Disclaimer: I do not, and have never, claimed to be Diana Wynne Jones. Therefore I don't own any of these characters - I'm just playing with them for awhile and promise to return them with little or no damage!
Note: I've just expanded my story "Ride" after a year and a half! I intend to expand it into a novella (due to popular opinion ~_^) so keep your eyes peeled. Comments, hate mail, marriage proposals in the comment box or to firstname.lastname@example.org, please!
Also, I am aware that Maewen really couldn't have been Queen. However, the idea has intrigued me for ages now. Three cheers for fanfic!
That treason can but peep to what it would.
- William Shakespeare Hamlet
- Diana Wynne Jones The Crown of Dalemark
Cennoreth had not been at Dropthwaite.
The park around the source of the river Dropwater was full of city people that considered a square mile of trees and water to be 'nature.' The decks around the little burbling spring - for it was still little, even after two hundred years - were water-flecked and rather quiet, but there was no croft. Maewen had found herself thinking of Moril and humming a few bars of "The Weaver's Song," but to no avail. She had seen the stone trough and Cennoreth's croft perfectly in her mind's eye. No luck. Four years to wait. Four. Years.
They passed as slowly as a snail inches by, leaving a wet, grimy trail on the ground. They left a grimy trail on Maewen. She barely changed at all - still short, still frizzy-haired. She'd gone to visit her father twice in those years, counting the visit where she got the bike. And so it was when the end of the fourth year rolled around. And that was today. It had been eighteen hours, thirty-four minutes since midnight. 6:34 PM. No Mitt yet.
The concrete was hot on her bike's tires. She bumped and jostled rather over a rough spot in the road, then swerved to one side as a truck honked its horn at her. Well, same to him, Maewen thought as he gave her a very rude gesture. She pushed the pedals a little harder. The street went by a little faster. She found she liked the speed, just as she loved galloping on horses.
A little ways ahead there was a blockage on the road; the cars were stopped up, and for a moment Maewen was the fastest thing on the road. Then she stopped herself, craning her head to get a look at whatever the matter was.
It was a wreck. It looked as though they had used the jaws of life on one car that had ploughed straight into one of the tall stone walls that surrounded houses in this part of town; another had its front end bent rather nastily. The driver was being helped out of the car by medics, but a woman was getting out of the passenger seat, apparently unhurt. She wove her bike into traffic, giving in to the impulse to ask what had happened, and went up to a policeman that was controlling traffic.
"They've no idea who the smashed-up car was," the policeman said knowingly, "but the other car's got a man and his fiancé. They were going to Tannoreth Palace for something - "
Maewen caught sight of the face of the man they were helping out of the car. Dropping her bike on the island between lanes, she pushed past the police officer with a mumbled "He's a friend of mine" and walked quickly to the gurney the man was sitting on. "Mitt!" she called, quite unsure what to feel. He turned and looked straight at her - it surely was him, it was the same features, the same not-so-gangly limbs as she had seen four years before - but - fiancé?
"Who?" the man said. Maewen stared for a moment, not quite believing. Not Mitt, not Mitt, not Mitt, not Mitt... and it wasn't. It wasn't Mitt. He wasn't quite the same; the hair was different, and the body too full, with the beginning of a pot belly.
A medic saw her and began to move her away from the scene. Blood was on his hands, and Maewen jumped backwards, then turned, dashing back to the policeman and the concrete island and her bike. She picked it up, swung her leg over the seat as comfortably as she would swing her leg over a horse's back, and pedaled back through traffic. The wind again whipped her hair. Gravel from the road flew up to meet her face, but she didn't pay attention.
The sun caught the peak of a mountain. King Hern's city of gold, she thought to herself. Always on the most distant hillside. If she found that shining glow, she would find Mitt, and Moril and Wend, Kialan and Navis and Brid and Hildy and -
She rode on. It didn't matter if her father would worry - and he probably wouldn't, she thought cynically. It just didn't matter. What mattered was the ride, and the destination.
Perhaps it was just her imagination - or maybe a bird's cry, but she could've sworn that someone called the name "Noreth" behind her.
Behind her, footsteps came, fast and then slower. Whoever it was was slowing down as they approached her, as though they knew her. Rather than turning, Maewen pressed her face into the tree, eyes closed. If it was her father, he had chosen an odd place to turn up.
"You know, you are the very image of Noreth now. Even more than before. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were her." It was Cennoreth; the voice was unmistakable. "Poor Duck. He so thought everyone would live happily ever after. Why aren't you at the palace, young one? Mitt was more excited to see you than he ever has been, I think, and that's no small feat in two hundred years."
"I suppose - in two hundred years. He hasn't changed, then?" Maewen felt dowdy, painfully aware of her sweaty shirt and grungy face. "Because I thought I saw him. Earlier, I mean. Only he was fatter." Just as she had at her croft, Cennoreth stared sternly at Maewen. Her grey hair was carefully controlled, her dress modern, and Maewen could easily see her turning up at the Tannoreth Palace Gala as an agéd relic ready to leave a fortune to the museum. This did not diminish the effect.
"You saw him, you say?"
"In a car - he was in a wreck. There was a woman with him, I didn't see her. It wasn't him; he stays the same."
Cennoreth chewed on this. "He left on foot - he was going to take the train. I suppose I should check my weaving." Then, surprisedly: "Oh! Of course - but - all right. You'd best go back to the palace. I suspect he's already there."
Somehow Maewen put her hand out, to stop Cennoreth from leaving. "Wait! I - I asked to stay in Mitt's time. But Mitt's still here; he's Undying. So the One was wrong, or he lied to me. I know why - but he won't be the same. He couldn't be, after two hundred years."
Instead of Cennoreth answering, though, there was a sudden shadow. Maewen knew, deep down, that it was the One, and she was afraid that she had done something truly horrible. Perhaps nobody believed in the Undying in the modern times, but they still were there, she knew - and it was hard to ignore them when there was one standing in front of her. And she had just insulted the One. She didn't feel much of anything. She just felt tired of being pushed around by people. "Oh come on. You're the One. You can do anything. Cennoreth unpicked a death. So unpick me."
She felt a cold wind brush by her head, then whisper: "You would not have Kankredin gain power again. If this is changed, the world will be changed. Your parents will not exist. Or they will, but not in the same world. But you were correct; I could split the world." Sensing her hesitation and lack of understanding, the One explained. "There are many spaces between when you left two hundred years ago and now. But removing one person for four years of the world will not change history overmuch. If you wish, I could make it so the world splits into two possibilities. In one, you died as soon as you returned to your world, Mitt became Amil the Great and married Enblith. In the other, you were not returned to your world, but merely skipped four years of time. And you shall be Undying."
It was too much. Maewen shook her head, barely able to move the mass of curls that still frizzed around her face. The voice in her ear was insinuating and frightening, but she didn't want to run; she wanted to accept its promises. She could go back - really be with Mitt, and not some changed person; her parents would live, and perhaps even be happier. And Undying! "Undying are not born so. They are made so. When a person makes certain choices, they shed their old life and begin a new one, and become Undying. Then you may move between the worlds, if you are one of the Greatest of the Undying."
Changing the course of history, making a new world, splitting realities, only took one word: "Yes."
Caught in these thoughts, Moril did not notice a head appear behind the nearest of the lumpy mounds that were still the main feature of the Kernsburgh area; he could not have imagined that it was Maewen, until she ran toward him, grabbed him around the shoulders, and grinned with such free and open happiness that he almost didn't care why she was there. "Noreth - Noreth? But you're gone. Or should I say Mayelbridwen Singer?"
Moril knew he had said something wrong. Maewen went freckly and uncomfortable. "Maewen - and I'm not - the One. He sent me back. I don't know. I just - my parents, and everything, and Mitt's going to be Undying and -" She stopped, pinned him with her eyes, and smiled uncertainly. "But I'm here, aren't I?"
He breathed out. She was the same, exactly the same, if a little older - her face and figure had filled out, and her hair and skin were a shade darker. She looked golden in the late-afternoon light, and he had no trouble believing that the One had sent her back. "Yes - yes. Come on, we've got to get you to Mitt or Navis at least."
It was only then that Maewen began to wonder. Unlike last time, her clothing hadn't changed; she was still wearing shorts that would be scandalous to most people in this time, and a t-shirt that said 'Tannoreth Palace 200th Anniversary Parade.' Her running shoes were made out of plastic and vulcanized rubber, something not even invented yet - she might make another paradox, like the coal miners' strike. "Moril - I'd better get some different clothes -"
Of course, Moril did not listen. They were almost to Navis. He was giving haughty orders to a gaggle of women, all of whom scattered just in time to miss seeing Maewen. "Navis!" Moril called. "Navis - look!"
Navis' pose was exactly the same as the one in the picture at the palace museum - head peering over the shoulder, cape fluttering in a soft breeze, boots polished to a gleam. When he saw Maewen his eyebrow arched almost to his hairline. "This is unexpected," he said in that sardonic way that maddened her so. "To what may we owe the pleasure? And why did you choose just that moment to disappear, may I ask?" He shook his head, turned fully towards them. "I'm sorry. You couldn't answer that; the One weaves as the One wills. I'm... glad to have you back, and it does solve quite a few problems."
Maewen didn't care that Moril looked quite shocked at Navis' callous behavior; that was the way Navis was. "Might I see Mitt? Or - what's happening?"
"A dedication, for the cornerstone of the Palace. Quite the festival; Mitt will want you seated with him - that will throw off the earls, and I suppose I'll have to see to your clothing -" he continued busily listing things that needed to be done. Maewen didn't quite follow, but nodded anyway; it seemed to make sense, after all, which was more than most things did lately. Instead of speaking, she trotted after him like a dog following its master.
"I daresay Mitt won't mind you using his tent for awhile -" Moril looked like he was going to say something again, but Navis pressed on obliviously "and here are the clothes -" A woman who seemed much like Maewen's father's bustling ladies came with a soft brown pile of fabric. "Here it is. Moril will wait for you, but be quick about it; the feast should start within the half-hour." Navis strode away purposefully, throwing a smile over his shoulder at her as he snapped his fingers and called to someone across the quad that the tents made. Kernsburgh obviously had not been even partially built yet; instead there were rows upon rows of semi-permanent tents, surrounding a large tree in the center of a quad. Mitt's tent was the largest of them all, although it was made of the same rough cloth, and as she entered she saw that the furniture was simple but well-made. There was a miniature of Noreth on the floor beside the bed which she refused to think about - of course he remembered her, but she needn't think about what else there might be there, in case she had read him wrong all along. At the back of her mind there was the ugly thought: what about Biffa?
To squash that voice, Maewen shook out the pile of fabric and found that it was a dress, with a belt and - embarrassingly enough - undergarments wrapped in it. The only thing that gave her trouble was the soft, odd corset; it took her a few minutes before she realized it hooked together in the front, not the back. She had been led to believe that women typically wore whalebone monstrosities that required a maid to pull them tight, and was quite relieved to find it wasn't so. The dress fit her like it was made for her, or at least made for Noreth, although it was a little short of floor-length. There was nowhere to check her hair, so instead of fussing she raked fingers through it and hoped it was presentable.
As she left the tent, Moril handed her a pair of suede slippers. She had never felt so odd in her life. Her clothes were neatly folded at the foot of Mitt's bed, and it was strange to leave them there; she felt a wave of homesickness crash over her and bit her lip to keep the odd feeling in the back of her throat down. She would not cry!
A distraction was both imminent and fortunate. Moril grabbed her wrist and pulled her along with him - he had grown a few feet, and was now taller than her - to meet Navis, who had returned with a tall, gawky someone. She didn't have to look twice to know who it was. "Mitt!" she said, just as she had done when she was still living her own life; he looked up brightly, and she could see him smile. He was no more world weary than he had ever been, despite the bloody rebellion. Instead of running to her, though, he walked quickly with long strides, and stopped a few feet away.
"Noreth - Mayelbridwen -" The same problem Moril had had. "Flaming Ammet, you're finally back. I told you two years!"
That was enough. A heavy feeling Maewen had not known was there lifted and she flung herself at him, laughing and crying at the same time. He let out a funny oomph and sat backwards, heavily, onto the grass, even though she hadn't hit him hard enough for that. She untangled her arms from his and pushed herself up so she wasn't sitting on his stomach, then looked down at his laughing face; he hadn't changed. The young-old look he had always had was stronger than ever, though, and Maewen wondered if it was the mark of the Undying. When did he become Undying, anyway?
Mitt was telling her to let him up, so she stood and sheepishly brushed herself off. "I suppose that was conduct unbecoming of me. Should I call you Your Majesty?"
He pinked. "I told you, it's Mitt. I'm going crazy with all these people treating me like the One!" Then, instead of going distant, he slung an arm around her shoulder as though they were old buddies. She didn't know what to do with herself - arm around the shoulder? Finally, she settled on putting her arm around his waist. "Thank Ammet you're back. There are all these nobles here with their perfectly horrible children, and it's all I can do to get them to go away for a moment, and now -" He went pink again. It seemed that he felt he wasn't doing a very good job of welcoming Maewen back, and Navis broke in to save him.
"The feast can't start without you, Mitt. Your guests are waiting." Mitt nodded at Navis, brushed down his fine shirt and breeches (she was amused to notice that they were a sort of very dark purple), and offered an arm to Maewen.
Ignoring Navis and Moril, who seemed to be on the outs by how they were making faces and raising eyebrows at each other, Maewen took it with a grin. She almost had died of the odd feeling in her gut when he put his arm around her; this was better. As Mitt grinned goofily down at her, she thought he looked very kingly. He was wearing the crown she had put on him back during the battle at the waystone, and it glinted in the setting sun as they walked through the camp to the banquet tables.
There was course upon course, not particularly fine or expensive but good. First, a potato soup, then greens, then several kinds of meats with crusty bread and traditional Midsummer sausage. Finally there was some sort of a mealy pastry with fruit in it, and candied fruits for dessert. It wasn't until the pastry that Mitt stopped arguing with Keril; Navis had begun to talk with him about their long-standing dislike for each other, and it was not the moment to interfere. Moril tried to distract Luthan with talk about songs - after all, he had composed a poem at one point - but the conversation was dying. Finally, Mitt turned to Maewen. Clasping her hand, he pulled a ring that matched his own out of his pocket - the copy Alk made - and put it on her finger. "I had it altered - or Alk did, anyway. He thought you'd be back." As he grabbed her hand again, the rings clicked. "Snap," they both said together, grinning at nothing.
When she looked up, Maewen barely noticed that Luthan was looking straight at them again, angrily this time. She was distracted because Mitt had just stood and called for music and dancing, and there was suddenly a great roar from the tables below where commoners sat. They were moved away and the ground cleared for a dance floor, and candles on each table were lit with lanterns hanging from posts to light the dance floor. Dagner had composed a song, it seemed, and he went down to arrange various musicians into their places. When all was ready, Mitt stood again and ceremoniously offered his hand to Maewen. "First dance," he whispered. "Navis says it'll be slow. It's a minuet. I can't do any other dance." She grinned - his clumsiness was memorable - and followed him.
This time she could not ignore the hostility in the faces of the younger nobles' daughters. She wasn't wholly ignorant - it was an honor to be the first to dance with the King, of course, even if he hadn't had his coronation yet (She seemed to remember that that wasn't till later, when he had married Biffa, according to the history books). But their faces were so jealous. "Don't worry about them," Mitt told her as soon as they were out of earshot. "Nasty. The sort of people I hated back in Holand. They're all plotting to make me marry them." He hadn't intended this to make Maewen possessive, but it did - she was surprised to find herself fiercely angry with them. How dare they? And if she wasn't there then they would have had free rein - until Biffa came back. Biffa seemed to be foremost on her mind. How well did she and Mitt know each other?
The dance got rid of the Biffa-thoughts for a while. Maewen did not know any of the steps. It seemed all right - nobody could tell anyway, as long as Mitt was moving around in about the right way and pulling her with him - but she was still embarrassed. Help! she thought. I chose to go back 200 years in the past and now I don't know any of the dances! She almost started laughing at the absurdity of the thought and smothered it in Mitt's shoulder at the last second. He didn't seem to notice, or if he did, he didn't say anything. Perhaps he had already seen Navis come, rushing past the couples that were starting to trickle onto the floor for the second dance.
"Eltruda found a woman in your tent. She was lying in wait with a knife. It's rather confusing, but - I was hoping you'd come. She's saying a number of disturbing things." He cocked his head towards the quad of tents. "The dancing won't miss you, Mitt. Come." Obediently, Mitt and Maewen followed off the dance floor. Their rings were still snapped together, and the lanternlight made it seem golden; Maewen was uncomfortably reminded of the last journey they had taken through Kernsburgh, when Mitt was crowned. That one had ended in blood. How would this journey end?
The woman was named Tallara, about twenty years old, tall with mousy brown hair and wide eyes. Her nose seemed to pull her upper lip into a point, making her face memorable because it was fixed into an eternal expression of bewilderment and awe. Rather than showing anger or dejection, though, she seemed to be simply blank and emotionless. "I tell you. It's this, not me, that did that. This!" she held her hand out. There seemed to be a scar there, perhaps from long ago. "It's Kankredin, the ancient evil - it's not mine - when the knife was there I had to do it. There were others too, but they've all gone places... I don't know where... they'll do the same." She was incoherent, babbling almost, but the words made an eerie sort of sense. Mitt knelt before her chair, unafraid of her now that the knife was taken away and suddenly with a sense of mastery about him.
"When did you get the scar? How many days - or years?"
The answer was quick. "Three and a half years ago today. It was right before the uprising - I fell suddenly and cut my hand on a rock. I didn't trip. I just fell." Mitt nodded. He was surprisingly calm.
"It wasn't a bad hurt till a week ago. I live in Dropthwaite, Earl Luthan's hearthwoman. He came here and I asked to go too, because that's what -" she swallowed, finally tearing. "Because that's what it told me to do. It sounds mad, but Noreth Onesdaughter was mad sounding, and you followed her. Please."
Maewen could not tell what Mitt was aiming to do. The woman seemed mad, but when one was dealing with Kankredin and the Earth Shaker's words, anything was possible. Finally he spoke. "Watch her carefully, but treat her well. Give her food. I must go back to the festivities, but in the morning we'll have something to say about it. Don't let her be hurt." The soldier standing next to Tallara nodded crisply, and took her across the quad to a larger group of soldiers who had been pulled from the festivities. Navis reappeared, this time with beer, which Maewen turned down. Though she was suddenly quite thirsty, beer made her dizzy.
"There is something else," Navis remarked, as soon as they both had sat down on a fallen tree meant for benches. "That Luthan has a jealous streak. There's a rumor going around that you, Mitt, are engaged to the 'mystery woman.' Disappearing from the dance seems only to have fueled it. Several nobles are quite offended that you did not even give their daughters a glance," he finished, sardonically. "I would suggest that you prove the rumors true. Or choose another. They won't stay quiet long if you simply deny it."
If a rat had skittered across a tentpole a hundred feet away, they could have heard it - except for the rowdy party going on past the tents behind them. The moon showed it to be nearly midnight. Maewen was floored. In a combination of the late hour and the smell of beer and too much food, she did not seem to have recognized what Navis had been angling at all along - which was stupid, she knew. Of course it would be convenient, and seventeen-and-nineteen wasn't all that young for a marriage in these times anyway. But it was her. And it was Mitt. And they hadn't even kissed, anyway. "Ammet, Navis," Mitt said fiercely. "You couldn't have hemmed me in any better, could you? You're as bad as the Undying." He grasped Maewen's hand and held it up, showing the ruby ring clearly in the moonlight. "He saw this, did he?"
Navis nearly smiled. "You must have known the tradition of the Adon's ring. To be given to the chosen bride until her wedding?"
"I'm just an ignorant Southerner, remember? Not like you, Navis. Damn it." He rubbed a hand on the back of his neck, then folded his arms and legs together like a crowned daddy long legs spider.
"If you really don't want to I won't -" Maewen stopped. "Can we talk about this later?"
"Excellent idea as always, Mayelbridwen," Navis replied briskly. "I believe it's almost midnight. We can't miss Undying at Midsummer; it wouldn't be seemly at all." Mitt nodded absently. Instead of taking Maewen's arm or following closely, he let Navis escort her back to the party.
There was red wine being passed out, better than the white which had been served at Mitt's last Midsummer party, and both Mitt and Maewen were able to place candles. Navis was too busy trying to keep the wine going around while servers fought to get a candle as well. The lanterns were taken down, creating the eerie path of lights to welcome in the One. Moril finally took out his cwidder and began to play Undying at Midsummer, putting in the deep truth-note for good luck and to show that the One was indeed there. The ceremony continued with the ragged chorus of voices, Moril advancing up the lane and welcoming the undying instead of Hestefan this time - and then it was breaking up, with a great many people coming to Mitt to wish him good luck. He responded always: "Luck ship and shore." Very few people knew what he meant; they were Northerners all.
As the crowd began to ebb and flow around the pushed-aside tables and back to the tents, a figure staggered down the aisle of lights, which was rapidly being broken apart by merrymakers wishing to take a light back to their bed. It was female, in Dropthwaite livery - Tallara, unmistakable with her pulled-up face. Her hand was held in front of her, a sword at the ready.
Rather than the fine soprano she had spoken in earlier, a rough and craggy voice issued from her throat. Maewen recognized it just as she might have recognized her old horse's whinny. "Alhammitt, you stand with the rightful ruler beside you," it boomed, insinuating itself into Maewen's mind just as it had before. "Stand aside. The girl should rule of her own right. She is my daughter." Maewen could feel the eyes turning on her. How many people knew she was not Noreth? How many people believed - or knew of - Noreth's death? Too few. Tallara lunged out of the circle of lights, sword at the ready; it was a poor weapon against the guns Keril's and Navis's hearthmen had. She was dead in a second, horribly, with blood sopping out onto the dirt. Maewen screamed. She had seen things just as horrible before, but the voice had given her a horrible prickly feeling of doing-wrong, and it was someone she might have known or been friends with. It was no woman speaking those words. Whoever Tallara was, she was gone, because she had been chosen to serve Kankredin's purpose.
Mitt grabbed Maewen about the waist, pulled her to him, stroked her hair back. He was not sure of his own feelings about what had just happened; he was moving quite mechanically. The uprising was far worse, but at the same time, far better. Each person in the uprising was acting for themselves. This one was not - could not have been. No person could change so drastically. He murmured something to her, low and unintelligible, and she stopped clinging to him so; she had not cried, but still seemed very pale and shocked. "That - it wasn't. Oh, just let me go out of here. Just don't make me see that any more." Mitt nodded. Navis was back, with Eltruda, and Eltruda took her away. The body was already being taken care of by the same soldiers that had been guarding her. Mitt wondered absently if they had a reason why she was able to escape.
Still standing with him, Navis took hold of Mitt's shoulders. "They all think she's Noreth, now. They've had the seed of doubt planted, especially Keril. He never did believe in her death anyway. And after that show especially." Mitt's face registered plain fear, and embarrassment. "Stop looking that way. You'll just have to ask her if she will marry you, that's all. But if she will, the marriage had better be tomorrow - today, now, I suppose. The feast being interrupted and a death had better be countered. You know these superstitious Northerners."
Rather than respond, Mitt turned to the crowd that was gathered. "Tomorrow morning my men will know why and - hopefully the whole thing will be cleared up. Please go to bed now. It's horrible and all, but the One weaves as the One wills. In the morning we'll see." It was far too late for anyone to contradict him or disagree.