|The Story of Rolf and the Viking's Bow|
|by Allen French|
|Relates the thrilling exploits of Rolf in the land of the Vikings: how he becomes an outlaw, and a thrall, and at long last gains his freedom and avenges the unlawful slaying of his father. Through his trials Rolf is challenged to grow in manliness, developing courage, self-control, patriotism, and perseverance, and in the end rising above the feud that has consumed him for so long. The story, inspired by Icelandic sagas, serves as an excellent introduction to the prevailing values of the Viking era. Ages 11-14 |
HOW ROLF WON THE VIKING'S BOW
RANI sent men to the Viking's
mound, and they fetched home
all the precious things which were
there, whether gold, silver, cloths or
weapons. Among these last was the
Viking's bill. That was a notable weapon,
having a curving blade with a hook
springing from its back, and set like a
great spearhead upon a pole as high as a
man's shoulder. Grani kept all weapons;
but he gave Rolf and Frodi things to the
value of some hundreds in silver, and
begged that they should remain with
him in the hall of Ar the Peacock. Yet
Rolf bore himself as if he expected more
from Grani than gold and silver, and said
 he could not stay in the hall. Grani
complained of that to Ar.
Ar asked: "Knowest thou not what he
will have of thee?"
Said Grani, "The bow, belike."
"Not so," answered Ar.
"Well," Grani said, "I will make
amends to him by pressing him again to
live here with us."
"Thou shalt never succeed with him
in that," replied Ar, "until thou hast
said those words which will make him
forget that he was once a thrall in
this place. But this I beg thee, drive
him not away from Hawksness; for
war with the Scots is threatened in the
spring, and all fighting-men will be of
So Grani did not press Rolf to stay in
the hall, and he asked: "Where will ye
"We go," answered Rolf, "to stay a
 while with that shipmaster who has been
But when they searched after Kiartan,
it was told that he had gone with his ship
with great suddenness when he learned
that Rolf and Frodi were set free. Yet
in his haste he had left merchandise, and
had outstanding credits; so Rolf took
Kiartan's lodgings, and said he would
wait his return. Then winter came on,
and the place was snowed and frozen up,
so that men had nothing to do save to
hold sports on the ice, or to sit long of
evenings in the hall, talking of many
things. But now all was different from
before, and Rolf and Grani came seldom
One time when all were at games on
the ice, Grani sent for his bow, and it was
brought out to him. Men took it and
handled it, admiring it much. "Let us
see," said Grani, "what shooting we
 can do with it." He tried to string the
But it was with him as it had been
with Rolf and the bow of Grettir: it
would not bend for him, but was almost
as stiff as a spear shaft. He got red in
the face, first with trying and then with
anger; at last he gave over and said that
others should try. But though the
strongest of the Orkneyingers did their best,
they could do no better than Grani.
Thereat he felt better, and offered the
bow to Frodi.
Frodi held it in his hands, and turned
it this way and that. "Break it I might,"
quoth he, "but string it never." He
offered the bow to Rolf, saying: "Do
thou try it, for I have seen thee do with
skill what others have failed to do with
But Rolf would not try to string the
bow. So Grani sent it back to the hall,
 and let bring the viking's bill, which
had lain by his side in the ship. But
when it was brought, it proved too heavy
for any of the Orkneyingers to wield.
Then said Grani: "I will give the bill
as a present to Ghost-Frodi."
"Why callest thou me that?" asked
Grani only said, "Why should I not
call thee so?" and he pressed the bill on
Frodi, who drew back.
"I know nothing of weapons," said he.
Then all the Orkneyingers shouted to see
the strongest man drawing away from
the bill; and when Grani made him take
it, they laughed the more, for he handled
it, said all, as if it were the smithy
broom. They called him Ghost-Frodi
after that, thinking it fine that he who
could master a spirit could not handle a
Now in that winter Ar was continually
 sick with little fevers, and he would not
let Grani stir far from his side. One day
a messenger from Earl Brusi came to say
that Ar should keep a watch for Vemund
the Pitiless, who had been driven from
the north, and had gone toward the south.
Now no one needed to be told who Vemund was.
For he was the worst of all vikings who
had ravaged in the Orkneys, since he not
only took tribute, but burnt towns and
slaughtered people wantonly. A baresark
he was, with the strength of seven men,
and so defended by magic that on him
no steel might bite. Only twenty men
had he with him, but they had the power
of fifty, being baresarks all, outlawed and
reckless of life. They had first done
great damage in Norway, but were driven
thence to the Shetland Isles, and thence
to the northern Orkneys, but now were
coming further south. Rewards and fame
 were sure to the men who could overcome
Grani begged of Ar that he might go
in the war-ship in search of them; but Ar
said no to that. Ar gave orders that
Sweyn should keep the ship in readiness;
men slept near the boat-stand, ready to
launch her day or night.
One night in a storm, fire was seen on
that island which is off Hawksness, where
dwell only fisher-folk; the cottages were
seen to burn to the ground, but the sea
was high, and no one crossed over. In
the morning a ten-oared boat left that
little island, and went away eastward;
that was a venturesome thing in a storm,
and by that deed that was known for the
boat of Vemund the Pitiless. Then Sweyn
let launch the war-ship, and with all his
men went after the baresarks. Rolf made
no offer to go, and Grani watched the
chase from the shore, angry that he must
 stay. The two ships drove away out of
sight, and no one could say that the larger
gained upon the smaller. Nothing more
was seen of them all that day.
But in the night the baresarks gave
Sweyn the slip; they came straight back
as they had gone, but Sweyn went on,
first east, then south, searching the coast.
Vemund's ship came to Hawksness; and
in the morning, behold, there it was off
the landing, and the baresarks were just
rowing it to shore. The fisher-folk left
their cottages and ran to the hall, and all
took hasty counsel. But when word was
brought to Ar of the baresarks, first he
became red in the face, and then he lost
power of speech, and there was no leader
Grani said: "This is no place for us to
stay, for the baresarks will burn us alive.
Take Ar and the women and children into
the stone church, and let us men go also
 thither and defend it." Then that was
done; and when they reached the church,
going hastily and in a body so that none
should be left behind, they found Rolf
and Frodi sitting at the door, with their
Then all went within the church, but
Rolf and Frodi stayed outside. "Come
ye not inside?" asked Grani.
"All those riches which Ar has in his
hall," responded Rolf, "are those to be
burned or lost?"
Then Grani said he would go back
again, and called for men to help defend
the hall. Only nine came. But those,
with Rolf and Frodi, went back to the
hall; both the hall and the church were
barred against the baresarks. Those
outlaws came up into the place; a strange
crew they were, wearing no armor but
skins of beasts, and wild to look on. They
burned some huts, but the church and the
 hall they might not force. Then, because
they feared Sweyn's return, and so dared
not to lose time, they knew not what to
do. Men shot at them from the hall and
the church; so the baresarks went back
again to the shore, and took counsel
Now all the time in the hall Frodi had
walked up and down, looking very white
and knocking his bill against everything,
as if he were afraid. So when the outlaws
went away, Grani scoffed at him.
"What dost thou with that bill," asked
Grani, "if thou canst not stand up like a
man, and be ready for what comes?"
"Truly," answered Frodi, "I feel strange
inwardly, and my hands are cold. Yet
what dost thou with that bow, which is so
handsome that man never saw finer, yet
which no one in these islands has yet
Then Grani took the quiver from his
 shoulders and laid down the bow. "I
am justly rebuked," said he. He took a
lighter bow. "Now wilt thou take a
"No man can say," answered Frodi,
"what he will do in time of trial. But
I will keep the bill."
Now some voice was heard without,
calling; they listened to what was said.
That was a messenger from Vemund, who
made this offer: a champion should be
sent out by the Orkneyingers, to meet
Vemund, and whichever champion should
fall, his side should yield itself into the
other's hands. But if the Orkneyingers
refused, fire should be set to the hall and
also to the roof of the church. And that
was the same as offering them one small
chance for their lives.
Grani asked: "What man will go out
No one offered. Then Grani said:
 "He who goes against the baresark will
die swiftest, therefore I am willing to go
All the Orkneyingers cried out against
that, saying they should die together
within the hall; it might be Sweyn would
come in time to save them.
Then Rolf spoke and said: "No man
in this place, not even Frodi our strongest,
will have any chance against Vemund,
so long as we fight with steel weapons.
For I have heard the ways of such
men to be these: before fighting they
look upon the weapons of the other
champion, and when they look, by
witchcraft they make steel or iron powerless
against them. Such a man is Vemund
named. Yet if thou, Grani, wilt give
me what I desire, I will find a way to
"Anything I have," answered Grani, "is thine."
 "Give me then," said Rolf, "the bow
and arrows of the viking."
Then Grani gave him the bow and the
quiver, and Rolf cried to the messenger
to say to Vemund that in half an hour
one would meet him with the bow. At
that great laughter rose among the
outlaws, and those in the hall and in the
church felt no confidence in Rolf.
But he said to Frodi, "Go to the forge
and heat it." And he said to Grani,
"Bring me here some silver." Then when
the forge was heated and the silver was
brought, Rolf said to Frodi:
"Make me now three silver arrowheads,
the best thou canst, after the
pattern of these here in the quiver." So
Frodi made the arrow-heads quickly and
with great skill, so that no one could have
told them apart from the arrow-heads of
iron, for they were black from the fire.
And Rolf first set a dish of whale-oil to
 heat by the forge, and then took the heads
from three of the arrows. When the new
arrow-heads were made, Rolf bound them
with sinews upon the shafts.
A man said: "But what wilt thou do
with the arrows if thou canst not string
Rolf answered nothing. He took the
whale-oil and oiled those three arrows.
Then he heated the oil hotter, and began
to rub it on the bow. First he oiled the
string and rubbed it long; then he oiled
the wood. And the wood became darker
with the oil, and took a finer polish; fresher
it seemed, gleaming in the light of the
forge. Rolf rubbed for many minutes,
and the bow became ever darker; he held
it then over the forge, turning it in every
way, and it took to itself the fire of the
coals. Then Rolf oiled the string once
more, heating it as well; and at last they
saw he meant to string the bow. Against
 his foot he set it, and bent it, and slipped
the string up to the notch; it seemed as
if a child could have done the deed, and
the men burst out with a shout.
Then Rolf took one of the old arrows
and set it on the string; he drew the bow
and shot the arrow along the hall. No
one could see that it dropped in its flight;
but it struck an oaken beam by the high
seat, and when men came to measure it
afterward, the arrow had entered the oak
by the breadth of a palm.
Men spoke afterward of the sweet twang
of that bow, like as if it were an harp.
Then the Orkneyingers went out of the
hall with much shouting, and stood upon
a knoll which was between the hall and
the church. The baresarks came near,
and Vemund stood out before them; he
was a huge man, very hairy, with a great
beard. He asked who was to come against
 "I," answered Rolf.
Vemund laughed, and the other baresarks
also, calling Rolf a boy. "Let me
see thy weapons," said Vemund. Rolf
showed him his quiver, and the baresark
touched the point of each arrow with his
finger. "Wilt thou look upon my weapons?" asked Vemund.
Rolf said he would not. "Now," said
he, "withdraw thy men to the beach, and
let us begin."
"Thou art eager for death," said Vemund
with a grin. "I will do as thou
sayest, and then will come at thee. Thou
mayest shoot as soon as thou wilt."
Vemund withdrew his men to the beach,
and the Orkneyingers went aside from the
knoll. Frodi wept before he left Rolf,
commending him to God. Then Rolf
took those three arrows with silver points,
and stuck them in the ground by his feet.
By then Vemund was ready to
re-  turn; he bore no shield nor armor; he
threw down his bow, and shouted that
this should be between whatever weapons
each man chose. Then with sword in
hand he began to walk to the knoll. Rolf
took an arrow from his quiver and laid it
on the string.
When Vemund was nearer, Rolf drew
the bow; no bow had ever drawn harder,
yet none had been so lively in his hand.
The arrow sped; Vemund turned not
aside, but when the shaft struck on his
breast the wood flew to splinters, and the
point fell down. All the Orkneymen
cried out in fear, but the baresarks shouted.
Rolf took a second arrow and waited
Then he shot again, and the arrow
struck Vemund on the throat; it turned
aside, and flew sliddering away. Some
of the Orkneymen withdrew to the door
of the church, crying that they should be
 let in. But the outlaws began to come
Then Rolf drew one of those arrows
from the ground, and wiped the point,
and made ready.
When Vemund was twenty paces away
Rolf shot for the third time. The arrow
went in a level flight, and struck Vemund
on the breast; there it sunk to the feathers.
Those baresarks, coming behind, saw a
foot of the shaft stand out from Vemund's
Then Vemund brandished his sword
and ran at Rolf; Rolf took the second
arrow and sent it at him. In the eye it
struck him, and pierced to the brain;
down fell the baresark, and died before he
reached the ground.
Rolf took the third arrow and put it in his quiver.
Then the Orkneyingers came running
from the church with their weapons, and
 all rushed at the outlaws. Grani shouted
that the baresarks should lay down their
arms; but they, fearing death, drew into
a circle and would not yield. They began
to cast spears at the Orkneyingers.
"Shoot arrows at them," said Grani to Rolf.
"I have done my share," quoth he.
Then the Orkneyingers ran round that
circle of outlaws, and did their best to pry
into it; but they got only wounds. The
baresarks began to grit their teeth and
work themselves to anger as if they had
been wolves; that was their way in battle.
Frodi went nearer to look at that sight.
Then one baresark shot a spear at Frodi,
and cut his shoulder so that it bled. At
that Frodi turned red, and took his bill,
and went at that man. The baresark
swung his sword, but Frodi caught it with
the bill and spun it aloft; then he hooked
at the man with the back of the bill, and
 caught him by the neck, and pulled him
down grovelling. An Orkneyman pierced
the outlaw as he lay.
So the circle of the baresarks was broken,
but they sought to draw again together.
Then Frodi took his bill, and made at the
two men to right and left of the opening;
one he caught with the point of the bill,
and pitched him sideways; that man fell
on the circle at another place and broke
it there. Next Frodi pitched the other
baresark clean across the circle against the
men at the other side; two fell at once.
Then Grani shouted and rushed within
the ring, and all the Orkneyingers fell on
the baresarks at every point. Some were
slain right there; some broke away and
were chased about; one by one they died
among the huts and the frames for drying
Frodi, when he had done that much,
stood by Rolf and struck no more. When
 the fighting was finished the
Orkneyingers looked to their hurts, and it was
found that no one was badly wounded.
All said that the death of Vemund the
Pitiless was not so bad by half as the
living of him.
Now Grani was very happy and
talkative, and he praised his men much; but
he seemed constrained before Rolf, and
spoke to Frodi. "And thou saidst thou
couldst not use the bill!"
Frodi answered, "So I thought, but it
is no different from handling a pitchfork."
Grani whooped with laughter, and
would tell that saying to others. Frodi
beseeched him: "Cease thy talking, lest
men give me a new nickname."
But Grani told Frodi's words in the
presence of many, and all cried that Frodi
should be called Pitchfork Frodi. He
grumbled to Rolf thereat.
"Better be glad," said Rolf, "that
 nothing worse has come to thee than a
sore shoulder and a new name."
Now Sweyn came sailing back, angered
that he had been tricked, but much
afraid of what might have happened at
Hawksness in his absence. As for Ar
the Peacock, he lay without speech until
the morrow, when he came to himself;
but he was a broken man ever after that
Grani took the spoil from the baresark
ship, and divided it into five parts. Two
parts he gave to those fishers whose
houses the baresarks had burned; one part
he divided among those who had wounds;
the rest he sent to the lodging of Rolf
and Frodi. Grani took nothing for
himself, nor did he go with the treasure to
Rolf; and men said among themselves
that, during all these doings, Rolf and
Grani had spoken to each other only when
 From that time the viking's bow was
Rolf's own. Those two arrows which had
slain the baresark were hung up in the
church; but Rolf took the third arrow
with the silver point, and bound it in the
quiver with a silken thread.
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