There are many kinds of silence.
There is the crisp silence of a deep winter’s midnight, as the frost tightens its grip on stone and flesh alike.
There is the fetid silence of a graveyard, where decay plays with the inmates as though expecting a response.
There is the pounding silence of a penitent facing the judge, waiting between breaths to see which way Fate’s axe will swing.
And then there is the taut silence of the frontlines, where the very absence of sound merely makes those listening more convinced that somebody nearby is trying very hard not to make any.
Wincing both at the noise and at the prospect of any conversation that could follow from such an auspicious beginning, Ketil sighed.
“What is it now?”
“I’ve got a bloody stone in me bloody boot!”
“Well keep your voice down, or everyone from here to Snow Peak’s gonna want one.”
“Ha. Bloody. Ha.”
As if sentry duty not a mile from a Greenskin camp when it was ten below zero wasn’t bad enough, Ketil had to share a cramped trench with a world-class complainer like Harald.
“Well, maybe it’s a wild, crazy idea, but why don’t you take the stone out of yer boot?”
“It’s an iron boot. It’s twenty below. If I take it off, I’ll get frostbite before I can get it back on. I don’t want to lose me toes. I like me toes. I like having five of them on that foot. That’s my favourite right foot, that is.”
Briefly Ketil contemplated his chances of getting away with it, before reluctantly accepting that Harald being found the next morning with a hole in his head the exact same size and shape as Ketil’s axe was going to be a bit of a giveaway.
“Right. But one of the great things about frostbite, just like stones when they’re in yer boot, is that it’s quiet. Leave the stone in, take it out, lose yer toes, keep yer toes…just do it quietly.”
“Hmmphh. Fat lot of help you are.”
Sounds suggestive of very careful boot-removal followed from Harald’s side of the trench, while Ketil concentrated on trying to hear something – anything – from the direction of the Greenskin warcamp. For creatures that could manage to make such an unholy racket out of performing even the simplest task, they were being quiet as hell tonight, and Ketil didn’t like it one little bit.
The only time Greenskins were quiet was when they were really trying to be quiet, and that never led to anything good.
Ironically, it was Harald who’d heard the sound. Mostly covered by the snow, a fallen branch was still audible when snapping under the weight of several hundred pounds of Orc. All complaints forgotten, he’d nudged Ketil from his half-doze and pointed north-east in the direction from which the sound had come.
“Something moving over there,” he whispered, “trying to be silent, I reckon; they’ve not made a sound since.”
“Nah. A fox ain’t ‘eavy enough to snap a branch through snow.”
Peering through the bright moonlight, Ketil grasped the haft of his axe and shrugged his mail back into a comfortable position on his shoulders. The pair of them watched in uneasy silence for several minutes, until a very quiet metallic noise – the sort of sound that would be made, say, by someone trying to move stealthily while wearing plate-armour – from the north-east was accompanied by dimly-visible movement between the ragged trees a hundred yards or so from their trench.
“I think we’ve got trouble.”
“Signal gun ready?”
They’d come up with a rather ingenious method of calling for help without alerting enemies to their exact location; a forty-yard underwater fuse line led under the snow to a pistol carefully hidden among some rocks, from where its firing would lead attention away from their own position. Harald hunched over his cloak so the striking of his tinderbox wouldn’t throw any light out from the trench, and lit this end of the fuse. While he did so, Ketil caught sight of them clearly for the first time – at least twenty Orcs in full battle array, jagged cleavers glittering in the moonlight along their edges, advancing carefully along the treeline as it curved towards their position.
“Aye…should be about thirty seconds, I reckon.”
For all his moaning, Harald was deadly with hammer and shield; he’d been commended for his bravery during last year’s campaign around the Barak Varr hinterlands, and there were few who could best him in a duel. As annoying as he could be at times, right now Ketil found his presence reassuring.
“I’m always ready, lad.”
The Orcs were maybe halfway along the edge of the clearing now, the steam of their breath becoming visible as they drew nearer.
“I think you’re gonna need to b-”
With a report that seemed deafening in the icy clearing, the gun went off. Almost immediately the Greenskins abandoned any pretence at stealth and broke into a run, heading straight for the source of the sound, armour clanking as they pounded across the snow. Ketil always found it unnerving to see how fast something as bulky as a fully-armoured Orc could move when it wanted to. Now distant shouts could be heard from the direction of their own warcamp, as the rest of their brigade realised what the gunshot signified and readied themselves for combat. Ketil breathed a sigh of relief. Help should be here any second.
From his vantage point where he’d lain motionless for hours, Grubgnash could see the individual rings of the nearest stunty’s mail armour gleaming in the moonlight. He knew that in a straight fight he wouldn’t stand a chance against either of them, but if you knew how to arrange things you could even up the odds good and proper. Orcs didn’t have the patience for this kind of work, but Gobbos did; they knew how to bide their time. They knew how to scout out the land carefully and look for details their larger-but-dumber cousins would miss, such as flintlock pistols hidden in not-quite-natural-looking piles of rocks and not-quite-hidden tracks in the snow that led back to little dugout trenches.
Once you knew what to look for, it was easy.
Grubgnash threw the rock he’d been holding onto for just such a purpose over the heads of the stunties so it landed on the icy rock just in front of the lip of their trench with an audible crack, immediately drawing several of the nearest Orcs towards this new sound. As the further of the two Dwarfs climbed out of the trench, brandishing his axe at the Orcs and yelling some kind of war-cry, Grubgnash crept down from his hiding place, sidled up behind the second one and slid his dagger almost gently up under the base of the skull by the stunty’s right ear. He felt it go rigid with shock in his grip for a second as the poisoned blade entered its brain; then the stunty crumpled to the floor wordlessly, accompanied only by the sound of its mail clinking quietly beneath it. The roaring of the oncoming Bloody Sun Boyz drowned everything else out, anyway. Its blood was black in the moonlight, both where it ran out onto the snow and where it dripped from Grubgnash’s blade.
He turned his attention to the other stunty.
Still wondering where the bloody hell that rock had come from, Ketil realised that Harald wasn’t standing beside him ready for battle at the same moment as he felt wiry limbs wrap around him from behind. As he attempted to turn round to meet this new threat, he felt an icy touch at his neck and knew with sickening certainty that he was done for. The blade drew across the breadth of his throat, and he felt a hot gush begin to cover his chest as he crumpled to the ground.
He heard a sibilant voice by his ear as he lay on the icy rock.
“You don’t ‘ave to be silent, little stunty. You just ‘as to be quieter than anyone else.”
Staring up at the sky as he felt his lifeblood pour out of him, his vision began to dim.
There are many kinds of silence.
For some, the most profound is the imperious silence of the moon, as it gazes dispassionately down into a pair of eyes closing for the last time.