The fort of Mytilene loomed above them on the hill. Points of light moved on the walls as sentries walked their paths in the darkness. The oak-and-iron gate was shut and the single road that led up the sheer slopes was heavily guarded.
Gaditicus had left only twenty of his men on the galley. As soon as the rest of the century had disembarked, he had ordered the corvus bridge pulled in and Accipiter slid back from the dark island, the oars barely splashing in the still seawaters.
The galley would be safe from attack while they were gone. With all lights forbidden, she was a blot of darkness that enemy ships would miss unless they came right into the small island harbor.
Julius stood with his unit, waiting for orders. Grimly, he controlled his excitement at seeing action at last after six months of coastal patrol. Even with the advantage of surprise, the fort looked solid and dangerous and he knew scaling the walls was likely to be bloody. Once more, he examined the equipment, testing each rung of the ladders he had been issued, moving amongst the men to make sure they had cloths tied around their sandals for silence and better grip on the climb. There was nothing out of place, but his men submitted to the checks without complaint, as they had twice before since landing. He knew they would not disgrace him. Four were long-term soldiers, including Pelitas, who had ten years of galley experience behind him. Julius had made him the Second in the unit as soon as he realized the man had the respect of most of the crew. He had previously been overlooked for promotion, but Julius had seen the quality behind the casual approach to uniform and the quite astonishingly ugly face on the man. Pelitas had quickly become a staunch supporter of the new young tesserarius.
The other six had been picked up in Roman ports around Greece, as Accipiter made up her full complement. No doubt some of them had dark histories, but the requirements for a clean record were often ignored for galley soldiers. Men with debts or disagreements with officers knew their last chance for a salary was at sea, but Julius had no complaints. His ten men had all seen battle, and to listen to them tell their stories was like a summary of the progress of Rome in the last twenty years. They were brutal and hard, and Julius enjoyed the luxury of knowing they wouldn't shirk or turn away from the dirty jobs—like clearing the Mytilene fort of rebels on a summer night.
Gaditicus walked through the units, speaking to each officer. Suetonius nodded at whatever he was told and saluted. Julius watched his old neighbor, feeling fresh dislike but unable to pin it to any one thing in the young watch officer. For a year, they had worked together with a frosty politeness that now seemed unbreakable. Suetonius still saw him as the young boy he and his friends had tied and beaten a lifetime before. He knew nothing of his experiences since then and had sneered as Julius told the men what it was like to come into Rome at the head of a Triumph with Marius. The events in the capital were only distant rumor to the men on board, and Julius felt he wasn't believed by some of Tonius's friends. It was galling, but the first hint of tension or fighting between units would have meant demotion to the ranks. Julius had kept his silence, even when he heard Suetonius telling the story of how he had once left the other tesserarius swinging from a tree after cracking his head a few times. His tone had made the incident seem nothing more than a little rough fun between boys. He had felt Julius's gaze on him at the end and pretended surprise, winking at his Second as they went back to their duties.
As Gaditicus walked over to the last of his units, Julius could see Suetonius grinning behind his shoulder. He kept his own eyes on the centurion and saluted stiffly as he stood to attention. Gaditicus nodded to him, returning the salute with a quick motion of his right forearm.
"If they don't know we're here, we should be able to burn out that little nest before dawn. If they've been warned, we'll be fighting for every step. Make sure the armor and swords are muffled. I don't want them giving the alarm while we're on the exposed flanks of that place."
"Yes, sir," Julius replied smartly.
"Your men will attack the south side. The slope's a little easier there. Bring the ladders in quickly and have a man at the bottom of each one to hold them steady so you don't have to waste time looking for a firm footing. I'm sending Suetonius's men to kill the gate sentries. There are four of them, so it could be noisy. If you hear shouts before you're close to the wall, sprint. We must not give them time to organize. Understand? Good. Any questions?"
"Do we know how many are in there, sir?" Julius asked.
Gaditicus looked surprised. "We're taking that fort whether they have fifty or five hundred! They haven't paid taxes for two years and the local governor has been murdered. Do you think we should wait for reinforcements?"
Julius colored with embarrassment. "No, sir."
Gaditicus chuckled bitterly. "The navy is stretched thin enough as it is. You'll get used to never having enough men and ships if you live through tonight. Now, move to your position and take a wide berth around the fort, using cover. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Julius replied, saluting again. Being an officer, even the lowest rank, was difficult at the best of times. He was expected to know his business, as if the ability came with the rank. He had never assaulted a fortress before by day or night, but was supposed to make decisions on the instant that could mean life or death for his men. He turned to them and felt a fresh surge of determination. He would not let them down.
"You heard the centurion. Silent progress, split formation. Let's go."
As one, they thumped their right fists into their leather breastplates in acknowledgment. Julius winced at the small sound they made.
"And none of that noisy business either. Until we are in the fort, any orders I give are not to be acknowledged. I don't want you singing out 'Yes, sir' when we're trying to move silently, all right?"
One or two grinned, but the tension was palpable as they made their slow and careful way through the cover. Two other units detached with them, leaving Gaditicus to command the frontal attack once the sentries had their throats cut.
Julius was thankful for the endless training drills as he saw the smooth way the men separated in pairs, with four of the long ladders to each unit. The soldiers could run up the wide rungs at almost full speed, and it would take only seconds to reach the top of the black walls and get into the fort. Then it would be vicious. With no way of knowing how many rebels faced them, the legionaries would be looking to kill as many as possible in the first few moments.
He signaled with a flat palm for the men to crouch as one of the sentry torches stopped close to their position. Sounds would carry easily, despite the rhythmic screech of the crickets in the grass. After a few moments, the sentry light moved on again and Julius caught the eyes of the closest officers, nodding to each other to begin the attack.
He stood and his heart beat faster. His men rose with him, one of them grunting slightly with the weight of the sturdy ladder. They began to trot up the broken rock of the south approach. Despite the muffling cloths on their sandals and armor, the thud of feet seemed loud to Julius as he broke into a light run beside his men. Pelitas was in the lead, at the head of the first ladder, but the order changed second by second as they scrambled up the uneven surface, denied even the light of the moon to see the ground. Gaditicus had chosen the night well.
Each of the ladders was passed quickly through the hands of the man in front, the trailing end planted close to the wall for maximum height. The first man held it steady while the second swarmed up into the darkness. In only a few seconds, the first group was over and the second ready to go, their climb made harder as the ladders slipped and scraped on the stone. Julius caught one as it moved, and bunched his shoulders to hold it until the weight at the top had gone, appreciating the sharp reality of levers in the process. All along the line, the soldiers were disappearing into the fort and still the alarm had not been given.
He shifted the ladder until the padded head caught on something, and gripped it tightly as he climbed, having to lean close with the sharp angle. He didn't pause at the top in case archers were sighting on him. There was no time to judge the situation as he slid over the crown and dropped into the darkness below.
He hit and rolled to find his men around him, waiting. Before them was a short stretch of scrub grass, grown long over ancient stones. It was a killing ground for archers and they needed to be out of it quickly. Julius saw the other units had not paused and had crossed to the inner wall. He frowned. It stood as tall as the first, only twenty feet away, but this time the ladders were outside and they were trapped between them, as the ancient designers had planned. He swore softly to himself as the men looked to him for a quick decision.
Then a bell began to ring in the fort, the heavy tones booming out into the darkness.
"What now, sir?" Pelitas said, his voice sounding bored.
Julius took a deep breath, feeling his own nerves settle slightly. "We're dead if we stay here, and they'll be throwing torches down soon to light us up for archers. You're best in the rigging, Peli, so get your armor off and see if you can carry a rope up the inner wall. The stones are old, there should be a few gaps for you." He turned to the others as Pelitas began to undo the lacing that held his armor together.
"We need to get that ladder back. If Peli falls, we'll be easy targets for the archers. It's a fifteen-foot wall, but we should be able to lift the lightest pair of you to the top, where they can reach over and drag it up."
He ignored the growing sounds of panic and battle inside the fort. At least the rebels were concentrating on Gaditicus's attack, but time had to be running out for the soldiers on his side.
The men understood the plan quickly and the heaviest three linked arms and braced their backs against the dark stones of the outer wall. Two more climbed up them and turned carefully so they too were able to lean against the wall behind them. The three at the bottom grunted as the weight came to bear on their armor. The metal plates bit into the men's shoulders with the weight from above, but without them there was a good chance of snapping a collarbone. They bore the discomfort in silence, but Julius saw they could not hold for long.
He turned to the last pair, who had taken off their armor and stripped down to underclothing and bare feet. Both grinned with excitement as Julius nodded to them, and they set about climbing the tower of men with the same speed and efficiency that they brought to the rigging of Accipiter. He drew his sword as he waited for them, straining to see into the darkness above.
Twenty feet away, on the inner wall, Pelitas pressed his face against the cold, dry stone and began a short and desperate prayer. His fingers shook as they held a tiny space between slabs, and he fought not to make any noise as he heaved himself higher, his feet scrabbling for purchase. His breath hissed between his teeth, so loudly he felt sure someone would come to investigate. For a moment, he regretted bringing the heavy gladius as well as the rope wrapped around his chest, though he couldn't think of anything worse than reaching the top without a weapon. Falling off onto his head in a great crash was a similarly unpleasant prospect, however.
Above him, he could see a dark lip of stone dimly outlined against the glow of torches as the fort sprang to defend itself from the fifty led by Gaditicus. He sneered silently to himself. Professional soldiers would already have sent scouts around the perimeter to check for a second force or an ambush. It was good to take pride in your work, he thought.
His hand searched blindly above, finally finding a good grip where a corner had crumbled away over the centuries. His arms quivered with exhaustion as Pelitas placed a palm at last on the top slab and hung for a moment, listening for anyone standing close enough to gut him as he pulled himself into the inner fort.
There was nothing, even when he held his breath to listen. He nodded to himself and clenched his jaw as if he could bite through the fear he always felt at these times, then heaved up, swinging his legs around and in. He dropped quickly into a crouch and drew the gladius inch by inch, to avoid sound.
He was in a well of shadow that left him invisible on the edge of a narrow platform with steps leading down to the other buildings on two sides. The remains of a meal on the ground showed him there had been a sentry in place, but the man had obviously gone to repel the front attack instead of staying where he had been told. In his head, Pelitas tutted at the lack of discipline.
Moving slowly, he unwound the heavy rope from his chest and shoulders and tied one end to a rusted iron ring set in the stone. He tugged on it and smiled, letting the loops drop into the dark.
Julius saw that one of the other units was pressed close to the inner wall, with the last following his idea to retrieve the ladders. Next time, they would have a rope attached to the top rung to throw over the wall, the last man pulling the whole thing after them, but it was easy to be wise in hindsight. Gaditicus should have spent more time learning the layout of the fort, though that was difficult enough, as nothing overlooked the steep Mytilene hill. Julius dismissed the doubt as disloyal, but a part of him knew that if he were ordering the attack, he would not have sent his men to take the fort until he knew everything there was to know about it.