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
“How goes it up there, sir?” Tiro asked as Stiger made his way around the keep to where his men were sheltering from the artillery. “We’ve not heard any shot come in for a good bit.”
“Eli’s work, I’m afraid,” Stiger said. “Three of the four machines are out of action and the fourth is burning, thanks to his magic fire arrows.”
“Magic?” Tiro asked of Eli. “I’ve never seen you do magic before?”
“I thought you said how I moved through the forest was ‘a magic unto itself’?”
Tiro grinned at Eli. “You never tire of patting yourself on the back, do you?”
“I don’t see anyone else rushing to do it,” Eli said.
“Well,” Stiger said, “there is no reason to keep the men sheltering here. Let’s move back to the parade ground.”
“Aye, sir.” Tiro saw to it that the company was moved out into the center of the parade ground. Once there, Stiger allowed the men to sit, relax, and rest.
“Tiro,” Stiger said with a glance around at his men. They were tense, grim even, though there was some talking and light banter. It was clear they knew the stakes of what was to come. He could well imagine that several of his men had upturned stomachs, a result of nerves rather than the normal culprit—undercooked food. Many had likely skipped the morning meal for fear of embarrassing themselves with the runs or upchucking. “The men are to eat and drink. There is no telling when they may get the opportunity once the action starts.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. “Best to have something in the belly to keep ‘em going.”
Stiger saw Varus emerge from a barracks building, the woman from the farm at his side helping him walk. His head was wrapped in a gray dressing and he appeared more than a little unsteady. It was clear that he had not yet fully recovered. The corporal wore his armor and carried his shield. It heartened Stiger to see him on his feet. He held an auxiliary helmet that he had obviously requisitioned under his free arm.
“Reporting for duty, sir,” Varus said, shooing Della away and attempting to stand on his own. He wavered precariously.
“You are not fit for duty,” Stiger informed him, with a glance over at Tiro. The old sergeant nodded his agreement.
“Sir,” Varus said, “I can fight.”
“Varus.” Tiro lowered his voice. “You’d be more a danger to yourself than to the enemy.”
“Please, sir,” Varus said quietly so that the men could not hear. “Shortly, you will need every man. We all know this. I can’t sit this out. Don’t ask me to do that.”
“I’m not asking,” Stiger said, hardening his voice, though he wanted nothing more than to give in to the man who had almost been killed as a result of his orders. “You will stand down, Corporal.”
“Varus, I have no doubts on your capabilities as a fighter. When you’re fit, you may return to duty, not before,” Stiger said. “I have made my decision and that is the end of it.”
Varus’s shoulders slumped, and the movement almost made him topple over. Della stepped in close, supporting him.
“Make your way over to the keep and remain there,” Stiger said. “The prefect has designated it as a hospital. Since you can’t fight, perhaps you can at least help by caring for those who need it.” Stiger softened his tone. “Can you do that for me? Some of our boys will end up there soon enough. Knowing that you’re looking out for them will be a comfort.”
“Aye, sir.” Varus sounded a little better, but still disappointed. “I don’t like it much, but I will do what I can.”
“Very good,” Stiger said. “I will check in on you later.”
With Della’s assistance, he hobbled off toward keep.
Stiger’s men were busy pretending they hadn’t witnessed the scene when their officer glanced around. Tiro stepped nearer.
“It was the right proper thing to do, sir,” Tiro said, voice a little gruffer than normal. “And I appreciate you sending him off. He is the best friend I have. Varus would end up dead if he took his place in the line, sir.”
Stiger nodded, feeling terrible about denying Varus the opportunity to stand with the rest of the men and do his duty. But as Tiro had just affirmed, it had been the correct thing to do.
A muffled massed shout from the other side of gate went up. Stiger turned. He could see Hollux’s bowmen gathered on the platform above and to either side of the gate. Hollux was pacing slowly behind his men, calling out encouragements as they leaned forward and repeatedly shot down over the wall at the enemy on the other side.
There was a wall of freshly shoveled dirt behind the gate, which covered the only entrance into the fort completely. It was several feet thick.
“Won’t do them bastards no good,” Tiro said in amusement. “That’s one large mound.”
There was a deep thump. The earth behind the gate vibrated from the force of the blow of a battering ram. Muffled screams and shouts could be heard from the other side of the wall as the enemy struggled to overcome the gate, while Hollux’s bowmen rained death down from above.
An auxiliary atop the wall tilted a large smoking caldron over the side. From the bluish smoke, Stiger knew that the man was pouring heated oil onto the enemy. Another threw boiling water, while a third shoveled dirt that had been cooked over a fire. These were all horrific weapons that were designed to inflict terrible burns. Out of all of them, oil was possibly the wickedest of the bunch. Like water, it would run down and under a man’s armor. Unlike water, it would eat away any skin it touched and was nearly impossible to get off.
Stiger fairly itched to go up and lend his support. But he had his orders, and Hollux appeared to have everything in hand. So he stayed with his men and waited, albeit a little impatiently.
“Sir,” Tiro said, “might I make a suggestion?”
Stiger looked up at Tiro and raised his eyebrows expectantly. The sergeant cocked his head to one angle and stared at him meaningfully. Stiger realized he had been pacing, which was not good. The last thing he desired was to unsettle the men.
“Well, sir,” Tiro said after a long moment, “standing here on the parade ground, we can see the northern wall well enough, a bit of the eastern, and very little of the western. Those buildings block almost all of the southern wall.”
“The roof of the keep will allow you to see in all directions, sir,” Tiro said and gestured at the building. “I think you might wish to consider going up there.”
The keep, only a few yards away, towered over all the other buildings. Crenulated battlements topped its roof. He itched to go up there and see what was going on, but at the same time, he felt the need to be on the ground with his men. He was torn.
“Sir.” Tiro lowered his voice so that only the two of them could hear. “There are times when officers must lead and other times when they must fight. Right now, it’s time to provide direction, and you won’t be able to do that without knowing what’s going on.”
“All right,” Stiger said. Tiro had made his point. “Let’s move the men over to the keep again. I’ll go up to the roof and holler down where reinforcements need to go. That sound good?”
“It does, sir,” Tiro said, sounding extremely pleased. “It does indeed.”
Stiger made his way over to the keep. The main door, heavily reinforced with metal supports, was open. Inside he found the surgeon with an assistant setting up shop in a large centralized room, the space that had been set aside for the fort’s administrative work. There were a few closed doors off to the sides that led to what Stiger assumed were offices.
The surgeon had cleared off a table, upon which a number of wicked-looking surgical instruments lay. Several crates filled with bandages and dressings were by the table’s side, as were a number of stopped jars, likely vinegar for cleaning out wounds. The surgeon and his assistant were in the process of moving a second stout table next to the first. Both men barely spared Stiger any notice as he made his way past them.
Stiger almost stumbled over Varus, who was sitting on the stairs that led upward to the second floor and looking quite miserable. Della sat on the step above and was leaning her head against his. He made to get up, but Stiger waved him down and moved around the corporal and up the stairs.
Passing the second and third floors, Stiger followed the stairs all the way up to the top, where he came upon a trapdoor that lay open. Eli was already up there, having slipped away unnoticed some time before. He spared Stiger a glance before turning back to watching to the action to the north.
The view from the top of the keep was impressive. Not unsurprisingly, Stiger found he could see in all directions. It was, however, more than a little shocking to see the enemy arrayed around the fort in orderly blocks, two blocks for each side, with the exception of the north side where the enemy had lined up three. Stiger figured each block represented a single company of heavy infantry. The trenches directly to the front of each company had been filled in with bundles of sticks or bridged by a series of planks. These makeshift crossings should have been critical choke points or avenues of death for the assaulting companies. Instead, the enemy would cross all unopposed. The imperial fort was short on defenders and the tools with which to make such crossings hazardous.
The only action was around the gatehouse. Stiger moved to the north side, next to Eli. He gripped the top of the battlement, feeling the coarse wood on the palm of his hands. Hollux’s bowmen fired missile after missile down into the enemy out of sight. Hot oil was repeatedly poured over, as was the boiling water and cooked sand. Stiger could only imagine the horror being wreaked upon those attempting to force the gate.
An enemy horn sounded to the east, cutting over the noise of the fighting. Stiger moved over to that side to see what was going on. He arrived as a mass shout went up from out in the field. The two enemy companies there broke formation and surged forward and over the bridged trench.
Apparently, traversing the bundles of sticks was trickier than it appeared. Several men lost their footing or were inadvertently knocked by their mates and tumbled over into the trench, where sharpened stakes lay waiting. Most, however, made it across. They brought with them numerous makeshift ladders.
Auxiliaries along the eastern wall raised their shields and prepared to receive the enemy. They wielded a mixture of short spears, swords, and large poles with metal hooks on the end that were designed to push ladders off and away from the wall. Pazzullo moved amongst them, which meant some of Hollux’s light infantry were present. The sergeant’s voice could be heard as he shouted to his men. Over the noise of the fight around the gate, Stiger could not make out the words.
Lieutenant Tride was there too, watching the enemy surge forward. Where the defenders should have been tossing their short spears, there was no ranged fire. The prefect had made his point and the spears were being conserved for later action.
Stiger’s eyes followed the enemy as they began to cross the second trench. Then the lead elements disappeared from view, shielded by the wall. Another horn sounded to the west, then to the south. Stiger felt his gut clench. He resisted at first the urge to look in any other direction, as he wanted to see how it played out initially on the eastern wall.
It wasn’t long before Stiger saw the tops of the first ladders land against the barricade. Auxiliaries struggled desperately to push ladders back, while others dropped large stones over the side on those below. Men armed with short spears sparingly threw them down at the enemy attempting to climb the ladders.
Stiger could hear shouts and screams. It was a loud and confused jumble of noise.
Having successfully scaled his ladder, the first enemy came into view at the top of the wall. The Rivan soldier made to climb over the barricade. He was immediately set upon and stabbed by an auxiliary. He fell backwards and out of sight. Another immediately took his place.
Stiger tore his gaze from the east to look to the western wall and then southern. He saw a similar scene there, with men struggling to keep the enemy from coming over the top. For a time, Stiger felt like his head was on a swivel as he scanned in each direction, waiting for the moment when the enemy would get over the wall and he would need to commit some of his reserve. He was surprised that it hadn’t happened yet. The auxiliaries were holding.
Sucking in a breath, Stiger looked far to the south, squinting in the hope of seeing the first elements of the Third entering the valley. He let the breath out. All he saw was a thick column of enemy cavalry riding south and an infantry company following. Stiger wondered if it was Golves’s company.
“It’s nerve-racking, isn’t it?”
Eli had come up next to him. Stiger looked over at the elf. Was he so transparent? Had the elf seen it so plainly?
“I should be down there,” Stiger said, gesturing at the wall to the east. “Not up here.”
“Our time to fight and possibly die shall come soon enough,” Eli said. “However, our place for the moment is here.”
Stiger looked at the elf. He held the other’s timeless gaze as he weighed the words. It irritated him that Eli was right.
“Your duty lies here. When it comes time for you to be on the wall fighting alongside your brothers, you will know.”
Stiger gave a curt nod. Though he did not have to enjoy it, his duty was to watch and wait, for surely, as the elf said, his time would come. Stiger turned back to watching the walls and saw the first auxiliary fall. An enemy at the top of the ladder had stabbed out with a sword, striking him in the leg. The injured man lost his footing and rolled back down the rampart to the bottom, where he writhed in pain as his life blood poured out, staining the grass and dirt.
Another auxiliary took his place, jabbing a short spear at the enemy and taking him in the neck. The Rivan soldier clung to the ladder in a death grip. The auxiliary stabbed him again, this time in the face, and pushed hard. The force of the strike was so strong that it shoved both the man and the ladder backwards and off the wall, where they crashed out of sight.
The defenders were being pressed hard. Stiger estimated that at least twenty ladders had been thrown up along the eastern wall alone, the tops of which poked over the top of the barricade.
An enemy finally managed to climb over the barricade. He drew his sword and was immediately rushed by three auxiliaries, one of which had a short spear. The Rivan soldier slashed his sword in wide arcs in an attempt to ward them off. Desperate, he even managed to bat aside the spear, but a sword jabbed into his side. Stiger could hear his agonized scream as another sword stabbed him in the thigh. He finally went down when the spear pierced clean through his neck. While he was being cut down, another Rivan soldier had scaled the top, pulled his sword, and jabbed the auxiliary with the spear hard in the side.
Stiger had seen enough. He leaned over the building and looked down at Tiro.
“Tiro,” Stiger hollered. The sergeant looked up. “Fifteen men to the eastern wall. The enemy has made it over the top. They are to plug the breach and then render what assistance they can.”
“Fifteen men to the eastern wall, is that correct, sir?”
Stiger returned his attention to the east. Several of the Rivan had made it over at that point, but nowhere else. The auxiliaries desperately fought to contain the breach, Lieutenant Tride amongst them. Stiger’s men, with shields held to the front, red cloaks brilliant under the morning sunlight, formed a line and began working their way up the rampart towards the enemy.
Satisfied that his men would be enough to seal the breach, Stiger turned his gaze to the south and saw that the auxiliaries there were holding. To the west was a similar scene, with Merritt personally directing the defenses. The northern wall was holding as well. Could he dare hope that they would withstand this assault?
Motion out of the corner of his vision drew his gaze. Eli, who was facing the eastern side, had removed his bow from his back and nocked an arrow. In the blink of an eye, he let fly. Stiger saw the arrow neatly strike an enemy on top of the ladder. The man had been about to clamber over at a spot to the left of where Stiger’s men had pushed forward. The arrow took the man right through the throat. He fell backward into space. Another appeared almost instantly. Eli loosed again, striking this man as well. Clinging to the ladder with an arrow sticking out of his chest, he was pulled back and off the ladder by the next man coming up beneath him. This man made to clamber over, but another bolt from Eli hammered him as well. With a bloodcurdling scream, he dropped from sight. Eli struck the next man, and the next after that.
Stiger had heard of elven skill, but had never truly believed it until now.
“Send more men to the eastern wall,” Eli said tersely as he loosed another arrow. This one was aimed at a different spot, where several of the enemy had made it over.
Stiger called down to Tiro. The sergeant sent another twenty men on their way.
Stiger returned to studying the situation. The fifteen men he had first dispatched had made their way up the rampart, and sealed the original breach. They had thrown the ladder back off the wall. These men then began moving along the wall, assisting the auxiliaries who were hard-pressed.
Eli lowered his bow, dispassionately scanning the action. He had perhaps three arrows left in his quiver. Stiger saw his additional reinforcements moving at the double, making their way up to the rampart, further reinforcing the beleaguered auxiliaries. It seemed to make the difference as his men spread along the wall. Satisfied that the eastern side was under control, Stiger turned his attention to elsewhere, sweeping each side of the fort for trouble.
Lieutenant Tride had moved on to the south and was battling bravely alongside his men, helping to force ladders back off the wall. Teevus was there too. Stiger saw the lieutenant from Fort Ida block a blow with his shield before using it to hammer the enemy in the face and knock him off his ladder.
It was an awful struggle, and ugly to watch. The fight seemed to go on and on without letup.
Abruptly, an enemy horn blew a series of blasts. It was repeated and taken up by other horns, each one sounding the same call. The din of the fighting along the walls slackened and then ceased altogether.
The enemy began drawing away from the walls of the fort, streaming back toward their jumping-off points. Many of the defenders cheered at their apparent success, while others slumped to the ground in exhaustion. The wounded who were capable dragged themselves down the rampart or walked toward the keep. It was a pitiful sight.
“Tiro,” Stiger called down, “help with the wounded and get them to the surgeon.”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro called back up and set about dispersing the remainder of the company.
Stiger turned back to studying the enemy that surrounded the fort. By his estimation, nine companies had partaken in the assault. He did the math in his head and thought it amounted to no more than eighteen hundred men. As he looked upon the enemy’s camp, he knew without a doubt they had greater than twenty thousand out there. By counting standards, Stiger was able to determine that twelve fresh companies had moved out of the encampment, marching in neat formations as they worked their way around the fort.
With a sinking feeling, he understood the first assault had only been probing in nature. The second assault was meant to swamp the walls, as a wave washing over a child’s sandcastle at the beach.
“They mean to overwhelm us with this next assault,” Stiger said to Eli.
“It looks that way,” Eli said. “Let us hope they don’t bring more ladders.”
“I’m going to find the prefect,” Stiger said and made his way down the stairs. The main level of the keep was already filled with wounded and awash with blood and the cries of the injured. He saw Della and Varus caring for those they could and the surgeon hard at work with his assistant.
Stiger paid them no mind, moving out onto the parade ground. He went in search of the prefect and found him above the gate with Hollux, looking down on the remains of the enemy’s assault. Both men were silent as Stiger came up.
The small area before the gate was filled with bodies. Some had fallen one atop another until they were several deep. The ram was crude and had been made from a single tree trunk. Bodies lay heaped atop it or sprawled next to it. Evidence of the accuracy Hollux’s bowmen was readily apparent. The smell of burned flesh and oil hung heavily on the air. Stiger guessed there were at least one hundred of the enemy, maybe even as many as one hundred fifty, dead, dying, or injured before the gate.
“We murdered them here,” Hollux said woodenly. “I never imagined such slaughter.”
“Sir,” Stiger said to the prefect, who was spattered with blood, mute evidence as to how involved he had been. The prefect turned a hard gaze upon Stiger. “The enemy is moving up at least another twelve companies.”
“You mean they are finally getting serious?” Prefect Merritt asked with a grim chuckle. “That did not take them long.”
Stiger was impressed with the prefect’s demeanor. He had not even flinched when given the bad news. Here was a leader of men, Stiger thought, his respect growing for the older officer.
“This wasn’t serious?” Hollux gestured at the carnage below.
“They only came in with nine companies,” Stiger told him. “Once these fresh companies are in position, I expect we will really be tested.”
“How did the other sides fare?” Merritt asked. “Do you know if Tride made it?”
“The eastern wall was breached,” Stiger said. “I was forced to dispatch men to contain it. The other sides held well enough and the lieutenant seemed to acquit himself quite well, sir.”
Merritt gave a nod to that, then lifted his gaze from the bodies below. He looked out beyond the two defensive trenches. The formations that had just taken part in the assault were busily reorganizing themselves. They were also tending to their injured, at least those who had been fortunate enough to be capable of walking out under their own power. Beyond the companies that were slowly reorganizing, the fresh companies were still in the process of moving into position. He studied them for a protracted time. Stiger said nothing and waited.
“I’d say we have at least an hour, perhaps a little more, until they are in position.” Merritt glanced down at the ram. “I don’t believe they will try the gate again. It is time to redeploy our bowmen to the other walls. Hollux, I would like you to leave five men here and disperse the rest of your shooters around the fort.”
“For this next fight, hold nothing back,” Merritt said. “Send plenty of arrows with them.”
“I will,” Hollux said.
“I am also going to order the remainder of the short spears be dispersed,” Merritt said to Stiger. “It is time we use everything we have.”
“I agree, sir,” Stiger said, though he personally doubted that it would be enough to hold the enemy off. From Hollux’s look, he understood the gravity of their position as well.
“Sir,” Hollux said, “if you will excuse me, I will see to the disposition of my men.”
Merritt nodded and Hollux left them.
“I saw you on top of the keep,” the prefect said. “It is a good position. I want you up there again. Dispatch men where you feel the need, and then, when all of the reserves are committed, join the fight yourself.”
“Yes, sir.” He began to step away.
“Stiger.” Prefect Merritt stopped him. “Though I served on the other side during the civil war, it is an honor to fight with you, as I once fought with your father.”
“Thank you, sir,” Stiger said, with mixed feelings at the prefect’s sentiments. “I’m honored to fight alongside you as well.”
“Take care, son,” Merritt said.
With that, Stiger stepped away to find Tiro and his men, determined to do his duty to the end.
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