Paris rises from the water, tall and proud and unconquered. Down the river sail the men of the north, unshaven and ungodly and conquering. “Count Odo,” asks the King, “How have they been allowed to reach us?” Count Odo warned their allies. He warned the Count of Flanders, and many others. All neglected their responsibilities; they let the Northmen sail on. But Count Odo knows the score. They have provisions: Enough to last the whole summer. “To some extent,” says the King, “We are at your mercy, Count Odo.”
Another King, another court, another barrelful of intrigue. Here in Paris, there’s a quiet power struggle. The King is older than he wants to be but younger than he thinks; he may be a coward, or just a man untested. He is the grandson of the great Charlemagne: A long shadow to live in, especially when you’ve got two brothers. Fortunately, the King has a daughter—yet another woman ruling the man’s world in secret. The King considers fleeing Paris. “You must tell Count Odo you have no intention of abandoning your people,” says the Princess. “I’m sure, father, that was always your intention.” Count Odo, for his part, sees the Vikings’ arrival as a chance to prove himself—to the people, and to the Princess.
More money, more problems; more civilization, more drama. At least the Vikings look you in the face while they take your throne. In faraway Wessex, King Ecbert reveals his endgame: He shall be Bretwalda, King of Kings, King of All England. His daughter-in-law Judith comes from the bloodline of King Aelle, the Northumbrian dolt: Would she mind greatly if he died tragically? Not in an attack, no. Perhaps an assassination would do.
Ecbert is a selfish man, but he thinks of the future. How he dotes upon his grandson, Little Alfred, spawn of Athelstan the Multi-faith’d. “I wonder how he is,” Ecbert muses. Son Aethelwulf rages. “Why must you forever bring him to mind!” he spews. Bad enough to have a one-eared wife doting upon a son who isn’t yours; far worse for the King your father to love the child’s father more than you.
Ecbert isn’t the only King who misses Athelstan. So too Ragnar the Northman. Athelstan would have been useful—don’t you agree, Floki? The King attempts to make peace with the shipbuilder. “I’ve not been myself,” he tells his old friend. He believes in Floki; he wants the shipbuilder to be in command of this raid. (Ragnar seems to barely blink in this episode—a sure sign of scheming, or perhaps early-onset blood madness.)
The Northmen assemble a war council. Rollo has taken a boat to the walls of Paris, investigating. See Strong Rollo the Resilient. He may be hollowed out by broken ambition and lost love; but when the seasons change and the young men go raiding, Rollo is reborn, a stalwart fighter and brave adventurer. Rollo the reborn joins Kalf the Usurper, Lagertha the Usurped, Bjorn Ironsides and his lover Torvi and her husband Erlendur, son of Horik the dead.
The warrior chiefs have a plan. A riverborn attack and a simultaneous attack upon the gates. Lagertha will lead the attack on the gates. No, Kalf will lead. No, Lagertha. No, Kalf. These two, they’re like the Sam and Diane of the Dark Ages. (Sam and Diane wanted to kill each other, right?) Ragnar asks Floki to build something to scale the walls—something truly astonishing. Is Ragnar genuinely trying to give Floki a chance to shine? Or is he setting him up for a fall?
Back in Kattegat, Thorunn cares for her child. Or tries to. Or doesn’t try to. “Please take her,” she begs Aslaug. “I want her to be like your sons. I want her to be Viking.” Aslaug looks unamused, possibly because she thinks Thorunn would be a good mother, possibly because in about a season and a half she’s gone from being a carefree young forest princess to a mother of 19 children forced to stay home while her husband goes a-viking. “We women bear heavy burdens,” says Aslaug. “It is not to be helped. It is the gods who have woven our destines, not ourselves.”
AN OPEN LETTER TO THORUNN: Hey girl. I get it. You met a cute boy. You learned how to be a badass warrior from the cute boy’s super inspiring mom. You went on an exciting couple’s vacation to a faraway country and fought alongside your man. You got pregnant. You were gonna get married. Everything was going swell! And then: calamity. One of those pesky Mercians took a swipe at you. You got wounded. I get it. It’s rough. But WAKE UP ALREADY, LADY! You went away to war and got a totally sweet scar. You’re young. Your boy still loves you. Your new family is crazy supportive. You started from the bottom, and now you’re here. Life isn’t perfect, but it could be worse. Embrace yourself! Self-realize and self-actualize! It could be worse; you could be Rollo. LOVE, EVERYONE.
NEXT: And now an open letter for Ecbert… [pagebreak]
Ecbert’s got another mission for Aethelwulf. Poor, stupid Aethelwulf. He just wants to be a good man: a good son, a good husband, a good Christian. Somehow all his good intentions get perverted: His father thinks he’s boring, his wife doesn’t love him, he’s reached that point in bleak spirituality where he’s literally whipping himself just to feel something.
So, yes, another mission. Good old Princess Kwenthrith, their ally-puppet, has killed all the men of Wessex who were sent to watch out for her. Ecbert tells his son the score: Save this deluded queen from her fatal path. “After all,” Ecbert says. “We wouldn’t want her to fall victim to those Northmen, or those Northumbrians, nudge nudge wink wink.”
Just because you’ve gone raiding doesn’t mean you leave the drama at home. Bjorn visits his friend-with-benefits Torvi and apologizes for not talking to her. “It doesn’t matter,” says Torvi. “I am not a child. Neither am I with child.” Bjorn used her; she used him. They laugh: What a fine thing, to both be so used! Bjorn gives her a brooch. Torvi’s hubby takes a look at it, and calls her a whore; with any luck, he’ll be joining his father in Valhalla soon.
All hail Floki! Floki, beloved by the gods! Floki, the boatbuilder! In religious ecstasy, Floki works hard on his gorgeous structures. The Parisians have towers? Then we shall make Towers of our own! Floki the towermaker! Though of course it’s not Floki making these towers. He explains to Helga: “The gods are using my poor hands.” They are thankful to him, for he made a sacrifice. “I killed Athelstan!” he says, gleeful. Helga runs away, horrified. Has Floki gone god-crazy?
Floki may have killed Athelstan, but his spirit lives on in Wessex. With Aethelwulf away, Ecbert looks in on Judith. He is intrigued by her; you feel sometimes that Ecbert is so bored, and treats anyone interesting like a new action figure he just got for Christmas. He gives her some words translated from Latin by Athelstan himself. Poetry, reimagined from the language of the Romans into the language of the Saxons. Judith reads it aloud: “It’s as though he is here talking to us now.”
Even while we talk, time, hateful, runs a mile. Don’t trust tomorrow’s bow. For fruit, pluck this, here, now.
Judith’s mind is on Athelstan; Ecbert’s mind is on Judith. “As long as there is breath in my body, I will protect you, and your son, Alfred,” he says. “Believe me.” He kisses her on the lips, lingering for a moment.
AN OPEN LETTER TO KING ECBERT: Hey buddy! Wow, what a big year you’ve had! Negotiating a treaty with the Northmen, carrying on an exciting love affair with a strong independent woman, securing your power over a puppet government in the country next door, securing your power back home by getting your enemies to destroy the Viking colony and then throwing them all in prison for treason. What a banner year for scheming! You’re a credit to Charlemagne! But now, Berto, let’s get serious here: You cannot, cannot, cannot sleep with your son’s wife. No. I get it. She’s the baby mama of your pal Athelstan, and you kinda sorta loved Athelstan more than any other person on Earth, so in a very explicit way this is the closest you’ll ever be to Athelstan again. Sure. It’s a nice thought. But Berto: Don’t do it. You can only push propriety so far. Friends don’t sleep with other friends’ wives, especially not when your “friend” is actually your son. LOVE, EVERYONE.
Speaking of Aethelwulf the Dull! The princeling waits patiently in Kwenthrith’s drawing room, hearing all manner of Felliniesque orgasmic activity in the other room. Poor Aethelwulf. He tries so hard. But pitting him in a game of wits against Kwenthrith is like asking a platypus to invent calculus. Kwenthrith arrives, sultry and sensual. She offers him a cup of wine, and takes the first sip: No poison this time, she promises! “How old are you, Aethelwulf?” she asks the prince. “Do you always do what your father tells you? Don’t you have your own thoughts, your own feelings?”
Aethelwulf doesn’t, really. He does what’s right for his country, what’s right for his God. Kwenthrith has a question: What’s right for Aethelwulf? “Come to my bed,” she offers. He can whip her, if he wants. “Deliver me from evil!” mutters Aethelwulf, looking like he’s about to cry. What a saint! What a bore!
Aethelwulf sleeps the sleep of the just. Kwenthrith awakes him back into the world of sin. “May I present to you my son,” she said. “Prince Magnus.” That is a Northern name, of course, not one of ours. “He’s named after his father,” says Kwenthrith. “Ragnar Lothbrok.”
As far as we know, King Ragnar only lay with Queen Kwenthrith that one time, by the river. Of course, the legends speak of Ragnar Lothbrok’s virility; supposedly, he once impregnated a whole army of Valkyries just by grinning at them. Still, Aethelwulf’s suspicious. He never heard about Kwenthrith’s pregnancy; the nobles never reported she was with child. “He is Ragnar’s son,” Queen K says firmly, “and nothing will stop him from returning to these shores, both for Magnus and his settlement.”
It’s a bold play. Problem one: The settlement’s burned to the ground. Problem two: Ragnar can’t help Kwenthrith. He’s far, far away. Aethelwulf suddenly starts speaking mouth-words that actually make sense. He knows his father sent him here to prod Kwenthrith; he knows his father was probably okay to sacrifice him. (Why not? Here comes little prince Alfred, child of Ecbert’s favorite monk.) But Aethelwulf lays down the law. Pay homage; pay your taxes; pray that Wessex doesn’t decide to march all over Mercia one more time.
Speaking of marching! Away in Frankia, the Vikings stare at the City of Lights, dark in the distance. The royals of Paris are be-masked, preparing for a brutal battle. The Vikings stand outside, men and women of the elements. “Ax time! Sword time! Shields are splintered!” yells Floki. The cries of an army join him. Ax time! Sword time! Clobbering time! Tonight, we sing; tomorrow, we conquer!