Story of Rolf and the Viking's Bow - Allen French

Of that Robber

Rolf followed that man who had stolen the ewe, and the way led first down into the dales, and then upward to the fells. There had been rain and the paths were soft, so that the tracks of man and sheep were clear. It was strange to Rolf that the robber showed such boldness as to go on beaten ways. But when at last he reached the region where all the paths were grassy and tracks could no longer be seen, then Rolf knew not what to do until he met a wayfarer.

"Hast thou seen," asked Rolf, "one who goes driving a ewe?"

"He is not far before thee," answered the man. "But what seekest thou with him?"

"The ewe is mine," said Rolf. "I will have it again."

"Thou art foolhardy," cried the man. "A life is more than a sheep. Turn back!"

"Not I," quoth Rolf, and he went on. Then in a little while he saw the man before him, going without haste behind the ewe. And Rolf marvelled at his confidence, for the man did not even look back to see if he were followed. So Rolf strung his bow and went faster, going quietly until he was but fifty feet behind the man. And then he called to the robber.

That man turned at once, drawing his sword. Grim and harsh was he in face when he found he was followed, but when he saw a lad, alone, then he smiled.

"Seekest thou me?" he asked. And his voice was harsh, like his face, so that he was a man to terrify many.

"That sheep is mine," said Rolf. "Leave it and go thy way."

"Go home, boy!" said the man. "I would not hurt thee."

"Once more," cried Rolf, "I bid thee leave the ewe, else will I strive with thee for it."

"What," sneered the man, "wilt thou set thyself against me? Draw thy sword, then!"

But the robber's sword was long and heavy, while Rolf's was short and light. "Nay," he responded, "but I will hurt thee with my arrows. Take thy shield and defend thyself."

"No shield do I need," sneered the man again, "against such as thou. Shoot, and see if thou canst touch me!"

So great was his contempt that he stung Rolf to the quick. "Let us see, then!" the lad cried. And in great heat of anger, at short range, Rolf drove a shaft at the middle of the man's body. But behold! the man swung his heavy sword as lightly as a wand, and brushed the arrow aside!

"Once more!" quoth he.

And then Rolf shot again, and yet again, but each time the arrow was swept aside. And the robber called with jeers to shoot faster. So Rolf sent his shafts as swiftly as he could, and it was astonishing to see how fast they followed each other; but though he shot half a score of times, each arrow, just as it reached its mark, was brushed aside. Of them all, one touched the clothing on the robber's breast, so that it tore the cloth; and one, sent at the face, scratched the skin ere it was turned. When that was done, the man jeered no more, for he saw that Rolf was closing in.

And what might have happened is not known. But to Rolf, even in his anger to be so foiled, there came admiration of the stranger's skill. "Now," he thought, "such a thing is a marvel, for it is related of the men of old time, but not of the men of to-day. I had not deemed anyone so quick or so strong." Then his own words told him who the man must be; he stopped advancing, and lowered his bow.

But in a twinkle the man dropped his sword and strung his own bow, and he laid an arrow on the string. "Now," cried he, "we have changed about, and can play the game the other way. Perhaps thou also canst guard thyself." He drew the bow. "Art thou minded to try?"

Rolf made no movement to ward himself. "Thou art Grettir the Strong," he said.

"Grettir Asmund's son am I," answered the man, "whom men call Grettir the Strong. Perhaps thou art now the more minded to slay me, even as fools whom I meet from time to time. For nine hundreds in silver is the price set upon my head."

"Nay," answered Rolf, "I would not slay thee."

The man laughed mightily. "I owe my life to thee!" he cried. Then he changed his manner suddenly. "Go, leave me, boy, for my temper is short, and I might do thee a mischief!"

And then he went on his way, still driving the ewe before him; but Rolf remained in that place. After a time the lad gathered those of his arrows which were not broken, and turned back toward his home. But when he looked behind, and saw that a roll of land hid him from Grettir, then he turned again, and followed after the outlaw.

A long time Rolf followed, warily at first, for Grettir looked back once or twice; then the lad might go more boldly. And the outlaw led him up into the hills, where were rocks and crags and much barrenness, a region where men might lurk long and not be found. And Grettir made a halt at a strong place, a shelf on the crags, protected from above by a sheer cliff, and reached only from one side. It seemed as if he had often been there before. While he made a fire, Rolf lay at a distance, and wondered how he might steal nigher. Only one vantage did he see which commanded the outlaw's lair: a great spur of rock which stood out from the cliff, but which it would be hard to reach.

Then Grettir laid himself to sleep while it was yet day, and Rolf crept forward till he was under the spur. From above no man might reach it; yet there were crevices here and there in the rock by which Rolf could climb. So he slung his bow on his back and tried the ascent. But so slow must he climb, for fear of noise, that it was dark when he reached the flat top; and though Grettir was scarce forty feet away, Rolf could not see him at all. So he watched there through the night.

Ever at that little distance he heard Grettir labor in his sleep, and oft the outlaw moaned and groaned. At times he started up and looked abroad, but he could see nothing by the light of the stars. But when dawn came, then Grettir slept peacefully; and when it was broad day he still lay sleeping. His face in sleep was sad and noble, with signs of a hasty temper; his frame was great indeed. He lay so long that Rolf at last strung his bow and shot an arrow into the ground by him. Grettir started from his sleep, grasping his weapons and looking about for his foes. Never in his life Rolf forgot that sight, which few men had seen without ruing it, of Grettir angry and ready for the fray.

But Grettir saw no one, for he looked about on the hillside below him. Then Rolf spoke: "Here am I, Grettir."

Then the outlaw saw him, and put up his shield against a second arrow. Rolf said: "Had I wished, I could have slain thee in thy sleep."

"Rather will I believe," answered Grettir, "that thou hast shot thy last arrow, and missed."

Rolf showed him his full quiver, and Grettir lowered his shield. "How camest thou here?" he asked. "I made sure that thou wert gone."

"Not very sure," answered Rolf.

"And how," asked Grettir, "didst thou reach that place? I had weened no man could mount that rock."

"I am but a boy," answered Rolf, "yet men call me Cragsman."

"Now I am well shamed," cried Grettir, "that a boy hath so outwitted me! And this I believe, that thou mightest have slain me; for a good archer I found thee yesterday. Still more will I say, that yesterday I had near suffered a hurt at thy hands, so that I was considering whether to retreat before thee, or to take my shield, and neither have I yet done before a single archer. Now let me ask thee, why didst thou stop shooting then; and why didst thou not slay me here as I lay?"

"Because," answered Rolf, "thou, or no man in Iceland, canst give me the help I need."

"Come down," said Grettir, "and we will eat together."

So they breakfasted together, of dried meat and the milk of the ewe. "How was thy sleep there on the crag?" asked Grettir.

"No worse," answered Rolf, "than thine here on the ledge. Why didst thou sleep so ill?"

Then Grettir answered soberly: "One of my few good deeds is so repaid that I see shapes in the dark, and my sleep is broken. For I slew Glam the ghost who wasted Thorhallstead, but ere I cut off his head he laid on me that spell. So I am a fearsome man in the dark, though in the day no man may daunt me. But what can I do for thee?"

"Let me see," answered Rolf, "if with the bow thou canst shoot farther than I."

"Thou art a vain lad," said Grettir, somewhat displeased. "For that alone camest thou hither?"

"Be not wroth," begged Rolf, "for I have the best of reasons." And he told the story of his father's death and of the need for a good archer. Grettir smiled.

"And couldst thou find no man," asked he, "who is within the law, to do this for thee?"

Then Rolf told of the trial with those Southfirthers at Tongue, and Grettir looked upon him with surprise. "So skilled art thou then?" he asked. "Now string thy bow, and show me how far thou canst shoot."

So Rolf strung his bow, and shot along the hillside, and the arrow fell far away. "Now do I wonder," said Grettir. "Let me see thy bow." And when he had looked on it he said: "That any one could shoot so far with such light gear I had not thought possible. Thou art a good bowman. But what thinkest thou of my bow?"

Rolf took the bow of Grettir in his hand, and a strange weapon it was. For it was shorter than his own bow, and scarcely shaped at all, but was heavy and thick, so that it had seemed not to be a bow, save for the string and the notched ends.

"Such a bow," said Rolf, "saw I never."

"Canst thou string it?" asked Grettir.

Then Rolf tried, but he could scarce bend it a little way. Yet Grettir took it and strung it with ease. Then he showed Rolf his arrows, which were heavy, short, and thick, like the bow. He laid one on the string, and drew it to the head, and behold! it rushed forth with a great whir, and with such force that it might pierce a man behind his shield. And it flew far beyond the arrow of Rolf, full five rods further.

"What thou dost with skill," said Grettir, "I do with strength." But Rolf cried with great joy:

"Thou art the man I have been seeking!" Then he asked: "Wilt thou go with me and shoot an arrow before witnesses, to prove that my father was unlawfully slain?"

"That I will," quoth Grettir, "and joyfully too, for I see little of men. Only one thing I require, that safe conduct be promised me to go and come, for I have enemies in thy dales."

"How shall I get thee safe conduct?" asked Rolf.

"It must be granted," answered Grettir, "by the Quarter Court at the Althing."

Then they talked the matter over, and Grettir advised Rolf once more to seek Snorri the Priest, to find what steps should be taken. Then it was bespoken where Rolf should meet Grettir again, and the outlaw offered to lay out in the hills north of the Thingvalla, in the valley of the geysirs, and await tidings of the outcome of the suit.

"Now," said Rolf, when he was ready to go, "keep the ewe for thy kindness's sake."

"Do thou take her," answered Grettir. "For had I known that thy mother was a widow, I would never have taken the sheep. And the first booty is this, which ever I rendered again."

So Rolf returned toward home driving the ewe; and when he reached the highway which led to the South Firths, there came riding a company, Kari and Flosi and their followers, and Snorri the Priest was with them. They asked tidings. Then he told them of Grettir, and those three chiefs left their horses, and sat down with Rolf on the fell a little way from their company; they had talk what was to be done. For Snorri declared he saw a flaw in the case, since Grettir was an outlaw, and no outlaw had ever yet come into a suit at law. But at last he said:

"Now go thy way, and summon Einar with a formal summons. [And he taught Rolf the form.] But be thou sure that no mention is made of Grettir. And I believe that, since no such case has ever yet been tried, it can lawfully be brought about that Grettir may shoot."

Then those chiefs went their way, and Rolf went his, and he came back to Cragness.