Once again Cato faced the druid, but this time his foe was far taller than Cato, dwarfing him so that he felt like a child.The druid's eyes were jet black and his teeth were needle sharp, as if they had been filed. In his hand he held the scythe, and as Cato's eyes fixed on the glinting edge the druid raised it high. For an instant the blade glittered as it caught the moon's silvery rays. Then it slashed down, slicing towards Cato's throat.
He woke with a cry, and jerked up on to his elbows. His eyes were wide open, darting from side to side as he took in his surroundings. A small, darkened room, unfurnished apart from the bedroll he was lying on. He made to move, but there was a sudden pounding in his skull as if a heavy mallet was rhythmically beating the side of his head. Nausea welled up from the pit of his stomach and he quickly turned on one side and retched.The door opened, and light flowed into the small room.
'Lie down, Roman.' A woman spoke softly in Greek. She crouched beside the bedroll and gently pressed Cato back so that his head was resting on the bolster again. 'You're still suffering from the effects of that blow to your head. It will pass, but you must lie still and rest.'
As his eyes grew used to the light Cato glanced up at the woman. Her face and voice were familiar, and memories flashed into his mind of the ambush, the flight from the brigands and his arrival in a village where he had glimpsed this woman between blackouts.
'Where am I?'
'Safe.' She smiled. 'For the moment.'
'This place. What was it called?'
'Heshaba.You are in my house, Roman.'
Cato remembered another detail. 'Symeon… where is he?'
'He's taken the horses further into the wadi to hide them. He'll be back soon.'
She shuffled round behind the bolster and Cato heard the swill of water. A moment later she placed a damp cloth over his head and squeezed gently so that a dribble of water trickled down over his temples.
'That feels good. Smells good too. What is that? Lemon?'
'I squeezed some into the water. It'll refresh you and ease the sick feeling.'
Cato made his body relax, working the tension out of his muscles until his limbs felt loose, and the pounding in his head subsided. Then he rolled his head to the side to better see the woman.
'I can't remember your name.'
'Yes.' He nodded faintly. 'You and Symeon know each other.'
'He's a friend. Not as good a friend as he used to be.'
'Miriam, why are you helping me? I'm a Roman. I thought everyone in Judaea hated us.'
She smiled. 'Most people do. But this community is different. We try not to let our lives be ruled by hate. Now lie still.'
She reached a hand up to his head and he felt her fingers stroke lightly through his hair, until they grazed the point on his skull that seemed to be the centre of the pain. He winced, gritting his teeth.
'It's a bit swollen there. But you seem coherent enough. I don't think the injury is too serious.You should be back on your feet in a few days, Roman.'
Cato waited until the pain had passed before he unclenched his eyelids and looked at her again. Despite her obvious age, Miriam had striking features. Not conventionally beautiful, but she looked wise and had an air of calm authority. He reached his hand up, took hers and gave it a light squeeze.
'Thank you, Miriam. I owe you my life.'
'You owe me nothing. All are welcome here, Roman.'
'My name is Cato.'
'Cato…Well then, Cato, if you want to repay me, please be quiet and rest.'
'Miriam,' a voice called from somewhere else in the house.
She turned to the door and spoke in Aramaic. 'In here.'
A moment later a boy stood on the threshold. He was perhaps thirteen or fourteen, with a shock of dark hair. He wore a tunic of coarse material and was barefoot. He stared at Cato for a moment before he turned his gaze back towards Miriam. 'Is he a soldier? One of the Romans?'
'Must he stay here?'
'Yes,Yusef. He is injured. He needs our help.'
'But he is an enemy. An enemy of our people.'
'We have no enemies. Remember? That is not our way.'
The boy did not look convinced and Miriam sighed wearily as she stood up and took his hand. 'I know this is not easy for you,Yusef, but we must care for him, until he is well enough to leave. Now be a good boy, and finish the threshing. There's bread to be made for this evening, and I haven't even done the grinding yet.'
'Yes, Miriam.' He nodded, cast a last glance at Cato and turned away. As the bare feet pattered off Cato smiled.
'I take it that's one of the Judaeans who still hates Rome.'
'He has his reasons,' Miriam replied, watching the boy from the doorway. 'His father was crucified by the Romans.'
Cato's smile faded. He felt awkward.'I'm sorry. It must be terrible for him.'
'He takes it too hard.' Miriam shook her head. 'He never knew his father. He wasn't born until after his death. Still, he feels a sense of loss, or lack, and he has filled the void with anger. For a long time his life centred round hatred of Rome and Romans. Until his mother abandoned him and he came to live with me.' She turned towards Cato and he saw the look of sadness in her eyes. 'I was all that he had left in the world. And he was all that I had left.' Cato did not understand and she smiled at his confused expression. 'Yusef is my grand-son.'
'Oh, I see.' Then Cato felt the sudden chill of realisation as his eyes met Miriam's.
'His father was my son. My son was executed by Rome.' Miriam nodded sadly, then slowly turned away. She left the room and gently closed the door behind her.
For what seemed like a long time Cato lay still in the dark room. When he tried to move the pain in his head returned with a vengeance and pounded away so that he felt sick. With what Miriam had told him he knew he must get away from this house, these people, before they turned on him. Despite Miriam's claims about the forbearance of the villagers, Cato knew human nature well enough to know that old wounds never heal. As long as he stayed in Miriam's house, he was in mortal danger. But he could not move without being racked with agony. As he lay still, straining his ears to pick up the sounds of the people in the house and the village beyond, he cursed Symeon for leaving him here. Leaving him alone. If he was just concealing the horses, then why in Hades had he not returned long ago? Cato had no idea how long he had been lying there in the dark. He knew that it was light outside, but was it the day of the ambush? Or the next day? How long had he been unconscious? He should have asked Miriam whilst she was there. As his anxiety swelled he rolled his head to the side and glanced round the room.
A short distance away, bundled against the wall, lay his armour, his harness, his boots and his sword belt. He gritted his teeth and shifted himself over, reaching out with his fingers. They groped for the sword belt, grasped it; tugged until the pommel came free of the scale armour. His fingers closed round the hilt, and as quietly as he could he drew the sword. It rasped faintly in the scabbard and he winced. Then the blade was free and he lifted the weapon across his body and wedged it between the bedroll and the wall, out of sight, but to hand if he needed it. The effort had made his arm muscles tremble and Cato had just enough energy to reach over and push the empty scabbard back under his mail vest before he collapsed back on to the bolster, fighting the waves of pain that pounded against the inside of his skull. He shut his eyes, breathing deeply, and slowly the pain subsided, his body relaxed and he fell asleep.
When he woke again the door was open and from the wan glow of the light shining through the opening he could tell that it must be late in the afternoon. He heard voices outside the room. Miriam and Symeon. They spoke in Greek, in low familiar tones, and Cato strained his ears to catch their words.
'Why did you not come back to us?' Miriam was asking. 'We needed you.You're a good man.'
'But not good enough, it seemed. Not for you at least.'
'Symeon, I'm sorry. I loved you – I still do, but… I couldn't, and still can't, love you as you want to be loved. I must be strong for these people. They look to me for guidance. They look to me for love. If I took you as my man I would betray them. I will not do it.'
'Fine!' Symeon snorted. 'Then you will die alone, if that's what you want.'
'Perhaps… If that is my fate.'
'But you don't have to.You could have me.'
'No,' she said bitterly. 'You think of nobody but yourself.You renounced the rest of us, because we refused to follow your path.You and Bannus were so convinced that your way was the only way.That's your trouble.That's why you could never be a part of what we are trying to create here.'
'What do you think you can achieve? You are taking on an empire, Miriam. Armed with what – faith? I know who I'd place my money on.'
'Now you sound just like Bannus.'
Symeon took a sharp breath, then continued in a cold rage. 'You dare to compare me to him…'
Before Miriam could reply there was a shout from the street and footsteps pattered into the house.
'Miriam!'Yusef was excited. 'Horsemen are coming.'
'Whose?' Symeon asked.
'I – I don't know. But they're riding fast. They'll be here any minute.'
'Damn! Miriam, we must hide.'
'I'm not hiding. Not any more.'
'Not you! Me and the Roman.'
'Oh! All right. Quickly, come this way.' She hurried into the room and pointed to Cato. 'Get him up.'
Symeon squeezed past her, and thrusting his arms under Cato's shoulders he hauled him up and supported him on his feet. Miriam rolled the end of the mattress back to reveal a small wooden hatch. She lifted it by a metal ring and slid it to one side.
'In there! Both of you, quickly.'
Symeon dragged Cato over to the opening and dropped him down. Cato fell four or five feet beneath the floor and landed heavily. He had just enough strength to roll to one side as Symeon lowered his feet and followed him in. A moment later Symeon cursed as Cato's kit dropped on his head. Then Miriam replaced the hatch and rolled the bedding back. A thin slit over by the front of the house let in a shaft of light and the two men crawled cautiously towards it. The space was narrow and as Cato's eyes adjusted to the gloom he saw that it stretched from the front to the rear of the house. It was empty, apart from a small, plain casket towards the back. They heard the sound of horses approaching and shuffled the last few feet to the slit. It was no wider than a finger and sparse tufts of grass grew in front of it, and since it was just below the level of the floorboards Cato had to tilt his head to one side to see out of the slit.
He was staring up the street towards the track that led to the junction. A party of horsemen was riding into the village, and Cato's heart sank as he recognised Bannus at the head of his brigands. Bannus slewed his horse to a halt just in front of Miriam's house, kicking up a small cloud of dust that momentarily obscured the view. They heard a crunch as his booted feet landed on the hard earth.
'What do you want?' Miriam stepped out into the street. 'You're not welcome here.'
Bannus laughed. 'I know. That can't be helped. I have wounded men who need treatment.'
'You can't leave them here. The Romans patrol the land round Heshaba. If they find them we'll be punished.'
'Don't worry, Miriam. I just want their wounds cleaned and bound and we'll be on our way.They'll never know we were here.'
'No.You have to leave. Now!'
As Cato and Symeon watched through the slit, they saw the brigand chief draw his sword and raise it towards her. Miriam did not flinch and just stared back defiantly. For a moment there was a silent confrontation, then Bannus laughed and waved the sword at her.
'This is what makes things possible, Miriam. Not prayers and teaching.'
'Really?' She cocked her head to one side. 'And what have you achieved? Did you win the little fight that caused these men to be injured? No? I didn't think so.'
Symeon whispered, 'Careful, Miriam.'
'The situation is changing, Miriam.' Bannus spoke in a soft, menacing tone. 'We have friends who are about to help us. Soon I will have an army at my back.Then we'll see precisely what can be achieved.' Bannus sheathed his sword, turned to his men and called out, 'Bring the wounded into the house.'
Miriam stood her ground. 'You will not bring them into my house.'
Bannus turned back to her. 'Miriam, you are a healer. My men need your skills. You will treat them, or I will start providing you with patients from amongst your own people, starting with… young Yusef over there. Boy! Come here. Now!'
The floorboard above Cato squeaked as Yusef stepped outside and hesitantly approached the brigand leader. Bannus took him by the shoulders and looked down at him with a smile. 'Such a fine boy. His father would be proud of him. Prouder still, if he joined with me and fought to liberate our lands from Rome.'
'He will not join you,' said Miriam.'That is not his path.'
'Not today. One day, when he is old enough to choose for himself, maybe he will join me and make Jehoshua's vision become a reality. One day. But for now, Miriam, you must choose. Treat my men, or I will cut one of the boy's fingers off.'
Miriam glared at him, and then her shoulders sagged and she nodded. 'Bring them to my door. I will treat them there.'
'No, inside. They would welcome the shade.' Without waiting for her to answer Bannus thrust Yusef to one side and shouted orders. As Cato watched, the brigands dismounted and started helping several men into the house. Above him the floorboards creaked under the weight, and dislodged dust and grit fell on top of Cato and Symeon. A door squeaked on its hinges and with a start Cato realised that someone was entering the room where he had lain on the bedroll.
'Oh, shit,' he whispered.
Symeon looked at him in alarm and raised a finger to his lips.
'My sword,' Cato said as softly as he could.'It's behind the bedroll.'
'I took it from the scabbard and hid it there.'
'I wasn't sure about Miriam, and the boy. She told me the Romans killed his father.'
Symeon frowned at him. 'You're in no danger from Miriam and her people.'
'Shit.' Cato stared at him, then his eyes turned to the hatch beneath the mattress and he looked at it in horror. Any moment now one of the brigands might spot the sword, and know that a Roman had been there. Or worse, they would fling back the mattress to reveal the hatch.There was nothing he could do about it, so he and Symeon sat as still as they could and waited. He felt his heart pounding, and the splitting headache and sickness returned so he had to concentrate his will on fighting off the pain and the urge to groan or cry out.
'Put him on the bedroll,' Miriam said. 'Get me some water.'
This was it, Cato thought. Any moment now, the injured man would feel the hardness of the sword handle through the bedding.
Footsteps thudded overhead, and they heard Bannus speak.'Don't talk in Greek, Miriam. Some of my men are simple peasants.They only know the dialect of the valley.'
They continued speaking a form of Aramaic and Cato glanced at Symeon. 'What?'
Symeon raised his hand to quiet the Roman and cocked an ear towards the ceiling as he strained to hear what was being said. There were many voices talking now, and feet moving overhead as the men's wounds were treated.Time seemed to slow to a crawl, so that Cato was aware of every instant that passed as his ears filled with the sounds from the room above his head. He willed Miriam to treat the men as swiftly as she could, to get them out of her house, and out of the village.
As the light outside began to grow dim there was a shout from the street and immediately a commotion in Miriam's house as the men piled outside and Bannus bellowed a series of orders. Symeon nudged Cato. 'They've spotted a column of Roman cavalry heading for the village.'
'Macro. It has to be.'
Symeon shrugged. 'I sincerely hope so.'
Bannus' men began to carry the wounded out towards the horses. Then, as they helped them into the saddles, there was a cry from the man on the bedroll. His wounds had made him weak and he paused for breath before he gasped a few more words.
'He's found your sword!' Symeon hissed. 'When they come back for him they'll see it.'
Cato thought quickly, and then winced as he knew what had to be done. He crept over to his equipment, fumbled for his dagger handle and drew the blade. The hatch was old and weathered, and brittle, and Cato summoned up all his energy, grasped the dagger with both hands and punched it up through the hatch, tearing through the wool padding of the bedroll and into the back of the injured man. He heard a faint explosive gasp and his blade was tugged as the man twisted for a few moments before slumping back. Cato sensed no further movement through the handle. He twisted it slightly and wrenched the blade free. Then he crouched down and waited. Shortly afterwards someone padded lightly into the room and paused an instant before moving over to the man on the bedroll.
'Saul!' Bannus shouted from outside.'Get the last man. In the back room.'
Footsteps thudded overhead and then they heard Miriam say, 'It's too late. He's dead.You'd better take him with you.'
'Bannus! He's dead,' the man shouted. 'Should I bring his body?'
'Leave it. We have to go. Now!'
Out in the street the brigands wheeled their horses about and began to ride past the house on their way out of the village. More dust obscured the view, and Cato and Symeon could feel the vibrations of the pounding hooves through the earth around them. The sounds quickly receded.There was quiet for a moment, and then Miriam grunted with effort as she shifted the body off the mattress. The hatch was slid to one side and she peered into the hole.
'You can come out now. The Romans will be here any moment.'
07 The Eagle In the Sand