The Vidofnings had fought like madmen before their Singers were unleashed. Now, with both Reki and Runa driving them on, Runa was almost inclined to feel sorry for the creatures attached to the Grendel.
Almost, that is, until she considered the cult they were attached to. What they did to Singers – and very likely other Artists. What they had done to themselves.
That last was on full display now that the battle chant was in force. The creatures might have the rough shape of men, but that was where the resemblance ended. Needle-toothed mouths could be anywhere, from the end of tentacle-like hands to the center of a warrior’s chest to, seemingly, the entirety of the head. Likewise eyes were mismatched and misplaced: some you might have sworn were blind were it not for the uncanny accuracy with which they fought back against the Vidofnings.
Runa could not help but worry as Einarr, his strength not only restored but enhanced by the currents of song in play, pressed forward into the fray, deep into the heart of the Grendel. Smoke was thick, there, and here and there a tattered remnant of sail fluttered, still smoldering, to the deck. Already they had crippled the ship, but the Grendelings had done as much to the Vidofnir in the fall.
Another beast fell to the deck under the force of Einarr’s blade, writhing. Behind the creature she saw what looked like a wide berth around the mast. The smoke there was thicker, as though more than just the sail had been set alight. Not that the Vidofnings would have time to loot the Grendel under the circumstances anyway, not with the Skudbrun under such heavy fire.
Already Runa wished for water, although the smoke was little more than a tang on the air from the deck of the Vidofnir.
Einarr did not venture into the break in the line, at least, although she could not tell what he was doing. The battle-fury left him enough sense to avoid a potential inferno, at least. Neither, though, were the Grendeling beasts willing to venture nearer the mast – and that looked like more than animal cunning. Not one of them so much as stepped toward the mast from where they stood, save only when pressed hard by a Vidofning.
While she watched the creatures flowed around the outside of the perimeter to fill in the gaps as they were opened. It was a strange way of moving, as though there were something within that perimeter that frightened them more than being overrun.
Runa’s eyes were glued to Einarr’s strong back as he readied himself for his next opponent. All around him the battle raged. What does he see? She took another deep breath and nearly choked.
One of the beasts vaulted over its neighbor to his left, landing on the deck with a heavy thud of taloned feet. It snarled in Einarr’s face, but this must have been the moment he was waiting for.
Einarr lunged forward, driving his shield into the creature’s belly as he swung low with Sinmora, towards its thighs. The creature took a half-stride backwards and then it hesitated. Sinmora bit deep into the beast’s leg and it spurted black blood.
Einarr leaned back now, bringing his back leg up for a kick to the creature’s more-or-less normal chest before swinging again at its front leg. Any normal warrior would have tried to dodge, but the only way it could have gone was back.
Sinmora bit deep, nearly severing the leg at the knee. Again it took the blow, rather than risk moving an inch closer to the mast. On the backswing he took off the creature’s foot, but then his voice rang out, clean and pure over the din of battle. “Fire and pitch!”
The Grendelings pressed forward harder then: they had not abandoned their wits along with their humanity, it appeared. That would not help them. Already Runa could see the back ranks of archers lining up with flaming arrows. As one on Bollin’s call they launched. The volley of flaming arrows struck the deck around the mast as the Vidofnings began to press forward from the railings. By sword or by flame, the Grendel would fall.
“Fyrir Astrid!” Einarr’s voice sounded again as he fought his way around the perimeter. The deck wood began to smolder, and then finally catch. The cry echoed around amongst the other Vidofnings: for all but the newest members of the crew, this was personal.
Runa started at a crack of wood from amidships. The deck was already beginning to give way. Slowly the flow of battle began to turn, and Reki’s song shifted with it. It was all Runa could do to keep up. This would never do: if she were to be a proper wife for Einarr, she would have to do better than this.
Einarr allowed the withdrawal to happen around him, waiting to join the rearguard. He had been forced out of the vanguard, and so his honor insisted he stay for this. His honor, and the remaining nugget of suspicion at what they might have been avoiding around the mast.
A keening wail seemed to rise up from under the smoldering deck boards, an eerie sound that stood the hairs on the back of Einarr’s neck on end and propelled the withdrawing forces back towards their own ship at speed. All trace of red faded from Einarr’s vision at the sound, although none of Runa’s gift of alertness.
Einarr froze where his leap backward had left him, watching. What was that?
Then a different smell reached his nose: still smokey, but with none of the sweetness of pitch or the perfume of wood. This was acrid and sharp.
“Fall back!” Jorir’s voice sounded from near the boarding lines with an urgency that was near panic. “Back! Move!”
That was not a tone Einarr was accustomed to hearing from his normally staid liege-man. He ran, and counted it no shame. Neither did any of his fellows, racing for the boarding lines or leaping across the gap between their ships.
Einarr was the last. No sooner had his feet touched the Vidofnir’s deck than the line was cut and men were jumping to the oars without bothering to shed their maille.
The crack of wood this time was louder, and thick black tentacles rose up around the Grendel‘s mast. He swallowed: that didn’t look like smoke.