The stars changed two days after their ship left Greenland, while Harald was at the tiller.
On a dark, clear, cold night, sea calm as glass, the stars suddenly and silently began to whirl and dance and rearrange themselves in bright streaks of white light. When they settled again, they were in patterns Harald did not recognize, and he knew they were now lost. The women and children were sleeping, but the men exchanged silent glances and whispers. They would not let their families know. There would be panic. Harald continued to hold a course that he hoped was still southwest, towards Vinland, and the new settlement of Leifsbudir. But the strange stars gave no clues, and he avoided looking at them.
Three days later, the mirror ship appeared.
Harald’s youngest boy was the first to see it, looming in and out of the heavy snow and crushing fog that enveloped them in the morning. The swell was rolling high, and their ship was spinning like a top in the salt and spray. At first, his family did not believe him. Children invent tales for reasons entirely their own. But as the fog slowly began to lift it could not be ignored. It was the smell that made it most real; the stench of death, and their own panic.
In the daylight, it was silvery grey, as though it were made of rain. It was always there, immediately to their south. When it became clear that young Olaf had been telling the truth, and the families had all rushed to the rail to see, it had been far off to the port side. But not so far that they couldn’t see the black-clad shapes, gathered on the starboard side of the mirror ship, mimicking and mocking their every move. Mikael hailed the other vessel, demanding they identify themselves. But there was no sound in return; only the roar and crash of the waves, and the howl of the ice-cold wind. For hours, the two ships sailed together. Harald experimented with veering away and veering towards the strange apparition, but it always doubled his movements and remained exactly where it had been before.
Karl left the crowd of watching women and children and sauntered across the deck to Harald at the tiller.
Karl left the crowd of watching women and children and sauntered across the deck to Harald at the tiller.
“They’re Draugr.” Lifeless, undead beings, of ill-omen and ill-fortune.
“Maybe. But if they stay where they are, they’re the least of our problems.”
“How much food do we have left.”
“Enough for another week. It’ll be pickled herring and nothing else by the end, though.”
“Good.” There was a silence.
“Do you have any idea where we are?” Karl asked quietly.
“No. By dead reckoning, I’d say we were east of Markland. But I have no idea.” He swallowed.
“Do they know?”
“No. They were asleep. I don’t think any of the women have noticed.”
“And the children?”
“Your Olaf is a sharp one. He may have spotted something.” Their eyes turned back to the apparition, bobbing silently on the swell beyond. “What do we do?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t turn back. We just keep sailing.” He dashed the spray from his eyes. “Your brother was lost in these seas last year, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. Or at least, that’s what Aalsund said when he came back from Vinland. Said their ship never arrived at Sálarhöfn.”
At night, it became worse. The ship glowed a sickly green, and they could see it clear as daylight marked out on the black of the sea and sky. When the snow faded and the seas began to calm after midnight, the men thought they could hear a keening that continued after the wind; a sombre, ghostly note. At night the smell of charnel houses and charred wood and clammy earth became more pungent; an alien stench beneath the tang of the salt air. The stars peeked out again through the clouds. They were of no help. The air was getting colder. Karl and Harald’s breath hung in misty clouds before them, as they shivered at the tiller in silence.
At dawn, the eerie glow faded, but the mirror ship was still there. Karl spoke in a low voice.
“Is it the curse? Did the old man’s evil follow us here?”
This was the first allusion to the reason they had left Greenland. To the feud with Red Erik, who refused to bow to the Christian God. Who ruled Greenland through dread, and the rights he claimed as the discoverer of the land. Who had expelled Harald and Karl and Thorfin and Mikael, and all their families, for daring to show their loyalty to his son Leif, who had tried and failed to persuade his father to abandon Odin, Thor, and the other gods. Who had cursed them, as their ship left Gardar, all the old Greenland families huddled on the cliffs behind him, his hands extended in malediction. They had hoped that in Vinland, they would be safe, among Christians. Now they did not know if they would see another living soul again.
“No. Something else is at work here. I can feel it.”
“Should we turn back?” Karl’s voice was calm.
“No. It’s too late now.” Harald’s hands flexed on the tiller. Karl nodded.
“I trust you.”
It grew colder. Icebergs, always present, began to crowd thick and fast on the horizon. Great looming mountains of blue and white, sailing majestically south. But what was south? Where were they headed now?
On the fifth day, they saw land.
Again, young Olaf was the first to see it. He ran the length of the ship from the prow to the stern, calling
A sigh of relief rose from the women and children huddled in the centre of the ship. Harald’s wife Anna rose from the group and followed Olaf towards Harald, smiling broadly, her teeth gleaming in the sun.
“Jesus Christ be praised. I knew He would not abandon us.”
“Jesus Christ be praised,” Harald repeated, with a forced smile. Harald did not know how comfortable he felt with this new God, this interloper from the far desert. What business did He have on these seas? He held his peace for Anna’s sake, though.
“Do you recognize it?” She asked.
Harald squinted at the land, still so far away. As they grew nearer, he smiled.
“Yes. Yes!” He laughed with relief. “It is Helluland!”
“Yes! The land of flat stones. Two hundred leagues north of Markland! We are safe! We’ve crossed the sea.”
Anna’s pale blue eyes turned and squinted at the shore, now looming grey and imposing above them, all dead stone and dark lichen. Seabirds cawed and wheeled, desperately small, overhead.
“It looks a ghastly place.”
“It is, ” Harald agreed. He did not tell her the stories he had heard from other sailors in Gardar. That it was an alien, demon-haunted land. A harsh and unforgiving landscape, full of strange presences in the ice and snow. “We will not linger here. But we must find fresh water and see if we can kill some seals to replenish our stores. Then, thank God, we’ll be on our way south.” Harald did not tell Anna that his constant efforts to steer them south under the unfamiliar stars had somehow brought them north. Further north even than Greenland.
“Father, we found land!” Olaf was giddy with excitement. His shock of red hair waving frantically in the wind.
“Yes, we did, my boy! Welcome to Helluland.” He scooped the boy up in his arms, and the child giggled and squirmed.
“And the ship is gone!”
Harald looked south. And indeed, the mirror ship had vanished. He exhaled heavily, relief flooding through him.
The ship ran south (and Harald now recognized the coast, and knew it was south) for ten leagues along the rocky cliffs. They were monumental, titanic. Streaked with snow and capped with ice, with sea ice piled in jagged shards at their base, even in this high summer. No man could live on these terrible mountains. But the more Harald saw, the more he felt the tension and horror of the last few days stream away behind him. He knew where he was.
“Within a day we’ll come to Sálarhöfn. It is Aalsund’s trading post. He and his men barter with the Skraelings here.” It was hard, dangerous, but lucrative work, trading in these northern waters. The Skraelings, strange, copper-faced, small men dressed in furs and skins, would never stay, but they would bring strange wonders, narwhal tusks, whale oil, sealskins, and other bounties of these harsh, northern seas, and receive in return iron, and leather, and whatever other goods Aalsund and his men had managed to procure from Europe. Harald had never been to the trading port, but he had heard Aalsund speak of it often.
Sure enough, after they had run with the icy north wind all down that majestic, desolate coast, the cliffs gradually shortened and faded, and late that night, the sun barely dipping low in the summer sky, they passed the mouth of a fjord. Harald knew it by sight, and he steered the ship through the gates of the inlet, where the wind abruptly faded. They got out the oars and rowed the ship down the channel, the cliffs lowering on either side of them. After a half-hour or so, they saw the little hamlet of longhouses and barns and wharves in the distance.
As they got closer, they saw that they were ruins. Blackened, collapsed, and silent. No smoke rose from the charred remnants of the settlement. It had been dead for some time.
They beached their ship in silence, and slowly filed off onto the grey pebble beach. The stone walls of the longhouses were charred black, the sod roofs had buckled as the wooden beams beneath them had given way. Burnt corpses of sheep and chickens littered the ground. The air stank of ash, smoke, and burnt flesh. They had smelled it before. It was the smell that had followed the Mirror Ship. Karl was first to speak.
“What happened here?”
“I don’t know.”
The women and children stayed huddled by the ship. Karl, Harald, Mikael, and Thorfin drew their swords and advanced to explore the ruins. Anna followed them. Harald turned and gestured for her to say with the boats.
“I’m coming with you.”
“It isn’t safe.”
“I don’t care. I need to know.” Harald didn’t say a word, he just turned, and let her follow. He turned to Mikael. The young man was trembling, his lip quivering.
“He may not have been here.” Mikael’s brother Bjarni had sailed for Sálarhöfn the previous summer. He had not been heard from since.
“He was. I know it.” Mikael’s voice was cracking. Harald put his hand on his shoulder. It began to snow lightly.
“Search the rubble.”
The ashes of the buildings were long cold, but the snow had not yet fallen thick enough to bury them. Tendrils of powdery snow snaked over the ruins and across the ground in the cold breeze. Gusts pulled it into strange shapes and writhing snakes of white. Legs of cows and sheep were frozen in the air in horrible, gnarled positions. There was no sign of any of the human inhabitants. Until they came to the church.
The church appeared intact, but for the wooden cross hanging askew from a small steeple, one of its arms broken and dangling. But the roof was still standing, and the men could pass through the door into the dark space within.
The interior of the chapel was unburnt. The five or six rough-hewn wooden pews remained whole, covered in a thin dusting of snow. Pale evening light passed through the four small windows.
The bodies of the inhabitants of Sálarhöfn were piled before the altar of the church. Thirty men, women, and children sprawled on the flagged stone floor, arms and legs contorted, rictuses on their rotting, eyeless faces. They were sprawled in various attitudes towards the cross that still stood on the driftwood altar. No body bore a mark of violence.
Mikael ran forward and frantically began turning over the bodies, panting as his breath came faster and faster. At the fourth body, he let out a wail and sank to his knees. Harald walked forward and looked down at the sobbing young man, and the grinning corpse beneath him. It was Bjarni. His blond hair still visible above the green flesh of his collapsing face. Karl nudged Harald, and gestured to the space behind the altar, where the altarpiece once had been. It was gone. A pile of ashes and wooden remnants was all that remained of the elaborately carved reredos that Aalsund had brought all the way from distant Kiev. A word was scrawled messily in black ash on the wall behind where the wooden structure had once stood. The runes read:
Tornrakr. No one knew what it meant.
No one spoke. Then Anna ventured:
“They died seeking the protection of the Lord.”
“And the Lord did not provide it,” said Karl.
There was no sound, except for Mikael’s racking sobs. Thorfinn spoke.
“The wind is coming up. We should leave this place and leave it now.” He gestured with his sword to the door. “To the ship.”
The snow had intensified. It was howling through the ruins now in great eddies. The wind had risen, and the sky was darkening. Harald felt a chill seize him. It should not be getting this dark, or this cold. Not in summer. Not this far north. The darkness was unnatural. In the distance they heard a scream. Harald recognized Olaf’s young voice.
They ran back onto the beach and beheld their wives and children huddled in the centre of a cyclone of blowing snow. A solid wall of white, weaving and rising and falling above the ground. They struggled through the wind and eventually broke through the snowy curtain. Harald felt as though he had been plunged into ice water, as he broke through the barrier, and struggled to catch his breath. He found Olaf and clutched him close, smelling the boy’s hair, and feeling his warmth and his quivering body. He hugged him and tried to keep the fear and helplessness from overpowering him. He looked through the snow for his ship, and he saw that it was gone.
The cyclone of snow grew stronger, and the darkness became complete. Harald could feel his hands and feet going numb as the temperature plunged. He looked up, and instead of the stars there was a great undulating curtain of light, stretched across the entire sky. But it was not the familiar green he had seen so many times before. It was blood red.
As the wind grew stronger, he began to see faces in the snow around him. Horrible faces. Faces of animals, faces of men. Howling, snarling faces, malevolent and mocking. Wolves, eagles, bears, foxes, seals, dolphins, whales, and fell men, deformed and monstrous. The human faces were laughing, smiles of jagged, cruel teeth leering at them. A chanting began, low and insistent, guttural and droning. He grew colder and colder. The screams of the women and children faded away. He saw Karl and Thorfinn lash at the faces in the snow with their swords, and saw the swords snatched from their gasps. He saw Mikael run screaming into the snow curtain, immediately lost from sight beyond the maelstrom. He saw Anna’s hands locked together in useless prayer. He saw Karl fall to his knees and saw a laughing, dreadful face loom over his friend. His vision started to fade to black, and the last thing he saw, before his eyes closed, was the face of a bear with gnashing teeth, and a mocking gleam in his eye.
The maelstrom faded away, and the bodies lay on the beach for a day and a night. When night fell on the second day, the bodies rose. They were much as they had been. Except they did not speak. And their eyes were black as coal. They stared around them with blank faces. A ship sailed into the harbour. It glowed a sickly green. The sail bore Harald’s sigil, reversed, a black sail where there once had been a white.
They boarded the mirror ship in silence. The men took up the oars, and they rowed the ship to the mouth of the fjord. When they caught the wind, they stowed the oars and sailed the ship east. Or what had once been east. Or whatever direction lay beyond the shores of Helluland.
Atop the cliffs, in the grim polar night, a small knot of short, copper-faced men and women looked down upon the departing ship. Their skin coats were pale, and the hoods they wore over their heads were trimmed with fox fur. One man, taller than the rest, stepped forward to the edge of the cliff, watching the ship begin to glow green.
As they watched the ship, infinitely small all those hundreds of feet below them, a glowing green speck upon a black ocean, they saw an immense shape move beneath the water. It was larger than the largest whale and faster than the fleetest seal, and it rolled and spun beneath the surface of the water without disturbing it in the slightest. It glowed the same pale green as the ship. Swirling and coiling upon itself like a school of glowing mackerel, it gradually turned a face towards the surface, rising beneath the distant craft. It was the face of a woman, blank of expression, empty eyes framed by grey hair, face cold as grey stone. The face lingered there, its lips beneath the ship, for a few moments, and then sank bank into the depths. In the blink of an eye, and in a flash of grey-green movement of uncanny speed, the massive thing was gone.
Nicholas Pullen is a gay Canadian writer, whose story ‘Famous Blue’ came third in the Toronto Star short story contest, and whose work has also appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic. A graduate of Oxford and McGill, he knows the names, locations, depths, and stories of every shipwreck in the Great Lakes.