With a paean of horns and a swell of panicked voices, our fleet made a desperate attempt to right itself – to bring the dromons to the fore to face this threat. Yet in the urgent chaos, all we succeeded in doing was losing all shape. The enemy boats – more than two hundred pine-fresh galleys – were speeding in towards us, their sails full. They had less warships than us, but they would make kindling of the cargo ships before our dromons could find the wind and come to shield us. We had one choice: fight or die. The crew aboard our cog scurried back and forth, once again tossing poles to one another, the contingent of ten ironclad stratiotai forming a line with Stylianos near the prow, facing the oncoming foe.
‘Be ready,’ Stylianos howled.
Shaking, I slid down the mast from my spot on the spar, taking a splinter in my palm but barely feeling it. I saw the sailors once again rush to flank the small contingent of armoured men, Bardanes and Gerontus doing so without hesitation this time. One lantern-jawed sailor was tossing each sailor a pole from a stack. When he twisted to throw the next one and saw me, he sneered and withheld it, throwing it to another man instead.
I felt then as I did back at the skirmish, lost, falling into the dark void of terror. But this time there was something else – a hot, prickly cloak of shame. I felt my legs moving numbly, shambling over to the lantern-jawed one as he made to dish out the next pole. I felt my body quivering madly, saw his expression changing. I realised I had grabbed his wrist. His expression was different then. Confused.
I hissed some curse at him and snatched the pole, then stumbled over to the line. Bardanes was at the end. He shot me some sideways look, but I did not return it – for I was now truly spinning in that dark cold void of fear. The wind beat at us relentlessly, casting briny spray in our faces. We were at a near-standstill. The enemy ships came at us like a wall of timber, linen and steel, spume peeling away from the bows in great folds as they crested the unsettled sea. Their war-song this time, carried on the wind, was haunting – vociferous and fervent.
My breath began to run away from me. I felt the desperate urge to step back, to run for the stern. At that moment, Stylianos took a step forward, turned to face us and boomed. ‘We stood together before and we prevailed. Here again, I ask you to stand with me. Stand with me… until our galleys come to battle. For the empire…’ He smashed his sword hilt against his iron jacket and pumped the blade aloft. ‘Nobiscum Deus!’
A cheer rippled along our meagre line like flames, spears and poles jostling. A few other cargo crafts were almost level with us, but it was a paltry front to face so many enemy ships.
‘Allahu Akhbar!’ came a united enemy battle cry. I saw them bulging from the decks, bedecked in steel and bright banners once more, waving vicious-looking maces and axes, swords and spears. I heard my wheezing breaths as if they were from another. I was on the cusp of flight once more. Then came the arrow storm. Whistling, carried by the wind, in a cloud as thick as flies over a scrap of meat. The hail whacked down on our decks. Twelve or more faces vanished from our line with wet gurgles. I jolted, sure I had been struck too, only to realise it had been a great stallion’s kick of a heartbeat. I was alive. I was still alive an-
Two enemy galleys came crashing against the sides of our ship, sending it tilting wildly, sending sections of timber rail flying up madly. I felt sky and decks change places as I was cast forwards, felt my shin whack off of something, saw fellow crewmen cast around likewise. Dazed, I rose onto my knees… just as the Saracen warriors spilled aboard in their hundreds.