|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 ROBBER
OLF followed that man who had
stolen the ewe, and the way led
first down into the dales, and then
upward to the fells. There had been rain
and the paths were soft, so that the tracks
of man and sheep were clear. It was
strange to Rolf that the robber showed
such boldness as to go on beaten ways.
But when at last he reached the region
where all the paths were grassy and tracks
could no longer be seen, then Rolf knew
not what to do until he met a wayfarer.
"Hast thou seen," asked Rolf, "one who goes driving a ewe?"
"He is not far before thee," answered
the man. "But what seekest thou with
 "The ewe is mine," said Rolf. "I will
have it again."
"Thou art foolhardy," cried the man.
"A life is more than a sheep. Turn
"Not I," quoth Rolf, and he went on.
Then in a little while he saw the man
before him, going without haste behind
the ewe. And Rolf marvelled at his
confidence, for the man did not even look
back to see if he were followed. So Rolf
strung his bow and went faster, going
quietly until he was but fifty feet behind
the man. And then he called to the
That man turned at once, drawing his
sword. Grim and harsh was he in face
when he found he was followed, but when
he saw a lad, alone, then he smiled.
"Seekest thou me?" he asked. And
his voice was harsh, like his face, so that
he was a man to terrify many.
 "That sheep is mine," said Rolf. "Leave it and go thy way."
"Go home, boy!" said the man. "I would not hurt thee."
"Once more," cried Rolf, "I bid thee
leave the ewe, else will I strive with thee for it."
"What," sneered the man, "wilt thou
set thyself against me? Draw thy sword, then!"
But the robber's sword was long and
heavy, while Rolf's was short and light.
"Nay," he responded, "but I will hurt
thee with my arrows. Take thy shield
and defend thyself."
"No shield do I need," sneered the man
again, "against such as thou. Shoot, and
see if thou canst touch me!"
So great was his contempt that he stung
Rolf to the quick. "Let us see, then!"
the lad cried. And in great heat of anger,
at short range, Rolf drove a shaft at the
 middle of the man's body. But behold!
the man swung his heavy sword as lightly
as a wand, and brushed the arrow aside!
"Once more!" quoth he.
And then Rolf shot again, and yet
again, but each time the arrow was swept
aside. And the robber called with jeers
to shoot faster. So Rolf sent his shafts as
swiftly as he could, and it was astonishing
to see how fast they followed each other;
but though he shot half a score of times,
each arrow, just as it reached its mark,
was brushed aside. Of them all, one
touched the clothing on the robber's
breast, so that it tore the cloth; and one,
sent at the face, scratched the skin ere it
was turned. When that was done, the
man jeered no more, for he saw that Rolf
was closing in.
And what might have happened is not
known. But to Rolf, even in his anger
to be so foiled, there came admiration of
 the stranger's skill. "Now," he thought,
"such a thing is a marvel, for it is related
of the men of old time, but not of the men
of to-day. I had not deemed anyone so
quick or so strong." Then his own words
told him who the man must be; he
stopped advancing, and lowered his bow.
But in a twinkle the man dropped his
sword and strung his own bow, and he
laid an arrow on the string. "Now,"
cried he, "we have changed about, and
can play the game the other way. Perhaps
thou also canst guard thyself." He
drew the bow. "Art thou minded to
Rolf made no movement to ward himself.
"Thou art Grettir the Strong," he said.
"Grettir Asmund's son am I," answered
the man, "whom men call Grettir the
Strong. Perhaps thou art now the more
minded to slay me, even as fools whom I
 meet from time to time. For nine
hundreds in silver is the price set upon my
"Nay," answered Rolf, "I would not
The man laughed mightily. "I owe
my life to thee!" he cried. Then he
changed his manner suddenly. "Go,
leave me, boy, for my temper is short,
and I might do thee a mischief!"
And then he went on his way, still
driving the ewe before him; but Rolf
remained in that place. After a time the
lad gathered those of his arrows which
were not broken, and turned back toward
his home. But when he looked behind,
and saw that a roll of land hid him from
Grettir, then he turned again, and followed after the outlaw.
A long time Rolf followed, warily at
first, for Grettir looked back once or
twice; then the lad might go more boldly.
 And the outlaw led him up into the hills,
where were rocks and crags and much
barrenness, a region where men might
lurk long and not be found. And Grettir
made a halt at a strong place, a shelf on
the crags, protected from above by a sheer
cliff, and reached only from one side. It
seemed as if he had often been there
before. While he made a fire, Rolf lay at
a distance, and wondered how he might
steal nigher. Only one vantage did he
see which commanded the outlaw's lair:
a great spur of rock which stood out
from the cliff, but which it would be hard
Then Grettir laid himself to sleep while
it was yet day, and Rolf crept forward till
he was under the spur. From above no
man might reach it; yet there were
crevices here and there in the rock by which
Rolf could climb. So he slung his bow
on his back and tried the ascent. But
 so slow must he climb, for fear of noise,
that it was dark when he reached the
flat top; and though Grettir was scarce
forty feet away, Rolf could not see him
at all. So he watched there through the
Ever at that little distance he heard
Grettir labor in his sleep, and oft the
outlaw moaned and groaned. At times
he started up and looked abroad, but he
could see nothing by the light of the stars.
But when dawn came, then Grettir slept
peacefully; and when it was broad day he
still lay sleeping. His face in sleep was
sad and noble, with signs of a hasty
temper; his frame was great indeed. He
lay so long that Rolf at last strung his
bow and shot an arrow into the ground
by him. Grettir started from his sleep,
grasping his weapons and looking about
for his foes. Never in his life Rolf forgot
that sight, which few men had seen
with-  out ruing it, of Grettir angry and ready
for the fray.
But Grettir saw no one, for he looked
about on the hillside below him. Then
Rolf spoke: "Here am I, Grettir."
Then the outlaw saw him, and put up
his shield against a second arrow. Rolf
said: "Had I wished, I could have slain
thee in thy sleep."
"Rather will I believe," answered
Grettir, "that thou hast shot thy last arrow, and missed."
Rolf showed him his full quiver, and
Grettir lowered his shield. "How camest
thou here?" he asked. "I made sure that thou wert gone."
"Not very sure," answered Rolf.
"And how," asked Grettir, "didst thou
reach that place? I had weened no man
could mount that rock."
"I am but a boy," answered Rolf, "yet men call me Cragsman."
 "Now I am well shamed," cried Grettir,
"that a boy hath so outwitted me! And
this I believe, that thou mightest have
slain me; for a good archer I found thee
yesterday. Still more will I say, that
yesterday I had near suffered a hurt at
thy hands, so that I was considering
whether to retreat before thee, or to take
my shield, and neither have I yet done
before a single archer. Now let me ask
thee, why didst thou stop shooting then;
and why didst thou not slay me here as I
"Because," answered Rolf, "thou, or
no man in Iceland, canst give me the help I need."
"Come down," said Grettir, "and we will eat together."
So they breakfasted together, of dried
meat and the milk of the ewe. "How
was thy sleep there on the crag?" asked Grettir.
 "No worse," answered Rolf, "than
thine here on the ledge. Why didst
thou sleep so ill?"
Then Grettir answered soberly: "One
of my few good deeds is so repaid that I
see shapes in the dark, and my sleep is
broken. For I slew Glam the ghost who
wasted Thorhallstead, but ere I cut off
his head he laid on me that spell. So I
am a fearsome man in the dark, though
in the day no man may daunt me. But
what can I do for thee?"
"Let me see," answered Rolf, "if with
the bow thou canst shoot farther than I."
"Thou art a vain lad," said Grettir,
somewhat displeased. "For that alone
camest thou hither?"
"Be not wroth," begged Rolf, "for I
have the best of reasons." And he told
the story of his father's death and of the
need for a good archer. Grettir smiled.
"And couldst thou find no man," asked
 he, "who is within the law, to do this for
Then Rolf told of the trial with those
Southfirthers at Tongue, and Grettir
looked upon him with surprise. "So
skilled art thou then?" he asked. "Now
string thy bow, and show me how far
thou canst shoot."
So Rolf strung his bow, and shot along
the hillside, and the arrow fell far away.
"Now do I wonder," said Grettir. "Let
me see thy bow." And when he had
looked on it he said: "That any one
could shoot so far with such light gear I
had not thought possible. Thou art a
good bowman. But what thinkest thou
of my bow?"
Rolf took the bow of Grettir in his
hand, and a strange weapon it was. For
it was shorter than his own bow, and
scarcely shaped at all, but was heavy and
thick, so that it had seemed not to be
 a bow, save for the string and the notched
"Such a bow," said Rolf, "saw I
"Canst thou string it?" asked Grettir.
Then Rolf tried, but he could scarce
bend it a little way. Yet Grettir took it
and strung it with ease. Then he showed
Rolf his arrows, which were heavy, short,
and thick, like the bow. He laid one on
the string, and drew it to the head, and
behold! it rushed forth with a great whir,
and with such force that it might pierce a
man behind his shield. And it flew far
beyond the arrow of Rolf, full five rods
"What thou dost with skill," said
Grettir, "I do with strength." But Rolf
cried with great joy:
"Thou art the man I have been seeking!"
Then he asked: "Wilt thou go
with me and shoot an arrow before
wit-  nesses, to prove that my father was
"That I will," quoth Grettir, "and joyfully
too, for I see little of men. Only
one thing I require, that safe conduct be
promised me to go and come, for I have
enemies in thy dales."
"How shall I get thee safe conduct?" asked Rolf.
"It must be granted," answered Grettir,
"by the Quarter Court at the Althing."
Then they talked the matter over, and
Grettir advised Rolf once more to seek
Snorri the Priest, to find what steps should
be taken. Then it was bespoken where
Rolf should meet Grettir again, and the
outlaw offered to lay out in the hills north
of the Thingvalla, in the valley of the
geysirs, and await tidings of the outcome
of the suit.
"Now," said Rolf, when he was ready to
go, "keep the ewe for thy kindness's sake."
 "Do thou take her," answered Grettir.
"For had I known that thy mother was a
widow, I would never have taken the
sheep. And the first booty is this, which
ever I rendered again."
So Rolf returned toward home driving
the ewe; and when he reached the
highway which led to the South Firths, there
came riding a company, Kari and Flosi
and their followers, and Snorri the Priest
was with them. They asked tidings.
Then he told them of Grettir, and those
three chiefs left their horses, and sat down
with Rolf on the fell a little way from
their company; they had talk what was
to be done. For Snorri declared he saw
a flaw in the case, since Grettir was an
outlaw, and no outlaw had ever yet come
into a suit at law. But at last he said:
"Now go thy way, and summon Einar
with a formal summons. [And he taught
Rolf the form.] But be thou sure that no
 mention is made of Grettir. And I
believe that, since no such case has ever yet
been tried, it can lawfully be brought
about that Grettir may shoot."
Then those chiefs went their way, and
Rolf went his, and he came back to
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