Steve breathed in the smell of old books and parchment. He both loved the scent and loathed it. He closed the book he'd just finished reading and returned it to the shelf where it belonged, letting his fingers tap across the backs of the books as he walked to the large windows. The colored panes depicted a scene of glorious battle.
The day was getting late. Through the few clear panes of glass in the window, he could see the sun starting to set behind the snow-capped mountains of Dryne. He lingered for only a moment before he walked to the other side of the tower room. The window on this side was similar, depicting a royal wedding. One of the panes of the queen's dress had been broken once by a dumb bird and had been replaced with clear glass as well. Through it, he could see down into the inner bailey. He could see the men training below, but couldn't identify who was who. Their quick movements and use of multiple weapons against a variety of targets only told him that they were some of the King's most talented knights.
As he watched, the knights finished their practice and started toward the barracks to wash up for supper. A single figure turned the other way and headed toward the keep.
Steve smiled and made for the stairs, hoping to catch him before supper to regale him with the stories he'd read today.
Steve turned left at the base of the tower stairs, heading for Bucky's rooms. As Steve came upon Bucky, Steve's manservant Riley came upon him. Riley greeted them both, "Your Grace, Your Highness." He bowed low to Steve. His second bow, to Bucky, was much faster and less deep.
When Bucky didn't greet Steve beyond a smile, Riley tipped his head up just enough to side-eye him through his shaggy blond hair.
Bucky rolled his eyes and turned to Steve. "Your Grace," he said, nodding his head at him.
Apparently, that was enough of a proper greeting for Riley. He turned, ignoring Bucky completely to address Steve. "I've readied your bath, Your Grace."
"Thank you, Riley, I'll be along shortly." Riley nodded and retreated, heading back to the smaller room at the end of the hallway.
Bucky scoffed before the door was fully shut. "You've been here six years. We've grown up together. You'd think they would let the formalities drop by now." He turned fully to Steve and bestowed a bright smile on him.
Steve smiled back, though his attention was briefly taken by the way Bucky's thick brown hair was damp with sweat at his neck and brow and how his baldric pinned the fabric of his sweat-damp tunic against his chest. "He's a servant of a usurped king, Bucky, all he has left are formalities."
"Still," Bucky said, sounding a bit petulant. He inhaled heavily and grimaced. He plucked at the front of his tunic with his fingers. "Did you need something, though? I'd like to do my own bit of washing up before supper."
The stories that Steve had wanted to share fled his head upon seeing him so flushed from his training. He tried not to stare as he shook his head. "Nothing that can't wait."
All right, then. I'll see you at table." Bucky patted Steve on the arm and entered his room, leaving Steve alone in the hallway.
* . * . *
Bucky took another sip of wine and leaned back in his chair. The great hall was lively tonight. That usually meant that the garrison at the border had changed and the returning soldiers were enjoying their pay and the womanly attention they'd been missing for the last three months. Sure enough, at the back of the room, Bucky could just make out the familiar silhouettes of his friends. He was tempted to go to them and was halfway to standing when his mother called his attention.
"Bucky, dear, where are you going? Sit with me for a bit, I have a proposal for you." She reached out and grabbed his left hand with hers. The sleeve of her gown flopped over them and tickled at the back of his hand. The deep violet color of it looked blood red in the candlelight. "It's coming up on your five and twentieth year, you know. It's getting to be about time to think about choosing your life partner. I've got several that might suit if you're unsure."
Bucky kicked at Steve's chair across from him just to have someone to roll his eyes at. Steve attention moved from Bucky's face to where Bucky was being held stationary by his mother's grip on his hand. He picked up his cup and held it in front of his face to attempt to hide his smirk. He wasn't successful.
"I have an idea for who to choose as my life partner, mother, but if you're dead set on this list of yours, give it to me. I'll have a look and tell you why every single one of them is not suited." He returned his attention to his mother face to catch her eyes looking over at Steve.
She looked back at Bucky and patted his hand. "I'm sure you will, my dear. I'm sure you will."
There was a louder-than-normal commotion at the doors of the hall and Winifred let go of his hand to sit up properly in her seat. A boy approached the table and spoke softly to Bucky's father, the king. When the boy stepped off the dais and retreated to a far table, Winifred spoke. "George." It took a moment before the king gave his attention to her. "That was Thaddeus's squire, wasn't it? Peter? What is it Thaddeus needs?"
"Nothing urgent. Just some peasant rumors that we'll need to squash come morning." George patted Winifred's hand and gave her a smile meant to placate. Bucky recognized it, and he knew his mother did as well. She wouldn't be satisfied with his answer, but she was also clever enough to not bring it up again until they were in private.
"What do you think of that?" Bucky asked Steve when his mother's attention turned to his sister further down the table.
"Of what, Buck?"
Bucky shot another glance in his mother's direction before lowering his voice a little. "She's got a list for me to choose a life partner from. I bet she's been making it since I was born."
Steve's gaze lingered on Winifred and a fond smile formed on his lips. "I'm sure she's just excited. It's not every day her son turns five and twenty."
Bucky scoffed and shifted in his chair. "You make it sound like finding a partner is a gift for me. It feels like a chore. 'Choose a spouse so we can have a big royal wedding that takes a year to plan.'"
"Hey, at least you get a choice in the matter. As far as I can remember, my mother had established an arrangement for me as soon as I was born. None of the correspondence establishing the match made it into my retinue's bags before we left, though."
"Well, the easiest course of action would be to align with Becca. Though as it's our kingdom, you'd have to ingratiate yourself to her so she chose you when the time comes for her to make a choice," Bucky said. He canted his head to look around his parents at his teenage sister. Her glossy brown hair was arranged in fanciful plaits and piled upon her head, and she was gossiping enthusiastically with one of her ladies-in-waiting. He looked back at Steve, his eyebrows raised, wondering what Steve thought of his suggestion.
Steve's nose wrinkled and he used his cup to hide the expression. "I'd rather not," he said while he too looked at Becca. He paused and added, "No offense, but as you said before, I've been here for six years. She's like a sister of my own now. I still remember her asking me to brush her hair when I first arrived."
The snort of amusement Bucky released had his mother glancing back in his direction. There was a knowing smile on her face but she didn't say anything. "She didn't understand who you were or what you'd been through."
"I know," Steve said, nodding. He set his cup back on the table. "Still. It left an impression." Bucky grinned and leaned back in his chair.
"So, Bucky," his father said, dragging his attention away from Steve. "Tell me, how did your day go?" and Bucky was drawn into conversation with his father about his opinion of the newest recruits training to be knights.
Supper concluded soon after, and most of the court started drifting off to their rooms to retire for the night. Steve had slipped away from the table a few minutes before Bucky, and Bucky did his best to walk quickly through the keep to try to catch him. He was waylaid twice by servants bidding him goodnight. When he finally stepped into the hallway leading to their rooms, Steve was heading back out.
"Where are you going this late?"
"Back to the library," he answered, shrugging his delicate shoulders. Bucky glanced down at his hands, realized he was fidgeting, and flattened his palms against his thighs. He looked up to see Steve's gaze following the movement.
He bit his bottom lip, debating whether to ask what he really wanted, but found his courage had fled. "More books?" he asked instead.
The light from the hanging braziers in the hall illuminated Steve's already yellow hair a deep gold that matched the embroidery on his overcoat. He looked down. "I reckon if I read everything in there, I'll be good enough for your father to have me on his counsel." When he looked back up at Bucky, he had a sad smile on his lips.
Steve's lack of confidence splashed over Bucky's shy desires like cold water. He couldn't ask him to join him in his bedchamber now. "Steve, if you want on father's council, all you have to do is ask."
"But you're not on it—"
"Because I choose not to be. They're boring. I'd much rather be outside training or walking the walls or even venturing out to the village when the outer bailey feels too confining."
"But you should be in there, Buck," Steve stressed, "learning how to rule your kingdom. Even if it is boring."
Bucky wanted to dismiss his comment but knew how selfish it would sound to do so. Instead, he nodded, acquiescing. "All right. But that means you're getting dragged to them as well. We'll talk to father tomorrow."
Steve's smile turned genuine. "Thank you." He glanced at the bedchamber door behind Bucky and then started to turn toward the stairs. "Goodnight."
Bucky tried not to sigh too loudly as he watched Steve walk away, back up to the library to study some more by candlelight. He wished his friend could feel more at ease here; he didn't need to earn his place or prove his worth. Before he slipped out of sight, Bucky called out softly, "Goodnight, Steve."
He stood there staring at the tower door even after Steve had pulled it closed. He finally turned and entered his bedchamber. Ian, his manservant, had already been by and lit the hearth fire. It may have been planting season, but the nights were still just a tad too cold to go without. He undressed down to his braies and crawled beneath the sheets. He'd work up the courage to tell Steve tomorrow.
Bucky was up before sunrise the following morning. He dressed quickly, before Ian arrived, and was down at the soldiers' barracks just in time to wake up his friends. He grabbed a cup of watered ale and strolled into the room with a spring in his step.
Gabe was closest to the door, snoring, with one of his bare feet dangling past the coverlet. Bucky plucked a piece of straw off the floor and tickled the bottom of his foot with it. He kicked out but did not awaken.
Monty was on his side, still tucked under his bed's coverlet. The side of his face was still tinged red from kisses from his trip to the brothel the night before.
Dum Dum's bed was still made, unslept in. So was Jim's. Jacques was hanging half off of his bed, snoring like a sawmill.
Nick was still abed, but he was awake, watching Bucky with an observant eye. The scar that crossed his bad eye looked harsher in the morning light. It didn't scare him like it did Becca, but perhaps that was because he'd been a teenager when the man had received it.
Bucky grinned at him and winked. He dipped his fingers into his ale cup and sprinkled them on the sleeping occupants of the barracks room, making sure to liberally sprinkle them with the cooled liquid. "Rise and shine boys!" he shouted.
Monty was the first to jerk awake. He tried to stand, but his feet caught in his sheets and he toppled to the floor at Bucky's feet. Gabe tried to stand as well but missed the floor somehow and tumbled right down into Monty. Jacques just opened his eyes slowly, blinking owlish up at Bucky as more watered ale sprinkled onto his face.
Bucky's laughter echoed off the sparse furnishings in the room and Nick's low chuckle joined it. "Where's Dum Dum?" he asked. He knew where Jim was. After his rotation on garrison duty, Jim always visited his family in the village at the western pass to Dryne.
"Probably still in the brothel where we left him," Monty said. He stretched his arms up with a satisfying pop and then reached for the cup in Bucky's hands. "Come to give us the hair of the dog?"
Bucky chuckled and handed it over. "I don't think it helps, you know."
"Dum Dum swears by it," Gabe said as he started dressing.
Nick, too, was already out of bed. "You know he earned that nickname, right?" he asked, pulling on his tunic. He grabbed his eyepatch and tied the leather strips behind his head.
"Get dressed. If I have to be in the Hall to listen to the Commander give his report, you do as well. I'm sure your version of events for the last three months is more varied and true than whatever he'll ramble on about," Bucky said. He leaned back against the mantle and crossed his arms. The coals on the hearth were still giving off just the barest hint of warmth.
"What do you know, huh? We could have been the perfect soldiers this time," Dernier said, though the grin on his face gave away his thoughts on the matter.
Bucky thought about the pranks and laughs they'd had in the past. "Let me guess, someone woke up with a multitude of woodland creatures in their beds throughout your time at the garrison."
Gabe raised his hand. It had been Jim the rotation before.
"And with Dum Dum down at the brothel, I'm betting he fleeced you all at dice?"
"Not all of us," Nick said, grinning.
"Of course not," Bucky said. "What Dum Dum didn't take, Nick did." The others grumbled but good-naturedly agreed. "I'll leave you to finish getting dressed. Maybe we can spar a few rounds afterward?"
Gabe nodded. Monty toasted him with his empty ale cup. Bucky headed back to the castle. Maybe Steve would like to join their sparring games, not to participate of course, but to watch and take in the sunshine. It felt like forever since he'd seen Steve step outside. Bucky wandered down to the kitchen and found the scullery maid, May, already working.
"Ian said you weren't in bed when he went to wake you," she said, standing up and straightening her back. "Did you want some breakfast, Your Highness?"
Cook's voice called from the other side of the kitchen, "I've got your porridge just here, Your Highness."
Bucky winked at May and walked toward cook and his promised breakfast. "You are a vision, you know."
Cook chuckled and handed the bowl and a small chunk of bread to him. Bucky took his meal to the servants' table tucked in the corner and sat down to break his fast. Cook brought him a cup of almond milk. "You really know my weaknesses, don't you?" Bucky said after swallowing a bite.
"Well, I've been Cook here since before you were born. It only makes sense that I know what you like."
"Thank you," Bucky told him. The tall blond bowed low and returned to his duties. When Bucky was finished eating, he took his dishes to May for washing up. He headed back upstairs to his bedchamber to don his overcoat for court.
* . * . *
Steve was in the great hall early, eager to hear the Knight Commander's report from the garrison at the mountain pass of Dryne. He was always interested in the military's experiences at the garrisons, how they handled themselves and the few disputes that were brought to them. The garrison to the south, by Asgard, was often reported on with good cheer as some of the rotational men had made friends with one of the princes of the kingdom.
But Dryne was different. Dryne had been his home.
He knew that his mother and the retainers who had stayed with her when she'd sent him away had died, had been killed by Johann's invading Red Skull army, but it didn't extinguish the flame of hope he felt every time the Knight Commander reported from the garrison at Dryne.
Steve stood in one corner of the hall and waited for his paltry retinue to wander in. Sam, his Knight Commander, arrived first.
"Good morning, Your Grace," Sam said. Sun from one of the windows high in the wall shone down and made his brilliant orange overcoat cast an even brighter warm hue around him. He looked like he was glowing.
"Good morning, Sam. What has you so happy this morning?" Steve asked.
"Red Wing caught a coney on her hunt this morning."
Steve narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "She's caught a coney before, what's special about this time?" As he spoke, Clint, the king's austringer, walked by and sent a glare in Sam's direction before he walked closer to the King's throne. Steve thought the expression was odd since Sam and Clint were good friends. Good friends who often competed in everything they did. "Lucky didn't catch anything, did she?"
Sam's exuberant smile confirmed it. "If she did, she didn't share it."
"Clint must be upset at your victory; he brags about Lucky all the time." More people were gathering in the hall now, the typical court-goers and the village peasants asking for things. Steve glanced around in case Bucky had arrived early.
"It was bound to happen eventually. Remember when Red Wing refused to bring back anything from her hunts for like two weeks when she was molting? I figure it's time for Lucky's." Steve nodded. That made sense.
The hall grew crowded. Steve spotted his only other knight-at-arms standing against the back wall. Gilmore was tall and blond and handsome in a way Steve found himself lacking. He had protected Steve and the younger children during their flight from Dryne. Though Steve and Gilmore weren't friends like Steve and Sam, Steve felt a great deal of respect and loyalty to the man for his service.
King George walked in, and Steve caught Bucky darting in just as the last men entered the room. George walked up to the front and turned around. Everyone in the hall bowed low as he sat down on his throne. It was a sturdy, heavy chair with armrests, painted in bright blues and reds, but there was no other ornamentation on it. Not even strips of gold. If it weren't isolated on the dais, it could be mistaken for any other chair.
Phil, the King's Chamberlain, stood at the King's elbow and announced the Knight Commander.
"Thaddeus," King George said in greeting. "What news from the garrison at Dryne?" The words themselves were the same as always, but it didn't stop Steve from listening more intently.
"All is quiet, Your Grace," Thaddeus said. "There were the typical few peasants at the village who came to us to settle their squabbles, but all were settled without bloodshed and as fairly as possible."
"Thank you, Knight Comm—"
The double doors that led into the great hall burst open and Jim, one of the knights who had just come from the garrison at Dryne, rushed in. He darted to the foot of the dais and dropped to his knees, "I beg your forgiveness, Your Grace. I must speak with you urgently and in private."
Steve could see the scowl that crossed the Knight Commander's face as he looked down on one of his knights. Steve didn't know if the expression was due to the unkempt look about Jim—he'd obviously just come from a hard ride and even Steve could smell the horse lather still clinging to his clothes—or for his presumptuousness for interrupting royal proceedings.
"Whatever it is you have to say, say it," Thaddeus growled. "If it's so important to interrupt His Grace, then it should be spoken for all gathered to hear."
George looked much less angry than Thaddeus. He raised his hand to calm the Knight Commander and addressed Jim. "What is it, Jim?"
"I beseech you, Your Grace, please let me tell you in private," Jim said. He was still on his knees, bowed low before the King.
"You may speak now," George answered. His tone wasn't harsh but it was a command.
Jim nodded and raised his head. "I've just come from the village at the western pass. I saw the Red Skull's army massing on the border."
The crowd erupted into shocked gasps and sharp whispers. Steve could feel his stomach clench up in knots. Beside him, Sam laid a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"Are you sure?" George asked. His relaxed posture had slipped away and now he sat straight on his throne. Even the Knight Commander looked unsettled.
"Banners and shields blazoned with a red skull on a gold field," Jim said. "Yes, Your Grace, I'm certain."
George leaned over to whisper something to his Chamberlain. Phil nodded and spoke to the court. "We'll reconvene after dinner and the King will see to and settle your concerns then. Council members, your King beckons you." George stood and strode from the hall.
Steve looked up to Sam at his side. "What happens now?" he whispered.
"We discuss what an invading army is likely to do and how to deal with it." He was preoccupied, watching the peasants and the nobility file out. Some were complaining loudly, but others were whispering amongst themselves, no doubt already starting gossip and rumors. He looked back at Steve and nodded. "I'll seek you out as soon as we're done. Your Grace." He bowed his head and walked toward the door, joining the other members of the King's counsel.
Steve startled when Bucky spoke from beside him. "Now probably wouldn't be the best time to ask to be on the council. Are you all right?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" He asked, looking at Bucky. He swallowed and gestured to the walls of the keep. "We're safe here. Well protected."
Bucky gave him a look that said he didn't believe him. "We are, but that doesn't mean you are unaffected."
"It feels like it's happening again. Like he's chasing me for some reason. He's already taken so much, what more does he want?"
Bucky reached out like he intended to pat him on the back but stopped and aborted the motion when he saw someone approaching. "Your Grace, Your Highness," the servant said, bowing low twice in quick succession, "The King requests your presence."
Bucky nodded and the servant turned and headed away. He inhaled heavily as he faced Steve again. "I guess we get to be on the council anyway." He patted Steve's shoulder and gestured for him to walk ahead of him.
When they entered the smaller room located in the donjon just under the library, Steve was caught off guard by how austere the room was. The colorful tapestries or painted walls that adorned the other rooms of the keep were absent. The walls were simply whitewashed. A dark wood table took up much of the space, and its surface was a relief carving of the world's map. The great mountains of Dryne in the northwest corner were only rivaled by the peaks across the carved sea, the waves of which were smooth and rounded. His fingers itched with the desire to touch them.
There was a small flat space near the head of the table where Sam was sitting will quill and parchment in front of him. The parchment had small, cramped lettering on it from previous meetings. Around the table sat the council: Phil the Chamberlain, Bruce the Justiciar, Nick the Master of Horses, Thaddeus the Knight Commander. Sam, filling in the role of the Chancellor since the last one had died some years ago, and Clint. Clint's only official title was austringer, a designation which wouldn't normally be a reason to sit on the council. Clint was just... he'd always been on the council as far as Steve could remember, even if he did not have an official reason for being there.
Jim was there too, still a mess from his ride. At least the smell of his horse's lather had faded so it didn't overpower the small room.
King George had his back to the group and was looking out of one of the two windows in the room. It looked out toward the northwest, and the mountains of Dryne rose in the distance. Bucky pulled one of the chairs out from the table and offered it to Steve and took the seat next to his.
George turned around and glanced over each person in the room until his gaze landed on Jim. "Tell us what you know."
"After my rotation at garrison, I spend a few days visiting my family in a village on the border," Jim said. His voice seemed nervous at first as if he expected anger in reaction, but when none was forthcoming, he continued. "I was helping one of my nieces gather mushrooms in the wood when we came out on the ridge above the valley. From our vantage point, I saw an army gathering below. At least a thousand men, Your Grace, maybe more."
"And they flew the Red Skull's banner?" George asked again.
"Yes, Your Grace. I was at the garrison when the Red Skull sent some of his knights south six years ago, chasing Prince Steven from his home. I recognize it."
"Thank you, Jim," George said. Jim turned and left the room. George looked around at the rest of the men in the room and focused his attention on Thaddeus.
"We can hold the castle, but the garrison at Dryne is three day's ride from here," the Knight Commander said. "They'll be within range of our walls by week's end. We don't have the time to press the peasants into service." His scowl hadn't lessened.
George looked to the others and then said, "We'll send riders to Asgard and Essar, asking for aid and relief. We're a peaceful nation and we trade with them, surely they'll come if we ask."
"And our own men?" Thaddeus asked.
George walked toward the table and studied it for a few moments. "Pull our garrison at Dryne. Six men against a force fifty times the size of our entire standing army won't survive. We could put them to better use manning the walls here."
"And the others?"
"The Red Skull will have us besieged before a rider could make it to the garrison at Tellis Tor. Our closest men are at Essar. Have them all stay put until Essar rides and then join with them. The same for the garrison at our border with Asgard." George glanced up at Bucky and Steve. "King Steven, may I ask for your assistance in this? Commit your men with mine to defend the castle."
Steve could recognize the ritualistic wording even though he'd never heard the words before. It felt strange to reply, though. "You have my men." He knew it wouldn't be proper to say out loud but in his mind, he added, 'all two of them.' He glanced at Sam to see him nodding.
George looked at the others again and nodded. "Get the castle ready for the siege," he said and left. Steve's mind was already working through what that would mean if this were his castle. Granaries as stocked as possible. Fletchers and blacksmiths pressed into service and set to making arrows and arrowheads. Kindling and wood gathered and stocked in the gatehouses. Cauldrons readied for boiling water or sand. They might not need the supplies for the murder holes immediately, there was a moat around the castle, but that didn't mean they wouldn't need them at all.
Bucky tapped Steve on the arm with the backs of his fingers. "Hey, come on. Let's talk a walk before dinner." Steve agreed and let Bucky lead the way down the tower stairs. Once out of the keep, Steve moved up a few paces to walk next to him. They walked the length of the inner bailey in silence. Steve even closed his eyes for short periods of time, enjoying the heat from the midday sun as it warmed his skin. When they came to the wall and the gatehouse that would lead them to the outer bailey, Bucky stopped and turned to Steve. "Do you want to continue on?"
Steve could see the steady flow of foot traffic at the gate leading to the outer bailey as all the castle workers had started preparing their domains for the upcoming siege. He shook his head. "I'm good with just staying inside, away from the crowd." Bucky nodded and diverted their path to walk toward the stables.
"I was planning on sparring a few rounds with the knights who've just returned from garrison. I wonder if they'd still be interested. Do you want to watch?" Bucky asked. He scratched at the back of his neck before turning and walking backward to look at Steve while they walked.
"I don't know. My thoughts are a bit scattered, I don't think I'd be able to give it my full attention."
Bucky shrugged, "Might help take your mind off our big problems if you focus on something relatively easy."
Steve swallowed his words. He'd never been allowed to even play at fighting as a child; he'd been too slight and sickly. Sparring with actual knights in mail did not sound as simple as the term "easy" implied. He opened his mouth to nitpick Bucky's wording, if only because he was feeling prickly—he knew Bucky would smile and roll his eyes and just let him rant—but was interrupted by the conversation of the stablehands gathered nearby. Bucky and Steve both stopped to watch the interaction.
"They say the Red Skull employs a sorcerer who can raise the dead," Luis said, he waved his brown hands wide to emphasize the enormity of the scale in which he spoke. "Imagine that. They kill their opponents and then, come nightfall, raise them as their own to swell the ranks."
Wanda scoffed, making her short red hair swing around her face. "Why would he have to do it at night?"
"Everyone knows that sorcerers can only work at night."
"Nobody knows that," Ned said. He pushed his pitchfork tines down to stick in the ground and leaned on it, reaching up to scratch a dirty hand through his hair. "Besides—"
"It's not true," Wanda interjected. "Sorcery works by proximity, whether the sun is out or not makes no difference."
"How would you know?" Ned asked. "We don't have a sorcerer here in Enra."
"I'm not from Enra, I'm from Dryne. My mother was the sorceress there," she answered. The two boys visible drew away from her.
"Then how come you're here, mucking the stables with us? Doesn't that make you a sorceress too?"
Her expression grew hard and closed off. "Sorcery requires study. If I have magic in my blood, I can't utilize it without a teacher. There's no one here to teach me." She stamped a foot and lurched forward toward the boys. They both flinched and ran off, leaving Ned's pitchfork to tip over and land in the dirt in their wake.
Steve's mood had darkened further. He had been eighteen when they'd fled from the invading Red Skull army, when he had lost his mother. Wanda and her brother had only been ten. He wasn't the only one to have lost, and he should try not to brood on it when he could be helping see to it that what remained of his people were safe.
Bucky seemed to notice Steve's mood souring and gestured back toward the keep. Steve nodded, and they started their walk back.
* . * . *
The next few days dragged on for Bucky. His mother called him into her solar on multiple occasions just to have him sit with her while she busied her hands with embroidery. Even Becca, who often sat with their mother doing her own needlework, found these extra moments of downtime boring. After several days where the two of them started miming more and more elaborate stories to one another in the quiet room, Winifred finally gave in. "You don't have to sit with me if you don't want to, children. I am, however, quite interested in the story you were telling just now, Bucky. What was it that Dum Dum did with the garrisoned knights' pay?"
Bucky blushed down to the roots of his hair. "Umm," he started, trying desperately to come up with some alternate ending that would be appropriate for his mother. He had planned to be rather vague with the charade he was going to give his sister.
"That's all right, I can assume," she said. She pursed her lips and Bucky swallowed.
He got up and as he walked passed his sister he patted her on the shoulder. "Maybe I shouldn't have told that one," he mumbled. After pressing a kiss on his mother's cheek he said, "I'm going to go find Steve." Winifred hummed her approval of his course of action. His face still felt warm as he left the solar and headed for the library.
On his way up, he ran into Ian, who was on his way down. "Your Highness, I've just been sent to retrieve you, your mother, and sister. The King has received word from Asgard and Essar."
Bucky tried to hold back his sigh. If it wasn't extra time doing nothing in his mother's company, it was endless council meetings. Surely they'd gone over everything that needed to be talked about by now. He nodded to Ian and told him where he'd find the queen and the princess and then mounted the stairs. It was likely Steve had been retrieved, if he hadn't been in the meeting already.
Bucky entered the council room and noted that his father, the council members, and Steve were already sitting at the table. The two messengers who had been sent to Asgard and Essar were also present, as well as Gilmore, Steve's only other man-at-arms. Intrigued, Bucky sat in the chair next to Steve. Steve gave him a worried look but didn't speak.
When Winifred and Becca arrived and took their places at the table, George caught his wife's gaze. He looked solemn and worried. Bucky had rarely seen that sort of look on his father's face.
"What did Asgard say when we asked for aid?" George asked of the first messenger.
"King Odin said he would commit his Valkyrie forces to the campaign if Essar rode for Enra. He felt he could spare no more because of the planting season." The messenger shifted and tugged at his white tunic in his nervousness. He was obviously not thrilled to be the bearer of bad news.
"And of Essar?" George asked, moving on to the second messenger.
"King Harrison is willing to press his peasants into service and mount a full campaign to aid Enra if the royal family were willing to commit to a fruitful union between houses," he said. He offered up a scroll of parchment that was clearly a missive to the same effect. George took it from him and read silently. Without raising his eyes from the paper, he raised two fingers and gestured toward the door. Both messengers exited.
Bucky's stomach seized up in knots. They couldn't ask for something like that, could they? He glanced toward his mother; surely she wouldn't allow it. They'd been told all their lives they would always have a choice in who would be their life partner. She couldn't let Essar change that now, could she? She was watching his father as he read over the missive carefully.
George looked up and let his gaze move over both Bucky and Becca before speaking to Winifred. "Their children are older than ours by several years. Their eldest, a son, is twice the age of our Becca."
And Becca, in all of her fourteen-year-old naivete said, "You wouldn't marry me off to some thirty-year-old stranger, would you, Papa?"
George and Winifred both turned their attention to Bucky. He felt very small, just then, as if he was being scolded. He wanted to bristle under their gaze. He looked to Steve, but he was looking at the table.
After an awkward heavy moment, George answered. "We'll have to talk about it, Becca. We don't have much time to make a decision. Two, maybe three days at best."
Thaddeus made a small grunt of disapproval but wisely kept his mouth shut when George looked at him. "Gilmore," George said, turning his attention to the knight still standing in the room, "What did you learn on your scouting mission?"
Gilmore was a tall, handsome fellow with dark blond hair and a well-kempt beard. "Word among the Red Skull troops is that Johann is attempting to fulfill a prophecy that his court sorcerer found. A prophecy he failed to fulfill six years ago." He glanced in Steve's direction. "They're under the impression that if Enra surrenders King Steven, they'll all get to go home."
"Don't even think about it," Bucky blurted, staring at Steve.
Steve's eyes had widened and he almost looked abashed. "If they'd all just go home, Buck, I'd have to try..."
"No!" Bucky shouted at the same time his father also repeated the word. He ducked his head. Even he wasn't supposed to talk over the king.
"Sacrificing yourself will achieve nothing but heartache, Steve," George said solemnly. "No matter what the troops believe about some obscure prophecy, there's no one to say what Johann truly wants. I'm also not inclined to seek out negotiations when we have a good chance of surviving the siege until winter." He looked back at Gilmore. "Did you get an estimate of their numbers?"
"A hundred men and horses for shock cavalry. A similar number of bowmen. The rest seemed like peasants pressed into service except..." He paused, his gaze flicking to Steve again before he continued, "it seems they've been provided with steel and mail by the king."
"A veritable army," Thaddeus said. "No doubt they've been given training as well."
The conversation went on around Bucky for a few more minutes but he didn't pay attention to it. It wasn't until Steve had patted him on the shoulder as he was getting up that he roused himself. He noticed that his parents and sister were still sitting at the table so he stayed as well. The thud of the door closing behind the last council member sounded ominous.
The pause lasted both too long and not long enough.
Winifred started first, "Bucky—"
"You always told us that we'd get to choose our life partner," he mumbled, looking up at her. Her lips were pursed and she looked older, somehow, more worn down.
"Sometimes we have to make difficult choices, you know that. Securing an alliance with Essar wouldn't be the end of the world."
His stomach clenched so tight it ached. "Then secure it with Becca, I've already chosen—" he cut the word off before it was completely out of his mouth. He hadn't chosen. Hadn't said anything to the other person or to his parents, not made it official in any way. Hell, he didn't even know if who he wanted, wanted him.
"Becca is only fourteen. Do you really want her married off to someone twice her age?" George said.
Becca, for her part, was having one of those no-words conversations with Winifred, and in the process was turning redder and redder with embarrassment. Finally, she looked down at her lap and said, "You may think I'm stupid, Bucky, but... I know... enough. The terms were for a fruitful union. I haven't..." she swallowed like the words were too much to say. Then she blurted out all at once, "I haven't flowered yet."
Bucky inhaled sharply. It was too much; he didn't need to know that about his baby sister. Her skin had gone red like a tomato, and she refused to look up. Bucky could feel his own cheeks warming. "I don't think you're stupid." He was thankful for the chance to change the immediate conversation, and besides, he needed to correct her assumption. He wondered what he'd done to give her that impression.
When Bucky didn't say anything else, George finally nodded though the look on his face spoke of disappointment. "You don't have to agree to their terms, Bucky. We should be able to last until winter, when the threat of snow will hopefully send Johann and his army back to Dryne." His words should have felt like a weight lifted from his shoulders but Bucky was so lost in his thoughts and feelings that hearing his father give him an out didn't seem to help. He nodded and got up, leaving the room. He didn't want to be near anyone for a while, so he retreated to his chamber.
Even three days later, Bucky was feeling out of sorts. He hadn't sought out his friends. They'd been training more intensely than he'd ever seen them. Focused and sharp like they were all an extension of one another. He didn't have that connection with them and even if he had, he wouldn't have been allowed to join and be a part of the skirmishes they had planned. He was the prince, and princes were too valuable to risk.
He didn't seek out Steve, either. He was sure the other man was still religiously attending his father's council meetings and contributing with strategies and anecdotes he gleaned from his books. Even the threat of losing him, losing the chance to choose him, hadn't given Bucky the courage to bring it up to him. Whenever they spoke, it was always inbetween meals or just as they were heading to bed. The time was never right. Or Steve looked exhausted. Or Bucky was being summoned. Or, or, or...
Finally, tired of the stuffiness of his chambers and the closeted feel of the rest of the keep, Bucky decided to walk the outside curtain wall. It encircled the keep and both the inner and outer baileys. Surely with that much distance to walk, he'd find a bit of peace.
The normal blue water of the moat below, diverted from the river behind the castle, was swirling with the yellows of spring's pollen. It glimmered green in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Beyond the water, he could see peasants mulling around, even more than usual. Shouldn't they be working the fields or coming and going through the baileys as they usually did? He continued his walk, passing through the towers as he usually did. Soon enough those towers would be locked and barred from the inside.
Gathering close to the horizon was a grey and white mass. It looked like a menacing cloud clinging to the ground. The incoming army. Bucky had expected black or red, as the nickname of the invading king suggested, but the army was comprised mostly of peasants, their undyed white tunics the bulk of what he could see. He let his fingers play at the seam of his richly dyed green tunic as he came to the bastion at the gatehouse.
That's when he noticed that the peasants he'd seen earlier weren't an anomaly. More peasants, more than he'd typically see at a time, were gathered at the edge of the moat. As close to the castle as they could get. The crowd wasn't moving. Many had set up lean-tos or tents. Even the thoroughfare that led from the village to the castle's first drawbridge was filled with peasants in their white tunics and brown cloaks. He walked to the other side of the wall and looked down into the outer bailey. It was quiet.
"Hey," he said to one of the men working in the gatehouse stacking firewood. "Why are the peasants out there? What are they doing?" Bucky asked.
The guardsman had stopped his work and approached him, nodding low in deference. "Where else are they supposed to go, Your Highness? The gates were ordered shut and locked almost a week ago. Only specific people are allowed in. Though as more of the approaching army can be seen, thems below are less inclined to let those special people pass."
"On whose orders were the gates closed?" Bucky said, looking back out over the crenels at the mass of peasants below. He could hear shouts and see a fight starting near the road.
"The Knight Commander's, Your Highness."
"But they'll be slaughtered by the Red Skull's army if they stay there," Bucky said, more to himself than the guardsman, though the other man did nod in agreement. He couldn't understand why Thaddeus would leave the people undefended. Surely they had a better chance at survival inside the walls.
"Open the gates. Let them in on the warning that if they fight, we'll send them back out again to fight against the Red Skull's army."
"Both baileys, Your Highness?" the guardsman asked. He looked nervous but ready to obey.
"Just the outer one for now."
"Aye, sir," the man said and then he turned and called his orders to his fellow guards. Bucky nodded and watched as they carried out his orders. As the peasants started moving inside, he nodded to himself and set about completing his lap around the curtain wall, feeling a certain amount of pride in his actions.
Bucky was summoned immediately upon his return to the keep.
"You little idiot!" Thaddeus shouted from across the table as soon as he was in the meeting room. "Do you have any idea what you've done by letting the riffraff in here?" He stood as he shouted, his chair sliding back and adding a wooden shriek to compliment his words.
Bucky did not like being yelled at. By anyone, but especially by this man. On his orders, hundreds of people would have died; he ought to be judged on that. So that was Bucky's argument. "This isn't the kind of army that would just walk past the peasants and leave them alone. The Red Skull's army will slaughter every man, woman, and child it comes across." He stormed toward the table. He wanted to get in Thaddeus's face, but the table wasn't narrow enough. He rethought his move and gestured to his left, instead, to indicate Steve where he was standing nearby. "They've done it before. We have the means to protect them; why would we not do just that?"
Thaddeus's face grew increasingly red as Bucky spoke, but before he could open his mouth, George held up his hand. Thaddeus closed his mouth and glared. George indicated his chair, and Thaddeus retook his seat. George stood casually and stepped around the table toward Bucky. Bucky turned around to face him as he did. His father put his hands on his shoulders and squeezed briefly. The look in his eyes seemed almost sad, and Bucky didn't understand why.
"Because we don't have the means to feed them," his father said eventually. "It is kinder for them to die by the sword or the arrow than to let them starve to death."
Bucky felt like his stomach dropped toward his knees. The thought of food hadn't ever crossed his mind. They'd always had plenty, between incoming spices and grain from the river with their trade with Asgard to the fields surrounding the castle abundant with livestock. How could they not have enough food? "But we live on a river, couldn't we just..."
His father's hands slid a bit further down to squeeze his biceps. Behind him, Bucky could see Steve biting his lip and shaking his head as if he already could see how that too would be a bad decision. As if he was embarrassed for Bucky.
George nodded and the look on his face changed ever so slightly. Bucky recognized his father's 'this is a teachable moment' expression from when he was a child. The feeble hope he'd thought to pin on the river giving the peasants a chance started to crumble. "Do you know why this castle is where it is?"
"Because it's in a central location with access to the river," Bucky answered dutifully. He remembered that much from his lessons. "We're a center for trade."
"Right, yes, but also because this is as far inland as you can navigate a ship smoothly. In the wood just east and north of us, the river has rocks and rapids that make it too treacherous to navigate. We're the end of the line. If we could direct the peasants back outside the walls toward the river—without a riot, and gave them access to rafts, and if they didn't overcrowd them in their panic and sink them—what direction would they have to go?"
"West to the sea," Bucky answered. He was starting to realize his mistake. He lowered his eyes as he understood how horrible the idea he'd just suggested actually was.
"And what direction is the Red Skull's army coming from?"
"West," Bucky whispered. The damage to their chances that he'd done by opening the gates was just starting to settle onto him.
"So the peasants have loaded a group of strong men and have floated down the river to the west, directly into the Red Skull's encampment. What happens to them?"
"If they aren't slaughtered, they're enslaved and pressed into service to attack us."
"And if the raft is full of women instead?"
Bucky's couldn't put the horrors they would be likely to face into words just then. He looked up at his father and tried not to blink, his eyes had gone glassy with tears he didn't want to shed. He'd condemned not just the peasants, but everyone in the castle, to death by starvation.
His father squeezed his biceps again. "You have such a big heart, my son, and you only sought to save people's lives. We sometimes have to make the harder decision: to save them from suffering." He looked around the room. "When the granaries run out, we'll perpetuate the news that it was due to the King's mismanagement, not the Prince who opened the gates. Is that understood?"
Bucky could feel the thunderous glare from Thaddeus, could imagine the fury Nick was so known for, but he couldn't turn around to face them himself. He could only see his father's kind face and behind him, Steve nodding in agreement but looking down, away from Bucky. The only sound in the room was Sam's quill scratching against his parchment, taking the notes of the meeting. Even Clint was silent.
"Can we still accept Essar's terms for aid?" Bucky asked so quietly he didn't know if his father would hear him. As much as he was reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, doing so might be the only way he could save his family and his people. His discomfort for their lives. It was a compromise he could make. He'd have to. It was his fault they would all starve otherwise. He had to do something to correct his horrible mistake.
He couldn't bring himself to look at Steve.
George nodded, but his brow furrowed. He stepped away, back toward his seat at the table. It took Bucky another moment before he could turn around. He kept his eyes focused on the table rather than look at the other men in the room. The rolling hills of Essar on the east side of the map caught his gaze.
"Nick, do you think a messenger on one of your fastest horses has a chance to ride for Essar?"
Bucky heard Nick shift in his chair. "It's unlikely. The Red Skull's Army is right on our doorstep. They'll see us dispatch a messenger and send their own men after him. He'll be overtaken."
"I can do it," Clint said. Bucky looked up at him. He was calm and relaxed, confident in his ability to outride the enemy.
"You are a good rider, Clint, and a good bowman but surely—"
"Send Natasha with me as backup. Between the two of us, we can outmaneuver whatever men the Red Skull sends to stop us."
Bucky looked to his father to see his brow wrinkled in thought. Finally, George looked to Clint. "Do it. Tell the King of Essar that we accept his terms. A fruitful union between our houses. The wedding to be held with the week of his army's relieving the castle." Clint nodded and stood, striding from the room with a bounce in his step.
George continued the meeting. "As we're going to have an influx of men... see to it that they are trained in the basics of siege warfare while we have the time. Have the chapel outfitted with straw for beds, the same as the great hall, the tavern floor of the barracks. They'll need roofs over their heads while they're here. Anywhere you can find a place to put them."
He continued on, but Bucky had stopped listening. His thoughts spun in circles, trapped between the army marching on their walls, fifty times the size of their own, and the arranged marriage to which he'd condemned himself.
The late-afternoon sun flooded the outer courtyard of the castle of Essar, and wind from the sea breeze carried heat and salt. Peggy inhaled deeply, enjoying the day, as she brushed Clove down after her ride. Clove nickered and shook her head when a large bird landed on the thatch of the stable roof. Peggy looked at the hawk and smiled. "Hello, Clint." It gave a single, loud, piercing cry before flying off again.
She dropped the brush in the basket near her feet and petted Clove's neck. "That's enough for now, what do you say?" The horse whinnied. "Happy, can you stall her up?" she called to the stablehand.
At her words, Happy came out from behind the hay bale he was spreading. "Of course, Your Highness."
She smiled and handed him Clove's lead and the basket of supplies. She needed to wash up a bit if she were going to be in the hall when their guest arrived. Though, she supposed, he wasn't really a guest, was he?
The light from the setting sun illuminated the mostly empty hall in sharp bands of light and shadow. Almost everyone was sitting down to supper by now. Peggy and her father, King Harrison, chose to postpone their meal.
Their court sorcerer Tony was there, standing inside of his circle. His hands were outstretched, and sweat beaded at his forehead. Several feet away, a dented breastplate hovered in the air. When the door opened a few moments later and their former court sorcerer—his father Howard—entered, the armor clattered to the floor.
Before anything could be said, the doors opened and Clint, their austringer, their bowman, their spy, entered the hall. Following a step behind him was a lithe woman with brilliant red hair. She looked nervous.
Clint approached the foot of the throne where Harrison sat, bowed low then turned and bowed to Peggy sitting next to him. The woman curtsied as well, graceful despite her confusion. "Your Grace," Clint said. His gaze lingered briefly on the plain chair that sat between the king and queen's thrones. "I was sorry to hear about Stanley. I know I sent a letter but I wanted to give my condolences in person as well. He was a good man."
Harrison nodded. Peggy could see the way his shoulders stiffened slightly against the back of his chair as his grief for the royal consort resurfaced. "Thank you, Clint."
The woman beside Clint looked at him with shock and sudden distrust in her eyes.
Harrison grinned. "I take it you have word from George?"
"I do, sir. Enra is willing to join your houses. Their eldest to your youngest." Clint dipped his head in Peggy's direction. "Not so little anymore, are you Pegs?"
She grinned at him, though she didn't feel as much joy at his news as her father must have. She wasn't interested in being married off for the good of the kingdom, but she knew it was her duty. The childhood nickname from him did spark joy in her heart.
The king chuckled, seemingly delighted. "What took them so long to agree? I thought the terms were as fair as I could offer them."
"They've got a custom where the prince and princess can choose their life partners. I think the prince was on the verge of choosing someone. He was a bit reluctant, but they've agreed on a wedding within a week of being relieved from the Red Skull's siege."
"But they've got a daughter as well?"
"Not yet a woman, as far as my little birds could learn," Clint answered.
Peggy felt her admiration for the royal family of Enra rising. She was pleased to hear they weren't willing to wed off a daughter not yet flowered, even if it were a prosperous match in their time of need. "What changed his mind?" she asked.
"Someone misunderstood an order and opened the gates, filling their outer bailey with peasants when they should have been sending as many non-essential mouths out the sally port as the could manage. It severely reduces your time to gather your men for relief. I estimate that they'll start running out of food by mid-summer."
"Your little birds, Clint?" Howard interrupted. "Has your connection with Lucky passed on to her brood?"
"Uh, no," Clint said, shuffling a little. "Just subterfuge I've learned to use to hide that connection."
"How is it going? You haven't started to sprout feathers or anything?" Howard asked. He was teasing, obviously, though there was a hint of worry that his magic had somehow gone wrong. Clint and Lucky's connection was the only one of its kind.
"Nope, no feathers," Clint said, patting himself down his thighs. The woman with him was looking even more baffled.
Harrison tilted his head and glanced at Peggy, humored by their conversation. Peggy decided a little teasing of her own was in order. "You know, ever since Howard forged the connection between you and Lucky, Tony's been attempting to make things fly. I expect he's trying to top his father's greatest feat."
In the corner, Tony stepped out of his sorcerer's circle and raised his nose in the air. Howard glanced around Clint to look at Tony even as he said to Peggy, "Does he know that Lucky could already fly before we did the procedure?"
"Yes, yes, make fun of me. Did you not see the breastplate I managed to lift?"
"We saw it," Peggy confirmed.
"With as much effort as you put into that," Howard said, watching as Tony dabbed his forehead with a small cloth, "I can't wait to see how much energy you intend to expend trying to get an entire knight and her horse to fly."
"Umm, excuse me Your Grace, Your Highness," the woman at Clint's side said. "But would someone explain what's going on?"
Peggy gave Clint a chiding look; he should have at least explained to his companion his delicate position with the realm. "He's one of ours," she said to the baffled woman. "A spy sent to infiltrate."
"But Enra and Essar are allies."
Clint shuffled again. "And I'd like to think I help keep it that way."
"And this thing with Lucky?" she asked, her keen gaze sharp on his face as she tried to determine what was lie and what was subterfuge.
Clint turned wide and slung his arm around her shoulders. He gave a short nod to Harrison and Peggy, before walking out of the hall guiding the woman along. "Ah, Natasha. That's going to require a stout mug of ale and some stew. And maybe removing some clothing. It's a long story, really, about innate magic and pushing the boundaries..." he was still rambling on as the hall door closed behind him.
Peggy was glad to have him home; she'd always been fond of Clint. She was less glad about raising an army and getting married, however.
* . * . *
The first change for Bucky, once the Red Skull's army closed around the castle walls, was that Cook had been told not to provide him breakfast any longer. It was an indulgence they couldn't afford if they were going to stretch the food within the castle to feed the hundreds of extra mouths of the peasants living within it.
The second change was the strange enclosed sense that settled on him. He couldn't leave the castle. No one could. Despite the size of the keep and both baileys, he felt trapped. Beyond the walls were a thousand men set up in camps, just waiting. Their supply train had finally caught up. Their carpenters and blacksmiths were working on siege engines, but they hadn't finished or employed them yet, so everything was still quiet.
Steve had found Bucky pacing the ramparts of the keep, away from the outside curtain wall where all the guardsmen stood waiting and watching for the enemy to move, to do something, and given him a book. It was written by the defenders of a previous siege in his grandfather's time. They had outlasted the attacking army and won. It helped Bucky understand more of what was likely to happen in the upcoming months, but it did nothing to assuage his guilt about opening the gates and severely weakening their chances of outlasting the enemy.
For the first two months, Bucky was able to walk among the crowds of excess people in the baileys, slipping through with a simple, plain peasant's cloak about his shoulders. If no one saw the deeply dyed colors of his clothes, they would be less suspicious of his identity. Most of these people had never had any need to visit the king's court and had no idea what the king looked like, much less what the prince looked like. Steve had been less interested in venturing out, but he did join him on occasion.
In April, the enemy had finished building their siege engines. The constant crashing of boulders at the walls lasted long into the night, every night, and started again shortly before dawn. Bucky was sure the ache in his head throbbed in time with each crack and crash of stone.
By the start of June, their meals had become immensely austere. They still had two meals a day, dinner and supper, but there was just enough to feel full rather than the abundance that Bucky was used to. The last of the cured meats were gone. After Sam witnessed his falcon Red Wing almost get skewered by an arrow that came from inside the walls, he refused to send her out to hunt in the woods north of the castle. It was too likely that she would end up a meal for some fortunate peasant.
The last time Steve and Bucky walked among the peasants, they found that the small vegetable and herb patch meant solely for the royal family had been stripped of everything edible, trampled and turned up in the peasants' search for something other than grain for bread. They walked by the food line, where knights and guards had lined up to keep a watchful eye to make sure no peasant got his share and came back for more. Steve and Bucky could easily hear one of the peasants arguing with the castle servant and the guards at the mill doors. "What do you mean, that's all we get? I've got a family I need to feed. This wouldn't be enough to feed a single man, much less a family!" He shoved at the servant. The other peasants were the ones to shoved him back. His small bag of milled wheat spilled to the ground, and the peasants who had pushed him down scrambled to scoop up what they could for their own bread. They didn't seem to care about the handfuls of dirt that they got with it. The loud peasant was pulled from the line and sent away without his day's share.
Steve's face had gone pale from watching the scuffle, and Bucky felt sick to his stomach. He grabbed Steve's arm, and led him back to the keep. After that, they only left the keep with an armed escort, and they only walked along the walls.
By the end of the month, even the royal family had been reduced to one meal a day, mainly consisting of spiced or wine-soaked bread. Cook did as much as he could with what he had available. Bucky wondered how many meals he might be skipping to provide them with what he did. He worried and grew more sullen.
Where was Essar? Where was their relief? Had Clint not made it? Had they considered the less than quick answer a snub and had decided not to come to Enra's aid out of spite? Bucky didn't know, and the thoughts worked their way into his mind like thorns, prickling him at odd hours.
As the fourth month of the siege opened, things grew worse. The men surrounding the walls doubled. Not only were there banners of a red skull on a gold field, now there were banners of a silver octopus on a black field. King Alexander of Tellis Tor, to the north, had joined his army with Johann's. Bucky couldn't see the horizon beyond the castle any longer. Now, as far as the eye could see, were tents and men of the attacking army.
A little after mid-summer, Bucky decided to pester Steve into walking the walls with him again.
"What do you say? A walk all the way 'round?" Bucky asked him. Steve offered him a shrug of indifference, and it irritated him. "It has to be better than just reading all day."
"I like reading," Steve snapped.
Bucky winced at the harsh tone. When he spoke next, he made sure to soften his own. "I'm sorry. I know you like reading. I didn't mean anything by it."
Steve nodded contritely. "I know. It's just... I suppose the lack of food is making me bad-tempered."
"Me too." Bucky set a sedate pace for their walk, and they strolled along in silence. Bucky was worried that no matter what subject he decided on, they would end up bickering. He didn't want to talk about the enemy on the horizon, or whether or not Essar was coming to their aid, or what that meant for him. He didn't want to talk about the lack of food or even be reminded of it, lest his hunger, or his guilt, grew worse.
The smell of rot and decay and earth rose up the closer they came to the chapel. Bucky chanced a glance at Steve to see him looking grimly back at him. Bucky didn't want to stop and watch the gravediggers but Steve paused to watch. Beside the four men digging holes in the small chapel yard, was a cart piled with bodies wrapped in coarse cloth. Bucky could see the gnarled hands of an old woman peeking out from under one and the lame foot of an old man beneath another. Resting on top of those was a small bundle, its size an obvious give away to the age of the person despite no bit of their body showing.
Bucky turned away first, unable to watch the gravediggers for long. He rested his forehead against a merlon and breathed deeply, wishing the smell of death would leave his nose. This was his fault. He knocked his forehead into the stone twice before he felt Steve's hand on his shoulder.
"It's not your fault, you know," he said as if he'd plucked the words directly from Bucky's brain. "They lived a lot longer in here than they would have out there." Bucky looked at him, sure misery and shame were written on his face. Steve gave him a sad smile and patted his shoulder. "Come on. The rhythm of the bombardment has changed."
Bucky stood up straight again and listened. Steve was right, it had changed. Along with it were men's shouts, and the sound of stone falling into water. They looked at one another and ran toward the source of the shouts.
When they reached the tower before the source of the shouts, a guardsman stopped them from passing through. "You don't want to go out there, Your Grace, Your Highness." He flinched as another boulder slammed into the walls of the tower. Dust rained down over them. "They've moved their trebuchets up a few feet. Just that, changed where they hit at the walls. It's likely that they'll bring them down now."
Bucky rushed to the arrow slit and stepped around the young bowman standing there. The bowman loosed his arrow and then shook his head. "They're still too far. I'm just wasting arrows," he said.
"May I try?" Bucky asked. He felt more alert than before. Something was finally happening. Albeit, this was probably a bad thing to happen, but it wasn't just the endless waiting. The archer handed his long bow to him and stepped out of the way. Stepping into the recently vacated spot, Bucky could see where the enemy had pushed their trebuchets up. He pulled an arrow from the barrel in front of him and nocked it. Before he drew the string back, he watched the way the enemies' banners flapped harshly in the wind. He judged about where he should aim, drew back the bow, and loosed his arrow.
One of the men manning the siege engine fell.
He smirked to himself. "Here," he said, handing the bow back to the younger man. "See the banners? You've got to correct for the wind."
The archer looked back out the arrow slit and then back at Bucky. "Well done, sir, and thank you." He nocked his own arrow, drew it back and loosed it. It struck the trebuchet. At least he was getting closer to the mark.
Bucky looked back at Steve. He looked unsettled by the noise and the news that the wall may come down. "Come on, let's get back to the keep."
* . * . *
The day after Steve walked the curtain wall with Bucky, he woke to Riley whispering to himself in his room. "Riley?"
"Oh," he said, obviously started. There wasn't very much light coming in through the small window high up on the walls of his room but he could already hear the crashing of boulders. "I'm sorry, Your Grace. I'm just..."
Beyond the safe walls of Steve's bedchamber, they could hear another servant running through the keep, shouting, "They've started a frontal assault, they've started a..." the words blended together as they echoed off the stone as the servant moved further through the keep.
Steve looked at Riley where he was standing. He was worried or nervous, his hands were shaking where he was holding Steve's tunic for him to dress. "What do you want to do, Riley?"
"I want to serve you, Your Grace," he answered.
Steve could feel his short temper already starting to fray. He got out of bed and let Riley help him dress in the deep violet gambeson that Winifred had made for him. When he was ready to venture out, Steve turned to him. "Go find Sam. Stay with him if he lets you. You don't need to wait on me today. I know you're worried about him."
The trembling had eased and Riley met his gaze. "Thank you, Your Grace."
He left and Steve nodded to himself in the dark room. "All right, now to find Bucky. Surely he has enough sense to stay off the walls today." He first checked Bucky's bedchamber and then he went up the tower to the council room. For once, it was empty. The next place he checked was the ramparts of the keep itself. When that was empty, he sought out Winifred in her solar.
"I suspect Bucky and George, and probably the whole council are going to be on the ramparts of the inner bailey, Steve," she said. She set down her embroidery and stood up. Becca glanced up from her own work but didn't follow when Winifred gestured for her to stay. Winifred walked with Steve out of the room. "How are you, Steven?" Her fingers played with the cuffs of one of the sleeves of his gambeson. "This looks nice on you. Now you look like you're one of our own." Her words were soft. When he didn't speak up to answer her, she asked again. "How are you?" He couldn't meet her gaze. She reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "We're as safe as can be. Even if they breach the outer walls, They've still got to take the inner bailey and the keep. He won't get to you."
He looked up at her and nodded. "I know. I worry that Bucky's going to find it all so exciting and join in and get hurt."
She smiled sadly and nodded. "Me too. Being besieged is dreadfully boring, isn't it? I almost don't blame him for craving the excitement. I don't think George will let him out of his sight today. Like how I'm keeping Becca close. If I thought you were interested in embroidery, I'd ask you to join us." She chuckled and Steve grinned. She pulled him into a hug and squeezed before letting go. "Go find Bucky. I'm sure having you close will ease his mind too."
Instead of going through the inner bailey to the wall, Steve went back to the ramparts of the keep and trekked the long way around along the wall walk. The river that ran behind the castle was immensely helpful in keeping the Red Skull's forces directly in front of the castle walls, where they were the most fortified. As he walked along the walls he could see a small contingent of King Alexander's forces across the river, keeping an eye on the sally port. Their black and silver pennons snapped in the breeze. Steve walked closer to the inside of the wall just in case they had archers with them.
He found Bucky and George, as well as Sam and Riley, standing on the ramparts over the middle gatehouse. He could hear the shouts of the attacking army as they worked their way to the walls, even if he couldn't see them. The bombardment continued, but where before the sound of boulders splashing into the moat below could be heard, now there was the crack of stone on stone. They'd thrown so many boulders that they'd built a bridge to the base of the walls.
Archers would be in the towers on either side of the stone bridge, shooting as quickly as they could to stop the enemy soldiers. The trebuchet inside the castle was active now, as well, and Steve could see the men working it below. One of the boulders from their trebuchet arched out over the walls and landed with a thunderous crash in the middle of the enemy line. Shouts and screams of pain filtered up even through the noise of everything else.
"So they pushed forward overnight," Steve finally said.
Sam nodded. "They're within reach. Pietro, Nick's squire, is doing relay for us. He'll be back soon to tell us more details of what's happening. I mean, I think we'd be safe enough at the barbican but I can understand the reasons King George has against being that close to the bombardment." He tilted his head in a short gesture toward Bucky who was pacing a little further off.
Back and forth, Bucky paced, passing three wide merlons again and again in his agitated state. His violet gambeson contrasted with his light skin and dark hair in the morning sunlight. There were even green vines embroidered on either side of his collar. He looked every part the Prince.
Steve could understand the reasons George would want to keep Bucky from participating. Firstly, because Bucky was his son and he worried for his safety. The other was that Bucky's continued good health was important for the agreement made with Essar. What would they demand if they relieved the castle to find that the prince they'd been promised had perished by accident? The thought of Bucky's upcoming marriage—if Essar did come to relieve them and won—made Steve's stomach sour. He knew it was going to happen, had figured it out as soon as he'd heard Essar's terms months ago, but he still hadn't completely come to terms with it. Bucky was just one more thing denied him. Not that he had ever gathered the courage to confess his desires, but now he didn't have to. All he had to do, all he could do, was support him when it was time for his wedding.
Across the outer bailey, Steve saw the wall next to the barbican crack. He took the few steps to stand at the crenel to watch closer. The wall didn't fall right away. The men atop that section seemed to fight all the harder until Thaddeus directed them away. Even at this distance, Steve could hear Knight Commander's thunderous voice booming orders. Lightly armored peasants started gathering around the wall's base, far enough back that if it crumbled they wouldn't be crushed but within striking distance with their pikes. If the wall fell and the enemy rushed the breach, they'd be running directly down into a bed of spears.
The wall held for four hours.
By the time it did fall, three other sections of wall were on the verge of collapse as well. The sound of rending and falling stone made Steve's sun-heated skin break into gooseflesh.
Pietro had run the walls several times to get commands and confirmations from King George. In the hours before the collapse, the peasant women, children, and those men too weak to fight were moved into the inner bailey. Some of the knights and bowmen were pulled back to the inner wall.
Cavalry were sent out to attack the front lines trying to climb the walls. They trampled them with their horses and rush back in, luring the enemy into the kill zone between the portcullises under the gatehouse. Pietro had raved about being able to drop rocks on the enemy soldiers' heads and about the screams they'd made when the others dropped boiling water on them before Sam quieted him.
Either Cook or Winifred had sent May to the walls to call them for dinner but George had shaken his head. "Not until the wall falls," he'd said. He had sounded so certain of it that Steve's gnawing hunger had faded a little, replaced by worry. The wall fell within the hour. The peasants and the men inside held the breach until the enemy soldiers were having to crawl over the bodies of their fallen peers before they too were slaughtered.
Then there were horns, recalling the Red Skull's army. Even the bombardment halted.
Steve was shocked at how sustained the fighting had been. How many men did the Red Skull, and now King Alexander, feel were disposable before they thought their losses were too great? From the walls he could see how weary everyone one was and still, Thaddeus, the masons, and peasants pushed on to rebuild the walls and patch them up as best they could. Many of the peasants started looting armor and weapons from the dead. Enra's dead were carried into the inner bailey to the chapel where the woman had been working at digging a few mass graves. The enemy dead were looted and then tossed back over the walls.
Steve couldn't stomach it and left first. Sam and Riley followed him. The three of them ate their small meal together in his chamber in relative silence. The reprieve from the bombardment felt like a blessing. Though there were still several hours of daylight left, Steve didn't want to return to the ramparts. Instead, he went to the library and retrieved his favorite book of poetry and then went to Winifred's solar.
The reprieve from the bombardment did not last. Steve could still hear it, could still feel the way it seemed to shake the very foundations of the keep. He noticed that after every strike, Winifred paused in her work, like she was listening for the next section of wall to fall.
The bombardment did not stop within the hour after sunset either, it continued, like drumbeats for the most brutal dance. There was indistinct shouting at one point. Shortly thereafter, Bucky entered the room. He looked exhausted and shocked, the way Steve would have imagined he would have looked to learn that a beloved pet had died. Heartsick.
He didn't speak at first, just walked into the room and stopped. Winifred set down her embroidery but did not stand immediately. "Bucky?" she asked.
When he didn't answer, she stood and went to him. Before she could pull him into a hug, he said very softly. "They took the outer bailey."
"Has your father pulled back to the ramparts on the keep?"
He nodded with the smallest of gestures.
"They didn't retrieve their dead. They gave us a reprieve for dinner and to bury our own but it was... fake. They used the time to push closer. The just trampled over their bodies... like mindless animals."
Winifred glanced back at Becca, obviously worried about how she was taking the news but Becca didn't lift her head from her embroidery. That didn't mean she wasn't listening. Steve saw her flick her gaze in his direction before she made her next stitch. Winifred raised her hand to cup Bucky's cheek and then reach behind him to pull him down into a hug. He mumbled into her shoulder, "Where is Essar? Am I not a good enough bargaining chip?"
"Oh, darling," she said. She held him tighter to her chest, cradling him despite his height over her or the fact that they were standing. "Don't think such things. You are wonderful. They will come. I know you aren't looking forward to the marriage but Harrison and Amanda are good, kind people. Their daughter will be just as kind-hearted. You'll get along fine. You are worth it. They wouldn't have asked for an alliance if they didn't believe you were worth it." She lowered her voice and if Steve hadn't been sitting so close, he might not have heard her words. "He'll understand, you know."
Bucky seemed to shudder in her embraced before pulling back from her and wiping at his face. "Father said that it was likely they would press further in during the night and start the assault on the inner bailey in the morning. And that we should be thankful for the small gatehouse and the way the outer bailey winds back and forth. They won't be able to bring their trebuchets or a battering ram."
"That is something to be thankful for. In the meantime, why don't we go to bed? It's late." She turned to look at Steve and Becca, "You too." Steve didn't bristle at her mothering. In fact, despite being a displaced king, he tended to like it when she and George showed they cared by grouping him in as one of their own children, but right now, he didn't think he could sleep. He told them good night, though, and even walked with Bucky to their shared hallway. They said their goodnights, and then Steve headed for the tower stairs. He might as well spend the time in the library.
Steve didn't bring a candle with him to the library. Instead, he wandered close to the window depicting the wedding and looked out over the inner bailey. It was packed with peasants sleeping or bedding down for the night in every little nook and cranny. Many were spread out over the training yard without even a roof over their heads to protect them from the nighttime dew.
The sky was bright with moonlight and he could see the few people still awake moving around down below. He looked out toward the horizon. Despite the moonlight, much of what he could see was just a mass of darkness. Even if Essar were right behind the surrounding army, he wouldn't be able to distinguish them at this distance.
He was tired. His body was sore from flinching and just the general tension of the day even though he had only stood on the walls and watched all the men working at repelling the enemy. His arms seemed to hold a sympathy ache for the bowmen. His skin had turned red and tender as if in sympathy for the men boiling water and sand all day in the mid-summer heat. Even his legs and feet, all the way down to his bones, throbbed with sympathy pain for the men wearing their mail and gambesons.
He thought about retiring to his bed, but the day still felt so heavy in his mind. He wished for something to eat. A small bit of bread or fruit always seemed to help him sleep. Maybe he could convince Cook to give him a bit of spiced wine.
He was staring blankly out of the window, watching as the last people settled down. Despite the crowd, the masses of sleeping people seemed peaceful. He hoped it was. Even they deserved a moment's rest.
There was movement farther out, closer to the gatehouse. He recognized the figure walking, creeping slowly amongst the sleeping peasants. Gilmore, his only other man-at-arms aside from Sam. He wondered what he was doing. Maybe he had forgotten something in the gatehouse earlier in the day? But that didn't make sense. He wouldn't have been in that gatehouse.
Steve rubbed at his dry eyes and squinted. Maybe it wasn't Gilmore. That thought was squashed when the man turned around as if checking to make sure his walk was stealthy. He got to the gatehouse and entered. Nothing happened for several long minutes. Steve began to think that he'd conjured him up, imagined he'd seen someone going to the gatehouse.
Then the portcullis rose.
Men started rushing through. They stabbed the peasants sleeping on the ground, some waking enough to cry out. Steve thought that he might be able to hear them, even all the way up in the donjon as he was. He couldn't think, couldn't process what he was seeing for another few seconds before he bolted for the stairs. "Betrayed!" he shouted as he tripped and stumbled down the stairs, unable to come up with anything else. "The enemy has breached the inner bailey, the enemy is inside the bailey!"
George and Bucky must not have been able to sleep either as they were the first to meet him in the hallways. Both of them held their longbows and still wore their violet gambesons. The three of them rushed to the battlements. From there, they could see the enemy pouring through the gatehouse. George strung his bow and Bucky followed suit. "Try to keep them from getting to the barracks. If our soldiers are trapped out there when Thaddeus gets the drawbridge up, we've lost them," George told Bucky. He grabbed an arrow from the barrel that had been stocked there earlier and loosed it. "Steve," he said, grabbing his second arrow and nocking it. "There's a crossbow in the tower. Get it, use it."
Steve was still reeling, but as George and Bucky loosed arrows at the enemy, he did as George had told him, running to the tower and grabbing one of the crossbows off the wall. He scooped up the bucket with quarrels and returned. He'd never used a crossbow, he'd never used any weapon, but he could see the practicality in doing so now. He'd watched others enough to know how to load it. He put his foot in the stirrup and pulled back on the string, feeling his already weary body struggling, but he did it. He loaded the quarrel and put the stock to his shoulder. There were too many. Who did he aim at? Who was peasant and who was enemy? The moonlight washed out all the colors and everyone was moving so quickly.
"Close to the base of the walls, Steve," Bucky shouted, "You'll be more accurate. Just don't hit Thaddeus!"
Steve aimed down through the machicolations. He could see Thaddeus, only wearing his breastplate over his mail rather than his full suit. He could see Sam as well, protecting the drawbridge but leaving it open. Sam was working to get the women and children who were fleeing the carnage in the yard inside and Thaddeus's voice boomed up, telling him off for it. Sam continued despite the order from George's Knight Commander. Steve finally spotted one of the enemy soldiers that he had a chance of taking out, looked down the stock of the crossbow and squeezed the lever. The clank it made as the quarrel shot rang in his ear but the man fell at the foot of the bridge.
His hands were trembling as he bent to redraw the crossbow.
"Bucky! The torchbearer," George shouted, "Don't let him get to the barracks!"
Steve looked up, his quarrel still in his hand to see Bucky's arrow knock down the man carrying a torch. There was a moment before another man tried to pick it up. George brought that one down.
Steve loaded his quarrel and braced the stock against his shoulder again. He intended to aim through the machicolations again to help Sam but his eyes were drawn to the torch still on the ground. There were more and more people running around, screaming, and all of them seemed to be rushing toward the keep. In the light of the torch, he saw three people running together from the stables. One of them broke off from the others and grabbed the torch. They stood there, holding the torch like a beacon, and Steve almost shot at them until he recognized who it was.
Wanda the stablehand.
She was looking around at the bailey, the ground littered with the dead and dying. More enemy troops were coming through the gatehouse and retaking it looked hopeless. She turned and ran, still carrying the torch aloft, but not toward the barracks. She ran toward the trebuchet. Her companions, Ned and Luis, shouted after her but didn't wait; they kept running and were soon out of sight. Wanda, however, was visible the entire time, unprotected, as she ran across the yard.
"What is she doing?" Bucky asked before loosing an arrow and dropping one of the men following her. Maybe she wasn't as unprotected as Steve had thought.
"She's trying to set fire to the trebuchet so they can't use it against us when they fully take the bailey," George said. He too, loosed an arrow, though instead of grabbing another he paused to catch his breath. Steve roused himself from watching her, mesmerized by the way the fire seemed to block out everything else, how the world faded to that single point of light. He blinked to try to get rid of the night blindness before he took another shot.
He reloaded and tried again.
About the time he was reloading for a fourth quarrel, a cacophony of shouts went up as the men-at-arms that slept in the barracks finally rushed out the door into the melee. They fought their way toward the bridge. Just as the last man was there, almost out of Steve's sight, Thaddeus's voice called out, "Winch the blasted—" A grunt of pain cut off his last word. Sam's voice took up the call, clear and loud despite the other sounds ringing around them. "Winch the bridge, winch the bridge!"
Steve heard the portcullises drop. He could hear the windlass under their feet, could hear the wood of the bridge groan as the men inside worked at raising it. When it was finally up, things seemed to go quiet. George looked out over the bailey littered with bodies. His eyebrows were drawn together, worry and sadness worn into the lines of his face. He shook his head. "I'll be back in a bit if you want to stay up here, boys. I need to see how Thaddeus and the others fared."
The crossbow was heavy in Steve's hands. He rested it against a merlon and looked at Bucky. Bucky was still looking out over the bailey. He, too, looked worn and worried, weary now that his blood was settling. The battlefield seemed quiet despite the soft moans of the dying. Even most of the enemy had stopped moving around. Steve couldn't even find them, they hadn't retreated but seemed to have taken refuge in the buildings that lined the courtyard. The stables, the chapel, the empty granaries. Bucky's gaze lifted like he was searching the horizon, but even in the bright moonlight he probably couldn't see beyond the bailey wall.
* . * . *
The horizon was still dark, not that Bucky expected anything different. It was night time after all. Maybe his thoughts were on the edge of fanciful, expecting Essar to swoop in like a brilliant new sun with food and warmth and comfort. It was ridiculous thinking. If they did come, they'd be swathed in blood and sweat just like he was.
He was so exhausted he was waxing poetic in his head now. It was a wonder he hadn't started seeing things. Even as he had the thought, something moved in the corner of his vision. He looked down to the edge of the far wall where he'd seen the movement. There was a person there, short and stocky. He wore a peasant's gambeson, dirty white and ill-fitting: the shoulders were bunched up, and the sleeves were too long. He was kneeling on the ground, drawing something.
"Steve?" Bucky asked, glancing at his friend. "Are you seeing that, or am I having waking dreams?"
Steve stepped closer and looked in the direction Bucky had pointed. He was quiet for a moment before he answered. "Yeah, I see him. You don't think...?"
"That's the Red Skull's court sorcerer, come to raise the dead?" Bucky asked. He tried to laugh after he made the comment, but he didn't think it came out as humorous as he intended.
"It was just peasant rumor."
They watched in silence, squinting in the sorcerer's direction, and every so often glancing at the bodies scattered across the bailey. Sorcery was foreign to Bucky. He'd read a few of the books in the library as a child, fairy tales about wizards in grand towers, but he knew it wasn't all made up. He knew Steve's mother, Queen Sarah, had employed a court sorceress, though he didn't know what they could really do. Was sorcery just soothsaying? Exaggerated potions and poultices claiming they could do more than the standard healer? Or was there some truth to the stablehand's tale, could they do something as vile and wicked as raise the dead?
The trebuchet was starting to smolder where Wanda had stuck the torch. The smoke drifted down like fog in the courtyard, making everything below them hazy.
He caught movement from the side of his eye and looked past Steve. Becca was walking toward them. She wore only her chemise, not even shoes, and her steps were stilted and halting like she was still asleep. As a small child, he'd seen her walk in her sleep; he'd been told that he'd done it himself on occasion. "Becca," he called, attempting to wake her up. "Becca, wake up. How did you even get out here?" He set down his bow and took the few steps toward her. She would need guiding back down the stairs and to her room when she woke.
Just before he reached to embrace her, something in her hands glimmered in the moonlight. There was a soft clunk as a wooden sheath dropped to the stone and past the balustrade to the roof of the keep. She raised her hand, dagger clenched tight in her fist. "Becca!" Bucky shouted, confused and alarmed. He backed up a few steps to evade her first swipe at him. He could knock it from her hand easily, could disable her, or sweep her feet out from under her. He'd done it often in training with the knights in the yard. But this was his baby sister, he could hurt her doing something like that.
Steve had turned around now and also called out to her. "Becca, stop! What are you doing?"
She changed her grip on the handle, shifting it from one hand to the other, then she raised it high and lunged, throwing her weight forward to stab at Bucky's chest. He stumbled back in shock even as Steve grabbed at her from behind.
"It's the sorcerer, Bucky, he's possessing her!" She turned around in his grip and wrestled with him. They stumbled back and Becca gained the advantage, bending Steve back over the balustrade. She raised the dagger and brought it down. It struck him in the shoulder clumsily.
"Take the shot, Buck!"
Bucky didn't want to look away. His heart was racing again but his hands didn't shake as he grabbed for his bow. He nocked an arrow, drew back the string, and loosed it. In the quiet of the courtyard, he heard the grunt the man made when it struck him near the neck where the gambeson he wore wasn't fitted properly. Bucky looked back to find Steve on his back, Becca over him, dagger near his temple. The tip seemed to shake between the strain both were putting on it.
Then Becca gasped and dropped it. It clattered to the stone next to Steve's head. She rushed to get off of him even as she started crying. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I stabbed you!" she wailed. She turned to Bucky, her hands covering her mouth in internal terror. "I stabbed both of you!"
Bucky glanced back out at the courtyard, completely still now that the sorcerer was dead. The smoke from the smoldering trebuchet distorted his vision of where the man had been. "It's all right, Becca, it's okay," he said, coming to her side to put his arm around her and calm her. He reached down to help Steve to his feet. "Come on, let's get you to mom."
She had dissolved completely into tears by then. Bucky just held her shoulders and guided her along the wall walk and to the tower. Steve followed behind, barring the tower door behind them. The sound of the trebuchet finally collapsing was muffled as they headed down the stairs.
After leaving Becca with their mother, mostly avoiding her worrying over the torn spots in their gambesons where Becca's dagger had pierced them, Bucky almost dragged Steve back to their hallway. He pulled Steve into his room without asking if it was okay, and when the door shut behind him he pushed him against it.
His blood was still high, rushing through his body from fear, and he kissed Steve on the lips without stopping to think. He pulled back to find Steve looking confused and shocked. "It was going to be you, Steve," he said, gripping tight to the front of Steve's gambeson. "I wanted you as my life partner." He felt out of breath and lightheaded from his confession. He couldn't look at Steve's stunned face at that moment and let his gaze slip down to the tear in the shoulder of his gambeson. "I thought I was going to lose you. I'm so glad you're okay."
"I felt the same way about you. I watched her stab you, and I knew I probably wouldn't be able to stop her, but I tried," he said. His voice went quiet then. "I was so scared."
Bucky looked back up, meeting his gaze. "I still want it to be you. I know I'm promised to someone else, but..."
Steve leaned the small distance forward and kissed him. Whatever words Bucky had been planning to say fled. Instead, he let his desires show in his actions. He deepened their kiss. Moved his hands up from where he had a death grip on Steve's gambeson to the back of his shoulders, then let one move further to cup the back of his head. He closed the distance between them completely, pinning Steve fully against the door. His knuckles scraped on it where he was holding Steve's head.
For his part, Steve seemed to be just as interested in drawing Bucky closer. His hands were interlaced at the small of Bucky's back.
Bucky couldn't feel Steve's body against his as well as he wanted. He broke from their kiss and started working at the ties that held his gambeson on. Steve watched him a moment, then started working on getting his own off. With the padded armor gone, Bucky continued, removing his tunic and shirt. Steve had worked from the other end, starting with his shoes and his hose, stripping those away after he removed his armor.
Overcome with urgency, Bucky pulled Steve close to kiss him again. Steve moaned and spread his hands out across Bucky's chest. There were a few scars, mostly from his time in the training yard. Some of the more gruff knights had insisted he train with sharpened swords. After the first one cut through his jack, his father, with his mother's wrath behind him, had set down rules about who was to train and engage Bucky in combat. Steve's fingers were soft, not even lightly calloused like Bucky's, and the way he was exploring his chest felt divine. Steve reached down and plucked at the ties where Bucky's hose were held up by his braies. Bucky hummed and stepped back, letting his hand slide down Steve's arm to interlace their fingers. He tugged him toward the bed, biting his lip, hoping his intentions were clear.
Steve smiled and joined him on the bed. They resumed their kiss and continued to explore one another's bodies until they fell asleep, sated and entangled with one another.
* . * . *
Steve stretched and rolled onto his back, yawning deeply. His hand landed on Bucky's shoulder. He smiled without opening his eyes, content to let himself fall back into sleep until someone cleared their throat. His eyes snapped open and he saw Ian, Bucky's manservant, fidgeting near the foot of the bed.
"I apologize, Your Grace, but Sam and Riley are looking for you, and the Queen wishes to speak with His Highness," Ian said. He kept his gaze riveted to the richly carved footboard, glancing up only once to see that Steve was looking at him.
Bucky sighed heavily from beside him. "I can dress myself today, Ian. Tell my mother I'll be along shortly."
"Yes, Your Highness," Ian said, bowing to both of them before rushing to the door and slipping out. Steve could see Riley standing outside the door with a frown on his face before the door closed.
"You'd think your manservant would be pleased you're safe and warm," Bucky mumbled, his words softer and breathier now that Ian was gone.
Steve hummed. "I'm not sure I care at the moment."
There was shouting out in the corridor and the sound of stone crashing against stone. This time it was Steve who sighed. "I suppose it was wishful thinking that they'd leave us alone after you killed their court sorcerer."
"Definitely. I suspect Alexander also has a court sorcerer hell-bent on killing us," Bucky said. He kissed Steve's bare shoulder and rolled from the bed. He wasted no time donning his clothes and combing through his hair. He tied it back and pulled on his coif and a helmet before finally fastening up his gambeson. In the early dawn light from his window, Steve could see the torn fabric over his heart where Becca's dagger had pierced the top few layers of linen. He fastened his baldric over his shoulder and added the sword he only tended to wear for official business. "Come on, Steve," he said, interrupting his staring, "I assume we've got another day of fighting ahead of us. Might as well face it head on." He reached out and cupped Steve jaw, kissed him quickly on the lips, then left the room.
Steve dressed more slowly. He wasn't feeling as eager to rain death down upon their enemies as Bucky seemed to be. He fingered the rip near the shoulder of his own gambeson before pulling it on. He opened the door to find Sam leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. His eyebrows raised as he gave Steve a once-over. "You should comb your hair and find your helmet."
Steve reached up and ran his fingers through his hair, patting it down so it wasn't quite as tousled. He looked back in Bucky's room and grabbed his coif and helmet off the floor, pulling them on without finesse.
"Good enough," Sam said.
There were more shouts from the floors above them and another rumble of dropping rocks. Steve looked toward the ceiling. "Shouldn't we head up there?"
"They can hold it without us for now. Can you tell me what happened last night?"
Steve raised his eyebrows back in Sam's direction; surely he understood the basics. He was almost positive Riley had warmed Sam's bed on occasion.
Sam cleared his throat. "Not that. That's obvious. No, with Gilmore. I heard you shouted 'betrayed' after the portcullis was raised, and I can't find him this morning."
All of the horrible feelings that had bubbled up inside Steve in those short moments when the bailey was breached rose up again like bile in his throat. "I was in the library. I couldn't sleep. I saw him." Sam started to look suspicious. The donjon was tall, people looked small from up there. "I saw him turn around, I saw his face," Steve insisted. He licked his lips and looked down at his hands. "He's been with us for as long as I can remember." He looked back up at Sam. "I'm sure you're feeling much the same way I am. Hurt, shocked by his actions."
Sam nodded slowly. "I am. But I also remember when he rolled up in a wagon of young orphaned peasant boys hoping to become pages or squires and later men-at-arms. I remember his accent on some words, more like the dialect from Tellis Tor than from the main villages in the Dryne valley, or the south near Enra. I was just a squire myself, and my father was the Knight Commander then. If he had suspicions, I don't know if he voiced them. Gilmore was accepted as a squire into your mother's service anyway."
"You think he was a spy?"
Sam sighed and gave a shrug, unfolding his arms and standing up from the wall. "I don't know. It makes my stomach writhe to think that he's been dishonest this whole time and he survived the sacking when none of our loyal men did." He patted Steve on the arm to offer comfort and then changed the subject. "The Queen wished to speak with you. The King as well. Then we can go up and help." As they walked toward the stairs, he said, "I heard you used a crossbow last night. How did you like it?"
After a short talk with Winifred, to insist that he was all right and that he held no ill-will toward Becca, Steve spoke with George. He too, worried Steve would avoid Becca, but in addition to the personal worry, he spoke about business.
"Thaddeus was injured last night, as I'm sure you know. Our healers are working on poultices for the wound. Now, I could name one of my other men to Knight Commander in his stead, but I was thinking of asking Sam to step in. He's your Knight Commander, of course, so he's already respected in that sense, but I think it will show all of our soldiers that I still trust you and your retinue. By now, all those within the keep know that Gilmore opened the gates for the enemy."
Steve felt overcome with love for the man. He was sure the feeling showed on his face even as he found words difficult. Finally, he said, "Thank you. Seeing Gilmore betray us like that was a blow, but knowing that you still trust us and... you're still trying to protect me. It means a great deal."
George smiled and reached out to hold Steve's shoulder, his thumb running over the violet threads of the gambeson that matched his own. "You're one of ours, you know. Winifred and I knew Bucky would choose you as his life partner. It's why I understood his reluctance to accept Essar's terms. Even if you aren't part of the family that way, you're still like a son to me. Of course I'll protect you." He playfully shook Steve's shoulder a bit. "You can always marry Becca," he said, though his lips had turned up at the corners like he knew what Steve's reaction was going to be.
Steve couldn't help the way his nose wrinkled up at the suggestion.
George saw it and laughed. "Already discussed it with Bucky, I take it?" He let go and turned. "Let's get a sword on your belt. It's better to have one even if you don't need it than to need it and not have it. Then we'll head on up. We've got a keep to defend."
So with a sword on his belt and a crossbow in his hands, Steve joined Bucky in the guard room above the drawbridge. He was with his knight friends. A man with a thick red mustache, Dum Dum if he remembered correctly, was laughing as he danced back and forth by the windlass. "Take that you Red Skull scum!" he shouted.
Steve approached to see that an entire row of peasants at the gates were screaming and twitching on the ground. "Hot sand?"
"Yep. Gets into the armor and burns like crazy. Takes less time than boiling water," Dum Dum said.
Steve nodded, agreeing, but added, "We have the cistern and access to the river directly under the castle. We don't have an endless supply of sand."
Dum Dum looked up and frowned but nodded. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Still, hot sand is my favorite thing to pour down murder holes."
Gabe, Monty, and Jacques, from where they were billowing the fire and tending the next cauldron, scoffed. "That's a lie," Gabe said, "Your favorite thing is giving them a face full of piss directly from the source."
Bucky snorted and loosed another arrow through the arrow slit. "That sounds like him." Below them, some men were dragging the twitching peasants away and new ones replaced them, trying to lift the door.
"They don't have a ram yet?" Steve asked. Dum Dum made a gesture indicating Steve should shoot an arrow down at the men at the portcullis. He did so, jerking a little at the clank it made and the scream one of the men made as the high-powered quarrel embedded itself into his shoulder through his mail.
"Nah," Jim answered from where he was using another arrow slit, "Wanda did some good thinking last night when she set the trebuchet alight. The wood's all embers, and until they realize that the stables have thick ram-quality timber in the roof and take those apart, they don't have anything to work with."
Nick also shot a crossbow quarrel down through a murder hole. "Or they could set up a pulley and pull timber over the curtain walls, bypassing the curves of the bailey entirely. That's how we did it to build the stables when the old ones rotted through years ago."
Steve had loaded another quarrel and shot it; this one caught a man closer to his neck and he dropped without a scream. "Let's hope they don't have a chance to think of that." He watched the man being pulled away. He loaded another bolt.
Steve was exhausted by dinner time, when they were relieved by a second, smaller crew of men and peasants—some of whom were women and boys. They retreated to Winifred's solar to eat their measly meals and rest before heading back up to the ramparts.
The combined armies of Johann and Alexander were mighty, and they seemed not to be demoralized by the number of dead that were piling up beyond the gates. They had finally started a relay line to carry the dead out of the baileys. Steve hoped they were getting some sort of burial. It was likely that many of them weren't fanatics for their rulers' causes and had died for something that wasn't in their hearts.
It was an hour after dinner when shouts from the ramparts carried to the guardroom and down the wall. Another army was attacking the enemy from behind. George and his council, along with Bucky, Steve, Winifred, and Becca, retreated to the donjon for a better look. From the library's east-facing window they could see a long phalanx making its way toward the castle from the southeast. At one flank were archers and at the other, in reserve, were shock cavalry. The banners and shields with a silver eagle on a blue field were recognizable even at the long distance.
Essar had finally come.
Bucky watched the incoming army through the lightly colored panels of the royal wedding window, but he didn't stay long. He left without a word to anyone, and though George and Winifred shared a look, neither went after him.
Steve also thought about leaving but was drawn back when Becca gasped and said, "Look, look!" Soaring above the curtain walls were two dozen grey pterippi carrying armored warriors. "Asgardian Valkyries," she said, awestruck and reverent. Steve thought they were magnificent with their enormous feathered wingspan and gleaming armor. The stories he'd read about them paled in comparison to the real thing. His first thought was to turn to Bucky to share in the experience of witnessing them, but Bucky had most likely retreated to his bedchamber. Steve didn't know if he was feeling sullen and didn't want company, or if he were hoping for one last stolen moment. He'd been glaring hard as he left, so Steve assumed it was the former.
George and the others left shortly thereafter, possibly to get a better viewing angle in one of the rooms lower down the tower. Steve stayed, enjoying the quiet solitude of his favorite room and the view of the might of Essar crushing the combined armies of Johann and King Alexander. Those fighting from the keep ramparts fought more fiercely, their hope renewed upon being joined by the Valkyries. When Essar's cavalry broke through the line and was able to meet the Valkyries, Steve headed down from the tower. It wouldn't do to hide now.
He stopped at Bucky's door and knocked, calling out for him.
There wasn't an answer and Steve knocked again. Bucky opened the door, an unhappy frown marred his handsome face. "What?" he snapped.
"Essar's cavalry broke through. They're riding through the baileys now."
He bit his lip and scrubbed at his face. He stepped back inside the room to recomb his hair and put on the golden circlet that typically sat in an elegantly carved box on a small table in the corner of his room. He turned to look at Steve. "Well?"
Steve hesitated for a moment before nodding. Bucky looked the part of a prince. Elegant in his violet gambeson with it's winding green vines at his collar. He must have spent the time mending the torn fabric at his heart because it was pulled closed with embroidery thread that matched the gambeson. Steve stepped aside as Bucky exited the room, and they headed down the stairs together.
The windlass was lowering the drawbridge as they got to the foyer. The rest of the royal family was already there. Winifred and Becca wore elaborately embroidered gowns padded and dyed to match the men's gambesons. Steve felt out of place until Winifred put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Now that the siege is over, I think I might add some silver stars to your collar when I mend your gambeson. What do you think?"
He gave her a small smile, which she returned, and then she lowered her hand. When the bridge was down they crossed it and descended the steps just as the Essarian cavalry knights slowed to a stop in front of them.
Astride a glossy black stallion was a man in polished plate, decorated much more intricately than the others. He removed his helmet to reveal a smiling tanned face. "Hail, King George."
"Hail, King Harrison," George intoned back. Winifred and Becca curtsied and Bucky bowed.
As they did, Steve was left standing awkwardly behind them. Harrison's gaze caught him. He smiled and nodded at Steve. "Hail, King Steven."
He didn't think there was anything about his person that identified him, but he said the greeting back, pleased that he was recognized as a peer.
Harrison got off of his horse and handed the reins off to one of the stablehands who had slipped out behind the royal family. "Michael is at the back of the column with my generals, James and Chester. Amanda decided not to join. She sends her regards and said we'll have to host a tourney in a year or so in Essar to celebrate when our first grandchild is born. She didn't want to miss the wedding but..." he gestured back toward the bailey walls where they could still hear the sounds of fighting. "We'll rout them soon."
Behind him, the collection of knights were starting to take off their helmets. They were all women.
"Come on, Pegs, let me introduce you. I know you were having fun and all..." Harrison said to one of them astride a dark bay horse. Her armor was intricately designed as well, though it had some less polished spots from actually participating in the fight.
Bucky seemed to go still. Steve thought he might be holding his breath. The woman pulled her helmet off and dark brown tresses cascaded around her shoulders. Harrison introduced her as Princess Margaret. Bucky had exhaled heavily in relief or shock. Steve glanced at his friend to see him staring at her. She was beautiful, and if the way Bucky was staring was any indication, he thought so too. Steve wondered if that would make their marriage easier. She dismounted and handed her reins to Wanda, then turned to look at Bucky. She smiled warmly at him.
Steve wanted to hate her on principle, but he suspected he wasn't going to be able to.
The rest of the afternoon was a whirlwind to Bucky. His mother insisted he stay with her as she oversaw the start of the wedding preparations. The chapel had to be swept clean of straw and cleaned. The guest rooms were aired and prepared. Bucky needed to bathe and wash his hair and try on his wedding clothes. Although he wouldn't be wearing it for the wedding, his mother said his gambeson needed mending—until she'd seen his attempt. She ran her fingertips over the slight pucker in the fabric and studied it a moment before nodding. "Well done," she said, and then there was some other task to do.
Sometime before sunset, word reached them that the last of the enemy was routed. Essar's supply train was still catching up, but they shared what food they brought freely. Cook was adamant that the celebratory meals should not be too lavish or else they'd be sick.
The evening's supper was small, but warm and friendly. The great hall was full and loud as the knights from three kingdoms shared bloody stories and lively tales.
Finally, when it was time for bed, Bucky was able to slip away from his mother. He caught up with Steve before the other man retired to his bedchamber. "Steve," he said. He grabbed Steve's arm. "Wait, please." He cupped his chin and kissed him, but Steve pulled away from him shortly. Bucky lowered his hand.
"Buck, what are you doing?" Steve said. He looked around the dim, brazier-lit hallway but came to the same conclusion that Bucky had: they were alone. "You're getting married tomorrow."
"I know," Bucky whispered. He could feel the urge to beg on the tip of his tongue, to ask for one more night with Steve, but he knew he couldn't ever say the words. Princes didn't beg. "I just thought that maybe..."
Steve's gaze seemed soft, understanding, but with there was a stubborn set to his jaw.
"Don't be like this, Bucky. Don't do something you'll regret. You haven't even had a proper conversation with her yet. Don't destroy any chance for trust between you."
Bucky swallowed. Somehow he'd deluded himself into thinking if he could just have one more night with Steve, he'd be able to leave it alone between them afterward. "The only thing I regret is not telling you sooner," he said after a moment.
Steve seemed to share the sentiment. He reached up and put a hand over Bucky chest, over his heart. "It's not like I'm going anywhere. We'll still be best friends."
Bucky reached up and grabbed Steve's delicate fingers. Steve nodded and entered his bedchamber. The door thunked against the stone as it closed. Bucky sighed and turned around, his gaze lowered to the floor as he headed toward his room.
He saw a pair of woman's feet before he looked up to see the rest of her. Princess Margaret was standing in the shadow of his door frame. She gave the impression that she had stood there long enough to witness his aborted bad decision. Bucky didn't want to meet her gaze, but he did, expecting anger at the very least.
He found understanding in her eyes and interest in the crook of her lips.
"Did you know that my kingdom has an interesting quirk like yours?" she asked. She pulled on the latch of his door and stepped back into his room. She took a seat on his bed, crossing her ankles. He closed the door behind him but didn't move further into the room. Ian had been in here; there were red embers in the hearth. They didn't provide much light, but combined with the moonlight from his window, he could see her well enough. She wasn't wearing a hat or hood, and her brown hair curled about her shoulders. It tempted him to run his fingers through it.
"What did you mean by quirk?" he asked hesitantly.
"That custom you have of letting the prince and princess choose their life partners, rather than having the king and queen make the decision."
He didn't know where she was going with this. He'd seen her dressed in armor, knew she was a warrior. Was their custom killing spouses for infidelity? He let his gaze travel the length of her bodice, searching for a dagger. Or maybe she had a vial of poison that she would feed him. He brought his gaze back up to her face when she didn't continue. Her eyebrows raised. He didn't know how to interpret the look. Was that a challenge? Was she asking if he approved of what he saw? She smiled and it complicated his thoughts even more. Why did she have to be so beautiful? Finally, he couldn't help but break the silence and the tension that had built up in his head. "What custom do you have?" he asked.
"The King and Queen typically have a consort. Man or woman, doesn't matter. My parents' consort, Stanley, passed away last year. They'd been a triad for as long as I can remember." She bounced the leg she had crossed; it made the hem of her skirt flap back and forth.
What did she expect him to say to that? A triad? Inviting a consort into the royal bed? He'd heard of a king having mistresses, women he would lay with other than his queen, but one that joined them together? What would three people even do together in an intimate setting? What if it was the consort that got the queen with child? What if the king or queen fell out of love with their spouse and in love with their consort? There was only room in one's heart for one person.
She must be testing him. Surely she couldn't have misunderstood his kiss with Steve for just an interest in any random man.
"I'm not... interested in something like that. Or at least, not at first," he said. He didn't want to disregard her custom completely, though, because maybe she was interested in that. Maybe she already had a lover. One of her lady knight companions? "Perhaps we could... include someone later, if that's what you wish." He felt like he'd handled that well enough; he hadn't said no, but he hadn't said yes, either. If she were testing him, hopefully, that would appease her.
She did not look appeased. She looked annoyed. She patted his bed with one hand. "Sit down, you're so stiff with tension you're making my neck hurt just looking at you. I'm not a snake, I'm not going to bit you as soon as you come close."
It took him a deliberate thought to fulfill her request. Once he reached the side of his bed, he sat on the side and removed his shoes, then sat back against the carved headboard. He might as well be comfortable. She considered him for a moment, then untied her own shoes and scooted up the bed to sit beside him. His heart seemed to thump twice every beat. Steve was in this bed with him last night. She would be here, officially, tomorrow. Between her words and his memory, his thoughts were misbehaving badly. He had to force himself to breathe evenly. She offered up the palm of her hand closest to him, and after a moment he realized what she wanted. He interlaced his fingers with hers. She squeezed his hand lightly. He could feel weapon calluses on her skin.
"I saw how you looked at him. I saw how you kissed him," she said softly. He made to pull his hand away, but she tightened her grip.
"He's not just some consort, someone to be replaced because of a craving."
"Of course not," she said. "That's not what I'm suggesting. I'm saying, the three of us could marry. Make it official. He's the partner you chose, I'm the partner you agreed to."
"But he's... he's a king. Displaced and all, but..."
"And we're in line for our own thrones. My father married my mother the Queen, not the other way around." She loosened her grip a little but didn't let go. "We're all on equal footing. Relatively. This could work."
Hope and nerves and impossibilities clogged his throat. After swallowing it down he managed to say. "We probably ought to ask him first. And our parents, before we decide this."
She smiled and then leaned over to kiss his cheek. "Of course, darling."
* . * . *
Peggy sought her father out early the next morning. He was strolling along the wall walk with King George and Queen Winifred.
"Good morning, Pegs," Harrison said, holding his arms out wide. She stepped into his embrace for the hug, and then stepped into line with them as they continued the survey of reconstruction and clean up.
"Good morning, Father. I have a proposal for you. It might mean we have to postpone the wedding."
"Postpone it? Why?" he said. His voice had turned a little gruff in his displeasure.
She caught eyes with Winifred, who had a knowing sort of look on her face. The Queen winked at her. At least she had the Queen's approval. "Just a few days, to make sure that King Steven has wedding clothes."
"Steven? Your betrothal to Steven was broken when Dryne fell. Are you feeling well? You're marrying George's boy, James."
"I was thinking I could marry both of them, actually."
Harrison stopped ambling to look at her. "What are you scheming? A marriage like that unites most of the continent. I didn't rear you to be a land-grabber."
"To be honest, I didn't think of the implications of uniting the continent, though I have thoughts about Tellis Tor and Dryne, now that you mention it—"
"Save it for the upcoming council meeting with the envoys from Asgard and Wakanda," Harrison warned.
"Right," she said, dismissing the political thoughts regarding the two enemies they crushed and routed yesterday. "I'm more interested in the personal, at the moment anyway. James is in love with Steven." She said it plainly. She didn't feel the need to soften her words. George and Winifred did not react beyond nodding. Good. They knew. She approved.
Harrison's mouth was pursed to the side in thought. "And you... what? Want to consort a king?"
"He wouldn't be a consort. It would be a triad. Equal footing."
He looked thoughtful. "This is your way of keeping with my terms, isn't it? Choosing one's partner is an Enran custom."
"And triads are ours."
He licked his lips and glanced at George and Winifred. "What do you think? Are the other kings going to kick up a fuss at a three-way alliance?"
"Possibly," George said, but he had a little smile on his face as he spoke. "I'm inclined to agree with your daughter, though. I want my son to be happy. This sounds like something that would make and keep him so." He looked at his wife, and his questioning look turn puzzled. The smirk on her face was mischievous. "What's got you smiling like a cat that got the cream?"
She looked at Peggy. "We won't have to postpone the wedding. Steve's wedding clothes are done, and he only needs to try them on to make sure everything fits right."
The men laughed, and Peggy and Winifred shared a smile.
After speaking with her father, Peggy spent the hours before dinner bathing and being pampered. Her livery maid and best friend, Angie, helped her wash her hair as they giggled and gossiped about anything and everything that came to mind. Angie had wondered where Peggy had disappeared to the night before and speculated that she'd visited her future husband's bedchamber early. When Peggy disclosed she had indeed visited James's room and even sat on the bed, Angie squealed with excitement and then laughed when Peggy described how nervous he had been—and she had only wanted to talk with him! Think about how nervous he would be tonight! When a maid named Betty brought them a small dinner, she was invited to join and tell any secrets she may have about the men that would be Peggy's husbands.
After dinner, Angie helped Peggy dress in her best gown, a delicate pale blue with pearls and lace decorating the sleeves and hem. She combed and styled her hair up in braids and secured her tiara with pins. Then they ambled along the wall walk around the inner bailey for a time, stopping to chat with several of her fellow lady knights and the Asgardian Valkyries, too.
Peggy had wanted a chance to speak with Steven, to measure how he was feeling about their inclusion of him, but she had to trust James when he said they'd spoken and he'd agreed. As the sun was starting to set, Peggy and Angie, along with their gathering retinue of women, headed to the chapel. Peasants had ceased their tasks and gathered on either side of the door to get a glimpse of her and the other royalty.
Michael was waiting for her at the door. "You look stunning, don't you?" he asked reaching out for her. She stepped into his embrace and lingered when he rocked from side to side. "Do you remember me teaching you to dance?" He asked, stepping back to get a better look at her. "You were so little."
"I was five. You couldn't have been older than ten-and-two."
"I was a tall boy at ten-and-two," he said, puffing up his chest.
"Slender as a rail and scruffy," she argued with a smile on her face. "Always out tumbling in the yard with father's knights."
He glanced over her shoulder at the group of warrior women who had accompanied her to the chapel. "You got into more scraps than I did."
She smiled a little and shrugged. He laughed.
"All right," he said, letting her go fully. "I suppose it's time for me to pass you along to your husband now."
"Husbands," she corrected.
He rolled his eyes. "Right, two husbands. You wouldn't have been satisfied with just the one."
She pretended to be offended at his words but couldn't hold the expression long before she laughed. They walked into the chapel. It was already crowded with guests, and the royal families were already at the front, waiting. James stood tall and only gave away his slight nerves by rolling the end of his sleeve between his fingers. He wore a violet tunic that matched his house's banners. It had green vines trailing down the sleeves and across his shoulders, with little golden roses along the way. His golden circlet was nestled in his brown hair that he'd left hanging freely about his shoulders. Steven stood beside him, wearing an overcoat—the style of clothing often worn in Dryne. It was a deep, glorious red. The cuffs, collar, and trim were heavily embroidered with silver thread, with the prominent motif being a five-pointed star. The tunic he wore under it was a dark blue. His head was unadorned and his blond hair was cropped short about his ears. Any kingly accouterments would have been left behind when he'd fled the sacking of Dryne. Although he was close to a head shorter than James, of similar height with Peggy, he stood straight and confident. If he was nervous, nothing about his countenance gave it away.
Ridiculously, Peggy felt butterflies. She'd known she would have to marry since she was a little girl, and she'd always looked at it as a duty she would be required to do. Though she did not know them well, she felt something like excitement in her blood. They would be hers. She was confident that theirs would be a well-matched union.
In the far corner, Tony had set up a sorcerer's circle. James was watching him with suspicion but did not raise any objections when Tony gestured at her and mumbled so lowly she doubted anyone could make out what he said. Howard had once told her that all the grand gesturing that Tony did wasn't necessary, the magic was in the runes of the circle and the words of the invocation and in the blood of the sorcerer. Tony just liked the gestures because they garnered him more attention than he might otherwise receive. She watched as he pricked his finger and let one drop spill onto his drawn runes. They released a brief bit of smoke and then Peggy felt a slight misting of water on her skin like if she were standing too close to the base of a waterfall. She looked down to find her gown sparkling as if a fine dusting of crushed diamonds coated it. She rubbed her fingers across the fine silk to find it just as smooth as before. She smiled and looked up toward her grooms. Both seemed relieved, and in James's case, awed by the way her dress now shimmered.
Then Michael guided her forward and presented her to them. The priest started the short ceremony. Peggy was sure she said all the appropriate things she needed to say and bowed her head and received the gods' blessing, but the words spoken came to her as if on a cloud. She tried to capture them, to keep them in her mind but it was trying to contain smoke through her fingers.
When it was over, the three of them walked out of the chapel side by side. The peasants cheered and broke apart so they and the rest of the recessional could walk through them. Without a word between them, Steven was the one to set the pace, not quite an amble but not a brisk walk either. Peggy was thankful the inner bailey had been cleared of the dead before the peasants had ceased their work to celebrate. They walked to the keep, and Steve led them to the great hall, where they took their seats at the table on the dais. The hall began to fill up with courtier, knights, and others, and soon enough castle servants began bringing out the meal.
As they ate, James began to relax. Steven, on the other hand, grew tenser. Peggy thought the dichotomy was amusing. When the heavier courses were brought to the table, the Cook kindly reminded those who had been in the castle during the siege to eat slowly and not to overwhelm themselves. Both of her husbands nodded and listened to the Cook's advice, putting small portions on their plates even when a roasted hog was brought out that smelled so heavenly that it made Peggy's mouth water.
Conversation between them was a little stilted, but Harrison and King George didn't seem to have a problem. They talked of past meetings, of previously current politics-—things were still upended from the siege, so they stayed away from that topic for the most part—and of their own weddings. It was clear that they'd been lifelong friends. Winifred and James's younger sister were at the other end of the table, and while the Queen did take part in the conversation, the sister did not. She instead, spoke quietly and often to her lady-in-waiting who was sitting close by.
Also at the table were Howard and Tony. They had their usual sniping sort of banter and joined in with Harrison and George. Tony even got Steven talking about the reputation of sorcery in books. Close to the end of the meal, a young woman with short red hair and a smudge of dirt on her face approached them. "Excuse me," she said, she curtsied a little clumsily but Steven smiled at her to encourage her. "Would you take me as your apprentice, court sorcerer?" she asked of Tony. She wasn't particularly demure; her eyes and back spoke of steel and fire and determination. Peggy liked her immediately.
Tony looked suitably impressed but then laughed a little. "I'm technically still an apprentice myself," he said, stroking his short beard, the hair of which was black shot through with grey. He looked at his father. "Somebody never acknowledged me and gave me the full title. I think it's because he didn't want competition as the only fully instated sorcerer in Essar."
Howard, whose hair and beard were fully gray and long, laughed and shook his head. "It's because you work harder when you're trying to prove yourself. I thought stepping down from my post and ceding it to you was testament enough that I trust you to take care of the kingdom's magical needs."
"Well it wasn't," Tony snapped.
Howard's lips pursed at the harsh tone but gestured back to the young girl in front of them. "You're a competent sorcerer, Anthony. You may take on apprentices of your own and pass on your craft as you so choose."
The scowl vanished from Tony's face, and he answered the formal acknowledgment with a simple, "Thank you." He looked back to the girl. "What's your name? What makes you think you have magical blood?"
"I'm Wanda," she said, "and my mother was the court sorceress of Dryne."
Tony's mouth opened a little in surprise, and then he nodded. "Yep, that would probably give you magical credence. I'll take you on as my apprentice." He gestured back at his father. "Don't worry, I'll probably acknowledge you in a much shorter time than this guy."
Howard just smiled in Tony's direction.
"Wanda," Winifred called, "What of your brother Pietro? Would he be interested in learning as well? Magical blood is so rare, it would be a shame to ignore it if that's what he wanted."
"I think he's content as Knight Nick's squire, Your Grace, but I'll ask him." She curtsied again and left.
Howard asked. "Do you think you can handle two of them, or should I apprentice the brother if he's interested?"
"I can handle them," Tony said. His face was tipped up with that familiar stubborn look he got when he was attempting to prove something to his father. Peggy used her wine cup to hide her smile. It seems Howard was still going to needle Tony into doing his best.
Several of Peggy's friends approached as well, and as one they curtsied to the Kings and the Queen. When Harrison gave a nod to them, Pepper was the one to step forward. "Are you ready for the bedding ceremony, Peggy?"
Peggy rolled her eyes but couldn't stop the grin on her face. The butterflies in her stomach were back. She set her cup down. "Yes, I believe I am." She stood and went with them. Natasha, her newest friend, led the way through the castle back to James's bedchamber. Neither Peggy nor Angie gave away that she already knew where it was. Once inside, Pepper, Natasha, Maria, and Sharon helped her take down her hair and undress. They whispered and giggled and gossiped, giving her advice about what was to come next. She'd read the same scandalizing stories they had, but she let them intone the sage advice from the books to her all the same. Pepper was the only one of them to have any experience, as she was married to General James. Peggy had also caught the way she, Tony and James stared at one another at meal times at home. She expected they would become their own triad soon if they hadn't already.
When she was down to her chemise, they tucked her in the center of the bed and stepped back to wait. Over their giggling, Peggy could hear a group of men singing bawdy songs and laughing as they carted her husbands to the door. By the time it opened and they entered, both Steven and James were down to their shirts.
Peggy swallowed, only now feeling a bit nervous. They went to either side of the bed and waited for the Kings and Queen to enter followed by more knights and courtier and the priest. The priest gestured for them to pull back the sheets and get in the bed. George and Harrison came behind them and pull the sheets back over them to cover their legs. The priest blessed the marriage bed, and Winifred had the honor of pulling the bed curtains closed around them.
Peggy, James, and Steven sat still and waited for the last of the witnesses to leave and shut the door behind them. They could still hear the knights sharing dirty jokes and repeating the bawdy songs even as they were ushered down the hallway back to the great hall.
Peggy exhaled in relief and then looked at the men on either side of her. "I must admit, I'm not quite sure what to do next."
James laughed and reached up to cup her cheek. "Don't worry, I'm sure we'll figure it out." He leaned in for a kiss. His breath tasted sweet from the spiced wine they'd had with dinner and the way his tongue caressed her warmed her blood in a way she wasn't at all used to. When he finally pulled away, she was breathing more heavily. He turned her head and offered her mouth to Steven. "Kiss her, Steve," he whispered.
As Steven kissed her, James shifted himself to press his mouth to her neck, kissing and licking the tender skin there. She shivered in delight in their embrace and felt pleased when James chuckled lowly as if in praise.
She was looking forward to what else he knew how to do with his tongue.
Peggy learned a lot about her husbands on their wedding night, not the least of which were their informal names. On the fourth day they were expected to be indisposed, Bucky decided they should get out of the castle. After a short discussion, they decided to take horses and ride across the river and into the wood to the north.
After the decision was made, and a cursory check-in made with the kings, where it was suggested that they ride armed and with guards, Peggy, Bucky, and Steve headed to the stable. The stablehands were accommodating and quick, and Peggy was astride Clove soon thereafter. She waited for a moment, expecting either of her husbands to say something about her riding style, but neither of them brought it up. What they did bring up, however, was the eastern saddle that the men's horses were equipped with. Bucky shifted awkwardly and frowned. "You don't have stirrups, but you've got four pommels. Why?"
Peggy demonstrated by leaning far over to press a kiss to his cheek before pulling herself up using just her thighs and the saddle. "It's for maneuverability in the saddle. Only the knights of my grandfather's time were using them, but now they've spread and almost everyone in Essar uses them. It might take some getting used to."
"I think my thighs are too thick," he complained, shifting again.
She had to bite her tongue and look away from him to stop her blush and smile because she knew just how muscular his thighs were. She caught Steve's pursed lips stopping him from grinning as well.
Clint, who had been the first to offer to ride as a guard, coughed to change the subject. "The horses are more used to these than Enran saddles. We might be able to find some Enran horses if you want."
Bucky frowned but looked at the small group of them already ready to ride. "No," he said, wiggling once more in his seat, "I'll be fine." With one last look at their companions—Pepper, Natasha, and Clint—they started toward the gatehouse. Right before they left the bailey, Tony joined them as well. He and Pepper shared a smile was that was far from subtle, and he fell right into conversation with Steve at the back of their group.
As they rode past the curtain wall and through the village, Peggy noticed how Bucky was looking around with a sad look on his face. Perhaps he was thinking the same thing she was, that the village seemed rather quiet for a center of trade. Had they lost that many peasants? She suspected they had.
The bridge leading across the river was made of stone, and their horses' shoes clattered against it noisily. As they entered the wood, Pepper caught Tony's attention and he nodded at Steve and slowed, falling back in line with her. Soon enough, their guards separated from them to give them some privacy.
"What were you thinking about as we rode through the village, Bucky?" Peggy asked.
"The scope of how many peasants perished during the siege. From starvation to the deceitful way the enemy sneaked in and murdered them at night. The village felt empty."
"I've not ventured here before, but it felt empty to me as well. I'm sure in a few years things will be full and bustling again though. Things like that take time," she said. He caught her gaze and let his eyes travel down to her belly. She hadn't intended to speak about their future, but she supposed the same thing applied. Becoming with child wasn't always as simple as laying with one another once. Sometimes multiple tries were needed. She was looking forward to them. She let a grin slip across her face before she turned Clove and encouraged her to a trot.
Steve caught up with her first. "Are you comfortable on horseback, Steve?" she asked. They slowed again as the tree canopy grew thicker above them.
"Well enough. I haven't had occasion to ride in a while, though." He was quiet for a moment before he said, "Can you tell me what Essar is like? I've only read stories. What does the sea really look like?"
"You can smell the salt from the sea on the breeze from the castle. It tends to lay thick on the skin, especially in the summer's heat. Things never feel completely dry in July, between the sweat and the water in the air. It's comfortable though, and a good excuse to wear the fine silks and delicate fabrics we get in trade from Wakanda." She watched him as he looked off toward the West. She wondered how often he did so without thinking about it. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to lose her home. To run. She was too stubborn to run, though she suspected he was as well and it had been at the urging of someone else that he'd fled his home. "What's Dryne like?"
"Cold," he answered, laughing a bit. "The castle is in the north of the kingdom, nestled on the side of a mountain. The villages in the valley below spread out as far as you can see. The air was always crisp and clear—well, not always, there were snowstorms—but the view from the towers was spectacular." He sounded sad. She hadn't meant to make him melancholic.
"I've read the term but I have no experience with it. What is snow?" she asked.
He looked back at her in shock, like she'd baffled him completely. "Really, it doesn't snow in Essar at all?"
She shook her head. "The sea is too warm for it."
"Wow," he said. "I thought it snowed everywhere."
Bucky had been riding just behind Steve and interjected, "It's wet and slushy. It soaks into your clothes and makes everything cold."
Steve made a face at him. "Real snow is fluffy. Or sometimes crunchy, if it's been in a spot the sun has warmed most of the afternoon."
"Sounds horrible," Bucky said, though he had a smile on his face.
A snapping twig caught her attention, and she turned just in time to be tackled off of Clove by someone jumping from a tree branch. In the act of falling, she pulled her dagger out of its sheath. The attacker landed on top of it and didn't move. It took her a minute to catch her breath from the fall, but she eventually pushed the body off of her. "Clint!" she called as soon as she was capable. The hawk that had been following them—whose eyes Clint could see through—swooped down with a piercing battle cry to aid Steve in fighting off his attacker. Bucky was just finishing with his, and he only paused a moment before he threw himself at Steve's attacker, flinging him away from Steve and onto the ground. The man pulled a dagger before Bucky could get back to him, but instead of getting up to try to attack them again he shouted, "For Hydra!" He thumped his chest where a tarnished breastplate had been crudely etched to display an octopus with a skull where its head should be. He unbuckled it just enough to shove his own dagger between his ribs.
Peggy was sure Bucky's face mirrored her own, disgust and possibly shock.
Bucky recovered quicker than she, however, and taunted the dead man, "Doesn't look like any hydra I've ever seen."
A gust of wind from enormous wings blew through the clearing just as an Asgardian pterippus landed. The woman astride it's back asked as she dismounted, "Seen your share of them, have you?"
Bucky turned around and his eyes went wide with awe as he stared at the Valkyrie and her steed. His voice was little more than a squeak when he answered, "Well, no." Peggy smothered the smile that wanted to cross her lips at his reaction.
The warrior, Brunnhilde if Peggy remembered correctly, tossed her brown hair over her shoulder and winked at him. "They're nasty beasts." She curtsied shallowly at the three of them before patting her mount's neck. "The Asgardian envoy has arrived. Princess Hela came to give her congratulations to the newest royal couple." Her gaze moved from Bucky to Peggy, then to Steve. "Triad," she tacked on, "whatever."
The trod of their companions' horses hooves against the forest floor alerted them to their arrival. Clint appeared first, looking more worried than he ought. "How did you get so far away from us?" he demanded. He wasn't angry, though. Peggy recognized the tone from when she'd wander too far from him as a child. He heaved a breath and looked at them. Peggy looked the worst of it, her orange silk gown ruined beyond repair. "Are you all right? All of you?"
"We're fine," Peggy reassured him. "It seems our ride was cut short. Let's get back. I'd rather not meet Hela covered in muck."
Brunnhilde, Peggy, and Bucky remounted their steeds even as Clint got off of his. He cut the breastplate with its modified sigil loose from the dead man and tied it to his saddle before getting back up. They rode for the castle, Clint only falling behind once to tell a few peasants about the three bodies in the woods that needed burying.
Steve headed for the tower as soon as they reached the keep, but Bucky and Peggy stopped in his rooms to clean themselves from the scuffle. He even offered to help her remove her soiled gown so she wouldn't need to call for Angie. His fingers tickled her sides as he raised it over her head and he pressed a kiss to the column of her neck when the gown was pulled away. She hummed, enjoying his touch, but made a point to ignore the heated look in his eyes when she turned around to get another gown. "Princess Hela and your father's council are waiting on us," she warned when he reached for her as she was tucking the wisps of hair that had escaped her coif back into place.
"They can get by without us," he murmured.
She turned around, setting her hands on her hips and raising one of her eyebrows at him. "I'm not sure if you normally attend council meetings, but I do. I want to know what's going on. If you're that... ravenous, we can always return here with Steve when the council breaks for dinner."
He pursed his lips like he was thinking about arguing but after a moment's pause conceded without speaking by opening the door and leading the way to the meeting room.
Peggy was almost envious of the relaxed grace that Princess Hela seemed to emit. She was the epitome of elegance in her black silk gown. Peggy thought there might even be emeralds sewn into the fabric at her wrists. She had an aura of danger, like she shouldn't be annoyed because her ire was deadly. She also looked bored.
There were three seats between King George and Harrison. Steve was sitting in the middle one. She took the one between him and her father after greeting King George and Princess Hela properly. Bucky followed, greeting her father and Princess Hela and sitting on Steve's other side.
"Congratulations," Hela said. The word sounded sharp.
"Thank you," Steve said for them.
Harrison went right to the heart of the meeting. "I believe Peggy and I have similar thoughts on this. While Alexander and Johann are scrambling back to their kingdoms, we should give chase before they can muster solid defenses. They've been a menace to the rest of us for quite a while now. Trying, and succeeding," he gestured toward Steve, "to take over other kingdoms without even attempting to parley their wishes."
"And I suppose you want Asgard's help with that."
"We would," Harrison said. "We worked well with the Valkyrie force Odin sent."
Hela let her gaze travel over the carved table, mapping out the continent. "Dryne would be returned to its rightful ruler and Tellis Tor would be absorbed by Enra and Essar. With this one alliance," she gestured with thin, jewel-bedecked fingers at Peggy, Steve, and Bucky, "and a short war, you control everything but Asgard. What does Asgard get besides a more massive potential enemy?"
Peggy could feel her father puffing up beside her. To cut him off, she laid her hand on his arm. "I have... an idea," she said. She let her eyes travel over the map, noting the current boundaries of their kingdoms. Hela cast her bored, irritated gaze at her. Peggy inhaled deeply, calming her nerves as the risky plan coalesced in her mind. This might anger King George, though she suspected Bucky might be on her side, as long as she laid her plan out properly. "If we eradicate Alexander and Johann's forces, Dryne would revert back to Steve. With its current borders intact, here," she said, gesturing to the table's map, "at the mountain pass to Tellis Tor and here at the bottom of the valley with Enra. Tellis Tor is divided here, along the spine of these mountains. The east to Essar, the west to Enra."
"Did I not explain my position clearly enough?" Hela interrupted. "Asgard gets nothing out of this," she snarled.
Peggy did not let the other woman's foul demeanor intimidate her, though she saw in her periphery the subtle way Bucky tensed in his chair. "Enra cedes some of her fertile valley plains to the south to Asgard." She stood to get a better look at the map, "Perhaps here," she pointed, "Up to this side of the southernmost river." It was a gamble. George could outright refuse, especially with as much fertile land as she'd suggested they cede. The land they would gain to the north would be less profitable for the crops they were known for now but it wasn't completely irredeemable in quality. Tellis Tor was a great supplier of wool and livestock. As astute as Hela seemed, she may not be as versed on the best uses of the land either and may think Peggy was trying to cheat her from a better deal. Or she may see how Peggy's suggestion still kept the key trade route, the southern river, in Enra's territory.
She sat back down and glanced under her lashes at her husbands and father-in-law. George looked calm and relaxed and he gave her a tiny nod and smile when he caught her looking. Steve was studying the map and after a moment seemed to come to the conclusion that her idea was sound and looked up at Hela. Bucky alone looked uncomfortable and nervous. Under the table, Peggy pressed her leg against Steve's. He completed the hidden movement and she could visible see Bucky settle when Steve pressed his other leg against his.
Hela, for her part, had lost her vicious look while she studied the map. It sounded like a good deal for Asgard. It was, but maybe not the best it could be. Peggy felt that perhaps the other woman had been sent to intimidate because she was good at it, but when Peggy wasn't intimidated and proposed a plan instead, Hela was out of her depth. Peggy would smile and congratulate herself later if this worked.
Finally, Hela nodded. "That seems fair. Have your chancellor write it up and I'll take it to my father. We'll begin mustering our army."
From there, the meeting moved on to logistics for the supply trains and how fast they could march to make sure they weren't pressing into Dryne for a siege in the dead of winter. Enra and Essar forces would go north, conquering Tellis Tor and what remained of Alexander's army there while Asgard would travel through western Enra to move up through Dryne. They would take Dryne castle together, using Steve's Knight Commander's knowledge about the castle defenses. Hopefully the campaign would be over with a few weeks to spare before the snows began. Admittedly, it was an ambitious plan, but Peggy was confident they could make it work.
Since the bulk of the Essarian army and what was left of the Enran forces were already at Enra, they didn't need to spend a lot of time waiting before pushing north into Tellis Tor. Peggy was still new to army life, as much as any royal person was exposed to it, but Bucky and Steve had never traveled like this. It was interesting to watch them adapt to it. Bucky was antsy and tended to ride at the front of the column. Steve seemed content to ride in the middle with Peggy where they were the most protected. Every so often, Bucky would double back to ride with them, vibrating with excitement at the way the landscape was changing around them. Soon enough though, he would get antsy again and return to the front.
As they were settling down for the night near the end of their first week's march and Bucky hadn't returned yet, Peggy asked Steve about it.
"I don't think he's ever been past the village outside the gates of the castle," he said from where he was lounging on a floor pillow. He was watching her with heavy-lidded eyes as she combed her hair in front of the polished mirror Riley had hung from the top of the tent wall.
"You don't have much more experience in the world than he does."
"I have some."
"Does fleeing for one's life and grieving what one's lost count, though? You probably weren't being inspired by the landscape."
He laughed but nodded his agreement. "No, I was caught in a seemingly endless cycle of wheezing from riding hard and sores from the saddle. Coupled with grief and fear, I don't remember the scenery on the way south at all." He sighed and sat up to take a sip of spiced wine from a cup on the table before relaxing again. "I don't know why I'm not restless and awestruck by the world beyond Enra. I've read of places farther east than Wakanda, farther north than Tellis Tor, farther south than Asgard. I feel content to experience everything from the relative safety of the middle of the army."
She was thoughtful for a moment before she tucked her comb back into her toilette case. She stood and walked to him. When she was close he reached up and pulled her down to join him on the pillow. She snuggled into his embrace. "You have a better head for strategy than I do, but somehow it feels like I was the one who planned most of the campaign. Does this feel like the right path to you, or have I made an enormous blunder?"
He pressed a kiss to her neck and she could feel the stubbly beginnings of a beard prickle through her chemise. "It feels right. Besides, would your father or Bucky's have stood behind you, behind us, if they felt this were the wrong course of action?"
She grinned. "I expect not." She gently pressed her hand down on the front of his hose to cup him through the wool. He hummed an appreciative noise, and she turned in his embrace to start undoing the ties on his clothes.
They may have started without Bucky, but that didn't mean they stopped when he finally entered their tent for the evening.
The army overtook Alexander's retreating supply train shortly thereafter. It was decided that after they took the remaining supplies they would disarm the peasants and let them return to their homesteads as a gesture of goodwill. They were given the option to join the Enran and Essarian armies, but they all declined. Peggy caught a whisper of a rumor that the king had gone mad, but there was nothing substantial to back up the claim so she dismissed it from her mind. A mad king was just as dangerous as a power-hungry one in her eyes.
The closer they got to the castle of Tellis Tor, the more deserted the landscape became. They passed several villages that were completely abandoned.
As the shock cavalry knights started to congregate near the front of the column, Peggy too started to move up. Bucky fell back. They met in the middle. "Are you going to be part of the cavalry again?" Bucky asked.
"I was thinking about it. It's rather fun."
"You're not scared?"
"That's part of the fun, though, isn't it? Feeling your blood rushing high, feeling your lance—"
There was a commotion just ahead of them, where the scouts had just returned. Peggy and Bucky dropped their conversation to ride forward and listen to the report.
"The surrounding village and the castle look deserted, Your Grace," the scout was telling Harrison and George. "The drawbridge is down."
"Did you ride in?" Harrison asked, though before he could answer he leaned closer to George to speak quietly. "Sounds like an odd way to do an ambush, wouldn't you say?"
"We didn't, sir."
"I had Lucky do a fly through," Clint added. "There are no preparations for a siege on any of the walls. The stables are empty. It's like everyone just left."
Harrison looked at George, who gave him a go-ahead gesture, and Harrison nodded. "Well make camp beyond the reach of the walls as if they had trebuchets, like a standard siege. Have the carpenters and engineers and Tony work on the trebuchets." He looked back over his shoulder at Peggy. "We'll have a conversation, all of us, before any further instruction is given."
The orders were disseminated throughout the army and Steve joined Peggy and Bucky as their tent was raised. He waited until they got inside before asking, "Do you think it's a trap?"
"If so, it's a strange one. Why leave the castle bridge down?" Bucky asked. He settled on the floor pillow and groaned when his back made a popping noise. He brought his hands behind his head and closed his eyes like he was going to nap.
Peggy smiled and settled on the bench at the foot of their bed. "Well, Father's given the order for the trebuchets to be made; we're going to slight the castle."
"Are we going to go through it before it's destroyed? Maybe something inside will give us a hint about where they've gone or what happened to them. You don't think King Alexander was killed and accidentally rolled into a mass grave?" Steve seemed agitated, almost like he wanted to pace, but the restrictive size of the tent made that difficult. He finally sat at the small table. He rested his wrists on the table and picked at his cuticles distractedly.
"There might be supplies still inside if peasants haven't ransacked the place already," Bucky said.
Peggy tapped Bucky's side with the toe of her shoe. "You don't think disease would have taken what remained of the servants, do you?"
"If there's any sign of diseased bodies when we do a walk-through then we'll just leave it alone without taking anything. Better to be safe than to bring pestilence into our kingdoms," Steve said.
Peggy tapped Bucky again and he cracked his eyelids open to look at her. She just shrugged. He shifted so one of his hands was free and then drew his fingers up her calf. It tickled pleasantly and she hummed. He raised an eyebrow, opening his eyes to look at her more intently. Steve caught the display and coughed.
"Let's not start something that will get interrupted when your fathers call together the council."
Bucky pulled his hand back from under her skirt and tucked it back behind his head. "You're no fun, Steve. Part of the fun is in the thrill of almost getting caught."
* . * . *
It started to drizzle after dinner, but that didn't stop them from making plans to investigate the seemingly empty castle while they still had a few hours of daylight.
Steve, at Bucky and Peggy's insistence, had ridden with them and a small selection of Enran and Essarian knights up to the castle. When it was clear they wouldn't be attacked from the walls, Clint led the way across the drawbridge and into the bailey. Everything looked normal. The stables across the courtyard, the small training yard beside them. The chapel on the other side. The garden next to the keep was flourishing and green, even. The wind was starting to pick up and Steve could smell the ripe produce on the vine. The scent of overripe and decaying vegetables came with it. The knights dismounted first, splitting up to search the grounds. After several quiet minutes, they returned.
Nick was the one to give Bucky the first report. "There are some tools in the stables but not much else. Likely peasants might have taken what they could."
Pepper spoke next. "The granaries are mostly full and the chapel hasn't been ransacked. The valuables like the sanctified candlesticks are still there." Her last words were almost drowned out as the sky flashed and thunder rolled ominously behind it. The rain picked up.
Sam was still on horseback, sitting next to Steve. His forehead creased in thought as he asked, "What sort of peasants take the stable gear but not the valuables?"
"Pious ones, perhaps?" Steve suggested. He didn't really expect his retort to actually answer the question, but Peggy was nodding.
"Women whose husbands have been pressed into war. That's an option, I suppose."
Dum Dum was shaking his head. "I don't like this, fellas. It feels wrong."
Sam was looking around and he tipped his chin at Dum Dum. "Feels like a trap, doesn't it?"
"We'll pair off," Peggy said, grimacing slightly as the wind gusted and caused the rain to go sideways directly into her face. "We're all armored and armed."
Some of the knights looked at one another, but no one wanted to argue with her. Those still on horseback dismounted and led the horses to the sheltered section of the stables. No need for them to stand out in the rain, especially if they were leaving their gear on them in case they needed to make a hasty exit.
Steve had expected Sam to pair off with him but Bucky beat him to it. "Up or down?" Bucky asked as they entered the keep. The first thing he noticed was how the air smelt of dust. How long did it take to accumulate dust without servants cleaning often? There were lanterns hung at the base of the stairs. Bucky picked one up, opening it to light the candle inside only to find it guttered. "Well, that's not going to be any help."
Pepper was just coming into the foyer as well, and she saw the problem. "I've got some candles in my pack. I'll get them. I don't think I have enough for all of us, so any of us heading into the bowels of the castle are first priority. The upper floors are more likely to have arrow loops and windows."
Although Steve had the arming sword George had given him, he didn't feel comfortable attempting to use it. Crossbows were one thing; stabbing a man who was also within reach and more capable of stabbing him in return was another. Doing so by candlelight sounded even more like a gamble. "Up," he said to Bucky. Peggy and Clint joined them on the stairs as well, and at the first level, they split apart. Steve and Bucky continued up the stairs.
Tellis Tor was a much smaller castle than Enra or even Dryne. Older as well. The walls didn't have machicolations and Steve hadn't noticed any hoardings as they approached. There had only been the one bailey. There wasn't even a donjon. Just the single monolith of stone with a single curtain wall surrounding it. They probably should have started their investigation on the second floor but he was intrigued. For such a small castle, how many floors were there? The answer, as they continued up the spiraling stair, was three.
Worn tapestries hung along the short hallway. Between them were four doors to the only rooms on the floor. Steve assumed they were going to be bedrooms. He walked to the farthest one and, after a deep breath to calm his nerves, opened it. A small bedroom and solar, empty aside from the furniture. He walked further into the room and dust kicked up into a cloud at his feet. The air smelt of mildew. The only window, at the top of the outside wall, was missing its glass. The storm clouds that had moved in overhead made what little light coming in dim.
Bucky had followed him. He didn't act like he was nervous at all. The foreboding atmosphere apparently didn't faze him. He shuffled through the chest at the foot of the bed, tossing moth-eaten woolen gowns across the footboard as he rummaged around in the bottom of the trunk.
"What are you looking for?" Steve asked, even as he turned to look at the toilette against the wall. Makeup containers, their contents dried and old, were scattered across the tabletop. Perfume bottles evaporated of their contents were laying on their sides.
"Jewelry. Anything that might be of value," he turned and took a step in Steve's direction. He squinted at the small hand mirror on the table and then tapped it with a finger. When he stepped back Steve noticed how the glass in it was cracked. "There's nothing in here. Obviously, King Alexander hasn't had guests. This room hasn't been occupied in a while."
They moved on to the next. All three were in similar states to the first, and even Steve was disheartened. He didn't know what he'd expected to find, but surely Alexander would have had something valuable in the castle, even if he'd fled before they'd arrived. He hoped there might be spices or usable foodstuffs or even wool downstairs. Something that would prove the land valuable. George and Bucky, at Peggy's inclination, had traded usable land for this rocky land.
They went down a floor and started in the closest rooms this time. The first one they entered wasn't a bedroom but an odd mix of trophy room and personal armory. There were enormous, heavy-looking crossbows on the wall and swords that Steve was sure were longer than he was tall. On the floor was a bear pelt, so large that spread flat as it was, each clawed paw touched either side of the room. There were also several varieties of shields painted from all the kingdoms, including one from Dryne. It was a rotella. The red and blue quartered field was chipped, but the silver star in the middle was still shiny. He brushed his fingers along its edge as they left the room.
The next two doors led to bedrooms that seemed more lived in. The dust was sparse and the clothing in the trunks was still wearable. The scent of flowers still clung to some of them. Bucky found some jewelry and an oiled sword with jewels encrusted in the handle and on the scabbard. He left them on the bed so they could come back and retrieve them after they finished looking through the rooms.
The last door on the floor was stuck, and Bucky pushed his weight against it once before Steve spotted the reason it was stuck. Wedged in the corner at the bottom was a block of wood about the size of his fist. He pointed it out to Bucky and then bent to retrieve it. He had to use both hands and pull back before it started to wiggle. It came loose all at once.
The door swung open quickly and knocked Steve off balance. He fell onto his backside just as something—someone—stumbled out of the door. Whoever it was tripped over him.
It wasn't a startled scream but one of pain. Steve stood up to see Bucky holding his hand to his left shoulder, blood soaking into the sleeve of his gambeson. He was stumbling backward away from the man who had stabbed him but he had nowhere to go. He'd turned the wrong way, away from the stairs, and was now blocked by the figure.
The figure was thin and wore a king's cloak about his bony shoulders. He was holding a needle-like dagger even as he took another stumbling, shuffling step toward Bucky.
Steve didn't think about the sword at his belt. He darted back to the armory and grabbed the rotella with its bright star of Dryne. He rushed back out and, holding the shield on either side, rammed into the figure. He was so frail that he fell easily. His dagger tumbled from his grip and skittered across the floor. Steve brought the shield up once more and brought it down hard on the body underneath him. Something cracked and the man didn't move again.
Steve looked up to see fear and pain still bright in Bucky's eyes. Behind him, he could hear Clint's shouts and footsteps against stone. Clint grabbed his shoulder and pulled him to his feet. "What happened?" he asked but when he didn't get much of an answer from Steve he passed him back to the next set of hands. Peggy's. Behind her, he could see the scarlet hair of Natasha and he caught a brief glance of Dum Dum's burnished grey breastplate.
The fear had faded from Bucky's eyes but he was still clutching his left shoulder. Blood had soaked the fabric and had formed a rivulet down his hand. It dripped from his limp fingers.
Steve, Bucky, the body and the few items of value were moved to the great hall. The fading light from the sun lit the space better than the hallway they'd been in. Natasha had pushed Bucky down into a chair and peeled his armor off to get at his wound. Clint sat Steve on his other side so he couldn't see the wound and Peggy sat beside him, rubbing his back.
"What happened?" Clint asked again when they were settled.
"We'd checked the third floor and didn't find anything then moved to the second. Checked all the rooms but the last one," Steve explained. "It had something wedging the door shut, I removed it, and—"
"You didn't find it odd that a door was barred from the outside?" Natasha asked, turning her head to look at him. Her eyebrows were pinched close and he could see the disappointment and worry written in the expression.
"Everything had been covered in dust," Bucky said softly. He grimaced when Natasha did something to his arm but continued, "we let our guard down."
"I'll say," Clint agreed. He, too, sounded angry. He turned to the body next, rolling it over to get a better look at it.
In Steve's ear, Peggy whispered, "Don't worry. He's not angry with you, he's upset that one of us got hurt."
"King's cloak," Clint said, picking up the dagger that had been brought down with the body. He used it to flip open the cloak. "Kingly overcoat." He wiped the dagger on the fabric and then used it to cut the coin purse from the man's belt. He hefted it in his hands to judge the weight of it. "King's purse." He then tapped the crown buried down under the man's dirty blond hair. When the crown didn't budge he frowned and looked closer. "It's been fastened to his head," he mumbled, "gross." He stood, evidently satisfied that this was most likely King Alexander. When he stood, Steve could see the grime of dried blood on the man's aged face.
Clint moved to investigate the rotella next. He picked it up and flipped it around. The leather handles had disintegrated and broken. He turned it slowly to see the front. The Drynian star was smeared red. "How did you even wield this?"
Steve held up both hands to display how he did it and Clint nodded. "It seems ol' Alex here was the last person in the castle. Let's get you guys back to camp." He frowned at Bucky and mumbled, "And hope your father doesn't kill me."
"Is he sick?" Steve asked, then when Clint cocked his head in question, he amended and pointed to the body, "Was he sick?"
"Like, diseased?" Clint asked, he turned and looked the body over. "Nah, don't look like it. We won't take him back, just in case. Someone can get some peasants to come dig a hole for him before we slight the castle if you like." Steve nodded dumbly and let Peggy lead him from the castle. The storm was still ongoing as they rode back to camp and they were drenched by the time he, Peggy, and Bucky were back in their tent.
Between a worried visit from George and another from one of their healers, it was a long time before they got some rest.
* . * . *
With no defenders, it was easy enough to move the trebuchets close enough to slight the castle without dragging it out. The sound of collapsing stone beyond their tent walls as the trebuchets were launched played a backdrop to the conversation that Peggy, Steve, and Bucky were having.
It wasn't going in Peggy's favor.
"I really think it would be best if you took a small group of men and rode home. We can handle this without you."
Bucky was sitting on the bed with his left arm held close to his body. His clothing was arranged in a way to keep the bandages and poultice in place. His jaw was clenched but she couldn't tell if it was from pain or from stubborn determination to argue with her. "This is our fight too."
"If anything, this is Steve's fight," she countered.
Steve sighed a little but didn't speak.
"Bucky, you can't move your arm. You said it yourself, your fingers are numb. You need bed rest and care from a healer. You flinch when the bed jars when Steve and I lay beside you. Riding a horse is going to be painful enough. You don't need to subject yourself to worse." She paused to breathe, to calm her tone. Nagging him would make him dig his heels in further. "The peasants say that the pass is dangerous. It's possible the rains would have loosened the rock. A mountain goat high on a cliff above could cause an avalanche."
"Then why are we taking our army through it?" Bucky asked. His tone, too, had grown sharp and loud. "Soldiers. On foot. Not the least bit capable of outrunning falling rock. It's debatable that our horses would even be capable of outrunning it."
"Because it would take too much time to travel all the way south back through Enra and around the mountains. Asgard is expecting us on the other side."
"And if we fail to make the engagement?" he asked.
Steve spoke up from where he was sitting at the table. "Then we quite possibly lose them as allies."
"And that's worth the risk?" Bucky asked.
"Yes," Peggy said. She crossed her arms and pushed the topic back to what she'd been insisting on. "You, however, don't need to take that risk."
"I'm riding with you. I'm seeing this through. What can the healers back at Enra do that the healers here haven't already done? We've just go to wait to see if feeling comes back. Sitting in bed miles away from you two isn't going to guarantee healing." Bucky gestured toward Steve with his good arm but winced as it jarred his torso. "Steve, back me up. I'm going with you. This is important for you, and I'm going to be there."
Steve looked between them and raised both hands. "I can see both sides of the argument, and I'm not taking either person's side," he prefaced. "I can see Peggy's side because I'm worried about the pass and how painful it's going to be if you have to ride at full gallop. I know her fear and worry because it's my own. But I know how loyal you are, and retaking Dryne is important to me. I know you wouldn't want to be anywhere else than at my side as we do this."
Peggy could see she was going to lose the argument and gave one more plea. "Then ride to Essar instead of Enra. There's a garrison outpost closer than Enra castle. We can send a raven or... or Lucky, with a message to have one of the Essarian healers come to the outpost to treat you."
Bucky shook his head. "No. Tomorrow, when you mount up to ride through the pass, I'm going with you."
She was so angry her teeth hurt. She wanted to cry in frustration. Couldn't he see that with a wound like his if he didn't take strict precautions and follow a healer's advice he may lose the mobility of his arm? She wanted to storm from the tent, to hide her emotions, to rage, to strike something. Instead, she stomped over to the floor pillow and flopped down with her back to the bed and Bucky in it. In the corner of the polished mirror hanging from the tent wall, she could just make out the image of Bucky's face going tender as he looked at her back.
Steve reached out and touched her with gentle hands, removing her coif and taking the pins out of her hair. When it was down and loose, he rubbed his fingers against her scalp. She closed her eyes and let his sweet caress ease the tension from her body. Too bad it didn't remove her worry.
* . * . *
Steve had never been through the mountain pass between Tellis Tor and Dryne. Though Dryne had always had a garrison on this part of their border, very few people traveled this way. He could see why. The road was carved into the side of the mountain. It was low enough to sea level that if someone fell off the road, they'd tumble right into sharp rocks and crashing waves of the sea. The road was wide enough for ten men to walk abreast but behind them, the column was folding in on itself, narrowing to five men walking shoulder to shoulder. The cavalry did likewise, dropping to riding two people side by side. Peggy's brother Michael suggested she and he ride alongside one another, so Steve rode beside Bucky.
Bucky did not look nervous about the steep wall of rock to their left. He was focusing on holding his arm so it wouldn't jar too much with every step of his horse. Steve kept glancing over at him, ostensibly to look out at the sea—which he'd never seen before—but he was worried for him. Every so often Steve would catch him wiggling his fingers, or reaching up with the other hand to squeeze at them, testing how numb they really were.
Steve was nervous about the precipitous rock wall beside them, and he kept his gaze averted from it for most of the stretch. The sea held his attention. It was dark blue, darker than the books and Peggy made it out to be, and wild. But it was only wild where it stubbornly rushed forward to meet the mountain. It seemed continuously angry to find the mountain in its path despite their coexistence since the beginning of time. It reminded him of Peggy somehow, at turns calm and stubbornly angry. He wondered if something similar could be said about him. Was he also influenced by the location of his kingdom along the sea, despite having never seen it? Or perhaps his unyielding nature was guided by the high stone walls of Dryne castle and the harsh winters that blanketed the kingdom.
When they had traversed the length of the pass, the road widened and gently turned. The Dryne River valley opened out below them. From their vantage point, they could see the river winding through the valley bottom and villages spreading out along its banks. Wide managed copses of spruce and pine and firs separated them along the valley floor and up the gently sloping sides at the base of the mountains. The seasons hadn't turned yet so everything was still lush and green and beautiful.
They could even see the Asgardian army just coming around the foot of the farthest mountain.
To their right, built into the mountain was Dryne castle. It looked imposing with its dark grey stones and spires, but it inspired such emotion in Steve's chest he thought tears might pour from his eyes.
He was coming home.
* . * . *
It took another week to get their armies into position. Peggy started to feel the restlessness that had so wound Bucky up on the first leg of their journey. It crept into every moment until she couldn't stand still. To stop from wandering too far and getting lost, she spent much of the days wandering through the villages along the river. The valley floor was covered with soldiers' tents and the typical soldiery things, but the peasants in the villages didn't seem to mind. They were a hardy folk, who, if you dallied too long attempting to draw them out for conversation, would sooner put you to work, no matter if you wore a crown or royal colors. She could see how Steve came from stock like this. They were practical and hardworking and didn't believe in wasting anything.
The attack on the castle was not left in Peggy's hands. Instead, Sam, Steve's Knight Commander, was put in charge of a majority of the force available to him. He knew the weather and the castle better than anyone. "With how flush the villages are with peasants, I'd say Johann has already ejected the majority of non-essentials from the castle. The storerooms underneath can typically sustain a small retinue for months—well into the winter seasons where the snows and bitter cold will kill the surrounding army," he said. He was standing in front of a wide, rickety table in their command tent. The Royals were there, even Bucky—as sitting here listening to a war plan wasn't any more physically demanding that laying in their bed—and the commanders of the different units within both the Asgardian, Essarian, and Enran armies. It was quite crowded.
"I want to do this with the least amount of bloodshed as possible, like most reasonable people," Sam continued, "so we're going to just camp out. Build a few trebuchets—or at least give the illusion that we're building them because we don't want to damage the walls too much—and after two or three weeks, when they realize we're planning on trying to starve them out, we go in through the back door."
"It can't be that easy. Sally ports are notoriously hard to infiltrate," Commander Chester said.
"Dryne doesn't have a sally port. It's built into the mountain. There are several caves that come up underneath the castle that are used for a similar purpose. Only someone who knows the right way would be able to infiltrate the castle from them and there are too many to properly guard without giving away the right path."
"And I take it you're our guide?"
"Yes," Sam said, nodding. "We'll use the Valkyries and their pterippi as a distraction while well-armored soldiers who are used to close combat sneak into the castle from underneath."
Chester looked vaguely impressed.
* . * . *
When the time came for Sam's plan to go into action, he stopped by their tent. Bucky was dozing and only heard part of the conversation between the Knight Commander and Steve. "If anything happens, promise me you'll take care of Riley. And Red Wing."
"You're going to be fine, Sam," Steve said, "but I promise."
They said their goodbyes and then Steve wandered over. "Want to play chess, Buck?"
Bucky roused himself a bit and vocalized something that might have been an affirmative. He was so tired of bedrest already. He wiggled his fingers on his left hand, and as he'd started doing, reached over to touch each finger with the other. Pinky, ring finger, and middle finger were numb. Half of the first finger and the first knuckle of the thumb. It frustrated him greatly. He sat up and Steve fluffed some pillowed behind him so he could be propped up to see the chessboard.
As they took their first move or two, something that Bucky had thought about at the council meeting in the command tent came back to him. "If the castle has such good defenses, why did your mom send you away when Johann attacked?" he asked. He realized it was probably an insensitive question and braced himself for a hurt expression he expected Steve to get.
He surprised him, shrugging and taking his next move. "Before I was born, Johann was my father's Knight Commander. He did something on a campaign—my mother never told me, but I suspect it was something horrendous—and Father banished him."
"So he knew how to navigate the caves under the castle like Sam does," Bucky said.
Steve nodded, then gestured to the board. Bucky looked back down at it and called out his move so Steve could move the piece for him.
"You know, it's been interesting to see how the two of you look at the landscape here in awe," Steve said after a few quiet minutes. "I suppose I'd look at her homeland the same way. I almost feel bad taking her away from it."
Bucky looked up from the game and blinked. "Taking her away from it? What do you mean?"
"Well, if this is successful, then we'll be living here." He gestured over his shoulder in the general direction of the castle.
"We'll be living... oh."
"What?" Steve asked. He shifted his weight in his chair.
"I... I didn't say goodbye to mom and Becca," Bucky confessed. His heart hurt with the thought. He'd given them both a hug and a kiss but it hadn't occurred to him that he was leaving home for good. "I mean, properly. I just... I don't even know what Ian packed for me. Did he pack all of my things? I..." Bucky couldn't bring himself to look at Steve. He felt like maybe he was being rude or selfish, thinking about things like that, especially in light of how Steve had needed to leave everything behind when he fled six years ago.
"It's not like I'm going to keep you here, Buck!" his tone didn't sound angry, and Bucky looked up to confirm it. No, Steve was smiling. "You'll see them again. Didn't Harrison even say his wife was planning a tourney for the coming year? 'In honor of their first grandchild'," he quoted.
Bucky could feel the heat of a blush suffusing his face a little, but as it faded it took with it the sense of loss he was feeling when he thought about his mother and his sister. Steve was right, of course. He'd seen them again. Maybe even soon. "With as much time as we've been spending with Peggy, that sort of thing might happen as quickly as they imagined."
"Maybe," Steve said, his eyes going distant with thought. "maybe we can ask for a few pterippi foals from Asgard. So the three of us could fly to Enra or Essar." He laughed and added, "I don't think the retinue would appreciate that, but it's a thought."
Bucky rolled his eyes at Steve's fanciful comments but smiled nonetheless. He wasn't losing anything or anyone. Marrying his best friend—and Peggy—had gained him a larger family and allies. He gestured to the board and Steve looked back down at it before moving his next piece.
Sometime later, Riley interrupted them, "King Steven, King Harrison is here to speak with you," he said. He spoke softly, but his voice carried enough through the tent walls.
"Send him in, Riley," Steve said. He turned just as Riley pulled the flap up and Harrison stepped in. He was a barrel-chested man and he stood with his hands on his hips, taking up space in their relatively small tent. He glanced around and then looked at Bucky and Steve. "She's not here with you, is she?"
"No," Steve answered. "I thought she'd gone for a walk. She's been a bit restless lately."
"I tend to have Clint follow her when she does, and he uses Lucky to keep an eye on her. He's gone with Sam and the others to infiltrate the castle."
Bucky's heart felt as if it seized up. "You think she went with them?"
He nodded, shifting to cross his arms over his chest. "She's always been headstrong, but I told her she ought not to go." He sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. "I probably shouldn't have said anything. I guess all we can do now is wait." Bucky could see the troubled look in his eyes even as he nodded and left. He looked back to Steve to find him also looking anxious.
"She's probably fine. She's a knight. She's well protected. And Clint and Natasha wouldn't let anything happen—"
"She could be wearing someone else's armor. They might not know it's her if she's got her helmet on!" Steve said, standing up to pace.
"She's probably not wearing her riding helmet," Bucky said, shifting on the bed to try and sit up straighter. "Not in the caves in the dark. They know she's with them. They'll keep her safe." Steve frowned and Bucky wanted to reach out and touch him. "Come here. Move the board, and come here." Steve listened and settled on the bed next to Bucky. Bucky wrapped his right arm around his shoulders and pressed a kiss to his temple. "She'll be fine. You'll see."
They fell asleep like that, curled around each other as best as Bucky could manage.
They woke much later and the tent was dark and quiet. Beyond it, however, sounded like a shouting match. One of the voices was Peggy's.
"Wake up, Stevie," Bucky mumbled into his ear. He suspected Steve had woken from the sound just as he had, but he needed to share the relief he felt at hearing their wife's voice. Had it been only a few months ago that he'd been so scared and repulsed at the idea of marrying a stranger? How did she become so important to him in such a short time? It baffled him.
The shouting got closer until the tent flapped flew open and Peggy stomped in. She was wearing Steve's gambeson. The light from the small campfires lit her from behind, but they didn't disguise the dark spots on the fabric. Bucky let his gaze trail over her arms, her torso, even her legs, but she didn't seem to be hurt anywhere. "I was perfectly safe, Father!" she was saying over her shoulder.
Harrison hadn't come into the tent, but Bucky could see his silhouette in the opening.
"How could you be? You have to take better precautions, Pegs. You can't just go off like that. It's not like sparring with the knights, or even tourney training."
She had just finished pulling her gloves off, and she tucked them into the crook of her elbow before she turned around to look at him. "I wanted to know why, all right?"
"Why Johann sought out Steve. Why he turned on Alexander. Why he nailed the man's crown into his head before barring him in a room and leaving him to starve. What kind of monster does that to someone, even a foe? And a second-hand account wasn't going to cut it for me. So I went myself."
Harrison's silhouette shifted, allowing more light from the campfire to illuminate the tent. "And did you find out what sort of monster he was?"
She paused in her unfastening, leaving the padded fabric to hang from her shoulders. "A mad one. One who heard voices and thought he was blessed enough to be hearing the Gods. A monster who hurt innocent people in his care." Her voice had shifted from angry to disgusted as she spoke. Bucky wondered what she'd seen and what sort of confession she had got out of the man before she'd killed him. He expected he didn't truly want to know the horror of it. "Johann the Usurper is gone. The Red Skull, the madman he turned into, is gone. It's done. The castle is ours." She shrugged off the gambeson and set it over the back of the chair at the table. "Goodnight, father. I'll tell you more tomorrow, but tonight I'm weary."
"I'm glad you're okay, Peggy," he said softly. He turned and walked away, and the tent flap that he'd been holding open fell back closed, blanketing them in darkness again.
"We're glad you're okay too," Bucky called to her.
"You could have asked to borrow my armor," Steve said, sounding annoyed. "Or, you know, let us know you were going to be part of the group infiltrating the castle. So we wouldn't have worried quite so much."
Bucky felt her slip into the bed on Steve's other side. "I'm sorry," she said. "Though I suspected you wouldn't approve of me going either."
"If I weren't on mandatory bed rest, I'd have wanted to join you," Bucky said. He reached out to touch her hair. She laced her fingers with his instead.
* . * . *
Steve's footsteps echoed in the empty stone hallway. The tapestries had all been removed. The grand paintings in the great hall had been whitewashed and everything that he remembered decorating the castle of his childhood seemed to be gone. But the corridors were the same. The family rooms and his mother's solar where he used to play hide and seek as a child were still there, even if the furniture had changed.
Sam had not allowed Steve into the castle until the dead had been removed and the evidence of the battle inside had been washed away. He said he didn't want any reminders of the monster who'd roamed the halls here left behind. Steve didn't know if the servants Sam had instructed to do that had been over-enthusiastic in washing the murals away or if they'd been washed away by Johann before that. It didn't matter. He had plans for the walls, and after his official coronation, he'd start hiring artists to paint the walls anew.
Even the throne in the great hall was different, garish, with human skulls coated in iron attached to the back and armrests. Riley was coordinating with someone, maybe Dum Dum and the other knights, to have it taken out and a new one built.
Steve completed his walkthrough, which he'd requested to take alone, and set aside his nostalgia and reminiscing. His mother was dead. He'd known that, of course, but he'd always had a childish hope that he'd see her again. He'd found her tombstone in the chapel graveyard before he'd even been allowed inside the castle walls. He felt somehow both lost, adrift in a blinding emotional snowstorm that had come over him quickly, and cozy, at home as if in front of a blazing fire. The dichotomy of it baffled him, but he supposed that was to be expected. He'd left his old life behind when he'd fled six years ago, and now here he was, returned and glorious with the aid of allies and friends.
He took a deep breath, smelling the fragrant branches of fir and spruce that had been brought into the castle to cheer up the austerity of it, and took the last few steps down the stairs. Standing at the doors to the great hall were Bucky and Peggy. The smiled upon seeing him and Peggy reached for him.
"Is it how you remember it?" she asked as he drew nearer, taking her hand in his and squeezing before letting go.
"More or less," Steve answered.
Bucky smiled and reached out to brush at the hair over Steve's ears. He felt his crown settle deeper into his hair; it felt more steady on his head. "Ready for your first feast as king of your own castle?"
"As long as you're both with me, I'm sure we can handle it."
They both laughed, and Peggy leaned over, bumping his shoulder with hers. "I don't know, you haven't seen my knights let loose, really. They get wild."
"Probably not any worse than mine," Bucky answered back. Steve smiled and nodded to the servants at the door. They opened the door and Steve walked in, Bucky and Peggy only a step behind.