'It's Bannus,' Symeon said quietly.
As Cato threw his straw hat aside and jammed his helmet on to his head he looked at their guide in surprise. 'You know him?'
'We've met before.'
'As friends, I hope.'
'We were friends, many years ago.' He glanced quickly at Cato. 'But not now.'
'You might have mentioned this before,' Cato muttered.
'I didn't think it was important, Centurion. Besides, you didn't ask.'
'If we get out of this, I think there might be a few questions I'll want answers to.'
Bannus reined his horse in when he was a short distance away and smiled as he recognised the guide. He addressed him in Greek.
'When my men told me about the archer in the fort, I should have guessed. These Roman soldiers are not welcome here, but peace be with you, Symeon of Bethsaida.'
'And with you, Bannus of Canaan. How may we be of service to you?'
'I want those two Roman officers surrendered to me. You and the others can return to Jerusalem, after we have disarmed you.'
Symeon shook his head.'You know that is impossible. You would dishonour me, and my family.'
Bannus stared at him a moment before he continued. 'For the sake of the old days, I will ask you again to hand over those two men, and your weapons. I would not have your blood on my hands.'
'Then stand aside and let us pass.'
'No. Those two have slain three of my men in Jerusalem.They must be executed to serve as an example to the people of Judaea.'
'And what of me? I slew three of your men at the fort.'
'My fight is with Rome, Symeon. As yours should be.' He stretched out his hand. 'Join us.'
Bannus let his hand drop, and turned his attention to the men of the cavalry squadron. 'Surrender these two officers to me and you will live. Now lay down your arms!'
Macro nudged Cato.'Who does he think he's fooling? He'd kill the auxiliaries the moment he'd taken their weapons.' Macro took a breath, drew his sword and shouted towards Bannus.'If you want our weapons, come and get them!'
'Shhh!' Cato hissed. 'Who do you think you are – Leonidas?'
Bannus glared at them a moment, then nodded his head in farewell to Symeon and turned his horse to gallop back up the slope towards his men. Macro called the decurion over to them. 'What are our chances?'
'None, if we stay put and try to defend ourselves. We have to charge, cut our way through and run for it. Just give the order, sir. But do it now, before they attack.'
Macro nodded. 'Let's go.'
The decurion turned back to his men. 'Form tight wedge!'
As the horses shuffled into position, Macro and Cato fastened their helmet straps, untied their baggage and tossed it aside. Symeon reached for his bow and carefully unwrapped it, strung it, then loosened the end of his quiver. By the time the three men joined the formation Bannus had reached his men and was barking out a string of orders. He had positioned slingers and archers on either flank, and in the middle, astride the track, stood a band of swordsmen on foot, mostly poorly armed and carrying wicker shields. Some had helmets and leather cuirasses. A short distance behind them, right on the crest of the ridge, stood Bannus and his horsemen, armed with a mix of spears and bows. As soon as he saw the slingers begin to fit stones to their pouches Cato turned to the decurion.
'Now! Give the order now!'
The decurion nodded, drew a breath and called out. 'Squadron! Advance!'
The rough wedge formation rippled forward, the auxiliaries grasping their reins tightly in the hand behind their shields. In the other hand they held their spears, vertically, so as not to risk injury to their comrades before they made contact with the enemy. Above them, on each flank, the slingers were starting to whirl their weapons up above their heads, as the archers drew their bows. Cato found himself angrily willing the decurion to order his men to charge forward, before it was too late. Then he chastened himself. The decurion was a professional, and knew his business.
'Squadron, at the trot, advance!'
His men kicked in their heels and the formation lurched forward, just as the first ragged volley of slingshot and arrows arced into the air. The abrupt change of pace confounded the brigands' careful aim and most of the missiles clattered on to the ground a short distance behind the wedge. A handful of shots found the shields of the rearmost men. One horse whinnied in terror as an arrow plunged into its rump. It reared up, but the rider managed to keep his seat and urged his mount back into the formation.
'Charge!' the decurion cried out from the front of the wedge, stabbing his sword into the air. His men roared out their battle cry, kicked in their heels and the wedge surged forward. In the second rank, Cato and Macro gripped their reins and hung on grimly as their mounts flowed onward with the rest, manes and tails streaming. Dust and grit filled the air as the charge burst up the slope towards Bannus and his brigands. From the flanks the attackers aimed more arrows and slingshot at the Romans and this time more missiles found their targets. Ahead to his left Cato saw a stone strike the head of one of the auxiliaries. The blow knocked the man's head to one side and his spear, shield and reins dropped from his nerveless fingers, causing the horse to swerve. Then the rider toppled to one side and the riderless horse galloped on regardless. To his right Cato caught a glimpse of Macro, grim-faced, and bending forward as low as his saddle horns would allow. Beyond him was Symeon, superbly poised as he notched an arrow and raised his bow, ready to shoot.
Ahead of them Bannus raced down to his footmen and urged them to hold their ground. But the sight of the oncoming cavalry proved too much for some, and they melted away, rushing out of the path of the horsemen. Then, before Cato realised it had happened, they crashed into the enemy line. Abruptly the air was filled with the scrape and clatter of weapons, grunts and cries from the men, snorts and whinnying from the horses. There was a blur low and to his right and Cato thrust his sword towards a lithe man in a dirty turban. He ducked aside, the tip of the sword grazing his shoulder. With a snarl he slashed back at Cato with a thin curved blade and Cato wrenched his sword back just in time to block the blow with his guard. Then Cato cut down, striking the turban hard with the edge of his sword. The material absorbed the cutting force of the blade but the weight of Cato's blow knocked the man senseless and he collapsed into the dust swirling about the feet and hooves of those locked in the deadly skirmish. Cato glanced round. Macro was slashing at a pair of swordsmen, shouting insults into their faces as he dared them to fight him. Symeon drew an arrow, swivelling in his saddle as he swiftly notched a bead on his target, and released the string.The arrow flew ten paces through the air, punched into a man's chest and burst out of his spine in a bloody welter of torn flesh.
'Forward!' Cato shouted. 'Don't stop! Go forward!'
The decurion glanced back, nodded, and took up the cry. His men urged their mounts on as they fought free of the brigands, and as soon as they were clear they surged up the last stretch of the slope towards the waiting horsemen. Bannus drew his sword and grasped a round shield tightly across his left side as he shouted an order to his followers.With a cry they launched their mounts forward, down towards the auxiliaries.The wedge formation was long broken and now the Romans charged in a ragged mass. The two sides came together in a swirl of gleaming swords, horseflesh, flowing robes and glinting armour. Without a shield Cato felt horribly vulnerable and he hunched down, sword held low as he urged his horse through the melee, trying to break through the brigands. He could hear Macro roaring above the din. 'Cut through them! Cut through!'
Something glinted to Cato's right and then he saw a flash of blinding white as a blade rang off the side of his helmet. He kicked his heels in and the horse jumped forward, just in time to avoid the return cut as it hissed through the air close to his neck. Bright spots flickered before his eyes as his vision cleared and he turned back towards his foe.There was a dark face fringed by a mat of black hair and a beard and the man snarled as he raised his sword to cut again. Cato swept his sword up, blocked the blow, slid his weapon down the curve of the man's blade and chopped into his hairy wrist. He felt a solid connection and the man cried out, snatching his arm back, as blood spurted from the deep gash. Cato leaned nearer and thrust his sword into the brigand's stomach, twisted it and yanked it free. He quickly glanced at the other figures looming in the haze of dust, trying to orient himself. Then he saw a patch of open ground between two riderless horses and turned his mount's head towards it, slapping the flat of his sword on the horse's rump. It burst through, out of the billowing dust, and Cato saw that he had broken through Bannus' men.
'On me! Romans, on me!' he cried.
More figures emerged. There was Symeon, bow and reins in one hand, sword in the other as he slashed at a turbaned man trying to catch up with him. More of the auxiliaries, and then Macro, one arm locked tightly about a man's neck as he dragged him from his horse and dumped him on the ground. Suddenly the world was spinning crazily, and then it went out of focus. Cato blinked his eyes but his vision remained blurred, and an awful nausea made him retch.
'Cato!' a voice called out close by and a dark shape loomed up. His vision cleared a little and he saw that it was Macro. 'Are you all right?'
'Hit on the head,' Cato said thickly as he fought to keep his balance. 'Be fine in a moment.'
'We haven't got a moment. Give me your reins.'
Before he could assent, Cato felt them being pulled from his left hand. He grabbed one of the saddle horns as Macro urged his beast on, drawing Cato's horse abruptly after him. As they fled from the brigands Cato's vision cleared a little more, but he was still terribly dizzy and the urge to throw up was stronger than ever. Around him he saw that most of the auxiliaries had broken from the fight and were galloping away from the brigands, along the ridge. Behind them the struggle continued round the handful who were still trapped. But already some of the footmen were pointing excitedly at the fleeing Romans and shouting to their mounted comrades. Bannus quickly tried to bring his men to order, but his prey had half a mile's start on him by the time his horsemen began their pursuit. However, their beasts were light, and the riders wore little or no armour, so they moved swiftly and soon began to catch up with the Romans. But the auxiliaries were well mounted, having the pick of the horses in the province, and soon the greater stamina of the army mounts began to tell as the brigands became strung out, only a handful of their horses able to keep up with the auxiliaries.
'Stay on the track!' Symeon called out. 'Follow it all the way to the fort!'
Cato's dizziness came and went more and more frequently and he feared that he might lose consciousness. Macro kept glancing back with a concerned expression; it was clear that Cato's head injury was more serious than it had first appeared.Then it happened. Cato blacked out and started to topple from the saddle. Macro saw it just in time and reined his horse in, letting Cato's draw level so that he could catch his friend and hold him up. He looked round desperately, but most of the auxiliaries were already ahead of them.
'Help me here!' he bellowed.
The rearmost man glanced back, met the centurion's eyes for an instant and then turned away and urged his horse on. Symeon too heard the call, and instantly wheeled his mount about and galloped back towards Macro.
'What's happened to him?'
'Took a blow to the head. He just fainted. How far are we from Bushir?'
Symeon glanced round at the track. 'Two, maybe three hours' hard ride.'
'Damn. They'll catch up with us long before then.'
Symeon said nothing. He knew it was true.With Cato needing to be supported Macro would steadily lose ground to their pursuers.
'What will you do, Centurion?'
Macro looked back at the distant figures of the horsemen following them. He frowned for a moment and then nodded to himself. 'All right. You take him on. I'll try to delay those bastards for as long as I can.'
Symeon stared hard at him. 'Leave him.'
'I said leave him.You won't delay them long enough for the two of us to get away. Either he dies, or all three of us will.'
'I can't,' Macro said helplessly as he glanced down at Cato's pale face slumped against his shoulder. 'He's my friend. More than a friend: he's like a son. I won't leave him to die.'
Symeon glanced at their pursuers and then turned back to Macro with a grim expression.'All right, you lead him on. Stay on the track. I'll ride with you and hold them off.'
'This.' Symeon raised his bow. 'A few miles further on the track branches off towards a village.There's a winding gully beside the road. When we reach it, do exactly as I say. Understand?'
Macro stared a moment, tortured by doubt, then nodded.
'Good! Now let's go!'
They rode on, either side of Cato, bracing his limp body so that he stayed in the saddle. But their speed was greatly reduced and every time Macro looked back he saw that the fastest of the enemy riders was drawing closer. Ahead, the rearmost of the auxiliaries was steadily drawing away, a dim shape amid the dust kicked up by his comrades in front of him. Macro cursed them for a moment, before he realised that, because of the dust, the decurion and his men could not be aware of his situation.
Behind them a group of four brigands was swiftly catching up, some distance ahead of the weaker mounts of their comrades. They knew they would soon have the Romans at their mercy and whipped their horses on in frenzied anticipation of catching their prey.
They had ridden down through some hills and now they were emerging on to the plateau: an undulating expanse of stony ground through which a thin strip had been cleared for the track. Symeon steered his horse away from Cato's and called out to Macro, 'Keep going. I'll be a short distance behind.'
Macro nodded, took a tighter grip of Cato's shoulder and continued riding on. Behind him Symeon flipped open the lid of his quiver, drew an arrow and fixed the nock precisely to his bowstring while his horse continued down the track at an even canter, directed by pressure from Symeon's knees. He let the pursuers get closer, and still closer, until they were no more than thirty paces behind him. Only then did he swivel round in his saddle, revealing his bow as he took careful aim at the nearest brigand. The man looked startled and crouched low to present a smaller target. But Symeon was not aiming at the man. He released the string and the arrow shot straight into the chest of the oncoming horse. With a shrill whinny of pain and terror the horse stumbled, then cartwheeled over, crushing the rider. Symeon had already notched his second arrow and twisted to draw a bead on the next target. The brigands had lost a little ground as they swerved round the downed horse, which was writhing on its back, kicking the air as it tried to dislodge the barbed shaft lodged in its chest. Then they came on again, close enough for the guide to see their grim, determined expressions. One by one he shot their horses down and left them in the dust. Then with a nod of satisfaction he flipped his quiver shut and hung the bow on the saddle horn and caught up with Macro.
A short distance on, they reached the place that Symeon had spoken of where the track divided, a smaller way dipping off into a shallow valley that meandered down towards a broad wadi. The decurion and his men were waiting at the junction, unsure of which branch to take. Their horses were blown and their sides heaved and shrank like bellows. The decurion looked relieved to see them, and then he saw that Cato was unconscious.
'Is he injured?'
'No,' Macro responded coolly. 'He's having a bloody nap. Of course he's injured.'
The decurion realised the problem at once.'He'll slow us down.'
Symeon pointed down the main branch of the track. 'Keep going that way. It'll take you to the fort. Centurion, you go with them.'
'What?' Macro started. 'Not likely! I'm staying with him.'
'They will still catch you long before you reach the fort if he stays with you.'
'I told you. I'm not leaving him to Bannus.'
'Bannus will not have him. I'm taking him to a safe place.'
Macro laughed. 'A safe place? Out here?'
Symeon pointed down the side track. 'There's a village a mile down there. People I know and trust.They will shelter us.When you reach the fort, come back with a relief column. I'll watch for you.'
'This is madness,' Macro protested. 'Why should I trust these villagers? Why should I trust you?'
Symeon stared at him intently. 'I swear to you, on the life of my son, that he will be safe with me. Now, hand me the reins.'
For a second Macro was still, weighing up the situation. He did not want to leave Cato, yet to try to continue with him to the fort would almost certainly mean death for both of them.
'Sir!' One of the auxiliaries pointed down the track. 'I can see 'em!'
Macro let the reins drop from his grip and shaded his eyes. Symeon scooped the reins up before the centurion could change his mind.With one hand steadying Cato he led the horse down the side track.
'Wait here a moment,' he called back. 'Until I'm out of sight. Then go. They'll follow you.'
As soon as Symeon and Cato had dropped below the level of the main track the decurion wheeled his horse round. 'Let's go!'
The auxiliaries followed him, kicking their heels in and yelling at their mounts to urge them on. Macro waited a moment, torn between staying with his friend and getting to the fort as swiftly as possible to give the order to send out a column to rescue him. Then he gripped the reins and thrust the heels of his boots into the side of his horse and set off after the auxiliaries. As he took a last glance towards the gully into which the two figures had disappeared, Macro vowed to himself that if any harm came to Cato he would not rest until Symeon paid for it with his life.
Symeon steered the two horses into the dried river bed and followed its course for a moment until there was a looping bend.Then he reined the animals in and waited. The horses were exhausted, and snorted and breathed heavily as they scuffed the ground with their hooves.
'Shhh!' Symeon said softly, and gently patted the neck of his horse. 'Let's not give ourselves away, eh?'
In the distance he could hear the faint drumming of a number of horses, getting closer. Symeon offered up a silent prayer that his pursuers would be single-minded enough to chase after Macro and the others and ignore the quiet side track. The sound of their approach swiftly grew louder and Symeon felt his body tense as he waited for them to pass. Beside him, Cato suddenly straightened up in his saddle, his eyes flickering open and then staring about as he gazed at his surroundings in confusion.
'What… Where am I?'
'Quiet, boy!' Symeon grabbed his forearm tightly. 'I beg you.'
Cato stared at him, then clenched his eyes shut as another wave of dizziness overcame him. With a convulsive heave he threw up, over his mail vest and down the glistening flank of his horse. He spat weakly to clear his mouth, then slumped forward again, his mind wandering as he muttered, 'Because it's my fucking tent… that's why.'
Symeon's shoulders sank in relief as the Roman fell silent again. He strained his ears and listened as the brigand horsemen galloped closer, shouting wildly with the thrill of the chase with the auxiliaries clearly in view. There was no sound to indicate they had divided or even slowed down at the junction of the two tracks, and they galloped on until the sounds faded in the distance. Symeon waited until it was quiet again, listening for any sounds of stragglers, but there was nothing. With a click of his tongue he turned the horses round and headed back up the gully to the track. Then, supporting Cato as carefully as he could, he steered the horses in the direction of the village.
Cato awoke from a bad dream with a start. Instantly, whatever terror it was that had spurred him into consciousness was gone, even before he could remember it. His head hurt horribly, the pain pounding away at his skull. He opened his eyes and at once the pain was worsened by the searing brightness of the sunshine. Cato blinked and squinted and then his nostrils filled with the acidic odour of his vomit and he retched, clasping a hand to his mouth.
When he opened his eyes again a moment later, the stabbing pain of the light had subsided a little and he saw that he was riding into a small settlement. Small, neatly kept houses of stone, plastered with mud, were on either side. Sun shelters of thatched palm leaves leaned against the sides of buildings and here and there the long slender trunks of palm trees stretched up. Then Cato was aware of the people, Semitic and dressed in light-coloured flowing robes. Children wore simple tunics. Women and men were grinding grain in stone basins, and a small group of people seemed to be engaged in some kind of meeting outside the largest of the buildings.They paused and stared at him as Symeon led the horses past. Symeon bowed his head in greeting to each person in turn and then stopped outside a small house at the centre of the village. Sliding down from his horse, he turned and helped Cato down, straining as he took the centurion's weight. As he pulled Cato's arm across his shoulders and struggled towards the doorway an older woman emerged from the house.
She was grey-haired, with strikingly beautiful features and dark eyes. Although she was small and slender, she carried herself with graceful authority and stared a moment at the two men approaching the threshold of her house.
'Symeon ben Jonas,' she said sternly, in Greek. 'I have not seen you for over a year and you turn up on my doorstep with a drunk Roman soldier. What's the meaning of this?'
'He's not drunk. He's injured and he needs your help. He's also heavy… I could use a hand.'
The woman tutted and stepped forward to support Cato on his free side. As she took up some of the weight Cato stirred, rolled his head round and smiled as he introduced himself. 'Centurion Quintus Licinius Cato, at your service.'
'You are welcome to my home, Centurion.'
'And whose home would that be?'
'This is an old friend of mine,' Symeon explained. 'Miriam of Nazareth.'
Cato's mind was still reeling, and he struggled to make sense of his situation. 'Nazareth. This can't be Nazareth.'
'It isn't. This is the village of Heshaba.'
'Heshaba. That's nice. Who lives here?'
'It's a commune,' said Miriam. 'We're followers of Jehoshua.'
Jehoshua… Cato struggled for a moment before he recalled that this was the man who had been executed by Rome. He glanced round at the faces of the villagers as a cold trickle of fear traced its way down his spine.
07 The Eagle In the Sand