What the hell were you doing back there?' Cato ' snapped. 'Why didn't you back me up?'
They were sitting in the room allocated to Macro. Cato had been given a room nearby. Scrofa had explained that until the issue of Macro's appointment had been sorted out there was no question of providing them with quarters appropriate to their alleged status. So the cohort's quartermaster and his assistant had been required to temporarily give up their offices and the clerks had laboured into the evening to clear the rooms and introduce the bare minimum of furniture needed by the newly arrived centurions. The column had returned to the fort some time after dusk, in the silvery light of a crescent moon, and it was not until the fourth hour of the night that the preparation of their hastily arranged quarters was complete. Symeon had been allocated a bunk in the cavalry barracks and had immediately gone off to sleep, leaving the two officers to sit in an atmosphere of muted tension until at last their rooms were ready.
'What was I doing?' Macro looked astonished. 'I was behaving like a bloody officer, that's what I was doing. Not buggering about like some indignant bloody child.'
'Cato, when a senior officer gives an order, you obey it without hesitation.'
'Macro, I know that. But he's not the senior officer. You are.'
'Not until I can prove it. Until then Scrofa is in command, and what he says goes.'
'No matter how wrong-headed the order?'
Cato shook his head. 'That is ridiculous, Macro. The woman did nothing wrong. Nothing to deserve having her house burned down.'
'I agree with you,' Macro responded with forced calmness. 'It's a bloody great shame. An injustice. Call it what you will.'
Cato was exasperated.'So why didn't you say anything at the time?'
'You know the score. When an order is given there is no discussion, whatever I might think.'
'But that's madness.'
'No – it's discipline. It's what makes the army work. There's no room for debate. No place for weighing up the pros and cons. The order is given and you obey.' Macro paused and continued in a harsh tone. 'What you don't do – in any circumstances – is question the order of a senior officer, and never in front of the bloody men. Do I make myself clear?'
Cato, surprised at Macro's hostility, nodded.
Macro went on. 'You start down that road, my friend, and discipline crumbles. If men start thinking about orders and not acting on them, then the army falls apart and we become easy pickings for our enemies.There's no shortage of them. Then who's going to protect the Empire, eh? So go ahead and weigh that up against some woman's house going up in smoke. Next time, you think about that before you go and question the orders of a superior.'
Cato was silent as he considered Macro's argument, then he looked up and shrugged. 'I suppose you may be right.'
'Of course I'm bloody right.' Macro sighed with exasperation. 'Look here, Cato. The army's your life now. It's a hard life sometimes I grant you, but I love it. And I will not let anybody fuck it up, however well meaning they be, even if they are my best friend. Make sure you understand that.'
Cato pursed his lips. 'All right. But it was still wrong to punish that woman.'
Macro groaned and cuffed his young friend on the shoulder. 'That's enough. We've got bigger problems to think about. We're not here for the good of our health, Cato.'
Macro smiled for a moment, and then looked thoughtful. 'You know, there might be more to this than meets the eye.'
'What do you mean?'
'Burning that house. Crucifying that brigand.' Macro raised his eyebrows. 'It's just that, now I think about it, there's little more he could have done to deliberately provoke the people of that village, and at the same time lose the chance to get some good intelligence from the prisoner.'
'I see.' Cato nodded.'In that light it certainly seems to back up Narcissus' suspicions about what's going on here.'
'And if he's right about Scrofa, and that adjutant of his, Postumus, then we're going to have to tread carefully, and watch our backs all the time. I don't fancy going the way of Scrofa's predecessor.'
The next morning, at first light, the survivors of the cavalry escort set off on the return journey to Jerusalem. Scrofa had appointed one of his junior officers to temporary command of the squadron and ordered Symeon to guide them safely to Jerusalem by a different route from the one they had taken to reach the fort. The veteran carried a message from Macro for delivery to the procurator at Caesarea requesting urgent confirmation of his appointment as commander of the Second Illyrian. Given the distances involved it would take at least several days for a reply to reach them. Until then, the two centurions would be regarded as supernumeraries – free of duties and free to come and go around the fort. Macro and Cato, mindful of the true purpose behind their presence there, joined the other officers for the prefect's morning briefing immediately after breakfast in the mess.
The centurions and the junior officers of the cohort crowded the benches in the hall of the headquarters building, and as they talked idly while waiting for Scrofa and his adjutant to appear Cato scrutinised them surreptitiously. The officers seemed somehow distracted and edgy and spoke in subdued tones. Occasionally one of them would glance in the direction of the new arrivals, but no one came over to introduce himself. It was as if they were suspicious, Cato decided. But suspicious of what? They could not know that Macro and Cato were working for Narcissus. The appointment of Scrofa had been temporary so they would be expecting a permanent commander to replace him. There should be nothing untoward about the arrival of Macro and Cato and yet Cato sensed that something was amiss.
His speculations were interrupted as Centurion Postumus marched through the door and barked out, 'Commanding officer present!'
With a scraping of benches the assembled officers rose to their feet and stood stiffly at attention while Scrofa entered the hall and made his way to the desk at the end and sat down.
'Be seated, gentlemen.'
The officers relaxed and sat back down on their benches. When all was still, Scrofa cleared his throat and began the briefing.
'First, let me formally introduce you to Centurions Macro and Cato.' He gestured to them and the new arrivals briefly rose to their feet in acknowledgement as Scrofa continued. 'Now, I'm aware that there have been a few rumours doing the rounds about the reason for their presence at Bushir. For the record, Centurions Macro and Cato claim to have been sent out from Rome to replace myself and Centurion Postumus. Unfortunately, in the rush to escape his pursuers yesterday, Centurion Macro was obliged to drop his baggage, which contained his orders from the palace.'
There was a ripple of light laughter and amused expressions amongst the officers and Macro flushed with embarrassment and anger. Scrofa smiled as he continued.
'So, until his appointment is confirmed we welcome them as honoured guests to Fort Bushir. You gentlemen might want to take the chance to make yourself known to the commander designate in the coming days, if you wish to thrive under his command, as you have under mine. Centurion Macro will need to learn how we do things here, if he is to enjoy your confidence in the months ahead…'
The prefect glanced through the notes on the waxed slate in front of him and went on. 'We've had word that two caravans bound for the Decapolis are due to pass through our area in the next few days. The first belongs to Silas of Antioch. We'll be sending out our usual welcoming committee and should have no trouble getting their agreement to escort the caravan as far as Gerasa. The second belongs to one of the Arab cartels that's just started up in Aelana. Since they're new to the game, Centurion Postumus will lead a strong force out to greet them and explain the procedure. Then escort them safely up the trail as far as Philadelphia before returning to the fort… On to more onerous tasks. There's been a band raiding the borders of the Decapolis from somewhere out in the desert. Decurion Proximus will take a patrol to Azrakh, and offer their headman a bounty for tracking down and eliminating these raiders.' Scrofa paused and glanced round the room before he spotted Proximus. 'Make sure you agree a good deal. No point in cutting too deeply into our profit margins.'
The decurion grinned and nodded.
'Good man. That's the last of our commerce excursions. Any questions?'
One of the older centurions raised his arm and Scrofa regarded the man with a weary expression as he responded. 'Yes, Parmenion?'
'What about that business yesterday, sir? Are we going after Bannus and his gang? It's time we settled the score with them.'
Scrofa glanced at his adjutant and Postumus leaned closer. The two men conferred quietly for a moment before Scrofa turned back to the questioner. 'You are right, of course. We cannot tolerate such attacks on Roman forces. The Judaeans need to be taught a lesson. To that end I'm sending you out with a squadron of horse and an infantry century to make a circuit of the local settlements. If you find any evidence that their people have been offering any assistance to the brigands then you are to burn a few houses to the ground. If there's no evidence then I want you to flog a few of the locals to give them a taste of what's to come if they ever feel tempted to aid men like Bannus. Make sure they get the message.'
'Yes, sir,' Parmenion replied. 'But wouldn't it make more sense to try to track down the brigands themselves? Rather than mount another punitive expedition?'
'There's no point in exposing our men to the danger of an armed clash with these brigands,' Scrofa responded uneasily. His adjutant stepped forward and interceded.
'The brigands can only survive by drawing on support from the villagers. If we can persuade the locals to stop supporting Bannus, then his men will starve and disband and the problem is over.' Postumus smiled. 'Satisfied?'
Centurion Parmenion gave the adjutant a withering stare for a moment before he tilted his head and glanced past Postumus towards the prefect.'Begging your pardon, sir, but we've been going in hard on the locals for months now. And we're no closer to finishing Bannus off. In fact, I think our actions have only strengthened the man. Every time we punish the villagers, we drive some of them into joining Bannus. Every time he ambushes one of our patrols and kills a few of our men, the villagers celebrate.' Parmenion paused, and shook his head. 'I'm sorry, sir. But I just don't believe your policy is having the right effect. We should be trying to win these people over, not punishing them for the actions carried out by brigands.'
Centurion Postumus stabbed his finger at Parmenion. 'Thank you, Centurion Parmenion. I am aware of your long experience in this province, but that will be all for now. You have your orders. All you have to do is carry them out. Trust me, when the locals understand that Rome will brook absolutely no hint of defiance, then we will have order in this area. Besides, according to my sources, the number of Bannus' men has been exaggerated. They're poorly armed, and equipped with little more than the rags they stand up in.They're nothing more than a handful of wretched robbers.'
'Sir, I'm not sure how far we can rely on those sources of yours.They've not been much help so far, and anyway, men who are paid to inform tend to say what they think their paymaster wants to hear.'
'I trust them,' Scrofa said firmly. 'The threat from Bannus is minimal.'
Parmenion shrugged and nodded towards Macro. 'They seemed to give the centurion's escort a pretty good hiding.'
Postumus smiled. 'Let's just say, the centurion's escort must have had an inflated sense of any danger they might have been in.'
Parmenion turned to Macro. 'What do you think, sir? You were ambushed by them. How much danger do you think Bannus poses to us?'
Macro pursed his lips a moment before he replied. 'It was a well-worked trap. He caught us on a narrow track, and must have had three, maybe four hundred men with him. Yes, they were poorly armed, and only a small proportion had mounts. But if that's how many men he can call on for a simple ambush, then I should imagine his entire force is something to be reckoned with. Or will be, if he can ever train and equip them adequately. As it was, we only managed to break through because they weren't expecting us to charge them.'
As his friend spoke, Cato felt a chill run down his spine. What was it that Bannus had said as he stood outside Miriam's house? Something about friends who were about to help them. And that soon he would have an army behind him. But was it mere bluster? The vain boasts of a desperate man condemned to spending the rest of his days as an outlaw and fugitive? Yet Prefect Scrofa seemed content to let the brigand remain at large while he attacked what he perceived to be his supporters. And with Scrofa's current approach to the problem, if they weren't already supporters of Bannus they soon would be.
Centurion Postumus again responded on behalf of his commander. He nodded his head, as if in agreement with Macro, and then smiled faintly. 'Of course, in your haste to escape it is possible that you might have overestimated the danger.'
Macro stared hard at the adjutant. 'Are you calling me a liar?'
'Of course not, sir. I'm just saying that in the heat of, er, shall we say battle, it must be hard to know exactly how many men you were facing.'
'I see.' Macro's expression darkened. 'If you don't believe me, then ask Centurion Cato here how many men he thought we were facing.'
'What would be the point, sir? He was in the same predicament as yourself. Why should his judgement be any less clouded? Besides, he had a head injury. He could easily have been mistaken about the size of the force you encountered. I assure you, we have perfectly good intelligence that the threat from Bannus is minimal.'
Cato leaned forward. 'Then why go to the trouble of all these punitive raids on local villages?'
'Because we need to dissuade them from any further support for Bannus. If we go easy on them it can only make us look weak. Bannus will be able to claim that, given enough men, he can guarantee to deliver the people of Judaea from Roman rule.'
'Surely, if you treat the Judaeans harshly, you'll only drive them into his arms, as Centurion Parmenion pointed out. Perhaps we should be trying to win these people over.'
'No point,' Scrofa interrupted.'It's clear that they hate our guts. We'll never win them over as long as they cling to their faith. In which case we can only hold them in line through fear.'
Macro leaned back and crossed his arms. 'Let them hate, as long as they fear, eh?'
The prefect shrugged. 'The dictum seems to work well enough.'
Cato felt his heart sink. Scrofa's was a short-sighted and dangerous approach, particularly in the present situation where Bannus offered its victims a chance to fight back. Every village that the Romans made an example of would become a recruiting ground for Bannus and swell his ranks with men who had a fanatical hatred of Rome and all those they perceived as serving Roman interests.
'Anyway,' the prefect concluded, 'I've made my decision. The orders stand and will be carried out. The briefing is over. Centurion Postumus will have written orders prepared for the relevant officers. Good day, gentlemen.'
The benches scraped over the flagstones as the officers rose and stood to attention. Scrofa collected up his slates and left the room. Once he was gone Postumus called out, 'At ease!' and the officers relaxed again.
Cato nudged his friend. 'I think we should have a word with Centurion Parmenion.'
Macro nodded, then glanced round at the other officers, slowly dispersing to carry out the day's duties. 'Yes, but not in front of the rest. Perhaps we should ask him to show us round the fort. No harm in that. Only natural that new arrivals should want to look over the place.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand