They set off at a slow trot, equipment jingling and nailed boots crunching underfoot. Vespasian led from the front and kept the pace steady to make sure that they were not tired when they reached the citadel. In any case, the main column of marines still had to fight their way through the breach and Vespasian's group would have to wait until the wall was cleared before they made their bid for Telemachus' quarters and the scrolls.
As they advanced along the causeway Cato looked ahead and saw that the marines had reached the ditch in front of the wall. The column stopped as the first century began to pick their way across the rubble from the gatehouse. Ahead of them, and on either side, the pirates were shooting arrows and slingshot, and hurling rocks and javelins into the packed ranks of the marines. Even as Cato watched, he saw the lead centurion struck down, his red-crested helmet dropping out of sight amid the heaving tangle of armour and limbs trying to scramble across the stone and timber debris filling the ditch. More men went down, but the survivors struggled on, desperate to pass through the hail of missiles and charge into the line of pirates waiting for them beyond.
The second century was beginning its advance up the rubble slope as Vespasian's party reached the rear of the column. Vespasian barked an order for the marines to move aside and he led his men closer to the wall. He stopped in the small gap behind the next century waiting to take its turn to advance into the breach. In front of them the second wave of marines was being mauled as badly as the first and the going was made even more difficult by the bodies sprawled across the rubble.
'Look out!' someone cried to Cato's right, and he just had time to turn and see another heavy bolt lash into the side of the column, running through a number of marines before it was spent. Cato noticed that the marines around him were grim-faced, some showing clear signs of the fear that knotted their stomachs as they waited their turn to advance. Ahead of them the men of the second century were wavering. Several had already gone to ground and crouched down under their shields, unwilling to go on. The rest had slowed down, instinctively, even though it lessened their chances of surviving, and now began to back away from the breach behind raised shields.
Vespasian took in the situation at once, and turning his head he bellowed across the ranks of the marines, 'On my order… general advance!'
Cato and Macro and every marine in the column tightened their grips on their sword handles and shield grips. Beside him, Cato noticed Secundus was trembling slightly, but the imperial agent had his sword ready and kept his place amongst the prefect's assault party. This was clearly his first experience of such an action. Cato could remember all too well his first time in action when, as a raw recruit, he had dashed into the heart of a hostile German village at the side of a howling Centurion Macro. He had been in many more fights since then, and yet there was the familiar tightness of his throat, the sickness in the pit of his stomach and a strange giddy euphoria in his head.
'Advance!' Vespasian bellowed out.
The column edged forward at a slow pace as the first rank edged up the slope of rubble towards the twenty-foot-wide gap in the wall. Cato, like the men around him, raised his shield at an angle above his head and picked his way forward along the gravel of the causeway. Then the gravel gave way to crushed stone and chunks of rock as he reached the scattered rubble at the edge of the ditch. Cato had to keep his eyes down as he picked his way up the slope. Above them he could hear the jeers and cries of the pirates as they pelted the column with missiles that clattered and thudded on to the attackers' shields. An arrow struck Cato's shield boss with a sharp ring and deflected to one side. All around him he could hear the grunts of the marines as they laboured up the slope, boots scrambling for purchase on the loose masonry. But the pirates were finding their targets, and men stumbled and fell with gasps and cries of pain. Together with the dead and the litter of arrow and javelin shafts, they slowed the advance of their comrades as they struggled up and forward into the breach.
'Keep going!' Vespasian yelled above the din. 'Keep going!'
'Come on, Cato!' Macro shouted, a few paces ahead.'Stay with us.'
Cato forced himself on, sheathing his sword to save a hand for clambering over the rubble. Then the ground evened out. Raising his shield to one side he found himself squinting up at the dusty silhouettes of men on the crumbling wall, black against the pale dawn sky. At once something zipped through the air close to his head as a slingshot splintered a chunk of masonry and a fragment gashed Cato's cheek, just below the eye socket.
'Shit!' He faltered at the red-hot burning sensation, but knew at once that he must not stop, and scrambled on, over the debris and down into the citadel. Below them, through the heaving tangle of armoured bodies and shields, he could see the pirates waiting for them. The marines had passed through the deluge of missiles and now lowered their shields to the front as they scrambled and slid down the rubble towards the enemy. Beyond the ruined gatehouse was a wide street, and the pirates had blocked off the routes leading into the citadel with a crude breastwork constructed from rubble, barrels and piles of furniture. The entrances to the buildings had been sealed with stout timbers nailed across the doorways. A handful of marines already lay dead and injured in front of the barricades; the few men from the first two centuries to survive the ordeal as they passed through the breach.
'Re-form lines!' the prefect bellowed. At once, the centurions and the optios relayed the orders and the marines moved into place, forming tight ranks with shields to the front, and javelins held ready.
'Those men on the wall!' Vespasian pointed up to the pirates crammed on to the ramparts either side of the breach. 'Take them down!'
The marines inside the citadel turned on the pirates above them, drew back their javelin arms and unleashed a volley of iron-tipped shafts. The pirates had been tightly packed together, and there was no time to turn and flee. Scores went down, pierced by the javelins, and they tumbled from the walls. With the danger from above lifted the column of marines poured forwards through the breach. Before they could pile into the ranks of the men already inside, Vespasian shouted the order to advance and the marines moved steadily towards the enemy sheltering behind their barricade. Those marines who still had javelins now hurled them into the dense ranks of the pirates packed into the streets beyond the barricades, then drew their swords and gripped them firmly, ready to strike.
Cato and Macro were standing to one side, with the rest of the prefect's assault squad and Vespasian forced his way through the advancing marines to rejoin them.
'Secundus! Which way?'
The imperial agent glanced round the square and pointed towards a narrow thoroughfare to the right-hand side of the square. 'There.'
Vespasian nodded. 'Right! Macro, Cato, take some men and clear that barricade.'
The two centurions trotted over to the century of marines that had just entered the citadel. Their optio, a weathered-looking veteran, was busy dressing their line, as if he was on a parade ground, and shouting abuse at a hapless youngster. 'You are a fucking disgrace! Get that chin-strap tied before I throw you to the bloody pirates!'
'Optio!' Macro called out.
The officer turned and straightened to attention, barely stirring as an arrow loosed from behind one of the barricades whipped close overhead. 'Yes, sir!'
'I need four sections, right now. Form them up in front of that barricade over there.'
'Yes, sir!' The optio turned away and shouted out a string of orders to the nearest group of men scrambling through the breach. Macro and Cato looked towards the barricade, shields raised, and inspected the enemy defences.
'How are we going to do this?' asked Cato.
'Same as ever, straight through the centre and roll right over them.'
'Ah, the master of tactics speaks.'
'Got a better idea, smart-arse?'
With a loud clatter of nailed boots on cobbles the optio brought up his men and formed them into a tight block, shields raised and ready to go into action. Beyond them Cato could see the rest of the marines piling into the enemy barricades; a heaving mass of armoured men and weapons, while stones and lumps of wood flew overhead in both directions as the rearmost ranks of pirates and marines exchanged missiles.
Macro waited until the formation was still, and then waved his sword arm aloft to get their attention above the din of battle echoing off the buildings in the square.
'We need to clear that barricade. Go in hard! When they break go after them. No prisoners. Once that's done, you're free to help yourselves to the loot!'
The marines raised a cheer for that and then braced themselves for the next order.
'Forward!' Macro yelled, and he and Cato slipped into the front rank as the small formation tramped towards the barricade.
The pirates watched them come on with a mix of expressions. Cato noted that some men looked cold and contemptuous, some were wild-eyed and shouting and spitting with pent-up rage. A few looked just as terrified as he felt.
'Shields up!' Macro shouted, and Cato just had time to raise his when a hail of stones cracked and rattled off the shields in the front rank. But they could do little harm against the wide curved surfaces of the marines' shields, and the formation did not even slow down under the barrage. Macro called them to a halt as they reached the barricade and the stones gave way to thrusts from spears and slashes from the heavy curved blades of the pirates' swords.
'Cato! Give me a hand here.'
Macro pointed down at the base of the barricade. There was a large tool chest. A heavy brass handle protruded from the front of the chest and Macro sheathed his sword and grasped it. Cato too put his sword away and joined his friend.
'Ready?' Macro glanced at him.'One… two… heave!'
They pulled with all their strength and the wood grated on the cobbles as it began to shift.
'Come on!' Macro growled through clenched teeth. 'Pull!'
The handle suddenly sprang from the face of the wooden chest, nearly sending the two centurions sprawling on their backs. Macro recovered his balance and swore as he saw, round the edge of his shield, that a large section on the front of the chest had come away with the handle. He clenched his fist in momentary frustration and was about to look for another handhold to try, when there was a groan of protest and the lid gave way, collapsing into the chest and bringing down a section of the makeshift barricade with it.
'That's it!' Macro shouted in triumph.'Now clear it away and let's get at those bastards!'
The pirates desperately aimed blows at the Romans, but with little effect as the second rank of marines leaned forward to cover their comrades with their shields, Macro and Cato pulled away pieces of the barricade and thrust them towards the side where marines threw the wreckage back into the square. In short order, the barricade was little more than a ruin between the two sides and Macro straightened up.
'Advance!' he shouted, ripping his sword from his scabbard and stepping up on to the meal bags piled behind the chest. Cato drew his weapon and clambered up beside his friend. In front of them was a sea of hostile faces and shimmering blades. Cato threw his weight behind his shield and jumped to one side, right on top of some of the waiting enemy. He landed on a short, thick-set man stripped to the waist, his skin gleaming with oil that mixed with his sweat to create a foul musty smell that filled Cato's nostrils for an instant before the pirate collapsed under the impact and Cato thrust his sword into the man's stomach. Before the pirates could respond, more marines piled through the gap and jumped down amongst the pirates, smashing their shields into the enemies' faces and thrusting at any exposed flesh that came within reach of their short swords. Even though the pirates tried desperately to hold their ground they were no match for the weight and momentum of the heavily armed marines. Step by step they were driven back from the barricade and up the narrow street beyond. Cato found himself alongside Macro again and the veteran flashed him a grin.
'This is more like it! Fighting on solid ground again!'
'Look out!' Cato shouted as one of the pirates dropped down and aimed to swipe his sword at Macro's shins beneath his shield.
Macro dropped the shield and the blade rang as it struck the metal trim. Then the shield flew up and out as Macro slammed it into the pirate's face, knocking the man cold. He slumped on to the ground and the marine to Macro's left finished him off with a shattering cut to the skull that burst the pirate's head like a watermelon.
As more of the pirates were hacked down, their comrades began to edge away from the fight. Then those at the rear began to turn and run, dashing back into the citadel to try to find shelter amid its narrow twisting streets. The panic spread through their ranks like a plague, and moments later Macro and Cato stood side by side, breathing heavily, as they watched the last of the pirates flee.
Macro glanced round at the marines. 'Don't just stand there! Get after 'em!'
The centurions stepped aside and let the marines past. As their optio emerged through the ruined barricade Cato called him over.
'Take the rest of your men and cut behind these buildings. With a bit of luck you'll come out behind one of the other barricades, and can take 'em in the rear.'
As the last of the marines tramped past, Vespasian and his squad approached Macro and Cato.
'Well done. Now let's find those scrolls. Secundus!'
'Sir?' The imperial agent stepped forward and Cato saw a bloody slash running down the man's sword arm.
'Lead the way.'
Secundus swallowed and nodded. 'Yes, sir. Follow me.'
The group set off at a gentle trot, up the street towards the watchtower that loomed over the citadel. Behind them a war horn sounded, to be instantly countered by the distant horns of the marines on the causeway. They passed by the entrances to houses forced open by the marines out to loot the citadel. Cato caught a fleeting glimpse of three marines cutting down a pirate as he attempted to defend his woman and children inside a crumbling hovel. But Vespasian's men continued on as the woman started screaming in terror and her cries echoed up the street after them. At each intersection Cato glanced left and right and saw more marines breaking in doors, chasing down men, women and children as they tried to flee and hacking at those too slow to escape.
'How much further?' Vespasian asked breathlessly.
'Almost there, sir.'
They abruptly emerged into a small square and almost ran straight into a party of pirates advancing in the opposite direction. Both sides slewed to a halt, momentarily shocked into silence. Then Cato opened his mouth and roared at them as he charged forward with sword raised. The pirates took one glance at the bloodied weapon and the savage expression on the centurion's face and turned and ran, bolting for one of the side streets leading off the square.
Cato chased after them a short distance, before he stopped and leaned on the edge of his shield to catch his breath. Behind him he heard Macro roar with laughter. The rest of the party joined in and Cato picked his shield up, and returned to them, his cheeks reddening.
'What's so bloody funny?'
'Nothing!' Macro shook his head and tried to stop grinning.
'Right!' Vespasian broke in irritably.'Enough! Let's move.'
Secundus headed across the square towards an archway, beyond which they could see the watchtower. On the platform above, the crew of a catapult had caught sight of the small group of Romans and began to train their weapon round. The marines hurried after the prefect and Macro and Cato took up the rear.
'Come on, killer!' Macro grinned as he gave his friend a light shove. 'Just leave a few for me, eh?'
As they approached the archway three figures came running out of it, one of them carrying a small box. Cato threw out his arm 'Sir! Look! Telemachus and Ajax.' Cato started as he recognised the third man. 'That's Minucius!'
'Minucius?' Vespasian raised his sword.'Get them.'
The three men abruptly turned round and ran back through the archway, as Vespasian and the marines ran after them. But Minucius and the two pirates were not weighed down by armour and had disappeared from sight as Vespasian and the first of his men burst through the archway. Macro and Cato had just entered the courtyard beyond when the catapult on the watchtower took its shot. The bolt slammed into the masonry above the arch and dislodged a shower of debris on to Macro and Cato. They emerged, covered in grit and coughing, and ran over to the base of the tower.
Vespasian glanced round the courtyard and then turned to Secundus.'Where could they have gone? Is there another way out of here?'
'No, sir. They have to be down in the storerooms, or they're in the watchtower.'
'Right…' Vespasian glanced round at his men and pointed to the entrance to the storerooms beside the archway. 'First section! Over there. Search them thoroughly!'
Six marines peeled off and scurried across the courtyard and through the entrance, clattering down the steps into the gloom. The prefect turned back to Secundus.
'How do we get into the watchtower?'
'Round the side, sir. There's a door. Then up the stairs and turn left.'
Vespasian led the others to the corner of the tower, peered round, then beckoned to his men. When they were gathered around the door he lifted the latch and threw the door back, ready to attack anyone on the other side, but the stairwell was empty and he motioned for the marines to go in and climb the stairs. Only four men of the second section were left. Before they were halfway up the stairs Cato heard the pounding of footsteps from inside the building as the crew of the catapult charged towards the marines.
He pressed through the doorway close behind Macro and Vespasian, and glancing up, he blinked at the bright light pouring through an open window at the top of the stairs. A figure flickered into view, wielding a light curved blade. It flashed in the light and there was a grunt as the first of the marines was cut down. The man immediately behind him thrust his comrade's body to one side, raised his shield, sprang up the last three steps and slammed into the pirate at the top of the stairs. The man was knocked off balance, staggered backwards towards the window frame and toppled over with a piercing scream. Before the marine could recover, a second pirate thrust a spear into his side, punching through his chain mail and into his vitals. He dropped on the landing, releasing his sword and shield, and groped for the shaft of the weapon that had mortally injured him.
Down on the stairs, Vespasian thrust the back of the man ahead of him. 'Get up there! Move! Or we're dead!'
The two marines ducked low behind their shields as they climbed to the landing and turned into the corridor. Vespasian and the others hurried up the stairs behind them, hearts pounding. As he turned the corner Cato could see a long, wide corridor that was lit by shafts of light angling in through the open shutters of the windows along the side of the tower. At the far end was another staircase, leading up to the roof. In between were several pirates, hacking and slashing at the marines' shields as they forced their way along the corridor.
'Push 'em back!' Macro shouted, and charged past the prefect and Secundus to add his weight to the marines. The plastered walls echoed and magnified the scrape of blade against blade and the thuds of blows that found only the hard surface of a shield. In the confined space the short swords of the Romans proved their worth, as the first two pirates were quickly cut down and the marines rushed over their bodies to take on the surviving pirates.
A door opened down the corridor, beyond the pirates, and Minucius stepped into the corridor. He clutched a leather bag to his chest and took one despairing look at the men fighting in the corridor before he ran for the tower staircase.
'That bastard's mine!' Macro shouted as he threw his sword arm out and caught one of the pirates in the throat. The man slipped down, a hand clamped to his neck in a futile attempt to staunch the jets of blood pumping from his severed blood vessels. But, even as he slid to the floor, he thrust his sword up deep into the groin of Secundus. With an agonised groan the Roman agent slumped down on top of the pirate, driving the blade in even deeper. He fell back against the wall open-mouthed. Vespasian made to step into the gap, but Cato held his arm back.
'No, sir! Let me!'
Before the prefect could protest, Cato pushed past, thrust his shield out and ran at the pirate immediately in front of him. There was no technique to it. He just crashed into the man, and thrust his blade out, felt the jar of the impact down his forearm, twisted the handle and wrenched it back. The pirate fell away with a grunt and went down on to the floorboards. His sword clattered at his side and he raised an arm, appealing for mercy. Behind him the remaining pirates backed away from the Romans, threw down their weapons and raised their arms.
Vespasian patted the shoulder of the last marine. 'You watch them! Macro!'
'Go after Minucius.'
'My pleasure.' Macro thrust the pirates to the side, ran to the far staircase and thundered up the wooden steps and out of sight.
'Cato, with me.' Vespasian held his sword ready and approached the doorway from which Minucius had emerged moments earlier. Cato looked over the prefect's shoulder and saw a large room beyond. In the furthest corner, at the end of a large table, stood Telemachus and his son. At the feet of Ajax kneeled tribune Vitellius, his wrists bound, his head yanked to one side so that his throat was exposed to the slim curved blade in Ajax's hand.
Vespasian entered the room slowly, with Cato at his side.
'Stop there!' Telemachus called out.'One step closer and your tribune dies.'
Cato glanced at Vespasian and saw a flicker of a smile before the prefect replied, 'I suppose you want to try and strike a bargain.'
Telemachus nodded. 'The life of your tribune for the lives of my son and me.'
'Really? I think you must be mistaking me for someone who gives a shit about the tribune.'
Telemachus frowned. 'I'm telling you, I'll not hesitate to have him killed.'
'Be my guest. He's a traitor.'
For a moment all was still, as Telemachus narrowed his eyes and tried to work out if the prefect was bluffing him. Then he placed a hand on his son's shoulder.
'Bleed him a little.'
With a glint of a smile Ajax nicked the tribune's neck and Vitellius yelped as a thin crimson trickle of blood rolled down his throat.
'Next time, he dies,' Telemachus said firmly.
Vespasian lowered his shield and leaned on the rim. 'Go on then. Kill him.'
The tribune glanced at Vespasian in horror and begged in a strangled gasp, 'For pity's sake…'
Vespasian gave a little shrug. 'Sorry, Tribune. Wish I could help you out. But you know the policy. No negotiating with pirates. Besides, I've not come here to save your life. I've come for the same thing you were after.'
Vitellius stared back and whispered. 'You bastard…'
Then Telemachus realised that the prefect was prepared to see Vitellius die. He snatched up a flask of lamp oil from the table and hurled it into the fire burning in the grate. The flask shattered amid a whirl of sparks, there was brief hiss and then the flames eagerly fed on the oil and roared up. While the others reeled back from the wave of heat that leaped across the room Telemachus grabbed a small black box, opened it, snatched up the scrolls inside and took three quick strides towards the flames, holding the scrolls out. He turned to Vespasian.
'Very well then! Our lives for these scrolls!'
Vespasian took a step forward. Telemachus leaned towards the flames. 'I can't hold these for long, Roman! The deal is our lives for the scrolls. You let us go. Your word on it now, or the scrolls burn!'
Vespasian clenched his fingers on the shield trim. 'I can't let you go.'
'Then you lose the scrolls.' Telemachus winced as the heat started to burn his hand. 'Last chance, Roman.'
Cato looked from man to man, and saw that each was fixed on his course. For an instant he could not believe that Vespasian would be so reckless. But then the realisation hit him. If the prefect let the scrolls burn, and let Vitellius be killed, it would be possible to place the blame at Vitellius' feet. He had the tribune's letter stating his plans, after all. Cato would be dead in any case, as soon as Narcissus knew that the scrolls had been destroyed. No doubt Macro would share the same fate…
Cato stepped forward. 'Wait.'
Telemachus and Vespasian turned towards him as Cato quickly continued, 'The scrolls in exchange for your son's life.'
'I'll make no such deal!' Vespasian said through clenched teeth.
'Sir! It's the only way you'll get the scrolls, and Telemachus…'
'My son…' Telemachus wondered aloud, then looked sidelong at Ajax, and Cato knew he had been right. That was the pirate leader's weak spot: his love for his son. Telemachus' gaze flickered back towards Vespasian.
'My son for the scrolls?'
Vespasian stared back, his expression cold and merciless. Ajax turned to his father.
'No! I will not allow it! Father, you can't do this!'
'Be quiet!' Telemachus snapped. 'Well, Roman?' Vespasian looked at the scrolls for an instant and then nodded slowly.
'Your word, Roman! Give me your word!'
'You have my word…'
'Ahhh!' Telemachus let out a cry of pain as he snatched his hands back from the flames and threw the scrolls on to the floor.
'Get those!' Vespasian barked and Cato hurried forward and gathered the scrolls, and then backed away, cradling them in his arms.
Telemachus gestured to his son. 'Let the tribune go. Cut him free.'
Ajax looked at his father in numbed horror, the blade trembling in his hand. Then he looked down at Vitellius with an expression of bitter hatred. For an instant Cato was certain he was going to cut the tribune's throat…then he leaned forward, reached down and sawed through the ropes around Vitellius' wrists. As soon as the bonds parted Vitellius scrambled away from the pirate towards the other Romans. Once he reached a safe distance he rose stiffly to his feet, breathing heavily as he faced Vespasian.
'As long as I live,' he said softly. 'I'll not forget.'
'Nor will I.' Vespasian smiled faintly. 'A lost opportunity, to be sure.'
Cato kept his eyes from the two aristocrats. There was an extremely dangerous tension in the room and he fervently wanted to remain as unobtrusive as possible. As Cato clutched the scrolls to his chest he glanced at the two pirates. After a moment's hesitation Telemachus stepped over to his son and gently placed an arm about his shoulders. Ajax stared at him, wounded and despairing, and his eyes glistened with tears, before he dropped his knife and held his father as all the grief of defeat, all the torment he had suffered at Vitellius' hands, and the terrible sacrifice of his father finally overwhelmed him. With an animal groan, his chest heaved and he poured his sorrow into the folds of cloth on his father's shoulder.
As Macro emerged on to the roof he moved warily, glancing around the doorway before he sprang through it and quickly turned round, sword poised to strike at the first sign of danger. But there was only one other person on the roof of the watchtower. From the far corner Minucius smiled uncertainly at him.
'Macro. I'd hoped it would be you.'
'Really?' Macro kept his sword up and slowly approached the traitor.
'Oh yes! You see, there isn't much time.'
'Wrong.' Macro shook his head.'You've run out of time, Minucius. You're dead meat.'
'Wait!' Minucius raised a hand. His fist was clenched about the cords from which hung a leather bag. 'There's a fortune in here! Precious stones, some gold. It's yours!'
'If you help me escape.'
Macro laughed.'Escape! You're mad.' He waved his spare hand out across the citadel. Marines were running down the streets, intently searching for as much of the pirates' loot as possible.'Soon they're all going to know how you sold them out. And then you're dead the moment you show your face. There's no escape for you, Minucius.'
'You can hide me. Disguise me. Get me out of here. Do it and you'll be a rich man!'
Macro pressed his lips together for a moment, to fight the disgust he felt welling up inside him. 'There are some things a man can't be allowed to survive. Betraying your mates is one of them. Now, put the bag down and draw your sword.'
Minucius stared at him, then lowered the bag to his side. 'All right then, don't do it for the money. Do it for Portia. Do it for your mother instead. She loves me, you know? She needs me.'
'Put the bag down.'
'For her sake, Macro. Do it for her. Don't do it for me.'
'Put the bag down.'
'If anything happens to me, it'll break her heart.'
'PUT THE FUCKING BAG DOWN!' Macro didn't wait to hear any more. He crouched, turned the shoulder of his sword arm towards Minucius and closed in on the traitor.
'Wait!' Minucius cried out. 'What does this prove? We both know you're the better fighter! I don't stand a chance!'
'Then you'll die.'
Minucius dropped the bag, and slumped on to his knees, stretching his arms out towards Macro.'For pity's sake! Think of your mother!'
Macro raised his sword, determined to kill him there and then. For a moment he stood over the wretched traitor, then he clenched his teeth and lowered the blade.
'On your feet!'
Minucius glanced up, his eyes wide and burning with hope. 'You won't regret this, Macro.'
Minucius scrambled to his feet, smiling nervously. 'Bless you! I knew you were a good man. A good son. We'll never forget this, your mother and I.'
'You want to help my mother?'
'What? Yes! Of course. Of course I do. I love her.'
'All right. You love her.' Macro nodded. He leaned over to the side of the tower and glanced down. The wall fell away in a sheer drop over the cliffs below, straight down into the sea, where the waves foamed white against the rocks. There would be no chance of surviving a fall from this height. He straightened up and stared at Minucius. 'If you love her, then jump.'
'Either way you die. I'll kill you and spare you a very public and humiliating execution. Or you can jump and I'll do my best to conceal just what a treacherous little cunt you've been.' Macro forced a smile. 'For my mother's sake, you understand.'
'You're not serious?'
'Perfectly. Now there's not much time. The others will be up here any moment to see what's happened. If you're still on the roof then I'll hand you over to them. You know what that means.'
Minucius bit his lip and clasped his hands together.'Macro, I'm begging you.'
'Do us all a favour. Jump.'
'I-I can't. I'm afraid.'
A faint shout echoed up the staircase. Then again. Cato's voice calling out to Macro. Without taking his eyes off Minucius, Macro shouted, 'Up here!'
The sound of boots echoed in the stairwell. Macro nodded meaningfully towards the wall of the watchtower and raised his eyebrows. Minucius' face wrinkled into an agony of despair and he shook his head.
'Your choice.' Macro shrugged, stepped a few paces back and turned towards the staircase. He strode over to it as Cato came scrambling through the doorway, sword raised.
Macro raised a hand. 'Easy there! All sorted out downstairs? '
Cato nodded, catching his breath.
'Did you find the scrolls?' Macro asked.
'Yes… Where's Minucius?'
Macro turned round. The traitor had vanished. All that remained was the leather bag lying in a crumpled heap by the wall. Macro stared at the wall for a moment before answering.
'Minucius? He was there just now.' Macro shook his head. 'Guess the old bastard must have winged it…'
06 The Eagles Prophecy