Continued from Part Two
All disclaimers remain in effect.
On command the forty-four oarsmen lifted their great blades up out of the great river and, under the skillful hand of the helmsman, the barge coasted slowly into its mooring place. No sooner had the barged gently bumped up against the quay before Xena was nimbly over the side, her boots making a soft thump as she landed cat-like upon the old boards. The much more patient Neshi, the much less athletic Gabrielle and the much too humble Ankarad were all content to wait for the gangplank to be put down but soon enough they were standing on the quay at the side of the Warrior Princess.
Since taking their leave of Hatshepsut yesterday it had taken them all the rest of that day and the better part of this one to reach Coptos but now here they were, the vanguard of a project that, if successful, would be sure to swell many an Egyptian's heart with pride. Upon meeting Neshi at the barge, Xena had learned of the departure of Aloysius and Certes back to Cyprus. After traveling so far with them Xena was somewhat sorry that she and Gabrielle had not gotten the chance to say good-bye, especially to the good--hearted Certes. Her regret was tempered by the knowledge that the envoys could go home and tell their king the mission had been a success, thanks in no small part to her. And too she could rightfully chalk it up as another "problem" solved.
Gabrielle shaded her eyes with her hand and looked west, out onto the river that was Egypt's life blood. Behind her the voices of Xena and the two men faded to faint murmurs as she stared into shimmering waters. There was no doubt about it, Egypt was an enchanting place. However as she stood there squinting into the evening sun she found herself thinking of the green fields, the deep forests, the mountains and the swift rivers of home--of Greece. Yes, it had been a great adventure, especially at first. She had seen with her own eyes the legendary pyramids, had traveled down the mighty Nile and walked the streets of the fabled city of Thebes. Above everything else she had met the great Hatshepsut. It had all been wonderful and she was so glad they had come but now Gabrielle of Poteidaia found herself wanting to go home. She longed to feel those cool coastal breezes on her face once more and to hear the cooing of the dove in the trees as it welcomed the dawn. But that, of course, would have to wait. Xena would never leave until she had done what she promised to do and indeed Gabrielle would not have wanted her to. Nevertheless, the bard now looked forward to the time when she and her lover could leave this place and once more sink their heels into the black dirt of their homeland.
At the sound of Xena's voice Gabrielle was instantly whisked away from the fertile fields of Greece and back to the sun drenched plains of Upper Egypt. "Hmmm?"
"Are you coming?"
"Oh. Yeah." The bard blinked and then said, "Sorry."
"What were you thinking about?" asked Xena.
Xena knew better but let it go nevertheless. With a small wave of the hand she said, "Well come on. I want to take a look around before it gets dark."
Naturally with the distinguished Neshi along they could obtain any mode of transportation available but what Xena wanted was a horse. It had been a long time since she had held the reins in her hands and pressed her knees against those powerful flanks and she missed that. Neshi was more than happy to oblige her and so from a pen full of horses at a nearby livery Xena's shrewd eye picked out a big, highly spirited roan named Kusha. Gabrielle was not looking forward to another wild ride in one of those careening chariots but neither was she willing to settle for some bumpy old cart. This prompted her to tell Xena that she too wanted a horse. Accordingly, Xena chose for her a gentle little mare named Jossa who seemed to take an immediate liking to the bard.
As for Neshi he was perfectly happy to let Xena and her friend go their own way because, like Gabrielle, he really wanted no further part of those heaving chariots. He was not a soldier, indeed for the most part had lived in comfort and privilege and consequently was not accustomed to the strenuous lifestyle that was so much a part of his less noble countrymen's daily existence. As such he was much more content to avail himself of the mayor's hospitality and looked forward to a sumptuous meal, a warm bath--and perhaps the sweet attentions of some well bred young lady. As far as Ankarad was concerned it was simply a matter of going home. His mother had lived in Coptos ever since the death of his father some ten years before.
And so, while Neshi was being borne to the mayor's house on the sturdy shoulders of four large members of that official's own personal guard, and while Ankarad was winding his way through the narrow back streets of Coptos toward his mother's home, Xena and Gabrielle were guiding their horses eastward out of the city onto the low plain that extended beyond. Farther east, stretching out toward Quseir and the Red Sea, lay the vast Wadi Hammamat. As they ranged out from Coptos Xena was not long in coming to the realization that it would be here, on this plain, that she would build "her" ships. All that remained now was for her to decide just exactly where along that great road running to Quseir they would set up operations. At first Xena wanted to distance the camp from Coptos but the farther east she and Gabrielle went the more she became convinced that this was not a good idea. Moving farther away from the Nile would simply cause unnecessary hardship for everybody.
The two of them doubled back and at last, when the sun was no more than a fist's width above the horizon and with the tops of Coptos' tallest buildings in sight, Xena stopped and dismounted by way of that peculiar rocking motion Gabrielle knew so well. The warrioress had sensed her horse was favoring his left front leg and so she had stopped to take a look. Picking up the foot, she found a small stone embedded in the hoof. Its removal posed no problem and once out, Xena playfully tossed the pebble at Gabrielle.
At the moment, though, the bard's mind was elsewhere. "Xena?"
"What do you make of that Senenmut guy?"
"Why do you ask?"
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and said, "I don't think we've heard the last of him."
Xena shaded her eyes and looked back west toward Coptos. "Probably not," she agreed. "We've stepped on his toes, Gabrielle. Worse, we've twice made him look bad in front of his king. He won't forget that."
"He's an ignorant ass," allowed Gabrielle, shaking her head.
"No, he's not stupid," Xena corrected her. "Hatshepsut is not one to suffer fools lightly. From what I hear he's actually a pretty able man."
"Hmph!" the bard snorted, still not convinced. "All I know is if I were Hatshepsut I wouldn't appoint him to the post of dung sweeper." It still angered her to remember the scorn with which Senenmut had looked at Xena.
"Well obviously she thinks a lot more of him than you do," said Xena, impishly.
"Hatshepsut is an extremely capable woman," persisted Gabrielle. "I just don't see what she needs with that guy."
Pursing her lips, Xena replied, "He fills a need." She paused for a moment and then added, "In more ways than one."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
With a leer the warrioress put her foot in the stirrup and swung herself back up on her horse. "I'll give you one guess."
Reading the look on Xena's face, Gabrielle caught her meaning well enough. "Oh, Xena," said the bard, in disbelief. "Surely not." The idea of that arrogant, hawk--nosed stick of a man hammering away between the legs of the elegant Hatshepsut was one that seemed almost impossible. "Gods, Xena, are you sure?"
"Oh yeah," Xena knowingly grinned. "He's doing her all right. Believe me, I can tell."
"You mean, she likes that guy? Why?"
"In her own way I guess she does," said Xena. shrugging. "But I would venture to say that it's all on her own terms." A very useful vassal, she remembered Hatshepsut saying. "And like I said, he fills a need." This was something Xena knew all too well from her warlord days. Back then she had never been averse to summoning some muscular underling to her tent for a night of savage passion. Like Senenmut, they had filled a need.
But there were other reasons as well. Of course Xena knew all about how instrumental Senenmut had been in solidifying Hatshepsut's place on the throne. This she had learned in a roundabout way from Neshi one dark night on their trip down the Nile. Though the two men were ostensibly comradely members of Hatshepsut's court, it had not taken Xena long to discern that they were in fact bitter rivals. Apparently Hatshepsut and Senenmut went way back together, perhaps even as far back as to before her marriage to her brother. She had also learned that Senenmut's relationship with Hatshepsut's daughter was unusually close and indeed for a time he had been her royal tutor. Neshi had also darkly hinted that perhaps the "Chief Architect" was even the child's father.
"Well if you ask me that makes him even more dangerous," said Gabrielle.
"As long as he stays out of our hair we'll get along just fine," said Xena. Again she swept her eyes over the landscape. As good a place as any, she thought. "Here," she said. "We'll build them here."
Gently she then prodded her horse into a walk. "We'd better be getting back," she said. "I want to get settled in so we can get an early start tomorrow."
"Xena, you're really taken this thing to heart, haven't you?"
"The sooner we get started the sooner it gets done," replied Xena, matter-of-factly. She looked back over her shoulder and Gabrielle saw a smile play across her lips. "You see, I don't want Mother kicking your butt for keeping me away from home."
Although Gabrielle would never have said so this was nothing less than music to her ears.
By evening of the next day, Sennefer had succeeded in carrying out Xena's first order. Gabrielle, flanked by Xena and Ankarad, stood upon the quay and watched in awe as no less than fifteen barges, each bearing dozens of men, came slowly floating down the Nile toward them. Nearing the city, the barges did not queue up to disgorge their human cargo at the landing as she had expected. Instead all but one of them ran its bow into the muddy banks of the Nile and there the men spilled out over the sides like water over a dam.
The lone barge to ease alongside the quay contained the skilled tradesmen Sennefer had gathered up and also the officers of the two garrisons. The senior officer among them was Hudsped, commander of the garrison at Naqada. No sooner had the heel of his sandal hit the old boards of the quay before he was met by Xena and the newly arrived Neshi.
'I assume you have been told what is expected of you?" Neshi sternly asked.
"Yes, sir," replied Hudsped. "By order of the Most High, Hatshepsut, I am to place myself and my men under the command of the Greek, Xena."
"That is correct," said Neshi. "And I need not remind you that her authority will be unquestioned, do I?"
"No, sir," said Hudsped. "I am a soldier. I will obey my orders, sir."
"Very well," said Neshi, satisfied. Turning to Xena, he declared, "Hudsped and his men are all yours."
Xena stuck the tip of her tongue in her cheek and watched with amusement as Neshi promptly did an about face and marched back to his waiting chair. Hoisted once again up on his chair by the four burly guards, he said, "Carry on," and then grinned, pleased by the double meaning of his words.
As they watched him being borne away Hudsped sidled up next to his new boss. "What are your orders, mistress?"
"The first one is to call me Xena," the warrioress good--naturedly replied. "After that, I want you to have your men make camp on the other side of town. Set up a tent for me and my friend here as well." Like any good commander Xena wanted to be close to her men.
Hudsped had not failed to notice the enchanting fair-haired woman who as of yet had not spoken a word. Still staring at her lovely visage, he asked "May I offer you mine?"
"That's very kind of you," said Gabrielle, smiling.
"Offer accepted," said Xena. She tilted her head toward the barge and said, "I'm going to take a look Sennefer's men. We'll be along later."
"As you wish." Try as he might, however, Hudsped could no longer keep a smile from flickering across his face.
"What is it?" Xena asked.
"I can't believe it's really happening," he replied.
"That I am to be under the command of the great Warrior Princess."
Shaking her head in mock exasperation, Gabrielle sighed and said, "Gods, Xena. Not another one! Is there anyone who ever picked up a sword that doesn't you?"
"Every Egyptian soldier who served under the Thutmoses knows the name of Xena," said Hudsped. "I still remember how my old captain used to practically choke every time he said your name." He furrowed his brow in puzzlement. "May I ask you something?"
"What...what made you...?
"Give it up?" asked Xena, finishing it for him.
"Well that's a long story," said Xena. "Maybe Gabrielle here will tell it to you sometime."
Hudsped glanced at Ankarad but all he got in return was a very subtle shrug of the shoulders. He fancied himself a very shrewd judge of character but Xena was nothing but an enigma to him.
Turning abruptly to her interpreter, Xena asked. "Have you got those drawings?"
"Of course," he proudly answered. "Six copies, just like you asked." Very early that morning Xena had thrust into his hands the ship's plans she had sketched out the previous night. Since then he had spent the better part of the day very meticulously laying down every last detail on the finest papyrus he could find. It was important to him that he do a good job. Xena had reached down and plucked him from the oppressive travail of his daily existence and given him a chance to be part of something big, something exciting, and for that he was truly grateful.
"Okay then," said the warrioress, stepping on the gangplank, "let's all go get acquainted.
Soon enough every last man from those barges would know who
At dawn the next morning Xena pulled back the flap of her tent and strode straight out into the middle of almost a thousand men. Language barrier or no, Gabrielle was once again struck by almost effortless way she assumed immediate and total command of the situation. Xena was more than a born leader, it had been her destiny. Be it waging war, the building of ships or coaching silly games at the Summer Festival, people seemed almost mystically inclined to follow her. Even now, after all this time, the very name "Xena" seemed a synonym for "command."
With military precision the warrioress divided Hudsped's men into groups and, after carefully integrating Sennefer's tradesmen into these, assigned each their own particular tasks. Naturally the time spent waiting for the timber to arrive was not wasted. Tools were checked, axes and planes were sharpened, scaffolding was built, pegs of all sizes were cut, ropes were fashioned and tested--again and again, pitch was distilled, plans were reviewed.
In no uncertain terms Xena made it clear that she would not tolerate slipshod work. Once at sea the lives of their own countrymen would be at stake. Sennefer and Hudsped were told that the men would do a fair day's work--no more, no less. She would not allow them to be driven but she also made it crystal clear that any lack of effort by their men would necessarily reflect back on them. Of course, neither had to be reminded of how dimly Hatshepsut would view their failure.
Eleven days after the arrival of Xena and Gabrielle in Coptos, they, along with Sennefer, Hudsped and the ever present Ankarad, stood on the quay as the first load of planking arrived. All the rest of that day the planking continued to pour in on barge after barge. The next day the first massive framing timbers arrived. On inspection, Xena found that a great many of them were too big for her purposes but she knew a hundred men with axes and planes could remedy that soon enough. Last of all came the six great masts, tall and straight, at the exact length and diameter she had drawn out back in Thebes.
And so the work began in earnest.
Six crews, all armed with a copy of Ankarad's intricate plans, were set in motion under the watchful eye of the Warrior Princess. Very quickly she learned that, just as Hatshepsut had said, Sennefer was a man of foresight and great ability. In fact he had been the one to suggest that one ship be constructed on the banks of the Nile. In this way, he reasoned, they could not only practice assembling the components of the vessel, but also launch her on the river in order that her sailors might get a feel for her. Xena, thinking this a marvelous idea, changed her mind and ordered all the ships built there.
At the end of the first week of construction Neshi left for Thebes to report their progress. He never came back. Now that he had gotten the project successfully launched, his king decided she could put him to better use back at the capital. For this Neshi was grateful because in truth he had felt out of place there. He was a man of the court, he loved the urbane lifestyle, and whenever the course of his duties took him away from the great city of Thebes he always felt a little like a fish out of water. Unfortunately for him his talents were such that Hatshepsut saw fit to do this quite often.
Over the next two weeks the work went smoothly. Keel sections were laid, hull sections were framed, deck sections were planked. Most of the men thought it strange and even silly that they should be building ships so far from the sea but they all knew there were far worse things they could be doing. Besides, the work was not terribly hard and the food was decent so who were they to complain?
As for Gabrielle, Xena had more in mind for her than simply letting her shadow the warrioress as she oversaw the work. Although all Gabrielle knew about ships was that sailing in them usually made her sick, Xena wanted her to feel like she was a real part of what they were doing. Toward this, the warrioress every day gave her something to do, not too difficult to be sure, but something useful nonetheless. One day it might be fashioning rope, the next day might be distilling pitch, another might find her cutting sailcloth; anything to keep her busy.
True to her nature, Gabrielle was pleased that she could contribute so she threw herself into her chores with great zeal. With her fair hair and her green eyes the Egyptian workers at first regarded her as something of an oddity but that soon changed. As was nearly always the case her friendliness and warm smile won them over in very short order; so much so that, to Xena's great amusement, Gabrielle was very quickly "adopted" by the fifty score or so men at the camp. They could not do enough for her and, despite being unable to understand a word she said, sometimes even fought over who would work with her on a given day.
These minor squabbles aside, Hudsped's soldiers and Sennefer's tradesmen proved to be everything Xena had hoped for. So much so in fact that by the end of their first moon at Coptos the individual sections were very close to being completed. Accordingly, Xena had decided that to test their seaworthiness, she would assemble all the ships and launch them into the Nile. At this rate she figured everything would be finished in another fortnight.
For her it would be none too soon.
"The work is going extremely well, master. Extremely well."
For his lord this was not happy news by any stretch of the imagination. "Surely you are not suggesting there is a chance she might succeed?"
"Not merely a chance, lord," said his minion. "More like a certainty."
"Impossible!" his lord exploded.
The spy took a deep breath and with great tact said, "It seems the Greek, Xena, is a very ingenious, very clever woman."
His master however, adamantly refused to accept this. "It's that damn Sennefer!" he snarled. "That sniveling dog! I think groveling before women gets his manhood stiff."
This kind of talk did not fool the spy. Come on! he thought. If our Maatkare told you to eat a mountain of dung you'd kiss her ass and shovel it in with both hands!
Calmer now, his master said, "I will take care of that boot licking bastard in my own good time. Right now we must attend to more pressing matters."
He began to idly pluck at the huge ring his king recently given him by his king when suddenly a delicious thought came to him. The more he pondered on it the better he liked it. He thought it might very well be a way solve all his problems at once. "You know," he mused, "it would be most unfortunate if some...calamity were to befall the good subjects of Coptos."
Narrowing his eyelids to mere slits, the spy suspiciously asked "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I don't know," his master replied, snidely serene, "I was thinking along the lines of perhaps a fire."
"A fire? But that could--"
"Oh I don't mean a big one," said his master in smooth tones. "Yes. If a fire were to somehow break out say, among the docks and warehouses along the river, and if it were to somehow spread to the ships, I dare say it just might convince the Daughter of Amen that the gods have not looked favorably upon this misguided endeavor of hers after all."
"But a fire. Someone might get hurt."
The spy's master walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Sefron," he crooned, "have you forgotten the money I lent you to pay your debts? Have you forgotten that I have never pressed you for repayment, even though it is a considerable sum.?"
Sefron lowered his eyes and softly replied, "No, lord, I have not forgotten."
"Good," beamed his master, well satisfied. His lips curving into a condescending smile, he said, "Besides, there are more important things at stake here. If we let these Greeks come in and start ordering us around, why, the first thing you know it will be the Hyksos all over again. Now, we don't want that, do we?"
It was a silly argument and Sefron knew it. But what could he say? This man had kept him from going to prison for his debts. He owed him more than money. He owed him his freedom as well. So it was no surprise that he now said, "No, my lord."
"Of course not. So then, what are the lives of a few peasants when compared to the preservation of our sacred maat? Now, the king will be going down to Coptos soon to personally inspect their progress. I think if on arrival all she found was ashes and gutted hulks of ships it might force her to come to her senses."
Stunned by what he was hearing, Sefron made no reply. He knew the man was a conniving schemer but this...
It was one thing to spy on one's rivals, it was quite another to destroy state property and endanger lives. Nevertheless, Sefron knew he would do as his master wished, just as he always had. How could he possibly do otherwise and survive? He would die in prison.
The sound of someone clearing their throat snapped him out of his momentary pensiveness. After blinking hard, he saw his master standing there with an expectant look on his face. Though well born himself, Sefron was in essence no different from any of the lowliest slaves living out their tortured existence in the hellish limestone quarries. Like every other Egyptian to one extent or another, his sole purpose for being was to submit, to obey. And so he would. His voice halting, he said, "It...will be...as you say...lord."
"I knew you'd understand." How so very sweet it is to bend the will of others to my own! his master smugly thought. He was already one of the most powerful men in all of the two lands but it was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted...all of it. He wanted to bend an entire nation to his will. As he saw it this was not treason, not at all. The very idea that Egypt, the greatest power on earth, should be ruled by Hatshepsut, a mere woman no less, and Thutmose, a snot nosed boy, was absolutely appalling to him. In the midst of this self-righteous patriotism he conveniently forgot that it was this "mere woman" who was in fact responsible for his entire career. She had plucked him from the depths of poverty and obscurity and turned him into a great man. To him none of that mattered for he had come to believe that it was Destiny, not Hatshepsut, who was his great benefactress. Consequently, the sweet voices of loyalty and gratitude were no longer the ones he harkened to. What had his ear now were the husky whisperings of that alluring temptress, Ambition. "Select two or three men whom you can trust and return to Coptos," he said. "Do nothing until you hear from me. The timing in this must be absolutely precise. It is imperative that the king arrive as soon as possible afterward in order to achieve the full effect."
"How will I know when to act?" asked Sefron.
"I will send a messenger overland once I learn of the exact day of the king's departure," said his master.
Sefron nodded and left, leaving his master alone with his treacherous thoughts. It was his hope that the Daughter of Amen's confidence and resolve would be shaken by this. And since he had expressly warned her of its infeasibility, his influence with her would naturally grow even greater.
There were other thoughts as well. How wonderful it would be, he thought, if that arrogant bitch, Xena, were to somehow perish as a result of his handiwork. That would make the thing complete. Even if it did not happen, as long as that Greek slut was sent packing, that was all that mattered to him. And besides, it was a long way out of Egypt and the journey could be quite perilous. One never knew when some "accident" might happen.
Three days after this meeting Xena, Gabrielle, Hudsped, Sennefer and Ankarad stood on the quay looking up at the two ships moored there. So far their "sea" trials had met with only a few minor problems. Sennefer was ecstatic. Things were going better than he could have ever hoped for. Tomorrow two more ships would be launched and for the first time he felt he could see the end in sight.
"The king will be well pleased with you, Xena," he said.
"You guys are doing all the work," Xena modestly replied, as she watched a group of men busily greasing the launching runners. "All I've done is help you over the rough spots."
"Great ships on the Nile," marveled Hudsped, shaking his head. "Truly it is a wondrous sight."
"Kinda makes you want to be a sailor, huh?" teased Gabrielle.
"Well--I'm not that impressed," Hudsped good naturedly shot back.
Gabrielle chuckled at this and as always Xena was struck by the beauty of her smile.
Turning to Xena, Hudsped said, "Sennefer is right, the glory is all yours. I will be shocked if our Maatkare does not ask you to lead the expedition to Punt."
"Not a chance," Xena slowly said. "The only expedition I want to lead is our return trip to Greece."
A pity, thought Hudsped. He had been in the army fifteen years
and in all that time he had never served under any three men combined that had
the ability of this woman. So far Hatshepsut had not sought to use the army
to any great extent although to her credit she had maintained its readiness
at a very high level. They were therefore ready and with this remarkable woman
to lead them Hudsped could see the army doing great things. Yes, it was a pity
Sometime after sunset that evening a messenger arrived in Coptos and made his way straight to the inn where a man by the name of Sefron was staying. When the man answered the door to his room the messenger wordlessly handed him a note and immediately went on his way. Sefron stared after him for a moment before opening the note. There he read two words:
Deep in the night Xena was awakened in her tent by the unmistakable smell of smoke and the pungent odor of burning pitch. Immediately alert, the warrioress raised up and propped herself on one elbow. The flickering light and the shadows she saw dancing on the wall of their tent told her all she needed to know.
Instantly she bolted upright on her pallet. "Gabrielle!" she cried sharply, as she gave the bard a hard push in the buttocks, "Wake up!"
"Mmm?" Gabrielle rolled over and her back and blearily cracked open her eyes. "What is it?" It was then that she too became aware of that peculiar smell, a smell that could only mean one thing.
Xena verbalized it for her. "There's a fire down by the quay."
Quickly the little bard rolled over on her side and began to grope for her boots. On several previous occasions over the past moon she had opted to sleep in the nude because of the oppressive heat. Now she thanked her lucky stars that this night she had chosen not to do so.
By the time she located her boots Xena already had hers on and was bolting out of the tent. It was only a few urgent seconds more before Gabrielle had tugged on her boots and scrambled to her feet. Bursting forth from the tent, she ran straight into the arms of Sennefer. "Xena?!" she yelled.
Sennefer turned and pointed toward the river. There, silhouetted against the flames, Gabrielle saw the familiar figure of her lover racing straight for the great quay. For the span of a breath of two she paused and stood there gaping at the fearful spectacle unfolding before her. Flames, some of them shooting upwards as high as thirty paces into the air, were hungrily devouring the huge storehouse and were just now spreading to the adjacent storage buildings situated along the dock.
"By the gods!" she gasped.
Reaching the fire, she found Xena and Hudsped desperately trying to communicate through a series of hand signals. As she joined them she saw Hudsped turn his palms up and shrug, indicating he did not understand. Xena swore an oath through gritted teeth and, reaching down, clawed a handful of dirt out of the ground and shook it under his nose. The light of recognition came on in Hudsped's eyes and he nodded vigorously that he got her meaning.
It was at this fortuitous moment that Ankarad breathlessly arrived on the scene.
All around the little group people were careening about in all different directions but Xena's steely gaze never wavered from the blazing conflagration. "Tell him to forget the warehouse--it's gone! Tell him to have his men try to contain the fire to those side buildings. If it spreads into the town, nothing's going to stop it!"
Hudsped listened to the scribe's hasty translation, nodded, and was off. Xena in turn moved to follow him but felt herself caught by the arm.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Gabrielle.
"I want you and Ankarad to go into town and help get the people evacuated."
"But, Xena, what about the ships?"
"Forget the ships!" Xena snapped. "Our focus is on the town!"
"Damn it, Gabrielle, there's no time to argue, do it!" Xena jerked her arm away and, taking off in a run, soon faded from sight in the thick smoke.
"Come, Gabrielle," said Ankarad, "we must hurry."
"No," the bard said, ever so softly.
"But you heard what Xena--"
"No," she said again. It was not often that Gabrielle went against Xena's wishes, especially in times of trouble. While it was true that she had never been one to mindlessly obey the warrioress and indeed had on more than once defiantly stood up to her, she also knew the occasion was rare when the Warrior Princess had been wrong. Still, she had never been hesitant to say what she thought. It was just that, damn it, Xena was right so very often. However as Gabrielle stood there amidst the chaos and confusion she knew in her heart this was going to be one time when she would not, could not, do it Xena's way. As she saw it this time Xena was not right--at least not as it concerned the role she was to play.
Ankarad would have to get someone else because Gabrielle had already made up her mind that she was going to try to save those ships. Her beloved Xena had put too much of herself into those ships, she had worked too hard, to simply give them up without a fight. To her it would be heartbreaking to see her friend's brilliant efforts go for naught.
Needless to say she felt it was right that Xena concentrate all her energies on saving the town. That was the most important thing and if anyone could do it, the infinitely resourceful Warrior Princess could. But the job Xena had given her was one anybody could do; it stemmed from the knowledge that her bard would be safer there, away from the fire. As usual Xena's reasoning was perfect. The only thing was, Gabrielle had no intention of playing it safe here. She was going to do this--for Xena.
"Go on, Ankarad," she said. "There's something I have to do."
"The ships?" asked the scribe.
"Yeah," she quietly answered.
"Come with me," he pleaded.
"Then please be careful."
"I will," the bard assured him. "Now go!"
He watched her turn and break into a trot and as the brave young
woman disappeared into the thick shroud of smoke he said under his breath, "May
our blessed Amen keep you safe, little one," Like everyone else he had grown
extremely fond of the ebullient, fair haired Greek.
Reaching the river, Gabrielle was aghast to find the quay already engulfed in flames. Worse, she saw that one of the two ships moored there was already afire. The bow was covered in flames which were now rapidly spreading amidships and were almost to the mast. Gabrielle realized it was already too late for this one.
Only two days before Xena herself had knocked loose the great wedges holding the vessel in place and Gabrielle still remembered the look of pride on Sennefer's face as the ship slipped down the runners and into the Nile. Now it was soon to be nothing more than blackened bits of wood.
While disheartened by this Gabrielle nevertheless remained undaunted by her task. By now the quay was completely covered in flames. In just a few short minutes they would be licking against the second ship. For her there was only one thing to do. She had to get that ship off from the quay. It dawned on her that if she could somehow get the ship free the river currents might be strong enough to pull her away from her moorings. But how? The burning quay made it impossible to board the ship or even to slip the mooring lines. What could she do?
There was one chance--a slim one, but a chance nonetheless. Late last evening she had seen two men working on a scaffold on the other side of the ship applying pitch to the outside of the ship's hull. She remembered one of the men casting the excess length of rope off the scaffold, down into the water. If that rope was still there...
Circling around the quay, Gabrielle raced down the bank to the water's edge. Without even stopping to remover her boots she dove out into the water and began swimming around to the far side of the ship. Would the rope still be there? Gabrielle prayed that it was. Rounding the vessel's stern she saw the eerily beautiful image of the fire reflection upon the water. When she was about midship she pulled up and began to tread water, her eyes desperately searching for the rope.
There it was!
"Yes!" the bard triumphantly hissed, and she made for the rope.
Ten paces may not sound like much but it is a very long distance when one is climbing straight up an unsecured rope. For Gabrielle it was made even more difficult by her wet clothes and her water--logged boots. Fortunately the scaffolding was still in place about two thirds of the way up the side of the ship and once she was safely on it she was able to pause and rest for a moment before gathering herself for the final ascent.
A few moments later she was bellying over the gangway and falling onto the deck with a thud. Instantly the nimble bard was on her feet and racing across the deck to the other side of the ship. Leaning out over the gangway, she saw the fire was almost lapping against the side of the ship. While swimming out to the rope the thought had occurred to her that the fire might in fact burn the mooring lines in two thus freeing the ship in that way. However she had quickly decided that was a risk she was not willing to take. The seams of that ship were full of fresh pitch and if it were to catch fire it was likely that by the time all three of those big mooring lines were burned away the hull of the ship might be as well.
Casting her eyes about in the wildly fluctuating firelight, Gabrielle looked for something, anything, with which she could cut the lines. She saw nothing. Angrily she cursed her lack of foresight. "Damn it!" she growled, kicking in frustration at the gangway. Gabrielle, you idiot! she silently raged. You should have brought a knife with you. It was a mistake that she knew Xena would not have made.
Come on, Gabrielle, she urged herself. Calm down. They're still doing work up here. Look for something you can use.
Down the starboard side of the ship at a trot she went. There must be something, she thought. There must be, Sure enough, back near the quarterdeck she came across an adz left behind by one of the men. Snatching it up, Gabrielle bolted to the nearest mooring line and began hacking away. All too soon she discovered that cutting it was going to be harder than she expected. After all, this was not rope of ordinary thickness but mooring rope, as thick as Xena's arm. Gabrielle herself had helped fashion some of it. As she whaled away she wondered when was the last time somebody had bothered to sharpen this cursed adz of hers.
After several blows Gabrielle stopped and, quickly fingering the rope to check her progress, found she was about three quarters of the way through. Taking a deep breath, the bard returned to her assault on the rope. Finally the last strand gave way and the line fell into the water with a quiet plop!
However Gabrielle was not around to hear it because she was already on her way to the next line. The old adz was not exactly Xena's razor edged sword but it was doing the job. Soon enough the bard had the two remaining lines falling away. Now there was nothing left to do but hope the Nile did its part.
Leaning again over the gangway, Gabrielle's heart leapt with joy as she saw the stern began to pull away from the quay. With a chortle she pitched the adz to the deck but not before giving its handle a big kiss. By the time she mounted the quarterdeck the ship was at least a couple of paces from the quay and gently floating out into the Nile.
She had done it.
Holding her nose, Gabrielle jumped feet first off the stern off the ship and into the Nile's warm waters. On the way back to shore she thought of Xena and wondered how she was doing. There was, however, no time to dwell on this because her work was not yet done. Sitting upriver on launching runners were two more ships. These were not quite ready yet but Gabrielle knew they float because she had heard Xena say they would.
Back on shore, she raced to the first set of launching runners. This time she had no trouble finding the proper tools because right there beside on of the great wedges lay the big mallet that had been used to drive them in. Quickly she snatched it up and began to hammer away at the wedge. When Xena had launched the first ship two days before she had knocked out each of the wedges holding the ship in place with one massive blow. Unfortunately the scrappy bard was not capable of such feats of strength nor did she care. She was going to knock those wedges out if it meant breaking her arms. Swinging the big mallet with all her might, Gabrielle pounded away at the wedge. At first it seemed hopeless but she would not allow herself to give up.
It was then she heard a loud crash. Looking up, she saw what was left of the quay collapse into the river. By the light of the fire she watched for just a moment as the ship she had cut loose went floating down the Nile past Coptos and into the darkness. There was no time to celebrate, however, for the flames were still inexorably moving her way.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and returned to her labors, grunting loudly with each blow on the mallet. At last she felt the stubborn wedge give just a little. Encouraged by this she redoubled her efforts. The nerves in her arms were screaming in agony but she was past pain now. There was only her goal.
One more blow fell and suddenly the wedge popped out of the hole. This time there was no exultation forthcoming from the bard, only grim satisfaction. One down, three to go, she thought. Ignoring her fatigue and the blisters forming on her hands, Gabrielle immediately began to rain a series of blows down on the second wedge with all her might. I will do it! she chanted, over and over again in her mind. I will do it!
Like a demon she worked, hammering away at the obstinate block of wood. Her cutting the ship loose seemed like a dream now. All there had ever been in the entire universe, was her, this mallet, and that damn block of wood. So focused was she on swinging the mallet that when the wedge finally broke free she still hit the spot where the wedge had been one more time before realizing the stop was no longer there.
Soaked with perspiration, Gabrielle stood back and watched as the ship, free now, groaned and slowly, quietly slid down the greased runners and out into the river. Wearily she now turned and made off in the direction of the last assembled ship. Farther down lay the two remaining ships in differing stages of assembly but there was nothing the bard could do regarding them. It was her hope that the fire would burn itself out, or the wind would change direction or something.
Stumbling to the runners, Gabrielle doggedly began to slam away at another one of the wedges. Suddenly, from out of the smoke and shadows there emerged a dark figure.
Thinking it one of the soldiers, Gabrielle beckoned to him with a blistered hand. "Come on!" she yelled. "Help me!"
Turning back to her work, she did not see the figure reach into
his tunic and pull out a long dagger.
Three hundred paces away, Xena paused and wiped the back of her hand across her sweaty brow, black with soot. They had been lucky. Yes, they were going to lose the warehouse and the surrounding structures but it turned out these were built largely out of stone. Except for parts of their wooden rooftops falling away, igniting the quay, most of the fire was being contained by those sturdy walls. Just to make sure Xena had positioned hundreds of men around with shovels ready to pitch dirt on the fire if it tried to spread and with that Hudsped had formed not one, but two bucket brigades that were now all filled and ready. As it looked now they were not going to be needed. The fires were still burning high but there was no wind to speak of to carry its embers beyond the walls.
Now that she had time to think on it, Xena began to suspect a sinister hand at work here. She could have understood one fire in one building but all the buildings, apparently at once? Not a chance. As Gabrielle would say there was something smelly in Sparta. Those fires had been set.
It was then she heard a commotion down by the river. Walking down to the bank, she looked out in the direction where several members of the bucket brigades were staring. There, illuminated by the flames of the warehouse, floating ever so peacefully past them, was one of the ships.
Instantly a single word popped into Xena's head. Gabrielle!
Approaching the young woman straining under the mallet, Sefron recognized her as Xena's friend. She had seemed like a nice person and he did not want to kill her but now he had no choice. She was ruining his master's plan. The whole purpose of the fire had been to destroy those ships without arousing suspicion and here she was working feverishly to defeat that.
Once more Gabrielle smashed the mallet against the wedge. Looking up to see where the dark figure was, she saw him running toward her. In his hand she saw he was holding something that was glinting in the firelight. She recognized that it was a knife.
Gabrielle was hardly in a position to defend herself. Why this man had chosen to attack her she did not know. All that mattered was that she made sure he failed. Nearly exhausted from her heroics, she tightened her bleeding hands around the mallet and marshalled all her remaining strength for one last blow. When she judged her assailant was at the right distance she gritted her teeth and swung as hard as she could. The big mallet arced upward and as it struck the man on the side of the head Gabrielle heard a sickening crunch. Later, Gabrielle would not be able to remember whether she had heard the man cry out or even if he had made any sound at all. All she would remember was that deadly sound of heavy wood crushing bone.
The momentum of her swing was such that it sent her sprawliong right over the top of her would be attacker who was now crumpling to the ground. Both of them went down in a heap with the bard landing hard on her left shoulder. It hurt like Tartarus for a moment but again, it was as though she were now somehow inured to pain. For a few eon-like moments she lay there gasping for breath, her face practically buried in the sandy bank. Finally, after much effort, she was able to struggle up on her knees.
The ship! she thought. Gotta launch the ship! With all her strength she then staggered to her feet. Wearily she looked down at this man who had just tried to kill her. She did not know who he was and at the moment she did not care. All that mattered to her was to somehow, some way, launch Xena's ship.
"Gabrielle!" It was faint at first, like the soft coo of a distant dove.
"Gabrielle!" Again she heard it, louder this time.
"Gabrielle!" The bard made an attempt to turn her neck to look but it was so stiff she found herself forced to slowly turn her whole body around. Up by where the quay used to be she saw, running toward her with that familiar lope, Xena.
"Xena!" she breathlessly whispered.
Just then the little bard's knees began to buckle but fortunately the warrioress was able to catch her in those strong arms in the nick of time. Looking down at the dead man with the crushed skull, she anxiously asked "Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"The ship," Gabrielle mumbled. "The ship."
"Shhh," Xena cooed. "It's all right. The ships are all right."
"I...." Gabrielle's head sagged down onto Xena's shoulder and her body went limp in Xena's arms. The bard had fainted.
Xena swept the brave young woman up into her arms and began to carry her back to their tent. It was a slow trip and every time Gabrielle groaned or stirred, Xena softly, lovingly assured her, "It's all right, Gabrielle. It's all right."
And as long as her true love, this precious life whose ka was so irrevocably interwined with her own was there to share all the joys and sorrows of a lifetime together with her how could it possibly be otherwise?
Three weeks later it was done. All the remaining five ships and been completed, assembled, tested, disassembled, and were now loaded on the great wagons that would take them east to Quseir. Sennefer and his men would be going along to re-assemble them with the help of that part of Hudsped's garrison which had been selected to go along. The men who were to sail them were already on their way there and just as Hudsped had predicted Hatshepsut had indeed asked Xena to lead the expedition. True to her word, Xena had declined and so it fell once more to Neshi, much to his chagrin, to carry out his king's wishes.
On the day Xena and Gabrielle were set to depart for home they assembled one last time one the shores of the Nile for a meeting with Hatshepsut.
"Until the day I die I the two of you will hold a special place in my heart," said the pharaoh. Looking up at Xena she said, "You not only built my ships..." She paused and with a mischievous grin asked, "I can say my now, can't I?"
With a big smile Xena said, "Yes."
"As I was saying, you not only built my ships, but saved my city as well."
"The people saved their own town," said Xena.
"Modest to the last," teased Hatshepsut. Shifting over in front of the bard, she said, "And you! You saved my ships."
"Well I couldn't let Xena get all the glory," cracked the bard.
"Uhh huhh," retorted Xena. "What you almost got, was killed." Since that night she had tried to find out who had been behind the fires without any luck. She rather doubted the man who attacked Gabrielle had acted alone. She had her suspicions of course, with Senenmut holding down at least the first five places on her list. But any chance of pinning it on him had died with the man named Sefron. Naturally she had spoken her mind to Hatshepsut about it but had found the pharaoh strangely uninterested. It seemed as if she operated by a different set of rules where Senenmut was concerned.
"At any rate," said Hatshepsut, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Umm, well there is one thing I'd like to ask," said Gabrielle.
"Name it and it is yours," said Hatshepsut.
"Ankarad," said Gabrielle. "Xena says he dreams of being a sailor. If you could, you know..."
"I will personally appoint him as one of the official chroniclers for the trip to Punt," Hatshepsut assured her.
"Thanks," said the bard.
It was here the captain of her bodyguard eased up next to the three women. "Great Pharaoh, their barge is ready."
"Very well." After he had departed Hatshepsut said, "And so we now say good-bye then."
"Not good-bye," said Xena. "Until later."
"Yes," said Hatshepsut, approvingly. "I do like that better."
"Good luck on your expedition," said Gabrielle. "May your ships always sail to a fair wind."
"And may your heart always glow with that incandescent light of love that now fills it," said Hatshepsut. One last time she cast her dark eyes upon the Warrior Princess and just for a moment allowed herself to think of what might have been."Until later, friends."
With that she turned away from them and walked to her own barge. Not once, Xena noticed, did she look back.
"You know, Xena, come to think of it..."
Not taking her eyes off the king, Xena answered, "Yeah?"
Furrowing her brow, the bard said, "Maybe you should have taken that job. I'm kind of getting to like boats."
With a faint smile Xena turned to her and said, "Let's go home, Gabrielle."
Three weeks later their longboat gently kissed up against the wind swept shores of the Arcadian Peninsula. With a cry of delight Gabrielle hopped out of the boat and gleefully ran through the surf into shore. There she threw down her bag and, dropping to her knees, scooped up a big handful of the dark sand. Holding it to her cheek, she lovingly crooned, "Mmm, I've missed you."
Moving in beside her, Xena looked up the shoreline in the direction of Haliesis. There her beloved Argo was patiently waiting for her mistress. Standing there beside her lover, she closed her eyes and smiled as she felt the cool breeze dance through her raven hair. No more boats, no more barges, no more burning hot sand, no more muddy Nile, and best of all no more barley bread.
They were home at last.
There is some evidence to suggest that Senenmut, "Greatest of the Great," fell from favor with his king sometime around the sixteenth year of her reign. Much speculation surrounds this but the dominant theory seems to be he finally went too far and arrogantly took for himself privileges that were reserved for the king alone. Whatever the case, his body has ever been found.
Neither has Hatshepsut's. The circumstances surrounding her death are unknown and again are the subject of much debate. There are those who believe her vengeful nephew was responsible, others are of the opinion she died of natural causes. What is certain is that some time after her death an effort was made to erase the memory of her as king. Indeed her name was not to be found on any of the surviving king lists. Most of these attempts occurred during Thutmose's long reign so the natural conclusion one might draw is the new king, filled with hatred for the powerful woman who had for so long kept him from his rightful place, ascended to the throne determined to obliterate her name from Egyptian history for all time. However there is now evidence that this campaign was not begun until Thutmose III had reigned for twenty years or more. As for myself I am of the opinion the Thutmose's motive for this was not spite, but political expedience. I think he felt it would simply not do for succeeding generations to know that Egypt had once been successfully ruled by a female pharaoh. To him this might have seemed a direct challenge to the Egyptian concept of maat--very, very loosely defined as "the proper way of doing things." To the ancient Egyptians nothing mattered more than continuity and it is not hard to see how Hatshepsut's ascension to power could have upset many. We have found unflattering doodlings made by laborers who worked on Hatshepsut's temples which seem to suggest that even these common people sensed this.
Fortunately for us Thutmose's attempts were half-hearted at best and it is significant to note that only references to Hatshepsut as king were defaced. Those of her as the queen consort were left untouched. If Thutmose III had really despised her why did he allow these images to remain? Whatever the case, after thirty-five centuries, the proud name of Hatshepsut is once again alive and this new awareness seems especially appropriate in this day and age when women are continually soaring to ever loftier heights.
An inscription found in her unused tomb reads:
|"The King's Daughter, God's Wife, King's Great Wife, Lady of the
Two Lands, Hatshepsut, says, 'Oh my mother, Nut, stretch thyself
over me, that thou mayest place me among the imperishable stars
which are in thee, and that I may not die.'"
She never will.