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
Stiger stifled a yawn with the back of his hand. His legs burned as he climbed with the company up and out of the valley. Sweating from the effort, he rubbed at eyes irritated not only from lack of sleep, but the choking smoke that seemed everywhere. With each step, his armor weighed upon him terribly, and the higher he climbed the more effort it took just to place one foot in front of the other.
“Sergeant,” Stiger called as he reached the top of the ridge, seeing Tiro ahead speaking to a legionary who had collapsed. Taking a step over the lip, he was surprised as the smoke dissipated, almost as if an invisible force held it back, trapping it within the valley. Sucking in the clean air in great gulps, his breathing labored from the exertion, Stiger felt vast relief at completing the climb. He bent over, resting his hands on his knees, working to catch his breath. “Sergeant Tiro.”
“Sir.” Tiro turned to look and saw Stiger. The old veteran stumped over to him.
“Once everyone’s up, let’s call a twenty-minute break.” Stiger’s throat was dry and irritated. He straightened and tried to cough out the residual smoke that stung his lungs. Tiro waited as Stiger glanced back through the trees and down the slope. His men, with mules interspersed amongst them, were struggling up the steep slope in a single-file line that disappeared into the early morning gloom made worse by the smoke that swirled amidst the trees. Stiger turned his gaze along the rim of the darkened ridge, before returning to Tiro.
“A break you say, sir?”
“That was a fearsome climb,” Stiger said. “Twenty minutes, rest.” Focused on the task at hand, he paused. “I think we will move farther into the trees and parallel the valley traveling south a bit before swinging west and then north. At least the ground will be somewhat flat, and it should be easier going.”
“Down yokes, rest easy,” Tiro called to the nearest men before leaning over the edge and shouting down at those still climbing the moderately steep slope. “Twenty minutes’ break once you reach the top.”
Those nearest who had already crested the ridge gratefully dropped their yokes and shields and settled to the ground with a chorus of groans.
“Sir, we will have to cross that north–south road,” Tiro said, turning back to Stiger.
Stiger looked through the trees back down into the eastern end of the valley. The sun would be up soon. The sky was already beginning to brighten, the first steaks of crimson lacing clouds high above. Since there was little wind, smoke from the fire hung heavily on the valley below like a burial shroud. Stiger could see an angry orange glow illuminating the smoke where the fire still burned.
A larger, brighter radiance farther out into the valley was likely the fort’s wooden barricade fully engulfed. A gentle gust of wind parted the smoke momentarily to the west. Long tongues of flame licked up high into the air before smoke closed back in. Stiger wondered if this meant that the trees near the valley’s base had begun to burn.
“What was that you said?” Stiger focused his attention back to the sergeant.
“Sir, that north–south road. We are going to need to cross it,” Tiro said.
“Yes,” Stiger said. He had a foul taste in his mouth. Unhooking his canteen from his harness, he unstopped it and took a swig of warm water. He stopped it and returned the canteen back to his harness in a smooth, practiced motion. “There is no avoiding it. The fire should keep the enemy out of the valley long enough for us to cross. We break for twenty minutes now, then push on. Once we are a few miles from the valley and deep into the forest farther to the west, we will take an extended stop.”
“I believe the boys will appreciate that,” Tiro said in a tone that told Stiger the old sergeant disapproved. “Very thoughtful, sir.”
Stiger felt his brows knit together. The sergeant looked back innocently. Despite his weariness, Stiger became thoroughly amused with the wily old veteran. He barked out a laugh, which turned into a hacking cough caused by the smoke he had inhaled. Heads turned toward them.
“You think we should rest now,” Stiger said when he had recovered, “I take it?”
“Aye, that I do,” Tiro said. “You said it yourself. That fire down there is likely to burn for a few more hours. It will keep anyone out of the valley. Sir, the boys are worn. They need an hour, maybe more, a little bit of shut eye and some food before continuing on, sir.”
There was almost a pleading note to Tiro’s tone. Stiger glanced around. The men climbing the hill were clearly dragging. He could see it in their weary, ragged step.
Those who reached the top stumbled forward a few paces and collapsed to the ground wherever there was room. He could even hear the first snores. Stiger rubbed at his jaw as he considered them, feeling the coarse layer of stubble threatening to become a beard.
“If we run into the enemy,” Tiro continued, “our boys may prove too blown to put up much of a fight.”
Stiger let out a long breath, not liking the idea of stopping for whatever reason. His sergeant’s reasoning, however, was sound. “Very well. We rest here. Do you think an hour and a half will be sufficient?”
Tiro gave a curt nod. “Might I kindly make another suggestion?”
“Do I have a choice?” Stiger asked, and it came out almost as a groan.
“You are in command, sir,” Tiro said with a straight face. “As an officer you always have a choice. Remember, sir, you are in charge.”
Stiger grunted, but inclined his head for the old sergeant to continue.
“Get some rest yourself, sir,” Tiro said. “Sleep like a babe. I will see a watch is set.”
Stiger nodded, feeling a wave of exhaustion threatening to overtake him. Until speaking to Tiro, he had not fully realized his own fatigue. Grit and determination were all that had kept him going. He glanced around, found a tree a few feet off that appeared suitable, and tromped over. Tortured and overstressed muscles protested vehemently as Stiger eased himself down amongst the brush and long grass. He placed his back comfortably against the trunk, letting out a soft sigh as the metal scraped slightly against the bark.
With a chuckle, Stiger recalled how unpleasant it had been when he had first started wearing his armor. Had that been only six months ago? The leather straps had chafed his skin raw, to the point where he bled. Now, just a few months later, the armor was like a second skin.
After a long, hard day, it was always a relief to shed the heavy deadweight of the armor. Once off, Stiger never tired of marveling at feeling light as a feather. Removing his helmet, Stiger smiled at that thought as he leaned his head back against the rough bark of the tree. It would be nice to remove his armor. Unfortunately, there was no time for that. Besides, he was too tired to even try. Tiro had said rest and so Stiger closed his eyes, welcoming sleep.
“Sir.” A hand shook his shoulder.
Stiger blinked several times, attempting to focus. Varus was bent over him, peering into his face.
“Corporal?” Stiger cracked his neck as he straightened. It felt like he had just closed his eyes.
“It’s been a little over an hour, sir,” Varus said. There was a concerned note in his voice, which, despite Stiger’s exhaustion, alerted him to possible trouble.
“Right,” Stiger said and held out a hand.
Varus hauled him to his feet.
“Gods,” Stiger moaned softly, “I am really sore. I feel worse than after I’ve practiced hand-to-hand with Tiro. Everything seems to ache.”
The corporal gave Stiger a grim smile and held out a small bundle wrapped in a towel. Stiger took it and unwrapped it, revealing a hunk of bread and a slice of cheese. Despite his concern for potential trouble, his stomach rumbled at the sight.
“Thank you,” Stiger said.
“Courtesy of the Rivan, sir,” Varus said. “Our thanks should go to them.”
A gust of cooler air from the hills blew into the valley, driving the thick, acrid smoke up, out, and through the trees. Stiger coughed, as did a number of others. In thirty heartbeats the wind slackened and the air cleared.
“I’d expected the fire to have died down a little,” Stiger said, taking a bite of his bread and chewing slowly.
“About that,” Varus said, with a strained look that caused Stiger to pause in mid-chew before completing the motion and swallowing. “The wind has picked up considerably. I think a storm is comin’ but, well, it’s not here yet. The fire has spread to the forest and is climbing up the ridge, sir.”
“What?” Stiger took several hasty steps and peered over the edge. He could see orange flames sixty yards down the slope, smoke roiling skyward. He had no doubt the fire was climbing the slope, as Varus had said. Stiger’s hands clenched into fists. “Well, isn’t that just fantastic. Not only did I set the valley on fire, now I’ve started a forest fire.”
Varus stepped up next to him and jerked his head toward the fire. “Your first time, sir?”
Stiger scrutinized his corporal, wondering if Varus was serious. The corporal did not look to be joking, so Stiger said nothing, unclenching his hands.
“In the Wilds, we started a few fires to flush our enemy out of the trees and bramble,” Varus said as a fresh gust of wind carried thick choking smoke their way. Stiger and Varus took a step back. “‘Course, the trick is you have to watch which way the wind is blowing before starting the fires, sir.”
“The wind is blowing our way,” Stiger said unhappily.
“It is,” Varus said. “We just need to move farther south is all before the flames catch up to us, sir. With how dry things are, that fire will climb the ridge and sweep over the top. We will be forced south and maybe a little to the east, judging by the wind.”
“We need to go west.” Stiger seethed with frustration. He kicked at a dried pile of leaves that had fallen on the forest floor, scattering them.
“Sometimes life gives you sour grapes, sir,” Varus said. “It’s what I think they make cheap wine with.”
Stiger glared at Varus, then deflated as his anger left him in a rush. Stiger rubbed his eyes a moment, not quite believing his poor luck. Fortune was a fickle bitch and the gods were clearly toying with him today. Stiger let go a breath. He had to work with the poor dice that had been handed to him. There was no point in raging further.
“Where is Tiro?”
“Sleeping, sir,” Varus said, pointing to where the sergeant was slumped against a tree, surrounded by dozing legionaries. “I was about to wake him.”
Stiger shot a quick glance around at his men. Nearly everyone was asleep. The heavily loaded mules had been secured to trees. Not liking the cloying stench of smoke, the mules fidgeted about, stamping their hooves and braying, but surprisingly did not pull at their ropes. Only Bren and Varus were awake and had clearly been standing watch. Stiger wrapped his bread and cheese back up in the towel before dropping the bundle into his empty haversack.
“Wake the company,” Stiger ordered curtly. “Everyone gets some food. Then we set off. They can eat on the move.”
“Yes, sir,” Varus said.
Stiger moved over to Tiro and shook the veteran’s shoulder.
“On your feet,” Varus called out harshly from behind. “Up, you lovely bastards. Nap time’s over. Come on. Get on your feet.”
“Sir?” Tiro blinked several times, focusing on Stiger.
“I don’t recall giving you permission to loaf all morning,” Varus called, kicking at a legionary who had not moved. “You joined the infantry, not in the bloody navy. Get on your feet before you make me angry.”
Tiro reached out an arm and Stiger pulled him to his feet. All around them, groaning men were dragging themselves up.
“The fire is climbing up the ridge,” Stiger said.
“That’s not good,” Tiro said, stretching. Another cloud of smoke blew around them. Both Tiro and Stiger coughed. It passed. They could now plainly hear the crackling fire.
“The wind has picked up,” Stiger said. “It’s helping to fan the flames our way. I don’t think we will be able to skirt the valley like I planned and avoid the fire. We have thirty to forty minutes before the flames reach our position.”
“Perhaps I was little hasty suggesting we rest, sir.” Tiro cast a worried look in the direction of the valley.
“No,” Stiger said. “You were right. The company was blown, and so was I. We had to stop.”
“In the Wilds,” Tiro said, “I’ve had the misfortune to be in the middle of a forest fire, and it ain’t a good place to be. What do you want to do, sir?”
“How far do you reckon it is to the road?”
“A quarter mile to a half, maybe a little more.” Tiro’s forehead creased. “Are you thinking of taking it now?”
“I am,” Stiger said. “If we continue south and stay in the forest, our pace will be slowed and the fire may catch up to us.”
“You are hoping to reach the road,” Tiro said, “then follow it and gain ground on the fire?”
“Once on the road, we should be able to outpace the fire,” Stiger said. “We march hard on the road a dozen or more miles south, then cut west into the forest and move back towards the Third. That is, assuming we can outrace the fire.”
“It makes sense to me, sir,” Tiro said with a glance in the direction of the valley, where thick clouds of smoke driven by a gust of wind were billowing up into the brightening sky. A loud crash signified the falling of a tree somewhere downslope. This was almost immediately followed by a roaring of flame, the tops of which they could see. “Perhaps we should get a move on.”
“Bren.” Stiger called the scout over.
“Go along the ridge,” he pointed, “find the road, and determine if the enemy are there. We are going to use it to outpace the fire.”
“If it is clear of the enemy, sir,” Bren said, “do you want me to wait for you or continue south on the road?”
“Yes, wait for us,” Stiger said. “Aronus can go forward after that.”
“I can keep goin’, sir,” Bren protested, a pained expression on his craggy face.
“I am sure you can,” Stiger said. “But I will need you later when we plunge back into the forest. Better to have you fresh, eh? Now, go on and get going. We don’t have much time.”
“Yes, sir,” Bren said and started off, in moments disappearing into the trees.
“Form up!” Stiger shouted. Another tree cracked loudly as it went down. The roaring of the fire grew louder. “Form up!”
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