They made their way back through the breach and went to find Centurion Parmenion. The veteran officer was working alongside his men pulling down the cohort's stables in an attempt to create a firebreak so that there was still a way through to the rest of the fort for the men defending the breach. A short distance away fire was consuming the granary and the roaring of the flames was punctuated by explosions of sparks from the building's timbers. Cato and Macro felt the heat hit them as they approached Parmenion and Macro had to squint as his eyes began to sting. Parmenion ordered his men to continue the work as he made his report to the prefect. His face was streaked with sweat and grime.
Macro pointed towards the stables. 'Where are the horses?'
'Scrofa took them to the far side of the fort, sir. He's tethering them along the east wall.'
'Fair enough,' Macro conceded. 'Good job. Better move the hostages there as well, in case the fire spreads to their cells. Now then, what's the news on the fire?'
'We're not going to be able to stop it spreading, sir. This firebreak's only going to divide it, keep an avenue open for you and the boys on the inner wall, if you get pushed back.'
'If we lose the wall, we lose the fort,' Macro responded bitterly.
'Maybe not,' said Cato. 'Not immediately at least. If we lose the wall then we have to use the fire as the next line of defence. It won't burn itself out for some hours.'
'And then?' Macro tipped his head to one side. 'Well? What then?'
It was a good question, Cato realised.The answer was straightforward. 'Then they march over the ashes and massacre us. Or we try to make a break for it. Leave a few men behind to make it seem as if the wall is still being defended, while the rest of us head out of the eastern gate and try to get as far from the fort as possible before daybreak. After that, head north to the Decapolis.'
Parmenion shook his head. 'They'd cut us to pieces if they caught us in the open. Those Parthians would pepper us with arrows so that we'd have to stop and cover ourselves with shields. They'd pin us down until the rest of Bannus' force turned up and finished off what was left. Battle of Carrhae, all over again.'
'All right, then,' Cato responded. 'We try something else. Something they can't possibly expect.' His eyes gleamed with excitement.
'Here we go again,' Macro muttered, turning to Parmenion. 'Brace yourself… All right, Cato, let's hear it.'
'If we stay on the wall, the flames will either get us or force us out of cover so that we'd have to face them on the ground outside the walls. If we retreat through the firebreak and close it off with burning debris, then we're just postponing being slaughtered a few hours.'
'So we leave some men to man the walls, take the cohort out of the eastern gate, circle round and strike at their camp.' Cato looked from one man to the other. 'Well?'
Parmenion shook his head. 'That is the most hare-brained idea I've ever heard. No offence, or anything.'
'None taken. But what's the alternative?You're already agreed that we can't just wait and see what happens. Bannus won't be expecting us to take the initiative.'
'With good reason!' Parmenion snorted. 'He outnumbers us four or five to one.'
'Which is why he won't even think it is us.'
Parmenion frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'I think I know what the lad's thinking,' Macro interrupted. 'We hit them from the north, making as much noise about it as we can, and Bannus might just think that it's a relief force from Syria. Is that it, Cato?'
Cato nodded. 'They just might.'
Parmenion chuckled mirthlessly. 'And when morning comes and they see exactly how few we are, they just might take us for lunatics.'
Cato ignored him and kept his attention focused on his friend. 'We could carry it off, sir. If we strike from the darkness, the enemy will have no idea of the size of the force attacking them.They'll assume the worst and panic. It'll take a while before they even guess at the truth, and by then we could have scattered them, burned the surviving onager and sacked their camp. It'll take Bannus days to recover.'
Macro was not yet fully convinced. 'What if it goes wrong? If they don't run, but stand their ground, then we'll be given a good kicking.'
'No worse than if we just stayed put and waited for a good kicking here in the fort.'
'Good point,' Macro conceded. 'All right, we'll give it a try. After all, we've nothing to lose.'
'Except our sanity,' Parmenion muttered. 'And our lives.'
Macro glanced round at his officers, all those who could be spared for the operation. Parmenion and the others were manning the west wall and towers, doing their best to move around as much as possible to give the impression that there were far more men defending the breach than was the case. Macro was briefing the rest of the officers in the courtyard of the headquarters building. During the night Scrofa, Postumus and the men of the reserve squadron had been busy creating a firebreak along the route that bisected the fort, pulling down buildings on either side and carrying off the combustibles.The fire had raged across half of the fort and finally seemed to be shrinking in intensity now that it had exhausted its fuel. Unfortunately, not before it had gutted the prefect's quarters. All the fine murals and furniture that Scrofa had surrounded himself with had already been consumed by flames.
'The trick of it will be to get our men into position without alerting the pickets that Bannus has established round the fort.That's why we have had to wait for the fire to die down – can't risk them seeing us quit the gate. A party of scouts will go out ahead of the main force and clear the pickets on the north side so they can't give any warning to Bannus. We'll have to go carefully until we clear the belt of defences, but then I want the cavalry to run down the pickets closer to the enemy camp. Centurions Scrofa and Postumus will be in command of the cavalry squadrons. Once the pickets are dealt with they will move half a mile north of the enemy camp and form up on the flanks. Centurion Cato and I will follow with the infantry. When the line is complete we'll approach in silence for as long as possible and when I give the signal we sound every horn we have. Make sure the men give it full voice when they respond. I want Bannus to think every Roman soldier between here and Armenia is charging down on him. Tell your men to go in hard.They're to charge on until they hear the recall.At that point everyone is to retire through the breach, covered by the cavalry.' Macro opened his hands. 'That's it. Any questions?'
Centurion Postumus raised his arm.
'Yes?' Macro growled.
'Who dreamed up this nightmare?'
Macro glared at him for a moment before he turned back to address the rest of the cohort's officers. 'That's it then. I know it's a tough job, but we're in a bitch of a situation, gentlemen, and there's not much else we can do. If this works, then we'll have bought ourselves a few more days, and perhaps frightened off many of the men Bannus managed to recruit from the local villages. All right then. Get your kit and join your units. Dismissed!'
The officers tramped out of the courtyard and Cato edged closer to Macro and muttered, 'I think we need to keep an eye on Postumus, sir.'
'Fair enough, but he's in the same boat as us. He fights or dies. We can trust him that far at least.'
Cato glanced at Macro wearily. 'If you say so.'
Macro frowned. 'How long since you had any rest, Cato?'
'Not for two days, at least. Same as you.'
'I can take it, but you look done in.'
'I am,' Cato admitted. 'But there's nothing I can do about it until after the attack on their camp.'
'No.You can sleep afterwards maybe.'
'Yes. Afterwards.' Cato forced a smile. 'One way or another.'
The Roman column slipped out of the eastern gate in the third hour before dawn.The men had blackened their faces and limbs with ash and charred wood. Since they would have to march quickly into position and then chase down the more lightly armed men in Bannus' army, they had been ordered to leave their body armour behind. Each man carried his shield and was armed with a javelin and short sword, and wore a strip of white linen on his sword arm for identification. As the four cavalry squadrons trotted ahead and then turned to the left and moved round the fort's defences, the infantry advanced as quickly as they could, out of step, so as not to give themselves away by the rhythmic tramp of Roman army boots. Macro and Cato marched at the head of the column. Cato was shivering in the cold night air and hoped that the march round the fort would warm him up so that he didn't have to clench his teeth to stop them chattering. The auxiliaries had been threatened with dreadful punishment if they dared to speak and the column moved forward in silence, only the noise of their boots breaking the hush, until they turned off the stony track and then the sand muffled the sound almost entirely.
Almost at once they came across two bodies, sprawled on the ground. Macro halted the column and paused to turn one over with his boot.
'Seems that the scouts have done a good job,' he said in an undertone. 'I just hope they get them all without any trouble. If not…'
'They'll do fine,' Cato reassured him. 'Every man in the cohort knows what's at stake.'
'It's down to the gods then,' Macro concluded as he raised his arm and waved the column forward.'I just hope Fortuna doesn't think I've used up my allotment of luck.'
'Of course you haven't,' Cato replied softly. He had grown used to Macro's superstitious tendencies, and had long since given up any attempt to talk his friend round to a more rational view of the world. Cato even doubted that there were any such things as gods. But the belief in them certainly served a purpose, helping most men to bridge the gap between knowledge and experience, and Cato had resigned himself to having to humour the superstitions of others, and even be seen to go along with them.
'Don't you think I've run out of luck?' Macro whispered. 'I wonder, given all the shit that's flown in my direction since we arrived in Judaea.'
'No, sir,' Cato replied patiently. 'For the most part you have made your own luck. Fortuna has just topped it up from time to time. We really shouldn't talk.'
'No.' Macro quickened his pace slightly so that he drew slightly ahead of Cato, and then advanced, his ears and eyes straining to detect any sign of movement ahead of them. To their left the walls of the fort were clearly visible in the glow of the dying embers and the silhouettes of Parmenion's men could be clearly seen manning the towers and patrolling the walkway. As they marched in a wide arc round the fort the enemy camp came into view: a sprinkling of fires, twinkling in the distance. Half a mile to the north of the camp was a slight fold in the landscape that had been chosen as the site where the force would form up.When Macro judged that they had skirted round far enough to avoid being detected he changed course and began to lead the column towards the enemy camp at a tangent. Now was the most dangerous moment. If they were spotted before they could deploy for attack Bannus could bring the full weight of his army to bear and the Romans would be overwhelmed in short order.
As they approached the fold in the ground, there was no shout of alarm, no call of a trumpet to indicate that the enemy had detected their presence. Then, at last, the ground began to slope down and there ahead of them lay two darker masses separated by a stretch of open ground: the small forces of cavalry sent ahead of the main column. Cato pointed them out to Macro who nodded, and led the column to a point midway between them. As the column deployed, a horseman trotted down the line and stopped when he saw the crests on Macro's and Cato's helmets.
Macro at once recognised the quiet voice as Scrofa's.
'Is that the prefect?'
'Yes. Come here.' Macro beckoned to him. 'Anything to report?'
'We took care of their outlying pickets, sir.Their relief came out of camp a short while back. We took care of them too. Surprised them quickly enough to stop anyone raising the alarm.'
'Good. But the men coming off watch will be expected back. We'll have to attack at once.'
Cato had a sudden thought. 'Wait. Perhaps there's a way to maximise the surprise of the attack.'
'What?' The gloomy shape of Macro turned towards him. 'What do you mean?'
Cato looked up at Scrofa. 'The bodies of the relief. Where are they?'
'Just over there.' Scrofa pointed to the ground rising up in the direction of the enemy camp.
'Cato,' Macro cut in. 'What are you thinking of doing?'
'They're expecting a party of men to come off watch. What if I, and some of our men, took their place? We overpower the guard on the edge of the enemy camp, and I signal you to approach. Sir, we could be inside the camp before they even knew we were here.'
Macro considered the plan briefly. 'All right then, Cato. It's worth a try. What signal will you use?'
Cato thought quickly. As they had approached the camp earlier he had seen the braziers burning round the perimeter of Bannus' army. 'I'll wave a torch from side to side. That should do it.'
'A torch.Very well, but don't take unnecessary risks. If they see through you, just shout and we'll come.'
'Yes, sir. I'd better get going.'
Cato saluted the prefect and turned to the nearest men in the line stretching out on either side. 'This section! Follow me.'
He led the men up the slope in the direction that Scrofa had indicated, and just before the crest they found the bodies of the enemy relief pickets.Ten men, scattered in a loose heap, mostly dead from the injuries they had sustained in the brief skirmish, and a few with cut throats: the men who had been wounded, but could not be left alive to give any cry of warning.
'Get their robes on,' Cato ordered. He reached down to the nearest body and winced as his fingers closed on a wet and sticky patch of cloth. Forcing himself to continue, he pulled the heavy wool cloak off the body and draped it over his shoulders. He finished the disguise with the man's padded leather helmet and then turned to inspect the rest of his party. They stood in native cloaks and turbans and helmets. Cato was satisfied that they would pass for the enemy in the darkness.At least, no one would take them for Romans. He turned towards the enemy camp.
They set off across the stony sand, heading for the nearest corner of the camp, where the two onagers had originally been positioned. There had been little attempt to organise the camp in an ordered manner. Only a few large tents were clustered in the centre for Bannus and his lieutenants. Some of the army had constructed scratch-built shelters of skins stretched over flimsy wooden frames fashioned from slender, flexible lengths of wood that they had brought with them. The rest slept in the open, as close to a fire as they could get. By the surviving onager five men stood round a brazier on this side, clearly intent on keeping warm rather than doing an efficient job of keeping watch. Cato lowered his head a little as he marched towards them, as if they might somehow see from his face, at a distance in the dark, that he was not Judaean.As they marched into the light of the brazier one of the enemy turned to them and called out a greeting. The tone was friendly enough and good-humoured, so Cato raised a hand and waved as he made for them, shifting his shield round so that only the edge of the frame showed beyond his cloak. The man continued talking as they approached, and then paused, clearly inviting a response. Cato quickened his pace and nodded his head. The man frowned, and just as Cato and the others reached the brazier, his eyes widened in alarm and he snatched at the sword hanging at his side. Cato leaped forward, his sword rasping from its scabbard, swinging round and up so that the edge sliced into the man's head with a dull crunch that dropped him immediately. The other men round the brazier looked on in stunned surprise before they realised what was happening. By then it was too late. Cato's men sprang on them, and in a brief frenzy of savage thrusts and cuts from their short swords all the sentries were cut down and lay sprawled on the ground. Cato pointed to a cart parked behind the burned remains of the first catapult. 'Hide the bodies.'
While the others hurriedly dragged the dead away and then returned and stood around as their replacements, Cato fashioned a torch from some of the kindling lying to one side of the brazier. He plunged it into the fire, waited a moment until the slender twigs and brush were ablaze, then drew it out, stepped towards Macro and the others waiting out of sight in the darkness and held the torch high as he waved it steadily from side to side. Then he turned and thrust the torch into the brazier and stood with the others, waiting. It would take a while for Macro to march the cohort up to the edge of the camp. Until then Cato and his party would have to stand in for the men on watch. He gazed towards the eastern horizon, beyond the fort, and stared for a moment.There was definitely the faintest glimmer of light along the horizon that just demarcated the land from the sky. Cato turned to look for the first sign of the approaching cohort, but it was still too dark to pick them out. A little while after Cato had given the signal a man approached them from inside the camp. He gave a brief wave as he passed by and was singing softly to himself as he headed out into the darkness.
'Where the hell is he going?' one of Cato's men whispered.
Cato rounded on him angrily. 'Where do you think? He's having a shit.'
One of the other men chuckled. 'Then he's going to have the surprise of his fucking life.'
'Quiet!' Cato hissed.
The sound of the man's singing continued from the darkness a little longer, then abruptly stopped. An instant later, he came scurrying back towards the men gathered round the brazier, wrenching his robes back down over his legs. He jabbed an arm back towards the desert and began gabbling away in excitement. Cato said nothing, and when the man glanced at Cato's face his eyes widened in astonishment.
Cato had drawn his sword and now raised it quickly and punched the hilt into the man's nose. He reeled back, and Cato hit him again, a shattering blow to the temple, and he collapsed. 'Sorry about that,' Cato muttered.
Moments later the first of the Romans emerged from the darkness and closed on the perimeter of the enemy camp. Cato turned to the other men in his party. 'Time to drop the disguise.'
They stripped off the enemy's garments and turned towards the Judaean camp. Cato watched as the cohort approached. He could see the outline of Macro's helmet at the centre of the line as they came on at a measured pace to keep formation. Then they were visible in the pools of light cast by the nearest fires.
'Second Illyrian!' Macro's voice bellowed out of the night. 'Charge!'
At once the air was split with the sound of trumpets and a great roar tore out of the auxiliaries' throats as they rushed towards the camp.They raced through the nearest campfires thrusting their javelins at the men lying on the ground. Beyond them the rest of the camp began to stir to life, men struggling up from their sleep, blinking their eyes and then staring in surprise, and then terror, towards the Roman soldiers pouring out of the desert. Cato and his men ran in to join their comrades and stabbed their javelins at the Judaeans scrambling away from them. One of the auxiliaries paused to bend down and pull at a silver chain round the neck of a man he had just killed and Cato grabbed his arm and wrenched him up, thrusting him on towards the centre of the camp.
'Don't stop for anything! Keep going forward. Kill and move on!'
Away to his side, Cato heard the thrumming of hooves as Scrofa and his cavalry rode along the side of the camp for a short distance, and then turned in and charged the men who were arming themselves to meet the Roman infantry. On the other flank Postumus with the other two squadrons would be doing the same and Cato finally let go of the anxiety that had been coiled up in his breast.The plan had succeeded, the enemy had been taken by surprise. Now they must exploit the surprise as brutally as possible. He ran on, thrusting his javelin at any enemy still moving on the ground, or crossing his path as he angled towards the centre of the Roman line cutting its way across the enemy camp.True to Macro's orders the cornicens and bucinators continued to blow their instruments for all they were worth and the air was filled with the harsh blare of the signal to charge. The men too were adding to the din, shouting their war cries as they slaughtered the enemy without mercy.Already Cato was stepping over scores of bodies, dead and the injured, writhing and crying out, all illuminated by the glow of the campfires.
The Romans swept forward, a wave of death rushing across the camp, leaving bloodshed in their wake. Away to the east the faint light that Cato had discerned earlier was now a distinct pallid glow along the horizon and he felt an instant of panic grip his heart. As soon as the enemy realised how few men were attacking them they would surely turn on the Romans.Yet still the Judaeans and their Parthian allies fled before the enemy streaming across their camp. Cato caught up with Macro as the Roman line approached the cluster of tents at the heart of the site. The prefect was exultant and beamed with pleasure as he caught sight of Cato.
'We've beaten them! The bastards are buggering off in all directions.'
For a moment Cato shared in his friend's triumphant mood, and then he noticed that he could see almost across the entire extent of the camp. His heart sank as he faced Macro.
'It's getting light.'
'All the better to see them run!'
'It cuts both ways, sir. They'll soon see that they outnumber us. We'd better begin to withdraw.'
'Withdraw?' Macro shook his head, and gestured to the men who had run past them, still cutting their paths across the enemy camp, killing all in their way. 'We've beaten them, I tell you. We have to push on while their spirit's broken.'
'Of course, sir. As long as we're ready to give the order to retreat when the time comes.'
Macro nodded and turned to run on with his men, beckoning to Cato to follow him. By the time they had reached the far side of the camp, dawn was spreading across the sky, and even though the sun had not breached the horizon there was plenty of light to illuminate the land stretching out around the fort.The camp was littered with bodies, and Romans were hunting down those who had hidden at first but were now making a break for it, sprinting for the gaps in the Roman lines. Spread out across the desert were thousands of men and horses, some of which had been mounted by Bannus' Parthian allies. Already the enemy was slowing down, regrouping and starting to fight back against the scattered Romans. The cavalry squadrons of Scrofa and Postumus were also dispersed; many had ridden far too deeply amongst the enemy and were now in danger of being cut off.
Macro and Cato drew up at the edge of the camp, breathless as they surveyed the scene with growing anxiety.
'We've done all we can do, sir,' Cato panted. 'We've won our victory. Let's not lose it now. Give the order for the recall.'
Macro hesitated, torn between the desire to press the attack home, to keep killing the enemy and break their will, and the knowledge that his men were in danger now.
'All right then,' he conceded at last, and turned back towards the command party of standard bearers and trumpeters who had been following their prefect across the fort. He drew a breath and called out, 'Sound the recall!'
Moments later the signal blasted out and the auxiliaries began to draw up, abandoning their pursuit of the enemy.A few hotheads carried on heedlessly, but even they began to respond as the enemy stopped fleeing as soon as they saw the Romans begin to withdraw and form up by their standards. Already Cato noticed that their leaders were hurriedly rallying their men, and over by a group of horsemen the Parthians were banding together and would soon have a large enough force to take on their attackers. Cato could imagine the carnage they would wreak if they got the chance to bombard the Romans with arrows before they reached the safety of the walls of Fort Bushir.
'Come on!' Macro bellowed, waving angrily to the men straggling back from the pursuit. 'Hurry up!'
The tide of battle was changing before their eyes. Already the Judaeans were starting to turn on the Romans, chasing after those who had let their battle rage carry them too far. As Cato watched, a group of Judaeans caught up with one of the auxiliaries and knocked him to the ground. The man rolled on to his back and tried to cover himself with his shield, then Cato lost sight of him as the enemy crowded round and hacked at the victim at their feet, their sword blades rising and falling in a frenzy.
Cato turned to Macro. 'If we don't make a move for the fort now, we'll never reach it.'
Macro glanced round. It was over half a mile to the breach where the gatehouse had once stood. The enemy would run them down long before they got there if they delayed any longer. Macro faced his men. 'Second Illyrian! Back to the fort, double time! Scrofa! Postumus! On me!'
As the centurions and optios of the infantry relayed the orders and turned their men back towards Bushir, the two cavalry commanders trotted over to Macro.They had lost only a handful of men in the pursuit of the enemy and most had already returned to their standards, although several were still trying to fight their way back through the rallying Judaeans.
Macro addressed them hurriedly, one eye on the enemy streaming back towards the camp. 'I want the cavalry to screen our retreat. Pull your men back to the edge of the camp facing the fort. Form them in line and charge anyone that looks threatening, Once we make the breach you can fall back and the archers will cover you from the wall.'
Postumus exchanged a quick glance with Scrofa before he replied. 'That's madness.You'll get us killed.'
'That can happen to soldiers,' Macro said coldly. 'This isn't a bloody debating society, gentlemen.Those are your orders and you will carry them out. Go!'
Scrofa wheeled his mount round and spurred it back towards his command. Postumus glared at Macro for a moment and then followed his former commander.
'Come on.' Macro patted Cato's arm and started trotting after the column of infantry hastening back to the fort. Around them ran the last of the stragglers.There was a pounding of hooves and the cavalry galloped by in a cloud of dust to take up their allotted positions. Once past the camp they turned outwards and formed a line, Scrofa's men to the left of the breach, Postumus' to the right, leaving a gap for the infantry to pass through. Cato and Macro caught up with the rear century and joined the ranks. Glancing back over his shoulder Cato was shocked to see some Judaeans sprinting after him, no more than fifty paces behind. A handful of them stopped abruptly and began to whirl slings overhead.
'Look out!' Cato shouted. 'Slingshot!'
He turned and presented his shield, just in time to save himself from a stone that cracked off the top edge of his shield and rattled over the top of his helmet. One of the other men was not so lucky and was struck in the back at the base of his spine. His legs went dead and he flopped forward with a cry of pain and surprise. One of his comrades stopped and hurried back to his side.
'Leave him!' Macro ordered, thrusting him back towards the column. Cato turned back and ran to catch up, tensing his shoulders and ducking his head slightly as if that might make him significantly less of a target. More shot whipped by and this time fate spared the Romans any further casualties. They were closing up on the cavalry screen and Macro called out, 'Cavalry! Charge them! Now!'
Scrofa and Postumus waved their swords to the front and the grim-faced cavalrymen edged their mounts forward. They trotted past Macro and Cato and the Judaeans who were pursuing them slithered to a halt as they realised their danger, and began to fall back. However, beyond them Cato could see a line of horsemen trotting towards the Roman cavalry. The Parthians came on, bows held ready and sword scabbards slapping the flanks of their mounts.The men caught between the two lines of horsemen ran from the narrowing gap, desperate to escape the clash. Macro and Cato continued towards the fort, casting glances back over their shoulders. Suddenly Macro stopped and turned.
'What the hell is he doing?'
Cato fell back and joined him in time to see Postumus' squadrons veer to the right, cutting diagonally across the enemy front. Postumus swept his arm forward and shouted an order that Macro and Cato could not quite catch the sense of. His cavalry increased their speed and galloped away from the camp, towards the north. As they did so Scrofa reined in and his men halted, perhaps a hundred paces from the enemy. He turned to watch as Postumus and his men rode off.
'The bastard's running out on us!' Macro said in astonishment.
'The fool,' Cato muttered. 'Where does he think he can escape to?'
'Who cares?' Macro turned back to the men pursuing them. Scrofa and his men were all that now stood between the infantry heading for the fort and the enemy horde, desperate to chase after them and wipe them out. 'Only Scrofa can save us now.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand