The Author would like to apologise for the delay in updating this story
Crests of creamy foam broke regularly against Rapax’s bow as she cut through the waves of a slack south easterly swell that had been gently buffeting across the Tyrrhenian from the straits of Messina. The wind was calm and the water easy, a prime rowing day the old hands said. She ploughed into the gulf of Neapolis, under oars alone and at a flying speed. Dorus stood at his command post between the blades and aft of the benches, taught as a sheet, anxiously awaiting their last speed of the day, which much like his heart, had been increasing since the last quarter of the watch.
They were now at ramming speed, a pace the crew could not possibly maintain for more than a few minutes. The regular collected grunt, splash and growl was at its loudest pitch, the joyous cacophony of a ship at work, of a crew knitting together. Dorus could hear it in the uniform beat of each stroke, where at first there had been nothing but bumping and uneven clatter, the swearing and the bellowing of officers, now there was silence fore and aft, save for the working chant, with no sound that should not be there.
Trials had begun as soon as Dorus received his confirmation as navarchus. Rapax had put to sea with the first useable tide every day for fourteen days.
Every day, Dorus had prowled the long weather deck like a wolf, sniffing for weakness and ineptitude. The first weeks were a good time to watch how the crew worked together, a time for adjustments and conditioning. They had been hard days of pitiless toil in any weather, Dorus not only wanted to begin tightening the crew up but to see how these new ‘miracle 5’s’ handled. Now he no longer prowled, he commanded, he watched, dare he say it he revelled, leaving discipline to be meted out by the boatswain.
The arms of the gulf embraced them, the land firm on the horizon fore, larboard and starboard, a pale, tripartite furrow, caused by the movement of the keel and the oar-banks, stretching out astern.
Dorus reserved his command to cease rowing another three beats longer, then signalled to Tullius. Commands were echoed down the length of the ship, a brief cacophonous groan of gear and exhausted men arose, then the silence became general, the residual passage of the drawn out words of command terminating at the bow: ‘Ce-e-ase you-ou-r rowing! Take speed.’
‘Speed, 6 knots, navarchus!’ The Boatswain’s triumphant cry was impossible to conceal, but Dorus hid his satisfaction.
Marcellus Appius Caecus, another of Dorus’ old cohort, hurried to his commander’s side, beaming from ear to ear. Behind him, Tullius’ face creased into it’s gorgon grin as he rested on his paddles, even Pullo displayed a brief pout of approval. Just two short of her maximum speed under oars, this with masts stepped and the yards braced and without a full compliment, nor yet a musician, just the chant, it boded well.
Dorus gave a curt nod, ‘Acceptable. You may inform the crew.’
Caecus went at once between the ranks of bent and blowing socci benches, all heaving and glistening with sweat. The boatswain knew it was a calculated statement and those closest to him felt a wave of relief wash through them. The men would receive no more praise than this, and they had heard few kind words from the Navarchus since they put to sea. Many proper words, of course, some encouraging ones but little else for Dorus did not shed glowing approval like beams from the sun, thus a mere recognition of competence was met with a raucous cheer, though a hoarse one.
‘Silence fore and aft!’ Bellowed, Dorus, quelling the noise as surely as roll of thunder. ‘Make sail,’ he added sternly taking his seat, feeling inside as if he could leap a Minoan bull in a single bound.
Lined up by bench, numeral and station, bracketed by the fore and aft divisions of Marines the crew stood under the eye of their Navarchus as he gave his final orders for the day to his officers. ‘A very satisfactory day. But let us not get too pleased with ourselves. Get everyone to their berths, get them fed and rested. Tomorrow, I want to see it again.’
The mariners looked disappointed, yet all knew Dorus well enough not to ask for liberty. It would not win him many hearts and he knew it, but he hoped it would save their lives when they crossed bows with the Punic 5’s off Sicily.
Pullo was impressed, though he would not show it. Dorus met his eye, ‘Centurion. You may dispose your men as you wish.’
This above all made Pullo warm to the new Navarchus. He didn’t try to interfere with the running or economy of his marines, plus he was a proper navy sailor, not one to make elementary blunders with a long warship in any weather or water he’d so far seen. He nodded with something approaching willing subordination, and marched back to dismiss his men.
‘Is there anything else?’ Dorus asked. There was not, ‘Then I will see you all at dawn.’
Caecus immediately went to begin ushering the crew to their quarters. They were partially housed in local rooms near the harbour and the rest were under canvass just outside the town. Dorus had a room over a popina. Now the ship was docked in the harbour he could not stay at the Torquatii villa. But though he missed Horatia’s warm smile in the margins of the day and her warmth next to him at night, he was a simple man at heart and had no need for luxurious trappings to be comfortable. A life spent on warships did not create decadent souls.
Ampiscora, of course, accompanied him and as usual saw to his needs while apparently having few of his own. He slept on a pallet on the floor, arose before his master and went to sleep after, indeed he ensured Dorus did sleep, and always saw that there was a steady supply of fortifying food and a good supply of writing material.
Dorus accepted a cup of wine and reclined on his camp chair. Ampiscora laid out a simple meal for him and then disappeared. Dorus was fully satisfied with the day’s work, it seemed to be the god’s blessing on the efforts of himself and his officers. The Rapax was all he could have hoped for in returning to command, indeed it was almost startling that a disgraced man like himself could be now in authority over such a ship. He was almost suspicious that doom was inevitable because he was under such auspices and he was regularly giving offerings to Fortuna to ward it off as much as possible. Zeus knew that he would have time for none but the most necessary ceremonials when they put to sea proper.
There was still much to do however. His rowing benches were still a little light for his peace of mind and he needed a musician, two would be better. But although there were many good singers in the present compliment, none could turn their hand to a flute or drum. Yet for now he was tired and once he had eaten and refreshed himself, he did not have the energy to attend to paperwork. His one concession was to open a tablet he liked to record personal things in and scratched out the words, ‘She flew today.’
When sleep came, it came heavily, but he was not allowed to enjoy it for long. Ampiscora’s hand on his shoulder made him fight through his dormant state. Squinting, he saw his servant lit by a lamp bending low. He murmured slurred words; ‘What is it?’
‘Master, something has occurred which you should know about.’
Dorus hauled himself up and hung limply over the side of the bed, supported himself on his arms, ‘Tell me.’
‘One of the soldiers at the ship has disappeared.’ Blessed with deference but not circumspection, Ampiscora launched at once into the story, ‘I think he has been taken by a gang of murderers and smugglers. He has been sleeping with the wife of a fisherman but this fisherman is part of a league of no-goods who are nothing but a gang of crooks and swindlers who control most of the profits derived from the daily catch and even the sale of Garum in the market. I think they even might run the market.’
Dorus had heard nothing of this, and was now in a state of sleep addled confused, ‘Wait, wait, how do you know about this, and why am I only hearing about it now?’
‘It was of no consequence until now, but I am always aware of such things, I just don’t always tell you.’
Dorus raised a tired eye and sighed, ‘You mean you were blackmailing some of them.’
There was a pause, ‘Yes master.’
‘Well I hope you got your money’s worth. I couldn’t answer for what the Centurion will do when he catches them. You know where to find your … clients?’
‘Good. Go round up some of the men, I’ll dress and we will go and squeeze some information out of them.’
Pullo led a file of seven Marines through the darkened streets, being led by a sailor who had been mysteriously dispatched from Dorus to guide him to a storage yard behind the fish market. Pullo slept ready to rise, and so when he was awakened and informed of the situation he had been able to act at once. The missing man was named Aulus, the men of his contibernum not on duty were at once mustered, with their cloaks, swords and daggers only, and marched off to the quay under Optio Pontius and himself, there they had the bad news confirmed and they all followed the sailor into the town.
Military boots scraped on the pave. They moved swiftly but carefully, so as not to loose their footing fall into the roadway. Presently they turned a corner and began progressing down a long street which Pullo knew led directly into the marketplace. Suddenly the guide froze. A hand had materialised from a narrow alley and gripped his shoulder. Next the bulk of Ampiscora appeared in front of him.
Pullo’s hand was on his sword, but his grip relaxed when he saw it was the navarchus’s servant.
The marines entered the confined space ushered by the Sardinian and drew towards a yellow light which glowed at the far end. There was not much natural light, but Pullo could see the bluish grey slat between the buildings was cut off by a dark mass at the end of the alley where the lamp was glowing.
‘What is this?’ Demanded, Pullo.
Dorus stepped into the light and did not mince his words, ‘The men you are looking for are inside.’ He nodded to the building to his left and patted the wall.
‘How in the name of Brutus did you find out about this, and who are these men?’
‘My servant caught wind of it and we then quickly apprehended one of the culprits. The men inside are some sort of extortionists and criminals who are making money off intimidating vendors and fishermen in the market. ’
‘You say you have one of them?’
‘Yes, he’s safely under guard. But we must move fast if you want to save your man. He’s only alive now because the husband he’s cuckolded hasn’t turned up to kill him.’
‘That’s luck.’ Murmured Pullo.
‘Not luck, your honour.’ Grinned Ampiscora.
‘You don’t mean to tell him you have him too?’
‘Once we learned the murder was a personal matter, we forced our man to show us where he lived.’ Dorus shrugged as if there was little else to say.
Pullo felt admiration for this simple grasp of tactics, ‘Smartly done. But now I think it is for us to take over. This is the door ahead?’
‘Yes.’ Said Dorus, willingly stepping aside, ‘But have a care, I’m told these are desperate types.’
At first no one moved as the shoulders of Pullo’s marines met the gate of the yard. The men inside forgot about contemplating the murder of their captive and squared themselves to the noise as the marines heaved again. A great thump and grunt assured all they were under attack. The gate itself was not properly barred. No one had expected trouble and there was only a latch keeping it shut. Their watchman had given no warning. One man doused their light with ill conceived caution. Some, with more foresight cast around for the bar to lock it, those with weapons drew them, others began looking to hide or for ways of escape. Suddenly the door shifted as the tired nails securing the latch gave way. Pullo lent his weight to it, and Ampiscora beside him, now the hinges themselves broke. Then came a crash and the whole frame fell. Pullo was first through, feeling terribly exposed without his helmet, a torch was thrust behind him dazzling the gang but outlining him distinctly, and but not the marines that followed.
Now some men charged to defend the entrance, hoping determined action would be enough, while others fled. The rush was brave enough but the tight confines suited the marines. Pullo had stepepd to one side, his duty to lead done, and the marines of the watch, armed with shields and in shirts of hamata, stomped forwards, swords yellow in the flame. There was a whirl of motion and the blades flashed and dimmed. Before the following marines had even secured the entrance the first where already stepping over the body of the first man to try and block them.
At the same time, Pontius disengaged his blade from his opponent with a rough tug. The man fell backwards gripping his stomach and screaming wretchedly, he would be lucky to see the sun rise that morning. Another, close behind, caught him and tried to get him clear of a merciful stroke, stretching out a pleading hand. In the shadows of the yard the young marine guarding Pontius’ flank only saw an arm dart towards his officer. Without thought he coolly caught the wrist of the man with his free hand, wrenched it across him and all but severed the threat at the elbow with two sure blows of his sword. It was so neatly done he could have been butchering meat. The unfortunate man screamed and twisted away, staggering back into the dark, his limb dangling by his side at a ghastly angle.
Everyone ran. Everything was in tumult. A club was hurled and barely missed Pullo’s unguarded head, making him flinch as it struck the wall. What a thing! He thought through a curse. To spend a lifetime in arms and come as close to death as he ever had in a low brawl over some whore. But the fight was over and now it became a chase, Dorus and the sailors pushed past and raced alongside to assist the marines in running their quarry down. Scuffles broke out across the yard, but thankfully no more blood was spilled, Pontius saw to that.
Dorus could hear him bellowing ‘Pommel and shield, pommel and shield, spare the point!’
The confined space made it hard for the gang to escape, and most just fell down and begged for their lives, while those who chose to hide were quickly rooted out. Dorus found miles Aulus tied up and still behind a pile of mouldering nets, he called for Ampiscora and some of the others to help take him out.
Pullo was by the door, he stopped Dorus as he passed.
Dorus allowed another man to take his share of the dead weight, ‘Yes.’
In the torchlight, Dorus saw questions in his expression. The Centurion was perplexed as why Dorus had stuck his neck out for him and his men.
‘You did allot for my man tonight.’
Dorus shrugged, ‘In my old ship we used to have a saying, “Never turn back.”’
Pullo remained questioning, ‘From the enemy?’
‘From each other … You’re one of us Centurion, wether I like it or not.’