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“Welcome back, sir.” Legionary Kollus held the door for Stiger. The legionary had been posted on sentry duty outside the Nag. A lantern sat on the ground. Its flame lit up a small cone of darkness by the legionary’s feet. Stiger paused and gazed across the street toward the boarding barn. His escort came to a stop and waited respectfully a few feet behind. Tiro had insisted on the escort, especially after Stiger had told him about his meeting with Hanns.
The double doors of the barn had been pulled back and stood open. Under lantern light inside the barn, Stiger saw Tiro working with a couple of young men. A cart with a tethered mule was parked along the street. They were unloading and stacking supplies that had been drawn from the garrison’s supply depot. Two additional sentries were posted outside the barn, watchful and alert.
The Nag was on a side street, near the wall on the eastern side of the town. The tavern was on the small side, but easily large enough to accommodate his men. Stiger had been pleasantly surprised to find the tavern clean and apparently free of pests. Unlike the Dancing Goat, it was well maintained and kept up.
The owner, Powel, turned out to be a retired legionary. He seemed outright overjoyed to have the legionaries quartered in his tavern, even after he found out that the legionaries were led by a Stiger. It seemed to make no difference. Powel was an older man, in his sixties, and had served twenty-five years in Fourth Legion, retiring as a sergeant. He had explained to Stiger there were a good number of veterans from the Fourth who had settled around Larensus.
Stiger turned back to the tavern, gave Kollus a nod, and stepped inside. The six legionaries of his escort filed in behind him. Unlike the Dancing Goat, the Nag did not stink. It smelled of an incense that Stiger could not identify but found quite appealing. A brazier set in the corner by the kitchen smoked, burning the incense.
All of the tables and stools had been moved against the walls. The common room was filled with his legionaries, working and preparing to bed down for the night. The men would be sleeping on the floor, which was a sight better than the hard ground. They would have a real roof over their heads and a fire.
“Attention,” one of his escort called out behind him.
Stiger’s legionaries ceased what they were doing and stood to attention.
“As you were,” Stiger said. The men went back to what they had been doing.
Once the last of the escort was inside, Kollus closed the door.
The tavernkeeper was nowhere to be seen, nor was his family. Stiger trudged across the room to a table that had been reserved for his use. He dropped his toiletry kit down on the table. It was the only table that had not been pushed against the wall. It sat near the fire, which, having recently been fed, snapped and popped loudly. Stiger’s armor, badly in need of some attention, lay on the floor next to the table. His pack was there, too.
It had been an exceptionally long day, especially so after his meeting with Hanns. Stiger was bone-tired and more than ready to turn in for the night. At the same time, he was clean—the dirt, grime, and dust from the march scraped and scrubbed off in the town’s bathhouse. Bathing had been wonderful. The hot water had soothed his tired and worn muscles. Stiger yawned as he sat down on the stool. The bath had made him sleepy. Only the dip into the cold pool had snapped him back awake. Now that he was in the warmth of the tavern, sleep, like a long-lost friend, was once again tugging at him.
Stiger rubbed at his tired eyes a moment, then glanced around the common room. His boys were hard at work, cleaning and maintaining their kit or laying out their blankets if they’d finished. A legionary’s life was a hard one, filled with constant work. Something always needed doing. There was some jawing, but it was subdued. They were tired and just as worn. He could see it in their expressions.
Leaning over, Stiger grabbed his pack and set it upon the table. Untying the straps, he pulled out the map and unfolded it. A squat tallow candle sat on the table, a thin trail of smoke snaking its way upward. The candle was unnecessary, for the tavern was well lit from hanging lanterns and lamps. Stiger leaned over the map and found Larensus, then traced the road all the way to Haraste. He figured that at their current pace, he’d be at the port city in four, maybe five days. At least, he hoped so. Once on The Mars and safely at sea, Stiger figured he would be able to relax a little. Until then, traveling through the countryside with the gold would worry him.
Thought of the gold drew Stiger’s attention to the corner of the room. The heavy saddlebags had been stacked there. By now, all of his men knew what they carried. There had been no way to hide it. They just did not know what it was for. Tonight, the safest place for the gold would be in this common room, where the men slept.
“Excuse me, Captain.”
Stiger looked up to discover Adera, Powel’s ten-year-old daughter. She held a jar in one hand and a mug in the other.
“Mother thought you would want some wine.” Adera smiled shyly, glancing back at her mother, Adeena, who was watching from the kitchen door. Her mother offered her daughter an encouraging nod.
“Your mother is a smart woman,” Stiger said. “I can see why your father married her.”
The girl giggled as she set the mug down on the table. Adera was a skinny child, thin as a wisp. She had long brown hair that had been painfully brushed straight and then tied into a single braid. She wore a gray dress that was patched and almost threadbare, along with a pair of sandals that were well past their prime. The Powels kept a clean, respectable tavern, but they were far from well off. She carefully poured him some wine.
“Thank you,” Stiger said as she finished pouring and set the jar on the table, next to the mug.
“Enjoy the wine, Captain,” Adera said. “Mother says it’s one of our best. She told me, but I don’t recall the name of the vintage.”
“That’s quite all right,” Stiger said. “I am sure I will enjoy it.”
She flashed another smile and then skipped back to her mother.
Powel’s wife was pleasant, if not plain in appearance. She certainly did not seem like a nag. After meeting her, Stiger had wondered if the name of the tavern had been some sort of a joke. Powel and his family were the first civilians in the town who were outright welcoming, and Stiger did not wish to jeopardize their friendliness by asking.
Stiger gave the woman a thankful nod before both mother and daughter disappeared back into the kitchen and away from the legionaries. Stiger could smell something good cooking.
He took a sip of the wine. He was pleased to find it was quite rich and had not been watered down. That was a rarity for tavern wine. He took another taste, enjoying the fruity flavor, and wondered briefly on the vintage.
The front door opened and in stepped Tiro. Powel was on his heels. A cold draft snaked its way over to the fire, chilling Stiger. Both men were deep in conversation. As Powel closed the door, the sergeant looked around and spotted Stiger. He made his way over with the tavernkeeper a step behind. Powel had a slight limp, but it did not seem to slow him down. Whether the limp was from an old wound or age, Stiger could not tell.
“We saw to the animals, sir,” Tiro said. “The rations drawn from the garrison’s depot are secured. Mind you, they’re not standard rations, sir.”
“Much of its a little rich for us, sir,” Tiro said. “We have week-old bread, salt and smoked beef, bacon fat, cornmeal, and wine. All that good food might spoil the men a tad, but it will do well enough.”
Stiger felt himself scowl slightly at his sergeant’s slight tone of disapproval. However, he got Tiro’s meaning. They had been given food that had clearly been confiscated from the locals.
“My boys will watch over your mules and supplies tonight, Captain,” Powel said, his voice raspy with age, though he still looked fit and hardy. It had surprised Stiger that the man had a wife half his age and six children to boot, the youngest being Adera.
“I will detail a few men to watch with them, sir.” Tiro cast Powel a quick look. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to your boys, especially after the kindness you’ve show us.”
“I appreciate that, Tiro,” Powel said. “I wish I could say your men are not needed, but…”
Powel trailed off, and Tiro cleared his throat. “It seems people are hungry, sir.”
“The garrison has been taking too much of the harvest, is that it?” Stiger asked, looking directly at Powel.
“Draft animals, food on hooves, name it, sir,” Tiro said when Powel did not immediately answer. “Nothing is safe.”
“I suppose it’s too much to hope all of it’s going to the garrison’s depot?” Stiger asked. If there was hunger already, he could only imagine what would happen when winter arrived.
“Some of it,” Powel said. “The rest is shipped out.”
Stiger leaned back on his stool. Even if the general intervened, by the time he did there might not be enough food in the depot to keep people from starving. From what he’d seen during the civil war, Stiger well knew hungry people did desperate things.
Hanns was a fool.
“So,” Stiger said, “the prefect is selling some of what he confiscates?”
“He is, sir,” Powel confirmed, anger coloring his voice. “He sells it almost exclusively through a merchant named Taliman. That black-hearted bastard arrived with the prefect’s cohort, sir. He’s taken a room in the Dancing Goat. Excuse my language, sir.”
Stiger shook his head, not quite understanding what Hanns was thinking. Surely he had to know his excesses would be found out and he’d be called to account. Stiger ran a hand through his hair, which was still slightly damp.
“Taliman,” Stiger said. “That’s a foreign name.”
“He’s from the Cyphan Confederacy, sir,” Powel said, “or so he says.”
The Confederacy was a long way off, thousands of miles to the south. What was he doing this far north?
“Aren’t you afraid of Hanns learning what you’ve told me?” Stiger asked. “At the very least, I’d think he’d have questions for you after we’ve left.”
“I’m captain of the local militia,” Powel said, with a hint of pride. “There are five hundred of us, around one hundred residing in town, sir. So far, the prefect has avoided causing me too much grief. I think he will not bother me too much, sir, for fear of pissing off the militia.”
“Let’s hope so,” Stiger said, though he wasn’t so sure. He was becoming concerned about what would happen to Powel after he left. Stiger could do nothing to protect the man and his family. He couldn’t stay, that was for sure. He had to get the gold to Thresh. That was his priority. The town, a backwater, simply was not.
“Don’t you worry about us none,” Powel said. “I won’t tell him nothin’, sir, if he asks.”
“I appreciate that. How many men does the prefect have?” Stiger asked, curious as to the garrison’s actual size.
“Around two hundred, sir,” Powel said, almost immediately. “Poor quality all. Nothing like the legions, sir.”
Stiger rubbed his freshly shaved jaw. He suspected the town was close to an uprising. If such a thing happened, it would prove to be a bloodbath. There would be much killing by both sides until either the cohort or the townspeople prevailed. Studying Powel, he wondered if he could postpone such a revolt, which he sensed was coming, and fast. It was just fortune that had sent him this way. Fortuna was playing her games with him again. He was sure of it.
“When I return to the legion,” Stiger said, “I will report what I’ve learned directly to General Treim. You have my word on that. With luck, he will take action.”
“I’ve heard of the general, sir. It is said he is a good man.”
“He is,” Stiger confirmed.
“And when will that be, sir?” Powel asked. “When will you be returning to your legion?”
“I’d say in about a month,” Stiger said, “maybe a little longer.”
Powel hid his disappointment well, but Stiger could see it lurking in the man’s eyes. Tiro, however, gave an unhappy scowl. Stiger had come to know his sergeant well. It was clear, even he thought things were bad and the situation disagreeable.
“I could send a man back with a report,” Stiger suggested, thinking it through. Yes, that was what he would do. When he met up with Eli in the morning, he would send one of the scouts back to the legion. He was sure Eli would not be too happy about that. The elf was likely enjoying teaching the two scouts the ways of the ranger. Stiger would be stealing a bit of his fun. “He would be with the general in less than a week.”
“I think that might be wise, sir,” Tiro said.
“Thank you, sir,” Powel said. “We’re loyal to the empire. The prefect is making it difficult for many to stay that way, sir, if you get my meaning.”
Stiger did get Powel’s meaning, and only too well. The locals were like an overfilled lamp, just waiting for the right, or really the wrong, moment to explode and burn the house down. All it would take was an errant spark, and Hanns had already lit the wick.
“I will send a man in the morning with a full report,” Stiger said. “The general will learn what has been going on here.”
“Thank you, sir.” Powel let out a relieved breath and glanced toward the kitchen door. “Are you ready to take your dinner, sir? My wife is making an onion soup. I am afraid we don’t have much more than that, but I assure you, it’s quite good. She is a wonderful cook.”
“Onion soup would be fine,” Stiger said, “and trust me when I tell you, it will be a much welcome break from the salt pork I’ve had to endure for the last week.”
“Honestly,” Powel said, “I’d welcome some salt pork, myself, sir. It’s been weeks since we’ve had some proper meat that’s not gone maggoty. Good meat’s been kinda scarce.” Powel glanced toward the kitchen. “I will check on the soup, sir.”
Powel stepped away, leaving Stiger and Tiro alone. They were silent a few moments as they watched Powel disappear into the kitchen.
“He’s a good man,” Tiro said, breaking the silence. “I can tell. He probably was a damn fine sergeant too.”
“He certainly seems to be a good man,” Stiger said, thinking on Adera and her threadbare dress. The girl was almost painfully skinny. “Make sure to leave him and his family some salt pork, will you?”
“Our rations, sir?” Tiro asked, clearly surprised.
“Some of that bread too,” Stiger said. “His family looks half-starved and they’ve been the only ones to welcome us. I think we can do with a little less. Besides, we’re not that far from Haraste. Just four days’ hard marching will see us to the city.”
“Aye, sir.” Tiro glanced toward the kitchen, where Powel had disappeared. “I will see to it, sir.”
“I want to have the company formed up an hour before first light.” Stiger turned his gaze back down to the map.
“Yes, sir,” Tiro said.
“What were you thinking for sentry duty tonight?”
“I was planning on putting two men in the barn and a man on the street, sir,” Tiro said. “Do you want more than that?”
Stiger thought for a moment. “That should be sufficient. The men on sentry duty are to be rotated every two hours. I want everyone to get some decent sleep before we march in the morning.”
“I will see to it, sir,” Tiro said.
Tiro bounced upon his heels, an amused look suddenly upon his face.
“Have a nice bath, sir? You look very clean, sir, yes, very clean indeed. That bath must have been awful nice.”
“I’m pleased you think so.” Stiger felt a flicker of amusement at the sergeant’s change of subject. “Oh, I almost forgot. I spoke to the manager of the bathhouse and arranged for the men to visit this evening. No more than six at a time, half an hour each.”
Tiro blinked. “The men will very much appreciate that. Heck, sir, I appreciate that.”
“Come morning, I expect them to be smartly turned out,” Stiger said.
“They will be, sir,” Tiro assured him. “They will be.”
Stiger gave a nod. He had paid good silver for use of the bathhouse out of the company’s petty cash. Had he not arranged for it, the men would have bathed out of a bucket, using fountain-drawn water. In Stiger’s mind, after the hard pace he had set, they had more than earned it. And in truth, after he’d negotiated with the manager into lowering his price, it had not cost all that much.
“Make sure they understand,” Stiger said. “There is to be no trouble with the locals or the garrison. No visiting taverns or brothels. They go straight to the bathhouse and back. If there are any problems, they will be answering to me.”
“Aye, sir.” Tiro glanced about the room. “They’re too tired to cause much trouble anyway. Regardless, I will impress upon them the need to behave themselves. If I need to crack a few thick heads, I will.”
“This is a very unsatisfactory situation we’ve found ourselves in,” Stiger said, lowering his voice. He began folding the map up. “Terribly unsatisfactory.”
“There’s no doubt about that, sir,” Tiro said, “none whatsoever. I’m thinking, once we’re gone, the auxiliaries may cause trouble for Powel and his family.”
Stiger expelled an unhappy breath. His hands were effectively tied. He was a prisoner to duty. “Our job is more important than worrying about what is happening in this town. The best I can do is send a man back.”
“Don’t I know it, sir.” Tiro shook his head slightly. “Don’t I just know it.”
“Do we have anything more to discuss?” Stiger looked sourly upon his armor, lying next to the table. With the report, he had a lot to do tonight before he could turn in.
“No, sir,” Tiro said. “I will get the first of the men off to the baths.”
As the sergeant stepped away, Stiger placed the map in his pack. He also packed away his toiletry kit. Adera returned with a small wooden bowl that steamed. It smelled strongly of onions and garlic, and lumps of cheese had been placed into the soup. Stiger’s stomach rumbled. He thanked the girl as she set the bowl before him, along with a wooden spoon. Adera quickly retreated to her mother, who was waiting by the kitchen door, ever watchful.
Stiger turned his attention to the soup. It was thin, watery, but at the same time quite good and a damn sight tastier than the salt pork rations. He thoroughly enjoyed it. When finished, he carried the bowl back to the small kitchen and thanked the Powels for the fine meal.
Stiger returned to the common room, where the men were still working on their kit. He eyed his armor a moment, then decided to bring his pack up to the room Powel had given him. He would attend to his kit later, after he’d written his report to the general. He wanted to do it before he became too tired. To write his report he needed quiet, and the common room was far too noisy.
Stiger made his way to the stairs at the back of the room. He climbed up to the second floor, feeling his thighs ache with each and every step. He moved down the hall, past the first three doors, which were closed. He came to the one that was his and opened the door, stepping through.
His room was dark. He left the door open so the light from the lanterns in the hallway shown inward. The window shutter had been left open and the room was cold, frigid even. After the bright light of the common room, the night beyond the window seemed blacker than black. Stiger had not thought to close the shutter earlier. There was a small bed, a table with a lamp, and a chair. When he had examined the room earlier, he had found the bed free of pests. The room wasn’t much, but it was a serious improvement over sleeping in the field.
Stiger set his pack down by the door and moved to the window. He leaned out. It was a straight drop right down to the street below. He grabbed the shutter and swung it closed, making sure to latch it.
Someone inside the room cleared their throat. Startled, Stiger jumped and swung around. He reached for his sword, then froze.
“Sweet gods,” Stiger swore, placing his back to the shuttered window. Eli was sitting in the chair in the corner, almost completely swallowed up by the darkness. Chair tipped back against the wall, he was leaning his feet against the bed. The elf’s bow lay across his knees. “How long have you been there? You nearly scared me half to death.”
Eli removed his feet from the bed and allowed the chair to fall forward with a solid thud. He stood and the floorboards under his feet creaked. The elf set his bow against the wall, where he’d placed a tightly wrapped bundle of arrows and his pack.
“Not long at all. I came in through the window as you were coming up the stairs.” Eli stepped up to Stiger and paused. “I had just a few heartbeats to spare before you came through the door.”
Stiger took a deep breath, wondering how the elf had managed to scale the plastered outer wall. He could remember no easy handholds. “You knew it was me?”
“I heard you coming.” Eli touched his right ear, which was sharply pointed at the end and poked out of his long hair. The elf abruptly grinned at him. “I see you took my advice.”
“What are you talking about?” Stiger asked, becoming irritated now that he’d gotten over his shock. He wondered why Eli was here.
“You bathed,” Eli said simply. “It is a step in the right direction.”
“Very funny,” Stiger said. “I don’t need this now. I have enough problems to worry on.”
“Though,” Eli cocked his head to one side, “too much onion and garlic is bound to give you away when scouting.”
“You’re not scouting at the moment, so I guess it’s okay. But when you are, there are some foods one must avoid,” Eli said. “But then again, we’ve not begun our training, have we? It is only understandable you would not know.”
Stiger said nothing to that and instead pursed his lips. Lepidus had been correct. He was beginning to find the elf maddening.
“Also…” Eli sobered and made a show of looking about Stiger’s room. “When entering a room, it is always wise to scan it first, even when you think you are safe. Make certain no one is lying in wait. If you do that, you might just live longer.”
“I will remember that,” Stiger said and he knew he would. Eli’s latest lesson had been well delivered. Had an assassin been lurking, Stiger knew he would now be dead. And, he had been the target of assassination attempts before. Still, he had tired of the elf’s games. “Why are you here?”
“I think you’d best call Tiro,” Eli said. “And maybe Father Griggs. It would save time if I don’t have to repeat myself.”
“You will have to settle for Tiro. Father Griggs hasn’t returned from the temple yet,” Stiger said. “I was thinking of sending a party to check on him.”
Eli gave a half-shrug of his shoulders.
Stiger spared another glance at him, suspecting whatever Eli had to say was bad news. Otherwise, he would not be here, and in town to boot. Stiger stepped out into the hall and made his way to the stairs, looking down.
“Sergeant Tiro,” Stiger called down. “Sergeant Tiro.”
“Sir,” Tiro said, appearing at the bottom of the stairs a few moments later. Father Griggs was with him. “Father Griggs just arrived, sir. He’d like to speak with you.”
“Come up,” Stiger said. “Both of you.”
Tiro started up the stairs, with the paladin right behind him.
“What took you so long?” Stiger asked Griggs. “I was about to send a man to look for you.”
“I had a lot to talk about with the local priest,” Griggs said. “I’m afraid none of what I learned is good.”
“Great,” Stiger said and led them both to his room. Stiger grabbed one of the lanterns off its mount along the wall.
“I also stayed for evening service,” the paladin explained. “Father Senso gives a good sermon. I found myself quite moved.”
“A service?” Stiger gestured for both men to enter his room.
“Eli,” Tiro said, clearly surprised as he stepped inside. “How did you get here? How did you know where we were?”
“A bird told me and then was kind enough to carry me over the wall”—the elf made a sweeping gesture with his arm—“and through the window. You know, the captain was kind enough to leave the shutter open for me. Otherwise, it would have made it more difficult for me to get in.” Eli had innocence written all over his face. He made a flapping motion with both arms, as if to emphasize his point.
“That must have been some bird,” Tiro said wryly. “You need to work on your humor. After all these years it’s not improved much.” Tiro looked over at Stiger. “Elf humor is a little different than ours.”
“I like to think it is—how you say? More refined? Yes, I think that’s it. Our humor is more refined than yours,” Eli said, then gave a respectful nod to the paladin. “Father Griggs, so nice to see you again.”
“Eli,” Griggs said, his expression drawn and grave.
Stiger closed the door and set the lantern he’d taken from the hallway down on table. “Right, we’re all here. Let’s have it, Eli.”
“One hundred fifty men slipped out of the town,” Eli said, “about two hours ago. I followed them for a bit. They are headed east, moving on the road toward a small forest.” Eli paused. “This is the same road we will be taking in the morning and the only one that leads to Haraste.”
“What do you think they are up to?” Tiro asked, looking over at Stiger.
Stiger pinched the bridge of his nose. He could feel a headache coming on. Without a doubt, he knew what Hanns intended. Was the prefect so incredibly stupid?
“Sir?” Tiro asked, when Stiger did not answer.
“They are going to set up an ambush,” Stiger said. “The prefect means to ambush us.”
“An ambush?” Tiro scowled, as if such a thing was inconceivable. “Surely not.”
“He won’t risk action in town,” Stiger explained. “There are simply too many witnesses. He means to catch us on the road with no one about and wipe us out to a man. That way, we won’t be able to report on what we’ve discovered. He hopes to keep the mess he has created quiet by eliminating us.”
“Is he mad?” Tiro was appalled. “Order his men to kill legionaries? I don’t believe it, sir. I just don’t believe it.”
“Believe, Sergeant,” Stiger said.
“It would be almost impossible to keep such a thing quiet.” Tiro was becoming indignant. “Word would be bound to get out and likely from his own men. By nature, soldiers drink, and when they do, they talk. There is no possible way for him to keep this a secret, especially the murder of a Stiger. Begging your pardon, sir.”
“You and I know that,” Stiger said, sitting down on the table upon which he’d placed the lantern. “However, the prefect is new to the military. He may not realize that yet. Or, more likely, he just does not care.”
“But, sir,” Trio continued, “do you really think his men would go through with it?”
“They’re foreigners, auxiliaries, and poor ones at that,” Stiger said. “They look no better than common thugs. If he’d paid them enough, they’d do it and maybe even try to keep their mouths shut, too.”
Father Griggs coughed in a meaningful manner. All eyes shifted to the paladin.
“In the last few hours, I’ve learned a bit about the prefect, nothing good,” the paladin said. “That said, are you certain an ambush is what he intends? They may be out to confiscate food stores from local farmers. The prefect has made a side business by profiting off of other peoples’ goods. That does not include the bribes he’s taking by acting as the region’s magistrate. He is making a fortune.”
“I can confirm they go to set up an ambush,” Eli said. “I must admit, it caught me by surprise. Curious as to what they intended, I snuck up on them when they took a break from marching. If I hadn’t overheard several of the auxiliaries talking about the planned ambush, the money they’d be paid, and speculating on what they would use it for…I would never have guessed they meant you ill. It is why I came.”
“I see,” Griggs said, suddenly seeming bleak. The paladin’s pallor had gone ashen. “Then it is worse than I feared.”
“The gods must really hate me.” Stiger’s headache was growing worse. He felt his rage swelling alongside it. His mission had been a simple one. Now, this…
“Blasphemy is never helpful,” Griggs chided. “We must look to the gods for strength in such times.”
Stiger took a breath and forced himself to calm down.
“You’re right, Father,” Stiger said, feeling chastened. “What did you learn speaking with Father Senso?”
“The prefect has arrested his own lieutenant,” Griggs said. “Lieutenant Makus is being held in the cellar of the Dancing Goat. The tavern is where Hanns lives and has set his headquarters. It seems Makus did not share the prefect’s vision for exploiting the locals. The man refused to be bought off.”
“I like him already,” Stiger said. He could not place the lieutenant’s family, which meant, like Hanns, Makus was equestrian.
“The tipping point came about a week ago when Hanns ordered a farmer and his family to be crucified,” the paladin continued. “Makus threatened to write the senate. That was when Hanns had him arrested. The word is, he had his lieutenant beaten first in the hopes he’d come around. He didn’t.”
“So,” Tiro said, “not all of the garrison is bad, perhaps just badly led.”
“Honestly,” Father Griggs said, “I’m surprised Makus was not killed immediately. Though by now, he may have been. The word Father Senso heard is that he still lives.” The paladin sucked in a breath. “It is rumored that the prefect tortures his prisoners. The Dancing Goat’s cellar has apparently become a place of nightmare. Father Senso told me a number people have gone down there and not come out.”
“That’s not good,” Tiro said.
“Tiro,” Eli said, “you are the instrument of understatement.”
Stiger’s sergeant shot the elf an unhappy look, but said nothing.
“Even the auxiliaries apparently fear the place,” Griggs said. “I shudder to think what is truly going on down there.” The paladin paused and looked squarely at Stiger. “Now that I know the prefect intends us ill, we must investigate.”
“Somehow, I had a feeling you were going to say that,” Stiger said, wondering what was really going on down in the cellar.
“We must fix whatever is wrong here,” Griggs said, “even if we have to go back to the legion to get more men. It is why I was drawn to go with you. I can feel it.”
“You mean this might involve the dark gods?” Stiger felt chilled at such a dreadful thought.
“I don’t know,” Griggs said. “As I said, we have to investigate and rule that out. It may just be that Hanns is too greedy for his own good and just black of heart. Then again, it might be more. Are you still happy I am with you?”
“Of course, Father,” Stiger said, without hesitation. “Even more so, now.”
“Eli, what were you doing so close to the town?” Tiro asked. “I thought you’d be out looking for the enemy.”
“I was,” Eli said. “Bren happened across a farmer along the road, bringing the remains of his harvest into town to sell what he could. The man was quite talkative and told him the garrison was responsible for the destruction of the farms and had thieved most of his harvest. So”—Eli blew out a shallow breath—“I figured I would come back and report.” Eli glanced from face to face. “It seems we’ve all made unpleasant discoveries. I knew this trip to Thresh would be exciting. I think we can all agree…Captain, you draw trouble like a moth to flame.”
Stiger rubbed at his eyes, feeling the weight of the world upon his shoulders. He thought furiously for a moment, then looked over at Eli.
“Was there an officer with them?” Stiger asked. “Was the prefect with the men who marched out?”
“No,” Eli said. “Now that I think on it, I only saw a sergeant. There were no officers. That does not mean he will not join them come morning.”
“I wonder if the sergeant that went with them is Karrax?” Tiro said. “He struck me as a mean one, sir. Kinda like Geta, if you know what I mean.”
“I got that feeling, too,” Stiger admitted.
“Karrax is the prefect’s bully and enforcer,” Griggs said. “The auxiliaries fear him. He even had Father Senso beat up, after he spoke against what has been going on. Father Senso is not a young man, but he’s got spirit. It is a lucky thing the beating did not kill him.”
“Beating a priest,” Tiro said. “Who does that?”
Stiger had hoped to move on and let the general handle the mess the prefect had created. Hanns had left him no choice and boxed him into a corner. Stiger chuckled grimly.
“Sir?” Tiro asked.
The prefect had tipped his hand and inadvertently given Stiger an opportunity, an invaluable one at that. He looked between Tiro and Eli. “Correct me if I am wrong, but the majority of the garrison is outside of the town.”
“That’s true, sir,” Tiro said. “Unless they come back tonight, which it does not sound like they will.”
“I do not know the garrison’s at full strength,” Eli said, “but I would be surprised if there are more men inside the town’s walls than out.”
“They won’t stop us from leaving,” Tiro said. “That’s for sure. The prefect wants us on that road traveling east. Sir, we’re gonna have to leg it back to the legion. Once they figure out we’re going west instead of east, they’ll come after us. It will be another chase, but we can outmarch them, sir.”
“A chase?” Stiger asked, for that was not what he’d been thinking.
“They’re auxiliaries after all, sir,” Tiro said, “and from the condition of their equipment, I’d guess they’re not much for training or practice marches.”
“I don’t feel like running,” Stiger said plainly, “not at all.”
“Sir,” Tiro said. “That may be our best option.”
“I don’t think so.” Stiger jerked a thumb toward the common room. “Powel said the cohort numbered only two hundred. That leaves fifty in the town.”
“Fifty-one,” Griggs said. “The prefect’s in town too. He’s likely at the Dancing Goat.”
“Fifty-one against our twenty-eight,” Tiro said. “You mean to take the town, don’t you, sir?”
“You’ve seen the condition of the auxiliaries,” Stiger said. “I’d take our twenty-eight over their fifty-one any day.”
“This is town fighting, sir,” Tiro said. “It’s not like fighting out in the open. It’s difficult, dangerous, and ugly. There will be plenty of places to hide, to lie in wait. And, sir, it’s dark out. You know how chaotic night actions can be.”
“We will have surprise on our side,” Stiger said. “They are expecting us to march right out the town gates come morning. The last thing they will expect is for us to strike.”
“The tavern is being watched,” Eli said. “I had a look around and identified four lookouts. Two on each end of the street.”
Stiger glanced over at the ranger, suddenly glad Eli was with them.
“We will have to take them out,” Stiger said, “before we make our move.”
“I can do it,” Eli said confidently, then added, “silently and with no witnesses.”
“Sir,” Tiro said. “Are you sure about this? They’ve not done anything to us yet. There is risk with that, beyond swords.”
Tiro was right. There was risk in taking action against Hanns before the man had acted against him. The general, or even quite possibly Hanns’s friends in the senate, might hold Stiger to account if they disapproved or if he had judged the situation incorrectly. Stiger glanced over at Eli. He was taking a risk here, and not a small one by any means. With what Eli had overhead there was simply no doubt in his mind. Hanns meant to kill him and his men. It was enough for Stiger. But he knew it might not be enough for others.
“I am more than certain,” Stiger said. “We will take this town and stop what’s going on here.”
“You are making the correct decision, my son,” Griggs said. “Though I doubt the general will find fault, I will speak up on your behalf if he does.”
Stiger gave a grateful nod. The paladin’s word would carry weight, even in the senate. He turned it over once more in his mind. He was confident he and his men could take the town. They would not only need to seize the Dancing Goat, but also the town gate. Then they would have to deal with any auxiliaries not caught up at the tavern or gate, either kill them if they resisted or round them up. It would likely be difficult and just as dangerous as Tiro had said.
“Do you know where the garrison is quartered?” Stiger asked Griggs.
“No,” Griggs said. “I did not think to ask such a question.”
Stiger looked over at Tiro, who shook his head in the negative.
“Powel will know,” Tiro said. “He’ll tell us, sir.”
Stiger gave a nod.
“We cut off the head of the snake,” Griggs said, “and the men he sent out in the field to ambush us will no longer be a threat. They will likely run for their lives once they hear we control the town.”
“Serves them right,” Tiro said. “They will be branded criminals. They’d better run.”
“And if they don’t?” Eli said.
“We will deal with that problem when it comes.” Stiger came off the table and stood. “One headache at a time.”
“We may need reinforcement once the fun begins,” Tiro said. “I think we should get Powel to roust the militia. Well, that is after we start, sir. I would not want the prefect to be tipped off we’re coming for him should one of the militia prove disloyal.”
“Will they fight with us?” Stiger asked, remembering the looks he’d gotten from the locals.
“I think so, sir.” Tiro barked out a grim laugh. “They certainly won’t fight for the prefect.”
“Are you sure you can take out the lookouts?” Stiger asked Eli.
Eli ran a finger along the hilt of one of his long, wicked-looking daggers. “It will not be a problem. In the dark, they won’t even see me coming.” The elf grinned at him, showing his needle-like teeth. “Trust me.”
“Right, then,” Stiger said, satisfied. “Let’s get the men ready for a fight and speak with Powel. We have a town to take.”
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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