The main hall in the headquarters building was filled with all the officers who could be spared from their duties. Every other centurion, decurion, optio and standard bearer of the Second Illyrian cohort was present. The senior officers occupied the chairs and benches in the centre of the floor, while the rest crowded along the sides of the room. The men spoke in muted tones and from the doorway Cato noted their anxious expressions. Barely an hour had passed since he and Macro had presented the imperial authority to Scrofa and removed him from command. Since then all sorts of rumours had swept round the fort as the officers were summoned to headquarters. Cato smiled. They would find out exactly what had happened soon enough. The question was, would they accept it? Scrofa and Postumus had been conducted to a cell in the basement of the building and placed under a reliable section of men selected by Centurion Parmenion. They were not going to be allowed to make any case against the new commander, and they were not going to be given access to any of the officers or men of the cohort. Macro had been quite firm about that when he had given Parmenion his orders.
'What's the mood like?' Macro asked quietly from behind him. Cato turned and saw his friend a few paces down the corridor, out of sight of any of the men in the hall. Macro held the imperial authority in his hand, rolled up, and was tapping it against his thigh.
Cato raised his hand to cover his mouth and muttered back, 'Curious rather than disgruntled. I doubt there will be any effective opposition to the takeover.'
'Right.' Macro shrugged his shoulders and drew a deep breath. 'Better get it over with. You can announce me.'
Cato stepped inside the room and stood to attention as he called out, 'Commanding officer present!'
At once every tongue was stilled and nail-soled boots scraped over the flagstones as the officers rose to their feet and stood with their backs as straight as javelin shafts. When all was still and silent Macro strode into the hall and marched to the raised dais at the end of the hall from where the cohort's commander habitually addressed his men. He noted the surprised expressions in some of the faces looking towards him and fought the urge to smile, and thus betray the nervousness which had seized him. The dryness in his mouth and the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach were new sensations to him, and Macro was shocked to realise that he was afraid. This was worse than facing a horde of barbarians armed to the teeth and screaming for his blood. He had grown used to commanding a century of legionaries, or a scratch force of native levies, but these men, these officers, were hardened professionals like himself and Cato, and they would know the standard to judge him by.
He swallowed, cleared his throat and began. 'At ease!'
The sound echoed through the hall, as loud as if it had been bellowed across a parade-ground. But the men instantly relaxed their posture and the senior officers resumed their seats. Then all of them looked to him expectantly.
'Right then, I know there's been some wild speculation so I'll make the situation clear at the outset. Gaius Scrofa has been removed from command of the cohort. Lucius Postumus is no longer centurion and adjutant. That post has been filled by Centurion Cato, while I am now the prefect. This action has been taken according to the power conferred on me by Emperor Claudius.' Macro raised the document, and unrolled it, holding it up so that all the men gathered in the hall could clearly see the imperial seal fixed to the bottom of the parchment. 'This authority is without limit. Any doubters are welcome to have a look at it once the briefing is over.'
Macro lowered the scroll to the table and stared at his officers for a moment before continuing. 'As your new commander, I'd like to begin by saying that this cohort is one of the most piss-poor excuses for a unit that I have ever come across.'
Cato winced. Macro had only just taken command of the Second Illyrian and already he was going all out to offend the very men he needed to win over.
'That's right.' Macro glared at them.'Piss-poor is what I said. And the reason for it has very little to do with all the men out there. They're as good as I could expect a cohort to be, posted out here at the arse-end of the Empire. But you lot?' Macro shook his head. 'You're supposed to lead by example. And what a fine bloody example you've been setting. Half of you have been busy toadying up to Scrofa, so you could take your cut of the racket he was running. The rest of you are little better. Take Centurion Parmenion there. He knew what was going on. What did he do about it? Nothing. Just sat on his arse and pretended to ignore it.'
Cato's gaze flickered towards the old officer and he saw Parmenion lower his head and stare at the ground between his boots.
'Well then, gentlemen,' Macro continued, crossing his arms as he glared at them like a disappointed school-teacher. 'Things are going to change here at Bushir. I'll tell you why. It has nothing to do with the corrupt little scams you were so happy to take part in, though we'll be dealing with that soon enough, as you'll see. No, the reason why things must change is that we are on the verge of witnessing our very own native uprising. All thanks to the former prefect's winning ways with the local villagers, and your willingness to go along with him. As we sit here, Bannus is busy building up a formidable band of followers. What you may not know is that, in all likelihood, he has cut a deal with our Parthian friends who have promised to arm his men.'
This information caused a ripple of anxious murmurs to flow through the officers.
'Quiet!' Macro shouted. 'I did not give you permission to talk.'
The men instantly stilled their tongues and Macro nodded with satisfaction. He was beginning to enjoy this feeling of command. 'That's more like it. So, now I think you can see the scale of the challenge that faces us. It's up to the Second Illyrian to find and destroy Bannus and his brigands, before they grow strong enough to come and destroy us. At the same time, I'll brook no more harsh treatment of the local people.We've already done enough to drive them into Bannus' arms. It's probably too late to win them back on to our side, so we're not going to try. What we will not do is provoke them any further. From now on any man, or officer, who wades into the locals will share the fate of trooper Canthus.You all know what happened to him. Now you know what will happen to any others who follow his example. Make sure your men are aware of that. I'll accept no excuses.We cannot afford to act as recruiting officers for Bannus.'
There were some brief disapproving murmurs and some officers exchanged disgruntled looks, until they realised that the new prefect was glaring at them and fell silent again.
'I am aware that none of what I have said so far is likely to have gone down well with you, gentlemen. That's just tough on all of us.The question is, what are we going to do about it? For my part, I'm going to let you start with a clean slate. There will be no further mention of your corruption or dereliction of duty. So you all have a chance to prove yourselves worthy. You didn't win promotion to the rank you hold today by taking bribes, so all of you must have been good soldiers at one time. That time has come again. In the next few days you're all going to do some hard soldiering.Your men will need the best from you and I will not hesitate to break any slackers back to the ranks.You will all lead by example.You will all lead from the front.' He paused to make sure that they had got the point. 'Right, well, that's it.You know what I require from you.There's plenty of work to do, and you'll receive your orders as soon as possible. One last thing. I noticed that the standard of the Second Illyrian carries no awards. That's going to change. I have never left a unit without adding at least one medallion to its standard.The same applies to this cohort. So let's all do something we can be proud of, eh? Dismiss!'
The officers rose smartly to their feet and stiffened to attention, saluted, and then began to shuffle towards the doors leading from the hall. Macro watched them carefully as they dispersed, pleased with his performance and feeling that he had put some iron back into his new subordinates. As the last of them left the hall Cato came over.
'How did you think that went?' Macro asked.
'Blunt, but to the point.'
Macro frowned. 'I'm trying to kick them into shape, Cato, not win first fucking prize in a rhetoric competition.'
'Oh, in that case, it went rather well.' Cato smiled. 'No, seriously, I think that was just what they needed to hear. I like the touch about the standard. Is that true?'
'No. Load of bollocks. But it's the kind of thing that goes down well with the glory-hunters. And that's just what we'll need if Bannus decides to take the cohort on.'
'I suppose so.' Cato conceded. 'And what exactly are your first orders, sir?'
Macro was a little taken aback by Cato's last word, but realised immediately that it was right that his friend should defer to his new rank of prefect. It reminded him of the days when they had served in the Second Legion in Germany and Britain, when Cato had been his optio, and then a junior centurion in the same cohort. Much had happened since then, and Macro had grown used to treating the younger officer as an equal in most respects, but now the situation had changed and the professional in him accepted it as a necessity.
'Has Symeon left for Petra yet?'
'Just before the briefing.'
'Did you make quite sure he understood exactly what I wanted him to do?'
'Good.' Macro nodded.'Right then, it's time we made preparations for dealing with Bannus, and those desert raiders.'
The new prefect of the Second Illyrian made his presence felt at once. Barracks inspections were made at dawn and dusk and every infringement of rules punished. The men were drilled for twice as long as they had been before, and after each century had completed the regulation manoeuvres it was quick-marched round the fort until noon, when at last the men were permitted to fall out, panting and thirsty in the merciless glare of the sun. The officers quickly recovered their professional edge and worked themselves as hard as their men. There were no further patrols into the surrounding villages. Instead the mounted scouts observed the locals from a discreet distance and concentrated their efforts on searching for signs of Bannus and his men.The geography of the region was such that a large force could hide in the caves of the numerous wadis that cut through the landscape. Their only weakness was a dependence on food and water which they needed to draw from the settlements. Whenever the scouts saw a suspicious-looking party of men arrive at a village they attempted to follow them as they left, but always their prey managed to vanish into the clefts of the mountains that rose up on the east shore of the Dead Sea.
Prefect Macro concentrated his efforts on selecting a detachment for a special task. He needed the pick of the cohort's mounted men, and he needed their riding ability to be matched by their skill with a bow.As in many of the cohorts in the region, there was already a small number of men able to use the powerful compound bow favoured by eastern warriors. These Macro kept practising at the hastily erected target range outside the fort, until they were proficient at a variety of distances.
At the same time the cohort's carpenter had been tasked with designing a saddle frame equipped to carry lightweight burdens which could be jettisoned in an instant. Other men worked hard to create dummy bundles of fabrics to be loaded on to the saddle frames. All was ready by the end of the tenth day after Macro had taken control of the cohort.The same evening a message arrived from Petra. Symeon had done as he had been asked and contacted the merchants whose caravan Macro had saved. They had agreed to meet Macro and his men at the same place as before – the Nabataean way station – at dusk in three days' time.
On the night before Macro and his small force of men left Fort Bushir, he had a final meal with Cato in the dining room of the prefect's quarters. Scrofa, no doubt flush with the money he had extorted from the caravan cartels, had decorated his accommodation lavishly and the walls of the dining room were alive with hunting scenes set in lush green landscapes so utterly different from the barren wilderness stretching out around the fort that it made both men long for the kinder, temperate landscapes of Italy or even Britain.
'Say what you like about Scrofa,' Macro said, as he chewed on a chunk of roast kid, 'at least he knew how to live.'
'So I can see.' Cato was still billeted in the same room at headquarters where he and Macro had been confined. Given the mood of some of the officers it had been felt necessary for Cato to remain at the administrative heart of the cohort and keep watch on their activities. At the same time, he made sure that the two prisoners in the cell did not speak to anyone. Scrofa and Postumus were sent their food, and had their slops bucket emptied, rinsed and returned, and that was all the contact with others that Cato allowed them.
'How is Scrofa coping?' Macro asked.
'Well enough. He's stopped playing the outraged innocent and given up demanding to be set free. What worries me is that the other officers keep asking what is going to happen to the pair of them.'
'Just tell them that those two will be treated fairly and given a proper hearing once we've settled things with Bannus. If that doesn't work then tell them to keep their mouths shut and their noses out of things that don't concern them, unless they want to share the same cell.'
'Do you think they will be given a hearing?'
'Not if Narcissus has anything to do with it.They'll be interrogated to reveal anything they know about Longinus, and then disposed of.You know what Narcissus is like, Cato.'
'I know. But there's no concrete proof that Longinus is plotting anything at the moment. All the evidence we have is pretty weak. In which case Scrofa and Postumus might not be guilty of plotting against the Emperor.'
'Maybe not,' Macro agreed, helping himself to another mouthful of goat. 'But they're certainly guilty of screwing up the situation here on the frontier. Even if we get through this business with Bannus, it's going to take years to mend our relations with the locals. If we ever do.'
Cato nodded thoughtfully, and then replied, 'Perhaps the Emperor should consider abandoning Judaea.'
Macro nearly choked. 'Abandon the province! Why on earth do that?'
'I've seen nothing here that makes me think the Judaeans will ever accept their place in the Empire. They're just too different.'
'Bollocks!' Macro spluttered, and a gobbet of gristle narrowly missed Cato's ear as it sailed over the dining couch. 'Judaea is like any other province. A bit wild and untamed at first, but give it enough time and we'll make them see things our way. They'll embrace the Roman way of life whether they like it or not.'
'You think so? When was Judaea annexed? In the age of Pompey. That's over a hundred years ago. And the Judaeans are still as intractable as ever.They cling to their religious practices as if they were the only things that mattered.'
'The situation could be improved if we could only persuade them to worship our gods, or at least get them to worship our gods alongside theirs,' Macro concluded impatiently.
'Well we won't manage it. So perhaps we should give up the idea of including Judaea in the empire, or we should crush them, destroy their religion and everyone who holds to it.'
'That might do it,' Macro agreed.
Cato stared at him. 'I was being ironic.'
'Ironic? Really?' Macro shook his head and tore off another strip of meat. 'Well I bloody well wasn't. If we're going to make the Empire safe, then we have to make sure that we control this region. Not Parthia. These people will have to accept Roman rule, and like it, or else.'
Cato did not respond. He could see the limitations of Macro's approach all too clearly. As in most provinces the Romans had tried to establish a ruling class to collect tax and administer the law in Judaea. Only this time the common people had seen through those who claimed to be their natural leaders. That's why Judaea had become such a sore in the flesh of the empire.The Judaeans could not be left to run their own affairs on Roman lines because their religion would not permit it. So Rome would have to intervene in order to enforce Roman rule. Unfortunately, she would have to intervene on such a scale that the cost of maintaining Judaea was far in excess of the tax revenue that could be generated, unless the people were squeezed for every coin available, and that in turn would only lead to revolt sooner or later. More troops would be required to restore and then maintain order. More taxes would be required to pay for the enlarged garrisons needed to keep the Judaeans in line, and so the vicious cycle of rebellion and repression would continue on and on. No wonder Centurion Parmenion was so weary and worn out after his years of service in the province.
With a sudden flash of insight Cato realised that this was why Parmenion had been prepared to surrender Canthus to the mob. The soldier had outraged the villagers, and Parmenion had faced a stark choice. If he had tried to defend his man and ignore the offence, or protect him, he would have provoked a riot and simply added to the friction that was remorselessly tearing Judaea to pieces. Canthus' death had served notice on Roman and Judaean alike that no one was above the law. If only such a principle became general policy then some accommodation between Rome and Judaea was possible.
Macro was watching him closely.'Don't go soft on me now, lad. Whatever you may think are the rights and wrongs of the situation, we have a mission to carry through. About the hardest job that's ever landed on our plate. I can't afford to have you thinking about where all this goes. Keep your mind on what we must do. Worry about the other stuff later on, when it's safe to do it.' He chuckled. 'And if you're still alive to do it.'
Cato smiled back. 'I'll try.'
'Good. I'll feel a lot better knowing that you are keeping an eye on things in the fort while I'm gone.'
'Is it really necessary to do this?'
'We need all the friends we can get in this region. If my plan works out, then it should go a long way towards restoring relations with the Nabataeans. That bastard Scrofa has a lot to answer for.'
'Yes,' Cato replied quietly. 'Are you sure you want me to stay here?'
'Absolutely. Most of the officers are good men, but we've seen how easily they can be led from the straight and narrow. There's a few of them I still don't trust. They'll need watching.The last thing we need right now is some kind of counter-coup to restore Scrofa to command. That would be a bloody disaster. So you have to stay here, Cato. Anyway, I'd thought you'd be glad to have a cohort of your own to command.'
'It's a big responsibility, and given the doubtful loyalty of some of the men I'd rather be out in the field.'
'I'm sure you would.' Macro's expression grew serious. 'But not this time, Cato.You'll be in charge here. You know who you can rely on. Parmenion may be getting on, but he's a tough old bird, and straight as they come. If anything happens to me, then you must take care of Bannus. Don't go tear-arsing around the desert looking for revenge, understand?'
'It's all right, sir. I know what needs to be done. Just make sure you don't take any unnecessary risks.'
'Me?' Macro touched his chest with a hurt expression. 'Take risks? I wouldn't know where to begin.'
Dawn was breaking across the desert as the gates of the fort creaked open and Macro led two squadrons of mounted men through the gatehouse. Despite the heat of the day, the nights were cold, and Cato was wrapped in a thick cloak as he stood in the tower above the gate and watched his friend ride out on to the stony track that led away from Fort Bushir, south and east towards the great trade route along which the caravans brought precious goods into the Empire from lands no Roman had ever seen. The first rays of the sun burnished the sand a fiery red and the dust kicked up by the horses' hooves rose up in swirling puffs of orange. Long shadows flickered across the plateau like ripples of dark water and Cato could not help feeling a sense of foreboding as he watched the small column head out to do battle with the desert raiders. When he could no longer distinguish Macro from the rest of the men, Cato turned away and gazed down at the long barrack blocks stretching away from the wall. The fort was his to command, and to his surprise he found that beneath all his concern about his aptitude for his new role, he was secretly delighted to be the acting commander of the Second Illyrian cohort.
07 The Eagle In the Sand