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 closed the door behind him. The ground out in front of the house was wet and muddy. A few scattered strands of grass littered the farmyard. The sentry standing just to the side of the door stiffened to attention and saluted.
“At ease,” Stiger said, stretching out his back. “Did you get much sleep, Tig?”
“According to Sergeant Tiro, I got plenty, sir,” Tig replied, relaxing a fraction. “When he woke me, he told me sleep is overrated.”
“That sounds like Tiro,” Stiger chuckled. “Well, I am sure you got enough then.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Stiger wore only his service tunic, and it felt good to have left his armor in the house. He gazed around the farmyard. The rain had slackened considerably an hour ago. Now it was coming down in a steady drizzle. The sky was thick with low-hanging cloud cover. Stiger glanced back at the house. It was well-constructed and maintained, but very modest.
The barn a few yards away was overly large, but also well-built. The farmer had obviously taken pride in his work, for everything appeared well-cared-for and orderly. Even the four cords of wood along the barn’s wall were stacked neatly.
There was a small fenced-in pasture off to his left, enough for a handful of animals. A good-sized field with wheat ready for harvest was to the right. Part of the field had been given over to potatoes. A vegetable garden stretched out to the left of the house. Stiger could see tomatoes, lettuce, and melons. It looked like there were even beans.
Judging by what he saw, the farm would have been more than enough to sustain the family. Any excess would have likely been sold to those living in Cora’Tol, perhaps even to the garrison.
Tucked deep into the forest, the farm was a peaceful setting. The farmer had chosen a nice spot. It was almost perfect, but for the arrival of the Rivan.
Stiger let out a heavy breath.
The enemy had forever shattered the peace of this place. Mood darkening, he started off for the barn, careful to avoid the puddles as he made his way across the farmyard. There was work to be done.
A sentry stood in front of the barn and two others by the trail, which led into the forest and ultimately connected with the main road. Stiger was heartened by their presence and watchfulness. As he stepped through the door, he nodded to the sentry, who stiffened to attention.
The barn was surprisingly warm. The close proximity of so many of his legionaries, coupled with the animals, generated more heat than the fire had in the house. Stiger took a moment to survey the interior of the barn. Most of his men were still sleeping. Varus was up and about. Tiro was sleeping just a few feet away, snoring contentedly. The old sergeant looked almost peaceful, nothing like the hardened veteran Stiger knew him to be.
Stiger caught Varus’s eye and motioned the man over.
“How are you feeling, sir?” Varus asked in a low tone so as not to disturb those sleeping.
“Well enough,” Stiger said, stifling a yawn. “You?”
“Thank you for letting me sleep,” Stiger said. “I think I managed at least six hours. But truth be told, I’m still bone tired.”
“You needed it, sir. We’re all done in,” Varus said. “A few days of catch up is all we need. Then we will be right as rain.”
Stiger nodded as he ran his eyes once more about. He had seen his men asleep dozens of times, and yet suddenly he felt moved. The men in this barn had become dear to him. He recognized that now. Though they were mostly uneducated and without culture, he had long since stopped seeing them as mere pawns to be used and discarded in the furtherance of his career. Tiro and Varus had helped show him that.
Stiger nodded to himself. These men had gone through terrible trials and tests with him, perhaps even for him. They would march where he asked them to go, even if death waited at day’s end. They were his men and he was their officer. He realized in this moment that he had come to love Seventh Company. It made what he was about to ask of them more difficult than he had imagined possible.
“Sleep is one commodity I don’t think we’re going to get much of,” Stiger said, throat catching slightly. He took a moment to clear it. “We need to get a move on. That rain likely extinguished the fire. The enemy will soon be on the move and I have no doubt they will be looking for us. Especially after all that we’ve done.”
“Aye,” Varus said with a slow nod. “When do you want to leave, sir?”
“Soon,” Stiger said and then eyed Varus. “You questioned the prisoners?”
“Yes, sir,” Varus said. “Just after Tiro had checked in with you. We did it away from the farm.”
Tiro had woken Stiger just before dawn and suggested that they take advantage of the inclement weather to allow the men to sleep in for a few more hours. Stiger had agreed and gone back to sleep. While he had gotten in those last precious hours, Stiger now understood that Tiro and Varus had been working over the prisoners.
“I wish you had woken me for that.”
“You needed the sleep more than most, sir,” Varus said. “You’ve been pushing yourself hard, sir. Besides, that’s no job for a proper officer.”
Stiger did not like that they had tried to shield him.
“Next time,” Stiger said, adding a firm undertone, “you will make sure I am there. Understand my meaning?”
“Aye, sir,” Varus said. “I do.”
“Good,” Stiger said. “Learn anything?”
“Yes, sir,” Varus said. “We did.”
Stiger saw Tiro stir. The sergeant opened his eyes and looked in their direction. Tiro stretched and then pulled himself to his feet. He walked stiffly over toward the two of them, cracking his neck as he came.
“Good morning, sir,” Tiro said cheerfully.
“More like early afternoon,” Stiger said, suspecting that the sergeant already knew this.
“Really?” Tiro said and made a show of glancing out the open door behind Stiger. “I would never have guessed, sir. Must’a overslept.”
Stiger tired of the game. “Varus here was telling me that you got something from the prisoners?”
“Yes, sir.” Tiro scratched at his jaw, and grew serious. “Well, it’s certain now and confirmed. There is an army up north, perhaps thirty to forty miles off. No idea on the actual size of said army, other than it’s quite large.” Tiro paused and let out a long breath. “And as we had thought, the squadron of cavalry that we caught here is part of the regiment camping over at the Becket Plantation. We learned they sacked the plantation and murdered those that lived there, including the slaves. Great, bloody, murderous bastards, aren’t they?” Tiro paused and glanced at the captured horses. “Lieutenant Crief’s squadron was to patrol south a few miles. The rain caught them on the road before they could return. Though they smelled smoke from the fire in the valley, they apparently knew nothing about it. It seems Crief decided to hole up and wait for the rain to pass. Our good fortune and his bad luck, along with the family that lived here.”
“So,” Stiger said, thinking through what the sergeant told him, “this regiment likely doesn’t know where the squadron spent the night? Do I have that right?”
“You know,” Varus drawled, with a slight trace of a grin, “I asked Lieutenant Crief that very same question. After a bit of persuasion, he became very cooperative and insisted he didn’t get around to dispatching a messenger. One of the other prisoners who spoke Common confirmed this. Said the lieutenant was a lazy officer, sir.”
“Well, that’s a bit of luck, isn’t it?” Stiger said. “What of the cavalry regiment’s plans? Did he say anything?”
“All he knows is that they were to sit tight,” Varus said. “At least long enough for that infantry company to finish up their business in the valley and move up. That would be the one we attacked and slaughtered, sir.”
Tiro suddenly grinned. “With luck, they will be waiting for a good long time.”
“Then what?” Stiger asked. “Do we know what their plans were?”
“Well,” Tiro said, “we think they were going to move up to the next fort along this road and try to lure the garrison out from behind the walls.”
“Like they did with Cora’Tol’s garrison,” Varus said. “That’s what we are guessing.”
“You are not sure on that?” Stiger looked from Varus to Tiro for confirmation.
“No, sir,” Tiro said. “Only that the infantry and cavalry were to deal with the next fort before the army moved up.”
“I see,” Stiger said. His eyes once again swept the interior of the barn. He felt a sudden sadness for what he must ask of his men. Though he loved the Seventh, there was service to the empire and duty to consider. Stiger gave an unconscious nod. He sucked in a breath, turned back to Tiro and Varus. “Both of you. Come with me.”
Stiger led them from the barn back to the farmhouse. On the table he had left the map they had taken from the Rivan encampment, small stones holding its corners down. Tiro closed the door and moved over to the table. A good fire crackled in the hearth and the smell of smoke was strong in the small room. The door to the bedroom was closed, but Stiger could still hear weeping. His anger welled with the heartbreaking sound, and it only strengthened his resolve.
“I am tired of running,” Stiger said without any preamble, and he meant it. “I don’t fancy being chased all the way back to the Third.”
“What are you thinking, sir?” Tiro’s tone was careful.
“Catching this Rivan cavalry squadron here was fortunate. We now have multiple horses. I am going to send a couple of men with remounts back to the Third. Pushing themselves, they should be able to make it through the forest in a couple of days, three at the most. If we take the entire company…well, on foot it will take us all much longer.” Stiger paused. “I would appreciate your thoughts on this.”
Varus looked to Tiro.
“Sending two men back to the legion is a sound plan, sir,” Tiro said, eyeing Stiger. “Where are you thinking of taking the rest of us?”
Stiger had expected the question.
“Here.” Stiger pointed down at the map, where a fort had been circled in charcoal pencil. He tapped the fort again for emphasis. Stiger moved his finger farther north. “If I am correct, we are here, just twenty miles distant. Though I don’t know for sure, with luck there is an auxiliary cohort stationed there.”
Tiro and Varus said nothing.
“My thinking is this,” Stiger continued. “We march to this fort and alert the garrison as to what is coming. I will strongly encourage the prefect to make the correct decision and march south with us. We take the garrison to the next fort and I also encourage that prefect to march with us, until we come to this one here.”
Stiger pointed at the last fort on the chain, before the map’s drawn arrow turned sharply west toward the north-south road that Third Legion had marched north on just a few weeks before. Stiger took this to mean this was the enemy’s planned route of advance. He glanced up at Tiro and Varus before looking back down at the map.
“We hold here.” Stiger tapped his finger on the last fort again. “As long as Fortuna is on our side, we should have three garrison cohorts and our company to defend it. That should give us close to fifteen hundred men. We hold and we wait for the Third to arrive and relieve us.”
Tiro sucked in a breath and spared a glance with Varus.
“A lot of shoulds in there, sir,” Tiro said. “Fortuna is known to be fickle.”
“Yes,” Stiger agreed. “It could go badly for us, particularly if the Third can’t reach us in time.”
“I am pleased the lieutenant recognizes that,” Tiro said.
“We hold until General Treim arrives,” Stiger said. “That is the key to my plan. By holding this fort, we can block the enemy’s advance.”
“And,” Varus said slowly, “if he doesn’t come?”
“Then we are in the shit,” Stiger said. “As long as our boys make it, the general will have no choice but to come.” Stiger pointed at the map. “The enemy army is marching down this road, well away from the main fighting. Truly, it is a brilliant plan. Uncontested, they will sweep south far behind our army, neatly cutting off communications. General Treim will not—no, let me correct that. He cannot allow that to happen.” Stiger nodded, feeling almost as if he were convincing himself. “Yes, he will come. As long as our messengers make it to him, he will come. Our problem will be holding. And hold we must, at least long enough for the Third to arrive, relieve us, and check the enemy’s advance.”
“What if the enemy just bypasses us?” Varus asked. “They might march around the fort and ignore us.”
“They can’t afford to leave us behind their advance,” Stiger said. “We will be a threat to their communications and supply. No, they will most assuredly assault the fort.”
A silence followed that.
“I don’t think those prefects will be too keen on the idea of giving up their forts,” Tiro said.
“What if they don’t agree to come with us?” Varus asked.
“Then we march without them,” Stiger said and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. “In our diminished state, we won’t make much difference stopping to hold with a single auxiliary cohort. Our only hope is to concentrate the cohorts and together hold the last fort.
“This is the only road south within easy reach.” Stiger paused, eyes roving over the map. After a moment, he looked back up. “We are surrounded by forest. If we don’t do this, the enemy could very well get behind the Third and cut off supply to our army. I think we can all imagine how much of a disaster that would be. I hope you both understand, I cannot allow that to happen. This is a risk I feel we must take, even if it means the destruction of the company.”
Tiro and Varus were silent as they considered Stiger’s plan.
“All that said…” Stiger sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “I will not embark upon this plan without your support. Should you both disagree with me, I will take the company through the forest and back to the Third, while sending messengers ahead with word of what I believe to be the enemy’s intentions.”
Tiro rubbed the back of his neck and returned his gaze back to the map before looking meaningfully at Varus. After a moment, the sergeant looked over at Stiger.
“What’s life without a little risk, eh?” Tiro said.
“There is a lot of risk with this plan,” Stiger said. “I ask for your full support in this endeavor.”
A few weeks ago, Stiger would never have dreamed of asking for anything from a ranker. A lot had changed in such a short time.
“It’s bold,” Tiro said, after a prolonged silence, placing both fists upon the table. “Sir, I must admit I don’t like it very much, but if it works…well, there is the very real chance we can make a difference for our brothers in the Third and the rest of the army.”
“I can’t say I’m…” Varus swallowed, “too fond of being caught on the road by cavalry, sir. Also, I’m none too thrilled about plunging back into the forest either. I say we stick to the road and do what we can for the Third. It is the right thing to do.”
Stiger let out a relieved breath.
“Thank you,” he said, pausing briefly before continuing. “Mind you, this is all speculation, but I am thinking that the enemy may possibly wait for the rain to stop before leaving the comforts of the plantation. With any luck, the fire will have distracted them. They might even go back to explore the valley. Do you think we can be on the road in an hour? I would like to get marching as soon as possible and put some distance between us and them.”
“Aye, sir. We can.” Tiro turned to Varus. “Go roust the men. I will be along in a moment to help.”
Varus nodded and left the farmhouse without a backward look.
“Do you still want the prisoners executed?” Tiro asked, once Varus had left.
Stiger thought on it for a moment, and then nodded. “I think they’ve earned it.”
“What of their lieutenant?”
“All except Crief,” Stiger said, unhappily.
“An argument could be made that his men were only following orders,” Tiro said. “In their sandals, our boys may have done the same.”
“Not while I am in command,” Stiger said, and it came out harsher than he intended.
“Sir, if anyone deserves to go, it should be that bastard Crief.”
“Agreed. However, I feel duty-bound to turn him over to the general,” Stiger said and eyed Tiro for a few heartbeats. “So, you think I should spare the lives of the prisoners?”
“I didn’t say that,” Tiro said. “It’s too dangerous bringing them with us and even more so to let them go. They know our strength and will surely report us. As prisoners, they face a bleak and uncertain future. Slavery is the best they can hope for. Sir, they will look for any opportunity to escape. I’ve seen it before. This will put anyone assigned to guard them at risk.”
Stiger nodded, agreeing with Tiro’s logic.
“However, sir,” Tiro continued, “dead is dead. Once done, you can’t take it back. I want to make sure the lieutenant is certain.”
Stiger considered Tiro. As usual, his sergeant was right and onto the heart of the matter.
“Put them to death.” Stiger’s tone was harsh, but firm. “Do it immediately. Make it fast.”
“Yes, sir.” Tiro turned and began to leave the farmhouse.
“Tiro,” Stiger said, stopping him at the door. “Send Bren and Aronus to me. They will be heading back to the legion. Make sure they have four good horses with plenty of food, feed, and water.”
“I will see to it, sir.” Tiro turned and left, closing the door behind.
Stiger stared at the closed door for a few heartbeats.
“What am I becoming?” It came out as a whisper. He suspected he already knew the answer to that question. Stiger pounded the table with his fist. The stones holding the map down jumped a couple of inches into the air.
Stiger turned his gaze back to the map. His eyes found the final fort. He hoped it was a good one, for he was staking his life and those of his men on this bold gamble.
“So be it,” Stiger said, snatching up the map and folding it back up. He had rolled the dice.
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