'This was not a good idea,' Macro growled as he squinted into the darkness. Over the side of the ship they could hear the waves breaking gently on the shingle some distance away. The black mass of the arms of the small bay they had chosen for the ambush stretched out around them. Away from the land, the sky and sea blurred together into a forbidding gloom.
'Can hardly see a bloody thing,' Macro continued.
'That's the whole idea,' Cato replied patiently. 'It'll work in our favour. Trust me.'
Cato could just make out the weary look on his friend's face as they sat on the deck. All around them marines were sitting in strict silence against the sides of the bireme, weapons close to hand. Linen side screens had been erected around the deck to give the ship the profile of a merchant vessel. After six days' cruising along the coast the disguise had finally lured some overeager pirates. From a distance, or in the dark, the bireme would pass for something far more innocent, and tempting, as it quietly wallowed in the gentle swell.
The only signs of life were up on the beach – a handful of campfires, around which huddled the sailors from the bireme. Two men stood sentry, dimly visible on the fringes of the light cast by the fire – the same light that would silhouette the bireme from the sea. That was what Cato was counting on. Somewhere, out to sea, stood the three ships that had shadowed the bireme during the afternoon. They had been cautious enough, hovering on the horizon, no doubt suspicious of such easy-looking prey. The bireme had played its part well enough, affecting some slovenly watch-keeping before turning away from the threat at the last moment, going cumbersomely about and fleeing from the pirates as dusk fell.
The pirates too were playing their own game, having moved away as if they had given up the chase and were sailing back up the coast. Shortly before they were out of sight Cato gave the order for the bireme to head into land, steering towards the bay he had reconnoitred the day before and decided at once that it would be suitable for his trap. A concealed battery of catapults stood close to the shore at the base of each low headland, ready to sweep the surface of the sea between them when the time came to spring the ambush. Two more biremes were anchored in the shadows of a small cliff, ready to slip their cables and row into action. If the pirates took the bait there would be little chance of escape.
As Cato reflected on the details of his plan, he was suddenly struck by a terrible sense of doubt. Supposing the pirates had given up the chase, as they had seemed to, and were even now bedded down and peacefully sleeping many miles away up the coast? Come the morning the marines and sailors who had spent an uncomfortable night under arms, nerves strained in the long wait for the appearance of the enemy, would be bitter and angry and would curse the young centurion and take him for a fool. On top of their recent defeat and the pirate raids of the previous nights it could only further damage their morale. If this ambush failed Cato had no doubt that the prefect would not be willing to try anything else and Telemachus would have his victory over the Roman navy. A dangerous precedent would have been set for any other pirates lurking around the fringes of the Mediterranean. The Emperor would show no mercy to those he held responsible for such a state of affairs…
Macro stirred beside him, and peered over the side, glancing out to sea. He sniffed irritably and slumped back down beside Cato.
'I'm telling you, they aren't coming,' he said softly. 'We must have been waiting for at least six hours already. We're wasting our time.'
'Patience,' Cato hissed back. 'They'll come.'
'How can you be so sure?'
'They're pirates, aren't they?'
'Pretty bloody smart pirates,' Macro responded bitterly. 'They've had the drop on us from the moment this campaign started. What makes you think they'll fall for it?'
'Think about it. They've been snapping up prizes for months. The result is that more and more merchants have been afraid to come out of port. It's the pirates' very success that has been starving them of prey for the last month or so. I'd bet that we're the first merchant ship they've seen for a long time. They won't be able to resist the temptation. I'd bet my life on it.'
Macro grunted. 'You are betting your life on it. Mine too.'
Cato shrugged. 'Then you'd best pray that I'm right.'
'And if they don't come?'
Cato didn't reply, but just sat quite still, head cocked slightly to one side.
Macro nudged him. 'Well?'
'Quiet…' Cato tensed and stared out to sea, his body motionless.
'What is it?'
'I'm not sure…Over there, look.' Cato pointed towards the black mass of the nearest of the headlands and Macro followed the direction of his finger and strained his eyes to make out any detail.
'Can't see anything.'
Macro shook his head.
'Me neither,' Cato admitted with a soft chuckle.
'Very fucking funny. I just hope you find it as funny when the Emperor has us thrown to…' Macro glanced out to sea and nudged Cato. 'Looks like you were right after all.'
Cato snapped his head round and saw the enemy vessel at once, as if it had simply materialised from the gloom. The pirates had unstepped the mast to lower the profile and the slender oars were muffled as they slowly propelled the ship into the bay no more than half a mile away.
'Pass the word!' Macro prodded the nearest marine with his boot. 'Enemy in sight. Make ready but no one moves until the signal is given. Go.'
The marine shuffled off in the darkness to spread the word and the two centurions turned back to stare at the approaching pirate vessel. Cato grasped Macro's arm.'There… to one side. The other two. Looks like we'll make a clean sweep of it.'
'Got to catch them first.'
As they watched, the enemy vessels crept forward across the bay, gaining definition as each thrust of the oars brought them closer. Soon they could hear the soft splash and rush of the pirates' oars and could make out the white surge of water along the bows. Above the prow of each vessel a dense mass of dark shapes crowded the fore deck, still and silent as they closed on their prey. Macro slowly drew his sword and clenched his hairy fist around the handle. He looked at Cato.
'Not yet,' Cato whispered. He looked past Macro to where the nearest marine grasped a boarding grapple, with a length of rope dipping down to coil resting on the deck. He caught the man's eye and waved his hand down. The marine hurriedly lowered his head.
The enemy came on and Cato's mind raced at the prospect of the imminent struggle. His heart pounded with excitement and his mouth was quite dry. In a moment it would all begin and chaos would rage over the deck that surrounded him. Three centuries of marines crouched motionless behind the linen superstructure and Cato could sense their tension, determination to kill, and fear. Nearly two hundred and fifty of them, each with a white band tied about his head for identification. But how many pirates were aboard those ships gliding down towards them? A hundred on each, Cato guessed. It would be a closely fought battle before the other two biremes could join the struggle. But once they did, then the fate of the pirates would surely be sealed.
Above the soft lapping of the water along the hulls Cato could now hear the first quiet words of command, and the excitement in the voice was unmistakable. Cato smiled. The pirates must think that their approach had not been detected and they were about to pounce on the merchant ship without the alarm even being raised. With a jarring thud the bow of the lead pirate ship ground into the side of the bireme and scraped along the beam. The other ships glided towards the stern and across the bow, ready to add their crews to the boarding party.
Cato snatched a lungful of air and jumped to his feet. 'NOW!'
With a deep-throated roar the marines rose up from the shadows and tore down the linen screens that had disguised their warship. Those who had been equipped with boarding grapples swung them up and out and they sailed through the darkness, thudding down on to the decks of the enemy vessels. At once the lines were pulled tight, the barbs lodging in the timbers of the pirate ships, and they were drawn in towards the bireme. At the stern a flame crackled into life as a marine set a lamp to the oil-drenched beacon prepared earlier. The wavering glow lit up the marines swarming across the deck, as well as the shocked and surprised faces of the pirates aboard the vessel held fast to the stern of the bireme. Moments later more flames flared up in the distance to acknowledge the signal and the trap was complete.
For a moment the pirates were silent, then their leaders roared out orders and with a great cheer they clambered up on to the rails of their vessels and threw themselves at the Romans.
'GET 'EM!' Macro roared close by, and the marines pressed forward to meet the enemy. For a moment the two sides were distinct and separate and then there was only chaos as the deck of the bireme was covered in a mass of bodies hacking and slashing at each other with swords, daggers, clubs and axes. In the pale light of the beacon only the white headbands of the marines could distinguish one side from the other. Around Cato a thin line of marines dissolved as the pirates jumped in amongst them and threw themselves into the attack.
'Look out!' a voice cried in Cato's ear as five or six dark forms flew through the air and crashed down on the Romans. Cato snatched up his small round buckler and thrust it towards the nearest enemy. The pirate sprawled across the centurion, carrying them both down on to the deck, the impact driving the air from Cato's lungs in an explosive gasp of pain. He felt smothered, and the stench of the man's hot breath was in his face as Cato dropped his buckler and clawed over the pirate's shoulder, searching for his throat, clamping his fingers down on the windpipe. The man reared up, choking with agony as he tore himself free of Cato's grasp. Then there was an explosive grunt as Cato slammed the tip of his sword into the man's side, just below the ribcage. The pirate wrenched himself free, toppling away from Cato and a warm gush of blood splashed down on to Cato's arm. He thrust himself up and crouched low on the deck, glancing madly about as the fight raged on every side. Above the clatter of weapons and the groans and cries of the men locked in conflict, Cato heard Macro yelling out to his men at the top of his voice.
'Get them! Kill them all! Kill 'em!'
Cato grabbed the buckler from the deck and pushed his way into the melee, thrusting himself between two marines hacking away at the heaving crowd of pirates who had forced their way on to the deck of the Roman ship. Directly in front of Cato a huge man landed on the deck with a thud. He wore a linen cuirass and brandished a heavy curved blade, which he swung back over his head the moment he saw the Roman officer in front of him.
'No you don't!' Cato shouted, sweeping his buckler up to meet the blow and thrusting his sword forward. The blade caught the man in the chest, making him stagger back a pace, but the point only cracked the surface of the cuirass, and made a shallow cut into the muscle beyond before it fetched up against a bone. Even so, it robbed the blow that hissed down at Cato of much of its force and the sword glanced off the buckler with a dull ring and struck the deck. A searing pain shot up Cato's left arm and his fingers went numb, nervelessly releasing their grip on the handle of the buckler, which fell away. Cato snatched back his blade, altered the angle and thrust the point up into the soft flesh under the pirate's chin, and punched it into the man's skull. The pirate toppled backwards and Cato wrenched the blade back with a wet crunch.
He straightened up, glancing round, but it was impossible to tell how the fight was going. The writhing mass of marines and pirates was too confused for Cato to work out which side had the upper hand. Over the heads of his men he could see the growing flicker from the beacon on one of the biremes rowing towards the fight. Then he was aware of another enemy rushing forwards, swinging an axe as he pressed in towards Cato, teeth locked in a wild grimace of hatred and rage in the dim glare of the flares of light from the aft deck.
A sudden surge of men closed in on Cato, pressing into his flesh, and to his horror he found that his sword arm was pinned to his side. The pirate snarled with glee and then swept his axe round, slicing through the night air at Cato's neck. Cato lashed out with his boots and slipped down towards the deck. Above him the axe swished overhead and crunched through the spine of the man standing next to Cato. On his hands and knees Cato felt the warm drizzle of blood splattering down across his shoulders. As dark bodies drove him on to his side a new terror gripped him: that he might be crushed to death on the deck. Shielding his head as best as he could with his numb left arm, Cato held his sword close, ready to thrust, and tried to regain his feet. But a fresh surge knocked him down, and at once a booted foot stamped down on his chest.
'Get off!' Cato shouted. 'Get off me!'
A face glanced down in shock and at once the boot was removed. 'Sorry, sir.'
Before Cato could reply the broad tip of a spear plunged into the man's throat and carried him back, out of sight. Cato knew that if he did not get off the deck soon he would be dead. He drew a deep breath and powered himself up, lashing out with sword and fist at anybody in his way, regardless of whether it was pirate or marine. Then he was up again, feet braced apart and sword ready. The press of the melee had passed him by and now the focus of the fight was moving aft, behind the mast. He stepped aside as a handful of marines swept past and threw themselves into the struggling mass. Breathing heavily, Cato took a moment to glance round and saw that one of the biremes was only moments away. Her marines were crowded above the prow, ready to join the battle and decide the outcome. Cato turned and saw the other bireme slightly further away, oars surging through the sea as she hurried towards the fight.
But already one of the pirate trierarchs had realised the terrible danger he and his men were facing. Beyond the stern of Cato's bireme, he could see one of the pirate ships lurching away, then snag on one of the grappling lines. A distant shout sent one of the pirates running to the side rail and he parted the line under a flurry of axe blows.
'Shit…' Cato muttered. The ship would escape unless someone was alerted to its trierarch's intentions. Only the furthest bireme could intercept in time, but the melee on the deck stood between Cato and the stern, from where he could attract their attention and shout his warning. He sheathed his sword, hurried to the side of the bireme and threw his legs over the rail, scrabbling for purchase on the planking with the toes of his boots. Then he began to work his way aft, the dark glimmer of the sea a short distance below. Beyond the rail the scrape of weapons and curses and cries of the battle continued and Cato kept his head low as he shuffled awkwardly along the side of the bireme. Then the rail began to curve up towards the steering oars and the sweeping fan of the sternpost. Gritting his teeth, Cato strained his arms and pulled himself up, but as soon as his head rose above the rail a thin pirate smiled toothlessly and leaned towards him, dagger drawn back to slash Cato across the throat. Just as Cato was preparing to throw himself backward into the sea a burly arm wrapped itself round the pirate's neck, yanking him off his feet. The man grunted and then his whole body spasmed, before it toppled to one side and Macro plucked his blade from beneath the pirate's shoulder.
Macro's eyebrows rose as he caught sight of his friend. 'Centurion Cato, leaving so soon?'
'Shut up and give me a hand.'
As soon as Cato was aboard he saw that the fight on the bireme's deck was going the Romans' way. The pirates had been forced amidships and were fighting back to back around the mast, urged on by an ornately dressed man whose heavy gold rings glimmered in the light of the beacon. Cato nodded his satisfaction and then indicated the pirate vessel pulling away into the darkness. 'Bastard's trying to give us the slip.'
'Can't be having that,' Macro grinned as Cato turned towards the bireme that had still not managed to join the fight. He cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted across the water.'Alter course! Stop them getting away!' He thrust his arm out towards the fleeing pirate ship. 'Get after them!'
There was a moment's delay before the bows of the bireme slowly swung away and with a surge of oars she swept narrowly past the grappled ships and went after the surviving pirate ship. The two vessels made for the entrance to the bay where glittering torches now marked the positions of the hidden batteries. The clatter of ratchets carried across the waters as the artillery crews wound back the torsion arms and prepared to fire at the oncoming ships. Cato and Macro could hardly make them out as they blended with the dark sea as the pirates desperately made for the open sea, pursued by the Roman warship. Moments later a glittering streak of fire arced up from the nearest headland towards the middle of the bay, silhouetting the hull of one of the ships before the flaming bolt struck the sea and was instantly extinguished.
'They'll have his range soon enough,' Macro commented, just as three more bolts arced into the night sky. Moments later the sharp cracks of their released torsion arms carried across the bay. The battery on the other side began to join the barrage and scored a hit with their first attempt, sending a shower of sparks springing into the air as the flaming bolt lodged in the pirate ship's deck. A distant cheer echoed off the cliff rising up from the shore, and the barrage continued.
Macro nudged Cato. 'I've just had a nasty thought.'
'Me too,' Cato muttered bitterly. 'I should have realised the danger.'
The two centurions fell silent as the fiery barrage arced over its glittering reflection in the sea, and shortly afterwards the bireme took its first hit. As they watched, the Roman ship was struck two more times.
'Shit!' Cato pounded his fist on the wooden rail.'I should have known!'
A small fire had started on the pirate ship and as distant figures struggled to douse the flames the trierarch of the bireme quickly turned his vessel about and headed back into the bay at full speed as the excited crews on the catapult concentrated their fire on the lead vessel. Before the bireme could get out of range a final shot caught in the furled sail and set it alight. Meanwhile another fire had flared up on the pirate ship and as the flames spread, the men at the oars fled from their benches and began to dive over the side, abandoning the vessel to a raging inferno that lit up the entrance to the bay in a brilliant but terrible glare of red and orange. Closer inshore the crew of the bireme were struggling to extinguish their own fire with a chain of sailors passing water up to men sitting astride the spar, who desperately attempted to quench the flames.
Cato thumped the rail again, consumed with frustration and self-reproach, until Macro slapped a kindly hand on his shoulder.
'There's nothing we can do about that. Besides, we've done well enough tonight. Now it's time to finish up here.' Macro nodded down towards the knot of enemy hemmed in around the mast.
A fresh wave of marines from the other bireme was swarming over the bows and chasing down and slaughtering the few pirates still alive at the prow.
The two centurions picked their way over the tangle of bodies and descended the steps to the main deck. Macro sheathed his sword and roughly pushed aside a handful of marines at the edge of the melee.
'Pull back!' he bellowed. 'Pull back! Give 'em some space!'
The order was relayed through the marines by the junior officers, and the marines gradually broke away from the pirates, warily stepping backwards across the deck, made slippery by the blood. The men took care where they placed their feet to avoid tripping over the bodies sprawled beneath them. A space opened up around the handful of bloodied men clustered on the main deck. They glared their defiance at the marines and kept their weapons raised and ready to use. An uncanny silence filled the air as the fighting ended and men on both sides waited expectantly. Cato and Macro pushed their way through the marines until they emerged a few paces away from the surviving pirates. Cato sought out the leader he had seen earlier and pointed towards him.
'Tell your men to surrender!'
The pirate leader stared back and then sneered his defiance. Something about him was familiar and Cato frowned, trying to place the man. Before he could make the connection the man brandished his curved sword.
'No surrender, Roman!' he screamed in Greek.'We'll not die like dogs on your crosses!'
Cato raised his hand to try to calm the man down, and replied in the same tongue. 'I give my word you'll not be executed. Slaves you will be, but at least your lives will be spared.'
'Never!' the pirate leader shrieked. But even as he spat his defiance at the centurion there was a dull clatter as one of his men threw down his sword and bowed his head. His comrades glanced from him to their leader and then another weapon thudded down on to the deck. An instant later, only the pirates' leader still held his weapon and he stared from side to side in frustration.
Cato held out his hand. 'Give it up, man. You've lost the fight. No sense in losing your life.'
The young man gritted his teeth and for a moment Cato was certain he was determined to go down fighting. Then his resolve crumbled and the sword fell from his trembling fingers as he stared hatefully at the Romans. And then Cato remembered exactly where he had seen him before. On the deck of Telemachus' trireme. Even now he recalled how close this man had been to the leader of the pirates.
'Ajax,' Cato muttered.
06 The Eagles Prophecy