The next morning, as the column left the fort, the men eyed the landscape around them warily. The previous evening's attack was not the work of simple thieves. It had been a deliberate attempt on the lives of the two centurions and it was clear that they had been followed from Jerusalem. The survivors of the attack would now shadow them, waiting for another opportunity to strike. It was also possible, Cato thought, that the five men were part of a larger group, in which case the column must guard against ambush.
'What is the lie of the land between here and Bushir?' Cato asked their guide as they left Qumran behind and continued along the shore of the Dead Sea.
'We should be safe enough this side of the Jordan, and some way into the east bank. The danger lies there.' Symeon raised his arm and indicated the mountains on the far side of the sea. 'To reach Bushir we're going to have to climb up a steep wadi.We won't reach the plateau before dark. If our friends are going to try another attack that's where it'll happen.'
'Is there no other route?'
'Of course. We could head further north, where there's a more open road to Philadelphia.Then turn south along the caravan route to Petra. That will add two or three days to the journey. Do you wish me to take you that way?'
Cato thought about it a moment and shook his head. 'I don't think it would be wise to give those people any more time to make another attack. What do you say, Macro?'
'If they're going to come for us, let them come tonight. I'm ready.'
'Very well then.' Cato smiled. 'We'll take the direct road.'
They continued in silence for a moment, and Macro's eyes alighted on the horned tip of the bow protruding from Symeon's saddlebags.
'That was fine shooting yesterday.'
'Thank you, Centurion.'
Macro paused for a moment before continuing awkwardly, 'You saved our lives.'
Symeon turned and flashed his white teeth. 'I would hardly be doing my job if the men whose lives I had been charged with guarding had been killed. Why, Florianus would have demanded a refund of my fee.'
'So you're a guard as well as a guide?'
'As I told you yesterday, Centurion, I spent many years in the desert escorting caravans. More than enough time to learn how to use my weapons. And I was taught by the best warriors in Arabia.'
'Why did you give it up? Escorting the caravans?'
'It's a hard life. I was growing weary of it. And now my adopted son has taken over from me. Murad commands a company of escorts and works the route from Petra to Damascus.'
'Is he as good as you with the bow?'
Symeon chuckled. 'As good? No, Murad is far better. Far tougher, and so are most of his men. Murad would have taken down all five of those riders before they had even got close to you.' He spat on to the ground in disgust. 'I only managed three.'
Macro glanced at Cato. 'Only three. The man's slipping.'
'Please don't mention it again,' Symeon said quietly. 'I'm ashamed enough as it is.'
'Fair enough.' Macro smiled. 'Still, your son sounds like the kind of man the Empire could use. He'd make a fine auxiliary soldier. I wonder if he's ever considered it.'
'Why should he?' Symeon seemed surprised by the suggestion. 'Murad lives well enough as he is. Your Empire could not afford to pay him a tenth of what he earns from guarding the caravans.'
'Oh,' Macro responded with embarrassment. 'Just a thought.'
The day wore on, much like the day before, and soon the heat was stifling. Far up the flat Jordan valley the air shimmered like quicksilver. They crossed the river late in the morning, at a point where it meandered between great clumps of reeds. There was a ford where the river ran across a wide bed of sand and pebbles and the horses kicked up a foam of white spray as they surged across. Glancing upriver Cato saw a large shelter on the far bank, thatched with palm leaves. In the shallows below the shelter stood a small crowd of people, gathered around a man who immersed each in turn.
Cato tugged Symeon's arm and indicated the gathering. 'What's going on over there?'
Symeon glanced up. 'That? A baptism.'
'Local tradition. Supposed to wash away the sins of the person being baptised. It's popular with some of the sects. The Essenes, back at Qumran, for one.'
'I meant to ask you about that,' Cato said.'These sects. How many of them are there? What makes them different?'
Symeon laughed. 'Less than you imagine, yet they seem to hate each other with a passion. Let me see… Best to start in Jerusalem. The main sects there are the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Maccabees. The Sadducees are the hardline traditionalists. They believe that the holy books represent the incontrovertible will of God.The Pharisees are a little more pragmatic and argue that the will of God can be interpreted through the holy books. The Maccabees, on the other hand, tend towards the hardline position. They hold that Judaeans are the chosen people who are destined to rule the world one day.' He smiled at Cato. 'So you can imagine how they feel about being ruled by Rome. They hate you even more than they hated Herod and his heirs.'
'Why hate them?'
'Because they were Idumaeans, and not descended from one of the original twelve tribes of the Hebrews.'
Macro shook his head. 'These Judaeans sound like a pretty stuffy lot. Fuck knows why, given that they've been rolled over by every empire that's passed through the region.'
Symeon shrugged. 'Perhaps they believe their god is saving them for something special.'
'Their god?' Cato looked at the guide curiously. 'Yours too, surely?'
'I told you. I no longer subscribe to the faith.'
'What do you believe in?'
Symeon did not reply straight away, but glanced briefly at the distant crowd of people being baptised before he spoke. 'I'm not quite sure what I believe in any more…'
'What about that lot we passed yesterday?' Macro broke in. 'The Essenes, or whatever you called 'em.'
'Essenes,' Symeon confirmed.'They're simple enough. The Essenes believe that the world of men is corrupt, evil and unspiritual.That is why God has not favoured Judaea. They try to live a simple, unadorned life. All possessions belong to the community and they live strictly according to the word of the holy books.'
'Not the best of drinking companions, then?'
The guide glanced at Macro. 'No. I suppose not.'
'Any more sects worth mentioning?'
'Just one. Most of them live in a small settlement near Bushir. They're a lot like the Essenes. At least some of them are.The ones who call themselves the true followers of Jehoshua. The trouble is, they have a rival faction.'
'The one led by Bannus,' said Cato.
'Yes, that's right.' Symeon glanced at him in surprise.
'I must have heard of him in Jerusalem,' Cato explained quickly.
Symeon continued. 'Bannus claims that Jehoshua meant his people to use force to establish the authority of his teachings, and that the Essenes are attempting to take over the movement and corrupt Jehoshua's creed. He says they have watered it down into a powerless set of beliefs. The irony is that although they have a limited number of followers in Judaea, there are cells springing up all over the Empire according to my friend Florianus.'
'Who is the leader of this faction?' asked Cato.
Symeon looked at him closely. 'Do you really need to know? Bannus is the real danger. Remove him, and the province might have a chance to be at peace.'
'You're right, of course,' Cato replied smoothly. 'I just like to know the full details of a situation, that's all.'
The far bank of the Jordan rose slowly and the track passed by groves of trees and scores of small farms, drawing on irrigation water from the river that gave life to the entire valley. In the afternoon they approached the line of mountains that climbed up to the great plateau beyond and the land became far more barren with little sign of life apart from the occasional herd of sheep tended by children. As soon as they saw the horsemen approach they hurriedly drove their beasts in the opposite direction, disappearing into the small gullies that meandered across the plain.
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon Symeon led them into the wadi and the track clung to the steep slope as it wound its way up into the rocks.Very soon the track became so narrow that the column could only continue in single file, the horses carefully picking their way along, keeping away from the crumbling edge of the track. Every so often one of the beasts dislodged a small rock that skittered down the slope, trailed by a shower of shingle. The wadi was quite dry and exposed to the full strength of the sun so there was almost no vegetation and the noises made by the passage of the column echoed off the walls of the rock above them.
Cato glanced back and saw they had little more than an hour of light left.
'Symeon… We can't spend the night along this track.'
'A little further. There's a wide ledge. We'll camp there.'
'Is it safe?'
'Yes. The path continues like this at either end of the ledge. There's no other way to reach it. Not even for a goat.'
Cato nodded with relief.
The horsemen emerged onto the ledge just as the last glimmer of the sun disappeared over the horizon and the sky flared up in brilliant hues of orange and purple. The riders dismounted wearily and roped their mounts together away from the edge. Feed was taken out of the coarse bags hanging from the saddle frames and spread around the animals for them to graze on. Once the optio had posted sentries on the track at each end of the ledge the men settled down for the night.
Macro gave the order that no fires were to be lit. In the clear mountain air they would be visible for many miles and alert any bandits, or worse the sicarians, to their precise position. Once the last of the light had faded Macro, Cato and Symeon sat on a flat rock and stared back across the Jordan valley. To their left the Dead Sea stretched out dark and forbidding as its name.A scattering of tiny lights flickered across the wide floor of the valley, and so clear was the air that beyond, far away, Cato could just make out a cluster of sparks.
He raised his hand and pointed it out. 'Is that Jerusalem?'
Beside him Symeon squinted for an instant and then nodded. 'It is. Your sight is good, Roman. Very good indeed.'
'In our line of work, it needs to be.'
Macro shivered. 'It's cold. I'd never have thought it after the heat down there.'
'The nights will get colder still when we reach the plateau,' said Symeon as he rose up. 'I'll get our cloaks.'
As the guide strode away towards the scattered dark shapes of the men settling down for the night Cato tipped his head back and stared into the sky. It was, as Symeon had indicated, quite beautiful. Overhead hundreds of stars gleamed with cold ethereal brilliance.
'You know, I think I can begin to see why our friend likes this life.'
'What's to like?' Macro muttered. 'We're cold, surrounded by hostile natives and as far from a decent inn and a warm woman as I ever want to be.'
'True, but look at the stars… the view. It's magnificent.'
Macro fixed his gaze on the darkened features of his friend and shook his head pityingly. 'You've been in the army for what, nearly four years?'
'So when are you going to stop talking like some poncy poet?'
'I don't know,' Cato said quietly. 'When I've seen enough of this world to grow tired of it, I suppose.'
'I can hardly wait,' Macro said quietly as Symeon trudged back to them with the thick army cloaks bundled under his arm.
In the morning, they continued up the path, still in single file. Most of the men had been too cold to sleep through the night and were stiff and tired. Nevertheless, they kept a wary eye on the cliffs above them for any sign of trouble. Soon the path broadened out into a track and the slope became more gentle. Cato breathed a sigh of relief as he urged his mount alongside Symeon and Macro.
'Looks like we've given them the slip.'
'Bunch of women,' Macro growled. 'That's what they are.'
Symeon did not reply. Instead he was scanning the low ridge ahead of them that marked the beginning of the great plateau. Suddenly he reined his horse in.
'You spoke too soon, Centurion,' he said softly. 'Look up there.'
Cato's eyes flickered along the ridge and stopped as he saw a small group of men rising up from the rocks, so that they were starkly silhouetted against the sky. More men appeared, scores of them, and then a line of horsemen, directly across the breadth of the track where it crossed the ridge. As the optio bellowed orders for his men to dump their kit, put on their helmets and prepare their weapons, Macro's hand instinctively grasped his sword handle.
'Now we're for it,' he said quietly
Symeon glanced round at the centurion with a grim smile. 'Not bad work for a bunch of women.'
As he spoke, one of the horsemen edged his beast forward, down the track towards the Romans.
07 The Eagle In the Sand