Tales of the Seventh
Part Three
Chapter Eight
©2018 and All Rights Reserved

 

Marc Alan Edelheit MAE Novels Historically Accurate Fantasy at its Best

Stiger and Griggs moved through the narrow streets of Larensus, working their way toward the center of town. The paved granite streets were just wide enough for a cart to pass and arched slightly in the center to help with runoff. Channels ran along the sides. Like ugly scars, wheel ruts were carved into the stone.

Stiger found he had to watch where he stepped to avoid animal droppings or waste tossed out from the buildings onto the street below. Larensus appeared not to have a sewer system, or if it had, the residents took the path of least resistance and chose not to use it. The stench of discarded waste and decay was powerful. Trash was everywhere.

The buildings, most no more than two stories, were plain and seemed to crowd in upon one another, so closely they shielded most of the street from direct sunlight. There were no windows on the ground level, just stout-looking doors. This was not uncommon. Most cities and towns were like this, with windows placed on the higher floors to make it more difficult for a sneak thief to gain entry into the home or place of business.

They turned a corner, moving in the direction of the town’s center, and found themselves on a street that was slightly wider than the others. Two laborers carrying a wooden beam in the opposite direction were looking to turn onto the street they’d just come from. Stiger and Griggs moved aside to allow the men to pass with their heavy load. Both stared daggers at Stiger as they continued by.

“I’m feeling unwanted,” Stiger commented to Griggs once they were out of earshot.

“They don’t seem too terribly fond of the military,” Griggs said as they passed a woman who shot Stiger a look of pure loathing.

Stiger offered her a congenial nod. In reply, she turned her head away and picked up her pace as if he were diseased. They continued on, passing a dozen more people. No one appeared even in the smallest way inclined to be friendly or respectful to a legionary officer. Stiger found it deeply troubling. It was as if the people of the town were on the verge of outright revolt.

They came to a halt at the town square. Leaning a hand on the corner of the building at the end of the street, Stiger scanned the square. Larensus’s center certainly didn’t look like a proper forum, something he had become accustomed to seeing in imperial towns. The town was old and, he decided, likely predated imperial control of the province.

Stiger knew from his tutors that, fifty years before, this land had belonged to the Kingdom of Kransgerjen. They’d not been conquered by the empire but had instead joined when their king had died without an heir. It was a rare occurrence, but not an isolated one.

Most of the buildings ringing the square were two stories in height, separated only by side streets and narrow alleys. The square was paved with large square granite flagstones. The buildings were plain and had been plastered over in a gray color Stiger thought slightly depressing.

A fountain dominated the square. Its central piece was a statue of the High Father. Stiger easily recognized the god for his masculine physique, distinctive beard, and long spear. The High Father stood, with the butt of the spear planted in the fountain’s basin. The god’s left hand was held outward, palm up, as if beseeching the masses to hear his holy words. The statue wasn’t the best carving Stiger had ever seen, but for a small town like this, it was impressive and surely costly.

Jets of water shot up into the air around the statue, crisscrossing before landing in the basin below. Two slaves stood at the edge of the basin, drawing buckets of water. The fountain told Stiger there was an aqueduct bringing fresh water into Larensus. Since there’d been no sign of an aqueduct outside of town, that meant it was underground. It made him wonder, why was there no sewer?

“That looks like the tavern.”

Griggs pointed toward a run-down two-story building. It badly needed its plaster scraped off and replaced, for its covering had begun to crumble. Cracks, looking very much like veins, zigzagged the walls. Large chucks and sections of the plaster had fallen off, exposing the stone and wooden beams underneath. Stiger could see dark spots where the rot had taken hold of several of the exposed beams, including the crossbeam that hung over the only door in view. What he saw did not inspire confidence in the building’s structural integrity.

On the left side of the door was a badly faded picture of a goat dancing on its hind legs. The goat was poorly rendered and looked somewhat like a pony, or maybe even a starving cow rearing back. Stiger thought a town such as this likely could do better, for the tavern appeared rather seedy. But then again, perhaps this was the best Larensus could do. The town, so far away from the main roads, was far from the wealthiest he’d seen. It was almost depressed.

“It should be called the Dancing Pony,” Stiger said.

The paladin gave an amused grunt. “It certainly does not look like the finest of establishments, does it?”

A file of auxiliaries stood close by the entrance, watchful and alert. They had leaned their short spears and shields against the wall of the tavern and were eyeing everyone that passed. The handful of civilians in the square gave the auxiliaries a wide berth.

“There aren’t a whole lot of people out.” Stiger thought it odd, due to the town’s size. Then there were the shops and traders. The square doubled as a small market. Stiger recognized a tailor, shoemaker, butcher, and rug merchant, amongst others.

“I noticed that.” Griggs sounded troubled.

On the opposite side of the square from the Dancing Goat was the temple to the High Father. It was not a typical temple. There were no broad marble columns, with dozens of steps leading upward as if toward the majesty of Olimbos, the mythical mountain in the heavens where the gods resided.

Instead, the temple was a square, almost squat building with a simple door on street level. There were small glassed windows on the second story. The colored glass was an extravagant expense and something Stiger had rarely seen outside the capital. A large circular spire, rising twenty feet higher into the air, crowned the building. The temple was an imposing structure, though still, like every other building in town, a plain one. Stiger had never seen anything quite like it.

A door creaked open behind them. Both men turned as a woman emerged with a small child, a girl aged at least four years. Both wore blue dresses. The little girl’s hair had been tied back into a ponytail. Griggs waved his fingers at her and smiled. Her face lit up as she smiled back at them, showing small white teeth. It was an infectious smile, full of the joy of a young life free of adult problems. Stiger found himself grinning at her.

Half out the door, the mother’s eyes settled upon Stiger. He read surprise, which changed to instant fear, then disgust. She hastily steered her child back inside. The door slammed shut. It was followed by a heavy lock thrown into place.

Stiger rubbed the back of his neck and expelled an unhappy breath. “It seems we’re most definitely not welcome in town.”

“Speak for yourself,” Griggs said. “That look was directed solely at you, my son.”

“Right.” Stiger turned to look back at the Dancing Goat. “Shall we go meet the prefect?”

“Something is clearly wrong with this town,” Griggs said. “I was thinking that while you visit with the prefect, I would stop by the temple. The priest should tell me what I want to know and without lies.”

Stiger gave a nod. “That’s a good idea. We can compare notes later.” Stiger paused and glanced toward the tavern. “Tiro should be along soon enough with the boys. If there’s any trouble, seek him first, then come looking for me.”

“Captain, from what I’ve seen so far, you tend to attract enough trouble for an entire legion,” Griggs said. “I shall keep my eyes open and come running with the cavalry should the need arise.”

“I am truly cursed,” Stiger said half-heartedly. He watched Griggs walk across the square in an unhurried pace toward the temple. The paladin held his hands clasped across his chest. With his priestly robes, he looked like just another wandering friar. Though his armor, hidden beneath the robes, chinked softly as he walked.

Stiger hesitated a moment himself, studying the auxiliaries, whose attention was focused on Griggs as the paladin headed for the temple. Stiger felt a sense of unease at what was to come. He thumped the wall lightly with the bottom of his fist. That feeling mingled with a mounting anger and deep frustration. He was disgusted at what Hanns and his cohort had wrought in this town and the surrounding countryside. The people were on the verge of an uprising. With all the general’s problems, this was the last thing General Treim needed to worry about. What was worse, Stiger did not know how to fix it, other than report what he’d discovered. He tapped the wall again with the bottom of his fist. Then forced himself to calm down.  

Stiger waited until the paladin was halfway across the square before he stepped out and made for the tavern. Like Sergeant Karrax and the other auxiliaries he’d seen so far, these men left him less than impressed. They seemed to have lost any sense of discipline and self-respect. That irritated the professional soldier in Stiger immensely. Rust grew on their helmets like a fungus. Even their iron spear points were completely covered over in rust. Stiger had never before seen such poorly turned out soldiers. Even covered in dust and grit from the road, he knew he looked far better than these sorry excuses for garrison soldiers.

The auxiliaries switched their attention from Griggs and looked over in surprise as he approached. It took them a moment to realize he was a legionary officer. They hastily straightened to a position of attention. The detail’s leader, a corporal, saluted. It was sloppy, but it was a salute. Stiger was somewhat pleased. Karrax had not had time to send word of his company’s arrival ahead to the prefect or, more likely, had not thought of it. Otherwise, these men would have expected him. It was just another sign of the poor quality of the garrison.

“Corporal, I assume Prefect Hanns is inside.” Stiger said it as a statement and not a question.

“He is, sir,” the corporal confirmed.

Stiger gave a nod, stepping past the detail toward the door. Hand on the latch, he was about to pull the door open when he heard a squeal of pain to the left, followed by a scream.

“No, please,” a female voice cried out.  

“Look what I caught, boys,” an auxiliary shouted, dragging a young slave into the courtyard and out from an alleyway. The slave had an empty bucket in one hand and had clearly come for water from the fountain.

The auxiliary was a big, burly man and the slave just a slip of a girl. She struggled to no avail against his grip. Her gray dress, marking her as a slave, had been torn at the shoulder. Whether the auxiliary had done it or not, Stiger did not know. He could easily imagine the auxiliary’s intentions. Stiger felt his anger burn hot. Even slaves had rights, limited ones, but the empire ensured they had protections. Sucking in a breath, Stiger released the handle and took a step back from the door.

“What do you intend to do with her?” Stiger asked in a firm tone as the man dragged her up to the others.

The auxiliary blinked, realizing something was not quite right. His comrades were still at attention. The man’s eyes settled on Stiger and his eyes widened, almost comically. Had Stiger not been so incensed, he might have laughed. The auxiliary released the girl, more from shock than anything else. She collapsed to the stone paving as he snapped to attention.

“I asked you a question, soldier,” Stiger said, stepping forward and into the man’s personal space. The auxiliary stood a foot higher than Stiger.

“Nothing, sir,” the auxiliary, said carefully.

“It didn’t look like nothing,” Stiger said, glancing down on the slave. Her arm was red and marked from where he’d gripped her. “Is she your property?”

“No, sir,” the man answered.

“Do you know to whom she belongs?”

“No, sir,” the man answered. “She’s just property, sir. I was just looking to have some fun, is all, sir.”

Acting as if of its own accord, Stiger’s fist connected with the man’s jaw. The auxiliary reeled backward, before falling on his backside. He grunted as he went down and lay there, dazed, blinking up at the sky. It had been extremely satisfying to knock the man down, but it had hurt. Stiger shook the pain from his hand, then swung around.

“Corporal,” Stiger growled. “This man is to be on charge.”

“Yes, sir,” the corporal said. “I will see to it, sir.”

Stiger bent down and helped the slave up. She was a pretty girl. He figured she was aged around twenty. He picked up her bucket, handing it back to her.

“What is your name, girl?” Stiger asked.

“Hela,” she said, lowering her brown eyes to the ground, as was proper.

“Hela”—Stiger spared an angry glance over at the corporal—“go fetch your water. If you are troubled again, ask for me. I am Captain Stiger.”

Behind him, one of the auxiliaries uttered an oath.

“Thank you, sir,” she said and hurried off toward the fountain, nearly running.

He spared a glance at the dazed man now lying on his side and moaning softly. Stiger turned back to the corporal. “If I hear that anything has happened to her, I will hold you and anyone else personally responsible. That includes after I’ve left town. Do you understand me?”

The corporal swallowed. “I do, sir. Nothing will happen to her. I will see to it.”

Stiger eyed the entire file of men for a long moment. He was done playing games and acting as a disinterested noble. He was a Stiger and it was that simple. He’d learn what he could from Hanns, finish his mission, then report what he’d found. The general would have to deal with the rest.

“Very good.” Stiger moved to the door, opened it, and stepped inside.

The tavern was just as shabby on the inside as it was on the outside. The floor was worn. The plaster on the walls was chipped and crumbling. A dozen oil lamps lit the interior in a dim sort of gloom. A couple of floor candelabras added to the light with a dozen or more tallow candles. The common room stank of tallow, smoke, stale ale, and bodies. It was filled, almost jam-packed. There were so many people that it was hot, uncomfortably so.

No one was drinking. The tavern was nearly quiet. They were all watching something play out across the room. Stiger could hear raised voices, two of them. His back to the door, he stood on his toes, attempting to gaze over and around the crowd. It took him a moment to figure out what was going on.

Stiger felt like he had walked into a king’s court. Everyone was facing a man sitting on a stool, his back to a fireplace, which blazed away. The man was on the heavy side. A sheen of sweat glistened over his balding scalp. The man wore an expensively cut tunic that looked military. Four auxiliaries in full armor stood guard around the man, which led Stiger to assume this was the prefect.

There was another auxiliary just off to the prefect’s side. He held a wax tablet and stylus. This man was looking toward two men who were arguing something before Hanns.

Stiger rubbed his jaw. It appeared as if Hanns was acting as a traveling magistrate and this tavern had become a makeshift court of law. Was he mistaking the local magistrate for Hanns? He realized that couldn’t be right, for the magistrate would have his own personal guards and certainly wouldn’t use auxiliaries. No. This had to be Hanns. However, only a magistrate, an official appointed directly by the senate, could adjudicate such civilian cases.

What was the man’s game?

“He acted in bad faith,” one of the two nearly yelled, pointing at the other.

“I upheld my end of

the bargain,” the other man shouted back. “Had he paid me what he promised, I would have delivered the rest of the cattle.”

 

As Stiger listened to the two men continue to argue, it was clear one desired their deal annulled. The other wanted money he felt was his due. The longer their argument continued, the louder their voices became, as if by outshouting each other they would prove their cases.

Stiger’s view was abruptly blocked as a man standing before him shifted slightly. Deciding to get a better view, Stiger began working his way forward, picking his way through the crowd. A few looked ready to object, but any such thoughts died upon their lips when they saw his dusty officer’s armor. Men moved aside, instinctively pulling away from him.

Moving through a tightly packed crowd while wearing armor was no easy thing. Stiger accidentally jostled a tall, portly man to his front who was dressed in an expensively cut gray tunic. “Wait your turn,” the man snarled and did not bother to look back. Instead, he pushed Stiger roughly back with an elbow.

Stiger’s anger once again boiled to the surface. He shoved the man forward, and hard. Crying out, the man crashed into another. Both went down in a tumble. The argument before the prefect stilled as all heads turned to see what had caused the commotion. Those nearest him drew away from Stiger, as if a vicious beast had suddenly appeared within their midst.

“You bastard,” the man he’d shoved shouted as he rolled over, looking prepared to fight. “I will kill you for…” He looked up, his words trailing off, then scrambled backwards several feet. The other man who’d been knocked down pulled himself to his feet and backed away.

Stiger stepped forward, standing over the man he’d shoved. The man held up a protective hand as Stiger reached down. He offered his hand, palm outstretched. The man hesitated and then clasped the proffered hand. Stiger pulled him to his feet.

“Friend,” Stiger said, “I think you need to be more careful. That was quite clumsy of you.”

“Yes,” the man stammered, “yes it was.”

“Who the bloody hell are you?” Hanns roared, as if upset that Stiger was now the center of attention. Stiger felt a nervous ripple flow through the crowd at the prefect’s tone. Every head in the room swung back toward Hanns.

Patting the man he’d shoved on the shoulder, Stiger stepped around him and toward the officer on the stool. He stopped three feet from Hanns. Gripping their short spears, the auxiliaries flanking Hanns glanced at each other, uncertain what to do. They settled for doing nothing, which wasn’t surprising to Stiger. A legionary officer always outranked an auxiliary officer.

“Who are you?” Hanns demanded in a tone of voice Stiger found highly irritating. It sounded nasally, almost high pitched. “Well, out with it, man. You’re wasting my time.”

“Captain Stiger, Seventh Company, Third Legion,” Stiger said softly. “I presume you are Prefect Hanns?”

There was a shocked murmur from behind and then, after several silent heartbeats, much whispering. Hanns paled and his mouth fell open. The prefect leaned backwards. The stool creaked alarmingly, as if its legs might snap under the man’s weight.

“You’re wasting my time now,” Stiger said. “Are you Prefect Hanns?”

Hanns stood.

“I am Prefect Hanns,” he said, licking his lips.

Stiger thought he read fear in Hanns’s eyes. It seemed it was more than just being confronted with an infamous Stiger.

“We need to talk,” Stiger said.

“Talk?” Hanns stammered. “You want to talk?”

“Yes,” Stiger said and glanced about the room. “We need to talk in private and certainly not in front of these civilians.”

“Leave us,” Hanns shouted, voice quavering, and waved his arms in what could almost be called an imperious manner. “The captain and I have business to discuss.”

No one moved. If anything, the whispering intensified.

Hanns turned to his men, tone harsh, snarling. “Get them out of here. Now!”

After a slight hesitation, the four auxiliaries moved forward, shouting and shoving people toward the door. An elderly man did not move quickly enough. An auxiliary began beating him with the butt of his spear. The exodus of the tavern intensified after that.

Throughout it all, Hanns kept his gaze fixed upon Stiger. The prefect wiped sweat off his upper lip with the back of an index finger. His hand trembled as he did it.

Stiger wondered at that. Then he understood. Could it be? Did Hanns think he was here to arrest him for abusing his authority?

Within moments, the tavern was empty but for Hanns and his men.

The prefect licked his lips again, then stepped over to a table along the wall where there was a jar and several clay mugs. Picking up the jar, he looked back at Stiger, eyebrows raised.

“Would you care for a drink, Captain? It is a poor vintage, but better than most wines around these forsaken parts.” Hanns gave a shrug of his shoulders. “I am afraid it is the best I have on hand.”

“I would,” Stiger said, realizing he was thirsty. Wine sounded a great way to rinse the road dust from his mouth. Much better than the well-drawn water he had in his canteen.

“I had not realized there were any Stigers serving.” Hanns poured wine into two mugs, seeming to struggle to regain a measure of himself. He handed one of the mugs to Stiger and motioned to a table off to the side with several stools.

“To my knowledge, I am the only one,” Stiger said, moving over to the table. “Though when I joined the legions, my uncle was considering purchasing an appointment.”

“Your uncle?”

“Yes,” Stiger said. “Carvacus Stiger. I doubt you’ve heard of him. He’s spent most of his days managing his estates.”

“Your father is Marcus Stiger, then?”

“He is,” Stiger confirmed, studying the man. Hanns was pudgy, soft, and indolent. He waddled a bit as he walked and certainly did not appear the soldiering type, which begged the question why the man had sought command of an auxiliary cohort.

Stiger was sure Hanns was from the equestrian class and had purchased a commission, as was anyone’s right who had the money and connections. There was no senatorial ring upon his finger, nor anything similar denoting family rank or a crest. Studying the prefect, Stiger wondered if he had chosen the auxiliaries over the legions because he knew he could not handle a more aggressive command. Or was it that he had chosen this cohort intentionally, with an eye toward what profit he could squeeze out of the surrounding lands?

“So, you would be his son?” Hanns took a seat on the opposite side of the table and motioned for Stiger to sit.

Stiger undid the straps to his helmet. He took it off and set it down on the table with a heavy clunk. It felt a relief having the thing off. He cracked his neck. Stiger hooked a stool with his foot from under the table and moved it out. He sat down.

“I am,” Stiger said, enjoying the feeling of being off his feet. He almost sighed in pleasure, for he’d not realized just how much his legs ached. A week of straight marching did that to you.

“You look like you’ve come a long way,” Hanns said, seeming to force a congenial manner.

“I have.” Stiger held up his drink to the other officer in salute and took a sip. The wine had been heated, but now was nothing more than lukewarm. It was poor quality stuff, made worse by being watered down. However, it was more than welcome. Hanns took a sip himself and made a disgusted face.

“What was that all about?” Stiger asked and jerked a thumb back behind him at the common room, now empty but for the prefect’s soldiers.

“That,” Hanns said with a dismissive wave of his hand, “was nothing but an irritating necessity.”

“A necessity?”

“Sadly, yes.” Hanns heaved a breath worthy of a theatrical company. “The magistrate sickened and died shortly after we arrived. I’ve sent word to the senate of his passing and that…ah…a replacement will need to be chosen. In the interim, someone needs to settle disputes and keep the peace. The civilians here asked me—well, they really demanded I step in.”

“I see,” Stiger said and took another sip of the wine. He did not believe a word of it. Hanns may have even had the magistrate killed. Regardless, Stiger understood well enough. Hanns had clearly overstepped his mark. Under the law, the prefect’s decisions were not binding. Without senate and imperial authority, they simply couldn’t be. The citizens of the town likely did not know law, and if a few did, Hanns’s boys probably beat it out of them. The prefect was undoubtedly cleaning up on bribes from those coming to settle disputes. With his own little army, no one could dispute his authority.

“I have friends in the senate,” Hanns said carefully. “I’ve advised them of the actions I’ve been forced to take in the name of keeping order.”

Stiger gave a slow nod. Hanns was hoping to be appointed the next magistrate. That, Stiger knew, was unlikely. Magisterial positions were highly coveted because of their lucrative nature. The cost of bribing enough senators to gain the votes needed for a magistrate seat was exorbitant, much more so than purchasing an auxiliary cohort prefecture. Hanns’s friends in the senate were only his as long as he paid them. The quality of the senators’ friendship also rested on who paid more.

At best, Hanns’s friends might see their way to confirming his appointment as temporary, then replace him as soon as someone paid what they demanded. Hanns had best hope that was the case. If his friends refused to support him, Hanns would be recalled and face a senatorial fact-finding committee. That never ended well, especially if the person in question could not afford the bribes needed to overlook such transgressions. Stiger did not say this, of course. Instead, he took another sip of the watered-down wine and closed his eyes, pretending to savor the taste.

Stiger was certain that Hanns mentioning his senatorial friends was a clumsy attempt at a threat.

“Might I ask your purpose for being here?” Hanns asked. “Isn’t the fighting well up north?”

“It is.” Stiger withdrew his orders from his cloak pocket and handed them over to Hanns. He gave the prefect several moments to read. “As you can see, you are to provide me anything that I reasonably require and without question.”

“It does not tell me why you are here?” Hanns said with evident consternation.

“No, it does not. That is the ‘without question’ part.”

Hanns screwed up his face in such a way that his forehead blotched with red spots and made him suddenly look quite ugly. Stiger had the impression of a spoiled child, now a grown man. Here was someone, Stiger understood, who was accustomed to getting his way and, when he didn’t get it, threw a fit. Only this time, Stiger figured Hanns was afraid to truly push back.

Stiger gave an exaggerated sigh and set his mug down upon the table. “I am delivering a message from General Treim to the quartermaster in Haraste.” Stiger held up a hand. “Don’t bother asking. I don’t know what the message says. We came this way because we had a job to do first. It took us to the south. Rather than retracing our steps northward and going back to the main roads, I elected to take the shorter route, hoping to save time before the snows arrived.”

Hanns gave a slow nod to that as he examined his mug. Then he looked up.

“We?”

“My company,” Stiger said, picking the orders back up from the table and placing them in his pocket. “Well, a small part of it. I have twenty-five men with me.”

“I see.” Hanns seemed to relax a little, a tight smile forming.

“Speaking of which, I will need a place to quarter them for the night. Where would you suggest I do that?”

“There is a tavern at the far end of town,” Hanns said, after a moment’s thought. “It’s not much, but you can commandeer it for the night. It is owned by a man named Powel. Your men can sleep in the common room. I am quite certain the Powels will have a suitable room for you.” Hanns paused. “You will, of course, see that the owner is compensated for any lost business.”

“It sounds acceptable,” Stiger said. “And I will see that they are suitably compensated. I will also need to replenish our rations.”

“Speak to my sergeant,” Hanns said. “He will see you have what you require.”

“Thank you,” Stiger said. “I will have my sergeant get with him. What is the name of the Powels’ tavern?”

“The Nag,” Hanns said.

“The Nag?” Stiger asked. “That doesn’t sound very promising.”

“Apparently the owner named the place after his wife,” Hanns said.

Stiger laughed. “Are you serious?”

“That’s my understanding. It is rather amusing.” Hanns laughed. It seemed a little forced.

“I am sure it will do,” Stiger said. “It will beat another night sleeping on my arms. That’s for sure.”

“Excellent.” Hanns drained the last of his wine. He poured himself more, then drank deeply. He wiped his lips with the back of his forearm.

“Before I see to settling my men,” Stiger said, carefully watching the prefect, “your sergeant mentioned you’re having some trouble with the locals.”

“He did?” Hanns swallowed his wine and narrowed his eyes at Stiger. The left eye narrowed more than the other. After a heartbeat, the prefect scowled, downed the rest of his wine, and set the empty mug on the table with some force.

“Yes, he did,” Stiger said, surprised the mug didn’t break. “We passed several farms that had been burned. At first, I thought it might be the result of the enemy.”

Hanns said nothing but had gone red in the face.

“Care to explain what type of trouble you’ve encountered?” Stiger asked. “I want to make sure the road ahead is safe before we proceed.”

Hanns let go another expansive breath.

“Captain, I assure you the road ahead is safe and secure.” Hanns waved a hand, once again relaxing slightly. “It is well-patrolled by the next garrison, the Fifth Kentalen light cavalry cohort, based out the town of Akarna, twenty-five miles away. I understand they are to be the first in a chain of forts built along the main road to Haraste. The port is being turned into a supply base, specifically for your legion.”

Stiger leaned back on his stool. The Kentalen were known for their superb cavalry. That the general would part with an entire cohort for garrison duty spoke of the importance of the supply base being built in Haraste.

“That the road is well-patrolled is a comfort,” Stiger said. “But you’ve not yet explained the troubles.”

“Oh, it’s really nothing,” Hanns said, refilling his wine.

“Crucifixion,” Stiger said, feeling his irritation bubble up. He was getting tired of this game with Hanns. “Wouldn’t you say that’s more of a statement than anything else?”

“We had to deal with some agitators,” Hanns said with another wave of his hand. “Set an example, if you will. My orders are to appropriate supplies from the locals, as needed. There were a few who refused to give up their fair share. Several even resisted and I lost a few men. As a result, examples needed to be made and the offenders punished. I’m sure you understand.”

Stiger took another sip of wine, wondering what constituted a “fair share” in the prefect’s mind. He set the mug back down upon the table, suspecting that Hanns was taking more than he needed and likely selling the surplus for personal profit. If he had friends in the senate, any bribes would be exorbitant, especially if he was vying for the magisterial position for this region. Then again, he might have borrowed the money for the bribes and was looking to repay his creditors. There was simply no telling.

Stiger rubbed the back of his neck. Hanns was doing nothing that had not been done before and would likely be done again. It was one of those unpleasant things that happened as a byproduct of war. Had the magistrate lived, the locals could have complained and sought redress. Stiger knew it was entirely possible that Hanns would simply have paid the magistrate off and used his men to retaliate against those who spoke up. With Hanns assuming the magistrate’s responsibilities, they no longer had any recourse, as if they had had any to begin with.

Stiger felt his anger flare anew. He placed a palm upon the worn surface of the table, feeling the grain of the wood. For better or worse, Hanns was effectively the ruler of the lands around the town. The locals would continue to suffer until they were reduced to either banditry or even potential rebellion. There was nothing Stiger could do about it.

Or was there?

Stiger recalled the looks he’d received from the townsfolk on their way through the town. No one had been friendly, nor especially welcoming. The image of the mother and her child flashed through his mind. Stiger had gotten a sense of an ugly mood simmering amongst the populace. He would need to report what he had discovered, including his suspicions on the prefect’s activities. Stiger gazed for a long moment at the prefect and came to a decision. It was a dangerous move, for surely the prefect was corrupt, but Stiger decided the risk was potentially worth it, especially if it kept the people from rising up long enough for the general to take action.

“I have some advice for you,” Stiger said in a quiet tone.

“And what is that, Captain?” A smile tugged at Hanns’s lips as a hand went to his neck, where a thin gold necklace disappeared into his tunic. Hanns caressed the chain a moment before placing his hand back upon the table.

Stiger guessed that the prefect was feeling somewhat safe, especially now that he knew Stiger was not here to arrest him.

“I would caution you.”

“On what?” Hanns cocked his head to the side. “On what do you feel the need to caution me, Captain?”

“Requisitioning more than you require,” Stiger said.

“I would never do that,” Hanns exclaimed theatrically, sounding shocked and slapping his palm down upon the table. The man’s eyes, however, spoke differently. “I have only taken what we required, as is my right according to my orders.”

“Of course,” Stiger said in a soothing tone. Though he really wanted to reach across the table and strangle the man before him. “I’m sure you’d never do anything like that. However, General Treim is a very particular kind of man.”

“Particular?”

“I don’t believe he would be too fond of examples being made of the populace, without good cause. Nor do I think he would approve of crucifixion or selling citizens into slavery.”

Hanns went very still at the last, for such a thing was a very serious crime. One for which senators even refused bribes.

“The route from Haraste is going to be critical to the legion’s survival,” Stiger continued. “The last thing the general will want to deal with is civil unrest.”

“Civil unrest?” Hanns sputtered.

“I am quite certain,” Stiger continued, “the general would be put out to learn that you were perhaps a little”—Stiger paused, gritting his teeth slightly as he said the next—“overzealous in your efforts at keeping the peace and guarding the legion’s communications.”

The prefect’s face paled. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence that followed. Hanns’s jaw worked, but no sound came out. The prefect swallowed and then sucked in a breath. Anger overcame the man as he gripped the edge of the table. He once again became red in the face.

“I would never dream of upsetting the general,” Hanns said, after a long moment. “I will take”—he fairly bit the words out—“efforts to moderate my approach with the locals. I would not want to be accused of doing something I am not.”

“I expected you would it see my way.” Stiger drained the last of his wine. “The general will be pleased when I report our conversation to him.”

“Report?” Hanns asked. “Are you threatening me, Captain?”

“I would never dream of it,” Stiger said, locking eyes with the prefect.

The door opened and in stepped Tiro. Both men turned to look.

It was time to go.

“Sorry to interrupt, sir,” Tiro said, glancing at Hanns’s guards and then the two officers sitting at the table facing one another. Stiger would have bet good silver Tiro could sense the tension in the room.

“What is it?” Stiger asked.

“I was wondering if you had secured quarters for us,” Tiro said. “It’s been a long day, sir. I would like to get the men settled, fed, and”—the sergeant paused and glanced over at the slovenly auxiliaries—“working at maintaining their kit.”

“I have arranged quarters with the prefect,” Stiger said. “We will be spending the night at a tavern named the Nag. I will be out shortly. Wait for me.”

“Yes, sir,” Tiro said. Stiger got the sense the sergeant did not want to leave, but he did. The door banged shut behind him.

“As my sergeant said, it’s been a long march.” Stiger stood and slid the stool back with his foot. He put his helmet on, tying the straps. “I will retire with my men to the Nag. Should you have need of me, you can find me there.”

“I will expect your men to behave themselves while in town,” Hanns cautioned. “I would not want to have to arrest anyone.”

Stiger did not like the look in the prefect’s eye, or his tone. His suspicion the man was just another spoiled bully grew to certainty in that moment. But, was he dangerous? Surely he would want no trouble with the legion?

“I would not try arresting any of my men.” Stiger placed both palms down on the table and leaned toward Hanns. Despite the man being in command of the garrison, Stiger was the senior officer present. “We will depart first thing in the morning and I will be taking all of my men with me. Do you understand, Prefect?”

“I do,” Hanns said after a moment’s silence. Stiger could read the hate in the prefect’s eyes. Stiger suspected, as an equestrian, he likely hated all of the nobility. It was a common sentiment.

With that, Stiger straightened, turned on his heel, and made for the door.

“Captain?” Hanns called as Stiger reached the door.

Stiger turned to look back, a hand on the latch. He was thoroughly irritated with Hanns.

“Thank you for your counsel.” The hate was still there. “I shall think on it.”

Stiger gave a nod and stepped back outside. He found the square crowded with civilians and his men, who were formed up and waiting. Most of the civilians had been in the tavern, watching the magisterial proceedings Hanns had been leading. They were lingering outside. Stiger thought he detected a hopefulness amongst the civilians. Silence settled across the square.

Stiger noticed a large number of auxiliaries on the edges of the crowd. Sergeant Karrax was off with a group of them. Stiger looked but did not see Father Griggs. The paladin must still be in the temple.

“Sergeant Karrax,” Stiger called as he stepped up to Tiro.

“Is everything okay, sir?” Tiro said in a low voice, his eyes shooting toward the nearest auxiliaries.

“We will speak when we’re alone,” Stiger said, then hollered again, for the sergeant had seemed not to hear him. “Karrax, over here, man.”

Karrax, almost reluctantly, made his way over. “How can I help you, sir?”

“Show us to the Nag, would you?” Stiger asked. “I could use a meal. Then I want to know where to find the bathhouse.”

“Of course, sir,” Karrax said. “This way.”

“Follow the man,” Stiger said to Tiro, who gave the order to march.

As the men moved out, Stiger glanced back at the Dancing Goat. Prefect Hanns was standing in the doorway. Stiger turned his back on the prefect and followed after his men. He sensed somehow, some way there would be trouble, and Stiger knew he’d started it.

 

NEXT CHAPTER COMING SOON!

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