Full Circle: The Tale of Si’ian 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, there’s 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 anyone’s sensibilities. Let me know if I’ve succeeded.

Genre Disclaimer: I’m 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 Si’ian. The correct pronunciation—for reasons which will become evident as this novel progresses-- is "sigh-ann", better known as "Cyane".

Serialization Disclaimer: Like Topsy, this story just growed. It’s hit over 300 pages and they’ve just started. For this reason, I’ve 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 it’s done.

Feeback: As always is more than welcomed. You can reach me at Swordnquil@aol.com with any comments, questions, concerns and/or criticisms.


Part 4

The camp that the women returned to was so different from the one they’d left that Maia couldn’t help but wonder if they’d taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. Where a sort of organized chaos once stood, a sea of calm purpose now took up residence.

And, in the center of it all, a serenity radiating from her calm features, stood Qian Xi in her flowing robes, the slightest of smiles curving her lips.

Maiandria felt her respect for this remarkable woman soar to new heights as she stared, wide-eyed, around the encampment. "She did this in a day?" she whispered loud enough to have Malika, riding along side, give her a wink and a knowing grin.

They came to a stop near the central fire. Two Huns stepped smartly forward, ready to care for the horses once they’d divested themselves of their human burdens.

Maia slid off of I-mei’s back with a groan of profound relief. Though the little mare had a gait smooth as silk, her rider was still a farmer’s daughter, more used to walking the land than riding over it.

Cori was there as soon as Maiandria stepped away, her face shining with happiness. "Welcome back! Boy did the Huns have some stories about you, Hero!."

Maia blushed under the gushing adulation of her friend. "Um . . .no, I’m not quite a hero, Cori. Everyone did great. We were a good team."

"That’s not what I heard."

"That’s because the Huns missed most of the action. Believe me, Cori, I was one small part in a bigger whole. That’s the important part. That we were all equal and all needed."

"Alright, alright, I get the picture," Cori said, laughing. Then she scowled as both women heard Yanit’s voice pierce through the clearing. "You’d think she’d give me one moment’s rest, but no. Corissa this and Corissa that. Corissa come here. Corissa go there. I’m beginning to hate the sound of my own name."

It was Maia’s turn to laugh. "C’mon. I’ll walk over with you."

"Thanks!" Cori returned, smile growing ever wider as she felt Maia’s hand clasp her own and lead her away from the fire.

Mali left just as Maia did, heading back to reconnoiter with her warriors. The Aama contingent had stopped at the edge of the clearing and disappeared immediately into the trees. Several women came up to greet their newest member, Naomi, and took her away with them, which left Si’ian and Qian Xi standing alone.

"Very impressive," the warrior commented, indicating the camp with a tilt of her head.

Qian Xi nodded modestly, though her sister could easily see the twinkle in her dark, almond eyes. "One of my less called upon talents."

"One I think I’ll be calling upon more in the future."

"As you wish." Easily noting her sister’s exhaustion in the set of her shoulders and the line of her jaw, the smaller woman gently led Si’ian away from the fire and toward the warrior’s tent. "Come. I have tea, and news."

Si’ian followed without complaint, as ever, grateful for her sister’s quiet and unwavering support.

Soon, the cool and fragrant dimness enveloped her like a long lost friend, and she felt herself begin to relax for the first time in days.

Travel-worn clothing was shrugged tiredly off as Si’ian walked over to the brazier and the small wooden bowl which held clean, warm water. A soft cloth served to remove the sweat and grime from her weary body. As she attempted to pick up a fresh set of clothing, her hands were moved gently away, and a tiny clay cup of fragrant tea was slipped into them instead.

"Rest," Qian Xi said quietly. "You’re worn to the bone."

"But, I . . . ."

"Rest. We have time."

Rolling her eyes, Si’ian lowered herself to the thick furs which made up her bed, and brought the steaming tea up to her lips, inhaling the spicy, comforting scent before taking a swallow and groaning softly in appreciation as the tea warmed her belly.

Smiling, Qian Xi sat gracefully opposite her sister, and sipped from her own cup of tea.

The two sat in companionable silence until Si’ian finished the last of her drink and carefully set the delicate cup aside. When she looked at her sister, her gaze was sharper and more focused. Never one for idle chit-chat, she got right to the point. "I gather that since the camp looks as it does, we’ve gotten word back from the Czigany."

"You’re correct. Malika’s scouts returned just this morning. It seems that one of the larger clans was caught by the autumn rains and will winter in one of their alternate gathering places to the south. Which leaves enough space for us to stay, as long as we respect their boundaries."

"I don’t anticipate that as being a problem."

"Nor do I." Setting her cup aside, Qian Xi steepled her fingers. "Would you like to hear the plan that Muireall and I devised for the move?"

At Si’ian’s raised eyebrow, the smaller woman smiled. "Yes, I will freely admit that you were right. Muireall has a talent for organization. Her problem stems from her decided lack of communication skills."

Si’ian’s grin was just a hair short of smug as she rested back on her elbows and crossed her long legs at the ankles. "Do tell."

Choosing to ignore the not-so-subtle challenge, Qian Xi adopted her most serene expression, though the glint in her eye brought the attempt up a bit short. "Starting at tomorrow’s sunrise, we will start moving the women out in groups of twenty, with ten horses per party to carry their gear. The first several groups should be comprised of women already adept at setting up cold camps. We estimate that perhaps three to four groups could make it up into the mountains each day, which will allow enough time for Asimi and her band to rejoin us. If fate smiles upon us, we will all be firmly entrenched by the time the first snows of the season arrive."

Si’ian nodded her agreement slowly, her quick mind examining the plan from all angles. "We’ll need to leave a small group here, perhaps ten women, to assist any stragglers who come in after we’ve moved. I’ll ask Mali to gather some volunteers from her warriors since they’re the best adapted to frigid weather. They can rotate with others if we’re able to clear a mountain path after the snows come."

"An excellent suggestion."

"And we’ll need to notify Jia-wen, Chin-sun and their group of the move. They can send anybody they need to back here for shelter."

"I shall have Katai prepare a message and send it with Tador immediately."

The warrior nodded again. Katai was a young Hun who was very gifted with animals. Tador was her Berkut Eagle, with her since he was a hatchling, and trained to carry messages over great distances. The Huns had a long history of falconry, and Si’ian was very thankful that Katai had chosen to journey with them. It made communication between the various small groups infinitely easier.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Qian Xi rose to her feet. "I’ll take care of what needs to be done. You stay here and rest, at least for awhile."

"Yes, Mother," Si’ian smirked.

Clucking like a hen with a particularly unruly chick, Qian Xi turned and left the tent without another word.

Si’ian laughed softly as she situated herself more comfortably on the furs, and pulled another up to ward off the chill creeping through the tent. On her back, one arm crossed beneath her head, she stared at the peaked roof, deep in thought.

Responsibility for the women she guided lay heavy on her soul. It was an exhaustion which would never be eased, even with a moon’s worth of sleep, until they had finally found a place where they could rest and be at peace.

"And what then?" she asked the empty dwelling, smirking at her own maudlin thoughts. What would she do when she could finally lay her burden down? Though the thought of a hearth and home appealed to her on many levels, at heart she was a nomad, never happier than when she was wandering the land and seas in search of adventure.

She envied Jia-wen and Chin-sun, distant cousins and close friends, their freedom. With their party of ten women, one of several such groups scattered over the land, they searched for women like themselves and, if the women desired, sent them back to Si’ian to be cared for and nurtured. Beholden to no one save themselves, they nonetheless lived to serve. Nomads like herself, they reveled in the joy and freedom their wanderings gave them, and had no desire to settle down in any one place for more than a short span of days.

She lived vicariously through their infrequent messages, and her thoughts traveled along the warming currents each time Tador left to deliver a reply.

Perhaps this winter, she thought, when everyone is settled in. Perhaps I’ll leave the chore of leading these women in Qian Xi’s capable hands and just . . .go.

The thought warmed her, causing an unknowing smile to grace her beautiful features. Her absence wouldn’t be permanent, of course. Just until the spring thaw made the way out of the mountains passable once again. Then she’d reassume the mantle of leadership she’d been given, and lead the women on in their continuing search for a home.

The smile still playing on her lips, she fell into a light slumber, dreams of a season spent wandering comforting her soul.


Full dark had drawn over the camp by the time Maia and Cori were released from their servitude to the Sheas. Both were dirty and weary; wilted like plants caught in the middle of a summer drought. Dragging a soot-smudged hand through her hair, Maia sniffed the crisp, autumn air. "Smells like there’s still some dinner left. Shall we?"

"Please. I think I could eat about ten horses and still have room left over."

"Don’t do that!" Maia laughed. "The Huns would kill you!"

"Yeah, but what a way to go." She sighed dreamily as her face lit up in a goofy grin.

Shaking her head, Maia led her friend to where the last of the evening’s meal was being doled out into wooden bowls. Together, they moved to a spot near the large, central fire, and gratefully eased their tired bodies down to the thick furs on the chilled ground. Realizing that Cori wasn’t the only one with a ravenous hunger, Maiandria dug into the thick stew, and groaned her pleasure as it warmed her instantly. "Gaia, that’s good."

Cori grunted her assent as she shoveled the food into her mouth without even taking the time to taste it.

All too soon, both women were finished, though hardly sated. That point was, unfortunately, moot since the last of the food had been distributed and there wouldn’t be any more until the morning meal.

Well used to lean times, Maia set her bowl aside and concentrated on the relaxing warmth of the blazing fire, enjoying her first true rest in what seemed like days. The Sheas were a rather imperious lot, well used to having their orders obeyed, and they weren’t at all shy about doling out harsh criticism if a task wasn’t completed to their exacting standards. She wondered why these women, older and more sullen than the rest, would even want to live among a people they seemed to despise, or, at best, merely tolerate.

"What are you thinking about?" Cori asked, setting her own bowl aside and wiping her fingers on the fur beneath her before leaning back on her elbows and crossing her legs at the ankles.

"The Sheas, actually," Maia answered as she turned to look at the smiling face of her friend.

Cori rolled her eyes. "You spent all day with them, and you’re thinking about them now, too? Haven’t you had enough?"

Maia laughed softly. "Sorry. I just have some questions."

Affecting a long-suffering sigh, Cori rolled to her side and propped her head up in one hand. "Shoot."

Plowing through the myriad of questions in her mind, Maia decided to articulate the most obvious one. "Why are they here?"

"Not one to beat around the bush, are ya?" Cori said, laughing.

"I’m serious! I mean, they sure don’t seem to like us very much. And they don’t seem to be the kind of women who would just stick around a place they didn’t like, so . . .why are they here?"

After a long moment, Cori’s mirth faded, and she rolled up to a sitting position with her legs crossed in front of her. "There are actually a couple of reasons for that," she began.

"And they are?"

Cori scowled. "Gimme a minute, will you? It’s a long story."

Immediately contrite, Maia nodded and settled herself into a more comfortable position and waited patiently for Cori to begin her tale.

"Yanit is from the east, from a place they call Persia. Have you ever heard of it?"

"Not very much, no."

"Well, from what I’ve heard, she was actually a very well known and well respected healer there. Then one day a young boy fell into a deep well some villagers were digging and drowned. When they were finally able to get him out, they brought him to Yanit, begging her to help him."

"What happened?"

"She saved his life. But they accused her of stealing his soul."

Maia’s eyes widened. "Wha-at?"

Cori nodded. "I think it had something to do with breathing into his mouth, or something." She shrugged. "She doesn’t talk about it very much. Anyway, after the boy was safe, they grabbed her, tied her to a post, and began stoning her."

"For what?!?" Maia yelled, startling several women who were sitting close by. Blushing profusely, the cleared her throat and looked back to her friend. "That just doesn’t make any sense," she continued, in a softer tone.

"It doesn’t to me either, but that’s what happened. They called her a witch, told her she had stolen the boy’s soul, and started stoning her."

"But . . .people usually die from stonings . . . ."

"Yes, they do, if they aren’t lucky enough to have a couple of protectors who ride in and save the day in the nick of time," Cori replied, grinning.


"And Malika, yes. They were scouting to find a safe trail for the group when they came upon Yanit and her tormentors. They beat back the villagers and rescued Yanit, but in her condition, they couldn’t go very far, so Si’ian sent Malika back to the others while she found a safe place to tend Yanit’s wounds."

"So that’s why she’s here," Maia breathed. "Because she feels she owes a debt to Si’ian."

"In part, yes," Cori replied. "The Sheas are a very honorable people. It’s their watchword, in fact. They take these kinds of debts seriously." Cori paused as a wineskin was pressed into her hands. She took a deep swallow to wash the dryness from her throat, then offered it to Maia, who smilingly declined. Shrugging, she passed the skin back to the woman who’d given it to her, then returned her attention to her friend. "Anyway, once Yanit was strong enough to travel, she offered to have the whole group stop over on her land, which was very secluded and safe from prying eyes. Si’ian took her up on the offer, and they stayed for almost a season, until the group got to be too big. When they began to move on, Yanit, and the other two Sheas you met, Akram and Fakhri, went along."

"That makes sense then. They might not want to be here, exactly, but they feel they have to be."

"In part, yes. But there’s also another reason."

"And what’s that?"

"From what I’ve been able to gather—they aren’t the world’s most forthcoming women, you know—the Sheas are a very ancient race. A great deal of their power comes from the knowledge that has been passed down from mother to daughter since, they say, the beginning of time. They are closely tied to Gaia, and no one knows more about the earth than they do. You point to any plant or any animal or any river, or any rock anywhere and they’ll tell you exactly what it is, what it can be used for, and how to use it. The rituals they use play a very important role in keeping that knowledge from being perverted."

"That’s understandable," Maia replied, nodding. "But what does that have to do with us?"

"A great deal, actually. See, from what Yanit told me, in the past, during the life of her grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, a group of women very much like us were born and came to power. Because the world was different then, these women were revered for their special gifts and treated, almost, like mortal goddesses. Unfortunately, they were all too mortal, and died very young. But before they died out, they passed onto the Sheas all of their own knowledge. It became part of Shea legend that one day these women would return to them and would need their help, and the knowledge they carried within them, to insure that they would blossom fully into the woman they could become."

"Wow," Maia replied, at a total loss for anything more profound to say.

"Yeah, wow. They really believe that we are those women, returned to them. And they’re determined not to let us die out again. Teaching us what those women taught them is a sort of sacred duty to them."

"Well, if it’s so sacred, why do they treat us like pig dung?"

Cori laughed. "I’m not sure. I asked Yanit that a time or ten, and never got a straight answer out of her. I think it’s just their way. I’ve seen them treat each other they way they treat us, so I’m probably right in that respect."

"Well, being a farmer’s daughter, I know that if you want bees, you trap them with honey, not vinegar."

"That’s true, but they’re Sheas, and their ways are different from ours. I think that as they become more comfortable with us, they might get a little more relaxed."

"I won’t hold my breath."

"Probably best if you don’t," Cori agreed, grinning. Then she yawned. "Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about enough of Sheas for awhile. I think I’m going to turn in. You’re welcome to stay with me again, if you want. Last night in my little hut. I’m with the second group that goes out tomorrow."

"That’d be great, thanks. I’m not sure when I’m going up. No one has told me yet."

Cori smirked. "Oh, I’m sure you’ll get a personal invitation."

Maia blushed again, then waved her young friend away.

Laughing, Cori stood and helped Maia to her feet. Together, they made their way back to the hut, and sleep.


The next several days passed quickly, and somewhat haphazardly, for Maia. Left without much in the way of direction, she scurried to help where she could, and earned several smiles of thanks from women who had never prepared themselves for a trek into the mountains, and therefore had little understanding of what such a journey entailed. Maia wasn’t exactly an expert herself, but she had a logical mind as well as an intuitive knowledge of what needed to be done. That, coupled with her innate desire to help in any way she could earned her a new level of respect in her fellow travelers’ eyes. Which was, in its own way, more important than any amount of bastardized currency the different groups were using.

On the afternoon of the third day since the women began their move to their winter home, Maia chanced to walk into the almost deserted center square in time to see a very young mare shy violently away from an errant spark thrown off by the still-blazing bonfire. As the mare sidestepped, kicking out her hind legs and bucking, Maia saw the tall form of Si’ian gentling the frightened horse.

Two young women stood off to the side, staring, which only spooked the young mare more as they cut off her path to freedom.

Seeing the problem immediately, Maia advanced smoothly and, smiling, led the two women several paces away until they stood on the other side of the fire.

The mare calmed almost instantly and pranced in small circles around Si’ian, though with every other step, her hooves came down to squash the bags which had moments before been resting on her back.

Noticing this, Maia crept forward when the horse’s head was turned, and grabbed as many of the bags as she could before darting away again.

By the time she had gathered all of the trampled gear off the ground, the little mare had calmed and was standing complacently as Si’ian murmured to her in low tones.

Gesturing for the other two bystanders to help, Maia quickly repacked the bags as best as she was able, then slung them over her shoulders and started quietly forward.

The mare shied slightly away as she noticed this new intruder, but Si’ian calmed her with a gentle touch and soothing words. Maia stepped carefully around the horse’s bobbing head and came to a stop before the tall warrior. "Hi," she said shyly. "I . . .um. . .thought you might be able to use a hand."

Si’ian quirked her lips in a slight smile. "Sure. She’s still a little spooky."

Maia returned the smile. "Yeah, so I noticed. What can I do to help?"

"You could keep her entertained while I strap these bags to her back," the warrior replied, easily hefting said bags from Maia’s shoulders and onto her own.

"Entertained, huh? Well, I’m not much of a singer, but I’ve been told that I tell a mean joke."

Rolling her eyes, Si’ian shook her head and walked around to the mare’s side, satisfied when the young horse didn’t so much as twitch under Maia’s guidance. She gently and calmly replaced the packs on the mare’s broad back, then stepped away as the horse pranced again, this time not attempting to buck the foreign weight from her body.

Maia breathed a sigh of relief and stepped away as well, coming to stand beside the taller woman as they watched the mare prance around in small circles, bobbing her head and whinnying. When she finally settled into a peaceful walk, Si’ian gestured the two watching woman over, and sent them on their way, the now complacent mare in tow.

"So," Maia said after the group had gone, "is there anything else I can do to help? I’m . . .kinda without direction here."

Si’ian’s eyes warmed. "Sure. C’mon."

As the warrior turned, Maia followed, her grin threatening to swallow her face whole.


The two woman worked together throughout the rest of the day, and found themselves becoming more comfortable with one another as the day wore on. They found that they made a good team, both willing to work hard and quickly with little need for conversation or direction.

As dusk swallowed daylight, the two women found themselves with no further tasks, and so walked back toward the clearing and the much reduced central fire. The last of the cooks had headed for the wintering grounds that morning, but had left behind a enough dried meats, cheeses, raw vegetables, and trail bread to sustain the remaining women for several days.

Maiandria was weary to the bone as she eased her tired body down on the thin fur covering the ground near the fire. She dug into her food with relish, this time not forsaking the wine skin as it was passed around the circle since she needed something to wash down the somewhat dry fare. The wine was mellow, slightly sweet, and it flowed down her throat smoothly, easing the tension in her work-knotted muscles.

As she ate, she took the opportunity presented to discretely observe her dinner partner. Which wasn’t all that difficult, actually, since Si’ian was all but besieged with women who needed her guidance for one thing or another. As soon as one left, another appeared, as if by magic, though Si’ian handled all of their problems and questions with consummate patience, something Maia didn’t think she herself would do after as exhausting a day as they had had.

A chilling gust of wind blew in from behind her, and Maia inched forward closer to the fire while grabbing the jerkin she’d managed to get back from Naomi more closely around her body. To her right, Si’ian spoke quietly with the others, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic drop in temperature, though the warrior wore much less in the way of warm clothing than even Maia did.

The smaller woman admired the play of corded muscle on Si’ian’s body which seemed to shift and dance in the shadow and light of the flickering fire. She was dressed in a soft hide vest, fringed leggings and silk breechcloth. The rest of her body was bare of adornment, except for the two thick metal arm bands which fit snugly just above her biceps and appeared to be inlaid with pure jade.

Maia wondered at the wealth of the woman beside her. Metal was so rare that wars had been fought over a tumbledown blacksmith’s foundry, and not only did the warrior own the armbands she was wearing, but also an impressive array of metal weapons surely worth a kings ransom.

And yet, from what Maia could tell, she lived very simply and did not act at all as the younger woman thought one so wealthy might. She was confident, yes, supremely so, but it wasn’t the haughty confidence of the highborn used to others doing for them. No, she worked harder than most of the other women combined, and never complained in the working.

Maia decided that she liked that personality trait a great deal. Most of the people of wealth that she saw during her trips to the market were a rather brutish lot who’d kick a child begging in the street just for the sport of it.

When last in a long line of women left, Maia turned her attention to the night sky so as not to be caught staring. The stars were like a massive bejeweled blanket thrown across the blackness, and the moon, nearly full, hung bright and low. Over the heavy scent of burning wood, Maia thought she could smell snow in the air. She shivered again, in pure reflex. She hated winter, and it looked as if this one was going to be the hardest of all, without even a sturdy roof to lay beneath, nor four walls to keep out the bitter wind.

There are far worse things than being cold, she reminded herself, rubbing her arms to gather more warmth into them.

Seated close by and currently uninterrupted, Si’ian took the opportunity to do a little observing of her own. Maia’s hair was done back in a tight braid which the wind, and hard work, had loosened so that tiny tendrils fluttered softly about her face, shining brilliant amber in the light of the fire. Her expression was soft and unguarded, her cheeks flushed either by the warmth of the fire or the not insignificant amount of wine she’d consumed. She looked young and fresh, full of life, with just a touch of wide-eyed innocence and wonder about her that Si’ian found, much to her consternation, very attractive.

Her eyes became concerned as she saw the young woman shiver against the night’s deepening chill. A quick decision made, she laid her plate aside and rose gracefully to her feet.

Maia turned at the soft sound, and saw a hand opened to her from above. She reached for it without thinking, and was hauled easily to a standing position.

"It’s warmer in my tent," was the explanation she received. She stood there, dumbfounded for a moment, and cursed the blush flaming hot on her cheeks.

Si’ian smirked, but released Maia’s hand and stepped away. "C’mon."

It only took a brief second before the smaller woman collected herself and followed.


The tent was indeed warmer, and Maia didn’t even bother suppressing a sigh of relief as the flap closed behind her, keeping the warmth inside. Si’ian ushered her to the ring of furs in the main part of the tent, and Maia sat down gratefully, snuggling in to the warm softness beneath her. She watched as the tall warrior walked over to the glowing brazier, reached into a small pouch beside it, and sprinkled a handful of crushed herbs over the coals, bringing them back to life and releasing a fresh, spicy scent into the air.

Maia took a deep breath and smiled. The newfound warmth and the wine combined to give her a pleasant sense of languor, much welcomed after a hard days’ labor.

As Si’ian puttered near the brazier, the younger woman chanced another look around the warrior’s tent. And it was, she noted again, a warrior’s tent. There were no extraneous items littering the hard packed floor, nothing light or frilly to soften the atmosphere. Just the bare essentials of clothing, carefully rolled maps, furs for sitting and sleeping, and weapons. Many weapons, each one standing (or laying) in a place of honor, and each one tended to shining perfection, glowing malevolently in the dim light of the tent, their inherent danger readily apparent despite their placid state. She counted one longbow, several shortbows, each with a quiver of arrows standing ready, several staffs, some tipped with wicked looking points, some blunt but no less dangerous, one sword, and several other weapons not readily identifiable to her untrained eye.

Her examination was cut short by Si’ian’s silent approach, and as she blinked, a hand bearing a small clay cup descended once again into her vision.

"Green tea," Si’ian explained as she lowered herself to the furs beside her guest. "You might find it a bit bitter."

Maia nodded in thanks and brought the aromatic tea up to her nose, inhaling deeply. Then she took a tentative sip, then a larger one as the strong flavor surprised and delighted her. "This is delicious!"

The corner of the warrior’s mouth quirked up in a half-grin and she took a bracing sip of her own tea, holding the familiar and loved taste in her mouth for a moment before swallowing it. "Thank you."

"No, thank you! This stuff is great." Though even if it had tasted like boiled boot leather, she would have drank it willingly since it was hot, and warmed her all the way down to her toes.

They sat together for several long moments in complacent silence, each lost to the voice of their own thoughts. The wind picked up its pace outside, howling through the trees, which made Maia feel all the more comfortable for being away from it.

Her own thoughts finally stilled to silence, she turned her head just slightly and gazed at the somber profile of her generous hostess, eyes lingering over the classic, noble features in a sort of visual caress she was unaware of giving.

She really is so very beautiful.

As if hearing the other woman’s thought, Si’ian slowly turned her head, and their gazes once again locked. The warrior noticed anew the fair beauty of her companion; the way her eyes, their color so close to the familiar jade of her birthplace, sparkled with vibrancy and good nature despite her difficult past; the way her hair shimmered a burnished gold, as if containing the very essence of the sun itself; and the way the heat and the moisture from the tea she was drinking reddened and wet her full, tender lips.

Quite against her conscious will, Si’ian lowered her head, some part of her needing very much to taste and feel those lips with her own.

Maia found herself enraptured, caught within the intense bind of a sky-blue gaze that threatened to consume her where she sat. Like the warrior beside her, any thoughts or fears were banished beneath the weight of a sudden desire to heavy to ignore.

She tilted her head up to meet Si’ian’s slow advance, and their lips brushed together softly, like the gentlest of summer breezes.

Maia marveled that anything could be so soft and so sweet, and yet so unbelievably compelling. The tingling signal she’d first felt when touching the warrior’s hand was amplified a million fold with the first brush of their lips, and she couldn’t contain the gasp which suddenly filled her lungs with sweetly-scented air.

Si’ian, too, looked thunderstruck, and her long fingers came up quite unconsciously to brush against her lips as she stared, bewildered, at the young woman who had literally stolen her breath.

Anything else that might have happened between the two was quickly interrupted as a cacophony of sounds entered the tent.

Shaking off her daze, the warrior leapt to her feet and was out of the tent before Maia even realized she had moved.

The young blonde stood more slowly and stared blankly at the tent flap for a long moment before she, too, moved in that direction.

Slipping out into the cold night air, she almost ran into the broad back of the warrior, who had planted herself just outside of the tent, and was watching the commotion with arms folded across her chest.

"What’s going on?" she asked, coming to stand beside Si’ian.

"Asimi and her warriors are returning," Si’ian replied while staring straight ahead.

"Oh. Well, that’s good, right? I was worried about them."

Si’ian didn’t answer. Instead, she kept her gaze firmly fixed upon the entrance to the camp. Her keen hearing had picked up the thunder of hoofbeats some time ago, and the calls from the Aama identified those hoofbeats as belonging to Asimi and her group. The warrior waited patiently for confirmation with her own eyes.

That confirmation wasn’t long in coming.

The women fairly flew into the clearing, Asimi in the lead. They were disheveled and dirty, and their horses were slick with sweat and lather. Spying Si’ian standing outside the tent, Asimi nudged her horse in that direction, and brought him to a flying, four-footed stop scant feet away. She slid down off her horse, holding her right arm tight against her chest. It was bleeding heavily, and even Maia could tell by the odd angle with which she held it that it was clearly broken in several places.

"Raiders," the Egyptian grunted by way of greeting. "Thirty or so. Friends of our slave trader, apparently. We beat off the ones we could, and lost the rest in the forest by the bog." She dragged her uninjured hand through her sweat-sodden hair. "It was close, though."

"Are they still following?" Si’ian asked.

"Not that we saw, no. They pretty much pulled up the minute we crossed into the forest. The Aama are keeping an eye out, though."

The rest of the women slid from their mounts and formed a tired group around their leader. Though tired and worn, they seemed to be in good health, to Si’ian’s trained eye.

"And the freed women?"

"Safe. Back with their families."

Si’ian nodded, then looked to the other women. "Care for your horses, then get some food and rest. We’ll head up into the mountains at first light."

The others nodded and moved wearily away, their horses trailing after them without complaint.

Si’ian looked to Maia. "Go with them to the corral. Ask Eizabet for her strongest wine and bring it back here to my tent."

Nodding, the young blonde moved off to catch up to the slowly retreating Egyptians as Si’ian grasped Asimi’s uninjured arm and steered her into the tent. "Sit," she ordered softly, urging the smaller woman down onto the furs. Squatting down next to her, the warrior gently examined Asimi’s badly broken arm. "How did this happen?"

"Lucky shot," Asimi hissed, grimacing as her friend’s tender touch sent bolts of pain radiating through her body. "One of them threw his club and it caught me wrong as I was trying to block another guy’s hit."

Si’ian nodded. "It needs to be set and splinted until we can get you up to the Sheas. This gash needs to be stitched as well. You’re losing too much blood."

"’salright," the young warrior replied. "I trust you."

Rising back to her full height, Si’ian moved off to the sleeping area of her tent and shuffled through her stack of clothing until she came across some clean, undyed cloth. Cloth in hand, she walked over to the brazier and grabbed a warming waterskin and a packet of herbs laying next to it. Then she returned to Asimi and squatted down by her side. "We’ll wait until Maia returns with the wine."

As if summoned by the warrior’s words, Maia slipped in through the tent flap, heavy wineskin in hand. "Got it," she exclaimed, waving the skin as she entered. "But Eizabet told me to warn you that this batch knocked out her horse." She shook her head as she handed the skin to Si’ian. "Is there anything those Huns don’t do with their horses?"

Asimi snorted through her pain. Si’ian smirked as she uncapped the wineskin. Catching on a step too late, Maia blushed to the roots of her fair hair.

"Drink," Si’ian ordered, shoving the nozzle into Asimi’s laughing mouth, almost causing the woman to choke as she tried to swallow and inhale at the same time.

"Merciful Isis, protect us," Asimi gasped as a stream of wine finally made it down her throat. Using her good hand, she plucked away her chest wrap and looked down.

"What are you doing?" Maia asked.

"Seeing if there’s any hair down there," the Egyptian muttered. "Gaia that stuff is strong!"

"Yeah, well take another swig of it," Si’ian ordered.

"With pleasure." Tipping her head back, Asimi took several deep swallows of the potent drink, stopping only when she began choking again. "Smooth," she wheezed, her eyes suddenly glassy.

Si’ian rescued the wineskin and poured a good bit on one of the cloths she’d brought with her from her sleeping area. "This might sting," she warned before laying the cloth over the bleeding gash on Asimi’s upper arm.

"It does, but I don’t really care," the young Egyptian replied in a sing-song voice.

Smirking, the warrior gently cleansed the cut, then took a fresh strip of cloth and pressed hard against the wound to staunch the renewed flow of blood. She looked up. "Maia, could you hold this in place for me? You’ll need to keep a good pressure on it."

"Sure," Maia replied, moving quickly over and squatting at Si’ian’s side. "Like this?" she asked, carefully pressing the cloth to the wound and looking over at Asimi, who was quite beyond noticing anything.

"Perfect. Alright, Asimi, I need to set your arm. This is gonna hurt."

"Don’ care," the Egyptian warrior slurred, staring off into space and grinning.

"Here," Si’ian replied, handing over the wineskin. "Drink a little more."

"Sure!" Happily, she took another long drink. "Wow, that’s good."

Si’ian rolled her eyes. "Ready?"

"For what?" Dazed, glassy eyes tried their best to focus. "Oh. Yeah. Sure. Do your worst."

Carefully positioning the young woman’s crudely broken arm, Si’ian grasped the shoulder joint in one strong, the elbow in the other, and twisted.

The sounds of bones being set back into place almost caused Maia, normally the most level-headed of women when it came to injuries and blood, to waver slightly as a bit of dizziness came over her. Blinking rapidly, she willed the feeling to pass, and when it did, she looked over at Asimi to see how she was taking it.

The young Egyptian warrior was passed out cold on the furs, wineskin in her hand and a smile on her face.

Maia burst into surprised laughter, which Si’ian echoed with a soft chuckle. "Makes it easier on us, anyway," she said, shaking her head. "I need you to get me the set of chobos leaning against the back wall."

"Sure!" Maia replied, hopping to her feet, before stopping. "Um…what are chobos?"

"Those two thin clubs, about as long as my forearm."

"Oh! Ok. I see them."

A brief moment later, Maia returned with the items in question and handed them down to the waiting warrior.

"Ok, now you’re going to have to get down here with me again and hold her arm as steady as you can while I splint it."

"I can do that." Taking Si’ian’s place next to Asimi, Maia tried not to wince as she firmly grasped the Egyptian’s wrist and elbow and held the arm as straight as she could.

Grunting in wordless gratitude, Si’ian set about carefully splinting Asimi’s arm, placing the chobos to either side of the forearm and securing them with strips of cloth tightly tied.

When the last strip was tied off, the warrior nodded to Maia, who gently lowered the young Egyptian’s arm to the furs and released it, all the while making sure that she wasn’t hurting her new friend.

Asimi remained deeply asleep, courtesy of the strong wine she’d drunk.

With an ease uncommon even to a woman of her none-too-ordinary size, the warrior lifted Asimi, turned, and gently placed her on the thick nest of furs in the sleeping area. After one final check of the now set arm, Si’ian covered the sleeping Egyptian with a soft fur, then stood and turned.

Her intense gaze softened as she watched Maiandria quietly and efficiently clean up the mess she’d left behind. Their gazes crossed as the young woman finished her task and straightened, stained bandages in hand. Maia smiled. "Is there anything else I can do to help?" she asked softly.

Si’ian thought for a moment. "Yes. I need to go speak with Massiela and then have a ride around the perimeter to make sure those brigands didn’t gain some courage in the fight. Would you keep a watch on her until I return? There are some herbs by the waterskin in case she awakens. They’ll help with the pain."

"I’d be happy to."

"Good. Feel free to get comfortable on the furs. She shouldn’t awaken, so it should be alright for you to get some sleep."

"No, that’s alright. That’s where you sleep."

Si’ian smiled slightly. "I don’t expect to need it tonight. I likely won’t be back until just before dawn." She gestured to the furs. "Make yourself comfortable."

After a moment, Maia nodded. The temptation of a good night’s rest in those incredibly soft furs was just too much for one bone tired woman to resist. "Alright then, I will. Thank you."

"Thank you. For your help and for watching over Asimi."

And with that, she was gone, disappearing into the cold night as if nothing more than a silent shadow.

"Well," Maia said softly to herself, "I guess that’s that, then."

Stripping down to her top and loincloth, she slipped in between the furs and sighed loudly in abject satisfaction. "Oh yes, I could get used to this really easily."

Rolling to her side so that she faced Asimi, she closed her eyes. A hard day’s work finally caught up to her, and she was asleep in seconds.


When she next awoke, Maia underwent a brief, but now almost familiar, period of disorientation before remembering where she was and why she’d come to be there. After making sure that Asimi was alive and still asleep, she turned within the warmth of her furs to try and determine what had woken her up.

She shivered as a very cold blast of air came in through the tent flap and hit her smack in the face. The breeze brought with it the scent of snow and she winced. Winter wasn’t her favorite time of year, and snow made things even worse, as far as she was concerned.

Then she blinked as the tent flap opened again, bringing in some muted light from the fire outside.

Si’ian was laying across the doorway, head pillowed on her jerkin, but without any other sort of covering on except for her top and loincloth.

She must be freezing! Maia thought, rolling quickly from her warm nest and coming to her feet without thought. Reaching down, she grabbed the thick fur which she’d been using as a coverlet and padded silently across the very chilled ground, shivering herself, her breath coming out in wisps of fog.

Before she was able to get within two steps of the slumbering warrior, Maia suddenly found herself staring down the long length of a brightly polished sword which was pointed directly at her neck. Swallowing hard, and audibly, she looked up, only to be pinned by gemcut eyes even sharper than the weapon at her throat.

"I. . . um . . ." She swallowed again. "You looked cold. I was just. . .going to cover you up." She lifted the fur in her hand as high as she was able.

The sword finally lowered, and Maia felt almost faint with relief.

"Never try to sneak up on me like that," Si’ian said, her voice burred with sleep. "I could have hurt you badly."

Maia brought forth a wan smile. "After that demonstration of your talents, you can bet that’s the last time I’ll try it."

Lowering her sword the rest of the way so that it hung by her side, Si’ian reached out with her free hand and plucked the fur from Maia’s own hands. "Thank you."

"You’re welcome," Maia replied, her smile broadening, then falling from her face altogether as the wind blew the flap open yet again. "I think it’s snowing out there."

"Thought it might," the warrior replied, slipping the fur over her shoulders and turning to step back outside.

The night was bright, as only snowy nights seem to be. The air was dense, and quiet except for the hiss of snow as it fell through the trees. It was the dry kind of snow, coming down in small flakes. The kind that would pile up quickly and stay around a good long while, unless they got lucky and a rare warm spell came to pay a visit.

Si’ian very much doubted that would be the case.

Sighing, she turned back into the tent and exchanged fur for jerkin, slipping it easily over her head and smoothing out the wrinkles as it lay complacently along her body.

"You can’t be thinking of going back out in this," Maia said, disbelief evident in her voice.

"Have to," Si’ian replied. "I need to start packing the remaining gear and getting the horses ready. Looks like we’ll be getting an earlier start than planned. I want to be up into the mountains before this stuff starts piling up."

"Alright then," Maia replied, also turning and retrieving her own clothes. "I’ll help."

"You don’t need to do that, Maiandria. You should get some more sleep. It’ll be a long day."

"If you’re going out there, I am too," the stubborn woman replied, pulling on one boot while hopping around on the other, bare, foot. "Besides, my mother always told me that two sets of hands got the job done four times as fast."

Si’ian quirked a smile. "She said that, did she?"

"Yep." The second boot went on with a bit more grace. Her jade eyes glinting with humor, she passed the tall warrior and stepped outside. "What are you waiting for? Let’s go!"

Shaking her head and hiding her smile, Si’ian did exactly that.


The remainder of the camp, once awakened, had packed quickly. Not that that was surprising to anyone, given that most of the remaining women were warriors, and as such, well used to the necessity of moving at a moment’s notice.

The only sticking point was the Aama, who at the last second balked at the idea of leaving the comfort of their tree dwellings and wintering in a place where trees were the exception, and not the rule.

Since the Aama were from a land where it never snowed, it took a rather graphic demonstration of frostbite and what it did to unprotected bodyparts to get the stubborn women down swiftly from their perches.

Ever helpful, in their own, somewhat peculiar, ways, the Huns immediately offered furs and warm clothing to the almost naked warriors. After a moment of stiff-necked pride, the Aama took the clothing offered them and grudgingly donned it.

Maia stood off to one side, ostensibly helping a very hung-over Asimi, and grinned at the warriors’ prideful stubbornness. Her smile dropped away quickly, however, when the besieged Egyptian doubled over with another bout of the dry heaves.

Si’ian appeared, as if a wraith, by Maia’s side and pressed a small cloth bag into her free hand. "Give her some of these leaves to chew when she’s stopped spasming. They should help control the nausea and dull her pain."

And then she was gone, quickly and quietly as she had appeared.

The snow was already ankle deep and accumulating quickly as the women began their long trek up into the mountains. Si’ian’s internal clock told her that dawn was still quite a way off, but the artificial brightness of the snowy night provided more than enough light to navigate by.

She’d let Bao Sheng lead the other horses on their own path up the mountain, and concentrated on keeping the small group together and moving. The Huns, well used to mountain treks and falling snow, easily led the way. The Aama and the Egyptians, most of whom had never seen snow before, were placed in the middle of the pack, and the remainder of the women, warriors from the far eastern provinces of Chin and Nippon, rounded out the group.

Si’ian stayed to the very rear, patiently aiding the stragglers as they made their way up the steep, rocky incline, and keeping a sharp eye out for any danger which might be following.

Maiandria stayed close to the middle, walking with Asimi and her group of warriors. The young Egyptian’s face was white and drawn. Though the nausea had passed, the herbs had done little to dull the throbbing pain in her arm. Maia tried to keep her friend occupied by telling her little tales about her life as a child and about the different people she had met in the market town, but she soon ran out of ways to keep her father, and his treatment of her, out of the stories, so she eventually trailed off into silence.

"Thank you," Asimi said sincerely, smiling. "Those were wonderful stories."

Maia blushed slightly and looked down at her feet as they trudged through the deepening snow. "I know they’re probably not much compared to your exotic homeland."

The Egyptian laughed. "Exotic? Please. Egypt is hot, smelly, and sandy. And if you don’t like the desert, well, there’s always . . .more desert. Here, you get to travel through woods, and up mountains, and through meadows. It’s not too hot and not too cold, and there’s more water than I’ve ever seen in my life. This place seems pretty exotic to me."

The young blonde couldn’t help but smile. "I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, huh?"

Before Asimi could answer, the toe of her boot caught itself beneath a rock buried beneath the swiftly falling snow. Reflexively reaching out to brace her body against its expected collision with the ground beneath her, she almost passed out as a huge, hot spike of pain darted up her broken arm.

With quicker reflexes and a greater strength than she knew she possessed, Maia reached out and grabbed her friend before Asimi could tumble, holding the young woman close to her as she gasped in pain. "Si’ian!" she yelled out over the top of the Egyptian’s bowed head.

The warrior appeared in a heartbeat and relieved Maia of her burden. After quickly making sure that the splint was still positioned well and tightly bound, she held Asimi with one strong arm while digging through a the sack laying against her hip with her free hand.

Grasping a small pouch by touch alone, the drew it out of the sack and tossed it to the waiting Maia.

"Herbs to help with the pain," she explained. "Grab out a pinch and place it on her tongue. Then uncap your skin."

As Maia followed Si’ian’s instructions, the warrior pried open Asimi’s clenched jaws, then put her hand over the young Egyptian’s mouth as she attempted to spit the horribly bitter herbs out. At Si’ian’s nod, Maia lifted the skin and the warrior removed her hand.

"Drink. It will wash down the herbs."

"No! No…more…wine…please."

"It’s water. Drink."

When Asimi nodded her assent, Maia put the nozzle to her friend’s lips, and the young woman drank great gulps of fresh water in an attempt to wash the foul taste from her mouth. When she had finally drunk her fill, she pulled away, her mouth a rictus of disgust and pain. "Blessed mother!" she choked. "Where did you get that stuff?"

"You won’t care about the taste once your arm stops hurting," Si’ian replied, receiving the herb pouch back from Maia and replacing it in the sack.

"I sure hope so," Asimi gasped, tears of pain falling down her face, "because right now, I’m not too sure which one’s worse."

Ignoring the jab, Si’ian straightened, and put Asimi’s weight back on her own feet. "Can you walk?" she asked, not letting go completely.

"I think so, yeah." She took one tentative step, then two, then almost crumpled again as the overwhelming relief from the agony in her arm just . . .disappeared. "Wow!" she said, turning wide eyes to her benefactor. "You’re right! I don’t care about the taste at all now."

Si’ian smirked and stepped away.

"Just one question. Why didn’t you give it to me earlier?"

"Because you had too much wine in your system. The two don’t mix well together."

"Oh. Well, I guess I’m glad I threw it all back up then, huh? Never thought vomiting up your toenails could be a good thing."

Smiling slightly, Si’ian shook her head and pressed forward, trusting Maia to watch over Asimi on their continuing journey.


After nearly half a day of non-stop climbing, the mountain abruptly gave way to a huge, flat plateau, as if a huge chunk of it was violently sliced away by a giant with a very large, very sharp sword. To Maia’s left, the mountain continued to rise so that the top of it was lost in the thick scud of heavy clouds.

Asimi came to a grateful stop next to Maia, and bent nearly double as she tried to draw air into her tortured lungs. "Isis," she prayed, "dear, wonderful goddess, I’ll never take your name in vain again, I promise. Just don’t make me go through that again, ok?"

Grinning, Maia turned to her friend. "And here I thought all you warrior-types were supposed to be tough."

"Hey!" the Egyptian replied, mock offended, "I’ll have you know that I’m a warrior by necessity only. I’d probably have wound up a scribe or a priestess or something if I’d stayed home."

The smile faded from Maia’s face. "I’m sorry. That was thoughtless of me."

Asimi felt immediate regret for her teasing. Straightening, she laid a gentle hand on Maia’s arm. "I was only joking, Maia. I mean, yes, I miss my home and my family sometimes, but I’d miss this more if I were back there. These women are more my family than my blood relatives ever were. And wherever they are, that’s where my home is."

Maia bit her bottom lip and nodded. Though purely unintentional, Asimi’s words cut to the bone. For most of her young life, Maiandria had searched for the meaning of that elusive little word. Family. She searched for it in her mother’s eyes. And sometimes, even in her father’s. She searched for it in the eyes of fellow villagers and even passing strangers.

And in all her searching, the only thing which had come even remotely close to what her idealized fantasy of a family should be was the love she had for her two dogs, and the love they had for her. And while that might have been enough, at one point in her life, it wasn’t anymore. Especially now that had to go on without them in her life.

"C’mon," Asimi said softly, her smile crooked and sweet. "My feet are getting cold, and I’ve got a date with some Sheas."


They walked down a short, narrow trail bordered on both sides by stunted trees, more like overgrown bushes than the stately old hardwoods in the forest below the mountain. "The Aama must be cringing," she muttered as she passed the trees, reaching out to touch their soft, feathery fronds as she did so.

As the narrow path ended, opening up into a wide vista, Maia heard a sound off to her left, and turned her head in that direction. Her feet froze in their tracks as her jaw hung open in awe.

There, framed between a pristine blanket of snow and the marbled majesty of the upthrust cliffs, was a huge encampment filled with every color of the rainbow, and then some. Brightly painted carts stood one against the other in long rows. Colorful banners with whimsical symbols flapped in the fitful breeze. The staccato chatter of a foreign tongue mixed pleasingly with the excited and joyous laughter of children who ran through the encampment, yapping dogs at their heels. Men and women of all ages laughed and ate and drank and danced to the tune of pipes and drums and strange stringed instruments Maia had never seen before. Several adults juggled flaming torches, while others rode their horses in ways she’d only seen the Huns attempt before. The entire camp seemed a living entity in constant, chaotic motion.

The scent of roasting meat was irresistible, and reminded Maia how long it had been since she’d last eaten a proper meal.

She stared, with awe and more than a passing envy, at the joyous camaraderie there before her eyes. Deep inside, she ached to be a part of such a warm and intimate, despite its size, gathering. The beaming smiles on the faces of young and old alike reminded her of just how much she missed when she was growing up.

Tears sprung to her eyes, but she wiped them away savagely with the heel of her hand, determined not to taint such a magnificent sight with her own bitterness and sorrow.

She sensed the presence beside her before she felt it, and turned her head, expecting to see Asimi’s inquiring gaze looking back at her. Instead, eyes the color of perfect sapphires stared, with concern, into her own.

"You alright?"

While Si’ian’s voice was gruff, her expression was quite tender. Though not gifted with empathic talents, at least as far as she knew, some part of her had felt Maia’s distress, even over the physical distance which separated them, and she’d been drawn to the emotion by an innate need to comfort.

"Yeah," Maia said finally, trying to smile through the remainder of her tears. "Just wishing."

Si’ian raised an eyebrow, and Maia blushed, feeling slightly foolish. To hide her blush, she turned her head and stared back at the crowd of people. "So, those are the Czigany, huh?"

"They are," Si’ian replied, sharp eyes scanning the crowd. She effortlessly picked out the matriarch of the clan, a toothless and revered old crone by the name of Wynflud, who was sitting beneath a two sided shelter built to keep the wind and snow from her wizened old body. As if feeling the weight of the gaze upon her, Wynflud turned her head slowly, until her dark, almond eyes met stoic blue. The elder nodded once, somberly, before turning away again to watch two young children at play just in front of her.

Maia followed the warrior’s gaze, then looked back to the tall, quiet woman who stood beside her. "Who is that?"

"She is their leader. Her name is Wynflud."

"She leads these people? A woman?"

Si’ian smiled slightly as she nodded. "Yes, she does. The Czigany are a matriarchal people. They’ve always been led by women."

"Wow," Maia breathed, looking out over the crowd with an even greater interest. "What do the men think about it?"

The warrior almost laughed, but then her expression sobered. "It is their way," she said softly. "They know no other."

"And no one has a problem with it?"

"Outsiders do," Si’ian answered, "but within the clan, if anyone, man, woman or child, wishes something else, they may leave, no questions asked. The Czigany never bind a person against their will."

"That’s amazing." She took a deep, saddened breath. "They seem so happy. So carefree. As if just being together is all any of them could ever wish for." She sighed again, barely aware that she was speaking her thoughts aloud. "Sometimes, I wish it was like that for me. I wish I was part of a family like that. To never want for anything more than to be among people who loved me."

A look of sadness flashed through Si’ian’s eyes. It was very brief, but Maia caught the emotion immediately and kicked herself internally.

"I’m sorry," she whispered. "I didn’t mean that like it sounded."

"It’s alright."

"No. Not it isn’t. I’m trying to explain myself and doing an awful job of it."


"Please," Maia said, holding up a hand to forestall Si’ian’s words. "Let me try again." She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "You, and the other women of our group, are the closest thing to a family that I’ve ever known. You rescued me, you shelter me, you protect me and respect me. You trust me. You make me feel like I am somebody. Somebody worthy. And that is . . .goddess . . .that is more important to me than you will ever know."

"Then wh. . . . ."

"I’m not finished. See, what you’ve done for me, well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. And I want to give something back in return. Because I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve been befriended by some of the most wonderful, awe inspiring women I’ve ever known." She looked down at the dusting of powdery snow covering her boots. "I just wish that everyone else in the group had that same opportunity."

"I’m not sure I understand you."

Maia scratched the back of her neck. Then, as inspiration struck, she turned back toward the Czigany gathering, thrusting one hand outward to encompass them all. "All of those people are bound by a common purpose, like we are. It’s obvious that they share the same bloodlines, the same heritage, the same backgrounds. They fit together almost seamlessly, like you’d expect a family to. A good one, that is."

She paused again, watching as an older man swooped down on a wildly laughing young girl and tossed her up to the heavens before catching her and placing her down on her feet. The child turned to him with shining eyes and tugged the leg of his trousers, obviously begging to fly again.

"I’d like us to fit together like that too. I know it’s hard, because unlike the Czigany, we share different backgrounds and different ancestry. And I know it’s common to want to stay among those who you know, like the Aama stay together in the trees, and the Huns stay together with their horses. But the thing is . . .how can we become a family if we’re unwilling to share with others the things that make us who we are?" Frustrated with herself, she threw her arm down and sighed. "I’m making a mess of this."

"Actually, you’re speaking very plainly," Si’ian countered. "I can understand your desire to unite these women into a unified whole which extends beyond our common abuses and the gifts we’ve been granted." She held up one long, elegant finger. "But I can also understand the pride they have in their heritages, and the desire to have that heritage preserved. Perhaps they think that in sharing it, it will take away some part of themselves they’ve fought to hold onto."

"But see," Maia countered, her face flushed with the passion of the discussion, "you’re the living example that breaks that rule!"


"Well, it’s obvious that you’re of mixed ancestry, but the way you hold to some of your Ch’in traditions, I would guess that you have at least some pride in the land of your birth."

Si’ian thought about that for a moment, then tipped her head slightly in acknowledgement of the simple truth. "It was my home."

"Exactly. And yet, you’ve managed to befriend any number of women from all different ancestries without ever losing yourself in the process. You even took a Hun as a lover, and from the stories I’ve heard, that’s rather extraordinary, given that the Ch’in and the Hun are supposed to be mortal enemies."

"The Ch’in call them Hsiung-nu. It’s not a very pleasant name," the warrior acknowledged.

Maia grinned, her eyes sparkling with animated triumph. "Exactly my point. If you, as the leader of these women, can do such a thing, that should tell the rest how beneficial these friendships are."

"Perhaps it’s because I’m a leader," Si’ian countered, enjoying the debate on some deep level. "A leader is expected to cross boundaries that others feel they don’t have access to."

"You could be right," Maia agreed. "But a leader is also supposed to set an example for her people. Which you do, every day. When you interact with each of us, you do it in such a way that honors both us and yourself. You become stronger by what you gain from us, just as we become stronger by what we gain from you." She put her hands on her hips, green eyes dark with intense thought. "We just need to figure out a way to get the women to see that what you do is something to be emulated, not brushed off as ‘just a leader thing’."

"How do you propose to do that?"

"I haven’t the faintest idea," Maia replied, grinning. "But I’ve got a whole winter without much else to do to figure it out, right?"

This time, the normally taciturn warrior smiled full out, dazzling her young companion with the brilliance of the simple curvature of her lips and the sparkle of her gemstone eyes. "I suppose you do at that."

Maiandria beamed. "Come on, then! What are we waiting for? We’ve got a family to start!" Taking a few steps, she stopped abruptly, blushed furiously, and turned. "Um…that wasn’t exactly how I meant to say that."

The sound of Si’ian’s surprised and delighted laughter rang through the plateau, filling Maia’s heart with a joy she had rarely, if ever, felt.


To Be Continued - Part 5

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