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.
Siian and Qian Xi stood just outside of the warriors tent, and watched as Asimi cheerfully pelted through the center of the camp on her way to fetch Muireall.
"I think perhaps I shall go for a walk," the smaller woman remarked. "A very long one."
"Coward," Siian replied fondly.
"Mm. Perhaps. But that womans tongue is almost as sharp as your sword, and sometimes twice as cutting."
Siian pursed her lips to keep a smile from forming. "True, but her mind is almost as sharp as her tongue, which makes her an invaluable asset to us."
"Yes, if she would only learn the value of asking for help instead of demanding it, sister. As things stand now, she is of very little use to us. Soften her edges, and perhaps things will be different."
"Exactly. And thats where you come in."
Qian Xis almond eyes went wide. "Me?"
"Why not? You softened mine."
"One does not blunt a cobras fangs, Siian. Your edges are sharp as ever. Even sharper, perhaps. You just use them for a different purpose now."
"Perhaps, but you cant deny that youve helped me find the right direction."
The smaller woman sighed. "Do you truly believe that I can mold a silk purse from that sows ear?"
Allowing her smile to finally come through, Siian turned to her sister and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Yes. I do."
Qian Xi sighed again, but eventually nodded. "Very well. I shall do as you ask. But be warned, sister. I reserve the right to stop molding the moment our sow begins to bite."
Giving her sisters narrow shoulder a squeeze, the warrior returned the nod. "Deal. Thank you."
"Dont thank me yet," Qian Xi replied, her lips twitching. Suddenly, the sound of bird calls floated to them over the cool, still air. "Riders coming."
The two women watched as Asimi sprinted back toward them, a lumbering Muireall falling further and further behind with every step. "My scouts have returned!" she shouted through cupped hands.
Two dark-skinned women, clad in identical dun-colored chest and loin wraps, came charging into the camp on twin mounts, long spears clutched in loosely curled fists. Stopping before Siians tent, they gracefully dismounted and saluted her with fists to chest and bowed heads. Siian rolled her eyes, but didnt wave them off. Shed tried that before. Too many times to count. "Report."
"Weve returned from the slavers camp with news, Highness."
Not having Siians restraint, Asimi, whod just arrived, did roll her eyes. "Weve guessed that much, Eshe. Some specifics, please?"
Eshes twin, Edjo, stepped forward. "Twenty four young women, twelve to a cage. We couldnt get close enough to tell if any of them were like us, though Id guess at least some of them are. Fifty soldiers, well armed with maces and clubs and an occasional sword, and one leader."
"Horses?" Siian asked.
"Yes. Perhaps thirty. Well cared for. Picketed to the south of their encampment. Theyre using oxen to pull the cages."
"The camps location?" Qian Xi asked softly.
Turning, Edjo pointed one long arm back the way shed come. "To the south, half a days journey at most. In a small forest with very old trees. Theyre camped next to a swift-running river."
Siian looked over at Qian Xi, who nodded. They both knew the area the scout was describing, having been there several times themselves.
"Did they talk about where they were headed?" Asimi asked.
Eshe stepped in. "Yes. Theyre headed for the coast. Apparently, someone from a place they call Gaul is willing to trade metals for the women."
Siian took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "Very well. Thank you both for gathering this information. Youre free to go."
Both women saluted again, then turned in unison, gathered the reins to their mounts, and left the area.
"Asimi, go to the perimeter, find Massiela, and bring her back here. Muireall, see if you can find Maiandria. I want her here as well."
The large woman stared, jaw hanging. "What? Surely youre joking, Siian. You cant possibly . . . ."
"No need," came the smiling voice of Malika off to the right. The small knot of people broke up to allow the Hun and her horse free passage. She was followed, close behind, by Maiandria, still astride Bao Sheng. "You called?" she asked, stopping before the tall warrior, a smirk creasing her lips.
Siian smiled briefly in acknowledgement, then looked beyond her friend, her gaze landing on the woman who waited patiently behind the beautiful Hun.
Though the warrior had chosen the clothing Maia now wore with an eye toward comfort and protection, she couldnt deny that a part of her just wanted to see the young woman in them.
And she wasnt disappointed.
With the sun slanting through the trees, the young woman atop her horse looked to be gilded in purest gold, as if she was a fallen leader of Asimis people being laid to rest. The coloring of the jerkin and leggings blended well with Bao Shengs russet hide, and her blonde hair shimmered in the sun like a gauzy ring around a full moon. Her fair skin and deep green eyes fairly glowed with good health and vitality, and there was a newly born confidence in the set of her jaw and shoulders.
Siian was hard-pressed to remember the last time shed seen such a vision.
The proud stallion dancing beneath her, Maiandria might have blushed at the look she was receiving from Siian, if shed realized it was happening. Which, since she was rather involved in some intense study of her own, she didnt.
The warrior was dressed much like Maia herself, sans the jerkin, and all in black. Practically bare from the waist up, she was, to Maias eyes, a living statue of goddess-made-warrior and fashioned by the very hands of Gaia herself.
Corded muscles stood out in bas relief against clear, sun-bronzed skin. Her shining black hair flowed over broad shoulders and down a well-muscled back. Her eyes glowed silver-blue in the slanting light of the sun, and the only other point of color on her body was the loincloth which girded her narrow hips.
Maia knew at first glance that the cloth was made of what the eastern people called silk. Shed seen some once, during a trip into the market. As she waited outside of the tavern for her father to finish spending his profits in drink, shed met a man whose face-covering was made of the same material.
The cool smoothness of the cloth fascinated her, it being so unlike the crude homespun that she, and everyone else she knew, wore. The traveler had patiently and kindly answered her many questions about the fabric, but regretfully told her that it was supremely scarce. Even the small piece he himself wore was worth the ransom of a king.
The piece Siian wore was much, much larger, and Maia wondered at her obvious wealth. It was almost entirely black, except for several bold slashes of white which combined to form what looked to be a letter of some sort. In no way familiar with the writings of the people from the east, she had no way of knowing that the design was, indeed, a letter: the Chin character for strength. All she knew was that it somehow fit the woman wearing it very well indeed.
Comfortably astride her own mount, Malika watched, with interest, the two women watching each other. Knowing it wouldnt be noticed anyway, she didnt even bother to suppress her growing smirk. She could almost feel the energy as it passed between the two, along with a heat that was very easy to name.
Conscious or not, she couldnt tell, but it was there nonetheless.
Qian Xi, who was much more sensitive than most to her gift, did feel the energy and her calm expression turned gradually into one of awe. This is the truth of who we are, she thought to herself as the magical energy began to grow to encompass the few bystanders surrounding the pair. Standing closest to her sister, she felt the charge, and likened it to the feeling one would have just before lightning struck, but without the sense of immanent danger which accompanied such an event.
If I look hard enough, I can almost see it there, passing between them, and between us all. Were being captured in a web of their unconscious making. A strong web. A good web. An energy which is sure to unite us all into a people who cannot be defeated.
A stealthy tingle running up the length of her spine snapped the wise young woman from her reverie, and she cleared her throat softly before what was happening between the two became too powerful to handle.
She would need to think hard on this new revelation. It was as if she had seen into the very soul of the great Mother herself. Beautiful and terrifying with a power beyond knowing.
A gift, she now knew, which could easily turn upon its wielder with unforeseen consequences.
Around the circle, women blinked and came out of a stupor they werent aware theyd fallen into. Glances crossed, then darted shyly away. No one wanted to be the first to give voice to what had transpired between them, so they all remained silent until Siian, truly their leader in every sense, cocked her head and eyed her mount. "Traitor."
Her words broke the last of the spell, and the women, save for Muireall, laughed; a free and welcome sound.
It was then that Asimi trotted up, the head of the Aama in tow. "Did I miss something?"
"Nothing more than you usually do, tiny," Mali quipped, earning herself a flinty stare from the diminutive warrior.
The rest laughed again. Rolling her eyes over the long-running feud, Siian lifted the hide flap of her tent, and gestured for the others to enter. Muireall was last, and was stopped by a firm hand to her arm. "Ill speak with you later," the warrior murmured.
"But . . . ."
"I said later."
Red-faced and jaw muscles bulging, Muireall fisted her large hands and spun on her heel, determined to take out this latest rebuff on the first person who happened to cross her path.
"Muireall . . . ."
The dark velvet purr stopped her dead in her tracks.
"If I so much hear a whisper in the wind that youve been abusing your authority again, Ill strip it from you and have you tossed out of this camp. Am I making myself perfectly clear?"
A long moment of tense silence ensued, at the end of which, the large womans shoulders slumped and she gave a reluctant nod.
"Good. Well speak more later."
After staring long and hard at the retreating womans back, Siian sighed softly and turned to enter the cool and welcome dimness of her tent.
As she entered the tent, Maiandrias natural curiosity sprang to the fore. She looked carefully around while trying her best to appear as if she wasnt looking at all. The enclosure was much larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside and was split, basically, into two areas. The space directly in front of her had a semi-circle of comfortable furs laid around a bare, dirt floor. Off to one side, nearest the wall, a neat stack of wooden plates and bowls sat waiting to be used. To the other was a small brazier filled with glowing coals whose smoke gave off a very pleasant scent as it drifted upwards to the opening at the very top of the high-peaked roof.
And beyond that, in the shadowed dimness, was a large nest of furs, slightly rumpled. Obviously the place Siian used for sleeping.
And other things, Maia reminded herself as an image came, quite unbidden, to her mind. An image of Siian and another woman, who Maia immediately identified as Malika, sliding beneath those same furs, their skin glowing and wet with sweat as they moved against one another slowly, sensually. She could almost hear the soft moans and whispers passing between them.
Taking in a deep breath, she shook her head slightly and blinked rapidly to dispel the vision. Coming face to face with Malis knowing smile turned her cheeks and neck a deep crimson, and she almost gave in to the suddenly overwhelming urge to bolt from the tent and run as fast and as far as she could.
A heavy waterskin thrust into her hands aborted that notion, and, tilting her head back, she took one large gulp, and was preparing to take another when Massiela, the Aama leader, came to stand before her, patiently waiting her turn. At the sight of the womans bared breast scant inches away from her, Maia gasped, causing her to inhale what she belatedly realized was wine and not water.
Sputtering and choking, she dropped the skin and crumpled down onto her knees. Not overly alarmed, Malika followed her down, and laid a gentle hand on the gasping womans back, biting back a grin which was trying its damndest to form.
Bright light pierced the interior of the tent as Siian entered. Her eyes immediately tracked to the distressed young woman and she came down to her haunches, pinning the mirthful Malika with an icy glare. "What happened."
Instead of answering outright, Mali simply shifted her gaze to the Aamas chest, then back to Siian. Understanding dawned, and the warrior rolled her eyes just a bit before reaching out and cupping Malis chin in her large hand.
Maia looked up at the beautiful warrior through a haze of tears, and tried to nod that she was, in fact, alright. But then, the potent wine exploded into her bloodstream, and she gave up trying to do anything at all, save stare into the brilliant blue eyes so very close to her own and feel the radiant heat of a large hand curled comfortably beneath her chin. She knew a somewhat goofy grin was forming, but was quite helpless to stop it.
"Im just fine," she finally managed to say in a voice hoarse from choking, but nonetheless sounding almost like the purr of a sated cat.
Asimi erupted into laughter, which earned her a firm backhand in the belly from Malika. As the Egyptian scowled, Siian released her hold on Maia and rose to her full height, staring down at them all. "Lets bring this little meeting to order, shall we?"
With chagrined looks on their faces, everyone settled down into the soft furs. The first heated rush of the potent wine having worn quickly off, Maia again colored in embarrassment, then turned a pathetically grateful look toward Mali when the older woman gave her a skin with fresh, clear water in it.
Several swallows chased the taste of wine from her palate, and several more cooled the blush on her face. Capping the skin, she set it down in the center of the circle of women, then crossed her legs before her and assumed an intent and interested expression, all the while wondering exactly what had caused her to be where she was.
Siian lowered herself to the ground and unconsciously imitated Maias position. Then she began to go over all that the scouts had reported to her in brief, succinct sentences devoid of any underlying emotion or clue into her own thoughts on the matter. She had always been the type of woman who believed in letting those she trusted draw their own conclusions.
After finishing the overview, Siian launched into a detailed explanation of the plan shed devised. Maia listened in awe as every piece of the puzzle was completely laid out and explained in easily understood terms. The warrior spoke with the poise and the confidence of a born leader.
Qian Xi quietly looked on, smiling to herself. Siian was in her element, pulling together a plan which utilized the strengths of some very different women. It was actually the first time shed be using women from the Huns, the Aama and the Egyptian forces. It would be a good test to see how well they could all work together, because unity was something that would be sorely needed in the days, weeks and months to come.
"Are there any questions?"
Around the circle, women straightened, their eyes bright and gleaming with anticipation. A new sort of energy filled the small enclosure. An energy of warriors who were being given the opportunity to do what they had been born and trained for. Smiles, feral ones devoid of any real warmth, spread from face to face, and bodies shifted, eager to be on their way.
All, that was, except for Maiandria, who blinked in confusion and drew in a breath to speak. "I . . .um . . .hope Im not breaking any rules, and Im really honored that you asked me to join you here today, but Im . . .still not exactly sure why I am here. I mean, Im not a warrior." She laughed in a bit of self deprecation. "I dont think I could beat up my own grandmother. If she were still alive, that is. I dont think Ill be very much help to you . . . ."
Siian waved her concerns away with an elegant hand. "Youre here because we need you to be here, Maiandria. We need horses, a good many of them, to help transport both women and gear up through the mountains very soon now. The slave traders have horses, and with your help, well be able to get to them without raising an alarm."
"This . . .is where my gift comes in, isnt it."
Unable to help herself, Siian smiled. "Yes. Thats exactly where it comes in. I wont force you to come with us. Thats not who I am. Thats not who we are. I can only ask. Will you join us?"
Looking at the expectant expressions surrounding her, Maia knew that she wouldnt refuse. Oh, she could refuse. She sensed that. The women might be disappointed, but somehow she knew that theyd understand. She didnt know how she knew this, just that she did. And that was enough for her.
"Id be honored," she finally replied, blushing a little at the smile she received in return. It wasnt a large smile, by any means, but it was radiant, and Maia found herself falling into the beauty of the woman before her once again.
"Alright. Everyone get their gear and meet back here. We leave as soon was were all mounted up. I dont want to give this scum the chance to get where hes going."
The sense of excitement was palpable as the women jumped to their feet and left, single file, through the narrow flap. Only Maia remained behind, the blush still present on her face. "I . . .um . . .dont have any gear to gather."
Siian nodded as she reached over and grabbed her scabbard and looped the leather strap over her head so that the sword settled comfortably across her back with the hilt rising over her right shoulder for easy drawing. "Stay here," she said, laying one warm hand briefly on Maias shoulder in passing, "and Ill round up the others."
As the warrior left, Maia stared after her, an intent expression on her face. Her hand drifted unconsciously up to where the other woman had touched her and she ran lazy fingers over the area as her teeth caught and held her bottom lip.
The increasingly familiar sensation of being watched came over her again, and she turned to see the beautiful young Asian woman who had sat so quietly at Siians side during the meeting.
"Hello," she said, looking shyly into the dark almond eyes that were observing her so closely. "I . . .um . . .dont think weve met. Im Maiandria."
In her long, silken robes, the young woman seemed to glide, rather than simply walk, across the floor. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Maiandria. My name is Qian Xi."
Maia took the outstretched hand, and was quite surprised to feel an energy which was very similar to Siians, only without the intensity which accompanied the other womans touch. She looked over at Qian Xi in shock.
The Asian smiled, easily reading the question in the younger womans eyes. "I am her sister."
Maias eyes widened further.
Qian Xis smile deepened, adding a twinkle to her coal-black eyes. "She got all of the meat when we were growing up. I had to make due with scraps."
Though not slow on the uptake by any means, it took Maia more than a moment to realize she was being led on. She threw back her head and laughed, startled that so serious a woman would make such a joke.
As she waited for the young woman to calm, Qian Xi turned and reached down and into a black sack which lay at her feet. From it she extracted what looked to the now curiously watching (and much less mirthful) Maiandria to be three long wooden poles, varnished a deep, shining black, and each almost as long as her arm.
Seeing Maia watching her, Qian Xi smiled. "Siam Gieh Gwen."
The blonde woman cocked her head. "Im sorry. I dont understand what youre saying."
"Siam Gieh Gwen," the Asian repeated. "A segmented fighting staff." Maia looked on doubtfully until, with a quick movement of her hands which was far too fast to follow, Qian Xi brought the three individual pieces together to form one, long staff, which she then presented to the younger woman. "For you."
"Oh, no. I cant possibly . . . ."
"Please. It would honor me greatly if you would take it."
"But I dont know how to use it. Im not a fighter."
Qian Xis smile deepened. "You will learn. I will teach you, if you like."
"But its much too precious a . . . ."
Maia caught the staff as it was tossed to her, fumbling a bit before grasping it firmly and feeling the smooth wood warm quickly beneath her palms. "Wow. Its heavier than it looks."
"You will quickly become used to the weight." She nodded. "Take it with you on your journey. It is doubtful that you will need it, but someone should always have something to protect them in times of danger."
As Maia looked down at the beautiful weapon in her hands, a part of her wished desperately that she had had such a prize to protect her from her own fathers abuses. She didnt know if she could have used it, against him or against anyone else, but suddenly, she wanted very much to learn how. "Would you? Teach me, I mean?"
Stepping forward, Qian Xi placed her warm hands atop Maias. "Yes." Then she straightened as she heard sound of approaching footsteps. "Twist your wrists and pull."
Maia blinked at her, then did as she requested. To her surprise, the staff collapsed into three equal segments again.
Qian Xi adjusted the young womans hands slightly, then nodded and stepped away. "Pull again. Hard and sharp."
Again, Maia did as Qian Xi instructed, and gave a little shout when the entire assembly became one long, solid staff in her hands once again. "Wow! I did it!"
The Asian woman smiled. "Yes, you did. Now dissemble it again and I shall give you a sheath you can store it in so that your hands will remain free when you have no need of it."
Once Maiandria had broken down the weapon again, Qian Xi handed her a narrow, very soft case with a strap on it very similar to the one on Siians scabbard. Qian Xi slipped the staff inside, then looped the sheath over the younger womans head and settled it comfortably across her back. "There. If you have need of it, simply reach over your shoulder and pull."
Maia turned to her, eyes shining. "I will. Thank you."
"Youre very welcome."
Siian ducked as she entered her tent, then straightened to her full height. One eyebrow arched to hide beneath the wind-tossed length of her bangs as she saw her sister and Maiandria smiling at one another.
Maia spun around, her smile broadening immeasurably. "Ready!"
The warrior nodded. "Good. Wait outside with the others, and Ill join you shortly."
The smile still bright on her face, Maia opened the tent flap and stepped outside into the cool autumn air.
Siian gazed back at her sister, eyebrow still elevated. "Your staff?"
"Better by far than a bladed weapon, dont you agree?" she replied, expression inscrutable.
Siian rolled her eyes and shook her head. Then her expression turned serious. "We should be back in two days, three at the outside. Have the camp ready their belongings. Well leave as soon as Malikas scouts return."
Qian Xi bowed her head, then stepped lightly up to her taller sister. Carefully cupping Siians face with her palms, she brought the warriors head gently down and laid a soft kiss on her forehead. "Take good care, my sister. May the Great Mother ride with you and keep you safe."
Siian smiled and gathered her sister into a tight hug. "Ill be careful, bo. Make sure our sows ear doesnt grow fangs, alright?"
The smaller woman laughed softly and pulled away. "I shall do my best. Safe journey."
The warrior nodded, then turned away, leaving her sister alone in the tent.
As Siian stepped outside, Maia was there to greet her, the ever-present, sunny smile bright on her face. Siian twitched the corner of her mouth in return, then ducked around the smaller woman, only to return a heartbeat later, a small horse in tow. It was a mare, her coat a deep chestnut color with a lighter mane and tail brightening to bronze at the very ends. "This is I-mei. Shes very gentle, but quick, and brave. You two should get along very well."
Taking one look into those liquid brown eyes gazing at her, Maia fell instantly head over heels. "Shes beautiful!"
The warrior murmured something softly in her native tongue, and I-mei knelt down on one sturdy knee. Grinning for all she was worth, Maia swung aboard and firmly gripped the tawny mane as the small mare rose to her full height once again.
They exited the camp to the cheers and shouts of the women they were leaving behind. There were some tears from loved ones and relatives, but on the whole, they were being sent off proudly and joyously. The whole camp, it seemed, knew their mission.
Maia smiled and waved to Cori, who was standing outside the Sheas hut and cheering with the rest of the women. The young healer blushed a little at the attention, yet beamed all the wider because of it.
When the group entered the cool shade of the trees, the rest of the force materialized. Almost two dozen in all, the largest contingent being the Aama, who looked, on the whole, vaguely uncomfortable on horseback, but imposing nonetheless in their feathered masks and ragged hides.
They blended well, however, with the Hun warriors, in their furs and bits of bone; and the Egyptians, in their dun robes, turbans, and ever-present streamered spears. Looking upon them, all fit and ready and deadly earnest, Maia felt, for the first time in her life, part of something larger than herself.
And she decided that she liked the feeling very much indeed.
At Siians softly voiced command, the women fell into two lines of twelve women each. Two dozen young women to take on fifty or more hardened slavers. At any other time, Maia would have laughed if someone had told her such a tale, and taken them for the worst sort of drunkard or liar. But now, now she could well believe it.
She fell into line behind Siian, and found herself next to Asimi, who was astride a horse of the same size and coloring as her own. The Egyptians eyes were sparkling with good humor, and her smile was wide and bright. "Excited yet?"
Maia shook her head. "Too nervous to be excited," she replied truthfully.
"Nah. Youll do fine. Youll see."
"I hope so."
"Everyones nervous the first time they do something new. It gets easier over time."
The young blonde looked carefully at Asimi. "Does it?"
Asimi grinned. "Sure it does. And besides, youre not going in there alone. Thats the most important point."
Maia carefully nodded, considering the other womans words. "Thats true."
They drifted off into silence for awhile. Maia looked around curiously. When shed ridden in behind Siian, shed spent most of the time either asleep, or deep within a world of her own making. Shed never taken the time to really examine the place that she was taught from childhood was haunted.
Looking at it now, it seemed pretty much like any other forest she had seen in her life. Lots of trees, small animals scurrying away from their approach, the sound of birdsong filling the air. Nothing strange, or different, that she could see.
Growing bored with the unchanging scenery, she turned her attention back to her riding companion. Asimi sat her horse with an almost regal bearing that was at odds with her friendly, open countenance. The long tail of her turban fluttered softly in the breeze and her robes trailed behind her as if given lives of their own. "Are you from the land of the Pharaohs?" she asked before she could halt her tongue.
Asimi, however, didnt mind at all, and turned a beaming smile toward her. "Very good! Not many people outside of my native land would know that. You must have traveled far in your life."
Maia blushed. "Not far at all. Just to the market and back. But a lot of travelers came through that market. Ive been lucky enough to talk to some of them." She blushed even deeper. "And Im a pretty good guesser."
The warrior laughed. "That too." Then she sobered slightly. "They call my land Egypt in your tongue. The Pharaohs are our rulers, gods themselves, or so they say."
"You sound as if you dont believe them."
"Theyre all too human," Asimi agreed. "And worse than most."
"Have you always been a warrior?"
Asimi grinned. "No, not at all. My father was a scholar and my mother was a Priestess of Isis, one of the gods my people worship. My father wanted me to follow his path, my mother, hers. While I was too busy playing in the streets with my friends to care."
"But youre a warrior now," Maia noted, hoping she wasnt pushing things too far.
The young womans face turned sad. "By necessity, I assure you."
Maia cringed inwardly. "Im sorry. I didnt mean to bring up bad memories."
"No, its quite alright. It does us good to think about the past so we remember never to repeat our fathers mistakes." The grin returned. "At least, thats what Qian Xi says."
"She seems like a very wise woman."
"Oh, she most definitely is. The wisest person Ive ever known, I think."
They fell into silence again, though this time, it was a comfortable one. Maia couldnt help but giggle as I-mei lipped Bao Shengs tail and got said tail swished across her face in retaliation. The small mare had an easy, comfortable gait and felt good beneath her. It also appeared she had a bit of a playful side that Maia was sure she would enjoy during the journey.
Asimi, noticing her companion looking fondly at her horse, grinned again. "Be grateful youre not riding a camel instead."
Maia turned questioning eyes in Asimis direction. "A camel?"
The warriors smile deepened. "The nastiest, meanest tempered beast youd ever wanna know. Three times the size of a horse with a huge hump in the middle of its back, an independent mind, and a nasty streak as long as the desert is wide. Theyre likely to spit at you as listen, and if they dont feel like walking anymore, they just collapse right down under you, and nothing will make them get back up again."
As Asimi spoke, Maia watched her carefully, nearly convinced her leg was being laughingly pulled. And yet . . .and yet she didnt get the sense that her new friend was lying.
Huh. This gift thing might just come in handy after all.
"A nasty horse that spits. And has a hump on its back."
"Thats the basics," the warrior agreed amiably.
"Whats the hump for?"
"Theres very little water in the desert. A horse would have a difficult time moving from oasis to oasis. A camel can travel for days without water, because the hump stores it for him."
"It is," Asimi agreed. "Doesnt make them any sweeter, though."
Maia nodded, deep in thought. What she would give for the sight of such a creature. Then her thoughts turned to other things. "Ive heard that you have beautiful tombs there. So huge that they reach up and brush against the sky."
"Pyramids. Its where they bury our Pharaohs. Each succeeding generation tries to outdo the previous in size and grandeur." Her voice sounded bitter, and Maia began to regret her curiosity. "Some of my friends are building those tombs now. With blood and sweat."
Maiandrias heart went out to the young warrior. She wanted to reach out, but didnt quite dare. "What happened?"
Awash in bitter memories, Asimi stared down at her white-fisted hands knotted in her horses mane. "The Pharaohs put a great deal of stock in fortune tellers. They believe it keeps their heads attached to their bodies." She laughed, but it was without a hint of levity. "One of those fortune tellers got lucky." She sighed heavily. "Told the Pharaoh that a generation of young women would rise up and take his throne from him unless he could learn to wield their magic for his very own." She shook her head. "Trouble was, the stupid fool didnt know which women his divining foretold, so the Pharaoh took us all into slavery, just to be sure. The ones with gifts and the ones without. Those who resisted were killed where they stood."
Her vision blurred as tears stung and pricked at her eyes. "My parents loved me very much. They thought their positions in our society would be enough to get around the Pharaohs order." She wiped a hand savagely across her face. "They were murdered right in front of me."
Strongly empathic, Maia felt Asimis pain as a living thing, wrapping itself around the young warrior much like a snake engulfing and strangling its prey. Her own chest became tight with the weight of it, and she struggled to breathe through the tears she herself was shedding.
Shutting her eyes tightly, she tried to distance herself from the strong emotions, but the bands of pain pulled more tightly at her until she felt she would be crushed beneath their stultifying weight. Finally, unable to do anything else, she gave in and rode with the other womans grief until she felt herself washed out the other side of it, clearer headed and finally able to breathe.
She opened her eyes to find Asimi staring at her curiously. "Are you alright?"
She blinked, then turned slightly to see piercing blue eyes staring her in much the same manner.
"Yes," she said to both, while holding Siians intense gaze. "Im fine now. I just . . .got . . .caught up, I think."
"Its your gift," Siian replied simply.
"It doesnt feel like very much of one right now."
The tall warrior nodded, her eyes full of concern. "It will get easier with time. The Sheas can help, as can Qian Xi. Well make arrangements once we return. If you feel youre strong enough to continue on with us."
"Yes. Yes, Im fine. I want to go on. Please."
Siian half smiled at the pleading in those vibrant green eyes. "Alright. Theres a stream a short distance ahead. Well stop and rest there briefly. Then well continue on."
Maia sighed in relief. "Thank you."
The warrior nodded.
Their gazes lingered a minute longer before Siian righted her position on Bao Sheng and nudged the stallion into a faster pace.
Maiandria felt the warm brush of fingers briefly against her wrist and, startled, she turned her head to see Asimi regarding her with a somewhat sheepish expression. "Sorry about that," the Egyptian warrior murmured. "I should have realized . . . ."
Maias eyes widened and she, herself, felt more than a little chagrined. "Please, dont you be sorry! You were grieving for your family and I took that away from you. I didnt mean to and Im very, very sorry."
Asimi smiled. "Dont worry about it. Everyone here has a story to tell, and by the time this winters out, Im sure youll have heard them all."
"Well, I just hope I can get a handle on whatevers going on with me before then," Maia replied, with feeling.
"Count on it."
Then the horses, smelling water, quickened their pace further, and the women were too immersed in just staying on to speak further.
The clearing before the river was very small, and only grudgingly admitted the group of women and their horses into its space. Short, stunted bushes with needle-like leaves protected the path to the river with painful efficiency and a deadfall of old and gnarled trees gave out a warning of its very own.
The warriors didnt mind, however, and cheerfully tromped thorough the imposing undergrowth as they sprang from their horses and chatted loudly among themselves in a variety of different languages.
Not used to long bareback rides, Maia slipped off of her own horse with no small sense of relief, unwelcome vegetation or no.
She felt a little better about her situation when she saw most of the Aama doing much the same, stretching out heretofore unused and abused muscles and wincing at the unaccustomed pain. A short distance away, the Huns didnt even bother to hide their amusement, and for a moment, Maiandria worried that a fight would break out among the two groups.
She neednt have worried, though. After trading a few rudely worded insults, mostly involving wild ancestral couplings and crude sexual practices, the groups split apart with the Huns leading their horses to the stream, and the Aama disappearing up into the comfort and familiarity of the trees.
Maia was snapped out of her reverie by a gentle, but rather insistent, nuzzle to her chest. The liquid brown eyes which stared down at her seemed almost human, and the young woman laughed at the horses woebegone expression. "I guess this means youre thirsty, huh?"
I-mei chuffed and bobbed her head as if in answer.
"Alright, then. Lets go see if theyve drained the stream dry yet." Turning, Maia walked toward the water with her mount trailing amiably behind.
The Huns, Egyptians, and their horses crowded along the narrow bank of the slow-moving stream, jostling for position. A short distance away, Siian stood next to Bao Sheng and looked off across the water, appearing lost in thought but actually quite vigilant, while her horse drank his fill. She smiled internally as her keen hearing tracked Maiandria across the clearing and up to the waters edge, to stop a few feet away from her own position.
She turned her head and gazed impassively at the young woman, who gave her a shy smile in return. At the sight, Siian once again felt that strong pulse of attraction shed been pondering for the last several days. While it certainly wasnt unusual for her to be attracted to a beautiful woman, and Maiandria was surely that, this went beyond the mere physical. How far beyond, she couldnt tell, and that worried her.
Never one to delve too deeply into her own emotions, Siian knew enough to know that she was potentially entering into some unplumbed depths where her day-to-day interactions with this captivating young woman were concerned.
Dangerous depths, perhaps. Places she had no wish to revisit, and feelings she had no desire to experience. The women depending on her needed cool strength and unflappability. She needed that as well. Or so she believed.
A vision of her sisters inscrutable smile flashed before her eyes.
Qian Xi, you know more than youre telling. Thats going to stop. Very soon now.
She blinked out of that thought in time to see Maiandrias gaze shift to the water, a very strange expression on her face. The warrior, who could read any enemy like a battle map, was at a complete loss. It put her off balance, which was one thing she couldnt abide.
Normally, in such a state, shed get angry and lash out; a legacy, she supposed, of her upbringing, experiences, and a warrior father whose temper was much, much shorter than his sword.
Instead of lashing out, however, she found herself reaching out, all but unaware shed even crossed the short distance between them until she felt her hand lay gently on the smaller womans shoulder.
Though she felt Siians hand on her shoulder, Maia prevented herself from giving in to the feelings the gesture engendered within. Instead, she kept her stare out over the sparkling water, watching as it slowly continued its unending journey to the sea. When she finally spoke, her voice was heavy, and low. "You must think Im either a young child, or an old fool."
Siian found herself utterly bemused. Whatever she had thought the young woman would say certainly didnt measure up to the reality of the situation. For one of the first times in her life, she found herself without a clue as to how to respond, and that strange, off-kilter feeling came over her once again.
"Always staring at you like some kid with a crush," Maia continued, unaware of the turbulent thoughts of her companion. "Crying at the drop of a hat. Scared and flustered over gifts that the rest of you take in stride." She laughed, but it was a joyless sound. "I dont know why you dont just run away screaming at the first sight of me."
A thousand and one responses battled for dominance behind the warriors lips, but in the end, as always, the instincts of her body won out, and she gathered the smaller woman into a gentle, if somewhat awkward, hug.
An embrace which became less awkward when Maia nestled in and Siian found, to her immense surprise, that they fit together the way the sky fit against the earth. Seamlessly.
It also became easier because Siian now had an idea of what was causing the her companions confusion and, further, it was something familiar to her.
At one time or another, every woman Siian had met during her travels underwent these same questioning, confused emotional battles. Their homes and families were ripped from them. They were thrust among strangers and asked to make a life with people they didnt even know. Their gifts, which many hadnt even known theyd possessed, began to blossom, oft-times at a phenomenal rate.
These difficulties, and many more, combined to put the women in a very fragile emotional state from which only the strongest emerged unscathed and better for the experience. Those less strong often turned inward, collapsing into themselves until someone, usually a Shea, helped and guided them through the storm to land safely on the other side.
Still others, thankfully few in number, never made it through. They quickly became shells, burnt-out husks of the vibrant women they once were, driven so deeply into their own beings that they could no longer relate to the outside world in any sensible way. The Sheas took these women to other Sheas, hidden in secret covens far beyond the reach of man, to be fed and bathed and cared for for the rest of their days.
Siian knew, with as much surety as she possessed, that Maiandria would not become one of those women. Though small and, compared to the warriors around her, almost delicate, Maia possessed an inner steel strong as any blade and that steel core would carry her through, no matter what trial awaited.
Maia didnt know about any of that. All she did know was that in a sea of uncertainty, shed somehow come upon an island of peace within this womans strong arms. Laying her cheek against a smooth, warm chest, she hesitantly wrapped her own arms around the warriors slim waist and listened to the slow beat of a strong heart against her ear.
When Siian didnt pull away, she nestled in closer until not even a blade of grass could pass between them.
From this warm haven, she tried her best to examine her feelings, but it was hard. There were so many of them racing through her mind, none stopping long enough for her to concentrate on. So instead, she let her body talk to her. Let herself feel, truly feel, the warmth and the gentle energy flowing between them.
Shed never been hugged as a child. Her family was too emotionally remote to think of offering physical comfort in times of sadness or pain. In fact, the only physical touching that was done involved abuse. So it surprised her, in a way, that her body would seek out this contact with another human being. And not only seek it out, but actually crave it.
She was well aware of her attraction to the tall warrior. How could she not be? Siians beauty slammed her almost to her knees every time she saw it.
And that was also strange.
Not because Siian was a woman. For as long as Maia could remember, she had found women attractive. And there were certainly girls in the village, and some young men as well, who returned those feelings.
But every time she felt ready to take the next step beyond the initial blush of gentle flirtation, it was her fathers face she saw superimposed over the interested faces looking back at her. And that vision never failed to turn her numb and cold inside.
But here, in this place, with this woman . . . those things just didnt seem to matter.
Strange, she thought. Im gonna have to think a whole lot more on this when I have time.
She felt Siians grip on her loosen, and she released the warrior at the same time, giving them both the space they needed. Her chin tilted up and she caught Siians gaze. A new knowledge passed between them, and was acknowledged by both before they turned their attentions toward their horses and away from each other.
In the shade of a nearby tree, Malika looked on, a bittersweet smile playing over her full lips. Asimi, who saw the expression and knew the reason behind its appearance, stepped next to the beautiful warrior and laid a gentle hand on her arm. "You ok?"
Mali nodded. "Yeah. Im ok."
And she was, at that. Not that it didnt hurt, because it did. More than she thought it might, actually. But the truth was there, deep in her soul, as it had been from the very moment shed laid eyes on the breathtaking force of nature that was Siian. That while they might love, and be lovers, one crucial element would always be missing.
The warriors heart.
And even if Siians heart was still her own, it didnt take an empath, or a fortune-teller, to see that it wouldnt remain that way for long.
With a deep, gentle sigh, she released her sadness into the wind and slung an arm over the shorter Asimi. "Lets get this show on the road, huh?"
It had been dark for several hours by the time the group reached the place in the forest where they were to divide forces. No words passed between the women. Everything that needed to be said already had been long before. As the Huns were about to split off, Malika rode up to Siian, and the two women clasped forearms in an age-old gesture of departing comrades.
Siian knew that Mali had seen the embrace by the stream, and the smile she gave her friend was just as sad as the one the beautiful Hun returned to her. It was an expression of endings. And of beginnings. And each woman knew that no matter where their paths led, they would ultimately end it as they had begun. Together.
With a final nod, Mali released Siians arm and turned away, gesturing for her warriors, and Maia, to follow. Siian watched until the group, silent as mist, disappeared into the trees before signaling her remaining forces to continue the advance.
With one low-voiced command, Malika brought her group to a halt at the bottom of a small embankment. Above them, the women could hear the sounds of contented horses settling in for the night. Sliding from their mounts, the women walked quietly to their leader and waited for her orders.
"Treszka, Sipos, youre the lookouts. Go up to the top of the hill and split up. If you see any trouble, sound the alert."
The two young women nodded, and slipped quickly, quietly away.
"The rest of you, mount up. Once the horses come down, keep them calm and quiet, and lead them to the trail Siian mapped out. Then open up and head them back to camp as quickly as possible. Switch mounts if you have to, just make sure you dont stop for anything until youve safely returned. Well meet you back there."
The women did as they were told, leaving Malika and Maiandria alone at the base of the hill.
Maia tried to swallow, but found her mouth dry as dust.
The Hun put a hand on her shoulder, leaning in close. "Dont let them smell your fear, Maia. Youll spook them."
"I know," the younger woman managed to croak out. "Im just not sure how to do that."
Malika smiled. "Thats easy. Just dont be afraid."
Maia almost almost laughed. "Easy for you to say," she finally whispered.
The Huns face sobered. "No, actually it isnt. We all feel fear, Maia. Its how we handle it that makes us who we are." She gently turned the young woman in the direction of the horses. "These animals arent any different from the ones we have back at camp. In fact, for the woman who could turn that slathering beast of Siians into a whimpering pup, there shouldnt be any problems at all."
"But, what if . . . ?"
"No, Maia," Mali whispered, tightening her grip on the young blondes shoulders, "no what ifs here. The worst thing that can happen is that the horses panic. If that happens, just cut the tether and back away. Siian and the others are prepared for that eventuality. Now lets just do what we came here to do so that the others can play their parts, alright?"
The Hun chiefs firm tone was exactly what Maia needed. It grounded her and pushed her fear back to a size she could manage. "Alright," she finally whispered. "Lets do it."
Mali gave an unseen smile, and pressed a small, but very sharp, dagger into the other womans hands. "Remember, Ill be just a step away."
And she was, following close behind as Maia picked her way carefully and quietly up the rather steep embankment. When they were almost to the top, Malika paused and let out a sound that was an exact imitation of a horses soft call.
Maia froze, then slowly turned her head, the look on her face one of pure amazement.
Mali winked. Then gestured with her head. "Theres your leader."
A large stallion pushed his way toward the front of the pack, his ears flicking interestedly as the Hun warrior repeated the call.
Facing forward once again, Maia studied the stallion. Though large, he was quite a bit smaller than Bao Sheng, and Maia felt relieved. A waxing moon gave her just enough light to see into his eyes, and she stepped slowly forward, smiling. "Arent you a big boy," she cooed, half under her breath, knowing the horses keen hearing would pick up her tone. "Yes you are," she continued, stepping closer and taking great care to appear completely calm.
Just as she got within touching distance, the stallion threw back his head and chuffed a warning. Thankfully, the warning was a soft one, obviously meant only for her.
Alright, so this is going to be a little bit harder than I originally thought. Thats ok. I like a challenge. Sometimes.
"Ok, big fella. Its ok. Yes it is. See? Im not going to hurt you. Im your friend."
As she softly talked, she watched the stallions muscles twitch and settle as his ears flicked back and forth. His gaze, however, remained completely on her.
"Thats right," she whispered, stepping a little closer and lifting her hand slowly, calmly. "Thats right, big guy. Im just a friend saying hello."
She laid a gentle hand on his neck and, after stiffening briefly, the horse relaxed to her warm touch. She smiled, then almost laughed aloud as the stallions apparent acceptance of her caused other curious horses to nuzzle and lip at her hair, face, and clothing from their places beyond the rope tether.
"How about if I get you out of this crowded little corral, huh? Would you like that?"
Very slowly, she raised the knife, taking care to distract the stallion so he wouldnt see the shining glint of metal in her hand. She could tell he still wasnt completely comfortable with her, so she kept up her soothing patter as she went to work on the tether.
The sharp knife cut through the hemp strands easily, and in almost no time at all, the rope parted and she slipped the ends through the tether of the stallion and several of the other horses. The horses stayed in place, however, until Mali uttered another call. This started them moving, though quietly, as if they were somehow aware of the need for silence.
Maia uttered a great sigh of relief as the last of the horses passed her by. Slipping back to Malikas position on the hill, she grinned. "Youre gonna have to teach me how to make noises like that sometime," she whispered.
The Hun grinned back, clapping Maia on the back. "Anytime. Great job."
Maia blushed, charming her companion. "Thanks, but I couldnt have done it without you. We make a pretty good team, I think."
"I dont think, Maia. I know."
And with that, they scrambled down the ravine to where their own horses were being held by one of the Huns.
"Get your sisters and head on back to camp," Mali murmured to the young warrior. "Well meet you there tomorrow."
Giving a quick nod, the warrior dashed away.
"Where to now?" Maia asked as she slipped over I-meis back from her perch on a tall bolder shed hopped onto.
"Well wait just outside the slavers camp in case Siian has need of us. Which is doubtful, of course, but you never know."
"Sounds good to me!"
From her sheltered perch high up in the trees, Siian watched with no small sense of satisfaction as the last of the slavers horses were led away. She smiled, teeth gleaming in the moonshadowed darkness, as she saw Mali and Maia take up unobtrusive positions just outside of the encampment.
The sound of an owls hoot soft on the breeze let her know that the Aama, too, had seen what she had. Shifting her position just slightly, she lowered her gaze to thoroughly observe the camp one final time before putting the next phase of her plan into action.
The slavers camp was typical of its breed. A single, moderately sized tent sat with its back to the winding stream, with two guards positioned to the rear, one to either side. The rest of the men were billeted to the front left of the tent, while two oxcarts held cages filled with captive women stood to the right. Five guards took up positions around the front and sides of the perimeter, each seeming alert and aware.
Seeming, of course, because in reality, they were completely unaware of the rather sizable force of warriors in the trees directly above them. Just as they were completely unaware of the fact that their horses had just gone missing.
The leader himself wasnt much to look at. Short and squatty and nearly as wide as he was tall, he favored brightly colored caftans and draped himself in the gaudy trappings of his wealth. With his rouged lips and powered, flabby face, he looked as if hed run screaming from his own shadow, but Siian had learned long ago not to let appearances deceive her.
Three soft hoots told the Aama she was ready.
The screech of a hunting owl let her know that they were as well.
When one of the rear guards turned to the bushes to answer natures call, Siian jumped down from her perch on a heavy limb overhanging the stream. She landed, silent as death, and put the first guard into a deep slumber with the pommel of her sword to the back of his head. The second man quickly met the same fate before he even had time to finish the task at hand.
Both men out of commission, Siian slipped silently to the rear of the tent, and unsheathed a small dagger from her soft boot. The thin material of the tent gave way willingly under the sharp steel of her blade, and when the opening was wide enough, she slipped through without a sound.
The tent was very dim, and ripe with the stench of old sweat, wine, fear, and something else. The warrior straightened, her eyes gone cold and flinty. Interspersed between the loud snores of the slaver were the frightened whimpers of a young woman almost smothered by the large man lying fully atop her.
Strong, white teeth bared in a soundless snarl, Siian stalked silently across the tent. Reaching down, she wrapped a strong arm around the slavers neck, and yanked him up off of the bed, covering his mouth with her free hand before he had time to utter even a squeak of surprise.
As she lifted him, she uncovered the slight and naked body of the woman, barely out of her teens, who looked up at her with wide, terrified eyes.
"If you wish your freedom," the warrior whispered, "go out the back and wait in the bushes by the stream. Keep as quiet as you can, youll be taken from here. Do you understand?"
After a long moment, the woman nodded and gathered the tattered remains of her dress around her nakedness, before jumping up from the nest of furs and slipping from the rear of the tent, as directed.
Seeing his quarry escaping, the slaver fought for all he was worth. It was as useful to him as trying to wrestle a tree.
"Make one wrong move, little man," Siian whispered, her lips pressed against his ear, "and Ill cut you up into pieces small enough to make the rats hunt dinner elsewhere." Shifting her grip slightly, she pressed the edge of her dagger against the throbbing artery in his throat, emphasizing her threat.
The slaver nodded against the pressure on his neck.
"Good. Now were going to walk outside, nice and calm, and have a little talk with your men."
She pushed the slaver in front of her, and exited the tent only far enough so that her body cleared its confines, ensuring that she would have no immediate threat from the rear. The guards saw the danger immediately, and raised the alarm, causing the rest of the men to jump to their feet, weapons in hand.
"Come no further," Siian warned, her blade tight against the slavers throat.
The men, of course, werent about to heed her, and started forward en masse.
Only to be stopped as a volley of arrows dug into the ground at their feet, halting them in their tracks as stunned looks came over their faces and their eyes searched the trees fruitlessly.
"The next time, they wont miss. Now drop your weapons. All of you."
When the men hesitated, she pressed her knife harder against the slavers tender throat, drawing blood. The mans scream was muffled behind her hand, but it was effective nonetheless.
As a group, the soldiers dropped their weapons into the hard-packed dirt at their feet.
"Very good. Now, one of you go up to the cages and unlock the doors. Dont open them, just remove the locks. Now."
One burly man, a scar standing vividly out on his face, walked forward. "Ill do it," he said, glaring at Siian before stalking to the cages as if he hadnt a care in the world. The first lock gave way quickly beneath the power of his huge hand, and he jerked the door open quickly, hoping to snatch his own hostage before anyone could stop him.
The door closed slowly as the man slid down the bars of the cage, his eyes wide with shock and staring down at an arrowhead which suddenly appeared right below his breastbone.
Without another sound, he crumpled to the ground, dead.
"You," Siian gestured with her chin toward another of the guards who was glaring at her, "you look a little smarter than your friend there. Unlock the second cage."
After a very long moment, he grunted and did as he was ordered. Once the lock was broken, he raised his hands and stepped carefully away.
"Very good. Now get back with the others."
Once the men were grouped together again, the warrior turned her head and uttered a long, loud whistle. Seconds later, Asimi ran into the clearing, followed by her warriors, all carrying their long, deadly spears.
Not about to see their efforts go up in smoke so easily, the soldiers began to charge the smaller group of women, only to once again be stopped in their tracks by a new barrage of arrows. Unlike the last time, however, these arrows hit their marks, and several men went down, moaning and screaming in pain.
The rest stopped.
At a nod from Siian, Asimi and the rest of the Egyptians quickly flung open the cage doors and escorted the frightened women from their confinement. It was over almost before it began as the last of the once-captured women was led away into the safety of the thick forest beyond the clearing.
"Now," Siian said, easily holding the struggling slaver, "you have a choice. You can go after those women and die for your efforts, or you can take your wounded and walk away."
As she waited for their decision, the warrior sensed more than heard one of the guards shed dispatched earlier approaching from within the tent. She turned at the last second, and used the slaver as a shield so that when the heavy, spiked battle mace came crashing down, it was the mans skull it crushed instead of her own.
Dropping the dead slaver, she blocked the second blow, and prevented a third by sticking her dagger deep into her attackers belly, gutting him.
Some of the men thought to take advantage of Siians seeming inattention, but were quickly warned off as more arrows fell among them.
Pushing the now-dead guard off of her knife, the warrior turned and aimed the full power of her piercing, icy eyes at the remaining soldiers. "I have no more patience for this. Leave or die."
The first man broke quickly and ran screaming into the forest as if all the demons of the underworld were hot on his heels. A second man ran. And then a third, until almost half the camp had vanished into the woods. The braver men stayed behind and helped their wounded comrades before they, too, shuffled away as best they could.
None looked back.
With triumphant yells, the Aama appeared from the trees, waving their bows high in the air.
"Thats our cue," Malika said to Maia, grinning as she nudged her horse into an all-out run toward the clearing with the younger woman following close behind.
After cleaning and resheathing her dagger, Siian drew her sword and leapt to the top of the cage closest to the tent. With mighty swings, she splintered the thick wooden bars, rendering it useless as a carrier of living beings.
Still shouting, the Aama rushed in to help, their own wickedly sharp stone knives making short work of the second cage until only kindling rested where a large object once stood.
Jumping from her mount, Malika rushed into the tent to loot it of anything which would be useful, while Maia, hearing frightened whimpers, ran around toward the stream and spied the young woman the slaver had abused still hiding in the bushes.
Squatting down so as to appear less intimidating (and that thought alone caused an ironic smile to form within), Maia held out her hand as she would to a frightened animal. "Its alright now," she said, her voice calm and assured. "Youre safe. No one will hurt you now."
Still whimpering, the young woman slowly reached out, her hand and arm bruised, bloody, and violently trembling.
Maia smiled and clasped it, surprised when a muted hum of energy accompanied the touch. Careful not to let her surprise show on her face, she slowly stood and helped the young woman to her feet and out of the dense undergrowth where shed been hiding.
"Thats better," Maiandria said, smiling even as she took pains to look away from the womans vulnerable nakedness. "My name is Maia and Im very pleased to meet you."
"N-Naomi," the young woman said, shivering in the cool breeze which had sprung up.
"Here, Naomi, take this." Slowly, Maia removed her jerkin and gave it to the young woman. "Youll be a lot warmer, I promise."
Nodding in thanks, Naomi pulled the jerkin over her head and settled it as best she could over her still-trembling body. "Thank you," she whispered, then stiffened, her eyes going very wide and frightened.
Looking over her shoulder, Maia saw Siian seated atop Bao-Sheng. "Were ready to leave," the warrior intoned, looking from Maia to Naomi and back again, her eyes lingering on the newly bared flesh of her young companion briefly before looking into her eyes once again.
"Dont be afraid," Maia said softly to Naomi once she was able to tear her gaze away from the warrior. "Shes a friend. She wont harm you."
Maiandrias soothing tones again calmed the young woman, and she stopped retreating, though her eyes were still pinned on the fierce warrior atop the huge stallion.
"Would you like us to take you back to your home?"
"II have no home." Naomis deep, dark eyes filled with tears. "Everyone there is dead. Except for me."
Maia nodded, her own eyes filled with compassion. "Well then, would you like to come with us? We have a camp not very far away with many women just like you. Youll be welcome there. And safe."
"Just like me?" Naomi asked, doubt clear in her voice.
"Yes. Just like you." She gently grasped Naomis arm. "No one will take you anywhere against your will. Wherever you want to go, well help get you there."
Maia could see that the young woman wanted very much to believe her, but her eyes kept straying to the warrior behind her.
"Her name is Siian, and shes a very good person. She saved my life, and now shes saved yours too, isnt that right?"
After a moment, Naomi nodded.
"You have nothing to fear from her, or from any of us. I know youre very confused, and I wish I could help you, but all I can tell you is that youll be safe and cared for, whatever you choose to do."
Naomi felt her fear leave, bit by bit, as Maias words sunk in, warming her even more than the jerkin she wore. Letting out a long-held breath, she nodded again. "Id like to go with you," she whispered shyly.
Maias face broke out in a beaming smile. "Thats wonderful! Can you ride?"
Naomi stiffened again, staring past Maias shoulder and directly at the patiently standing Bao-Sheng.
Maia laughed. "No, not him. You can ride with me. I promise, my horse is much smaller. Ok?"
"Great! Lets go then."
And they did, leaving the days carnage far behind.
The campfire flared up briefly before settling back down to cast a fairly cheerful glow over the small, leaf-strewn clearing. The crackling hiss of the wood mixed easily with the sounds of soft laughter coming from very near the fire.
Naomi had calmed greatly from the frightened young woman shed been in the slavers camp, thanks mainly to Maias gentle attention. She still kept her distance from the other women, finding them as fearsome in their own way as the men whod captured her had been, but Siian and the others werent overly worried, since it was a rather common reaction to their presence.
The warrior herself sat midway up a small hill which served as a windbreak for the tiny camp. Her long fingers unthinkingly toyed with a single blade of grass as her eyes, ever vigilant, darted around the perimeter ceaselessly for signs of anything out of the ordinary.
Those same eyes would occasionally send her gaze wandering over to the other side of the flickering campfire to observe the way the dancing flames created mesmerizing vistas of light and shadow over the wonderfully revealed flesh of Maiandria. Her skin seemed painted in amber, and her hair shone molten gold in the flickering light.
"Magnificent, isnt she."
The low, liquid timbre of Malis voice curled around her hearing much like the Hun herself curled around Siians broad back, happily stealing the warriors body heat. Though Malika was cloaked in heavy furs and her companion, for all intents and purposes, was very nearly naked, Siian was by far the warmer, a fact which Mali shamelessly exploited from time to time.
Siian shot a glare over her shoulder, which Mali returned, smirking.
"She was wonderful with the horses tonight, just as youd guessed."
The warrior nodded.
Malika sighed and eased her position back somewhat. "This isnt like you, my friend. Why are you so hesitant? Ive never known you to be this way before."
Siian remained silent.
Rolling her eyes heavenward, the Hun reached out and grabbed Siians bicep, pressing her strong fingers into the warm, toned flesh. "What are you afraid of?" she hissed. "Even a blind woman could see the sparks you two give off when you so much as look in each others direction! Why are you so afraid of giving in to something you know you want?"
"Because I dont want it." Speaking through gritted teeth, Siians tone was very controlled, displaying not a hint of her underlying emotions.
Mali snorted in disgust. "Youre a poor liar, Siian."
The warrior spun on her, wrenching her arm from the smaller womans firm grip. "Dont push your luck, Malika." Fists and jaw firmly clenched, Siian rose to her feet and towered over her companion. Her pale eyes glittered with anger, and for one of the first times in her life, Mali felt a strange shiver of fear trail its way down her spine.
After a long, charged moment, Siian turned away and stalked into the darkness of the woods beyond the camp.
Letting out a held breath that was as much relief as it was frustration, Mali turned her gaze to where she knew Maia was watching. She gave the concerned woman the brightest smile she could, but in truth, it wasnt very bright or believable, and Maia looked away, more concerned than before.
Malika was known, by friend and enemy alike, for her consummate bravery as well as for her battle skills. Gathering that bravery around her like the cloak of furs she already wore, she scrambled to her feet and set off into the forest to find Siian.
It was quite some time before she came upon the warrior sitting with her back against the base of a very large tree, though Siian had chosen a spot that was well within easy calling distance of the camp.
She came to a stop several feet away from her friend, and stood still, arms loose at her sides. "Im sorry I pushed you," she said softly, swallowing her pride. "Its not my place."
After a moment, Siians shoulders slumped and she turned bleak eyes to the Hun. "It is your place, Mali. You have every right to question me if my behavior seems . . .off."
"Your behavior isnt off, Siian. And youve certainly done nothing to warrant my questioning. Its just that . . . ." Uncharacteristically, Mali found herself suddenly at a loss for words.
As she looked at her friend, Siians gaze softened. "What?"
Mali lowered her head, suddenly feeling quite petty. Only to have it lifted a moment later by the gentlest of touches under her chin.
"What?" Siian repeated, her voice tender.
Again, Malika rallied her courage to keep her from bolting. She took a breath, let it out, and took another before speaking. "Siian, were not together anymore, not like we were, and I accept that. And I thought I even understood why. But now . . . ." Voice trailing to silence, she dropped her gaze for a brief moment before lifting it again. "Now Im not sure of anything anymore." Lifting a hand, she grasped her companions wrist in a gentle clasp. "Siian, you and Maiandria have a bond with one another. Your body knows it, even if your heart wont accept that fact. What I dont understand is how you can ignore something that is so obvious to the rest of us."
"Im not ignoring it," the warrior replied, stepping away.
"Youre running from it. Same difference. What I think we both need to know is why?"
"Because it was thrust upon me," Siian growled with very real heat. "And I dont tolerate that well."
Struck by the simplicity of it all, Mali nearly laughed. "Siian, youve been dealing with things thrust upon you for almost your entire life! This bond you share with Maiandria is just part of the same whole."
Brought up short, Siian spun back to Mali, one eyebrow raised. "Explain."
"Dont you see? Its a gift. No less of one than your extraordinary strength, or your courage, or your intelligence. You didnt ask for any of them. They were given to you, without your consent."
"Thats different," Siian replied, scowling.
"No, my friend. It isnt. Those other gifts are just easier to accept because you enjoy them. You enjoy pushing your body to its limits. You enjoy outthinking and outfighting anyone who tries to cross your path. You wouldnt give any of those gifts up without a fight, because they combine to form the picture you have of yourself. They help you to define who you are." She smiled. "But this . . .this is different, Siian. This isnt a gift for your mind or your body. Its a gift for your heart. And thats something youve never been able to accept. You give the rest of yourself so freely, but your heart . . . ."
"Is not mine to give, Malika. It belongs to the women back in camp, and others weve yet to find. It belongs to every woman out there, gifted or non, who cries out to someone for help." Taking in a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and lifted her chin proudly. "And if I seem remote, and cold, its because I have to be. These women need peace in their lives, Mali. They need safety, and a place to rest and call home. And I mean to give that to them. However I can."
"But . . . ."
The warrior held up a hand. "I dont have your strength, Malika. Not for something like this." She shook her head slowly, her eyes saddened. "If this bond is a gift from the goddess, as you say it is, its a gift I wont be able to accept. Not now. No matter how much I might want to."
Mali turned to watch as the proud warrior started back toward their small camp. "I dont think you have any choice in the matter, my friend," she whispered before following.
Entering the camp, Siian saw that, aside from the sentries, the rest of the women had bedded down for the night. As she circled the fire, she noticed that Maiandria had given Naomi her
sleeping fur, and though close to the fire, the young blonde was huddled in a fetal ball and shivering in her sleep.
Blue eyes softened, and the warrior crossed to the other side of the fire, took her own thick fur, and returned to gently cover the trembling young woman. Crouching down, she tucked the fur around the small body. Then, with the most tender of touches, long fingers brushed away a wisp of golden hair which had fallen across Maias sleeping face. A sad smile curved the warriors lips as the womans shivers began to abate.
"Im sorry," she whispered before rising and returning to her perch on the hill.
To Be Continued - Part 4
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