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

Kiartan at Cragness

O N the morning of the fifth day thereafter, as Rolf stood by the gate of the enclosure which protected the farm buildings, he saw a man coming on a horse, and knew him for his father's brother Kiartan. He was a big man, heavily bearded, dressed in bright-colored clothes and hung about with gold chains. His eye was bright and roving; his face was genial, and he looked about him as he came as one who is well contented. Yet Rolf liked him not.

Now Kiartan rode up to the enclosure and saw the boy. "Ho!" he cried, "come hold my horse and stable him." So Rolf took the horse by the bridle and held him while the man dismounted. Then the boy started to lead the beast to the stable.

"Where is thy mistress?" asked Kiartan.

"My mother is in the house," answered Rolf.

"Now," Kiartan cried, "I took thee for a stable-boy. But thy father had ever a love of the earth, and so perhaps hast thou. Knowest thou me?"

"Thou art my uncle," replied the lad.

"Now," cried Kiartan, staring, "what spirit told thee of me?"

"Five nights ago," answered Rolf, "thou stoodst below on the deck of thy ship, and lookedst up at Cragness. And our beacon saved thee."

"Aye," said Kiartan. "We had work to save our lives, and a close miss we made of the Tusks." But he never gave a word of thanks, either to Rolf or to Hiarandi, for the saving of his life. "Thou art wise to stay at home, boy; for see how a sailor's life hangs ever on a thread. Now stable the horse, and I will see thy mother. The farmer is likely in the field."

So Rolf stabled the horse, and called his father from his work; and Hiarandi came, muttering (though he meant not that Rolf should hear), "Poor steel comes often home for a new edge." But he greeted his brother well, and bade him stay with them for the winter.

"Even for that am I come," answered Kiartan. "For my cargo is already sold, and my ship laid up for the winter near Hvamm, and I come home to my kinsman. No poor penny am I this time, to need any man's help. Perhaps," and he looked about him, "I can even help thee."

But the buildings were neat and weather-tight, and the farm was in no need of improvement. "I need nothing," said Hiarandi, "and I even have money out at call there in the neighborhood where thy ship is laid. But come, the wife prepares the meal. Lay aside thy cloak and be at home."

And so Kiartan entered on his wintering at Cragness.

Quiet is the winter in Iceland, when men have no work to do in the field, save the watching of horses and the feeding of the sheep and kine. Weatherwise must a man be to prepare against the storms, which sweep with suddenness from off the water and enfold the land with snow. Yet Hiarandi's flocks were small, and his sheep-range was not wide, and both he and Rolf were keen to see the changes in the weather; and as for their horses, they stayed ever near the buildings. So all were free to go to the gatherings which men made for games and ball-play, in times of fair weather. Thither Kiartan loved to go, dressed in his fine clothes, and talking much. But nights when he sat at home he would speak of his travels, and what a fine place the world was, and how little there was for a man here in Iceland. He said it was nothing to be a farmer, but a great thing to rove the sea, and to live, not in this land where all were equal, but where there were kings, earls, and other great men.

Once as he spoke thus he provoked Hiarandi to words. "Meseems, brother," the farmer said, "that thou hast forgotten the way our forefathers thought. For it was to avoid kings and earls that they left their lands in Norway and came over the sea hither. And those whom thou prizest so high are so little thought of here that we make nothing of them whatever."

"Now," answered Kiartan, "thy neighbor Einar thinks well of earls, for he has fostered his son with the Earl of the Orkneys."

"The lad will understand little of our ways when he returns," replied Hiarandi.

"For all that," Kiartan said, "I name the son of Einar luckier than thy son here. A great court is held in the Orkneys, and all matters are to be learned there."

Then Hiarandi made response: "No court can teach good sense to a dolt, and no wisdom will flourish unless there be good ground for it to sprout. I have seen wise men bred in this little land, and fools that came out of Norway."

Then Kiartan talked not so much before Hiarandi of the things he had seen, nor for a time before Rolf either. But when there came again the great winter ball-play, to which all went, and Rolf shot again with the bow before them all, and proved himself the most skilful, though not yet the strongest: after that Kiartan made more of the lad.

"Men," said he to Rolf one day when they were alone, "may be able to shoot farther than thou with the bow, for two did it. But none shot so surely. And some day thou wilt outshoot them as well."

"I think not much of it," answered Rolf.

"Now," said Kiartan, "thou shouldst learn to prize thyself higher. For in the Orkneys good archers are welcome in the Earl's body-guard, and a man is honored and well paid."

"Yet he is no longer his own man," answered Rolf.

"What of that?" asked Kiartan. "If for a few years he can see the world, and make his fortune also, then he is forever after a greater man at home. Think more of thyself!"

And at other times he spoke in the same strain, bidding Rolf value himself higher. And he told of the great world, and described his journeys. For he had been, he said, as far as the great Middle Sea, had traded in Italy, and had even seen Rome. And Rolf was greatly interested in those tales; for the lands across the sea were of moment to all Icelanders, since many a man fared abroad often, and no man thought himself complete who had not once made the voyage. So he listened willingly, when Kiartan told his tales at evening in the hall. The parents were inattentive; but sometimes Hiarandi, and sometimes Asdis, would interrupt the story, sending the lad to some task or to bed.

Now at last it draws toward spring, and the time approaches when Kiartan must go away to his ship, to dight it for the voyage. And it was remembered afterward how one evening he drew Hiarandi on to talk of his savings, and learned what money he had out at interest, and with whom. And Kiartan spoke the oftener with Rolf, praising him for the fine man he was growing to be. Then at his last night at Cragness the shipmaster said, as all sat together before the fire:

"Brother, thou knowest I must go away to-morrow."

"Aye," answered Hiarandi.

"Now," said Kiartan, "let me say to thee what is in my mind. Take it not ill that I speak freely. But I think it wrong of thee that thou keepest here at home such a fine lad as is Rolf thy son." And he would have put his hand upon the boy's shoulder, but Rolf drew away. Kiartan went on: "Now I am going to the South Isles. Send Rolf with me, and let him see the world."

Then Hiarandi grew uneasy, and he answered: "Speak no more of this. Some day he shall see the lands across the main, but as yet he is too young."

"Nay," answered Kiartan, "he is nearly full-grown. What sayest thou, Rolf? Wilt thou not go with me?"

Rolf answered: "I will be ruled by my father."

"I have made much money," reasoned Kiartan, "and thou canst do the same."

"I care not for trading," replied Rolf.

"There are courts to be seen," said Kiartan, "and thou mayest serve in them thyself."

"I am not ready to be a servant," quoth Rolf.

"But thou mayest see wars and fighting," cried Kiartan.

"I have no quarrels of my own," answered the boy, "and I mix not in the affairs of others."

Now Hiarandi and Asdis had listened with both anger and fear,—anger that Kiartan should so tempt the boy, and fear at what Rolf might answer. But Rolf spoke with wisdom beyond his years; and at his last response Hiarandi smiled, and Asdis clapped her hands. Then Kiartan started from his seat and cried: "Out upon ye all for stay-at-homes!" And he would speak no more with them that night, but went to his locked bed and shut himself in. Yet he spoke to the lad once more in the morning, out by the byre while Rolf was saddling the horse.

"Surely," said Kiartan, "thou didst not mean what thou saidst last night, for the fear of thy parents was in thy mind. Now let me tell thee what we can do. I will go on for the lading of my ship, and that will take a fortnight's time. Then I will wait for thee at the mouth of Laxriver, and thou canst come thither and join me secretly."

"Now," said the lad, "if I tell my father this, he will give thee a beating. Therefore I will remain silent until thy ship has sailed."

Then Kiartan turned pale, and cursed, and made as if to strike his nephew. But Rolf put his hand to his belt, and Kiartan drew away. Yet Rolf had no knife.

"I see," said Rolf, "that thou art not quick at arms nor sure of thy own strength, even against me. And I knew thou wert a coward long ago, when I saw thee on thy ship's deck, giving no orders, but letting other men save thy ship and thyself. No great deeds of daring would I see with thee as shipmaster."

When Kiartan rode away, he was as glad at parting as were those of the house.

"He is not changed," said Hiarandi, "in all the years he has been gone."

"Where," asked Asdis, "is the harm which he was to do us?"

And she laughed, but rejoiced too soon. For after six weeks men came to Hiarandi, sent from Laxriverdale, where traders had given goods to Kiartan upon his promise that Hiarandi should pay. And it was discovered that Kiartan had not only used the money which Hiarandi had out at call in that region, but had obtained goods from other men creating debts. And he had filled all his ship at Hiarandi's expense. Then Rolf told to his father his own tale of Kiartan's secret offer, and Hiarandi was bitterly wroth.

And then began those troubles which Thurid had foreseen. For when Hiarandi refused to pay for the goods, but instead sought to regain his money from those who had supplied Kiartan, the matter was brought to the law. And first at the Quarter Thing, and then at the Althing, many small suits were disputed. But the end of the matter was, that Hiarandi was beaten by the skill of lawyers; and he had to lose his money and pay more besides, and stood stripped of all which he had laid up against his age, or against that time when Rolf should need a start in life. And the farmer was greatly cast down, recalling the misfortunes of the Soursops, and how he himself had been always called the Unlucky. But Asdis and Rolf strove to keep him in good heart.

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