, had gotten his name because when he'd been a slave, people teased him that he was a Turk. In fact he was the son of a Swede and a Russian, and his sister was a tall and willowy blonde.

"We'll make for that headland," said Leif, pointing.

"There are cook-fires there, my lord," said Tyrker.

"There are cook-fires everywhere," said Leif. "And no wonder. This place is paradise; there are probably many, many skraelings here."

"But we can't just land among them. It's too dangerous."

"The skraelings are usually friendly, if you don't act stupid."

Tyrker growled. "What about the ones who shot us with arrows? I almost got skewered!"

"You'd stolen the meat right off their fire, Tyrker."

"I was hungry. Besides, it was just a bird. There is no proper meat in this country -- no cattle, no pigs, no goats..."

Leif arched and eyebrow at him. "Yes," he said. "Are you hungry?"

"No, thank you, lord. I had some of the fish that we -- "

"Good. Then perhaps the skraelings will be friendly tonight."

Tyrker scowled at him and grunted.

Upon a time, when all the world was young, a man called Gwa'nalalis settled in Xwalkw with his family. When he had lived there a while, a great and powerful spirit named Kaniki'lakw came to him as he was fishing, and asked him:

"Do you want to be a mountain?"

Gwa'nalalis laughed and answered, "No, for mountains have slides; and they crumble and crumble away, for as long as the days dawn in the world."

Thorvald stepped up behind them. "It is beautiful," he sighed. "Brother, I think you've found a place worthy of the name Leifland."

Leif laughed and clapped him on the back. The sun had fallen behind the hills, and the sky was slashed and spattered with orange and gold. Flocks of birds swept through the sky in uncountable numbers. The lights of cook-fires were scattered along the coast like stars washed up on shore.

"Get the weapons ready," said Leif quietly.

Loki was chosen to find the gold for the otter's ransom. He was on good terms with the giants, so borrowed a powerful net from them, and went and trapped an exceedingly rich dwarf, who was guarding his treasure in the form of a pike. The dwarf agreed to give up all his gold in exchange for his life, but begged Loki not to take one particular ring, the one he loved above all others. Loki laughed and took the ring, of course; but the dwarf put a curse on it, so that all who wore it would suffer illness and death.

The knarr was drawing near the shore now, and though dusk was gathering over the waters, it was easy to spot the boats of the skraelings as they rowed out to meet them. They were large, many of them big enough to be seaworthy, and solidly made -- Leif guessed they had been dug out of a single gigantic log. Lumber would be the wealth of Leifland: never had he seen such trees!

"These are the largest boats we've seen yet," said Tyrker.

"Still none as large and strong as the knarr," said Leif. "Or as fast."

"No sails," murmered Thorvald.

"And no sign of iron," said Leif.

"Don't forget the arrows," growled Tyrker.

So Kaniki'lakw asked Gwa'nalalis if he wanted to be a cedar tree.

Gwa'nalalis laughed again and answered "No! Cedar trees can be struck by lightning, and will split and fall; and then they rot and rot, for as long as the days dawn in the world."

So Kaniki'lakw asked Gwa'nalalis, "Do you want to be a large boulder?"

Gwa'nalalis laughed again and answered "No! I may crack and then crumble and crumble away, for as long as the days dawn in the world."

Finally, Kaniki'lakw asked Gwa'nalalis, "Do you want to become a river?"

And Gwa'nalalis answered, "Yes, let me become a river. That way, I may flow and flow, for as long as the days dawn in the world."

When a skraeling boat seemed near enough, Leif called out to it greetings in Norse, and, after a moment, Latin.

Thorvald laughed. "What was that, brother?" he said. "Christian language?"

"Hush," hissed Leif. "Yes, it's -- "

The skraelings called back, but not in any language they knew.

"Put your weapons and shields at your feet," called Leif. "Show your bare hands. We're all friends, for now." He raised his hands over his head and called out, "Friends!"

Many skraelings were shouting from their boats now, and waving. Leif saw no weapons in their boats, exactly -- but he saw many small knives, bows, harpoons, and other tools of the hunt. Some of those harpoons were huge. He wondered if they hunted whales...

Wretches they might be, but if they hunted whales, they might be formidable opponents.

Loki put the dwarf's ring in his pocket and brought the rest of the dwarf's gold to the house of otter's father Hreidmar, where Odin and Hoenir were still bound; and he filled the otter skin, and heaped it up over it, until it was all covered; but he kept the ring in his pocket. Hreidmar carefully looked over the pile, and found one place where the otter's whisker poked out of the gold. He declared that if the whisker were not covered, the ransom was not paid. So Loki took the ring from his pocket and put it on the whisker. Hreidmar accepted the ransom, and released the gods; and only then, when the terms were accepted, did Loki tell him of the spell on the ring, and that he and his family were cursed with illness and death. And so the gods departed.

"Leif," said Thorvald, "are you sure this is wise?"

The boats of the skraelings, which seemed to crowd all the water between the knarr and the shore, were now surrounding them. With shouts and cries and gestures, the skraelings were guiding the knarr towards the headland. Leif, not seeing any option, had told the rowers to go along.

"I don't know, Thorvald," he said. "Was it wise to leave Norway, where I could have chosen the safe life of a cloistered monk, and head back west to live among you pagans? Was it wise to leave our father's plantations in Greenland? Was it wise to purchase an old knarr and head further west than any Northman has ever been? You tell me if that was wise, Thorvald."

Thorvald had no answer for that.

"For now, our lives are in their hands," said Leif. "They seem friendly now. Maybe they will give us a lovely dinner. Maybe they will give us a lovely dinner, and then make a lovely dinner of us. There is nothing we can do but pray."

"Then I will pray to Thor," growled Thorvald.

"And I will pray to Jesus," said Leif. "We might as well get as many gods as possible on our side. You can't be too careful."

The skraelings began to sing along to the steady beats of the knarr's oars, a haunting tune that ran and rolled and thundered like a cascade.

And so the great spirit Kaniki'lakw put his hand on Gwa'nalalis's forehead and pushed him down, saying, "Here on this earth, you will be a river, for as long as the days dawn in the world. And you will be full of salmon so that your descendants may never starve." And today that river, the Gwa'ni, is still the river of the 'Namgis.

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