The moist air whipped through Ariel's silver-shot black fur, as she hung from a thawing branch just outside the hidden entrance to Hibernaculum. With the warm breeze came the smells of the budding spring, the dampness clinging to her nostrils. Despite the coming change of weather, the moon still shone bright as ever above the forest, painting a waterfall that concealed the secret opening to the Silverwings' winter home, she allowed her thoughts to drift again to Cassiel.
He had promised to return after two nights. Two nights had come and gone, along with the rest of the colony. It was time for the females to return to Tree Haven for the spring and summer, while the males went on to Stone Hold; it was this inevitable separation of the sexes that the Silverwings endured each year. There was no question that they leave on time; a colony of thousands cannot change their plans for one bat waiting on her mate. Ariel understood this, and as she hung alone in wait, she felt no ill will towards the Elders. No feeling could conquer her radiating despair.
If only she had gone with him. Ariel knew her mate well enough to know when he was up to something; with Cassiel, that had been a large portion of the time, particularly after he had been Banded. After being released by the humans, the silvery metal Band on his forearm had been a source of fascination, and near obsession for Cassiel. Frieda has a band, Ariel thought furiously to herself, but she didn't spend her life obsessing over it! When Hanael had disappeared a week before, Ariel had assured herself that Cassiel would never take the risk of following, not with his own newborn on the way. When he had come to tell her he was going to find his friend, and that he would return in time to make the migration back with her, she had fought him. But not enough, Ariel chided herself. Despite the ache in her chest that told her Cassiel would not return, she had stayed behind. She had let him leave.
A day after he had left, Ariel had cornered Icarus, Cassiel's closest friend. If anyone knew where her mat had gone, it was Icarus.
"I'm really sorry Ariel," Icarus had evaded, rubbing his own Band as he avoided her gaze. "All I know is that he was going after Hanael. You know how Cassiel gets with these things. He wouldn't even tell you."
"Icarus," Ariel had pleaded, "if he told you not to tell me something, because he was worried about me…"
At last, Icarus met her gaze, his own eyes misty. "I'm sorry Ariel."
She still would not believe that Icarus was as ignorant as he insisted, but what would badgering him do? No, all she could do now was wonder about what could possibly been so dangerous that would leave her behind, and not let her follow.
Ariel shuffled her claws, restless and uneasy. For the last two days she had been debating whether she should go after him, or finally catch up with the others. She was young yet, she had argued to herself, and could certainly survive on her own for a bit, if taking the proper precautions. Her children had all grown, most with mates and pups of their own. At this point, she knew her mate needed her far more.
Always, she had been the hard practicality that had protected Cassiel's rampant curiousity; for all their differences, they were incomplete without each other. However, ever since the Banding, Cassiel had become further entrenched in the mythology of Nocturna's Promise, and was certain that the Bands were a symbol from the Humans.
"Just look at it Ariel!" Cassiel had whispered to her upon his return from hunting one night. He had stared down at his new decoration, awestruck and wreaking of Human. "How it shines…like the sun."
"Don't talk like that," she had chided, quickly looking away. Despite her shame, she could not help but feel slightly repulsed by Cassiel in that moment. The smell of Human made her stomach turn in her fear and disgust.
Not all bats were so welcoming of the Banded. Some colonies even drove out bats touched by Humans, afraid they were cursed or marked. Even amongst the Silverwings, rumours were spread of bats who had burst into flames or rotted alive after being Banded. Each year, a few select mothers would pass these stories onto their children, and the hysteria continued to quietly simmer. Ariel knew this was absurd; Frieda had been Banded for years and years, and still remained in excellent health. She had always wondered if things in the colony would be the same if their chief elder was not marked by the Humans. Again, Ariel shuddered, refusing to imagine Cassiel being driven out of the colony, left to forge a life of solitude. The day he had returned with the Band, she had sworn to herself that if that time came, she would follow him out.
As for Nocturna's Promise, Ariel had never held much stake in it. She had never been on to question the law. Bats were confined to the night, and although the injustice of this punishment did confuse and bother her as a child, in time, like the majority of her fellow Silverwings, she had grown to accept it. But not Cassiel.
"Why do you always do that?" Cassiel had muttered, clearly disappointed by her cold reaction. "You know the law is wrong. What if it's the Humans who will help us break through?"
"How can you trust them though? They are the only creatures we cannot understand. How can you possibly guess what the purpose of those Bands are?"
"I don't, but ignoring them will not bring me any closer to knowing," he had retorted sharply. "I can do more than most of these bats would. I could help restore what we have a right to. Fulfill the Promise."
"You sound crazy Cassiel."
"Am I?" he had replied defensively. "We never know where we could be if we don't fight for it."
"Why fight? Are we really that badly off Cassiel? We've survived like this for centuries."
"Living in fear of the Birds and the Beasts? In shame of a decision made by our forefathers? We have survived Ariel. We have not thrived."
And so the dialogue had continued, never far from the minds of either, variations of the theme, and a fear that lurked in Ariel's chest.
Suddenly, a gust of wind jerked Ariel from her recollections. Even without bracing herself, she felt little chill; time was running out. To follow Cassiel could mean the death of both of them; for all she knew, he was already gone. A sudden jolt in her gut reminded her. If she followed, it would not be two deaths, but three. At last, her eyes prickled with long-rejected tears, and with each ragged breath Ariel cursed what she knew she must do, and what Cassiel would have wanted her to do. Casing a final look at the roost of so many memories for her and the male she loved, Ariel took flight, following the sound map her mother had sung to her all those summers ago. To the tree in which she was born, she would return again, for the birth of her own son.
"How do you know it'll be a boy this time?" Ariel recalled wistfully.
"Just a feeling," Cassiel had grinned back.
"Ariel had nuzzled his neck, accustomed to her mate's superstitions. "What should we call him?"
As he so often did, Cassiel had looked down at his Banded forearm, and the familiar haze of disconnect had washed over his eyes. Ariel hated to see that look, knowing she was powerless to break the binds that held them both. Casting his gaze around the blackened cave, a look of determination had set in his face.
And with that, Ariel propelled herself north, praying that although his son was to be born into darkness, Cassiel had finally had his chance to fly in the Sun.