Actions

Work Header

The Paths of the Undying

Work Text:

When Maewen was eighteen, she bought herself a roving railway tickets and a large backpack and took off to travel around Dalemark by train. Her friends didn't understand why she didn't want to go somewhere more exotic and her aunt didn't understand why she wanted to go at all.

She told her dad that she was wandering the green roads, because he was the only one who might understand. He gave her a small smile, half proud, half worried, and asked if she was taking up novel-writing again.

When her train finally drew out of Kernsburgh, though, she told herself she was on the Paths of the Undying.

In her backpack, she carried three weeks worth of clothes, her camera, her purse (the faces on the back of banknotes were people she'd once met), a overblown novel about the Duke of Hannart, and the little clay sculpture that had been her eighteenth birthday present from Mum.

"It's a very ancient technique," Mum had explained cheerfully. "I thought you might like it, seeing as you're all archaeological these days."

"Is it me?" she had asked, turning it round in her hands with a faint sense of unease.

Mum had laughed and swatted her on the head. "Of course it's you. Just because it's not my usual style, madam."

Leaving it behind had felt like a bad idea, heavy as it was, so it was rolled up inside a flannel, under everything else.

She talked to people on the train: old country women on their way to market, commercial travellers with compact bags and rumpled suits, and shy, flirtatious boys from faraway lands.

Between Dropwater and Adenmouth, she spent most of the day sharing a compartment with an elderly couple of folk musicians with soft Holy Isles accents. The wife had obviously been a beauty in her youth, and still lovely in a welcoming way. The husband, after some coaxing from his wife, opened up a small round case to produce a small cwidder. He played wistful, haunting tunes which made her feet yearn to dance.

The old lady taught her some steps, moving with surprising grace. For a moment, as she danced, Maewen didn't feel the hard carriage floor beneath her feet, but the soft grass of the green road. When she stopped to catch her breath, the old lady laid a hand on her arm, eyes bright with merriment, and whispered, "Love him and laugh with him and it won't matter how old he is."

Maewen offered to buy them lunch, but when she returned from the buffet car the compartment was empty of both the couple and their luggage. She stared out at the passing rush of mountains and glittering streams, and found she could no longer hide from her decision.

She had spent two years of her teens travelling to Dropthwaite every weekend, trying to find Cennoreth. The closest she had ever got was a museum display featuring photographs of a familiar woman demonstrating old weaving techniques.

Eventually she had given up and tried to find her own path. She could not relinquish her obsession with history, but she began to look beyond the era she had, so briefly, lived in. To her dad's relief, she had not taken up novel-writing, but had turned instead to archaeology. She had been part of a dig in Aberath last summer, and should be going to Gardale in the autumn.

Unless she looked for Cennoreth again, or went to the Holy Isles, or just kept travelling the Roads of the Undying until her heart stopped leaping every time she caught a glimpse of an old leather jacket or a particular way of standing.

She was eighteen, and he was over two hundred years old. He had been a king, and she dug up ancient pots. He was Undying and she was probably mortal. There were so many reasons not to risk it.

"Yeah," she murmured to herself as the afternoon light spilled through a gap between mountains. "And the City of Gold is always on the most distant hillside."

So maybe she would go to Cennoreth or maybe she'd go looking for him, travelling the green roads in the old way.

Maybe that was what she was already doing.

She left her shampoo in the youth hostel in Adenmouth and had to wash her hair in plain water until she remembered to buy more. It tangled into pale, wild drifts and she wore it loose because it took too long to get the knots out if she wore it up all day. She'd let it grow long over the years, and when she caught her reflection in train windows she looked as if she too had stepped from another century.

In Waywold, three days later, she discovered a statue of Alk in the foyer of the National Railway Museum. It was slimmer and considerably less imposing than Alk had been in person, despite being eight foot high, made of bronze and showing him holding an entire train in the crook of his elbow.

While she looked at it, trying to swallow her laughter, someone stopped beside her.

"I reckon he'd find it funny," Mitt said, shoving his hands in his pockets and gazing up at the bronze.

"I wish I'd had time to know him better," Maewen said. She wasn't quite sure what to say next. Hello? How have the last few centuries been for you? Thank you for the palace?

"So," he said, not quite looking at her. "I'm not sure whether you were looking for me or not."

"I found you," Maewen said and suddenly it all felt right. "Now what's all this about inflation?"

He grinned at her. "It looks good on you."

"You!" she said at him, indignant, but then they were both laughing. She held out her hand and he took it, fingers curling nervously around hers.

"What do we do now?" he asked her.

She thought of the statue in the bottom of her bag, and the advice she had been given on the train, and said, "I don't know, but I think we've got time to work it out."