We've got ourselves into a right nasty situation here,' Macro mused, when Cato had finished telling him about the patrol through the local villages. Parmenion had taken hostages from every one of them, including Heshaba, and now forty men were languishing in a store shed, fed and watered, but forced to stay inside. In the days that followed the incident at Beth Mashon Parmenion had made no mention of the fate of Canthus and curtly rebuffed any attempt by Cato to raise the matter.The death of their comrade had soured the rest of the men and their grim mood was reflected in their treatment of the other villagers they encountered, with the result that, far from subduing the locals, Scrofa's measures had made them hate Rome even more. Cato had little doubt that the ranks of Bannus' band of brigands would be swelled in coming days by young men from the villages visited by Parmenion.
Cato had stripped down to his loincloth and was busy washing the dust and grime from his skin. He was as sombre as Macro had ever seen him. Macro leaned back on his bed and gazed at the ceiling. 'I don't see how we can do any good here, Cato. Scrofa's got most of the officers involved in his protection scam; the rest of 'em are trying not to notice and losing heart. The men are pissed off that they aren't getting a share of the spoils, and now it seems that Scrofa is pushing the locals towards open revolt. If that happens then the Second Illyrian is going to land right in the shit, at least while Scrofa is in command, which won't be for much longer, I hope. We should hear from the procurator any day now, confirming my appointment.'
'Assuming the message got through to Caesarea,' Cato said quietly.
'What do you mean?'
'If the officer tasked with carrying the message was one of those on the take, I suspect he would be in no hurry to see Scrofa replaced. It would be an easy thing to do to lose the message.'
'He wouldn't dare.'
'We'll see. And what if the message was lost in an ambush? Or what if the message got through to the procurator, but the orders were lost on the return journey?'
Macro propped himself up on one elbow and stared at Cato. 'Cheery little devil, aren't you?'
'Just pointing out the possibilities.' Cato shrugged, and dabbed at his skin with a woollen cloth. 'Besides, you've hardly mentioned half our problems.'
'Do, please, enlighten me. I could do with some light relief.'
'All right.' Cato sat down on the couch opposite Macro's and sat forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. 'As you say – the cohort's in poor shape. The locals are after our blood. If Longinus really is trying to provoke a revolt then he's almost got what he's after. And if it happens then we'll be facing Bannus with an enlarged force, armed to the teeth, with little prospect of receiving any reinforcements, or even the despatch of a relief column to help us reach safety. My main worry is Bannus. At the moment he is a brigand chief, but if he manages to raise a force large enough to take us on, then there's every chance that he will try to present himself to the Judaeans as the mashiah. Only the latest in a long line of claimants to the title, of course. But if he has an army of thousands, equipped with Parthian armour and weapons, then he's going to look very credible to his people. If the rising spreads beyond this area, the whole of Judaea could join in the revolt.'
'Oh, sure!' Macro laughed. 'Come now, Cato, that's just not going to happen.'
'They wouldn't stand a chance. A bunch of farmers and sheep herders up against professional soldiers? Auxiliary troops admittedly, but still good enough to scare a bunch of peasants back into line. Even if they were thinking of rebelling, they'd know that the Syrian legions were on their doorstep. No amount of rebels would be a match for the legions. As far as the local people are concerned, the moment they get stroppy the legions are going to jump on them and kick them into the dust.'
'Yes,' Cato conceded. 'I'm sure they believe that…'
'I'm not sure.' Cato frowned.'Ever since we arrived in the province, I've had the feeling that this place is like a tinderbox. One spark could set it off, and Judaea will go up in flames. If Narcissus' suspicions about Longinus turn out to be well founded, then there won't be any help coming from Syria.'
'Yes. But Bannus and his boys don't know that.'
'Don't they?' Cato looked up. 'I wonder.'
Macro snorted. 'What are you suggesting now? That Longinus has cut a deal with some hairy-arsed barbarian bandit hiding out in the hills? Don't you think that's a bit far-fetched?'
'Not really.' Cato stared back wearily. 'If Bannus knows that Longinus will refuse to march, then he can launch his revolt in the knowledge that he will only be opposed by auxiliary troops. That's quite an incentive to action. And Longinus gets his revolt, and justifies his request for reinforcements. Both men get what they want. Coincidence? I think not.'
Macro was silent for a moment. 'A Roman general bargaining with a common bandit… that's quite a nasty thought.'
'No. Just straightforward politics.'
'But how would Longinus have got in touch with Bannus?'
'He must have some kind of intermediary. A dangerous job to be sure, but at the right price I'm sure Longinus could have found someone to approach Bannus and make him aware of the Governor's offer not to intervene. All that would remain to be done would be to provoke the locals into rebellion, and Scrofa and Postumus have been doing their best to fan the flames of discontent.'
'Fan the flames of discontent?' Macro smiled. 'You've not been writing poetry on the sly, have you?'
'Just a figure of speech. Be serious, Macro.' Cato concentrated again before continuing. 'The thing is, I'm not sure that Longinus is fully aware of what he is unleashing. It seems that Bannus has also been in contact with the Parthians. So far I imagine they've promised him some weapons for his men. Of course, they'd never own up to it. Anything they can do to undermine Roman power in the east is all part of the great game as far as they are concerned. However, if they got wind of an arrangement between Bannus and Longinus then they'd instantly see the chance to settle the score with Rome once and for all.The moment Longinus leaves Syria with the eastern legions at his back, Parthia would have a free hand in the region. If they moved quickly enough they could overrun Syria, Armenia, Judaea, Nabataea, and maybe even Egypt.' Cato's eyes widened as the implications of what he had said hit home. 'Egypt! If they took that then they'd have a stranglehold on the grain that feeds Rome.They could force peace on Rome on almost any terms they wanted.'
'Hold on there!' Macro raised his hand. 'You're jumping at shadows. Remember, Cato, you're just outlining possibilities.' He smiled. 'There's still a long way to go before the situation represents any serious threat to Rome.'
Cato couldn't help smiling at the way his thoughts had run away with him. Nevertheless, there was a great deal at stake, and not much time to try to do something about it. Until confirmation of Macro's command of the Second Illyrian came through there was little action that the two officers could take except observing events as they unfolded. 'All right then, I'll keep my mind focused on the here and now.'
'For the moment, that would be best.'
Cato nodded, and then reached for a spare linen tunic and pulled it over his head. 'What about you? How did your patrol go with Postumus?'
'Aside from a bit of a punch-up with some desert raiders, I was let in on the little arrangement that Scrofa and most of his officers are operating with the caravans from Nabataea. It's a protection racket, pure and simple. They blackmail the caravan owners into making a payment or let the desert raiders carve them up and make off with their goods. Seems that almost everyone out here is doing business with the enemy. Postumus was kind enough to offer to cut me into the deal. Needless to say I politely declined, tempting as it was.'
'Anyway, I've had an idea about how we can put an end to their arrangement. But I have to take command here first, and I'll need to get in touch with some people in Petra.'
Cato looked at him curiously.'Hardly been here a few days and you're already in with the locals. I'm impressed.'
'So you should be.' Macro looked pleased with himself. 'Best idea I've had in ages, and I can't wait to see the raiders' faces when they try it on with the next caravan to pass through our turf.'
Macro carried on smiling and Cato finally gave in.'All right. I'm intrigued. Now would you care to explain your brilliant plan?'
There was a loud knock at the door, and Cato shook his head in frustration as he called out, 'Come in!'
The door swung open and one of Scrofa's clerks stepped inside, stiffened his back and saluted.'The prefect sends his compliments, and requires you at headquarters immediately.'
Cato and Macro exchanged a look before the latter responded. 'All right. We're coming. Soon as Centurion Cato has finished dressing.'
'Sir?' The clerk frowned. 'I was only instructed to summon you.'
'Well now you have. And I'll deal with it from here. Now go.'
'Yes, sir.'The clerk saluted and turned to leave.
Cato turned to Macro. 'What's up?'
'I imagine Scrofa wants to resolve a confrontation I had with Centurion Postumus while we were out on patrol.'
Cato did not hide his exasperation. 'Oh, fine. Another fight?'
'Kind of. Postumus was pretty keen to even the score once we got back to the fort. Looks like he's trying to do it through official channels. Anyway, I want you there as a witness.'
Prefect Scrofa was not alone when Macro and Cato were shown into his office in the headquarters building. Postumus was standing behind and to one side of his commanding officer.They turned to look at the new arrivals.
'Not before time,' Scrofa said harshly. 'And what is Centurion Cato doing here? I didn't send for him.'
'He's here on my say-so,' Macro responded. 'And we came as soon as we got your message.'
Scrofa stared at him for a moment. 'While I am prefect of the Second Illyrian, I am the senior officer in this fort. Therefore you will defer to me, Centurion Macro.'
'Fair enough, sir.' Macro bowed his head. 'While you are the prefect, that is.'
Scrofa clamped his lips together for a moment to bite back on the flash of rage Macro's reply had prompted. Then he drew a deep breath and continued. 'Very well. I think we understand each other well enough. But I wouldn't feel too smug about replacing me if I were you. Not for a while yet.'
Centurion Postumus coughed. 'Sir, I am sure Centurion Macro is perfectly aware of the correct protocol in this situation. If we might move on to more important issues?'
'What?' Scrofa turned irritably to look up at his subordinate. 'Oh, very well then.' He turned back to Macro and composed himself before continuing in a more formal tone. 'Centurion Postumus has filed an official complaint about your conduct in relation to an event which occurred while you were on patrol.'
Macro could not help smiling briefly at the prefect's pompous manner and ponderous choice of words.
'What's so amusing, Centurion?'
'Well, then, it seems that you struck Centurion Postumus in front of his men, and then seized control of his auxiliaries and ordered them to attack some Arabs who were obstructing the progress of a caravan.'
'Obstructing the progress…' Macro had to laugh. 'That's a fine use of words, Centurion Postumus. If you mean that I took command of your men to rescue the caravan from desert raiders, because you refused to, then yes I agree with your allegation.'
Postumus tilted his chin up as he replied. 'Whatever the words, the fact of the matter is that I was the lawful commander of those men, and therefore you illegally usurped my authority.'
'Because you were failing in your lawful duty.' Macro stabbed a finger at him. 'You would have sat on your arse and let those raiders completely destroy the caravan.'
'That is immaterial to the charge I'm bringing against you.'
'Immaterial?' Macro scoffed. 'It is the reason why I was forced to take command.'
'What about striking a fellow officer?' Scrofa interrupted, leaning forward across his desk. 'What about that, eh? Do you deny it?'
'No. And I'd do the same again,' Macro snapped back. 'And with good cause. Now, if you really want to try to make something of this, I will be happy to submit to a proper military tribunal, back in Rome. It's my right to insist on that, as you well know. So then, Prefect, do you wish to continue with this foolishness?'
Scrofa glared back at him for a moment and then eased himself back into his chair and forced a smile. 'I don't think it is really necessary, Centurion Macro. I merely wanted you to be aware of the disciplinary charges that could be brought against you. Rightly or wrongly, you have committed a serious breach of the military code and it is within my powers to bring you before a military tribunal. I could, if I wanted, carry that out in a summary manner, here in this fort.'
'You could,' Macro conceded. 'But I could equally insist on my right to appeal to the Emperor for a hearing back in Rome. And I think we both know how that might turn out, given the way you are running things here.'
It was an impasse, and all the men in the office knew it. For a while no one spoke, until Scrofa continued in the same placating manner.
'There is no need for that, Centurion. Let's just agree that you have acted unacceptably, and that you will give me your word not to commit any further such breaches of the military code. After all, we would not wish you to assume command of this cohort with such an unpleasant disagreement hanging in the air, would we?' He smiled. 'Now then, I can understand that you might see things a little differently from us. You and Centurion Cato have only just arrived in the province and haven't yet acclimatised to the way things are done here. I think Centurion Postumus might accept that he was a trifle brusque in the manner in which he introduced you to the little arrangement we have concerning the caravans that pass through the territory policed by the Second Illyrian.'
'That's putting it mildly, sir.'
Scrofa laughed lightly, and then licked his lips. 'I can assure you that there is nothing unusual about the situation. It's common practice amongst units stationed on this frontier.'
'That's not my understanding, sir,' Cato intervened. 'We were told that this, er, arrangement of yours has only been running since Centurion Postumus arrived at the fort.'
'It must have lapsed,' Postumus explained. 'I merely resurrected it, for the benefit of the officers of the cohort.'
'Naturally.' Macro smiled. 'Very altruistic of you, Centurion Postumus.'
'If I can serve our interests as well as the Emperor's, then I can see no harm in the situation.'
'I doubt the Nabataean caravan cartels see it like that.'
Postumus shrugged. 'They go along with it.'
'They have no choice in the matter,' Macro pointed out. 'They pay up, or you leave them to the mercy of the desert raiders. Somehow, I doubt that is helping cement good relations between the Nabataean kingdom and Rome. If I were a suspicious man I might well think that you were deliberately undermining our relationship with Nabataea, as you are undermining the stability of the territory around this fort.'
A look of alarm flitted across the prefect's face and he glanced quickly to his subordinate for reassurance before he responded. 'What are you implying, Centurion Macro?'
'I'm simply saying that an outsider might think that you are deliberately trying to undermine the security of this region.'
Cato, standing at Macro's shoulder, winced. His friend was in danger of exposing the true nature of their mission to the area. He shuffled on his feet, and gently tapped Macro's heel with the toe of his boot. Macro shot a withering glance at him, and then turned back to the prefect as Scrofa gave a false laugh.
'And what possible reason could I have for doing that?'
'We'll see. Soon enough,' Macro responded quietly. 'Once I assume command here, I'll make damn sure that I expose your games, and then maybe I'll dispense a little summary justice of my own.'
'Ah, that reminds me.' Scrofa leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together and interlaced his fingers. 'Perhaps I should have mentioned it earlier. A message from Caesarea arrived at the fort shortly before this meeting. That guide of yours, Symeon, brought it. Apparently the procurator decided that your request for confirmation of the appointment is outside his jurisdiction. So he's referred the matter to the Governor of Syria. I'm afraid that means it'll be a while yet before we receive any news. In the meantime, I'm obliged to remain in command of the cohort.' He feigned an apologetic expression. 'I assure you that I regret the delay as much as you do. But I am confident that Cassius Longinus will give the matter his immediate attention.'
'I'm sure he will,' Macro murmured. 'Where is Symeon? I want to speak to him.'
'I'm keeping him on the strength – we can use a good guide. But there's no need for you to see him. Not for a while at least. Meanwhile, I'm confining you two to your quarters.'
'Confining us to quarters?You mean you're placing us under arrest?'
'Not yet. But I will do if you give me any further trouble. Centurion Postumus will arrange for a guard to be set up outside your quarters.'
Macro turned to Cato and smiled grimly.'I came here to become prefect of the cohort. Now it seems I'm to be a prisoner of the cohort instead.'
'You're dismissed,' Scrofa concluded curtly. 'Postumus, see to it that they are escorted to their quarters and kept there.'
Postumus smirked. 'With pleasure, sir.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand