Harbard the Wanderer walks into Kattegat, one hand bleeding. “I was sleeping rough,” he tells the welcoming party: Aslaug, Siggy, and Helga. Two wives left behind with children, one widow left behind by her maybe-boyfriend with nothing. Maybe it’s nice to have a man in the house again; maybe it’s just unusual, on a cold winter day, to have someone new in town. “I sleep wherever I can lay my head,” says Harbard. He sleeps on straw, or with cattle for warmth. (He prefers the straw.)
We’ve met warriors and kings, farmers and mystics. What does such a man do, wandering from place to place? What trade can he ply? “I tell stories,” he says. “Stories about my own travels. Stories about the gods. Or both!” Aslaug looks at him like he’s a new kind of toy. Siggy is suspicious. Can you blame her? You don’t cast Kevin Durand—who some sources claim is eight feet tall and once successfully arm-wrestled a grizzly bear—so he can play a super nice guy with no negative qualities whatsoever.
Then again, Siggy is always suspicious. She’d fit right in across the water, in Wessex, where all the nobles around Ecbert think their King’s gone gaga. They confront their King with their issues. Why are we sharing farming secrets with them, without asking for their boat-building secrets? Why aren’t we converting them to Christianity? Be honest, Ecbert, are you just doing all this because you’re crushing on Lagertha?
Ecbert reminds them that this is all for a higher purpose. The Northmen are fighting to gain the throne of Mercia for Princess Kwenthrith—”our puppet,” says Ecbert. He’s after a greater part of England: What does one bit of farmland matter? “And who knows how this settlement will fare in the future?” he asks, not really asking anything. “Tell me now, if you dare, that I do not deserve to be King of Wessex.” Nobody responds.
Ecbert thinks his followers are too shortsighted. He is trying to take the long view. Maybe because he’s a power-hungry egomaniac; maybe because he genuinely cares about what the future will look like after he’s gone. Ragnar cares, or thinks he does. Perpetual skeptic Floki asks why they’re fighting for these English Christians. “It’s about our children. And their children,” says Ragnar. “It is about our future.” He doesn’t want endless conflict. Which is interesting, since so much of Viking lore was combat-centric. In some traditions, heaven was a kind of eternal battle: In Valhalla, warriors would fight all day and drink all night.
Perhaps that’s why Ragnar’s words horrifying Floki. “There can be no reconciliation between our gods and the God they worship,” says Floki. “The triumph of the Christ-God will mean the death and destruction of our gods.” (Much as you want to call Floki a shortsighted anti-Saxon bigot, this is more or less what will happen; perhaps Floki’s destiny is to become an old blind seer, in a hut above some village, the last man left alive, old enough to see the future and wise enough to know that nobody will ever listen to him.)
The preparations for battle are almost complete. Bjorn rubs some blood across Thorunn’s face. Kwenthrith begs Ragnar to spare her brother’s life. Rollo walks over to poor Torstein, the man with two baby mamas but only one arm. “You poor bastard,” says Rollo. “See you later, if the gods allow.” Torstein won’t have it. He must fight. “You’re too weak,” says Rollo. That does it. Torstein stands up, every move a couple more daggers through his heart. “As you can see, you bastard, I am perfectly able to fight. Never been better.”
Rollo grins, takes his friend’s last remaining arm, and off they march to doom or glory.
NEXT: Plowing, fertilizing, sowing[pagebreak]
Back in Wessex, Ecbert arrives at the Viking colony to discover that Lagertha has made a quick study of the Saxon tongue. “You speak our language now!” says King Ecbert. (Keeping track of time on Vikings is a fool’s errand, but it feels like many months have passed, to judge by the colony’s rapid growth.) Ecbert has brought Lagertha a new type of plow. It doesn’t just scratch the surface of the Earth; it turns the soil over, and if you dig some manure into the open Earth, the crop and harvest will increase. Lagertha, always a farmer at heart, reacts like a caveman who just got handed an iPhone. Which leads King Ecbert to utter by far the hottest agricultural double entendre of 2015:
“I like to experiment between our cultures. Plowing, fertilizing, and sowing seed are the very basis of life.”
Be still, my heart! Ecbert invites Lagertha back to his villa. (Athelstan can come, too.)
In Mercia, Ragnar Lothbrok leads his army up a large hillside. The grass so green, the sky so clear, this world so very different from everything the Northmen have known. Will they die beneath an English sun? Ragnar prepares to lead his men into battle. “Wait,” says Torstein. “I will go first.” Ragnar smiles, and nods, and does not say goodbye. Torstein marches alone up the hill, just one man. The Mercians laugh, fire arrows from their bow. The arrows hit what few limbs Torstein still has. “He is no shaman,” say the Mercians—as if a true warrior needs magic. “I come to you, Odin,” says Torstein, before he stabs a Mercian soldier in the stomach. It takes three English to kill just one Northman. Surely, Allfather Odin will be proud; surely, this very night, our brother Torstein dines in the halls of Valhalla, a hero among heroes. Only the dead can say.
Torstein’s blood stains Mercia. The fight begins. Ragnar Lothbrok swings his might sword, and Rollo swings his mighty axe, and Floki—ever the punk-rock superstar—rocks the hatchet-dagger combo. With tears of blood across her face Thorunn fights a Mercian to a standstill, until an errant swordswing claims half her face. She’d be dead but for Bjorn, who tackles her attacker. Bjorn grabs the helmet off the fallen Mercian and brings the helmet down upon the Mercian’s head, once, twice, thrice. (Put it this way: The Mercian won’t need that helmet anymore.)
Atop the hill, the Mercian army waits. There are too many soldiers for the Northmen. But then, from all sides, the Mercians are surrounded by Aethelwulf’s archers. Down fall the soldiers; down, too, would fall the prince. But Ragnar tells Aethelwulf to spare the prince. The prince responds in kind: “I will fight no more!” he screams, surrendering. “I beseech you. Don’t kill me.” Thus did the alliance of Aethelwulf, Son of Ecbert, and Ragnar Lothbrok, Descended from Odin Himself, claim the land of Mercia.
Back home in Kattegat, Harbard sang for his supper. He told the story of traveling East, until he came to the band of water dividing the world of men from Jotunheim. He reached a great hall, with giants lounging on benches. The King Giant challenged him to a drinking contest. Harbard drank and drank and drank, until he could drink no more. Then he fought the King Giant’s foster mother. Turns out he was drinking the ocean and fighting old age: Metaphors!
Siggy ain’t buyin’ it. NOT BUYING IT, HARBARD. “It seems to me it was not you in the Great Hall.” Helga suspects he was Thor, since only Thor can drain the seas and fight old age and make Natalie Portman seem charming. Harbard plays along. Sure, he was Thor. But he was also himself. And he was there. All further conversation is interrupted by little Baby Boneless, who starts crying. Harbard goes to the little child, speaks to him; for a moment, you find yourself wondering if Harbard will devour the baby whole. But not: He puts Ivar to sleep, the first man to bring quiet to the household in months. You want to see a double take? Aslaug can give you a double take:
Things aren’t too quiet in Wessex, where Ecbert is throwing a little double-date get-together. He shows Lagertha, Athelstan, and Judith his Roman bathhouse, complete with images of the Roman gods. He compares the Roman deities to Lagertha’s. “My gods are as real as you and me,” says Lagertha. “They love. They bleed. They rush around the skies.” Lagertha looks into Ecbert’s eyes, and Ecbert looks into her eyes, and Athelstan looks into Judith’s eyes, and Judith looks into Athelstan’s eyes, and right about then is when Ecbert pulls off his clothes and says “
Hey, everybody! We’re all gonna get laid! Who’s ready for a bath?”
NEXT: Making out[pagebreak]
Ecbert gets to talking about his days of travel, visiting Paris under Emperor Charlemagne. A great city, built by the Romans, with high walls and ramparts. Athelstan went there once, too: “It was like a dream. As if it were not real. A vision.” The city is faraway, across a narrow stretch of water, but many in Wessex trade with the Franks. This wine they’re drinking? Straight from Frankia, baby.
Choosing his moment, Ecbert goes in for a kiss. Lagertha kisses him right back. Judith runs off. Athelstan, sensing that the whole Bathtub Party thing only really works with even numbers, chases after her, while Ecbert and Lagertha stay behind to talk further about plowing and fertilizing and sowing seed.
Poor Judith. She’s trying to be a good person. She’s married. She has a good child. She’s Christian. And yet, how haunted her dreams have become by this man, this kind-eyed man who has seen so much of the world. The wind whispers: “Athelstan.” He moves in to hold her… but Judith walks away. “Will the gods never take mine cursed virginity!” Athelstan thinks.
In Mercia, the mourning. Floki frowns over Torstein’s body. “This is your fault, Ragnar,” he says. “He has died a pointless death. How many more of us must die for your Christians. Or have you, in your heart, already renounced our gods and turned to the Christ-God?”
Ragnar throws it all right back at Floki. He didn’t force anyone to come. All must die someday; what they do beforehand is up to them. “My heart is as heavy for Torstein as anyone’s. But I’m sure I’ll bump into him again soon.” Then he offers Floki a bit of kindly advice:
Thorunn’s not looking too good. She’s not dead, but her face is a wreck. Ragnar tries to comfort his son. “We fight. That is how we win, and that is how we die.” But Bjorn tells him why he frets so: Thorunn is carrying his child, Ragnar’s granchild. That’s too much for Ragnar, a man who cares about family above all else. He slaps his eldest son. “You have the strength of a man, but the will of a little girl. I can’t believe you are my son. I can’t even look at you.” (In an ideal world, Ragnar and Lucious Lyon would collaborate on a self-help book for fathers.)
How strange and lovely that it’s Rollo who has become the peacemaker in this family. “I do not think she will die,” he tells his nephew. “If she hears you weeping and lamenting, she will choose to die. Be strong. Be a man. Coax her back from Valhalla.” Bjorn has learned much from his father; perhaps he has more yet to learn from his uncle.
Ragnar Lothbrok has just lost one of his oldest friends. Another old friend has accused him of betraying everything their race stands for. And now he just heard that his first grandchild might be dead in the womb. Not the best moment, perhaps, for Kwenthrith to bring her little idiot brother forward with an apology. “I beg your forgiveness, King Ragnar,” he says. Rarely has a man ever looked more pitiable: You would’ve understood if the Northman King chopped his head off right there.
Ever the diplomat, Ragnar opts for a more measured response:
News of the victory in Mercia arrives back at the colony, where Lagertha is preparing to serve the first crop. She invites Ecbert and his aristocrats to stay for the ceremony, a decidedly un-Christian event which involves a cow’s decapitation and Lagertha saying the words “make fecund Mother Earth” and what I assume is some sort of elaborate skin-care ritual involving lots of blood being poured all over her.
The lords of Wessex mutter that this is all sacrilege. The pagans must renounce their false gods. King Ecbert says nothing, though you wouldn’t say he looks happy. Behind him, in the crowd, a frightened Judith grabs Athelstan’s hand.
Across the sea, in the cold lands, a fisherman makes a fatal catch. Two young boys in the water, not a scratch on them. Harbard the Wanderer sees this, the expression on his face unreadable. Siggy goes to see the Seer. She updates him on the doings: The strange wanderer, the dreams that preceded him, the premonitions of disaster. What will happen? What is to come? “The gods have vouchsafed me nothing, told me nothing,” he says. “I have foreseen nothing.” But Siggy has. They have had dreams, visions. “We saw that nobody could help us,” she says.
“It’s true,” says the Seer. “No one can help you.” Perhaps what he means is: You will have to help yourself. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe the Seer’s message is: There is nothing you can do.