My name is Aithera Kilbray.
I sit here tonight, in this wonderful room lit by candlelight, compelled to put my thoughts to parchment for my life has been interesting, scary, and full of adventure and learning. I now find myself in this mysterious and strange valley, with a title that I am still trying to get used to, as Lady Aithera, of the Dragon Back Castle. How I come to be here is the most strange telling tale yet.
She stops writing and gets up to go look out the window. The young lady stands straight and poised before the dark opening with her hands clasped in front of her, and in the windows darkened reflection, she sees not her reflection for she is remembering. She does not see the lady the young girl has turned into, of average height. The black hair draped about her sloping shoulders and the amber eyes looking off into the distance, above a delicate pointed nose on the narrowed face, with the small soft lips. Nor does she see the defined but gentle curves of breasts, the narrow waist and tapered hips in a form fitted grey gown with a hint of silver, that reaches to the floor. A gown made for another, and from another time, but fits her well. The long tapered fingers clasped gently together. Fingers that have a light touch with children or mending but hiding the strength that she is just now discovering that she has. After some contemplation, she turns and returning to the desk, she takes up the quill once more.
Let me start at the beginning.
I found my family’s lands and discovered that they were in the hands of those that took it. In doing so my family is gone, but I have lived to tell the tale. Even with the dark ones looking for me.
I come from a once-proud estate and family, but that was all destroyed one fateful night. The nightmares from that night haunt me ... the night when the dark raiders came to claim the Kilbray lands. I remember the sounds of fighting and the screams of the men and women, and when my father came to me, bidding me to flee, run as fast as I could into the woods and far away. His words were “Keep running, never stop and never look back. Be strong my little one, for I fear all has been lost. You must live on my child, you MUST go on.” As he slipped a chain around my neck with a crystalline jewel attached to it. “Aithera, promise me, never remove this, promise me you will keep this with you always, please promise me this.” Promise him I did, and it has been with me ever since then. Papa also wanted another promise, a promise that I would survive. This to, I have kept.
I knew not where my mother and brother were. I do not remember the baby and papa was hurt and dirty. As I had promised papa I ran, stumbling through the night with tears blurring my sight. I know not what guided my steps, for surely they were guided. Something guided me past the dark raiders, guided me through the woods and across the fields until morning found me in an exhausted sleep next to a trail. That is where Uncle Galien found me as an exhausted, dirty, ragged bundle of but five summers of age.
That was many summers ago. Uncle Galien and his good wife Aunt Tess took me in, and under Uncle Galien’s tutelage, my natural talents with magic and mysticism flourished. Such studies took most of my time and attention, but Aunt Tess thought I should know the simple arts of women as well—cooking, mending, and healing. I grew and learned from both of them for fifteen summers.
This one particular winter, five winters back. Such a short span of time, but seems like a lifetime ago. It had started out to be a harsh one. The howling winds and driving snow on the mountain range had been quiet for a few days, but had returned with a vengeance. Far to the South and West, there had been rumors of fierce storms brewing in the ragged mountains. As I was to learn later, events that were witnessed by none.
Five winters ago, the clouds over the Dragon Back Mountains darkened that night, the wind blowing out of the mountain range, chilling everything in its path. Lightning was flashing within the darkened clouds, and thunder was rolling and echoing over and around the jagged peaks and shaking the ground. The lightning flashes became stronger, streaking out in all directions. Great shafts of lightning had started pounding the land, gouging out craters and cracking large boulders into smaller ones. One large bolt struck deep in the mountains, and a glow lit up the edges of the mountain range, and then winked out. Another bolt struck, sending four streamers out in different directions. Then the storm finally calmed.
Uncle Galien came to me that fateful night five winters ago, and told me that he had taught me all that he could—that for me to learn more, I would have to go and find my own way. The time had come for me to travel.
She stops and ponders, brushing the quill feather along her narrow chin, then returns to her writing. I had never really given that time much thought until today, though I had felt a yearning and urge to travel. I really didn’t pay attention to it. I now believe that I was once again being guided.
Uncle Galien provided me with traveling supplies and then with a hug from my Aunt and Uncle, they wished me safe travels. I did travel about the lands, farms, and villages and learned more about healing herbs and life from those I met. With Tinabara my mare, and the bird of prey Chaka, the hawk, my companions and protectors. How a girl can come to have such strange companions is for a telling at another time. I have traveled here and there for the past five summers. At each stopping place, I wondered if it would be the place that I could call home, yet circumstances had continued to push me to move on and travel farther, until one snowbound, stormy night. A new home I did find—in a valley of mystery. How I came upon this place has been rather interesting and I believe it has not been a matter of chance.
I was on the well-traveled road from Laydins Keep to Remdon, when an old man caught my eye, and then a storm came in from nowhere, and well--that is where our story begins.
Chapter - 1 - The Storm
The township of Laydins Keep is a busy and prosperous community, with a well-traveled road to the next village of Remdon, protected by the dark and ominous mountains to the South, gentle hills and forests to the North. Travelers often come and go—some staying, some going, and some just passing through. The old man had come to Laydins Keep many winters past, but remained a stranger among them.
The winter had been an unusually harsh one and after one fierce and stormy night, small groups of battered, hurt and frightened travelers arrived in Laydins, fearing for their lives and telling strange tales of dark men lead by a dragon. A dragon who hunts for people and those men that seem to work for it. With the most frightened travelers leaving very quickly to be away. Some of them stayed in Laydins Keep, but they remained mostly to themselves. Time passes and memory of the tales gets blurry in the hustle of everyday life, and stories change with every telling until the here and now is different from what was.
No one seems to notice the old man any more. He is just one more of the unseen ones with the slumped shoulders and bent back, the grey hair tangled when not covered by the tattered, well-worn brown cloak over torn and dirty jacket and trousers, mud-caked worn boots. His bony, dirty hands are always clutching a gnarled piece of wood that he uses as a walking stick to help him stay upright. His face is always downcast, withered, and weathered by the elements with eyes not often seen, but when seen, his lifeless, dark eyes show a sense of loss and extreme sadness, causing anyone looking into them to shiver and turn away, for no one wishes to look into such deep wells of despair.
As the old man shuffles away from town, to one side of the well-traveled road, riders and wagons pass by without a glance in his direction. Of all the travelers on the road that day, he pays attention to none until a young woman wearing a traveling cloak rides past him. His slow steps come to a stop, watching the rider from under the hood of his worn cloak. Maybe he watches her because of the quality of the horse or the posture in the saddle, but he knows not. Sensing something else, he slowly looks up as a large bird glides in and out of the trees, seeming to shadow the woman as she rides. Something about this combination has made an impression on him, but then the withered head slowly looks to the ground once more and he continues his slow progress down the road.
Once more he stops, and looking around slowly, he sees what might have been a path once. He feels drawn to it, so he slowly disappears down the darkened, seldom-used path as night comes. The wind picks up and some of the townsfolk look to the sky, for they sense a storm is coming. The Old man passes between the lightly snow covered trees as he follows a tugging at the edge of his mind, though he knows not where he is going, or why he is going there. As the old man leaves the main road, the everyday sounds of travelers slowly fade off into the distance, replaced by a blanketed silence. The path seems familiar, and yet seems strange at the same time. He ambles along, moving slowly, yet to someone watching would say with purpose. He comes to a good size clearing in the forest. Laid out along the edge is what looks like it might be buildings.
In the center of the clearing is something that looks like a small structure, and something glints nearby in the fading light as night falls heavily over the area. With tired, dragging feet, he makes his way through the light snow towards the center of the clearing, his attention drawn to the after-image of a glint of silver in the waning light. Coming up to the dark structure, it looks like it might have been a park gazebo at one time, but now the roof is more than half missing. Looking about, a faint twinkle catches his eye—something stuck in a piece of what must have been a roof rafter. He shuffles over to stand underneath the spot, and his hand slowly reaches up to clasp the tarnished pendant hanging about his neck while he looks up at the silvery prize just out of reach. He taps it with his walking stick, and it falls easily to the floor, but as he reaches down slowly to pick it up, a tiny bolt of lightning streaks forth, striking him square in the chest and throwing him back to land with a thud, flat on his back.
Lightning dances over him. With a groan, as the dancing energy begins to fade, he slowly levers himself up onto his elbows, and an expression flits across his normally solemn face—one of irritation—then it changes back once more to a dull countenance
Looking down, he watches his pendant pulse slightly with a faint light, while the energy that leveled him is fading and being drawn into it. Looking over to the object on the floor, he sees that it has a similar shape, and he feels an urge to pick it up. Moving slowly, he crawls over to the shard, and with a shaky hand, reaches out for it once more and grasps it. His hand burns as an energy charge dances up his arm, but he hangs onto the shard tightly. His face is contorted with pain as he brings his hand up in front of his face. The light from the shard washes over him, casting a shadowed glow on the gazebo floor and lighting up the area. Tiny sparks flit about in the old man’s eyes, then a flash of lightning and rumble of thunder sound from the night sky as a new wave of energy sears up his arm. He clasps his hand to his chest as he cries out in pain and runs out of the gazebo until his foot catches something and he stumbles, then falls over and curls up into a ball, twitching. Finally, he drifts off into unconsciousness as the light fades. Darkness envelops the clearing once more. Unseen and unfelt, the storm howls.