Chapter One |
Stiger rubbed the back of his neck, massaging sore muscles. He leaned back on the stool and stretched his aching back. The light outside his tent had begun to die, and with it, the shadows had grown inside. The temperature had started to drop. He considered lighting a lamp, for he had several more hours of work yet ahead of him.
“Enough of this.” Stiger pushed the company books and wax tablets aside. He was thoroughly disgusted. The amount of administrative work required by the legion was insane, even for a company that was nowhere near its allotted strength.
Not for the first time did he wonder who read all of the reports he was required to make. It was likely some sad bastard over at headquarters who had that unhappy duty. Stiger pitied the poor clerk, for each company was sending a like number of reports.
The legion had just held its biannual payday. The men were flush with their earnings. However, most of the payout went into their pensions. Stiger had spent the last two days reconciling these accounts. The task was made more complicated by the number of men lost, not only at Fort Covenant, but during the summer’s campaign. Stiger was required to close out their pensions. The monies would be sent to their loved ones or next of kin. That was, if they had any. Should an heir not be found, the funds would be donated to a veterans’ colony or some other worthy cause that the legion’s general decided proper.
“I wouldn’t be interrupting, would I?”
Stiger looked up to find Captain Lepidus of Tenth Company at the entrance flap. The captain had a hard face, almost as if it had been carved from marble, but just then it cracked. He was looking on Stiger with an amused, knowing smirk.
“No, you’re not.” Stiger expelled an unhappy breath. “I was just about to take a break. I will finish up later.”
“I can tell you from experience it never finishes up,” Lepidus said. “No matter how much you do, there is always more waiting to be done.”
“Headquarters wants the men’s pension accounts closed out,” Stiger said. “They wanted them last week. I think that’s how the clerk put it in the latest note.”
“Headquarters is a demanding bunch,” Lepidus said, stepping fully into the tent. He glanced around at the interior. Stiger was all about cleanliness and order. He felt that the example for the men began with him, and so he held himself to a higher standard.
“I’m beginning to discover that sad truth,” Stiger said, eyeing the unfinished reports on his camp table.
“Very,” Stiger said.
“Good, I’m heading over to the mess. Would you care to join me?”
“Gladly,” Stiger said. “I’ve been trapped in this infernal tent all day doing work. It will be good to stretch my legs a little.”
Stiger stood. Just weeks before, no other officer in the legion would have invited him to dine. Things had certainly changed. Where before he been an outcast, Stiger for the most part felt welcome, or at the least accepted, by much of the officer corps. Of course, there were those who still intensely disliked him. This was primarily due to his family history, but he tried not to let that bother him too much. With Lepidus, Stiger had earned his respect, and friendship.
Lepidus stepped back and out as Stiger exited the tent. The cool fall air was crisp. The evening before had seen flurries. It was clear winter was just around the corner, and Stiger was looking forward to the change in weather. It meant combat operations would come to a near end, barring patrols and the occasional skirmish.
Outside, Stiger glanced around. His tent was one of hundreds inside the legionary encampment. To his immediate right was the space allotted for his company. He found it depressing how few tents there were. After the ordeal at Fort Covenant, Seventh Company was all but a shadow of her former strength. Since they were short on men, the rest of the tents had not been pitched and remained stored away. Most of the space allotted to his company was unoccupied grass.
Stiger and Lepidus were neighbors, their tents pitched next to one another. To the left stretched out the Tenth’s communal tents. Men were gathered around their fires, cleaning their kit. Stiger glanced back at his tent line. The men were nowhere to be seen. On Stiger’s orders, Sergeant Tiro and Pazzullo had taken them out for a training march. They’d yet to return. That did not bother Stiger much. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, he kept his boys busy, and that included lots of training.
“How are those recruits coming?” Lepidus asked as they stepped onto the street between tents and began walking in the direction of the mess. The ground was slightly muddy, yet another sign the fighting season was coming to a rapid end. “I understand that Colonel Aetius was able to get you ten more men.”
“That he did. In total, I’ve gotten twenty fresh recruits over the last two weeks,” Stiger said, “and another twenty-five auxiliaries. My current effective strength is up to sixty-five. I’ve ten wounded who likely won’t return to full duties for gods know how long. Still, even with the new men, it’s way short of the two hundred Seventh should have.”
“Don’t worry,” Lepidus said. “Winter’s almost here. The fighting season’s already drawing to a close. Your company is not the only one short. At some point, the legion will receive large numbers of fresh recruits. We will have maybe four months to rest, recover, and train up the new kids.”
A sergeant moving in the opposite direction saluted as he passed the two officers. Lepidus gave the sergeant a half wave by way of reply. Then they were past. Lepidus looked over at Stiger.
“Before you know it, Seventh will be brought up to full strength, and then your administrative headaches will really begin.”
“I find it hard to believe those headaches can get any worse,” Stiger said.
“Oh, they can,” Lepidus said.
The two officers dodged around a supply wagon that trundled by in the opposite direction. The teamster was chatting with someone behind the driver’s box and had not seen them. The wagon’s wheels kicked up flecks of muck and mud.
“How’s Hollux doing?” Lepidus asked.
“Getting better each day. He’s using a crutch now and is able to hobble around a bit,” Stiger said. “That wound on his leg was a bad one, but the surgeon says it’s healing nicely and he should make a full recovery. Hollux should be discharged from the hospital in a week or two and on light duty for the next two months.”
“That’s good to hear,” Lepidus said.
“He’s a solid man,” Stiger said. “I believe he will make a good executive officer.”
“I am told during the siege of Fort Covenant he acquitted himself quite well,” Lepidus said.
“He did,” Stiger confirmed. The lieutenant’s auxiliary cohort had been virtually wiped out during the battle. “We both lost a lot of good men in that fort.”
They turned a corner in the road and came to a large tent. All four sides of the tent had been rolled up and tied back, revealing dozens of tables. Though they were late to dinner, the officers’ mess was still fairly crowded and noisy. Lanterns hung from the support poles or sat on tables. As the last of the day’s sunlight disappeared behind the sea of trees that surrounded the legion’s encampment, the lanterns gave the interior a yellowed light that Stiger found inviting.
The scent of beef stew carried on the air. Stiger’s stomach rumbled. He was thrilled to be back in the comfort of the encampment, with no battles to fight for the time being. Just three weeks ago, Stiger and the Seventh had been inside Fort Covenant. Surrounded by a hostile Rivan army, they had helped to mount a desperate defense designed to hold long enough for Third Legion to arrive and relieve them. Faced with overwhelming numbers, the defenders had barely managed to hold.
At the end, with Third Legion nowhere in sight, the enemy had breached their defenses, pouring into the fort. It seemed they’d lost. Yet, on the cusp of victory, astonishingly, the enemy broke off their assault and withdrew, marching back to the north.
At the time, Stiger had not understood why. He’d subsequently learned General Treim had made a surprise move and, instead of marching to Fort Covenant’s relief, had instead maneuvered Third Legion around, behind the enemy army, neatly cutting their supply line and communications. The move had caught the Rivan flatfooted. The battle that had followed had seen the Rivan badly beaten.
As they stepped inside the mess tent and into the lantern light, a number of officers called out greetings to Lepidus. A few gave Stiger a nod as he passed them by, but none hailed him a good evening. He had been accepted for the most part. That only meant his presence was tolerated. Stiger remained silent as they made their way through the tables to the back side of the tent. Food was laid out on a series of long tables. Lepidus and Stiger each picked up a bowl and got in line.
Since the battle, there had been a handful of minor skirmishes, but nothing more than that. The legion had settled down near the spot of the battle and had not moved since. Stiger couldn’t understand why General Treim had not followed up his victory by actively pursuing the enemy and seeking their complete destruction. Stiger had heard the remains of the enemy army had occupied a position twenty miles distant, just north of the Cora’Tol Valley, and dug in. From rumors around the camp, they’d already been reinforced. Despite the victory, the inaction left a sour taste in Stiger’s mouth.
It didn’t take them long to make it through the line. Stiger ladled himself a generous helping of stew and took a bread roll, which was still slightly warm. He got himself a mug of water, while Lepidus took wine. The wine in the mess tent was poor quality and very watered down. Stiger despised the stuff. He followed Lepidus over to a long table with several officers clustered on the other end.
Stiger took a seat opposite Lepidus. The conversation at the other end of the table instantly stilled. One of the officers, a lieutenant by the name of Yanulus, threw his bread into his nearly empty bowl and made a disgusted sound that drew both Stiger’s and Lepidus’s attention. Glaring at Stiger, the lieutenant stood, as did his captain, who had been seated across from him. The other two officers came to their feet as well.
“Thank you for ruining my supper,” Captain Corus said to Stiger. “Out of all the tables in this tent, you had to pick mine.”
Corus spat on the ground.
Stiger put his hands on the rough wood of the tabletop and pushed himself to his feet, kicking back his stool. Lepidus reached across and grabbed Stiger’s forearm, a clear warning in his eyes that said, Don’t do it, son.
“Corus.” Lepidus removed his hand and looked down the table at the other officers. “As a gentleman, you should show better manners.”
“To him? A traitor’s son?” Corus looked to Stiger, the disdain plain upon his pox-scarred face. “I guess you like to let others fight your battles for you.”
Stiger saw red. He turned to fully face the other captain.
“Perhaps,” Stiger said, clenching his fists, “you would care to back up those bold words?”
The entire tent stilled at that, all eyes upon them. Though dueling wasn’t officially prohibited, there was an unwritten rule in Third Legion that such contests were frowned upon by the commanding general.
Corus looked abruptly uncertain. Nothing in the man’s manner had changed, but Stiger sensed it in his eyes, which darted about the mess before returning to Stiger. Corus had served in the legions for five years. He was a veteran, like most of the other officers of the legion. Despite Corus’s longer service, Stiger was certain he could take him in a fight, whether that be fists, knives, or swords. He suspected that Corus knew that as well. Stiger had changed a lot in the last few months, and he was finished taking shit from his peers. It started with the likes of Corus. He was drawing a line in the sand this day and everyone in the mess knew it.
“I’ll not sully myself by playing with you, Stiger.” Corus looked at his lieutenant. “Let’s go.”
The captain of Ninth Company started walking away, with the other officers who had been seated with him in tow.
“Next time you insult me, I will demand satisfaction,” Stiger said to the man’s back. It was not bravado, but a simple statement of fact. Stiger wanted things to be perfectly clear between them.
Corus stopped and glanced backward.
“I mean it, Corus,” Stiger said. “Best take that to heart.”
“If I choose to insult you,” Corus said, “then I shall accept.”
With that, Corus left the tent, his lieutenant and the two officers following. Stiger remained standing. His hands shook slightly with the anger of the moment. He glanced around at the other officers in the mess and then picked up his stool and sat back down. He stared at his bowl, no longer hungry. Conversation throughout the tent resumed a few heartbeats later. Any type of drama in camp was a welcome diversion, and Stiger had just given them one.
“That was unwise,” Lepidus said finally. “In the last few weeks you’ve won over the respect of many and even impressed the general. You should be focused on keeping your head down and doing your duty. Trust me when I tell you Corus and those like him are not worth your time, energy, or your effort. You have the makings of a top-notch officer.” Lepidus pointed a finger at him. “Don’t throw away all you’ve done in a hot-headed moment. A duel is the last thing you should be seeking.”
Stiger gave a nod but said nothing in return. He broke apart his hunk of bread and dipped it into the stew. He gave it a moment, allowing the bread to absorb as much stew as possible, and then took a bite. It wasn’t the best he’d ever had, but Stiger hadn’t eaten much this day and it certainly tasted good. Hunger frequently was the best cook.
“May I join you?”
Stiger looked up to find Eli standing at their table. The elf carried a bowl of stew. Over the last week, Stiger had hardly seen the ranger. Eli seemed to spend more time outside the encampment than in. What he did out there, Stiger had no idea. Tiro had told him it was an elf thing. Stiger’s sergeant had felt Eli was just more comfortable in the forest than in the encampment.
“Gladly,” Lepidus said, though Stiger noticed that as Eli sat down, the captain of the Tenth looked on the elf with something akin to wonder. That reaction seemed to be commonplace throughout the legion. Wherever Eli went, men and officers stopped what they were doing and turned their heads.
These days, it was a rare sight for elves to be out of their lands, let alone serving with the legions. The elves, though still tenuous allies with the empire, had withdrawn to their own lands. This made Eli’s decision to attach himself to Stiger’s company all the more surprising. There was no turning Eli away, either. General Triem and Colonel Aetius had made that plain, for it was their desire to see relations improve between the elven nations and the empire.
Stiger eyed the elf a moment. He had yet to figure out Eli’s motivation, and that bothered him something fierce. Stiger took another bite of his bread, wondering what game the elf was playing.
Eli had not taken any bread for sopping the stew. Instead, he picked up the bowl and sipped directly from it. He placed the bowl back down on the table and grimaced.
“Clearly whoever made this needs to learn how to cook.” Eli pushed the bowl away from him as if it were poison. “It’s too salty, and the gods only know what kind of meat this was or, for that matter, even if it is fresh. I hesitate to call what was done to this stew cooking.”
Lepidus almost choked on his stew. He swallowed with some difficulty and then began to laugh.
“Did I say something funny?” Eli asked, looking from Lepidus over to Stiger with a quizzical expression. “I had not intended to do so. I was being what I believe you call severe.”
“I think you mean serious, right?” Stiger said.
“Yes, serious.” Eli gave a pleased nod. “I was being what you call serious.”
Lepidus began to laugh harder, pounding the table. Stiger even became amused, chuckling along with him. It was contagious, and soon the two of them were nearly doubled over in laughter. The tension of the encounter with Corus and Yanulus had drained away. Several officers at the nearest table looked over.
“Eli, I think you will fit in just fine with the legions,” Lepidus said as he recovered and caught his breath. He took a bite of his bread and then shook it at Eli. “Yes, you will fit in just fine.”
“He served with Tiro,” Stiger said.
“You did?” Lepidus said, becoming serious. “In the Wilds?”
Eli gave a nod.
“I understand that was a difficult campaign,” Lepidus said.
“It was,” Eli said quietly. “Sadly, many of my people were lost. The Tainen were a terrible foe to both our peoples. It is good they have been crushed, their temples torn down, and what remains of their people scattered to the winds.”
An uncomfortable silence returned to the table. Lepidus broke it. “Well then, since you’ve served with us before, this kind of fare is something you must have been exposed to?”
“That is true,” Eli said in a ho-hum sort of manner. “A cousin of mine took it upon himself to teach your cooks how to better prepare food and make it somewhat, shall we say, tastier. It appears his efforts were wasted.”
“The campaign in the Wilds was what, ten years ago?” Lepidus said. “I would hazard most legionary cooks from that time have long since retired and moved on.”
“I’d hoped they had at least passed along the knowledge and skill my cousin imparted,” Eli said. “It is distressing to learn that his efforts were wasted.”
“Are you serious?” Stiger asked Eli. He got the feeling that the elf wasn’t quite as sincere as he was making himself out to be.
“Only half so,” Eli said with a shrug.
Lepidus grinned, dipped his bread into his stew, and swirled it around a bit. “You had me there for a moment.”
Eli picked up his bowl and took another generous sip, slurping as he did. He then set the wooden bowl back down on the table. He wiped his mouth carefully with a small, delicate, white cloth he produced from his tunic.
“I am thinking,” Lepidus said, shaking his sodden bread roll in Stiger’s direction now. Droplets of juice from the stew fell onto the wooden table. “You, son, are in for an interesting time with this elf.”
“You have that wrong,” Eli said to Lepidus. “It is I who am in for an interesting time of it.”
Stiger looked from Lepidus to Eli. “I think I’ve had enough excitement to last me a while. I’d like a quiet winter. Is that too much to ask?”
“No,” Lepidus said, his eyes upon the elf. There was a shrewd look upon the captain’s face. “I think I have the right of it. Eli, you are going to drive him absolutely crazy.”
“Perhaps,” Eli said with a glance over at Stiger. “It depends on how boring things get.”
Stiger did not like the sound of that. He still felt uncomfortable in the elf’s presence and even more so that Eli had chosen to attach himself to Stiger’s company. Since they had returned, the Seventh had been the talk of the legion, not only for what they had done at Fort Covenant, but also because of Eli. With Stiger’s family reputation in tatters, he did not need any more attention. All he desired to do was serve his empire and god faithfully.
“If I recall correctly, elves are well-known for their unique sense of humor,” Lepidus said. “Isn’t that so?”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” Eli said with a straight face as his eyes slid over to Stiger and then back to Lepidus. “However, upon occasion I like to amuse myself on another’s expense. If that could be considered humor…well, then, perhaps you heard correctly.”
“Great,” Stiger said. “Just bloody great.”
Lepidus shot Stiger a knowing grin. “Better you than me, son.”
“Excuse me, sir? Sorry to interrupt your dinner.”
Stiger turned to see a legionary standing just behind him. Stiger recognized the man as being attached to headquarters. The legionary snapped to attention. He held out a dispatch. Wondering what bad news the dispatch contained, Stiger took it.
“Thank you,” Stiger said. “You are dismissed.”
“Yes, sir.” The legionary saluted. He spared Eli a curious glance and then went on his way.
Stiger put his elbows on the table and tore open the dispatch, rapidly scanning its contents.
“It seems,” Stiger said, looking up from the dispatch to Eli, “we are both wanted at headquarters.”
Stiger took another bite of his bread and stood, pushing his stool back. He stuffed the dispatch into a tunic pocket. Eli stood as well.
“Does it say what for?” Lepidus asked.
“No,” Stiger said. “Only that he and I are to report immediately.”
“Maybe it’s only about fresh recruits?” Lepidus said, though Stiger could tell the captain of the Tenth clearly thought otherwise.
Stiger glanced over at Eli and then back to Lepidus. If it was about recruits, they would not have called for Eli, too. There was a reason the two of them had been summoned to headquarters at such a late hour.
“Oh, before you go, I have a case of Venney,” Lepidus said. “It was delivered this morning by special courier. I plan on opening a bottle this evening and would be pleased if you both would join me for a taste. There’s nothing like a fine bottle of red and good company to help share it.”
“That is very generous of you,” Eli said with a glance over at Stiger. “We would be honored to join you.”
Stiger looked over at Eli in surprise. He had been planning to accept Lepidus’s invitation, but the fact that the elf had accepted for the both of them irritated Stiger slightly. He suspected that Eli knew this and had done it on purpose. Lepidus hadn’t missed it either and wagged a finger at Eli.
“You are going to drive him to the brink of insanity,” Lepidus said with a grin. “I can just tell.”
“I am starting to think you might be right,” Stiger said.
With that, he picked up his bowl and turned away. The more he thought on it, the stranger the dispatch seemed to him. He couldn’t remember ever being summoned to headquarters at such an hour. He headed toward the table that held buckets for used bowls and plates. He placed his dirty plate in the buckets meant for used dishes and set out across the darkened camp with Eli at his side.
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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