Ambition is dangerous. Love, moreso. Ambition sends warriors to grand deaths – and to Valhalla, where they can sing eternal with their ancestors and descendants yet to be. But love can blind even the most powerful women, even the bravest men. Love can weaken them when they need their strength. And when love is coupled with ambition: Well, things get complicated.
Just ask Kalf. All goes well in Hedeby. Ally Erlendur has modified the Frankish bow with unique Viking improvements: A devastating new weapon, for what will surely be a devastating Frankish campaign. And his fellow Earl has news. “I am with child,” says Lagertha — in defiance of the Seer, no less. “That makes me so happy,” says Kalf. “Marry me, Lagertha. Marry me. I’ve always know we were fated to be together.” Kalf has everything he has ever wanted — and that is dangerous, too. A man who has everything is a man without ambition — and such a man is a target for the ambitions of others.
How do you solve a problem like Mercia? It’s a question that bedevils the Kings of Northumbria and Wessex, to say nothing of their vassal refugee-royal Kwenthrith. The Kings clearly consider that it might be time to seek a deal with someone besides the tempestuous Queen.
But Aethelwulf sides with Kwenthrith. They have become lovers, after all. And the truth is known to all. Judith won’t get into bed with her husband, no matter how he threatens her. “Then go sleep with my father, you whore!” screams Aethelwulf. “Why don’t you go sleep with your mistress, the Queen?” she fires back at him.
Judith does go to see Ecbert, who seems rather sanguine about the whole “my son knows that I’m sleeping with his wife” thing. He gives Judith the ring that belonged to Ecbert’s wife. She died in childbirth. “I cannot tell you the pain of it. I was resolved to never marry again. But I would like you to wear it.” The scandal of it all: Have Ecbert and Judith found some true connection? She, beloved of the dead monk Athelstan? He, the hedonist philosopher, bedmate of Queens and shieldmaidens?
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Uneasy lies the head that wears Ecbert’s crown. He visits a church for a talk with his savior. “Lord, you know me for a sinner,” he prays. “And I think you have already decided to cast me out into the darkness, like a fallen angel. To suffer in purgatory or the fires of Hell for all eternity.” Ecbert knows what awaits him after death — but he also knows what he has now, what he must live with. “Your kingdom, as you have said is not of this world,” he says. “But my kingdom is.” We might remember that Christ died for his kingdom; we might ponder whether Ecbert would do the same.
All seems happy for Rollo and Gisla. Her loathing and his disinterest have warmed into something like love. Rollo looks forward to his brother’s return, and beyond. “I cannot wait to take control of my Northern lands, and set up my court.” Hard to imagine Rollo ever returning to the North — with his civilized wife? Leaving Paris behind? — and Gisla considers another path, where Duke Rollo becomes the Emperor’s lead assistant.
What of Count Odo? Gisla muses: “It is possible that he could die in the fighting, slain by some unknown assailant.” Perhaps — or perhaps Odo’s time will come even sooner. Roland meets privately with the Emperor, informing the lord of Frankia that Odo has ambitions to the throne. (That Roland is himself ambitious is a fact that even the coward King can’t miss.)
NEXT: Another royal affair[pagebreak]
How far Ragnar and Bjorn have come! How much things have changed! Ragnar, remarried, with more sons that bear his name. Bjorn, with a daughter he won’t acknowledge and another man’s wife in his bed. “What kind of a man takes a mother away from her child?” asks Ragnar. Bjorn stares daggers back at his father: Didn’t his mistakes lead to their long separation? “Your mother left me,” Ragnar says. “You left me.”
Ragnar has more problems. There’s the matter of that new king, Harald. He has a brother on the way — and his brother is, apparently, “much worse.” They have come to see the great hero Ragnar Lothbrok, but Ragnar isn’t feeling himself lately. Ever inquisitive, he is more interested to learn about Yidu. Where did she come from?
Yidu tells him about faraway China, and about the Emperor who surrounds himself with men without manhoods. She tells of the Emperor’s many daughters — but swears that her father was a merchant. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me. Yet I want to tell you my most terrible secrets,” says Ragnar. What is it about this great Viking hero, that he can only ever confide in the outsiders? First Athelstan, who loved the Christ-God, now this woman from another world.
Harald’s brother arrives, another great warrior. They are excited to meet Ragnar, but Ragnar looks like a madman, his mouth bloody from Yidu’s Chinese medicine. Is he going crazy? Is it the blood sickness, from too many battles and too many lost friends? Ragnar can’t even bring himself to enjoy a night in his great hall. He watches the celebrations with Yidu from a nearby rooftop.
His mind turns to Paris. Is he excited to be going back? “No,” he says. “I feel so old. When I was young, I had the passion to win. Now, with age, and all that comes with it, I have lost the desire. And the strength.” He tells her of the settlement in England, his friends who made a new life for themselves. “Shortly after my departure, they were all destroyed and burned,” he says. “I live with such guilt because of it. And nobody knows.” Moved, Yidu confides in him: Her father is the Emperor. Secrets are dangerous. The truth, more so.
In the hall, Floki and Helge return to public life. The great boatbuilder is welcomed by Harald and his brother, who drink to new friendships: A dark new alliance, far from King Ragnar’s sight. Ragnar spends the night with Yidu, washing her feet in the manner of Christ, and symbolically cutting her hair.
Ragnar’s attention wanders. He does not see his son, Ivar Boneless, being tutored by his once-friend Floki. He does not see Ivar play sport with the other youth of the village. And he does not see Ivar make his first kill, accidentally slaying another child for stealing his toy. “It’s not your fault,” Aslaug says to her beloved son, lying. “Everything will be all right,” she says, lying again.
How happy Kalf is, here on his wedding day! How beautiful his lady wife! How grand, the life that stretches before him! Before the ceremony, he sneaks into Lagertha’s tent. He tells her that she looks beautiful, and he almost seems to smile as she stabs her blade into his body. What is Kalf thinking, in those final moments? What was he thinking, marrying the woman who promised to kill him? Perhaps he thought love conquered all. Perhaps he forgot that he betrayed Lagertha — and perhaps, much as he loved her, he never quite understood her.
“Long Live Earl Ingstadt,” say the people of Hedeby. Lagertha stands tall, her wedding dress covered in blood. She fought hard for this moment. She has gained power. What she has lost, only she can say.