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CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

Cato waited until the pain in his groin had subsided enough for him to move around easily. Now that Macro was gone, the first doubts about the wisdom of the course of action he had insisted on occurred to him. If three men came up the path he would be at a disadvantage. He could count on disabling one pirate when he surprised them. That would leave a straight fight with one man, which he should be able to handle. But two men? He had seen enough fights to know that almost any two men, with their wits about them, could defeat a man on his own. Provided they took their time and divided his attention. Cato made a decision. If he was faced by more than two men he would set fire to the lookout post and run for it.

The thought of fire drew him back to the present. The pirate slowly roasting on top of the fire was beginning to smell terrible. Cato took a breath of cool air and then plunged into the shelter. The interior was filled with smoke and the stench of burning hair and seared flesh was quite sickening. Cato gritted his teeth and bent over to grab the ankles of the pirate, pulled the man off the cooking fire and dragged him outside. Before Cato could spring any surprise on the enemy he must dispose of the lookouts' bodies. A latrine ditch lay fifty feet from the shelter and Cato dragged the corpse over to the ditch and, nose wrinkling with disgust at the stench of raw human waste, he rolled the body into the ditch. When he returned to the man he had hit with the rock Cato realised the pirate was still alive, but only just.

For a moment he debated whether to finish him off. The man was dead one way or another: he could expect no mercy from Vespasian if the Roman fleet won the day. The injury to his head looked severe enough to kill him eventually, and yet Cato could not find the resolution within himself to end the pirate's suffering. If it had been a fight Cato would have no compunction about killing his man, and doing it quickly and efficiently with no sentiment. The prospect of killing a helpless man, however, disturbed him. It was irrational to have such perverse scruples, he reasoned with himself as he lifted the man under his shoulders and started dragging him towards the latrine ditch. The pirate groaned feebly as Cato hauled him across the rocky plateau and dumped him on top of his comrade.

Cato turned away quickly and made his way back to the first man, the one he had killed on the path. As he moved the body he saw that the ground was soaked with blood, and there was more splattered across the side of the boulder. Once the body had joined the others Cato cut some strips from a cloak laying outside the shelter and found a water skin before he returned to the path beside the boulder. He worked quickly, dowsing the stains and rubbing them away with the rags, expecting the enemy to arrive any moment. At last he was satisfied that he had done enough to hide the evidence of the fight. The water was already soaking into the path and would soon disappear. In any case, Cato told himself, the pirates would not be expecting any trouble up on the isolated mountain top. The threat they would be guarding against was from the direction of the sea. The mountains that ringed the bay had been hard enough going for Cato and Macro, travelling as lightly as possible. There was little chance that a heavily armed force of soldiers would be able to scale the steep slopes undetected.

Having taken care of the bodies and washed the blood away, Cato took the chance to examine the lookout station more closely. Not far from the shelter the plateau narrowed and dropped away in a precipitous cliff. From its tip it was possible to look far along the coast on either side. The pirates had constructed a crude signal station with a mast, beside which sat a small chest. Cato lifted the lid and saw bundles of brightly coloured material. All quite useless, of course, without any idea of what each pennant signified. Beside the mast sat a peculiar-looking device mounted on a small post. Two highly polished metal plates were fixed at angles to each other and Cato surmised that it might be some kind of heliograph.

He returned to the shelter, picked up the lookouts' spears then went back to the boulder to keep watch down the track that sloped away for nearly a quarter of a mile before disappearing over a small spur thrusting out from the side of the mountain. He set the spears down behind the boulder and eased himself into a position overlooking the track. He would see them coming in plenty of time. He settled down to wait, leaning up against the boulder as the sun rose into the sky and began to bathe the world in its warm glow. The light breeze slowly drove the clouds before it, clearing them away down the coast and revealing for the first time the full distance that could be observed from the top of the mountain.

For a while Cato revelled in the sense of Olympian detachment he felt as he gazed down on the bay at the foot of the mountain rising up opposite his position. Tiny figures swarmed around three ships drawn up on the beach. They had been rolled on to one side and wedged so that an expanse of their underside was clearly exposed. Smoke coiled up from fires twinkling further up the beach and Cato guessed that the pirates must be applying a fresh layer of tar to the bottom of the ships. His gaze slowly travelled along the thin strip of land that linked the beach to the citadel at the end. That was the only viable approach to the citadel since on the other three sides it was protected by sheer rocky cliffs. The landward side was defended by a solid-looking masonry wall with a gatehouse, from which a timber bridge projected across a defence ditch. Behind the wall, a jumble of whitewashed houses climbed up to the highest point of the rocky spur, where a small tower nestled above the sea, twinkling at the foot of the cliff. The pirates must have seized the citadel, or perhaps it had been abandoned long ago. In any case, Telemachus had chosen an excellent location for his base of operations, in every respect save that there was no alternative route out of the bay should an enemy block its entrance. Hence the need for a lookout station with such commanding views of the approaches to the pirate base, Cato realised. The pirates would need plenty of warning if they were to make a clean escape from the bay.

Gazing out to sea Cato caught sight of the tiny triangle of a sail several miles away; some merchant ship no doubt keeping a wary eye out for pirates, blissfully ignorant that they were sailing right by the hidden pirate lair. He was suddenly aware that had he and Macro not intervened, the lookouts would already be signalling the presence of the merchant ship and thereby sealing her fate. He smiled at the thought that there was one prize Telemachus and his pirates were never going to seize.

As the sun climbed to its zenith it grew so warm that Cato discarded his cloak and set it down beside the boulder as he kept watch. Then, shortly before noon, he heard a voice cry out. He drew his sword and tensed up, but quickly realised the sound had not come from down the slope, but from the other direction, towards the lookouts' shelter. Cato turned round and scanned the plateau. Almost at once he saw a dark shape rise up from the ground and his heart leaped in his chest. There was another cry, a plaintive mixture of pain and a call for help. Then Cato realised that it was the wounded man, sitting up in the latrine ditch.

'Shit!' Cato hissed through clenched teeth. He should have killed him earlier. Now he would have to, before the man recovered enough to become a danger, or called out to warn his comrades. But he just watched in horrified fascination as the man tried to climb out of the ditch, lost his grip and slipped back down, out of sight with a cry of pain and frustration. A moment later his head rose over the rim and he tried to pull himself out of the ditch again.

A distant braying caught Cato's ears and he tore his gaze away from the latrine ditch and stared down the slope. At first he could see nothing. Then a man appeared on the track where it crossed the spur. He was leading a mule with two large baskets slung either side. Another mule appeared behind him, then three men carrying spears. Cato felt a sick feeling of dread wreath its way round his stomach as he watched the men slowly climb up the track. There were too many of them. He eased himself back behind the boulder and was about to make for the shelter to set it ablaze when he stopped and looked at the base of the rock more closely, struck by a sudden inspiration. Placing the palms of his hands against the rough surface of the boulder he braced his legs and pushed steadily. For an instant nothing happened, then he felt it shift a little and small pebbles from around its base rattled down the path.

There was another cry from the man in the latrine, louder now. If Cato didn't silence him the men on the track would hear him long before they reached the plateau. Cato took a last glance down the slope to gauge their pace and then turned to run back towards the shelter. He ran on to the latrine and slowed to a walk a few steps from the edge of the trench. The sun had heated the mixture of ordure, urine and blood to a ripe odour and Cato felt his stomach tighten. The wounded man was still crying out as Cato leaned cautiously over the trench.

'Quiet!' he said harshly in Greek.

The man looked up at him with wide, terrified eyes. Then he opened his mouth and screamed out.

'Shut up!' Cato hissed at him. He jabbed a finger at the man and then pressed it to his lips.'Shhhh! Be a good pirate and keep your bloody mouth shut!'

The man continued screaming and Cato drew his finger across his throat. 'Shut up, or else! Understand?'

Cato glanced back at the boulder in desperation. The man was going to get him killed if he continued making this racket. Then Cato realised. It was him or the man. Simple as that. Cato drew his sword and stood over the latrine for a moment.

'Sorry. But you wouldn't listen.'

At the last moment the man raised both hands, clenched together in a begging motion. He shut his eyes and turned his face away from Cato as the glinting blade slashed down into his throat. Cato straightened up as blood gushed out. The man writhed and spluttered for a moment. Cato waited until he was sure the man was quite dead and would pose no further danger, then he turned away. He ran back to the shelter, sheathed his sword and took a firm hold of one of the doorposts, pulling it towards him. It shifted a little and Cato pushed it the other way, then pulled it back. He strained his muscles to work it free and finally it erupted from the ground and he tumbled back as the roof of the shelter fell in. Snatching up the stout post, Cato raced back to the boulder, heart pounding from his exertions.

When he reached the boulder he glanced back down the slope and was shocked to see the enemy no more than fifty paces from the place where he had killed the first of the lookouts. Cato crouched down and shoved the doorpost under the base of the boulder, ramming it home as far as he could, before he dragged a large rock into place beneath the post to act as a fulcrum. Then he crept to the side of the boulder and peered cautiously around the edge until he could see the track. Already the scraping clop of the mules carried easily to his ears and then he could hear the voices of the pirates, breathless, but still bantering in the easy humorous tone of men who had no thought of imminent danger.

They climbed steadily towards the plateau and Cato wondered one last time if he was being a fool, and whether he should run for it even now. After all, the pirates had had a long weary climb up from the foot of the mountain and would be too tired to continue the pursuit for long. If Cato moved now, and doubled quietly round them he could still make his way along the edge of the plateau without being detected and follow Macro's trail down the far slope. Then he forced himself to take a grip on his fears. It was only natural that, in this moment just before a fight, his racing mind would fall victim to doubts. He must remember how much was riding on what happened in the next few moments. If he failed, these men would raise the alarm that would allow the pirates to escape and find another base from which to prey upon merchant shipping. Many more lives would be lost. Worst of all, Narcissus would redouble his efforts to find and seize the precious scrolls, no matter how many sailors and marines it cost. Cato must not run from the fight. Moreover, he must not fail.

The man leading the mules stepped into view and Cato eased himself back and grasped the end of the doorpost in both hands. He leaned his weight on the end of the post and waited as the mules passed the boulder.

As their driver stepped on to the plateau he caught sight of Cato over the rim of the boulder and his mouth dropped open in surprise. An explosive grunt ripped through Cato's clenched teeth as he thrust his weight down on the end of the doorpost. For an instant the boulder wavered, grinding stones to gravel beneath its mass, then it eased forward, gathered momentum and toppled down on to the track. A sharp scream was abruptly cut short as the great mass of stone crushed a pirate with a deep thud. The rutted path stopped the boulder from falling any further down the slope and it slammed to the ground, sending up a small shower of pebbles and dust.

Cato snatched up one of the spears and he turned on the mule-driver. The man carried no weapon and threw his hands up, screaming at Cato in Latin.

'No! Spare me! Spare me!'

Cato paused, taking in the thick white calluses ringing the man's wrists. Then he pointed at the ground and shouted, 'Get down and don't move, if you want to live!'

The man dropped the leash of his mule and threw himself on to the path. The mule paid no attention to its master and simply stared at the boulder with terrified eyes and flaring nostrils. A short distance behind it the second mule's back had been broken by the boulder. The stricken animal was on its side, front legs thrashing on the loose surface, while its back legs lay crushed and inert. Behind the second mule the bottom half of one of the pirates protruded from beneath the boulder, his head and upper torso flattened to a pulp. Beside him sat one of his companions, staring in shock at a broken leg, the sharp white splinter of bone thrusting through the torn and bloody flesh of his shin.

The third pirate was unharmed, but momentarily frozen in horror as he stared at his companions. But he saw Cato the instant the Roman stumbled round the edge of the boulder, spear grasped tightly, drawn back and ready to thrust. The pirate hesistated for no more than an instant before he turned and sprinted back down the track, scrambling as he struggled to retain his balance.

'Bastard!' Cato cursed him, and jumped over the injured pirate as he chased the fleeing man. Cato knew the pirate must not be allowed to escape at any cost, and he threw himself down the slope. The pirate did not have much of a start, but Cato realised that he would never catch the man while burdened with the spear. He slithered to a stop, breathing heavily, drew back the spear, sighted along its length and threw it with all his strength. It flew in a low trajectory straight for the man's back and even as he turned his head to glance at his pursuer, the iron head slammed into him, behind his left shoulder blade, piercing flesh and bone before it tore through his heart and ripped out through the front of his chest. The impact threw him forward and sideways and he cartwheeled down the path before falling into an inert heap on the side of the mountain.

Cato leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees as he caught his breath. Then he strode down to the body to check that the man was dead. Sightless eyes stared up at the sky and there was no movement to indicate any sign of life. As Cato turned back up the slope there was a piercing cry as the wounded pirate tried to defend himself from the mule-driver. The latter had picked up a heavy stone and even as Cato watched he slammed it down on the pirate's head. The man grunted and collapsed on the track. Leaning over him the mule-driver swung the rock down again and again, until it came up stained red, and dripping blood and brains.

Cato drew his sword and approached the mule-driver cautiously, speaking quietly. 'I think you got him all right.'

He nodded at the pulverised tangle of hair and skull beneath the mule-driver, and the man glanced down before he returned his gaze to Cato, eyes wide with horror and fear.

'Stay back!'

Cato stopped, and after a moment he sheathed his sword. 'There. You see, I mean you no harm.' He raised his hands. 'See?'

The mule-driver stared at him, his thin chest heaving, then he lowered his arms and tossed the bloody rock to one side and slumped down beside the man he had killed. But still he watched Cato warily.

'Who are you?'

'Centurion Cato. I'm with the Ravenna fleet. We're here to deal with the pirates.'

The mule-driver stared at Cato in silence, and then his shoulders heaved up and huge choking sobs racked his bony chest as he slumped forwards, cradling his head in his hands. Cato crept closer, tentatively reached out and gently squeezed the mule-driver's shoulder.

'It's over. You're free of them now.'

The man nodded, or he might have been shuddering. Cato could not tell and he tried to find some more words to comfort the mule-driver. 'You're free. You're not their slave any more.'

'Slave!' The man shook Cato's hand from his shoulder and turned round with a wild expression of rage and bitterness. 'Slave! I'm not a slave. I'm a Roman… a Roman!'

Cato stepped back. 'I'm sorry. I didn't know… What's your name?'

'My name?' The man stiffened his back and stared at Cato with as much haughty disdain as he could summon up in his pitiful state. 'My name is Caius Caelius Secundus.'

06 The Eagles Prophecy


CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO | The Eagles Prophecy | CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR