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
“That is a very welcome sight,” Stiger said, and he meant it. Under the light of a full moon and cloudless sky, he and Pazzullo were gazing down into a large valley. To their backs were the forest and the men. In the center of the valley, around a half mile distant, stood a large square fort. Stiger could see sentry fires and torches guttering in the darkness. Each of the four walls was easily six hundred yards in length, with covered towers on each corner and over the main gatehouse. Off farther to the south, Stiger could see the lights of what he assumed was a small town. “A sight for sore eyes.”
“It sure is, sir,” Pazzullo said and then cleared his throat. “I think it might be better to admire the fort from the inside. Don’t you think, sir?”
“I completely agree,” Stiger said. He turned to look behind at the weary column of men, which snaked back into the forest along the road. “Forward march.”
The column started forward once again, with Stiger and Pazzullo moving alongside. Stiger was exhausted. His legs trembled slightly with each step, and he now had a persistent headache. He longed to lie down and catch up on some sleep. What kept him going was the example he felt compelled to set for his men. In a way, as long as he kept going, so too would the company. There were times he felt as if he were their willpower.
They covered the distance rapidly, following the road, moving down the hill and into the valley. With nightfall, the hot temperatures had finally eased. With the setting sun had come light gusts of wind. The cooler temperatures were more than welcome and made the long march just a tad bit easier.
Fields of wheat ready for harvest spread out to either side of the road. The wind rippled through the fields like ocean waves. Under the bright moonlight, it was a ghostly scene. Stiger was reminded of the man he had set afire during the assault back at Cora’Tol—an image he would not soon forget. One he knew he would carry to the end of his days.
He felt immense relief as they neared the front gate. Placing one foot in front of the other was becoming a real effort. His men were in a similar state. Stiger was so tired now, he felt as if his mind had become shrouded by a thick fog. Even so, he noticed that despite the late hour, the fort’s gate stood fully open. At night, procedure called for the gate to be sealed.
“There seems to be a lot of activity inside,” Pazzullo said as they crossed a wooden-planked bridge that ran over a deep defensive trench with steep sides. Stiger glanced over the side and saw spikes and obstacles below. “An awful lot of activity, sir.”
Stiger had not noticed before, but now that Pazzullo mentioned it, he could hear quite the commotion coming from inside the fort. It sounded as if the garrison was being called out.
“I am sure that Hollux’s arrival got their attention.”
Pazzullo did not reply to that. His eyes were on the four files of auxiliaries waiting before the gate, formed up into two lines. An officer stood to the right side of the formation. He spoke to a man and sent him running into the fort.
“What do you suppose that was all about?” Stiger asked Pazzullo as he and his men began crossing the second and final defensive trench. Stiger’s boots rang with a hollow sound on the planking.
“Dunno, sir,” Pazzullo said. “They couldn’t have just spotted us. Under this moon, we would’ve been visible clear up to the top of the hill.”
Stiger rubbed his jaw. He considered the situation as the distance closed. Pazzullo was correct. Stiger and his men could not have been missed, especially with the news that had preceded them. The garrison would have lookouts scanning the darkness for any hint of the enemy.
The auxiliary officer stepped out into the road and before his formation. He held his hand up, signaling for Stiger to halt his men. For some reason Stiger could not identify, he was irritated by the man’s manner, which was almost arrogant. So, Stiger decided to close the distance further. Ominously, a sergeant behind the officer snapped an order. The auxiliaries raised their shields, the bottoms of which had been resting upon the ground.
Irritated by their reception, Stiger waited until he and his men were almost on top of the auxiliary officer, a youthful lieutenant, before he called out a terse halt.
“Identify yourself,” the officer demanded in a haughty manner that dripped with hostility.
“Lieutenant Stiger, Seventh Company, Third Legion.” Stiger was surprised at the other’s tone. “And who, sir, are you?”
“Lieutenant Tride,” came the curt reply. “You are to remain here. I have sent for Tribune Declin.”
“Now listen here,” Stiger snarled, stepping nearer the man. “I don’t know what your game is, but—”
“I have my orders,” Tride said. He pointed at the ground. Though his tone was firm enough, Stiger thought he detected a little unease. “You are to wait here.”
Stiger ground his teeth in frustration as he swung toward Pazzullo with a questioning look. Pazzullo gave a rough shrug.
“Sir,” Pazzullo said, drawing Stiger’s attention toward the fort.
A man in a richly cut tunic had emerged, clearly the tribune. The line of auxiliaries parted to let him through. He was flanked by another officer, this one wearing the armor of a prefect, and three large auxiliaries. Stiger felt Pazzullo stiffen at his side and guessed this was Hollux’s commanding officer, Prefect Lears. The Lears family was no friends of the Stigers, nearly outright enemies.
“Stiger, I presume?” the tribune asked.
Stiger offered a salute to the tribune, who waved it away.
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. “You are Tribune Declin?”
“I am.” The tribune walked right up to Stiger and gave him a hard look. Stiger read a deep, burning anger in the man’s eyes and sensed danger.
“You, son,” the tribune said, biting off each word, “have a lot to answer for.”
“Excuse me, sir? I am afraid don’t understand.”
“Your orders?” The tribune held out an expectant hand.
“What?” Stiger’s tired mind attempted to grapple with the situation that was threatening to spiral out of control.
“You have orders?” the tribune asked. “Come on, man, I don’t have all night.”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry, sir,” Stiger said. “My orders come from General Treim.”
“Well, then,” Declin said, “let’s see them.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Stiger said, face flushing. “I’m afraid I destroyed them back at Cora’Tol.”
“To what end?”
“I did not want them to fall into the hands of the enemy, sir,” Stiger said. “General Treim made it plain I was to destroy them if necessary.”
Tribune Declin eyed Stiger for a few heartbeats, then made a point of slowly looking him over. Stiger knew his appearance was dreadful and very unlegionary. With a look of contempt, the tribune’s gaze returned to Stiger’s face.
“You are a disgrace, sir,” the tribune said. “An utter disgrace and a poor excuse for an officer.”
Stiger said nothing, though he very much desired to rebut that statement.
“Just as I had surmised, sir,” the prefect said, drawing the tribune’s attention. “He is operating without orders.”
Stiger felt his mouth fall open. He closed it and opened it to speak, but no words came out. Surely the tribune did not think that. Did they truly believe he was without honor?
“Sergeant,” the tribune said to Pazzullo, “step aside.”
The sergeant did as he was bid, casting a sidelong glance at Stiger that was filled with worry.
“What is going on here?” Stiger, having recovered from his surprise, rapidly became angry. With the onset of his anger, the exhaustion fled. “I am operating under the direct orders of General Treim.”
“If you were,” the Tribune said, “then you would have your orders.”
“I don’t need written orders,” Stiger said. “The general gave me my orders himself, personally.”
“And what were they?” The tribune’s eyebrows rose, as if he were dealing with a small child telling a fib. “I want to hear what great task the general set for you that you needed to be dispatched so far from the action.”
“I was to travel to Cora’Tol and take Lieutenant Aggar into custody, sir.”
The tribune shared a meaningful glance with the prefect. They both turned their gazes, far from friendly, upon Stiger.
“The general could have sent a messenger,” Declin said. “I would have easily been able to apprehend Aggar if required. Why send you instead?”
“Those were my orders, sir.”
“Is that so?” the prefect asked.
“It is,” Stiger said. “Upon my honor, it is.”
“Why was Aggar to be detained?”
“I was not privy to that,” Stiger said. “I was to locate the lieutenant, secure the prisoner, and return him to headquarters for questioning.”
“Then your orders don’t mention commandeering the Fort Footprint garrison, do they?” the tribune asked.
“The enemy is coming,” Stiger countered. “When I could not find Aggar, and learned of the threat, I took the initiative. It was the only sensible thing to do.”
“Really?” The tribune cocked his head to the side.
“We must concentrate all available forces here, sir, where there is the chance of holding off the enemy,” Stiger said. “I could not leave them behind to be slaughtered.”
“And what of Fort Ida?” Declin’s eyes narrowed. “Why are they not with you?”
“Lieutenant Teevus refused to give up his fort,” Stiger said. “I gave him the chance, but he refused.”
“I see.” Declin sucked in a deep breath. “Well, at least one of my officers had some sense.”
“Remaining to fight and die for nothing does not strike me as very sensible, sir. By rights, he should have come with us, especially when I ordered him to do so.”
“You freely admit to exceeding your orders, then?” There was a sense of triumph in Declin’s tone. “Very well, I have heard enough. Prefect Lears, you may arrest Lieutenant Stiger.”
Stiger took a step back and glanced between the two officers. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Were they mad? Were they so out of touch? It did not seem possible.
Lears motioned his men forward. Stiger took another step backwards. Behind him there was a commotion. Swords were drawn. Stiger’s men began moving forward toward the auxiliaries, who suddenly checked their advance.
“Now, Lieutenant Stiger,” Declin said, “don’t make this worse than it is. I will not hesitate to order the slaughter of your men.”
With swords drawn and shields out, Stiger’s men meant business. Even Pazzullo’s men had raised their bows, arrows at the ready. Stiger’s gaze swung back on Declin and the auxiliaries, who appeared somewhat uncertain but had also drawn their swords. He wasn’t so sure it would be as one-sided as the tribune had suggested.
Stiger was moved by the loyalty of his men. Despite that, and even for his own sake, he could not allow them to shed imperial blood. He was simply not his father. Stiger was certain this was a terrible misunderstanding on the tribune’s part. He was confident that when tempers cooled, he would be shown innocent and the tribune would take his news seriously.
“Stand down,” Stiger said. His men did not move. He hardened his voice. “I said stand down, now.”
Reluctantly, swords were sheathed and the men moved back and away from him.
“I would not have enjoyed ordering the deaths of your men,” Declin said. “Prefect Lears, if you would?”
“Take him,” Lears snapped, seeming to relish giving the order.
The three auxiliaries who had accompanied the tribune and prefect moved forward. Each of Stiger’s arms was seized in a vice-like grip. His sword and dagger were removed. He was roughly searched for other weapons.
“There is an army on the march,” Stiger said, directing himself to the tribune. “It’s coming here. I sent word to the general. With luck, the Third is already on her way.”
“Lieutenant Hollux informed me of your actions,” Declin said in a sad tone. “You should know I have already dispatched a note to your general advising him that we are dealing with raiding parties you mistook for more, something my men are fully capable of handling.”
“You can’t be serious, sir?” Stiger exclaimed.
“I am,” the tribune said with a sneer. “Take him from my sight.”
The men began to drag Stiger into the fort.
“But, sir,” Stiger said as he was pulled past, “I took an important prisoner. He will confirm what I’ve told you. Ask him.”
“Stop,” the tribune called and then walked up to Stiger. “I interviewed your Lieutenant Crief and I can assure you he is quite mad. Whatever he has told you is purely nonsense. Nothing of value can be gained from the man.”
“How do you explain the Rivan heavy infantry that we attacked at Cora’Tol or the enemy cavalry, sir? They are not figments of my imagination.”
“Listen here, Stiger.” Acid dripped from the tribune’s tongue as he spoke. “You are a traitor’s son. In my mind, you are no better than a dog. I don’t care what your initial orders contained, but I can tell you that I will get to the bottom of it, and when I do, you shall hang as your father should have. I would rather trust Lieutenant Aggar, whom I view as a second son, than the likes of you. Now take him from my sight.”
“You are making a mistake,” Stiger yelled back as he was dragged into the fort. “There is a Rivan army coming! Don’t be a fool! You are making a mistake!”
A cohort was assembling on the parade ground. Stiger saw that activity ceased as all eyes turned their way.
“You made the mistake,” Prefect Lears said, walking alongside as Stiger was dragged roughly along. “You are nothing more than a filthy bastard, no better than a mad dog.”
Stiger struggled to break free, but the hold on him was simply too strong. The third man came up from behind, grabbed Stiger’s hair painfully, and forced his head forward so he was looking at the ground.
Stiger managed to catch a glimpse of Tiro and a few of his men watching from a barracks doorway, and then he was past. A few moments later, they entered a building that smelled bad and was poorly lit by a single lantern. The man from behind still had a firm grip on his hair, keeping Stiger’s gaze fixed onto the battered wooden floor. It was badly in need of a sweeping. He heard a rattle of keys and the mechanism of a lock turning.
The grip on his hair was released. Stiger looked up and found he was in a small single-room building with three metal-barred cells. The cell door he was standing before was opened and he was thrown inside. He landed in a tumble on the wood-planked floor. Before he could pull himself to his feet, Prefect Lears entered the cell and knelt down beside him. A fist from the prefect slammed into Stiger’s jaw. For a moment, Stiger saw white, and then his vision cleared. He reached up to his jaw, which hurt something awful.
“How dare you?” Lears hissed, voice shaking with ill-concealed rage. “How dare you order the burning of my fort? When it comes time to stretch your neck, I promise you I will be in the first row to watch. Perhaps I shall even volunteer to assist the hangman. Won’t that be a kindness?”
“There is an army coming,” Stiger said, tasting blood from a split lip. It ran down his chin and dripped onto the floor.
“There is no army,” Lears spat. “They are only raiders, you dumb fool. We’ve seen their likes before in these parts. You allowed your imagination to get the better of you. Now, I have to go and rectify the damage you’ve done.” Lears sucked in a breath and released it. “Since my cohort is exhausted from the march here because my fool lieutenant was taken in by your madness, I have to take one of the Covenant cohorts to put this raid down.”
“Don’t go,” Stiger said. “Please listen to me. You—”
Lears punched him again. The force of the blow caused the side of Stiger’s head to slam into the floor. Stiger found his was dazed for a moment, struggling to regain his wits. Lears stood.
“I shall return to watch you hang.” Lears stepped out of the cell. “The tribune has promised me that singular honor. All I have to do is beat back the enemy’s raiding parties and you are mine. It’s really nothing that I’ve ever had a problem doing before and shouldn’t prove to be a difficult challenge.”
Stiger sat up as the door to his cell was closed and locked.
“You know,” Lears chuckled darkly, “even if you had served honorably, and had been falsely accused, I would still have been in the front row to watch you hang. You understand, family business, but a pleasure just the same.”
“You are a fool.” Stiger spat out blood.
“Maybe so, maybe not. But you both shall hang nonetheless.” With that, the prefect left. Lears looked back once, smiling as the outer door was closed.
Stiger got to his feet. He heard a scuffing off to his side. He glanced around and spotted Hollux in the next cell over. There was no one else with them in the jailhouse. Hollux looked rather miserable.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Stiger said.
“I’m going to hang,” Hollux said numbly.
“No, I don’t think you will,” Stiger said and began untying his armor.
“How can you say that?” Hollux stood.
“Oh,” Stiger shrugged out of his armor, “I think the Rivan will get here before they have the chance to put the hangman’s noose around our necks. In the end, I shall be proven right.”
“Really?” Hollux looked suddenly hopeful. “Do you think so?”
“I am certain.” Stiger placed his armor carefully against the bars of the cell and then laid down on his bench. He gingerly touched his split lip, which still freely bled. “To be honest, I don’t think it will help us very much.”
“What?” Hollux stepped up to the bars, gripping them.
“The Rivan will be the ones that get us,” Stiger said and let out a heavy breath. “Tribune Declin has sent a message to General Treim that will see the Third turned back.” Stiger paused and felt his jaw where Lears had struck him. It ached terribly, but what hurt even more was the knowledge that all of his efforts had come to naught. He glanced at Hollux. “We shall die all right, but at the hands of the enemy.”
Using his arms for a pillow, Stiger closed his eyes.
“What are we going to do?”
“At the moment,” Stiger said, “nothing much. If I am to die, then I intend to do it well-rested.”
“Sleep?” Hollux fairly screeched. “You’re going to sleep?”
“Yes, and I would appreciate it if you kept it down,” Stiger said. “It’s been a good long while since I’ve had a full night’s sleep and I intend on getting it.”
With that, he surrendered and allowed blissful oblivion to overtake him.
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