The story changes over the years as Erin tells it to her daughter. It changes with the passage of time and the blurring of memory, and it changes with the teller’s mood, and with Raven’s age. Some details are not suitable for a fussy grasping toddler that are fine for an adventuresome ten-year-old, and others still are more interesting to a sixteen-year-old flush with first love and springtime.
The beginning of the tale, though? That never wavers.
“A long time ago,” Erin always begins, whether she is tickling a chubby stomach or folding clean clothes or brushing tangled hair, “Aeriel and I had an adventure.”
(“The Aeriel,” Raven insists on correcting her for a time when she is eight or so and has been hearing the story from other sources, and Erin just laughs. Aeriel was always only Aeriel to her.)
The beginning had been the hardest and the strangest - those first months when magic and water were loose in the world again, and the latter may as well have been the former for all the newness of it.
Rain was new, and dry creekbeds spilling over their banks, and later still, the cold white sky-ash of snow.
Ravenna’s escaped magic was so ancient and so long locked away as to seem new again when it settled over the world. Flowers began to sing like birds and birds to bloom like flowers, and the darkangels’ blighted heaths to put out fresh shoots of tender grass. Some people woke up to find themselves filled with strange reservoirs of knowing they hadn’t previously possessed, while others discovered themselves uncommonly fast or strong, and still others realized they could hear the speech of trees or speak in words that horses could understand.
It was hard to say what was the magic and what the simple abundant joy of long-restrained nature restoring itself rapidly to balance.
Aeriel rarely answered the question when put to her. She would say something about false distinctions or demur by saying that she was learning alongside the rest of the world, or simply smile and return to her books. (There were so many books now, taken from the Ravenna’s libraries. Erin was grateful for the duarough’s magic bag to carry them; else they’d have needed a trail of packhorses to carry Aeriel’s studies as they travelled all the many and varied lands.)
With Erin, though, her friend and sister and shadow, she would wrinkle her nose and shake her head. “It’s awful,” she said firmly of the snow. “Reminds me of her palace. But there’s nothing in the books about it; I don’t think it’s magic at all. Just the way of the world, as it would have been without the Wi -- without Oriencor.”
Erin didn’t mind the snow as it fell, but she hated the treacherous slide of it frozen to the ground.
(Raven, growing up in a world accustomed to rain and snow and thunder, always laughs at this point of the story. She has sturdy snow boots and sharp blades to secure to their bottoms, and speeds on the frozen lakes as fast as any skiff has ever sailed the sand-sea. Strange this still seems, to Erin, but it’s the way of the world now.)
The Great Library of NuRavenna hadn’t started as a library at all, Erin would go on, though she skipped over this bit when Raven was particularly squirmy and wanted to hear more about the adventures than the studies.
Erin and Aeriel had gone to NuRavenna first and gathered what they could. Aeriel had explored the shelves and storerooms tentatively at first, but gathering more confidence by the moment as Erin watched. The pearl’s voice, inaudible to Erin, guided Aeriel’s choices. This book and not that scroll. This vial of pink crystals but not that jar of unnaturally smooth pebbles. Aeriel moved faster among the shelves and filled Erin’s arms with the things they would need for their journeys.
Aeriel seemed to need little sleep now. Erin made her take the first shift when there were watches to keep, or else she would simply stay up the night through, studying the ancient texts and never waking Erin at all.
When they left the city, they closed the heavy doors tight. The soft thump felt final; Erin did not expect that they would return.
They travelled, Aeriel near-tireless and Erin refreshed from their weeks of rest in the city. New breeds of flowers had bloomed in many lands they passed through, a riot of color and curvature, the earth racing to outshine itself.
In one city there was a feast in celebration of the Aeriel and her quiet, fierce friend. There were children with armfuls of flowers to heap at their feet, dances and songs, plates brimming with roasted meats and cups with honeyed wine. They were both uncomfortable. Aeriel twisted the stems in her hands as the night wore on, fidgeting, weaving a flower-chain for lack of something else to do.
There was a young woman there too, across the fire, the secret bronze of her hair sparking to the flames though it had seemed purely black by daylight. Erin had noticed, then. Erin’s eyes drew themselves back to her now.
Before they went to their too-soft guest beds at the end of the bonfire, Erin had drunk one too many cups of the sweetened wine and placed Aeriel’s flower-chain round the woman’s neck. There had been a dance; perhaps there had been a kiss.
(“Perhaps,” Chieko snorts softly when she is at home for their daughter’s story-time. Erin mock-glares at her and claps a hand over the baby’s ears. Some parts of the story are theirs alone.)
They had not expected to see the woman again, but many day-months later when they returned to NuRavenna in search of an answer to a particularly difficult riddle, she was there. Five others were there too, people they’d met along the way who’d thrilled at the idea of knowledge to be gathered and ordered and shared. But Chieko had been the first to arrive, and to begin setting the storerooms to right. The first to begin to teach herself the Ancients’ script while she waited for Aeriel and Erin to return. The one who, once she puzzled out the word for what it was, named that place anew.
“The Library,” she’d said, the new word strange on her lips, and Erin had laughed at the sound and kissed the taste of it from her mouth.
It was never clear how they had made their way through to the halls of books and mystical objects without Aeriel already there to guide them, and the best Erin could ever make out was that NuRavenna wanted them there. Setting the world aright was too big a task for two people. And perhaps Aeriel had known, even then, that the burden was one she would need help setting down one day.
It was a long time before Aeriel spoke of Irrylath in her waking hours.
(She spoke his name in her sleep, and perhaps that was another reason she rarely slept. Erin knew better than to ask.)
They heard tales of Avaric in their travels. It was not off to the same abundant, easy start as the other lands newly ruled by other princes and their lons. There were tales of uprisings and unrest; the newest darkangel’s history fresher and less easily forgiven, his bond with his lon an uneasy one. The crops did not give themselves as generously as in Zambul, or the people adopt their new sovereign as easily as those of Pendar had. Irrylath was not loved.
Aeriel did not travel to Avaric in their wanderings; she avoided its boundaries as neatly as she did any mention that she was doing so. But she listened avidly when the stories were told.
The stories did change, after some day-months had passed. If Irrylath was still not precisely loved, by his lon or his land, the tales suggested he had earned their respect. The harvest takings grew steady, and new songs and stories began to speak warmly of the new prince. Irrylath the Just: cool but wise.
Irrylath Alone; he had not taken a new wife. Nor, the stories said, would he. He was biding his time, awaiting his true bride.
These songs were not sung in front of The Aeriel. From time to time Erin slipped away to sit in a shadowed corner of a tavern and learn what the people said of their lands when a not-quite-human sorceress was not listening.
The tales did not tell of Irrylath’s own magic undertakings; these were not for the ears or the ribald amusements of the tavern folk. But Aeriel’s studies had deepened with the passing of day-months and years, and she could read the streams and eddies of the world’s magic now. She had begun to gather some of it back, but not all. She would not become Oriencor; she would not drain the world of its essence and its newfound wonders.
(She said this often, and confidently, and Erin thought that only she saw the way Aeriel’s fist tightened, her fingers twisted, when she did so. As if the chain around her wrist hurt her; as if it disagreed.)
More magic was flowing to Avaric now than the natural currents could account for. More items, sought out by the librarians, were not found in the places where the rhymes suggested they would be.
In the end it was Pirsalon who told Aeriel what Avarclon had told him. There were no secrets among the lons.
Irrylath held to his vow to Avarclon, and the fondness and comfort he had eventually found in caring for his own people. He stayed in Avaric, and did not seek Aeriel outside his dreams and the messengers he sent who were turned away unanswered. But news still travelled to and fro, and he gathered all the tales of Aeriel he could. And, slowly, he began to build his own Library.
(“But not as good as our Library,” Raven says firmly, and Erin bites back a grin. The tale also varies, it would seem, with which parent was the teller. And it is only the truth, after all; Irrylath’s Library had never held a hundredth of the wonders belonging to the halls of NuRavenna.)
The Library of Avaric didn’t hold the sapphire tears of the skybeasts of Orm, or Ravenna’s books of prophecy. It gathered mostly Avaric’s home-grown magic, that which Aeriel had not studied or sampled for her own since she would not cross those borders. Painstakingly Irrylath had gathered what he could: the duarough’s songs, Avarclon’s stories, and such treasures as Avaric had within it. There were shining scales left in the underground caverns long ago by beasts so ancient even their bones had dropped to dust. A box hidden away from sight contained darkangel feathers; dusty now, and colder to the touch than they should have been. A whole room was made of glass and contained row upon row of boxes filled with the rich brown earth of Avaric, and all the strange new herbs and fruits and plants that she had so recently begun to sprout. A smaller room beside it held flasks and flames and a great mortar and pestle. Irrylath locked himself away there for long stretches of time, studying what these new leaves and flowers could do.
In this one thing, even the librarians at NuRavenna would concede in later years, Irrylath had more than outdone them. Aeriel’s search for magic and learning was a travelling quest, broad and fast-moving, unmoored. It could not sustain or patiently cultivate the sort of magic rooted in the land. Irrylath, rooted in that same land despite his heart’s wish, had all the time in the world to study Avaric’s new magic alongside its older, deeper currents.
(In later years, long after Raven grows up into her own story, it will be the saving of the world that Aeriel and Irrylath made themselves and their stores of magic this way: mirrors, strengths for each other’s weaknesses, broad and deep enough together to channel the life force of a world. But Erin will go to her life’s rest before then, her wife shortly ahead of her and her daughter left to mourn them both, the tragedy of a true tale being that the teller so rarely lives to its ending.)
It was a frustration to Raven (and to many storytellers over the years) that no one ever knew precisely what happened in Irrylath’s glass chamber on the day that he and Aeriel met again.
Aeriel had sent a message ahead but, tales being what they are, and the patterns of the world falling into the lines they do, the message had gone astray. Irrylath was not expecting her; she was not expecting to be unexpected. They had both grown into the sort of powerful people who are often recognized and scarcely ever surprised.
(“There was a great deal of staring,” Chieko often adds dryly, though Erin flaps a hand at her and reminds her that Chieko hadn’t even been there.)
Erin had protested being sent out of the room with Irrylath’s clerks, but Aeriel had asked her to go, for the love they bore each other, and in the end Erin had gone. Only as far as required; not so far that she could not have burst in if needed. That had been the plan. But the door had sealed over as soon as they’d left, sealing them out or Aeriel in. The greenhouse glass had frosted over and no bit of magic anyone outside the glass chamber had could give a hint as to what was going on within.
No one would agree, later, how long they had spent trying to re-open the sealed entryways. It might have been ten minutes or ten hours; it was, surely, not so much as days. Although no one ever really sounded as sure as all that when they said those words.
Different tellers tell the tale in different ways. Some say that Irrylath had been gathering the ingredients for the spell that would free Aeriel from the Ravenna’s will and had only been waiting for Aeriel herself, the final ingredient. Some say that Aeriel never needed to be freed, but only required a vital piece of magic that was stored within Irrylath’s walls. Some focus less on the spells and more on the sorceress and the darkangel - saying that they wept, or fought, or fell into each other’s arms.
(If Erin knows what happened that day - and Raven has always suspected that her mother, sister of Aeriel’s heart and keeper of her confidences, does know - she never betrays that confidence even to her daughter.)
The tellers agree only that when it was over and the doors reappeared, Aeriel no longer wore the chain that had pulled tight around her wrist. She still wore her diadem and its thirteen points of light gleamed in that way they had of doing, that was ever so slightly out of step with how the light should have fallen on them. And her hand and Irrylath’s were linked so tightly that not even Erin would have tried to pull them apart.
One pane of the greenhouse’s glass was shattered by whatever had taken place within, but otherwise Irrylath’s domain appeared to have taken no permanent damage.
The negotiations among Irrylath and Aeriel and the Avarclon were more public, as was only right, when all of Avaric was to be affected. It was no small thing, for the sovereign to leave his realm and follow his queen to hers. No small thing at all that she wished to take many of the magic books with them. Irrylath still had his vows to keep, and Avaric its needs.
In the end a peace was brokered. Half the year to be spent in Avaric, half in NuRavenna. And if Aeriel’s travels took her far from Avaric’s borders, or Irrylath were needed by his people, well. There were winged horses in the world now, and new ships built to travel equally well on water, sand, or ice. Distance was not what it had been in the world they were fast forgetting, when the fastest thing in the world had been a darkangel.
If Avarclon and Irrylath could never exactly be friends, they had stewarded the land long enough together now for an experiment in trust.
The story changes over the years, as Raven tells it to her daughter. But it always ends the same way.
“The magic of Avaric spilled out into the borderlands,” she says, bouncing the toddler on her knee. “And Aeriel and Irrylath worked and studied together in NuRavenna, to help the world find its balance again. They travelled back and forth often, and your grandmothers too - so often that ever since, the sand-sea flames are always bright and the orchards bursting with traveller-fruit.”
The child fusses; too young to understand that the Aeriel and Irrylath of legend are the Aeriel and Irrylath who welcome her into their laps whenever their wanderings bring them close to Raven’s home. Too young to understand that sorceresses and vampires are only people, in the end, and might one day, when they have lived long enough and trained helpers enough, step back from the legend and be only people once again.
A simple tale, then: of adventure, and love, and happy endings. Time enough for the complications later, when she grows.
“Happily ever after,” Raven breathes into her daughter’s hair, knowing there is no such thing, still believing there might be.
The child fusses, and stills, and dreams.