When one considers soul’s mates, one thinks of three words; destiny, love, and impossibility.
Destiny operated on a tight schedule in the kingdom of Stillvalley. While in other universes Destiny might be known for her fickleness, in Stillvalley she was as sharp as a needle and just as likely to prick you till you bled. She ran an efficient operation and never failed to reward heavy tippers. It was her duty to ensure that each and every being in Stillvalley, from the lowliest flea to the mightiest beast, had a soul’s mate. And she had never missed one single solitary creature.
Well. Not yet, anyway.
Love, sadly, had little to do with how Destiny chose soul’s mates. A soul’s mate was, quite simply, the second half of you, freed out into the world somewhere. Love was just a bonus. She wasn’t sure if she or her sister Destiny had gotten the better deal; Love was uncertain about a lot of things.
And impossibility; well, the people of Stillvalley never liked to use that word. For one, in a kingdom where to see an official delegation of mountain trolls dressed in ornamental mud-brown (for state occasions) trudging its way down the halls of Stillvalley Castle was little more than A Day in the Life, Impossibility was rarely ever on anybody’s lips.
Soul’s mates, in Stillvalley, were anything but an impossibility.
“May the Sun always smile down upon thee, but not burn thy skins. May the Rivers quench thy thirst, but not drown thy love. May the Breeze blow fairly, but not destroy thy harvest. May the Soil bring forth new life, but not fill thy boots. And all thee today-”
Alunah jumped guiltily as her mother prodded her in the ribs. The official presiding over the soul-binding ceremony turned his eagle gaze upon the thirteen-year-old girl who had been serenely snoozing throughout the ceremony, lulled by the heat of the day. Beside the official, her sister Lily glared pointedly at Alunah. She straightened up, knowing that Lily would box her ears when she could find an opportunity for so drawing the attention away from herself on the most important of days. Alunah wanted to stick out her tongue at her sister, but Alunah’s mother had been very strict on the subject of tongues as she wiped the ever-present dirt from her second-youngest daughter’s face. The morning before the soul-binding ceremony had been a whirl of activity, but Immiel Lightfeather had still found the time to warn her daughter about the importance of the afternoon’s activities.
“You must be very good today, Alunah,” Immiel had said, taking a cloth and scrubbing ineffectually at her daughter’s ever-filthy face. “Today Lily becomes a young woman, and you must be polite and well-behaved. And you must not stick out your tongue, or the elves will come and cut it off for you.”
Immiel’s threat was non uncommon in the kingdom of Stillvalley. The elves that inhabited the forests which fringed the kingdom were the fear of every serf and lord alike. But though Alunah’s village was near the borders of Stillvalley, she had never before seen the elves which her family had such cause to fear. Sometimes Alunah imagined meeting an elf. Always she found herself befriending the pointed little creature rather than tearing it limb from limb as she had been taught to do by her brother, Xerk. Xerk sat beside Alunah now, and tugged violently on her sleeve to bring her attention back to the soul-binding ceremony. The official was talking pointedly in the direction of Alunah.
“And take heed, all ye who witness this most reverend of ceremonies, that ye shall know your soul’s mates when ye shall see them, and take their hearts unto your heart, and join your own souls in this most sacred of ways…”
Alunah could not resist letting out a little giggle.
The soul-binding ceremony was the single most important ceremony in the land. It was the ceremony wherein you pledged your soul to your soul’s mate for good or ill, and it was more intimate, and more dangerous, than any marriage ceremony in this world.
Finding a soul’s mate was a less than difficult task. About the age of fourteen, you began to have flashes of your soul’s mate in your mind. These flashes were too indistinct to make out any features, but when you finally did meet them you knew in your mind that you had found your soul’s mate. Then you could hold the soul-binding ceremony, for it was said that if you knew of your soul’s mate and did not bind yourself to them in the ceremony within a certain period of time, the kingdom itself could be put in danger, and the King’s Wards, which protected the kingdom from attack, could begin to flicker from the imbalance of soul forces. And then the elves would sneak into the kingdom by night, and slit the throats of every Stillvallian one by one.
By the time Alunah was fifteen, she had been to seven soul-binding ceremonies, and four of those seven had been for her own brothers and sisters.
When Alunah was sixteen, she attended the soul-binding ceremony of her youngest sister, only nine months younger than she, and then Alunah was the only Lightfeather child who had not found their soul’s mate.
As her seventeenth birthday approached, Immiel Lightfeather began to fear for her daughter, and she began to fear, moreover, for the kingdom itself.
***It was dark as Alunah tried to sneak back into the Lightfeather farmhouse without alerting her mother. A single candle burned in the parlour, and Alunah began to walk on the tips of her toes to prevent the floorboards from creaking. She thought she made not a sound, but as she passed the door to the parlour and let out a little sigh of relief, she heard Immiel call her name.
“Kelpie fodder,” Alunah swore under her breath. “You have the ears of a faerie,” Alunah told her mother as she reluctantly entered the whitewashed parlour. Immiel looked sadly at her daughter. Her tanned face, darkened from many days working in the harsh sun, was littered with worry lines. They made her skin appear soft, pliable, despite the many days she had spent working. Her light blonde hair, almost whitened from so much exposure to the light, was tied up carelessly atop her head. She regarded her daughter mournfully with eyes the colour of little blue amethysts. The flickering orange candlelight threw a wealth of shadows across her face, and created thick, obtrusive shadows in the far ends of this, the finest room in the Lightfeather farmhouse.
“Where were you, Alunah?” she asked in a resigned voice which spoke of many long nights like this one, waiting for her daughter to return home as she saw fit.
“Helping Miss Jeylda and Miss Dolores fish newts out of their well, Mother,” Alunah answered promptly.
“Miss Dolores came to visit me an hour since, Alunah, and told me you had finished with the newts two hours ago.”
Alunah bit her lip to stop from cursing Miss Dolores. Alunah liked the old woman. She was soft and gentle and loved little children; it was her sister Miss Jeylda who frightened Alunah, with her thin mouth and her searching eyes which reminded Alunah oddly of that official who presided over the soul-binding ceremonies in the village.
“Alunah?” Immiel prompted, forcing Alunah out of her reverie.
“Yes, Mother?” Alunah answered meekly.
“Can you explain yourself?”
Alunah hesitated. Her mother would not like to hear the truth, but Immiel had a way of knowing when Alunah was lying. It was something about her eyes, Alunah had figured out, but she had never been able to learn what it was that she did with her eyes which always gave her away. Taking a deep breath, Alunah said, “I was swimming in the lake.”
Immiel pursed her lips before asking, “Alone?”
“Alone,” Alunah confirmed, glad that in this at least she was blameless.
“Alunah…” Immiel began on a familiar theme. “You must be careful. Not everyone is so respectful of their soul’s mates that they would not take advantage of a young girl swimming alone, naked as the day she was born, in the middle of a forest!”
“I wore my shift, Mother!” Alunah argued quickly, glancing at the floor as she did.
Immiel did not need a second to say, “You did not.”
“No, I did not,” Alunah admitted, frustrated that her mother had found her out again. “There was not a soul about, Mother, I checked quite thoroughly,” she added quickly, hoping to repair some of the damage.
“The forest has eyes, Alunah.”
Alunah couldn’t help but laugh. “Mother, if elves truly are hiding here, they would have more important things to do than to watch a little human girl bathe in the lake!”
“I do not like you going there, Alunah,” Immiel persisted, in her voice of quiet authority. “The forest is a dangerous place.” As she said this she glanced over at the faint watercolour a wandering painter had once made of a then-young and handsome man. Lionel Lightfeather smiled up at his soul’s mate with a half-hopeful, half-penitent expression, as if he were seeking forgiveness for being foolhardy enough to get himself killed and leave Immiel to deal with their troublesome daughter all on her own.
“The War was a long time ago, Mother.”
“Not that long ago,” Immiel argued softly, turning around and sweeping the floor with her rough linen work dress. “We forced the elves out of our realm, Alunah, but that does not mean that we vanquished them completely. They will be back. I am only thankful that your father will not have to live to see it, and I pray my children will not either.”
“And you?’ Alunah asked, sensing that her mother’s reminiscing had ended their argument.
Immiel gave a small smile. “I will be on the front line, and I shall beat any with my scythe, any who try to set so much as one poisonous foot on my land.”
Alunah smiled. “That would be a magnificent sight,” she said. “I should dearly love to see you flay the elves within an inch of their lives.”
“You shall not be here,” Immiel said. “You shall have left this village to go to Stillvalley Castle with your soul’s mate.”
The atmosphere in the room changed perceptively. It was a common joke in the Lightfeather house, not entirely unfounded on hope. Immiel would cast her pale eyes to the rough plastered wall and put for the suggestion that the reason her daughter still lived with her on the old family farm was because she was destined for a nobleman, who would come at any opportune moment to whisk her Alunah away to the Castle. Noblemen were thin on the ground in Havenlock, the village which the two of them inhabited, but deep down inside, Immiel treasured the hope that the day would, indeed, come at last. Alunah looked down at the scrubbed wooden floor as her mother eyed her with a new intensity.
“I worry, Alunah,” Immiel sighed.
Alunah stood up, no longer wanting to speak of her future. “I’m tired,” she muttered.
“Alunah,” Immiel called softly, but her daughter had already escaped through the door and ran upstairs clutching her water-soaked skirts in her hands.
Immiel sighed and glanced back to the picture of her long-dead mate. “I will not say I wish you were here, Lionel, for I do not. I am glad you were spared this anxiety. You had a good heart, but you were a weak man.” With that, Immiel kissed the tips of her fingers and lightly put them to the paper, before extinguishing the candles and groping her way upstairs in the dark.