In the two days that passed after the dawn skirmish, I existed in a strange daze, thinking over it all. Stylianos has marshalled the detached flotilla expertly, and had led the small contingent of soldiers on to cut down the Saracen attackers, driving them from the decks and into the sea. I had moved around purposefully, but kept a safe distance to the rear, finishing the battle just as I had started it. When we caught up with the main body of the fleet again, it was to a paean of trumpets and cheers. We had been missed, greatly. Feared lost, apparently.
A fine salt spray billowed over us as we tacked east, heading into the great sound between Cilicia in the north and the Island province of Cyprus in the south. I was aware of the jubilant mood of those around me, yet felt like I had no place amongst them. While they grunted and joked gruffly with each other, recalling each other’s deeds during the skirmish, I had nothing to say. When they talked quietly about those lost in that clash, and when they prayed for the souls of the dead at dawn and dusk, I closed my eyes as if to pray with them. But in the blackness within my head I saw every single one of those slain, staring at me, faces hollow and grey, eyes hateful, all shrieking in a terrible refrain, one word, over and over.
I felt my heart turning grey, turning to ash. I had set sail a thousand times to fish. Yet never before had I been faced with a moment such as that dawn skirmish, confronted with my own weaknesses. What a vile mirror this sea had become.
The nights… they were long. I had not truly slept since the clash. Any drift towards slumber led to visions of Lascaris’ terrible end, or sensory memories of the smell of blood and ripped-open bowels. A few times every night I would suddenly jolt upright, soaked in cold sweat, head twitching like that of a fledgling in a nest, staring out beyond the fleet and across the dark infinity of night and ocean, sure there were more of them out there. And I knew there were.
That was just a scout convoy! Stylianos had muttered quietly to the boukinator in the hours after the skirmish. He did not realise that I was on my hands and knees beside him, scrubbing the decks, and heard every word.
He had not rebuked me any further after that moment he had spat at my feet. But he certainly had his suspicions about what I was. I leant from the ship’s rail and stared into the foaming waters, the wind whipping my hair across my face, the sun scorching the back of my neck. I longed for the choppy waters to fall calm and glassy, to see myself for a moment, to be sure I had not grown horns or feathers like some monster.
‘Kalliades?’ a familiar voice spoke beside me. I blinked, turning from the waters. It was big Bardanes, holding a water bucket and a full ladle towards me.
I took the ration and gulped it down gratefully – six days at sea in the summer fair blisters the lips. The water was cold and refreshing. ‘Thank you,’ I said, wiping my mouth dry with the back of one hand.
He smiled weakly and turned away.
‘Perhaps later,’ I called after him, ‘we can play tavli?’
Bardanes twisted to look back at me. Again he smiled. Again it was weak. ‘Aye… perhaps.’