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 Six

“How are you?” Stiger asked, kneeling next to the litter. He almost sighed with relief at being able to rest. His legs not only burned, but shook slightly.

“Tolerable, sir,” Legionary Cavius said, sweat beading on his brow.

His armor had been removed and he wore only his tunic. Cavius was clearly in a lot of pain and struggled to conceal it from his superior. He shook ever so slightly. The litter he rested upon was a makeshift affair, constructed using two tent poles and heavy weatherproofed canvas hastily cut from a tent. Cavius’s litter had been dragged behind one of the mules.

Since the company had stopped for an extended break, the litter had been detached and laid on the ground, providing the wounded legionary a break from the uncomfortable jostling and bouncing that Stiger was sure had been an agonizing experience.

“Tiro says your wound was a clean cut,” Stiger said, patting Cavius on the shoulder. A bandage was tied tightly around the left leg. Blood had seeped through to stain the outer side. “He assures me you should be back up and on your feet in no time.”

“As soon as the sergeant lets me, sir,” Cavius said. “Being hauled along like this is not all it’s cracked up to be. But it sure beats being left behind.”

“I’d not leave you, or anyone else,” Stiger said.

“I appreciate that, sir. I saw what them enemy did to the prisoners,” Cavius said. He nodded over to the left.

The seven freed auxiliaries were just a few feet away. Like everyone else, they were exhausted and rundown. Bruises and black eyes were evidence of their time spent in captivity.

Stiger’s gaze lingered upon the seven. After being liberated, each had retrieved their chainmail armor and an assortment of weapons. Four had armed themselves with bows and short swords. The other three carried only swords and small round shields.

Stiger’s eyes roved along the road. The company was strung out on both sides. Men had dropped to the ground. Most had fallen into an instant sleep. A few sat and ate, looking despondent with exhaustion. Corporal Varus was moving down from the front of the column, checking the mules to make sure the supplies were secure and the animals tethered. Sergeant Tiro was farther down the road, speaking with Bren. A moment later, Bren gave a firm nod and set off scouting ahead.

“All the more reason to leave no one behind,” Stiger said, turning back to Cavius.

“Yes, sir.”

“Focus on rest and healing,” Stiger said.

Ash began to fall like snow. Stiger coughed, throat dry and hoarse from the smoke. He had pushed his company hard trying to gain as much ground as possible on the blaze. At the pace he had set, Stiger figured they were now several miles from the fire. At least, he hoped so.

An ugly pall of smoke hung overhead, obscuring the sun and creating near-twilight conditions. Stiger looked off to the west and into the trees. Had he felt confident enough, he would have plunged into the forest. However, judging from the ash fall, the fire behind them was growing in scope and intensity. He felt a need to put some serious distance between himself and the blaze before turning west. The only way to accomplish that was to march hard along the road. With luck, the enemy was behind them and not to the front.

“I want you to focus on getting better,” Stiger said, making an effort to reinforce his earlier statement. “No pushing it. Just lie back and enjoy the ride. You will be marching along with the rest of us soon enough.”

“Yes, sir,” Cavius replied, as if Stiger had given him an order, which, in effect, he had.

Stiger squeezed Cavius on the shoulder before standing. His legs protested, and it took effort to keep from groaning.

Stiger strode over to where the auxiliaries were resting alongside the road, clustered about the trunk of an old oak. One saw him approaching and made to stand. Stiger waved him and the others back down.

“Do you men need anything?” Stiger asked the auxiliaries.

“No, sir,” one of the men said as the others shook their heads. “We’re just grateful you rescued us.”

“What’s your name?”

“Ubid,” the man said.

“What unit were you with?”

“The Sixth Hannish Cohort,” Ubid said. “We was light infantry, sir.”

“I see,” Stiger said. “I would appreciate you telling me what happened. How did you come into the hands of the enemy?”

Ubid glanced nervously around and swallowed before working up the nerve to speak. Stiger well understood the man’s concern. An entire auxiliary cohort had been lost, complete with her standards. The punishment for losing a standard was severe and could result in the execution of any survivors. Before they had departed, Tiro had ordered a search of the enemy’s camp. It had proven fruitless.

“We was captured, sir,” Ubid said. “Farms were being raided by bandits about ten miles north of the garrison. A few families were burned out. The captain marched the cohort to chase them off. We thought nothin’ of it at the time. Well, we was ambushed right good by the Rivan.”

“Sir.” One of the other auxiliaries stood. “There was no warning. They attacked us on the road in a heavily forested area. They hit from both sides at once. It was a slaughter. Our cohort never stood a chance, sir.”

“What’s your name?”

“Dergo, sir.”

Stiger was silent a moment as he considered what they had told them.

“I am curious,” Stiger said. “Can you tell me, how did the fort fall? Surely your captain left a reserve? He would not have taken the entire cohort with him when he marched, would he?”

“I don’t know how the fort fell, sir,” Dergo said. “Lieutenant Aggar was left behind with forty men as a garrison.”

Stiger’s eyes narrowed as he looked from face to face. Each shook his head in turn.

“Did you see Aggar being held prisoner?” Stiger said, eager to hear what they had to say on the subject. “Or his body?”

“No, sir,” Dergo said.

Stiger felt himself frown. “How about any of the men who were left with him?”

Dergo glanced around at his companions and then back at Stiger. “No, sir.  We didn’t see them, nor even their bodies. Which is strange, now that you mention it.”

“So,” Stiger said, thinking it through aloud. “They may have escaped then?”

“It is possible, sir,” Dergo said. “Though, I doubt they would get far if they did hoof it.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, a force of enemy cavalry rode through the valley the day you attacked and rescued us,” Dergo said. “We were being held outside. I saw them as they rode by and counted. Around one hundred strong.”

“You mean cavalry is ahead of us on this road?”

Dergo gave a nod.

“The scouts…” Stiger said, thinking back to Bren’s report, “have seen no evidence of a large body of cavalry, or for that matter even infantry, using this road.”

In fact, the more Stiger thought on it, if Aggar had abandoned his post and fled, he had not taken this road. Bren and Aronus would have seen evidence of their exodus. They must have gone elsewhere or been killed when the Rivan company had taken possession of the fort. It was possible that the rescued auxiliaries had simply not seen their bodies.

“They might have taken the road to the Becket Plantation,” Ubid said.

“That could have been where they went.” Dergo nodded in agreement.

“Where is that?” Stiger asked. He could not recall seeing any other roads on the map.

“A mile to that way.” Dergo pointed and swung his arm around in an arc. “It starts at the western end of the valley and goes for five or six miles, then wraps around and connects to this here road farther up a ways. The Becket Plantation is off of it.”

“I take it the plantation is a large one?”

“Aye, sir,” Dergo said. “Largest in the region, with over two hundred slaves. Occasionally we are called upon to chase down those that up and run off.”

Stiger was silent as he absorbed this, pleased with the information he had learned so far.

“Tell me about the enemy army.”

“What army?” Dergo’s forehead scrunched up.

“The Rivan army marching this way.” Stiger was surprised they had not heard of it yet, even from his own men.

“We did not know,” Dergo said, looking suddenly nervous. “The enemy didn’t say anything to us, only asked us questions.”

Stiger changed the subject. “Can you use those bows?” He gestured at one leaning against the trunk of the tree.

“Yes, sir.” Dergo picked up the weapon as if it were an old friend. “These are our bows. The enemy took ‘em when we were captured. You show me an enemy you want dead and I will shoot him for you.”

Stiger turned at the crunch of footsteps behind him and saw Tiro. Stiger looked over the auxiliaries again and then at his men resting along both sides of the road. Thanks to the late Captain Cethegus, the Seventh was a shadow of her former strength.

“Sergeant,” Stiger said to Tiro. “Have these men entered into the company books.”

“Yes, sir.” Tiro turned to the auxiliaries, flashing a broad smile. “Welcome to the Seventh, you maggots.”

“Truly?” Dergo seemed shocked, almost as if he had not heard correctly. “You’re making us all legionaries?”

“No punishment, sir?” Ubid asked, a guarded yet hopeful expression crossing his face.

“No punishment,” Stiger said. “When you complete your service, you will be entitled to Mal’Zeelan citizenship.”

“Thank you, sir,” Dergo said, which was immediately followed by an enthusiastic chorus from the others. “We won’t let you down none.”

“I expect not. Work hard and serve the empire to the best of your ability,” Stiger said. “In return, I promise I will be fair with you in my dealings.”

He gave them a parting nod and stepped away. Tiro followed.

“Being auxiliaries and all, they may not be up for it,” Tiro said, once they were out of hearing. “Most auxiliary cohorts don’t have our standards.”

“Yes,” Stiger said, stifling a yawn. “I know, but we’re incredibly shorthanded. No replacements were available before we marched. I’d be foolish to pass up seven healthy, able-bodied men.”

“Aye, sir,” Tiro said. “Varus and I will whip them into shape, don’t you doubt that.”

“They said that cavalry passed through the valley yesterday.” Stiger came to a stop. “Apparently there is another road to the west that connects with this one somewhere ahead. It leads to a large plantation. They may be ahead of us.”

“Cavalry to the front and fire to the rear,” Tiro said, expelling a breath. “Screwed if you do, even more screwed if you don’t. How things have been going, that should be our motto, sir.”

Stiger felt himself frown at that.

“The auxiliaries told me they were ambushed to the north of the valley and that a force was left behind at the fort under command of Lieutenant Aggar,” Stiger said. “They saw no sign of him or his men as they were brought back as prisoners.”

“Is that the same Aggar we were sent to fetch?”

“Yes,” Stiger said.  “Did you see an officer amongst the dead auxiliaries when you looked about?”

“Not that I could tell,” Tiro said. “I’d recall if I saw an officer’s tunic.”

A strong gust of wind blew through the trees, bending limbs and rustling leaves. The falling ash and smoke swirled around them. In the distance, there was the distinct, low grumble of thunder.

“Well,” Tiro said, brightening. “Looks like rain might be coming. Perhaps it will slow the fire a bit, even put it out.”

“If it does,” Stiger said, “the enemy army may be on the move soon after.”

“Always looking on the bright side of things, sir,” Tiro said with a grin. “Aren’t you?”

“Weren’t you just the one who said our new motto should be, ‘Screwed if you do, even more screwed if you don’t’?”

“Aye, sir,” Tiro said. “That I did.”

Stiger chuckled.

“Let’s give the men another ten minutes,” Stiger said, “then we push on and hope the rain holds off.”

Author’s Note:

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