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

How Rolf Won the Viking's Bow

G RANI sent men to the Viking's mound, and they fetched home all the precious things which were there, whether gold, silver, cloths or weapons. Among these last was the Viking's bill. That was a notable weapon, having a curving blade with a hook springing from its back, and set like a great spearhead upon a pole as high as a man's shoulder. Grani kept all weapons; but he gave Rolf and Frodi things to the value of some hundreds in silver, and begged that they should remain with him in the hall of Ar the Peacock. Yet Rolf bore himself as if he expected more from Grani than gold and silver, and said he could not stay in the hall. Grani complained of that to Ar.

Ar asked: "Knowest thou not what he will have of thee?"

Said Grani, "The bow, belike."

"Not so," answered Ar.

"Well," Grani said, "I will make amends to him by pressing him again to live here with us."

"Thou shalt never succeed with him in that," replied Ar, "until thou hast said those words which will make him forget that he was once a thrall in this place. But this I beg thee, drive him not away from Hawksness; for war with the Scots is threatened in the spring, and all fighting-men will be of value."

So Grani did not press Rolf to stay in the hall, and he asked: "Where will ye live?"

"We go," answered Rolf, "to stay a while with that shipmaster who has been living here."

But when they searched after Kiartan, it was told that he had gone with his ship with great suddenness when he learned that Rolf and Frodi were set free. Yet in his haste he had left merchandise, and had outstanding credits; so Rolf took Kiartan's lodgings, and said he would wait his return. Then winter came on, and the place was snowed and frozen up, so that men had nothing to do save to hold sports on the ice, or to sit long of evenings in the hall, talking of many things. But now all was different from before, and Rolf and Grani came seldom together.

One time when all were at games on the ice, Grani sent for his bow, and it was brought out to him. Men took it and handled it, admiring it much. "Let us see," said Grani, "what shooting we can do with it." He tried to string the bow.

But it was with him as it had been with Rolf and the bow of Grettir: it would not bend for him, but was almost as stiff as a spear shaft. He got red in the face, first with trying and then with anger; at last he gave over and said that others should try. But though the strongest of the Orkneyingers did their best, they could do no better than Grani. Thereat he felt better, and offered the bow to Frodi.

Frodi held it in his hands, and turned it this way and that. "Break it I might," quoth he, "but string it never." He offered the bow to Rolf, saying: "Do thou try it, for I have seen thee do with skill what others have failed to do with force."

But Rolf would not try to string the bow. So Grani sent it back to the hall, and let bring the viking's bill, which had lain by his side in the ship. But when it was brought, it proved too heavy for any of the Orkneyingers to wield.

Then said Grani: "I will give the bill as a present to Ghost-Frodi."

"Why callest thou me that?" asked Frodi.

Grani only said, "Why should I not call thee so?" and he pressed the bill on Frodi, who drew back.

"I know nothing of weapons," said he. Then all the Orkneyingers shouted to see the strongest man drawing away from the bill; and when Grani made him take it, they laughed the more, for he handled it, said all, as if it were the smithy broom. They called him Ghost-Frodi after that, thinking it fine that he who could master a spirit could not handle a weapon.

Now in that winter Ar was continually sick with little fevers, and he would not let Grani stir far from his side. One day a messenger from Earl Brusi came to say that Ar should keep a watch for Vemund the Pitiless, who had been driven from the north, and had gone toward the south. Now no one needed to be told who Vemund was.

For he was the worst of all vikings who had ravaged in the Orkneys, since he not only took tribute, but burnt towns and slaughtered people wantonly. A baresark he was, with the strength of seven men, and so defended by magic that on him no steel might bite. Only twenty men had he with him, but they had the power of fifty, being baresarks all, outlawed and reckless of life. They had first done great damage in Norway, but were driven thence to the Shetland Isles, and thence to the northern Orkneys, but now were coming further south. Rewards and fame were sure to the men who could overcome those baresarks.

Grani begged of Ar that he might go in the war-ship in search of them; but Ar said no to that. Ar gave orders that Sweyn should keep the ship in readiness; men slept near the boat-stand, ready to launch her day or night.

One night in a storm, fire was seen on that island which is off Hawksness, where dwell only fisher-folk; the cottages were seen to burn to the ground, but the sea was high, and no one crossed over. In the morning a ten-oared boat left that little island, and went away eastward; that was a venturesome thing in a storm, and by that deed that was known for the boat of Vemund the Pitiless. Then Sweyn let launch the war-ship, and with all his men went after the baresarks. Rolf made no offer to go, and Grani watched the chase from the shore, angry that he must stay. The two ships drove away out of sight, and no one could say that the larger gained upon the smaller. Nothing more was seen of them all that day.

But in the night the baresarks gave Sweyn the slip; they came straight back as they had gone, but Sweyn went on, first east, then south, searching the coast. Vemund's ship came to Hawksness; and in the morning, behold, there it was off the landing, and the baresarks were just rowing it to shore. The fisher-folk left their cottages and ran to the hall, and all took hasty counsel. But when word was brought to Ar of the baresarks, first he became red in the face, and then he lost power of speech, and there was no leader save Grani.

Grani said: "This is no place for us to stay, for the baresarks will burn us alive. Take Ar and the women and children into the stone church, and let us men go also thither and defend it." Then that was done; and when they reached the church, going hastily and in a body so that none should be left behind, they found Rolf and Frodi sitting at the door, with their weapons.

Then all went within the church, but Rolf and Frodi stayed outside. "Come ye not inside?" asked Grani.

"All those riches which Ar has in his hall," responded Rolf, "are those to be burned or lost?"

Then Grani said he would go back again, and called for men to help defend the hall. Only nine came. But those, with Rolf and Frodi, went back to the hall; both the hall and the church were barred against the baresarks. Those outlaws came up into the place; a strange crew they were, wearing no armor but skins of beasts, and wild to look on. They burned some huts, but the church and the hall they might not force. Then, because they feared Sweyn's return, and so dared not to lose time, they knew not what to do. Men shot at them from the hall and the church; so the baresarks went back again to the shore, and took counsel together.

Now all the time in the hall Frodi had walked up and down, looking very white and knocking his bill against everything, as if he were afraid. So when the outlaws went away, Grani scoffed at him.

"What dost thou with that bill," asked Grani, "if thou canst not stand up like a man, and be ready for what comes?"

"Truly," answered Frodi, "I feel strange inwardly, and my hands are cold. Yet what dost thou with that bow, which is so handsome that man never saw finer, yet which no one in these islands has yet strung?"

Then Grani took the quiver from his shoulders and laid down the bow. "I am justly rebuked," said he. He took a lighter bow. "Now wilt thou take a smaller weapon?"

"No man can say," answered Frodi, "what he will do in time of trial. But I will keep the bill."

Now some voice was heard without, calling; they listened to what was said. That was a messenger from Vemund, who made this offer: a champion should be sent out by the Orkneyingers, to meet Vemund, and whichever champion should fall, his side should yield itself into the other's hands. But if the Orkneyingers refused, fire should be set to the hall and also to the roof of the church. And that was the same as offering them one small chance for their lives.

Grani asked: "What man will go out against Vemund?"

No one offered. Then Grani said: "He who goes against the baresark will die swiftest, therefore I am willing to go myself."

All the Orkneyingers cried out against that, saying they should die together within the hall; it might be Sweyn would come in time to save them.

Then Rolf spoke and said: "No man in this place, not even Frodi our strongest, will have any chance against Vemund, so long as we fight with steel weapons. For I have heard the ways of such men to be these: before fighting they look upon the weapons of the other champion, and when they look, by witchcraft they make steel or iron powerless against them. Such a man is Vemund named. Yet if thou, Grani, wilt give me what I desire, I will find a way to slay him."

"Anything I have," answered Grani, "is thine."

"Give me then," said Rolf, "the bow and arrows of the viking."

Then Grani gave him the bow and the quiver, and Rolf cried to the messenger to say to Vemund that in half an hour one would meet him with the bow. At that great laughter rose among the outlaws, and those in the hall and in the church felt no confidence in Rolf.

But he said to Frodi, "Go to the forge and heat it." And he said to Grani, "Bring me here some silver." Then when the forge was heated and the silver was brought, Rolf said to Frodi:

"Make me now three silver arrowheads, the best thou canst, after the pattern of these here in the quiver." So Frodi made the arrow-heads quickly and with great skill, so that no one could have told them apart from the arrow-heads of iron, for they were black from the fire. And Rolf first set a dish of whale-oil to heat by the forge, and then took the heads from three of the arrows. When the new arrow-heads were made, Rolf bound them with sinews upon the shafts.

A man said: "But what wilt thou do with the arrows if thou canst not string the bow?"

Rolf answered nothing. He took the whale-oil and oiled those three arrows. Then he heated the oil hotter, and began to rub it on the bow. First he oiled the string and rubbed it long; then he oiled the wood. And the wood became darker with the oil, and took a finer polish; fresher it seemed, gleaming in the light of the forge. Rolf rubbed for many minutes, and the bow became ever darker; he held it then over the forge, turning it in every way, and it took to itself the fire of the coals. Then Rolf oiled the string once more, heating it as well; and at last they saw he meant to string the bow. Against his foot he set it, and bent it, and slipped the string up to the notch; it seemed as if a child could have done the deed, and the men burst out with a shout.

Then Rolf took one of the old arrows and set it on the string; he drew the bow and shot the arrow along the hall. No one could see that it dropped in its flight; but it struck an oaken beam by the high seat, and when men came to measure it afterward, the arrow had entered the oak by the breadth of a palm.

Men spoke afterward of the sweet twang of that bow, like as if it were an harp.

Then the Orkneyingers went out of the hall with much shouting, and stood upon a knoll which was between the hall and the church. The baresarks came near, and Vemund stood out before them; he was a huge man, very hairy, with a great beard. He asked who was to come against him.

"I," answered Rolf.

Vemund laughed, and the other baresarks also, calling Rolf a boy. "Let me see thy weapons," said Vemund. Rolf showed him his quiver, and the baresark touched the point of each arrow with his finger. "Wilt thou look upon my weapons?" asked Vemund.

Rolf said he would not. "Now," said he, "withdraw thy men to the beach, and let us begin."

"Thou art eager for death," said Vemund with a grin. "I will do as thou sayest, and then will come at thee. Thou mayest shoot as soon as thou wilt."

Vemund withdrew his men to the beach, and the Orkneyingers went aside from the knoll. Frodi wept before he left Rolf, commending him to God. Then Rolf took those three arrows with silver points, and stuck them in the ground by his feet.

By then Vemund was ready to return; he bore no shield nor armor; he threw down his bow, and shouted that this should be between whatever weapons each man chose. Then with sword in hand he began to walk to the knoll. Rolf took an arrow from his quiver and laid it on the string.

When Vemund was nearer, Rolf drew the bow; no bow had ever drawn harder, yet none had been so lively in his hand. The arrow sped; Vemund turned not aside, but when the shaft struck on his breast the wood flew to splinters, and the point fell down. All the Orkneymen cried out in fear, but the baresarks shouted. Rolf took a second arrow and waited awhile.

Then he shot again, and the arrow struck Vemund on the throat; it turned aside, and flew sliddering away. Some of the Orkneymen withdrew to the door of the church, crying that they should be let in. But the outlaws began to come forward.

Then Rolf drew one of those arrows from the ground, and wiped the point, and made ready.

When Vemund was twenty paces away Rolf shot for the third time. The arrow went in a level flight, and struck Vemund on the breast; there it sunk to the feathers. Those baresarks, coming behind, saw a foot of the shaft stand out from Vemund's back.

Then Vemund brandished his sword and ran at Rolf; Rolf took the second arrow and sent it at him. In the eye it struck him, and pierced to the brain; down fell the baresark, and died before he reached the ground.

Rolf took the third arrow and put it in his quiver.

Then the Orkneyingers came running from the church with their weapons, and all rushed at the outlaws. Grani shouted that the baresarks should lay down their arms; but they, fearing death, drew into a circle and would not yield. They began to cast spears at the Orkneyingers.

"Shoot arrows at them," said Grani to Rolf.

"I have done my share," quoth he.

Then the Orkneyingers ran round that circle of outlaws, and did their best to pry into it; but they got only wounds. The baresarks began to grit their teeth and work themselves to anger as if they had been wolves; that was their way in battle. Frodi went nearer to look at that sight.

Then one baresark shot a spear at Frodi, and cut his shoulder so that it bled. At that Frodi turned red, and took his bill, and went at that man. The baresark swung his sword, but Frodi caught it with the bill and spun it aloft; then he hooked at the man with the back of the bill, and caught him by the neck, and pulled him down grovelling. An Orkneyman pierced the outlaw as he lay.

So the circle of the baresarks was broken, but they sought to draw again together. Then Frodi took his bill, and made at the two men to right and left of the opening; one he caught with the point of the bill, and pitched him sideways; that man fell on the circle at another place and broke it there. Next Frodi pitched the other baresark clean across the circle against the men at the other side; two fell at once.

Then Grani shouted and rushed within the ring, and all the Orkneyingers fell on the baresarks at every point. Some were slain right there; some broke away and were chased about; one by one they died among the huts and the frames for drying fish.

Frodi, when he had done that much, stood by Rolf and struck no more. When the fighting was finished the Orkneyingers looked to their hurts, and it was found that no one was badly wounded. All said that the death of Vemund the Pitiless was not so bad by half as the living of him.

Now Grani was very happy and talkative, and he praised his men much; but he seemed constrained before Rolf, and spoke to Frodi. "And thou saidst thou couldst not use the bill!"

Frodi answered, "So I thought, but it is no different from handling a pitchfork."

Grani whooped with laughter, and would tell that saying to others. Frodi beseeched him: "Cease thy talking, lest men give me a new nickname."

But Grani told Frodi's words in the presence of many, and all cried that Frodi should be called Pitchfork Frodi. He grumbled to Rolf thereat.

"Better be glad," said Rolf, "that nothing worse has come to thee than a sore shoulder and a new name."

Now Sweyn came sailing back, angered that he had been tricked, but much afraid of what might have happened at Hawksness in his absence. As for Ar the Peacock, he lay without speech until the morrow, when he came to himself; but he was a broken man ever after that shock.

Grani took the spoil from the baresark ship, and divided it into five parts. Two parts he gave to those fishers whose houses the baresarks had burned; one part he divided among those who had wounds; the rest he sent to the lodging of Rolf and Frodi. Grani took nothing for himself, nor did he go with the treasure to Rolf; and men said among themselves that, during all these doings, Rolf and Grani had spoken to each other only when they must.

From that time the viking's bow was Rolf's own. Those two arrows which had slain the baresark were hung up in the church; but Rolf took the third arrow with the silver point, and bound it in the quiver with a silken thread.

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