When Ragnar begins his assault on Paris, his Northmen meet fire on the water
The gods themselves sing of Ragnar’s victories. The farmer who became an Earl, the Earl who became a King, the King who sailed west to England and south to Frankia, who made the very kin of Charlemagne weep with fear. When his traitorous brother Rollo allied himself with Jarl Borg, Ragnar and King Horik fought them to a standstill. Then Ragnar killed Jarl Borg. Then Ragnar killed King Horik.
But here, now on the river’s shore outside Paris, Ragnar faces a new challenge. His brother, a traitor again. The men of Frankia, in two towers on two shores. Ragnar has a plan. “He won’t be expecting us to attack by land also,” he tells his troops. His boats will sail down the river; another force will attack Rollo’s tower. Lagertha will lead the party on foot. King Harald’s boat shall sail first. Ragnar’s mouth is red; his mistress feeds him her medicine, and perhaps it settles his mind — or perhaps it unsettles it.
Why is Lagertha here? Ragnar wants to know. A violent man, an ambitious man, Ragnar has always been a family man. He loves his children — the dead one, perhaps, more than the living. Lagertha is with child, is she not? “The seer prophesied I would never have another child,” she says. “You’re certainly doing everything in your power to prove the seer’s prophecy right,” Ragnar spits.
They row away, leaving Ragnar’s children behind to defend the camp. Bjorn Ironside is resolute. “I hate my uncle,” he says. “I want to kill him.” “Good,” says Ragnar.
Long ago, they were a family united. Now, they are united only in their lust for battle, their grasping ambition for power. Ragnar’s new family corrodes from within; Bjorn has lost his great love, and ignores his daughter; Lagertha killed the father of her unborn child and perhaps does not even want to give birth to a new life. And then there is Duke Rollo, who stands watching the ships arrive. His wife, Princess Gisla, stands next to him. She is unafraid. They, at least, are united.
Lagertha and Erlendur approach Rollo’s tower from land. The boats sail forward, assault by arrowmen. Worse calamity awaits: The chain is lifted between towers. King Harald’s boat overturns completely. Then the catapults, sending great piles of flammable material around the boats. And then the flaming arrows. The fire and the water claim some warriors; the arrows, the rest. But Floki does not die. He sinks beneath the surface. Ragnar rescues him: The one true action taken by this great King on what is perhaps the worst day of his life.
On land, Lagertha and Erlendur are stopped up by mud. Rollo sees Lagertha — his brother’s once-wife, his long-ago unrequited love — and commands his archers to attack. They are flanked on all sides. The shield wall cannot defend them. “Retreat!” Lagertha declares.
The attack is a failure. A retreat is called. Ragnar sees his brother astride his tower. “Everyone wanted you dead!” he yells. He does not hide behind shields, and the arrows cannot hurt him. “I kept you alive!” he yells. “THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY MY LOVE.” The Franks celebrate as the Northmen row away. Rollo does not look happy. Even such a victory can only be a defeat. Once, he had a brother. Now, he only has an enemy.
NEXT: Between the living and the dead
How is it that Harbard is once again here in Kattegat? He tells Aslaug that he had no idea Ragnar had gone raiding in Paris. “I wondered, in fact, if he was still alive.” Since last they met, he has walked between worlds, between the living and the dead. Aslaug has dreamed of him. They kiss. Her son Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye watches from afar. Always watching, that little one.
At the Viking camp outside Paris, chaos reigns. The Franks had attacked, led by Roland. Ragnar’s sons are not injured. But Helga, beloved of Floki, is unconscious and wounded. The funeral pyres burn. Bjorn is angry. “It is my father’s fault,” he says. Bjorn has become a great man, has slain a bear, has proven himself in the field of battle. Where does that leave Ragnar? “Give me some of that Chinese medicine!” the great King screams at Yidu. It has been another bloody day; more deaths weigh on Ragnar’s conscience.
Back at Kattegat, we are moved to consider a running question: Who, or what, is Harbard? He proves a figure of great fascination and amusement in the village square, promising children to barren women and kissing them to great applause. In far-off Frankia, Floki has a vision of the wanderer — and of Aslaug, making love to Harbard in the wild. At first, Aslaug appears to be making love to Floki — perhaps a portent of things to come, perhaps a sign that Floki is tied to Harbard in ways we can only begin to understand.
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Meanwhile, in faraway Mercia, King Ecbert marches his army. Not to battle. Rather, to a meeting. He finds a Prince of the Mercian royal family, a man grown tired of the ways of his declining kingdom. They meet in a mausoleum full of royal bones. “Here lie my brother, uncles, and my sons,” says the prince. “And here is my sainted mother. She watched her grandsons butchered before her eyes…before they blinded her, cut out her tongue, cut off her breasts, and burnt her while she was still alive.” The Prince scoffs at Ecbert’s notion that Kwenthrith could have stabilized this madhouse. There is something rotten here in Mercia.
And this Prince knows how to fix it. He seeks no ambitions of his own. Instead, he proposes to ally with King Ecbert. The two armies shall easily defeat the Mercian Royal Council. “And then I mean to renounce this world,” says the Prince. “I shall quit Mercia and England and travel in pilgrimage to Rome as a common beggar.” He gives Ecbert the ancestral crown of Mercia. Ecbert, the lord of Wessex, shall also be lord of the neighboring kingdom. What next but all England?
In the camp outside Paris, the Northmen are done waiting. It has been three days since the failed assault. What does Ragnar command of them? “Tomorrow, we go back downriver,” says the great King. “Tomorrow, we retreat.” His son leaves him, but still Ragnar speaks. He speaks to the dead. They cannot hear him. Perhaps that amuses Ragnar. Perhaps he can no longer tell the dead from the living.