"The Hunt Begins"

The young Knight watched the whirling pattern of white dots ebb and flow around him with a heavy expression marring his boyishly fair face. He scrutinized the snow-like flurries around him for a few minutes, and then shook his head and walked along the winding dirt path to where his cousin stood in similar study.

"Gerran," he called, his voice lowered even more than was his usual wont by the unnerving currents in this forest. "I see no difference in the snowflies from South to West. How fare you over here?"

The other Knight turned to him, slightly stiff in his new armor. Gerran had removed his helm entirely, revealing the same light brown hair that graced his cousin's head, now standing all astray on his sweat-damped scalp. With a quick, easy grin and a shake of his head, he replied, "If only we each had a brother, we might all four of us 'follow the snowflies' as the Commander instructed."

"I need no other torment in my life than you," Einan retorted, the oppressive atmosphere of the forest lightening somewhat in his mind in the face of his fellow Knight's irrepressible lightheartedness.

Cousins they had been born, but as brothers they had lived, with the two families joined doubly by marriage of two cousins to a pair of twin sisters. The Faendoses and Lamkins - and later their sons - lived close together in a humble part of Valnain, visiting so often that the six people were like one family. The two boys had caught the same colds, played in the same mud, and received beatings with the exact same leather strap that their fathers traded back and forth between them for the express purpose of keeping their sons on the path of God and His righteous ways.

Certainly it could not be denied that it was Gerran who had most often led the pair astray in their younger years, but neither could it be denied that the elder cousin also took the lion's share of the blame quite manfully when cornered. And lately, he had led Einan into grand adventure quite as often as he'd gotten him into trouble. Despite sundry naps during His services God had surely not turned His face away from them, for here they were, Knighted and together in the service of Commander Grissom of the Crimson Blades.

And yet Gerran wondered ruefully if he ought perhaps to have prayed and served with more reverence, for his first true outing with the revered Commander had ended up leading him and his cousin into an acursed forest tied to the dead city of Lea Mondé. Determinedly stamping down any qualms he might have for the sake of his cousin, who was more the bookish one and apt to sink deep into melancholy thoughts, he grinned anew and said, "Well, so much for our Commander Grissom's knowledge on snowfly habits and husbandry. Let's continue on as before, then, and strike out northward."

Einan nodded and fell into step with him as before, but said in a subdued manner, "It's not that Commander Grissom erred..."

"Spare me the lecture, Cousin," Gerran interrupted, pausing for a moment to climb over a fallen tree trunk. "I revere our Commander as well as any Knight. I only meant to make light of our failure, not place any blame on the good Father."

"No, it's not that," came the protest, accompanied by a negligent wave of one gauntleted hand. "Can't you feel it?"

"Feel what?" Gerran turned his head to peer curiously at his companion.

Worried eyes looked out from silvery helm beside him. "The snowflies behave as the Commander said. They forgather where the Dark runs deepest."

"Einan," Gerran said with an exaggeratedly patient tone, "The snowflies are forgathering everywhere," and he waved randomly at the delicate insects that swirled around them as they walked.

The younger of the two nodded slowly, and Gerran suddenly understood what Einan had been trying to say. "We do not track evil through this forest, Gerran, we are walking through it as we speak."

They continued on in silence for a while. Gerran led the way, heading north whenever the winding trails allowed, figuring that if they came upon a dead end, they would simply backtrack south and begin branching off. Now and again he would glance at the moss growing on nearby trees in order to orient himself, and if he found more often than not that he had somehow gotten turned to the side or even completely around, he did not mention it aloud. Einan followed in his footsteps, watching his cousin's back as the older Knight's attention was mostly engaged in finding the easiest path for their feet.

Aside from the never-waning storm of snowflies, harmless except for their portent of evil, only a few lizards and fey, fluttering creatures bothered them. And with the two braves' ready swords, they did not bother the men for long.

* * * * *

After two hours' trek into the depths of the forest and immediately after the demise of another pair of agressive reptiles, Gerran called a brief halt. His helmet was tugged off again, and the unruly brown locks were ruffled through with only two yelps of pain as his chainmail gloves caught at odd strands here and there. As he tipped his head back to drink from his water flask, he looked over to where the other Knight stood quietly at attention, his helm tucked under his shield arm for the moment, keeping his eyes, ears, nose, and sixth sense alert for any hint of danger.

Without a hint of mockery, Gerran asked quietly, "Are you still worrying, Ein?"

A small smile touched the too-serious face. "Always, Geir." But after another brief look around, Einan walked over and sat down next to his cousin on the fallen tree that served as an impromptu bench. The thin line between his brows signalled Gerran to quiet through long association, and he waited for his best friend to unburden himself of his thoughts. It was a habit of theirs that had formed through the years for Einan to come to his older cousin and pour out his mind before the contents could begin to weigh down his sword arm or crush his spirit.

And through the years, Einan had become more and more easy with the idea of opening up and letting Gerran see all of the doubts and fears that haunted him, so unbecoming to a youth and a Knight, but perfectly acceptable and even normal in his friend's eyes. So it was only a matter of a brief moment and a sigh before Einan confessed, "I worry for our Commander."

This was met with thoughtful silence and an encouraging nod, and the young man continued. "He sends us out to scout like hunting hounds to track this Riskbreaker, and it is all in keeping with our duty and Sir Guildenstern's orders...but his desire for vengeance troubles me."

"'Twas his beloved brother, Einan," Gerran reminded him rather needlessly. "Were you to be cut down by some Parliament watchdog I would cry out for blood with a voice just as loud as his."

Einan nodded. "Yes, I expect you would rush off to do battle, breathing fire like a wyrm. As you would likely expect me to cry a river of tears over your body before silently stealing away to my own vengeance had the roles been reversed." The cousins traded a humorless smile at this unsavory image of the other's death and the grief and probable reaction of the one left behind.

"And I expected no less than that Father Grissom would want vengeance," Einan continued.

"But..." Gerran prompted.

The troubled young Knight pressed his lips together for a moment, trying to order his thoughts as neatly as soldiers on the parade grounds. "But his eyes trouble me. I cannot explain it better than that. There is some...wild fever in him that..." Einan paused and then tried once more. "It's like a foul odor or poisonous taste, but of the mind. It...it's like this forest."

His cousin ran his mind over this and then asked quietly, "Are you saying that Father Grissom is touched by the Dark, then?"

Einan shot up from his seat and shook his head violently. "No...no! I would never..." He sighed. "...but I think perhaps this place...the evil is so thick in the air. It chokes me Gerran, and I am amazed that you don't sense it."

Troubled by his cousin's words and the inner turmoil that they represented, Gerran racked his brain for something to say that might ease Einan's mind away from the Darkness that he felt. The problem was that Einan had always been the more sensitive and able of the two when it had come to the Dark Arts and the evil currents that fed it. If the young man could state so surely that the very air they breathed was steeped in evil, then Gerran would be the last to deny it.

Einan glanced upwards and about him, casting his eyes on the vague and useless sunlight that filtered in through the clouds of glittering white insects, at the bent and mossy trees that crowded like archways in a cathedral over their heads and like beggars and derelicts in the streets by their legs. "Geir?" he asked quietly and calmly. "Should I indeed fall here..." Gerran immediately began to dismiss the very notion, but Einan insisted, "Should I fall, promise me that before you think of revenge, you'll secure my body from this place."

"What do you mean?" came the half-wary question.

There was a pause, and then Einan replied, "'Twould be hard enough for you to walk out of this place alive even without the burden of my body. Find a good, defensible spot and then use those spells I helped you master to burn my remains until there is naught but ash." And to his cousin's frown and the growing unease in his eyes, Einan said, "The dead walk in Lea Monde...you know that even if you have been taught differently. I don't want that."

This last was in a whisper, and Gerran's face resolved into a mask of determination at the somber sound. "I'll keep you safe," he declared firmly. "Don't I always?"

Einan smiled a bit at that, but in such a way that Gerran wasn't certain if his cousin had taken his words to mean that Gerran would keep him safe and alive, or keep him safe from un-death. Before the Knight could decide whether or not to qualify his vow, Einan then admitted, "And as for Father Grissom...I think perhaps his anguish and rage make him easy prey for the Dark's influence. He is driven by vengeance, like a stag before hounds, and it worries me to see him so."

He sighed once more, and then straightened up, as if the speaking of the words and that brief exhalation had been enough to lift a burden from his shoulders. Gerran noted this with some relief, although part of him was now worrying over the possibility of the Commander's loss of control or sensibility. And another habit of theirs was that Gerran would take worries from Einan's hands and gnaw on them himself, and never let the other know that he hadn't simply thrown them away.

"Well," he said briskly, "the rightness of Commander Grissom's vengeance - whatever form it takes - will forever be naught but worries and wonders in your head if we don't find this fiend." Standing up, he ordered his cousin's headgear on, breastplate straightened, and sword drawn as he struggled to fit his own helm comfortably. Einan obeyed all the muffled orders and then stepped close to lend a helpful fist in banging Gerran's helm the rest of the way down onto his head.

With a wince, Gerran said in a slightly pained voice, "Thank you very much, Sir Knight. Now, you may lead the way for a while, as I am seeing too many stars to properly navigate our path."

The younger Knight laughed and aimiably began weaving through the forest once more, leading only with regard to relative position, for Gerran still insisted on navigating, although by voice instead of example. This continued for all of three minutes, and then Gerran overtook his cousin and began leading the way once more. They traveled as before, but this time Gerran was pleased to note that the heavy look was gone from Einan's face, and he even responded to the light banter that Gerran kept going.

They had once again chosen to continue north at a crossroads when Einan suddenly stopped, taking small steps in order to turn in a tight circle as he tilted his head this way and that. "Do you hear that?" he asked in a harsh whisper.

Gerran turned back from the archway of trees before him and opened his mouth to chide Einan for his nervous fancies, but then stopped as he heard a strange rushing noise, like a gust of wind in a cavern. The ground shook slightly under his feet, and he asked quietly, "Earthquake?"

Einan didn't look back at him, only shrugging to indicate that he wasn't sure. Gerran heard the rush of air once more but wasn't able to pinpoint where the strange noise was coming from. "What is that?" he asked in confusion, automatically reaching for his sword as a warning prickle ran up his spine. "It sounds like..."

Another tremble jolted the ground, and he tensed up in surprise as Einan suddenly whirled around to face him once more, his face pale behind his helm. His cousin's eyes widened and Gerran heard him scream just as the windy noise exploded into a deafening roar.

"GERRAN!"