The incoming tide could be felt far up the river and helped the rowers make headway into the current, which was mild due to the low gradient. The river's mouth was only three-quarters of a mile wide, but it soon broadened to almost two miles. The land on the sloping shore to the east was green with lush vegetation.
Sigvatson, who was standing with his arm around the great dragon prow of the lead ship, gazing through the dying mist into the distance, pointed to a shadow in the steep rock palisades looming around a slight bend. "Pull toward the left bank," he ordered the rowers. "There looks to be an opening in the cliffs where we can shelter for the night."
As they drew closer, the dark, forbidding entrance of a flooded cavern grew in size until it broadened wide enough for a ship to enter. Sigvatson peered into the gloomy interior and saw that the passage traveled deep under the sheer walls of the cliff. He ordered the other ships to drift while the mast on his ship was unstepped and laid flat to permit entry beneath the low arch at the cavern's mouth. The fjord's stream swirled around the entrance, but the hardy rowers easily drove the ship inside, shipping the oars only slightly to keep them from striking the flanks of the opening.
As they passed through, the women and children leaned over the bulwarks and stared down through water of startling clarity, schools of fish clearly visible swimming over the rocky bottom nearly fifty feet below. It was with no little trepidation that they found themselves in a high-ceilinged grotto easily large enough to hold a fleet of ships three times the size of the little Viking fleet. Though their ancestors had embraced Christianity, old pagan traditions died hard. Naturally formed grottos were regarded as the dwelling places of the gods.
The walls on the interior of the grotto, formed by the cooling of molten rock 200,000 million years earlier, had been sculpted and worn smooth by the waves of an ancient sea against the volcanic rock layers that were an extension of nearby mountains. They arched upward into a domed ceiling that was bare of moss or hanging growth. Surprisingly, it was also free of bats. The chamber was mostly dry. The water level stopped at a ledge that ascended three feet and stretched into the inner reaches of the cavern for a distance of nearly two hundred feet.
Sigvatson shouted through the grotto entrance for the other ships to follow. Then his rowers eased off their strokes and let the ship drift until its stem post bumped lightly against the edge of the second cavern's floor. As the other ships approached the landing, long gangplanks were run out and everyone scurried onto dry land, happy to stretch their legs for the first time in days. The foremost matter of business was to serve the first hot meal they'd eaten since an earlier landing hundreds of miles to the north. The children spread out throughout the caverns to gather driftwood, running along the shelves that eons of water erosion had carved in the rock. Soon the women had fires going and were baking bread, while cooking porridge and fish stew in large iron pots. Some of the men began repairing the wear and tear on the ships from the rugged voyage, while others threw out nets and caught schools of fish teeming in the fjord. The women were only too happy to find such comfortable shelter from the elements. The men, on the other hand, were big, tousle-haired outdoorsmen and sailors who found it unpleasant to exist in rock-bound confinement.
After eating and just before settling in for the night in their leather sleeping bags, two of Sigvatson's young children, an eleven-year-old boy and ten-year-old girl, came running up to him, shouting excitedly. They grabbed his big hands and began dragging him into the deepest part of the cavern. Lighting torches, they led him into a long tunnel barely large enough to stand in. It was a tube passage, a rounded cave system originally formed when underwater.
Excerpted from Valhalla Rising by Clive Cussler. Copyright © 2001 by Sandecker, RLLLP. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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