Disclaimer: This is all fiction, any resemblance to persons or places are entirely accidental
Pairing: Stolken and Lara (husband and wife} Julis and Hal to be married.
Warnings: a very little violence
Lara stepped outside, feeling uneasy.
It was the clouds, she decided, appearing like insidious ogresses in the evening sky. Clouds stained red by the sun's blood.
Shying from the ethereal wrath she sheltered within her shawl before leaving the protection of the porchway. Unnoticed by her feet lay the remains of a small dove-grey egg; a tiny reptilian scurrying for shelter.
She sighed, heavily, then stepped out onto the road, the brick red dust staining the hem of her sprig muslin dress.
A perfect day to die.
A man, clad in crimson leather, moved out from the shadow of the Marly Oak. He startled her. Grinning with a face as grim as death's coachman he spoke, tone unpleasantly stilted.
"Is this the village of Hoeton?"
* * *
"Eh! That's a good job." Stolken stood back from the house, admiring his handiwork. "And in time too," he added eyeing the distant clouds, "in for a storm tonight and no doubt."
"Oh father it's wonderful." Julis hugged him.
"Thank you sir. We'll give you what's due, when we can." Hali promised.
Stolken laughed, clapping a huge hand on the young man's shoulder.
"Let's have none of that 'sir' lark, Hal." He smiled. "By Belas, lad, you're marrying my daughter tomorrow. It's Stol now, call me Stol."
"Er, right, Stol."
"It's all right Hal." Julis smiled sideways to her father. "Father snaps a lot but he doesn't bite."
"Cheeky scamp!" Stolken smiled. "If it weren't for the wedding I'd spank you good and proper. Well, thinking about it," Stolken mused absently, "it can wait 'til after."
"You know you won't father," Julis hugged him again, then gazed at the house he'd helped then build. "We'll pay you back though, as soon as Hali gets settled and such."
"Don't worry about it," Stolken soothed, proud of each masoned brick and tenoned beam, a culmination of his life's career. "Just live contentedly and raise my grandchildren, that's all I'll expect."
Julis bit her lip and fell silent. Stolken glanced at her briefly then turned to the road to look for his wife, shielding his eyes from the low sun. Over the last few days Julis and Hali had acted strangely, almost nervously. It puzzled him. Perhaps pre-wedding nerves, or the effect of recent rumors that was running around the town?
"I wonder where Lara is?" Stolken spoke gruffly, hiding his concern. "Sun's coming to rest, she should be here by now, what with the weather and all."
"No need to fret father, " Julis chastised him lightly, looping her arm through Hali's. "Best if we wait for her at the tavern. She's probably there expecting us now."
"Ah, I don't now, it’s getting dark." Stolken countered. "I know its less than a league but those roads, well I wouldn't like to trust them once the sun's gone. I've been shaken a few times myself."
Julis laughed and even Hali gave a half smile. She drew Hali forward and linked her free arm with her father's.
"And, no doubt, the flagons of ale had little to do with the beasties that prowled in the night," she teased. "No father, I think we should wait at the tavern. Mother will be there soon."
Stolken began walking, guided by Julis' gentle pressure.
"Eh, maybe you're right." He sighed. "There you are Hal, see what kind of woman you're marrying. If you ever win an argument with her I'll personally buy you a barrel of ale."
"It's easy sir, I mean, Stol." He stuttered. "I always win the arguments. I argue for what she wants and lose."
Stolken's guffaw cracked the evening air.
The tavern was amelancholy affair. Here and there flakes of stone, cracked by frost and penetrating damp, hung precariously from the weather beaten walls. This defect exposed the rot that inched into the rafters. Yet despite its decay the tavern had a cozy feel. An open fire fueled by giant oak logs crackled in its hearth and people gathered around to escape the bitter storm winds that cut in maliciously from the mountains. It was a homely tavern and tonight the delicate freshness of muslin clad women intermixed with the tangy smell of leather jerkins and slacks.
The usual mix of travelers was there, half-starved peddlers and the poorer class of merchants. Once, many years ago, the tavern had housed the king's grandsire for the night. A happenstance which the innkeeper often reminded his patrons. The more cynical villagers even rumored amongst themselves of a child, illegitimate to the king, conceived within a luckless maid. A blood-line traced to Lara and one which she casually laughed aside.
"If I were a princess, " she'd say, "I'd be looking to King Theltor to clothe me. And a room, no, I would want a palace in Palamor."
"I'm glad for that," Stolken had pulled her closer. "Eh, they'd be none other I could live for."
Rumor, Stolken remembered. Rumors were a dangerous weapon and the fiercest rumor of all was creeping through the village tonight.
The father of rumors.
Yet less severe as legends are told, he allowed. A special legend. A legend of love.
"She's not here." Stolken broke his thought, not seeing Lara in the tavern.
"Hush, stop worrying father, she'll be here soon."
"Eh! Would that I could, Julis." Stolken sighed. "It's just that..."
"How are the young soul mates?"
Stolken glared at the interruption that forced Julis and Hali further into their sober humor.
Loathe to show anger on the eve of his daughter's wedding Stolken took a gold shak from his pocket and passed it to Therlrod. The half-drunken layabout snatched the coin.
"Buy yourself more drink, Therlrod. I've heard it said that much ale stills the tongue."
"Many thanks." Therlrod pocketed the coin then glanced at the youngsters before turning to the bar. "To think," he muttered, "that it should happen in our own town."
A little while later a table was cleared near the center of the tavern and wine, then ale and grothle, a tangy citrus drink, were brought forth. Soon after the youth of the town descended upon Hal and Julis with congratulations and cheers. Disconcerted at his wife's absence Stolken watched the door. In a quiet moment he turned to Julis. She was subdued, edgy.
"Is it true?" Stolken asked. "Are you soul mates? You tell each others thoughts?"
Julis bit her lip. Then turned to Stolken, her posture excluding the crowd.
"We went to Tolifa, the Shaman," she whispered, a voice tuned below any listening ear. "He says we are not."
"Ha! It's as I've always said." Stolken agreed. "Legends and rumors bring harm not good."
"Legend perhaps father." Julis admitted, her eyes glistening with concern. "But Tolifa warned us. There is someone coming, a true soul mate, who will destroy our happiness tomorrow."
"Impossible." Stolken denied her words. "There's no such thing. Besides it will be too late then. You will be married by choice and law."
"It makes no difference father." Julis sighed, nervously pulling at her cuff. "All binding laws are void when a Soul Match occurs. Hali and I just pray the Shaman is wrong. We don’t want to see strangers arriving tonight."
"Humph, legends and strangers." Stolken muttered. "If you're to believe all you hear then you'd never rise from bed come dawn. Superstition? The Shaman thrives on it!"
"Perhaps." Julis agreed, then paled as the room fell silent.
Looking to the door Stolken felt relief to see Lara. Determinedly she removed her shawl and shook the patter of rain from it. Then he saw the man. Tall, angular and with a pleasing bearing. Too pleasant, his easy manner would make even the most hardened foe quail. His face was concealed in a scarlet hood fashioned of soft leather.
"My soul mate." Julis whispered to Stolken, her eyes and face transfixed with fear.
Stolken's throat dried as the stranger doffed his hood, looked towards them. Steel grey eyes leered at Julis. Her hand trembled as she sipped some wine.
The stranger took a coin from his pouch and tossed it across to the innkeeper.
"A flagon of your best wine," he called.
With a practiced twist of the wrist the innkeeper caught the gold mid-flight as he turned towards the cellar. Lara smiled at Stolken and walked to the table, sitting beside him. The stranger followed.
Stolken glared at him with a suspicious anger. The crimson leather jerkin and slacks, now covered by a maroon cloak, were both perfectly dry. The man’s cloak was fastened at his throat by a golden clasp, fashioned with delicate workmanship to depict a pair of twisting serpents entrapping the sun with their mating passions. This clasp named him.
The stranger was a wizard.
When the wizard had settled the silence broke and a subdued murmur revolved around the unusual guest. The wizard said nothing.
"Why are you here?" Stolken asked impatiently. "We've never met before. And you’re not from these parts"
The wizard looked levelly at him then transfixed his gaze to Julis. The young girl tilted her head, hiding her face with tumbles of auburn hair.
Lara spoke, surprising them. "Kher merely comes for what is his." Her voice was laced with unusual plainness. "Then he will go." she added with a strict finality.
Kher smiled, raising the wine to his lips in toast.
"Yet for tonight," he gazed again on Julis, "I'm content to share the company of a beautiful woman."
He grinned at Julis' half-stifled sob. It was only Lara's hand on his arm which bound Stolken to his seat.
The evening had been marred. Hali had drunk himself senseless while Julis edged towards panic. All the while the wizard sat, enigmatically watching the chaos he'd brought.
Eventually they were forced to return home early.
Shaking with anger Stolken sat in the scullery watching the uncertain flicker of the oil lamp. Up in the loft he heard Lara soothing Julis. The poor child had wept all the way home, each tear breaking his heart and stoking his rage.
He looked up as Lara entered.
"This cannot be." He insisted. "I will not allow this wizard to take my child."
Lara sat heavily in the chair, opposite him. The strain of the day marked her features.
"There is no way you can stop him." She sighed. "That is the pleasure and pain of a soul match. The soul's mates cannot live apart. Their lives, once they've met, are twined by Makbar and no one can untie them." Lara shrugged pitifully. "Yet the pleasure of finding, of living, with a soul mate should be the greatest gift a person can find. Not one of fear and hatred."
The soft clatter of hooves sounded from the courtyard. Stolken's apprehension rose.
"So what do you advocate then?" He demanded. "That we hand our only child to the wizard and praise Makbar for our blessings."
"Julis is safe." Lara sighed again, standing and straightening the ruckles in her dress. She looked wistfully out of the window to the shadows of the moonlit Blue mountains.
"What makes you so sure?" Stolken countered angrily. "From what I've seen I'd not trust him more than a drunkard."
"Julis is safe." Lara insisted, turning to him. Her face torn with pain. "Julis is safe, because I'm his soul mate."
Stolken stumbled at her words.
"You?" He swallowed.
"Yes." Her head fell, despondently she studied the floor. "I, Lara, illegitimate heir to the throne of Palamor. A cursed fact I tried for years to destroy, but the busybodies would interfere. What better, after all, than to have princess Lara in the village. It'll make the other villages cringe with shame." Tense bitterness fueled her voice. "It is how Kher found me, he knew his mate would be royal. Now he'll seek Theltor's throne and the rape of Palamor."
"Stuff and nonsense!" Stolken snapped. "These lies have been passed on too long. Soul mates? Princess? You're neither of these, and no man takes my wife. Wizard or not."
"He does not take me!" Lara glared back. "I go freely because to live without him is death. I only fear to go because I know his thoughts. He is evil, and he's proud of his crimes. Let me go Stolken, or his anger will destroy you all. He lusts after Julis."
Stolken stepped back, dazed by her words and meanings.
"Stolken!" Kher's voice penetrated the granite walls. "I've come for Lara. We ride tonight."
"Do as he says." Lara pleaded. "For Julis' sake, if not your own."
Dismayed Stolken turned to the door, retrieving his jacket from the chair and dragging it heavily across the table.
"Very well." He grumbled. "If it's your wish."
"It is not my wish." Lara replied coldly. "It is my fate."
Out in the courtyard Kher waited. His horse panted lightly in the cold air. A second mount waited, saddled for Lara.
Stolken walked over to him, staring evenly at the cruel grin.
"Look after her." He told the wizard. "For you take my life."
Kher looked over to Lara then back at Stolken.
"You're right," he agreed, "I'll see that she's well used."
Goaded by rage Stolken threw his jacket, startling Kher's horse. Rearing it tossed the wizard to the soil, within seconds Stolken's hands found their prize. Kher choked in their grip.
"You fool." Kher croaked.
Lara's cries were unheeded as Stolken was thrown backwards his face dragged along the ground. Carelessly Kher stood.
"A clever trick." He nodded approvingly. "Too clever perhaps. I was going to save you for the Sniren but I think I'll enjoy killing you myself. And then there's your daughter...."
Wiping a streak of blood from his eyes Stolken watched the wizard raise his hand. A ball of light lay in his palm. It expanded slowly.
As it grew it took shape, a translucent foetus with a bat like face, it's arms and legs formed tough leather appendages with gleaming claws. It's torso a mat of greasy fur. Growth complete it stood a hand's breadth shorter than a man.
Through the transparent figure Stolken saw the five strands that held it, puppetlike, to Kher's fingers.
"Kill me Kher, if you will," He called, beyond fear now. "I am dead in spirit without Lara, take my body as well then I can rest at last."
"As you wish," Kher replied, his eyes shining, "though I fear your death will be neither quick or painless."
Stolken closed his eyes, awaiting the strike of claw.
"Forvenar curse you!" Kher swore.
Stolken glanced up, Lara stood beside the wizard her face and body tense with concentration. Before him the creature stood just beyond reach, keening in frustration as it flailed helplessly at him.
"Let me go woman!" Kher shouted at her. "When this is done I will make you pay dearly for your interference."
"Leave him," Lara answered, the strain of the contest telling in her voice. "He is my husband."
"You have no husband," Kher reminded her. "I intend to make certain of that."
Stolken watched, fascinated, as the creature struggled nearer to him, a claw scratched his leg. The creature wailed pitifully, driven on by the smell of blood. Then it screamed. Two pendulous weights, formed from the same translucence and strung from the sky, swung together, crushing it between them. Kher staggered back, shocked by the recoil.
"It would be best if you and Lara leave." Tolifa appeared from the edge of darkness. The frail Shaman stepped between Kher and his victim as Lara rushed to her husband. Tearing a strip from her dress she bound his wound.
"Warn the King," she whispered.
Kher stared at the Shaman.
"You? You would dare deny me?"
Suddenly the wizard's anger turned to laughter.
"Come my delicious one," He called Lara over. "It's time to take our leave. Many thanks for your gracious hospitality." He bowed mockingly to Stolken, then mounted his horse. "It was pleasant knowing you."
He laughed again then whipped the horse to a gallop.
Hurriedly Lara rushed after.
"Lara!" Stolken called. "Lara, come back!"
She refused to answer.
"She is lost." The tired Shaman turned to him. "For now our business lies elsewhere."
Stolken saw the aging lines on the Shaman's face and finally understood his wisdom.
"We must warn the King."
* * *
Stolken wept long after the Shaman had left. Whatever words the old man had spouted earlier, here and alone they sounded all the same. Meager excuses for a cursed fate.
"She'll come back." Stolken insisted, arguing with the shake of the Shaman's grey head. "I know her. She will tire of him and come back."
"There can be no return for her." Tolifa warned. "Now she is claimed, even unwillingly, she is bound by the laws of Makbar. Both their abilities are enhanced. But to separate is to die."
Stolken only half believed and the Shaman finally left him to his tears.
The lamp began to sputter as its wick became low. He stood to adjust it when there was a soft knocking on the door.
"Lara?" His hopes rose as the knocking repeated. “Did he hurt you?"
Ignoring the dying lamp he rushed to the door, eagerly drawing the bolts he threw it open.
Then stared up into a hungry lizard grin.