Me and the other simple sailors on board had been scattered like toys across the deck. Somehow, Stylianos and the boukinator and the ship’s ten soldiers had stayed on their feet when the two enemy vessels had collided with ours. They now gathered in a small knot near the prow, like a rock in a dry riverbed. The Saracen host tumbled onto our decks and smashed against and around them like flood waters. I heard the awful grate and clatter of steel upon steel and the desperate screams and grunts of men fighting for their lives. I saw a Byzantine hand spin free of an arm, still clutching a sword, the fingers twitching as it slithered down the deck towards me. I smelt the terrible waft of ripped-open bowels and the metal stink of blood. Glancing left and right, every cargo ship nearby was beset like this, and our war galleys were still struggling to come to the fore.
It was happening again, just like at the skirmish – my stomach turned, twisted and shrank, my whole body shook madly. I took a step back towards the ship’s stern. This time I noticed from the corners of my eyes that the other sailors were doing the same. What man would not take fright at the sight of a slaughter like this?
That was when it happened.
Somewhere in the melee, a scimitar slashed, cutting some steel-clad shape out of the fray, a thing which spun free, thudded onto the decks and rolled over to my feet. Stylianos’ head, eyes staring madly, lips still quivering in shock, whispering blood before falling slack. Dumbstruck, I could not take my eyes from his. I fell deaf, such a numb haze I was in. Just a dull, distant ringing and a distant murmur of shouting men and clashing steel.
‘The Droungarios has been slain!’ one sailor wailed, the cry cutting through my trance.
I heard the cry echoing over the other embattled cargo vessels. This could not be. He was our Droungarios – the heroic leader of the fleet. It mattered not what I was – coward, fisherman, drunkard – so long as we had men like Stylianos to rely upon. Now he was dead. Every crumb of confidence drained from me at that moment. When the Saracens cut down the last of our ship’s soldiers and turned their eyes on us simple sailors further along the deck, I realised that this was my time to die.
It was a curious feeling. The certainty of what was about to happen to me, the complete lack of hope – I think it helped. As the Saracens came rumbling along the ship from the prow towards us sailors, I stooped by the severed hand and prized the sword from it. I had used a sword before, but only in play. This long, straight blade – an imperial spathion – was heavier than it looked. I beheld the swarthy, hawk-faced and bearded Saracen coming for me, seeing the veiny whiteness of his eyes, red wetness at the back of his throat as he screamed their haunting, holy war cry. He ran at me with shield and scimitar – the blade already well-stained with blood.
I could recall nothing but Stylianos’ words the previous night: There is little difference between you and me. The first time I stood in battle, I felt like a foolish child.
It all felt so simple now. I would stand, I would fight. I would die. Better than the thousand deaths of the coward. Just before the Saracens swamped us, I raised the sword two handed, arms shaking.