55 B.C. —Caesar is poised to invade Britain—only a grand strategy can foil him!
Following their last clash, Tros, his allies and the forces of Rome have drawn apart to prepare for the conflict to come. King Caswallan of the Trinobantes is determined to resist any incursion, but the other British tribal leaders do not unanimously support him. Tros must suffer plots and revolts as he struggles to prepare his ship—the serpent prowed Liafail—for sea, but he needs more seamen and must lure Caesar into battle to win them. With the crew in place Tros pursues a desperate gamble! He will sail to Rome itself to stir Caesar’s enemies against him! This is the third Tros of Samothrace adventure—with more in this enthralling series available from Leonaur! Look out for Wolves of the Tiber, Dragons of the North and City of Eagles, all available now—with more to come!
For a long while after that they lay in silence, rolling leisurely, watching the advancing lights grow pale against the brightening cloud bank to the southward. The big ship drifted very slowly on the changing tide toward the fog that crept toward them from the shore. The first out-reaching wisps of it surrounded them as dawn touched the southerly clouds with gold and turned the edges of the mist to silver. Now they could see four of the Roman ships distinctly. The masthead man reported two more following. Tros bit his nails. The mist was still only in wisps around him. He feared the sun gleaming on the golden serpent might betray his presence too soon.<br>
The four ships in the lead, less than half a mile apart, were armed biremes. According to the masthead man’s report, the two-ship convoy trailed a long way in the rear. He must get between the warships and the convoy and engage the biremes one by one, avoiding all collision and yet steering close enough for Conops to lob stinkballs into them. Conops and Glendwyr could hardly toss the leaden balls much farther than an oar-length. If he should smash the oars by coming too close, he had plenty of spares ready; but he knew what a panic there would be below decks when the broken oar ends knocked the rowers off the benches. He must avoid that even at the cost of letting more than half the enemy escape him.<br>
A breath of warm air brought the fog rolling down in clouds at last, and presently Tros heard the war horns blaring on the Roman ships. The fog moved fast; if it should be one of those narrow, longshore streaks that hug the coast of Britain most days of the year, it might vanish too soon.<br>
“Starboard a little, starboard!” he directed, leaning overside to listen for the horn blare. “Hold her so.”<br>
Then he took his stand where the drum and cymbal men below the poop could see the wand he held in his right hand. But he made no signal to them until the blare of the nearest horn came from astern and a Roman, aware of something looming, hailed him through the fog.<br>
Then action, swift and resolute! He signalled to the cymbals and a crash of brass shook all the oarsmen into life. The water boiled alongside and the ship swung with a lurch as Sigurdsen leaned all his weight against the steering oar, his left foot on the rail and his muscles cracking.<br>
“Stand by all! Ready on the starboard bow there, Conops! Fire when you see them, Orwic!”<br>
He had one bireme by the stern, at any rate. No danger from the dolphin, almost none to the oars if Sigurdsen kept his head. He signalled the cymbals, quickening the oar beat. The men at the masthead yelled incomprehensibly. There was a terror-stricken, flatted chorus from the Roman trumpets and the bireme loomed up like a ghost.<br>
Sigurdsen threw his weight against the helm, or a bank of oars would have gone to splinters. The air twanged as if the devils of the underworld were plucking death’s harps, whistled as if death were on the wing—four midship arrow-engines—and then Orwic’s voice:<br>
“Reload! Lud’s blood, what are you waiting for?”<br>
Yells from the bireme, two thuds as the leaden balls struck woodwork, Conops crying, “Two hits!” and the ghost was gone. Fog, but a glare in the fog and the shouts of men who struggled to extinguish flame but choked in the stench and were forced back by the prodigious heat! Fog, and the blare of horns ahead. Shouts and a thrashing of water where another bireme came about to find out what the matter might be.<br>
The drums and cymbals crashed in sudden unison that checked the oars in mid-swing. Tros let the great ship carry way and for a minute listened to the Roman oar-beats, knowing that his silence would confuse the Romans and that his own man at the masthead, being higher, would see sooner than the Romans could. Astern now, there was a crimson splurge like sunset in the fog, where a bireme burned.<br>
“Right on us! Straight ahead!” The masthead man lapsed into Norse again.<br>
“Beak! Their beak’s right into us!” yelled Conops from the bow.<br>
But the Roman helmsman saw the serpent’s tongue in air above the bireme’s bow and changed course in a panic. The ships struck shoulder on and, in the crash that threw the oarsmen off the benches, none heard the leaden balls thud down the bireme’s forward hatch and roll among the rowers. Conops’ voice cried:
“Two hits! Back away, master! Back away!”<br>
The arrow-engines twanged, and the Romans came back with a hail of javelins. There was a great splash, for they let the dolphin go and it missed by the width of the roll of both ships as they reeled back from the impact.
Javelins again—twang, twang, and shriek of the twelve-arrow flights; a din below decks as the rowers of both ships rioted. The Romans had the better discipline, but there was searching fire in their hold, whereas Tros’s men were only bewildered. Crash of Tros’s drums and cymbals signalling for backed oars; the choking, acrid reek of greenish-yellow smoke, emerging from the bireme’s hatch; response from the oars at last. As the Northmen plied their bows from anywhere on deck and Orwic’s arrow-engines, cranking, twanging, screaming, swept the bireme’s citadel, the reflection of a crimson glare lit on the serpent’s golden tongue. Its agate eyes shone. It appeared to laugh as, curtseying to the swell and the staccato jerk of backed oars, it retired into the fog.