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
“Who the bloody hell are you?” an irritated voice called down from above. The inflection in the speaker’s voice spoke of someone raised in the patrician class.
In the dim moonlight, Stiger glanced over at Tiro and shared a knowing look.
“They sure took their time,” Tiro said with a shake of the head. “I was growing old just standing here.”
“Old man.” Stiger grinned.
“Now, sir,” Tiro said, “that wasn’t kind, not one bit.”
Stiger grunted and looked back up at the four men thirty feet above leaning over the lip of the wall just above the fort’s main gate. The wall did not seem all that impressive, and it lent the impression that the fort itself was on the small side. The speaker was in the center, while the man on his left held a torch out to better see those below. Stiger assumed the man who had called to him was the garrison’s prefect. Several additional sentries could be seen on the walls above.
It’d taken the watch more than ten minutes to summon their officer. Such a delay in a legionary encampment would have been an unforgivable sin.
“Well?” the voice above asked. The tone was a little shrill and laced heavily with impatience. “I asked you a question, man. Speak up.”
“Lieutenant Stiger, Seventh Company, Third Legion,” Stiger called back up, before glancing backward at his company. Tiro had given the order for the men to relax. A number had simply sat down on the ground and fallen immediately to sleep. The march to the fort had been exhausting, and it was nearing midnight. During the march, Stiger had only permitted a handful of extended breaks. His men needed a prolonged rest.
There was an exclamation above that brought Stiger’s head back around. It was nearly inaudible and was almost immediately followed by hurried muttering. The speaker began gesturing at him. It only served to increase his irritation.
“Stiger?” the voice called back down to him, at first unsure and then a little more firm. “Did you say Stiger?”
“Yes,” Stiger said, anger finally overcoming what little was left of his reserve. “I am a bleeding Stiger. Now who are you, sir?”
Next to him Tiro chuckled. Stiger spared his sergeant a black look, which only served to amuse the old veteran further.
“Sorry, sir,” Tiro said in a low tone, so those above couldn’t overhear. He gave a shrug. “Such is the way with auxiliaries, sir. Best get used to it.”
“I am Lieutenant Hollux,” the officer called down, “Ninth Light Foot Taborean Cohort. May I ask your purpose?”
“Where is your prefect?” Stiger asked, surprised that the garrison commander had not made an appearance.
“He is not present,” Hollux said. “In his absence, I am in command here.”
“Well,” Stiger said, lowering his voice so that only Tiro could hear, “that makes things a little easier.”
“How so, sir?” Tiro asked.
“I should think that obvious,” Stiger said. “A legionary lieutenant always outranks the equivalent in the auxiliaries. Besides,” Stiger shot him a smirk, “I am an acting captain. Strictly speaking, I would even trump the prefect.”
“Strictly?” Tiro gave a shake of his head. “I would not want to be in the lieutenant’s boots should he feel the need to give a cohort commander orders.”
“Well,” Stiger said, “let’s hope it does not come to that.”
“Knowing you, sir,” Tiro said, “it just might.”
“Lieutenant Hollux,” Stiger called back up, with a sour glance thrown at Tiro, “open the gate.”
“How do I know you are who you say you are?” Hollux called back.
Stiger looked to Tiro, eyebrow raised. In the darkness, Stiger understood it would be hard to see his company, most of which was stretched out behind in the darkness.
“Have him throw a torch or two down, sir,” Tiro suggested. “We can show him our men, and standard.”
“Good idea,” Stiger said, wishing he had thought of it first. He turned back to Hollux. “Toss down a couple of torches and we will show you our standard and men.”
There was some discussion above and then the man holding the torch dropped it down before the gate. Hissing, the torch landed in the dirt with a soft thud. Another torch was thrown over. Stiger picked one up, while Tiro grabbed the other. He walked back down his column of men, who were mostly off their feet. Stiger held the torch out so that its light fell upon his men.
The standard-bearer had remained standing, using the staff to support himself. He straightened as his officer approached. Stiger held the torch close enough that it illuminated the Seventh’s standard and battle honors, which fluttered ever so slightly as a light breeze passed them by.
“Good enough?” Stiger called back.
“Open the gate,” Hollux ordered. He disappeared from view.
A few moments later, Stiger could hear the locking mechanism being moved aside. With a great groan and a loud creaking, the heavy wooden gate began to slowly open. Stiger moved back to the front of his column. He dropped the torch, where it sputtered in the moist dirt.
Without orders to do otherwise, those of his men who were awake simply watched. Stiger was in no hurry to order them to their feet. They had marched hard to get here.
When the gate was fully opened, Stiger was pleased to see several files of men standing in a battle line, with short round shields held at the ready. Stiger surmised this was why he had been kept waiting. The ready file had been rousted from slumber, and it had taken them some time to equip themselves and assemble.
“Don’t they just seem ready for anything,” Tiro commented, irony creeping into his voice. “So far from the fighting, it’s heartening to see they are so well-prepared.”
“That’s proper procedure is all,” Stiger said, feeling the effects of the march and lack of sleep. Taking out his canteen, he took a hearty swig before returning it to his harness. He rubbed at tired eyes.
“As an old friend of mine was fond of saying,” Tiro said, “there are auxiliary cohorts and then there are auxiliary cohorts.”
Stiger looked over at his sergeant, wondering if his leg was being pulled.
“Honest, sir,” Tiro said. “It was an elf thing really. Well, I supposed it was a saying amongst their kind, comparing the same thing against itself. Just never had use for it until now.”
“You know an elf?” Stiger was highly skeptical.
“Served alongside one of them,” Tiro said, becoming slightly indignant. “His name is Eli and we became fast friends. A good one, that elf. I was sad to see him return to his lands.”
Stiger eyed his sergeant for several heartbeats. He decided Tiro was not jesting.
“I tell you, sir,” Tiro continued wistfully, “it was a sad day the elves withdrew to their own lands.”
Hollux and a sergeant stepped out through the gate.
Hollux was a tall man. He stood several inches above Stiger. Wearing auxiliary chainmail armor did nothing to conceal the other officer’s painful thinness. Despite that, Hollux had a refined and pampered look about him, which served to confirm Stiger’s suspicion he was from a good family, even though the name was unfamiliar. Likely a second or third son sent off to make his own way in the world. It seemed he had been unable to excel at that and had ended up in the auxiliaries. He was also older, perhaps twice Stiger’s age, which, as a lieutenant, was not a good sign for any officer in service to the empire.
The sergeant appeared Tiro’s age. He walked with a slight limp and had a hard look about him. The sergeant’s neck had been thickened like any other long-service veteran, a mark of the heavy legionary helmets. His eyes were sharp and seemed to miss nothing.
“Lieutenant Stiger, welcome to Fort Footprint.” Hollux offered his hand, which Stiger took and found surprisingly firm. Despite that, Hollux seemed uncomfortable. Stiger chalked that up to his family name.
“Lieutenant Hollux,” Stiger said, “it is a pleasure to meet you.”
“I was not aware that there were any legionary companies operating in the area.” Hollux glanced to Tiro and then at Stiger’s men. “What brings you out so far from the action?”
Stiger saw the lieutenant’s face harden and followed the man’s gaze. Cloaks torn and unshaven, his men appeared far from impressive. But Stiger had learned that it wasn’t looks that mattered. He saw no judgment mirrored on the auxiliary sergeant’s face, only a calm, competent appraisal.
“We were sent to Cora’Tol,” Stiger said brusquely. “However, when we got there, we found the town burned and the garrison overrun. I am afraid it is my duty to report Cora’Tol has been destroyed.”
“What?” Hollux snapped, shrill tone becoming even more penetrating. “Cora’Tol is gone?”
“Yes, and that’s not the worst of it. There is a Rivan army marching this way. They could be here any time.”
Hollux and his sergeant exchanged a look.
“Surely that can’t be right?” It was apparent Hollux was hoping Stiger was pulling his leg.
“I’m afraid it is.” Stiger read the disbelief in Hollux’s eyes. He looked over at Tiro. “Sergeant, if you would bring Crief forward.”
Hollux watched Tiro step away and then turned his gaze back to Stiger.
“I simply don’t believe it.” Hollux exchanged another look with his sergeant. “The last we heard, the fighting was well over a hundred miles away. A dispatch rider came through just last week with news Third Legion had won a victory and forced a crossing over the Hana. And you expect me to just trust you that the Rivan are coming? Really?”
“By the gods, you better believe it,” Stiger said, anger boiling over as he became hot. This man had just questioned his word. Should he desire it, Stiger would be justified challenging him to a duel. “How dare you question my honor?” Stiger poked Hollux in the chest. The other stepped back, blinking. “I’ve marched more miles than I can bloody count, and with precious little sleep to boot. We’ve been pursued and hounded for days by the Rivan. Despite that, we managed not only to elude our pursuers but also to successfully assault an enemy company’s encampment at Cora’Tol. Oh, and we learned yesterday there’s an enemy cavalry regiment operating just south of the valley. They are probably looking for us for what we’ve done. How dare you question my word? I’ve had about all I am going to take from you, sir.”
Hollux took another step back and shook his head in dismay at Stiger’s outrage. “I…I…” Hollux swallowed and then drew himself up. “Ah, it was not my intention to question your honor, sir. It is apparent you have been through a lot. You caught me by surprise is all. Will you accept my apology?”
Stiger’s anger rapidly cooled at the abrupt and seemingly sincere admission. He let out a ragged breath and then nodded.
“I accept your apology, sir.”
Tiro and Legionary Asus returned, dragging a battered and bruised Crief between them. The two released the enemy officer just before Hollux. Crief collapsed to the ground, moaning and rocking slightly.
“This bastard,” Stiger said, with more than a little disgust, “is Lieutenant Crief, Second Horse Regiment. We caught him and his squadron just twenty miles from this here very spot.”
“Is he the only prisoner you took, sir?” Hollux’s sergeant asked, speaking up for the first time.
“No,” Stiger said. “We took others. I had them put to death before we marched.”
Hollux seemed surprised by this admission, but his sergeant did not bat an eye. Hollux’s eyes traveled from Stiger down to Crief.
“Tell him,” Stiger said, nudging Crief with a boot. “Tell Lieutenant Hollux what is coming our way.”
Crief stopped moaning and rocking. He looked up at Stiger. His eyes narrowed and Stiger read hate. Crief then turned to Hollux, and his cracked and swollen lips split into a wicked grin.
“My father is coming,” Crief cried, then cackled madly. “My father is coming.” His voice rose. “He is coming to kill you all.” Crief was nearly screaming. “You will all die. Do you hear me? The Rivan are coming for you! I promise—”
Tiro stepped forward and gave Crief a solid kick into his side, which sent him sprawling into the dirt. Crief rolled onto his back and continued to cackle madly. Tiro made to kick him again, but Stiger checked his sergeant with a hand to the chest.
“Take him away,” Stiger said.
Crief had done what he had wanted and more. He turned back to Hollux as Tiro and Asus dragged the enemy officer away.
“I take it that settles that?” said Stiger.
Hollux simply nodded and opened his mouth as if to say something, but no words came out.
“What is your name, sergeant?”
“Pazzullo, sir,” the sergeant replied and pulled himself to attention. “I served with Eighth Legion for twenty-five years before accepting an assignment with the auxiliaries.”
Stiger understood the man’s meaning. He had completed his service and been eligible for retirement. Instead, he had taken the position of lead sergeant for an auxiliary cohort, a prestigious post for a ranker. It was possible that after a number of years he might even achieve promotion to lieutenant and be made a gentleman, even if it was only with the auxiliaries. Such a promotion would never have been available to the regulars in the legions. It was an extremely rare thing for a ranker to be elevated.
“Sergeant Pazzullo,” Stiger said, “I want you to prepare your men for march. We leave in two hours.”
“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said, and Stiger could hear the audible relief in the veteran’s tone.
“Full kit,” Stiger said to Pazzullo, “and whatever rations the men can carry. Destroy everything else and prepare the fort to be burned.”
“What?” Hollux looked to Stiger, eyes wide as if he had suddenly come to his senses. “Hold on a moment. You can’t do that. We can’t give up the fort.”
Pazzullo’s eyes snapped to Hollux in alarm.
“Why not?” Stiger said as Tiro returned.
“I don’t have orders to do as you say,” Hollux said.
Stiger barked out a laugh. “We’re well beyond your orders. Do you really want to wait here for the enemy to come marching down that road? By the gods, man, you only have one cohort. Besides, I believe I am the senior ranking officer here. And as such, I am now giving you your orders.”
“But you are only a lieutenant,” Hollux sputtered, “no better than I.”
“A legionary lieutenant,” Stiger said, “and acting captain of my company.”
“But I just can’t…”
Stiger had had enough. He turned to the Pazzullo. “Sergeant, do you have any questions concerning your orders?”
“No, sir.” Pazzullo did not even glance at his lieutenant this time.
“Then, without further delay, kindly carry out your orders.”
“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said and snapped off a salute. He spun on his heel and jogged back into the fort.
“Tiro,” Stiger said, “get the men on their feet. They can fall out inside the fort. See what you and Varus can do to help Pazzullo. We march in two hours, whether they are ready or not. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said and moved off to deal with the men.
Stiger turned back to Hollux, who looked thoroughly lost by what had just occurred. Stiger felt some sympathy for the man. His life, so far from the fighting, had likely been a quiet one. The worst he had probably had to deal with were bandits and the occasional troubles spawned by greedy tax collectors. Stiger had just turned his world upside down.
“Listen, Hollux,” Stiger said and softened his tone. “They are still your men. I don’t want to leave you or them behind to face an enemy army alone. Understand me?”
Hollux nodded, swallowed once again, and then met Stiger’s eyes. “Where are we going?”
“South,” Stiger said. “I have a map, and it shows two more forts down the road. Can you tell me if they have active garrisons?”
“Yes, they each hold a garrison,” Hollux said. “Forts Ida and Covenant.”
“Good,” Stiger said, and ran his eyes over the dark walls of Fort Footprint. There could not be more than two hundred men inside. “Is the last fort like this one? On the smallish side?”
“Oh, no,” Hollux said. “Fort Covenant is actually quite large and well-fortified. There are two infantry cohorts stationed there. Fort Ida is about the size of this one.”
Stiger felt immense relief at hearing that bit of news. It increased their chances of holding until the Third could arrive and relieve them. Stiger’s thoughts momentarily strayed and he wondered how Bren and Aronus were faring. Stiger rubbed at his tired eyes again. They were dry. He blinked several times before focusing back on Hollux.
“What type of cohort is yours?”
“We’re a mixed bag, really,” Hollux said. “Fifty archers and one hundred light infantry.”
Archers would come in handy, Stiger thought.
“You know,” Hollux said, taking a dismal turn, “my prefect will be pissed when he learns that I burned his fort.”
“We can’t leave it for the enemy,” Stiger said. “General Treim would have my balls for breakfast if I did. Fort Footprint must be destroyed. I hope you can understand that?”
“I still think he’s gonna be unhappy,” Hollux said. “Prefect Lears is the kind of man who holds grudges. He won’t thank you or I for doing what was necessary.”
“I expect not,” Stiger said. On the political side, the Lears family was not on friendly terms with the Stigers. “Speaking of which, where is your prefect? Why isn’t he here?”
“Lieutenant Aggar from the Cora’Tol Garrison came through with orders for him to report to Fort Covenant for a meeting of cohort commanders.”
“Lieutenant Aggar was here?” Stiger felt himself grow cold. “When?”
“Two days ago,” Hollux said.
Stiger rubbed his jaw as he considered this news. After a moment, he looked back up at Hollux.
“Do you have any maps?” Stiger asked.
“Yes,” Hollux said, “back in headquarters.”
“When we set out, we had no plans of coming this way. The only map I have of these parts is one that I took from the enemy. Do you mind if I take a look at them?”
“By all means,” Hollux said, having recovered some measure of himself. “We do have several jars of fine wine. Truthfully, it belongs to my prefect, but seeing as how we can’t bring it with us and we can’t leave it for the enemy…”
“I could use a cup or two,” Stiger said with a genuine smile. Hollux was beginning to grow on him. “I haven’t enjoyed a good cup of wine since we set out from the Third.”
Hollux gestured toward the fort, where Stiger could hear the garrison being rousted. Stiger followed Hollux through the gate, thinking on Lieutenant Aggar and what lay ahead. Behind him, Tiro and Varus had gotten the men to their feet.
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