|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 HIS FREEDOM
OW when that meal was ended,
Kiartan rose up and said that he
must go; he thanked Ar, and
Grani walked with him to the door. But
as they passed by the bench whereon Rolf
and Frodi were sitting, Grani beckoned
them to rise up, and he said to Kiartan:
"Look on my thralls, now that thou
canst see them closer, and tell me what
thou thinkest of them."
Kiartan scarcely looked at them. "They
seem a good pair," he answered. "It is
fitting for thy dignity to have thralls."
Then he went away.
Frodi asked of Rolf: "Did he know us?"
"He knew us well," answered Rolf.
 "What wilt thou do?" asked Frodi.
"I see naught to do," said Rolf. "For
what he did against my father was done
in Iceland, so that I could not bring a
suit at law here. Moreover, no thrall
can bring a suit in any land."
"Wilt thou claim kinship with him?" Frodi asked.
"Wilt thou?" responded Rolf. No
more words were said, but it was seen in
their eyes that for their pride's sake they
would make no claim on Kiartan.
Kiartan found that nothing was said in
the matter; so he stayed there in the
place, and won the friendship of Ar by
gifts, and traded with success. He ate
often at the hall, and slept there whenever
he would; but no word passed between
him and those kinsmen, nor did
they ever look at him.
Grani was proud that he owned thralls,
and he commanded them to show what
 they could do. So Rolf shot with the
bow, and Grani made him his bow-bearer.
But Frodi said he knew little of weapons;
yet when they gave him a spear he shot
it through two shields braced together
against posts. He asked for work as a
smith, but Grani made him spear-bearer.
And the youth often walked abroad with
those other two attending him. Ar was
pleased with that show, but the thralls
smiled grimly to each other.
Once Kiartan saw that smile, and he
said to Grani privily: "Thy thralls smile
at thy back, and make as if they feel
shame. Now be careful lest they harm
thee sometime when thou art alone with
them. If I were thee, I would set them
at the sheep-herding or the field-work."
Grani answered: "I fear no harm from
them, and indeed I like them more every
day. I cannot spare them."
Now the truth of the matter was this,
 that Grani cast a great love upon Rolf,
and would have him as a friend, not
thinking that no friendship can be between
master and slave. He gave Rolf gifts,
everything but his freedom; he spoke
much with Rolf, yet the talk was most
upon the one side, for Rolf grew very
silent. Yet Rolf went everywhere after
Grani, and did him much service of all
kinds, being clever with his hands and
wise in his ways; he knew a boat and all
the modes of fishing; when it came to
cliff-climbing, no man in that place was
his match. Grani often went seeking
adventure with Rolf and Frodi; they
managed in such wise that Frodi did the
work and Rolf directed what should be
done. When they went after birds Frodi
sat at the top of the cliff and held the
rope, but on the cliff's face Rolf would
let Grani take no risks. Nay, sometimes
it seemed as if Rolf were the master and
 Grani the man. But when other people
were about, Rolf did all that Grani said.
One day a bishop came to Hawksness
and visited the parish. He held service
in the church, and lived at the hall for
two days. When he was about to go
away, he asked if any man needed from
him counsel or comfort. Frodi stood up.
Said he: "Lord Bishop, are all manslayings sinful?"
The bishop answered: "State me the
case, for some manslayings are blameless."
So Frodi spoke thus: "If a man is on
a ship, and vikings come, and that man
casts a viking overboard, and the viking
is drowned—hath the man committed a
Many men smiled at these words, for
the story of Frodi and the vikings had
been told. The bishop said: "Vikings
are the worst plague of the land, and
they deserve no mercy. Since the
vik-  ing came to take life, it was no sin to
Frodi drew a long breath, but he asked
further: "If two vikings were drowned,
what of that?"
"It is the same," answered the bishop.
"But if three men were thus drowned,"
asked Frodi, "what then?"
"Even if thirty died," answered the
bishop, "the answer is still the same."
Then Frodi heaved a great sigh, and
looked so relieved that all who stood by
shouted with merriment. Grani was
pleased most of all, and he gave
command that Frodi should be called
Drowning-Frodi. Frodi liked that little, yet
by that name he was called for a while.
And Grani was so pleased with all this
that he boasted much about his thralls.
One day he spoke of them with Kiartan,
and told how when they went away
together Rolf took the lead. "And he
 cares for me," said Grani, "as if I were
his brother; but so soon as others are
by he is as any other thrall, and says no
word unless spoken to."
Kiartan said: "In that he appears to me sly."
"How should that be?" asked Grani.
"He seeks to gain influence over thee,"
"Nay," said Grani, "he and I are
Kiartan shook his head. Quoth he:
"In my country we have a saying: 'Ill
is a thrall for a friend.' Moreover, to
lack dignity at any time is not seeming
in one of thy station."
Grani took those sayings much to
heart; he went no more away alone with
his thralls, but stayed where were other
men. Now that was the time when the
summer had passed by and harvests were
all in, but winter had not yet come and
 the weather was mild. Men were saying
that when winter should come, it would
be with suddenness.
There came a day when the wind was
high, but it was as soft as summer. A
man named Thord the Weatherwise came
to Ar and said: "See to it that all is
ready for the winter!" and without more
words departed. Ar inquired of his men
if the sheep were yet gathered in from
the downs above the cliffs. It was
answered that they were not. Ar bade
send a man quickly to warn the shepherds.
It was told Ar that the fishers had just
come in, and that all the serving-men
were busied at the beach, being much
needed to save the catch of fish, for the
waves were high. Ar said to Grani:
"Lend me one of thy thralls to take
"Thou mayest have both of them," answered Grani.
 So Rolf and Frodi prepared to go to
the downs, and a long jaunt that would
be. But when Grani saw they were
ready he felt desire to go with them,
since he had not done much for some
days, and needed action. So he said that
Rolf and Frodi should wait till he could
go with them. They went outside the
hall to wait, and Grani bound on his
shoes. Now Kiartan had stood by and
heard all that, and he said:
"So thou goest out again with thy
Grani answered with pride: "I go with
He went outside the hall and found
Rolf and Frodi waiting. Rolf looked
him over, and seeing there was no one
by, he said: "Take thy cloak, for we
may be benighted."
"Lo," answered Grani, "the thrall
gives orders to his master! We shall be
 back before men go to bed. No cloak is
needed, and I forbid ye to take yours."
So Rolf and Frodi left their cloaks
behind, and went with Grani to the moors.
The moors were wide and rolling, and lay
above those cliffs whereby they had once
been wrecked. The three travelled not
as had been their wont, all together; but
Grani went ahead, saying to himself they
should remember that they were thralls.
In going so he missed his way, and they
came to the sheepcotes roundabout and
late. There they found the men busy
gathering in the sheep, making ready to
drive them to the valleys when this gale
should pass. Some men said that would
be on the morrow, for the wind was
falling. Even while they spoke the wind
dropped completely, and there was a
"See," said Grani, "the storm is over;
it was but a gale."
 The head shepherd said he thought not
so, and that more was to be looked for.
"Moreover, thy Icelanders think the same,
as I can see by their faces."
"I ask not what they think," answered
Grani. "There is blue sky in the south."
"Thy thralls and I," replied the shepherd,
"look to the north. And now I
beg that thou wilt stay here overnight,
for company's sake."
"I see thou hast fear for me," said Grani. "But I will return."
"Then hasten," begged the shepherd.
But Grani would not hurry, and started
leisurely. The shepherd called a man, and
privately told him he should guide those
three, for he knew the moors. Then the
shepherd begged Grani that the man
might go to Hawksness with him, for his
work at the folds was done. The four
Soon a little wind, thin and keen, began
 to blow from the north; it grew greater
quickly until it was half a gale. By that
time they were where they could see
the sea, and Grani looked out upon it.
Quoth he: "Fog is coming from the
Now Rolf had been silent so far, all that
afternoon; yet he could be so no longer.
Said he: "Not fog is that, but snow, and
I beg thee to turn back."
"Lead forward!" said Grani to the shepherd.
So they went on as they had been going,
another half-hour, and each minute the
wind grew stronger. They neared the
line of the cliffs, and walked parallel with
them at a half-mile's distance. Then that
which had appeared to be fog on the water
at last moved inland, so that they saw it
coming like a wall. It left the sea, and
swallowed up the land before it; then it
swept upon them silently, and they bent
 before its onslaught. Wind buffeted them
and roared in their ears; a few snowflakes
drove along the ground; then they were
enfolded in the swirl of snow. All around
them became one gray fleece, they could
not see for a rod in front, and they shivered
with the cold.
They struggled onwards, bending to
the wind; and night came down an hour
before its time. The snow began to heap
thickly, and now it was above the ankle,
now a foot in depth; wonderful was that
fall of snow. They walked one behind
the other, the shepherd in front, then
Grani, Rolf, and Frodi, each so close as
to touch the next one with his hand. The
night grew black, and the wind was loud.
Then at last Rolf shouted that they should
"Why sayest thou that?" asked Grani.
"Because I think we near the cliffs," said Rolf.
 "I hear no surf," answered Grani.
But the guide thought that Rolf was
right. Grani asked what they should
do. Rolf answered: "Best stay here till
"Shall I freeze?" asked Grani. "Let
us turn away and walk further inland."
"We cannot keep our direction," said Rolf.
"Wilt thou never be silent?" asked
Grani. "We will go inland." So they
sought to do so, and they walked for
another while. Then Grani asked the
shepherd if he knew where he was, and
the man could not say. When they went
on again, Frodi pressed forward and took
the place behind the shepherd; and when
Grani asked for the place Frodi would
not give it. So they walked thus for
another while, their feet clogged by the
snow, their faces stung with the wind,
plodding with great effort and weariness.
 Then at the end that happened which
Rolf had feared.
For of a sudden the roar of the sea
burst up at them from their very feet, and
the guide, with a cry, sank in the darkness.
Frodi clutched at him, but caught only
the cloak; the clasp broke, and the man
fell to his death. Those other three stood
at the edge of the cliff, while below the
sea thundered, yet they saw nothing.
Then Rolf took Grani by the arm and
drew him away. Frodi followed. The
noise of the surf was suddenly lost in the
wind, and no one would have known they
were near the cliff. Rolf led the way
inland, and Frodi walked last; they went
very cautiously, and Frodi was ever ready
to seize on Grani. At last they reached
a mound. In its lee the wind was less,
and the snow was piling deep; Rolf
scooped space for them all, and there
they sat down side by side.
 After a space Grani said, "It grows
cold." Frodi wrapped him in the guide's
cloak. For another while they sat silent,
until Grani said again: "I am too weary
to walk another step, yet if I sit here I
shall freeze. Frodi, what can we do?"
Frodi knew nothing which could be
done. "Either we should walk over the
cliffs, or die of freezing in the first mile.
We must stay here. Take warmth from
They sat closer to him, but still he was
cold. After a while he said: "I am
sorry we brought not our cloaks." They
answered nothing. The snow heaped
around them, yet Grani fell to shivering.
Then he said: "I am sorry we turned
not back." They still said nothing. At
last Grani could bear it no longer, and
"Rolf, if thou hast anything to say, say
it before we all die!"
 Rolf answered: "I have been thinking.
What is this mound behind us?"
"There is but one mound on all the
heaths," answered Grani. "Men call it
the barrow of a viking, who died off the
coast, and was buried here with his ship,
that he might forever look out upon the
"Then," said Rolf, "there is one thing
we can do, and only one, to save our lives;
and that is to break into the barrow."
So they fell to digging with their hands
at the mound, and they could have done
nothing had the earth been frozen. But
it was still soft; and they dug until they
came to timbers, two feet within the
mound. Then Frodi thrust his hands
between the timbers, and strained at one,
and Rolf and Grani tugged at his waist.
The timber broke, and they fell back
together in the snow; yet an entrance
to the mound was thus made, and when
 they had enlarged it Rolf went in first,
and the others followed.
Within, the air was dead and close;
they stayed at the entrance to breathe,
yet the place was warmer, and it was a
great relief not to feel the wind. But
Grani was still all of a shiver, so Rolf
went into the mound further, and they
heard him stumbling and slipping in the
darkness. After a while he came back to
them and said: "Here is wood for a fire."
Then they pulled stalks of grass and
shook them free of snow; they found in
the shepherd's cloak a flint and steel, and
so made a fire at the mouth of the barrow.
The wind bore the smoke away, and by
degrees the air cleared in the mound.
Then with brands they went within, and
cast the light about.
The mound was made of a viking-ship,
a small one, which had been borne there
on the shoulders of men. It was propped
 upright with stones, and roofed over with
timbers and planks; dirt had been cast
over the whole. They climbed into that
ship, and saw by the light of the torches
where the old viking sat in the stern.
He was in such armor as men had worn
long before; he had a helm on his head,
and held a sword in his hand, and was
very stern of face. There he sat as if he
were still alive, but there was no sight
in his eyes.
Before him in the ship were precious
things of gold and silver, cloths, and
weapons. All the oars lay in their places
as if ready for men to use them. Very
strange was that sight, and those three
gazed at it in silence.
"He looks," said Frodi, "as if he would
"Now," said Grani, "I remember the
shepherds say he has been seen, and
lights have burned at this mound
some-  times of nights. Yet he has never done
"If he is ever to do it, he will do it
now," said Rolf. "For he looks as if he
mislikes us here."
By that time the place was very smoky
from the torches, so they went back again
to the entrance and lay down to sleep;
they took with them cloths and broidered
hangings which had lain by the viking,
and with these and the fire they made
themselves warm. So, very weary from
their walking, they fell asleep.
In the middle of the night Rolf and
Grani waked, and missed Frodi from their
side. Moreover they heard a noise, which
was not the howling of the storm, but was
like the splintering of wood and the
snarling of men's breaths as they wrestled in
fight. Then Rolf snatched a torch from the
fire and ran within the mound; Grani
followed, and they climbed on board the ship.
 There lay Frodi and the viking together:
they had been fighting all about the place,
and the thwarts and oars were broken;
in one place even the bulwark of the ship
was torn away. But Frodi had forced the
viking into the seat where first he had
sat; and there Frodi held him, while the
viking struggled still, glaring from glassy
eyes, and Frodi could do naught but keep
him where he was. Little more breath
had Frodi, but yet he held his grip on the
Then Rolf drew his short-sword, and
sprang in at the viking, and hewed at the
neck of him, so that the head sprang off
at the stroke; but no blood followed.
Frodi lay and breathed deeply, but Rolf
took the head of the viking and laid it at
With those heathen ghosts which did
harm to man, there was no way to quiet
them except to hew off the head and lay
 it at the thigh. And such things
happened to many men, even as is here told;
but the greatest ghost-layer, says Sturla
the Lawman, was Grettir the Strong.
When Frodi had got his breath, they
asked him how all that had come about.
"Nothing do I know about it," answered
Frodi, "save that he came and dragged
me in my sleep hither, and sought to
throttle me. I had much ado to master
They went back and slept until the
day came, but the storm was still so
violent that they could not travel. Then
they made larger the entrance to the
mound so that light came into the ship;
and they buried the viking in the
ground. Now when they came to
examine his treasures, Grani and Frodi
were busy long, casting aside each thing
for something better. But after Rolf had
searched for only a short while, he sat still
 and looked no further. Grani saw that
he had something.
"What precious thing hast thou there?" asked he.
"This," said Rolf, "which I found on
the back of the viking's seat."
He showed them a bow which had
hung there in a leathern case. Of some
foreign wood it was, tipped with horn,
and bound at the middle with wire of
fine gold to form a grip. It seemed very
strong, cunningly made: a wonderful
weapon. And there was a quiver with
it, bearing thirty arrows, long and barbed
"Now," said Grani, "this is far better
than jewels or fine cloths, and it is the best
weapon here. Thou shalt give it to me."
Rolf gave him the bow. And when
they went again to look out upon the
storm, the clouds were breaking and
sunbeams were coming through. So they
 took the bow and some small gear, and
started for Hawksness, where they found
Ar nigh wild for fear; but their coming
made him happy. And Grani told all
that had happened to them.
Said Ar: "Methinks thy thralls have
saved thy life."
"That is true," answered Grani.
"What wilt thou give them?" asked Ar.
"Whatever they wish," answered Grani.
He called on Rolf to say what gift he
would like at his hands.
"That bow and those arrows," said Rolf.
"Now," asked Grani, "which is dearest
to thee, that bow, or thy freedom and
"Our freedom," answered Rolf.
"Your freedom shall you have," said
Grani. Then, before all who were in the
hall, he spoke Rolf and Frodi free.
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