Vitellius thrust his finger out. 'What was the meaning of that little stunt you pulled, Centurion Cato?'
'Sir?' Cato stood in front of the prefect's desk in the headquarters tent. Around him the other senior officers sat on stools and watched the confrontation warily.
'Don't play dumb with me, boy. Back there in the battle, when you took half my triremes out of the line.'
'Sir, we had to move to save our lighter ships. The enemy was cutting them to pieces.'
'Maybe, but you cost us the chance of trapping Telemachus and ending this operation at a stroke.'
'We can't be sure he was ever aboard that trireme, sir. After all, he was just using it as bait to lure our best ships away from the rest of the fleet.'
'That's just speculation, Centurion. Has it crossed your mind that the attack on the biremes might have been a ruse to lure ships away from protecting my flagship? You could have been risking my life.'
Cato shrugged.'Warfare is risky for us all, sir. In any case, the Horus and the ships that remained with you would have been able to handle any attack. In my judgement the greatest threat was to our biremes.'
Vitellius glared at him. 'In your judgement? This isn't a debating society, Centurion Cato. It's the imperial navy. You obey orders from superior officers – you don't create your own orders.'
'Begging your pardon, sir, I was using my initiative. And you did not issue any countermanding order. If those triremes hadn't gone to the aid of the other ships it's certain that our losses would have been far higher,' Cato paused to add heavy emphasis to his last words, 'than they already are.'
Vitellius clamped his lips together in a thin line, and as he glanced round the tent he noticed Macro and most of the other officers nodding in agreement with Cato.
The confrontation was interrupted by a challenge from a guard posted outside the tent. Then the flaps rustled as a clerk ducked inside, clutching a bundle of slates under his arm. He straightened his back, marched up to the prefect and saluted.
'The butcher's bill, sir.' The clerk handed a slate to Vitellius as the prefect waved Cato away. While Vitellius scanned the notes on the slate, Cato and the other officers sat in silence. They were exhausted. Even after the surviving ships had reached the bay late in the afternoon there had been no time for rest. The shore curved round for a mile or so in either direction before the beach gave way to a tumble of rocks that rose into headlands. Beyond the beach the land was covered with scrub and stunted trees for half a mile before it rose steeply into a range of forested hills that stretched up and down the coast as far as the eye could see. Not far off lay a long-abandoned settlement, little more than piles of stones now.
While the triremes anchored a short distance from the shore the smaller ships had beached and immediately began unloading their supplies and equipment. The bulk of the marines, under Centurion Macro, had been assigned the back-breaking task of constructing a fortified camp around the beachhead. Unlike the men who served in the legions, the marines had had limited training in preparing fortifications and Macro drove them on with increasing exasperation and bad temper. They laboured well beyond sunset and finally completed a makeshift defensive ditch and rampart by the flickering blaze of torchlight. Beyond the sweating marines a thin screen of pickets stood in the darkness, anxiously staring into the shadows for any sign that the pirates might renew their onslaught by land.
As soon as the triremes had been anchored fore and aft in a line parallel to the shore, Vitellius had given the order for additional artillery to be mounted on the decks and trained out to sea. Any pirate ship that attempted to attack the Roman fleet now would have to brave the fire of scores of catapults. Heavy losses would be inflicted long before the pirates could close with the triremes. So Telemachus held his ships back and kept watch on the Roman fleet until nightfall. Then, as the last rays of the setting sun glimmered on the horizon, the pirate fleet turned away from the shore and steered slowly up the coast, leaving their battered foe to count the cost of the day's action.
Prefect Vitellius lowered the slate and stared at his desk. The numbed expression on the aristocrat's heavy features revealed his despair. Cato almost felt pity for the man, before he recalled that the disastrous naval encounter was entirely of the prefect's own making. The lighter ships of the fleet should never have been so encumbered with men and equipment, much of which now lay at the bottom of the sea. If they had only used a convoy of transports to carry the supplies and equipment needed to launch the campaign against the pirates then the enemy would have been beaten off easily. It would have taken longer to make the crossing with transports, but that would have been a tiny price to pay as things had turned out.
As he pondered uselessly on what might have been, Cato realised that Vitellius was not wholly at fault. The perfect timing of the pirates' attack was more than a coincidence. Even if the fleet had been spotted by a pirate ship as it left Ravenna there would not have been enough time for word to have got back to Telemachus so that he could assemble a fleet and intercept the Romans at their most vulnerable. Telemachus must have been forewarned.
Vitellius sighed, and stood up. 'It's not good news, as I'm sure you're already aware. We lost eight of the biremes, two more are badly damaged, as is one of the triremes. She was holed and will need to be repaired at a dockyard. We also lost most of our artillery and siege tools. Much of the food was stored aboard the triremes, so we won't starve to death.' He smiled weakly, but none of his officers responded, and the smile died as the prefect continued, leaving the most painful news to last.
'Nearly eight hundred men were lost with their ships, another sixty killed aboard those vessels that survived, and a further eighty-three wounded…'
Cato looked round at the other officers and noted their mostly hostile expressions. The human cost had been terrible indeed, and many of these men had lost comrades they had known for years. But the cost to Vitellius was even higher, Cato reminded himself. This was a bitter defeat and there was no disguising it in the report he must send back to Rome. But the time it would take for the report to be sent, read through, a response considered and a messenger sent back to the prefect, would give him as much as a month to retrieve the situation.
'It's a bloody disaster,' a voice muttered.
'Who said that?'
No one moved. No one replied. For a moment all was still, until Minucius stood up.
'It was me, sir. Just saying what all the lads here are thinking. The pirates have given us a good kicking, and the word's out that we were betrayed.'
'Betrayed?' Vitellius raised an eyebrow. If the men were looking for a traitor he might turn this to his advantage.
'Someone sold us out, sir. Told 'em where to find us.'
There was a low chorus of angry grumbling and Minucius was emboldened as he continued, 'We should find the bastard. Make him pay for it, nice and slow, like.'
The officers nodded and a few offered chilling suggestions for the fate of the traitor once he was discovered. Vitellius moved closer to the fire so that all could clearly see him by its glow. He raised his hands to quieten them down.
'All right! You have my word. When we find the man, he's yours to deal with as you wish, on one condition.'
Most of the officers looked at him suspiciously; then Minucius cleared his throat. 'What's that then, sir?'
'You give me your word that his death will be as painful as possible.'
The officers laughed with relief, and Minucius nodded solemnly as the noise died away. Then there was an awkward silence as they waited for Vitellius to continue addressing them.
Macro coughed. 'So what happens now, sir?'
'We carry on with the plan,' Vitellius replied firmly. 'We still have enough ships to take on the pirates.'
'No, sir.' Heads turned towards a trierarch at the rear of the tent. Albinus stood up so that he could be clearly seen and heard. 'We need more ships. More biremes.'
'And why's that?' Vitellius replied coolly. 'From what I saw today those ships are worse than useless.'
Albinus shook his head. 'That's not fair, sir. The men on those ships fought the best battle they could today. It's not their fault their ships were no match for the pirates. If we hadn't changed course and gone to help them, I doubt whether any of the biremes would have survived.'
Cato took a sharp intake of breath and looked round at the other officers. Albinus' criticism of his commander could scarcely have been more open, and the centurions and trierarchs looked to Vitellius to see how he would respond.
For a moment he just glared at Albinus, then finally he nodded slowly and replied, 'Your point is well made, but quite academic, as things stand, Albinus. I still wish to know why we need more biremes. Our main force, the triremes, are more or less intact. Once we throw them in against the pirates it'll all be over quickly enough.'
'Yes, sir. Provided the pirates are prepared to sit there and wait for the triremes to come for them…'
'So?' The impatience in the prefect's voice was apparent to all. 'What are you saying?'
'You've served in the legions, sir.'
'What of it?'
'Then you know the tactics well enough. The lighter forces are there to find and pin the enemy down so the main strength can close in and destroy them. At least that's how it works at sea. I assume you do the same thing in the army.'
'Of course we bloody do!' Macro snapped. 'We're not bloody fools, you know. At least the lads in the legion can build a proper fucking camp!' Macro waved an arm towards the dark outline of the rampart stretching round them.'Not this bloody shambles-'
'Thank you, Centurion,' Vitellius cut in.'That's enough.'
Macro's mouth was still open, ready to deliver the rest of his diatribe, but he clamped it shut and nodded.
'Very well, then,' Vitellius continued. 'So we need biremes.'
'No, sir. We need more biremes. We need to match their numbers, at least. I counted a dozen of the bastards, and all of them were well-handled. They've got good crews, and good trierarchs to command them. Frankly, they're better than us, sir. That's why we need more ships. We need some kind of advantage if we're going to stand a chance against them the next time it comes to a fight,' Albinus concluded firmly.
'Well, there aren't any more biremes,' Vitellius snapped.'I can't just magic them out of thin air, can I?'
'There's the six you left at Ravenna,' Albinus said flatly.
Cato stood up, cleared his throat and added, 'There's another thousand marines we could use as well, sir.'
'No!' Vitellius slapped his hand against his thigh. 'I will not leave Ravenna defenceless. Rome would have my head if anything happened.'
'Rome may well do that already, sir,' Cato spoke quietly, 'once they get word of what happened today. If we're to continue operations against the pirates, we'll need every ship, every man we can draw on.'
Vitellius stepped towards him. 'And if they do attack Ravenna?'
'We have our orders, sir.' Cato laid heavy stress on the first word. 'The operation must take priority.'
'And Ravenna?' The prefect responded quietly.
'Ravenna will have to take its chances, sir.'
'I see. Is that your advice? Willing to put that down in writing?'
Cato clenched his teeth to prevent himself letting slip any acid words of contempt for his superior. Then he swallowed and replied, 'That's my advice, sir. Given our orders. But the decision is yours. Goes with the rank.'
'I see.' Vitellius dropped his gaze and stood silently in thought. The other officers were also silent, as they waited for his decision.
The prefect knew he was in a wretched position. He had lost a quarter of his force, as well as a good quantity of his equipment. What had begun as an overwhelming demonstration of force directed at crushing the growing pirate threat, had turned into a near disaster that threatened to destabilise the entire region. If he called off the operation then it would be seen as an unambiguous defeat, and the Emperor was not renowned for his toleration of defeated commanders. Vitellius feared that his career, maybe even his life, was in danger. He frowned. His career was all that gave meaning to his life. Without the promise of power and wealth he might as well be dead. So there was no possibility of calling off the operation. That much was certain. The campaign must continue.
The question was, did he have enough men and material to ensure success? He had been defeated, but if the pirates were found and destroyed, and the scrolls recovered, then the initial setback could be quietly glossed over. Indeed, if Vitellius could pin the blame for the defeat on some traitor then he might escape censure for the defeat altogether. As long as he was ultimately victorious. But did he have the forces to do it? He was not sure. Certainly Albinus did not think so, and the expressions on the faces of the other trierarchs as they had listened to their comrade indicated that they too felt that more biremes were required. They must know their business, Vitellius reflected. With the remainder of the fleet and the marines he had left in Ravenna he would just about replace the men and ships lost earlier that day. But that would leave the port and the naval base virtually defenceless. He would have to ensure that the pirates were put under enough pressure that they would not be able to mount a raid on Ravenna. If the unthinkable happened and they did slip through and sack the port, then Emperor Claudius would show him no mercy.
Then he recalled what Cato had said, the firm reminder that maybe there were even greater issues at stake: the scrolls that Narcissus had ordered them to retrieve, at any cost.
At any cost…
Damn the man for not putting those orders in writing. Then at least Vitellius could have claimed that the terrible risks he ran in deploying all his men and ships against the pirates were risks demanded by the terms of his orders. But Narcissus had been too clever for that, as usual. There would be no evidence to lay against him should Vitellius try to bring such a charge. Just as there would be no acceptable excuse for failing to recover the scrolls.
As he thought through his options one clear course of action emerged as the most effective strategy for the prefect to pursue, and he fixed on it with a growing sense of despair, reluctant to make the final commitment by giving the necessary orders. He looked up at his officers and his heart sank as he saw them watching him, waiting for him to speak, to set out his plan of action. Once he began there must be no turning back. He cleared his throat, and the officers stared at him intently.
'We must carry on with the operation. If we fail to take the fight to the pirates now, then who knows how powerful they may become. They could strangle our trade, if they wished. We cannot afford to let that happen, gentlemen. I accept Trierarch Albinus' argument that we need to have sufficient force to face the enemy on acceptable terms. To this end I will send an officer back to Ravenna to bring up our reserve forces and equipment…'
He glanced round, and his eyes fell on Cato, warming his thin frame close by the fire. It might be wise to keep that one as distanced from the real project of this operation as possible, the prefect considered. Vitellius needed to claim all the credit available for retrieving the scrolls. Besides, there might be other opportunities to exploit in this situation, and he didn't want another agent of Narcissus looking over his shoulder. There was Centurion Macro as well, of course, but Vitellius did not consider the older officer as much of a threat. Macro was too guileless for his own good. It might be as well to keep the two separated. Cato would be the one to return to Ravenna, then.
Cato stiffened his back. 'Yes, sir.'
'At first light, you and Albinus will take the Spartan back to Ravenna. Her complement of marines will remain here to give you more space on board for the return trip. You'll bring back the rest of the fleet, with the marines and replacement supplies. I'll have my clerk draft your authority to act in my name.'
'Gentlemen! That is all. Centurion Macro is taking the first watch. The rest of you can turn in until your watch is called. Dismissed!'
As the officers rose stiffly around the fire and trudged off towards the campfires of their units, Cato remained behind. He nodded towards Macro and the latter reluctantly joined his friend as they approached the prefect.
'What do you want?' Vitellius snapped. 'Make it quick. I'm tired.'
Macro nodded. 'I expect every man in the fleet is tired, sir.'
Vitellius ignored him, focusing on Cato alone. 'What do you want?'
'Why are you sending me back for reinforcements? Surely I'd be more use to you here, sir? Given our orders from Narcissus.'
'I have to write a dispatch to the Imperial Secretary,' Vitellius explained flatly. 'I have to report on what's happened. Narcissus will want to know the situation. I need you to make sure it reaches Ravenna and gets sent on to Rome.'
'You I can trust. Those others,' Vitellius gestured towards the officers dispersing into the night, 'might not be so loyal to the Emperor. I have to be sure that the message gets through to Narcissus. That's why it has to be you. As for Macro here, well, I need all my best officers ready for anything that bastard Telemachus decides to throw at us.'
Cato stared at the prefect with cold, bitter eyes. Then he saluted.
'May I go now, sir?'
'Of course,' Vitellius did not return the salute, but nodded in the direction of the tent lines of Cato's century.'You're not needed at the moment. Get some sleep. I'll have the report ready for you before first light, when the Spartan sets sail.' He turned to Macro. 'You'd better join your men on watch.'
As the two centurions picked their way through the camp, Cato glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were out of earshot.
'While I'm gone, watch yourself.'
Macro frowned. 'What do you mean?'
'I'm not sure. I don't trust him.'
'What's new? No man in his right mind would trust that bastard. What do you think he's up to?'
Cato shook his head. 'I don't know. He's splitting us up, for some reason. All we can be sure of is it's nothing to do with getting this message through. So just watch yourself, you hear?'
Macro nodded. 'You sound just like my mother!'
Cato glanced at him.'While I'm in Ravenna, want me to look in on your mother for you?'
As soon as he had said it Cato wished he had kept his foolish mouth shut. Memories of his calamitous encounter at the Dancing Dolphin flooded back.
'No. Leave it,' Macro said quietly. 'Don't mention her again.'
They walked in silence for a moment, then Cato changed the subject.'We'd better find this traitor soon. Before he gets another chance to sell us out.'
Macro nodded. 'But he could be anyone.'
'He could be,' Cato agreed.'But then again, he'd have to have some way of getting in touch with the pirates. That narrows things down.'
Macro smiled. He could almost hear Cato thinking. 'Anyone in mind?'
'I'm not sure. Not yet. But I have an idea where to start looking.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy