Steve breathed in the smell of old books and parchment. He both loved the scent and loathed it. He closed the book he'd just finished reading and returned it to the shelf where it belonged, letting his fingers tap across the backs of the books as he walked to the large windows. The colored panes depicted a scene of glorious battle.
The day was getting late. Through the few clear panes of glass in the window, he could see the sun starting to set behind the snow-capped mountains of Dryne. He lingered for only a moment before he walked to the other side of the tower room. The window on this side was similar, depicting a royal wedding. One of the panes of the queen's dress had been broken once by a dumb bird and had been replaced with clear glass as well. Through it, he could see down into the inner bailey. He could see the men training below, but couldn't identify who was who. Their quick movements and use of multiple weapons against a variety of targets only told him that they were some of the King's most talented knights.
As he watched, the knights finished their practice and started toward the barracks to wash up for supper. A single figure turned the other way and headed toward the keep.
Steve smiled and made for the stairs, hoping to catch him before supper to regale him with the stories he'd read today.
Steve turned left at the base of the tower stairs, heading for Bucky's rooms. As Steve came upon Bucky, Steve's manservant Riley came upon him. Riley greeted them both, "Your Grace, Your Highness." He bowed low to Steve. His second bow, to Bucky, was much faster and less deep.
When Bucky didn't greet Steve beyond a smile, Riley tipped his head up just enough to side-eye him through his shaggy blond hair.
Bucky rolled his eyes and turned to Steve. "Your Grace," he said, nodding his head at him.
Apparently, that was enough of a proper greeting for Riley. He turned, ignoring Bucky completely to address Steve. "I've readied your bath, Your Grace."
"Thank you, Riley, I'll be along shortly." Riley nodded and retreated, heading back to the smaller room at the end of the hallway.
Bucky scoffed before the door was fully shut. "You've been here six years. We've grown up together. You'd think they would let the formalities drop by now." He turned fully to Steve and bestowed a bright smile on him.
Steve smiled back, though his attention was briefly taken by the way Bucky's thick brown hair was damp with sweat at his neck and brow and how his baldric pinned the fabric of his sweat-damp tunic against his chest. "He's a servant of a usurped king, Bucky, all he has left are formalities."
"Still," Bucky said, sounding a bit petulant. He inhaled heavily and grimaced. He plucked at the front of his tunic with his fingers. "Did you need something, though? I'd like to do my own bit of washing up before supper."
The stories that Steve had wanted to share fled his head upon seeing him so flushed from his training. He tried not to stare as he shook his head. "Nothing that can't wait."
All right, then. I'll see you at table." Bucky patted Steve on the arm and entered his room, leaving Steve alone in the hallway.
* . * . *
Bucky took another sip of wine and leaned back in his chair. The great hall was lively tonight. That usually meant that the garrison at the border had changed and the returning soldiers were enjoying their pay and the womanly attention they'd been missing for the last three months. Sure enough, at the back of the room, Bucky could just make out the familiar silhouettes of his friends. He was tempted to go to them and was halfway to standing when his mother called his attention.
"Bucky, dear, where are you going? Sit with me for a bit, I have a proposal for you." She reached out and grabbed his left hand with hers. The sleeve of her gown flopped over them and tickled at the back of his hand. The deep violet color of it looked blood red in the candlelight. "It's coming up on your five and twentieth year, you know. It's getting to be about time to think about choosing your life partner. I've got several that might suit if you're unsure."
Bucky kicked at Steve's chair across from him just to have someone to roll his eyes at. Steve attention moved from Bucky's face to where Bucky was being held stationary by his mother's grip on his hand. He picked up his cup and held it in front of his face to attempt to hide his smirk. He wasn't successful.
"I have an idea for who to choose as my life partner, mother, but if you're dead set on this list of yours, give it to me. I'll have a look and tell you why every single one of them is not suited." He returned his attention to his mother face to catch her eyes looking over at Steve.
She looked back at Bucky and patted his hand. "I'm sure you will, my dear. I'm sure you will."
There was a louder-than-normal commotion at the doors of the hall and Winifred let go of his hand to sit up properly in her seat. A boy approached the table and spoke softly to Bucky's father, the king. When the boy stepped off the dais and retreated to a far table, Winifred spoke. "George." It took a moment before the king gave his attention to her. "That was Thaddeus's squire, wasn't it? Peter? What is it Thaddeus needs?"
"Nothing urgent. Just some peasant rumors that we'll need to squash come morning." George patted Winifred's hand and gave her a smile meant to placate. Bucky recognized it, and he knew his mother did as well. She wouldn't be satisfied with his answer, but she was also clever enough to not bring it up again until they were in private.
"What do you think of that?" Bucky asked Steve when his mother's attention turned to his sister further down the table.
"Of what, Buck?"
Bucky shot another glance in his mother's direction before lowering his voice a little. "She's got a list for me to choose a life partner from. I bet she's been making it since I was born."
Steve's gaze lingered on Winifred and a fond smile formed on his lips. "I'm sure she's just excited. It's not every day her son turns five and twenty."
Bucky scoffed and shifted in his chair. "You make it sound like finding a partner is a gift for me. It feels like a chore. 'Choose a spouse so we can have a big royal wedding that takes a year to plan.'"
"Hey, at least you get a choice in the matter. As far as I can remember, my mother had established an arrangement for me as soon as I was born. None of the correspondence establishing the match made it into my retinue's bags before we left, though."
"Well, the easiest course of action would be to align with Becca. Though as it's our kingdom, you'd have to ingratiate yourself to her so she chose you when the time comes for her to make a choice," Bucky said. He canted his head to look around his parents at his teenage sister. Her glossy brown hair was arranged in fanciful plaits and piled upon her head, and she was gossiping enthusiastically with one of her ladies-in-waiting. He looked back at Steve, his eyebrows raised, wondering what Steve thought of his suggestion.
Steve's nose wrinkled and he used his cup to hide the expression. "I'd rather not," he said while he too looked at Becca. He paused and added, "No offense, but as you said before, I've been here for six years. She's like a sister of my own now. I still remember her asking me to brush her hair when I first arrived."
The snort of amusement Bucky released had his mother glancing back in his direction. There was a knowing smile on her face but she didn't say anything. "She didn't understand who you were or what you'd been through."
"I know," Steve said, nodding. He set his cup back on the table. "Still. It left an impression." Bucky grinned and leaned back in his chair.
"So, Bucky," his father said, dragging his attention away from Steve. "Tell me, how did your day go?" and Bucky was drawn into conversation with his father about his opinion of the newest recruits training to be knights.
Supper concluded soon after, and most of the court started drifting off to their rooms to retire for the night. Steve had slipped away from the table a few minutes before Bucky, and Bucky did his best to walk quickly through the keep to try to catch him. He was waylaid twice by servants bidding him goodnight. When he finally stepped into the hallway leading to their rooms, Steve was heading back out.
"Where are you going this late?"
"Back to the library," he answered, shrugging his delicate shoulders. Bucky glanced down at his hands, realized he was fidgeting, and flattened his palms against his thighs. He looked up to see Steve's gaze following the movement.
He bit his bottom lip, debating whether to ask what he really wanted, but found his courage had fled. "More books?" he asked instead.
The light from the hanging braziers in the hall illuminated Steve's already yellow hair a deep gold that matched the embroidery on his overcoat. He looked down. "I reckon if I read everything in there, I'll be good enough for your father to have me on his counsel." When he looked back up at Bucky, he had a sad smile on his lips.
Steve's lack of confidence splashed over Bucky's shy desires like cold water. He couldn't ask him to join him in his bedchamber now. "Steve, if you want on father's council, all you have to do is ask."
"But you're not on it—"
"Because I choose not to be. They're boring. I'd much rather be outside training or walking the walls or even venturing out to the village when the outer bailey feels too confining."
"But you should be in there, Buck," Steve stressed, "learning how to rule your kingdom. Even if it is boring."
Bucky wanted to dismiss his comment but knew how selfish it would sound to do so. Instead, he nodded, acquiescing. "All right. But that means you're getting dragged to them as well. We'll talk to father tomorrow."
Steve's smile turned genuine. "Thank you." He glanced at the bedchamber door behind Bucky and then started to turn toward the stairs. "Goodnight."
Bucky tried not to sigh too loudly as he watched Steve walk away, back up to the library to study some more by candlelight. He wished his friend could feel more at ease here; he didn't need to earn his place or prove his worth. Before he slipped out of sight, Bucky called out softly, "Goodnight, Steve."
He stood there staring at the tower door even after Steve had pulled it closed. He finally turned and entered his bedchamber. Ian, his manservant, had already been by and lit the hearth fire. It may have been planting season, but the nights were still just a tad too cold to go without. He undressed down to his braies and crawled beneath the sheets. He'd work up the courage to tell Steve tomorrow.
Bucky was up before sunrise the following morning. He dressed quickly, before Ian arrived, and was down at the soldiers' barracks just in time to wake up his friends. He grabbed a cup of watered ale and strolled into the room with a spring in his step.
Gabe was closest to the door, snoring, with one of his bare feet dangling past the coverlet. Bucky plucked a piece of straw off the floor and tickled the bottom of his foot with it. He kicked out but did not awaken.
Monty was on his side, still tucked under his bed's coverlet. The side of his face was still tinged red from kisses from his trip to the brothel the night before.
Dum Dum's bed was still made, unslept in. So was Jim's. Jacques was hanging half off of his bed, snoring like a sawmill.
Nick was still abed, but he was awake, watching Bucky with an observant eye. The scar that crossed his bad eye looked harsher in the morning light. It didn't scare him like it did Becca, but perhaps that was because he'd been a teenager when the man had received it.
Bucky grinned at him and winked. He dipped his fingers into his ale cup and sprinkled them on the sleeping occupants of the barracks room, making sure to liberally sprinkle them with the cooled liquid. "Rise and shine boys!" he shouted.
Monty was the first to jerk awake. He tried to stand, but his feet caught in his sheets and he toppled to the floor at Bucky's feet. Gabe tried to stand as well but missed the floor somehow and tumbled right down into Monty. Jacques just opened his eyes slowly, blinking owlish up at Bucky as more watered ale sprinkled onto his face.
Bucky's laughter echoed off the sparse furnishings in the room and Nick's low chuckle joined it. "Where's Dum Dum?" he asked. He knew where Jim was. After his rotation on garrison duty, Jim always visited his family in the village at the western pass to Dryne.
"Probably still in the brothel where we left him," Monty said. He stretched his arms up with a satisfying pop and then reached for the cup in Bucky's hands. "Come to give us the hair of the dog?"
Bucky chuckled and handed it over. "I don't think it helps, you know."
"Dum Dum swears by it," Gabe said as he started dressing.
Nick, too, was already out of bed. "You know he earned that nickname, right?" he asked, pulling on his tunic. He grabbed his eyepatch and tied the leather strips behind his head.
"Get dressed. If I have to be in the Hall to listen to the Commander give his report, you do as well. I'm sure your version of events for the last three months is more varied and true than whatever he'll ramble on about," Bucky said. He leaned back against the mantle and crossed his arms. The coals on the hearth were still giving off just the barest hint of warmth.
"What do you know, huh? We could have been the perfect soldiers this time," Dernier said, though the grin on his face gave away his thoughts on the matter.
Bucky thought about the pranks and laughs they'd had in the past. "Let me guess, someone woke up with a multitude of woodland creatures in their beds throughout your time at the garrison."
Gabe raised his hand. It had been Jim the rotation before.
"And with Dum Dum down at the brothel, I'm betting he fleeced you all at dice?"
"Not all of us," Nick said, grinning.
"Of course not," Bucky said. "What Dum Dum didn't take, Nick did." The others grumbled but good-naturedly agreed. "I'll leave you to finish getting dressed. Maybe we can spar a few rounds afterward?"
Gabe nodded. Monty toasted him with his empty ale cup. Bucky headed back to the castle. Maybe Steve would like to join their sparring games, not to participate of course, but to watch and take in the sunshine. It felt like forever since he'd seen Steve step outside. Bucky wandered down to the kitchen and found the scullery maid, May, already working.
"Ian said you weren't in bed when he went to wake you," she said, standing up and straightening her back. "Did you want some breakfast, Your Highness?"
Cook's voice called from the other side of the kitchen, "I've got your porridge just here, Your Highness."
Bucky winked at May and walked toward cook and his promised breakfast. "You are a vision, you know."
Cook chuckled and handed the bowl and a small chunk of bread to him. Bucky took his meal to the servants' table tucked in the corner and sat down to break his fast. Cook brought him a cup of almond milk. "You really know my weaknesses, don't you?" Bucky said after swallowing a bite.
"Well, I've been Cook here since before you were born. It only makes sense that I know what you like."
"Thank you," Bucky told him. The tall blond bowed low and returned to his duties. When Bucky was finished eating, he took his dishes to May for washing up. He headed back upstairs to his bedchamber to don his overcoat for court.
* . * . *
Steve was in the great hall early, eager to hear the Knight Commander's report from the garrison at the mountain pass of Dryne. He was always interested in the military's experiences at the garrisons, how they handled themselves and the few disputes that were brought to them. The garrison to the south, by Asgard, was often reported on with good cheer as some of the rotational men had made friends with one of the princes of the kingdom.
But Dryne was different. Dryne had been his home.
He knew that his mother and the retainers who had stayed with her when she'd sent him away had died, had been killed by Johann's invading Red Skull army, but it didn't extinguish the flame of hope he felt every time the Knight Commander reported from the garrison at Dryne.
Steve stood in one corner of the hall and waited for his paltry retinue to wander in. Sam, his Knight Commander, arrived first.
"Good morning, Your Grace," Sam said. Sun from one of the windows high in the wall shone down and made his brilliant orange overcoat cast an even brighter warm hue around him. He looked like he was glowing.
"Good morning, Sam. What has you so happy this morning?" Steve asked.
"Red Wing caught a coney on her hunt this morning."
Steve narrowed his eyes in suspicion. "She's caught a coney before, what's special about this time?" As he spoke, Clint, the king's austringer, walked by and sent a glare in Sam's direction before he walked closer to the King's throne. Steve thought the expression was odd since Sam and Clint were good friends. Good friends who often competed in everything they did. "Lucky didn't catch anything, did she?"
Sam's exuberant smile confirmed it. "If she did, she didn't share it."
"Clint must be upset at your victory; he brags about Lucky all the time." More people were gathering in the hall now, the typical court-goers and the village peasants asking for things. Steve glanced around in case Bucky had arrived early.
"It was bound to happen eventually. Remember when Red Wing refused to bring back anything from her hunts for like two weeks when she was molting? I figure it's time for Lucky's." Steve nodded. That made sense.
The hall grew crowded. Steve spotted his only other knight-at-arms standing against the back wall. Gilmore was tall and blond and handsome in a way Steve found himself lacking. He had protected Steve and the younger children during their flight from Dryne. Though Steve and Gilmore weren't friends like Steve and Sam, Steve felt a great deal of respect and loyalty to the man for his service.
King George walked in, and Steve caught Bucky darting in just as the last men entered the room. George walked up to the front and turned around. Everyone in the hall bowed low as he sat down on his throne. It was a sturdy, heavy chair with armrests, painted in bright blues and reds, but there was no other ornamentation on it. Not even strips of gold. If it weren't isolated on the dais, it could be mistaken for any other chair.
Phil, the King's Chamberlain, stood at the King's elbow and announced the Knight Commander.
"Thaddeus," King George said in greeting. "What news from the garrison at Dryne?" The words themselves were the same as always, but it didn't stop Steve from listening more intently.
"All is quiet, Your Grace," Thaddeus said. "There were the typical few peasants at the village who came to us to settle their squabbles, but all were settled without bloodshed and as fairly as possible."
"Thank you, Knight Comm—"
The double doors that led into the great hall burst open and Jim, one of the knights who had just come from the garrison at Dryne, rushed in. He darted to the foot of the dais and dropped to his knees, "I beg your forgiveness, Your Grace. I must speak with you urgently and in private."
Steve could see the scowl that crossed the Knight Commander's face as he looked down on one of his knights. Steve didn't know if the expression was due to the unkempt look about Jim—he'd obviously just come from a hard ride and even Steve could smell the horse lather still clinging to his clothes—or for his presumptuousness for interrupting royal proceedings.
"Whatever it is you have to say, say it," Thaddeus growled. "If it's so important to interrupt His Grace, then it should be spoken for all gathered to hear."
George looked much less angry than Thaddeus. He raised his hand to calm the Knight Commander and addressed Jim. "What is it, Jim?"
"I beseech you, Your Grace, please let me tell you in private," Jim said. He was still on his knees, bowed low before the King.
"You may speak now," George answered. His tone wasn't harsh but it was a command.
Jim nodded and raised his head. "I've just come from the village at the western pass. I saw the Red Skull's army massing on the border."
The crowd erupted into shocked gasps and sharp whispers. Steve could feel his stomach clench up in knots. Beside him, Sam laid a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"Are you sure?" George asked. His relaxed posture had slipped away and now he sat straight on his throne. Even the Knight Commander looked unsettled.
"Banners and shields blazoned with a red skull on a gold field," Jim said. "Yes, Your Grace, I'm certain."
George leaned over to whisper something to his Chamberlain. Phil nodded and spoke to the court. "We'll reconvene after dinner and the King will see to and settle your concerns then. Council members, your King beckons you." George stood and strode from the hall.
Steve looked up to Sam at his side. "What happens now?" he whispered.
"We discuss what an invading army is likely to do and how to deal with it." He was preoccupied, watching the peasants and the nobility file out. Some were complaining loudly, but others were whispering amongst themselves, no doubt already starting gossip and rumors. He looked back at Steve and nodded. "I'll seek you out as soon as we're done. Your Grace." He bowed his head and walked toward the door, joining the other members of the King's counsel.
Steve startled when Bucky spoke from beside him. "Now probably wouldn't be the best time to ask to be on the council. Are you all right?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" He asked, looking at Bucky. He swallowed and gestured to the walls of the keep. "We're safe here. Well protected."
Bucky gave him a look that said he didn't believe him. "We are, but that doesn't mean you are unaffected."
"It feels like it's happening again. Like he's chasing me for some reason. He's already taken so much, what more does he want?"
Bucky reached out like he intended to pat him on the back but stopped and aborted the motion when he saw someone approaching. "Your Grace, Your Highness," the servant said, bowing low twice in quick succession, "The King requests your presence."
Bucky nodded and the servant turned and headed away. He inhaled heavily as he faced Steve again. "I guess we get to be on the council anyway." He patted Steve's shoulder and gestured for him to walk ahead of him.
When they entered the smaller room located in the donjon just under the library, Steve was caught off guard by how austere the room was. The colorful tapestries or painted walls that adorned the other rooms of the keep were absent. The walls were simply whitewashed. A dark wood table took up much of the space, and its surface was a relief carving of the world's map. The great mountains of Dryne in the northwest corner were only rivaled by the peaks across the carved sea, the waves of which were smooth and rounded. His fingers itched with the desire to touch them.
There was a small flat space near the head of the table where Sam was sitting will quill and parchment in front of him. The parchment had small, cramped lettering on it from previous meetings. Around the table sat the council: Phil the Chamberlain, Bruce the Justiciar, Nick the Master of Horses, Thaddeus the Knight Commander. Sam, filling in the role of the Chancellor since the last one had died some years ago, and Clint. Clint's only official title was austringer, a designation which wouldn't normally be a reason to sit on the council. Clint was just... he'd always been on the council as far as Steve could remember, even if he did not have an official reason for being there.
Jim was there too, still a mess from his ride. At least the smell of his horse's lather had faded so it didn't overpower the small room.
King George had his back to the group and was looking out of one of the two windows in the room. It looked out toward the northwest, and the mountains of Dryne rose in the distance. Bucky pulled one of the chairs out from the table and offered it to Steve and took the seat next to his.
George turned around and glanced over each person in the room until his gaze landed on Jim. "Tell us what you know."
"After my rotation at garrison, I spend a few days visiting my family in a village on the border," Jim said. His voice seemed nervous at first as if he expected anger in reaction, but when none was forthcoming, he continued. "I was helping one of my nieces gather mushrooms in the wood when we came out on the ridge above the valley. From our vantage point, I saw an army gathering below. At least a thousand men, Your Grace, maybe more."
"And they flew the Red Skull's banner?" George asked again.
"Yes, Your Grace. I was at the garrison when the Red Skull sent some of his knights south six years ago, chasing Prince Steven from his home. I recognize it."
"Thank you, Jim," George said. Jim turned and left the room. George looked around at the rest of the men in the room and focused his attention on Thaddeus.
"We can hold the castle, but the garrison at Dryne is three day's ride from here," the Knight Commander said. "They'll be within range of our walls by week's end. We don't have the time to press the peasants into service." His scowl hadn't lessened.
George looked to the others and then said, "We'll send riders to Asgard and Essar, asking for aid and relief. We're a peaceful nation and we trade with them, surely they'll come if we ask."
"And our own men?" Thaddeus asked.
George walked toward the table and studied it for a few moments. "Pull our garrison at Dryne. Six men against a force fifty times the size of our entire standing army won't survive. We could put them to better use manning the walls here."
"And the others?"
"The Red Skull will have us besieged before a rider could make it to the garrison at Tellis Tor. Our closest men are at Essar. Have them all stay put until Essar rides and then join with them. The same for the garrison at our border with Asgard." George glanced up at Bucky and Steve. "King Steven, may I ask for your assistance in this? Commit your men with mine to defend the castle."
Steve could recognize the ritualistic wording even though he'd never heard the words before. It felt strange to reply, though. "You have my men." He knew it wouldn't be proper to say out loud but in his mind, he added, 'all two of them.' He glanced at Sam to see him nodding.
George looked at the others again and nodded. "Get the castle ready for the siege," he said and left. Steve's mind was already working through what that would mean if this were his castle. Granaries as stocked as possible. Fletchers and blacksmiths pressed into service and set to making arrows and arrowheads. Kindling and wood gathered and stocked in the gatehouses. Cauldrons readied for boiling water or sand. They might not need the supplies for the murder holes immediately, there was a moat around the castle, but that didn't mean they wouldn't need them at all.
Bucky tapped Steve on the arm with the backs of his fingers. "Hey, come on. Let's talk a walk before dinner." Steve agreed and let Bucky lead the way down the tower stairs. Once out of the keep, Steve moved up a few paces to walk next to him. They walked the length of the inner bailey in silence. Steve even closed his eyes for short periods of time, enjoying the heat from the midday sun as it warmed his skin. When they came to the wall and the gatehouse that would lead them to the outer bailey, Bucky stopped and turned to Steve. "Do you want to continue on?"
Steve could see the steady flow of foot traffic at the gate leading to the outer bailey as all the castle workers had started preparing their domains for the upcoming siege. He shook his head. "I'm good with just staying inside, away from the crowd." Bucky nodded and diverted their path to walk toward the stables.
"I was planning on sparring a few rounds with the knights who've just returned from garrison. I wonder if they'd still be interested. Do you want to watch?" Bucky asked. He scratched at the back of his neck before turning and walking backward to look at Steve while they walked.
"I don't know. My thoughts are a bit scattered, I don't think I'd be able to give it my full attention."
Bucky shrugged, "Might help take your mind off our big problems if you focus on something relatively easy."
Steve swallowed his words. He'd never been allowed to even play at fighting as a child; he'd been too slight and sickly. Sparring with actual knights in mail did not sound as simple as the term "easy" implied. He opened his mouth to nitpick Bucky's wording, if only because he was feeling prickly—he knew Bucky would smile and roll his eyes and just let him rant—but was interrupted by the conversation of the stablehands gathered nearby. Bucky and Steve both stopped to watch the interaction.
"They say the Red Skull employs a sorcerer who can raise the dead," Luis said, he waved his brown hands wide to emphasize the enormity of the scale in which he spoke. "Imagine that. They kill their opponents and then, come nightfall, raise them as their own to swell the ranks."
Wanda scoffed, making her short red hair swing around her face. "Why would he have to do it at night?"
"Everyone knows that sorcerers can only work at night."
"Nobody knows that," Ned said. He pushed his pitchfork tines down to stick in the ground and leaned on it, reaching up to scratch a dirty hand through his hair. "Besides—"
"It's not true," Wanda interjected. "Sorcery works by proximity, whether the sun is out or not makes no difference."
"How would you know?" Ned asked. "We don't have a sorcerer here in Enra."
"I'm not from Enra, I'm from Dryne. My mother was the sorceress there," she answered. The two boys visible drew away from her.
"Then how come you're here, mucking the stables with us? Doesn't that make you a sorceress too?"
Her expression grew hard and closed off. "Sorcery requires study. If I have magic in my blood, I can't utilize it without a teacher. There's no one here to teach me." She stamped a foot and lurched forward toward the boys. They both flinched and ran off, leaving Ned's pitchfork to tip over and land in the dirt in their wake.
Steve's mood had darkened further. He had been eighteen when they'd fled from the invading Red Skull army, when he had lost his mother. Wanda and her brother had only been ten. He wasn't the only one to have lost, and he should try not to brood on it when he could be helping see to it that what remained of his people were safe.
Bucky seemed to notice Steve's mood souring and gestured back toward the keep. Steve nodded, and they started their walk back.
* . * . *
The next few days dragged on for Bucky. His mother called him into her solar on multiple occasions just to have him sit with her while she busied her hands with embroidery. Even Becca, who often sat with their mother doing her own needlework, found these extra moments of downtime boring. After several days where the two of them started miming more and more elaborate stories to one another in the quiet room, Winifred finally gave in. "You don't have to sit with me if you don't want to, children. I am, however, quite interested in the story you were telling just now, Bucky. What was it that Dum Dum did with the garrisoned knights' pay?"
Bucky blushed down to the roots of his hair. "Umm," he started, trying desperately to come up with some alternate ending that would be appropriate for his mother. He had planned to be rather vague with the charade he was going to give his sister.
"That's all right, I can assume," she said. She pursed her lips and Bucky swallowed.
He got up and as he walked passed his sister he patted her on the shoulder. "Maybe I shouldn't have told that one," he mumbled. After pressing a kiss on his mother's cheek he said, "I'm going to go find Steve." Winifred hummed her approval of his course of action. His face still felt warm as he left the solar and headed for the library.
On his way up, he ran into Ian, who was on his way down. "Your Highness, I've just been sent to retrieve you, your mother, and sister. The King has received word from Asgard and Essar."
Bucky tried to hold back his sigh. If it wasn't extra time doing nothing in his mother's company, it was endless council meetings. Surely they'd gone over everything that needed to be talked about by now. He nodded to Ian and told him where he'd find the queen and the princess and then mounted the stairs. It was likely Steve had been retrieved, if he hadn't been in the meeting already.
Bucky entered the council room and noted that his father, the council members, and Steve were already sitting at the table. The two messengers who had been sent to Asgard and Essar were also present, as well as Gilmore, Steve's only other man-at-arms. Intrigued, Bucky sat in the chair next to Steve. Steve gave him a worried look but didn't speak.
When Winifred and Becca arrived and took their places at the table, George caught his wife's gaze. He looked solemn and worried. Bucky had rarely seen that sort of look on his father's face.
"What did Asgard say when we asked for aid?" George asked of the first messenger.
"King Odin said he would commit his Valkyrie forces to the campaign if Essar rode for Enra. He felt he could spare no more because of the planting season." The messenger shifted and tugged at his white tunic in his nervousness. He was obviously not thrilled to be the bearer of bad news.
"And of Essar?" George asked, moving on to the second messenger.
"King Harrison is willing to press his peasants into service and mount a full campaign to aid Enra if the royal family were willing to commit to a fruitful union between houses," he said. He offered up a scroll of parchment that was clearly a missive to the same effect. George took it from him and read silently. Without raising his eyes from the paper, he raised two fingers and gestured toward the door. Both messengers exited.
Bucky's stomach seized up in knots. They couldn't ask for something like that, could they? He glanced toward his mother; surely she wouldn't allow it. They'd been told all their lives they would always have a choice in who would be their life partner. She couldn't let Essar change that now, could she? She was watching his father as he read over the missive carefully.
George looked up and let his gaze move over both Bucky and Becca before speaking to Winifred. "Their children are older than ours by several years. Their eldest, a son, is twice the age of our Becca."
And Becca, in all of her fourteen-year-old naivete said, "You wouldn't marry me off to some thirty-year-old stranger, would you, Papa?"
George and Winifred both turned their attention to Bucky. He felt very small, just then, as if he was being scolded. He wanted to bristle under their gaze. He looked to Steve, but he was looking at the table.
After an awkward heavy moment, George answered. "We'll have to talk about it, Becca. We don't have much time to make a decision. Two, maybe three days at best."
Thaddeus made a small grunt of disapproval but wisely kept his mouth shut when George looked at him. "Gilmore," George said, turning his attention to the knight still standing in the room, "What did you learn on your scouting mission?"
Gilmore was a tall, handsome fellow with dark blond hair and a well-kempt beard. "Word among the Red Skull troops is that Johann is attempting to fulfill a prophecy that his court sorcerer found. A prophecy he failed to fulfill six years ago." He glanced in Steve's direction. "They're under the impression that if Enra surrenders King Steven, they'll all get to go home."
"Don't even think about it," Bucky blurted, staring at Steve.
Steve's eyes had widened and he almost looked abashed. "If they'd all just go home, Buck, I'd have to try..."
"No!" Bucky shouted at the same time his father also repeated the word. He ducked his head. Even he wasn't supposed to talk over the king.
"Sacrificing yourself will achieve nothing but heartache, Steve," George said solemnly. "No matter what the troops believe about some obscure prophecy, there's no one to say what Johann truly wants. I'm also not inclined to seek out negotiations when we have a good chance of surviving the siege until winter." He looked back at Gilmore. "Did you get an estimate of their numbers?"
"A hundred men and horses for shock cavalry. A similar number of bowmen. The rest seemed like peasants pressed into service except..." He paused, his gaze flicking to Steve again before he continued, "it seems they've been provided with steel and mail by the king."
"A veritable army," Thaddeus said. "No doubt they've been given training as well."
The conversation went on around Bucky for a few more minutes but he didn't pay attention to it. It wasn't until Steve had patted him on the shoulder as he was getting up that he roused himself. He noticed that his parents and sister were still sitting at the table so he stayed as well. The thud of the door closing behind the last council member sounded ominous.
The pause lasted both too long and not long enough.
Winifred started first, "Bucky—"
"You always told us that we'd get to choose our life partner," he mumbled, looking up at her. Her lips were pursed and she looked older, somehow, more worn down.
"Sometimes we have to make difficult choices, you know that. Securing an alliance with Essar wouldn't be the end of the world."
His stomach clenched so tight it ached. "Then secure it with Becca, I've already chosen—" he cut the word off before it was completely out of his mouth. He hadn't chosen. Hadn't said anything to the other person or to his parents, not made it official in any way. Hell, he didn't even know if who he wanted, wanted him.
"Becca is only fourteen. Do you really want her married off to someone twice her age?" George said.
Becca, for her part, was having one of those no-words conversations with Winifred, and in the process was turning redder and redder with embarrassment. Finally, she looked down at her lap and said, "You may think I'm stupid, Bucky, but... I know... enough. The terms were for a fruitful union. I haven't..." she swallowed like the words were too much to say. Then she blurted out all at once, "I haven't flowered yet."
Bucky inhaled sharply. It was too much; he didn't need to know that about his baby sister. Her skin had gone red like a tomato, and she refused to look up. Bucky could feel his own cheeks warming. "I don't think you're stupid." He was thankful for the chance to change the immediate conversation, and besides, he needed to correct her assumption. He wondered what he'd done to give her that impression.
When Bucky didn't say anything else, George finally nodded though the look on his face spoke of disappointment. "You don't have to agree to their terms, Bucky. We should be able to last until winter, when the threat of snow will hopefully send Johann and his army back to Dryne." His words should have felt like a weight lifted from his shoulders but Bucky was so lost in his thoughts and feelings that hearing his father give him an out didn't seem to help. He nodded and got up, leaving the room. He didn't want to be near anyone for a while, so he retreated to his chamber.
Even three days later, Bucky was feeling out of sorts. He hadn't sought out his friends. They'd been training more intensely than he'd ever seen them. Focused and sharp like they were all an extension of one another. He didn't have that connection with them and even if he had, he wouldn't have been allowed to join and be a part of the skirmishes they had planned. He was the prince, and princes were too valuable to risk.
He didn't seek out Steve, either. He was sure the other man was still religiously attending his father's council meetings and contributing with strategies and anecdotes he gleaned from his books. Even the threat of losing him, losing the chance to choose him, hadn't given Bucky the courage to bring it up to him. Whenever they spoke, it was always inbetween meals or just as they were heading to bed. The time was never right. Or Steve looked exhausted. Or Bucky was being summoned. Or, or, or...
Finally, tired of the stuffiness of his chambers and the closeted feel of the rest of the keep, Bucky decided to walk the outside curtain wall. It encircled the keep and both the inner and outer baileys. Surely with that much distance to walk, he'd find a bit of peace.
The normal blue water of the moat below, diverted from the river behind the castle, was swirling with the yellows of spring's pollen. It glimmered green in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Beyond the water, he could see peasants mulling around, even more than usual. Shouldn't they be working the fields or coming and going through the baileys as they usually did? He continued his walk, passing through the towers as he usually did. Soon enough those towers would be locked and barred from the inside.
Gathering close to the horizon was a grey and white mass. It looked like a menacing cloud clinging to the ground. The incoming army. Bucky had expected black or red, as the nickname of the invading king suggested, but the army was comprised mostly of peasants, their undyed white tunics the bulk of what he could see. He let his fingers play at the seam of his richly dyed green tunic as he came to the bastion at the gatehouse.
That's when he noticed that the peasants he'd seen earlier weren't an anomaly. More peasants, more than he'd typically see at a time, were gathered at the edge of the moat. As close to the castle as they could get. The crowd wasn't moving. Many had set up lean-tos or tents. Even the thoroughfare that led from the village to the castle's first drawbridge was filled with peasants in their white tunics and brown cloaks. He walked to the other side of the wall and looked down into the outer bailey. It was quiet.
"Hey," he said to one of the men working in the gatehouse stacking firewood. "Why are the peasants out there? What are they doing?" Bucky asked.
The guardsman had stopped his work and approached him, nodding low in deference. "Where else are they supposed to go, Your Highness? The gates were ordered shut and locked almost a week ago. Only specific people are allowed in. Though as more of the approaching army can be seen, thems below are less inclined to let those special people pass."
"On whose orders were the gates closed?" Bucky said, looking back out over the crenels at the mass of peasants below. He could hear shouts and see a fight starting near the road.
"The Knight Commander's, Your Highness."
"But they'll be slaughtered by the Red Skull's army if they stay there," Bucky said, more to himself than the guardsman, though the other man did nod in agreement. He couldn't understand why Thaddeus would leave the people undefended. Surely they had a better chance at survival inside the walls.
"Open the gates. Let them in on the warning that if they fight, we'll send them back out again to fight against the Red Skull's army."
"Both baileys, Your Highness?" the guardsman asked. He looked nervous but ready to obey.
"Just the outer one for now."
"Aye, sir," the man said and then he turned and called his orders to his fellow guards. Bucky nodded and watched as they carried out his orders. As the peasants started moving inside, he nodded to himself and set about completing his lap around the curtain wall, feeling a certain amount of pride in his actions.
Bucky was summoned immediately upon his return to the keep.
"You little idiot!" Thaddeus shouted from across the table as soon as he was in the meeting room. "Do you have any idea what you've done by letting the riffraff in here?" He stood as he shouted, his chair sliding back and adding a wooden shriek to compliment his words.
Bucky did not like being yelled at. By anyone, but especially by this man. On his orders, hundreds of people would have died; he ought to be judged on that. So that was Bucky's argument. "This isn't the kind of army that would just walk past the peasants and leave them alone. The Red Skull's army will slaughter every man, woman, and child it comes across." He stormed toward the table. He wanted to get in Thaddeus's face, but the table wasn't narrow enough. He rethought his move and gestured to his left, instead, to indicate Steve where he was standing nearby. "They've done it before. We have the means to protect them; why would we not do just that?"
Thaddeus's face grew increasingly red as Bucky spoke, but before he could open his mouth, George held up his hand. Thaddeus closed his mouth and glared. George indicated his chair, and Thaddeus retook his seat. George stood casually and stepped around the table toward Bucky. Bucky turned around to face him as he did. His father put his hands on his shoulders and squeezed briefly. The look in his eyes seemed almost sad, and Bucky didn't understand why.
"Because we don't have the means to feed them," his father said eventually. "It is kinder for them to die by the sword or the arrow than to let them starve to death."
Bucky felt like his stomach dropped toward his knees. The thought of food hadn't ever crossed his mind. They'd always had plenty, between incoming spices and grain from the river with their trade with Asgard to the fields surrounding the castle abundant with livestock. How could they not have enough food? "But we live on a river, couldn't we just..."
His father's hands slid a bit further down to squeeze his biceps. Behind him, Bucky could see Steve biting his lip and shaking his head as if he already could see how that too would be a bad decision. As if he was embarrassed for Bucky.
George nodded and the look on his face changed ever so slightly. Bucky recognized his father's 'this is a teachable moment' expression from when he was a child. The feeble hope he'd thought to pin on the river giving the peasants a chance started to crumble. "Do you know why this castle is where it is?"
"Because it's in a central location with access to the river," Bucky answered dutifully. He remembered that much from his lessons. "We're a center for trade."
"Right, yes, but also because this is as far inland as you can navigate a ship smoothly. In the wood just east and north of us, the river has rocks and rapids that make it too treacherous to navigate. We're the end of the line. If we could direct the peasants back outside the walls toward the river—without a riot, and gave them access to rafts, and if they didn't overcrowd them in their panic and sink them—what direction would they have to go?"
"West to the sea," Bucky answered. He was starting to realize his mistake. He lowered his eyes as he understood how horrible the idea he'd just suggested actually was.
"And what direction is the Red Skull's army coming from?"
"West," Bucky whispered. The damage to their chances that he'd done by opening the gates was just starting to settle onto him.
"So the peasants have loaded a group of strong men and have floated down the river to the west, directly into the Red Skull's encampment. What happens to them?"
"If they aren't slaughtered, they're enslaved and pressed into service to attack us."
"And if the raft is full of women instead?"
Bucky's couldn't put the horrors they would be likely to face into words just then. He looked up at his father and tried not to blink, his eyes had gone glassy with tears he didn't want to shed. He'd condemned not just the peasants, but everyone in the castle, to death by starvation.
His father squeezed his biceps again. "You have such a big heart, my son, and you only sought to save people's lives. We sometimes have to make the harder decision: to save them from suffering." He looked around the room. "When the granaries run out, we'll perpetuate the news that it was due to the King's mismanagement, not the Prince who opened the gates. Is that understood?"
Bucky could feel the thunderous glare from Thaddeus, could imagine the fury Nick was so known for, but he couldn't turn around to face them himself. He could only see his father's kind face and behind him, Steve nodding in agreement but looking down, away from Bucky. The only sound in the room was Sam's quill scratching against his parchment, taking the notes of the meeting. Even Clint was silent.
"Can we still accept Essar's terms for aid?" Bucky asked so quietly he didn't know if his father would hear him. As much as he was reluctant to agree to an arranged marriage, doing so might be the only way he could save his family and his people. His discomfort for their lives. It was a compromise he could make. He'd have to. It was his fault they would all starve otherwise. He had to do something to correct his horrible mistake.
He couldn't bring himself to look at Steve.
George nodded, but his brow furrowed. He stepped away, back toward his seat at the table. It took Bucky another moment before he could turn around. He kept his eyes focused on the table rather than look at the other men in the room. The rolling hills of Essar on the east side of the map caught his gaze.
"Nick, do you think a messenger on one of your fastest horses has a chance to ride for Essar?"
Bucky heard Nick shift in his chair. "It's unlikely. The Red Skull's Army is right on our doorstep. They'll see us dispatch a messenger and send their own men after him. He'll be overtaken."
"I can do it," Clint said. Bucky looked up at him. He was calm and relaxed, confident in his ability to outride the enemy.
"You are a good rider, Clint, and a good bowman but surely—"
"Send Natasha with me as backup. Between the two of us, we can outmaneuver whatever men the Red Skull sends to stop us."
Bucky looked to his father to see his brow wrinkled in thought. Finally, George looked to Clint. "Do it. Tell the King of Essar that we accept his terms. A fruitful union between our houses. The wedding to be held with the week of his army's relieving the castle." Clint nodded and stood, striding from the room with a bounce in his step.
George continued the meeting. "As we're going to have an influx of men... see to it that they are trained in the basics of siege warfare while we have the time. Have the chapel outfitted with straw for beds, the same as the great hall, the tavern floor of the barracks. They'll need roofs over their heads while they're here. Anywhere you can find a place to put them."
He continued on, but Bucky had stopped listening. His thoughts spun in circles, trapped between the army marching on their walls, fifty times the size of their own, and the arranged marriage to which he'd condemned himself.