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CHAPTER TWENTY

'Don't just bloody stand there!' Macro yelled. 'Jump!' Cato stared as his friend clambered up on to the side rail, braced himself, as he rose up on his feet, tottering unsteadily. Then Macro launched himself across the gap and thudded against the bow of the pirate ship. His hands grasped the rail and immediately a couple of marines grabbed his arms and hauled him on to the foredeck. The sea had reached Cato's waist and he knew the Trident was moments away from sinking.

'Sir!' a voice called out behind him.

Cato glanced over his shoulder and saw a young marine clutching the rail further down the deck with one hand. His other shoulder had been shattered by a deep wound and the arm hung uselessly by a few raw tendons. He stared at Cato, and there was no mistaking the plea in his expression. But it was already too late to do anything. As Cato watched, the sea swept over the Trident and the young marine disappeared in a crimson swirl. Cato was seized by a will to live. He scrambled up on to the ship's rail and leaped across to the pirate vessel, only a few feet above the surface of the sea. The impact drove the breath from his body. His fingers scrambled for purchase on the ship's side before a hand clamped on to his wrist and a powerful arm hoisted him up the side, over the rail and dumped him on the deck.

Macro's chest was heaving as he looked down at Cato. 'No pissing about next time. When I say jump, you jump.'

'I thought I was supposed to ask, how high?'

Macro stared at him.'There's a time and a place for smart remarks, lad. This ain't it. Come on.' He grabbed Cato by the arm and hauled him to his feet.

Over the side Cato could see the distorted outline of the Trident disappearing beneath the sea's surface. For a moment there was a deep groaning and grinding as the Trident hung on to the ram of the pirate vessel, and the deck shuddered under Cato's feet. Then, with a jarring crash, the side of the bireme gave way. The deck thrust up beneath the Romans, sending several sprawling, and the Trident fell away into the dark depths of the ocean. A handful of men floundered amid the flotsam, screaming for help. Macro pulled his friend away and the two centurions followed the marines over to the end of the boarding ramp where the men were anxiously pushing forward to reach the safety of the Spartan's deck. Even released from the burden of the Trident, the pirate vessel was rapidly succumbing to the water rushing in through the hole driven into her side and her motion on the sea felt leaden. Water gleamed only a short distance beneath the gratings on the maindeck.

The ship suddenly lurched as the sea surged over the stern. With a gurgling hiss water poured across the left beam, slanting the deck over even further. Macro grabbed for the base of the foremast with his spare hand.

'She'll capsize,' Cato realised. 'Quick! Over the side.'

Macro stared at him. 'Over the-'

'It's our only chance.' Cato braced one foot against the base of the mast and hurriedly unstrapped the belt around his waist. Then, grunting with the effort, he wrenched his scale armour over his head and threw it on to the deck, where it slid down the slope and splashed into the water. 'You too!'

As Macro ditched his weapons and armour, Cato clung on to the foremast. The other marines had all returned to the deck of the Spartan and were hauling the tackle to raise the crow from the pirate ship's deck and swing it back aboard the trireme.

'There!' Macro threw down his chain-mail vest. 'I'll go first. Then you follow and we go straight over the side before this thing rolls over on us.'

The timbers of the vessel began to creak and groan alarmingly as the angle of the deck increased. Macro slid down into the water along the side rail. He landed with a splash and immediately turned and looked back at Cato, arms raised to cushion his friend's landing. Cato nodded, swallowed nervously, and let go. He shot down the sloping deck and crashed into Macro. Then both of them waded on to the side rail, took a breath and leaped into the ocean swell. The sea closed over Cato's head and at once his ears were filled with the dull roaring of his grunts as he struggled to make for the surface. He was aware of a dim shape close by, and a hand gripped his arm and pulled him up, towards the shimmering light.

Macro and Cato broke the surface of the sea and gasped for air. A short distance ahead of them was the weathered side of the Spartan, seeming to be as tall as a building from water level. The sound of rushing water from behind them was deafening and, sensing a shadow fall upon him, Cato glanced round and looked up at the glistening dark hull of the pirate vessel as it began to roll over.

'Swim!' he spluttered. 'Swim for it!'

The two centurions struck out towards the trireme, kicking clumsy strokes with their booted feet. The roar of cascading water pounded in their ears and for a moment Cato felt a current drawing him back, before he kicked free of it, struggling to keep up with Macro. Then, with a crash of spray, the pirate vessel capsized just behind them, sending out a wave that picked them up and carried them several feet towards the trireme before it subsided. Cato glanced back and saw the glistening hull rising above the sea, dark and barnacle-encrusted like a rock. Macro spat out a mouthful of salt water and shook the drenched locks of hair away from his forehead.

'Shit! That was close.'

'Too close,' Cato muttered, still kicking his feet to keep his head as far above the surface as possible and spitting out a mouthful of seawater. 'Ergh! This stuff's strictly for the fish.'

He raised an arm and waved it towards the faces lining the side rail of the trireme. 'A rope! Get a rope down here, now!'

With legs and arms working furiously against the burden of their heavy wool tunics, Macro and Cato just managed to stay afloat. Then a rope snaked over the side of the trireme and splashed into the sea a short distance away. Macro stretched an arm towards it, his fingers brushed against the coarse hemp, and closed tightly round the rope.

'Pull gently!' he shouted up to the trireme and the rope steadily tightened and then began to draw them in. Already a boarding net had been lowered over the side and two sailors had scrambled down and held out an arm each towards the two officers thrashing through the swell.

'What are you bloody waiting for?' Macro shouted. 'Get in here and give us a hand!'

The sailors hesitated a moment then let go of the net and plunged towards Macro and Cato as they struggled towards the boarding net.

Moments later the two centurions were slumped down on the deck, gasping for breath as water pooled around them. Albinus was standing to one side, shaking his head in mock disapproval.

Cato swept the straggling hair from his brow and looked about at the ships scattered all around the Spartan, some still locked in battle. Just over half the biremes were still afloat, or seemed to remain in Roman hands. One of the pirate ships, struck by incendiaries, was ablaze from end to end, and black smoke billowed over her side in a dense swirling cloud. Another pirate ship was settling in the waves, about to sink. All the other enemy vessels were hurriedly disengaging and weaving a course between the battered wrecks and the survivors of the Roman fleet as they made for open sea. The reason for their flight was clear enough: the prefect, with the rest of the heavy warships, was bearing down on the heart of the battle. A safe distance behind and off to one side followed the trireme of Telemachus, skirting round the main strength of the Roman fleet as he made for the small force of pirate ships that had wrought havoc amongst the overloaded Roman biremes.

Cato rubbed his brow. 'Thank the gods, it's over.'

'It's not over,' Albinus replied quietly.'Not by a long way. They're just regrouping. Then they'll be hanging around the fleet, waiting for the chance for a quick strike, like mountain wolves around sheep. If we don't make land before dusk then they'll come in under cover of dark and pick off the weaker ships right under our noses.'

The lookout called down, 'Signal from the flagship, sir!'

Albinus tipped his head up to face the man, squinting into the bright sky. 'Well?'

'All ships to form up on the Horus.'

With the large warships wallowing over the swell, the smaller ships rowed in towards the protection of the quinquireme. The trierarch of the Horus stood on the foredeck, raised a speaking trumpet to his lips and began bellowing a string of orders. These were relayed from ship to ship and when every vessel had raised a pennant to acknowledge the orders the Horus gave the execution signal. With the flagship in the lead, the other triremes formed a thinly stretched diamond shape across the sea. Packed into the middle of the diamond were the smaller vessels, most showing signs of the battle they had just survived: damaged rigging, torn sails and some with livid streaks of red trailing down from their scuppers.

Once the fleet had formed up it began to crawl across the sea, making for the coast of Illyricum, still out of sight over the horizon. The men at the oars had been exhausted by the battle manoeuvres and the ships raised their sails, while their trierarchs prayed that the northerly breeze would hold.

The pirates wasted no time in pursuing their humbled foe, and their dark triangular sails hovered on the flanks of the Roman fleet, waiting for their chance to strike, just as Albinus had foreseen. Every so often, one of the pirate ships would suddenly alter course and steer for an opening between the triremes, trying to penetrate the defensive screen. This time the advantage lay with the Romans, whose vigilance paid off as the triremes moved to close down any gap the pirates had hoped to exploit.

As the day wore on the sky cleared to a serene and unblemished blue, and the breeze slowly moderated as the two fleets crept across the sea. The pirates managed to break through twice. The first time two of their nimble ships succeeded in swooping round the heavy triremes and attacking either side of a heavily damaged bireme straggling a quarter of a mile behind the others. The ship was boarded, its crew put to the sword, a quick search made for any portable loot, and then it was fired. The pirate vessels darted away, steering clear of the trireme that had turned to try to save its stricken comrade. Worse still, in going to the aid of the straggler, the trireme left a gap for a handful of other pirate ships to slip in and ram another Roman ship before they too were forced to retreat. But the damage had been done and the Romans could do nothing more than take on the crews and as much of the supplies as it was safe to load, and leave the rest to go down with the ship.

From the deck of the Spartan, Cato and Macro watched with the rest of the crew as the long drama was played out over the gentle swell. Despite the dreadful losses they had suffered at the hands of the pirates, Cato found himself admiring the way Telemachus had executed his trap. His intelligence had been perfect, allowing the pirates to catch Vitellius and his fleet at their most vulnerable, and Cato was almost certain that treachery had been involved. What else could explain such confident handling of their ships when the pirates would normally have been thoroughly outclassed as well as outnumbered by the imperial navy? They knew they had the upper hand in manoeuvrability long before they had closed with the Roman fleet. And even now, they were looking for every chance to press home their attack, not content to wait until night when the triremes would be blind to the dark shapes sweeping through the Roman ships.

His admiration for Telemachus quickly wore off as Cato pondered on the consequences of this disastrous encounter. Hundreds of men must have been lost, along with much of the supplies and equipment that Prefect Vitellius needed to launch his campaign once they landed on the coast of Illyricum. It was possible that the losses were already so serious that the operation might have to be called off.

As soon as the thought entered his head, Cato dismissed it. He knew Vitellius well enough to realise that the prefect could not countenance such a setback to his reputation. Senior officers had been exiled, or even executed, for lesser failures. There was no choice for Vitellius. He had to go on with his campaign, even if the odds were now stacked firmly against him. The prefect would lead his men to victory, or to defeat and death. Those were the only possible fates open to all of them now, and as Cato silently watched the fire consuming the distant bireme he was filled with a heavy and deadening sense of foreboding.

His dark mood deepened as the afternoon dragged on, and when the lookout finally gave the cry that land had been sighted, Cato knew that a safe landfall would merely mark the beginning of a yet more dangerous phase of Vitellius' campaign.

06 The Eagles Prophecy


CHAPTER NINETEEN | The Eagles Prophecy | CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE