Centurion Macro noticed them first: a small band of men with hoods drawn over their heads casually entering the crowded street from a dark alley and merging with the flow of people, animals and carts heading for the great market in the outer court of the temple. Even though it was only mid-morning the sun was already beating down on Jerusalem and ripening the air in the narrow streets with a stifling intensity of smells: the familiar odours of cities throughout the empire, and other scents that were strange and evocative of the east – spice, citron and balsam.
In the glaring sunshine and baking air, Macro could feel the sweat pricking out all over his face and body, and he wondered how any man could bear to go hooded in this heat. He stared at the band of men as they made their way along the street, not twenty paces ahead. They did not talk to each other, and barely acknowledged the jostling crowd around them as they moved forward with the flow. Macro switched the reins of his mule to the other hand and nudged his companion, Centurion Cato, riding alongside him at the head of the small column of auxiliary recruits shuffling along behind the two officers.
'They're up to no good.'
'Hm?' Cato glanced round. 'Sorry. What did you say?'
'Up ahead.' Macro quickly gestured towards the men he was watching. 'See that lot with covered heads?'
Cato squinted for a moment before he fixed his eyes on the men Macro had indicated. 'Yes. What about them?'
'Well, don't you think it's odd?' Macro glanced at his companion. Cato was a bright enough lad, Macro thought, but sometimes he would miss a danger or a crucial detail that was right under his nose. Macro, being somewhat older, put it down to lack of experience. He had served in the legions for nearly eighteen years – long enough to develop a profound appreciation of his surroundings. Life depended on it, as he had discovered on rather too many occasions. Indeed, he bore scars on his body for not being aware of a threat until it was too late. That he still lived was proof of his toughness and sheer brutality in a fight. Like every centurion in Emperor Claudius' legions, he was a man to be reckoned with. Well, perhaps not every centurion, Macro reflected as he glanced back at Cato. His friend was something of an exception. Cato had won his promotion at a distastefully early stage of his army career by virtue of his brains, guts, luck and a little bit of favouritism. The last factor might have irked a man like Macro who had clawed his way up from the ranks, but he was honest enough to recognise that Cato had fully justified his promotion. In the four years since Cato had joined the Second Legion, years in which he had served with Macro in Germany, Britain and Illyricum, he had matured from a fresh-faced recruit to a tough, sinewy veteran. But Cato could still lose his head in the clouds.
Macro sighed impatiently. 'Hoods. In this heat. Odd, wouldn't you say?'
Cato looked at the men again and shrugged. 'Now you mention it, I suppose so. Maybe they're part of some religious sect. Jupiter knows how many of them there are in this place.' He scowled. 'Who would have thought one religion could have so many? And from what I've heard, the locals are about as pious as you can get.You don't get much more religious than the Judaeans.'
'Maybe,' Macro said thoughtfully. 'But that lot up there don't look very religious to me.'
'You can tell?'
'I can tell.' Macro tapped his nose. 'Trust me. They're up to something.'
'I don't know. Not yet. But keep watching them. See what you think.'
'Think?' Cato frowned irritably. 'I was already thinking when you interrupted me.'
'Oh?' Macro replied, keeping his attention on the men ahead of them. 'I suppose you were contemplating something of earth-shaking importance. Must have been from that vacant look on your face.'
'Nice. As it happens, I was thinking about Narcissus.'
'Narcissus?' Macro's expression darkened at the name of the Imperial Secretary, on whose orders they had been sent to the east. 'That bastard? Why waste any time on him?'
'It's just that he's stitched us up nicely this time. I doubt we're going to see this mission through. It stinks.'
'What's new? Every job that bastard has given us stinks. We're the sponge-sticks of the imperial service. Always in the shit.'
Cato looked at his friend with a disgusted expression and was about to reply when Macro suddenly craned his neck and hissed, 'Look! They're making their move.'
Just ahead was the lofty archway which marked the entrance to the great outer court of the temple.The light was dazzling and for an instant silhouetted the heads and shoulders of those in front of them, and it was a moment before Cato's eyes fixed on the hooded men again. They had thrust their way over to one side of the street as they passed through the arch, and were now walking quickly towards the tables of the moneylenders and tax collectors in the centre of the court.
'Let's go.' Macro kicked his heels into the side of his mule, causing it to bray.The people in front glanced back over their shoulders nervously and shuffled out of the animal's path. 'Come on.'
'Wait!' Cato grabbed his arm. 'You're jumping at shadows. We've hardly reached the city and you're spoiling for a fight.'
'I'm telling you, Cato, they're up to no good.'
'You don't know that. You can't just wade in and trample down anyone who gets in your way.'
'You'll cause a riot.' Cato slipped out of his saddle and stood beside his mule. 'If you want to follow them, then let's go on foot.'
Macro took a quick glance towards the hooded men. 'Fair enough. Optio!'
A tall, hard-faced Gaul strode up from the head of the column and saluted Macro. 'Sir?'
'Take the reins. Centurion Cato and myself are going to take a little stroll.'
'A stroll, sir?'
'You heard. Wait for us just inside the gate. But keep the men formed up, just in case.'
The optio frowned. 'In case of what, sir?'
'Trouble.' Macro smiled. 'What else? Come on, Cato. Before we lose them.'
With a sigh Cato followed his friend into the flow of bodies entering the great courtyard. The men they were following were already some distance away, still heading towards the stalls of the moneylenders and tax collectors. The two centurions threaded their way through the crowds, jostling some of the people as they passed and drawing angry glances and muttered curses.
'Roman bastards…' someone said in accented Greek.
Macro stopped and whirled round. 'Who said that?'
The crowd shrank from his enraged expression, but stared back with hostile eyes. Macro's gaze fixed on a tall, broad-shouldered youth whose lips had curled into a sneer.
'Oh, so it was you, was it?' Macro smiled, and beckoned to the man.'Come on then. If you think you're man enough.'
Cato grabbed his arm and pulled Macro back. 'Leave him be.'
'Leave him?' Macro frowned.'Why? He needs a lesson in hospitality.'
'No he doesn't,' Cato insisted quietly. 'Hearts and minds, remember? That's what the procurator told us. Besides,' Cato nodded towards the stalls, 'your hooded friends are getting away from us.'
'Fair enough.' Macro quickly turned back to the young man. 'Cross my path again, Judaean, and I'll take your bloody head off.'
The man snorted with derision and spat on to the ground, and Cato hauled Macro after him before the latter could respond. They hurried on, quickly closing the distance between them and the small knot of men picking their way through the crowd towards the stalls. Cato, taller than Macro, was easily able to keep them in sight as the two centurions pressed on through the exotic mixture of races that filled the great courtyard. Amongst the locals were darker-featured Idumaeans and Nabataeans, many wearing turbans wound neatly round their heads. Cloth of all colours and patterns swirled amongst the crowds, and snatches of different languages filled the air.
'Look out!' Macro grabbed Cato's arm and pulled him back as a heavily laden camel crossed in front of them. The beast's wooden-framed saddle was weighed down with bales of finely woven material and it let out a deep grunt as it stepped aside to avoid the two Romans.When it had swayed past, Cato pushed on again, and suddenly paused.
'What's the matter?' asked Macro.
'Shit… I can't see them.' Cato's eyes hurriedly skimmed over the section of the crowd where he had last seen their prey. But there was no sign of the hooded men. 'They must have lowered their hoods.'
'Oh, great,' Macro muttered. 'What now?'
'Let's make for the tax collectors. That's where they seemed to be heading.'
With Cato leading the way, the two centurions moved over to the end of the line of stalls stretching alongside the steps that led up to the walls of the inner temple. The nearest stalls belonged to the moneylenders and bankers, who sat in comfortable cushioned chairs as they conducted business with their customers. Beyond them was the smaller section where the tax collectors and their hired muscle sat waiting for payment from those who had been assessed for taxation. At their sides were stacked the waxed slates that detailed the names of those to be taxed, and how much they should pay. The tax collectors had bought the right to collect specific taxes at auctions held by the Roman procurator in the province's administrative capital at Caesarea. Having paid a fixed sum into the imperial coffers, they were legally entitled to squeeze the people of Jerusalem for any taxes they might be deemed to be liable for. It was a harsh system, but it was one that was applied right across the Roman Empire, and the tax collectors were a deeply resented and despised social class. That suited Emperor Claudius and the staff of the imperial treasury very well indeed, since the odium of the provincial taxpayers was invariably focused on the local collectors and not the people from whom the latter had bought their tax-collecting rights.
A sudden outburst of shouting and screaming drew Cato and Macro's attention to the far end of the line of stalls. A group of men had charged out of the crowd. Sunlight flashed off the side of a blade and Cato realised the men were all armed as they closed in round one of the tax collectors, like wolves at the kill. His bodyguard took one look at the blades, turned and ran. The tax collector flung up his arms to protect his face and disappeared from sight as his attackers fell on him. Cato's hand automatically snatched at his sword as he ducked round behind the line of stalls.
'Come on, Macro!'
There was a rasp as Macro's blade was drawn behind Cato and then the two of them sprinted towards the killers, thrusting the moneylenders aside and leaping over their stacks of record slates. Ahead of him Cato saw the men draw back from the tax collector, now slumped over the top of his stall, his white tunic torn and bloody. In front of the stall the crowd drew back in a panic, crying out in terror as they turned and ran.The attackers turned on the men behind the next stall.They had frozen for an instant before realising the terrible danger they were in, but now they attempted to scramble away from the men brandishing the short curved blades that gave them their name: the sicarians – assassins of the most extreme fringe of the Judaean zealots resisting Roman rule.
The sicarians were so intent on their killing frenzy that they did not notice Cato and Macro until the last moment, when the nearest killer glanced up as Cato thrust a collector aside and leaped forward, teeth bared and sword thrust out in front of him.The point took the attacker just to one side of the neck, split his collar bone and drove deep into his chest, piercing his heart.With an explosive gasp the man slumped forward, almost wrenching the blade from Cato's grasp. Cato raised his boot and kicked the body back, yanked the blade free and crouched, looking for his next target. To one side there was a blur as Macro ran past and hacked his sword into the arm of the next sicarian, almost severing the limb. The man fell away, howling in agony as his nerveless fingers released his blade.The other men abruptly abandoned their attack on the tax collectors and turned to face the two Romans. Their leader, a short swarthy man with powerful shoulders, snapped out an order and the sicarians swiftly fanned out, some circling round the stalls while others climbed the steps and moved to cut off Macro and Cato from the direction they had come. Cato kept the bloodied point of his sword raised as he glanced round.
'Seven of them.'
'Bad odds.' Macro was breathing heavily as he took up position with his back to Cato's. 'We shouldn't be here, lad.'
The crowd had fled back towards the gate, leaving a clear space round the two Romans and the killers. The paving slabs of the outer court were littered with discarded baskets and half-eaten snacks, hastily flung aside as people fled for their lives.
Cato laughed bitterly. 'Your idea, remember?'
'Next time, don't let me do the thinking.'
Before Cato could respond the leader of the sicarians snapped an order and his men closed in, moving quickly, blades held out ready to strike.There was no way out for the Romans and Cato crouched lower, limbs tensed as his eyes flickered from man to man, none more than a spear's length away from him and Macro.
'What now?' he whispered softly.
'Great. Just what I needed to hear.'
Cato sensed a movement to one side and turned just as one of the killers lunged forward, stabbing towards Macro's side.
But Macro was already moving, his sword a glittering blur as it swept round and knocked the blade from the man's hand. Even as it clattered to the ground another sicarian feinted, causing Cato to turn towards him, ready to parry. As he moved, another of the men jumped forward, knife point flickering out. Cato turned back just in time to meet the threat. He lowered his spare hand and snatched out his dagger, broad-bladed and unwieldy compared to the narrow-bladed weapons of the killers, but it felt good in his hand all the same. The leader shouted another order, and Cato heard the anger in the man's voice. He wanted this finished at once.
'Macro!' Cato shouted out. 'With me! Charge!'
He threw himself at the men backing onto the courtyard and his comrade followed him, bellowing at the top of his voice. The sudden reversal of roles startled the sicarians and they paused for a vital instant. Cato and Macro slashed at the men in front of them, causing them to jump aside, and then the Romans were through, running across the paving, back towards the entrance to the Great Courtyard. There was a cry of rage from behind and then the scuffling pad of sandals as the sicarians chased after them. Cato glanced back and saw Macro close behind, and just a few paces behind him the leader of the killers, lips drawn back in a snarl as he sprinted after the Romans. Cato knew at once they would never outrun them. They were too heavily weighed down and the sicarians wore nothing but their tunics. It would all be over in moments. Just ahead lay an amphora, abandoned in the rush to escape from the courtyard. Cato jumped over it and immediately turned round. Macro, with a puzzled expression, leaped past him just as Cato slashed his sword down, shattering the large jar. With a gurgling rush the contents sloshed across the paving slabs and the air filled with the aroma of olive oil. Cato turned and raced after Macro, and glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the leader of the sicarians slither, lose his footing and tumble back on to the ground with a thud. Two of the men immediately behind him also slipped over, but the rest skirted the spreading slick of oil and chased after the Romans. Cato saw that they were only a short distance from the stragglers of the crowd: the old, the infirm and a handful of small children, crying out in terror.
'Turn round!' he shouted to Macro and scraped to a halt, swivelling to face their pursuers. An instant later Macro was at his side.The sicarians charged forward for a moment before they suddenly drew up, glaring past Cato and Macro.Then they turned away and ran back towards their leader and the others who were back on their feet, and the sicarians raced towards a small gate on the far side of the Great Courtyard.
'Cowards!' Macro called after them. 'What's the matter? No balls for a real fight?' He laughed and slapped a thick arm round Cato's shoulder. 'Look at 'em go. Bolting like rabbits. If two of us can scare them off then I don't think we've that much to worry about in Judaea.'
'Not just two of us.' Cato nodded towards the crowd and Macro glanced back and saw the optio and his men shouldering their way through the edge of the crowd and hurrying to the aid of the centurions.
'After them!' the optio bellowed, thrusting his arm out towards the fleeing killers.
'No!' Cato commanded. 'There's no point. We won't catch them now.'
Even as he spoke the sicarians reached the gate and ducked out of sight. The optio shrugged, and could not hide a look of resentment. Cato could understand how the man felt and was tempted to explain. Just in time he stopped himself. He had given an order – that was all there was to it. There was no point in letting the auxiliaries go on a wild and dangerous goose chase through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. Instead, Cato gestured towards the overturned stalls and the dead and injured victims of the sicarians.
'Do what you can for them.'
The optio saluted, recalled his men and hurried over to what was left of the tax collectors' area of the market. Cato felt blown from his exertions. He sheathed his sword and dagger and leaned forward, resting his hands just above his knees.
'Nice move, that.' Macro smiled and thrust the point of his sword back towards the shattered jar of oil. 'Saved our skins.'
Cato shook his head and drew a deep breath before replying. 'We've only just arrived in the city… haven't even reached the bloody garrison, and already we've nearly had our throats cut.'
'Some welcome.' Macro grimaced. 'You know, I'm beginning to wonder if the procurator was having us on.'
Cato looked round at him with a questioning expression.
'Hearts and minds.' Macro shook his head. 'I get the distinct impression that the locals are not warming to the idea of being part of the Roman Empire.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand