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Vikings 5 Recap, episode 7: FULL MOON

This episode is an increasingly dark, doom-laden build-up toward the battle that is looming between, essentially, the sons of Ragnar. But I want to talk about that later. First, let’s look at the other three elements in this episode (it was a COMPLICATED episode!): Family Matters; The Iceland Settlement; and Philosophy.

Bjorn is back in Kattegat, and he confesses that he doesn’t love his wife any more. He feels bad about it, and you may remember that last season Torvi killed her nasty husband Erland to save Bjorn’s life. He SHOULD feel bad! Poor Torvi. This is the third husband she’s lost. She’s quite philosophical about it, though. She tells Ubbe later, “We all die. We musn’t try too hard to hold on to things that pass.” A good philosophy for the wife of a viking warrior.

Bjorn promises to always care for Torvi and the children, and he gives her son, Guthrum, a knife because he’s such a good dad. Then he goes to the tent of the Sami princess Snaefrid (who treats him pretty much the way Lagertha treated King Harald when he was her prisoner.) Rough sex. Hunh. If Bjorn grows tired of this one, he’d better be careful. She’s not likely to just smile sadly and walk away, like Torvi.

Ubbe offers sympathetic kisses to Torvi, observed by his sweetie Margrethe, who whines about it. Then she takes on the Lady Macbeth role, telling him not to fight Ivar, not to support Lagertha when the battle comes. “If Bjorn dies,” she purrs, “you will be king and I’ll be queen.” Ubbe, of course, is listening. How could he not?

But there is a basic fallacy in Margrethe’s thinking. Consider how Ragnar became king by killing Horvath; and how Lagertha became queen by killing Aslaug. That has been presented as the viking way. Margrethe, though, is not encouraging Ubbe to fight anyone, but to merely allow them to slaughter each other and then step in as the last man standing. And she is completely forgetting about Ivar.

Lagertha questions Halfdan about his divided loyalties between his brother Harald and Bjorn. Halfdan assures her that Bjorn saved his life, and he will be loyal. We don’t know whether to believe him, or if Lagertha believes him.

Over in Vestfold Astrid is pregnant and not happy about it. Why, I wonder? Because it’s Harald’s? Because it might not be Harald’s? Because she’s a shield maiden and doesn’t want a baby at all? Hard to say. Harald, though, is ecstatic.

Upon seeing the site that Floki has chosen for their settlement, with it’s bubbling hot springs and a geyser, there are mumblings of rebellion. Can’t blame them. It must have smelled like rotten eggs, too. Plucky Aud, though, looks on the bright side. “This hot water has been given us by the gods to make our lives easier!” She is definitely a Viking Age Pollyanna.

When the question of leadership arises, Floki says they will govern themselves. Eyvind, who never has anything good to say, accuses Floki of wanting to be king. But the Iceland settlement would develop, historically, just as Floki has suggested. They institute the Althing, where the chieftains and their people would meet for 2 weeks at midsummer to pass laws, resolve disagreements and discuss politics. Probably not beside the stinky hot springs though.

While Heahmund and Ivar play tæfl – a game of war strategy – they discuss the coming conflict, but also fate, free will, and God’s plan. Later they discuss the fickleness of the moon, and Ivar tells the bishop that he wants to believe that in this world there is someone who never lies, who is always noble. “I am that man, Ivar,” the bishop assures him. Ivar, though, is standing behind him holding a knife to his head when this occurs and afterwards the bishop is shaken. He knows he’s just barely dodged a bullet knife.

At the Holy Isle, Alfred and the abbot also discuss the working of God’s will, especially in regard to the monk Athelstan whom Alfred reveres as a saint and the abbot condemns as an apostate. “We are all of us devils and angels,” Alfred says. More of that light and dark imagery we saw last week.

An aside: I especially liked Alfred’s recommendation that the abbot translate his Latin books into English, because this is something that Alfred the Great actually promoted.


Ivar begins the episode by telling the bishop that this battle will be a whopper. “The world will tremble,” he says, “and the winner will inherit the earth.”

Bjorn, in an attempt to cheer Lagertha out of her dismal mood after she says that her life is full of ghosts, enthuses that the coming battle will be like Ragnarok! Ivar will be like the wolf Fenrir, with flames in his eyes as he tries to tear the sky apart!

Thanks, Bjorn. I don’t know about Lagertha, but I feel much better now.

Margrethe says that the world is coming to an end, and later Lagertha echoes it, saying “The end of our world is here.”

In case you were wondering, this will be a BIG BATTLE.

The penultimate scene, with Lagertha’s war council debating their strategy, their voices continuing over images of Ivar making moves on a tæfl board, is utterly brilliant. It ends with Ivar’s hand winning the game as ominous music builds.

I thought it would end there. I was really happy with that. I thought it was AMAZING! But there was one more scene. Alfred, at the Holy Isle, recites the Lord’s Prayer, and Athelstan’s voice joins in. As he says the final words of the prayer, Alfred disappears and we see instead those who are conflicted:

Lead us not into temptation – Ubbe
But deliver us from evil – Halfdan
For ever and ever – Lagertha


Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 6: THE MESSAGE

The opening scene of this episode made me think of novelist Dorothy Dunnett’s description of the African desert:

There are few water holes, and the way hidden by sandstorms. One mistake in the desert and whole caravans can perish. The sands are half made of bone. 
from Scales of Gold, Chapter 33.

Bjorn, Halfdan and Sinric, however, had no difficulty, it seems, in launching themselves on to camels in the middle of a dust storm and making their way out of the storm, on to the coast, into their boats and sailing to Kattegat. There should have been a banner message across the screen at this point reading:


Most of the action in this episode, though, takes place in Vestfold. And my goodness, there is a lot going on. Things begin with Astrid leading Harald a merry chase through the woods, symbolic, perhaps of her state of mind regarding her husband. Later this will be confirmed when she pays a whaler to deliver a warning to Lagertha. I really expected Astrid to be a bit more canny in her dealings with these men. She seems to be relying on her position as queen, but in reality, she is a captive. She exhibits a naiveté that doesn’t fit the fierce shield maiden we’ve seen her to be; she is just asking for trouble and boy does she get it. The only thing that surprised me about this scene was that the whaler actually delivered the warning!

Ivar, Hvitserk and company show up in Vestfold with Heahmund in tow and forge an alliance with Harald to attack Kattegat. My favorite part of this episode is when Heahmund recites Psalm 23 in Old English, and for once, Heahmund comes across as a real man, far less wooden. Throughout several scenes we see the growing tension between Ivar and King Harald, between Ivar and Hvitserk, and between Ivar and Heahmund. Ivar tells Harald what he really wants is to take revenge against Lagertha. He tells Hvitserk that what he really wants is to be famous. He tells Heahmund that he’s going to be king of Kattegat. Note to everyone: don’t believe what Ivar says.

As for Heahmund, Ivar gives him a choice: fight at my side or die. It’s hard to know what is going through Heahmund’s head as he pleads with God for deliverance, but we know what has to happen. If the gentle scribe Athelstan chose to become a Viking warrior, the bloody-handed bishop is not likely to refuse the chance to join Ivar’s army and kill heathens.  Did you notice how, much of the time, Heahmund is filmed half in light and half in shadow? It is stunning!

Heahmund pleads with God.

In Winchester young Æthelred, gazing around at the city’s destruction and fearing the return of the northmen, argues that they must return to the swamps for safety. He sounds more like his famous descendant, 11th century Æthelred the Unready, rather than the historical figure who fought so fiercely against the Vikings in the 9th century and died in battle. Meantime Alfred goes into the chapel and stands in the very same spot where King Ecbert once swore to his God.

Alfred in the chapel.

Ecbert swore: “I would sup with the Devil if he would show me how to achieve my earthly goals!” It was a memorable and wonderfully performed scene.

Alfred, too makes a vow, to his dead grandfather, King Ecbert, to whom he is praying (and I, for one, am wondering where this King Ecbert wound up after death).

If our Lord should ever see fit to choose me as king, even over this wasteland, then I swear to you that I will fight and struggle to restore your kingdom to its former glory – to realize your dream of becoming king of all England or perish in the trying.

It’s a wonderful scene, evoking the earlier vow of Ecbert, and setting Alfred’s goal of restoring Wessex (sorry, not England yet, WESSEX!!!) in direct opposition to Ivar’s megalomaniacal goal of becoming the most famous man who ever lived. There is just one problem: Alfred, in this show, is not the grandson of the king he is praying to. Michael Hirst decided to make Alfred the son of the fictional monk, Athelstan, making him no blood relative of Ecbert at all. This show insists on having it both ways: Alfred is illegitimate, but he is also the accepted son of Æthelwulf. And we’re reminded of that plot hiccup when Alfred sets out for Lindisfarne to find out about his father, the monk. It’s aggravating because lineage was of enormous importance to Anglo-Saxon royals, who probably knew their forebears going back many generations.

Meantime, King Æthelwulf coaches Æthelred in swordplay and tells him he has the makings of a great warrior and king, foreshadowing the young warrior that Æthelred will one day be.

In Kattegat Lagertha has discovered the Floki contingent preparing to sail for Iceland, but despite her righteous anger that they are leaving their home when she needs warriors the most, she allows them to leave, although not before she makes that wonderful play on his name – alluding to Floki as the Trickster, like the god Loki.

There are two opinions about Lagertha’s decision: Margrethe, a fictional character who is a snide, sneering, adolescent (don’t we all know someone like her?) sees it as another example of how weak Lagertha is. Later, Lagertha gives her a final warning: “Speak against me one more time and I’ll cut out your tongue.” And I’m thinking: Yeah! The other opinion comes from Aud, the daughter of Kjetell Flatnose. She claims that only a woman would have let them depart because women are more patient than men. Women live life more slowly and more deeply.

This is Aud the Deep-Minded, and she and her father are historical figures.

Aud and Kjetell

Here is historian Helen M. Jewell, on Audr the Deep-Minded:

“Ari Thorgilsson’s Islendingabók, written in the 1120s describes the Viking settlement of the then empty Iceland and lists Audr…as one of the four key settlers…Though much associated with her may be legendary, she does represent surely the most a woman might achieve in the Viking Age.”*

I heartily commend Hirst for bringing Aud and her father into the story. They do not look too optimistic at this point, though, about their new surroundings. Kjetell assures Aud, “It cannot be as bad as it looks.” Um, golly. It might be. Even Floki says so. We’ll find out just how bad next week.


*Jewell, Helen M. Women in Dark Age and Early Medieval Europe c. 500-1200. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 15-16.

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 5: THE PRISONER

Ivar watching the battle from the wall and enjoying himself.

Let’s start with where the rats were living.

Was the ground underneath 9th century York really honeycombed with Roman tunnels? I do not know. Let’s think about it.

Ground level in Viking Age York was 21 feet below today’s ground level. Could ground level of Roman Age York have been another 9 feet below that? Well, my mathematical calculation, positing .2 inches of rising ground level per year, indicates that it was possible. (I majored in English, so take my calculation with a grain of salt.) And Roman barracks have been found beneath York minster. But sewers? With trap doors leading up into the streets of Viking Age York? That seems a little too unlikely. Nevertheless, Ivar needed a plan for winning his battle, so series creator Michael Hirst gave him one. This. Is. Fiction.

I have to say, though, that it was kind of ludicrous that the Vikings were able to come boiling out of their underground lair to meet with so little resistance. They had to emerge one at a time and it seems to me that a simple game of whack-a-Viking was called for, yet the Saxons were incredibly inept at it.

The title of the episode, THE PRISONER refers, most obviously, to Bishop Heahmund who midway through the hour becomes Ivar’s prisoner. Ivar apparently admires the bishop for his fighting prowess. Indeed, he stops the battle at one point, just to give the bishop a horse. Poor Richard III, many years later, would not be given that advantage, although it didn’t really help Heahmund much. Also, I don’t know about you but I kept wondering why some Saxon archer didn’t just send an arrow into Ivar, who was standing on top of a wall making a target of himself. Maybe nobody had time to look up. I’ve never fought a battle in the streets of Viking Age York, so what do I know.

The Saxons lost, of course, but Queen Judith, tending to the wounded, made a wonderful contrast to the glamorous Kassia, down in Africa. I bet Kassia wouldn’t have done that!

Queen Judith in a stressful moment.

Heahmund, portrayed accurately as a man of his time, is not only Ivar’s prisoner by episode’s end, but also a prisoner of his own prejudices and convictions and hatreds, don’t you think? And now, he is being transported to the Viking homeland by Ivar. What will Hirst explore in the conflict he has set up between these two characters that he has not already touched upon with Ragnar and Athelstan? Perhaps a great deal, since Ivar does not have his father’s insatiable curiosity and the bishop does not have Athelstan’s merciful nature.

Speaking of the Viking Homeland, Floki has returned to Kattegat in order to recruit true believers like himself and lead them to the gods’ promised land. He has to do it in secret because Lagertha is not keen on losing warriors. Ubbe expresses doubt that Floki actually found the land of the gods and tells Floki he’s nuts. But Floki knows what he knows, and our last glimpse of Ubbe is of a man who is not sure what to believe. I’m wondering what Hirst is planning for Ubbe. He is in marked contrast to his far more lethal brothers, Ivar and Hvitserk. Does Hirst see him as a foil? Or will Ubbe somehow prevail?

Floki sees himself as more than a boat builder. He has a mission.

Down in Africa, Bjorn is riding a camel and he looks horribly uncomfortable doing it. Camels are the ships of the desert, and poor Bjorn, stuck on this thing because he’s accepted the job of Euphemius’ bodyguard, looks like he’d give anything to be back on a real ship.

Bjorn! Sit up straight!

And now we pick up the theme of PRISONER again, because while his bodyguards are being seduced by drugs and sex, poor Euphemius has been imprisoned by Ziyadat Allah at Kassia’s request, and although he escapes, neither he nor the guards who let him get away survive the episode. The showrunners regale us with a little light-hearted butchery humor which I didn’t find funny. I liked the final scene though, a great cliff-hanger. Bjorn and Halfdan are now the prisoners,

Two dudes in big trouble.

with a blood-thirsty Kassia eager to see murder done, a massive windstorm approaching, and Bjorn with a little something up his sleeve. Nice.

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel


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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 4: THE PLAN

I have to confess that I was just a wee bit distracted this week by Bjorn’s long, blond plait and Lagertha’s intricately braided and metal-studded coiffure.

Look at Bjorn’s braid. Down to his waist.

Lagertha’s hair is plaited into a crown.

Whoever is doing the make-up and hair styling on this series is having a field day, but the actors, especially Katheryn Winnick, must spend hours in the stylist chair. Some of her braids are so tiny and tight I don’t know how she can remember her lines! And while I’m on this topic, I wonder how long it takes to paint on all those tattoos that cover some of the actors practically from head to toe. I know the Vikings probably had a lot of down time in the winter, but still!

But I digress. The settings for this episode change with every scene as we follow the various characters and their story arcs from Gibraltar to York to Kattegat to Sicily to York to Kattegat to Sicily to Kattegat – see what I mean? It’s dizzying. I wish they wouldn’t hop about quite so much.

If anyone in this episode has a plan, as the title suggests, it’s Ivar. We know that because he tells Hvitserk “I have a plan” although he doesn’t ever say what the plan is and we are left wondering about it. Ivar and Hvitserk are squabbling, naturally, because Ivar is an obnoxious, controlling nutcase. We don’t like Ivar. We’re not supposed to like Ivar. He is not meant to be a good guy, and he probably wasn’t one in real life, either. No worries. At least his mother loved him.

Ivar & Hvitserk in York, & we do not want to know what their friends are burning.

Outside the walls of York our king-of-kings-bretwalda-king-of-wessex Æthelwulf finally grows tired of Bishop Heahmund telling him what to do as they try to outwit Ivar. This is understandable. Heahmund always sounds like he’s reciting a really boring speech that he’s been forced against his will to memorize. His voice is a monotone and his face wooden. Is this supposed to imply that he doesn’t really believe any of the pious platitudes, the visions, the claims about God’s wrath that he mouths? The most interesting thing that he says comes when they finally enter York to find it deserted and the cathedral full of trash and vermin; Heahmund stuns us – and Æthelwulf – by asking “Why are the rats above ground?” Could this be part of Ivar’s plan? Hopefully we’ll find out next week.

Over in Kattegat Lagertha welcomes Ubbe home and they become allies even though he still resents her for killing his mum (who liked Ivar best, anyway). Meantime Margrethe badmouths Lagertha to both Ubbe and Torvi (Bjorn’s wife). It backfires on her when Lagertha overhears her, but instead of punishing Margrethe, Lagertha’s response is a mild one, promising respect if Margrethe has the courage to be loyal. Wow. No bloodshed. Not even a slap. Lagertha, you rock.

In Vestfold Astrid finally decides to marry Harald because, she says, at some point one has to accept that you can’t deny fate. They are married under the ribcage of a whale and she only makes him sweat a little when she hesitates before saying ‘I do’. I don’t know about you, but I still don’t have a good feeling about where this is going. I worry about Astrid and that whale of a wedding doesn’t make me feel better.

Bjorn and Halfdan, meanwhile, have sailed through the Pillars of Hercules into the Mediterranean where they meet a ruler named Euphemius and a nun named Kassia who is so extravagantly gowned that she looks like a cross between the Byzantine Empress Theodora and the Queen of Bohemia.

Karima McAdams as Kassia

After being greeted as Varangi (that’s Greek for Viking) they agree to be Euphemius’ bodyguards. Halfdan spends his time carving graffiti into a stone which is something vikings liked to do (Halfdan was here). He also seems smitten by the nun. They all decide to go to Ifriqya (northern Africa) to meet Ziyadat Allah who appears to be the real power in this part of the world. This is unfamiliar territory to me. I can only tell you that Euphemius and Ziyadat Allah were historical figures from the 9th century in Sicily. And yes, Euphemius supposedly kidnapped a nun from Byzantium. I think that nun might be trouble for Halfdan, or maybe the other way round.

In Iceland Floki decides he really can’t keep this awesome place that he’s discovered to himself, so with the gods’ approval he will set out to find true believers to join him. And I can’t help wondering how the heck he’s going to find his way back there again, since he was blown there by a storm in the first place, but he doesn’t appear worried and there does seem to be a giant volcano to mark the spot, so I guess he’ll figure it out.

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel

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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 3: HOMELAND

I’m always intrigued by the titles chosen for the episodes of VIKINGS. This week it’s HOMELAND, and the episode seems to explore what that means to various characters in this 10th century saga.

We begin with Floki who, looking younger without all his eyeliner and facepaint, has been swept by his gods to a new home.

He stands atop a plateau surveying this new world.  By the end of the episode, having witnessed two visions (and we recall that he has seen visions in previous seasons) and having discovered that his infected hand has, miraculously healed, he comes to believe that he is living among the gods. Which is what he suspected last episode. Now, has that really been confirmed? Is he dead? Is his hand really healed? Is he hallucinating? How is he keeping himself alive? How much time has passed since he landed? Ten minutes? Ten days? There is a kind of alternate, heightened reality to his experience, and the many unanswered questions made me feel like I was in that bizarre reality, too. What he is experiencing is beautiful, but troubling.

Harald Finehair conveys Astrid to her new homeland, but she is stiff and disgusted rather than impressed.

He showers her with a nice pied-a-terre, (guarded, unfortunately by what appears to be a troll), a new gown, jewelry, servants and a feast. After dinner, believing that he’s softened her up he makes his move on her and she responds by breaking his nose. We hold our breaths, anticipating tit for tat, but Harald is playing the long game with Astrid. He’d better be careful. He may end up the loser because his brother isn’t there to watch his back. I’m not certain which of them is going to win this game. Harald does become king of Norway, historically, so maybe they make a pact after 10 or so episodes of sparring.

Speaking of Halfdan, he’s hanging with Bjorn in somebody’s homeland – we’re not sure whose; someplace south. These two are trying to bond, but they’re interrupted by one of their crew members who comments that they should pretend to be traders, not raiders. His suggestion that Bjorn should get rid of all but three ships leaves both Bjorn and Halfdan scratching their heads. Vikings were, of course, savvy traders, explorers and settlers as well as raiders. They journeyed east as far as Uzbekistan, west to North America and south through the Mediterranean. But since this is an adventure series, I doubt that we’ll see Bjorn do much trading or settling.

Ubba, though, wants to settle although first there’s the little matter of holding on to the land he believes (erroneously) he’s been granted in the face of Anglo-Saxon opposition. Viewers who love a good battle should have been pleased with the fight at York. We knew, even if the Saxons didn’t, that those ruined Roman walls were just a ruse to lure them into a trap. They are driven into volleys of arrows, sent tumbling into spiked pits, or doused with oil and set on fire. Young Æthelred takes an arrow in the shoulder. I think we see him later on, but I can’t be sure. I have trouble telling the æthelings apart. I wish one of them would grow a mustache.

The Viking victory leads to a showdown, of course, between Ivar and his brothers. So, okay, let’s talk about Ivar. He has a scene with a pretty slave girl who tells him that he is destined for greatness, that his infirmity means he is favored by the gods. These are almost exactly the words that Ragnar once said to him, and Ivar is suitably thunderstruck by them. He looks almost lit from within. It’s Ivar who stage-manages the Viking defense of York. He watches the slaughter from a high window, and now he’s looking like a malevolent minor deity until he suddenly appears zinging through the narrow streets in his little chariot. I cheered when he fell (sorry), but although flattened Ivar took out a Saxon who threatened him and, convinced of his own invulnerability, challenged the Saxons around him, laughing, his face all bloody. For a time both Saxons and Danes were thunderstruck by the sight of him, and when the battle raged on, around him Ivar continued to laugh, delighted at the mayhem.

There is an interesting moment, though, in the midst of the battle chaos when Bishop Heahmund comes face to face with Ivar. Heahmund is calling on his God, and Ivar is laughing demonically. And this seemed to me a defining moment, if we can find one, between Ivar and Heahmund, and probably between Ivar and everyone else. Heahmund and the Saxon leaders are fighting to hold on to something. Ubba is fighting to gain something. Ivar is fighting for the sheer pleasure of creating mayhem. He’s not actually even fighting. He looks like a berserker, but he is merely sitting there, howling in rapture at the chaos he’s unleashed.

He is really quite, quite terrifying.

Ivar wins the battle of the brothers, and Ubba, despite his victory at York, goes back to the Viking homeland, defeated. For now, anyway.


Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel


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Vikings 5 Recap, Episode 1: THE DEPARTED

Ivar, You Are Crazy

Do you remember the first episode of the first season of VIKINGS? Essentially, it was about two brothers, one of whom, Ragnar, was ambitious and eager for adventure, enthralled by the prospect of discovering new worlds and cultures even if only to plunder them for his own gain. (After all, he was a VIKING!)

Through four seasons we followed the trajectory of this curious, intelligent, cunning and sometimes, it must be said, brutal man who became a little strange as the final season unfolded. Yet, because we were grounded in who he was at the beginning, we could even accept the bizarre aspects of his personality that developed in Season Four. Or so it seemed to me.

The first four seasons explored numerous themes: rivalry for sure; but also family, teamwork, loyalty, justice, religion and, in a big way, war.

But back to that very first episode: one reviewer claimed that there was nothing in VIKINGS as grim or gory as on GAME OF THRONES. Another wrote that there was probably less raping and pillaging than in the historical record but then, who wants to watch that much raping and pillaging anyway?

Well, baby, we’ve come a long way. Now, in Season 5, we’ve got rape, slaughter and pillaging galore. Mostly just for fun. That curious, intelligent man is gone and in his place writer Michael Hirst has burdened us with IVAR (Alex Høgh Andersen)  – cruel, vengeful, spiteful, mean, and pitiless when he isn’t whining. (Add your own negative descriptive adjective here if you’d like.) He’s a liar with a warped sense of his own abilities and destiny, and a blood lust that drives him to do unspeakable things that would have made an actual Viking weep. (Murder someone by pouring molten gold down his throat? Really? What a waste of loot!)

Ivar the Boneless

Season 5’s two hour opening, The Departed, re-introduced the major characters we’ve come to know, adding a few more and setting up enough conflicts among this bunch to drive another 30 episodes. The themes? So far: rivalry, vengeance and war. You want grim and gory? You got it.

As for me, I’m hoping that crazy Ivar doesn’t continue to take the central role. There is a great risk in building any kind of story around someone so horrible. There is no depth to the character and there is nothing likeable about him. How do we root for someone like that? I can barely stomach him and have already seen enough of him to last me all season.

Thankfully, it appears that upcoming episodes will not necessarily focus on Ivar. The sons of Ragnar, who once ran in a pack, are growing into their own personalities. In this first episode Ubba, in particular, (Jordan Patrick Smith) seems to be having some kind of epiphany in the midst of the Viking mayhem at York. I’ll be interested to see where that leads.

Ubba, Ivar’s older brother

Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), still protective of his mother and with much of his father’s adventurous spirit, has set out for the Mediterranean in search of loot and fame. One has to question, though, his decision to send messages to Lagertha via the villainous Jarl Harald (Peter Franzén). What was he thinking?

Lagertha,(Katheryn Winnick) always a strong character, is pitted against the historical figure Harald Finehair and his ambition to become king of all Norway. She has an odd way of expressing her contempt for him. I thought he was a goner, but Michael Hirst needs him alive to add to Lagertha’s problems and anyway, Harald Finehair didn’t die in Lagertha’s barn, as far as I know. She is also likely to have to deal with Ivar at some point, (the Seer told her that she would die at the hands of one of Ragnar’s sons) as well as some internal dissension in Kattegat.

Lagertha in a quiet moment

Floki’s conflict, refreshingly, is not against other men, but against Nature itself as he lands on the coast of a very forbidding Iceland. Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård)  travels with Odin’s bird, the raven. I always enjoy those visual mythological references that Hirst tosses in. Thank you for the raven, Michael.

Floki in transit

Over on the island of Britain the historical Heahmund (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Bishop of Sherborne – a charming, self-flagellating chap who yearns to slaughter all pagans – has teamed up with King Æthelwulf of Wessex to take on the Danes in York where, probably, neither man ever set foot. The see of Sherborne was on the southern coast, and Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) was never king of Mercia. Indeed, by the time Heahmund was made a bishop, Æthelwulf was in his grave and his son Æthelred I was king of Wessex. But we are in historical fantasy land these days. Don’t expect much that reflects actual historical events.

Bishop Heahmund the Belligerant

Having just written that I have to report that a Viking army did, in fact, capture York in 866, and for 50 years the city remained under Danish control. So yes, that bit was based on a real event. If you’ve seen or read THE LAST KINGDOM you already know what happened when the Saxons tried to take back York. It’s not looking good for Æthelwulf and Heahmund.

The Wessex Royal Family in, unbelievably, Yorkshire. Left to right, Aethelred, Alfred, Aethelwulf, Judith. Actually, Aethelwulf had 4 sons & Judith wasn’t their mother, but never mind.

I applauded Hirst’s brilliant decision to have the adolescent Alfred the Great (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and his family hanging out in what looked like the watery marshlands of Somerset – setting up the concept that, years later, when Alfred needed a hideout from the Danes, he knew exactly where to go.

It is clever writing like that, along with surprising plot twists, character interactions, personal internal conflicts, and the struggle against the terrifying immensity of Nature, that will keep me watching.

Not the blood and the gore, and certainly not Crazy Ivar.

Photos of VIKINGS © The History Channel


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The Great-Sea Flood

Woodcut of a 1607 flood in E. Anglia

A.D. 1014 This year on the eve of St. Michael’s Day, came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people. THE ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLE

The date of this event in 1014 was 28 September. The wave described by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle swept through the English Channel, impacting England’s southern coast as well as areas of what is now the Netherlands. But the wave also moved northward along the coasts of Cornwall and Wales, rounded the northern coast of Scotland and then continued south along England’s eastern coast. We do not know if this disaster took place in the daytime or at night. We only know that it was sudden, and that those affected never saw it coming. Scholars theorize that in Britain more than 80,000 people died in a matter of minutes.

What could have caused such a great sea-flood? We tend to link tsunamis with earthquakes, but there is no record of any earthquake in September, 1014. We tend to associate flooding with storms, but the annals make no mention of a storm

M. Baillie, in an article published in the Journal of Quarternary Science, 2007, speculates that the 1014 tsunami recorded by chroniclers in Britain and at Quedlinburg Abbey in Saxony was caused by a meteor that landed in the mid-Atlantic. You can see a simulation of the comet impact here.

In the 11th century there was no Red Cross. There was no FEMA. Who cared for those left homeless? Who buried the bodies of the dead? How long did it take for the devastated towns and villages to recover, and is it possible that some might never have recovered? Might they have simply been washed away and, eventually, forgotten?

We can only guess at the answers to those questions as we stand in awe of Mother Nature’s fury even now, one thousand years later.


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Of Runes and Repetition

Today I’m sharing something about my writing process. One of the difficulties that a writer faces in penning a trilogy is the problem of repetition. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to avoid when you have the same characters and the same settings in three consecutive books that tell a lengthy story. Nevertheless, it is up to the author to make each scene significantly different from any that have gone before.

In the second novel of my trilogy about Emma of Normandy, THE PRICE OF BLOOD, I created a scene in which Tyra, a gerningakona (Old Norse, meaning a woman who practices magic) casts rune sticks on the floor and tells her mistress, Elgiva, what she sees there. Here is an edited excerpt from that scene:

Elgiva sat on the floor of Catla’s bedchamber, hands clasped about her knees. Two arms’ length in front of her Tyra knelt among the rushes, frowning intently at the rune sticks scattered in the space that had been cleared between the two of them. Elgiva flicked her gaze between Tyra’s face and the rune-marked pieces of bone.

“Well?” she whispered to Tyra.

But the Sámi woman made no reply. Oblivious to everything but the rune sticks, she began to chant softly, words that Elgiva did not understand although the mere sound of them – eerie and in some strange tongue – made her flesh crawl.

She contained her impatience. Scrying the future, it seemed, could not be rushed.

Tyra had closed her eyes and was running her hands lightly across each fragment of bone, fingering them, touching whatever power emanated from the scored ivory. Then her eyes opened, focusing with such needle-like sharpness on Elgiva that she shuddered.

“Two sons,” Tyra said, in a voice so strange it seemed borrowed from some other world. “Both will grow to manhood. Both will leave this middle earth before you.”

Both will grow to manhood.

Her sons, then, would not all wither in the womb as the last child had.

Tyra had closed her eyes again, slumping against the bed frame as if she were a poppet made of rags and straw. The power that had been within her had withdrawn, and she looked haggard, her face so pale that even her lips were white. Elgiva clenched her fists with impatience, but she knew better than to press Tyra any further. The woman was exhausted and all her power fled.

For a long moment she gazed thoughtfully on that drawn and pallid face, gnawing on an idea that she had been considering ever since the first time she had seen the cunning woman’s hands play across the shards of bone with their mysterious markings. Slowly she moved her stiffened limbs, repositioning herself so that she was on her knees, mimicking the slave woman’s stance when she had been reading the runes. She leaned forward just as she’d seen Tyra do it, fingering the small, scored rods, hoping to feel some kind of power emanating from them.

She felt nothing. She sat back on her heels, and when she looked at Tyra again, the Sámi woman was eyeing her.

“You have lusted after my power for many months now, have you not? Her voice was normal again, no longer filled with magic. “Look at me. Each time I use the power, there is less of me afterward. Is that what you long for?”

I had to look at that scene again because I needed to bring the runes back and at the same time make the new scene that I wanted to include in my third book (not finished yet!) different from the one in the previous novel.

I went back to my research. First, I consulted a book on Nordic Religions by Thomas DuBois that I’d picked up on one of my trips to the Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo – a book that appealed to me as much because of its cover as its Table of Contents.

Runes, as you may know, were used by pagan Germanic peoples, not so much as a means of communication, but as a set of magical symbols associated with healing and magic. In cultures that had no written language, like that of Viking Age Scandinavia, words – and even letters – had an element of mystery about them because so few people understood them. And so they were associated in people’s minds with magic and charms that could cure or curse. For instance, a rune could be written on something, then scraped off into a cup of mead so that the drink became a healing elixir. Or runes could be carved on to something to protect it – the mast of a ship, for example, or the hilt of a sword.

I shall teach you the runes of triumph
To have on the hilt of your sword
From the Eddaic poem Sigrdrifomál

I also turned to a book by Horik Svensson that identified each rune and explained how it might be understood and interpreted.

By taking the information that I was able to glean from my research materials, adding it to the clear idea I had about what I wanted the runes to say to Tyra and Elgiva, and throwing in a dollop of pure imagination, I produced what I hope is a realistic and dramatic scene that is still quite different from the scene in the earlier book, yet builds upon it. Here, again, is an edited excerpt:

“Hagall. Nied. Othel. Tire. Elgiva mouthed the names of the few runes that she could recall and edged forward on her chair, narrowing her eyes to search the markings on the narrow, yellowed shards at her feet. After a few moments, frustrated, she thrust herself back against the cushions.

What did it matter that she knew what they were called? The bits of scored bone scattered on the floor looked to her like nothing more than kitchen refuse. She did not have Tyra’s gift and never would.

She watched her Sámi slave bend over the rune sticks, hands outstretched. Tyra’s braid of dark hair pooled into her lap, and candlelight sent shadows flickering over her thin face. The sight made Elgiva’s flesh creep and, knowing what must come next, she wrapped her shawl about her head so that it covered her ears. Tyra would start chanting soon, the sound so familiar now that Elgiva sometimes heard it in her sleep. Mournful and eerie, it turned her dreams to nightmares. She did not like it, did not want to hear it. But it was part of the ritual. If she wanted an answer to her question, it had to be endured.

When the chanting began she gritted her teeth and, eager to distance herself from it, she pushed herself to her feet and paced to the far end of the chamber, frowning at the barren state of the walls that surrounded her. This was the queen’s outer apartment, and it should have been draped with lavishly embroidered hangings. Emma, though, had taken everything of value or beauty with her when she fled. Only the large wooden bed had been left behind, and even that had been stripped of its curtains and linens…

When Tyra’s chanting sudden stopped she sat, unmoving, her head bent and drooping like a wilted blossom on a thin stalk. Her face was so grey that Elgiva feared she might faint. Moving swiftly to a bench that held a flagon of wine, she poured some of the spiced liquid into a cup and, kneeling, she placed it in Tyra’s hand. She waited while Tyra sipped some of it and a little color returned to her sallow cheeks.

“Well?” she said. “How long will it be until I can return to London?” Tyra stared at the cup in her hand, her mouth shut in a tight line. “Answer me!”

“What you desire may be beyond your reach.” The voice was Tyra’s, but it sounded strange and hollow, as if it came from the back of a cave or the bottom of a well. Tyra’s eyes still did not meet hers. She looked into the middle distance with an unfocused gaze and a face blank as stone. It was the face of prophecy, Elgiva realized, and she held her breath, waiting for it.

“The road that lies before you is strewn with difficulties – far more than just weather and time. There are malignant forces at work over which you have no control.”

Tyra’s voice – flat, dead, and empty – did not even sound human. Elgiva had to force her hands into her lap to keep from covering her ears.

But now Tyra’s eyes fixed upon her at last, and she whispered, “I cannot promise that you will ever return to London.”

Elgiva felt a chill creep along her spine. Never before had Tyra given her a reading such as this. Nor had she ever before avoided her gaze. There was something wrong here. Could it be that she was not lying, yet not speaking all the truth?

She crouched above the bones scatter on the floor and picked up the one that lay in the middle of the grouping. She held it in front of Tyra. “What does this mean?”

Tyra blanched and shook her head.

“By itself it is meaningless.”

“Perhaps,” Elgiva said. “but it is not by itself. It is at the heart of everything you have just told me. Tell me what it means!”

Tyra clenched her lips tight, and Elgiva thought she would have to slap her to get her to speak. The silence built between them, but finally Tyra’s eyes met hers and she murmured, “It means death.”

Elgiva stared at the piece of bone in her hand, then dropped it as if it had burned her.

The scene, hopefully, echoes the reading of the runes from the earlier book. Both are written from Elgiva’s point of view, but although her motives in each scene are the same – answer a question – the questions she has asked are vastly different, as are her reactions to the answers she receives. Tyra’s reticence about even giving her an answer adds conflict to the second scene that sets it apart from the first one. Both scenes, though, end on a dark note. That is meant to keep readers turning the pages!


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What Historical Novelists Do at a Conference

The historical novelist’s life is a lonely one. We spend our days at our desks, arguing with computer screens, wrestling with words, engulfed by books and files, and holding conversations with characters who never existed or who have been dead for a thousand years. Is it any wonder that, when given the chance, we throw ourselves a party?

hns1That’s what happened last week when 400 plus members of the Historical Novel Society convened in Portland for a conference. Well, we call it a conference, and in fact there are panels about writing and publishing and history, but in between the panels and the pitches there are dinners and lunches and drinking and, well, it’s a 3-day long party. And a very big party, with writers, readers, agents, editors and booksellers in one place, frequently all of them talking at once.

There was the welcome cocktail costume party, where attendees were invited to come in fancy dress and many did! Medieval kings and queens, 18th century militia, Roman goddesses, ladies in exquisite gowns from a myriad of centuries and men in elegant garb complete with hats and spats or boots and neck-cloths when called for. I must confess that I was absolutely smitten by Susan Shay as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and once I’d followed her about and finally snapped her photo I was so thrilled I didn’t even attempt to corner anyone else. Happily, other people did!



Photo Credit: David D. Levine








Panels held over the next two days were on a variety of topics, and it was always horribly difficult to choose among them as there were seven or eight sessions held at the same time. Here are some examples:

Inventing Convincing Medieval Heroines
Truth in Fiction
Using Modern Tools to Tell Historical Stories
Writing in Multiple Genres
Writing the Celtic World
How Well Does Your Dialogue Work?

You see what I mean?

On Friday I led an intimate session, billed as a Koffee Klatch but, alas, without coffee and cakes, on ENGLAND BEFORE THE CONQUEST, which went in an altogether different direction than I had imagined it would, which was actually delightful. Our little group of 18 was much less bloodthirsty than I had anticipated. Not much talk of swords and warriors despite our collective fascination with events in England during the Viking Ages. We discussed things like the marriages of æthelings, and touched on Alfred and Æthelred, and considered the role of Anglo-Saxon queens, especially Emma. The Brits in the room informed me that TIME TEAM is available on YouTube, and I gave a shout out to the group about THE BRITISH HISTORY PODCAST. (I’ve just watched the very first, 1994, episode of TIME TEAM, The Guerilla Base of the King. It’s all about the fort at Athelney where Alfred the Great spent a winter hiding out in 878; that’s exactly the historical event currently under discussion at THE BRITISH HISTORY PODCAST – Alfred’s guerilla war against the Danes. So, how’s that for synchronicity?) The hour flew by and, like a fool, I took no pictures and did not even turn on my bloody phone/recorder so I could provide a more in-depth report in this post. Bother.

The following day was Saturday, and we did it all again. I was on a panel titled PUTTING THE HER IN HISTORY which was the brainstorm of author Stephanie Lehmann, who moderated. Co-panelists were Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, and Nicole Evelina.

Putting the Her in History: Stephanie Lehmann, Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, Nicole Evelina. Photo Credit: Jessica Knauss

Putting the Her in History: Stephanie Lehmann, Bracewell, Rebecca Kanner, Mary Sharratt, Nicole Evelina. Photo Credit: Jessica Knauss

And although there are no recordings, I can tell you that my fellow panelists were passionate and eloquent about the roles of women throughout history, about the definition of POWER, and the difficulties that historical novelists face in bringing all-but-forgotten women to life.

The conference board always arranges for special guest speakers and this year was no exception. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a Pulitzer Prize winner speak to us before, but this year we did. Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel MARCH. She has also written the best sellers YEAR OF WONDERS, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, and most recently, THE SECRET CHORD. I have read and loved all of these. She is a marvelous writer, an inspiring speaker, and her stories about her pre-novelist life as a journalist in war zones like Bosnia and the Middle East were hair-raising.

David Ebershoff spoke on the second day. He is the author of THE DANISH GIRL (I highly recommend it) as well as THE 19TH WIFE which I have not read yet, but I’m told it’s remarkable. It was utterly fascinating to hear him speak about Lili Elbe and her life. And it was incredibly moving to hear him describe his return to Dresden to visit her grave after the making of the film THE DANISH GIRL.

In between and after the sessions and during the meals there were conversations among old friends, among friends who knew each other only from their head shots on Facebook, and among friends newly made; there were visits to Powell’s Bookstore; there was laughter, and camaraderie, shared stories about the publishing world and the writer’s life.

For those who wished to explore the many different libations imbibed down the centuries there was a tasting session titled HOOCH THROUGH HISTORY: FROM MEAD TO MARTINIS. (An extra fee for this, and it was sold out. We are writers, after all!)

At the final banquet Australian novelist Kate Forsyth, who is a marvelous storyteller with an advanced degree in Fairy Tales, had us on the edges of our seats with her rendition of the Scottish tale, TAM LIN. (Word to the wise: Beware the fairy queen!)

Geraldine Brooks and Kate Forsyth, HNS Conference 2017

Geraldine Brooks and Kate Forsyth, HNS Conference 2017

The final event of the conference was A REGENCY MASQUERADE BALL. A wonderful trio of musicians accompanied our dance master as he led us through the steps of English Country Dances.
hns16 hns17
The musicians were extraordinary, and it was such a treat to be able to dance to live Regency music. Off to one side of the ballroom a group from the Jane Austen Society taught the card sharks among us how to play Whist. Domino masks were handed out at the door, but I brought my own, and I have to say, it made me feel both elegant and mysterious as I danced the night away.


Next year the party moves to Scotland!

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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

The final episode of The Last Kingdom, Season 2, is filled with action and conflict: King vs. ealdormen, brother vs. brother, Saxons vs Northmen. Although I’m not particularly fond of battle scenes, I have to admit that my favorite moment in this episode is when King Alfred – in the dark of night and up against a horde of howling northmen – cries “Shieldwall!”

But, back to the beginning. As Uhtred and his men ride toward Winchester Uhtred looks worried and pensive, and he is no doubt thinking of Æthelflæd and of the request that she has made that he help her flee with the Northman, Erik. It’s risky business for all of them.

Ep2.8LoveaFather Pyrlig, who has heard Æthelflæd’s confession, probably knows that she’s in love with her captor. As he rides beside Uhtred he pointedly muses – and I am quoting him word-for-word because it is so important:

What binds a man to a land? You have a poor wretch toiling in the fields, burning in summer and shivering in winter. He works all day every day for nothing more than a loaf of bread and a pot to piss in. His children die of disease, his wife dies giving him children, yet when that land is threatened, something stirs. It can only be love. ‘Tis a powerful thing. Would you not agree, Lord Uhtred? From wretch to warrior, love gives a man strength, often at the cost of his mind.

It is love that underlies this episode – a father’s love for his child, a leader’s love for his land and people, a man’s love for a woman.

The story begins, though, with lust: for silver, for fame, for power. Uhtred and his companions inform Alfred that the Northmen want 3000 pounds of silver and 500 pounds of gold to ransom Æthelflæd.

Ep2.8RansomaAlfred, with less than a month to make the first payment, has three options.

Option One: Ignore the ransom demand. Outcome: The king’s daughter will be paraded, probably naked, before mocking crowds; men will pay to use her. It would mean humiliation for her, for the king, for Wessex. But Alfred loves his daughter too much to abandon her to that, nor will he allow that humiliation to be the story of his reign.

Option Two: Lead an army against Sigefrid and Erik.
Ep2.8BrothersaOutcome: the brothers will kill the king’s daughter. This is the option that Ealdorman Odda would choose. Fight, dammit, and never mind what happens to the girl. Odda, who was badly wounded fighting the Danes at Cynuit, sacrificed his own, traitorous son for Wessex, and Alfred, he thinks, should sacrifice his daughter. Let her be a martyr for Wessex. After all, Odda claims, Alfred still has his son Edward. But Odda is speaking from the perspective of a man who has nothing left to lose, and Alfred has a very great deal to lose if he makes the wrong decision.

Option Three: Pay the ransom. Outcome: the Danes will use the silver and gold to bring more Northmen to Wessex who will unite and destroy Alfred’s kingdom. As Æthelwold observes, the Saxons will pay for the swords that will kill them.

All of the choices are bad, but Alfred gambles that if he pays, God will help him find a way to beat the Northmen when the time comes, despite their vast numbers. This is not, on the face of it, a bad plan. He has paid tribute to the Northmen before to buy an alliance (with Guthrum) or to buy himself time to prepare for war. Odda, though, continues to demand that the king attack now, and Alfred struggles with misgivings, not at all certain that he has made the right decision. Finally, though, he is frustrated by Odda’s refusal to accept the decision he has made. He tells the old man that his injury and his love for wine have robbed him of any value and that he no longer serves a purpose.  Odda must leave Winchester.

Ep2.8OddaaThere are times when Alfred’s insistence on obedience is a weakness; it will not allow him to bend when sometimes bending is the only solution to a problem. It happens here, with Odda, and it happens a lot with Uhtred. We have seen it before, and we will see it again. Alfred told us in Season 1 that he is no saint. This is a reminder.

Meantime, Odda is convinced that Alfred is wrong, and despite Uhtred’s pleas that he do nothing – for Uhtred alone knows that if Æthelflæd gets away, no ransom need be paid – Odda has already sent for the Devonshire fyrd. If Alfred won’t lead his warriors against the Danes, Odda will. When Alfred finds out – because Odda sends Father Pyrlig to tell him – Alfred gathers his warriors and sets out to try to stop Odda, playing right into Odda’s hands because they all meet near the Northmen’s fortress at Benfleet.

I’ve told my men that we are here on your orders, lord, Odda tells Alfred. Now that you’ve marched an army to the Northmen’s door, they will not believe that you’re not here to fight. And he’s right.

Ep2.8AlfredaUnknown to the king and Odda, though, inside the fortress Erik and Æthelflæd have been planning their getaway, and Uhtred has arrived in secret to help. But Sigefrid and Hæsten have become suspicious of Erik’s too obvious affection for his prisoner and they have taken steps to make sure that their prize doesn’t escape.

Ep2.8CageErik’s plan goes awry, and when brother is pitted against brother, it’s up to Uhtred to improvise the rescue of Æthelflæd, which he does brilliantly. They are pursued, of course, and under a night sky lit by flames, a Northman maddened by grief and howling for vengeance rallies his men against the Saxons – for death and glory. And Alfred the king, who has brought a Saxon army to stop a Saxon army, turns on the Northmen and cries, “Shieldwall!”

Alfred was a great king. He survived months in a swamp, he rallied his people to save Wessex from destruction by Viking raiders, and he began the task of fulfilling his dream of a united England. He was also ruthless, because a 9th century king had to be ruthless. That is the Alfred that we see in this episode when, back at Winchester, he is forced to turn his ruthlessness on an old friend.

Uhtred returns to Cookham, and it is his voice that reminds us of the theme that Pyrlig introduced at the beginning.

What binds a man to his land? What power within allows him to give his life to preserve his land and the lives of the families who work it? It can only be love. It will not be written that Odda gave his life to save Wessex, but that is the story I will tell – that he gave his life to save the lives of many and ensured that King Alfred of Wessex became more powerful than ever.

Ep2.8UhtredaDid it happen this way in Cornwell’s novel? No. There are enormous differences. For one thing, ODDA WASN’T EVEN THERE! But both versions of this story are beautifully told. If you haven’t read the books, now would be a good time to start while we hope that Uhtred and The Last Kingdom will be back for a third season next year.

  1. The Last Kingdom
  2. The Pale Horseman
  3. The Lords of the North
  4. Sword Song
  5. The Burning Land
  6. Death of Kings
  7. The Pagan Lord
  8. The Empty Throne
  9. Warriors of the Storm
  10. 10. The Flame Bearer

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom


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