The next day, in the grey light of Dawn, the fleet put to sea. I sat on a rowing bench of one ship, shivering at first as I took up an oar. Soon, I was sweating, my shoulders and back straining with every oar-stroke, my palms burning already. At least I had the pleasure of gazing back at the shrinking city we were leaving behind. As a fisherman, I had always marvelled at the vista of the golden domes and red-tiled roofs, the skywards-stretching columns of porphyry, topped with silver effigies of emperors past, the holy insignias glinting in the sun atop the many churches. But today, I was not a fisherman. I was a sailor, a rower, a kopelatai. Today, my stomach churned violently.
Everything was so different from life on the skiff: the smell of leather and oiled armour, of horse dung – from the cavalry steeds tethered midship; the sound of those beasts pawing and nickering. We had been sequestered onto a pamphylos, you see – a fat and rather ungainly cargo and supply vessel, one of around seventy bobbing like plump men, shielded by a ‘V’ of sleek, slicing dromon war galleys.
‘Aaand: O-opop-O-opop-O-opop,’ the hawk-faced boukinator droned on, his voice lending some sort of rhythm to us oarsmen.
A fishing skiff is light and small and requires little effort row. This beast was back-breaking. Soon I was panting for breath and began to see spots at the edges of my vision. I thought for a time that I might have to halt and rest, but I dared not, seeing the scrutinous eye of Droungarios Stylianos upon us all. He stood there at the prow, doing nothing, just watching us. Waiting for us to fail – for me to fail – I was sure. I would not give him the satisfaction. Besides, I realised, Lascaris, Gerontus and Bardanes were all still rowing, all shooting each other and me competitive glances. I would not be the first one to succumb to tiredness!
Then, amid all those maddened, fatigue-addled and scampering thoughts, Stylianos boomed some order to the boukinator. The man halted in his rhythmic chanting and lifted his brass horn to his lips and issued three short, shrill blasts from it. The sound echoed across the fleet. I looked up and around, confused, frightened. Then, with a great roar like a furious and sudden thunderstorm directly overhead, a shadow toppled across us all. I almost dropped my oar in fright, looking up, seeing the huge triangular lateen sail unfurling. All around us too, the galleys and other cargo ships were hoisting sail, a great patchwork of white, purple and gold, some emblazoned with Christian motifs or older icons of eagles, boars and bulls. They all caught the wind at the same time, billowing like the chests of giants, tilting each vessel slightly and setting us off at a fine speed.
‘Ship oars,’ the boukinator barked at me and the others amongst us who did not automatically do so.
Bardanes rolled his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. The rowing had not troubled the big ox too much. Lascaris and Gerontus, however, looked rather pale and drawn.
‘Up,’ the boukinator snapped at us. ‘Check the rigging, see that the cargo is secured.’
I rose, shakily. My three companions scattered, chased by the hectoring officer. Somehow, I escaped his attentions. I found myself winding up a coil of rope, hoping I would not be noticed. From the moment Droungarios Stylianos had conscripted us, that had been the plan. Keep my head down, take the coin at the end. Yet deep down in the pit of my stomach, I had a terrible feeling about this voyage, about what lay ahead.