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 Four

            “The fire is spreading.”  There was a sour note to Tiro’s tone.

            “I know.” Stiger rubbed his chin as he watched the fire in the field slowly spread outward, greedily eating away at the golden-brown wheat. The fire was heating the cool night air, almost uncomfortably so. Nearly a quarter of the field to the west of the camp was burning. Stiger mentally berated himself. If he had only killed that man, instead of letting him dash madly out into the wheat…

Why had he not finished him? 

Stiger knew the answer to that. He had been horrified by what he had done. In a moment of pure shock, he had simply watched as the burning man ran out into the ready-to-harvest wheat.

            “It was your idea to use fire,” Tiro said.

            Stiger glanced over at the sergeant, deeply unhappy. “I don’t recall any objections on your part. In fact, at the time you seemed to think it was a marvelous idea.”

            “With hindsight,” Tiro said heavily, “I wish we hadn’t decided to torch some of the tents.”

            “Retrospection is a bitch,” Stiger said and turned back to his company. The men were hastily loading the mules with whatever supplies they could lay their hands on. They had formed several orderly lines and were handing food bags from one man to the next and up to the mules. There was an urgency to their work that spoke of the growing danger of being caught amidst the growing blaze.

            “Sir,” Varus called, waving a hand to gain Stiger’s attention. The corporal was standing in front of a large tent. “You may want to see this.”

            Curious, Stiger moved to join Varus. Tiro followed. The enemy camp was in shambles, with smoldering and collapsed tents breaking up the neatly ordered lines. Discarded equipment and debris lay everywhere amidst the bodies.

            “What is it?”

            “A map, sir,” Varus said and ducked into the tent. Stiger bent down and followed, with Tiro on his heels.

            The tent clearly belonged to the Rivan captain. It smelled a little musty, but there was also the trace of scented oils on the air. Stiger ran a finger along the fabric of the wall. The tent was made of good material and about a quarter larger than Stiger’s own. An oil lamp hung from the central support pole, shedding its pale yellow light across the interior. A patterned rug covered the ground. Stiger studied it for a moment and judged it inferior to his own. There was no time to bring it with them as a prize, however. Loading of the food was the priority. Stiger worried that they might not even have the time needed to complete that.

He pulled his eyes from the rug and scanned the interior of the tent. There was a camp table, a cot, a small locked chest, and two large trunks. An empty wine bottle lay on the rug next to the cot. He reflected for a moment that the officer who had owned this tent lived not much differently than himself. And yet, the other was now fodder for worms. It was a sobering thought.

            Legionary Asus was bent over a map that had been spread out on the camp table. Besides being the standard-bearer, he was one of the few who could read, and as such, Tiro and Varus regularly tapped him for special duties. Stiger stepped up to him as Varus moved aside.

            “I found this map, sir,” Asus said proudly and took a slight step back for his officer.

            The map was a large one, and clearly a camp scribe copy. It detailed the surrounding terrain for at least a hundred miles around. A series of notes had been made on the map using a charcoal pencil. Stiger could not read the Rivan script, but he could guess at their meaning. He looked over at Asus.

            “Good work at finding this.”

            “Thank you, sir,” Asus said, puffing up at the compliment. He moved aside so that Tiro could come up next to Stiger.

            “This one appears to be Cora’Tol,” Stiger said, pointing at a town and fort that was circled. He shot Tiro a quick glance and pulled out his own map. Stiger laid it next to the one on the table. “See this road and…” Stiger swung his finger over a few inches to the west. “And this river. I think we crossed it two days ago. The one we backtracked along to throw off our pursuers.”

            “I think you are right, sir,” Tiro said, leaning over the table to get a better look. The sergeant traced a charcoal line with his finger. The line ended in an arrow point. Several other towns and the outlines of forts were circled along the line’s path. Tiro looked over at Stiger. “Do you think this is their plan of march?”

            “I do,” Stiger said, meeting the sergeant’s eyes before turning back to the map. “I wish our map covered the area to the south. It would allow us to match up both and be sure of exactly where we are on the enemy’s map.”

            Tiro tapped a finger against his chin. “If this is their line of march—” Tiro traced the line again. “It looks like the enemy is planning to plunge deep into the legion’s rear to strike at our communications. See how it follows this long valley road, paralleling this ridge, before turning west to this north-south road here. I could be wrong, but I believe this may be the one the legion marched north on.” Tiro paused and pointed along the same road where it intersected a river to the west and north of the arrow point. “I think this might be the river crossing we just took, sir. Third Legion’s encampment would be here, just south of the river. The other three legions pushed north over the river, pursuing the Rivan army. There is no telling how far north they’ve gone.”

            Stiger felt an icy sensation run down his spine. He sucked in a deep breath as he considered what Tiro had just said.

            “Don’t you think that’s a little far for a simple raid?” Stiger looked to Tiro and pointed to the arrow on the enemy’s map. The sergeant followed Stiger’s finger back to the map.

            “Heavy infantry and cavalry is no simple raid, sir,” Tiro said, then paled and slowly looked over at Stiger. “What if…?”

            “There are more,” Stiger finished as silence settled inside the tent. Outside, the commotion of loading the mule train continued unabated. Stiger drummed his fingers on the table. He had no direct evidence other than the map, but it appeared to him that the enemy was perhaps coming in strength, diving far to the southeast, well around the imperial army to the west. If he was correctly judging the map, the Rivan intended to eventually turn west and strike far to the rear. Should they prove successful, they would cut off the legions that were even now pushing northward toward the Rivan capital. It was a brilliant move, one that would see the legions’ supply line severed. Why else send heavy infantry so far from the front? It was the only explanation that made any sense to him.

“This could be the advance party of a more substantial force,” Stiger said.

“You may be right, sir,” Tiro said.

Varus spoke up, moving to the other side of the table. “Which could mean that we are in the path of whatever else is coming down the road intending to push south.”

Stiger glanced up at the corporal and chewed his lip.  “How many prisoners did we take?”

“Twelve,” Varus said.

“Do any of them speak common?”

“One that we know of,” Varus said. “He was begging for his life to be spared. The others just jabbered at us. Couldn’t make any sense of it.”

Stiger nodded, thinking rapidly. “How many of our men did we free?”

“Seven auxiliaries,” Tiro said unhappily. “The Rivan had taken more, but they were torturing our boys and then killing them off one at a time when they finished with their fun.”

“Then,” Stiger said slowly, “they were not taking prisoners for slaves?”

“It would seem not.” Tiro cleared his throat. “They must have been looking for information.”

“Right,” Stiger said, turning to Varus. “Question that prisoner and find out what he knows. Also, speak to our boys we freed and see if the enemy let anything slip about what’s marching down the road toward us.”

“Yes, sir,” Varus said. “I will get right on it.”

The corporal ducked out of the tent, moving with a purpose. Stiger rubbed at his tired eyes, feeling a headache coming on.

“What else did you find, Asus?” Tiro asked.

“The company strongbox,” the legionary said, pointing at the small locked chest in a corner. It appeared quite sturdy. Asus handed a key to Tiro. “The officer’s purse is in that trunk, along with personal possessions and—” He lifted a small canvas bag off the floor and handed it over to Tiro, a sour expression on his face, as if he were parting with gold. “I found this, sergeant.”

Tiro took the bag, looked inside, put his nose to it, and breathed in deeply, before letting it out in a pleased breath. After a moment, he whistled. There was a smile on his face as he looked over.

“The good stuff.” Tiro handed the bag to Stiger. “You will want to claim this for yourself, sir.”

“What is it?” Stiger asked, peering in the bag. “Tobacco?”

“The good stuff,” Tiro affirmed again. “Eastern tobacco, nothing finer.”

“I don’t smoke,” Stiger said, wondering why Tiro was making such a big deal out of a bag of tobacco.

“Now, that is a crying shame,” Tiro said seriously, then grinned. “Sir, I promise you on this count. We will fix that oversight later. There is nothing better to help one relax and think over his day than a fine pipe.” The sergeant furrowed his brow and looked to the standard-bearer. “Say…Asus, did you find a pipe?”

“I did, sir,” Asus said and opened the trunk that held personal possessions. He took out a bone pipe and handed it over to Stiger.

Stiger examined the pipe. An elephant was carved into one side and a fearsome-looking boar on the other. He recognized an expensive piece when he saw it. The officer who had owned it, and this tent, had clearly been a man of some means.

“You will want to keep that too, sir,” Tiro said. “Trust me. It’s too fine for the men.”

Stiger set the pipe and bag down on the table. He gathered up the enemy’s map, folded it carefully, and then did the same with his own and placed both in a pocket.

“Sergeant,” Stiger said, “see that the strongbox and purse make it onto the mule train. We will treat it as prize money.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. “The men will like that very much, sir.”

Stiger nodded and glanced around the tent. A large portion of the money would go to the legion, a more modest percentage to Stiger, Tiro, and Varus. The rest would be dispersed to the men’s pensions and reserved for their retirement should they survive long enough to reach it. A small amount would be paid out in cash at the legion’s quarterly salary payment, which in turn would likely be spent as rapidly as possible on wine and women.

“See that the tobacco and pipe are set aside for me,” Stiger said to Asus.

“Yes, sir.”

“We have a mule reserved for your things, sir,” Tiro said. “It will be there later.”

“Good.” Stiger scanned the interior of the tent once more, nodded to himself with satisfaction, and then stepped back out into the night. The fire in the field had spread rapidly in the short time he had spent in the tent. With what he had just learned, Stiger cursed himself yet again. The burning wheat was lighting up much of the valley. He had inadvertently signaled his position, for the glow of the firelight surely reflected off the scattered clouds above. Worse than that, he judged the blaze would soon spread throughout the rest of the valley. He glanced over his newly acquired supply train. The legionaries were working frantically to load the twenty-plus mules they had captured.

There was a bright side however. The fire meant that the ready to harvest wheat would be denied to the enemy. Stiger almost smiled at that comforting thought, almost.

Tiro emerged behind Stiger, looked over the fire, and then spat on the ground. “Wouldn’t you know it, to get back to the Third we need to go west and now the only way open to us is east.”

Stiger closed his eyes in frustration. The sergeant was right. They would have to move east, climb out of the valley, and then make their way south, skirting the valley, before turning northwest. It would take time…which Stiger felt he did not have.

“Nothing about this mission has gone right,” Stiger said with irritation. He reached into a pocket and pulled out his orders. With the garrison destroyed, the orders were now moot. He walked over to the nearest fire and tossed them in. The paper caught, flaring brilliantly before folding in upon itself and blackening, edges curling back slowly.

“Don’t you know yet, sir?” Tiro said, coming up behind him. “Nothing ever goes right for the infantry.”

Stiger glanced over at the sergeant, his frustration warring with amusement.

“Sergeant,” Stiger said, “since I’ve joined Seventh Company, I don’t think much has gone right.”

“Oh,” Tiro said, “I’m not so sure about that, sir. Once you came along, plenty has gone right for the Seventh.”

“Let’s go see the prisoners,” Stiger said, feeling uncomfortable with Tiro’s praise. “I would look upon my enemy.”

They walked over to the prisoners, who were sitting under a heavy guard. Across the camp, bodies lay where they had fallen, requiring Stiger and Tiro to step around and over the dead. The ground was slick and muddy with drying blood. The company would be pulling out shortly and Stiger saw no need to care for the enemy’s fallen.

“How are our casualties coming?”

“I’ve ordered a litter rigged for Legionary Cavius,” Tiro said. “He should survive, if that leg wound of his doesn’t fester. Our other two are walking wounded with minor cuts only. Bren stitched them up. Shame we don’t have a doctor or surgeon’s mate to care for Cavius. I’d feel better about him if we did, sir.”

Stiger nodded as they made their way up to the prisoners, who looked a miserable bunch. They were being kept on the western side of the camp, the burning wheat field only yards away. To attempt to make a dash for it and flee in that direction was certain death. They looked up fearfully as Stiger and Tiro approached, then avoided Stiger’s gaze like he had plague. The guard detail straightened to attention. Stiger waved for them to relax.

“Are they giving you any trouble?” Stiger asked, wrinkling his nose against the stench of smoke, which was stronger on this side of the camp.

“No, sir,” Legionary Carata said. “This bunch don’t speak any common, but they understand pointing and such. Meek as lambs, sir. All fight’s gone out of them.”

“I see,” Stiger said, glancing the prisoners over. He was confident that armed and armored they had appeared intimidating enough. As prisoners, they seemed a wretched bunch.

An agonized scream from the other side of the camp caused the prisoners to flinch.

“Varus doing his questioning of the prisoner who spoke common, sir,” Tiro said.

Stiger simply nodded, but noticed one of the prisoners’ eyes flick toward Tiro. Stiger quickly glanced away. Perhaps there was more than one prisoner who spoke common. He thought on how he could best use this knowledge to his advantage as he looked over the growing fire just beyond the prisoners. It was spreading more rapidly than he had expected. Stiger understood it was nearly time to go, whether they had all of the supplies they needed or not.

“We will leave in ten minutes,” Stiger told Tiro. “I don’t think we can delay any further.”

The sergeant nodded his agreement. “What about the prisoners?”

“What about them?” Stiger asked, eyes roving over the captives, before casually settling on the prisoner whom he suspected of speaking common.

“We should kill ‘em,” Tiro said bluntly.

The prisoner flinched.

“Why not take them with us?” Stiger said. “We could turn them over to the garrison at Cora’Mal. There is money in that.”

“We’re going to Cora’Mal?” Tiro said, with no little amount of surprise. 

“It is the nearest garrison,” Stiger said. Was it his imagination? Was the prisoner following their conversation? “We have to get word out about the Rivan operating in this area. Then we can return to the legion.”

“I see,” Tiro said with an unhappy air. “Taking this bunch along with us is dangerous, sir.”

“How so?”

“The best they can hope for is slavery in a mine, where life is measured in weeks. They would be looking for any opportunity to escape,” Tiro explained. “That could see one of our boys injured or worse. My recommendation would be to kill ‘em and do it now.”

Stiger took a deep breath and looked over the prisoners again. He noticed the prisoner he suspected of speaking common watching them covertly. When Stiger’s eyes touched his, the man quickly looked away. What Tiro said made sense. However, Stiger had other plans.

“There has been enough killing today. When we march,” Stiger said, turning to face Tiro, “free them.”

“What?” Tiro was clearly surprised.

“Sergeant, those are my orders,” Stiger said firmly, almost harshly. “Now let’s examine the work detail and see if things can be moved along.”

Stiger resisted the urge to see if the prisoner looked relieved at the news he and the others were to be spared, freed even.

“Yes, sir.” Tiro’s tone was stiff and correct.

The sergeant followed Stiger over to the mule train, where the work was moving along at a frantic pace. Most of the mules were loaded and waiting.

“You realize they will spread word of us,” Tiro said.

“That is what I am counting on,” Stiger said, flashing a grin at the sergeant.

“So,” Tiro said, eyes narrowing, “we are not going to Cora’Mal?”

“No,” Stiger said. “We are going back to the Third. I am fairly certain one of the prisoners speaks common.”

“A false trail then,” Tiro said, glancing back.

“With luck, a little misdirection, and with this fire we might be able to slip away.” Stiger paused a moment. “We will march out to the east, more to avoid the fire than anything else, then turn south, skirt the valley, and then dogleg it northwest and back to the Third. Thanks to the enemy, we now have a good map and sufficient supply.”   

“No offense intended, sir,” Tiro chuckled, “but, for a junior lieutenant you are one devious bastard.”

“None taken,” Stiger said, recognizing the sergeant’s words as high praise.

“Sir.” Varus came up at a run. The corporal looked pale as a ghost.

“What?” Stiger asked, fearing the response.

“The prisoner who spoke common,” Varus said. “The one you had me question. He says there is an entire army, twenty thousand strong, just thirty miles up the road. This company was the vanguard, and they are coming this way, sir. He was very sure of that.”

“We’re just bad luck,” Tiro said, glancing at Stiger.

“That settles it,” Stiger said, feeling his headache becoming worse. “The enemy is trying to flank the legions. We must report this as soon as possible.”

“Sir,” Tiro said. “The rest of the army is somewhere far to the north. Our legion is the only one near enough to respond, and when they do…the enemy will greatly outnumber what General Treim can put into the field.”

“I know,” Stiger said, blowing out a heavy breath. He glanced out at the fire again and then up at the darkened sky. The glow from the blaze against the low-hanging clouds would likely be seen for miles, and the enemy had cavalry. Stiger judged it only three or four hours ‘til dawn. “But it’s all we’ve got. Right, then, it’s time to go. We need to get out of this valley and into the forest as soon as possible.”

“What of the road to the south?” Tiro asked. “We would move faster on the road.”

“We have to avoid it,” Stiger said. “The enemy will clearly want to investigate this fire. They may even be on their way here now. Besides, we already know they have cavalry. We stand a better chance of slipping away in the forest.”

Tiro and Varus glanced nervously out into the darkness.

“Form up for march,” Stiger ordered curtly. “And free the prisoners.”

“What of the one I interrogated?” Varus asked. “I think he knows more than he is telling.”

“Bring him with us,” Stiger ordered. “I want to know everything he knows. Now, let’s move!”

Author’s Note:

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