Macro was fuming. Centurion Postumus had him over a barrel. Without written authorisation from the imperial palace he had no power to oust the temporary commander of the Second Illyrian. So when the officers began to turn up, as Macro had instructed, he had to sit in embarrassed silence while Scrofa sent them away again. Not for the first time that day, he cursed Bannus and his brigands with the most heinously dire and painful torments imaginable. Because of the ambush, his letter of appointment was lying out there somewhere in the desert. Worse still, it might have fallen into the hands of Bannus' men as they rifled through the baggage that Macro, Cato and the cavalry squadron had been obliged to abandon. Macro cringed with shame at the thought, even though there had been no alternative in the circumstances. They had barely escaped with their lives on unladen mounts as it was. Indeed, Cato was not yet out of danger. Thought of his friend spurred Macro on and he stood up and approached Prefect Scrofa's desk.
'Sir?' he said as respectfully as he could. 'I accept that I cannot produce my orders, and that means you are entitled to hold on to your command. But you must send men out to search for Centurion Cato. Before Bannus finds him.'
'Must I?' Scrofa smiled coolly. 'As you so rightly pointed out, I am still in command. I don't have to do a thing that you say.'
Macro clasped his hands behind his back and forced himself to nod gently as he fought back his anger and frustration. Anger would only make this man obdurate. 'I know that, sir. But I'm thinking about how this will look back in Rome when word gets out that the commander of the Second Illyrian sat and did nothing while a comrade was hunted down and put to death by a bunch of brigands. It would tarnish the cohort's image for ever, and perhaps the reputation of the commander as well.'
Prefect Scrofa stared up at him in silence for a moment and then nodded. 'You're right…That would be most unfair to my men.' Then Scrofa's eyes narrowed a fraction as he sat back and stared blankly at the opposite wall. 'It's bloody unfair. I served my time as a tribune on the Rhine. I've worked my way up through the junior civil appointments, and spent good time and money cultivating the right contacts at the palace.' He looked at Macro suddenly, his eyes flashing with bitterness.'Do you know how much I paid to have sturgeon's eggs served at a dinner I gave for Narcissus? Well do you?'
'A bloody fortune, that's how much. And that bastard Narcissus pushes them aside and complains that they're too salty.' Scrofa was silent for a moment, wrapped up in the past, before he continued in a resigned tone. 'So I decide to try my hand at winning a little glory on the field of battle. That should add lustre to the name of Scrofa, I thought.You know, my great grandfather fought with Mark Antony at Actium? Martial blood runs in my family's veins. So my father pulled a few strings to get me appointed as a centurion of auxiliaries. I thought I'd carve out a reputation on the battlefields of Britannia.That was my request. And what happens? They send me to Syria. Garrison duty. Can you imagine? A complete waste of my potential. A whole year stuck in a wretched hole on the border with Palmyra. Then I get this appointment. Another bloody frontier fort. But the only enemy I have to deal with is Bannus and his little gang of thieves. Where's the glory in that?' Scrofa sniffed. 'Police work. Might as well have got a posting to the urban cohorts in Rome. At least I'd be out of this damned oven!' He gestured irritably towards the slave holding the fan. 'Faster, damn you…' He slumped back in his chair.
Macro's shoulders heaved with relief that the tirade was over, and he tried to steer the cohort commander back on to the subject of sending out a force to find Cato and Symeon. 'You're right. No one should be out in this heat. Especially not an injured Roman officer.'
Scrofa looked at Macro sharply and frowned for an instant.Then he flapped his hand towards the door. 'Very well, Macro! We'll take all four cavalry squadrons. We'll find your friend and bring him back here as quickly as possible.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro turned to the door, but he had not reached it before Scrofa spoke again.
'But we're not taking any risks with my men, you understand?'
Macro paused and looked back over his shoulder and stifled the urge to sneer. Risk was what soldiers got paid for. He had the measure of Scrofa now. The man was simply playing at soldiers. The last thing he wanted was any more injured men cluttering up his fort on the farthest-flung fringe of the Empire.
'I understand, sir.'
'Good. You can organise the men. I've some records that need seeing to. I'll join you when the column's ready to leave.'
'Very well, sir.'
For a man who prided himself on the military blood that coursed through his veins, Prefect Scrofa was a very poor horseman, Macro reflected, as he watched the cohort commander being hoisted up into the saddle by his Celtic slave. Scrofa flung a leg across the animal's back and wriggled into position, then adjusted his helmet, which had slid forward since it had not been tied securely enough. He was little better than the raw recruits Macro had broken in back in the legions. If the man had been a common soldier Macro would have been all over him, bellowing into his face and applying his vine cane in retribution for such slovenliness. As it was, thanks to the imperial policy of directly appointing minor aristocrats to the office of centurion, alongside those who had won the rank on merit, Scrofa was in command of the Second Illyrian. Macro shook his head gently. What was Cassius Longinus thinking of when he picked Scrofa for this post? Surely he had better men backing his cause? Or was he so short of men of quality amongst his plotters that he had been forced to call on the services of Scrofa?
Prefect Scrofa took up his reins and flicked them casually as he tapped his heels into the flanks of his horse. 'Let's be off.'
Behind him the decurions commanding the four mounted squadrons chosen for the task relayed the order in more formal tones and the column clopped out of the fort and on to the track that stretched across the stone-strewn desert to the west. Scrofa led the way at a steady walk and once again Macro found himself simmering with frustration and rage as the column ambled along. A light wind blew in from the deep desert, and the dust kicked up from the track swirled round the men in a choking, blinding cloud. The officers at the head of the column were spared the worst of the dust and occasionally Macro could see the distant shapes of horsemen along the track ahead. Bannus was keeping them under observation, Macro realised. Even though the brigand scouts kept far beyond the reach of the Roman column, Macro had no doubt that the lightly armoured men on their small, swift horses would easily evade any sudden rush by Scrofa and his men. Not that Scrofa showed any signs of being interested in chasing the enemy down.
At length, as the sun began to sink towards the western horizon, Macro could no longer tolerate the pace and urged his horse forward until he was alongside the cohort commander.
'Sir, at this rate we'll not be able to return to the fort before nightfall. Let me take half the men and go on ahead.'
'Divide my command?' Scrofa frowned and glanced at Macro with a disappointed expression. 'Really, I'm surprised at you. I'd have thought you would be conversant with the basic principles of military campaigning.'
'This isn't a campaign, sir. It's a simple rescue mission. I can ride ahead, scout the lie of the land and search for signs of Centurion Cato and the guide. If I see any sizeable enemy forces I'll fall back and join you.'
Scrofa considered this for a moment and then nodded reluctantly. 'Very well. You're right. It would not be prudent to push on into what could easily be an ambush. Take two of the squadrons up ahead. Make sure you keep me informed of developments, understand?'
'And take Centurion Postumus with you.'
'I trust him. He's reliable. He'll make sure the men are looked after.'
Macro stared at the cohort commander. Clearly Scrofa did not trust him with his auxiliaries and Macro seethed as he forced himself to nod his acquiescence. He turned and looked round for Postumus and beckoned to him. The younger officer, his helmet still bedecked with a flowing crest, trotted up and Macro quickly briefed him. Shortly afterwards Scrofa stood aside as the two leading squadrons cantered ahead down the track. When they had drawn some distance away Scrofa waved the rest of the column forward and they continued at the same steady pace as before.
Macro did not look back as he rode along the track.Ahead of him he could see Bannus' scouts wheel their mounts about and gallop away, keeping a safe margin between themselves and the Romans. Macro drove his men on, mile after mile, until they reached the junction where he had parted with Symeon and Cato. He plunged off the main route and followed the track until it descended into a long narrow wadi. There, a short distance ahead, lay the village that Symeon had mentioned, and Macro felt his heart quicken at the sight of scores of horses and men filling the open space in the heart of the settlement.
Macro reined his horse in and thrust his arm up to halt the two squadrons of mounted auxiliaries behind him.
'Decurions! On me!'
The squadron commanders trotted up as Macro pointed towards the village. 'That's where we're headed. The guide said he'd shelter there with Centurion Cato. Those brigand bastards are already on the scene. So we go in fast and drive 'em out before we start searching for our men.You – Quintatus, wasn't it?'
The decurion nodded.
'Right. I'll wager they'll run for it the moment they see us. Take your squadron right through the village and keep chasing them until they're well clear of the place. Then fall back and rejoin us. Who knows? By then, the prefect might even have caught up with us.'
The decurions grinned, and Macro kicked his heels in, urging his mount on towards the village. 'Let's go!'
As soon as the two squadrons launched themselves down the slope the brigands burst into desperate activity. Men spilled out of the houses where they had been sheltering from the sun and scrambled on to their horses. Others limped out, supported by their comrades, and were helped into the saddle, to hang on as best they could as Bannus and his men fled from the village.
A few figures stood still, watching the men leave the village, some turning to stare at the approaching Romans. Macro guessed they must be the inhabitants, bewildered and afraid of the violent pursuit their small settlement had been abruptly caught up in. And somewhere, in among the humble dwellings, Cato and Symeon were hopefully still alive and in hiding. The thought spurred Macro on and he crouched over his horse and urged it forward with harsh cries of encouragement as the hooves pounded over the hard ground that sloped down towards the nearest houses. To one side he saw a woman scream and rush to scoop up a small child before she hurried into her house and slammed the door. Then Macro was in amongst the buildings, and there was only a narrow open street before him. He could no longer see the brigands, but the anxious cries of the last of their stragglers carried across the dun-coloured roofs.
The street turned a corner and directly ahead lay the heart of the village. Macro snatched out his sword, his senses tingling now that he was almost on his enemies. Just as he emerged from the end of the street, a horse suddenly bolted across in front of him. There was an instant as Macro's eyes met the terrified ink-dark stare of the other rider, then the centurion's horse slammed into the flank of the other beast. Macro was hurled forward, out of the saddle, straight into the brigand, and both tumbled into the open space in the centre of the village. Macro slammed into the ground, driving the breath from his body, but he rolled over into a crouch and, gasping for air, looked round at his enemy. The other man was still lying on the ground, dazed by the impact and shaking his head. He turned his head and saw Macro, before his gaze dropped to the centurion's sword on the ground in front of him. Macro saw it too, and lurched forward. Too late. The brigand snatched up the blade and quickly clambered into a low crouch, eyes fixed on Macro as he held the sword out and grinned.
'Easy there, sunshine.' Macro backed away. The rest of the auxiliaries were only a short distance behind – the sound of their hooves echoed up the street. The brigand glanced over his shoulder and then turned back to Macro. His grin had vanished and now he scrambled forward with a cold glint in his eyes. Macro felt his back thud up against a wall and turned his head and saw that he would be trapped in a corner if he went to his left. Tensing his legs, he sprang to the right and ran for the edge of the building, just as the brigand thrust the sword. It struck the wall in an explosion of loose plaster, then with a cry of frustration the man ran after Macro. Macro sprinted past a door, which swung open an instant later, straight into the face of the brigand. Cato emerged into the street blinking and jumped as the door rebounded towards him.Then he turned and saw Macro, and smiled.
'I wondered when-' Cato's smile froze as his friend slithered to a stop, reversed direction with a menacing grimace and dived back past the door. The brigand was flat on his back, winded. Macro stamped down on the wrist of his sword arm and the fingers instinctively flinched, releasing the blade.
'I'll have that back, thank you.' Macro dipped down to retrieve his sword, then delivered a savage kick to the side of the man's head, knocking him senseless. There was a confused din of shouts and whinnying and Macro turned to where the street fed into the centre of the village.The horses that had collided were still thrashing around and the cavalry had been forced to stop, piling up into a dense mass just beyond the flailing hooves. Then Macro's horse rolled over, clambered up and lurched nervously to one side. The auxiliaries squeezed past and Macro waved them on.
'Don't stop! Get after the bastards! Go! Go!'
They stumbled by in a rush of horseflesh, kicking boots, and shields as Macro turned back to Cato. Behind them Symeon emerged from the house and watched the riders go past with a relieved grin. He nodded a greeting at Macro.
'Nice timing, Cato.' Macro nodded to the unconscious brigand, then focused on the pallor of his friend's face, which was streaked with blood. 'How's the head?'
'Sore. I feel a bit sick. But I'll live.You got here just in time.They'd have surely found us if you'd been a moment longer.'
'I nearly didn't get here at all. Had a hard time persuading that bloody prefect at the fort to send these auxiliary boys out.'
'Why persuade him?' Cato frowned. 'You've replaced him.You're the new prefect.'
Macro laughed bitterly. 'Not until I present him with the right document. You know how the Roman army loves its procedures. Unfortunately, my letter of appointment was lost with the rest of the baggage.'
Cato shook his head. 'Damn. That's messed things up for us.'
A thought struck Macro. 'What about that warrant from Narcissus?'
Cato instinctively clutched a hand to his chest, and felt the slim leather case that hung from a strap round his neck. 'It's still safe.'
'Good.Then we can use that. Show it Scrofa and take command of the cohort.'
'What do you mean, no?'
'Think about it. If we use the warrant now, then our cover is blown. It won't take long for word to get back to Longinus that two of Narcissus' spies are in the region. He'd immediately be on his guard, and you can bet that the first thing he'd do is see to it that we were disposed of.' Cato paused for a moment, then shook his head. 'We daren't use the Emperor's authority unless we really need to.'
Macro laughed bitterly. 'Shit! So what the hell do we do now?'
'We have to send a message back to the procurator in Caesarea, asking for confirmation of your appointment. He'll have it on record.'
'And until then Scrofa will continue to be the prefect of the Second Illyrian.'
'So it seems.'
'That's great, just great.' Macro turned away, trying to contain his frustration, and saw Symeon sitting on a bench in the sun shelter, talking intently to one of the local women. He leaned closer to Cato and spoke softly. 'Who's that?'
'Miriam. She's the one who hid us from Bannus and his men.'
'Really?' Macro looked at her more closely. 'Must be a brave old stick.'
'Brave?' Cato recalled the manner in which she had confronted Bannus. 'That she is. But there's more to her than meets the eye.'
'She seems to be the leader of this settlement. Or at least one of the leaders.' Cato chewed his lip for a moment. 'She also seemed to know Bannus quite well.'
'Not to mention our guide there.'
Cato looked at Symeon, and saw that he was holding one of Miriam's hands as he spoke earnestly to her. 'Yes. We need to find out more about her. More about what precisely is going on around here.'
'Think we should take her to the fort for questioning?'
Cato shook his head. 'I'm not sure that would be helpful. She could be of some use to us, if we can win her trust. Though, in the circumstances, that might be difficult.'
'It seems that her son was crucified.'
'Ah, that is a little unfortunate,' Macro conceded.'Still, if we can work on her, maybe we can win her round.'
'It's not a question of winning her round. I'd think she'd see through that in an instant. We're going to have to play this one very carefully, Macro, if we want her on our side. Anyway, quiet! Symeon is coming.'
Symeon had risen from the bench and was making his way to the two Romans. He tipped his head on one side with an apologetic expression. 'Miriam has a favour to ask, Centurion Cato.'
'She would like us to remove that brigand you skewered. She needs to patch her mattress and wash the bloodstains out before she prepares his body for burial.'
By the time Cato and Macro had heaved the dead brigand out of the house and found a cool spot in the shade for the body, the prefect and the other two squadrons were approaching the settlement. Scrofa rode into the village and halted his column outside Miriam's house, before dismounting in the same ungainly manner in which he had been hoisted into the saddle. He looked at Cato and Symeon.
'The missing centurion and his guide, I presume?'
'Centurion Quintus Licinius Cato, sir.' Cato bowed his head.
'I'm glad that our little expedition managed to find you before Bannus and his scum did.'
Cato smiled faintly. 'They were here not long ago, sir. Macro's men drove them out.'
Scrofa stared back frostily. 'They are not Centurion Macro's men. They are my men until he can provide proper proof that he has been sent to replace me. My men, do you understand?'
'Good.' Scrofa nodded.Then his eyes swept round the village, before fixing on Miriam who was watching them from the bench under her sun shelter. 'You say that the enemy was in the village when Centurion Macro arrived?'
'That's right, sir.'
'So what were they doing here, exactly?'
'Having their wounded seen to,' Cato replied uneasily.
'So the villagers were helping them?'
'No. They forced the villagers to help. They threatened them.'
'We'll see about that.' Scrofa gestured towards Miriam. 'Bring that one over here.'
Miriam had overheard the exchange. She rose to her feet and strode towards the two Roman officers, staring defiantly at the prefect. 'What do you want of me, Roman?'
Scrofa was momentarily taken aback by her forceful manner, but quickly recovered his composure and cleared his throat. 'It seems you gave shelter to the brigands.'
'Yes, but as your centurion said, I had no choice.'
'There is always a choice,' Scrofa replied haughtily. 'Whatever the consequences. You could have resisted them. Indeed, it was your duty to resist them.'
'Resist them with what?' Miriam swept her arm out, indicating the surrounding houses. 'We have no weapons – they are not permitted here. My people believe only in peace. We will not take sides in your conflict with Bannus.'
Scrofa gave a derisive snort. 'Won't take sides! How dare you, woman? Bannus is a common criminal. A bandit. He is outside the law. If you are not against him, then, by default, you are for him.'
Now Miriam laughed and shook her head. 'No. We are not for him. Just as we are not for Rome.'
'Then what are you for?' Scrofa sneered.
'One faith, for all the people, under one true God.'
As Cato watched the confrontation he saw the contempt in Scrofa's expression, and could understand it. Like most Romans Scrofa believed in many gods, and accepted that the peoples of the world were entitled to worship their own.The Judaean insistence that there was only one god, their god, and that all others were merely worthless idols, seemed like simple arrogance to Scrofa. Besides, if the god of these people reigned supreme, then how was it that they were a province of Rome, and not the other way round?
A deep groan broke the tension and they all turned towards the brigand who was stirring on the ground beside the entrance to Miriam's house. His eyes flickered open and he started at the sight of the Roman officers and auxiliaries standing about him. He sat up quickly and shuffled back against the wall as Macro took a pace towards him and gestured at him with his sword. 'What do you want done with this one?'
Scrofa regarded the man for a moment, then folded his arms. 'Crucify him. Here in the centre of the village.'
'What?' Cato could not believe his ears. 'He's a prisoner. He must be interrogated – he might have useful knowledge.'
'Crucify him,' Scrofa repeated. 'And then burn this woman's house.'
'No!' Cato stepped up to the prefect. 'She saved our lives. And risked her own to do it. You can't destroy her home.'
Scrofa's brow furrowed and he took a sharp intake of breath before he continued in a low, furious voice. 'The woman admits to helping the enemy, and she denies the authority of the Emperor. That I will not tolerate. These people must be taught a lesson. Either they are with us, or they are against us.' Scrofa turned back towards Miriam. 'She just might consider that while she watches her house burn.'
Miriam returned his stare with a thin-lipped look of contempt.
Cato's heart was pounding. He was horrified by the rank injustice of the prefect's decision. It was pointless. Worse than pointless – it was wilfully wrong. If this was how Rome rewarded those who risked all to help her soldiers, then the people of Judaea would never be at peace with the Empire. But there was more to it than that, Cato thought. Such punishment was morally wrong and he could not tolerate it. He shook his head and stood stiffly in front of the prefect while he forced himself to speak as calmly as possible.
'You can't burn her house, sir.'
'Can't I?' Scrofa looked amused. 'We'll soon see about that.'
'You can't do it!' Cato blurted out. 'I won't let you.'
The amused expression faded from Scrofa's eyes.'How dare you challenge my authority, Centurion? I could have you broken to the ranks for that. I could have you condemned. In fact-'
Before he could continue, Macro moved in, took Cato's arm and drew his friend away, towards the sun shelter. 'The lad's had a bad knock on the head, sir. He doesn't know what he's saying. Come on, Cato, sit down in the shade.You need rest.'
'Rest?' Cato glared at him. 'No. I have to stop this folly.'
Macro shook his head. He thrust Cato away from the prefect, whispering, 'Shut your mouth, you fool. Before I have to shut it for you.'
'What?' Cato looked at him in shock as he was propelled towards the shaded bench.
'Just sit still and say nothing.' Cato shook his head, but Macro clamped his hand on his arm and hissed, 'Sit down!'
Cato's head was reeling with confusion. Scrofa was about to perpetrate a monstrous injustice, one that Cato knew he must resist. And yet Macro was siding with Scrofa. He was clearly determined to prevent Cato's making any further protest, and Cato slumped helplessly as he glanced back towards Miriam. She was grim-faced, but there was no hiding the tears that gleamed in the corner of her eyes. After a moment's hesitation, Symeon put his arm round her and led her back inside the house.
'Miriam, let's save what we can. While there's still time.'
She nodded as they disappeared into the shadows.
Dusk was closing in as the column rode out of the village. Riding between Macro and Symeon, Cato took a last glance back over his shoulder. Flames roared and crackled as the fire consumed Miriam's house. She stood some distance away, embracing her grandson. A handful of the villagers stood still and gazed at the inferno.To one side, silhouetted by the flames, the brigand hung from the makeshift frame that the auxiliaries had erected after ripping the timbers out of Miriam's house. A hastily scribbled message on a wooden plaque had been nailed beneath the brigand's feet, warning the villagers not to render the man any comfort, and not to remove his body once he had died. Otherwise, his corpse would be replaced by one of their own.
As he turned away, Cato felt sick with despair and self-loathing. Rome had taken away her son, and now it had destroyed her home. If this was how they treated those who bore so little malice towards them, then there would never be peace in this land.
07 The Eagle In the Sand