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Guards opened the winter camp’s gate. This was not an ordinary camp, but more like a quickly erected fortress to defend positions gained during previous successful military operations. The river Vah was on its eastern edge and the supply route from Morava together with the gate was on the other side. Down south was a road to one of the most important cities of the united Venedian people called Preslav.

Preslav was situated on the river Danube and together with its surrounding fortresses, it defended an important crossroad between Moravia, Carantania, Pannonia and Nitrava. Samo’s forces were able to capture it during the winter period.

The eastern edge of the Vah valley was dominated by the hill Marhat. Being used as a fortress in previous ages, there was no doubt about its importance as a guardian of the mountain passage between the Vah and Nitrava valleys. Avars occupied its long ridge and in order to be able to operate in the Nitrava region, one had to seize Marhat.

Samo and his army entered the camp. The camp’s commander Slavomir was waiting for them in the main square. Slavomir was a well known planner of fortresses and fortifications in general. As a commander he specialized in military defense.

“Welcome, Samo. Long time no see,” Samo was greeted by Slavomir.

“Slavo, how are you?” asked Samo.

“I’m all right. Mainly thanks to the help you sent us,” replied Slavomir. “Back then we were under the attack by Avars. Five days they besieged us. Ragnahar and his soldiers were defending the most vulnerable southern wall. Where did you get these Germanic beasts?” he continued.

“Actually, they were a gift from the King of the Franks. But still, we should be really cautions in relation to them.” replied Samo.

“I see… When would you like the start the attack?” asked Slavomir.

“We have no time to waste. We’ve got high quality weapons and the manpower to succeed. Prepare your men for the morning!” ordered Samo.

“As you wish,” replied Slavomir as the horns at the main gate roared. “There must be a messenger incoming,” he continued.

As the two rushed to the gates the messenger approached them and handed the message directly to Samo.

Samo started to read the message. “Preslav is under attack and is requesting support!” shouted out Samo. “If we lose Preslav, then we also lose these positions,” continued Samo.

Losing Preslav would mean that Avars would get easy access to the supply chain of the Venedian army. Having enemies in the rear would cause problems, the campaign would be delayed and Preslav would have to be eventually recaptured.

“How many lives would it take?” asked Samo himself. Such developments would slow down the campaign and Venedians could face serious troubles.

“Should we support Preslav with all our strength?” asked Slavomir.

”No, we must capture Marhat right away or else we could lose our momentum, explained Samo. Prepare your troops, we will attack early in the morning as I ordered,” he continued.

Samo went down to the barracks to have a word with Vladislav and Ragnahar. They were both inspecting the armory and talking about Germanic and Venedian women.

"And this is what I hate most about them," Vladislav was finishing a sentence when Samo entered.

“Women, right?” said Ragnahar laughingly.

"I have an important task for you two. Ragnahar, you will take your soldiers and together with Vladislav you will go as quickly as possible to Preslav and defend it against an ongoing Avar assault. Vladislav will be in charge. Prepare your soldiers right away," ordered Samo.

"As you wish, master, I will fulfill my mission with honor," replied Ragnahar and went straight to his men.

Samo turned to Vladislav. "At least we will get a chance to finally test him out. If he's truly so powerful then it's all Preslav needs now," said Samo referring to Ragnahar. "When there's any problem along the road just move to the hills," he continued.

Ragnahar mobilized his men and left with Vladislav for the city of Preslav. They wanted to avoid swampy areas along the river Vah and Venedian settlements under Avar rule, therefore moving along the hills was a much wiser choice.

In the evening they reached the edge of the woods and decided to spend the night there because it was not safe to ride during the night. When hunters came back with some freshly caught rabbits, they all sat down round the bonfire and started talking.

"You will like Preslav. It lies on the largest river far and wide," said Vladislav.

"I can’t imagine how it looks down here," replied Ragnahar that as an Alemannian knew the river Danube well but only its upper parts.

"It's so enormous that there are only few places where you can cross it on a horse without a problem. I've heard that once in the past there was such a drought that the whole Dunay dried out and you could move across it without soaking your shoes," continued Vladislav.

"Amazing that such a river can vanish so easily," replied Ragnahar. "What about the rebellion in Preslav? Can you tell me more about that?" he asked.

“Of course. But first have some dark mead,” said Vladislav and both poured som mead into the fire to please the gods.

“Everything that we accomplished started precisely in Preslav, where the local nobility organized an attack on stationed Avar forces. They were finally too fed up with the endless Avar conquests, which cost so many lives of their sons. People then threw dead bodies of their enemies into the river, so that it would flush them away to their land. After this the Venedian people even from furthest away rose up and pushed Avars away from their lands,” explained Vladislav.

“Avars are a pain for so many peoples. I’ve heard about the atrocities they commited in Bavaria. That’s why my king has put me into your services. We the Germanic people usually deal with problems of this corner of the world forsaken by gods. And as we dealt with the Romans, we were also able to unite ourselves and crush the Huns. But unfortunately, this was possible only after their invincible leader Attila finally died,” replied Ragnahar.

“The grand battle in Pannonia where Germanic tribes defeated the Huns. Every child has heard of that one. Our revolt maybe isn’t that extensive, but it will change things as well. I feel it, said Vladislav. “Did Slavomir tell you about his mother and sisters?” he asked.

“He did. An Avar harnessed them to his carriage and let them drag it till they died from exhaustion. Just for the fun of it,” answered Ragnahar.

“That’s just sick. Many people had to witness their brutal ways. Our retaliation will be cruel!” said Vladislav. “Tomorrow we have to reach Preslav,” he added and they all went to sleep.

When the sun was rising the group woke up to the sound of incoming horsemen.

“Quickly, let’s retreat to the hills!” shouted Vladislav.

As the group was gaining an elevation advantage, the Avar horsemen decided to not follow them because they wanted to avoid such a disadvantage.

“From now on we will have to move through hill ridges of Carpati*,” said Vladislav.

Meanwhile Samo was preparing his army for capturing the hill Marhat. Thousands of swordsmen and hundreds of pikemen and archers crossed the river Vah through a nearby ford and disappeared in the beech woods south of the mountain.

Avar soldiers stationed on the Marhat fortress didn’t know what was coming. They were prepared for encirclement and a longer siege but not for a quick, overwhelming and devastating assault.

The army moved towards the fortress of Gaida**. Avars used it as a secondary fortress and stationed only a small amount of troops there.

“All of these hills were once covered with fortresses,” said Samo looking around while riding his horse. “If they had enough space, they built them in the shape of a spider web, so that if an outer wall was breached, the defenders could shoot at the attackers not only from the next defensive line, but also from the sides,” he continued explaining.

“So why is it that after time people moved into lower areas?” asked Drahomir.

“There’s one simple answer. They were too comfortable. You see, it’s much easier to trade goods, travel and access crop fields when you live on flat land,” answered Samo. “We exchanged safety for convenience and that’s why we are in this whole mess,” replied Drahomir.

* Carpati – Slavic name for the Carpathian Mountains
** Gaida – hill south of Marhat

“Well, never forget that even if you work hard on your defense and build up a strong army, there will always be someone who’s stronger and who will overwhelm you with his numbers,” said Samo and looked at the Gaida hilltop.

“Are you ready to fight?” he asked.

“Of course and I’m looking forward to it,” Drahomir replied.

“What about the strange things that happened to you?” Samo asked.

“It looks like gods gave me incredible powers. I can see what animals see, I feel their pain, their desires and I can control them if I want. But otherwise I feel all right,” replied Drahomir.

“I hope you’ll make good use of it,” concluded Samo.

Avars stationed in the two fortresses could now clearly see the incoming army, so they reinforced the Gaida fortress, because they knew that it’s more vulnerable to attacks and the thin Marhat fortress can be easily defended with a handful of soldiers.

“Drahomir, you will lead the attack on Gaida and I will do my job according to our plan. See you later,” said Samo and together with some soldiers he left for the northern woods.

As Drahomir was preparing the army for attacking Gaida, Vladislav and his group were moving through hills towards Preslav. But first, Vladislav wanted to make a short stop to show something interesting to Ragnahar.

“This is what I wanted to show you. This was once a center of a thriving culture. Built on an important crossroad over a thousand years ago. You can still see remnants of its stone walls and record of a tragedy that had befallen this place,” explained Vladislav.

“What is this place and what happened here?” asked Ragnahar.

“It’s Molpir*. People still tell stories about the Celts that lived here and the power struggle that went on and ultimately destroyed this fortress. Destruction came so fast that people didn’t even have a chance to flee,” explained Vladislav. “Most of them were slaughtered in their sleep,” he added.

* Molpir – fortress near Smolenitse

“But now we should move on. Let's try the road alongside the mountains. This way we’ll be in Preslav within few hours and if we're attacked, we can easily retreat back to the hills,” he continued.

In the meantime Samo separated himself from the army. He took seven swordsmen and four archers with him and went to a nearby cave north of his army’s positions. The cave was cleverly hidden, but Samo knew exactly where to find it because he had this information from retired Venedian soldiers. At first, men moved some tree branches and uncovered the main entrance. Then they all lightened their torches and went deeper into the cave.

“This stone indicates the entrance,” said Samo and pointed at a black stone, which was in an inconspicuous part of the cave. He pulled the stone and the stone structure started to fall apart until it created a window. “Clear the entrance!” Samo ordered his men.

The soldiers uncovered an ancient tunnel, which was used by Celts to connect the wider Gaida fortress with the main Marhat fortress. In case the Gaida fortress fell to the enemy, soldiers could easily recapture it during nighttime using this secret tunnel.

As the group moved through the tunnel, they found themselves in a crossing right under the main Gaida fortress. There was a secret exit from the tunnel going right into the heart of Gaida. Only some digging would be needed to get into the fortress, but the defense concentrated there was too strong to handle. That's why they went further towards the other end of the tunnel. It was easy to hear that the attack already started.

The Venedian army blew their horns and hundreds of soldiers stormed the palisades covered by archery fire. After one hour the army was still not able to penetrate the main wall and Drahomir grew impatient. As if that wasn't enough, storm clouds were coming from the north-west and the whole attack was endangered.

Drahomir ordered some of his men to circumvent the fortress and attack it from the back from the so called Hanging Rocks, however without success.

Samo was able to get to the end of the tunnel right under the Marhat hill top. His men started to dig their way out. After few meters they finally saw some light. They digged their way right to the main tower at the top of the acropolis* and waited for a few moments to be sure whether the air is clean. Then they moved the wooden floor boards and jumped out of the tunnel right into the ground floor of the tower. Samo led the way to the top.

* acropolis - highest point of a fortress or city

There were only two guards at the top of the tower overlooking the fortress and the scrimmage happening at the Gaida fortress. Samo sneaked up behind the two guards and slashed both at the same time. They petrified instantly making a quiet rifting noise.

“Look, there are only few of them at the walls,” said Samo to his men. “We will take them out one by one and in complete silence,” he continued.

First the group attacked archers who didn’t expect a thing. Then the last swordsmen overlooking the main gate noticed that something’s going on. Samo’s group attacked with a full frontal attack. Air was filled with waving swords playing the song of death.

As they finished off the remaining Avars a swordsman blew his horn signaling to Drahomir, that the attack was successful and Marhat is once again in Venedian hands.

Soldiers from both sides looked at the majestic Marhat hill. Avars were shocked about what was going on, but they reacted fast and sent some men towards Marhat who got struck down by Samo’s archers. Clouds covered the sky.

Drahomir realized that he’s struggling with his attack and he became furious. If he only could smash them away with one blow. Maybe even behind the Dunay. Drahomir raged in fury. Suddenly he realized that soldiers standing next to him started to look at him with fear in their eyes. He has seen this before. A strong wave of heat hit him so he ripped away his vest and saw that his body was covered by huge and thick hair. His body was growing.

The horse on which Drahomir sat got frightened and threw him in panic to the ground and then galloped away. A huge werewolf, twice as tall as the tallest soldier, stood up from the ground. The soldiers retreated several steps back and were not able to make a sound. They just stared with their mouths wide open.

The beast started running towards to main wall. It jumped over the palisade and right into the Gaida fortress. It smashed some bystanding Avar soldiers away, looked onto the sky and screeched out loud so that both Avar and Venedian soldiers fell into their knees from the pain in their ears.

Then the beast rushed to the main tower on the acropolis while attacking Avars with its claws. Archers on top of the main tower started shooting their arrows and hitting it, but this made the creature even more furious. It pushed the main tower till it collapsed and then it ran back towards the main gate. Avars focused their attention and firepower solely on the beast so the Venedian army was able to climb over the palisades and attack them inside the compound.

In the meantime, Vladislav and Ragnahar arrived at a high hill* with a fortress on it overlooking the city of Preslav, river Dunay with Carantania and Pannonia in the background. They were shocked to see that Avars were able to penetrate the walls protecting the city, capture the central fortress** and were now attacking all the remaining Preslav’s fortresses. Smoke was coming from several parts of the inner city and storm clouds started to cover the sky.

“Storm clouds are coming from the northwest,” said Vladislav to Ragnahar. “It’s Thursday, PERUN’s day so our god probably wants to celebrate it,” he continued with a smile. Vladislav and Ragnahar with his soldiers approached the main gate.

“We’ve been waiting for you, noble Vladislav,” a female voice came from the main gate. It was the leader of Preslav’s defense, the beautiful Miloslava, who was a skilled archer as well. They both knew each other from their childhood, playing all the time, shooting from bows and simply having fun.

Miloslava was a bit younger as Vladislav, so he was now pleasantly surprised to see her develop into a beautiful woman. She didn’t dress like an ordinary woman. Wearing lots of leather armor made her look more like a soldier. At least from the distance. Vladislav had to focus his sight.

“Mila, is it really you?” asked Vladislav. “Where have you been so many years?” he continued.

“Preparing myself and my city for this,” answered Miloslava with a smile. “Come inside and rest for a while,” she showed her hospitality and when they got inside the fortress she continued explaining: “Avars came from the east and attacked the city of Preslav first in order to cut off the fortresses south of Dunay from supplies. They were able to sack the city and now they want to capture its acropolis hoisted on the banks of the river Dunay. Their current positions are right between us and the acropolis, at the central fortress. Southern fortresses behind the Dunay, Devin and we as well are preparing everything that’s left for an assault,” explained Miloslava.

“We’re here to help in any way we can,” said Vladislav getting a headache after going through so much explanation.

“In one hour we’ll attack. Try to rest for a while,” said Miloslava and smiled at Vladislav. Then she went to prepare her army for the assault.

* fortress on the hill Kamzik
** fortress on the hill Slavín

Vladislav couldn’t stop thinking of Miloslava and that smile. Does she like him or not? These were the questions that tormented him. He couldn’t even rest, so he went to check out what she is doing.

Miloslava was overseeing the preparations when Vladislav approached her and started speaking with a mocking tone but still with a smile: “I see that you’re an archer as well?”

“Shouldn’t you sleep or something like that?” answered Miloslava in irritation while she was hooking up a horse saddle and barely looking at Vladislav.

“We both know that out of us both, I’m the better archer,” replied Vladislav laughingly.

Miloslava got angy, she turned herself towards Vladislav and said: “Do you want a bet?”

“Sure, why not,” replied Vladislav.

“What do you want to bet?” asked Miloslava.

“If I win, you have to kiss me and if you win, then I have to kiss you,” said Vladislav and saw the rising smile on Miloslava with sparks in her eyes. He leaned forward and kissed her.

Fighting at Gaida ceased, the ground was covered with bodies and Drahomir in his human form was leaning against the palisade in complete exhaustion. His clothes were torn apart due to the transformation into a werewolf.

A soldier brought him fresh clothes and said to him: “Thank you, you saved many of our lives!”

“You’re welcome. Be so kind and bring me some water,” replied Drahomir.

The soldier went away to get some water from the supply carts just when Samo entered the fortress. He went straight to Drahomir and asked him with a grin on his face: “So now you’re like our pet or what?”

“Yeah, just make fun of me. I’m exhausted,” replied Drahomir.

“It seems like you’re able to control your newly obtained powers,” continued Samo.

“I’ve never been as angry as today and then it happened. And look, those bizarre clouds are moving to the south,” said Drahomir and closed his eyes from fatigue.

“That’s strange. I’ll leave you to rest and send you someone with food,” concluded Samo and went to check the state of his army. He met Slavomir near the destroyed part of the palisade and gave him orders to repair the wall as soon as it will be possible.

Capturing the fortresses in the mountains between the Vah and Nitrava valleys gave the Venedian army and advantage point in having a base from where to launch attacks on the key target which was the city of Nitrava. But first they had to defend Preslav from an ongoing assault. If Preslav would fall, all the territorial gains from past would be endangered. Fate of Preslav was in the hands of Vladislav and Ragnahar, who were now prepared to lead an attack on Avar positions.

Avars were constantly attacking the acropolis of Preslav and this way they prevented any reinforcements and supplies to reach it. The plan of the Venedian army was to use forces stationed behind the Dunay and the remaining soldiers in the Devin* fortress and other fortresses to push the Avars back to the central fortress, surround them and crush them.

Preslav’s acropolis was in flames. Avars were using inflamed arrows to attack it. In order to get closer to the palisades, they used large wooden shields that could provide cover to several soldiers. In return Venedian defenders poured resin onto these structures and inflamed them with arrows.

These slower attacks were alternated by full frontal attacks using ladders and lots of swordsmen. Arrows were filling the air and swords played once again their song of death. A fortress cut off from supplies could never stand this for a long time.

Vladislav, despite the situation, was able to listen to his heart and kiss Miloslava. She fell for him pretty quickly, because Vladislav’s special ability, which he possessed from birth, was that he had absolutely no problem to seduce women. But he knew that she was different than the others.

For Miloslava, it was from this moment on only about him. She looked at him all the time, thought about him all the time and wanted to be with him all the time. They both found their missing halfs which is always rare, but when it happens it seems so natural.

Under different circumstances this would be the best thing that ever happened to them, but now it was time to wage war and not to lose concentration and think about someone else’s safety.

* fortress on the hill Devinska kobyla

Venedian forces from southern fortresses passed the Dunay’s ford and joined forces with the Devin garrison. Avars ceased attacking the acropolis and started moving towards the approaching army to find some terrain advantages and attack them in the open.

As the two armies collided, Avar commanders realized that the central fortress under their control is being attacked by a group of Venedian warriors. So far they didn’t consider it as important. Miloslava, Ragnahar and their warriors stormed the central fortress. Vladislav was covering them, firing arrows from the distance.

Ragnahar and his men reached the palisades. Their shields were studded with arrows. The most vigorous one of them kneeled down, Ragnahar jumped on his shoulders and got catapulted above the palisade right into the fortress.

Other soldiers came with ladders and started to enter the fortress as well. By that time, Ragnahar was converting the fortress into hell on Earth. Avar soldiers were flying into every direction. Ragnahar was blasting them off with his two-handed hammer.

The situation became critical for Avars, so they blew their horns signaling their army outside the fortress to retreat back into the central fortress. Miloslava also signaled to retreat, because they would not be able to hold the fortress against such a force. Ragnahar and all the others were climbing back the palisade and running away from the fortress. Everything was going as planned.

Avars sent their horsemen to attack the Venedian archers. Ragnahar and his men were rushing back to the rescue and as one Avar horse archer was trying to shoot at Vladislav, Ragnahar threw his hammer right into the horseman’s head throwing him down from his horse and thus saving Vladislav’s life.

Unfortunately, Vladislav realized that one arrow hit Miloslava right in the shoulder and she was unconscious. She saw that Vladislav was in trouble and rushed towards him as well, which made her neglect her own safety.

When Vladislav pulled out the arrow from Miloslava’s shoulder, the arrowhead was covered with a greenish tincture. “Poison!” thought Vladislav to himself. In the meantime all soldiers from the Avar army retreated to the central fortress.

Anger grew inside Vladislav. He closed his eyes and prayed to all gods to punish those who are oppressing his people. Dark clouds thickened in the sky and put the land into darkness. They brought a huge thunderstorm with them.

Strong wind was blowing and circling around the central fortress. It looked like it will rip it off the ground and then lightnings started striking the fortress. Louder than the whole thunderstorm were the screams of terrified Avars that were one by one perishing by the hands of PERUN.

“DONAR*!” said Ragnahar in disbelief thinking of the thunderer god.

“He will punish them for destroying his shrines and temples,” replied Vladislav.

As the spectacle ceased, dark clouds started to disappear and the fortress was left lifeless. The smell of burned meat spread across the area and after a while the smoke was visible even from Marhat.

The defenders of whole Preslav gathered before Vladislav as he spoke: “Let us thank the greatest of them all, let us never forget his assistance in this time of need. Let us celebrate our thunderer god! Long lives PERUN!”

“Hurrah!” cheered the crowd.

“To venerate PERUN, we will build him a temple right on this central fortress and here we will celebrate and glorify him, our highest god!”

“Slava!” shouted the crowd.

“From now on this hill will be called Slavin, a place for celebrating Preslav’s guardian!”

* Donar – Germanic thunderer god equivalent to Perun and Thor