Heave! Heave! Heave! Heave! Ragnar Lothbrok’s great fleet moves slowly toward Paris — by land this time, not sea. Torvi pulls, and Bjorn pulls, and Erlendur pulls, and Lagertha pulls, and Ragnar pulls, pulls, pulls, pull. “Heave!” yell the Northmen. “Heave!” to Paris.
A Frankish man, a farmer, sees the Northmen. Run home, he tells his son. “Let’s hope they don’t come our way.” Little hope of that, oh ye man of Frankia. King Harald and his brother Halfdan find the farm. There is something different about Harald and Halfdan, or perhaps just something indifferent. Ragnar is a curious conqueror. For Harald and Halfdan, the conquest is enough. Halfdan enters the farmhouse, finds an egg — and then cracks it open with his ax. (A potent symbol, and one to hold onto. Life dashed before it becomes life. Fertility shrugged.)
They find the farmers, and his wife and daughters. Soon they’re all dead, decapitated, left behind as a warning, or just left behind. No time to mourn these people of Frankia. Onward go the boats of Ragnar Lothbrok. Heave! Heave! Heave!
Alfred and Aethelwulf arrive in the Holy City. Their pilgrimage has been long, and perhaps fruitful. There is love in Aethelwulf’s eyes for Alfred, his unwanted son by another man. They meet the Holy Father. “We care very much for our flock in England,” says the Pope. “If Christian people do not do penance, a great and rushing disaster will swiftly come upon you.” Even here in the Vatican, the threat of the Northmen is a threat to take seriously. (After all, one Roman Empire already fell to barbarians.)
The Pope shows little Alfred something remarkable: a thorn, taken from the crown that cut into the very head of the Christ-God. Alfred kisses the thorn, in deference to his creator — or, perhaps, in rapture of an instrument that could injure such cosmic power. Alfred is his true father’s son, and his stepfather’s son, and his grandfather’s grandson: descended from a pantheist monk and a devoted warrior and a canny politician. What kind of ruler will he be?
Alfred is made a consul of Rome, like Caesar, given a sword and a blessing of God. Aethelwulf smiles. What awaits these humble travelers when they return home? Nothing good, surely. They’d be safer taking a vow of celibacy; the clergy has all the fun.
Smile, King Ecbert. Smile, King Twice Over. In full view of God and all His people, Ecbert is crowned King of Mercia and Wessex. “Two proud and ancient Kingdoms,” says the Bishop, “Now one.” This unification doesn’t make every king happy. In the age of exploration, King Aelle has only explored further unexplored dark bottoms of his particular barrel. “You betrayed me,” says Aelle. “We were to divide Mercia equally between us.”
To Ecbert, Aelle is too small-minded, or perhaps too rigid. “Life is all about change,” says Ecbert. “If we don’t change, we fall behind.” Ecbert has changed. He is king of two mighty nations — and Mercia directly abuts Aelle’s own Northumbria. “We are no longer equals,” says Ecbert. “You must get used to it.”
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Emperor Charles has an announcement to make. Happy, happy Charles, to see this day come to pass. The Northmen, defeated. The traitorous Count Odo dead. His daughter pregnant with his grandchild, carrying within her womb the union of Frankia and the Viking North. But something is missing for Emperor Charles. He asks Roland for a favor. He would like to sleep with his sister and make her the Emperor’s mistress. But there is…something else.
Gisla doesn’t like this burgeoning relationship between her father and Roland. In place of Odo, now Roland is the Protector of Paris — and the Emperor’s right hand. Perhaps Roland should be removed. Rollo mulls this over but doesn’t think much of it. He never had time for politics. He tries to have sex with his wife, but she laughs him off: “I am with child. You have to respect me in my sacred condition.” Rollo frowns. “Many things are better here,” he says. “Just a few things were better before.”
Daybreak. The Emperor awakes from his slumber. There is someone else in his bed, asleep. It is Count Roland, Defender of Paris. Fair to say: Rollo is no longer the Emperor’s closest ally. What will that mean when Rollo’s brother returns?
NEXT: Strange days in Kattegat