'They're here, sir,' the decurion said softly.
Macro blinked his eyes open. It was already daylight and the man was silhouetted against a pale blue sky. They had ridden hard for two days after leaving the fort and last night they had eaten and slept well. Macro had insisted on it, firmly believing the old military adage that men fight well on a full stomach. Around him there were the faint sounds of the first of his men waking. Macro threw back his cover and rose stiffly, stretching his shoulders until he felt the joints crack.
'Ahhh! That's better!' He rolled his head and turned to the decurion. 'Right then, show me.'
The two officers strode across the courtyard of the Nabataean way station and climbed the ladder to the lookout tower built over the gateway. As Macro stood beside the decurion, the latter scanned the dimly lit land to the south of the fort and then pointed.'Over there, sir.'
Macro squinted, and saw a faint flicker of movement, no more than a thin scattering of dots on the desert horizon; the head of the caravan he was waiting for, emerging from a depression in the plateau. 'I see them.'
As the two officers watched, the first riders led out a long train of pack animals as the caravan crawled along the trade route towards the way station. When it drew closer Macro saw a small party of horsemen detach from the vanguard and start trotting towards them. He turned to the decurion.
'Get our men on their feet. I want them ready the moment the caravan reaches us.'
'Yes, sir.'The decurion saluted, climbed down into the courtyard and began shouting out his orders, rousing the last of the grumbling sleepers from their blankets. Macro stared down into the gloomy courtyard and nodded his approval as the decurion kicked some of the slower men into life. No laggard was going to show up the Roman army when those horsemen arrived. The auxiliaries hurriedly pulled on their boots and took up their weapons as the horsemen drew near. Due to the nature of the task ahead they had left their helmets, shields and spears at the fort, but they still wore chain mail over their padded linen tunics and had cavalry swords strapped to their sides. Finally, from each man's shoulders hung a bow case, from which protruded the curved end of an unstrung compound bow and the feathered flights of the arrows. When Macro climbed down from the tower to inspect them he saw that they had all brushed off the fog of sleep and were alert and ready for action.
The sound of hooves drumming across the parched ground drew their gaze towards the arched entrance and a moment later the dark silhouettes of mounted men filled the gate as they swiftly reined in and walked their horses inside. There were four of them, swathed in dark robes and turbans with veils that covered all but their dark eyes. For an instant all was still, and just the heavy bellows breath of the horses and the stamping of their hooves echoed round the station. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, the leader of the horsemen plucked his veil aside and smiled at Macro.
'Symeon!' Macro grinned back. 'Good to see you. Is everything ready?'
'Yes, Prefect.' Symeon slid down from his saddle and gestured to his followers to do the same. 'All is ready.The caravan is just behind us. It did not take me very long to find a cartel willing to have their revenge on these desert raiders.'
'Good.' Macro was relieved. His plan had hinged on Symeon's persuading some Nabataeans to turn on their tormentors of the last few months. Now all the elements had fallen into place and the trap was ready to be sprung.
Symeon stood aside and gestured to the men with him. They had also lifted their veils and Macro saw two older men, perhaps the same age as Symeon, but darker-skinned. Symeon gestured to them. 'Tabor and Adul, my former business partners. Tabor also represents the cartel that owns this caravan. He and Adul still provide escorts for caravans from Arabia up to Petra. They're travelling with the caravan because they want to extend their escort business towards Syria. Frankly, I suspect they've just come for the fight.' Symeon grinned, and then placed his hand on the shoulder of the last man, who was younger. He was shorter than Symeon, though powerfully built with fierce black eyes and a neatly trimmed moustache. Symeon gazed at him proudly. 'This is Murad, my adopted son. He took over my share of the business when I returned to Judaea. Tough as they come.'
He spoke to the young man in Aramaic and Murad grinned, revealing fine white teeth. He drew his finger across his throat and made a guttural hiss to emphasise the gesture.
'I think I might just get on well with you, young Murad.' Macro smiled back, then bowed his head in greeting to Symeon's companions.'Did you bring spare robes?'
'Of course, Centurion. They're on the lead camels.'
Macro clapped him on the shoulder. 'Fine work! Now, all that remains is to give those raiders the surprise of their lives.'
The sun was directly overhead and the glare shimmered off the sand and rock of the landscape so that Macro had to squint to avoid hurting his eyes. He rode at the head of the caravan with Symeon and his companions. Behind them came the long column of camels and horses, laden with goods. Macro's men, dressed in the robes of caravan herders, walked along the route, leading small strings of their charges. Their weapons were concealed under the fake baggage on their animals' saddles, the bows strung and ready to use. The real herders had remained in the way station, resting in the shadows of the walls as they waited for word from Symeon. It would have looked suspicious if the caravan had been attended by more men than usual. Macro stared back over his shoulder for a moment. To his eyes the caravan looked just as it did when it approached the way station at first light. With luck, then, it might fool the desert raiders as well. Only a handful of escorts rode out on the flanks and Macro hoped that such easy-looking prey would prove too tempting for the raiders to resist.
After a brief halt, while the auxiliaries had dressed in the robes that Symeon and his men had provided, the caravan had continued past the way station, heading towards Philadelphia. The hours had passed slowly as the laden pack animals and camels trudged on with their endless hypnotic sway. Fearing that an enemy scout might overhear Roman voices, Macro had forbidden any conversation, and the caravan edged forward with only the soft shuffling of camels' feet and the crunch of hooves and boots on the ancient trade route to break the silence of the desert.
Then Murad muttered something and there was a brief exchange of muted conversation between him and Symeon before the latter turned to Macro.
'Centurion, we are being watched, but don't look round. Murad saw a man in the dunes a moment ago. Just for an instant, then he disappeared.'
'One of our raider friends?' Macro responded softly.
'Almost certainly. They will attack us soon, I think.'
Macro glanced ahead and saw that the route would shortly take them through a shallow depression, with a stony rise of ground on each side. A good place for an ambush, he realised. Symeon was right.
'I'll pass the word to my men to make ready.'
Symeon nodded gently as Macro reined in his horse and dismounted unhurriedly. He bent over and made to examine the front leg of his mount. The first of his men came alongside.
'Prepare yourself,' Macro said in a low voice. 'They're close by.'
He repeated the warning as more men passed, then straightened up, as if satisfied by his inspection of the horse's leg, and walked the beast back down the line of the caravan, alerting the rest of his men, until he reached the last string of animals.Then he remounted and trotted back to the front of the caravan, just as it began to enter the depression.The sun's glare reflected off the slopes and made the air even more hot and oppressive as the loose column of men and beasts passed between the two low ridges. Macro kept glancing from side to side as discreetly as he could, the anticipation creating the familiar dryness in his mouth as he waited for the raiders to launch their attack. But nothing broke the quiet as the caravan slowly made its way along the depression. As the sun crept down from its zenith the ground began to rise up gently to rejoin the plateau beyond. Macro felt the tension in his muscles ease and he turned to Symeon, intending to comment sourly on the failure of the desert raiders to snap up this easy prize. Instead he froze, staring over Symeon's head towards the ridge on their right. All along it, figures of men, swathed in black, leaped into view as they urged their camels down on the caravan. At first there was no sound, but as soon as they started down the slope, in a scattered wave, they broke the silence with a shrill ululating cry. Macro's men responded in the manner he had told them to. They took to their heels, drawing their disguised mounts after them.Those at the front and rear of the column seemed to react more slowly, apparently struggling with their beasts as they tried to lead them away from the raiders.
Symeon shouted an order and the thin screen of escorts galloped towards him as Macro drew his sword and held it low, so that the raiders would not see that it was not the curved blade favoured by the other riders. Around him Tabor, Adul and Murad cast aside their outer robes and snatched out their swords, polished blades glittering in the bright sunlight.They raised them overhead and shook them in a brazen challenge at the raiders charging down the slope towards the caravan. As the other escorts reined in and formed up in a mass behind their leaders Symeon turned to Macro with a wild grin of excitement.
'Now we shall see the character of these raiders! Hah!' He snatched out his sword and, like the others, shouted his war cry and challenge to the enemy.
True to their orders, the auxiliaries at the centre of the caravan melted away, leading their horses up the opposite slope as they scrambled over the loose sand and stones. At the sight of the men fleeing from the scene without a fight the raiders urged their mounts on and their shrill cries intensified. The men at each end of the caravan held firm, still jerking the reins of their mounts as if they were having great trouble controlling them. The desert raiders ignored them, as Macro had hoped, concentrating their attentions on the easy pickings at the centre of the caravan. As soon as they reached the first camels they leaped from their saddles and ran to the sides of the loaded animals to search for the richest pickings. Macro waited until most of the raiders had dismounted to seize their spoils and only a handful remained on the backs of their camels, swords drawn as they kept watch on the mounted escort around him. This was the moment that he had been waiting for and he filled his lungs and bellowed the order out to his men.
'Second Illyrian! To arms!'
The shout echoed down the depression, and all the men who had been fleeing up the slope suddenly stopped, casting aside their loose robes. They hurriedly discarded the fake bales of goods from their saddle horns and scrambled on to the backs of their mounts, wheeling them round as they snatched out their swords and charged for the confused tangle of men and animals at the centre of the caravan, letting out loud cries of their own.These were taken up by the men at each end of the caravan, suddenly in full command of their horses as they prepared them to attack the desert raiders.
'Come on!' Macro shouted to Symeon, jabbing his sword at the raiders. 'Get 'em!'
With a savage cry Symeon gave the command to his men and the trap was closed. Over the head of his horse Macro could see the dark-robed figures of the raiders freeze for a moment as they perceived the danger hurtling towards them from three sides.The quickest to react threw themselves back into their saddles and yanked the reins round towards the ridge they had descended from only moments before. Others, more foolhardy, still frantically struggled with the abandoned pack animals in the caravan, desperate to snatch some prizes away before they escaped. As Macro and the escorts raced down the side of the caravan they began to fan out into a line that angled away from the caravan so that they might catch the raiders in the flank before they escaped.They were close now and Macro saw the nearest raider turn towards him for an instant before whipping the rump of his mount with frantic desperation. Macro raised the tip of his sword and angled his horse towards the man, but before he could strike there was a blur of flying robes at his side and Murad surged past, teeth clenched in a triumphant grimace as he swept in between Macro and his man.There was a dazzling flash as Murad's blade scythed through the air and cut deeply into the angle between the man's head and shoulder. With a shrill cry, the raider spasmed and seemed to leap off his saddle, blood spurting from his terrible wound as he tumbled to the ground.
Murad cried out in triumph, laughed madly in Macro's direction, then turned away and spurred his horse towards the next raider.The centurion felt a flicker of anger at the way the man had interposed himself between Macro and his intended target, but then he smiled grimly. It did not matter. Let Murad have his moment of victory. The important thing was to make sure that the trap succeeded as completely as possible. Macro straightened up in his saddle, craning his neck as he tried to get an overview of the fight. There was a dense haze of dust at the centre of the caravan as dark figures hacked away at each other. Raiders were still abandoning the caravan and fleeing back up the slope, chased by Symeon's escorts and the Roman cavalry. Macro spurred his horse on, jerking the reins so that he was galloping straight for the swirling melee at the heart of the fighting. A riderless camel galloped out in front of him, and Macro swerved round it just in time as his horse let out a panicked neigh. Then he was in a swirl of dust, blinking as he felt the grit on his face and in his eyes. Another camel loomed up, this time with a rider on it, and the man's eyes widened as he saw Macro hurtling towards him. His curved blade swept out and up, and then the flank of Macro's horse crashed into the side of his camel and he slashed down at Macro's head. Macro, with the sour scent of the raider's mount filling his nostrils, only just had time to throw out his blade to deflect the blow that would have cleaved his skull to the jaw. The parry jarred his arm; then, as the man was recovering his sword for another slashing attack, Macro leaned in and thrust the point into the man's side, under his raised sword arm. The blow was truly aimed, and crunched through cloth, flesh and ribs before it tore through the man's lungs and pierced his heart. He folded slightly towards Macro before the blade dropped from his limp fingers. He grunted a curse, then flopped forward over his saddle horns.
Macro had no time to react as another shape emerged from the dust and charged at him, the straight-edged blade sweeping round in an arc towards him. He ducked it easily, shouting, 'Bloody fool! I'm Roman.'
The man's eyes opened wide, in panic, and he snatched his sword arm back and wheeled his mount away before the prefect could recognise him.
'Bastard!' Macro grunted, then glanced round and made for another likely-looking target as a raider flitted past, heading for the safety of the slope. Another raider rode by and then another as the sounds of fighting abruptly faded. Macro drew a breath and cried out, 'They're running! Sheathe swords! Draw bows!'
He turned his horse and trotted out of the cloud of dust. Ahead of him the slope was covered with raiders fleeing for their lives, hotly pursued by Symeon and his men. Then, as more mounted auxiliaries emerged from the dust, he waved his sword at the fleeing enemy.
'Finish them! Finish 'em off!'
The men exchanged their swords, drew their bows and spurred their mounts in pursuit of the loping camels of the desert raiders. The horses were faster and quickly made ground on the raiders as Macro's men fitted arrows to their bowstrings. At the last moment, they reined in, took aim and let fly.The range was short and the men had all been selected for their skill with the weapon.Across the slope the raiders tumbled from their saddles; some, wounded, clutched grimly to their reins and rode on until a second or third arrow thudded into them. Only a scant handful reached the crest of the hill and vanished from sight, Symeon's men and the auxiliaries still in pursuit.
Macro sheathed his sword and slumped forward in his saddle, suddenly aware how quiet and still the world around him seemed. His heartbeat was racing and the blood pounded through his head. His throat felt dry and gritty and once again he was aware how hot this cursed land was in daylight hours. The dust was settling across the floor of the depression and the caravans pack animals stood patiently, waiting to be herded into line once more to continue the journey. At their feet were the bodies of those who had fallen in the brief fight. The sand about them was patched with slick dark stains of blood. A few of Macro's men moved from body to body, finishing off the enemy wounded with a swift strike to their throats so that they flailed desperately for an instant before they lost consciousness and died. Only a handful of Romans had been injured, and none killed, and Macro gave orders for a shelter to be erected to save them from the discomfort of the blazing sunshine. A rider was sent back to the way station to bring a cart for the wounded, and summon the herders. Most would live. One man's knee had been shattered by a sword blow and it was clear that his soldiering days were over, even if the surgeon back at the fort managed to save the leg.
As the auxiliaries re-formed the caravan, Macro waited for the rest of his men and the escorts to return. Over the next hour they came back singly or in small groups, tired but jubilant at their swift and thorough defeat of the desert raiders. The men returned to the caravan and rested their horses before feeding and watering them. Symeon and his friends were the last to appear, riding down from the ridge in a compact group, talking and laughing as they came. Adul's arm had been slashed and roughly bound up, but such was his good humour that he seemed oblivious of the pain. Symeon grinned as he rode up to Macro.
'Took your time,' Macro said evenly.
Symeon ignored the brusque tone and spoke excitedly. 'We got them all, save one, as you ordered. We cut off his nose and set him back on a horse. I told him to warn the other desert people of the fate that awaits those who dare to raid the caravan route passing through the Roman province.'
'Good. Let's hope they heed the warning.'
Tabor edged his horse towards Macro and, with a bow of his head, began speaking in a formal tone.
'Wait! Wait!' Macro raised his hands, and turned to Symeon. 'What's he going on about?'
Symeon translated. 'Tabor wants to thank you for this victory over the vermin that have been preying on the route to Decapolis. He says that he, and every caravan cartel in Petra, are in your debt, Centurion.'
'Oh, right.' Macro shrugged wearily. 'Tell him…' He frowned, not sure how to respond in the right manner. 'Tell him that from now on the Roman garrison at Bushir will guarantee the safety of this route. There'll be no more corruption. I hope that goes some way to restoring good relations between Rome and Nabataea.'
Tabor nodded graciously as Symeon relayed Macro's words, then spoke again.
'Remember, Centurion, if ever you need his help, you have but to send a message to the house of Tabor in Petra.'
'Yes. Good.Very kind of him.' Macro gestured to the caravan. 'Meanwhile, we'll see this lot as far as Philadelphia. After that I'm heading back to the fort. Now we've got this flank covered it's time to concentrate on Bannus.' He looked at Symeon. 'I won't pretend that it's going to be easy. There'll be more fighting ahead. I could use a good man like you. Interested?'
'Centurion, it would be an honour.'
Once the wounded had been loaded into a covered cart which set off for Bushir under the protection of one of Macro's squadrons, the rest of the caravan continued along the route to Philadelphia.The journey took a further two days, in which time there was no further sign of any raiders. The desert stretched out in desolate serenity and the men and beasts of the caravan seemed to be the only living things that moved across that wasteland. Towards dusk on the second day they reached a village by a small oasis. Children raced out from amongst the houses at the caravan's approach and ran alongside the leading horsemen. Macro and his men had shed their disguise and the Roman soldiers caused some curiosity amongst the children as they pointed at the men and chattered excitedly. The caravan camped beside the oasis for the night and Symeon's companions bought some sheep from a villager, slaughtered them and roasted the carcasses so that they might share a farewell feast with their Roman friends. As the flames died and the men, well fed and tired, rolled up in their blankets to sleep, Macro lay on his back, arms tucked behind his head, gazing up into the star-sprinkled heavens. A sliver of moon hung in the sky away to the west, in the direction of Bushir, and it reminded him of the glitter of the curved blade Murad had drawn on the day of the ambush.The juxtaposition of the image and the way it hovered over the distant fort of the Second Illyrian brought back all the difficulties that he and Cato faced in the coming days, and suddenly he wanted to quit this peaceful oasis, and be back at the fort, where his men needed him.
Next morning the Roman horsemen mounted up just as dawn glimmered along the horizon. The air was chilly and the breath of men and beasts puffed into the half-light. Macro clasped arms with Symeon.
'I'll see you back at the fort.' He spoke in a questioning tone and Symeon nodded.
'I will be there, Centurion.You have my word.'
'Good. We need men like you by our side.'
There was no more to be said. Macro waved his men forward and the column of horsemen moved out of the oasis, back down the route towards Fort Bushir. Three days later they approached the long lines of the fort's ramparts and Macro noticed that there were more men on the walls than the usual number of sentries on duty. As the column rode up to the gates they swung inwards and there was Cato, standing to one side, waiting for them. The lift in Macro's spirits was abruptly quelled as he saw the strained and weary expression on his friend's face. He knew at once that something had happened.
07 The Eagle In the Sand