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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

The day after Centurion Parmenion's force left Bushir they marched through the hilly landscape around Herodion, keeping close watch on the terraced olive groves that climbed the slopes on either side.This was the kind of country that favoured the light troops that Bannus had at his disposal, and Cato could well imagine the damage that a small force armed with slings and javelins might inflict on the Roman column. Fortunately there was no sign of the brigands and at midday they reached the large village of Beth Mashon, surrounded by dusty clumps of palm trees. Their approach was spotted by a handful of children tending their goats, and as they drove their bleating charges out of the path of the soldiers one of them raced ahead to warn the villagers.

Cato glanced at Parmenion. 'Do you think we should deploy the men?'

'For what?'

'In case they're preparing a surprise.'

'Who do you think we're up against, Cato?' Parmenion asked wearily.'Some crack Parthian cavalry, or something?'

'Who knows?'

Parmenion laughed bitterly. 'There's nothing in there apart from the usual peasants. Believe me. And right now they'll be scared as hell and hoping that we don't add to their difficulties. Fat chance of that, of course. About the only time outsiders ever visit places like this is when they've come to collect the taxes or make some other trouble.'

Cato looked closely at the veteran. 'Sounds to me like you're on their side.'

'Their side?' Parmenion raised his eyebrows. 'They don't have a side.They're too bloody poor to have a side. They have nothing. Look around you, Cato. This is about as close to desolation as you can get. These people are scraping a living off the dust. For what? So that they can pay their taxes, their tithes, their debts. And in the end when the tax-farmers, temple priests and bankers have had their cut, and there's nothing left, they have to sell their children. They're desperate, and desperate people having nothing left to lose but their hope. When that's gone, who do they go for?' He smacked himself on the chest.'Us.Then we have to go round butchering the poor bastards until they're sufficiently cowed again to let the same old parasites resume squeezing the survivors for every last shekel they can get.'

He took a deep breath and made to continue, but shook his head in frustration and clamped his mouth shut.

'Got that off your chest, then?' Cato said quietly.

Parmenion glared back at him and then smiled.'Sorry. It's just that I've served here too long.And it's always been the same.' He gestured towards the village. 'It's a wonder they stick it. Anywhere else the people would be in open rebellion by now.'

'They are,' Cato replied.'I thought that was why we're out here. To deal with Bannus.'

Parmenion pursed his lips.'Bannus? He's just the latest in a long line of bandits. Soon as they get a large enough following they claim to be the mashiah, here to deliver the people of Judaea from our clutches.' He laughed. 'I've yet to see one who wasn't the mashiah. And still they come… I tell you, I'm sick of it all. I hate this place. I hate these people and their poverty and I hate what it does to them. I'm counting the days to my discharge.Then I can leave this hole for good.'

'Where will you go?'

'As far from here as I can. Somewhere with good soil, and water, where a man can grow crops without breaking his back. I hear Britain's the place to take up a land grant these days.'

Cato laughed. 'I'm not so sure about that.'

'You've been there?'

'Yes. Two years in the Second Legion, with Macro.'

'What's it like?'

Cato thought for a moment. 'In most ways it's as different from Judaea as you can get. A good spot for that farm of yours, Parmenion, but the people are just as unwelcoming. They'll not bend to our ways very soon, I imagine. It's funny, here I am at the other end of the empire and it seems we're making the same old mistakes.'

'What do you mean?'

'These Judaeans. They have a religion that will not bend, will not compromise. And one Roman procurator after another is doomed to resort to force to make sure the Judaeans accept Roman rule on our terms. It's the same story in Britain, with the druids. As long as they hold to the old ways and we insist on the new, then there's little chance of long-term peace in either province. Not a rosy outlook on both fronts, I'm afraid.'

'You may be right.' Parmenion shrugged his shoulders wearily. 'Seems that the people who run the Empire are never going to learn. Anyway,' he glanced up at the nearest houses, 'here we are. Better get on with it.'

The column entered the edge of the village and Cato felt the familiar chill of tension tighten round his spine as he glanced down each side of the narrow street that wound through the blocks of sun-bleached houses. It followed the same pattern as all the other villages he had seen since arriving in Judaea. It was comprised of several households clustered around courtyards, where the inhabitants shared a cistern, an oven, a grain mill, an olive press and the other facilities which made them self-sufficient. Most of the houses were single-storey, but some had internal stairs that led up to the roofs where sun shelters were erected. Where the plaster was cracked and chunks had fallen away Cato could see the basalt blocks beneath, with mud and pebble mortar to make them weatherproof. From its size Cato guessed that as many as a thousand people lived in the village, but when he mentioned this to Parmenion the veteran scoffed.

'More than that. Much more. The families at the bottom of the pile live pretty much cheek by jowl. Land is in short supply.When a father passes it on, it is divided equally amongst his sons, so each generation had less and less land to work, and cannot afford to build their own homes.'

The column emerged from the winding street into a broad paved square in front of a large building with a domed roof. Parmenion summoned one of his men and handed over the reins.

'That's the synagogue,' Parmenion muttered as he dismounted.'That's where I'll find the priest. He'll be the headman, or at least someone who knows him. Optio!' he bellowed back towards his men and a junior officer came trotting over and saluted.

'Yes, sir.'

'You can pass the word for the men to stand down. But have detachments posted on each street leading out of the square. A section on each should do. Got that?'

The optio nodded and turned away to carry out his orders. Cato slid off the back of his horse and handed his reins to Parmenion's groom.

'Mind if I come with you?'

Parmenion stared at him. 'If you really want.'Then he took a deep breath and strolled over to the door of the synagogue, with Cato following at his shoulder.The door opened inwards as he approached and a tall man in a long black tunic cautiously emerged. He wore a red skullcap and long, dark locks hung down over his shoulders.

'Who are you?' Parmenion asked, in Greek.

'Sir, I am the priest.' The man stiffened and tried not to show any fear of the soldier. 'What do you want of us, Roman?'

'Water for my men and horses. Then I need to speak to the village elders. Have them summoned immediately.'

The priest's expression darkened as he endured the centurion's peremptory tone. 'The water is there in our public cistern.' He pointed across the square to a low stone trough that rose knee high from the ground. 'Your men and beasts can help themselves. As for the village elders – that will not be easy. Some of them are still at the festival in Jerusalem. Others are out tending to their land.'

Parmenion raised his hand to cut the priest off. 'Just find as many as possible. We'll wait in the square. But be quick about it.'

'I'll do what I can.' The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. 'But tell me, for what purpose do you want them?'

'You'll see,' Parmenion replied curtly. 'Now fetch them.'

The priest stared at him for a moment before he nodded, closed the door of the synagogue behind him, and made his way into one of the alleys leading off the square. Once he was out of sight Parmenion relaxed. He sat down on the edge of a stone trough and took a drink from his canteen. After a moment Cato followed suit and they sat and watched as the soldiers slumped down in whatever shade they could find and talked quietly. A few of the more curious were having a look round the square but when one of them reached for the synagogue door Parmenion snapped at him, 'Not in there, Canthus! Keep away from the building.'

The man saluted and backed off at once.

'What's so special about their place of worship?' Cato asked.

'Nothing, to our eyes. Just a square meeting room. A few old scrolls in a box and that's it. But to them?' Parmenion shook his head. 'You have no idea how touchy they can be. I've seen more than one riot kick off when one of our lads has overstepped the mark.' He suddenly looked hard at Cato. 'No offence meant, but you've not been here long enough to know the ropes. So watch what you say and do around the locals.'

'I will.'

A short while later the priest returned with a small crowd of villagers, mostly older men, almost all of them wearing long smocks and skullcaps. They glanced round nervously at the soldiers filling the square in front of the synagogue as they followed their priest towards the two Roman officers. Parmenion eyed them coldly, and muttered to Cato, 'I'll talk.You watch, listen and learn.'

The village elders and Parmenion exchanged a brief bow of the head and then Parmenion addressed the priest. 'I need to talk to them somewhere cooler. Where can we go?'

'Not in our synagogue.'

'I assumed that,' Parmenion said shortly. 'So?'

The priest gestured towards one of the alleys. 'Our threshing room will do. Come with me.'

'All right.' Parmenion turned to Cato and spoke softly. 'Get two sections and follow me.'

The younger officer nodded, and as Parmenion went off, surrounded by the local people, Cato felt a twinge of anxiety for the man. Even though he had implied that the villagers were quite submissive, it still seemed risky to go with them alone. He shrugged the feeling off. Parmenion knew these people well enough to know how far he could trust them. Calling on the nearest men, Cato formed them up, and marched quickly to catch up with Parmenion and the village elders who were just disappearing into one of the alleys. Cato found the threshing room a short distance down the alley, where a long sheltered space lined the thoroughfare. Inside, the village elders were sitting on the ground facing Centurion Parmenion, who glanced round as Cato and the soldiers arrived on the scene.

'Form them up along the side there.'

Once the men were in place Parmenion began to address the locals in Greek. Without any kind of preamble he gave notice of Prefect Scrofa's threat to punish any person who offered any aid or shelter to Bannus and his brigands. The locals listened with sullen expressions as some whispered a translation in Aramaic to those that had little or no Greek.They listened calmly, having often heard such threats from Roman officials, and before them the representatives of Herod Agrippa. As ever, they were caught between the rapacious forces of authority on the one hand, and on the other their instinctive loyalty to the outlaws who tended to be from the same peasant stock as themselves.

Parmenion concluded by reminding them that Rome expected them not only to withhold aid from the brigands, but also to actively help in locating and destroying Bannus and his men. Anything less would be considered proof of abetting the criminals and the punishment would be swift and severe. Parmenion paused, and drew a breath before he continued with the most contentious aspect of his orders.

'In order to ensure your co-operation in these matters Centurion Scrofa has instructed me to take five hostages from your village.' He quickly indicated some men sitting nearest to Cato and the soldiers. 'They'll do. We'll take them. Put them under guard.'

As soon as Parmenion's words had been spoken a chorus of angry voices filled the threshing room and several of the locals jumped to their feet and approached him, shouting into his face. Cato's hand slipped down to the handle of his sword, but the veteran officer stood his ground, and suddenly swept his arms open, causing the nearest villagers to cringe back.

'That will do!' he bellowed.'I will have quiet in here!'

The villagers subsided, grudgingly, and the priest spoke up for them. He indicated the five hostages. 'You cannot take these men.'

'I can, and I will. I have my orders. They will be well treated, and returned safely the moment Bannus is destroyed.'

'But that could take many days, months!'

'Perhaps. But if you co-operate we can finish Bannus off sooner rather than later.'

'But we know nothing of Bannus!' the priest protested, struggling to contain his rage.'You cannot hold our people in this manner. We'll protest to the procurator.'

'You can do what you like, but those men are coming with me.'

'Who will run their businesses and tend their crops while they are gone?'

'That's your problem, priest, not mine.' Parmenion turned to Cato. 'Get 'em on their feet. We're heading back to the column.'

The five men were pinioned between two lines of soldiers as they headed back to the square.The priest and the other village elders bustled after the Roman troops, shouting and gesticulating angrily. Parmenion ignored them, and Cato tried to follow his lead, facing straight ahead as the other soldiers tramped along at his back. When they emerged into the square the soldiers were already looking their way, to see what the shouting was about. Parmenion directed his men to take the prisoners over to where the groom was holding his horse and Cato's. The priest hurried alongside, still protesting that the men's families would be ruined in their absence. His words had no effect and Parmenion ignored him as he bellowed orders for his officers to get the column ready to move.

The priest suddenly stopped shouting and stared past Parmenion, towards the synagogue, and let out a shrill cry of outrage as he started to run across the square. Cato, startled, turned to look and saw that the door to the synagogue was open, and that men were moving in the gloomy interior.

'Shit.' Parmenion slammed his fist against his thigh. 'The fools!'

He ran after the priest, and Cato followed. Inside was a square space with sloped stone seating and a large pillar in each corner to support the dome above. At the far end was a wooden cupboard, round which several soldiers had clustered. The doors of the cupboard were open and the men were rifling through the scrolls stacked inside, pulling them out and dropping them on the flagstones as they searched for anything of value.

'Get away from there!' Parmenion shouted. But it was too late. The priest flew across the floor, and snatched a scroll from the hand of the man closest to the cupboard. Then he screamed in rage and slapped the soldier, who Cato realised was the same man who had approached the synagogue earlier. Before Parmenion or Cato could react, Canthus slammed his fist into the priest's face, knocking him down, and then scooped up the scroll, and let it spool out over the floor. Looking down at the priest, he spat and tore the scroll in half.

'That's enough!' Parmenion ran over to the group and thrust the soldier aside.'You bloody fool! You don't know what you've done!'

The soldier stared back at his superior and then indicated the priest. 'Sir, you saw him! The bastard slapped me.'

'Nothing compared to what I'll do to you. Get out of here and form up. All of you!'

The men scrambled away. On the ground the priest sat up, rubbing his jaw, then froze as his eyes beheld the torn scroll. He uttered a terrible shriek and clawed his way across to the scroll and picked it up with a look of horror. Then he raced for the door and cried out to the rest of the village.

'We've got problems,' Parmenion said quietly. 'We have to get away from here, as soon as possible. Come on!'

The two officers hurried to the door. Outside the auxiliaries had paused to look round at the priest who was shrieking hysterically. Parmenion glowered at them. 'What the hell are you waiting for? I gave orders to form up!'

The men started guiltily and moved back towards their standards, hurriedly picking up their packs and equipment, while the priest continued to cry out. The village elders looked inside the synagogue and then turned back, aghast, and joined in the wailing. Cato turned to Parmenion. 'Should I shut them up?'

'No.We've already done enough damage. Let's just get out of here.'

Already more villagers were entering the square, hurrying towards the synagogue with anguished expressions that quickly turned to anger as they started shouting at the Roman soldiers.

'Get the men moving!' Parmenion roared out.

But it was already too late. The routes into the square began to fill with villagers, men, women and children, rushing in from the alleys. The soldiers closed ranks, and raised their shields as they eyed the growing crowd anxiously. Then the first of them lowered his pack and drew his sword. More followed suit and stood ready to move into action the moment the order was given, or the crowd began to edge too close.There was a blur and Cato turned to see a rock arc over the front of the crowd towards the Roman line. At the last moment one of the auxiliaries ducked and threw his shield up and the rock clattered harmlessly to one side.

Centurion Parmenion stepped back towards his men and drew his sword. Cato felt a sick feeling turn his guts to ice. The situation was rushing out of control. Unless some kind of order was quickly restored the square would be awash with blood in moments. He saw the priest close by and strode over to him.

'Tell them to disperse!' He gestured frantically towards the crowd.'You have to get them out of the square, or the soldiers will charge.'

The priest stared at him defiantly, and for an instant Cato feared that he too was caught up in the wild rage of the moment. Then the man looked round at his people and seemed to realise the danger. He advanced to stand beside Cato, then flung his arms up and waved wildly as he shouted at the villagers. The grim-faced soldiers looked on while the crowd slowly quietened, until there was a tense hush hanging over both sides. Cato spoke quietly to the priest.

'Tell them to leave the square. Tell them to go home, or the soldiers will charge.'

The priest nodded and called out to the people. At once they stirred angrily and several voices shouted back, and the crowd roared in support. Again the priest quietened them, and then one of the men ran forward, snatched up the torn scroll and waved the pieces in the face of the priest. Then he turned to glare at Cato and spat on the ground, just in front of the centurion's boots. Cato forced himself to stand still and show no reaction. He stared back at the man for a moment and then looked at the priest.

'What does he want?'

'What they all want.The man who did this,' the priest replied. 'The man who profaned the scriptures.'

'Impossible.' Cato had no doubt what the mob would do to him.

'What's going on?' Parmenion growled, approaching to stand beside Cato.

'They want the soldier who tore up their sacred book.'

Parmenion smiled grimly. 'Is that all?'

'No,' the priest cut in. 'Some of them are calling for the hostages to be released.' He glanced back at the crowd before he addressed the two officers again. 'They will accept nothing less.'

'We're keeping the hostages,' Parmenion said firmly. 'And our man. He will be disciplined for his actions when we return to the fort.You have my word on it.'

The priest shook his head and gestured to the mob. 'I don't think they'd accept the word of a Roman.'

'I don't care. We're not giving anyone up. Now, you'd better persuade them to move, before my men do.'

The priest eyed the Roman officer shrewdly before he replied. 'They will not let you leave, unless you hand your soldier over.'

'We'll see about that,' Parmenion growled.

Cato coughed and gestured casually over the crowd. 'Look up there.'

Parmenion's gaze flickered to the roofs of the buildings surrounding the square, where more of the villagers were gazing down at the Romans. Several, he noted, were carrying slings – the hunting weapon of the Judaean peasant.

'Looks like we're going to have to fight our way out,' Cato said quietly.

'Not if you hand the man over.' The priest spoke urgently, with a discreet nod towards his people. 'That's what they want. Then you can go. With the hostages.'

'And let our man be torn to pieces?' Cato shook his head.

'It's his life, Roman, or the lives of hundreds of my people and your men.'

Cato could see no way out of the impasse. So there would be a fight. He swallowed nervously and felt his heart beat quicken.

'Shit,' Parmenion hissed through clenched teeth. 'We have to give the man up.'

Cato turned to him in astonishment. 'You're not serious.You can't be.'

'We're caught in the heart of the village, Cato. I've seen it before when I was in Jerusalem. There was a riot. We chased them into the old city and they hit us from all sides and above. We lost scores of men.'

'You can't do it,' Cato said desperately.

'I have to. As the priest says, it's one life weighed against many.'

'No! All he did was tear up a scroll. That's all.'

'Not to him, and the rest of them.' Parmenion jerked his thumb at the mob. 'If we don't hand the man over, we're going to have to fight our way out of here, and all the way back to the fort. And once word of this gets out you can count on every village in the area rising up. Bannus will have an army in a few days. It's that, or hand the man over.'

The priest nodded and Cato opened his mouth to protest. But the veteran was right and there was nothing more he could do to save Canthus without provoking a bloodbath. He nodded his assent. 'Very well, then.'

Parmenion turned towards his men. 'Canthus! Step forward!'

There was a short pause, then a man shuffled through the line of oval shields. He stepped hesitantly towards the two centurions and the priest, who eyed him with bitter hostility, and stood to attention.

'Sir!'

'You're being relieved of duties, soldier. Disarm.'

'Sir?' Canthus looked confused.

'Lower your shield and hand me your sword. Now,' Parmenion added harshly.

After a instant's hesitation, Canthus leaned over and placed his shield on the ground. Then he drew his sword and handed it, pommel first, to his superior. Parmenion tucked the blade under his arm and tapped his vine cane on the ground. 'Now stand to attention! Don't move until I give the order.'

Canthus drew himself up and stared straight ahead, still unsure of what was happening to him, and Cato felt sick with pity over the man's fate. Then Parmenion turned to Cato.

'Get the column moving. Out of the village as quick as you can. I'll follow on.'

Cato nodded, keen to be as far from this place as he could be. He paced over to his horse, slid awkwardly on to its back and gave the order for the column to move out of the square. At first the crowd stood firm, blocking the route by which the Romans had come. The horsemen at the head of the column walked their beasts steadily towards the silent villagers, and then the priest shouted out to them and with dark expressions they shuffled aside and let the head of the column through. Cato waited for the last of the mounted men to pass and then eased his horse into position ahead of the standard carried at the head of the infantry.

'What's going on with Canthus?' a voice cried out.

Cato swung round and shouted, 'Silence! Optio, take the name of the next man to utter a word. He'll be flogged the moment we return to the fort!'

The men trudged on, casting wary glances at the villagers massing on either side of them. But the crowd just stared back, glowering with hatred, and made no threatening moves as the Romans passed. Once he was out of the square Cato tried not to look up at the figures looming above him on either side of the narrow street. Parmenion had been right. If there had been a confrontation then the Romans would have been caught like rats in a trap, showered with missiles and unable to strike back. Cato shuddered at the thought and then stiffened his back and stared straight ahead, refusing to appear intimidated.

When the column had cleared the village Cato eased his mount to the side of the track and called over the centurion in command of the infantry. 'Get 'em up that track there. I'll wait for Parmenion.'

'Yes, sir.'

As the men marched away Cato sat in the saddle and gazed back at the village.The crowd was no longer silent; an angry chorus of shouts sounded from its heart and Cato willed the veteran to hurry up and quit the place. Just when Cato had gripped his reins and was about to ride back to find him there was the dull thrumming of hooves and Parmenion came trotting out of the alley. A vest of mail armour hung over his saddle horn and a shield hung from straps tied to his belt. His face was set in a grim expression and he barely acknowledged Cato as he rode by and continued towards the column, a short distance off. Cato turned his horse and followed. When they reached the brow of the small hill that Cato had indicated to the centurion the two officers halted and turned to stare down into the centre of the village.

At first all that Cato could see was a dense mass of dark heads and skullcaps, all facing the synagogue expectantly. 'What did they do to Canthus?' he asked quietly.

'I didn't wait to find out. The priest and some of his men took him as I rode off.' Parmenion glanced down. 'He begged me not to leave him.'

Cato did not know what to say.

A fresh roar rose from the village. A small group of men had emerged on the roof of the synagogue, all but one of them clad in the flowing shirts of the local people. Writhing in their midst was a man in the red tunic of a Roman soldier.

'That's Canthus!' someone called out, and the nearest soldiers glanced back over their shoulders.

'Silence there!' Parmenion bellowed. 'Mouths shut, eyes front and keep marching!'

There was a thin scream in the distance and a fresh roar from the crowd. Cato looked back and saw that Canthus had his arms pinioned tightly behind him. Someone had wrenched the tunic over his head and he stood naked above the crowd. Another man bent down to pick something up, and as he rose to his feet the sun glinted brilliantly off a curved blade. A reaping tool, Cato realised. As he and Parmenion watched, the man swung the blade into the Roman soldier's side, and then wrenched it across his stomach in a sweeping movement. Blood and intestines burst out from Canthus's body and spilled down the front of the synagogue, leaving a bright red smear on the white plaster wall. The crowd let out a shrill cry of delight that echoed up the slope and Cato felt the bile rise in the back of his throat.

'Come on,' Parmenion said huskily. 'We've seen enough. Let's go.We need to reach the next village before nightfall.'

'The next village?' Cato shook his head. 'After that? Surely we'd better get back to the fort and report to Scrofa.'

'Why? Because of Canthus? The fool should have known better.We still have our orders to carry out, Cato.' Parmenion pulled his reins harshly, turning his horse away from the scene below. 'Maybe next time, our men will have learned a lesson.'

07 The Eagle In the Sand


CHAPTER FOURTEEN | The Eagle In the Sand | CHAPTER SIXTEEN



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