Credit: Jonathan Hession/History Channel

We’re less than a week from from the return of Vikings, History’s addictive swords-and-shieldmaidens tale of epic expansion and epic facial hair. But EW is excited to share an exclusive clip from the new season, set during conquering protagonist Ragnar Lothbrok’s battle with the English kingdom of Mercia.

Vikings creator Michael Hirst writes every episode of the show, but he is quick to share credit for the scene with Travis Fimmel, the actor who portrays the legendary Ragnar. “I think Travis had the idea for that shot,” says Hirst, who works closely with his lead actor on developing the character. “It’s a very powerful scene. The reason the Vikings had this reputation for terrible cruelty and uber-violence is that they had limited manpower. They traveled maybe three ships at a time, with twenty-five or thirty warriors. That’s the limit. There are no reinforcements. They don’t know who they’re going to meet. They might be encountering hundreds of enemy warriors.”

So how does a small fighting force fight back against a huge army? “Shock and awe,” explains Hirst. “When you see Ragnar, traveling in a boat, with the heads of all these Mercians strung out on the ship: That is shock and awe. In the show, the Mercians run away—and that’s actually what happened! The Vikings had such a reputation, and that was part of their myth.”

But shock and awe aren’t the only weapons in their arsenal. Back in season 1, Ragnar rose to fame by attacking the English shores with one ship and thirty warriors. But if you follow the arc of the Viking expansion, things snowball quickly. “Pretty soon, they’d worked out how to get across the West, and they were more interested in other countries. They’d hear rumors about other places. And if we are being true to the history, we have to get bigger.” How much bigger? “When the Vikings attacked Paris,” teases Hirst, “they had a hundred ships, and three thousand men.”