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
“All you do is sleep,” Hollux said, sounding thoroughly put out.
Stiger cracked open an eye, turning his head to look over at Hollux, who was sitting on the bench in his own cell. Without a fire, the small jailhouse was cold with the early morning chill. They had passed an uncomfortable night, with only their tunics for warmth.
“So?” Stiger asked. “What’s your point?”
“It’s been two days,” Hollux said, the frustration leaking into his voice. “We’ve been stuck here for two entire days.”
“So?” Giving up on the idea of further sleep, he sat up. “What else is there to do? Besides, I’ve not gotten this much sleep in weeks.” Stiger yawned, stretching. “I feel fully rested. You know, it might not be a bad thing to get locked up now and again.”
Hollux shook his head in disgust. “How can you joke at a time like this?”
“It’s about one of the few things we are free to do at the moment,” Stiger said. “Get it? Free?”
“This sitting around is driving me mad.” Hollux stood and began pacing his small cell. “I want out.”
“I didn’t realize that you were so eager to greet the hangman,” Stiger said, letting slip a slight grin. “That or the Rivan, whoever comes first.”
Hollux chuckled, finally giving in to the black humor. He stopped pacing. “Anything seems better than just sitting here. They only come in once a day to give us food. We’ve had no visitors. It is boring.”
“Are you saying my company is tedious?”
“Don’t start that again,” Hollux said. “Seriously, all we’ve been able to do is talk.”
“It has afforded us time to become better acquainted,” Stiger said.
Though Hollux was at least ten years his senior, Stiger felt like the older lieutenant was his junior in age. The man talked incessantly, a byproduct of his nervousness at their current condition. Despite that, Stiger found Hollux an affable fellow who was almost honest to a fault.
“I’ve learned more about you and your family,” Stiger said. “Your father is an honorable man, your mother a lovely woman. They had two sons and a daughter. Your brother…ah,” Stiger snapped his fingers, “Terguna, stayed home to help run your family’s interests. And you’ve told me all about your sister Amelis, whom you adore. Her marriage to that Meklen fellow, a good prospect that turned out not to be so respectable. ‘He’s a real bastard,’ I think is how you put it.”
Hollux spared him a rueful look, but refused to be drawn out.
Stiger pursed his lips as he contemplated his fellow prisoner. He had learned that, as he had expected, Hollux had not thrived in the legions. Hollux had been transferred to the auxiliaries, where he’d finally found a place but, in Stiger’s estimation, not a home. Unable to advance, Hollux had settled in, seeking nothing more than completing his service and obtaining his pension. He was an embarrassment to his father, who had effectively disowned him.
“You have told me so little about yourself,” Hollux said suddenly, turning it back on Stiger. “Your father, next to the emperor, is the most famous man in the empire.”
“Infamous is more like it,” Stiger said, suddenly feeling uncomfortable.
“During the civil war he defeated army after army,” Hollux said in a tone that was somewhat awed. “I’ve studied his exploits.”
“Only to lose in the end,” Stiger said quietly.
“His battles have become legend,” Hollux said. “It must have been glorious to see.”
“Glorious?” Stiger said, glancing down at the floor and shaking his head slowly. “I don’t think so. Glory is a word that those who have not known combat freely bandy about.”
Hollux did not look convinced by that.
“What was it like growing up under such a man?” Hollux asked. “It must have been incredible.”
“It was far from that,” Stiger said, thinking back upon his childhood, the latter end of which he viewed as an unhappy time. “My father was a hard, unforgiving man.”
Hollux was silent for several heartbeats. “I think there is some of him in you.”
“Perhaps,” Stiger said, and though he wished to deny it, he understood the truth in those words. He was very much like his father.
“Come on, it could not have been all that bad,” Hollux said. “I’ve heard you were the childhood playmate of our emperor. Is that true?”
Stiger nodded, feeling even more uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. “After the war, it was likely the only reason my family was spared. That and my mother was the emperor’s sister,” Stiger paused, the hurt at her loss pulling at his heart. “She did not make it through the war.”
“Oh,” Hollux said, a little lamely. “I am sorry, I did not know…”
Stiger looked up at Hollux and saw that he was sincere. This man dealt with him for who he was, not his family name. It was a rare thing.
“So, let me get this straight,” Stiger said, seeking to divert the conversation. “After your term of service is completed, you’re going to find a woman?”
“It hardly matters now,” Hollux said with a heavy sigh and sat down on his bench.
“Raise a family?” Stiger said, a grin finding its way back onto his face.
Hollux scowled at Stiger. In the dim light, Stiger thought he saw the other color. After a moment, the expression softened. “Yes, a family would be nice, but I also intended to petition the court for a civil service position. I am sure my father will do nothing to help me. Perhaps a lower level provincial judge, or something like that. Enough to live comfortably.”
“A peaceful life then?”
“Until you arrived, I led a very peaceful life,” Hollux chuckled and then made a show of glancing around his cell. “Now, it seems I am destined to face either the hangman or end my days on the point of a Rivan sword.”
“Now you’re getting into the spirit of things,” Stiger said with a chuckle. “I’ve found that humor can be a soldier’s best friend.”
“Is that so?”
The outer door rattled. They only brought food around midday, and bright morning sunlight flooded into interior of the dim jail from the windows, which were small slits. Stiger and Hollux shielded their eyes against the penetrating light as the door swung open.
“Been getting some rest, sir?”
“Tiro,” Stiger exclaimed, lowering his hand and standing. He was pleased to see his sergeant healthy and well. “How are the men?”
Stiger’s sergeant walked up to the cage.
“Doing well, sir,” Tiro said, studying Stiger and then Hollux. He gave an unhappy scowl at what he saw. “They’ve been enjoying life some, resting, eating, and generally getting soft. Since we got here, they’ve not had an officer to push them.”
“Guilty as charged, I am afraid,” Stiger said. “I’ve been shirking, you see.”
“I would never dream of accusing an officer of dodging his duty, sir,” Tiro said. “Besides, we both know you are not the type.”
“Varus?” Stiger asked. “How is he?”
“He’s mending,” Tiro said. “Still recovering his wits with that nasty knock on the head. He’s got one heck of a bump, but Della’s been taking good care of him.”
“Della?” Stiger was immensely relieved to hear that Varus was doing well. “Who?”
“That woman we rescued back at the farm,” Tiro said. “She’s become quite attached to our corporal.”
Stiger had never learned the woman’s name and now felt slightly embarrassed that he had not made the attempt. It had been nothing overt on his part. He had just had a lot on his plate at the time.
“Any news?” Hollux asked, stepping nearer.
“That’s why I’m here,” Tiro said. “A messenger, along with a troop of cavalry, has arrived from the Third. Can you believe it? The general sent a ranger. I’ve not seen one since the Wilds. Along with the troop commander, he’s with the tribune now.”
Stiger stepped up to the metal bars of his cage and gripped them. “What word does he bring?”
“I don’t know,” Tiro admitted. “I was in the barracks and heard word that he had arrived. They were in with the tribune before I could learn something.”
Stiger wondered what it meant. Was the messenger here with a reply accepting the tribune’s report? Or did he bring word of something else? Was Stiger to be delivered to the general to face trial?
“Why didn’t you come sooner?” Stiger asked, eyes narrowing. “Why wait so long?”
“I was ordered to stay away from you, sir,” Tiro said. “Well, really the jail. The tribune gave orders for all of us from the Seventh. He even put extra guards on this building and on our barracks.”
“So, the tribune lifted the orders then?” Stiger asked.
“No, sir,” Tiro said and shifted about uncomfortably.
“Sergeant, you’re willfully violating orders?” Hollux said with a deep frown.
“No, sir,” Tiro said, suddenly looking very offended. “I would never violate orders, sir. Without the lieutenant here, my boys have been idle too long. I am looking for busy work that needs doing, is all. It occurred to me that the jailhouse may need to be swept, the waste buckets emptied. That sort of thing, sir.”
Hollux’s frown deepened, if that was possible.
Stiger swallowed, as Tiro’s gaze returned. The old sergeant had violated his orders to check on his officer. Stiger found that he was touched by Tiro’s concern.
“Sergeant,” Stiger said, “though I welcome your visit, I would not want you to fall under a charge. You need to go.”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said, with a glance behind him. “In good time, I will.”
“I meant it,” Stiger said. “You need to go, now.”
“I was let in by the sergeant of the guard, sir,” Tiro said. “He will warn me when it is time.”
“Why’d he violate orders?” Stiger raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a sergeant thing,” Tiro said, shifting his stance.
“Tiro,” Stiger said. “What’s the real reason?”
“The auxiliary sergeants are getting a tad concerned, sir,” Tiro said. “We talked and they believe without a doubt the Rivan are headed this way.”
“I see,” Stiger said, eyes narrowing. There was more to the story than Tiro was telling.
The sergeant gave in with a heavy sigh. “Prefect Merritt, he leads the Twenty-Fifth Toldean Cohort that’s stationed here,” Tiro explained. “He’s a good sort, sir. A bit old like me, but he fought in the Wilds and knows which end of a sword is the correct one to jab an enemy with.” Tiro took a deep breath. “It seems he believes the enemy is coming, especially after he and I spoke, sir. He asked me a lot about you and I answered honestly, sir. Among other things, I told him you was one of the best officers I’ve ever served with and that what you’d told the tribune was the gods honest truth. I told him about Cora’Tol, the farm, and what Crief said about the army that’s comin’. Well, that got his attention. He’s put his men and ours to work on the defenses, sir.” Tiro paused for another breath. “When the tribune asked what they were doing, Prefect Merritt explained the need to get his idle boys to work…like we do with the legions, sir. Busy boys means less trouble, sir.” Tiro paused. “To be honest, it might’ve been my suggestion, but you’d never get me to admit that.”
Stiger was amused with the long, rambling explanation on what had been going on while he had been confined. It was also good to know that there were defensive preparations underway.
“What of the cohort that marched?” Stiger asked. “Has there been any word from Lears?”
“Nothing, sir,” Tiro said. “It’s one of the reasons I came. They marched to Ida and were supposed to send a messenger back. When none came, the tribune dispatched a rider. He didn’t come back either, sir. So the tribune sent another rider.” Tiro shook his head at that. “We know what’s coming, sir.”
Stiger closed his eyes, feeling helpless behind the bars. He was stuck here doing nothing, when he should be out there helping to strengthen the defenses of the fort.
“Once the enemy arrives,” Tiro said, “the tribune should let you out. Then there will be plenty to do.”
“Thank you for your visit, Sergeant,” Stiger said. “It is much appreciated. Now, I would ask that you leave. I don’t want to see you placed on a charge.”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said and turned toward the door when a commotion outside caused him to freeze.
A man wearing a richly cut brown cloak stepped through the doorway. The hood was pulled up. The dim light of the jailhouse served to conceal his features. Though he had never met a ranger before, and despite the man not wearing a ranger’s uniform, Stiger realized this was the imperial ranger. Stiger could not help shake the feeling that he had seen this man before.
The ranger glanced around before his gaze settled upon Tiro. Using both hands, he pulled the hood back. Stiger sucked in an astonished breath.
“Eli!” Tiro exclaimed with excitement. “By the all the gods and the High Father’s beard, is it really you?”
“You’ve become old,” came the reply in a pleasantly soft, singsong kind of voice that sounded almost human but was tinged with something alien at the same time.
Stiger blinked, not quite believing his eyes. Before him stood an elf. And not just any elf, but a friend of Tiro.
Eli was tall, standing several inches above Stiger. He was whipcord thin. His face was that of a young man, barely out of his teens, with blue, almond-shaped eyes and sharp, pointed ears that poked out from his sand-colored hair. Eli’s face, framed by his long hair, was almost too perfect. Carved by a master of unparalleled skill and flawless to a fault, it was like one of the numerous marble busts that adorned the palace back in the capital.
Tiro and Eli embraced, the sergeant patting the elf heavily on the back. After a moment, Tiro stepped back, holding Eli by the arms.
“I’ve become old,” Tiro said, “but you’ve not aged a day.”
“It is but a curse of my race,” Eli said.
The sergeant turned and Stiger was surprised to see tears in the old veteran’s eyes.
“Eli,” Tiro said, wiping them away. He gestured toward the cage. “I would like to introduce you to my commanding officer, Lieutenant Stiger.”
Eli stepped past Tiro and up to within a foot of the cage. Stiger felt as if he were being studied. He did not like the feeling.
“I’ve come a long way to find you, Lieutenant,” Eli said softly. “General Treim sends you his greetings.”
Eli reached into his cloak and withdrew a dispatch, which he passed through the bars. Stiger opened the dispatch, tilted it toward the light from the door, and scanned the contents. He looked up at Tiro and over to Hollux, then back to the dispatch.
“Our boys got through,” Stiger said excitedly to Tiro. “The Third is on her way.”
“The legion should be here in two days,” Eli said. “General Treim thinks you cause…” Eli paused, clearly contemplating his words. “No, that is not the right word. He thinks trouble finds you.”
“It seems the general might be on to something, sir,” Tiro said with a chuckle.
“But the tribune sent a messenger to turn the Third back,” Stiger said.
“I was with the general. He became…” Eli paused and looked at Tiro. “Mad or angry? Which is the better word?”
“I bet he became angry,” Tiro said, with a satisfied look thrown to Stiger.
“Yes,” Eli said, “the general became angry. The legion is still coming. I offered my services to ride ahead with the advance party and act as a representative.”
A cavalry officer strode into the jail, the heels of his riding boots conking off the wooden floorboards. The sergeant of the guard who delivered the meals followed closely on his heels.
“Carbo,” Stiger exclaimed in surprise at the sight of the cavalry officer who had become his friend over the past few weeks.
Carbo’s expression turned thunderous and he rounded on the sergeant. “Get them out of there. Now!”
“But, sir,” the sergeant sputtered, “I have orders from the tribune, holding these two prisoners for trial.”
“Sergeant,” Carbo lowered his voice, “your tribune has been relieved of his command. If you don’t get them out of there this instant, I promise you that I shall see you broken back to the ranks. Furthermore, I shall personally see to it that you spend the rest of your days in service to our emperor mucking out the latrines with your tongue.”
The sergeant didn’t even bother to reply. He fumbled with the keys on his belt, untied the loop, and then hastily unlocked the door to Hollux’s cage before turning to Stiger’s.
Once the door was swung open, Stiger stepped out. Carbo offered his hand, which Stiger took in a firm, friendly grip.
“Carbo,” Stiger said, “I would like to introduce you to Lieutenant Hollux. I consider him a friend.”
“Any friend of Stiger is a friend of mine.” Carbo shook Hollux’s hand. “It is a real pleasure to meet you, sir, and an honor.”
Hollux seemed taken aback slightly, but handled it well. “It is my pleasure, sir, especially since you got us out of these damned cages.”
Carbo suddenly stepped back, holding his nose, looking between Stiger and Hollux.
“You both need a bath,” Carbo said, “and badly.”
“That I do,” Stiger admitted. “It’s been far too long since I properly bathed.”
“Well, let’s get you cleaned up and into a fresh tunic,” Carbo said. “I am afraid there is a lot to be done, and not much time.”
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