Scrofa stared at the oncoming Parthians, then glanced back at Macro, as if looking for guidance. Macro swore softly and muttered, 'You have your orders, man. Bloody well carry them out.'
'He's going to run for it too,' Cato decided, grabbing his friend's arm. 'We have to go. Now!'
'Wait!' Macro raised his arm and thrust it out towards the enemy. Scrofa was still for a moment, then he nodded. With a formal, final salute to Macro he swept his sword towards the Parthians and shouted the order to charge. His men spurred their horses on, and holding their shields close and clutching their spears tightly they raced towards the Parthians. Macro shook his head in wonder, before Cato pulled his arm insistently. The two officers turned away and ran down the track to catch up with the rest of the column hurrying back to the safety of the fort. Behind them there was a pounding of hooves for an instant and then the clash and ring of sword blades, the thud of blows landing on shields, shrill whinnies from terrified horses and the savage war cries of fighting men, and the screams of the wounded.
Ahead of them the first of the infantry centuries had reached the breach and was scrambling up the bloodstained rubble. Parmenion leaned over the wall to the side, desperately waving the men on. As more of the infantry arrived, the units struggling up the rubble merged into a single mob of frantic men, while their comrades jostled forward at the base of the mound, anxiously looking over their shoulders.When Macro and Cato reached them they looked back and saw that Scrofa and his men were locked in a terribly unequal fight with the Parthians and would surely be cut to pieces as the price they paid for saving their comrades. Cato glanced away to the north and saw that Postumus and his friends were already little more than dark blots amid a haze of kicked-up dust. Already, a large number of Parthians were racing after them, determined not to let them escape, and Cato found himself hoping that Postumus was saved for as horrible a death as the Parthians could conceive.
He turned back and saw that the auxiliaries were still struggling to climb up the rubble slope. 'If this carries on much longer none of the cavalry will survive.'
'Come on you men!' Macro bellowed in frustration. 'Move yourselves!'
Macro turned towards the voice and saw Centurion Parmenion waving at him from the wall, an excited expression on his face.
'What is it?'
'There, sir! Look over there!' Parmenion thrust his arm out and stabbed his finger to the south.
Macro thrust his way through the men and clambered a short distance up the slope so that he could see. An instant later Cato was at his side and both officers scanned the desert in the direction Parmenion had indicated. At first the swirling dust stirred up by Bannus' army made it hard to discern what was causing Parmenion to be so animated. Then a fluke of breeze shifted the dust and Cato saw beyond the enemy. There was another body of men, hundreds of them, mounted on horses and camels, riding out of the desert directly towards the Judaeans. Now Macro could see them and he punched his fist into the air. 'It's Symeon! Symeon!'
The men around him paused and turned to look and then took up Macro's cry. Cato, true to his cautious nature, looked hard at the approaching riders and did not join in the cheering.There was no possible way of telling who they were at this distance. But now the enemy had seen the men riding down on them and at once they turned away from the fort.The blind pursuit of the hated Romans dissolved in an instant and they were fleeing for their lives once again. There was light enough to see clearly, and their leaders began to rally some of their men, forming them up to face the oncoming threat. But most just ran, across the camp, instinctively heading in the direction of the villages they had left to join Bannus in his struggle against the Romans. Only when he saw them break and run did Cato allow himself to believe that it was Symeon, or at least allies of some kind. The men around him were cheering wildly and now the auxiliaries began to flow in the other direction, out of the fort and back towards the enemy camp. Macro and Cato slithered down the rubble after them.
Ahead, the survivors of Scrofa's cavalry slumped wearily in their saddles and stared in confusion as the Parthians suddenly turned and fled from the scene, galloping away as fast as their mounts would carry them, heedless of their former allies as they rode through and over them. When Macro reached the scene he looked round.
'Where's Scrofa?' He turned. 'Scrofa!'
'There, sir.' Cato pointed. A short distance away, beneath a riderless horse, lay a crumpled body in a rich red cape, the helmet bearing the crescent of an officer. Near him lay the bodies of two Parthians. Macro and Cato hurried over and knelt down beside Scrofa, shifting him gently on to his back. Scrofa's eyes flickered open. He stared round with a dazed expression when he saw the two officers looming over him.
'Macro…' he said quietly. 'I'd hoped they'd got you too.'
Macro smiled. 'No such luck.'
Cato caught his eye and nodded towards Scrofa's side. The broken stump of an arrow shaft protruded from the former prefect's chest, just below his heart. Frothy blood oozed out of the wound. Macro turned his gaze back to Scrofa's face. 'That was quite a charge you led there.You saved us.'
'So it seems.' He smiled weakly and then his face screwed up in agony for a moment, before the pain receded. 'Who would have thought I'd ever save your lives? There's no justice.'
'Enough of the hard man act, Scrofa. It doesn't suit you.'
Scrofa's lips flickered into a smile. 'But I was a good soldier in the end, wasn't I?'
'You were. I'll make sure that everyone knows it.'
'You do that… One other thing.'
'What is it?'
'Postumus…' Scrofa raised his head with a struggle and suddenly gripped Macro's hand tightly. 'Swear to me you'll make that bastard pay. For running out on us. For his treachery…'
'Don't worry about Postumus. Last I saw of him he was being run down by scores of Parthians. He'll not get away. And if he does, and we take him alive, I'll make sure he knows what you thought of him before you-' Macro broke off in embarrassment. 'Well, you can tell him yourself. Once you've recovered.'
Scrofa slumped back and whispered, 'No such luck…'
'Wait!' Cato leaned over him. 'Scrofa! You said treachery. What treachery?'
Scrofa's eyes fluttered and he spasmed, his body arching as the muscles tensed. Then abruptly he relaxed and sank back on to the sand, head lolling to one side. Cato snatched his wrist and felt for a pulse, but there was nothing and he let the arm drop down to Scrofa's side. 'He's gone.'
Macro stared at him for a moment and shook his head. 'You know, I never thought he had it in him to go out like a hero. It took guts to do what he did. I was wrong about him.'
'No, you were right about him, up until the end.' Cato rose to his feet. 'This was his redemption. He knew that. I saw it when he saluted you. He was lucky to get his chance to do some good before he died.'
'Lucky?' Macro stood up. 'You have a funny idea of luck, Cato.'
'Maybe.' Cato looked round. The auxiliaries were spread out across the camp, chasing after the Judaeans. This time it was no ploy to gain time. The enemy was routed and the Romans' wild triumph and bloodlust was unrestrained. Ahead of them rode the new arrivals, mercilessly running down the Judaean rebels and those Parthian allies who had been unhorsed.
Macro noticed a small group of horsemen riding across towards them. At their head was Symeon, and as they approached and reined in Macro recognized Murad amongst his companions and they exchanged a smile. Symeon slid down from his mount and grasped Macro's arms and planted a kiss on each of his cheeks.
'Prefect. Thanks be to Yahweh that you are safe! You too, Centurion Cato.' Symeon gestured towards the riders sweeping across the desert after the enemy. 'Apologies for not arriving sooner, but we made the best time we could.'
'Who are all these men?' Macro asked. 'I was expecting some help, not a bloody army.'
'Those men work for the caravan cartels. Caravan escorts. Mostly mercenaries, but good men.'
'They certainly seem to be taking satisfaction in their work. How did you get hold of so many of them?'
'My friends gave their word to repay you for saving that caravan.'
'Well, they've certainly returned the favour,' Macro responded. 'Now we have to find Bannus, make sure that he's taken alive if he isn't dead already. He needs to be made an example of.'
'Bannus?' Symeon turned and pointed down the road towards Heshaba. 'I saw a party of horsemen ride that way as we attacked. Perhaps twenty or thirty. Most were Parthians. He could have been with them.'
'More than likely,' Macro replied. 'I'll have to go after him.'
'Ride with us,' Symeon offered. 'We know the lie of the land. You'll not get far on your own. No Roman would. Besides, I have my own business to settle with Bannus.'
Macro thought for a moment.'All right then. But first tell your men they can quarter in the fort if they wish.We can feed and water them. I'll leave Centurion Parmenion in command, and give him orders to look after your men. He can also have our hostages released. We've no further need of them now. Wait here. Cato!'
'Find us two good mounts, and suitable kit and provisions for hunting down Bannus.'
'Yes, sir.' Cato looked at him with an anxious expression.
'What's the matter?'
'It's that village that worries me, sir. The one that sheltered me and Symeon.'
'What about it?'
'Symeon said Bannus was heading in that direction, and he'll need to water his horses, and find provisions himself, before he goes any further. Bannus is a desperate man. In his current frame of mind who knows what he'll do when he gets there?'
'Well, we'll find out soon enough,' Macro responded soberly. 'Now, let's not waste any more time.'
He turned and strode back towards the fort.
Cato had a sick feeling in his stomach the moment they turned the last corner in the track leading down the wadi towards the village of Heshaba early in the afternoon.They had seen a trail of smoke from some distance away and now the village was in view below them, beneath a dark billowing cloud. Several of the houses in the centre of the village were burning fiercely and some of the inhabitants were trying to beat the flames out, while others formed a chain from the water trough in the village square, throwing buckets of water on to the flames. Symeon looked aghast and spurred his mount into a gallop at the sight, and the rest of the small column hastened after him.They tethered the horses to a clump of olive trees outside the village and ran through to the square. Several villagers lay dead to one side amidst great puddles of blood, all of them with cut throats. Symeon snapped a series of orders at his men and they went to help fight the fires as best they could. Cato looked round in alarm.
'Where's Miriam? I can't see her.'
Symeon looked round anxiously, then pointed up the street to where a woman sat slumped against the side of a building, in the shade. 'I think that's her. Come on.'
They ran over to the woman, who was sitting cross-legged and nursing her head in both hands as she wept.
Symeon crouched down beside her. 'Miriam?'
She wiped her eyes and looked up, revealing a cut and bruised cheek. She seemed dazed and confused for an instant before some clarity of thought returned to her. She swallowed and cleared her throat. 'What have we done to deserve this?'
'What happened?' Symeon asked gently. He took her hand and stroked it. 'Miriam, what happened?'
She looked up at him, lips quivering. 'Bannus. He came here with some men.They demanded food and the little gold and silver that we have. When my people protested Bannus seized the nearest family, and killed them, one by one, until we gave him what he wanted.' She looked round at Cato and Macro. 'He took my son's casket… and…and he took my…my Yusef.' Her face crumpled and she began to weep again, great sobs of despair and sorrow racking her thin frame. Symeon tenderly placed his arm round her shoulder and stroked her hair with his spare hand.
'Yusef?' Cato frowned. 'Why would he take Yusef? It doesn't make sense. If he's trying to escape us why burden himself with a prisoner?'
'Not a prisoner,' Miriam mumbled. 'A hostage. He recognised you, Symeon, when you attacked him this morning. He knows you are coming after him, and he knows you would not allow Yusef to come to any harm. So he took him with them.'
'All right,' said Macro. 'I can understand the boy, but this casket? What's that about?'
Miriam replied quietly. 'Bannus claims to be the one who is continuing the work of Jehoshua. He had a large following amongst our people. They would place great value on the contents of the casket.'
Miriam shrugged. 'A kind of treasure. Now it's in the hands of Bannus and he will want to use it to claim that he is the rightful successor to my son.'
'What's in the casket?' Macro asked Symeon.
'I don't know,' Symeon replied.'Only Miriam knows.'
Macro turned back to her. 'Well?'
She shook her head and Macro sighed impatiently.'So don't tell me… Anyway, Bannus has the casket, he has a hostage and he has a head start on us. Do you know which way he went?'
'Yes.' Miriam looked up and cuffed her tears away.'He said to tell Symeon to find him in Petra.'
'Petra?' Cato was confused. 'Why Petra? And why tell us where he is going?'
'He wants to speak to Symeon. Somewhere he can talk in safety.'
'Makes some sense,' Symeon conceded.'Petra's neutral even if these friends of mine are not. They've been an enemy of Judaea in the past, but now they're concerned that Rome has her eye on Nabataea. Bannus is counting on their king's mistrust of Rome. Bannus thinks he'll be safe there.'
'How long ago did they leave?' Macro interrupted. 'Miriam?'
'Just before noon.'
'It's what, two days' ride to Petra?'
Symeon nodded. 'Two days, or quicker if you force the pace.'
'Could we catch up with him?'
Symeon shrugged. 'We could try.'
'Then let's get moving – we've wasted enough time here.' Macro saw the hurt in Symeon's expression as he comforted Miriam and was aware of Cato's disapproving frown. He turned to Miriam and tried to sound reasonable and reassuring. 'Listen, Miriam, the sooner we set off after them, the better chance we have of getting your grandson back for you, and that casket.'
Miriam suddenly grabbed his hand and looked into Macro's eyes with an intense expression. 'Swear to me that you will bring Yusef back to me! Swear it!'
'What?' Macro looked angry and tried to pull his hand back, but the woman gripped him with surprising strength. 'Look, I can't swear it. But I'll do my best.'
'Swear it!' she insisted. 'As Yahweh is your witness.'
'I don't know about any Yahweh,' Macro replied uneasily. 'But if you want me to swear by Jupiter and Fortuna, I will, if it helps you.'
'By your gods then,' she assented. 'Swear to return Yusef to me.'
'I swear I will do my best,' Macro compromised, then turned to Cato and Symeon. 'Now let's get going.'
He strode back towards the horses. Symeon squeezed Miriam's shoulder gently one last time, then set off after Macro, calling out to his men to leave the fires and come with him. Cato hesitated a moment. He was sick of the suffering that he had witnessed in this province. Sick of his part in its perpetuation. The image of the boy he had slammed his shield down on to flashed through Cato's mind. A boy the same age as Yusef. He felt a great sadness settle on him like a heavy burden. Something had to be done about the situation. Cato needed to bring some good out of it all. Just to feel clean again. 'Miriam?'
She looked up.
'We will find him, and bring him back,' said Cato. 'I promise I won't rest until we do.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand