Tales of the Seventh
Part Three
Chapter Three
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Marc Alan Edelheit MAE Novels Historically Accurate Fantasy at its Best

Stiger finished lacing up his armor. The sounds of his legionaries working just outside his tent could be heard. He pulled the straps taut and tied them off with double knots, then shrugged his shoulders for a better fit. It took a couple of tries to get the armor sitting in a comfortable position. Satisfied, he glanced over at his shield. He’d set it next to his trunk. It was still in its protective canvas cover. Tiro would be sending someone along to collect it, and his pack, which sat next to the shield. He had packed a spare tunic, two blankets, his toiletry kit and the precooked rations Tiro had drawn for him from the mess. Two full canteens were secured to his pack. A third Stiger had tied to his armor harness.

Even though they were bringing mules, the company was traveling very light. He would be leaving behind most of his personal possessions. This included one of the most expensive things he owned, his tent. Tiro had drawn a small one-man traveling tent for him from the company stores. It wasn’t much, but it was better than sleeping in the open on his arms.

“Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to interrupt.”

Stiger looked up to see Legionary Bren standing at the entrance of the tent. He was holding the flap back and had poked his head tentatively inside.

“Yes?” Stiger asked.

“Sergeant Tiro sent me to collect your gear, sir,” Bren said. “Is it ready, sir?”

“It’s all yours.” Stiger gave a nod, gesturing toward his kit.

“Yes, sir.” Bren stepped over and hoisted up Stiger’s pack and shield. “I’ll secure these to the mules myself, sir.”

“Thank you,” Stiger said, taking his sword from where he’d left it on his cot. He slipped it on as Bren left the tent.

Stiger’s helmet rested on his camp table, next to the map that the general had provided for the expedition to Thresh. Stiger had spent some time looking it over. The general had also given Stiger a second set of orders to present to auxiliary patrols they encountered and fort commanders along the road, who were directed to offer whatever support Stiger required without question. There was also a note for Prefect Herax, who commanded the Mars. Grabbing his cloak, which had been lying upon his cot, he slipped those and the original orders into one of the pockets.

Stiger swung his cloak around and clipped it on. He glanced forlornly at his cot and gave a half sigh. Though he’d be sleeping on the hard ground, there was the expectant thrill of being back out in the field again. He felt an eagerness to be off and away, for the mission was an important one. The general was putting serious faith in him. It also got him away from the encampment and the petty games played by some of his fellow officers, like Corus.

Stiger looked around his tent once again, checking to make sure he’d not left anything out. The yellowed light from his lamp provided more than enough to see by. He’d been quite careful to pack everything away, including his history books and scrolls. Still, it never hurt to check. To be sure, he peered under his cot and found nothing. After he departed, the tent would be broken down and his personal possessions would be put into officers’ storage. There it would remain, under guard, until he returned.

Stiger cracked his neck. The legion would be turning in soon, but he would be marching. There would be precious little sleep tonight, for he wanted to be miles away by morning, well beyond the legion’s close in patrols.

“Going somewhere?”

He looked up to find Lepidus. The captain of the Tenth entered the tent, allowing the flap to fall back in place behind him. He carried with him a large jar of wine, along with three mugs. Stiger had forgotten the invitation to share Lepidus’s wine.

“I’m being sent out on patrol,” Stiger said. He hesitated to share more. Stiger found it bothered him he could not be open and honest about the true nature of his mission. Lepidus had become a friend.

“I see,” Lepidus said, and his gaze flicked about the tent, clearly noting that Stiger’s possessions had been packed away. His eyes came to rest upon the camp table, where Stiger’s helmet sat next to the map.

Stiger almost moved forward to cover up the map, but then decided such an action would call undue attention to his mission and potentially give Lepidus more information than he was permitted to know. So, he remained where he was, hoping Lepidus would not notice that Thresh had been penciled in and circled on the map.

“You say patrol, but with a map like that, I’d hazard it is some sort of long-distance scouting mission,” Lepidus said, looking back up at Stiger. “I take it I am correct?”

“Something like that. I am afraid I cannot divulge more. Orders, you see.”

“I completely understand.” Lepidus moved closer to the table and set the mugs down. He showed no hint of having taken offense at not being let in on Stiger’s mission. “I saw your men readying themselves, and you’re in kit. I’m guessing command wants you to leave immediately.”

“We are, and they do,” Stiger confirmed. “I hope to slip out sometime after the legion’s turned in. Perhaps any enemy scouts watching the encampment might miss us as we depart.”

“Do you have time for some wine?” Lepidus asked, shaking the unopened jar. “I had promised you a taste.”

Stiger grinned. “I’ll take a mug...or two”

“Excellent.” Lepidus unstopped the jar of wine and poured a mug. He handed it to Stiger, then poured himself one. Outside the tent, a mule brayed loudly.

“To a safe patrol and speedy return,” Lepidus said, holding the mug up into the air.

“I can’t think of a better salute,” Stiger said and raised his own mug.

They both sipped.

“That’s quite fine,” Stiger said, admiring the smooth taste. He took another sip. “Really good stuff. It must have cost you some pretty coin.”

Lepidus flashed a smile, declining to comment, and drank some more himself. He let out a soft sigh. “Ah…the comforts of home. Great gods, I’d missed good wine. It’s been a busy campaign season.”

“It has,” Stiger said and raised his mug. “To those we lost.”

“Fallen comrades,” Lepidus said, raising his own.

Stiger took another pull, then looked up and hesitated. He had planned on visiting Lepidus before he departed to speak with him.

“Could you do me a favor?” Stiger asked, lowering his mug. “While I am away, that is?”

“Name it.”

“As you know, Hollux won’t be out of the hospital for a few days,” Stiger said. “I expect to be gone at least four weeks and will only be taking twenty-five men with me. I am leaving behind Sergeant Pazzullo to help him manage the rest of the company. Until he’s discharged, would you mind supervising my men?”

“Consider it done,” Lepidus said, without hesitation, waving a dismissive hand. “They can drill with my boys until Hollux is fit or you return. How does that sound?”

“More than I expected,” Stiger said, feeling relieved and grateful. “Thank you.”

“Think nothing of it,” Lepidus said.

Stiger took another slow sip, enjoying the flavor of the wine on his tongue. Venney produced some of the finest wines. It was nice to have a taste and reminder of home.

“You know, this presents a problem for you,” Lepidus said, taking another drink from his mug.

“Problem?” Stiger asked, wondering what the captain of the Tenth was getting at. “What do you mean?”

“Yes, your leaving creates a fairly large issue for you,” Lepidus said and shook a finger at Stiger, then poured himself more wine. “Fresh recruits should be arriving in a few days.”

“I don’t see how that’s a problem. My company’s light. The general said that I would be getting replacements, like everyone else. Hollux and Pazzullo should be able to whip them into shape. Don’t you think?”

“Getting the replacements is not the problem,” Lepidus said. “As a new company commander, you haven’t had to deal with winter replacements, have you? You’ve never had to directly participate in the assignment process. Do I have that right?”

“No, I’ve not yet had the pleasure. I still don’t see the problem.”

“Well,” Lepidus said, “when recruits arrive, the captains from of all of the companies gather to evaluate the fresh meat. Think of it like cattle merchants at an auction. After they’ve looked over the new boys, each commanding officer is permitted to select five men at a time. Usually, the choosing of men occurs in numerical order by company. Follow me so far?”

Stiger gave a slow nod. He had an unhappy suspicion on what was coming next.

“First company goes first,” Lepidus continued, “then second and so on. As the backbone of the legion, First Company also gets to pull a handful of veterans from amongst the existing companies. Diodus hasn’t done that in the last couple years, but First took some serious losses this summer, particularly in the attempt to cross the river. So, he’ll likely do it this year to refill his ranks with veterans. That won’t make the other company commanders happy. They may grumble and fuss some, but it’s Diodus’s right and no one will deny him that.” Lepidus paused and glanced down at the map on the camp table again. “Without you here to represent the Seventh, I am afraid the replacements you would receive would be those that no one else desired. Your turn would be skipped, even if you sent Hollux. The company commanders would just outrank him and give him the dregs after they were finished.”

“That’s just fantastic news,” Stiger said. The last thing he needed were men who couldn’t measure up or would prove to be poor soldiers. “The wine was a nice touch to soften that blow, but I’ve got to admit you’ve really brightened my evening, you know that?”

“I do what I can to spread the cheer,” Lepidus chuckled. “I will, however, look out for the Seventh’s interests. When it’s your company’s pick, I will select men I deem worthy. If you will trust me, that is.”

“I would appreciate that,” Stiger said gratefully. “Very much so.”

Lepidus finished his mug of wine and gave a satisfied nod. He poured himself a little more, then swirled the contents around as he gazed into the mug. He set the jar down on the table.

“There is an upside,” Lepidus said.

“What’s that?”

“I assume you are taking the best of your veterans with you?” Lepidus took another pull from his mug.

“I am,” Stiger said.

“You impressed with what you did with your company this summer,” Lepidus said. “I am certain Diodus will be disappointed he can’t poach your best veterans. That includes Tiro. You should know, the First lost a couple of sergeants. Diodus will want to bring his company up to full strength, and I’d guess he won’t wait for you to return and go short a good sergeant for more than a month. You get to keep your best. They will end up being the heart of your company when the Seventh is brought back up to strength.”

“Well,” Stiger said, thinking of First Company’s captain. Diodus was senior in rank to him. He’d never been hostile toward Stiger, nor overly friendly, either. Instead, whenever they interacted, Diodus had been strictly professional. Stiger had been unable to tell whether he was liked or disliked. “There is that little mercy to be grateful for. I’ve grown fond of Tiro and my boys.”

“I’d gathered that,” Lepidus said. He made a show of sweeping the tent with his eyes, then turned toward the entrance. “I imagine you have a lot to do. I will leave you to it.”

“You forgot your jar of wine,” Stiger said as Lepidus reached the tent flap.

“No, I didn’t,” Lepidus said, turning back slightly. His gaze flicked again toward the map on the table. “If I am any judge, you’ve got some travels ahead of you. Enjoy the rest of the wine for me. I’ve got more than enough, and now that the campaign season’s over, we will start getting regular supply again. There will be more where that jar came from. Safe journeys, Stiger.”

With that, Lepidus ducked out of the tent and disappeared out into the night.

Stiger picked up the jar. He shook it slightly and found it half full. It was clearly expensive and an unexpected yet very welcome gift. Stiger’s funds were running low. Still, he would have to make sure he returned the favor one day, and soon, for now he was in Lepidus’s debt.

“Sir,” Tiro said, pulling the entrance flap back and poking his head into the tent. “Are you ready for us?”

“I am,” Stiger said.

Tiro, with Pazzullo following a step behind, moved into the tent. They snapped to attention and saluted crisply. They smelled of sweat and being out in the field. Neither had had an opportunity to clean up from the training march.

“At ease,” Stiger said. “Report.”

Both sergeants relaxed a fraction.

“We should be ready to march within two hours,” Tiro said. “We’ve drawn ten mules, along with the supplies we just pulled from the depot. They’re being packed as we speak. As instructed, I have selected twenty-five of our best men. They’re worn out, but they’ll still march, sir. They’ve got the wind in ‘em for more.”

Stiger could read the weary expressions upon both of their faces. The training march had clearly been hard. Stiger now regretted having ordered it. But he’d not known he would be sent out. Both sergeants needed rest. Unfortunately, only Pazzullo would be getting it. Those going with him would have to wait until they were several miles from the encampment before he would allow them a break.

“Very good,” Stiger said, uncomfortably conscious of the fact that he could not reveal the true nature of their mission. He could not tell Tiro either, at least until they were away from the encampment. He disliked misleading them. “Our scouting patrol should take us three to four weeks to complete.”

Stiger paused as he studied both men. “I will be leaving the company in your care, Pazzullo, at least until Lieutenant Hollux is fit to return to duty. In the interim, you shall report to Captain Lepidus from Tenth Company. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Pazzullo said.

“I’ve been told fresh recruits should be arriving within the next few days,” Stiger said. “Captain Lepidus will be selecting men for the company from the pool. Please assist him in choosing good men. By the gods, we desperately need them.”

“I will, sir,” Pazzullo said.

“It will be good to get the company back up to full strength, sir,” Tiro said.

Stiger nodded in agreement to that, then looked to Pazzullo. “While I am away, Pazzullo, I expect you to do what you can to get the recruits into shape.”

“Don’t you worry none, sir,” Pazzullo said. “This isn’t my first circus. I’ve turned plenty of boys into solid, hard-charging legionaries who will strike the fear of the gods into their enemies and melt the ladies’ hearts.”

“That’s good to hear,” Stiger said, and in truth it was a small comfort. “I’m counting on you.”

“I understand, sir,” Pazzullo said.

“Sergeant,” Stiger said, “kindly go and report to Captain Lepidus before it gets too late. He is expecting you.”

“Yes, sir.” Pazzullo snapped to attention and saluted. Stiger returned the salute. Pazzullo spared Tiro a rapid glance, spun on his heel, and exited the tent.

Tiro was silent a moment.

“We’re not going on a patrol, are we, sir?” Tiro asked.

“What gives you that idea?” Stiger asked. He wasn’t surprised Tiro had figured out something was up. He wondered for a moment how the old veteran had puzzled it out.

“A mule was delivered by a headquarters sergeant, sir,” Tiro said. “It came with awfully heavy saddlebags and under a full guard, sir.”

Stiger remained silent as he considered the sergeant. He was certain Tiro knew exactly what was in the saddlebags. “Do the men know?”

“I don’t believe so,” Tiro said. “They’re too tired from the route march to really notice or care at this point. About the only other person who suspects something’s up is Pazzullo, and he won’t say nothing. He’s a good man, sir.”

“Well,” Stiger said, “we’ve got a job to do. It would be better that we leave camp without anyone knowing where we’re going or what we’re up to. I will tell you everything once we’re on the road and away.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said.

“I would appreciate you keeping the men away from that mule. I don’t want them rummaging through her saddlebags, if you get my meaning.”

“I figured as much, sir,” Tiro said. “I already put a good man on it.”

“I want to be on the road just as soon as we can,” Stiger said. “We have a long way to go and I’d like to be well and gone from the encampment before the sun comes up.”

“Will you be taking Nomad, sir?” Tiro asked. “Should we pack hay and oats for him?”

“No,” Stiger said, thinking longingly on his horse. He had already made the decision to leave his beloved mount behind. It would have been nice to bring him and to alternate between marching and riding. Yet, if they ran into trouble, he did not want to have to worry about the animal. “I will be hoofing it like a proper infantry officer.”

“I must say, I approve of the captain’s decision, sir,” Tiro said. “Very wise of you, sir.”

“Right,” Stiger said. “I will be out shortly.”

“Yes, sir.” Tiro took the hint, saluted, and left.

As he stepped out of the tent, Eli entered, along with Father Griggs. Stiger felt himself frown. The paladin was a short, older man who was well-built and had a hard, almost grim face. He chinked as he moved. Stiger realized that under his priestly robes, he wore chainmail armor. He was also carrying a heavy long sword, which was strapped to his back. The sword looked unusually large for his height, almost to the point where it seemed absurd.

“Good evening, Father,” Stiger said. “How can I help you?”

Eli walked up to the table and, without asking, picked up a spare mug that Lepidus had left. He poured himself a heathy portion of wine.

“I thought I might accompany you on your, ah…patrol,” the paladin said.

“I’m sorry, Father,” Stiger said, wondering how the paladin had learned that his company was going out on patrol. The rumor mill must already be hard at work, he decided. “I don’t have orders to bring you along.”

“You do now.” Father Griggs produced from his robe a folded and sealed dispatch. He held it out.

Stiger took it and glanced over at Eli, who was looking upon them both with an amused expression as he sniffed at the wine. Stiger suspected Eli knew what the orders contained. The elf took a sip and closed his eyes, appearing to savor the taste. Stiger broke open the seal on the dispatch and read.

Father Griggs has requested the honor of accompanying you. He feels he can be of some benefit and assistance. I have given him permission to go with you. You may trust him with the details of your mission. -Treim.

“Well.” Stiger let out a long breath and looked up. “I guess you’re coming with us.”

“It seems that way, doesn’t it?” Father Griggs said.

“Do you know of our mission, Father?” Stiger asked.

“I do,” Griggs said. “A great deal rides on its success.”

“Yes, it does,” Stiger said.

“Is that the map the general promised?” Eli asked as he looked down at the table. He seemed to have noticed the map for the first time. Eli moved Stiger’s helmet over a little so that he could better see in the lamp light.

“It is,” Stiger confirmed.

“I am quite familiar with the lands we will be traveling through.” Eli ran his finger along the map in the direction of Thresh. He looked up at Stiger. “There is a main road, the Totonius Highway, just south of us, say forty miles.”

“I know of the road,” Stiger said, for he had spent some time studying the map. “It takes you east almost right to the port of Haraste.”

“I would advise against taking it,” Eli said, looking up at Stiger.

“Why?” Stiger asked. “Our mission is to get to Thresh as rapidly as possible. Don’t you think the main road will be the quickest way?”

“Our mission is also to make sure we get there,” Eli said pointedly, looking on Stiger with unblinking eyes. “If there is a spy in camp, there is a good chance our mission may be discovered. Or perhaps even it already has been found out. Should the enemy get wind of what we are up to, they might think to look for us on the main road and try to stop us from reaching Thresh.” Eli tapped the map. “There are a few back roads and trails that I think will prove slower, but much safer.”

Stiger rubbed his chin a moment as he gazed upon the elf. Though he wanted to argue, he knew without a doubt that Eli was quite correct. If there was a spy, and the enemy became aware of their mission, taking the Totonius could prove dangerous. The fact that they were departing in the middle of the night was evidence enough that the general felt the risk of the mission being discovered was high.

“Frankly, I find the elf’s argument compelling.” Father Griggs looked at Stiger meaningfully. “Don’t you agree, Captain?”

“I do,” Stiger said, glancing from the paladin to the elf. “The map has few of the back roads marked. Are you certain you have detailed knowledge of the ground we will be covering? You know these roads?”

“It will be my most absolute pleasure to act as the company’s expert guide,” Eli said and took another sip of the wine. He lowered his mug, swallowing, and grew serious. “I understand that you have two men rated as scouts, is that not correct?”

“I do,” Stiger said.

“I would like your permission to work with them while we travel to Haraste,” Eli said.

“Work with them how?” Stiger asked.

“I would teach them the ways of the ranger. In short, make them, how do you say…better at scouting? Is that not the correct phrasing?”

“I would take him up on the offer were I you, Captain,” Father Griggs said. “He wants to make your scouts more proficient at their craft. There’s no one better at that than a true ranger.”

Stiger thought on it a moment. He knew Eli could fight. He’d seen the elf in action at Fort Covenant. Elves were known for their skill at being masters of the forest. The empire’s ranger corps was composed, almost exclusively, of rangers trained by elves. After having withdrawn to their forests, it was one of the last things the elven nations honored in their alliance with the empire. He would be foolish to pass up such an opportunity.

“Very well,” Stiger said. “You may work with Bren and Aronus. They are detached and under your command.”

“I will do my very best to make them good and solid scouts. When I am done, you will be able to rely upon them to get the job done.” Eli paused. There was a slight twinkle in his eye. “This is something I’ve not done for a number of years. I think it will be much fun.”

Stiger almost rolled his eyes, but then he had a thought. It was an intriguing one.

“I want them to be better hunters, too,” Stiger said. If they were good at hunting animals, they’d be just as good at hunting men.

Eli paused with his mug of wine almost to his lips. He raised an eyebrow and seemed to catch Stiger’s meaning. “I believe I can manage that.”

“Good,” Stiger said as Eli tipped the mug back and finished the dregs of his wine. “Father Griggs.” Stiger looked to the paladin. “I am not taking my horse. I intend to march with the men. Will you be bringing yours? Sergeant Tiro will need to pack hay and oats for your animal if you do.”

“What a refreshing idea, Captain,” Father Griggs said, flashing a broad smile. “I believe I shall march with you. It will be good to stretch my legs a little and give my ass and that damned saddle a break.”

Stiger chuckled, thoroughly amused.

“Right, then,” Stiger said. “I suggest you both prepare yourselves, for I intend to leave within the next couple hours.”

“I am ready to leave now,” Father Griggs said. “My pack is outside.”

“As am I,” Eli said.

“Good,” Stiger said. “We shall meet back here in thirty minutes to go over our initial route. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go to the hospital and speak with my executive officer. Until then, gentlemen.”

Father Griggs stepped aside.

“I shall remain and enjoy this exceptional wine,” Eli said with a growing grin.

“Save me some, will you?”

“Maybe.” Eli shot him a wink and gave a sort of half shrug.

With a nod thrown to Father Griggs and a scowl to Eli, Stiger made his way past them. He pulled back the entrance flap and stepped out into the chill night air.

 

 

NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON!

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