The next night comes more quickly than I would like. I wished for more time to prepare for my meeting with Ash, but I know I will not get it. After supper with my father and Taron, I wait patiently for them to drift to sleep. When their soft snores travel down from the loft, I feel confident in leaving. I pull my boots on and grab my hooded cloak before climbing down the steps of our tree home. I walk a little way into the forest before climbing back into the trees. I always feel safer amongst the camouflage of the leaves.
I reach the falls quickly and I spot Ash perched on a large boulder at the top. I leap smoothly from the trees to the rocks on the face of the cliff. I climb it easily. I’ve done this more than once. By the time I reach the top, Ash is staring at me with a look of disbelief mixed with admiration.
“That was amazing,” he says, “I didn’t realize humans were capable of such abilities.”
“You haven’t been around many humans, have you?” I ask.
“Truth be told, no,” he admits, “I don’t generally spend much time with my prey before taking their lives.”
I nod, not keen on hearing him recount his past reapings.
“So, why did you want to meet me up here?” I ask him, still uneasy about his intentions.
“I want you to return to Mortem with me,” he says.
I can’t contain the laugh that bubbles up out of my throat, full of disbelief at his statement. Immediately, fear grips me and I take a step backward.
“Seriously, what do you want from me?” I ask.
“I am quite serious, Lark,” he says, “I want you to come back to Mortem with me. I must return tomorrow before they question why my trip to Arcanum is taking so long. I don’t want to be parted from you. I’m drawn to you, inexplicably.”
“So, you want me to go to Mortem?” I question, fearful that I might be dragged there against my will, “What if I say no?”
He sighs, “Then, I suppose I will have to respect your wishes.”
His answer surprises me. Nokturns are accustomed to getting what they want, whether it is given willingly or taken by force. I cannot deny that I am drawn to him as he claims to be to me. That doesn’t change the fact that I have duties and responsibilities here in Medeor. Plus, my family is here. I could never abandon my father, Taron, or Uncle Garrison.
“I don’t belong in Mortem, Ash,” I tell him, “My place is here, in Medeor. My family needs me. Besides, I’m sure you have plenty of human servants, you don’t need another. I wouldn’t feel safe there, Ash.”
“I would keep you safe,” he promises, “That’s part of why I want you there. So, that you are close and I can watch over you.”
“I don’t need to be protected, Ash,” I say defensively, “I can take care of myself.”
“I feel a certain responsibility toward you,” he admits, looking anxious.
“Why?” I ask, “You have no need.”
“I set you free,” he says, “I put myself in danger for you, for a human.”
I scrunch my face in irritation. How arrogant and self-centered could he be?
“You’re kidding me, right?” I ask in disbelief, “If it was such a danger for you, then why bother at all? Why not just let them kill me?”
His eyes widen in shock, “I could never let them bring harm to you,” he says, eyes softening into a pleading look.
I sigh, “I appreciate everything you did to help me, Ash. And I won’t ever tell anyone that you had anything to do with it, but I can’t return to Mortem with you. I don’t belong there.”
He shakes his head in frustration but doesn’t say anything. I have always been taught that Nokturns have no humanity, that their hunger for human components far outweigh any emotion. Looking at Ash now, seeing him distraught and frustrated, I’m not so sure I believe that. Maybe it is possible that some of them have a little humanity left after all.
“Must you always be so difficult and defiant?” he asks.
“Must you always be so selfish and condescending?” I fire back.
“What if something happens to you?” he pleads.
“I can take care of myself, Ash,” I insist, taking a step backward, away from him.
The rocks are slick and his presence throws my focus off. Everything happens so quickly as I lose my footing and tumble over the edge of the falls. The back of my head cracks against a sharp stone and when I reach the bottom, water engulfs me and everything goes black.
“Lark? Lark, can you hear me?” a voice asks in panic.
Slowly, I open my eyes, blinking up at the source. The handsome Reaper lord looms over me, cradling me in his lap, water dripping from his hair.
“Lord Sebastian,” I whisper, “How kind of you to visit.”
“Lark,” he breathes in relief, touching my face so gently and tenderly, I’m not sure what to make of it.
I try to sit up but he holds me fast, “Careful,” he warns, “You bumped your head pretty badly.”
“Oh,” I say, reaching to touch the bloody wound, my fingers coming away sticky with blood, “What happened?”
I can only remember standing at the top of the falls one minute and waking up in Ash’s arms the next.
“You slipped up top, took a nasty fall,” he says, “I thought I might’ve lost you for a moment there.”
“Thank you for rescuing me,” I say, “Again.”
He smirks at me, “You make a habit of being in distress.”
“I assure you, that isn’t usually the case,” I admit, realizing that it is his presence that always seems to throw me off.
“Well, I am only happy to have been here to help you,” he says, looking up at the night sky, “It’s getting late and I should get back to the inn. Please think about what I’ve said to you tonight.”
I nod, remembering his words about returning with him to Mortem.
“And get that tended to quickly,” he says eyeing the wound on my head.
“Okay, okay,” I quiet him, “I already have a father to boss me around. I’d rather not have another.”
He gives me a sheepish look before giving my hand a squeeze and disappearing into the forest.
The next day, Taron and I walk down to the bath house together. I yawn, exhausted after having the late-night meeting with Ash.
“Where did you go last night?” Taron asks me innocently.
“What do you mean?” I feign ignorance.
He rolls his eyes, “I know you slipped out late last night. I just want to know what you did,” he specifies.
“I went for a swim at the falls,” I say, not exactly lying to him.
He nods, scrunching his face in a way that lets me know he doesn’t fully buy my story. We enter the bathhouse and I turn to go into the side reserved for women. His hand circles my arm, and he tugs me back.
“What the hell happened to your head?” he asks, looking at the poorly patched wound.
I had hastily bandaged it last night when I returned home and hadn’t bothered to tend to it this morning.
“Oh, that,” I say.
“Yes, that,” Taron mocks, “What happened?”
“I hit my head on one of the rocks at the falls,” I explain.
He sighs in exasperation, “When will you stop pushing yourself to such extremes, Sister?”
I shake my head, “It was just an accident. It’s not a bid deal, Taron,” I insist.
“At least let me stitch it up after you bathe,” he coaxes gently.
I hesitate before giving him a nod. If I didn’t have anything else in this world, at least I have Taron. We had looked out for one another constantly since we could walk, though I admit, it was him who had to do most of the looking out for me. I can be stubborn, impatient and reckless at times, but he has always been there to rein me in. Without him, I’m not sure where I would be.
After bathing, I allow Taron to stitch the gash. It stings and the pain is sharp with each stick of the needle. I do not cry. I do not complain. I do not even flinch. I simply bear the pain and allow it to make me stronger.