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
Stiger took a knee so that the veritable sea of wheat came to shoulder level. Only his head showed. It was nearing midnight and the quarter moon was almost directly overhead. It provided barely enough light to see the three men before him. The men had also taken a knee. In the darkness, their faces looked serious, grim even. Directly behind them, forty legionaries waited. To avoid being prematurely discovered, they were lying prone, the wheat field concealing their presence from the enemy camp barely forty yards distant.
“Just as soon as Corporal Varus returns,” Stiger said in a near whisper, half turning and pointing, “you three are to head for that watch fire there, the closest one. Light as many tents as possible. The weatherproofing on the canvas should act as an accelerant. Understand me?”
They nodded their understanding.
“We won’t be able to get them all, sir,” Legionary Ajax said in a hushed tone.
“That’s right,” Stiger said. “You won’t be able to light them all, but any you do fire will likely see the men from those tents emerge unarmed and in a confused state. We will be right on your heels. Focus on getting as many as you can before the fighting starts.”
“Yes, sir,” Ajax said. “What happens if we can’t get back to the line?”
“There will be a lot of confusion,” Stiger said, fully understanding their concern. For a short time, they would be on their own. “When Sergeant Tiro with the rest of the company hits from the far side of the camp, the enemy should be reduced to a complete panic. If you can’t make it back to us, stick together and stay alive until we can get to you. It shouldn’t take long.” Stiger paused a heartbeat. “Any further questions?”
Ajax and the other two shook their heads.
Stiger motioned them down and out of view. He lowered himself, just enough that he could still see the enemy camp. Several watch fires lit the darkness, shining a wavering, yellowed light across the white canvas of the communal tents, which had been pitched in neat, ordered rows.
Without the warmth of the sun, the temperature had dropped considerably. It was a sign that fall was just around the corner. As mute evidence to the chill in the air, an enemy sentry with his back to Stiger and the wheat field stood before one of the watch fires that bordered the camp. The man appeared to be warming his hands. It was an unforgivable breach, and had he been a legionary, the punishment would have been quite severe. A sentry’s duty was to keep a lookout, no matter the weather conditions. Attending to one’s own comfort was secondary. As it was, Stiger was glad that discipline was lacking amongst their enemy. It would make Bren, Varus, and Aronus’s job that much easier.
A shadow rose behind the sentry, and in a heartbeat, the two merged into one form. It happened so fast that at first Stiger was not quite sure it occurred. There was a jerking movement, followed by one dragging the other back and out into the darkness, disappearing from view.
The silencing of the enemy’s sentries had begun.
Stiger stood, crouched over, and worked his way to four men who were lying prone just feet away. The men looked up at Stiger’s approach. He took a knee to keep from being spotted.
“It should be soon,” Stiger informed them. “Any questions?”
“No, sir,” Legionary Carata said. “As soon as you order the advance, we make for the mules and move them as fast as we can away from the camp. If the fight becomes contested, we will strike out to the southern end of the valley. There we will wait for the company to catch up.”
“Excellent,” Stiger said, pleased. If the attack failed and he was unable to overwhelm and take the camp, at least they could use the enemy’s mules as walking rations. “See that no matter what happens we get those mules. We’re out of food and I, for one, would rather eat them than go hungry.”
“We will, sir,” Carata said confidently, then cocked his head to one side. “You ever have mule before, sir?”
“No, I can’t say that I have had the pleasure.”
“Don’t rightly know about it being a pleasure, sir,” Carata said. “Tough and stringy, mule is. You might want to remind the boys before they go in, sir. It could motivate them a little.”
“I’ll consider it,” Stiger said, amused.
“Think they might have beef or salt pork over in that camp?” Legionary Barus said.
“I’ve had enough salt pork to last me a lifetime,” Stiger said. “I’m just hoping they have some bacon, beef, and perhaps coffee.”
The four men chuckled as Stiger turned and headed back to the fire party. As he arrived, Varus came hustling back, emerging like a wraith from the darkness. The corporal was wearing only his service tunic. There was a large dark stain on his chest, nearly dead center.
“All set, sir,” Varus said between heavy breaths. “We’ve taken out all of the sentries. Lazy bastards were not even doing their duty proper-like. Bren and Aronus are on their way to alert Sergeant Tiro.”
“Good work.” Stiger clapped the corporal on the shoulder. “Now get your kit on. Follow just as soon as you are able.”
“Yes, sir.” Varus stepped over toward where the assault line was waiting, hidden amongst the wheat, as Stiger turned to the fire party.
“It’s time,” Stiger said. “Good fortune.”
The three men came to their feet. Careful to not make too much sound, they began moving toward the camp. Each carried an unlit, makeshift torch, the end of which was thick with dried grass that had been tightly interwoven.
Stiger watched them for a fraction of a second, then moved back to his assault force and retrieved his shield from where he had left it.
“On your feet,” Stiger called, just loud enough to carry to his men and no farther. As if rising from the dead, the men stood, appearing where moments before nothing had been visible. They quickly dressed themselves upon one another, a task that was more difficult in the near darkness than it sounded. In short order, they were formed up into an assault line two ranks deep.
The swords came out with a mass hiss. Stiger drew steel. He flexed his hand, finding a comfortable grip. Without verbalizing the command, he simply pointed toward the enemy camp and began walking. The two ranks followed. The sound of their footfalls was muffled by the wheat that, nearly ready for harvest, grew thick, tall, and golden brown.
There was an abrupt clatter as two shields banged loudly together. Stiger felt himself frown. He turned to look, seeking out the careless culprits. A dog somewhere in the sacked town to his right began to bark, harsh and loud, drawing Stiger’s attention.
Another dog joined the first. Stiger cursed silently in frustration. Surely the banging of the shields and the dogs would alert someone in the camp. He ground his teeth as the distance steadily closed.
The dogs continued to bark.
Stiger took a deep breath and calmed himself. There was nothing he could do. He was committed now. Thoughts of the plan he had settled on, a two-pronged assault, worried at him. It hinged on achieving surprise. Stiger ran everything through his mind again. He, with half of the company, would attack from one side of the camp, while Tiro, with the other half, would hit from opposite side. They would meet somewhere in the middle. Two fire parties would strike as both assault forces pushed forward. With luck, Stiger hoped it would create a general panic as both prongs went in. Amidst the chaos, Stiger’s picked men would make away with the enemy’s mule train. Should things go poorly, both he and Tiro would break off the attack.
It was so simple, and yet Stiger knew that even the best of plans could go awry. Had he missed anything? He couldn’t see that he had. Everything hinged on catching the enemy by surprise.
Then he heard a loud, discordant sound. It took Stiger a moment to realize it was snoring, coming from the tents ahead. Stiger and his assault force were less than ten feet from the nearest tent. They were so close that, even if someone sounded the alarm, it would be too late for the enemy.
Stiger said a quick prayer to the High Father, asking for the assault to be successful. Before he could finish, fire sprouted from a tent to his left, leaping up into the air with a suddenness that was shocking. Another tent to the right flared into brilliance, weatherproofing oil burning furiously. A third blazed, flames leaping hungrily up into the air, then a fourth, before the screams and cries of alarm began. Men, dressed only in their gray service tunics, began pouring out of the communal tents.
“Chaargge!” Stiger shouted and broke into a run. The assault force behind him gave a great shout, and the sound of pounding feet followed as he ran the last few feet into the camp.
Stiger felt the intense heat of a burning tent as it flashed by, then he was amongst the confused enemy spilling forth from another tent that was nearly fully engulfed. Stiger bashed his shield into a startled man, his momentum knocking the man back and into the burning tent, which collapsed over him. Stiger jabbed outward, stabbing at another who, unarmed, had turned to run. Stiger felt his blade punch deeply into the lower back, sword grating against bone. Screaming, the man fell forward to the ground and off the blade. Stiger stabbed downward, striking his enemy in the back of the neck, ensuring he would stay down.
A fraction of a second later, legionaries were rushing by, mercilessly stabbing and jabbing at the confused enemy. Stiger straightened back up and looked around. It was pure chaos. Tents were burning; men were screaming, yelling, calling out oaths. The sweet, sickly smell of blood was on the air, mingling with smoke and the stench of an open latrine.
The man Stiger had bashed into the burning tent pulled himself to his feet. The man’s tunic was ablaze. Horrified, Stiger watched as he ran screaming into the darkness and out into the field, leaving a trail of burning wheat in his wake.
A massed shout came from the far side of the camp as the other half of the assault went in. The clash of sword on sword dragged Stiger’s attention to his left. A small group of men had emerged from a tent that had escaped the fire. Though not armored, they were armed. These were quickly set upon by Stiger’s legionaries. The group fought desperately. It was an unequal contest, as they were badly outnumbered. Stiger’s men used their shields to deflect as they advanced, steadily pushing the group back deeper into the camp. Stiger stepped over the body of the man he had killed. The ground was slick with blood, and he almost slipped. Edging around to the side of the group of defenders, Stiger closed with the enemy, shield up.
A legionary to his left jabbed out and caught one of the enemy under an arm. It was a shallow strike, but all it took was two inches from a short sword to mortally wound. The man fell back, clutching his armpit. The legionary pressed forward.
Two more of the enemy joined the determined bunch, taking the wounded man’s position and striking back at the legionary. Stiger saw what he took to be a sergeant standing behind the defenders’ line, calling out orders in Rivan or perhaps even attempting to rally the enemy to him. Stiger did not speak their language, but understood that he had to break this group before the enemy’s defense became more organized.
“Push,” Stiger shouted as loud as he could, and the legionaries with him shoved forward.
There was a loud thunk as Stiger’s shield boss was struck a powerful blow. He almost dropped the shield as the pain of the strike was communicated to his arm behind. Stiger’s fingers tingled numbly.
Reaching around his shield, Stiger jabbed forward, his sword sliding into the belly of an enemy soldier, even as his shield was struck again with a solid-sounding thump. It was all he could do to simply hang onto the shield. Yelling incoherently, Stiger bashed his shield forward, throwing his shoulder into it, and felt a solid hit as it connected with a body. Suddenly there was no more resistance, as the man he had hit crashed backwards to the ground. A legionary was on the stunned enemy in a flash, stabbing viciously downward.
“Push!” Stiger shouted. The men with him shoved forward, and under intense pressure, the defenders fell back farther.
Stiger took a step forward, intent upon advancing with his men. He tripped and staggered to a knee, almost falling. Badly off balance, he planted the bottom of his shield in the ground to keep from tumbling forward. By the time he regained his feet, the fight around him was over and the group of defenders broken. The legionaries who had been with him just moments before had pushed forward, leaving their lieutenant behind. Stiger glanced down and saw that he had tripped over a tent’s guide rope.
Chest heaving, Stiger took a moment to stop and check his surroundings. He remembered Tiro’s advice a few weeks before about officers needing to keep their heads. He surveyed the scene around him. The confused fighting had made its way deeper into the enemy’s camp. Figures struggled in the darkness, broken only by the flickering sentry fire or the blazing of a tent. There were bodies seemingly everywhere, all wearing service tunics of the enemy and without armor. Most were still, but some writhed in agony. It was an astonishing sight. Stiger could see none of his legionaries down.
This wasn’t a battle.
It was a slaughter, pure and simple.
For a moment, Stiger felt sympathy for those who had fallen before the blades of the Seventh. Then he remembered the razed town and the civilians’ bodies out in the field, being feasted over by scavengers. His anger returned, and his heart hardened.
Stiger turned to see Varus hustling into the firelight. He was securing his helmet one-handed. Stiger read concern in the corporal’s eyes.
“Are you all right, sir?”
Stiger turned back toward the action and made his way deeper into the camp. The sounds of the fighting and chaos were steadily dying off, though he could still hear some fighting on the other side of the camp. A number of dark forms were running into the darkness, fleeing before the vengeful legionaries.
Toward the center of the camp, the sound of serious fighting erupted. Stiger quickened his pace. As he neared, he saw around fifteen of the enemy struggling against a greater number of legionaries, with more joining the fray every second. All of the enemy were unarmored. An officer, judging by his fine tunic, was directing the efforts of those who stood firm with him. The officer, fighting alongside his men, cut a brave and fearless figure. For a moment, Stiger admired the man’s courage.
There would be no escape for them, Stiger realized. They were nearly surrounded. Shields to the front, Stiger’s legionaries were pressing tightly in on the defenders. Stiger stood back and watched the action. The enemy’s defense was doomed. With each passing moment, their numbers dwindled as they fell to the unrelenting short swords that jabbed out from behind the protection of the shields. Then, under a flurry of strikes, the officer was brutally cut down.
“Hold,” Stiger shouted as the last of the defenders threw down their weapons and raised their hands in surrender. A legionary caught up in the moment plunged his sword deep into the belly of one those attempting to give up. The man gave an agonized scream before falling to the ground. The legionary stabbed downward. The scream abruptly cut off.
“Hold.” Stiger shoved the legionary roughly with his shield to get the man’s attention. “I said bloody hold!”
“Sorry, sir,” the man said and stepped back.
“Corporal Varus,” Stiger called. “Varus, where are you?”
“Here, sir.” The corporal had been following.
“Secure those prisoners,” Stiger ordered. There were four still on their feet. “They may have intelligence. And spread word to accept any further surrenders.”
“Yes, sir.” Varus began shouting orders and several legionaries stepped forward, swords held at the ready, closing in on the prisoners. Another sheathed his sword and began gathering up discarded weapons. Stiger wondered how the fighting on Tiro’s end of the camp was going. The prisoners from the auxiliary cohort were being held there. One of Tiro’s objectives was to free them.
A massed cheer in the direction of the far side of the camp snapped Stiger’s head around. He relaxed. The other prong of the assault had broken the last knot of resistance. A handful of the enemy were running into the darkness, just as fast as they could go. With that, all sounds of resistance ceased.
Stiger looked about him. At least ten tents were burning furiously enough that he could feel their heat from several yards away. The enemy’s camp was in complete shambles, bodies lying everywhere. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The assault from beginning to end had taken less than ten minutes. In the process, thanks to his enemy’s carelessness, he had wrecked an entire company with an inferior force. After days of being hotly pursued, it felt good to strike back. A grin snaked its way onto his face.
The enemy’s camp, including the supplies he badly needed, was his.
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