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Stiger came to a surprised halt as Livia stepped out of the headquarters tent, into the torchlight, and past the guard. She spotted Stiger and Eli. There was a moment’s hesitation, almost a missed step, as she registered who it was. She flashed him a dazzling smile and stepped up to them. Her body slave, a matronly woman in her forties, came to a halt a step behind Livia.
Stiger was extremely pleased to see Livia. It had been weeks since they’d set eyes upon one another and he felt a thrill at the unexpected encounter. They last time he’d seen her had been before he set out to retrieve Lieutenant Aggar from the Cora’Tol garrison. That mission culminated in Seventh Company ending up at Fort Covenant and had nearly cost Stiger his life.
“Ben,” Livia said, a mischievous look in her eye. “So nice to run into you.”
“When did you arrive?” Stiger asked, thinking she was a welcome sight for sore eyes. Her blonde hair was perfectly brushed. It cascaded down her back. She wore a modest light green dress, with a shawl draped around her shoulders. It was of the kind she could pull up and over her head should she wish shelter from the elements or prying eyes.
“Late this afternoon,” Livia said.
“Livia,” Stiger said, abruptly conscious of Eli at his side. The elf appeared curious and amused as he glanced between the two of them. “May I introduce Eli’far.”
“I’ve had the pleasure of making his acquaintance,” Livia said, giving Eli a warm smile. “He and I are old friends.”
“You have? You are?” Stiger was surprised by that, but then realized he should not have been. Eli had been with the general for weeks before he had attached himself to Stiger’s company. It was only natural that they should have crossed paths.
“Eli,” Livia said, extending her hand to him.
Eli took a graceful step toward her, as if at the emperor’s court. With one hand held behind his back he leaned forward and took the offered hand, brushing it with his lips in a gentle kiss. He looked up at Livia and returned her smile with one of his own before he straightened. “A pleasure, as always, my dear.”
He held her hand a moment more before releasing it.
Stiger felt an intense stab of jealousy. Livia flushed slightly, her gaze lingering on Eli. Stiger realized his mouth was hanging open stupidly. He clamped it shut, just as she returned her attention to him. Livia flashed him another smile. In the darkness, lit only by torchlight, it was as if the sun had suddenly risen in all its glory.
“Ben, when you are able to pry yourself away from your duties,” Livia said, “perhaps we can find time to go for a walk or maybe even a ride? Get to know each other once again, if you will. It’s been too long.”
“I would like that very much,” Stiger said. “Would you have time tomorrow afternoon?”
“I do, yes,” Livia said, with a slight pout. “Sadly, you do not.”
“I don’t understand.” Stiger glanced over at Eli. Then it hit him. He was being sent out on a mission of some kind, and she knew.
“It will have to wait,” Livia said, lowing her voice in a conspiratorial manner and making a show of looking around for listening ears. She leaned close to Stiger and Eli. “I’m not supposed to know, but my father has a job for you both.”
“Oh?” Stiger asked curiously. He wondered how dangerous this job would be, particularly considering they had been called to headquarters after hours.
“Well,” Livia said with a light laugh that sounded quite pleasant to Stiger’s ears, “I won’t spoil the fun for my father. You should be gone no more than a few weeks. With any luck, you will be back before the first snows. Then we can spend some time together. I do so miss your company, Ben.”
She stepped up to him, planted a peck on his cheek. As she pulled away, she gave Stiger a quick wink, then nodded to her slave and turned to leave. Eli stepped aside to allow her passage between them and inclined his head as she passed. Her perfume, a lavender of some kind, remained on the air after her passage. Stiger found it alluring. They both turned and watched Livia as she moved off into the darkness, her slave following along behind.
“I do believe she likes you,” Eli said. He shot Stiger a wink, imitating Livia.
“What gave you that idea?” Stiger asked with an unhappy frown.
“I wonder, maybe the kiss on your cheek?” Eli flashed him a closed-mouth grin. “Or perhaps, the ‘I do so miss your company, Ben.’ It was rather obvious, don’t you think? You humans show too much emotion when it comes to, how you say, devotion?”
Stiger shot Eli an unhappy look. “Love?”
“Yes,” Eli said, pleased. “That is the word. You are a lucky man, I think.” Eli glanced toward the headquarters tent. “I wonder, do you think her father knows?”
“By the gods, I hope not.” Stiger started forward without another word. The headquarters guard snapped to attention as Stiger made his way into the administrative tent with Eli following. He understood the guards had just witnessed everything that had passed between him and Livia. He could well imagine the rumors that would be making their way around camp come morning. It would only be a matter of time until the general discovered his daughter’s flirtations with Stiger. He was not looking forward to that day.
Putting the guard and the inevitable rumors from his mind, Stiger found the headquarters tent well-lit, with lanterns hanging from support poles. Several tallow candles burned on tables too, adding to the usable light. The tent smelled strongly of tallow, lamp oil, ink, waterproofed canvas, and smoke from a brazier that had been lit.
Though the hour was late, there were still six clerks bent over tables, reading reports or scribbling away with styluses on wax tablets or scratching in ink on vellum. The tent hummed with activity. Four messengers were standing by on the far side of the tent, patiently waiting to be called.
One of the clerks looked up as Stiger moved farther into the tent. The man had a busy air about him and, from his expression, appeared to resent the intrusion upon his work.
“May I help you, sir?” the clerk asked, standing. Gone was the resentful look. He approached Stiger with a carefully schooled expression of equanimity. Stiger knew him to be Lenovus, the chief clerk. Lenovus was a skinny, balding man in his early thirties with ink-stained hands. Though he was just a freedman, it was rumored the general held him in high esteem and had brought him all the way from the capital.
“Captain Stiger, reporting as ordered,” Stiger said, certain Lenovus knew exactly who he was and why he was here.
“Ah, yes,” the clerk said with a slight scowl. “You were sent for over an hour ago, sir.”
“I came straight away, as soon as I received the summons,” Stiger said, wondering if the clerk was playing a game. “I did not dally, if that is your meaning.”
“Yes, sir,” Lenovus said in a tone that was carefully neutral. “Please wait here. I will let the general know you have arrived.”
“Thank you,” Stiger said.
The clerk moved over to the adjacent tent that served as the general’s office. That tent came right up to the edge of the administrative tent. The side of the general’s tent, broken only by a canvas flap, functioned as a partition to give the general some privacy. Lenovus pulled back the flap and held it aside, poking his head inside.
“Excuse me, sir,” Lenovus said.
“What is it?” came the general’s deep voice.
“Captain Stiger and the elven ranger Eli’Far to see you, sir.”
“It’s about time,” Treim said, in a tone that sounded far from pleased. “Send him right in.”
The clerk stood aside. He held back the flap and motioned for them to enter.
Stiger led the way into the tent. He found the general standing before a large table. Colonel Aetius was there with him. Both were staring intently at a map laid out on the table. Rocks had been placed along the edges of the map to hold the corners down. Wooden markers were positioned about the map.
General Treim looked up with an expression that spoke of disapproval. It was the kind of look a father might give a child. The general was a tall man, with short-cropped, brown hair. His face was long, with a jaw that looked as if it had been chiseled from stone. The general’s nose was slightly hooked, and his lips were drawn into a thin line. Treim’s eyes were piercing and spoke of a deep intelligence. Stiger noted the dark bags that hung under the general’s eyes. He looked like a man starved of sleep, with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Stiger stepped forward. He snapped to attention and saluted, fist to chest, as the clerk let the tent flap fall back into place.
“Reporting as ordered, sir,” Stiger said and then made sure to add, “I came just as soon as I received the summons, sir.”
Treim gave a nod and straightened, crossing his arms. He took a long moment to study Stiger and Eli. Stiger felt uncomfortable under the unexpected scrutiny. The general uncrossed his arms and placed his hands back on the table, leaning forward to study the map. Stiger remained where he was, standing at attention.
“That was some fine work at Fort Covenant,” Treim said in a grudging tone, glancing up from the map. “Prefect Merritt has good things to say about you, son. I’ve known Merritt for more than twenty years. He’s never been one to speak very highly of others, unless they’ve impressed him. You seem to have done that.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said, keeping his expression neutral. “I did nothing other than what I thought was my duty.”
“So it seems,” Treim said, “and even doing that you impressed Colonel Aetius as well.” Treim threw a glance over to the colonel. “That is a hard thing to do.”
“The captain is a credit to the legion,” Aetius said.
Stiger was uncomfortable with the unexpected praise, especially in light of his family’s reputation.
“You’ve gotten my attention, too,” Treim said, tone turning unhappy. “However, you failed in your mission. Lieutenant Aggar escaped you.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said, stiffly. He felt sore about that. Stiger had been sent to fetch Aggar and, at the time, had no idea why other than to bring him back to the general. Stiger had learned later that the lieutenant was suspected of selling information to the enemy. In the end, Aggar had turned out to be a traitor in the service of the Rivan.
“That was not Stiger’s fault,” Aetius said to Treim. “Merritt confirmed as much.”
“No,” Treim said and let out a heavy breath. “You are quite correct. It was that fool Declin’s fault. I thought by getting that arrogant ass promoted to tribune and assigning him to an out-of-the-way command, I could keep him from causing too much trouble.” The general paused and looked over at Stiger. “It seems I was wrong. So, in the end the responsibility for Aggar’s escape is mine alone. I do not hold that against you, Captain.”
Stiger didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he kept his mouth shut.
“And you?” The general abruptly turned his attention onto Eli, acknowledging the elf’s presence for the first time. “You survived the ordeal at Covenant. From what Aetius tells me, it was a close thing. The captain here seems to attract all kinds of trouble, and not the good kind, either. There are safer assignments than tagging along with him.”
“I assume there are,” Eli said with a look over at Stiger.
“Are you still intent on sticking with Captain Stiger and his company?”
“I am,” Eli said. “I cannot think of a better officer in the legion with whom to attach myself as…shall we say, an observer for my people.”
The general grunted, regarding Eli a long moment before turning his gaze back on Stiger. “I have a job for the two of you.”
General Treim motioned Stiger and Eli forward to the table and the map.
“This is our position here, nearly on the border of the Forests of Abath and Rivan territory.” The general pointed at the map. “The forests are a dense tangle of unmapped woodlands that make the Wilds appear tame by comparison. To the north of us, occupying the Cora’Tol Valley, is an enemy army numbering at least twenty thousand. They are freshly reinforced, but still recovering from the beating we gave them. To the west”—the general slid his hand across the map and tapped a position along a north-south road—“are the three legions we marched north with, the Second, Eighth, and Fourteenth. They are facing the main body of the enemy, numbering somewhere around sixty thousand in total strength. As you know, after we forced a crossing of the river, our legion was put in reserve to recover and protect the army’s communications. The other three legions pushed farther north and pursued the enemy deeper into their territory. What you might not know is that a series of battles between our legions and the main enemy army were fought over the last few weeks. No advantage was gained by either side, other than to see a great effusion of blood for all involved.” Treim looked up at Stiger. “Are you with me so far?”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. He had heard talk of such action, but nothing definitive. It was good to know the tactical situation and not have to piece it together from rumor or second-hand knowledge.
“Good,” Treim said, “for had you not discovered the enemy’s intention to flank our drive into Rivan territory, we would be looking at a very different tactical and strategic picture.”
Stiger said nothing.
The general glanced up briefly from the map and their eyes met.
“That was some damn fine intelligence you came across that alerted us to the enemy’s intentions.” Treim looked back down and swung his finger back to Third Legion’s position, marked by a small block of wood, and then farther to the east, to the Inland Sea. “There is a city by the name of Thresh, about here.” The general tapped the map, which did not show the city in question. Treim tapped the same spot for emphasis.
“I’ve heard of it, sir,” Stiger said. “I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting, but if I recall, Thresh is an island city on the northern end of the sea. For the most part, the empire’s ignored them.”
“Not willingly,” Treim said.
“One of the reasons they’ve avoided being swallowed up by us is that King Kronen of Thresh has a powerful navy,” Aetius said. “The king’s fleet is numerous, experienced, and quite capable.” Aetius paused and pointed at the map. “The northern end of the sea is effectively his own personal lake. From time to time the empire has considered ending Thresh’s neutrality and taking the city by force. However, any potential rewards gained from seizing the city would be far outweighed by the costs. Hence the real reason Thresh remains an independent power.”
“Let’s be honest,” Treim said. “Even if the senate approved the expenditure needed, any attempt to overcome Thresh’s navy would be questionable at best.”
“It would be a difficult venture,” Aetius conceded. “With the war against the Rivan already eating up the treasury, the senate is unlikely to approve such an effort unless forced to.”
“They are not the problem,” Treim said, moving his hand to the country above the Inland Sea. “Castol Mallara is our problem. It is rumored they are about to enter into an alliance with the Rivan. And by rumored, I mean our spies have confirmed this intelligence as fact. It is not yet public knowledge.”
“They are a long way from us, sir,” Stiger pointed out.
“Correct,” the general said. “To get to us, they would have to march through the eastern end of Abath. With no regular east-west roads, the Castol would be forced to construct their own as they marched westward, cutting their way through thick, untamed forest. Such a move would prove a difficult challenge, but, in my mind, not an insurmountable one.”
Stiger nodded and saw what the general was getting at. He snapped his fingers. “Unless they use the Inland Sea. They could land an army anywhere along the coast, bypass Abath, march inland, and potentially cut our communications, much like the Rivan attempted. They might even be able to supply themselves by sea.”
Treim and Aetius shared a glance. A hint of a smile tugged at the general’s lips as he looked back on Stiger.
“Which is why you are going to Thresh,” the general said. “We want you to deliver a letter and a package for us.”
“You mean to deny the Castol the Inland Sea,” Eli said, cocking his head to the side slightly in an extreme manner a human never would. “And if I am any judge, the package you wish us to deliver will be a pile of gold. You humans seem quite fond of that metal.”
“Yes, yes we are,” Aetius said with a laugh and then sobered. “The empire intends to buy the Thresh for the coming winter and next year’s campaign season. We mean to force the Castol to make their way to the front by foot, giving us time to prepare. The emperor is hoping to avoid the expense of having to build a fleet to take Thresh.”
Why me? Stiger wanted to ask the question, but he already knew the answer.
“I am sending you,” Treim said, almost as if he could read Stiger’s thoughts, “to send a message to the Thresh.”
“I see,” Stiger said. “Even though my family is in disgrace, my name still carries weight.”
The general hesitated. “It does,” he admitted. “Stigers have been known for generations as the empire’s foremost generals. Had your father backed the right son during the succession, he might have been leading this army against the Rivan instead of me.” Treim waved a hand in the air. “But that is all history and water that has long passed under the bridge. You will deliver a personal letter from me to King Kronen. Give him the gold as well and return with his reply. Under no circumstances are you to negotiate on the empire’s behalf. Ultimately, should the king prove receptive, Aetius or perhaps even I will act as the empire’s ambassador to negotiate the terms of a treaty.”
“And if he’s not interested?” Stiger asked. “Do you wish me to return with the gold?”
“I would not expect the king to turn you down on the spot,” General Treim said. “You are to deliver the gold whether receptive or not. If rebuffed, well…then bring it back. Most likely the king will accept the gold and enter into negotiations toward a formal treaty.”
“We believe the negotiations will take much of the winter,” Aetius said. “The gold you are giving him is a down payment. Simply return to us with the king’s initial reply. After that, your hand in this is at an end.”
“I understand, sir,” Stiger said, thinking things through. It sounded simple, but so had the mission to fetch Aggar. “You expect the king to pursue a treaty, don’t you?”
“We do,” Aetius said. “He’d be a fool not to. Allowing the Castol free passage would be tantamount to entering the war against us. It would likely be the catalyst that finally drives the senate to make a serious effort to end Thresh’s domination of the Inland Sea.”
“I see, sir,” Stiger said.
“Your executive officer is recovering from a wound received at Fort Covenant?” Treim asked. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, sir. He is expected to be released from the hospital in a week or two, sir,” Stiger said. “Light duties after that.”
“Excellent,” Treim said. “He can supervise your company while you’re away.”
“I am not taking my company with me, sir?” Stiger asked, suddenly alarmed.
“Not all of it,” Treim said. “You will be traveling on roads well behind friendly lines. They are regularly patrolled by auxiliaries. I should think the risk of running into the enemy an extremely unlikely prospect. The biggest threat on the roads will be banditry. You will take twenty-five men with you, including one of your sergeants. That’s enough to provide basic security for the gold and encourage any bandits you happen across to look for trouble elsewhere. Your remaining sergeant will stay behind to help train replacements as they come in. We’re expecting a fresh batch of recruits next week.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. Twenty-five men was far better than none, and the general was likely right on the bandits.
“I need nearly every man that can be spared here, in the event the Rivan become frisky,” Treim said.
“I understand, sir,” Stiger said, though he was a little disappointed he would not be present to meet and help train new recruits. He consoled himself with the fact that he’d be back in less than a month and able to work them into shape over the winter.
“You will travel to the port of Haraste, east of Cress,” Aetius said. “There you will find an imperial warship waiting for you. The Mars is commanded by Prefect Herax. He will carry you to Thresh. It should take you no more than a month to get to Thresh and return.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said. “When do you expect me to leave?”
“Before the sun rises,” Treim said. “Here amongst the legion, no one but Aetius and I, along with two of my clerks, knows of your mission. We’ve let it slip out that you are being sent out on a long-range scouting mission far behind enemy lines. With an elven ranger, it is an explanation that will ring of some truth. Should the enemy hear of it… well then, even better for us. Let them hunt this patrol to their hearts’ content.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said, with a glance over at Eli.
“You will have your orders, along with detailed maps of the roads, within the hour,” Aetius said. “The gold will be brought to you by trusted men around the same time.”
“You think there is a spy in our midst, sir?” Stiger asked. He had heard rumors ever since the enemy had ambushed the general’s carriage at the beginning of the campaign season.
Aetius gazed over at Treim and raised an eyebrow. A moment later, he received a nod from the general.
“We believe there is a spy in our midst,” Aetius said, “perhaps more than one. Be guarded with whom you tell of your mission, both in camp and on the road. We cannot afford to allow the enemy to learn of our intent in regards to Thresh.”
“That’s why the legion never followed up after the battle.” Stiger suddenly understood, his gaze traveling to the general, who looked very tired. “You’re unwilling to advance farther for fear of the Castol landing an army to the east.”
“Correct,” Treim said with a pleased nod and another ghost of a smile on his lips. “Though I would not expect the Castol to land an army until the next fighting season, I cannot take the chance of advancing farther north ‘til I can be certain of that. For all we know, they might consider moving forces across the sea before winter arrives.” The general rubbed his jaw. “Unfortunately, I just don’t know. Our intelligence of their army’s intended movements is somewhat lacking.”
“I understand, sir. You can count on me,” Stiger said. “I will deliver the letter, gold, and return with the king’s reply as rapidly as I can.”
Aetius gave a slight grin and looked at Eli.
“Do try to keep the young captain here out of trouble,” Aetius said. “He seems to find it in bushels.”
“I will do what I can.” Eli looked at the general, a grave expression on his perpetually youthful face. “You can count on both of us.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” Treim said. “Now, Captain, I believe you have some work to do, including drawing supplies for your mule train.”
“Yes, sir,” Stiger said, snapping back to attention. He offered a salute and then turned and left the general’s tent. Eli followed a couple steps behind. Stiger walked through the administrative tent and then out into the night. The guards came to attention as he passed them by. Stiger paid them no mind as he thought on all he needed to do prior to departing. Stiger took a deep breath. There would be no sleep tonight, for he had a lot to do.
A few steps farther into the darkness, he found a restraining hand on his arm. He stopped and looked over at Eli in question. The elf released Stiger’s arm.
“I’ve never been to Thresh. It is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time,” Eli said. “The city is considered wondrous. But, I am feeling this should prove exciting, don’t you think?”
Stiger eyed the elf a long moment, a sense of deep worry overcoming him. Eli’s idea of excitement seemed to involve danger.
What waited for them on the road to Thresh?
“I could use a nice, boring march out there and back,” Stiger said. He continued on his way, Eli walking at his side as they made their way through the streets of the encampment.
“Maybe this journey will be boring, maybe not.” Eli gave a shrug. “It’s a long way to Thresh. One thing is for certain.”
“What’s that?” Stiger asked, stopping.
“We will get to, how you say… understand one another better?” Eli said.
“Know,” Stiger said. “Get to know one another better.”
“Yes,” Eli said enthusiastically. “That’s it. We will get to know one another better. I am looking forward to that.”
“Right,” Stiger said, shaking his head. He started off again. He hoped Tiro had returned with his company. So soon after returning from a punishing route march, the men would be less than thrilled at being forced out on another. As they walked, he spared a glance at Eli, who shot him a closed-mouth grin in reply.
NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON!
What To Read First
THE EARLY YEARS
Part One: Stiger - Tales of the Seventh
Part Two: Fort Covenant - Tales of the Seventh
THE MIDDLE YEARS
Book 1: Stiger’s Tigers
Book 2: The Tiger
Book 3: The Tiger’s Fate
THE NEW SERIES
Lost Legio IX
Marc Edelheit Author
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