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.
The next several weeks went rather quickly for the women in their new, if temporary, home. Cori, of course, had been the first to greet Maia when she first stepped onto the grounds of their winter home. The young healers apprentice had been all smiles as she excitedly showed her friend around the camp, pointing out each and every little detail while keeping a running commentary without ever seeming to pause for breath.
Maia didnt mind, really, since she found the tale of how the Aama and the Huns came together to design the domed huts that rose up from the ground in two, gigantic, interlocking circles a fascinating one. Each hut slept ten or more women easily, and was warmed by a slow-burning peat fire set directly in the center. It took Maia a bit to get over that one, never realizing that dirt could actually burn, but Coris earnest demonstration quickly convinced her of the truth of the matter.
The grounds themselves were huge, even larger than shed imagined them to be, and larger by far than their previous camp in the woods at the mountains base. Well out beyond the living area, the horses ran free, watched over, as always, by the ever-present Huns dressed in their thick furs.
In the middle distance, and surrounded by a ring of stunted pines, was a large hot spring, open to the elements, but no less popular with the women because of it. Steam drifted lazily up from the deep, hot pool and hovered just above the tops of the trees forming a natural barrier around it.
The southernmost area of the camp had the majestically climbing mountain as its border. Several deep depressions, rather like small caves with very large openings, dotted the granite mountain where fertile land met rising stone.
The Sheas had appropriated one of the small caves, turning it immediately into a combination hospice/living quarters for themselves. The largest cave, in the center, was used by those who prepared and cooked the food for the camp, while the one furthest to the west was used by the leatherworkers and seamstresses who made, stored, and inventoried all articles of clothing for the women.
After having stored her gear, at least temporarily, in the hut where Cori slept, Maia spent the next several days in close observation of the inner workings of the new camp.
She looked on with concern as, like in the camp before it, the women divided themselves along ancestral lines, rarely mixing with others outside of their known group. The only place where these self imposed and unwritten rules didnt seem to apply as strictly was at the hot-spring. It was as if in removing their outer coverings, the women felt somehow more free to show one another what was underneath.
Never one to spurn the offer of a hot bath, especially in the midst of winters chill, Maia took to spending a part of each day in or near the spring. At first, she was careful to make her manner seem offhand so as to not give any of the women the impression she was listening in on their private conversations. After several days of this, her presence became accepted by the diverse group, and slowly, women began to approach and strike up conversations with her.
She listened quietly, and with compassion, as they poured out their souls, sharing the oft-times horrible events of their young lives, many even showing bold evidence of physical abuses they had endured. Many wore those scars, both internal and external, as badges of honor, using them to judge just how far theyd managed to come, and just how much theyd managed to endure.
Maia listened not just with her ears, but with her heart and with her soul, taking each piece of information the women gave her with a hunger that surprised even her.
She soon became a very popular personage in the spring, and word began to spread that this was a woman who, by the simple act of listening, seemed to lighten ones burdens to a manageable level.
It wasnt long before she was spending more time in the water than out of it, often forgoing meals and much needed sleep for the chance to hear just one more womans life story. It became an obsession, a driving force. She suddenly found herself with a purpose in life, one she wasnt willing to give up. Not when there was so much good to be done.
When the headaches started, she ignored them as best she could. They were intense, searing, fiery bands stretching from the back of her skull and sinking talons into her eyes. Attributing them to a lack of food and poor sleeping habits, she went on with her self appointed tasks.
In the figurative shadows, Cori observed her friend closely, becoming concerned as the young, vibrant woman became pale, thin and wan. Maia brushed off those concerns with practiced ease, throwing out fickle promises that yes, she would eat more, and yes, she would get more sleep.
Cori was at a loss, knowing the promises for the empty words they were. She looked for help, but there was none to be found. Siian, Qian Xi and Malika had left several days previous to conduct in depth trade discussions with the Czigany. Yanit and the other healers were busy trying their best to combat a rash of coughing sickness which spread through the camp with the first heavy snow.
So she simply did the best she could, keeping a close eye on her driven friend, and occasionally sipping sleeping herbs into a strong tea and persuading Maia to drink it. On those nights, she would keep a close watch over her friend, ensuring, as much as she could, a full nights sleep. She sent up a quiet prayer to Gaia, hoping it would be enough.
Early one morning, Cori awoke to the sound of quiet moaning. Startled, she sat up quickly, blearily rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she looked toward the sound. Realizing immediately that Maia was in trouble, she came quickly to her knees and leaned over her friend. "Maia, what is it? Are you alright?"
"Im fine," she lied through tightly clenched teeth, swallowing hard against the bile rising in her throat. "Must have slept wrong."
Cori looked doubtfully down at her friend as Maia tried to open her eyes, then shut them quickly, moaning again.
Maia was in agony. Her head felt as if it were being repeatedly thrust into the heat of a bonfire. Even the dim lighting of the huts interior drove spikes of pain into her brain, chasing out all thought, all feeling save for the unending agony. "Oh goddess, please make it stop," she moaned, unaware she was speaking aloud.
Startled, Cori instinctively reached out to lay a hand on her friends shoulder, then gasped and drew quickly back as if burned. The pain shed felt through their brief connection was intense, screaming like a banshee through her head. Her eyes widened in sudden comprehension even as her guts churned and threatened to expel whatever meager remains of last nights dinner happened to still be in there.
"Maia," she said, her voice tight with tension, worry and pain, "you need to get up. You need to get up now. We have to take you to the Sheas."
"No," Maia protested, "Ill be alright. I just need to . . . ."
"Now," Cori replied urgently, coming to her feet, steeling herself for the inevitable wash of agony, and reaching down to grasp her friends arm. "Please. Now."
Maias protest died on her lips as the forcible change in position sent new bolts of searing agony through her. Her hands went up, clamping themselves tightly around her skull, and her body instinctively rocked in a primitive calming motion. "Goddess, help me," she whispered.
Unable to stand it anymore, Cori bent down, hooked her hands under Maias arms, and dragged the woman up with her. "Its gonna be ok, Maia," she whispered. "I promise. The Sheas know just what to do. Its gonna be ok."
"I cant," Maia moaned. "Please, I cant."
"Yes! Yes, you can. Cmon, you can do it. Just one step. Just a little one, see? Well be there before you know it. Then you can rest. I swear it. I swear it, Maia. On my own name. Please, you can do it. You can."
Coris earnest voice was soothing, and Maia used it to gather what little strength she possessed. Her legs more or less steady beneath her, she began to walk, clutching tightly to her friend, blindly following where Cori led.
Breathing a heartfelt sigh of relief over her friends sudden compliance, Cori quickened her pace, stopping only to brush the heavy skin which guarded the door away so they could step through.
Maia chanced to open her eyes slightly just as Cori moved the flap out of the way, and the brilliant sunlight shining off of the newly fallen snow proved to be her undoing. Crying out in pain, she felt her legs buckle as blackness encroached suddenly, coming over her like a death shroud.
Unbalanced, Cori followed her friend to the ground, only to be stopped, suddenly, as a strong hand encircled her wrist and pulled her back to her feet. She blinked in surprise as the fierce blue eyes of Siian blazed at her, brighter even than the suns reflection on the snow at her feet.
"What happened," the warrior demanded, releasing Cori and lifting Maias unconscious form easily into her arms. Maias agony rolled through her and she stiffened momentarily, before closing her eyes and deliberately relaxing her muscles, taking the pain inside and pushing it deep.
"We need to get her to the Sheas right away," Cori replied, rubbing her wrist. "Im not sure, but I think shes suffering from an empathic overload. Shes been spending most of the day every day talking to the women in the springs. She hasnt been eating or sleeping well, and I dont think these headaches are new."
"Why wasnt anything done about it?" Siian snarled, heading toward the caves with long, ground-eating strides. "Didnt anyone teach her how to shield?"
Cori flushed with guilt. "I . . .I tried," she half-whispered, then cleared her throat. "I did everything I could think to do." Tears rolled down her face. "But it wasnt enough."
Siian stared into her eyes for a long moment, before jerking her gaze away and quickening her pace, leaving the guilt-ridden young woman farther behind with each step.
"Yanit!" the warrior bellowed as she stepped inside the temporary hospice, eyes scanning the interior for both the Shea and an empty bed on which to lay her precious burden. "Yanit! Get in here, now!"
"What in the world is going on in here!" the Shea yelled, coming into the main room as she wiped her wet hands with a bit of cloth. "This is a hospice in case youve forgotten, Siian. There are sick people . . . ."
Her words were cut off as Siian straightened after placing Maia on a thick pile of furs. "Why didnt you teach her to shield!?" the warrior demanded, teeth displayed in a ferocious snarl. Her hand closed on the front of the Sheas tan jerkin, and she pulled Yanit so close that she could smell the other womans sudden fear. "You let her go out there alone, Yanit. Alone and without the faintest knowledge of the need to shield herself from these womens emotions. I trusted you, crone. I trusted you to teach her. Why didnt you do it?!?"
Cori entered the hospice at the tail end of Siians uncharacteristic outburst. Seeing her mentor frozen to the ground in fear and shock, the young apprentice gathered what remained of her courage and strode forward, putting herself within the periphery of the enraged warriors vision. "Siian?" she said softly, not moving, "I know youre angry, but . . .this isnt helping Maia. Would you please let Yanit go to her? She needs help."
When Siian slowly turned her head and locked gazes with the young apprentice, Cori truly thought her last breath was only a heartbeat away. Offering up a quick prayer to the Goddess, she stood her ground, willing to do anything to save her friend.
After what seemed an eternity, Siian pushed the crone away from her and turned fully to face Cori. "Get Qian Xi."
"Get Qian Xi. Now." Reaching out, Siian grasped Coris shoulder, spun the young woman around, and pushed her toward the exit of the cave. "Hurry."
Her paralysis broken, the young woman bolted through the door as if chased by demons.
Turning, Siian approached Maias furs and squatted down, long fingers gently stroking the sweat soaked bangs from the younger womans forehead. Hearing Yanit take a hesitant step forward, the warrior raised her head and warned the Shea off with a look searing enough to smelt metal.
Satisfied, Siian closed her eyes and took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly, clearing her thoughts as she did so. Turning her wrist, she placed her hand tenderly against Maias soft cheek. Slowly, ever so slowly, she lowered the barriers protecting her bruised and battered soul.
White hot agony flowed through her, and she set her formidable will against her bodys natural instinct to pull away. A heartbeat later, she was breathing smoothly and steadily, drawing the pain deliberately into herself, where she battled against it as fiercely as she fought any mortal enemy.
On this battleground, time lost all meaning, and it seemed a small eternity before Siian felt the warm, familiar touch of a hand on her shoulder; a touch which helped the pain recede to a mere annoyance, washed away as by the gentle flow of a cool, refreshing stream.
She blinked once, then twice as her eyes readjusted themselves to the dim lighting of the hospice, and her body readjusted itself to the sudden cessation of agony. Then she tilted her head up to look into the dark, solemn eyes of her sister. She smiled slightly, but didnt draw away from Maia. "Hey," she greeted softly, voice rough from her task.
Returning her smile, Qian Xi squatted down, removing her hand from Siians shoulder and placing it gently on the thigh of the young woman on the furs. Her eyes closed for a brief instant, then reopened, a smile warming them. "Youve done well."
"I had a good teacher," Siian replied, before looking back down at Maias sleeping features. "I . . .," she hesitated briefly before continuing, "I couldnt leave her in pain like that. I know I dont have the skills, but . . . .I just . . . ."
And by the look in her eyes, the warrior knew, without a doubt, that her sister spoke the truth.
Qian Xi carefully hid her smile as she turned her attention back to Maiandria. Siians empathic skills, though raw, were a great deal more formidable than her sister gave herself credit for. Not that this was the time or the place to reopen that particular discussion, she knew. Still, it was as rare as a rainstorm in the desert to come upon her sister reaching out to another in such a way.
Not that Siian was selfish. Far from it. She gave everything she had, and more, to the women in her care. Yet there was a part of her that she kept hidden, deeply and well, even from those closest to her, her own sister included. To lower those hard-won emotional shields to help another was something Qian Xi never thought shed have the opportunity to witness.
Putting that train of thought away for a more opportune time, she reached out and gently grasped Maiandrias shoulder. "Maiandria," she called out in a soft, soothing tone, squeezing the toned flesh beneath her hand slightly. "Maiandria, open your eyes."
After a long moment, Maia did as she was requested and blinked her eyes open, her gaze coming to rest on the concerned blue eyes of Siian. Her lips curved into a beautiful, if somewhat sleepy, smile. "Hi," she whispered.
One corner of the warriors mouth turned up in an answering smile, as her eyes softened and warmed. "Hey." Siians voice was soft, welcoming. "How ya feeling?"
Maias gaze turned inward for a moment, then her smile grew. "I . . .I feel great!" And it was the truth. The agony shed endured for so long was completely gone. In its place was a sense of peace shed never before experienced. It was like floating on a cloud, almost, or what she guessed that sensation felt like, at any rate.
"Im glad," the warrior replied, grasping her friends hand and squeezing it gently.
The young womans brow furrowed, and she broke away from Siians rapt gaze, her eyes darting around the dim enclosure. "Where . . .how did I . . . ?"
"Its a long story," Qian Xi replied, smiling and rubbing Maias shoulder. "Welcome back."
"Thanks, I . . . ." The smile slipped from her lips as her face drained of color.
"What is it, Maia?" Siian asked, concern coloring her tones. "Whats wrong?"
"I dont . . .I feel . . . strange."
Siian startled as Maias eyes rolled back in her head and her hand clamped down on the warriors with inhuman strength. Siian shot a quick look toward her sister, and received a short nod in return.
"Remember not to try and restrain her," Qian Xi said, moving back out of the way, but ready to assist if needed. "Just do your best to make sure she doesnt injure herself."
As Siian turned back to Maiandria, the younger woman groaned, and arched backward, her head and heels beating hard against the padded ground beneath her. Her body convulsed rhythmically, violently; her short nails dug bloody gashes on the inside of Siians wrist.
Through it all, the warrior stayed with her, murmuring words of safety and encouragement, protecting Maia from herself and letting the younger woman know, as much as she was able, that she was safe, and cherished, and very much cared for.
The seizure lasted only a short time, though it seemed just shy of forever to those looking helplessly on, including Yanit and Cori, who stood rooted to the spot as if their very lives depended upon it.
When it ended, Maia slumped bonelessly back into the furs, her eyes dazed and staring blankly at nothing. Qian Xi moved in and laid a finger on the fluttering pulse at Maias neck, nodding with satisfaction. "Shell be fine," she stated evenly. "She just needs some rest."
Releasing her hand from Maias now limp hold, Siian absently rubbed the bloody gouges in her flesh as her eyes roamed over the hospice, refusing to meet her sisters concerned gaze. "Did I . . . ?"
Qian Xi immediately moved closer to the warrior and reached under her chin, directing their eyes to meet. "No, bo. No. The damage had already been done. If anything, you lessened the intensity of her reaction greatly. You have caused no harm. And you have done her a great deal of good." She smiled. "Be at peace in your heart, my sister."
After a moment, Siian nodded and pulled gently away from her sisters tender clasp to gaze back down at peacefully sleeping Maiandria.
"When she awakens," Qian Xi continued, "I will explain what has happened, and train her in the skills needed to make sure it does not happen again." She turned slightly to study her sisters profile in the dim lighting. So noble it was, even in this state of quietude. She watched as Siians chest expanded with a deep breath, released as a forceful sigh, shoulders slumping briefly, then squaring with resolution.
"Siian, you know you cannot be part of what comes next." Qian Xis tone was soft, yet filled with the same firm resolution which filled her sisters spirit.
"Why not?" The warriors pale eyes held an undeniable challenge.
"I think you already know the answer to that question."
Siians smile was anything but pleasant. "Then perhaps youd care to refresh my memory."
Instead of answering straight out, Qian Xi cocked her head slightly to one side. "Siian, why did you leave the trade negotiations so quickly this morning?"
The warriors eyes narrowed. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"Because I felt something . . .wasnt right. Here."
Qian Xi nodded wisely. "And where did those feelings lead you?"
"To Maiandrias hut."
"Precisely." Long, elegant fingers steepled together, as they were wont to do when Qian Xi was making a point. "Deny it though you might, you and this young woman have a bond which far surpasses anything I have ever felt before. It goes beyond the simple gifts weve each been granted, and into another realm entirely. You were able to feel Maiandrias distress quite some distance away. And those feelings led you, someone who is untrained in the empathic arts, to her very doorstep in time to avert what otherwise might have been a true disaster." She smiled slightly. "A bond like that is not something which can be shielded against. Particularly not by someone who depends on that shielding for her very life."
"Are you saying that my presence will always cause her harm?"
"No. Oh, no. Not at all. What I am saying is that she must learn to shield, and she must learn to be successful at it. She will never do that with you. Not completely. She needs a fighting chance to do this right, Siian. And your presence with her, here and now, will not give her that chance. I only ask that you wait to see her until I have taught her as much as I am able. After that, she will be in no danger. From you, or from anyone else."
The seconds passed slowly, silently, as Siian absorbed her sisters words. Finally, she nodded. "You know best. Ill do what you ask."
Another short nod, and Siian rose to her full height, looking one last time at the young woman on the furs in quiet contemplation, before turning away and leaving the hospice without looking back again.
When Siian left, Qian Xi looked toward the still-frozen forms of Yanit and Cori. Smiling, she beckoned both women to her. "Would you help me tend to her?"
Yanit stepped hesitantly forward, a startling difference from the brash, prickly woman shed been just moments before. "Are you sure thats wise?" she asked, with a significant look toward the now closed door of the hospice.
"Quite sure. Come. Well need some fresh bedding and a clean shift for her."
"Ill get them," Cori said, running off to the linen storage as Yanit continued forward to kneel at Qian Xis side.
"How can I help?"
"You can help me remove the soiled clothes and bedding and make her as comfortable as possible. Then you can brew one of your teas to help settle her stomach."
The crone nodded and bent to her task, her face expressionless, her movements swift and sure.
Qian Xi absorbed the quiet for a moment before turning to the older woman and laying a hand on her arm. "You are not to blame for this, Yanit."
Sighing, the crone leaned back on her heels. "Then who is? Its my job to make sure these women are prepared to live with their gifts." Her head bowed. "Siian was right. I failed."
"No, you didnt. You were busy with a greater calling." Qian Xi tightened her hold on the other womans arm. "Yanit, I have seen coughing sickness like this run through a village and kill every single living creature within a matter of days. And yet, somehow, you managed to treat such an illness without the loss of even one life. Such a feat is to be commended, not reviled."
With Yanits continued silence, Qian Xi came to her feet and drew the Shea up with her. "Siian spoke from fear, Yanit. And that fear expressed itself as anger. I am not saying this to excuse her actions, but rather to explain them. What she did was wrong. She accused without thought, and caused you pain. Dont let that pain take away the good that you have done here, and dont let it keep you from the good you have yet to accomplish."
"Much easier said than done, Qian Xi," the crone muttered.
"As is every task life sets before us. Better to use the strength you were given to change the future instead of mourning the past."
After a moment, Yanit pulled away and squared her stooped shoulders. "Ill . . .consider your counsel. In the meantime, I have some tea to brew."
Watching the crones retreating back, Qian Xi smiled slightly and shook her head. Life was never easy, and she had the feeling it was only going to get more difficult as time went on.
Once outside of the confining hospice walls, Siians quick stride slowed, then stopped altogether as she leaned back against the cold granite of the mountain behind her. Eyes turned heavenward, she tried to push the visions of Maiandrias convulsing body from her mind, but they refused to leave, damning her with their presence.
A curled fist beat steadily against the rock as the warrior took in several chilled breaths and willed her thoughts to silence. Once that state was, somewhat tenuously, attained, she opened her eyes in time to catch the striding form of Malika headed in her direction. She felt a brief flash of fire run through her body at the sight of the womans windswept, primal beauty, and spared a brief second to ponder the wisdom of cutting Mali out of that part of her life. She remembered the Huns spicy scent, the taste and feel of her skin, the fire when their bodies met and melded, generating a passionate heat.
When she came back into the present to notice Malikas dark eyes staring into her own with concern, the warrior realized, with a rush of emotions she didnt want to put a name to, that the woman of her visions wasnt the Hun, but rather Maiandria.
Gaia, save me, she prayed, sagging internally with the realization. I dont have time for any of this.
"Siian?" Malika asked with some concern. "Are you alright?"
"Im fine," she replied in a tone which indicated she was anything but. Blinking to clear her thoughts, she met Malikas eyes steadily. "How did the trade negotiations conclude?"
Though the change of topic was a blatant one, Mali knew enough to let it slide past. Prodding Siian for information she did not want to divulge was a dangerous task, to say the least. And one she wasnt feeling up to at the moment, enjoying as she did her unbruised flesh.
Instead, she smiled and pulled a rolled skin from her belt. "Signed, sealed, and delivered as promised. Everything we asked for, and a little more."
Grunting as she accepted the treaty, Siian unrolled the skin and quickly scanned the contents.
"Wynflud was very impressed with you, you know," Mali commented softly, watching her friend read the treaty. "And I think that big, buff son of hers was having daydreams so hot Im surprised his teeth didnt melt."
Pale eyes narrowed as they met sparkling brown. Scowling, Siian rerolled the skin and thumped Mali across the belly with it.
"Hey!" Mali laughed, "Im just telling the truth, here. No need to kill the messenger, you know."
"Anything else?" Siian asked in her driest tone, eyebrow arched.
"Yes," the Hun answered, her face going somber. "How is Maia?"
"She . . . . Qian Xi said that she would recover quickly."
Mali nodded. "And you? What do you say?"
Siians gaze sharpened warningly. "This isnt my area of expertise."
The Hun shrugged. "What does your gut tell you, then? Youve always trusted your instincts before, my friend. Dont start doubting them now."
Sighing, the warrior shook her head, but closed her eyes nonetheless. Instincts where the most cherished weapon any good warrior had in her arsenal. Better than weapons, better than swiftness, better than strength, instinct would keep them alive when any lesser person would be passing time in the underworld.
And Siians instincts were telling her that Maiandria was a strong, blessed woman who would make a full recovery, and come out of the experience a better person for living through it.
"Shell be fine," the warrior said after a moment, opening her eyes.
Mali beamed. "That is good news to hear."
"Is there anything more?"
The Huns dark eyes took on a mischievous glint. "Spar with me." Then she laughed. "Oh come on, Siian, its not as if Im asking you to sacrifice a virgin in my name! Spar with me! Itll help release all that tension youve got rolling around inside of you. And Gaia knows its a far better way to do that than running through this camp like a crazed harpy decapitating women who look at you strangely."
Rolling her eyes, Siian couldnt help but give in to the logic of Malikas tactical assessment.
Laughing, Mali grasped her friends hand and half-pulled her through the camp to get their weapons.
Standing against one of the caves interior walls, Qian Xi took in a deep, relaxed breath, then released it slowly as she observed, with satisfaction, the peaceful scene before her. Freshly washed and in clean, dry clothes, Maia was resting comfortably on a thick nest of furs. Cori was kneeling to her left, holding her friends hand.
Qian Xis eyes narrowed slightly as she noticed the tiny trail of tears winding their way down the young womans cheeks. Concerned, Qian Xi moved silently across the room and knelt at Coris side, offering her comfort in the nearness of her body.
"Its all my fault," Cori whispered through her tears.
"What is?" Qian Xi asked softly, already knowing the answer, but needing Cori to articulate it for her own healing.
"All of it. Her . . .like this . . .I should have done something." Laughing derisively, she hung her head. "Some healer I am. Some friend I am."
"Many would die for a friend like you."
"With a friend like me, you mean."
"For a friend," Qian Xi corrected, touching the young womans shoulder gently.
Cori turned incredulous eyes toward the slight woman. "How can you even say that?!?"
"Because it is the simple truth. You were there for her when no one else was. When others took from her, you gave, seeking nothing in return. When she turned her back on you, you accepted that, and stayed close regardless. You protected her when she couldnt, or wouldnt, protect herself. You gave her a gift beyond recompense, Corissa. Do not let your guilt devalue it."
"Why are you saying this to me? Im not that person you talk about."
"Yes, Cori, you are. The others in the hospice talk about how you tried to get her to come to the Sheas. About how you gave her herbs at night, and sacrificed your own sleep to watch over her. And there were others in your hut who saw what you did this morning. Someone else would just have left her to her stubborn misery. You did not. You forced her to admit she needed help you couldnt give her."
Coris tears fell in earnest, and Qian Xi gathered her up in a comforting embrace. "I didnt do enough. It wasnt enough." The young apprentices voice was muffled by her tears.
"It was enough," Qian Xi countered. "Maiandria is alive."
"Because of Siian!"
Pulling slightly away, Qian Xi cupped Coris chin and tilted it. "Because of you. Siian was in the right place at the right time, to finish the job you had already started. It is by your grace that she lies here peacefully asleep. Yours and none others. Accept that and move on. Maiandria will still need your help in the days to come. To give that to her, you must be strong. Holding onto your guilt will only weaken you, and you will be of no help to her."
"I . . .I dont know if I can."
"Do you want to help Maia?"
"Of course I do!"
"Then you will find a way to let loose of your guilt. It helps no one."
"I . . .Ill try."
Qian Xi smiled. "Good." Releasing her hold on the young woman, she rose gracefully to her feet and resettled her robes. "I am going to step outside for a moment."
Panicked eyes met hers. "But what if she wakes up?"
"Youll know what to do. I wont be far away."
Not giving the young woman time to argue, Qian Xi moved to the doorway and stepped outside. The chill air was a blessing to her overheated skin, and she took in the weak sunlight and the vast openness of the mountaintop vista with a keen sense of pleasure.
Ahead of her and to her left, perhaps two hundred paces away, a ring of laughing women were cheering what appeared to be a ferocious mock battle taking place within. Rather frequently, in Qian Xis estimation, a woman would come flying out of the circle to land in a heap on the snow. More often than not, the unfortunate would quickly jump to her feet and plunge back in, laughing with an almost maniacal glee. Some, however, elected to use the snow to soothe their bruises, and call it quits.
It didnt take a wisdom of the ages to know who was leading, and winning, the battle. Qian Xi smiled as she caught glimpses of her sister through small gaps in the crowd. Then, too, Siian was more easily spotted every time she would simply vault over the heads of contestants and onlookers alike, tucking her long body into a lazy flip before landing lightly on her feet once again to deliver more punishment to her unfortunate attackers.
The warriors sister nodded slightly as Malika, fresh from being tossed from the ring, smiled brightly at her. With another smile, and a "thumbs up" gesture, the Hun warrior charged back into the fray with a triumphant howl, leaving Qian Xi to smile and shake her head.
Giving the encampment one last look, the young empath gathered her robes and quietly reentered the hospice, resolving silently to pull Siian aside sometime in the near future and ask her to resume their own, private sparring sessions. Her body hadnt felt that type of freedom in awhile, and part of her acknowledged missing it very much.
"Had enough?" Mali joked, panting and staring into Siians blazing eyes while trying not to notice the close proximity of their lips or the roiling, absolutely sensual energy the tall warrior was giving off in waves. Which wasnt easy, given that Siian had one fist bunched around the front of Malikas jerkin and the other threaded through the Huns thick, sweat damp hair in what looked to any interested onlooker, of which there were several, to be a very passionate embrace.
After several hours of free-for-all fighting, the two warriors were the only ones left standing, though Mali privately admitted that, if not for the strong grip on her jerkin, she too would be among the ranks of the fallen.
Siians fierce gaze softened slightly as an evil smirk curved her lips. "No, but it seems you have."
"Who me? Never better."
Mali had to laugh at the disbelieving eyebrow shot her way. Then she bowed her head, just slightly while still keeping their gazes locked. "The field is yours, Siian," she conceded softly, everything within her resisting the urge to simply close the tiny distance between them and begin a different sort of battle anew. While her mind knew that it was a path she could never again travel, her body rebelled; brought, as always, to dizzying heights from close proximity to a woman who was, in equal parts, mortal human and a immortal force of nature.
The mock battle had tapped that primal, animal part of her that screamed out its need for satiation. Her mind whirled with visions of battles past where the heat of their fighting had ignited the fires of their loving, neither stopping until they were both too weak to move.
Siian was feeling the train of Malis thoughts as if led there by an unseen host. Her body responded mindlessly. Releasing her hold on the Huns jerkin, she slid it around the smaller womans waist and crushed their bodies together while maintaining her grip in Malikas thick, shining hair. Malis neck arched back, baring the creamy white skin of her tender throat. Siians eyes narrowed; her nostrils flared.
"Yes," Mali breathed into the wind.
Looking down at her, Siian could feel the pulse of her need, flaring bright, like the sun. Her body told her that it would be so easy. So easy to take what was freely being offered. So easy to lose herself in that fire. To forget, for even just a moment, the burdens lying so heavily on her shoulders.
And yet, deep within her heart, she knew that something fundamental had changed. Something as fragile, yet as undeniable, as the first blade of spring grass stretching toward the sun. And while she couldnt put words to what it was, her soul spoke its own language, and pulled her back from the brink of her bodys insistent demands.
Siians tight grip slowly loosened, and when she stepped back, Mali blinked, as if freed from a trance, and smiled, her cheeks tinting slightly in a blush.
The Huns lips parted to offer apology, then closed as she felt the press of one long finger against them. Siians eyes were a mesmerizing combination of gravity and warmth.
"Thank you," the tall warrior whispered.
The question was left unanswered as a young woman waiting patiently off to the side cleared her throat and stepped quietly forward. "Excuse me?"
Recognizing the voice as one belonging to one of Yanits apprentices, both women turned, identical expressions of concern on their faces.
"Is it Maia?" Mali blurted before Siian even opened her mouth.
The young woman smiled. "No, Maia is fine. Shes resting comfortably. Yanit sent me here to let you know that weve almost run out of herbs she uses for the coughing sickness. Shes afraid that if the sickness returns, she wont be able to treat it."
Siian nodded. "Thank you."
"Youre welcome," the apprentice said, blushing slightly before turning quickly and running back to the hospice.
"Good thing we drew up that trading pact with the Czigany," Mali remarked.
"They wont have enough," Siian replied. "Not unless they sacrifice their own supplies. The group that was halted by the floods carries the majority of their healing herbs." She turned to Mali. "Go to them and trade for whatever they feel comfortable giving up. I know where I can find some more."
"To the north?"
"Yes. No more than two days travel. The sickness is more common there, and the Sheas are usually well stocked. Ill get what I can and return here."
Siian smiled. "I always am."
The Hun watched as Siian turned and strode gracefully through the muck and snow to their shared hut, a sad smile playing over her lips. Shaking herself from her melancholy daze, she signaled two of her watching warriors. "Come with me. We have a trade to make."
After donning heavy furs and strapping various weapons to her body, Siian left the warmth of her hut and headed toward the mountains slope. Unlike the eastern route, which the Huns kept mostly clear of snow and ice, the northern route was completely untouched, and very dangerous. However, since she had spent her early years in a home that was built into the side of one of the taller mountains in Chin, Siian wasnt unduly concerned.
Swift and sure, she made her way down the mountain, arriving at its base while there was still light left in the day. Her sensitive nostrils picked up the scent of woodsmoke through the trees, and she headed in that direction, knowing from past visits that there was a village of decent size on the other side of the small wood.
Stepping out from beneath the trees sheltering canopy, Siian stopped at the very edge of the town before her. It was dark, and silent. Only the thin wisps of smoke trailing up from chimneys told her the town hadnt been abandoned. The rutted dirt tracks that she knew crisscrossed the tiny hamlet were snowpacked and nearly unmarred by the tread of man or beast.
Cocking her head just slightly to one side, she scented the air, the way a tracking animal might. She smiled internally, pleased that her instincts were in their usual pristine working order.
There were five bandits, she sensed. Three to her right, two to the left. The stench of unwashed bodies was nearly overwhelming, contrasting as it did with the crisp, clean air of the woods behind her.
A smirk curving her lips, she stepped out into the open and patiently waited for her attackers to approach.
She didnt have to wait long. With a scuffling of boots in the snow, and a volley of pleuritic coughs, the bandits surrounded her, tapping their weaponssimple clubs and tree branches stripped of their leavesin the palms of their hands and grinning.
They were a sorry looking lot, dressed in tattered, grease and blood spattered furs, their eyes shining with hunger and malice. To a man, they were gaunt and palethe type of paleness that comes from sickness rather than a lack of sun.
Siian felt a moment of compassion for the men, who were obviously starving and were little more than armed beggars. Calm as a summers day, she eyed them each in turn, then smiled, though she knew the expression would be hidden beneath her facecloth. "Hello, boys. Something I can help you with?"
"Yeah," one of the men grunted, stepping slightly forward. "We want your barter, your furs, and any jewelry ya might be hidin under them robes."
"Hm." The warrior pretended to consider the offer seriously for a moment. "Im afraid that bargain doesnt leave me with very much in the long run. How about a counter offer?" Her smile broadened at the looks of confusion on the mens faces. "Because you caught me in a generous mood, Ill give you each enough barter for a hot meal and a warm bed for the night. Free of charge. Or . . . ." She held up one long finger. "I can simply beat you all senseless and leave you out here to freeze to death. Your choice."
The men looked at one another, open-mouthed. After a long moment, the first man lifted his club, a snarl on his sallow face. "We dont like your offer, Mister."
Siian shrugged. "Suit yourselves."
A very short time later, five unconscious bodies lay crumpled on the snow, marring its nearly pristine surface.
Shaking her head in disgust, Siian neatly stepped over the body blocking her path and headed toward the largest building in the village, a place she knew from previous travels into this area, and a place she very much enjoyed visiting.
It was a tavern, of sorts, run by a short, portly man who was as gregarious as he was stout. As a young boy, he had gone with his father on a trip to the Eastern Lands, and had returned home with a passion for all things Eastern. A passion which only grew as the years went by. The tavern was a testament to that love, and in a time and place where most travelers from the east were spurned and turned away from such establishments, this owner welcomed one and all with open arms.
The fact that his wife cooked meals that rivaled the best Siian had ever eaten in her own homeland didnt hurt his cause any.
Smiling warmly, she stomped the snow from her boots and opened the heavy wooden door. The smells of home assailed her senses, and she found her mouth watering quite against her conscious will.
The proprietor looked up from his place behind the long bar, and smiled a welcome at his new guest, recognizing instantly, by his mode of dress, a traveler from the East.
"Welcome, honored guest!" he said, bowing at the waist. "Please come inside and leave your troubles . . .by the goddess Siian, is that you?"
Smiling, the warrior removed her facecloth. "Never could fool you, Milus."
"Well, you did for a minute there, but those eyes . . . ahh. . . no jewels on earth could ever compare."
"Flatterer," Siian retorted, smirking. Approaching the bar, she offered her hand in greeting. "Hows life treating you these days, my friend?"
Forgoing the tall womans hand, Milus wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed. "Never better," he replied, grinning as he stepped back.
Siian spared a moment to look around the interior. Then she frowned, noticing that only two of the tables were occupied. "Trouble?" she asked her host, eyebrow raised into her bangs.
"Eh," he replied, waggling his hand. "Weve been hit by some bandits lately. Makes people afraid to leave their houses. Kinda bad for business, if you get my meaning."
"Let me guess. Five men, slat thin, and giving off enough stink to raise the dead?"
"How did you. . . .?" His eyes widened as comprehension struck. "You didnt."
Siians smile was a hair short of smug. "Didnt I?"
Rushing past her, Milus yanked the door open and peered into the gathering darkness outside. He watched, stunned, as the five men who had been terrorizing the village tried, unsuccessfully, to help one another out of the deep snow theyd crumpled in.
"You did!" Slamming the door closed, the tavern owner turned, his bearded face wreathed in an ear-to-ear grin. "Siian, youre a goddess. No, youre more than a goddess. Youre . . .youre. . . youre . . .well, when I think of exactly what you are, youll be the first to know. Oh Mora!" he called out to his wife in a sing-song tone, "youll never guess whos here!"
"It better be the goddess herself for all the racket youre putting .Siian!" Plump as her husband but much more attractive, Mora ran across the room and wrapped the woman in an all-encompassing embrace. "Its so good to see you again! I was starting to fear that we never would!"
Pulling away, she appraised the beautiful warrior from head to toe. "You look wonderful, as always." Then she turned a scowl on her husband. "Did you leave your manners out with the pigs? Leaving the poor woman standing here in cold, wet furs, and likely starving to boot while you stand there talking her ear off."
Milus had the look of a whipped puppy as he approached the two women and held out his arms to receive Siians heavy furs.
Smiling in commiseration, Siian draped her furs over Milus stout arms before turning back to the still chattering Mora.
" . . .and by the way, some of your friends are here. Ive put them in my back room, away from prying eyesnot that there are all that many around right now, but Im sure you understand what Im trying to say."
"I do indeed," Siian replied, allowing herself to be led to the partially hidden door.
When Mora flung open the door, intending to announce her guest, the warrior laid a finger against her own lips. The older woman grinned and nodded, stepping back, but not completely away. Whatever was going to happen, she wanted to see it, first hand.
Siian peered into the dimly lit room, her smile growing as she immediately recognized the shadow-bedecked forms of her comrades. Six of the women were sitting on pillows around a low, wooden table, their backs to both the door and Siian, as they watched the seventh act out an old, and dearly loved story.
Slipping silently into the shadowed darkness, Siian walked with the slow, measured steps of a desert cat stalking a meal, until she came upon the broad back Jia-wen, her cousin and the leader of the small band of women seated around the table. Drawing her sword silently from the scabbard at her back, she lowered the weapon until the point was no more than a hairsbreadth from the womans unprotected neck.
"Didnt anyone ever teach you not to sit with your back to the door?" Siian asked, deliberately pitching her voice so as to not be heard by no one save her cousin.
Jia-wen stiffened, a cold prickle of fear skittering up her spine. Her eyes darted around the table, but none of her band had noticed the intruder. Damning herself for her lapse of attention, the short, well-muscled warrior remained frozen in place, her quick mind darting over possibilities for escape.
"Answer me," came the low-voiced command above and behind her. Jia-wen shivered as the incredibly sharp point of a sword casually brushed against the hairs on her neck, bringing them to stiff attention.
In a desperate attempt to buy herself some time, Jia-wen decided to answer. "Yes," she whispered.
"Good," Siian replied, grinning and sheathing her sword. "Maybe next time, youll remember that lesson." Squatting down next to her cousin, she put her lips close to the other womans ear and whispered, "Boo."
It took every ounce of strength the young warrior possessed not to jump out of her skin when the low voice sounded in her ear. Any less of a warrior, and she either would have fainted, or soiled herself. Neither was a very pleasing, not to mention dignified, prospect.
Suddenly, a warm hand touched her back, and the flow of intense, familiar energy pulsing through that touch told Jia-wen exactly who her erstwhile attacker was. A smile broke over her handsome face, though that expression was belied by the low, growling tone of her voice. "Siian . . . ."
"Yes?" The word was teasingly drawn out.
With a loud, joyous whoop, Jia-wen turned and wrapped her arms around her cousins lean waist, tumbling both of them to the floor in her enthusiasm.
Siian immediately flipped the shorter, broader woman over, gave two teasing kisses to her flushed cheeks, then hopped back to her feet, pulling Jia-wen up with her, laughing.
By this time, the others had finally noticed the commotion and vaulted up from their seats to surround the tall warrior, each shouting out their welcomes in boisterous voices, accompanied by good natured slaps to her long, muscled body.
Chin-sun, a tall, willowy and strikingly beautiful woman, stepped forward, smiling broadly, and placed a tender kiss on Siians cheek. "Welcome, cousin. It has been far too long."
"It has," the warrior acknowledged, smiling softly as she allowed Chin-sun to clasp her hand and lead her to the head of the table.
As Siian lowered herself to the pillows liberally strewn across the hard flooring, the doors burst open and Milus and Mora stepped through, each bearing platters heaped with steaming, savory food. The warriors mouth watered again, and her smile broadened as one of the platters was set directly before her, filled with her favorite delicacies. "Thank you." Her tone was fervent, and her eyes sparkled with a certain joy that warmed the hearts of the couple, bringing equally dazzling smiles to their own faces in response.
"Thank you," Mora countered, lips close to Siians ear. "Milus told me what you did to those awful men out there. You probably saved this season, at the very least, for us."
Siian accepted the praise with grace. "It was my pleasure," she said, bowing her head slightly in acknowledgement of the older womans words.
Straightening, Mora chuckled. "Im sure it was." Her dark eyes swept the room. "If theres nothing else, Ill leave you to your feast. Enjoy."
To a chorus of thanks, the couple swept from the room and closed the doors tightly behind them.
Returning from a short tour of the hospice, Qian Xi entered the darkened chamber in time to see Maia and Cori pull out of an embrace, both smiling and wiping tears from their faces. Her eyes warmed at the sight, and she approached noiselessly, seeming almost to glide over the uneven ground, until she stopped at the beginning of Maias fur nest and gracefully lowered herself to a seated position beside the young woman. "How do you feel?"
Maia offered a watery smile as she took stock of the messages her body was sending her. "I feel . . .pretty good."
"And your stomach?"
Maias brow furrowed. "I feel a little queasy, now that you mention it."
"I was just about to get her some tea," Cori offered, standing and moving away toward the fireplace where the water was heating.
Maia watched until the young woman left her sight, then turned her gaze back to the patiently waiting Qian Xi. "Cori told me that I had a seizure."
"Yes. A mild one, with no lasting damage."
"Why? I mean . . .did it have something to do with the headaches I was getting?"
Qian Xi nodded, steepling her fingers. "Yes. One was an offshoot of the other. A consequence, if you will."
"A consequence of what?" Her voice gave vent to her frustration. After a moment, she sighed and broke off eye contact, looking down at the fur covering her body and plucking at it with nervous fingers. "Forgive me, Qian Xi. Its just that . . .I dont understand any of this."
The young Asian woman smiled softly. "There is nothing to forgive, Maiandria. Every woman who enters this camp encounters this same confusion. Im here to help."
"Can you tell me what happened to me? I mean . . .why I had the headaches? And the seizure? Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. Ive always been healthy. Why now?"
"Youve been undergoing great changes, and your body has been trying to adapt to them, as best it can."
"What kind of changes?"
Cori reentered with a mug of steaming tea, which she gave to Qian Xi, smiling apologetically. "Yanit needs me to help with the others, if thats ok with you."
"Thank you, Cori. Youve been a great deal of help."
The young apprentice blushed, then turned a shy smile on Maia before turning and leaving the room.
"Can you sit up?" Qian Xi asked.
"I think so, yes."
As she struggled to come up to a sitting position, Maias eyes widened when Qian Xi aided her with a strength very much belied by her slight stature. Qian Xi returned the shocked look with an enigmatic smilethe closest she could come to a smirkand handed her young charge the mug of tea. "Take small sips. It is still quite hot."
Nodding, Maia sipped the strong tea, smiling when her stomach seemed instantly to settle as she swallowed. "This is really good!" she stated, with some surprise.
"Yanit must surely like you," Qian Xi teased. "Normally, she has her punishments fit the crime, so to speak."
Maia laughed, once again surprised by the sedate womans unusual sense of humor. "Ill have to thank her for taking it easy on me, then."
"That would be for the best," Qian Xi replied, her face solemn, but her dark eyes twinkling with amusement.
As Maia sipped her tea, Qian Xi gathered her thoughts. Maias questions would be easily answered, but understanding was unique to each woman being taught. Some gripped the difficult concepts willingly, easily, as if the knowledge was already within them and merely needed a guiding hand to bring it forth. For others, the task was much more difficult, and oft-times, the empath despaired of ever getting through to her charge.
The quiet voice pulled Qian Xi from her introspection, and she looked up, nodding to the young woman whose jade eyes were bright with questions.
"During the rainy season, the dry earth at first drinks the water greedily. But what happens when the rain continues and the earth is full?"
"It floods," Maia answered readily, though quite unsure of the conversations direction.
"Exactly. It floods. The same thing happens to us. Especially those of us who have the gift of empathy. We are able to feel anothers emotions almost as if we were experiencing them for ourselves."
"Thats right!" Maia replied, excited. "Thats exactly how I felt with those women! Almost like I was going through what they had been through!"
"Correct. You are the earth, and the emotions are the rain. However, like the earth, your body has only so much room to store these emotions. And like the earth, when that room is exhausted . "It floods." Maias voice was soft; her gaze turned inward. "And thats what happened to me, isnt it. Thats why I had those headaches."
"Yes," Qian Xi replied, well pleased. "The headaches were a warning that your capacity for handling others emotional pain had been reached. When you ignored your bodys signals, the seizure was the result. The flood, if you will."
Maia looked up, horror in her eyes. "And this is going to happen every time?"
"No," Qian Xi quickly countered. "No, not at all. Things happened as they did because you went into the situations unaware that you were using your gift. You had not been properly trained on how to protect yourself from an emotional overload. I shoulder my share of responsibility for that oversight, and am here now to teach you what you need to know."
Maia straightened on the furs, determination plain in the set of her jaw. "Im ready. Teach me."
Qian Xi smiled. "Time enough to begin your lessons in the morning, Maiandria. Right now, your body needs rest to complete the healing process."
"But, Im not tired!"
"Shh. Rest. That is your only lesson for today."
Scowling, the young woman allowed her new mentor to gently guide her body back down on the furs. Her eyes closed, but her body was rigid with tension. "Dont know how Im supposed to sleep when Im not even tired. Ive slept all day."
Qian Xis smile broadened into a rare grin as she laid a cool hand upon the furrowed brow of her student. "Rest now."
The stinging rebuttal died on Maias lips as the most wondrous vision came into her mind. A gently rolling meadow so wide it seemed to span the whole world, filled to the brim with wildflowers of every description and color. The scene was so vivid, she swore she could smell the scent of the breeze as it gently bowed the heads of the flowers in its wake.
"Its beautiful," she breathed, never knowing the moment when she passed from wakefulness to a sleep more peaceful than she had ever known.
"Dream sweetly, my friend," Qian Xi whispered, removing her hand and replacing it with a tender kiss before slipping quietly away.
To Be Continued - Part 6
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