Steve didn't even have ordinary magic before he went into the ice.
Most people had something—enough to light the fire or get seedlings to thrive. Steve's mother had healing magic—not so strong as to admit her to the College of Healers, but enough to save Steve's life when he caught the shaking sickness as a child and it went to his lungs. A lot of children died that year in the poor part of town. Thanks to his mother's gift Steve survived, but he was prone to coughs and fevers afterward, and small for his age.
Steve and his mother were poor as they only had her work as a neighborhood healer to live on. There was plenty of sickness, especially when the war went badly and Winter was in the ascendant, but no one had much money so Steve's mother generally took payment in kind—a clutch of eggs, half a loaf, sometimes a shirt or new shoes for Steve, if she'd done well and the family were grateful. If a patient died despite her efforts she wasn't paid at all, and she was known to have a soft heart, so some people took advantage.
Steve got his first black eye when he was twelve, defending his mother from a drover whose wife had died in childbirth. It was a breech birth and everyone knew you needed a licensed Healer from the College for that, but the man was a known skinflint. Bucky, who was big for his age, had waded into the fight and pulled the drover off Steve, sending him packing with a cuff and a curse. That was how they met.
After they'd become friends, Bucky said that Steve's magic was staying alive at all, with the mouth he had on him and the trouble he got into. Steve just shrugged and went on looking out for his mother. It was his job, he reckoned, to stop people taking advantage of her and collect what they were owed where the family she'd helped could pay, so they didn't starve outright. His father had died before Steve was born, in the endless war between Summer and Winter that ruled all their lives, so there was no one else to care for her.
"If it was just your ma, Stevie, that'd be one thing," Bucky said one day when they were both fourteen. They were down by the river so Bucky could soak a rag in cold water to press to Steve's injuries. He got Steve to sit on the step beside him and cleaned a cut over his eye, then made him press on the wound to stop it bleeding. "You take on anyone you think's doing wrong, whether it's any of your damn business or not, and mostly it's not." He sounded exasperated.
Fourteen meant they were adults. Bucky worked for a blacksmith but with his fevers and sickness there wasn't much Steve could do except look after his mother and help her when he could. That didn't stop him taking on other causes, though, which was what had gotten Bucky riled.
"I don't like bullies," Steve said, setting his jaw against the stinging of the wound. "It's bad enough people are poor and struggling; they don't need to be threatened and robbed as well."
"Life's not fair, pal," Bucky said, "and you can't fight people's battles for them. Or rather, you can't wade in and then need me to pull the bastards off you before you get slaughtered."
"I could have taken him, if she hadn't been whaling on me as well," Steve said stubbornly. He'd tripped up a pickpocket who'd stolen an old lady's purse at the market. Steve had sat on the thief and pinned him until the old lady, no doubt afflicted by poor eyesight, began hitting both of them with her stick. Steve had lost his grip on the pickpocket who'd torn into him with his fists until Bucky arrived to retrieve the purse and pull him off Steve. The thief had wriggled free and escaped and the old lady'd proclaimed Bucky her savior. She'd glared at Steve, thinking him in league with the pickpocket, and no amount of explaining had served to set her straight. Still, she'd given Bucky a copper coin, so once they'd seen to Steve's wounds they'd be able to share a meat pie.
"Give it a rest for a few days, wouldya," Bucky said, shaking his head wearily. "What with you and my old man . . ."
Steve bit his lip and avoided Bucky's eye.
Bucky's dad hadn't died in the war, although Steve figured that Bucky often wished he had. He was a dock worker and a drunkard, any magic he'd ever had burned out of him by hard liquor, so he could only get the most menial and low-paying work. It made him mean-spirited and he took it out on his wife and children until Bucky came into his magic around twelve after a growth spurt, and his gift settled into a way with metals. After that, his father mostly stayed away whenever Bucky was home, especially after the time Bucky made a table fork fly through the air and stick itself into the hand his father had raised to strike Rebecca, Bucky's sister.
Steve had never had a growth spurt, probably due to being sickly and stunted, and his magic hadn't yet declared itself. Steve wondered, sometimes, if it ever would. Maybe he was too small and weak-chested to have a gift, even an ordinary one like most people had. His mother had told him tales of his father—how he'd been a city guard patrolling the streets and keeping people safe. His gift had been strength; it was one reason he'd been drafted to fight in the war. Steve's mother sometimes said that if not having magic kept Steve out of the war, she'd take that and be grateful. Steve wasn't grateful. To be small and sickly and also without magic seemed doubly unfair, but he tried not to dwell on it. Bucky didn't care, and in the end, that was all that mattered.
Steve set the rag aside. His cut had stopped bleeding and the sun had come out and warmed them up, ragged clouds blowing away to leave big swathes of blue sky. Bucky leaned back on his elbows and tilted his face up, smiling happily. "Looks like the war's going better," he said, as people did.
"You know, Buck, that wasn't always the case," Steve said.
Bucky opened one eye and looked at him. "What, the war? Sure, I know that."
"No, I mean people didn't always say, 'war's going well' when the sun came out, or, 'bad news about the war,' in cold weather."
"They didn't?" Bucky grinned at Steve. "You been readin' that old book again?"
Steve shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe." It was an ancient history of the land that Abraham Erskine, a retired scholar, had given his mother in payment after she'd lanced a boil for him and stopped it going septic. Hardly anyone in the poor part of town owned books; Steve treasured the big tome and often read the more interesting parts out loud to Bucky. Bucky liked the romances and accounts of famous battles. He wasn't keen on the politics or the biographies of registered sorcerers, or which laws had been passed and by whom.
"So, you gonna educate me?" Bucky let his head fall back again, content to listen to Steve.
"I ain't so sure that's a thing as can be done, but I'll tell you what I read."
Bucky snorted. "Get on with it."
Steve pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. "There used to be seasons." He held up a hand to shush Bucky. "No, not Seasons like the Great Houses, like Summer and Winter, or the Lesser Houses like Spring and Fall." Everyone came from one House or the other. Steve and Bucky were Summer and they knew people from Spring and Fall, but there was no one from Winter in the neighborhood, not here in the Castle of Summer. Steve knew people sometimes changed sides, coming over from Winter, but they mostly lived in the camp outside the walls and people didn't trust them. If a defector from Winter came into the poor part of town they'd be beaten up, if they were discovered.
He went on. "It was before the war. The book says back in the old days folks from Summer and Winter and all the Houses lived alongside each other and got on just fine. There were natural seasons back then, that happened all by themselves, without magic, or the war, or anything. That's what a year was: all four seasons, summer, fall, winter and spring, cycling around like a snake with its tail in its mouth."
"You're pullin' my leg, now," Bucky said, disbelieving. "There's always been the war; they told us that in school. And anyway," he said, frowning at Steve, "it's Queen Peggy says how long a year is. She's got that big clock in the Queen's Tower, ticking away the days."
"I know what they taught us, but the book says different," Steve said, spreading his hands. "It says that what we have now, with the war and with Winter our enemy, was all caused by sorcerers back in the old days who got too much power. Magic got out and the natural world got infected by it so the balance was lost. The more it got out of balance, the stronger the wrong sort of magic became. And the stronger the sorcerers that caused it all got, as well."
"There's no sorcerers that strong," Bucky said doubtfully. "They got regulations for that, to keep them in check."
"This was before the regulations, Buck, before all our rules. The rules are precious little use now, 'cause it's already happened. Like the Hydra."
Bucky shivered, and made a warding sign. "Don't talk about it; you'll call it up."
"That's what they want, the ones that made it. They want us ignorant and afraid, Bucky, so we never find out what's behind it. Who's behind it. So we go on fighting this endless, pointless war until we lose and there's no more summer, not ever, mmph, mmmph!"
Bucky had clapped a hand over Steve's mouth and was glancing about nervously to make sure they hadn't been overheard. They were alone, though, for now. He let Steve go, making a warning face. Steve rolled his eyes.
People didn't like talking about the Hydra—they were afraid, even though it had never invaded the Castle. It pushed up here and there from under the earth, black vines as thin as hair or thick as a man's thigh, strong as death and twining like a nest of snakes. It ruined good farmland, tore livestock limb from limb and abducted children, never to be seen again. Bright sunlight shriveled it and fire destroyed it, but only the top part. Once a field was infested there was no saving it, coils and knots of vines lurking under the soil, ready to re-emerge.
Folks said the Hydra was a weapon of Winter, but after reading his book, Steve wasn't so sure. He thought it was older, an evil magic people blamed on Winter now, even though defectors from that House said the Hydra was none of their doing and afflicted them as well. No one took any notice of their protestations, but Steve wondered. Once, Winter had been the mirror side of summer, not an enemy.
"You shouldn't speak of it, Steve," Bucky said, frowning at him. "You know what they say: 'cut one vine off and two more appear'. Joe at the forge said a man was pulled down into a great hole that opened up in his new-plowed field last week, not twenty miles from the city walls. People are spooked."
"Really? That's closer than ever before. Why didn't you tell me?"
Bucky squeezed his shoulder. "Didn't want to worry you. There's nothing the likes of you or me can do about the Hydra, Stevie."
Steve glowered at him for a moment, annoyed to have been kept in the dark, then sighed, subsiding. "No, I suppose not." There were people who knew about all of these esoteric things, like the Queen's Council, but he was just a poor kid from the wrong side of town, not even able to work, let alone battle something as fearsome as the Hydra. "It's the great sorcerers have to fight it, like Lord Fury and Healer Banner. Even Lord Stark."
"Hmph," Bucky said. "Lord Stark's as much a hindrance as a help, with his crazy inventions. The Queen and her court could do with waking their ideas up, if they're letting the Hydra get as close as twenty miles." Bucky shook his head. "People don't feel safe."
"They're fighting powerful enemies, Buck," Steve protested. He'd been half in love with Queen Peggy since he was a boy and didn't like to hear her criticized. Most girls tried to copy the Queen, and most boys had a crush on her, except for Bucky, who'd always just grinned at Steve and said he preferred blonds. Whatever that meant.
"I mean," Steve went on, "Look what they’re up against." He stared grimly at the low arch in the Castle's wall, just a stone's throw away. The river flowed out through it and on across the plains, through marshes and ravines, finally meeting the Bitter Sea unimaginably far away in the Mountains of Winter where Summer's enemies lurked. "Zola the Mad, the Chitauri dragons, and Loki Frostspear. Not to mention the Red Skull."
"Damnit, Steve, don't say those names so loud," Bucky muttered, looking left and right and making another warding sign. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Anyway, that last one, the Red Skull, he's just a legend. A story to scare little kids."
"He was real, or so the book says. Probably still is; he was supposed to have used magic to make himself live forever, or as near as makes no difference." Sick of arguing about all the things wrong with the world, Steve pushed himself to his feet.
Bucky looked up at him. "Naw, he's a bogeyman."
"He's not, Buck, and he's maybe the one made the Hydra." Unable to talk and climb at the same time, Steve turned away and concentrated on his breathing while he clambered slowly up the steps. He needed a head start on Bucky so as to take it real slow or he'd get wheezy and have one of his attacks. Bucky was used to it and always gave him space to take stairs or uphill paths at his own pace. He knew Steve didn't like being helped.
It was because Steve was focused on making it to the top without bringing on his asthma that he didn't see what happened, only heard Bucky's terrified cry.
He turned, gripping the handrail, to see Bucky being dragged backward into the river by a long, dark vine that was wrapped all around him, chest to knees. Steve screamed something and leaped forward, jumping and falling down the steps, unaware of scraped knees and bleeding shins, clutching the end of the handrail and reaching his arm out to Bucky.
Bucky tried to catch Steve's hand, but he was too far away, yelling, "Get back, Steve, get–" as the Hydra vine pulled him under the surface then emerged several yards away, Bucky dripping wet and spluttering, spitting out river water and sucking in a desperate breath before the vine dragged him back under.
Steve watched, horrified, as Bucky appeared again two more times, his cries getting fainter, before being pulled down under the arch of the wall and out of Summer's Castle, never to re-appear.
"Dear heavens, that poor young man!" a woman cried behind him, her voice shrill. "Did you see that? The Hydra came right up out of the river!"
"It was in the city!" a man yelled, panic in his voice. "It came into the Castle. We're not safe in our beds!"
"Come away, lad," another man called to Steve. "You shouldn't be down there!"
Steve barely heard any of them. He stood there, clutching the handrail, tears running down his cheeks. His chest heaved and he struggled to breathe around the aching void where his heart used to be. The Hydra had taken Bucky. Bucky was never coming back, and it was all Steve's fault.
He was still there an hour later when a nervous member of the city guard came down to the river's edge and made Steve clamber painfully back up the stone steps to where his mother waited to take him home.
The Barnes family buried Bucky—or rather, they buried an empty casket. It was what people did when someone was taken by the Hydra; no one ever returned. Steve stood frozen at the graveside outside the castle walls as a minor mage intoned the prayer for passage to the Lands of Eternal Summer. He didn't look down as flowers of the sun—marigolds and daisies—were thrown into the grave, or as the first shovelfuls of dirt thudded down on the cheap wooden box.
Steve stared out across the plain where the river disappeared into gray, misty distance. It was a cold day, the kind of day when it was hard to imagine ever feeling warm again. The wind brought tears to his eyes, but it was just the wind; his own tears were as frozen as the rest of him.
After the ceremony, Bucky's mother and Rebecca hugged Steve and told him not to be a stranger, and he tried to smile but it felt false and empty. The person he'd been a few days ago was a stranger to him now, full of hope and ideals and wanting to take the world on, puny as he was. Steve couldn't imagine wanting anything, ever again.
His mother took him back home before he caught a chill. Even her healer's gift might not be enough to save him, if he did.
After some time the numbness eased, and Steve went back to assisting his mother with her work. He helped Bucky's mother and sisters as best he could as well, although Bucky's father was hanging around more, now Bucky wasn't there.
One day Rebecca had a bruise on her cheek after old man Barnes had visited the night before. Steve went to the flophouse where Bucky's father slept and warned him off, but Bucky's dad laughed and backhanded him, leaving Steve with a split lip and a nosebleed. Steve set his jaw and began following Bucky's father about, noting the people he drank with and met up with for hurried discussions in dark alleys, and what they got up to. In the end, he gave all his information to the city guard and the gang was arrested, Bucky's father among them. He spent a few months in the castle's dungeons and when he came out, he had the coughing sickness and was no threat to anyone.
Steve wondered, later, if it was some kind of poetic justice, a balancing of forces—action and reaction. His mother tended Bucky's father when he was dying from the coughing disease, and maybe that was where she caught it. Some weeks after the Barnes family buried Bucky's dad Steve's mother began coughing, and running a fever. By winter she was bedridden and unable to work, despite all her healing skills and herb knowledge.
Steve took in mending and piece-work sewing—he could do it at home while he cared for his mother, and it kept them from starving. He'd begun reading the ancient book again, poring over the pages by candlelight when it got too dark to see needle and thread.
One evening he happened on some old sun-charms—wheel-like discs called mandalas, concentric and intricate, said to be good luck and protection against evil. He cut out the blank end-papers of the book and began drawing the charms, using pigments he made himself from crushed flowers and leaves—gathered wild, or left on the cobbles after the flower market closed. Bright colored spices were cheap, and soot was free, and he mixed them into paints.
The sun-charms sold quickly at the market, people still being frightened of new incursions by the Hydra, or fearful about the outcome of the war, now the weather was colder. Steve was able to buy many sheets of cheap parchment and a compass and pencil, which was easier than drawing around plates and bowls. His charms became popular, and if people assumed he infused them with luck-magic, he never said as much, but he didn't deny it, even though there was still no sign he had any gifts at all. After a while he stopped taking in sewing, to concentrate on painting. Concentric rings, stars and flowers and filigree in bright colors: blue and white, red and gold and yellow and green.
His paintings paid the rent and fed Steve and his mother, with a little left over for Bucky's family. Steve was even able to afford another healer to treat his mother, but it did no good. She slowly got worse, coughing her life away despite everything he tried. At the end, before she sank into delirium, she took his hand—her fingers more bone than flesh—and made him promise to look after himself. He lied and said that he would, although there seemed no real reason to go on.
Steve buried his mother when the weather grew warmer. There was sun on his face at the graveside this time, and jumbled in with his grief was the thought that the charms wouldn't sell as well in fine weather. Rebecca tried to make him move in with the Barnes family—it would have saved on rent but Steve felt too mired in sadness to live with others.
He found reserves of stubbornness, if not strength, and went on, day after day, sometimes crying himself to sleep, haunted by memories of Bucky and his mother, but more often just existing, frozen and empty. He kept painting, branching out to try sketches and portraits. He even offered them for sale at the market, but the charms sold better—fear opened peoples' purses more readily than art, it seemed. Sometimes he drew Bucky, but he never tried to sell those pictures.
He read the old book obsessively, looking for answers about the Hydra and ways to defeat it, but there was much he struggled to understand—obscure magic and forgotten rituals.
One day, Steve sought out Abraham Erskine, the scholar his mother had treated who'd paid in kind with the book. Steve found the old man alone and struggling to manage, and befriended him, cleaning his rooms and making sure he ate. Abraham taught him to play chess and over their games they talked about the stories in the book. Abraham, an educated man, wasn't superstitious about such things, and he told Steve many tales of the Hydra, of the alliance between Zola the Mad and the Red Skull, of ancient magic and long-dead heroes.
Steve was in his twentieth year when Abraham told him about the Trial by Ice, the Champions and their Challenge—magic that could give superhuman strength and speed and a way to fight the evil behind the Hydra. Steve drank in every detail, questioning Abraham for hours until finally noticing how tired his friend was, and bidding him good evening.
That night in his bed he barely slept at all, turning over and over in his thoughts what he'd learned about the Trial and the Champions. It felt as though Abraham had given him a key, had transformed him. As dawn painted the sky through his narrow window he realized it was hope—something he hadn't felt for years.
At noon, Steve took Abraham a bowl of soup, only to find his friend still and cold in his bed, all life gone. Steve dropped the soup and rushed over with a cry, seeing a black vine uncoil from around Abraham's throat and slide into a crack in the wall, vanishing in a second. Briefly, Steve wondered if his eyes had betrayed him; he saw the Hydra everywhere on bad days, hiding in cracks and lurking in shadows. No, it had been real, he was sure, and Abraham's throat was bruised. Rage filled him, a hard, burning anger. First Bucky and now this gentle, learned old man. No more. This had to end.
He buried Abraham when daffodils bloomed among the graves, nodding in the sun. This time, as Steve looked out over the plain as the mage chanted prayers, the distant mountains seemed less forbidding, more a call to arms. The frozen emptiness inside him was thawing, warmed by fiery purpose. Life had not gifted him with ordinary magic but he would take Abraham's knowledge and Bucky's memory and forge himself into a weapon to avenge them. All he needed were the endurance and stubbornness which had kept him alive so far, and now he had anger to fuel his resolve.
But first, Steve must see the Queen.
The royal audience chamber wasn't as imposing as Steve had expected, just an average-sized room with a fireplace and Queen Peggy behind an enormous desk. Lord Fury was imposing, standing behind and to the left of her chair with his arms folded, fixing Steve with a dark, calculating eye. Fury's other eye was covered by a magical mechanism with tiny golden gears and crystal lenses, the whole thing whirring and shifting disconcertingly when he moved his head. Steve looked away and took a chair, avoiding Fury's real eye and the one with the contraption. He waited while the queen read the petition, or, more likely, re-read it. He'd agonized over it late into the night, chewing on the words and the feather of his quill pen.
Finally, the queen looked up. She was still beautiful to his eyes, even though the years had taken her youth and left her hair almost white and her face lined. "Mr Rogers."
"Steve, your majesty," he said, perched nervously on the edge of his seat.
She smiled. "Steve, then. Call me Queen Peggy; everyone does and I'm not one to stand on ceremony." Steve nodded.
She tapped the parchment. "This is . . . an unusual proposition. I only have a faint recollection of the Trial by Ice. It hasn't been done for decades and the last few who underwent it died in the attempt. I'm sorry, but I think it would be pointless. We can't let you throw your life away."
"I don't care about my own life," Steve said, trying desperately to make her see how important this was. "I don't matter, but we have to stop the Hydra. It was inside the castle walls again and it killed Abraham Erskine, the scholar who told me about the Trial." He tried to sit up as tall as he could, feeling dwarfed by the large armchair. "In fact, I believe it killed Dr. Erskine because he told me."
"But Steve, it's a magical trial, and from what you've explained you don't have any gifts. How can the Trial enhance what isn't there?"
Steve clenched his fists on his knees. "I may not have magic yet, Queen Peggy, but I can do this. I'm a lot stronger than I look—I've had to be, just to survive. My mother had healing magic and my father had strength, and Dr. Erskine said the Trial could enhance both of those once my health's better. I want to try it."
Queen Peggy frowned and looked up at Lord Fury. "What are your thoughts, Nicholas?"
Lord Fury sighed. "It sounds crazy, but he's right. There are signs of a Hydra attack at the old scholar's place—vines in the cellar there that we forced further underground but couldn't eradicate. It's found a way through the castle's spell-wards, or its master has. Grim news."
The queen shook her head. "I don't want to allow the Trial unless there's a chance it could succeed."
Fury shrugged. "Then we need to bring in Stark."
An oval mirror above the fireplace lit up and the face of a bearded, dark-haired man appeared. "Someone mention my name?"
Queen Peggy looked annoyed. "Tony, I've told you before that you're not to spy on the palace with listening spells."
Lord Stark, or so Steve assumed him to be, looked a little sheepish. "It's just a basic name-recognition charm, Peg, no big deal. Anyway, what'd you want?"
The queen sighed. "We have a situation. Can you get over here and bring your Potential Analyzer?"
"Yeah, sure. Be there in a jiffy." The mirror darkened again.
"I thought Lord Stark lived in a tower outside the castle?" Steve asked.
Fury looked down at him. "He's got some tricks up his sleeve. It's why we need him to test you."
"Test me?" Steve wasn't sure he liked the sound of that.
"Yes, Steve," Queen Peggy said. "If you have any latent magical abilities Lord Stark should be able to detect them. I won't let you take a risk like this without there being some hope of survival." She turned to Lord Fury. "We'll have to re-set the wards on the castle, Nicholas. You'd better gather the Council."
"We’re going to need Thor Thunderhammer and the Black Widow to help as well," Fury said.
"Can we trust Natasha? She still has ties to Winter, even if she did defect."
"Stark's scanned her and he says she's loyal," Fury replied, moving to peer out through full-length glass doors beyond which a stone balcony was visible. "We need her knowledge of the enemy's spell-craft. Thor we need as his magic's Asgardian—Winter won't be able to counter it, since it's from another realm."
"It's not Winter doing this," Steve said.
Fury turned toward him, raising an eyebrow. "They're the ones we're at war with."
"I know, but they didn't make the Hydra," Steve said stubbornly.
"For an impoverished artist from the poor side of town, you seem to know a lot about all this," Fury said, narrowing his eyes.
Steve bit his lip. "It was in the book, and Dr. Erskine confirmed it. It was Red Skull who made the Hydra, him and Zola. They started the war with Winter to cover that up."
"Probably sheer fantasy," Fury said. "The Red Skull's long dead, and Zola's too crazy to maintain something that magic-intensive."
"Still, we should read this book," the queen said. "We've been fighting so long, and sometimes knowledge gets lost or overlooked. Will you lend it to us, Steve?"
It was the last thing he had left from Abraham Erskine, a connection to his old life with his mother and Bucky. Steve took a breath and pushed his feelings down; they were pointless. "I . . . yes, my queen. I won't need it once I'm in the ice."
"Well, we'll see about that," Queen Peggy said. There was a hissing roar from outside, and a strange red and gold figure lowered itself down on jets of steam, settling onto the balcony with a metallic clank. "Ah, there's Lord Stark now."
Fury pushed open the glass doors. "Thirty-five seconds, Stark. You're losing your touch."
The mechanical man raised his arms and pressed a button, then pulled open the brass and red enamel helmet encasing his head, pushing the wings back to expose his face. It was the bearded man Steve had seen in the mirror—had he flown here from his tower, several miles beyond the castle walls? "There are physical constraints in the time it takes to raise a head of steam, Fury, even with magical enhancement."
He pressed another hidden stud and with a whirring of cogs and gears, the mechanical suit opened down the front, splitting wide along his arms and legs to enable him to slip out. The automaton stood there like a monstrous empty beetle casing, propped on its jointed legs, metal arms curving out as though ready to attack.
Lord Stark slipped inside past Fury, who looked up at the sky. "I hope it won't rain and turn your contraption into a pile of rusted scrap," he said, closing the doors against the day's chill wind. "Why a sorcerer with your magical abilities persists in working with crude matter, I've never understood."
Stark had his hands out to the fire, warming up. "Guy's got to have a few hobbies, Fury. And there's magic in metal and iron-working too—just another way to harness natural forces."
Steve thought of Bucky, who'd had that same ability, not that he'd had much chance to develop it. He'd made Steve a shield once out of a dustbin lid, concentrating his power on it until the handle melted into a shiny star in the center, and making holes in it to attach an old belt as a holding-strap. They'd played soldiers with the shield and a broom handle Bucky'd used instead of a spear. It tired Steve's arm out carrying the thing, but he never let on to Bucky.
"So who's the kid?" Lord Stark asked. "He the one you want me to analyze? Doesn't look like there'd be much point."
"I'm tougher than I look," Steve said, setting his jaw.
"This is Steve Rogers. He's come to us with a proposition," Queen Peggy explained. "He wants to undergo Trial by Ice."
Lord Stark raised his eyebrows. "Huh. He wants to resurrect that old thing? You got a death wish, kid?"
"Well," the queen said, "indeed. Hence the need for your Analyzer."
"I'm–" Steve started to reiterate, feeling like a cracked, one-note bell.
Stark waved him away. "Yeah, yeah, we get it. Okay, let's see if you've got any chance at all." He pulled a small brass instrument out of a pocket in the gray coverall he wore under the metal suit and assembled it into a brass tripod about a hand's-length high, from the top of which a faceted crystal dangled on a fine golden chain. "Anything in the family?"
"Healing and strength," Lord Fury said. "So he says."
Lord Stark considered Steve. "Heart then, not head, I think. Lie down on the floor, kid."
Steve looked at the queen, who nodded. He stretched out in the middle of the floor, glad the flagstones were covered by a thickly woven rug but hating how the position made his ribs stand out on his thin chest, under his threadbare shirt. Stark eyed him carefully and positioned the brass legs of the tripod halfway down his breastbone, a little to the left.
"Hold still, kid. No moving." Steve froze, unable even to nod assent. "By the Seasons, kid, you can breathe. In fact you'd better, or you'll pass out and the test won't work."
Steve gasped in a breath, wheezed a little, then breathed as shallowly as he could. Stark snorted, then knelt there, peering at the tripod. Steve couldn't see it well, laid out as he was, but he sensed the brass feet of the thing getting warm, three uncomfortably hot points. The crystal was glowing blue, waxing and waning, until the whole room was bathed in a pulsing blue glare.
"Whoa!" Stark went to remove his apparatus, but it was too hot and he pulled his hand away, shaking it and cursing. "Get down!" he yelled, jumping back. "The damn thing's cycling—it might blow!"
Fury moved to shield the queen, but Steve, horrified at the thought that something twisted or wrong in him had made the magical mechanism misfire so as to harm Queen Peggy, threw himself away from her onto his side and curled around the painfully hot object, ignoring the searing heat as he shielded the others with his body. The tripod tipped onto the rug, and stopped glowing.
"Okay, okay, drama over," Lord Stark said, coming back and nudging Steve until he uncurled, then giving him a hand up.
"I, I'm sorry," Steve said to the queen. "I didn't mean–" She waved him into silence, smiling and looking up at him thoughtfully.
"What in all the hells was that, Stark?" Lord Fury said, glowering. "Can't you even control your damn mechanisms?"
"Oh, that was nothing," Lord Stark said, carefully picking the instrument up, folding it and slipping it back into a pocket. "All smoke and mirrors. There was never any danger."
"So the test was a failure?" Fury's mechanical eye was spinning dizzyingly under his lowered brows and Steve looked away and swallowed. He'd failed. They'd never let him do the Trial now.
"No, no, a resounding success, I should think," Stark said cheerfully. "He's got some latent magic, or it wouldn't have glowed at all, but it was never going to explode. I made that part up."
Queen Peggy nodded. "To see how he'd react. And his automatic reaction was to protect me—to protect all of us. Even at the cost of his own life."
Stark nodded. "Kid's got guts, and good instincts."
Steve rubbed his chest through his shirt. "Can I do it then? The Trial?"
"It's been over a century since anyone survived it, Steve, and even if you do live through it, there's no way to know how it might change you." Queen Peggy folded her hands on her desk and looked at him seriously. "Are you quite sure?"
Steve pulled himself up as straight as he could. "Yes. I'm sure."
"So be it," said the queen.
They sang him into the ice in a deep pool in the queen's garden.
It was the start of winter, or what passed for it these days. Steve had been worried that if the war went well the pool might thaw out and end the Trial too early, but Lord Stark had just laughed bitterly and said that with the Hydra making incursions even into Castle Summer, there was little chance of that. "In fact, kid, there's good odds that if you don't make it through we'll never see warm weather again. The queen's taking quite a chance on you."
"I'll make it through," Steve insisted doggedly. He would. He had to.
Now he sat and shivered in an anteroom off the Queen's Hall, waiting for the ritual to begin. It was cold, unheated, and he was wearing only a thin pair of pants. He'd figured he should get used to the cold—he was going to be cold until the spring thaw, if that ever came. He was going to be frozen.
Lord Stark came in, with another man, dark haired and clean shaven. His face was less angular than Lord Stark's and his eyes were sad. He was holding a porcelain bowl.
"I'm Lord Banner," he said. Steve had heard of him—a powerful healer and earth sorcerer, able to turn into a man-mountain and destroy whole towns. Banner held out the bowl. "Drink this."
"What is it?" Steve took it and sniffed the dark green liquid.
"A magical potion, of course," Stark said. "What'd you expect? Banner says it's kind of like antifreeze. Might give you a slightly better chance than the last poor bastard who tried this nonsense."
Steve nodded, and drank. He made a face. "Bitter."
"Yes," Banner said. "That's the firebark; it's full of alkaloids. Drink up." Steve finished the bowl, then took a bottle from Banner and chased the foul taste with some water, grimacing.
"So you know how this goes?" Stark asked. Steve didn't say anything—Abraham had told him most of the details. Stark went on. "You float on the surface and the Council calls the ice—we'll sing you into it. The water'll turn into ice slush and lose its surface tension, and you'll sink down, all the way under, but it'll freeze around you before you hit bottom. That's it—we all go inside for mulled wine by the fire, and you're stuck there for months. Still want to go through with it?"
"Yes," Steve said, trying to suppress another bout of shivering. Stark clapped him on the back, where Steve knew the wings of his shoulder blades would be standing out, the knobs of his spine clearly visible. He coughed, feeling his chest tighten, wheezing a little in the room's cold air. "I have to."
"Seasons save me from damned idealists," Stark muttered, rolling his eyes at Lord Banner.
Banner shrugged. "Not all of us feel like we have a lot of choice," he said, an edge in his voice.
They took Steve outside to the garden, his feet bare and stumbling in the snow. The Council stood all around the stone lip of the pool, heavily cloaked. They were legends among the common folk of the Castle, famous faces he'd seen engraved in the news-sheets many times after the great magical battles that had driven out Zola, and Loki Frostspear, and banished the Chitauri dragons. Lord Fury, Thor Thunderhammer, the Black Widow, The Prince of Arrows and the Prince of Birds, Queen Peggy, Lady Pepper, Lord Rhodes, the Scarlet Witch, Bishop Coulson and Lord Vision, even the Ant Knight and the young Prince of Spiders.
Steve knew he should feel awed, but the cold had him in its grip now and he only felt numb. Banner went to stand beside Lord Fury, and Stark set Steve's feet on the steps that led down into the icy water, then took his place with the others.
"Steven Rogers," Queen Peggy called from the far side of the pool. "Do you undertake this Trial freely, without coercion?"
"I d-do," Steve replied, teeth chattering. The queen shut her eyes, almost as though it pained her to hear him.
"We will sing you down, but you must find your own way back. Do you understand?"
Steve nodded. "Yes."
"Let it begin," said the queen, and raised her voice. One by one the others joined her, voices pure or deep, harsh or sweet.
The old, cold song coiled around him and he felt its power enter him, moving him forward one step at a time into the water, until he was waist-deep, until he stepped off the last ledge and hung there, suspended in icy numbness. The song pressed him back until he floated on the surface, staring up at a sky filled with gray, swirling storm clouds. Flakes of snow drifted down and settled on him, and did not melt. His thoughts were slow and cold and the weight of the song dragged him down, down, down as he sank into the ice, feeling it close around him, covering him a cubit deep and crystallizing until it held him tight, his eyes open but unseeing.
Then there was nothing but the cold.
After the shock of being dragged away by the Hydra half drowned and screaming, Bucky lost himself to fear and pain and black unconsciousness. Time had no meaning in the formless darkness, broken by brief struggles when he surfaced to strain against bonds, feeling movement beneath him, perhaps a wagon, or a boat. He tried to call out but could find no words, only confusion, and always the whispered chanting and a hand on his brow, and he slid away, back into nothingness.
Later, when they thought they'd broken him, all he knew was that he was cold, always cold, chained to rock, with rock beneath him. He wondered if he was underground; it was hard to tell, but it felt like a great weight pressing down. Perhaps that was the blackness though, or dark magic. Metal was a friend, smooth and clean and malleable, and he found he could make the shackles open and release him. After the first few times, they bound him with ropes and there was no more metal with him in his prison.
They used magic to stop him from thinking and take his memories, binding his head with a circlet of blue fire until he screamed. Until he ceased screaming, his voice gone.
Later, when they had truly broken it, where it was ceased to matter. There was no before or after, just an endless now, lying frozen in the dark. Sometimes they woke it, so perhaps it had been asleep, but that didn't matter. It was nothing and no one, and it did what it was told. Sometimes others came into the place where it was and it cowered back, expecting pain. Once the others had the smooth hard stuff with them that sang of edges and skill and blades. It took the edged things from them without moving, not with any purpose but to have them close, to touch and hold them and feel the song, overwhelmingly aware of it because there was nothing else there in the darkness, only that. Then there was shouting and noise and pain and the circlet of blue fire, and after, only the frozen blackness.
He came back to awareness a long while later, after they'd left him alone for some time without the burning blue fire. He was not just a thing in the dark any more, but he was . . . he didn't know who or what he was, even if he did now remember fleeting snatches of the world, or perhaps those were dreams. He heard noises approaching, but they meant little. The door opened and a flickering torch was held up as two others entered. He cowered back, afraid—the red flickering light could mean pain, or just food; he had no way to tell.
"You think he's ready, my lord?"
"I think if you go on like this he'll be no use at all. From what you've said his power with metals is greatly heightened, and the Trial by Darkness has opened him up in other ways. I can work with him now, and it's already taken years to get him to this point. I'm not waiting any longer. You've been putting the potion in his food?"
"Yes, my lord, since he first came to us." The flickering fire came closer and he cowered back against the rock wall. "See? He's grown so much, even though he gets no exercise down here. I don't suppose I could try some of that stuff? . . . Or perhaps the men?"
"You want to take his place?" Something darkly hungry and amused curled under the words.
"No, no, my lord, no, of course not. But if it works . . ."
"If it works, and you still want to be erased and re-made, do get back to me." The other one whimpered, and scuttled off to cower by the door. "Yes, we'll have him out," the nearby voice said. "I'll lay the controlling spell on him now."
He covered his face, but the words made him drop his arms and stare up at the hooded man leaning over him. Inside a hood the color of dried blood was a skull. The skull spoke and he tried not to listen, but the words sank into him anyway, piercing his ears and open mouth, his eyes and his skin, binding him flesh and bone and brain to the commands.
"Soldier, come with me," the skull-faced sorcerer said, stepping back and gesturing at his rope bonds, which fell away. He stood with some difficulty. He was strong, but uncoordinated. He staggered, then found his footing and righted himself.
"Whose . . . soldier . . . am I?" His voice was a croak of a thing, rusty with disuse.
The skull-faced man in the dark red robe stopped by the door and looked back. "Winter's soldier."
"Winter's Soldier," he whispered to himself as he followed. He had a name.
Steve wasn't cold. For a long, long time, he wasn't anything, or anyone. Vague, drifting thoughts, awareness thick and slow as a half-frozen ocean. He wasn't cold—he was the cold, no separation from the ice as weeks passed, then months, locked in its frozen grip. Not that he counted time, dimly perceiving the swells of gray light and blackness as night followed day. The light failed to warm him; the dark could not chill him. Nothing touched him.
In this slow half-life, slower dreams. Bucky was with him, or his mother. Abraham read from the book, his voice attenuated to a droning bass rumble. Sometimes Steve welcomed his ghosts, sometimes he wished for the dead, peaceful stillness of the ice. Those he'd lost wanted vengeance from him, they had expectations, and expectations meant change, and pain, and the return of memory.
Almost against his will a slow, swelling awareness grew, and with it came feeling. Love, and sorrow, and a rage deep inside at the wrongness of the world. Bucky shouldn't be dead—the Hydra shouldn't have taken him. Steve's mother shouldn't have had to scrape and toil and go to an early grave because the kingdom was warring and unbalanced, riven by poverty and fear. Abraham shouldn't have been killed by the slithering evil of the Hydra, infesting the land and destroying it by inches.
Steve held the fire of his rage inside, stoking it with what Abraham had told him of the ones who'd caused the war and created evils like the Hydra. They had pulled the land apart, broken its rhythms and natural cycles. They had to be stopped, and the castle must be protected. All the people of the land must be protected. Steve needed power for that, and he drew it into him from the strength of the ice, from the bonds holding particle to particle, pulling the energies into himself slowly, so slowly, as he grew and changed, as the ice thinned and melted from the furnace of his anger and his need to right the wrongs done to the land and its people.
The ice was transparent now, a thin layer glowing with light, sunbeams of daybreak slanting into the garden and warming him. Steve felt cold, and pain, and he called on the fire inside, crying out as he moved, unfamiliar muscles flexing powerfully to shatter the crumbling, half-melted ice-crust as he thrashed and coughed, clawing at the stone steps to drag himself out and collapse on the lip of the pool, shivering and dashing water from his eyes.
"Hey, whoa," said a voice behind him. "Okay, good thing I was keepin' an eye out on my morning run. Stark predicted another week before you broke out; he's gonna be pissed. He had a bag of gold riding on it with Barton."
A piercing whistle rang out, almost like a hawk's cry. Steve started and looked up. The Prince of Birds stood over him, waving to the guards flanking the entrance to the castle. "Get the man a towel and some dry clothes!" The Prince glanced down at him appraisingly, then added, "Large size clothes, you hear?"
One of the guards waved and disappeared inside. The Prince looked down at Steve again. "You probably won't even fit Banner's stuff now. Have to throw all your old gear away." He tilted his head to one side and eyed Steve, bird-like. "Guess it worked, then. How d'you feel?"
Steve coughed again. "How d'you think? Like death warmed up."
The Prince chuckled. "Okay, I deserved that," he said ruefully.
"Sorry," Steve said, banking down the rage inside him until it was just an ember. "I just. Not ah, quite myself yet."
"You're never going to be yourself again, Rogers," the Prince said. "Not really. Hope you know what you got yourself into with this magic gig. It's not all fun and games."
"I . . . I don't know if I have any. Magic," Steve said. "Never did before."
"The muscles are kind of a giveaway, I reckon," the Prince said, raising an eyebrow. "Also the fact that being frozen in solid ice all through the cold months didn't kill you."
Steve looked around. There was no snow in sight, and around the edges of the garden, spring flowers were blooming—narcissi and hyacinths, white snowdrops nodding, the cups of tulips and daffodils bright in the early sun, dew-heavy. He swallowed. "How long, Prince?"
The Prince of Birds shrugged. "Near on four months. And call me Sam."
He gave Steve his arm and Steve hauled himself up to stand, a little unsteady but not weak or trembling, as he would have been before the Trial. As he should have been, after being locked in solid ice for months. He extended his hand. "I'm Steve. Ah, Steve Rogers, but I guess you know that."
They shook, then the Prince yelped and pulled his hand free. "Yeah, you're gonna have to watch it with the magical strength, Rogers. Try not to crush us mere mortals, okay?"
Steve flushed. "Sorry. I'm not used to–" He shot a look at the Prince. "But you've got powers, you can–"
The Prince—Sam—clapped him on the shoulder. "Yeah, I can fly and y'know, chat with birds and stuff, but I earned my fighting skills through a ton of hard training. Other than summoning the wings, I'm as mortal as anyone."
"Guess I'm going to be spending a lot of time training as well," Steve said, looking down at himself, unused to his height, the breadth and the swell of pectorals and biceps, thigh muscles tight in his thin, too-small pants. "I never learned to fight before—too sickly."
They began to walk back to the castle. "Oh yeah, hours of endless fun," Sam said easily. "Weapons training, shield-work, wrestling and hand to hand, not to mention warcraft and strategy. Fury's got a whole damn course all laid out for you."
A guard emerged from the castle entrance, holding a pile of clothing, towels, a blanket. He put it down on a stone bench and resumed his post. Steve realized he was no longer cold at all, the rage glowing deep within, heating his blood. He thought he might never be cold again. He stopped, looked over at Sam. "You were running when you found me? From what?"
Sam shrugged. "Not from anything—I run to keep in condition, and spar with swords and knives. It's hard work, flying. I summon the wings magically but I still gotta use them, and that takes muscle and stamina."
"I. Would it be okay, um, if I joined you? On the runs?" Steve asked awkwardly.
"Yeah, sure." Sam shot him a sardonic look. "That's if you can stand goin' as slow as someone without magical muscles."
"I," Steve blinked. "I'm not used to. I mean, before, I couldn’t run at all. Asthma," he explained, and Sam nodded. "I'll . . . restrain myself," Steve promised.
Sam snorted. "Right, like that's gonna work. You mean you'll do three laps of the castle to my one." He pushed Steve toward the bench with the clothes. "Man, you're runnin' hot there, like a furnace. Let's get you into some clothes so you can quit showin' me up quite so much."
There was no one about and Sam rolled his eyes and turned his back to save Steve's modesty and shield him from the guards. Steve flushed, then quickly stripped off his old pants, pulling on new leggings and a tunic, a warm woolen cloak in deep blue, and soft leather boots—a little small for his now-large feet, but they'd do. He buckled on a belt with a small, all-purpose dagger, and rejoined Sam. "I should see the Queen," he said. "Once she wakes," he added, remembering the early hour.
"Yeah, about that," Sam said.
Steve stood by Queen Peggy's bed, trying to control the prickling in his eyes. Her skin looked paper-thin; he could see blue veins clearly at her temples and under her eyes. Some of the lines of age had been smoothed out by unconsciousness, and at least she looked peaceful. He knelt by the bed and took her cool, limp hand, raising it to his lips and kissing it. "I made it," he whispered, then rested his brow on her hand for a second before placing her fingers carefully back on the coverlet. He stepped back, then followed Lord Fury out of the bedroom, along the hallway, and into a wood-paneled office.
Fury waved him to a chair, and Steve sank down, head in hands. "You're sure it wasn't the ceremony to put me in the ice?" he asked.
Fury shook his head curtly. "No, she was well after that. A little sad; she didn't expect you to survive. Nor did I." Steve looked up, but held his tongue. "It was three months ago. The Council gathered to renew the Castle's magical wards. It's a taxing ceremony and I'd advised her to leave it to the rest of us, but Summer's Queen has special powers and the Hydra encroachments had been worsening. I think she felt she had no choice." He sighed and went to stand by the window, hands clasped behind his back. "She fell into a trance during the channeling and failed to awaken when the rite concluded. She's been like this ever since: suspended between worlds."
"Will she recover?" Maybe she just needed rest. Steve bit his lip—all his life she'd been queen. He couldn't imagine Castle Summer standing for too long without her. "Do the people know?"
"Only that she's been ill and is being treated. Lord Banner hasn't been able to revive her, but he says she's not deteriorating. He thinks her fate may be linked to that of the land, and to the war's outcome."
Steve shook his head. "Not the war—the war's a distraction, a trick by the Red Skull and Zola to weaken both our armies. They're the ones we have to defeat, to save the land and Queen Peggy herself."
Fury frowned. "You're hardly a military strategist yet, nor do you have much knowledge of magic. Our army can't cease fighting, or we'd be overrun."
"I know." Steve took a deep breath. "I just . . . I feel it inside me; the way the land's hurting and where that comes from."
"A result of the Trial, yes. You do understand that you're Summer's Captain, now, Rogers?" Fury's dark eye, and his crystal one, both bored into Steve. "Do you accept the burden?"
"Abraham told me," Steve said. The one who survived Trail by Ice became the Champion of Summer—her Captain. "I accept it, yes. It's why I did all this. I'd do anything for the land, and for Queen Peggy. Anything to defeat the Hydra. But I've got no real training."
"The Council will assist," Fury said. "I'll train you in warcraft, the Black Widow in hand to hand, the Knight of Arrows and the Prince of Birds will cover weapons. Lord Stark will make your arms and armor, once your skills have been tested." Fury gestured at Steve. "Clearly, you have strength, and Lord Banner thinks magical healing is likely as well. Have you noticed other gifts?"
"My old illnesses have gone," Steve said, "and I feel like I'm moving right for the first time ever. Quick and agile I mean, like a tumbler at the fair."
Fury nodded. "Speed, strength, agility, healing, yes. And, from what you said, a sense of the land and those who harm her?"
Steve tried to put what he sensed into words. "The Mountains of Winter are kind of pulling at me, and there's a dark thing under the land, like a web. The Hydra. What you did pushed it back some, but it's already coming back."
Fury scowled. "We'd better get on with your training, then."
"I made the arm as you specified, but it's too risky," said the short one, Zola, spectacles glinting in the candlelight. He indicated a jointed metal arm resting on the large table. "He has power over metal. The results might be unpredictable."
The Soldier stood waiting. No one had given him a command so there was nothing for him to do. He was powerfully aware of the arm. It was beautiful. Intricate. It sang of movement, of precision and power. He wanted to touch it but he hadn't been told to do so.
The skull-faced sorcerer gestured impatiently. "You're not usually so squeamish. They have a champion now who survived the Trial by Ice, which means a challenge, by the ancient rules. We must make the Soldier stronger—he must be invincible. His affinity for metal is what makes the graft possible."
"Perhaps if we weave safeguards into the binding spells," Zola said, chewing on his lip.
The skull-faced man bared his teeth in a grin. "So that if he acts against us, it destroys him?"
"It will take both of us, working together," Zola said. "You must control him while I work."
The Skull turned to the Soldier. "Lie down on the table and do not move, not matter what happens. By the words of power, I command you."
The Soldier got up on the table and lay down. The arm was very near and it called to him, but he held still and did not reach for it.
"Do not move," The Skull said, and began to recite the words.
When the pain began he was only the words. He lay there and Zola used knives on him, and blood ran between the boards of the table and dripped into a large bowl beneath, and he was only the words, even when most of his left arm also rested in the bowl. The metal attached itself to him and that hurt like fire, even as he welcomed its touch and it staunched his bleeding, but he was only the words so he lay there and didn't scream. Not out loud. Zola and the Skull pulled bindings from the air and chanted, and made the metal grow into his body, down tendon and nerve and bone, and it hurt in ways he couldn't even comprehend, but he was only the words so he lay unmoving.
"Stand up," the Skull said, and he did. The Skull turned to Zola. "The arm is bound by the safeguards, yes?"
"Yes. He cannot harm us," Zola said, watching him greedily.
"Good," said the Skull, turning back to the Soldier. "Use your new arm to kill Zola."
Zola spluttered, but the Soldier's metal arm had already shot out, snake-swift, to crush his windpipe. It stopped a bare inch from Zola's throat, and the Soldier clenched his teeth, fighting the contradictory commands. He must, but he could not: the arm would not move. Frustrated, he raised his right arm to finish the job, but the metal arm grasped his flesh and blood wrist and snapped his forearm.
"Stop. Be still," said the Skull, and he was, metal arm hanging easily. Blood still seeped from the join at his shoulder, although he could already feel it healing. His right arm throbbed and hung at an odd angle, but he was commanded to be still so he was still. The fractured bones shifted slightly, beginning to knit back together.
"You and your jokes," Zola said bitterly, his face screwed up like an angry child. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and blotted sweat from his domed forehead. "I don't know why I tolerate your over-dramatic nonsense."
"Yes you do," said the Skull, grinning toothily. "We have all the best toys."
The Soldier stood there, feeling tendrils of metal weave themselves into the muscles of his shoulder and encase his bones. He wanted very badly to flex his jointed hand, to wield a sword and see what he could do with his new arm, but he didn't move. Slowly, his fractured right arm healed and straightened itself.
He wondered if the guards would still play chess with him, now he had a metal arm. Probably the skull-faced man would make them. That would be good; he enjoyed the games, even if they were really strategy training. He liked fighting as well, with sword and knife. It was a pity the Skull had made him kill his first set of guards; the new guards smelled of fear all the time now, even playing chess.
"Well," the skull-faced man in the dark red robe said. "I think you're ready for a mission, Soldier."
Winter's Soldier stood impassively, waiting for orders.
Steve hefted the kite-shaped iron shield and took his stance, practice sword raised. The Black Widow closed with him swiftly, flowing around him like water as she slipped in under his guard to pummel him with blows and roundhouse kicks, her long curved scimitar flashing in to lay token killing slashes on his chest and neck. He grunted, absorbing her assault, the small cuts healing almost before he felt the sting. He barely noticed strikes that would have broken another man's ribs, using his shield to block and lash out at her until a powerful kick sent his practice sword spinning across the flagstones.
"Quit!" Barton, the Knight of Arrows, yelled from the edge of the practice court. Steve stopped, chest heaving, laying down the shield and watching as the Black Widow pulled her magic back into herself and flowed into stillness across from him, lowering her blade. She was also breathing deeply, and he was relieved he'd at least given her that much of a workout.
The Widow—Natasha—turned to Barton, and Steve noticed a small cluster of the Council had come out to watch the practice bout. Thor Thunderhammer stood with his arms crossed, looking thoughtful, and Sam and Lord Stark were there as well, Stark in red-gold robes, not his steam-powered flying suit. "You see?" Natasha said. "It's hopeless."
Steve flushed, his stomach clenching. "I'm sorry," he said miserably. "I'll try harder."
He'd had a month of hard training, and he felt he'd done well in hand to hand and in strategy and tactics with Lord Fury, but weapons still eluded him. Barton had rapidly decided he was no archer, so that left sword and shield work, but Steve was proving slow with blades—rapier, short-sword, broadsword; he struggled with them all, although the weight was nothing. Even unarmed, Natasha easily defeated him when he held a sword.
"Yeah, no," Stark said with a grimace. "I don't think that'll work. It's like he's built for defense, not attack."
"I can attack hand to hand," Steve muttered sullenly. How could he fight the Hydra and its masters if he couldn't use a sword?
"True. He's pretty good now with unarmed combat," Natasha agreed. "But not with edged weapons."
"Maybe a battle-axe, or a spear?" Sam suggested, but the Widow shook her head.
"Tried all those—if anything, he's worse with them than with a sword." Steve glowered at her, sick of being discussed like a disappointing child.
"The Captain cannot use Mjölnir, of course," rumbled Thor, "But perhaps something of equal weight? A war club?"
"Maybe," Stark said, "But I don't think it's just blades. I noticed it when he was practicing last week, so I made something to try." He whistled and a short automaton trundled out from the castle, hissing on jets of steam. At first Steve thought it an oversized metal toadstool, but when it reached Lord Stark it lifted the curved circular cap it had been holding above its head and passed it to him. A metal shield—round, not kite-shaped, enameled with concentric circles of red, with a silver star in the blue center.
Like one of my protective mandalas, my sun-charms, Steve thought, taking an instinctive step toward it.
"Here, Cap, catch," Stark said, and flipped the shield at him, spinning it sideways through the air. Steve reached out and the shield thudded into his grip with a sense of perfect rightness. He hefted it, then threw it straight up, spinning it as Lord Stark had done and catching it easily as it completed its parabola and sped back down again. He examined it: the edge wasn't sharpened like a blade, but was enough to do damage if it connected with sufficient force. Stark gestured at the straw-padded, man-shaped fencing targets at the end of the court. "Try it on those."
Steve crouched and threw instinctively, skimming the shield in a blur and racing after it. The endmost target exploded as the shield connected, then the shield bounced off the stone wall beyond and was back in Steve's hand before he'd even spared a thought. He bent and threw again along the line of the targets, sending the shield zipping down the whole row with killing speed, taking off each of their padded heads as he ran after and retrieved it when all were decapitated. He examined the shield, but it showed no damage from having ricocheted off the stone walls of the castle. Looking at the end wall where it had struck and bounced, he saw a deep gouge in the stone. He jogged back to the others, holding it.
"An impressive display!" Thor boomed, beaming. "This is your weapon, I believe, Captain." Natasha nodded, and Sam grinned in relief.
"How did you know?" Steve asked Lord Stark, who looked decidedly smug.
Stark shrugged. "Saw how you were fighting last week. It was like the sword inhibited you and you only really used the shield. I just made it more aerodynamic. It's a vibranium alloy—takes some hefty spell-work smelting that stuff, I can tell you."
"Thank you," Steve said, heartfelt. The shield fitted him as no other weapon had. He could fight with this, he was sure.
"Pity it doesn't return to his hand," Barton said, "like my charmed arrows do, or Mjölnir does for Thor."
"You can teach him the charms," Natasha said. "He might not always have something hard to bounce it off. Like your head." Barton flipped her a rude gesture, grinning.
"Maybe if you use it more," Sam said to Steve "So it knows you. Took my wings a while to get used to me, and me to them. I'm betting you'll be able to call it to you once you're both better acquainted."
Steve nodded. He hoped so, too.
"Hey, try this," Sam said, summoning his wings and launching himself up into the blue bowl of the sky. "We can play catch!" he called, his voice filtering down.
Steve grinned, crouched and launched the shield upward, spinning it so fast it was just a bright blur against the blue. Sam cursed and dodged away, letting the lethal object flash past him, up and up, until it finally reached its peak and fell back. Sam swooped, matching speeds like a falcon stooping on prey, and plucked it from the air, then hovered and flipped the shield down to Steve. His aim wasn't perfect, so Steve leaped high into the air and caught the spinning edge before it smashed the balustrade of a balcony on which Lord Fury was standing. Steve landed in a crouch and straightened, shield at his side, wincing as he looked up. Sam landed a little way away and vanished his wings, similarly chagrined.
"Happy though I am to see you've found your weapon, Captain," Fury said, one eyebrow raised, "I think you'd best practice more safely. I'd rather the castle weren't destroyed before we even meet the enemy."
Steve grimaced. "Yes, sir. Sorry." Sam muttered an apology as well, and shot Steve a glance, rolling his eyes. Steve smothered a grin, feeling happier than he had in weeks.
He practiced for hours to master his new weapon, sometimes with members of the Council and sometimes alone, throwing the shield and catching it, time and again. He skimmed it off rocks or rivers, and helped the logging crews fell trees—though after the first two they politely said they'd stick to steam-powered saws, thanks very much, as the shield in Steve's hands reduced even thick trees to wood-chips. Thor sometimes turned up for a game of catch, or Sam, well away from Summer's Castle so no windows were smashed or masonry pulverized. Even Lord Stark joined in the games sometimes, jetting about in his jointed metal suit.
Steve went on patrols into the countryside to help Lord Fury map the Hydra's advance. He supervised platoons of the Queen's Engineers who dug it up and burned the tendrils while Steve severed larger vines with the shield. In between, he continued running with Sam, hand-to-hand training with Natasha and Barton, and history and strategy lessons with Fury. He kept a marble chess set in his rooms, replaying the games where Fury had defeated him until he learned better tactics.
One day, he returned from a mission to an outlying farm to find the castle in an uproar. He grabbed a guard who'd been rushing past, and heard that an assassin had tried to kill Lord Fury. Fury had been stabbed, but survived. Steve vaulted off his horse and ran to the queen's rooms, finding her safe, to his great relief. He doubled the guard, then strode off to see Fury.
"We need to talk, Captain," Fury said through gritted teeth as Lord Banner tended him and Stark paced up and down at the back of the room. Fury bared his teeth in pain as Banner poured a potion into his wound and green smoke arose. He glared at Banner, who shrugged.
"Did you see your assailant?" Steve asked.
Fury nodded, catching his breath as the sting subsided. "He was all in black leather, strapped with knives. His hair was dark and tangled, and a mask covered much of his face."
"Did anyone else see him? Did he say anything?"
"No. I was alone, and he slipped out the window once I'd cast a magical barrier. Assassins aren't usually chatty—not the dangerous ones," Fury added dryly. "He had a strange metal arm, cunningly jointed, with a red star on the shoulder."
"He was part-automaton?" Stark asked, suddenly alert. "A cyborg?"
"Perhaps. It may only have been a prosthesis, but it resonated with dark magic in a way I've felt only once before, when fighting Zola."
Steve stiffened. "You think Zola was behind this?"
"Probably," Fury said, wincing as his shoulder was bandaged.
"Then the Red Skull was in it as well," Steve muttered.
"Whoa, hold up there, Captain Conspiracy," Stark said, raising a hand. "We don't know that for sure."
"I do," Steve insisted.
Stark rolled his eyes and gave Fury a pad and pencil. "Draw the arm," he demanded. Fury narrowed his eyes, but steadied the pad with his injured arm, and attempted a drawing. Stark carried it away to study.
"The queen's at risk," Steve said. "I increased her guard, but nothing can keep out a skilled assassin who's prepared to die in the attempt. We should move her somewhere safer."
"My tower's got plenty of space, and better wards than this place," Stark suggested. "I could carry her there in the suit, after dark."
Steve looked at Fury, who nodded. "Yes, temporarily, at least." Steve blew out a breath and relaxed a little. Castle Summer was too large, too hard to secure.
"Who is this assassin, though?" Steve asked. "How could he have passed through all our defenses?"
"As to that, I may have some idea." They turned toward the new voice. Natasha, the Black Widow, stood in the doorway, Sam and Barton behind her. "You know I still have ties to Winter—informants," she said, coming to stand by Fury's bed across from Steve.
Fury nodded. "We rely on your contacts."
"There's been talk, lately, about a new fighter with a metal arm. They call him Winter's Soldier."
Natasha inclined her head. "Yes. But not from one of Winter's Houses. No one really knows where he's from, only that he's formidable and he comes out of the Mountains. They say he can't be killed."
"He's the one I'm supposed to fight, isn't he?" Steve said. "First the Trial by Ice, then the Challenge."
"Steve, you can't stop the whole war by fighting one bad guy," Sam said, shaking his head. "It doesn't work that way."
"I think maybe it does," Steve said slowly. "Winter's not the problem. I've told you—the war's a smoke-screen. It's Zola and the Red Skull who're behind it all, and this Soldier is their creature. I think I do have to fight him, and them as well. I have to go to the Mountains of Winter."
"Hey, is it a Quest?" Barton asked, bright-eyed. "I'm in."
Natasha sighed. "Then I'll have to come as well, to haul you out of whatever mess you'll get yourself into."
"We'll need transport—it's further than even I can fly," Stark said. "I'll get Peggy settled, then I'll power up my thermal airship to carry Cap's party to the mountains." He turned to Fury. "Not you—you'll have to stay here with Banner and keep Peggy and the castle safe, together with Rhodey and Coulson and Vision. Need to split our forces."
Banner looked unhappy, but nodded, unable to leave his patients.
"I don't mind catching a ride part way," Sam said, considering, "but we'll need recon once we're there, and Stark's too damn noisy with all the hissing steam jets. Ain't nothin' like the real thing." He smirked and flashed his wings, long pinions there and gone in an eye-blink.
Thor Thunderhammer touched down on the balcony with a loud whoosh, Mjölnir raised above his head. He threw the doors open and spread his arms wide. "My friends!" he roared happily. "I hear there is a Quest!"
A couple of dark heads poked around the door to the hallway. "Can we come too?" asked the Ant Knight.
"Yeah, we've never been on a Quest," the Prince of Spiders put in. "Sounds pretty cool."
"Nor have I," said the Scarlet Witch, glowing faintly with crimson interest. "It would be an experience."
Steve looked around the packed room, taken aback. "I, I thought I was the Champion of Summer," he said, somewhat plaintively. "Summer's Captain, charged with avenging the wrongs done to the land."
"Sure you are, Steve," Sam said, slapping him on the back. "But you don't have to do it alone, man. You got friends."
"Yeah," Barton said. "Let us pick up a few crumbs, right? No hogging all the avenging."
Steve swallowed, overcome. He hadn't had real friends since Bucky'd been torn away by the Hydra. "Thanks, then. Thanks to you all."
Cheers broke out, with general backslapping and excitement. Thor threw his hammer in a moment of high spirits, but it only demolished part of the balcony.
It was late when Steve returned to his rooms. As he undressed, he noticed the chess pieces on his board had been moved. The castle staff knew not to touch the set, so he frowned down at them, puzzled. Someone had knocked one of his rooks off the board with a black knight, which now menaced his queen.
He picked up the black marble knight and stared at it. It felt subtly wrong, giving off an emanation of dark magic like the Hydra. He placed it back on the board and checked every corner of the room twice over, but there was nothing lurking anywhere except dust balls. Steve fastened the shutters and latched them, then went to his bed and lay down, staring up into the shadowed blue canopy sprinkled with silver stars that draped his four poster bed.
Sleep was a long time coming.
"Our ploy was successful," the Skull said, peering at the scrying fire into which he had cast various unsavory items. Red smoke coiled up from it and images moved in the smoke, half-glimpsed.
"They really thought the Soldier would fail in his mission, and return to us leaving Fury alive?" Zola chucked nastily. "They are fools."
Winter's Soldier agreed. Had be been commanded to kill the one-eyed man, Fury would be dead. He had deviated only slightly from his mission by moving the chess-piece while hiding until the uproar died down and he could escape. He liked chess, especially the knights. They struck unpredictably.
"The idiots have no real grasp of his capacities," the Skull said, "and they know little of the arm—not even Stark has constructed its like. The attack has drawn them out of their stronghold, as we planned."
"We will settle this once and for all," Zola said. "Is Frostspear here yet?"
"I am indeed," said a voice from the doorway. The Soldier slid his eyes to the side, evaluating the new threat. The figure was not imposing, but the oddly curved staff it held throbbed with power. The Soldier determined not to let it near him.
"Loki Frostspear," the Skull said. "Well met."
"Oh, forget the heroic banter," Loki said, sauntering into the room. "We're not shield-brothers or boon companions. My interests simply happen to align with yours. Temporarily." He turned and gave the Soldier an assessing look. "This is your secret weapon? He's a mere mortal—Thor will crush him like a gnat."
"He has . . . hidden abilities, let us say," Zola said, rubbing his hands together.
"Very thoroughly hidden," snorted Loki, dismissing the Soldier and wandering away to stand by the window. The Soldier was not sorry to have more distance between himself and the scepter-like staff. Something deeply other pulsed in its blue-glowing jewel.
"He will disarm Thor," the skull said. "I trust you can manage the Thunderhammer once that is achieved?"
Loki sneered. "With pleasure. Without Mjölnir he is nothing."
"Well, you should take your positions," the Skull said, glancing back at the brazier's smoke. "Thor flies ahead of the airship. He will be here soon." He turned to the Soldier. "You know what to do."
The Soldier nodded, then turned on his heel and left the tower room, trotting down the circular staircase to the outer door. The wind would be icy but his leathers were thick, and the gusts at least prevented drifts from piling too high—he did not think Loki would do well on snowshoes. Almost, he smiled—some things amused him, these days. Dark things, but it was better than the frozen emptiness left by the blue-fire circlet. They had not done that to him for some time.
The tower that served as the Skull and Zola's lair was in the heart of the mountains, a dark sharp-tipped jut of stone near the tip of an unclimbable spike of rock. A narrow, snow-covered span joined it to the nearby wind-swept plateau, a winding path leading away, lost in drifts of snow.
Loki crossed the span and waited on the other side, arms folded. Despite his silky green robes, the icy wind seemed not to bother him. The Soldier stood on the tower side of the rock bridge, peering up into the storm. He knew he must stand out, a dark, windswept figure against the snow—but then hiding was not the point.
Thor appeared, first as a distant rushing noise, then as a dark speck, resolving into red and gold as he drew near. He saw them waiting below and pulled up, hovering in mid-air, then lowered himself until he rested on the arch of the stone span.
"You!" He pointed at Loki, raising his voice to a resonant shout above the wind. "You are mine, brother—I will bring you to Asgard for justice." He turned to the Soldier. "You belong to another's justice. Do not interfere and I will leave you to his mercy."
Thor wielded the great hammer Mjölnir, physically the same as the model Zola had made and had the Soldier use for practice. It was filled with power, not as alien as Loki's scepter, but strange nonetheless. Yet it was metal, and the Soldier knew metal. More to the point, it knew him.
He raised his arms and called Mjölnir's metal. The hammer tore itself out of Thor's grasp and flew toward him, leaving Thor gaping for a second. Then his brows darkened and he raised his hand and halted the hammer's flight, willing it back. For a moment Mjölnir hung in mid-air, as the Soldier struggled to break Thor's hold.
With a war-cry, Loki flung himself across the span at Thor, scepter extended. The Soldier strained to control the hammer, watching events unfold with a sense of foreboding—Loki had waited too long to strike. Thor flicked his hand contemptuously and the Soldier staggered back, nearly falling into a drift as he lost his grip on the hammer's alien metal and Thor leaped upward, Mjölnir thwacking back into his palm as he spun and threw it at the rocky bridge. The span shattered and Loki screamed, falling away into the abyss, the glowing scepter dropping down toward the depths where the Soldier knew ensorceled Chitauri dragons hissed and slithered, seeking prey.
"Too easy a death, brother," Thor roared, calling the hammer back to his hand and riding it down to scoop Loki up and pin him with one enormous arm. Loki struggled and spat, to no avail.
Thor rode Mjölnir up out of the cleft and alighted on the cliff, across the broken span from the Soldier, still clutching the furious Loki. "This one is mine," he called. "You, I leave to Summer's vengeance."
The Soldier briefly considered putting a throwing knife in his eye, but it would probably be deflected and he needed his weapons. Thor raised the hammer again and shot up into the sky with his reluctant burden and a thunderous crack of sound, leaving only a shimmering gap in the clouds in his wake.
The Soldier began trudging back to the tower. Zola and the Skull would not be pleased. He hoped they wouldn't use the blue-fire circlet on him.
Sam folded his wings and landed neatly on the airship's deck. The steering mechanism, magical heating brazier and passenger cabins were in a large wooden boat-like structure suspended under the balloon. Sam shook ice from his wings, vanished them, and came to stand by the brazier and warm his hands.
"Well?" demanded Lord Stark. Everyone else was gathered around the brazier as well—it was freezing in the depths of the Mountains of Winter. Steve blew on his hands: even in gloves and padded cloaks it was hard to stay warm if you weren't active. If Sam had succeeded in his search, Steve hoped they'd soon have plenty to do.
"Yep, found it," Sam said with a triumphant grin. He tapped the red-tinted goggles pushed up to the top of his head. "Shrouded in invisibility spells, but the enchantments on these were stronger."
"So they should be," said Stark. "It took most of the Council to fashion them."
"You found the Red Skull and Zola?" Steve couldn't help asking.
"Found a creepy tower, full of dark magic," Sam said, nodding. "That's got to be them. Horrible place on a spike of rock with not much level footing around the base, sheer cliffs on all sides and half a league's drop into black nothingness if you fall. They got those Chitauri dragons crawlin' around way down below, too, for extra security. I could feel the alien vibes coming off them. Horrible things."
"We'll go in by air, then," Steve said. "Is there access to the tower?"
"Some high-up windows, and one door at ground level. Used to be a narrow rock bridge linking the base of the tower to the cliffs next door, but it was mostly smashed and fallen away. Felt like Thor's work from the magical residue, and we saw that streak of light go up into the sky a few hours ago. Reckon he took care of Loki for us."
"Good." Steve nodded—that had been the plan. It removed Thor from their number, but dealing with an adversary like Loki made that worthwhile.
"Can you get us close, Barton?"
The Knight of Arrows shrugged. "Sure, I can fly anything."
"You'll stay in the airship and use it as a sniping platform, with the Ant Knight." Scott's face was a mask of disappointment. Steve put a hand on his arm. "We'll need your skills later to open the lock, Scott, but being ant-sized won't help if there's a battle before we can gain access to the door."
Half an hour later, Sam, peering over the side through his goggles, held up a hand. "Whoa, that's close enough. We can either jump or fly down, and you don't want to risk damaging the ship. That tower's got some big old spikes on it."
"We'll never manage this unless we can see it," Steve muttered, staring over the airship's railing at what seemed like just an ordinary rock spearing up into thick clouds. Not even the broken rock bridge was visible.
"Let me try," Scarlet Witch said, leaning over the rail beside him, hands outstretched. Natasha clasped her waist, and Stark hung onto Natasha in turn. The Witch concentrated, eyes closed, then gathered her magic and flung it at the cloud-wreathed rock. For a moment a tall tower was outlined in red, then it faded. "Help me," Wanda said. "One more time." They all crowded around, laying a hand on the cluster of sorcerers around her, directing any magic they possessed through and into her. She flung it at the tower, which once again shone red, then shimmered into visibility as the red glow faded, standing dark and tall on its rocky spike, radiating wrongness.
Natasha wrinkled her nose. "Unpleasant, and what's inside will be worse."
"Got to be done," Steve said. "It's what's powering the Hydra." He turned to the Prince of Spiders. "Peter, can you tether us?"
Peter nodded and sent a magical web shooting out, fastening one end to a rocky spur below and the other to the airship's railing. Steve leaped and caught it, sliding down and bracing himself on the rocks as he landed. Stark, in his suit, jetted down to alight beside him. Sam glided down and Natasha slid down the tether, letting Steve catch and steady her. Peter used another strand stuck to the railing to drop down, controlling his fall, then fastened that beside the first tether, and Wanda floated down on pillars of crimson magic.
The rocks were icy and there was little room to move. "Sam, Peter, you're our safety nets if anyone slips," Steve said. They nodded.
The tower door slammed open, and several oversized metal figures clanked out. Instead of a face, each had a crystal eye-strip glowing with a green word.
"Automatons," Stark said, "and that's Zola's name on them. Probably golems. Here we go, boys and girls." He jetted up into the air, and as one they advanced on the metal creatures.
The golems weren't fast, but they were massive and hard to damage. They also packed a hefty punch, and with six of them flailing about, Steve and the others had to move fast, dodging and weaving on the icy rocks. Steve managed to smash one off the edge of the cliff, rebounding the shield off its chest-plate and retrieving his weapon just in time to stop another golem smashing a mailed fist into Natasha. She fell, stunned by a glancing blow, but the automaton Steve's shield had knocked aside clambered up right away, advancing until Sam swooped down and rammed into it boots first, knocking it backward down the rocks and into the abyss.
Above them, Scott and Barton called warnings, Barton's arrows bouncing uselessly off the thick metal carapaces of the golems. Steve stood over Natasha fending off golems with his shield until she roused, rubbing her head where the monster had clipped her. Near the now-closed tower door, Wanda had more luck, magically disassembling one of the monsters into a heap of metal parts. Unfortunately, they immediately began reassembling themselves, while Wanda and Peter frantically hauled metal limbs and head to the edge and dropped them off, Stark helping to power the massive metal thorax over the cliff. Steve smashed another golem's faceplate with his shield, destroying the green glowing word, and it dropped like a stone and lay unmoving. "Damn," Stark said. "Should have done that from the start. Once they lose the embedded word of power, Zola can't animate them."
"Behind you!" Barton yelled, and Steve turned to see the black-clad assassin Fury had described charge out of the tower door and grapple with Natasha, followed by a figure in a dark red hooded robe. Beyond them, Steve saw Peter spiral around the last two automata, binding them in tight strands of web and leaving them thrashing in the snow until their own movements made them tilt and slide inexorably over the cliff's edge, vanishing into the depths with clanks and crashes as they bounced off the sheer rock walls.
The hood fell back and Steve saw the Red Skull grinning at him, hands raised. He barely got his shield up in time to deflect a green blast. Wanda darted in, but another sorcerous blast made her dodge away, and although Steve's shield knocked the robed figure back, it seemed unharmed. It went to grasp Steve's shield but Peter shot out a web strand, plucking the shield away and firing it back to Steve.
Dangerously near the cliff's edge, Natasha and Stark battled the black-clad masked man hand to hand. Winter's Soldier, Natasha had said. Steve wanted to fight him but the Skull was at least as great a threat. An arrow thwacked down from the airship but a magical barrier around the Skull deflected it, and the skeletal grin seemed to widen, as it fired green bolts, making them duck and roll. One of the bolts caught Sam's left wing and he spiraled down, landing awkwardly by Steve, his wings vanished and his left arm dragging. Steve moved to cover him.
Barton yelled again from on high, and Steve saw that Stark had jetted out over the void to take a run at the Soldier, but the masked man had an arm outstretched, one hand twisting as he controlled the metal in Stark's suit, making him drop into the abyss, a dead weight. Peter leaped out and swung down on a web, as Steve fired his shield at the Soldier who stretched out an arm and caught it in mid-air, zipping it back at Steve with deadly accuracy while still fighting Natasha. As he caught the shield, narrowly avoiding being carried off the cliff himself, Steve saw Wanda lash her magic through a gap in the Skull's defenses, smashing it back against the tower wall. Another red zap hit the wall, but the Skull had moved, lightning fast, vanishing back into the tower, the door slamming behind it.
Winter's Soldier glared around at them, then leaped up the stones of the tower wall, scaling it easily. Barton shot at him, but the arrows all deflected, metal tips bent nearly sideways as they veered away—the Soldier clearly had power over metal. His black-clad form slipped into a high window and thick shutters slammed down over the tower's window slits once he was inside.
Once the Soldier had vanished, Stark's metal suit started working again, so he lifted Sam and flew him, protesting, up to the airship. He brought the Ant Knight back with him in shrunken form, riding on his shoulder. At the tower door, Scott ran down Stark's arm and scrambled into the lock. A moment later he emerged, shaking his head. "It's warded somehow—some kind of locking spell. I can't shift the key."
Natasha stepped forward, flexing her fingers. "Time I put my lock-picking charms to some use," she said, and got busy, Wanda leaning in interestedly to observe.
Steve and Stark looked up at the dark tower above them, watching in case the Soldier or a sorcerer emerged to attack them, but the windows remained sealed. After several minutes of cursing in a language Steve didn't recognize, Natasha exclaimed triumphantly and there was a deep double-click inside the heavy iron lock.
"Stand back," Steve ordered. "I'll check it out first." He opened the door and slipped in, shutting it quickly and slamming the locking bars home.
"Rogers!" Stark shouted. "What in all the hells?"
"Sorry, this one's mine!" Steve yelled. "Get back to the ship!" He could hear them arguing outside as he ran for the stone stairs circling the inner walls of the tower and pounded up them, his shield raised. They'd be fine—Stark and Wanda could fly, carrying Natasha and Scott, and Peter could slingshot himself up to the airship with a web strand.
He passed through dusty rooms filled with incomprehensible equipment—brass machinery and pillars, huge cogs and levers, wooden scaffolding. Higher up the tower he found a room filled with partly completed golems, and a glass tank whose liquid contents swam with glowing green names, like bizarre fish. He smashed that with the shield in passing, just in case. Other fluid-filled tanks held body parts – several brains, and most of a human arm. He turned away and kept climbing, revolted.
The massive tower was narrowing somewhat as he reached its peak. It was also getting colder, with an icy breeze, and he realized the top must be open to the elements. There was still no sign of the sorcerers or the Soldier, but he burst out the last door onto the flat, snow-swept roof to find a small zeppelin rising into the mists. He thrust the shield into its holder on his back and raced across the roof, throwing himself up and catching the webbing under the pilot's cabin with one hand, swinging himself up to cling there, and then haul himself up onto the struts linking the cabin to the balloon. Below him, a steam-driven propeller whirred and the capsule gleamed above, silvery skin taut with some magically light gas.
As they cleared the tower's topmost crenellations, bolt after glowing green bolt slashed down from beneath the zeppelin, striking a brass pole the thickness of a tree trunk sticking up from the tower roof, electrifying it. There was a rumbling, grinding crack and the tower split open, the tip of the mountain cracking away as stone, machinery, the very rock itself, all crumbled and fell into the abyss. Steve peered desperately up into the clouds, looking for the airship. He caught a brief glimpse between snow flurries, but couldn't see if his companions were safe on board.
Steve smashed the maneuvering propeller, clambering down to retrieve his shield which had lodged in the ruined mechanism. A hatch banged open in the top of the cabin and Winter's Soldier emerged and launched himself at Steve. They fought among the struts, making the zeppelin roll and yaw as Zola screamed invective below. Rudderless, the ship drifted across the void and out over the nearby snow-covered plateau as Steve and the Soldier kicked and punched, their combined weight and violent movements unbalancing the small craft as they struggled.
Steve's hand slipped off a guy-wire and he clawed at the Soldier, ripping off the black mask as he fought for a handhold. Then he was paralyzed, transfixed, staring at a face he knew. Older, far older, and with no hint of recognition in the snarling face but he knew him, he was—
"Bucky! It's me, Steve!"
Winter's Soldier stared back at him in blank incomprehension. "Who's Bucky?" he said, then he bared his teeth and punched Steve hard in the face, knocking him clean out of the zeppelin's rigging and down, plummeting through icy snow and wind. Time slowed, and although Steve's head was ringing from the blow, his vision blurred, he saw something dark falling, saw the airship emerge from a patch of clouds as he fell and fell. Barton shot a fire-arrow into the zeppelin's balloon which exploded, driving the burning craft back out over the void, and it was falling too, everything aflame, Zola's and the Red Skull's screams the last things Steve heard before he smacked down into the snow with killing force.
The Soldier was ordered into the strange floating ship with the Skull and Zola, but when the enemy started damaging it the Skull commanded him to climb up into the superstructure to kill him. Destroying the challenger was his mission: there was nothing else.
They were evenly matched, which the Soldier was not accustomed to; usually he was stronger than those he fought. The footing was bad—struts and wires, freezing wind and poor visibility. They both slipped and slid and missed blows that should have killed, had they landed squarely. Even when his blows hit home his opponent was not crushed, so perhaps this was not a man, as the Soldier was not a man. It made no difference; the mission was to kill him, or die.
The enemy clawed off the Soldier's mask and called himself Steve, and the Soldier, Bucky. For a moment . . . but he was not Bucky; he was the Soldier. He'd always been the Soldier; there was nothing else. His fist connected with the man's jaw in a blow that should have snapped his spine, and the enemy fell. The Soldier watched him drop away, uneasy. The challenger was not dead so his mission was incomplete. This one was very hard to kill and even that last blow might not have . . . he must finish the mission. The Soldier crouched and jumped.
Wind and snow tore at him and obscured the dark shape of his enemy below, falling away into the storm, face upward, spreadeagled. Behind the Soldier came a terrible noise, and heat buffeted him, then fading screams. He went on falling, face down, after the enemy, through the snow.
It was beyond the limits of hearing, but he felt something final in his bones as the flying ship died. Images came to him through the link with the Skull, images of burning, smashing, overwhelming pain, then a strange looming silvery monster, sharp-toothed maw gaping wide. Then blackness, no more link. He felt the commands wink out, leaving him empty and screaming into the wind. He was falling out of the sky, but what and why and who was he where was he why was the ground rushing up so fast white white wh–
He smashed into a deep pocket of snow with barely time to screw his eyes shut.
Later, he dragged himself up onto all fours and shook his head, dizzy, face caked with snow, numb with cold. He staggered and clawed his way out of a deep hole in the snow and struggled over to another man-shaped hole where the enemy lay, plowed into a drift that covered his head. Was he an enemy? Certainty had faded when the commands died. Thought came slowly, congealed by cold and injuries, but already he was healing, bruises fading, frostbite somehow held at bay. He bent and grabbed the man's feet and dragged him back so his face was revealed, studying it. Perhaps he was dead—he'd been hit very hard, and had fallen a long way. But no, a small cloud of mist hung in the air where his breath moved. Alive, then.
Too many unknowns. Was he Bucky? Steve? Were they enemies? Who was he? Where was he? Who was this man?
The Soldier—was he a soldier?—turned and trudged off into the storm.
Steve heard all about it on the trip home, after his friends had found him and carried him up to the airship, setting him by the brazier while he shivered and healed and came back to himself. Heard how the blown snow had nearly buried him and left no trace of Winter's Soldier. Heard how the others had bickered outside the tower door, Stark furious, but Wanda saying it was an honor duel and they must leave him to it. They'd returned to the airship just before the tower crumbled away, in time to see Steve fall out of the sky and the Red Skull and Zola brought down in flames by Barton's arrow. "Damn stupid to try and control volatile gases," Stark had snorted. "Zola was a lunatic."
They took on provisions here and there in towns and river ports. Often there were spring or blossom festivals, and they learned that with Zola dead the Hydra's advance had halted and it was rotting and withering away, all across the land. People said that Queen Peggy had woken and called for a truce, and there were rumors of peace talks and of the troops maybe returning in time to help with the harvest.
Back at the Castle, Steve avoided the feasts and celebrations, hiding out in his rooms until there was less risk of excited youths decking him with garlands in the streets. Sam tried to draw him out, but Steve was in no mood for running, or for company.
He asked for a private audience with the queen, and went to her in old leathers and well-worn riding gear, a wide-brimmed hat shading his face that he doffed, bowing to her.
"Not exactly courtly garb," she said, smiling and drawing him down to sit beside her on the settle.
"I'm not exactly a courtier," he replied. "In fact, I feel like a fraud. I've done nothing special—it was Barton who took down the Red Skull and Zola. I fought Winter's Soldier, yes, but I didn't win the challenge."
Queen Peggy tilted her head. "Did the book say anything about winning or losing?"
"Well, no." Steve frowned. "But it's a challenge: there has to be a victor." He gestured, frustrated. "But there can't be; I won't do it." He was silent for a moment, twisting his hat in his hands. "I knew him."
Steve nodded. "We were best friends once, as children. He was barely a man when the Hydra took him." Steve looked away and swallowed. "I thought he was dead. We all did. But he wasn't. It was . . . worse, darker than that. He didn't . . . he didn't know me any more."
"He was ensorceled, but now he is free," the queen said softly. She placed a hand on his. "Do you think he's still alive?"
"I don't know," Steve said bleakly. "Alone in Winter's Mountains, on foot, with no shelter or food?" He shook his head. "He should be dead."
"But you don't think he is," Queen Peggy said, eyeing him.
Steve bit his lip. "I think he's like me. I think he went through trials. Dark trials, with dark magic, but I think it made him hard to kill."
"What will you do?"
"Find him. I have to." He shot her a look, but she only nodded thoughtfully. "And there's plenty to be done across the land. Too many fighters are still away with the army. People need to hear that Winter's not our enemy any more."
"I'll give you sealed letters for the mayors and local governors," the queen said, nodding. "There'll be a great many refugees from Winter's Mountains and the shores of the Bitter Sea. Many people are happy that Summer's once more ascendant, but we need to restore the balance in the Great Houses."
Steve agreed. Endless summer was as bad as endless winter, for the land.
The queen looked at him, smiling. "Another Quest, then?"
Steve sighed. "Yes, I guess so. But I have to do this one alone."
Queen Peggy rose. "Well, just remember. Challenges aren't always about winning or losing. Take marriage, for instance—now there's a real challenge for you."
Steve bowed over her hand, his tone wry. "Probably not for me, my queen."
"Nonsense," she said. "Now be off with you."
The abandoned orchard looked inviting, now the long, hot summer months had given way to a golden autumn and dust hung heavy in the over-warm air. Steve walked Nomad, his tired horse, in among the gnarled old trees where shade kept the grass from drying up, and fetched water from a stream, offering it to the horse in his hat. Nomad drank gratefully, then put his head down and began to graze. Steve propped himself against a tree, intending to get out some bread, cheese and pickles, but his hand touched the marble chess set in his satchel, and he put the food aside, setting up the game he'd been playing at the inn where he'd rested two days ago.
He'd gotten back to his room after seeing a local councilman, to find another move had been made in the long-running game he'd been toying with across several hostelries. It had happened before, chess pieces moving as though enchanted if he left them to themselves, although he suspected the reason was both simpler and more complicated. That damned black knight was menacing his bishop again, so Steve moved his rook into position to check it.
He rested his head back against the tree and closed his eyes, tired after a morning's harvesting. The family had needed his help—with a husband and eldest daughter lost to the war, the widow and her three younger children were barely coping. He'd left her what coin he had, slipping it into the rent jar before riding quietly away when she was feeding the chickens.
It was cooler when he woke, afternoon tilting toward twilight. A small stack of plums sat by his hand, and he picked one up and stared at it.
"They're ripe," said a voice from nearby. Steve looked up to see a shadowy figure with long dark hair and a feathered cap leaning against a tree across from him. "It's a plum orchard."
"Bucky," Steve said, not moving.
The man rocked his hand. "Kind of. It hasn't all come back."
Steve took a shaky breath. "You know me?"
"Know who you used to be. You're . . . bigger than you were back then."
"Yeah," Steve said. He smiled faintly. "So are you."
"So you just ride around?" Bucky bit into a plum, staining his mouth red. "Helping people?"
"Yeah, pretty much," Steve said. "Well, and sometimes knocking their heads together if they're being dumb."
Bucky threw the plum stone away, into the trees. "Like those people over Westhills way that were giving the refugees from the mountains a hard time?"
"Uh huh. What about you?"
Bucky shrugged. "Trying to figure stuff out. Watching your back."
Steve nodded. He set out the chessboard and the pieces. "Want a game?"
"Might as well," Bucky said. He had a bottle of cider and some tasty cured ham, so with Steve's bread and cheese, they ate well that night.
In the morning they rode on together. It was easier getting the refugees and common folk to say what'd been going wrong with Bucky along to help draw them out. Then he and Steve would go see the mayor, or the sheriff, or the governor, and have a quiet word. Easier to put things right where they'd gotten out of balance, with both of them involved.
It was a mild winter but it did get cold, so they wrapped up together in haylofts or shared a room if they had enough coin and there was anything like an inn about. Bucky killed a wild boar one time, and they traded it in for a big sheepskin cloak. It covered them both pretty well, and Steve had run hot since he came out of the ice anyway, so they stayed pretty warm even when they were sleeping rough.
Sometimes Steve blinked awake, finding Bucky up, arms around his knees, staring blankly at nothing until Steve pulled him close. Sometimes Bucky calmed Steve down when they'd had to sort out an especially bad mess. They killed a few people here and there; pirates, mostly, and a bandit chief who thought the valleys inland from the Bitter Sea were easy pickings, being so far from the castle. After a while Steve got an exasperated letter from Fury saying they couldn't just be vigilantes, so they'd been named Protectors of the Peace by the queen. Her royal seal was on the letter, and all. It helped them deal with the more stubborn mayors and governors.
Barton and Natasha caught up with them the next spring, at the edge of the Southern Forest. They tagged along for a while and helped clean out a nest of warlocks who were selling some very unpleasant charms and hexes. Then Sam dropped in with a note from the queen asking them to call by.
It was strange seeing the castle again now that most of the town was outside the walls, and growing fast.
"Really, it's a city now," Sam said, riding ahead of them through the main gates. "Solstice City, they're calling it. All the Great Houses have got villas inside the walls, and the politics at court are a pain in the ass, let me tell you. Natasha's in her element, and Barton, even Stark."
"I can imagine," Steve said, shaking his head. "You want a break from it any time, you know where to find us."
Sam laughed. "I might just take you up on that."
They found a comfortable inn and rested up from their journey, taking care of necessary business and replenishing their supplies. Then they went to see the queen.
Queen Peggy was even frailer, but she was very pleased to see them. Bucky, who had a way with the ladies, delighted her. After they'd given their report—in other words, after they'd regaled her with colorful tales of their exploits—and were taking their leave, he kissed her hand with a flourish.
The queen laughed. "You've got your hands full there, Steve."
Steve looked at Bucky and raised an eyebrow. "He's a challenge, all right."
Bucky punched him in the arm, grinning. "We're a matched set."
"Quite right," said the queen. "It's good to see you both looking happy. You won't reconsider about staying? The succession?"
Bucky shook his head. "Not cut out for courts and politics. But y'know, thanks for the offer."
"We're not big fans of cities any more," Steve explained. The packed, noisy streets set them both on edge, especially Bucky, whose hand never strayed far from his sword pommel.
"Too many people," Bucky muttered.
Steve put a hand on his shoulder. "Well, we've gotta go see Bucky's family," he said, edging toward the door. Queen Peggy smiled and dismissed them, saying it was time for her nap.
On the stairs, Steve turned to Bucky. "We don't have to stay long. It'll be fine." Rebecca hadn't known whether to weep or hit him, once Bucky'd screwed up his courage and gone to see her after they'd settled in at the inn. In the end, she'd done both. Bucky's mother had passed on some years ago but unlike Steve, Bucky still had a big family. Noisy, busy gatherings were hard on him, and Steve figured coping with a bunch of small, excited nieces and nephews would tax him to the limit. Steve planned to distract the kids with piggy-back rides while Bucky saw his sisters.
Bucky nodded, clearly steeling himself. "It's the match-making gets to me," he said despairingly. "Sisters."
Steve snorted. "Tell them you're taken," he said.
Bucky ducked his head, looking pleased. "You tell 'em."
"Okay, I will," Steve said.
In the end it went well, and Bucky relaxed the next day once they were on the road again, heading north out of the city to root out a gang of highwaymen in the foothills.
Queen Peggy died the next spring, and they went back for the ceremonies. Steve wanted to say his own farewell to her so he took Bucky to the old burial ground outside the city walls. It had been closed down as it now lay in the middle of a prime real estate area, which was a pity in Steve's view; the spring flowers were lovely there, especially now the seasons had regularized themselves into a natural cycle and weren't being jerked all over the place by war or malevolent sorcerers.
He and Bucky scaled the wall and visited his mother's grave and Abraham's, and Steve showed Bucky his own overgrown marker, crusted with lichen, the carved name illegible. The breeze from the plains was warm, and it was peaceful, so they played a game of chess before heading up to the Royal Tower to congratulate Barton and Natasha, who the old queen had named her heirs—the Summer King and the Winter Queen.
"You're well out of it," Barton said, rolling his eyes, although it was clear he enjoyed sneaking about and playing politics. "Anyway, everyone knows you're the ones who're really keeping the land in balance."
"Don't know about that," Steve said, flushing and rubbing the back of his neck. Bucky looked amused, and leaned in to kiss his cheek, making Natasha smirk.
"Yeah, we're still working on that challenge thing," Bucky said. "Could be a life's work, keeping Steve outta trouble. He's always been like a goddamn rook—sees something wrong and he's charging right at it."
Steve glowered at him. "Oh and you're the Black Knight, are you? Keeping me in check?"
"Check and mate, pal, check and mate," Bucky said, pulling him to his feet and kissing him on the mouth. He turned to Barton and Natasha. "If your high and mightinesses would excuse us? We gotta go keep the land in balance."
"Balance away," Natasha said, with a grin and a queenly wave.
Barton raised an eyebrow at her "Now you're giving me ideas."
"In your dreams, Barton," Natasha said, as Bucky dragged Steve off down the hallway.