We open with a couple of bare-chested swole lads chopping wood and shoving trunks. Three years of hard work have honed Thorfinn and Einar’s muscles, and the result of all that labor is that they have turned a forest into a wheat field. What felt impossible by design when a newly-enslaved Einar arrived has become reality. And yet, at brink of gaining their freedom, and both men seem…tentative.
As much as being a slave sucks, it steered a bloodthirsty hate-filled warrior Thorfinn was from a certain early grave and into a transformational brotherhood of two with Einar. Just still being alive is a gift; will freedom lead him back down darker roads? Einar’s reticence is simpler: he can hardly be over the moon about winning his freedom when Arnheid will remain slave. Even if he and Thorfinn could afford to buy her, Ketil wouldn’t sell.
What Ketil does offer is to give Thorfinn and Einar their freedom once they’re done sowing their latest crop. But first he and his son are headed to Jelling to see King Harald, who has taken ill. Also returning to Denmark is our boy King Canute, who day by day is carrying himself not just more like a king, but more like the king.
When he spots childrenin town playing a ball game, he remembers how his brother Harald used to play with him, and trusted him to get up even when he fell. His brother was a strong, kind young man, the kind of person who would, and did, make a good king. The pleasant dream is interrupted when the kids’ ball rolls towards Canute’s feet. But he doesn’t see a ball. he sees the severed head of his slain father Sweyn.
Canute’s demeanor is solemn as he greets Harald, who is barely able to speak and lift his hand. Their sister Estrid is also there, trying to stay in good spirits. With what little strength he has left and with his court as witnesses, Harald offers the crown of Denmark to Canute without conditions. Canute refuses it, urging his brother to rest up and get better.
But King Harald won’t get better. He’s been poisoned. Canute is the one who had him poisoned. We learn this from Sweyn’s head, which only we and Canute can see. Sweyn mocks Canute’s show of sympathy, modesty, and above all innocence when yet more royal blood of his family stains his hands. Sweyn promises his son that with the dual crowns of England and Denmark on his head, he stands to endure twice the weight and torment.
That night in the room prepared for him, which overlooks the spot where he and Harald used to play, King Canute reclines in his chair, the head of his dead father his one and only true confidant. A serving woman knocks with refreshment, but Canute, who has poisoned all of his political rivals, is not about to accept a drink from uncertain source or purpose.
Sweyn’s head says he is a curse, and if he’s appearing in the afternoon, it’s getting worse. The head is the manifestation of Canute’s amassed trauma and guilt, always there to remind him how he comes to wear one crown and is poised to wear another.
Canute wants to build a peaceful utopia, and he may be right that such a wish is impossible with two kings hanging around. But ambition and ruthlessness have crept into his once gentle heart. If he keeps down this path, he’ll surely end up in that godforsaken place Thorfinn narrowly escaped…or worse.