IN ORPHIR, Orkney, it’s 1391.
Slipping away from his widowed mother after church one Sunday, Thorfinn races with his friend Thora ahead of an approaching storm across a treeless, otherwise-deserted moor, desperate to find shelter. Together they huddle in the entryway of a stone burial chamber, terrified of the fury raging outside but equally panic-stricken at the prospect of being haunted forever by the graves’ evil spirits.
The same merciless gale brings good fortune to the band of Orcadians who prowl the churning shoreline praying that fate delivers an undefended shipwreck to plunder. Their target this time is a galley from Venice laden with riches rarely seen in this subsistence settlement on the fringe of civilisation.
Years later, Finn and Thora find themselves together again, this time in the capital, Kirkwall, where the community’s ruler, a Scottish earl, is preparing to lead his people in a celebration whose character is as clearly Norse in origin as the now-teenagers’ names. Joining in the festivities is one of the few survivors of the Venetian vessel’s stranding, the youthful sailor Matteo.
Finn barely remembers his father, a fisherman who early in his son’s childhood failed to return from a routine expedition, presumably drowned at sea.
When a bedraggled stranger shows up in the revellers’ midst, however, Finn knows instantly that he is back. But where has the old man been all this time? Could a carved tablet in his odd-looking skiff hold the answer?
Soon Finn is on the move, setting sail with Matteo and the earl in a quest that will take them across the open Atlantic Ocean all the way to the land that centuries later will become Nova Scotia, Canada.
It’s there that the expeditioners’ ordeal really begins, pitting Finn and his companions not only against fierce native tribes but against themselves.