The kingdom of Leoman lay to the east, nestled between the curve of the mountains and the sea. Leoman was an awfully small kingdom—not so zealous as her neighbor to the north, nor so affluent as her neighbor to the south—but that made her no less prosperous. It was said by some that Leoman's fields never withered, while her orchards always bore fruit. Her lakes and rivers teemed with the freshest of fish, and there was no shortage of game in her many forests.
Into this bountiful kingdom—on the fourth day of the seventh month of the eighteenth year—a baby was born under the light of a new star.
It’s a curious thing about stars, really. People often speak of them as if they’re omens—portents or good or ill that have the power to determine the course of one’s future. Constellations made oracles and soothsayers, bearing away hopes on those stars which form the wings of a soaring eagle or the horns of the charging bull.
But of course, that’s all stuff and silly nonsense. The baby came into the world under that star’s light because it was his turn to be born. No more and no less. Simply a boy squalling at the heavens as his mother wrapped him in blankets and held him to her breast, thinking she had never in all the world loved someone so much as she loved her son.
As he grew older, Steve (for that was the baby's name) heard the whispers, and the rumors—those who said being born under the light of a new star was lucky, bringing with it good fortune and good health.
Privately, Steve thought that was all botheration and bull, being as he’d not had much of either in his short life.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, my dears, and must return to that brief, halcyon childhood.
For, you see, there had never been a baby so loved as Steve. His mother (whose name was Sarah, just as it ought to have been) had recently been widowed by a soldier boy who’d left her to fight in another man’s war. Sarah carried on as best she could, surrounding herself with friends and clinging to them in her grief. When she was nearly ready to have her child, one of those self-same friends offered Sarah the use of a small cottage on the grounds of her vast estate.
That friend was named Margaret (though everyone called her Peggy), and while the estate was indeed grand, Peggy was rarely at home, being as she was a lady-in-waiting to the queen of Leoman (a bright, pretty woman who had come from a neighboring nation to steal the heart of their king). That left Sarah alone more often than not, but the cottage was warm and well-appointed, and she did her best to make it a home she could be proud of and call her own.
On the day Steve was to arrive, Peggy materialized as though she’d had an inkling it might be very nearly time. So it was that when it happened, Peggy delivered the baby boy of his mother and pressed him into her waiting arms.
“He’s awfully small,” Sarah said.
“Rather loud, though.”
Sarah didn’t mind.
When Steve had been in the world for precisely one month, Bucky arrived.
Peggy came through the back door of the cottage late one night, as Steve lay in his cradle and Sarah dozed nearby, attentive to his every need. In Peggy’s arms, there was a boy of not quite one year and six months, with wide blue eyes and a shock of brown hair on his head.
“Oh, dear,” said Sarah.
“You’ll look after him?” Peggy asked, dark eyes earnest.
“You know I will.”
And so, she did.
Months passed, and Steve grew, as babies have a tendency to do. In time, he found that there were things to know and discover in the world, and one of those things was Bucky. His constant companion, always two steps ahead.
The two were inseparable and bound together with the sort of love and intimacy that one only ever really has in childhood. A love that’s unconditional. Fierce and unrelenting, without guile or cunning. They fought and they scrapped, apologized and made amends. There were countless scraped knees and knocked foreheads as they explored their tiny corner of the world, tucked away in that perfect little garden.
It was, to put it rather plainly, a very happy childhood. They were not rich, but they had everything that they needed. Sarah doted on them both in equal measure—kissed their cuts, scolded when they’d been wicked and joined them in their games as often as she was able. Whenever Peggy or other assorted friends came to visit there were lovely presents and games, filling their cottage with bric-a-brac and toys of all sorts.
Even the bad times weren't so bad in those golden years. Steve had been born small, and as such, he was prone to sickness and agues, the ailments keeping him abed for weeks on end. During those achingly long and dreary days, Bucky sat with him, refusing to play on his own and proclaiming it not fair that Steve should be lonely. Steve was eternally grateful for the company, as Bucky was a wonderful storyteller, and he'd make up the most fantastic tales of dragons and fairies, frightening Steve right down to his bones (but only in the very best way of being frightened, all shakes and shivers and delight).
Steve's fifth birthday found him battling a terrible cough, and he'd been in a predictably sour mood all morning. Until that was, Sarah presented him with his gift—a toy soldier, dressed in the bright blue colors of Leoman's regimental army.
The soldier had accompanied them on their picnic, as it was a lovely, warm summer day and Sarah didn’t see the harm in Steve’s being outside, so long as he didn’t run or shout.
“Mama,” Steve said, his small voice rasping as he leaned against her chest, curled up tightly in her lap with his right hand fisted around his soldier. “Do you know, I’m going to be a soldier, too?”
Bucky looked up from where he’d been sprawled on the blanket, finishing the folding of a large, white paper star Sarah had helped him make for Steve. (The star was a complicated construction, and while Sarah had done most of the work, Bucky had been sure to take care that the edges were very crisp.) “You can’t,” he proclaimed.
“No, you can’t, Steve. You’re too sick.”
Steve balled his left hand into a fist, his lower lip quivering and his cheeks going red. He was going to tell Bucky just precisely what he thought of that old can’t, and then Bucky would be sorry.
Sarah—recognizing the tell-tale signs of Steve’s temper—cuddled him close and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. “I know it’s very hard to be sick. I’m sorry that you are. But it’s a funny thing, my good boy, that you don’t need to become a soldier to be good, or to do good in this world. There are so very many other ways to be brave.”
Steve frowned, squeezing his toy tightly as he worked up a head of steam for a vocal protest.
“It’s better, I think,” Sarah continued. “To be a good man, rather than a perfect soldier. And…” her nimble fingers found Steve’s sides, tickling him enough to make him smile, though not quite enough to make him laugh. “Even the smallest stars shine bright.”
“Like this one!” Bucky bounced to his knees and held out the paper star as Sarah drew him into her embrace. Steve took the star and smiled, his anger blowing out like a candle as he examined his gift.
Words are wondrous things, the way they work like magic. How a suggestion—dismissed out of hand by an exasperated child—can take root within him all the same.
Time passed, and the spring brought with it Bucky’s seventh birthday. Steve was feeling very much himself—not sick in the slightest—so Sarah decided a party was in order. Small, yes, as there were only three guests, but being as they couldn’t imagine inviting anyone else, it suited them fine.
Sarah made them each a new jacket—Bucky's of deep green velvet, and Steve's of blue. They were terribly proud of themselves when they tried them on, making a fuss over one another and strutting about like little peacocks until Sarah reminded them that vanity was not becoming in young gentlemen.
“M’not a gentleman,” Bucky informed her. “I’m a lion.”
“Be that as it may, Master Lion—”
There was a knock at the door of the cottage.
Thinking, perhaps, that it was Peggy come calling, Sarah went to open it and found a fearsome man in black standing there, a scarlet sash laid across his broad chest.
“The king is dead,” said the stranger.
“No.” Sarah stepped back and did her best to shut the door on the man, eyes wide and bright with fear.
When the stranger kicked it open, the force of the blow sent her sprawling.
Steve ran towards her, and she lifted her head, a bright red trickle of blood on her forehead and a dazed expression on her face.
“He has to run—” she whispered.
There was a fierce, angry scream from behind him then, and Steve turned to find Bucky doing his best to yank his arm away from the awful stranger. The sleeve of his new jacket ripped, and Steve could only think that his mother had made it especially for Bucky as Bucky stumbled backward, nearly falling. The stranger stepped forward and caught him by the hair before that could happen, wrenching him forward as Bucky gave another yowl of pain.
Lifting his other arm, the stranger took Bucky by the shoulder and shook him. Bucky bit him on the wrist. The man snarled and cuffed him so hard that Bucky’s head lolled forward, his eyes sliding shut. Steve—who moments before had felt frozen to the very spot—charged forward, even as Sarah begged him not to.
The stranger took no real notice of Steve as he hoisted Bucky’s limp body over his shoulder. It was only when Steve tried to drag Bucky down by grabbing his dangling hands and pulling that the stranger deigned to turn and deliver a kick so hard that Steve saw stars before the world went black as his head cracked against something unyielding.
Fate spared Steve the sight of what happened next.
Sarah Rogers rose to her feet, trembling and dizzy, placing herself between the stranger the door of the cottage.
“You can’t have him,” she said.
The stranger didn’t deign to give her an answer. Simply unsheathed his blade and cut her down where she stood before stepping over her body on his way out the door.
It was some time before Steve woke, wobbly and unsure as he found his way to his mother and held fast, burying his head against her unmoving breast.
Eventually, there came voices. There were tears, and someone was trying to move him, but they couldn’t move him because he wouldn’t leave her. Couldn’t leave her.
Then, there were two firm hands under his arms, lifting him up and gently helping him relinquish his hold.
Peggy knelt and embraced him, her voice a dim comfort in the darkness.
“Oh, my darling. I am so very sorry.”