‘Look!’ Shouted young Maximus, his outstretched arm pointing towards the wide gulf, as yet indicating nothing while running half turned back towards the adults, voice excited and high, ‘ships!’
From the garden of the villa, Dorus shaded his eyes and peered out to the cape of Misenum, Valeria and Horatia did the same, the Elder Torquatus and Julia Tercia turned their heads and squinted.
It was now late in the summer, almost ten days since Dorus had accepted Paulinus’ offer. For the last five days, the word had been that the ships were to arrive for final crewing and supplies.
As yet there had been no official word from Rome, Paulinus had named his captains but in his last letter he had admitted that Dorus’ name had, as they expected, stirred some opposition. Still he was optimistic and now he was eaten up with curiosity to see these new light 5’s he had heard so much about.
Each day they had kept watch, no matter where they had been, for signs of warships entering the gulf. Bad weather had delayed departure, but now word was that they had been sighted and at Maximus’ shout, every eye strained to make out vessels on the water.
‘I see them!’ Dorus exclaimed, Valeria clutched his arm and now he too pointed, crying ‘There look!’
‘Is it them?’
Three shapes, distinctly nautical, had bounded the cape, dark and displaying wide sails. They looked like ships of war but the distance was deceptive. Dorus watched closely, hearing the two boys racing out to get to the brink of the hill to get just a little closer. ‘Come on!’ He shouted to Valeria and followed at a run. At the crest he shaded his eyes with both hands and he looked out again. Feeling the boys and his wife arrive behind him.
‘We’ll know as they round the point.’ He predicted.
The ships began to change course, clearing the headland. It was too far to make out figures but somehow Dorus could sense that they were working to a familiar rhythm. As their bows came round the large squares of canvas began to diminish, tentatively at first and then almost in a blink.
The long low bullhorn profiles, unmistakably the work of military shipwrights, slowed as they lost headway then began doggedly thrusting forwards into the gulf as the oars began to beat.
‘It’s them,’ Dorus said, nodding,
‘Where will they go?’ Marcus asked, their fairly boring uncle had suddenly become highly interesting after the boys found out he was going to war in command of a ship.
‘Either to Misenum or Neapolis, they might even beach further along the coast. Let’s wait and see.’
Dorus was too focused on the ships, watching the way they were handled, to notice the excitement in his nephews faces and voices.
Valeria noticed though, ‘Maybe when they reach their destination you can go down and see them up close.’
Dorus looked at her, then he heard the ‘can we, can we?’, from the boys and nodded. He was no less eager to get a closer look.
‘We’ll go now!’
As the shoreline to the south of Neapolis firmed and resolved over the bow, Posterior Centurion Titus Gnaeus Pullo called his marines amidships. Dressed in light slops, they didn’t look much like fighting men except for their lean and well developed limbs, but they were the most experienced men on the ship. They didn’t need much telling and each man assumed a post where he would be out of the way of the sailors. Some stood, and supported themselves on the ropes, others sat on the deck. There was no officially commissioned captain aboard, there was no need for formality.
Pullo, a barrel chested man in his mid forties with greying, stubbled hair and a leathered face that had almost as many deep lines as it had scars glared at his men with large pale eyes the colour of young hazel and nodded. His expression though fierce was not meant, it was habitually grim and downcast, the most he could usually manage by way of a smile was a thin crease without teeth.
The sailing master, Felix Rufus came over to him, annoyed for the hundredth time that the commander of marines knew his business better than he did. The man was a merchant seaman, not used to warships, his job was to pilot the ship to Neapolis and hand her over to the new captain.
‘I wish you’d stop moving your men about without telling me, Pullo.’ He said as he carried on forward.
Pullo arched an eyebrow disdainfully, crossing his arms to add authority, ‘You’ll want us here when you begin to turn.’
Felix Rufus, paused, and looked round at the marine wordlessly.
‘Remember you beach a warship aft first.’
‘I know, Pullo, I know! Sweet gods!’
The marines chuckled in between casting longing glances as the inviting towns that dotted the bay.
Pullo brought their attention to him with a simple, ‘Eyes on me.’ He took a stance and began to speak.
‘Before they strike the mast, we’ve just enough time for me to remind you that although most of you will be at liberty for some time after we reach shore you have been assigned to me. I don’t care what you do, or who you do it with. All I ask is that you don’t let whatever you do take you off my roster. Ahead of us is a good stretch of pleasurable ease, but ahead of that is another voyage against the same old enemy and I need you fit. So enjoy yourselves but I swear to Aeries I will not leave the gulf of Neapolis this go around understrength. Clear?’
The answer was a resounding affirmation. Pullo gave one of his meagre grins and nodded, then looked back to the shore, where a crowd of a few curious people had begun to gather. The ship was called Victoria Rapax, and Felix Rufus handled her as if he was afraid of her. Pullo had seen the same look on the faces of cavalry recruits on quality steeds when he had been with the army in Sicily. The Marine observed the audience on the beach as the Rapax began to turn.
‘Light oars and a bumpkin at the stern. They won’t be in for much of a show today.’
The cacophony of the rowing benches and the calls of the officers melded as the mast was lowered and the evolution carried through. Rapax glaring eyes turned away from the shore, presenting her stern-piece and at the command the rowers bent to propel her backwards onto land.
Rapax approached the shore slowly, for she was not fully crewed, of her three tiers there were only enough men to sit two of them and they had been blessed with fresh breezes to get them to Neapolis under sail. Additionally there wasn’t enough experienced men at the oars and they hadn’t been together long enough to work together. The strokes were uneven and there was the constant cracking of blades and poles as the pace increased.
After the second oar split, Felix Rufus ordered a reduction of pace but that meant there was no speed to get them onto shore. It was high tide, the waves were dumping lazily onto the beach in sandy swirls of bubbling foam. Pullo caught himself as the ship heeled and began to swing around as a moment of hesitation cased her to be driven off course. A deep bellow came from the boatswain, standing aft, and obediently the starboard oars began to back water at double pace, while the starboard benches did the opposite. Grunting with the effort the oars fought through the waves and the ship began to stabilise. The gubernator braced to his tillers dipped deep, feeling the blades strike bottom.
‘Take us out again!’ Ordered Rufus.
Pullo swore at the incompetence, not only was it embarrassing to almost wreck or damage a brand new warship in view of civilians and fishermen, but the other ships of the squadron had beached more or less successfully without having to put open water between them and the breakers. As he turned away he saw the boat, rowing smoothly over the gulf towards them. Thinking it to be another sightseer he quickly forgot about it and returned his attention to the ship.
In the boat, Dorus rested his oars, he was close enough to get a good look at her now and not get in the way. Valeria’s nephews were in the bow, talking excitedly about what they were seeing. Dorus was not so impressed by the seamanship but he liked the look of these new 5’s.
They were long and low, the closest seemed handy in her beam and he suspected not as unwieldy as shew as being handled. Although manned with a lubberly, skeleton crew, she moved fast as well yet, Dorus fancied she would easily take as many men as his last command. With her dolphin tail stern piece pointed to the shore, the staring eyes painted on her bows glared out to sea and made a grand and menacing impression, but Dorus winced to see such poor oar control.
Maintaining his distance, he answered what questions the boys fired at him. Normally reserved about his experience and a generally poor storyteller, with his attention caught by observing the clean lined vessel in front of him, he was unguarded and entertaining.
‘They are a bit clumsy though’ Marcus said.
‘Yes,’ laughed Dorus.
‘Could you do better, uncle?’
Dorus nodded simply, ‘Yes,’ he said, without hubris.
As Rapax made to beach again, Dorus dipped his oars, ‘let’s go see the others,’ and he skilfully brought his little boat round her prow, noting the ram and wondering how well it was fitted, and propelled them towards the rest of the beached squadron.
The stretch of coast was now bustling with activity. Moving in strict sequence, the rowing benches were emptied and the crews, forming up in gangs on the sand hauled their craft that little farther up the strand to make sure and then fell about to rest after their exertions. Parcels of fishermen and local coastal inhabitants now came closer to the warships, appraising them and taking interest in the out of the ordinary occurrence.
Felix Rufus gladly handed command of Rapax over to his Boatswain and began trudging along the beach to Neapolis. His job was now done, and the appointed captains of the other two ships, teased Rufus about his awkward landing, to which the unfortunate man brushed them off irritably. ‘Give me barges and merchantmen all the time!’ He cried, washing his hands of it all.
Pullo stood on the beach, watching his men form up. They stood behind the stern, in light order, tunics, boots, swords and daggers. Good solid infantrymen, many of whom he knew personally, Pullo knew he could rely on them. Service with the fleet was made by voluntary drafts of men from the legions. It was hard, gruelling often direly boring service, spiced with too many moments of terror at that hands of the gods, and it didn’t suit everyone, but this war with Carthage was unlike any that had been seen before and it had called for a special kind of soldier to fight in it.
Pullo gave his men a long look, he noted some up and down motion in a few throats, but gave no indiction he was either pleased or angry. He wasn’t actually trying to find fault, he just wanted them to worry a little whenever he looked at them, he found it focused their minds when the time came for action.
After a pause he directed his gaze sharply on a man standing to one side of the formation. Optio Centurae Gaius Pontius, a fearless veteran from the valleys of central Samnium, and his most trusted subordinate, dutifully disdained eye contact.
His brief series of orders betrayed their long association. ‘Two watches, place the standard further up the beach, once everything’s set we’ll set the first men at liberty.’
Pontius nodded, and replied with a crisp, ‘Yes, centurion.’
‘Get to it,’
There was as series of calls and the men broke up and began moving up the beach to begin marking out the camp whilst others trudged back to the ship to unload their equipment. Further along the beach, it was the same, disciplined groups of men going about their business, following their simple cloth standards up the sand, while the slightly less orderly oarsmen stood in groups being dispersed and organised by their boatswains.
The crowd of onlookers had mostly dispersed by now, Pullo noted, except for a sailor and his sons. Or at least that’s what they looked like to the centurion. The man seemed to have a more than usual interest in the ships and had approached closer than any of the others, the two boys stayed close to him, apparently tied to every word.
As the man chiefly responsible for the security of his ship, Pullo felt a slight bristling of suspicion, and he watched to see if the man would go away. He might not be a spy, he seemed too obvious for that, but his continued interest was now impossible to let pass without questioning.
Pullo took his vine stick from his belt and began walking purposely towards the man.
Dorus was so occupied in his visual examinations of line and structure that he didn’t see the officious figure of the centurion storming towards him. The boys saw him first and took cover behind their ‘uncle.’
‘You there!’ Pullo bellowed.
Dorus faced the call, his face askance.
‘State your business.’ Pullo drew close and chose an imposing stance, but noted the man did not seem to mind.
‘I’m interested in ships.’
This did not alleviate Pullo’s suspicion, indeed it increased it. With a sudden motion, Pullo had two marines at his side, ‘Take this man,’ he commanded.
Dorus was surprised at this turn of events but did not fight allowing the marines to seize him. The boys however, ran