This story takes place almost immediately after Stiger, Tales of the Seventh Part One. You may wish to pick up that Tale first. It is available on Amazon Kindle and In Print.
Stiger, Tales of the Seventh Fort Covenant
By Marc Alan Edelheit
With hands cupped, Stiger brought the water to his parched lips and drank. He took another mouthful and savored the cold chill from the river. Kneeling on the riverbank, he leaned back and closed his eyes a moment. The rain had given way to clear morning skies, and with it, the unseasonal heat had returned with a vengeance. His canteen had run dry several hours ago, and it felt wonderful to drink.
Stiger paused and listened to the sound of the river as it gurgled happily by. The sound was disturbed by the chink of armor and excited voices around him as his men moved to the riverbank.
He let out a slow breath and opened his eyes. He glanced around. The road had entered a small patch of woods, leading them to this ford. Stiger studied the crossing. The depth of the water looked to be around four feet, perhaps a little less. To either side of the ford, the water appeared much deeper, maybe seven or eight feet. That meant the crossing was likely artificial.
Stiger took another handful of water and threw it over his face. He did his best to wipe the grime and dirt of the road away. Having sweated heavily, he felt thoroughly dirty and longed for a good bath. That, he thought, and some well-needed rest.
He had given the order to fall out. His men were crowded around the riverbank, refilling canteens or drinking directly from the river. Stiger could see Hollux’s men coming down the road, their standard, which displayed a boar, held proudly to the front. Unaccustomed to such a hard pace, they had been dragging ass a bit.
Stiger unclipped his canteen and filled it. He was tired. No, that was incorrect. He was bone weary. His men were in a similar state. Having left Fort Footprint burning, Stiger had pushed through the night and just beyond sunrise until they had reached this spot. He looked over his men as Hollux’s formation came to a halt. A moment later the auxiliaries were given leave to break ranks. Now, the men were moving eagerly forward toward the water.
Stiger’s gaze returned to his own. They were splendid men, he reflected. They had done all he had asked and then some. He felt a moment of pride.
He spied Hollux a few feet away. Hollux dismounted from his horse and handed the reins over to one of his men. He then made his way stiffly over to the riverbank, where he squatted down and filled his canteen before drinking deeply. Would Hollux’s men have given their all for their officer?
Stiger’s legs shook with exhaustion as he pulled himself to his feet. It took an effort not to groan. Tiro was speaking with Pazzullo just a handful of feet away. Both sergeants turned at his approach, abruptly ending their conversation.
“This is a fine spot for a break, sir,” Tiro said. “Plenty of water for all, especially considering everyone’s canteens have run dry.”
“I am pleased you approve,” Stiger said, with no little amount of irony. “We will cross the river and take an extended break on the other side.”
Tiro turned and looked for a brief moment, as did Pazzullo.
“If that enemy cavalry shows up,” Tiro said, “I suppose this is as good as any place to stop.”
“That is my thinking as well,” Stiger said, gesturing with a hand. “They would have to cross the river to get at us. The ford is rather narrow before the depth increases to either side. The trees will also serve to limit mobility. With Hollux’s archers, and our shield wall, we would be able to hold them at bay.”
“We also have those nice short spears that we picked up back at the fort,” Tiro said. “Pazzullo told me they been stored there since the legionary company that built the fort handed it over.”
“I’m guessing they’ve been in crates at least twenty years, sir,” Pazzullo said. “As good as they were when first delivered. We’ve just never had a use for them.”
Stiger ran his eyes over his men. As they refilled canteens, or splashed water on themselves or each other like children on a hot day, the potent missiles had been laid upon the ground or leaned against a tree. The important thing was that now each of his men was armed with a ranged weapon, one they were intimately familiar with. Stiger nodded and rubbed at eyes that were dry and scratchy.
“The men sure need a rest,” Tiro said, eyeing Stiger. “I don’t think they can go much farther without a few hours’ sleep and some food.”
“You are correct,” Stiger said, realizing that Tiro had been speaking about his officer as well. There were times that Stiger felt as if Tiro mothered him a little too much. “We’ve gone as far as we can.”
Lieutenant Hollux joined them.
“That cold water sure was good,” Hollux said pleasantly with a nod to Stiger. “It’s gods awful hot out.”
“We will cross the river,” Stiger said to Hollux and pointed. “Once on the other side, we will take an extended break.”
“I could sure use it, and I am confident my men could as well,” Hollux said. “Pazzullo will agree with me. Won’t you, Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said in a neutral tone that neither conveyed respectfulness nor disparaged his officer.
“You set a hard pace there, Stiger,” Hollux said. “A very challenging one.”
“It was no more than necessary,” Stiger said and then turned to the two sergeants. “I want to get to Ida today. Tiro, do you think four hours will be sufficient?”
Pazzullo covered his surprise well, but Stiger read it in the sergeant’s eyes, which abruptly blinked. Amongst an officer corps, which mostly disdained the rank and file, Stiger understood where it came from.
Pazzullo turned his gaze to Tiro, who shrugged and then replied, “I think so, sir.”
“Pazzullo?” Stiger asked, seeking the sergeant’s input. If this man was half as wise as Tiro, Stiger would be smart to seek his advice. “I would appreciate your thoughts as well.”
Pazzullo hesitated. “My men are not in the shape yours are, sir, but I judge four hours to be sufficient. We’re only four to five miles from Ida, a short walk at best.”
“Very well then,” Stiger said, satisfied. “Let’s get the men across. I for one would feel a bit safer with that river between me and the enemy. With any luck, it is the only crossing for miles around.” Stiger paused and looked at Hollux and then Pazzullo. “You wouldn’t know, would you?”
“No, sir,” Pazzullo said. “This land is Fort Ida’s responsibility. I am afraid I don’t know it all that well.”
“I can’t recall seeing another crossing on a map,” Hollux said. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I had no cause to study the terrain in this area.”
Stiger rubbed at his stubbled jaw and looked back up the road they had just marched down. He gestured toward the mule train and captured horses. “Well, there is no helping it then. Tiro, Pazzullo, once across, see that the mules and horses are properly secured. When that is done, the men can fall out and grab what rest they can. Everyone is to eat. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. “Might I make a recommendation, sir?”
Stiger nodded for the sergeant to continue. Stiger noted that Hollux stiffened slightly, most likely due to Tiro’s boldness. Pazzullo, to his credit, did not bat an eye. Stiger’s respect for the auxiliary sergeant was increasing by the moment.
“The road cuts through the woods,” Tiro said, pointing back the way they had come, “and opens up to that large grass field we passed through about three hundred yards back. I would like to set a watch detail with horses just inside the trees, concealed from view. If they spot anything, they can get back to us quick.”
“Good thinking,” Stiger said, wishing he had thought of it himself. “See that it’s done.” Stiger paused a moment, thinking things through. “Since we have mounted scouts ahead, I don’t see a need to send anyone forward. However, make sure we put sentries out just the same.”
“It will be done, sir.” Tiro moved off with Pazzullo, leaving Stiger with Hollux.
There was a prolonged moment of silence that could almost have been described as uncomfortable before Hollux shifted. Stiger looked at him, wondering what the other officer had to say.
“With the pace we set,” Hollux said, “you really expect the enemy to come riding down that road?”
Stiger regarded the other lieutenant for a few heartbeats as he considered his response. Despite being rather new to the military, Stiger realized that in the last few weeks he had almost certainly seen more action than Hollux had with all his years of service behind him.
“Do we dare take the chance?”
Hollux shifted his stance again before glancing down at his feet. He looked back up at Stiger. “No, you’re quite correct. Better to be safe than sorry.”
“Your men marched well today.” Stiger clapped the other officer on the shoulder.
“Truth be told,” Hollux said with a good-natured chuckle, “had you not called a break, I was unsure that they could manage much more. Prefect Lears is not one inclined to order extended patrols. Gods, you know, most of my time was occupied by administrative duties. I can’t recall the last time I left the fort and led a patrol.” Hollux shrugged and raised his right hand. “I am cursed with an affinity to write, you see, and my prefect loves his reports. By the gods, my ass hurts something awful.”
Stiger chuckled at Hollux’s honesty. Despite his age and likely failure at being any semblance of a good soldier, he was a likable sort.
“Regardless, you and your men did very well today,” Stiger said. “Almost as if they were regulars and not fort-bound. You should tell them that when you have a moment. It is good for the men to hear such praise from their officers.”
“I will,” Hollux said.
“Well,” Stiger said, returning Hollux’s honesty in kind, “I am at the end of my rope too.”
Hollux became serious. “May I ask you something?”
Stiger gave a curt nod.
“You have horses,” Hollux said, gesturing back up the road. “Your feet must be killing you. Why did you not ride?”
The question took Stiger by surprise. A few weeks ago, he would have thought as Hollux. Heck, he would have ridden while his men slogged along mile after monotonous mile, had it not been for Tiro’s prodding.
“I am setting an example for my men,” Stiger said. “With the heat, it was a long and difficult march. The least I could do was show them that their officer can handle the discomfort of the road. It is one of the things that helps keep them going under trying circumstances.”
Stiger read the astonishment and disbelief in the other’s expression.
“I also left my horse back with the Third,” he continued. “We were ordered to cut through rugged terrain to get to Cora’Tol instead of going around the long way by road. It was not practical to bring my horse.” Stiger let slip a smile. “Besides, riding one of those captured nags somehow doesn’t seem worth the effort.”
Hollux didn’t seem to catch Stiger’s tired attempt at humor, as he glanced back at the captured horses and then returned his attention to Stiger. “You’ve marched all the way out here then, from the Third, I mean?”
Stiger gave a weary nod, paused, and turned to look at the ford. He had tired of the conversation. “How about we lead the way like good, proper officers and cross the river first, eh?”
Hollux wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his arm as he considered Stiger’s suggestion. After a moment, the serious look on his face softened and a slight grin emerged. “I think a dip into the river would be most welcome, especially considering this heat.”
Stiger started off for the river crossing. He removed his boots before he plunged in, holding them high. The river bottom was slick with slimy muck. Hollux followed a few moments later, splashing along behind. Around ten feet from the bank, the water rose rapidly from his calves to above his waist. Stiger found the current strong, but easily managed. The cold snap of the water was at first refreshing, but after a few heartbeats turned to discomfort as Stiger’s feet began to rapidly ache. Then he was across and out, thoroughly soaked through, wet from his lower chest downward; the heat no longer seemed as oppressive.
Hollux emerged from the river, a full grin upon his face. “I must say. That felt quite good, my man. Quite good, indeed.”
Stiger turned and surveyed his men on the other bank. He then looked south and followed the road with his eyes. He could see two pairs of hoof prints in the mud and dirt that led outward from the river and down the road. These were probably left by the two mounted scouts he had sent ahead.
Trees stretched out before him and crowded both sides of the dirt road for several hundred yards. The woods had seemed small from the other side, but Stiger now wondered how big they were. The road took a turn ahead and disappeared from view.
After a moment’s more study, Stiger unclipped his cloak. It was heavy with water. He used the part that was not wet to quickly dry his feet, then wrung it out and hung it on a nearby tree limb to dry. Stiger examined the frayed and torn ends, a little mournfully. This expedition had been extremely hard on his kit. Once he returned to the Third, he would need to see to its replacement.
As he slipped the boots on, he noted sourly, he could see his big toe. He wiggled it a little, poking it up through the hole. The boot too would need to be mended or, more likely, replaced. The damage to his meager funds would be significant. The prize money from the captured strongbox and horses would offset it some, but he wondered if it would be enough.
Putting such thoughts from his mind, Stiger slipped his sword and dagger off, leaning them both against the same tree that he had hung his cloak from. He unfastened his helmet, which hung from his chest, and set it on the ground. Next, he pulled off his packs one at a time, including his haversack, and began undoing his armor. Once unlaced, he shrugged out of it, setting the heavy deadweight carefully down against the trunk. The armor needed some serious attention, at least several hours of cleaning. He was not looking forward to that.
Stiger took a tentative step and felt light on his feet, as if he weighed barely a feather. Despite his armor having become a near second skin in recent days, it was a tremendous relief to be free of it. He never seemed to cease marveling at the feeling of near weightlessness that came after shedding it.
The men were beginning to cross, splashing into the river. Stiger watched them, running a hand through his sweaty and matted hair. Next to him, Hollux had also slipped out of his armor—a much easier task, as the auxiliary officer was wearing only a simple chainmail shirt.
“Who’s the girl?” Hollux nodded back toward the river.
Stiger followed the lieutenant’s gaze and saw Varus leading a horse across the river. The woman from the farm was riding upon the horse’s back, clinging to its neck. At the sight of her, Stiger let out a slow breath. She was much too young to be a grieving widow, somewhere in her early twenties. She was also moderately attractive. Stiger had initially worried what trouble this might cause amongst the men. That concern had given way, as Varus had taken it upon himself to keep an eye upon her and divert the men’s attentions. However, with the amount of attentiveness the corporal had been paying her, he was beginning to wonder if there was more to it.
“We rescued her,” Stiger said unhappily. “The enemy squadron we ambushed had holed up at her farm. On Lieutenant Crief’s orders, her husband and two small boys were tortured and killed.”
Hollux sucked in a breath at that, face flushing with anger. “The blackheart!”
Stiger continued in a weary tone. “I caught Crief in the act of violating her.”
Hollux said nothing at this, but shot a heated glance toward the captured enemy officer being led across the river. Crief’s hands had been secured behind his back. Two men, each with a firm grip on either arm, made sure he did not try to escape by throwing himself into the river.
“I felt that I could not leave her behind,” Stiger said. “Especially considering that an enemy army was approaching.”
“Quite right,” Hollux said, with conviction. “It was the gentlemanly thing to do.”
Stiger said nothing to that, but sat down on the side of the tree trunk that faced the river. He let loose a soft groan as he settled into a comfortable position. Placing his back against the rough bark of the tree, the groan passed over to a contented sigh.
Stiger said nothing more as he watched the column of men continue to move across the river. The horses and mules brought up the rear. Stiger’s eyes grew heavy. After a moment, he leaned his head back and closed them, giving in to a deep sleep that pulled him into oblivion.
“Sir? Will you kindly wake up? Sir?”
Stiger’s eyes snapped open. He blinked several times before focusing on Tiro. The sergeant had been shaking his shoulder. Pazzullo stood at his side.
“What is it?” Stiger stretched slightly, glancing around. Was there trouble? From the sunlight filtering through the trees, it appeared to be somewhere between noon and early afternoon. Hollux lay against a tree several feet away, snoring softly.
“Time to get moving, sir,” Tiro said. “We’ve been here for four hours. The scouts returned ten minutes ago and said that Ida is maybe five miles away at most. They saw no enemy between here and there.”
“Right.” Stiger held out his hand to Tiro, who gripped it and hauled him to his feet. Stiger stretched out his back, tortured muscles protesting badly. He yawned deeply. “Roust the men, will you?”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said and then turned, cupping his hands to his mouth. “On your feet, ladies. Up and about!”
“Come on, you maggots,” Pazzullo roared, joining in and moving forward. He kicked a man who had not yet stirred. “Time to earn your pay, like proper bastards.”
There was a loud chorus of groans. The men began pulling themselves to their feet. As Stiger reached for his armor, he stifled a groan himself.
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