Ch. 7 VLAD THE IMPALER AND THE BATTLE OF RAMNIC

Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert

Army of the Impalers by Wiki

CHAPTER SEVEN

VLAD THE IMPALER AND THE BATTLE OF RAMNIC  (Circa 965-966 AD)

4A.      The brothers swung           the swift-wheeling stone,

                        till of Frodi’s kin                    most fell asleep.

                        Then Hraerik quoth,             at the quern standing:

                                               Anonymous; Grottasongr, Prose Edda

(965)  Prince Hraerik rode out from the city of Slatina to greet his grandson, Prince Svein and his cavalry.  He saw their kite shields and he knew at once they were Svein’s legions.

“How did you capture the city?” Svein asked as he hugged his grandfather.

“I visited your men at Turnu and then I visited your men at Dragonesti and they told me that you hadn’t taken Slatina so, I thought I’d try and catch them by surprise, so I took a thousand marines and we sent some of your heavy cavalry in ahead and they caught them with the doors open, but there was only a cohort of foot holding the city so, we took it from them.  The civilians here are claiming that you impaled half their people.”

“That’s bullshit!  Their own Army of the Impalers did that.  These people are all crazy!  You can’t believe a thing they say and you don’t want to believe the things they do!”

“Speaking of bullshit,” Hraerik started.  “Do you know where I can hire some shepherds around here?”

“I know…what’s with all the rams and bulls?”

“Did you call Kraka?” Hraerik asked.

“No.  I was tempted to once, but I never actually said it.”

“Well, she sent me dream and in it the Impalers kill you all and she showed me how they did it.”

“She must have been listening to Magistrate Kalokyras,” Svein said.  “He’s always saying we’re all gonna die!”

“Anyway, the dream showed me how the Army of the Impalers always wins its battles and I’ve figured out a way to combat them, hence the rams.  I figured your supplies would be getting low so, I brought them here live, but they’ve been a pain in the ass the whole trip.  I’m sure the Bulgarians have been feasting on the all sheep I’ve lost.”

“Have you sacked the city yet?” Svein asked.

“No.  They said you impaled half their people.  How could I sack the city?”

“That’s focking it!” Svein swore.  “They’re all going into ships today and we’re shipping them off to Kiev for slave training.  The Army of the Impalers already impaled their half of the citizens, so the rest have to go to Baghdad in the spring.  You must have spare ships if you’ve lost so many sheep.”

“I’ve got enough for what’s left of their people,” Hraerik said.  “But I’ve already hired some of the men and women of the city to start making the gear that will defeat the Impalers and I’ve started hiring local shepherds to take care of the flocks.  This is my city and the people I don’t need, you can have.”  So, Hraerik and his marines began loading up the men of Slatina that he didn’t need and they sent them off to Kiev in livestock knars.  “There’s supposed to be a legion or two of Wallachian troops wandering around,” Svein told his grandfather.  “Do you think a regiment of foot and a regiment of heavy horse can hold the city?”

“My marines will hold the city they took, but a company of horse would be nice for patrols.  You might want to send a regiment of foot south to Dragonesti.  They’ve only got the horse.”

“They’ll be fine,” Svein said.  “Those loose legions will be heading north if they’re going anywhere, same way we’re going.  You can keep the company of horse you borrowed from Dragonesti.”

“Are your men hungry?” Hraerik asked.  “I’ve been just dying to kill some of these sheep.  You might as well camp here and we’ll slaughter a thousand or so.”  So, the Hraes’ army set up camp for the night and Hraerik told Svein how the Impalers fought and how they might be beaten and why he’d brought the livestock.

A thousand rams were slaughtered that afternoon and the army of forty thousand men ate them that night.  A rumour had been going through the troops that Svein’s grandfather had brought no fresh legions with him, only himself, and he was over a hundred years old!  After the feast Svein arranged for Hraerik to have a few words with his men:

“I’ve come to help deal with this Army of the Impalers,” Hraerik said as he rode up to the men on horseback.  He slid out of his saddle and landed with the agility of a panther, then he walked over to a camp table that had been set out in front of them and he leapt up onto it.  “I have brought the famed sword Tyrfingr with me,” he said, unbuckling his belt and holding the sheathed sword above his head.  “It is the sword that my son, Ivar ‘the Boneless’, fought with from his famed battle platform and he won many battles with it.  It is true that I forged this magic sword with the help of a sorcerer dwarf named Dvalin a hundred years ago, but this is the sword that I fought the Huns with at the famous Battle of the Goths and the Huns to establish the great Hraes’ trading empire, and it is the sword that Ivar reclaimed his Danish throne with, slaying the usurper, King Hiarn, with it.  And it is the sword my wife died beside on the dusty Don plains of Gardariki when she was fratricidally slain by her nephew, Prince Hun, and this sword is the one that Prince Angantyr used to slay the famed Viking warrior, Hjalmar the Brave, and the same sword that was used by the Valkyrie Hervor to slay my infamous son, Arrow Odd.  The famed sword Tyrfingr is a hundred years old and more dangerous now than it has ever been.  It was with me at the Battle of Iskorosten three years ago, when our legions had the city under siege for six months.  I took Tyrfingr and some Cathayan magic to Iskorosten and within six hours the city was burned to the ground!”

Hraerik paused for a moment and paced back and forth along the large table, then stopped and started talking again.  “I have brought Tyrfingr here with me along with some more Cathayan magic and I am going to help Prince Svein defeat the Army of the Impalers.  But I am only here to help.  It is young Svein and his three new legions that are going to defeat the Army of the Impalers,” and he put his fist in the air and shouted, “Hrae!” to which the legions responded ‘Hrae!!!’, then “Hrae!” followed by ‘Hraaee!!! and finally, “Hrae!” followed by ‘Hraaaeee!!!

“Now, I have arranged a little demonstration of Cathayan magic!” Hraerik shouted and he signalled to some marines off in the darkness.  Cathayan rockets shot up into the air behind Hraerik and exploded in great bursts of flaming colour and these explosions went on for many minutes, and when it stopped there was absolute silence and then a ‘Hraaee!!!’, ‘Hraaee!!!’, Hraaee!!!’ from the troops!

“Now, I could arrange a demonstration of the power of Tyrfingr,” Hraerik started, holding the sheathed blade above his head once more, “but the famed sword cannot be unsheathed without the death of a man, so I offer to face, right now, any man who believes he can defeat me in sword combat against Tyrfingr, but it must be a combat to the death, so I can sheath her again!”  Hraerik paced back and forth in front of the men, waiting for a challenge.  He knew none would come, even if there were men out there who thought they could beat him, because Hraerik had convinced them that he was the only one that stood between them and the Army of the Impalers.  “Good!” Hraerik shouted.  “Let us have a further demonstration of the Cathayan magic!” and the troops shouted ‘Hraaee!!!’, ‘Hraaee!!!’, Hraaee!!!’ once more as he signalled his marines, then leapt from the table into the saddle of his horse and rode off towards Svein with the fireworks going off behind him.

“How’d I do?” Hraerik asked his grandson.

“Hell…I’d follow you into hell!” Svein said.  “And I’m sure my men will now too!”  So, the rumour of a hundred year old grandfather leading them to defeat was dispelled.

Prince Hraerik left his marines and officers in charge of Slatina and joined Prince Svein at the forestem of his shieldship and they led the war fleet further north into Wallachia and the clouds seemed duller and the sky was darker as they progressed.  The Raven banner of the Hraes’ still flew above the fortress city of Dragasani and Hraes’ troops waved from the battlements as the army came to shore and set up their camp where it had been before.  They slaughtered another thousand head of sheep and ate them while sending the horns and hides back to Slatina for processing.  The thousand pavilions that Hraerik had brought from Gardariki were set up and some of the men slept on shore and some slept under the awnings of their ships.  The next morning, they rowed further north into Wallachia and by evening one of the Roman officers familiar with the land told them that Ramnic was an hour away.  Because it was late they decided to pull into shore at a clearing and set up camp a safe distance from the Wallach capital.  They knew they were being watched and, like Dragasani, Ramnicu Valcea was on the left side of the river, so they camped on the opposite bank.

It took an hour of rowing the next morning before they saw the high walls of Ramnic projecting out into the waters.  The fortress city was big and the walls were much higher than the previous cities, at least forty Roman feet and they looked thick.  There were great clearings all the way around it and Svein and Hraerik decided to make their camp beside a creek that fed the river just south of the city.  On each side of the creek sat a rich farm with a mansion and they had been just recently abandoned so, the Roman officers took the estate south of the creek and the Hraes’ officers took the estate closest to Ramnic.

“They have a harbour that is enclosed by walls,” the Roman officer explained.  “I was only here once and it was before the horror.”  The Byzantines were calling it ‘the horror’, what had happened to the missionaries in Ramnic.  No Roman soldiers that were part of the escort that had accompanied the missionaries would return to Wallachia, so they sent one officer who had been to Ramnicu Valcea once.  The Hraes’ troops had already seen ‘the horror’ replayed many times over since arriving in Walachia and they hadn’t even seen the Army of the Impalers yet, but they all had a feeling as they landed, that, at least, they were now being watched by them.

“This will take a long siege,” Svein complained.  It’s going to take months for our trebuchets to take down those walls!”

“That’s why I included Iskorosten in my speech to the men,” Hraerik said.  “There were ears of the Impalers there when I talked.  I’m sure of it.”

“They have spies?” Svein asked.

“The locals are their ears,” Hraerik answered, “but we must also assume that the Roman legions have been infiltrated as well.  The Wallachians consider themselves to be true Romans so, it is likely they have men in Eastern Roman dress and that they have infiltrated their camp.”

“I think the Army of the Impalers may have gotten into your head!” Svein said.  “First, we better make sure that their army is within their walls.  They could still be out wandering about, getting ready to attack us.”

“Oh, they’re in there alright,” Hraerik said.  “And they aren’t coming out until they’ve put on more of a show to unnerve us.”

The Hraes’ heavy horse cavalry units began regular patrols around Ramnic and confiscated any goods flowing to or from the city, and the flow soon ceased completely.  Patrols were then sent inland and farms and villages were systematically plundered and pillaged.  The troops were under orders to take valuables and certain livestock only, rams and bulls and these were slaughtered to feed the troops and the horns and hides were shipped downriver to Slatina.  Prince Hraerik went to Slatina with one of the shipments to inspect the progress on the new gear.  Several smithy and tailor shops had been commandeered to aid in the conversion of the steel helmets he had brought from Gardariki to horned helmets with sheepskin linings.  Blacksmiths would affix the horns and the women of Slatina sewed up the linings and straps.  Hraerik found the largest helmet he could find for himself, but he realised that many of his men would have to shave their heads to fit.  He knew that would be a hard sell because the Hraes’ were very attached to their long blonde and brown locks.  The Romans all kept their locks shorn like sheep, but Varangians preferred free flowing hair and some locks flowed down to the waist.

When he had taken the city, Hraerik had helped himself to the mayor’s mansion, the mayor having been one of the first shipped off to Kiev for slave training.  But the mayor’s wife and daughters remained there and he helped himself to them as well and they did not protest, preferring to service the leader alone in their own home rather than the many without.  And he gave them many privileges that the other women of Slatina did not enjoy, starting with not having to sew up war gear.  When the women of Slatina ran out of helmets to work on, Hraerik had them sewing up sheepskin shoulder pads to fit over the plate-mail armour of his troops.  The smiths would then rivet steel strips along the tops of the shoulder pads to resist impacts.  Once he had ten thousand helmets and shoulder pads complete he kissed the mayor’s women and headed off to Ramnic.

The ghost cohort was back, he was told, and had been terrorizing the troops by impaling any soldiers they caught alone.  Men could not even relieve themselves without having other men guard their backs.  And impalement stakes had been run along the wall of Ramnic that faced the camp and citizens were constantly being impaled on them and when they died screaming they were taken down and replaced by fresh volunteers.  The camp was quite far from the impalement stakes that had been run just within bowshot of the walls, but when there were a number of screamers together the sickening sound reached the camp and an echo off the walls seemed to follow it.  The men were becoming unnerved again and ‘the fetters of Odin’ became a concern of all the officers.

The Roman legions were camped on the other side of the creek so the noise did not quite reach them.  But they were furthest from the city and the ghost cohort raided them at night on a regular basis.  Night was always black as pitch but the ghost warriors seemed able to see in the dark and men would disappear from their tents and be found impaled on stakes just outside their camp fences.  If they were found dead, that would be one thing, but to be found naked and sobbing on a stake, saved by your mates but doomed to die in seven days or less, was too much for some to take and Roman units began slipping away in the night, into their ships and heading off silently downriver.  The Hraes’ had been paid gold for being here, the Romans were just ordered and all the legions were from Cherson for some offense?  Nobody knew.

Prince Hraerik ordered his ships travelling between Slatina and Ramnic to keep a lookout for deserters and when they were found they were locked up in the deserted town of Dragonesti.  Prince Hraerik had seen ‘the fetters of Odin’ before, at the Battle of the Goths and the Huns and he had lost a friend to it so, he wasn’t about to start executing people because of it as King Frodi had done many years before.  He told the men that they would not be charged with desertion, but would not be allowed to participate in the victory either.  To battle ‘the fetters of Odin’, Hraerik and Svein began awarding units leave.  They would inspect units and the best units got leave and the worst units got leave with them and they were sailed downriver to Dragasani or Slatina and they were allowed to sample the women there.  The good units seemed to pick up the poor units by the bootstraps for some peculiar reason.  This also increased river traffic and the number of deserters attempting to sail downriver dropped dramatically.

One night a Roman bireme rowed out from behind the walled harbour of Ramnic and it was rowed downriver by Wallachian riverboat men led by members of the ghost cohort who could see in the dark.  It was not so much that they could see in the dark, but that they could see in the dark better than most, and only men who could see better were allowed to join the ghost units so, as a group they were even better at it and they gained a reputation for seeing in the dark.  Their best was at the forestem of the bireme and the rest were at the bronze tubes of the Greek fire weapons both fore and aft.  Working with anything flammable in the dark was dangerous so, the task was given the ghost cohort.  The lead ghost warrior saw the Hraes’ ships along the riverbank on his right and ordered the bellowsmen to begin pumping and the noise of the bellows wafted over the waters and put the guards on the ships on alert, but it was too dark to see anything.  They just heard strange whooshing sounds in the night like the wings of dragons.  When the bireme was close enough the leader directed the fire of the bronze tubes and with a great ‘Hraaaeee’ the fiery liquid spewed from them out across the waters and it landed on the Hraes’ ships and set the timbers and the guards alight and woodfires roared and sentries screamed as the bireme made its way downstream.  The ship kept spewing Greek fire as it went by the anchored fleet and the whole camp was roused to action by the screams of the many sentries burning like candles on cakes as they danced madly about the decks of their flaming ships.  Hraerik and Svein rushed out of their command pavilion, bows in hand and swords strapped on their naked bodies as they ordered guards to the riverbanks.  Once the bireme had exhausted its charge of naphtha, it disappeared into the darkness and the ghost leader directed the bireme to the far riverbank and they rowed upriver and back to their safe harbour.

The next morning there were burnt ships and bodies in the water and ninety ships had been torched and over three hundred guards had burned to death,  Some of their burnt bodies had been snagged upon sunken ships, but most had floated downriver and a ship was sent out into the currents to collect them.  Svein ordered a meeting of officers before noon to go through just what had happened the night before.

“When you told us that the naval escort of the missionaries had returned to Constantinople, Magistrate Kalokyras,” Svein started, “you didn’t mention that the Wallachians had captured their fire breathing bireme!”

“I didn’t know!  Honestly, I was not told,” the magistrate swore.  “If one was captured, I was not informed.  To have a fire breather fall into enemy hands would be catastrophic.  It has never happened before.”

“Well, it seems to have happened now!” Svein said.  “How much fuel do these ships carry?” he asked the Roman officers

Major Orus said, “They usually carry enough naphtha to refill the bellows bladders three times, so there could potentially be three more attacks such as this one, and don’t ask me how I know this because I’m not supposed to know this.”

“Thank you Major Orus,” Svein said.  “We shall have to come up with a strategy to destroy the fire breather.”

“So, if anybody comes up with any ideas,” Hraerik interrupted, “just let us know and we’ll consider all good strategies.  So, carry on with your duties.”

After the officers left the command pavilion, Svein asked his grandfather what he was up to.  “I know when you’ve had a great idea!”

“I want that ship!” Hraerik replied.  “It’s probably the latest design of Greek fire breathing bireme and, like the magistrate said, one has never fallen into the hands of the enemy.  These are Roman officers.  We are the enemy.  We are more their enemy than the Wallachians have ever been.  If it wasn’t for this Christian religious schism they wouldn’t be enemies at all.  They probably captured the ship because there were Wallachian sympathizers in the crew.  We’ll never have a chance like this!”

“I never thought of that,” Svein said.  “I’m just trying to win this war.”

“This isn’t a war,” Hraerik said.  “This is just a battle.  The Battle of the Hraes’ against the Army of the Impalers.  The war has always been with the Romans.  The Wallachians are just Romans who have fallen out of favour with the Eastern Romans.  If we get that ship, our alchemists can copy it and they can duplicate the Greek fire formula.  The Byzantines won’t be the only ones with this uberweapon.”

“How will we capture it?” Svein asked.

“You mean, how will we capture it without the Romans finding out?” Hraerik asked.  “We’ll have to set a trap.  We should be able to keep it secret, after all, it only comes out at night.”

So, they had Hraes’ ships that were equipped with rawhide awnings and vinegar search the river at night looking for the fire breather, but it had not come out yet.  One afternoon there was a tremendous explosion within the walled harbour of Ramnic.  Black smoke and flames could be seen rising above the walls and then there was silence.  Major Orus joined the other officers who were watching the smoke rising from Ramnic at the entrance of the command pavilion.  “I think the Wallachians may have just blown themselves and their fire breather up.  They were probably trying to refuel their bellows bladders for an attack tonight.  If you don’t know what you’re doing the bladders can catch fire just from contact with air.”

“Damn!” Hraerik said.

“What?” Orus asked.

“Damn good news!” Hraerik added.

The next day Hraerik sailed back to Slatina to inspect progress on the next ten thousand helmet modifications.  He entered the mayor’s mansion and was welcomed by the mayor’s wife and daughters.  They thanked him for the provisions he had sent when he was delayed in Ramnic.  They particularly enjoyed the wines he had sent.  He slept with two of the daughters his first night back.  Once the helmets and shoulder armour was ready, he returned to Ramnic and decided that the leader of the Hraes’ should set an example and get his hair shorn so that the men would do likewise without complaint.  He was surprised when young Svein agreed with him.  The men were gathered and Hraerik was going to demonstrate how the helmets worked and why they required sheepskin padding under them.  Svein was going to have his hair cut in front of them as a good example but he noticed that his new helmet had a peak at the top and asked if some of his hair might fit in it.  The barber said it probably could so, he cut all Svein’s hair except for a long lock of it off the top right of his head and the barber coiled it up and it fit into the peak.  Many of the men wanted the same style, but those with round top helmets were completely shorn.  Soon all the front rank fighters were equipped with the new gear.

At noon Prince Hraerik and a few officers rode out onto the plain between their camp and Ramnic and planted Hazel poles for the proposed site of battle.  They waited all afternoon but the Army of the Impalers did not come out.  That night Hraerik arranged for another display of Cathayan magics and the army went out in the clearing in front of Ramnic and some of Hraerik’s marines set off fireworks that flew in the direction of Ramnic, but these were a little different.  They exploded over the city but the shower of sparks and flames lasted longer and floated down into the houses and buildings in the fortress and many fires erupted and were put out by the Wallachians, but only with great difficulty.  Count Vladimir and his army had heard through spies about the burning of Iskorosten and they’d just had a big explosion and fire in their own harbour so, they were very nervous about this new Cathayan magic and sent out envoys who rode out and adjusted the hazel poles in the dusk as a way of saying they would be joining the Hraes’ in battle on the morrow.

The next morning, eighteen thousand Hraes’ foot formed up in three ranks across the center and right and twelve thousand of their Roman allies formed three ranks on the left.  Marching out to face them were thirty thousand or six legions of Wallachian foot soldiers.  On each flank six thousand Hraes’ heavy horse and Roman cataphracts faced five thousand Wallach cataphracts.  The armies were very equally matched except that the Hraes’ had many spare horses for their cavalry and the Wallach cataphracts had none.  Prince Svein’s faith in Pecheneg tactics would be put to the test here so he led the heavy horse on the right flank and Major Orus led the Roman cataphracts and heavy horse on the left.  Prince Hraerik led the foot soldiers in the center and carried one round shield amongst all the kites and rectangles and he finally unsheathed Tyrfingr and it glowed brightly in the overcast morning sun.  Count Vladimir was on horseback behind his foot and he wore the black armour of the Praetorian Guard while a general on each flank commanded his cataphracts.

The Army of the Impalers marched in the Roman fashion with rectangular shields and as the armies closed, for once there were no arrows flying or spears thrown.  Both sides preferred to grind it out and all knew it was going to be a hard day.  When the shield walls crashed the Impalers used their standard offense of morning stars being whipped over top of the shields of their opponents.  They would try to knock their opponent senseless, then drag him out from under his shield and impale him on the stakes that they had run out in front of their wall.  Their fourth rank was made up of their impalement experts just as the Hraes’ fourth rank was made up of Valkyries who dispatched the wounded and the dying.  But this time, when the chains of the morning stars were whipped over the enemy shields they became caught up in rams spiral horns or bulls long straight ones.  The Hraes’ would then jerk their heads back and strip the weapons out of the enemy hands.  Blows that connected directly on the helmets were dissipated by the sheepskin padding under them and very few foot were knocked out.  But the few that were, fell and were pulled out from under their shields and were quickly impaled.  But the men who were disarmed faced hard men with sharp swords and were soon hacked down.  The knights on the flanks fought evenly and men on both sides were unseated and killed, but the Wallach foot in the center soon discovered their morning stars had met their match in the horned helmets of the Hraes’ and very few were carrying extra swords or weapons and they were falling fast.  Tyrfingr was literally wailing by then at the center and knights were being rushed in from the flanks to fill the gaps by fighting on foot but the center was melting away quickly and the cataphracts on the Wallach right flank fled for the hills while the cataphracts on their left rode off to the safety of Ramnic’s walls.  Count Vlad joined his cataphracts on the left and headed for the city gates and his armour was lighter so he caught up to and passed them going through the doors.  But the Hraes’ heavy horse was lighter as well and caught up to the cataphracts and followed them through the gate and secured the doors and kept them open for foot that had found spare mounts and followed the heavy horse.  And the heavy horse on the Hraes’ left flank got a string of spares and began chasing down the fleeing cataphracts from the Wallach right flank and were soon lancing them from behind.

The foot soldiers of the Army of the Impalers who had thrown down their weapons were taken into custody by Prince Hraerik.  He had plans for them.  They were tied to poles and marched to the Hraes’ camp.  The whole battle that was expected to go all day was over in less than an hour.

Count Vladimir rode through Ramnic and tried to make it to his citadel but Svein switched to his spare horse and soon caught up to him and dismounted him with a blow to his helmet and took the dazed count prisoner.  Svein and some of his officers took Vlad into his citadel and when Svein saw his prisoner there, the nun he had forced to be his wife, Svein fell in love with her.  She was the most exotic beauty he had ever seen, far too beautiful to be married to a son of a god who had been dead for almost a thousand years.  He took her out of the citadel and put her on his horse in front of himself and he rode with her to the Hraes’ camp with this officers and Vlad trailing behind him all the way and he carried her into the command pavilion, said hi to his grandfather and then took her into his partitioned room and focked her.

“What was that about?” Hraerik asked when Svein came out of his room.

“She’s mine!” Svein said and he took her in some wine and food and then rejoined his officers.  Hraerik and Svein had already agreed on how to take care of the Army of the Impalers once they were beaten and now they were and Vladimir and his generals and his officers were gathered up and Hraerik promised them he would give his best effort in sparing them if they taught the Hraes’ all about impalement by impaling their own knights and soldiers.  If not, they would be delivered directly to the Romans for execution.  So, Count Vladimir and his officers impaled their own men at Ramnic and were spared.  Prince Hraerik told Magistrate Kalokyras that he was taking them to Gardariki for execution by impalement and he was welcome to come along as witness.

Prince Svein decided to overwinter in Wallachia with his legions and his new wife so that he could get his new conquest under control.  “She may be yours,” Hraerik said about the Roman nun.  “But the city of Slatina is mine.”

“Fine,” Svein said.  “I heard one of your mayor’s daughters is already pregnant.”

“I plan to stop there on my way out and I’ll try to get the rest of them pregnant.”

“Even the mayor’s wife?”

“If she’s willing!”

Hraerik walked over to Svein’s new wife and said, “By the gods, you’re beautiful.  Welcome to our family, Princess Sviataslava.”

“Yes,” Svein said.  “Princess Sviataslava!  Thank you for your blessing, Grandfather.”

Prince Hraerik went to Slatina and was welcomed by the mayor’s wife and daughters and he learned that the youngest one was pregnant.  He told them that Prince Svein was the new ruler of Wallachia and that he had awarded him the city of Slatina and that he wanted them to be his wives and wanted the mayor’s wife to be the new mayor of the city in his absence.  The women were all elated and Hraerik spent the Yule Holidays with them in the city and lavished them with gold and fine gifts while Count Vlad and his officers were chained to the rowing benches under the awnings of his shieldship on the river.  Hraerik left his women a chest of gold to run his city with and then he left.

(966) Back in Gardariki he used the new skills that Count Vlad had taught him to impale the lowest ranking Wallachian officer and then he had his medical alchemists race to come up with a cure for impalement.  “We shall use our best efforts to save you,” Hraerik had told Count Vlad.  Two days later he impaled the next ranking officer as the alchemists scrambled for a cure.  Count Vladimir asked to see Prince Hraerik and a meeting was permitted.  Vlad was not tall, but stocky and strong, with a cold and terrible look to him, a strong and aquiline Roman nose, swollen nostrils, a reddish face with very long eyelashes framing large green eyes with bushy black eyebrows that matched his moustache.  Swollen temples increased the breadth of his head from which black curly locks hung down past a bull neck and rested upon his wide-shoulders.

When they both sat down, Vlad said, “When you promised me your best effort to save us, I was sure that you meant saving us from the Romans who hired you to kill us.  Instead, you are trying to save us from your own effort to execute us.”

“You were never in any danger from the Romans,” Hraerik replied.  “The Romans loaned us three of their legions just to ensure that we attacked you, but we didn’t need them.  I left the equivalent of six of your legions back here in Gardar because I didn’t need them.  If we’d decided to spare you from the Romans, we’d spare you from the Romans.  We are going to put an end to your impalements by finding a cure for impalement and for that we need you.  You and your officers are going to be impaled and we shall provide you with our best effort to save you.  Had it been up to our Great Prince Svein, you and your officers would have been impaled with your men.  I alone saved you from this, but only by telling Svein that we would stop impalements by curing them.  We shall do this by sequentially impaling your officers by rank and age and working to find a cure for the sepsis that follows.  Your men shall spend one day upon the stake to ensure we are working from a good sample base and then they’ll be taken down and given the best medical attention we can provide them while trying to cure them.  And for this you shall receive our very best efforts.  Is there anything we can do for you while your men await their turns?”

“We need better food and better wine and my men would like women,” Count Vladimir requested.  “And I would like your grandson, Svein, to name his next child after me.  He has taken my wife and I would like this one small favour in return, so I am not forgotten when the sepsis takes me.”

“I will suggest that your naming request be followed by our Great Prince, but I cannot guarantee it.  Meanwhile, your men will get their better food and wine and shall get their women tonight.  I can appreciate their immediate needs, however, I fully expect our medical alchemists to find a cure before we are halfway through your officers.  To that end, we are working our way up through the ranks, but where ranks are equal, we have been going by age, assuming that younger officers are of lower rank because they have less seniority, but this is not always the case and we have had some comments from your younger officers that perhaps older should go first because younger survivors would have more potential to live longer lives.  I wanted your opinion on this.”

“I think it is in the nature of things that the old die before the young so, in this case, I would go from oldest to youngest,” Vlad said.

“Thank you.  That is the way we shall proceed then.”

“But what is your opinion on the matter?” Vlad asked.

“I am far too old,” Hraerik said, “to have an unbiased view on this.”

“How old are you?” Count Vlad asked, leaning forward to study the Prince.  “You don’t look that old.”

“I’ve had visions of the future where you and your sons have a reputation of living unnaturally long lives,” Hraerik said, leaning into him this time.  “This will have come solely from your association with me!”

“I’ll have sons?” Vlad asked, and for the first time since the Battle of the Army of the Impalers the count had a glimmer of hope.

“I have said too much already,” the Prince said and he left the count’s cell.

The next day an older officer was impaled and the cure was still eluding the alchemists.  Magistrate Kalokyras had arrived from Cherson to check up on the progress of the Wallachian executions.  “I don’t see why the impalements have to be sequential and days apart,” he said impatiently.  “I’ll have to send a partial report off to Constantinople.  They want me to confirm the execution of Count Vladimir, but this is taking forever,” he said as he witnessed the impalement of the older officer in the basement of the medical alchemists building.  “And why aren’t these executions being done in public?”

“We don’t execute criminals in Tmutorokan,” Hraerik told him.  “Not even war criminals.  We are only doing this at the request of the Byzantines and only because the Wallachians are Romans who broke the Roman rules of law for both civil and war time periods.  And the impalements are sequential because their crimes were sequential and they are days apart because Prince Svein feels it will increase the sense of dread that the Wallachian officers feel and were so good at inflicting upon others.”

“I’m sure Empress Theophilos will appreciate the added cruelty, but I have reports to make.”

“Don’t be so impatient, my old friend” Hraerik said.  “I have a new Khazar Vayar I want you to try, and some new wines from Frankia.”  He then showed the magistrate the medical attention the impalement victims were receiving and he showed him the first victim, who had just died.  But he did not tell him that the alchemists had been trying to save him.

And so it went, that officer after officer was impaled and still no cure was found.  Princess Helga was overwintering with Hraerik and Silkisif and had brought Malfrieda and Svein’s young sons down from Kiev with her so, Hraerik had to explain why Svein had to remain in Wallachia to put the country into order.  He made no mention of the Roman Princess Sviataslava that Prince Svein had found there.  He also did not tell his Hraes’ wives what was going on in the medical alchemists hall but they did notice that Magistrate Kalokyras was visiting a lot from Cherson.  More officers were impaled as they worked their way up the ranks and the impaled were living a little longer so, the impalements were done every third day and then every forth.  By the time it was extended to every fifth day, they were up to the last two generals, the ones who had led the Wallachian cataphracts on the flanks of the Army of the Impalers.  The oldest general lasted thirteen days and only once he had died was the last general impaled.

A message was sent to Magistrate Kalokyras that Count Vladimir would be impaled in two weeks and he came to Gardariki to witness it.  Hraerik showed him the body of the last general and he sat with Hraerik in the basement of the alchemists hall to watch the impalement of Count Vladimir of Wallachia.  Hraerik had selected a trustworthy group of his marine officers to execute the impalement.  Hraerik signalled for it to begin and the marine major gave the salute of the impalers to Count Vlad and four marine captains tore off the count’s clothes and forced him to his hands and knees, then the major saluted again and the impalement stake was greased, inserted into his anus and thrust up into him to the burl, and then the major saluted once more to complete the 6,6,6 and the men lifted up the count and straightened the stake up and slid it down into a hole and when the pole bottomed out, the count winced in pain but made no noise.  His lingam hung down over his scrotum and he stared at the Roman magistrate with hatred then over at Hraerik with indifference.  The magistrate was unnerved by the stare and he got up to leave and he told Hraerik that he was returning to Cherson to file his report.  “I’ve seen enough,” he said.  “Count Vlad is as good as dead.”

Count Vlad sat upon his stake all day and was supposed to stay up all night, but Hraerik had him taken down early and his treatments began.  “I’m sorry, my friend,” Hraerik told the count.  “I really thought we would have had the cure figured out by now.  If it is any comfort, Prince Svein has agreed to name his next child after you.”

That night he was in bed with Helga and Silkisif and the girls asked him if it was true he had defeated the invincible Army of the Impalers in just an hour.  They told him they had overheard some of his men talking and saying it was a greater victory than Iskorosten.  The soldiers who came back from Wallachia didn’t like talking about Wallachia or the battles there.  They had all come back changed a bit, like they had seen horrors there that they had never seen before so, Helga and Silki asked the question together very gently.  It was the first and last time that Vikings ever wore horned helmets and the tactic had worked in practice even better than it had worked in Hraerik’s dream so, he said, “It was my greatest victory,”  and they had sex.

Hraerik visited the count every day of his treatments and when the count lapsed into a coma on the fourteenth day, he thought he was gone, but on the fifteenth day, the count was still in a coma and still alive.  “You’ve outlived everyone else,” Hraerik told him as he slept.  The next day, when Hraerik visited him he was awake, not moving, but awake.  Hraerik congratulated him and they communicated by having Vlad blink once for yes and twice for no.  It was the easiest language he had ever taught he said and Vlad blinked once.  “To the Romans you are dead.  Kalokyras sent that report to Constantinople.  I want to keep it that way, yes?” and Vlad blinked.  “Do you know why I wanted to save you?” and Vlad blinked twice.  “Far off in the future, your great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson will defeat Turkish warriors and prevent the conquering of all Europe.  Do you believe me?” and Vlad blinked.  “And you have had no sons to date, is that correct?” and Vlad blinked again, “I assumed that you would have to survive your impalement in order to yet have some.”  Vlad blinked and even tried to smile.  “My medical alchemists have assured me that you shall indeed recover fully.”  This time Vlad blinked and did smile.  “I shall be keeping you here in your cell in Gardariki until it is safe to return you to Wallachia.”  Vlad smiled again.  “You will, of course, have the best food and wine and your women.”  Vlad blinked and smiled.  “When it is safe enough to return you to Wallachia, we shall give you the city of Dragasani to rule, does this please you?”  Vlad blinked once.  “And will you swear an oath of allegiance to Prince Svein and Hraes’?”  Again, Vlad blinked once.  “Will I ever regret extending this boon to you?” and Count Vladimir blinked twice.