|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 |
OF THAT HARVEST FEAST
OW Einar's shepherd came in
haste, and said the folk of the
country-side were coming from
all directions, and a great number would be
at the feast. "Yet many," said he, "bear
weapons, and I know not what that may
So men looked, and it was seen that the
farmers and bonders were coming over the
hills, in small companies or large. Those
of keen eyes said that most carried short-swords.
Then Ondott looked at those
two large parties that came riding, one
from the east and one from the north, and
thought them very numerous.
"Meseems," said he, "that Snorri and
Kolbein bring more men than they need."
 "Fearest thou, Ondott?" asked Grani.
"This only do I fear, that we have not
enough food ready. Only on going to
church do men lay aside weapons, not
strange were it if Snorri and Kolbein,
coming from so far, bade their men bring
longswords, spears, and shields. Yet they
wear no mail, and bear only the one
weapon—clear token of peace. Come,
bid the women prepare more food; and
do thou, father, let bring out more casks
of ale, to welcome so many guests!"
Thus he shamed the household, and all
went quickly to make ready more food and
drink. Then the neighbors began to arrive,
some on horses and some on foot, all in
holiday guise save that each man bore a single
weapon. Grani and Einar welcomed each
as he came; and then the companies of those
chiefs rode in, and there was great bustle to
receive them. The horses were taken to the
stalls, and the men led within the hall.
 Gracious to Einar was Snorri the Priest,
and he said fine words of Grani's growth
and fair looks, and the goodly house.
Kolbein was more silent, but looked about him
much; and all those at Cragness were
pleased with their great guests, save only
Helga, who worked among her women
and looked sad. When Grani saw that,
he sought to cheer her, bidding her mark
the pleasure of the visitors.
"Methinks," said Helga, "the old man
smiles too much and the young man too
little. Little good does my heart prophesy of this visit."
Grani was impatient with her and left her alone.
Now guests continued to come in, a
great number, so many that they were not
all able to come into the hall; those of
lesser condition sat outside on the mead.
And the time drew near noon before all
were there. So at last Einar asked if more
 were to be seen coming, and his men looked
abroad from the hilltop, and saw no one
travelling. They saw only three living
souls: two were Asdis and Thurid where
they worked in the garden by the little
hut across the valley, and one was a great
man who lolled on a nearer hillside and
seemed to look out upon Broadfirth.
Something glittered in the grass by his
side, but no one knew who or what it
might be. So Einar let call all forth from
the house, and he stood on a stool, and
spake to them.
First he bade them welcome, and then
he spoke of that custom which the last
year had seen begun: shooting at the
boundary in memory of his ownership
of those lands and that hall. Some, he
knew, had been displeased thereat, yet
he trusted that now they saw his reasons
for it. "For in the sight of all," quoth
Einar, "I will have it known that my
 title is just, and will prove that all which
made me master here was done within
Very reasonable was that speech; Snorri
smiled and nodded graciously, and Einar's
folk applauded, but the others not so
"Now," Einar said, "men claim that
Grettir the Strong can make this shot and
put me from my lands, but since the law
allows no outlaw to meddle in suits, he
may not make the trial. Yet I invite
all other men hither to prove me guiltless;
therefore come ye with me to the brookside,
and let all try who will. Few do I
think will assay, but all are free to it. In
token of peace leave your arms here, and
let us go down to the boundary."
When they heard that, Einar's men laid
aside what weapons they had; but those
strangers made as if they heard not, yet
all together began walking to the meadow
 by the brook. And Einar, when he saw
they took no heed to his request, was of
two minds: whether to say no more, or
to ask them again to lay aside their swords.
But that seemed a slight to his guests;
so he spoke not of it again, and all together
they went down the hillside, leaving at
the hall only the women, still cooking for
so many people. Einar had given orders
that no ribald mocking should be made
in shooting, such as the baser of his men
had done before, for all should be
decorous. So bows were brought, the best
there were; his bowmen made ready, and
one by one they shot before the guests.
Snorri sat on a dais which Einar had let
make, and Kolbein and Einar sat on either
hand; but Grani stood. He was very
anxious to see how near the arrows would
fall to the oak; but the nearest fell roods
away, and he said to himself, "Now my
father is completely justified, for not even
 Grettir could shoot so much farther than
So he begged the visitors to shoot, and
of Snorri's men and Kolbein's some few
made the trial, but shot no better than
those who assayed afore. Grani was
Then Einar stood up with smiles, and
said he, "Let us now go to the feast, for
it is ready at the hall."
"Here cometh one," said Snorri, "who
may wish to try; wait we here for yet
a little while."
Men looked, and there was a great man
coming down the hill, and they knew
him for the huge fellow who had been
lolling across the valley. On his shoulder
he bore a bill with a shaft big as a beam.
Coming so, down the hillside above them,
he looked so large that Einar was uneasy,
wondering what champion he should be;
the sun was behind him, and he seemed
 like one who might do all manner of feats
of strength, even to making the long shot
with the bow. Einar felt fear.
But when the large man reached the
first of the people, and they could see
his face, then laughter began among
them, and one cried aloud, " 'Tis only
Frodi the Smith!"
So Frodi came before them, and Einar
was wroth because he had feared such
an one, who was all softness. Said
Einar: "What dost thou here with that
great weapon at our feast, where no man
comes in war? Seekest thou to take
up the feud for this land?" And he
gave sign that his men should be near,
ready to seize Frodi if only cause were
But Frodi laid the bill at the feet of
Einar, and said: "I bring thee the bill
which is thine own, since it came ashore
on thy beaches. As for that feud, it is
 not mine, but it belongs to the nearest
of kin. Who knows where he is? Let
me stay here a space, I beg, and watch
"The shooting is past," said Einar,
"but stay if it pleases thee. As for that
bill, keep it for thine own, if it is at
all dear to thee." Then he turned to
Snorri, and said, "Shall we not go to
"But tell us of this great bill," said
Snorri. "And were there not perchance
other heathen weapons which are thine,
coming ashore in that great storm?"
So Grani told of the bill, how it
had belonged to that dead viking; and
he said there had been a bow with it,
which was useless because no one could
"Much would I like to see that bow,"
Grani knows not what to answer and
 looks at Einar, and Einar looks back at
Grani; but at last Einar says: "Old and
useless is the bow, and it is in some
out-of-the-way place. Come now to the
feast, for it is all ready."
"It is not yet noon," answered Snorri,
"and before noon I am never ready to
feast. But here comes another one down
the hill, who may give us sport until we
So men looked again up the hillside,
and there was another figure coming, seen
against the sun. (Now in Iceland, even
in summer noon, the sun never stands
overhead.) Fast the figure strode, all
muffled in a cloak which flapped in the
wind; and so wild and large did the
newcomer seem that again Einar was afraid
at the strange sight. But when it came
near the figure dwindled, and the people
laughed again, crying to make way for
Thurid. With slow and halting step the
 crone came through the lane of men to
"Wishes the strange woman anything
here?" asked Snorri.
"Give her money," said Einar to
Ondott, "and bid her begone."
But she turned her back on Ondott
with his purse, and went nearer Einar;
and then she saw the bill which Frodi had
left lying at Einar's feet. A strong shudder
seized her, and there she stood shuddering,
gazing beneath her hood at that great weapon.
"What is wrong with the woman?"
asked Snorri as if impatient. "Bid her to speak."
"She speaks never," answered Einar.
But it seemed as if she were talking to
herself, for first she began to mumble
hoarsely, and then a little louder, and
then at last she began to drone a song,
in a cracked voice which, to those who
 had known her, seemed not her own. She
"Here is come from foreign shore,
A heathen weapon and one more.
First the bill which can be swung
By the peaceful smith alone;
Next the bow which can be strung
Nor by him nor anyone.
Yet I say in one of those,
Laid in spells by Christ his foes,
Danger lies to Einar's house."
When she had sung thus, she drew her
hood still closer over her head and
crouched down there by the dais.
Mark now all that which next was said
and done, as if those visitors knew the
fearsome nature of Einar, and played with it.
First Kolbein drew his feet away from
the blade of the bill which lay before
them; and he looked uneasy, saying to
Einar: "Of human force I have no fear,
but evil and witchcraft like I not."
But Snorri leaned forward and looked
 in the face of Frodi. "Tell us," says
Snorri the Priest, "for what reason thou
hast brought the bill here."
Answered Frodi: "I live alone in my
smithy, and the bill stands always in the
corner. Now sometimes it gives out a
strong humming, there as I work, or as
I sit by myself of nights; and at such
times I think evil thoughts of vengeance,
longing to do violence with the bill, until
sometimes I fear I will snatch the weapon
and rush forth and slay. And methinks
the thing must be like the terrible bill of
Gunnar of Lithend, which before every
one of his slayings gave forth a singing
sound. Yet Gunnar got his bill by the
mere death of a man; but I won this in
fight with a ghost, and so I fear more
dreadful things will happen from mine
than ever came from his. Lest blood-guilt
come on my soul I brought the bill
hither, to restore it to its rightful owner."
 "But he gave it thee again," says Snorri.
"So," answered Frodi, "I see no way
at all to avoid that blood-guiltiness."
"Thou canst cast the bill in the sea," says Snorri.
On a sudden Frodi started back from
the bill, and clutched at the clothes on
his breast, and cried: "Heard ye how it
hummed even then?"
Said Grani, "I heard naught."
But Kolbein hitched his stool further
away from the bill, saying: "I heard
Snorri looked upon Einar, who was pale
with fear. "Now," said Snorri, "what of
that bow which, if shooting here at this
boundary may cost thee thy life, is mayhap
the greater danger to thee of the two?"
Einar answered nothing.
"Come," says Snorri, "do this if thou
wouldst avoid all evil: cast this bill and
that bow into the sea."
 Now the crone rose up again, and she
sang this song:
"Bring ye here those weapons forth.
Lay them crossing, east and north,
Here upon the fateful ground
Where death Hiarandi found.
Over them make ye the sign
Of the church, with holy wine.
Build ye then a fire great;
Ere the flames to coals abate,
Cast those weapons in them here.
Power of spells will disappear;
No fate then need Einar fear!"
"Now," said Snorri, "this burning is
the best counsel, for weapons cast in the
sea would come again to shore."
Then Thurid covered her head again
and crouched down as before. But Einar
rose in a panic and bade Grani fetch the
bow, the arrows, and some wine. Grani
departed hastily, and ran to the hall, and
called his sister, bidding her bring wine
while he got the bows and arrows.
"Now," cried Helga, "wilt thou mock
 the death of Hiarandi, and jeer at Rolf,
who saved thy life here on the rocks?"
"What sayest thou of saving my life?" asked Grani.
Helga told how Rolf and Frodi had borne him to shore.
"Be comforted," said Grani. "No man
shoots with the great bow, for Rolf,
who alone can string it, is away. But
witchcraft lies in it, and it shall be burnt.
And when this feast is ended I will
send for Rolf, and offer him peace and
"No peace comes from Rolf," answers
Helga, "while we own his lands, nor
friendship while we sit in his hall.
Violence meets violence, so says the good
book." But she went and got the wine,
and Grani seized the bow and its quiver
from out the rick, and bore all to the
brookside again. There the fire was already built.
 Snorri received the bow in his hands,
for neither Kolbein nor Einar would
touch it. The priest of Snorri's
household took the wine, to hallow it; and
Snorri drew the bow from its case.
"Let all give back," said he. "Make
space for the fire and the burning of the
bow. Let the crone say when all is ready."
So all men gave space; and the homemen
and the guests, mingled together,
made a great circle round the spot where
the bow should be burnt with the bill.
At only one place the ring was broken:
the shelving bank of the brook, where
men might not stand. Then Thurid rose
and began to circle the fire. Thrice
around it she walked, and Snorri with the
bow came down from the dais and stood
near; but Kolbein went and stood by
Grani, and Frodi kept his place at the
feet of Einar. So when the cloaked
woman had circled the fire three times,
 she stopped and said to Snorri, "Give me the bow."
Snorri gave it her.
All watched to see what she would do,
whether mutter spells or breathe upon it.
But she looked at it carefully from end to
end, and overlooked the string, and after
that she raised it and shook it aloft.
Then first men saw any part of her,
namely her arm, which was not
withered, but firm and large, like a man's.
When she spoke her voice was no longer
"Water hath not harmed thee, oh my
bow! Thou art the same as when thou
slewest the baresark. Now shalt thou do
a greater deed!"
And in a moment she set the end of
the bow to her foot, and bent the bow,
and slipped the string along, and the bow
was strung! There stood the homefolk
gazing, but the crone cast off the cloak.
 No woman was she at all, but Rolf in
Then Frodi laid his hand on Einar's
knee, and said: "Sit still!" Kolbein set
a knife to Grani's throat, saying: "Thy
life if thou stirrest." And Snorri cried
on high: "Where are ye, men of Tongue
All those guests drew their short-swords;
and it was seen that by every one of the
homefolk was a man of Snorri's or Kolbein's,
or haply two of them. They threatened death to all of Einar's folk.
Rolf looked around on his enemies,
and there was not one that could either
fight or flee. So he took the quiver from
Snorri, and looked within it; he chose
that arrow with the silver point, and
snapped the silken thread that bound it,
and drew the arrow forth. At no man
he looked, but up to heaven. Then he
set the arrow on the string; he drew the
 bow and sped the shaft. High it flew,
and far—across the brook, across the
mead. It passed through the upper
branches of the little oak, and fell to the
ground three roods beyond.
Then in the sight of all Rolf bowed
his head, nor for a while could he speak
But when at last he turned again
toward that high seat where Einar sat,
his eye fell first on Ondott who stood
by. Said Rolf: "Bring me that fellow
Yet when they would seize Ondott
he slipped away, and fearing death ran
shrieking up the hill with men in chase.
Such was his speed that they caught him
not, so great was his fright that he recked
not where he was going.
He ran to the
cliffs, nor saw them; from their top he
fell and died.
"So is the greater villain gone," said
 Rolf when all saw Ondott fall, "but the
less remains. Einar, Ondott hath made
his choice of death and life; what choice
makest thou? Wilt thou bring this to
the courts, where outlawry is sure; or
wilt thou handsel the case to me, to utter
my own award for the death of my father
and the seizing of my land?"
Einar said quickly: "On thy mercy I
rely, and I handsel all to thee, for I am
too old to fare abroad." So he came down
from the dais, and hastened to Rolf, offering
his hand and calling Snorri to witness
that handselling. There they struck
hands before all those witnesses.
Said Rolf: "Now I hold in my hands
thy death or thy life, even as once thou
heldest my father at thy mercy. No pity
hadst thou then. Shall I spare thee
"It was all Ondott's doing," said Einar.
"Now," quoth Rolf, "this do I award,
 and thy forgetting it will be thy death.
Thou shalt go to the little farm where
my mother has lived, but now she is on
her way to Cragness. On those few
acres thou shalt abide, and stay within
all space a bowshot from it. The one
ewe which is there thou mayest have; the
store of meat which is in the loft is thine;
my mother's gray cloak hangs by the
door: take it. But thine own livelihood
thou shalt earn from the soil when these
are spent; and when thou comest from
thy boundary farther than this bow can
shoot, thy life is forfeit to me."
Einar accepted that award.
Then Rolf turned to Grani, and said
"Grani, it lies in thy power to change all
this by uttering two words."
Grani said nothing.
"Only two words," said Rolf again.
But still Grani answered nothing, and Rolf turned from him sadly.
 "Proud is the heart of youth," quoth
Snorri. "Come, let us sheathe our
weapons. The sun stands at noon; now
shall we execute the act of distress which
will make Rolf master of his own—yes,
and of the half of Einar's wealth, for the
rest goes to the men of the Quarter.
Let us go to the hall."
So all men went to the hall; and there
went not only those guests from afar, but
also those from the dales. Aye, and the
men of Einar left him, and went to the
hall with the others. Only Grani stayed
with his father, and Helga whom anxiety
had driven from the hall.
"Let us go to our new home," said
So they went, and from the first hilltop
they saw how the act of distress was
beginning at the crags; but, from the
second hilltop they saw that the act was
finished. And when they rested on the
 long climb to the hut, whence Asdis had
gone to her own old home, they saw how
outside the hall men were seated at the
long tables, and the women passed the
food and drink, and all was merry at
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