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Aithera

Prologue

The cool autumn night sings a natural lullaby with crickets chirping, frogs croaking, and night birds calling softly to each other, and then slowly the sounds fade as the clouds in the overcast sky move in their lazy flight until they part, and the soft light from the large round moon shines down upon the lands. Bathing the lands and buildings, the moonlight falls on one of the larger dwellings. The open window is inviting, and the light enters and beams down onto a small table and the basket sitting there.

A gentle breeze slows and then stills, as if Mother Nature herself is holding her breath in anticipation of the night's events. The face of the man in the moon seems to be smiling as if something wonderful is going to be happening this night, for in truth something wonderful is taking place, the joyful pain of life about to start its journey on a long road. In the large manor-house, shadowed by the ever-present Dragon Back Mountains, none can sleep this night.

The silence of the night is broken then by the sounds of a woman in pain -- a pain that she is willing to endure, for the reward is a new life. Her cries tug at the hearts and souls of those not present, but who wait in the adjoining room. Through the sturdy, closed door, the sound easily passes, and voices are muted, yet there is no denying the drama on the other side. Her mate stands as if he is made of stone, his face unreadable as he stares at the door, feeling as if he were dying with each wail that issues forth.

For those within and without, the night seems to be longer than they can bear. Shortly after the night's zenith, all sounds seemed to fade after one final wailing announcement to the world. The woman to whom all attention has been centered on this night brings forth a newborn girl into the world.

The midwife accepts the child and releases its physical connection to the mother. She wraps the baby in soft infant clothing and places her in the basket before turning back to the mother to help with the final parts of the birthing.

From the shadows cast by the flickering candles, one shadow moves forth with a purpose. Detaching from the others, it slithers along the floor unnoticed, making its way to the life that has just entered this world. The clouds slowly cover the moon's light, and the man in the moon looks sad as they block his sight. The slithering shadow then moves up and over the windowsill as it departs the room, and once outside, it moves quickly away from the manor-house.

The nursemaid glances only momentarily at the newborn as she assists the midwife, and then as the midwife leaves to dispose of the afterbirth, she turns back to attend to the infant. The midwife returns, and since she does not see the infant at the mother's bosom, turns with a stern reprimand ready for the nursemaid, but then she sees her staring at the basket, and an unwelcome chill runs down the midwife's spine. The mother calls out for her child and the midwife turns to her slowly with downcast eyes. "Milady ..." she says softly, painfully.

The resulting wail, unlike those previously, brings the men running into the room, he who is the lord, husband, and father, along with the family guards, with their weapons ready for trouble. Far away from the manor-house, a shadow forms into a figure that looks to the East. "It is done, master. The chains have been broken." The shadowy figure turns and heads off in the direction of the nearest settlement. A short time later, a sphere forms where the creature had stood and then zooms off in the opposite direction.

Skimming up and over the top of the mountain, a pointed, reptilian head turns and watches the sphere pass by. A sneer pulls the leathery lips back as the sphere drops down the other side of the mountain and into the hidden valley, zipping down through the trees to skip over the ground, over low walls and between fence rails, and skimming over flowers sleeping for the night. It rises and aims for a window, and as the window opens slowly as if on its own, the sphere floats through. Inside, it moves slowly up towards the ceiling and comes to rest above the couple sleeping below.

The man lying there had grown and become a force to be reckoned with, but his precautions and wards do not detect the approach or invasion of the sphere, yet in his sleep, even with a sleep enhanced from the sphere, his brows knit slightly and he stirs somewhat but does not wake. The woman next to him senses her mate's discomfort and stirs slightly, and then her hand slides out until it reaches his arm. The glow increases ever so slightly, amazed that it is being sensed, and unspoken words float above the sleeping humans.

Though thee have become more than hoped, as with those that have come before, some of thee will go to the next, if not by thy doing, then by another.

A glow slowly forms around the man and the woman, then the glow forms into two small spheres that rise up towards the larger sphere. The two smaller ones move closer to each other and then slowly merge into one. Out through the window, it travels with the other sphere as the two of them float upwards. The window slowly closes behind them, and the knitted brows slowly relax on the man's face.

The spheres zip away and over the mountain. The dragon watches from a pointed peak and growls low, raising its head and roaring its displeasure to the night. The spheres continue on their journey across the lands until their destination comes into sight -- a small estate and to the estate-house where, within its walls a couple weeps softly, for off to one side lies a small bundle in a basket that does not move. The spheres float down and through the ceiling of the estate-house, unseen by the mourning couple, and come to hover near the basket. The smaller sphere slowly descends and covers the still form, and the larger sphere rises to the ceiling and waits. The newborn glows slightly, and then the glow slowly sinks into the cold flesh.

The others had all gone, leaving the couple with their pain. He was a strong man from life's hard work and character, but this night, he is helpless to ease the woman's pain, and he just holds her tightly and rocks her slowly as she weeps.

Something catches his attention, and he turns to stare at the bundle in the basket and sees the glow forming. His eyes see but do not comprehend, for his mind is numb. Then he sees a small rise and fall from the bundle. Beyond the woman's sobs, his ears pick up another sound that has intruded into the somber room. The sound continues and makes its way past the sobbing, and then she hears it and her head slowly comes up from his chest. Sounds that she thought she would never hear again, sounds that should not be possible this night. She must be imagining them! She listens and then feels that which only a mother could know. She looks slowly to where the sounds could only be coming from, and disbelief fills her face as movement and sounds confirm that she is not going crazy.

"Oh, Jonathan!" she cries as she pushes away from him and rushes to the basket, scooping up the bundle and holding it close to her with near-crushing force. "She lives!" Then with a ragged breath, she whispers as she uncovers the baby's face and wide amber eyes look back at her. "She lives."

Reasoning returns to the man and he gets up and comes over to his new family, placing an arm about his wife and looking down at the newborn face that looks back at him with her wide amber eyes, eyes that have life and a face that lights up with a cooing, happy expression. A tear slides down his cheek. Neither parent notices the child is more alert than a newborn ought to be.

The woman turns her head to her husband with no more tears and says softly, "It is a miracle Jonathan, she lives." Then as she closes her eyes and turns her face to the ceiling, she breathes a silent thank you to the night.

Slowly, reason returns to him once again, his mind in a whirl of gratitude and puzzlement. "Yes, Lily," he says softly, "it is a miracle, and I am grateful for it ..." His voice trails off and Lily opens her eyes looking deeply into his.

"What is it, Jonathan?" she asks in a barely heard whisper.

"I feel that she must be destined for something greater, for such miracles are not for ordinary people like us." He takes a deep breath. "We will raise her as best as we can, but I fear forces beyond our understanding will guide her more. Yet we are blessed, for the Kilbray line has another, and it is a girl, so perhaps she is the one meant for his lordship."

Hope glimmers in her eyes and then fades. "Oh, Jonathan, she cannot be meant for his lordship, for he has already taken a mate," she says with a quiver in her voice.

He leans down and kisses her forehead softly as his mind continues to whirl. Then he straightens as an idea comes to him. "She may still be meant for his lordship, the heir to the valley if they birth a male child."

 

Hope glimmers in her eyes once more. "Oh, that would be a great day for all. The two estates once more as one." Lily beams as she looks down at the baby looking up at her. "Aithera, you are meant to be, my child, for you are going to do great things."

 

The glow watching from above is satisfied, and it rises slowly through the ceiling and out into the night. That which will always be will continue as well, for now there is another.

 

Chapter One

 

The tall rider makes his way out of the western pass in the mountains. He travels with a small guard, although he would tell anyone around him that he was a simple man. He is not a large man, and his lean features and loose clothes mask the strength gained from handling horses all his life. He could have an easy life, being the head of the estates he now approaches. Yet he prefers to be hands on, helping where he can. The strong horse he rides maneuvers out of the pass and starts down the slight grade and they soon come out onto the flats, leaving the jagged peaks and winding trail to their backs. The sparse mountain brush slowly gives way to waving green grasses, summer lilies, and young trees that are on the edge of expanding woods. Off in the distance, light smoke rises above the tops of the trees. He knows that he is drawing near and would be home soon. He looks about as he rides, surveying all the lands cared for by his family. A small herd of horses leaves the trees and runs along an open area, and he smiles. Their wild, carefree spirits fill him with wonder every time. He nudged the dappled stallion he is riding and the horse breaks into a canter, for there are other spirits he wishes to see.

The horse and rider come to the edge of the trees. Before him is a fenced area off to the side and a wall around the estate-house. Some pens and smaller shelters stand outside the wall with the main barn set for access from the estate-house and to the pasture. The manor is a fair-sized dwelling of stone and wood with several chimneys and smoke rising from the building.

Jonathan Kilbray returns home, and as he dismounts, his wife Lily greets him with a radiant smile. As she comes out to greet him, her shoulder-length blonde hair moves and bobs as she walks out to her husband. She is carrying their daughter, and the child is batting playfully at her mother's hair. Lily is nearly as tall as he is and the weight from bearing two children has not done her harm. On the contrary, she has filled out and become womanly. Jonathan smiles as he sees her coming. She could have had a pampered life, but like him, she enjoys handling the care of the estate-house, her children, and her husband. In her arms is a pudgy little child, their daughter of but one summer. Her black hair is growing and her smile is infectious. When she sets those amber eyes on someone, even the toughest men on the estates soften. The child could charm everyone. Although she has gained weight, there is a hint that she will not stay that way. Her parents' ancestry precludes that she will have to worry about it, and she is destined to be a willowy female that will gain attention.

"Welcome home, love, and how was your trip?" Lily asks as he dismounts from his horse. A stable boy comes out to take charge of the horse.

"Very good, Lily, very good indeed," he replies as he grabs the bulging saddlebags and slings them over his shoulder. He puts an arm around her waist and gives her a quick kiss, and then he leans down and rubs his nose with his daughter's nose. The child giggles and pats his cheeks with her long fingers.

"Did you get a chance to meet with his lordship?"

"Yes, I did, but let us go inside and I will tell you all about it," he says, giving her a hug and then leading her towards the manor.

Inside she moves away from him, sets the child down on the floor, and then sits on the couch near the tea tray and pours out a cup of tea for him.

"So tell me, how do we fare with his lordship taking a mate of his choosing? Is our Aithera to be cast aside as if she were nothing? What of the longstanding agreement between the estates?" She leans forward to set the tea down before him, her eyes looking at him seriously. The child remains sitting where she has been placed, busy playing with her hands. He watches her for a moment and smiles before turning his attention back to Lily.

"After I got the horse to his lordship's stables, I found out that there was to be a small informal gathering at the manor the next day. I took the time for the rest of my first day there to make some more mating deals with the stable master. They really like our stock. The next day I visited the outer village and picked up the few items you requested and then visited with one of the village heads that was staying at the lodge. Near evening, the gathering started. I do not think his lordship knows what little means," he chuckles, remembering the large gathering in the main room of the manor. "I have not been there since Percival died, so there have been some changes. We should have attended the wedding, but I would not risk you in that pass after what happened to Percival, especially when you were with child." He spares a moment, as his grin fades, to think of Devon's father's last visit to the estate. Then the picture of the recent gathering comes back into Jonathan's mind and his grin returns.

She slaps his shoulder and smiles at him. "Well, do not sit there grinning like a fool. When did you get to talk to Lord Pellinore?"

"Ouch ... sorry, dear." He rubs his shoulder in mock pain and grins at her. "The Lord and Lady of the valley did appear finally and mingle in the crowd. Do try to remember, Devon was already a young lad when you and I wed. I must say, he has turned out to be quite a handsome ..."

"Lady, my chicken droppings. She has to be nothing more than a street girl looking to get more than her station would allow. I bet she is soft and pampered and hasn't done a day's work in her life. If it wasn't for these," she cups her breasts, "she would not have gotten anywhere," Lily says bitterly, and she sinks back into the couch and crosses her arms and frowns.

"Now, my sweets, easy there. I did get to meet with them," he says and rests a hand on her knee. "I too was a bit miffed when we heard that he was taking her to be his own and was wondering about the agreement. Now patience, my love, let me finish." He reaches with both hands and fills them with the soft mounds of his wife's breasts. "She does indeed have those."

"Jonathan!" she squeaks as she uncrosses her arms and bats his hands away, but a smile comes to her face. She looks around the room to assure herself that they are still alone.

He sits back grinning and rests a hand on her knee. "But it is her face that everyone looks at, not her bodice."

The sour look is gone and she places a hand on top of his and smiles at him. "Yes, dear, please continue. I will be good."

"That's my girl. Now where was I? Oh, yes. I was talking to some elders when they stepped slowly back from me. I thought I had said something to offend them when I noticed they were looking behind me, so I turned and coming through the crowd was the Lord and Lady. At first, my ire was raised, but after looking at her," he sighs, "all I can say is that she is lovely. No, she is beautiful. If that was all he saw in her, one could only be jealous."

Lily scoffs but says nothing.

"Like I said, my hackles were raised when I saw her, but she released her hand from his lordship, and she laid that hand on my arm. That delicate hand hides a strength I would not like to test. No, Lily, she is not soft, she only looks it." His eyes get a faraway look. "She called me by name. It seemed that she knew everyone's name and something about them. She is amazing. His lordship said that we had some business to attend to and excused me from my conversation companions. They led me out to that grand balcony they have and slightly away from the noise. Lily, she apologized to me and to you for being the one who caused him to break the agreement, and that our services to the valley and to those of the manor must never be neglected. She even knew about Aithera." He looks at the girl child swaying and cooing on the floor and smiles proudly

"Okay, Jonathan, so she seemed to be a likable sort. Then what?"

"My dear, if anyone deserves the title of grand lady of anywhere, she is the one for that title. Just wait 'til you meet her. They will be here in two days to pick out some horses."

Lily's eyes widen. "His lordship and lady coming here? To my little cottage! Jonathan, however did you do it?

He chuckles at his wife and then continues, "I had nothing to do with it. We were talking about the agreement, and yes, it still stands but it has changed slightly. If they have a son within the next five summers, then Aithera is to be his. If they have a girl, then she will be for Tobin. If no child comes during that period, then she will be an official ward of the manor and he will see that she meets the right man. Lady Pellinore likes having arrangements, but she says that the heart will choose for itself and the arrangements must take that into account."

"Silly notion," Lily says, looking at him softly, for it was her heart that had made her choice. "Maybe she is not all that bad. Aithera is to become a ward of the manor if they have no heir. We would lose her then?"

"Not at all. She can school and learn with those of the valley and when she is not learning, she will be with us. Just short visits for learning is all."

"Well, that is a good thing. Now what did you mean about it not being you that convinced them?"

"Ah yes," he replies, "our business was done when two dragons glided overhead, a large dark-colored one and a smaller light-colored one. You could have heard a pin drop as all the conversations stopped. His lordship did not seem surprised or upset about their arrival. The dragons glided down and just before they would have to fly away or risk getting a foothold on the balcony railing, they changed. Right before my eyes, they changed into humans and lightly set down on the balcony. The large dragon became a sour-looking young man, and the smaller dragon became an elegant, older-looking lady. They came right up to his lordship and lady."

Her eyes again went wide. "I did not know they could take human form, will wonders never cease. What did you do?"

"I made a polite excuse and stepped back slightly, but stayed just close enough to catch their greeting. It was that young Garinith and the lady was the clan Matriarch. When I heard this, I decided that I needed to be somewhere else. I made my way towards the stairs that lead down from the balcony to that lovely garden they have, figuring I have had enough excitement for one day and would head out from there."

"Oh my, that is more than you wanted to do while you were there."

He nods and then continues. "Yes, well I didn't make it very far before her voice called me up short. I turned and there she was. The clan Matriarch was addressing me!"

Lily interrupts him again. "What did she want with you?"

"I am getting to that, patience, love," he chuckles. "Anyway, as she came near, she looked down to that garden of theirs and started asking questions about us and Aithera. She knew we had a girl child, and she seemed to know a lot about her without the need to ask." He is interrupted again, but this time it is by the clattering of something on the floor. The child is sitting there, fumbling with a box in her lap. The saddlebags straps are undone and open.

"Now how did she do that?" he asks, watching the little girl.

"Oh, Jonathan, she has been getting into everything that is not tied closed. The better question is, what does she have there and where did you get it?" Lily looks at what Aithera is holding.

Jonathan turns to his wife. "It seems our little Aithera is full of surprises. That box is what I was getting to." He gets up and moves to pick up the child and the box, cooing to his daughter as he takes her to her mother. Then he takes his seat as the child fidgets and squirms in her mother's lap, reaching towards her father and the box.

"The Matriarch said that she had a gift for our little one, but I was not to give it to her until the time was right and that I would know when that time comes. I was only to give it to her then, not sooner, and that it would aid her in her time of greatest need."

"I don't think I like the sound of that," Lily says, frowning.

"No, her statement does not bode well," Jonathan says and he frowns slightly. "She also said something strange. There were great things in store and that the valley would need our Aithera, and that we had the charge to protect her. She spoke softly but there was no denying that she was very serious." He sighs. "She also said that her time was upon her, and that she had to pass on to the next, that which is part of the whole. Beats me what that means."

"Well, that is a bit cryptic of her," Lily comments.

"Yes, she was that," Jonathan says, fingering the box. "She gave me the words to open it." He thinks for a moment and then whispers some strange words. The symbol on the box glows and then the lid on the box opens, and he pulls out a jeweled pendant attached to a chain. "It is a pretty thing. I guess Aithera will like it when the time is right."

"Jonathan, look at Aithera," Lily whispers, as the squirming child in her lap has gone suddenly still and stares wide-eyed at the pendant. "She seems to be mesmerized by it. Put it away. I don't know if I like this gift."

He puts the jewel back in the box and closes it. The symbol on the top pulses and then goes dark. He shakes his head. "I don't think the clan Matriarch would give a child something that would hurt her. It has to be for a good purpose. A charm maybe."

"Maybe you are right. I just don't know. We will have to see and keep our ears open for clues as to what it is. Yet, if the Matriarch said we must protect the child, it might not be too bad." Lilly sighs and then her smile returns. "Now, was that all that happened?"

"Let me see. Garinith was talking with his lordship and not looking at all pleased, but he did brighten when a young woman with red hair made her way to him, and they talked for a bit. The Matriarch joined them for a while before they moved to the edge of the balcony. Then Garinith and the Matriarch floated up and transformed back into dragons. Garinith headed to the southern mountains and the Matriarch just kept going up and up until we could see her no more."

"Is that it then, and you headed for home?"

"No dear. After they left, his lordship came over to me and said that they would like to visit and pick out some horses, and he asked if a few days would be enough time for us to be ready."

"I hope you assured them that it would be fine," she says, getting up and walking over to the nanny that had just entered, and she hands Aithera to her. She gives her instructions to the nanny before she returns to her husband. "When Gretta returns, please have her bring Tobin in to see his father."

"Yes, Milady," The nanny replies, and then she leaves the room with the child.

"Speaking of Tobin, where is our young lord?"

"Oh, I didn't tell Gretta when you were going to be back." She turns back to him with a warm smile and a gleam in her eyes. "I wanted a moment with you for myself, and Aithera has been moody lately. I thought just a moment with her father would be a pleasant surprise."

"I will always have time for the ladies in my life." He smiles as he reaches for her and takes her hand, pulling her onto his lap. "And, yes, I did say that anytime the Pellinores wanted to visit would be a good time, and that is how and why they are coming here," he says, sitting back and eyeing the box, as she leans against him and his arms go about her waist.

Lily looks from her husband to the door that her child was carried through. "She is only a summer old and already she has men vying for her attention. What are we going to do with her?" she says as she turns back to look at him. "As for our little rascal, I believe Gretta took him out to the garden to run. He has been very active of late. He needs his father's hand, I believe." Her eyes twinkle as she looks at him from her perch. "He is four summers now and is curious about everything. I believe he already wishes to learn to ride, but I think he is yet too young," she says, looking into his eyes. "Welcome home, Milord," she says as she leans against him. "Now, is there anything else that I can do for you?"

"Why, Lady Kilbray. Are you getting soft these days?" His hand gently wanders over her back.

She leans up, and her lips nearly touch his ear. "Want to find out how soft?" she says, nibbling on his ear.

 

 

 

 

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