‘… Bronze-beaked man-of-war . . . which go over the watery plain of the sea both rough and calm.’
Naevius, The Punic War.
The hull of the Roman ship had been cracked by the bronze beak of a Punic ram, emblazoned with the spidery symbol of Tanit. It had holed the the planking half a cubit below the waterline, jolting loose the corvus from it’s pole which had crushed the forward part the starboard outrigger. The corvus, the dreaded but un-seamanlike boarding bridge that the Republican fleet had depended on for victory was hanging, limp and useless, from it’s shattered tackle, like a broken arm, rendering the ship unworkable until it was cut loose and making her list terribly as it dragged her round by the bow.
All around, Lucius Iulus Dorus it was the same, as lighter faster enemy ships darted and prowled the fragmenting Roman line desperately trying to keep together along the wide shoreline below Drepanum, hulling any ship that broke formation. There was no escape, those ships that could were already shaping for the beaches, but for Dorus’ ship, crippled in trying to fight through, hope was fading. Above and below there was only water and sky; cold and unforgiving elements to be stuck between when things went wrong.
A pine deck and an oak keel were all that stood between him and the elements, and the space between them was fast filling with the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The ship gave a pained groan of yielding timber and the deck lurched sickeningly beneath his feet as she began to settle by the bow, the heavy boarding bridge pulling her over. When the water reached the outrigger it would only be a matter of minutes.
From the commander’s seat at the stern, Dorus darted a look below; the remaining crew that had not jumped overboard to swim for shore were all dead. They lay sprawled across the oars and benches, dangling at obscene angles at the oars, staring and gaping in ghastly shock, faces frozen in the lurid grimaces of their last mortal struggle. The marines were piled and strewn across the stained reaches of the upper deck of the ship like so many children’s playthings. He was alone. The long planks of the weather-deck that roofed the rowing benches was so thickly studded with projectiles that it was hard to move without tripping.
The sun was fully overhead but seemed to have no strength, Dorus could not feel it’s heat on his skin and the sea was dark and threatening. By the suffused light of faintly glowing veils of cloud he could see the monstrous Punic ‘5’ thrashing the water off the larboard bow, two stades distant, and circling back to line up for another run. Through the roar of the waves, the mournful cry of his dying ship and the listless rattle of the unmanned oars, he could hear the grunt and growl of the enemy’s oar banks, carrying over the water on the malignant breeze, working to a rhythmic chant as she completed her turn.
Everything was unreal, the fact his ship had a boarding bridge, a contraption Dorus had always despised, seemed absurd, the watery sun, that was so pale it might as well have been the moon made no sense, the burning eyes of the Punic ship, growing ever more alive and malevolent with each passing moment just couldn’t be possible. Even the sea was a lifeless maw of dark waves, featureless, and picked out only by the frothing foam that gleamed like bared fangs. All of it was much more than anything he had known when life had seemed certain. But close approaching death will do that to a mind, and maybe that would explain why he felt unable to move.
The African monster fixed on it’s new course and increased to ramming speed, the soulless eyes, painted on the monster’s bows, seemed to widen and blaze with hatred. Suddenly Dorus’ feet were released from their torpor, and he began to run forward, avoiding the obstacles of embedded javelins, tumbling equipment and sliding corpses.
Although compensating and half slipping as the deck tilted, he kept going, even though no matter how far he got, the bow only seemed to get more and more distant from him, just out of reach but at the same time stretching out endlessly with each stride, and all the while the Punic ram was surging closer through the foaming water.
At last he reached the bow where the dangling corvus was pulling the ship under. He looked down to see a hatchet in his hand, he hadn’t noticed it there before but that didn’t matter, he had to cut the wreckage free before it was too late.
Dorus began to swing, but no matter how many times he struck the ropes, more seemed to attach themselves to the pole and bow crest as if they had become the tentacles of an octopus, lashing and snapping around his face, but this only made him more determined. Yet for all his redoubled efforts it was now too late.
The chant and stroke of the Punic warship which had risen to such a pitch that it had pervaded his very being now ceased, he saw the crew hurrying to their forward stations to place the weight over her bows, the oars biting into the waves to back water so that the ram would dip in the Rhodian manner and allow them to withdraw to strike again.
Dorus steadied himself and then when the glaring, owl like face of the enemy ship loomed he twisted to dive over the side into the devouring waves which opened beneath him like the toothed jaws of a shark, and down he went into the darkness.
A moment later, Lucius Iulus Dorus’ eyes snapped open. He was lying in bed, and he felt as if he’d just walked bodily into an unseen wall, a faint light was coming in through the window and played on the shadowed creases and the folds of his blanket. The space beside him where his wife had been when he went to sleep was empty but still felt warm under his palm. The birdsong and noises of domestic activity coming from outside the room allowed him to return fully from the nightmare.
It hadn’t been real; that was for the most part reassuring, but the dream itself was a old foe from the dark days after his return from Drepanum, four years ago. In his mind, Dorus knew it was a made up vision of something that had never happened to him, though the dogged enemy ship had been real enough, that and the death were all too real, but almost everything else was a fantasy, tinged in parts with a frightening visual accuracy that chilled him. But in his heart he also knew it had been summoned by his guilty mind, offering his conscience a glorious death to fight the regret of living when so many others had been claimed by the next world.
Dorus sighed and stared up at the ceiling, remembering the glaring eyes of the Punic spectre from his dream, he then twisted up his face as the memory of the real thing drifted into his thoughts to the grunt and growl of the rowing benches and that pounding, rhythmic Punic chant. A song and vision Dorus hadn’t experienced for some years now, a nightmare that he had hoped was buried and gone, but it had found him again.
Rolling from the covers in hopes of finding a distraction in movement, he stood up and went to the window. It was just becoming light, with a pale grey illumination suggesting itself in the sky towards Vesuvius. Down by the darkened shore, at the foot of the hill where he lived, the whispering waves raced each other to break on the beach, the gulf was calling to him. Telling him his dreams couldn’t find him on the water, that out there he could escape the pull of the past.
Dorus dressed hurriedly and headed out, making sure to other members of the household by using a side-door, usually only accessed by the family slaves. He saw and spoke to no one, making for the road that led to the baths and his shipyard in nearby Surrentum where he would find the boat that would take him to safety