Author’s Note:

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

© 2016

Chapter Fifteen

Stiger strode out of the officers’ quarters and into the bright morning sunlight. The temperature was much cooler than the day before—it could almost have been described as crisp. It was possibly a sign that the unseasonably hot weather was finally giving itself over to fall. Stiger certainly hoped so, for he was more than tired of the oppressive heat.

He was wearing a freshly laundered tunic, drawn from the fort’s quartermaster. It was coarse wool and itched only a little. The tunic was the kind reserved for a ranker, but it was clean and for that he was grateful. Slightly larger than he would have liked, it also wasn’t quite his size. If he kept the tunic, it would have to be tailored for a better fit. The military typically held a jaded view toward the enlisted man’s tunic and took the one-size-for-all approach. Officers, men generally of some means, had their tunics custom-made from better-quality wool.

Stiger had also taken the opportunity to bathe. Being clean for the first time in weeks felt wonderful. To be free of the dust, dirt, and grime was a small mercy in itself. He had even managed a shave, using hot water, not the usual frigid river or pond water he had made do with over the past few weeks. Combined with the sleep he had caught up on while being confined, he felt like a new man.

“Better watch it, old boy,” Stiger said to himself with a slight chuckle. “If you keep this up, you may just spoil yourself.”

Stiger surveyed his surroundings. The officers’ quarters opened onto the parade ground, which was situated behind the main gate. Fort Covenant was a large one, as rear echelon garrisons went. Built to hold two cohorts by necessity, there were more than a dozen single-story structures. The buildings of the fort spread out to his left and right. They included several barracks, a warehouse, cold cellar, stable, barn, smithy, mess hall, and centralized keep that housed the headquarters and the tribune’s personal quarters. Three stories tall, the fortified keep towered over the other buildings. It backed up to the parade ground and was built upon a raised mound. The keep reached higher than the outer walls, and from the top he presumed one would have a clear view in all directions.

The buildings were made of timber, using whole logs from the nearby forest. Stacked one atop another and interlocked at right angles, they formed solid walls that had been plastered over for insulation. The outer defensive walls of the fort were also constructed of these logs, each of which was at least three feet in circumference. These had clearly been selected not only for their thickness, but also their height.

Starting from the edge of the parade ground and traveling around the entire fort, an earthen rampart backed up to the outer wall. The rampart was thick with trimmed grass. The top of the rampart served as a platform for the defenders to walk upon, with the defensive wall rising another three feet above it, forming a protective barricade.

Stiger found the fort itself neat and orderly. Nothing seemed out of place. It spoke of either a fanatical devotion to order or a disciplined garrison. He wondered which one applied to Tribune Declin.

“Excuse me, sir.” An auxiliary had come up, interrupting Stiger’s musings, and gave a smart salute.

“Yes?” Stiger returned the man’s salute.

“Prefect Merritt requests your presence on the wall above the gatehouse.” The auxiliary pointed. “He’s right there, sir, with the other officers.”

“Thank you,” Stiger said and started off.

There were few men about as he made his way across the parade ground. The grass in the center had a distressed look to it, a sign that it potentially saw frequent use for drill. Stiger wondered where everyone had gone, for the interior of the fort was mostly deserted. There was only a handful of men on the walls. The near absence of the garrison made Carbo’s troopers stand out. Horses saddled, and with reins in their hands, the troopers waited near the gate. Stiger wondered where they were off to as he strode over to the gatehouse and up the back side of the rampart.

“Ah, Stiger,” Merritt said, turning at his arrival. Carbo, Hollux, Tride, and Eli were there, but the tribune was absent. Since Declin had been relieved, Stiger found his absence hardly surprising.

Hollux gave Stiger a welcoming nod. He also wore a fresh tunic and had washed.

“Good of you to join us,” Merritt said. “I assume you feel much improved at having been given the opportunity to clean up.”

There was only stiff formality in the prefect’s tone. It was suffused with neither malice nor friendliness, but instead a controlled professionalism. In his late forties, Merritt had short-cropped hair that had thinned and long since grayed. He had a large reddish scar that ran down the left side of his neck and disappeared into his tunic.

The prefect was in excellent shape and seemed a no-nonsense kind of man. There was a hardness in his manner and a distant look to his eyes that Stiger had come to associate with veterans who had seen hard times. He instantly liked the older officer.

“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. “After so long in the field, it was a welcome change.”

“I can well imagine, having been there myself upon occasion.” Merritt sucked in a deep breath. “Let’s begin, shall we?” The prefect paused a moment, as if he were gathering his thoughts. “There is undoubtedly an enemy army coming our way. In addition to Lieutenant Stiger’s report, General Treim has only recently confirmed that through other sources. He has charged me with the defense of this fort. Furthermore, he has asked that we,” Merritt said with emphasis, “hold until the Third arrives. It is the general’s intention to bring the enemy to battle, preferably here in this valley. He does not want them to break out into open country. With any luck, the Third is expected to be here sometime tomorrow evening, perhaps a little later.” Merritt paused briefly. “Now for the bad news. Upon my request, Lieutenant Carbo sent scouts up the road in search of the enemy. They encountered advanced elements less than two miles from the edge of the forest.”

“Infantry or cavalry, sir?” Stiger asked.

“Cavalry,” Carbo answered, stepping in. “A strong column too, followed closely by infantry.”

“Yes,” Merritt said. “We have to assume that the infantry represent the beginnings of the main body.” Merritt turned to Carbo. “That means you must depart shortly, before the fort is surrounded.”

“You are leaving?” Stiger was surprised by this.

“Yes,” Carbo said in an unhappy tone. “I was instructed to deliver the general’s orders, see that the change of command was carried out, assess the situation, and report back.”

“What of the tribune?” Stiger asked, curious as to Declin’s fate. “Is he going with Carbo?”

“No,” Merritt answered with a slight frown. “Though he has been relieved, the tribune has elected to remain a few days before returning to the capital. He has not said so, but I believe he intends to hold the line with us. I believe him to be an honorable man.”

Stiger understood Merritt’s meaning. The tribune was in disgrace and would likely face a trial when he returned to the capital. Fighting alongside the defenders might be a way for him to partially redeem himself.

“If you would not mind, Prefect,” Eli spoke up, drawing their attention, “I would prefer to remain also.”

“Eli,” Carbo said with a look of concern, “the general expects you to return with me.”

“I shall, in good time,” Eli said, then added a slight shrug. “But not now. Prefect, I request the honor…‘honor’ is the correct word, right?” Merritt gave a nod. “Yes, I request the honor of fighting alongside you and your fine men.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside elves.” Merritt’s stern expression cracked a little and he let slip a smile. “I welcome the services of a ranger. However, with what’s coming, I urge you to consider going with Carbo. I cannot guarantee I can hold this fort.”

“I feel I can be of better use here,” Eli said. “I will stay if you will have me.”

“Very well, then,” Merritt said. “I am honored to have one of the High Born with us. Thank you.”

“It pleases me much to fight alongside such gallant men.” Eli gave a slight bow of his head.

“Well,” Merritt said, and bounced on his heels, “that’s settled. Let’s review our defenses and the challenge ahead of us.”

The prefect stepped up to the barricade. The other officers followed. Stiger placed his hands upon the top of the wall and looked over. Beneath him, at least a hundred men worked in the two trenches that stretched clear around the fort. They were busily cleaning out debris and replacing old stakes with fresh ones.

Beyond the outer trench, several men moved with large canvas bags, tossing bits of metal into the long grass. It looked as if these men were sowing caltrops. Simple yet vicious, caltrops were incredibly hard to spot. When tossed, one side of the four-headed, spiked weapon always managed to point upward. Should an unwary person step on one, it was certain to cripple.

A man working below in the first trench spotted them and pointed up at the officers. He shouted something and a hearty cheer went up from those nearest. Stiger realized after a moment that they were his men. He waved back. They cheered even louder. Tiro was below among the men, grinning like a bear.

Stiger felt a lump form in his throat as he looked down upon his cheering men. His gaze then shifted to the road north. He loved his company, and yet he had led them here to a place that would soon see them locked in a desperate struggle. The likelihood of many of them ending up fodder for the worms was high. And yet, Stiger felt as if he had made the correct decision. This fort had been until recently an isolated backwater. Now, because of his direct actions, Fort Covenant had become a critical position that had the potential to affect the course of the war.

“Back to work,” Tiro snapped. “Bend your backs, you bastards.”

The cheering ceased, and the men returned to their tasks.

“I’ve heard a great deal about you,” Merritt said to Stiger. “The general even mentioned you in his orders to me. It seems you show real promise as an officer. It is good you are with us.”

“Yes, sir,” Stiger said, feeling slightly embarrassed by the unexpected praise. Merritt did not seem to begrudge his family name, something until recently he had not come to expect in anyone serving. Stiger noticed, however, that Tride looked like he had swallowed a frog. The lieutenant carried a small wax tablet, which he tapped on the palm of his hand.

“I fought under your father,” Merritt continued, “before the civil war, that is.”

“I did not know, sir.” This was the first time Stiger had spoken with the prefect.

“It was a long time ago, and I was a junior officer much like yourself.” Merritt became unfocused, as if reliving a different time. His gaze sharpened. “Well, that’s in the past. It is time we speak on what must be done going forward.” He pointed out into the field as he addressed those gathered around. “To assault these walls, the enemy must get past the two outer trenches. Make no mistake, they will do so. We have neither the artillery nor sufficient numbers of bowmen to make such an effort a costly venture to our enemy. Nor do we have the ability to hinder them in any meaningful way. Once they have overcome the trenches, they will either assault the walls or the gate. It is possible they may attempt both simultaneously. Any attempt to break through the gate shall prove futile. We will deny them that opportunity by shoveling dirt up behind the gate, thereby rendering a battering ram ineffective. With luck, this will buy us some time before they switch all of their efforts to the walls.”

“Sir?” Lieutenant Tride spoke up. “What if they just bypass us? Wouldn’t it be easier for them if they went around us? We’re so few, hardly enough for an army to worry much about. I should think they have nothing to fear from us.”

“There is little chance they will bypass us,” Merritt said with a heavy breath as he regarded his lieutenant with disappointed eyes. “Our enemy cannot afford to leave us to their rear. This north-south road is their lifeline. Moving around us would pose an unacceptable risk to their communications and supply. More importantly, this fortification is all that stands between them and open country. Have no doubt, they will attack. They must reduce and overcome this fort before they move on.” Merritt paused for a breath. “In a few weeks, winter will arrive and all campaigning for the season will end. The winters so far north are terrible. Our enemy knows this only too well. Their goal by coming here is an attempt to outflank our army that is mostly to the east, the bulk of which is far up north. They mean to cut off supply by thrusting around and to the rear of the legions. Should their effort prove successful, it will mean a military disaster on a near unimaginable scale.”

Merritt fell silent a moment. “I want to be plain. This is a grave threat, not only to the war effort, but to the empire as well. The Third is on the march, as you already know. General Treim has informed me our legions farther north have also begun pulling back, giving up the hard-fought ground they have taken this summer. Should the Third be defeated in battle, it will fall to the rest of the army to hold off the enemy until winter…that is, if the enemy does not get behind them first and cut supply. Should that happen, there is the very real possibility that the enemy’s two armies may combine.”

“But if the Third is defeated,” Tride said, “then that means we will be also.”

“Yes,” Merritt said. “Now you understand the true gravity of our position.”

“Yes, sir,” Tride said.

“Good. We have two auxiliary cohorts,” Merritt said. “Mine the Twenty-Fifth Toldean, and Hollux’s Ninth Light Foot Taborean. We also have Stiger’s Seventh, with just enough men to be considered a light company. That gives us nearly seven hundred with which to hold this fort. Are there any questions so far?”

There were none.

“Lieutenant Tride,” Merritt said, “you may give us your report on our supplies and available equipment.”

“Yes, sir.” Tride began to read from his wax tablet. “We have plenty of water, since it is well-drawn. Food will not be a problem. Our stores are sufficient for months. Concerning missiles, we have two thousand two hundred short spears and twelve large barrels of arrows.” He paused and glanced over at Hollux. “I would think that plenty for your bowmen. Do you not agree?”

“Maybe,” Hollux said, tapping a finger against his chin. “My men can shoot awful quick. Twelve barrels means perhaps four thousand arrows combined with what we brought. Well…it may not last us all that long.” Hollux stood straight as he looked over at Merritt. “I will impress upon my men to make their shots count, sir.”

“That will be much appreciated, lieutenant.” Merritt nodded for Tride to continue with his report.

“We have the equivalent of five barrels of oil,” the lieutenant continued, “which must be used sparingly. And, of course, we have pans for cooking sand and boiling water. Our four bolt throwers are being assembled as we speak. We have nearly nine hundred bolts.” He pointed to the covered towers on each corner of the fort. Hammering could be heard from inside the nearest tower. “They should be completed within a couple of hours. Our single catapult is also being assembled.” He pointed down toward the parade ground. “We have plenty of round shot.”

Stiger could see several men working to assemble the machine. He let slip a slight frown. The catapult was on the smaller side, perhaps capable of tossing a two-pound ball. It would do little to frighten the enemy or cause damage.

“That completes my report, sir.”

“Gentlemen,” Merritt said, “we don’t have much with which to hold back the tide, other than sheer grit and determination. Since that is all we have, that is what we shall use. I am counting on each of you to do your duty. You must reach deep and pull forth courage. For courage is what you will need to set an example for your men to follow. Do that and we might just hold until the Third arrives. Fail in that… ” Merritt fell silent for a moment, looking each in the eye. “Well, that will not happen, will it?”

“No, sir,” Hollux said. “It will most certainly not.”

Tride voiced his agreement.

“Stiger.” Merritt turned to him. “I understand your men have seen considerable action?”

“Yes, sir, they have.”

“Then you shall act as our reserve,” Merritt said. “We shall use your legionaries to reinforce where needed, to plug the holes and force the enemy back over the wall. Think you can manage that?”

“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. He had expected as much. “My boys and I will stand ready.”

“Enemy in sight!” The shout ripped across the fort.

The officers’ heads turned to the north. A column of riders had emerged from the tree line and was working its way down the hill, following the road. Several riders had pulled off to the side and remained on the hilltop as the column continued to ride from the forest and stretch down the hill.

Stiger supposed these were officers. They were clearly studying the fort as the bulk of the column continued past them. Stiger could hear the enemy cavalry singing a melodious tune, but at this distance could not make out words.

“Carbo,” Merritt said, turning to face the cavalry lieutenant. “It is time for you to depart.”

“Yes, sir,” Carbo said.

“I would appreciate it if you rode through the town on your way out of the valley,” Merritt said, gesturing vaguely toward the south, “and let the good people know it is time to evacuate.”

“Yes, sir.” Carbo gave a salute, which Merritt returned. “Take care, sir.”

“Tell the general to hurry.”

“I will, sir,” Carbo said.

Carbo gave Stiger a nod before working his way down the rampart to where his troopers were waiting. Stiger watched as Carbo pulled himself up into the saddle. The cavalry lieutenant raised his hand and let it fall, pointing forward, giving the soundless order to ride. Amidst the sounds of heavy hooves, they trotted through the gate. Stiger continued to watch as the troop crossed the trenches, turned to the west, and rode hard around the fort, before angling south and being lost to view.

“Lieutenant Tride,” Merritt said, “kindly issue the recall for our men outside. Also, see that the bridges are pulled up from the trenches. I see no point in making it easier for the enemy.”

“Yes, sir.” Tride hurried away. A few moments later, a man atop the gatehouse blew his horn, sounding the recall. The notes were nearly pure and rang out on the cool morning air. The men outside immediately dropped what they were doing and started for the protection of the fort.

“Well,” the elf spoke up, drawing their attention. Eli was looking out toward the hill where the road emerged from the forest. The cavalry column had given way to enemy infantry, marching four abreast. They too were singing. Like a snake coming out of a hole, they began to work their way down and into the valley. “Things are about to get interesting.”

Author’s Note:

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