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
Lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the rain-slashed night. The trees, cultivated fields, and three farm buildings were in view for a fraction of a moment and then gone. Stiger lay prone in the grass, the rain pouring down around him. Bren was to his right and Tiro to his left. Not only was Stiger exhausted, but he was thoroughly soaked through and utterly miserable.
“They are in that big barn there, sir.” Bren pointed as a gust blew the rain nearly sideways. “The officer seems to have taken the house for himself.”
Another flash of lightning illuminated the structure. The barn was large, though the accompanying farmhouse was surprisingly small, modest even. Stiger wiped rain from his face with a muddy hand and tried to make out their surroundings a little better. They were just over a mile off the road. The small farm was tucked neatly into the forest a ways beyond the road that led to the Becket Plantation, perhaps a couple of miles back.
“How long have you been watching?” Stiger had to raise his voice a little to be heard over the rain, wind, and thunder.
“About an hour,” Bren said.
“Where are their sentries?” Tiro asked.
“Near as I can tell, there are none,” Bren said. “It’s so nasty out, I think they all went inside.” Lightning flashed again. Thunder followed shortly after. “I crept up to the house and peered in the window. Seems only an officer and a sergeant. The rest of the troop is in the barn stayin’ dry and being lazy.”
“Did you see the family that lives here?” Stiger hoped they still lived, but was fairly sure the Rivan cavalry squadron had killed them, like they had done to the residents of Cora’Tol. The thought angered him.
“Sir,” Tiro said, “we need to get the men out of the rain.”
“I know.” Stiger was silent a moment as he thought, before rolling to his side and facing Tiro. “Think the men have enough left in them for another fight?”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said. “They may be miserable, wet, and exhausted, but the bastards will fight if we tell them that barn there is the only place that’s dry for miles around.”
“Right then,” Stiger said and turned back to Bren. “How many do you think are in the barn?”
“Twenty,” Bren said, “at most.”
“Okay.” Stiger rubbed his chin. “That’s not too bad. How many entrances to the barn?”
“Two large sliding doors on either end and a smaller door in the middle on this side.” Bren pointed. In the darkness, Stiger could not make it out. He took the scout’s word for it.
“It’ll be nice to catch those cavalry bastards off their horses,” Tiro said. “It’s time we gave them a little payback for what was done to the captain and rest of the boys.”
Stiger nodded in agreement.
“The bulk of the company will assault the barn,” Stiger said. “Tiro, you and Varus lead them. I will take five men and handle the farmhouse. I want that officer alive.”
“Bren,” Tiro said, “you stick with the lieutenant and make sure nothing happens to him, or you answer to me. Got that?”
Stiger pulled himself to his feet. Hunched over, he worked his way back to the men, who waited a few yards away. Tiro and Bren followed. Orders were tersely passed about. The mules were left in the care of a handful of men, while the rest of the company moved forward.
The rain was coming down in sheets and much heavier than before as Stiger led his five men to the house. One of the men with him lost his footing and slipped, landing heavily in the mud. Stiger helped him up as lightning illuminated the area in another flash. The crash of thunder followed several heartbeats later. Stiger froze, glancing at the windows, just steps away, soft orange light emanating from within. He hoped no one was watching.
Stiger pulled his sword out. The others did the same. Hunched over, he crept up to the window. The glass was of poor quality, but he was able to peer through. There was a solitary man sitting at a table with his feet up. He wore only a service tunic. The man had his back to the window and appeared to be dozing. Stiger could not see where his armor was, nor his sword. A nice-sized fire was burning in the hearth off to the man’s left. Stiger could see no one else, though there was a closed door that led to another room. He ducked down and moved up to the door.
Bren had his hand on the latch. Their eyes met. Stiger held up three fingers, prepared to count down silently.
Bren lifted the latch and yanked open the door. Stiger moved rapidly through. The man at the table started and turned, eyes going wide. Stiger was across the room in a flash. His sword point hovered at the man’s throat. Stiger’s enemy had gone very still, eyes traveling from the sword up to Stiger’s face.
Stiger flashed him a pleased grin and held a finger to his lips. The man nodded in understanding. Bren stepped forward and removed the enemy’s sword, which lay upon the table.
From behind the door there came a strangled scream, then what sounded like a slap, followed by something said in a harsh tone. Stiger motioned to Bren to cover the man at the table and then stepped to the door. He threw it open and went through. The hinges, badly in need of an oiling, creaked. He found himself in a bedroom. On the bed lay a naked man atop a woman.
The man looked up in anger, which rapidly turned to astonishment, then fear. He rolled off the woman and moved toward his sword, which rested in a scabbard in the corner.
“Go for it,” Stiger said, stepping closer and lowering his sword to the man’s chest. Anger coursed through his veins. “Go on, you bastard. Go for it. See what happens.”
“I surrender,” the naked man said in slightly accented Common. He held his hands up. “I surrender.”
Stiger motioned with his sword for the man to move to the foot of the bed. He did as bid. One of Stiger’s men came into the room, sword drawn.
“Get him out of here.”
“Yes, sir.” The legionary grabbed the naked man by the hair, eliciting a yelp of pain. He dragged him through the doorway and out into the other room.
Stiger turned to the woman, who had curled up into a ball on the bed. She shook violently, even as she warily eyed him. Stiger took a deep breath and lowered his sword. He cast about the room. A single oil lantern burned on a shelf. Under it was a discarded dress. He stepped over and tossed it to her. She made no move to grab it.
“It is all right,” he said to her, sheathing his sword. “I am Lieutenant Stiger, Seventh Company, Third Legion. That bastard won’t harm you again. I swear it.”
She said nothing, just shivered on the bed. Stiger considered going to her and offering what comfort he could, but then changed his mind. He had to find out how the fight in the barn had gone.
“Bren,” Stiger called.
“Sir.” Bren stepped into the room. He eyed the terrified woman for a moment before sucking in a deep breath.
“Secure those bastards,” Stiger said. “And care for her.”
Satisfied, Stiger made his way out of the house. He stepped out into the rain and to the barn. He encountered a legionary standing in the downpour, just before the door. He had clearly been posted there as a sentry.
By the man’s relaxed stance, Stiger realized the assault was over. His men had won. He made his way into the barn, which was hot from the press of bodies, including animals. There were at least twenty horses inside and all were unsettled. One whinnied and kicked at the wall in a wild panic, while a legionary attempted to calm it.
The sweet, sickly smell of blood was on the air. Several legionaries stood aside as Stiger entered. He stopped and looked around, carefully surveying the interior of the barn. It was a scene of chaos and carnage. Bodies lay scattered across the straw-covered floor amidst the animal shit.
“Sir,” Tiro said, coming up, “the barn is secure. How did it go in the house?”
“Two prisoners,” Stiger said. “One woman rescued, though I fear her virtue is not intact.”
Tiro got the message and his face hardened.
“Casualties?” Stiger asked.
“We got lucky,” Tiro said. “Two light injuries. One shallow cut on an arm and the other across the cheek.” Tiro paused and made a show of studying Stiger’s face. “Not as glamorous as yours, sir.”
“Three.” Tiro jerked a thumb at where three men knelt with their hands behind their heads. “We’ve already put the injured out of their misery.”
“Those horses make this a nice catch,” Stiger said, eyes roving the barn.
“They do, don’t they? Some good prize money, I am sure.”
“Sir.” Varus came up. There was a hard look to his face. “You need to see this.”
Stiger and Tiro followed Varus out of the barn and back into the rain. The corporal led them around the far side to three bodies. One man and two young boys. Stiger knelt before the man. Lightning flashed, illuminating the grisly scene. The man looked as if he had been thoroughly beaten before he had been killed. The children appeared to have been tortured as well.
Stiger felt a deep sadness mixed with a weary exhaustion wash over him. When he had started out to join the legions he had naively imagined glorious charges and victorious battlefields, not this. These poor people had not deserved what fortune had thrown their way, nor had the people of Cora’Tol. He felt a surge of renewed anger and rage.
War, Stiger decided, was far uglier than he had ever imagined.
Kneeling in the mud, he bowed his head and said a brief prayer to the High Father, commending these three souls into the great god’s keeping. He spared a look at the two little boys. They could be no older than seven. Blowing out a long breath, he stood and turned to Tiro and Varus.
“See that they are buried,” Stiger ordered, voice harsh and cold. “I will tell the mother that her children and husband are dead.” He paused, his throat catching. “I don’t want her seeing this.”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said. “We will take care of it.”
“What about the prisoners?” Varus asked.
Stiger was silent for a moment as he considered their fate. The anger was mounting again, a terrible rage. He glanced at the bodies and ground his teeth in frustration. “We question them, then put the bastards to death.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Tiro asked.
“Yes,” Stiger said. He turned to Varus. “Drag all of the bodies out of the barn. Bring the mule train inside. Set a watch well away from the barn and house. I don’t want to be surprised like these fools were. The men can sleep ‘til morning.”
“Yes, sir,” Varus said.
Stiger looked over at the bodies, eyes lingering upon the small, dark shapes of the children. After a moment he stepped away, moving around the side of the barn. When he was fully around the corner and away from the others, he fell to his knees and retched, emptying the contents of his stomach. Tears pricked at his already wet face and he cried for the two children. When he had joined the legions, he never imagined such senseless horror.
Stiger felt a hand upon his shoulder. He stiffened and glanced back.
“Are you all right, sir?” Tiro asked, voice gruff.
Lightning flashed across the sky and Stiger could read the concern on the sergeant’s face.
“Are you injured, sir?”
“No, I’m fine,” Stiger said. “The children…”
“War ain’t pretty,” Tiro said. “Not for us soldiers, and especially not for civilians. Best to remember that, sir.”
Tiro reached down and helped him to his feet. Stiger’s legs shook from exhaustion and strain.
“I suppose it’s not,” Stiger said and sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. He wiped his mouth and stiffened his spine. “War is nothing like I thought it was.”
“No,” Tiro said. “War brings out the worst in people, but it also brings out the best. In comrades that is, sir.”
Stiger held the sergeant’s gaze for a prolonged moment, nodded, then turned away and started for the house. Tiro followed.
A legionary stood out in front on sentry duty, eyes watchful. Stiger stepped past him and entered.
The two prisoners sat at the table. Three legionaries stood around them, swords drawn. The naked man had been permitted to don his tunic.
“Name?” Stiger demanded as he entered. Tiro shut the door.
“Lieutenant Crief, Second Horse Regiment,” the man Stiger had found in the bedroom announced. There was not a trace of fear in his tone, which infuriated Stiger. “And yours, sir?”
“Stiger, hmmm,” Crief said. “I know that name, ah yes. I do. Your father is a general I think. A bloody general if I recall, yes?”
“Who my father is matters not,” Stiger said and took a step nearer the other officer. He was angered at Crief’s relaxed manner. Stiger turned to the other seated at the table. This man looked back at him with wary eyes. “And what is your name?”
The other man said nothing, but instead glanced to Crief.
“He does not speak your Common Tongue,” Crief said, a hint of disdain in his voice. “That is Sergeant Sig and he is as odious as his brain is small.”
Stiger shared a glance with Tiro before turning back to Crief.
“Why are you here?”
Crief had the gall to bark out a laugh, which irritated Stiger further.
The legionary standing behind Crief cuffed the enemy officer on the back of the head. “The lieutenant asked you a question, scum.”
“How dare you lay a hand on me?” Crief screamed at him in outrage. “You common lout, I will have you know I am the Lord General’s son.”
Stiger held up a hand to stop Crief from being struck again. The legionary took a step back.
“And who is this Lord General?” Stiger asked, though he suspected it was the commander of the enemy army.
“My father, of course,” Crief said.
Stiger let out a long breath before turning to look upon the enemy sergeant and contemplating the man for a few heartbeats.
“Tiro, have Sergeant Sig here placed with the other prisoners.”
“Yes, sir.” Tiro nodded and gestured to two men. The sergeant was hauled to his feet and led out into the rain. When the door closed, Stiger turned back to Crief, who had placed his feet up on the table and was reclining his chair back. He seemed to be enjoying himself. The smug look on his face irritated Stiger immensely.
“Lieutenant Crief,” Stiger said slowly as he untied the straps to his helmet. “You seem to be under the mistaken impression that your rank somehow protects you.”
Stiger removed his helmet and placed it on the table as Crief’s eyes narrowed.
“I can assure you it doesn’t,” Stiger said as he moved slowly around the table to stand next to Crief. The other’s eyes followed him. Stiger could read a flicker of doubt in them.
“You wouldn’t dare touch me,” Crief said loftily, placing his hands behind his head as he leaned back farther on the chair. “My father—”
Stiger kicked the chair out from under him. Crief landed with a crash on the floor. Before he could recover, Stiger reached down and grabbed the front of Crief’s tunic, hauled him up, and slammed his fist into the man’s face. Stiger punched him again and felt the nose crunch under the blow.
“Do you still believe I won’t touch you?” Stiger roared at him, thoroughly enraged. “Do you?”
“My father will—”
Stiger hit him again.
“Will what?” Stiger demanded. “Come on, tell me what your daddy will do to me.”
Dazed, Crief’s eyes rolled.
Thoroughly enraged, Stiger looked over at Tiro.
“If you continue to knock him senseless,” Tiro said, “we won’t be able to properly question him, now, will we?”
Stiger glanced over at his fist, which was raised and ready to continue the pummeling. He looked back on the bloodied face of his enemy. It had felt good to hit this arrogant fop. He took a deep breath that shuddered a little. Tiro was right. Stiger released Crief, who collapsed to the floor in a heap.
Stiger’s rage left him. His hand began to hurt and he shook it a little before turning to the last remaining legionary. “Take this raping piece of shit from my sight.”
“Aye, sir,” the man said and dragged Crief bodily out into the rain.
Tiro untied the straps of his own helmet and placed it on the table next to Stiger’s.
“Feel better?” Tiro asked, shutting the door.
“A little,” Stiger said, suddenly feeling drained and worn out, like an old dishrag.
Tiro picked up the chair and set it back on its feet. Stiger watched as the old sergeant threw another log onto the fire.
“You need some sleep, sir,” Tiro said. “You’re exhausted.”
“We all do,” Stiger said and turned toward the door to the bedroom. He could hear whimpering coming from the other side.
“Varus and I will see to the men and the questioning,” Tiro said. “Will the lieutenant do me a great favor and get some sleep?”
Stiger turned his weary gaze upon Tiro.
“I have one more task to complete before I can,” Stiger said and started for the door, prepared to inform the woman in the next room she was now a widow. Worse, he dreaded passing on the news about her children.
“What about Crief?” Tiro asked.
“What about him?”
“Do we kill him with the rest?”
Stiger wanted desperately to say yes, but then shook his head. General Treim would want Crief.
“If he is as important as he thinks he is,” Stiger said, “he has value to the enemy. We will bring him back with us. Question him thoroughly, but make sure you keep him alive.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said before his eyes traveled to the door. “I could tell the lady.”
“No,” Stiger said with a heavy breath. “I will do it.”
Stiger opened the door and found the young woman in the corner of the room crying. She was still naked. Though he wanted to do anything but, Stiger steeled himself to give the most devastating news that anyone could possibly give another.
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