Lukas had not bothered to formulate any expectations of their target. Other matters, like their continued survival, were on his mind. As they rode to the Dark Forest with a half dozen of the Queen's men, his thoughts revolved more around whether his brother was about to pass out while riding and whether he'd have any help from him if he tried to kill Finn and his men at this moment. He was glad to see that their meeting with the Queen had seemed to sober him a little, but disheartened when it appeared that Erik was determined to actually go through with this mad adventure. He only swayed a little on his steed. They'd formed no plan, hardly speaking ten words between them the entire journey to the forest.

He wasn't sure what exactly his brother was thinking but suspected it had to do with booze. And Sarah... Lukas was almost certain that the Queen was lying about bringing people back from the dead. Necromancy was a messy, tricky business. What did one do, when there was no body to revive? Or was only a body required and not necessarily the body? Lukas suspected that Raveena was twisted enough to try a trick like that, if she were actually capable of raising the dead. Oh, she could probably do something, cast some sort of spell over a log or warp his brother's mind in some way. He wondered if Erik even considered half of these things. At any rate, he was beginning to give himself a headache over the whole thing.

Instead of chasing those thoughts, he did a mental tally of how many knives he had on his person versus the number of soldiers, applying how much actual experience they had and the possible threat Finn could represent mixed in the unknown of whether Erik would be a liability during a fight. As they neared the edge of the forest and dismounted well away from the sinking bogs, he remained unsure.

Some of his unease fell away when he saw the alert light in Erik's eyes as he gazed into the foggy woods. He glanced back at the soldiers and wondered if a plan had formed behind those blue eyes while he hadn't been looking. He supposed he'd find out soon enough.

"Stay here." He waved away the soldiers in the clunking armor. "You'll slow us down."

So without expectations, he followed Erik's sure steps into grey woods and black marsh, mindful of the toxic mushrooms and false ground. Lukas could follow tracks just as well as the elder huntsman. Erik hefted his ax and motioned him aside. Slipping a knife into his hand, he fell back, his steps silent as Erik sped on after the shifting shadow in the distance. No mere trick of the light could snap branches, no matter how brittle and weak. Lukas watched Erik prowl, rather obviously, past a long-dead tree. He saw the tracks, light and unsure-footed, veer away from Erik's path. A body had pressed down earth and squirmed between the jutted, twisted roots.

Lukas knew the tactic and that their target wouldn't realize there was another hunter until it was too late. She didn't, until she was snatched out of her wood-worked nest, literally kicking and screaming.

Something about the shrieking slip of a girl upset him for reasons not wholly apparent to him, and everything felt wrong. Perhaps because he could feel the frail bones in her wrist too easily, or the thinness of her face, or maybe it was her very piercing screams. He shook her once, hard, and she blinked big, fearful eyes at him. But she was quiet except for her ragged breathing.

"Hush, girl. I mean you no harm."

He made of show of sheathing his knife at his hip and putting on a smile. She stared. Lukas saw her eyes dart over his shoulder and pressed his hand over her mouth before she let out another scream. How one so tiny could scream so loud amazed him.

"This is my brother. He also means you no harm. So stop. Screaming."

Her dark eyes flashed between them, her body pulling away from the hand wrapped around her wrist. Erik loomed over the girl, and Lukas felt her tremble. She clawed at his hand, and his hold tightened.

"Let go of –"

"Who are you? Why does the Queen want you dead?"

Lukas frowned at his brother. His manner was not helping him convince the little wraith that they weren't going to hurt her. But then, his brother couldn't help being a bear.

"You should know – you're the ones hunting me."

"Tell us why, and we might not give you to her."

"She wants to kill me. Please, she's going to cut out my heart!"

The brothers shared a look. Lukas wasn't sure about Erik, but he could believe it of the woman, despite the lack of context. Before any more questions could be asked, Lord Finn and his soldiers appeared in the fog, and the girl nearly managed to snatch herself away.

"Well done…gentlemen. The Queen will be most pleased." He nodded, and two men stepped forward.

"Wait." Erik's order was emphasized by his ax held secure and steady. "What will happen to her?"

"Nothing that will concern you."

"What of my wife?"

"What of her?"

Erik backed up, forcing Lukas to do so as well. The girl still shook.

Finn arched a brow and folded his face into an expression of extreme aggravation and exasperation.

"My sister's power can kill and it can heal, but it can't bring your wife back from the dead, you idiot!"

Lukas had been hoping for some kind of signal from his brother for when they should attack Lord Finn and his men since they left the castle. At this moment, at the slightest hint, he was prepared to take the three directly in front of him. Erik roared and swung his ax at the nearest soldier and drove his elbow into another's face. He took his cue from the entirely unsubtle tactics of his elder and flung three knives at their targets. Pulling a knife as long as his forearm, Lukas slashed at the throat of one and kicked him back, the bitter scent of blood filling his nose. Oh dear heaven, that smell took him back in the most unwelcome way.

He noted absently that the girl ran off, but her tracks were obvious enough he could find her blind-drunk. This allowed him to focus on unmitigated, precise slaughter. She was pushed from his mind when another soldier charged toward him with a spear. Lukas side-stepped and knocked the shaft up, over, and around, locking it to his side in the crook of his elbow and wrapping a firm hand around it and yanking. The soldier came forward from the momentum, and Lukas sliced through that thin opening in the armor between the arm and chest, tearing through tendon down to the bone. He jerked it out and smacked the soldier across the head with the spear shaft.

With near nonchalance, Lukas twirled the spear, hefted it like a javelin, and hurled it after a soldier who'd lumbered around him to chase after the girl, hitting him somewhere near the kidney. Nimbly dodging a sword strike to important organs, Lukas kicked the man's knee, felt it give, and heard a snap and a yell. As the man fell forward, Lukas wrenched his sword from his hands, tossed his knife into the air, and wrapped both hands around the hilt. With the soldier on hands and knees, Lukas brought the sword down without flourish across the soldier's neck, cleanly severing his head, flicked a hand into the air, and caught his knife.

He spun at roar behind him to see Finn on his knees screaming and swearing but not bleeding, and Erik barreling toward him; everyone else was down and not moving. Lukas took one step toward the nobleman, intent on gutting him, but Erik snatched his arm, forcing him to spin and run with him.

"You realize Finn isn't dead. Meaning he'll come after us. Because you didn't let me kill him."

"Nothing we won't be able to handle."

"True, but I'm not fond of having the Queen's brother after us."

"Would you rather have the Queen after us for killing her brother?"

"What? You're scared of a woman?"

"I am wary of the crazy ones with personal blood vendettas against me."

"Good point."

Lukas shook off his brother's arm and kept running.


Erik, for his size, could be incredibly stealthy when necessary. During the war, he'd slipped across enemy lines many times, removing officers, sabotaging food and weapons, and procuring a few items for personal use. Of course, Lukas had been right there with him.

Lukas hadn't thought that they'd been exercising any kind of covertness when making their way through the forest. So he couldn't help but be startled that the girl was surprised by their abrupt appearance and yelled as though they were the harbingers of her death; technically they had been, but it wasn't actually official.

Although if Erik had suddenly jumped out from behind a tree in front of him, it was possible someone would end up stabbed, but good heaven if she didn't leave his ears ringing like a through the ear.

Lukas pressed his fingers against his ears. "I am…so sure we discussed that."

She was already backing away, and he was more inclined to let her go since Finn was halfway back to the castle to tattle on them to the Queen. It was very unfortunate for her about the Queen wanting her dead, but it wasn't in any way their problem. In dark times like these, one really could not afford risking their necks for other people who would be in the perfect position to cut it. Erik didn't immediately agree.

"What could the Queen possibly want with you?" His eyes raked over her. "I fail to see the prize."

"I told you, she wants to kill me."

"Yes. Why?"

"Perhaps because she's insane?"

Lukas looked hopefully to his brother. "Well, I believe her. Shall we go?"

He'd forgotten, during his show of bravado before the Queen, how deeply he disliked the Dark Forest. He knew it to be harmless as long as one knew where not to step, what not to breathe or eat or drink, which was the majority. The few creatures that lived there were not predators and not as toxic as the plant life. Still, he had no desire to spend the night. It was an unsettling place with no appeal, and he rather thought a big, raging fire would suit it nicely.

Fortunately, Erik's patience had worn thin, and as he wasn't one to strike a woman, turned to go. Both of them knew how to navigate these woods with relative ease, but she did not. Her attempt to follow them was loud and clumsy.

"Wait!"

Lukas did, and when he sensed that his brother had stopped, so did Erik.

"If you leave me, I'll die. If I try to make it on my own, I'll die."

"You're hardly worth the trouble."

Erik began walking away again with stubborn determination, Lukas followed almost eagerly and slightly guilty over her, and the girl dogged their steps wholly unsteady. He was amazed that she hadn't gotten her legs tangled in her skirt and fallen into the sinking marshes. He thought she might be as stubborn as his brother.

"Get me to the Duke of Hammond. He will pay you whatever you wish, I swear."

Oh. She was clever too, although it took no exceedingly great intellect to know they liked money. But was she truthful?

"Gold."

"He'll pay you your weight in gold."

Lukas raised a brow. It wasn't the most disbelieving thing he'd heard today; because he hadn't wanted to be immediately struck dead, he'd kept his expressions mostly neutral before the Queen. But still. Really. It wasn't an offer that could be dismissed out of hand, and as far as he knew, the duke wasn't in the habit of randomly murdering people either. At least, not a reputation for it.

"Just to be clear, dear girl, did you mean his weight, mine, or both?"

"Whatever you want."

Against his will, Lukas felt his curiosity pique.

Who was she to have favor with the Duke and contempt from the Queen?


From under the forest's canopy of eerie shadows, it was difficult to gauge the passage of the sun. The sky was grey above them and overcast. The sun didn't pierce that somber wall, and the mist confused everything.

Despite that, Lukas estimated it was about an hour before Erik took a drink.

Erik pulled his flask out and took a long swig. Lukas eyed it distastefully and bit down on the words that would start an old and exasperating conversation. He saw the girl watching Erik as well when she stumbled, pitching forward toward sinking ground. Lukas threw out a hand to steady her and wished she'd stop flinching whenever they were near her. He quirked his lips up anyway.

"Step where I step. Once my brother is sober, you can follow him too."

Erik whirled around to face them with a withering glare. Lukas blinked, long accustomed to his ill tempers. The girl, he could feel, wilted a little under that stare and backed up when Erik prowled toward them. Lukas stood aside and watched her panic as Erik knelt and grabbed a handful of the troublesome skirt. She swatted rather uselessly at him. He pushed her hands aside easily and proceeded to rip the fabric up to her thighs.

He glanced up, caught her startled look and the color on her cheeks, and smirked. He stood, looking her up and down, before settling on her eyes.

"Please. Don't flatter yourself."

He went ahead to resume the lead, and Lukas gestured for her to go ahead. They walked side by side, and already, he could tell that she was navigating better.

"Don't mind, Erik. He is a drunkard."

"Don't listen to Lukas. He is a liar."

"Only when it is beneficial."

"Would it not be beneficial to paint me as the scoundrel and yourself as the hero to win the princess?"

Lukas ignored her odd look and rolled his eyes. "Princess, between us, which is the scoundrel?"

"You both seem like scoundrels to me."

He spluttered, unable to find the words.

That was not the answer he'd expected. Perhaps he wasn't the most honorable man, but he was better than most. Better than Erik at least! And he would have said all of that if he could manage to regain his dignity.

Easier said than done as Erik chuckled heartily at that. Then he forgot about his ire when he realized that he couldn't remember the last time Erik had genuinely laughed.


It's possible you didn't notice, but I haven't been using declarative statements, like 'he said', 'she screamed', etc... I'm experimenting with a method I've read recently in a book called The Last Operative. If you find it confusing, I apologize. Let me know, and I'll edit.