Symeon took them to his home on the side of the hill opposite the palace. It was a modest house by the standard of many Nabataeans who lived off the caravan trade. The plain door gave on to an atrium with a small courtyard beyond. Rooms led off from the courtyard and a narrow staircase led upstairs to the sleeping quarters. Symeon had one slave, an elderly man by the name of Bazim who maintained the house and cooked for his master when Symeon returned to Petra from his travels.
'It's not very grand,' Symeon said as he showed them inside,'but it's all I need and it's the closest thing I've ever had to a home. Come, Bazim's prepared a room for you. I imagine you're both still tired from the journey here, and a night in the cells hasn't helped much.'
'Thank you,' said Cato. 'I'd like that.'
'Then rest. We'll talk again tonight, over a meal. Meanwhile, if there's anything you need just ask Bazim. I have to go out now.'
'Yes, there's some business that needs attending to. I have to meet Murad and some of the caravan cartels. It'll take most of the day.'
'We'll see you later then,' said Macro.
Symeon smiled, and turned to leave the house. When the door had closed behind him Macro let out a jaw-cracking yawn and arched his back. 'I'm all in. Bazim!'
The slave shuffled out of his small room at the end of the hall. 'Master?'
'You speak Greek?'
'Of course, master.'
'Good for you. Now show me to this room you've made ready.'
'Yes, master. Over here.' He led them to the rear of the courtyard and through a small passage, and they emerged in a walled garden. Bright plants climbed a trellis that stretched over the nearest half of the garden giving a cool shaded area. In one corner was a large room with a plain bed on either side. The sound of running water caught Macro's ear and he looked round in surprise.
'There's a fountain over there.' Macro crossed the garden and stood in front of the small basin into which a thin jet of water tumbled from the mouth of a brass lion on the wall. He reached his hands into the water and relished the cooling flow over his skin. In the time since he and Cato had first landed in Caesarea water had been such a precious commodity that to see a fountain here in Symeon's house seemed like something of a miracle.
Bazim approached from behind. 'My master thought you might like to rest where you could hear the sound of running water.'
Macro smiled. 'He was right. Bless him.'
He leaned forward and doused his head in the spray, shaking it off as he stood back up, sending glittering droplets across the paving slabs of the sunlit courtyard. For a moment, he was transported back to his childhood, to the long summer days when he swam with his friends in a small stream that fed into the Tiber. Then the moment was gone, and he was aware once again of how tired he felt. He trod wearily across to the room that Bazim had prepared.
'Hey, Cato! Where have you got to?'
Inside the room, his friend was already asleep, still in his borrowed robes, head resting on a bolster and mouth agape as he breathed heavily. Macro smiled. Cato had beat him to it, keen to fall asleep before Macro's snoring could keep him awake.As Macro kicked off his sandals he noticed that Cato still wore his. He hesitated a moment, then padded over to his friend and pulled the sandals off gently and placed them on the floor. Then he lay down on his own bed, smiling at the comfort afforded by the thick bedroll. In the background the water gurgled pleasantly and dappled sunlight filtered through the foliage on the trellis. Macro closed his eyes. He could do with a few days of this, and he found himself hoping that the King of Nabataea did not return to his capital too soon.
As his thoughts returned to the reason for their presence in Petra, Macro's mood soured. Somewhere out there in the streets and houses of the city lurked Bannus and his Parthian friends. Whatever the King decided to do on his return, there would be a reckoning, Macro vowed. Bannus must not be allowed to survive and breed yet more rebellion in the troubled, long-suffering province of Judaea.
The days passed slowly and Cato and Macro quickly grew frustrated by the restrictions placed on their movements in the city. Especially Cato, who was fascinated by the sheer peculiarity of the vast tombs and temples that had been carved from the rock with such skill. By day they explored the market, and marvelled at the range of luxury items that rivalled all but the most prestigious establishments in Rome. There was a library where Cato discovered a collection of maps, many of which detailed lands that no Roman had heard of, let alone seen. For his part, Macro was content to sample the food and the wine and catch up on his sleep in the cool garden of Symeon's house. Soon after their arrival Symeon informed them that he had discovered where Bannus and the Parthians were staying. A rich merchant on the other side of the city had offered them his home. He had no love of Rome, like many Nabataeans who viewed any expansion of the Empire with anxiety.
Then, one afternoon, when Cato was walking through the precinct of the great temple in front of Petra's wide forum, Bannus emerged from a colonnade right in front of him. Both men automatically stopped and started to apologise before their eyes met and the words died on their lips. There was a tense silence and then Bannus made to move away.
'Wait!' said Cato. 'I want to talk. We have to talk.'
Bannus continued for a few paces before he stopped and turned. 'Aren't you forgetting the terms of the oath we took for the chamberlain?'
'No. But that was to stop us fighting. I just want to talk.'
'Talk?' Bannus smiled. 'What about? The weather? The price of corn? The withdrawal of Rome from Judaea?'
Cato ignored the sarcasm and pointed to a small wine shop on the far side of the forum.'In there, in case we are seen together by any of the chamberlain's men.'
They made their way over to the wine shop in silence and sat on stools on opposite sides of a small table.
'Allow me,' said Bannus and ordered a jar of wine, before he turned back to Cato. 'So, talk.'
'Your revolt is over.Your army has been crushed and the survivors have returned to their villages.'
'I failed this time,' Bannus admitted. 'But there will be another rebellion. As long as the presence of Rome corrupts our land there will always be rebellion.'
Cato's heart sank. 'But you cannot prevail against Rome.Your men are no match for the legions, you must know that.'
'That is why I made a treaty with Parthia.' Bannus smiled. 'I think even a Roman must have heard what happened to the army of Crassus at Carrhae. Or don't they mention that in your histories?'
'They mention it.'
'Then you must know that Parthia is more than a match for Rome on the battlefields of the east.'
'Perhaps. But if Parthia prevails, do you imagine for a moment that they would let Judaea exist as an independent state, despite what they may have promised you?'
Bannus shrugged. 'If they try to impose their rule on us we will rebel against them as we have against Rome.'
'And be defeated again.' Cato shook his head. 'Can't you see? Judaea is fated to be a vassal of one empire or another. Like many other states. Most of them have found their place in our world and are prosperous and peaceful enough. Why should that not be true of Judaea?'
'You've spent too long in the company of that traitor, Symeon.' Bannus sneered. 'Just because it is true of other provinces does not justify imposing your rule on us. We are different, and we want our sovereignty back. Until that happens, there can be no peace.'
Cato stared back at him in silence for a while. Inside he felt the ache of despair. Bannus was a fanatic. There was no reasoning with such men. He decided to change the subject. 'Very well. I understand your position. But it will take time to build another army. So what is the point of keeping the boy,Yusef? He has served his purpose.You no longer need a hostage.'
'Yusef stays with me.'
'He is the son of the founder of our movement. He needs to be made aware of his heritage. In time he can serve as my lieutenant.With him at my side, and with the relics of his father in my hands, we will be able to win back those who have forgotten the true way.'
'You mean Miriam and her people?'
'Them, and communities like them, in every city across the eastern world. At the moment they are confused. Miriam, and traitors like Symeon, have been corrupting the message of Jehoshua, telling his supporters that armed resistance is futile and that we must use peaceful means to win over our enemies. That we must have faith in the long term.' He stared at Cato. 'Tell me, Roman, what can faith achieve that force can't? Liberty grows from the point of a sword. That is my creed. That was the creed of Jehoshua, before he weakened at the moment of crisis. That is the creed which Miriam and Symeon and their followers have betrayed. It is the creed I will teach Yusef, and one day he will ride at my side at the head of our army when we liberate Jerusalem. Only then will we have fulfilled the dream of Jehoshua.'
'With you as the mashiah, naturally.'
'Of course. I have inherited the role from Jehoshua.'
Cato was aware of something that had been said a moment earlier, and frowned. 'What did you mean, "before he weakened"?'
'Ah.' Bannus leaned forward and smiled. 'Why don't you ask your friend Symeon about that? About how it all ended? Now, please excuse me, but I really don't think that there is much purpose in continuing this discussion. If we ever meet again, Roman, then I will kill you.'
He stood up and strode out of the wine shop and across the forum. Cato watched him until he disappeared up a side street. A feeling of tired despair filled his heart like a lead weight. He had hoped to reason with the man and try, at least, to persuade him to release Yusef. All now depended on the will of the King of Nabataea.
That night, as they dined in Symeon's garden, Cato was nervous. For the rest of the day, he had dwelt on Bannus' remarks about Symeon and was determined to find out what lay behind the intense hatred between the two men. As Bazim cleared away the platters of mensaf, and brought them a jug of spiced, heated wine, the three men sat quietly for a moment staring at the stars that shone so brilliantly in the clear sky. A full moon hung over the dark outline of the cliff that towered over the royal palace.
Then there was a dull rap at the door and they heard Bazim's slow footsteps as he went to answer it. After a moment he emerged from the house and handed his master a small, hinged wax slate. Symeon flipped it open and scanned the message inside.
'It's from the chamberlain.The King returned to Petra at dusk. He is in session with the chamberlain and his advisers. Their decision will be communicated to us in the morning.'
'Good!' Macro thumped the cushion of his seat.'We'll have that bastard Bannus in our hands and we can settle the matter once and for all.'
Symeon looked at him.'You seem very confident that the King will decide in your favour.'
'Why shouldn't I be confident? He's got more to fear from Rome than Parthia.'
'That may be true, Prefect, but for pity's sake don't say such things in front of anyone else here in Petra. The last thing we need now is anyone stirring up anti-Roman hysteria.'
Macro was chastened and took a sip of wine. 'Just telling it the way it is.'
Symeon chuckled. 'Which is why you're an accomplished soldier, and not a diplomat.'
'And thank fuck for that.' Macro raised his glass. 'Sooner an honest fighter than a man who fights honesty any day.'
Symeon clapped his hands. 'An aphorism is born!'
'I spoke to Bannus today,' Cato blurted out.
The others stopped smiling and turned to stare at him. Macro recovered first.'What the hell did you do that for? You want to get us thrown back in that bloody cell?'
'Well then.' Macro shook his head in exasperation. 'Why did you do it?'
'I tried to persuade him to hand over Yusef.'
'He said no, I take it.'
'He said that, and more.' Cato's eyes turned to Symeon. 'Bannus told me I should ask you what happened to Jehoshua, at the end.'
Symeon breathed in deeply and looked down into the dark red liquid in his glass. There was a long silence, in which Macro attracted Cato's attention and raised his eyebrows. Cato gestured to him to be patient. At length Symeon spoke.
'I'll tell you what happened, then you'll understand why there is now only a deep hatred between Bannus and myself. You already know that we were both followers of Jehoshua, but in those days we were also friends.The best of friends, like brothers really.There was a third friend, but I'll tell you about him in a minute.We joined the movement because Jehoshua held out the promise of freeing Judaea. As he drew more and more people to follow him some began to say he was the mashiah. He ignored them at first, but after a while he seemed to become attracted to the idea. I confess, I encouraged him in this. I am ashamed of it now, given what happened. Anyway, the prophecy of the mashiah is quite specific. He must liberate Jerusalem, assume the throne of David and lead Judaea to victory over the rest of the world.'
'That's a tall order,' Macro said quietly.
'Quite.' Symeon smiled faintly, and continued. 'So, with several thousand of our followers behind us, we set out for Jerusalem. It began well enough.The streets were lined with people who greeted us hysterically and showered blessings on Jehoshua.We managed to take over the precincts of the Great Temple. Jehoshua ordered that the moneylenders and the tax collectors be kicked out of the temple and their records destroyed.You can imagine how well that went down with the poor amongst his followers.Then we took over the armoury of the temple guards. At first we were carried away with the elation of it all. All that remained was to confront the Sanhedrin, persuade them to come over to our side and rise up against the Roman garrison.'
'What were they doing about it?' Macro interrupted. 'The garrison? Surely they would have intervened the moment you took over the temple?'
'They shut themselves up in Herod's palace. At the time the tensions between my people and the Roman officials were at breaking point. There had been riots a few years earlier, and the procurator did not want to risk inflaming the situation again. So they did nothing.'
Macro sat back with a look of disgust. 'I'd have sorted you lot out in short order.'
'I imagine you would. But you are not Pilate. Anyway, the Sanhedrin refused to come over to us. You have to understand that the high priests were drawn from the richest, most powerful families, and Jehoshua believed that Judaeans had to be freed from poverty and exploitation as much as from Roman tyranny. He had assumed that the Sanhedrin would place their nation before their purses, and was thrown aback by their refusal to cooperate.That's when he lost it. Suddenly, he said that we could not win by force of arms. We must win the argument. We must win the battle for the hearts and minds of our enemies.'
'Hearts and minds.' Macro laughed. 'Where have I heard that one before? Shit, when will people ever learn… Sorry, please go on.'
'Thank you.' Symeon frowned before he continued. 'When we heard him utter this new line, we were horrified. Bannus and I met in secret, and decided he had to go. The movement needed a more resolute leader or there would be no revolt. No new kingdom of Judaea. So we decided to betray Jehoshua. Hand him over to the authorities. They would surely execute him and we would have a martyr, as well as a new leader.'
'Who?' Cato asked. 'You or Bannus?'
'Me. Bannus would be my lieutenant.'
'Some friends you turned out to be,' said Macro.'With friends like you and Bannus what need had Jehoshua of enemies?'
'You don't understand, Prefect,' Symeon replied intensely. 'We loved Jehoshua. We all did. But we loved Judaea more. We had to save our people. What is the life of one man, however much he is loved, when weighed against the fate of an entire nation?' He paused and sipped from his glass. 'So we prepared a message, telling the authorities where they could find Jehoshua. There was only one man close to us whom we could trust to deliver the message, the third friend in our circle that I told you of earlier. His name was Judas. Even so, we did not dare to tell him what was in the message. So Judas took the message to the Sanhedrin. Jehoshua was arrested, tried, tortured and executed. His followers were stunned. Too stunned to react to events. Before the day was out the Roman troops were on the streets arresting the ringleaders and disarming and dispersing their followers. I managed to escape, with Bannus, through the sewers. Once we got out of Jerusalem we split up. He went north to continue the struggle. I went south, to Petra. For a while I was desolated, too ashamed of what we did, to care about anything. But slowly, I built a new life for myself and began to travel, to rebuild my connections with the surviving members of the movement, like Miriam. I did not realise at first that I had changed. I had been young and inexperienced and had never seen a battle in those days. To think that I ever believed we could beat the legions!' He shook his head. 'The romance of great causes and the folly of youth just leads to death. Eventually I came to realise that Jehoshua had been right in the end; we could not defeat Rome with swords, only with words, with ideas. Bannus never accepted that.'
'And Judas?' Cato asked. 'What became of him?'
Symeon bowed his head in shame. 'As soon as he realised what had been contained in the message, he hanged himself.' Symeon's voice trembled. 'I've never been able to forgive myself for that…So now you know my story.' Abruptly, he rose from his couch, bowed his head and quickly walked back into his house.
Macro watched him go, then turned to Cato with a pitying expression. 'This place is one endless bloody tragedy.The sooner we finish the job and get out of here the better. I've had enough of it. I'm sick of them. All of them.'
Cato did not reply. He was thinking of Yusef. Now he was more determined than ever that the boy must be rescued from Bannus and returned to Miriam. Only then could that small fragment of the cycle of destruction and despair be broken.
The messenger came early in the morning. Macro and Cato were eating a breakfast of figs and goats' milk when Symeon emerged from the house with a smile.'The King has agreed to hand Bannus over to us. The Parthian prince will be returned to his kingdom. Soldiers are already on the way to the house where Bannus and his friends are staying, with orders to arrest them.'
Cato felt a lightness in his chest. 'Then it's over.'
'Yes.' Symeon smiled. 'It's over, and there will be some peace in Judaea, for now. The King has asked that we come to the palace to formally conclude matters, as soon as we receive the message.'
Macro jumped up, rubbing the sticky remains of his meal on the folds of his tunic. He beamed. 'Well? What are we waiting for?'
They were shown into the chamberlain's hall once again, and this time provided with chairs. A few clerks and officials sat with them, waiting for the chamberlain and the King to appear. For a while Macro sat contentedly, then he became slowly irritated by the growing delay and started tapping his foot, the sound echoing faintly off the walls, until Symeon reached over and held his knee still.
'Where's the bloody King, then?' Macro grumbled. 'We've been waiting ages.'
A side door opened and a clerk scuttled in and whispered something to one of the chamberlain's advisers.The adviser glanced towards the Roman officers before he nodded to the clerk and crossed the hall towards Cato and Macro.
'Something's wrong,' said Cato. 'Something's happened.'
'What do you mean?' Macro whispered irritably. 'What could be wrong?'
The adviser bowed his head to them and addressed Symeon in the local tongue. Cato watched Symeon's response and saw the look of shock.
'What is it?'
Symeon held up his hand to silence Cato and let the adviser finish his message. Then he turned to Macro and Cato.
'Bannus has gone. When the soldiers arrived at the house to arrest him this morning the Parthians were still there, but Bannus was not in his room. Two horses are missing from the stables of the owner of the house. The soldiers immediately sent word to the guards on the entrance to the siq to stop anyone leaving the city. They were too late. The siq guards reported that a man left Petra at first light. He claimed to be a merchant, and he had a boy with him.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand