The settlement of Heshaba was the first village on Centurion Parmenion's patrol route, and the column of Roman cavalry and infantry descended the slope from the main track late in the morning. The blackened remains of Miriam's house were clearly visible and once again Cato felt consumed with guilt that this woman had been so cruelly rewarded for saving his life. As the column approached the village, Parmenion led them in a wide circuit round its periphery. He did not halt the column but kept them marching down the wadi, away from Heshaba.
'I thought we were supposed to stop there.' Cato spoke quietly to the veteran as they rode side by side at the head of the cavalry squadron.
'They've had enough of us for the moment,' Parmenion replied. 'We're coming back the same way, so we can let them know the score then.'
Cato looked at him shrewdly. 'Still out to win their friendship?'
Parmenion glanced back at him. 'Perhaps I'm just trying not to lose whatever good will remains between us. If we go in hard today, it might just be the final straw for those people. Then they'll go over to Bannus. And if the people of Heshaba turn against us, then what hope have we with the rest of the province? Strictly between us, Cato, there are times when I doubt that there's anything more the prefect could do to stir up bad will amongst the people in this area. It's almost as if he wants to goad them into open rebellion.'
'And why would he want that?' Cato responded evenly.
Parmenion thought it over for a moment and shook his head. 'I don't know. I really don't. Doesn't make sense at all. The man must be mad. Quite mad.'
'Does he strike you as mad?'
'No. I suppose not.' Parmenion sounded confused, and glanced round at Cato again. 'What do you think? There has to be more to it. Any fool could see where these orders will lead. They are going to provoke a rebellion, or at least drive far more men into Bannus' clutches. I just don't get it.'
Cato shrugged, then stared back towards the village. He reined his horse in, steering it out of the path of the following column as his mind turned over the wanton injustice that Miriam had suffered. He made a decision, and spurred his mount back alongside Parmenion.
'Where are we camping tonight?'
'There's a spring and some trees halfway along the wadi. About another four miles from here. Why?'
'I'll join you there at dusk,' Cato replied, before he urged his horse back along the column and headed for the village.
'Where are you going?' Parmenion called after him.
'I have to speak to someone!' Cato shouted back, and then muttered, 'I have to apologise.'
As his horse climbed back up the slope towards the cluster of houses that made up the small community of Heshaba, Cato mentally composed the words he wished to say to Miriam. He had to make it quite clear that the prefect was not representative of other Romans. That his actions must not be understood to be typical of Roman policy. It might yet be possible to mend some of the damage that Scrofa had caused.
He entered the village and was immediately aware of the hostile expressions in the faces of the few people who met his gaze through open doors and windows as his horse picked its way down the street and into the open space at the heart of the community. The air still carried the sharp tang from the burned-out shell of Miriam's house. The brigand hung from his cross and Cato hoped that the man was dead, spared from any further suffering. A short distance away from the smouldering ruin Cato saw her grandson,Yusef, squatting on a small chest on the ground next to the meagre pile of goods that she had been able to rescue from the house before the auxiliaries had set fire to it.Yusef looked up at the sound of hooves and stared at Cato with wide terrified eyes. Cato dismounted, and led the horse over to one of the blackened uprights that had supported Miriam's sun shelter. He tethered the animal to it and slowly approached the young boy.
'Yusef, do you know where your grandmother is?' he asked in Greek.
The boy did not respond for a moment, and then shook his head quickly.'She's not here. She's gone. So you can't hurt her any more, Roman!' He almost spat out the last word, and Cato paused a short distance away, not wanting to alarm the boy any further.
'I mean her no harm. You have my word on that, Yusef. But I must speak to her. Please tell me where she is.'
Yusef stared at him for a moment, then slowly rose to his feet. He pointed at the ground. 'Wait here. Don't move. Don't try to follow me.'
Cato nodded. With a last careful look at the Roman, Yusef turned and ran off, disappearing round the corner of the nearest building. Cato glanced round and saw that there was no one else in sight. The village was as quiet and as still as the vast necropolis that spread out to either side of the Appian way outside the gates of Rome. Not the happiest of comparisons, Cato thought wryly, and turned his attention to the pile of belongings in the street. Aside from the bundles of clothing and cooking pots there were several baskets of scrolls, and the small casket that Yusef had been sitting on. Something about the casket struck Cato, and then he remembered that he had seen it in the hiding place beneath Miriam's house. What could be so precious about it that it had to be hidden from sight? His curiosity aroused, Cato glanced round to make sure that he was unobserved. After a moment's hesitation he approached and squatted down to examine it more closely. The casket was quite plain, with no ornamentation and a simple catch fastening.
He was interrupted by the sound of footsteps and hurriedly stood as Miriam and Yusef turned the corner and saw him squatting down by their belongings. Miriam's eyes went immediately to the casket as she strode across towards the centurion.
'I'll thank you to leave my property – what remains of it – alone. My son made that for me. That, and the contents, are all I have to remember him by.'
'I'm sorry. I… ' Cato stared at her helplessly, then hung his head in shame. 'I'm sorry.'
'My grandson says you wish to speak to me?'
'Yes. If you will permit me.'
'I'm not sure that I want to speak to you. Not after… ' Miriam swallowed as she gestured towards the scorched remains of her house.
'I can understand that,' Cato replied gently. 'The prefect was wrong to do it. I tried to stop him.'
Miriam nodded. 'I know, but it made no difference.'
'What happens to you now? Where will you go?'
Miriam blinked back the tears that glistened at the corners of her dark eyes and nodded vaguely towards the street she had emerged from. 'One of my people has provided a room for me and the boy. The villagers will build us a new home.'
'That's good.' Cato tilted his head slightly to one side. 'You said your people. Are you their leader?'
Miriam pursed her lips. 'In a manner of speaking. They hold me in some regard as followers of my son. It's almost as if I was their mother as well.' She smiled weakly. 'I suppose they're just sentimental.'
Cato smiled back at her. 'Whatever the reason, you clearly hold some power over them, as well as Symeon and Bannus, it appears.'
Miriam's smile froze, and she looked at Cato suspiciously. 'What do you want of me, Centurion?'
'To talk. To understand what is going on. I need to know more about your people, and about Bannus, if we are to bring his ambition to provoke an uprising to an end, and save lives. Many lives, Roman and Judaean alike.'
'You want to understand my people?' Miriam replied bitterly.'Then you'd be one of the few Romans who ever did try to understand us.'
'I know that. I cannot apologise for what has been done in the name of Rome. I am only a junior officer. I cannot change imperial policy. But I can try to make a difference. That's all.'
'Very honest of you, Centurion.'
'We could start improving relations if you would call me Cato.'
She stared at him for a moment and then smiled.'Very well, then, Cato.We'll talk.' She bent down to pick up the casket and tucked it securely under her arm before she rose up and nodded to him. 'Come with me. You too, Yusef.'
She led Cato through the quiet streets and a short distance out of the village to a small reservoir that collected the rain that ran off the slopes of the wadi during the winter and spring. Now it was nearly dry and a few goats chewed at the tufts of grass growing in the cracked earth at the water's edge. Miriam and Cato sat in the shade of a handful of palm trees while Yusef ambled off to find some pebbles for his sling and began to practise against a distant rock.
'He's got a good eye for that,' Cato commented. 'He'd make a fine auxiliary when he grows up.'
'Yusef will not be a soldier,' Miriam replied firmly. 'He's one of us.'
Cato glanced at her. 'One of what, exactly? I am told that you, and these people, are Essenes.Yet you don't seem to wholly embrace their way of life.'
'Essenes!' Mirian laughed. 'No, we are not like them. The pleasures of life are to be enjoyed, not denied. Some of my people were once Essenes, but they didn't want to spend the rest of their days dead to the joys of the world.'
'Pardon me, but Heshaba is hardly my idea of paradise.'
'Perhaps not,' Miriam conceded. 'But it is our home, and we are free to make it as we will.That was always my dream. After my son was executed I turned away from Judaea. I'd had enough of their petty factions, playing one sect off against another. The high priests in Jerusalem were the worst of the lot. Endlessly splitting hairs over interpretations of the scriptures, while their families grew wealthier and wealthier. That's why my boy, Jehoshua, became involved in the political struggle. Not just against Rome, but against those who exploited the poor. He was quite a speaker, and at the end huge crowds used to come and listen to him. That was when the priests decided that Jehoshua had to be silenced. Before he persuaded the people to turn on them. So they had him arrested and saw that he was executed.'
'I thought you said he was crucified?'
'But only the procurator could authorise that.'
'The procurator at the time was a weak man. The priests threatened to stir up trouble against the authority of Rome unless my son was executed. They made a deal and my boy was killed. His closest followers were hunted down and the movement was broken up. Some of the leaders wanted to avenge Jehoshua. They took to the hills and have been raiding the estates of the rich and attacking Roman patrols ever since. In Jehoshua's name. Bannus became their leader. He had been a follower of my son, and claimed to be carrying out his will.'
'That's how you know him, then.'
Miriam nodded. 'He was a fiery young man, even in those days. Very idealistic. Jehoshua used to joke that Bannus was the living spirit of the movement. I often thought they were like brothers. Bannus looked up to him all the time, so he took his death very badly. He became very bitter towards those of us who still believed in peaceful resistance and reform. Eventually he killed a tax collector and went on the run. There were plenty of others like him in the hills, and he gradually won them round. He must have picked up some of my son's speaking skills, I suppose. He visited me regularly for a while, trying to win me over to his point of view. If the mother of the movement's figurehead was on his side then he knew he could draw on far more support. I refused, and he no longer regards me with the affection he used to show me. Anyway he has acquired a large enough following of his own now, as you Romans have discovered.'
'True enough.' Cato nodded. 'But as long as they hide out in the hills we can contain the problem.The thing is, I overheard that comment he made about having some outside help.'
'What comment? When was this?'
'That day when Symeon and I hid beneath your house. I overheard you speaking with Bannus outside. He said he was expecting aid from some friends.'
'I remember now. He seemed quite excited by the idea. I wondered who he was talking about.'
Cato stared at the ground between his boots for a moment before he responded. 'The people who would have most to gain by arming Bannus are the Parthians. That's my fear.'
'Parthians?' Miriam stared at him. 'Why would Bannus go to them for aid? They're more of a danger to us than Rome will ever be.'
'I think you're right,' Cato replied. 'But it seems that Bannus must hate us more than anything else in this world. I guess he subscribes to the "my enemy's enemy is my friend" school of thought. He wouldn't be the first man in history to fall for that. And if it's true, then there's every danger that he can stir up a rebellion large enough to draw down the full might of Rome in this region.' Even as he said the words Cato felt a twinge of guilt over his duplicity. They were true only if Cassius Longinus proved not to be a traitor. Otherwise there would be no army to counter Bannus, only the scattered garrisons of auxiliary forces, like the cohort at Bushir. If there were no legions in Syria, and Bannus struck quickly, the Roman presence in Judaea could be swept away very easily. He could not trust Miriam with that knowledge. She must be made to believe that Bannus could not succeed, and would only bring fire and the sword to her fellow Judaeans. Only then would she be sure to do everything she could to dissuade Bannus and those who might support him. Cato decided to change the subject.
'So if Bannus is a warmonger, what exactly do you and your people here stand for?'
'Bannus is not a warmonger,' Miriam said quietly. 'He is a tormented soul whose grief has been twisted into a weapon. He has lost the person closest to him in life, and does not know how to forgive. That's how we differ, Cato. At least that is our most important difference… My people are almost all that's left of the true movement. Once we saw what a nest of vipers Jerusalem had become we decided to find somewhere to live alone and apart from other people. That's why we came here. I did not want to be reminded of those who took away my son's life…' Her lip quivered for an instant, then she swallowed and continued. 'We are outside their law, and we welcome all others who wish to join us.'
'All others?' Cato smiled. 'Even Gentiles?'
'Not yet,' Miriam admitted. 'But there are those amongst us who wish to broaden our movement, spread our beliefs amongst other peoples. It is the only way to guarantee that my son's legacy does not eventually follow him into the grave.' She paused, and gently stroked her hand along the casket.'But for now, this village is virtually all we have. As you said, it is no earthly paradise, but at least we are free of the ideas that turn people against each other. That is a paradise of sorts, Cato. Or at least it was, until you turned up with Symeon.'
Cato looked away, back towards the village where he could just make out the blackened corner posts of Miriam's house.
'Tell me about Symeon. How is it that you know him as well?'
'Symeon?' Miriam smiled. 'He was another of my son's friends. A very close friend. I suppose that's why there's no love lost between Bannus and Symeon. They were good friends before they became rivals for Jehoshua's affection. Towards the end I think it was clear that he preferred Symeon. He had a nickname for Symeon. What was it? Ah yes, Kipha.' She smiled fondly. 'It means "rock" in our tongue.'
'Did Bannus know that Symeon was your son's favourite?'
'I fear so. I'm sure that's part of the reason for his bitterness.'
'What happened to Symeon after your son's death?'
'He tried to keep the movement going in Jerusalem for a while. But the priests hired men to hunt him down. They killed his wife and sons and Symeon fled the city and disappeared. For a long time. Then he appeared here a few years ago. Since then he has spent his time travelling across the region. He keeps in touch with my son's followers whenever he can, though I don't see much of him out here. Not as much as I'd like. He's a good man. Heart's in the right place, and one day he'll settle down and commit himself to something.' Miriam smiled. 'At least I hope he will.'
'I can trust him, then.' It was meant as a question, and Cato was relieved when Miriam nodded.
'You can trust him.'
'Good. That's what I need to know. That, and the location of Bannus and his men.'
Miriam looked sharply at him. 'I don't know where his lair is, Centurion. And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Just because I saved you doesn't mean that I am on your side. I would no sooner betray Bannus to you than you to him. If the opportunity arises, I will do all that I can to persuade Bannus and his followers to end their struggle and return to their families. Meanwhile I will have no part in your conflict. Nor will my people. I would ask you to just leave us alone.'
'I'd like to,' Cato said quietly. 'You've endured more than enough hardship already. The thing is, I'm not sure whether you can stay out of it. At some point you may have to choose a side, if only to save yourselves. And that time may come sooner than you think. If I were you, I would reflect on that.'
'Don't you think I haven't already?' Miriam said wearily.'I think about it every day, and always I ask myself what Jehoshua would have done…'
'I'm not sure. He would say we should not take part in this fight. That we should argue for peace. But what if no one listens? At times I think that Symeon is right.'
'And what does he say?'
'That sometimes people cannot just argue for peace, they have to fight for it.'
'Fight for peace?' Cato smiled. 'I'm not quite sure I understand how that works.'
'Nor do I.' Miriam laughed. 'You men aren't exactly the most coherent thinkers when you start spouting your philosophies. Anyway, Symeon told me that it would make sense when the time came.'
Cato shrugged. It all sounded like the usual mystical nonsense that arose whenever politics and religion intermixed. One thing was certain. Bannus did not sound like the kind of man who could be reasoned with. His confrontation with Rome was inevitable. All that mattered now was to see to it that his rebellion was crushed and that Bannus did not survive to breed more trouble in the future.
Cato stood up. 'I have to go. I have to catch up with the patrol before dark. I just wanted to apologise for what happened. Centurion Macro will be taking over command of the Second Illyrian very shortly. He will make sure that your people are treated fairly from now on.You have my word on it.'
'Thank you, Cato. But what happens until then?'
'Prefect Scrofa is still in charge.'
'So the violence will continue against the villages in the area?'
Cato shrugged helplessly. 'As long as he is in command he can do as he wishes. All I can do is try to soften the blow.'
'Why can't your centurion take over from Scrofa right now?'
'He can't.' Cato's hand went to the bulge of the thin scroll case beneath his tunic. 'Not without the proper authorisation. We're waiting for it to arrive.'
'Then you had better pray that it arrives quickly, Centurion Cato. Before Bannus and his Parthian friends start a general revolt. If that happens, then God help us all.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand