02 Ashes and Frost

Somewhere a branch cracked, the sound of tearing wood reverberating through Karl's brain. He rolled onto his back, groping the furs for Solacia, but found them empty. He cracked open one eyelid, to search further.

The meadow was bright, the grass rimmed with frost so thick, that the blades of grass looked like fingers. The black coals of the fire likewise rimmed in white. The pool where he had first seen his wife, was as still as silvered glass, reflecting a sapphire sky.

With a yawn, he stretched his arms up above his head and uncurled his legs under the furs, then smiled. Where could that girl have got to? Last night was incredible, maybe they could do it again before leaving, he mused, shifting his head, to free his hair.

He sat up, and the world spun, making his stomach heave until he tasted bile at the back of his throat. Maybe those mushrooms were really poisoned, he thought as he collapsed back onto the furs.

"Solacia!" He called out then clamped a hand over his throat, his voice sounded wrong, too high, almost sweet. He cleared his throat and tried again, "Solacia!"

The voice was still wrong and it wasn't the only thing. He shook his head again pulling the hair where it was trapped under his shoulder. That wasn't right, he always kept his hair trimmed short enough not to bother with. Sure, some warriors sported braids but they seemed to require so much care.

Eyes Squeezed shut he rolled over and pushed himself up, hands braced against the ground. Vertigo assailed him but he rode it out, stomach clenched. The only time he'd felt like this was when Radek flinched a bottle of the headman's best spirits. It was during last year’s harvest festival, they'd hidden behind a woodpile and shared the bottle. They dared each other to take larger swallows of the stuff until the bottle was empty.

Right now, his arms were shaking, the muscles weak. He could feel the mass of hair tumbling about his shoulders, and a weight pulling at his chest.

Slowly he opened his eyes again, looking down at his hands. His breath caught. They looked like Solacia’s hands, tanned, the nails filed smooth. There should have been a scar on his left forearm, from the time he and Radek had tried to spar with war blades. It wasn't there.

"About time you woke up." Someone said from behind him, the voice reminded him of his fathers, but wasn't quite as deep.

Karl turned, pulling his legs into a crouch, and scanned the clearing. His sword was within reach at least. its frost covered scarab placed that way before they’d started on their lovemaking last night. "Who are you, Where's Solacia?"

The man was tall and broad-shouldered, with hair that glowed like spun copper in the sunlight. Karl could be looking at an older brother or close cousin. The shape of the jaw, the eyes, all of it looked so like his own. Though the man before him had grown into his nose. His eyes didn't fit, instead of pale blue, they were green, like tarnished copper. Just like Solacia's eyes.

"Solacia, this isn't funny." he growled, or tried to anyway, it came out more like a squeak, "change us back at once. I order you."

Solacia grinned, showing bright white teeth. She fussed with the cloak about her shoulders. It looked short on a man and seemed to be made from perfectly ordinary brown and grey feathers. "It’s a bit late to be giving me orders girl."

Karl launched himself out of the sleeping furs, grabbing his sword in passing. It felt heavier then he remembered, so much so that he had to take a two-handed grip as he settled into a ready stance. "Change me back."

Solacia laughed and pulled out a sword that was half a foot longer than Karl's. it was of a similar design and had the same golden gleam to it. "You can barely hold up that sword girl."

Karl's eyes widened, and his arms shook, the sword point dipping in a way that would have his father hissing. "Where did you get that sword, my father is the only smith that knows the secret of storm bronze."

Solasia tossed her sword one-handed, letting the blade flip twice and then catching it again. "Is that what you call it? The dwarf I took it too was most impressed. No human has ever pulled off this alloy before"

"There are dwarves here?" Karl said, letting his guard drop. He stamped his dainty foot, "Stop trying to distract me, and change me back, right now Solacia."

Solacia rubbed her chin, "Hmm, Solacia really doesn’t work for me anymore, does it? Maybe Soltan, no Zoltan." he said with another grin. He then started pacing in a wide circle making a show of running his eyes over Karl's body, "Yes you can call me Zoltan. You don't look much like a Karl either, more like a Karolina."

"Why did you do this to me?"

"It’s too distracting talking to you like this," Zoltan said reshieving his sword. "Put some clothes on already."

Karl lowered his sword and took a hesitant step away from the furs. His messenger cloak and yesterday’s clothes lay within easy reach. He picked up the loincloth and wrinkled his nose. Somehow the idea of putting it back on rankled, which was strange. He'd never had an issue with it before. Instead, he pulled the messenger cloak on, it hung almost to his knees.

Karl shuffled around the fire pit, conscious of Zoltan following his progress. He got his spare loincloth from the saddle pack and warped it on. With that any remaining doubt of what Solacia had done was gone. His groin was now a slit, concealed by a sparse patch of copper hair. Karl sighed, and muttered under his breath "she turned me into a stupid girl."

The britches came next. They hung on her like sacks, bunched up uncomfortably about her slim waist. Worst yet they were too long, and she was likely as not to trip over. With a sigh, she took them off again and tried on Karl's old tunic. this was better, sure it still hung down past her knees, but it would do.

She glared at Zoltan, hands on hips, "why am I so damn short?"

Zoltan walked towards her, flicked a stick up from the woodpile in passing. It shimmered in his hands and then changed, becoming a belt woven from leather strands. Tanned brown and embellished with knotwork that looked like budding flowers. It was a girl’s belt. "Here, it will turn back into a stick next sunrise mind you."

"Will this fade at sunrise too?" Karolina said, glancing down at her dainty feet.

"No, that is a more permanent working." Zoltan said, "you were certainly eager enough to give me your manhood the other night. How could I refuse such a gift?"

Karolina's face flushed, she clenched his hands into fists and hammered with them on Zoltan's chest. "Well un-work it then spirit. What do you want from me?"

Zoltan's eyes flashed from green to almost white. He captured both of Karl's wrists in one large hand. "You imprisoned me, and forced me to bed you, and now you ask what I want?

Karolina refused to cry, or shake, or pee herself. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't mean. Please change me back to myself. I'll pay, whatever you want."

"What I want," roared Zoltan, the veins in his neck bulging, "is for you to know what it’s like, to be caught, and bound and forced. But not by me. There are men enough to teach you your lesson." With that he let go of Karolina's hands and turned away, crossing to the tree line in a few long strides. "Goodbye Karolina of the Bronze Hill tribe."

Karolina dropped to her knees, her legs suddenly too weak to support her, "Where are you going, stop."

“I'm going to see the human world, maybe I'll visit the lovely Lana. Best get on your horse girl, he'll see you home."

"But, I can't go home like this!" Karolina cried, "take me with you, I'll be useful, I can hunt, and I know bronze work, and."

Zoltan shook his head, "No."

The sobs came of their own accord shaking her chest. Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. Arms wrapped around herself, she, for there could be no doubt of that, gulped several times. "I am Karolina, of the Bronze hill tribe," she whispered between sobs. "Karolina is a weak silly girl, can't even hold up a sword."

So lost was she in her misery that she didn't hear the frost crunching under Tal's hooves. She remained oblivious until the horse nudged her with his nose, its hot breath tickling her ear. The horse looked different, there was a light in its eyes that had not been there before. Perhaps Karl simply had not seen it or had not even looked. But to Karolina, the horse glowed with life. "I don't know what to do Tal, I can't go home, like this, what with Mother say, and Father, and everyone?"

She closed her eyes again, then wiped them. Mother, he'd caught her more than once looking at the other women with their daughters. Mother would adapt to suddenly having a girl of her own. And father had always been equal minded when it came down to it. He'd let the girls help in his forge just as readily as the boys. She looked back at Tal and sighed, "What a mess I've got myself in Tal. Won't father be surprised?"

The horse let out a long horsy breath and twitched one ear, before trotting back to the tree line. It lowered its head and continued grazing, pawing the grass with its front hooves to shake the frost off.

Karolina padded to the edge of the pool and looked down. She saw a girl in a tunic dress. The girl looked like a cross between Karl and Solacia, she was small, slim, but most definitely female. Her hair hung down past her shoulders and was the same copper red as Zoltan's.

She stayed there for some time, watching her own reflection. Her hands occasionally twitching as if to explore her new body, but then returning to hang by her sides. They’d be heartbroken, to have me just disappear, with no word of what happened, she thought. Eventually, Tal snorted from the edge of the meadow, breaking her meditations. "You’re right Tal, we can't stay here forever.

Just then her stomach rumbled. "But first some breakfast."

Her pack furnished some hard cheese and stale bread, which would do well enough with some nice warm tea. Unfortunately, her waterskin appeared frozen solid. How cold did it get last night for that to happen?

She gathered more wood for a fresh campfire, and left the water skin nearby to warm. The set about repacking her belongings. the useless britches and dirty loincloth went in first, folded neatly in one saddle pack. Her remaining provisions in the others.

The water skin was still hard. She sorted through the message sticks next, grouping them into bundles by family. Then shook hung the saddle blanket from a tree and proceeded to beat it with a large branch. before setting to the saddle itself, cleaning the leather as best she could. Though really without proper supplies all she could do was a wipe and polish.

That need cloth so she got out the loincloth and used the clean end as a rag. Then while the tea brewed she repacked the saddle bag, getting everything back into its place. Finally, she had her breakfast, though judging by the sun it was well past time for that meal.

Saddling Tal, was easy enough, or it would have been if his coat hadn't needed a good brushing first, but it did. She brushed him out thoroughly, then put on the aired saddle blanket and light saddle. Then she looked about the campsite, it was a shame to leave it in such a mess. "Tal, I think I'm stalling." she told the horse, "we should have been on our way ages ago, shouldn't we? Well better get to it before I decide to arrange the deadfall for anyone else who happens by here."

As she scanned the camp one last time she noticed Karl's boots and remembered that she was barefoot. Strange, that she didn't feel the cold. she wriggled her toes and found them still responsive. Still, boots would keep her feet clean.

She slipped her foot into one and then the other. Standing in them was easy enough, but the best motion she could manage was a waddle. She tried stomping back over to the frozen pool but gave up halfway. "I'll go barefoot Tal, it’s not like the cold bothers me any."

Mounting proved to be a challenge. Tal was the same size he always was, but Karolina had shrunk. The horse's withers where now at shoulder height, or a bit higher. She stood beside him, her hands pressed between his shoulder blades. Dipped down as far as she could without moving her hands and jumped.

She rose in the air maybe a foot, then her arms buckled, the muscles shaking, and she fell again. Her left foot came down hard on a stone.

She hopped on the other foot and rubbed the hurt one, "Ouch." She said, looking at the horse, "Why did he have to make me so puny? It’s like I've never done a day’s work in my life."

She undid the sword from her side, and attached it to the saddle instead, then tried again with the same result. Though this time she managed to avoid landing on any more stones. She lacked the strength and coordination to get pull herself up and over. And anyway, the tunic got in the way, tangling about her knees.

Eventually, she lead Tal over to a nice climbable tree and bade him stay put. She scampered up the tree and out onto a branch. From there it was a short drop down onto the saddle, then with a slight squeeze with her knees, they were off. "Home, Tal."

The horse lead Karolina out of Ny's pass and into the familiar hill country, just as Zoltan said he would. If only she'd done that in the first place instead of think with parts she no longer had. Then she wouldn't be in this mess, she sighed, "Time to face the drums."

As they left the frozen clearing behind, the world seemed more alive than Karolina had ever seen. Or rather more alive than Karl had ever seen. To Karolina's eyes, every tree had an inner glow, one that remained there even when she closed her eyes. Even the soil seemed alive, though nowhere near as bright as the plants. The small animals were even brighter. The forest floor was positively bursting with their sparks, as they scurried about.

Soon they rode out of Ny's pass and into the hill country that Karl had called home. This was open woodland, with wide grassy meadows and frequent small streams. It made for easy riding.

Eyes still closed, Karolina lifted her face up to the sun and cast out her new sense. She breathed it in, she smiled. Being a girl wouldn't be so bad, father would still teach her his craft. The elders would grumble about a girl bronze-smith, but they'd accept it. Once Father showed her the last step in making storm metal they'd have no choice. He'd been showing Karl the alchemical steps all winter. They now had several pounds of the white powder he called alum. As soon as the spring storms rolled in he would show here the final step, the magic that turned it into a metal.

"HOLD!" The shout came like a thunderclap jolting Karolina upright in her saddle.

Her father stood on the path, his war bow notched and half drawn, and a dark look in his eyes. Behind him, Radek, was leading a string of pack horses. Karolina recognised the sacks, they'd been storing the Alum in. No, it couldn't be, had Father shared their secret with Radek?

Father brought the bow up into a firing position, though still not at full draw. "I see my son's horse, and my son's gear, but I do not see my son. How did you come by my son's things girl?"

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