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December 13, 2014

Vinland-by-the-Sea

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Did The Viking Trail end here—along the sandy shores
of Prince Edward Island?

Icelandic saga scholars seem to think so. Just read any of the impressive & impeccably researched tomes by Dr. Gísli Sigurdsson of Reykjavík, Iceland.
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Islanders believe so as well—judging by the popularity of the new Vínland Society recently formed—not in Newfoundland, where evidence of a Viking presence has been uncovered at L’Anse aux Meadows—but in the self-proclaimed heart of Vínland:
Prince Edward Island.

The result? Islanders are busy turning over stones in their back yards and coastlines for evidence of a Viking landing on their shores.

Inspired by my scrutiny of some ancient stones with curious inscriptions, recently uncovered behind the wall of a centuries-old cemetery, I have embarked on my own literary journey—a tale of The Viking Trail.

This past week, I gave a talk to the Vínland Society as well as a reading from my latest novel project, The Vínland Way. (For those of you not fluent in the language of the Vikings, ‘way’ meant road or trail in Old Norse.) I hope the excerpts from the opening pages spark your own interest in uncovering The Viking Trail to Vínland.

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Angus ‘Maccan’ MacDonald stood in the pre-dawn light, alternatively glancing from the construction site to the dark sea beyond, as he tossed his phone nervously from one hand to another. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” he mumbled.

With a shake of his head, he took a deep breath, and started clicking. “Here goes nothing—or everything.”

Iona MacFarland woke to the insistent ring of her mobile, before it stopped, only to resume again. She stretched out a reluctant hand from under the down quilt.

Maccan’s voice sounded unusually stern, if not outright distraught. “Iona? Look, I know it’s early, but we’ve uncovered something odd, really odd. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but—”

“Umm,” Iona mumbled, her head buried in pillows. She had been immersed in her Viking dream again. In recent days, its equivocal images—like a slideshow flashing recurring scenes in her mind—seemed to occupy her sleeping consciousness with ever-increasing frequency. She shook her head as if to fling the inexplicable images from her thoughts.

Maccan’s tone shifted to an unusually sharp key. “Iona, wake up. This is important.”

Poking her head out from under her covers, she peered through her window to the still deep blue marsh and violet sea beyond. “For God’s sake, Maccan, are you digging in the dark?”
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“Listen, Iona, this is your only chance to see this. I’m sure to get axed for bringing you in on this project, but I’ve not seen anything like them here on the island,” he reported, his voice breathless. “You’ll need to come over right away—if you want to protect them, that is,” he urged.

“What is it you’ve found?” she asked as she leaned on one elbow, her innate sense of curiosity winning out over her sleepiness.

“Something historical, but what exactly, I’m not sure.”

“How historical?” She wasn’t inspired enough to move from her warm bed.

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She glanced outside. The sun was just announcing its imminent arrival by broadcasting swirling streaks of vivid color over the edge of a still darkened sea.

“Some of the boys think it’s Acadian, others maybe Mi’kmaq. Me? I’d say older. Much older.”

Whether the hint of an imminent dawn or the allusion to an obscure antiquity stirred her, Iona instantly shifted from slumbering to professional mode.

“How old?” she asked in a now clearly interested voice.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say eight hundred to a thousand years old or so, depending on what I’m looking at.”

Iona bolted upright in bed, now fully alert. “What? What is it you’re looking at?”

“It’s a rock. Well, actually two.”

She leaned forward in anticipation. “Describe them to me then.”

“We dug them out together from the wall at the edge of the cemetery. The small one is almost perfectly round with a hole dug out of the middle, almost like a petrified doughnut.”

“Interesting thing about the stones,” Maccan continued, “is that one is unlike any other rock I’ve seen here on the island.”

“What kind is it?” she asked.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say, though it’s covered in dirt, some kind of special soapstone,” he surmised, “which, you might know, we have none anywhere within hundreds of miles of the island.”

Really?” She was up now.

“I don’t even think the rock is from anywhere in the Maritimes. Never saw that kind in Newfoundland. Or Labrador, for that matter. Something different about it.”

“And what about the other stone?”

Maccan’s voice was barely above a whisper. “That’s where it gets really interesting.”

“Why?” she asked as she filled her kettle with water and placed it on the wood cookstove.

“You don’t have time to make tea,” Maccan said crossly. “Get here right away, Iona, before the others arrive. Have a look at the sticklike markings on the other one.”

“What kind of markings? You mean like the engravings on the tombstones in the cemetery there? They are centuries old, you know.”

“No, these are really different, sticklike as I said, with long lines connecting them, and if I didn’t know any better, would say Celtic or maybe Nordic, as in Viking runes.”

“What?” Iona nearly screamed into the phone. “Are you serious?”

Racing back into her bedroom, she barked out orders as she tugged up her jeans and tied her strands of wavy red hair into a knot. “I’ll be right there. Cover them up and don’t move anything around them.”

_________

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An old colonial cemetery sat to the left of the long entranceway Maccan was constructing to its right from the road through the field to the dunes beyond. The place was in complete upheaval with excavators and other heavy machinery digging here and there, interspersed with piles of rubble and dirt heaped in small hills all about.

Iona rushed over to Maccan. “Where are they?” she demanded.

“Yeah, g’day to you as well,” he said before taking her by the arm to lead her briskly along the way. “Here they are,” he announced as they came to a covered mound.

As she approached it, Maccan said in a sheepish tone, unusual for him, “Some of the big stone got crushed by the excavator.”

“What?” She arched her eyebrow before turning back to the mysterious mound.

He threw up his hands. “Well, we weren’t expecting to unearth something of major archeological significance. We were just opening the wall for the entrance to the new resort.”

Iona rolled her eyes. “If it weren’t bad enough to situate a megaplex resort and casino for the wealthy among sand dunes that should be preserved, don’t you think it’s a bit ominous to have a historical cemetery flanking its entrance?”

Maccan flushed as he shook his head. “We’ve been through this before, Iona,” he muttered, “I can’t stop the government from building here.” He gazed at her with a shrug. “And neither can you, apparently, despite your attempts. I can only ensure that it is built according to code and you, that it limits its imprint on the environment and doesn’t destroy any heritage structures.”

Iona gave him a smirk. “You mean like the stone wall?” She turned away. “Well, if these stones of yours are as historical as you implied, there won’t be any building here, government sanctioned or not.”

Bending down on her knees, Iona stared at the figures seemingly etched in the stone. “It’s all geometric, no rounded characters. And it seems to have the line orientation of runes,” she announced, her tone breathless.
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She shook her head. “But it could be Celtic, as in Ogham script.” She glanced up at him. “Although I did have a few courses in Norse archeology in Edinburgh, we only covered a bit of runic inscriptions, the kind found in the Hebrides, not enough for me to say anything definitively.”

She turned back to the stone. “And it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the gravestones from what I remember of them with their rounded scrolled designs.” Iona just stared down at it, shaking her head gently.

Maccan nodded. “Neither does the smaller stone, which I’d say is a creamy soapstone of sorts, different from anything I’ve encountered.”

“I haven’t even seen that one yet.” Iona looked up at him with dancing eyes. “Let’s have a look.”

He directed her around to the other side of the first stone. “It’s under here,” he announced as he lifted off the tarp.

Iona bent down to examine the small rounded stone. “It has markings on it as well, like the ones on the bigger stone,” she said with clear excitement in her voice.
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“It looks so familiar to me, yet I can’t quite place it.” She continued to stare at it before shifting her widened eyes to Maccan. “You said you found these together?”

He nodded. “That one seemed to roll off the large one.”

Iona turned away, her glance resting on the stone wall behind them. “And that wall,” she said in a pensive tone, “reminds me of something I saw recently in an article.”
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She shook her head with a thoughtful toss. “Maybe Gaelic, something from the Hebridean ruins,” she murmured before lapsing into silence for some minutes.

“Well, decide what you’re looking at before the big boys arrive on the scene,” Maccan said with annoyance.

“Or, maybe,” she said, her tone rising, “I’m thinking about an image from the supposed runestone found in Nova Scotia, down there near Mahone Bay—right on the beach of all places.”

Maccan whistled softly. “Oh boy, the government boys aren’t going to like the sounds of that, I can tell you.” He tossed his head as he bent towards her, “From what I hear,” he said in a whisper, “The Macou investors will withdraw their support if this place isn’t built right here—and right away. Any minute now, they’ll be coming. I’ll leave you to it.”

“Thanks, Maccan,” she said but he had already walked away.

She gently touched the edge of the stone, feeling its cool softness, taking care to avoid the inscription. Iona sat down next to it, her hand remaining where she had placed it. Gazing around, she studied each aspect of the scene—the stone wall, the field beyond, and the sand dunes and beach beyond that still, with the iridescent blue of the sea in the morning light framing the setting.

As she sat staring at the scene, her eyes started to glaze over, as images from her dream floated through her mind. She closed her eyes. A wooden boat with long winding stern among the waves, a grass-covered hut with smoke curling from its roof, a woman bending over her weaving, some men chopping wood.

A voice called out. “Iona?”

Looking up, she saw Maccan almost running towards her. “Hurry, cover the up the stones and leave. The Minister is here. Best to avoid a confrontation until you are sure what you are looking at.”

Grabbing her bag, Iona jogged down the field to the sand dunes and out onto the beach. Gazing around,she could easily see why the government and the Chinese wanted to build here. It was a magnificent stretch of beach.

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Iona stood taking in the pristine scene before her. A gently sweeping beach extended for several kilometers in each direction, banked by hills of sand dunes, covered in sea grass. A cascading series of waves rippled to shore along the curved stretch of sand, while a small rivulet streamed from its inland source out to the sea. A gentle breeze brushed the sea grass, causing it to sway—its long outstretched stalks of grains bending gracefully with each soft gust.

As Iona continued to gaze around at the primal setting about her, she wondered if might have looked exactly the same way to the carver of those stones as it did for her now. As she focused on the mesmerizing waves, thinking about the stones and their significance, she became cognizant of the images from her recurring dream flashing through her. She looked around with a fresh perspective. Could it be possible the Norse came ashore to Prince Edward Island?
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The question pounded through her. And suddenly with a flash, Iona realized that she had seen that smaller rounded stone before. At L’Anse aux Meadows. She closed her eyes to retrieve the mental image.

She bolted upright, staring wildly out to sea.

“Oh, my God,” she exclaimed to the waves. She was sure of it now.

It was a spinning whorl. A woman’s tool.
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A Viking woman’s tool.

She shook her head over the enormity of it all. And here on Prince Edward Island of all places, long buried in a wall for over a millennium.

Iona ran as fast as she could down the length of the beach back to the site to report the discovery—and halt the project.
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