The battle begins. So does the other one.
Credit: Jonathan Hession/History
S4 E19
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There are strange people in Kattegat always, riding in from lands far away or sailing in from points further. Yet one man in particular catches Torvi’s eye, as she patrols her fortress-city. He sailed in this morning with the other traders. He looks at the wares being peddled – but he and his men do not want to buy anything. The reason is clear enough: The man calls for an attack, and the battle for Kattegat begins.

It is not the only battle the Northmen are fighting this week. In Wessex, a man arrives from the land of King Aelle, with a dying bishop and a mad tale about an army of heathens sailing with vengeance in their hearts. How many men are there, Aethelwulf asks the bishop. “How many blades are grass are there in a field,” the man says, on his way to meeting whatever gods there are. Aethelwulf rages, mindfully. “Damn you! And may you rest in peace!”

This will be the battle of Aethelwulf’s life. His father demands that he march to the Great Heathen army; the element of surprise is everything. We have always seen Aethelwulf in conflict with those around him: his father, his wife, the Vikings, his own sad self. But there is grace in this dull man. He tells his son Alfred goodbye, and he reminds him that his father watches over him. “I mean your real father,” says Aethelwulf. “The monk they called Athelstan. A very special man.”

Aethelwulf is a fervent Christian, and you wonder if he recognizes something biblical in his peculiar misery. His wife was made pregnant, and so his son is not quite his son. Perhaps Aethelwulf imagines himself a modern Joseph, nobly tasked with protecting the son of God. Perhaps he is simply older than he once was, and tired. “I’ll try to be worthy of you, Judith,” he tells his wife, long-absent from his bed but perhaps not from his heart.

His father the King has harsher words. He quotes Ecclesiastes (not the Byrds) and tells Aethelwulf: “To everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the sun. A time to love. A time to hate. A time of war. A time of peace. This is the time of war.” Aethelwulf looks at his father and sees only an old man. For Aethelwulf, it has always been the time of war. Poor Aethelwulf, who has never known a time to love.

The Vikings sail on, the sons of Ragnar already quarreling through their victories. Proud Ivar declares himself their father’s anointed one: Why else would he have chosen Ivar to sail with him on his final journey? His brothers laugh, and worry: Of all the things that can defeat them, dissension among themselves is first and foremost. Elsewhere in the Viking camp, the girl Helge stole from the Spanish raid tries to escape. Floki finds her and struggles to communicate. “I’m sorry you hate us,” he tells her. “I don’t know what to do.” Helge greets the girl with a fearful hug. The girl looks more scared of her than of Floki. Surely this can’t end well. (What does?)


NEXT: Battle Strategy

In Kattegat the battle rages. Lagertha leads her shieldmaidens to the edge of town, commanding her forces along the wall. The bastard Egil leads another force of men to the dock, attacking toward the great hall. Lagertha sees this and realizes her mistake. “We’re in the wrong place,” she says.

Egil’s men battle through town, seem quite close to capturing Kattegat. Some warriors see Lagertha holding nothing but a torch, and run towards her; she sets the burning oil underneath them afire, and they do the death-dance in the flames. The tide turns quickly after that. Astrid throws a spear in Egil’s side and prepares to do him the kindness of a killing blow. “Let him live,” says Lagertha. Not all are so lucky. Among the fallen are Torvi, father of the children of Bjorn Ironside, a true Viking.

Lagertha tortures Egil, and brings his wife in front of him as a further threat. Egil admits his benefactor: He was hired by King Harald, with an eye towards expanding his kingdom into Kattegat. Lagertha expected this, perhaps; she expects the worst of any ambitious man.

In the Viking camp across the sea, Harald admits a rare mistake to his brother. He was wrong, he says, not to kill his beloved princess; he has not been able to forget her. Halfdan tells him to forget her; after all, women are fickle. Harald cannot forget. But he promises his princess that he has forgiven her – right before he cleaves her husband’s head apart. I didn’t catch the husband’s name, but it doesn’t matter much anyways. The Princess comes to Harald’s tent in the night, declaring her love for him; as they make love, she tries to kill him, but her blood rains upon Harald’s body. It is Halfdan’s doing. Better, perhaps, if King Harald had simply taken his brother’s advice, and forgotten her. But that is not his way.

“We cannot fight in the same way,” Ivar tells his brothers. Why should they fight Aethelwulf’s army with a shieldwall? He suggests a new strategy. Scout the field of battle. Use the landscape, the hills. For such a large army, they should devise a new kind of warfare.

Aethelwulf arrives, hundreds of men behind him. They see the Viking horde on the hillside. But the Northmen run away, and when the Saxons race after them, they see that the mad warriors have disappeared into the trees. The Northmen appear far behind them, at the other end of the field; the Saxons give chase, and the Vikings disappear into the forest. This continues, a merry game that is inevitably deadly. Arrows fly out of the trees, killing soldiers of Wessex.

Aethelwulf tires of the game. He has new orders: They shall set out for the Vikings’ ships, and destroy them. This is, of course, precisely what Ivar had hoped for. Floki rejoices in their enemies’ foolishness – and in the brilliance of Ivar, his favorite of Ragnar’s sons. “You crippled bastard!” he says. “You bloody mad genius! You were right!”

Indeed he was. Aethelwulf and his men walk into a trap. And so comes the inevitable moment: the Vikings forming their shield wall, and the Saxon army charging on them. Many years ago, Ragnar Lothbrok and Ecbert of Wessex shared drinks, and laughter, and many happy moments. Now, the sons of Ragnar and the son of Ecbert shall duel, and there shall be no drinks, no laughter, only glory or glorious death.

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