We can't just stand here and watch,' Macro said angrily.
'Why not?' Centurion Postumus replied. 'We offered them our protection and they turned us down. Perhaps next time they'll think twice before they spurn my offer.'
'Next time?' Macro's eyes widened in surprise. 'There isn't going to be a next time. They're being slaughtered over there.' He gestured down the track to where the raiders from the desert had charged in amongst the caravan's small force of armed escorts. The latter were hopelessly outnumbered and it was clear that they were being cut to pieces. Beyond them the camel herders were streaming away from their charges, abandoning them, and their precious cargo, to the raiders. The merchants in charge of the caravan had wheeled their camels round and were now riding them back up the track towards the Roman cavalry patrol as fast as they could go. Postumus watched them with an amused expression.
'I can't wait to see their faces when I tell them the price has doubled.'
Macro turned to him. 'What did you say?'
'It's at this stage that we double the price for escorting them the rest of the way. Oh, don't worry, they'll agree to pay it without any argument.'
'Then we charge in. The raiders take what they have and run for it, and it's all over and another contract is in the bag. A few months of this, sir, and you'll be sitting on a small fortune.'
'And if the raiders decide to fight it out?'
'They won't. We have an unspoken understanding with them.'
'Think about it, sir. It's important that the threat is real. So if they see us riding behind a caravan, they have come to know we'll let them carry out a quick attack. For our part, when we ride to the rescue, they know that we won't pursue them into the desert. Neither side loses any men and both sides get to profit. The only losers are the caravan cartels, and the next time they come this way, they'll pay up without any fuss.'
Macro shook his head in disbelief. He stared towards the caravan where the raiders had dealt with the escort and were now busy looting the leading camels.
'How long has this been going on?'
'Since I arrived here, sir.'
'Was Scrofa's predecessor in on it?'
'No,' Postumus admitted guardedly. 'He didn't approve, but then again, he just turned a blind eye to those of us who had joined the scheme. I think I would have talked him round, if he hadn't died in that ambush.'
'I bet.' Macro had heard enough. He drew his sword and tightened his hands on the reins.
'What are you doing, sir?' Postumus asked in alarm.
'I'm doing my duty,' Macro growled, before he took a sharp breath and bellowed his orders. 'Deploy into line!'
'No!' Postumus cried out. 'No! Stay as you are!'
Macro whipped round towards him. 'Shut your mouth! Not one more word from you.' He turned back to the auxiliaries. 'Deploy into line!'
'I'm in command here!' Postumus called out.
Macro let go of the reins and slammed his fist into Postumus's face. The centurion's head snapped back and he dropped from the saddle and hit the ground with a jarring crash. Macro shook his head. 'Not any more you're not, sunshine.' He turned to the auxiliaries and shouted, 'Well? What are you bloody waiting for? Deploy into line!'
Behind him, obedient to his order, the decurions were marshalling the two squadrons into line. As soon as they were ready, Macro raised his sword to get their attention and swept it down towards the caravan.
The horses broke into a trot, quickly accelerating into a canter, straight at the oncoming owners of the caravan. They just had time to register a look of surprise and fright before they wheeled their beasts aside, out of the path of the charging Roman cavalry. Then they flashed out of Macro's field of vision, and he concentrated on the situation ahead as the auxiliaries whooped their war cries and brandished their spears as they closed on the raiders. Already, the first of them was breaking away from the caravan, hurriedly herding a cluster of laden camels ahead of him, back into the desert. As the auxiliaries neared the tail end of the caravan the rest realised the danger and mounted their camels and turned them away. They were in for a nasty shock, Macro thought, when the cavalry didn't give up the chase and charged right after them. He turned his head to call back to the men behind him. 'Keep going! Go for them! Don't stop!'
He wanted them to be quite sure of the order, given that Postumus must have got them used to drawing up as soon as they had chased the raiders away from previous caravans. The auxiliaries pounded round the end of the caravan and headed diagonally across the level ground towards the fleeing raiders. Greed had got the better of the bandits and they did not abandon their loot and the camels they had driven off. Macro smiled. Perhaps they still thought that the Roman cavalry, true to form, was merely making a show of chasing them off. They'd soon discover the folly of that notion.
Macro, at the head of the auxiliaries, was within bowshot of the nearest raiders when they began to understand their peril. One of the camel riders, leading a string of laden beasts, abruptly threw down the lead rope and whipped his camel into a loping run towards the distant dunes. At once his companions did the same, releasing the animals they had seized and desperately racing to escape the horsemen charging towards them. Macro ignored the discarded baggage and waved his sword towards the black-robed figures making for the open desert.
'Stay on them! Don't let them get away!'
The nearest of the raiders was just a short distance ahead now, and Macro drew his shield against his left side and held his cavalry sword out to the right in readiness. The raider, his head swathed in black turban and veil, glanced back and his eyes widened at the sight of the Roman officer bearing down on him.At once he reached forward and snatched out one of the short javelins from the sheath hanging from his saddle frame. As his camel loped on towards the desert the raider twisted round, took aim and hurled the javelin at Macro only a short distance behind.The shaft flew flat and true towards him. He jerked the reins to the left and leaned as far as he dared to the side and ducked his head.The javelin flicked past his right shoulder and the raider uttered an angry curse and snatched at another. For an instant Macro's horse staggered as it struggled to fight the inertia opposing the rapid change in direction and Macro hung on tightly, clamping his legs against the horse's side as he tried to shift his weight to the right. Then, with a powerful thrust from its front legs, the horse regained control and galloped after the raider once more.
The second javelin was thrown as Macro closed in, and it was deflected off his shield with a sharp clatter. There was no time for another javelin and the raider drew a curved blade and swung it at Macro's head. With a metallic ring, Macro parried the blow and then swept the point of his sword towards the man's side and thrust home, through the dark robes and into his chest. The raider gasped as the impact drove the air from his lungs; then, as the blade ripped free, he galloped on several more paces before the reins slipped from his fingers and he toppled from the saddle, hit the stony ground, rolled over a few times and was still. His camel lumbered on, riderless, into the desert.
Macro reined in and glanced round. Scattered ahead of him the rest of the raiders were drawing away. He turned as the first of the auxiliaries streamed past him on either side. None of the men were riding their mounts at full stretch and Macro felt his guts churn with anger and contempt. The bandits were going to escape. True, they would have little to show for their attack on the caravan, but they would survive to strike another day, thanks to Postumus and his ongoing scam.
'Don't just ponce around!' Macro bellowed after them. 'Get after them. Get stuck in, before I have your bollocks for breakfast!'
The nearest men made a show of bending low and urging their horses on, but there was little chance of catching up with the raiders now and Macro sheathed his sword and sat erect as he surveyed the scene. Beyond the auxiliaries, the raiders were rapidly disappearing over the nearest dunes. Elsewhere, the herders were returning to the caravan and restoring order to the nervous animals, who were milling about where they had been left. Some of the merchants were retrieving the loot that been spilled on the sand and repacking it into the baskets hanging over the backs of the pack camels.
A pounding of hooves drew Macro's attention and he saw Centurion Postumus approaching him across the desert. At the last moment, Postumus reined in, his horse kicking up a cloud of dust and loose stones, so that Macro's horse recoiled with a nervous whinny.
'What the hell d'you think you're doing?' Postumus screamed at him, thrusting an arm towards the dead raider.
Macro glanced at the body and shrugged. 'I'm doing your job, Postumus. At least, I'm doing the job you should be doing.'
Postumus clenched his teeth and stabbed a finger at Macro. 'You've fucked it up, Macro! It's taken months to set this up. It was going like a dream… Now?' Postumus looked at the body again and shook his head. 'I don't know what's going to happen. There'll be reprisals.' He turned back to Macro with a bitter grin. 'You're going to pay for this.'
'I don't think so. Not when word gets back to Rome about the little deal you had with that lot.' He gestured towards the last of the raiders, already far off, half hidden by the dust kicked up by their flight.
'What makes you think you'll live to expose us?'
Macro laughed. 'Are you threatening me?' His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword as he watched Postumus closely. 'Go on then, if you've got the balls to do it. Draw your sword.'
Postumus stared at him, then shook his head and sneered.'I don't have to fight you, Macro. I have powerful friends who could swat you like a gnat.'
'Really? Then let them try.'
'In any case, aren't you forgetting something?'
'You struck me. In full view of the men.As soon as we get back to Bushir, I'll bring charges against you. Make no mistake, you'll pay for this.'
'So you say. We'll see. But for now, I'm relieving you of command for the rest of this patrol.'
'On whose authority?' Postumus smirked. 'Aren't you forgetting something? Until your appointment is confirmed you have no-'
'I know all that,' Macro cut in. 'But in this situation it doesn't matter. First, you have failed to carry out your duty. I could have you charged with cowardice when we return to Bushir. Second, I am the senior officer present. Unless you have written authority that supersedes my seniority there's nothing you can do about it. I don't suppose you have such a document on you, Centurion Postumus? No? How unfortunate.' Macro smiled. 'I can only imagine how frustrated you must feel.'
Postumus glared at him, opened his mouth to protest, and then shut it again. Macro had him.The same rigorous adherence to rules that had cost Macro his appointment had now robbed Postumus of command over the two cavalry squadrons. It took all of Macro's self-control not to laugh now that the tables had been turned on the smug younger officer. He let Postumus stew for a moment before he continued.
'I will remain in command until we return to Bushir. Until then, you are to assume the duties of an orderly. Is that clear?'
'You can't do this,' Postumus said quietly. The decurions of the two cavalry squadrons had called off the pursuit and were rallying to Macro and Postumus.
'I already have. You can sort it out with the prefect when we return to Bushir.'
'Trust me, I will.'
As the decurions trotted up Macro turned to them and announced the change of command. They turned questioningly to Postumus, but before the latter could speak Macro snapped at them, 'Ignore him! I am the ranking officer here! You will obey my orders from now on. Centurion Postumus will be facing a charge of gross neglect of duty when we return to Bushir. If you don't want to join him then I suggest you accept the change of command right away. Do either of you question my authority? Well?'
The decurions shook their heads.
'That's better! Now get your men to help the merchants restore some order to the caravan. Once that's done, we'll escort them to the Decapolis. If there's another attack I don't expect to see your men responding like a bunch of virgins at the Lupercal. I'd better see them go in hard and fast, or I'll personally make sure that both of you are broken back to the ranks.' Macro subjected them to a withering glare, and then concluded, 'Do I make myself clear?'
'Yes, sir!' the decurions chorused.
'Fine, then carry out your orders.' Macro returned their salute and they wheeled their mounts round and trotted back to their units. Macro turned to Postumus and gestured after them. 'What are you waiting for? I want you out there helping to clear up this mess as well.'
'Yes you. And you will call me sir from now on. Get moving before I add insubordination to the charges I aim to bring against you.'
Postumus stabbed his heels in, wheeled his horse and galloped past Macro, back towards the caravan.
Macro watched him go, and breathed a sigh of relief. Corruption had made the officers go soft. If they had had the guts to stand up to him a moment earlier then Macro feared he might have gone the way of Scrofa's predecessor. As it was, Macro had the whip hand and they had cringed like curs in front of him. In some small way that saddened him. If they buckled before the wrath of a superior officer so easily they would be little good against Bannus and his men when the time came to fight the brigands on the battlefield. As soon as his appointment as prefect of the Second Illyrian was confirmed he was going to have to crack down on the officers even more harshly than on the men. They had to be hardened up, and quickly, if they were to be a match for the Judaean rebels, and any Parthian allies.
For the next four days the caravan ambled along the track towards Gerasa.With a squadron of auxiliary cavalry on each flank there were no more attacks, and when the walls of the hill town that overlooked the sea of Galilee came into sight the merchants approached Macro to make their farewells.
'We'll leave you here,' Macro announced. 'You're safe now.'
'Only thanks to you, Centurion.' The merchant bowed his head, and then looked up awkwardly. 'The other merchants and I wish to offer you a gift, in thanks for saving our property and, perhaps, our lives.'
'No,' Macro replied firmly. He was not going down that route. He'd not end up like Postumus and most of the officers of the Second Illyrian. 'We were just doing our duty. No gift is necessary.There'll be no more bribes paid to the Roman soldiers protecting travellers along this route. That's finished with. I give you my word on that.'
The merchant looked pained. 'You do not understand, Centurion. It is our custom to offer a gift. If you do not accept, we are shamed.'
Macro looked at them and scratched the stubble on his chin. 'Shamed, eh?'
The merchant nodded his head vigorously.
Macro felt irritated by the situation. He was not one to tolerate the customs of other cultures easily and did not know how to get out of this predicament. Then an idea that he had been brooding over for the past few days came back to him and provided a very neat and useful solution.
'I will not accept a gift,' he repeated.'But I will require a favour of you in the near future.When the time comes, where may I find you gentlemen?'
'When we have concluded our business here we will be returning to Petra, to make arrangements for the next caravan. We should be there for a month, maybe two.'
'I'll send word to you in Petra, then.'
Macro watched as the merchants returned to the long stream of camels swaying up the slope towards the gate of Gerasa. He smiled. If his plan was workable at all, then the merchants were going to prove vital to its success.
07 The Eagle In the Sand