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
“What do you think?” Stiger glanced over to Sergeant Tiro.
The two men were crouched down behind a small stone wall. Stiger laid a hand on the moss-covered stone. Beyond the wall was a wide, open field, which had once been pastureland. A handful of rotten posts were all that was still visible of the fencing that had hemmed in the field. Long abandoned, grass and weeds had grown almost waist high. The saplings scattered across the field were a sure sign that the forest to their backs desired nothing more than to reclaim the land it had lost.
Tiro scratched his jaw, squinting his eyes as he surveyed the field. “We could just go around.”
“We could.” Stiger turned back to the field. The tree line on the opposite side was perhaps a mile away. “That would just eat up time, which, I might add, we likely don’t have.”
“True,” the sergeant said and took a deep breath. “I really don’t feel like crossing out in the open like that, even if it does save us an hour or two. My recommendation would be to stick to the trees and work our way ‘round, careful-like. Safer, I think.”
“Still nervous about cavalry?” Stiger asked.
“Do you really expect me to answer that?” The sergeant glanced behind him into the trees. The rest of Seventh Company waited several yards back, mostly concealed by the undergrowth, which grew thick on the border of the field.
Stiger followed the sergeant’s gaze. The men, all eighty-two of them, had taken a knee to avoid inadvertently being spotted. After the hard pace and exertions of the last few hours, they were taking advantage of the unexpected halt. Corporal Varus was checking on each man, likely making sure they had not dipped into their haversacks for the last of their precooked rations.
Looking over the men, Stiger felt a sudden fondness for them. They were his men, and he was their lieutenant and commanding officer. After the recent action against the Rivan, the Seventh had suffered terribly. They were a shadow of their former strength, less than the equivalent of a light company.
Stiger turned back to the grizzled old sergeant and gave him a wry grin. “I’m still nervous, too.”
“Then let’s go ‘round and be safe about it.” Tiro gestured off to their left, swinging his arm about to demonstrate the movement around the field. “Those tracks we crossed on that trail a couple of hours back tell me enemy cavalry is active in this area.”
Stiger rubbed his jaw as he considered his options. Sweat freely ran down his forehead. The heat of the unusually late summer day was broiling them all, even in the shade of the trees. Stiger couldn’t wait until the heat passed over to cold weather, but then he was sure he would long for the warmth of summer. He let out a long, slow breath.
“We go around.”
“Excellent decision, sir,” Tiro said cheerfully. “I wholeheartedly approve.”
“Right, let’s get back to the men.”
They worked their way back through the brush and deeper into the trees, careful to keep low. A few weary heads came up with knowing looks. The respite, however brief, was about to come to an end.
Stiger caught the eye of Corporal Varus and gestured the man over. Varus was the last surviving corporal in the Seventh. With only eighty-two men remaining to his command, Stiger had not thought to promote another.
“What’s the word, sir?” Varus asked. The corporal carried his helmet under an arm. He mopped his brow with a small, dirty wool rag, which he likely used to clean his kit. Varus’s shield rested against a tree a couple of feet away, along with Stiger’s, both still nestled comfortably in their canvas covers like the rest of the company’s.
“We,” Stiger said, gesturing with his hand, “are going to skirt around the field and stick to the trees.”
“No more encounters with cavalry,” Tiro said firmly.
“Amen to that,” Varus said.
Stiger pointed in the direction they would be going. “Send one of our scouts forward. I want him to have a look ahead.” Stiger glanced quickly around at his tired men. “We will give him a five-minute head start.”
“Yes, sir,” Varus said and stepped away, heading in the direction of Legionary Milos Bren, one of the company’s best scouts, who was sitting and speaking with several of the men next to the trunk of a large tree to Stiger’s left. Bren had been a poacher before being caught and sentenced to the legions. A few moments later, Varus was back and the scout was clambering to his feet, gathering his kit.
“Let’s get the men up,” Stiger said. “Tiro, take the roll. Kindly make sure we are not missing anyone.”
Tiro and Varus began moving amongst the men, quietly passing out orders as Bren set off, disappearing into the trees.
The men fell in, forming two loose lines. Tiro began taking roll, walking down the marching column and checking off names from a tattered pad with a charcoal pencil. Stiger waited patiently as the count was taken.
Tiro returned to Stiger’s side.
“All present and accounted for, lieutenant.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
Tiro looked off into the woods, in the direction they had just come. He shifted his stance, and Stiger suspected the old veteran’s thoughts were unsettled.
“Do you think they are still following us?” Tiro asked as the company formed up for march.
“I think so too. Let’s just hope,” Tiro said, “we can make it to Cora’Tol before they catch up to us.”
“If they do,” Stiger said with a glance back into the woods, “we will fight.”
“Might I make another recommendation, sir?”
Stiger nodded for the sergeant to continue.
“Next time,” a hint of a smile appeared on Tiro’s face, “it might not be a bad idea to scout the surrounding area before we decide to take out an isolated file of Rivan guard, even if they are distracted ransacking a farm.”
Though Tiro had said it as a jest, Stiger sensed a reproving look in the man’s eyes. It had come as quite a surprise to discover an entire enemy company had been hiding nearby. The Seventh had been lucky to escape, but the cost had been a spirited pursuit over many miles. Stiger had hoped to give the enemy the slip, but so far he had been unable to do so. Had they not been outnumbered, Stiger would have turned and offered battle.
“Next time,” Stiger said, “how about giving such sage advice in advance.”
“Trust me,” Tiro said, “I will endeavor to do so, sir.”
“All set, sir,” Varus said, approaching.
Stiger looked over his men as he picked up his own shield and marching yoke. Settling the yoke and shield comfortably in one arm, he waved a hand forward, and the Seventh started moving, armor chinking. Stiger almost winced. They made one heck of a racket, though he recognized it was not as loud as his imagination made it. Sound carried poorly in the forest. He just hoped none of the enemy were near enough to hear.
The trees they marched under were tall hardwoods. They had an ancient feel, and every so often Stiger found himself glancing upward. So high up was the thick canopy of green that the undergrowth through which the company marched was nearly nonexistent. The Seventh moved at a good pace, treading over soft beds of moss and last year’s fall leaves, hobnailed sandals crunching with nearly every step. Despite the heat, the smell of dampness and decay was sharp.
Closer to the field, just a few yards away, the underbrush thickened considerably. Stiger reckoned that they were well-screened from view as they skirted around the edge of the field. Periodically he moved toward the brush line and surveyed the sunlit field. There had been no sign of the enemy.
As Stiger marched with the men, he shifted his yoke back over to his shield arm and reached up to touch the puckered scar on his cheek. Though it had mostly healed, the skin was still fresh and tender. It itched, and Stiger found it an effort to refrain from scratching. The surgeon warned him if he gave in, the subsequent scratching could reopen the wound. Infection might set in.
The traitorous Sergeant Geta had given him that little memento, just moments before Stiger had killed him. In a way, the wound that marred his features was a parting gift, a reminder to be ever watchful.
Stiger pulled his hand away from his face and shifted his yoke again. He did this more to keep his hands busy than anything else. He glanced around. Everything was in order.
Stiger had taken to marching in the middle of the column. Tiro was at the head, Varus at the rear to make sure no one straggled and got left behind.
The company had made it almost all the way around the field when word was passed back for Stiger to come forward. The column ahead had not halted, so it wasn’t something critical. Stiger increased his pace, sweating under the oppressive heat, and made his way to the front of the march.
“Sir,” Tiro said when Stiger fell in alongside, “Bren’s returned.”
Stiger saw the scout and motioned him over. Bren saluted smartly as they continued to march, the men of the company at their backs.
“Report.” Stiger returned the salute.
“Sir,” he said, and then pointed in the direction the company was marching. “There is a dirt road deep with wagon ruts about a quarter of a mile ahead. I saw fresh tracks. At least several files of men, moving eastward along the road. The tracks were no more than a day old.”
“Rivan, you think?”
The scout shrugged, as if to say he could not tell.
Stiger felt himself frown. Not only were they being pursued, but there was a force of enemy cavalry roaming about, and now the possibility for more of the enemy somewhere in the direction of Cora’Tol, their objective.
“That,” Tiro said with an unhappy tone, “sounds like the road we are looking for.”
“It does,” Stiger agreed and reached into his cloak pocket, removing the small map that General Treim had given him. It was a simple camp copy made by a scribe. He held it up as they walked so that Tiro could see, and then touched the line that indicated the road they were looking for. “If I am correct, when we hit the road, we should be about here.”
“That seems right.” Tiro nodded. “Looks to be around ten miles to the Cora’Tol garrison then, with that village there in the middle.”
“We could be at Cora’Tol within a few hours then,” Stiger said.
“If we take the road.” Tiro shared a long look with Stiger.
“You are thinking we might blunder into an enemy formation.”
“It’s very possible,” Tiro said. “Who would have guessed that the enemy would be this far south?”
“If the general had known,” Stiger said, “he would have sent at least a full company, perhaps more, and we’d be cooling our heels back in camp.”
Stiger turned to the scout, who had been following their conversation. “Get on ahead to the road and keep an eye out.”
“Yes, sir.” The scout saluted and broke into a jog. In moments, he was out of view, lost amongst the trees.
“There should be no enemy in these parts,” Stiger said with some frustration. “They should be way up north and across the river where the legions are.”
“And yet, here they are, sir,” Tiro said.
Stiger was incredibly frustrated and kicked at a fallen branch as they walked.
“So, what are we going to do?” Tiro asked. “Take the road, or stick to the forest?”
Stiger expelled a slow breath. He had been surprised at the strength of the enemy operating in this area. It was possible that the garrison at Cora’Tol was besieged. For all he knew, it might have even fallen.
He glanced behind him at the marching column. His men had enough rations for at least one last meal. Then they would go hungry. It was a pretty big problem. To make matters worse, he was being pursued by at least a full company of enemy infantry. Should he play it safe? Should he stick to the woods and take the longer route? Or should he take the risk and push right on to the garrison, hoping to make it before the enemy caught up with him? Was the garrison still there?
Stiger shifted his yoke again and rubbed the back of his neck. These questions and more worried at him terribly. Worse, he was the one who had to make the ultimate decision. No one would make it for him. What to do?
“I am thinking we stick with what is working and play it safe,” Stiger said finally. “We stay to the woods, even if it takes us longer.”
End Chapter One -
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