The three ships lifted as the gentle swell passed beneath their keels. From the high steering deck of the merchantman, the port of Ravenna was visible for a moment before the vessels slumped down into the trough. The merchantman was caught between two sleek liburnians, secured in place by several boarding hooks tethered to stout posts on the ships on either side. The pirates aboard the liburnians had shipped their oars and hastily dropped their mainsails before swarming aboard the merchantman. The assault had been hard-fought and bloody.
Proof of the fury of the attackers lay scattered upon the deck: the broken bodies of sailors, sprawled across dark smears of blood on the smooth, well-worn planking. In amongst them lay the corpses of over twenty of the pirates, and from the steering deck the captain of the larger liburnian frowned as he looked down on the scene. They had lost too many men taking the ship. Usually, the howling wave of armed men pouring over the side unnerved their victims so much that they dropped their weapons and surrendered at once. Not this time.
The crew of the merchant ship, together with a handful of passengers, had met the pirates right at the ship's rail and held them off with a gritty determination that the pirate captain could not recall seeing before – certainly not in the steady run of trading vessels he and his men had been preying on for the last few months. Armed with pikes, boathooks, belaying pins and a few swords, the defenders had held their ground as long as possible before they were forced back by superior numbers of better armed men.
Four of them in particular had drawn the pirate captain's eye: big, solid men in plain brown tunics, armed with short swords. They had fought to the end, back to back, around the base of the mast, and had killed a dozen pirates before they had been overwhelmed and cut down. The captain himself had killed the last of them, but not before the man had slashed open his thigh – a flesh wound, now tightly bound up, but still throbbing with a painful intensity.
The pirate captain made his way down on to the main deck. He stopped by the mast and prodded one of the four men with his boot, rolling the body on to its back. The man had a soldier's build and bore several scars. Like the others. Perhaps that explained their skill with the sword. He rose to his feet, still looking down at the dead Roman. A legionary then, as were the man's companions.
The captain frowned. What were legionaries doing on the merchantman? And not just any legionaries: these were hand-picked men – the best. Hardly casual passengers returning on leave from the east. No doubt they had organised and led the defence of the merchantman. And they had fought to the last drop of blood, with no thought of surrender. A shame, that, the captain reflected. He would have liked to offer them the chance to join his crews. Some men did. The rest were sold to slave-traders who asked no questions about the provenance of their property, and who were wise enough to ensure that the slaves were taken to market at the opposite end of the Empire. The legionaries would have been equally valuable as recruits or slaves, once their tongues had been cut out; a man would find it hard to complain about the injustice of his enslavement if he lacked a voice… But the soldiers were dead. They had died purposelessly, the captain decided. Unless they had been sworn to protect something, or somebody…
So what were they doing on the ship?
The pirate captain rubbed the dressing on his thigh and glanced round the deck. His men had thrown open the hatches of the cargo hold and were passing the more precious-looking pieces of cargo up on to the deck, where their comrades tore open the boxes and chests, scrabbling through the contents in search of valuables. More men were below decks, going through the possessions of the passengers, and dull thuds and splintering crashes sounded from beneath the planking.
The captain stepped over the bodies at the base of the mast and picked his way forward. Pressed into the bows were the survivors of the attack: a handful of sailors, mostly injured, and several passengers. They watched him warily as he approached. He nearly smiled as he saw one of the sailors trembling as he tried to edge away. The captain forced himself to keep his face devoid of expression. Below the dark, matted locks of his hair, piercing black eyes looked out from beneath a strong brow. His nose was broken and twisted, and knotted white scar tissue curved up across his chin, over his lips and up his cheek. His appearance had a wonderful effect on those that beheld him, but the injuries were not the marks of experience borne by a life-long pirate. Rather, they had been with him since childhood when his parents had dumped him as an infant in the slums of Piraeus, and he had long since forgotten the cause of his hideous scarring. The passengers and crew of the merchantman wilted before him as the pirate halted a sword's length away and ran his dark eyes over them.
'I am Telemachus, the leader of these pirates,' he said in Greek to the terrified sailors. 'Where is your captain?'
There came no reply, just the nervous breathing of men facing a cruel and imminent fate. The pirate captain's eyes never left them as his hand reached down and slowly drew his falcata.
'I asked for the captain-'
'Please, sir!' a voice interrupted. The pirate's gaze slid to the man who had been so desperate to back away from him. Now the sailor raised his arm and pointed a wavering finger along the deck.'The captain's over there… He's dead…I saw you kill him, sir.'
'Did you?' The pirate's thick lips curled into a smile. 'Which one?'
'There, sir. By the aft hatch. The fat one.'
The pirate captain looked over his shoulder and his eyes sought out the rotund body of a small man spread-eagled on the deck. Smaller by a head now. The latter was nowhere in sight, and Telemachus frowned a moment until he recalled an instant after he had jumped down on to the deck. Ahead of him a man, the merchantman's captain, had screamed and turned to run away. The glittering edge of the falcata had arced through the air, through the fleshy neck with barely a jolt, and the captain's head had leaped up and over the side.
'Yes…I remember.' The pirate's smile broadened into a contented grin. 'So who is the first mate?'
The sailor who had done all the speaking so far, half turned and nodded faintly at a large Nubian standing beside him.
'You?' The pirate gestured with the point of his blade.
The Nubian gave his shipmate a withering, contemptuous glance, before he nodded.
The first mate reluctantly advanced and looked warily at his captor. Telemachus was glad to see that the Nubian had the guts to meet his gaze. There was one man, at least, amongst the survivors. The pirate pointed back to the bodies around the foot of the mast.
'Those men – the tough bastards who killed so many of my lads – who were they?'
The Nubian nodded. 'Came aboard in Rhodes.'
'I see. And who were they guarding?'
'A Roman, sir.'
Telemachus glanced over the shoulder of the Nubian at the other prisoners. 'Where is he?'
The Nubian shrugged. 'Don't know, sir. Haven't seen him since you boarded us. Might be dead. Might have gone over the side, sir.'
'Nubian…' the captain leaned closer and spoke in an icy, menacing tone, 'I wasn't born yesterday. Show me this Roman, now, or I'll show you what your heart looks like… Where is he?'
'Here,' a voice called out from the rear of the huddle of prisoners. A figure pushed himself forward, a tall lean man with the unmistakable features of his race: dark hair, olive skin and the long nose with which the Romans were prone to look down at the rest of the world. He wore a plain tunic, no doubt trying to pass himself off as one of the cheap fares who spent the entire journey on deck. But the man's vanity was irrepressible and an expensive ring still adorned the first finger on his right hand. The large ruby set into a gold band caught the captain's eye immediately.
'You'd better pray that comes off easily…'
The Roman glanced down.'This? It's been in my family for generations. My father wore it before me, and my son will wear it after me.'
'Don't be too sure.' The captain's amusement flickered across his scarred features. 'Now then, who are you? Any man who travels with four brick shit-houses for company has got to be someone with influence… and wealth.'
Now it was the Roman's turn to smile. 'More than you can imagine.'
'I doubt it. I have quite an imagination when it comes to wealth. Now, much as I'd like the rare opportunity of sharing some talk with a man of culture I'm afraid we haven't the time. There's a chance that one of the lookouts at Ravenna witnessed our little naval action and has passed the word on to the local navy commander. Good as my ships are, I doubt they'd outfight an imperial squadron. So who are you, Roman? I'm asking for the last time.'
'Very well. Caius Caelius Secundus, at your service.' He bowed his head.
'Now that's a nice, noble-sounding name. I imagine your family might be able to stump up a decent ransom?'
'Of course. Name a price – a reasonable price. It'll be paid, then you can set me and my baggage ashore.'
'As easy as that?' The captain smiled. 'I'll have to consider…'
There was a commotion from aft as a pirate burst from the hatch leading down into the passengers' quarters. He was carrying something bundled in a plain cotton sheet. He held it up as he scurried forward.
'Captain, look! Look at this!'
All faces turned towards the man as he ran to the bows, and then dropped to his knees as he carefully laid the bundle down and swept the folds of cloth back to reveal a small chest, constructed from a dark smooth wood, almost black. It had a glassy gleam that spoke of age and many hands caressing its surface. The wood was reinforced by bands of gold. Where the bands intersected, small onyx cameos were set into the gold, likenesses of the most powerful of the Greek gods. A small silver plate on the lid bore the legend 'M. Antonius hic fecit'.
'Mark Antony?' For a moment the pirate captain was lost in admiration for the beauty of the thing, and then his professional mind began calculating its worth, and he looked up at the Roman.
The face of Caius Caelius Secundus was blank.
'All right then, not yours… but in your possession. Quite a piece of work. Must be worth a fortune.'
'It is,' the Roman conceded. 'And you may have it.'
'Oh…may I?' Telemachus replied with elaborate irony. 'Most kind of you. I think I will.'
The Roman bowed his head graciously. 'Just permit me to keep the contents.'
The captain looked at him sharply. 'Contents?'
'A few books. Something for me to read, while the ransom is arranged.'
'Books? What kind of books would be kept in a box like that, I wonder?'
'Just histories,' the Roman explained quickly. 'Nothing that would interest you.'
'Let me be the judge of that,' the captain replied, and bent down to examine the chest more closely.
There was a small keyhole in the front and the chest had been so finely constructed that only the faintest of lines showed where the lid met the bottom half of the chest. The captain glanced up.
'Give me the key.'
'I-I haven't got it.'
'No games, Roman. I want the key, now. Or you'll be feeding the fish, in small pieces.'
For a moment the Roman did not reply, or make any move. Then there was a glittering flash as the captain's arm swung up and the point of his sword stopped a finger's breadth from the Roman's throat, steady as a rock, as if it had never moved. The Roman flinched, and now at last he revealed his fear.
'The key…' Telemachus said softly.
Secundus grasped the ring with the fingers of his other hand and struggled to get it off. It fitted his finger snugly, and his manicured fingernails tore at the skin as he tried to free it. At last, lubricated by smears of blood, the ring came free with a grunt of effort and pain. He hesitated a moment and then offered it to the pirate captain, his fingers slowly uncurling to reveal the gold band resting in the palm of his hand. Only it wasn't just a ring. On the underside, running parallel to the finger, a small, elegantly crafted shaft protruded, with an ornate device at the end.
'There.' The Roman's shoulders sagged in defeat as the pirate captain grasped the ring and fitted the key to the lock. It was designed to be inserted one way only, and he struggled a while before he managed to find the correct orientation. Meanwhile, the rest of his crew crowded forward to see what was happening. The key slotted home, the captain eased it round. There was a soft click and the lid eased up a fraction. With eager fingers Telemachus raised the lid, swinging it back on its hinges to reveal the contents.
He frowned. 'Scrolls?'
In the small chest lay three large scrolls, fastened to ivory pins and covered with soft leather sleeves. The covers were so faded and stained that the captain guessed the books must be antique. He stared at them in disappointment. A chest like this should have contained a fortune in jewels or coins. Not books. Why the hell would a man travel with such a wondrous chest, only to use it to carry a few weathered scrolls in?
'Like I said,' the Roman forced a smile, 'just scrolls.'
The pirate captain flashed him a shrewd look.'Just scrolls? I don't think so.'
He stood up and turned towards his crew. 'Get this chest and the rest of the loot on to our ships! Get moving!'
The pirates bent to their task at once, hurriedly transferring the most valuable items of the cargo on to the decks of the two liburnians tied alongside. The bulk of the cargo was marble; valuable but too heavy to load on to the pirate vessels. It did have one immediate use, the pirate captain thought, smiling. It would take the ship straight to the bottom when the time came.
'What are you going to do with us?' Secundus asked.
The pirate captain turned from supervising his men, and saw the sailors watching him closely, making little effort to hide their fear.
Telemachus scratched the stubble on his chin. 'I've lost some good men today. Too many good men. I'll make do with some of yours.'
The Roman sneered. 'What if we won't join you?'
'We?' The captain smiled slowly at him.'I have no use for a pampered Roman aristocrat. You'll be joining the rest of them, the ones who won't be coming with us.'
'I see.' The Roman squinted towards the horizon and the distant lighthouse at Ravenna, calculating the distance.
The captain suddenly laughed, and shook his head. 'No, you don't see. There'll be no help from your navy. You and the others will be dead long before they could send a ship out here. Besides, there won't be anything left for them to find. You and this ship will be going down together.'
Telemachus didn't wait for a response, but swiftly turned away, striding back across the deck and swinging himself down on to the deck of his vessel with well-practised ease. The chest was already waiting for him at the foot of the mast, but he spared it only a brief greedy glance as he stopped to give his orders.
The grizzled head of a stocky giant loomed over the rail of the merchantman. 'Yes, chief?'
'Prepare to fire the vessel. But not before you pick the best of the prisoners. I want them taken on board your ship. You can kill the rest. Leave that arrogant prick of a Roman till last. I want him to sweat a little before you deal with him.'
Hector grinned, and disappeared from sight. Shortly afterwards there was a series of splintering crashes as the pirates cut some timber to build a pyre in the hold of the merchantman. The captain turned his attention back to the chest, squatting down in front of it again. Looking closely, he became aware of just how fine a piece of craftsmanship this was. His fingers stroked the rich sheen of the surface and bumped lightly over the gold and onyx cameos. Telemachus shook his head again. 'Scrolls…'
Using both hands, the captain eased the catch open and gently raised the lid. He paused for a moment, and then reached in and lifted out one of the scrolls. It was far heavier than he had thought it would be, and for a moment he wondered if there might be some gold hidden inside. His fingers worked away at the thong, and he raised the scroll up to see the knot better, and was aware of a faint citron odour emanating from the book. With a little effort the knot came undone and he shook the thong to one side, holding the end of the parchment in one hand as he unspooled the first few pages of the scroll with the other.
It was written in Greek. The script was old-fashioned, but legible enough, and Telemachus began to read. At first his features registered a sense of confusion and frustration, as his eyes steadily scanned each line of text.
There was a sudden scream of terror from the deck of the merchantman, cut short abruptly. A brief pause and then another scream, followed by a shrill voice babbling for mercy, before it too was cut off. The captain smiled. There would be no mercy. He knew his subordinate, Hector, well enough to realise the man thoroughly enjoyed killing other men. Inflicting pain was an art he excelled in, even more so than the skill of commanding a sleek pirate vessel, manned by some of the most bloodthirsty men he had ever met. The captain turned back to the scroll and read on, even as more screams split the air.
A moment later, he found a phrase that made it all come clear. With a chilling flood of realisation he understood what he was holding in his hands. He knew where it had been written, who it had been written by and, more importantly, he knew how much these scrolls might be worth. Then it occurred to him: he could not ask any price for these, once he approached the right customers.
Abruptly, he dropped the scroll back into the chest and snapped upright.
Once again the man's head reared over the side of the captured ship. He rested his hands on the rail, one still holding a long curved dagger, from which blood dripped in to the sea between the two vessels.
'That Roman -' Telemachus began – 'have you killed him yet?'
'Not yet. He's next.' Hector grinned. 'You want to watch?'
'No. I want him alive.'
'Alive?' Hector frowned.'He's too soft for us. No fucking use at all.'
'Oh, he's going to be useful, all right! He's going to help make us richer than Croesus. Bring him to me at once!'
Moments later the Roman was kneeling on the deck beside the mast. His chest was heaving as he stared up at the pirate captain and his murderous henchman. There was still defiance in his manner, the captain noted. The man was Roman to the core of his being, and behind his cold expression no doubt contempt for his captors outweighed even the terror he must be feeling as he waited for his death. The captain tapped the chest with the toe of his boot.
'I know about the scrolls. I know what they are, and I can guess where you are taking them.'
'Guess then!' The Roman spat on to the deck at his captor's feet. 'I'll tell you nothing!'
Hector raised his dagger and lurched forward with a snarl. 'Why you-'
'Leave him!' the captain snapped, thrusting his hand out. 'I said I want him alive.'
Hector paused, looking from his captain to the Roman and back again with murderous eyes. 'Alive?'
'Yes… He's going to answer some questions. I want to know who he's working for.'
The Roman sneered. 'I'll say nothing.'
'Oh yes you will.' The captain leaned over him. 'You think you're a brave man. I can see that. But I've known plenty of brave men in my time, and none of them has held out for long against Hector here. He knows how to inflict more pain, and make it last longer, than any man I have ever known. It's a kind of genius. An art, if you like. He's extremely passionate about his art…'
The captain stared into the face of his prisoner for a moment, and finally the man flinched. Telemachus smiled as he straightened up and turned to his subordinate.
'Kill the rest of them, quick as you can. Then fire the ship. Once that's done I want you on board here. We'll spend the time it takes to get back home with our friend here…'
As the afternoon light slanted across the rolling surface of the sea, a thick swirling cloud of smoke engulfed the ravaged merchantman. Flames licked amid the smoke as the fire below the deck took hold and spread throughout the vessel. Soon it flared up and the rigging caught light, a fiery tracery of ropes, like infernal decorations. The crack and pop of burning wood and the roar of flames was clearly audible to the men on the decks of the two pirate vessels as they bore away in the opposite direction to the shores of Italy. Far over the eastern horizon lay the coast of Illyricum, with its maze of deserted and remote inlets and islands. The sounds of the dying ship slowly faded behind them.
Soon the only noise that cut across the serenity of the ships sliding through the sea was the demented screaming of a man being subjected to the kind of torture he had never conceived of in the most hellish of his nightmares.
06 The Eagles Prophecy