‘We must’ve drawn apart during darkness,’ Stylianos said, striding towards the ship’s edge to stare at the oncoming enemy ships. He swivelled on his heel, his cloak swishing, to cast his eyes across us all. It was a leaden look, the look a thirsty man might cast upon a dry cup. ‘We’re on our own.’
Stylianos stared into space for a trice, then he paced over to the hawk-faced boukinator. His lips moved as he hissed some rapid order. The boukinator nodded hurriedly and blew a sputter of rapid notes from his brass trumpet. Suddenly, the two dromons – the only war ships with us – sliced away, speeding off towards the horizon.
‘They’ve left us,’ Bardanes croaked.
A few other sailors heard this and some echoed it. The world around me changed at that moment. From the quiet whoosh of the dawn sea wind to an explosion of shouts, of thudding feet, of the horses whinnying and straining against their tethers in fright. While Gerontus, Lascaris and Bardanes swapped pale-faced looks with me, each as pinned to the spot with fright as I was, the other sailors scrambled up the rigging, hauled on ropes. Some ran to aid the helmsman and lend their strength to the two quarter-rudders. It was the same all across the other ships, all panicking, striving to set off in the wake of the pair of dromones.
‘Stop! It’s no use,’ Stylianos boomed. ‘These cargo ships have no hope of outrunning the enemy.’ Most sailors aboard slowed, twisting away from the ropes and levers. One man did not, continuing to strain at a spar rope. Stylianos strode across the deck, parting me and my three companions like a ship’s prow cuts through water, grabbed the fellow by the shoulder and threw him away from the rope. He did not berate the sailor, nor even draw any further attention to him. Instead he addressed us all – on this ship and the other four left behind with us – as one crew, with a throaty blast: ‘If you want to live, we must draw these cargo boats together and take up arms. These ships are our fort. Protect them, or die!’
‘Draw the ships together!’ the boukinator cried.
The sailors now set about turning the boats towards one another and casting ropes from deck to deck. I stumbled to and fro, blind and deaf with fright. I was nearly jolted from my feet when our vessel and another bumped together. I heard the groaning of ropes and the shouts of the other pamphylos crews. All six cargo ships were now linked in a tight loop.
‘Now… to arms!’ Stylianos cried.
All around me, the thunder of feet sounded again. This time men tossed poles, oars and a few spears to one another, gathering in a ramshackle phalanx near our ship’s outward-facing side. One man shoved a sharpened pole into my hands then pushed me towards the phalanx of ragged sailors – some seventy men strong.
I staggered into place next to my three fellow fishermen. Our shoulders touching, I felt their bodies shaking and pulsing with fear like mine as the enemy crafts sliced towards ours at an incredible pace. I saw the warriors on board the lead vessel now: their dark skinned and bearded faces twisted in malice, the bright ribbons of green and gold they wore around their helms beating in the wind like snakes, the dawn-glinting on their vicious-looking curved swords and irons coats. Spears, axes and maces jutted high above this pack. The sight sent ice-water through my veins, my legs shook and my mouth turned dry as sand.