The column reached Urbinum two days later, having paused a short while along the way to retrieve a small wooden chest from behind a shrine. Anobarbus decided to remain with them, explaining that he had friends in Ravenna who would put him up until he recovered from his wounds.
Two more men had been lost in the mountains, simply vanishing in the night in a foolhardy attempt to return to their families in Rome. Minucius doubted they would get out of the mountains alive, and Macro was in spitting distance of winning his bet.
By the time the marines reached the port of Ariminum the roadside inns were full of stories relating the latest exploits of the pirate fleet terrorising the seas off the coast. Although the barbarians were hardly at the gate, there was no denying the palpable hysteria that was gripping the people of Umbria. In Ariminum itself the local garrison had moved into the citadel, along with most of the wealthiest townspeople. There were few ships in port and the azure horizon of the sea was bare of sails.
Ten days after they had picked up Anobarbus, the column marched through the town gate of Ravenna, one man over the total number Macro needed to win his bet. It had taken a great effort of will for Macro not to quietly dispose of one of the recruits the night before they reached their destination, and he reluctantly conceded the bet to Cato as the last of them marched inside the town.
'Want me to start a tab?' Cato grinned.
'Only if you want me to knock your teeth out. You'll get your money, just as soon as we're paid.'
'I can hardly wait to spend your first month's wages. Three hundred denarians goes a long way.'
'Three hundred?' Minucius laughed at the exchange. 'You'll be lucky. I assume you two are on the marine payroll?'
'Yes,' Macro replied. 'What of it?'
'I don't suppose for a moment that the officials who posted you here were kind enough to mention the rate of pay?'
'No.' Macro's heart was sinking like a rock. 'What of it?'
'We get the same as the auxiliaries.'
Macro stared at him in horror for a moment, and then smiled nervously. 'You're having me on again, aren't you? Just give it a rest, Minucius.'
'No, really. I'm serious.'
Macro shook his head, and then slapped his thigh in fury. 'Shit!… That tight bastard Narcissus has shafted us again! I swear I'll kick his head in one day, if it's the last thing I ever do.'
'More than likely,' muttered Cato.'And pipe down about Narcissus, unless you want the whole town to know our business.'
'I don't bloody believe this,' Macro continued.'Not only does he stick our heads in the bloody noose, he does it on the cheap into the bargain.'
Macro persisted in his grumbling as the column worked its way down the main thoroughfare of Ravenna towards the docks. As in most provincial towns, the streets were narrow and few of the buildings were more than two storeys tall. Even before they reached the waterfront, Cato could see a dense forest of masts and rigging packed into the harbour. On the main quay itself scores of sailors sat around disconsolately and gazed out at the ships moored tightly together in the gentle swell. They stood up as the recruits marched by, and stared at them with open hostility.
'I don't understand,' said Cato.'I thought all the shipping had tried to get as far from the pirates as possible. There was a handful of ships in Ariminum.' He waved a hand across the harbour. 'I've never seen so many before. Aren't they afraid of the pirates?'
'Of course they are, lad,' Minucius grinned. 'And that's precisely why they're here. What better place to be than right beside a naval base. Over there's the guarantee of their safety.'
Cato followed the arm that Minucius had raised and saw what he was pointing at. At the end of the quay was a large fortified gateway, leading into the naval dockyard. Riding at anchor in the open waters of the navy harbour was a fleet of sleek warships. He counted over thirty of them. Most were small patrol craft, but further out lay a squadron of larger triremes, the formidable backbone of the Roman fleet. Each trireme boasted three banks of oars on each side, with fortified towers at the bow and stern, upon which catapults were mounted. A large bronze-sheathed ram extended from the prow of each ship.
Beyond the triremes there was one even bigger vessel. Cato stood up on the bed of the wagon and pointed.'What's that?'
'That's the Horus, our flagship. She's a quinquireme, a five, as we call 'em. Quite a history behind that one. She was Mark Antony's flagship. Captured at Actium and taken into the imperial navy by Augustus. Built to last and tough as old boots. There's nothing afloat that can match her.'
Cato stared at the Horus a moment longer, then resumed his seat as the convoy moved along the quay towards the gates of the naval base. The sailors and dockers lining the route closed in on each side, watching them in bitter silence.
A voice cried out,'When are you going to do something about them pirates?'
The complaint was instantly taken up by other voices, and soon the marines and their officers were surrounded by angry shouts and shaking fists. The recruits glanced around nervously.
'Eyes front!' Minucius roared out. 'Eyes front, I said. Ignore the bastards.'
A clod of filth sailed through the air and struck the centurion on the shoulder. He clenched his jaw and stared straight ahead. Unfortunately, the example had been set and suddenly the air was filled with mud, excrement and other stinking refuse, and it pelted down on the hapless marines and their officers. The men at the front of the column faltered as they tried to shield themselves from the bombardment, and Minucius rose to his feet and cupped his hands to his mouth.
'Keep marching at the front there! Don't bloody stop!'
The optios lashed out at their men with their staffs and the pace picked up. Minucius opened his mouth to shout further encouragement and, as Macro watched, a turd flew through the air and caught the veteran right in the mouth. There was a spontaneous roar of laughter from the nearest townspeople at the sight.
Minucius ducked down, spitting and wiping his lips on his sleeve. 'If I ever find the bastard responsible for that, I'll make him eat shit for the rest of his bloody days.'
Macro, struggling hopelessly to keep a straight face, nudged Cato.'I thought that sort of thing only happened to me.'
'It has. Look.' Cato pointed to his tunic and, glancing down, Macro saw a nasty brown smear on the wool.
The watch officer on the gate had seen the trouble brewing along the wharf and as the recruit column approached a squad of marines piled out of the entrance to the naval base and charged into the crowd to clear a route for Minucius and his men. The barrage intensified as the townspeople made the most of their last chance to have a go at the men they held responsible for the loss of their livelihood. Macro and Cato covered their heads and ducked down behind the sides of the wagon.
'Some fucking welcome,' Macro grumbled. 'This job is just getting better by the instant. Wonder what's in store for us next?'
Cato did not reply. He was looking intently at the sea and for the first time he realised just how afraid he was of this element. Not only was he a poor swimmer, he had suffered acutely from seasickness on the few occasions he had actually been at sea. And now he was destined to spend the foreseeable future on, or worse, in the sea. He felt sick just thinking about it.
When the wagons at the tail of the convoy had entered the naval base the marines retreated inside and quickly closed and bolted the gates. The watch officer, another centurion, strode up to Minucius' wagon, grinning widely.
'A fine welcome home that, eh?'
'Great,' Minucius growled as he reached for his canteen and rinsed his mouth out. He spat the contents to one side. 'Varro, what the hell's been going on since I've been in Rome? The whole of Umbria's gone mad with this pirate nonsense.'
The watch officer's smile faded. 'You can't have heard then?'
'They landed near a veterans' colony at Lissus a few days ago. Sacked the place and slaughtered everyone there. Women and kids put to the sword and all the men impaled. They burned the colony to the ground.'
Minucius stared at him. 'Lissus? I know some people there…'
'You did. Not any more.'
'Shit…' Minucius slumped down on to the driver's bench. The watch officer reached up and gave his arm a gentle squeeze, before he turned to the other centurions.
'Are you Macro and Cato?'
'You're to come with me. The prefect gave orders to send for you the moment you arrived.'
'Just a moment,' said Cato. He climbed down from the wagon and trotted back to the vehicle carrying Anobarbus.
The merchant was sitting up and brushing some mud off his cloak. He glanced up at Cato. 'Nice town, Ravenna.'
Cato held out his hand. 'The prefect's sent for us. I'll say goodbye for now. Send us word when you've found a place to stay.'
'I will.' Anobarbus clasped his hand.'And the drinks will be on me.'
Cato nodded at his money box. 'You can afford it.'
The merchant gave Cato a queer smile and then nodded. 'I owe you and Macro my life. I shan't ever forget.'
'I'll hold you to that!' He winked and hurried back to Macro and Varro, who was twitching his vine cane impatiently.
The watch officer turned away and strode off towards a massive porticoed building that looked out over the naval base.
'Nice going,' Macro hissed.'You've managed to piss them off this side of the gate as well.'
'Maybe, but there's a drink in it for us.' Cato jerked his thumb back at the merchant's wagon. 'And it's on our friend.'
'That's more like it.' Macro's contented smile lasted all the way across the parade ground.
The prefect's office was imposing – a long room that gave out on to the upper level of the portico, which provided access to all the offices along the second floor of the fleet headquarters building. The view from the prefect's office took in the broad sweep of the naval harbour, the marine barracks and the sprawl of store sheds and workshops beyond. To one side of the harbour was a timbered hard where men toiled over a beached trireme, covering the bottom with black tar from steaming vats – further evidence of the preparations for the campaign against the pirates.
Inside the prefect's office, the floor was laid with an attractive mosaic featuring Neptune skewering some demon of the deep with his trident while the other hand directed a storm to wreck a Punic fleet. Vitellius had a small, but expensive desk by a window at one end of the room, and the other end was covered with a huge map of the fleet's theatre of operations, painted on to the wall in minute detail.
Macro and Cato approached the prefect's desk and stood to attention. He was signing a stack of documents and glanced up at them before turning back to his work and completing it unhurriedly. At length, he replaced his stylus in its holder and looked up at the two centurions.
'Well,' Prefect Vitellius smiled as he leaned back in his chair, 'I take it you had a pleasant tour through our idyllic countryside?'
'Yes, sir,' Cato replied flatly.
'Good, because the holiday's over. We've got plenty of work to do over the following months. Things have moved on since Narcissus briefed us back in Rome. The situation is far more serious.'
'We noticed, sir.'
'Really?' Vitellius looked amused.'I doubt you have been given the full picture, Centurion Cato. The Imperial Secretary has only provided that to his most trustworthy agents.'
'Meaning you?' Macro chuckled bitterly.
The prefect was still for a moment, fighting to control his temper, and Cato feared for a moment that his friend had overstepped the mark, by about a mile. Then Vitellius' expression eased.
'Please dispense with the uncooperative attitude.'
There was a pause as the two men stared silently at each other in mutual loathing.
Finally, Macro nodded. 'Very well.'
'That's better. And from now on, you'll supply the required respect due to my rank. You will call me "Prefect", or "sir". Understand?'
'Good. Come over here.' Vitellius stood up and walked over to the map. He picked up a long cane from a rack beside it and rapped on the coastline of Illyricum. 'The pirates must be operating out of a base somewhere along this coastline. So far we have gathered only very limited intelligence on them, but we do have a name. The leader is called Telemachus. A Greek. I expect he's trying to drum up some support from locals. He's a shrewd man, and won't be easy to beat.'
Cato coughed. 'Getting the scrolls back isn't going to be easy either, sir.'
Vitellius turned round and tried to read Cato's face.'What do you know about the scrolls?'
'Enough, to know how valuable they are to the Emperor, sir.'
'Really?' Vitellius gave him a searching look. 'I think you're bluffing, young Cato. Or fishing for information. Nice try. Anyway, it seems that our pirate chief is quite a player. He sent a message to inform us that there are now other parties interested in the scrolls, and they're willing to match any price that Narcissus will pay.'
'Who are these other people, sir?'
'Telemachus didn't say.'
'He's trying to drive the price up.'
'Maybe, but we can't take the risk that he's lying. Narcissus wants those scrolls, whatever the price. In men as well as money.'
'But who else would want these bloody scrolls, sir?' Macro asked.
'It doesn't really matter. Whoever it is, they can't be allowed to have them.'
'Look here, sir. It would help us if we had some idea of who we are up against.'
'No doubt,' Vitellius smiled. 'But ask yourself, if these scrolls are so vital to the Emperor, then who else would be as interested in them?'
'Aside from you, sir?'
'We've been over that, Macro. Don't try my patience any further.'
'The Liberators,' Cato said quietly. The secret organisation of republicans dedicated to the overthrow of Emperor Clandius seemed to be the obvious suspects.
Vitellius turned to look at him and shrugged.'Who else?'
'Great.' Macro shook his head wearily. 'That's all we bloody need. If they're in on the act we'll be jumping at our own shadows.'
'Quite.' Vitellius ran a hand through his oiled hair, and wiped it on the side of his tunic. 'So you can see we must proceed carefully, on a number of fronts. Firstly, we have to keep the negotiations going for as long as we can. That'll give us time to try to identify these other parties who are after the scrolls. Then we can seize them. In the meantime, we'll continue preparations for an amphibious campaign along the coast of Illyricum. We must find and destroy the pirate base, and sink or capture their ships. More importantly, we must find those scrolls. It's possible, likely even, that the Liberators have sympathisers or agents here in the fleet already. When we engage the pirates, it'll be a dirty and confusing business. That's when the Liberators are most likely to try and grab the scrolls. That's what we have to look out for and make sure we get to them first.'
Macro sighed. 'Not much to ask for, then.'
'That's in addition to the tasks you'll have to carry out for your cover. You and Cato have been assigned to regular duties. I want you to carry them as conscientiously as if you were back in the legions you so admire. The marines must be as good as you can make them if we're going to have the edge over the pirates when it comes down to the fighting. Furthermore, when the men and ships are ready to take the offensive, I'll be appointing each of you to command a ship.'
'Take command of ships?' Macro shook his head. 'Sir, I don't know the first thing about bloody ships.'
'Then you'd better learn. I wouldn't worry too much. The trierarchs will be handling the day-to-day running of the ships. You just have to tell them the direction you want to go and act as a kind of figurehead in battle.' Vitellius smiled. 'That means being thick and hard, standing at the front of the ship and shouting. Shouldn't present much of a challenge to you, Macro. At any rate, you'll meet your marine officers and the trierarchs at tonight's meeting. You may go now, Centurion Macro. There's a clerk outside who will take you to your quarters.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro exchanged a glance with Cato, then turned and marched out of the office, closing the door behind him.
For a moment Vitellius gazed at the map, and then turned to Cato. 'Let's take a seat.'
They crossed the room back to the prefect's desk and Cato pulled up a chair, wincing slightly as the iron feet grated across the mosaic tiles. He had no idea why he had been kept back by Vitellius and was afraid, because he knew what the scheming aristocrat was capable of.
Vitellius was a good reader of men's expressions and appraised the young centurion with cold eyes.'I don't mind that you hate me so much, Centurion. I can understand your reasons. But you must accept that I am out of your league. You raise one hand towards me and I'll have you crushed under foot like a cockroach. It would be a shame to have you killed, since you have much to offer in the service of Rome. But I must look to my own interests first, and I have to be sure that I can rely on you and that you pose me no threat.'
'Very well, then I propose a truce between us, for the duration of this matter. For both our sakes. There's already enough danger to be faced out there without needlessly adding to our perils. You understand?'
'Good. Feel free to hate me again the moment we have found those scrolls.'
Cato shook his head. 'I'll always hate you, and despise you, sir. But I can endure that without it affecting my duties, for a while at least.'
Vitellius stared at him, and gave the slightest of nods. 'That will have to do, then… Now, there's one other matter to deal with. I need you for something that might be quite dangerous.'
'How convenient, sir.'
'Useful rather than convenient. Telemachus' message ended with a demand that we make a payment up front to keep us in the negotiations for these scrolls."A token of our commitment", as he puts it. So, you will meet him, assure him that we're still keen and give him the gold he's demanded.'
'Because it's important that one of us can identify Telemachus by sight. When the time comes to put that bastard in his place, I want to be sure we have the right man. He may be the only one who knows where the scrolls are being kept.'
'Why send me alone? Surely it would be useful if Centurion Macro was there as well?'
Vitellius smiled. 'Your friend Macro has many admirable qualities, but diplomacy is not one of them. I dare not send him with you. This job requires more subtle skills. And you're young enough to make our man feel he's dealing with someone lacking in experience and guile. That should put him at his ease.'
'Where will this meeting take place, sir?'
'At sea, like last time. He needs to be sure that it isn't a trap. You'll take one of the scout craft. Anything bigger might scare him off.'
'Anything smaller might put us at risk.'
'Well, that's a chance I'm prepared to let you take.'
'Thank you, sir.'
'You're to meet him ten miles off the cape at Mortepontum shortly after sunrise so he can be sure that you're alone and that he can escape if you're not.'
'He's a cautious man, sir.'
'He has to be. You know the saying: there are old pirates and bold pirates but no old bold pirates.'
Cato nodded thoughtfully and looked Vitellius in the eye. 'You know, sir, this Telemachus sounds like the kind of man you could learn from.'
'Thanks for the advice, Centurion. But I think I'll cope well enough on my own. Now, I'm sure there's at least one more question you'd like to ask.'
'When is this meeting?'
'In two days' time. You're leaving tonight.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy