Ragnar is no god, yet all the gods watch him. They are all here – the gods of Ragnar’s fathers, the God of Athelstan, gods as yet unknown. In Paris, Princess Gisla prays to a statue of the Virgin — and Mary weeps. In faraway Kattegat, the Seer moans with ecstatic sorrow — for all is as he said it would be. Lagertha, childless. Rollo, triumphant. The princess has crowned the bear. In the end, even the greatest warriors are defeated. The victors write history, but no one is victorious forever.
Long ago, Ragnar Lothbrok took a single ship across the sea to a land called England. That raid defied the command of the local earl. For allies, Ragnar had close friends, true warriors. Most of those men are dead. One of them — his own brother, Rollo — has betrayed him, twice.
This new betrayal has brought them here, to the middle of the river. Ragnar’s ships sail into Rollo’s ships. The men of Frankia fight well, but they are not Northmen. The Vikings hack at them, slaughter seeping into water gone red with viscera. The Franks retreat. The Vikings celebrate. Not Ragnar. Made rancid with illness from Yidu’s medicine, he watches his brother. His brother’s lieutenant begs a retreat behind the walls of Paris. Rollo grants him a final retreat, running his sword through the man’s chest. “All of my life and all of your lives have come to this point,” says Duke Rollo. “To be here now is the only thing that matters. So gather all your strength and all your sweetness into an iron ball. For we will attack again and again until we reach and overcome their king or we die in the attempt!”
And the battle is joined. Ragnar takes the last ounce of Yidu’s medicine: Prepared to fight his brother, to kill and to die. They meet on a curious battlefield, a barge floating in the middle of the water. Ragnar scoffs at this man who was once his brother: at his Frankish hair, his Frankish armor. They wage war as only brothers and enemies can: sword and blade, fist and bone. Ragnar’s son sees them fight. So, too, Lagertha: doubly beloved by both of them, betrayed by them both. But Lagertha is laid low, stabbed in her shoulder. Bjorn races to her aid — always he chooses his mother, always.
“One of us will die today,” Ragnar told Rollo. But after long minutes of fighting, after both men are bloodied and battered and bruised, after Ragnar demands his people retreat so that he can fight his brother one final time — after all that, Ragnar’s men carry him away, leaving Rollo victorious.
Thus does Duke Rollo return to Paris, to waiting wife and child yet unborn. Thus does Emperor Charles crown him Caesar, to the joy of the common people. (Charles spent the battle in his throne room, executing traitorous Roland and plotting Therese — thereby choosing Rollo as his true ally.) “God bless Paris!” yells Rollo. Years ago, a young warrior named Rollo agreed to baptism as a joke. Now here he is, a changed man, declaring fealty to a God his father never knew. The people cheer. His wife cries with joy. It is the greatest moment of his life.
On a boat somewhere downriver, the Vikings are silent. King Harald holds his brother, dead. Lagertha lies unconscious, bleeding. Bjorn sits quiet, pondering, or perhaps lacking the strength to think. Ragnar sits alone at the end of the boat, his destiny cheated, his ship come in at last.
NEXT: Time passes
Bjorn Ironside goes fishing. The waters of Kattegat are serene, the light falling gracefully on green hills under blue sky. It is spring, maybe, or maybe summer. Bjorn is older, his beard grown long.
Queen Aslaug calls for him. There is a visitor in the great hall — a man come home from raiding in Wessex with a story of a ruined colony and a little boy named Magnus. Aslaug hears all this, a smile on her face. Perhaps she suspected it. The man asks where King Ragnar has gone. Aslaug smiles at that, too. Ragnar disappeared years ago after Paris. He is a ghost in his own kingdom. Vanished. Away.
Did Ragnar know about the end of his colony? Did he keep it a secret from his village? Bjorn goes into the wilderness to find his half-brothers. Ubbe and Hvitserk, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye and Ivar Boneless. The older sons can’t quite believe it. Could their father lie to his people? Wouldn’t they have been so righteously angry? “That,” says Ivar, “is why he didn’t tell them. It was a waste of time. They were dead. Ragnar wanted to sail to Paris. He wanted to be famous. Isn’t that more important?”
These are bruised young men, still almost boys. They cannot understand why their father left. Ubbe doesn’t want his father to come back. Hvitserk and Sigurd hope they see Ragnar — so they can kill him themselves. “Screw you!” says Ivar. “All of you! He never did anything wrong. He is our father. That is the end of it. You all sound like a bunch of Christians.” There is hate in Ivar’s heart.
He specifies that he doesn’t love his father, merely admires him. He thinks his brothers are soft. Ubbe is Ragnar’s son: “His fame doesn’t interest me. What he used his power for — that interests me.” That is the sort of curious, thoughtful thing Ragnar used to say. But Ivar always belonged to Aslaug; perhaps he is a truer Viking than any Lothbrok.
“I don’t think he is ever going to come back,” says Bjorn. “I think what happened in Paris finally broke him.” Bjorn reminds his younger brothers that their father was a man, not a god. A man with many failings. “Despite all his failings,” says Bjorn, “He’s still the greatest man in the world to me.” Bjorn sees his father clearly — perhaps because Ragnar was barely more than a child when Bjorn was born. And so Bjorn has prepared his own celebration of his father’s legacy. He shall sail to the Mediterranean, to parts unknown, in ships unbuilt. He visits Floki, his father’s old friend. Floki and Helga promise to join him. They are older but not dead. They seek adventure. They are brutal people here in the North. But they are also full of hope.
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And then there is Ragnar. Ragnar Lothbrok, the king come home. Kattegat is much changed in his absence, much changed in the years since first he set out for England. It is a city now, what we would someday call a global city: Peddlers and merchants speak far-flung languages on the outskirts of town. Ragnar’s beard is long, his head bare, old scars carved deep into old skin. He walks to the town’s center and looks upon his sons. The youngest one crawls to his feet. He smiles. “There’s no mistaking you,” he tells Ivar — and Ivar smiles at perhaps the first compliment his father has ever paid him.
Well? What now? Sigurd and Hvitserk, you swore to kill your father. Here he is. Take him. No? Perhaps you, Ubbe? Or you, Ivar? No? Anyone? Is there a woman or man in Kattegat who can drive a sword through Ragnar’s body? “Who’s going to do it then?” asks Ragnar. “Who’s going to kill me?” He doesn’t mind. Put him out of his misery. His people do not support him. His family is gone, gone, gone. “What kind of king abandons his people?” asks a king to his people. “What kind of father abandons his sons?” asks a father to his sons.
“So? Who wants to be king?” asks Ragnar. Here, long ago, a farmer became an earl; here too, not so long ago, an earl became king. Who will take his place now? “Who?” Ragnar demands. “Who wants to be king?” A question, left unanswered. A ship, not yet sailed.