A snarl and a yelp bought the captain's head round with a snap, "Stay away from that beast; if he has so much as a hair turned I'll kick you overboard myself" he roared. Idiot slaves. The leopard glared at the hapless slave who'd made a cardinal error by stepping on its tail. They said elephants didn't forget but this beast looked as if it could hold a seriously life-threatening grudge. Everyone tried to avoid the steely yellow eyes of the beast and offered silent prayers to a multitude of gods, daemons and miscellaneous spirits that the cage was as strong as it looked. The thoughts of that thing loose on the ship would bring fear into the heart of the bravest gladiator.
Marcus balanced easily on the balls of his feet, turned into the wind and looked at the track of the Isis. The wind was stronger today and they were making fine speed. The fine cedar of the rail felt good under his salt-hardened hands, he tasted the salt spray that had dried on his lips and reflected that it was good to be a sailorman. Better without the passengers though. Saul was a good sort for a Jew, unlike many of that strange antisocial religion who didn't even try to disguise the discomfort they felt at being surrounded by the ritually unclean. Saul had a twinkle in his eye and a dry wit that made every voyage with this short portly merchant a pleasure. His wife was a different matter, wailing and moaning with each passing wave as the sea picked up, convinced that the ship was sinking and that no one was paying her any attention. Lucius didn't help either with his comments on idolatry as she clutched her amulet during a particularly big roll. The rain began to fall and the visibility reduced accordingly. The ship fell silent as the passengers sought shelter and soon the only sounds were the hiss of the waves and the paradoxically soft lash of the rain. Even the leopard's eyes turned outboard as the sea and sky began to merge in one all-enveloping shade of grey.
These waters were treacherous at the best of times and Marcus would breathe a little easier when the Isis arrived at the next sheltering harbour. The ship settled into a quiet melancholy, the mood reflecting the change in weather. Hopefully the wait in the harbour wouldn't be too long as all were eager to get to Rome in time for the munera. Nero wasn't the most popular Princeps but he was a master showman and rumours abounded of the lavish expense and magnitude of the coming festivities.
The ship swept gracefully up a long swell and held for a moment on the crest before plunging into the trough. The weather was changing quickly. Marcus wasn't familiar with this stretch of coast. Normally they sailed in deep water and avoided the coastal routes. It was a more risky undertaking than hopping from port to port along the coast but much more profitable and there was less chance of running into a reef or a headland. The rain picked up and it became colder than it should. The captain ordered all lashings to be made secure and for a sheet thrown over the leopard. He'd haggled for hours with that desert nomad over the beast and was taking no chances with its health and well-being. With the profits from this voyage the captain would be getting a new ship and Marcus would take the helm of the Isis. He looked forward to the prospects of his first command with a pride he'd not thought possible. The visibility was dangerously bad.
A cry from the lookout caused Lucius to swing the tiller hard over and Marcus was almost sick from fear as he watched an evil-smelling rock rush by the ship. This was madness. Lucius had lost his perpetual sardonic expression and was peering forward through the enveloping mist of rain, fearing that the call of the lookout would come too late. He steeled himself to face the captain and beg him to take them out into deeper water, if only until the rain lifted. He only half saw the looming shadow of the headland. It was a horrible moment, watching those razored limestone claws reach out from the cliff towards the Isis, towards him, straining to reach mortal souls just out of reach. Marcus stared at a long vertical scar of rock beginning at the waves and continuing up past the rain out of sight. And then it was past as if it had never been, with only the scarred souls of the ones who'd seen it to know how close they'd been to disaster.
The captain's face was grim and his commands were even more acerbic than usual, betraying that he too had been badly shaken at how close they had come to ruin. The sails were furled and the oars locked in place. The harbour must be close now and this was no place for the smallest error. The ship lurched sickeningly as they crept towards the land, being overtaken by cold grey rollers sweeping uncaringly towards the unseen shore. A cry from the lookout station brought Marcus' attention to full focus. At the edge of sight, barely discernible was the dim glow of a lighthouse fire. Relief ran through the crew and even the gruesome noises from Saul's wife were momentarily stilled. A stern bark from the captain warned against complacency as they approached the now welcoming fire.
The rain obscured almost everything but the fire seemed somehow wrong. With every pull of the oars, the dim shapes should coalesce into recognisable shapes but they refused to comply. The rain swirled and blew into their faces, and the fire twisted and seemed to distort and grow. Suddenly a horrible vision rose from the sea and the rain in front of them, the Isis twisted and burning on the harbour wall, passengers and crew screaming wordlessly as they clawed for safety. With growing horror the vision drew closer, and with it the cries of many voices raised in fear and anger. This was no sea vision, no fever-induced hallucination. Another vessel had sought shelter here, a vessel almost sister to the Isis, a vessel dying where she had sought refuge. And with horrifying certainty, the crew and passengers knew that they were heading straight for her.
The captain's shouts were lost to the wind and the confusion of the oarsmen combined with wind and tide to create disaster. The Isis began to slew around just as she hit. She climbed up across her burning sister vessel as if to beach herself on the harbour wall itself. The ship underneath rolled onto its side and then cracked like an eggshell, spearing through the belly of the Isis as she did so. Marcus saw a great gash appear in the floor beside the oarsmen and then the Isis shook with her death-shudder and he was thrown overboard.
His first thought was that the sea was surprisingly noisy, the waves sloshed and crashed and he could hear the irregular deep booming of ships as they pounded themselves to destruction against the concrete harbour wall; a terrifyingly close orgy of destruction. The waters threw him every way until the ways up, down and sideways were lost to him. He opened his eyes, straining to see in the wave-tossed waters. A hand reached up from the deep and grabbed him, the grasp of a Titan. Marcus grappled furiously with this undersea wrestler of inhuman strength. Marcus grabbed the bronze wrist of his opponent, and knew him for what he was - a statue bound for a noble had snagged on his tunic. With a small turn he was free, and he took stock of his surroundings.
On the bottom around him lay the cargo of the first burning ship, a cargo which continued to spill from her innards as she floated dying above him. He arched backward and peered upwards at the destruction continuing to unfold above the waves. The dull red glow of the fire framed those who had either been thrown, or had sought refuge overboard, their legs jerking spasmodically, unused to the sea and her movements. He saw the glow brighten and flare as the Isis joined her sister in the flames and the panic in the swimmers' movements as they fought the sea to get away from the lethal conflagration that threatened to consume them as it was consuming their ship.
With nowhere to go, Marcus dove to the bottom, feeling the pressure on his ears increase, heedless of the pain as the cargo and remains of both ships tumbled around him. He felt the weed under his fingers and used it to pull himself along the seafloor. The ache in his lungs grew with each passing moment. With his fingers entwined in the weed, he could feel the strength of the waves as the pulled him to and fro as he sped away from the tumbling death behind him and the fiery inferno of the surface. His ears screamed with pain and the call of his lungs would soon refuse to be denied. A claw of a crab splayed out in front of his eyes and the malevolence of its glare, magnified by the fire-lit waters caused Marcus to kick off the bottom and climb desperately for the surface. His head breached and his lungs filled with the air they so desperately needed. He doubled over and was almost lost as the choke of the fire's evil breath caused his lungs and throat to rebel. The fire on his face was forgotten as his eyes met the scene before him.
Incredibly the water was full; full of people and of things. Clothes and baskets floated around the harbour entrance, some smouldering and adding their own fumes to the smoke which hung above the water. Saul was not far distant, his head bloody and breathing hard as he supported his wife. Lucius hung grimly to a fire-blackened spar, uncharacteristically silent. Elsewhere others were struggling to stay afloat, and those that could swim were trying to guide those that could not to safety. The captain was still on the Isis, straining to free something or someone out of sight on the eviscerated ship, and then he was lost in the smoke. The leopard swam silently too, its presence in the water causing more terror than the wreck or any monster of the deep. The smoke hung in the air still, growing black and blocking out what little light the rain-soaked clouds let through. The fires began to dim as the ships burnt down to the waterline. Soon nothing would be left but fire-blackened timbers and their lead-lined keels. The end of his first-command-to-be saddened Marcus beyond words.
Those in the water began to make for the harbour wall, accessible now that the flames had lost much of their strength. The leopard made it to the safety of the stone harbour first, and there were none to bar his way. With a scrabbling of claws, the drenched beast clambered ungainly from the sea and promptly began to clean itself as though nothing untoward had happened. The survivors, for Marcus knew that none had made it to shore and there were many faces he could not find among those around him. The captain was gone, lost with his ship. Saul's fortune had sunk with the ship yet Marcus' heart was gladdened to know that in the confusion, Saul had thought only of his wife. Marcus would live to sail again. The threat of shipwreck lived with all who gambled with the sea and always it seemed unfair, always it seemed to come at the wrong time and to the undeserved. The memory and continuing threat of wreck would stay with him, but he would sail again; the call of the sea, however treacherous she could be, was a poor substitute for a life on the land. Marcus floated in the water, looking up at the leopard who regarded him with a disinterest that would have been insulting in a man's face. And here Marcus learned his last lesson from the death of his almost-first command. He was still a sailorman and the joys and sorrows of such a life meant little to those, man or beast, who did not live it. Ultimately the dangers and profits were his to face and his alone. And strangely, as he floated in the waters, gazing up at the smoke-shrouded silhouette of the beast, he felt content.