“He needs you.”
Paris has not yet fallen. More than 1,000 warriors dead. 200 ships lost. People starving within the city, outside it. A stalemate. Decisions put on hold.
They quarrel among themselves. What to do next, where to go? Should they even stay, or should they take what little they have and leave? It is not yet a loss, but they are nowhere near a victory.
This is not why she came. She came for her son, and her son only. Not His father. Damn his father. His father is the reason they are in this situation. Blinded by grief and anger, bitterness and revenge. His father has failed them all. Her especially. Especially her. She is no longer an earl. No longer in command of her own destiny. His father has stripped her of that and so many other things.
Bjorn kneels beside her, his voice low. “I think he is dying.”
“Then let him die. We cannot run from our fate.”
It is cold.
She remembers how he cursed her, accusing her of betrayals against him imagined in only his mind. Other people’s actions, he had said, glaring at her as he spoke those words. Her fault he became an earl. Her fault he became king. And leaving even more left unsaid. Her fault for leaving him. Her fault for losing him, her fault for driving him elsewhere because she could no longer conceive.
“You do not mean that,” he says quietly, looking into her eyes.
“I am tired, Bjorn. I am tired of saving your father. Let him save himself this time. If he wants to.”
“You are the only one he will listen to. He is my father. And he was your husband. Will you allow part of our family to die?”
It pulls at her. Bjorn’s face. His eyes—eyes like his father. The heart of his mother—better than them both. Stronger. Created in love and gifted with everything they had to offer. She relents.
“Take me to him.”
They rise and walk together. She pulls back the tent, and sees her former lover lying shuddering and shaking on the ground. There is a smell, and Bjorn is correct in this. Death is coming.
“Water. Bring my furs. And seek out Helga.”
The water and furs come, and Bjorn leaves as she begins her work, removing his dirty clothing—the pants, the tunic. She takes them all off until he is naked, and she can assess the damage. Her eyes skim his body carefully, touching to determine where the wounds are. Superficial scrapes and cuts are healing, but the bruising is deep—she can tell. Her hands feel his ribs, taking note of the bumps, possible breaks. And when she rolls him onto his back, there is far more. A dark purple bruise, angry and inflamed and spreading. Blood. Possible punctured lungs. Ruptured spleen and perhaps kidney damage…it is the worst she has ever seen on him. A deep breath, and an exhale.
A fire is built, and on it goes the water. The furs are removed, left outside with his clothes to be cleaned later. They are replaced with her own.
Helga enters and Lagertha tells her what to prepare. She nods and leaves.
“Are you ready for death, Ragnar? Do you believe yourself to have earned it?”
Her voice is low as she slowly runs her hands across his back, his shoulders, down his spine and over his ass, his thighs, and his legs. Circulation. He needs this touch. It allows the blood to move. She traces the same path over and over again. Shoulders that carried their children. The back that built their house. The ass she grabbed in pleasure, legs that carried her home.
He moans in his delirium.
Helga returns with herbs and clean clothes. Some are placed in the water. The cloth is dipped in. The path repeats. Shoulders, back, spine, ass, thighs, legs. She bathes him until there is no more dirt to come off. New water is brought in. The old, taken out. More herbs, fresh cloth.
Ragnar is heavy, but she manages to turn him over. Slender hands run up his arms, across his chest through the dark hair and down his stomach, his thighs, his legs, and his feet. Circulation. For the blood to spread. The touch firm enough, but gentle. The arms that held their babies, the chest she rested on at night, the stomach she nourished with her cooking, the thighs she rode in lovemaking, the legs that ran for her in battle and the feet that led him astray.
A groan. He is awake. Ice blue eyes stare into hers. Movements calm. She reaches for a cup and pours a little water into it, adjusting so that she can bring his head to rest on her lap. The cup is placed at his lips, allowing him to drink. She fingers the tattoos on his head, tracing the intricate designs. She does not like them. Never has. They are a reminder that this is not her Ragnar. Her Ragnar died when they lost their last child.
The king drinks, and the eyes close.
The water is ready again. A new cloth dipped in. She works.
Arms, chest, stomach, thighs, legs and feet. She bathes him. Between his thighs. Between his toes, fingers, face, head, neck, ears.
The toes he pinched her with at night in jest. The fingers that caressed her skin with love. The face of her former husband, her ex-lover, a lost friend. The head that bobbed between her legs when nothing but his tongue could satisfy her burn. The ears that heard her cry when her water broke, and the pain of childbirth became too much.
His chest rises and falls. He is no longer sweating. She covers him in furs, and leaves.
The river is close, and it is there she goes, carrying his things. There is stolen lye which she uses to wash the grime and the filth and other fluids away. There was a time when they did this together, for themselves and their children. Now she does it alone and for him only.
“Can I help?”
Bjorn looks at her anxiously, and she points to the furs. He picks one up and places it in the river, watching as brown and yellow and red seep out.
“Will father live?”
He applies the lye and follows his mother in her movements, scrubbing intensely.
“Only if he wants to, Bjorn.”
Mother and son work silently. And when it is done, they lay the clothing and the furs on the bank to dry. He walks with her to her tent.
“You will not stay with him?”
“There is nothing for me in there.”
“Then you have not done all that you could do.” Ragnar’s eyes stare back at her in the face of her beloved son.
“I cannot do what you ask. The time for that was gone years ago.”
She shakes her head. “You have no idea.”
Bjorn does not understand that she cannot work miracles. All he knows is that Lagertha has always saved Ragnar when he could not, or would not, do it for himself. He does not understand what it has cost her each time. Each time she has come to his aid she has lost a bit more of herself in the process. There has never been so much as an acknowledgement of the sacrifices she continues to make for nothing in return. Or worse than nothing—more betrayal. This raid, she knows, will be no different.
She has grown accustomed to being disappointed with Bjorn’s father. And she has absolute faith he will continue to do so over and over again. Perhaps she will be allowed to die before he does, so that he may let her down one final time…into her grave.
Yet, because of Bjorn, and only her son, she relents just a little. “I will go in the morning.”
In her tent, Kalf waits. She goes to him and allows him to kiss her, to remove her clothes. To make love to her. She allows herself to get lost in his touch, and to enjoy the feel of him against her skin.
“Why not let him die after what he has done to you?” He asks after she’s satisfied. “You could claim his kingdom, his throne. The people would support you.”
“Because my son asked me not to.” It is the end of the conversation.
When Ragnar wakes Bjorn is looking down at him.
“Where is your mother?” His voice is raspy, his throat dry.
“Was she here?”
He is unsure of his own mind, of whether he had been dreaming or awake. He can smell her scent all around him, on his body, on the furs that are not his. He is naked, so someone has been here.
He coughs, and there is pain in his chest, though it is greatly diminished. When he moves to sit up the sharp, burning sensation he had felt before is smaller now as well. He sniffs, and for the first time in weeks, does not smell himself.
“Where are my clothes?”
“Drying by the river.”
A sigh, as he lays back down with the knowledge that it was Lagertha who had bathed him. She had soothed him. It had not been a dream. And yet she is not here now. She is in her tent. With her lover.
“Have I lost her?”
It is not a question he has ever asked aloud, not to his son, nor anyone else.
There is hesitation, and he looks at Bjorn. His son will not look him in the eye. And there is no answer back.
He must have an answer.
“Have you prepared for death? Do you believe yourself to have earned it?”
The answer, he knows, is No.
He begins to talk to Bjorn, giving him instructions. “You should tell mother,” he protests, but Ragnar is insistent on that point. She is not to know. Bjorn’s lips set in a grim line. But Ragnar will not back down on this. And his son will obey.
“It is father,” Bjorn tells her in the morning. “I believe he will die soon.”
She closes her eyes and exhales. “When the Valkyries call us home, we must go.” And so she leaves to wait until it is time. Hours pass.
“You may go to him now.” Bjorn says, emerging from the King’s tent.
And she does, to see his coffin, her former husband inside. She runs her fingers across the intricately carved wood, and speaks a truth meant for his ears only. Neither time, nor distance or abuses has ever calmed her heart for him, and even now in death, she loves him still. But love has never been enough to hold them together, and they were not meant for each other in this life.
May they have better luck in the next. In Valhalla.
When Ragnar emerges, very much alive from the gates of Paris, and collapses in Bjorn’s arms, there is no sadness, nor anger…she feels only pity…for him.
“I tried to tell you, Bjorn.”
They have departed from the shores of Frankia, victorious. But the victory has come at a cost. More so for her son. Lagertha can see in his eyes that his faith in his father has been shaken.
“I did not understand…I am…sorry for making you do it.”
“It was not done for him. It was done for you. You were not ready to lose your father. You still need him, you haven’t learned to let him go.”
They ride back quietly, Ragnar watching them from the back of the boat.
“I tried to make him tell you,” Bjorn says to his mother.
Lagertha smiles. “I’ve known your father a long time. I know him better than you do. No one can make Ragnar do anything.”