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“Is the captain certain he doesn’t want to take his horse?” Tiro asked with just a trace of good-natured ribbing. The sergeant turned away, gazing toward where the horses were picketed. He sucked in an exaggerated breath. “This is your last chance, sir. I want the captain to be sure before we leave the encampment.”
Stiger declined to reply, gazing instead on his men who were readying their gear and equipment before the company’s tents.
“You need to think about Nomad’s needs,” Tiro said.
“Nomad?” Stiger glanced over at the sergeant before turning back to look on his men. The preparations to march were almost complete.
“That horse needs regular exercise,” Tiro pressed. “Besides, he might get lonely, sir. I don’t think we want that.”
“My horse might get lonely?” Holding his helmet under an arm, Stiger cocked his head at Tiro, who turned to stare back at him with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. Stiger raised an eyebrow at his sergeant. “Is that the best you can do? Wasn’t it you who told me that proper infantry officers march with their men? I seem to recall you mentioning that on occasion.”
“You do?” A skeptical expression replaced the innocent one.
“I do,” Stiger said.
“I don’t think I put it exactly that way, sir,” Tiro replied seriously. “Begging your pardon, sir…now that I think on it, you do speak awful pretty-like, sir. Ah, sorry, sir. I meant cultured and educated, sir. Not like a rough, old veteran, like me, sir.” Tiro snapped his fingers. “So, there it is, sir, I could not have put it exactly like you just did. You speak too good for me.”
Stiger gave an amused grunt and shook his head. It was banter like this that usually helped pass the miles. The sergeant had a quick mind and a vicious wit. They hadn’t left the camp yet, and Tiro had already started in on him. Stiger could almost imagine Varus’s swift retort. Varus had been a regular verbal sparring partner before he had fallen at Fort Covenant. The man’s loss had cut to the bone and was still an open wound with Stiger, as it was with Tiro.
“Now, sir,” Tiro said with an injured note, “you know it wouldn’t be proper for a sergeant like me to instruct an officer on his duty, sir. Now that, I know, I’ve told you before. I might offer occasional advice, but I’d never cross that line. I wouldn’t dream of it, sir. Not ever, sir.”
“Uh huh. I don’t think that has stopped you before,” Stiger said, his amusement returning as the sadness retreated.
“You wound me, sir.” Tiro placed a hand to his chest armor, above his heart. “I am hurt, truly.”
Stiger barked out a laugh, which turned a few weary heads. The men were tired and clearly worn out from their route march earlier in the day. It was late, and with no sleep, they were about to depart on yet another march. Stiger knew he could not give them the rest they deserved, at least not yet.
He ran his gaze over his men, all twenty-two of them. They had assembled on the street before the company tents. There were still a few men securing items to their marching yokes, or checking equipment and gear. Most, however, were ready to march and stood talking quietly amongst themselves.
The mule train was packed, ready and waiting off to the side. Though they had not participated in the route march earlier in the day, Stiger thought the mules also looked tired. It was probably his imagination, a result of his own weariness.
Father Griggs and Eli had already departed about an hour before, along with Stiger’s two scouts, Bren and Aronus. Eli had gone to headquarters and received a pass for the four of them to exit the camp. The elf had stopped by on his way out and told Stiger he would find him somewhere along the march. It was rather vague, but Stiger had no doubts the ranger would do as he said. As an afterthought and on a hunch, Stiger had asked him to check on something first before heading south. The elf had agreed. Stiger wondered if Eli had found anything.
“About that horse, sir?”
“No horse,” Stiger said firmly to Tiro. “Nomad stays.”
“That’s what I thought, sir,” Tiro said with a tired grin. “That’s what I thought.”
“Right,” Stiger said. “Time to get things moving.” He paused and looked once more over his men. Most of the work on yokes and equipment had finished. They were as ready as they were going to be.
“Fall in,” Stiger called, though he made sure his voice wasn’t overly loud. He did not wish to disturb the legion, much of which slumbered around them in communal tents by the hundreds. Besides, none of the other officers would thank him for disturbing their sleep. Stiger had enough problems with his peers as it was. He did not need to add anymore. Still, he would expect nothing different from any other officer were they in his boots. It was common courtesy after all.
With a clatter that seemed to defy his intent to move out quietly, and more than a few groans caused by sore legs and arms, the men picked up their canvass-covered shields, slipped them onto their backs, and then hefted their heavy marching yokes to their shoulders. Their full kit for the march included shield, armor, sword, short-spear, a pick or shovel, mess kit, toiletry kit, three full canteens, precooked rations for a week, and their personal possessions. It was a demanding load, but they were accustomed to it. The four tents they were bringing would be hauled along by the mules.
The men rapidly fell into formation. Three men had been designated to lead the small mule train, eleven animals in total, which were moved to the left side of the formation. Amongst them was the mule from headquarters with the gold. Holding the animals’ leads, the men assigned to the mules stood ready.
The mules also were heavily loaded. They carried additional rations, feed, the tents, and miscellaneous supplies such as several jars of dragon’s breath. This flammable oil would come in handy if they needed to start a fire in the rain or with wet wood.
With all that the men and animals carried, Stiger knew he would still need to replenish his supplies at some point. His orders detailed that as well. He would need to find a garrison or supply depot or purchase what he required from a village or town. There were no cities closer than the port of Haraste.
After a handful of moments, as the men sought their places, the formation solidified, with each legionary dressing himself neatly next to another. Then they stilled, all eyes either upon the tent, within which the rest of their brothers had retired, or expectantly on him.
Stiger gazed over his assembled men, who were poorly lit by dim moonlight and a handful of torches, which were spread out on either side of the street that cut through the tents. The torches were on their last legs, with the flames guttering feebly. A passing breeze might blow them out.
Looking upon his men, Stiger felt a strong sense of pride. They were good boys and veterans, almost all. Most of those formed up before him had gone through the fight in the woods, then the battle for the river, the pursuit to Cora’Tol, and finally the terrible ordeal at Fort Covenant. They had been through some of the most difficult fighting the legion had seen over the past campaign season and survived. Without a doubt, they were the finest soldiers in the legion, and Stiger was proud to lead them.
All he need do was ask and his men would follow him to what others would think was certain death. They trusted in him and he in them. No matter how impossible or terrible the odds became, there was an expectation. It was that simple. When he led them into battle, they would emerge victorious. It was what they had come to anticipate and expect. Stiger rubbed his jaw as he regarded the small formation for several more heartbeats. He hoped the day never came when he failed them.
“You all deserve a good night’s rest,” Stiger said, positioning himself between the formation and the tents. “We have a job to do and a long way to go.”
There were no groans, no complaints, just silence.
“Once we are out of camp, and have some time, I will tell you more,” Stiger continued. “All you need know is that the general needed a job done right and he gave it to the best.” Stiger paused, allowing his words to sink in. All eyes were upon him now. “You are the finest bloody soldiers in the legion. You know that. I know that.”
“You’re gonna spoil them, sir,” Tiro groused loud enough for the men to hear. “It’s bad spoiling these bastards. They’re gonna come to expect it.”
“The men sleeping away in their comfy tents are the spoiled ones,” Stiger said. “It’s the bastards that get the jobs no one else wants or can do.”
“Aye, sir,” Tiro said as several of the men nodded. “That’s true enough.”
Stiger turned back to his men.
“Soon as I am able, I will give you what rest I can. That’s enough talk for now. Let’s get moving.”
He paused as he put his helmet on and began tying the straps tight.
“Right, face,” Stiger called out just loud enough for it not to carry too far. The men pivoted in unison to the right, and the front of the formation turned, becoming a marching column. They now faced down the street lined on either side with tents. “Forward, march.”
The men stepped off, moving along the darkened street lit only by torches placed every twenty yards. Stiger, with Tiro at his side, followed alongside the men. There was no talking, almost as if they were afraid to disturb their slumbering comrades, just the steady tramp of sandals as they worked their way through the encampment.
The night air was growing colder by the hour and Stiger felt slightly chilled by it. Glancing up at the darkened sky, he figured it was only a matter of days, perhaps just weeks, before the weather turned bitterly cold. Then the first real snows of winter would arrive. He hoped the inclement weather held off long enough for him to get to Thresh and back. A march back through a snow-covered landscape was sure to be challenging and uncomfortable.
They moved rapidly down the street, making their way through the quiet encampment, toward the eastern gate. At this late hour, very few were out and about. A corporal leading a small patrol stopped his men and ordered them aside to allow Stiger’s company to pass on the narrow street. He called his men to attention and saluted. Stiger diligently returned the salute. Then they were past, and within short order, they arrived at the eastern gate, which had been closed and barred for the night.
“Company, halt,” Stiger called when they came within ten yards of the gate.
The men ground to a stop.
“Stand easy,” Stiger said. “Tiro, you’re with me.”
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said.
The men relaxed, setting their yokes on the ground and shrugging out of the straps that held their shields to their backs. On the walls, several of the sentries looked their way, clearly wondering why a part of Seventh Company had marched up to the gate. It was a rarity for units to depart at night.
Stiger moved toward the guard post. Tiro followed. Two men stood to either side of the gate. They snapped to attention as Stiger approached and passed them by. He made for the gatehouse, a small roughhewn structure that had been hastily thrown up against the wall on the left side of the gate. Its purpose was to allow the officer in charge of the guard detail to have a dry place to conduct his work, diligently recording and ensuring only those with the proper passes entered and departed. It was usually a junior officer’s responsibility, though captains who had earned a spot on the general’s shit list were known to be assigned to gate duty as an unofficial punishment.
The door to the gatehouse was open, and yellowed lamplight spilled outward. As he entered, Stiger’s boots clunked on the wood-planked floor. The gatehouse smelled of mold and recently cut wood. A small brazier smoked in the corner, sending up more smoke than it gave out in heat.
Stiger felt himself frown as he took in Lieutenant Yanulus. The lieutenant had been lounging in a chair, with his feet kicked up onto a camp table. A large battered clay lamp on the desk lit the small space. A single dark rope of smoke drifted up into the air from the burning wick.
A sneer crossed the lieutenant’s face as he spied Stiger. He slid his feet off the table and onto the floor. The lieutenant hesitated a moment more, then slowly stood and offered a lazy salute. Stiger found the disrespect deeply insulting. He felt a near physical need to rearrange the man’s smirking face.
With no small amount of effort, Stiger decided to let it pass. His mission was more important than settling petty insults. Stiger reached into his cloak pocket and pulled forth the pass that had arrived with his orders. He glanced at it a moment. It said nothing other than he had permission to take his men out of the encampment. There was also a note that the guard detail and officer in charge were to make no mention of Stiger and his men leaving the encampment. They were to keep their mouths shut. Stiger knew that would never happen. One of the men in the lieutenant’s detail, if not Yanulus himself, was bound to say something, and then wild, speculative rumors would race about camp like a wildfire. Orders or no, there was simply no helping it. The attempt at making it an order was a futile effort.
“How can I assist you, sir?” Yanulus made the word “sir” sound dirty.
Without bothering to reply, Stiger handed over his pass. The lieutenant glanced down at it and scanned the orders. Yanulus’s eyes narrowed before returning to Stiger’s face. After a moment, he handed the pass back.
“You will need to sign out, sir,” Yanulus said and reached for the log book on the camp table.
“No, Lieutenant, I will not.” It was effort to keep the anger from his voice.
“Sir”—Yanulus straightened—“everyone coming and going must enter their business into the log book. Those are my orders. No exceptions are to be made.”
Stiger found his irritation mount to anger and indignation. At his side, Tiro shifted uncomfortably. Stiger began to wonder if Yanulus was just thick or, more likely, was attempting to cause him some difficulty.
“Lieutenant,” Stiger said, forcing his anger down and struggling to keep his tone even. “If the general had intended for me to sign out, do you think those orders I’ve provided would’ve bothered instructing the guard to keep their mouths shut about our departure?”
Tiro sneezed. In the small guardhouse, it sounded explosive. Stiger jumped, as did Yanulus. He looked over at the sergeant, feeling irritated at the interruption and the fact that Tiro had witnessed Yanulus’s insults without an appropriate answer in kind. It stung him to be the target of such disrespect. The humiliation was almost too much to bear.
“Sorry, sir,” Tiro said. “It’s the mold, sir. Tickles my nose something fierce, it does.”
Stiger almost frowned at the sergeant, then turned back to the lieutenant. He found Yanulus chewing his lip and staring down at the orders in Stiger’s hand. Deliberately, Stiger slowly and carefully folded the orders and then tucked them back into his cloak. When their eyes met, the lieutenant’s gaze hardened and a smirk tugged at his lips again.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” Yanulus said. “It is my duty to see that my orders are followed, sir. I am sure you understand.”
Stiger glanced over at Tiro again. The old veteran had gone stony-faced. Stiger returned his gaze back to the lieutenant. He rather suspected that Yanulus was enjoying his game.
“Your duty?” Stiger asked, taking a step nearer and into the lieutenant’s personal space. It was time to end Yanulus’s game.
“Yes, sir.” Yanulus took an involuntary half-step backward but then stiffened his spine. His mouth twisted in disgust. “I would assume that even a Stiger could understand the importance of duty, but then again, your father clearly did not. Perhaps I was mistaken in making such an assumption.”
Stiger gave a slight nod as he considered the lieutenant. His blood was boiling at the mention of his father and the insult. He kept it from his face and manner as best he could.
“Oh, I understand duty,” Stiger said quietly. “Lieutenant, I understand my duty only too well.” Stiger sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. “Since you are so adamant about following your orders, why don’t you go ahead and send a man to headquarters to verify mine? Feel free to wake the general. In fact, I’ve changed my mind. Go yourself and advise General Treim that you wish to have his orders confirmed. I will remain here and fill in for you as guard officer. It is the least I can do to help satisfy your sense of duty.”
“Wake the general?” Yanulus asked, an incredulous look coming over him. He gave a nervous laugh. “You want me to wake the general? Surely you’re not serious?”
“Why not?” Stiger glanced over at Tiro. “It’s only natural that you should check with him to determine whether or not I should be required to sign out. I am sure he will only be too happy to advise you on the correct course of action.”
“You want me to wake the general?” Yanulus asked again in mounting disbelief and horror as he came to the realization that Stiger was deadly serious. The smirk had slipped from his face.
“I do. I have my orders, Lieutenant,” Stiger said. “You have yours and, it seems, a sudden desire to do your duty to your utmost. Since we are at an impasse and as I am the senior officer present, I feel I must insist.”
Yanulus’s right hand twitched ever so slightly and his eyes darted to the log book and then back to Stiger. He licked his lips.
“I, um…” Yanulus cleared his throat. “After further consideration, I don’t think it necessary to have you sign out, sir.”
“Are you certain?” Stiger asked. “I wouldn’t want you to violate your sense of duty, honor, or your orders, sir.”
“I am quite certain, sir,” the lieutenant said. “You will not need to sign out. Your orders are clear enough for me.”
“Very well then,” Stiger said. “Now that that is settled, would you kindly have the gate opened? We wouldn’t want the general wondering why I was delayed, now, would we?”
“Yes, sir,” Yanulus said. He hastily stepped around Stiger and Tiro, out into the night.
“Duty file,” Yanulus shouted harshly from outside, “form up. Open the gate.”
“Neatly done, sir,” Tiro said in a quiet voice. “You put that disrespectful boy in his proper place.”
Stiger gave an unhappy nod, then followed after the lieutenant. His self-respect and sense of honor were smarting. The lieutenant’s ungentlemanly behavior had stung.
“Company, prepare to march,” Stiger growled to his men, who had looked his way.
With Yanulus to their side, the duty file assigned to gate duty fell in. They formed a line of battle directly behind the gate, their shields and swords held at the ready. This was no more than standard procedure at night. Should any hostiles be waiting outside, concealed by the darkness, the duty file’s job was to make sure the gate was closed or hold it long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
Stiger’s men began slinging their shields over their backs and picking up their yokes as a team of men lifted the heavy metal locking bar out from its place behind the gate. They placed the bar off to the side of the gate and out of the way. Then they set about opening each door. The hinges, despite regular oiling, creaked and groaned angrily in protest. Once the gate was fully opened and it became clear there were no threats waiting, Yanulus ordered the duty file to step aside.
“Forward, march,” Stiger ordered, unwilling to waste any more time. The encounter with Yanulus only fueled his desire to be away from the petty slights, insults, and camp politics. The men set off, their sandals once again crunching rhythmically as they began marching smartly through the gate and out of the encampment. This was mostly show for Yanulus’s men. Once out of view, the march would loosen up and not be a sharp, nor as crisp.
Stiger and Tiro started off, following after the men, the mule train coming along behind them. Lieutenant Yanulus had recovered a measure of himself and glared hatefully before offering Stiger another sloppy and disrespectful salute. Stiger hesitated a long moment and then dutifully returned the lieutenant’s salute, showing the man the respect he most certainly did not deserve. A moment later, he was by and through the gate, marching into the near darkness beyond the encampment’s walls.
The moon had slipped behind thick cloud cover and now provided very little light. The forest surrounding the encampment, which had been cut back several hundred yards, was a wall of ominous darkness that was blacker than black.
The gate was closed after the mule train made it through. Stiger glanced back at the encampment. He could hear the heavy locking bar being manhandled back into place.
Tiro snapped out a series of orders and guided the men onto the road that would take them south, toward Fort Covenant. From there, they would march farther south to the road that would carry them east toward the port city of Haraste. Somewhere along the way, they would meet up with Eli, who would guide them onto a back road and hopefully away from any trouble that might want to find them.
Stiger focused on watching where he put his feet. In the darkness it would be very easy to step into a pothole or rut and turn an ankle. A few hundred yards out, he glanced back at the legionary encampment. Under the dim moonlight, he could barely make out the walls, with only the occasional dim flickering torch along the barricade. As they entered the forest, the road ahead of them was just as dark and obscured, if not more so. Stiger could not help but feel a sense of relief, mixed with excitement. He effectively had an independent command, even if it was only to deliver a message and some gold. He was once again his own master.
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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