“Bucky!” A whisper. “Look what I found! Bucky!”
Bucky groaned and turned over, bringing his thin rugged pillow over his head. Nobody but Steve still called him by his old childhood nickname. Yes, he’d had buck teeth, but he’d grown out of them—a boy of sixteen now, nearly seventeen, silent and sullen and broad enough in the shoulders he was nearly a man…
Hell, he did think of himself as Bucky, so in the end Steve won; he always did, even when the argument never left the confines of Bucky’s head. Steve was going to win this time, too, shaking his shoulder to pull him out of sleep, as if his hurried whispers weren’t enough.
Sighing, Bucky pushed the pillow away from his face. “You shouldn’t have come here,” he murmured. “It’s too close to dawn.”
It was pointless to warn Steve off, he knew, but he still tried every time. He sat up on the floor, pushing his straw pillow away from the hearth. The house was still dark; it wasn’t morning yet. His Da’s door wasn’t open. He could have slept for another hour before he had to go feed the goats. But Steve was there by his bed, his thin face and bright eyes face all aglow with the slumbering coals, and—
No. The glow came from something in his hands. When Bucky’s awareness finally kicked in, his first instinctive motion was to snatch the thing away from him so he wouldn’t burn himself, but as soon as he held it in his hand, surprise made him go still.
It was a long, thick, elegantly curled feather, like a lick of flame, red, orange and yellow, gently smoldering in the dark. Its very base, near the stem, had blue and purple hues. Steve crawled onto the bedding next to him and just stared in open wonder as Bucky’s fingers slowly brushed up the soft vane.
“It’s warm,” Bucky murmured. He turned it over a few times. “Where did you find this?”
“Under the birch tree. It was just lying there.”
It was very clearly magic, and Bucky had never heard about anything good come out of magic; yet how could he mistrust it just now, when it felt so gentle, so benevolent? It cast golden shadows around the room when he spun it in his hands. For a fleeting moment, the beaten-earth floor and walls looked like a tsar’s bedchamber.
“You should put it back,” he mumbled, passing it to him.
Steve shook his head without a word, looking down at the wonder in his lap. It was a primary feather, longer than his skinny forearm. Bucky found himself wondering what kind of bird might have shed such an extraordinary thing; and now that he wasn’t holding it anymore, the shiver of dread at the thought of magic came back, stronger this time.
“You should put it back,” he said again. “Or throw it away. Bury it.”
Steve jumped. “Bury it? I couldn’t.”
“I’ll help you,” Bucky said, only too aware Steve’s crooked spine and spindly limbs wouldn’t let him handle a shovel, not on stone-hard frozen ground. “I’ll find time.”
“I meant I won’t,” Steve snapped. At fourteen, he was already prouder than a cat. “It came to me. I’ll put it in a pot by my mom’s bedside.”
Bucky opened his mouth to say it might not be good for her health; but then he closed it without saying anything. Not much could be done to worsen Sarah’s health at this point. Her pained coughing now overcame her even while she slept, driving Steve out of the house at the earliest hour to wander around in the icy morning fog, aching and shivery and miserable. He’d ended up at Bucky’s house more than a few times lately, despite the risk.
“She’d like that,” Bucky conceded quietly. “It looks nice.” He felt another wave of warmth from the feather. “It feels nice.”
A faraway bleat sent tiredness tumbling down his spine. No time to go back to sleep now; the chores of the day awaited. But the proximity of the feather forbade exhaustion from overcoming him completely. He was caught in its incandescence, still saw it wherever he looked, printed on the inside of his eyes.
“You should go home,” he said, trying to pull himself out of his fascination. “You know my Da can’t find you here.”
“I wouldn’t let him,” Steve said at once. Then, like an apology: “And I wanted to show you. I won’t show it to anyone else. I wanted to show you.”
“I know.” Bucky couldn’t keep the fondness out of his voice. He wasn't allowed to make friends, but that had never stopped Steve. If anything, he was growing more daring over time, more likely to offer Bucky little tokens of love every chance he got. Maybe because he enjoyed breaking rules; or maybe he did like Bucky that much. In any case, Bucky was glad, deeply glad, a warmth in his chest like the feather’s warmth. Perhaps it was indeed a gift.
They shared a little smile, and for a few seconds everything was good. Then the goat bleated again outside. Bucky murmured, “I have to…” and Steve replied, “Yeah,” and slipped out of the room.
The strange red-gold glow went with him, leaving behind only the colder, realer light of dawn creeping across the wall.
It would only be a few days later when Bucky would hear his father mention that Sarah Róg’s health had miraculously improved. She would speak to all that would listen of a benevolent warmth coursing down her body, relieving her cold chest and aching joints. And he’d know, and he’d feel warm again, too. A lot of people called Bucky sullen, but they didn’t know he was just good at being silent; and they couldn’t see when he was smiling inside.
Over the next few years, Sarah’s health kept improving magnificently, until she was the brightest, happiest widow you’d ever seen west of the Elbe. Bucky grew ever broader and stronger and more silent, and Steve ever weedier, ever louder, and ever more prone to defy unjust authority. He never lashed out at Bucky’s Da anymore, not after the one time he truly had, when they were small—it’s not his fault his Ma died having him!—and Bucky was beaten by his Da so bad he couldn’t walk for a week.
But Steve kept breaking rules for Bucky and nursing anger for Bucky and making Bucky’s life a little better in a thousand tiny ways, when he had so few shares of happiness himself.
Although he had only ever seen it once, Bucky found himself thinking of the feather every once in a while, wishing he could see it again. It had turned out to be a great blessing after all, and he couldn’t have imagined people more fitting than the Rógs to receive it. In his mind he associated it with them. He wished he could have felt it under his fingers again, if only just once. But the Rógs’ house was so inaccessible to him it might as well be in the Faraway Forest. His father watched his every move. If Bucky was seen talking to people outside of the marketplace, he was beaten; if he deviated from his route coming back to the house, he was beaten; if he wasn’t otherwise constantly dealing with chores and farm work, he was beaten. These days his Da didn’t hit him quite so much, because Bucky had learned how to behave.
It was enough, he mused, to know that the feather was there somewhere in town, lending its magic to the ones who needed it most.
The winters were growing harsher every year, and sturdier people than Steve fell ill and died in neighboring villages. But nobody succumbed to the cold in a five-mile radius around the Rógs’ house; once or twice, Bucky saw Sarah doing the rounds, going from door to door, asking everyone if they needed care, if they didn’t feel sick. She had on her arm a wicker basket with a checkered cloth carefully tucked over its contents—which seemed to glow. Bucky felt that glow in his chest all the way home, knowing what she was doing, carrying a bit of her magic door to door, when anyone else would have never even thought of sharing it.
Of course, the first time she came to the Stodołnys’ house, Bucky’s father snorted at her and sent her on her way; he didn’t like widows. She tried two more times the following weeks, then gave up for good, probably after Steve told her that angering Jerzy Stodołny could only have bad consequences for Bucky. The consequences came anyway: Bucky caught the flu soon afterwards—he was the only one in the village to get it that winter, which didn’t stop his Da from sending him out in the snow the next day, shivering with fever.
Illness was nothing to him, he thought, trying to focus as he worked in the cold. He was strong; he didn’t need magic. Other people needed magic more than him. He kept telling himself that the whole day, as he swept the floors and milked the goats and fed the chickens, feeling ice cold and burning hot at the same time. But as he came back from the marketplace, wishing his coat were thicker, he felt a tight grip on his arm.
Steve dragged him into the street with a determined look on his face; Bucky was so dizzy and stuffy he just let him. For a few minutes he didn’t understand at all what was happening or where they were going, but then they were in front of Steve’s house, and then they were going past the threshold.
As soon as Bucky stepped inside, he felt the magical warmth spread down his body just like Sarah always said. Despite himself, he relaxed, throwing back his head and breathing deeply through his newly decongested nose.
Steve wanted to pull him further in, but Bucky was suddenly afraid to see it again, afraid to want it too much. If he never saw it, he could pretend it didn’t exist, and he could stop himself from wanting.
“I can’t,” he mumbled, softly disentangling himself from Steve’s grip. “I can’t, Steve, I have chores.”
Steve’s lips went tight and thin, and Bucky knew exactly what he was thinking, because he’d said it often enough—if only he were stronger, he would make Bucky’s Da leave him alone for good. He often asked Bucky why he bore it. You could walk out! he said, You could come live with us!
And if it had been just Steve, Bucky might have done it, too. Nobody would have found it strange, for him to move in to little Stefan Róg’s house after the death of his mother. Everybody would have been glad he’d taken it upon himself to help. He could have split his time between his house and Steve’s; twice the work, but half the misery. His Da couldn’t have opposed it, not without losing face in front of the whole town.
But Sarah had lived. And Bucky could never resent fate for that. So he stayed with his Da, because he had nowhere else to go, and a lot of work to do. His big sister had been married off a long time ago, and no woman would want him, maybe because he was too quiet, too reserved. Some said scary, now that he’d grown. Steve wasn’t scared of him. But Steve wasn’t scared of anything. Bucky thought mostly the girls didn’t want Jerzy Stodołny for a father-in-law, and he couldn’t blame them. He snuck glances at them sometimes in the market, at the ribbons in their hair and the curve of their waist, but then he looked away. Everything was easier when you looked away.
It wasn’t so bad, most of the time. He had long stretches of quiet when he went into the woods to hunt. And he had a friend, which was as precious to him as the glowing feather was to the village, though they didn’t even know it was there. Bucky had a friend and knew it: how lucky was he? It was all right if he hadn’t let himself see the feather again. He had felt its warmth thanks to Steve, and that was almost as good.
“Here,” Steve told him that day, right before he left. “My Ma made those for you.”
It was two handkerchiefs, pure white, with beautiful blue embroidery all around them, and his name in the middle, in clumsy black thread. Steve had sewn in Bucky instead of Jakub, which made Bucky smile despite everything.
On his way home, he found he didn’t need to blow his nose. A few minutes basking in the feather’s glow had cured him.
Every year when spring came, the duke’s men came with it, riding their massive horses down the street without care. Shod hooves plodded the earth, turned it over, mixed sleet in, made it all mud. The men didn’t notice; they had high, expensive leather boots that would have allowed them to wade through a river and come out dry-footed.
They banged on every door to collect the annual tax, counting every silver kopa pressed reluctantly into their hand. Bucky caught a glimpse of them and decided to go hunting that day and the days afterwards, to avoid his Da’s anger. Paying his taxes always drove Jerzy Stodołny into a foul mood. The rest of the village was angry too, nervous, on edge like a goat harassed by flies. Bucky would rather get out if he could, and for once, this was a choice he could make, because the pantry was empty.
He stayed in the woods for three days, tracking a deer, enjoying the quiet and the solitude, and the kinder weather that let him sleep outside the house for a while. He had the knack when it came to curling between tree roots now. Streams were starting to burble to life, digging bluish paths in the snow. Birds were vocalizing; a green haze was draping the trees, ready to flash into vivid color. Everything was still white all around, but the woods were preparing to shake off their snow fur, stretch their limbs, let sap and honey come glint in the sun. It was all so close Bucky could taste it.
He came back with the deer over his shoulders, and with a small hare that he’d stuffed down his pack to give Steve on his way home. Getting to the Rógs’ door, he knocked—he planned to just give it and go, like he always did, but his knock didn’t stir anyone inside. He knocked again to be sure he’d been heard. When nothing moved once again, he thought maybe they were at the market and went to knock on the neighbor’s door.
“Stefan?” he asked, in his quiet, hoarse voice. “Stefan Róg?”
Gosia, the eldest Wozak daughter, was a good neighbor to Steve. She was also one of the only people in the village who didn’t harbor a faint air of contempt for Bucky, despite her beautiful brown curls and vivid dark eyes which would have allowed her to look down on anyone. It was when he saw how pale she looked that the sinking feeling started in his stomach.
“But Jakub,” she said, seeing him. “Jakub, Stefan’s gone.”
“Gone?” Bucky repeated stupidly.
“You don’t you know what happened? Oh,” she said when she noticed the deer over his shoulders, the hare he had in hand, “of course you don’t.”
What had happened was this: the duke’s soldiers had come into town to collect money just as planned, and had expressed surprise at the repeated lack of winter deaths for the past four years. Upon hearing repeatedly that Sarah Róg, the doctor’s widow, had started keeping a close watch on them all during the cold season, they had entered her house instead of just waiting for payment at the door, and found—
“I don’t know what it was,” said Gosia. “Stefan wouldn’t say. He just repeated they’d stolen something from her.”
The next day, Sarah had started coughing. The day after that, she had fallen ill.
The day after that, she had died.
“Where’s Stefan?” Bucky said in a wan voice. “Where’s Stefan?”
“He was mad with grief. He went to the duke’s house,” said Gosia. “To demand justice.”
Bucky threw the deer off his shoulders and bolted down the road.
He was a man now, of nearly twenty, hardened with long days and nights of hunting, hardened by constant chores and his Da’s belt over his back. He could run with long, continuous strides, his chest like bellows, blowing plumes of steam ahead of him, out in the cool spring night. Everything was melting, cracking, coming down around his ears, slabs of snow falling apiece from the pine trees, everything falling apart. He could bear everything but this. He had nothing, but he had Steve; if he didn’t even have Steve then he didn’t know how to go on living, day after grueling day.
Night had fallen by the time he got to the ducal house; it was an impressive manor of a thing, carved beams curling up above the entrance, gilded with gold leaf. A red star shone in the middle, flanked with two swords; a coat of arms.
The guards at the entrance let him through when he said where he was from and why he’d come. But they laughed as he went in, and the sound of their laughter pursued him all the way across the beaten-earth courtyard.
Even by moonlight, the place was bustling with activity, carts and horses and men moving around in a complex ballet. Bucky had never seen so many people together except on market days, and it would have shortened his breath if it hadn’t been so short already. He asked his way to everyone he met, in his cracking, unused voice, until eventually he’d made himself enough of a fool that he was ushered to the scullery and told to wait.
It was three hours before he was granted audience.
“His Grace Aleksander, Duke Pierce!”
The duke wasn’t fat, which surprised Bucky for a moment; he had never seen him before—indeed never seen anyone one might consider wealthy. He had expected someone well-fed, but instead Duke Pierce looked hungry. He had silver hair with still traces of gold in it, and clear eyes so sharp they seemed to be the sole reason for his nickname, skewering Bucky right through.
“My lord,” Bucky began awkwardly, and then, with a pang of icy fear because he’d said something wrong already, “I mean—your Grace.”
Four fires at once—four!—were roaring in the room, even though the thick stone walls alone would have been enough to keep away the chill. A pair of guards were stationed by the doors. The duke was sitting on a beautifully carved chair, high on a little platform, obviously so he could look down on anybody who came to beseech him.
“I’ve come about my f…” He had never dared call Steve a friend out loud. He took a deep breath. “My name is Jakub Stodołny. I’ve come for my friend Stefan. Stefan Róg.”
The words dried in his throat. Pierce had tugged out a feather from his shirt and was now pulling it though his fingers, again and again, an easy, self-satisfied gesture, like a cat at play. It was glowing like a live coal.
Bucky had dreamed of seeing this feather again—in his mind it was now one and the same with the Rógs’ home, a home which would have liked nothing better than to become his, if he had only found the strength to defy his father. Now he had defied him—there was no one home to help with the goats, with the chores, he hadn’t even brought back the deer. When he got home his father might beat him to death. But it wouldn’t matter, because Sarah was dead, Steve maybe dead too, and the feather was in the hands of that man who was playing with it.
“Stefan Róg,” Bucky pleaded again. He knew his voice said: he’s all I have.
“Don’t worry. He’s in the dungeon,” Pierce answered as if distractedly, still preening his sole feather. “Wonderful thing, this. Don’t you agree?”
Bucky had never been good with words and the sparring thereof. But he knew a peasant like him hadn’t been granted an audience for nothing. “Please tell me what you want.”
“What I want?” Pierce arched an absurdly slim eyebrow, as if offended to see him go straight to the point. “Your friend was the one who wanted a great deal of things. Justice and reparation and who knows what else. Nearly talked my ear off. He never even tried to deny this little thing was his, though. Hell, that’s what he came for.” The feather was like a living flame in his hands. He looked at it for a while, then added casually: “The practice of magic is a very serious accusation, you know. One could be burned at the stake for it.”
Bucky felt like his stomach was going to come out of his mouth.
“He’s not a witch, please, he—he just found the feather in the woods one day. Please—your Grace,” he remembered again to add, much too late.
“Found it in the woods? Indeed.” Pierce sounded disappointed, but not surprised. He waved the feather at him. “I hear you’re an excellent hunter. Do you know what this is?”
“I don’t, your Grace,” Bucky said, desperate. “Please—”
“No, of course you don’t. You’re a farmer, aren’t you? Stodołny. Even your name came out of a barn.” Pierce ran the feather through his fingers again. “It’s a firebird feather. Alone, it’s a good luck charm. But the creature itself… Why, it could grant power beyond anything you can imagine.” He studied it in the candelabra’s light. “Enough to overthrow the tsar.”
“It’s a good luck charm,” Pierce repeated affably, as if realizing Bucky was too stupid to understand the rest of what he was saying. “Naturally, the creature doesn’t like its freedom restrained. Whoever catches it is sure to be cursed for the rest of his indubitably short life. Isn’t that a conundrum? Or maybe you don’t know that word.”
Bucky felt his cheeks burn. He said nothing. Steve would have been yelling up a storm already; but Bucky was good at keeping quiet when he wanted to scream.
“Of course, the dilemma is easily solved: have the hunter and the owner be two different people. So here we are, Jakub Stodołny: your little friend has so gravely insulted me, I am afraid I cannot let him out of the dungeons alive.” A fox’s smile. “Unless, of course, someone were to gift me a present so extravagant I would have no choice but to grant him anything he wanted in exchange.”
The weight of hopelessness, of being left with no choice, was very familiar to Bucky. Resignation was so common to him he didn’t notice it anymore, too. Hope, though—desperate hope tasted sharp in his mouth. “You will keep him alive? You will keep him alive until I come back?”
“I will not precipitate his end,” Pierce corrected in a sweetened voice. “But you know better than me how harsh winters can get, my dear boy. So I would set off at once if I were you.”
“Set off to where?”
“Where do you think? Even someone like you must know where magic lives. I think the firebird dropped this feather on its way home, Jakub Stodołny. I think it was going back…”
“…to the Faraway Forest,” Bucky breathed. “It’s—they say it’s on the other side of the Volga…”
“Like I said.” Pierce smiled again, without it reaching his eyes at all. “Better set off at once.”
Pierce had a dark sense of humor—dark enough to promote Bucky to Ducal Hunter and give him his very own escort. Of course, those men were there to make sure he didn’t just run off as soon as he was out of sight of the Duke’s house. Their mission was to bring him at the edge of the forest, to wait for him to come back out with his prize, and, in case of failure, to return home with his head. Upon which Steve would be dragged out of his dungeon to be burned alive.
Bucky had no intention of running off.
He slept in the scullery, on the floor. He was used to the floor. In the morning, he washed with handfuls of snow, tied his dark hair back into a short braid and put on the clothing Pierce had had laid out for him—black suede and wool with a star’s outline on the left shoulder, embroidered in red. Bucky’s homemade bow and arrow had been replaced with an impressive crossbow of mulberry wood and horn, along with two dozen iron bolts in narrow leather quivers strung on a sideways belt. He even had new boots, just like the soldiers’, instead of his old straw-filled shoes falling to pieces. All of this felt uncomfortably like an investment, one he knew he must repay sooner or later.
He wasn’t sure whether he could capture a firebird. He was a good hunter, but he usually tried to kill his prey outright: why make anything suffer? And a mythical bird would probably prove smarter than a panicked hare. All the same, he had no choice but to try.
Slinging the crossbow over his back, he came out of the changing rooms face-to-face with Brókk—an unpleasant, wolf-like man who was the leader of his hunting guard. They both knew Bucky was his prisoner in everything but name. But they were the same height and Bucky might even be a little broader than him, so he made his face flat as people often blamed him for doing, and said, “I want to see him before I leave.”
“See him, fine,” Brókk said with a nasty smile.
He led Bucky down to the dungeons and presented him with a massive oak door, barred with black iron. Pushing open a slot in the bottom half of the panel, he allowed Bucky to crouch and peer inside. What he saw squeezed his heart so much he let out a faint gasp: Steve was there, alive but looking smaller than he’d ever looked, curled up on the bare stone floor, chained to the wall with manacles that looked ridiculously big on him.
“Steve,” Bucky called in an urgent whisper. “Steve.”
For a while it seemed like Steve might be asleep, or dead. But then he slowly raised his head—probably alerted by his nickname, just like Bucky was when Steve was the one calling him. When he saw Bucky, his eyes went round.
“Buck—” He crawled forward then scowled when the chains tensed; one of them was linked to a heavy collar around his neck. It was humiliating restraints, meant for a witch indeed, or a dog, and Bucky felt his resolve grow with his fear and his rage and his sorrow.
“I’m going to get you out of here.” He pushed his fingers through the slot; it was useless, because he couldn’t reach inside and Steve couldn’t crawl to the door anyway. See him, but not touch him. “I promise. Whatever it takes.”
“Bucky, what do you mean? Bucky,” Steve called urgently—but Bucky was already up, turning away from Brókk’s mocking gaze, heading back up the stairs, taking them two at a time. His heart was pounding loud in his chest, louder in his ears. In the corner of his eyes he could see the stake in the middle of the courtyard, the one where they would tie up his friend if he failed to come back.
Bucky had never traveled so far away from home. Yet he was still in the world he knew, forest and mud and sleet, and streams swelling with snowmelt, cascading happily from rock to mossy rock. When he hunted, all the world was the same to him, one long stretch of wilderness where he had always found peace and quiet, which to him was almost a synonym of happiness.
They didn’t have horses—Pierce’s investment hadn’t reached this far—so they had to walk by the side of the road where it wasn’t too muddy, Bucky and Brókk and the three other men of his escort, whose name he didn’t even know. They had made no effort to talk to him; they seemed to regard him as a pig led to the slaughter. Bucky hadn’t thought much about his own potential demise, not really. He knew he was going to be cursed if he succeeded in his task, but Steve’s death would have been much worse. He did have a choice, after all; and he’d already made it.
The first weeks of travel quickly turned into monotony, sleeping as they could, walking during the day, hunting hares and birds for food. They often met carts on the road—sometimes they paid them a few copper coins to be carried for a stretch, and rest their aching feet. Some of them carried fat girls with blond braids and rosy cheeks, which prompted Brókk and his men to whistle and jeer and call out comments to make them blush even more.
Bucky eyed them warily; they didn’t seem too offended by the attention, and even seemed to enjoy it for some. Still, he felt his best course of action was to stay silent, in case they were secretly taking offense. He didn’t want any trouble, nothing that could slow down the journey. The girls’ eyes sometimes trailed after him, along with almost perplexed expressions, like they’d never seen anything like him before. At first, he thought maybe they found him odd or impolite; but the fifth time they met a cart full of pretty girls on the road, after they had laughed at the jeers of Bucky’s escort and stared after him again, one of Brókk’s men made a noise of disgust. “Oh, what’s the use? They’ve all only got eyes for the brooding pretty boy.”
It took Bucky another half-day of walking to wonder if that meant him. Women had always been to him more unreachable than firebirds and magic forests. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to approach them; indeed, he felt he could have been good enough at it, if he’d had the chance. He had never been particularly tongue-tied in front of Gosia, for instance. But his father had beaten the curiosity out of him very soon, and they had quickly lost interest in him since he couldn’t play. Marriage might as well be a word in another language altogether; he would never have the money for a bride’s dowry.
He had now, almost accidentally, got away from his father’s house. Broken free—though he felt, and was, the further thing away from free. Steve haunted him every second of every day. But supposing he came back from his quest alive, supposing he found employment somewhere, he still couldn’t offer himself—a cursed man, whatever form the curse may take—as a husband to anyone. He couldn’t stay with Steve either, lest he cursed him too. None of it mattered. His own self, his prospects, his future; all of that was of no concern anymore. Never had been, really, so it wasn’t a great loss.
The journey took them two months. In the fifth week, Brókk insisted on buying a great gleaming cage for the bird—it was a dog’s crate, really, made of wood and iron wire. Then he bought silver thread for a fantastic price and spun it all around the cage’s bars, saying silver neutralized magic. After he was done, the thing weighed so much they had to drag it behind them in turns.
All the time, Bucky kept thinking about Steve locked in his dungeon with iron around his throat, away from the sun and from his village, with his mother dead, his friend gone. At least, at least it was warm; spring was blooming fast into summer, and if Bucky managed to be quick—if he caught the bird right away, if they turned around at once—they could come back before winter sank its claws into the dukedom again, and Steve would be all right.
Bucky sometimes wondered whether his Da knew where he’d gone, and why. Did he miss him? Did he curse his name? The second option felt more likely. It was surprising, really, how easily Bucky had stepped out of his miserable life. It made him feel like worthless scum for not doing it earlier, for not seeing how easy it was. But even that shame was removed from him; he felt like he was another person altogether, especially with the new clothing the Duke had given him, like a costume.
Strangely, despite the tiring journey, he also felt stronger and more alert; not getting beat up in weeks probably helped. Aches were vanishing, stiff muscles were loosening. He felt himself bloom into the full potential of his body, as if everything in him was getting ready for the trial to come. Even his beard grew thicker and darker, so that he had to shave every morning now.
His escort still treated him with distant coldness at best; at night, he slept a little way away from them, and he didn’t walk by their side on the road. But they didn’t impede each other either, and worked frighteningly well together when they hunted—of course perfect cooperation was mandatory for everyone to have their bellies full, so in the end they were sort of a team, and even a good team, though there was no lost love between them. Bucky had to remind himself every day they wouldn’t hesitate to slit his throat if he came to fail his mission.
And then one day, a day like any other, they climbed a hill that looked like all other hills before it and found themselves overlooking the Forest.
“There it is,” Brókk said, putting down the cage with a groan. “On the other side of the river.”
Bucky didn’t ask how he knew. Over the past few days, the country had grown thicker and wilder around them; they hadn’t come across a town in a long while, just a few clutter of houses huddling together against cold or magic or both. It was a beautiful day, completely cloudless, with the sun shining high above; and yet the Forest on the other side of the river was a perfectly black line, drawn unbroken all across the horizon, as far as the eye could see on both sides.
It was like someone had ripped a strip off the world, to reveal only shadow behind.
They crossed the river without too much trouble, finding their footing on flat, sun-warmed stones, carrying the cage between them. But as soon as they had come upon the bank, Bucky knew this place was not for men. It took him a moment to understand why; the silence felt natural at first, punctuated with bird calls and chirping crickets. But then he gradually realized they couldn’t hear the rumbling of the river anymore.
They all turned to look at it. It was right there, foaming and tumultuous as ever, but it could have been a glass sculpture for all the noise it made.
“That’s our cue for sure,” Brókk said, shouldering off his pack and tugging it open. “Hang on.”
He dug around into his things for a while, pulling out this and that, and finally drew out a long thing wrapped in black silk. He unwrapped the cloth and held its contents out to Bucky, who stared.
It was the firebird feather.
That was why he’d gotten so much better, so much stronger over the journey. The Rógs had been with him all along. It tightened his throat and made his eyes prickle with tears, but he was practiced at hiding them, and let nothing show. He just reached out and took the feather and held it in his hands for the first time since Steve had found it under the trees. It was just as long and rich as he remembered, still alive and glowing like a flame, even from up close. He had hoped so badly for a chance to hold it again; they did say to be careful what you wished for.
“Duke Pierce thought you might need it,” Brókk commented. “If only to light your way. Don’t you lose it, Stodołny, especially if you don’t bring anything back.”
“I’ll fulfill my end of the bargain,” Bucky said quietly.
Brókk laughed, maybe at the idea that the Duke could strike anything like a bargain with a farmer whose friend he held in his dungeon. Then he said, “Off you go, then.”
Bucky only looked at him.
“There was never any talk of us following you into the Forest, Stodołny. We’ve come here, but,” Brókk gestured at the silent river, “no further. None of us signed up for a curse.”
There was a wicked look on his face like he wanted Bucky to protest and beg not to go alone. Bucky thought of Sarah dead, of Steve imprisoned. He put the feather into his pack and slung it over his shoulder, feeling its weight over the scars his father’s belt had left him.
“I’m already cursed,” he said, and walked forward into the woods.