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 Interlude
By Marc Alan Edelheit
“Down,” Tiro hissed and shoved Stiger roughly into the dirt.
Lying prone amidst the brush growing alongside the road, Stiger froze. He waited a moment but heard nothing. He turned his head to Tiro, an eyebrow raised. Tiro held up a hand and showed five fingers twice, pointed two at his eyes and then in the direction they had just come.
Stiger nodded his understanding. There were at least ten men coming up from behind them.
Stiger glanced at Bren to Tiro’s left, also prone. The scout slowly pulled out his short sword, never taking his eyes from the road. Stiger took the hint and drew steel as well. He then looked over at Tiro, whose attention was also directed onto the road, mere feet away. Stiger scanned what he could of the road but saw nothing. He strained his ears, listening.
Birds happily chirped away. Hunting for a good meal, a woodpecker hammered in spirited bouts at a tree somewhere off in the distance. Stiger heard nothing out of the ordinary, then—
It was an unmistakable sound. Stiger had heard it many times before, the tread of many sandaled feet. A file of soldiers appeared, marching in the direction of Cora’Tol, all wearing the blue cloaks of the Rivan.
The enemy were heavy infantry, uniformly armed and armored with chainmail shirts, small round shields, and short swords. Unlike Mal’Zeelan legionaries, the enemy wore long gray, woolen tunics under their armor that extended down to their calves. In the heat, Stiger wondered how they managed to stay cool. Instead of being worn, helmets hung from their necks by ties. It was easier on the neck that way. Stiger, like Tiro and Bren, had left his back with the rest of the company. Infantry helmets tended to be a pain in the neck.
The enemy file had prisoners. Four Mal’Zeelan auxiliaries, light infantry from the looks of it. All were likely from the garrison. Heads hanging, eyes on the ground, hands bound securely behind their backs, they plodded along miserably with their captors. All four looked like they had been given some rough treatment.
Stiger held himself still until the enemy file had passed them by. Even then, he waited to make sure they were out of earshot. He pulled himself slowly up to his knees, scanning the road in both directions to look for any hint of movement. Tiro and Bren did the same. Stiger stood and brushed the dirt from his face, chest, legs, and finally his hands.
“That was close,” Tiro said in a near whisper.
“Too close.” Stiger glanced up at the darkening sky. In another hour it would be dusk. “Bren, how far to Cora’Tol?”
“Less than a mile, sir,” the scout replied. “Just over that little ridge, the other side of which is a valley. The garrison’s fort is set in the valley, next to the town.”
“And they’ve burned both?” Stiger could smell the faint trace of smoke on the air.
“Yes,” Bren confirmed. “Perhaps the day before last.”
“Are you certain you want to continue, sir?” Tiro asked.
“Yes,” Stiger said. “I need to see it.”
“Why, sir?” Tiro looked like he thought this a bad idea. “Cora’Tol is gone. There’s no longer any point in continuing our mission.”
“I can’t return without having laid eyes on our objective,” Stiger explained. “The general will want a detailed report, and he is likely to question me closely.”
“Let’s keep off the road then,” Tiro suggested after a moment’s hesitation. “That’s the second group we’ve nearly blundered into.”
“Agreed.” Stiger turned to Bren, sheathing his sword. “Lead the way.”
“Yes, sir,” Bren said and set off. The scout quickly led them deeper into the forest and farther away from the road. Stiger was impressed with Bren’s ability to move near-silently through the trees. Every so often the scout stopped to listen. When he did this, Stiger did his best to not make any noise.
Within twenty minutes Stiger found himself prone again, this time peering through the brush down into the valley. Tiro was to his left and Bren his right.
“Well,” Tiro said with a heavy breath. “The garrison is most definitely gone. Can we go now?”
Stiger said nothing as he studied the valley. He was sure it had once had a peaceful look to it, with a large town near the center. A stream meandered its way past. Neatly cultivated farm fields spread outward from the town, which was now nothing more than a smoldering wreck. Only the charred stumps of timber and stone foundations remained. Just beyond the town was the fort. Oddly, the wooden-staked palisade still stood, yet the interior of the fort had burned.
“I don’t see any breaches in the fort’s walls,” Stiger said.
“Looks like they just opened the gate and let the enemy in,” Tiro said and pointed.
The gate stood open and seemed to show no evidence of being forced.
“There may be something we can’t see,” Stiger said. “We’re over a half mile away.”
“Could be as you say, sir,” Tiro said. “But I’ve been through more than my fair share of sieges and assaults. There should be more damage if the enemy forced their way in.”
Stiger nodded. Tiro’s experience had served him well so far. He had learned to listen to the old veteran’s advice.
“Look there, a lot of bodies just outside of the town, sir,” Bren said and pointed. “In that field. Some spread out like they was running, others grouped about, probably executed. Townsfolk, I would hazard, sir.”
Stiger looked, following Bren’s finger. He sucked in a breath.
Carrion birds circled the valley above the spot. More were grouped around those who had fallen, feeding hungrily. The sight sickened Stiger. It also angered him, for the large group of bodies seemed clustered too close together to be the remains of the fallen from a fight. They were as Bren said, likely civilians from the town. Either they had been executed there or their bodies had been dragged to that point and left to rot. Stiger leaned toward the former explanation, as it seemed too much effort to drag them, especially if you weren’t going to bury or burn the bodies.
He shifted his gaze beyond the town. A small camp had been erected away from the ruins on the other side. Stiger squinted to see better. He counted tents, twenty-eight in total. A number of mules were tethered to stakes in neat rows next to the camp. There were also two horses, likely officers’ mounts. Stiger counted five sentries slowly walking the boundaries of the camp. Unlike a legionary marching camp, there were no defensive structures, such as a wall. He chewed his lip as an idea occurred to him. He knew Tiro would not like it.
“At least a full company’s tents,” Stiger said.
“Maybe two hundred men minimum,” Tiro said. “But I don’t see many of them down there, unless they are sleeping off the heat of the day, sir.”
“There was an auxiliary cohort stationed here.” Stiger found his anger building. He slapped the ground. “I don’t see how a single company could overwhelm the defenses of the fort. That’s a solid-looking wall.”
“Must have been surprised, sir,” Tiro said. “This valley is well away from the front lines. Command likely stationed a third-rate cohort here. I’ve seen it before. They got lazy, and paid for it.”
“Perhaps.” Stiger tapped his fingers on the ground as he thought it through aloud. “We don’t know exactly how the fort fell. We’ve already crossed paths with at least two files of men, and each was hauling along prisoners. Is it possible the cohort was ambushed and broken outside of the valley? They could be out hunting down survivors.”
“That is a possibility,” Tiro said. “Slaves fetch good money.”
“Well, whatever occurred, the general will not be happy about this,” Stiger said. “We know that there are more Rivan forces in the area. Counting the ones pursuing us, that makes at least two companies of heavy infantry and a contingent of cavalry. Seems an odd force to send so deep into enemy territory for the purposes of raiding.”
“How so?” Tiro looked over at Stiger. “Two companies of heavies and some cavalry is a pretty formidable force, sir.”
“Light infantry would be better suited for this kind of work,” Stiger said. “With the legions up north pursuing the Rivan army, it seems damn odd to send heavy infantry all the way down here just to raid. Besides, it’s kind of out of the way, don’t you think?”
“I think,” Tiro said slowly, “that I don’t like them being here, sir, whether they be heavy or light infantry.”
Stiger chuckled softly.
“We have to get word back that the enemy has sacked Cora’Tol,” Tiro said. “What is the nearest garrison?”
“Cora’Mal,” Stiger said, “twenty or so miles to the east.”
“We should warn them,” Tiro said.
“Our map doesn’t go that far,” Stiger said and rubbed his chin. He did not much like the idea of moving farther away from the legion than they already were. “Traveling through the forest instead of the roads might see us lose our way.”
“We should warn them,” Tiro said again.
“We do that and it takes us farther away from the Third.”
“We need food, sir,” Tiro pressed. “Cora’Mal is the only option.”
“What if Cora’Mal has been sacked as well?” Stiger turned back to studying the enemy camp, the idea growing into a plan of action. It had hit him moments before, but looking over the enemy’s mule train solidified what he wanted to do. “As it is, the company is going nowhere.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“We’re out of food,” Stiger said. “Without it, we can’t travel very far. If we move to Cora’Mal and that garrison is gone too, we will be in real trouble.”
“I am almost afraid to ask.” Tiro’s eyes narrowed. “What do you have in mind, sir?”
“I am thinking,” Stiger expelled a long breath, “that tonight we attack the enemy’s camp.”
“Are you serious, sir?”
“Attack an entire company?” Tiro rolled onto his side to better look at Stiger, an incredulous expression upon his face. “Whatever for?”
Stiger returned the sergeant’s look. “We’re out of food, and they have it. I intend to take what we need, including all those fine mules. Maybe even the horses, if we can.” Stiger grinned at Tiro. “There is good money in that, too.”
Tiro blinked, but said nothing.
“Do you see any defenses down there, or patrols for that matter?”
Tiro turned and scanned the valley.
“No,” Tiro said after a moment. “I only see their camp sentries. Bren, do you see anything out of the ordinary?”
“No, sergeant,” Bren said. “I do not.”
“Looks like they’ve gotten lazy,” Tiro said. “Must be thinking they eliminated any threat for miles around. It is possible they’ve not yet gotten word from the company pursuing us that we’re around.”
“We’ve run into two files of men outside the valley,” Stiger said. “Each file had taken prisoners. There may be more ranging farther afield. It could mean the company down there might be a few files light when we strike.”
“I guess that is possible,” Tiro said grudgingly. “I think we might be able to do it. That is, if we can silence those sentries without too much fuss first and catch the rest sleeping. Varus, Bren, Aronus, and I have some experience handling such things, sir.”
Tiro drew a slow finger across his throat to underscore the point.
“Later, when it is good and dark, we bring up the entire company, sneak up on their camp, silence their sentries, and attack. With luck, we will have the element of surprise on our side.”
“What about the other Rivan forces in the area?” Tiro squinted as he returned to studying the enemy camp. “I would not want to be caught in the valley come dawn to find enemy reinforcements arriving or that company that’s been snapping at our heels showing up.”
“We make tracks well before dawn then,” Stiger said. “We move south and then dogleg it back west toward the Third.”
“What about getting word to Cora’Mal?”
“I am hesitant to take the entire company that way,” Stiger said. “Better that we return and report. We can send one of our scouts.”
Tiro scratched an itch on his neck, clearly considering Stiger’s proposal.
“This could all go horribly wrong.”
“Yes, it could,” Stiger conceded, “but if we are to go anywhere, we need their food. It’s well over a hundred and fifty miles back to the Third.”
“I can’t believe I am actually considering this madness, with only eighty-two men.” Tiro shook his head. “Are you set on this path, sir? We could always try to forage.”
“We are being pursued,” Stiger said flatly. “We may not be allowed time to forage properly. Besides, I kind of like the idea of the enemy doing us the courtesy of feeding us.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
Stiger looked over at the scout, who had been intently studying the enemy’s camp.
“Go ahead,” Stiger said.
“Looks like there are some men under guard down there, about a dozen.” Bren pointed off to the side of the enemy camp.
Stiger had missed it, as they were on the other side of a large white tent and easily overlooked. He could see two guards standing around a small group that was sitting upon the ground.
“Well, that settles it then. We attack,” Stiger said. “I’d not want to leave our boys in their hands, even if they are only auxiliaries.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tiro.
“All right, let’s get back to the men. We have a lot to do.”
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