'How's our side doing?' asked Secundus, breathing heavily.
They had started their descent of the mountain as soon as the five ships had begun their attack on the pirate fleet. The surprise at the turn of events lasted only a brief moment before Cato realised what was happening. The centurion and the imperial agent now scrambled down the steep track as fast as they could. The loose gravel and stones made the going difficult and dangerous, and they had to proceed at a pace that was making Cato boil with impatience and anxiety as he helped the older man. Every mile they had to stop for a brief rest. Each time Cato looked across the bay to watch the battle unfolding in the distance. No sound carried to them as the tiny figures struggled to and fro aboard the ships, like ants scurrying across children's toys.
'Cato, how are we doing?' Secundus asked again.
Cato was leaning against a rock, both hands shading his eyes as he stared towards the bay. 'It's hard to make it out from here. There's several ships on fire. One seems to have cut its cable and is drifting towards the cliffs. Some ships are alongside each other, and I can see some fighting. But I can't tell who has the upper hand. I can't even tell which side is ours any more.'
Secundus shook his head. 'What the hell is your prefect playing at, sending in five ships against the pirates? That's a suicide mission.'
'I don't think so,' Cato countered. 'That's not Vespasian's style. This has to be some kind of opening move.'
'Opening move?' Secundus looked at Cato with raised eyebrows, then gave a bitter laugh. 'I don't think those men are going to be around long enough for your prefect's winning move. Assuming there is one.'
Cato shrugged.'Just trust the man. He hasn't let us down yet. Let's move.'
'There's always a first time,' Secundus grumbled as he struggled back to his feet. They started down the path again. At this rate, Cato calculated quickly, they would not make it down to the shore until sunset. Once night fell they would have to stop, since he dare not risk continuing along the treacherous path in the darkness. By then the battle might have been decided. If it went badly for the Roman fleet then there would be no point in continuing in that direction, and the only route to safety would be back up the path.
'Cato? What happens when we reach the foot of the mountain?'
'Assuming our fleet's won the day, we take your boat and row across to join them.'
'And if they lose?'
'They won't. Now save your breath, and keep going.' They continued down the path in silence, save for the heavy breathing of Secundus and the faint squawking cries of gulls below them. They passed some stunted trees and a short distance ahead of them the track led into the shadows of a dense forest of pine trees. Cato stopped.
'You know this path well?'
'Too well,' Secundus grimaced.'I've been up and down it more times than I care to remember these last two months.'
'How far do the trees go down?'
'All the way to the shoreline.'
'No breaks? Nowhere we can keep an eye on what's happening across the bay?'
Secundus thought for a moment and then shook his head.
'Shit…' Cato bit his lip. The last thing he wanted was to climb all the way to the bottom of the mountain in complete ignorance of how the battle was proceeding. But there was no helping it. That was the lie of the land and they would have to start descending through the trees in the hope that the pirates were being defeated. But as Cato scanned the shore opposite he saw that the fighting had contracted into the curve of the bay, and the galleys and small boats were all converging on the tight knot of vessels locked in battle. That could only mean one thing. The Romans were losing, and losing badly. Unless something happened quickly they would certainly be overwhelmed by the pirates.
'What's that?' Secundus asked, and raised his finger to point out to sea. 'A warship?'
Cato glanced round to where the mass of the mountain tumbled steeply into the sea below. The sleek prow of a trireme was rowing into sight. Almost at once other vessels began to emerge on either side. All of them had sails raised to assist the rowers, and as Cato and Secundus watched the Ravenna fleet hoved into sight and bore down on the pirate lair at the fastest speed they could manage.
Cato turned to the imperial agent with a smile. 'There. I told you Vespasian had something planned.'
'True,' Secundus smiled contritely. 'But, if you ask me, I think he's cut things just a little too fine.'
Cato turned and saw that the man had a point. It would take the fleet nearly an hour to round the headland and enter the bay. From the way things seemed to be going, the survivors of the first five ships could not hold out that long.
From the tower on the fore deck of his flagship, Vespasian had a clear view across the stretch of sea dividing the two mountains. Above the distant headland a thick pall of smoke billowed into the sky. Behind him the pausarius' drum beat a steady rhythm and each lusty stroke of the oars caused a tiny lurch in the deck beneath his boots. The breeze that filled the sail came in over the stern beam and could not have been more perfect for his purpose as it drove the fleet on. Yet the prefect was more anxious than he had ever been in his entire life. His men were fighting and dying just a few miles ahead, and he must relieve them as swiftly as possible. And it was not just the lives of his men that weighed on his mind. If this plan failed the pirates would escape, free to prey on shipping in the Adriatic, Telemachus would still be holding the scrolls to ransom and Vespasian would be disgraced.
'Looks like Centurion Macro's creating his usual havoc,' Vitellius laughed as he joined his commander in the tower. 'Let's hope your plan is working, sir.'
'It's working,' Vespasian said firmly.
'That's good,' Vitellius nodded. 'Because if, for any reason, it isn't going as we… as you had hoped, well, I'd hate to think of the consequences… sir.'
Vespasian clamped his mouth shut, biting down on his anger, and tried not to rise to the bait. Vitellius, however, was enjoying the moment and decided to twist the knife as far as he could.
'Of course, it was a risky plan,' he mused. 'But in war, I suppose risks are unavoidable. I wonder if the people back in Rome will appreciate the need to take such chances. I can only hope they understand your reasoning as well as I do, sir.'
Vespasian raised a hand. 'I think that will do, Tribune. You've made your feelings quite clear.'
'I think not,' Vitellius replied quietly enough so that only Vespasian might hear. 'I don't know how you did it, but I'll make you regret taking my command away from me. One day. You'll see. So forgive me if I don't wish your plan well.'
Vespasian looked at the man with open disgust and contempt.'By the gods!…You'd really like it if this worked out badly.'
'Of course I would.'
'And those men over there? Do their lives mean nothing to you?'
Vitellius shrugged.'What are a thousand Romans to me? What do they matter? They are merely the chaff of history. Only those who make history will ever be remembered, my dear Vespasian. Which do you think you are? Chaff or a man of destiny?' He looked at the prefect searchingly and suddenly pointed at him. 'There! I knew it. So please, spare me the moralising about the lives of those men. This is about you, and your place in history. Do yourself the courtesy of seeing your motives for what they are… sir.'
Vitellius took a step away before Vespasian could reply. He stiffened his back and saluted, and gave the prefect a sly smile before he turned to descend from the tower. Vespasian watched him stroll back down the deck, and the prefect's heart seethed with hatred for the man. One day there would be a reckoning between them, and only one would live to see the dawn of the morrow. But even as Vespasian made that resolution, and turned back to the smoke rising above the headland, he felt a horrible doubt settle on his heart. Vitellius had been right about his ambition. And out of gratitude for that knowledge Vespasian decided to appoint the tribune leader of the first assault party to go ashore.
'Get the catapult trained round on that one!' Macro shouted to the squad of marines up in the tower. The centurion thrust his arm out to indicate the bireme circling round their flank. The ship was already beginning to turn towards them. Fortunately, Telemachus had obviously ordered his men to board and capture the ships in Roman hands rather than ram and sink them. But, Macro reflected briefly, that was a small mercy that did not make him feel particularly thankful, given the overwhelming advantage the enemy had in numbers as they closed in on his shrinking command.
Only three of his vessels remained, grappled round the second pirate trireme as they fended off the attackers coming at them from all quarters. One of the liburnians had earlier been boarded by three vessels at once and the sailors and marines had been quickly overwhelmed and slaughtered. The other ship had caught fire when the brazier its crew had been using to light fire arrows had been overturned when the ship collided with its next victim. The flames had spread, engulfing both vessels, and the seamen and marines had been forced to jump into the sea and swim for the other Roman ships. Unfortunately there were plenty of small craft in the water and their pirate crews immediately rowed into the area and ruthlessly hunted down the Romans splashing in the water. One by one they were clubbed to death or dispatched with spears.
The crew of the catapult heaved the weapon round to line up with the prow of the oncoming pirate ship, then the optio made a slight adjustment to the elevation, jumped to one side and wrenched the launch lever back. The torsion arms swept forward with a loud crack and the two-foot iron-tipped bolt shot out in a shallow arc. There was a brief pause as Macro and the crew followed the bolt, then it disappeared amongst the men crowding the prow of the pirate ship in a flurry of limbs and smashed armour. The crew thrust their fists into the air and cheered.
'Well done!' Macro beamed at them. 'Now, don't bloody stand there! You've got the range. Give it to 'em!'
The crew threw themselves to work on the tackle, and the ratchet clanked steadily as Macro made his way aft to see how the fight was going at the other end of the trireme. The deck was stained with sticky splashes of drying blood and medics were tending to the Roman wounded lying in the sparse shelter each side of the ship. Macro wondered if there was any point in having them treated. If the pirates won the day the Roman wounded would be massacred without a shred of mercy. In which case the ten or so men who were caring for them would be better used in the defence of the surviving vessels. Then, as Macro passed a man who was clutching his hands across his stomach, trying to hold his guts in, the centurion relented. Most of these men were dying. The least he owed them was the chance of some comfort before they passed into the shadows. He stepped round the pile of bodies heaped about the mast, and climbed up on to the stern deck.
Centurion Minucius was there with a party of men armed with bows taken from the pirates' armoury. They were concentrating their efforts on three small boats that had approached the stern of the adjacent bireme. Macro took a quick glance over the side and saw that two of the boats were filled with bodies, covered by feathered shafts. Most of the men in the third boat were already down and a handful crouched close to each other, taking shelter behind small round shields.
'Very good,' Macro nodded, and turned to see a cluster of pirates around the end of a boarding ramp that had been lowered from their ship on to the bireme. At the other end of the ramp the marines were desperately fighting to prevent the leading pirates from stepping down on to the deck. It took only a few men to create a sufficient space for the rest to be fed into a swift rush of bodies that would sweep in amongst the defenders. Macro indicated the threat. 'Minucius! See if you can break that lot up.'
'Yes, sir. Over there, lads! That group by the ramp. Let 'em have it!'
Bowstrings sang as a steady shower of arrows began to fall on the heads of the densely packed ranks and, as Macro had hoped, they immediately forgot about boarding the enemy ship and looked to their own protection instead, ducking for cover behind the side rail, or under their shields.
Another threat averted, Macro nodded. But he was just buying no more than a fraction of the time he needed before the fleet arrived. He wondered what had driven him to volunteer for this. Vespasian had asked for someone to lead the assault and he had been the first man on his feet. That it would be a risky venture went without saying, but Macro had no idea that it might be suicidal. Such thoughts rarely entered his head. He went where the fight was and made the best job he could of it. So far he had survived. But all good things must come to an end, he thought, and maybe this was his time.
Certainly the situation was not promising. The Romans were boxed into the curve of the bay, with no hope of fighting their way out through the dozen remaining pirate galleys that ringed them. Even so, Macro had half his men left, lining the sides of the four ships grappled together, and so far they were holding their own. They had the advantage in that they were defending and did not have to run the risks of trying to board an enemy vessel. That stage of the operation was well and truly over.
Macro looked round the bay with a measure of satisfaction. The other trireme was slowly settling into the sea; just the upper works were visible, and flames still licked up from the charred remains of the furled sail drooping from the mast. Around the bay, another six ships were well ablaze. The pirates had managed to board two other vessels that had been fired, and put the flames out, but enough damage had already been done to their rigging that it would take several days to repair. Half the pirate fleet had been destroyed or put out of action, and the ships and men that were left had spent themselves in a bid to crush Macro's force. When Vespasian arrived, he would overwhelm them easily. The prefect's plan had worked well enough, even allowing for the sacrifice of Macro and his advance force.
Macro had already given orders that if the enemy looked like seizing any of his ships, the crews were to set them ablaze before retiring to the next friendly vessel. Of course, he smiled grimly, when the defences of the last vessel were breached, and the fire was set, it was every man for himself and over the side. If that looked like happening, he would make sure that the medics put the injured beyond the reach of the pirates, and the flames.
'Sir! Centurion Macro, sir!'
Macro heard the call through the enraged shouting of fighting men and the clatter and scrape of weapons and screaming of the wounded, and turned towards the sound. At the front of the trireme he saw the optio in charge of the catapult waving an arm to attract his attention.
'What is it?' Macro called back. But his throat was dry and the words came out in a croak. He spat and cleared his throat and tried again, with cupped hands. 'What?'
'There, sir! Look there!' The optio pointed at the headland. From the aft deck, Macro could see nothing but open sea. But already the pirates approaching the fight were also turning on their decks to face the open sea, and after a moment of silence Macro heard cries of anger and despair carry across the water towards him. He frowned and looked seaward again, confusion turning to hope and joy as it dawned on him what they must have seen.
Just then the prow of a warship thrust past the headland. A long deck emerged behind it with oars churning up the sea alongside. Then came the mast with a full red sail billowing out at an angle. There, painted in the middle of the sail, was the faded silhouette of an eagle.
06 The Eagles Prophecy