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 Those Two Came into Thraldom

T WO earls ruled in the Orkneys: Brusi and Thorfinn, half-brothers. Of the islands, two thirds were under Brusi, the elder; but besides his third Thorfinn had inherited Caithness and Sunderland in Scotland from his grandfather the Scot king. So Thorfinn lived on those lands, and Brusi guarded all the isles; but Thorfinn complained that the guard was ill-kept, since vikings harried oft in the isles, coming from Norway or Denmark.

There was a man named Ar the Peacock, who was a thane of Brusi the Earl and lived on the Mainland of Orkney. Now the Mainland of Orkney is an island, and Ar ruled its northern end, having charge of the tribute to the Earl and the keeping of order. He lived at that place called Hawksness in Hawkdale, below the downs and sheepwalks, where is good harbor in winter. Forty men he kept, and a war-ship; his hall was great, and there was a stone church close by; fisher-folk and farmers lived in the same settlement.

Ar was a vain man and fond of show, kindly but weak. Because he had no child he had taken to him a lad to foster, who was called Grani the Proud, Ar's Fosterling. Grani was tall and fair, of sixteen summers, skilled in games but ignorant of war. He was dear to his foster-father's heart, and Ar could deny him nothing.

That war-ship of Ar's was for the ward of the isles, and Ar kept it at all times in readiness. One day news came that vikings were on the west coast, plundering and burning. Ar sent for Sweyn, the master of his ship.

"Thou shalt take the best of thy men," said Ar, "and search for those vikings. And because Earl Thorfinn has complained that our work is ill-done, thou shalt take all pains."

Sweyn said he would.

Then Grani stood before Ar, and said: "Thou hast many times promised I should go a-fighting. Now may I go with Sweyn, or wilt thou put me off yet another time?"

Ar remembered that he had heard of but one viking-ship, so he said: "Thou mayest go."

"Thou hast promised me thralls when the next captives are taken. May I choose them from this ship?"

"Two thralls mayest thou have," answered Ar, "but all Orkneymen are to be freed."

When they made ready to go, Ar said to Sweyn that Grani should be guarded in the fight, and Sweyn promised to look well to that. They went on board and sailed round into the open sea; there they passed first the great cliffs, and then cruised along the shore, looking for the ship of the vikings.

Now the ship of those chapmen who had given passage to Rolf and Frodi had a good voyage; those two Broadfirthers were the only Icelanders aboard. To them the Orkneyingers boasted much of their land.

"In spite of what ye say," quoth Rolf to them, "the Orkneys are no such safe place as Iceland, as I see clearly, now that we are nearing land."

"In what dost thou see it?" asked the others.

"With us are no sea-robbers," answered Rolf, "but ye have set a watch against vikings, and fear them."

This the Orkneyingers could not deny, for they had kept a look-out ever since they had neared the land. Yet all their care did not avail them, for they met a ship in the Pentland Firth, a war-ship, weather-stained and hardy; shields hung along its sides, and it sailed swiftly. When the chapmen saw the shields taken from the rail, they knew that was a viking-ship.


So the chapmen prepared to defend themselves. Rolf got ready to fight; but when the vikings drew near, Frodi sat himself down on a rowing bench, and looked troubled.

"Wilt thou not fight?" asked the shipmaster.

Frodi answered: "It is not clear to me what I should do."

"Shame on thee," cried the other, "if thou wilt not fight for the men who harbored thee!"

So Frodi, all without arms, stood up as the two ships came together, and knew not where to place himself. The vikings came leaping aboard, and all began fighting in confusion; but the vikings were many and were well armed, and the chapmen had no leader. Men fell dead at Frodi's side, and a viking came at him with brandished sword. Frodi caught him and hurled him into the water.

Then he took those other vikings who came near him, and cast them overboard one after another; "and it is no affair of mine," thought he, "if they cannot swim." And he cleared a space about him, but one from a distance cast at him a throwing-axe; it struck him flatwise on the head, and down he fell.

By this time the chapmen were ceasing to fight; but Rolf saw Frodi fall, and fought the harder, to avenge him. The vikings penned him by the rail, yet he broke through them; then when he passed near where Frodi had fallen, Frodi rose up and caught Rolf by the waist, and said: "Now sit we down comfortably here together, for we have done our part." That was the end of the fight, for no men fought more, and the vikings gave peace to them.

Now men began to shout from the water, where they were swimming. Three were hauled up over the side. "How many," asked Rolf of Frodi, "threwest thou over?"

Frodi turned white and would not answer.

Then the vikings despoiled the ship of the chapmen and set her adrift, but the captives were set to row the war-ship. Rolf and Frodi toiled at one oar together, and sore was the labor, but not for long. For on the third day, as they rowed under a bright sky with no wind, they heard a clamor among the vikings, who cried that a long ship was bearing down on them—an Orkney ship, great in size. Some of the vikings snatched their shields from the bulwarks and armed themselves; but many, crying that no mercy would be shown, would take no shields, and instead cast off their shirts of mail, preparing to go into battle baresark.

"Never have I seen that," said Rolf, "though much have I heard of it." For Northmen, in danger of death, often went into battle bare of armor, fighting with fury and mindless of wounds. They believed that thus they came surely into Valhalla; but that was a custom of the heathen, and was not done by Christian folk.

Rolf and Frodi were tied to their bench, and saw nothing of the Orkneymen as they came up astern. But at last the splash of oars was heard; next a grapple came flying aboard; then of a sudden the Orkney ship loomed alongside, and she was a big ship indeed. So tall was she that the vikings could not board her; but from her the Orkneymen sent down arrows, stones, and spears. Bodies of men fell among the rowers' benches, and Rolf and Frodi took each a shield, sat close together, and warded themselves against weapons. Then the Orkneyingers, having cleared the waist of the viking-ship of fighters, came tumbling aboard.

That was a fight with method, for the Orkneymen in two parties drove the vikings to the stem and the stern, and so either slew them or thrust them into the sea. Very hot was the fighting, but it was short; the sixth part of an hour was not over when the fighting was finished.

Now that Orkney ship was the ship of Ar the Peacock, and they who led the fighting were Sweyn and Grani. Sweyn drove the vikings to the bow; but Grani led those who fought in the stern, and two old fighting-men warded him, one on either side. Grani did not know that they were guarding him. When the fighting was finished, Sweyn and Grani met in the waist, near where Rolf sat. Sweyn asked Grani if he had any wound.

Grani said nay thereto. "But I gave wounds, and this has been a great fight."

"Now," said Sweyn, "let us free those who worked at the oars."

"Remember," answered Grani, "that I am to have thralls from the captives."

But of those who had been taken with the ship, it was found that all the vikings were either dead or sore wounded; and all the rowers were Orkneymen save only Rolf and Frodi.

"No Orkneymen can I give thee as thrall," said Sweyn.

Grani answered: "Then I take the two others."

Then Rolf stood up and said: "Icelanders are we. Since when are Icelanders enthralled in the Orkneys, and why is this injustice?"

"Ye are captives," said Grani. Sweyn took him aside to speak with him; but he would not listen, and said, pouting: "Ar promised me."

"Take them then," replied Sweyn.

Grani said to Rolf and Frodi: "Ye are my thralls; I will treat you well. What are your names?"

Rolf answered: "Rolf hight I."

"Of what father and what place?"

"A thrall," answered Rolf, "hath no father and no home."

Frodi replied in like manner.

"It is plain to see," said Sweyn, "that these two should be free men."

"Let them win their freedom, then," answered Grani.

Then a division of men was made, and Sweyn took the chapmen with him in the large ship, but Grani stayed on board the viking-ship as its master. They sailed together for the Orkney coast.

When night came Grani called Rolf and Frodi, and bade them watch by turns while he slept. "I will be a good master so long as ye serve me well."

Rolf thought Grani to be about his age, yet not so old in mind. Much pleased was Grani to own thralls. He seemed kindly, but petulant and uncertain.

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