The heaving tumult around the ship was frozen for an instant by sheet lightning. All around, the foaming sweep of the sea stilled as the stark shadows of the sailors and the rigging scored the brilliantly lit deck of the trireme. Then the light was ripped away and darkness gripped the vessel once more. Black clouds hung low in the sky and billowed across the grey waves rolling down from the north. Nightfall was not yet upon them, yet it seemed to the terrified crew and passengers that the sun must have long since quit the world. Only the faintest smudge of lighter grey away to the west indicated its passage. The convoy was hopelessly scattered, and the prefect commanding the newly commissioned squadron of triremes swore angrily. With one hand firmly gripping a stay, the prefect used his spare hand to shield his eyes from the icy spray as he scanned the foaming wave tops around them.
Only two ships of his squadron remained in sight, dark silhouettes heaving into view as his flagship was raised on the crest of a great wave. The two ships were far off to the east, and beyond them would be the rest of the convoy, spread across the wild sea. They might still make the entrance of the channel that led inland to Rutupiae. But for the flagship there was no hope of reaching the great supply base that equipped and fed the Roman army. Further inland the legions were safely nestled in their winter quarters at Camulodunum, in readiness for the renewal of the campaign to conquer Britain. Despite the best efforts of the men at the oars, the vessel was being swept away from Rutupiae.
Looking across the waves to the dark line of the British coast, the prefect bitterly acknowledged that the storm had bested him, and passed the order for oars to be shipped. As he considered his options, the crew hurriedly raised a small triangular sail from the bows to help steady the vessel. Since the invasion had been launched the previous summer, the prefect had crossed this stretch of sea scores of times, but not in such dreadful conditions. Indeed, he had never before seen the weather turn so rapidly. That morning, which seemed so very long ago now, the sky had been clear and a brisk southerly promised a quick crossing from Gesoriacum. Normally no ships would put to sea in winter, but the army of General Plautius was short of supplies. The scorched-earth tactics of the British commander, Caratacus, meant that the legions depended on a steady supply of grain from the continent to get them through the winter without depleting the stockpiles necessary for continuing the campaign in the spring. So the convoys had continued to cross the channel whenever the weather permitted. This morning the prefect had been fooled by perfidious nature into ordering his laden vessels to set out for Rutupiae, never dreaming that they would be caught in this tempest.
Just as the coastline of Britain had come into view above the choppy surface, a dark band of cloud had thickened along the northern horizon. The breeze quickly strengthened, and abruptly veered round, and the men of the squadron watched with growing dread as the dark clouds bounded down on them like foaming ravenous beasts. The squall had struck the prefect's trireme at the head of the convoy with appalling suddenness. The shrieking wind snatched the vessel by the beam and tilted it over so far that the crew had been forced to abandon their duties and grab the nearest handhold to save themselves from being thrown over the side. As the trireme ponderously righted itself, the prefect cast an eye around the rest of the convoy. Some of the flat-bottomed transports had been rolled over completely and close by the dark humps of their hulls tiny figures bobbed in the foaming sea. Some waved pathetically, as if they truly believed that the other vessels might yet be able to rescue them. Already the convoy's formation had been blown to pieces and each ship struggled for survival, heedless of the plight of all others.
With the wind came rain. Great icy drops slashing diagonally down on the trireme and stinging the skin with their impact. Very quickly the bone-numbing cold made the sailors slow and clumsy in their work. Huddled in his waterproofed cloak, the prefect could see that unless the storm eased soon, the captain and his men would surely lose control of their ship. And all about them the sea raged, scattering the ships in every direction. By some quirk of nature the three triremes at the head of the convoy were subjected to the worst violence of the storm and were quickly blown far from the rest – the prefect's trireme furthest of all. Since then the storm had raged for the whole afternoon and showed no signs of slacking as night drew on.
The prefect reviewed his knowledge of the British coastline and mentally scanned the coast. He calculated that they had already been swept well down the coast from the channel leading to Rutupiae. The sheer chalk cliffs around the settlement at Dubris were just in sight of the starboard beam and they would have to battle the storm for some hours yet before they could attempt to approach a safe stretch of the shore.
The ship's captain staggered along the heaving deck towards him and saluted as he approached, keeping one hand clasped firmly to the taffrail.
'What is it?' shouted the prefect.
'The bilges!' the captain called out, voice hoarse from the effort of shouting his orders above the shrieking wind for the last few hours. He jabbed his finger at the deck to make his meaning clear. 'We're taking on too much water!'
'Can we bail it out?'
The captain tilted his ear towards the prefect.
Taking a deep breath, the prefect cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted, 'Can we bail it out?'
The captain shook his head.
'So what now?'
'We have to run before the storm! It's our only hope of staying afloat. Then find somewhere safe to land!'
The prefect gave an exaggerated nod to show he had understood. Very well then. They would have to find somewhere to beach the ship. Some thirty or forty miles down the coast the cliffs gave way to shingled beaches. Providing the surf was not too wild, beaching could be attempted. That might cause serious damage to the trireme but better that than the certainty of losing the ship and all the crew and passengers. With that thought, the prefect's mind went to the woman and her young children sheltering below his feet. They had been trusted to his care and he must do everything in his power to save them.
'Give the order, Captain! I'm going below.'
'Aye, sir!' The captain saluted and turned back towards the waist of the trireme, where the sailors huddled by the base of the mast. The prefect watched for a moment as the captain bellowed his orders and pointed to the furled sail on the spar at the top of the mast. No one moved. The captain shouted the order again, then viciously kicked the nearest sailor. The man cowered back, only to be kicked again. He leaped for the rigging and began to make his way aloft. The others followed, clinging to the stays as they struggled up the swaying ratlines and transferred themselves to the spar. Bare frozen feet pushed down onto the toe-line as they inched out above the deck. Only when every man was in position could they undo the ties and release the sail as far as the first reefing point. That much sail would be all that was necessary to give the vessel steerage way as it ran before the storm. Each burst of lightning briefly silhouetted the mast, spar and men in harsh black against a dazzling white sky. The prefect noticed that lightning made the rain seem to stop in mid-air for an instant. Despite the terror that gripped his heart, he felt a thrill of excitement at this awesome display of Neptune's powers.
At last all the men were in position. Bracing his solid legs on the deck, the captain cupped both hands and tipped his face up towards the mast.
Numbed fingers worked frantically at the leather ties. Some were less clumsy than others and the sail loosened unevenly from the spar. A sudden shrilling through the rigging heralded the renewal of the storm's wildest efforts and the trireme recoiled from its wrath. One sailor, in a more weakened condition than his comrades, lost his grip and was hurled into the darkness so quickly that none who saw it happen marked where he fell into the sea. But there was no pause in the sailors' efforts. The wind tore at the exposed parts of the sail and nearly succeeded in prising it free of their grip before the sailors managed to tie down the reefing lines. As soon as the sail was set, the men climbed back along the spar and painstakingly made their way down to the deck, their haggard faces testimony to the cold and exhaustion they were suffering.
The prefect made his way to the hatch coaming at the stern and carefully lowered himself down into the pitch-black interior. The small cabin seemed unnaturally quiet after the shrieking, buffeting wind and rain on deck. The sound of whimpering drew him aft, where the timbers curved together, and a flash of lightning through the hatch revealed the woman wedged into the stern, her arms tightly held round the shoulders of two young children. They shivered, clutching their mother, and the youngest, a boy of five, cried inconsolably, face drenched with spray, tears and snot. His sister, three years older, just sat, silent but wide-eyed with terror. The trireme's bows suddenly lifted to a huge wave and the prefect pitched towards his passengers. He thrust an arm out against the hull and fell sprawling against the opposite side. He took a moment to recover his breath, and the woman's voice spoke calmly from the darkness.
'We will come through this, won't we?'
Another flash of lightning revealed the panic etched onto the pale faces of the children.
The prefect decided there was no point in mentioning that he had decided to try and beach the trireme. Best save his passengers any further anxiety.
'Of course, my lady. We're running before the storm and as soon as it's passed we'll make our way back up the coast to Rutupiae.'
'I see,' the woman replied flatly, and the prefect realised she had seen through his answer. Clearly a perceptive woman then, a credit to her noble family and to her husband. She gave her children a reassuring squeeze.
'Did you hear that, my dears? We'll be warm and dry soon enough.'
The prefect recalled their shivering and cursed his thoughtlessness.
'Just a moment, my lady.' His numbed fingers fiddled with the clasp fastening the water-proofed cloak at his throat. He swore at his clumsiness, and then the pin came free. He drew it from around his shoulders and held it towards her in the darkness.
'Here, for you and your children, my lady'
He felt the cloak drawn from him.
'Thank you, Prefect, it's most kind of you. Let's cuddle under this cloak, you two.'
As the prefect drew his knees up and hugged his arms round them, trying to create some centre of warmth to draw comfort from, a hand gently tapped him on the shoulder.
'It's Valerius Maxentius, isn't it?'
'Yes, my lady'
'Well then, Valerius. Shelter under this cloak with us. Before the cold kills you.'
The casual use of his informal name momentarily shocked the prefect. Then he mumbled his thanks and shifted over, joining the woman under the cloak. The boy sat huddled between them, shivering violently, and every so often his body was wracked by sobbing.
'Easy there,' the prefect said softly. 'We'll be all right. You'll see.'
A series of lightning flashes illuminated the cabin, and the prefect and the woman glanced at each other. Her look was questioning, and he shook his head. A fresh deluge of silvery water splashed through the hatch into the cabin. The great timbers of the trireme groaned all around them as the fabric of the vessel was subjected to forces its builders had never dreamed of. The prefect knew that her seams would not stand much more of this violence and eventually the sea would swamp her. And all the slaves chained at the oars, the crewmen and these passengers would drown with him. He cursed softly before he could stop himself. The woman guessed his feelings.
'Valerius, it's not your fault. You could never have foreseen this.'
'I know, my lady. I know.'
'We might yet be saved.'
'Yes, my lady. If you say so.'
Throughout the night the storm swept the trireme down the coast. Halfway up the rigging, the captain braved the biting cold to search for a suitable place to try to beach the trireme. All the time he was conscious that the ship beneath him was ever more sluggish in its response to the waves. Below decks a number of galley slaves had been unshackled to help with the bailing. They sat in a line and passed buckets from hand to hand, to be emptied over the side. But it was not enough to save the ship; it merely delayed the inevitable moment when a massive wave would burst over the trireme and sink her.
A desperate wailing reached the captain from the slaves still chained to their benches. The water was already slopping about their knees and for them there would be no hope of salvation once the ship foundered. Others might survive a while, clinging to the debris before the cold finished them, but for the slaves, drowning was certain and the captain could well understand their hysteria.
The rain turned to sleet and then to snow. Thick white flakes swirled in on the wind and layered themselves on the captain's tunic. His hands were losing all sensation and he realised he must return to the deck before the cold weakened his grip on the rigging. But just as he took the first step down, he glimpsed the dark loom of a headland over the bow. White spray burst over jagged rocks at the base of the cliff, barely half a mile ahead.
The captain rapidly swung himself to the deck and hurried aft towards the steersman.
'Rocks ahead! Hard over!'
The captain threw himself onto the timber handle and strained with the steersman against the pressure of the sea surging past the broad steering paddle overside. Slowly the trireme responded, and the bowsprit began to turn away from the headland. In the glare of the lightning, they could see the glistening dark teeth of the rocks rising from the crashing waves. The roar of their pounding carried even above the howling of the wind. For a moment the bowsprit refused to swing any further towards the open sea and the captain's heart was seized by dark, cold despair. Then a fluke in the wind carried the bowsprit round, clear of the rocks, barely a hundred feet off the bow.
'That's it! Keep her there!' he screamed at the steersman.
With the small spread of mainsail straining under the pressure of the wind, the trireme surged forward, up and over the wild sea. Past the headland the cliff opened out onto a pebbled shore, behind which the land rose with a scattering of stunted trees. Waves pounded up the beach in great sweeps of white foam.
'There!' The captain pointed. 'We'll beach her there.'
'In that surf?' shouted the steersman. 'That's madness!'
'It's our only chance! Now, on the tiller, with me!'
With the paddle biting in the opposite direction, the trireme swung in towards the shore. For the first time that night the captain allowed himself to believe they might yet emerge from this tempest alive. He even laughed with exultation at having defied the worst of the wrath that great Neptune could hurl at those who ventured into his domain. But with the safety of the shore almost within their reach, the sea finally had its way with them. A great swell rolled in from the dark depths of the ocean and lifted the trireme up and up, until the captain found that he was looking down on the shore. Then the crest passed beneath them and the ship dropped like a stone. With a jarring crash that knocked all the crew off their feet, the bows were impaled on a jagged sliver of rock some distance from the base of the headland. The captain quickly regained his footing, and the firm deck under his boots told him that the ship was no longer afloat. The next wave forced the trireme to pivot round, so that the stern was nearest the beach. A rending crash from forward told of the damage being wreaked. From below came the cries and screams of the slaves as the water cascaded down the length of the trireme. Within moments she would settle, and succeeding waves would dash her and all aboard onto the rocks.
The captain turned and saw Prefect Maxentius emerging from the hatch. The dark mass of land close by and the glistening black of spray-soaked rock were explanation enough. The prefect shouted down through the hatch for the passenger to bring her children up on deck. Then he turned back to the captain.
'We must get them off! They must get to the shore!'
While the woman and her children huddled down by the stern rail, Valerius Maxentius and the captain struggled to lash several inflated wineskins together. About them the crew made ready with whatever they could find that might float. The screaming below deck intensified into spine-chilling shrieks of abject terror as the trireme settled further into the dark sea. Abruptly the screams were cut off. One of the crew on deck shouted and pointed to the maindeck hatchway. Not far beneath the grating, seawater glinted. The only thing preventing the ship from slipping beneath the water was the rock on which the bows were pinned. One large wave would finish them now.
'Over here!' Maxentius shouted to the woman and her children. 'Quick!'
As the first waves began to break over the deck, the prefect and the captain lashed their passengers to the wineskins. At first the boy protested and wriggled in panic as Maxentius tried to pass the rope round his waist.
'Stop it!' His mother slapped him. 'Be still.'
The prefect nodded his thanks, and finished tying the boy to the makeshift floats.
'What now?' she asked.
'Wait by the stern. When I tell you, jump. Then kick as hard as you can for the shore.'
The woman paused to look at the two men. 'And you?'
'We'll follow you as soon as we can.' The prefect smiled. 'Now, my lady. If you will?'
She allowed herself to be led to the aft rail, and carefully climbed over, clasping her children to her sides, braving herself to jump.
'Mummy! No!' the boy cried out as he stared wide-eyed at the wild sea beneath his feet. 'Please, Mummy!'
'Aelius, we'll be all right. I swear it!'
'Sir!' the captain yelled. 'There! Look there!'
The prefect turned and through the snow-flecked storm he saw a monstrous wave rushing down on them, white spray whipped off its crest by the terrible wind. He just had time to turn back to the woman and scream out an order to jump. Then the wave crashed over the trireme and rolled it onto the rocks. The crewmen on the maindeck were swept away. As Maxentius threw himself backwards over the stern post, he caught one last glance of the captain gripping the main hatch grating, eyes staring at the doom about to engulf him. Icy darkness closed over the prefect, and before he could shut his mouth salt water filled his nose and throat. He felt himself turned over and over as his lungs burned for want of air. Just when he thought he must surely die, his ears momentarily filled with the din of the storm. Then it was gone for an instant, before his head broke the surface again. The prefect gasped for air, kicking out to stay on the surface. The heaving sea lifted him up, and he saw the beach not far off. There was no sign of the trireme. Nor a single soul of her crew. Not even the woman and her children. The swell swept him a little closer to the rocks, and the prospect of being smashed to pieces caused the prefect to renew his efforts to swim for the shore.
Several times he felt certain that the rocks would claim him. But as he struggled towards the beach with all his failing strength, the headland began to protect him from the wildest waves. At length, exhausted and despairing, he felt his feet brash the shingle bottom. Then the riptide drew him back from the shore and he cried out his rage to the gods that he should be denied salvation at this last moment. Determined that he would not die, not yet, he gritted his teeth and made one last supreme effort to make the shore. Amid the pounding foam of another wave, he swept painfully over the pebbles and braced himself to resist the undertow as the wave receded. Before the next wave could crash down on the shore, Maxentius scrambled up the steeply sloped shingle and then threw himself down, utterly spent and gasping for breath.
Around him the storm raged and fresh flurries of snow swirled through the air. Now that he was safely ashore, the prefect realised just how cold his body had become. He shivered violently as he tried to summon the energy to move. Before he could do so, there was a sudden scattering of stones nearby and someone sat down beside him.
'Valerius Maxentius! Are you all right?'
He was surprised at the strength of the woman as she lifted him up and rolled him over onto his side. He nodded.
'Come on then!' she ordered. 'Before you freeze.'
She drew one of his arms across her shoulder and half supported him up the beach towards a shallow ravine lined with the black forms of stunted trees. There, in the shelter of a fallen trunk, the two children crouched in the sodden mass of the prefect's cloak.
'Underneath. All of you.'
She joined them, and all four huddled as tightly together as they could within the wet folds, shivering violently as the storm raged on and snow settled about them. Looking out towards the headland, Maxentius could see no sign of the trireme. It was as if his flagship had never been, so completely had it been obliterated. No one else seemed to have survived. No one.
A sudden scrabbling of shingle caught his ear above the howling wind. For a moment he thought he must have imagined it. Then the sound came again, and this time he swore he could hear voices as well.
'There's other survivors!' He smiled at the woman, easing himself to his knees. 'Over here! Over here!' he called.
A dark figure appeared round the corner of the ravine opening. Then another.
'Here!' The prefect waved. 'Over here!'
The figures were still for a moment, then one of them called out, but the sense of his words was lost on the wind. He raised a spear and signalled to unseen others.
'Valerius, be quiet!' ordered the woman.
But it was too late. They had been seen, and more men joined the first two. Cautiously they approached the shivering Romans. By the loom of the snow on the ground, their features slowly became visible as they came nearer.
'Mummy,' the girl whispered. 'Who are they?'
When the men were only a few paces away, a distant burst of lightning lit up the sky. In its pale glow the men were briefly revealed. Above their crudely cut fur cloaks, wildly spiked hair billowed in the wind. Beneath, fierce eyes blazed out of heavily tattooed faces. For a moment neither they nor the Romans moved or said a word. Then the little boy could take no more and a thin scream of blind terror split the air.