The men nearby stared at me as if I had just grown a second head. Was it what I had urged them all to run into battle with me, or the fact that the words had come from the mouth of I, Kalliades the coward?
Gerontus was first to react, hoisting a spear and lumbering to my side. ‘For Lascaris!’ he growled. Bardanes let loose a manic laugh, his big craggy face streaked with blood and smoke. ‘For Lascaris,’ he echoed Gerontus, coming to my other side. ‘I owed the weasel a skin of wine. I hope he looks down and takes this as settlement of that debt.’ He grunted in wry humour, but I saw something I had never seen in his eyes before. A sheen of wetness. Yes, poor Lascaris had never been my friend. But I realised then that these men, whom I had spent countless days with at sea on the fishing skiff, these men whom I had once tried to convince myself were nothing to me, were in fact all I had. It had always been easier to pretend we could barely stand each other than to admit the truth. No, we were not friends. We were brothers. Sons of this great blushing sea.
The rest of the sailors around me rumbled in oaths of their own as they came to join us. ‘For the emperor! For God!’
I twisted to behold the run of ship decks between us and the flagship. A corridor of chaos. One Saracen soldier had managed to climb into the saddle of a Byzantine warhorse and was driving along the foredeck at a pair of imperial footsoldiers, hacking wildly with a spiked mace. Fire arrows plunged into the rider’s neck and he fell, mouth wide in a silent scream. Axes and sling bullets sped into the two infantrymen a trice later, the axe cleaving one’s head, the sling bullets peppering the other’s face with small dark holes that quickly wept blood and brain matter. Skirmishes like this lined the way to the flagship.
‘Forward!’ I cried, still stunned at the sound of my own voice. Yes, I was shaking and numb just as I was before, but I was not for running, nor for hiding. We set forward at a sprint, swiping and cutting at the blades and bludgeons that came at us. I heard the defiant screams of our dozen or so lessen as those that were not fast enough or were taken by surprise were hacked down. I slashed out with my sword, ripping across the belly of a cat-like Saracen, slitting his felt armour and belly. I heard the horrible splash of his innards speeding out and onto the decks and the thud of his knees hitting timber as he tried to gather them back in. I parried a vicious two-handed axe, the clash of it against my blade deafening me. I vaulted a shuddering headless corpse, ducked a thrown spear. An arrow ripped across my shoulder, tearing my tunic and flesh. But I did not stop.
We reached the flagship, and a huge timber ramp that had been laid down to link this boat to that finest of galleys. It had been set down as a means of allowing defenders aboard, but it had failed – for the Saracens were all over the emperor’s ship, locked in combat with the ironclad Excubitors. We clattered up onto the high decks, moving in a tight circle, back-to-back, ready to face the enemy. But for a few moments it was like walking through the eye of a storm. The enemy did not rush at us, the smoke partly-disguising our arrival. Ash and flaming tatters of sail came raining down around us. Across the timbers lay smashed urns of fine Paphlagonian wine, scattered silk robes, dead Excubitors, slaves with their throats cut. There was a set of dazzling white armour… the emperor’s armour, lying in segments, broken. The purple cloak lay ripped nearby too. Blood-streaked. My heart pounded. I looked this way and that. How could it be – the chosen one of the Byzantine Empire, the appointee of God… slain?
I barely noticed the lowly imperial soldier scurrying across the decks until he almost ran into us and wailed, backing away, confused. It took me just a heartbeat to realise he was in fact no common soldier, but it felt like a year. Emperor Constans, dressed in the tatty tunic of a slinger, barefoot, hair tousled and face streaked with smoke.
I saw in his eyes something that I recognised, something all men know. Cold, sharp, terror.
He turned from us, shambling like a madman, and leapt overboard.
The thick splosh was like a slap in the face for us all. We had come here to fight for him, or at least to save him and honour the memory of poor Lascaris… and he had fled.
The stretch of the flagship’s rail over which he had leapt was soon swallowed up by a Saracen galley grinding alongside. Our small circle turned, slowly, seeing that the ship was surrounded like this. No way to escape like Constans had, though none of us were minded to anyway. The last handful of Excubitors backed together with us. The Saracens closed in from all sides, tumbling off their boats and stalking across the flagship decks. Steel and screaming enemies closing in like a wolf’s jaws.
Over their din, I heard Gerontus and Bardanes rumbling with laughter.
‘Strange moment for jokes?’ I hissed at them.
‘I just realised,’ Bardanes said, ‘It was actually Lascaris owed me a skin of wine!’
I heard myself laugh like them, hoarse, guttural, manic, just as the Saracen host broke into a charge towards us.
And then I raised my sword, and the laughter became a battle-scream.
Sometime later that terrible day – a day that came to be known as ‘The Battle of the Masts’ – Emperor Constans was rescued, plucked from the sea like a sorry trout by a semi-crippled dromon limping back to Constantinople. While he might have acted in mindless fear when he fled the battle, he surely understood all too well the long-term consequences. It had been a grievous blow to the prestige of our great empire. From that moment, the Saracen threat became all too real and greatly magnified. Constans’ claim to the purple even came under threat. Perhaps that is why he fled to Sicily – the lurking fear that his advisors might at any moment turn upon him, pin him to the ground and slice off his nose surely enough to drive anyone mad? But it took thirteen years before the seeds sown by Constans sprouted and cast their shadow over our home. The Saracen fleet – many times larger than what we faced that day – arrived at and besieged glorious Constantinople.
Midsummer, months into the siege, I took a walk down to the Theodosian Harbour in the stinking heat. Soldiers stood in serried ranks of leather, felt and iron, ready to board the diminished imperial fleet and strike out against the enemy investment. All was much as it had been back then, the day poor Lascaris had asked that fateful question: What is courage?
I gazed at the spot we had sat that day, the stools empty. I ran my fingers over the thick scar welts on my forearm, earned in the frantic fight for our lives. A fight we somehow won – even if the battle was lost. But the true victory had been the one over myself, over that beast, fear, and its paralysing bite. Courage cannot be found in the shadowy recesses of a tavern, or in the soft comfort of an idle life, I answered inwardly as if poor Lascaris could hear me. Nor can it be bought or acquired like a garment. It is a mantle that can only be woven in the silk of its nemesis, fear. Without fear, there can be no courage. I wish you had been there to see it Lascaris, old friend. I stared into the inky eyes of fear that day and I found my courage… out there on the blushing sea.
My mind fell silent for a time, and I felt a stinging behind my eyes.
‘Droungarios Kalliades!’ a voice barked. ‘The fire dromons are ready. We have doubled the oars as you recommended.’
I turned to the boukinator, my iron scale clinking as I did so. ‘Good. We will be swift through the harbour gates. We will strike a hole in their blockade, and then we will shield and escort the grain boats from Thessalonica back into the docks before the enemy reform their lines.’ I shouted across the serried ranks. ‘Work together this day, and tonight your families will eat well.’
‘Yes, sir!’ the officer saluted. He made to turn away, then swivelled back to me. ‘One other thing, sir. In the last raid upon the enemy blockade across the Golden Horn – we lost a number of oarsmen. We need replacements.’
‘I will see to it,’ I nodded, turning away from him to look across the harbour and the city’s sea defences. We had the walls, you see, and a small but skilled navy. And we had the liquid fire – that wretched but vital weapon. But most importantly we had courage. I saw Gerontus and Bardanes – like me, veterans of the Battle of the Masts and now officers – hectoring soldiers into line nearby. All we needed now was a handful more sailors to replace those recently lost. I put on my helmet – plumed as Stylianos’ had been – and scanned the Theodosian docks. I spotted a cluster of grubby grizzled fishermen, huddled together with their wine cups. All looked away, apart from one. I caught his gaze before he could look away too.
I cast him a grin. It was a grin of iron.
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