Ragnar’s story began with England, or a dream of England: That land across the water, a single ship carrying Ragnar and a group of young men to glory in the land of the Christ-God. Now, to England will Ragnar return. “I’m looking for brave warriors,” he announces in the town square. “Like you! Like you!” The response is muted. A man tells Ragnar his brother’s family went to England to found the Viking colony. “We never did find out what happened to them,” the man says. “But it seems you knew all along, and didn’t tell us.” He spits on King Ragnar the once-great, who once sailed with ships beyond number.
Now, Ragnar must beg his son Bjorn for ships. Bjorn will grant them — but he has his own plans. He will travel down the coast to Frankia, where it is said his Uncle Rollo has a new kingdom on the coast. Bjorn’s plan, bold and perhaps mad: He will send messengers to Rollo. Can family bonds, once broken, be fixed?
The sons of Ragnar are bonded yet with their mother. Aslaug wants them to settle down: “You should already be married,” she tells her three older sons. “You don’t have to love the woman,” she explains. “You need one to breed with.” Did Aslaug ever love Ragnar? Her sons have their own legends about their parents. One son says Aslaug bewitched their father; another recalls the wanderer Harbard, who Aslaug so loved, who so betrayed her trust. “She has always loved me,” says Ivar. Sigurd disagrees. “She feels pity for you,” he says. “We all feel pity for you. But sometimes, we wish that she’d left you to the wolves.” Ivar tries to attack him, slithering across the floor like a snake.
New arrivals in Kattegat bring good tidings, or the opposite. Lagertha arrives with her lover Astrid; she wants to watch her son Bjorn depart for his destiny. And King Harald is here, nearer to his ultimate ambition of becoming King of Norway. “How can I ever overthrow King Ragnar?” Harald muses, rhetorically or genuinely just curious.
Lagertha walks up to Aslaug, her husband’s second wife; another usurper, one of many in Lagertha’s life. “It seems that my son Bjorn and your son Hvitserk will go on this journey together,” she says. A sacrifice is suggested. “We can both officiate,” says Lagertha. “You forget, Lagertha,” Aslaug says, gently but firmly. “I am a queen.” Lagertha does not forget anything: Forever the shieldmaiden, forever the mother protecting her homestead from invaders.
NEXT: Gossip and sacrifice
The time has come for the blessing. Aslaug paints her face and prepares the sacrifice. Dazed, in a trance, she is perhaps not entirely present when Lagertha approaches her. “I know you can hear me,” says Lagertha. “I want you to know that I can never forgive you for taking away my husband and my world. Look what you’ve done with it. You call yourself Queen, but you will never be Queen in Kattegat.” Bold words from an ascendant earl to a monarch with whose power structure has never been shakier.
Pity poor Margaret, a woman doomed to despair by the gods. First, she found herself a slave; then, she found herself the paramour of four sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, including little Ivar, who cannot satisfy a woman. She reveals this embarrassing fact to Ivar’s brothers. “Poor Ivar,” says Ubbe, surely the kindest of Ragnar’s sons.
Ivar himself is busy with his father, Ragnar the returned. The fallen King digs out a trove of treasure, the better to bribe warriors with. Ivar is fascinated with the gold Ragnar has kept, including a coin with a portrait of King Ecbert etched into the side. Ivar warns his father only the dregs of society will join him for such cheap profits: A far cry from the band of brothers who sailed on Ragnar’s first raid, a further cry from the army Ragnar assembled for the journey to Frankia.
Ragnar’s present is a far cry from his past. Yet he has not forgotten the people from his old life, the characters in his legend. He visits his wife Aslaug, his Queen. “Love was not what brought us together,” he tells her. “But you endured me. You suffered my words and my neglect. And you never turned our sons against me.” There were times, Ragnar knows, when she hated him; times she must have considered poisoning the minds of their children against him. She did not. Even now, their sons yet love him; even now, the son he wanted to leave in the forest helps him plan a raid on the English. “For all that, with all my heart, I am grateful to you.”
Aslaug hears this, and perhaps she ponders Ragnar’s truths or sees some deeper truth in his generous words. Perhaps she remembers a day, long ago, when a young warrior met a young maiden; perhaps she remembers better times, or perhaps she sees no better times, only a long life lived through power and deceit. She sees a vision of Ivar, drowning, consumed. “I don’t care if I die, Mother,” says Ivar. “Poor Ivar has a chance to prove himself with the gods.” Ivar tells his mother he loves her. And then he gets on his father’s ship.
Off to England, then to Wessex and Ecbert and vengeance and destiny. A storm arrives, tossing Ragnar’s three ships about. “I’m terrified of water,” says Ivar. “Plenty of worse ways to die than to drown,” Ragnar tells his youngest son. Into the storm they go, and into the water, and into the deep. There are worse ways to die than drowning, true, but not many.