I heard screaming. Terrible screaming. My own. My hands shook madly, the pole I had been given feeling as if it were made of stone, alien in my hands. The wall of enemy soldiers came at us, slashing the tips of our makeshift spears away. One drove between two of our lances and smashed his ornate shield across the face of a sailor, sending a spray of teeth and blood across the line, spattering my face. A new stink hit me then – of that man’s blood. I could even taste its evil metallic tang. With a clatter of weapons they met our line in full. I heard the screaming, saw the flashing of iron blades, saw men judder and fall in spouts of red. I tell you nothing of how it felt to be in that line, however, because I was not part of it. I stepped back, you see, just before their weapons met ours. I backed away to the far side of the ship, shaking, holding my pole as if it mattered in that cowardly place. What would it matter, I thought, by bowels weakening – for in moments these Saracen zealots would destroy Stylianos and his ten soldiers and our motley collection of sailors then run over here and butcher me. There was no hope. I was dead.
That was when the sun blinked. I could not comprehend what was happening at first, not until I heard the slice and spray of water, saw the billowing purple sails of the two imperial dromones coming streaking round in a great arc – across the dawn sun – and back towards the fray. They sped straight for the enemy craft engaged with ours. They had not deserted us. It was all part of Stylianos’ plan, I now realised.
The two galleys clunked up against the enemy ship, setting it bucking and rolling, the force rippling through our craft too and the small cluster of vessels roped to it. Through a web of rigging I saw a squadron of imperial archers on the decks of the two galleys, bows stretched. As one, they loosed, sending a small storm of arrows over the heads of the rushing infantry and plunging down into the backs of the Saracen warriors savaging our pathetic phalanx. More than a dozen enemy fell, sighing, screaming wetly. Next, a swarm of Byzantine stratiotai – nearly two hundred men armed with the best blades and dripping with armour – stormed from the two newly-arrived galleys, leaping onto the enemy boat, eyes baleful above their bright Chi-Rhos shields, spear like silver fangs. They ploughed across the bare enemy decks, reached the near side of the that ship and leapt from the from it and onto ours with a throaty howl. ‘Nobiscum Deus!’
The Saracen warriors were only just swinging towards the new threat. Too late to save themselves. The stratiotai cut them down in heartbeats. The golden leader of the enemy died on a frenzy of jabbing spears that drove him to his knees, before Stylianos strode over to boot him over the edge of the ship. He landed in the sea with a dead man’s splash.
Stylianos swung round to behold his forces. His face was a mask of blood, his eyes and teeth stark white against it. ‘This was their strongest vessel and we have destroyed them,’ he bellowed, waving his arms towards the other cargo vessels, where other enemy boats had engaged and smaller skirmishes were taking place. ‘Sweep across the rest of the ships!’
They surged forth with a roar. As they went, I saw Gerontus and Bardanes going with them, their poles wet with blood. They had made their kills, and now they bore the weapons of fallen enemies too. I did not even notice that Stylianos had hung back, like me. But he was not trying to hide as I was. He was staring at me, seething. ‘Why didn’t you fight, you worm!’
I felt sick to my core. ‘I, I was injured,’ I offered, stammering, gesturing with a numb hand to the blood spray on my face.
Stylianos shook his head slowly, spat on the deck before me, then bounded off after his forces.