This early in the Season the weather was still uncertain. It shifted between summer heat and winter cold. Down on the plains, it had been stifling, but it had grown cool as the trail rose into the foothills of the great range. Karl rode with only his white messenger’s cloak about his shoulders. All the better to show off his muscles, to any farm girls that might happen by. Not that he'd seen any farm girls, not since the lovely Lana, down in the Swift Creek village.
He smiled at the thought of the lovely Lana and her budding curves. Maybe he should have asked about a bride price, he mused, but then again if she gave this much to every warrior. He shook his head and tucked a stray lock of golden hair behind his ear. When they came down with the foals, he'd make some enquiries. Right now, there was another business to attend to.
The forest path split here, the left fork going into Ny's pass, and on into the hill country. The right fork meanwhile, meandered its way east, around the foot of Lokton the fire mountain. After several days ride it would arrive at the exact same spot as the pass. The people always went right, for the Ny's pass is filled with dark magic. At least that was the only answer Karl ever got when he asked about it.
But this trip was different. this time Karl was a warrior of the people. and a message rider, protected by the white cloak about his shoulders. His pouch full of message sticks from the plains villages. Most where boring things, saying how many foals this or that merchant would like in the new season. A few were more interesting, though Karl wasn't supposed to know that, for a messenger did not pry.
He looked once more at the fork. They'd be expecting him tomorrow evening. If he hadn’t dallied that extra night with Lana, he'd be on time. He shook his head again and smiled. No good hills girl would have permitted him to touch her like that. Even if he was a warrior now. But it made him late, and the elders would shake their heads at him, and mother would worry.
Karl loosened his sword, pulling a hand’s span of the metal out. The storm bronze blade gleamed golden in the sun, the edges as keen as he could make them. He let it settle again, and nudged his horse to the left. "Superstitious non-sense, Tal, let us see what lies in the forbidden pass."
The way continued straight and level for a league or more. Karl let Tal have his head and gallop over the hard-packed earth. At this rate, they'd be early rather than late. That could lead to questions. In Karl's fifteen winters of experience, questions were never a good thing. Maybe he should make camp early tonight.
Tal lurched to the side, when his hoof hit a dip in the ground, almost unseating Karl, and breaking him from his thoughts. He pulled on the rains and brought the horse back to a walk. Ahead the trail descended twisting left, then right around several boulders as tall as a man. "If this is the forbidden pass then why is the trail so clear?"
beyond the boulders, the trees seemed to grow twisted. Branches reaching down so low that Karl had to lie on Tal's back. They moved forward at a walk, following the bare earth trail. It grew dark, as the canopy thickened.
Karl looked back. It seemed there where trails between every pair of trees, snaking off in every direction. he pulled on the reigns and brought Tal to a halt. Eyes narrowed he scanned the forest again, and picked out the faint hoof marks Tal had left. "Maybe we should turn back, and be late."
He rubbed his chin, still bear of whiskers as it was. If he turned back now they'd be two nights late instead of one. But better late than dead. Damn you, Lana, he thought, I don't care what your bride price is. With a heavy sigh, he turned Tal around and started picking his way back between the twisted pines.
The sun moved down the sky, and the shadows swung around to the north east. He squinted through the gloom picking out the hoofmarks. Then before his eyes, they wavered and reversed direction.
Karl hopped down from Tal's back and squatted, tracing a hoofmark with his finger. The curve of the toe pointed in the direction he was going. The forest here looked, stunted, the trees short and twisty and dense. So dense that afternoon could be confused for dusk, and any hint of the land's contour was obscured. "How in the world, did we get turned about so Tal
The horse whined in answer, it seemed a pitiful sound. Eyes watering, he stood up and remounted Tal and turned him around again. They set off at a slow walk. Picking out hoof prints from hoof prints was hard work. Especially as they would not stay still like hoof prints should.
He persevered until he came to a clearing, where several Beech trees had poisoned the ground. Here the tracks crossed going north to south, and east to west. he gazed up at the Beech grove. It stood tall and straight and slender, in marked contrast to the surrounding trees. "We have not been here Tal, and yet I could swear these are your tracks."
Indeed, the left rear hoof mark had a small twist in it, where a stone had chipped away the edge of Tal's nail. it was as sure a sign as any that he was still following the right tracks, and yet. He made the sign against evil and pulled his waterskin from where it rested against Tal's flank. The water was tepid and stale, but still welcome.
"Ipabog, god of the hunt," He bellowed, "Guide your hunter to his rest. And I will make right sacrifice upon the next hunt. Half my kill, no all my kill will go to you."
If the god of the hunt heard Karl's plea he did not answer. He drew his sword and strode to the nearest tree trunk. And cut two long angled grooves in the bark. "North is this way Tal, " he said, gazing through the canopy and tracing the shadows, "at least I think it is."
He proceeded on foot, leading Tal, on a rope. Eyes watering from the strain of not blinking, as he tracked. The leaves rustled, in a gust of unexpected wind. for one moment the canopy opened, and a spear of sunlight hit Karl's sword dazzling his eyes. he blinked furiously to clear his vision, not moving an inch until he could see again.
Just ahead a stand of beech trees broke the monotony of the twisted forest. Sword clasped in a death grip, he scanned the trunks. And there on the nearest tree was the mark he had cut. Two diagonal slashed pointing back the way they had come.
Karl dropped to his knees and prayed, his eyes growing hot with unshed tears. "I am a fool Tal," he got out between silent sobs, "and I have killed us both."
About him the forest was eerily silent, Even Tal, didn't seem to be making a sound, as he stood beside Karl. And then just at the edge of perception, he heard a girl singing in a language he did not know. The sound seemed to be coming from the left of him.
Karl got up off the ground, gripped his sword firmly, and took up the lead rope again. He strode forward without looking at the ground. Ignoring the treacherous hoofprints. A handful of steps took him out of the beech grove and into the twisted forest. His Ears said that whoever was singing, she must be up ahead.
The trail wove between two boulders as tall as a man. Karl dared not breath as he almost lunged forward, dragging Tal behind him. But the clearing on the other side was not the straightway he had galloped down earlier. Instead, a wide meadow, opened before him. The ground covered in grass and flowers. Beyond that, Mt Lokton rose into the sky, and at is foot a circular pool steamed like an overgrown pot. In the pool was the singing girl, and she took his breath away. All thoughts of the lovely Lana flew straight out of Karl's head. After all what mere farm girl could be called lovely compared to the one that was before him.
Hair the colour of smouldering embers tumbled over smooth shoulders and down her sun-kissed back. She was tanned all over as if she did not bother with mundane things like clothes. A careless half turn, revealed a glimpse of high firm breast, the areola's pink, against the tan.
The sword fell from Karl's hand, landing in the grass. He stumbled forwards, untying the messenger’s cloak from his shoulders. He almost fell pulling his boots off, and then untied his breeches and loincloth, leaving them all in his wake.
The water was warm, almost hot, as he waded in, and headed towards the girl, that could not be a girl, not here, not now. A small voice yelled that he should run. He remembered winter nights by the campfire when he was just a boy. And the Stories Sara told, of spirts that tempt men to their doom.
But this was a girl, a beautiful naked girl. She was only an arm’s length away now. He reached out and touched her shoulder, "fair maiden."
The girl grew still, her song cut off. The water rippled about her narrow waist, and Karl’s heart nearly stopped. She turned, and her breasts where everything he had imagined, firm, and round.
"Who disturbs my bath?" the voice was deeper than he expected, and yet as clear as a bell, and then she laughed, "But it’s just a boy."
He jerked back as if from a slap. "I'm, no boy, I'm a warrior of the Bronze Hill tribe." Karl said, puffing out his chest, "My father is the finest Bronze Smith in the hills."
She clicked her tongue, and smiled at him, then folded her arms over her chest, "Go away boy of the Bronze Hill tribe. Take your messages and get back on your horse, and let him lead you home,"
Karl's heart pounded in his chest, he could feel the blood rushing though him, and his groin was almost painful. He lunged forward to grab her, but somehow, she was out of his reach again.
He followed, pushing through the water and lunged again, only to lose his balance and fall heals overhead. He came back up sputtering.
The girl was some distance away, watching him over one shoulder, arms still folded over her breasts. Her eyes shifted from rich earth brown to a molten yellow. "Foolish child, haven’t your elders warned you what happens to boys who play with spirits?"
The water closest to the girl was beginning to bubble, the surface rolling. Even from several feet away Karl could feel the heat building, as the water churned. He slapped the surface and roared his frustration, but he turned around and stomped back the way he had come.
Who did this spirit girl think she was, calling him a boy, she couldn't be much older than him anyway. It was then that he noticed the cloak. made of black cloth and feathers in all the colours of the flame, yellow, and orange, and bright red. It lay folded neatly a few paces from the pool, and not far from where he had shed his boots.
He turned his face from it as he emerged from the lake. The cold air hit him, making him shiver, but calming his excitement. Yes, I do remember the stories, he thought, as he stomped towards his boots. Then at the last moment, he lunged to the side.
The cloak was much heavier than he expected and as hot as a forge. it felt like his flesh was melting, he could almost smell the scent of burned meat, but he didn’t let go. Instead, he turned and looked at the spirit girl, meeting her glowing eyes with his own. "I claim you spirit," he said, in a shaking voice, "as my wife."
The pool boiled, sending steam bellowing into the air. Clouds of it rolled over him thicker than any fog. When it cleared the maiden was gone and in her place stood a little girl, shoulder deep in the mirror still pool. Her face was still beautiful, in a childish way, the skin still tanned. Her dark red hair in an unruly mop, "please, let me go, I'm too young for a husband, " she said, tears welling in her eyes.
The pain was fading now, the cloaks magic ebbing away. Karl shook his head and blinked furiously, "I will not. You are trying to trick me wife, and I forbid it. Come and serve your husband. and stop looking like that."
She walked towards him, growing older with each step. Her form shifted from child to young woman, and by the time she reached his spot on the shore, she was almost as tall as he was. She stood on the bank, hands loosely at her sides, and eyes cast down towards his toes.
Karl licked his lower lip, his eyes roaming from her breasts to the patch of dark red hair at her groin. She was shorter than he expected, the curves of her body less pronounced, "You've changed again."
"Yes husband," she said, her voice soft and melodious, " I have adjusted to match your age, it will make things easier."
He nodded at that and strode back up the clearing, still holding the feather cloak in both hands. While he had it she had no choice but obey, at least that is what all the stories said. "Fine, please gather my clothes, and make camp."
He stowed the cloak in Tal's saddle pack with his own hand and pulled the drawstring neck tight. If the stories where right, she now could not touch it unless someone gave it to her. "I guess we can camp here for the night unless you know of a better place?"
the naked girl, shook out Karl's clothes and folded them neatly. Watching her move was mesmerising. she moved with a slow grace, her breasts bouncing ever so slightly.
Karl unfastened the sleeping furs from behind the saddle. When the girl approached they exchanged burdens. "What should I call you?"
"My name is Solacia, " she said, still not meeting his gaze, "but I can assume another if you want."
Karl shifted from foot to foot, conscious of the cooling evening air. he pulled his loincloth and breeches back on. "I'll see about getting some wood for a fire."
he didn't dare venture far from the clearing, least the whole thing disappear on him again. The familiar task gave Karl's brain time to catch up with what he had done. Binding a spirit was the stuff of stories, not the real world, and now he had one. What would mother say when he brought a naked girl home? Surely she must have some clothes other than that feather cloak.
The sun had disappeared bound the western ridge by the time he returned, plunging the clearing into an early twilight. Solacia had dug a fire pit and set out the bedroll beside it. She also had his copper pot and other supplies for dinner unpacked. "This pot is a little small for two."
"Aren't you cold?"
"I don't get cold," she said, finally looking up at him. her eyes looked luminous and green like tarnished copper.
Karl shifted conscious of his growing desire to do things that he had only heard about. he tugged his breeches into a more comfortable position and set about building a fire. The naked girl crouched beside him. her body seemed to radiate heat, even at a few hands distance. She sorted the larger sticks while he arranged kindling, handing them to him at need.
Soon enough the fire was lit and a stew was bubbling away. Karl set on his, no their, bedroll and watched the girl in the firelight. the sight was still mesmerising, so much so that he was half shocked when she handed him a steaming pot of stew. She'd made it with the dried meat he had carried flavoured with mushrooms and freshly picked herbs.
He paused with the spoon halfway to his mouth, looking down at the head of a mushroom. Solacia couped a second mushroom out with her fingers and popped it into her mouth. "It’s not poisonous, a bound spirit cannot harm her human."
They ate slowly, sharing the pot and the spoon, seeing as Karl only had one of each. Tal, combed and freed from his saddle and packs, grazed on the rich grass nearby. An owl hooted in the distance, and small things rushed through the leaf litter. But The girl did not speak, and Karl could not think of anything to say.
After the meal, Solacia took the pot and spoon to wash, and Karl undressed for bed, watching the naked girl. His hands shook, as he unknotted his loincloth and set it aside. And he gulped several times as she walked back towards him.
She slid into the furs beside him, still without a word. Her skin hot smooth, and yielding where they touched. He leaned over her and kissed her lips, and trailed a finger about one breast, and down her side. "You could kiss back."
"Yes master," she said, in a soft and oddly even voice.
"Sola, don't call me that."
Solacia met his gaze levelly, and without expression. "You have hidden my feathers, and I must obey you. that makes you my master."
Karl, almost flinched at her words, rolling as far away as the furs would allow. He looked out at the dark forest, his mind in a whirl. Was this what this was? Master and slave, but he wanted her, he loved her. He could feel the heat coming off her skin, warming his back. The other nights on the road had been cold, but not now, not with Solacia in the furs with him. "My name is Karl," he said, "And I am your husband."
Solacia, shifted behind him, pressing herself along his back, and warming him anew. One hand rested on at his waist, then moved forward. he felt her breath on his ear as she whispered into it. "As you wish, you may continue."
Heart pounding Karl rolled back, and kissed her deeply, glorying in the softness of her. He rolled until he was above her, braced on his forearms, he moved his hips, stabbing down, and slipping along her inner thigh.
Solacia groaned. he saw her copper eyes flash in the darkness. she reached down and guided him in.
It was like nothing he had experienced before, almost scoldingly hot, and wet and tight. He thrust forward, once, twice, and managed half a third before the orgasm took hold of him, and he was spent. The fatigue of the day, washed over him moments later.
Solacia shook beneath him. She was laughing, twisting to the side so she could bury her face in the furs, and yet her mirth shook her whole body. Karl remained there, his arms growing numb from holding himself up. "Um, did I do that right?"
She rolled them over and fussed with the blankets, until he was well covered, by the furs on one side, and by her on the other.
"It was rather quick," she said then started giggling again, "You really are still a boy, my Karl."
His energy spent Karl relaxed under the pleasant weight of her arm and leg draped over his body. what little sound there was, faded from his awareness. "I should bank the fire," he mumbled.
She caressed his face, and kissed one eyelid, "I'll take care of it, sweet dreams master"
"Don't call me master," he murmured, then sighed in contentment, moments like this made life so worth living. He sure would have sweet dreams. Dreams of his spirit wife Solacia.
"Karl," she whispered, then kissed his other eyelid, "can I have my cloak back?"
"Yes, anything, " he managed before sleep overtook him.
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