The wind had been dropping off for some time, and along the eastern horizon the settled sky was giving place to heavy clouds. For a short time Estein hesitated, but as the outlook grew more threatening and the wind beat in flaws and gusts, now from one quarter, now from another, the Vikings changed their course and ran under oars and sails for the shelter of the land. Little shelter it promised as they drew nearer: a dark, inhospitable line of precipices stretched north and south as far as the eye could reach, and even from a long distance they could see white flashes breaking at the cliff foot. Again they changed their course; and then, with a dull hum of approaching rain, a south-easterly storm broke over them, and there was nothing for it but to turn and run before the gale.
“I read the stars too well,” said Estein grimly between his teeth, clinging to the straining tiller, and watching the rollers rising higher. “And the first part of Atli’s prophecy has come true.”
“Winds, war, and women make a Viking’s luck,” replied Helgi; “this is but the first part of the rede.”
At night the gale increased, the fleet was scattered over the North Sea, and next morning from Estein’s ship only two other black hulls could be seen running before the tempest. Another wild day passed, and it was not till the evening that the weather moderated. Little by little the great seas began to calm, and the drifts of stinging rain ceased. In their wake the stars struggled through the cloud wrack, and towards morning the wind sank altogether.
At earliest dawn eyes were strained to catch a glimpse of something that might tell them where they were. None of the men on Estein’s ship had been in those seas more than two or three times at most, and the vaguest conjectures were rife when, as the light was slowly gaining, Ulf raised a cry of land ahead.
“Land to the right!” cried Helgi, a moment later.
“Land to the left!” exclaimed Estein; “and we are close on it, methinks.”
When the morning fully broke they found themselves lying off a wide-mouthed sound, that bent and narrowed among low, lonely-looking islands. Only on the more distant land to the right were heather hills of any height to be seen, and those, so far as they could judge, were uninhabited. A heavy swell was running in from the open sea, and a canopy of grey clouds hung over all.
“I like not this country,” said Ulf. “What think you is it?”
“The Hjaltland islands, I should think, from what men tell of them,” Estein suggested.
“The Orkneys more likely,” said Thorolf, who had sailed in those seas before.
Far astern one other vessel was making towards them.
“Which ship is that, Ulf?” asked Estein. “One of our fleet, think you?”
“Ay, it is Thorkel Sigurdson’s,” replied the shaggy forecastle man, after a long, frowning look.