'Parthians?' Longinus stared back at him. 'Nonsense! How could they be Parthians? Have you ever seen one?'
'No, sir,' Cato admitted. 'I've read about them. Heard them described.'
Longinus sniffed with contempt and the officers turned back to watch the desperate chase across the desert towards the fort. As the horsemen drew nearer Centurion Postumus glanced at Cato before saying quietly, 'I'm afraid they are Parthians, sir.'
They were clearly visible now and all those in the gatehouse could plainly see the conical helmets and the saddle tassels flapping in the wind. Every so often one of the riders would take careful aim with a bow and loose an arrow after the fleeing survivors of the Roman patrol. But the range was long and the horses galloping at full stretch and only one of the arrows found its mark as the officers in the tower looked on. One of the horses suddenly reared, nearly throwing its rider, and Cato saw the dark shaft of the arrow protruding from a hind leg. As the horse stamped, the shaft caught on the other leg and was ripped out in a bright gush of blood. A major blood vessel must have been severed for the blood continued to spurt from the wound as the rider tried in vain to spur his mount on towards the fort. After several increasingly faltering steps the horse's legs buckled and it sank on to its chest. The rider quickly dismounted and turned to face his pursuers, crouching behind his shield as he drew his sword. They came on, and at the last moment flowed round the man and his dying horse. There was a brief flurry of arrow shafts and the auxiliary spun round under the impacts, and crumpled to the ground.
A deep groan rose up in the throats of the men on the wall and Macro cupped a hand to his mouth and called down to them. 'Archers! Don't just stand there! Hit 'em – soon as they're in bowshot!'
Those men who had already notched their first arrow braced their legs apart, leaned back and drew their bows, adjusting the angle to get the maximum range.Then they waited a moment, until the Roman patrol was close enough to the fort to ensure that the arrows would pass over them. The first man released his bowstring and the shaft shot high into the air, arcing up into the clear blue sky before it seemed to hang a moment and began to fall to earth. From where Cato stood it seemed that it would surely fall amongst the men of the patrol pounding towards the fort. He gritted his teeth as the arrow plummeted down. Only at the last moment was it clear that it had overshot the patrol, and it struck the ground just ahead of their pursuers with a small explosion of sand and dust.
'The range is good!' Macro shouted. 'Let 'em have it!'
More shafts flitted up into the sky and when they fell they were right on target. Cato saw one of the pursuers struck in the face and the man threw his hands up and tumbled off the back of his horse, disappearing under the hooves of the beasts galloping behind. A thin cry cut through the air and the Parthians instantly dispersed, swerving out to both sides to present a more difficult target to the Roman archers. But they had lost their prey. The gate was open and the surviving men from the patrol charged towards it, careering through the arch into the safety of the fort beyond.
'Close the gate!' Macro bellowed an instant later and the hinges grated and then the gate slammed into place with a thud that could be clearly felt in the tower above. At once the Parthians wheeled their mounts round, and then tore off back into the desert and out of range of the archers on the walls. Cato watched them go for a moment and then turned to the other officers.
'I think the situation's just become a lot more serious.'
'Parthians,' Longinus muttered. 'Bloody Parthians. Always the bloody Parthians.'
Macro gestured to Cato. 'Come on. We have to speak to the men from that patrol.'
They climbed down from the tower and joined the cluster of men surrounding the survivors of the patrol and their mounts. The horses' coats were stained with sweat and streaks of foam and their flanks heaved as they snorted. Macro thrust one of the men aside.
'Make way! Make way there!'
The soldiers quickly parted for the officers and a moment later they were standing in front of the decurion who had been leading the patrol.The decurion's arm was slashed and a medical orderly was holding the sides of the cut together while another tied a length of bandage round the injury. They paused at the sight of Macro, unable to stand to attention without interrupting their task. He nodded at them to continue before he turned to the decurion.
'Make your report.'
'Yes, sir.' He glanced at Cato. 'We watched those villages we were assigned to cover. I had five men on each. We saw nothing untoward the whole time. Then, when I gathered my men up yesterday afternoon to return to the fort, we saw a dust cloud, away to the north, coming out of the hills. Heading this way.'
'Hills?' Cato cut in. 'Which hills?'
'Near Heshbon, sir. I decided to investigate. It would take quite a lot of men or animals to make that much dust. So we rode closer until I could make out the details. It was an army, sir.Thousands of men, hundreds mounted and what looked like a baggage train at the rear, although I couldn't see it clearly. That was when their scouts spotted us. Next thing I knew they were coming at us from all directions, shooting arrows. That's when I realised the mounted fellows were Parthians. They cut most of my men down, but me and these others managed to find a gully and rode through them in the dusk. We carried on through the night, and headed back to the fort. They caught up with us a few miles back.' He shrugged.
Macro stared at him for a moment and then clapped him on the uninjured arm. 'Carry on, decurion. See to your men as soon as that wound's dressed. Get 'em fed and get 'em rested.'
'Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.'
Macro drew Cato away from the men, under the gatehouse, and lowered his voice. 'Coming for us do, you think?'
'I'm sure of it. Bannus needs a victory, to prove that he can beat Roman soldiers.The villages round here only need the slightest excuse to go over to him. He destroys us and they'll swarm to his side.'
'But why us? Why not start with a smaller outpost?'
'We're as far from any large force of Roman troops as you can get in this region. He can easily cut us off from supplies and reinforcements. At the same time, we can only escape by cutting our way through him. There's nothing but desert in the other direction.'
'Shit.We're stuck here.' Macro pressed his lips together for a moment. 'The Governor can help. If he leaves now, he'll be able to make it back to the legions, and send a column down here.'
'He might. If he can spare the men. Don't forget, there's that force of Parthians moving up on Palmyra.'
'I'm sure he can spare us some men. Enough to deal with Bannus before his army grows much more.We'll stay here until the relief arrives.'
'Stay here?' Cato looked uncertain. 'Is that wise?'
'What else can we do? We'll be safe enough in here.'
'You think so?'
'Why not? He's got a force of brigands, and now, it seems, a few Parthians. They're not going to get over the walls in a hurry. Not without siege weapons.'
'What makes you think they lack those?'
Macro smiled. 'And where would they have spirited them up from?'
'Parthia, that's where.'
'Cato, have you any idea how difficult it would be to move a siege train over the desert?'
'No. How difficult?'
Macro was taken aback, and struggled for an answer. 'I don't really know, but I should imagine it would be bloody difficult to haul anything across the terrain out there. All right?' He gestured vaguely in the direction of the caravan trade route and the desert beyond.'I'm telling you, he has no siege weapons. We're safe.'
'I hope you're right.'
'I'm right. But we're going to make some preparations all the same.' Macro made a few mental calculations. 'Heshbon, that's what, thirty miles away. They should be here tomorrow then, from noon.'
Cato nodded. 'Sounds right.'
'Then there's not much time.We need to speak to the Governor. Come on.'
They climbed back into the tower. Longinus and Postumus were watching the rapidly diminishing cloud of dust kicked up by the Parthian horses and discussing something in muted tones. They stopped as soon as Macro and Cato emerged from the trapdoor. Macro quickly described what the patrol had seen. There was a momentary look of alarm on the Governor's face before he controlled his feelings again and stood, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
'I'll have to re-join my command before the fort's cut off.'
'Yes, sir,' agreed Macro. 'The sooner you leave, the better. We'll wait here for the relief column.'
'Relief column?' Longinus repeated. 'Yes. Yes, of course. I'll have to send you some more men. Enough to beat Bannus. I'll see to it the moment I return to my command.'
'Very good, sir.' Macro nodded.
'I'd best leave at once then.' Longinus turned towards the trapdoor. Then he paused and turned back, staring hard at Postumus. 'You can stay here.'
'What?' Postumus looked horrified. 'Stay? Sorry, sir, but my place is at your side. It's going to be a dangerous journey back to the legions. You'll need every man you can get to ensure your safety.'
'On the contrary, more men will only slow me down. The prefect has more need of you than I do right now. You will stay here, and help defend the fort.'
'But, sir!' There was a pleading tone to his voice and Macro felt sick with disgust.
'Enough!' Longinus snapped. 'You will stay here! Understand?'
Postumus stared back, and there was a bitter twist to his lips as he replied. 'Oh, I understand, sir. Perfectly.'
'I shall not forget you, Postumus. I never forget those who have served me well.'
'That's a great comfort, sir.'
'Farewell, then.' Longinus nodded, made to hold out his hand, and then let it drop back to his side as he turned away and climbed down from the tower.
A little later Macro, Cato and Postumus looked on as the Governor and his escort galloped out of the fort and immediately swung north to give the approaching rebels as wide a berth as possible before they made for the security of the legions under Longinus' command in Syria. Macro noticed the look of acute bitterness in Postumus' face as he watched them ride off across the desert.
'That's what you get when you play politics, friend.'
Postumus turned to the prefect and laughed. 'You don't get it, sir. He's not going to send us any reinforcements. '
'Why?' asked Cato. 'What do you mean?'
'If you two are the best that Narcissus can come up with, then may the gods help the Emperor. Outside Rome, I imagine that it's only the three of us who know the scale of Longinus' treachery. If he leaves us here to die, then he's in the clear. Of course, the moment Bushir falls, and we're all slaughtered, he'll mount a punitive expedition and grieve over our bodies, and claim that he was just too late to save us.'
Macro and Cato stared at him a moment, then Macro shrugged. 'Fine. Then the only way we get back at that patrician bastard is by making sure we come through this alive.'
'Oh?' Postumus smiled weakly. 'And how do you propose that we do that, sir?'
'The same way we always do. By beating the living shit out of our enemy and dancing on his grave. Cato?'
'I want every officer at headquarters at once. We've got work to do, and it looks like there's not much time left before Bannus will be breathing down our necks.'
'Including Scrofa? Shall I have him released?'
Macro shrugged. 'Why not? He might as well do something useful before he dies.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand