The silence following a battle always seemed out of place to Grunthar. Till recently, he had always been a solitary kind of person, especially while on the hunt—which is where the swift and stealthy primal archer had spent most of his adult life. Till Tremayne, most of his world had been silence; the silence of the hunt, the silence of the stalk and the kill, the silence afterwards as the world returned to its normal patterns and ways. Till Tremayne, Grunthar had never seen or heard the enormous noise and clamor a full-scale battle brought. He had never heard the screams of dozens dying at the same time, the roar of beasts bred for battle, the thunderous explosions of mighty magics. Till Tremayne, most of Grunthar’s life had been silence. Nowadays, though, Grunthar lived for those moments where the world was calm and ignored his presence, when shadow and silence wrapped him like a heavy concealing cloak.
This silence was different, though. It was the silence before a battle—the harsh, tense silence that whispered in his soul that he might never hear the sound of nothing ever again. The rush of anticipation flowed into him and he channeled it into his senses, feeling his awareness push into the area surrounding him. His sense of smell heightened to the level of a predatory animal, and he pulled the cold air into his nostrils. He balanced himself carefully against the branches of the trunk and looked down through the dark, dense needles to the scene below. Pine needles fallen to the ground silenced the slow, careful footsteps of the figures moving below him, and as he smiled, the small tusks in his lower jaw protruded.
Finally the stubborn, willful girl was learning. Finally she had absorbed the lesson that every animal predator knew as its basest instinct: stalk the pray slow and silent, then burst into action and lay your target low as quickly as possible. Caelynn passed slowly under the tree Grunthar was scouting from, oblivious to his presence. The thick hide armor he and Tayle had crafted for her creaked slightly, and she reached down to tighten the straps and keep it from making noise. Oh yes, the girl was learning—it had taken half of the winter to finally convince Caelynn to forego the protection of metal armor but once she did, her training in hunting, stalking and the ways of the wild proceeded well. She was a quick learner, and Grunthar was pleased with her progress. She had hidden her golden locks under a leather hood, and carried her rapier in one hand and a heavy handaxe in the other. Several identical handaxes hung by loops from her belt, and Grunthar knew she was as accurate with those as she had once been with the dainty daggers he had once scoffed at. A noise ahead of Caelynn made her freeze, and she held her hand out beside her palm down, gesturing toward the earth.
Grunthar scanned the terrain around her but his vantage was poor; he adjusted on the branch ever so slowly and re-focused his energies, whispering a quick prayer to the primal spirits of the hunt. His vision tightened down, and he saw the three figures moving in silence behind Caelynn. Like the girl, their training had taken most of the winter—these men had once been the surviving the bandits of the Thorn River camp. Now, they served Kennet’s Hold as scouts and rangers. It had taken them a long time to learn how to work together and for Grunthar to mold them into a cohesive fighting pack, but in the end it had worked. By placing Caelynn in their training group, all of the bandits had realized from the start that Trifus and Draxxus were true to their word. The Marshal and the General had agreed to take the ruffians in, but it had fallen to Grunthar to train them in scouting and teamwork. Now his students moved like a wolf pack on the hunt—silent, swift and communicating without conscious thought. Caelynn came to a crouch, her weapons at the ready. The three former bandits formed up behind her, waiting for orders.
Silence like the grave covered their corner of forest like a heavy blanket of snow. Nothing moved—not a birdcall sounded, nor the sounds of small forest mammals going about their business. The copious hairs on the back of Grunthar’s neck began to tingle. Something was wrong. He reached down into the magical quiver at his side and the nock of an arrow materialized in his hand. That quiver would never run empty, and Grunthar prized it as his most treasured possession. The mystical arrow fit perfectly to the greatbow held in Grunthar’s other hand—nearly seven feet from tip to tip, it could punch steel tipped arrows through platemail. The endless quiver only produced regular arrows, however, so Grunthar has a second quiver of “specialty” arrows strapped to his back, too. Never knew when they’d come in handy. His fingers traced the silver runes along the arc of the bow, lightning-shaped patterns contrasted by the dark, oiled wood. He shifted his awareness around, seeking the source of danger. Below him, Grunthar noted that Caelynn, too, was searching the forest for danger. She sensed the wrongness of it as well.
The unnatural silence of the wood was shattered as several dark forms erupted from the half-melted snowdrifts encircling the patrol. The dark forms moved fast, but awkwardly—humanoid-shaped, Grunthar’s preternatural senses noted instantly—and they lurched towards the patrol below him with alarming speed. It was too cold out for a natural creature to be able to move that fast after being buried under inches of snow. There would be some residual stiffness and sluggishness, but these creatures launched themselves forward with no difficulty whatsoever. Caelynn came to the same conclusion as Grunthar an instant after he did.
Her voice cried out to the former-bandits behind her, “Undead! Hit them hard—edges won’t hurt them as much! On me!” and rushed toward the oncoming shamblers. Before the words had left her mouth completely she had hurled an axe from her off-hand, striking the lead shambler in the chest and sticking there. She followed it with several cuts from her rapier and then danced away from the undead horror as it groaned in infernal hunger and attempted to slam her with its deadly fists.
Three of Grunthar’s arrows flickered through the air before Caelynn had even begun her sprint. He drew and fired repeatedly, arrows smacking into a shambler with wet thunking sounds, the arrows piercing it entirely; one arrow went completely through and Grunthar saw it sticking out the other side. Still, the undead appeared to not notice his onslaught, moving towards Caelynn and her patrol as if Grunthar had not just poured enough ammunition into it to stop an onrushing ogre. Grunthar decided to switch tactics—and ammunition. He swung down deftly from the tree, catching branches on the way to slow himself, and landed with a silent whumph at the foot of the tree, launching more arrows at the same target, strafing sideways a step or two with each shot. He drew an arrow from the quiver on his back and then froze, murmuring a prayer to the spirits of the plants that lay so dormant in the winter months. As the arrow hurtled across the distance, Grunthar completed the prayer and watched the arrow streak with a green-yellow radiance as it slammed into the shambler. This time, the arrow had far more effect, and Grunthar’s tusks poked up outside his upper lip as he smiled grimly. The greenish, vibrant radiance had called the thorny vines of this region to sudden life, and the shambler had not been damaged by the cold iron-tipped arrow, but the thick rose vines that had sprung up around the zombie’s feet hampered and delayed it.
“I was wondering where you were at, old man!” Caelynn called out from across the battlefield as she and another of her rangers closed in on a shambler. Grunthar glanced over his shoulder and saw her and the former bandits moving in predatory unison, isolating one target and focusing on it before moving on to another. Already he saw that the four of them had combined to bring down the first undead that Caelynn had attacked—lighter armored attackers either learned to focus fire quickly or they died. It was the way of the wild, and it applied equally to the world of steel and iron as well. Caelynn engaged the shambler and then backed away deliberately, allowing the others in her patrol to shift around behind it for an easier attack.
“Focus!” Grunthar bellowed as he turned back to his own problems. His enhanced senses were nearly overwhelmed by the stench of the rotting bodies and the thick, sludgy black fluid that seemed to leak from them continually as their bodies decayed. The zombie in front of him lurched forward faster than Grunthar thought possible and slammed its fist into him, staggering him backward and causing his breath to escape him in a whoosh. Grunthar reeled, slipped sideways as his head cleared, and reached back for another arrow—silver-tipped broadheads glittered in the early morning light as the arrow streaked toward the zombie. This time, though, Grunthar didn’t aim for the torso. He wasn’t going to risk that thing getting ahold of him again, so he put a bit less force on the draw of his mighty bow and the arrow flew unerringly into the zombie’s thigh, piercing it nearly perfectly and wedging the broadhead in the bone of the dead man. It howled in undead rage and swatted at the shaft embedded in its leg as if in real pain. That was certainly interesting—as was the smoke and sizzling sound that came from the thing’s thigh where the arrow punctured it. Silver—they’re vulnerable to silver. The zombie stayed stationary as the vines round its ankles and Grunthar’s arrow combined to immobilize the beast.
Caelynn yanked her axe free from the skull of the zombie she had slain, its limp, heavy weight keeping her pinned as her rangers fought desperately for survival. Things had gone from bad to worse in a hurry—the first wave of shamblers had been a distraction as the second wave moved in. There had to be a dozen now; they closed in with staggering, clumsy movements, hungry for warm flesh. She placed her foot on the chest of the fallen zombie and hauled with both hands, finally freeing the axe. She immediately pivoted, hurling it into the skull of another, rushing towards the gap its fallen corpse left in the closing circle of undead. There were too many. The trap had closed around them and they were outnumbered. How the undead got here, and how they had known where her patrol would be, Caelynn had no idea. Her concern now was to get her rangers and herself out of the mess they had stumbled into. She called her team to follow her and they plunged towards the hole Caelynn had punched in the closing wall of undead flesh.
“Grunthar! Time to go! Follow us!” she cried as she hurtled past the primal hunter, searching for a clear path out of the trap.
“Go, girl! Grunthar cover you!” he answered back in a harsh, guttural yell. Inwardly, he cringed—he hated sounding like a simpleton, but damn if the human languages weren’t ridiculously over-complex. Had they been speaking Dwarven, Grunthar would never have had problems communicating like he did when speaking the human tongues. Bah. Caelynn knows what I mean. He sidestepped towards the gap she had made and loosed two more silver-tipped arrows, hitting one of the shamblers in the head, killing it instantly. The second arrow sunk deep into another zombie’s collarbone, spinning it around and knocking it to the ground. Again, Grunthar shifted a step or two towards the gap and fired. Again, the arrows streaked towards their targets, and two more zombies fell. Grunthar was about to turn and make a break for it— to follow Caelynn and the rangers in a hasty retreat. But then everything changed.
Grunthar had a sickening moment of realization as the second arrow pierced the milky-white eye of a massive, hulking shambler. The bile in his throat rose as he recognized the zombie… or rather, the man the zombie had been formerly. His mind flashed back to the fight against the Thorn River bandits and their axe-wielding leader Kressle. The hulking zombie he faced now had been struck down by Trifus’ axe in the opening moments of the fight, and still bore the massive gaping wound that had killed him. Someone had gone to that battlefield and re-animated the Thorn River bandits to plague the Greenbelt once more. Rage exploded within Grunthar and he stopped in his tracks, pivoting on one foot and reversing his strategic retreat entirely. He squared his shoulders to the oncoming zombie throng and shifted his awareness.
Caelynn and her rangers had made the right choice, and were even now headed to safety and to gather reinforcements. They would return here and they might eliminate the zombies. Or they might find another trap laid by whoever decided to raise those Thorn River bastards in the first place. Grunthar wasn’t going to let that happen. He drew on the magic of the primal spirits and breathed out forcefully. Immediately a thick, heavy mist erupted from the ground to envelop the battlefield. The shamblers suddenly stopped as the magical mist confused their senses. They could sense him, but couldn’t pinpoint his location. That was all the advantage Grunthar needed.
Immediately he sprang into action, bowstring twanging as his senses focused on each target like a lone wolf in search of prey. His silver arrows dwindled rapidly, but each found its target among the zombies who staggered drunkenly in the stalker’s mist that hung in the air. The fog deposited a layer of wet, moist dew on the undead as they moaned and staggered about wildly. On one occasion, Grunthar got too close to one of the zombies as he strafed sideways to kill one of its comrades, and he found out that the mist wasn’t effective up close. After that, he skirted the edges of the mist, pouring arrows into the zombies. Eventually, his silver arrows ran out and the Grunthar released the mist.
As the curtain of white fog settled, so did the silence. Zombie bodies lay in the half-melted snow, the arrows that had slain them sticking up at odd angles from eyes and skulls and heads of the disgusting creatures. Grunthar crouched down in the snow and just listened. The heavy blanket of silence seemed to roar in his ears after the loud, reverberating chaos of the battle. Eventually, the birds began chirping again from the pine trees nearby and he saw a large raven flutter down to the ground to pick at one of the corpses. Only then did Grunthar stand up and stalk silently back into the forest. His path took him directly back toward Kennet’s Hold; Lord Barthram, Trifus and Draxxus needed to be told immediately of this new threat.
Grunthar paused at the edge of the wood and turned back for a moment, his face as contemplative as it had ever been. As much as he enjoyed the chance to lead the rangers outside the walls of Kennet’s Hold, Grunthar was an essentially solitary creature. He did not enjoy nor did he particularly excel at the leading of people—especially those not of his race. He had taught Caelynn a great deal, but she had just proven that she was capable of leadership on her own now. Grunthar nodded as he turned back to the Hold and continued his journey, and smiled to himself.
Lord Barthram had spoken to him at length about fulfilling a different purpose once Caelynn was fully trained. The nation needed a spymaster—someone who could manage the intelligence gathered by those whose deeds and functions might not be as public as the General or the Marshal. Someone who would be comfortable and content standing in the shadows, protecting the nation even though many might not even know of his existence. Someone who could live in the silence and stalk the enemies of his homeland. And also someone who would be feared at least a little to deter and avoid betrayal by those same agents. He fit all those criteria perfectly. Grunthar’s grin turned into a full smile, and his tusks puckered his top lip. Caelynn was ready to step into her role as chief of scouts; Grunthar was ready to slip back into the blessedly silent shadows.