Grey sky and seas, the white edge of the breaks spat a briny froth over the bow of the Avalon. Through the evening air it meandered like an infernal smoke, settling in the plaits of Åge Lillebo’s beard. The man stood in the fading light and watched the night spool past, the western sky dissolving into a deep, velvet grey as the last of the sun’s embers vanished like a whisper. He placed both hands in the arch of his back and pushed out a stretch, he’d been asleep no more than an hour when the swell began to rise. A seasoned Norseman understands the sea as well as any man, enough to know that noone can ever truly understand her. Åge Lillebo knew, like the first age of the vikings thousands of years ago, that nowhere did the seas test a man greater than in the frigid miasma of these Northern ice-floes. They were three months out of Beerenberg and slave tired, but this was the life of men in these parts and to attempt anything other was certain death.
The Avalon rose and sank with the rising seas, pack ice picking relentlessly at the hull. Below deck the grating of the camshafts and worm gears turning the huge oars could be heard between the crashing of the waves. The long ship had seen some harsh times, but the storm approaching would test them as much as any they had ever faced. Steam from the engine-room billowed out of the funnels to the aft of the deck. The boilers were working overtime down in the gut.
Åge slipped his bottom lip over the top one to savor the salt. Something had awoken in the hearts of the Northmen when the ice melted hundreds of years ago. Some sleeping trait had driven them back to the seas, atavistic and primordial. Now there was only ice in the high North, where the last of the whales hid. What remained of land was barren and rocky, the caps of once proud mountains and fjord cliffs, useless for crops or to sustain livestock. Though it was the end for many, the sea was also the only hope for the men of the North.
A line of gaslights blinked on above the deck, bathing the Northman in an amber glow. Åge did not flinch, his sheetmetal grey eyes transfixed on the surf. He spoke to the sea and to the sky like a man talks to an old friend. He told them he would go where they sent him for this was the way of the Northmen. He thumbed the outline of his jaw, buried under the russet of his beard.
Åge’s impressive shadow flickered across the deck like a spectral. Against the singing winds the dull amber lights danced and shuddered across the deck like a row of failings candles at the end of their wicks. The generators were beginning to be pushed to their brink and it would not be long before luxuries like light were lost to the night.
Behind him the deck hatch opened and the warcry of the engines spilled across the deck. The sound of pistons driving gears and grinding sprockets rang out like ancient thunder that would have made Thor himself tremble. It was a sound Åge loved as much as the sound of the sea. The mechanical heartbeat of a modern, steam-powered long-ship. The song of man’s eternal combat with a sea that refused to be tamed.
The hatch closed and the roar of the engines dissolved to a low growl once more, like a sleeping Leviathon in the deep. In it’s wake came leaden footsteps loping across the oily deck from the aft.
“Vestu heil ok sæl Øystein Tjeldflaat,” said Åge without taking his gaze from the frigid waters.
Øystein Tjeldflaat stood behind Åge and rested his hand on the hilt of his musket, swaying like marrow grass in the storm front. He was a large man and his dark yellow beard seemed to take on a life of it’s own in the wind, like a swarm of angry bees. He was a good stallari, Åge Lillebo’s right hand.
“Vestu heil ok sæl Åge Lilebo.” replied Øystein. “A storm approaches, where’s your röggvarafeldur?” he asked wrapping his own cloak around him like some fetal amnion.
“I’m fine “ replied Åge nodding to Øystein to look at the sky, “Look at that.”
“At what?” said the stallari stepping forward and leaning his huge hands on the icy bulwark.
“Wait,” said Åge, “it’s gone again... no there.”
From beyond the horizon, rivers of variegated colours washed across the sky in nacreous flashes. These spectrolite skeins marvered against the granite sky in an ethereal vaganova, flickering like rivers of sunlight trapped inside a prism. The lights dissolved from lavender to turquoise and ochre, each one epic and nebulous yet as thin as flame. Against the bistre of the sky the corona of lights vanished as quickly as they had appeared, only to begin their nimbus dance anew a few seconds later.
“My grandfather used to tell me that the lights in the Northern skies were the flashing armours and spears of Odin’s handmaidens, riding out to collect warriors slain in the battles of Rangarok,” said Åge.
Øystein nodded that he had also heard such things.
Åge shook his head forlornly and then opened his arms to the sea before him, “this is where we belong. We are men of the sea, as were out forefathers. Yet no matter how advanced man may get, the sea and the sky will not be conquered. The mysteries of the sea are as unknowable as the secrets held in the lights beyond the horizon. They can make a man a fortune and take it from him in an instant. No man has warning or any way to sway the favor of the sea. It keeps its’ own council and even the the God’s of Asgard can’t stop it.”
Øystein turned to Åge and agreed but offered that a man could play the odds and these waters were known for their unforgiving temperament more than all others. He said that the men below deck were good men and brave men but were unsure of the decision to come this far North. They would rather take their chances in the Gransenland amongst the rocks and the dead soil than in the treacherous North seas.
Åge put his hand across Øystein’s great shoulder and bid him to have courage. “For each and every man aboard knew the risk before they set sail. A man sees only the reward when it is put to him and not the risk, until the risk becomes reality and then the reward becomes secondary.” He told him that a man with fear in his heart is no man at all and that the sea knew this and would swallow such individuals up. Their destiny was now in the hands of the sea and it was how they fought against her that would decide whether they would see the morning.
The waves had risen furiously now and Åge had to widen his stance and hold the bulwark to keep his balance. Waves rose over the bow as the ship rose with the swell and dropped at acute angles beyond them spreading a salty lens across the deck. The sky turned ferrous and the Northern lights vanished under the reefs of black cloud that blew in above them.
“Sound the horn,” ordered Åge, “for there will be no land before the dawn.”