The hawk-faced foe’s scimitar slashed round for my neck. I swung my sword madly upwards, felt a mule’s kick shooting through my shoulder, heard a metallic clang, felt a breath of wind as his blade passed within a finger’s-width of my throat. In a blur I found myself bringing the sword down again, felt it whumping into his shoulder, biting through layers of leather armour, skin, bone. There was a moment where he and I were locked like that, staring at one another, eyes wide in a shared trauma. And then the blood leapt from his cleaved shoulder like a whale’s spout. It rained on us both. I staggered backwards, the sword – still gripped in my white knuckles – sliding free. I gasped for air, shocked at how terrible – and how quick and simple – it had been to take a man’s life.
I had but a trice to think on the matter, for by my side, I saw old Gerontus being driven down onto one knee, his oar held up in two hands like a barrier, a Saracen giant whacking at it with an axe. With a crunch of splinters, Gerontus’ oar shredded and the axe came whooshing down for his head. This time, I did not think about what I should do, nor ruminate on the consequences. I felt my sword arm move again, heard the crack of the Saracen’s ribs, saw him judder and spasm, then slide away.
Numbly, I helped Gerontus to his feet, heard him yell some words of thanks.
‘Take up a sword,’ I screamed at him, casting my own blade up to bat away an enemy spear coming for us both. He snatched a lance from the hands of a dead enemy and we staggered backwards, them driving us towards the stern, the pair of us fending them off as best we could, slipping on the blood runnels staining the decks as we went. ‘Bardanes!’ I cried over to the big man, seeing that he had prized a shield from one foe. ‘Over here, shield us.’
He barged across to stand with us and his shield held good against a rain of enemy assaults. How long could we possibly survive? I glanced over my shoulder to see the dromones now finally coming to the fore, bristling with ironclad Byzantine troops – not far away. If we were to have a chance, we had to hold out. I realised the other sailors on our ship were in small pockets or alone, many being sliced down easily, the rest on the cusp of being overwhelmed. Only nineteen or so left. ‘Draw together!’ I cried, ‘Together and we have a chance!’
I barely recognised my own voice, but it worked – in a fashion. The sailors – swishing and swiping with their oars and poles – stumbled and backstepped towards me, Gerontus and Bardanes. We formed a phalanx of sorts. A Saracen mace swung round and into the cheek of one crewmate near me, crushing his face, sending gobbets of brain, eye-matter and blood from his opposite eye socket. Then another enemy speared the man next to Gerontus in the flank. Our line was too loose, I realised – having had the luxury to observe a proper phalanx from afar in my cowardly retreat back at the skirmish. Stylianos had organised the men so they were like a wall – no exposed flanks. ‘Press together, shoulder to shoulder!’ I growled, blood dripping from my chin.
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