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
“I still can’t believe I am hearing this. You burned your own fort?” Lieutenant Teevus exclaimed, an incredulous look passing over his face as he gazed upon Hollux, who abruptly appeared uncomfortable. “Are you mad? Tell me you did not do that!”
Stiger thought furiously on how he could sway Teevus, another older man who had never advanced beyond a lieutenancy. Stiger could not place the family name, but that troubled him little. Teevus was not as refined as Hollux in manner and speech, and his tunic wasn’t as well-cut either. This could have been a sign his family had recently been admitted into the nobility or, more likely, Teevus had fallen upon hard times.
“He did it on my orders,” Stiger said, thoroughly irritated at how the conversation had turned. They had been arguing for the last thirty minutes with no progress to show for it. “Teevus, allow me explain this again. The enemy is out there. They are coming here, to Fort Ida. I feel very strongly that our only chance is to consolidate our forces at Fort Covenant and hold until the Third arrives. I’ve sent—”
“I get it, I get it. You don’t need to repeat yourself,” Teevus said, resting both hands palm-down on the table where Stiger had placed his map. Teevus looked it over as a silence fell around them.
Stiger, Hollux, and Teevus were in Fort Ida’s headquarters, if it could be described as such. It was a small square room with a battered desk pushed against the back wall. Two large trunks lay to either side of the desk. A table sat in the center of the room, taking up much of the free space. The flooring was wood plank that creaked and groaned dangerously with every step. There were no chairs, only one rickety stool by the desk. A single lantern hung overhead and a candle burned on the desk, providing adequate but muted light.
A door off to the right undoubtedly led to the prefect’s personal quarters. It was closed, as were the shutters that would have allowed in fresh air.
“However,” Teevus continued, “I’ve seen no solid proof other than your roughed-up prisoner and this map. I readily admit both are compelling, but at the same time, it is slim evidence. This could be nothing more than a diversionary raid.” He paused and glanced meaningfully at Hollux. “As such, I simply cannot abandon this fort without proper orders. It would violate the trust placed in my hands and, I daresay, put my personal honor at risk.”
Hollux swallowed and averted his gaze. Stiger felt his brows draw together at Hollux’s behavior.
“How many men do you have here?” Stiger asked, drawing Teevus’s attention.
“I don’t see how that is relevant,” Teevus said, straightening up.
“As of this morning’s count,” Teevus said, “one hundred eighty-two.”
“Do you really believe you can hold this fort with an entire army out there? How long will you last against twenty to thirty thousand Rivan heavy infantry?”
“What I think I can and can’t do is immaterial,” Teevus said, tapping the table with his right index finger. “My orders are to hold this fort. That is what I shall do.”
“I’ve told you I am changing your orders,” Stiger said firmly.
“No, you are not,” Teevus said, voice just as firm. His eyes slid over to Hollux. “Is that how you got him to abandon his fort? You pulled rank?”
“I outrank you,” Stiger said, jabbing a finger at the other officer, “as I outrank him.”
“Only technically.” Teevus held up a hand, forestalling any further heated protest. “I concede you are correct. However, it changes nothing. I will not give up my fort without orders from my local command, the tribune at Fort Covenant, or at the very least my prefect.”
“You prefect is not here,” Stiger said.
“Yes, as I’ve said, he is not.”
Stiger sucked in a deep breath. “Nothing I say will change your mind, will it?”
“No,” Teevus said. “And I would ask while you are within my fort not to try to order my men about either. They are loyal, and such an attempt will only serve to embarrass.”
“Why not come with us?” Hollux prompted. “Come on, Teevus. You know me. We’ve been friends for at least five years. I would not do this unless I thought the threat very grave.”
“I have no doubt you believe in what Stiger here has told you.” Teevus hesitated again, glancing down at the table before looking back up. “This is my career. It is not much, but it’s all I have. I do not hail from a wealthy family. I could barely afford to purchase an auxiliary commission, let alone consider an appointment to the legions.” He fell silent a few heartbeats. “I am muddling through as best I can. I cannot give up the fort. If I do, I stand to lose everything if the news you bring is wrong. That includes what little I make, which I subsequently forward on to my wife and child. Though it is not my intention to disparage your honor, Stiger, I hope you understand I cannot do what you ask of me. The truth is, I would like nothing more than to come with you. But I dare not.”
Stiger could appreciate Teevus’s position, but it did little to quell his irritation. If Teevus remained, he and his cohort would die or, at the very least, end up as Rivan slaves.
“When the Rivan get here,” Stiger said quietly, in a tone that was part whisper, “you will lose everything.”
Teevus closed his eyes for a long moment, breathed in deeply, and then slowly let it out. When he opened his eyes, his gaze was firm. Stiger knew, in that moment, it was done. There would be no budging the man. For certain, no argument would sway him, for Teevus had inner strength to see through his resolve. It was something Stiger could respect, even if he vehemently disagreed with Teevus’s position.
“I will dispatch a messenger,” Teevus said. “It is only ten miles to Fort Covenant and, as I’ve said, my prefect accompanied Lieutenant Aggar there for a meeting with the tribune. I should have a response within a few hours. That is the best I can offer.”
Stiger rubbed his jaw and gave a reluctant nod. A little concession was better than none. Though he did not like it, he could see no other way.
“We set a hard pace,” Stiger said, heat draining from him as he accepted defeat. “With luck, once your orders arrive, you will have time to evacuate the fort.”
“I hope so,” Teevus said, glancing down at the map on the table. “I sincerely hope so.”
The small room fell silent once again.
“I would like to send along a written report with your messenger,” Stiger said. “That way they can start preparations to receive the enemy before we arrive.”
“I see no issue with that,” Teevus said and then glanced over at Stiger and Hollux. “You both look exhausted. Can I offer you and your men refreshment before you move on?”
“That would be most welcome,” Stiger said. “With your permission, I would like to bring my men into the fort and allow them to rest. We will march out in two hours.”
“Granted,” Teevus said, then hesitated. “I am relying upon your honor that you will not cause trouble with my men.”
“You have my word.” Stiger folded up his map, slipped it into a pocket in his cloak, then turned and left. Stepping out into the afternoon light, he found Tiro and Pazzullo waiting just outside. Without any shutters thrown open, the air inside the fort’s headquarters had been hot and stale. Stiger took a deep breath of fresh afternoon air and looked around.
Much like Footprint, Ida was a small affair. There were only seven buildings in total, surrounded by a simple tree trunk palisade, backed by an earthen rampart. The interior was neat and orderly. The men manning the walls looked professional; their kits appeared well-maintained. It spoke of the quality of the auxiliaries here.
Tiro and Pazzullo stepped over to him.
“Well, sir.” Tiro’s tone was careful when Stiger said nothing. “How did it go?”
“Bloody awful,” Stiger said. “Though he fully understands the threat, Lieutenant Teevus refuses to leave. The best he will do is send a messenger to Fort Covenant seeking orders, but beyond that he is going to sit tight.”
“That’s not good,” Tiro said.
“No, it is not.” Stiger slapped a palm against his thigh, letting some of his frustration show, and pointed toward the gatehouse. “Once the Rivan get here, the walls will not long hold against a determined attack.”
“No, sir,” Pazzullo said. “They most certainly will not. Without an outer trench or pits, the Rivan engineers will be able to overcome these defenses with ease.”
“What about us, sir?” Tiro asked.
“Let’s get our boys into the fort,” Stiger said. “We will rest for two hours and then we depart.”
“The men could use a little more rest, sir,” Tiro said. “They are almost blown.”
Stiger considered Tiro’s words, but then shook his head.
“We can’t afford to become trapped here.” Stiger lowered his voice as a pair of auxiliaries walked by, heading toward the latrines on the back side of the fort. Stiger waited until they had passed beyond hearing. “I want us back into the forest. We move a few miles down the road and take another break before pushing through to Fort Covenant.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said.
“I wouldn’t stay a minute longer if I thought I could avoid it, but as you’ve rightly pointed out, our boys are almost blown.”
Teevus and Hollux stepped out of headquarters behind them.
“Stiger,” Teevus said, “I will have my dispatch ready to—”
“Rider approaching,” a shout rang out from the platform above the gate. All heads turned.
“From which direction?” Stiger shouted back up and started making his way toward the gate. He suspected he knew the answer to his own question. The others followed.
“North, sir,” the man called back, bringing Stiger to a stop in his tracks. “And he is riding hard.”
“That would be one of our scouts, sir.” Tiro threw a look of concern at Stiger.
Stiger’s eyes connected with Teevus’s. He held the other officer’s gaze a hard moment before turning away. Stiger hurriedly made his way through the gate.
What he had taken for a small wood had proven to be a good-sized forest. Ida had been cut out of the forest and sat astride the road. Unlike other forts that Stiger had come across, there was no civilian village or town here. Stiger figured it was probably due to Ida’s remoteness.
The trees around the fort had been pushed back six hundred yards in every direction. Low-lying scrub and brush choked the cleared fields. From the height of the vegetation, Stiger suspected the auxiliaries regularly pruned it down, but the forest was relentless. It sought to reclaim the land it had lost. Should the auxiliaries pack up and one day leave, Stiger had no doubts that within a handful of years Ida would be fully overgrown.
Stiger’s column of men, mules, and horses was lounging about, enjoying the respite. Under the afternoon sun, and without shade, they fairly boiled in their armor. Discomfort was something anyone serving in the legions rapidly became accustomed to.
Stiger’s gaze shifted to the rider. He saw it was Asus, as Hollux, Teevus, Tiro, and Pazzullo stepped up next to Stiger. The other scout, Tig, was nowhere to be seen. Asus’s horse was lathered with sweat and kicking up great clods of dirt. Asus yanked hard on the reins, pulling his horse up just short of the officers. The animal’s breathing was heavy and labored.
“Sir.” Asus slid off his horse and offered a salute.
Stiger returned the salute. “Let’s have it.”
“Enemy, sir. Heavy infantry, along with a good-sized column of cavalry coming down the road.” Asus gestured behind him. “They are four, maybe three miles away by now. Tig is staying just ahead of their advance scouts. I told him not to take any chances and ride back here direct-like should he get spotted.”
“You are certain you saw heavy infantry?” Stiger had hoped the enemy’s main body was farther away. A cavalry regiment was bad enough, but this was even worse. The rain and fire had apparently not slowed the enemy up much.
“Yes, sir,” Asus said. “Tig and I were able to hide in the trees, eyeballed them good, and then were able to work our way around to get ahead of them. Once on the road, I came straight back, sir.”
Stiger rubbed at his tired eyes. There would be no rest. It was time to push onward.
“Sergeant Tiro, Sergeant Pazzullo.” Stiger rounded on them. “Get the men on their feet.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said, moving toward the men. “Fall in!”
“Let’s go, you maggots,” Pazzullo roared, striding forward like a human hurricane. “Time for another pleasant walk through the woods, ladies.”
Stiger looked at Teevus, who had paled considerably. “I am certainly not staying.”
“But you will be leaving us to the enemy,” Teevus said, apparently aghast at the concept.
“And you, sir,” Stiger said, sucking in a heavy breath, “made clear your intention of remaining to hold the fort. Now, I daresay, you will have that chance.”
“I, uh…” Teevus looked away, eyes searching the forest to the north, almost as if he expected the enemy to emerge from the trees. After a moment, he drew himself up and looked Stiger square in the eyes. “I will hold my fort, but I will also send the messenger to Fort Covenant.”
“You do that,” Stiger said and then softened his tone. “Maybe there is still time.”
“I wish you luck, Stiger,” Teevus said, a grim look coming over his face. He extended his hand.
Stiger took Teevus’s hand and shook firmly.
“Don’t do this,” Hollux said as he took Teevus’s hand.
“I have to.”
“Fight well,” Stiger said.
Teevus gave a curt nod, spun on his heel, and reentered the fort.
“They will surely, die,” Hollux said with exasperation. “This is utter madness.”
“Yes,” Stiger said, feeling extremely weary and somewhat sick at heart as he looked over the walls of the fort.
“Make them come with us,” Hollux said, and it almost came out in a pleading tone. When Stiger failed to respond, Hollux reached out and grabbed Stiger’s shoulder, spinning him around so they faced one another. “We can’t leave them.”
“We can and will,” Stiger said. “Teevus has made his choice. We’ve made ours.”
“But their sacrifice is meaningless,” Hollux said in a near whisper. “They will die for nothing.”
Stiger turned back to the wooden fort, where he could now hear someone shouting orders from within.
“Perhaps not so meaningless,” Stiger said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Stiger said, “Teevus means to hold, and I have to believe that should delay any pursuit.”
Hollux shifted his gaze onto the fort. “You mean he and his men will sacrifice themselves for us?”
“Yes, in a way, they will,” Stiger said and looked on Hollux. “Our escape shall only prove temporary, for the enemy will catch up to us. Whether that is somewhere on the road or at Fort Covenant, there are hard times ahead.”
The men had fallen in and were ready to march. They were exhausted and covered with dirt from the road, but they were ready to move out.
“Tiro,” Stiger called and drew the sergeant’s attention. “Give the order.”
The column began to move, the front at first and then, like a snake, the middle of the column. The sound of many feet on the sun-dried dirt of the road was almost rhythmic.
An auxiliary leading Hollux’s horse made his way over. Hollux glanced once at Stiger, chewed his lip, and then looked back to the auxiliary.
“I think I shall walk for a bit,” Hollux said to the startled man. “I will call you when I have need of you.”
“Yes, sir.” The auxiliary led the horse back to the column, which was mostly moving now.
Stiger smiled grimly at Hollux, who returned his gaze.
“I would like to march with you,” Hollux said. “If you don’t mind, that is.”
“Your company on the miles ahead is welcome,” Stiger said, and he meant it. “I can promise you one thing though.”
“What is that?”
“Tonight your legs will be sore, not your ass.”
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