Caius Caelius Secundus woke shortly after sunset and looked round anxiously before memory of the Roman centurion's rescue flooded back to him in a wave of images and emotions. Just above him was what remained of the roof of the shelter. He reached over and picked up a cloak that had been left for him by the bedding and wrapped it around his thin shoulders. With a grunt Secundus rose and, bending low, he moved over to the entrance of the shelter. He paused a moment before cautiously pushing the leather tent flap to one side and peering out. A short distance away a faint glow radiated up from the fire pit on to the face of Centurion Cato. They had spoken briefly after the ambush, when Cato had led him across the plateau to the shelter. Secundus had been exhausted from his long climb up the mountain, and emotionally overcome by his sudden release from captivity. The rage that had burned in his heart at the months of indignity and suffering had exploded in a moment of fury when he had crushed the pirate's head and afterwards he felt numb and spent as Cato had tried to make him comfortable and let him rest.
Now the young officer glanced up as he became aware that he was being watched, and smiled at Secundus.
'Much.' Secundus emerged from the shelter and straightened up. A faint aroma of stewing meat wafted into his nostrils and immediately he was reminded of how hungry he was; how hungry he had been throughout his captivity. Secundus walked stiffly over to the fireplace and sat down opposite his rescuer. Between them, hanging from a small tripod was a battered iron pot filled almost to the brim with a thick bubbling liquid. 'Smells good. What is it?'
'Barley and mule,' Cato replied.'Thought I might as well make the most of the one that got caught under the rock. The other one bolted.'
There was a moment's silence in which Secundus looked round at the night sky and saw that it was quite clear. Away to the horizon there was a broad band of watery orange that quickly faded to a dark blue and then an inky black by the time it reached the opposite horizon. Some of the brightest stars were already out, scattered across the heavens like distant specks of silver. High up on the mountain top the air was cold, and Secundus pulled the cloak tighter about him and shuffled closer to the edge of the fire pit. He looked across at the centurion.
'I haven't thanked you yet, young man.'
Cato winced momentarily at the reference to his age before he tilted his head in acknowledgement. 'You're welcome.'
There was another pause, before Secundus asked, 'So what were you doing up here? It's a strange place to find a centurion, all on his own.'
Cato sensed the suspicion in the other man's tone and smiled to himself. He would feel the same way about such a fortuitous rescue by another Roman. 'We're on a reconnaissance mission.'
'My friend and I. Another centurion serving with the Ravenna fleet. We had information that the pirates were somewhere in this area. We were sent in to check. Right now, Macro should be making his report. Then the prefect will head here with his full force and destroy the pirates.'
'You seem very sure of victory.'
Cato grinned.'I'm just very sure about Prefect Vespasian. He doesn't like to waste any time when he's got an enemy lined up for a good kicking.'
'Why did you remain here?'
'Had to,' Cato replied simply. 'Once we stumbled on the lookout station we had to put it out of operation and make sure it couldn't warn Telemachus of the fleet's approach. Once our ships arrive we'll go down the mountain and join them.'
Cato looked at him. 'Now, if you don't mind, there's some questions I'd like to ask you.'
'I'd be delighted,' Secundus replied, and gestured towards the steaming pot. 'Over a meal.'
'Of course. I'm sorry.' Cato picked up his mess tin and leaned over the fire pit to ladle some stew into the tin. He handed it across to Secundus and sat down as the other man raised the tin to his lips.
'Careful!' Cato warned him. 'It's bloody hot. Give it a moment to cool down. You can use this.' He tossed the man his spoon.
'Thanks.' Secundus cradled the mess tin in the folds of his cloak. 'Ask away.'
'Firstly, you're Narcissus' agent, aren't you?'
Secundus looked up sharply. 'What makes you say that?'
'Narcissus briefed us about what had happened to you. That's the reason why Macro and I were given this assignment in the first place. We were sent out with Prefect Vitellius to crush the pirates and rescue you.'
'I thought you said Vespasian was the prefect.'
'He is now. Vitellius made an utter balls-up of the opening stages of the campaign and Narcissus replaced him as soon as he got word.' He cleared his throat. 'In addition to defeating the pirates we were also tasked with retrieving the scrolls.'
Secundus tensed up for an instant, and then he raised a spoon of stew to his lips and blew across the surface to cool it down. He did not look up when he stopped blowing. 'Scrolls? What scrolls would they be?'
'The ones you were carrying back to Rome.'
'I was carrying quite a few messages back to Rome at the time of my capture.'
'Maybe.' Cato shrugged.'But I think you'd remember the scrolls I'm talking about. The Sybilline scrolls.'
Secundus stared at him. 'You know about them? Who else knows?'
'Macro, Vitellius, and now Vespasian, of course. Officially, that's the list of the people in the know.' Cato told the lie comfortably enough. 'We've been told to get the scrolls back at any cost. And you, of course.'
Secundus couldn't help smiling. 'But, according to Narcissus, the scrolls are the priority. My rescue was a supplementary goal. Am I right?'
'You know Narcissus.'
'Well enough… It seems that you've got your priorities the wrong way round, Centurion Cato. You've freed me, but the scrolls are still down there with Telemachus. I understand he wants to ransom them.'
'If only it was that simple. It's not so much a ransom as an auction.'
Secundus carefully sipped the soup off the spoon and smiled contentedly before he returned his thoughts to the wider political situation.'I imagine that if there's anyone else who wants to get their hands on the scrolls, the Liberators would have to be top of the list.'
'That's my thinking,' Cato agreed.'But let's face it; anyone with the right money and the right connections would have more than a passing interest in possessing the scrolls. It's not every day that the entire future of the Empire is laid out right in front of your eyes.'
'That's why it has to be Narcissus who gets them.'
'He's hardly a neutral power in this situation.'
'No. But he's a safe pair of hands, and because he only serves the Emperor, there's little risk of him using the knowledge to further his own ends. In every other respect I'd trust him about as far as I could spit a brick. He's a bastard all right, but at least he's our bastard.' Secundus paused to sip another spoon of stew. 'But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Telemachus still has the scrolls.'
'Do you know where he's keeping them?'
Secundus nodded. 'I think so. When I was first captured he kept me in a cell in the citadel. I was tortured for the first few days while they tried to get every scrap of information they could out of me concerning those bloody scrolls. First they beat me, then dragged me up to his private quarters where he'd question me. Him and that son of his. Young Ajax has a cruel streak a mile wide.'
Cato smiled. 'You might like to know he's been on the receiving end. We took him and two of their ships the other day.'
'Good for you, Centurion. Little bastard deserves it, after what he did to me… Anyway, that's where I saw them – the scrolls. On his desk. Telemachus had them out a few times when they were torturing me. The scrolls are kept in a small casket.' Secundus paused to fix the image in his mind. 'It's black, decorated with gold and onyx cameos. The last time I was questioned was over a month ago. That's the last time I saw the scrolls. I assume Telemachus is still keeping them safe in his quarters. There's something else you should know. I think Telemachus has a spy in the fleet. He once told me to give up any hope of being rescued. He boasted that he knew every detail about the Ravenna fleet. More than enough to ensure its defeat.'
'They gave us a hiding,' Cato confirmed. 'We lost several ships and hundreds of men. You're right about the spy. The pirates knew exactly where to intercept the fleet, and how vulnerable our lighter ships would be under their load of supplies and equipment. If we ever find out who the spy is I don't think any power on earth is going to stop the men from tearing him to pieces.'
'They said they had beaten the Ravenna fleet. I didn't believe them at the time.' Secundus shook his head sadly at the unlikely prospect of the reversal of arms. Like all Romans he was raised to believe in Roman invincibility. For Cato, at the sharp end of imperial policy, the successful defence of the Empire's borders by the widely spread legions and fleets seemed nothing short of a miracle.
Secundus continued quietly.'Seems that Telemachus is as good as he thinks he is after all.'
Cato shook his head.'He's had his run of luck. His time's up, or will be very soon. You'll see. Now tell me, what happened after the questioning was done with?'
Secundus gestured to his wasted body with his spare hand. 'I was sent down to the stables to look after the mules. Since then, it's been endless mucking out, and trips up to this place every three days. Rowing a bloody great boat across the bay, and then a bastard of a climb up this mountain.'
'How long before you and the others are missed?'
'We're expected back by nightfall today.'
'That's fine,' Cato replied.'I'm surprised they didn't keep you somewhere nice and secure. You might have escaped.'
'I was always watched.'
'Fair enough. You must have seen enough of this base to provide some useful information once you were ransomed.'
Secundus looked up at Cato.'What makes you think they were ever going to let me go? Besides, one of the guards told me that they were going to quit the bay soon, and find another lair, next to some new hunting grounds.'
'Did Telemachus ever mention the Liberators?'
'He said there were other parties interested in the scrolls.'
'Did he ever mention the name of their agent?'
'No. But I think I saw him once.' Secundus' brow crinkled as he recalled the details. 'I was loading the provision boat when a ship came in and landed a Roman. They took him under guard. Straight to the citadel. I never knew his name.'
'Then what did he look like?'
'Mid-thirties, maybe forty. Medium build… Nothing outstanding about him. Except the scar.'
'Scar? What about it?'
'He had a livid red mark on his cheek, like a burn… Sorry, that's all I can remember.'
'It's enough. If I could produce this man again, would you recognise him?'
'With that scar, I should think so.'
'If I'm right, his name is Anobarbus. That mean anything to you?'
'No. Sorry.' Secundus lowered his head and smelled the stew in the mess tin. 'I can't tell you how good this is.'
'There's plenty there, help yourself. But don't overdo it. It wouldn't go well with Narcissus if I saved you from torture and slavery only to kill you with kindness.'
Secundus laughed, drew a breath at the wrong moment and started choking on the stew, which dribbled from his nose as his body was racked by a fit of coughing. Cato sprang up in alarm and hurried round to deliver a hefty whack to the other man's bony back. He raised his hand to repeat the blow, but Secundus ducked away from him.
'Stop! I'm all right! I'm all right. No need for that.' He coughed a few times and then looked up at Cato with a chuckle. 'Sorry about that, but I haven't had a laugh for months. I haven't dared to. Thanks.' He smiled. 'You've made me feel much better. Almost human again. Thank you, Centurion Cato.'
For a moment the sense of relief was almost too much to bear and Secundus' eyes glimmered with tears. He cuffed them away quickly, set the mess tin down and rose to his feet.
'I'll sleep now.'
'You do that.' Cato smiled. 'I think tomorrow might just be a very long day.'
Cato rose with the dawn, waking suddenly into full consciousness from a deep sleep. He had been a soldier long enough to make the transition easily and at once. He threw back the pirate's sleeping blanket he had taken from the shelter and was on his feet an instant later, stretching his arms and shoulders. The sound of snoring came from the shelter and Cato decided to let the imperial agent sleep on for a while yet. The man needed time to rest and recover from his long ordeal at the hands of the pirates.
Cato made his way over to the signal station on the edge of the cliff, sat down and leaned against the signal mast. The horizon was clear, and there was no sign of any shipping along the coast. Before the pirates had established themselves in this area there would have been scores of sails in view. Cato turned and looked down towards the bay on the opposite shore. A thin haze of smoke eddied over the pirates' citadel and a few tiny dots moved along the shore by the ships. A peaceful enough scene, for the moment. All that would change once Vespasian arrived.
Cato stared down on the world for a while. The view was awe-inspiring and he quickly became lost in a peculiar serenity. Far below him, men were preparing for a new day of work on the beached pirate ships. Somewhere out there the men of the Ravenna fleet might be preparing themselves to fight a bitter battle with the unsuspecting pirates. Yet from up here, all these details seemed quite puny and inconsequential in the face of the mountains stretching out on either side, and an ocean that swept out to the horizon, unconfined by any sign of distant land. How peaceful it looked.
Then a small detail at the periphery of his vision stirred him back into full consciousness of his situation. Far below, on the blue sheen of the sea, five vessels were crawling across the sea half a mile off the rocky shore at the base of the mountain. They must have been visible for some time Cato realised, angry with himself for not spotting them sooner. Five galleys, he realised as he made out the twin lines of splashes that punctuated their progress. He watched them keenly as they turned towards the long inlet and headed straight at the far mountain and the pirate base beyond. As they drew closer he strained his eyes and saw that the two vessels at the head and tail of the small convoy were liburnians. In between them were three biremes. Cato frowned. What could this mean? Where was the Ravenna fleet?
Just then, as the lead liburnian emerged from the shadows into the sunlit expanse of ocean there was a dazzling flash from its fore deck. As Cato turned to look at the vessel directly the flash came again. Then another. There was a brief pause before there were three more flashes. A signal, Cato realised. The pirates were flashing a signal to the lookout station. He was seized by panic as it dawned on him that they were expecting a reply, or for the signal to be relayed. Cato stood up, trying to think. Then he turned and ran back to the shelter, shouting at the top of his voice.
'Secundus! Secundus! Get out here, man! Hurry!'
A moment later the leather curtain was wrenched aside and Secundus tumbled out of the shelter, rubbing his eyes. As soon as he saw the tense expression in the face of the centurion rushing towards him he straightened up. 'What's up? What's happening?'
'Pirate ships approaching the bay!' Cato pointed to the cliff edge.'They're signalling us. You have to help me. Come quick!'
He beckoned and turned back to the signal station. When Secundus had caught up with him, breathing hoarsely, Cato saw that the ship was still flashing its signal. He turned to the imperial agent. 'Come on, you've been with them for long enough to know the drill! What does the signal mean?'
'Quickly man. There must be some kind of recognition signal. Something they used to show that they were friends and all was well… Tell me! We have to make the pirates in the bay think they are safe for as long as possible. Someone's going to see those ships any moment. Unless we relay the right signal they're going to know something's wrong up here and raise the alarm. Come on, tell me. What should I do?'
'I'm thinking.' Secundus shut his eyes and thought back to his time down in the pirate base. 'Yes! Yes, I remember. The black pennant! Raise the black pennant!'
Cato looked at him. 'Black? Are you certain? Not the heliograph?'
'No – that was for communicating with the citadel. They used flags for signalling to approaching ships. They flew the black pennant whenever their ships came back from a raid.'
Cato snatched up the bundle of dark linen from the locker and fixed the toggles to the loops of twine on the mast halyard. As soon as the pennant was securely attached he hauled it up the mast and fastened the halyard securely about the wooden cleat. Overhead the light morning breeze rippled the ten-foot length of material out against the blue sky.
Cato turned to Secundus. 'I hope you're right.'
Secundus swallowed nervously.'We'll know soon enough. One way or another.'
06 The Eagles Prophecy