The Last King of Iceland – Prologue

Prologue

Snorri Sturluson

I was born in the year 1179 of the Christian calendar. Almost two centuries after the laws of the Christian Church became the laws of my Iceland. Our people were wrenched from the lives and beliefs they had known for a thousand years. It would have been such a strange thing, to be told that Odin was not real, there was no Loki or Freya, that you must transform your way of living and accept a strange and foreign God, invented in places you’d never known or seen. So in the whole of my life, I knew no other way of living but as Christian. Yet, I knew stories other than those I had been told and learned from the priests. It was our law, to be Christian. It was just and for the most part a moral way of life. What I know now, I did not know then. I did not know what came before or what would come after. I did not know Odin or Freya or Loki or the Last King of Iceland in their person.

I did not remember my birth, so I had no memory of the terror of it. Nor did I have recollection of my earliest years, until the time my father took me and my elder brothers to the Althing and gave me to the man called Jon Loftsson. Not as a gift or a payment, not as a slave or servant, but as a fosterling. A great honor for me, for my father. That fosterage turned out to my great benefit. My father, the mighty Sturla Thordarson, Priest and Chieftain of the Sturlunga, died shortly afterwards, so I would not have had the benefit of his parentage as I grew, in any case.

There was his voice, my voice, our voice, singing these words of a skáld into the open silence of my mind, when I learned of his death, as the Valkyries took him.

There, through some battlefield, where men fall fast,

Their horses fetlock-deep in blood, they ride

And pick the bravest warriors out for death,

Whom they bring back with them at night to heaven

To glad the gods and feast in Odin’s Hall.

I imagined my father placed dead upon his burial ship, with his Valknut placed upon is chest like Hrungnir’s Heart, made from stone, the triangle of its shape the sign of Odin’s bond.

I dream them, the faces of the dead men I knew in my sleep. Some whose fate I held in my hand. Many I had not, because they are not yet dead. I know them all, somehow. They are like bread for my broth, I devour them all without thought.

***

I should have had fear right down to my heart, but it was not fear that made me flee. It was the need to cling to every last second of that life I knew. It was as though I meant to stumble on the stair so I could bring myself to meet the moment of my end. When his axe drew above my head and I made the plea for him to not strike the blow, it was her that came to my thought.

I know there was a past and I was in it. I am the mirror of it. I was a man, with man thoughts that did not transcend the thoughts that many men of those days might have. My father wanted to be God, or at least the God of his domain, just like all the others. I did not desire such a thing. All I wanted was to be King of my Iceland. Not for myself but for my people.

Nay, it was for myself, wasn’t it? I yearned for people, yet I loved my solitude. Except for her. She was more than just a wife; she was a force. Her soul was like a butterfly that I could never truly catch in my net. Then that thing that was her was gone, without a trace, no longer there. It was as though all meaning was gone. It made me pitiful, it made me discover who I really was.

Memory, this feeling of time and place, knowing the past is not what really happened, it is just what I remember. I was young, then I was old, and then I was gone too. In that instant of the blow, there was no pain, just pressure upon my skull. I did not know who I was or from where I came, I had no knowledge of myself before my birth.

There was just the voice in my thoughts. My voice, his voice, the voice of multitudes. All one. I thought, ‘take me for a ride in your story, once upon the past, once upon the future.’

Sometimes we forget to remember, as memories become killed off. As we gain so much, so much is lost. I remember that when I was young I knew how to stab at the heart, though it often felt like acid poured on my soul. I did not know this thing called love, in any of its forms. But as I aged it became me, consumed me bit by bit until I knew it fully, at the moment of the blow. Sadly, too late to make anything of it, though I knew it as our purpose, our intention, the thing that made us complete.

Together and apart, we abandoned time, only to return to it. I became him and he became me and we became all others, sentient and not, from all of space and all of time. I was his life; he was mine and he and I are ours. I am mortal, yet we are not. We get so little mortal time; we need to make the very best of it. All things mortal die, the trees, the grass, the cows, the bees, men, and women too. Even the rocks will turn to dust, the waters will turn to cloud and drift away and even the fire will consume itself and be gone.

It came to me, to us, in the instant after the blow, ‘our purpose is love, no other creature on the planet has this ability, the way that humans do.’ We must not squander it, while we are human. We are just a speck in time connected to all the years and generations before us and all the years and generations in the future. We are just the present, the crest of the wave. It is not measurable it is merely the point where past becomes future. We take our measure in the stream of forever, in the breathing in and breathing out of existence. This life we have is part of something much larger than ourselves. Do not wait until the end of it to drink in all those things that are part of it, all those people, those loves that make whole what is you.

Now the chair by the window stays empty and the lovely bird has ceased to sing to me. But I will return to it with purpose, intent, and love.

Jon Magnusson

August 2021

They were at their grandson’s birthday party. The innocence and frivolity of youth, the pleasure of seeing a gift so happily received. An afternoon well spent.

Magnus and Wilma returned to their retirement cottage. Wilma went inside to prepare their dinner. Magnus started up the old lawn mower, just enough time to cut the grass before supper. They had their meal on the deck overlooking the lake watching the summer sun drift west and begin its descent into sleep. A pair of loons called hauntingly to each other across the still water as the day waned, the sun slipped below the horizon and the cool of evening settled in.

Magnus dowsed the lights. Wilma was already tucked in for the night. As he pulled his cover over and set his head on the pillow Magnus could hear the furnace kick in to assuage the falling temperature in the cottage. They slept, never to wake again.

They were late coming to tend his breakfast. No matter, he was quite capable of heating oatmeal in the microwave. Not so new a gadget that it was beyond him. Berries in the freezer, fresh milk in the fridge. Still, they hadn’t arrived by the time he had finished his morning meal.

He grew agitated. He had expectations of their routine visit. There were things of the day he needed to get on with, couldn’t wait forever for them to show. He phoned. No answer. He rinsed his breakfast bowl, returned the milk to the refrigerator, the oatmeal box to the pantry. He phoned again. No answer. How irresponsible for them to ignore him. He was old, the father, the afi, the langafi.

No choice now but to call Walden, his grandson, their son, and complain that they forgot all about the care they promised to him. Left him alone to fend for himself in his small empty house.

Magnus and Wilma agreed to see that Jon had meals, his house was kept clean, the laundry done, the grass cut and his health care aid was keeping up with her duties. She came and went and was more a nuisance than a help, Jon said, though that was not true. Walden said he would check on his parents. He did. They did not answer his calls either so eventually he made the short drive to their cottage.

Walden Magnusson found his parents in their bed together in peaceful final repose. The broken furnace had turned itself off, not needed in the warmth of the afternoon.

Jon had remained independent, for the most part, in his little house, alone these last ten years since Harriet. He was nearly there, nearly at his magic century, just a little while longer to hold on. He couldn’t leave Harriet’s memory now. Magnus had promised they would be there for him. He could not make those last weeks of the journey without them. What could he do now?

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