The column assembled in the yard at dawn. A centurion, assisted by a team of optios, had been appointed to lead the marines across to Ravenna. These officers stormed into the general barracks and began turfing the men off their sleeping mats and screaming abuse into their faces. Amongst the marines terrified recruits hastened out into the cold dawn air, many half dressed and shivering. Dazed by their rough handling, the men stumbled into line, some still struggling into their clothes. As they readied their packs for the march, Macro cast a critical eye over them.
'Not exactly an impressive bunch, are they?'
Cato shrugged. 'No better or worse than the batch I joined the Second Legion with.'
'And you can tell, of course.' Macro shook his head. 'Trust me, Cato. I've seen 'em come and go for years and this lot are from the bottom of the barrel.'
Cato turned towards him. 'Is that experience talking, or prejudice?'
'Both,' Macro smiled. 'But we'll see who's right soon enough. I'll bet you that we lose a quarter of these men before we reach Ravenna.'
Cato looked over the men gathering by the wagons. The majority of the recent recruits certainly looked like poor specimens. A few had no boots at all and most were thin and drawn, and clothed in little more than rags. They were, as Macro had said, the dregs of the city: men with little hope of employment and no prospects for a better life. And now, in an act of desperation, they had volunteered for the marines. No legion would have had them, that's for sure, Cato reflected. And a good few of them would still be thrown out of the marines before training was completed. So this was their last chance. Men in such circumstances either caved in quickly, or found some last reserve of strength and determination from deep inside themselves. As Cato once had. He turned back to Macro.
'You'll take the bet?'
'More fool you,' Macro smiled. They had made wagers before, and Macro had won more often than not, his experience triumphing over Cato's attempts to rationalise the odds. It was typical of the lad to persist, and Macro was touched by Cato's confidence in his own judgement. But not touched enough to refuse the chance of easy money.
'All right then. The first month's pay.'
Cato stared back at him.
Macro arched an eyebrow. 'Too rich for you?'
'No. No. Not at all. A month's pay it is.'
'Done!' Macro grasped his friend's hand and shook it firmly before Cato could think of changing his mind.
A shout from the centurion in charge of the convoy drew the marines up in their ranks and they stood silent and shivering as the optios strode down the column and dressed the ranks with their long wooden staffs, clipping the odd unfortunate who failed to move with sufficient alacrity. Macro and Cato made their way over to the front of the column. They had already introduced themselves to the centurion, a skinny veteran by the name of Minucius. He was a friendly enough man and told them that he had transferred back to the marines, with a promotion, after a stint in the auxiliaries many years before. Clearly, Minucius had remained true to the hard training of his former service arm and showed no pity for his new charges. Once the introductions had been made and Macro and Cato had shown him their orders, Minucius offered them space in the lead wagon. There was one vehicle in front of the recruits and another three behind, carrying rations and tents for the journey, a small chest of money for expenses and a parcel of letters.
Cato looked round.'Where's Vitellius?'
Centurion Minucius glanced at Cato. 'Gone. He left an hour ago, with his escort. Seems that the prefect is in a tearing hurry to take up his new command. So, I'm afraid we'll be denied the pleasure of his aristocratic company for the rest of the journey. Shame that.' He grinned.
'You don't know the half of it,' Macro said quietly.
Minucius looked at him searchingly.'Something I should know?'
'No,' Cato interrupted. 'It's nothing.'
'We've served with Vitellius before. Back in Britain.'
Cato frowned. 'And what?'
'What's he like?' Minucius observed the two centurions as they exchanged a wary look. 'Come now, lads. We're grown-ups. We'll be serving together for months, maybe years. If you've got some information on the prefect you should share it. After all, who's going to show you the ropes when we get to Ravenna, eh?'
Cato coughed.'Let's just say that we didn't see eye to eye with Vitellius on a few issues.'
'Didn't see eye to eye, eh?' Minucius looked at the other centurions shrewdly. 'He's a thorough-going bastard then?'
Cato pursed his lips and shrugged.
'You could say that,' Macro said softly. 'But you didn't hear it from us. Right?'
'Got you.' Minucius winked good-humouredly.'Forewarned is forearmed. I'll watch my back around our new prefect.'
'Yes,' Macro added, as Minucius strode off to make sure that the convoy was ready to set off, 'so will we all.'
From Ocriculum the Flaminian Way led north, the landscape became more hilly, and the column marched through great vineyards that rolled down the hillsides either side of the road. Everywhere, the stark brown of leafless trees and shrubs of winter looked bleak and depressing, and frequent showers of icy rain lashed down on the hapless recruits. But no one dropped out of the line of march for the first few days, much to Macro's frustration.
On the fourth day after leaving Rome, the column reached the foothills of the Appennines, and crossed torrential streams that fed into the upper reaches of the Tiber. The road then wound its way up to the town of Hispellum. The villas of the rich were closed for the season and would not open again until the summer heat drove the owners up into the cooler air of the mountains, so the streets were quiet as the column tramped through the town to the barracks beyond the far gate.
From the situation of the barracks and the unfriendly glances from passing townsfolk, it was clear that the good people of Hispellum wanted little to do with passing military traffic. Not that Cato could blame them. The soldiers of the Emperor were inclined to regard themselves as being above the law in some respects, a view that was encouraged by the emperors themselves, who had been wise enough to realise that the military were the ultimate guarantor of their power and authority. The odd theft, drunken brawl and non-payment for goods or services were overlooked – mostly because any victims of such crimes were loath to make things worse for themselves by seeking recourse to the law. The people in the towns that lined the main military routes just kept their heads down each time a column appeared, and prayed that it would pass through without causing too much trouble.
The barracks outside Hispellum were well maintained by the town council and, having spent the previous two nights in goat-leather tents, the recruits and their officers were glad at the prospect of a warm and dry night's rest.
As night fell the officers met in the small mess where a slave had laid a fire and the town council had sent several jars of wine and some cured sides of venison to the new arrivals. No doubt they hoped that the soldiers would get drunk in the barracks and not need to venture inside the town walls. The officers were joined by a merchant, who said that he had been unable to find a room in the town. He sat apart from them and watched in silence as the soldiers talked.
'Any more drop out today?' Macro asked hopefully.
Minucius nodded. 'One. An old boy. Claudius Afer. He collapsed on the road this morning. I told him if he didn't catch up he was on his own. Looks like that's one we can scratch off the intake.'
'How many so far?' Macro asked.
'Aside from Afer, let me think. Eight. And we'll lose more as we cross the mountains. We always do. There's no more shelter for three days after Hispellum and we'll spend two nights high up. At this time of year there'll be snow and ice, and the new boys will hate every moment of it. By the time we reach Ravenna we'll have winnowed out most of the weaklings. Those that are left should make good enough marines. Cheers!'
As he raised his cup and drank deeply Macro was busy doing some mental maths. Eight men down, from a total strength of a hundred and fifty, was, on the face of it, disappointing. They'd need to lose another thirty-odd for him to win the bet safely. He looked up as Minucius emptied his cup and reached for the wine jar.
'How many do you expect to lose before we get clear of the mountains?'
'How many?' He puffed out his cheeks. 'Usually something like a fifth to a quarter of the new recruits. I'd expect a lesser proportion if these were men destined for the legions. The fitness test sees to that. For marines, alas, the standard is somewhat lower.'
'A fifth to a quarter,' Macro mused with a smile, and caught Cato's eye.'Better get used to the idea of a quiet first month in Ravenna.'
'We're not there yet,' Cato replied.'So don't go spending my money before it's yours.'
Minucius looked at them with a confused expression. 'Now, what's that all about?'
'It's nothing,' Macro smiled quickly.'Drink up. There's plenty more to get through before the night's done.' Macro turned back to Minucius. 'You've served with the auxiliaries, you say?'
'That's right. Four years with an infantry unit. In Syria.'
'Syria!' Macro's expression gleamed with sudden excitement and he scraped his stool closer to Minucius.
Cato raised his eyes despairingly. 'Here we go again. Bloody Syria…'
'Quiet, boy!' Macro snapped.'The grown-ups are talking. Now then – Syria. Tell me all about it. Especially the women. Are they as loose as I've heard?'
Minucius shrugged. 'Wouldn't know about that. I was posted at some shitty little frontier fort beyond Heirapolis for the best part of five years. Hardly saw a woman from one month to the next. Plenty of sheep, though.'
Macro's expression soured. 'You mean…?'
Minucius scratched his chin. 'That's why the cohort was known as "The Rams".'
'Oh. I'm sorry.'
'Sorry?' Minucius looked confused. 'Nothing to be sorry about. Most of them were good lays. And they didn't charge and give you any stupid back chat. Mind you, it was a bloody hard job catching any of the buggers in the first place. You'd have better odds on getting a dose of the clap from a vestal virgin. On second thoughts… Anyway, it took me a while, but I discovered the trick of it in the end. Want to know?'
Macro's distaste had given way to a prurient compulsion to know the sordid details, so he took another sip of wine and nodded. Minucius leaned forward conspiratorially and lowered his voice. Though not so low that some of the optios sitting nearby could not overhear and Cato noticed them giving each other knowing looks.
'The trick of it,' Minucius explained, 'is to creep up on them nice and quiet, like. Take your boots off first, and balance on the balls of your feet. Approach from downwind and move very slowly. Too fast and you'll startle the buggers and have to start all over again. With a bit of practice you should be able to get within ten feet of 'em. Now's the clever part.' He paused and looked at Macro.
Macro nodded. 'Go on.'
'You crouch down low. Take a deep breath, and make a sound like grass…' He stared at Macro a moment, then nodded seriously and leaned back on his stool.
After a moment Macro frowned. 'Like grass?'
Macro glanced at Cato to make sure that he wasn't going mad.'But… you're taking the piss. Aren't you?'
'Taking the piss?' Minucius glared at him in outrage for a moment, then the expression crumbled and he roared with laughter. The optios joined in and soon tears were rolling down the old centurion's weathered face. 'Of course I fucking am! You dozy twat.'
Macro's expression darkened dangerously and Cato leaned towards him. 'Take it easy. You asked for that.'
For a moment it looked as if Macro would not control his anger, then he glanced round the room and saw that expressions on the other men's faces were good-humoured enough, and he relented.
'Yes. Very fucking funny. You're a bloody riot, Minucius.'
'No harm intended, son.' Minucius slapped him on the shoulder and recharged Macro's cup.'Come on. A toast. To the harems of Syria. To the best watering holes, so to speak, and the best posting any clapped-out centurion can hope for!'
He downed the wine in one go, and after the briefest of hesitation Macro followed suit as Cato let out a sigh of relief.
'Seriously, though,' Minucius continued,'I doubt I'll ever get the chance to return there. Too old now.'
'Fifty-six. Joined up when I was twenty, to get away from the family of a girl I got pregnant. That was a long time ago,' he mused. 'Anyway, I'm happy enough in the marines. I've settled down and found myself a good woman. It's a nice, quiet life,' he added fondly, and then frowned. 'At least it was, until several months ago. When those pirates started causing trouble.'
Cato leaned forward. 'Tell us about the pirates.'
Minucius ran a hand through his grey thinning hair as he collected his thoughts.'It began with a few ships failing to make port. As I said, this was nearly a year ago, and there's far less shipping over the winter season. So at first we thought they must have foundered. Trouble was, when spring came, more ships went missing, enough to look suspicious. Then, one evening, a small cruiser made port. You know, one of those fancy yachts that rich men use. They'd been cruising down the coast of Illyricum when two pirate ships jumped them. It was touch and go for a few hours. The pirates damaged some of their running gear, and killed most of the crew with missile fire. But the survivors managed to get a small lead over the pirates, just enough to pull out of range, and they cut across the sea towards the Umbrian coast and made Ravenna. It was them that told us about the pirates.
'I guess that they must have known that their secret was out, and since then they've been operating freely up and down the coast – mostly their side of the sea, but there have been isolated raids into small ports on our coast. They're getting quite bold.'
'And what about our navy?' Cato asked. 'Surely they've done something about it.'
'Not that easy, lad. We can patrol our coast easily enough but the far shore is riddled with small islands and inlets, some of which have never been charted. You could hide a fleet there and not be discovered for months. And that's what they've got. The pirates must have been converting some of the vessels they'd taken. Last I heard they'd got hold of a couple of triremes. We've even lost some of our own ships.'
'They've been captured?'
'They've not returned from patrol. No one knows what's happened to them. So you can see,' Minucius concluded wearily,'we've got our hands full. But we'll track 'em down in time. We always do, without much help from Rome. Until now.'
'Someone high up has finally noticed the good work we're doing. That's why Rome has authorised the raising of several new centuries of marines, and transferred two squadrons from the fleet at Misenum. This latest gang of pirates has really rattled them. And if we don't stamp them out soon, they might start interfering with the grain convoys from Egypt. Once that happens they can pretty much hold Rome to ransom.'
Cato leaned back.'I had no idea the situation was so serious.'
'It is serious,' Minucius smiled. 'It's got the wind up the powers that be and they're not keen for word to get out. Last thing the Emperor needs is grain riots in the capital. We've been told to have everything in place for a major operation as soon as spring comes. So, a busy time for all concerned.' Minucius reached for the wine jug and frowned when he discovered it was empty. 'Hang on, lads. I'll get us another.'
As the old centurion weaved his way unsteadily towards the stack of jars leaning against the far wall, Cato moved closer to Macro.
'We're in trouble.'
'No, I mean it. Forget the offensive against these pirates. That's bad enough. But how the hell are we supposed to get our hands on those bloody scrolls? That's why we're here.'
Macro shrugged.'I suppose Vitellius must have a plan.'
'You can count on it,' Cato replied.
06 The Eagles Prophecy