'Well, there they are.' Macro scratched his chin as he squinted into the distance. The sun was low in the sky and his eyes watered as he made out the enemy. Two miles away a large party of horsemen were riding over a fold in the land. They reined in and seemed to be observing the fort in turn. 'They won't be able to do anything tonight.They'll make camp, post pickets and get a good night's rest.'
'That sounds like wishful thinking, sir,' Cato responded quietly. 'If I'm any judge of the situation I'd say that Bannus will want to crush us as swiftly as possible.'
'And why's that?'
'As far as he's aware, we would have sent for help the moment we knew that he was making for the fort. If he's going to rouse the rest of the province then he'll need to offer them proof that Rome can be beaten. If he has to give up the attempt on Bushir, then I think his support will melt away quickly enough.'
'But the chances are that there won't be any help coming. Not from Longinus at least.'
'Yes, but Bannus doesn't know that, sir. As far as he's concerned, he's got six or seven days before a relief column turns up. That means he's going to have to move fast to take the fort.' Cato thought for a moment and continued. 'He'll be counting on the threat from Parthia to stop Longinus sending any overwhelming force in response to the situation here. Bannus will hope that with Bushir in his hands he can attract enough recruits to counter any troops that Longinus eventually sends his way.'
Macro looked at Cato. 'How can you know all that?'
'Just thinking it through from the enemy's point of view, sir.' Cato nodded to himself. 'Seems to make sense. In which case I think we shouldn't take any chances. Bannus may even make an attempt on the fort tonight.'
'Let him try.' Macro smiled as he thought of the ground that had been prepared around the fort. Any attempt by the enemy to reach the walls under cover of darkness was going to bring them right on to the obstacles that the cohort had prepared. He indulged himself for a moment, imagining the frustrating delays and injuries Bannus would have to endure. Then his expression hardened. 'All the same, you may be right. I'll have two centuries on the wall at a time.'
'I think that would be prudent, sir,' replied Cato. 'There's one other thing.'
'That business about letting Postumus and Scrofa return to duty.'
'We need every man who can hold a sword.'
'Maybe, but I still don't trust either of them. Those bastards are bound to betray us the moment our backs are turned.'
'How can they betray us? They're in the same situation as the rest of us.They fight for their lives, or they get massacred by Bannus. They'll fight.'
Cato was silent for a while, then sighed. 'I only hope you're right, sir.'
Macro bit back on his frustration. Cato should not be worrying about Scrofa and Postumus at a time when his mind needed to be concentrating on more important issues. He cleared his throat and turned towards his friend. 'Would you like me to have them arrested again?'
'What?' Cato frowned. 'No, I think not, sir. How do you imagine that would look to the men? The prefect doesn't know whether he's coming or going.That's what they'd say. So we're stuck with Scrofa and Postumus on the strength. I don't suppose they can cause too much trouble in the reserve.'
The two officers had been posted to command a cavalry squadron each. These were being held back from the walls, ready to reinforce any weak points in the defences. That had been Macro's decision.
Macro rubbed his hands contentedly. 'Even if Bannus tries a direct assault on the walls, he shouldn't get very far without siege equipment. I think we'll get through this without too much trouble, Cato. It's not as if they're going to starve us out. We've provisions for two months for the men and a month for the horses.And if we eat the horses, then we can last for a while yet. The cisterns are full to the brim so we won't be short of water. It's those bastards out there I almost feel sorry for. I doubt Bannus will be able to keep 'em fed for long. And they'll be short of a drink.' Macro nodded towards the reservoir, some way off from the fort. The surface of the water was broken by the carcasses of dead sheep and goats that Macro had ordered to be dumped into the reservoir once the fort's cisterns had been filled.
'We just have to hold them off long enough to make his peasants feel hungry and homesick,' Macro concluded. 'Then, once his support has melted away, we'll get out there and hunt him down. Once Bannus is nailed up, these Judaeans will get the message that there's no point in defying Rome.'
'I hope you're right,' Cato replied. He gazed back towards the distant horsemen. Behind them the head of the enemy column crawled into view over the low ridge and slowly spread on to the barren plain in front of the fort.Thousands of men, and in amongst them, horses and pack animals.The dust that hung over the growing horde filtered the fading sunlight into a glowing red hue that pooled like blood against the paling sky, and Cato felt a cold thrill of fear grip his spine and make him shiver. Macro noticed the sudden tremor in his friend.
'You must be tired. Once the first watch is over, make sure you get some rest. That's an order. I'll need you in good shape over the coming days.'
Cato was grateful that his friend had misread the gesture, and bitterly reproached himself for letting his fear show in such an obvious manner. If Macro could see it, then so could the men of the cohort, and Cato mentally winced at the impression of weakness he imagined some of the men would see in the officer who had only recently joined the Second Illyrian. Cato glanced at the men spread out along the wall on either side of the gatehouse. A few of them were talking quietly as they watched the enemy approach, but most just stared across the sand and in most cases their expressions were unreadable. Some looked quite calm as they appraised the strength of the enemy they would be fighting. A few of the others fretted, giving away their inner anxiety through a variety of tics as their thoughts were wholly absorbed by the approach of danger: fingers rhythmically rapping the bronze trim of a shield, or the handle of a sword; the tapping of a booted foot, repetitive licking of lips and other gestures that Cato had seen before previous actions.
He forced himself to look upon the approaching enemy again. He tried to imagine how those men would be feeling. Most of them were simple peasants, provoked into this fight by the ceaseless hardship and injustice of their lives. That would embolden them for a while yet, but they lacked training, experience and the confidence of professional soldiers, like the auxiliaries of the Second Illyrian cohort.What were they thinking as they tramped across the dusty plain, and saw the thick walls of Fort Bushir, with its squat towers at each corner and over the gates? Wouldn't they feel a twinge of fear, for all their superiority in numbers? Cato certainly hoped so, for their sake as well as his own.There was no satisfaction, let alone any glory, to be had from killing peasants. It was a dirty, thankless and profitless task that would only add to the misery of the people of Judaea. If they were defeated, yet more fuel would be added to the simmering anger and hatred towards Rome that dwelt in their hearts.That was all that Rome would win if Cato, Macro and the other men managed to hold the enemy at bay. But if Bannus won, Cato reflected, the example of Bushir would sweep through the province. A multitude would swell his ranks and no Roman garrison would be safe between Egypt and Syria. And what then? From what Cato understood of these people, there would be no peace. No unified independent nation of Judaea. The inhabitants were simply too divided by class and religious faction to work as one. In that case, it would be only a matter of time before Judaea was broken apart by civil war and then consumed by another empire whether that be Rome, again, or Parthia. As Judaea had always been consumed by empires throughout history.
Cato smiled as he discovered that he felt sorry for the downtrodden peasants marching towards him.
Bannus marched his army up to within half a mile of the fort before he halted and set up camp as darkness closed in.The sky was clear, and as the orange hue of the setting sun's afterglow faded the stars pricked out brilliantly in the heavens above. The sounds of the enemy carried across the sand to the fort and if he strained his ears Cato could hear snatches of laughter and singing between the shouted orders. One by one, fires were kindled and lit and bright pools of light sprang up across the desert, each illuminating a dense ring of humanity clustering about it as night gripped them in its cold embrace.
Macro waited a while, to make quite sure that the enemy was settling for the night, before he ordered the units that were not on watch-keeping duty to stand down. The men tramped down from the wall and sombrely made their way back to their barracks. Some would find sleep easy enough. Others would continue in the agitated state of anticipation that Cato had observed as they stood and watched the approach of the enemy. At length Macro beckoned to Cato and they returned to the prefect's quarters for a meal with the other officers. Scrofa and Postumus sat as far from the cohort's commander as rank permitted and kept their eyes lowered, refusing to meet the gaze of either Macro or Cato. The mood was subdued, even though Macro had ordered his housekeeper to bring out the best jars of Scrofa's remaining stock of wine. Conscious that his men were looking to him, Macro made himself appear calm and unflustered by the presence of the enemy. He even attempted a few ribald jokes with some of the officers, and ended the evening with a toast to their inevitable victory. The officers responded with forced enthusiasm and then the dinner party broke up as they returned to their rooms at the end of each barrack block.
'Well, that was a storming success,' Macro muttered as the last of them left and only Cato remained, picking at the dates in the bowl in front of him. 'Might as well surrender the fort to Bannus right now and be done with it.'
'They'll fight hard enough when the time comes, sir.'
'Oh? What makes you think that, my esteemed veteran friend?'
Cato looked up. 'They haven't got any choice. It's fight or die.'
'So what's new?' Macro grumbled. 'I tell you, Cato, if that lot were legionaries instead of auxiliaries the spirit would be different. They'd be thirsting to get stuck into Bannus and his mob.'
'Maybe they would feel the same, if Scrofa and Postumus hadn't got to them. It's a question of leadership. They'd been badly commanded for months before you took over. You've had too little time to return them to battle-readiness.'
'Maybe.' Macro reflected. 'Perhaps the first attack might put a little bit of iron back into them.'
Cato smiled. 'I hope not. A wound is the last thing they need.'
Macro winced at his friend's attempt at humour. 'It's not a laughing matter, Cato. Our lives depend on it.' He snorted. 'The fate of the bloody province depends on it. So no stupid quips please. Not unless we've had a skinful of wine first, eh? Even then…'
'All right then, sir. No more jokes.'
'Good.' Macro was silent for a while, deep in thought. Then he suddenly turned to Cato. 'How do you suppose Vespasian did it?'
'Did what, sir?'
'Prepared his officers for battle.You remember, back in the Second Augusta, whenever we were about to go into a fight, the legate would find a few words for us, make a toast, and we'd all head back to our men raring to go? How did he do that?'
Cato recalled their former commander, the stocky frame, the thinning hair crowning the strong-featured face. The steady, deep voice with which Vespasian could equally charm and lambast his men. It was hard to define what made the legate the kind of man you'd fight to the death for. Maybe it was the fact that you believed that he, in turn, would fight to the death for you. Whatever the quality of leadership was, Cato concluded, it was clear that some men possessed it and many more did not. Macro was one of the former; he just had a different style from Vespasian's.
Cato smiled. 'I can't answer that.'
'Great. Thanks,' Macro responded sourly.
'Don't fret, sir. You'll do well enough. I'd follow you to the ends of the earth.'
Macro looked at him with a surprised expression. 'You mean that, don't you?'
'Of course, sir. And when these men get to know you better, they'd do just the same. Now that we've a battle on our hands they'll see the quality of their new prefect soon enough. Maybe that's what Vespasian had.'
'The benefit of an example.We followed him because we'd seen him in battle. He'd proved himself to us. Once a commander's done that, I'd say that was the point where he won his men over.This is your chance to do the same with the Second Illyrian.'
Macro stroked his chin thoughtfully, then refilled Cato's cup and his own before raising the latter in a toast. 'To those who lead from the front.'
Cato nodded. 'I'll drink to that.'
Cato was roused from his sleep in the last hour before dawn. An auxiliary was gently shaking his shoulder. 'Sir, the prefect wants you.'
Cato blinked, yawned and rubbed his eyes. 'Right, where is he?'
'On the main gatehouse, sir.'
'Very well, my compliments to the prefect. Tell him I'm coming.'
'Yes, sir.' The soldier saluted and turned to leave the room. At once Cato threw back his covers and swung his legs over the side of his bed. By the light of a single lamp the soldier had left on his table he pulled on his boots, tied them up and stretched his shoulders before standing up. Then he lifted his chain mail over his head, collected his helmet and sword belt and went to join Macro. Outside headquarters the air was cold and the pale light of the stars provided just enough illumination for Cato to see the barracks on either side of the street as he made for the main gate. Faint glimmers of light showed round the door and window frames of some of the barracks as those auxiliaries who could not find sleep passed the time at dice, or carving, or the myriad ways that soldiers occupy themselves while waiting for action.
As Cato climbed up through the hatch of the gatehouse tower he saw Macro's broad silhouette over by the breastworks.
'You sent for me.'
'Yes, I thought you should see this. Look out there.' Macro extended his arm towards the enemy camp and pointed to an area, perhaps three hundred paces away, where several torches burned, casting a wavering patch of light. In front of the torches was a wicker barricade that concealed the activity beyond. But the sounds of hammering and the shouts of men carried clearly to the two centurions on the gatehouse.
'Any idea what's going on?' asked Cato.
'Could be knocking up some assault ladders, or a battering ram. Not that that worries me, unduly. They still have to cross the dead ground before they can get close enough to use that sort of equipment.'
'Of course, they might be constructing something else,' Cato mused.
'That's what I thought. Perhaps the Parthians have provided Bannus with a company of engineers.'
'As well as arms and those horse-archers? That's uncommonly generous of them. But then again, we're all playing for high stakes.'
'True. Well, there's nothing we can do about it now.' Macro turned away from the enemy camp and glanced at the opposite horizon. 'It'll be light soon. Then we'll see what they're up to.'
It was not long before the darkness began to dissipate and detail by detail the landscape around the fort became visible. Soon the enemy extinguished the torches and Cato, whose young eyes were better than Macro's, strained to make out the details of two thick wooden frames beyond the wicker screen. Then, he felt a sick feeling in his guts as he realised what he was seeing. He waited a moment longer to be sure before he turned to Macro.
'Onagers. Two of them.'
'Onagers?' Macro looked astonished. 'Where the hell would Bannus have got onagers?' Even as he spoke, a memory flashed through his mind. Weeks earlier, when the caravan had rejected Postumus's offer of protection. In amongst the camels had been two covered ox-carts, carrying heavy timbers. No doubt the iron ratchets and other mechanisms had been hidden beneath the load. Very clever of the Parthians, Macro conceded. Rather than send the siege weapons across the desert, they had shipped them round Arabia and then smuggled them to Bannus under the guise of caravan goods. Macro bunched his hands into fists and thumped them down on the rampart.'I saw those a while back, broken down for transport. On that first patrol with Postumus. Of course, I was too foolish to recognise the components for what they were. Shit.'
Cato shook his head. 'Well, it's too late to do anything about it now.'
Macro was about to reply when they both heard a sharp shout from the enemy camp. They turned just in time to see the throwing arms of the onagers slash up and forwards until they struck the padded cross pieces. The dull thud of that impact sounded an instant later. Cato saw the first two boulders hurled up through the cold morning air. They rose to the top of the arc that defined their trajectory, seemed to hang there for a moment, and then came down at an alarming speed, rapidly gaining in size as they plunged towards the gatehouse.
Cato grabbed Macro and hauled him away from the rampart. 'Get down!'
07 The Eagle In the Sand