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 would’ve expected them to attack last night, sir,” Tiro said, his gaze straying out towards the enemy camp. The early morning air was crisp, just like the day before. A fog that had partially shrouded the land had mostly lifted, revealing the full extent of the enemy’s camp and its activities throughout the night.
Stiger, Tiro, and Eli were standing on the north-facing wall. The enemy army had encamped just beyond the second trench, their camp filling up the entire north side of the valley. There were thousands of tents and even more smoke trails that drifted slowly up into the sky. Stiger had to admit it was an impressive sight. What was more incredible was that the enemy army was still arriving with long columns of fresh formations marching out from the forest road nearly every hour.
Though the fort’s catapult could easily reach the enemy’s camp, the prefect had held back from opening hostilities. He did not wish to speed up the unpleasantness that was sure to come.
The sun had been up for maybe an hour. Stiger had finished walking the wall and found Tiro and Eli studying the enemy. Overnight, with thousands of men working by moonlight, the Rivan had thrown up an impressive defensive berm that was threatening to completely encircle the fort.
“It seems they don’t want us getting out, either,” Stiger said, surveying the defensive works.
“Would you?” Tiro asked. “If things were reversed.”
Stiger shook his head.
The enemy had brought up some artillery. Stiger counted four large machines that appeared capable of firing four to possibly six-pound shot. The enemy’s artillery had been erected in a small field, the crews trampling the wheat as they went about their work. Wagons had been moved up and teams were busy unloading shot. Worse, there was significant activity in the camp beyond, as a number of formations were assembling. A few had marched out and were working their way around the east side of the fort.
Stiger let out a slow breath. The enemy did not seem to be in any pressing hurry to launch their assault, though from what he was seeing it would likely come sometime this morning.
“Let’s be grateful for the time they’ve wasted,” Stiger said. “Every moment squandered brings the Third that much closer to relieving us.”
“I am sorry, sir,” Tiro said, “but that army across the way is much larger than the Third and her auxiliary cohorts. Will the general even be able to relieve us?”
“It is,” Stiger said, “and he has to.”
“I’m just sayin’, sir.”
“I know,” Stiger said. “I know.”
“This is much more exciting than remaining at headquarters with your general as an observer,” Eli said, speaking up. “I am so very pleased that I came and even more so that I made the decision to remain.”
“Eli gets bored easily, sir.” Tiro shook his head. “You have to watch him or he gets himself into trouble, and sometimes others too.”
“Get myself in the trouble?” Eli said, aghast, turning on the sergeant. “Why, Tiro, I ne—”
“It’s the help he needs getting out of trouble that is the problem, sir,” Tiro said, flashing Eli a grin. “I could tell you a few stories, sir. Believe me, he bears watching.” Tiro looked as if he were about to say more, but paused and slowly turned his gaze on Stiger. The sergeant’s eyes narrowed as if something had just occurred to him. “You know…he is very much like you, sir. Sort of attracts trouble.”
“Do you?” Eli asked with interest. “Do you really?”
Stiger rolled his eyes.
“He does,” Tiro said. “And don’t bother denying it, sir. Like when you ordered the company to attack that isolated section of men back at that farm? Only they weren’t so isolated, were they? Golves got on our trail and chased us something good.”
“Oh my,” Eli said. “We’re going to have so much fun together. I can just tell.”
“Wait a moment, you can’t blame—”
Stiger was interrupted by a loud creaking followed by a thud that came from out beyond in the field. This was immediately followed by a high-pitched whistling.
“Down!” Tiro pulled Stiger to the ground behind the barricade. Eli dove and covered his head with his arms. A heartbeat later, there was a deep, shuddering impact behind them. Stiger looked and saw a great gout of dirt fall in a shower. When it settled, a crater three feet around had appeared where moments before there had only been grass. Stiger could see the white ball, partially exposed, sitting in the middle of the crater.
Thankfully, no one had been injured. A horn sounded the call to arms. After a hesitation, the horn blew again. Barracks doors burst open. Like angry ants, auxiliaries began to boil out, making their way to their posts, tying helmet straps or slipping on their swords.
Stiger looked up and over the edge of the barricade at the enemy, just as there was another loud creaking out in the field, followed almost immediately by a thud. Stiger tracked the ball with his eyes as it arced up into the sky, whistling. The round contacted the tower to his left on the corner of the fort. It was a dead-on hit, and before he could blink, the tower came apart. With a great splintering crash, it tumbled backward into the fort.
Before Stiger could pull his eyes away, another ball slammed into the wooden wall just below them with a loud crack. Stiger felt the impact. The ball bounced back and out into one of the trenches.
The fourth machine let fly with a ball that sailed clean over the wall and into the parade ground. It landed several yards from Stiger’s men, who were forming up. They scattered.
“Tiro,” Stiger pointed, “get down there. Move our men back to the other side of the fort, preferably behind the keep. Have them shelter there until called.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said and started off. “I’m on it.”
“Tiro informs me when you learned of the enemy army, it was your idea to come. I now see why you wanted to remain here also.”
Stiger turned an astounded look upon the elf, wondering if he had gone barking mad. He supposed that Eli was teasing him. “Well,” Stiger said with a chuckle, “we’re both crazy for having decided to stay, aren’t we?”
“Undoubtedly,” Eli said and bared his teeth in a full grin at Stiger. Small and needle-sharp, the teeth looked like they belonged in the mouth of a predator. Stiger resisted the urge to shudder and turned his gaze back toward the enemy, who were reloading the four machines to fire anew.
Beyond the field, a large number of the enemy had lined the edge of their camp. They gave a great cheer to the artillery crews. Several waved back but quickly returned to their work.
There was a crack off to the right. From the last remaining tower on the north wall sprung a bolt. The overly large dart shot out toward one of the enemy machines. The aim was low and it struck the defensive berm, harmlessly kicking up a spray of dirt.
Auxiliaries on the wall gave a defiant shout. A number of catcalls were sent the enemy’s way. The crew down on the parade ground began loading the fort’s only catapult.
When it finally released, the ball sailed upward and out of the fort, whistling toward the enemy’s camp. Stiger tracked its path. In a rather anticlimactic fashion, the ball landed somewhere in the middle of the camp. He could not tell if it had done any damage, but hoped it had.
The artillery duel continued for more than an hour. Lieutenant Tride stood atop the north wall with a pair of white flags. He used them to signal the crew below in an attempt to direct the fire towards one of the enemy machines. The more he worked at it, the more it seemed the fire became evermore erratic. To Stiger’s disgust, the friendly shot landed farther and farther away from the intended target.
“They don’t seem to shoot fine,” Eli said as he and Stiger gazed upon the catapult.
“Did you mean good?”
“Yes,” Eli said, “that is the word. They are no good, yes? The Common Tongue is a little confusing. It’s not like Elven.”
“They are rear echelon auxiliaries,” Stiger said, hoping the elf caught his meaning so that he did not have to explain further.
“There are auxiliaries and then there are auxiliaries,” Eli said.
A crack from the tower signaled another bolt loosed. Stiger followed the deadly missile’s flight as it shot toward the same target. It impacted the ground around ten feet away. The crew reloading their machine paused only briefly before returning to their work.
The bolt thrower was a relatively accurate machine. However, like the catapult, the crew operating it did not appear terribly skilled either. Stiger considered sending his men up to take charge, but disregarded the idea. He would step on Tride’s toes if he did so. Besides, with so few machines in operation, the artillery duel would have little impact on the overall assault other than a psychological one. Sending his men up to the tower would put them at risk, and right now they were safe. Not only that, it would violate his orders from the prefect. Stiger’s men were the reserve. They would be needed when the enemy tested the walls.
Another ball sailed overhead, whistling. It passed through the roof of one of the barracks with a tremendous crash, partially bringing the roof down and nearly demolishing the entire building. A heartbeat later, a ball smacked loudly into the fort’s wall off to the right. Crouching behind the barricade and peeking over the top, Stiger had to admit that he did not much enjoy being on the receiving end with not much to do other than spectate.
Prefect Merritt visited the wall, making a point to speak to his men as he worked his way along its length. Like Stiger, the auxiliaries huddled for cover. They had placed their shields against the lip of the barricade in the hopes that, should it be pierced, they would have some limited protection.
At one point, Stiger even saw the tribune come out to look from the wall before returning to his quarters. Since he had been relieved of command, Declin had remained out of sight. Whether by design or from shame was debatable.
“Looks like they are finally getting ready to make an assault,” Merritt said, coming over. He had brought Tride, Teevus, and Hollux with him. Merritt stood in plain view of the enemy, even turned his back as a ball whistled close by. Stiger ducked with the other officers, seeking the shelter of the barricade. Merritt was the only one who refused cover, even seemed to disdain it.
“Gentlemen,” Merritt said, “do try to set an example. Stooping behind the barricade every time a ball sails in doesn’t exactly inspire courage or confidence, now, does it? If it has your name on it, there’s nothing you can do. So, I ask you, why hide? It is not like those infernal machines are terribly accurate, especially from this distance. The men should see you standing tall and unafraid.”
A little shamefaced, Stiger and the other officers stood, fully exposing themselves to the enemy’s fire. Stiger looked across the field. Formations of men had been marching from the camp for some time, moving around the fort. Stiger had counted six enemy companies moving into jump-off positions. A large number of covered wagons had followed behind each company.
“I fear they mean to assault our walls, even as they go after the gate,” Merritt said, eyes sweeping the enemy formations that were preparing to attack. “Hollux, I want your bowmen over the gate. They are bound to make a go for it. No matter how successful they are, that mound of dirt piled up behind the gate will keep them from getting through. We might as well bleed them as best we can. See that you do so.”
“Yes, sir,” Hollux said.
“Tride,” Merritt said. “I will take the north side and the west. I want you on the other two sides. Take Teevus here with you. Keep an eye out for trouble. Send for reserves should you need them.”
“Yes, sir,” Tride said.
“Stiger.” Merritt turned to him.
“You are our reserve. Tride and I will send for reinforcement should we need it. However, I expect you to look for trouble and dispatch men as you see fit. Take the initiative, son.”
Stiger nodded his understanding.
“With the exception of the gate,” Merritt said, “should the other sides of the fort come under direct assault, we shall conserve our short spears. Use as few as possible in ranged attacks. It is the enemy’s second and possibly third attempt at forcing the walls that will prove most serious. Understand me?”
There were nods all around.
“Gentlemen,” Merritt said, “we have to hold the wall. There is nothing more important. The Third should be here at the earliest this evening. I expect you to set an example for your men to follow. Show them why we are their betters and why we lead. Are there any questions?”
There were none.
“See to your duty, then,” Merritt said stiffly.
The officers broke up. Instead of returning to his men, Stiger elected to remain at the wall to watch. Standing in full view of the enemy, he did his best to keep from cringing every time a ball came whistling in. Just to be safe, he made a point of watching for them as they were launched and sailed through the air. Even so, he moved about frequently to keep from being targeted. He noticed the eyes of fearful auxiliaries who were crouching down behind the barricade track him as he moved by.
After a time, Eli left their original spot and joined him. The elf was carrying a short bow, with a quiver full of arrows slung over his left shoulder. Stiger offered a nod as another ball whistled in. It impacted the wall a few feet to his left, and he felt the vibration through his boots.
“Have you been through this before?” Stiger asked Eli.
“Trapped in a fort, hopelessly outnumbered, and surrounded by an enemy army with no relief in sight?”
Stiger gave another nod.
“I have seen much over the years,” Eli said, “but this is a first for me. It will be something to tell tales about, eh?”
“I wish we could silence that artillery,” Stiger said with some frustration.
“What do you have in mind?” Eli glanced out into the field.
Stiger had not expected the question. He felt his brows draw together as he gazed out over the machines. It was an interesting question, but one he thought academic. With the enemy massing around the fort and preparing for a direct assault, there would be no way to get at the enemy’s artillery. Any attempt would be spotted the moment they left the fort. Besides, any assault force would have to cross the two bridgeless trenches. By the time a team could clear both, the enemy would easily be able to counter such a move, and with superior numbers to boot.
Stiger pursed his lips. He could not see anything that could be done. He glanced over at Eli once more and chewed his lip as a thought occurred to him. He turned back to the artillery and almost chuckled. Eli, sensing his mood change, gave him a curious look.
“A few days ago,” Stiger explained, “my company assaulted an enemy encampment in the Cora’Tol Valley. During the attack, the fields of wheat around the encampment caught fire.” Stiger gestured out into the field. “Those machines out there are sitting smack in the middle of a wheat field. If we could somehow set the wheat afire, the enemy would be compelled to either abandon or withdraw their machines.”
“What an excellent idea!” Eli reached up and pulled an arrow from his quiver. The long shaft was bright green. The feathers on the end were brown and from a bird Stiger was unfamiliar with. Where there should have been a sharpened point, he saw only a rounded tip that was surprisingly thicker than the rest of the arrow.
Before Stiger could question the elf’s intentions, Eli’s hand brushed the end. The tip of the arrow exploded into flame, which hissed and smoked menacingly. Astonished, Stiger simply stood and watched as the elf calmly nocked his bow. Eli drew the string taut, as if he had not a concern in the world, and then released.
Trailing a line of bluish-gray smoke, the arrow arced up high into the air and landed several feet from the nearest machine. Having followed the missile’s path, Stiger almost missed Eli firing a second arrow and then a third in rapid succession. Each time the elf simply touched the end of each arrow. Obligingly they burst into flames. Eli shot a fourth missile before lowering his bow and making a show of admiring his work.
Out in the field, where Eli’s arrows had landed amidst the wheat, thick smoke rapidly billowed upward. A few heartbeats later, flames could be seen licking their way amongst the wheat as the fire hungrily spread.
“How did you manage that?” Stiger asked, nearly agog.
“Magic,” Eli said with a closed-mouth grin. “High Born magic.”
“Really?” Stiger had seen small trinkets and lanterns that were true magic. Curiosities more than anything else, these were generally owned by the wealthy as mere status symbols with little use. Stiger had never seen actual magic in use for a practical purpose. Wizards, being the only ones capable of making magical items, were few and cared little for mortal affairs.
“I’ll never tell.” Eli winked.
“Can you shoot more like that?” Stiger asked.
“Sadly, those were the only special arrows like them that I have,” Eli admitted with a slight shrug. “Truthfully, I’ve been saving them. It seemed like a good time to see how well they worked.”
Wondering why the artillery barrage had ceased, someone along the wall glanced outward, and shouted the word “fire.” Auxiliaries who had been sheltering behind the barricade popped their heads up over the wall for a look.
Great clouds of smoke were rising upward from around the enemy’s artillery. The flames were rapidly spreading. The crews of three of the machines ran for cover, almost as if the flames were chasing them. The crew of the fourth machine worked desperately as they prepared to tow it out of danger. A team of horses was run up and men set about hitching it up, even as flames started hungrily on the other end of the machine. Stiger wondered if they would be successful at saving it as they pulled away, part of the catapult on fire.
He swept his gaze beyond the artillery. Unfortunately, the fields that bordered the fort had been devoted to other crops and appeared to have already been harvested. There was little chance they would burn. They’d been lucky the enemy had set up their artillery amongst the wheat.
“Did you do that?” Merritt had come up. He was looking to Eli for confirmation.
“It was his idea,” Eli said, pointing at Stiger. “You can blame him. I only executed his plan.”
“Good show,” Merritt said, patting the elf on the shoulder as he looked out at the burning machines. “I should’ve thought of that myself.”
A horn from the enemy sounded, one long steady note that seemed to go on and on before finally falling silent.
“Here they come,” came a shout from off to the right.
A large mass of men was moving forward toward the first trench. From the wagons they pulled large bundles of sticks, which they hauled forward and then threw into the trench to act as a makeshift bridge. Others laid planks across. Similar bridges were being built at several points along the trench. In a shockingly short time, the first trench was bridged in several places. The shouts of alarm coming from the other side of the fort told Stiger that a similar thing was happening there too.
Those creating makeshift bridges moved on to the second trench.
“Had we more bowmen,” Merritt said, “I would make that a very costly endeavor.”
Three heavy infantry companies were arranged neatly in long blocks, their standards fluttering in the breeze. They waited for the work to be completed, having lined themselves up behind the budding makeshift bridges. A shout came from the other side of the fort, calling for the prefect.
“I best go see to that,” Merritt said. “Stiger, I believe it’s time for you to get with your men. I am sure you will be called upon soon enough to reinforce the walls.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. “Um, a question, sir.”
“I am curious, sir,” Stiger said, a thought occurring to him. He realized that he was more than a little curious now that he got around to asking it. “If I die here, I’d like to know, why is this place called Fort Covenant?”
“Stiger, I’ve been here ten years,” Merritt said. “In all that time, no one has been able to tell me beyond the fact this fort was built over the remains of an older one of the same name. If you ever find out, I’d like to know too.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said.
Merritt left them, running down the slope of the rampart and making his way across the parade ground to the other side of the fort.
Stiger turned his gaze out into the burning field. The flames had thoroughly overtaken one machine and it burned fiercely. Two others were on fire. The fourth had been pulled to safety. It was still on fire, but men were busily shoveling dirt onto the flames. Stiger glanced over at Eli. “What are those magic arrows of yours called?”
“I don’t think there is an exact translation in the Common Tongue. However, it comes close to roughly ‘burning glory’.”
“That’s fitting,” Stiger said. He took one last look out at the field before he started working his way down into the fort. Stiger sensed Eli following. With the threat of the enemy artillery removed, the auxiliaries stood boldly in view, grimly prepared to receive the coming assault. It was a little thing, but at the same time, Stiger understood that Eli’s work with his bow was for the defenders was a big thing.
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