The Western Wind, historical fiction by Nelly Shulman at
Ralph Nas

The Western Wind

The Western Wind

written by: Nelly Shulman


Seagulls paced on white sand. Ulmar and his teenage son were casting nets near their home in Eagle Fjord. The wind drove a steep wave from the west.

They went out into the bay in a light sheepskin boat. The fish glistened in wicker baskets. Moisture darkened Ulmar’s graying blond hair. Skillfully turning the tiller, he said to Maximus, “Look and learn. We shall be going on a long journey soon. Knorr is harder to steer, although it has more sails.”

Merchants brought flax for sails and hemp for ropes to Iceland, where only the rye ripened in the south. Ulmar’s wife Signe made the vegetable beds on the farm. No matter how hard she fought, only the onions and cabbage grew here, but in the warmth of the large house Signe tended to the fragrant greens in clay pots.

Their eldest son left Iceland for the east three years ago, as Ulmar jokingly put it, to see people and to show himself. In Novgorod, his son joined the enterprising lads, who traveled far and wide on the rivers. His middle son demanded, “Tell me about Constantinople, dad!”

Ulmar promised, “Let’s finish the fishing first and then I tell you all about Constantinople and Jerusalem. I even prayed at the Holy Sepulchre. The cheese is ripe now and good to go with beer by the fire.”

Everyone attributed the name of his middle son, unheard in Iceland, to the fact that chief Ulmar visited Rome in his youth. An unexpected sun broke through heavy clouds. Ulmar even squinted. He was in his forty-first year, but his eyesight remained sharp.

“Look,” he said to Maximus. “Your sister is running over stones.”

Signe, named after her mother, was not afraid of water. Ulmar and Maximus wore sealskin boots and caftans. The Wolf, as Signe called her husband, was sure that his daughter went to the shore barefoot.

“She jumps barefoot in the snow,” the chief smiled. “She is a true Russian soul.”

Having left Novgorod twenty-five years ago, the Wolf sometimes missed his homeland. He hoped that his son, who was thinking of moving south, would like Kyiv as well. Signe’s brother, Sigmundr, the head of the guards of Prince Vsevolod Yaroslavich, promised to help his nephew. Ulmar’s brother-in-law was now baptized for the second time according to the Eastern rite.

“Just like me,” Wolf smiled. “I did it the other way around, but God is the same for everyone.”

The wind brought from the shore the barking. Local dogs that searched for the straying sheep and returned them home, guarded the farm. In the south, at Althing fields, they made houses from wood, but the late owner of the Ulmar’s farm built his domain with the rough stone, insulating the inner walls with turf. The wood in the north was too expensive.

The Wolf avoided thinking about Signe’s first husband, although after killing Matthias in a fair fight he paid the blood money.

“I was in my right,” he looked closer to the shore. “The Pope himself told me so. Signe and I got engaged, and it was as binding as a wedding. She married Matthias thinking I was dead. I offered him to give her a divorce, but he was stubborn.”

Having arrived to Iceland, the Wolf heard that life on the farm of Matthias the Bald, the son of Gudmund, had soured. Signe complained about her husband at the Althing, but Matthias was supported by his family, and Signe was all alone in the country.

His daughter disappeared from the shore, but Wolf was not worried. Little Signe must have been looking for shells between the boulders.

“Dad,” gasped Maximus. “Look, a seagull is on the mast!”

A beautiful white bird, spreading its wings, fell to the waves. Somersaulting, the seagull rushed to the shore.

“Daddy,” the daughter screamed loudly. “Daddy, Maximus, I am here!”

She picked up the leather bag.

“We are going to eat shells today,” the Wolf winked at his son. “Let’s go home, dear, I am hungry.”

The boat, waddling on the waves, went to the lichen-stained rocks. Lamb broth puffed in a cauldron over the fire. The grains were brought to the north from the south, where they managed to ripe.

“We should not complain,” the Wolf moved his legs blissfully. “We have vegetables and beer, and the rest is provided by meat and fish.”

A copper basin with hot water next to his bench breathed out a fragrant aroma. Signe brewed dried herbs for his bath.

“The best thing after fishing,” Wolf stretched. “Beer also came in handy.”

Usually they bathed and did the laundry in the hot springs near the farm, but Wolf was tired after the day spent at sea. Signe brought him a bowl with hearty meat brew.

In their small forge for swamp iron Wolf put an oven for firing vessels. The bluish clay was found at the eastern river. Neighbors gladly bought their pottery.

“We live like in ancient times,” he frowned. “They are writing books in Europe and here there are only a couple of Bibles for the whole island.”

Icelanders, like Norwegians and Russians, loved telling legends. Wolf, however, believed in learning. They have taught their children Latin.

The wife sat down next to him with a wooden spoon. They carved small things from the shore wood, but building a simple cart could take several months. House was heated with peat collected in the swamps. To keep the warmth in, Signe hung sealskins under the low roof. Merchants brought furs to Iceland from Europe for a small fortune.

Spoons banged on the edge of the vessel, and the Wolf drew his wife nearer.

“Very tasty, dear.”

He showed Signe a little trinket picked up by their daughter on the shore.

“See, the inscription is in Latin letters.”

The little one has found among the stones a copper disk, that could have been a mirror. Moving her lips, Signe smiled.

“M.R.T. Probably Martha. When Sigmundr and I were children, we found an ancient knife on the estate. Somebody scratched the Latin letters on the handle. The name was Gaius, but the Romans did not reach Norway and did not even think of coming here.”

The Wolf snorted.

“Said who? We, my dear, know that much,” he showed how much with his fingers, “of what happened before us. Who would have thought that the settlers can find lands in the west, where we will soon go?”

Signe twisted the embroidered frill of the fur jacket. The Wolf never spared money for the family.

“A man must have a good weapon and a good horse,” he instructed his sons, “but the man who rides an expensive stallion wearing the finery while his wife and children are dragging castoffs, is not the man at all. Walk on foot, fight with a simple sword, but do not allow your family to live in misery.”

Remembering the horses, he rode in Byzantium and the Holy Land, the Wolf sighed. Icelandic beasts were sturdy but hardly beautiful.

“The same are found in Greenland,” he realized, “but Vinland might have good horses.”

Wolf was not going to stay in the Eastern Settlement, where their ship was first heading. Old man Snorri Thorfinnson, born in Vinland, had left the western lands as a child, but on the Thorfinnson farm lived the descendants of the Skrelings, people from the west, who were brought to Iceland.

“They are like those who live in the north of Norway,” Wolf said to his wife.

“I heard about such people in Novgorod. They are not found in Russia proper, but many of them dwell near the northern seas. Do not worry,” he assured Signe. “Snorri claims that there is more land in Vinland than here, and it is richer.”

Signe kept fingering the damned frill. The Wolf took her hand into his palms.

“I know what you are thinking,” he paused. “We can go to your uncle in England. But, my dear, they barely finished fighting, and we do not know how the new ruler is going to treat your uncle, who served the late King Harold.”

Signe smiled.

“Mother said that Uncle John had always been smart. He seems to have sworn allegiance to Wilhelm in advance.”

The Wolf shook his head.

“Does not matter. Nobody needs the farm and we do not have anything else,” he answered sadly. “At my age, I do not want to become a tenant for your uncle.”

Signe blushed.

“Uncle John will never…”

“He does not recognize me as an equal, despite my supposedly royal origin,” replied Wolf, who frankly did not believe this legend.

Hugging Signe, he added.

“In Rome, I spoke with one smart person from the Jews. They say it is better to be a tail of a lion than a head of a fox. In England or Russia, we will be foxes.”

Signe put her head on his shoulder.

“Where you go, my dear, we follow. Only you are not a lion, but a wolf.”

From behind the sealskin curtain came the sleepy voice of the small Signe.

“I am a seagull. Today I flew like in a fairy tale.”

The Wolf laughed.

“Sleep, honey. Tomorrow you will fly again.”

Still holding hands, they dozed on the bench.

Latest posts by Nelly Shulman (see all)