Postumus had them moved into one room to make guarding the two centurions easier. Macro endured the first few days of confinement well enough, while Cato sat at the window and gazed out over the fort towards the battlements, fretting at their inactivity. Around them the men went about their duties in a routine and unhurried manner. The watches changed at regular intervals. The men rose at first light, drilled for an hour and then took their morning meal. Afterwards there was more training until the sun had risen high enough to beat down on the fort and the surrounding desert in a searing glare.Then the soldiers retreated to the shade and only the sentries remained, patrolling the walls in the sweltering heat that even the lizards avoided as they clung to the rough plaster in patches of shadow and waited for the stifling midday hours to pass.
Their guards brought them food twice a day, and readily responded to any further requests for food and drink since the two centurions were technically not under arrest. Yet. The window of their shared room overlooked a narrow alley between the headquarters and the single storey hospital building. Cato had considered dropping down into the alley as a means of escaping their confinement, but then reflected that there was no point. What could it achieve? They couldn't leave the fort, and any attempt at escaping from their room would simply give Scrofa the excuse to have them placed in a cell. So Cato sat at his window and reflected on the wider situation with a growing sense of frustration, and anxiety.
The days passed, and every so often a patrol left the fort and marched off in a faint haze of dust that was visible for a while over the squat towers of the main gate.
Then, after several days, as the men of the cohort took shelter from the midday sun, Cato was sitting at the window, hands propping up his chin as he stared towards the distant foothills that marked the entrance to the wadi leading down to Heshaba.
'Centurion…' A voice called out softly.
Cato started, turned back to Macro. 'Did you hear that?' But his friend was sound asleep on his bed.
'Centurion, down here.'
Cato cautiously leaned out of the window, and saw Symeon pressed against the wall directly beneath him. The guide waved a hand and smiled a greeting.
'Symeon! What are you doing here?'
'Sh! Not so loud. I need to speak to you. Here, take this.'The guide took aim and tossed a loop of rope up to Cato, who caught it awkwardly and then glanced inside the room to find something secure to tie the end to. He turned back to Symeon.
'Wait.' Cato crossed the room to Macro and shook his friend's shoulder. Macro stirred, then sat up with a jerk, eyes blinking.
'What? What's going on?'
'Quiet,' Cato said softly and pressed the end of the rope into Macro's hand. 'Take that.'
Macro frowned as he looked down at the rope. 'What's this for?'
'Just take the strain and help me.' Cato crossed back to the window and nodded down into the alley, before grasping the rope and bracing one foot against the window sill. Macro felt the line tighten and grasped it in his powerful hands as someone scrambled up the wall outside, grunting with the effort. A moment later fingers groped over the sill and Symeon heaved himself up and over, and rolled on to the floor.
'What the hell are you doing here?' Macro asked in surprise.
Symeon looked past Macro towards the door with an alarmed expression, and pressed a finger to his lips.'Speak softly, Centurion.'
'Sorry,' Macro whispered. He clasped the guide's arm. 'Good to see you! A welcome change from the ugly mugs who bring our food. What's going on?'
'I tried to speak to you when I brought the procurator's message back to the fort, but the prefect sent me out the next day to visit the local villages, to try to get news of Bannus. I only returned this morning.'
'Well?' Cato raised his eyebrows. 'What's the mood in the villages?'
'Not good. I travelled on foot, claiming I was on my way back from the festival in Jerusalem, but they were still suspicious of me.The ones who did talk were reluctant to tell me too much, but it seems that Bannus is growing in strength every day. They say he has promised to prove to them that the Romans can be beaten. There are even rumours that he is a prophet. Or maybe the mashiah. And that he has powerful allies who will help sweep the Romans from our lands and cast them into the sea.'
Cato nodded bleakly.Then it was as he had feared and time was running out. The area around Bushir might break out in open revolt at any moment. He looked closely at the guide. 'Why did you return to the fort?'
'Centurion Florianus sent me. He told me to watch out for you. Make sure you were safe.'
'Safe?' Macro chuckled and gestured round the room. 'We're as safe as it gets cooped up in here. No chance of us coming to any grief. Unless this revolt actually happens. Then we're all for the chop, of course. Symeon, excuse us a moment.' He turned to Cato and continued in Latin. 'It's time we brought that scroll into play.'
Cato's hand instinctively went to the leather thong round his neck, as Symeon watched them curiously. 'I'm not sure. Once we use it then our true role out here is exposed. Longinus will know the score, and rush to hide his tracks.'
'If he is plotting something,' Macro reminded him. 'Look here, Cato. If he is plotting against the Emperor, then what's the worst that can happen? He plays clean and drops any plots he might be hatching against Claudius. He spends the rest of his days looking over his shoulder and acting the model citizen. The longer we wait to use that document, the less chance we have of keeping a lid on all the trouble that is brewing around here. We need to take command of the Second Illyrian now.We have to find Bannus and crush him before he has sufficient strength to destroy us and spread his rebellion. So what if we lose the chance to prove Longinus is a traitor, if indeed he really is? What's that against the prospect of letting Judaea flare up into open rebellion if we do nothing?'
Cato looked at his friend for a moment while he weighed up Macro's argument. It made sense, even if they failed to carry out Narcissus' original design to expose a conspiracy at the heart of the eastern empire. He nodded. 'All right then. How should we proceed? We can't just show Scrofa the scroll and tell him to move over.'
'Supposing he decides to ignore it. Hush it up by having us thrown into a cell, and destroying the document?'
'Then we have to make sure there are witnesses at the time.'
'How? If we're in here, or in his office, he will have us on our own.'
'True.' Macro frowned, then clicked his fingers. 'All right, so we tell the other officers to join us for the meeting.'
'How?' Cato waved towards the door. 'We're being guarded.'
Macro nodded towards Symeon.'He can do it. He can get a message to the others. The ones that Scrofa hasn't bought out. Starting with Parmenion.'
'It might work,' Cato conceded. 'But how would Parmenion know when to act?'
'Symeon can keep watch. We tell the guards that we want to speak with Scrofa. The moment we are escorted from here, or Scrofa leaves his quarters and heads this way, Symeon fetches Parmenion and the others to join us. As soon as the witnesses turn up we produce the imperial authority and kick Scrofa out on his arse.'
'Very well.' Cato stroked his chin. 'But once you have control of the cohort, what happens next?'
'We have to deal with Bannus.'
'Then we're going to need more men.'
'Maybe. We can ask Longinus for reinforcements.'
'Why should he give us any help?'
Macro smiled. 'Trust me. He'll be more than willing. If Longinus knows that Narcissus is watching him closely he'll need to prove his loyalty to the Emperor any way he can.'
'True. But what we need are light troops, cavalry, that sort of thing. Not heavy infantry. Longinus should be able to spare some auxiliary forces. In any case, I think we might be able to call on help from other quarters.' Cato turned back to Symeon, who had been sitting impatiently, watching the two centurions talking in their tongue. Cato switched back to Greek. 'Symeon, you told us you that you have family in Nabataea? At Petra?'
'And they run mercenary caravan escorts down into Arabia?'
'Is there any chance that we might persuade them to help us against Bannus? After all, his men have been raiding the caravans between here and the Decapolis.'
Symeon sucked at his teeth.'Difficult to say.Thanks to Prefect Scrofa the Second Illyrian has earned itself quite a lot of bad feeling down in Petra. I'd imagine there're plenty of merchants down there who'd be quite happy to see the garrison at Bushir destroyed.'
'Then we have to win back their friendship.'
'Easier said than done.' Symeon smiled. 'Words will not be enough, Centurion. They will need to be persuaded by deeds.'
'Ah!' Macro rubbed his hands together. 'Then they can have their deeds. I've had an idea about those caravans, and how we can persuade the desert raiders to give them a wide berth from now on.'
Cato and Symeon turned to him expectantly.
'Not so fast.' Macro grinned. 'Before that we have to deal with Prefect Scrofa. It's time we had a word with him. I'll have one of the guards send our message. But first, I need you to do something for us, Symeon. Listen here.' Macro lowered his voice and began to outline his plan.
Postumus rapped on the door and from inside the prefect called out, 'Enter!'
The latch lifted and the door swung open to admit Postumus, and behind him Centurions Macro and Cato. The three men approached the prefect's desk and Postumus halted some distance before it, the others following his lead. Postumus patted his sword meaningfully as he met his superior's gaze.
'Macro and Cato, as requested, sir.'
'Thank you, Postumus.'
'There are four men just outside the door, sir.'
'I'm confident they will not be needed, but, er, there's no need to send them away now they're here. Very well then, gentlemen.' Scrofa drew himself up in his chair. 'What is the meaning of this? What is this information that is so important for me to hear?'
Macro glanced at Cato and the latter gave the slightest nod towards the window that overlooked the courtyard. But outside the fort continued to bask quietly in the heat. Macro coughed to clear his throat. 'We need to talk about the situation.'
'The, uh, situation pertaining to the command of this cohort.' Macro spoke with slow deliberation, as if weighing each word that he uttered as he played for time. 'That is to say, the correct protocol for the, uh, transmission of authority from the present command to the assumption of command by, er, me. As it were… sir.'
'Get to the point, Centurion,' Scrofa snapped irritably, and jabbed his finger towards Macro. 'You'd better not be wasting my time. So spit it out. Tell me what's so bloody important that I must interrupt my afternoon rest to hear it, or I'll send you back to your quarters at once.'
'Very well.' Macro nodded. 'I'll tell you. Your command of this cohort is forfeit. Your confinement of me and my fellow officer is illegal. The protection racket you operate on the caravan route passing through your territory is a corruption of your duty, responsibility and rank, for which I will bring charges against you and Centurion Postumus in due course, once I have assumed command of the Second Illyrian.' Macro paused to draw breath and glanced out of the window and down into the courtyard. His heart sank a little as he saw that it was still empty. He took a breath and continued. 'Moreover, I will add to the charges against you that through deliberate provocation you endangered the security of the Roman province of Judaea and-'
'Be quiet!' Scrofa interrupted. 'This is pointless!'
'I haven't finished saying my piece.'
'Oh yes you have. Centurion Postumus!'
'Take these two back to their quarters. And don't let them waste my time again.'
Cato had been listening to the exchange with growing concern. He felt his pulse quicken as he knew it was time to act. His hand was being forced, but there was no alternative.
'Wait a moment!'
He reached for the leather thong round his neck and pulled the scroll case from under his tunic.
'What's that?' asked Scrofa.
Cato pulled the cap off the case and pulled out the roll of parchment inside. He approached the desk, unrolling the document, and spread it out across the flat surface, the right way up for the prefect to read it. Scrofa's gaze went straight to the imperial seal and he glanced up at Cato with a surprised expression. Cato tapped the document.
'Read it, sir.'
As the prefect glanced over the authority that Narcissus had penned for Macro and Cato, Centurion Postumus edged closer and moved round to read over his superior's shoulder.
Cato waited until Scrofa had finished examining the document before he broke the silence.
'As you can see, we have been empowered to act in the Emperor's name in all areas of Roman jurisdiction within the provinces of Judaea and Syria.We now invoke our powers under the terms of this authority.' Cato took a breath and continued. 'You are hereby stripped of your command of the Second Illyrian cohort.'
Scrofa looked up from the document with a shocked expression. 'You can't speak to me like that!'
Macro grinned as he leaned forward over the table and tapped the parchment. 'Read it again, sunshine. We can do what we like. Anything we like. Now, citizen, I'd be grateful if you got out of my chair. I've got work to do. A lot of work, thanks to you.'
Scrofa wasn't listening. His eyes scanned the document again, as if he could somehow change its meaning. Centurion Postumus straightened up and laughed. 'This document is obviously a forgery. Something you two have cooked up while you've been stewing in your quarters.'
'Forgery?' Macro shook his head and smiled. 'Look at the seal, Postumus.You should recognise it well enough.'
'I still say it's a fake. If you two think this is going to change things here, then you are bigger fools than I thought.'
The sound of voices drifted up from the courtyard. Cato hurried over to the window and glanced down. Behind Symeon, Centurion Parmenion and a handful of other officers were walking through the archway. Symeon looked up and waved. More men were emerging from the alley between the barracks opposite, heading towards the prefect's quarters. Cato felt the knotted tension in the pit of his stomach begin to ease. He turned back, crossed to the desk and picked up the document. Before Scrofa or Postumus could react he returned to the window and held it out so all below could see it.
'Gentlemen! By order of Emperor Claudius and the Senate of Rome, Prefect Scrofa has been removed from command of the Second Illyrian Cohort. As of this instant he has been replaced by Centurion Macro. Now, I'd be greatly obliged if you joined us in Prefect Macro's quarters immediately.'
After the briefest of hesitation, and to Cato's great relief, the officers shuffled towards the main entrance to the building, just below the window. As he turned back into the room Scrofa stared at him, thunderstruck. Postumus instantly grasped the implications of what was happening and a look of fear flitted across his handsome features, making Macro laugh. He could not contain the light-hearted thrill at having turned the tables on Scrofa and his subordinate. He leaned towards Postumus and tapped him on the chest.'Now who's the bigger fool, eh?'
07 The Eagle In the Sand