Macro looked over the faces of his officers, waiting for their complete attention before he began.
'In two days' time Bannus and his forces will be camping outside Fort Bushir. Although we don't know their precise strength yet our scouts report that we are badly outnumbered.Worse still, Bannus and his men have been armed by the Parthians who have also sent him a contingent of their horse-archers. I've sent messengers to the garrison in Jerusalem and the procurator in Caesarea. I doubt whether there will be enough troops to spare to send any to reinforce us. Worse still, it is not likely that any relief column will be sent from Syria.'
This remark brought on looks of surprise, and a tone of muted anger rippled across the hall. Macro raised a hand to attract their attention.
'Gentlemen! Quiet… The Governor of Syria is facing a substantial threat from Parthia across the frontier. He cannot spare us any men. We are on our own. I will not pretend that the odds look favourable, but we do have some advantages.The enemy must come to us, therefore we can lay a few traps to greet him. Bannus is at the head of a force comprising untrained villagers for the most part. They'll be brave enough when the time comes but bravery is no match for good training and experience. We also have the benefit of good defences. The walls of Bushir are as strong as they come for a fort this size.Without siege equipment they'll have to come at us over the walls, and if you've ever seen such an assault then you'll know how costly it can be.' Macro paused to let his words sink in, then continued. 'That's the good news. The bad news is that Bannus cannot afford to fail in his attempt on Bushir. He will throw everything he can at us. We cannot be confident of beating him. But even if we do go down to his army of brigands, we must ensure that the cost of his victory is so high that his men will not be prepared to follow him against any other Roman unit. If we can end this rebellion now, before it can spread, then his defeat is certain, even if we don't live to see it.
'Centurion Cato and I have made plans for the coming fight. There's plenty of work to be done before Bannus arrives. My clerks will bring your orders to you. Dismissed!'
The officers filed out of the hall. Postumus looked at the prefect sourly. 'What do you want me to do, sir?'
'I haven't decided yet.' Macro smiled.'Since you are so keen to get stuck into the enemy I want you right at the thick of things when it comes to the fight. Now wait for me outside.'
'Yes, sir.' Postumus saluted and left the hall.
'You really want him at your side in a fight?' muttered Cato. 'That's asking for trouble.'
'I can handle him. There's no way I'm going to let that scum run out on us. He's the one who turned the villagers against us. Now he can take his full share of the consequences.'
Cato nodded approvingly. 'Still, I'd watch him closely.'
'I will, believe me.' Macro said firmly. 'Do you think he was right about the Governor?'
'Yes. It makes sense. We can't expect any help from that quarter.'
'If only we had more men. I checked the morning strength returns before the meeting. The cohort's down to fewer than seven hundred effectives. It's not looking good.'
'No, sir. It's not. What are my orders?'
'I need a good pair of eyes out there. I want you to command the scouts. Take ten men and ride out towards Bannus. Send back regular reports on his progress.You are not to engage with any of their scouts. No heroics, Cato. Do you understand?'
'Yes, sir. There'll be time enough for that later on.'
Macro laughed. 'That's the spirit! Now, I'd better get on with the preparations.You'll need to leave as soon as you can.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato replied, but did not move towards the door.
'What is it?'
'Those people at Heshaba. I think I owe it to them to offer shelter in the fort. They saved my life.'
'No. They'll be safer in their village, especially if Bannus does take the fort.'
'I'm not sure about that. The Parthians aren't exactly famous for their kind treatment of non-combatants. Besides, I got the feeling that there's not much love lost between Bannus and those people. If we leave them out there, then they'll be at the mercy of the brigands and those Parthians.'
Macro stared at him for a moment before he made a decision.'Very well. Offer them shelter. But if they accept it, they must come to the fort by nightfall. I don't want them getting caught up between the two sides when the fighting starts.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'Cato, you can ask them, but I doubt whether that woman, Miriam, or her followers, will take up the offer. Those are their people marching on us. It's more likely they'll join them in the attack on the fort.'
Cato shook his head. 'I don't think so. There's something different about Miriam and her followers. I don't think they want to fight us. Or anyone for that matter.'
'Fine.' Macro waved his hand towards the door. 'Then make your offer and be done with it. But get moving. There's not much time.'
As Cato's column of scouts trotted out of the fort there were already many parties of men hard at work, swinging their picks into the ground as they excavated small pits all round the fort. Under the glare of the sun it was exhausting work, but there was no question of rest breaks.These men were digging for their lives. Anything that would stem the tide of the approaching enemy might help to save them. So, with the single concession to comfort of their straw hats, the men swung their picks in the sweltering heat in a desperate effort to prepare for the attack in the short time still left to them.
The villagers of Heshaba were resting inside their houses when Cato and his men rode into the small square at the centre of the village. The man that Scrofa had ordered crucified still hung from his cross. Or at least, what now passed for the man. The sun had baked and desiccated his body so that it had visibly shrunk beneath the dried skin. Crows and other carrion had plucked at the most tender parts of his flesh and lidless, empty eye sockets stared out over the village. Cato ordered the column to dismount. He handed his reins to one of the scouts and ordered the men to water the horses and wait for him in the square. Then he walked into the nearest alley, approached a door and rapped on the frame. A moment later the door creaked open and an anxious male face peered out into the sun-washed street.
'Find Miriam,' Cato said in Greek.'Tell her Centurion Cato must speak to her on a matter of great urgency. I'll be at the reservoir. Do you understand?'
The man nodded, and Cato turned away and strode up the hill, past the last few houses of the village, until he reached the shade of one of the dusty palms that grew beside the reservoir. There was less water in it than ever, a mere pool surrounded by cracked earth, and he wondered how any people could survive in this arid land. The god of the Judaeans, Yahweh, must be cruel indeed to subject his believers to such a harsh existence, thought Cato. There had to be a better life than this. Perhaps that was why these people were so intensely religious – out of the necessity of finding some kind of spiritual compensation for such a hard and unrewarding physical existence.
The soft crunch of gravel alerted him to Miriam's approach and Cato quickly rose to his feet and bowed his head respectfully.
'I was told that you wished to speak to me.' Miriam smiled. 'You don't need to stand on my account, young man. Sit.'
Cato did as he was told and Miriam knelt down opposite him and made herself comfortable.
'We've been told that Bannus is heading this way with an army. I came to warn you.'
'We already know. A rider came to the village this morning. We are to offer his men every assistance they require, or we will be deemed to be collaborators and treated accordingly.'
Cato stared at her. 'What will you do?'
'I don't know.' She shook her head sadly. 'If we resist Bannus he will destroy us. If we go along with him, then you Romans will treat us as his accomplices.Where is the middle path, Cato?'
'I don't know. I don't even know if there is one. I came here to offer you and your people shelter in our fort.'
Miriam smiled. 'A kind offer, I'm sure. Tell me, what are your chances of surviving this attack by Bannus?'
'I won't lie to you, Miriam. We're outnumbered, and there will be no outside help. We may well be overrun.'
'In which case it would be as well for my people not to be discovered sheltering in your fort.'
'I agree. If we are overrun. But if you stay here, you will surely fall foul of one side or another.'
Miriam looked down at her hands. 'We came here to escape such conflicts. All we wanted was peace and a chance to live our lives as we wish.Yet it seems that there is no escape from the conflicts that afflict men. They will carry them even here, into the wilderness. Look about you, Centurion. What is there here that is worth having? What is there here to excite a man's avarice? Nothing.That is why my people settled in this forsaken place. We removed ourselves from any land a man could covet. We disowned any possessions that might inspire envy or desire in others.We are all that we are, and nothing more.Yet still we are blighted by the attentions of others. Even though we mean them no harm, they would destroy us.' She reached a hand up and clutched it to her chest. 'That was the fate of my son. I will not let that be the fate of my grandson. Yusef is all that I have left now. That, and the fading memories of an old woman.'
Her head dipped forward and Miriam was silent. Cato could not offer any honest words of comfort and sat and waited. Her shoulders heaved once and a tear dropped on to the sand between her knees and left a dark stain. Cato cleared his throat.'Will you accept our protection, such as it is?'
Miriam wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her cloak and looked up.'With all my heart, no. This is our home.There is nowhere else for us to go. We will stay, and either we will be spared, or we will be obliterated. But I thank you for the offer.'
Cato nodded. 'I have to leave.' He eased himself to his feet and looked down into her eyes. 'Good luck, Miriam. May your god protect you and your people.'
She looked up into the sky and shut her eyes. 'Thy will be done…'
She smiled. 'Just something my son used to say.'
'Farewell, Centurion. I hope I see you again.'
Cato turned away and strode back into the village to rejoin his men, and once he had disappeared between the buildings Miriam gave full vent to her tears with a low shuddering moan.
Bannus and his Parthian allies had not deployed any scouts to mask their movements. Instead they marched directly towards the fort, in full view of Cato and his men. Cato smiled grimly to himself. If Bannus was trying to cow them with the size of his force, then he was succeeding admirably. By Cato's estimate, they were confronted by over three thousand men, perhaps five hundred of them mounted, and most of those would be Parthians, deadly with bow and arrow and skilled swordsmen if it came to a hand-to-hand fight.The enemy column had been easy to locate under the dense cloud of dust that rose up in its wake. At the rear of the column was a small baggage train, with a handful of carts just visible in the dusty haze, although it was impossible to determine what they were carrying. The column advanced at a measured pace, not hurrying to battle, but confident that it could traverse the land with impunity.
As soon as he had estimated their number, and noted the extent of their equipment and weapons, Cato quickly etched the information into the wax on a tablet he took from his saddle bag and called one of his men over.
'Take this back to the prefect. Let him know that at the time of this report the enemy were about twenty miles from the fort.At their current pace they should not arrive before tomorrow evening. Got that?'
As the man galloped away, kicking up a thin trail of dust behind him, Cato saw some of the outriders of the enemy column turn and gesture towards the small party of Romans, but no one rode out to chase them away and for the rest of the day they rode ahead of Bannus and his men, being sure to give themselves plenty of room to escape any sudden forays by the Parthian cavalry. As night fell, the enemy column halted. They managed to find enough fuel for only a small number of fires, since firewood was scarce in the barren landscape. Cato did not permit his men to light a fire. It would be dangerous to advertise their presence so openly. Instead, he waited until it was dark, and then moved position across the front of the enemy's line of advance, to the other flank, in case Bannus decided to try to surprise the Roman scouts who had been scrutinising his movements. Then, after his men had dismounted, and a watch had been set, Cato rolled into his blanket and tried to find a comfortable patch of ground to sleep on as the temperature dropped to a freezing chill.
At first light the next day, Macro rode out of the fort to inspect the work his men had carried out. The holes that they had been digging the previous afternoon had been completed and presented a dangerous obstacle to charging cavalry. Behind the pits was the second line of defence. The men had sown a broad perimeter with the four-pointed iron caltrops that had been brought out from the cohort's stores.The spikes would pierce the hooves of any horse, or the boots or bare feet of any attacker who plunged heedlessly towards the Roman line, crippling them instantly. Once past the second line of defence only the ramparts of the fort would stand in their way. Macro offered a quick prayer to Fortuna and Mars asking that the enemy would not have brought many assault ladders or battering rams with them. If they had then it was a only a matter of time before the superiority of their numbers decided the result of the coming battle.
The air was still chilly and Macro shivered as he completed his inspection and headed back towards the fort. As he neared the gate he noticed a rider approaching from the north and reined in, straining his eyes to try to identify the man. No Roman, to be sure, with the swath of cloth covering his body and head. Macro's spare hand shifted to the handle of his sword as he twitched the reins and turned his mount towards the approaching rider. Evidently the sentries had at last seen the man as well, and boots thudded along the rampart as the duty century turned out. Macro frowned at the sloppy watch-keeping. The sentries should have spotted the rider long before Macro. Someone was going to be on a charge for that, Macro decided.
Suddenly the rider was waving his hand at Macro as if in greeting, and a moment later he pulled aside his veil and shouted. 'Centurion! It's me! Symeon!'
Macro relaxed his sword arm and let out his breath in a sigh of relief. He raised his hand and returned Symeon's greeting, and urged his horse forward towards the approaching guide, as Symeon carefully picked his way through the defences.
'You've chosen a poor time to visit us,' Macro said ruefully.
'Is there ever a good time?' Symeon laughed then gestured towards the men busy setting up the caltrops. 'Come, Centurion, tell me: why have you laid out all these trinkets around your fort?'
'Bannus is coming.We expect him to arrive before the walls by nightfall.'
Symeon sucked in his breath. 'How could he have grown so strong, so quickly?'
'He's found some new friends. The Parthians have sent him help.'
'Parthians?' Symeon's expression darkened. 'Bannus is a fool. What does he imagine Parthia will do if Rome is ever forced from this region? He is blinded by his hatred of the Kittim. Judaea, Syria and Nabataea would all fall to Parthia.' He grasped Macro's shoulder. 'We must stop Bannus! Right here!'
'Easier said than done,' Macro said wearily.'He's got us outnumbered. The Governor of Syria has abandoned us. I'm not sure we can hold Bannus off.' Macro paused as a thought occurred to him.A desperate thought, to be sure. 'Not unless we get help. How soon could you ride to Petra?'
'I could leave at once, Centurion. It's two days' hard ride. Why?'
Macro smiled. 'I need to call in a debt.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand