With a clank of iron, the ship’s contingent of ten stratiotai – the only true soldiers aboard – came rushing over from the sheltered area of the deck, draped in scale and armed with proper spears, javelins, swords and shields. They muscled into place at the centre of the phalanx. Stylianos took his place on their right, ripping his sword out with a metallic zing and holding it aloft. ‘Ready!’ he growled.
I blinked madly, staring at the oncoming enemy ship, at the others with it, stretching out like a falcon’s wings to envelop our clumsy cluster of cargo boats. Aboard the lead enemy vessel a colossus of a warrior, bare-chested, planted a foot on the lead ship’s rail, carrying a coil of rope in one hand and a grappling hook in the other. His body shook rhythmically as he whirled the rope’s end and the hook. When he let go I watched the hook fly towards our decks, feeling my bladder pulse, sure I was about to lose control. It glinted like a leaping dolphin, and all of us gawped at it. It was designed to catch and keep a hold on our ship’s rail, but it did more than that. It whooshed over our heads and clanked onto the decks, just behind Lascaris. He and I glanced back at the thing, then at each other.
We were never friends but – God be my witness – I never wished him any harm. I certainly would never want any man to die the way he did.
When the giant on the enemy craft yanked the rope backwards, the hook leapt up and punched through Lascaris’ upper back, the tip exploding through his breastbone in a shower of lung and blood, and ripped him forwards, tearing him from our shabby phalanx. His body cracked against the inside of our ship’s rail as the hook pierced right through him and gnawed into our ship’s timbers, sticking fast there. Impaled, Lascaris spasmed there, draped like a wet garment over the rail, puffs of blood bursting from the wounds and from his lips with every judder of the hook. The smell of torn innards hit me like a hard slap. I felt the contents of last night’s meal of hard tack turn into a fiery ball in my stomach, destined to come shooting up or down. Somehow I managed not to vomit. I heard Gerontus and Bardanes issue low wails beside me, felt them shaking violently.
Our vessel shuddered and tilted as more of the enemy hauled on the grappling hook rope, then their ship came arcing around tightly, its side scraping along ours, splinters flying, the draped remains of poor Lascaris pulverised by the collision.
The worst of it was when the two ships came to a rest, bonded like that. One foe in a glorious golden suit of armour stepped up onto his ship’s side and more than one hundred of his men did likewise, spears, scimitars and axes primed. A wall of feral snarls, jabbering manically in their strange tongue – vaguely like that of the friendly Saracen in the market, but not a word of Greek. An empire, bonded by faith.
‘Allahu Akhbar!’ cried the golden one. In unison, they lunged down onto our decks and at us.
‘Nobiscum Deus!’ Stylianos cried, the ancient war cry of the old tongue thrown back at the enemy charge like a first javelin.