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[pagebreak]
What is happening in the home village of Ragnar Lothbrok? The spiral has gone cosmic: Far away, on the road to Paris, Floki receives a vision of Aslaug moaning for Harbard, crying in the rain. What else does Floki see? Does he see Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye playing in the stream? Does anyone but Sigurd see the dead child, drowned or otherwise, her little corpse half-consumed by mud? How fitting: Bjorn’s daughter was named after Siggy, who drowned rescuing the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok. Now this little Siggy has died in the water, and Ragnar’s son can only look at her and ponder.
Aslaug is no help. Drunk and drinking, she plays a game with little Ivar. Ivar beats his mother easily. He calls her stupid; she tells him that she is the only reason he is still alive. Sigurd tries to talk sense to his mother. “I found Siggy’s body in the river,” he says. “Who?” asks Aslaug, before saying, “I thought someone was taking care of her.” No one was. Sigurd seems to be on the cusp of saying something. But his little brother gets the first line: “Who cares?”
Sigurd storms out. His mother smiles at her favorite son. A terrible smile. A true smile.
Among the Northmen
Lagertha pulls, but now she cannot pull anymore. Her screams echo through the camp. Ragnar finds her bloodied. “I lost my child,” she says. She killed the child’s father; now the child itself will never live. She cries for her lost child, for a fate uncheated. For a brief moment Ragnar holds her, and it is as it was so many years ago, before conquest, before kings. “I’m sorry,” Ragnar says. “Go away,” his old wife says to him and to Bjorn. “Just go away. Leave me alone.” Her men move away, but they do not leave. They are together, briefly. A family, almost.
In the distance, there is Paris. There is much rejoicing. Ragnar considers taking a bit of Yidu’s medicine — but does not. In the evening, Bjorn makes love to Torvi. “You are a mystery to me,” says Bjorn. He has seen something in her; a refusal to abide by the rules. “I still love that about you,” he says. Good timing: As Torvi hears this, she sees her ex-husband Erlendur, pointing a crossbow at Bjorn. She blocks his line of sight.
But Erlendur’s vengeance knows no end. In the morning, he makes a sacrifice. The boats are in the water, the battle is imminent, but he will have his revenge. He hands Torvi the crossbow and demands that she kill Bjorn. Did not Bjorn’s father kill Erlendur’s own father, King Horik? “That was a long time ago, Erlendur,” says Torvi. “It seems to me like yesterday,” says Erlendur. Life is all about change but not for Erlendur. He will not change — and so he falls behind. For Torvi holds up his crossbow and fires it straight into his heart. The Northmen all shrug; they’ve seen worse.
Little worse, though, than the terrors tormenting Ragnar Lothbrok. The boats are in the water, awaiting his command, but he is vomiting and smiting at spiders that aren’t there. Yidu told him that this was medicine, but now he is poisoned without it. Withdrawal, we will call it, centuries hence from Ragnar. “I only have a little left,” he says. “I have to save it to fight Rollo.”
Paris can’t be taken without him, Bjorn says. “I don’t care about Paris,” says Ragnar. “I came for Rollo.” Stumbling like an old man, he puts on his armor. Ragnar gets into the boat. He points his ships toward Paris — they’ve been refitted by Floki, more powerful than ever. Ragnar stares at the city he dreamed of and can almost see the brother he loved, the brother he fought, the brother he saved.
I must kill you, he says. I have to kill you. I will kill you.