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CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

As the vista of the bay unravelled before the trireme, Vespasian's heart glowed with satisfaction. Macro and his men had done a fine job. Most of the pirate fleet was damaged or destroyed. The rest were clustered about a small tangle of ships where the fighting was still continuing and the prefect realised that some, at least, of the men he sent ahead had survived. He drew a deep breath and smiled as the burden of guilt that he felt over sacrificing Macro and his men was lifted. Already the pirates were disengaging from Macro's ships and turning to meet the new threat. But as more and more Roman warships came round the headland the will to resist crumbled away. There was no time to organise a defence against the Ravenna fleet, and the pirates watched in growing horror as the imperial galleys closed in on them. Most of the pirate crews, seeing the overwhelming strength of the enemy, turned for the shore and fled. A few of the pirate commanders recovered their wits quickly enough to make a break for it, ordering their tired crews to the oars in a desperate bid to clear the bay before the trap was closed. Vespasian pointed them out to one of his junior tribunes.

'Signal the second bireme squadron to go after them. I don't want a single ship to escape.'

'Yes, sir.'

While six biremes peeled away to cut the pirates off, the rest of the fleet swung round to face the shore and continued under oars as the sails were furled. A ragged cheer drifted across to them from the survivors of Macro's force, and some of Vespasian's men answered their greeting. But most of them gazed fixedly forward at the approaching beach, steeling themselves for the coming assault. The pirates who had remained ashore were fresh and ready for action. Their leaders were hurriedly forming them up to attack the Romans as they landed.

The shallows between the two sides were filled with fleeing figures, and few of them had the strength of spirit to regroup with their more defiant comrades. Most ran through the gaps in the ranks and disappeared into the sprawl of huts above the beach, heading for the shelter of the trees that covered the hillside beyond. Others made their way along the causeway, running for the safety of the citadel, anxiously glancing to the side to watch the Romans as they headed for the drawbridge that led across the defence ditch and into the heavily fortified gateway. On the walls above, some of their comrades waved them on, but most stood still and watched the drama in the bay, knowing full well the scale of the disaster that was unfolding before their eyes.

Around the flagship the catapults of the Ravenna fleet cracked as they loosed shots at any enemy ships that showed any sign of attempting resistance. Vespasian had left the fleet's lighter vessels the task of taking control of the ships still in the anchorage. Meanwhile, the rest surged towards the shore.

'Marines aft!' came an order from the flagship's stern, instantly echoed across the decks of the other Roman ships. They had trained for such a landing many times and quickly packed the space just in front of the aft deck, shifting the centre of balance in each vessel so that the prow was raised ready for beaching. The sailors and marines braced their legs apart to absorb the shock. The bay shelved evenly so the flagship only shuddered a little as the keel met the sand and its momentum drove it a short distance further before lurching to a halt.

'Marines forward! Lower the gangways!'

Vespasian glanced down from the tower as the marines trotted past. He saw Vitellius amongst them and gave him a brief wave.

'Good luck, Tribune! I'm counting on you to lead the assault.'

Vitellius glared back, saluted stiffly and pushed his way forward to where the sailors were swinging the gangways out over the gentle surf each side of the prow. As soon as the crew released the tackle the ends of the gangways splashed down.

'Move! Move yourselves!' the centurion commanding the trireme's marines bawled out, and the first men swung on to the wooden ramps and charged down the steep incline into the waist-deep water, holding their shields up to stop them getting soaked and unmanageable. The rest followed in a steady stream of men, into the sea and surging forward to emerge, dripping, on the sand. Vitellius braced himself when his turn came and ran down the gangway, almost losing his balance, until he collided with the marine ahead of him. The man tumbled headfirst into the sea and Vitellius quickly waded round him towards the shore, leaving the marine to rise up, drenched, and angry.

More ships beached either side of the flagship, disgorging their marines, and their centurions hurriedly formed their men into ranks as they arrived on the beach. A short distance beyond them the pirates were shouting their war cries with a rising intensity. Men clattered their weapons against their shields and individuals thrust forward towards the Romans, screaming insults and gesturing defiantly. From the distant battlements of the citadel came the sound of a powerful horn, splitting the air with a deep resonant note that carried clearly across the bay and echoed off the slopes of the mountain above. A great cheer rose up from the pirate ranks and they rolled forward unevenly, gathering pace and then charged down the sand towards the Roman line. The archers and catapults on the Roman ships had time for just one volley. Then the marines hurled their javelins forward, snatched out their swords and presented their shields to the enemy. Scores of the pirates were struck down by missiles and tumbled over in fine sprays of sand. Their comrades swerved round them or jumped over, sparing them no more than a glance as they charged the Roman line.

The loose sand robbed the charge of much of its impetus and the two sides came together in a string of individual duels and small skirmishes along the shoreline. Vespasian watched the fight with an initial stab of doubt and uncertainty, such as he always felt when his men first came into contact and there was no telling who had the advantage. But it was soon clear that the pirates were outclassed and outnumbered by the marines and they were slowly driven back up the beach and across the shingle beyond, leaving a bloody flotsam of dead and injured in their wake. As the battleline reached the huts, the rearmost pirates began to turn and run away, some discarding their shields and weapons as they went. Their leaders tried to head them off and drive them back into line with blows from the flats of their swords, and when that didn't work, cutting their men down as a warning to the others. However, the moment the enemy was thrust back amongst the huts, any cohesion that was left in their ranks was shattered and the rout became general as they streamed away up into the shelter of the wooded slopes. The marines broke ranks and went after them, running the slower pirates down and killing them mercilessly. Once they tired of the pursuit and had had their fill of killing, the marines began to take prisoners and small groups of pirates were escorted back to the beach and placed under guard.

Only a handful of the enemy, out to the flank nearest the citadel, managed to form up and retreat to safety along the causeway, pursued all the way by the marines. A bireme from the second squadron attempted to get close to the causeway to bring its catapult to bear on the enemy as they edged back towards the citadel, but immediately came under bombardment from the artillery sited along the wall. When the first incendiary struck the bows in a brilliant explosion of flame and sparks, the trierarch hurriedly backed his ship out of range. As Vespasian watched, arrows and slingshot from the ramparts began to strike the marines down, but such was the heat of their excitement that they continued pursuing the pirates right up to the defensive ditch before they realised the danger and began to back off, shields raised as they retreated along the causeway. The last of the pirates ran across the drawbridge into the citadel, the gates were closed and a moment later the drawbridge slowly began to rise until it was almost vertical in front of the gate.

The battle was over then, Vespasian decided. After mopping up the pirates still scattered about the bay, only the siege of the citadel remained. Telemachus and what was left of his men were bottled up on the rock behind that wall. They had lost every one of their ships so there was no way they could escape, and there would be no ally to attempt to relieve them. Their defeat was as certain as night follows day. Only one issue remained in doubt: the secret purpose for which all this blood had been shed; the recovery of the scrolls. That, Vespasian decided, was going to be tricky. If they were still in Telemachus' possession he would surely try to use them to strike some kind of a deal. That was something Vespasian could not easily permit. The Ravenna fleet would not stand for any arrangement that let the pirates off the hook. The threat of mutiny – almost the worst fate that a commander could contemplate – would be very real.

The sounds of fighting had diminished, to be succeeded by the pitiful cries of the injured and occasional clatter of weapons from some isolated duel as the last of the pirates with any fight left in them defiantly sold their lives.

Vespasian descended from the tower on the foredeck of the Horus feeling content, but drained by the strain of the days since he had taken command of the fleet. Soon it would be over, and if all went well, he would return to Rome in triumph and present Narcissus with the scrolls.


When the last of the pirates had been cleared from the bay the Roman fleet began to unload their equipment and supplies. Some prisoners were immediately set to work digging a ditch and raising a rampart across the end of the causeway to contain their comrades in the citadel. Others were constructing a palisade around the Roman beachhead.

Vespasian, satisfied that disembarkation was proceeding in an orderly fashion, took a small boat across the bay to where Macro's ships floated amidst a tangle of fallen rigging and were surrounded by floating wreckage and bodies. Streaks of blood ran from the scuppers down the side of each galley. Scattered across the hulls, wedged into the timber, were arrow shafts and heavy bolts. As the prefect's boat approached, picking its way through the debris of battle, the exhausted survivors appeared along the sides of the ships and someone raised a ragged cheer for the commander. When his boat drew alongside one of the biremes, Vespasian clambered up the wooden rungs of the side ladder and on to the deck. He was immediately struck by the evidence of the desperate fight these men had put up while waiting for the rest of the fleet to arrive. Bodies lay heaped about the mast, and the decks were smeared with dried blood and discarded weapons and equipment. Overhead the main spar hung at an almost vertical angle, the severed starboard shrouds swaying lazily.

'Where's Centurion Macro?' he asked the nearest marine.

The man gestured across the deck to where the trireme loomed over the other vessels. 'There, sir.'

Vespasian crossed over and climbed the boarding ladder to the larger vessel. It too bore the scars of the recent fighting and, as Macro's last line of defence, was where all the injured had been carried. They lay or sat in long rows to each side of the deck and several marines were busy erecting awnings to shelter them from the sun. Some of the wounded saluted the prefect as he passed by. Descending the steps from the aft deck, Macro marched towards him with a broad smile. The centurion was heavily bandaged around his chest and there was a red-brown crust where blood had seeped through the dressing.

'Good to see you, Centurion.'

'You too, sir.' Macro saluted.'Though you had us worried for a bit.'

'Worried?' Vespasian looked round at the scarred hull and tattered rigging. He could well imagine the desperation of the men who had held out here while the fleet raced towards the bay. He turned back to Macro and smiled. 'Surely you didn't doubt me, Centurion? I'd hoped after the years we have served together you'd have a little more faith.'

'Oh, I knew you'd come, sir. I just wasn't convinced I'd still be around when you got here.'

'Well, you are. I hope you've been looking after young Ajax.'

Macro nodded at the main hatch. 'He's down below, sir. Had him moved there after we took this trireme, since it was the safest place. Centurion Minucius is guarding him.'

'Very good.' Vespasian nodded at the bandage around Macro's chest. 'Not too serious, I hope.'

'Had worse, sir.'

'I don't doubt it. I'm afraid there won't be much time to recover from that. We've still got one last nut to crack, and I'll need your services.'

'I'm up for it, sir.' Macro stiffened.'I won't let you down.'

Vespasian laughed and raised his voice as he continued.'If the empire had just ten legions with officers like you, and men like these marines here, nothing would ever stand in our way.'

It was easy to say, and pretty cheap as rhetoric went, but Vespasian knew military minds well enough to know that praise from above was priceless, and enjoyed a currency that would carry these men through to the end of the campaign. It was also easy to say because it was true, he reflected. But the time for praise was over for the moment. There was work to be done, and his expression hardened into its customary professional veneer.

'If these ships are sound I want them beached. The injured can stay aboard. Order a roll call, and send it on to my staff as soon as possible. Then you and your men can draw rations and rest until tomorrow. Is that clear?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Right. One last thing. I'll need our prisoner. Have him brought to me once the ships are beached. I'll see you at the evening briefing.' Vespasian turned to go.

'Sir?'

Vespasian paused and looked back. 'What is it?'

'Cato, sir. We should send someone to look for him.'

Vespasian nodded. 'Once the camp is ready. Tomorrow, first thing, I'll send a squad up the mountain to find him.'

'Thank you, sir.'


By late afternoon the Ravenna fleet had completed the unloading of equipment and supplies. The marines and their prisoners were finishing the construction of the defences for the camp, running up from the beachhead to include the containment fortifications across the causeway. The components of four large onagers had been carried up to within range of the citadel wall and the engineers were already assembling the weapons. From the fall of the shot of the pirates' artillery pieces earlier in the day the engineers had a good idea of the reach of the enemy weapons and worked a safe distance outside it. Foraging parties had already been sent out to find rocks suitable for ammunition and the pile was steadily growing in size on the ground levelled for the onagers.

Vespasian's impatience was such that as soon as the first siege-weapon was assembled, he ordered that it be rolled forward and commence bombarding the gatehouse. The chief engineer selected five rocks of almost equal proportions and gave the order for the onager to be prepared. With six men heaving on the stout lever the ratchet steadily clanked until the throwing arm came to rest on the loading cradle. Two men heaved one of the rocks into the cup and stood back. The chief engineer made a final sighting, raised his arm to signal that he was going to loose the first shot, and when his men were clear, he dropped his arm. The release lever was thrown and with a creak from the sinews of the torsion cords the arm slammed forwards against the retaining bar, hurling the rock towards the citadel. Vespasian and his staff officers followed its trajectory until the rock fell beyond the wall and out of sight. The dull sound of the impact came to their ears as a thin haze of dust rose above the gatehouse.

'Down two!' the chief engineer called out as his crew began levering the throwing arm back. They counted two less clanks of the ratchet and loaded another rock. As the second shot arced towards the wall, it was noticeably harder to follow in the gathering dusk. The rock impacted a few feet below the battlements of the gatehouse and a small shower of masonry fell into the defence ditch as the onager crew gave a cheer.

'Well aimed!' Vespasian called out to the chief engineer. 'Use up the last three of your rocks. Then have the other weapons erected. I want that wall down by tomorrow morning.'

The chief engineer pursed his lips. 'It ain't going to be easy, sir. We'll be shooting blind. Chances are most will go wide of the target. Be a waste of ammunition, sir.'

Vespasian smiled patiently. 'I didn't ask if it was going to be easy; I just asked for it to be done. Please see to it.'

The chief engineer saluted and turned back to his men. 'Come on! You heard the prefect. Let's get 'em set up.'

Vespasian turned to one of his staff officers. 'Have Centurion Minucius bring his prisoner up. I want two sections of marines for an escort, right away.'

The tribune saluted and trotted off, leaving Vespasian staring at the citadel while three more rocks pounded the walls of the gatehouse. As he watched the prefect pondered his next move. Vespasian suspected that what he was about to do was futile. But it had to be tried, to save time and lives. If Telemachus had a weakness then a father's love and pride in his son might just be it.

A short time later a small party advanced along the causeway. A tribune went on ahead with a trumpeter, who gave a regular two-note blast on his instrument to alert the defenders to their approach. Curious faces lined the battlements and Vespasian ordered the party to halt, just outside of slingshot range. He cupped his hands to his mouth and called out.

'Is Telemachus there?… Telemachus?'

For a moment he wondered if the leader of the pirates had been killed in the fighting. If that was the case, then this attempt to end the siege was doomed to instant failure. But even as the doubt arose Vespasian saw a tall figure appear above the gatehouse.

'I am Telemachus,' the figure cried out in Greek. 'What do you want, Roman? It's not too late for you to surrender. I may yet be merciful!'

The laughter of the defenders reached Vespasian's ears and he could not help smiling at the man's brave attempt to raise the spirits of his men. In different circumstances, the Empire could have used a man with his ability and capacity for leadership. But Telemachus had chosen piracy over service to the Empire, and he must die as a consequence. Vespasian turned towards Centurion Minucius.

'Bring Ajax forward. Make sure they get a good view of him.'

Minucius hauled his prisoner out in front of the prefect and the escort party. He stood behind Ajax and pinned his arms back securely as he whispered in the pirate's ear.'Don't even think of trying to make a break for it. I'd gut you before you got ten feet.'

Vespasian stepped forward and stood beside Ajax. 'Telemachus. We have your son! I offer you his life in exchange for your surrender, and the surrender of your men.'

There was silence from the citadel before Telemachus called out his reply. 'And if we surrender, Roman, what then? Crucifixion? We'd rather fight you and die here, in our homes, than die on your crosses.'

'You will die, Telemachus, one way or another. But your men will live. As slaves, but they will live – your son too – if you surrender before my men begin their assault at dawn. If you defy me, then Ajax will be crucified where I stand, and then we will take your citadel and there will be no mercy. What is your answer?'

Ajax wriggled desperately in the grip of Minucius and shouted.'Father! Don't-'

At once Minucius punched him viciously in the kidneys. 'Shut it, you…'

'Roman!' Telemachus shouted. 'You touch him again, I swear I'll-'

'You'll do nothing!' Vespasian shouted back. 'Nothing but what I demand. And I demand your surrender!'

There was brief pause before the reply. 'No!'

It was as Vespasian had feared, and his heart felt heavy with the burden of all the deaths that would almost certainly result from the pirate leader's defiance. He looked up at the wall. 'Very well. I'll return at dawn with your son. I will ask for your surrender one last time. I give you my word that your men, and Ajax, will be spared.' He thrust a finger towards Telemachus. 'Until dawn tomorrow!'

Vespasian turned away, and beckoned to Minucius to bring the prisoner with him.'Take him back to the trireme and guard him well.'

'Yes, sir.' Minucius thrust his prisoner ahead of him.

Ajax twisted his head over his shoulder for one last despairing glance back towards his father as the party marched quickly back to the Roman lines.

As soon as they reached the safety of the marine pickets, Vespasian strode off towards his headquarters tent, followed by his tribunes. Most of his officers would already be assembled for the briefing and would be exhausted after the day's fighting. It would not be fair to keep them longer than was absolutely necessary, given that they would need to prepare for the morning's assault on the citadel. Only those officers too seriously injured would be excused attending.

That included Vitellius.

As Vespasian had hoped, the tribune had been wounded in the thick of the fighting. Unfortunately the pirate had botched his opportunity and only struck the tribune's helmet before the blade glanced off and laid open Vitellius' shoulder. The tribune had described the incident in great detail when he encountered Vespasian on the beach shortly after the prefect had stepped ashore. His shoulder had been swathed in bloodstained bandages and the man had barely been able to stay on his feet. As Vespasian approached his tent he shook his head in bitter regret that Vitellius still lived.

Vespasian swept through the flap, and the centurions and trierarchs rose wearily to their feet as he marched through them to his campaign table and took his seat.

'Thank you, gentlemen.' He waved them into their seats and looked up with a warm smile. 'Firstly, my thanks to you all for a fine performance today. I'll do what I can to make sure that our masters in Rome recognise your valour and professionalism. Especially those who served with Centurion Macro this morning. Outstanding work.' He bowed his head towards Macro, who shuffled self-consciously on his bench.

'But our work is not yet over,' Vespasian continued. 'Telemachus and some of his men still live. That is a state of affairs I am determined to resolve by the end of tomorrow.'

The officers stirred uneasily, and some glanced at each other with slight shakes of the head. Vespasian had anticipated such a reaction, and fully sympathised. They had the pirates bottled up, they weren't going anywhere, and in the normal run of events this would be the time to sit back and starve them into submission. Any assault on the citadel, even if it was successful, would be an unnecessary waste of lives. But, Vespasian reflected, these officers were not privy to the Imperial Secretary's orders that the scrolls be recovered as quickly as possible, at any cost.

He cleared his throat and looked up, meeting their gaze. 'I will offer them terms at first light. We have one useful bargaining counter – the son of Telemachus. However, I imagine that even if Telemachus would sacrifice everything to save Ajax, his subordinates will not and they'll make it quite clear to him that surrender isn't an option. So, an assault on the citadel looks like the most likely outcome, I'm afraid. We can't afford a long siege. Every day that we sit out here presents Telemachus with an opportunity to work some kind of escape. He cannot be permitted to slip through our fingers. If he does then all the comrades we have lost in the last month will have died in vain.'

He paused for a moment and the thud of an onager sounded from the direction of the causeway. Vespasian nodded in that direction. 'The bombardment will continue until dawn. I'm hoping to have breached the defences by dawn. Much of the rubble will fall into the ditch, but we'll still need to carry faggots and scaling ladders forward. I'm not pretending that it will be easy and painless, but it has to be done. The best way to save lives is to go in hard and go in fast.' He smiled. 'In case any of you are sniffing at my use of the word "we", I assure you that I will be going in with the first wave. I'll be leading a party to find and take Telemachus alive. So I'm looking forward to this as much as you are, gentlemen.'

A ripple of laughter broke the solemn mood and Vespasian took the opportunity to end the briefing at that moment. He rose from his chair. 'You'll receive your orders later on.'

He was about to dismiss them when the flap at the back of the tent was drawn aside. Vespasian looked up with a surprised expression that turned to a warm smile of greeting as two men emerged from the darkness.

'My apologies, sir,' said Centurion Cato. 'Have I missed anything?'

06 The Eagles Prophecy


CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT | The Eagles Prophecy | CHAPTER FORTY