28 Jun 2024



St. Magnus’s Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney




Easter Sunday, April 15th, in the year of Our Lord 1117. The place is Egilsay: a treeless, remote, insignificant island, nothing but lark and curlew and an immensity of sky, fretted by a sea as beautiful as it is treacherous. Haakon Paulsson, elder of the two warring earls of Orkney, has summoned his cousin Magnus Erlendsson to a Lenten parley, proposing that each limit his force to two warships, and come with a sincere desire to seek peace.

Magnus Erlendsson, honouring the terms, arrives first, with two longships. Haakon Paulsson lands in the afternoon, disembarking from eight longships a force as strong as he would have led into battle. A cold, clear twilight descends. Egilsay awaits the dawn.

… He entered the church in the evening, a tall man, fair and long-limbed, in his late thirties. He was wearing an old, scarred, dark leather jerkin, white with salt, and slashed in sleeve and shoulder by the years of war. He carried no sword.

I had been waiting for him for years… for this, the last evening of his life.

“Welcome, Erlendsson,” and I saw the reflex, so much the warrior still. He had thought he was alone.

“You know me,” he said.

“We all know you. And why you have come.”

The hand that had gone unhesitatingly to his hip relaxed. He wore a silver ring on that hand, and no other ornament.

“Who are you, boy?” and I was content that he should think me human, and male, until I walked out of the shadows.

“I am Hrefna, and I am no man’s boy.”

I sat beside him: he had seemed to invite me. The spring twilight deepened.

He said, “I know you know, Hrafnsdottir. You have followed me a long time.”

“No, Erlendsson. You follow me. The day you first drew sword you pledged yourself to me, and my clan feasts on the blood of your people because you and your cousin cannot rule together as your fathers did.”

“And now I will die for it. And there will be peace.”

“Will there?”

“Haakon will have what he wants.”

“And you? Will you have what you want? The exalted death, the martyr’s crown, because you always knew you were not like other men?”

“I am a sinner like other men. And no man seeks a martyr’s death.”

“No? Singing psalms at the Menai Straits while the Welsh arrows rained around you? What was that, if not vanity?” He said nothing. “The King of Norway called you a coward.”

“I had no quarrel with the Welsh. And one wonders how brave in battle Norway would be, with only a book in his hand.” A trace of his breath in the dimness, and still the light to see it. “And I have shed blood since. Your clan fed well throughout the years when I was fighting Haakon.”

“Where are your men?”

“Two outside. The rest not far. They are ordered on no account to engage with Haakon’s.”

“You saw his strength.” He did not speak. “You are betrayed, Erlendsson.”

I thought he smiled.

“His concept of two ships differs from mine, admittedly.”

“And is this what your god wants of you, Magnus Erlendsson?”

“Beyond a doubt,” he said.

Silence. The deepest of darknesses now, pierced only by the sanctuary flame that burned to signify the presence of the Christ. I wondered if the night seemed long to him, or pitilessly short: he was not restless, he did not sleep: he needed no prophecy of mine, nor counsel. He had seen the weaving of the web, the pattern of the threads of destiny.

I said, “Why do you die a virgin, Erlendsson?” and he stirred. “Did you feel no desire for your bride?”

“Enough to freeze my genitals in a rockpool every day. For years, until I killed it.”

“It is the life force. Why do you disdain it? Did you not know that she loved you? That she lived for your love, and you broke her?”


“Then why?”

“It is forbidden to me. It is the Will. All is the Will.”

The tide ebbed, and the night, and the dawn was red. There were candles alight on the altar now, and the priest turned and opened his arms in a welcome of joy and sorrow; and my lord stood and said, “Leave me, Ravensdottir. I must pray.”

“I will withdraw, but I will not leave you. You will not be alone.”

“Must you witness it?”

“I must be there when the thread is cut.”

“Not only the thread,” he said with a little smile, and I knew why they loved him.

I saw his fear when he rose from his knees, the deathly heaviness of his movements, the failing of the light of his soul. The strange, otherworldly fragrance that had surrounded him in the night had become the stench of decay.

“Erlendsson.” He turned his face to me: all beauty had drained from it. “No man may harm you in the house of your god. Stay here.”

“There is no honour in a coward’s life,” he said, and turned toward the door. I followed him, came close to him, took him by the arm.

“Magnus.” Eyes the colour of the sea, when the crest of the wave breaks green and blue beneath the smoking spume. “May your god be with you.”

“He is with me always,” he said.

And as I held him, so he held me, his hand resting on the radiale where I was wounded many years ago in battle. I felt the intensity of his touch, the white fire of healing in the bone.

He said, “Come, Ravensdottir, if you would walk with me.”

His man, Holdbodi the Celt, and one other had been waiting. They walked with him. They did not see me.

They were shouting for him on the rough ground near the beach where Haakon had landed, clashing their swords on their shields. Magnus, Magnus, where are you hiding? Magnus, come to die. Eight warships under Haakon’s colours, riding a sullen sea: wind rising, foam breaking, sun glinting on weapons.

Haakon was there, heavily armed. Magnus walked to meet him, moving easily now, like a man invited to a feast.


“Cousin.” Then, “This is a sad affliction, Haakon, your inability to count.”

“Well, I never was a scholar, Magnus, but I do play a deep game of chess. And what I see now is red earl, black earl on a bloodstained board, in deadlock. The deadlock ends today.”

His men were very close, a shield wall. Magnus’s men, many fewer, had gathered at a distance: Magnus did not speak to them, but at one gesture of his hand they withdrew even farther, and at another they disarmed and laid their weapons on the ground.

Haakon said, very quietly, “I can take your life, and the life of every man with you. Or I can take only yours. And I will, unless you offer me an alternative.”

“I will go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and do penance for my sins. When I return, it will be to Scotland. I will never come back to Orkney.”

“Not acceptable. You would be a lodestone for every disaffected soldier, every aggrieved peasant…. I would never be safe from you.”

“I would not conspire against you.”

“No, but others would. There is a light in you, man, there always was. And people are drawn to the light.”

“Put out the light.”


“Extinguish me. Blind me. Mutilate me. Chain me in the deepest dungeon. I would pose no threat to you then.”

“Why would you choose this?”

“So that you do not damn yourself by my death.”

“And those?”

“They will not resist you. Nor will I.”

Haakon said, “I accept.”

But the others shouted for death, and Haakon, scenting anarchy, drew his sword, and staring around at their faces called for his standard bearer, Ofeig, and forced the hilt into his hand. And said:

“Kill me this paschal lamb.”

Ofeig was his cousin, and dear to his heart: he had always been Magnus’s enemy. He hefted the sword briefly and then threw it at Haakon’s feet.

“Do it yourself, oathbreaker.”

Haakon, with something in his eyes that suggested Ofeig would not live very long, turned to his bodyguard, his closest friends, and his fiercest allies.

“Sigurd? Sighvat? What, none of you, who were baying for his blood like wolves?”

Sigurd, Magnus’s most malicious enemy, unsheathed his blade and threw it at Haakon’s feet. His cohort Sighvat did the same, and then they and several others turned their backs. Haakon seemed possessed, by impotent rage or by the fear that they would turn again and kill him.

“Bring me Lifolf,” he said.

They found him, shoving him through the ranks, ashen and sick with terror. He was Haakon’s butcher; and what they had given him was not a tool of his trade but a breiðøx, a weapon of war.

Holdbodi the Celt surged forward with a cry of anguish and was checked by Magnus’s voice, so soft that only he could hear it.

“No. I am in God’s hands.”

Holdbodi went to his knees, a physical collapse or in some final homage: Magnus’s other man followed him. He laid his hands on their shoulders and stood with his head bent: perhaps he blessed them, perhaps not; it was not for me to know. He raised them and they wept, and were thrust away from him and taken through the ranks. They were not seen again.

He was alone now: none of Haakon’s men touched him, or attempted to force him forward to the place of execution. He removed his old coat and let it fall to the ground and stood in his sark and breeches, the cold wind lifting his hair: he stood so for a moment, his head bowed, and I know he prayed, although his soul denied me communion with him. When he opened his eyes no one met his gaze save Lifolf, and whatever Lifolf saw destroyed him… he never recovered from what he saw in Magnus’s eyes, and although he was absolved he could not absolve himself: he died raving some years later, consumed by his own infamy.

He was trembling now, sweating heavily: he seemed scarcely able to bear the weight of the great weapon he held. Magnus did not move: Lifolf had to be manhandled toward him, to stand within striking distance.

Magnus said, in Norse, “Courage, man. Those who force you to this commit a far greater sin,” and then, very gently, “Come, my friend.”

Lifolf said, “Turn your back, lord, for the love of Christ,” and Magnus said, “No. It is not fitting for a chieftain to be beheaded from behind like a common criminal.”

And then he knelt and crossed himself, and raised his face again to look into Lifolf’s eyes as the axe split his skull.

Darkness overcame me. I did not see him fall, or the second blow that severed his jaw as he lay on the ground: the spring air became smoke and ashes in my mouth as his soul fled. They buried him where he lay, shallowly under stones, his old leather coat thrown over him, and they drove his men, unresisting, into captivity, and left the ground stained with his blood.

All night I kept vigil beside him, winged and clawed: I did not hood my eyes or sleep, lest some one defile his grave. And all night the sea shuddered against the land, the vibration felt through the earth, and the wind was bitter with sleet and spray, washing his blood into the soil. And in the dark hours I sought his spirit, but I found him not: his soul was not mine to shepherd, and he had gone before me. It was not given to me to follow him into the presence of his god.

And when the dawn came, the great gash of his grave was alive with wildflowers: the thrift bloomed out of season, and the campion and the vetch, and primroses, purple and yellow, and the long grass flickered beneath the wind where there had been only salt-bitten stone.

I remained beside him until his mother, Thora Sumarlidisdottir, came with a weeping Haakon, and his men dug up the grave and disinterred Magnus’s body and laid it, covered with his coat, on a wain, and bore it away. It was conveyed to the Christ church built by Magnus’s grandfather Thorfinn at Birsay, where Magnus had been born, and there his mother buried him beneath a sandstone slab within the sanctuary of the church. No earthly power could harm him now, and I committed him to his god, and left him there.

And although he was gone and I had left him in that knowledge, for others he was present. Some saw him in dreams or visions: they spoke of him and spoke to him, lit candles, and prayed to him. They spoke of a shimmering of the light, a perfume of sanctity at his grave: they asked for his intercession and brought the sick, the blind, the insane, the possessed and the leprous to be healed, and they received healing. They began to speak of miracles, and the bishop of Orkney, William the Old, rebuked them, calling such rumours “wicked heresy”. And then one evening the bishop himself lost his sight, and in terror prayed to Magnus, and his vision was restored. Unconstrained after that, the people venerated my lord, and twenty years after his death his bones were exhumed and tried in consecrated fire, and did not burn but appeared as gold; and he was entered into the canon of saints.

His nephew Rognvald, his sister Gunnhild’s son, initiated the building of a stone minster to his memory at Kirkjuvagr, which men now call Kirkwall, and his relics, his cloven skull and long, disarticulated bones, were translated to that place and rest at the heart of its stillness and splendour. He is one with the radiance of the Christ, yet here and present, loving and vigilant, beloved of these islands, and lauded in the sagas as “a holy knight of God.”

He is here, saint and man, in this jewelled light, a shimmering of motes, an unearthly fragrance. My immortal soul acknowledges his presence.

The years have been long and the scars many, Erlendsson.

And, as centuries ago on the morning of his death, there is recognition, communion, benediction: the white fire of healing in my wounds.