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.
Feeback: As always is more than welcomed. You can reach me at Swordnquil@aol.com with any comments, questions, concerns and/or criticisms.
Maia amused herself during the rest of the journey by replaying the events of their escape over and over in her mind. It amazed her that she was able to outwit a gang of violent men with what amounted to nothing more than the retelling of an oldand quite bawdytavern song shed heard many times over the years.
"Guess they must not get out much," she said softly, scratching her cheek.
"Oh! Nothing. I was jus. . . ."
Anything further she might have uttered was cut off as Siian brought the trotting horse to a dead halt. As Maia watched, wide eyed, several vines unfurled themselves from the tall trees surrounding them, seemingly of their own volition.
"What . . . ?"
Bodies hurtled down from the trees to land with cat-like grace onto the forest floor. Dressed in leather, beads and feathers, each bore the stylized mask of a forest creature which hid their faces from easy view. The only thing Maia could tell for sure about them was that they were all women, and that only because each had one breast covered in thick leather padding, while the other was left fully bare.
Each had a bow and a set of quivers slung over their backs, and a few sported lethal looking stone knives slipped into the waistbands of their breechcloths. Their bodies were, to a woman, lean, tanned, and hard as the trees from which theyd seemingly sprung.
Maia had the gut feeling that these particular warriorsfor she knew instinctively that was what they werewouldnt be the type to fall for the same trick shed used to good success previously. She had faith in the woman she held tightly to, however, well remembering the awe-inspiring display of physicality and fighting techniques shed borne witness to just hours earlier.
So it came as a bit of a surprise when Siian elected to do nothing other than sit her horse, completely relaxed and seemingly unconcerned.
After a long, tense moment, during which Maiandria swore her heart was trying to come out of her throat, one of the women stepped forward and raised the mask onto the top of her head. Her stern features softened into a brilliant smile as she stepped up to warrior and horse, hand extended.
Siian reached out and grasped the womans forearm, holding the embrace for a brief moment before releasing her.
This seemed to be a signal of some sort, because the other women raised their masks and started talking excitedly in a language Maiandria had never before heard. Siian listened patiently, occasionally replying in the same language.
After several moments, the first woman issued a birdcall, and the warriors disappeared back into the trees as if they never were.
Maia looked on, stunned. "Who were they?" she asked finally.
"Friends," Siian replied, urging Bao Sheng back into motion. "A group of women warriors from a people in the southern jungles called the Aama."
"Are they women like you? Like us, I mean? Do they have gifts too?"
"Yes. All of them."
"Hmm," Maia pondered. "They dont seem like the kind of women whod let themselves be chased out of their lands."
The warrior shifted, turning her head and pinning Maiandria with a look. "The Aama are very fierce warriors. Both the women and the men. But the men far outnumber the women, and are considered dominant in the society. When the men found out that their women were besting them at every turn, they slaughtered them as they slept. These women are all that remain of a once proud and flourishing people. The race will soon die out without women to have children for them."
"Oh," Maia whispered, chagrinned. "Im sorry. I wasnt thinking."
Siians eyes softened almost imperceptibly. "Thats alright. We learn from our mistakes."
As the warrior turned back to face front, she realized that most of the fault for Maiandrias innocent faux pas lay on her shoulders. Her natural stoicism wasted opportunities which could better be spent teaching the young woman even a little about the journey upon which she was about to embark.
"The Aama are noble and honorable women," she began. "Because theyre at home in the trees, theyve chosen to guard the outer perimeter of our camp. The average traveler or bandit wouldnt even know he was passing beneath them. They make sure that were not surprised."
Maia nodded, taking in every word her companion was uttering, thankful that Siian seemed to be in a suddenly talkative mood.
"Theyre also excellent hunters," Siian continued. "So they help make sure that the camp is well stocked with provisions as well."
"Is everyone else in this camp like them?" Maia asked after a moment. "Warriors, I mean?"
Siian smiled a little, knowing that her companion couldnt see it. "No. In fact, there are fewer warriors there than Id like. But most of the women do know how to fight, if only to defend themselves. Its necessary."
"So that means Ill get to learn how to fight too?"
The warriors unseen smile broadened at the innocent eagerness of the young woman. "I suspect you will, yes."
Maia grinned right down to her toes. "Cool."
Almost without warning, the land before them opened up into a huge clearing literally teeming with life. Women of every size, shape, hair color and skin tone walked busily around the open camp like bees around a hive. Maia looked around in amazement at the scene of barely controlled chaos passing before her eyes.
A chorus of welcoming shouts rang through the camp as Siian cleared the last of the trees and rode into the camp proper. Several women changed direction quickly, smiling and waving, including one woman who stood out in the crowd.
She was tall, and broad, and packed into a dress which was one sneeze away from giving up the ghost and reincarnating itself into rags. With a long, thick fall of wildly curling red hair, skin the color of cream, and generous assets which threatened to pop out from the bodice of her dress with every movement of her body, the woman was a sight to behold.
And behold her Maia did as she approached them, shouting at the other approaching women to go back to their duties and leave Siian alone.
Siian slipped gracefully from Bao Sheng, then turned and helped her companion down as well. Then she turned as the red-headed mountain cruised to a stop barely a foot away. "Muireall," she greeted, her tone without inflection.
The other woman smiled as if shed been gifted with a visit from the goddess herself. "Siian, its so good to see you again!" she gushed, reaching out a large, doughy hand and grasping the warriors elbow. "Malika, Asimi, and Qian Xi need to speak with you right away. Theyre waiting for you in your tent. Come."
Standing as if rooted to the ground, Siian reached down and pulled Muirealls hand from her elbow. "Maiandria has been injured and needs the assistance of the Sheas. Please escort her to their hut."
"But what about . . . .?"
"Im sure I can manage to find my way to my own tent, Muireall. Please do as I ask and escort Maiandria to the Sheas. Ill speak with you later."
Looking as if she had bitten into something rancid, Muireall took a step back from the warrior and pivoted on her heel. "Very well," she sniffed. "This way, girl. And dont take all day. I have better things to do with my time than play escort."
Though it was on the tip of Maias tongue to ask exactly what the difference was between "playing escort" to Siian and "playing escort" to her, she decided, after carefully noting the size of the woman in question, that shed rather spend the rest of her days as something other than a goo spot on the ground, and so kept her mouth wisely shut.
Maia tried hard to keep up with Muireall, noticing as she did so that most of the others in camp avoided the large woman as if she were a plague-bearer.
After a moment, Muireall slowed and turned her head toward the smaller woman trying to keep pace with her. "Who are you supposed to be, anyway?" Large fingers reached out and gave Maia a sharp pinch on the shoulder. "Too skinny to be a warrior," she sneered. "Ill bet youre nothing but a little farm girl."
"My father is a farmer, yes," Maia replied in the most polite of tones while inwardly resisting the urge to slap the woman silly.
Muireall snorted; a very unattractive sound. "Figures. Is there anything you can do?"
"Thats it," Maia snapped, coming to a halt and planting her fists on her hips. "How dare you treat me like some pig-dung shoveler!"
The rest of her rant was cut off mid-stream as Muireall reached out and almost yanked her from her feet, shoving her rudely in front of a young blonde woman who stood just outside of a darkened hut.
"Siian wants this girl treated. See to it."
With that, she turned and stomped away, leaving a fuming Maiandria behind.
Striding into her tent, Siian removed her head covering and tossed it onto the pile of furs which made up her bed. Three waiting women, lounging on their own furs, greeted her with smiles. Malika, a tall, dark and beautiful Hun horse warrior, rose gracefully to her feet and tossed Siian a heavy skin filled with potent wine. "Welcome back," she said, dark chocolate eyes sparkling. "Eventful trip?"
Uncapping the wine skin, Siian tipped her head back and took a healthy swig, appreciating the solid burn the potent brew gave her all the way down to her belly. After wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she recapped the skin and tossed it back to the Hun. "Wasnt bad."
"Ill say it wasnt," teased Asimi, a petite Egyptian woman with dark, curly hair and cinnamon-colored eyes. "I saw the sweet little blonde you picked up on your way back."
Siian narrowed her eyes at her friend. Malika laughed and nudged Asimi as she took another deep drink of the wine before passing it on.
"Muireall said you needed to see me," Siian commented, ending the merriment.
"Yeah, we decided to cut that pompous windbags head off before she made yet another of our sisters cry, but figured since you have the sharpest sword, wed wait till you came back and let you do the honors," Asimi replied, grinning.
"Seriously, Siian," Malika interjected, "something needs to be done about her. I know you have your reasons for putting her in charge of camp organization, but that woman is worse than my father, may he rest in pieces."
"Ill talk to her," Siian replied.
"She wants more than talk from you, my friend," the Hun warned.
"Thats all shell get, so lets just drop the subject."
Duly chastened, Asimi nodded, then spoke up a little more somberly. "Two women came in from the south yesterday and said theyd seen a fairly large slaver camp perhaps half a days journey from here. I sent three of my scouts out to check on it. They should be back sometime tomorrow."
"Good." Reaching into her pouch, Siian brought out a carefully rolled map drawn on animal hide. Pressing it out on the ground between them, she carefully smoothed it over and grazed her fingers over the intricately drawn lines. "We need to start preparing to move from here."
"Cili is predicting a harsh winter," Malika agreed. "And shes not usually wrong about these things."
Siian nodded. "I know. And I want to be over the mountains before it hits. I ran into a band of thugs too close to this area for my comfort. I dont want to be pinned here with the mountains on the other side, especially if the passage is blocked by heavy snow."
"Agreed," Malika replied. Then her face brightened. "I may have a solution, however."
"And that would be?"
One long finger tapped a space just to the right of the tallest range of mountains. "The Czigany have a winter camp right here. I have four or five warriors who have family among them. They say the glen is large enough to house several hundred people without crowding. If were lucky, they might let us stay with them. For awhile, at least."
Siian pondered the suggestion. The Czigany were a group of traders from the Steppes, sometimes known as gypsies. Because they were buyers and sellers of such fine goods, they were given free passage through almost all of the lands over which they crossed. Fierce warriors, they werent often attacked by petty warlords who coveted their holdings, but because their society was strictly matriarchal, they were very much loathed by the very people who depended on them for goods and messages.
Their society was very inclusive and not much given to taking in outsiders, no matter the race or reason. However, the bonds of family were considered the most sacred of all, and perhaps Malikas warriors would have some success in persuading the clan to accept visitors for at least part of the harsh season ahead.
"Its worth investigating," she said finally.
Malika gifted her with a beaming smile and jumped to her feet. "Theyll be out before the sun has set."
Asimi also stood. "Ill check the rest of the camp."
When the simple hide flap closed, throwing the tent once again into a comfortable dimness, Siian turned to the fourth member of the party, Qian Xi. "Youve been quiet."
The beautiful Asian woman smiled slightly. "Arent I always?"
Inclining her head in acknowledgement, the warrior studied the woman who was her half-sister. They were both born on the same night, to a father who was a minor lord in one of the larger houses of Chin. Siians mother had been a trophy of war, while Qian Xis mother had been a concubine from a rival house, given to the lord as a token gesture of a peace which never came to be.
Their maid had jokingly called them "the Twins" although they looked nothing alike. Where Siian was tall, well muscled and foreboding, and with the piercing blue eyes which were a legacy of her mothers ancestry, Qian Xi was small and thin, with delicate features stamped heavily with the signs of her Asian heritage.
She was very much a warrior, however; graceful and fluid with cobra-quick speed, and well versed in almost every hand-to-hand technique known to man. Unlike her half-sister, however, she loathed fighting, and preferred peace and tranquility to anything else in her life.
She had a brilliant, tactical mind which meshed well with her fiercer sibling. Both given to inward contemplation, preferring silence over speech, their bond was deep and caring. They relied on one another heavily as they made their way alone in a very hostile world, having left their home under horrible circumstances while still children.
"Fortune will be with us if the Czigany allow us to winter on their land. I fear the mountains will be all but impassable by the time the moon reaches fullness again."
"Thats my fear as well," Siian replied softly. "And there are other things to consider."
"A good many of the women here are used to warmer climates. Wintering on these mountains will be hard on them without adequate preparation."
Qian Xi gracefully inclined her head and looked down at her steepled fingers. "You speak the truth, sister. But the Huns will be able to build adequate shelters, and between them and the Aama, theyve managed to secure many pelts which will also be of aid to us. The problem will lie in transporting it all up the mountains."
"Well need more horses."
"Perhaps the slavers camp . . . ?"
Siian smirked. "My thoughts exactly." Rising to her feet with casual grace, she raked a hand through her disordered hair, settling it somewhat. "Ill have a word with Malika, then speak to Muireall."
Qian Xi rose as well, and rolled the hide map carefully before placing it beneath the fur covering the floor. "I will attempt to secure an alternate wintering site if the Huns are unable to persuade their families to allow us to join them."
Incensed, Maia continued to stare at Muirealls retreating back until the gentle laughter of the young woman behind her called her attention in that direction, causing her to turn.
"Oh, Im sorry," the girl said, covering her mouth with one hand. "I didnt mean to laugh. Its just that Ive never seen anyone stand up to that old battleaxe the way you did."
Maia looked at the girl curiously, hands still on her hips. "Well, maybe its time somebody did."
The young woman grinned in agreement, then held out a hand. "Im Cori by the way. Its great to meet someone as brave as you."
After a brief hesitation, Maia grasped the proffered hand, steeling herself for the intense jolt of sensation shed had when touching Siian. Surprisingly, though the tingle was there, it wasnt nearly as strong with Cori, and she was able to keep from reacting. "Im Maiandria. You can call me Maia, if you like."
"Thats a very pretty name," Cori replied, releasing her hand. "Wont you please come in?"
Maia followed her hostess inside with a slight sense of trepidation. Shed been to a crones hut several times in her young life, and the experience had never been pleasant. She remembered being poked and prodded by bony fingers and forced to drink concoctions which tasted like yesterdays waste water and only caused her to throw up within seconds of their administration. She also remembered leeches, fat and slimy, being applied to her skin. She remembered watching them balloon up on her blood with horrified fascination, scared into trembling, wide-eyed stiffness until they exploded and sprayed her with her own lifes fluids.
"Are you alright, Maia?" Cori asked, feeling the young woman shiver behind her. "Do you have a chill?"
"No. No, just remembering . . .things." She shivered again, her face drawn up in a mask of revulsion.
"Bad things, by the look on your face."
"They werent pleasant," Maia agreed, relieved when Cori elected then to let the matter drop.
They advanced further into the small hut, which was actually larger than it appeared from the outside. Cool and dim, it brought with it the pungent scent of drying herbs, and Maia found herself needing to stifle a sneeze with the back of her hand.
Hearing that, Cori laughed softly, then allowed her guest to precede her into the main room of the hut. "Would you like some tea or water perhaps?"
"No, thanks." Maia looked around the mostly empty room, then rested her gaze back on the young woman who stood, smiling, before her. They appeared to be almost the same age. Though several inches taller, Cori was slat thin, and had a wild mop of curly blonde hair which framed an attractive oval face and deep-set, warmly sparkling hazel eyes. She wore a simple linen shift and had an amulet the type of which Maia had never seen before hanging around her neck. "Are you a Shea?" she asked, finally.
Cori laughed again. "Not hardly. Im just an apprentice, and not a very good one, either. Not yet, anyway." She looked carefully around the small room, then back to Maia, leaning a little closer. "My teacher is Yanit. Shes very good, if a little harsh at times."
"Dont think to test my hearing, girl," came a loud, grating voice from the back of the hut. "Or my patience either, if you know whats good for you."
Cori cringed and both women turned to watch as a figure stepped forward out of the darkness. Of average size and indeterminate age, the woman had black eyes bottomless as the night sky, and long, black hair shot through with veins of brilliant white. Her face was unlined; her expression neither kind nor unkind, though her eyes stripped Maia bare like a flint knife through a downed buck.
Then, shifting her bottomless gaze to Cori, her lips turned downward. "You wish you were close to being not very good, girl. Cant you see this womans feet are injured? Why are you making her stand here and jaw with you all day?"
"No," Maia tried to interject. "Thats ok, really, I . . . ."
"When I want something from you, girl, Ill let you know. Now just sit on that table over there and take those nasty bandages off your feet before they stink up my hut."
"Now, wait just a minute here . . . ."
"Do you want my help or dont you?"
"Well, I sure didnt ask for it!"
That piercing look came her way again, but she stood firm against it. She had stopped her father from treating her like a dog, and damn if she was going to let a stranger get away with the same thing.
Yanit cocked her head. "Was yours the voice I heard knocking Muireall down a few pegs?"
Maias chin lifted proudly. "Yes, it was mine."
The Shea huffed. Then she swung an arm out in dramatic fashion. "If it pleases you, mlady, would you sit down on the table and remove your bandages so that I can tend to your wounds?"
Though the sarcasm was thick in her voice, there was also a grudging respect there as well, and Maia, not wanting to belabor the point, relented and did as the older woman asked.
Yanit performed a thorough examination, and if her touch wasnt particularly gentle, neither was it overly harsh. "Is this Siians work?" she asked, holding out Maias arm.
"The stitches, yes. The cut came from . . .someone else."
"Corissa, light some more tapers and get the sharp knife in my bag. These stitches need to be removed."
Startled, Maia tried to move her arm away, but Yanit held it tight. The younger woman couldnt see anything wrong with the job Siian had done and wasnt about to go through the entire process again without a damn good explanation.
The Shea relented slightly, seeing the confusion in her patients eyes. "Siians work is adequate, but she sent you to us because there are more efficient ways of healing this cut. You wont be harmed and you will feel no pain. But no one here will force you to accept this. Its up to you."
Yanits expression was unreadable, so Maia turned to Cori, who was holding a lit taper and a sharp knife in her hands. The young blond smiled encouragingly. Maia swallowed hard, then nodded, her decision made.
Positioning Cori so that the light from her taper bathed the area, the Shea took the knife and effortlessly cut through the delicate sutures holding Maias wound closed. The area had very little swelling and had already started to close, so there was very little pain.
After dabbing away a few small beads of blood with a clean cloth, Yanit placed both knife and cloth down, stood, and removed the glowing taper from Coris hand.
Cori took a step back at the gesture, her eyes wide and frightened. Maia looked on, confused.
"Im . . .Im not ready," Cori said, her hands held up before her in a defensive posture.
"Stop talking nonsense, girl,." Yanit snapped.
"Im not! Im . . . ."
"Excuse me," Maia interjected. "Could someone tell me whats going on here?"
Flat, black eyes locked on hers. "Shes a Sheas apprentice. Its about time she started acting like one."
"But Im not ready!"
"Of course youre ready! Stop behaving like some infant in swaddling clothes. This is a simple cut, already halfway to healing on its own. Wasting our time wont get the job done. You have someone in need of healing here, Corissa. Do your job."
After a long moment filled with uncertainty bordering on panic, Cori finally felt herself relax as the truth in her mentors words seeped through her befuddled senses. "Alright," she stated in a much calmer voice. "What do I need to do."
Though the Shea didnt smile, her face did soften the slightest bit. "You know what to do, Corissa. Close your eyes and find your center. Feel the energy as it flows within and through you. Dont try to harness it. Direct it instead, easily, through your body."
Though somewhat harsh by nature, Yanits voice had assumed almost a hypnotizing quality that had even Maia hard-pressed to keep her eyes open and her attention focused.
"Are you ready?" the Shea asked after a long, quiet moment.
A brief second later, Cori nodded. "Im ready." Where her voice had been hesitant before, it was now full of confidence and poise.
"Hold out your hands."
As the young woman did so, Yanit lifted Maias arm slightly and steadied it firmly between both of her hands.
Maia gasped as a rush of sheer energy went through her, the feeling very much likeand yet at the same time very much unlikewhat she had felt the first time Siian had touched her. Yanits strong grip was the only thing keeping her from pulling her arm back in shock. The feeling wasnt one of pain, exactly. But it was certainly one she felt she could perhaps do without in the future.
A moment later, Coris eyes opened wide, then rolled back until only the whites showed. A heartbeat after that, she collapsed in a boneless heap onto the floor.
The Shea released Maias arm, and she cradled it to her chest, part of her absolutely sure that if she looked at it, she would see a set of scorching handprints tattooed into her flesh. As the tingling subsided, however, her courage and curiosity got the better of her and she looked down at her arm.
With the exception of a faint line, hardly longer than the nail on her smallest finger, the wound had vanished as if it never was.
"Blessed Gaia," the young woman whispered, her eyes wide with shock.
Yanit squatted over Cori. Lifting her head, the Shea patted her apprentices cheeks softly. "Corissa. Corissa, wake up, girl. Youre dirtying my floor."
Coris eyes fluttered, then opened, bringing with them a dazed, glazed expression. "What happened?"
"You didnt temper your energy like I taught you to." Her voice was gruff, and might have sounded uncaring to a stranger, but the younger woman could see the faint sheen of pride in those midnight eyes. "It drained you completely. Youll need to work on that if you ever expect to become a Shea."
Her energy returning quickly, Cori sat up and flung her arms around Yanit, hugging her hard and quickly before the flustered woman muttered and pushed her away. "Stop acting like a dewy-eyed farmers daughter who just got asked to the Harvest Dance. You still have a patient to attend to, in case youve forgotten."
Jumping to her feet, the young apprentice looked anxiously at her charge, only relaxing when she saw a smile on Maias face that reached all the way into the depths of her eyes. "Are you ok? I didnt . . .I mean, I didnt hurt you or anything, did I?"
"No, not at all," Maia replied, her voice warm and reassuring. "What you did was . . .amazing! I dont know how I could ever thank you enough."
"Oh no, thank you! Youre the first person I ever tried that out on. Well, besides Yanit and myself, I mean. And that doesnt really count. If it hadnt been for you, who knows how long it might have taken me to get over my nerves?"
"Enough with the mutual fawning, already," Yanit interjected with what Maia was coming to recognize as typical, if not very heartfelt, scorn. "If youve got nothing better to do than twitter at each other, find somewhere else to do it. Youre using up all the good air in here."
Laughing, Cori grabbed a crude wooden bowl the Shea held in her hands and proceeded to spread a thick, pungent salve to the soles of Maias feet. "Those wounds should heal in a day or two, but you should probably try and keep off of them as much as possible. Do you have somewhere to stay?"
Maia frowned. "No. I just came into camp, and you saw what happened after that."
"Thats alright. You can stay with me for now. I have a little hut not far from here. Its not much, but youll be out of the cold."
"Are you sure?"
Cori grinned, helping Maia up to her feet. "Sure Im sure. You hungry?"
"Starving," came the emphatic reply.
"Cmon then. Lets leave Yanit to her spells and get some dinner."
"Sounds good. Thank you, Yanit."
"Fine, fine," the older woman mumbled as she separated out several herb bundles. "Just leave me in peace already."
Laughing, both women did exactly that.
Grabbing two bowls of fragrant stew, Cori led the way to the central bonfire, and joined several women who were chatting amiably among themselves as they ate their dinner. Placing the bowls on the ground, she scooted over and patted the place next to her, smiling in invitation to the slightly hesitant Maia who still stood. "Cmon. We dont bite."
"Well, maybe you dont," one of the women teased, leaning forward as Maia lowered her body to the ground. "Hi. Im Zoreth."
"Maia. Its good to meet you."
Maia blushed at the frank appraisal, and Zoreth laughed companionably as Cori introduced the newcomer to the rest of her friends.
After enduring a mostly good-natured grilling from the group of curious women, Maia was finally, not to mention gratefully, able to return her attention to her stew. It tasted as delicious as it smelled, and the warmth of it heated a body grown chill with the setting of the autumn sun.
While keeping one ear on the conversation and laughing in the right places so as to not appear aloof, Maia looked up occasionally from her meal and cast almost furtive looks around what could be seen of the rest of the camp.
Shadowy figures came and went, their features highlighted for brief instances when the flames of the central fire flared, before darkness once again concealed their identities. Each time she looked, it was with the hope that a certain pair of striking blue eyes would be looking back at her from across the fire, but each time, she looked away, disappointed.
She had hoped to spend more time with the enigmatic, intriguing woman who had saved her life and healed her wounds. She owed the woman, at the very least, a proper thank-you, and Maiandria was not the type to ever leave a debt, especially one of such magnitude, unpaid.
Sighing, she finished up the last of her stew and set the bowl aside, resisting the urge to look once again across the fire.
"Are you alright?" Cori asked quietly from beside her.
She affixed a smile to her face. "Just fine, thanks. How are you? Any more weakness?"
Cori returned the grin, though hers was much more genuine. "Fit as a lyre. My energy came back pretty quickly, though I think Id better learn to do what Yanit suggested and temper it unless I want to faint dead away every time I heal a simple cut."
Maia couldnt help laughing. "That would be bad for business."
"Youre not kidding!"
"If you dont mind my asking, Im curious about something."
"Sure, whats up?"
"Well, and I dont want to sound ungrateful, because Im not, but why didnt you heal the cuts on my feet? I mean, you have a wonderful gift and I sure dont want to abuse your kindness, but it just had me curious." She looked down at her hands, blushing. "Gaia, I just realized how that sounded. I didnt mean to offend you, Cori."
Grinning, Cori patted her newfound friend on the shoulder. "Youre so sweet. And you didnt offend me. In fact, I asked that same question of Yanit so many times, she threatened to cast a spell that would seal my lips shut for a few days if I didnt stop jabbering at her, as she put it." She shook her head, remembering. "Anyway, the answer Yanit gave me was that the Sheas believe that the bodys own power to heal itself is even more sacred than their ability to heal it. They believe there is a time for outside healing, and a time for letting go. They believe that if we take away the bodys ability to heal itself by fixing every single blemish or mar, it will soon forget the power it has, and we will all become weaker as a result."
Shifting her position a little, she continued. "By this time tomorrow, those cuts on your feet should be pretty much gone. The one on your arm would have taken longer, and you could have gotten an infection, no matter how good a job Siian did when she tended to it the first time."
Maia nodded. "Thanks for explaining it to me. I understand better now."
Stifling a yawn with the back of her hand, Maia felt the hairs at the back of her neck come to stiff attention. A peculiar, though not necessarily unpleasant, feeling came over her and she knew without knowing how that she was being watched.
Her head turned slowly without her conscious prompting, only to stop when her gaze locked onto a pair of brilliant blue eyes highlighted by the dancing flames of the fire between them. All she could see of Siian were those eyes. The rest of the woman was in shadow. Maia felt her mouth go dry at the sight, and she swallowed hard to restore some moisture, unaware that she was being watched by more than one person in that moment.
The fire flared high as several women added logs to it, and when Maia was finally once again able to see over the top, Siian had turned away and was retreating from the central square, a tall and voluptuous woman close by her side.
Maia blinked, then lowered her head. Only then did she hear the cat-calls and whistles that surrounded her.
"What?" she asked Cori, eyebrows raised.
"You dog, you," Zoreth answered, punching the young woman on the arm hard enough to smart. "Only thing hotter than that bonfire was the look our fearless leader was giving you. Whats your secret, woman?"
"Yeah! What do you have that the rest of us dont, huh?" another woman asked, laughing.
Blushing, Maia looked away, suddenly uncomfortable.
Cori noticed, and draped a thin arm over her shoulders. "Dont mind those brutes. Theyre just in major lust over tall, dark and deadly. They dont mean anything by it."
"Sure we do!" Zoreth interrupted, her wine-infused breath drifting across Maias face and fluttering her hair. "Spill it, kid."
"Alright, thats enough," Cori declared, jumping to her feet and displaying surprising strength in hauling Maia up as well. "Lets go, my friend. Im suddenly feeling very tired."
Breathing a sigh of relief when her teasing tormentors decided not to follow, Maia trailed Cori into the shadows until they came upon a small, crude but well-kept hut some small distance away from the rest.
"I know it doesnt look like much, but it keeps the rain and most of the cold out. Ive got some furs on the floor that we can sleep on, if thats alright with you."
"Its wonderful," Maia said, ducking in behind her friend and following her down onto the furs. "Thanks for inviting me, and for rescuing me from the gauntlet back there. I was getting a little embarrassed."
"I could tell. Theyre good people, usually. Get them too near wine, though, and hold on. They can get a little . . .rowdy."
"Thats ok. Im sure Ill get used to it once I get to know them better."
"Im sure you will. Before the night is out, youll be the envy of the camp."
"Oh, lets see. Maybe because you and the woman who most of us are already halfway to being in love with shared a look hot enough to make my teeth melt? Not bad for your first day on the job."
Maia couldnt help but laugh, and felt better for the emotion. Snuggling into the warm, soft furs, she rested her head on her arm. "Who was that woman she was with?" She hoped that question sounded more curious than jealous.
"That was Malika, the chief of the Hun warriors. Siian was crossing the Steppes when they ran into one another. Theyve been . . .close . . .ever since."
"How close?" Oh, good one, Maia. Way to sound like a jealous shrew or a farmers wife gossiping over the back fence. Why dont you just demand the womans entire life story and be done with it?
If Cori heard any envy in her friends tone, she didnt remark on it. "Well, pretty much the whole camp knows that they share the furs at night. But I think theyre more close friends than anything else. From what I know of her, Siians not the type to give her heart away easily, and I dont think that Mali has it."
"Does she want it?"
Cori shrugged in the darkness. "Hard to tell. Theyre both pretty closed off in general. Like I said, I think they just share a close friendship and a mutual attraction." The young apprentice smiled. "She sure seems to like you, though. I havent seen her give a look like that to anyone. Malika included. Course, Im not in their tent with them at night, but . . .wow. Hope one day I get someone to look at me that way."
Maia laughed, covering her embarrassment. "I think you were just seeing things."
"Uh huh. You just keep on believing that, my friend."
Rolling her eyes, Maia shook her head. "Goodnight, Cori. And thanks again."
"Night, Maia. And youre welcome."
Warm, wet lips trailed down a lovely expanse of exposed neck. Teeth grazed against a bounding pulsepoint as a hand grazed across a flat, muscled abdomen.
"Mmmm," a low, melodious voice purred, "you taste delicious."
Hands and lips continued to roam for a bit longer, before slowing to a stop. A dark head came to rest atop a bronzed chest, one ear listening to the steady beating of the powerful heart beneath.
"Was it something I said?"
Siian blinked, drawing herself away from her quiet contemplation of the tents peaked roof. Her hand curled up to stroke Malis soft hair. "Im sorry," she murmured. "My minds somewhere else."
"So I gathered," the Hun replied, humor in her voice. "Care to share?"
Mali felt her head lift slightly as the woman beneath her shrugged. "Not much to say. Well need to move very soon now. Its apt to be a big undertaking with all the new ones weve gathered in the interim."
"Mm. One new one in particular, no?"
Siians hand stilled and her head lifted from the furs. "Say again?"
Laughing, Malika met the challenging stare with one of her own. "Youre good at hiding some things from me, dear friend. But matters of the heart isnt one of them." Her full lips curled upward in a teasing smile that nonetheless conveyed warmth and fondness for this wonderful woman she was lucky to know. "I saw the way you looked at the young blonde across the fire tonight. And I could feel the energy go through you as she looked back. Theres something there, isnt there."
After a long moment, Siian laid her head back down and resumed her study of the ceiling. "I wish I knew. Theres something . . .something about her that . . . ." A soft sigh betrayed the warriors frustration. "I just dont know."
"Perhaps Yanit or one of the other Sheas could help?"
Siians head lifted again. "Not a chance. The last thing I need is for them to get involved. Thanks, but no. Ill figure this out on my own."
Reaching up to smooth the warriors furrowed brow, Mali smiled. "I know you will, my friend." Then she stretched slightly, working the kinks out of her lower back; kinks she had hoped to have worked out in another, much more pleasant way. "So, since it seems as if my plans for the evening have come to a sad end, shall I go and bed down with my horses or is a slightly used warrior still welcome neath your furs to share comfort if nothing else?"
Smiling softly, Siian tilted Malis chin up and kissed her tenderly on the lips. It was a kiss that spoke of the deep bond of warmth and caring they shared. "Youll always be welcome wherever I am, Malika," she whispered after pulling away.
The Hun favored her with a radiant smile. "This I know, my beautiful Siian. This I know."
Then, with a sigh of contentment, she snuggled against the warm, smooth body beneath her, and let the warriors steady heartbeat lull her into sleep.
Siian stayed awake a moment longer, before following the look from a pair of deep green eyes into the place where dreams are formed.
For the second time in as many mornings, Maiandria woke up in a place that was not home. After shaking off her disorientation with a heartiness which would have surprised her had she spared a second to think about it, she crawled from beneath the nest of furs shed made for herself and stepped out into an overcast Autumn day.
As she exited the simple shelter, she was met by a warmly smiling Cori whose hands were full of clothing. "Siian dropped these off for you this morning while you were still asleep. She figured you might be a little more comfortable in them than what youre wearing now." With a slight heave, she handed the bundle over. "Yanits just gone out, so you can change in the Sheas hut if you want. No one will bother you there."
"Thank you, Cori. I really appreciate this."
"Thank Siian. Shes the one who thought of it."
"And if I ever get to do anything other than stare at her from across a crowded bonfire, Ill be sure and do that," Maia agreed, nudging her friend and grinning. "Until then, Ill thank you instead."
Shaking her head, Cori ushered Maiandria into the dim hut. "Theres water warming by the fire and some clean cloths if you want to wash the sleep from your face. Ill be right outside if you need anything else." And with that, she turned and left, closing the crudely fitted wooden door behind her as she went.
After a quick look around for modestys sake to assure herself that she was truly alone, Maia placed her bundle on a small table, then quickly stripped to the skin, shivering a little in the close, cool air. Stepping over to the small fire, she grasped a skin sitting on the ring of stones, uncapped it, and poured the gently steaming water into a glazed clay bowl. Grabbing a soft cloth, she dipped it into the water and set to washing the dust from a body that seemed to have been steeped in it.
That job was quickly done, and soon her body clean and dry. "Alright, lets see what weve got here." Pulling the first article from the top of the small stack, she shook it out, then looked down at it, eyebrows raised. "Siian picked these out for me, huh? Interesting."
She was holding a pair of leggings made of butter-soft hide in a deep rust color. The daughter of a very conservativeto put it mildlyfather, she had never even considered wearing such a garment. But with the comforting weight of the leggings in her hands, she couldnt consider not wearing them.
"Well, since it seems to be my week for new experiences . . . ." Bending at the waist, she pulled the leggings over her feet, then shimmied her body as she drew the material up over her calves, thighs and hips.
Task completed, she looked down at herself, and felt her face heat with a furious blush. "Oh my. They sure dont leave much to the imagination, do they?" The leggings clung to her flesh like a second skin, emphasizing the curves of her young body to their fullest extent. "Im not going anywhere like this."
Reaching out, she took the next item from the stack of clothing. "Oh. So thats why Siian was wearing one of these." Laughing to herself, she felt a little better as she wrapped the breechcloth around her narrow waist. The ends dipped below her knees, but there were no sides to the getup, so she had free range of motion. "Nifty. A gal could get used to this. Lets see what we have for up top, shall we?"
What she had for "up top" was a tiny little halteralso made of rust hidewhich revealed far more of her body than it could ever hope to conceal. "Oh Siian, I think you and I are going to need to have a little talk, my friend. And soon." She lifted the top in both hands and peered at it more closely. "This looks like something the boys back home use when theyre hunting birds."
With a soft sigh and a tiny shrug, she pulled the halter over her head and spent some little time adjusting what little there was of the material so that all pertinent parts were covered. Barely.
Looking down at her chest, she winced. Though not amply endowed by any means, Maiandria was, in point of fact, a matured female, and her mother had sewing thimbles larger than the cloth that was covering her.
Then she remembered the forest women shed met just the other day, who stood proudly before her with one breast entirely uncovered, and shrugged again. "When in . . .well . . .wherever it is I am, I guess."
The next item of clothing was, thankfully, a jerkin. Made of the same material as the rest of the ensemble, it had large, roomy sleeves which tapered in at the wrists, a tight, short waist, and laced up to the chin if needed.
"Thats more like it," she whispered to the room as she smoothed the fabric over her body and laced the ties to mid chest. "At least I wont scare the wildlife now."
Smiling, she wiggled her bare toes, which were chill against the cool, dirt-packed floor. Cori had been right in her assessment. Only the barest twinge of pain accompanied the action. Her feet were mostly healed.
"And to make sure they stay that way . . . ." She grabbed the last item from the table, a pair of soft, hide boots which laced up to mid-calf. The soles were sturdy and tough, and she knew her feet would have all the protection they needed. After putting the boots on and lacing them up, she stomped the floor a few times to settle them in, then grabbed a comb lying on the bench and dragged it through her hair until the strands lay close against her head in some semblance of order.
A knock on the door startled Maia from her internal thoughts, and, putting the brush back down on the bench, she walked over to the door and opened it. Cori stood outside, her arms filled with herb bundles shed just collected. "Hi, I wanted . . .wow! You look . . . wow!" She blushed furiously and almost dropped the bundles she was holding.
Taking pity on her flustered friend, Maia smiled and rescued some of the tottering articles from Coris arms. "You dont look so bad yourself. Where do these go?"
"O-over on the shelf over there. You dont have to . . . I mean I can do this myself . . .I mean . . . . You must be hungry. Theres food outside if you want to go eat. Gaia, Im babbling, arent I."
"Like a lovestruck farmboy," Yanit confirmed, striding in from the back of the hut.
Blushing even more brightly, the young woman ducked her head and studied her toes. The Shea rolled her eyes, grabbed the bundles from her young apprentices arms and laid them on the table. "Youd best snap out of it quickly, girl. We have a great deal of work that needs to be done today."
"Yes, Maam," Cori mumbled to her feet.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Maia asked.
"Leaving would be a good place to begin," Yanit replied. "Perhaps then Ill get some use out of my assistant here."
"That I can do." As Maia passed her friend, she put a hand on Coris shoulder. "Ill talk to you later?"
She received a blinding smile in return. "Yeah. Ill see you at dinnertime, ok?"
Returning the smile, Maia nodded. "See you then."
As she walked outside, Maia took in a deep breath of the fresh, cool air, then wandered toward the central area where several latecomers like herself were finishing up the last of their morning meal. A large woman with a cheerful smile scooped warm cereal from a large kettle into a small wooden bowl and handed it to her. Maia accepted the bowl and returned the smile before finding a place to sit by the perpetually blazing central fire.
The cereal tasted much better than it looked, and warmed her body inside and out. Just as she was finishing, a flurry of movement caught her eye. When she looked up, it was in time to see Muireall stampeding across the clearing, the look in her eyes hot enough and angry enough to seriously threaten the continued existence of the surrounding forest.
Deciding the best defense was a hasty retreat, Maia jumped quickly to her feet and used the bonfire as a shield as she darted off into the forest before her seeming nemesis could spot her.
The sounds of shouting, laughter and horses spurred her on, and almost before she knew it, she was at another clearing in the forest, this one large enough to house perhaps fifty or more horses. A group of women, a little over two dozen in all, were scattered among the herd, laughing and shouting to one another as they worked the animals. In their furs, beads, and necklaces of bone, claw and tooth, they looked fierce and awesomely fit. Their horsemanship was the best Maiad ever seen in her life, and she stared at the scene before her in awe.
Spurred forward by raucous laughter and an outraged, but familiar, whinny, she made her way through horse and human until she came to the center of the clearing, where she stood frozen, eyes wide.
Four women were tending ropes, two to a side, their muscles bulging in an attempt to hold a bucking and not-very-happy Bao Sheng. As she watched, a fifth woman, her face slashed with crimson dye, vaulted aboard the stallion while others shouted encouragement and laid down bets with what looked to be some sort of smooth stick.
The young woman lasted for all of two heartbeats before she was thrown off, to land on her back in a cloud of dust. Grinning like a wild creature, the woman jumped to her feet and dusted herself off as more bets changed hands and her comrades clapped her on the back for her efforts.
A second woman tried her luck, and then a third. All were bucked off within seconds, to the cheers of their friends.
As she watched, Maia began to get the feeling that she, too, was being observed. Turning her head to the right, she saw a striking woman seated astride a gorgeous black mount. The woman was looking at her through a set of deep chocolate eyes which were slightly almond in shape and were set deeply in the sharply etched plains of her face. Wildly curling black hair spread in glorious waves over her shoulders, and her body, clad in furs and hide leggings, looked very athletic, and supremely confident. A born leader, Maia would have said had she the knowledge of such things.
The woman seemed somehow familiar, and it took but a moment for Maia to realize that this was the person shed seen Siian walk off with the evening before. Malika, Cori had called her. Head of the Hun warriors. And Siians bed-partner.
An irrational burst of feelings Maia couldnt, or wouldnt, put a name to went through the young woman at the realization. She wanted to look away, but the other womans direct gaze had a rather mesmerizing effect on her.
Then Malika smiled, a genuinely warm, caring and beautiful smile, and all of the negative energy Maia had generated drained from her like water through sand. Unable to help her response, she returned the chieftains smile with one of her own, pleased when she saw the other woman nod and urge her horse closer. "Are you enjoying the show?" Malikas voice was heavily accented, but nonetheless melodious and pleasing to the ear.
"Oh, yes," Maia said, with enthusiasm. "Theyre outstanding."
"They do have talent," Mali replied, looking over her warriors with a prideful eye. Then she laughed as yet another of the women went ass over teakettle from the broad back of Bao Sheng. "Except when it comes to riding that beast."
Maia couldnt help but laugh as well. "Well, he doesnt seem too happy."
"Oh," Mali replied, slipping off her own horse and coming to stand beside the blonde, "I think some part of him derives a perverse pleasure from catapulting my warriors into thin air." She shook her head. "Youd think theyd learn, but no. No one has ever been able to ride that horse except his mistress."
Maia turned wide eyes to the Hun chieftain. "No one? Not even you?"
"Not even me." Stepping up to Maia, Mali held out a hand. "We havent been properly introduced. Im Malika."
With a bit of trepidation, Maia reached out a hand to her companion and steeled herself for the shock she knew was coming. Instead, she was surprised to feel warm flesh engulf her own, and a rather pleasant, even comforting, energy pass between them. "Im . . .Im Maiandria," she said, slightly flustered.
"Its a pleasure to meet you, Maiandria." As another woman went flying, her face creased into a wicked smirk. "How would you like to help me teach my warriors a lesson and win a wager at the same time?"
Her curiosity piqued, Maia gave Mali a look. "What do I have to do?"
"Nothing you havent already, never fear."
"Will anyone get hurt?"
The Hun laughed. "Only a few bruised egos."
Maia nodded, grinning. "Alright. Im in."
"Good." Releasing Maias hand, Mali threw an arm up into the air. "Listen up, ladies." All heads turned, and all bodies came to stiff attention. "I have a little wager here for anyone whos warrior enough to bet against me." She spoke Maias native tongue in deference to her and, despite her initial misgivings, Maia couldnt help but begin to like her.
"Youre on!" one warrior shouted after a moment, which seemed to provide the impetus needed for the rest of the women to crowd around their leader, waving their currency in their hands.
Upon closer inspection, what Maia took to be sticks were actually small, thin bones which had intricate carvings etched into them. The detailed work that went into the etchings was nothing short of awe-inspiring, and Maia could well understand why they were things of value to the Hun people.
Reaching into a pouch slung around her waist, Malika brought out several such bones and waved them with a flourish. "My wager is that the woman to my left will be able to do what none of the rest of you have done. She will ride Bao Sheng, alone, without being thrown off."
Maias incredulous look was missed in the crush of women which suddenly surrounded her, each one shouting and waving their own currency.
Finally, after much haggling, all bets were laid in a hastily drawn circle at Malikas feet. The women then stepped back and eyed their chieftain appraisingly.
"Remove the ropes," the chieftain ordered to the four women who were still holding Bao Sheng.
After the ropes were removed from around his lathered neck, the stallion kicked out with his hind legs, then galloped around the clearing, tossing his head and chuffing through his nose.
"Now give my companion some room."
The others backed off, and Maia turned questioning eyes to Malika. "Why did you do that?" she whispered. "Ill never be able to ride him!"
The warrior smiled warmly. "You already have, Maiandria."
"Yeah, but Siian was driving!"
Mali shrugged. "Doesnt matter. If Bao Sheng didnt want you on his back, you wouldnt have been allowed to stay, Siian or no Siian. Believe me, its happened before."
Maia looked from Malika to the prancing horse and back again.
"You can do it."
"I . . .dont know . . . ."
"Of course you do. Call him to you."
"Siian used a whistle command! I dont remember what it was!"
Rich laughter filled the space beside her. "Not with your voice, Maiandria. With your gift."
With a small sigh, Mali gently grasped Maia by the shoulders and positioned the smaller womans body so that she was facing out into the clearing. "Call him."
Maia shrugged and set about trying to initiate eye contact with Bao Sheng. To her great surprise, it was much easier than she thought it would be, and only a very short time later, the huge horse reared up, slashed through the air with his sharp front hooves, and headed toward the tiny human at a full gallop.
Dust flew up in a great cloud as he executed a perfect four-footed stop and nudged Maia in the chest with his downy muzzle.
Caught completely off-guard, Maia flew backwards and landed on her rump with a loud "oof!".
The watching warriors laughed and hooted, and congratulated each other on their easy win, speculating on what they would purchase with their newly gotten gain.
"Ill triple my bet!" one of them shouted, which instigated another round of furious wagering.
Malika looked on, arms crossed over her chest and an enigmatic smile on her beautiful face.
The laughter stopped when Bao Sheng walked over to the fallen woman and chuffed gently into her belly. Maia giggled, then rubbed the inquisitive muzzle before jumping back to her feet and dusting herself off. "Nothing but an overgrown puppy, thats all you are."
The stallion snorted and tossed his head.
One final muzzle rub, and Maia walked alongside the long body of her horse, her hands gently trailing over the stiff, coarse hairs and feeling the bunching, iron muscles beneath. "We seem to have a little problem here," she murmured into one flickering ear. "Youre so much taller than I am, and Im afraid I cant just jump on your back like your mistress can."
Suddenly struck by an idea, the young woman stepped forward and tapped gently behind Bao Shengs left front leg.
An answering whinny, and the proud warhorse gracefully lowered himself to the ground to the awed whisperings of the surrounding women.
"Thank you!" Maia enthused, pausing to give him a scratch behind one ear before easily swinging her leg over his broad back and settling herself more or less comfortably atop him. A gentle squeeze of her thighs, and the stallion rose once again to his full height, neck arched proudly, head held high, ears at full attention.
His expression seemed to match Malikas smug look measure for measure, and it was all the tall warrior could do to keep herself from laughing out loud, especially over the expressions of utter disbelief which stamped themselves firmly on the faces of her intrepid warriors.
"Ok, boy," Maia whispered, twining her fingers in his thick, black mane. "Show em what youve got. But take it easy on me, ok?"
Another head-toss and Bao Sheng was off, prancing in grand circles around the clearing and snorting warningly at anyone who dared come too close.
Not that anyone really tried. Almost to a women, the warriors were frozen where they stood, as if theyd grown roots.
Unable to hold her mirth in any longer, Malika threw back her head and laughed, long and loud. Some moments in life were sheer perfection, as if sent down from the very heart of the Goddess herself. And Mali found herself grateful to be witnessing one such moment. It was one she knew she would never forget.
With a final chuckle, she stooped down and collected her winnings, knowing full well theyd be the last ones shed ever get from her own warriors, who would learn their lesson well, and never dare to bet against her again.
After stuffing the bones into her pouch, she straightened and watched as Maiandria, a grin bright enough to light a moonless night, sat proudly atop a prancing Bao Sheng. "Thank you, Maiandria," she whispered. "Your gift will serve us well in the months to come."
To Be Continued- Part 3
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