Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Rolf and the Viking's Bow by Allen French
The Story of Rolf and the Viking's Bow by  Allen French

Of Suits at the Althing

R OLF journeyed to the Althing, and as he went he fell in with the company of Snorri the Priest, and travelled with them. Snorri heard how the summons had gone, and he asked whether Rolf had said anything of Grettir. Rolf answered that he had not. Then he told of the summons which Ondott had made, and Snorri laughed. It was not many days before they came to the Thingvalla, and Rolf saw that great wonder of Iceland.

For from the plain on which they journeyed a large part had fallen clean away, many yards down, and it lay below like the bottom of a pan. The Great Rift was the name of the western precipice, and there was no way down save by one steep path; Snorri had held that path on the day of the battle at the Althing, nor would he let Flosi and the Burners escape that way. When Rolf had got down to the plain, he saw all the booths for the lodging of those who came to the Althing, ranged along the river. He saw the places where the Quarter Courts were held, and he went to the Hill of Laws, where the Fifth Court sat to hear appeals. Now the Hill of Laws is cut off from the plain by deep rifts, and men showed Rolf where, to save his life, Flosi had leaped one rift at its narrowest part, and that was a great deed. Other wonders were to be seen. Then on the second day the sitting of the courts began, and Rolf watched closely for the calling of his suit. But that came not until the sitting was near its end.

Now Snorri conducted the case of Rolf, and all went in due order. Einar answered what was said against him, that he was not present at the slaying of Hiarandi. Snorri called on the court to say whether Einar were not answerable, because his men did the deed. The judges said he was. Then it came to proving whether or not the slaying were illegal, and Snorri said that a man had been found who could shoot the distance. And this he asked of the judges:

"Is it not true that when, before witnesses, an arrow is shot from the boundary and falls beyond the tree, that will prove the slaying unlawful?"

"That is so," said the judges.

"Now say further," demanded Snorri. "Is it not true that in the moment when the slaying is proved unlawful, the guilt of Einar is established, so that no suit at law is needed?"

"That also is true," answered the judges.

"Now," said Snorri, "one last thing do I ask, whether or not he who goes to make the proof by shooting an arrow, may go and come freely, whatsoever man he be?"

"We see no reason why this may not be so," said the judges.

"Now give that decision here aloud in the open court," required Snorri.

But Einar arose and said: "One exception only shall I ask to this, that no outlaw be allowed to take part in this suit, by shooting the arrow."

Then said Snorri to Rolf, "They have learned of Grettir." He said to the judges: "Well do I know that no outlaw is ever allowed to give witness in court, nor to sit on juries. But no such case as this has ever arisen, and it seems to me that an outlaw might be permitted to shoot."

Then there was great talking on both sides, for the greater part of an hour: it would be tedious to tell what was said. But the end was, that the judges were divided, so the question was referred to the Lawman. And his answer was, that no outlaw might take part in a law matter in any way whatsoever. There was an end to Rolf's hopes to prove Einar guilty by the means of Grettir.

But Snorri called all men to witness that when some day a man might be found to shoot the distance, then Einar was guilty without going to law. Now men began to whisper and say that the end of Grettir's outlawry was but four years off, and then Rolf could be justified. So Einar tried to have a limit of three years set on that time when it was lawful to try the shooting; but Snorri strove mightily against that, and that question went to the Lawman, and he said that seven years should be the limit.

That was the end of the suit, and Rolf got no satisfaction at all. One more thing was done on that day, for Snorri went to Einar where he stood with Ondott, and he asked of the second suit, for which Rolf had been summoned. Ondott spoke for Einar.

"We shall not bring that suit."

"That is well," said Snorri, "for ye had no case, and I could have a fine laid on you if the case was brought falsely." Then he took Rolf with him to his booth.

But here is the trick which Ondott had prepared. For the next day was the last of the sittings, and Snorri was busy with many matters; but Rolf stayed at the booth, much cast down. Then toward the sunset hour the cases were all finished, and men left the courts, all save the judges, who stayed for the formal closing. Then Ondott brought forward the case against Rolf, and summoned him into court, but no one was there to tell either Snorri or the lad. Nevertheless it was the law that the suit might go on, because lawful summons had been given. And Einar stood up and said:

"I take witness to this, that I give notice of a suit against Rolf Hiarandi's son, in that he slew by a body wound, by an arrow, my herdsman Thorold. I say that in this suit he ought to be made a guilty man, an outlaw, not to be fed, not to be forwarded, not to be helped or harbored in any need. I say that all his goods are forfeited, half to me, and half to the men of the Quarter, who have a right by law to take his forfeited goods; I give notice of this suit in the Quarter Court into which it ought by law to come. I give notice in the hearing of all men on the Hill of Laws. I give notice of this suit to be pleaded now, and of full outlawry against Rolf Hiarandi's son."

All that was said in the manner laid down by law. Then Einar pushed the case, and no one was there to answer him. All steps were taken then and there, and judgment was called for and given, and in his absence Rolf was made full outlaw, and his goods were declared forfeited. Not till the court had risen, and nothing might be done, was the news brought to Snorri and Rolf.

Snorri was angry that he had been tricked, yet he could see no way to help himself. This one thing he brought about, that the judges declared that Rolf, outlaw though he was, might shoot to prove his innocence, if he might but get himself safely to the spot. And Snorri sought to comfort Rolf, but the lad was dazed.

"The farm is lost!" he cried.

"Thou canst win it back," answered Snorri. "Thou art young and thy strength will grow. Before the seven years are past thou canst make that shot."

"Nay," said Rolf. "I can never do it until I find some bow as strong as Grettir's, yet which a common man may string. Never have I found a bow too stiff for me, save his alone."

"Skill may beat strength," quoth Snorri. "Some where mayest thou find the bow thou dreamest of."

"Where?" demanded Rolf.

Snorri was silent, for he feared no such bow was to be found.

Rolf sighed. "And my mother?" he asked next.

"She shall live with me at Tongue. And now," said Snorri, "meseems best that thou goest home at once. Thou knowest all that is to be done?"

"I know," replied Rolf; and Snorri believed him, because to the Priest all the ways of the law were so familiar that it seemed all men must know them. Yet Rolf did not know, and they meant different things.

"Shall I lend thee money," asked Snorri, "or hast thou enough?"

"I have plenty," said Rolf; yet he had only enough for the journey, whereas much more was needed. Then Rolf took his leave of Snorri, and gave him his thanks; and taking his horse, he went from the Thingfield by the path up the Great Rift. And he passed two men of Einar's, who spoke together that they were to start very early in the morning. From the top of the Rift Rolf looked down on that plain where all men were still busy, and which in years had brought misfortune on all his family. Then at last he went his way.

Now those men of Einar's went to their booth, and told that they had seen Rolf departing. "Hasten back at once," said Ondott, "and find what direction he takes." And they went and watched.

"He went northwest," said they, "and he took not the straight track toward home."

"Then he is gone elsewhere," quoth Ondott, and seemed glad. "Hurry, all of you, for he delivers himself into our hands."

Meanwhile Rolf went northwest to the valley of the geysirs, and on the second day found Grettir the Strong cooking his food at a boiling spring.

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