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 Rolf's Search for One To Surpass Him with the Bow

T WO vows Rolf made before he slept that night: the first was that he would yet show his father's slaying unlawful; the second was that, so long as he might, he would neither stand, sit, nor lie, without weapon within reach of his hand. For Hiarandi might have saved himself had he but had his sword. Asdis and Frodi, who stood by and heard the vows, might not blame him; for such was the custom of those days. Then Rolf begged Frodi to stay with him to help finish the sowing, and that was done. And when the spring work was finished on the farm, then it was within six weeks of the sitting of the Althing. But Rolf felt that the work had to be done, for his mother's sake.

Then Rolf set forth on that quest of his, to find a man to beat him at the bow. First he went to Surt of Ere, and begged him to try skill with him. Then it was seen that Rolf's strength had so waxed during the winter, that Surt overshot him by no more than two yards. Next Rolf went to Thord of Laxriver, but that failed completely, for by now Rolf could shoot even as far as Thord. After that he went about in the dales, to find men who were good at archery; but though he heard of many with great names, those men proved to be nothing helpful to Rolf, for none could surpass him at all. So he began to learn how much is a little distance, even so much as a palm's breadth, at the end of a race or of the fling of a weapon. And time drew on toward the sitting of the Althing, so that Rolf feared that he should be able to make out no case against Einar. At last, after wide wanderings, he got himself back to Cragness, and sat wearily at home for three days, with little to say or to do.

That third morning Asdis said to him: "Leave, my son, thy brooding, and let this matter rest for a while. Over-great are our enemies, yet mayhap in time our deliverance will come."

Rolf answered nothing but: "Little comes to those who seek not."

Now Frodi had gone for one night to his smithy, which was ten miles from Cragness, beyond Helgafell, at the head of Hvammfirth, where there was a ferry by a little river. When he came back quoth he: "Yesterday crossed at the ferry those two men who are most famous in all the South Firths, and they had a great company with them."

"Who were they?" asked Rolf at once, "and what kind was their following, whether fighting-men or not?"

"Fighting-men were they," answered Frodi, "but on a journey of peace. For Kari and Flosi were on their way to visit Snorri the Priest at his hall at Tongue. Great would have been thy pleasure at seeing the brave array."

"Now, would I had been there!" cried Rolf, springing up. "But I would have looked at more than the brave array. So farewell, mother, and farewell, Frodi, for I too go on a visit to Snorri the Priest."

They could not stay him; he took food and a cloak, with his bow, and went out along the firth on that long journey to Tongue. For he said to himself that in that company or nowhere else in Iceland would he find an archer to shoot for him.

Too long is it to tell of that journey, but it was shortened inasmuch as fishermen set Rolf across Hvammfirth. Then he went from Hvamm up to Tongue, and came to the hall of Snorri the Priest. A great sight was that hall, for no other that Rolf had seen was equal to it, and the hall at Cragness might have been set inside it. Long it was, and broad; wide were the porch-doors, and beautiful the pillars that flanked them. Men went in and out, carrying necessaries from the storehouse which stood at another side of the great yard. And so noble was the housekeeping of Snorri the Priest, that at first Rolf feared to enter the hall. But at last he asked a servant:

"Will it be taken well if I enter?"

"Who art thou," asked the man, "not to know that all are welcome at Snorri's house?"

So Rolf went in where all were feasting, for it was the hour of the noonday meal. Many men were there, and none took notice of Rolf, save that when he sat down on the lowest bench one came and offered food. Rolf would take none. He cast his eyes about the place, where twelve fires burned along the middle of the hall, where were seats for many people, and where continually servants went to and fro. All seats were filled save one or two. But at the further end of the hall, on the dais, sat a small man, gray-haired and thin-bearded, with bright eyes of a light blue. And that was Snorri the Priest, the greatest man in all the west of Iceland.

At his sides sat two other men: the one to his right was iron-gray, bearded and strong, a man of sixty summers; and to the left sat a younger man, with no gray in his light hair, slighter in body, and yet of vigorous frame. And it was strange that those two men sat together in peace, who once had been the bitterest of foes. For the older was Burning-Flosi, who had burned Njal in his house; but the other was Kari Solmund's son, who had been Njal's son-in-law, and alone of all the fighting-men had escaped from that burning. And his vengeance upon the Burners was famous, for he followed them in Iceland, and slew many; and great was his part in the fight at the Althing, as may be read in Njal's saga. But when the Burners were outlawed and fared abroad, then Kari followed them by land and sea, and slew them where he met them. No other vengeance is like to that which Kari, alone, took for his own son, and for Njal and his sons, Grim the strong, and Helgi the gentle, and Skarphedinn the terrible. But Kari missed Flosi in his searchings; so that Flosi came to Rome, and was absolved from the sin of the Burning, and so journeyed home. But Kari came also to Rome, and was absolved from the sin of his vengeance, and went home. Then Kari was wrecked at Flosi's door, and went to his house for shelter, to put his manhood to the proof. But Flosi welcomed him, and they were accorded; and friends they were thenceforth.

Now all this tale was known to Rolf, as it was to all men in Iceland, and as it should be known to all who read of the deeds of great men. So he sat and marvelled at those two, how noble they looked, men who had never done a guileful deed; and in that they were different from Snorri, who had won his place by craft alone. Rolf looked also at those others who sat by the dais, all men of station who looked like warriors, some one of whom might be the man who should help him against Einar. And he took great courage, for there were the men of most prowess in all Iceland.

Now one of the Southfirthers had been telling a story of Grettir the Outlaw, how he flogged Gisli the son of Thorstein with birch twigs. But when the story was ended, Snorri said:

"Mayhap my son Thorod will tell us what he knoweth of Grettir."

Then began a snickering among the servingmen, and those of Tongue looked mighty wise. But Thorod, Snorri's son, got up from his seat and left the hall, saying he would not stay to be laughed at. When he was gone a great laughter rose, so that Flosi asked to be told the cause of it. Snorri said:

"This will show all how Grettir has wits in his head. Some time ago I was wroth with my son, for he seemed to me not manly enough. So I sent him from me, bidding him do some brave deed ere he returned. And he went seeking an outlaw, to slay him. He found one who had been outlawed for an assault, but he was a lad; and the woman of the house where he worked sent my son further, to find Grettir where he lurked on the hillside. And Thorod found him and bade him fight.

" 'Knowest thou not,' asked Grettir, 'that I am a treasure-hill wherein most men have groped with little luck?'

"But for all that my son would fight. So he smote with his sword, but Grettir warded with his shield and would not strike in return. So at last when he was weary of such doings, Grettir caught up Thorod and sat him down beside him, and said: 'Go thy ways now, foolish fellow, before I lose my patience with thee. For I fear thee not at all, but the old gray carle, thy father, I fear truly, who with his counsels hath brought most men to their knees.' So my son went away, and came home, and because the story pleased me I received him again."

So they laughed again, Southfirthers and Westfirthers together, and joyous was the feast. But when all was quiet again, men saw that Snorri wished to speak, and they listened. Snorri called his steward, and said:

"Fetch a stool, and set it here on the dais, for a new visitor hath come to see me."

Then the steward fetched a carved stool, and set it on the dais. He put a cushion in it, and threw a broidered cloth over it. And all grew curious to see who should sit on that stool.

Then Snorri said again: "Few are my kindred on my mother's side, and not in many years hath one entered this hall. But one sits here whose face recalls the features of my mother Thordisa. Let that stranger under my roof who claims to bear the blood of the Soursops, come forward to me!"

Rolf arose, and while all men stared at him, he walked to the dais and stood before Snorri.

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