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 believe I have come to the conclusion that marching is not all that fun,” Hollux said by Stiger’s side. They were marching in the middle of the column as it snaked its way through the forest.
It was late afternoon. Under the thick canopy of leaves, the heat of the day was kept at bay somewhat. Still, the high temperature, along with the humidity, could almost be described as oppressive. Stiger was looking forward to the cooler temperatures that would come with nightfall.
“You can say that again.” The exertion from the march and the heat had Stiger sweating heavily. He unclipped his canteen, which was beginning to run low again, and took a quick swig of warm water. “I don’t think truer words were ever said.”
“Ah, come on, sir,” Tiro said, a few steps behind them. “Marching is good for the constitution.”
“Spoken like a true sergeant,” Stiger said, noticing Hollux’s surprised expression.
“Thank you, sir,” Tiro said, somehow managing to sound upbeat. “I’ve heard it said marching builds character, sir.”
“Are you implying I lack character?” Stiger said, without giving the wily old sergeant the courtesy of a glance backward.
“Oh no, sir,” Tiro said. “I would never say that, sir. It’s just that the holy scriptures teach there is room for improvement.”
Stiger actually stopped at that and half turned to face Tiro, who returned his look with one of innocent equanimity. “That is the first I ever heard you directly refer to scripture.” Stiger resumed his pace, as did Tiro.
“Being pursued by an entire army gets one thinking on the gods, sir,” Tiro said. “Especially with you in command, sir.”
Stiger chuckled at that. Tiro was teasing him. It was a game they routinely played. And yet, from Hollux’s stiffened posture, Stiger sensed he was scandalized by the exchange. Stiger let out a slow breath. Hollux did not understand that banter like this helped to pass the monotony. It was time to end the game before Hollux said something unfortunate.
“Sergeant, shouldn’t you be checking on the rear of the column?” Stiger turned slightly so that Tiro could see his face and jerked his head toward the back.
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said, picking up on the cue. He stepped to the side and allowed the men to continue by, thereby giving the two officers space.
Stiger and Hollux marched in silence for some time. Hollux had his jaw set in a manner that suggested he was put out. Stiger considered his options. Perhaps there was an opportunity here, he thought. Would Hollux be open to listening? He was an old dog, in a manner of speaking. Could he learn something new?
“He’s right, you know,” Stiger said, casting the other a sidelong glance.
“Your sergeant is impudent,” Hollux countered. “He’s very insolent.”
“Maybe,” Stiger said. “But I wouldn’t change or trade him for any other.”
“Why ever not? A sergeant should be subservient. If Pazzullo spoke to me in such a manner, by the gods, I would have him flogged.”
“If you did,” Stiger said, “you’d be making a mistake.”
“How so?” Hollux turned skeptical.
“I’ve learned that a good sergeant is worth his weight in gold,” Stiger said. “You have to begin thinking of them differently. Sergeants like ours are seasoned men who have been promoted for their intelligence, dedication, reliability, and aggressive nature.”
“Bah,” Hollux said. “You don’t know what you are talking about. They are little more than uneducated louts that require their betters to keep them in place.”
“Are they?” Stiger asked. “Really? Tiro may be uneducated by our standards, but that makes him no less intelligent or capable.” Stiger pointed ahead. “Take your man Pazzullo there. I am confident he has much to teach you. I am sure he could even show me a thing or two.”
“What can he teach me that I don’t already know?”
Stiger allowed a moment of silence to grow before he replied.
“That man that you so casually dismissed has a lifetime of experience behind him,” Stiger said. “He’s likely been in more fights than either of us, perhaps even a real battle or two. I’d wager he has been marching under the eagles since before I was even born. Is it possible he has seen and done things you and I have never considered?”
“Listen to me on this. And believe me. I once thought as you. Your sergeant isn’t meant to simply act as a middleman for dealing with your men,” Stiger continued. “He’s there to provide you his insight and advice on how to better handle them, and to ensure that your orders are carried out as best as possible. Good sergeants should act as a crutch, someone to lean on under difficult circumstances, such as in the heat of combat.” Stiger jerked a thumb behind them. “Tiro has proven incredibly valuable. I permit him liberties because he has earned my trust and respect. And more importantly, I have earned his.”
Hollux’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
“Trust goes both ways.” Stiger wondered if he was getting through to the man. “Without Tiro, I would not be the officer I am today.”
Hollux threw Stiger a sharp look. They continued on for a bit, neither saying anything. Stiger allowed Hollux to ruminate on what he had just said. Hollux nodded several times. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it, his eyes traveling to Pazzullo marching several yards ahead.
“I…” Hollux hesitated. “I’ve never thought of it that way.”
“Neither had I,” Stiger said, “until Tiro opened my eyes.”
“You are saying that, on occasion, I should seek my sergeant’s advice? It seems so unnatural.”
“It doesn’t hurt to listen. You may find yourself a more effective officer for it,” Stiger said. “The final decision always rests with you. If you judge the advice sound, act upon it.”
“Make way,” Tiro shouted from behind. “Move aside, man! Make way!”
Both Stiger and Hollux turned. Stiger felt his stomach do a backflip. With men stepping out of the way, Trio jogged back up to him. Legionary Tig, one of their mounted scouts, rode forward, just behind Tiro. He would not have returned unless there was trouble.
Tig dismounted and offered a salute.
“Report,” Stiger said, dreading what was coming.
“Cavalry, sir,” Tig said. “About a mile behind us. When I last saw them, they was walking their horses. They seemed to be giving their horses a break.”
“By the gods, so close,” Hollux breathed.
“How many?” Stiger asked.
“No more than a light squadron, sir. Twenty at most, but I think they number less.”
“Were you spotted?”
“No, sir,” Tig said. “I was careful-like.”
Stiger had to assume these were scouts. He had no idea how far back the enemy regiment was, and he could not dare assume that they were still at Ida.
Stiger studied the terrain around them. Where he was now, the road climbed a small forested hill and snaked its way around the side. Twenty yards to the rear was a sharp bend that the column was still working its way around. Without orders to stop, the column of men continued by, though all eyes were on the officers as they passed.
Stiger scanned both sides of the road and found there was a good deal of brush that might act as cover. A plan of action was forming in his mind.
Stiger stepped across the road and looked down the slope. It was fairly steep, easy for a man, but it would prove incredibly difficult for a horse. After a moment more of studying their surroundings, he decided it suited his needs.
He returned to Hollux and Tiro. Varus and Pazzullo joined them also.
“What are you thinking, sir?” Tiro asked.
“How far do you think we are from Fort Covenant?” Stiger asked Hollux.
“Maybe four miles,” Hollux said. “It is hard to be sure. I only come through this way once a year to meet with the tribune who commands the auxiliary cohorts and forts. I can’t imagine it is much farther.”
“Right,” Stiger said. “Tiro, call a halt. I’ve decided we are going to hit this squadron.”
Shouts were passed forward and back. The column ground to an uneven stop.
“They can’t be allowed to find us and report back,” Stiger said, placing his hands on his hips. “I don’t believe we will be able to outrun them. This means we must ambush the bastards. Hollux and Pazzullo, I want twenty of your best archers. Tiro, select forty men who still have enough left in them for a fight. No shields, please, but I want spears. The rest of the will continue on. Hollux, you will lead the column to Fort Covenant. I will catch up just as soon as I can.”
“I should join you in this fight.” Hollux sounded somewhat indignant, as if Stiger had slighted him.
“Hollux,” Stiger said, “this isn’t the time for such nonsense. An officer must lead the rest of the column. If there are more cavalry behind this bunch, I will do what I can to hold them for as long as possible. You have to get everyone else to the fort. The more men they have when the time comes, the better. It is the only thing that matters at this point. Fort Covenant must hold until the Third arrives. Got that?”
Hollux thought a moment. “Yes. All right, I will get them there.”
“Good man,” Stiger said.
“Pazzullo and Varus, you both are with me,” Stiger said. “Tiro, you go with Lieutenant Hollux and render him what assistance you can.”
Tiro did not appear to like that too much, but gave Stiger a “yes, sir” just the same.
“Daylight’s burning.” Stiger clapped his hands together. “Let’s get moving.”
Tiro, Varus, and Pazzullo moved out, shouting orders.
Hollux hung back a moment. “Are you certain about this course of action?”
“Certain? No,” Stiger said with a short laugh. “But I feel it is the right thing to do.”
“You are taking a serious risk,” Hollux said, “especially if there is more than a light squadron.”
“I know,” Stiger said. “Get to the fort. Listen to Tiro. He won’t steer you wrong.”
“I will do as you ask,” Hollux said. “Good luck, Stiger. I will see you in a few hours.”
“Good fortune to you as well.”
Hollux gave the order for the column to move out, even as Tiro and Pazzullo called for men to step out.
“Sir,” Pazzullo said, returning to Stiger’s side. His archers formed up a few feet away. They were road-dusty and appeared just as worn as Stiger’s men. Varus was busy organizing those selected from the Seventh.
“Tiro…” Pazzullo lowered his voice slightly, “suggested that you might find my advice of value, sir.”
“He did, did he?”
“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said. “He did.”
“I expect you to give me advice when you see fit,” Stiger said. “Even if you know it will displease me, I want to hear from you. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said. “Perfectly.”
“Let’s have it, then.”
“I assume you plan on ambushing the enemy from this spot.” Pazzullo gestured from their current position and back to the bend in the road.
“Yes, that is correct,” Stiger said.
“Sir, I would advise against placing men on both sides of the road.”
Stiger cocked his head to one side, intrigued. He gave a nod for Pazzullo to continue.
“If you place my bowmen up the slope and above the road—the natural firing position for them, given the elevation…” Pazzullo continued and swung his arm from there toward the downward slope. “Any wayward missiles may strike our boys on the other side of the road. I prefer my men not have to worry about that possibility.”
Stiger glanced up the hill and then down the slope across the road, thinking the problem through. Though it would be difficult for a horse to escape that way, it was not impossible. He had been planning on placing a handful of men on the down-slope side of the road. Pazzullo’s reasoning was sound, and it certainly gave him pause for thought.
“That makes sense to me,” Stiger said.
Relief flashed through Pazzullo’s eyes.
“Varus,” Stiger called, seeing that the line of legionaries was almost set.
The corporal jogged over, dodging around a team of mules as the last of the column passed them by.
“We’re going to keep this simple,” Stiger said. Keeping things simple was something that Tiro harped on a lot. “This is how I want the ambush laid out. We will position most of our boys up-slope and above the road in two lines, say about five feet apart. That far in, the brush should conceal us quite well. Pazzullo’s men will be our first line. Right behind them I want twenty legionaries in our second line.” Stiger turned and pointed up the road. “Just to the north, we will put ten men off the road and hidden above the bend. The other ten, right down the road, say at thirty yards. Got that so far?”
Both Pazzullo and Varus nodded.
“Good,” Stiger said and turned to face north. “With all of our men hidden and out of view, we will let the enemy round the bend. Once they are completely around it, the archers will loose their missiles. The second line will follow up with a volley of short spears before going in to finish off any survivors. When the attack starts, the men positioned at either end of the ambush will close the trap by moving onto the road and neatly blocking any easy exit to the north and south.”
“Sounds simple enough, sir,” Varus said, to which Pazzullo nodded in agreement.
“To be clear, we cannot, under any circumstances, allow any of the bastards to escape,” Stiger said. “Impress that upon the men. If even one rider gets away, we could have that entire regiment on our backs before we can make it to the safety of the fort. We must get them all.”
“What if they ride off and down into the forest?” Pazzullo asked.
“The brush is thick,” Stiger said. “If any do, they won’t be able to move very fast. I am counting on the archers to hit their marks and my men to finish them off before they can even have a thought on flight. With luck, our ambush will come as a complete surprise.”
“My boys will shoot true, sir,” Pazzullo said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“Varus, I want you with the north blocking force,” Stiger said before glancing around once again. “That position is critical. You must stand your ground. None can escape.”
“You can count on me, sir.”
“I know I can. Hoot like an owl when you have the enemy in sight.” Stiger glanced around once more, taking a deep breath. He held it a moment before letting it out in a long stream. “I am not sure how long we have. Let’s get the men into position and hidden while we have the chance.”
A short while later and the men were off the road and into the trees and brush.
“Place your line where you think they will be most effective,” Stiger told Pazzullo as he climbed the slope of the hill. “You give the order to fire when you think best.”
Stiger moved his legionaries into position right behind the archers, who were sticking arrows point-first into the forest floor. Pazzullo addressed his men, giving them instruction. Once he had them in position, Stiger walked his line, working his way through the undergrowth, speaking encouragements as he went. Satisfied his men were dressed in a good line, he returned to the center and faced them.
“After the archers shoot,” Stiger told them, “I will call for a volley of short spears. Aim for the horses, not the men. I don’t want any of the enemy to escape. If one does, I’d rather him be afoot than on horseback. I will order us in right after the toss. Keep your heads and stick it to them good.”
Stiger paused, considering adding a few rousing words, but in the end decided against it. They were all tired, weary, and run down. Despite that, they knew what needed doing. He had said enough.
“Now, get down,” Stiger ordered, “as close as you can to the ground, and stay there until ordered. No one gets spotted.”
Stiger placed himself in the center of his line and laid down on his belly, a man immediately to his left and another to his right. The scent of dirt and vegetation was strong. A moment later, he saw Pazzullo’s men press themselves down. Pazzullo gave Stiger a thumbs up before he too got down and disappeared from view.
Nothing happened for some time. Stiger rolled onto his back and looked up at the tree canopy above him. It was a spectacular view. The dwindling light of a cloudless sky was interspersed by leaves that blew in a gentle breeze. It had a calming feel to it. A bird called and another answered.
But for the coming action, Stiger almost felt at peace. His thoughts turned inward and he offered up a prayer to the High Father. He asked the great god to spare as many of his men as possible and see them to victory. Satisfied, Stiger finished by commending his spirit into the High Father’s keeping.
Prayers complete, Stiger lay on his back for some time. He began to ponder on his plan and wondered if he should have done more or if he had missed something. Perhaps he should have kept additional men instead of sending them onto the fort. What if there was more than one enemy squadron? Or worse, what if the entire regiment was riding up the road? The what-ifs began to plague him, and the peace of the moment fled.
He heard the hooting of an owl, which sounded a little out-of-place before dusk. Stiger abruptly realized it was the signal from Varus. Enemy in sight. He rolled over onto his belly.
“Pass it along,” Stiger hissed to the men next to him. “The enemy is in sight.”
Stiger strained to hear something, but couldn’t. He resisted the urge to look. So he remained where he was, listening. Absently, Stiger began silently counting. When he hit two hundred fifteen, the slow, steady clop of multiple hooves reached his ears. With each passing breath it got louder. Voices speaking the language of the Rivan, at first faint and then much clearer, came from below and along the road, which he could not directly see. Someone down on the road laughed. Another coughed.
Pazzullo and his men silently rose to a kneeling position, almost as if they had grown from the ground. They raised their bows. As they reached for their arrows, Stiger pulled himself up to a knee. The men beside him did the same, and Stiger’s line came up also.
Below him, less than fifteen feet away, were the blue-cloaked Rivan. It was shocking to see the enemy so close, so oblivious to their presence. They were riding their horses, which plodded along in boredom, heads hung with the heat. Each man carried a lance, the points of which occasionally caught a ray of the fading sunlight and glittered wickedly. The enemy had bundles of hay, forage bags, and nets affixed to the rumps of their horses, along with their small round shields. Stiger counted sixteen of the enemy. He glanced to the right toward the bend and could see no additional horsemen. Was it a light squadron, as Tig had said? He certainly hoped so.
There was a twang from twenty bows that in unison sounded rather loud. Stiger almost jumped. He had missed Pazzullo’s silent order to loose. The air was abruptly filled with the sounds of impact, cracks of arrows penetrating armor and flesh. This was immediately followed by screams, cries of agony, and shouts of alarm.
“Loose at will,” Pazzullo roared.
“Spears!” Stiger called, standing and pulling out his sword. He glanced along his line as his men came to their feet. “Aim for the horses! Aim for the horses, boys! Make your toss count!”
Stiger’s men grunted as they threw their deadly missiles, which sailed over the heads of Pazzullo’s bowmen.
“Draw swords!” Stiger didn’t wait to see the results. He held his sword high, even as there was a scattered series of additional twangs from Pazzullo’s bowmen as they fired down into the enemy. Stiger pointed toward the road with his sword. “At them!”
Moving through and by Pazzullo’s line, he led the way forward, his men just steps behind. Once past the bowmen, he picked up his pace and crashed through the undergrowth. Stiger burst from the tree line and emerged into a setting of devastation and chaos.
Injured horses screamed, with a number down and kicking wildly about. Spears protruded from several. Riders hung limply from saddles, arrows sticking out of chests, sides, and backs. In some cases, the arrow had penetrated clean through and poked out both sides. A number of the enemy lay on the ground.
It was a slaughter. Despite that, there were several of the enemy still mounted.
One rider, unscathed and just ten feet away, spotted Stiger. He wheeled around and lowered his lance. With no time to formulate a better plan, Stiger ran at the horse, screaming wildly as the rider kicked his heels in and the animal lunged forward, hurtling at him.
At the last moment, Stiger dove aside and stabbed his sword into the horse’s neck, plunging the blade as deeply he could. Hot wetness sprayed him in the eyes as the razor-sharp edge of the lance passed within a hairsbreadth of his face. Then the horse was past and Stiger’s sword was violently ripped from his hands. As Stiger crashed hard to the ground, the horse let loose a scream of agony. This was almost immediately followed by a solid thud as the wounded animal lost its footing and went down.
Stiger lay on the ground, stunned slightly from the impact. Feet thundered around him as his men arrived and tore into the remains of the squadron. Shaking his head, Stiger slowly picked himself up, glanced around, and found that for the most part, barring the enemy wounded, the ambush was already over.
A sense of satisfaction settled over him. He had given the enemy another bloody nose, albeit a small one.
The pounding hooves brought his head around. A lone trooper was riding for all he was worth back the way the squadron had come. Varus and his legionaries blocked the road. Varus shouted an order and short spears arced out. One spear hit the horse. Two struck the rider in the upper chest and neatly plucked him from his saddle. He seemed to hang in midair for a heartbeat, as if he were a puppet attached to a string, before he slammed to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust and dirt. A heartbeat later, the horse, maddened by its injury, crashed into Stiger’s men. Bodies flew as the animal plowed through them before collapsing itself several yards beyond.
“Great gods,” Stiger breathed, heart in his throat. “Great bloody gods.”
He glanced around to make certain it was all over and then jogged over. Two of his men were on the ground. They were still. Two others pulled themselves to their feet. As Stiger approached, he saw one of those not moving was his corporal. Legionary Erbus, having dragged himself to his knees, moved to the corporal and leaned over Varus. The other man down, Barrath, was clearly dead. His head hung at an unnatural angle.
Varus’s helmet was badly damaged. Blood covered the corporal’s face, though Stiger could not see a wound. It seemed to be leaking out of the helmet and onto the dirt of the road, where it pooled.
“He’s alive, sir,” Erbus said, looking up as Stiger knelt by his side. “He breathes.”
Stiger did not know what to say to that. Varus looked to be in a very bad way. The men gathered around, looking concerned.
This my fault, Stiger thought, kneeling by Varus’s side. His corporal looked close to death. The pain of the moment almost overcame him. A man was dead because of his orders, and another who had become dear to him was gravely injured.
“We have to get this off him, sir, and examine the wound.”
Erbus untied Varus’s helmet and then carefully removed it, while Stiger supported the corporal’s neck. Stiger’s hands quickly became slick from blood. Erbus gingerly felt the back of Varus’s head, which elicited a groan from the corporal. Varus’s eyes popped open and he attempted to sit up, but Erbus and Stiger held him back. A moment later, Varus lost consciousness and went limp.
“Help me turn him on his side, sir.”
Stiger rolled the corporal over. Erbus studied the back of the Varus’s head. After a prolonged moment, he sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.
“He’s got a nasty bump,” Erbus said. They rolled the corporal onto his back. “I think he should live, sir.”
“What of all the blood?”
“A scalp wound. I am not a surgeon, but it doesn’t seem too bad. The skull under the cut seems sound enough,” Erbus explained. “Cuts on the head tend to bleed a lot, sir.”
“Right,” Stiger said, standing. He studied Barrath and felt a wave of exhaustion and sadness overtake him. Barrath had been a good legionary, always doing as asked with no disciplinary issues ever. He had not deserved to die like this, run down by a maddened animal.
“How is Varus?”
Stiger looked over, blinking. It took him a moment to realize that Pazzullo stood before him. Stiger sucked in a shaky breath and cleared his throat.
“Erbus says he should live.”
“That is good news,” Pazzullo said. “It was a fine ambush, sir.”
Stiger looked down the road. A couple of horses walked aimlessly about as his men and Pazzullo’s looted the dead.
“Any other injuries?”
“No, sir,” Pazzullo said, glancing down. “Just these two.”
“That’s good,” Stiger said, a little dazed by what had occurred. He rubbed at his eyes a moment and told himself it was only the exhaustion. “That’s good.”
“I think we should get moving, sir.” There was a hard edge to the sergeant’s tone. “Before more of the enemy come down that road.”
“Yes, of course,” Stiger said, snapping back to his duty. He felt somewhat guilty that Pazzullo had needed to remind him. “Erbus, get Varus on one of those horses. Barrath comes too. We have to go.”
“Yes, sir,” Erbus said. “I will see to it, sir.”
“Pazzullo, get the men formed up.”
Stiger looked around. He had lost his sword. He spotted it down the road, still sticking out of the horse he had stuck. With a glance at the injured Varus, Stiger made his way over to the deceased animal. The rider lay a few feet away, lying on his stomach. A sword thrust to the back of the neck had ended him.
Reaching for his sword, Stiger noticed that his hand trembled slightly
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