Fort Bushir, like nearly all Roman forts, followed a roughly standard design. The commander's house, the headquarters, hospital and stores all occupied a central position and lined the two main thoroughfares that ran through the fort at right angles to each other. On either side stretched the long, low roofs of the barrack blocks where the cohort's men were accommodated eight to a room in the buildings allocated to each century or cavalry squadron. The stables took up one corner of the fort and the smell of the animals permeated the hot air that hung over everything like a stifling blanket. As Centurion Parmenion gave them a detailed tour Cato noted examples of a slackness that would not be tolerated in most other auxiliary cohorts, let alone the huge fortresses of the legions he was more familiar with.There were broken doors and shutters, food slops left in the street and several items of poorly maintained equipment, most notably the dried-out wood on the bolt-throwers mounted in each of the towers. They were quite useless; sure to split the moment the arms were placed under any strain if the weapons should ever be made ready to shoot. There was also a discernible listlessness amongst the rankers of the cohort and Cato wondered if it might be more than just the natural reaction to years spent in such a desolate posting.
As the three centurions climbed the ladder to the watchtower built over the main gates Macro decided it was time to speak directly.
'Have you always served with the auxiliaries, Centurion Parmenion?'
'No chance. I'm a proper soldier. Spent seventeen years with the Third Gallica up near Damascus, the last as an optio. Then I took a transfer into the Second Illyrian with promotion to centurion. Been here ever since. Should be demobbed within the next year or two.'
'Why do you ask?'
'With someone of your background here, I was just wondering how the place came to be in such a state.'
Parmenion did not respond until all three of them were standing on the small platform of the watchtower, in the shade of the palm thatch roof. Around them the desert unravelled to the horizon, shimmering in the glare of the sun. But Parmenion's gaze was fixed on Macro. 'There's nothing wrong with the cohort, Centurion Macro. Not the rankers at least,' he said guardedly.
'And the officers?'
Parmenion stared back at Macro, and glanced at Cato. 'Why are you asking me that? What are you after?'
'Nothing,' Macro replied easily. 'It's just that I should be assuming command of the cohort soon, and I'll want to make a few changes…a few improvements. I was just curious about how the cohort came to be in the state that it is. In my experience, a unit is only as good as its officers.'
Parmenion seemed satisfied by the explanation and he tilted his head slightly.'Most of 'em are sound enough. Or were, until Centurion Postumus turned up. That was under the previous commander.'
'What difference did Postumus make?' asked Cato.
'None, at first. The previous adjutant had died after a long illness. Postumus was sent down to us from Damascus as a replacement. Like Scrofa after him. He did his duties conscientiously enough. Then he started volunteering for command of the patrols into the desert.You can imagine that made him very popular amongst those of us who had no great desire to spend days riding around in the sun and the dust. Anyway, that was the situation until the previous commander received a visit from the representative of one of the caravan cartels. Seems that he accused Postumus of operating some kind of protection scam on his caravans. The prefect wanted some hard evidence and went on the next patrol with Postumus. And didn't come back.'
Cato raised his eyebrows.'That might be seen as quite convenient for Centurion Postumus, from a cynical point of view.'
'Quite.' Parmenion smiled. 'Anyway, Scrofa turned up and nothing has been done about the accusations since then.'
There was a pause before Cato asked, 'Are you saying that the prefect has been cut in on the deal? What about the other officers?'
Parmenion shook his head. 'I don't want to talk about it.'
'About what?' Cato persisted.
Macro interrupted impatiently. 'Something is going on here. The officers appear divided and the men don't seem to care about their duties. Any fool can see it.'
'If any fool can see it then you don't need me to inform on my fellow officers.'
'No one is asking you to be an informer,' Cato replied gently. 'But a veteran like you must know what is going on. Why didn't you complain to the prefect, or someone higher up the chain of command?'
'I did. I had a word with Scrofa. Told him standards were slipping amongst the men. He seemed a little bemused by my complaint. Anyway, I haven't been assigned any desert patrols since then. He's kept me well away from the caravan routes. And now he wants me to go in heavy on the local villages.' Parmenion sniffed derisively. 'What good's it going to do sticking it to a bunch of farmers scraping a living in this wasteland? We should be going after Bannus.'
'Yes,' Macro replied thoughtfully. 'We should.'
Parmenion turned to face him. 'Is that what you plan to do, sir? When word comes of your appointment?'
'Seems the logical way to proceed.'
Parmenion nodded with satisfaction. 'Be good to get the officers back to proper soldiering. Do the men good as well.'
'True. But there's nothing I can do about it right now.' Macro scratched his chin and turned to stare out into the desert. 'I think it's time I had a look at some of the territory the Second Illyrian is supposed to be covering.'
Cato looked at him with narrowed eyes. 'What's on your mind?'
'I think I'll join one of those patrols Scrofa is sending out.' Macro smiled. 'You might want to join Parmenion here, see what the situation is in the local villages.'
Cato shrugged. 'Fair enough. There's nothing else we can do until we hear back from the procurator.'
Prefect Scrofa stared at Macro and Cato. 'Why would you want to do that? You've only just arrived here and you want to leave the fort already?'
Cato answered for them.'As you yourself pointed out, sir, we are surplus to requirements, as things stand. So we might as well get some experience of the area. See how the men perform. That sort of thing.'
Scrofa exchanged a look with his adjutant before he responded. 'I'm not so sure about that. I mean, we have our own way of doing things here. Perhaps it's best if you spend some time observing how we run the cohort before you throw yourselves into action.'
Macro smiled back. 'No point in wasting any time. There's an expression we had in the Second Augusta, back on the Rhine. Best thing a soldier can do is get his arse in the grass.'
Scrofa frowned. 'I don't understand.'
'Field experience,' Macro explained. 'There's no substitute for it.Though, I admit, the saying doesn't seem to have much currency out here. What with grass being in such short supply.'
'Get your bust in the dust?' Cato suggested.
Macro looked at him irritably. 'Helpful, as always, Centurion Cato.'
'Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.'
'Anyway, that's why I think I should accompany Centurion Postumus on his patrol, while Cato heads out with Parmenion. We'll just be along for the ride, and won't get in the way.'
'Hm.' Scrofa folded his hands together and rested his chin on the fingertips. 'I'm still not sure it's a good idea.'
'Why not?' Postumus interrupted. 'I'd be honoured if Centurion Macro joined me. And I'm sure that once he sees how we operate he will be only too happy to continue our methods.That'll ensure a smooth transition, if confirmation of his appointment turns up.'
'When it turns up,' Macro corrected him with an icy glint in his eye.
'Yes, sir. Of course. When it turns up. Meanwhile, I think you'll quickly come to appreciate how well we deal with the people passing through our territory.'
'Just as Centurion Cato will come to understand that the only authority the Judaeans will respect is one backed up by the harsh application of force.' Postumus bowed his head towards Macro.'An excellent suggestion, if I may say so, sir.'
Macro nodded. 'Then we'll draw some kit from the quartermaster and prepare for the patrols.'
'Where you're going, you'll find this far more suitable than a helmet,' Centurion Parmenion explained as he picked up a folded cloth from one of the shelves in the quartermaster's stores. 'Here, let me show you.'
He flicked the cloth out and then folded one corner diagonally across so that the light material formed a triangle. He raised it over his head so that the long side faced forward, and then he secured the material over the crown of his head with a double loop of braid. 'There, you see?'
'I can see you look like a native,' Macro grunted. 'Is that really necessary?'
Parmenion shrugged. 'Only if you don't want the sun to boil your brains. You can cross the ends in front and throw them over your shoulders to keep the dust from your face as well, if needed. Useful piece of gear all round. And in this place, yes, necessary.'
Parmenion removed the keffiyeh and handed it to Macro who regarded it with little enthusiasm. Cato took his more willingly and tried it on.
'Not bad,' Parmenion conceded. 'And you'll need a linen cuirass. There's a few sets we keep for officers. That scale armour of yours might be fine for Germania or Britannia, but it'll kill you out here if you have to wear it for too long.'
He searched along the shelves until he found what he was looking for and returned with a set of the lightweight armour. It was made from sheets of linen, glued together to make stiff, hard breast and back plates that were joined by a tie at each side.
'Here, Cato. Try it on.'
Once Parmenion had fastened the ties Macro could not help laughing.
'What's so funny?'
'Those bits that stick up at the back look like wings.'
Parmenion pulled each of the plates over Cato's shoulders and fastened them to the front of the breastplate. 'There you are.You'll find that it lacks the flexibility of scale or mail armour, but it's much lighter and almost as tough.'
Cato flexed to each side and performed a slow twist from his midriff.'See what you mean.'Then he rapped the breastplate and was pleased that it seemed resilient enough. Fine for most sword cuts, although a determined thrust with a spear, or an arrow strike, would be a different matter. He looked up at Parmenion and nodded. 'It'll do.'
Parmenion turned to Macro. 'Now you, sir.'
While Parmenion went to fetch some more armour Macro muttered to Cato, 'All this cloak and dagger stuff is bad enough already, without having to muck about with all this fancy dress crap.'
The patrols left the fort the following morning, just after sunrise. The air was cool and Cato relished it, knowing full well how hot the day would become. A squadron of horse and a century of infantry had been allocated to Centurion Parmenion, since he would be marching from village to village and would not need to move swiftly.The infantry were equipped with the light headgear and armour, but retained their heavy oval shields and sturdy spears, together with their marching yokes from which hung their bedding, rations and mess kits. The column tramped out through the gate, horsemen at the front in a cavalcade of clattering accoutrements. From the gatehouse Macro watched them march off down the track for a while, and then turned away to join the two mounted squadrons that Centurion Postumus was about to lead in the opposite direction, out into the desert.
07 The Eagle In the Sand