The Landing Squall

   All Eskil knew was the smothering chill of the embracing sea. The waves rhythmically lifted and lowered him and the broken mast he clung to, as they moved past. But he couldn’t focus on any of that, his body was numb and his thoughts slow and thick.

   Death beckoned.

   A storm had come out of nowhere to darken the sky and push their two ships off course. Wind and mountainous waves had driven them well away from their Greenland heading, and then, after what seemed an age of battling the tempest, stolen the other ship out of sight. At that point, with a prayer to Odin, Eskil could only focus on his own ship and people.
   Though they struggled until their limbs ached with exhaustion to handle the protesting ship through the heaving seas, it was finally swamped by a monstrous wave. His last memories of the chaos were his crew’s desperate attempts to hold the craft together until another wall of brine had come to tear it all apart, leaving him alone in the water, not even knowing for sure where he’d last seen his expecting wife, Gudrid.
   The worst of the weather had then dissipated, as if its job was done.
   To lose out at the end of such an elemental fight was maddening, but rage was not something Eskil could conjure up anymore. Not at all. For now, drained and battered, he was being overcome by the chill of the sea.
   He knew it wouldn’t be long; soon the cold would claim him, stealing his last breath away as it kissed his shivering lips.
   Barely aware, he dimly noted the clouds beginning to break up, although the rain continued. Such a thing at least declared that the storm had well and truly passed.
   Maybe that was a victory of sorts; that he’d survived such a vile tempest.
   He clung to the ruin of the ship’s mast and sail, still entangled in the rigging as best he’d been able to manage after finding himself in the sea. Once he’d secured himself to it, as the rain had drummed down, he’d begun calling out and looking for his beloved Gudrid, but he’d seen and heard nothing from her or any of the others.
   Bound to floating timbers he was relatively safe from the threat of the sea finding his lungs, although it left him with only one other task; trying to stay awake. If he couldn’t he’d die. He knew the icy water was far more likely to kill him than anything else.
   Accompanied by the ship’s ruin, the soft call of the wind, and a grey curtain of rain, he seemed otherwise alone.
   Alone and abandoned.
   He faded, barely noticing or aware.
   The rhythmic motion of the waves continued to gently lift and drop him, while the wind droned on and the rain began to fade.
   Jerking awake, setting his sodden blonde hair to flick about his face, Eskil realised that he’d blacked out for a moment, perhaps for longer, he didn’t really know. He tried to curse, but his voice failed him, coming out as a shivering rasp. That should have frightened him, but instead he lay his forehead back down against the timber of the mast, although his instincts cried out that he shouldn’t.
   Something stirred in him: his spirit trying to rally anything that remained. Roused, he finally hissed out across the waves, “Odin, help me! Take me to this new land you’ve led me to seek!”
   There was no answer.
   Eskil’s grip began to slacken and his mind fall to thoughts dark and grim.
   But a sound came, something not of the wind or waves, or even the gods. The noise grabbed his attention.
   What was it?
   And then it came again: the call of a bird, of a raven.
   A raven meant land!
   Fighting to wake himself, to focus, he tightened his grip.
   The raven sounded again, joined by another’s call.
   Land!
   And then, following that sweet chorus, came the crash of rolling surf.
   Land was near!
   He lifted his head to look about, only to see nothing but water as he was caught in a tight grey-blue valley between passing waves. Once it moved on, he roused enough and in time to make a new discovery; beneath the waterline his numb feet briefly stirred gravel as they dragged along the seabed.
   Shallows!
   He looked past the mast and tangled lines and cloth of the ship’s sail in front of him to the overcast sky, the grey shroud of rain brighter where it hid the sun to the west.
   To the west, where yet more land was reputed to be.
   And then his feet found the shallows again.
   Clumsily, and still hugging the mast while up to his neck in the chilling sea, he took a step forward to find yet more seabed – and it was rising.
   The curtain of rain continued to fade, revealing huge but distant silhouettes: the dark forms, steep-sided, loomed as the mouth of a great fjord. With each moment more land became visible in shades of grey as a rugged coastline opened up in front of him.
   “By Odin!” he whispered through chattering teeth.
   Eskil took another step on the stones of the seabed, only to find the water so shallow that he stumbled to his knees. His spirit soared as he worked with numb and awkward fingers to untangle himself from the rigging that had bound him to the mast. Finally free, he rose and stepped forward as he sought to escape the water.
   He would live!
   He looked at the land emerging from the failing drizzle, as he stumbled forward. His mind, still half lost, began to stir, but for now noted the green of grass and grey of rock ahead – and that he remained alone. Gazing up and down the shoreline he searched for a sign that the others had also made it.
   Anyone, most especially his Gudrid!
   The thought choked him up, setting him to shake and shiver as he staggered out of the foaming surf: he’d promised his thirty followers a new life of land and freedom away from rising kings and the creeping influence of the White Christ.
   They’d only honour the old gods!
   Just ahead of him the rocky shore climbed up and gave way to a narrow pasture, a few shrubs and tumbles of larger stones, before the side of a low green hill began. Much further on along the shore rose the steeper entry into the fjord, as it ran away to meet with other valleys. Yet, much of it was still lost to the colourless haze of drizzle.
   After a few more exhausted steps he was out of the water, across the stony shore, and onto pasture.
   He dropped to his knees.
   Here he was alone and in the wilds, lost on the rugged shores of Markland or some other place beyond Greenland.
   But he was alive!
   Behind him, debris from the ship washed up, including a great section of the hull, which had beached. He could also see one of his people bobbing facedown in the water.
   He got up and stumbled back to the surf, reaching the body; it was Drifa. He pulled her up to the gravel, but to no avail, she was dead.
   He growled, “Damn you Odin, I was doing this for you! To bring your faith to a new land away from those who’ve turned from your might!” Exhausted, verging on delirium, he collapsed onto the rocks that led up to the pasture, his spirit all but broken. “You led me here, you whispered to me in my dreams of a westerly land I should seek. Well, I came and found it, now I’m here!”
   And then the wind died, as the last of the squall’s clouds and rain parted to let the midafternoon sun shine down from over the distant heart of the fjord in the west. The light washed over him, golden, generous and warm.
   Eskil struggled up, rising back to his feet, as he called out, “Odin, give me this land and I’ll give it back to you a thousand fold!”
   A raven called, drawing his attention.
   Amidst the golden glare, something highlighted for a moment by the departing showers, Eskil saw a raven perched on a tall stone rising straight and true by the tumbled boulders at the base of the hill.
   He stepped forward, drawn to it.
   The raven watched his approach.
   With each step he slowed, not believing what he could see; a stone taller than a man and marked by the runes of his people.
   The runes read: "The Landing".
   “By the gods!”

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