A dusty dirt road leading to the Abbey of the Holy Spirit
"Nuns," Bucky said dubiously, giving Goliath a reassuring pat as Sam's bay gelding got a little too close. It wasn't that the horses didn't get along, Lord knows they'd spent enough time travelling together, Goliath just preferred a certain amount of space.
Or possibly that was Bucky.
"Don't say it like that," Sam replied with a longsuffering sigh. "Nuns are normal people, same as you and me."
The look Bucky gave him was as dubious as his voice had been.
"No, that's fair enough," Sam said after a moment, "but they're not scary."
Sam laughed at him and leaned over to whisper to Goliath, who perked his ears, since he was unaccountably fond of Sam, the traitor, "Your master's scared of nuns."
"Hey!" He flipped a foot out of the stirrup and tried to kick Sam, but Sam reined his gelding away, then nudged him into a fast canter, disappearing around a curve in the road.
"I'm not scared of nuns," Bucky said when they'd caught up with him, both horses slowing to an easy walk. "I'm cautious. Mostly because I can't figure out why a bunch of nuns are going to trust us to take one of their foundlings halfway across the country without a chaperone."
"Reading between the lines of the message the Abbess sent, I don't think they have a lot of options. Someone's been sniffing around her, someone with the power to take what he wants, which means they need to get her out of his reach. Now."
A thread of anger made Bucky's hands tighten on the reins. Goliath dropped his head, mouthing the bit, and he loosened his grip, scratching the horse's shoulder in wordless apology. "So they sent for you?"
"They sent for me. I've done work for them before, long before I ended up with your pale ass," Bucky rolled his eyes, "and they know they can trust me. Now, they get both of us. Don't worry," he grinned, "I'll make sure they know they can trust you, too."
* * *
He and Sam had done a lot of escort work in their time. People needed to travel and being safe meant being stronger, faster, and meaner than whoever was waiting to steal what they had—goods, body, life or sometimes all three—or hiring someone who was.
They'd escorted magistrates and priests between cities, guided newly betrothed and their companions and chaperones to their new families, and accompanied well-off merchants on pilgrimage. They'd even guarded alchemists and healers a time or two; they rarely offered much coin, but they paid in other things—knowledge and potions and poultices, which could be more valuable to fighting men.
Escorting Wanda, which was the foundling's name, all alone with no chaperone and no other women at all, was a new experience. It was uncomfortable at first, more because he expected it to be uncomfortable, Bucky thought as the days passed, then because of any actual discomfort.
The further they got from the Abbey the more Wanda seemed to thrive. Her mare was a solid, unflappable palfrey—a grouse took flight under her nose, so close its wings must have smacked her in the face, and she didn't do more than lay her ears back in irritation—for which Bucky was grateful, because Wanda wasn't the best rider.
"Not much chance to ride at the Abbey?" Sam asked her.
"No," she replied quietly, fingers tangled in her mare's mane. Then she looked up and smiled, bright as the sun glinting off her red hair. "I like it, though."
Sam raised a questioning eyebrow at Bucky. Bucky shrugged, but he was thinking the same thing, especially with the weeks of travel ahead of them.
"We could teach you," Sam offered. "How to ride properly. Like we do." He squinted at Bucky, then snorted. "Like I do, anyway. You don't want to ride like him."
Bucky just sniffed and nudged Goliath, twitching the reins, and Goliath lifted his legs neatly, prancing down the road while Bucky sat rocksteady on his back.
"See, can't even keep his horse walking properly."
"I heard that," Bucky called while Wanda laughed.
"I'd like to learn," she said, "but—" And she plucked at her skirts.
Bucky turned Goliath to fall back in beside them and exchanged another glance with Sam, who rubbed his chin. They were already so far outside the bounds of propriety, her travelling with them without a chaperone, what was one more thing?
That was how Wanda ended up dressed as a boy. It made things easier—not just teaching her to ride, but everything. When they had to enter a settlement or a town, it was much easier to be two men with a young man than two men with a young woman. Loose pants, a loose shirt, her hair bound into a tight braid, the hood of the long cloak Sam bought her raised—as long as she didn't talk, no one knew the difference.
Bucky could feel the sheer joy of it coming off her, sometimes, of having that freedom. He didn't know if it was the joy, the freedom, or that she was starting to trust them, but they were riding along a mountain path when she said, out of the blue, "It was the Bishop."
"Sorry?" Sam said, turning in his saddle to look at her.
Wanda didn't move, kept her eyes between her mare's ears, but she said, "The Bishop of Aquila. He's the one the nuns are getting me away from. The Abbey falls within his diocese and he was making his annual visit when I ran into him. It was an accident. I was late for my duties, I ended up in the courtyard when he was leaving, and he saw me. Talked to me. After that…" She shivered.
Bucky pulled in a deep breath. They'd said it was someone with the power to take what he wanted, but that was… He brushed his fingers over his sword, touched his knives. Reassuring himself.
"I'm not sure what to say," Sam said gently.
"Nothing," she replied, giving him a quick smile. "You don't need to say anything. I just thought you should know."
"Do you think I can learn to use your crossbow?"
"I don't see why not," Sam said, rubbing the back of his neck with a quiet laugh.
She was a good kid and she was taking to this life like she'd been born to it. Bucky thought he'd be sorry to see her go when they got her safely where she needed to be. He knew Sam would, but then Sam was always getting attached to people.
* * *
The City of Aquila, the Bishop's private rooms
The private rooms of the Bishop of Aquila were things of grace and beauty. Wide windows pierced the pale stone walls, with thick shutters discreetly placed, ready to block out bad weather should the need arise. Bold and colourful tapestries hung from the walls and rich, silken carpets, shimmering with complex and intricate patterns, were carefully laid out across the patterned tiles.
Pale cloth draped the windows, providing a buffer between the room and the sun—or, as it happened, the moon, since it was well past midnight. Candles burned, flickering in the breeze, and the Bishop, wearing his long robes of office, stood in front of the pentagram he'd drawn on the floor in his own blood so many years ago.
The carpet which usually kept it hidden was folded neatly nearby.
He held a copy of the Testament of Solomon, which was bound between the covers of a Book of Hours, but he didn't bother to consult it. The words he needed were engraved in his memory. As he spoke, he could almost see them come to writhing life before sinking into the space inside the pentagram, reaching down into hell to call his demon forth.
It was irritating, having to go through all this, but soon he'd have power of his own. It was a minor inconvenience, soon to be rectified, that it currently resided in someone else.
There was no blaze of fire, no dramatic curls of smoke. One moment the pentagram was empty, the next the demon was there. Tall and pale, pitch black hair falling over its shoulders, smooth golden horns curling back off its forehead.
Naked and shameless, it made no attempt to cover its manhood. At first it had tried seducing him with that nakedness, tried taunting him with it. When he'd remained unmoved it had abandoned those tactics, but he kept a watchful eye out for their return.
Eyes blazing with the fire of the pit, it said, "Alexander Pierce. Again, you call me."
"As I've told you before, demon, you will call me 'Your Grace'. I am a Bishop."
"Oh, but you've strayed so far from grace." The demon smiled, its teeth gleaming white and sharp. "How will you ever find your way back?"
"Have I?" He smiled. "I serve the Church and the Church serves God. I summon you and you serve me. It seems to me that I haven't fallen from grace so much as I've brought you inside of it."
"Of course you have. Your Grace," the demon added after a long pause. "Again I ask, why have you summoned me? Are you not yet done with your petty power plays?
"Petty." He huffed a small laugh. "Petty is your diabolical squabbling and your ranks of demons bowing before the hellish throne. I fight for men's souls. Do you know why this city was built?"
"I'm certain you'll tell me."
"It was built to defy the power of the papacy. It is ruled by a council of men and the hand of the King, and where is the Church in that? They built a cathedral, its people are my flock, yet the city itself shuns the glory of God. Aquila must be brought to heel and its rulers made to kneel at His altar."
"Are you sure you don't mean your altar?"
"Trying to tempt me? Everything I do I do in service to Him. They must be brought firmly under the hand of the Church, first Aquila and then the rest of kingdom, before its people are forever lost."
"And does the Church you fight so hard for know your plans?"
"They will, when its right." The demon gave him a sardonic look. "You should be glad I called you this time."
"Why, have you another child for me to eat?"
The Bishop ignored him. "There is a woman."
"There often is."
"A woman with powers. Powers she knows nothing about. Powers she wouldn’t know what to do with even if she knew she had them. Powers that can be used to further the ends of the Church. You're going to take her powers and give them to me."
"Such a thing may be possible, if the conditions are right."
"I expect you to make it happen. Remember, you serve me. Your will is mine." The demon's eyes flared red, anger rolling through them, and he smiled again. "As extra incentive, once I have them I won't need you anymore."
"And then you will free me from your summons?"
"We'll see. The nuns sent her away. I'll send my guard to retrieve her. You will deal with the men accompanying her. Understand?"
"I understand precisely."
"To obey my word is to obey Him."
"If you say it, it must be true." There was a long pause and the fire in the demon's eyes danced. "Your Grace."
* * *
The wilderness, a week later
"Are you with me?"
The words echoed strangely in Bucky's ears and he shook his head. Something flapped, pulling at his head, and he flinched away. It didn't get him anywhere. He was bound, twisted around, arms wrong, legs wrong…
His eyes flew open and he saw Sam. He was standing a few feet away, the pommel of Bucky's sword peeking over his shoulder, Goliath standing behind him, ears pricked sharply towards Bucky.
It was full dark, but the world was half-bright. He breathed in and it was full of smells: Sam, Goliath, night creatures, the trees.
"You're a wolf," Sam said calmly, but Bucky could hear how fast his heart was beating. "And I hope this works, because I'm tired of dealing with not-you. You're actually worse than you."
What he wanted to say was, Go to the devil, you motherless bastard. What came out was a muffled whining growl, and he flattened his ears and glared.
"That's promising. That looks like you know me and actively dislike me."
I do, Bucky thought. I really do.
"All right. I'm going to undo the rope on your muzzle. If you try and bite me I will choke you out."
He held himself still as Sam unwound the rope from around his muzzle, working his jaw when he was done.
"Do you know who you are?"
Bucky stared up at him, then started gnawing on the rope binding his front paws.
"James." Sam's voice was deadly serious. "I need to know you know who you are."
Surprised, he looked up. Sam never called him James. Slowly, he nodded.
Shoulders drooping, Sam muttered, "Thank God," and, "Stop getting drool all over the rope," as he knelt and dealt with the ropes around Bucky's feet.
When he was free, he pulled himself to his feet, shook himself, and stared at the ground. There was a puddle of drool in the dirt. You're a wolf. He was a wolf. He was a wolf.
"I don't know how much you remember," Sam said. "I was out of it for a couple of days. You've been, look, you've basically been feral for a week."
His head snapped up.
"You're not the only one that got hit." Being a wolf was good for one thing. He could see the tremor in Sam's hands as he coiled the rope and stowed it in Goliath's saddlebags. "It, it had to be a curse, and it got both of us."
He looked at Sam's lack of wolfness doubtfully.
"It's not all the time. It's—" He ran a hand down Goliath's neck, and Bucky knew how comforting the giant stallion could be. "Sun comes up? I turn into a hawk and you turn back into a man. Sun goes down, you turn into a wolf."
Bucky sat down with a thump, fought back a shiver. Being cursed, it was… He'd always expected he'd come to a bad end. If this was how it happened, it was how it happened. But Sam… Bucky would rather drown himself in a well than admit it, but Sam was better than this. Brighter than this. It shouldn't happen to someone like Sam.
"I've been herding you, keeping you away from people, away from settlements, away from hunters and traplines. Even when you changed from wolf to man, you were gone. Someone would have put you down or trapped you." He paused. "Or burned you at the stake. Men don't change into wolves, not unless the devil's taken an interest."
He smoothed a hand down Goliath's nose and the stallion lipped at Sam's tunic.
Bucky's lips curled back on a sudden surge of jealousy.
"Do not start with me, furballs." Sam heaved a sigh and crouched down so he was eye-level with Bucky. "I take back everything I ever said to you about your unnatural attachment to your horse. He's stuck with us, with you, through all of this."
Of course he did. Bucky huffed and took a cautious step forward, stretching up, and when Goliath dropped his head and touched his nose the world felt inexplicably better, a spot of rightness in his heart, gluing the fractures together.
But it only lasted a moment.
He turned to face Sam, shoulders square, head high. They’d been together long enough Sam should be able to read, Don’t bullshit me, tell me what's going on, even looking like this.
The sudden fury in Sam’s eyes made his hackles lift. "I don't know where she is."
He snarled, the sound ripping out of him and tearing through the air as it came back to him, sharp and fast, bleeding into his memory. The Bishop's men, the ambush. Throwing Wanda onto Sam's gelding—who was fast, faster even than Goliath—and telling her to run, the sight of her hunched over his neck as he raced away from the fight.
The bloody, brutal mess they'd made, Goliath charging the Bishop's men and knocking their horses flying. They'd been winning. They'd been winning—until pain had twisted through them, pain with no source. The curse, he knew now. It had to have been the curse.
He remembered the ground rushing up to meet him, Sam's harsh cry, Goliath's scream of anger and the sound of hooves on flesh. He lifted his head to gaze at his horse, tall and fearless, and wondered if he was why they were still alive.
"I don't know," Sam repeated. "I've been trying to track her, not easy when I've been trying to keep you out of harm's way."
Bucky flattened his ears and whined.
"Don't. We don't have time. We're going to keep looking, and I'm hoping it's going to be easier now that you're back." He tapped Bucky's nose, his scent almost overwhelming that close. "Think you can?"
* * *
He almost couldn't. They had to backtrack until he found a trail and even then, there wasn't much to follow. Scraps of scent: Wanda, Sam's gelding, the Bishop's men.
They followed the trail, such as it was. Nights fell and he went to ground to lose himself in the fur of a wolf, but he never lost himself. Mornings came, the sun rose, left Bucky gasping and naked, scrabbling at sunlight that felt heavy as wet snow while Sam fluttered into the sky, light as feathers on the wind.
Eventually the trail came to an end.
It came to an end in a clearing deep in the woods. A clearing marked by broad scorch marks and the acrid smell of lightning and fire and trees dappled with blood. Bucky's fur stood on end as they cautiously approached, Sam's torch illuminating the night, and Goliath snorted, tossed his head.
They found Wanda's cloak, the one Sam had bought for her, sword-slashed and soaked with blood, near the scattered remains of Sam's horse—what hadn't yet been eaten or dragged away by the wolves and small scavengers whose prints marked the churned-up dirt.
The clearing reeked of death.
"There's no body," Sam said.
Bucky nosed the cloak, then lifted his head to give Sam a long look, because yes, her body wasn't here, but there was also almost nothing left of the horse, poor brave beast, and it had been much bigger than Wanda.
"I know." He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "I know."
They'd failed their charge and Wanda, joyful and kind with a snapping fire inside and so young, could only be dead.
A whine came out of his throat; he didn't try and stop it.
"Me too," Sam said quietly, eyes deep and sad, and gathered up her cloak.
* * *
Bucky paid a priest to bury the cloak in a corner of his tiny church burial grounds—inside the walls, with the well-born—and say the prayers for Wanda.
The priest didn't ask any questions beyond what he needed to perform the rites. The gold piece didn't encourage it. The blank-eyed man who'd offered it—hawk on one shoulder, sword visible over the other, gigantic black horse standing loose at the front of the church—discouraged them entirely.
As they rode away, Sam perched on the front of the saddle, Bucky said, low-voiced, "I don't care if he's got the devil on his side. We were supposed to keep her safe and the Bishop got her killed. I think we should do something about that."
There was a hell in Sam's eyes that matched his own heart as he mantled his wings and let out a low cry.
She'd trusted them to look after her, to keep her safe, and they'd failed. They couldn't make that right, they could never make that right, the dead couldn't be returned to life.
But they could be avenged.