Before the sound of his voice even echoed off the face of the cliff, orders were being screamed out across the decks of all five ships. As the marines swarmed from the holds, the crew snatched up grappling hooks and the oarsmen steered towards their target ships. Macro indicated one of the triremes and Decimus nodded and passed on the order to the steersman. On each beam the long oars swept forwards, down, were hauled back and swept forward again as the galleys picked up speed over the rapidly narrowing stretch of water that separated them from the pirate ships. At first there was no immediate reaction from the other side as the pirates stared in uncomprehending surprise, then horror, at the ships heading straight for them. The marines had been ordered to keep silent as the ships closed in and an eerie quiet hung over the bay.
Then, after what seemed a long pause, the pirates began to respond to the attack. Their officers shouted out orders and men scrambled across the decks to find their weapons. Over on the beach, where the three vessels were still being caulked, the enemy were slower to react and watched in silence as the Roman vessels swept into the attack. Then from the citadel came the long flat blast of a horn, sounding the alarm, and only then did the pirates fully realise what was happening. But it was already far too late for those vessels closest to Macro's small squadron.
At the last moment the steersman thrust hard against his giant paddles and the port-side oars stopped dead in the water, causing the liburnian to swing round and fetch up against the side of the trireme with a jarring thud that trembled through every timber of the smaller ship.
'Grappling lines away!' Decimus yelled from aft, and the three pointed iron hooks sailed up and over on to the deck of the trireme. The seamen quickly pulled the lines tight and cleated them before snatching up their lighter weapons and swarming up the ropes on to the enemy vessel. The marines, more heavily armed, hurriedly raised boarding ladders and clambered up after their comrades. Macro pushed his way through the packed ranks to the nearest ladder and climbed up. He grasped the side rail of the trireme and swung himself on to its deck. He landed heavily, legs braced, and snatched out his sword from under his cloak.
The fight for the trireme was already decided. Only a skeleton crew was aboard, as Vespasian had foreseen. The rest must be ashore, billeted in the citadel or amongst the shelters stretching up the slope beyond the beach. Three bodies lay sprawled on the deck. A fourth man was slumped against the mast, coughing up jets of blood. Two men were trying to surrender just beyond the mast, but the marines cut them down without mercy and charged down the gangway leading below the deck. The orders had been made clear to every man of the assault party: no prisoners were to be taken. They could not afford to waste men to guard them, and any time taken to deal with prisoners would kill the impetus of the attack.
Some of the pirates who had managed to escape the first wave of Romans had run to the far side and were diving into the sea. They swam for the shore as fast as possible while Macro's men threw anything at them that came to hand: belaying pins, pots and jars and even the pirates' own weapons, abandoned in their terrified bid to escape their attackers.
Macro left his men to it and ran aft to the steering deck, taking the small staircase in a single bound. He ran to the rail and looked over the water to see how his small squadron was doing. The closest bireme had nearly seized its prey, and beyond, across the decks of the other ships, the fight was well underway. He thumped his fist down in satisfaction at the success of the start of the attack. But he must keep up the momentum. Leaning over the side he spotted Decimus and waved his sword to attract the trierarch's attention.
'Make ready to move! Get the crew back aboard. I'll deal with the marines!'
Decimus saluted and shouted orders to his men at once. Macro ran back on to the main deck.
'First two sections, with me! The rest of you, back to the ship.'
Due to the frantic excitement burning through their veins it took a moment before the first men responded to Macro's order and made their way back to the boarding ladders. As the first boarders returned on deck from the hold, Macro grabbed their optio by the arm.
'Take some men. Get back below and get some fires started. Make 'em good. Then get back to our ship.'
'We can't wait for you.' Macro nodded to a small boat tied on to the deck. 'You'll have to take that. Go!'
He turned away, clambered over the side and climbed down to the liburnian. The deck was filled with excited, grinning marines flushed with the thrill of their easy victory. Macro made his way over to Decimus as the grappling hooks were retrieved and the boarding ladders taken down.
Decimus grinned at him.'One down, just twenty or so to go.'
'Piece of piss,' Macro laughed. He turned and pointed to a bireme, inshore of the vessel they had just taken. 'That one's next. Get us alongside as fast you can.'
The men at the oars pushed the liburnian away from the side of the trireme before they got the vessel under way again. As they left the large warship in their wake Macro saw a thin wisp of smoke drift up from the deck, before it thickened into a swirling cloak of smutty grey as the flames began to take hold. Ahead of them the crew of the bireme were making what preparations they could to repel boarders. While the brief assault on the trireme had been taking place these pirates had time to arm themselves and take up position along the side of their ship. Several were armed with bows, and javelins had been snatched up and hastily leaned against the side, ready for use. As before, only a fraction of the crew were aboard but Macro counted nearly twenty of them. Enough to put up a spirited defence.
Macro cleared his throat to address the marines. 'This one's going to be a proper fight, lads. But it's the same routine as before. Go in quick, go in hard, and take no prisoners.'
Most of the men raised a cheer, but the veterans amongst them were already appraising the challenge ahead and weighing up their chances of success as the liburnian surged towards the enemy ship. When they were within fifty paces, Macro heard an order shouted from the deck of the pirate ship and several javelins darted out across the sea.
Macro just had time to shout a warning. 'Shields up!'
Then the heavy iron tips of the weapons thudded down on to the deck or punched through shields with a loud crack. There was a cry of pain as one man went down, the shaft of a javelin having passed through his stomach, pinning him to the side rail.
'Get that out of him and get him below! The rest of you, keep your bloody shields up! Decimus! Get some of your men to start hitting 'em back!'
As the distance between the two ships closed, there was just enough time to exchange a few more volleys, and then Decimus gave the order to back-water and as the men at the oars killed the forward speed of the liburnian, the ships met bow to bow with a jarring blow that knocked most men off their feet in a tangle of limbs and equipment, as curses and cries of pain and anger cut through the air.
Macro scrambled up, shouting, 'Get those grappling lines up! Go! Go!'
Once again the iron hooks thudded down on the enemy ship and were pulled taut. The first marine began to scramble up the side of the bireme. But before he reached the deck a pirate rose up behind the rail wielding a large axe in both hands. The heavy blade swept through the air and split the marine's helmet and skull right down to his shoulders. The body spasmed, and dropped into the narrow slit of water between the two vessels. As the other marines hesitated beside him, Macro snatched up a javelin, sighted it and threw it across at the axeman. The heavy tip struck him squarely in the breast and he staggered back out of sight.
'What are you waiting for?' Macro bellowed at the marines. 'Want me to do everything for you?'
With a snarl of rage Macro grabbed hold of a rope, hauled himself up and jumped on to the deck of the bireme, ready to take apart the first pirate he saw. He was the first Roman to board the vessel, and at once four of the pirates turned on him, swords raised. Behind their blades their eyes were pitiless. At his feet lay the bloodstained axe of the man he had killed. Macro snatched it up in both hands and whirled it round his head.
'Come on then,' he sneered. 'Who thinks he's hard enough?'
Behind him the rope juddered as the next Roman climbed up. One of the pirates shouted at his comrades and threw himself at Macro. The axe sliced down, through the man's arm just above the wrist and the sword, with hand still attached, thudded to the deck. Macro kicked the screaming pirate to the side and charged at his companions. The first carried a small shield, which he desperately threw up to deflect Macro's blow, but the impact hurled him to one side and he flew back across the deck, stunned. As Macro swung the axe back for the next blow, one of the pirates turned and ran off to find a safer foe, while the last timed his attack perfectly and slashed at Macro's chest with a curved, thin blade that cut through the cloak, tunic and sliced across the flesh beneath. Macro felt a pain as if someone had lashed the side of his chest with a red-hot iron.
'Fuck!' he cursed through tightly clenched teeth, and recoiled back against the side of the ship. The pirate grinned and jumped forward, sword angling up at Macro's throat, but before the blade could strike, a javelin thrust knocked it to one side and the first marine up the rope behind Macro jumped down on to the deck and slammed his fist into the pirate's face, knocking him down. The man reversed the javelin and thrust the spiked end into the pirate's heart, ripped it free and looked for his next enemy.
As more marines climbed aboard and fanned out, Macro glanced down at his injury and saw blood seeping through the tattered fabric of his tunic. He swore again and dropped the axe, then threw his cloak down and carefully felt his way through the torn material of the tunic. Nearly a foot of his chest had been laid open and he winced as his fingers lifted a flap of skin.
'That's not good,' he muttered, and pulled the tunic over his head. The wound was clean enough, but bleeding heavily. Drawing his sword, Macro cut a broad strip from the ruined tunic and tied a rough dressing around his chest, tight enough to help stem the bleeding but not too tight that it might restrict his breathing. More marines piled on board and began to fight their way aft. But the pirates were mounting a tough defence, Macro noticed, staying together and fighting with a grim determination to save their ship. Even when the marines began to outnumber them and force them aft, they fell back slowly, making their foes fight for every inch of the deck. Three marines had been cut down, and even as Macro watched, two more fell to the deck, one slashed through his hamstrings, the other thudding down with a broad-bladed dagger thrust into his eye.
'Go on, lads!' Macro called out to his men.'Go get 'em!'
Before long, the weight of numbers decided the issue. The marines lowered their shields and bodily thrust the pirates back, cutting them down the instant they stumbled, or came within range of a short sword. Pools of blood stained the deck and made the going slippery for the marines' boots. One by one the pirates fell until only a handful were left to defend the aft deck. As they fought on desperately, Macro called over a squad of marines and sent them below to light fires. Almost at once there was a loud clamour from the hold and, clutching his arm tightly to his side, Macro ducked his head into the gangway.
'What's happening down there?'
One of the marines dashed back, squinting up into the sunlight. 'Some prisoners, sir. Locked into the bilges.'
'Then get 'em out, man! Break the locks and get 'em out.'
'Yes, sir.' The marine dashed back into the shadows and the sounds of timber being hacked and chopped rose up to the main deck. As the last of the pirates was cut down on the fore deck, Macro heard a commotion from the main hatch. A handful of terribly ragged and filthy men scrambled on to the deck, desperately shading their eyes from the glare of the sun as they glanced round to take stock of the battle raging around them. Macro pointed to the side.
'Off the ship!' he shouted. 'Get on board the liburnian. We're firing this one! Move yourselves!'
At the sound of flames crackling and the sight of smoke curling up from below, seaman, marines and prisoners hurriedly quit the bireme and made for the safety of the other ship. As Macro waited for his turn on the rope he looked round at the bay once again. Four ships were ablaze. The trireme Macro had boarded shortly before was engulfed in flames and the heat from the inferno beat across the sea so that even at this distance Macro felt its sting. Elsewhere the marines were fighting for control on four more vessels. On the fringes of the battle one of the pirate ships was trying to get underway, its small crew struggling to drive it forward with only a handful of the oars manned.
Ashore, the beach was swarming with men dragging small boats down to the water. Some had already been launched and were making for the nearest vessels still in the hands of the pirates. On the citadel the artillery crews were hurriedly aiming their catapults and bringing up ammunition. A thin haze of smoke rose from fires heating oil for the incendiaries. In a moment, Macro realised, they would be attempting a few ranging shots. They were welcome to try, he smiled. With the fusion raging across the surface of the bay they were as likely to hit one of their own vessels as a Roman ship.
Nevertheless, a moment later a dull crack carried across the water and as Macro looked up he saw a flaming arc rise from the direction of the citadel. It came on, seemingly aimed right at the centurion, before it reached the peak of its trajectory and the roaring sound of the flames could be clearly heard above all the sounds of the battle. At the last moment it dipped and hit the sea with a loud splash and brief hiss of steam not twenty feet from the side of the bireme.
'Bloody hell!' one of the marines muttered.'If that's only his first attempt, we're dead.'
'Lucky shot,' Macro said with forced calmness.'Next one will miss us by a mile.'
The marine wasn't convinced. 'Well, I ain't staying here to find out, sir.'
Macro laughed. 'Me neither. Let's get off this ship sharpish.'
Once everyone was back on board the liburnian Decimus gave the order to shove off and Macro indicated the nearest of the Roman ships, locked in a fight with the crew of another bireme.'Over there. Get us on to the other side and we'll finish them off.'
'Yes, sir.' Decimus glanced down at the crude dressing tied round the centurion's chest. 'You all right there?'
'Does it bloody look like I'm all right?' Macro snapped. 'Send me a medical orderly and carry out your orders!'
While the trierarch returned to his position by the oarsman, Macro eased himself down against the side of the ship. He felt a bit faint and for an instant saw cobweb-like shadows on the periphery of his vision. He balled a hand into a fist and thumped the deck. He was damned if he was going to let an injury stop him from leading his men in this fight. Not now. Not already. Not before Vespasian arrived and completed the victory over these pirate scum.
While the galley pulled towards the two biremes the medic peeled off Macro's crude dressing, hurriedly cleaned the wound and applied a fresh linen dressing. As the man worked Macro watched the artillery crews up on the citadel try a few more shots, but they did not have the range of any Roman ship now that his liburnian was beyond reach. But as the catapults ceased their brief barrage, the boats from the shore began to move in amongst the ships. Someone with a wise head had ordered them to give a wide berth to any ships fighting it out. Instead, they made for the undamaged vessels still at anchor and swarmed aboard to ready their ships for battle. Once they were underway and their decks packed with armed men thirsting for revenge, Macro's five ships would be outnumbered two to one. He had to do something to improve the odds.
Macro swung towards the nearest marine optio and beckoned to him. 'I want some bows brought up for your men. Get a fire lit, and use fire arrows on any pirate ship that comes in range.'
The optio saluted, lowered his shield and ran off to carry out Macro's orders. The centurion was already giving orders to another group of marines to launch volleys of javelins at the small boats packed with pirates that were making for the ships that had not yet been engaged. Neither action would cause much damage. The fire arrows would be extinguished easily enough and the javelins might cause a few casualties, but it would at least distract the enemy and win Macro and his men a little more time.
The liburnian glided alongside the bireme and once again the marines hurried into action, with a rousing yell that caused the pirates to recoil for a precious instant before battle was joined. But already, Macro noticed, there were noticeably fewer of them and those still able to fight looked weary from their exertions. While the outnumbered pirates were swept from the bireme's deck, Macro called for his armour and the medic helped him into his scaled vest and attached the harness over the top. Macro jammed his skullcap on his head and pulled on and fastened his helmet, feeling more content at once with the familiar weight of his equipment.
'Don't put too much strain on that injury, sir,' the medic advised. 'You'll need to rest it, or the bleeding will start again.'
'I'll take a few days off sick then, shall I?' Macro looked at the man irritably, before he turned to the nearest boarding line and climbed stiffly on to the enemy deck. It was immediately apparent that the fight for this ship had been hard and bloody. Bodies were strewn across the deck, and many of them were marines, Macro noted anxiously. But at least the ship was in Roman hands. Macro sought out the commander of the other Roman ship and saw Centurion Minucius wiping his blade on the tunic of a dead pirate. Minucius had been chosen for the mission since he was an old hand; tough and reliable. Macro had been content for him to come, despite their personal differences.
'Minucius! Over here.'
The centurion hurried towards Macro and gestured at the carnage littering the deck.'Looks like they've finally got the stomach for a decent fight.'
Macro nodded. The initial shock of the attack had worn off and the pirates were quickly recovering. Now they had a clear idea of the size of Macro's assault force, it would not be long before they moved on to the attack. Already, one of the pirate ships that had escaped the attention of the raiders had slipped its anchor cable and was back-watering the oars on her starboard side to swing the bows round to face the confused melee of warships at the other end of the anchorage. Soon it would be joined by several others whose decks were already swarming with men.
Minucius followed the direction of Macro's gaze, then glanced round at the headland. But the sea was calm and clear and there was no sign of the rest of the fleet.
'Don't get your hopes up,' Macro said quietly.'They won't be here for at least another hour.'
'I know.' Minucius gave him a thin smile. 'The question is, will we still be here in an hour?'
06 The Eagles Prophecy