The journey back to NuRavenna was long and difficult and one Aeriel had not been eager to make; not after her ordeal with the war and having to leave Irrylath and the others behind. During the daymonth, she travelled ever onward, Erin by her side, hardly thinking as one foot followed the other.
It was when nightshade fell and they slept and the whispers of the Pearl finally ceased that Aeriel's heart ached. It seemed the further they traveled from Irrylath the more her heart ached for him. After two years in his breast, it was as though her heart longed to be back with him. The thread that had once connected them had been cut and Aeriel felt bereft without the connection. The knowledge that though she would never see Irrylath again, that eventually time would dull the sharp pain of losing him did very little to sooth her in the present.
Once the nightshade had fallen, the long journey back to NuRavenna seemed stretched out forever, and all that she had been forced to sacrifice to save the world turned her heart to despair in a way it didn't when the Solstar still shone.
In the darkness, she felt she wasn't strong enough for everything she had been chosen to do.
Erin first came to sleep beside her after the long twilight of Solset had begun and the glow of Oceanus had faded beneath a canopy of trees, making it seem like all the light in the world had gone out. Though she had endured nightshade dozens upon dozens of times before, Aeriel didn't know how she'd survive the weeks of darkness before Solstar rose again. Even her crown of maidens had dimmed in the night.
With the Witch and Ravenna dead, Irrylath far behind her and Sabr tending his every need, it seemed Aeriel had struggled two years for almost nothing. She knew she had saved the world, but as it came at the cost of her own happiness, she found no joy in her success. Part of her knew that once the daymonth began again her spirits would lift; that it was the long darkness that plagued her with doubts of even finding NuRavenna again, let alone rebuilding it; that dawn would renew her hope. It did not alleviate her concern any more than knowing time would heal the wound left by the loss of Irrylath soothed the pain beneath her breast.
As she lay there in the deepening dark, heart aching, she felt paralyzed by the long road ahead of her. She had struggled so hard and done so much already, and still she was virtually alone; still she wasn't allowed to rest and live happily ever after. That had been taken from her when her body had been replaced; when she had been given the task of multiple lifetimes to rebuild the world; when she had been forced to leave Irrylath behind. She could not rest, not even for a moment. She had to keep struggling, to do the impossible, and she had to do it with only the memory of her tears.
The memory of her tears—and Erin's arms around her. Aeriel's eyes opened at the feel of Erin's weight against her as she settled close for sleep. Being held by her was like being ensconced by a warm summer night. The longing in Aeriel's heart for Irrylath seemed to gutter as she lifted her head off her pillow of rushes, trying to make out Erin's dark features in the milky light cast by her crown.
"You're not alone." Erin's teeth flashed as she spoke; that and the pale white of her eyes was all Aeriel could see of her against the night. "You know I'll never leave you."
Aeriel rolled onto her back, reaching up to feel Erin's cheek against her palm; to trace the darkness of the skin she couldn't see. It seemed the warmth she felt from Erin was a tangible power pouring from her into Aeriel. It wasn't strength that she felt growing so much as hope, and that seemed the more useful of the two by far.
Erin reached up her own hand, covering Aeriel's with it. "Sleep now," she whispered. "We have a long journey ahead of us."
Aeriel didn't take her hand away. Instead, she slid her fingers up, around the back of Erin's neck, feeling the nape where her hair began, twisting into its neat little squares. She heard Erin's breath quicken in the darkness and Aeriel felt her own pulse rising to match. It was so similar to the way she had hungered those long months for Irrylath that even in her naivety Aeriel didn't mistake the meaning of her reaction.
Though it had never quite come to her like this before, Aeriel realized that she had never known Erin with her own heart in her breast. Her mind had always been on Irrylath because her heart belonged to him. Now that wasn't so. If she had been able to see better, she might not have been too afraid to pull the other girl closer. At length, frightened slightly by the emotion she felt for her dear friend, she said, "Yes, but lie beside me."
She drifted off with Erin's arm around her middle, warming her. Despite the darkness, Aeriel thought tackling the long task ahead did not seem so impossible.
After neatly two fortnights of sleeping breast-to-breast with Erin, Solstar began to rise again, pinking the distant horizon and bathing the world in a daymonth of light. The Pearlstuff within her, largely quiet now that Aeriel had chosen her path, gently guided her path back to NuRavenna. Soon the trees thinned as they made higher ground. With the light, travel seemed easier and the long distances ahead of them somehow less oppressive.
As they travelled, it was easy to see the changes already being wrought on the world. The torrential rainfall had greened all things, nourishing plants that had remained dormant for decades and washing clean those that had stood for years collecting dust. It meant they never longed for fresh water to drink or to bathe with. The Pearlstuff within Aeriel supplied her always with knowledge of what plants they could eat, or where Erin could find quarry to catch; even what villages they could beg at for food.
Erin eyed her curiously whenever she made a decision based on nothing but the whispers of the Ravenna within her, but Aeriel knew Erin had long since stopped trying to figure out how she worked her sorcery and had to only smile to reassure her.
They came to a small pool several hours before they were to break for their sleep. Erin, delighted by the sight, ran to the banks and stared. Aeriel soon joined her, looking about them. The pool fed a stream that wound away into thin trees and brush that had grown up along the banks. While the rest of the land remained a treeless plain, the banks of the pool were lush and verdant. With the expanse of land behind her so all she could see were trees, Aeriel could tell what Erin had on her mind; what she was going to say. Aeriel closed her eyes and smiled.
"It's like the pool back in Pirs." Erin bent and scooped up a mouthful of the cold water.
"It is." Aeriel opened her eyes. Erin had spoken exactly as she'd expected. Her gaze travelled over the water, her senses sharpened by the Pearl. Though it was like the pool in Pirs, it was similar in appearance only. The Pearlstuff whispered to her the different makeup of the flora and fauna here, and how the soil differed and the insects varied; even why the water here was cold when in Pirs it had been warm. She suffered the knowledge silently, not wanting to wreck the illusion for Erin. It was clear without even the Pearlstuff that she knew it was not the same place, not even in spirit. There was no Mooncalf or Greyling here. They would not be joined by Catwing, or any of the other gargoyles.
"But no suzerain to steal us off our chosen path, either." Aeriel squatted beside Erin and took a mouthful of water too. It was crisp and sweet, but much too cold to bathe in.
Erin looked at her long and hard. "We should take our sleep here."
There was something intense in Erin's eyes that made Aeriel's heart flutter. Subconsciously, she fingered the nearly invisible chain filament around her wrist; another unbreakable connection to the Ravenna. "It is many hours yet from when we should take our rest, Erin. We can cover much ground in that time." The Pearlstuff whispered to her to keep going, and Aeriel rose to her feet again. She knew every hour they wasted scattered the sorcery she had to gather that much further.
Erin held firm, her voice serious. "We have been traveling nearly two daymonths now with rest only for sleep. We can spare four extra hours by this pool." Erin reached her hand out and touched Aeriel's wrist, her dark fingers covering the thin chain. "You cannot be its slave; you don't have to do everything it says."
Without the touch, Aeriel could have refused. That warm hand against her skin stayed her; silenced the protest of the Pearl. For all the love and loyalty Erin had given her, asking nothing in return, four extra hours by a pool was very little to give back. "Yes, all right."
They built a little fire together, and Aeriel went to gather what nuts and berries and roots she could find. When she returned, she saw that Erin had gathered a great many rushes and spread them out to make a soft bed beneath her cloak. Aeriel carried her bounty over and they shared it on the soft mattress. As they ate, for once in leisure, she realized just how much she had wanted to stay at the pool as well.
When Aeriel dropped a berry, she did not think twice about eating it from Erin's fingers when it was retrieved. The little shock that stole through her at the feel of those fingers against her lips came as quite a surprise. Erin's eyes fixed on hers, warm but intense, and she picked up another berry and offered it to Aeriel. The berry was sweet and juicy, but it was Erin's eyes that had transfixed Aeriel.
The longing in her heart took up again, but it was quite unlike the hunger she had had for Irrylath. Her body had craved his in the most feral and basic of ways. With the way she ached now for Erin to touch her, she knew with Irrylath it had been lust and little else.
As if reading her mind, Erin closed the gap between them, raising a hand to tangle in Aeriel's hair. More than anything, Aeriel wanted to close her eyes and open her body to Erin, but fear of the Pearl made her lift a hand between them. "If I could not have Irrylath, to whom I was once married, surely it will not let me have you, who I desire more."
Erin's smile was enormous, but her eyes remained serious. "Irrylath would have distracted you from your task in a way I never will." Erin intertwined their fingers. "I will never get you with child, or ask you to tend to my subjects at the cost of your task. I will never grow jealous of the work you do for the world, or resent living in your shadow."
Aeriel's heart soared and her grip on Erin's hand tightened. "You are my shadow."
"And I would like to be more."
The Pearl remained quiet as Erin pressed her lips against Aeriel's. Aeriel tugged the girl down onto the mattress atop of her, and saw—quite clearly through the Pearl—how together they would balance both the light and dark the world.