'I made a bit of an arse of myself, didn't I?' Macro groaned.
He sat up on the bed and winced at the light coming in through the window of the officers' barracks. 'Cato! Push that shutter to. The light's killing me.' Cato half closed the shutter and lowered the catch so that it would not swing open in the morning breeze coming off the sea. He returned to the side of Macro's bed and leaned over to inspect the cut on the back of his friend's head. The blood had congealed into an ugly black and purple gum.
'You'll need some kind of dressing on that.'
'Why? I'm not going round looking like some bloody Parthian.' Macro groped a hand over his head and cried out as his rough fingers pressed on the injury.
Cato clicked his tongue. 'That's why. Now leave it alone while I get a bandage.'
Cato left his friend in his room and stepped out into the corridor that ran down the middle of the officers' quarters. The hospital block was on the other side of the parade ground, a fair distance away. Then he remembered Minucius' medicine box and stopped outside the centurion's room, listening at the door. But there was no sound from inside and Cato guessed that he must still be at Portia's house.
Cato sighed. There was going to be bad blood between Minucius and Macro over this business. Just one more complication to add to all the other details and dangers facing them in coming months. Cautiously opening the door, Cato looked in, but there was no one inside, and he entered and scanned the room for sign of the medicine box. The room was neatly kept and he saw the box quickly enough, tucked under the end of the bed. Cato grasped the handle, braced himself, and pulled it out. It was much heavier than he had anticipated and he tightened his grip and gritted his teeth as the box scraped across the floorboards.
Cato bent over the box, unfastened the catch and raised the lid. He ignored the jars of ointments and salves at the top, and sorted through the bandages, selecting a long roll of linen. He closed the lid and shoved the box back under the bed and returned to Macro.
'Hold still; this might hurt.'
Taking as much care as he could, Cato slowly began to wind the bandage around Macro's skull, and once he had made several passes over the wound and was satisfied that it would be well protected, he tied the bandage to one side of Macro's head and tucked the ends out of sight. 'There. Now don't fiddle with it.'
'Yes, Mum,' Macro mocked him, then immediately wished he hadn't as memories of the previous evening flooded back. He tried to put them to one side and glanced up at Cato. 'How did I get back here?'
'We carried you.'
'We?' Macro asked suspiciously.
'Portia lent me a couple of her slaves.'
'Oh no…' Macro groaned. 'Did anyone see us return?'
'A few people,' Cato replied quickly. 'Probably won't talk.'
'You think so?' Macro asked coldly. 'Where's that bastard Minucius?'
'I imagine he's still with your mother.'
Macro winced at the word and he slumped back down on to his bed. 'What a bloody mess…'
Cato nodded as he crossed to the window and gazed out through the half-open shutter. The officers' barracks looked across the navy harbour to the fortified mole and beyond that the sea, twinkling brilliantly in the late morning sunshine. The sky was clear of clouds and seagulls wheeled overhead, filling the air with their shrill cries. Preparations for the campaign against the pirates were already under way. Several of the triremes had been moored alongside the wharf, and sailors were busy erecting some kind of gangway to the foredeck of each vessel. Cato turned his back on the view and leaned against the wall.
'What are you going to do about it?'
'Besides throttling that randy old bastard and my bitch of a mother? I don't know. I'm not sure what to do right now. I'm too… confused.'
'You know, I'd have thought you'd be a little pleased to see her again after all these years.'
'What do you know about it?' Macro growled. 'You never knew your mother.'
'No,' Cato said quietly, and an awkward silence filled the air.
'I'm sorry,' Macro said at last. 'I didn't mean to say that.'
'It's just that she left me without saying a word. Last I saw of her was in the harbour at Ostia. I had gone to fish off the harbour entrance, and was watching a warship pass by, and there she was on the deck, cuddling up to some bloody marine. I called out, but I guess she didn't hear me, or maybe just ignored me. At first I thought it had to be someone else, but she wasn't there when I got home. Sometimes, when my parents had been fighting, she went to her sister's for a day or two. But she hadn't turned up there either, and after a few more days I told my dad what I'd seen. He went mad, and beat me up and then went and got drunk. He came back crying, and beat me up again. That's how it was for years, until I'd had enough and left home to join the Eagles…So I've never forgiven her.'
'I'm sorry.' Cato felt helpless. There were no adequate words of comfort he could offer his friend. At the same time he was aware that there was another side to the story, which Portia had hinted at last night. But now wasn't the time to mention that to Macro.
'Sorry?' Macro glanced up. 'What've you got to be sorry for, mate? It's not your fault. Nothing to do with you.'
'I know. But you're my friend. I don't like to see you like this.'
'Like this?' Macro was quiet for a moment, and then sat up. He rose to his feet. 'No point in brooding over it. I'm getting dressed. We've got that briefing with the prefect at noon.'
'You know, you might try talking to your mother about all this. Not right now, maybe…'
'Over my dead body, or preferably hers, and that old goat Minucius.'
Cato recognised his friend's mood well enough and knew that there was no point in discussing the issue further, for the present.
'Very well then, but promise me you'll keep well clear of Minucius.'
'Cato, I'm not a little boy, so don't bloody speak to me like I'm one. As long as we're in uniform I'll work alongside that bastard without a word. But when we're off duty, that's different. He'd better stay out of my way if he wants to live to see retirement.'
As the last note of the midday signal died away the officers of the Ravenna fleet assembled in the prefect's office. His clerks had pushed all the furniture aside and filled the space with benches from the officers' mess, arranging them to face the map on the far wall. All the centurions and optios from the marines were present, as well as the trierarchs of every vessel in the fleet. Cato, sitting next to Macro near the front of the audience, surreptitiously glanced round, looking for Minucius, but there was no sign of him. As soon as all the officers had entered the room and taken their seats, the air filled with an excited hubbub of conversation. Rumours had already flown round the base, fuelled by the activity down on the wharf, and every officer was keen to know what the prefect had planned.
Vitellius' chief clerk, Postumus, stepped smartly into the doorway and called out, 'Commanding officer present!'
The benches grated as the officers rose quickly and stood to attention. The prefect entered the office and strode down the gap left in the middle of the rows of benches and took up position to one side of the map. He glanced over his officers for a moment before he spoke.
'You may be seated, gentlemen.'
When everyone had settled down Vitellius stared at Macro. 'You look as if you have already seen some action, Centurion.'
A ripple of laughter went through the assembled officers.
'So what happened to you, Macro?'
'I, er, slipped and fell down some stairs, sir.'
'Really?' Vitellius' eyes glinted mischievously. 'Was that before or after your mother gave you a hiding?'
More laughter, louder this time, and the blood drained from Macro's face.
'Steady,' Cato whispered.'Don't give him the satisfaction.'
The door to the office squeaked on its hinges as Minucius slipped through the gap, closed the door behind him and quickly sat down on the nearest bench. His face was black, purple and yellow with bruising and his nose was broken.
'Ah, the prospective stepfather, I presume. Now that the family's all here, let's get down to business.'
The laughter subsided and the officers looked intently towards the prefect. Vitellius clasped his hands behind his back and began.
'As you know, in recent months the coastlines of Apulia, Umbria, Liburnia and Illyricum have been ravaged by a new pirate threat. A few days ago they destroyed the colony at Lissus. This morning I have had news of the sacking of a second colony. This is a most disturbing development, gentlemen. It's bad enough that they have been preying on our trade routes without being punished, but wiping out our colonies demands action, and punishment of the utmost severity. Their leader, Telemachus, has recently communicated to us a demand for tribute to refrain from destroying any more colonies. My answer to him is unequivocal: Rome does not negotiate with pirates. My orders were to remove the pirate threat, and today we take the first steps towards achieving that end. I am leaving six biremes for the defence of Ravenna. The rest of the fleet and the marine reinforcements will be leaving the port in five days' time to sail across to the coast of Illyricum.'
Vitellius picked up a cane and pointed to the map. 'We will land near Birnisium, and establish a fortified camp. From there we will search the coastline, mile by mile, until we locate the pirates' lair. We will take it, and destroy their ships and kill or capture their crews. Any prisoners will be sold into slavery. Except the leaders, who will be executed.'
Macro leaned slightly towards Cato. 'And no doubt our friend will soak up the popular acclaim.'
Fortunately Vitellius did not hear the remark as he turned from the map. 'Any questions?'
'Sir.' A hand went up towards the back of the room.
'Those alterations being made to those triremes on the wharf…?'
'Yes, what of them?'
'One of the men told me they were installing a crow.' Cato recalled the apparatus he had seen being fitted to the triremes earlier. The crow was the navy's term for the rotating boarding ramp used on some ships.
'That's right. We'll be engaging the pirates ship to ship. I've heard how manoeuvrable their vessels are. We need a method of fixing them so that our marines can decide the issue. So, I have decided to fit each of our ships with the device. I can't wait to see the pirates' faces when those boarding ramps drop down and pin them in place. It'll be just like sticking a pig.'
'But surely you won't be fitting them to the biremes as well, sir.'
'Like I said, every ship.'
The trierarchs exchanged concerned looks and there was some muttering. Vitellius rapped the bottom of his cane down on the mosaic floor to signal for silence.
'Is there a problem with my decision, Decimus?'
'Well, yes, sir.'
Vitellius bristled at the condescending tone. 'Please explain yourself.'
'With the load they're carrying, the biremes aren't really big enough for a crow, sir. Aside from the deck collar, there's the ramp itself, the sideguards and all spars and tackle needed to raise it and swing it out towards the enemy ships. It'll make the biremes top-heavy. If there's a storm, or even heavy seas, they'll be dangerously unstable.'
'I've thought of that,' Vitellius replied sharply.'The ships will be taking on extra supplies and equipment. That ballast – as I believe you navy types call it – should counteract the weight of a crow.'
Decimus considered the idea for a moment and then shook his head.
'What is the problem?' Vitellius' irritation was apparent to all.
'Sir, the amount of ballast required would overload the vessels. They have a low enough freeboard as it is.'
'The measurement from waterline to deck, sir.'
'Ah. I'm sure the, er, freeboard, will be adequate for our crossing. And once we have crossed the sea and unloaded our supplies and equipment, that need not concern you any more. As for being top-heavy, well, we can experiment with the required ballast when the time comes. Any other questions?… Good. Then, gentlemen, you may collect your orders from my chief clerk as you leave headquarters. You'll need to see to your men and make sure they're fully prepared and equipped for a lengthy campaign. We're in for a busy few days, and a hard fight. But, if these pirates have been half as successful as we're led to believe, there'll be plenty of booty for all. On that happy thought I bid you good day.'
The officers rose as Vitellius strode towards the door, and only stood easy once he had left the room. As the centurions, optios and trierarchs shuffled towards the door, Cato was relieved to see Minucius push his way through the throng and leave the prefect's office as swiftly as possible. Macro stared after him, glowering with hatred.
Cato slapped him on the shoulder and gave Macro an exaggerated smile.'You heard him. Booty for all. If it goes to plan, we'll be rolling in it. No more squalid digs in the arse-end of Rome for us.'
'If it goes to plan?' Macro shook his head sadly. 'When does it ever go to plan? And aren't you forgetting something?'
Macro nodded. 'It's all down to the scrolls as far as we're concerned, lad. That's why we're here. Giving the pirates a good kicking and grabbing a share of their loot is just a side issue.'
'I know.' Cato dropped the light-hearted expression.'Just trying to raise your spirits.'
'Well, thanks for the thought. Now we've got work to do. Let's go.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy