'Your orders.' Prefect Vitellius held out a sealed parchment to Cato as they stood on the shore. A boat was waiting to take Cato out to the Spartan, lying at anchor a short distance out to sea. The trireme was barely more than an outline as the first light of the new day filtered over the mountain peaks. 'I've empowered you to act in my name when you get to Ravenna. Don't hesitate to take what we need. If any of the locals try to hinder you, you must act ruthlessly. Extreme circumstances call for extreme actions, understand?'
'Good.' Vitellius lowered his voice as he held out a small sealed package to Cato. 'This is the report. Make sure it's sent on to Rome as soon as you land.'
Cato took the package and tucked it into his haversack.
'Right, then. That's all, I think.' Vitellius nodded to himself. 'I'll see you in a few days, with the reinforcements. You're to rejoin us at the earliest possible opportunity. I'll hold you accountable for any unwarranted delay.'
Cato returned his look with cold disdain. 'I understand, sir.'
'Just as long as you do, Centurion. It would be a shame to have to end our long-standing antipathy. But I'm sure I'd find fresh enemies before long.'
A thin smile flickered across Cato's lips. 'I don't doubt it, sir.'
Vitellius stared at him for a moment and then turned away and strode off. Macro approached Cato as soon as the prefect had disappeared amongst the tents. He extended his hand and the two officers clasped each other on the forearm.
'Safe journey,' Macro grinned. 'With our recent experiences of life at sea, you'll need all the luck you can get.'
'Don't I know it.' Cato smiled back. 'Macro, if we ever live through this mess you have my permission to kick my lights out if I ever so much as look at a ship with a fond expression.'
'You can count on it.'
Cato smiled. In a world determined by the whim of the fates it was reassuring to know that he could rely on Macro's steadiness. Cato patted his friend on the shoulder and turned towards the waiting boat. He clambered over the transom and the sailors ran the boat out into the gentle surf that rolled and hissed up the shingle. Once through the surf they climbed aboard, took up their oars and rowed Cato out towards the looming hulk of the Spartan. Cato turned his head back for one last glimpse of his friend and saw Macro lift his hand, and turn away, marching back amongst the tents crowded between the beach and the dark line of the rampart.
As the sun rose over the mountains the trireme cleared the bay and set her elegant bows into the open waters beyond. The sky was overcast and the sea was a steely grey with a heavy swell. A stiff breeze was blowing off the coast and the crew had sheeted the mainsail in tightly at an angle across the deck to make the most of the favourable wind. As he stood on the aft deck Cato noted that there was a tenseness amongst the sailors, and they gazed round at the horizon as if expecting a host of pirate ships to come tearing down on them the moment they ventured beyond the safety of the rest of the Roman fleet and clawed their way out to sea. He turned and paced slowly over to Albinus. The trierarch looked as anxious as his men and Cato tried to affect the same fearless calm he had seen so often in Macro.
'Reckon they're still out there?'
Albinus nodded. 'Bound to be. They'll have left a few at sea to keep an eye on us.'
Albinus looked at him. 'At sea, there's always a danger. From them, from the Gods and from the elements.'
Cato smiled faintly. 'I meant the enemy.'
'I know you did. But with this heavy sea we should make better going of it than they will.' Albinus glanced up at the grey clouds overhead. 'I'd be more concerned about the weather. Looks like we're in for a bit of a blow.'
'Bit of a blow?' Cato raised an eyebrow. 'Sounds like some kind of nautical euphemism, if ever I heard one.'
It was Albinus' turn to smile.'All right, then. We're in for a storm. High winds, heavy seas. Bloody horrible all round.'
'I think I preferred "bit of a blow" after all.' Cato glanced over his shoulder at the coastline of Illyricum, and saw that the entrance to the bay had already disappeared over the horizon and only the serrated line of mountains was still in sight.
All across the deck, heads tilted up to the masthead, noted the direction of the lookout's arm and then turned towards the direction he indicated.
'Two… no, three sails.'
Albinus cupped his hands and shouted up, 'What's their heading?'
After a short pause the lookout made his reply, with a weary fatalism that was evident to all on deck. 'Closing to intercept us, sir! I can make 'em out more clearly now. It's them pirates again.'
'Very well. Call down the moment they make any course changes!'
Trierarch Albinus dropped his hands to his side, and clenched them tightly before he thrust them behind his back where they would not betray his state of mind to anyone but Cato and the steersman.
'Three of them,' Cato mused. 'Enough to take us on?'
'More than enough, if they're handled well. They've got the wind gauge, and they'll try and close in on us at an angle.'
'Can't we outrun them?'
Albinus pursed his lips as he calculated the relative speeds of his ship and those of the pirates. 'Not unless the weather worsens. Otherwise they'll catch us before noon. They've the edge in terms of speed and numbers. But they'll have to board us. It's too dangerous to try and ram anyone in these conditions. Besides, the Spartan's a tough ship. She's got firm sides; made from well-seasoned wood.' The trierarch nodded to himself with pride. 'They'll not hole us.'
There was a degree of certainty in his voice that went beyond mere bravado, and Cato was slightly reassured. He crossed back to the other side of the deck and, with the rest of the crew, kept an eye out for the first sign of the pirates' sails on the horizon.
Less than an hour later he saw them, three tiny dark triangles, pitching in and out of sight as the trireme rose up on the crest of each wave, then disappearing as the warship surged down into the trough.
Albinus kept an anxious watch on the enemy's progress, and as soon as they had closed enough that their sails were always in view he called out to his crew,'Hands aloft! Shake out the last two reefs!'
Some of the crew glanced at him doubtfully before they threw themselves on to the rigging and scrambled up towards the peak where the main yard hung across the deck. They quickly inched themselves out along its length and bent over to work the reefing knots loose. The sail, already taut as a drum, wrenched the heavy leather from their grip with a rippling crack and then, as the loosened sail flapped in the wind, the crew hauled in the sheets and tied them off on the deck cleats. Under the additional pressure the trireme heeled further over to windward and Cato gripped the rail as he glanced down into the foaming sea racing past a scant few feet below the side of the ship, almost submerging the oar ports. The increase in speed was immediately apparent and as Cato watched the pirates' sails for a short while he was sure that the Spartan was slowly drawing ahead of them. He moved up the canted deck towards the trierarch, blinking away the salty spray that stung his face as the bows crashed through a wave.
'Isn't this a bit risky?'
Albinus patted the side rail. 'She can take it. Unless the wind gets any stronger. Then we'll have to take those reefs back in, if we don't want to lose the mast.'
'Oh.' Cato looked forward and saw that every rope was taut and vibrating under the strain of the mainsail, every scrap of it exposed to the northerly wind. Then he glanced back at the pirate ships and slapped a hand down on the side rail with a cry of triumph.
'We're drawing ahead of them!'
Albinus nodded. 'Yes. But two can play at that game. Look!'
He pointed towards the pirate ships and Cato could see tiny figures swarming aloft to take the reefs out of their sails. Shortly afterwards the enemy was slowly gaining ground on them once again.
Cato turned to Albinus. 'What now?'
'We'll have to make a run for it. Head down wind and hope that we've got the more weatherly ship.'
He turned to the steersman. 'Take her before the wind.'
As the trireme's bow started to swing away from the pirates Albinus shouted orders to his crew and the mainsail sheets were cast off until the wind came from directly behind the ship. Then they strained to haul the sheets in tight and cleat them home. Sailing downwind, the wind passing over the decks moderated and Cato felt a wash of pure exhilaration as the trireme coursed down one wave and climbed the next. For the first time he could sense something of the attraction that the sea held for men like Albinus and his crew. Then he glanced aft and saw that the pirate ships had changed course and were now directly behind the Spartan, barely a mile off. Cato's hand unconsciously went for the pommel of his sword.
'How much longer before they catch us up?'
Albinus squinted at their pursuers for a moment. 'Four hours, if we're lucky. Before nightfall, at any rate.'
As the chase continued across the white-capped expanse of grey sea the wind steadily increased in strength and the rigging of the trireme fairly hummed under the strain. Albinus went forward and rested his hand on the mainsheets, and anxiously stared up at the taut seams of the sail. Yet when he returned to the aft deck and glanced at the pirates it was clear that they were steadily closing, and that there was no chance of taking in a reef. Behind the pirates a grey film had closed in over the horizon and the sky above it was a filthy dark grey.
'What's that?' Cato pointed. 'A storm?'
'Squall, more likely. Rain and wind, that's all. Still…' The trierarch's expression suddenly tightened in firm concentration. He gauged the distance between the Spartan and the pirates before fixing his eyes beyond the three vessels, staring into the fast-approaching gloom. Then he turned and grinned at Cato. 'We might be in luck. As soon as that squall closes round us, I'll alter course. We might lose our friends, or at least gain enough distance to see us into the night, and try and lose them then.'
The veil of rain swept across the sea towards the pirates, suddenly swallowing them up and hiding them from the sight of those aboard the trireme. The crew stood to the mainsheets and braces, ready to move swiftly as soon as the trierarch gave the command. Just before the grey haze was upon them Cato sensed a freshening of the wind and it veered wildly, causing the mainsail to flap and boom for a moment before the wind direction steadied with a low keening moan through the rigging. The rain struck with almost no warning, and glinting shafts thundered down on the deck and exploded in a shimmering carpet of spray about the crew's feet. Cato hunched down inside his cape, holding the hood over his head with his spare hand as he clutched the side rail.
'Loose sheets!' Albinus roared out close by, his voice straining to be heard above the sudden din of the squall. 'Steersman! Bring her about!'
The trireme lurched round, heading for the Italian coast once more. The mainsail flapped and thundered like some vast bird.
'Hands aloft! Take in a reef!'
Cato watched anxiously as the sailors climbed the rigging, and inched their way along the yardarm. Below them the deck rolled from side to side, threatening to pitch the sailors into the raging sea. When all the men were in position along the yard the trierarch shouted an order and they began to draw the sail in, until the first reefing tie was within reach. They hauled the ties in and hurriedly fastened them around the yard before making their way back to the mast and clambering down the rigging, chests heaving with the exertion and excitement of the moment.
'Well done, lads! Now sheet her home and let's get as far from those bastards as we can!'
With the wind across her aft quarter the trireme pitched and rolled at a sickening angle as she clawed her way through the squall. Cato's stomach began to churn. He lurched towards the side rail.
'Not that side!' Albinus yelled, thrusting an arm out towards the far side of the ship. 'Downwind!'
Cato pivoted round, clamped a hand over his mouth and half ran, half slid, down to the left-hand side of the ship and vomited over the rail. There seemed to be no end of it, and for an age he stood, hunched over the side rail, gripping the rough wooden surface as tightly as he could, racked by bouts of sickness that wrenched his body right down to the very pit of his stomach. All the time the rain lashed down, drenching his cloak and the tunic beneath, finally fetching up cold and clammy against his shivering skin.
After a while, he noticed that the air about him seemed brighter, and the torrential pounding of the rain on his shoulders began to subside. Cato raised his head and glanced round, just as the grey shroud of the squall began to pass, and then it was gone, just as suddenly as it had fallen upon them. The hiss of the rain subsided and then it was beyond earshot as the squall raced away to the south. After the savage intensity of the howling wind and rain, it seemed unnaturally quiet as the trireme surged across the rolling sea. A shaft of sunlight pierced the overcast, falling across the patch of sea the Spartan was traversing, and the water dripping from the rigging gleamed like diamonds. Cato wiped the acrid spittle from the corner of his mouth and turned towards Albinus.
'Did we do it? Did we lose them?'
Albinus shrugged.'Can't say just yet. Wait a moment.'
Both men went over to the sternpost and stared intently as the squall receded. There was no sign of the pirate ships, and after a moment the trierarch breathed a deep sigh of relief and nodded his satisfaction. He glanced at Cato with a nervous smile. 'Looks like we-'
'Deck there. Enemy sail in sight!'
The trierarch and the centurion stared aft, just as three glistening sails emerged from the grey haze at the rear of the squall, less than a mile off. Cato's sickness subsided as a current of despair welled up inside him.
'Shit!' Albinus pounded the sternpost with a clenched fist. 'The bastards second-guessed us. Whoever's in command of that lot is a clever little sod and no mistake.'
'We'd better get ready for them,' Cato suggested, still feeling too sick to assume direct command of the ship. 'You'd better give the necessary orders. I'll be better in a moment.'
Albinus nodded, and turned back to his crew, bellowing out orders for the men to arm themselves and prepare to repel boarders. Cato continued to watch the enemy as they closed on the Spartan, sails close-hauled and straining at every seam. The pirate ships seemed to be closing faster than ever, and Cato realised that they had not taken in any reefs. For an instant he cursed Albinus' timidity, and wondered why the trierarch had not immediately ordered his men to get aloft again to shake out the reef in the Spartan's broad mainsail.
Albinus rejoined him, staring anxiously as the enemy clawed ever closer to their prey. Already the foredecks of the smaller ships were packed with men, their armour and weapons glinting in the sunlight that spread across the sea as the clouds dispersed. The pirates sailed in close formation, and only when they were within extreme catapult range did their plan of attack become apparent. Two of the ships began to ease upwind, to close in on the trireme's right side, while the third dropped a little to windward, to take her from the left. The defenders would have to split their strength to face both attacks.
'All hands! Stand to!' Albinus bellowed to the crewmen gathered on the deck. They scrambled for their weapons and snatched up shields and helmets from the lockers behind the foredeck. The section leaders formed their men up on either side of the trireme and Cato knew that there were too few of them to hold the enemy off. If they had been trained and armed as well as the marines then they might have stood a chance. But they were sailors first, and warriors a poor second. Their desperation to survive would be their only advantage in the coming fight.
Stepping back from the rail, Cato reached for the clasp around his neck and wrenched it free from his sodden cloak, which thudded to the deck. Then he shouted an order to the nearest sailor to fetch his helmet and shield from the trireme's cabin. He turned to Albinus.
'If anything happens to me, and the Spartan wins through, make sure these dispatches reach Rome.' He slapped the wet haversack at his side. 'If it looks like the ship's lost I'll take care of them. Either way, they must not fall into enemy hands.'
'I understand. Let's just make sure it doesn't come to that.'
Cato smiled. 'You can be sure I'll take as many of them with me as I can.'
'We all will.' Albinus nodded towards his men. 'They know there'll be no mercy.'
There was nothing more to say, and the trierarch and the centurion stood side by side as the pirate vessels closed in, the shouts and taunts of the men in the bows of the pursuing ships carrying clearly across the waves. The sailor returned with Cato's helmet and shield. With an eye to the approaching enemy, Cato calmly tied the straps of the helmet and took the shield, shifting his grip until it was most comfortable.
'All right then, let's make sure they don't forget the men of the Spartan in a hurry.'
Even as the words faded on his lips there was a distant splintering crack. Cato looked towards the leading ship,just as its mast shuddered for an instant, and then pitched to windward in a graceful arc, sail and rigging leaping to one side as if plucked by a giant invisible hand. The tangled mess of timber, rope and canvas pitched into the sea, immediately dragging the bows round, directly into the path of the ship surging across the waves behind the leader. It was too late to alter course and the second ship rammed the leader at full speed with a jarring crash that threw the men on both ships to the deck.
Albinus roared with laughter and slapped Cato on the back. 'Did you ever see such a sight? Stupid bastards! Oh! Look there!'
The mast of the second ship wavered a moment and then slid backwards and crashed down on to the men scattered across its deck, eliciting a fresh chorus of cries and screams.
Albinus' face was awash with delight at his enemy's misfortune. 'That'll show 'em.'
Cato was only just recovering from the stunning reversal of fortune. 'What happened?'
'What always happens when you have too much sail in too much wind. Snapped their mast clean off!'
The third ship held its course for a moment longer before its trierarch realised that he could not hope to tackle the trireme alone. He hauled his wind and turned the vessel to go to the aid of his comrades. Albinus rubbed his hands with unrestrained joy.
'Time to finish them off, I think!'
Albinus turned to Cato with a confused expression. 'Sorry. What was that?'
'Leave them? But they're at our mercy. We just have to turn and run them down. The last one'll run for it the moment he sees us go about.' There was a pleading expression in his eyes that Cato could well understand. After the torment of the previous day the chance to exact a crushing revenge would be sweet indeed. Albinus leaned closer and lowered his voice. 'There'd be no risk, Centurion. I swear… I'd bet my life on it.'
'No. We can't chance it. Our orders are to get back to Ravenna and get reinforcements. I'll not take any unnecessary risks. Our comrades are counting on us.' Cato could see that the trierarch was not convinced and he tried another line of thought. 'Look, supposing we did turn on them and somehow they managed to get men aboard the Spartan. There's more of them than us. And if we're lost what becomes of Vitellius and the others?'
Albinus looked from Cato to the pirate ships, already falling behind, and a look of bitter frustration crossed his features. For an instant Cato was sure that he would have to pull rank on the man. He tensed himself up and drew a deep breath. But before he could speak Albinus turned away from the pirates and called out to his crew.
'Stand down! Stand down!'
The cries of jubilation and excitement on the main deck died away, and at once a low grumble of discontent rippled through the sailors as they turned to face their trierarch.
'Stand down! Return weapons to lockers and get back to your sailing stations! Now! Section officers! Get your men moving!'
With a chorus of shouts and rough handling the junior officers dispersed the men, and the off-duty watch was dismissed below, leaving their comrades to stay on deck ready to respond to any new orders.
Albinus turned to Cato. 'There. Happy now?'
Cato stilled his tongue and stared back in silence, until the other man's gaze faltered, and turned away, over the stern, across the sea to the distant pirate ships slowly rising and falling on the swell.
'Albinus,' Cato said quietly, 'we have our orders. Our duty is to carry them out as immediately as we can.'
'I know that, damn you. It's just that I wanted to see those scum suffer.'
'You will. Not now, but soon enough. Savour that thought.'
Albinus gave a brief nod and then turned away and strode down the length of his ship in silence, glowering at anyone who dared to cross his path. Cato let out a low sigh of relief, grateful that the man had seen reason in the end. But there would be no restraining him next time, and then the Gods better show some mercy to the pirates, because Albinus would spare them none in his desire to make them pay for what they had done to his comrades.
A sudden gust of wind caused Cato to tremble uncontrollably as it cut through his soaked clothing and chilled his flesh to the bone. Then, a dreadful thought struck him and he thrust a hand behind his back and wrenched the haversack round to the front. It was dark with sea water, and his freezing fingers struggled with the straps before at last he could open the flap and peer inside. The scroll with his orders was still in its leather holder and would be dry enough. But the package carrying the report from Vitellius was sodden. As Cato went to lift it out of the haversack, the seal fell off and the wrapping opened a little. Inside he could see the first of the waxed slates that comprised the reports.
For a moment he was still, as the first temptation to do what he knew he should not flickered across his mind. It would be easy enough. He could wait until they reached Ravenna. Then, as the remaining biremes were loaded with men and supplies, Cato could take the opportunity to read the prefect's report, and then reseal it before sending it on to Narcissus back in Rome. It would be a simple thing, and then he would know what Vitellius was up to. Maybe there would be something in the text about the scrolls; something to explain why they were worth the lives of so many men. For a moment some voice inside him reminded Cato that it would be a breach of trust for him to read the report. If it was ever discovered that he had pried into an official imperial dispatch there would be dangerous consequences.
Then he recalled that he was dealing with Vitellius, after all.
'Bollocks,' Cato muttered to himself, as he refastened the flap. He decided to read the report the moment he reached Ravenna.
06 The Eagles Prophecy