Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert

Battle of the Torches by Theodor Aman



4.       They sang as they swung   the swift-wheeling stone,

                        till of Frodi’s maids               most fell asleep.

                        Then Menja quoth,              at the quern standing:

                                               Anonymous; Grottasongr, Prose Edda

(965) In the fall, Prince Svein sailed to Cherson where he was paid fifteen thousand pounds of gold to attack the Wallachians, so he led thirty thousand Hraes’ troops, his three new legions, west to the Danube.  The Greeks also provided sixteen thousand Byzantine troops under the command of Magistrate Kalokyras of Cherson.

“We don’t need your legions,” Svein told the magistrate.

“I like you, Prince Svein,” he replied.  “I don’t think you need us either.  But the Empress wants to be sure you destroy the Army of the Impalers and Count Vlad with them.  She didn’t really care if you destroyed Sarkel as long as you attacked the Khazars and at least bloodied their noses.  I suspect there was a part of her that even wanted you to fail and wished the Khazars had killed you.”

“I had that suspicion myself,” Svein said.  “It would resolve my claim to be Emperor.”

“But this time, she wants Count Vladimir of Wallachia dead.  And he has eight legions of the finest trained Romanian troops and you have only three.  So, I’m to add another three to your forces, but you shall be in full command.”

“I have three legions of ten thousand men,” Svein explained.  “Your Roman legions are only five thousand, with very little horse.  So, my three are actually six.”

“I realise this,” the magistrate replied.  “But against the Army of the Impalers, they are just three.  Don’t you think the first thing our Armenian Empress did was to ask her very competent Armenian generals to attack the Army of the Impalers?  The Armenian generals are all afraid of Count Vlad and his Impalers.  They don’t want to end up on the wrong end of a stake like a toad on a stick.”

“They’re all shitting themselves,” Svein spat contemptuously.

“As am I,” the magistrate admitted.  “I only packed my brown pants.”

Svein laughed at this.  “You know what, Magistrate Kalokyras,” Svein started, “I’m starting to like you too!”

“Just don’t expect any heroics from me,” he replied.  “My legions are well trained and brave, but I am just a court official here to help.”

“Are they really that bad?” Svein asked.

“They are worse.  Half the power of the Army of the Impalers comes from the fact that they have never lost.  Armies going up against them are all shitting themselves going in and thinking they are soon to die.  And the other half of their power comes from their enemies knowing how they are going to die.  Impalement is a horrible way to die and the Wallachians have perfected its execution.  They can keep you dying on a stake for a full week and the pain you feel keeps getting worse the whole time.  I’ve heard it starts in your skin and it gets into your muscles, all your muscles, and when it gets into your bones it’s the worst pain any human has ever felt.  You spend your last few days just screaming and screaming and when your voice goes, you scream in silence.  They can still see you screaming and they can see the force of your scream, but no sound comes out.  They’d think they’d gone deaf, except everyone around you is still screaming, a legion of soldiers naked and up on stakes, screaming until their lungs are bleeding and they’ve all gone mad by then.  By the sixth day the voices are all gone and on the seventh day they rest, some dying of pain, some dying of poison, their skin all yellow and green and purple in patches.  But most die when their hip bones break and they pass over the burls and the sharp stakes drive up through their bodies and past their silent throats and pierce into their brains and are stopped by their skulls.  They leave the dead out upon their stakes for the eagles and the ravens and the crows to feast upon.”

Magistrate Kalokyras looked out at the silent sea as he held the topstrake of the ship.  “It is the screams that keep the birds away, but the sounds of the screams all stop on the sixth day and some of the birds start feasting before the poor souls are dead.  But the wracking pain inside their bodies far exceeds any pain the birds could inflict upon them by merely plucking out a bloodshot eyeball or tearing out a still screaming tongue.”  Kalokyras stopped, then asked, “Do you know how I know all this?”

“No, magistrate,” Svein answered dryly.  He had no voice.  It was gone.

“Every hundredth man, they cut the sharpened point off his stake so it doesn’t pierce his intestines and they allow him to survive the impaling so he can live to talk about it.  I had to interview the survivors of a legion that went into Wallachia once, for the Emperor’s records.  I had to document their testimonies, in Latin, I might add.  Five thousand men went in and only twenty five came out, all as mad as the hats they’d half eaten.  Half of them killed themselves the first chance they got and the other half all sit in a row on a street in Constantinople and they beg for their living.  Whenever I visit our capital I always visit that street and I give each of them a gold coin.  There aren’t very many of them left alive now.  My visits to Constantinople get cheaper by the year.”

Prince Hraerik and a small war fleet had accompanied Svein to Cherson and had picked up the gold there and had taken it back to Gardariki.  Hraerik wanted to have his own metallurgical alchemists purify it using the improved process they had witnessed and documented.  Years ago, he’d learned of their process and purified his father’s red gold hoard once, but the Roman Emperor’s metallurgists did it all the time so, they’d made improvements on the process over the years.  Empress Helga was overwintering with him in Gardariki and Queen Silkisif was visiting from Tmutorokan and they were both fretting over young Svein off in Bulgaria and the sex was pretty good.  He’d found that focking his wives two floors above ten thousand additional pounds of gold in his basement treasury was very good and an additional fifteen thousand pounds of gold made it all that much better.

Straight west of Cherson, across the Black Sea, was the mouth of the Danube River that wound its way halfway across Europe.  Svein’s fleet of a thousand war ships entered the estuary and they camped along the Black Sea coast and the Danube riverbanks.  The Roman city of Constanza was south of them on the coast, but once they began their journey up the Danube they would soon be out of Roman controlled territory.  The Balkan Bulgarians controlled the territory on the south side of the Danube and they were distant relatives of the Volga Bulgars that Svein was going to tithe in the spring, so he planned to deal with Count Vlad quickly, so as not to disappoint them.  The Romanians and then the Wallachians controlled the territory on the north side of the river and most of them had lived there for thousands of years and had been Roman citizens for the last millennia.  Some of them felt more Roman than the present Romans because they followed the old ways of the western Romans and still considered Rome to be the capital of the Romans even though it had been controlled by Goths for the last half millennia and, most importantly, they followed the Latin Christianity of the Vatican in Rome.

The next few days were spent rowing up the Danube and no ships or boats came out to challenge them from either shore.  A few Roman officers were familiar with the Danube and pointed out to Kalokyras and Svein the mouth of the Olt River that fed into the Danube and they said that the Wallachians lived up that great river valley.  So, they turned up the estuary and there was a road that ran along the right side of the Olt River and beyond the road was a town and the officers said it was called Turnu and that in Roman times it was called Turnis and the estuary had been a bustling port a thousand years earlier.  The estuary was deserted now and the town, but a shadow of its former city.  When they looked further upriver they could see smoke and there were crosses burning along the road and there were heavy brooding clouds in the valley.

“We should take the town and leave a garrison there,” Svein said.  “Why is the town so focking far from the river if it once served a harbour here!”

One of the Roman officers answered, “It was a harbour a thousand years ago.  Rivers wander as the banks erode, so my guess is this river has been wandering west.”

“I think you’re right!” Svein said.  “There’s a river in Iceland that wanders so much they called it the Rang River, which means wandering or ranging river.  That’s why we’re called Varangians.  It means we are Way Wanderers, and that’s what we were when we first opened the Nor’Way for trade with the east.  It used to be, that to be a Varangian, you had to have made the great northern crossing across the Arctic Ocean.  It was so cold you had to have awnings over your ship while you sailed or you’d freeze to death.”

“Sounds like it was a very harsh crossing,” the Roman officer said.

“That it was.  I heard a story that there was a rudderman that kept his right arm out from under the awning too long as he held the great oar and when he came back under the awning one of his mates slapped him on the shoulder and his arm snapped off!”  All the officers laughed, but it was a true story.

Thirty two ships beached along the right riverbank and a regiment of two thousand foot marched over to take the town while the rest of the fleet rowed upriver to a great clearing on the right and the legions began to set up a camp on the shore between the river and the road that ran along it.  There were crosses burning on the other side of the road, crosses of the type that Romans would crucify a man upon.  As the troops set up camp and ate lunch they watched the crosses burn down to their bases and it left burnt off stakes that projected out of the ground about six feet all along the road going north as far as the eye could see.

The regiment that was ordered to take the town had walked by the burnt down stakes and they judged that the crosses had been set alight from south to north, for these stakes were out and the crosses further north were still burning.  The town had no walls and it looked deserted so, there was not much to be done in taking the town, but as the men entered they saw that about a dozen of the townfolk had been impaled on stakes that had boards across them to act as seats and they sat naked upon their stakes and watched the troops with hatred in their eyes.  Their bodies had been painted with swatches of blues and reds and greens and strange Vanir symbols had been drawn on them and red Roman banners fluttered between them.  “Take them down,” one of the Hraes’ officers shouted and the men began lifting the people up off their stakes and they were all bleeding from their anuses and a medical officer said that they would all still die within a week due to sepsis poisoning.  There were men and women and a few children that they had taken down and they laid them out on blankets.  They all looked at the soldiers with hate in their eyes except for two young women who thanked their soldiers for saving them.

This act of kindness by the troops soon brought out townsfolk who had been hiding in buildings, perhaps two dozen, and they were fully clothed and a man wearing richer clothing than the others told the soldiers that he had been the mayor of the town.  The people on the stakes had been hiding, but had been caught by troops of the Army of the Impalers.  They had not hidden themselves well enough.  When the Hraes’ officer asked him where the rest of the towns people were he told him that the Impalers had taken them away.  The officer told the inhabitants that they could return to their houses, as no harm would come to them and the medical officer had the impalement victims carried to one of the ships and they took them upstream to the military camp for treatment.  The two young women asked the two soldiers that had saved them to come along with them in Greek.  The medical officer allowed them to join the medical party and they went along to the camp.

After lunch it was decided that only a cohort of troops, four hundred and eighty men would be required to hold the town, so the rest of the regiment rejoined the war fleet and they kept rowing upriver.  Soon the line of burning crosses ended and the fleet progressed upriver with no sign of people anywhere along the river, just abandoned farms and buildings and boats sitting along the shores on both sides.  Then they saw some things standing in the water along the right riverbank and, as they got closer they could see it was the townsfolk from Turnu and they were all naked and sitting upon boarded stakes that had been erected in the water just offshore.  And their bodies were painted with symbols and regalia of the Army of the Impalers and blood red banners of the Roman army fluttered in the breeze between them.  The fleet rowed past them and the horrible spectacle went on for miles and the whole time all the impaled were shouting curses at the passing ships.  Svein ordered the ships at the back of the fleet to take them down and ships rowed up to the people upon the stakes and they pulled them off them and laid them on blankets on the decks of the ships.  They had been out on their impalement poles all night and most of the day and they were in bad condition.  It was fall and the night had been cool and the following day had been sunny and hot so they were all dehydrated and some were sunburnt and the lips of all were cracked and bleeding.  And still they shouted curses at the soldiers that were saving them and some had to be subdued before they could be saved.  Except for the young women, who were all thankful to the soldiers for saving them.

The fleet set up night camp on the right bank of the river on a great expanse of prairie and the camp went from the shore and spilled over the road and extended deeply into the field.  Kite shields were erected around the perimeter and enclosures were built of them for the horse.  The two soldiers who had saved the two women in Turnu now took the girls into their borrowed Roman tent and lay with them.  The girls were more than thankful that they’d been saved and they rewarded their saviours by blessing them with their virginity.  In the morning great columns of smoke were seen rising up into the sky from the south towards Turnu, and the regiment that had been assigned to take the town sailed south to meet up with the cohort they had left guarding the town.  As they approached the town they saw the burnt crosses on their left, the charred stakes that remained of them but then they saw their comrades impaled upon the charred remains all in a row, all the way to the town.  The ship with the medical officer went to shore and the men aboard rushed out to pull the men off of the charred stakes, but there were no burls or boards to stop the impalements so the men settled on the stakes as far as their hipbones would allow and the diameters of the stakes were all varied with the way they had burned so there were impalements in all stages of progression so that some were naked and alive, suspended three feet off the ground and some were naked and dead sitting on the ground with the charred stake sticking out the left or right bases of their necks and, pretty much, every combination in between.  A lucky few had died in battle and were impaled post-mortem but most had been alive when they were stripped naked and yarded onto the poles and their anuses were set on the points before they were released.  And all this had been done at night by impalement experts under torchlight, by the Army of the Impalers.  There began speculation that the Impalers could see in the dark.

Prince Svein and Magistrate Kalokyras arrived a few hours later to survey the carnage.  Some of the dead were still being pulled off the poles and when Svein went into the town, the townsfolk in hiding that had been spared by the Hraes’ were now naked and alive on impalement stakes with board seats.  They were crying and moaning and, for once, weren’t cursing the soldiers.

“Why are they still up there?” Svein shouted.  “Take them down and have them treated!”  He looked at the magistrate and said, “What manner of men could have done this?”

The magistrate looked down at his feet and said, “Some of the survivors I interviewed had talked about a ghost unit, a ghost cohort of the Army of the Impalers that only operates at night, that can see in the dark.  I thought they were all mad.”

“And you didn’t bother to tell me about this possible ghost unit?” Svein said.

“I’d already told you too much.  If you refused to come to Wallachia, I’d ’ve been blamed.”

“Is there anything else I should know?” Svein asked.

The magistrate shuffled from foot to foot, then said, “I don’t think we’ll be leaving Wallachia alive.”  Svein saw the disease setting into the magistrate, a deadly disease of self-fulfilling fear or what Vikings called ‘the fetters of Odin’, an inexplicable feeling of doom, and the Wallachians were creating it, spreading it like a plague, like the plague that had killed his father, and he thought of his grandfather and his offer of help.  He wanted to call Kraka, but he fought it off.

Prince Hraerik was enjoying Helga’s overwintering this year.  She was fretting about her son and she handled it by taking very special care of Hraerik.  His wants, his needs, almost as if pleasing Hraerik would please Odin and thereby protect her son.  And when Silkisif saw this happening, it was almost as if her affections, too, would add to this, so pleasing Hraerik became, not a competition, but more of a group effort.  One night, after Hraerik’s wives had been treating him sensuously with fragranced breasts and Khazar Vayar spread yonis and silk swathed dances, he fell asleep with a wife under each arm and he dreamed about the Army of the Impalers and he learned how they fought and he learned how they won and he understood why Eastern Rome’s Armenian generals were afraid of them.  When Rome was faltering before the hordes of barbarians in the fifth century, the Praetorian Guard fled the city to Romania and established a Western Roman Empire there and they used all the weapons of war and rules of law that the Romans had used for a thousand years to defend their empire for the next five hundred.  Once Hraerik saw their tactics he knew that Svein was in danger.

The next morning, he woke up, had sex with both his wives at the same time and then he told them he was going to Wallachia.  When he had left the master suite Helga said, “I told you all the sex would please Odin and cause Hraerik to help Svein!”

“That’s not very Christian of you,” Silkisif said.

“Fock the Christians!” Helga said.  “And excuse my Swedish.”

“How many of our legions do you think he’ll be taking?” Silkisif asked.

“Another three at least,” Helga responded.

But Hraerik didn’t take any legions.  He took all the rams in Tmutorokan and all the cattle with great horns and he took all the tents that the Tmutorokan legions had, over a thousand campaign pavilions.  He had all the chemical alchemists in Gardariki mixing up potions and cranking out drugs and he loaded ten thousand cattle and ten thousand sheep into ships and he took a new product along from Cathay and only enough sailors and marines to row and sail the dromons and knars.  The night before he left, both Helga and Silkisif gave him an evening worthy of Odin’s Valhall.  The next morning he sailed for Romania.

Prince Svein left the whole regiment to guard Turnu and they took precautions not to be surprised by any ghost units.  Then he led his fleet up the Olt River and, as they approached the city of Dragonesti, they were greeted by more impaled naked citizens shouting curses from their stakes along the water’s edge.  They were again painted with Vanir symbols and surrounded by Roman red banners.  “Leave them,” Svein ordered.  “Post guards to protect them and we’ll see if they want help tomorrow.”

Dragonesti was walled and looked to be well defended, but the Army of the Impalers was nowhere to be found.  There were perhaps a thousand armed soldiers on the walls and, Svein presumed, civilians within, less the dying citizens staked above the waters of the Olt.  The fortifications were old and of a style that bespoke ancient Rome.  Svein sent for his Roman officers and they stood in front of the city walls as the troops began setting up their gravity trebuchets.  He then turned to the Roman officer who had talked about wandering rivers and he told him that the fortress looked ancient and Roman.  “I’d guess the design is from fifty years before Christ,” the officer replied, “and it’s patterned after the Roman design but it isn’t Roman.”

“That’s incredible!” Svein said.  “How does he know all this?” Svein asked the magistrate.

“He was a history teacher before joining our legions,” the magistrate replied.

“I know it’s not Roman because of the quality of the work,” the historian said.  “No Roman mason would fit up stones like that.  It’s shoddy.”

“Is there anything that you remember about turn of the millennia Roman fortresses that might be a weakness we can use?”

“I think we can use what is right in front of you,” the officer said.  “Roman gear back then was good but technology and science have advanced a lot since that time.  Steel is better, so armour is better, stronger and swords are longer and lighter and back then they didn’t have trebuchets or the heavy catapults that we have today, so the walls didn’t have to be as thick.  As ballistae improved, this weakness became apparent and they solved it by moving reinforcing towers closer together.  It was faster than making the walls thicker as towers could be built on one side of an existing wall.  Whoever copied the design in this later non-Roman work wasn’t aware of the later design changes.  The wall on the left side of the main gates is too long and should have had a tower added to it by, say, two hundred Anno Domini, to keep up with advances in ballistae.  So, I’d concentrate your trebuchet shot on the middle of that one wall, knock a hole in it and work your way out and you’ll be in the city by tomorrow noon.”

“See,” Svein said to the magistrate, “a history teacher who had a stone mason for a father.”  And the officer said, “Yes sir, I did.” and he was just as impressed that Svein had guessed it.  So, they did as the history teacher advised and they set up all their trebuchets on the left side and the officer watched as twenty men climbed up ladders and jumped to cause a trebuchet to whip its tonstone shot around and propel it against the shoddy stonework of the wall.  The shot hit the wall near the top and two castellations tumbled forward and landed thirty feet down.  The Hraes’ ballisteers shouted in triumph as other trebuchets added to the destruction.

“Let’s do a ride about around the fortress,” Svein offered, “and look for more weaknesses.”  So, they rounded up a regiment of heavy horse and did an armed ride about around the fortress but could find no better weaknesses.

“I’ve never seen such trebuchets,” the officer said, as they returned to the front of the fortress.  “I’ve only seen the pull type.  Not this jumping off the scaling ladder type.  It has more velocity.”

“And we use tonstone from Sweden,” Svein told him.  “It’s as heavy as gold, so its penetrating power almost matches my lingam.”

“I’m not sure I follow, but where did you get these?”

“My grandfather got the hardware from Cathay for pull types, but he wanted our troops to get scaling ladder practice while they took down the walls to scaling ladder height so, he came up with the gravity trebuchet.”

“It shoots faster than the pull type.”

“You should see how fast they get when they’ve had a three month siege’s worth of practice.  It that wall comes down as fast as you predict, I’ll have to change out my men faster so they can all get a bit of practice.”

“So, who came up with the kite shield we’re starting to copy?” the officer asked.

“That was me,” Svein said.  “But I patterned them after kites my grandfather imports from Cathay.  I noticed your legion has kite shields while the others have the rectangular.”

“They don’t make them as well as you, though.  Ours are shoddy.”

“So, you’re mother made linen shields, then?” Svein joked.

“No, no,” he replied.  “She taught.”

“You should come see me when your tour of duty is over.  I’ll put you in charge of a legion instead of a regiment.”

“Kiev is far too cold for a history teacher.”

“We have legions in Tmutorokan as well.  I overwinter there.”

The trebuchets hammered away at the walls all day and the damage was extensive.  The walls would soon be down to the workable height of scaling ladders, perhaps even by noon on the morrow.  But the damage was apparent to the Army of the Impalers ghost unit which had four cohorts comprising a full regiment and they were following the Hraes’ army.  They planned a surprise attack for that night and their target wasn’t the camp, but the trebuchets.  If they could destroy the trebuchets they could stop tomorrow’s conquest of the city.

Prince Svein had his men keep the trebuchets shooting until well into the evening to ensure that the morrow’s noon deadline was met.  He liked the Roman history teacher and he wanted him to be right on the nose.  When they shut down the ballistae, guards were posted all around the twenty four units and the guard stations ran all the way down to the river to protect the ships as well.  And the ships had guards stationed on each one as well as the sailors and crew that never left the ships.  So, each guard shift comprised a full regiment and, each shift change, a new regiment replaced the guards going off duty.  Each guard had a torch and the new regiments would bring their own torches and light them off the retiring guards’ torches.

The Army of the Impalers ghost regiment came out of the darkness at two hours after midnight and had crept up in complete silence and attacked the guards that stood watch around the trebuchets.  The guards sounded alarms and were overwhelmed and were driven back across the field towards their camp, but the timing was bad for an attack because the guard shift changed at two and the Roman history officer was leading his retiring regiment back into the camp when Svein came riding up on a horse to see what the commotion was about and he almost ran the officer over.  “I’ll lead my men against them,” the officer offered, but Svein told him to lead his men down along the riverbank and come out inland behind the attackers.  “But they’ll burn the trebuchets,” the officer protested.

“If this is the ghost regiment,” Svein hissed, “they’re more important than the trebuchets.  I’ll come back with a regiment and I’ll drive them back, right into your arms.”  So, the officer led his regiment back to the riverbank and they ran downstream and came out across the field in a line, each man with a torch.  Svein then rode to the staging area where the next shift was donning their armour and eating and resting before their guard shift.  Svein liked to have lots of overlap between shifts so there were always lots of men around camp at night with weapons and armour.  He roused the regiment and led them out in front of the city to where the trebuchets were burning and they saw the attackers by the light of the burning ballistae and not a one of them carried torches.  This was the ghost regiment and apparently they could all see in the dark.  All Svein’s men carried torches with them and they formed a shield wall and charged towards the towering flames.  The ghost regiment formed up to face them, but orders were shouted and they melted into the darkness.  Svein and his men kept charging and, once they got past the burning ordnance, they could finally see out into the darkness and they saw a row of torches approaching them from the other side of the field and they could make out the men of the ghost regiment when they blocked out the torchlight behind them.  Svein was on his horse with a few other officers and they hurried their men along in their charge.  The retreating ghost warriors soon clashed with the history officer’s regiment and a full blown battle erupted the width of the field.  Soon Svein’s men joined in the fray and they had the ghost regiment pinned between them and outnumbered two to one.  The trapped soldiers started falling, but they fought well and caused heavy casualties among the Hraes’ and Romans, then those that could, melted into the darkness once more.  But those that couldn’t fought on and the battle went on for thirty minutes and the torches danced across the field as the lines swayed back and forth.  Men were coming out from the camp and joining in the fray and half armoured knights were riding out, but couldn’t tell who was who.  Finally, the torches stopped dancing and all that were going to die were dead.  Svein was off his horse, inspecting an officer he had just killed and the man was wearing a black Praetor’s uniform of the Praetorian Guard.  The Praetor’s steel armour was painted a flat black to eliminate reflections and even his horsehair brush that swept his helmet from front to back was dyed a dark red instead of the usual blood red of the Romans.  Only on seeing the uniform of the dead Praetor was Svein finally sure that they had destroyed the ghost regiment.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t save the trebuchets,” the Roman history officer said as he came up to Svein’s horse and studied the dead Praetor.  “The uniform design is almost a thousand years old,” he added, whistling softly.

“We have six hundred Hraes’ troop transport warships out there on the river,” Svein said.  “And, because they are warships as well as transports, each one of them has a disassembled trebuchet stowed under its deck.  It is far more important that we crushed the ghost regiment for massacring our cohort in Turnu.  They would have done us a lot more harm, but they made the mistake of trying to save the Dragon’s nest.” and he nodded his head towards Dragonesti.  “How about we add four hours to that noon attack you’d predicted?”

A regiment was posted to protect the fallen on the field of what was being called the Battle of the Torches and Svein retired to his tent and slept.  The two Hraes’ soldiers that were sleeping with the two women from Turnu were lucky enough to have slept right through the whole battle, just as they had been lucky enough to leave their cohort in Turnu to attend to the needs of the young women and thereby missed being impaled by the fallen of the ghost regiment.  When one of them woke up in the morning, he rolled on top of one of the girls and began focking her, and when he was done and lying on top of her she whispered in Greek into his ear, “I’m pregnant with your son and I will take satisfaction in carrying this young Hraes’ warrior to the grave with me.”  She expected him to get angry and kill her, but he was the Hraes’ soldier that didn’t understand Greek.

In the light of the morning, Svein surveyed the fallen of the Battle of the Torches and his men counted three cohorts of fallen ghost warriors.  What amounted to a cohort had melted into the darkness and escaped, but it was a great victory for the Hraes’ and Romans, for nobody had ever even seen a ghost warrior and had lived to talk about it so, to defeat three cohorts of them was quite remarkable.  And they only lost one cohort doing it.  Magistrate Kalokyras wrote up a report in Latin and had a ship head out to Constantinople with the news.

“Do you still think we are going to die?” Svein asked him.

“It is very good news I have just sent off to Constantinople,” he answered.  “And I wanted to get it off to Constantinople quickly in case we all die,” and he smiled a bit.

“That’s better,” Svein said.  “In case we die is a whole lot better than we’re all gonna die!” and he walked away laughing.

The fortress city of Dragonesti fell by three in the afternoon and the Hraes’ forces ravaged the town.  Women were raped and men were enslaved and the children were taken on ship to be sold in the markets of Baghdad.  Captives could be ransomed, but none were.  The Romans showed some restraint at first, but soon joined in the sacking.  They were, after all, following the old Roman laws and these Wallachian Christians were of the Latin faith.  Prince Svein and his officers patrolled the streets of the town and made sure his men followed those old Roman rules of law.

After Dragonesti had been thoroughly sacked, Svein had all the men, women and children loaded onto knar supply ships that had been emptied by hungry troops and he sent them to Kiev to be trained for the upcoming trading season.  They would make good slaves for the Caliphate.  When one of the Roman officers reminded him that Roman law required that half the citizens be left to inhabit their city, Svein replied that the Wallachians and their Army of the Impalers had impaled their half.  And it was true.  The last of the impalement survivors from Turnu were dying and the people of Dragonesti, that they’d pulled up off of their stakes were now starting to die.  Svein had his men care for them as best they could, and they buried them when they died and allowed them Latin Christian rites administered by Latin priests they had captured.  The two Hraes’ soldiers who had saved the two girls of Turnu, buried them that day and they were both pregnant.

Svein left a regiment of heavy horse to hold the town and patrol the area and the Hraes’ war fleet rowed north and the land seemed to grow darker the further north they went and a cool wind always seemed to blow against them from the north.  And nights were always overcast and black as pitch.  Soon they approached the town of Slatina, on the right side of the river, a thousand paces inland.  There were the usual impalement victims greeting them, but they were not in the water this time, but along the road that followed the river.  The ghost regiment had been reduced to one cohort again, so they didn’t have the extra manpower required to implant the stakes in the river.  This time, the show was expected so, Svein had ships with his medics row ahead and go ashore and pull and treat the civilians before the rest of the soldiers could see it.  But there was a twist this time.  A row of impalement stakes had been set in front of the fortress city of Slatina, just within bowshot of the walls, and the citizens impaled upon them were cursing the Hraes’ soldiers that were setting up the trebuchets.  Svein reassured his men by saying, “They won’t be cursing us tomorrow.”

Again, they set up their camp along the river and again it overran the road into a vast field.  The set-up was almost identical to Dragonesti, as if to challenge the ghost regiment to come try and attack them again.

“What do you think of the walls?” Svein asked his history officer the next day.

“This is new,” he said.  “Built within the last hundred years.  The main gate is inset and there will be openings in the stone arch above it through which to drop large stones and such on the attackers below.  That’s a recent refinement.”

“So, what would your stonemason father say about the walls?”

“He would say that the Wallachians must have hired Greek masons to build these walls, perhaps from Cherson?” and he looked over at the magistrate imploringly.

“That looks more like the work of Messembrian masons,” Kalokyras replied.  “You were right about the impalees,” he added, looking over to Svein.  “They’re much quieter today.”

“It was cold last night,” Svein said.  “We’ll have to start sleeping on our ships soon.”

“Tomorrow will be different,” the magistrate added.  “That’s when the pain starts.  They’ll be screaming tomorrow.  And dying.”

“We really should just shoot them and put them out of their pain,” the history officer said.  “One arrow each.  It won’t take long.”

“We’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t.  I think that’s what the Army of the Impalers wants us to do.  They’re trying to fock with our luck.”

“You don’t believe we’re beating them because of luck, do you?”

“You think I knew they were going to attack us the other night,” Svein said, “don’t you?”

“Well, you knew exactly where to send me and you had men ready to attack them from your side of the field.”

“I had no idea they would attack the trebuchets!” Svein said.  “They attacked right after shift change.  Had they attacked an hour earlier, there would have been no reinforcements there.  They would have burned our trebuchets and I wouldn’t have given a fock anyway!  Why would they think we only had twenty four trebuchets?  We’ve got a thousand war ships.  Every one of them has a trebuchet ready to be set up!”  But Wallachia was a landlocked province and the people knew little about ships.

“We only have onagers,” the magistrate said of the Romans.  “We don’t have deck space for pull type trebuchets.”

“We’ve just started using your kite shields,” the history officer said.  “We’ll be copying your gravity trebuchets next, I’m sure.  Perhaps I will take you up on your offer,” and he put his finger to his lips so Svein wouldn’t say anything in front of the magistrate.

“Good.  Now the wall?” Svein asked.

“I think you make your own luck!” the officer said and he took another long look at the walls of Slatina.  “We should do a ride about.  Do we have any horse ready?”

“I sent a regiment of heavy horse to patrol the riverbank,” Svein said.  “They should be back in a few minutes.  How many troops you figure are holding the town?”

“See?  You make your own luck!  There’s a lot more here than there were in Dragonesti.  Maybe five thousand.  A full legion.  Roman size that is.”

“Let’s just leave it then.  The men have had their sacking.  The Army of the Impalers is likely waiting for us at Ramnic with Count Vlad.”

“Should we do a ride about just to see if there are weaknesses?”

“No, don’t bother,” Svein said.  “Like you said, it’s almost new.  This is going to take a siege and we don’t have time for it.  I could use more slaves for trading season, but they’ll just impale more people.  They’re trying to get into our heads!”  Svein shook his head and they saw the regiment of heavy cavalry returning along the river road, but they rode back to their ships and Svein told his men to pack it all up.  Just east of the city of Slatina, away from the river, there was a large forest and in it was hidden a Wallachian legion of cataphracts who were just waiting for the leader of the Hraes’ to do a ride about around the fortress like he had done at Dragonesti.  Their commander punched his saddle horn with armoured fist when he saw them riding off behind their regiment of horse.

The Hraes’ war fleet got some good wind and they sailed from Slatina to Dragasani and there were no impalement victims above the waters or along the road.  “They didn’t expect us to leave Slatina so quickly,” Svein told the magistrate and Orus, the history officer.  “They haven’t had time to prepare the big show.”  Dragasani was on the left side of the river, five hundred or so paces inland and it was upon a rise.  Svein saw men in front of the fortress impaling people so, he took out his optical scope and he watched.  It was the Army of the Impalers in their blood red Roman uniforms and they had a young woman standing naked in front of them looking at an officer in front of her and he saluted her and the men forced her onto her hands and knees and the officer saluted her again and the men lined up the burled stake and thrust it up her anus until the small round burl stopped it and she cried out in pain and then the officer saluted her again and the men held her and lifted her up on the stake and dropped the butt of it into a hole and some held her up upon it while the others pushed dirt into the hole and packed it with the butts of their spears.  Svein couldn’t quite make out the salute but he knew it was the salute of the impalers, a hollow fist with the middle finger extended to touch the forehead and to the girl it was a 6, 6, 6, the number of the Army of the Impalers.

“What is the round burl for on the Impaler’s stake?” Svein asked the magistrate.

“It is used by the impalers alone,” Kalokyras started.  “Other impalers use a seat as a stop or they don’t have a stop at all and let the increasing diameter of the pole act as a stop as with the charred burnt poles before Turnu.  The head Impaler selects a stake with a burl that suits the size and weight of the individual being impaled, which takes a bit of experience and skill, and weight combined with the size of the opening in the hip bone causes the burl to start cracking and widening the opening and this creates all the bone pain and much of the screaming in the later stages of impalement.  When the hip bone finally breaks in two, the individual drops to their death as the stake drives on up into their brain if they are lucky.”

“How do they get the burl onto the stake?”

“It is said that they plant oaks and they distress the truck so that it grows the burl and when the young oak is of the right height and diameter and the burl is of the correct size, they cut it down, peel it and treat it with natural preservatives.  Some of their stakes are purported to be hundreds of years old.”

“Thank you, Magistrate Kalokyras,” Svein said, shaking his head and putting away his scope.

Major Orus told Prince Svein that the fortress of Dragasani was much like the one of Dragonesti and should be as susceptible to trebuchet shot, so Svein decided to take this city.  They began setting up the trebuchets just as the troops in front of the fortress finished impaling their last victim and the victims began cursing at the Hraes’ troops as they were assembling the ballistae.  Again, the long wall was on the left of the main gate so, that is where the trebuchets were located.  The rest of the men were setting up camp downstream of the ballistae.  Svein ordered awnings run out on all the troop transport warships and told the men they could sleep on board.  It was getting too cool out to sleep in the open and only the Romans had brought tents so, they still camped on land.

The next day, the trebuchets knocked the left wall down from thirty feet in height to the required twenty and an attack was planned for the morning.  Svein sent emissaries to offer the citizens of Dragasani surrender terms of standard sacking under Roman rules of law, whereby half the citizens would be enslaved and half left free and half the soldiers would be enslaved and half set free.  The citizens gladly accepted the offer and invited the two envoys inside, then shut the main gates behind them.  A few minutes later, their soldiers came out with the envoys stripped naked and they impaled them on stakes in front of the main gate and stood the stakes up across the road that led into the fortress.  The soldiers then went inside and bolted the doors of the gate shut.

Svein had watched the spectacle through his scope and confirmed that the stakes were deadly and not the duds that the Army of the Impalers used for witnesses so, he took his bow out of its case, strung it, grabbed two arrows from the case and rode out past the trebuchets to the middle of the road and he shot an arrow the length of the road and hit one envoy in the heart, then he nocked another arrow and shot it into the other envoy’s heart.  He rode back to his men and shouted, “Let that be a lesson on who we are dealing with here.  Do not let down your guard with these people!” and he rode off along the river and pretended to inspect the ships that were anchored there.

In the evening, Svein had archers posted on the road with the usual guards and they had instructions to shoot anybody from the city who might try to steal away the bodies of the dead Hraes’ on the stakes.  But in the darkness of night the Army of the Impalers stole the bodies from the stakes and in the morning they were found gone.  Svein knew that the ghost cohort was back because they could see in the dark.  There was a breeze blowing from the north and, as Svein formed up his troops for their attack with scaling ladders, two flags were run up poles inside the fortress and they were in the shapes of men, very light skinned, and one had brown hair and one was blonde and with his scope, Svein could see that the one was truly blonde.  He rode out in front of his men and said, “Do not let your guards down, not even when we have taken the city!”

The Roman troops preferred to carry their rectangular shields even though they were heavier because they gave a bit more protection and could be used in testudo for overhead protection, but the Hraes’ stayed with their kite shields because of their light weight and the way their long tails slid up the left side of the scaling ladders, giving them improved stability going up.  Svein cast his spear to start the attack and it flew well over his horse’s ears and landed almost halfway to the fortress.  The men charged across the clearing with their shields and their ladders and they threw the ladders up against the shortened walls and men held them secure as the Hraes’ scampered up the ladders as though they were footbridges and the Romans struggled up theirs.  The Hraes’ were the first atop the wall and they whipped out their swords and began fighting their way across it to defensive ladders that had been set up on the inside.  Wallach troops were coming up the defensive ladders as fast as the Hraes’ could drive them back off the wall and one man took the tail of his kite and drove it into an opponent coming up a defensive ladder and knocked him backwards and rode his kite shield all the way to the bottom of the ladder, bowling troops over as he went down and, when he got to the bottom he joined a group of Hraes’ fighting their way to the main gate.  Heavy cavalry were, by now, charging up the road to the main gate with their kite shields over top them and the doors were flung open from inside just as they came up to them so, they charged inside and took control of the city streets.  Within an hour the city had fallen and the place was being sacked and Svein and his officers were riding around making sure it was done in the old Roman fashion.  The soldiers had been ordered not to kill any civilians and to take all surrendering soldiers prisoner.  Half the civilians were enslaved and half left free and half of the Wallach soldiers were dead and the other half were enslaved, bound for Baghdad and the eunuch armies of the middle east.

More of the supply knars had been freed up of their cargoes by the voracious appetites of the troops and were soon filled with slaves bound for training in Kiev.  Due to the treachery shown by the people of Dragasani, no ransoms were offered.  Prince Hraerik met up with this fleet of slaves as he was coming up the Danube and he heard of Prince Svein’s great victories as he was on his way to save him.  The rams and cattle were a bit of a problem transporting and had to be let out to graze along the pastures of the Danube and Hraerik wished he had taken a few less marines and a few more shepherds.

Prince Svein left a regiment of foot soldiers and a regiment of heavy cavalry in Dragonasi, as he called it, the foot to hold the city and control the civilians and the cavalry to patrol the surrounding area.  He then led his men upriver to Ramnicu Valcea or Ramnic, Count Vladimir’s home city.  He was hoping to find the Army of the Impalers there.

“We should go back downriver and see if we can catch Slatina by surprise,” Major Orus told Prince Svein.  “They had a full legion there, at least.  I’m sure of it.  We might not want to have forces like that running around loose while we battle the Army of the Impalers.”

“I was thinking that myself,” Svein admitted.  “It’s only a day to row down there and try it.”

“But it’s two days rowing coming back,” the magistrate reminded them.

“Don’t worry,” Svein reassured him.  “We’ll catch some wind on the way back.  My half uncle, Arrow Odd, was raised by the Hrafnista men, half giants, in the north and he would just put out his arms like this and wind would fill his sails.”  And just then a gust of wind came up and they looked at each other, but it died just as quickly.  So, they rowed south down the river instead, hoping to catch a legion by surprise.  As they neared Slatina, they unloaded regiments of horse and sent light cavalry riding along the riverbank to come up out of the river at dusk and charge onto the city road and hopefully into the city, but when they got there the road was completely covered in sheep and there were cattle everywhere and the Hraes’ Raven Banner of Hraegunar Lothbrok flew above the city.