Full Circle: The Tale of Siian and Maiandria
Book One: WINTER
By: Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation but will most definitely bear a strong resemblance to the wonderful characters created for us by RenPics and the beautiful actresses who brought them to life for us. The story itself is owned and copyrighted by yours truly (that being moi) and may not be shared without my express permission, and so forth, and such like that there stuff.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love, between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Genre Disclaimer: Im taking a bit of a turn here from my usual "present day" ubers to give you one that is in the past. Way in the past. Way way in the . . .well, you get the picture. I like to think of this as a "pre" Uber. Detailing, after a fashion, the lives of Xena and Gabrielle before they were Xena and Gabrielle. Heck, sounded like a fun thing to do at the time. J
Important Pronunciation Disclaimer: The name of one of the lead characters, as noted in the title of this here piece, is Siian. The correct pronunciationfor reasons which will become evident as this novel progresses-- is "sigh-ann", better known as "Cyane".
Serialization Disclaimer: Like Topsy, this story just growed. Its hit over 300 pages and theyve just started. For this reason, Ive decided to break it up into four books, named for the seasons that they travel in. All four books will be direct sequels of one another, continuing the journeys of these women until they reach their ultimate destination. This first book, Spring, is complete, down to the last punctuation mark. I will be posting it, as I always do, in parts, one part a night until its done.
Feedback: As always is more than welcomed. You can reach me at Swordnquil@aol.com with any comments, questions, concerns and/or criticisms.
The sun shone weakly through a heavy scud of autumn clouds, proclaiming the season of warmth and harvesting well and truly over. The narrow paths were rutted and deep with mud from a drenching storm which cut short the Harvest Market and forced home farmers who depended on those profits to get them through another long, bitter winter.
Ambrus found himself in a less than pleasant humor, though to be honest, such was normally the case with him. The rains had closed the market down and he was returning home with more than half his stock left, and precious few coins to mark the passing of the other half.
His head ached from too much ale, and the abysmal pounding of the oxcart as he rode along the rutted road did nothing to help his disposition in any way. The fact that his only childa daughter eighteen seasons old and still unmarried, curse the mother who bore hersat in the back amongst the remains of his gently rotting stock and laughingly encouraged her trailing dogs in their volley of barking made things, in his mind, a great deal worse.
"Maiandria," he said in his smoothest tones, "shut those cursed bitches up or by Gaias name, Ill run em over with this cart and leave em for the wolves to finish."
The note of fear in her voice, and the resulting blessed silence, combined to cause a smile to come to his face for the first time that day. It wasnt a pleasant smile, by any means. But Ambrus wasnt a pleasant man.
Yawning widely and scratching his belly over the coarse horsehair shirt he wore, he turned his heavy body partway on the seat and stared at the back of his daughters blonde, bowed head. "Hand me that flask of ale and be quick about it, Maia," he barked, pleased when he saw her narrow back stiffen in fear.
Fine, trembling hands lifted the item in question and held it out, but before the exchange could be made, the wagon slipped into a deep, muddy rut and the flask was dropped to shatter on the hard bed of the wagon.
Maiandria stared at the spreading pool of ale, a look of horror on her beautiful features. Forest green eyes, wide with shock, looked up at her father in time to see his ham-sized fist crash into the side of her temple, knocking her from the cart to the hard ground below.
"The gods damn you, you clumsy cur! That was the last of my ale!"
"Im . . .Im sorry, Father. I . . . ."
Any reply Ambrus might have made was interrupted by the frightened bellow of the ox as it sunk up to its chest in the muck.
Snarling in rage, Ambrus grabbed his horsewhip and flicked it against the straining flank of the ox again and again, drawing razor-thin stripes of blood as the terrified and hurting animal bellowed louder and struggled to free itself from both pain and the mired pit it found itself in.
Struggling back to her feet and gathering up her long skirts, Maia ran to the head of the cart. Using her inborn gift of empathy, especially with animals, she stroked the great, lumbering head of the beast, trying her best to relieve its panic.
Just as her attempts seemed to be working, Maias father cracked the whip again, causing the ox to toss its head and send the young woman sprawling on her back. Jumping to her feet again, she ran back to the beast, trying again to calm it down. "Please, Father, youre hurting him."
The whip lashed out again, this time catching Maia on the shoulder and biting deep into the tender flesh beneath her blouse. "Mind your tongue, Maiandria, or by the gods, Ill cut it out of your mouth."
Drawn forward by the young womans pain, Maias two dogs began a volley of loud, snarling barks, which only served to panic the struggling ox further. "Down!" Maia hissed through the pain in her shoulder.
The dogs listened and obediently went to their bellies as their young mistress reached out once again to stroke the head of the struggling ox. "Come on, sweetheart," she whispered, scratching behind one flicking ear. "You need to calm down or hell only hurt you worse."
The whips tail flicked out again, its speed quicker than the striking of a snake, and bit Maia across the top of her back as she turned to avoid the blow. Swallowing back her scream of pain, she concentrated on maintaining eye contact with the ox and felt as it calmed beneath her hands.
"Come on," she whispered. "Yes, thats it. Come on and take a step for me."
A grunt from the animal, and one massive leg lifted from the deep muck, somehow gaining purchase on firmer land.
Maia smiled. "Thats it, sweetheart. Youre doing great. Now the other one. You can do it."
The whip bit again, this time striking the young womans hand, but she ignored the pain and continued to coax the beast from its hole.
In relatively short order, the ox was once again on solid ground, though a bit the worse for wear, as was her savior. Maia was determined not to give her father the satisfaction of seeing her pain, however, and used the last of her flagging energy to hop back into the back of the cart as Ambrus pulled away, indifferent to her fate. The dogs obediently followed and were, for once, quiet.
As soon as the cart rolled to a stop, Maia hopped out and made a quick line into the house, brushing past her mothera gray haired, gray faced woman who looked much older than her yearsand heading straight to her tiny, windowless room, her dogs following close behind.
"You wont cry, Maia," she whispered to herself as she shut the door behind her. "He sees you crying and hell beat you worse. You know it. So dont give him the satisfaction."
Thus fortified, she walked over to the basin of tepid water sitting on her crude table, unlacing the ties to her blouse as she did so. The crude fibers of the homespun cloth stuck to the dried blood in her wounds, reopening them and drawing a soft gasp from her lips.
Fully undressed, she picked up a soft washing cloth and dipped it into the water, then dabbed over what of her cuts she could reach. Kip, the smaller of her two dogs, jumped up on Maias narrow bed and whined. Kon, almost wolf-sized, lowered himself to the floor in front of her door to keep guard.
Smiling fondly, she ruffled his fur, then straightened and pulled on a fresh sleeping shirt. She walked over and sat on her straw filled bed, cuddling Kip close to her breast and burying her face in his soft, warm fur. Only then did she allow the tears to fall.
After a brief moment, though, she pulled away, and laughed as the little dog attempted to clean her face.
Laying down on her side, she kept her friend close and closed her eyes, willing sleep to come.
Blinking in disorientation, Maia came awake and rolled over to her back, hissing in pain as her wounds reminded her of their presence. Her room was dark as pitch, telling her that shed slept a great deal longer than intended. Kip was still cuddled in her arms, though his little body was shaking with fright.
"Whats wrong, boy?"
Then she heard it. The unintelligible, but angry, mumbling of a man well into his cups. Her mothers voice was a soft counterpoint, undercut by her fathers increasingly irate ramblings.
Kip whimpered and Kon growled low in his throat, his hackles going up as his teeth gleamed white in the darkness.
"Shhh. Be calm," she whispered, not wanting any attention to be drawn to her.
The dogs obliged, but she knew it was too late when she heard the scraping of her fathers chair against the worn wooden floor of the kitchen. Her mothers chair followed a beat later, and Maia allowed herself a moment of relief when it appeared they were going to retire for the evening.
That sense of relief was short-lived, however, as her mothers pleading tones sounded, swiftly followed by a large crash as Ambrus tossed her across the room as if she were no more than a petty annoyance.
Kon growled again and Maia found herself panicking, knowing what he was coming for and what he would do once he got there.
Oh, please, no. Not again. Please. Please. No. Gaia, please.
Her eyes, now accustomed to the dark, darted over the room, searching for the escape her heart knew wasnt there.
Releasing her little dog, she quickly rolled out of the bed and backed up until she was pressed against the far wall of her room, her arms held out in pleading supplication.
That was how Ambrus found her when he entered, a leering grin splitting his slick and shiny lips. His eyes were bright and glazed with drink, but his step was steady and powerful as ever.
"Time to earn your keep, daughter," he said in a dangerous, soft voice as he stepped over a snarling Kon and reached for her.
At the last second, she darted away and almost tripped over Kip as she did so. Ambrus reached out an arm and grabbed the front of her shirt, tearing it open and baring her breasts.
His leer widened.
"Father, please . . . ."
"Mind your tongue, cur. I have better uses for it."
Struggling away from his powerful grip, she gathered up the torn edges of her shirt and covered herself as best she could, all the while holding his gaze.
"Dont make this any harder on yourself than it has to be, Maia," he said, his tone reasonable.
"Please, Father . . .dont do this . . . ."
With a bellowing roar, he grabbed for her, caught her, and pulled her in tight, handling her struggles with ease. His breath, heavy with ale, wafted across her face, making her stomach rebel.
With a strength born of panic, she kicked as hard as she could. Ambrus grunted in pain and his hold loosened enough for her to squirm away. She stared at him, panting, and felt her ragea feeling as foreign to her as any otherbegin to build like a bonfire in her heart.
"Dont. Touch. Me."
The voice which wasand wasnt quiteher own caused both dogs to jump to their feet, hackles raised and teeth bared.
Shaking off his shock, Ambrus closed in again, only to scream in agony as Kon sunk his teeth into Ambrus leg and shook his massive head.
Maia tried to pull the dog away, but it wouldnt heed her commands.
Pulling a knife from his belt, Ambrus sliced into the big dogs ruff, thrusting with all his strength until Kons jaws loosened and he slumped to the floor, dead.
"Noooooooo!" Maia launched herself at her father, fists flailing. She never even felt the knife as it sliced across her forearm, opening up a huge, bleeding gash. Her rage fueled her strength and she managed to disarm Ambrus before throwing him against the far wall of her room. His eyes rolled up in his head until only the whites shown bright, then slid down to the floor, pinning the furiously barking Kip beneath his massive bulk and crushing the life out of the brave, if small, dog.
Maia froze as the rage drained from her as if from a sieve. With wide, disbelieving eyes, she stared down at her father. Blood dripped, unnoticed, from her arm to the floor, forming a small, but growing, pool.
Footsteps sounded in the hall, and soon the doorway was filled with her mothers presence.
"Oh, Maia . . . ."
The young woman looked at her mother, then back down at her father. "Is he . . . ?"
"He lives. You must leave here, Maia. Leave and never come back."
"But . . . ."
"If youre still here when he awakens, hell kill you. You must leave. Now."
Stepping forward, the woman pressed a bundle into her daughters trembling hands. "Go, now. Quickly. Run as fast and as far as you can, my daughter."
"Mama . . . ."
After a long, last look around at the bloody remains of her life, Maiandria heeded her mothers warning and did as she was told.
Out into the yard and through the gate, she ran, her long blonde hair trailing behind her like a streaming cape. She ran through the harvested fields, stumbling over rocks and roots and rotting vegetables. She ran into the forest beyond her familys fields. Branches snagged at her hair and clothing, cutting into her skin, yet still she ran, lungs bursting and muscles burning with the effort.
Tears of grief streamed down her face, blurring her vision. The tender soles of her feet were punctured and gouged by the roots, branches and rocks which littered the forest floor. She dodged around massive trees and vaulted fallen trunks, never breaking her stride until the land beneath her fell away and she plunged headlong down a steep hill, tumbling bonelessly to the very bottom, where her head collided with a rock that rendered her, mercifully, unconscious.
It was still dark when she felt a nudge to her shoulder. "Alright, mama," she mumbled, running a hand over her face. "Just gimme a minute and Ill be up."
The nudge came again, a bit harder this time, and when she opened her eyes expecting to see her mothers dear face, she gasped as she instead looked upon the long form of a stranger towering over her.
Coming to her seat, she gathered the tattered remains of her shirt around her, wincing at the abysmal pounding in her head and body. "Who are you?" she asked in a voice which was nowhere near as strong as she wished. "What do you want of me?"
The stranger stood silent, looking down at her. Tall, broad shouldered and lean hipped, his face and head were covered, as was the custom of men living far to the east. The only feature left exposed were the eyes, but in the darkness, Maia couldnt distinguish anything about them except to say that they were, in fact, there.
"Please . . .I . . .dont . . . ." Maias shoulders slumped as her head bowed. She was at the strangers mercy, and she knew it. Without the energy to run, she was trapped, like a rabbit in a snare. And even if she could run, where would she go?
She had no home, no family, no friends. She was an outcast; an orphan with no money and precious few skills with which to make a life outside the walls of her familys home.
Best let it be over now and pray that it was quick.
When nothing happened, she chanced a look up, and saw a large, strong hand hung just above her face.
"Come with me."
The voice was low, melodious and lightly accented, and something in her responded, before her better judgement kicked in and she drew back her own hand before touching the strangers.
"I wont hurt you."
The hand came closer, beckoning.
Another long moment of silence stretched out as Maia remained still, assessing the figure before her. She clearly sensed danger, but oddly enough, that danger didnt seem to be directed toward her. She knew that feeling well enough, having lived with her father for her entire life. A feeling of bugs running riot over her body until she just wanted to jump out of her skin to escape the maddening itch.
But this . . .this was different somehow.
Unbidden, a memory came forth, clear as if it were happening in that very moment. A memory of running away after a particularly brutal beating from her drunken father, her entire body throbbing with pain. A memory of coming across a she-wolfs den, complete with newborn pups whining for a mother who had left to hunt. Shed stopped, entranced and utterly charmed by the mewling bundles of fluff, but knowing enough not to give into her impulse to touch them.
Shed stayed frozen to the forest floor, enchanted, until a soft, low growl sounded to her left. Shed turned her head, her gaze locking with the yellow eyes of a mother wolf, returned from the hunt, muzzle covered in blood.
The wolf exuded danger, but Maia wasnt afraid. And before she knew it, the she-wolf had trotted over and lain her large body at Maias feet, calling out her pups with a soft wuf. The young woman had spent the rest of the afternoon in that sunny glade, laughing like a young child as the curious pups marked her as their new toy and spent hours with her in rough and tumble play, their mother keeping a tolerant eye over the proceedings.
She came back to the present with a smile on her face. It was a wonderful memory from a life with precious few of them, and one she kept locked down tight, to be pulled out when things seemed their bleakest.
Her smile faded slightly as she looked back up at the patiently waiting stranger.
That was a long time ago, Maia, she thought sadly. Trust doesnt come so easily to you anymore.
Still, what choice did she have, really? Trust her feelings and go with the stranger, or give up on trust and likely die.
Something cold and hard came into her then, a fortitude which straightened her weary shoulders and lifted her bruised chin.
Im not ready to die. Not now. Not yet.
Deliberately lifting her arm, she reached out and grasped the strangers hand, then pulled back, gasping, as a surge of energy more powerful than anything shed ever known shot through her, filling her body with feelings she couldnt name.
She cradled her arm and stared at the stranger as the energy slowly dissipated, leaving her lightheaded, yet at the same time, strangely energized.
"Who are you?" she ground out finally.
The hand slipped back into her field of vision.
"I dont know if . . . ."
"The feeling will be less intense. Come."
Again she reached out, albeit more tentatively, but was pleased to note the truth in the strangers words. The tingling energy, while still there, had lessened considerably and seemed almost . . .comfortable.
She gasped again as she was pulled easily to her feet with a casual strength far greater than she would have imagined. Her feet, however, shrieked out from the abuse shed heaped upon them during her midnight run, and her knees buckled beneath her.
Her world turned topsy-turvy then as she felt herself easily lifted and cradled against the strong, warm body of the stranger, held close like a babe in arms.
"You . . .dont . . . ."
Declining to answer, the stranger moved off deeper into the forest, carrying its burden effortlessly.
They entered a crude hut which was smaller by far than even Maias family homestead, which was itself tiny by the standards of the day. Just one room, it was lit by a small fire set in a stone fireplace. A narrow, straw-stuffed mattress lay against one wall; a crude, three-legged table and stool against another. A larger, more sturdy, chair sat before the fireplace and rounded out the hovels furnishings.
Maia found herself placed gently on the bed, then left alone as the stranger turned away and squatted down to build up the fire. Then he stood back to his full height, and in a smooth motion, removed the headpiece and face cloth. Long, night-black hair tumbled out from its confinement, laying down inky waves as it came to rest against a strong-muscled back.
The hat and facecloth were tossed casually onto the empty chair and the stranger walked to the table, retrieving a bowl of water and several soft cloths before turning back to Maia.
The young womans jaw dropped at the view suddenly presented her.
Piercing blue eyes shone from a face surely blessed by the gods. Breathtaking in its beauty, it was a face that men would surely die for, and women would surely kill for.
"Youre . . .youre a woman!"
The stranger smiled, more a slight curling of the corner of her mouth than a true, full smile, and strode easily to Maias perch on the bed. "My name is Siian."
"Siian," Maia repeated, tasting the curious name and finding she quite liked it. "Its beautiful. Where does it come from?" Realizing how rude that sounded, Maia blushed, and clapped a hand over her mouth to smother her groan. An outburst like that would have earned her a whipping, or worse, from her father. "Im very sorry," she whispered, her eyes downcast.
A warm hand gently laid atop the one lying limp in her lap, as another cupped her chin and guided her gaze to meet the piercing, pale eyes a short distance away. "Curiosity is never something to be ashamed of. My name comes from a land far to the east, where I was born."
In her eighteen years, Maiandria had met several travelers from the east, and none of them had even remotely resembled this breathtaking woman. However, years of having her curiosity beaten out of her caused the young woman to hold her tongue and settle for a nod of understanding instead.
The fierce eyes were patient as they held her own. "And you?"
Maia looked blank for a moment, before she interpreted the question put to her. She blushed again, to the roots of her hair; a rosy hue which Siian privately thought rather charming on the beautiful young woman.
"Um . . .its Maiandria. But most people call me Maia." Among other things, the bitter thought followed.
"And which do you prefer?"
The question brought Maia up short. No one had ever asked her that before. And now that the question was put to her, her mind drew a complete blank.
That small, crooked smile came again as Siian drew her hands away. "No matter. Ill address you as Maiandria until you tell me otherwise."
Hearing her name roll from Siians lips like warm honey dripping fresh from the comb made the decision rather moot, as far as the young woman was concerned. Everyone else could call her what they wished, so long as she had the pleasure of hearing her given name spoken by this woman on occasion.
Maias smile was shy and entirely becoming, and Siian, a woman who had no use for what some termed the softer emotions, found herself drawn to it in a way she didnt yet understand. Giving herself a brief, internal shake, she shoved down the feeling for later examination and concentrated instead on the task at hand.
"Your wounds need to be cleansed."
"Wounds?" Maia asked, her voice distant, and a little dreamy.
Resisting the temptation to smirk, Siian dipped one of the soft cloths in water and grasped her companions ankle gently. "The ones on your feet, your arm, your head. . . ."
Startled from her trance-like state, Maia reached up and placed a tentative finger right above her aching left temple. "Ow!" she hissed softly, pulling the finger quickly away and noticing it was smeared with blood. Her fair brows knit tight over verdant eyes in a truly impressive scowl. "That hurts."
If Siian had it within her to laugh, she surely would have done so at the expression on the young womans face. Instead, she shook her head and allowed her smirk free reign while using the damp cloth to clear away bits of dirt and debris which fouled the wounds on Maias feet. "This may sting a bit," she warned as she closed in on the wounds themselves, deep gashes and puncture wounds which were liberally scattered over the soles.
Two small fists grasped handfuls of coarse linen and Maia nodded her assent, her strong white teeth grasping a bit of her bottom lip as she did so.
But, to her surprise, she found Siian to be incredibly gentle, the tenderness belying the fierce aura which surrounded the tall, well-muscled woman.
Before she could think to stop her tongue, it damned her yet again by revealing an insatiable curiosity which as much a part of the young woman as the color of her hair. "Are you a warrior?"
Siians gaze became slightly guarded as it moved up to meet hers. "I am."
Maia nodded and leaned back against the wall, looking around the cabin as she pondered the revelation. Shed never met a female warrior before, but had always hoped that there were such women out there somewhere. Women who, unlike herself she believed, had the strength and the ability to fight back when they were mistreated. It was a cherished fantasy of hers, to be brought out in the deep black of night, when her body throbbed and ached from the beatings shed received at the hands of her father and uncles, and the tears were held back only by the strongest of wills.
"Did your family teach you how fight?"
Blue eyes turned to twin chips of ice as she watched, and the young woman felt a tiny thrill of fear skitter down her spine, causing the hairs on the back of her neck to come to stiff attention. Youve done it now, Maia, her panicked mind shouted. Shell hurt you. Worse than father ever did.
Just as quickly, the piercing gaze left hers as Siians dark head bowed, returning her attention to her task.
"I have no family."
The words were softly uttered, yet carried with them a subtle hint of rage and grief which Maia couldnt help but respond to.
"Im sorry," she whispered.
"No need. Whats past is past. For all of us."
Though the words themselves held a heartfelt conviction, Maia couldnt help but think that the tone conveyed another message entirely. She wisely kept her own council on that, however.
The silence stretched between them then, as Siian finished the cleansing and applied a pungent smelling salve to the soles of Maias feet to prevent the wounds from festering.
Task completed, the tall woman stood and picked up a second cloth. Leaning in close, she gently tipped Maias head to the side and peered down at the small cut which centered itself right above the younger womans temple. "Theres a bit of bruising here," Siian commented, pressing lightly on the affected area. "Do you feel dizzy? Lightheaded?"
Maia kept silent for a long moment, looking for the best way to word her answer. Which wasnt easy, given the warriors close proximity.
Her companions scent, an exotic blend of eastern spices and musk, filled her senses, making the world around her spin for one heart-stopping second. Closing her eyes, she took in a deep breath, which of course only made things that much worse.
Disturbed by the extended silence, Siian moved away a bit and looked down at her young charge, her eyes intent, expression serious. "Are you alright?"
Green eyes popped open, then blinked several times as Maia tried to clear her head. From somewhere, she managed to dredge up a smile and hoped it was more convincing than it felt on her face. "Im . . .fine."
A finely drawn eyebrow raised, conveying disbelief. "You dont sound very sure."
Thats because Im not.
She didnt say that out loud, of course. Instead, she broadened her smile. "Fine and dandy. Honest."
Their gazes locked for a moment more before the warrior looked away, accepting the statement for truth although she knew it was not, and tilting the young womans head to the side again. Though the area was bruised and swollen, Siian could detect no further sign of underlying injury. Deft fingers pressed around the area for a final check before using the cloth to dab away the small amount of blood which speckled the small cut and determined that it would heal without further intervention.
Stepping back, the warrior-turned-healer dropped the cloth in the bowl of water and reached out to grasp Maias right arm, turning it palm up and examining the deep, long and fouled cut intently.
"This will need to be stitched closed until I can get you to the Sheas."
The younger woman cocked her head. "Sheas?"
Siian thought for a moment. "You might know them better as crones."
Understanding dawned quickly. "Ohhh. You mean like healers. Midwives."
Maia knew well of one such woman who served several of the tiny farming villages around her home. Old, the woman was, with a disposition as ugly as the land which surrounded her tiny hovel. Her name was used to frighten wicked children, and many feared her for a witch. There was much talk of stoning the old woman to death, but it couldnt be doubted that she had special skills with births and sickness that the villagers, fearful or not, could not dare to be without.
"I dont possess their skills," Siian commented, unknowingly interrupting Maias less than pleasant memories, "but it should do well enough as a temporary measure until you come under their care."
"I trust you," the young woman replied softly, her smile this time genuine.
This brought Siian, a woman well unused to being surprised, up short. It didnt take a god to see that Maiandria was a woman who should, by rights, have very little reason to trust anyone or anything. Just looking at the way she held herself and the lines of pain etched into a face so fair and young told the warrior more than words ever could.
And yet, here she was, trusting a virtual stranger--an acknowledged warrior no less--not to harm her.
For the first time in a very long time, the warrior felt a strange sense of awe. She savored the feeling for a brief moment before pushing it away. Squatting down, she reached for the small satchel laying by the foot of the mattress, and flipped open the top to withdraw a length of fine gut and a bone needle, which she threaded expertly.
Laying the threaded needle on the clean sheets, she again reached up and grasped Maias arm, the long fingers of her other hand searching out and finding a particular spot just in front of the blonde womans shoulder. A thumb, strong and callused from holding a sword, pressed down sharply, and Maia gasped as her entire arm went numb.
"What . . .what did you do?"
Siian smiled slightly. "A skill I learned from a very wise soul I once knew. The feeling will return once Ive completed the stitching. Just relax. Ill be quick."
Maia, ever obedient, nodded and relaxed against the splintered wall, her eyes glued with rapt fascination to the hands which tended her wound. Strong, they were, and nimble as well, with long, tapered fingers performing tight, precise motions with a grace the young woman had never before seen.
All too quickly, in Maias opinion, the chore was completed. Siian released the nerve block, and feeling flooded back into Maias arm, bringing with it a warm tingle and a slight ache.
"All done," the warrior announced, rising to her full height and grabbing the bowl and dirty cloths. "Are you hungry? I have a bit of broth warming by the fire."
The young woman nodded, remembering that she hadnt eaten for the better part of two days now. Her mother had pressed some food in her hands after the horrible events of the night, but somewhere along the line, shed lost it. "If it wouldnt be too much trouble."
In short order, a bowl of steaming broth was brought to her, and she savored the scent of a well blended vegetable stock with pleasure. "This is delicious," she exclaimed after tasting a generous spoonful.
Siian inclined her head briefly in acknowledgment before coming to sit in the chair by the fire.
Maiandria concentrated on her broth, figuring a full mouth was the best way to combat the almost furious desire to question the enigmatic woman sitting so close. She could almost see the defensive walls there, invisible yet in some way so tangible so as not to be missed even by the most unobservant of fools.
But the broth was done too quickly, and the questions were still there, dying to come out into the open where they could be examined.
She thought of the safest possible one.
"You . . .mentioned taking me to the Sheas . . . ."
"Yes . . . ."
This wasnt going to be easy.
"Can I ask where they might be?"
It took several seconds for Maia to realize she was being gently teased, and her eyes widened in shock before a disbelieving grin spread over her face, causing her nose to wrinkle in a very charming way. "Ok, you got me. Where are the Sheas?"
Siian turned her gaze from the fire to set upon the earnest features of her young companion. "A days journey to the west of here, there is a large clearing deep in the Pale Forest."
"But . . .the Pale Forest is haunted!"
A brief smile crooked the warriors lips before it vanished. "A bonus for us that men think it so. It keeps us well hidden, for the moment."
"So . . .youre saying its not?"
"Its no more haunted than any other forest. Theres a large bog nearby which is nearly inescapable. Many men have lost their lives there. The better tale is that the forest is haunted, rather than the men are foolish and ignorant of its ways."
Maia nodded in comprehension. "Youve got a point there." She looked down at her hands for a moment, before returning her gaze toward her companion. "Who are these us that you are referring to?"
"Nearly three hundred women, each with special gifts. The Sheas call us Daughters of the Moon."
The young woman frowned slightly. "I think youve lost me."
Siian kept her sigh from escaping, knowing it would only hurt her young charge. A warrior, and a woman of very few words, she would rather have the questions answered by someone who could do them justice. One look at Maias patiently expectant face, however, quashed that notion quite handily.
Steeling herself against the inevitable barrage of questions, she began her tale.
"For several Harvest Seasons, some say as many as twenty-five, but no one knows for sure, all girl children born on the night the moon goddess hides her face from mortal men have been granted special gifts. Gifts of the mind, the spirit, and the body. Intellect, empathy and strength are granted each Daughter, in combinations as varied as the women given them."
Siians voice trailed off as she studied her young listener. Maia was rapt, her mouth slightly open, her eyes bright if slightly glazed, her body leaning eagerly forward.
Taking a sip of water from the mug sitting on one wide arm of her chair, the warrior absently toyed with the vessel in her hands as her gaze drew inward.
"These gifts come into their fullness of being when each girl passes into womanhood. Sometimes it comes earlier, sometimes later, but the end result is almost always the same."
"And what result is that?" Maia asked before she could think to stop herself. She winced inwardly, hoping her untimely intrusion wouldnt cut off the tale for good and all.
Instead of ending her story, Siian replied to the young womans question with a question of her own. "In your home village, what did the men do to a woman who acted differently than they believed a woman should act?"
"They were declared Witches and stoned to death," Maia answered, shivering with the memories of several such stonings shed been forced to watch over the course of her life. Her father had seemed to take special joy in pushing her to the very front of the circle, pointing out every single gruesome detail in case shed missed even one.
Siian caught and held Maias gaze until the other womans eyes widened in sudden comprehension.
"No," she whispered, shocked. "No, that cant be."
"It is. Many hundreds of women dead at the hands of fearful men simply because they displayed attributes thought an abomination by those holding power in the community. The Sheas went before us. Entire covens were destroyed by glory-seekers, obliterating lives and knowledge that can never be replaced. The few who are left spend their lives in terror, running from the slightest noise, while others build crude huts and live out their days on the outskirts of villages whose people detest them, delivering infants, curing sicknesses and living as despised and feared hermits, never knowing a kind word or touch."
Her voice hoarse from such unusual verbosity, the warrior trailed to silence, and watched as tears rolled down Maias fair cheeks. A myriad of emotions chased themselves through those gem-stone eyes, and Siian read each one as if it had been put to parchment.
The warrior cleared her throat and took a sip of water, easing the dryness. When she continued, her tone was gentle, if somber. "Its our turn now. The Sheas have been hunted almost to extinction. The hunters now turn in what they believe to be an easier direction. That of young women whose only crime is to be blessed by the goddess." Her gaze became stone, her eyes flashing silver in the fires flickering light. "I will not let that happen."
"What will you do?" Maia asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
"What I have been doing for over half of my lifetime. Finding as many of us as I can, gathering us together, and setting off to find a place where we can live our lives without fear, and without having to hide who we are."
"And what about me?" Maia asked, scarcely realizing the words had slipped forth from her lips.
The crooked smile came again, briefly. "Youre one of us, Maiandria. You have been since the night of your birth."
Maia looked at her in shock. "But . . .I dont have any of those gifts you talk about."
"Sure you do," came the almost cocky response.
Maia huffed. "I think Id know if I did, dont you?"
"Perhaps youre not aware that theyre gifts," Siian returned with maddening elusiveness.
Sitting back against the wall, the young woman crossed her arms over her chest and shot a challenging look at her smug companion. "And are you planning on telling me what this gift Im not aware of having is?"
Not intimidated in the least, Siian shot back her own measuring glance. "When I first came upon you this evening, you were in the company of two full-grown wolves." The warrior noted Maias shocked expression and nodded a bit before continuing. "I had at first thought that you had tamed them to keep as pets, but once they became aware of my presence, they ran off into the forest."
Maia blushed slightly and looked down at her clasped hands. "Well, Ive kind of always had a way with animals. They seem to like me, for some reason."
The young woman looked up, confused. "But . . . ."
"Your gift," Siian repeated in a tone that brooked no argument. "You were born with the gift of empathy. Above all others, animals can sense that within you. They respond to it in a way that most humans cant, or refuse to."
Maias expression didnt clear. "Im . . .still not sure I understand what youre saying."
Siian shook her head. "Im not the best person to try explaining this to you. Others are more gifted in that area than I. All that I can ask is that you trust that what Im saying is the truth."
Looking shyly at the tall, somber warrior, Maia smiled. "I do trust you." A little embarrassed, she shifted her gaze to the fireplace. "I know that probably sounds silly, since weve just met, but . . . its just this feeling I get. I know youre not telling me some tall tale just to get me hooked into coming with you."
The warriors expression was understanding. "Also a part of your gift. With training, youll likely be able to tell when someone is lying to you with just a glance. The Sheas will teach you, if it is something you desire."
Deep inside, Maia felt a sort of dawning joy. She, doomed to a life of drudgery and abuse, was being given an opportunity the likes of which shed never dreamed. And all it took was growing a spine. If I have nothing else to thank you for, Father, I will thank you for that.
"I think Id like that."
Siian nodded. "Then its best that you get some rest. The journey tomorrow will be a long one." Rising gracefully from her chair, she turned to a small pile of clothing stacked next to the fireplace, and rummaged through it until she found a plain, homespun shift. Pulling it out, she shook it free and crossed the room to present it to her charge. "Something clean to sleep in. Ill be outside until youve changed."
Maias face lit with a sunny smile as she accepted the shift. "Thank you."
With a somber nod, Siian turned from the young woman and slipped from the hut, leaving her companion to her privacy.
Maia was tucked under the quilt and fast asleep by the time Siian returned from her check of the huts perimeter. Her long hair was fanned out over the pillow, glinting gold and amber in the flickering light of the fire. Dusky lashes brushed gently against soft rosy cheeks, and her slumbering expression was that of a child for whom fear and hardship were things never experienced.
The warrior, who had easily seen the evidence of long term abuse as she tended the younger womans wounds, marveled at that. Her own innocence was long dead and buried, her dreams demon-spawned and less restful than restless.
Shaking her head a little at the rather maudlin turn of her thoughts, Siian lowered her rangy frame to the floor in front of the fireplace, her legs crossed in front of her and her hands laying palm up on her thighs. Staring into the dancing flames, she sought out that elusive sense of balance and peace her old mentor tried to instill within her so many years ago and slipped into a light trance.
Maia woke up the next morning feeling as if shed been run over by an oxcart. That wasnt unusual, however. What was unusual was the fact that she had absolutely no idea where she was for a long, heart-stopping moment.
Blinking in disorientation, she looked around, gaze alighting on unfamiliar objects as her mind tried to piece together the puzzle her eyes were presenting. It all came back to her with the weight of a crashing boulder and she buried her face in her hands as tears welled up in her sleep-blurred eyes. "Im so sorry," she whispered to her absent companions. "So, so sorry."
She allowed her grief full reign for a moment, then pulled herself together and rolled from the bed, furiously wiping her eyes and nose with the hem of her borrowed shift. Her bladder twinged an urgent summons, and she made for the door to answer natures call.
Once outside in the bright sunshine of a newly dawned day, she froze. All thoughts of finding the nearest bush evaporated from her mind like a fog before sunlight.
Siian finished the last controlled movements of her morning drill, well aware of the eyes pinned to her from the moment Maiandria stepped outside of the crude hovel. Coming to complete stillness, she centered herself, then made a slow turn to meet her companions rapt gaze.
"Wow. . . . You were . . . . That was . . . . Wow."
Normally extremely articulate, Maia couldnt for the life of her think up the words to describe what shed just seen.
Siian tipped her head slightly. "Good morning. Did you sleep well?"
"Um . . .yeah! Better than I thought I would, even. Considering . . . ." Her eyes went sad as she again remembered the events of the past day.
"Your body needed it to heal," the warrior replied, somewhat at a loss with the younger womans rapid emotional swings. As someone not prone to showing emotion, it left her feeling more than a bit uneasy.
Things drifted off into a rather awkward silence until Maias bladder reminded her why it was that she had come outside in the first place. "Ill . . .uh . . .be right back," she stammered as she ran off toward a likely stand of bushes, feeling unaccountably embarrassed.
Shaking her head, Siian walked over to the rain-barrel and dunked her head and arms inside, enjoying the shock to her system that the icy water gave her. Wringing out her hair, she brushed casual fingers through the tangles, then donned the long, dark travelling robe which hung from the corner of the huts half-rotten roof. It didnt pay to fix it. She doubted shed be coming back this way again.
As she headed back inside, she caught sight of the returning Maiandria, who was trying her best not to show how badly her feet were hurting. To spare the woman any further embarrassment, she gestured absently with her hand. "Come on inside. I have to take one last look at your wounds before we set off. We may not have time later."
Maias relief was palpable, and she nodded gratefully. Preceding the warrior into the hut, she made a beeline for the bed and sunk into its softness with a groan which was half pain, half pleasure and caught the ears of a suddenly quite attentive warrior.
Siian considered it quite a stroke of luck that she happened to be turned away from the young woman and so could spare a second to compose herself in private. Taking in a deep breath and consciously squaring her shoulders, she turned decisively, rag and bowl in hand, and was pleased to see the object of her thoughts scowling down at the soles of her bare feet.
Approaching the bed, the warrior placed the bowl on the floor and gently pushed her companions hands away from their tight hold on her feet. Examining them closely, she was pleased to note that, aside from the dirt and leaves picked up by Maias quick trip to the bushes, the wounds seemed free of infection and on their way to healing. There was some residual weeping, redness and swelling, but each of these things were to be expected, given the nature of the injuries.
She quickly cleaned the young womans feet, applied more salve, then wrapped them in soft cloth strips shed made from an old skirt lying by the fire. After giving the rest of the wounds a quick once-over, she stepped away, satisfied, and helped Maia back to her feet.
"There should be something which fits you in that pile of clothing. There isnt much, I know, but try and pick something that you will be comfortable traveling in."
"Are you sure?" Maia asked, hesitant to impose any more than she already had. "Because if these clothes belong to . . . someone . . . ." She couldnt really picture the lanky warrior ever donning the homespun peasant skirts and blouses which were piled in a stack, but she also didnt want to offend, in case she was wrong in her assumption.
"Theyre community property," Siian commented over her shoulder as she emptied the dirty water out the door of the hut. "Pick anything you like."
Maia quickly pulled out a long, brown skirt and tan tunic she thought would fit, and quickly slipped it over the sleeping shift shed been given. The clothes were a little big in the waist and shoulders, but theyd more than do. Running her fingers through her long, thick hair to settle it, the then waited patiently for her companion to tidy up and gather her belongings, which were limited to a small bag she slipped over her shoulder, and a sword and scabbard which she belted to her waist and covered with her long robe.
Maia looked on curiously. Shed seen her share of fighters over the years, mostly dead drunk and stumbling around bleary-eyed and belligerent. Shed never seen an honest-to-goddess sword before, though. The warriors shed seen always carried heavy clubs and spiked maces and were always quick to waggle them menacingly when they thought someone was challenging them. Those someones were known to occasionally include large doors and temple statues.
Being the naturally curious woman she was, she wanted a closer look at the weapon, preferably out of its scabbard, but decided shed wait until a better opportunity presented itself to her. And she was nothing, if not patient, sure that said opportunity would come along sooner rather than later.
Settling her clothes and gear, and donning her headpiece and face cover, Siian looked over at Maia.
The young woman blushed at the warriors frank appraisal. "I know, I look like a kid in these."
"You look fine," Siian replied, glad that the facecloth hid her smile and not realizing that Maia could read it in her eyes nonetheless. "Ready?"
After stepping outside, Siian stopped by the rain-barrel, reached under her facecloth, and emitted a piercing whistle which almost scared Maiandria out of the rags on her feet.
Scarcely a moment later, the bounding of hoofs was heard, and soon after, a beautiful blood bay stallion appeared, tossing his head, his black mane and tail flying out at all angles as he did so. With a loud whinny, he came to a four-footed stop in front of the warrior and butted her impudently with his muzzle. "Enough out of you," Siian countered fondly, giving the downy nose a quick scratch. "We have a guest."
She turned to Maia, who was staring wide-eyed at the huge animal. "Maiandria, this is Bao-Sheng."
Whinnying again, the frisky horse pranced over to the awestruck young woman and treated her to the same chest-butt, almost knocking her off of her feet in the process.
"Behave," Siian purred.
Quickly over her shock, Maia couldnt help but laugh as the playful horse nudged against her, obviously begging for a scratch. "Youre just like a dog! A really . . . big . . .dog," she corrected, rubbing the horse behind both ears, to its immense pleasure.
"I think he believes he is, sometimes," Siian agreed easily before gracefully hopping aboard Bao-Shengs bare back. "Cmon." Her hand extended downward.
Maia took a step closer, eyeing Siian doubtfully. The horse was mammoth, and shed only ever ridden her fathers small cart pony before. And never bareback. "I . . .dont . . ."
As soon as the young woman came within range, Siian made the protest moot by easily hauling her aboard and slipping Maias hands around her waist. "Hang on."
And Maia did. For dear life.
The first half of the journey passed in relatively uneventful silence. Maiandria had quickly grown used to the fact that her traveling companion wasnt much of a conversationalist. In fact, other than "hold on tighter or youre going to fall off" or "not that tight, please, I need those lungs to breathe", the only thing Siian had told her was that if they were stopped for any reason, she was to play the part of Siians dutiful wife, traveling with him from lands to the east in search of good fortune.
Figuring she could handle that without too much difficulty, Maia just hung on as best she could and enjoyed the passing scenery. Which, of course, consisted of trees, trees, and more trees.
Less than enthralled, she soon felt her eyelids grow heavy, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep, head resting against the broad back of the warrior. Not that she meant to, of course. Her body, however, had its own plans and her mind just went along with them.
Some part of her noticed, even while deeply asleep, that the horses steady, rocking motion had come to an abrupt halt, and she lifted her head from its well-muscled pillow and blinked the sleep from her eyes.
She frowned slightly as she saw several men dressed in the patchwork leather of some bandit leaders army surrounding the horse. All men were armed with stout clubs, and the one who looked to be the leader sported a scar which ran the length of his face, from brow to chin and narrowly missing his eye.
"Youre trespassing on Mog the Mightys land," Scarface remarked, thumping his club against his open palm for effect.
"Im sorry. I didnt know," Siian replied in her most deferential tones, making sure to keep her eyes downcast, her posture meek and subservient. "Weve come from the lands to the east to seek our fortune."
"Well, I got news for ya, buddy. Your fortune just ran out. Give us your money and your valuables and that pretty woman of yours and maybe we wont beat ya to death with your own head."
The other men laughed, obviously thinking this particular witticism hilarious in the extreme.
Maia felt Siian stiffen as the men reached for her, and her quick mind and quicker tongue leapt into action.
"Please, goodsir, you dont want to do this. Really."
"Sure I do," the thug replied, grabbing for the hem of her skirt.
"No! No, you dont! Ive been . . .cursed!"
Scarface stopped and scowled up at her. "What do ya mean, cursed."
"Cursed! By a witch! A really ugly one with a pointy nose and a big wart on her chin and long bloody fingernails like claws." She hooked her hands out in demonstration, adding little growling noises for effect. "Really scary."
"Nice try, little girl," he replied, reaching for her again.
"Its the truth!" Maia yelled, evading the thugs grimy hold and praying that Siian would follow her lead. "May Gaia strike me down if Im lying!"
The woods became deathly silent as the men looked up into the sky, as if awaiting the goddess judgement.
"See?" Maia said when nothing happened. "I told you."
"What kind of curse?" Scarface asked, his tone still full of disbelief.
The young woman was momentarily stumped.
"A really bad one?" she said finally, wincing at herself.
"Boils!" she shouted out as the thug made yet another grab for her. "All over my body! Big ones! All red and weepy and smelly." Reaching down, she stripped away the rag and stuck her foot in the mans face. "See?"
Scarface took a quick step back, his face puckered into an expression of disgust.
"They dont much look like boils ta me, boss," Thug number two, who had a more than passing acquaintance with that particular affliction, remarked.
"Not now they dont," Maia agreed. "But you should have seen them before my wonderful husband cut them open for me." She lowered her voice and leaned forward slightly. "He took a sharp stick and he jammed it into each one until it broke and all this disgusting yellow stuff came out. Goddess did it stink. Right, sweetheart?"
Stunned to silence, Siian could only nod and hope that was good enough.
Maia nodded back, satisfied. "Of course, that was only after Id given them to the bakers wife. And the blacksmith. Oh . . .and that Sister of Gaia who was supposed to bless our journey."
Thug number threes eyes widened. "You cursed a Priestess!?!"
"I didnt curse her! Not really. The witch did. Well, that is, she cursed me and I accidentally . . .well . . .how was I supposed to know they were catching?!?"
All the thugs except for the leader took a large step back.
The leader, however, was made of sterner stuff than that. He turned his attention to Siian. "Lemme see yours."
"Ill show you mine if you show me yours," she purred, forgetting for the moment her meek attitude.
"He doesnt have any!" Maia interjected. "The witch made sure of that."
"Whadda ya mean?"
Maia scratched the back of her neck. "Well, you see, its like this. This witch loved my husband, only he wasnt my husband at the time. And when he picked me instead, she cursed me with these awful boils. But she still loved him, you see, so she made sure he wouldnt get them. No, she cursed him with something even worse!"
"Yeah? Like what?"
Siian turned her head and asked the same thing with her eyes.
Maia gave her a little grin. "Well, you see, its a matter of being able to look but not being able to touch."
"Start talking sense, girl, or Ill send you and that husband of yours right to the underworld!"
"Were newlyweds, goodsir. And there are certain . . .things . . .newlyweds like to do. Things we cant do. Because of the witch."
The blush she sported was quite real, and only served to add veracity to the story she was telling.
"Things?" Scarface asked, proving once again that he wasnt the sharpest knife in the tavern.
"You know . . .things." The blush was this time accompanied by a rude, if unmistakable, gesture the young woman had picked up from her father somewhere along the way.
Understanding dawned. "Ohhhh. Things!"
"What would happen?" another thug asked.
"It would turn black and rot off, just like that." The last word was accompanied by a loud snap of her fingers. "At least, thats what she said."
All the men, including their heretofore fearless leader, took another step back, hands clasped over their private areas in unconscious sympathy.
The leader wasnt quite ready to give in, however, rotting members or no. Instead, he looked over at Siian. "She tellin the truth?"
The warrior nodded her head rapidly, making sure the man saw the faux fear in her eyes.
"Please, sir," Maia interjected. "Please let us go. My husband knows of a wonderful healer to the west who might be able to help undo this curse and wed both would be ever so grateful if youd let us go."
"Well . . . ."
"And I promise, well never trespass again. In fact, well stop everyone we see and tell them to stay away from this place. That a group of big, strong, ferocious warriors stand guard here and theyd never get out alive."
She peeked at the group, seeing their chins lift and their chests swell at her description.
Then she turned back to the leader, giving him the full force of her pleading green eyes. "Please?"
After a long moment, the man lowered his club to his side and waved. "Get outta here, and dont let me see you again, or Ill kill ya both, curse or no."
"Oh thank you, sir!" Maia gushed. "You wont regret it! Ill tell everyone we meet how brave and strong you are. Ill praise your name to Gaia. Ill . . .Ill . . .Ill . . ."
"Just get outta here," he growled. "Gwan! Git! Before I change my mind."
A short distance later, after Siian was convinced they werent being followed, she slowed Bao-Sheng to a halt, and turned to face her companion. "Boils, huh?" Her eyes twinkled just slightly.
Maia grinned right back at her. "Big ones."
"Unconventional," the warrior continued, "but effective. Well played."
"What can I say?" Maia replied, buffing her nails on her tunic. Her lips twitched impishly. "Its a gift."
Siians smile was a genuine one, reaching to the depths of her incredibly clear eyes. And even though Maia couldnt see it fully, she nonetheless felt as if shed been somehow blessed. "That it is, Maiandria. That it is."
To Be Continued - Part 2
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