Over the following days the naval base was a chaos of activity. Most of the ships in the fleet had been laid up for winter, and some of the larger vessels had not left port for several years. These ships had to be beached and cleared of the foul-smelling weeds and barnacles that had fixed themselves to the hull below the waterline. A fresh coating of pitch was painted on to the scoured timbers and the acrid stench caught in the throats of men across the base. Standing rigging had to be checked and any worn or frayed ropes replaced. The heavy sails were carried over to the workshops and closely examined for any signs of weakness, before being patched up and returned to their ships.
Only when the vessels were deemed ready for action were the supplies loaded aboard: spare armour, stacks of javelin shafts and heavy chests filled with replacement iron tips, arrows, lead slingshot, boots, more boots and finally the provisions that were to feed the men for the voyage across the narrow stretch of sea, and sustain them for the first few days on the far shore.
While the ships were readied for action by their crews, the marines practised ship-to-ship fighting, and familiarised themselves with the tackle for operating a crow. A series of pulleys fixed to spars raised and lowered the ramp, and allowed the marines to rotate it towards an enemy vessel approaching on either side of the bows.
Cato and Macro were introduced to the rudiments of fighting at sea. To prevent further friction between Macro and Minucius, the older centurion was sent north to Hispontum to purchase spare cordage for the fleet, leaving Macro and Cato in the charge of another officer.
'As far as I can make out,' Macro said at the end of the first day's instruction, 'it's just like fighting on land, except that the navy ferries you to and from the fighting. Beats all that marching about we had to do in the legions.'
Cato shrugged. 'As long as I get ferried back from the fight I'll be a happy man.'
At the end of each day's training the marines returned to their barracks to clean and check their kit, record their wills, and those with families in the port were allowed to spend their nights in Ravenna.
In order to preserve the secrecy of their operations as far as possible, Vitellius had closed the port and no shipping was allowed in or out, not even fishing vessels. Every day the prefect had to deal with angry representatives of the town's council and merchant guilds. But Vitellius was unmovable and the town's worthies could only fume at the loss of trade and business, already reduced by the depredations of Telemachus and his pirate fleet.
On the fifth day the ships were fully provisioned and ready for sea. Loaded with extra stores and equipment, they floated low and sluggish in the calm waters of the navy harbour. Beyond the mole the sea was rough, and huge grey waves shattered on the breakwater in thunderous clouds of spray. A keen wind snatched the falling spray and swept it across the decks of the nearest vessels, drenching the men still on deck. The air was filled with the clatter of halyards rapping on the masts, and there was a low moaning undernote from the wind sweeping through the rigging. It had taken all the persuasive skills of the trierarchs to talk the prefect out of giving the order to set sail. Loaded down as they were, most of the ships would have foundered before they were even out of sight of land. At length Vitellius gave the order for the crews to be stood down and the marines tramped back to barracks. The less experienced men played dice or drank and swapped jokes and stories to try to take their minds off the delayed operation. The older marines took the chance to get some sleep, knowing well how miserable a rough sea-crossing could be.
All day the wind strengthened and the sea became more wild as dark clouds gathered on the horizon. The storm swept in towards the shore and battered Ravenna with a deafening shower of hailstones that rattled off the rooftiles and bounced off the paved streets before gathering in little drifts where the wind settled them. Even in the comparative shelter of the harbour the wind and waves engulfed the ships moored at the docks or laying at anchor. As darkness fell, anxious trierarchs set their crews to bailing the water that their vessels were shipping from sea and sky. Watches were set on the anchor cables to make sure that they weren't dragging, and the more nervous of the crews laid down spare anchors, and prayed that their gods would see them through this terrible night.
When, at last, the pale glimmer of dawn feebly struggled for purchase on the horizon, the fury of the storm finally began to abate. The sky remained overcast, clear of rain and hail. The wind died away to a hushed breeze while the waves subsided into an oily smooth swell. The officers of the naval base emerged from the shelter of their barracks to survey the damage. The shattered remains of loosened tiles lay scattered about the buildings but the worst of the damage, as ever, had been wreaked on the shipping. Inside the mole, the breakwater was strewn with the timbers of vessels washed ashore and wrecked on the rocks. Here and there lay the twisted shapes of men, like discarded toys. A handful of ships had foundered at their anchors and only the tops of their mast, with sails furled on the yards, were visible above the surface of the sea.
Glancing over the naval harbour Cato and Macro counted the vessels that had survived the night.
'What did we lose?' asked Cato.
'I make it two triremes and four of the biremes,' Macro said.'Seems that those sailors were right about the boarding devices. Not that Vitellius will admit it. Maybe he'll listen next time.'
Cato turned to him with raised eyebrows.
'All right,' Macro conceded. 'Maybe he won't. This isn't the best start to this campaign of his. Think he'll go ahead with it?'
'He has to. He's on the same mission as us. Narcissus won't stand for any excuses.'
Sure enough, the moment the clouds began to disperse, the assembly signal rang out across the base. The marines tumbled out of their barracks and formed up in their ship's companies, ready for the order to board. Vitellius consulted with his senior sea-going officers, and the men of the ships that had been lost were distributed among the surviving craft. Then, when the final signal sounded out, the men tramped aboard the warships moored along the quay. Once each vessel had taken on its marines, it moved off and waited in the harbour as its space was taken by the next. Macro's ship, a bireme with the name Trident painted on its bow, tied up and lowered its gangway.
'I'll see you on the other side.' He held out his hand to Cato as if in final farewell, and Cato smiled.
'It's a narrow stretch of sea, Macro, not the River Styx.'
'Really?' Macro glanced out, beyond the harbour towards the horizon. 'I can't see the difference from where I'm standing.'
'Oh, come on. We'll be back on dry land by the end of tomorrow.'
'I thought you were the one who was afraid of water?'
Cato made himself smile. 'I am.'
'Me too…' Macro shook his hand. 'I swear, if we get through this alive, I'll never work with ships again.'
'Let's hope we have that choice.'
Macro nodded, and then turned briskly away and marched over to the Trident and stepped gingerly along the boarding plank behind the last of his men. As soon as his boots thudded down on the deck the plank was hauled aboard, the mooring cables slipped from the stout wooden posts on the quay, and the sailors strained at long shafts of wood to ease the ship out into open water. At the side of the ship Macro glanced back at Cato, waved once and then took up his position behind the captain on the raised aft deck.
Cato's bireme was one of the ships that had sunk, and his century was transferred on to the Spartan, a trireme. The unit that boarded ahead of him was commanded by Minucius. The veteran still bore the livid bruises from his encounter with Macro and was not pleased to see Cato.
'We're overloaded. Get your men forward. I'll keep mine aft. That should help the ship's trim.'
Cato stared at him a moment before passing the order on to his optio. Then, as the men shuffled forward of the mast and sat down beside their packs, he turned back to Minucius.
'A word, if I may?'
Minucius shrugged as Cato stepped closer to him so that they would not be overheard.
'I don't care about the issue between you and Macro. It's none of my business.'
'Just keep him away from me. Next time he won't be so lucky.'
'Lucky?' Cato smiled. 'You should consider yourself lucky still to be walking. Macro's not known for handling people with kid gloves.'
'So his mother says. Sounds like he's always been a right little thug.'
'Then I'd say he's found the right vocation. Wouldn't you? Take my word for it, he's good at what he does. So steer well clear of him. I'll do what I can to talk him round. We've got enough trouble on our hands with these pirates, without any family feuding.'
'We're not family,' Minucius replied through clenched teeth.
'As good as.' Cato winked. 'So I'll see what I can do.'
Minucius glared at him a moment, then his expression softened. 'Fair enough. For his mother's sake.'
'That's settled then. There's one other matter.'
Cato stiffened his back so that he could look down at the marine officer. 'I'm a legionary centurion. I have seniority here.'
Minucius chuckled. 'Don't tell me you're pulling rank?'
'For fuck's sake, you're barely a man. I was in this job before you were even born.' Minucius' eyes glinted angrily. 'Who the hell do you think you're talking to?'
Cato's face was expressionless. 'You respect the rank, not the man, Minucius. And you will call me "sir" from now on. In front of the men.'
'Sir?' Minucius laughed. 'I'll do no such thing!'
'Then you leave me no choice. I'll have you charged with insubordination. Unless you'd prefer that to be mutiny?'
'You wouldn't dare…'
Cato drew a breath and called out over his shoulder. 'Optio Felix!'
Cato's subordinate hurriedly rose from the deck and marched towards the two centurions. A look of uncertainty flashed across Minucius' face and he poked a finger at Cato.
'All right. You win, sir.'
The optio stood to attention beside Cato, waiting for orders. Cato said nothing for a while, to make Minucius sweat it out. Then he turned to the optio.
'Tell the men not to move about. The centurion here tells me that we're overloaded. No sense in making the ship any more unstable than she already is. See to it.'
'Yes, sir.' Optio Felix saluted and made his way forward. Cato fixed his eyes on those of Minucius.
'I know you have far more experience than me. I'll look to you for any advice that I need. But while I'm on this ship, I'm the senior officer. Understand?'
'May I go now, sir?'
Minucius saluted and turned away, marching stiffly towards some of his men who were leaning on the side rail. 'What's the matter? Never seen the bloody sea before? Get inboard, you dozy bastards!'
Cato watched him for a moment, awash with relief. He had been afraid that the veteran would see through him and call his bluff; dare him to exert his authority. In the end, despite his outrage, Minucius had known that Cato was right. Legionary rank took precedence over auxiliary rank and there was nothing Minucius could do about it. Now, thanks to Cato's assertion of his seniority, there would be a gulf between them. That suited Cato perfectly. He would sooner have the man's resentment focus on the difference in authority, rather than any simple personal animosity due to Cato's friendship with Macro. Of course, it was likely that Minucius would be hostile to him on both counts. Cato could live with that. Just as long as their relationship maintained a thoroughly professional edge. He nodded his satisfaction with the situation, turned and made his way forward to join his men.
The prefect was the last man to join the fleet, striding up the gilded ramp that led up to the wide deck of his flagship, the quinquireme Horus. Vitellius climbed the narrow gangway to the aft deck and acknowledged the salute of the trierarch of the flagship.
'Signal the fleet to leave the harbour.'
'They're to form up on the flagship as soon as we make open sea.'
'I'm going below. Make sure I'm not disturbed. Carry on.'
Without waiting for the man to reply Vitellius ducked through the low hatch into the cabin that ran the width of the quinquireme's stern. He ignored the boxes of scrolls awaiting his attention at the desk built round the sternpost, and flopped down on the narrow cot at the side of the cabin. Like most of his men he had not slept much the night before, but unlike them, he had the luxury of command and could permit himself this indulgence. Feet pattered across the deck as the crew of the flagship eased the vessel away from the quay, ran the oars out and began to get the quinquireme under way.
Sporting a long purple pennant that lifted lazily in the light airs, the flagship slowly made its way through the naval base, and out to sea through the gap in the overlapping moles that sheltered the harbour. As the great bronze ram cut into the gentle swell the men at the oars gritted their teeth and bent to the task, thrusting the large warship towards the ocean beyond. Behind the Horus the rest of the fleet put to sea under the gaze of the small garrison left behind, and a crowd of townspeople, who had gathered along the harbour front of Ravenna. Most of them were the families and sweethearts of the men in the fleet, and they waved their sad farewells as the warships pulled out to sea, took up position behind the tall stern of the flagship and headed slowly towards the distant horizon.
06 The Eagles Prophecy