“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.”
Chapter 2: Needed Me
It is starting again. But this time Ragnar seems to be trying to kill himself slowly. The shiftiness, the rushed speaking. Shaking hands, and glassy eyes. He is not the same man he was when Bjorn left for the winter. There is something desperately wrong. Aslaug has grown arrogant and cruel, his brothers flounder, unattended. There are shadows in the great hall, and he feels death creeping closer. Bjorn rides back to Hedeby.
“Mother, you must come. It is father.”
She shakes her head. She must stay here. It is nearly time.
“I cannot come to Ragnar’s aid every time,” she says. “He has a wife. Call on her.”
Bjorn shakes his head. “They are…estranged,” he says.
“Then it is unfortunate. I am sorry, Bjorn. I cannot come. If you want to help your father, you must do it on your own.”
“But I do not know what is wrong with him! He does not seem to care about anything—his son’s, his kingdom, his people. He disappears for days on end, and when he comes back, he is not Ragnar. He is this other.”
“Then you must prepare for the end, if it is to be.”
“But SHE is still there. And she will favor her sons over me.”
“Then let me grow my kingdom for you to inherit. For my lands will soon be mine again. And they will eventually become yours. Now go.”
Paris again. But this time Lagertha is in command of her own boats. Her own warriors. Her lands are hers again, the blue banners of Hedeby fly proudly. But when she arrives on Kattegat’s shores, her home, so much appears changed. She does not like what she sees. Vagrants in the streets. Whores. Fighting and drunkenness. This is not the Kattegat she knows.
In the great hall there is feasting, and a horn of ale appears in her hand. She gives it to another.
Aslaug sits on her throne, and Lagertha goes to greet her. She is rebuffed yet bows in respect, and disappears into the shadows. The princess has grown haughty, with un-earned self-importance. She eats from the spoils of others’ labor, and sits on the throne of a kingdom she neither built, nor earned.
“I told you,” Bjorn whispers. She had not heard him approach.
“I can see.”
And she does, as another king takes Ragnar’s chair. “King Harald Finehair,” Bjorn explains. Lagertha’s lips purse.
It is not right. And Ragnar is nowhere. She retreats to the back of the hall to examine this carefully. A strong arm wraps around her waist, pulling her against a firm body. She knows the scent—could place it anywhere, and it is only because of this that she allows the touch. And he does touch. Her arms, her breasts, her hips, her stomach…his hands rest there, feeling the small protrusion under her clothes.
“So you are truly an earl…” It is raspy.
“Yes. We are equals now.”
He laughs in her ear a moment before dropping his head and using his tongue to lick the exposed skin on her neck, and behind her ear.
Bjorn is right. There is something very wrong.
“I still burn for you, my wife.” it is a whisper. She hears in it desperation, despair and regret. Wanting. It is sorrow, laid bare.
Lagertha does not see him fully until they are in Frankia again, when he comes to settle beside her and inquire about what happened to Kalf. He asks about her baby, questions her decision to fight. He has never been concerned about her welfare since she left him, and this sudden interest makes her suspicious. And when he comes again to embrace her, in daylight with others watching, his hands are on her stomach and his body presses against hers.
This person is not the Ragnar she knows.
Every decision of his leads them into disaster. And his mouth and teeth are stained red. He has left his children in the care of a strange woman, and he is screaming out for “medicine.”
“What will you do? He will not listen to me,” Bjorn has come to her tent.
“Then I must protect you,” she says and gets up to leave.
Ragnar is not in his tent. Nor are his sons, nor his slave. She walks toward the river, and spots Ubbe and Hvitserk hiding in the rocks. There is talking, a voice she recognizes and one she doesn’t.
“Medicine,” she hears Ragnar demand. “Your secret...” the slave says… “Settlement…destroyed.”
Lagertha crosses the embankment and comes upon her ex-husband and his slave in time to see him forcefully hold her under the water, drowning her. She watches as the woman stops struggling, and Ragnar moves her body away.
She watches as he looks up to see Ubbe and Hvitserk, and she is devastated with the knowledge that those children have just seen their father commit murder.
“Take your brothers,” she tells Bjorn when she arrives back. “I am taking your father.”
He nods and goes, and she waits until she sees the three boys together before going to Ragnar’s tent. He is on his hands and knees, slapping at imaginary bugs.
“What have you done to Ragnar Lothbrok?”
He starts when he hears her voice, and quickly climbs to his feet.
“What are you speaking of?” His eyes are shifting, and he looks guilty.
“Our settlement is gone.” She says. “You knew and yet you said nothing. You killed that woman—do not deny this. I know. What have you done to yourself? Where is my husband?”
She watches as his mouth opens and closes. But no words come out, and she sees for the first time, how broken Ragnar really is. She watches as a tear falls. And he comes to her, his feet heavy, his steps measured, and falls to his knees, wrapping his arms around her legs, his head on her belly.
“She told me it was medicine to take the pain away. Now I cannot stop it. I need it.”
“And she would not give it to you.”
They have similar things, but she has never seen such consequences from it. It reminds her of a drunk dependent on his ale. And she knows that Ragnar is a drunk—dependent on his medicine.
“Where is the rest of it?” she demands, detangling him from her legs. He is holding it in his hands.
She tries to take it, but he snatches it away and turns his back on her. “You do not understand.”
“I do not know this imposter who stands before me. This usurper. You are not my son’s father. You are not Ragnar Lothbrok. You are not fit to be king. I should kill you now and banish you from Valhalla. You are unworthy.”
It is intentionally cruel, and he turns, anger in his eyes as he rushes toward her, grabbing her by the neck and lifting her from her feet. He has gone from a place of weakness to astounding strength. She is choking, but refuses to killed. And so she meets his angry eyes with her own, steely and cold.
“You would murder your wife. Mother of your son. I made you an earl- you said it yourself. And I saved your life twice. I made you king.” It is all she speaks, before his hand loosens and she stumbles back gasping for breath.
There is awareness, fear, panic in his face and she can tell that he is at war with himself. A war he cannot win alone.
“Come,” she says, getting back on her feet. “Let me help you.”
She guides him down to the river, and she removes his clothes and her own. They step into the cool water and he wraps his arms around her as they sink down, down, until it covers their heads and they submerged.
She can tell he is struggling as they haul the boats. Months of labor. And for her, more and more pain.
“Please stop,” he says coming to her. “The baby.”
“I will stop when you begin to try,” she tells him.
He suffers for it. She finds him in the woods vomiting bile. “I cannot do this!” He slaps the ground angrily. “I cannot be weak! Give me back my medicine.” But she has washed it all away.
“No. Get up.” She raises him to his feet. He straights his armor. Wipes his mouth.
“Haul.” She commands. “It will make you stronger.”
And so he does. He hauls, with his warriors. With Bjorn. With Floki, With Harald and Halfdan. She takes on lighter labor and keeps an eye on him. Bjorn watches them both. But the hauling has still taken its toll. And a scream tears through the camp. Father and son arrive to see Lagertha covered in blood. They sink down beside her and Ragnar gathers her in his arms as she cries.
For the first time he hears the truth. What the seer had told her. No more children. But he believes the seer to be wrong. And as he comforts his love, and cries for her, Ragnar wishes there were medicine to numb his pain.
“Haul,” she whispers to him in the morning. She is too weak to do much, but he does as she commands. And he hauls his grief, and anger and frustration away.
He comes to her side each night to lay with her. To rub her belly, now empty. It is the intimacy he has craved, a desire stronger than that of medicine. It is like a balm for his broken, wounded spirit. She allows this closeness, knowing he needs it to heal.
In the day Ragnar hauls in line with the rest. His body begins to grow stronger, and his cravings start to go away. By the time the boats are back in the river, Lagertha is on her feet. They come together as family—Bjorn, and his parents—and head to meet fate.
They battle Rollo’s army to a draw and they manage to raid what is left of the Frankish navy. They make their way back up river, hitting small towns along the way. And when they sail back, it is not a victory—but they have managed to save face. Their people believe it is yet another triumph for their king, and belief is all that matters.
“I need time,” he tells Lagertha when they reach the shores of Kattegat. “So you are leaving then,” she says. He rests his head against hers, their noses touching. He places a hand on her belly, now flat. She should have been preparing to give birth to a child that is not his.
“Why do you continue to save me?”
“Because your work on this Earth remains incomplete.”
He kisses her lips to remember the taste of her. He gets nothing in return.
“How long?” She asks.
“I will not wait. You know what I will do when the time comes, regardless of whether you are here.” She looks toward Kattegat. Toward his great hall. He does not respond to this and begins walking away.
Bjorn comes. “Where is he going?”
Lagertha looks at her son, and then at Ragnar as he retreats. “We have bought him more time. You will need to stay here. Raise your brothers. Do your best. Guard his kingdom until he returns. Your father will come back.”
The signs are now identifiable. The creaking of floorboards, the illusion of firelight. The feel of his body next to hers at night. That is the only time he comes to Hedeby. At night. Lagertha ensures there is always food on the table—fruits and vegetables that don’t perish, meats that can be eaten in the morning if unconsumed in the night. There is no routine. Sometimes no presence for months on end, and yet she knows he is not dead. She would have felt it.
He is self-healing, something he has always done, something she has always allowed him to do, and she knows that it may take years still for him to recover from all the damage, emotional and physical, that he has inflicted upon himself. She has told him that she will not wait. And she doesn’t. Her warriors train, for what, they do not know. Hedeby has grown under her rule, and she ensures it is heavily fortified.
The days turn to weeks, weeks months, months into seasons. Ragnar has been gone for seven years. Bjorn is preparing for his first sojourn.
“Have you seen him? Has he come?” Every time it is this question, and every time she says nothing. Bjorn knows of Ragnar’s visits. “Do you think he is a ghost?” He has asked before. “Not a ghost. But not yet a man made whole,” has been her answer. They keep this between themselves.
It has been a long time since she has been in Kattegat, and while the city is far larger, there is now poverty. Beggars in the streets. More whores, more drunks. The city is defenseless. And as she nears the great hall, she sees sickness. Aslaug sits upon her throne, a queen without a king, and therefore, a mere place-holder. Their sons are to journey together, and Lagertha suggests a joint sacrifice. But again, she insulted. She watches from a distance as Aslaug butchers the ceremony, and slides into drunkenness. It is a poor image for a queen, and Lagertha’s eyes see Harald and Halfdan in the corner. Whispering. Watching.
She knows what they want. And she also knows what she must do. She can no longer wait for Ragnar to return. If he does, she will deal with him then.
She holds off until Bjorn has departed and assembles her army. Ragnar’s sons will be angry. They will likely seek her death, as they should. But her legacy, and that of Ragnar, will be protected at all costs. Kattegat will not be allowed to fall into the hands of their enemies.
It is a coup. But yet she has shown the queen mercy with nothing but an arrow to the back. Lagertha accepts what fate may bring. She has always been faithful to the gods, obeying their desires, even when the two have conflicted.
It appears an act of treachery.
Chapter 3: Deliver Me
He arrives in Kattegat to a cold reception. A hard one. There is anger and distrust all around. But it does not matter to him. What matters is standing in front of him. His sons. They are all grown. Even Ivar. They are beautiful, magnificent. They are also silent. And so he challenges them. Challenges them all. He throws his sword to the ground.
“Who wants to be king?” He shouts it loudly. Says it again. But there is a chill in the air. Bjorn steps through the crowd and up to his father. He crosses his arms in front of him, and they stare at each other. Slowly, the crowd begins to part, and Ragnar looks up to see a glint of blond hair. Bjorn steps aside and reveals…Lagertha.
“Your queen is dead,” she tells him, loudly, for all to hear. She draws her sword, aiming it at the King. “I told you I would not wait.”
The crowd is watching. What will Ragnar do?
His sons are watching. What will their father do to the woman who killed their mother?
It is Lagertha who surprises them all. She raises her sword, and sinks it into the ground, and takes a knee.
“All hail, King Ragnar!” There is silence. Bjorn gets to his knees.
“All hail, King Ragnar!” He says. His brothers follow.
“All hail King Ragnar!” And slowly, the rest of Kattegat bows.
“All hail King Ragnar!”
“All hail, King Ragnar!”
“All hail King Ragnar!”
“What will you do to her?” It is Ubbe who asks the question. Lagertha and Bjorn are elsewhere, inspecting the city’s defenses, and Ragnar has been left alone with his younger sons. “She should die for what she did to our mother!” Ivar’s fists pound the table. Sigurd and Hvitserk sit quietly. He takes notice of their silence.
“And what do you think?” He asks them.
“I think our mother was a witch,” Sigurd says. “Everyone has said it. You were gone and she let Siggy die. She allowed Bjorn’s daughter to die as well. She did not care.”
“I don’t believe you ever loved our mother,” Hvitserk now, to Ragnar. “And she stopped loving us when Harbard came.”
“Ubbe?” He looks at his second oldest. It is like looking at himself as a younger man.
“She was our mother,” is all he says.
“And how has Lagertha ruled in my absence?”
The brothers look at each other.
“She has settled many disputes. She has been…fair in her judgement.” Ubbe is honest.
“She has fortified Kattegat’s defenses,” Sigurd says.
“She has cleaned up our streets,” Hvitserk admits grudgingly.
“And why did none of you do it? Especially if you four have been here. Why did it take Lagertha? Did you not know it needed to be done? What have you all done with your time?” Ragnar is angry, his eyes flashing.
“You were not here!” Hvitserk yells. “You left us!”
“I left you in the best position you possibly could have been in. And you failed me. If you must know--” he pauses, weighing whether to speak on this with his adult sons. “Lagertha is your queen. I never married your mother.”
He looks at Ivar. “You were always Aslaug’s favorite. But you will. Not. Touch. My. Wife. Are we understood?”
He can see the anger in Ivar’s eyes. Ragnar leans in to his son’s level.
“You will not. Swear to me.”
Ivar swears through gritted teeth.
“You look old, husband,” she says when she comes in and finds him staring into the fire in the great hall. His beard is long and mostly gray, the tattoos on his head faded. There are dark circles under his eyes. Ragnar does not respond, and she moves to the rooms to begin taking off her clothes, and tying on a robe. He follows her.
“You have made things complicated,” he says standing by the door watching her undress. “Ivar desires your death.”
“Then so be it. I did what had to be done. If I had not, there would have been no Kattegat when you returned. We’ve fought off two incursions thus far. King Harald’s men. I am sure your sons did not tell you that.” Lagertha moves to a chair and takes a seat.
He sits on the bed.
“I did not know.”
They do not speak of Aslaug.
“You should also know your sons are sharing a slave girl, Margarethe. Ivar has grown bitter and angry, and his brothers fear him. And Bjorn…” she stops.
“What of Bjorn?” He asks.
“Bjorn is becoming more and more like you every day.” She does not say more. She doesn’t have to. He understands her meaning. Betrayals. Disloyalty to his wife.
Ragnar turns to leave.
“Where are you going?”
She shakes her head and rolls the covers back.
“You will rest here, tonight.”
He removes his coat and his boots, climbing into bed beside her. She turns on her side and raises herself to look down at him.
“You have gained weight dear husband,” she says pressing a finger against his middle and poking him. “I wonder if your clothes will still fit.”
Ragnar leans over and places his lips against her shoulder. “They may not,” he acknowledges… “but I believe there is something else that still fits.”
“I cannot believe he is back. I cannot believe he could say such things about our mother!”
They are in the forest, and Ivar is seated on a fallen log, throwing knives at a tree.
“If what he says is true, then are we not his bastards? What is our place?” Hvitserk wonders aloud.
“And yet, he has never treated us as such. And Lagertha has always been kind,” Ubbe says quietly. “Hvitserk, you remember.” They look at each other, remembering the first time they saw Lagertha, how she had greeted them with open arms as she helped their father recover his lands. They remember how she too had been there watching as Ragnar killed his slave. And they remember how it had been Lagertha who eventually returned their father to them.
“He loves Lagertha,” Sigurd says. “There has always been talk of mother. Even when we were children…”
The talk. The stories. Of how Aslaug showed up one day and Lagertha left. Of how Aslaug moved in and how Ragnar lost his family.
“Do you all not remember Harbard?” they all fall silent.
“Harbard was my friend! How can you all turn your backs on mother? Did she deliver you or did that barren whore?” Ivar is incensed.
“And look at her! Do you see how she does not age? Is that not witchcraft? Lagertha is the witch! Not mother!”
“We are not turning our backs,” Ubbe speaks to him. “But Ragnar is our father. And Lagertha is Kattegat’s rightful queen. You have heard him say this. Our mother was his mistress. Nothing more.”
“Then it is Bjorn who is heir,” Ivar says.
“Do you have a problem with that? He has done and acted in Ragnar’s place. He raised us! Where was mother when Ragnar left? Drunk. That’s where. Bjorn took care of us—him and Torvi. What is so wrong about the first-born son being the rightful heir?” Hvitserk glares at Ivar. Ivar slips into sullen silence.
Ubbe speaks. “We must evaluate our choices, and our decisions. We do not know what the future will bring.”
“I have unfinished business in England,” Ragnar tells his wife. He is on top of her, inside of her, moving between her legs. It has been so long since he felt such heat. Even longer since he felt hers. The way she engulfs him remains just as strong as the day he felt it the first time. More so, he thinks, now.
“I know. The settlement. What will you do? We are in a precarious position right now. Harald and Halfdan are no longer allies. Your people are still angry. They will fight for Bjorn and for your sons and for me—but they will not fight for you.”
She is right. While his people have accepted that he is still king, he knows there is deep distrust. He has returned to make amends, to see his sons and avenge his people, but his return has brought nothing but complication.
Ragnar raises himself and grabs her thighs, pulling her down and switching to a different type of penetration. Lagertha gasps and reaches around him to grasp his ass. “More.” They speak of business no longer. And he gives her what she demands.
He is still giving it to her when his sons walk into the great hall.
It is Ubbe who walks in accidentally walks in on them and sees his father’s naked ass between Lagertha’s legs.
“What…do you want?” Ragnar says through gritted teeth, focused solely on his wife’s pleasure. He has no intention of stopping, not even for his son.
“We must speak with you,” Ubbe starts.
“Are we at war?” Lagertha breathes. Ragnar’s teeth scrape against her neck and she moans and repositions her hands on his ass.
“Then it is not urgent. Wait,” Ragnar commands, rolling his wife over and sitting up to bring her onto his lap. He wraps his lips around one of his wife’s breasts.
Ubbe leaves to sit on the steps of the great hall, the sounds of Ragnar and Lagertha following him out the door.
Hvitserk approaches. “Why are you out here? Did you not tell Ragnar we wished to speak with him?”
“He is…preoccupied,” Ubbe explains. “This is urgent!” Hvitserk pushes past him and into the hall, marching toward the back rooms. But he too is stilled at the sight of Lagertha’s naked back, and her hips, grinding on top of his father. He quickly backs out and leaves, going to settling down next to his brother. “I will wait with you.”
Sigurd arrives. “What are you two doing? Where is Ragnar?”
They both point to the hall.
“Why are we sitting outside?”
“Trust us, you do not want to go in there,” Hvitserk says. Sigurd is confused, but settles down with his brothers.
Ivar is last to come.
“Where is Ragnar? Where is father?” All three brothers point to the door. “We are waiting,” Sigurd says.
“Waiting for what?”
“For father to…finish,” Ubbe replies. “He is with Lagertha.”
At this, Ivar is incensed. He glares at his brothers and barges into the hall making his way to the back rooms. He enters…and finds Ragnar on his knees, his head between Lagertha’s thighs. Ragnar continues what he is doing, refusing to look up.
“What. Do. You. Want?” He says with annoyance, the words muffled against his wife’s flesh. He kisses the insides of her thighs.
“The sons of Ragnar demand an audience with our father!” Ivar refuses to back down. But Ragnar does not turn around. And Lagertha lets out a quiet pant as he begins to use his tongue.
“As I have told your brothers,” he breathes against her sex, “you will just have to wait.”
Noting the futility of the argument, Ivar leaves, the sounds of Lagertha’s soft moans echoing in his ears.
“He says we must wait,” Ivar says grudgingly, coming to rest of the porch along with the rest of the brothers.
“I take it they are still…preoccupied,” Sigurd says. Bjorn comes walking up. All four of his brothers look at him.
“I take it our father is…busy,” he says settling down next to Ivar on the porch. “How did you know?” Hvitserk asks, surprised.
“It is their way.”
“He is disgracing himself –on his knees before her,” Ivar says. Bjorn arches an eyebrow at him. The other brothers look at each other.
“Then I would suppose mother disgraced herself many times, on her knees before him,” Sigurd shoots back.
The other brothers look at each other.
“They have been worse,” Bjorn says stopping the fight before it can escalate any further. “Ubbe, how long have you been here?”
“An hour,” he says.
“Then they should be done soon. Come. It is warmer inside.”
They brothers rise and enter the hall, right as the sounds have reached their peak.
“Perhaps we should leave,” Hvitserk says, glancing toward the back rooms.
They are very much aware of sex. They have seen it, and they have had it, but none have ever had or experienced sex in quite this way. It sounds…rougher. More intense. They feel…inadequate in comparison. Bjorn snickers at his brothers’ discomfort as he drops into a chair, having grown up with these sounds as a child. He is unfazed.
“This is what they do. What they’ve always done.” He says, dismissively.
There is a shout, a moan, and finally, mercifully, it falls silent.
Sigurd looks at Ivar. “Do you still doubt Ragnar loves Lagertha?”
“I have never seen nor heard him love mother in that way,” Ubbe says, assessing the situation. Hvitserk nods. It is true. Their parents made love quietly. Silently—almost with guilt and shame. What they have seen and heard has none of that. Ragnar and Lagertha are brazen.
“So, who is going back?” They look at each other. Bjorn gets up, rolling his eyes.
“The sons of Ragnar are here!” He calls out.
There is silence, and then whispers. After a moment, the rustling of clothing. Eventually Ragnar appears dressed only in his pants. He licks his lips and wipes his mouth, going for the ale. Lagertha follows wrapped in a robe, her hair disheveled. She yawns. They reek of sex.
“We need to discuss Wessex. Your people are angry. They feel betrayed by you. This still needs to be addressed,” Bjorn tells Ragnar as his parents sit down.
“Then I must go to Wessex,” Ragnar says calmly.
“If you do you’ll be killed!” Ivar raises his voice.
“Indeed.” He says looking at his son. “It is time for me to go. I should have gone a long time ago.”
“Do you realize what you are saying father? That you will willingly go into the hands of our enemies?”
“I will go with him.”
“Mother!” This time, the outburst has come from Bjorn. Lagertha looks at him. “King Ecbert will not kill me. You know this.”
“But what will happen?” Ubbe asks.
“We will have our revenge. And your jobs will be to assemble our army,” Lagertha says. “I will return.”
They depart with a small band of warriors, those most loyal to Lagertha. “Hide the boat. I will come back. Make sure you are not discovered,” she instructs as she and Ragnar begin walking.
She takes the time to look at her husband. His beard is long and she has combed it. There are scars on his face, but his torn robes are gone, and in their place, the armor of a great king. A great man. He looks whole. Restored to the glory that has lived inside him. He looks down at his beloved wife.
“Are you ready?”
“I do not believe I will ever be truly ready, Ragnar. But I know that you are. And it brings me comfort.”
She is dressed as the queen she is. A red dress, her top emblazoned with armor. White furs adorn her shoulders and her earrings hang down. Her hair is braided and upswept as if a crown upon her head. Lagertha is ageless. Even after so many years, he remains fully in love with her. He has never stopped.
Wessex comes into view before them. And they are able to walk through the city streets, and nearly to the gates before they are stopped by guards.
“Who comes here?”
“Tell your king that Lagertha is here.”
Guards surround them with spears drawn—knowing the name. She holds fast to Ragnar’s arm and they wait.
The gates open, and Aethelwulf rides out. His eyes grow wide as he sees them.
“Take them.” He orders.
Ragnar and Lagertha are ripped apart and placed in chains, taken into the palace.
“Where are they?” Ecbert demands when his son returns.
“Captured, in the dungeon.”
“Bring them to me!” The king is incensed. “Bring me Lagertha and Ragnar Lothbrok.”
It is the glinting blond hair the king sees first, followed by the white, and red. He blinks, not believing his eyes.
“Un-chain her.” The guards look at each other uncomfortably, but move to undo the shackles around her hands and feet. “Please, sit.” But she does not.
“Where is my husband?” she says her voice low, and level.
“He is coming.”
“Then I will wait for him.”
The doors open again and Ragnar is brought in, chained and caged. Lagertha’s heart clenches but she does not say anything. He doesn’t appear to have been beaten…but she does not like that he is caged as if a wild animal.
“You will release him,” she commands Ecbert’s guards. They do not move. Lagertha looks at Ecbert.
“Release him,” the king commands, and with hesitation, the cage opens, and Ragnar steps out. He holds up his hands, and the shackles are removed. They are taken from his feet as well.
He goes to his wife, and she extends a hand. He takes it.
“Why have you two come?” Ecbert asks, with wonder.
“It is time for me to die,” Ragnar says. There is no emotion in his voice. It is a fact.
“And I have come to see him to his death.” Ecbert stares at the two of them. His eyes linger on Lagertha the longest.
“You are still most beautiful,” he tells her sincerely. “I have thought about you nearly every day since you left.”
“And yet you are still the same Ecbert,” she says. He laughs ruefully. “I am old.”
“We are all old,” Ragnar says. And Ecbert looks at him again, fully this time, and nods. “You two are my friends. My enemies. We are different from this younger generation. I do not doubt that it is time for all of us to die. But I cannot be the one to do it for you.”
“You must,” Lagertha says. “It is the only way.”
“You must deliver me to King Aelle,” Ragnar tells him.
Ecbert blanches. “NO!”
“Yes,” Ragnar is insistent. “I must die. Grant me this honorable death. My people will seek vengeance on Aelle. Your kingdom will expand. You will be king of all England, but in order for that to come to pass, I must die.”
They talk for the rest of the night—about death, about life. About faith and belief.
“King Ecbert,” Lagertha says as light is beginning to seep in on them. “I wish to make love to my husband one last time.”
Ecbert closes his eyes, remembering the feel of her body on his, her lips, her hands…the touch of her breasts…She was never his, never a woman for him, and so unlike any he has had before or since. He knows she has always belonged to Ragnar and when he opens his eyes, the light is touching them, making them glow. They are like angels, two bodies, two souls that blend into one.
“King Ecbert, will you grant us this?” Ragnar now. He blinks again.
“Yes. I will take you to my chambers.”
They follow and Ecbert guides them to his bedroom. He watches as they embrace again, the stays on Lagertha’s dress become ensnared in Ragnar’s hands. He closes the door and leaves them, walking back to his hall to wait.
A choked sob escapes Lagertha’s lips once the door shuts and Ragnar is inside her. It is the first and only such break in her emotional walls.
“I want to go with you to Valhalla,” she says. “I do not want to be left behind.”
“I know,” he tells her, resting his forehead on hers. “And I will wait for you there. I promise. But there is still so much work we must do.”
Valkyries do not cry. And aside from a single tear, the one in his arms doesn’t either. Ragnar knows his fortune. He had stolen Lagertha from the All Father himself, and he had taken her wings when he made her his wife. She gave up immortality to be with him because she had wished to know the thing the humans called love. Odin had warned her of the pain that comes with it, but she had still made the choice, because she had felt she was in love already.
This is what happens when a Valkyrie falls in love with a mortal man.
They kiss. And he gives her love until he fills her with his seed. It is strong, and it pulses inside of her as it settles and begins to spread. She looks at him wide-eyed knowing what he has done.
“For you, my love,” he says.
Chapter 4: Redeem Me
She watches as Ragnar is again caged and loaded onto the back of a wagon in chains.
“We will follow,” Ecbert tells her. “But you cannot wear those clothes. I will not be delivering both of you into the hands of King Aelle.”
They watch together as Ragnar is beaten. Tortured. Her body stiffens with anger as they poke at her husband with sharp spears. Ecbert’s hands remain on hers as they tremble with fury.
Her husband is stripped of his armor, a cross carved into his head with a blade. Lagertha’s blood boils. But she remains silent. She and Ecbert are covered in worn robes and go unnoticed as Aelle’s subjects use Ragnar as…she has no words for it. These are not the Christian works as described by their dear priest, Athelstan. These are the works of the Christian devil.
They slice Ragnar’s feet so he cannot stand. They break his bones and they bloody his face. But still, he does not cry out. And she wills him on silently.
Her sisters will be coming soon.
They meet eyes as his cage is lowered over a pit and snakes dumped in. And in that moment Lagertha knows that he is ready. She nods to him in silent acknowledgement, giving him her strength to push toward this final moment.
Ragnar rises to his feet and demands to speak.
"It gladdens me to know that Odin prepares for a feast. Soon I shall be drinking ale from curved horns. This hero that comes into Valhalla does not lament his death! I shall not enter Odin's hall with fear. There I shall wait for my sons to join me. And when they do, I will bask in their tales of triumph. The Aesir will welcome me! My death comes without apology! And I welcome the Valkyries to summon me home!"
He looks to his wife one more time…and smiles.
The cage opens.
The earth begins to tremble and the winds howl with anger. The people run in fear as the trees around them whip violently, and the fires are put out, the tables blown over. The makeshift stand is destroyed.
In all of the chaos and fury Lagertha stands still. Ecbert grabs for her and she allows him to brace himself against her. After a long while, the trembling stops. The earth is quiet again, and the ravens begin to circle the sky, their cries heralding the events to come.
They step slowly up to the pit and look down at Ragnar’s body covered in snakes. Ecbert turns away, but she stops him.
The Valkyries are like angles, translucent, and naked as they rain down from the heavens. He reaches out to touch them but his hand passes through as they enter the pit.
One comes and hovers in front of them. It reaches out to touch Lagertha’s face gently.
“Sister,” the queen says as the Valkyrie smiles at her and floats away. Ragnar’s body begins to rise and they watch as the Valkyries take him to the heavens, and he disappears behind the clouds.
“It is finished,” she says, one hand on her belly. “My husband has gone home.”
Ecbert turns to her, looking as if he has experienced a miracle.
“You are…with child,” he says with wonder, his eyes going to her hand.
She nods. “And I must go back.”
Chapter 5: Avenge Me
The sons of Ragnar know immediately. For Odin has come to them. And upon Lagertha’s return, they are prepared. It is the largest army ever assembled, and enemies have come to form a truce. When she steps off the boat, Bjorn is there to greet her. And that night when it is only her and the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, she tells them how their father died. Her voice is calm as she speaks of Aelle’s cruelty. Of his torture. No detail is spared.
“Your father met death with dignity. He declared his faith and he remained strong. You must uphold his legacy. He loved you all the most.”
She tells them one more thing. What she and Ragnar had discussed between themselves, once Ecbert’s doors were closed. “We are to destroy Ecbert,” she tells them. “We are to avenge our people, and your father.”
More than 500 ships depart the shores of Kattegat, and when the horns sound in England, Aethelwulf is overwhelmed, and his forces decimated.
He tries to warn his father, but Ecbert sends him away.
He had expected this. Known this. There was no way Ragnar and Lagertha would let him live. Not after what he had done to them. It was only a matter of time.
King Aelle’s forces are slaughtered, and the king himself captured. He is dragged behind Lagertha and Bjorn, bound and shirtless, to the place where Ragnar died.
“This is it,” she tells their children.
"Blood Eagle," Ivar speaks through gritted teeth. Lagertha looks down at him, seeing the hurt and hate in his eyes. She reaches for her knife and hands it to Ivar wordlessly.
He looks at her and sees his pain reflected in her face, and as he studies this queen, in his mind this usurper, Ivar realizes for the first time that Lagertha loved his father even more than he did. And he knows, in his heart, that Ragnar loved her still. In that moment they are united by this, and he cannot decide whether he loves Lagertha or hates her still.
Aelle’s body is strung up, and they each take turns. She is last. Lagertha pulls the lungs from his body, and places them on his shoulders before lowering herself in front of him. “You killed my husband,” she tells the dying king. “He would want you to have this.” A justice done in equal measure.
“We go now,” she commands standing, and wiping the blood on her pants. “To Wessex.”
The doors to the hall burst open, and it is Lagertha that Ecbert first sees. Her dress is gone, and in its place, armor, and a sword. This is Ragnar Lothbrok’s wife. His queen. His shield maiden, his warrior. She is even more resplendent, more commanding than she was at her husband’s death, and he knows that she is very, very angry.
Bjorn comes to stand next to her and he sees others who he does not recognize.
“These are the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok,” she tells him. “Our children.”
He sees now the legacy of Ragnar. He can see the great king in each man.
Bjorn, in the way he stands.
Ubbe, in the way he looks.
Hvitserk, in the way he watches.
Sigurd, in the way he paces.
But when his eyes settle on Ivar, he blanches. Ragnar’s revenge stares him in the eyes.
It is in this moment Ecbert knows he will not be king of all England. He knows the consequences of Ragnar’s death have not yet played out. There will be war and death, and famine—and that when he is gone, when Lagertha is gone—Ragnar’s revenge will engulf the earth, and carry them all into flame.
“Do not be afraid,” he hears Ragnar’s voice in his mind, and closes his eyes.
“I am ready,” Ecbert says to Lagertha.
She slits his throat.
He welcomes death at her hand.
Chapter 6: Join Me
“Quickly Margarethe, more towels. More water.” Torvi, Astrid and Margarethe work as fast as they can. Bjorn and his brothers pace anxiously.
“Lagertha, I need you to push,” Torvi tells her. “Bjorn, please. Tell her to push.”
He comes. “Mother, push. You have to.”
She is tired, so tired. She just wants to go home. But her body will not allow her to. So she pushes. And pushes. And cries out until she is joined in her scream by weak cries that gradually become stronger.
“It’s a girl,” Margarethe declares, giving the baby to its mother.
Lagertha looks down at her.
Astrid comes back with the rest of Ragnar’s sons. They approach cautiously.
“A girl,” she says again…slightly softer this time.
Bjorn touches the tiny forehead.
“What will you call her, mother?”
She hands the child to Bjorn.
It is her dying breath. Her work is now complete. She has prepared Ragnar’s sons as best she could, and now it is up to them to finish. They will either lead, or falter. But she is done. The darkness approaches slowly and she welcomes it; Settling into it as a warm blanket, and allowing the voices to slide further and further away. There are arms under hers, and knows she is being carried home.
And when she awakes she stands before the golden gates. They part for her and as she enters and she walks into the open arms of her husband.
“I told you I would wait my love. You saved me.”
He kisses her, and she feels him, solid and sure. Ragnar appears as a young man—the man he was when they were happy and fresh in love. When they were farmers. He has no tattoos, and his hair is long. His clothes are simple, and his eyes twinkle with devilment and mirth. She touches her own face and knows that she too, is young again. He walks her inside, and they are met by their daughter. Gyda wraps her arms around her mother’s waist.
They can be here now, with each other, in eternity. And neither death, nor betrayal, nor hurt or any other things will ever separate them again.
“Mother, your back…” Gyda says, and she looks at her daughters face with confusion. She looks at her husband, who is smiling with pride.
She turns, and feels…something heavy.
“My wife…your wings,” Ragnar says, standing back in awe. She exhales and stretches…and then sees them.
Her wings. Like swan wings. The wings of what Athelstan described as the angels…the wings of the Valkyries. The ones she had so freely given up. For love.
Odin’s favorite Valkyrie. Restored to her former glory.
“You will escort the rest of our children home,” Ragnar tells her, “just as you guided me, my love.”