a Chronicles of Amber fanfic
The black road ran through all the worlds, fracturing them like a fault line. A foul miasma drifted across the landscape, twisted trees and stunted weeds struggling to escape its reach. Unnatural creatures roamed its length. Martin kept his sword loose in its scabbard, and his horse shied at the howl of things worse than wolves.
He had tried to outride the black road, but it always found him again. He should have been able to unmake anything in Shadow, and yet it persisted. Perhaps he was losing his powers. Perhaps he was losing his mind. Perhaps it was all leaking away, like the blood leaking between his fingers when he pressed the wound on his chest.
Sometimes he saw a rider on the road, in the distance, fading in and out of the mist. Perhaps it was a hallucination. Perhaps he was haunted by ghosts. Perhaps he was pursued by Death himself.
Rain spattered his face. He could not ride much further today. He had to seek shelter before nightfall. A stone ruin loomed through the dusk, its towers toppled upon themselves. Martin rode through the crumbling archway, collapsing off his horse in the courtyard. Stone faces stared back at him from the walls, features obliterated by time. Perhaps this place had been some kind of sanctuary once, before the land sickened, a temple to some forgotten god.
The skeleton of a hall remained, with a vaulted roof and arched windows, glass shattered so that the rain gusted in. It was better than nothing. Martin built a fire, moving slowly and carefully. Then he settled down against a wall, wrapping his blanket around himself. He laid his sword by his side, in easy reach, although he was not sure he had the energy to wield it. He had no appetite, but forced himself to chew through some dry rations. They tasted like sawdust.
His horse whickered warning. A girl stepped through the archway, leading her own horse. She was slim and graceful as some woodland spirit, and her eyes were bright as pebbles in her freckled face. She threw back her rainspeckled hood, revealing short brown hair.
"Hello," she said. "Mind if I join you?"
She was a stranger, but she did not look like a threat. "It's not my house," Martin said. "I can't stop you."
"Well, no. But it's polite to ask." Her eyes danced.
"Go ahead then." What did he have left to lose? There were worse ways to spend the dying hours of the day. She seemed half like a dream anyway. Martin tried not to dream these days. It always stung when he woke up.
"My name is Dara," the girl said. She settled down opposite him, warming her hands by the fire, and laying out her damp cloak to dry. "I saw you from the road."
"Martin." So had that been her, riding beside him? Following him all this way? "Stay away from it. That thing is poison."
She laughed. "Not to me. A great sorcerer built it for my people. The road is freedom. It runs through worlds and worlds."
"They're called Shadows," Martin said, and tried to explain. If she was an innocent traveller, it was dangerous for her to be wandering so blithely. The way he had, once upon a time.
"I can take care of myself."
"You should be more careful whom you trust. You don't even know who I am."
"Of course I know who you are." She tilted her head to one side. "If you can travel through the worlds, and you're not from the Courts, you must be from Amber."
"How do you know about Amber?" Martin said, heart pounding. Could she see the secrets embedded beneath his skin? He had never even been there, and yet his life was inextricably bound to it.
"My people tell of the legends. They have little love for Amber. She sits like a spider in the centre of her web, spinning her plots, devouring her prey. Growing fat with power, while the rest of us are starved of it. Things are going to change. Things are already changing."
"Not everything about Amber is bad." He thought of Llewella, who had watched over his childhood. He thought of Benedict, who had taught him how to ride. He tried not to think of Brand, but Brand had shown him the stars.
"I'll tell you a secret. The mother of my mother loved a man of Amber once." Dara smiled. "I have the blood of Amber in me too."
Martin drowsed, aware of the beat of falling rain. The fire sank to embers. Dara watched it, eyes flattened to slits, in that restful state between waking and dreaming. Martin found unexpected comfort in the presence of a companion, to share the long and lonely vigil till dawn. He shivered violently beneath the blanket, even though sweat slicked his skin.
"Are you cold?" Dara said. "I can build up the fire."
Martin shook his head. "Hot."
Dara reached across and felt his forehead. "You're burning up!" she exclaimed. She worked to loosen his clothes. He batted at her hands, but she was stronger than her slender form suggested, or he had grown weaker than he knew.
She gasped. Martin looked down. His open shirt exposed the thick bandage wrapped around his chest, and the bright red stain that bloomed above his heart.
"Don't." Martin pulled his shirt closed, turning his face away. He didn't want her to see. He didn't want her to know.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Dara demanded.
"There's no point. It's always like this."
"You have to take care of it. Or you'll bleed to death. Do you have fresh bandages?" She stood and began rummaging through his saddlebag.
"Wait--" Martin said, but it was too late. The saddlebag tipped open, spilling its contents across the floor. Roll upon roll of bloodstained bandages, faded to rust with countless washes, yet still indelibly marked.
Dara stared in horror. "How long has it been like this? You'll die if you ignore it."
"Does it matter?" The flaw was already in his heart, in the crack that the knife had made. He offered her a wistful smile. "Maybe this is the way it's meant to be. I was never even supposed to exist."
"Don't be a fool! Think of your family, your friends--"
"My father left when he found out about me. My mother killed herself soon after I was born. And the man I loved wanted me dead. What do I have left, Dara? What do I have left to hold onto?"
Dara halted. A strange expression crossed her face. "The man who did this to you," she said, slowly. "What was his name?"
Martin could not answer. He still had not spoken of these things aloud, nor admitted them to another living soul. He swallowed past the lump in his throat, and whispered, "Brand."
Saying the name made everything real, hideously real. All of a sudden, Martin could not bear Dara and her pity. Any desire for company was doused. "Leave me. I'm no one to you."
"I can't do that," Dara said, pale but stubborn. "It's raining anyway."
"Is it?" A desperate anger filled Martin. He didn't want her to see how close he was to breaking apart. He seized her hand and stood, swaying dizzily. "Come with me. And I'll show you what it means to walk through Shadow."
It only took a few steps before everything shifted, edges going soft. Martin wanted a place where it was not raining, so he focused on subtracting the clouds. But instead, glass filled the windows, and walls rose stone by stone, and fingers of ivy untraced their clasp.
And then the clouds dissolved, leaving a moon in a clear sky.
"Go," Martin said, and slid unconscious to the floor.
Martin lost count of the days. Dara brought him water from the well, and fed him soup one spoonful at a time. But he would not let her touch the wound. In his delirium, sometimes he looked at her and saw other faces, scaled and fanged and horned, monstrous visages out of nightmare. All of them gazed at him with anxiety. "Please get better."
"It hurts so much," he whispered.
"Don't give up." Dara gripped his hand in hers: small, slim, but stronger than it appeared. "Tell me about Amber. I want to walk the Pattern too. You can show me all the worlds. You said you can ride through Shadow, to any place your heart desires."
Martin shook his head. He had believed it once: that he had the power to reshape reality, to go anywhere in Shadow he wished. But it was a treacherous lie.
Brand had wanted to hurt him, so badly he should have died.
And there was nowhere in all the worlds he could go to make this thing untrue.
The voice roused him from uneasy sleep. He sat up, knuckling at his eyes.
A man stood in the firelight, all red flame and black shadow, highlights glinting in his hair. He prowled forward, sleek and silent as a tiger. But Martin knew him even by his silhouette alone.
"Awake at last," Brand said.
Martin flinched away, his back slamming up against the wall. Impossible, impossible. How could he be here? But who could say what was impossible now? He had once thought it impossible Brand would look through him like a stranger, cold and calculating as he slid in the knife.
"Easy now," Brand said, like he was talking to a wild horse. "I'm not going to hurt you."
Martin let out a laugh that turned into a sob instead. He tried to stand, but his legs would not obey. "Where's Dara? What have you done with her?" No sign of her anywhere, although her horse and her gear were still present.
"She's fine. You're not." Brand bent to examine him. Martin thrust him away, some vestige of pride refusing surrender without resistance. Brand caught his arm. "Don't be a fool. Do you want to die?"
Martin said nothing.
Brand unlaced Martin's shirt and unwrapped the bandages, peeling back his layers with care. Martin shivered, not only from the fever. Brand daubed the wound with a rag dipped in warm water, and probed it deep with long shining tweezers. Martin lay still, teeth clenched against the pain. At last, Brand withdrew a sliver of iron, glistening and wet, like a poisoned needle.
"It's gone now," Brand said. "Do you hear me?"
Martin did not answer, only breathed slow and deep as Brand cleaned and dressed the wound, and bandaged him up again. When Brand began to rise, Martin caught his sleeve, locking eyes. "Tell me one thing. What did I do?" His voice cracked. "Please. What did I do?"
Brand made a convulsive sound. He turned away. "Nothing." It took long moments before he turned back. "You did nothing. There were promises I made long before I ever met you."
Martin let go, sinking back against cold stone. He gazed up at Brand, throat tight. "If you had only asked me, I would have opened a vein for you."
"Hush now," Brand said, gravel in his voice. He stroked Martin's forehead. "Go to sleep."
Perhaps there was some magic in his words. Martin slept.
Morning light filtered through the arched windows. Martin blinked awake and sat up, hollow-eyed but clear-headed. The fire had gone out. Only cold ashes remained. He touched the wound on his chest, reflexively; it still ached, but it no longer bled.
"How are you feeling?" Dara said, cautiously, as she brought over breakfast to share.
"Better." Martin looked at her closely. No scales or fangs or horns today. Just a carefree young girl. "I had a dream."
"A good dream or a bad dream?"
"Does it matter? I woke up." On impulse, he took her hand. "Thank you. For everything."
Dara shook her head. "It is I who owe you. Because I come from the other end of the black road." When he stared at her blankly, she touched his shoulder. "It's a long story. But I'll tell you sometime."
"Maybe we can talk on the road," Martin said. "If you still want to learn about Shadow, I can show you."
They rode out together, into the sunlit morning, leaving behind a walled sanctuary, whose towers would shelter other travellers someday.
Ahead lay the black road, barring their path: wide as a river, deadly as a riptide, its surface exuding a noxious mist. Martin had avoided it. Had thought he could not survive its crossing. But there were many things he had once thought he could not survive.
Beside him, Dara gazed at the black road with trepidation. "Are you sure you can handle it? In your condition."
Martin smiled grimly. "It's the only way to get to the other side."
- fin -