“How strange life is.”
Two rulers of two great lands, speaking the same words, hundreds of miles away. Emperor Charles has never met King Ecbert. Perhaps he never will. Both men have met Ragnar Lothbrok, the unclean pagan conqueror from the North. Emperor Charles has married his daughter away to Ragnar’s brother. Ecbert romanced Ragnar’s ex-wife, and he now holds Ragnar’s bastard son as an honorable hostage. How strange life is. How curious this world can become, when one man sails further than any other before him.
Celebration throughout the streets of the Frankish capital. The Northmen are gone — all thanks to a Northman. But Count Odo does not think it is the time to celebrate. He advises Emperor Charles not to trust Rollo. “I fear he may revert to his instincts,” he says. “There is nothing else in the mind of the pagan Rollo but the destruction of Paris and its Emperor.” After all, the Emperor’s daughter is still young. She can marry again, to someone more respectable, someone older: Someone like Odo, in fact.
The Emperor considers this advice. He knows that Odo is plotting against him. But perhaps, for someone raised in royalty, it is not unusual to imagine that all sides are plotting against you. Perhaps it is just a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. The Emperor dines with his daughter and son-in-law, commending him for all he’s done for Paris. “The defeat of Ragnar Lothbrok,” says the Emperor, “Will resound down the ages.” Rollo isn’t so sure. His brother is still alive. Paris must be watchful. They need a protector. “You talk as if you no longer need me to protect you,” says Rollo.
Princess Gisla has happy news, which she delivers with exquisite timing. “You should also know that I’m carrying Rollo’s child,” she tells her father. “How strange life is,” he responds. They drink to the Frankish-Viking alliance, and to the child whose existence seals that alliance in blood.
Count Odo sees his mistress, Therese. It has been a long time; perhaps he is bored of her. She has an interesting new idea: Why not tie up Count Odo, and let Therese whip him for once? This intrigues Odo. He agrees. She whips him, and he laughs: A woman isn’t strong enough to hurt him. Perhaps that’s true; perhaps this woman doesn’t have to be; perhaps this woman only needs to find someone to crack the whip for her. Enter Roland, the traitor, who opens up Odo’s back with bloodstains. They gag his mouth, and the whip falls again, again. Blood splatters across Therese’s face. She wipes some of it off; only some of it.
Thus dies Count Odo, executed by the Emperor’s order for disloyalty and high treason. He held off the Northmen once, and worked with Rollo to hold them off again. Perhaps he was too ambitious. Perhaps he was just unlucky. The Emperor puts all his trust in Duke Rollo and gives him the Iron hand of Frankia. “You have made the right choice, Father,” says Princess Gisla. The court leaves, but the Emperor begs Therese to remain. He saw a look upon her face. Was that pity? “I think you carry a terrible burden,” she says. “And you carry it alone.” Perhaps a woman doesn’t need to be Emperor; perhaps this woman only needs to control an Emperor.
King Ecbert returns from Mercia. His forces have won a great victory. There is no more ruling council. Kwenthrith is excited: She will return to her country, and rule, as is her right. She has exciting news for Ecbert. Kwenthrith is pregnant, for the second time. Again, it is the child of a great royal warrior; again, it is the child of another woman’s husband. “Your son, Aethelwulf,” she reveals. “After he rescued me, we formed an attachment. A sincere attachment.”
“How strange life is,” says Ecbert. It is long years since Ecbert and Kwenthrith went abed together. In that time, Ecbert has made a cuckold of his own son, beginning a passionate and multifaceted relationship with his daughter-in-law Judith. But there are greater complications than romance here. Before the ruling council of Mercia was killed, Ecbert had them sign documents, in the presence of nobility and laity. He is now the King of Mercia. “The devices are legal, the documents binding,” he says, “both in the eyes of men and God.”
Not in the eyes of women; not in the eyes of this woman. “You are a monster,” Kwenthrith tells her ally-turned-captor. She turns to Judith for help. She admits that her baby is Aethelwulf’s, and Judith forgives her. Kwenthrith needs help; she must escape this prison Ecbert has built for her, with her son Magnus alongside.
Judith goes to Ecbert — and he, too, asks for her forgiveness. “I cannot ask for God’s,” says the King. “I’m already beyond that.” Ecbert has a confession to make to Judith. “I love you,” he says. “You may treat this statement as compromised, disingenuous, perhaps even as a lie. And why shouldn’t you. But the funny thing is, it’s true. I have lied about many, many things, both to others and to myself, but I find, to my surprise, that I cannot lie to you, nor escape your judgment. Please, Judith. Don’t forsake me.”
It is the most intimate statement we’ve ever seen Ecbert say. Perhaps he is telling the truth. Perhaps this is a rare occasion when the truth is helpful for his cause. Judith watches as Kwenthrith tries to escape under cover with Magnus — and watches as the palace guards seize her and bring her back to Ecbert. The King cannot let them go. He needs Magnus, most of all. “When Ragnar Lothbrok returns to this island,” he says, “I want to show him the son that I have cared for and protected.”
Is this to be Kwenthrith’s fate? The Queen of Mercia, who avenged herself on her corrupt and broken family, who finally ascended to her own throne: Is she to be a prisoner, only kept alive as some despised broodmare, because she was fortunate enough to give birth to the son of a great distant King? No, no, no, no. Her destiny calls her to greater things — or to an end of all her torment. She says goodbye to her child and sneaks through the night. A soldier tries to stop her, and she stabs him in the neck.
Queen Kwenthrith enters Ecbert’s chambers, a queen no more, just a desperate and defiled prisoner with no freedom left to hope for. She holds a knife up to Ecbert’s neck. “How does it feel to be so close to death?” she asks him. “If you kill me, my guards will kill you with no questions asked,” Ecbert says, desperate. Kwenthrith moans. What does it matter, to die in a world like this? “Do you know what would have been better for me?” she asks. “Can you even imagine? To have been born a man.” She laughs. She cries. And then — she is killed. A knife in her back from trusted, angelic Judith. She falls onto the bed, two lives pouring out of her. “Poor Judith,” says Kwenthrith. “You have killed twice over.”
The rest is silence, almost. Judith turns to her lover. “Look what you have made me become,” she says. The blood drips onto the floor; it has to go somewhere, after all.
(For more on the death of Kwenthrith, read my interview with Amy Bailey here.)
NEXT: Into the water