The artillery crews continued the bombardment of the citadel through the night. Torches had been lit around the onagers' position and the men toiled ceaselessly as they ratcheted back the throwing arms, loaded the rocks and stepped back as the missiles were released with a woosh and crack, sending the rocks flying invisibly through the night to crash down on to the pirates' citadel. No lights burned on the wall to aid the aim of the Roman crews and the only evidence of the success of their efforts was the occasional distant sound of the thud of the impact and faint rumble of falling masonry. A screen of marines stood guard a hundred paces further out, in case the defenders attempted to sally out and destroy the siege weapons.
Not far behind the onagers was the fortified camp of the Ravenna fleet. Small cooking fires flickered in the darkness and the tired seamen and marines sat around them in the customary mood of quiet relief and light-heartedness of men who have survived a battle. Beyond them, along the curve of the bay, lay the dark hulls of the warships. Out to sea there were smaller craft, watching for any pirates who thought they might try to swim to safety from the citadel.
Three figures approached the beached ships along the loom of the sand. They moved purposefully towards the trireme in whose hold Ajax was being held prisoner. Two marines were standing guard at the end of the gangway leading up to the deck, and as the figures emerged from the darkness and strode towards them, one of the marines stepped forward and made the challenge.
Down in the hold, in the wan glow of an oil lamp, Centurion Minucius did not even bother to look up at the sound of the challenge. He was resting on an improvised bed of spare sailcloth laid over coiled ropes. Comfortable enough, but not so comfortable that it was possible to sleep. Which suited his purpose. He had been ordered to guard the prisoner sitting on the grating above the bilges several feet away. Ajax was chained securely to an iron ring fixed to one of the thick timber ribs of the trireme. He was not asleep, and sat brooding, nursing the hand from which the little finger had been severed during his interrogation. Minucius was watching him carefully. There would be no escape, and no suicide attempts.
Boots thudded down on to the deck and the impact of nailed soles echoed through the trireme's hold as someone marched overhead towards the main hatch. Shadows loomed against the night sky and then boots appeared on the gangway steps as a man in the uniform of an ordinary marine entered the hold. Then Minucius saw Vitellius, together with two of his bodyguards. The centurion jumped off his makeshift couch and stood stiffly to attention. Ajax's eyes glinted with open hostility from where he slumped against the side of the ship.
Vitellius waved his hand, on the unbandaged arm. 'At ease, Centurion. I've come for the prisoner.'
'The prisoner, sir?' Minucius looked surprised. 'But I've orders for him to stay here until dawn. Orders from Vespasian himself.'
'Yes, well, the prefect wants him now. For questioning.'
'In the middle of the night, sir?' Minucius' eyes narrowed with suspicion. 'I don't think so.'
He stepped back towards Ajax and grasped the handle of his sword.
Vitellius stared at him, speaking in a low, earnest tone. 'You will hand the prisoner over to me, that's an order, Centurion.'
'No, sir. He only leaves here on the prefect's say so.'
The two men stared at each other, and then Minucius glanced at the tribune's bodyguards edging out either side of him. The centurion's sword rasped from its scabbard, and he raised the point towards the tribune.
Vitellius grinned. 'There's no need for that, Centurion. All right then, you've seen through my ploy. I need the prisoner. Now, I could take him by force. But you might harm me, or one of my men, in the process. I can't afford that. I'm short-handed enough as it is. So I want to make you an offer.'
'Offer? What kind of offer?'
'To make you rich, very rich. Now, I know you could use the money. I've checked your records. You're due for discharge next year.'
'You're a Roman citizen, so there'll be the usual gratuity. You've probably saved enough for a comfortable retirement. You'll live well enough, but there won't be any luxuries. I imagine a man like you will buy into a farm, or an inn. Why not aspire to a better life, Minucius? After twenty-five years of service you deserve it.'
The centurion stared at him. Vitellius could almost hear him thinking it through, and had to struggle to stop himself smiling. Men were so simple when it came down to it. Provide them with the right incentive and it was possible to make them do anything. For some men, it was the prospect of love, or even merely sex. For others it was riches, and Minucius was old enough to know the more lasting value of money.
Minucius watched the prefect's expression closely. 'And what do I have to do to earn this fortune?'
'Bring the prisoner with us.'
'Where are we going, sir?'
'For a little boat ride. Ajax here is going to show us a way to get into the citadel.'
'Into the citadel?' Minucius snorted. 'I should have known. Stand back!'
Vitellius went to raise both hands to placate the centurion, but the bandage on his shoulder restricted the gesture. He frowned. 'Just a moment!'
He took a pace away from Minucius, reached across his chest with his spare hand and unfastened the knot on the bloodstained banadages, then quickly removed them and stuffed them inside his tunic. A moment later the bandage from his head had also been removed and Minucius shook his head at the absence of injuries beneath the dressings.
'I needed an alibi,' Vitellius explained. 'As far as everyone is concerned, I'm recovering from injuries in my tent. That's where they think I am now.' He held out a hand to Minucius. 'The deal is this. You come with us. We get into the citadel where Ajax leads us to his father's quarters. He has something I want. It's locked away in a small box. Ajax was kind enough to tell us that his father keeps his own private fortune close by. I keep the box and its contents and you and my bodyguards here can keep whatever treasure you can carry away. We get what we want and get back here before we're missed.'
'And the prisoner?'
'Once we have what we're after, we take him back as far as the boat, then release him.'
'And how do I explain his escape?'
'He picked his lock with a nail and jumped you when your back was turned. Then he slipped over the side and swam across the bay to the citadel. You'll be discovered, alive, but dazed. My man here will make the attack on you look convincing.'
Minucius sized up the burly bodyguard standing behind Vitellius. 'I'm sure he will… So what happens if you are missed?'
'I've left a letter stating I've gone to spy on their defences,' Vitellius smiled. 'To redeem my honour, you understand. If all goes to plan I'll destroy the letter when I get back to my tent. We've taken care of the sentries. They've been bound and gagged and dropped into the anchor cable locker. Of course, if we are successful, they will have to be disposed of. That will be blamed on Ajax.'
Minucius nodded slowly. 'It seems you've thought of everything, sir.'
'I've tried to. So what do you say, Centurion?'
'It's all very interesting,' said Minucius. 'So what's in this box you're prepared to risk our lives for?'
'Nothing that would concern you. Nothing you would want. Now, do we have a deal?'
Minucius thought for a moment and shrugged. 'What choice do I have? If I say no, you'll kill me and take him anyway.'
'Of course. So do the logical thing. Believe me, it's for the best. It will be dangerous. But if we're successful you'll be the richest man in Ravenna. By a long way.'
'What's to stop you killing me once I hand the prisoner over?'
'I've far more to gain by having you work with us. Besides, what would be the point? There'll be much more treasure there than the three of you can carry off so we have nothing to gain by treachery and everything to gain by working with you.'
Minucius stared at him a moment and then thrust out his hand and grasped that of the tribune. 'You have a deal, sir.'
'Good man! Now let's get the prisoner and get going. There's no time to waste.'
Minucius undid the prisoner's chain and pulled him up. One of the bodyguards set to work with the tip of his sword, working the ring bolt loose. As soon as it dropped to the deck he reached into his belt-purse, took out a nail and laid it down beside the ring bolt.
'There,' Vitellius smiled. 'Clear evidence of our resourceful prisoner's escape. Now let's get going.'
The five men climbed the gangway up to the deck, moved towards the stern of the trireme and climbed down over the side into one of the small boats moored to the warship. Vitellius took his place in the bows, Minucius and Ajax in the stern and the two bodyguards took an oar each. Untying the mooring line, they thrust the boat out from the trireme and clumsily placed their oars into the holding pegs. One of the blades splashed down into the water.
'Quiet, you fools!' Vitellius hissed. 'Take it easy. We mustn't be seen or heard!'
Chastened, the two bodyguards went about their work carefully, gently dipping the oars in, pulling a slow stroke and then sweeping the blades of the oars back across the surface for the next stroke. The surface of the bay was calm and the boat glided across towards the dark mass of the rock upon which the citadel rested. As the boat pulled past the dark strip of the causeway their passage was punctuated by the sounds of the onagers striking their retaining bars and the more distant crunch of the impacts.
Minucius leaned closer to Ajax and whispered,'Why are you helping them?'
'To live,' the young man whispered back. 'He promised to let me and my father escape when it's over.'
'I see.' Minucius was surprised at the young man's gullibility, but then maybe he had been so broken by his torture that he would believe almost anything with a quite pathetic conviction.
They made for the point at which the cliff face dipped slightly towards the sea below and soon the sound of waves lapping against the bottom of the cliff could be heard from the small boat.
'Stop rowing,' Vitellius called softly.'Ajax, what now?'
'Go forward. See that rock. Go round it. Slowly.'
The boat eased forward, towards a seemingly unbroken line of rocks, one was bigger than the rest. The gentle swell swept against them in a faint wash and hiss, and for a moment Minucius was sure that the pirate deliberately intended to wreck the boat on the rocks. Then he saw what Ajax had been looking for: a narrow opening behind the larger rock that led into a small pool beyond. Vitellius' bodyguards immediately rowed hard for the opening and the boat shot through the gap into the sheltered water beyond. There was a flat slab of rock at the base of the cliff, which towered over them until, at the top, they could make out the faint loom of the whitewashed buildings that perched above the sea.
'There,' Vitellius pointed, and the boat eased forward and bumped against the rock. The tribune scrambled over the side and stepped ashore, keeping a firm grip on the mooring rope. One of his bodyguards went after him while his comrade helped Ajax and Minucius out of the boat.
'Sir, shall I tie her up?' asked one of the bodyguards.
'No. Best pull the boat up, over by the base of the cliff where it won't be seen.'
While the two men heaved the boat out of the water and dragged it across the seaweed-covered rocks, Vitellius led the others over to the foot of the cliff and at once saw the beginnings of an uneven line of hand and footholds that led up the rock face. He tested the first few and climbed up four or five feet before nodding in satisfaction and dropping back down beside the others. Vitellius turned to one of his bodyguards.
'Trebius, you first. Go up and see where this comes out. We'll follow behind…'
'Yes, sir.' The man's reluctance to climb a cliff in the dark was evident to all, and Vitellius leaned closer to him.
'Think of the treasure, man. Now go.'
The bodyguard started up the cliff-face, climbing steadily from hold to hold. Vitellius waited a moment and then heaved himself up. 'Me next. Then Ajax, then Minucius. If the boy tries anything funny, silence him, Centurion.'
Vitellius nodded to his other bodyguard. 'You take up the rear, Silus.'
They slowly ascended the cliff, taking great care. Ajax, who had climbed the cliff many times before, was much more certain of the way and would have pulled far ahead of Minucius had the centurion not grasped his ankle and reminded him of Vitellius' threat. Twice the lead man lost his way and the others had to stop while he backtracked, and Ajax whispered instructions to help him find the right holds again. But at last they emerged, one by one, into a small cutting at the top of the cliff where the ground was strewn with fallen rubble and Vitellius realised that they were standing in the ruins of a house that must have collapsed into the sea. Around them rose the pale walls of other houses, their windows shuttered against the cool night air. For a while they sat in silence, recovering their breath.
Then Vitellius whispered, 'Boots off. Tie the laces and hang 'em round your neck.'
Once they were ready he nudged their prisoner.'Time to move. Remember, the centurion will be right behind you. You try anything, and he'll kill you before you know it. Understand?'
'Yes,' Ajax replied softly as he rose up. 'This way.'
He led them over the rubble until they came to the remains of a wall that gave out on to a narrow street beyond. They waited a moment to make sure that all was still and then climbed quietly over the crumbling masonry and crossed to the black shadow of the building opposite.
'How far?' Vitellius whispered.
'Up this way, across a small junction, up the slope to the gate.'
'You go first.'
For an instant, Vitellius thought he made out a smile on Ajax's face, but it was probably just a shadow. Then the young man crept forward, closely followed by the four Romans, as they silently made their way up a narrow cobbled street, boots bumping their breasts as their bare feet padded over the stones. Ahead a dim light glimmered, silhouetting the end of the street, and revealing the open space beyond. Ajax crept forward, but Minucius held him back firmly, then went ahead and peered slowly round the corner.
The junction opened on to a small square and in the far corner a fire burned on the cobbles. Around it huddled the sleeping forms of men wrapped in blankets. One was awake and sat with his back to the junction, staring into the flames. Keeping his eyes on the man, Minucius waved the others on and he grabbed Ajax's wrist as the young man trotted by. They ran along the front of the run-down houses facing the square. Crouching low, they moved as quickly as they could without creating any sound, until they were clear of the square and had disappeared back into the shadows of a short alley that led up to a large gateway. The doors had long since rotted and now leaned against the sides of the arch. Ahead was a small courtyard and beyond it, the squat, square mass of an old fortified watchtower. Light spilled from the edges of a shuttered window at the top of the tower and on the platform above they could hear men talking in low voices.
Minucius stopped inside the arch and pulled Ajax down while the others came up behind.
'Is this the place?' Vitellius asked softly.
'Where are the sentries? There should be sentries at least.'
'Maybe they're down by the wall,' Minucius muttered.'In case Vespasian tries an assault in the night.'
'So who's up there on the tower?'
'Catapult crew,' said Ajax. 'There's one mounted on top of the tower.'
Vitellius glanced up at the dim outline of the battlements, then looked carefully around the courtyard before turning back to Ajax. 'All right then, how do we get inside?'
'Follow me.' Ajax rose up, still in the centurion's grasp, and pointed with his spare hand. Vitellius pressed Minucius in the back.
'All right. Go.'
They crossed the courtyard and moved down the side of the tower until they came to a large studded door. Minucius groped across the weathered timber and his fingers closed on a large heavy iron latch. He was about to lift it when there was a sudden snort only a few paces away, and a shape stirred on the ground, before a raucous snoring rumbled in the darkness. All five of them started at the noise, and when he recovered from the shock, Vitellius pulled Trebius closer and whispered. 'Take care of him.'
There was a quiet scraping from the man's scabbard. The bodyguard leaned over the snoring sentry and, clamping a hand over the man's mouth, he thrust the tip of his dagger under the sentry's chin, through the bottom of the skull into his brain, and twisted the handle violently from side to side. The sentry's body spasmed, and jerked before going completely inert. Trebius slowly removed his hand and pulled the blade free. He wiped it on the sentry's tunic and returned the dagger to its scabbard. He bent down, lifted the body under the shoulders and dragged it round the corner before padding back to the others.
'Inside,' Vitellius commanded, and Minucius lifted the latch and slowly pushed the door back. The faint creak did not create an echo and he knew that there was only a small space beyond the door. The centurion stepped inside tentatively and slid his bare feet to and fro, until his shin brushed up against the edge of something hard. He leaned forward and felt with his hands. A step, and beyond that another.
'Stairs, here to the right of the door,' Minucius whispered. 'What now, lad?'
'Go up. My father's quarters are on the corridor to the left. The stairs continue up to the catapult platform at the far end.'
Minucius led the way on all fours, a step at a time until his fingers detected the landing. He peered round and saw a dim light under a door a few feet away. Beyond that the corridor was barely visible before the darkness swallowed it up again. The centurion crept forward to the door, lowered his head to the stone floor and squinted through the small crack running along the bottom of the door. He could see the legs of various pieces of furniture, a discarded cloak and a few chests. There was no sign of anyone. He listened a moment, but there was only the distant murmuring of voices from above.
'I think we're alone,' he whispered towards the staircase, and there was a faint shuffling as the others joined him.
'Stay back and keep hold of Ajax,' said Vitellius. 'My bodyguards will go in first… Right, open the door.'
The latch grated faintly and then the glimmer along the floor instantly spread up alongside the door as it opened and a moment later they were looking into Telemachus' quarters. As the bodyguards padded ahead, Vitellius and the others followed them inside and the tribune quietly shut the door behind them.
They had the room to themselves and all four Romans breathed easily as the tension subsided. The room was large and almost square, with a shuttered window in each of the external walls. The remains of a fire glowed in a hearth and lit the room in a rich orange hue. A couch covered in a fine woven rug stood in one corner. At the other end of the room was a large wooden table and behind it a huge chair that looked more like a throne. On either side of the table were stacked small chests. Vitellius looked at them eagerly and then turned to his bodyguards.
'There you go, boys! Just as he said. Come on, let's have a look.'
Trebius and Silus crossed over to the table and Vitellius lifted the lid of the topmost chest. Inside they saw the dull gleam of gold. He lowered a hand, clenched a fistful of coins and raised them up for the others to see. The bodyguards and Minucius could not help but grin at the sight. Vitellius smiled at their reaction.'You can help yourselves, but keep it quiet. Now then,' he turned to Ajax. 'Show me the one I want.'
There was a slight hesitation as the pirate ran his eyes over the chests, then he pointed.'That one there, under the table.'
Vitellius' eyes followed the direction indicated and he saw an ornately decorated black box. He bent down and retrieved it. His heart was beating fast as he placed the box on the table. Vitellius could hardly believe he was in the presence of the Sybilline scrolls. He ran his hands across the lid, down to the catch and slid it open.There was a keyhole – but the box was not locked. He took a deep breath and lifted the lid. Inside, in the light cast by the fire, he saw three thick scrolls, in soft leather covers, laying side by side.
'Scrolls?' Minucius said in surprise. 'Is that it? Scrolls?'
Vitellius looked up at him with a thin smile. 'Yes. Just some scrolls.'
'But I thought it was something… special.'
'These are special, Centurion. Some of the most important documents ever written.'
'Oh?' Minucius shook his head and chuckled. 'Well, you can have them, sir. I'll content myself with the gold.'
'You do that…' Vitellius turned back to the scrolls, reached a hand out and touched them reverently. Then he looked up quickly.'Get whatever you want from those chests and let's get back to the boat.'
'And what happens to me?' Ajax asked. 'What of our deal, Roman?'
Vitellius looked at him. He needed the pirate a while longer, as insurance in case they ran into any of Telemachus' men. But once it was all over the pirate leader's son was as expendable as the rest of them. Vitellius placed a hand on the man's shoulder.
'Once we reach the boat, I'll set you free. You can return to your father's side.'
'And your promise to spare us, if the citadel falls?'
'You have my word.'
Ajax looked at the tribune suspiciously for a moment and then nodded, apparently satisfied. He made his way round the desk and sat down in his father's chair. He intertwined his fingers to form a rest for his chin as he watched Minucius and the two bodyguards start to open the treasure chests.
Vitellius picked the box up and moved over towards the fireplace. He set the box down and sat beside it. Reaching over to the woodpile, he placed two logs on the embers and stoked the fire up until there was enough light to read by. Then he opened the lid, picked up a scroll and examined the leather cover wrapped over the edge of the scroll. There was some faded text on the cover and he tilted the scroll handles to read it better. It was in Greek, as he had expected, and as the tribune silently translated the script his excitement increased to an almost unbearable pitch. His fingers trembled slightly as he slid the cover off and discarded it. The prophecies were written in fine red strokes on the best vellum he had ever seen. It was almost as soft as the skin of a baby, and he had to still a faint tremor of horror even as the comparison occurred to him. Vitellius rolled the scroll from one handle to the other, scanning the text as it foretold the future of Rome year by year. His eyes lighted on references to a disaster in the forests of Germany, the rise of a mad young prince who would make himself a god, his succession by a foolish cripple… Vitellius raced on, eyes scanning the scroll in feverish anticipation, until at last his hands were still and he found what he was looking for. He read the passage slowly, then again, and again to be quite sure, and he felt the fire of ambition burn in his veins as he read it out quietly.
When the last of the Claudians
By his own hand, is laid low,
Rome shall pass to one who
Bears the sign of the hunter's bow…
'What was that, sir?' asked one of the bodyguards.
'Nothing,' Vitellius replied quietly without turning round. 'It's nothing.'
The bodyguard looked at his master for a moment, and then shrugged before turning back to the boxes spread across the floor around the desk. Every box that he and the other two Romans had opened was filled with gold, silver and sometimes precious stones. There was enough wealth in the chests to buy any one of the finest houses in Rome and fill it with every luxury a man could imagine. Yet, as the muted sounds of astonishment and celebration carried across the room to Vitellius, he could not help but sneer at their antics in pure contempt. All the gold in the world was as nothing compared to the value of the scroll resting on his lap.
Vitellius hurriedly wound the scroll back to the start as he relished the knowledge that he was destined to be one of fate's most favoured sons. Later, when he was safe, he would read through the rest of the prophecies at his leisure. Carefully replacing the scroll in the box, he shut the lid and, with it tucked safely under his arm, the prefect rose to his feet.
'Time we were leaving.'
Minucius and the bodyguards hurriedly stuffed the last few coins and jewels into their purses and knapsacks. As the centurion turned to retrieve the prisoner from his father's chair there was a burst of shouting outside the window.
06 The Eagles Prophecy