I felt their shoulders press against mine. Now we were one, backstepping yes, but in measured strides, slowing the Saracen drive across the decks, keeping them at bay with our poles and oars. Any who managed to get too close, me or the few others who had proper weapons would tackle. We were mid-deck, near the timber stable hut with the horses. I glanced backwards again – our dromones were nearly here. But I saw those galleys for only a heartbeat, before a third enemy ship slid across to obscure them. It glided gracefully up against the rear of our boat. A fresh swarm of Saracen troops flooded onto our stern and charged for the rear of our desperate phalanx. My men’s momentary poise evaporated, our line crumbled. I swung round on my heel, head switching to the twin jaws of the enemy. I do not remember my logic, but I remember the action – I swung my sword across the rope on the door of the timber stable hut. The door listed open. The horses inside, already panicked at the sights, sounds and smells of battle, came bolting out. They flooded past us, some charging towards the prow, some to the stern, trampling and scattering both groups of Saracens. Some of the warhorses were cut down – and that is something I truly regret, for they had no quarrel with man. One stallion leapt from our boat onto the one of the enemy ships, others leapt overboard, plunging into the choppy sea. I had won us a few moments of respite. But the Saracens were soon on their feet and reforming to come at us again in twin fronts. They did so with a chilling war cry. ‘Allahu Akhbar!’
‘Nobiscum Deus!’ I roared in reply, as hundreds of them rushed our small contingent.
I barely heard the throaty screams from nearby: ‘Get off the ship! Get off the ship!’
I swung to the sound, saw the dromon that had slid into view near the ship’s edge. An iron-masked, plume-helmed duo stood on its decks, manning a great copper spout, one of them continuing to shout at us. I saw a puff of brilliant orange, smelt an acrid stink… and realised what was about to happen. This was no ordinary galley. This fire dromon, drawing alongside ours, meant only one thing.
‘Jump!’ I roared, seeing how close the fire dromon was. ‘Jump!’
My small band needed no encouragement. They scrambled to the ship’s edge and leapt the few strides between our cargo ship and the fire ship. Last to depart, with Gerontus and Bardanes, I slashed my sword round in an arc to fend off the Saracens snapping at my heels then planted a foot on the cargo ship’s rail and leapt. The instant my boot left the timbers of that sad old craft, the copper spout pointing at it roared like a dragon, and a tongue of raging fire shot across from the dromon, licking hungrily across the cargo decks, engulfing one half of the Saracens. As I flailed, mid-air, I saw the crew of two masked ones turning the fire-throwing spout on its axle, the tongue sweeping over the rest of the enemy.