The Eagle In the Sand, стр. 1

Simon Scarrow

The Eagle In the Sand

CHAPTER ONE

Centurion Macro noticed them first: a small band of men with hoods drawn over their heads casually entering the crowded street from a dark alley and merging with the flow of people, animals and carts heading for the great market in the outer court of the temple. Even though it was only mid-morning the sun was already beating down on Jerusalem and ripening the air in the narrow streets with a stifling intensity of smells: the familiar odours of cities throughout the empire, and other scents that were strange and evocative of the east – spice, citron and balsam.

In the glaring sunshine and baking air, Macro could feel the sweat pricking out all over his face and body, and he wondered how any man could bear to go hooded in this heat. He stared at the band of men as they made their way along the street, not twenty paces ahead. They did not talk to each other, and barely acknowledged the jostling crowd around them as they moved forward with the flow. Macro switched the reins of his mule to the other hand and nudged his companion, Centurion Cato, riding alongside him at the head of the small column of auxiliary recruits shuffling along behind the two officers.

'They're up to no good.'

'Hm?' Cato glanced round. 'Sorry. What did you say?'

'Up ahead.' Macro quickly gestured towards the men he was watching. 'See that lot with covered heads?'

Cato squinted for a moment before he fixed his eyes on the men Macro had indicated. 'Yes. What about them?'

'Well, don't you think it's odd?' Macro glanced at his companion. Cato was a bright enough lad, Macro thought, but sometimes he would miss a danger or a crucial detail that was right under his nose. Macro, being somewhat older, put it down to lack of experience. He had served in the legions for nearly eighteen years – long enough to develop a profound appreciation of his surroundings. Life depended on it, as he had discovered on rather too many occasions. Indeed, he bore scars on his body for not being aware of a threat until it was too late. That he still lived was proof of his toughness and sheer brutality in a fight. Like every centurion in Emperor Claudius' legions, he was a man to be reckoned with. Well, perhaps not every centurion, Macro reflected as he glanced back at Cato. His friend was something of an exception. Cato had won his promotion at a distastefully early stage of his army career by virtue of his brains, guts, luck and a little bit of favouritism. The last factor might have irked a man like Macro who had clawed his way up from the ranks, but he was honest enough to recognise that Cato had fully justified his promotion. In the four years since Cato had joined the Second Legion, years in which he had served with Macro in Germany, Britain and Illyricum, he had matured from a fresh-faced recruit to a tough, sinewy veteran. But Cato could still lose his head in the clouds.

Macro sighed impatiently. 'Hoods. In this heat. Odd, wouldn't you say?'

Cato looked at the men again and shrugged. 'Now you mention it, I suppose so. Maybe they're part of some religious sect. Jupiter knows how many of them there are in this place.' He scowled. 'Who would have thought one religion could have so many? And from what I've heard, the locals are about as pious as you can get.You don't get much more religious than the Judaeans.'

'Maybe,' Macro said thoughtfully. 'But that lot up there don't look very religious to me.'

'You can tell?'

'I can tell.' Macro tapped his nose. 'Trust me. They're up to something.'

'Like what?'

'I don't know. Not yet. But keep watching them. See what you think.'

'Think?' Cato frowned irritably. 'I was already thinking when you interrupted me.'

'Oh?' Macro replied, keeping his attention on the men ahead of them. 'I suppose you were contemplating something of earth-shaking importance. Must have been from that vacant look on your face.'

'Nice. As it happens, I was thinking about Narcissus.'

'Narcissus?' Macro's expression darkened at the name of the Imperial Secretary, on whose orders they had been sent to the east. 'That bastard? Why waste any time on him?'

'It's just that he's stitched us up nicely this time. I doubt we're going to see this mission through. It stinks.'

'What's new? Every job that bastard has given us stinks. We're the sponge-sticks of the imperial service. Always in the shit.'

Cato looked at his friend with a disgusted expression and was about to reply when Macro suddenly craned his neck and hissed, 'Look! They're making their move.'

Just ahead was the lofty archway which marked the entrance to the great outer court of the temple.The light was dazzling and for an instant silhouetted the heads and shoulders of those in front of them, and it was a moment before Cato's eyes fixed on the hooded men again. They had thrust their way over to one side of the street as they passed through the arch, and were now walking quickly towards the tables of the moneylenders and tax collectors in the centre of the court.

'Let's go.' Macro kicked his heels into the side of his mule, causing it to bray.The people in front glanced back over their shoulders nervously and shuffled out of the animal's path. 'Come on.'

'Wait!' Cato grabbed his arm. 'You're jumping at shadows. We've hardly reached the city and you're spoiling for a fight.'

'I'm telling you, Cato, they're up to no good.'

'You don't know that. You can't just wade in and trample down anyone who gets in your way.'

'Why not?'

'You'll cause a riot.' Cato slipped out of his saddle and stood beside his mule. 'If you want to follow them, then let's go on foot.'

Macro took a quick glance towards the hooded men. 'Fair enough. Optio!'

A tall, hard-faced Gaul strode up from the head of the column and saluted Macro. 'Sir?'

'Take the reins. Centurion Cato and myself are going to take a little stroll.'

'A stroll, sir?'

'You heard. Wait for us just inside the gate. But keep the men formed up, just in case.'

The optio frowned. 'In case of what, sir?'

'Trouble.' Macro smiled. 'What else? Come on, Cato. Before we lose them.'

With a sigh Cato followed his friend into the flow of bodies entering the great courtyard. The men they were following were already some distance away, still heading towards the stalls of the moneylenders and tax collectors. The two centurions threaded their way through the crowds, jostling some of the people as they passed and drawing angry glances and muttered curses.

'Roman bastards…' someone said in accented Greek.

Macro stopped and whirled round. 'Who said that?'

The crowd shrank from his enraged expression, but stared back with hostile eyes. Macro's gaze fixed on a tall, broad-shouldered youth whose lips had curled into a sneer.

'Oh, so it was you, was it?' Macro smiled, and beckoned to the man.'Come on then. If you think you're man enough.'

Cato grabbed his arm and pulled Macro back. 'Leave him be.'

'Leave him?' Macro frowned.'Why? He needs a lesson in hospitality.'

'No he doesn't,' Cato insisted quietly. 'Hearts and minds, remember? That's what the procurator told us. Besides,' Cato nodded towards the stalls, 'your hooded friends are getting away from us.'

'Fair enough.' Macro quickly turned back to the young man. 'Cross my path again, Judaean, and I'll take your bloody head off.'

The man snorted with derision and spat on to the ground, and Cato hauled Macro after him before the latter could respond. They hurried on, quickly closing the distance between them and the small knot of men picking their way through the crowd towards the stalls. Cato, taller than Macro, was easily able to keep them in sight as the two centurions pressed on through the exotic mixture of races that filled the great courtyard. Amongst the locals were darker-featured Idumaeans and Nabataeans, many wearing turbans wound neatly round their heads. Cloth of all colours and patterns swirled amongst the crowds, and snatches of different languages filled the air.

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