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The Story of Rolf and the Viking's Bow by  Allen French

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OF THAT HARVEST FEAST

[345]

N
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 mean."

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."

[346] "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.

[347] 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 [348] 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 [349] title is just, and will prove that all which made me master here was done within the law."

Very reasonable was that speech; Snorri smiled and nodded graciously, and Einar's folk applauded, but the others not so much.

"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 [350] 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 [351] Grettir could shoot so much farther than these men."

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 much pleased.

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 [352] 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 given.

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 [353] 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."

"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 the feast?"

"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 string it.

"Much would I like to see that bow," says Snorri.

Grani knows not what to answer and [354] 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 sit down."

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 [355] crone came through the lane of men to Einar.

"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 [356] had known her, seemed not her own. She sang thus:

"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 [357] 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."

[358] "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 something."

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."

[359] 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 [360] 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 friendship."

"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.

[361] 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, [362] 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 cracked.

"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. [363] No woman was she at all, but Rolf in his weapons!

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 and Swinefell?"

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 [364] 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 at all.

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 here!"

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 [365] 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 now?"

"It was all Ondott's doing," said Einar.

"Now," quoth Rolf, "this do I award, [366] 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.

[367] "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 Einar.

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 [368] 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 Cragness.


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