'That's it!' Macro thumped one fist into the other. 'Has to be those bloody pirates!'
Cato squinted down into the bay, scanning the ships. Two were definitely triremes, and the liburnian rigs of most of the others were the same as the ships that had attacked the Ravenna fleet, like the two ships they had captured several nights ago. He nodded.
'It's them all right.' He reached behind him for his haversack, dragged it round and undid the straps. Macro glanced down in surprise.
'I don't think this is the best time for a snack. The sooner we get back and report this to Vespasian the better.'
Cato shook his head as he took out the map and his stylus set. 'Not until I've mapped it.'
'All right,' Macro conceded. 'But do it quickly.'
Cato did a fair approximation of the bay with its causeway and fortifications and the layout of the ships, and then packed away his equipment.
The summit of the mountain was only a short distance above them and the two men bent forward and climbed up the track, feeling far more cheerful than they had for what seemed a long time. If all went well, the Ravenna fleet would sail into the bay and crush the pirates within a few days. Then they could return to Rome in triumph and Narcissus would lift the charges against them and, who knew, maybe reward them into the bargain. Life was starting to feel good again and Macro was tempted to sing. He began by humming a marching song that had been popular among the legions in Britain shortly before he and Cato had been forced to leave the island. Macro took a breath and began to sing.
'Oh, when I was a young lad,
A brave soldier I wanted to be,
To travel the world, fight the foe
And screw every-'
Cato grabbed his arm and hissed, 'Quiet!'
Macro wrenched his arm free and turned angrily on his companion. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
'Shhh!' Cato glared at him desperately. 'Listen!'
They crouched down on the track and Macro tilted his head and strained his ears. Almost at once he heard the faint sound of talking not very far away, from the crest of the mountain. The centurions both looked up, their eyes following the track, which disappeared round a boulder no more than fifteen paces away. Someone called out in a strange tongue, then again, as if waiting for a reply. They heard boots scrabbling on loose stones and then the voice called out again, nearer this time.
'Shit!' Macro whispered. 'Must have heard me.'
'He's not raised the alarm yet.' Cato thought quickly, glancing around the surrounding slope. But there was little cover. In any case, the man had heard them, and from the tone of his voice, did not expect to find any enemy lurking down the track. Cato pointed towards the boulder.
'Up there! Quick!'
They moved as swiftly and quietly as they could up the track, and had almost reached the weathered mass of the boulder when a man strode round it and stopped dead no more than five paces away. He was dark-featured and wrapped in a thick cloak over which he had belted his sword, a heavy falcata. The pirate stared at them, mouth gaping, but no sound issuing from it. For an instant all three were still. Cato reacted first, throwing his pack down and snatching at his sword as he threw himself at the pirate. With a gasp of terror the man's hand dropped to his weapon, but his scrabbling fingers merely fumbled at the pommel. Cato slammed into him, left hand clawing for the pirate's throat as the tip of his sword punched through the man's cloak and into his stomach with all the force Cato could throw behind it. The pirate doubled over the blade with an explosive groan and tumbled back on to the stony path, Cato crashing down heavily on top of him. The impact drove the remaining breath from his lungs so that the only sound that came from his lips was a rattling gasp for air. Even as he knew he was doomed, the pirate threw his hands towards his attacker's face, scratching at Cato's eyes, stubby cracked nails gouging at the flesh on the Roman's cheeks.
Cato was close enough to smell the reek of onions and wine on the pirate's breath, but he ignored the stench and thrust harder with his sword arm, aiming up into the ribcage, probing for the man's heart to end his struggles swiftly. The pirate suddenly flailed with his arms and legs and drew his knees up hard in a last desperate spasm, catching Cato in the groin. Then his body tensed for a moment, before slowly growing limp.
As Macro scrambled up, Cato released his grip on his sword and rolled to one side clutching a hand to his balls as a wave of nausea swept up through his guts.
'Oh… shit,' he managed to gasp before he threw his head to one side and retched. 'Ohhherrrr.'
Macro checked that the pirate was dead and then turned to his friend and grinned. 'Tough luck!'
Before he could laugh at Cato writhing on the ground, hands clutched between his legs, they both heard a voice calling out. Then another man spoke.
'There's more of them!' Macro hissed to Cato.'Stay here!'
Macro unclasped his cloak and let it drop to the ground as he unsheathed his sword and crept up to the boulder. Balancing carefully, Macro crouched low and peered around the boulder. The track wound across a rock-strewn plateau to a small shelter, above a cliff that overlooked the bay on one side, and seaward approaches on the other. The pirates' lookout station was constructed of stone and weatherproofed with sods of earth packed into the gaps between the stones. A small eddy of smoke rose from the turf roof and a man was standing by the entrance, nonchalantly stretching his neck and shoulders. He rolled his head and then glanced down the track, calling out impatiently. He reached for a spear and began to walk in Macro's direction.
Macro carefully eased himself back behind the boulder. 'One more coming this way. At least another one in the shelter. Keep quiet. I'll take him.'
'Keep quiet?' Cato gasped and gritted his teeth as another wave of nausea swept through his guts.
Macro crouched low, holding his sword by his side, ready to spring out and attack the moment the other pirate came round the boulder. His heart beat madly in his chest and he tried to still his breathing as footsteps crunched on the path just a short distance away. The footsteps ceased and the man called out again, this time his words edged with unmistakable concern. He came forward again, more cautiously. Macro glanced down and realised that the pirate would see the body of the first man at any moment. He reacted instinctively. Drawing a sharp breath he scrambled out from behind the rock and ten feet away from him he saw the pirate, levelling his spear.
'Shit!' Macro hissed, pausing only an instant before he charged forward. The pirate, still momentarily stunned, reacted at the last moment and, grasping the spear firmly in both hands, he thrust it at the Roman. Macro swept his sword arm out, knocked the spear head to one side and charged on, aiming for the man's throat. But his sleeve caught on the end of the spear and yanked him back. Macro tumbled backwards, the impact driving the breath from his lungs.
With a triumphant grin the pirate plucked his spear from Macro's sleeve and stepped towards the Roman, prodding the tip of the spear into his chest. Macro felt the hard iron tip cut into his flesh and winced. The man shouted at him, nodding towards the sword in Macro's outstretched hand. The centurion understood at once and let the blade fall from his fingers.
'All right! All right, I give up.'
The pirate, keeping his eyes on his prisoner, turned his head back slightly and opened his mouth to call out towards the shelter. But before he could say anything, there was a dark blur and a thud as a rock the size of a man's fist struck the pirate a glancing blow on the side of his forehead. With a grunt he reeled back, raising one hand from the spear shaft. At once Macro rolled away, and snatched up his sword. He scrambled round and hacked at the back of the pirate's knee, slicing through tendons and shattering bones. The man dropped heavily. His skull cracked on a rock and he went limp, blood rippling from a deep tear in his scalp. Macro looked up and saw Cato leaning against the boulder.
'Nice shot, lad.'
Cato waved a hand in acknowledgement and slumped down again with a grimace. Macro glanced at the pirate and ran on towards the shelter, fifty feet away. The stones crunched loudly under his iron-nailed boots, but the element of surprise was lost now; only speed mattered. Before he reached the shelter an arm swept back the leather doorflap and a turbaned head emerged from the entrance. A dark-skinned face with yellow eyes turned towards Macro and just had time to register a look of shock and fear before Macro launched himself at the man with a loud roar. They tumbled back into the shelter, falling on to a small pot steaming over a cooking fire. The man gave a shriek as his back was scalded by the contents of the pot and scorched by the fire. The thick air of the shelter was at once tainted with the smell of porridge and the acrid stench of burned hair. Macro's sword had lodged in the man's hip, and he released the grip, and pinned the pirate down, one hand clenched around his throat and the other grasping one of the man's wrists. He continued to scream, even as Macro tightened his grip around the man's throat, crushing the windpipe. For a moment the man bucked and writhed desperately until, after what seemed an age, his strength failed and he lost consciousness. Macro held him down a while longer, to make quite sure he was finished, and then rolled to one side breathing heavily.
A shadow fell across the entrance to the shelter as Cato leaned against the rough wood of the door frame. He looked down at the body smothering the fire and his face wrinkled with distaste.
'You didn't have to cook him…' Cato glanced at his friend. 'You all right?'
'Fine. Just fine.' Macro pulled himself up and squatted over the body as he grasped the handle of his sword with both hands and tore it free. He wiped it on the worn tunic of the pirate and returned it to its sheath, before brushing past Cato into the fresh air and away from the smell of smouldering flesh and burned hair.
'How about you?' Macro nodded down at Cato's crotch.
'I'll live, but I'm not so sure any putative heirs will.'
Macro smiled. 'And there's me always telling 'em how you've got balls of iron.'
'Thanks for your concern.' Cato sat down, looked round the small lookout station and thought for a moment.'We've got a problem.'
'We have?' Macro nodded at the dead pirate inside the shelter. 'Not any more. I think we got them all.'
'That's just it. What happens if the pirates discover we've killed these men? Think about it. They'll know we've been here, and that means we've discovered where their base is.'
Macro nodded, grasping the implications of the new situation at once. 'They'll run for it. And we're back to square one. With a bloody pissed-off Prefect Vespasian into the bargain. But surely, if we can get back to the fleet in time, we can still trap them in the bay before they discover we've taken out their lookout station.'
Cato shook his head. 'They're going to find out long before then.'
'That first man. I got the impression he was expecting someone when he heard you singing. Makes sense. There's no food up here. The lookouts would need to have food sent up to them. And if he was expecting someone, you can be sure they'll be here soon enough, see the bodies and raise the alarm at once. Probably from right here, which means Telemachus will have plenty of time to escape long before we even get back to Vespasian.'
'Shit,' muttered Macro. 'So what do we do? Wait for the supplies to turn up and take care of them as well?'
'No. We can't delay getting word back to the fleet.'
'Great!' Macro slapped his thigh in frustration. 'So what do we do?'
'Only thing we can do,' Cato replied.'You go back to the fleet and tell them everything. Take my map, that'll make it clearer. I'll stay here and wait for the supplies to turn up.'
'That's madness,' Macro protested. 'You've no idea how many men there'll be.'
'Can't be more than one or two,' said Cato. 'That's all they'll need to lead the supply mules up the track.'
'And what if they bring up men to relieve this lot?' Macro shook his head. 'You wouldn't stand a chance. Not meaning to cause any offence or anything, Cato, but you're no champion gladiator.'
'No offence taken,' Cato said grudgingly.'We'd just better hope they don't change their lookouts too frequently.'
Macro looked at him in silence for a moment, trying to think of any further arguments he could use to dissuade his friend, but Cato was right. They simply could not risk the enemy being aware that their secret lair had been discovered. If only they had not blundered on this lookout post. If only he hadn't started singing, Macro reproached himself bitterly. They might have seen the lookout post in time to skirt round it and continue their journey back to the fleet with the enemy being none the wiser. He looked at Cato.
'I'll stay. You get back to the fleet. It's my fault we had to kill them.'
'No.' Cato shook his head. 'We had to silence them. Otherwise they'd have warned the pirates of the fleet's approach. We were lucky to have found them. Don't blame yourself.'
Macro shrugged, still unable to entirely shift the burden of guilt.
'You go.' Cato insisted.'Vespasian must be told the pirates are here. The message has to get through, and you're the best bet. I'll do my bit here.'
'I see. And how will you get back to the fleet once you've dealt with the men bringing the supplies?'
'I'll stay up here until the fleet arrives. If we do surprise them I'll make my way down and you can tell them to send a boat for me. If I'm badly outnumbered here, I'll run for it. After I've set this place on fire. That'll be the signal to our side that the pirates have discovered we're on to them. I'll not take any pointless risks, Macro,' Cato tried to reassure his friend. 'Sooner a live centurion than a dead hero.'
Macro laughed. 'The wisest thing you've ever said, Cato. All right then, I'll go.'
'Right now would be good.'
'What? No rest? And me just having come out of a fight?'
'Just go, Macro.' Cato took the map from inside his tunic and held it out to his friend. 'Here.'
Macro leaned over and took the map. 'I'll see you later, Cato.'
'Remember, don't stop for anything. Be careful. No more singing.'
'What's wrong with my singing?' Macro grinned, then turned away and marched across the top of the plateau. Cato watched him, until the path dipped down the far side of the mountain and his friend disappeared from view. He was alone, except for the spirits of the three men whose bodies lay on the mountain top with him. Around the silent and still lookout post, a cold damp breeze blew mournfully.
06 The Eagles Prophecy