By the time I had thudded down onto the fire dromon’s decks, the screaming of the Saracens had replaced the roar of the fire spouts. A terrible stench of burning meat and hair swept across us, and I turned to see the old cargo vessel ablaze from hull to mast, the sail disintegrating in the inferno. The enemy still aboard flailed like living torches, blinded by the flames, pitching and leaping crazily into the sea.
Horrified, I staggered around the fire ship decks, black smoke scudding across my path. What was this nightmare? Because all around the fire galley, I saw similar horrors across the hundreds of battle-locked ships: arrows speeding in thick clouds one way and the other; spears hammering into men; catapults and ballistae bucking and whining, sending huge rocks and lethal bolts through timbers and flesh; another enemy craft ablaze amidst spouts of Greek Fire; the soldiers on one Saracen ship, screaming, taunting, holding up spears with Byzantine affixed on the tips.
One craft nearby, breached at the mid-section of the hull, roared and buckled, sinking fast. Imperial soldiers, enemy warriors and sumpter mules alike slid and toppled into the water, kicking and thrashing madly in the vain hope of staying afloat. I can never forget the sight of those men in heavy iron armour, their faces staring up at me, eyes wide, mouths agape, before they were pulled down into that cold void forever. In every direction, the sea was bobbing with thrashing men, bodies and parts of bodies, sumpter animals, fighting in vain to stay afloat. And the water… all around this mad hulk of interlocked warships… the water was no longer blue. It was stained with crimson blood. All around this chaos of timber and steel, the sea blushed.
I had no eye for strategy, for I was a mere fisherman. But even I could see that the Saracen surprise had worked. They had the upper hand. A cry came across the fray then, from an imperial ship somewhere near the centre.
‘Pull back to the flagship. Defend the emperor!’
No sooner had the cry been uttered than a Saracen galley crunched into our fire ship, sending us stumbling madly. They stormed the fire spout first, slaughtering the iron-masked duo there. I turned, expecting to see the rest of the fire ship crew organising some sort of defensive line which me might join, only to see them toss down their spears and run. They leapt as we had done from this ship to another dromon. Or at least they tried to. Most missed and plunging into the waves. The prospect was terrible, but the outlook should we stay aboard was even worse – for the boarding Saracens were now speeding down the deck towards us.
‘Jump,’ I roared to the small band of sailors with me.
I bounded with them, towards the boat’s edge, then leapt for that nearest imperial dromon. The gap had shrunk a little in the past few heartbeats, but it still seemed was huge. I did not care. We leapt for our lives. I slammed against the far ship’s rail, clambering over, losing a whole fingernail and staving a thumb in the process. We lost to the waves four two men who did not jump far enough, but Bardanes and I rescued a fifth who was hanging by the fingers of one hand.
I looked in every direction, my chest heaving with crazy breaths, the sword like an anchor in my numb right hand. This ship too was beset with Byzantine soldiers locked in combat with Saracens. To join this fight, or do as commanded – to pull back to the flagship. I saw through the pall of stinking smoke and fire and thrashing fighters, the golden galley of Emperor Constans. I saw the emperor himself, in his purple cloak and golden helm, arrayed there with his Excubitors. Ready to stand to the last against the Saracens closing in on him. I saw what I had to do all too clearly now. Four imperial ships and three enemy ones were criss-crossed, jammed together between here and there. A bridge. A path. A choice. ‘The emperor needs our help,’ I bellowed to my small band. ‘Who’s with me?’