The fog showed no signs of breaking as the longship sliced through it, turning up the bright water at its bow in little ripples, its strakes creaking under the strain of the low, irregular gusts afflicting the fluttering mainsail. Why, it was so thick Olaf Adrejalsson could have cut a path through it with his axe. He had a mind to, too. He smiled slightly as he whirled the double-bladed weapon dexterously before sending it flying into the massive, decorated stempost in the bow, just an inch away from Jørlsson’s humiliatingly flat nose, disregarding that aggrieved personage’s angry growl.
“Och, ye dunderpate-! Meanin’ it honorably, of course, chief.”
Jørlsson was sore upon the point of his nose – it had no point – and was in constant apprehension lest his over active and unpredictable neighbor should split the ship in half with his volatile cleaver, even if it were his ship and he were its captain.
Adrejalsson straightened himself up with his foot resting on the raised fore-deck in evident enjoyment, and sucked up the fog which sailed through the air. It was the kind of fog that you could breathe – the kind of bright fog that fills up your lungs with that damp, fresh taste and makes your nostrils dream of snow.
Olaf turned away and uttered a sigh.
Only, it had been too long. Far too long.
In fact, it had been so long, that no one knew just how long it had been. They had entered the fog just after sailing out, and it had been months now since they had seen the sun. Once or twice a glimpse of its rays shone through the mist, but never more than that and never for long. Never for long enough to get their bearings. Never long enough to get another chance at the sea monster they had set out in pursuit of. They might have been in that fog for years – decades, for all anyone could tell.
He passed his hand through the foam leaping up around the bow and pensively lifted and dropped a handful of frigid water.
The helmsman strained his eyes to see beyond the fog, but caught little beyond the glimmering lantern hung on the mast, barely being able to make out the figures of his comrades leaning out over the bow thirty yards ahead. He stroked his mighty beard with a muttered imprecation in Norse.
But then Olaf suddenly tensed up, staring out beyond the carved figurehead, and a cold shiver ran down his spine. Jørlsson stood laughing as he poured a handful of icy water surreptitiously down his chief’s back.
But to Jørlsson’s surprise Adrejalsson did not even seem to feel it, his eyes peeled, his whole body strung as taut as a bent longbow. He thought- he thought he had spotted something. What he hardly cared at the moment – it was something, anything!
Yes, he had – there could be no doubt of it. A rocky ledge jutted out from the water leeward – beyond it another, and another, and the whole sea was suddenly full of masses of glacial ice. Adrejalsson turned precipitously and gave a shout that shook the timbers of the entire ship and sent each Viking soul among them jumping for the sides and clasping their beards in excitement and joy.
Morning fog still enshrouded the solitary Viking ship as it slid into the bright and icy northern waters of Spitsbergen. But even the beautiful flashes of wild, frozen glaciers that they could make out as they sailed past looked singularly inviting to the adventurous Norsemen who had been lost in that fog for very nearly a thousand years. And when the mist broke around them and they glided into the clear sound of Isfjorden, the ocean now still and gorgeous as a polished sheet of ice, with the white of the snow-capped peaks glimmering on its glassy depths, the cries and peals of joyful laughter and the tears of delight rolling down their massive beards was most certainly a sight to behold.
It was quite a picturesque moment, though rather ruined by the tumbling off of hats which followed the hurrying to the sides.
Adrejalsson grasped the double-headed axe – after wrenching it from the stempost he had previously meditatively slung it into – and raised it up over his head, and a moment later a Viking yell, sounded from fifty bearded throats at once, was heard to crash out and resonate back again over the fjord.
The massive snow-covered sides of Hiorthfjellet were tinted purple in the gorgeous morning light, as was occasionally the case, when Jeremy Wesitch and Alison Torstenbjorg headed out from Longyearbyen for the seed bank, chatting merrily together. They had gotten some little way out of the town when their laughing conversation about the tourist on the past Tuesday’s dog-sledding expedition was suddenly interrupted by a most unexpected sight which burst unceremoniously upon their view.
A massive Viking-esque longship came swooping down across the water, flying over the fjord under the strain of a full sail and twenty-three pairs of sweeping oars. Fifty gleaming shields flashed in the morning light, and, as the prow touched the shore, a horde of fur-and-chain-mail clad Norsemen leapt out over the sides, hollering and cheering in eager excitement and dashing down precipitously towards the settlement, waving their axes eloquently over their helmets, their huge beards streaming in the breeze. Once they recovered from their initial surprise, it must be admitted that the idea that this was some preposterously extravagant practical joke of one of their distant neighbors crossed both Alison and Jeremy’s minds – and really, if you tilted your head and squinted, they did look like fifty rambunctious six-year-olds, bellowing their little lungs out as they charged down the shore towards Longyearbyen.
Such notions, however, were all instantly dispelled at the shout of veritable thunder which erupted from their ranks when the newcomers topped the slight rise and came within sight of Longyearbyen. No imitation, however extravagant, could have equaled that roar – it could come from true Viking lungs and no other.
Jeremy looked back towards the settlement to see Asbjørn Jorgensen leap into the air, turn on his heels and tear back into the town, and, with a mutual laugh, knowing that that was taken care of, the two let curiosity overcome them and went on, unruffled, to meet the Viking throng and see whatever was up. And after all, with a last name like Torstenbjorg, it is only proper that it should take more than a little knot of thundering Vikings to perturb you.
In half a minute the whole town had turned out, bristling with guns and snowmobiles and anti-bear spray, hurrying on toward the new arrivals.
But before they could come up, Jeremy and Alison stopped short in surprise, for the Vikings were clearly not charging at Longyearbyen at all. In fact, however extraordinary it might seem, they did not appear to have even noticed the town or the approaching snowmobiles whatsoever. For if truth be told, the Viking incursion was about nothing more nor less than dinner – dinner in the shape of polar bear steaks and blubber.
Halfway between the oncoming snowmobiles and the Vikings lay the dormant figure of a great polar bear, slumbering as sound as a doormat. Bruin had not picked a good place to doze that morning, but he must have been quite necessitated of the slumber, for his nose did not even twitch at the uproar of which he was the unconscious cause.
Jeremy could hardly resist bursting into laughter at this ludicrous turn of events, but Alison’s momentary smile of relief was instantly changed into consternation again when the object of their unexpected guests’ onslaught became clear, and, grabbing Jeremy’s arm, she pulled him over to aid, willing or unwilling, in the rescue. He was perfectly willing, however, only too engaged in laughing at the whole thing to have likely done any good on his own. But, as they were fortunately the closest to the slumbering bear, they arrived first, and having placed Jeremy firmly in front, Alison took up a decided flank to defend the snoozing wildlife.
The Vikings were nearly on top of them at this point, but at this unexpected development they stopped short, and all turned their eyes on the foremost Norseman, who had pulled up right in front of the champions of the imperiled species. On the other side the snowmobiles ranged up in an impressive-looking line a few yards away, trying to look intimidating and telling themselves that of spears and bullets, the latter make the better projectiles.
For a minute both sides stared at each other probingly, trying to make out the new prospects.
“Hello!” exclaimed Olaf suddenly, after quite an awkward pause in the proceedings.
“Oh! Hello,” Jeremy replied, attempting to smile back his amusement.
“It’s – it’s a splendid morning,” returned the Viking politely, waving his hand at the sky.
“Lovely,” replied Wesitch.
“Charming clouds,” rejoined Olaf with a not inelegant gesture, looking slightly at a loss as to what to say, under the circumstances, and skirting about discreetly meanwhile to get at the bear.
Jeremy could barely hold back his laughter at the hilariousness of the situation, but Alison resolutely took the flank with a little stamp of her foot and a reproving flash of her eyes at her companion for his lack of firmness.
“Miss,” Olaf bowed meekly, smiling, and still trying to get around as unassumingly as possible.
Alison merely knit her eyebrows at him and followed the move, looking like a thundercloud.
“That is a lovely snookie – poof ball hat,” faltered the poor Viking, trying vainly to amend his language at the glowering look the compliment earned him.
With a little sigh Olaf turned back to Mr. Wesitch, who was beginning to look rather like the easier way through. The thundercloud on her face lightened once it was no longer under attack, however, for Alison was beginning to enjoy the scene in spite of herself, though she would not admit it or let down a particle of her vigilance.
“May I get you something?” Jeremy asked, grinning widely, for he was enjoying himself immensely, and did not care who knew it.
“Would you like some croissants?”
“Oh, thank you. No.” replied Adrejalsson hastily, mercifully unconscious of what he had just refused.
Another awkward pause ensued – whatever are you to do when someone turns down croissants?
“Well, sir, good day. Miss. It’s been a pleasure.” And Olaf gave another beautiful little bow and stood perfectly still.
Jeremy nodded, and Alison glanced back and forth over the ranks of the Norsemen, looking hopefully for movement of some sort.
Heartbeats ticked away the seconds of the minute that followed.
Then, his adieus not having accomplished the desired effect, poor Olaf despaired of desultory conversation and took dinner by the fetlock.
“Actually, I was trying to – thinking about getting to-” and Olaf waved his arm helplessly toward the slumbering form before him.
“Oh, the bear!” ejaculated Jeremy with the most ingenuous expression he could command.
“Yes,” whispered the Viking.
There was decidedly a smile in his voice as Jeremy innocently inquired, “What about it?”
“I was rather hoping-” Olaf went on faintly, and faded off, not sensing much encouragement in the faces before him. “I- I’m terribly sorry to intrude,” he added hastily, in a whisper. “If I had known that you all were here, we would never have-”
“Oh, no, no, no,” interrupted Jeremy, quite affably. “No trouble at all.”
“Well,” continued the Viking, taking heart ever so slightly, “we- we’re really all rather hungry, and we were thinking about… about digging into…” and he nodded hopefully toward the somnolent tetrapod.
His hopefulness, however, was not destined to last for long.
“I’m sorry,” replied Alison, her eyes playing in her face, “but you can’t. Polar bears are a protected species on these islands.”
“What?” exclaimed Olaf, in innocent astonishment.
“Section 30 of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, in accordance with the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat of 1973.” She tapped the zipper of her pocket and glanced down demurely at the snow.
Olaf blinked – four times – and then stared, while Alison readily repeated herself, glancing up into his face with an absolutely delightful smile.
But in a few seconds Adrejalsson recovered himself, and said, with a docile air that deceived nobody a particle, “Oh, sorry,” and “thank you very much,” he didn’t know that and would they please just go about their business and never mind him and Erling and Herleifr, and Jerker and Halvorsen and Bjørn, and Erik and Harald and Svend and Kåre and Skarde and Jørlsson and Njal and Kjef and Ulf and Halfdan and…
And where had they two been going, again? Would they please not let him keep them – and Olaf nodded beg-your-pardon-ingly at Alison and Jeremy.
“Going? Oh, yes. We were headed to the seed bank,” answered Jeremy, ignoring Alison’s frown at his letting himself be distracted from the point – and in amused explanation at the wondering stare that followed, he added, with a little pardonable pride for himself and his companion, “I’m its manager and Miss Alison Torstenbjorg is my assistant.”
The distraction, such as it was, however, must at this point have become quite mutual, for Olaf suddenly gasped for breath, and then doubled over in laughter, while a torrent of hilarity ran unexpectedly down the line of Norsemen.
“Oh me, oh my!” exclaimed the Viking, dying of glee, “we may have been lost in a fog for a thousand years, but at least it’s not our job to manage snow banks!” and he gasped for another breath, and looked up at Wesitch’s face with an effort.
The absolute glare that he received there put a halt to the Viking’s cachinnations.
“Seed bank,” Jeremy breathed out between his teeth, bristling up to his hair.
“Not much better,” replied the Norseman, refraining himself with difficulty from going off in laughter again. “What a state the world must have gotten into in our absence,” he whispered aside to Jørlsson, jovially, “that they have to keep all their seeds in a bank so they won’t be robbed away!”
“That- that’s not exactly how it works,” interjected Jeremy, a little helplessly.
“I should like to know what the difference is!” exclaimed the Viking. “And, what’s more to the point,” Olaf went on jollily, in that same triumphant, unanswerable sort of strain, “I should like to know if the way section what’s-his-name of the International Habitat Protection and Polar Bear Agreement Act of 1937 works – whatever that may be – is really to make it so that a set of amiable Norsemen cannot sit down and eat their dinner in peace?”
“Yes, it is exactly,” Alison replied, smiling perversely at the evident consternation that the prompt answer provoked among the Norsemen – “at least if their dinner is to be polar bears, at any rate.”
Olaf let out a mighty sigh, and looked like he would happily sail back a thousand years to when there were no polar bear agreements or section thirties of international protection acts.
Alison softened a little.
“But then, there isn’t any problem with you hunting the Svalbard reindeer or Artic fox,” she added, tilting her head at the hungry Norsemen.
“It’s not the same,” exclaimed Adrejalsson, mutinously – “and, it’s not here.” And he stuck his nose rebelliously up into the air.
“Oh no,” sighed Alison, “now he’s in a contrary fit.”
“And besides, wherever is the glory in foxes and reindeer?” exclaimed the Norseman, in the tone of one arguing with a petulant little child. “The world is not all meat and fur – though I’ve got to admit it mostly is – polar bears, miss, are a pursuit worthy of Vikings.”
Alison Torstenbjorg’s blood fired up at this.
“Well, you can tell you’ve been lost for a thousand years,” and she glanced down ironically at the great, slumbering ‘pursuit’ of the ever so high-minded Norsemen.
“I should happily make a piece of antiquity ofyou-urrrr acts and agreements, you little tempest in a teapot!” exclaimed Adrejalsson impetuously.
“Well!” retorted Alison, glancing down coolly at the snow, and looking up at him out of the corner of her eyes, “I’d quite gladly shoot you if it wouldn’t be too much of a pain to ship you off to somewhere it’d be legal for you to be buried!”
Olaf opened his mouth and closed it again once or twice before finding that she had quite effectually put an end to his tantrum by leaving him nothing to say in reply.
Alison’s humorous brown eyes danced triumphantly on him as he turned to Jeremy again, asking desperately.
“What do you eat, sir?”
“Not polar bears,” grinned Jeremy, in return for the snow bank snub.
Adrejalsson could cheerfully have strangled him.
“Fine!!!” exclaimed the Norseman in despair. “We’ll just go to the next island!” and he whirled about rapidly to suit the action to the word.
“No, don’t!” exclaimed Alison in alarm.
And really, the idea of fifty hungry Vikings overrunning the seven national parks, fifteen bird sanctuaries, one geotropic protected area, and six nature reserves that protect Svalbard’s largely untouched, yet delicate, natural environment and make up two-thirds of the archipelago was more than a little disconcerting, even to Jeremy – especially as they looked just now like they could each gladly eat a dozen polar bears at a single sitting.
The realization of just how irremediable the situation actually was suddenly hit her in its full force, and Alison was beginning to grow rather fluttered herself – and the consciousness of it was not exactly helping.
A bright but not very mollifying smile flitted quickly across Olaf’s face at the sudden disruption of Alison’s perfectly cool composure.
“So then we can have our lunch?” asked the Viking eagerly, as he turned back towards the bear.
“Alright!” exclaimed Olaf, jumping, and looking around in the most violent exasperation, “horses – we’ll eat the horses!”
The whole line of Svalbarders jumped at that. Everybody was flustered now.
Just at that moment a small party of guides and tourists – including the one from the past Tuesday’s sledding expedition – had rounded the mountainside into view with Svalbard’s four Icelandic horses, the pride and joy of its residents and tourists alike. The instant they caught sight of the Viking line, however, both the tourists and the horses objected that this was most certainly more than either of them had signed up for when they agreed to the expedition, the humans by suddenly freezing in their saddles in perfect astonishment, and the horses by nickering as they turned and tore off at the top of their speed. The tourist from the past Tuesday’s expedition toppled off his horse precipitately into the snow, and the guides and other tourists were left hanging on to their mounts’ necks for dear life. All this happened in about the blink of an eye, of course, the tourist left in the snow leaping up instantly as well and taking off after his steed as if he had been shot. The effect was much the same on the whole line of defending Svalbarders, for at the suggestion they all flew up, vaulting off their snowmobiles and hastily preparing their weapons for defense.
Adrejalsson looked about ready to explode, both figuratively and literally, and the whole line of Norsemen began to fidget hungrily and narrow their eyes impatiently at their lunch and at Alison (and to a lesser degree, at Jeremy), who, with flashing eyes and desperate tenacity, accompanied now by only the barest pretense at coolness, stood guard in front of it.
Alison, in truth, however, felt that she was losing fast – for though as determined as ever not to lose the bear, she was quite at a loss as to what to do, and the situation seemed to be going decidedly in the wrong direction.
“Out of the way or I’ll spiflicate you!” exclaimed Olaf, out of all patience, what with the mouthwatering bear calmly asleep, the snow hat toting girl standing defiantly in his way, and the grumbling of an empty stomach.
“But-” began Jeremy helplessly.
“But me no buts!” exclaimed the distracted Viking, “we’ve been hunting for the sea monster for nearly a thousand years, and it’s not going to be heard of that now we can’t even-”
“The sea monster?” interrupted Alison, puckering up her face in perplexity. “You don’t mean to say that you were- you can’t mean that you were hunting Plesiosaurus Funkei??”
One might have heard a pin drop, had someone only dropped a pin.
Adrejalsson’s rage evaporated instantly, his axe-hand dropped to his side, and his mighty frame suddenly fell almost utterly limp.
“You, you know the sea monster?” Olaf faltered. “The- the 40-foot giant, the terror of the seas, the most fearsome animal to ever swim the oceans? – and you have met it?” he breathed, in something less than a whisper.
“Yes, of course,” Alison could not keep her eyes from smiling, “it’s quite dead though – it was discovered several years ago in the south of Sassenfjorden. Or to be more precise, the anterior portions of its upper and lower jaws and one nearly complete cervical centrum were discovered, along with two partial cervical centra, eight neural arches, fifteen dorsal centra, a complete right forelimb, and…”
“All that time, searching, hunting, waiting – and you, you slew the sea monster??” Adrejalsson gazed up at her with a mixture of wonder, admiration, and new-found respect that was quite delightful to behold in the Viking.
Alison lifted her eyes up to him but did not venture to correct him verbally, and a smile slowly lit up her whole face.
“You slew the sea monster?” Olaf stammered, in a whisper. “What glory is there in polar bears?”
The axe fell from limply his hand.
But just then, at this most unfortunate moment, the polar bear moaned and began to bestir himself, for he had just received a most sudden rap on his nose from the falling battleaxe.
Olaf glanced down, and shook his head to clear himself of the momentary trance he had fallen into, and, as he caught sight of him, Bruin hastily leapt up and traipsed off as fast as his four legs and freshly wakened brain could take him.
This, however, was too much for the Vikings, and with a great thundering roar the whole line of Norsemen took off after it, hollering in triumph. Alison’s eyes grew wide, and Jeremy grabbed the sleeve of her windbreaker to hold her back.
“Well, you have trounced me, I admit, miss,” Olaf grinned, watching his men race off and turning back toward Alison with a disculpatory air due to the respect in which he suddenly held her, “but we still have to eat, you know” – and he beamed a smile and bowed charmingly preparatory of following them off after it.
“Lunch!” exclaimed Alison in desperation, “I’ll pay for your lunch!”
Jeremy looked at her in silent amazement and started counting heads under his breath, and Alison repented of it the moment it was out of her mouth.
Olaf turned to her in surprise at the offer, nodding his head pensively and adjusting the helmet on his head with a grin. And after carefully weighing it against the polar bear steaks, together with a healthy dose of respect for the offerer, who had successfully held out against his hoard of Vikings for nearly half an hour and had slain the elusive sea monster, he nodded and called back the throng of Norsemen who had all but overtaken their fleeing meal, much to their initial dissatisfaction.
“Alright, it’s a deal,” he grinned.
“Not very gentlemanly of him to accept a girl’s invitation to pay for lunch,” growled Alison to her companion, who doubled over laughing.
And so they all trekked off in a body to have dinner at Huset and enjoy the gorgeous view of Hiorthfjellet and Longyearbyen and a gourmet repast of the first class, which they devoured in a fashion that utterly dismayed the staff of that elegant establishment.
Reindeer ribs with 34% crème fraîche, white truffle and pink footed duck, king crab a la belareaux, bearded seal and chanterelle, caviar and lobster tails and blanc-mange were done away with in astonishingly rapid succession, to Alison’s terror and the scandal of both chef and waiters. And when they had wolfed down almost the entire institution, they all gathered round and clashed together and shattered innumerable fancy glasses as they toasted to their benefactor and each other over Norwegian cloudberries and shortbread, pistachios and chocolate custard with burnt figs and Nordic cheeses and delicacies of all kinds which they downed in a most unconscionable style, all while Jeremy stood by holding his sides and laughing until he was fit to burst – all of which momentous occurrences, of course, were duly published next week in the Svalbardposten newspaper.
Alison set her teeth and bit her lips and shoved her hands deep into her windbreaker and had a hard time of it that night, but to her infinite relief she and Jeremy (from whom, after all his hilarity, she was forced to borrow a not insignificant sum that night) were eventually reimbursed and recognized by the community for their part in the story and for the dinner that had saved the polar bear and Longyearbyen from the Vikings. As to the Vikings themselves – well, they gave up the sea after their thousand-year adventure with the fog, though they still occasionally give tours in the fjord with their longship for the larks of it, and they still frequent Huset’s elegant and cozy atmosphere of evenings – but beyond that they have proven to be a great asset and a never-aging attraction to the whole community, for they set up an establishment in Longyearbyen where they go spelunking, lie under the Aurora Borealis, tell thrilling stories all winter long, and definitely do not hunt polar bears.
 It is, in the words of a renowned Viking chieftain (who was talking about something else), “an occupational hazard.”
 My sister says he had probably been drinking too much caffeine.
 There is no answer to this question.
 But Vikings don’t carry pins, and neither Jeremy nor Alison had one on them (and at least one of them wasn’t thinking about it). Well, that and if the ground hadn’t been covered with snow.