Six days later the fleet returned to Ravenna. At first the townspeople had been overjoyed when news that the sails had been sighted spread through the streets. Crowds rushed down to the harbour front and out on to the moles to wave their greetings as the fleet approached. Relatives of the sailors and marines massed outside the gates of the naval base, anxious to be reunited with their menfolk. As the fleet made the final approach to the harbour entrance, the sails were furled and the crews unshipped the oars and rowed the warships in, passing the dense mass of merchant shipping before they entered the naval harbour.
The wounded had been loaded on to the triremes at the head of the fleet and these, the largest vessels, manoeuvred in towards the wharf and heaved their mooring lines ashore to the men waiting to receive them at each berth. As soon as the triremes had been made fast, the gangways were lowered on to the wharf and the unloading of the wounded began. A continuous flow of stretchers laden with the injured was taken to the hospital block, and then the bloodstained stretchers were hurried back to the ships to collect more casualties. There were so many stretcher cases that the walking wounded were left to make the short march across the base to the hospital unaided.
As the scale of the losses became apparent the mood of celebration and relief in Ravenna quickly turned to a horrified despair and a shrill wailing began amongst the relatives and friends waiting outside the gates. Once each of the triremes had disgorged its cargo of injured men, the vessel was eased away from the wharf and rowed slowly out to drop anchor in the naval harbour. Then it was the turn of the other ships to unload their exhausted marines and seamen, and these tramped across the parade ground towards their barracks, looking forward to the chance of a hot meal and a long spell of relaxation in the bathhouse. Those with families were anxious to let them know they were safe, but until their kit was cleaned and properly stowed away their officers would not permit them to leave the base.
Last ashore were the prisoners: long lines of men, women and children chained together. They were led up from the dark stinking holds of the warships and goaded down the gangplanks towards one of the warehouses that was to act as their temporary prison, there to wait for the agents from the slave dealerships who would come to inspect the goods and prepare bids for the best stock in the auction that would follow a few days later. The proceeds of the sales, together with the plunder taken from the pirates' citadel would make some of the men, mostly officers, wealthy men. Others would bank their share of the proceeds, saving towards retirement, or increasing the size of their stake in the funeral club. Many of the men were keenly looking forward to blowing a small fortune on drink and whores the moment they were given permission to leave the base.
Macro and Cato watched as the last of the prisoners was unloaded. At the end of the line of filthy men in chains was Ajax, trying to stand proud and defiant as he was led off to a hard and uncertain future. He had shown no sign of emotion as his father, and the surviving trierarchs of the pirate fleet had been crucified; nailed down through the wrists and ankles before being bound to their timber frames and hoisted up along the headland opposite the citadel. On the other side of the bay great clouds of smoke billowed up from the fires set by the marines in the ravaged ruins of the citadel.
As the Roman fleet pulled away from the bay Cato had lingered a moment at the stern rail of his ship, hearing the faint cries of agony from the men hanging from their crossbeams on the headland, and the dull roar of flames. Then he had turned away with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and refused to look back.
Ajax met their gaze as he stepped ashore, and hesitated for an instant, so that Cato was tempted to try to offer him some crumb of comfort. Then the marine at the tail of the desultory column thrust him forward and he stumbled after the other prisoners.
'Don't go and feel sorry for him,' Macro said gently.'He's a pirate. He knew the score.'
'I don't feel sorry.'
Macro smiled. He knew his friend well enough to know better. 'If you say so. Just remember, if our fortunes were reversed I doubt he would have shown us any mercy.'
'Besides, he'll do all right. He's got the spirit to make a decent bodyguard, or gladiator perhaps. Don't you worry about him.'
'I'm not,' Cato said firmly, turning towards Macro. 'It's you I'm concerned about. Are you sure you want to go through with it? You know it's going to break her heart.'
Macro nodded. 'Vespasian's given me permission to stay here for a few days. I'll follow you to Rome when she's settled. When are you leaving?'
'The moment the prefect has handed over his command. He's just leaving orders for Decimus to hunt down Rufius Pollo and our friend Anobarbus.'
'Seems he and Pollo have been working for the Liberators. Anobarbus was trying to cut a deal with the pirates for the scrolls. I left orders for their arrest when I came back for the rest of the fleet. Guess they must have been warned in time to run for it. Anyway, once Vespasian has finished, we're off. The horses are already saddled.'
'And the scrolls?'
Cato smiled. 'Vespasian is carrying those himself. Seems he won't trust anyone else with them.'
'Can't blame him. Just hope he never turns his back towards Vitellius.'
'Don't worry about Vitellius,' Cato replied. 'I'll watch him closely.'
They stood in silence for a moment, staring as Ajax and the others were herded towards the warehouse. Then Cato turned and thrust out his arm. 'I'll see you back in Rome. Come to the house of Vespasian. He says he'll put us up until we get a new posting.'
Macro clasped his friend's forearm. 'Has to be a better billet than that rat's nest we rented in Rome.'
They both smiled at the memory of their appalling digs.
'Good luck, Macro.'
'Safe journey, Cato.'
The young officer nodded, and then turned away, marching quickly across the parade ground towards the headquarters building. Macro stared after him for a moment and then turned towards the barracks. There were many duties he still had to carry out before he could permit himself to leave the base and make his way into Ravenna and break the news to his mother. The unpleasant task weighed on his heart like a great lead weight and he would sooner spend a year on fatigues than face his mother and tell her of Minucius' death.
It was after dark before Macro felt he had discharged his duties to the point where he could justify quitting the base for the rest of the evening. At least that was what he told himself. As he became engrossed with evermore mundane tasks, the junior officers had started giving him funny looks and even Macro had begun to realise that his apparent dedication to work looked most unusual. So he handed over the few remaining jobs to an optio, fetched his cloak, belt-purse and haversack, and set off for the port. Slipping through the small door beside the main gates he emerged into a large crowd that was straining to get close to the slates that hung from the main gates on which were recorded the names of the dead and injured. Frantic eyes searched the lists, found no name and searched again to make sure before they slipped away and gave thanks for a loved one's preservation. Others read the list with a sick feeling of inevitability before they found what they most dreaded to see and fell back in grief, sobbing and howling, or just too numbed to believe the evidence of their own eyes.
Macro gently eased a path through the crowd, desperate to get away from these distraught people, yet too overwhelmed by the sense of guilt in his own survival to affect any brusque fatalism. At length he was free of them and headed along the wharf, walking slowly as he tried to think of the best way to tell Portia that Minucius was dead. But there was no easy way. How could there be? More distressing still was the nature of Minucius' death. Macro wanted to spare her that detail at least, but he knew that such grand treachery would not be a secret for long. Even if only a handful of men in the fleet knew the full story, there were others who possessed fragments of the tale who would swap stories and so it would leak out and reach his mother's ears and add immeasurably to the burden of her grief.
He turned up the thoroughfare that led into the seedy part of Ravenna, and passed a drunken crowd of merchant sailors celebrating the defeat of the pirates. For a moment he was tempted to stop and tell them how it really was. How their freedom to renew their trade had been bought with the lives of hundreds of good men. But it was to be expected, he realised. The flip side of victory was the price it had exacted on the victors. Moreover, he smiled grimly, to stop would be yet another delay in carrying out his task.
Too soon, Macro found himself standing on the opposite side of the street to the Dancing Dolphin. He stopped and stared. He wasn't yet prepared for it. Then Macro clenched his fists irritably and strode across the stepping stones that ran across the grime and filth of the street. He drew a deep breath and stepped into the bar.
There was only a handful of customers sitting about the room, and he saw Portia at once. She stood at an angle to him, setting up the cups for the evening's customers, unaware of his entrance. Macro swallowed and crossed the room as quietly as he could, but a loose board betrayed him before he could reach the counter, and she turned to look.
Their eyes met, and each stood still and speechless for a moment. Then her face wrinkled up and she leaned on the counter for support.
'No… no… no…' Her fingers pressed into the wooden surface and the knuckles went white. Macro strode the last few paces and gently took her shoulders.
'Mother, I'm so sorry.'
Her head drooped and Macro felt her thin frame shudder in his hands. He looked up and saw that the customers were watching curiously.
'Mother, come with me. Back there.'
He shuffled awkwardly round the counter, put his arm across her shoulders and helped her through the doorway to the small storeroom at the back of the bar. There, he eased her down on to the stool at the small desk where she did her accounts. For a while Portia clasped her hands to her face as her body was racked with sobs. Macro remained silent, holding her with one arm. He hesitantly raised his spare hand and then gently stroked the wispy grey hair.
After a while the crying subsided, and then a little later Portia suddenly lowered her hands, stiffened her back and pulled out a bar cloth to dab around her eyes.
'He was killed in the final assault.'
'He didn't suffer?'
'No. It was quick. He wouldn't have felt anything.'
'I see.' She nodded, as if that somehow made it more acceptable.'That's good. I wouldn't have liked him to suffer. I wouldn't…' Her face screwed up again and more tears were wrenched from her old frame before she managed to recover a measure of composure. 'He was a good man.'
Macro was silent, and she immediately sensed something wrong in his mood.
'What's the matter, Macro?'
'It's nothing. Shall I get you a drink?'
'A drink?' Portia eyed him shrewdly. 'That's what men say when they want to avoid a subject.'
Macro looked at her helplessly.
'What happened?' she asked quietly, but firmly. 'Tell me.'
'This isn't the time.'
Macro swallowed, tried to meet her intent gaze, and wavered. He looked down and spoke softly.'Minucius was a traitor. He was selling information to the pirates. He'd been doing it for months.'
'Yes. How else do you think he had come by the money for all those retirement plans of his?'
'He said he'd inherited it.' She looked confused. 'He couldn't have been a traitor. How could he be? I'd have known.'
'Are you saying you never suspected him?'
Portia glared back and slapped him hard.'How dare you!'
Macro reached up and rubbed his cheek. His mother shook her head, trembling with rage and grief, and despair. 'Macro… what's to become of me?'
'I've taken care of it, Mother.' He lifted his haversack on to the desk, unfastened the ties and, reaching inside, he drew out the leather bag Minucius had carried up to the roof. 'This was his. I think you should have it now.'
Portia stared at the leather bag. 'What's in it?'
'Gold, some gems, some silver. More than enough to keep you in comfort. You can still have that small estate in the country.'
Her eyes remained fixed on the bag.'How did you come by this?'
Macro winced. 'It was with him when he died.'
Her eyes flickered up. 'You were there?'
'So what happened?'
When her son did not immediately reply a look of horror seeped across her features. 'What did you do to him? What did you do to him?'
She grasped his arms and tried to shake him. Macro looked at her woodenly. 'I offered him a choice. Either I'd kill him, or let him kill himself. He did the best thing. He took his own life.'
Portia looked straight at her son.'Swear you didn't do it! Swear it.'
'I promise you, Mother. I didn't kill him.'
'I hope so, for your sake.' She looked away, shrunken and despairing. 'You've no idea what you would have done.'
Macro frowned, not understanding what she meant. But Portia kept her silence for a little longer, as she stared at the floor. Macro cleared his throat.
'You know, you could come back to Rome with me. It's not far from there to Ostia… Father's still alive, as far as I know.'
Portia looked up at him, and suddenly burst out laughing. The sound was brittle and somehow frightening. For a moment she no longer seemed in control of herself.
'Mother? What's the matter?'
'Oh, it's priceless!' She laughed again.'Quite priceless… You really want me to go back to Ostia, to that stupid, worthless, violent drunk you call a father?'
Macro shrugged. 'It's just a suggestion. I just hoped…' He stared at her, a terrible chill of suspicion gripping him as he dimly grasped that there was something strange about what she had just said.
'What's wrong with my father?'
'What's wrong with him?' Portia's lips trembled. 'He's dead. That's what's wrong with him. Minucius was your father.'
She nodded. 'He made me pregnant and ran away. So I had to marry that oaf you called a father. But years later Minucius came back for me. By then you were old enough to look after yourself. Besides, the situation was complicated enough already.' Portia continued wearily. 'I told him I'd miscarried the baby. He never knew about you.'
They stared at each other for a moment. Macro shook his head. It wasn't true. Couldn't be. But deep inside, he knew it was. There was no reason for her to lie to him, and a flood of memories and half-understood comments flooded into his mind. He looked up and met her gaze again. She nodded slowly and stood, gently closed her thin arms around his head and held him close. Macro was too dazed to react, and simply closed his eyes tightly and clenched his fists.
'Oh, my baby… my boy,' Portia said softly. 'What have you done to us?'
06 The Eagles Prophecy