Chapter VI- First Command
Brattahlid had emerged from its second winter, exchanging its thick white cloak for a green one. More boats arrived bringing hopeful settlers, reckless adventurers and merchants looking for a new market. Erik’s settlement on the shores of the fjord that bore his name was growing. It was still very small and primitive compared to the towns in Iceland or Norway, but for Greenland, it was a good start. Like Iceland where trees are sparse and lumber scarce, the houses and buildings were made of turf.
There were two other settlements that had been established. Gardar was on the next fjord over and about as far inland as Brattahlid. Herjolfsness was on the southern most tip of Greenland and of the settlements was the most readily accessible by sea. This made it an ideal port for trading with Iceland and Norway for such necessities as lumber and iron. It was this last raw material that Erik was in great need of. While Brattahlid was the least accessible of the settlements, it had the richest soil. Erik needed iron to make more farming tools and replace those what were broken in the breaking of virgin ground.
Erik himself would have taken his knarr to Herjolfsness to procure the ingot, but he and his eldest, Thorsteinn were in the midst of erecting the Red Longhouse, a Greenland version of a mead-hall. Nothing as grand as a timbered hall in Norway, it was made of stone and turf like all the other buildings of the settlement but it would be long enough to host all Erik’s people for drinking and feasting.
Being so occupied, Erik charged Leif to lead the expedition. “Once you come to Herjolfsness, seek out its master, Herjolf himself. Tell him you are there in my stead and have come to trade barley for iron. He will give you fair trade. Then return straight away. My men will crew the Wave Swine. Eyjolf knows the route.” The great bear of a man reached out his arm and held it there until Leif grasped it as men do. Erik smiled and nodded in approval. “Your first command.”
Eyjolf gave the order and the crew began to row as one and the Wave Swine pulled away from Brattahlid’s crude harbor. Leif stood at the center of the boat and encouraged the men as he had seen his father doing. His friend, Skeggi Onundsson watched him from the prow. They smiled at each other. This was their first foray into manhood. They had set out into Erik’s Fjord at dawn on an Odin’s Day in late Heyannir. With little wind, the crew spent much of the voyage rowing, but for a brief sprint on open sea when a good wind filling the knarr’s great sail. The sun was beginning its evening descent when they pulled into Herjolfsness, tied off the ship and secured its cargo before leaving for Herjolf’s turf hall. Leif led the way with Skeggi at his right hand and the crew not far behind.
Word had run ahead of them that Erik’s son had arrived at Herjolfsness so when they reached the longhouse, Herjolf’s Gaelic thralls were already waiting for them and took the crews’ cloaks and hats and then showed them to a table by the fire-pit before the town’s headman. Herjolf was slouching on his high seat. From his long craggy face hung a long, wiry grey beard and his long bony fingers held a horn of ale he had been nursing for sometime. As the Brattahlid men entered the hall, the old man squinted his grey eyes in such a way that Leif thought him blind, or nearly so.
Seated next to him was a much younger man whose appearance was a stark contrast to the wizened master of the hall. His dark hair fell to his shoulders and he sported a well-groomed pointed beard. He was dressed in the fashion of the Rus, with baggy trousers and kaftan. One might mistake him for a man of vanity with not much else on his mind, but his intense blue eyes betrayed a certain level of cunning.
A thrall hurried over to the older man and whispered in his ear and he sat up, “I am told Erik sent you. Come closer and present yourself.”
Leif stepped forward. He was clean shaven with shoulder length blond hair pulled back in a short braid. He wore a green linen tunic with a finely tooled leather belt about his waist. Though he had only seen fourteen summers, it was not a boy who stood before Herjolf, it was a young man who addressed him.
“Great Herjolf, I am Leif Eriksson. I bring you greetings from my father and have come here to trade with you on his behalf.” He bowed his head to honor the old man.
The headman straightened up and smiled with interest, “Be welcomed to my hearth and hall, Leif Eriksson! I am Herjolf and this is my newly arrived son, Bjarni.” He clapped his hands and called for food and drink and then he, his son and some of his men joined the Brattahlid men at their table. After several rounds of ale, men’s tongues loosened and much boasting ensued. Leif enjoyed it all very much, but it was Bjarni’s tale that interested him most.
“I am a trader and a merchant, always looking for new markets and ways to make a profit at other’s expense.” Bjarni laughed at this and held up his drinking horn for a refill. “Every other year I come home for a spell to my father’s homestead, Drepstokk in southern Iceland. But I cannot stay long because the sea always calls to me and I itch for adventure. I would always set out on the first day of summer, with a hold full of stockfish, and sail for Norway, where I have a triangular trade route between Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. When I return at Harvest two years later, for that is how much time it takes me to complete my route, I am laden with lumber to sell to the Icelanders and my purse that much heaver with coin to spend.” He laughed again as did many of the men around him who probably benefitted from his spending.
“It was two years ago that I set out from Eyarr, the port nearest Drepstokk, and back to Eyarr I sailed, thinking to winter yet again with my father. Imagine my great surprise to find someone else occupying the homestead of my youth and discovering that my father had up and sailed west to a new land Erik called Greenland!”
“Before my crew could unpack, I said, ‘I will bear for Greenland if you will give me your company.’ All agreed to come with me, though it took some convincing,” he rubbed his fingers together, “for most thought it was folly to sail west to a land we’d not even heard of, ’til that day.
“So, for three days a strong wind carried us far west, but on the fourth day, the fair wind died, and there arose a north wind and a fog thicker than skyr. It was not until the eighth day that the fog cleared, and the bright sun shown through. We put up sail again and sailed the rest of the day. On the ninth morning we saw land.
“It was a hilly and wooded place. This surprised me for I was told that Greenland was not green at all, but a treeless and mountainous land, with many glaciers. I had us continue sailing north. The men grumbled that I did not allow them to disembark
“We sailed for two more days before seeing a second land. It was flat and heavily forested. I said again that this was not Greenland. The men greatly wished to land and rest for a spell, build a fire, perhaps catch some game. I denied them. We needed to get to Greenland before winter set in. The men were angry, but saw the sense in my words, and we continued north.
“After sailing for three days, we saw a third land. High and rocky it was, and had one glacier. But Greenland was said to have many glaciers, so I decided that could not be Greenland. Again, the crew asked if we should land, ‘No,’ I said. ‘This is not Greenland and looks to be worthless.’” Bjarni took a swig of ale and chuckled, “Not that Greenland is much better.” Many at the table grunted in agreement.
“We hugged the coastline and found this land to be an island, far too small to be Greenland. My doubt was confirmed.
“A storm blew in that evening, and after four days of being driven to the east, we spotted a fourth land. Large and mountainous, with many glaciers and fjords. ‘This is Greenland, make for land.’”
“After sailing south along the coast, we came upon my father’s knarr and others beached upon a ness. And so, we arrived at Herjolfsness, my father’s new home. Skaal!” Bjarni lifted his horn as did all the men around the table and then as one they took a long draught.
Leif was very intrigued by these other lands Bjarni had happened upon, “Do you plan to return to these lands in the west?”
“I don’t. My father is getting up in years and is in need of my help running Herjolfsness. I will have to find another way to scratch my seafaring itch.”
As Leif lay awake on one of the benches of Herjolf’ longhouse, he felt something stirring deep inside him. Perhaps it was the same itch that Bjarni was talking about. When he did sleep, he dreamt of ocean voyages and forested lands.
A shipment that had arrived just weeks before had more than supplied Herjolfsness with its iron needs for the coming year so Bjarni, acting in his father’s stead, made fair trade with Leif for Brattahlid’s barley. The Wave Swine began its return voyage heavily laden with ingots and a crew in high spirits. Many had spent the night feasting and drinking and the heady effects had not worn off. Between the singing and jesting, some of the men made it a competition to see who could out-sing or out-jest the other. Even Leif got caught up in it and challenged his boyhood friend, Skeggi to an Oar Walking. Though they were under full sail and on the open sea, the men immediately took their benches and extended their oars.
Leif took up his position on one side of the boat and Skeggi took up his on the opposite side. They straddled the side of the boat and put their feet upon the first oar. The first one round would have bragging rights. Leif gave the signal and they were off, leaping from one oar to the next. As the boat rocked and the oars dipped with their sudden weight upon them, both boys would from time to time swing their arms about trying to keep their balance before lurching to the next extended oar. As Leif moved over to the other side of the boat he pitched forward and had to grab the boat to steady himself. At that moment a rogue wave broadsided the knarr. Leif clung to the side of the boat while men pulled him into safety. Skeggi was not so lucky. He was pitched violently to the side. He hit his head on an oar before plunging into the sea. Several crew were hanging over the side, ready to grab the young man as soon as he resurfaced. He never did. Leif flew to where his friend fell, screaming his name over and over. But Skeggi never answered.