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 room was dark, muggy, and rich with the smells of damp hay, and too many bodies packed into too small a space. Siian sighed and rolled onto her side as the sounds of Jia-wen coupling with Ming-Ue floated into her too-sensitive hearing from scant feet away.
Not that this activity was anything new to her. In fact, shed participated willingly, happily, the last time they all had been together, some moons ago. It was a ritual with them, sharing bodies in the night, and helped to forge iron-strong bonds between all the members of the group. Shed been approached by several that very evening. That shed turned each offer down was the source of much teasing that lasted well into the night.
A teasing which she endured with good grace, and not a little return teasing of her own.
Her body, however, was quite unhappy with her minds decisions in the matter, and was voicing its displeasure in a most torturous way. The days battles, mock and non, had stirred up a fire in her which had yet to be quenched.
Grunting, she shifted again, then opened her eyes to contemplate the thatched ceiling above. Sensing a presence to her left that hadnt been there before, she turned her head slowly to see Chin-Sun kneeling next to her furs.
"Yes?" she asked above the increasingly loud moans to her right. She tried not to notice how her friends unbound hair shone in the guttering torchlight, nor how her partially opened robe displayed tantalizing hints of a body she knew from intimate acquaintance to be very close to sheer perfection.
Chin-Sun laughed softly, covering her mouth with the back of one hand. When she drew it away, her smile was still firmly in place. "Dont worry, I havent come to try my luck again with you, tempting though that thought is." Her gaze softened. "You seem . . .distracted. I thought perhaps you might like to talk."
Any reply Siian might have made was immediately swallowed as a different sound came to her ears. Stiffening, she cocked her head, listening closely.
"What is it?"
The sound came again. Muffled voices shouting something unintelligible through the thin walls of the room.
"I heard it," Chin-Sun said, gathering her robes and standing as Siian rolled to her feet.
A moment later, a loud pounding on the door was heard, and the tall warrior stepped quickly across the room. Opening the door the smallest crack, she peered through to see Milus standing there, his hair askew and his robe loosely belted, obviously roused from a more or less sound sleep.
"Weve got trouble," he pronounced.
"What kind of trouble?"
"I dont know. Either our friends have returned with friends of their own, or the town is seriously upset about something. There are a lot of people out there."
"Alright. Go back to your room and bolt your doors. Well take care of this."
"Are you sure? I mean, I could . . . ."
"Do it. Go. Well be fine."
Milus nodded with relief. "Thank you, Siian."
"Youre welcome. Now go."
Closing the door, Siian turned to see her fellows in the final stages of pulling on their clothes and weapons. You heard?"
Jia-wen nodded, stepping forward. "Were ready."
"Alright then. Lets go see whats going on."
The group stepped into the cold, winter air, drawing their furs tight around their bodies. It became instantly apparent that the town was not under attack. Rather, it was the townspeople themselves who ran, shouting, toward the eastern boundary, torches held aloft and guttering in the wind.
Reaching out, Siian snagged one of the people passing by and yanked him close to her body. "Whats going on here," she demanded, blue eyes blazing brighter than the torch he carried.
The man was young, no more than a boy really, and the unblemished skin of his neck rose and fell in a hard swallow. "Its a stoning," he said in a voice weaker than he intended. "The witch and her apprentice are going to be stoned. They killed a baby!"
Growling, the warrior snatched the large stone from his hand and tossed it far into the woods. Then she grabbed his torch, and shoved him back in the direction hed come. "Go back home."
Righting himself, the boy looked at her with wide eyes. "But . . . ."
He hesitated just a moment, before stumbling in the snow, and running for home as fast as his legs would carry him.
The group of women ran easily through the knee deep snow, slipping around and through the crowd on their way to the eastern border. Up ahead, they could see the outline of a rickety platform with several tall posts set through the wood to the rear.
Several men were standing atop the platform, causing it to shake beneath their weight and movements. Two of the men were binding the arms of a very frail, very old woman, whose stooped posture signaled her utter defeat.
Siians soul filled with rage as she saw the bruises and cuts on the old womans face, and the steady stream of blood pouring from her nose and mouth.
Two other men were binding the arms of a very young woman who had a withered leg and the milky whiteness of a cataract in her right eye. The girl seemed in a trance, her good eye staring blankly at the crowd, her face slack and expressionless.
With a piercing war cry, Siian ran forward several steps, then vaulted over the head of the gathered crowd to land lightly on the platform where the women were being bound.
"Get your hands off them. Get off!" With savage grace, she pulled the men away from their victims and threw them down off the platform with enough force to send them deep into the snowdrifts near the woods.
As Jia-wen and the rest of the warriors joined Siian on the platform, she stared down at two of the smaller women. "Untie them. Quickly. Li Ming, get your horses and bring them here."
The women nodded, and stepped quickly away to do her bidding.
Drawing her sword from the scabbard on her back, Siian whirled to face the crowd, which was now highly agitated and pressing close.
"Get back!" she snarled, sweeping her sword in a deadly arc. "All of you! Back! Now!"
The men in front ducked back against those behind, creating a logjam of people crowded around the platform. Shouts of pain and anger rang through the crowded square.
Jia-wen and Chin-Sun joined Siian at the front of the platform, their weapons drawn and held at the ready.
"Go back to your houses, all of you. There will be no killing today."
"Now just wait one minute here," an older man said, breaking free of the press of bodies surrounding him. He wore a large wooden key around his neck; his badge of office as headman of the town. "What gives you the authority to interrupt this towns justice?"
"This does," Siian said, smiling darkly as she lifted her sword and circled it around her in a lazy figure-eight.
"You cant kill all of us!" shouted a voice hidden far back in the crowd.
The shout was echoed by the others as they began to move forward again.
"Maybe not, but Id have fun trying." Her grin flashed out at them, glaring and predatory.
The crowd shuffled to a stop and the shouts died down to impotent mumbles.
Taking in a deep breath, the headman lifted his head. "See here, warrior. Perhaps you think youre doing some sort of good deed by protecting this witch and her spawn, but I tell you that no good will come from this. They are both the very definition of evil. They cursed an infant, for Gaias sake! I saw it with my own eyes! The child was born with the mark of the demon on his face. Those demons birthed him!"
"Where is the child now?"
A young woman stepped out of the crowd, walking slowly and holding her belly. "I killed him. He was my son, and I killed him. Because of them!" A thin, almost skeletal arm thrust out, the index finger extended to point forward in accusation.
"You killed your own child?" Chin-Sun asked, eyes wide in disbelief.
"He wasnt a child! He was a monster! They cursed him! It was the only way! Dont you see? It was the only way!"
As she broke down into sobs, another man came forth and drew her to him, staring daggers at Siian and the rest of the warriors on the platform.
"I did nothing!" came the wavery, but unmistakable voice of the Shea. "The child was born with a caul. It would have wiped off, if I had simply been given time to do so, instead of being beaten and dragged off in the name of your justice."
She spat on the ground, and turned away, gathering her catatonic young apprentice close against her frail body.
"Stone the witch!"
At the shout, several large stones were launched at those on the platform. The warriors in front used their weapons and their bodies to ward off the barrage of missiles flung at them.
"Enough!" Siian shouted, plucking a large stone out of the air and throwing it over the heads of the crowd. "The next one to throw a stone dies."
Men and women once again shuffled to silence, well aware that the fierce warrior above them meant every word she said.
"Please," the headman shouted, holding up his arms and stepping up to the platform, "people, please." He turned to look at Siian. "Again, I believe that you and your fellow warriors have good hearts and are only trying to do whats right. But these women broke our laws, and for that, they must pay the consequences. We are perfectly within our rights to do so. So please, please step aside and let justice be served."
Hearing the horses behind her, and the muffled sounds of bodies being loaded aboard them, Siians dark smile shone forth once again. "Oh, itll be served alright. My way."
At Siians quick nod, Jia-wen and Chin-Sun broke away and headed for the horses, jumping down onto their bare backs and urging them forward.
"Theyre getting away!" someone shouted, which caused the crowd to press forward again.
Sheathing her sword, Siian removed her chobos from her breechcloth and, with another piercing cry, flipped off of the platform to land in the center of the onrushing crowd. Laughing, she used her chobos to force those closest to her outward, so that they stumbled into their fellows, effectively causing the entire group to come to a complete halt, completely entangled with one another.
With another cry, Siian backflipped onto the platform above her, ran across it in long, loping strides, and jumped, using every inch of her long body to get the distance she needed.
She flipped once, then twice, and landed neatly on the back of Jia-wens galloping horse.
Laughing loud enough to scare the night birds into flight, Jia-wen urged her horse to its fastest gallop, leaving the milling villagers far behind.
They rode through the night, and into the light of a newly dawned day, heading west, ever west, following a course only the old woman knew. Though with the days new light, the others were beginning to pick up some small clues.
"I think were heading for the catacombs," Jia-wen whispered over her shoulder.
"Looks like you may be right," Siian agreed from her place behind her cousin. "If so, we dont have much further to go."
Grunting her assent, Jia-wen turned her eyes back toward the trail, lost in thought.
It seemed that no one who had even so much as breathed the air of the fertile valley they were passing through was immune to the myriad of talesall of them dark and dangeroustold about the catacombs.
The only fact to come out of these legends was that the catacombs themselves were an extensive series of long, twisting caves which ran through, and beneath, the huge mountain looming over the scattered villages and farming towns like a benign titan.
The rest was a mish-mosh of ghost tales, wild speculation, and endless rumors made up by people with far too much time on their hands, and precious little else to fill that time with.
Every woman in the group had heard dozens of tales of bottomless chasms, predatory beasts with dripping fangs and fearsome claws, underground lakes which spewed bubbling acid, and the mournful howls of the dead who cried out from their tomb night after night, begging release from their eternal suffering.
In essence then, the catacombs became a perfect place to get away from the world. Especially if that world wanted you as far away from it as possible.
A perfect place, in other words, for a Shea to live. Or, perhaps, an entire coven of Sheas.
Siian herself had given brief thought to leading the women in her care to that very spot. The idea, however, of having those young, vibrant women living out the rest of their lives trapped like bats and in complete isolation stopped her cold.
"We need to dismount," Jia-wen murmured over her shoulder, disrupting Siians ruminations. "The path is too overgrown to allow the horses to pass through. Well have to walk in from here."
Sliding gracefully down from the lathered mount, Siian gazed around, taking her bearings and scenting for danger. The forest around her was abundant with life, but she could detect no darkness within it. A nod from Chin-Sun confirmed her belief, and she stepped quickly forward to where the old Shea was struggling to hold the limp body of her young apprentice.
"Ill carry her for you, if you wish," Siian offered, her tone respectful.
Dark, wizened eyes stared out from a face mapped by wrinkles, and blood. Those eyes seemed to pierce deep into the warriors soul, taking her measure, before they lowered and the old woman nodded. "That would be very helpful. Thank you."
Gently lifting the young woman into her arms, Siian tucked the withered body against her own, rested the apprentices head on one broad shoulder, and pulled her furs over top to give protection to the wasted arms and legs.
"My name is Siian," she said, meeting the womans direct stare with one of her own.
"You are very gentle, for a warrior."
The corner of Siians mouth twitched in a small smile, her only comment.
"I am Celes, and the young one you are holding is Tamar. She is my daughter; a blessing granted me late in life, and the gift I treasure more greatly than any other. Thank you for saving her. For saving us both."
"Im glad we were able to help."
The two women looked at one another in understanding for a long moment. Then the Shea nodded her head and turned away. "Come. We have a great deal of ground to cover and darkness falls quickly over this area."
Jia-wen quickly stepped in to take point, while Chin-Sun dropped back to cover from the rear. Without any further conversation, they started off.
The path quickly narrowed from a decent sized game trail to a track that even small rodents would have trouble navigating. The forest closed in on itself with a merciless vengeance. Tall bushes with bladed leaves and thorns the length of a grown mans arm provided a very effective barricade against interlopers intent on trespassing onto the unsullied wilderness. The women gritted it out as best they could, resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to use their swords to blaze a trail that others, less welcome, could easily follow.
The exposed skin of their faces and hands bore the brunt of the damage, yet still they pressed on, heading deep into the heart of the forest.
It was well past mid-day when the wood finally gave up its tenacious grasp on the land, and stopped abruptly some horse-lengths away from the mountain itself, as if afraid to intrude any further.
The mountain loomed in front of them, so tall and majestic that it seemed to spear through the heavens themselves. And at its base were several openings, both large and small, that announced the entrance into the fabled catacombs.
Taking the lead, Celes ushered the group to one of the larger openings, then stilled their progress as she ducked briefly inside, returning a moment later with several unlit torches. Jia-wen stepped immediately forward to help, but was brushed away.
"The day I cant light my own torch is the day Gaia can take me to her bosom, warrior."
Within a very short time, five torches were blazing and the old Shea had a very smug grin on her wizened face. After passing the torches around, she met the eyes of each and every woman following her. "These caves go on for miles in every direction. We have lived here for as long as anyone can remember, and we have not even come close to mapping them out. Stay close and together. If anyone gets separated for any reason, yell out, and remain still. The sounds will echo, but someone will be able to backtrack to find you. Remember my words, and we will all make it safely through."
If was only after each woman nodded in understanding that Celes finally turned away and walked back toward the entrance.
Grunting, Jia-wen drew her sword as the sounds of a woman screaming in terror echoed through the seemingly endless chambers beneath the mountain. The rest, save Siian who was still carrying Tamar, followed a beat behind, eyes darting into the darkness, searching for clues.
Only Celes continued on, unconcerned, stopping only when she realized that she was no longer being followed. She turned, then smiled slightly at the looks of concern wreathing the warriors grim faces.
"Fear not. We have a group of mountain cats wintering with us this season. Sometimes they tend to get a bit . . .loud."
"You mean thats not a woman?" Chin-Sun asked, her disbelief evident.
"No. It isnt."
"How can you tell the difference?" Jia-wen asked, not quite ready to believe, especially when the sound echoed through once again, standing her nape hairs up.
"When you have lived here as long as we have, warrior, you know the origin of every sound in these caves."
Jia-wen turned doubtful eyes to Siian, who, after a moment, nodded. The smaller warrior sighed, but complied with the unvoiced request, and slid her sword back into its scabbard. "Any other little secrets youd care to let us know?" she asked, stooping down to slip through a small entrance that heralded a larger area behind it.
As she straightened, her keen hearing picked up a series of high-pitched, restless squeaks coming from high overhead.
"Whats that?" Jia-wen asked, spinning in a circle, her weapon out once again.
"I think were about to let in on another one of those secrets you were asking about," Chin-Sun replied, smirking into her friends wide eyes. "Dont you know a bat when you hear one?"
"Bats? Gaia, I hate bats!"
Siians quiet voice came out of the darkness. "Put your sword away, Jia-wen."
"But . . . ."
Grumbling, the young warrior did as she was told. "Can we just start moving again, please?"
"I thought bats meant good fortune in your culture," Celes remarked softly to Siian.
Siian smiled. "They do."
"Lets stop discussing my little quirks and start moving on, alright?" came the voice of an anxious Jia-wen from close behind them.
Biting back a laugh, Siian shifted Tamars weight in her arms and started forward, leaving the bats to their own devices.
It became warmer the deeper into the catacombs they descended. So warm, in fact, that the warriors shed their furs, and still couldnt keep a heavy sweat from liberally coating their bodies.
"Blessed Gaia," Jia-wen remarked from her place to Siians left, "I think were journeying to the very pits of the underworld itself!" A meaty hand, already wet with sweat, swept across an equally wet brow. "I think Im melting."
"The temperature will soon moderate," Celes replied, still in the lead. The old woman, seemingly so frail, had surprised all of them, and appeared to only grow stronger the deeper into the catacombs they ventured. "It isnt very far now."
"If youre telling the truth, old woman, Ill personally write three prayer rolls in your honor."
"You may be assured that a Shea never lies."
"Get out that quill, my friend," Chin-Sun teased, as she passed her cousin by, smirking. "Youre gonna need it."
True to her word, Celes soon led them up an increasingly steep embankment and into the cooler, dryer air of the upper caverns.
The group passed their first Shea as they were still climbing. The woman was walking quickly, several thin stone tablets clutched to her ample chest, when she spotted them and stopped, startled as they came in from the lower reaches of the caverns. She relaxed as she spied Celes, then gave the rest of the women a shy smile before continuing quickly on her way.
Then, as if that one Shea had broken a dam, the group passed steadily more women walking alone, or in pairs, or in small groups. The warriors received polite nods or shy smiles, but not a word was spoken to any of them.
They walked on until they came to a set of steep steps carved out of the wall. At the top of the steps, a light glowed, illuminating the stairwell.
"Douse your torches here," Celes said, demonstrating by extinguishing her own in the sandy ground at her feet. "Well need them no longer."
After making sure the rest followed suit, the old Shea turned and began up the steps, appearing much more spry than the wrinkles on her face would indicate to the casual observer.
The warriors followed Celes to the top of the stairs, then stopped, as if rooted to the cavern floor. Before them was a wonder that none of them--world travelers allhad ever seen before.
Like a geode cut in half, the cavern before them was made entirely from crystal. The walls, ceiling and floor was an uninterrupted mass of jagged, milky white stone. Seated in various spots on the floor were bowls housing fat candles made from beeswax. The light from these candles reflected back in an infinity of brilliant colors almost painful to the eye, filling the cave with a rainbow of incandescent light.
It was the most beautiful thing any of them had ever seen.
"Welcome to the entrance to the Temple of Gaia," Celes intoned softly, smiling at their stunned silence. "If you will follow me?"
Siian watched as the old Shea entered. Her keen eyes detected a cunningly wrought path carved through the jagged spikes of crystal, but done in such a way as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. Impressed, she followed, taking care to keep to the same path.
Continuing through without incident, the group stepped into a second cavern which was stark in its simplicity, especially given the almost impossible beauty they had just traversed.
This second enclosure was dark, lit only by the wavering flame of five large candles set to the four points of the compass, with one for the very center. Soft, fur rugs were scattered about the floor in a random pattern. Several unadorned jugs, some filled with scented oils, others with clear spring water, sat against the walls.
The rest of the cave was empty, and silent.
Entering the cave, Celes walked forward and lifted one of the smaller jars of scented oil. First going to the eastern candle, she drizzled a drop of oil over the flame, stepping back as the flame eagerly consumed the offering, hissing and sparking.
She continued in that vein, going next to the south, then to the west, and finally to the north, murmuring a prayer softly under her breath.
Replacing the jug on the floor by the wall, she turned to her guests. "If you will wait here a moment, I will return. Please, make yourselves comfortable."
The warriors elected to remain standing as the old Shea disappeared into a small, and heretofore unseen opening to the very rear of the cavern. As promised, she was back within moments, stepping aside quickly to reveal another woman entering behind her.
A woman who was almost inhumanly beautiful and glowed with an inner light so brilliant and so bright that looking upon her was akin to looking into the mouth of the cave through which they had just passed.
She smile seemed a living thing, and her eyes, so ancient and yet peering out from such a young, stunning face, seemed to see through their physical bodies and touch the very heart of their souls.
She glided with the grace of a swan, and stopped just before the group, bowing her head humbly, then straightening to hold them all in her brilliant, unwavering regard.
Her voice was music itself. "On behalf of this coven, I welcome you to our home. I am Chiah, and I am honored to speak for the women here."
As Siian inclined her head in respect, the rest gave full bows, from the waist, as was the custom in the land of their birth.
Siian introduced herself, then stepped aside as her fellows gave their own introductions.
After the greetings were properly exchanged, Chiah closed the distance between herself and Siian, and, reaching out, tenderly swept an unruly lock of hair from Tamars smooth brow. The young girl moaned softly and turned her head in the direction of the gentle touch, the first reaction any of them had ever seen from the child.
Her hand still upon the young womans brow, Chiah slowly lifted her gaze until she was staring into the pale blue depths of Siians eyes. "Thank you."
Inclining her head, Siian accepted the thanks silently.
"My sisters and I owe you another life debt, Daughter of the Moon."
As Siians lips curled in a wry smile, the warriors behind her expressed their shock in varying ways. "That . . .really isnt necessary, Chiah. Were just glad to have been able to help."
"Nonetheless, it is our way, as you already know."
"And the debt has already been paid, many times. Yanit and her fellow Sheas have saved the lives of hundreds of my sisters, using their skills and knowledge to help us through a coughing sickness that would surely have devastated us if not for them. The slate is clean."
"But . . . ."
"Please. The slate is clean."
Chiah displayed her own wry smile as she finally nodded. "You dont very much like being a debtor, do you."
"Its not my way."
The Sheas smile broadened. "Spoken like a true negotiator." She looked at all the women, then back to Siian. "Then perhaps you will consent to share our hospitality for the evening. The forest beyond is dangerous to traverse by night in any event, and it would be a great honor to have you as our guests."
Siian looked back at her companions, all of whom nodded their acceptance.
Looking back at Chiah, she smiled. "Wed be honored."
Chiah beamed. "Excellent. Here, Ill take Tamar from you."
"Will she be alright?" Chin-Sun asked, concerned.
"She will be fine," the Shea assured them. "She is a special child who will grow to become a very special young woman. We will care for her here and help her to recover from the shock this day has brought her."
The women looked on in amazement as Tamar responded to Chiahs touch by burrowing in to the Sheas body and sighing in contentment.
As Chiah walked back toward the nearly hidden exit, Celes stepped forward. "If you will all follow me, please? The evening meal is about to be served."
"I cant! Please, I cant!"
With a half sob of frustration, Maia slumped back against the furs, sweat glistening as it dampened her brow.
Looking on with compassion, Qian Xi reached out and grasped one of Maias fisted hands, holding it tenderly in her own. "Perhaps it is better if we finish the lesson for today. Tomorrow will come soon enough on its own."
All traces of frustration gone, Maia sat up, eyes blazing with determination. "No. I dont want to wait till tomorrow. I need to do this now."
"Maiandria . . . ."
"Please, Qian Xi. Im asking you. Please. Teach me what I need to know."
"This pain is unnecessary, Maiandria, and is only slowing your recovery."
"I dont care. I can deal with the pain. I need to learn this."
Allowing herself a slight, almost inaudible sigh, Qian Xi released Maias hand and relaxed her posture, gaze turning inward. They had been at these lessons for the better part of two days, and while Maias progress nothing short of remarkable, it was still much too slow for the impatient young woman.
Some of the women Qian Xi had taught had taken most of a full season before learning even the most rudimentary shielding techniques. In a few short hours, Maia had far surpassed them, possessing an appetite that was, seemingly, insatiable, and an innate, if raw, talent that was just as impressive.
However, even the most intrepid learner had difficulty when trying to apply the knowledge theyd learned. As in most things, there was a vast well of difference between the learning and the doing.
And it was here that Maia had, for the first time, stumbled.
Imagery was the key to shielding. The ability to create and maintain a complex mental image with no more effort or thought than it took to breathe was a simple concept, but a daunting reality.
Though Maia was a gifted storyteller, she had precious little positive imagery in her personal life with which to form the basis of a protective shield which could be used to shelter her fragile soul from the emotions of others.
Shed tried. For hours upon hours, shed tried. But each attempt met with failure, which caused a mounting frustration, which, in turn, made positive images even harder to create and maintain.
Qian Xi looked up, about to once again give voice to her thoughts, when she was met with Maias intense, pleading gaze.
Sighing once again, she gave into the power of that gaze, and nodded, gracefully accepting defeat at the hands of her student. Hidden within, a wry grin formed, and her respect for the earnest young woman grew yet again.
"Alright. Close your eyes and feel yourself beginning to relax, almost as if you were preparing to fall asleep."
She looked on until she saw Maias face and posture soften.
"Good. Now I want you to concentrate only on the sound of my voice. Free your mind from everything else and hear only my voice."
"I hear you," Maia whispered, her voice a monotone.
"Good. Now I want you to imagine something. Not with your mind, but with your body. With your spirit. Dont force anything. Just allow yourself to feel. Alright?"
"I want you to imagine that your spirit is at peace. It exists in complete tranquility. You fear nothing, because there is nothing to fear. Nothing can harm you. You feel only peace. There exists only beauty, only safety, only comfort."
Qian Xi continued on in that way for several moments, keeping her voice a soft, melodic undertone, and watching Maiandria carefully for her reactions to the process.
Maias brow furrowed several times as other thoughts and feelings tried to intrude on the space she was intent on creating for herself, but she soon learned that if she relaxed into the intrusions rather than trying to fight them off, they would go away on her own.
She smiled inwardly at this small victory, and concentrated once again on the soothing, tranquil sound of her mentors voice.
Qian Xi looked on, filled with wonder over how easily her lessons were being mastered. Maiandria stood out, even among the many gifted women in the camp. With a little training, and a little time, she would become a force unto herself. Qian Xi felt a great sense of anticipation, as if she was on the very edge of an exciting and world-changing discovery.
The excitement was reflected in her deep, almond eyes, but never reached the slow, measured tones of her voice.
"You are at peace, my friend. Nothing can harm you. No one can hurt you. You are one with the earth, and it is one with you."
"Yes," Maia whispered, drawing the word out just slightly.
"Now, I want you to put an image to that feeling. Let it flow up from your deepest center. Let it come to you unbidden, and once you have it, put it first in your mind, and hold it close to your heart. Cherish it as you would a beloved thing and do not let it fade."
Completely relaxed, Maia waited, still as death, for an image, formed from the peace in her soul, to come into her mind and seek harbor there.
When it did, a smile curved her lips; a radiant smile that seemed to lighten the entire room.
Qian Xi responded to that smile, feeling her heart pulled toward this small, golden woman who seemed to embody a light far brighter than any other shed ever known.
"Open your eyes, Maiandria. Open your eyes and look at me."
Brilliant green eyes opened, and Qian Xi, a fully shielded, powerful empath, almost rocked back with the power blazing into her. She felt uplifted with a joy she couldnt put name to, and would have been carried away on its currents if the more logical part of her hadnt chosen that moment to step in and remind her of the task yet to fulfill.
Struggling mightily against the unknowing pull of the other woman, she wrested the joy from her mind, and, once she felt safe enough to do so, cautiously lowered her own mental shield, conjuring up and sending forth a small hint of the pain shed felt upon leaving her childhood home.
When Maia didnt react to the probe, she increased the level of her emotions until she was allowing more pain to escape her than she had done with anyone save Siian.
Maia didnt even blink.
Completely awe-struck, Qian Xi hastily re-erected her own shield and blinked, cutting off their non-verbal connection.
Stunned, Maia blinked as well, the joy in her expression slowly changing to one of confusion.
"Did . . .did I do something wrong?"
If it were within her to do so, Qian Xi would have jumped to her feet and shouted out loud. Instead, she gave the young woman a broad smile. "On the contrary, my friend. You did everything exactly right."
"But . . .I didnt feel anything."
Qian Xis smile only broadened.
Maias eyes widened. "You mean I did it?"
At Qian Xis nod, Maia, not bearing the same constraints against physical displays as her mentor, leapt to her feet and shouted to the heavens, pumping both clenched fists into the air. "Yes! I did it! I did it! I did it!"
The empath looked on, charmed at the child-like happiness of a woman so powerful that even she had no idea where it all would lead, and thanked the goddess that she would be going along on this journey of self-discovery.
Qian Xi was startled out of her quiet amusement by finding herself with her arms full of overjoyed young woman. Before she could react, however, Maia pulled away, and resumed her seat on the furs, her joy finally tempered down to a manageable level.
"Thank you," Maia said, with as much sincerity as was within her to give.
"The journey is yet long, Maiandria."
"I know. But . . .thank you. For taking it with me."
Qian Xi inclined her head gracefully. "It is my pleasure, my friend. And my honor."
Any further conversation was interrupted by a large yawn spontaneously erupting from Maia. She laughed in embarrassment, and shook her head against the sudden sleepy haze that seemed to descend over her without warning. "Wow."
Qian Xi laughed softly. "Your body is telling you that it has had enough journeying for one day. Sleep now, and well begin again in the morning."
Too tired to even mumble a token protest, Maia allowed Qian Xi to gently guide her down to the soft, comfortable furs at her back. She fell asleep without knowing it, a smile on her face and the image that had provided the breakthrough she needed still planted firmly at the forefront of her mind. And her dreaming thoughts held tight to that image as her dream self held tight to the woman behind the image.
And in her own sleep, Siian smiled unbidden, her arms closing gently over a woman miles away.
Feeling several sets of eyes boring into her, Cori turned just in time to accept a half-empty wineskin as it was thrust with some force against her chest.
"Here," Zoreth said, her voice slurring slightly, "have some more of this. Then youll be able to explain those moony-eyed stares youre giving her when she wakes up."
Cori scowled as she uncapped the wineskin. "Im not staring."
Knowing laughter sounded around the fire, and Cori took a long, defiant drink. "Im not," she said, handing the skin back.
"Whatever you say, Cori. Whatever you say."
Another round of chuckles ensued and, sighing, Cori turned her head to set her gaze once again on the sleeping form of Maiandria, lying a few strides away.
She watched as the flickering firelight cast gold tones across Maias burnished hair; looked on as her peaceful face twitched in response to a dream, then relaxed into a sweet smile.
Shes so beautiful.
The alcohol warmed her insides and loosened her thoughts from the normally iron grip she kept on them.
I just wish I . . . .
With a sigh, she hung her head and closed her eyes, cutting off the vision of the woman before her, and cutting off, too, the train of thought associated with that vision.
Maiandria had been released from the hospice just that morning, after two weeks of intensive training with Qian Xi and the Sheas. And though Cori was unable to speak to her friend for more than a few moments at mealtime or in between lessons or duties, she relished the time they did share together.
And she looked on in awe as the somewhat shy, somewhat unsure, somewhat tentative young woman she had met so short a time ago literally blossomed before her very eyes into a strong, confident woman of incredible power.
Even the Sheas remarked upon it, whispering in the shadowed corners of the hospice when they thought no one was around to hear them. Cori didnt always understand their words, since they tended to slip back into their ancient, ancestral language, but she could tell by the grudging light that shined from their eyes that they were, if nothing else, impressed.
Though young, Cori was wise enough to know that she was well within the throes of a full-blown crush. She was at a loss over what to do with these feelings, however. It wasnt as if they could ever be spoken aloud. Not to the woman to whom they were directed, since that woman had eyes only for Siian.
Cori sighed again, allowing a brief flare of jealousy to well up within her before crushing it mercilessly out.
Siian had returned more than a week prior, her satchels stuffed with enough healing herbs from the catacombs to last them several seasons, at least. The Sheas had accepted them with much joy, especially since they knew they were a gift from the one woman they all worshipped as being second only to Gaia herself.
Jealousy flared again. Cori, a student of the Sheas, would have given her right arm just for the privilege of looking upon Chiah from afar. Siian was a warrior, not a healer, not a Sheas apprentice, and yet she was granted a privilege Cori could only dream of being given.
Stop this. Siian doesnt deserve your bitterness. No one does.
She was startled from her thoughts as she suddenly realized she was staring into sleepy, vaguely confused green eyes. Blushing to the roots of her hair, she looked quickly away and down at her folded hands.
"Whats what?" Cori responded quickly, feeling inexplicably like a child caught in the sweets basket. Her blush deepened, but she summoned the courage to meet Maias eyes, inwardly relieved when she saw no condemnation there.
"That drumming. Wheres it coming from?"
It took a heartbeat for Cori to realize what her friend was talking about. She blinked, then straightened. "Oh! Its the Aama. Its the first full moon after Solstice, and theyre paying homage to their version of Gaia as the moon goddess."
She was very nearly bowled onto her back as Maia flipped the heavy fur from her body and jumped to her feet in one fluid movement. Her eyes were bright with excitement. "I have to go see this."
"But . . . ."
Cori found herself talking to thin air as Maia ran from the hut.
"Great," she sighed. "Just great."
The other woman laughed, and Cori scowled again. Then she rose slowly to her feet and grabbed the fur cloak lying on the ground. "Well, are you guys coming?"
"Are you insane?" Zoreth asked, waving the wineskin perilously close to the fire. "We just got warm after being outside all day. Were not going back out there until tomorrow morning."
Rolling her eyes, Cori threw the cloak over her shoulders and stepped from the hut without another word.
"Maia! Wait up!"
Slowing to a halt, Maia turned. "Cmon! Were gonna miss it!"
"No. We wont." Cori came beside her friend and laid a hand on her arm. "Maia, the Aama dont allow anyone to participate in their rituals. Its just not done."
"Who said anything about participating? Im just going to watch."
"You . . .cant really do that either, Maia. No ones allowed to watch."
"Whats the worst they can do? Tell us to leave? Cmon, Cori. Live a little."
"But . . . ."
Grinning, Maia turned and half trotted away.
Cori started after her friend, then stopped again as she saw Maias quick steps moderate and slip unconsciously into the seductive rhythm of the drums. Her hips swayed gently as she walked, and Cori found her mouth suddenly quite dry. With a soft, heartfelt groan, she let her head fall back until she was looking up at the large, pregnant moon. "Save me," she whispered fervently, before starting back off after her companion. "Maia!"
Unheeding, Maia allowed the rhythm of the drums to pull her forward. In the distance, beyond the trees which ringed the hot spring, she could see the glow of a large fire lightening the sky. She continued on, entranced, to the slow, hypnotic beat of the drums, her heart keeping perfect time with her steps.
Rounding the final ring of trees, she slowed to a halt and took in the scene before her.
The bonfire was huge, and sat in the exact center of an even larger drum circle which had been painstakingly cleared of every last flake of snow so that just the muddied, half frozen ground shone up from the glare of the fire.
Around that fire naked bodies writhed and danced in perfect rhythm to the throbbing beat that rose above the hissing crackle of the huge fire. The flames bright light caressed the warriors bodies in a lovers sensual touch, gilding each in molten gold.
After a long, breathless moment, she tore her eyes away from the dancers, and noticed others like herself observing from the shadows beyond the ring of the fires dancing light. Huns mostly, she guessed by the mode of their dress. But there were others too. Some Egyptians, some from Chin and the lands beyond it. Some even from her land, the only blondes in the bunch.
Every so often, to her great surprise, one of the dancers would step out of the circle, bearing a large gourd in her hands. Stepping up to one of the silent observers, she would offer the gourd with a bow of her masked head. If the watcher accepted the gourd, and drank from it, she would then be pulled gently into the circle, and guided in the steps of the dance until she was able to do it on her own.
Maia felt Coris presence by her side. "Mother of the Earth," the young apprentice whispered in awe. "Ive never seen anything like this before."
"Its beautiful," Maia agreed, turning her attention back to the dancers.
"I cant believe theyre inviting outsiders to participate, let alone watch. This is absolutely amazing."
"Im going to go in a little closer."
This time, Cori didnt protest. They advanced slowly, then stopped near a group of Hun warriors who gave them cursory glances before turning their attentions back to the dancers.
The drummers increased their tempo, and Cori felt a rush of warmth flow through her as Maia began to sway to the beat, their bodies brushing unintentionally together.
Before Cori could decide whether to faint from over-stimulation, or simply take her friend by the shoulders and kiss the daylights out of her, a dancer stepped up to them and presented Maia with the gourd.
"No . . .thank you, but I think Ill just watch for now."
The gourd was presented again, and Maia could see dark eyes twinkling behind the slits in the mask the young dancer wore. She looked to Cori, who shrugged, then back to the Aama.
"Why not?" she said at last, grasping the gourd and bringing it to her lips. "Seems to be my moon for new adventures."
The liquid was sweet, and cool, and tasted of fresh berries. She took a healthy swallow, then handed the gourd back to the dancer, who took it with another bow of her head.
The gourd was then handed off to a silent attendant, and Maia was pulled into the ring by gentle hands. She was then turned, and those same hands moved to her hips, holding her securely as the dancers body slid easily behind her own.
There was no discomfort, no tension in this intimate press of bodies, as Maia had feared that there might be. Instead, she felt an incredible sense of freedom from the dark memories of her father and his unwanted attentions.
When the Aama dancer began to sway to the drums, Maia relaxed into her, allowing their bodies to meld together. Closing her eyes, she let her body speak to her through the contact, and through the steady, pulsing beat of the drums.
As one, they moved forward in a simple pattern Maia had known all of her life, having seen and participated in many harvest dances over the years.
When the steps began to get a bit more complicated, she opened her eyes so that she could try and keep from tripping over her own feet.
Her vision restored, she swayed, and felt the arms at her hips tighten to ensure her balance was kept.
The world around her spun, then steadied as a wave of energy seemed to pour through her body. Colors faded, then brightened. Sounds dimmed, then became crisp and resonant. As she looked toward the fiercely pounding drums, she realized that she could actually see the music coming from them in a series of bright red pulsations which gradually faded the further they moved from the instruments themselves.
She then realized that she was still moving; dancing without thought even as her mind tried its best to process exactly what was happening to her, and why.
The world exploded into a kaleidoscope of colors, each more brilliant than the last. Women and objects glowed with an unearthly light that was mesmerizing and achingly beautiful.
A thrill of fear shot down her spine, only to be consumed easily by the euphoria of the potent hallucinogenic she had unknowingly consumed.
A soft wisp of breath played across her ear as a low voice sounded into it. "You have nothing to fear. You are in the hands of the goddess. Her beauty is all around you. Relax and be at peace."
And though she had no reason do to so, her past being what it was, Maiandria released the last of her doubts, and simply believed.
Siian had just settled into her furs and was sipping a cup of hot, mulled wine when the hide flap to her hut flew open and an astonished looking Asimi burst through. Qian Xi and Mali both turned toward the opening, identical expressions on their faces.
"You guys have got to come and see this. It seems our Aama friends arent just letting people watch their ceremony, theyre actually inviting them to participate in it!"
As a unit, the three woman rose to their feet, all thoughts of relaxation, conversation, and hot wine forgotten in the wake of this unprecedented revelation.
"Are you sure?" Mali asked, not quite sure if her leg was being pulled.
"Sure as Im standing here. Your warriors were the first in line. Must be that fuzzy juice theyre passing around like water."
"Oh no," Mali moaned, grabbing her furs. She had heard stories of the hallucinogens the Aama used as part of their spiritual ceremonies. Extremely potent, their use was strictly regulated and this was the first time shed ever heard of outsiders being allowed to partake.
The rest followed the Hun chief as she strode out into the cold. Within moments, they were upon the scene, and were staring, with varying degrees of fascination and concern, at the events taking place before them.
"I see it, but I dont believe it," Mali muttered, watching as her once fierce warriors were reduced to putty in the skilled hands of the Aama. Women who would rather fall on their own blade than be seen dancing were moving around the fire as if born to do that very thing. Many were naked, and more were shedding their thick furs with each passing moment.
Sweat-streaked and muddy, each had a wild light in her eye which showed no signs of dimming.
As Siian looked on, inwardly amused at Malis vexation, she caught sight of Maia deep within the embrace of an Aama warrior and moving with a sinuous, supple grace that set fire to the tall warriors blood.
Qian Xi looked up with a sense of foreboding in time to see Siians eyes narrow and her nostrils flare. Turning her head quickly, she followed her sisters gaze to where Maiandria was dancing.
The sensation of being watched penetrated Maias drug-filled haze, and she slowly lifted her head, turning it in the direction the sensation was coming from.
Gasping sharply, she straightened, then pulled away from the dancer, who let her easily go.
In the center of her vision stood Siian, glowing hotter and brighter than the sun. She seemed to Maia a goddess come to earth, standing tall and proud, as separate from the woman around her as she was one with them.
Hot red fire pulsed around her, and streaks of the brightest silver sparked from her body as metal sparked from a clashing sword.
Maia was drawn forward by an inexorable pull which seemed to come from the very depths of her soul. She walked forward smoothly, still striding to the rhythm of the drums, and totally unaware of the vision she was creating for the women watching her approach.
Without thought, urged forward by the same unrelenting pull, Siian stepped into the light of the fire, her eyes locked with searing green which seemed to fill up her entire world until she could, quite literally, see nothing else.
They came together, their bodies brushing against one another not with hard force but with gentle, sensual grace. Siians large hands found purchase on Maias hips as the smaller womans own hands slid up the warriors strong body to rest lightly on her shoulders.
The world around them forgotten, they simply stared for a timeless moment into one anothers eyes, seeing the infinite and shining promise of a new world laid out before them in wondrous glory.
Unbidden, one of Siians hands came up, long fingers stroking a gentle pattern along Maias jaw until they reached her chin, tilting it up even as her own head came down to claim the mouth she ached to taste.
Maiandria tasted of the sweetness of berries and the saltiness of her sweat, combined with an essence uniquely her own that was more of an aphrodisiac to Siian than any known to man or god. As the lips beneath her parted, the warrior moaned deep in her throat, and deepened the kiss. A rush of energy molten as liquid fire flowed through her veins and ignited a passion so powerful and so consuming that her heart threatened to explode in her chest.
This is why I was born.
That revelation was her last as the feeling of Maiandrias tongue gliding against her lips made any further attempt at thinking impossible.
Maia was on fire. The sweet, unrelenting flames of arousal consumed her utterly as she felt Siians lips part to invite her within. Acting only on blind instinct and an overwhelming need to meld her very soul into Siians, she threaded her fingers through the warriors thick hair and pressed their faces and bodies together so tightly that she could literally feel Siians heart beating into her chest.
Their tongues slid together, lightly touching, teasing, as their bodies swayed to the beat of their pounding hearts. Maias hands tightened in Siians hair as the warriors callused palms glided easily along the sweat coating Maiandrias back.
Eyes shut tight, they existed only in the moment, only for one another and the joy that was this, their first real kiss.
Freed from the confines of its latency, the primal, fundamental energy of their bond, present since before the time of their births and existing solely for this very moment, fully awakened and flowed freely through them as two halves met across the infinity of space and formed a perfect fusion as unbreakable as time.
Unending and unstoppable, the energy of their combined essence then reached out and ensnared each of the watching women in turn, pulling them effortlessly into a web as shining and bright and powerful as the full moon which shone down upon them all.
Only the need for breath ended the kiss, and the two women parted reluctantly, their foreheads pressed together as their chests heaved, taking in desperately needed air.
The camp around them was silent, caught within the thrall of the magic theyd created, but neither Siian nor Maiandria noticed.
After a moment, Maia pulled away slightly, and looked up at Siian, a childs wonder painted upon the planes of her face. "I feel you," she whispered. Her hand came up instinctively to her chest and she set her palm directly over her heart. "In here. I . . .I feel you. Youre here . . .with me."
Completely overwhelmed, Siian reached up and clasped Maias hand, threading their fingers together and placing them over the warriors own valiant heart. Tears welled in her eyes, and her smile was radiant. "Always."
Anothers presence was finally felt, and the two women turned as one, their hands still intertwined and laying over Siians breast. Yanit stood tall, her expression a curious mixture of trepidation, awe, and amusement. "We need to get you two to someplace a bit more private."
"What?" Maia asked, her voice slightly slurred, though not from the drugs, which had fled from her system with the first taste of Siians lips on hers. "Why?"
A hand swept out from beneath the long sleeve of the Sheas dun robe. "Look around you. Your Sisters are trapped within a web of your making."
"Our making?" Siian asked, head slightly tilted to the side, pale eyes flashing more than just curiosity.
The Shea looked slightly chagrined. "It is a very long story, and one better told in privacy."
Breaking eye contact with Yanit, Siian looked around the circle. Dancers and drummers alike stood frozen to the ground, unblinking. Mildly alarmed, the warrior turned her head and eyed her three companions. Like the Aama, Mali and Asimi resembled statues. Qian Xi, however, began to break free from whatever trance held her as the tall warrior looked on. Their eyes met for a brief second of silent communication before Siian returned her attention to Yanit. "Whats going on."
"As I said, its a long story. And the further you two are away from your Sisters, the better it will be for them."
"Are we hurting them in some way?" Maia asked, alarmed.
"No, no not at all. Its just . . . ." The Shea sighed. "You will have to trust me. My sisters will do what needs to be done here, if you will both please come with me."
Deep green eyes met pale blue for a long, silent moment. Maia nodded.
"This way, then."
To Be Continued - Part 7
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