Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Land of the Water Demons

The following is my short story submission for the After Oil 5 anthology of short stories on the role of technology from the industrial age in the myths, legends, magic, and religions of the deindustrial world, as announced by John Michael Greer in June 2019.

Land of the Water Demons
By Ron Mucklestone

Stefan was in a fix. For the past six months he had been having the worst string of bad luck in his 20-year fishing career. First was the empty nets in May and June. Then he was becalmed out at sea between Iceland and Greenland for three straight weeks in July. And then came the boiling seas in August and birth of a new island off the coast of Hellnar – Stefan’s preferred fishing spot – in September. He had definitely done something to offend Aegir, god of the ocean. 

The autumn storm season had begun in earnest. Many fishermen were hauling their boats out for the winter. But Stefan could not. He was indebted to Bjarni, the richest man in town, who had given Stefan six bags of oats in June to tide his family over until the fish come back. Now they had one bag left and Bjarni had demanded repayment by end of the year. Stefan would have to try his luck and fish off the sparsely populated east coast of Iceland in the hopes of a few good catches. Bringing in fish so late in the season would bring premium prices. It was his only hope to avoid starvation over the winter.

It was late Saturday afternoon. Stefan was sitting beside his boat – named Máni, after the goddess of the Moon -- after another poor day of fishing, when Bjarni walked up to him. Strange, Stefan thought to himself, Bjarni tends not to come here. I hope he hasn’t changed the terms of repaying my loan of grain. Some fishermen would try to hide on the rare occasion that Bjarni would come to the beach, but Stefan was not the hiding type: he faced everything in life head-on.

Stefan greeted Bjarni as per his status, by removing his cap to the businessman. “What brings you here, my Lord, on this blustery day?” enquired Stefan.

“Business – what else?” replied Bjarni, “and you are just the man I am looking for. You see, there is a priest by the name of Gylfi Björnsson. He comes from the holy shrine at Höfn.”

“You mean the priest who has been talking about the miracle of stopping the eruption of Mount Öræfajökull?” interjected Stefan.

“Yes, the same”, said Bjarni. “Anyway, he needs to get back to the shrine before winter sets in and you are one of the few still sailing so late in the season. Besides, transporting an important priest like Gylfi pays well. If you do this for me within the next few days, I will reduce your debt to two bags of oats.”

“I would be honoured”, replied Stefan rather hastily, as he had not first consulted his oracle who lives at the foot of Akrafjall Mountain. But at this point, figured Stefan, he really didn’t have a choice.
“We can leave at high tide on Monday”, stated Stefan, “tomorrow being Sunday I am sure that the priest will not want to travel before then.”

“Agreed. Good day to you!”

“And to you!”

Stefan could not believe his good luck. It would seem that his daily visits to the temple of Aegir since early August – as advised by Karl, his oracle -- were finally paying off. And since he would be paid to go to the southeast coast, he might as well fish there and hopefully get enough fish to pay off the rest of his debt – and then some. But still, he wanted to consult Karl before setting out on this late-season voyage.

Ambling up the road to Akrafjall, Stefan wondered about how miracles were returning to his land. It had been a full five hundred years since “the second fall of man” and the nearly endless suffering that had ensued over that time, he thought. Perhaps life would be better for my children than for me and my forefathers

“A seeker wishes audience with you, O holy servant of Aegir”, announced Stefan at the door to the simple hut that jutted out of a small cave at the base of Akrafjall Mountain. He was a bit shocked by the loudness of his voice, as the land around the mountain was silent. A moment later, the familiar gaunt figure emerged from the door. Karl was old – nobody knew how old, but Stefan’s grandfather used to come to the foot of Akrafjall to consult him. Despite his age, Karl was still spry and always had a twinkle in his eye. Karl warmly welcomed Stefan, who presented him with two freshly caught shellfish.

Stefan told Karl of his predicament and asked him whether the benefits of the voyage would outweigh the risks. Karl settled down into his armchair and cast his runes.

“This is a perilous journey,” began Karl ominously, “for the weather is not in your favour. I would advise you to avoid sailing next week if you possibly can.”

Karl was not known for being dramatic, so Stefan took his words very seriously.

“But that’s the problem. If I do not make this journey, I will be ruined. There will be nothing to eat this winter but whatever little I can catch in the wild!”

“Do what you must”, replied Karl curtly, “but make sure you do not go east beyond our east coast. If you say you must go to Höfn, I understand. But do not tempt fate. Return as quickly as you possibly can. I shall pray to Aegir on your behalf every day until you return.”

Stefan agreed and thanked Karl for his services. After engaging in small talk for half an hour, Stefan took leave of the oracle and walked home. He felt shaken up and disturbed by the experience.

Monday morning arrived grey and dull. Stefan has stocked his boat with enough provisions for ten days for himself, his 20-year-old son Einar, and the priest. The voyage to Höfn should take about five days. After dropping Gylfi off, Stefan could attempt a good catch and return home. 

Gylfi the priest arrived at Stefan’s boat shortly after dawn. He appeared to be a simple, pious man, quite the contrast to the bombastic Bjarni. Gylfi also seemed to be familiar and comfortable with sailing. Stefan took a liking to the priest right away.

After saying a prayer for a safe voyage, Gylfi boarded the vessel and Stefan set sail. 

The first three days went exceptionally well for a trip in mid-October. Running before a strong steady west wind, the 10-metre fishing boat moved briskly along at about five knots. Gylfi proved his seaworthiness by taking shifts at the helm to allow Stefan and Einar to take breaks and sleep under the sealskin-covered front half of the boat. 

Dawn on the fourth day began with the bad omen of a blood-red sunrise and abnormally high seas. Soon the sky became overcast and the wind shifted to the east. Looking over the port (left) side of the boat, mount Öræfajökull loomed over the land, steam issuing from its unsteady summit. It was doubtful that they would be able to reach Höfn before sunset. 

By noon it was clear that a powerful storm was approaching. All three ate and slept as much as they could, mindful that they would likely get little of either over the next day or two. Landing at Höfn during the storm would be impossible.

To avoid getting blown onto the rocky shore by the howling east wind, Stefan took the boat far out to sea. Then the storm hit in full strength. Days and nights became a blur of endless bailing and battling the winds. All sense of distance and direction were lost. Stefan and his crew were now in uncharted waters.

When the wind finally died down and the skies cleared early one morning, Stefan found his battered boat sailing towards distant land. It was hilly like his land, but the shape of the hills was all wrong. There were no fjords visible, so he knew that it was neither Norway nor the islands that lay between Norway and Iceland. Completely out of both food and water, he had no choice but to head towards this strange land in the hope of not encountering hostile inhabitants.

Máni was close to shore by late morning. To the left was a long line of cliffs meeting to the sea and to the right were sand and shingle beaches. Dead ahead was an object that none on board the boat could make sense of. Situated close to shore, but completely surrounded by water, was a huge grey rectangular building. The front part was lower, and flat on top; the back was higher, but also flat-topped. What could it be? A castle? Some giant’s house? There was no sign of any boats around it or of any human activity on or near it. Just an eerie silence. Curious, Stefan sailed closer to investigate.

"You know much about things of this world and the otherworld, O Wise One”, said Stefan as he turned to Gylfi. “What land are we in? Are we in a land of men? Or is this some enchanted land of the elves? And what possible purpose could this large boxy building serve?”

“I am trying to figure this out, Stefan”, replied the priest. “Somehow I doubt that we are in an elvish place. I do not get the same feeling here as when I go near the places where the elves, or trolls, or water-dwellers live in our land. But I have a strange feeling about this place… I would almost call it dread, thought I don’t know why.”

While Stefan and Gylfi stared at the building, Einar gazed into the water. A fish swam close to the surface a couple of yards from the boat. Einar shouted loudly. Stefan and Gylfi immediately looked at Einar, who said to them, “I saw a fish just now… or at least I thought it was a fish… but it was monstrous… its face was all twisted and it looked like it had two tails!”

Stefan and Gylfi looked at each other and then back at Einar.

“Are you sure of what you just saw, Einar?” asked the priest.

“I swear I did. Looks like no fish I have ever seen!”

“Well, perhaps in this strange land the beasts of land and sea are different from home. Perhaps you were just shocked by a species of fish that is new to you.”

“Then join me in looking and see if your eyes agree with mine.”

After a few minutes, another fish appeared – this one jumped clear out of the water. All three men looked at each other in horror.

“That’s no ordinary fish”, declared Stefan, “nor is it natural. It is too misshapen and ugly to be a work of nature.”

“I agree”, said the priest, “there’s something of the Devil in this creature. Let’s depart as fast as we can, for this place is surely cursed.”

Stefan steered the boat to the right – which, given the fact that the Sun was out, he could tell was north – and put the strange building and even stranger fish behind him. An hour later, they saw an ancient ruined castle perched atop a cliff towering over the sea.

“I will keep going until we get a safe distance between ourselves and that evil place and then find a stream or river to pull into and slake our thirst”, Stefan insisted.

As they passed by the coast, the three men marvelled at the richness of the forested land and the lack of any sign of humans. The coast turned to the left; they were now sailing due east and later, south-east. By early afternoon they could wait no longer. Seeing an inlet where a stream met the beach, they landed, tethering the bow of the boat to a large tree that grew close to the sandy shore. Wading upstream, they found a cataract of fresh water tumbling down the hillside and drank their fill and filled up five small barrels that they carried with them. But they found no wild game and ended up eating some kelp that had washed ashore. 

Pushing further along the coast, they found a great ruined city by the shore with a castle on top of a hill near the centre of the ruin. 

Gylfi turned to Stefan and said to him, “Stefan, I think I know where we are. And I don’t think you’ll like what I have to tell you.”

“What do you mean? How do you know?” enquired Stefan.

“Listen”, began Gylfi, “I have committed many of our country’s old sagas to memory. Some of them are not known by the public. One of these sagas seems to describe this place.

“Just over three-hundred years ago, during our country’s Great Hunger, the king of Vik and his court set sail in seven ships to the east in search of a land of plenty. Four months later, one ship returned; it was the only ship that ever returned. And the stories told by the people on that ship were so horrendous that we understood why they returned to Iceland to starve rather than live in a land that is cursed.

“According to the saga, the seven ships became separated during a storm. One ship made it to an ancient ruined city. A castle stood tall on a hill and below and around the hill was a decrepit city, with a few spires poking through the tree tops. But there were no people. Not a single soul. And not just the city, all the country around it was empty. 

“The travellers from Vik saw this land as an open invitation. They thanked the gods for delivering them to such a rich and bountiful country and hoped to bring many more Icelanders over. They sailed east of the city, past another ruined castle atop a cliff where the shore turns south and encamped on a beach. But soon after settling ashore, they grew sick. Strange fevers, boils on their skin, internal bleeding. Horrified, they sailed back to Vik after two months. Those who survived the return voyage lived for only a few weeks before succumbing to their mysterious illnesses contracted from the strange land. Consequently, the High King and council of Iceland passed a law that forbade anyone to go there. As far as I know, nobody has ever dared to explore that land again.

“You see, the shores that we have sailed past today bear the same landmarks as those in the story I have just told, just in reverse order.” 

Stefan felt a dry lump develop in his throat.

Now the sun was getting low and they looked for the abandoned city’s harbour. They found landforms which resembled a harbour, now partially submerged and in a state of dilapidation. The sea had claimed much of the ruined city. At the end of the harbour, a small river was visible. The Icelanders decided to make camp and explore the city in the morning in the hopes of finding some humans and also food. They slept well, despite their empty bellies, due to the absence of a rolling sea.

Einar awoke first, about an hour before dawn. When he got up and looked ashore, he saw that their boat was the object of someone’s attention: sitting nearby, still as still as a stone, was a young-looking woman dressed in unfamiliar clothing. He called to her, but she did not respond. Instead, she slowly moved away and soon was out of sight. Perplexed, Einar awoke the other two and told them what he saw. They told him it was probably just wishful thinking.

After a few minutes, the young woman returned with a staff in her hand and accompanied by a man who appeared, in the pre-dawn twilight, to be about fifty years old. The man spoke directly to them. At first, they did not understand what he was saying, but after a minute they caught him asking them in strangely accented and lilting Icelandic, “Who are you? Where do you come from?”

Gylfi, being the highest in status of the three, replied, “We are Icelanders from Akranes. We were blown here by a great storm. Can you tell us where we are?”

“If you are from Iceland, then you are very far from home,” the man replied, “for you are in the ruined city of Edinburgh -- once the capital Scotland but now only the ghost of a dead land.”

Gylfi, who was a scholar familiar with history and geography, stated, “I have heard of that place, but not in a very long time.” He then enquired of the stranger, “What is your name? And how do you know Icelandic?”

The stranger replied, “My name is Gunnar Laxness and I am a descendant of Icelanders who sailed here from Vik three centuries ago. We settled to the north, in Inverness. Some other Icelanders settled on Skye and the Western Isles. For a long time, my people struggled against the native people, who destroyed our boats and treated us poorly. But once an Icelandic-descended warrior ascended the throne, relations between our peoples became amicable. For some time, I was bard and advisor to King Magnus, second Icelandic-descended king of this country, but I fell out of favour in a palace coup and have been exiled here.

“The girl here is named Flora MacDonald. She is a local and cannot speak Icelandic. She and I eke out a living here as outcasts sentenced to die on the edge of the Land of the Water Demons.”

This introduction sent shivers down the spines of the three visiting Icelanders. 

Realizing it was his turn to make introductions, Gylfi said to Gunnar, “I am Gylfi Björnsson, High Priest of the Holy Shrine of Höfn. Accompanying me are Stefan Tryggvason, skipper and owner of this vessel, and his son, Einar. We mean you no harm and only seek some food and shelter for a few days before we head back home.”

“I’ll be the judge of your motives,” replied Gunnar rather rudely (or so Gylfi thought), “step aside and let me inspect your vessel.”

Not sure whether Gunnar was armed or whether he had armed men concealed behind the nearby ruins, the Icelanders agreed to his request. Coming aboard, Gunnar noted fishing nets, a boat hook, a few fish knives and no sign of food.

“OK, you may come ashore”, Gunnar stated, “just let me see your hands at all times. By the looks of things, you could use a meal. Flora and I will share what meagre fare we have.”

Once all were ashore and Gunnar assured the Icelanders that their vessel would be safe unattended, Flora led them up a path to a house that had been assembled from the ruins. The floor was earthen, the walls stone and the roof thatched: in many ways, not much different from an Icelandic house.

“You are lucky, as we received winter supplies from Inverness a few weeks ago. The justice system here may be heartless, but it is not cruel.”

The three Icelanders were puzzled by the expression but figured that it must be a local saying. They were served hot broth and some kind of dried bread.

Their bellies full for the time being, Einar asked, “So, what happened to this land? Why are the fish so strange and why are there almost no people?”

 “Much of this island has been rendered uninhabitable by the fifteen Water Demons that have tormented us for centuries”, replied Gunnar.

The three Icelanders peppered Gunnar with questions: “What are these Water Demons? How did they come here? Why have they cursed this land?”

“It is a long tale”, replied Gunnar, “I hope you are prepared to listen.

“A long time ago, this island was not at all like it is now. It was crammed full of people and was the centre of a great empire that spanned the world. Roads criss-crossed the land and the earth was fertile and brought forth a great variety of crops. 

“But even though the people possessed everything they needed, they were not happy. Their hearts were empty and that made them greedy. They cut down their forests to make thousands of ships. They made mined the earth for coal – the black stones that burn hotter than wood. But they wanted more energy, so they drilled the earth for liquid fire and then built cities on the water to get the liquid fire that lay buried beneath the North Sea. Still not satisfied, they conjured up demons who dwelled deep in the earth since before the dawn of time and put them to work in giant boxes. The people of this island made fifteen giant boxes to imprison the demons. One of them is just 40 miles east of here: people call that demon ‘Torness’.

“These demons produced more power than people could imagine. The people thought that by enslaving these demons they would be able to create a Heaven on Earth. What fools they were!
“Not only did the people of those days raid the Earth and enslave the demons, but they also ransacked the seas. Ships plied the length and breadth of the seven seas and pulled out mountains of fish and even hunted down the whales. 

“Aegir, god of the sea, was wroth, for the people were raiding his kingdom and offering nothing in return. People behaved as if the sea belonged to them. They stopped believing that Aegir existed and eventually forgot all about him. When Aegir could no longer tolerate this neglect and abuse of his kingdom, he acted against them.

“First, Aegir brought the storms. Frightful storms lashed the coasts and stopped the ships from sailing. Roads were flooded. Shores were eroded and houses fell into the sea. But the people did not change their ways.

“Next, Aegir brought the rains. His anger made the sea hot, and the steam from the sea formed clouds over the land and caused torrential rains and great floods. Then he would withhold the heat and the land would be parched by drought. The seasons went awry. Farmers did not know which crops to sow or even when to sow their crops. The people grew concerned and they argued about how to fix the situation, but their actions did not change, nor did they remember Aegir. 

“Finally, Aegir stood on his toes and raised the sea, flooding the cities like Edinburgh and so many cities all over the island. But, most importantly, the sea flooded the boxes that had imprisoned the demons. These demons had been forced to work in these boxes day and night without stop for a hundred years. They were furious. And when Aegir flooded the boxes, the people who kept the demons in their cages had to leave. 

“The demons saw their chance, and they escaped. In their anger, they laid the land waste for more than 30 miles around their boxes. They put a curse so deep into the land that even now, five hundred years later, anyone who lives on that land is doomed to die a horrible death. Some people say that the land will be cursed forever.”

“But why are they called Water Demons?” enquired Stefan.

“I am coming to that. Not only did these demons curse the land, they also cursed the rivers and streams that flow on the land. To this day, drinking from these rivers brings great sickness to people.”
The three Icelanders looked at each other with dread written on their faces, as by the description given by Gunnar, it would appear that the stream they drank from yesterday had been cursed by the demons.

“But even more importantly, the demons cursed the sea that had flooded their boxes. While it may seem that the demons were disrespecting Aegir, the fact is that they made an agreement with Aegir. You see, because the water is cursed, so are the fish. So, the people of this island dare not catch a single fish because to eat them is to eat death. Nor do the people venture out to sea. And whenever people see these ugly fish, they remember the Water Demons and offer a prayer to them asking for their forgiveness and promising to never imprison them again. 

“The only places on this island that have been spared the curse of the Water Demons are the Kingdom of the Highlands and the Western Isles to the north of here, and the Cymru and Cornish kingdoms many days’ sail to the south.”

A long silence followed as the Icelanders absorbed all the information contained in the tale and the gravity of its message.

“So, what is to become of you and the girl?” asked Gylfi the priest, “Are you expected to die of this terrible curse? Is there no god who will take your side and protect you?”

“Sadly not”, replied Gunnar with a heavy heart. “Many have tried over the generations, but none have succeeded. We think that it is due to the evils of our ancestors. They have left such a long shadow that we still live under. Who knows if the Water Demons will ever forgive us and leave this land?
Occasionally the Oracle of Inverness makes a pilgrimage to Arthur’s Seat -- the peak overlooking this abandoned city – and, after several days of lamentation, asks that very question. Generation after generation, the answer to the oracles has been the same: “No. We gave you a land and a sea that were plentiful, but your people were not satisfied with plenty and took more than the god of the sea (the local Gaels call him “Manannán Mac Lir”) and the goddess of the earth (the Gaels call her “Dana”) provide and instead enlisted the power of demons. Now the sea and land are plentiful again, but not for you to use, or even your children’s children’s children to use. No god will intervene on your behalf. But if you strictly live by the limits taught by the gods of the Sea and the Earth and by the Four Elements, and happily accept those limits, and teach those limits to your children, the Water Demons may eventually calm down and slowly loosen their grip.

“As for Flora and I, we will live out the remainder of our lives in this wretched place, along with the other exiles who dwell here. We have been here a year now and may survive another year or two before the curse takes its toll and we die horribly, wasted away and screaming. We are now used to feeling almost constant nausea and headaches. We cannot return to society now, as we have been ‘touched by the demons’ and so we must wait until death delivers us from the clutches of these demons.”

All three Icelanders looked at each other when Gunnar said “nausea”, for each one had been feeling nauseous since the previous evening.

“You are feeling nauseous already, eh?” enquired Gunnar, “I am not surprised, especially since you came from the east. The ruins of Edinburgh are as far east as anyone dare go in this land. People even avoid living to the west of us, where the land has been given over to sheep. But people only use their wool and refuse to eat the sheep, for fear of the Water Demons. Yes, you had better leave soon if you want to be spared by the demons.”

“Flora has not spoken a word all morning”, observed Einar, “does she not speak?”

“Only occasionally and when absolutely necessary”, replied Gunnar. Flora looked at Einar with a piercing gaze from the corner of the room where she had been sitting, motionless and with head lowered, the whole time. “She cannot bear the suffering of others. The poor dear has already nursed three people right to their bitter end since we came here. And at her young age knowing that she will sometime soon end her life like them makes her dread the future and wish that she had never been born.”

“What did she do to deserve such a ghastly punishment?” enquired Einar.

“She was a maid to Heather, Queen of the Gaels and wife of King Magnus. Flora risked her life to rescue and hide the Queen when the coup took place. Such loyalty is rare – like that of her namesake from a very long time ago when another Flora MacDonald saved a deposed prince, the most wanted man of that age. Funny how history repeats itself. Anyway, our Flora here was eventually caught and sent along with me and six other loyalists to end our days here.”

“What if you don’t have to end your days here?” asked Stefan rather loudly.

“Have you not been listening?” retorted Gunnar, “We are as good as dead. Our families have already performed our funerals.”

“Then nobody will miss you if you disappear. What would you say to a voyage to Iceland for you and Flora? There is enough space in the boat, and if you take your food supplies, we will have enough for the trip. As it is, you have shown us hospitality which we otherwise cannot possibly repay. And to stay here is certain death.”

“Are you sure you can get back? Do you know the way?”

“Not all the way. I have been to the Faroe Islands a few times. I just need to know how to get from here to there.”

Gunnar paused and said, “I have been to the Orkney Islands a few times and the locals there told me that there are some islands to the northwest of them where people speak something that sounds like the Icelandic that I speak. Could that be the Faroes?”

“I have no doubt”, replied Stefan. “But do you and Flora agree to the plan?”

Gunnar rose and walked to where Flora was seated. Sitting down beside her, he spoke to her softly in a strange tongue that none of the Icelanders had heard before. Her head shot up and she looked at the Icelanders, her eyes brimming with tears. She and Gunnar resumed conversing.

“Well?” asked Stefan, rather impatiently.

“She says that ‘Iceland’ sounds like a horrific place to live, but she is willing to live in a land full of ice if it means breaking free from the Water Demons.”

The three Icelanders had a hearty laugh.

“Tell her that not only does Iceland have ice, but it has grass and heather… and even has forests in the south.”

Gunnar turned to Flora and told her in Gaelic. She gasped and threw her arms around him.
“Shall I take that for a ‘yes’?” joked Stefan. All laughed. At that moment, the pent-up anxiety and fear among the group dissipated.

“Since we all agree to depart, the question is when?” enquired Gunnar. 

“With winter fast approaching and the storms getting stronger and closer together, I am eager to get going right away,” remarked Stefan, “but there are other considerations, aren’t there, our good priest?”

“Indeed, there is”, piped in Gylfi, “we have recently entered a new moon and are presently in the time of cleansing; upon the start of the first quarter, we will be in the time that is auspicious for beginnings. That is when we should begin.”

“How soon will that be?” asked Stefan.

“In two days”, replied Gylfi.

“Then we leave on high tide the day after tomorrow, just after noon. There’s much work to do before then. We’ve got some ropes to splice and some sails to mend. And we’ll have to re-arrange the cabin to accommodate more people and extra provisions”, advised Stefan.

“Provisioning we must do under the cover of night, skipper, as we don’t want the few other souls who dwell here to figure out the plan, as they could make our departure very difficult. I don’t wish anyone ill, but I realize that a small vessel like yours has limited capacity. Few people go down to the shore for fear of the Water Demons, but desperation can cause people to break taboos.”

“I can see why you made it to the king’s court”, observed Gylfi, “you’ve got a good head on your shoulders.”

“If people fear the Water Demons, why was Flora down by the shore early this morning?” enquired Einar.

“That’s the odd thing, lad”, said Gunnar. “Last night she had a strange dream that awoke her shortly before dawn. A dream about your boat. She described it in perfect detail. She said a boat had come and that its passengers need our help. And then she got up and left for the harbour. She’s had strange dreams come true several times since we have been living here. It’s spooky, but many of the Gaels are like that.”

“It looks like Iceland will be getting a new oracle”, stated Gylfi, in authoritative voice, “she will be a boon to our people.”

Conversation died down after that. Breaking the silence, Einar turned to Stefan and said, “So, Dad, what should we do first?”

After some time, Stefan and Einar walked back to Máni. Fog had rolled in, which helped them to travel unnoticed. The vessel lay undisturbed. Until sunset, they made most of the repairs necessary for the boat to be seaworthy and sturdy enough to withstand a storm. At dusk, they returned to their camp. The following day they completed the repair work and re-arranged the cabin space so that there was room for three to sleep. On Gunnar’s advice, they emptied all their water barrels and refilled them with water from the river that flowed into the harbour.

The following morning, everyone arose several hours before dawn so as to discretely carry food supplies and woolen bedding between the house and the boat. Everything went well until the fifth trip, when Gylfi slipped while carrying a wooden crate. The crate clattered when it hit the ground and the sound reverberated against the partially standing walls on either side of the path (it could no longer be called a street). A large man emerged from a doorway and shouted at Gylfi in Gaelic. Gylfi could not understand what the man was saying, but he could guess. The man quickly strode towards Gylfi, who was now expecting the worst. Gunnar, who was about twenty yards ahead, heard the shout and, dropping the duffel bag that he held, ran towards Gylfi. Gunnar and the large man engaged in an animated discussion in Gaelic. 

Gunnar took a break from the argument with the large man and said firmly to Gylfi in Icelandic, “Go, quickly, to the boat, and tell the others to expect company.”

Gylfi picked up his crate and made a beeline to the boat, dreading the worst. He knew nothing about the temperament of the local people and was not in the mood for violence. He made it to the boat. Everyone but Gunnar was already aboard. 

“I think we have trouble”, Gylfi said to the others. “A local spotted us and now Gunnar is trying to explain the situation and maybe buy us some time. Let’s hope he makes it here quickly.”

A moment later, Gunnar arrived, duffle bag slung over his shoulder and flanked by two large, tough-looking men. A third large man rushed to the shore near the boat, armed with a bow, arrow ready on the string aimed directly at Stefan. Gunnar continued to talk in Gaelic to these men. They replied with voices that were a mix of anger and, it seemed, concern. After a tense minute, the third man dropped his bow and unstrung his arrow.

Gunnar immediately spoke reassuringly in Icelandic. 

“I’m OK. These men were formerly soldiers, loyal to the deposed king. Their names are Callum, Fraser and Duncan. Like me, they have been banished here. I have explained everything to them, but they are fearful of the Water Demons and worry that they shall never see me again. They also doubt your motives. I have assured them that I will be safe and told them that if I find Iceland to be friendly to foreigners, I shall personally return to pick up all those banished here and take them far from this cursed land. They have requested that I hand over two crates of supplies as a guarantee of my honesty. I’m afraid we don’t have a choice. We’ll simply have to ration what we have left.”

Einar lifted two crates and handed them to the burly men ashore. To his surprise, one of the men immediately opened one crate, while the other two disappeared. A few moments later, one returned with a small cauldron in his arms, and the other with a sling full of firewood and kindling. After starting a fire with steel and flint, the three men busied themselves with cooking an oatmeal breakfast for themselves and the crew of Máni. The mood changed to one of camaraderie. The morning passed by with pleasant talk between the Gaels and the Icelanders, with Gunnar serving as interpreter.

It was an hour past noon and the tide had turned. Before casting off, Gylfi said a prayer to the sea god Aegir and performed a ritual for protecting Máni from harm. Duncan winked at Einar, lifted the unopened crate and tossed it to him. Einar hoisted the main sail and Stefan took the helm. A pleasant southern breeze filled the sails and the boat quickly lurched towards open water as if she was eager to return to Iceland. On the numerous times the passengers looked back to the shore of old Edinburgh, they saw the three soldiers standing still looking like they had been turned to statues. After some time, the fog rolled in and the shore disappeared.

Two weeks later, Máni pulled into the harbour at Höfn, her passengers weary but otherwise in good shape. Gylfi was welcomed back with great fanfare and the rest of the crew – Icelanders and foreigners alike – were treated like heroes. The shrine opened its coffers and paid Stefan and Einar lavishly for returning the high priest safe and sound. After a week of feasting and celebration, the party (without Gylfi) was given ponies to travel to Akranes, it now being too late in the season to safely sail. Ten days later, they arrived in Akranes. Again, there was a week of feasting and celebration. Everyone settled in for a safe and uneventful winter.

True to his word, Gunnar returned to Edinburgh the following spring with two boats (one of them Máni, skippered by Stefan) and the dozen remaining survivors there became integrated into Icelandic society. Gunnar became a member of the court of High King of Iceland, in Reykjavík, and brokered trade relations between Iceland and The Kingdom of the Highlands and Western Isles until his death by cancer ten years after arriving in Iceland.

Flora married Einar and raised a family. Over the years, Flora earned a reputation as an oracle and had made many successful predictions – all of which benefited the people of Akranes. Their daughter, Margaret, showed signs of possessing the oracular gift at the tender age of four. Flora died of cancer in her mid-thirties; Einar never remarried.

Stefan was highly respected for the rest of his life for his heroic deeds and lived to a ripe old age. Year after year, Stefan delighted audiences with the story of his dangerous voyages to the Land of the Water Demons. “I tell you”, he would say while retelling his tale and looking straight at the wide-eyed children in attendance, “those Water Demons were something fierce. One look at the way they had twisted the fish, you would have fainted right away. It was only by Gylfi’s great blessings and powers as the high priest that those Water Demons could not follow us home!”