Fathoms Below

Epilogue: The Seventh Vow

Two weeks, one day, and seven hours. That’s how long it took for Averil to get his affairs in order to leave Atlantica. The change from being human-haters to peaceful neighbors proved to be a difficult one for much of the underwater community, but Triton had faith, and most of them did come around eventually. The merfolk had once been perfectly comfortable at the surface, before the death of the Queen, and it only took some persuasion (and a two-year transitional period) for them to do so again.

The surface world, too, took some time to adjust. Given that their first experience with merpeople had involved a murderous sea-witch, it was understandable that they would not warm up to the idea right away. Still, with a little effort and a lot of patience, most of them came to terms with the existence of merpeople.

Averil (and Erryn’s opinion of him) charmed nearly everyone who met him. Grimsby discovered a lovely little tactic that involved setting meeting times right around Erryn’s flute practice, which Averil diligently attended. He loved listening to her play, and she always asked him to sing for her. The old butler developed a bad habit of misreading his pocketwatch and arriving a few minutes late, or finishing up a bit early (a habit he never displayed at any other point in his rigorous schedule). In their loss at what to do, the guests would usually follow the sound of the music, and find the budding royals at their most lovely. Erryn’s silver bell laughter filled the air, and Averil’s ocean-blue eyes never left her face. It was obvious within moments that they had something special, and no one dared to question the intentions of the former merman after seeing such sweetness in his gaze.

Meanwhile, the affianced pair spent the majority of their time studying politics and diplomacy. As ruler and ambassador, they each had a mountain of work that needed doing, ranging from fishing laws to inter-habitat trading systems and currency. It was a long and arduous task, but with support from one another and from their family and friends, Erryn and Averil were able to bloom into the young rulers they were intended to be.

Averil pierced his right ear, and took up wearing a silver stud in the shape of a seashell there. Erryn’s long, black hair grew past her behind and almost to her knees, before Carlotta insisted that she cut it back to waist-length. After she turned eighteen, the princess began twisting her hair up into elegant braided knots during the day, only letting it loose in the evenings after dinner. Erryn and Grimsby together managed to turn Averil into a fairly good dancer, and by the time his first Christmas ball came around, he could not have been picked out of a crowd as the one who once had fins.

For Erryn’s seventeenth birthday, Averil gave her the one thing he knew she had desperately wanted since the day she first saw his fins. He petitioned his father, and was granted permission to bring her to Atlantica for a few days. The magic involved to form a person from human to mer was not easy, and it required a great amount of power to control it properly, but Triton agreed that it was only fair that the girl to marry Averil should at least see his homeland- or home-ocean.

It was the most amazing experience for both of them. Erryn took to the water almost immediately, so excited to be there that she nearly crashed into anything within ten meters. She spun and twirled, her pale blue tail and white seashells flashing, sending bubbles everywhere and giggling at herself until she could hardly breathe. The whole experience was so magical for her, it was something Averil felt he could have watched forever. Though it was a short-lived magic, by the time it was over, the lovebirds were left even closer than before.

Between the trip to Atlantica and the proximity of her castle to the beach, Erryn managed to grow closer to not only Averil, but also his brothers during their two years of waiting. The boys all wanted to know this girl who had stolen their brother’s heart, and she wanted to meet more merfolk who weren’t the same as Averil. She worked hard to remember their names until she got to know them better, and soon, they were fast friends.

Prince Ansel took up the post of secondary human liaison in Atlantica. Every week, he and Crown Prince Arren came to the surface to meet with Averil and Erryn, and more often than not, various other brothers tagged along.

Most of them loved her from the start. Allan, Antony, Alec, and Ansel were all just as interested to know her as she was to know them, and Arren respected her very much for her role in Ursula’s defeat. He hadn’t expected her to be so willing to put her life on the line for Averil’s when he rescued her from the tidal wave, but she had taken his advice and done what had to be done, without hesitation. He had to respect her for that. Plus, he liked having someone to play music with.

Only Amery took some time to get used to the new girl being around. He wasn’t terribly social to begin with, and he also considered humans with a real sense of apprehension. Still, when Erryn offered to bring him human books from the castle library, even the reclusive Amery couldn’t refuse. He sat on the beach for hours, letting the tide wash just up to the tip of his tail, reading until the sun went down. Some days Erryn joined him, reading in companionable silence, until he eventually came to enjoy her company.

Through all of the changes, the lessons, the sleepless nights, the early mornings- through every bit of it, Averil and Erryn remained a beautiful pair.

Princess Erryn grew into a stunning lady of class and composure, and she did eventually achieve her dream of learning to sail. She was fierce and independent, the kind of princess who needed no one to hold her hand or make her decisions. She often said that she felt she could do anything, as long as she had Averil by her side. He was the lighthearted breeze to her strong castle, keeping her from sinking too far into her responsibility and stress. He made her laugh, he told her stories, he sang her songs, doing everything he could to bring life and joy into her world.

Prince Averil gained maturity in leaps and bounds. He became more sure of himself, less uncertain, and began standing on his own two feet (literally). He learned to focus his mind, and was soon known for his shrewdness. He was a fast learner, and the support of his family made a sizable difference in his work ethic. On land, no one knew of him as ‘the wayward youngest son’, no one knew just how many times he’d been late to appointments or forgotten about them altogether.

Averil jumped at his chance for a clean slate, taking his duties as ambassador as seriously as he could. He learned to take the opinions of others in stride, which significantly decreased his number of stupid decisions. Erryn was the strength he needed, keeping him grounded. When he jumped to conclusions, she slowed him down. When he became lost in daydreams, she was always there to call him home. Averil was always a bit quirky (his habit of collecting interesting trinkets remained firmly in place), but by the time they began to plan the wedding, no one on land or in the sea questioned Averil’s competence or his right to marry the princess.

It was to be a simple and elegant affair, per Erryn’s request. They decided that they would marry at sea, to accommodate both families and kingdoms. Erryn had postponed her coronation until her twenty-first year, and would remain ‘Princess’ until then. Prince Averil would retain his title, as was his birthright, but upon Erryn’s coronation to ‘Queen’, he would formally become known as ‘Prince Consort’, and his Atlantican title would defer to that. Of course, no one in the castle really intended to quibble about titles, particularly since Averil himself did not care one bit.

The night before the wedding, the moon glowed particularly brightly in the sky. On the beach below, the prince and princess had lit a small fire, creating a circle of warm, orange glow in the cool darkness. Averil stretched his legs out, leaning back on his palms in the sand, watching the waves slowly roll in. Erryn sat next to him, her knees pulled up to her chest, resting her head on his shoulder as she absentmindedly braided her hair.

She took a deep breath, and sighed.

“We’re getting married tomorrow, you know,” she said matter-of-factly.

Averil nodded against the top of her head.

“I know,” he replied softly. “Are you nervous?”

“Yes,” Erryn murmured. “But not because of you. I just...Averil, no one’s ever done this before. Two years ago, you and your whole life didn’t even exist to us, and now everyone’s going to have to accept you as their prince. How do we know it will even work?”

Averil reached around and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close to him. “We don’t,” he said simply. “But that’s half the fun. It’s boring to do the same thing all the time.”

“I suppose,” Erryn agreed, though Averil could tell that her heart wasn’t in it. Her fingers had fallen slack against her braid as she drifted off into silence. In Averil, silence wasn’t unusual, as he tended to vanish into his own dreamy thoughts. In Erryn, however, silence generally meant she was worried.

“Hey,” Averil said, nudging his lady. A smile danced across his lips as he gave her a simple peck on the cheek. “I have something that might make you feel a little better about it.”

“Did you make me something again?” she asked, suddenly curious. She always liked seeing the things Averil’s skilled hands could create.

“Not quite,” he said, shaking his head. He got to his feet, dusting the sand from his trousers. “But I think you’ll still like it.” Averil put two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, which echoed across the open sea like a birdcall.

Instantaneous splashing alerted the princess to the fact that they were not alone. She had wondered why Averil wanted to have a campfire on the beach tonight, and it seemed that he was now going to reveal his reasoning. Carefully, Erryn got to her feet, searching the dark waters for the source of the splash. In a moment or two she was able to locate several dark, familiar heads poking out of the water a little ways out to sea. They swam closer, and Erryn confirmed that they were Averil’s brothers.

A bright smile lit up her face. Erryn hadn’t expected to see her future brothers-in-law until the next day, but it was a nice surprise. She lifted one hand over her head and waved hello.

Averil took her free hand in his, and began towing her toward the water.

“Averil,” Erryn protested. “Can’t they come up tonight? I don’t really want to get wet right now.”

“Not this time,” he responded, his tone kind, but firm. “This is a little more important. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Just come on.”

Mermen and humans met in the shallow waters behind a decently large sandbar, which kept the worst of the waves at bay. Erryn still held tightly to Averil’s hand, lest she lose her balance and wind up soaked all over, instead of just below the knees.

“Princess Erryn,” same the polite greeting of Prince Allan.

“I didn’t expect to see you all tonight, it’s a lovely surprise,” she answered gaily.

“Of course,” Arren said. “We were hoping, Princess, that you might allow us to give you our wedding gift tonight, as it might be a little odd, and we would hate to disrupt anything tomorrow.”

“Odd?” Erryn questioned.

“It’s less of a traditional gift and more of an unfamiliar custom,” explained Amery, glancing back and forth from Averil to Erryn. “In the merworld, we have certain traditions, and there is one that is particularly important that we would like to share with you.”

Blinking, Erryn glanced at Averil. He smiled and nodded, squeezing her hand comfortingly. “It’s okay,” he said soothingly. “It’s nothing too strange, I promise.”

He released her hand and took a step back, leaving Erryn standing alone in front of his brothers. She looked thoroughly confused, but turned her attention back to Arren, hoping he would explain.

“I don’t know if Averil has told you,” Arren began, “But in the mer-world, marriage is considered incredibly sacred, and very binding, moreso than on land. When we marry, we are bound through life and death, in the strongest sense. Part of what makes that connection so strong is communicated through a ceremony called the Binding Vows.”

“The families of the engaged pair play a vital role both in the marriage ceremony and in the couple’s life together,” added Allan, “So the Binding Vows are a way to express that closeness. Not only does the groom choose to take his bride, but his family also chooses to accept and adopt her. The more vows that are made, the stronger the bond. In our case, we have lucky number seven, which is often considered the strongest of all.”

Erryn’s hand slowly drifted to her mouth as she comprehended what they were saying. In a situation where Averil had changed so much for her, and chosen to adopt her life as his own...this was something she had never expected. It warmed her heart from the inside out.

“Do you mind?” Antony asked gently.

Slowly, Erryn shook her head. “I-I don’t mind at all,” she breathed. “It sounds wonderful.”

Nodding to one another, the brothers carefully arranged themselves into a semicircle around the princess. Arren cleared his throat and drifted forward.

“Tonight we gather to honor the binding of these two souls,” he intoned, “And with it, the binding of two families, two kingdoms, two worlds.”

“As family, it is our duty and our privilege to add a name to our record,” added Allan. He smiled encouragingly at Erryn, who looked like she might faint with shock.

“With these Binding Vows,” Antony continued, “We draw Erryn into our hearts as our true sister.”

“May she be one with us in love and strength, until the last tide falls,” finished Amery.

From behind her, Erryn felt a comforting hand on her shoulder. Averil gave her a smile, excited to see how she responded. He had a feeling this would be a winner in her book, but it was hard to know for sure.

Arren held his posture straight, every bit the regal Crown Prince of Atlantica. His dark brown eyes were firm, but not harsh.

“I, Arren Grannus,” he said formally, “-offer the Vow to Protect. As the reef defends its children from the dangers of open water, so shall we protect you, our sister, from any and all harm that may befall you. We are your shield, that you may live without fear in our embrace. You have our solemn vow.”

Looking at him, Erryn felt a shiver up her spine. The intensity in his dark eyes told her that he meant every word he said. He had saved her once, in the battle against Ursula, and Erryn had no doubt that he would do so again. Arren was not one to do anything halfway. There was no more loyal protector she could have asked for.

What Erryn knew of Arren was mostly tied to his position as eldest son and Crown Prince. While Averil and Arren didn’t always see eye to eye, Erryn had discovered that one only had to find the right incentive to get Arren to show his true colors. He was much like Erryn herself, with many responsibilities to overshadow his passions. The two of them got along rather well. The princess only hoped that she could spend her time as part of their family helping to mend the jagged relationship between Arren and his brothers, particularly Averil and Alec.

Next was Allan. He swept his long auburn hair to the side, smiling softly. He met Erryn’s eyes squarely, and for the first time, Erryn noticed just how alike in the eyes he and Averil were. She imagined that they inherited those eyes from the late Queen. She must have been very beautiful, she thought warmly.

“I, Allan Lyr, offer the Vow to Nurture,” Allan said calmly. “As a mother loves and nurtures her children, so shall we nurture you as our precious sister. We are here for your smiles, your tears, your joy, and your pain. Become one with us in all that you are, so that we may care as intimately for you as we do for one another. You have our solemn vow.”

Erryn smiled, understanding why it was that Averil harbored such strong feelings for the second eldest prince. There was just something about Allan, the way he held himself, that gave off a very caring aura. Many stories had been told over the past two years about Allan’s kindness and wisdom, and looking at him now, Erryn knew that she could completely believe every one.

With a look, Allan passed the proverbial torch to Antony. Grinning widely, the largest-statured brother took his turn.

“I, Antony Carcinus, offer the Vow to Strengthen,” he said firmly. “As the oyster holds firm against the beating of the waves, so shall we help you to hold firm against your foes. May you in your journey abandon weakness and fear, to grow in power and in wisdom. As our sister, our strength is your strength. You have our solemn vow.”

Briefly, the memory of Antony as he was when Erryn first met him flashed across her eyes. He had been covered with bruises, but for some reason, he couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot. Erryn hadn’t known whether to be shocked or burst out laughing. In fact, it was he that had convinced the princess that she need not be concerned about some of the darker things in life. When she had feared that Averil might one day decide that she wasn’t worth the trouble, it was Antony who brought the smile back to her face. He had such faith, and endless belief in the goodness of people. He had no reservations about humans after meeting Erryn, and was one of the first to be kind to her. Antony was a gentle giant, and she couldn’t help but be extremely pleased to be gaining him as a brother.

Antony reached over and pushed his twin forward, earning himself a quick glare. Amery sighed, but continued on into his portion of the ceremony.

“I, Amery Proteus, offer the Vow to Teach,” he said, sounding a tad bit like Grimsby in his attempt to be both formal and standoffish. “As the clever dolphin learns from its surroundings, so shall you learn from us, all that we have to share. It is our duty and our privilege to offer you all of the wisdom we possess, for your power and dignity as our true sister. You have our solemn vow.”

Amery was the brother that Erryn had worried about the most. Though Averil had told her that Amery wasn’t the most socially adept of his brothers, it was hard to put off the idea that he might just dislike her. Still, with some attention to his hobbies and a little bit of wheedling, she had managed to become decently acquainted with him. He was fiercely intelligent, and was usually a good person to ask if one had questions. Talking with Amery was like talking with Grimsby sometimes, he could be so dry, but that was nothing new for this princess.

They might never be the closest of siblings, but Erryn had confidence that she would find a good brother in Amery.

Putting real effort into keeping his face from falling into its customary scowl, Amery nodded to Ansel. The dark-haired handsomest of the brothers floated forward, his expression unusually serene. He flashed his sparkling smile at Erryn, raking a hand through his ebony locks.

“I, Ansel Napat, offer the Vow to Encourage,” he said, his light tenor voice just short of musical. He sounded like a slightly more polished Averil. It was hard to tell that the two were brothers by mere sight, but they sounded much the same.

“As the white whales of the north travel, hunt, migrate, and feed together, so shall we endeavor to be with you always,” Ansel said. “We are stronger together, all of us as one. As your brothers, we will encourage and support you in every way we can. As seven become eight, may you never more be alone. You have our solemn vow.”

When Ansel’s chocolate eyes met Erryn’s, she realized that Ansel was still very much a mystery to her. It was strange, also, his choice of vow to make, given that Averil had told her that Ansel usually preferred to be alone. The twins had each other in their hearts forever, and the bond between Arren and Allan was almost equally as strong. Ansel fit in with Alec and Averil when he desired to do so, but he spent more time alone than with the two of them. What, then, could incite him to make such a vow of togetherness?

In her heart, Erryn resolved to find the answer to that question.

The mysterious Ansel took his place in line, to be replaced by the last and closest of Averil’s brothers: Alec. From day one, Alec had been very open to Erryn, which Averil had claimed was a rarity. Alec was mistrustful from head to tail, but something about Erryn must have won him somehow. Perhaps it was just the fact that Averil loved her.

Alec crossed his arms and stared Erryn straight in the eye.

“I, Alec Varuna, offer the Vow to Honor,” he said, his tone as intense as Erryn had ever heard it. “As we gain a sister, our kingdom gains a princess. We offer our respect, as well as that of our people. May you grace the realms as not only a treasure of the land, but also of the oceans. From this day, you shall stand among us as our most honored princess. You have our solemn vow.”

Alec’s steely gray eyes were firm as stone. He spoke with an authority beyond his years, asserting himself as the true merprince that he was. It wasn’t a sentiment often shown by the mischievous Alec, but it suited the occasion nicely.

As Alec fell back into the line, the six brothers drew themselves up and spoke in unison.

“These are our Binding Vows.”

“As our precious sister, we bestow upon you a new name, the name by which you will be remembered throughout Atlantican history,” Arren said dutifully.

“May you bear it with pride and grace,” added Allan.

Alec floated forward, trailing his hand through the water. He gathered a cupful in his palm, motioning for Erryn to nod her head. When she had done so, he slowly raised his arm and let the water trickle down upon her dark hair.

“We christen you as our heart-sister, Erryn Lorelei,” he said calmly. “Become one with us, as we become one with you.”

“So mote it be,” they finished all together.

The sound of the wavelets against the sand echoed through the air. For a moment, no one spoke. Erryn raised her head, her eyes sparkling with tears.

“Thank you, all of you,” she whispered, smiling brightly. “I don’t know what else to say, but thank you. I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

Shaking her head to clear it, she looked around, eyes searching.

“What is it?” Allan asked.

“You said- well, you said something about lucky number seven, earlier,” Erryn said sheepishly. “But by my count we’re only at six. Doesn’t Averil get a vow?” She blushed scarlet, embarrassed by the question. It sounded so self-serving, but she really wanted to know.

Her query was met only by Averil’s light laughter, echoing across the water. When Erryn turned to look at him, she found that Averil was grinning in his most irritating way.

“Of course I get one,” he said. “What good would it be if I didn’t? Mine just fits in a little differently.”

He stepped forward, and took her hand in his. Without hesitation, he sank to one knee in the shallow water. It obscured him about up the waist. Without his shirt, he would have appeared to have taken his original form. His bright blue eyes were glued to Erryn’s.

“I, Averil Nix, offer the final vow,” he said softly, putting deliberate emphasis into every word. This was the seventh vow. In the mer-world, the final vow was the official marriage vow. Though the pomp and circumstance ceremony was the next day, this was the point of no return. As of this vow, no matter what, there was no going back.

“As the Binding Vows bring our families into one, so do I bind my life to yours,” Averil said. “This is the Vow of Love. Two become one, unto the end of time. I offer myself to you, Erryn Lorelei, as you offer yourself to me. May no power of the sea or sky ever render us apart. So mote it be.”

Rising carefully, he cupped Erryn’s cheek in his soft palm. When she nodded, Averil brought his face to hers in a sweet kiss, just as he had done every day for the past two years...and just as he planned to do every day for the rest of his life.

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