They rode into Heshaba several days later. The centre of the settlement was surrounded by the blackened shells of the houses that had been set on fire by Bannus and his men. A few curious faces turned out to see the four riders as they rode past, and once Yusef had been recognised people hurried to find Miriam and tell her that a miracle had happened.
Macro and Cato tethered their horses in the village square and helped Symeon down from his mount. The wound to his side was healing slowly, but the blow to his arm had severed too many muscles and tendons ever to recover fully and Symeon was coming to terms with the probability that he would never be able to wield a sword again. His fighting days were over. He sat heavily in the shade of a blackened wall and Cato went over to the trough to douse his head. Yusef made sure that Symeon was made comfortable when there was a sharp cry from the end of a street and the four new arrivals turned to the sound. Miriam was leaning one hand against a wall for support while she clasped the other to her mouth.As soon as he saw her Yusef sprang to his feet and sprinted across and threw himself into her arms. For a while they just held each other close, and then they continued into the square, walking arm in arm over to Symeon and the two Roman officers. Miriam bit her lip, struggling to hold back her tears as she spoke.
'I-I don't know how to thank you. I-' She looked down and shook her head slightly. 'I don't know the words to say how happy I am. How grateful I am. May God bless you all and keep you safe for the hereafter.'
'Well, thank you,' Macro responded awkwardly. 'I'm sure he will keep an eye on us, especially after all we've been through. We've earned it.'
'There's one more thing,' Cato said. He walked over to his horse, unbuckled a large saddle pouch and carefully took out Miriam's casket. 'Here you are.'
Miriam took the casket and stroked a hand softly across the lid. 'Again, thank you and bless you.' She looked up at Cato. 'I take it you have dealt with Bannus.'
'Poor soul. Poor tormented soul.'
Macro looked at Cato in surprise and was about to open his mouth when Cato shook his head with a pleading expression.Then Cato looked round the village. 'What happens now? Are you going to rebuild the destroyed houses? We could help you.'
'No,' Miriam replied. 'I've been thinking things over since Yusef was taken from me.There's no point. Heshaba will not survive in isolation. We cannot escape the world as I had hoped we could.There is no future for the vision of my son if we stay here. If we cannot escape the world, then we must re-join it.' She smiled.'I suppose you might say that we cannot let the world escape us. Anyway, I've decided that we must go to the cities, and spread word of his teaching where there are ears to hear it.'
'Then I wish you well,' Cato replied. 'Though I'll be honest. Any movement that seeks to change the world by peaceful persuasion has got its work cut out. Chances are you will fail.'
'Maybe,' Miriam said. 'But we have to try. Or my son will have died for nothing.' She turned to Symeon.'What about you? Are you still playing the great adventurer?'
Symeon indicated his bandaged arm. 'Those days are over, Miriam. There'll be no more fighting for me now.'
She nodded. 'No fighting perhaps. But you could always join us. We could use a man like you. One with your connections.'
'I'll think about it.'
'My son believed in you, Symeon.'
Symeon glanced quickly at Macro and Cato, but they remained expressionless. His guilty secret had died with Bannus and neither Cato nor Macro saw any reason to reawaken old wounds now. Not least on this day when Yusef had been restored to Miriam.
Symeon took her hand. 'We can talk about it later.'
'Very well.' Miriam turned to Macro and Cato. 'You've had a long ride. Can I offer you something to eat and drink? Some shelter?'
Macro shook his head. 'No. Thank you for the offer, but I have to return to Bushir. It's been too long since Cato and I were with our men. We have to return to duty, now that Bannus has gone. Maybe we'll see you later, before you and your people quit Heshaba.'
'Yes, Prefect. We'd be honoured.'
Macro smiled briefly and turned to Cato. 'Come on, we have to go.'
They clasped arms with Symeon for the last time and Cato laughed.'You'll have to show me that trick with the knife some day. Next time I'll keep my eyes open.'
Symeon shook his head.'I've had enough of weapons. Enough of death. That's all behind me now.'
'Really?' Macro looked disappointed. 'A pity.'
The two officers untethered their mounts and swung themselves up into the saddles. As they rode out of the village Miriam, Symeon and Yusef stood in the middle of the square for a while and watched them trot up the track that led out of the wadi. Miriam had the casket clutched tightly beneath her arm. Then Symeon placed his good arm about her shoulder and Yusef put his arm round her from the other side and they turned to walk towards the shelter that had been erected to serve as Miriam's temporary home.
Centurion Parmenion had not wasted any time since they had left in pursuit of Bannus. The enemy camp had been completely razed and only two mounds were left, marking the mass graves of the peasants that Bannus had led to their deaths. The gatehouse was almost rebuilt and the sentry in the tower challenged them correctly as they approached, even though he could hardly contain his surprise that the two officers had returned from their quest alive. Beyond the gate some of the barrack blocks had been rebuilt, and the prefect's house had been made habitable, if no longer luxurious.The other fire-damaged buildings had been demolished and swaths of the fort stood bare and blackened.
In the headquarters building they found Centurion Parmenion in the commander's office, surrounded by clerks and dictating orders. As soon as he had got over the surprise of seeing his commanding officer and Cato, Parmenion offered to give up his office with a rueful smile.
'Can't say I'd be sorry to be shot of all this paperwork, sir.'
'You seem to be doing a fine job. You can carry on with it until tomorrow.'
'Is there anything I should know before I get some sleep?'
Parmenion nodded.'The hostages have been returned to the villages, as you ordered, and there's a dispatch from Governor Longinus. It arrived yesterday, addressed to the prefect, in confidence. I didn't think I should open it.'
'You're the acting commanding officer, Parmenion.'
'I know that, sir. I just thought that I should wait. Until we heard something.'
'Where is it?'
'Just a moment, sir.' Parmenion crossed to the desk and opened a cabinet under the table. He took out a sealed package and handed it to Macro.
'I'll read this in my quarters. You'd better come with me, Cato.'
As they were leaving the office a thought struck Cato and he turned back to Parmenion. 'Centurion Postumus – what happened to him?'
'No one knows. After the battle I sent a patrol to look for him. We found his men, all dead, shot down with arrows. But no sign of him. Strange that.'
'Yes,' Cato said uneasily. 'Very strange.'
'I'm sure he'll turn up.'
'I imagine he will,' Cato replied as he left the office and strode off to catch up with Macro.
Macro opened the package as soon as they reached his quarters. The message was brief enough and he handed the document to Cato. It was an order from the staff of the Governor. The Second Illyrian Cohort was ordered to prepare to quit the fort at Bushir.They were instructed to proceed to Syria to join the army concentrating to counter the latest threat from Parthia.
Cato smiled. 'Seems that Longinus wants to keep a close eye on us.'
'I bet. Now that he knows that we're on to his game you can be sure he won't miss a chance to get rid of us. We're going to have to be careful out there, Cato.'
'Very careful. In the meantime there's work to be done. The cohort fought well enough, but they're not ready for a campaign season just yet.'
'No rest for us, then,' Macro grumbled as he poured two cups of wine and passed one to Cato.'And we've got to write a report for Narcissus at some point.'
'I can handle that, if you like.'
'What should we tell him? That threat to the Empire. Was it Longinus, or Bannus? Either way, we've put a stop to it. Now we've just got Parthia to deal with. Shit, I could do with a nice long rest.'
'Look on the bright side, sir.'
'Bright side? What bright side?'
'At last you're going to see Syria. That's what you've always wanted, as long as I've known you.'
'Syria…' Macro mused contentedly and drained his cup. 'There is that.'