Run, Floki, run

By Darren Franich
February 26, 2016 at 01:53 AM EST
Steve Wilkie/History

Vikings

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Somewhere far from Kattegat, the sun shines cold upon Bjorn Ironside, who’s crossing a lake of ice. And somewhere far from Kattegat, the men of Frankia plot with the women of Frankia against the other men of Frankia. And somewhere far from Kattegat, a prince of Wessex endeavors to save a captured Queen of Mercia. But perhaps none of that matters. For here, in Kattegat, a man has escaped. Floki is gone, gone, gone: The old friend, the traitor, now on the run from his own people. “Well?” says Ragnar Lothbrok, his breakfast disrupted. “Go find him.”

While Floki runs away — up the mountain, through the rapids, over the river and through the woods — the lord of Wessex receives troubling news from Mercia. The nobles have risen in revolt against Queen Kwenthrith. The kin-killing queen is a captive now, with her son Magnus, in some faraway tower. (You’ll recall that Magnus is the son of Ragnar Lothbrok —​ or so Kwenthrith claims.)

For Ecbert, everything is an opportunity. Mercia is in revolt? What better time to institute a new security protocol: A standing army, ready at a moment’s notice to march? His nobles complain. To maintain a professional army is an “expensive luxury.” Ecbert plays upon their fear of Ragnar Lothbrok. (The Vikings were helpful allies, but they’re even more helpful as boogeymen.)

Will Ragnar return to Ecbert’s shores? Vengeance calls the Northman King in many directions: West to Wessex, south to Frankia. For now, he deals with problems closer to home. While his children hunt Floki, he finds Floki’s wife and daughter. Ragnar knows Helge freed her husband, and doesn’t blame her. “Floki loves you,” she insists. “He only loves himself,” Ragnar responds. “You know that better than anyone.” Ragnar has dark words for Helge. “Winter is coming,” he says, seemingly quoting another series about lords and warriors. “You and your child will need to eat. Soon.”

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Ragnar’s army hunts his old friend. Ecbert’s army prepares for war. The scouts he sent to Wessex mostly return in pieces: heads and hands removed from missing bodies. But Aethelwulf and Ecbert find one scout yet alive, with important information. One Mercian nobleman passed along news: The location of Kwenthrith and her son, Magnus.

Aethelwulf sets off on a rescue mission, once again leaving his wife, Judith, home alone. “Farewell, wife,” he says nonchalantly. “Now I trust you again, parting feels less sorrowful.” Judith hears him, with her one remaining ear. Poor Judith, to find herself here, in this rotten life, with a husband who hates her and a father-in-law who lusts for her. But Ecbert surprises her. “I want you to be free,” he says. “To be yourself. I can imagine you have never been free, not since you were born.”

What does Judith truly want? Ecbert is a monster, but he’s a uniquely progressive monster. Alone among the Vikings cast, Ecbert strikes us as a man with a modern perspective. He is curious about the world and its possibilities; he is not held back by belief in anything, save perhaps his own grand destiny. What does Judith want? “I’d like to be a painter,” she says. “Like Athelstan.” Then, Ecbert promises, they must find her a teacher.

NEXT: Tower Defense

In Paris, Count Rollo is proving himself a better Frank than he ever was a Viking. With Count Odo, he plots a defense for the next attack by the Northmen. A pair of towers, on either side of the river. A chain between them to block Viking ships. And a Frankish fleet, the counterattack. Rollo spent a lifetime preparing for this betrayal.

Count Odo likes Rollo. Yes, the great bear was a bitter nemesis not long ago. But Odo recognizes that he is a great warrior. Such men are in short supply in Paris. Odo tells his mistress, Therese, that he has no love for the emperor. Admittedly, he only tells her this with some subtle messaging from Therese herself. “I have to ask, Count,” she teases, “whether you’re not bitter that the emperor is claiming all the credit for saving Paris.”

Is Therese pushing Odo toward a coup? Her game is more complicated: We see her abed with Roland, Odo’s second-in-command. Together, they are plotting some more devious gambit. “When the time is right, I will inform his Imperial Highness of the duplicity and treachery of his high and most trusted servant,” Roland says. “Then, let the cards fall as they may.”

In Wessex, a fresh arrival incites new incidents. A monk named Prudentius is called by King Ecbert to teach. He is horrified at the prospect of his student. A scandal: To teach Judith, a woman, the sacred texts! But Ecbert and the monk discuss the matter with the local bishop. The bishop knows the score. “God saw fit to allow a former prostitute to wash the limbs of His own son,” says the bishop, one eye on Ecbert. So Judith will learn. Will this make her free? Or is this some further entrapment by Ecbert? (Perhaps it is both.)

Meanwhile, Floki runs and runs, and what seems like the entire village of Kattegat chases behind him. He almost gets away. But destiny is destiny. Long ago, Floki built ships for a young farmer named Ragnar and befriended Ragnar’s young son. Years have passed, and times have changed. So it is that another son of Ragnar Lothbrok finds Floki, hiding in a stream. And so it is that the young farmer has become a brutal king. “Why didn’t the gods protect you?” Ragnar asks his prisoner. “Why didn’t they hide you better?” Ragnar promises his old friend an embarrassing punishment. “Nothing heroic,” he declares. “No chance to impress the gods.”

Ragnar’s wife, Aslaug, has some opinions on the matter. “What did he do that was wrong?” she asks. “All he did was kill a Christian.” Ragnar beats her, raging. “This is not about Christians and faith,” he says. “It’s about loyalty! And trust!” Long ago, a warrior named Ragnar met a ravishing beauty in the forest. Years have passed; times have changed: Love burned bright and then burned out. Aslaug looks on her husband. There is no fear in her eyes. Only rage — and pity.

In Mercia, Aethelwulf’s men find the queen and her little prince in a tower. A brutal battle breaks out. “Kill the queen!” the Mercian general commands. They almost do: Kwenthrith herself fights for her life, slamming one soldier’s head wide open. Noble Aethelwulf rescues her, though it’s hard to say what for. (What good is a queen without a country?)

Far from Kattegat, Bjorn digs through ice, searching for fish. Perhaps Bjorn thinks for a moment about his family and Floki, who once built his father a great ship to sail westward. Bjorn’s father finds Floki’s wife, digging a grave. Her daughter is dead. “What did she die of?” Ragnar asks. “Does it matter?” This life is cold, and short for everyone.

Floki doesn’t even know that his daughter is dead. Ragnar has punished him in the manner of the trickster god Loki. The sagas tell how Loki was imprisoned by the gods, held underneath dripping venom. In a faraway cave, droplets fall upon Floki, driving him mad. His arms are stretched out, bound to the cave walls. Perhaps he can appreciate the irony: Weren’t Athelstan’s arms outstretched, in imitation of his Christ-God upon the Cross? But perhaps Floki is beyond all irony. He screams. Perhaps the gods hear him; no one else can.

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