Macro deliberately slowed his pace as the brigands reached the junction, to make sure that they came after him. As soon as he saw them gallop past the side track he stabbed his heels in and his horse burst forward again, pounding over the ground. He glanced back and saw that the brigands were keeping up with him, some two hundred paces behind. If his mount fell, or tired too quickly, they would be on him in a moment. One Roman against thirty or more. Not good odds, he thought grimly. If only he could do that trick of Symeon's with his bow. He had never seen archery like that before. He had heard of it. Only one nation in the east had archers who were reputed to be able to perform such feats. Parthia. In which case… he felt his stomach turn to ice. If Symeon was a Parthian spy then he had left Cato in the hands of one of Rome's longest-standing and bitterest enemies. But surely not. Symeon did not look like a Parthian. He certainly did not sound like one, and after all, he had saved their lives only the day before. So who exactly was Symeon of Bethsaida?
If he escaped his pursuers, Macro told himself that he would find out. But for the present only one thing mattered: staying out of the hands of Bannus and his men. He had little doubt that the revenge Bannus would seek for the death of his sicarian gang members would be agonising and drawn out. He glanced back and saw that they were still some way behind him, and did not seem to be closing the distance.
'Go on, my girl!' he called out to the horse. 'Run like we're on the last lap in the Circus Maximus.'
The beast seemed to sense his will to live and stretched out its sleek neck as the hooves pounded across the crude track. Ahead, Macro could see the auxiliaries and was sure that he was gaining on them.That gave him a slender shred of comfort. At least it would improve the odds, if the brigands did catch up with them. Better odds, same result, Macro thought. But at least, with a few men fighting at his side, he should be able to take more of the bastards down with him before his turn came.
He raced on across the desert, and as the distance took its toll on the horse's reserves of energy it began to slow down, and soon was barely able to do more than a canter. A quick glance forward and another over his shoulder revealed that all the mounts were suffering fatigue, and with the sun rising higher into the sky, the heat soon sapped their fast dwindling strength. They had been ridden far longer and harder than they were used to and were blown. One by one, the auxiliaries' horses stopped running and slowed to a weary walk, and Macro had closed up with the stragglers by the time his mount too had had enough.
The decurion dropped back to ride at his side. 'Where's Centurion Cato, and the guide?'
'Couldn't keep up with us,' Macro explained. 'They're hiding back there.We'll go back for them with men from the fort.'
The decurion shrugged. 'If they're still there.'
The auxiliary officer left Macro to continue along the track and rode back to round up his stragglers Half a mile behind the brigands came on in a haze of dust. Twice they forced their horses into a canter and the Romans followed suit, driving their mounts on harshly, until the brigands gave up and continued at a steady walking pace, at which point the Romans reined in as well, and both parties continued along the track in the grilling heat of the midday sun.
Then, ahead, where the heat shimmered off the ground like water, Macro saw a low wavering silhouette. He squinted and it took a moment before he realised what he was seeing, and his heart soared. Turning in his saddle he called out to the auxiliaries.
'It's the fort, lads! Straight ahead.'
The men instantly lifted themselves and stared along the track, some shielding their eyes to cut the glare and see Bushir more clearly, no more than two miles away. As they drew nearer and the heat haze dissipated Macro could make out more detail. The fort was constructed from stone, with four massive towers, one at each corner. In between stretched long curtain walls with a smaller tower either side of the main gate on the wall facing the track. A short distance from the fort was a reservoir, built into a dip in the ground where two shallow gullies converged. Macro could just make out the tiny dark shapes of a group of men watching their approach from one of the towers.
Behind them, a faint cry rose up from the brigands as they too caught sight of the fort, and forced their mounts to make one last effort to catch the Romans before they reached safety.
The decurion responded immediately. 'Squadron… forward!'
He kicked his heels in and his tired mount lurched into a canter, and his men followed suit, pounding along the track as their pursuers started to close the distance, desperate to make the kill. Macro did his best to keep up with the auxiliaries, but he was an infantryman and not used to getting the best out of his mount, and so he gradually slipped behind. As the auxiliaries approached the fort the gate opened and fully armed men piled out and quick-marched towards their comrades, ready to provide a defensive screen against the pursuers. Some officer in the fort had acted very quickly and Macro made a mental note to thank the man, if he got away from the brigands pursuing him.
The first of the auxiliaries passed through the gap in the infantry line and then reined in quickly and dismounted from their exhausted horses. Macro glanced back and saw that Bannus' men were much closer now, foam flicking back from the muzzles of their driven mounts.
'Come on, you bastard!' Macro growled at the two ears rising stiffly at the end of his horse's neck. 'Run! Or we're both food for the jackals.'
The horse sensed his urgency and struggled on, as fast as its trembling limbs could carry it, towards the line of infantry striding towards them. Then it seemed to miss a step, and staggered on for an instant before its front legs began to buckle. Macro released the reins and grabbed the saddle horns with all his might to stop himself being thrown forward. The beast slowed and then collapsed, thudding belly first on to the ground. At once Macro heaved himself off, and sprinted towards the oncoming infantry. Behind him he heard the exultant cry of the brigands as they scented his blood. He glanced back and saw them only a short distance behind, blades drawn, the leading man leaning out to one side, sword rising up ready to strike. Just beyond the line of infantrymen the decurion suddenly wheeled his horse round, drew his weapon and spurred his mount back down the track, knocking aside one of the infantry as he charged towards Macro. At the last moment, he cried out, 'Get down!'
Macro's ears were filled with the pounding rhythm of hooves as he threw himself to one side, off the track, and rolled heavily, the impact driving the breath from his lungs. A large shadow danced across the ground beside him and he heard the swish of a blade cutting through the air. Then the legs of horses were all about him and Macro curled into a ball, shielding his head in his burly arms as he was sprayed with gravel. Blades clashed with a shrill ring and the decurion shouted, 'No you don't, you bastard!' Each time Macro tried to glance up, he was blinded by grit and dust, and only heard the fight going on around him.Then something spattered down on him, hot and wet, and a voice grunted in triumph.
'Get 'em!' a voice shouted. 'Stick it to 'em, Second Illyrian!'
Then there were booted feet all round Macro, more shadows, and someone grabbed him under the arms and hauled him up.
'You all right, mate?' A man's face loomed in front of him. Then the soldier saw Macro's mail vest and the medallions on his harness. 'Sorry, sir.You all right?'
Macro was dazed. 'Yes, fine.'
Then he noticed the doubtful look on the man's face and glanced down and saw that a great streak of bood splashed across his shoulders and down his left arm. His fingers fumbled over the blood, but found no injury.'Not mine.'
The soldier puffed out his cheeks in relief, nodded and turned away, hurrying after his comrades as they drove the brigands back. Macro closed his eyes and wiped the grit from his face on the back of a hairy forearm, then looked around.The men from the fort were chasing after the surviving brigands, thrusting at them and their mounts with spears. On the ground close to Macro lay the bodies of three of the brigands, and the decurion.The latter lay sprawled on his back, eyes staring up at the sun, mouth hanging open. A sword blade had opened his throat to the spine and the ground about him was drenched with blood.
'Poor bastard…' Macro mumbled, before he realised that the decurion had sacrificed himself to save the man he had been charged with escorting safely to Bushir. 'Poor brave bastard,' Macro corrected himself.
'Who are you?' a voice demanded.
Macro turned and saw an officer approaching him. At the sight of the plumed feathers in the man's helmet crest, Macro instinctively stiffened to attention before what he assumed was a superior.
'Centurion Macro!' he snapped, and saluted.
The officer saluted back, then frowned. 'Mind explaining what's going on, sir?'
'Sir?' Then it dawned on Macro that the officer was a centurion like himself, and only a freshly minted one at that. He regarded the man anew. 'Who are you?'
'Centurion Gaius Larius Postumus, adjutant at the fort, sir.'
'Prefect Scrofa? He's in the fort, sir. Sent me out to cover your force.'
'Leads from the front, eh?' Macro couldn't help sneering for a moment. 'Never mind. I've been sent to take command of the Second Illyrian.These men are my escort. We were ambushed several miles back.'
Macro glanced round and saw that the fight was over. Most of the brigands had pulled back and were staring silently at the fort from a small rise some distance away. The officers of the Illyrian troops had recalled their men and were forming them up beside the survivors of the cavalry squadron.Two of their men lifted the decurion off the ground and gently placed his body across the saddle of his horse before leading it towards the gate. Macro shook his head. It had been a close thing. But even though he had escaped this time he didn't suppose that Bannus would abandon his design on Macro's life. And Cato's.At that thought Macro stared back along the track.
'Sir?' Postumus tilted his head and looked questioningly at Macro. 'Anything the matter?'
'Yes. My friend's out there. We need to go and find him as soon as possible. I want you to give orders for the cavalry contingent to mount up.'
'With respect, sir, that is a decision for Prefect Scrofa to make.'
Macro rounded on the man. 'I told you. I'm in command now.'
'Not until the appointment has been properly authenticated, sir.'
'Authenticated?' Macro shook his head. 'We can deal with that later. Right now, what matters is Centurion Cato.'
'I'm sorry, sir. I take my orders from Prefect Scrofa. If you want to help your friend, you'll have to speak to the commanding officer.'
Macro fumed for a moment, balling his hands into fists as he glared at the young centurion. Then, with a sharp intake of breath, he nodded. 'Very well. There's no time to waste. Take me to Scrofa.'
They made their way back into the fort with the last of the troops who had been sent out and Macro was able to take a closer look at the men as he made his way through them.Their kit was only adequately maintained, but they looked tough enough. Certainly, they had moved to engage the enemy horsemen willingly. That was always something of a test of any unit. The men in the legions could be counted on to hold their ground against any kind of attack. It was different with auxiliaries since they were more lightly armoured and not so well trained. But these lads had faced the enemy horsemen without any trouble. Macro nodded approvingly. The men of his new command – the Second Illyrian – seemed to have some potential and Macro was determined to build on that. Then he stepped through the gateway and saw the poorly maintained barrack blocks stretching out in rows on either side of the gate. There would be plenty of work to do before the cohort came up to Macro's standards. Opposite the barracks were the grain stores, infirmary, stables, headquarters building, officers' quarters and the cohort commander's house.
The Second Illyrian was a mixed cohort. Of over nine hundred men who served in the unit, a hundred and forty were mounted. There were cohorts like this on every frontier, where the mixture of cavalry and infantry allowed for greatest flexibility for those officers charged with policing the local tribes and keeping watch for any attempt by barbarians to cross the border. A strong force of cavalry allowed the cohort commander to scout a wide area, chase down any barbarian raiding parties, and when necessary, launch quick punitive raids into enemy territory.
Such cohorts were usually commanded by centurions who had transferred from the legions, a process regarded as a promotion for those who were judged ready to hold independent commands. Despite his earlier reservations, Macro realised that Scrofa had to have shown some promise to be selected for this command. Macro did not fool himself that he too must be a cut above the rest. His own command of the cohort was to be a temporary affair; little more than a cover until the present crisis had been resolved.
Once the last man had passed through the gates, Centurion Postumus ordered them closed and the locking bar replaced in its sockets. Macro indicated the survivors of the cavalry squadron, leading their exhausted mounts away from the gateway. 'You had better organise some stabling and quarters for the men.'
'Yes, sir. After I've shown you to the prefect.'
'Where is he?'
'In his quarters, sir.'
'Right, I can find him. You see to these men, all right?'
'Very well, sir,' Postumus responded reluctantly. 'I'll join you as soon as they have been taken care of.'
Macro entered the prefect's house, which was guarded by two well-turned-out men in full equipment. Even though they stood under a sun shelter, they were sweating profusely in the heat. They snapped to attention at Macro's approach and as he passed between them he noticed, with wry amusement, a bead of sweat suspended on the tip of one man's nose. Inside he paused momentarily to adjust to the shaded environment. An orderly was sweeping the hall and Macro turned to him.
'Yes, sir?' The man stiffened his back at once and saluted.
'Show me to Prefect Scrofa's office.'
'Certainly, sir,' the orderly responded with a deferential bow of his head, and led Macro through the hall to a staircase at the rear. They climbed to the next floor where the rooms were spacious and designed to allow any available breeze to be channelled through them by well-placed windows.
'This way, sir.' The orderly indicated an open door at the end of the landing. Macro strode past him and entered the commander's office, and paused in surprise at the luxurious appointments. The walls were richly painted with mythic scenes of a heroic nature. The furniture was well crafted and finished with neat decorative flourishes, and there was a couch to one side covered in comfortable cushions. A glass bowl stood on a small side table, filled with dates and figs. Prefect Scrofa, wearing a light tunic, sat behind a large wooden desk. To one side of him stood a huge red-haired slave, steadily directing air at his master with a fan. Scrofa was a wiry man in his early thirties with pale skin and dark hair that had receded on either side of his central fringe. On his left hand he wore the ring signifying that he came from the equestrian social class. He looked up irritably as Macro marched into the room, covered in dust and stained with the decurion's blood.
'Who the hell are you?'
'Centurion Macro. Sent from Rome to assume command of the Second Illyrian.You are hereby relieved, Prefect Scrofa. Please send for your senior officers at once, so they can be told of my appointment.'
Scrofa's mouth sagged open. The slave continued fanning without any change in his expression.
'What did you say?'
'You're relieved.' Macro leaned back and popped his head round the door frame. The clerk was heading back to the top of the stairs. 'Hey!'
The clerk turned round and stared at Macro for a moment, then glanced past him towards Scrofa with a questioning expression. 'Sir?
'Centurion Scrofa is no longer in command.' Macro stepped between them and continued, 'I want to see all the centurions and decurions in here straight away.'
'Even the duty officers, sir?'
Macro paused. With Bannus and his men still in the area, that would not be wise. 'No. Not them. I'll meet them later. Now go!'
When he turned back into the office Scrofa had recovered some composure and was sitting back in his chair. He looked at Macro with an angry frown. 'Explain yourself. What in Hades is going on here?'
Macro, conscious of his pressing need to collect a strong force of men and go in search of Cato and Symeon, strode across the room and stood in front of the table.'It's simple.Your appointment was temporary. I have been given orders by the imperial staff to take command of the Second Illyrian. There's no time for any changeover ceremony, Scrofa. I need the mounted contingent ready for action immediately.'
Scrofa shook his head. 'Impossible! Cassius Longinus assured me that he would send to Rome to have my appointment made permanent.'
'Look,' Macro said in a gentler tone, desperate to take command as soon as possible, 'I don't know anything about that. All I know is that I was sent to Bushir with orders to take command.'
The sound of footsteps came from the landing and a moment later Centurion Postumus strode into the room. Scrofa raised an arm and pointed at Macro.'This man says he has been sent from Rome to take command of the cohort.'
Postumus shrugged.'He was with the auxiliary cavalry being pursued to the fort, sir.'
'There is another officer, and a guide, still out there, hiding,' Macro said urgently. 'I must take some men out to find them.'
'I'll deal with that in a moment,' said Scrofa. 'Once we've sorted the situation out.'
'There's nothing to sort out!' Macro shouted, his temper finally snapping. 'I'm in command! You have been replaced. Now stand aside. I'm meeting the cohort's officers in here. Take your slave and return to your quarters.'
'I'll do no such thing! How dare you come in here and treat me like this? Who sent you from Rome?'
'I told you. I'm acting on the orders of the imperial office.'
Centurion Postumus coughed loudly and stepped up to the table to confront Macro. 'Excuse me, sir. If you're acting on orders, might we see them?'
'What?' Macro stared at him.
'Your orders, sir. The confirmation of your appointment. '
'Bloody hell! All right then. I'll get them. They're in my saddlebag…'
Abruptly, Macro's lips froze as his mind flashed back to the morning ride up towards the plateau, the sudden appearance of Bannus and his brigands, and then the dumping of all the baggage as the cavalry squadron desperately prepared to fight its way through to the fort.
Macro's lips moved again. 'Oh, shit.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand