For my wonderful friend Marcella R. Wiggins, may all your dreams come true..
The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and Janice Covington are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are mine except the actual historical figures Hatshepsut, Neshi, Senenmut, Sennefer and Thutmose III. This story contains descriptions of violence and describes the two main characters as more than just "friends." While certain events in this story are based upon historical fact it should be remembered that this is, after all, a work of fiction.
Author's note: Ancient Egypt was considered to be two lands united under one ruler. While some might find it confusing it should be remembered that the northern, delta portion was known as Lower Egypt and the southern, desert land was called Upper Egypt. Likewise the subject of Egyptian names can be a bewildering one. For example Hatshepsut is also referred to as Hatchepsut, Hatasu, Hashepsowe, and Hatshepsuit, the three Thutmoses mentioned here as Tuthmosis or Dhutmose, the Gods Amen and Re as Amun (or Aman) and Ra. I mention this not to add further confusion but simply to establish that there are many variations to these names, any of which the reader may be more familiar with than the ones I have chosen to use.
A Brief History
By Janice Covington
Late in the period of ancient Egypt's 14th Dynasty a war-like people known as the Hyksos swept down out of what is now Palestine. With their technologically advanced weapons such as the chariot and the compound bow they soon conquered all of Lower Egypt. Although the country had previously known periods of both disunity and political unrest in the millennium plus since the legendary Narmer had first united the "Red Land" of Upper Egypt with the "Black Land" of Lower Egypt, it had until now been spared the humiliation of foreign invasion. For over a century the Hyksos ruled over Northern (Lower) Egypt from their delta capital of Avaris. But at last the uneasy co-existence between the Hyksos-dominated Lower Kingdom and the Theban ruled Upper Kingdom erupted into the inevitable all out war.
After his father and King of Lower Egypt, Sekenenre II, and his older brother, Kamose, were killed in battle against the Hyksos, Ahmose was finally able to sack the enemy capital of Avaris. He not only expelled the Hyksos from all Egypt but followed them well into Palestine and crushed their last stronghold at Sharuhen. Not long after this Ahmose, now ruler of an Egypt once again united, turned his attention southward and regained control of the rebellious Nubia.
Ahmose died after about a twenty-five year reign leaving a united, secure nation to this son, Amenhotep I. Even though his father and his brother are regarded as 17th Dynasty monarchs, for his remarkable achievements Ahmose is now regarded as the founder of the illustrious 18th Dynasty. Ironically Amenhotep died without leaving a male heir and so his personally designated successor, a middle-aged general named Thutmose, ascended to the throne. Although he never claimed to be of royal blood Thutmose seemed to have been met with general approval and thus began one of the most remarkable eras in Egyptian history.
The new king wasted no time advancing Egypt's interests. In the second year of his reign he advanced southward down the Nile as far as the Third Cataract giving him control of the precious river for over one thousand miles. Later he would move eastward and cross the Euphrates River thus stretching Egypt's influence even farther.
It is unclear when the king known to us as Thutmose I took for a wife a lady by the name of Ahmose (A popular female name as well.) who quite possibly was his sister but it is known that she bore him two daughters, Hatshepsut, the eldest, and Akhbetneferu, who died not long after birth. By another, probably earlier, wife by the name of Mutnofret it is generally believed that Thutmose I fathered three, possibly four sons. None of the elder three survived past their late teens leaving the youngest, Thutmose II, the only heir to the throne. Upon the death of the great pharaoh, Thutmose II, as was often done to solidify claims to the throne, married his half-sister Hatshepsut. She thus became "King's Daughter, King's Sister, and King's Great Wife."
Thutmose II proved to be a frail, sickly young man who died in his early twenties after reigning as little as three years. He did, however, live long enough to father a daughter by his Queen Consort, "God's Great Wife" Hatshepsut and a son, Thutmose III by the Lady Isis, a secondary member of the royal harem. Because the natural heir was only a child when his father died his aunt Hatshepsut as daughter, sister, and wife to a king quite naturally assumed the role of Queen Regent--governing until the young king came of age.
This was nothing new and indeed may have been done as late as at the beginning of Amenhotep's reign. For at least the first two years of the co-regency Hatshepsut dutifully followed the norm and quietly executed her office. But within the next five years an unprecedented political change was to take place; the end result of which was that Hatshepsut was no longer the mere Queen Regent but in fact the fully acknowledged king of Egypt.
As previously stated women had held the reins of power in Egypt before but never had any female crossed that invisible line and proclaimed herself pharaoh. Obviously she had liked the taste of absolute power. While technically the young Thutmose III was the rightful heir to the throne and was in fact and in name a king as well, for the next fifteen years there was no doubt as to who the far, far more dominant ruler was.
Although it is beyond doubt question Hatshepsut repressed Thutmose III's rise to the throne the argument can be made that Hatshepsut was not the evil usurper she would appear to be. As the recognized daughter of the all powerful Amen-Re her word was absolute law. She surely had the support of the ranking nobility and therefore with the lift of an eyebrow could have easily had the young king eliminated. Instead she saw to it he was educated, that he received some measure of recognition, and even allowed him access to the Egyptian Army--hardly the actions of a spiteful, repressive monarch. Indeed after her death Thutmose III would employ the military training he had gained to raise Egypt's power to such heights that he is now referred to as "The Napoleon of Egypt."
Whatever one chooses to believe there is no escaping the fact she was a very able ruler. While not nearly as active militarily as her father and her eventual successor, she nevertheless maintained a splendid army that was primed and ready for use by the more aggressive Thutmose III. Under her rule Egypt acquired many new trading partners. Even more spectacular was level of artistic achievement reached during this period. Nowhere is this more evident than at her mortuary temple, Djeser-Djeseru. With its long ramp and its massive columns it is one of the most beautiful structures of the ancient world.
Even so I would be sorely remiss if I did not add here that not everyone sees Hatshepsut in such a positive light. While this archaeologist disagrees with their position she nevertheless fully recognizes that Hatshepsut is indeed a controversial figure and ultimately it is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions regarding her motives. However this is how I would prefer to think she really was; that is, as a woman supremely confident in her ability to rule not only effectively, but brilliantly in a male dominated world and one who had the best interests of her nation at heart at all times. One thing we can all agree on is her twenty-two years of rule were marked by peace and unprecedented prosperity. It is safe to say that had she been born a man she would have been one of the most celebrated of all the Egyptian pharaohs....
"My command stands firm like the mountains, and the sun's disk shines and
spreads rays over the glory of my august person and my falcon rises high above the kingly
banner unto all eternity."--Hatshepsut
Upon hearing the lookout's cry, Gabrielle rushed forward and peered over the bow of the ship. Shading her eyes with her hand, she eagerly scanned the horizon. She saw nothing but water. Disappointed, she muttered, "I don't see anything."
"Over there," a husky voice said from behind.
Gabrielle felt a strong hand on her left shoulder and over her right one saw an arm extend out. She followed the line of sight and, sure enough, caught sight of a faint, dark outline rising out of the sea. Without turning around she said, "I'll bet you saw it before the lookout did, didn't you?"
"Yep," Xena replied.
"How do you do that?" the bard asked.
Gabrielle did not see her warrior's shrug but she sensed it nevertheless "I knew where to look, that's all," said Xena, modestly.
"Just think," said Gabrielle, shaking her head in wonder at the thought of it, "Egypt, Land of Mystery."
"Titillating," Xena rather blandly answered.
"Aww come on, Xena," Gabrielle retorted, only now turning to gaze into those oh so familiar icy blue eyes. "You're not going to be a grump the whole time we're here, are you?"
"I'm not being a grump," replied Xena, nudging her bard with a forearm.
Of course Gabrielle was not intimidated in the least by this. "Are too," she playfully shot back.
"What do you want me to do," asked Xena, with a hint of exasperation, "do handsprings? If not for that storm forcing us to land on Cyprus we could have been in Amphipolis by now."
"Gods, Xena," said Gabrielle, rolling her eyes, "we can visit your mother anytime. I would think you would be honored the King of Cyprus respects you so much that he wanted you to take charge of his mission to Egypt."
"Yeah yeah," Xena dryly muttered.
"Don't you want to meet Queen Hatshepsut?" the bard asked. "Gods! I've heard so much about her."
"King," Xena quietly reminded her. "It's King Hatshepsut. Remember that."
"Whoever heard of a female king?" replied Gabrielle, incredulously.
"Well, that's what she is."
"I don't see what the big deal is," said Gabrielle, still not convinced. "What's wrong with being a queen anyway?"
"For one thing the Egyptians don't really have a word for queen as such," Xena patiently explained. "What we would consider to be the queen they refer to as 'King's Great Wife.' A lesser wife is known simply as the 'King's Wife.'"
"Sounds like they don't think much of women," observed Gabrielle.
"On the contrary," said Xena. "In Egypt women's rights extend into all facets of society. They can manage and dispose of private property. Women can manage all their property independently and according to their own free will. They can conclude any kind of legal settlement, appear as a contracting partner in a marriage contract or a divorce contract; they can execute testaments, free slaves or make adoptions. Women in Egypt are entitled to sue at law and unlike in most parts of Greece they can do all this without the need of a male representative."
"Uhh huhh. You've got to remember, Gabrielle, Hatshepsut is the pharaoh, by definition child of the gods, absolute ruler, and sole possessor of the Two Lands and everything in them. Therefore to the Egyptian way of thinking she cannot simply be the 'King's Great Wife.' She is in name and in fact, king."
"Imagine," said Gabrielle, now properly impressed, "sole possessor of the richest country on earth."
"She's the most powerful woman on the face of the earth," said Xena, matter-of-factly.
What her friend had not said but was nevertheless fully understood by Gabrielle that with only a slight alteration of history Egypt would not be the great nation it was today but merely just another insignificant vassal state writhing in agony under the boot heel of Xena's mighty empire. To the cold eyes of the fierce "Destroyer of Nations" Hatshepsut would have been no more than a well born slave. "Does if ever bother you?" she finally asked.
"Does what bother me?" Xena replied, knowing full well what her little friend was referring to.
"That you could have been not just the most powerful woman in the world but the most powerful mortal?"
Xena shot her a very wry grin and said, "Naah. It doesn't bother me. That part of me is gone for good. And besides, think of what I would have missed--being nagged into doing things I don't want to do and going places I don't want to go by pushy little blondes who would get seasick in a bath tub. I mean, what more could any conqueror possibly want?"
"Yeah right," the bard snorted. "As if I could make you do anything. And who are you calling little?" However there was no small measure of truth in Xena's crack. More often than not she was perfectly willing to let Gabrielle have her way.
"Well anyway," said Xena, smiling warmly at her, "don't mess up and refer to her as queen."
"I hardly think she'll be speaking to me," chuckled Gabrielle. Turning back to the bow, she asked "So, when was the last time you were here?" That Xena had been there was a given to her. After all, where had the Warrior Princess not been? This time, however, she was in for a surprise.
"Except for raiding some coastal towns back in my sailing days I never really have been," answered Xena. "On land I mostly concentrated my armies eastward."
"Then how do you know so much about Egypt?"
Xena's eyes softened and she said simply, "M'lila."
Gabrielle's only response was a somewhat stiff nod as Xena's thoughts were whisked back to the Egyptian slave girl that, then as now, meant so much to her.
At the sound of the first mate's graveled voice the warrioress' sweet memory evaporated. "Xena, the captain wants to talk to ya."
"Be there in a minute," she told him. Turning back to her companion, she said, "Gabrielle, go below and get my sword while I talk to the captain. Barring any change in the wind we'll reach the mouth of the river inside a turn of the glass."
"Right," said Gabrielle, with a nod. She turned to leave but suddenly stopped in her tracks. "Mmm, Xena? I've been thinking."
"I know we're not supposed to be dawdling around but aah, do you think we might be able to stop at Giza?"
Xena shot her an amused little smile. "Now what on earth could possibly be there to interest you?"
"Aww, you know," the bard replied, gently poking her in the ribs.
"Gods, Gabrielle," Xena said, grinning slyly, "there's nothing there but those big piles of rocks."
"Hmph," huffed the bard, "I would hardly call the Great Pyramids mere piles of rocks.'"
"Now you know how heights make you dizzy," Xena teased.
"Well I wasn't planning on climbing one," retorted Gabrielle. "I just want to see them. So how about it? Can we?"
"Welllll...I don't know..." Of course Xena already knew that anxious ambassadors or no, they would indeed be making a stop in Giza.
"Come on, just for a little while." Gabrielle gave Xena her best pouty look. "Pleeease?" She then very casually, very suggestively, trailed a finger down Xena's arm. "I promise to be very grateful."
"Oh you will be," Xena assured her, smiling wickedly. "I'll see to that. Now go on, get my sword like I asked."
"M'kay. No problem." With a satisfied smile the little bard departed, leaving
her warrior to stand there watching her with unabashed admiration as she strolled away.
As usual Xena's reckoning was right dead on. In less than a turn of the hour glass their ship, the Sea Sprite--now under oar--was gliding past the coast line and into one of the many fingers of the great Nile Delta. Their destination was Naucratis. Here the two women would take leave of the Sea Sprite and hire a boat for the two week journey to Thebes, capital of Egypt. Accompanying them would be two ministers that King Docticles had sent along to handle the actual negotiations. It was Docticles' hope that by sending Xena, a woman whose name was more widely known than even the great Hatshepsut, he would be able to impress the all powerful Egyptian pharaoh enough that she might listen to his proposals more favorably. Plainly stated, Xena's job was to put Cyprus' foot in the door.
For the last half hour Gabrielle had been on deck trying to stay out of the way as she observed with great interest the captain and his skilled crew deftly maneuvering the Sea Sprite into anchorage. As the anchor splashed into the water she was joined by Xena. She had just returned from down in the hold where she had been helping two burly sailors re-position some barrels of olive oil that had shifted during the rough seas of the previous night. Though hired by representatives of King Docticles to ferry this diplomatic mission to Egypt, this load of olive oil was Captain Parsinion's real reason for coming to Egypt. The one hundred drachmas he was to receive at Naucratis for agreeing to bring along Xena, her beautiful companion, and the two dour old men was just a nice bonus--one that he would generously share with his good crew.
"Well now," said Xena, as she mischievously wiped her dirty hands off on Gabrielle's shirt, "there's nothin' like a good workout to stimulate the old appetite."
"Oh yeah?" Gabrielle replied, indignantly eyeing the stain left by her warrior's hands, "Wait until you hear what we're having."
"Don't tell me," said Xena.
"Yep, the second mate says it's salted fish and dried figs tonight."
Her voice rising in pitch, Xena asked "Not again? That's four days in a row!"
Gabrielle's answer was accompanied by a little sigh of resignation. "'Fraid so."
"Damn," Xena muttered. Her striking features plainly conveyed her disgust. It was at this moment the two of them heard a cock crow emanate from the little clump of huts some five hundred paces up river. Instantly their eyes met. "Gabrieeeelle," Xena purred, "are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Will that be original or extra crispy?" grinned the bard, impishly.
"Nothing. It was just a joke,"
"See what you can dig up to trade and I'll speak to the captain," said Xena, quickly.
Gabrielle giggled and gleefully bolted down the steps that led below deck. After a quick word with the ship's master Xena, with the enthusiastic assistance of her two companions from the hold, lowered the ship's row boat into the water. Before long Gabrielle appeared out of the darkness below bearing an bag full of assorted items.
"Okay, let's see what you've got," said Xena, inspecting her little friend's haul. Inside the bag she found, among other things, a bag of nails, a ball of wax, three small copper pots, some fish hooks and a very nice whetstone. "This ought to do it," she pronounced, looking up at Gabrielle. She cast a quick glance at the captain. "Okay with you?"
"For a chicken supper? You kiddin'? Go." came his eager reply.
Xena nodded and as she and Gabrielle turned to leave the captain yelled, "Jarod, you go with 'em!"
"Right, captain," replied one of Xena's big helpers.
Xena did not object. After all, he could carry the bag. So over the side they went--first Xena, then Jarod, Gabrielle last of all. Jarod took up the oars and within a few short minutes his powerful strokes had carried them into shore. As the boat gently bumped up against the river bank Gabrielle stood up and, taking a little hop, exited the boat. The sailor and Xena followed her out and together the two of them pulled the boat up out of the water. Once the boat was safely on land Xena lifted the bag up out of it and with a very wry grin said to Jarod, "You're a strong, healthy boy. Carry this."
"Aye, aye, Cap'n," Jarod good naturedly replied.
The three of them started up the gentle slope of the river bank, at the top of which sat the village. However almost at once Xena's finely tuned instincts began to warn her that something was not right. As it always was in these moments her first thoughts were of Gabrielle.
They reached the top of the bank and in her enthusiasm Gabrielle found herself walking slightly ahead of the others. Suddenly, the warrioress shot out her right hand and gripped the bard's shoulder. "Hold up, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle stopped and turned to face her friend. "What is it?" she asked. "Trouble?" Naturally she knew better than anyone just how acute Xena's senses were.
Without taking her steely gaze off the clump of huts, Xena murmured, "Could be."
Putting the chief reason for Xena's concern into words, Jarod stroked his unshaven cheek and observed, "Say, this place looks deserted."
Hearing this, Gabrielle cast her eyes all about and realized the big sailor was right. Except for a whining dog tied to an old hand cart a few paces away, the single street running through the village was empty. The villagers had not simply packed up and moved away for everywhere there was obvious evidence of current habitation. While this mystery was in itself enough to make Gabrielle and Jarod uneasy, for Xena there was something else even more sinister. Although she could not actually smell it, to her the figurative stench of death seemed all around them.
"What is it, Xena?" asked Gabrielle, suddenly wishing she still had her staff.
Xena's initial response was to draw her sword. "Be quiet and keep your eyes open," she told her companions.
As the three of them stealthily edged nearer the street, Xena paused for a moment beside a lean-to shed in order to listen. Here Gabrielle and Jarod wisely took the opportunity to arm themselves as best they could. Searching around the shed, the bard found an old grubbing hoe, while the sailor traded his bag of trade goods for a rather large mallet. However, upon turning to Jarod, Xena surprised the sailor by saying, "You stay here."
"Ha! No way," the big seaman protested. "I want to go with you."
It was not that he was afraid. Xena readily understood that. He simply wanted to help. In a kindly voice, she explained, "Jarod, somebody needs to stay with the boat. Now, you don't really want that job to fall to Gabrielle, do you?"
'Uhh no," Jarod reluctantly replied. "I guess not."
"Good man," Xena smiled, clapping him on the shoulder. "Just keep an eye out and if you see anything sing out."
Jarod nodded and with that Xena and the bard left him there by the shed, tensely rotating the mallet handle in his hands.
Her sword at the ready, Xena stepped out into the middle of the street with her little friend close behind.
"What do you make of it?" asked Gabrielle, gazing at the lonely mongrel that was whining even louder now.
After shooting the dog an annoyed glance Xena plucked her chakram from its clip. Seeing this, Gabrielle for one brief moment feared the worst for the poor dog. However before she could cry out Xena had already sent the exquisite weapon hurtling toward the helpless dog. A second later the chakram neatly cut the cord tethering the animal, ricocheted off one of the cart's wheels and went ripping through the air toward the corner of a nearby hut where upon impact it was then re-directed back into the talented hand of its owner. The startled dog yelped once and bolted off in the direction opposite the two women as fast as its thin legs could carry it.
Xena saw Gabrielle give a little sigh of relief. "What?" she asked, returning the chakram to its proper place.
"Ohh nothing," the bard answered. Under less tense circumstances Xena might have been tempted to tease her bard about her unfounded fears but this was not the time. Instead she merely let it go and turned her mind back to far more important matters.
Slowly, methodically, Xena and Gabrielle checked all twenty-two of the mud brick huts that made up the little village. Soon it was all too obvious what had happened. Leading off to the northwest were an unusually large number of tracks in the black delta earth. Xena's guess was that the raiders had landed a short distance back down river and flanked the village to cut off any path of retreat for its inhabitants. As far as she could tell nothing much of real value had been taken. The raiders clearly had been after human booty. In the third, seventh, eighth, and fifteenth huts they found dead bodies, the last one with a head so badly smashed that Xena had seen fit to forcibly shove Gabrielle back out the door before she could get a glimpse of the horrible sight.
"Whoever did this certainly knew what they were doing," observed Gabrielle, after Xena rejoined her.
"Yeah," replied Xena. "My guess is the village was hit right before dawn. That's why there are so few casualties. These poor people never knew what hit them."
Gabrielle gazed off into the distance as if searching in her mind's eye for the long departed gang of marauders. "Any idea who it could have been?" she asked.
"It might have been Libyan raiders," said Xena. "But it's not like nomads to strike this far eastward." Xena squinted westward where the sun's blazing red orb would soon be kissing the wide open horizon. "Well whoever it was, there's nothing we can do about it now except inform the nearest authorities. Come on, let's get back to the ship."
It was while the two of them were turning back toward the river that they heard Jarod's booming voice. "Xena! Xeeennnnaaaahhh!!"
Both women turned to see the sailor standing on the far side of the shed, his arms waving frantically. For no more than a heartbeat Xena and Gabrielle made eye contact. Then Xena barked out, "Come on!"
Like the sleek leopard she was sometimes compared to, the beautiful warrioress sprang into action and in the blink of an eye was tearing toward the old shed at top speed, her long strides eating up impressive distances over the black delta earth. Blessed with neither her friend's long legs nor her natural ability, Gabrielle could not hope to keep up with Xena as she raced toward the shed so she followed as best she could. As the distance to be covered was not more than fifty paces or so she was soon enough reunited with her two companions. Rounding the corner of the shed around which Xena had disappeared just seconds before, Gabrielle saw her friend and Jarod kneeling on the ground beside what at first looked to her to be nothing more than a refuse heap. There Xena was peering at something hidden under an old burlap sack.
"What is it?" the bard breathlessly asked.
"It's some guy," Jarod answered.
Gabrielle furrowed her brow. "Huh?" Without a word Xena pulled back the filthy burlap sack revealing a bloody face. "By the gods!" gasped Gabrielle, upon seeing the face. "Is he....?"
"No," said Xena.
"When that dog yelped I heard him moan," said Jarod. "If not for that I would never have known he was here."
Gabrielle dropped to her knees in between Xena and Jarod and looked the stricken man over as the two of them finished uncovering him. He was a short man, not much taller than Gabrielle herself. He was thin and his head was completely shaven. With narrow set eyes and a prominent nose that crooked at the end he rather reminded Gabrielle of a bird. Although the bard was not very familiar with Egyptian dress it was nevertheless apparent to her that this man was no mere peasant. Not only was his heavily stained robe made of the finest linen but he was also wearing leather sandals. Xena had already told her that the common folk usually went barefoot. She could also detect a hint of perfume on him and from observing his smallish hands she could see they were very soft and void of calluses. Obviously the man was not in the habit of doing manual labor.
Once the debris was cleared off the man Xena bent over and put an ear to his chest. After listening intently for a few moments she straightened up and took him by the left wrist.
"Is it bad?" asked Gabrielle.
"Too early to tell," Xena replied, thoughtfully. "But my guess is he's just taken a few lumps." She looked at Jarod and said, "Let's get him to the boat."
The big sailor nodded and after getting to his feet dug his big hands in under the man's armpits. Xena stood up as well but when she took hold of the man's feet Jarod said, "That's all right, Xena. I can take him."
"Are you sure?" Xena asked.
"Hmph," the sailor snorted. "I could carry him and Gabrielle under each arm and you on my back if need be.
"Suit yourself," Xena said, with a shrug.
Jarod hoisted the man to his feet. Leaning forward, he quite easily put him up on his shoulder making sure to carefully balance his weight. As he did the man emitted a soft moan.
"Steady, mate," said Jarod, cheerfully. "You're gonna be all right."
"I'd bet a carrot to a castle that guy is somebody important," said Gabrielle, watching the sailor neatly shift his load.
"Uh huhh," Xena grunted.
The two women began following along behind Jarod as he made his way to the boat and as they passed the far side of the shed Gabrielle retrieved the now useless bag of trade goods. Just before she descended out of sight below the summit of the river bank Xena stopped and swept the area one last time with her relentless, penetrating eyes. After a more steps Gabrielle asked, "Say, you don't suppose he's somehow the cause of all this, do you?"
"Maybe," her friend replied. "But I doubt it. Not directly anyway. My
guess is he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
A quarter hour later Xena was yelling for a rope to be thrown down while Jarod carefully eased their little boat up along side the Sea Sprite. Once they were back on deck Jarod pitched down the bag of trade goods in front of a group of sailors who were much more concerned about the loss of their chicken supper than they were about some unknown Egyptian swab with a few knots on his head.
"What in the name of Aesculapius happened to him?" Parsinion asked, bending over the wounded man.
"That village has been raided," Xena replied. "Slavers most likely. This one was the only one we found alive."
"It wasn't renegade slavers, that's for sure," said the captain. "And I doubt it was Libyan nomads."
"What makes you say that?" asked Gabrielle.
"There is only one bunch that would have the guts to hit an Egyptian village."
"Ohhh?" Xena asked, genuinely curious. "And who might that be?"
In ominous tones he said, "The Sea People."
"The Sea People?" Xena echoed. "I didn't think they were in the habit of operating this far south."
Parsinion nodded and almost involuntarily cast a quick glance over his shoulder. "They weren't. That is, until four, five years ago," he said.
"Well whoever they were we could not have missed them coming back down river by more than a hour or two," said Xena.
Parsinion's only reply to this observation was an ominous nodding of the head.
"Who are the Sea People?" Gabrielle asked.
"Actually they are not one people as such but a kind of loose confederation of several different groups from the lands of the eastern Mediterranean," Xena answered.
"You mean like the Syrians and the Phoenicians?" asked Gabrielle.
"Some of them, yes. That's why they're such good sailors, child," said Parsinion.
Xena squinted her eyes as she sometimes did when deep in thought. "They and the Hittites have fought for years over the same land."
"Aye, and from what they tell me the Sea People have been winning," the captain interjected.
"But Egypt is the greatest power in the know world," said Gabrielle. "Surely the Sea People aren't stupid enough to attack her."
"Maybe not directly," said Xena. "At least, not yet."
"All right, ya swabs!" Parsinion bellowed to his men. "Let's get outta here! Marcellus! Amos! Get this man below! Put him in my hammock. Anon! You and Portis weigh anchor and then get that boat back on board! The rest o' ye man the oars! I want us a good league up river before it gets dark."
"Right-o, Captain," said the first mate. Turning to the crew, he yelled, "You heard the cap'n, ya land crabs! Get to them oars!"
The Sea Sprite was of that Greek construction commonly known as a bireme. This meant she was two-tiered in design, with a spoon stern, and because the thirty oar positions required to propel the fifty cubit vessel in calm winds were located on the top deck the sturdy vessel's lower level was afforded enough room for seven separate storage compartments in addition to the main hold. To Captain Parsinion she was a little jewel of a ship, capable of doing a full six knots in a fair wind.
Like beetles on a hot griddle the men scurried to their posts. From his spot by the main mast Parsinion watched with pride as his veteran crew diligently attended to business. These men were by and large hand picked men, many of whom had served with him for ten years and more. "Simon," he said to his first mate, "you have the helm."
"But what about our supper?" asked a sailor known only as Curly.
"It's figs and moldy bread for ye tonight, boy," said Parsinion. Speaking once more to Simon, he said, "Steer us out in the middle of the river and be sure to keep an eye out for any of those Egyptian barges. They'll be damn near invisible in this light."
"As you say, Cap'n."
As Simon departed to man the tiller, Parsinion sniffed and said, "Well, Xena,
shall we go below and see if your friend has stopped bleeding yet.?"
Parsinion and the two women descended the steep, narrow steps that led below and made their way to the captain's cabin. They were met there by Marcellus and Amos who had just finished installing the injured Egyptian in Parsinion's hammock and were now taking their leave. For her part Gabrielle was pleased to see the men had taken the liberty to light a couple of candles. Although in her time with Xena the little bard had found herself ship board on many occasions, even now these dank, murky spaces below deck often made her feel somewhat uneasy.
Once in the room Parsinion plucked up one of the candles from its holder and slowly waved it along the length of the Egyptian's body in order that he might get a better look at him. "Oh yeah," he muttered. "This one's a big fish all right."
Xena picked up the Egyptian's right hand and thumbed the huge ring on the man's middle finger. "You don't see too many of these on your average plow boy, that's for sure."
"The Egyptians don't use plows," Parsinion reminded her. He held the candle above the man's head and traced a line across the brow. "Actually, I was talking about this."
From opposite sides of the hammock Xena and Gabrielle leaned forward to get a closer look. Below the line traced by Parsinion's finger the man's face was well tanned. Above it his shaven head was curiously as pale as the garment he was wearing. "See that?" the captain asked.
"So?" replied Gabrielle. "He wears a hat. It's not surprising with the sun they get down here."
"Not a hat," grinned Parsinion, impishly. "A wig. And only the elite wear wigs. Right, Xena?"
"Ayyyye," the warrioress drawled, returning his grin.
At this point they heard a faint knock on the cabin door. Parsinion strode across the room and pulled open the door by the old leather strap that served as a handle. There before him stood Aloysius and Certes, the two Cypriot ambassadors. "Yes?" the captain expectantly asked.
Aloysius placed both hands upon his stomach, overlapping them in a very dignified manner. "It is our understanding the Egyptian that was brought on board quite possibly could be a nobleman."
"Well I wouldn't go that far," replied the captain.
"Please forgive us for our absence on deck," said Aloysius. "I'm afraid my colleague and I were deep in our study of the Egyptian culture."
Big shit! thought Parsinion. While he did not exactly dislike his two silver haired passengers it was also true he would not be embracing them in warm comradeship any time soon. They seemed like decent enough fellows on the surface but Parsinion could not help but feel a certain measure of antipathy toward them. He really did not know why. Perhaps it was because they represented a life of ease and luxury--something totally foreign to him. Then again, perhaps not. Whatever is was, he did not enjoy their company. No sir, he thought, give me people like my crew or Xena and her little friend any day.
"Well? asked Certes, a little too politely Parsinion thought. "May we see him?"
"Why not?" the captain answered. He stepped aside to allow Aloysius and Certes to pass. Striding behind them, he caught Gabrielle's eye and rolled his eyes upward in exasperation.
It took all the little bard's self control to suppress a giggle. Indeed she felt compelled to discreetly place her hand over her mouth lest the stubborn thing escape her throat anyway. Even Xena, upon seeing his antics, slightly pulled up one corner of her mouth in an expression of wry amusement. Her sentiments toward these two were pretty in accord with the master of the Sea Sprite.
Aloysius took up the remaining candle and, like Parsinion before him, passed it over the length of the Egyptian's body. To Gabrielle's surprise she saw his eyes widen with obvious amazement. He then emitted a loud gasp and exclaimed, "Great Mother of Earth!"
"What?" Xena asked, impatiently turning her palms upward.
Aloysius pointed a bony finger at the unconscious man and replied, "This man is Neshi, High Chancellor to the Court of Queen Hatshepsut."
"You had better not call her queen," said Gabrielle, echoing with delight Xena's earlier warning to her. "She's king, remember?"
For a moment Aloysius' air of imperturbability fell away, leaving him unnerved by his gaffe. To make such a mistake at court would surely lessen Cyprus' chances of a trade deal. And although he managed to regain his composure quickly enough he nevertheless made a mental note not to repeat the error again. Or so he hoped.
For her part Xena was more than a little skeptical of his pronouncement and characteristically enough told him so. "Come on," she said. "What in Tartarus would an important man like that be doing in some backwater little village hundreds of leagues from Thebes? And apparently all alone to boot. It doesn't make sense."
"Be that as it may," replied Aloysius, coolly. "This man is Neshi."
To his left Certes softly cleared his throat. "Friend Aloysius," he murmured, sidling closer to his colleague, "are you certain of this?" Naturally he wanted to believe his fellow envoy but even so he found himself of pretty much the same mind as the warrior woman.
"Of course I am!" snapped Aloysius. "After all, I have seen the man before." Somewhat irked by what he perceived as a lack of support from Certes, Aloysius pulled his white, bushy eyebrows down into a frown. "Some years ago, in Tanis, I was fortunate enough to attend a lavish ceremony honoring a great victory over the Nubians by Hatshepsut's father, Thutmose I. The pharaoh himself was not present at this gala but he did send his royal vizier to represent him. One of the vizier's assistants was this man, or at least a younger version of him. As I know the language I was able to speak to him on a couple of occasions and even then one could see that this was a man of great ability."
"Dear heavens. Is he hurt badly?" asked Certes, warily eyeing the stricken man.
"I don't think so," said Xena. "On the way out to the ship he came to briefly a couple of times. Unless he has some internal injuries we don't know about he ought to be all right by morning. I think he's suffering from exhaustion more than anything."
"Maybe someone should stay with him," suggested Gabrielle.
"I really don't think that's nece---"
Gabrielle cut off her warrior with a smile and the firm declaration, "I'm staying with him."
Xena lifted an eyebrow and smiled faintly at the girl. While her outward expression was one of coolness in her heart she felt very proud of her little friend. Gabrielle was many things, almost all of them wonderful, but above all it was her compassion that made her the remarkable young woman that she was. "All riiiight," Xena said, evenly. "Then I'm staying with you."
Parsinion bore silent witness to this little exchange and as he had often done before on this trip took note of the peculiar hold the petite blonde had on the raven haired beauty. To him it was a source of curiosity and even wonder. He knew all about Xena--what she had been, what she was still capable of--yet this little one clearly had found her way into the fierce warrior's heart. It was not really a great feat of deduction. One had only to observe the way Xena's eyes almost imperceptibly softened whenever she looked at the girl. Xena loved her, there was no doubt about that.
Aloysius' dour tones not only broke Parsinion's train of thought but managed to irk him once more in the process. "Our quarters," said Aloysius, sniffing smugly, "are much more suitable than these for a man of his position. Therefore they are infinitely more appropriate for such a distinguished person as this."
For a millisecond Xena's azure eyes flashed in anger. One of the things she hated most was foolish pretentiousness and this Aloysius had it in spades. With her left hand she quietly reached out and unhooked the head of Neshi's hammock. Her arm fully extended, she offered her end to the startled Aloysius. In that low, throaty voice she used so effectively, she said, "You want him in your cabin? Then you move him."
She stood there holding the hammock and its occupant at arm's length so easily that her arm bore no trace of trembling under the strain. It was an impressive display of strength, so much so that even the normally unimpressionable Parsinion marveled at it. For Gabrielle, however, it was hardly worth noticing. To her it was simply a matter of Xena being Xena.
Across from the angry Xena Aloysius stared in wide-eyed silence at her for few uncomfortable moments. Presently he managed to restore his tongue to working order. "Uhh, I suppose it would be best not to move him at that."
"How thoughtful of you," Xena muttered as she effortlessly replaced the hammock's hook in the support ring.
Aloysius nodded stiffly and then turned to his colleague. "Come, Certes, let us return to our work."
Xena's eyes locked on the two men and followed their movements as they exited the room and quietly closed the door behind them.
"What was that all about?" Parsinion asked, scratching his head.
"Xena hates snobs," explained Gabrielle.
"Now, Gabrielle, that's not true," her friend gently corrected her. "I don't hate snobs. I hate arrogant behavior."
"Hmph," snorted the bard. "Same thing."
"Nooo it's not," Xena replied, her brow furrowed.
"Yes it is," Gabrielle insisted.
"No it's not."
"Nah-ot. Damn it, Gabrielle, I ought to know what I dislike."
Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest and stuck her nose in the air. "Sometimes I wonder," she airily replied as she nonchalantly looked the ceiling over.
"Now what's that supposed to mean?" queried Xena.
"Ohhh, nothing," the bard sighed.
Xena shook her head in mock exasperation and muttered. "Bards," Turning to the captain, she asked "See what I have to put up with, Parsinion?" However the twinkle in her eye told an entirely different story. For there in those captivating eyes Parsinion saw no trace of annoyance or aggravation. No, what he saw instead was only a loving patience for the pretty young woman.
Scratching his head again, Parsinion said to his friends, "Well if you two are set on staying here I guess you won't mind me usin' your cabin tonight."
"It's your ship," smiled Xena as she gave him a little shrug.
"So, now that the sleeping arrangements have been settled I guess I ought to get back on deck and do my job," said the captain. "I'll have one of the boys bring your things over."
"Never mind," said Xena. "I'll get them."
With that Parsinion nodded, took his leave from the two women and went up to see to the navigation of his ship. After Xena left to fetch their things Gabrielle set to work cleaning some of the Egyptian's cuts and scrapes. As Xena had noted earlier he really did not seem to be hurt all that badly except for that rather nasty bump on the back of his head. By this time Gabrielle had learned enough about head injuries to know that they could be as unpredictable as the gods were. Indeed this point was driven home to her soon enough because as she was washing Neshi's face the man's eyes suddenly snapped open. With a wild-eyed look he stared up at the startled bard for a moment or two, uttered an indecipherable word, and promptly lapsed back into unconsciousness.
A turn of the hour glass later found the women with their things retrieved and their pallets stretched out near the still sleeping Neshi in preparation for what they expected to be the last night they would spend on the Sea Sprite. For supper they had managed to scratch up some of those dried figs and still more of the dreaded salted fish.
Xena pulled off her boots and wiggled her toes. "Ohhhh," she softly moaned as she gingerly stretched out her long legs upon the pallet, "that feels sooo good."
"You're getting old, Xena," teased the bard. "First thing you know you'll be bending over a mirror plucking gray hair out of your head. "
"Bite your tongue, Poteidaian," retorted Xena, settling in on her back. However in truth getting older was one subject that bothered her not in the slightest. Xena knew well enough how beautiful she was but even in her warlord/conqueror days she had never been vain. To her the idea of gray hair and wrinkles did not seem so terrible. After all, as she had once told Gabrielle she never expected to live that long in the first place.
Beside her Gabrielle cuddled up very close and nestled her head upon Xena's strong shoulder. The bard's free hand sought out and found Xena's right hand and, taking it in her own, Gabrielle gently squeezed it. For a time neither spoke. Instead they just lay there, each quietly content to bask in the warm glow of their amaranthine love. Finally Gabrielle broke the silence with a soft yawn.
"Looks like I'm not the only one who's tired," Xena observed, playfully curling a lock of Gabrielle's hair in the fingers of her left hand.
Gabrielle nuzzled in still closer to her warrior. "I am a little tired," the bard conceded.
Gabrielle yawned again and Xena felt her lover's warm breath gently brush against her skin. Little One, she thought, I do love you so! Except for the previous night's rather hurried tryst down in the sweltering hold Xena and Gabrielle had been forced to limit their expressions of love to some guarded stroking, a quick kiss here and there, and a little discreet petting.
Stuck as they were on a cramped ship with thirty-four men they simply had no hope of having any privacy. The Sea Sprite was a fairly large ship but even so space was at a premium and because of this the captain was afforded the luxury of a private cabin. Even Xena and Gabrielle had been forced to share quarters with the first mate and the ship's carpenter. As close as it was, it was still infinitely better than being jammed down below with the rest of the crew. And knowing Xena's reputation, the normally rowdy sailors needless to say had been perfect gentlemen. In fact it was no surprise to Xena that Gabrielle had become the darling of the ship. These rough sailors just loved her. What new? she mused. Everybody loved Gabrielle. Why should these guys be any different?
Still, Xena had more than once found herself yearning for an hour--or even half an hour--of quiet solitude with her beloved bard. Even during the day men were all the time moving about below deck and one never knew when someone, especially the carpenter, might want access to the room.
Unfortunately their prospects for love making were not going to get better any time soon. Tomorrow they would reach Naucratis and once there they hoped to transfer that very day to a river barge which was an even smaller craft. Xena was not looking forward to spending the next two to three weeks on one of those slow things with the nettlesome Aloysius so close by. For a brief, fleeting moment she allowed her mind to linger on the delicious notion of throwing the stuffy envoy into the Nile.
Oh well, she thought, wistfully. "Gabrielle, I think that......" Her sentence was cut short by the sound of Gabrielle's very gentle snoring. A little tired, huh? thought Xena. Yeah right. Gabrielle your butt could be plowing furrows in the ground from exhaustion and still you would merely say you are a "little tired."
Although Gabrielle had long ago proved her hardiness Xena still sometimes wondered how this wisp of a young woman was able to hold up as well as she did. Life on the road, especially life on the road with a certain nomadic warrioress, was no picnic. And while the girl rarely if ever complained Xena had over the years conditioned herself to rein in the intensity of her own restlessness lest she wear Gabrielle down.
Xena craned her neck and softly kissed Gabrielle on the top of the head. "Good night, sweetheart," she whispered. Gabrielle's only answer was a deep, measured exhale. Xena settled her head back down and fixed her eyes on the low ceiling. Gods! she thought. I wish this bullshit was over and done with. All kidding with Gabrielle aside, the warrioress indeed would have liked the two of them to be somewhere else at this point. She reckoned that by the time this "mission" was over she would be bored out of her mind. Witnessing first hand the splendor and opulence of Thebes did not appeal to her one iota. After all, she had seen it all before in Chin, Assyria, Delhi, etc, etc, etc. And although she knew she knew she had the capacity for being a gifted diplomat--she did have many skills!-- just thinking about it was enough to make her eyes glaze over. However she had promised the King of Cyprus and, much more importantly, Gabrielle now had her heart set on it so there she was. As she closed her eyes she thought, Oh well, it could be worse. We could be off somewhere pulling that idiot Joxer's fat out of the fire yet again.
Now Xena, too, yawned. She then opened her eyes and took one last look around. Ever so carefully easing her right hand free from Gabrielle's grasp, she stretched her arm out to make certain her sword was within easy reach. It was so she gently returned her hand to Gabrielle's, this time taking the bard's hand in her own.
As always, sleep did not come easily to the beautiful warrioress this night. The black thoughts and the horrible memories that she was for the most part able to suppress during the light of day invariably threw off their fetters in the still darkness of night to once more resume in full fury their offensive on Xena's sanity. A lesser mind would have long ago collapsed under the strain of this relentless assault. Not the Warrior Princess. But even with her nonpareil inner strength it had admittedly been a very near thing a few times. And on every one of those occasions the one constant, the one source of that extra strength needed to pull her through--her saving grace--had been Gabrielle. Every day of her life Xena thanked the gods for Gabrielle. As she had more than once told the bard she was nothing less than a gift to her.
Sometime during the night the demons at last mercifully retreated, allowing Xena to finally drift off to sleep. Nevertheless, two turns of the glass later when the dark form quietly arose from the hammock suspended just a few cubits away, it did not go unobserved. Awakened by the almost inaudible thump of Neshi's feet hitting the floor, Xena's piercing blue eyes were already locked in on him. As the man eased open the door he was very surprised to feel an exceptionally strong hand grip him on the shoulder.
"Leaving so soon?" he heard a husky voice ask. Although he did not understand the language he readily got the message that was so forcefully being conveyed by those long fingers pressing into his skin.
He was not going anywhere.
"Xena?" Gabrielle sat upright and blinked hard once, then twice. Awakening just now, she was only mildly surprised to find the warrioress gone. After all, she knew all too well of Xena's silent nocturnal battles with her inner demons. At first she figured Xena was probably restlessly strolling around up on deck in the cool night air. That idea dissipated quickly enough, however, when she noticed that the High Chancellor to the court of Hatshepsut was also missing.
"What is going on?" she softly wondered aloud. In truth she was more curious than alarmed because there on the floor beside her were Xena's weapons and armor. She knew that if there had been even the slightest hint of trouble Xena would not have left them behind. Moreover, she most assuredly would have awakened the bard as well.
Hurriedly scrambling to her feet, Gabrielle found herself glad she had not bothered to pull her boots off. She took a quick glance at one of the still burning candles and judged that not more than two turns of the hour glass had elapsed since she turned in. That meant of course it was still a very long time until morning. "Oh well," she said with a sigh. "Looks like no more sleep tonight."
Making her way to the door, Gabrielle grasped the handle and as she pulled open the cabin door she was momentarily taken aback by the sight of a dark figure looming directly in front of her. "Xena!" the bard yelped, recognizing the form's unmistakable shape.
"What's wrong?" asked her tall friend.
"Nothing," Gabrielle replied, under a deep breath. "You just startled me." Her sense of excitement now returning, she reached out and touched Xena's arm. "So, what's up? Where's Neshi?"
"In Aloysius' room," said Xena, tilting her head back over her right shoulder. "Turns out he wasn't very receptive to our hospitality."
"I can't say I blame him very much," said Gabrielle. "I mean, being attacked, probably barely escaping with his own life, losing unconsciousness at some point only to wake up on a strange ship. Who wouldn't be....?" Here Gabrielle paused. "Of course, I mean you wouldn't be but...."
"You're right, Gabrielle."
"I said you're right. I think he was just scared. That's what you were saying, wasn't it?"
"Oh. Yeah. Right....Scared." Gabrielle drew herself up to her full height, such as it was, and in a tone only slightly accusatory asked, "Why didn't you wake me?"
In the pale light Gabrielle saw the Xena's lovely face break into a little smile of amusement. "I'm here now, aren't I?" she coyly asked.
"Yeaaah...." Once more Gabrielle marveled at how utterly disarming Xena could be when she wanted to. No wonder so many men--and women--not to mention a particularly troublesome god, positively slavered over her like hungry little puppies. Xena could have her pick and even now, after all this time, Gabrielle was still amazed that the dark, stunning beauty that was the Warrior Princess had selected for her choice a certain insignificant little bard from Poteidaia.
"Hmmm?" the bard asked, snapping out of her momentary reverie.
"You must not be fully awake yet," allowed Xena.
"Mount Olympus to Gabrielle. I'm talking about Neshi, damn it. Don't you want to see him?"
"Are you kidding? Lead on, mighty warrior."
Shaking her head, Xena cast a wry look toward her young friend. "First things first."
"What do you mean?" asked Gabrielle.
Xena's only reply was to bend forward slightly at the waist and look downward.
Naturally Gabrielle's gaze followed and what she saw made her chuckle. For there Xena was,
playfully wiggling her long toes. It seems the warrioress was still barefoot.
Upon hearing the sharp rap on the door Parsinion strode over and pulled it open. "There you are," he said, finding the warrioress and her little friend on the other side. "I expected to find you here after you sent word up to me about our guest. Where have you been?"
"I went to fetch Gabrielle," Xena answered.
"You mean to say you made us wait for her?" Aloysius broke in, his tone incredulous. "Why?" With a little sniff he added, "It's not like she's....."
Uhhh ohh, thought Parsinion. Although in the interest of judiciousness the envoy conveniently let his words trail off at this point, the master of the Sea Sprite knew it was already too late. Having spent considerable time with Xena and Gabrielle over the last few days Parsinion had grown well aware of Xena's "weakness" for her little blonde friend.
The cause for Aloysius' ill humor was his mounting impatience to speak with the great Egyptian. For after collaring the shaken Neshi Xena had left him with the two Cypriot envoys with the request that they not question him about events at the village until she returned. While she might know only a few words of Egyptian she was a perfect master of that universal language of the human race--body language. She wanted to be there to scrutinize those almost imperceptible shifts of body weight, to read his eyes, to watch his hands, to gauge his breathing, to listen for those subtle changes in the inflections of the voice. Although Xena did not really think Neshi was anything other than a victim here she had learned a very long time ago that when in doubt it was far more prudent to suspect than to trust. One just never knew about these things and employing this philosophy was a good way to avoid surprises.
However right at this moment it was the pompous Aloysius who was in for a rather nasty surprise.
Xena fixed her blazing eyes on him in a withering glare. "Like she's what?" she demanded.
Aloysius took one look at Xena's livid face and immediately knew he had erred very, very badly. "N-nothing," he stammered back.
Important, she thought, angrily. That's what the bastard is insinuating. Gabrielle's not important. Deep within her she felt the anger well up. Old man, she grimly thought, if you were twenty years younger I might see fit to slap if not some sense, then at least some respect into you.
"Just so we understand each other," said Xena, her voice low and menacing. "Gabrielle is just as much a part of this mission as you or anybody else. Now if you have a problem with that then say so and I will drop your ass off in Naucratis and the rest of us will turn around and head right back out of here." She flashed him a faint smirk and added, "But don't worry. I'm sure you will be able to explain it to King Docticles."
Gods, thought Parsinion, admiringly. What a woman!
Aloysius licked his lips anxiously. "You misunderstand me," he bleated. "What I meant to say was--"
"Just drop it," Xena fiercely commanded. By and large she was perfectly willing to let Gabrielle take care of herself. In fact she encouraged it. And indeed her little friend was more than able to do just that in most circumstances. However from the very start of their relationship the one thing Xena had never tolerated was negativity from anyone regarding her bard's status or more to the point--her worth. They could call her a pest, they could call her irritating, pushy, or even big-mouthed. But they could never ever call her worthless.
Xena was still angry when she felt the warm hand touch her on the arm followed by the quiet, "Xena." Once again her lover's sweet voice and gentle touch served to calm the rage just as they had done countless times before. Like a great tide ebbing back to the sea Xena's anger waned and within a matter of seconds the waters were raging no more. For Gabrielle her aim was not so much to restrain Xena as it was to simply remind her. As far as she was concerned it did not matter one iota what the stuffy old man thought of her.
Despite the fact that Xena's anger had subsided the atmosphere in the cabin was still one of uncomfortable uncertainty. Thus it was that Certes, an affable and far more congenial fellow than his colleague, sought to alleviate the tension. After clearing his throat with a quiet cough he remarked, "Xena, I imagine you will be in for a hefty reward for rescuing our friend here."
Xena eyed the silent Egyptian who heretofore had done nothing more than sit there on his keg and watch them all through dark, impassive eyes. "Jarod's the one who found him," she declared. "Any reward there might be rightfully belongs to him. Right, Gabrielle?"
"Every last coin," the bard answered, with an emphatic nod of confirmation.
Xena shouldered past Aloysius and stood in front of Neshi. Slightly turning her head back toward the envoy, she said, "Ask him if he's hungry."
Aloysius dutifully complied but Neshi continued to merely sit there and stare back at them with a face as blank as a slab of marble. Watching the man very closely Xena said, "Ask him again." As Aloysius did she thought, A guy like this is not used to missing a single meal much let alone going an entire day without food. He must be starving by now. "Parsinion?"
"Would you have someone dig this man up something to eat?"
"Right away," he replied. And off he went.
Since he was twenty-four years old Parsinion had been a ship's captain so obviously he was much more used to giving orders than receiving them. And that was what Xena's request had really been---an order. Were it anyone else he would have roared and told them to go straight to Tartarus. But not to Xena. And no, it was not because of her fearsome reputation nor was it due to the natural inclination most men have to want to please a beautiful woman. Rather, it was more a case of his wanting to obey her. Being a leader himself he knew what qualities were necessary for making a good one and Xena had them all in measures that bordered on the supernatural. The end result of this was that one very quickly learned to trust her judgment. Somehow--and he could not really explain why--it actually felt...good to obey her. No wonder her army had been such a juggernaut, he thought.
After Parsinion had gone Xena folded her arms across her chest and said to Aloysius, "Tell him not to be afraid. Tell him we know who he is and we're here to help." As Aloysius translated Xena intently studied Neshi's face. Except for a very slight squint of the eyelids his features revealed nothing.
His eyes locked on the striking woman, Neshi for the first time spoke. "And just who am I supposed to be?" he asked. In all his life the man had never seen a woman so tall. As a rule Egyptian women were short and thin and this woman seemed to have legs that ran on forever.
After translating Aloysius looked expectantly at Xena who gave him an assenting nod. "You are the great Neshi, High Chancellor to the court of the most mighty Hatshepsut." Aloysius then gave him a polite little nod and added, "You and I met some years ago in Tanis."
Before asking the obvious Neshi shifted his penetrating gaze from the old man back to the imposing female figure with the long dark hair. Clearly she was the one in charge here. For him this was not a problem. After all, he was used to a woman giving orders. "I suppose you mean to ransom me then," he said, matter-of-factly.
"You weren't listening," replied Xena. "I said we are here to help you."
"In that case you will take me to Giza." said the chancellor in his best authoritative tone.
"That's the plan," the warrioress coolly assured him. "So now, can you tell us what happened?"
"I was in transit to Sais on official business," said Neshi. "It is my habit on these trips to start very early so as usual my barge weighed anchor just before dawn this morning and got underway. My oarsmen had not rowed more than a league or so when we came upon pirates raiding this small village. Naturally I ordered my men to put ashore and render assistance. Unfortunately the marauding devils were far too numerous and most of my men were overwhelmed and slaughtered almost as soon as they disembarked."
For Xena this statement raised a couple of obvious questions but she decided to let him finish rather than interrupt at this point.
"It was then that one of the pirates knocked me down," Neshi continued, "and I found myself being dragged up the slope toward the village. When we reached the top I somehow managed to break free from my captors. However as I ran around this little building I ran straight into yet another one of these villains. My last lucid memory was seeing his big black club out of the corner of my eye."
"And that's how you got the bump on the head!" exclaimed Gabrielle, caught up in the moment.
To Aloysius this was a foolish statement. Of course that was how he got the bump on the head. Silly girl, he thought. Nevertheless he quickly translated it. The last thing he wanted was to incur the wrath of the warrior woman again.
"Quite so," said Neshi, eyeing the ebullient girl curiously. Like so many of his countrymen would as Gabrielle traveled down the Nile, Neshi looked upon her as something of an oddity. In Egypt one just did not see women with such flaxen colored hair.
"Xena, why do you suppose he wasn't taken with the others?" asked the bard.
"Good question," Xena replied. What Xena did not know and Neshi could not tell her was that Masson, the chancellor's personal servant, in his last act of loyalty to his master had killed Neshi's assailant with the very mallet Jarod had found. Realizing escape was impossible, the faithful Masson had then quickly hidden the unconscious Neshi in the refuse pile.
It was at this point that Parsinion pushed stepped through the open door. "All the boys had left was some barley bread and a few lentils." Stepping forward, he held up the bowl containing the mean repast to Neshi.
The chancellor studied the offering for a moment and then--just as Xena knew he would, took it. "Thank you," he said, nodding to Parsinion.
While Xena and the others patiently waited for him finish a quick thought entered her mind as to what a great equalizer of men an empty stomach was. They might be warriors, or artisans, or peasants or even kings, but deprive them of the basics of life and they all turned into the same thing--ordinary individuals with one common purpose...appeasing that hollow burning sensation in their belly.
Engrossed in his supper, Neshi at first did not notice the object just at the edge of his peripheral vision. When he finally did become aware of the thing he naturally cast a glance toward it in order to see what it was. It was a mug, a cup, being held up to him by the smallish hand of the fair haired one he had mistakenly assumed to be a slave girl.
"I thought you might like some water to go with that," said Gabrielle, with that tight-lipped little smile that had melted so many hearts.
Neshi did not bother to wait for the translation. He knew perfectly well what she meant. "Yes. Yes I would," he said, taking the cup. Only now taking stock of the girl he for the first time noticed how beautiful, how utterly...enchanting she was. And obviously very compassionate as well. She would make a fine addition to my household, he decided. And so it was that he made up his mind to try to buy her when he reached Giza.
But while Neshi was closely looking the "slave girl" over little did he realize that the taciturn warrior woman was intently scrutinizing him. Good gods, she thought, she's hooked another one. Gabrielle was always doing this. The girl's warm heart and lovely face were very often as disarming as any weapon.
As for Neshi his initial assumption was that Gabrielle belonged to either the old man
or the ship's master. But when the little bard resumed her place at Xena's side and he saw
how comfortable she seemed in the imposing warrior woman's presence he came to know what
he thought was the truth of the matter. The fair haired one belonged to the woman. Of
course he had no way of knowing just how correct his assessment really was. Gabrielle
really did belong to Xena in the truest, purest sense of the word.
Neshi drained the last of the water and, setting down the mug, dusted the bread crumbs from his hands.
"Your Excellency, I wish to apologize for our poor hospitality," said Aloysius.
"Nonsense," Neshi curtly interrupted. "An empty belly worries not about its benefactor's station in life. Tell the captain I am indebted to him."
Aloysius did as instructed and Parsinion gave the great Egyptian a polite nod in reply.
"All right," said Xena, her smooth voice belying her intensity. "Now that we're all so warm and fuzzy maybe our friend can shed some light on a few things for us."
"As I stated earli--" Neshi abruptly halted and eyed Xena curiously. "Just what is your name?" he asked.
Because Aloysius deemed there was no for it he did not bother to translate. "Her name is Xena, Excellency," he answered. Upon hearing her name Xena cast a sharp glance to the envoy who merely shrugged and explained, "He wanted to know your name."
"Xena?" Neshi's voice hinted at both respect and a little suspicion as well as he repeated the name. "You are Xena, the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations?"
"That's right," Xena stoically replied.
Looking up at Aloysius, Neshi asked "Is this true?"
"Yes, Excellency," came Aloysius' assuring reply. "This is indeed the famous...." Aloysius was tempted to say "notorious"....."Xena."
"Xeee-naaah." Neshi lingered on each syllable as he repeated the legendary name once more. "At court your name is synonymous with military brilliance." He then proceeded to tick off the names of some of her greatest battles. "At the Hermus River you crushed the fierce Agnor. At Aegae you smashed through defenses that were thought to be impregnable and turned the city to ashes. Only last year in Aetolia you split your already outnumbered army in two and routed the mighty legions of Melchus."
Hearing this litany of her past "accomplishments," Xena was a little surprised that he knew so much about her. However her stoic countenance bore no evidence of this as she matter-of-factly corrected him, "That last one doesn't count. That wasn't my army. I was just helping out."
You led them, did you not?" Neshi countered.
"I had some very good help," she replied, thinking of the incomparable Darinius and his ferocious countrymen.
"I must say I am somewhat surprised by your modesty," said Neshi. "What I see here is not the maliciously arrogant warrior queen that made even the mighty Thutmose the First lose sleep from worry. If I may say so such an unassuming persona does not become a woman of your magnitude."
To Xena it was readily apparent why this man had risen to such lofty heights in the present Egyptian government. He was a man who, unlike so many of his gender, was not uncomfortable in the presence of powerful women.
"People change," said Xena.
"Do they?" replied Neshi, raising an eyebrow. Even now he could remember the hushed tones with which the great Thutmose's generals had spoken as they worriedly discussed the terrible Warrior Princess. To be sure they had feared her, so much so in fact that during her swift and alarmingly efficient spring campaign in eastern Cappadocia they had even approached their hated enemies the Hittites with the idea of forming an alliance for their mutual protection. At the time it seemed as though nothing would stop the fierce Greek woman with the irresistible will. All through the first five years of Hatshepsut's reign it they had lived in fear of Xena's hordes sweeping down into Egypt. And then suddenly, four years ago, all news of her had abruptly stopped. It was as though she had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Needless to say the question of why the sudden change was buzzing around inside his head like nettlesome fly but he instinctively knew the woman was not in the habit of giving explanations.
Indeed it was but a couple of moments afterward that Xena herself confirmed this. "Enough about me," she declared. "Let's talk about you some more."
"There is not much left to tell," said Neshi. "In fact there is nothing at all for you see the next thing I knew I was swinging in a hammock with two beautiful women lying on the floor beside me."
Gabrielle smiled at his remark but the ever focused Xena ignored it and pressed on. "We think it likely that your 'pirates' were the Sea People," she said.
"The Pelset?"" Neshi asked, genuinely surprised. "Is this
possible?" Pelset was what the Egyptians called these formidable seafarers.
"Would they truly have the audacity to penetrate this far into the delta?
"We believe so, sir," said Parsinion.
While Neshi was ruminating about the fabled Warrior Princess Gabrielle's no less nimble mind had been pondering a couple of points about his story that troubled her. For one, what had happened to his barge? And his men, why had they seen none of his slain men's bodies?
If Xena had known what her little friend was thinking she would have been very well pleased and more than a little proud of her. For these two questions were the very ones that had immediately sprang to her mind as well. At first she was a little suspicious of his story but after scrutinizing his every mannerism as only she could she had concluded that he was indeed telling the truth. As for the barge her guess was that the Sea People had simply set it afire and pushed it out into the river where it wound have quickly sunk. The men, on the other hand, had probably been thrown into the Nile and carried away by the river's currents.
For a moment the bard considered bringing it up it herself but in the end had decided against it. Xena herself had undoubtedly weighed these same questions and for whatever reason decided not to pursue the answers--at least for now. While Gabrielle assumed Xena already pretty much knew what had happened the fact remained that she did not. Curious as she was, however, she decided not to bring it up here. After all, Xena might have a reason for keeping mum. Gabrielle knew well enough her beloved warrior's mind was leagues ahead of everyone else's and so she decided it would simply be more prudent to ask her about it later. Xena had this marvelous talent for reducing even the most complicated problems to their most basic elements.
"If this is true it is very grave news indeed," said Neshi. "I must return to Waset at once and inform the king."
Parsinion furrowed his brow. "Waset?" he asked. "I thought the Egyptian capital was Thebes."
"Waset is the Egyptian name for Thebes," explained Aloysius.
"You're welcome to come with us," Gabrielle blurted out. "I mean after all---"
"Yes," Aloysius cut in, not bothering to translate the bard's sentence. "We would be most honored to have His Excellency accompany us."
However Neshi's attention was not focused on the brusque envoy but rather on the fascinating warrior woman with the icy blue eyes. "At Giza I will be able to procure one of the king's royal barges," he said. "If the great Xena would be willing to ensure my safe passage there not only I but the king herself would be most grateful."
"As my friend tried to tell you just now," Xena said, casting a stern glance at Aloysius, "we too are going to Waset or, Thebes as we call it. You see the four of us are on a diplomatic mission to the court of your pharaoh. "Nodding to Aloysius, she said, "This man and his friend are envoys from the island of Cyprus."
This time Aloysius did not dare interrupt.
"I seeee." Neshi then shot Xena a smile of faint amusement and said, "Then you can rest assured your mission will be very well received. I personally will speak to the king on your behalf."
Xena's responded by giving him a small nod of the head.
However Neshi was not finished. "But I must insist that you and your party do me the honor of accompanying me in my barge back to Waset."
"On one condition," Xena came back at him.
"That you personally give Gabrielle here the grand tour of the pyramids of Giza."
Neshi shot her and brief, puzzled look. "Of course," he said, after a moment. "If that is what you desire." Such unusual devotion to a slave! he thought.
"It is," replied the warrioress.
"Very well," said Neshi. "Done."
"Good." Xena walked across the room and pushed open the shutter covering the cabin porthole. As she poked her head out and looked up at the stars in the clear night sky the only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of the Nile's waters against the hull of the ship. No matter where she traveled Xena made it a point to pay particular attention to the positioning of the stars in order that she might be better able to ascertain how quickly dawn would be coming. On the surface many, even among her admirers, would have seen this as a bit overly meticulous but in fact this was just another example of how attuned the Warrior Princess was to the world around her. "We have a couple of turns of the glass before it gets light," she noted aloud. "We should all try to get some sleep."
"I should like to be moving at first light," said Neshi.
"That's up to the captain."
"That will be fine, Xena," said Parsinion, good naturedly. "On the other hand the men might grumble a little bit but there won't be a problem."
"Considering all that's happened I think it would be better now if you took us straight on to Giza," said Xena. "Would you be willing to do that?"
"Of course," replied Parsinion, grinning wryly. "But it'll cost you more." Yes he liked Xena and Gabrielle immensely but he was, after all, a businessman and he had his own welfare to think about.
"What a surprise," retorted Xena. "However I'm sure our esteemed friend here will be all too happy to see that you receive the proper remuneration."
"Ooohh, I love it when you use big words," grinned Parsinion.
"Yeah? Well here's another one for you," said Xena. "Inconsequential." Turning back to Neshi, she said, "Now that you have a choice I assume you'd rather stay here with Aloysius and Certes,"
The astute Neshi understood well enough what Xena meant. In theory her words might be offering him a choice but the warrior woman's tone of voice made it all too clear which was the preferred option. "Uhh, yes," he replied. "If these gentlemen don't mind I'll sleep here with them."
"Of course not," Aloysius immediately chimed in.
"I would be most honored if you would accept the offer of my hammock, Excellency," added Certes.
Neshi smiled faintly upon hearing Aloysius' translation of his colleague's offer and
said, "Thank you. You are most kind."
No sooner had Xena closed the door to their room when Gabrielle asked her about Neshi's men and the missing barge. As expected she found Xena had already thought the matter through and come up with the most plausible solution to the problem. To the bard's secret delight Xena chose not to make use of her hammock and instead reclaimed her former place on the pallet. Gabrielle silently joined her on the floor and, nestling in close to her lover, once again thrilled to the warm touch of her body. Even now after all these years it was an incredible feeling.
"You know," the bard replied, gently trailing a finger across Xena's breast, "for arranging that tour of the pyramids for me."
"It's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"Yeahhh. But I hardly expected to be shown around by the High Chancellor himself."
"Weeeel life is full of surprises, isn't it?" Xena turned on her side and Gabrielle automatically followed suit. As she had done so many times before Xena pulled the bard's butt snugly against her tummy and girded the lithe body with her strong right arm. "Besides," she playfully reminded her, just before falling asleep, "you said you'd be very grateful, remember?"
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle," the warrioress softly murmured.
"I love you too," the bard whispered, smiling.
For once Xena was the first to fall asleep and as Gabrielle lay there safely wrapped in
the loving arms of this exquisite lover, this magnificent warrior, she again marveled at
how a chance meeting in the woods had changed her life so profoundly. Snuggling her
buttocks in even closer to the sleeping warrior, Gabrielle covered Xena's hand with her
own and with a soft, contented sigh, drifted off to sleep.
"How much farther is it, Parsinion?" the bard asked, yet again.
Gabrielle absently turned her attention away from the far horizon and toward the direction from which Xena's smooth, deep voice had emanated. "Hmm?" As she looked into the lovely warrior's face she, despite the air of innocence, knew all too well what that slow drawl on each syllable of her name meant. It was the subtle way Xena had of reining in Gabrielle's enthusiasm whenever she began to think her friend was on the verge of becoming too much of an "annoying little blonde."
Not that Xena minded Gabrielle's youthful exuberance. Far from it. The bard's wonderful zest for life was one of the things Xena loved most about her. However there were those occasions when others, even her friends, could find her to be a bit on the irksome side. But not Parsinion, not today.
"It's ahhh, about a league less than the last time you asked me that," he replied with an amused little smile.
"Oh. Uh, sorry," said Gabrielle, a little sheepishly. "You did say that, didn't you?"
Every moment of daylight for the last day and a half, propelled by the strong backs of her crew, the Sea Sprite had steadily ploughed the waters of the Nile. Stadium by stadium, league by league, the sturdy bireme bore its passengers and crew onward; passing by Athribis and Naucratis and proceeding directly on to the new destination of Giza.
Now that they were drawing so near Gabrielle's excitement and sense of anticipation were soaring to Olympian heights. All her life she had heard of the great pyramids. She could still remember sitting on that chopping block as a young girl, totally enthralled by a grizzled old trader's almost reverential description of the gigantic structures, and thinking how wonderful it would be to see them first hand. But never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought that she, a dirt poor girl from Poteidaia, would one day stand before one of the great wonders of the world.
And like practically every memorable experience she had been so fortunate to have in her young life she owed it all to Xena. This was just one more reason for her to thank the gods for bringing the warrior woman into her life. For Xena was not only the great love of her life, she was also for all practical purposes her ticket to the world as well. Already Gabrielle had seen and done more than any ten so called "adventurers" would in all their allotted years on the earth. And as far as she was concerned the most exciting, the most glorious aspect of it all was that this was only the beginning. She and Xena had the whole rest of their lives to share in the joys and, yes, the occasional sorrows that the world afforded.
"Xena, do you know if they're visible from the river?"
"I'm not sure," replied Xena. "But if they aren't they couldn't be all that far inland."
"I can't imagine the labor that went into moving those huge blocks," said Gabrielle, picking up on Xena's reasoning.
Or the logic for that matter, thought Xena. Her sharp eyes detecting movement, Xena looked down to see Neshi, Aloysius and Certes emerge from below deck. They made their way to the steps leading up to the quarter-deck where the two women and the captain were standing. At the base of the steps the Cypriot envoys respectfully paused to let their distinguished companion ascend first.
"Ahh, Xena," Neshi said, upon reaching the top step, "It is a splendid day, is it not?
If you enjoy sweat running down the crack of your ass, it is, Xena thought, ruefully. However aloud all she said was, "I suppose."
Neshi mounted the top step and, reaching the quarterdeck, strode over and stood beside Parsinion, his two Cypriot shadows in tow. Shading his eyes from the sun now high overhead, he silently studied the river for a few moments. "You have made good time, Captain," he noted aloud.
"I have a good crew," Parsinion modestly replied.
"Giza is not more than two leagues up river now," announced the chancellor. "At this rate we should be there by early evening."
This was fine with Gabrielle. She was looking forward to a good meal and a decent bed.
Toward evening, as Neshi had predicted, the Sea Sprite came upon a number of mud brick houses clumped together on the right bank.
"There it is," said Neshi, pointing to the place.
As Gabrielle stared out upon the town she once more was disappointed with what she saw. As at the two previous river ports of Athribis and Naucratis she had expected to find at least some of the Egyptian splendor she had heard so much about. Instead all she had seen so far were these drab dwellings which in all reality were no better those inhabited by the folk in her own homeland.
Xena, noting the faint look of dejection on her bard's face, sidled up next to her and in a low voice asked "What's wrong?"
Without removing her gaze from the town Gabrielle gave that one little shake of the head just as she often did when faced with something she did not quite understand. "I don't know," she replied. "I thought Egypt would be....well, different."
"You mean as in palaces on every corner and streets paved with gold different?"
Xena's tone of voice made Gabrielle feel a little embarrassed because in truth this was exactly what she had expected to find. All she had ever heard was how rich Egypt was but judging from what little she had seen of the country so far it seemed to her to be not all that different than Greece, or Gaul, or even Britannia for that matter. Well on second thought...maybe better than Britannia.
"Well, yeah," the bard sheepishly admitted. "Something like that, I guess." Turning to her warrior, Gabrielle fixed her green eyes on Xena's face and wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. "How did you know that?" she asked.
Xena's smile was tight-lipped at best but as she looked down on the bard her twinkling eyes were filled with a love and affection that was far beyond the comprehension of ordinary, less perceptive souls. "Hey, this is me, remember?" she asked, her voice quietly tender. "I know you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's perplexed look faded as she warmly smiled back at Xena. "Yeah," she answered. "You do at that."
From his vantage point in the bow Marcellus sang out, "The landing is in sight, Captain!"
"Very good," Parsinion replied. "Stand by to take a sounding."
"I assure you the Nile's depth is sufficient to accommodate your ship," said Neshi. "After all, if barges bearing the immeasurably heavy pyramid stones were able to land here--"
"Undoubtedly you are correct, sir," Parsinion politely replied. "But still, this old tub draws more water than a flat bottomed barge. No sense taking any chances." Turning to his helmsman, he said, "Anon, hold her steady. Don't begin the turn until I give the command."
"Jarod, give me continuous soundings until I say otherwise. And be sure to sing them out good and loud."
As she watched him bark out his orders Xena noted with approval how his happy-go-lucky attitude was gone now, replaced by a no-nonsense, business-like professionalism. She liked a man who cared enough about his job to do it right. She always had--even back in the days when that job entailed slaughtering others.
"All right, Anon, take her in easy. Steady as she goes." Cupping his hands together around his mouth, he yelled, "How are we doing, Jarod?"
"Fine, Captain," the big sailor yelled back. "We have plenty of water under the keel."
Parsinion nodded his approval and said, "Well, Xena, it won't be long now."
Except for when the object of her praise was Gabrielle, Xena as a rule handed out compliments like they were wagon wheels. However at this particular moment she felt compelled to give the very able Parsinion his due. "You've done a good job," she told him. And that was it.
"Why thank you, Xena," replied Parsinion, more than a little surprised by her terse praise. "We try to earn the coin we're paid."
"A good ship, a good crew, and a good captain," said Gabrielle, echoing Xena's sentiments. "Almost made me enjoy sailing."
"You stick with me, lass," said Parsinion with a wink, "and the boys and I will make a first class mariner out o' ye yet."
"No thanks," Gabrielle said with a chuckle. Xena watched as Gabrielle touched his forearm and like so many before she saw the sailor melt like so much butter. "You take care of yourself," the bard said, softly.
Parsinion smiled at her and with a nod said, "You too, little friend." Suddenly feeling a little awkward by the exchange he nervously cleared his throat and stepped back. "Marcellus!" he yelled.
"Stand by with the mooring lines."
With that Parsinion bounded down the steps to the main deck and walked over to speak with Neshi and the two Cypriots who were patiently waiting under the mast for the ship to dock.
"Good man," was Gabrielle's comment, as she watched him go.
"Yeah," Xena quietly agreed. "He is."
The first mate carefully looked down first one row of sweating oarsmen, then the other. "Oars.........up!" he barked. It was an order that did not have to be given twice.
At once thirty oars were lifted out of the water and were gratefully secured. With a well practiced hand and experienced eye Anon eased the ship in alongside the dock. Marcellus and Jarod leaped out onto the dock to secure the lines and within minutes the Sea Sprite was securely moored. Even before the last line was tied down the first mate slid the gang plank down over the side and for the first time in nearly three weeks the sturdy bireme was again in port.
At the rail Neshi took Certes' offered supporting hand and stepped out onto the gangplank. "There will be a courier here with your fee at all possible speed," he said to Parsinion.
"Fair enough," the captain nodded.
"Oh, and tell that man who found me I have not forgotten him."
"He'll be glad to hear that," the captain grinned.
Flanking Parsinion on either side, Xena and Gabrielle watched Neshi and the two Cypriots descend the gangplank. "So what's next for you?" Xena asked.
"Back to Naucratis to sell our goods," Parsinion said with a shrug.
"And then?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ohhhhh, I don't know," Parsinion replied. "Maybe Etruria, maybe Phoenicia."
Xena smiled and extended her hand to him. "Well good luck to you. Try to stay out of Poseidon's way."
"Good advice, Xena," said Parsinion, taking the hand. "As always."
Xena turned and strode down the gangplank. Gabrielle paused only long enough to smile and pat Parsinion's arm before following along behind. Parsinion watched them go and at the bottom of the gangplank Xena paused to wait for the ebullient young woman who obviously meant the world to her. When Gabrielle reached the bottom she dropped her bag. Parsinion heard her say something intelligible to Xena who responded by flashing her a brilliant smile.
What a pair! he thought, admiringly. He stood there at the railing and watched while they caught up with those three men whose lives he knew would never be anywhere near as interesting, as worthwhile, as noble as those of these two Greek lovers now so leisurely trailing along behind them. At last his five passengers disappeared into the midst of the teeming throng and Parsinion turned his mind back to what for all practical purposes was the love of his own life--his ship.
The solemn-faced Nubian opened the door to the room. With a quick bow he then hurriedly retreated down the hall and disappeared around the corner.
"Thank you, Mister Sunshine," Gabrielle said softly, as she watched the servant scurry away.
Behind her Xena smiled faintly at her friend's barb but said nothing. As they entered the room both of them began taking the obligatory look around. However the details that piqued the interest of Gabrielle in this the home of the local administrator were far different than the ones Xena's keen eyes were now examining ever so minutely. Whereas the bard contented herself with leisurely studying the colorful murals on the wall, fingering the fine cloth in the bed covers and marveling at the beautifully crafted ewer beside the bed, Xena's observations were more along the lines of, among other things, discreetly examining the door to see if it could be locked from without and scanning the ceiling and walls for subtle irregularities where a peep hole or even a hidden door might be. She really did not expect any trouble but in such a strange place one could never be too careful.
Satisfied the room held no nasty surprises, Xena walked over to the stand holding the ewer and poured herself a cup of water.
Her inspection now over as well, Gabrielle pronounced, "Nice place." She unshouldered her bag and dropped it down beside the bed. She then plopped herself down on the left side of the bed and cheerily declared, "I get this side." As if to validate her claim she laid down and stretched out her lithe frame.
"Uhh huhhh," Xena grunted, before draining the last of the contents of the cup.
"Wasn't it nice of them to give us such a fine room? asked Gabrielle, playfully bouncing her buttocks on the bed.
Xena shot her friend a wry look and said, "Yeah right, nice."
"Ohhh I know it was because we came with Neshi," said Gabrielle, with a grin. "But still, you must admit this is a whole lot better than those hammocks on Parsinion's ship."
"No argument here," Xena tersely replied.
Oh great, thought Gabrielle, she's in one of those uncommunicative moods again.
As usual the bard read her warrior correctly. Xena was in no mood to talk at the moment. She was in the mood for something else. Silently she walked around to "her" side of the bed. There she took off her sword and her breastplate and placed them within easy reach on the floor. The almost magical chakram was the next item to be removed and this Xena carefully propped up against the breastplate in order to insure she would quickly be able to get her fingers around it should the need arise.
"I was thinking...."
"Since Aloysius and Certes are going to accompany Neshi to Thebes now and since Neshi has already pretty much assured them they will be favorably received....."
Here Gabrielle paused. Xena, knowing full well where the bard was headed with this, raised an eyebrow and said, "Go on."
"Well it seems to me that, you know, it's no longer...necessary for....for us to go all the way to Thebes now. I mean, we could go back now, right?"
As Gabrielle spoke Xena's heart filled with pride and admiration for her little bard. Right now Gabrielle wanted more than anything to see Thebes and yet here she was, saying in her own way that it was all right with her if they turned back. Gabrielle, you selfless soul, she thought, proudly, no wonder I love you so much.
It was true. Gabrielle knew Xena was not really interested in making the long trip to Thebes and now that their unexpected encounter with Neshi had presented a way out she was gallantly offering the warrioress a chance to take it.
Xena, however, was not about to have any of it. The motive for her attitude now was exactly the same as Gabrielle's. That is, the decision now reached by each of them was based solely on what they knew the other wanted. Gabrielle wanted to go in the worst way but she was willing to seemingly beg out because she did not want Xena to be unhappy. Xena on the other hand most certainly did NOT want to go to Thebes. But because she knew how badly Gabrielle did want to go she was now prepared to not only let her beloved little bard have her way--again--but also to provide the means by which she could see Thebes with a clear conscience.
Her face as stoic as before, Xena replied, "Gabrielle, what are you talking about? You heard Neshi. He wants us to escort him back to Thebes."
"And besides, I told King Docticles, I would go, remember?"
"Gabrielle, I promised," said Xena, cutting her off again. "And you know better than anyone that when I make a promise..."
Here she conveniently let her words trail off but this was Gabrielle after all and Xena now found herself unable to keep up the tough act. Not that it mattered anyway. Even before seeing Xena's smile Gabrielle had seen right through her and understood exactly what she was doing.
"You keep it," Gabrielle softly said, finishing the sentence for her.
Xena eased down onto the bed and leaned over her bard. Her voice husky, Xena said the name that even now, after all this time rolled so sweetly off her tongue. "Gabrieeelle."
Xena parted her full lips and just before she covered Gabrielle's eager lips with her own the bard breathlessly whispered, "Oh, Xena, I love you so much!"
Feeling Xena's strong hand slip between her thighs, Gabrielle moaned softly and immediately drew her knees up, spreading them wide apart. "Ohhh, Xena," she lovingly cooed, as Xena's nimble fingers found her crotch. Very skillfully she began to work her magic on the bard and although the night was already very warm, for them it was now about to become simply torrid.
Neshi stretched his arm over Gabrielle's shoulder and pointed to the gleaming white mountains of stone looming in the distance. "Behold, Gabrielle," he said, proudly. "The Great Pyramid of Khufu!"
Without an interpreter Gabrielle had no idea what he was saying. Nevertheless, as she stood there in the speeding chariot--her hands gripping the side for dear life-- she understood very well the reason for the boastfulness in his voice. Gazing at the awesome structures that now seemed to be reaching to the very heavens, Gabrielle realized that he had every reason to be.
For her part Xena had thought it more than a little suspicious when Neshi insisted that Gabrielle ride in the chariot with him but had said nothing. However this did not prevent her from keeping the chancellor under close scrutiny all during the trip.
The plain was dominated by two gigantic pyramids of almost equal size together with another, markedly smaller one. Standing on the barren plain like a miniature mountain range, they were vivid reminders of the absolute power with which the Egyptian pharaohs ruled over this remarkable land. As their chariots were approaching from the east the pyramid Neshi had referred to, the "Pyramid of Khufu," lay to the extreme right, or north. Near its base Gabrielle saw three pyramids of much smaller dimensions all neatly aligned on a north-south axis. To the imaginative bard the sight almost looked like a mother and her three young.
While they were still some distance away Neshi loudly cried out a command and at once the drivers of all three of the thundering chariots reined in their horses. As the vehicles rolled to a stop Xena nimbly hopped off the chariot she had been riding in and strode over to the one containing Neshi and her bard. Joining them from the third chariot was the Cypriot envoy Aloysius who obviously was more than a little shaken from the pounding the heavy chariot had given him.
"By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle gasped, as she stepped down out of the chariot. "It's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen!"
Although she would have been loathe to admit it. especially to Neshi, Xena now found herself inclined to agree that they were truly an impressive sight.
But unlike the wide-eyed Gabrielle Xena did not express any admiration for what she saw. Instead she merely turned to Neshi and said, "Building these things must have put quite a strain on the country's resources, especially your manpower."
"It is said it took one hundred thousand men twenty years to build these two largest ones," Neshi replied.
"A hundred thousand, huh? That's a lot of slaves," was Xena's wry comment.
Neshi did not have to wait for Aloysius' translation in order to understand her tone of voice. With a faint, slightly condescending smile he said, "That is a gross misconception. While some of the laborers were of course convicts and prisoners of war and the like, most of the work force was in fact made up of ordinary peasant farmers. You see most of the work on the pyramids was done during the flood season when these people had very little to do anyway. Consequently they were only too glad for the opportunity to take part in the construction in return for a daily ration of food and beer."
"Why were they built?" asked Gabrielle.
"Why, as tombs, of course," said Neshi. "From there the great kings started their journey into the afterlife." He pointed to the northernmost one and said, "This one was built by Khufu. The one in the middle was built by his son, Khafre."
Hearing Neshi's answer Xena could not escape the feeling that this was not the whole truth but she decided not to press him on it. After all, it was of no real concern to her. She had no desire to be there in the first place.
Gabrielle tilted her head and, peering at the middle one, asked "That middle one, it's the tallest, right?"
Neshi shook his head and replied, "It only seems so because it was constructed on a higher plain. Actually it is about six cubits shorter than King Khufu's."
With her meticulous eye for detail Xena studied the great structures. After a few moments she turned to Neshi and said, "The base of those pyramids, they're perfectly aligned with the cardinal points, aren't they?"
As he listened to Aloysius' translation the chancellor looked at the warrioress first with surprise, then wonder. "Why yes," he replied. "Yes they are. How did you know that?"
For Gabrielle's part she too was eager to hear how Xena had reached this astonishing conclusion. Only now by looking at the pyramids a second time did she notice the corresponding base of each pyramid was aligned in the same direction. This in itself was no great feat of observation but she wondered how Xena knew they were perfectly aligned with the cardinal points.
But if she was looking for any great revelation she was disappointed for Xena's only reply was a slight shrug of the shoulders as she said, "I just know."
Neshi studied her with something akin to guarded amusement for a moment before continuing. "The three great pyramids were built over a thousand years ago by three successive pharaohs. As I stated earlier this first one, the greatest one, was built by Khufu, or Cheops as you Greeks call him. It contains over two million limestone blocks. Each side of its base measures four hundred and forty royal cubits and it stands four hundred and eighty-one cubits high."
"Those three little pyramids standing in front there, what are they for?" asked Gabrielle.
"For the most favored of his wives, of course," answered Neshi.
"Ohhh," said the bard with a solemn nod of the head.
"The middle one was built by Khufu's son, Khafre or, Chephren as he is known to you. His pyramid is only slightly smaller in size than his father's. It measures four hundred and eleven royal cubits at the base and stands almost two hundred and seventy-five cubits high."
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully and then turned her attention to the least of the imposing pyramids. "Why is that one so much smaller than the others?"
Sensing a perfect opening here to nettle their humorless host, Xena wryly retorted, "Declining influence on the part of the pharaohs perhaps?"
"Nonsense," sniffed Neshi, only slightly bristling. "For a king Menkaure was a surprisingly simple man. Accordingly his needs for the afterlife were less grandiose than his predecessors."
"Uhh huhhh," replied Xena, suppressing a smirk. She knew enough of Egyptian history to know there had been numerous occasions--almost always attributable to sustained periods of unusually low flooding by the Nile--when the pharaoh's power and prestige had waned to the point that centralized government had splintered and the two Egypts, Upper and Lower, had once again broken apart. The king's relationship to the Nile was in effect a double-edged sword. As first the "Son of Ra" and later the god Amen, it was believed he controlled the annual floods that renewed the land. In times of high flooding and the subsequent plentiful crops the king was accordingly given all the plaudits that his grateful people felt he so richly deserved. On the other hand sustained low flooding meant poor crops and eventually famine. If these periods lasted long enough eventually the pharaohs would become discredited because their power rested in a large part on this belief that they controlled the Nile's floods.
Neshi chose to ignore Xena's last remark and, turning southward, pointed toward the enigmatic statue that had intrigued men for centuries. "The Great Sphinx," he said, "is part of Khafre's complex but there are those who say its existence predates even the great pyramids. Even our scribes do not know its true age for certain." Stretching an arm out over the entire plain in a great arc, he added, "It is said that the morning sun's reflection off the pyramids can be seen as far away as the hills of Palestine."
Gabrielle swept her eyes over the plain and again marveled at the magnificence and grandeur of the place. The splendor of the pyramids, great and small, the Sphinx, the mortuary temples, all of it made the scene almost too much to comprehend. "It's breathtaking," she said, softly.
Xena, though far more accustomed to witnessing such grandeur than was her bard, nevertheless was properly impressed. The pyramids were a marvelous feat of organization and engineering. Even so, the practical side of her nature could not help but cause her to reflect on what she perceived to have been a gigantic waste. Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure and dozens more just like them had diverted so much of this country's talent and treasure from other projects which would surely have been more useful to the people than these imposing piles of stone and for what? To perpetuate their own names.
Of course having held absolute power herself she knew how intoxicating it could be. Even now she could remember how she much she had enjoyed bending others to her will; the way those properly awed underlings had fawned over her while terrified victims groveled at her feet, pleading for mercy. And she knew well enough she too would have caused great monuments to be erected in her honor had she carried through on her dreams of conquest. And yet as she looked at the great pyramids she could not bring herself to admire them. In fact in some strange way she was even a little revolted by the great works.
For a time the four individuals, Xena, Gabrielle, Neshi and Aloysius, stood there in silence, washed by the warm rays of the mid-morning sun. Truly was one of the wonders of the world. Unfortunately poor Certes was not here to enjoy the stunning panorama. He had not made the trip because he had suddenly come down with a rather nasty case of diarrhea.
After a few moments Neshi cleared his throat and asked "Do you wish to go up for a closer look, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle did not reply at first but simply continued staring at the pyramids, particularly the two belonging to Khufu and Khafre. Although she did not know these were in fact the two tallest man made structures in the world she was nonetheless simply amazed by the image majestic of power they projected. Finally, with her eyes still fixed on the dazzling white mountains of stone she softly replied, "No. No, that's all right."
"Are you sure?" Xena asked, a little surprised by the bard's answer.
Only now did Gabrielle avert her eyes from the awesome spectacle. "Umm, yeah," she said. She then turned to look at another thing of wondrous beauty--her warrior's face. "I'm sure. I--I just wanted to see them for once in my life, that's all." What she did not say was that although this was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream for her she was not beginning to feel a little bit uncomfortable here. Perhaps it was the magnificence of the place, perhaps it was what that magnificence represented, perhaps it was the human cost of constructing it--she could not say for sure. What she did know was that she had seen the place an though it was a magnificent sight she was ready to move on. For all its splendor this was, after all, a place of death, an opulent graveyard.
With a polite nod to Neshi she said, "Thank you, you've been very kind."
"Okaaay," Xena drawled, "if that's what you want."
Watching the two women interact Neshi was again taken by how this seemingly simple peasant girl, this slave, seemed to hold so much sway over the supremely gifted warrior woman. Of course he was no fool. A man did not become chancellor of the two lands of Kemet by being a fool. This Gabrielle was not a slave. He realized that now. He also understood that the relationship she and the warrior woman shared went far beyond simple friendship. Certainly mistress and slave did not lose themselves in each other's eyes the way these two so obviously did. With a twinge of regret he now knew there would be no offer forthcoming on his part to buy the beautiful fair-haired woman. Xena would more likely part with her own life than give up Gabrielle.
A pity, he thought. She would have been an exquisite adornment to my bed. With that he climbed back into his chariot---alone this time except for his stoic driver. Already Gabrielle was standing in Xena's chariot with the proud warrior woman right behind her, standing so close as to lightly brush against the fair-haired one's shapely buttocks. The wily Neshi knew it was no accident.
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