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

Stiger reached the crest of the small hill, stopped, and turned back. His eyes settled upon Fort Covenant below, about a half mile distant. The fort was bathed in the early morning sunlight. The forest around the fort had been further cut back, and there was now an additional two hundred yards of open space about the fort.

Good men had lost their lives in a desperate, almost hopeless defense of the fort. Stiger rubbed his jaw as he sucked in a ragged breath. The bodies both inside and outside the fort had long since been removed, buried or burned. He found he could still picture them lying where they had fallen. Stiger had been haunted by the memory of what had happened. It kept him up at night, tossing and turning in his cot.

The fort had changed greatly. He had heard that two fresh auxiliary cohorts had replaced those that had been virtually wiped out. A third was on its way up from the heart of the empire. The legion’s engineering cohort had also been assigned to help rebuild and strengthen Covenant’s defenses. The evidence of that comprehensive effort was plain.

Hundreds of men toiled away below, in and around the fort. Wagons carrying freshly cut lumber crawled their way from the forest toward the fort’s main gate, while empty ones worked their way in the opposite direction. The staccato crack of axes carried distantly on the air.

The damage to the walls and gate had been repaired. A section of the wall facing north was even being expanded to make the fort larger. It appeared as if the height of the fort’s wooden walls was being raised by several feet. The old barricade had been removed and a new one was being laid. Men were at work digging another trench around the outer walls. The original trenches appeared to have been deepened, as the grass that had grown long in them was gone, with only exposed soil in view.

Along the wall, there were several new multistory towers under construction, the kind that housed bolt throwers. The fort had lacked when it came to artillery. It looked as if the general desired to remedy that deficiency.

Inside the walls of the fort, four new buildings were in partial states of construction. These were likely barracks for additional men and storehouses for supplies. From what he was seeing, Stiger was certain that when he returned this way, the fort would be much more formidable.

He wondered on who had taken command of Fort Covenant. Prefect Merritt was still at the legion hospital and, though he was expected to make a full recovery, was unlikely to return to command anytime soon. Whoever had assumed command of the fort clearly knew what he was doing and was taking the job very seriously.

Stiger wondered what that meant for the general’s overall strategy. Was he planning on moving the legion, falling back and wintering in a safer position? Had General Treim ordered the fort made into an unbreakable rock so the legion could pull back several miles? Was that the cause for the frenetic activity below? Or were they just racing against time and the coming winter, hoping to conclude the strengthening of the fort’s defenses before it became too cold and the ground froze? There was simply no telling.

Stiger’s eyes moved from the fort to the remains of the enemy’s camp. Several tents, broken-down wagons, and four large pieces of artillery lay where the enemy had left them when they had retreated in haste. It was another shocking reminder of what had occurred here a little over three weeks ago. Stiger could still picture the enemy army surrounding the fort, companies marching into position to make their final assault.

Stiger’s eyes were drawn to a team of auxiliaries. They worked around one of the enemy’s large stone throwers, clearly dismantling the dread machine.

“Spoils of war,” Stiger said to himself.

“We left a lot of good boys down there,” Tiro said, coming up to stand beside him. The sergeant eyed Stiger a moment and then turned his gaze outward to the fort below.

“We did,” Stiger agreed quietly and glanced over at his men. Without any orders otherwise, the men continued marching down the road, away from the fort and back into the forest twenty yards away. The mule train passed Stiger and Tiro next, leaving the two of them alone to gaze down on the fort in silence.

Stiger looked up at the clear blue sky and spotted an eagle. The sun had come up less than an hour before. It had not done much to push back against the cold. He tracked the bird’s passage through the sky as it flew in wide circles. The eagle was undoubtedly looking for prey.

The heavy hand that had gripped his heart of late slackened a tad at the sight of the eagle. It was the first one he had seen this far north. Was it an omen of the gods? The eagle was one of the empire’s most important symbols and linked directly not only to the legions, but also to the emperor and the High Father.

“We shall not forget them,” Tiro said, dragging Stiger’s attention back earthward. “They will live on with us.”

“And when we die?” Stiger looked over at Tiro. Such questions had bothered him lately. “Then who will remember them?”

“It won’t matter to us.” There was a gruff note to the sergeant’s tone. “When our time comes, the ferryman will carry us across the great river. When we set foot on that far shore, I imagine it will be like retiring to a veteran’s colony, being reunited with old comrades. Varus and the others are waiting for us. At least, I like to think of it that way.”

Stiger returned his gaze to the fort. He thought about Tiro’s words. He, too, would like to see Varus again. He hoped it was as Tiro had said. Stiger closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer to the High Father, asking the great god to look after his fallen men and late corporal.

“Daylight’s burning, sir,” Tiro said.

Stiger opened his eyes and glanced around. The men were getting ahead of them. He gave a reluctant nod before looking skyward again. The eagle was still there. He hesitated a moment more, then turned his gaze back upon the fort. He knew he would never forget. In truth, he did not want to. What had happened in this place would be with him forever, and that was how it should be, the fallen never forgotten.

Stiger ground his teeth. He resolved not to drown himself in self-pity. It was time to soldier on, to move forward, to look to the living.

“I will try harder,” Stiger said under his breath. “I will be better the next time. Perhaps that will save lives.”

“What was that, sir?” Tiro asked, looking over.

“Nothing.” Stiger started walking after his men, at first slowly and then with an increased, almost determined pace. Tiro fell in at his side. “It was nothing.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said, looking far from convinced.

They fell into an uneasy silence. Stiger saw the old sergeant rub at his eye a moment, clearly wiping something away. Stiger averted his gaze, feeling uncomfortable. Then he became angry with himself. Both he and Tiro had suffered through the ordeal at Fort Covenant and more, much more. Though their stations were different, in a way it did not matter, at least not to Stiger. He caught the sergeant’s arm, bringing the old veteran to an abrupt halt.

“We must move on,” Stiger said. “We owe it to Varus and the others. Both of you taught me that. Our job is to soldier on.”

Tiro cleared his throat and gave an almost reluctant nod. “Don’t I know it, sir.” A hardness began to steal over Tiro’s face, then his expression softened. Stiger could read the hurt of loss in the other’s eyes. “Thank you for reminding me, sir.”

Stiger released Tiro’s arm. They resumed walking after the men. The company had gotten around two hundred yards ahead of them.

“I have some wine,” Stiger said as the road reentered the forest that surrounded the fort. Under the cover of the trees, the temperature dropped a little more, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. “When there’s time, I would be honored if you would join me for a toast to those we left behind.”

“Aye,” Tiro said. “I would welcome such a toast, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Right then. Let’s catch up with the men.” Stiger clapped the sergeant on the shoulder and picked up his pace, feeling somewhat better. “We have a job to do, Sergeant, and besides, there’s no telling what trouble they may get into without us.”

“Sir,” Tiro said, with a grin, “no offense meant, but there’s no telling what trouble they’ll get into with you leading them, sir.”

***

Stiger stretched as he stood. He rubbed his lower back with both hands, doing his best to work out the kinks. He was stiff and sore. He cracked his neck, coughed, and then cleared the phlegm from his throat, spitting it out on the ground.

Around him, the men were breaking down the tents, packing up their kit and equipment. There was talking and light-hearted banter, mixed in with the occasional laugh. Stiger glanced around. They had made their camp in a forest glade. The spot was well off the road, at least a half mile, and entirely secluded. How Eli had found it, he could not guess. The elf had left one of the scouts, Bren, and Father Griggs to lead them to the campsite. They had reached it by following an old trail that had seen better days. Once he had seen them safely to the campsite, Bren had left to meet up with Eli.

The air was still bitingly cold. The rising of the sun had done little to warm things up much. The sky through the trees was clear, with no sign of rain, for which he was grateful. Marching under a cold rain was something he most certainly did not want to experience. Heck, marching under any type of rain was far from desirable. Still, he thought the cold an ominous sign of the weather to come.

Stiger’s muscles protested nearly every movement. Having left the encampment the day before, he had pushed and marched through the night and half the next day before making camp. He was stiff from sleeping on the cold ground, with stones and exposed roots from a tree digging into his back.

A small brook flowed through the glade. The water gurgled happily by. In truth, Eli had chosen exceptionally well. It was a peaceful setting. Despite his aches and the stiffness in his back, Stiger was relaxed, refreshed. He almost regretted having to resume the march.

He grabbed one of his canteens and made his way over to the stream. He bent down and splashed some water on his face. The brook was bitterly cold and made his hands immediately ache. It snapped him fully awake, washing away the last vestiges of sleep. Stiger rubbed his hands together to restore the warmth.

In the mud at the water’s edge, he could see the tracks of deer. There were also marks from animals that he could not recognize. The deer tracks brought thoughts of roast venison. His stomach rumbled.

Stiger splashed more water on his face. There would be no venison. He would have to make do with his precooked rations, which consisted of salted pork and the hard, teeth-splitting bread known as hardtack, of which the legion’s quartermaster was exceptionally fond. You could soak hardtack for an hour and it would be just as difficult, if not impossible, to chew. Still, hardtack had an exceptionally long shelf life, and it was better than going hungry.

Stiger filled the empty canteen, tipped it back, and drank it dry. He refilled the canteen and then stopped it. He stood, gazed around the brook once more, and then made his way back to his tent. He set about quickly breaking it down, making sure the weatherproofed fabric was properly folded. He set it aside, along with the wooden support poles, ropes, and stakes. It would be loaded onto one of the mules. Tiro would see to that.

As his men worked around him, he turned to packing his gear. Stiger folded his blankets and placed them neatly in his pack, along with his personal effects and toiletry kit. Then he tied it closed, tugging on the knot to make sure it would hold and was secure. It, too, would go onto one of the mules. He placed the pack on top of the folded tent. Next, he began putting his armor on, lacing it up and tying the ends of the straps off tight. Always one to set the example, Stiger had cleaned it prior to turning in for the night. He shrugged his shoulders until the armor settled comfortably in place. Satisfied, he straightened back up and found Tiro watching him. The old veteran had approached unheard.

“Good morning, sir,” Tiro said in an exuberant tone. “Looks to be a fine day for a march. I trust you slept well.”

“Looks like one of us did,” Stiger said, feeling somewhat grumpy. The sergeant was too cheerful for him, at least this early in the day. Though he’d slept well enough, it had taken him some time to fall off. “I take it you slept soundly?”

“Aye,” Tiro said, grinning. “That I did, sir. Just something about being back out in the field. It reinvigorates these old bones. Being encamped all winter wears on the spirits, saps at it a tad, it does. Though you won’t have gone through that yet, sir, this being your first campaign season.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Stiger eyed the sergeant a long moment. “You do know the winter’s not even begun yet, right?”

“It’s the prospect of the coming winter and being stuck in the encampment that is the problem, sir,” Tiro said. “Sure, there will be plenty to do. Rebuilding the company and preparing the new boys will take a good bit of work and time, but all in all it’s just not the same as being in the field.”

“I’ll have to speak with the general,” Stiger said, half joking, “see if he has more work that needs doing. That way, you’ll get out a bit more this winter. Perhaps we can even volunteer for a few extra patrols.”

“Now, sir,” Tiro said, suddenly looking alarmed, “don’t get me wrong. I like being out and about and all, but marching through winter snows on patrol is not my idea of fun. Especially when you’ve only got sandals to wear, not boots like you officers.” Tiro paused and cocked his head to the side. “We’ve not spoken about the danger in volunteering for things yet, like extra duty…have we?”

“Volunteering?” Stiger asked, wondering if Tiro was having one over on him. He decided to play along. “No. Why?”

“Well, sir,” Tiro said, suddenly very grave, “in the army, you don’t want to volunteer for nothing. That just gets you into trouble, and usually the deep kind. It’s best to let others, like the colonel and general, do the volunteering for you, sir. Like this wee little trip to Thresh. It usually turns out better.”

Stiger had told Tiro of their mission last evening but kept much of it from the men. He must have frowned, for Tiro continued.

“The general had a mission in mind and thought of us, sir. The general did the volunteering, not the other way round. Volunteering too much can prove unhealthy, sir. Officers who want to be heroes volunteer. They have glory on the brain and have a burning need to prove themselves. Begging your pardon, sir, but those are usually not the best officers and tend to get men dead. Understand, sir?”

“I think so,” Stiger said, and he did.

“It’s marches like these,” Tiro said, “where we don’t volunteer but get volunteered that I don’t mind so much. It gets you out of the encampment occasionally, but not on a regular basis. Promise me, sir, you won’t go out of your way to volunteer us. That only tempts Fortuna and asks for it, sir.”

Stiger gave a nod.

“You know, I was looking forward to a quiet and dull winter.” Stiger scratched at an itch on his arm. “With all we’ve been through, we’re due to catch a break. Perhaps Thresh is it. Besides, we threw the dice more than our fair share this summer.”

“That’s for certain,” Tiro said, with a suddenly pained expression. “Next to the Wilds, this was one of the hardest campaigns I’ve been through, sir.”

“It was difficult,” Stiger agreed.

“Well,” Tiro said, “we came through it. In the end, that’s all that matters, sir.”

“We did,” Stiger said, once again thinking on those who were no longer with them. He felt guilt-ridden over having survived. That’s what had kept his sleep fitful, not the rocks and roots. “I want to get marching just as soon as we can.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said, glancing around and studying the preparations. “I’d say half an hour and the men should be packed and fed. Will that do, sir?”

“Good enough,” Stiger said and turned away, moving off. “I am going for a piss.”

“All right, ladies,” Tiro hollered. “The captain wants to march. Time to pick up the pace. Once your armor’s on and your kit is ready, make sure you eat. Full bellies makes marching easier and the miles pass quicker. And don’t you all go eating more than the standard portion. Contrary to popular belief, rations are not carried better in your bellies than in your haversacks. You don’t want to disappoint daddy. You get me?”

There was a massed chorus of, “Yes, sergeant.”

It was nothing Stiger had not heard before. Amused, he continued on his way, stepping around several men who were securing gear to their yokes. He headed towards the edge of camp, making sure to go downstream. He passed Father Griggs, who was praying with a pair of legionaries. All three were kneeling, hands clasped before their chests, heads bowed. It must have been a moment of silent prayer, because Stiger did not hear any spoken words. He continued on, not wishing to disturb them. Several yards away, he found an oak tree and relieved himself against it.

Having finished his business, he was about to head back when he froze. Something wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. It was more a gut feeling than anything else. An icy sensation slid down his spine. Stiger had the uncomfortable feeling he was being watched.

He cursed his stupidity for leaving his sword back with his pack. It was an unforgivable oversight. He scanned the nearest trees and saw nothing. Stiger carefully peered into the brush. He found nothing out of the ordinary. That did not mean anything. The undergrowth was so thick, he could see no more than five yards in any direction. Still, he had the nagging feeling he was being watched. It made the hair at the base of his neck stand up. Then, off to his right, no more than three yards away, he spotted someone.

Stiger almost jumped. It was Eli, leaning nonchalantly against a tree. The elf wore a mildly amused expression as he gazed upon Stiger. He was sure the elf had not been there a moment before when he had scanned in that direction. It was as if Eli had materialized out of thin air. Stiger wondered how he had done it.

“How long have you been watching?” Stiger asked, working to slow his racing heart.

“Long enough that, had I wished you ill, your body would be cooling and your blood fertilizing the great mother.” Eli fingered the hilt of one of his daggers as he looked meaningfully at Stiger.

Stiger stiffened and then relaxed a moment later when Eli approached him. Based upon the elf’s smirk, Eli was simply teasing him. At least he hoped so.

“If you’re willing, I could teach you a thing or two,” Eli said.

“Like what?” Stiger asked.

“Like how not to have someone sneak up on you,” Eli said and gestured back toward the tree he had been leaning against. “Tiny little things like that. It might just save your life one day.”

Stiger considered Eli for several heartbeats. Elves were known to be masters of the forest and scouts of unparalleled ability. They even trained the empire’s ranger corps.

“What about scouting?” Stiger asked with sudden interest. “Could you instruct me as you would a ranger? Would you do that that?”

“You are an officer,” Eli said matter-of-factly.

“What of it?” Stiger asked, wondering why that would make a difference. “I think it might be useful to learn such things.”

“I’ve never had an officer ask me to teach him is all,” Eli said, seeming genuinely surprised by Stiger’s interest. “Never known one to be appealed.”

“You mean interested?”

Eli frowned. “Your language is not so easy for me. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to use it, and over time it changes somewhat.”

“Could you do it?” Stiger pressed. “Teach me the ways of the ranger?”

“I don’t know,” Eli said with a slight shrug.

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

“It depends upon you.”

“Me?”

“How thick you are in the head.” Eli tapped the side of his head with a finger and then grinned at him, showing his teeth. Stiger almost cringed at the sight of the elf’s teeth. They looked like they belonged in a predator’s mouth.

“Uh huh,” Stiger said, recovering. “First Tiro and now you, eh?”

“I can show you,” Eli said, becoming serious, “and work with you. However, in all truth, how much you learn is up to you. It will not be up to me.”

“I understand,” Stiger said.

“If you are able, it will take years to become good.” Eli looked grave. “Are you certain you wish me to instruct you in the ways of the ranger? Such an undertaking is not made lightly, nor is my offer of instruction.”

Though there were times when officers had to accompany their scouts, the truth was that very few ever did any serious scouting on their own. They simply relied upon what their scouts told them. Sometimes that could lead to disastrous consequences if the scout was wrong. With what Stiger had already seen through the summer, he knew he could use whatever the elf had to impart, and most probably would.

“Duties permitting, I would learn what you are able to teach me,” Stiger said.

“Very well,” Eli said. “I expect I will be busy with your scouts for much of our journey to Thresh. When we return to the legionary encampment, I will begin instruction in earnest. The training will be difficult, arduous even. You must give it your all. If you do not, I will be wasting my effort and you yours. Is that agreeable?”

“It is,” Stiger said, wondering just what he had signed onto.

Eli gave a satisfied nod and began to turn away. He paused, as if something had occurred to him.

“Oh, by the way, you were right.”

“About what?”

“Someone has been sneaking in and out of the legion’s encampment. I was unable to catch them, but I did come across their tracks. It was dark, which made the task somewhat challenging.”

“Were you able to follow?” Stiger asked. “Find out where they were going?”

“They were quite skilled and made an effort to conceal their passage. However, they did not expect to be tracked by one of the High Born.”

“They?”

“There were two of them,” Eli said. “One most definitely a man, and a large one at that. The other, I am unsure on. It could be a small man, or perhaps even a woman.”

“A woman,” Stiger said, his mind racing. He would have to report this information to the general. “One of the camp followers?”

“Perhaps,” Eli said. “It is hard to say.”

“Where did the trail lead you?” Stiger asked.

“In the direction of the enemy’s encampment. I stopped following when it became clear I would not catch them, maybe a mile or more from the legionary encampment.”

“Good,” Stiger said. “Better to play it safe and report with word of what you found than take further risk.”

“Risk?” Eli scoffed. “There was no risk. I could have gone right up to the enemy’s defenses and they’d never have seen me.”

“All right then.” Stiger wasn’t sure if he believed there was no risk, but let the matter rest. “What do you have Bren and Aronus doing?”

“They are scouting the road I sent them down,” Eli said. “It is a test really, for there should be no one on that backroad but the occasional farmer. They are to observe. I shall question them closely when we meet up later today. Noting the big details is easy. It is the little ones that take time and unwavering attention. I seek to train their minds to see things others take for granted.”

Stiger gave a nod. Observation was a powerful skill.

“As soon as your men are ready to march,” Eli said, “I shall lead you to the proper road. Then I will take my leave and catch up with the scouts.”

“All right,” Stiger said and turned away. He stopped. “Have you eaten?”

“Yes,” Eli said.

“Well,” Stiger said, “I haven’t. Care to join me anyway?”

“Of course,” Eli said. “I will watch you eat what passes for traveling food amongst humans. We would not even feed our dogs that salt pork you legionaries get issued, and don’t even get me started on the hard bread.”

Together, they began walking back toward the camp.

 

NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON!

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