Tell me a story: Rolf

Posted on May 1, 2010 by

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I love to write. But I love to write some things more than others. Some kinds of writing come natural to me, others I have to strain and work at. Each story is its own fictional world, and some of those worlds are more real to me than others. But of all of them, Rolf is my home.

Rolf is a full-length novel, currently in the somewhat delayed process of being edited for publication. It’s a story about men and women, struggling to overcome their inadequacies and insecurities, do the right thing, and find true fulfillment in life. It happens in the historical Dark Ages of Europe. It’s a setting that allows for larger-than-life heroes and villains. But it is not a fantasy story. Deeply intertwined throughout are musings on the meanings of civilization and barbarism, savagery and sainthood.

It has been hard to choose a passage here that best represents the story. There’s quite a bit of hunting and fighting in Rolf, as you might expect from the Dark Ages, but there’s also a lot that isn’t that. So instead, I’ve just decided to include one of my favorite passages. It’s about the game of “buffets,” historically played from time immemorial up to at least 14th Century Europe, and possibly even more recent than that. Don’t try this at home, kids – it’s one of those games where someone is pretty much supposed to get hurt.

“Aye,” one of them was saying, “tomorrow’s raiding will be the best by far! We shall come upon Wulfhaven and gobble it whole!”

One of them, a wizened, gray-haired man who seemed to have retained all of his youthful power, if not energy, shook his head gravely. “I doubt it. They are a hardy lot, as many scars upon this old body can testify; besides, you may be assured they have had warning of our coming by now.”

“Bah!” said the first speaker, a big bluff man whose limbs were clearly best suited to his chosen occupation. “We shall gobble them whole anyway!”

One of the men – a handsome, noble Dane with an almost regal bearing – smiled and said, “Well art thou surnamed Braggart, Halgar.”

“And never did Halgar make a boast of which he could not give right good account,” replied the big man good-naturedly.

“Still… You will have less to brag of and more to nurse ere tomorrow’s sun sets,” the old man said with another shake of his head.

“Bah!” Halgar repeated. “You ought to have been called after the raven instead of the eagle, Old Earnel.”

“Aye, but the raven compensates for his ill looks by his great wisdom.”

“In that regard,” observed the third speaker with a hearty laugh, “thou art much like unto himself; for thy wisdom is only matched by thy ugliness! But tell me, Old Earnel, dost think the Wulflings to be really so hard a nut to crack?”

“If they have not lost any of their spirit and vigor these many years, which I do not think is likely. The bear cub, when grown, has all of the ferocity of its parent. Besides, have you not heard, good king Derstig, that the Wulflings have a great champion among them?”

Rolf now studied the third speaker closely, realizing he was one of the many petty kings of the Danes, and furthermore the leader of the raid. He had heard of Derstig, and knew him to be unusually valorous and fierce in battle, but kinder by a sight than most of his fellows – for a pagan. Rolf now began to feel that there was some hope that the women might indeed have been spared the massacre and taken prisoner.

“Heard of him?!” ejaculated Halgar Braggart. “Heard of him? I should say we have! I have heard nothing since we landed but the tales of ‘Doughty Rolf Wyrmban’ and ‘Brave Rolf Hallos-son.’”

King Derstig stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Aye… I should greatly like to meet this man, if he is all people say. I hear not many weeks hence he slew a dragon greater and fiercer than any man has ever done battle with.”

“Nonsense,” growled Braggart. “Local myths and fairy tales. Ere another sun sets I shall have this Wyrmban’s head upon my spear – that is, if he is man enough to face me. Why, even the wenches we took captive two days hence claim kinship to him, and on those grounds demand to be released ere this giant comes and wreaks havoc upon us, single-handed!” At this last slight exaggeration of the case Halgar Braggart burst into a fit of raucous laughter. Upon mention of the ladies Breda would have leapt to his feet, but Rolf’s powerful hand on his shoulder kept him still.

Old Earnel shook his head. “His father was a valiant man, above all that ever I have seen. The bear cub…”

“Yes, yes. You have already waxed profound on that proverb,” blustered Halgar impatiently. “But ho, there is too much energy in my bosom and strength in my arm to sit here and stuff myself any longer – who cares for a turn at buffets?”

Derstig laughed. “Not tonight, friend. If Old Earnel is right, we shall have enough stout blows before long. Maybe one of my retainers here?” he asked, turning toward the other men gathered around the campfire. The Danes, stout and fierce though they were, looked reluctant to play at so painful a game with a man the size of Halgar Braggart.

That worthy peered around in the orange light of the fire, evidently looking for someone he expected would give him a good fight. At last his eyes came to rest upon Rolf’s manly frame. “You there – what about you? Who are you? I do not recall your face.”

Rolf stood and gave a low bow. “I am called Aitan, of the forest,” he said. “My companion and I chose this fire this evening, being more inclined to sagacious conversation than we are excess of mead.”

“You shall be better for it in the morning,” said Dirstig with a wry smile. “But how comes it I have not seen you before now? I think I should remember the stalwart frame of one such as you.”

“No doubt; but I like best to keep my own company. When there is fighting to be done, however,” and here Rolf’s eye gleamed, “you shall know me better – be sure of it.”

Dirstig seemed pleased with this answer, and Halgar said with a vociferous laugh, “By Odin’s good eye, I like this Dane. But come, friend, will you play at my game with me?”

Rolf returned the laugh full measure. “I will, Halgar Braggart, if thou care to make a wager with me.”

“Even better!” exclaimed the Dane. “Name your terms!”

“If I win, will his majesty allow me to look upon the fair prisoners?”

“A strange request,” observed King Dirstig with a furrowed brow.

“But a small one. I have heard of them throughout the camp, and should like to see for myself whether the tales of their beauty are true.”

“Fair enough,” Halgar said impatiently. “And if I win?”

“Then I will tell you how you may be certain to find Rolf Wyrmban when you meet the Wulflings in battle.”

“What, man, do you know of a certainty?!”

“Aye,” said Rolf. “I have seen him before now.”

“How does that come about?” Dirstig asked, leaning forward.

“I am something of a rover, and have been over these lands.”

“Aye? And you have met him?” Halgar asked impatiently.

“More than once.”

“But what is he like?”

“He is like other men; but I think he has help from his God.”

“Is he… much like his father?” asked Old Earnel, eyeing Rolf closely.

“Indeed, some say so. Others say that in his face he is more like unto his mother.”

“Well now,” Halgar said. “This seems to me to be an uncommonly good bargain I have struck this night; especially as I am sure to win. You know the rules of the game?”

“I do.”

“Let us begin at once, then.”

Rolf nodded. “Since you have made the challenge, you shall go first.”

Halgar Braggart chuckled in amusement at this, fully expecting his opponent would never get his turn.

The game of buffets has been played by strong and doughty men since time immemorial, and continued till the time of the middle ages of Europe. Indeed, it is likely that some form of this game has always existed where there are big and powerful men – even the Inuit tribes of the far north have their own variation of the game. The rules are simple. Two men, desiring a manly contest with which to display their might, take turns striking each other a number of blows. The challenger hits first, followed in turn by his opponent. The contest goes on until the one knocks the other from his feet.

Halgar and Rolf discarded their cloaks and armor, and stood before one another. Rolf steadied himself for the blow, which Halgar was not slack in delivering. The blow hit Rolf square in the forehead. He wavered, but did not flinch or fall.

“By Odin!” exclaimed Dirstig. “Never yet have I seen a man stand before that blow – not even my father’s son!”

“Now,” Rolf said quietly, “it is my turn.” And thus saying he hit Halgar a thunderous blow upon the head that not only stretched the stout Dane out senseless but laid him insensible!

“It is Thor’s Hammer, verily!” cried the Danes together, leaping from their feet. “Who ever saw such a blow struck?”

“Now,” huffed Rolf, with evident satisfaction, “I would claim my reward, for I have won the wager.”

“And fairly too,” moaned Halgar, who was just returning to his senses.

“Strange as I think your request to be,” said Dirstig, “you have fairly won it. I would pay half the gold I have gained in this viking cruise to see such a blow as that again.”

As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot more to Rolf than that. But to get the rest… Well, you’ll just have to read the whole story.

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Posted in: storytelling