For a few hours it seemed as if the storm was merely drawing its breath before sweeping back across the sea. There was an unnatural calmness to the gentle swell, and a stillness and tension in the air. The sky remained a gloomy grey and veiled the sun so that only a vague patch of lighter haze indicated that it was there at all. The sailors on Cato's ship had had enough experience of the sea in winter to know just how swiftly it could change and they watched the weather with considered apprehension. The marines caught their mood and so there was little of the usual conversation aboard the Spartan as she followed in the wake of the flagship, oars rising and cutting back into the sea in an endless rhythm.
Cato tried to ease his growing sense of dread by walking slowly around the deck, his hands clasped behind his back. He tried to divert his mind but each time he paced by the mast and headed aft, the presence of Minucius loomed at the periphery of his vision, and in the end Cato gave up and joined the trierarch on the aft deck.
'How long do you think the crossing will take?'
Titus Albinus pursed his lips for a moment before replying, 'That depends, sir. With no wind, we have to rely on the oars. We can keep the men shift on shift for a while yet. If we can keep this pace up then we should make the coast of Illyricum by late afternoon tomorrow. Assuming that the weather doesn't break.'
As he glanced round at the other warships, a sudden thought struck Cato.'What happens when it gets dark? Isn't there a risk of the ships colliding or getting lost?'
Albinus smiled and nodded towards the stern of the trireme. 'Soon as it's dusk, each ship hoists a lantern. It'll keep us in formation until dawn. At least, that's the theory.'
'Theory?' Cato turned towards him sharply. 'What do you mean? This can't be the first time you've sailed at night?'
'Of course not, sir.' Albinus sounded aggrieved. 'It's part of the basic drill. It's just that most ships tend to hug the shore as much as possible and find a safe anchorage at the end of each day. I've had the Spartan out overnight, but never as part of a fleet.'
'Never?' Cato was incredulous.
'Never.' Albinus smiled. 'Should be an interesting experience.'
Cato looked at the trierarch as if he were quite mad. As the day wore on a light northerly breeze stirred the surface of the sea and the flagship signalled the rest of the warships to ship oars and make sail. The soft rush and hiss of the sea passing alongside seemed hushed and soothing after the monotonous creak and splash of the oars, and Cato stood to one side as Albinus ordered his crew to trim the sail to his satisfaction. Then he glanced at the flagship, a few hundred feet ahead.
'Make sure you maintain our station.'
The Spartan, being a lighter vessel, was inclined to sail faster than the lumbering quinquireme and the mate had to frequently order the men at the sheets to spill the wind from the rectangular sail to prevent the ship closing on the Horus and the other ships ahead.
As dusk gathered around the fleet, and sky and sea merged into one gloomy mass, one of the crewmen brought a lantern up from below deck, a heavy bronze affair with a glass pane. The oil lamp inside had already been lit and the dull flame reflected brightly off the highly polished tin mirror at the back of the lantern. An iron hook protruded from the sternpost and the crewman offered the lamp up and slipped the handle over the hook. The lantern swayed gently with the easy motion of the vessel, and as Cato watched, more lights winked into being in the ships ahead of the Spartan. It reminded him of the torchlight processions held by the followers of Mithras he had seen occasionally in the camp of the Second Legion.
'Deck there! Sail sighted!'
Cato looked up at the masthead where a figure sat astride the yard with one arm anchored on the mast. The other arm was pointing out to the side of the fleet. At once all eyes on the deck followed the direction indicated and Cato squinted into the shadows, and saw nothing.
'What d'you see?' Albinus called to the lookout.
'A lateen sail, sir. Just been raised. No more than two miles off.'
'Two miles…' Albinus started in alarm. 'Can you make it out?'
The last of the light was failing fast and there was a pause before the lookout called down his reply. 'She's hauled her wind and gone about. Must have seen us, sir… I can't see her any more.'
'Shit,' Albinus muttered.
'Do you think that was a pirate vessel?' Cato asked.
'Most likely, sir. If she saw us, the chances are she would have seen some of the other warships and realised it's the fleet. If that was a merchant ship then there's no reason to turn and run. I'd lay good money on her being a pirate.'
Cato glanced in the direction the lookout had pointed.'I don't suppose they fancied their chances against a force our size.'
Albinus laughed. 'Not even your cockiest pirate would be foolish enough to do that.'
Cato blushed, angry with himself for sounding like such a raw recruit. He looked round and saw Minucius shaking his head. The veteran had obviously overheard the remark and lowered his opinion of Cato even further.
'Don't worry, Centurion,' Albinus continued.'You're safe for the moment. As long as the enemy doesn't know we've got a landsman like Vitellius running the show.'
Cato knew well enough that the lack of faith in inexperienced officers extended to him as much as the prefect, and he tightened his lips to prevent any bad-tempered response.
'What will he do then?'
'He'll report back to Telemachus. By the time that bastard gets the message we'll be ashore and getting ready to hunt him down.'
'What if that ship was looking for us?'
'No.' Albinus shook his head. 'Had to be a chance encounter. They don't know we're coming.'
'What if they did know?' Cato's mind raced ahead as he thought through the implications.'What if he's put to sea to intercept us?'
'Now you're just jumping at shadows, sir,' Albinus said with a trace of irritation. 'I'm telling you, they don't know. How can they, with all the security the prefect slapped on this operation? Even if they did know, you've seen our ships. You've even seen some of his, come to that. You know he can't take us on.' Albinus glanced round to make sure that none of his men could hear his next words.'Now do keep a lid on that kind of scaremongering, sir. Doesn't do my lads any good to see officers losing their heads at the first sight of a strange sail. Won't do your men much good either.'
'All right.' Cato nodded. 'It won't happen again.'
'That would be for the best, sir. Now, if you don't mind, it's going to be a long night. I need to look after my ship.'
'Yes. Yes, of course.'
Albinus saluted and turned away, padding barefoot along the deck towards the bows. Cato watched him disappear into the dark mass of figures crowded in front of the mast, and then clenched his hand into a fist and smacked it against his thigh. This was not the first time he had been made to feel like an ignorant dilettante. Yet, no matter how often he determined not to let his lack of experience and expertise show, he always seemed to get caught out, and be left feeling deficient. A deficiency that he felt compelled to wipe out, whatever the cost.
The night passed slowly. For Cato the experience was completely unnerving. All around, the noises of the sea sounded alarmingly close, as if it would rise up and engulf the ship at any moment. Cato was tormented by nightmarish images of himself struggling to stay afloat, alone and forsaken in the heaving immensity of the dark ocean, until at last his strength gave out and he slipped beneath the surface into a suffocating inky black oblivion.
There was no possibility of sleep while his mind was consumed by such fears and he looked on the still forms of the marines in his century in frank admiration and envy. For a while he paced round the deck, gazing at the winking stern lights of the surrounding fleet. Occasionally voices carried across the surface of the water, sounding flat and indistinct and at times inhuman so that he stared hard into the darkness and wondered if the myths of sea monsters might not have some kernel of truth in them after all.
'Quiet night, sir.'
Cato started and turned to see a dark figure a short distance along the ship's side. He recognised the voice readily enough and nodded a greeting.
'Yes, Optio. Quiet enough, I suppose.'
He sensed the amusement in Optio Felix, even before the other man continued, 'You'll get used to it, sir. Give yourself a few months and the sea will seem like a second home.'
'I sincerely doubt it,' Cato replied before he could stop himself. He had known his optio for a matter of days and should not take him into any kind of confidence, let alone any admission of fear or weakness. He cleared his throat and eased himself up from his elbows so that his back was straight and his hands gripped the wooden rail tightly. He spoke in a nonchalant tone. 'It's an interesting enough experience, but I imagine it becomes boring soon enough.'
'Boring?' The optio was surprised. 'There's nothing boring about the sea. She's a strange creature, sir. Never quite still. And she's as fickle as a drunken bitch. Just when you think you know her, and begin to take her for granted, she'll hit you with the full force of her fury… She's not boring, sir. She's terrifying, and you'd do well to respect her.'
Cato stared at the shrouded features of his optio, and silently cursed the man for adding to the sum of his fears.
'That's, er, an interesting perspective, Felix. I'll bear it in mind. Thank you.'
'Best get some sleep, sir. You never know what the morning will bring.'
'Sleep. Yes, in a moment. You too, Optio.'
Felix saluted and retreated towards the dense mass of dark shapes sprawled across the deck of the Spartan. Cato watched him go, and then turned back to gaze out into the night, more unnerved than ever.
At length the strain on Cato's senses became too much and he found a vacant stretch of deck close to the bows. Leaning his back against the base of the canted foremast, he closed his eyes and feigned sleep. If his men could sleep under such conditions then he must be seen to as well. Little by little, the gentle heave and fall of the deck, the creaking of the rigging and the soft churn and hiss of the sea alongside lulled him into slumber.
'Sir!' A hand shook his shoulder. 'Sir! Wake up!'
Cato blinked his eyes open and found himself staring along an unfamiliar plane of wood. For a moment he was confused, then memory flooded back and he raised himself up, wincing at the numbness of the arm he had been resting his head on. He twisted and looked up at Felix.
'What is it?'
'Lookout reports sails to the north of us, sir.'
Cato thrust himself up from the deck and rose stiffly to his feet. Most of his men were already on their feet and silently staring out to sea. Cato pushed past them and made his way up on to the aft deck where Albinus acknowledged him briefly. Cato nodded back.
'My optio says you've sighted something.'
'Several sails. More appearing all the time. Over there.' He raised an arm towards the horizon. 'From the coast of Illyricum.'
'Almost certainly. There's no other fleets operating in these waters.' He turned away from Cato and bellowed up to the masthead, 'How many can you see now?'
After a short pause the lookout called back, 'Fifteen. Still hull down, but some of them look big, sir. Biremes or better.'
Cato coughed. 'Seems they knew we were coming. As I feared.'
'They must have known all along.' Albinus frowned, and added, grudgingly, 'Seems you were right, sir.'
Albinus suddenly craned his neck forwards.'Look there!' Cato stared towards the horizon, and as the Spartan lifted on a swell, he glimpsed several tiny dark shapes on the very rim of the ocean.
'How long before they can reach us?'
Albinus pursed his lips. 'Three, maybe four hours. But it won't come to that. The prefect will have to turn south until we make the coast.'
'Why retreat? Surely we can take them on?'
'Not loaded down like this, and not while they have the advantage of the wind at their backs. Once we've landed the supplies and equipment we can turn on them quickly enough. Then you'll see the buggers turn about and run for it,' Albinus smiled.
'Captain!' the mate called out. 'Flagship's signalling!'
Albinus faced forward and squinted at the Horus. A long red pennant was rising up the mast, and the breeze lifted it up and out in a flickering ripple. Albinus shook his head slowly.
'What's the matter?' Cato asked. 'What does that mean?'
'It means that the prefect is a bloody fool,' Albinus replied softly.
Albinus waved a hand towards the red pennant. 'That's the signal for the fleet to attack.'
'Attack? I thought you said we couldn't.'
Cato was confused. 'So what's he doing? There must be some mistake.'
But even as he spoke the crew of the Horus let fly the sheets of their mainsail. The tiny figures of sailors spread out along the yardarm quickly furled the sail, and a moment later the sides of the flagship bristled with oars.
As Captain Albinus bellowed out a series of orders to his own crew, Cato could only watch in horror as the sternpost of the flagship turned away from him. Slowly the Horus gathered speed as the oars churned up the grey surface of the sea, and the quinquireme surged forward, directly towards the pirate fleet.
06 The Eagles Prophecy