'Beat to stations!' Albinus roared across the deck.'Sail in! Oars out!'
This was the moment for which sailors and marines had trained over many years, and, at the sound of the ship's drum, the men on the deck burst into activity. Sailors swarmed up the rigging, and spread out along the yard to take in the sail. Cato ran forward to join his century, the heavy thud of his boots accompanied by the clattering and scraping of oars being run out below the main deck. All around him marines scrambled into their armour, then snatched up sword and dagger belts and strapped them on, before reaching for their helmets and shields. When he reached his kit Cato found Felix already there, holding out his chain-mail corselet.
Cato nodded his thanks. 'Soon as the men are kitted up, get the javelins issued. And bring some more cases up from stores.'
As Cato fumbled with the leather ties of his helmet he glanced back towards the aft deck. Albinus was leaning on the rail, staring over the side towards the Horus. As the Spartan's sail was furled the trireme began to slow down. Then, from below deck, the sharp rap of the pausarius' hammer began to sound the pace for the men at the oars. The blades dropped down into the sea with a rolling chorus of splashes, then with an audible collective grunt of effort, the Spartan lurched forward. It took a moment for the crew to find their rhythm, and then the deck steadied as the warship ploughed forward. The moment they were immediately behind the flagship, Albinus shouted an order to the steersman, who threw his weight against the shaft of the huge oars hanging over the stern of the Spartan. As the broad blades of the steering oars bit into the sea, Cato felt the deck shift beneath his boots and instinctively grabbed at the side rail. Beside him Felix saw the gesture and smiled.
'Better get used to the feeling, sir. There'll be plenty of turning when we close with them pirates.'
'Let's hope they decide not to make a stand.'
Felix looked at his centurion guardedly. 'Why's that, sir?'
'We're overloaded. They'll have the advantage in speed, if not strength. I just hope they count the numbers and beat a retreat.'
Optio Felix glanced forward over the bows at the cluster of distant sails on the horizon. As the trireme rose on a swell the dark hulls of the pirate ships were clearly visible against the gleaming blue of the sea.
'Doesn't look like they're going to run for it.'
'No.' Cato pressed his lips together. The enemy fleet was steadily closing on them, with no sign of changing course. 'Tell Minucius to get the crow ready.'
Felix saluted and turned forward. A moment later Minucius was bellowing orders at his men to drop their shields and javelins, and follow him back to where the boarding device was lashed to the deck in front of the mast. As they set to work, Cato glanced back down the length of the ship, and noted the time it took for the Spartan to make the quarter-turn into the wake of the flagship. To his mind the trireme was an unwieldy vessel, a perception confirmed by the far quicker turns of the biremes as they fanned out on either side of the Horus and took up position on the flanks. It was just like on land, Cato reflected. The heavy bulk of the quinquireme and the triremes in the centre, like the legions, and the lighter vessels on the flanks, like cavalry, waiting to exploit their speed over the open space before them. Slowly, as the two fleets crawled across the sea towards each other, the Roman vessels took station on the flagship and the formation flattened from a chevron into a broad line, with a small reserve of two triremes and four biremes held back to plug any gaps that opened in the Roman fleet.
Cato raised a hand to shade his eyes as he gazed round, looking for Macro's ship. Then he saw the small three-pronged design on the bows of a bireme, out on the left flank. Cato squinted and just made out a red crest on one of the helmets packed in at the bow. He smiled, wondering what Macro was making of his new cavalry role. No doubt his friend was itching to get stuck into the pirates and would order his trierarch to ram the first available enemy. As Cato watched, the distant outline of a crow rose above Macro and his men and hung at an angle, ready to plunge down and impale an enemy vessel.
On board the Spartan, Minucius and his men heaved the boarding device forward towards the bows. As the warship rose and fell on the swell they struggled to line up the thick wooden pivot with the iron socket that had been fixed on to the foredeck. At length, and after much cursing, the crow was lowered into position and ropes fed through the tackles that would raise and swing the boarding ramp. When the men were ready, the ramp was lifted far enough for the iron spike to be attached underneath the front and the ropes were fastened tightly to the cleats to hold the device still, until it was needed. Cato noticed that the weight of the crow and the marines had canted the bows down, and the trireme seemed markedly more sluggish as the oars drove it through the swell.
The Roman fleet was heading directly into the wind, and the bows thudded into the oncoming waves, sending up clouds of spray that fell back into the faces of the men on the foredeck. Cato blinked away each salty deluge as he stared intently at the approaching enemy. The pirates, still under sail, closed swiftly with the Roman ships, and within the hour were in clear view, barely a mile off. Most of the pirate ships were in the same class as the biremes, and at the centre of their line was the trireme Cato had seen several days earlier, its dark pennant flickering in the stiff breeze like a serpent's tongue. Despite what Albinus had told him about the dangers of fighting with overloaded ships, Cato still felt that the coming fight looked one-sided.
'Hello…' Optio Felix muttered.'What's that big bastard up to?'
Cato glanced back towards the trireme. The main sail was flapping wildly, then a moment later tiny figures on the yardarm hurriedly gathered in the sail as oars were thrust out from the sides of the ship. On either side the biremes and lighter liburnians continued forward, into the teeth of the Roman fleet. But as the trireme's oars splashed down into the sea there was something odd about their motion and Cato frowned for a moment, before the truth dawned on him.
'She's rowing backwards.'
Felix stared hard for an instant, then nodded his head.'So she is! What's he playing at? Think the bastard's running for it, sir?'
'I don't know.' Cato felt a sudden icy pang of anxiety deep in his guts. Something was wrong, he was sure of it. Even though he knew little of naval tactics – only what he had been hurriedly taught since his arrival at Ravenna – he was sure that this was some kind of ruse. But all around him his men, and the sailors, were cheering in triumph at the sight of the retreating pirate ship, as if the battle was already won.
'Quiet!' Cato bellowed.'Silence there! Next man to open his bloody mouth is on a charge!'
The cries died away and Cato turned his attention back to the enemy fleet, now close enough for him to make out the details of the men scurrying across the decks of the closest vessels. Telemachus' trireme was steadily withdrawing ahead of the Horus and the excited cries of the men aboard the Roman flagship carried clearly across the waves to the ships following behind. Some of the men close to Cato glanced at him resentfully, but were wise enough to keep their mouths firmly shut. High up, at the stern of the quinquireme, a red-cloaked figure brandished a sword that flickered like a sliver of fire in the morning sunlight as Vitellius urged his men on. Beyond the Horus a flash of colour drew Cato's eye and he saw a bright yellow pennant flutter up the mast of the pirate vessel. At once the other ships in the enemy fleet began to turn to either side, sails shifting round as they filled with the wind blowing over the aft quarter. They had divided in two and now each half of the pirate fleet was sailing directly at the lighter craft on the wings of the Roman fleet.
As if oblivious to the danger to his biremes, Vitellius ploughed on through the waves, in pursuit of the pirate leader. From the foredeck of the Spartan Cato could only watch in growing desperation as the enemy fleet swept across the bows of the largest Roman warships. He could understand the prefect's thinking well enough. If they could only capture, or kill, Telemachus, then the pirate fleet might be broken in this first battle. Sure enough the Horus was slowly closing on the enemy commander's ship. Too slowly. And all the time she was drawing them away from action that would be fought on the flanks of the Roman fleet. It was cleverly worked, Cato realised with despair. Telemachus would hold himself out as bait, knowing that the Roman prefect would be hellbent on winning himself a triumphant victory to further his career. The trick was to make it look as if the Romans stood a good enough chance of catching up with his ship, yet still have sufficient time to turn and make an escape.
'There they go,' Felix muttered, and Cato turned to look towards Macro's ship. Half a mile away across the rolling sea the sails of the pirate ships were mixing in with the bare masts of the biremes. Even as Cato watched, one of the enemy vessels raced down the side of a Roman ship and sheered off its oars in an explosion of splinters and wooden shafts. The pirate ship was moving so swiftly that the marines had no chance to deploy their crow, and had only begun to swing it round as the pirate ship snapped off the last of the oars and passed beyond reach. The oars on the far side were still being worked and the bireme started to spin round, heeling the ship over in the direction of the boarding ramp. As the marines on the Spartan watched in horror, the bireme turned on to its side, the sea closing over the rail as men and equipment spilled into the churning water. A moment later there was a dull crack as the mast broke and the ship capsized completely, leaving a glistening hump above the surface, surrounded by men frantically splashing as they tried to find some debris to keep them afloat.
'Oh, shit.' A marine close by Cato shook his head. 'Did you see that? Poor bastards…'
Cato was already casting his gaze over the other ships, searching out Macro's. The Trident had passed through the pirate fleet unscathed and was already struggling to turn round and seek out an enemy to close with. Elsewhere, another bireme had been rammed, the shock of the impact breaking the yardarm of its attacker. But the pirates had their oars out in an instant and as they furiously backed away from their victim the sea rushed into the shattered hull and a moment later the overloaded vessel also capsized. Cato turned back to the Horus, still plodding towards the retreating trireme of Telemachus.
'What the hell is wrong with the prefect?' Felix slammed his fist down on the side rail. 'Can't he bloody well see what's happening?'
'He knows all right,' Cato replied quietly. 'He just thinks it's a justifiable sacrifice.'
'Sacrifice? It's going to be a fucking slaughter. Look! There goes another one.'
Cato stared in silence as the pirate ships continued to cut through the ships on each Roman flank. Only a handful of the biremes had managed to strike back. One had pinned a pirate vessel with its crow and the marines were already pouring across the ramp and dropping on to the pirates, striking them down with desperate savagery. A short distance away another bireme had managed to ram an unwary pirate ship and the latter's decks were already awash as it settled into the sea. Every other Roman ship was either engaged or struggling to close with the pirates.
Optio Felix was right, Cato decided. It was going to be a slaughter, unless someone acted. He took one last look at the flagship, still pursuing Telemachus, then turned and pushed his way through his men, and ran aft towards Albinus. Minucius glanced at him as Cato passed, and there was what looked like contempt in the older man's eyes.
'Turn us round!' Cato called out.
The trierarch stared at him blankly, as if he had not heard the order. Cato clambered up the steps to the aft deck and thrust his arm out towards the flank where Macro and the others were battling for their lives. 'I said, turn us round.'
'No.' Albinus nodded forward. 'There's been no signal from the flagship.'
'Forget the flagship. Look over there. Our comrades need us. Right now.'
'We haven't had orders.'
'Fuck the orders! Our ships are being cut to pieces. If we don't act now – right now – we'll lose them all.'
'Turn the ship around. That's an order!'
For a moment the two officers stared at each other, and more and more of the marines and sailors turned to watch them, as they became aware of the crisis. At length, Albinus nodded his head.
'All right, Centurion. But I'll want it in writing that you gave the order.'
Cato sneered at the man. 'You can have it in writing, if we survive. Now, do it.'
Albinus turned to the steersman. 'Turn to port, hard over!'
'Aye, sir!' The steersman hauled on the oar shaft, straining every sinew of his brawny arms, and the water churned under the stern of the trireme. Cato found it hard to restrain his impatience as the bows slowly swung away from the Horus and eventually lined up with the sea battle over a mile away. Glancing round at the other triremes, he saw faces turned towards them, and could even read the surprise in those on the nearest ship. Cato drew his sword and thrust it forwards, pointing out over the bows of the Spartan. He cupped his spare hand to his mouth and bellowed across the water.
'Follow us! For pity's sake, follow us!'
At first there was no response, then the trierarch called out orders to his men and Cato's heart lifted as he saw the bows of the trireme start to turn after the Spartan. Two more of the large warships altered course, steering towards the other flank, but the remainder held their course in the wake of the flagship.
'Better than nothing,' Cato muttered wryly. Then he turned to Albinus.'Steer right at the middle of that lot. Pick out any target that looks promising.'
'Where are you going?'
'We have to lighten the ship.'
Albinus nodded. 'All right. But do it quickly!'
Cato ran back down the deck and sought out Centurion Minucius. 'Get your men down into the hold. I want anything that's portable brought up on deck and dumped over the side.'
'Dump it?' Minucius raised his eyebrows.'But we'll need that later.'
'There's not going to be any later if we don't dump it.'
Minucius shook his head. 'You don't have the authority.'
Cato stared at him, eyes wide and glaring.'Yes I do. Now carry out your orders or I'll have you taken below and hand your command over to your optio. I mean it.'
Minucius saluted and immediately started to give the necessary orders as Cato headed towards his men, seeking out Felix.
'Take a section. Go below and bring up the slingshot stores.'
'Yes, sir. How much do you want?'
'All of it. Get moving.'
The optio had served long enough to know not to question orders, however unexpected they might be. He turned to the nearest men. 'Drop your shields and javelins and follow me.'
Felix drew back the cover of the forehatch and dropped down below the deck, quickly followed by the others. A short time later they were handing up small sacks filled with lead shot to the men on the deck. Felix's head popped up through the hatch. 'Slings as well, sir?'
'What?… Yes, why not? Might as well put them to some use while we lighten the load.'
As the marines began to stack the sacks in the centre of the deck Cato looked aft and saw that Minucius and his men were already heaving sacks of grain and spare sheets of plate armour over the side. A quick glance at the trireme following a short distance behind revealed that they too had realised the need to lighten their ship. Cato nodded his satisfaction and then pushed his way to the thick timber post at the Spartan's bow. Below him, the bronze mass of the trireme's ram lifted and plunged into the sea, aiming at the heart of the sea battle being fought out barely a third of a mile ahead.
Cato scanned the vessels still fighting it out amidst the flotsam, wreckage and bodies littering the surface of the sea. The Trident, which had passed through the enemy, had turned about and charged back into the fight, ramming into the stern of a pirate ship that had already wedged its ram into the side of a bireme. The crews of all three vessels were locked in combat on the deck of the pirate ship and, as far as Cato could make out, the Romans had the upper hand.
The sound of forlorn cries reached his ears and Cato noticed that there were men in the water directly ahead of the Spartan, Romans as well as pirates. He was on the verge of crying out a warning to Albinus, before he realised that there was nothing that could be done for these men. The trireme was too unwieldy to set a course to avoid the men in the water. As the warship surged into the fringe of the battle, Cato glimpsed the desperate expressions of the men in their path, and saw them frantically swim out of the trireme's path. Those who were too badly injured to swim fast enough, or who simply clung to debris, could only watch in despair as the bronze ram bore down on them. A handful of men grasping a shattered length of mast were swept from sight as the bow crashed into them with a dull thud, then there were screams as the survivors of the impact swept along the sides of the warship and were crushed by the blades of the oars churning through the sea.
Cato tried to ignore their cries and glanced round. He looked back at the Trident and froze. A short distance beyond Macro's ship Cato saw the front of a pirate ship powering forward under its oars. As the crew of the Roman vessel became aware of the danger their shouts of alarm carried clearly across the water. The marines were still fighting aboard the enemy they had managed to pin with their crow. But now they hesistated and looked back over the deck of their own ship. With a triumphant roar, the pirates they were fighting surged back at them.
'Over there!' Cato shouted over his shoulder as he pointed towards Macro's ship and thrust out his arm. 'Steer over there!'
Albinus relayed the order to the steersman and the Spartan, a little more nimble now that she had shed some weight, slewed round towards the three ships still locked together, and the fourth rushing in to finish off the Trident and her crew.
'Ready your slings!' Cato shouted to his men and pointed out the target. 'Aim for that bastard on the far side! You men, give the slingers some space!'
Only two hundred paces separated the Spartan from the ships locked together when the pirate vessel slammed into the side of Macro's ship. The grinding, splintering crash filled the air as the Trident recoiled under the impact, the shock tearing the rigging apart. The mast splintered and crashed down on to the deck moments later. The collision knocked every man off his feet in the three ships that had been locked together, and there was an instant of silence before they recovered, scrambled back to their feet and continued fighting. The pirates aboard the ship that had rammed the Trident launched their grappling hooks over on to the Roman deck and began to haul the vessels closer together as a boarding party crowded the foredeck, brandishing their weapons as they waited impatiently for the moment to spring on board the bireme and wipe out her crew and marines.
Cato turned away and filled his lungs. He stared down through the grating on the trireme's deck to the dim faces of the oarsmen below. 'Come on! Faster, you worthless bastards! Faster!'
The pausarius increased the rhythm and with the oarsmen straining every sinew of their muscles the Spartan leaped forward, closing down on the tangle of ships ahead. Suddenly Cato was aware that the bows were swinging away from the ships and he felt a surge of cold fury as he turned towards Albinus and began to raise his fist. Then he realised the trierarch's intention was to pass round the stern of the Trident and take the pirate ship in the side.
They were well within slingshot range now and Cato bellowed an order to his men.'Slingers! Loose! Let 'em have it, lads!'
The air was filled with a whirring of slings and then lead shot zipped out across the sea in a low arc, before striking down into the pirates massing on their foredeck. The chorus of sharp cracks and thuds, and cries of pain were clearly audible to the men on the Spartan, and they responded with a ragged cheer of cruel satisfaction before more shot flew across and struck down yet more men, some falling helplessly into the narrowing gap between the hulls of the two warships where they were crushed moments later. But Cato had no time to observe any more. The trireme was already slewing round the stern of the Trident and there ahead of them lay the defenceless beam of the pirate ship. Some of her crew gazed helplessly at the large warship speeding towards them. Others, with more presence of mind, ran from the side and sought cover as more slingshot rattled across her deck. As the gap between the two ships rapidly closed, Cato found that he could now look down on the enemy and he gritted his teeth as he waited for the collision.
At the last moment, Optio Felix turned and saw his centurion leaning across the bows of the trireme. He leaped forward, grabbed Cato by the arm and hauled him back as hard as he could. As both men tumbled back on to the foredeck the worn planking leaped up with a great grinding crash and sent men tumbling all across the deck. The impact hurled Cato forward and he cracked his helmet on the bow strake. He gasped at the searing pain, before he looked round at his men. Most were picking themselves up, snatching up their weapons and moving towards the boarding ramp. But there were several casualties: men hurled forward and knocked senseless, others with broken limbs, and a steady chorus of groans and cries of pain from below deck where the oarsmen had been thrown from their benches.
Felix was already on his feet and he shoved a shield towards Cato. 'Here, sir. On your feet now.'
While Cato shook his head to try to clear it of the blurring pain the optio was thrusting men towards the crow. The trireme had struck the pirate ship at an angle, and aft of the mast Minucius already had his men hurling grappling hooks across the gap to try to draw the ships closer together. Cato stood erect and, raising his shield, he approached the prow cautiously and looked down. The ram had crushed the enemy's timber hull and penetrated six or seven feet inside. Water gurgled and bubbled as it poured in through the breach. He sensed a blur from his left and ducked down just as a light javelin glanced off the angle of his shield with a sharp crack. The men on the foredeck of the pirate ship had also recovered from the impact and now a handful turned to face their attacker as the rest hurried aboard the Trident. The pirates' trierarch must be fairly cool-headed, Cato realised. He saw that the first fight had to be won before he could afford to take on the crew of the trireme. As Cato glanced at the men dropping down on to the deck of the Trident he saw Macro and a score of his men fighting for their lives in a tight circle about the mast.
'Get that boarding ramp moving!' Cato shouted over his shoulder.
As Minucius' men hauled on the grappling lines the trireme gradually swung in towards the pirate ship. The marines on the crow's tackle heaved and the pivot groaned and squeaked as the ramp swung out over the side of the Spartan, across the surface of the water and then its shadow fell across the deck of the pirate ship.
'Let go!' Felix yelled.
As soon as the men released their grip on the tackle the heavy iron spike under the ramp swung down and pierced the planking with a splintering crash. Cheering, the marines swarmed on to the ramp and ran across to meet the enemy. A few javelins and arrows flitted towards them, but hammered into the protective wooden hoardings on either side and injured no one. Felix was standing by the near end of the ramp, thrusting men along it.
'Go! Go! You lazy bastards! Or there'll be none left for you! Go!'
Cato drew his sword and pressed himself in amongst the stream of men crossing to the enemy ship. At the far end of the ramp there was a short jump down on to the deck, then he raised his shield and held his sword ready as he looked around. Several of his men had rushed towards the bows, hacking and thrusting at any pirate that stood in their way. Cato turned towards the stern. A small party of men stood there, heavily built and well armed.
'You there!' Cato called out to the marines who had been immediately behind him on the boarding ramp.'Follow me!'
They trotted steadily towards the stern, slowing to pick their way over the tangle of fallen rigging. The gratings had been thrown open and as Cato glanced down he could see that the oars had been abandoned as the crew had armed and thrown themselves at the Romans aboard the Trident. Now there was the glint and glimmer of water sloshing through the bilges as the sea poured through the breached hull. Ahead of them the group of men closed ranks and hefted their round shields towards the Romans. There was no time for formations and tactics, and Cato filled his lungs and roared, 'Get them!' before lowering his head, leaning into his shield and throwing himself at the pirates.
On either side his men charged home and the air was filled with grunts and shouting and the scrape and clatter of sword blades. Cato's shield slammed back towards him as one of the pirates charged with a savage cry of rage. Light glittered off the side of a blade rising above Cato and he saw the man draw back a heavy falcata to slash it down and through Cato's helmet. He threw his sword up and parried the blow with a jarring clang and, before the man could recover, Cato slammed the pommel of his sword into the snarling features of the pirate's face. The man's head jerked back with a grunt and flecks of blood flickered into the air from a deep gash across his forehead. At once Cato snatched back his arm and slashed his sword into his enemy's face, the edge cutting through the bridge of the nose and into his eyes. With a scream the pirate stumbled back against the side rail. Raising his shield, Cato shoved him over the side and turned on the next pirate.
A short, stocky man with blond hair spiking out under a leather skullcap stood in a crouch, weighing the Roman centurion up with narrowed eyes. Then he raised the point of his sword and crept a step closer. Cato tensed up, ready for the man to explode into an attack. Instead, the pirate suddenly stopped, frowned and glanced down at his chest where the bloodied point of a sword tip had pierced his leather jerkin. His legs folded under him and he pitched forward. Behind him stood a marine, grinning with satisfaction as he yanked his blade out of the pirate's back. Cato opened his mouth to thank the man, but a glittering whirl scythed through the air, and right through the marine's neck, sending the head flying several feet to where it thudded on to the deck. Still swinging the sword in a wide arc the pirate jumped in front of Cato with a triumphant snarl.
Cato threw up the edge of his shield and the blade slammed into the metal trim, sending sparks flying, and throwing Cato back against the sternpost. As the man recovered his sword and stepped back a pace, Cato's eyes swept round and to his horror he discovered that he was the last Roman standing at this end of the pirate ship. All the men who had followed him were sprawled in bloody heaps on the deck, amongst the bodies of their enemies. The two pirates had the centurion to themselves.
The man with the long sword whirling overhead was dark-skinned and fat. A few feet from him stood another pirate; thin and swarthy. He wore scale armour and carried a buckler and light, curved blade that dripped blood on to the sun-bleached planks of the deck. Cato's eyes flickered from man to man as he crouched low to receive the first attack. The thin man shouted an order, and the long sword sliced through the air towards Cato's head. Dropping his knees, he hunched down and the edge of the sword cut deeply into the sternpost. So deeply that it was wedged in place and the pirate grunted savagely as he tried to wrench his weapon free. Before Cato could take advantage of the situation the younger pirate sprang forward, his light blade whirling in a flurry of attacking strokes that Cato parried desperately. When his fat comrade was clear of the Roman and had snatched up another sword, the young pirate stepped back, breathing hard.
Cato knew he was in a desperate situation, and the thought that his only line of escape lay in jumping over the side flashed through his mind. But armoured as he was, he realised he would sink straight to the bottom of the sea. So, he clenched his sword tightly, eased his shield forward and waited for the next attack.
'Sir!' Felix's voice carried across the background din of fighting from the other ships. 'Sir, get down!'
Cato and the two men facing him heard the whirring sound at the same instant, but only the Roman realised the danger in time to act, and threw himself down on the deck and covered his body with his shield. Slingshot whipped overhead, cracked into timber and several thudded into the bodies of the two pirates. Both men crumpled to the deck and lay groaning.
'Hold fast!' Felix shouted to his men.
Cato waited a moment to make sure that no more shots were coming his way, then he rose up. He glanced at the last two pirates. The big man was already dead, his skull crushed by a direct hit. His young companion had been struck in the back, smashing his shoulder blade and some ribs, and as he gasped for breath, blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He glared up at Cato, as his hands groped across the deck towards the handle of a sword. Cato kicked the weapon away and leaned over him.
'Are you their leader?' he said in Greek.
The injured man said nothing, but continued glaring with hate-filled eyes, and then spat a globule of bloody saliva at Cato's face. The centurion wiped it away.
'Have it your own way.'
Cato raised his sword to strike and the pirate commander clenched his eyes shut and flinched. Cato smiled, and walked away, back towards the boarding ramp, where the last of Minucius' marines were crossing over. With nearly two centuries of marines crowded on to the deck there was little room, and Cato had to squeeze through to find Minucius and Optio Felix.
'We have to move fast. This ship's sinking, and I doubt the others will stay afloat for much longer. Come on!'
Cato pushed forward to the bows where a handful of the marines were skirmishing with the pirates on the deck of the Trident, neither side willing to be the first to leap across the narrow gap between them.
'Give the front rank space!' Cato shouted, thrusting men aside. 'Get back there!'
As soon as there was enough room for the men at the side rail to swing their arms effectively Cato grabbed a javelin from one of the men and thrust it towards the pirates. 'Use javelins! Clear that deck!'
The marines who still had javelins took aim and hurled their weapons at point-blank range, skewering those pirates who did not have the sense to fall back. As soon as the deck was free of the enemy, Cato clambered up on to the side rail, checked his balance and leaped across the gap, landing clumsily on the Trident's deck. He straightened up, raising his shield and sword as he called back to the others,'Come on!'
He didn't wait for them, but charged towards the men fighting about the mast. Some of the pirates were aware of the new danger and had already turned to face the fresh wave of Roman marines. Beyond them, Macro's voice rose above the din as he shouted encouragement to his men and foul abuse at the enemy. Cato smiled. Then he clenched his teeth as his shield slammed into that of the nearest pirate, the impact jarring his arm right up to the shoulder. Cato swung the weight of the shield back as his sword arm thrust forward, knocking aside a desperate parry and sinking the point deep into the man's stomach. Wrenching the blade free, he swung the shield forward, knocking the pirate down to one side, and made for the next enemy, an axe-wielding giant who screamed a high-pitched war cry as he staggered towards the centurion. The axe thudded into the shield, unbalancing Cato long enough for the giant to recover, swing the shaft round again, this time aiming low at Cato's legs. Cato was forced to leap back against his own men, and with a cry of glee the huge man raised the axe up for an overhead blow. There was nowhere for Cato to retreat. Instinctively, he crouched low, tipped his head down and charged forwards, under the blow, and the iron cross-piece of his helmet smashed into the pirate's face, knocking him senseless.
The marines swept forwards, hacking and thrusting at the enemy, and the ferocity of their assault instantly broke the pirates' will. They retreated, then turned and ran, foolishly hoping to find a safe haven from the marines. Only a few small knots of the enemy fought on, back to back, or forced up against the side rail. And there they died, cut down without mercy. A few dropped their weapons and pleaded for mercy, but the marines were in no mood to take prisoners and they fell across the bodies of their comrades who had gone down fighting.
Cato drew back from the melee to draw breath and take stock. There was only a handful of the enemy fighting about the mast, trapped between Cato's men and the survivors of Macro's century. When the last man had been killed, Cato pushed through his marines, anxious to seek out Macro and make sure that his friend was still alive.
The scene around the mast appalled his eyes. Twisted bodies, Roman and pirate, were heaped on the deck, which was drenched in gore that ran in livid red streaks towards the scuppers. No more than a dozen wounded and breathless marines still stood in a tight circle around the base of the mast. Macro stood amongst them, spattered with blood as he looked around wildly. Then his eyes fell on Cato and he slowly smiled.
'What the bloody hell kept you?'
The nervous relief was infectious and Cato laughed. 'Well, if this is all the thanks we get, next time I won't bother.'
'You bloody better.'
Cato wiped his blade on the cloak of one of the fallen pirates and sheathed his sword, then reached out a hand and grasped his friend by the arm. 'Well met, in any case. Now we have to go.'
Macro frowned. 'Go?'
'Get off this ship.'
'But we've just won the bugger back.'
'She's sinking. All three of them are. Let's go.' Without waiting for Macro to reply, Cato turned to the rest of the marines and filled his lungs.'Back to the Spartan, lads! Quick as you can!'
A few feet away Cato saw one of the men rifling the body of a richly dressed pirate and he angrily strode over and kicked the man away. 'No time for that. Optios! Get your men moving!'
The marines withdrew towards where the ram of the pirate ship was buried in the side of the Trident. They scrambled back across the gap, helping injured comrades as best they could, but only a few men could cross at once and Cato stared about him in frustration, slapping his fist against his thigh. Macro shook his head, and looked at his friend with a wry smile. 'Now what are you fretting at?'
A deep groan filled the air and Cato felt the deck shudder beneath his boots, causing him to stumble. He recovered, and nodded towards the ship that the Trident had succeeded in ramming. 'There! That's what I was afraid of.'
The decks of the ship were already awash and a moment later the sea closed over the side rails as she began to sink, dragging the prow of the Trident down with her. The timbers of the Roman bireme protested at the huge strain placed on the fabric of the vessel, and the marines, sensing the end was near, scrambled for the deck of the other pirate vessel. But even as they swarmed over the narrow gap, there was a loud crash from forward, and just behind the Trident's bow strake the deck shattered as if a giant fist had smashed up from beneath the surface of the sea. At once water surged over the ruined bows, the deck lurched down at a sharp angle, and the marines still aboard scrambled for a handhold. Cato dropped his shield and threw himself towards the side rail, grabbing on to it with all his strength. There were still wounded men on the deck and now their groans of agony became cries of terror at the dreadful fate swirling up the slanted deck towards them.
For a moment Cato was gripped by the same icy horror. Then he saw Macro, holding on to the rail a few feet away. His friend winked. 'Time we disembarked, I think.'
Only a handful of marines were left alongside the two centurions and they leaped across the gap towards the outstretched arms of their comrades and were hauled to safety. As Cato and Macro waited for the last of their men to quit the Trident there was a sudden cry of alarm from the deck of the pirate ship. Cato looked round and saw that she was sinking quickly, dragged down by the combined weight of the first two ships. The foredeck lurched down, almost level with the surface of the sea. Cato felt water closing around his thighs as a wave swept across the deck of the bireme.
'Oh, shit,' Cato muttered. 'We're not going to make it.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy