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 His Freedom

N OW when that meal was ended, Kiartan rose up and said that he must go; he thanked Ar, and Grani walked with him to the door. But as they passed by the bench whereon Rolf and Frodi were sitting, Grani beckoned them to rise up, and he said to Kiartan: "Look on my thralls, now that thou canst see them closer, and tell me what thou thinkest of them."

Kiartan scarcely looked at them. "They seem a good pair," he answered. "It is fitting for thy dignity to have thralls." Then he went away.

Frodi asked of Rolf: "Did he know us?"

"He knew us well," answered Rolf.

"What wilt thou do?" asked Frodi.

"I see naught to do," said Rolf. "For what he did against my father was done in Iceland, so that I could not bring a suit at law here. Moreover, no thrall can bring a suit in any land."

"Wilt thou claim kinship with him?" Frodi asked.

"Wilt thou?" responded Rolf. No more words were said, but it was seen in their eyes that for their pride's sake they would make no claim on Kiartan.

Kiartan found that nothing was said in the matter; so he stayed there in the place, and won the friendship of Ar by gifts, and traded with success. He ate often at the hall, and slept there whenever he would; but no word passed between him and those kinsmen, nor did they ever look at him.

Grani was proud that he owned thralls, and he commanded them to show what they could do. So Rolf shot with the bow, and Grani made him his bow-bearer. But Frodi said he knew little of weapons; yet when they gave him a spear he shot it through two shields braced together against posts. He asked for work as a smith, but Grani made him spear-bearer. And the youth often walked abroad with those other two attending him. Ar was pleased with that show, but the thralls smiled grimly to each other.

Once Kiartan saw that smile, and he said to Grani privily: "Thy thralls smile at thy back, and make as if they feel shame. Now be careful lest they harm thee sometime when thou art alone with them. If I were thee, I would set them at the sheep-herding or the field-work."

Grani answered: "I fear no harm from them, and indeed I like them more every day. I cannot spare them."

Now the truth of the matter was this, that Grani cast a great love upon Rolf, and would have him as a friend, not thinking that no friendship can be between master and slave. He gave Rolf gifts, everything but his freedom; he spoke much with Rolf, yet the talk was most upon the one side, for Rolf grew very silent. Yet Rolf went everywhere after Grani, and did him much service of all kinds, being clever with his hands and wise in his ways; he knew a boat and all the modes of fishing; when it came to cliff-climbing, no man in that place was his match. Grani often went seeking adventure with Rolf and Frodi; they managed in such wise that Frodi did the work and Rolf directed what should be done. When they went after birds Frodi sat at the top of the cliff and held the rope, but on the cliff's face Rolf would let Grani take no risks. Nay, sometimes it seemed as if Rolf were the master and Grani the man. But when other people were about, Rolf did all that Grani said.

One day a bishop came to Hawksness and visited the parish. He held service in the church, and lived at the hall for two days. When he was about to go away, he asked if any man needed from him counsel or comfort. Frodi stood up.

Said he: "Lord Bishop, are all manslayings sinful?"

The bishop answered: "State me the case, for some manslayings are blameless."

So Frodi spoke thus: "If a man is on a ship, and vikings come, and that man casts a viking overboard, and the viking is drowned—hath the man committed a mortal sin?"

Many men smiled at these words, for the story of Frodi and the vikings had been told. The bishop said: "Vikings are the worst plague of the land, and they deserve no mercy. Since the viking came to take life, it was no sin to slay him."

Frodi drew a long breath, but he asked further: "If two vikings were drowned, what of that?"

"It is the same," answered the bishop.

"But if three men were thus drowned," asked Frodi, "what then?"

"Even if thirty died," answered the bishop, "the answer is still the same."

Then Frodi heaved a great sigh, and looked so relieved that all who stood by shouted with merriment. Grani was pleased most of all, and he gave command that Frodi should be called Drowning-Frodi. Frodi liked that little, yet by that name he was called for a while. And Grani was so pleased with all this that he boasted much about his thralls.

One day he spoke of them with Kiartan, and told how when they went away together Rolf took the lead. "And he cares for me," said Grani, "as if I were his brother; but so soon as others are by he is as any other thrall, and says no word unless spoken to."

Kiartan said: "In that he appears to me sly."

"How should that be?" asked Grani.

"He seeks to gain influence over thee," answered Kiartan.

"Nay," said Grani, "he and I are friends."

Kiartan shook his head. Quoth he: "In my country we have a saying: 'Ill is a thrall for a friend.' Moreover, to lack dignity at any time is not seeming in one of thy station."

Grani took those sayings much to heart; he went no more away alone with his thralls, but stayed where were other men. Now that was the time when the summer had passed by and harvests were all in, but winter had not yet come and the weather was mild. Men were saying that when winter should come, it would be with suddenness.

There came a day when the wind was high, but it was as soft as summer. A man named Thord the Weatherwise came to Ar and said: "See to it that all is ready for the winter!" and without more words departed. Ar inquired of his men if the sheep were yet gathered in from the downs above the cliffs. It was answered that they were not. Ar bade send a man quickly to warn the shepherds.

It was told Ar that the fishers had just come in, and that all the serving-men were busied at the beach, being much needed to save the catch of fish, for the waves were high. Ar said to Grani: "Lend me one of thy thralls to take my message."

"Thou mayest have both of them," answered Grani.

So Rolf and Frodi prepared to go to the downs, and a long jaunt that would be. But when Grani saw they were ready he felt desire to go with them, since he had not done much for some days, and needed action. So he said that Rolf and Frodi should wait till he could go with them. They went outside the hall to wait, and Grani bound on his shoes. Now Kiartan had stood by and heard all that, and he said:

"So thou goest out again with thy friends?"

Grani answered with pride: "I go with my thralls!"

He went outside the hall and found Rolf and Frodi waiting. Rolf looked him over, and seeing there was no one by, he said: "Take thy cloak, for we may be benighted."

"Lo," answered Grani, "the thrall gives orders to his master! We shall be back before men go to bed. No cloak is needed, and I forbid ye to take yours."

So Rolf and Frodi left their cloaks behind, and went with Grani to the moors. The moors were wide and rolling, and lay above those cliffs whereby they had once been wrecked. The three travelled not as had been their wont, all together; but Grani went ahead, saying to himself they should remember that they were thralls. In going so he missed his way, and they came to the sheepcotes roundabout and late. There they found the men busy gathering in the sheep, making ready to drive them to the valleys when this gale should pass. Some men said that would be on the morrow, for the wind was falling. Even while they spoke the wind dropped completely, and there was a calm.

"See," said Grani, "the storm is over; it was but a gale."

The head shepherd said he thought not so, and that more was to be looked for. "Moreover, thy Icelanders think the same, as I can see by their faces."

"I ask not what they think," answered Grani. "There is blue sky in the south."

"Thy thralls and I," replied the shepherd, "look to the north. And now I beg that thou wilt stay here overnight, for company's sake."

"I see thou hast fear for me," said Grani. "But I will return."

"Then hasten," begged the shepherd.

But Grani would not hurry, and started leisurely. The shepherd called a man, and privately told him he should guide those three, for he knew the moors. Then the shepherd begged Grani that the man might go to Hawksness with him, for his work at the folds was done. The four started together.

Soon a little wind, thin and keen, began to blow from the north; it grew greater quickly until it was half a gale. By that time they were where they could see the sea, and Grani looked out upon it. Quoth he: "Fog is coming from the water."

Now Rolf had been silent so far, all that afternoon; yet he could be so no longer. Said he: "Not fog is that, but snow, and I beg thee to turn back."

"Lead forward!" said Grani to the shepherd.

So they went on as they had been going, another half-hour, and each minute the wind grew stronger. They neared the line of the cliffs, and walked parallel with them at a half-mile's distance. Then that which had appeared to be fog on the water at last moved inland, so that they saw it coming like a wall. It left the sea, and swallowed up the land before it; then it swept upon them silently, and they bent before its onslaught. Wind buffeted them and roared in their ears; a few snowflakes drove along the ground; then they were enfolded in the swirl of snow. All around them became one gray fleece, they could not see for a rod in front, and they shivered with the cold.

They struggled onwards, bending to the wind; and night came down an hour before its time. The snow began to heap thickly, and now it was above the ankle, now a foot in depth; wonderful was that fall of snow. They walked one behind the other, the shepherd in front, then Grani, Rolf, and Frodi, each so close as to touch the next one with his hand. The night grew black, and the wind was loud. Then at last Rolf shouted that they should stop.

"Why sayest thou that?" asked Grani.

"Because I think we near the cliffs," said Rolf.

"I hear no surf," answered Grani.

But the guide thought that Rolf was right. Grani asked what they should do. Rolf answered: "Best stay here till morning."

"Shall I freeze?" asked Grani. "Let us turn away and walk further inland."

"We cannot keep our direction," said Rolf.

"Wilt thou never be silent?" asked Grani. "We will go inland." So they sought to do so, and they walked for another while. Then Grani asked the shepherd if he knew where he was, and the man could not say. When they went on again, Frodi pressed forward and took the place behind the shepherd; and when Grani asked for the place Frodi would not give it. So they walked thus for another while, their feet clogged by the snow, their faces stung with the wind, plodding with great effort and weariness. Then at the end that happened which Rolf had feared.

For of a sudden the roar of the sea burst up at them from their very feet, and the guide, with a cry, sank in the darkness. Frodi clutched at him, but caught only the cloak; the clasp broke, and the man fell to his death. Those other three stood at the edge of the cliff, while below the sea thundered, yet they saw nothing.

Then Rolf took Grani by the arm and drew him away. Frodi followed. The noise of the surf was suddenly lost in the wind, and no one would have known they were near the cliff. Rolf led the way inland, and Frodi walked last; they went very cautiously, and Frodi was ever ready to seize on Grani. At last they reached a mound. In its lee the wind was less, and the snow was piling deep; Rolf scooped space for them all, and there they sat down side by side.

After a space Grani said, "It grows cold." Frodi wrapped him in the guide's cloak. For another while they sat silent, until Grani said again: "I am too weary to walk another step, yet if I sit here I shall freeze. Frodi, what can we do?"

Frodi knew nothing which could be done. "Either we should walk over the cliffs, or die of freezing in the first mile. We must stay here. Take warmth from us."

They sat closer to him, but still he was cold. After a while he said: "I am sorry we brought not our cloaks." They answered nothing. The snow heaped around them, yet Grani fell to shivering. Then he said: "I am sorry we turned not back." They still said nothing. At last Grani could bear it no longer, and he cried:

"Rolf, if thou hast anything to say, say it before we all die!"

Rolf answered: "I have been thinking. What is this mound behind us?"

"There is but one mound on all the heaths," answered Grani. "Men call it the barrow of a viking, who died off the coast, and was buried here with his ship, that he might forever look out upon the sea."

"Then," said Rolf, "there is one thing we can do, and only one, to save our lives; and that is to break into the barrow."

So they fell to digging with their hands at the mound, and they could have done nothing had the earth been frozen. But it was still soft; and they dug until they came to timbers, two feet within the mound. Then Frodi thrust his hands between the timbers, and strained at one, and Rolf and Grani tugged at his waist. The timber broke, and they fell back together in the snow; yet an entrance to the mound was thus made, and when they had enlarged it Rolf went in first, and the others followed.

Within, the air was dead and close; they stayed at the entrance to breathe, yet the place was warmer, and it was a great relief not to feel the wind. But Grani was still all of a shiver, so Rolf went into the mound further, and they heard him stumbling and slipping in the darkness. After a while he came back to them and said: "Here is wood for a fire."

Then they pulled stalks of grass and shook them free of snow; they found in the shepherd's cloak a flint and steel, and so made a fire at the mouth of the barrow. The wind bore the smoke away, and by degrees the air cleared in the mound. Then with brands they went within, and cast the light about.

The mound was made of a viking-ship, a small one, which had been borne there on the shoulders of men. It was propped upright with stones, and roofed over with timbers and planks; dirt had been cast over the whole. They climbed into that ship, and saw by the light of the torches where the old viking sat in the stern. He was in such armor as men had worn long before; he had a helm on his head, and held a sword in his hand, and was very stern of face. There he sat as if he were still alive, but there was no sight in his eyes.


Before him in the ship were precious things of gold and silver, cloths, and weapons. All the oars lay in their places as if ready for men to use them. Very strange was that sight, and those three gazed at it in silence.

"He looks," said Frodi, "as if he would walk."

"Now," said Grani, "I remember the shepherds say he has been seen, and lights have burned at this mound sometimes of nights. Yet he has never done harm."

"If he is ever to do it, he will do it now," said Rolf. "For he looks as if he mislikes us here."

By that time the place was very smoky from the torches, so they went back again to the entrance and lay down to sleep; they took with them cloths and broidered hangings which had lain by the viking, and with these and the fire they made themselves warm. So, very weary from their walking, they fell asleep.

In the middle of the night Rolf and Grani waked, and missed Frodi from their side. Moreover they heard a noise, which was not the howling of the storm, but was like the splintering of wood and the snarling of men's breaths as they wrestled in fight. Then Rolf snatched a torch from the fire and ran within the mound; Grani followed, and they climbed on board the ship.

There lay Frodi and the viking together: they had been fighting all about the place, and the thwarts and oars were broken; in one place even the bulwark of the ship was torn away. But Frodi had forced the viking into the seat where first he had sat; and there Frodi held him, while the viking struggled still, glaring from glassy eyes, and Frodi could do naught but keep him where he was. Little more breath had Frodi, but yet he held his grip on the viking's arms.

Then Rolf drew his short-sword, and sprang in at the viking, and hewed at the neck of him, so that the head sprang off at the stroke; but no blood followed. Frodi lay and breathed deeply, but Rolf took the head of the viking and laid it at his thigh.

With those heathen ghosts which did harm to man, there was no way to quiet them except to hew off the head and lay it at the thigh. And such things happened to many men, even as is here told; but the greatest ghost-layer, says Sturla the Lawman, was Grettir the Strong.

When Frodi had got his breath, they asked him how all that had come about. "Nothing do I know about it," answered Frodi, "save that he came and dragged me in my sleep hither, and sought to throttle me. I had much ado to master him."

They went back and slept until the day came, but the storm was still so violent that they could not travel. Then they made larger the entrance to the mound so that light came into the ship; and they buried the viking in the ground. Now when they came to examine his treasures, Grani and Frodi were busy long, casting aside each thing for something better. But after Rolf had searched for only a short while, he sat still and looked no further. Grani saw that he had something.

"What precious thing hast thou there?" asked he.

"This," said Rolf, "which I found on the back of the viking's seat."

He showed them a bow which had hung there in a leathern case. Of some foreign wood it was, tipped with horn, and bound at the middle with wire of fine gold to form a grip. It seemed very strong, cunningly made: a wonderful weapon. And there was a quiver with it, bearing thirty arrows, long and barbed for war.

"Now," said Grani, "this is far better than jewels or fine cloths, and it is the best weapon here. Thou shalt give it to me."

Rolf gave him the bow. And when they went again to look out upon the storm, the clouds were breaking and sunbeams were coming through. So they took the bow and some small gear, and started for Hawksness, where they found Ar nigh wild for fear; but their coming made him happy. And Grani told all that had happened to them.

Said Ar: "Methinks thy thralls have saved thy life."

"That is true," answered Grani.

"What wilt thou give them?" asked Ar.

"Whatever they wish," answered Grani. He called on Rolf to say what gift he would like at his hands.

"That bow and those arrows," said Rolf.

"Now," asked Grani, "which is dearest to thee, that bow, or thy freedom and Frodi's?"

"Our freedom," answered Rolf.

"Your freedom shall you have," said Grani. Then, before all who were in the hall, he spoke Rolf and Frodi free.

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