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CHAPTER TWENTY

'Postumus has escaped.'

Cato and Macro were standing to one side of the gateway as the exhausted horsemen rode into the fort, covered in dust. A few of them still wore bloodstained strips of linen from the superficial wounds they had suffered in the fight with the desert raiders.

'What happened?' Macro asked.

'Postumus fell ill. Or at least he seemed to. He collapsed and started vomiting and foaming at the mouth. The duty officer had him moved to the hospital block. By the time I was informed the next morning Postumus had gone. So had one of the horses. He must have got out using one of the sally ports. But they were all locked from the inside when I checked them.'

'Well he didn't ride a horse over the wall, so someone had to open a gate for him.'

'I'd guess that some of our officers are still loyal to Scrofa,' Cato said quietly.

'Scrofa? Is he still here?'

'Yes. Under extra guard now.'

'How long ago was this?'

'The day after you left.'

Macro stared at Cato and they shared an instant understanding of the situation. 'Shit,' Macro said softly. 'You know where he's gone, don't you?'

'I'd guess north to Syria. To find Longinus.'

'Where else?' Macro thumped his fist against his thigh. 'If he rode hard he could reach the Governor in four, maybe five, days. So we can assume that Longinus knows that I've taken command here. That means he knows about the imperial authority and what that implies.'

Cato nodded. 'What do you think he'll do?'

'How the fuck should I know?' Macro suddenly felt more tired than ever with news of this latest setback. He needed a rest. A bath and a rest, he decided. Then he shook off the feeling. He was the prefect in charge of this cohort and could not afford to let his guard down while he was in command.Too much rested on it. Macro rubbed his cheek and looked at Cato. 'What do you think?'

'Once Longinus knows the score he's going to want to see us.To find how much we know, and how much we suspect. My guess is that he's already sent a messenger to summon us to report to him in Antioch.'

'The messenger could arrive at any moment.'

'Yes.'

'Shit.' Macro shook his head. 'One bloody thing after another. We can't spare the time to see Longinus. Not with Bannus on the loose.'

'But we can't ignore the summons. Not without throwing into question the Governor's authority.'

'Our authority overrides his, surely?'

'Of course it does. But I doubt that Narcissus would look favourably on us if we openly confronted the most powerful man outside Rome.What if we precipitated the plot that we were sent out here to investigate and prevent? If Longinus does demand that we report to him, I think we'd better go.'

'Maybe,' Macro responded, before he snatched at one hopeful possibility. 'Of course, Postumus might have fallen foul of some of Bannus' men. After all, he'd have been riding alone. I doubt that any of the villages round here would offer him a safe shelter for the night.'

'If Bannus had taken him I think we'd already know about it. We'd have had a ransom demand, or Bannus would have made some kind of example of him, so that we'd know the fate of any Romans who fall into his hands. Anyway, this is wishful thinking.We should assume that he got through to Longinus. And we should assume that we'll know his response to the news any time.'

'Unless the messenger is taken by Bannus.'

'Now you're clutching at straws.' A smile flickered on Cato's lips before the serious expression returned. 'Let's assume that the summons gets through. In that case we'd better make sure that the cohort will be safe in our absence.'

'Safe?'

'As in making sure that Scrofa doesn't resume control. I think we'd better take him with us. Leave Parmenion as acting prefect.'

'Can we trust him?'

'I think so. One other thing. If we are ordered to report to Longinus I think we should have a little talk with Scrofa as soon as possible and find out how far he is implicated in any plot, and see what he can tell us about Longinus.'

'All right then, we'll speak to Scrofa,' Macro agreed. 'But after I've bathed and rested. I'm too tired to think straight at the moment.'

Cato frowned for a moment in disappointment, before he realised that his friend was truly exhausted. 'Very well, sir. I'll see to it that you're not disturbed.'

Macro smiled and patted Cato on the arm. 'Thanks.'

He turned away and started walking stiffly towards his quarters, then paused and looked back at Cato. 'Any developments on the Bannus front?'

'Nothing, whilst you've been gone, sir. In fact there's been no sighting of the brigands at all. I've got mounted patrols out looking for them. They're due back tomorrow. If there's any news of Bannus, we'll find out then.'

Macro nodded wearily, and headed off towards the comforts of the prefect's quarters.

That night, Macro and Cato descended the narrow stairs to the cells that lay under one corner of the headquarters building. Cato carried a torch to light their path and it glimmered on the rough stonework as the two officers made their way along the line of cells. Only one was occupied, at the far end, guarded by two auxiliaries.They were sitting on stools, playing dice, and looking up as Macro and Cato approached they jumped up and stood to attention.

'At ease,' Cato said and nodded to the door. 'How's the prisoner?'

'Quiet enough, sir. He's given up demanding better food and quarters.'

'Good.' Cato nodded. 'Because he's not getting them. Open the door. We need to speak to him.'

'Yes, sir.' The guard eased the heavy iron bolt back, lifted the latch and pulled the door open. Cato ducked his head under the lintel and entered the cell, with Macro close behind him. Inside was a small but neat chamber with a bed on either side, and a slop bucket by the door. High up was a grated window which let in light during the day. Now that it was dark a single oil lamp gleamed from a bracket above the bed on which Scrofa lay, reading a scroll by the meagre illumination of the wavering flame. He sat up as they entered, eyeing them warily.

'What do you want?'

Macro smiled. 'Just a little chat, Scrofa. That's all.' He sat down on the bed opposite Scrofa. Cato placed his torch in a wall bracket and sat down next to Macro. Scrofa's gaze flickered nervously from one to the other.

'No need for alarm, Scrofa,' said Macro. 'We just need to talk.'

'For now,' Cato added darkly.

'That'll do,' Macro said with a look of irritation. 'There's no need to frighten the man.'

'I'm not frightened.' Scrofa tried to sound brave as he glared at Cato. 'I'm not scared of you, boy.'

Cato leaned forward and grasped the handle of his dagger, causing Scrofa to flinch back with a gasp of panic.

Macro clamped a hand on his friend's arm.'Easy there!'

For a moment the three men were still: Cato leaning forward with a look of intense, cruel anger, Scrofa staring back anxiously and Macro struggling to keep a straight face at the act his friend was putting on. Or at least, he assumed that Cato was putting it on. He cleared his throat.

'It's time you were honest with us, Scrofa.'

'Honest?'

'Yes. I'm sure that it doesn't come easily to you, but you will need to tell us the truth. Now then, in view of the rather unusual manner in which I replaced you as prefect of the Second Illyrian, and given that the Emperor's personal authority was attached to the document you saw, I assume that you have realised who Cato and I are working for.'

'Narcissus.'

'The very man. As you know full well, it is his job to look after the security of the Emperor. So you'll understand why he is a little perturbed by the turn of events out here in the east. Particularly concerning the unwholesome ambitions of your friend, Cassius Longinus – the Governor of Syria.'

Scrofa's brow furrowed in confusion. 'What do you mean?'

'Come now, don't play us for fools, Scrofa. Longinus is deliberately stirring things up here in the east so that he can call on the reinforcements to strengthen his army. That's why he chose you to command the Second Illyrian. It was your job to stir up the local villagers, turn them into rebels. I have to admit, you've done a fine job. Not only that, but you've managed to earn yourself a tidy fortune in the process, thanks to that protection racket you and Postumus set up. Of course, pissing the Nabataeans off must have been something of a bonus for Longinus.' Macro hardened his tone. 'The way things are looking, there's going to be quite a bit of blood spilt over the next few days, months even. Thanks to you and Postumus.You might think about that.'

Scrofa shook his head. 'I've no idea what you are talking about.'

'Liar!' Cato spat at him. 'You're in on the conspiracy! Right up to your stinking neck.'

'No! I have nothing to do with any plot.'

'Bollocks!' said Macro. 'You were appointed to command the Second Illyrian by Longinus. He instructed you to provoke a revolt, and you've done all that he asked, and more. Don't even try to deny it.'

'But it's not true!' Scrofa whined. 'He never gave me such orders. I swear it. It was just supposed to be a temporary appointment. He said it would look good on my record. He said it would help me to find a command of a good cohort in a better posting.'

'I don't believe you,' Macro responded. 'You told me you were waiting for the appointment to be made permanent.'

'I lied! I was only supposed to be the prefect until the man he really wanted for the job could be approved.'

'And who was that?' Cato interrupted. 'Who did he really want for the post?'

Scrofa looked surprised. 'Postumus. Who else?'

Macro and Cato looked at each other, and Macro frowned. 'Postumus? That doesn't make sense. The Governor could have appointed an acting prefect on his own initiative. If he wanted Postumus why didn't he just appoint him from the outset? You're lying, Scrofa.'

'No. Why should I?'

'To protect your scrawny neck. Postumus was just a junior centurion. He'd never have made the cut for promotion to take command of an auxiliary cohort.Why are you lying to us?'

'I'm not,' Scrofa said deliberately.

'Yes.You. Are. And it's time you realised that we're no longer playing games here. The stakes are too high for that. Now, you will tell us everything we want to know and you will tell us the truth. I need to make sure you understand how serious we are. Cato, pass me your dagger.'

Cato pulled the blade from its scabbard with a tinny rasp and offered it to his friend.

'Thanks.' Macro smiled, then launched himself across the gap between the beds and with his spare hand grabbed Scrofa by the neck and slammed his head against the rough stone wall of the cell. 'Take his hand, Cato!'

Cato took an instant to recover from his friend's sudden assault on the prisoner. Then he leaned across, grabbed Scrofa's left hand in both of his and held it tightly as Scrofa tried to wrench it back. Macro punched the pommel of the dagger into Scrofa's kidneys and the man gasped in agony.

'No more struggling, understand?' Macro snarled, and waited until the other nodded quickly. Then Macro turned back to Cato. 'Hold his hand flat on the wall there, where he can see it. Good. Now then, Scrofa. This is your last chance. You'll give me the answers I'm looking for, or I'll cut your thumbs off. To start with…'

Macro held the man's neck in a tight grip with one hand while he took a firm hold of the dagger handle with the other, and lowered the edge of the broad blade towards the joint between Scrofa's thumb and the rest of his hand. Scrofa's eyes widened in terror and there was a thin keening noise in his throat before he managed to speak.

'I swear to you – on my life – I know nothing! Nothing! I swear it!'

Macro lifted the blade away from the thumb and stared at Scrofa for a moment, scrutinising his expression. Then he clicked his tongue. 'Sorry, I'm not convinced. Let's see if the loss of one thumb can provide a little incentive. Cato, hold him still.'

Macro lowered the blade so that the edge pressed into Scrofa's flesh. The skin split and there was a small trickle of blood as Scrofa cried out. Macro tensed his arm, ready to begin sawing through the muscle and bone.

'Wait,' said Cato. 'I think he's telling the truth.'

'He's lying.'

'I'm not!' Scrofa whimpered.

'Quiet, you!' Macro shook him by the neck and turned back to Cato. 'What makes you think this worm's telling the truth?'

'He's been set up by Longinus. Think about it. Longinus is shrewd enough to cover his tracks when he can. So he sends Postumus down here to stir things up. Only the previous prefect proved to be something of an obstacle to Longinus' plans. So Postumus removed him. Scrofa is appointed to fill the gap.'

'Why him?'

'Because Longinus knows that he's vain and greedy. I'll bet you that Longinus told Scrofa that he had been picked for the post because he showed promise. I'd guess that he also encouraged him to go in hard on the locals to prove his mettle. Is that right?'

Scrofa nodded.

'So Scrofa turns up here and Postumus plays him like a lyre. He encourages him to lay into the locals, involves him in the caravan protection racket and is the real commander of the cohort. And if Longinus' plans don't work out in the end then the blame can be laid at Scrofa's door. Longinus blames any rebellion on Scrofa and has him done away with before he can be returned to Rome to be investigated. Longinus is seen to act decisively, the Judaeans get to see us punish the man held responsible for causing the trouble, and Postumus is still in position. Longinus wins every way.' Cato shook his head. 'We've got the wrong man. Postumus is the one. He's Longinus' agent.'

Macro considered this for a moment, then he released Scrofa and backed away, sitting down on the opposite bed again. He handed the dagger back to Cato and nodded towards Scrofa. 'So what do we do with him?'

'Keep him safe. In case he's needed as a witness against Longinus.' Cato glanced at Scrofa.'You understand what's going on? You've been used all along.'

'No.' Scrofa frowned. 'Longinus is my patron. My friend.'

'Some friend!' Macro snorted and looked at Cato with a wry expression. 'Oh, you can see why he chose this beauty for the job.'

'Quite.' Cato kept his eyes on Scrofa. 'Listen, you know what I said makes sense. You don't owe Longinus any loyalty.The man has betrayed you. As he'll betray the Emperor and Rome if he gets the chance. You have to help us.'

'Help you?' Scrofa smiled. 'Why should I help you? Until you two turned up I was raking it in. Now, you've taken my command from me, thrown me in this cell and assaulted me. Why should I help you?'

'He's got a point,' said Macro.

'He's got no choice,' Cato replied. 'Longinus can't afford to let him live. He already knows too much, even if he can't quite believe it yet. He helps us or he's dead. Simple as that.'

Scrofa looked at Cato and chewed his lip. 'You're serious about Longinus?'

'Very.'

Scrofa shook his head. 'I don't believe it.'

No one spoke for a moment and Macro could not help feeling sorry for the wretched man on the other bed. Scrofa had no place in the army. He was lazy, corrupt, incompetent and too stupid to see beyond his dreams of glory. But he might yet be of some use. He might yet redeem himself. Macro stood up.

'Come on, Cato. Let's go. There's nothing more we can learn here.'

Just before the door was closed on him Scrofa called out, 'Please, let me out of this cell. I swear I'll cause no trouble.'

Macro considered the request for a moment, then shook his head. 'Sorry. I need every measure of the men's loyalty and obedience. If they see you walking around the fort it'll only confuse the issue.You have to stay here, out of sight and out of mind. For a while at least. It's for the best.'

He closed the door behind him and slipped the bolt back into place as Scrofa started screaming abuse after him. Macro turned to the guards. 'If he keeps that up for long, you have my permission to go in there and belt him.'

'Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.'

'Cato, let's go.'

As they climbed the steps back up to the ground floor of the headquarters building Cato spoke. 'What now? Longinus has been alerted that Narcissus is on to him. He'll be on his guard, and even now I'd bet he's already covering his tracks. We won't have much evidence to offer against him. Only what little Scrofa can offer, that he was ordered to go in hard. The worst that Narcissus can accuse Longinus of will be wilful incompetence.'

'That's enough to justify removing him from office.'

'Maybe.'

'So what do we do now?'

'I'd suggest we concentrate our efforts on Bannus. If we can destroy him, we can restore peace to the area. If we do that, then we can scupper any attempt by Longinus to request reinforcements.'

Macro nodded. 'Bannus it is, then. We'll talk about it in the morning. I'm so bloody tired I can hardly think straight. You'd better get a good night's sleep too, Cato. Somehow I think there's going to be no chance of a decent rest for some time. Better make the most of it now.'

'Yes, sir.'

Macro smiled faintly. 'It's all right. You can drop the formalities when there's no one else around.'

Cato nodded over Macro's shoulder, and the latter turned and saw the dim shape of one of the standard bearers guarding the entrance to the headquarters shrine where the cohort's standards were kept. Macro cleared his throat and spoke formally. 'Very well, Centurion. I'm turning in. See you in the morning.'

'Yes, sir.' Cato saluted and Macro turned away and walked wearily out of the building, and headed back to his quarters. When he reached the prefect's house he slumped on his bed and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he was asleep. So deeply asleep that he did not notice Scrofa's manservant remove his boots, lift his legs on to the bed and cover him over with a thick blanket. As the manservant closed the door behind him, the first deep rumbling notes of Macro's snoring echoed round the room.

It was late in the morning when Macro woke up and he cursed himself for not having left orders to be roused at dawn. He was not going to let himself be tarred with the same brush as the previous prefect. Macro prided himself on living as hard as the men he commanded and so he emerged from his quarters in a dark mood and ignored the meal that the manservant had set out in the dining room. Cato was waiting for him in the prefect's office at headquarters, leaning over a map spread out across the desk as Macro strode in.

'Why the hell didn't somebody wake me?'

'You're the prefect. It's not our place to disturb you without orders, unless there's an emergency. Besides, you needed the rest.'

'I'll decide what I need, all right?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Right.' Macro glanced at the map. 'Already planning the next move against Bannus?'

'Just thinking, sir.'

'Oh? That sounds dangerous.' He smiled at Cato's hurt expression. 'When you start thinking, then I know we're in for trouble, Cato. Go on then.'

Cato refocused his mind and stared down at the map. He gestured towards the string of villages that lay between Bushir and the River Jordan. 'Given the size of the force we believe Bannus has at his back, he is going to need access to food and water. He doesn't have anything to fear from our patrols now.The only danger is that we might corner him with the whole cohort and bring him to battle. My guess is that he's come out of the hills and he's camped somewhere close to one of these villages.'

'How can you be sure?'

'I can't. Not until the mounted patrols return. I ordered them to scout the area. They should be back today. Then we'll find out if they've located Bannus. If they have, then you'll need to find some way of forcing him into battle, sir.'

'That won't be easy,' mused Macro. 'You know how these brigands fight. Hit and run. That's their style. So? Any bright ideas?'

Cato tilted his head to one side and considered. Before he could respond there was a clatter of boots outside the room and then a sharp knock on the door.

'Come!'

An orderly stepped through the door and saluted. 'Report from the duty centurion, sir.'

'Well?'

'There's a column of horsemen approaching the fort, sir.'

'That'll be one of your patrols then, Cato. Good.With a bit of luck they'll have some news of Bannus.'

The orderly interrupted. 'Begging your pardon, sir, but the horsemen are approaching from the north. The patrols went to the west.'

'From the north, eh?' Macro began to get a sinking feeling in his stomach. He turned to Cato. 'We'd better have a look.'

By the time they reached the fortified tower above the northern gate, the small column of horsemen was less than a mile from the fort and flashes of light glittered off polished armour and helmets. Cato shaded his eyes and squinted and made out the flicker of a scarlet standard above the head of the column. 'They're ours. Roman, at least.'

'Then what the hell are they doing returning from that direction?' Macro asked.

'I don't know.'

They watched in silence as the horsemen drew closer, and then at last the identity of the party became clear and Cato felt a chill in his guts as they reined in and walked their horses the short distance to the gates. At the head of the column rode a man in a burnished breastplate. He wore a red cloak and an ornate silvered helmet with a red plume.

'It's the Governor,' Macro muttered.'Bloody Longinus in the flesh.'

'Yes, and look who's riding beside him.'

Macro's eyes flickered to an officer on a horse a short distance to one side and slightly behind the Governor and he took a sharp intake of breath. 'It's that bastard Postumus.'

07 The Eagle In the Sand


CHAPTER NINETEEN | The Eagle In the Sand | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE



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