That night, I never got to play tavli with Bardanes. Old Gerontus was likewise slippery and managed to avoid my company. I found myself eating alone on the deck. Well, I was sitting close to the other sailors, but certainly did not feel part of the gathering. Perhaps they would not have minded were I to have joined in their ribald chatter, but I felt that even to speak would be to bring their attentions upon me, and right now, I wanted nothing less.
So my life as a military oarsman went on. When the others went to sleep, I lay awake, on my back, staring up along the length of the creaking mast and spar and the furled sail, on up to the dark dome of night and the silvery sand of stars cast across it. My soul swung back and forth: from the fantasy of what I might have done at the skirmish, and to the deep, white-hot fear of what might have become of me had I dared. On and on, I tormented myself, knowing that the moment was gone. I had defined myself with my actions. There was no going back. I rose, quietly, stepping past the night oarsmen. I came to the ship’s prow and rested my elbows on the rail there, staring into the blackness ahead.
‘The first time I stood in battle,’ a voice came from nowhere, ‘I felt like a foolish child.’
I turned with a start. I did not recognise the unarmoured figure for a moment. Bald, with his beard untended and his body wrapped in a basic tunic and rough cloak. Barefoot too, he almost looked like a beggar. But when he grinned, it was that same iron grin he had flashed at us back in the harbour when he had sequestered us, before my moment of shame.
‘It was on the desert plains, east of Antioch,’ Stylianos continued, tapping one bare foot on the decks as if to conjure up the image of dry land. ‘We were on our way to Persia… to the golden city of Ctesiphon itself.’
‘You marched with Emperor Heraclius?’
He nodded gently. ‘I walked with my head high, like a peacock. I was strong and lithe. I knew how to handle a spear. I was well-trained with the sword too.’ His iron grin grew a little, then faded, gently at first, before crumbling away. ‘But then the King of Kings’ army emerged from the desert heat, when I saw them, arrayed on horseback like iron centaurs. When they charged us, it was like thunder rolling through the earth itself. At that moment, I understood that the thing I had until then considered to be my courage was but an illusion.’
I was rapt, sure this was the first time the Droungarios had ever uttered these words to a soul.
‘There was a moment, when they had charged to but a stride away. A gap in our lines. I could have stepped into the breach but…’ he halted as his voice grew reedy as he stared off into the night. He gulped and took a deep breath. ‘The man who did step into the gap probably saved us from capitulation. He died for his bravery – a Persian rider sliced him from shoulder to breastbone, and another crushed his head with a mace.’
I felt echoes of the fear from the skirmish rise and pulse within me. The blood hammered in my ears and I felt the moisture drain from my mouth.
His eyes slid round to pin me. ‘Aye, that is exactly how I felt.’ He flicked his finger at me then at himself then back again. ‘There is little difference between you and I. But nobody remembers that day when I crumbled with fear. For I have since made my name as a bold general. What drove me? Shame. The shame that flows through your veins right now. I can see it in your eyes, in your stooped posture.’ He stabbed his finger at me now, his gaze steely. ‘I pity you, oarsman… and I pray that you will have a chance of redemption.’