Episode 6 brings us right into the present day as Uhtred and his company, on the road to Chester with 4 children in their midst, discover that folk in Mercia are dying of The Sickness. The showrunners couldn’t possibly have known when they wrote this script that their audience would be watching this episode while sequestered in their homes due to Covid-19. Oh, the irony!
I was surprised by the decision to use the phrase, The Sickness, to describe the contagion wreaking havoc in Mercia. Pestilence is the first word that comes to my mind, and The Sickness sounds odd to me. But I did some research and discovered that the words pestilence and plague derive from Old French and do not appear in the English language until the 14th century. Sickness, though is an Anglo-Saxon word, seocnesse, and absolutely appropriate for this 10th century setting. That’s some pretty impressive research on the part of the writing staff!
There is still political unrest in Aylesbury even as Aethelred is laid to rest because the Mercian ealdormen suspect that King Edward wants to conquer Mercia. His troops are inside the city, and why else would they be there? When refugees fleeing The Sickness arrive at the city gates Edward believes that they should be given refuge, but he has to bow to the wishes of the ealdormen who insist on closing the gates against their own people to save the town. The political unrest worsens when Edward’s mum arrives and, denied entry into the city, insists on seeing her son.
The ealdorman, along with slimy Aethelhelm (Adrian Schiller), want her to go back to Wessex, but Edward overrides them all and orders the gates opened, which confirms the ealdormen’s fears that he wants to take over Mercia.
As if Edward doesn’t have enough problems, his mother tells him that Aethelhelm is scheming against her and must have ordered her confined in Winchester. Edward insists it was all a mistake, and when Aelswith asks why Aethelflaed has left Aylesbury he uses a child’s time-honored tactic to avoid getting into trouble with his mother: he lies to her. It’s all Aethelflaed’s fault, he says. She’s run off with Uhtred and abandoned her life as a widow. His tactic might have worked, except that Aelswith searches out Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin) and gets the true story, that his sister fled because Edward had imprisoned her. Even worse, Edward’s insistence on Aelfwynn’s marriage to Eardwulf has put two of Aelswith’s grandchildren on the road and in harm’s way because of the sickness abroad in the land. Edward is not in his mother’s good books right now.
Meantime, in Wales, Brida is being mistreated by King Hywel’s brother.
Her lot is pretty dismal until word arrives that a Danish fleet has landed. Brida pricks up her ears—rescue might be on the way!
So, several scenes in, we have the Welsh about to face a Danish infestation. We have Mercian ealdormen, some of them pretty surly and threatening, at odds with King Edward. We have the all too politically innocent Edward still believing that slimy Aethelhelm can be trusted. We have Aethelflaed and Aldhelm riding north hoping to meet up with Uhtred and company. We have armed men searching for Aethelflaed and her daughter Aelfwynn per Edward’s command. We have weaselly Eardwulf (Jamie Blackley) disobeying the king’s instruction that he stay in Ayelsbury by setting out to find Aelfwynn himself because he’s so eager to marry her and become Lord of Mercia that he can’t sit still. And we have Uhtred (Alexander Daemon) riding toward Chester with a few men and four children.
It is those children and their defenders who are really at the heart of this episode because bonds are being forged among them.
Uhtred’s men are in good humor, bantering with each other to our amusement as, like mother ducks, they guide their young charges northward.
The mood darkens when the company is abruptly made aware of the contagion, and Finan, who has seen it before, is so agitated he’s practically beside himself. Forced to abandon the road and travel overland, their journey becomes more and more grim, and Aelfwynn (Helena Albright) sickens. She is the youngest, and there is nothing quite so heartrending as a young child in danger. Just when the little group finally reaches the outskirts of a village where they can rest, Eardwulf and his warriors spot them, and Eardwulf promises the terrified Aelfwynn that if she doesn’t come to him he’ll kill all her friends and her mother, too. Why wouldn’t any little girl run into the arms of a guy like that?
The children are plucky, though, and Uhtred’s men are ready to defend them to the death.
But before blood is spilled, Eadith (Stefanie Martini) has finally had it up to here with her brother, and she turns on him. Eadith’s accusation that he murdered Aethelred, confirmed by the ring he stole from the body, sends her brother packing, although we can’t be certain where he’s going or if he’s utterly defeated. Nor can we be certain that the children will get to Chester or that Aelfwynn will survive.
But the children are safe for now, and Uhtred and Finan are returning to Aylesbury to bear witness against Eardwulf, and to keep the men of Mercia and Wessex from turning on each other.