Macro and Cato waited while Symeon rode into the wide mouth of the wadi and scanned the ground before him, looking for tracks. As the patch of stony ground gave way to the bright red sand he found what he was looking for and beckoned to the others. Macro and Cato urged their mounts forward, picking a route through the rocks until they reached their companion. Symeon had dismounted and pointed out the hoof imprints.
'Definitely horses.' He stood up and followed the line of the tracks stretching out into the sand until they faded in the distance, in line with the edge of a large dune and one of the vast towers of rock beyond.
'It has to be Bannus,' Cato commented. 'Who else would ride into a wilderness like this?'
Macro grunted. He had finally consented to wear a headdress like the local people and was now grateful that it was keeping the sun off his head. Even so, it was three days since they had galloped out of the siq, desperately trying to catch up with Bannus. Initially there had been no indication which direction he had taken, but then the pursuers had chanced on a shepherd boy in the hills half a day's ride to the south of Petra who had seen a man and a boy ride past, heading south. Symeon and the two Romans had followed, moving from sighting to sighting and once finding the smouldering remains of a small fire. They were already far off the established caravan routes and heading towards the deep desert of Arabia. A chance sighting of a puff of dust in the distance had drawn them to this vast expanse of red sand that formed the bed of a giant maze of sheer rock formations, known to the nearest tribes as Rhum. No horseman had any reason to be in a place like this, unless he was on the run.
'Bannus,' Symeon agreed, and remounted. He drew in his reins and they continued riding into the vast mouth of the wadi, which stretched out for miles ahead of them. The tracks were easy enough to follow, and Cato wondered why Bannus had chosen to cross terrain that would leave proof of his passing in such an obvious manner. But then, Bannus would be desperate, especially if he knew that he was being followed. The Nabataeans had immediately sent messengers south with a description of the man and so there would be little chance of hiding in that direction. All that was left to Bannus now was Arabia, and the hope that he could cross it and then ride north to his friends in Parthia. He no longer cared about hiding his tracks, only about putting as much distance as possible between him and his pursuers.
They rode on, the soft impact of the horses' hooves providing the only sound amid the desolate landscape surrounding them. At the end of the wadi the tracks bent to the left and headed across a wide open stretch of sand, broken up by a handful of dunes, towards another rock formation two or three miles away. It was late in the afternoon and already long dark shadows stretched across sections of the desert. Halfway across this expanse Symeon halted them at the base of a dune and dismounted.
'I'm going to have a look from the top. See if I can see any sign of him.'
'I'm coming too,' Cato decided and jumped down.
'There's no need.'
'I'm worried about Yusef. I have to see for myself.'
Symeon shrugged and started to climb the side of the dune.
Cato turned to Macro. 'Won't be long.'
Macro reached for his canteen and took a small swig. 'If you see any sign of water, let me know.'
Cato smiled, then moved off, following Symeon's tracks up the dune. As soon as the slope made itself apparent the going became difficult as the sand shifted downhill under his feet, to such an extent that it felt as if he was making no progress at all. But eventually, exhausted, he flopped down beside Symeon and scanned the way ahead. On the far side of the dune the sand continued for another mile before it reached the rock formation. Now Cato could see that there was a cleft in the rocks that ran from top to bottom. At the base of the cliffs was a small clump of shrubs and a handful of stunted trees.
'There's water there.'
'That's not all.' Symeon strained his eyes. 'Look again.'
This time Cato saw it, the tiny shapes of two horses, almost lost against the shrubs, and the figure of a man, or a boy, sitting in the shade of one of the trees.
'I can only see one of them.'
'Calm yourself, Cato. We've seen no sign of a body since we've been following him. No body, no blood. I'm sure Yusef is over there with him.'
Cato wanted to believe it. 'All right then, what shall we do?'
'We have to wait. If we approach him now he'll be sure to see our dust the moment we emerge from behind this dune. So we wait until dark, and then ride in.We can stop some distance before the rocks and continue on foot. If we can surprise Bannus then we might be able to grab Yusef before he can do anything.'
'Right.' Cato nodded. 'That's the plan then.'
The sun had sunk far below the rims of the peaks of Rhum and cast the whole area into dark shadow as the three horsemen reined in a quarter of a mile from the cleft in the rocks ahead. A small dune, little more than a fold in the land, concealed them from Bannus and they left their horses hobbled to prevent them from wandering into sight before the trap could be sprung. Then, stripping down to their tunics and taking only their swords with them, the three men crept forward.
Bannus had succeeded in lighting a fire and the glow of the flames cast an orange bloom on to the lowest reaches of the cliffs. As they crept forward Cato saw Bannus take a chunk of bread out of the saddlebag resting on the ground by his side. He bent over a bundle of rags on the ground and dropped the bread beside it. The rags moved and Cato realised it was Yusef. Tied up, but alive. As they drew close to the fire Cato saw that there was no cover between them and Bannus. If he looked into the desert he would surely be able to see them before long.
They continued, with painstaking caution, until they were within fifty paces of the fire and could hear the crackle of the flames and the hiss of the burning wood. Bannus was sitting with his side to them. Opposite him Yusef had managed to wriggle up into a sitting position and was eating the bread, held between his bound hands.
Macro tapped Cato's arm and indicated that he was going to circle round behind Bannus, and Cato nodded that he understood. Both he and Symeon silently drew their swords and lay still, pressing themselves into the fine sand as Macro slid slowly to the right in a wide arc round behind Bannus until he was in line with his back, the fire, and Yusef beyond.Then Macro began to creep forward, in slow, gradual movements, until he was within twenty feet of his target. With pounding heart, and hardly daring to breathe, he eased himself up from the sand, drawing his feet under him then rising up, sword in hand, bracing himself to spring towards Bannus' back.
Over Bannus' shoulder Macro saw the boy suddenly gasp and start up, wide-eyed.
'What is it?' Bannus snapped, then a sixth sense made him spin round and he saw Macro launch himself forward. At once Bannus leaped up and sprinted round the fire, snatching out his curved dagger as he went. Cato and Symeon ran in towards the fire. Before any of them could stop him, Bannus had hauled the boy from the ground and now had his forearm locked across Yusef 's throat, pinning him to his chest. The other hand was extended, fist clenching a dagger whose blade gleamed in the firelight.
'Stand back!' Bannus screamed. 'Stand back! One step closer and I swear I'll gut the boy!'
Macro stood only a spear's length away, crouching low, sword point raised. The others were slightly further off, and spread out, so that Bannus had to keep twisting his neck to keep them all in sight.
Yusef raised his bound hands and started to claw at the hairy forearm across his throat.
'He can't breathe,' Cato said calmly. 'Bannus, you're killing him.'
Bannus stared back suspiciously for an instant, and then relented, loosening his grip just enough to let Yusef gasp some air into his lungs.
'That's better,' said Cato. 'Now, we have to talk… again.'
'We said all we had to say last time.'
'There's no escape now, Bannus.You must surrender. But you can do one good thing before it's over. Spare the boy and return him to Miriam.'
'What choice have you got?' Cato pleaded. 'We cannot let you escape again. Let him go.'
'No. Symeon! Saddle my horse. You, Roman – the short one. Your mounts have to be nearby. Bring them here!'
'Fetch them yourself, fuckwit,' Macro growled.
Bannus raised his blade to Yusef 's face and, with a deft flick, nicked his cheek.The boy yelped with pain as a thin trickle of blood coursed down his cheek and across Bannus' forearm.
'Next time, I'll take one of his eyes out. Now get the horses, Roman.'
Symeon looked on in horror before he turned to Macro. 'For pity's sake do as he says.'
'I am not going to let him escape,' Macro said firmly. 'Whatever he threatens to do to the boy. It ends here.'
'Macro, I beg you.' Symeon's voice was broken with anxiety. 'Not the boy. He's all that Miriam has.'
Macro did not reply, and did not take his eyes off Bannus as he stood poised to strike. So it was Cato who first noticed the figures emerging from the darkness of the desert. A dozen camel riders in dark robes, quickly fanning out so that the five figures by the fire were surrounded.
'Macro,' Cato said softly. 'Sheathe your sword, slowly.'
Symeon and Cato did the same and turned towards the new arrivals. There was a moment of stillness in which Cato felt himself and his companions scrutinised by the silent riders. Bannus lowered his knife, but kept his arm firmly round Yusef.
Cato whispered, 'Symeon, who are they?'
'Bedu.' Symeon raised a hand in greeting and spoke to the newcomers. A voice replied in kind and one of the riders edged his camel closer. At a series of tongue clicks and taps from his crop the camel's front legs folded, then the back legs, and the rider eased himself from the saddle. He lowered his veil and stared at them all with dark eyes before he started speaking to Symeon again. Then he turned and snapped out some orders to his men and they also began to dismount. One of the men who had been in the shadows held the reins of the three horses that had been left in the desert.
'What do they want?' Cato asked.
'Water. There's a spring in that fissure. He says it belongs to his tribe and that we are trespassing.'
Macro edged closer to the others. 'Fine, so what does he intend to do about it?'
The Bedu leader ordered some of his men to collect waterskins and they disappeared into the fissure. Then he turned back to Symeon and spoke again.
'He wants to know what we are doing here.'
Cato glanced at Macro. 'We've nothing to hide. Tell him the truth.'
There was another exchange before Symeon relayed the details. 'I told him Bannus is our enemy. I asked him if he would let us take Bannus and the boy and leave. He said no.'
'No?' Cato felt a chill in the back of his neck. 'Why not? What does he want from us?'
'He demands that we pay a price for trespassing on their land.'
'What price? We have nothing of value.'
Symeon smiled faintly. 'Except our lives.'
'They mean to kill us?'
Macro's hand tightened on his sword handle. 'Let them bloody try.'
'Not quite,' Symeon replied. 'He said that since we were enemies, we should finish our fight here, in the light of this fire. One of us will fight Bannus. If our man wins we can leave with the boy. If Bannus wins, he leaves with the boy and you two will be killed.'
'I don't understand.' Macro frowned, then he glanced at Symeon. 'You're going to fight him?'
'No. Let me. I'm trained for this. I'll have a better chance.'
'Prefect, I know how to fight, and this has been a long time coming. Besides, I told the Bedu leader that I would fight.'
Bannus had overheard all this, and smiled.'Nothing I'd like better.'
'Release the boy,' Cato said.
'Why not?' Bannus brought out his knife again and cut Yusef's bonds.As the ties fell away Yusef hobbled a few steps away from Bannus and collapsed on the sand. Symeon rushed over to him and held the boy's shoulders.
'Yusef, are you all right?'
The boy nodded.
'I'll have you back with your people in a few days, I swear it.'
Bannus laughed. 'Only if you kill me first, old friend.'
Symeon looked up at him. 'I will kill you Bannus. It's the only way to cure your sickness.'
'What else can it be when a man is so determined to continue a pointless fight that he no longer cares how many die as a result?'
'I do it for my people!' Bannus protested. 'You abandoned them long ago. What would you understand of our struggle?'
'That it's doomed.You cannot fight Rome and win.'
'I can and I will,' Bannus said with deliberation. 'It's just a question of time.'
Symeon shook his head sadly and held Yusef closer. The leader of the Bedu approached them and spoke to Bannus, pointing to a clear space of ground beside the fire.The Bedu had tethered their camels for the night and now sat in a loose circle about the makeshift arena.
'It's time,' Symeon said.
The Bedu leader pushed them gently towards the clearing, guiding Macro, Cato and Yusef to one side. Then he calmly pressed the two Romans down on to their knees and barked an order to his men. Four came over to stand behind them, and they felt hands on their shoulders and then the cold steel of daggers at their throats. The Bedu shouted to Symeon and the latter nodded, drawing his curved sword.A short distance from him Bannus sheathed his dagger and pulled out his own blade, dropping into a crouch as he eyed Symeon warily.
For a moment the two men stood staring at each other, blades held out, ready to strike or parry. Then Bannus took a few steps to the side, edging round so that the fire was behind him, throwing him into silhouette. At once Symeon circled to cancel the advantage. As he took his last step, Bannus leaped forward, slashing down with his fine curved blade. Symeon expertly parried the blow and swept his sword round to the side, where it rang sharply off the hilt that Bannus had snatched across to block the cut. It had been the work of an instant, the sound of the last clash biting through the air even before the first clatter had faded. Both men drew back and stood, carefully balanced, weighing each other up.
Symeon stepped forward and feinted, and feinted again, but Bannus' blade did not move.
'You're going to have to try harder than that…'
'You talk too much,' Symeon replied quietly, then thrust at his opponent's head, flicking his wrist at the last moment so the blade cut over Bannus' blocking move and sliced towards his temple. Bannus had no choice but to duck and stagger back to avoid the blow and Symeon launched a series of attacks, which Bannus just managed to ward off in a rapid chorus of ringing blades. At the last moment, as Bannus was pressed towards the Bedu at the edge of the clearing, he powered forward, inside the arc of Symeon's blade, and crashed into his chest, sending Symeon spinning backwards. As they broke contact, Bannus sliced his blade past the other man's side and its finely sharpened edge cut through the folds of Symeon's tunic and laid open a long cut on his chest.
Symeon grunted with pain and clapped his spare hand to the wound, raising it up red and dripping a moment later.
Macro winced and turned his head carefully towards Cato. 'Not good.'
Keeping his eyes fixed on Symeon, Bannus called out mockingly, 'Romans! Your friend is too old, too slow. It will be over soon. Better take your leave of each other now.'
Symeon appeared to sway a little and Cato swallowed nervously. Then with what seemed an effort, Symeon lowered himself into a fighting crouch again and gestured to Bannus to come at him.'If you think you can beat me.'
'Only too happy to oblige.' Now Bannus moved in to attack in a neatly worked sequence that Symeon met with an equally accomplished series of parries and blocks, but at the end of the attack, as Bannus drew off, Symeon was breathing heavily and blinking his eyes. Cato felt a sick sense of resignation as he saw the blood flowing freely from Symeon's wound and dropping to the ground to soak into the red sand.
'How much longer can you last, old friend?' Bannus moved his blade from side to side, keeping his distance from Symeon as he continued his taunts.'You're bleeding to death, steadily weakening. I just have to bide my time, make a few more cuts, and then it is over.You're dead, and Yusef is mine. Just as I defeat you, so I will defeat Rome one day.'
'No!' Symeon roared, and lumbered forward, his blade flashing yellow and red in the firelight as he slashed at his enemy's head. There was little finesse in his attack, just sheer brute force as he beat away at Bannus' sword. Bannus, grim-faced, nimbly warded off the blows and stepped lightly aside, scrambling back as Symeon paused for breath, panting hoarsely.
'You've had your chance,' Bannus said coldly.'And I'm tired of playing with you. Now it's time to end this. Goodbye, Symeon.' The last words were snarled through gritted teeth as he charged at Symeon.There was a flurry of blows and each was parried with a scrape of steel as Symeon found it more and more difficult to defend himself. Then Bannus suddenly jumped to one side and cut down viciously. The edge of his blade cut deep into Symeon's sword arm and his fingers went limp. The sword dangled a moment then hit the sand with a dull thump.
Symeon did not cry out but bit his teeth together and moaned deep inside his chest. Bannus stood over him, sword raised and a triumphant sneer on his lips.'It's ended just as I knew it would. Now it's time for you to join Jehoshua.' He stepped forward and raised his sword. Cato leaned his head back and shut his eyes. Macro stared ahead with steely contempt for his imminent death.
As the sword blade poised over Symeon's head there was a sudden explosion of movement. Symeon's good hand snatched the dagger from Bannus' belt, and the blade turned up as it rose, in one fluid movement. It was over so quickly that the first Macro was aware of it was when he saw the hilt of the dagger under Bannus' chin and the red spike of its point where it had burst through the top of his skull. Bannus stood for a moment with a stunned expression on his face, mouth slightly agape. Then his arms slumped down and the sword dropped from his lifeless hands and he collapsed by the fire, his legs kicking once in a wild spasm.
For a moment all was still, then Symeon rose unsteadily to his feet and looked down at Bannus. 'As I said.You talk too much.'
Cato opened his eyes, surprised that he was still alive. Then he saw Bannus sprawled at the feet of Symeon. 'What happened?'
Macro glanced at him. 'You missed that? Sometimes I despair at you, lad.' Then he looked round at the Bedu warriors behind him, put his finger gently against the blade still at his throat, and eased it to one side, with a smile. 'If you don't bloody mind, that is?'
The Bedu warriors moved away from them and Macro and Cato hurried across to Symeon, who was swaying now. They eased him down on to the sand and Cato tore strips from Bannus' tunic. The wounds looked clean by the light of the fire and the Romans bound Symeon's wounds. Yusef watched from his original position, still shaken by what he had just witnessed, and all that he had endured over the days since he had been taken from his people. As soon as he had finished bandaging Symeon, Cato took the bedroll from Bannus' saddle and wrapped it round the boy's shoulders.
Now that their entertainment was done, the Bedu largely ignored them and set about preparing their camp for the night. They cooked a meal over the fire and the leader beckoned the others to join them and share their food. Symeon was given pride of place and the Bedu warriors talked animatedly to him about the fight until he was too weak to continue, and begged them to let him sleep. Cato made up his bedroll and helped Symeon down and then covered him with a cloak to keep him warm once the fire died down. He did the same for the boy and then sat with Macro staring across the flames at the Bedu warriors.
For a long time Macro said nothing, and then he finally muttered,'That was close. Closest I've ever come to thinking I'd actually die.' He turned to his friend. 'Don't mind telling you, it scared the shit out of me.'
'You scared?' Cato chuckled. 'I don't believe it.'
'It's no joke, Cato. Seriously, no joke.' He turned to look at Symeon. Yusef had shuffled his bedroll closer to the wounded man and was resting his head against Symeon's uninjured side. 'That Symeon's a bloody marvel. Must have taken nerves of steel to wait for his chance like that. The problem of course is that he saved our lives.'
Cato could not hide his astonishment. 'That's a problem?'
'Oh yes. It means that now I owe him a favour.'
The Bedu had gone when Cato woke first the next morning. Only the faint impressions in the sand and the half buried mounds of camel dung remained to show they had camped there for the night. They had pilfered Bannus' belongings and the casket that he had taken from Miriam lay open on the sand. A length of white cloth, with dark stains that might have been blood, spilled over the lid of the casket and a plain glazed cup lay a short distance away. Cato folded the shroud carefully and put it back in the casket, placing the cup safely in between layers of the material before he shut the casket and fastened the latch. The fire was dead and the ashes were no longer even warm. Bannus' body lay where it had fallen, and Cato dragged it away behind the bushes and buried it before the others were awake. Macro stirred next, sat up abruptly and looked round for the Bedu.
'Gone! How the hell did they do that?'
'You're not exactly a light sleeper.'
'Very funny. Where's Bannus?'
Cato jerked his thumb towards the bushes. 'Out of sight and out of mind. Where he belongs.'
Symeon's wounds felt stiff and he had to be helped into the saddle as they prepared to ride out of Rhum. Yusef insisted on riding the same horse that had carried him to this place. He took the reins and looked round at Cato. 'Where are we going?'
'Home.' Cato smiled. 'We're taking you home.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand