A Split Path

anyways! there aren’t many CWs for this one. minor character death, unhealthy family relationships, and teen angst. this is a prequel of sorts to a story i wrote for monstrous may of last year, found here

In Amery’s fifteenth year, two things happened and he could not say which was worse. First, his mother fell ill. Initially, it seemed like one of those brief, mild things that happened in winter, but winter turned into spring and still she did not improve. The months crept on, and with each one she weakened and his father withered with her.

Two months shy of his sixteenth birthday, Amery woke with a start in the middle of the night. In that first brief second of awareness, he wondered if someone had come to summon him to her chambers for the last time, but immediately he realized that was not it. No, the cause was a searing agony that spread across his chest like fire.

For several long moments, all he could do was bite down on the urge to scream until it began to subside. It took him a few more in which he could only blink back tears and breathe before he finally got out of bed and made his way to his bath chamber. Still unsteady, he turned up the lamp before crossing to the mirror.

A part of him already knew what he would see, although he wished for anything but. A curse, maybe, or perhaps the bite of some venomous insect released into his chambers by an assassin. He didn’t hope for death, of course, but it seemed a preferable fate to the most likely of options.

Amery allowed himself a single, slow breath before he shoved the childish thoughts aside and pulled off his shirt. There, from the notch at the base of his throat to the point of his shoulder, were the words he’d hoped to never see, and years before they were expected. It meant that whoever bore the opposite set had reached the age of majority, and that Amery had been claimed in the process.

The next morning, the Queen of Talen did not wake up. Nearly a week went by before she passed, and in it, Amery refused to speak to anyone, not that there are many people to talk to. His father’s grief was a cold, distant thing, and his brother seemed to mistake Amery’s silence for something similar.

Through it all, he could not bring himself to tell anyone of the words that had appeared on his chest. Not his father, who he barely saw at all anymore, or even his brother who he saw just as much as always but didn’t know how to tell about this, especially when he was so excited about the appearance of his own. Of the girl who held the other side of the conversation somewhere on her skin.

The Queen had barely been in the ground for a month when the war started – a series of quick, brutal attacks on the border that left entire villages dead and the forts between stranded without much hope for aid.

Amery turned sixteen on horseback. He was meant to keep away from the fighting, but he refused to stay back in the palace while his country was ravaged by Valnos, the fates of his brother, father, and uncle unknown except for when messengers managed the trip back. So instead, he was allowed to come and suffer the same fate in a tent, well away from the front lines.

There, he at least felt like he was accomplishing something. Helping a struggle that made months feel like days and seconds feel like hours. If they could just hold out until winter, everyone said, it would be fine. The armies of Valnos were not suited to winter. To the cold. If they could just hold out for a few more months, the tide would turn.

Except, Amery did not point out, Valnos had attacked them for the first time at winter’s peak, and each day that passed meant more lives lost. If they could just go on a bit longer, his uncle said, the tide would turn and they would win the war. And, as he was the general, everyone else listened.

Amery was sixteen when the Prince of Valnos met his brother on the field.

Amery was sixteen and perched high in a tree when the tumultuous churn of fighting shifted in a way it hadn’t before. He watched as their army – his army – began to fall like they were nothing and very suddenly the fighting was close.

Amery was sixteen when the Prince of Valnos met his brother on the field and won, the shock of it causing his father’s guard to drop long enough for a spearman to take aim and throw, the force of it pinning his corpse to the ground.

It was hours before he could climb back down, both because he physically could not manage it and because that was how long it took for a surrender to be negotiated and a unit of guards sent to locate and collect him. He did not cry this time. Not that night, nor during the long, slow ride back to the capital, his father and brother’s bodies in tow behind them.

Amery was sixteen and too young to rule, so his uncle was named steward in the interim. The council – his father’s council – declared as much before they even made it back to the palace.

He gave himself a month, not by choice but by necessity. That was how long it took before he could almost sleep through the night. Before it was not every night that he saw the Crown Prince of Valnos in his nightmares, the thick swirl of black text visible on the broad muscle of his back between the gaps of his armor.

But that had to have been part of the dreams. After all, he hadn’t been close enough to see something like that. Nor had the Crown Prince looked at him, met his eyes through the thin branches of the tree he’d hidden in like he’d known that Amery had been there.

After a month, he walked into his first council meeting, back straight and head up. He might not be allowed to wield power yet, but that didn’t mean he should not remain apprised of what was happening in the kingdom that would now – one day – be his. He was met by uncomfortable stares and only the briefest of required greetings from the councilors.

As soon as his uncle arrived, he was dismissed from the room. He was still a child, and a child did not have a place in politics, his uncle explained. The council agreed with him. For a brief moment, he debated showing them the words on his chest. They wouldn’t make him older, but they would change things.

But instead, he just said, “Of course, uncle. I hope the meeting is productive,” and returned to his rooms to find some loophole that would gain him access the next time.

After his third attempt, the guards at the door were instructed to prevent his entrance through any means, so long as it did not attract too much attention, and on his fourth, his own guards drew blood.

It was then that he began to press, first his tutors, then individual members of the council. Reactions ranged from caginess to fear to contempt, but all of them pointed in the same direction.

He stopped trying to get into the meetings, but he did not stop trying. Each day, he threw himself into his studies. Trained. Dug into everything he could find until finally he found a councilor he could break, and then replaced him with one of his own.

And each one of them, he woke up in the morning and hated the words on his chest more and more.

“Well, this is a cruel joke indeed.”

The words themselves were a bitter mockery. Surely if whoever made up the other half of the cursed bond existed, they would have found him by now. Amery might not have been the age of majority, but they had been for two years now and nothing.

It wasn’t that he’d changed his mind about the bond – that he wanted a soulmate or a partner of any sort. An ally might have been nice, though. But no, he was alone in this. Would always be alone in this, and whoever held him captive with whatever words he might say was no better than his uncle.

It was lying in bed with that thought that gave him the idea, or at least the beginnings of it. His uncle was planning to send another party to the border. Or more accurately, to the beast that now inhabited it. Valnos had managed to restrict all routes of travel between the two countries, making it difficult for his uncle to meddle.

The closest thing to an unguarded stretch had, somehow, become the home of a dragon and his uncle sought to slay the beast. Not himself, of course. But he sent others. Tried to send Amery, even, and shamed him publicly when he refused.

This time, though, he meant to send some other manner of assassin – something more subtle. And if his uncle could have the dragon killed to further his agenda, why could Amery not do something similar to protect his own interests? After all, whoever this mystery soulmate was, they were nothing but a liability. A problem not only in that he didn’t want a soulmate, but in that his uncle could easily try to use them against him and that was another problem he could not afford.

He waited a couple of days before seeking out Melian. It was something he should do more of, he knew. Beyond the fact that she had resources of her own that could be useful to him, she was the only other person who seemed to genuinely care that his brother was gone and he- well, he liked her. And that was exactly why he didn’t. It hurt, and it put her in danger, so he tried to maintain a careful distance.

She seemed to see right through it each time, of course. This time was no different. As soon as he set foot in her rooms, she met him with a wry grin. The hint of melancholy was there still. Always. But it wasn’t so crushing, anymore.

“So, little brother, what can I do for you today?” she asked, dropping back into an armchair and cocking her head. She persisted in calling him that despite the fact that she and Edrich hadn’t-

He swallowed the thought down, and the sentiment with it. Now wasn’t the time to ponder what it might have meant that she only did it in private, only called him highness in public. “I can’t just come to visit?”

“No,” she replied simply.

The smile he gave her is sad, his sigh heavy as he perched on the arm of the other seat. “I was wondering… You found Edrich, not the other way ‘round. How did you do it? Because I know it wasn’t by accident. You came looking, I remember it.”

Her shock quickly gave way to a laugh, and then something vaguely guilty-looking. “I um. You’re going to think it’s silly.”

Amery shrugged and said, “Maybe. Tell me anyways?”

“There are… people.”

“People,” he echoed, fighting a smile he very much had not been feeling until that point.

“Not many, probably. I only know of the one. Witches, or whatever you’d like to call them. This one lives in the forest near my family’s home. And people would go to her for information about their lives. Soulmates. Futures. Those sorts of things. Think I should’ve asked more questions when I went to see her.”

“Would you have done anything differently if you’d known?”

The look she gave him was pained. “I- I still would have found him, if that’s what you mean. I don’t think anything could have kept me from him once I knew. How could you not seek that out, you know? But I would have done everything in my power to stop him. I don’t think it would have stopped him from going, but maybe he’d still be- I think about that a lot. If I’d just asked more questions…”

“You didn’t know.”

Silence settled between them as Melian withdrew into her thoughts. Amery allowed it, uncertain of how to push – to ask his next question. Were it anyone else, there wouldn’t be an issue, but he already feels bad for making her talk about something that was painful enough for them both already.

Fortunately, she eventually carried on without prompting from him. “Wait a moment, does this mean you’ve gotten them?” she asked, perking up visibly.

Amery bit his lip and nodded reluctantly.

“When? Where? Let me see!”

“Shhh,” he urged. “You know the walls have ears.”

“Why do you not seem happy about this?” she asked, as if he’d said nothing at all.

Amery just scowled at her and stood to unlace his jacket and undershirt, knowing she wouldn’t let it drop until she’d seen now that she knew.

Across from him, Melian rose as well, reaching up to touch his cheek. “I know you have lost much. More than I can fathom. But that doesn’t mean that you’re meant to be unhappy forever, Amery.”

The words landed like a knife between his ribs, no doubt aided by the fact that he couldn’t recall the last time she’d actually used his name. Her hand dropped from his face to his chest, her fingers tracing over the dark line of text. Breathing a laugh, Amery couldn’t help but think what it would look like from the outside, if someone were to walk in.

“Ticklish? Or just shy?”

He shook his head and looked away.

“You know, I think this is the least done-up I’ve ever seen you.”

“Yeah well,” he said weakly. “I couldn’t just- they’ve been there since I was fifteen, and there was never a good time to- I mean I can’t exactly-”

“But now you want to find him?”

At that, Amery could only clear his throat loudly, his cheeks and chest flushing beyond his control.

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. But really, Amery, fifteen? That’s so young.”

“It is what it is. Will you help me or not?”

“Yes, alright. We can make a show of going to visit my family. I’m due for another trip no one will enjoy anyways.”

The trip itself was easy enough both to plan and to make. Amery’s uncle agreed to Melian’s request with a disinterested ease that left him seething. Even offered her additional guards, although either sensing that it put Amery on edge or for her own reasons, she politely refused those.

They would have a little under two weeks for the trip including travel and Amery was more than glad to get away, despite the cold.

Riding through the city was always the worst part. It was why he didn’t go out more. Too many eyes. Too many people who thought they knew him, or wanted to, or who hoped the words written somewhere on their body might align with his own.

Once they made it past the city walls, however, it was a different matter entirely. Before he thought better of it, he’d put his heels to his horse’s flanks and pulled ahead. He’d just caught himself and begun to slow when Melian raced past, laughing.

Amery could practically hear the collective sighs of their small retinue, but couldn’t quite make himself care. He knew his men. Trusted them. And he knew they’d be glad to see him doing something other than his ceaseless self-imposed work. He’d imagine the sentiment was especially true for Melian’s personal guards and servants, who were nearly as confined to her rooms as she was.

As they slowed to a more sustainable pace, an easy silence fell. The same one that would permeate most of the journey there and likely none of the ride back to the palace, he suspected. Melian got along poorly with her parents and sisters which meant she would have plenty to get out of her system after, and there would be whatever he learned from the witch besides.

So he would take it while he had the chance. Good company or no, Amery wasn’t used to company at all. Three days of actual conversation was… a lot.

They were received with all of the propriety and uncomfortable brusqueness he’d expected, then shown to their rooms. The addition of both Melian’s party and his own was nearly enough to overwhelm the accommodations of the keep, but when he went to check on his men a little while later, he found them adapting easily.

The first two days of the trip were filled with requisite formalities. Meetings, luncheons, teas, dinners. It was an entirely different sort of exhausting. Worse, because for all that he was good at it, it felt entirely meaningless.

It was enough that on the third day, he was grateful for the horrendous weather that called for a change of plans. Beyond a quick check in with his men and a brief confirmation that yes, he really was fine and no, he didn’t mind waiting until the storm subsided to go into the wood when Melian asked, he passed the day in near silence, listening to the icy patter of rain against his window and reading.

After another day and a half, he began to wonder if that had been a mistake. The weather had not improved, and they were running out of time.

Finally, just after lunch on their final day, the sky cleared slightly. Melian muttered a curse, noticing the subsiding of the rain before he did. “I’m supposed to be meeting with my sisters to go over planning for Ilena’s wedding,” she said, frowning.

“We could wait another day? Or I don’t have to-“

“Yes, you do,” she interjected. And she was right, although not for the reason she thought. “You’ll probably have a better chance of finding her without me anyways. Just tell me everything after, ok?”

He nodded, then hurried to his room to get ready. In the back of his mind, he’d considered this option all along. Slipping out without her. Without his guards. As he raced down the track past the kennels and toward the forest, he knew he’d made the right choice.

Finding the tiny cabin on his own was less simple a matter, however. If not for the faint trickle of smoke he spotted through the treetops, he probably would never have found it.

After hitching his horse to a post in front of the little house, Amery smoothed his clothes back into place and went to the front door. He paused, uncertain. This was where having guards was helpful – it took the indecision out of these situations.

But perhaps there was some benefit in handling his own introductions and explanations. Perhaps if he was just Amery instead of the Crown Prince of Valens, he might get actual answers instead of whatever the witch might feel obligated to tell someone of his position.

He took a breath, then knocked. The woman who opened the door didn’t seem like a witch. She wasn’t particularly old like he’d expected, but nor was she necessarily young. What she was was clearly in the middle of something, her hair tied back in a messy knot and flour streaked across the front of her dress.

For a moment, Amery almost felt guilty – like he was intruding on her privacy. Perhaps he should have made an appointment or something, like Melian said most people did. The feeling was strong enough that he took a breath and a step back, an apology on his lips.

But Amery was seventeen and needed answers. Already, the words had been on his chest for too long. With each additional day that passed, the problem they posed only grew. He was seventeen, and a child only technically, so he said, “I’ve been told that you help people find their… soulmates. I require your assistance.”

She sighed heavily, then stepped back and waved him in. “You’re a bit young for that, aren’t you?”

In reply, Amery only shrugged and looked around the cottage. It seemed bigger on the inside, and more like what he expected. Shelves packed with books and papers and little jars of herbs, plants hanging to dry from the ceiling, and curled up in an armchair watching him with affected disinterest, a grey cat.

“So tell me,” she said, wiping her hands on her dress before going back to the dough she’d clearly been working before he arrived, “what it is you’d like to know.”

For a moment, all he could do was stare at the mesmerizing movement of her hands. It made him wonder if there was something magical about whatever she was baking. He didn’t know much about magic. It didn’t run in his blood on either side, and his father had never been fond of it. Didn’t trust it.

But Amery would be lying if he said he wasn’t curious.

“Come on, spit it out. If you’re not gone by the time this is done, I’ll throw you out. Leave you in the dark of the wood alone. Don’t think a soft little thing like you will handle that too well.”

“I’m not-” Amery started to protest, indignant at her accusation. But there was no use arguing with her. That wasn’t why he was here. “Like I said, I was told by a… friend that you helped people find their soulmates and predicted futures? I’m trying to find mine.”

Her hands stilled and she looked up at him. “And why would a young thing like you be looking for something like that already? I thought boys your age were only interested in horses and swords.”

Amery’s exhale was not quite a laugh, but he could see the accuracy of her statement where most were concerned.

He licked his lips and said, “Yes well, I won’t say I’m particularly unique, but I’ve already had my fair share of both of those.”

“Oh, I see, so you’re an experienced soft little boy. No, there’s something more. Tell the truth or stop wasting my time.”

After a pause, Amery finally opened his mouth. “I am… alone. My parents and brother are dead, and the man who controls my fate does not wish me well.”

“Ah.” There was a hint of something like sadness in that single sound, her eyes wandering to the cat as her hands stilled again.

“Oh. Oh, I’m sorry- I didn’t mean to imply that there was anything wrong with-“

The woman gave him a tight smile as she shaped the dough into a round loaf and placed it in the small oven built into the fireplace. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her hands on her dress once more, “but I cannot help you.”

“What? But why not? I was told-“

“You were told that there was a witch here who helped people find their soulmates. Their one true love. I would imagine you were even told that by someone who came here before and found happiness, yes?”

Amery nodded, confused.

“I cannot help you.”

“I do not understand. I have my words, and if it’s money you need, I can pay-“

She laughed at that, a bright, melodic sound that felt impossibly cruel in that moment.

“I can, I’m the-“

“I know who you are,” said a voice, but it did not come from the woman. It came from behind him.

Amery turned, dumbstruck.

“Cursebreaker. Dragon tamer. Stone prince. They will call you many things, before this is over,” the cat said.

Except no sooner had he begun to consider that the cat spoke than the air around it began to ripple with iridescent light.

“I cannot help you,” the woman said from behind him, “because I am not the witch who lives here.”

“And I will not help you,” said the witch who now sat before him, “because I know what you intend, and if it is death you wish then you must make that happen on your own. There is a path down which he dies by your hand, but only you will be able to decide if you wish to walk it when the time comes.”

Her words seemed to echo inside of him, and this time Amery did not question that there was magic in them. He could feel it.

“Now,” she continued, her tone returning to something conversational and easy, “I do not mean to be rude, but you should go now if you wish to get back before the storm resumes.”

“I-” he closed his mouth and nodded. He wasn’t sure if thanks was appropriate, or necessary. Regardless, he was in no mood to give it so he simply nodded once more and turned to the door.

“And, your highness?” the witch said, just before he closed the door.

He turned to meet the steady green of her gaze, head cocked.

“He knows he’s running out of time. If I were you, I would put a bit more worry into that than killing someone who has neither the intentions nor the means to seek you out. And I will take that purse, thank you.”

This time, he couldn’t help but smile faintly. He took the coin purse from his belt and tossed it to her, closing the door before she could offer any more unsettling words.

As expected, Melian pestered him for answers as soon as they were back on the road. Fortunately, by then he’d had the time to figure out his story and how best to dance around the parts of the truth he didn’t wish her to know.

It would only put her in danger, and he didn’t want that. No matter what was to come, she did not deserve to come to harm because of her association with him.

When Amery was eighteen, one of his guards took an arrow to the chest in the middle of friendly territory.

When Amery was nineteen, he woke to a venomous snake in his bed and laughed so hard he startled it. The only reason it did not strike him was because it fell onto the floor instead.

And when Amery was twenty, his hand was finally forced. He took his men to the border and climbed the peak to the dragon’s cave. He didn’t wish for death, but he was tired.

When Amery was twenty, he set eyes upon the beast that had plagued his borders for years. Its orange eyes were already turned to the mouth of the cave, its scales every imaginable shade of red, black, umber, and countless possible hues in between. It was a thing of wonder, and he was meant to kill it.

The beast looked at him, it’s gaze appraising, and then it opened its mouth and said, “Well, this is a cruel joke indeed.”

He froze, his blood running as cold as the ice men joked ran in his veins. It could be coincidence. It didn’t mean-

Determined to not let it rattle him either way, Amery took another step forward, licked his lips, and replied, “Astonishing. I hadn’t realized a beast such as yourself would even be capable of speech.”

And where moments before, it could have been coincidence, Amery had little doubt as to the reason for the flames that burned behind the dragon’s eyes.

Somehow, he managed to survive the encounter, all but racing back to his camp. Only once he was in the privacy of his tent did he suck down the multiple harsh breaths his body demanded.

Despite the fact that he had them memorized, he unlaced his armor, jacket, and undershirt with unsteady fingers until he could see the words in his tiny shaving mirror.

It had finally happened. All of it at once, crashing down around him. His uncle’s victory was a near guarantee now; either he would succeed in killing the dragon – the Valnon dragon that was apparently his soulmate and who had killed countless other men – or he would die trying.

He took another breath, re-laced his shirt and jacket, and sat down at his small table. When the letter was done, he sent for a messenger. Once the letter was sent, he sat down again, his attention on everything and nothing.

There was no guarantee that she would get the letter in time. That she would answer him. No guarantee that she was even still there.

But Amery knew he’d reached the branch in his path, and he needed the help of the witch in the wood.

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