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 Sixteen

“It’s clear, sir,” a lookout yelled down from above, having leaned over the outer wall, eyeballing the other side of the gate. “No enemy closer than the nearest trench, and they are just standing around bored-like. Only a handful, sir.”

“Open the gate,” Merritt ordered.

Several men standing by to do just that raised the locking bar, which landed with a heavy thud. They began pulling the gate open.

“Stand ready,” Hollux, who was atop the gate, called to his men. The bowmen stepped up to the barricade and nocked their arrows.

“Are you sure about this, sir?” Stiger stood to Merritt’s side.

Hinges creaking, the gate began to open. Stiger had his company formed up into a two-ranked battle line just behind the gate.

“Raise shields,” Tiro ordered. “Draw swords.”

The shields came up off the ground and swords seemed to jump out of scabbards.

“Unfortunately, I am,” Merritt answered with a sidelong glance at Stiger. Absently, the prefect drummed the side of his chest armor as he shifted his gaze to the gate.

The prefect’s armor was of an older style. It was lovingly cared for and yet had also clearly seen some action, for there were little dents, scrapes, and nicks from battle damage.

“Yes,” Merritt said drawing a long breath, “we must attend this parley. Anything to delay our enemy serves our needs.”

“You don’t have to go personally, sir,” Stiger said. “I could represent you well enough.”

“Our enemy is generally known to be honorable in these situations,” Merritt said. “We should have little to fear.”

“Except when they are not,” Stiger said with some heat, “like in Cora’Tol. Crief is a good example of that.”

Merritt was silent a moment.

“You must understand, victory is everything,” Merritt said. “Nothing comes second. War must be waged in a terrible, total, and complete manner. There are times in pursuit of victory when we are called to do terrible things. Almost anything—and I mean anything—goes. Rules don’t apply. The sacking of villages and towns, though repugnant, is an acceptable means to an end.” Merritt paused and his look became quite hard. “Even small farms are fair game, like the one your prisoner took. We don’t have to like it, nor condone it, but this is the world we live in. To the victor goes everything.” Merritt paused, his eyes flicking to Stiger’s men. “I for one would rather the empire be the conqueror than the vanquished. That means ordering the death and destruction of that which we love.” Merritt stepped closer and put a hand on Stiger’s shoulder. “To be successful at our chosen craft, you must take this lesson to heart, no matter how distasteful it is going down.”

Stiger sucked in a breath and let it out as he thought carefully on the prefect’s words.

“In all this chaos and madness that war brings with it,” Merritt continued, “there are times when gentlemen from both sides are able come together and treat each other honorably in parley. For a brief moment, we can set aside the horrors of what we do and pretend that we are not the monsters we have become.”

The gate ceased its movement with a loud thud.

Merritt gave him a meaningful look. “Do you follow?”

“I understand, sir.”

“Good,” Merritt said, taking a step back. “It was a hard lesson for me as well, but having learned it made me a better soldier.”

“Tiro,” Stiger called. “You and Tig are coming with us. In the absence of Varus, Asus, you have the formation.”

Asus looked startled for a moment, then recovered. He drew himself up and saluted as Tiro hurried over with Tig. Both carried their shields.

“Yes, sir,” Asus replied.

“Might I join you also?”

Stiger and Merritt turned to see Eli had joined them. The elf’s ability to move about unnoticed was uncanny.

“Why would you wish to expose yourself to the enemy?” Merritt asked. “The elves as a people have parted ways with the empire. You may inadvertently give the impression that is not so.”

“I have no compelling desire to do so,” Eli said, “other than curiosity.”

“You are bored already?” Tiro said, incredulous.

“Sergeant,” Merritt snapped, “mind your tongue with our guest.”

“Sorry, sir.”

“It’s quite all right,” Eli said to the prefect. “Sergeant Tiro and I are old acquaintances. You see, we previously served together. I consider him a good friend.”

Merritt glanced between the two of them. “The Wilds, then?”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. “Eli and I have been through some rough times.”

“Addressing your concern on impressions,” Eli said, “today I only represent myself.”

“I see.” Merritt released a breath that was almost a huff. “Very well. If you wish to join us, then so be it.”

Merritt started forward through the gate, with Stiger and Eli trailing. Tiro and Tig followed a couple steps behind. To their front, at around five hundred yards, Stiger saw a couple hundred enemy heavy infantry.

The enemy was busily erecting a camp. This included the beginnings of a defensive berm. Stiger could hear the muffled cracks that signified ax parties at work in the forest. As they walked out of the fort, a second column of infantry was starting to snake its way down the hill.

Merritt strode up to the edge of the first trench. A delegation waited on the other side. Stiger saw two officers and what he took to be a sergeant waiting patiently. Their manner was relaxed, as if they had not a concern in the world.

“You requested a parley,” Merritt said curtly. It was not framed as a question, but a simple statement of fact.

“Yes, I did,” the officer Stiger took to be in charge replied in fluent Common. His armor was more ornate and expensive than the other’s. There was not even the hint of an accent in his tone, and he sounded quite cultured. “I am Senior Captain Golves.”

Golves was perhaps five years older than Stiger. He had the look of a hardened soldier, but also the refinement of a noble. A thick scar on his lower lip marred his features. Golves paused and gestured to the officer standing next to him. “This is my lieutenant, Ocal. And you, sir? May I have your name?”

“I am Prefect Merritt, in command of Fort Covenant.”

“It was my understanding that Tribune Declin held that esteemed honor,” Golves said. A slight hint curiosity hung in his tone.

“Your intelligence appears to be flawed and out of date,” Merritt said.

“So it seems,” Golves said, his eyes sliding to Stiger and then Eli, who had pulled the hood of his cloak up. “And these gentleman, I know not their names. Would you be considerate enough to introduce me?”

“Of course,” Merritt said. “May I present Lieutenant Stiger and—”

“Stiger?” Golves said. An amused look came over him. “Aren’t you are supposed to be in disgrace and under confinement?”

“More faulty intelligence,” Stiger growled. Golves’s manner was beginning to irritate him.

Golves brought a hand up to cover his mouth as he gave a slight chuckle.

“You, sir, I have been chasing a good long way,” Golves continued, lowering the hand. He pointed a finger. “Lieutenant Stiger, you have left a trail of destruction with your passage that honestly has been quite surprising. May I say, it is truly an honor to finally meet you face to face after so many weeks on the chase. You are such a formidable opponent that it seems a shame to have finally run you down...” Golves paused and gestured at the fort with both hands. “Here in the middle of nowhere.”

Stiger wasn’t at first sure how to take that. Initially he thought the enemy officer was playing with him, but then decided otherwise, as Golves appeared quite serious.

“Stiger,” Merritt hissed after several heartbeats of silence, “do the gracious thing and accept the bloody compliment, would you?”

“It is an honor to meet you as well,” Stiger said, drawing himself up. “And if you must know, I am precisely where I intended to be.”

Golves offered a slight bow, but looked far from convinced.

“If I am correct in my thinking,” Stiger said, having thought on the enemy officer’s words, “it was your company that has dogged our heels something fierce. Is that so?”

“Yes. After you attacked a section of my men out on forage, I happily gave chase,” Golves said, seeming rather pleased with himself. “But now I have finally caught up. All hunts must come to an end. You’ve nowhere to run.”

Stiger gave a shrug rather than reply.

“What do you want?” Merritt asked.

“In the interest of saving lives, I ask humbly that you give up the fort,” Golves said.

“I was a guest of the Rivan once before,” Merritt said in a hard tone. “I will not subject myself to that indignity again.”

“I see,” Golves said and made a show of thinking, stroking his jaw. “In that case, I am prepared to offer you and your men free passage, provided you surrender your standards and weapons first.”

Stiger glanced to Merritt, hoping the prefect would not consider such an offer. To surrender one’s standards was an unforgivable offense. It would effectively end their careers or, possibly worse, sign their death warrants.

“Captain Golves,” Merritt said, “I am afraid I will have to decline your generous offer. If you want them, you will just have to take them.”

Golves let slip an unhappy scowl before his face lit up, as if he had stumbled upon a fantastic idea. Stiger understood the enemy captain was playing a game that he seemed to be enjoying.

“What if I permitted you to keep your standards and weapons?” Golves asked. “Would that satisfy your honor?”

“I would be compelled to decline your generous offer,” Merritt said. “I intend to keep my fort. The only way you can have it is by seizing it forcefully.”

Golves let slip another unhappy scowl, sharing a look with his lieutenant. “I am but the tip of the spear. In my humble estimation, you have no hope whatsoever of holding. If you compel us into an assault, I will tell you honestly, none shall be spared. Death will be your only escape.”

“That may be so,” Merritt said stiffly, “but I will not give up my fort. Unless you have other business, I believe we are done here.”

Merritt turned to go.

“I understand you are holding a prisoner,” Golves said. “A Lieutenant Crief.”

“Your information is correct,” Merritt said.

“We want him back,” Golves said. “I have two of your officers. I propose a trade.”

“Who?” Merritt’s eyebrows rose. “Who do you have?”

“Prefect Lears and Lieutenant Teevus,” Golves said. “I am afraid Lieutenant Teevus made the mistake of thinking he too could hold his fort.”

“And you let him live?” Merritt asked. “What other prisoners do you have?”

Golves’s expression hardened. “Alas, we did not take any. The only reason the poor lieutenant escaped his fate was for intelligence purposes. Now that we have all that we need from him, a destitute noble is of no use to us, other than in trade, of course. Should you refuse, I will have him immediately executed in the most brutal fashion I can think of.”

Merritt became very still.

“Which is why I suggest you seriously consider my previous offer,” Golves said. “You all have an opportunity to walk away with your standards and your lives.”

“I will think on it,” Merritt said, appearing to give a little.

“You have an hour,” Golves said.

“Two hours,” Merritt said.

“An hour,” Golves said. “If I don’t have it then, I shall put my prisoners to death.”

“An hour,” Merritt agreed. “You shall have my answer at that time. I will take you up on the offer of the prisoner exchange.”

“Sir?” Stiger said. “You can’t give them Crief.”

“Be quiet, Stiger,” Merritt snapped. “This is my decision, not yours.”

“When do you desire to conduct the exchange?” Golves asked.

“In an hour’s time, when I give you my answer. Will that be sufficient?” Merritt said.

Golves nodded.

“Lieutenant Stiger shall deliver the prisoner and my answer.”

“Very good.” Golves’s eyes moved to Eli. “I was not introduced to this other gentleman.”

“I am no gentleman,” Eli said, and drew back the hood of his cloak. “Eli’Far at your service.”

Golves made no show of surprise, other than the blinking of his eyes. Stiger noticed the enemy officer became quite still. He then shifted his stance and seemed to relax.

“I thought you elves had quit the empire,” Golves said, giving Eli a slight bow, which the elf returned.

“Again,” Stiger said, “it would seem you are receiving faulty intelligence.”

Golves’s eyes turned to Stiger and narrowed.

“I will see you in an hour,” Golves said frostily. With that, he began walking back to his budding encampment, his lieutenant and sergeant following him.

“Sir,” Stiger said to Merritt, “we cannot give up the fort.”

“Lieutenant,” Merritt said, “I have no intention of doing that. I was simply buying us time and playing his game.”

“What of Crief?” Stiger said. “He is an important prisoner and the son of—”

“I know who he is,” Merritt snapped. “I will not leave two of our own in the enemy’s hands. I’ve been their guest. Trust me, it is not a pleasant experience.”

With that, Merritt began making his way back into the fort.

Stiger watched the prefect go before stepping over to Tiro. “What do you think?”

“I think,” Tiro said with a glance at the enemy column coming down the hill, “we are in the shit, sir.”

“That was my thinking as well,” Stiger said. “As soon that army comes up in its entirety, they will attack.”

“I agree, sir,” Tiro said. “However, they will not need their whole army. What with the moon being almost full, they may even try our walls this evening.”

“I say,” Eli said cheerfully, having sidled up to the two of them, “isn’t this exciting?”

Tiro shot a frown at the elf. Stiger just shook his head.

Eli pointed towards the hill, where the road exited the forest. Another formation of heavy infantry had emerged and was moving down the hill toward the encampment. Stiger almost felt sick at the sight. There would be hard hours ahead.

“Exciting is not how I would characterize it,” Stiger said.

***

An hour later, Stiger stepped through the gate. Tiro and two legionaries dragged Crief along. As they neared, Crief took one look at the waiting Golves and the rapidly growing Rivan encampment and began laughing, nearly hysterically.

“I told you, Stiger,” Crief said. “My father is coming to kill you all.”

Tiro reached over and slapped Crief hard on the face. “Keep your tongue.”

Golves did not seem at all fazed by Tiro’s treatment of Lieutenant Crief. He just stood there and waited patiently. With him were Lears and Teevus. He also had two men who each carried a long wooden plank.

Both Lears and Teevus appeared to have been worked over fairly well. Teevus looked up. His right eye was swollen shut, but his left widened at the sight of Stiger standing across the other side of the trench. After a moment, he averted his gaze and looked at the ground, clearly shamefaced.

“Stiger,” Golves said, all business, “do I have your permission to run these planks across the trench to affect our exchange?”

Stiger gave a curt nod, at which Golves motioned his men forward. Once it was done, Golves looked expectantly at Stiger.

“My men first,” Stiger said. “Then I will send your man.”

“Do I have your word of honor on that?”

“You do, sir,” Stiger said. “Though I’d prefer nothing better than to gut this murdering and raping bastard, I will send him to you. What you do with him after is your concern.”

Golves’s eyes slid from Stiger to Crief. A look of contempt and disgust washed over the enemy officer’s face.

“Go,” Golves snapped, pulling his gaze away from Crief to Lears and Teevus. “Return to your own.”

Teevus started across first. Lears, appearing worse for wear, needed a prodding before he too shuffled along. Halfway across, he stumbled and almost toppled into the trench below. Tiro moved forward and assisted him.

“Right,” Stiger said once the two imperial officers had safely crossed, kicking Crief lightly with a boot. “On your way.”

Crief didn’t even hesitate. He walked boldly over the planks, stopped on the other side, and offered Stiger a mocking salute.

“See you soon,” Crief said.

“If you do,” Stiger said, still angered that the man had been freed, “I will be sure to give you a few inches of steel.”

Crief laughed at him. “I think it’s you who will be the one stuck with Rivan steel.” He started walking toward the enemy encampment. Golves motioned for his lieutenant to accompany Crief.

“I take it your prefect’s answer is no?”

“Did you really expect us to capitulate?” Stiger asked.

“No, I most certainly did not,” Golves answered and looked over the fort’s walls. “We were always going to have to do this the hard way.”

“Lieutenant Aggar.” Stiger said. “He’s one of yours, isn’t he?”

“Oh no,” Golves said with an amused chuckle. “I am afraid he’s one of yours. It’s just that we pay him better.”

“So, Aggar’s your source of information then?”

“Perhaps.” Golves offered a smile of sorts and then sobered. “I am sorry that you will have to soon die. You have proven to be a worthy and honorable adversary.”

“I shall be sorry to have to kill you,” Stiger replied. “You seem honorable as well.”

With that, Golves offered Stiger a nod and left with his two soldiers, trekking their way back toward their camp. They had left the planks in place. Stiger used his boot to tip them over and into the trench.

He swung his gaze across the two freed prisoners. Lears had collapsed to the ground. The prefect had a broken arm, and his face was hardly recognizable from the pounding he looked to have taken during questioning. The man’s nose was broken too, as were several teeth. Dried blood had darkened his filthy tunic.

“Thank you,” Teevus said, tears in his eyes. The lieutenant’s face was nearly purple from bruising. “Thank you for trading us.”

“Had it been up to me, I would not have traded. You owe your thanks to Prefect Merritt.”

“What?” Teevus said, incredulous. “You would have left us in their hands?”

“I don’t think either of you was worth trading,” Stiger said.

“That’s because you are a bastard,” Lears glared at him, “just like your father.”

“I am,” Stiger said. “Tiro, see that the prefect is helped along. In his current state, I doubt he can make it on his own.”

“Aye, sir,” Tiro said.

With that, Stiger strode through the gate to the fort.

Author’s Note:

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