-1Once upon a time, in the mountains of a place called Meri-Anderia……

The morning dew lay on the grass, sparkling like stars from the sky. A rabbit hopped here and there, nibbling at bits of clover wet with the dew. A vixen dashed through the tall grass in another part of the meadow, her ears trained on the sound of a field mouse she was stalking. Further away, a doe nudged her little fawn in front of her out of their hidden thicket, encouraging it to take it's first steps. The fawn, shy and nervous, was unsure on it's wobbly legs thin as stalks which threatened to give out from under him.

A silent pair of booted feet traveled swiftly through the grass, as noiseless as a cat. The rabbit looked up from it's morning meal of clover buds in the their direction. The doe and the vixen glanced towards them as well- the vixen, having just pounced, with a field mouse dangling from her mouth. The animals paused to determine the nature of the sound, but after a moment, they all resumed their business, having recognized the cloaked figure moving through the field.

Aleris never slowed in her gait as she moved in the direction of the other end of the meadow. Her steps, quick and sure never faltered. They moved in a beat, making barely any sound as she passed through the tall grass. The animals in the meadow held no fear of the girl. They knew, for the moment at least, that she possessed no threat to them. For though they maintained the relationship of hunter and prey, they had each the others respect. In the years they had lived in the mountains, Aleris and her father had proven different than the other human hunters in these parts. They only killed when they had to, they held respect for those they hunted, never killed more than they could eat between the two of them and never wasted what they did.

As she walked, Aleris drew her cloak more tightly about her, as the morning chill worked it's way through. She blew out slowly, her breath making a cloud of steam that took a while to fade away. Her pulse beat steadily, working to keep her warm. Ahead of her, through the trees on the other side of the meadow, she saw a column of smoke, writhing it's way up towards the sky. She could look forward to a warm, cozy fire when she returned to the cottage she shared with her father. For though the days of spring were warm in this part of the empire, the early hours of morning and the late nights were near frigid, until the sun came fully over the horizon. Aleris could see it now, a mere glow over the mountains, but steadily encroaching over the crests.

Aleris had a hide-skin bag slung over her shoulder under her cloak filled of herbs and nuts she had collected that morning from within the forest. She would hang the plants from the rafters of the kitchen in the cottage to dry, and put the nuts away in one of the many barrels that crowded together in a corner of the kitchen. She would make breakfast; oats again. Maybe some tea; the black tea they still had leftover. Anything that she and her father could not get on their land, they got in the village. They would barter goods for things like sugar, salt, flour, some spices and treats like coffee beans and tea.

Aleris entered the trees and walked at a brisk gate to the cottage not far ahead. She could smell the smoke from the fire; sharp and strong in the clear morning air. About a stone's throw or so ahead of her lay the clearing, comprised of a large grove of oak trees. The cottage lay in the heart of the clearing, not too large, but not too small either. It had been built to comfortably house a small family, and consequently, Aleris and her father had plenty of space. Aleris had her own room, adjacent to her father's, down the hallway from the kitchen. According to her father, he and her mother had found the cottage, after hearing about it from the locals. It had been abandoned for years and reportedly haunted by faeries and the sort. Strangely however, it was in remarkably good condition and after moving in, Aleris' mother and father had fixed it up to the point where there was no chance of it being mistaken for an abandoned home.

The sound of wood being chopped brought Aleris back from her thoughts. Dead ahead lay the cottage and out front, she could see her father splitting logs from their storage pile. He looked up, wiping the sweat from his brow, as she came out from the shelter of the oaks.

"Hello early bird!" he called out to her, grinning.

"Good morning sleepy head!" she retorted, "Did you decide you were hungry?"

He laughed, tilting his head back. "You know me well," he said to her as he gave her a whiskery kiss on the top of her head. Aedan was a tall, strong man. And while there was no doubt of his strength, he was also a clever man. His hair, a salt-and-peppered mane, was no longer the rusty red it had once been. He was growing a small beard, currently little more than a stubble.

Aedan was a carpenter, and a good one at that. He loved to carve things. When Aleris was younger, he used to make her little toys he'd whittle. Her favorite was a small bird, captured in the middle of a song, perched on a piece of a branch. She kept it next to her bed stand at night and by day she carried it around with her in one of the many small pouches that hung from the ornate belt strapped around her waist. The belt was printed in eternal knots that wound their way around the belt in a never ending pattern and the clasp was entirely itself another work of art. The entire thing had been a present for her fourteenth birthday from the town jeweler. He loved to when they came to visit as she reminded him of his own daughter who perished as an infant with his wife during the war.

Aleris went into the cottage, fingering the pouch that carried the wooden bird. Almost all of the toys her father had made for her when she was younger had been traded in the village when she was too old for them. Aedan still made things for her. He had carved her cradle when she was younger, and then her first bed. For her fifteenth birthday, he had bartered away the first bed and made her a bigger one. The cradle had been given as a present to the daughter-in-law of the town apothecary when she was pregnant with her baby girl. Later, Aedan made the girl another cradle for her second baby, a boy.

Hanging up her cloak on one the pegs on the inside of the door, Aleris moved to open up the curtains. The cottage was one story, but that was more than enough room for them. Her father had built himself a workshop for his carving that was only a wheel's turn or so away from the cottage. It had a fireplace, so Aedan was never cold in the winter. Aleris was used to bringing him his meals in there when he was busy working on a project.

Aleris took out her bag carrying her harvest of that morning and set about hanging the herbs and plants from the beams on the ceiling as she waited for the water in the kettle over the fire to boil. On another handle above the fire, she placed a pot of the oats to cook. That kept her busy for a while as she dashed back and forth from the herbs and the fire. And when she had finished with the herbs, she had barely enough time to put the nuts away before the tea kettle had a chance to boil over and the oatmeal burned.

Aedan had taken some of the logs over to the shop while she had been busy in the kitchen and had closeted himself inside. Aleris could hear the sound of wood being chopped and shaped as she stepped out and rang the bell that hung from the roof just outside the kitchen door to call him for breakfast. The sun had come up now and light streamed from the huge opening in the trees into the clearing. Soon, they wouldn't need the fire for warmth. The light danced about the grove, and the small dust particles that flew about the air were visible in the rays of light that fell through. To Aleris, they reminded her of tiny faeries, dancing and twirling about. They mesmerized her, catching her attention utterly. The spun and fell and floated and pranced about, playing with the light as though that was all they existed for.

It was at breakfast, after about 20 minutes of silence and over a spoonful of oatmeal, that Aedan looked up across the hand carved table at his daughter and asked: "Are we low on any supplies?"

Aleris looked up at him thoughtfully. "There's the chicken feed," she said counting off supplies on her fingers, "Sugar, if you want any on your oats, that's low, and I nearly clean used up the flour baking that last batch of scones. We have plenty of salt," she added reflectively, "So that's about it."

Aedan smiled at his daughter, mischievously, "There's a festival in the village in two days, can we last?"

Aeris shrieked in delight and jumped up and through her arms around her father.

"They will be there, won't they?" she asked breathless. Her father nodded in assent, grinning at her ecstasy.

"I guess you better make sure you have a nice outfit too," he said to her.