Night had fallen by the time the yacht reached the fleet and moored alongside Vespasian's flagship. The fleet was anchored in a bay a short distance down the coast from the looming mass of the mountain where the pirates had established their lookout station. The fleet lay close to the shore in complete darkness since Vespasian had forbidden the lighting of any fires or lamps. The troops on the beach had erected a marching camp for the night and were huddled in their tents, eating their rations cold. Macro waited for the crew to secure the yacht to the trireme with their boathooks, then he clambered up the rungs of the quinquireme's side ladder on to the deck and was immediately escorted to the aft cabin by a junior tribune.
The new prefect was sitting at a small table and eating a bowl of barley gruel by the wan light of a single oil lamp that could be permitted in his cabin. He looked up as someone knocked on the door and hurriedly swallowed before answering.
The tribune swung the door open and ducked his head under the low lintel. 'Centurion Macro's returned, sir.'
'Show him in.'
The tribune stepped to one side and ushered the centurion into Vespasian's presence. Macro stood stiffly to attention.
'At ease. Where's Centurion Cato?'
'He's keeping the enemy under observation, sir.'
Vespasian leaned across the table, eyes glinting with eager anticipation. 'You found them, then?'
'Yes, sir. Their fleet and their base. Not ten miles from here. I'll show you on the map, sir.'
Vespasian cleared the bowl and cup from his table as Macro wrestled Cato's map from beneath his cloak and tunic. He laid it on the desk and carefully unfolded it, then both men leaned over it for a closer look in the weak light. Macro indicated the peak of the mountain he and Cato had climbed that morning.
'The enemy have a lookout station up here, sir. We came across it by accident this morning and had to kill the men stationed there.'
Vespasian glanced sidelong at the centurion. 'How many of them?'
'Just three, sir.'
'Just three.' Vespasian smiled.'You make it sound so easy.'
'We had the drop on them, sir. When surprise is on your side it makes life a lot easier.'
'True enough. Please continue.'
'Yes, sir.' Macro moved his finger across the map to the bay at the foot of the mountain opposite the lookout station. 'That's where they are, sir. We counted twenty-three ships: two triremes, eight biremes, nine liburnians and four smaller vessels.'
Vespasian pursed his lips.'That's quite a fleet they've built up. This Telemachus must be something of an inspiring leader.'
Macro nodded. 'We found that out the hard way, sir.'
'Yes… What else did you see?'
'They've got a fortified citadel on this spit of rock here, sir. Steep cliffs on three sides and a pretty substantial wall and ditch facing the mainland.'
'Nothing we can't deal with,' Vespasian decided. 'The priority is taking and destroying their ships. Afterwards we can deal with their citadel in good time.'
Macro looked at the prefect. 'I imagine that's where Telemachus will be keeping the scrolls, sir. We'll have to be careful there. Can't risk a fire, sir.'
'You have a point.' Vespasian nodded. 'There'll be no incendiaries used in any bombardment and I'll give the marines strict orders not to set fire to anything when we break into the defences.'
'Can you trust them, sir? They're marines, after all, not legionaries. There's not the same discipline.'
'Then it's up to us legionaries to set them an example, right, Centurion?'
Macro smiled. Vespasian was a cool one. That kind of comment from almost any other member of the senatorial class would have been taken as a glib piece of rhetoric to win over the common soldiery. But, somehow, Macro felt that this man meant it. Vespasian had the common touch, all right. He had experienced the life and the trials of his men, as far as his senior rank allowed. That's why the Second Legion Augusta had fought so hard for him in the British campaign and had carved out quite a reputation for itself in the process. Macro realised that this was the source of his own sense of loyalty to Vespasian. He was a man to follow.
Vespasian was looking thoughtfully at the map and as he stroked his broad forehead Macro realised the commander was exhausted. More than any man in the fleet. One of the many burdens of high rank, he supposed. As Vespasian examined the map Macro found that he was reminded of Cato, whose endless mental activity seemed to be shared by the prefect of the Ravenna fleet. For a moment Macro envied both men the capacity for such elaborate thinking. It was a talent you either had, or hadn't, and Macro fully accepted that he was not gifted in that manner. For him, soldiering was a far more direct and immediate experience, and he liked it that way, even as he knew that it meant that he was unlikely to rise much beyond his present rank. The alternative, the endless deliberation of Cato and his like, struck Macro as being more of a curse than a blessing.
Vespasian tapped the map.'Well, we've got them, provided we close the trap swiftly. There's only one problem – the approach to this bay. Thanks to you and Centurion Cato we can get close without them knowing it, but the moment the fleet appears round the side of this mountain they're bound to see us. They'll have a good hour to make sail and prepare their defences. We need to find a way of getting closer before they're aware of the danger.'
Macro cleared his throat. 'A night attack, sir?'
'No.' Vespasian shook his head. 'Out of the question. It would be hard enough to coordinate in open waters. We'd lose ships on the rocks. The fleet would reach them piecemeal and they'd organise a defence long before we could close on them in sufficient strength to have a realistic chance of victory. It has to be by daylight. By land, perhaps. If we put a force ashore on the other side of the mountain, they could climb across during the night and attack the moment the fleet comes into sight.' Vespasian looked up in excitement. 'That might do it.'
'Beg your pardon, sir, but it won't work.'
'Oh?' Vespasian frowned.'Why not?'
'It's these mountains, sir. Cato and I just about managed to cope with them. Those marines are good lads, but they're not great marchers and that kind of terrain will kill them, sir. Even if they did get over the mountain, they'd take far too long and be too tired for much fighting when they reached the enemy.' He met his superior's eyes and saw that Vespasian looked irritated by his assessment of the terrain. 'Sorry, sir. That's how I see it.'
'All right, then,' Vespasian responded grudgingly.'We have to come up with something else… something to get us in close before they realise they're under attack…some kind of Trojan horse.'
Macro puffed out his cheeks and Vespasian chuckled at the gesture. 'You have a problem with Greek mythology, Centurion?'
'Not as long as it stays in the books, sir.'
'Don't like books, I take it?'
'No, sir. I get enough stories from the other ranks as it is.'
'Well, perhaps you should read a little more, Centurion. Nothing like it for broadening the mind, and inspiring the imagination.'
Macro shrugged. 'If you say so, sir. But I don't think there's really enough time to knock up a wooden horse. Besides, there's the transportation problem. Something big enough to hide a decent-sized force in is going to be an absolute bugger to get on board a ship. Even one this size.'
Vespasian watched him in amusement as Macro explained his misgivings. When the centurion had finished Vespasian couldn't help smiling.
'What have I said, sir?' Macro looked offended. 'I just don't think it will work, sir. However good an idea it might seem,' he added quickly. 'Besides, that's the kind of low crafty trick that only the Greeks would use.'
'Sometimes, even the Greeks did the right thing, Centurion… But, no. You're quite right. It wouldn't work. We'll have to try something else.'
Macro nodded happily, glad that his commander had seen reason. This was the unfortunate side of the creative intelligence of men such as Vespasian and Cato, Macro reflected. Once in a while their imaginations rushed way ahead of their reasoning and needed to be reined in by a fatherly word of restraint, from more worldly heads.
Vespasian took a last look at the map and gave a faint nod, before he met Macro's gaze again, this time with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. 'Very well. Not a Trojan horse. A Trojan whale, then.'
Macro winced. What on earth was Vespasian thinking of now?
'Those two pirate vessels you and Centurion Cato captured a few nights back…'
'What about them, sir?'
'I think it's time we put them to good use.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy