"Let me build the ships first," said Xena. "Then we'll talk about it."
Hatshepsut knew she ought to have been annoyed by Xena's coyness but she just...couldn't. "Very well," she replied extending her hand, "when the ships are built. You have my word."
"Okay," said Xena, taking the hand, we have a deal then."
The two women were in the process of shaking hands over their agreement when from outside the curtains they heard first a new voice--sharp, commanding--then the higher pitched, pleading cries of the scribe. This was followed hard by a sharp crack and an unmistakable cry of pain from the scribe. Hatshepsut shot to her feet, beaten in this only by the wink of an eye by Xena who now instinctively placed herself between Hatshepsut and the disturbance.
Quickly the warrioress strode to the entrance. As she thrust the curtains apart she heard another sharp crack. Outside she saw a man, tall and thin with a face marked by wrinkles, standing over the whimpering scribe who was on the floor desperately trying to cover himself with hands. In the man's hand was one of those flails Xena had seen pictured so often in Egyptian artwork. He raised his hand again and as he poised to once more strike the poor scribe he felt something seize his wrist. The force seemed to be like that of the jaws of a crocodile. Crying out it pain, he turned and saw the same strange woman that had been at court earlier that day.
"I wouldn't," Xena snarled. Her anger was still smoldering at the moment but fast approaching the point where she would no longer care about something so trivial as a language barrier. After all, pain was a universal language and no one was more fluent in it than the Warrior Princess. Although she had once been its most artful practitioner, nothing provoked Xena faster now than witnessing the strong victimize the weak.
"Senenmut!" Hatshepsut barked out. "Have you taken leave of your senses?" She sought out and made visual contact with Xena, turning her hand over in a palms up gesture that indicated she should release the man. Xena complied but not before giving him a sharp little shove in the back for good measure.
Rubbing his throbbing wrist, Senenmut glared at Xena for a moment and then, pointing at Ankarad, rasped out, "This perverted wretch has dared to defile your chambers with his filthy presence! I caught him right here--right by your very person."
"Don't be a fool," said Hatshepsut in sharp rebuke. "He was there because I commanded it."
"Are you all right?" Xena asked, kneeling down to the scribe.
The unfortunate fellow nodded stiffly that he was but Xena could see he was still very shaken by the attack. "Come on," she softly coaxed. She then slipped her forearm under his armpit and effortlessly hoisted him to his feet.
Her anger rising, Hatshepsut caustically cut Senenmut off. "The scribe was here because I bade him to come and that is all you need to know."
Properly chastised, Senenmut meekly acknowledged, "I am in error. Please forgive me, Great Goddess."
Ignoring him, Hatshepsut abruptly turned to Xena and said, "We will discuss this further tomorrow. You will--" She paused and what she said next astounded both the exalted Senenmut and the lowly scribe. "That is to say--can you come again tomorrow. Same time?"
Senenmut was aghast. It was simply inconceivable for a pharaoh, God/King of all Egypt, to ask for anything!
"I'll be here," Xena assured her.
"Good. I am pleased then. Now it has been a long day and I am tired. Leave me, all of you."
It was Senenmut again and again he was forcefully cut off. "All of you!" Hatshepsut sharply repeated as she glared at him.
"As you wish, Great Pharaoh," and he respectfully bowed his head.
To Xena there was an obvious look of disappointment on his face. It was a plain as Gabrielle's pyramids back in Giza. Hatshepsut's rebuke had been acerbic enough but still it left the warrioress with the suspicion that this man might be more than just another minister. She rather doubted that it was the king's habit to conduct affairs of state in her own bedroom. Other affairs...maybe.
Just as the three of them turned to leave Xena heard Hatshepsut call her name once more. "Yes?" she answered.
Senenmut stopped as well, turning back hopefully to face his pharaoh but one withering glance from her was all it took to convince him that any further delay in his departure would not be in his best interests. "I will send for you when I want you," she curtly told him.
The scribe, familiar with the machinations of the court, decided to let this pass without interpretation. Senenmut nodded stiffly and took his leave.
Watching him depart, Hatshepsut idly remarked, "A very useful vassal. Sometimes, though, he forgets his place." Having already dismissed him from her presence, she now expunged him from her thoughts as well and focused in once more on the fascinating "Destroyer of Nations."
"I have changed my mind," she said. "Instead of waiting until dusk can you come tomorrow morning? Before court?"
"If you like," said Xena.
"You may call me Hatshepsut if you like," said the pharaoh. "I am eager to hear how your plan to perform this miracle of shipbuilding."
"It's no miracle," said Xena. "Just something I learned back in my sailing days."
"I must admit I am becoming excited by this," said Hatshepsut, in a voice low and husky. "Still, even exciting things must wait their turn. You are an extraordinary woman, Xena. I look forward to getting to know you better." She turned her nose slightly up in the air and said, "Tomorrow morning."
Naturally Xena took this as her cue and so again she turned to go.
"And next time bring your little friend," said Hatshepsut. "I wish to meet the one whom the mighty Warrior Princess loves so." Startled by this, Xena stopped and turned back. She then saw the pharaoh break into a triumphant little smile. "You see, Xena," she purred, "I too am perceptive."
Xena said nothing and without another word Hatshepsut slipped through the slit in her curtains and disappeared.
"Well," Xena muttered, under her breath, "that was interesting."
In awe of the occasion the scribe said, "I shall remember this night for all the days of my life." He smiled sheepishly at Xena and said, "Thank you for coming to my defense."
"Don't mention it," said Xena, tersely. She looked him over for a moment and then asked "Just what is your name anyway?"
"Ankarad, Great Warrioress."
"Cut that foolishness out," said Xena, chiding him. "My name is Xena."
"But I heard with my own ears....you are now a favored one of the king. Therefore I must show you the proper respect."
Xena folded her arms and looked sternly at the scribe. "You heard what I said." Letting her voice trail off for effect she added, "Otherwise, if you think Senenmut was bad...."
With great reluctance Ankarad said, "Very well...Xena."
"There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
How very strange she is! he thought. How utterly unpretentious for one so renowned. Like the servant woman before him, Ankarad respectfully backed his way out of the room. He and Xena exited to the dimly lit anteroom where they encountered this same dour woman. Apparently she had been waiting there the entire time. As soon as she saw the two of them she arose from the divan and without a work re-entered the bedroom of her mistress.
"So, what do you normally do around here?" Xena asked, as she and the scribe stepped once more into the great, treasure-filled hall.
Ankarad put his hands together and with a rueful voice replied, "Nothing very important, I assure you. Primarily I copy routine documents but I am also granted the privilege of performing all sorts of other, just as menial tasks."
"Sounds boring," said Xena, making a face.
"To be sure," Ankarad said with a chuckle. "You know, sometimes I dream of journeying down the great Nile to the sea. There I might find work on a trading ship. Imagine, being able to travel to strange lands, meet other peoples! You said you used to sail, Xena, so tell me...is it exciting? Is it a good life? Do you think I could do it?"
Xena took one look at his delicate hands, his thin shoulders and slight build and knew he would not last a day as a sailor. Having no wish to hurt his feelings or give him any false hopes she answered him as tactfully as she could. "Working on a ship is tough business," she began. "It's not glamorous, it's hard. The work is very rigorous, the water bad, and a lot of the time the food is barely fit to eat. A ship is filled with potential dangers. One misstep on a slick deck in a storm or one slip while up in the rigging and you're a dead man." With a kindly smile she squeezed his shoulder with her strong hand and said, "I haven't even gotten to those twenty cubit oars yet."
"Oh. I see. I had no idea it was such a hard life. I guess I should have known."
"It's not for everybody," Xena gently concurred. In spite of her discouragement she understood his yearning for adventure. It was something that had been part of her all her life. When she was nine she coerced her baby brother into joining her in a raid--her very first--on their neighbor's apple tree. When she was twelve she kissed her first boy--a very great adventure! At fourteen to win a bet two friends watched while she stole her way into a temple in nearby Mycinion and created an uproar by leaving behind the bust of Hermes turned upside down on its head. At sixteen she became the first person to survive the dive into the River Strymon from off the sixty cubit promontory appropriately known as "Death Rock."
Two short years later she won her first battle.
"Still, I like boats," said Ankarad. "I always have. I like being around them."
"You do, huh?" Maybe we can put that to good use, thought Xena. "You say you copy things. Does that mean drawings as well?"
"Yeah, technical stuff like layouts, floor plans, that sort of thing."
"Certainly," he replied. With a measure of pride he went on, "When the Chief Architect built the last addition to the Temple of Amen it was I who was entrusted by the overseers with producing additional copies."
"Yes, he is in charge of all major construction."
"Not all of it," Xena corrected him. "But as long as he stays out of my way we'll get along just fine. Still, I guess I should have a talk with him."
"You already have," said Ankarad.
Instantly Xena caught his meaning. "Don't tell me..."
"I am afraid so," he said. "The Chief Architect is none other than Senenmut himself."
Just what I need, thought Xena.
For a time the scribe and the warrioress in silence negotiated the maze of corridors that led back out to the courtyard. Finally Xena asked "Where did you learn Greek?"
"It was my father's doing," he said. "He didn't want me to end up in the quarry like him so he somehow scraped together money to hire a tutor for me. The money soon ran out but the tutor thought me gifted enough that he kept me on all the same. It was under him I learned to write. He also taught me mathematics, a little astronomy, and yes, how to speak Greek."
"Your father was a wise man," said Xena.
At last reaching the door leading to the outside, Ankarad it pushed open. As he did Xena felt the cool breeze brush across her cheek. "Thank you again, Xena, for your intervention," he said. "I am most grateful. Good-bye."
"I wouldn't say that just yet," said Xena, smiling faintly. "Remember, I'm still going to need an interpreter."
With a polite bow he replied, "I will be honored to assist you in any way I can. And now I must bid you good night." And with that the barefoot Ankarad slipped away into the darkness.
Xena found her just where she had left her; sitting alone now on the stone wall, her lithe figure silhouetted by the faint glow of light from distant Thebes. Gabrielle had worked her story out some time ago and the curious servants, having lost interest in her, had long since returned to their duties. Since then the bard had been content to quietly sit there on her perch and watch as one by one the little yellow points of light winked and flickered to life all across the city.
Idly lost in thought with her back to the palace, she did not hear Xena as she approached cat-like in the darkness. For a moment Xena stood there, silently watching her from a mere five paces away. There, in the darkness, Gabrielle seemed so small!
Gabrielle sneezed and from behind Xena smiled warmly as she saw her vigorously rub her nose with the back of her hand. Gabrielle always did that after sneezing and it was just one more little reminder of what was really important in this world. For all the gods, kings, pharaohs, ships filled with gold--all the armies of the earth were not worth one lock of hair off the head of this loving soul, this precious...life. Gods, Gabrielle! I do love you so!
Not wishing to startle her bard, Xena loudly scraped the sole of her boot across the paving stones.
"Xena!" Gabrielle whipped her lissome frame around and hopped down off the low wall.
"Gabrielle, you'd make a terrible sentry," Xena dryly observed.
Ignoring this, Gabrielle eagerly prodded, "What did you talk about? Is it something big like you thought?"
"It's big all right," said Xena.
"So what is it?"
"You'd never guess in a million years," said Xena, playfully stalling.
"I don't want to guess," said Gabrielle, emphatically. "Tell me!"
"You're not going to believe it," Xena teasingly replied.
Gabrielle, however, was not about to brook any further delay. She whacked Xena's muscular biceps hard with the back of her hand and growled, "Tell me!" However the bard forgot this was no ordinary female arm. Immediately her hand buzzed with a burning, tingling sensation; then numbness. "Owww!" she yelped, as she covered up her stinging hand with her good one. Had Gabrielle been able to distinctly see Xena's face she would have seen those same arched eyebrows and that same look of amusement she had so often seen before.
"Haven't you learned better by now?" Xena drawled.
"I guess not," the bard whimpered. She then held the offending hand out and shook it vigorously. Fortunately for her the numbness began to fade soon enough.
Although she would never admit it Xena always liked it when her bard displayed this kind of fire. She admired Gabrielle's grit and courage so much and her feeling was that it was good for her to be able to vent like this now and again.
Very casually Xena said, "We've got a job."
"A job? What kind of job?"
"You and I are going into the shipbuilding business," said Xena.
"We are? Really?"
"Yep. The pharaoh wants six ships ready for sailing from the port of Quseir within two moons."
"And she wants you to build them? Can you do it?" Already in the bard's psyche she had unflinchingly adopted Xena's new course of action as her own.
"Can we do it?" Xena pointedly corrected her.
In the darkness Gabrielle grinned and said, "All right, can we do it?"
"If they stay out of our way we can," replied Xena. "Hatshepsut says we can write our own bill."
"What does she want them for?" asked Gabrielle.
"A trading mission to Punt," said Xena.
"Punt? You mean there actually is such a place?" Gabrielle asked. "I always thought it was just a mythical place."
"It's real all right," said Xena, turning toward the steps. Gabrielle in kind turned with her and together the two of them crossed over the huge paving stones and down the long flight of steps.
As they neared the bottom Gabrielle asked "What made you change your mind?"
"Let's just say it's a solidarity thing."
"Never mind, Gabrielle," said Xena, gently.
"All right then, be cryptic if you want," said Gabrielle, feigning nonchalance. "But then, maybe you tell me this much, Miss Shipwright."
"Yeah? What's that?"
Just where are we sleeping tonight?"
A good question, she thought. With a shrug of resignation she turned to the bard
and said, "Damned if I know."
Coyly Hatshepsut smiled and brushed away the hand fondling her breast. "Really, Senenmut," she purred, "you should not take these things so personally." Pulling herself away from his arms, she coolly strolled across her bedroom to the plush divan.
"I do not understand why you felt it necessary to obtain the services of that, that..." He almost said "woman" but caught his tongue at the last instant. Instead he finished his sentence with a disdainful "Greek."
Easing herself down on the divan, Hatshepsut's perceptive ear caught the near gaffe but fortunately for her libidinous servant she was not in a reproachful mood. Indeed her mind at the moment was one of a far different inclination as she leisurely lowered her lean, naked body down into a reclining a position. "Senenmut," she sighed, Your eyes see, your ears hear, yet your ka recognizes nothing. Are you that incognizant?"
"My soul has nothing to do with it," replied Senenmut, as firmly as he dared. "All I know is for some mysterious reason my king has chosen to believe the boastful lies of a foreigner."
Quickly then he strode over and resolutely sat himself down on the floor beside the divan. "Remember this woman's history," he entreated. "She is a barbarian, a...demon!"
"She is gifted beyond words," said Hatshepsut.
"She is a murderer of untold thousands."
"I have studied her too, Senenmut. She is a genius."
With a trace of sarcasm he asked "Has this genius explained to you just how she will accomplish this miracle? It would take two moons just to cut and transport the necessary timbers overland to Quseir."
"She has assured me it can be done."
"She will seek to destroy you; perhaps even our entire civilization."
Placing emphasis on each and every word, Hatshepsut said, "She will build my ships." Hatshepsut turned on her side and propped her head up on her elbow. Her voice softening, she asked "Senenmut, are you blind? Do you not see the hand of Amen here?"
Leaning forward, Senenmut lightly kissed the fingers of the pharaoh's left hand. "I only see the hand of my king," he softly answered.
Hatshepsut, however, would not allow herself to be so easily placated. "Then you are a fool. Think on it. Insignificant Cyprus sends us envoys, one of whom just happens to be the legendary Warrior Princess. What was she doing there? Cyprus is a land that she ordinarily would not dirty her fingernails over. What prompted their king to ask her here in the first place? Why did she agree? Then, on the way here she chooses to stop in a simple farming village whereby she is afforded the opportunity to save Neshi's life. Do you not find these things strange?"
"They are merely coincidences," said Senenmut, unconvinced.
Slightly incensed by his stubbornness, Hatshepsut firmly countered, "It is divine intervention. Amen has always favored me. Now he has graciously provided me with the instrument by which my defining moment, my crowning achievement will be attained. I will sweep those worms who would dare oppose me upon the dung pile of oblivion." Boring her intense dark eyes into his, she repeated, "Xena will build my ships."
Knowing her as he did, Senenmut understood it would now be extremely unwise to carry the discussion any further. Yes it was true she favored him above all others but when his king was provoked even he was not immune to her anger.
Deflated, he meekly replied, "Yes, Great Lord."
Pleased by his deference, Hatshepsut's method of rewarding his obedience was to patronize him. Pushing out her lower lip in a pout, she said, "Do not worry, Senenmut. I will see to it you receive recognition for this project in some manner."
It was small comfort the man known as the "Greatest of the Great."
"But enough of Greeks, and gods and ships," she suddenly said. Sitting up, she slid her hips to the edge of the divan.
It took no great scholar to understand what she wanted now so Senenmut obediently knelt before her and bent forward. His pharaoh nimbly set her heels upon his shoulders and spread her knees wide apart. Staring down at her glistening vulva, he thought, By all the gods in heaven! There is none so beautiful as she!
Her voice low and husky, Hatshepsut said, "Nothing I desire will be denied me,
slave." Placing the two middle fingers of her right hand to the back of his head, she
then regally pulled the head of the obsequious man down between her thighs. As his tongue
found its royal mark she repeated with a lascivious purr, "Nothing."
At precisely the same moment, barely three stadiums distance away, Gabrielle lay lurching and quaking in ecstasy. The mission completed, her warrior raised her head up from between those taut thighs she loved to tease with her tongue.
"Gods, Xena! the bard gasped. "How do you do that?" Four and a half years now and still Gabrielle was continually amazed and awed by how talented and versatile Xena's lips and tongue were.
Xena slowly, salaciously licked her lips and said, "Gabrielle, I have many skills."
"Mmmmm, don't I know it," the bard dreamily replied.
Rising to her knees, Xena sat back on her heels and with a wanton smile forcefully plunged her long middle finger deep within her bard's drenched crotch. Gabrielle responded by whimpering a soft "Ohhhh" as she bucked up her hips in pleasure.
After a small amount of deliberation, the two of them had chosen to spend the night here in this rather comfortable inn situated on one of the city's main thoroughfares. Xena knew Neshi undoubtedly would have been more than happy to again provide lodging for them and in fact he had expected them back. However Xena's choice was based more on convenience than anything else. Neshi's grand home lay all the way across on the south side of Thebes and to her it made little sense to trudge all the way over there only to have to return right back here in the morning. For some reason this made her think of her beloved Argo.
Fortunately this place had been handy; they had money and that was that.
Slowly Xena began to extract her finger from her lover's vagina. Gabrielle, reluctant to give up the sweet digit, lifted her pelvis up off the bed in order to follow it. Unfortunately her hips could only go so far and all too soon Xena's finger was free. Lying below her, Gabrielle saw Xena delicately insert the finger into her mouth, her lips reaching all the way to the hand. Slowly then the warrioress pulled the finger back out, her cheeks sunken as she sucked hard on it.
Enraptured by this, Gabrielle softly cried, "By the gods, Xena, you are sooooo beautiful!"
Xena's only answer was a brilliant smile as she bent her broad, powerful shoulders low over her precious bard.
Her chest heaving with renewed excitement over this magnificent creature, Gabrielle again spoke. This time her voice was but a breathless whisper. "Ohh, Xena, I love you so!"
Those full lips Gabrielle adored parted and just before they pressed down upon her own she heard a soft, "Shhhh." For the first time in almost a moon the two lovers were completely free to once again explore every last inch of each other's body. For the two of them the night was only the beginning.
The stoic palace guardsman pushed open the door and with a curt nod indicated that the warrioress and the bard had at last reached their destination. He, not Ankarad, had served as their guide this morning through the palace maze leaving Xena to wonder if Senenmut had not seen to it that further punishment had in some way been meted out to the young man. In any case, she resolved to find out.
During the previous evening's visit to the palace Xena had mentally mapped out every last twist and turn along her convoluted route. On this already very warm morning, however, she recognized right away that she and Gabrielle were being led through an entirely different part of the massive edifice. At last they turned a corner and were espied by a man who stood up from his seat on a plain wooden bench and strode purposefully toward them. "I am Khafra," he said. "I will be the king's interpreter."
Narrowing her eyelids to mere slits, Xena suspiciously asked "What happened to Ankarad?"
"It is I who have been blessed by our omnipotent king with the appointment to serve as the Greek interpreter," Khafra pompously declared. "As I only returned to Thebes this morning I was naturally unavailable for your interview with her last night. The scribe is but a mere civil servant, with the emphasis on the servant."
Who is this guy? thought Gabrielle.
With a contemptuous sniff he then said, "It makes me shudder to think that our beloved Maatkare was forced to utilize the services of one so uneducated, so...base; a mere clerk."
By now Xena had learned that arrogance was something the Egyptians were not short of. In this they reminded her of the Spartans. Irked now by this most recent display she decided to take this pompous bastard down a peg. She brushed past the huge guard standing at the door and imitating Callisto's menacing, girlish giggle, said, "Then you'd better get a blanket, junior, because I have a feeling Ankarad is going to be seeing a whole lot more of Maatkare than you are."
"Maatkare?" Gabrielle asked, wrinkling her nose. "Who's that?"
"It's Hatshepsut's throne name, remember?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot," said the bard. "Gee, she has so many names and titles it's hard to keep up with them all."
With a sly grin Xena said, "Just don't be like Aloysius and call her queen."
She looked hard at Khafra and with the same mocking giggle, said, "Come along,
Gabrielle, the king awaits."
With Gabrielle in tow, Xena entered the room. Hatshepsut was seated behind a long, beautifully crafted wooden table in a high--backed chair gilded with gold. Flanking her on either side were the standing figures of a man whom Xena had not seen before...and Senenmut. While she was not surprised to see the sullen man here--he was the Chief Architect after all--his presence nevertheless bothered her a little. As one highly experienced in dealing with those in positions of power she had seen his type all too often. Indeed there had been enough of them under her command--men who, while ardently professing devoted allegiance to their chieftain, were in reality loyal to no one but themselves and their own hungry dreams of power. Like Senenmut they were already well placed in the upper hierarchy of the command structure but that was not enough for them. Like ravenous hyenas tearing at a carcass they wanted it all. Senenmut had that same look about him. This man was trouble and she knew it.
In contrast Hatshepsut's relatively muted dress at court yesterday, Xena observed that today the pharaoh's attire was much more elegant, much more feminine. On this day the false beard was nowhere to be seen. She was wearing a long, snugly fitting dress that accentuated the graceful curves of her slender body. It was very similar to the one of last night except this one was much more finely woven. Its color was a beautiful sky blue with intricate white embroidering around the hem and the short sleeves. Her makeup was considerably more elaborate as well. Particular attention had been given to emphasizing her high cheekbones and to highlighting her piercing eyes. The eyebrows were heavily outlined in black coupled with eyelids shaded to match the color of her gown. Around her neck she wore the traditional wide collar Xena had seen on other, less prominent Egyptian officials. This one, however, was made of solid gold. She wore no headdress and her dark hair, long and straight, fell unfettered upon her slim shoulders. To Gabrielle it seemed as if not one single hair was out of place.
In awe the bard gazed upon this the pharaoh, divinity personified to her people; sitting erect, her proud chin lifted slightly. There was no doubt about it. Hatshepsut, the all-powerful Lady of the Two Lands, was an extremely handsome woman!
Whereas the romantic bard saw in her beauty and grace, the shrewd warrioress saw something else again. She saw power, and courage, and a ruthless sense of purpose. These things were hardly foreign to her. This was state business. This was Hatshepsut's undertaking and that made it Egypt's undertaking. What she wanted from Xena was something very close to her heart and the spectacularly regal appearance was simply one more way of reinforcing that message to the Greek warrioress. It reaffirmed the power of the Egyptian throne and it's ability to influence events--and people.
As to be expected it was the king who spoke first. Her dark eyes falling upon Xena, she said, "Neshi tells me you did not return to his home last night. Was something wrong?"
"No," Xena replied. "We decided it would be best if we found a place nearer the palace--for the sake of convenience."
"If I had known that is what you desired I would have insisted you stay here," said Hatshepsut. "However I trust you slept well."
Why does she truckle to this barbarian?! Senenmut wondered. In the back of his mind a possible explanation nagged at him. However it was one which he fervently hoped was wrong. Could it possibly be that she...likes this beast? The mere idea of it appalled him.
Eyes shining in sweet remembrance of the night just past, Xena looked at her bard and said, "Couldn't have been better."
The pleasantries over now, Hatshepsut got straight to business. "I would like to hear your plan for the construction of my ships."
Courtesy or no, Senenmut could not contain himself. "So would I," he said with a smirk.
Her hand nothing but a blur, Xena reached up behind her head and withdrew her sword from its scabbard. Both Senenmut and the other man recoiled in shock and alarm at the sight of the big, razor sharp blade but Hatshepsut never so much as blinked. Instead she allowed her impassive face to form an outline of a smile as she intently stared at the Warrior Princess.
Nonchalantly Xena tossed the sword from her right hand into her left and returned the pharaoh's smile with one of her own. She then extended the now empty right hand out palm up to the bard and said, "Gabrielle."
"Right," the bard answered, with a nod. In a wink Gabrielle thrust her hand into her shoulder bag and produced a scroll which she immediately plopped into Xena's waiting hand.
Xena strolled over to the table and, using her sword to keep the curled edges in place, stretched the scroll out on the table in front of Hatshepsut. With great interest the pharaoh leaned forward to study the scroll. What she saw was a map of Upper Egypt and Nubia. It was extremely accurate and finely detailed--right down to the placement of the cataracts in the Nile River.
Hatshepsut glanced up from the map. "I have never seen better," she marveled. "Where did you get this?"
"I drew it last night at the inn," said Xena. "It's based on a map I saw at Neshi's home."
"You drew this from memory?"
"Is there nothing you cannot do?" Hatshepsut asked, with wonder.
Caught up in the middle of Hatshepsut's praise for her warrior, Gabrielle blurted out, "She has many skills."
The dark eyes shifted their focus from Xena to her diminutive companion and for the first time Gabrielle experienced what it was like to fall under the power of her royal gaze. "Uhh...sorry," she sheepishly stammered.
This little one adores the warrioress, thought Hatshepsut. As intelligent as the king was she hardly needed the wisdom of Nut to see that. It was all too obvious just from the way the girl looked at Xena.
Mercifully for Gabrielle, Xena spoke again and the dark eyes turned away from her, releasing her from their spell.
"The problem," Xena began, "is of course the timber."
"I must say you are a master at stating the obvious," sniffed Senenmut.
Much as one would speak to restless child, Hatshepsut warned, "Senenmut, if cannot contribute anything constructive then we have no need of you here."
Senenmut was aghast. His king had never spoken to him that way in public before. What is it about this Greek bitch that causes her to have such a hold on Hatshepsut?
"Go on," Hatshepsut urged with a nod.
"Now," said Xena, continuing, "it's my assumption that most of the high grade timber needed for ship construction would be brought up from Nubia, right?"
"That is correct," said the other man. This was Sennefer, a man of considerable ability whom Hatshepsut would one day appoint as the mayor of Thebes.
"My engineers tell me it will take at least three moons just to amass enough timber at Quseir to build the ships and the necessary docks to support them," said Hatshepsut.
"I'm sure that would be true," Xena blandly replied. "If the timber was going that far."
Hatshepsut closed on eye and looked askance at her. "What do you mean?"
"Those timbers won't be going to Quseir," explained Xena.
"Where then?" Senenmut asked, incredulously. "The desert?"
With an enigmatic smile Xena replied, "In a way." She pointed a long finger to a dot on the map. "Here," she said. "Coptos."
For Hatshepsut the mounting sense of anticipation was just too great. She could take the suspense no longer. Rising out of her seat, she stamped her foot in frustration. "Tell me!" she cried, almost pleading.
"Have the framing timbers and the planking taken to Coptos," said Xena. "That's where we're going to build the ships."
"You're mad!" exclaimed Senenmut. "What good are sea going vessels this far up the Nile? And for that matter, why Coptos?"
With more restraint and infinitely more insight, Sennefer suddenly looked at Xena and asked "The road?"
Giving him a nod of approval, Xena said, "That's right. We'll take advantage of that big road that runs from Coptos to Quseir."
"But how, Xena?" Hatshepsut eagerly asked.
"We'll build the ships in Coptos," Xena repeated. She then paused before dropping the fire bomb. "In sections. While we're doing that somebody else can shore up the docks at Quseir. Then, when we're finished the individual sections can be transported overland to Quseir and assembled there. That way you kill two birds with one stone."
Brilliant! thought Sennefer. Why hadn't anyone ever thought of that before?
"It will never work," scoffed Senenmut.
"It will work," Xena forcefully countered him.
"And just how would you know?"
Her voice low and throaty, Xena rasped, "Because I've done it before." On one occasion back in her pirate days she had returned from a successful moon of raiding on the Propontis Sea only to discover the enraged Phrygians had blockaded the narrow Hellespont, the only western exit from the Propontis. Effectively bottled up, Xena had stubbornly refused to admit defeat. To her abandoning her ship to attempt an overland escape was not an option so she had ordered the whole thing taken apart; ship, treasure and all was carried over the narrow Chersonese Peninsula to the blue green waters of the Thracian Sea and safety. Granted her ship had been considerably smaller than what Hatshepsut was expecting her to build now but given the money and the manpower that had been placed at her disposal she saw no reason to think she would be any less successful.
Eyes twinkling with excitement, Hatshepsut said, "This plan becomes you, Xena. It will be as you say."
"Great Pharaoh," Senenmut doggedly persisted, "I am the Chief Architect and I say this is doomed to failure."
"And I say you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground!" snapped Xena.
However the flabbergasted Khafra did not immediately translate this. Senenmut, catching Xena's tone if not her meaning, looked to the suddenly very uncomfortable Khafra. "I--I can't tell him that," pleaded Khafra.
Not taking her blazing eyes off Senenmut Xena grimly said, "You tell him. Tell him word for word." In Xena's mind there was room for only one leader of this project and it certainly was not going to be this pompous bastard.
Dutifully Khafra complied but not before stumbling a little over the reference to the Chief Architect's "back door."
At Xena's side Gabrielle intently watched the three Egyptians behind the table, wondering what their reaction would be. Sennefer's face did not betray his sense of gratification as he thought, It is about time someone put that arrogant ass in his place.
The bard then saw Hatshepsut lower her chin slightly and put a curled index finger to her lips. Gabrielle rather suspected the delicate cough that followed was meant to suppress a laugh.
Senenmut was not laughing. Face red, his voice nearly choking with rage, he said, "Great Pharaoh, I should not be insulted in this manner by this, this...savage! I implore Your Majesty to do something!"
"You are right," his pharaoh calmly replied. "Something should be done."
Senenmut's expression of smug expectancy turned suddenly to one of shock and total dismay when Hatshepsut mildly added, "You are dismissed."
Gabrielle thought his eyes were going to pop right out of his head.
Gaping at Hatshepsut in utter disbelief, Senenmut tried to protest but his tongue simply would not obey him. "But..."
"Go!" Hatshepsut sharply ordered. "Now!"
For the stunned Senenmut there was nothing left but to obey. Fixing his eyes on the door, too ashamed to look at Sennefer or his king--too enraged to look at Xena--he briskly and with as much dignity as he could muster walked straight out of the room.
"There now," said Hatshepsut, after he had gone. "Peace at last." Now that she had removed the quarrelsome thorn in their side, Hatshepsut once again turned to Xena's proposal. Turning to Sennefer, she asked "How long before we have ship's timber and planking arriving in Coptos?"
Sennefer's analytical mind made the necessary mental calculations and the answer was, "Ten days, Lord."
"That is acceptable," she pronounced. To Xena she then announced, "I am giving you Sennefer here. He is a man of excellent ability and has a special talent for getting things done under duress."
Humbled by his king's praise, Sennefer said, "I am overwhelmed by my sovereign's confidence in me."
Dark Egyptian eyes searched out their icy blue Greek counterparts and Hatshepsut added the qualifier. "Assuming of course that you have no objection to this one as well."
"He'll do," Xena declared.
Hatshepsut leaned forward and placed both palms down on the table. "Now for a more delicate matter," she said, after a pause. "In order not to foster resentment and to assuage any fears it will be necessary to name a high ranking Egyptian official as head of this project. Make no mistake, Xena, it will be purely a nominal position. You will retain sole authority over the construction of my ships." Casting a stern eye at Sennefer, she asked, "Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," the man gulped.
"Now, I have given this matter some thought," said Hatshepsut, continuing. "Senenmut, as the chief architect, would seem to be the logical choice..." She paused here and a faint smile of amusement playing across her lips. "...but in this case I think not. Therefore I have decided to appoint Neshi to that role."
Her decision was based on more than a mere desire to placate Xena. Senenmut might have held among many other titles that of "Chief Architect" but in truth this was hardly for his technical prowess. The man was more bureaucrat than builder. Hatshepsut was well aware that some in the government might scratch their heads over her choice but that was simply too bad. She could not risk the acrimony between Xena and Senenmut interfering with her plans. Therefore Senenmut had to go. That he was her favorite lover was of no consequence here. This was a matter of national importance. Egypt's prestige--her prestige would be at stake and that made it far too important to risk having it all come apart because of some petty jealousy. And that, she knew, was what it really was. Senenmut was jealous of Xena. Perhaps he sensed her attraction to Xena, perhaps not. What was plain, however, was her unprecedented decision to treat Xena as an equal.
"Neshi's a good man," allowed Xena. "He'll make a good liaison."
"You'll need a skilled interpreter too," said Hatshepsut. "I will give you Khafra."
Resolutely Xena set her jaw. "No."
Both Sennefer and Khafra were stunned by this, the interpreter being doubly so. While both were astounded that this woman had actually dared to rebuff their divine ruler, for Khafra the shock was compounded by the fact that this woman was refusing to avail herself of his services. Obviously this was going to be a highly important project and he wanted to share, however minutely, in the glory of it. Was he now going to be denied his share by this rude woman?
"I want Ankarad," said Xena, firmly.
"The scribe from last night," Xena reminded her.
"Oh yes." With an apathetic wave of the hand she decreed, "Very well." Glancing at the shocked interpreter, she said, "You will inform the scribe of his new duties."
However averse he was to this decision, Khafra, unlike the haughty Senenmut, did not dare protest. His station in life was much too lowly for that.
It was at this moment that Amenhotep, her Chief Steward, joined them in the room. After a deep bow he quietly said, "It is almost time, Lord."
Hatshepsut nodded her acknowledgment and Amenhotep stepped from the room just as silently as he had entered.
"Sennefer," said the pharaoh, "I place you under Xena's authority. You will obey her every command to the exclusion of all others."
"Yes, Great King."
Hatshepsut flashed Xena a sly smile and added, "Except, of course, for my own."
"Of course," echoed Xena, arching an eyebrow. She was beginning to like this woman.
As Hatshepsut moved out from behind the table Xena picked up her sword and casually returned it to its scabbard.
"It is a beautiful weapon," remarked Hatshepsut.
"It's never failed me," said Xena.
"How could it," purred Hatshepsut, "with such a strong arm to wield it?"
For a moment she allowed her eyes to rove over the Greek's powerful arms and shoulders, her rock hard waist, her long, graceful legs. Never had the pharaoh seen anyone like her! From every pore of her body Xena exuded strength, power, and above all a kind of intense genius. Yet the warrioress remained first and foremost a woman and this fascinated Hatshepsut to no end. True she--a woman--wielded more power than anyone alive but the cold hard fact was she was not a warrior. Never had been. And despite Xena's obviously gifted mind it was the aura of danger she emitted the really captivated the pharaoh. Xena had a seething feral quality that seemed to lie just beneath the surface, barely suppressed, just waiting to rise up and assume dominance once more over this magnificent woman!
Just looking at the Greek woman excited her. Now Hatshepsut found herself aching to stroke that powerful arm. But she could not. At least--not yet. Which brought her to the fair-haired on by Xena's side. Stepping toe to toe with her, Hatshepsut asked "Gabrielle, right?"
"Gabrielle," Hatshepsut repeated, careful not to sound condescending. "A nice name. A pretty name." A soft name, she thought. Like its owner. It was a name not hard and formidable like Hat-shep-sut...or Xee-nah. It never occurred to her that this "soft" young woman was fully capable of tearing her limb from limb had she so desired. "It rolls off the tongue well," she said. "Even for an Egyptian." Leaning close, she said, "You are very beautiful."
This embarrassed the bard some but fortunately the pharaoh's attention was once again turned elsewhere for by now Sennefer was anxious to get his marching orders and go. Though long used to being in close proximity to such power, he nevertheless felt a bit ill at ease around Hatshepsut. He knew why but dared not even think about the fact that his king was a woman lest his eyes or his hesitant tongue somehow betray him. Privately he felt it was unfaithful to Egypt's sacred maat to have a female wear the Double Crown of the Two Lands. Of course he wisely kept such thoughts to himself. In this he was not alone but no one, least of all him, was in any position to say otherwise.
Edging over to the three women, he asked "What are my instructions?"
Xena never hesitated as she replied, "I want you to start assembling the work crews. Remember," she warned, "no slave labor."
"How long will it take you?" Hatshepsut asked.
"I am not sure," said Sennefer. "The procurement of labor may be difficult if we follow Xena's method."
"Take whatever steps necessary," said Hatshepsut.
"But where can I find so many men so quickly?" he asked.
To Xena the answer was obvious. "The army," she said.
"Do you not consider the use of army troops to be forced labor?" asked Hatshepsut.
"Most of them are volunteers, aren't they?"
"Yes." In times past Egyptian royalty had not deemed it necessary to maintain a standing army. For the defense of the nation they had relied on a kind of crude reserve system. The invasion of the Hyksos and the subsequent century of subservience under them had changed all that. Since their overthrow the succeeding pharaohs had made it a point to keep the army intact and ready to fight. Now it was considered one of the few places in Egyptian society where a young man of low birth actually stood a chance of improving his lot in life. Consequently the army rarely had trouble filling its ranks.
"Then they're not slaves," said Xena. "An army is as much about work as it is about fighting. In fact most soldiers' daily lives are not dangerous at all. Instead they involve not training or fighting, but plain old ordinary work."
Xena could see Hatshepsut had no idea this was so. To her it was simply unbelievable that she, as commander-in-chief, did not understand this. "Work is part of being a soldier," said Xena, summarizing.
"Very well then," said Hatshepsut. "It is so ordered. Take half the garrison here at Thebes and the entire one at Naqada. I will have the necessary arrangements made."
"Yes, Great One," said Sennefer. "Barring difficulty I think we can expect to have them in Coptos within four days."
"You've got two," Xena tersely informed him.
"Why so quickly?" asked Hatshepsut, puzzled. "Sennefer just said it will likely be ten days before the first materials reach Coptos."
"There are plenty of other things they can be doing," Xena patiently explained. "Then, when the material does start arriving we can hit the ground running on this thing."
"You are right, of course," Hatshepsut conceded. Drawing herself up to her full height, she said, "Very well, I leave it in your capable hands. Build my..." Remembering last night she paused and amusedly said, "...your ships, Xena, and you will have my eternal gratitude."
"With the king's permission," said Sennefer, "I shall begin making preparations." Hatshepsut nodded her approval and Sennefer, bowing, took his leave.
"We should be going as well," said Xena. "I want to get down to Coptos and take a look around."
It was a small thing but one Hatshepsut greatly appreciated. To most north was usually referred to as "up" because of its relative position on maps. To the Egyptians, however, where the eternal Nile permeated every part of their lives, "up" had only one connotation--upriver. Since the Nile flows from south to north, "up" to the Egyptians meant south. Hence, this was why Upper Egypt was south of Lower Egypt. Coptos lay north of Thebes. Xena and the rest had passed it on their way up the Nile. That she had taken care to correctly refer to Coptos' relative position to Thebes as "down" only made Hatshepsut admire her more.
"Of course," said Hatshepsut. She clapped her hands and the huge guard standing vigil outside the door immediately stepped inside. "Prepare a barge for my shipwrights." The guard nodded and disappeared.
"Well," Hatshepsut said with a deep sigh, "it is time to once more play the little game. I must change now for court."
"Lose the beard," Xena quietly urged her.
"I will...think about it," was the pharaoh's hesitant reply.
"Neither your maat nor your ka will be destroyed," Xena assured her. She raised her hand very near--almost but not quite touching--and pointed at Hatshepsut's chest. "Besides, the only true maat Egypt needs is right here, in your heart."
These were noble words to be sure and Hatshepsut was not quite certain whether these were what stirred her or if it was Xena's hand hovering so near to her breast. Maybe it was both. Whatever the case Hatshepsut was not about to let it blind her to what was really important and it was this relentless pursuit of her goal that prompted her next act.
Coolly she walked over to marble stand upon which sat a small chest, handsomely crafted and trimmed with silver. Very carefully she lifted the lid up to a resting position. "Last night," she said, "you said you would name your reward when the ships were done. Since it is not money you want there can undoubtedly be only one other thing."
Xena did not need to see the contents of the chest to know what was there. She and Gabrielle joined Hatshepsut beside the chest and, gazing down into it, the bard cried out, "Your chakram!"
Inside the exquisite weapon lay on a violet pillow as if patiently waiting for the hand of its incomparable mistress to claim it once more.
"I should have known this would be much more important to you than mere gold," said Hatshepsut.
Xena reached into the chest and before she picked it up, gently trailed a middle finger over its hard surface. Hello, old friend, she thought.
"You must give me a demonstration sometime," said the pharaoh, as Xena returned the chakram her side. "I would like to see what you can do with it."
"You name it," said Gabrielle, "and Xena can do it." She good naturedly tousled her hair and added, "Even cut hair."
Xena flashed the bard a brief, warm smile. Gabrielle's quip made her think back to the formidable Najara and her own comment that both of them had the same "weakness." How so very true! she thought.
Hatshepsut thought she was beginning to understand the stoic Xena so naturally it was with some surprise that she heard Xena say, "Actually this wasn't what I had in mind."
"Oh?" Silently Hatshepsut wondered just what could be so important that Xena would forego an opportunity to regain a possession so obviously dear to her. But then, like the dawning of the sun, it slowly came to her that maybe Xena had never intended to give up the chakram at all. Perhaps, even as she was handing it over, the Greek had been scheming as to how to get it back. You devil! she thought, not with anger but with an even more profound sense of respect. "It does not matter. I return this to you as a sign of good faith and my offer still stands. What then would you like?"
"Well that's up to Gabrielle here," said Xena, matter-of-factly.
Perplexed and a little unnerved by this, the bard asked "Huh? Meee?"
"Yep. It's your call, Gabrielle."
"But...why me?" Gabrielle protested. "Xena, you're the one building the ships."
"And you're going to be my assistant," said Xena. "And since I'm not interested, naturally it should be my assistant who gets the reward. It's only fair."
Why am I not surprised? thought Hatshepsut. Sooner or later she always gets back to this little fair-haired one. "So be it then," she said. "Gabrielle, what shall you have as payment for Xena's--your services?"
"I--" Caught unaware, the poor bard had not a clue. Try as she might her mind was blank.
Xena, seeing her difficulty, gently touched her arm and said, "You don't have to decide now."
"Of course not," said Hatshepsut.
By now, though, Gabrielle had made up her mind. Her voice soft but resolute, she said, "No. I won't accept anything either. It's Xena's prize or nobody's."
Now it was Hatshepsut's turn to be puzzled. "I thought you Greeks were hopelessly materialistic."
"Not this Greek," said Xena, nodding with pride to her little friend.
"All right then," said Hatshepsut. "Have it your way. But the offer still stands. Egypt does not forget those that do her service. Again, though, I must say it seems inconceivable to me that you would put forth such an effort and not want to be properly compensated."
Patting her bard's shoulder, Xena said, "Well we kinda like to travel light."
On command the forty-four oarsmen lifted their great blades up out of the great river and, under the skillful hand of the helmsman, the barge coasted slowly into its mooring place. No sooner had the barged gently bumped up against the quay before Xena was nimbly over the side, her boots making a soft thump as she landed cat-like upon the old boards. The much more patient Neshi, the much less athletic Gabrielle and the much too humble Ankarad were all content to wait for the gangplank to be put down but soon enough they were standing on the quay at the side of the Warrior Princess.
Since taking their leave of Hatshepsut yesterday it had taken them all the rest of that day and the better part of this one to reach Coptos but now here they were, the vanguard of a project that, if successful, would be sure to swell many an Egyptian's heart with pride. Upon meeting Neshi at the barge, Xena had learned of the departure of Aloysius and Certes back to Cyprus. After traveling so far with them Xena was somewhat sorry that she and Gabrielle had not gotten the chance to say good-bye, especially to the good--hearted Certes. Her regret was tempered by the knowledge that the envoys could go home and tell their king the mission had been a success, thanks in no small part to her. And too she could rightfully chalk it up as another "problem" solved.
Gabrielle shaded her eyes with her hand and looked west, out onto the river that was Egypt's life blood. Behind her the voices of Xena and the two men faded to faint murmurs as she stared into shimmering waters. There was no doubt about it, Egypt was an enchanting place. However as she stood there squinting into the evening sun she found herself thinking of the green fields, the deep forests, the mountains and the swift rivers of home--of Greece. Yes, it had been a great adventure, especially at first. She had seen with her own eyes the legendary pyramids, had traveled down the mighty Nile and walked the streets of the fabled city of Thebes. Above everything else she had met the great Hatshepsut. It had all been wonderful and she was so glad they had come but now Gabrielle of Poteidaia found herself wanting to go home. She longed to feel those cool coastal breezes on her face once more and to hear the cooing of the dove in the trees as it welcomed the dawn. But that, of course, would have to wait. Xena would never leave until she had done what she promised to do and indeed Gabrielle would not have wanted her to. Nevertheless, the bard now looked forward to the time when she and her lover could leave this place and once more sink their heels into the black dirt of their homeland.
At the sound of Xena's voice Gabrielle was instantly whisked away from the fertile fields of Greece and back to the sun drenched plains of Upper Egypt. "Hmmm?"
"Are you coming?"
"Oh. Yeah." The bard blinked and then said, "Sorry."
"What were you thinking about?" asked Xena.
Xena knew better but let it go nevertheless. With a small wave of the hand she said, "Well come on. I want to take a look around before it gets dark."
Naturally with the distinguished Neshi along they could obtain any mode of transportation available but what Xena wanted was a horse. It had been a long time since she had held the reins in her hands and pressed her knees against those powerful flanks and she missed that. Neshi was more than happy to oblige her and so from a pen full of horses at a nearby livery Xena's shrewd eye picked out a big, highly spirited roan named Kusha. Gabrielle was not looking forward to another wild ride in one of those careening chariots but neither was she willing to settle for some bumpy old cart. This prompted her to tell Xena that she too wanted a horse. Accordingly, Xena chose for her a gentle little mare named Jossa who seemed to take an immediate liking to the bard.
As for Neshi he was perfectly happy to let Xena and her friend go their own way because, like Gabrielle, he really wanted no further part of those heaving chariots. He was not a soldier, indeed for the most part had lived in comfort and privilege and consequently was not accustomed to the strenuous lifestyle that was so much a part of his less noble countrymen's daily existence. As such he was much more content to avail himself of the mayor's hospitality and looked forward to a sumptuous meal, a warm bath--and perhaps the sweet attentions of some well bred young lady. As far as Ankarad was concerned it was simply a matter of going home. His mother had lived in Coptos ever since the death of his father some ten years before.
And so, while Neshi was being borne to the mayor's house on the sturdy shoulders of four large members of that official's own personal guard, and while Ankarad was winding his way through the narrow back streets of Coptos toward his mother's home, Xena and Gabrielle were guiding their horses eastward out of the city onto the low plain that extended beyond. Farther east, stretching out toward Quseir and the Red Sea, lay the vast Wadi Hammamat. As they ranged out from Coptos Xena was not long in coming to the realization that it would be here, on this plain, that she would build "her" ships. All that remained now was for her to decide just exactly where along that great road running to Quseir they would set up operations. At first Xena wanted to distance the camp from Coptos but the farther east she and Gabrielle went the more she became convinced that this was not a good idea. Moving farther away from the Nile would simply cause unnecessary hardship for everybody.
The two of them doubled back and at last, when the sun was no more than a fist's width above the horizon and with the tops of Coptos' tallest buildings in sight, Xena stopped and dismounted by way of that peculiar rocking motion Gabrielle knew so well. The warrioress had sensed her horse was favoring his left front leg and so she had stopped to take a look. Picking up the foot, she found a small stone embedded in the hoof. Its removal posed no problem and once out, Xena playfully tossed the pebble at Gabrielle.
At the moment, though, the bard's mind was elsewhere. "Xena?"
"What do you make of that Senenmut guy?"
"Why do you ask?"
Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and said, "I don't think we've heard the last of him."
Xena shaded her eyes and looked back west toward Coptos. "Probably not," she agreed. "We've stepped on his toes, Gabrielle. Worse, we've twice made him look bad in front of his king. He won't forget that."
"He's an ignorant ass," allowed Gabrielle, shaking her head.
"No, he's not stupid," Xena corrected her. "Hatshepsut is not one to suffer fools lightly. From what I hear he's actually a pretty able man."
"Hmph!" the bard snorted, still not convinced. "All I know is if I were Hatshepsut I wouldn't appoint him to the post of dung sweeper." It still angered her to remember the scorn with which Senenmut had looked at Xena.
"Well obviously she thinks a lot more of him than you do," said Xena, impishly.
"Hatshepsut is an extremely capable woman," persisted Gabrielle. "I just don't see what she needs with that guy."
Pursing her lips, Xena replied, "He fills a need." She paused for a moment and then added, "In more ways than one."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
With a leer the warrioress put her foot in the stirrup and swung herself back up on her horse. "I'll give you one guess."
Reading the look on Xena's face, Gabrielle caught her meaning well enough. "Oh, Xena," said the bard, in disbelief. "Surely not." The idea of that arrogant, hawk--nosed stick of a man hammering away between the legs of the elegant Hatshepsut was one that seemed almost impossible. "Gods, Xena, are you sure?"
"Oh yeah," Xena knowingly grinned. "He's doing her all right. Believe me, I can tell."
"You mean, she likes that guy? Why?"
"In her own way I guess she does," said Xena. shrugging. "But I would venture to say that it's all on her own terms." A very useful vassal, she remembered Hatshepsut saying. "And like I said, he fills a need." This was something Xena knew all too well from her warlord days. Back then she had never been averse to summoning some muscular underling to her tent for a night of savage passion. Like Senenmut, they had filled a need.
But there were other reasons as well. Of course Xena knew all about how instrumental Senenmut had been in solidifying Hatshepsut's place on the throne. This she had learned in a roundabout way from Neshi one dark night on their trip down the Nile. Though the two men were ostensibly comradely members of Hatshepsut's court, it had not taken Xena long to discern that they were in fact bitter rivals. Apparently Hatshepsut and Senenmut went way back together, perhaps even as far back as to before her marriage to her brother. She had also learned that Senenmut's relationship with Hatshepsut's daughter was unusually close and indeed for a time he had been her royal tutor. Neshi had also darkly hinted that perhaps the "Chief Architect" was even the child's father.
"Well if you ask me that makes him even more dangerous," said Gabrielle.
"As long as he stays out of our hair we'll get along just fine," said Xena. Again she swept her eyes over the landscape. As good a place as any, she thought. "Here," she said. "We'll build them here."
Gently she then prodded her horse into a walk. "We'd better be getting back," she said. "I want to get settled in so we can get an early start tomorrow."
"Xena, you're really taken this thing to heart, haven't you?"
"The sooner we get started the sooner it gets done," replied Xena, matter-of-factly. She looked back over her shoulder and Gabrielle saw a smile play across her lips. "You see, I don't want Mother kicking your butt for keeping me away from home."
Although Gabrielle would never have said so this was nothing less than music to her ears.
By evening of the next day, Sennefer had succeeded in carrying out Xena's first order. Gabrielle, flanked by Xena and Ankarad, stood upon the quay and watched in awe as no less than fifteen barges, each bearing dozens of men, came slowly floating down the Nile toward them. Nearing the city, the barges did not queue up to disgorge their human cargo at the landing as she had expected. Instead all but one of them ran its bow into the muddy banks of the Nile and there the men spilled out over the sides like water over a dam.
The lone barge to ease alongside the quay contained the skilled tradesmen Sennefer had gathered up and also the officers of the two garrisons. The senior officer among them was Hudsped, commander of the garrison at Naqada. No sooner had the heel of his sandal hit the old boards of the quay before he was met by Xena and the newly arrived Neshi.
'I assume you have been told what is expected of you?" Neshi sternly asked.
"Yes, sir," replied Hudsped. "By order of the Most High, Hatshepsut, I am to place myself and my men under the command of the Greek, Xena."
"That is correct," said Neshi. "And I need not remind you that her authority will be unquestioned, do I?"
"No, sir," said Hudsped. "I am a soldier. I will obey my orders, sir."
"Very well," said Neshi, satisfied. Turning to Xena, he declared, "Hudsped and his men are all yours."
Xena stuck the tip of her tongue in her cheek and watched with amusement as Neshi promptly did an about face and marched back to his waiting chair. Hoisted once again up on his chair by the four burly guards, he said, "Carry on," and then grinned, pleased by the double meaning of his words.
As they watched him being borne away Hudsped sidled up next to his new boss. "What are your orders, mistress?"
"The first one is to call me Xena," the warrioress good--naturedly replied. "After that, I want you to have your men make camp on the other side of town. Set up a tent for me and my friend here as well." Like any good commander Xena wanted to be close to her men.
Hudsped had not failed to notice the enchanting fair-haired woman who as of yet had not spoken a word. Still staring at her lovely visage, he asked "May I offer you mine?"
"That's very kind of you," said Gabrielle, smiling.
"Offer accepted," said Xena. She tilted her head toward the barge and said, "I'm going to take a look Sennefer's men. We'll be along later."
"As you wish." Try as he might, however, Hudsped could no longer keep a smile from flickering across his face.
"What is it?" Xena asked.
"I can't believe it's really happening," he replied.
"That I am to be under the command of the great Warrior Princess."
Shaking her head in mock exasperation, Gabrielle sighed and said, "Gods, Xena. Not another one! Is there anyone who ever picked up a sword that doesn't you?"
"Every Egyptian soldier who served under the Thutmoses knows the name of Xena," said Hudsped. "I still remember how my old captain used to practically choke every time he said your name." He furrowed his brow in puzzlement. "May I ask you something?"
"What...what made you...?
"Give it up?" asked Xena, finishing it for him.
"Well that's a long story," said Xena. "Maybe Gabrielle here will tell it to you sometime."
Hudsped glanced at Ankarad but all he got in return was a very subtle shrug of the shoulders. He fancied himself a very shrewd judge of character but Xena was nothing but an enigma to him.
Turning abruptly to her interpreter, Xena asked. "Have you got those drawings?"
"Of course," he proudly answered. "Six copies, just like you asked." Very early that morning Xena had thrust into his hands the ship's plans she had sketched out the previous night. Since then he had spent the better part of the day very meticulously laying down every last detail on the finest papyrus he could find. It was important to him that he do a good job. Xena had reached down and plucked him from the oppressive travail of his daily existence and given him a chance to be part of something big, something exciting, and for that he was truly grateful.
"Okay then," said the warrioress, stepping on the gangplank, "let's all go get acquainted.
Soon enough every last man from those barges would know who she was.
At dawn the next morning Xena pulled back the flap of her tent and strode straight out into the middle of almost a thousand men. Language barrier or no, Gabrielle was once again struck by almost effortless way she assumed immediate and total command of the situation. Xena was more than a born leader, it had been her destiny. Be it waging war, the building of ships or coaching silly games at the Summer Festival, people seemed almost mystically inclined to follow her. Even now, after all this time, the very name "Xena" seemed a synonym for "command."
With military precision the warrioress divided Hudsped's men into groups and, after carefully integrating Sennefer's tradesmen into these, assigned each their own particular tasks. Naturally the time spent waiting for the timber to arrive was not wasted. Tools were checked, axes and planes were sharpened, scaffolding was built, pegs of all sizes were cut, ropes were fashioned and tested--again and again, pitch was distilled, plans were reviewed.
In no uncertain terms Xena made it clear that she would not tolerate slipshod work. Once at sea the lives of their own countrymen would be at stake. Sennefer and Hudsped were told that the men would do a fair day's work--no more, no less. She would not allow them to be driven but she also made it crystal clear that any lack of effort by their men would necessarily reflect back on them. Of course, neither had to be reminded of how dimly Hatshepsut would view their failure.
Eleven days after the arrival of Xena and Gabrielle in Coptos, they, along with Sennefer, Hudsped and the ever present Ankarad, stood on the quay as the first load of planking arrived. All the rest of that day the planking continued to pour in on barge after barge. The next day the first massive framing timbers arrived. On inspection, Xena found that a great many of them were too big for her purposes but she knew a hundred men with axes and planes could remedy that soon enough. Last of all came the six great masts, tall and straight, at the exact length and diameter she had drawn out back in Thebes.
And so the work began in earnest.
Six crews, all armed with a copy of Ankarad's intricate plans, were set in motion under the watchful eye of the Warrior Princess. Very quickly she learned that, just as Hatshepsut had said, Sennefer was a man of foresight and great ability. In fact he had been the one to suggest that one ship be constructed on the banks of the Nile. In this way, he reasoned, they could not only practice assembling the components of the vessel, but also launch her on the river in order that her sailors might get a feel for her. Xena, thinking this a marvelous idea, changed her mind and ordered all the ships built there.
At the end of the first week of construction Neshi left for Thebes to report their progress. He never came back. Now that he had gotten the project successfully launched, his king decided she could put him to better use back at the capital. For this Neshi was grateful because in truth he had felt out of place there. He was a man of the court, he loved the urbane lifestyle, and whenever the course of his duties took him away from the great city of Thebes he always felt a little like a fish out of water. Unfortunately for him his talents were such that Hatshepsut saw fit to do this quite often.
Over the next two weeks the work went smoothly. Keel sections were laid, hull sections were framed, deck sections were planked. Most of the men thought it strange and even silly that they should be building ships so far from the sea but they all knew there were far worse things they could be doing. Besides, the work was not terribly hard and the food was decent so who were they to complain?
As for Gabrielle, Xena had more in mind for her than simply letting her shadow the warrioress as she oversaw the work. Although all Gabrielle knew about ships was that sailing in them usually made her sick, Xena wanted her to feel like she was a real part of what they were doing. Toward this, the warrioress every day gave her something to do, not too difficult to be sure, but something useful nonetheless. One day it might be fashioning rope, the next day might be distilling pitch, another might find her cutting sailcloth; anything to keep her busy.
True to her nature, Gabrielle was pleased that she could contribute so she threw herself into her chores with great zeal. With her fair hair and her green eyes the Egyptian workers at first regarded her as something of an oddity but that soon changed. As was nearly always the case her friendliness and warm smile won them over in very short order; so much so that, to Xena's great amusement, Gabrielle was very quickly "adopted" by the fifty score or so men at the camp. They could not do enough for her and, despite being unable to understand a word she said, sometimes even fought over who would work with her on a given day.
These minor squabbles aside, Hudsped's soldiers and Sennefer's tradesmen proved to be everything Xena had hoped for. So much so in fact that by the end of their first moon at Coptos the individual sections were very close to being completed. Accordingly, Xena had decided that to test their seaworthiness, she would assemble all the ships and launch them into the Nile. At this rate she figured everything would be finished in another fortnight.
For her it would be none too soon.
"The work is going extremely well, master. Extremely well."
For his lord this was not happy news by any stretch of the imagination. "Surely you are not suggesting there is a chance she might succeed?"
"Not merely a chance, lord," said his minion. "More like a certainty."
"Impossible!" his lord exploded.
The spy took a deep breath and with great tact said, "It seems the Greek, Xena, is a very ingenious, very clever woman."
His master however, adamantly refused to accept this. "It's that damn Sennefer!" he snarled. "That sniveling dog! I think groveling before women gets his manhood stiff."
This kind of talk did not fool the spy. Come on! he thought. If our Maatkare told you to eat a mountain of dung you'd kiss her ass and shovel it in with both hands!
Calmer now, his master said, "I will take care of that boot licking bastard in my own good time. Right now we must attend to more pressing matters."
He began to idly pluck at the huge ring his king recently given him by his king when suddenly a delicious thought came to him. The more he pondered on it the better he liked it. He thought it might very well be a way solve all his problems at once. "You know," he mused, "it would be most unfortunate if some...calamity were to befall the good subjects of Coptos."
Narrowing his eyelids to mere slits, the spy suspiciously asked "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I don't know," his master replied, snidely serene, "I was thinking along the lines of perhaps a fire."
"A fire? But that could--"
"Oh I don't mean a big one," said his master in smooth tones. "Yes. If a fire were to somehow break out say, among the docks and warehouses along the river, and if it were to somehow spread to the ships, I dare say it just might convince the Daughter of Amen that the gods have not looked favorably upon this misguided endeavor of hers after all."
"But a fire. Someone might get hurt."
The spy's master walked over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Sefron," he crooned, "have you forgotten the money I lent you to pay your debts? Have you forgotten that I have never pressed you for repayment, even though it is a considerable sum.?"
Sefron lowered his eyes and softly replied, "No, lord, I have not forgotten."
"Good," beamed his master, well satisfied. His lips curving into a condescending smile, he said, "Besides, there are more important things at stake here. If we let these Greeks come in and start ordering us around, why, the first thing you know it will be the Hyksos all over again. Now, we don't want that, do we?"
It was a silly argument and Sefron knew it. But what could he say? This man had kept him from going to prison for his debts. He owed him more than money. He owed him his freedom as well. So it was no surprise that he now said, "No, my lord."
"Of course not. So then, what are the lives of a few peasants when compared to the preservation of our sacred maat? Now, the king will be going down to Coptos soon to personally inspect their progress. I think if on arrival all she found was ashes and gutted hulks of ships it might force her to come to her senses."
Stunned by what he was hearing, Sefron made no reply. He knew the man was a conniving schemer but this...
It was one thing to spy on one's rivals, it was quite another to destroy state property and endanger lives. Nevertheless, Sefron knew he would do as his master wished, just as he always had. How could he possibly do otherwise and survive? He would die in prison.
The sound of someone clearing their throat snapped him out of his momentary pensiveness. After blinking hard, he saw his master standing there with an expectant look on his face. Though well born himself, Sefron was in essence no different from any of the lowliest slaves living out their tortured existence in the hellish limestone quarries. Like every other Egyptian to one extent or another, his sole purpose for being was to submit, to obey. And so he would. His voice halting, he said, "It...will be...as you say...lord."
"I knew you'd understand." How so very sweet it is to bend the will of others to my own! his master smugly thought. He was already one of the most powerful men in all of the two lands but it was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted...all of it. He wanted to bend an entire nation to his will. As he saw it this was not treason, not at all. The very idea that Egypt, the greatest power on earth, should be ruled by Hatshepsut, a mere woman no less, and Thutmose, a snot nosed boy, was absolutely appalling to him. In the midst of this self-righteous patriotism he conveniently forgot that it was this "mere woman" who was in fact responsible for his entire career. She had plucked him from the depths of poverty and obscurity and turned him into a great man. To him none of that mattered for he had come to believe that it was Destiny, not Hatshepsut, who was his great benefactress. Consequently, the sweet voices of loyalty and gratitude were no longer the ones he harkened to. What had his ear now were the husky whisperings of that alluring temptress, Ambition. "Select two or three men whom you can trust and return to Coptos," he said. "Do nothing until you hear from me. The timing in this must be absolutely precise. It is imperative that the king arrive as soon as possible afterward in order to achieve the full effect."
"How will I know when to act?" asked Sefron.
"I will send a messenger overland once I learn of the exact day of the king's departure," said his master.
Sefron nodded and left, leaving his master alone with his treacherous thoughts. It was his hope that the Daughter of Amen's confidence and resolve would be shaken by this. And since he had expressly warned her of its infeasibility, his influence with her would naturally grow even greater.
There were other thoughts as well. How wonderful it would be, he thought, if that arrogant bitch, Xena, were to somehow perish as a result of his handiwork. That would make the thing complete. Even if it did not happen, as long as that Greek slut was sent packing, that was all that mattered to him. And besides, it was a long way out of Egypt and the journey could be quite perilous. One never knew when some "accident" might happen.
Three days after this meeting Xena, Gabrielle, Hudsped, Sennefer and Ankarad stood on the quay looking up at the two ships moored there. So far their "sea" trials had met with only a few minor problems. Sennefer was ecstatic. Things were going better than he could have ever hoped for. Tomorrow two more ships would be launched and for the first time he felt he could see the end in sight.
"The king will be well pleased with you, Xena," he said.
"You guys are doing all the work," Xena modestly replied, as she watched a group of men busily greasing the launching runners. "All I've done is help you over the rough spots."
"Great ships on the Nile," marveled Hudsped, shaking his head. "Truly it is a wondrous sight."
"Kinda makes you want to be a sailor, huh?" teased Gabrielle.
"Well--I'm not that impressed," Hudsped good naturedly shot back.
Gabrielle chuckled at this and as always Xena was struck by the beauty of her smile.
Turning to Xena, Hudsped said, "Sennefer is right, the glory is all yours. I will be shocked if our Maatkare does not ask you to lead the expedition to Punt."
"Not a chance," Xena slowly said. "The only expedition I want to lead is our return trip to Greece."
A pity, thought Hudsped. He had been in the army fifteen years and in all that time he
had never served under any three men combined that had the ability of this woman. So far
Hatshepsut had not sought to use the army to any great extent although to her credit she
had maintained its readiness at a very high level. They were therefore ready and with this
remarkable woman to lead them Hudsped could see the army doing great things. Yes, it was a
Sometime after sunset that evening a messenger arrived in Coptos and made his way straight to the inn where a man by the name of Sefron was staying. When the man answered the door to his room the messenger wordlessly handed him a note and immediately went on his way. Sefron stared after him for a moment before opening the note. There he read two words:
Deep in the night Xena was awakened in her tent by the unmistakable smell of smoke and the pungent odor of burning pitch. Immediately alert, the warrioress raised up and propped herself on one elbow. The flickering light and the shadows she saw dancing on the wall of their tent told her all she needed to know.
Instantly she bolted upright on her pallet. "Gabrielle!" she cried sharply, as she gave the bard a hard push in the buttocks, "Wake up!"
"Mmm?" Gabrielle rolled over and her back and blearily cracked open her eyes. "What is it?" It was then that she too became aware of that peculiar smell, a smell that could only mean one thing.
Xena verbalized it for her. "There's a fire down by the quay."
Quickly the little bard rolled over on her side and began to grope for her boots. On several previous occasions over the past moon she had opted to sleep in the nude because of the oppressive heat. Now she thanked her lucky stars that this night she had chosen not to do so.
By the time she located her boots Xena already had hers on and was bolting out of the tent. It was only a few urgent seconds more before Gabrielle had tugged on her boots and scrambled to her feet. Bursting forth from the tent, she ran straight into the arms of Sennefer. "Xena?!" she yelled.
Sennefer turned and pointed toward the river. There, silhouetted against the flames, Gabrielle saw the familiar figure of her lover racing straight for the great quay. For the span of a breath of two she paused and stood there gaping at the fearful spectacle unfolding before her. Flames, some of them shooting upwards as high as thirty paces into the air, were hungrily devouring the huge storehouse and were just now spreading to the adjacent storage buildings situated along the dock.
"By the gods!" she gasped.
Reaching the fire, she found Xena and Hudsped desperately trying to communicate through a series of hand signals. As she joined them she saw Hudsped turn his palms up and shrug, indicating he did not understand. Xena swore an oath through gritted teeth and, reaching down, clawed a handful of dirt out of the ground and shook it under his nose. The light of recognition came on in Hudsped's eyes and he nodded vigorously that he got her meaning.
It was at this fortuitous moment that Ankarad breathlessly arrived on the scene.
All around the little group people were careening about in all different directions but Xena's steely gaze never wavered from the blazing conflagration. "Tell him to forget the warehouse--it's gone! Tell him to have his men try to contain the fire to those side buildings. If it spreads into the town, nothing's going to stop it!"
Hudsped listened to the scribe's hasty translation, nodded, and was off. Xena in turn moved to follow him but felt herself caught by the arm.
"What do you want me to do?" asked Gabrielle.
"I want you and Ankarad to go into town and help get the people evacuated."
"But, Xena, what about the ships?"
"Forget the ships!" Xena snapped. "Our focus is on the town!"
"Damn it, Gabrielle, there's no time to argue, do it!" Xena jerked her arm away and, taking off in a run, soon faded from sight in the thick smoke.
"Come, Gabrielle," said Ankarad, "we must hurry."
"No," the bard said, ever so softly.
"But you heard what Xena--"
"No," she said again. It was not often that Gabrielle went against Xena's wishes, especially in times of trouble. While it was true that she had never been one to mindlessly obey the warrioress and indeed had on more than once defiantly stood up to her, she also knew the occasion was rare when the Warrior Princess had been wrong. Still, she had never been hesitant to say what she thought. It was just that, damn it, Xena was right so very often. However as Gabrielle stood there amidst the chaos and confusion she knew in her heart this was going to be one time when she would not, could not, do it Xena's way. As she saw it this time Xena was not right--at least not as it concerned the role she was to play.
Ankarad would have to get someone else because Gabrielle had already made up her mind that she was going to try to save those ships. Her beloved Xena had put too much of herself into those ships, she had worked too hard, to simply give them up without a fight. To her it would be heartbreaking to see her friend's brilliant efforts go for naught.
Needless to say she felt it was right that Xena concentrate all her energies on saving the town. That was the most important thing and if anyone could do it, the infinitely resourceful Warrior Princess could. But the job Xena had given her was one anybody could do; it stemmed from the knowledge that her bard would be safer there, away from the fire. As usual Xena's reasoning was perfect. The only thing was, Gabrielle had no intention of playing it safe here. She was going to do this--for Xena.
"Go on, Ankarad," she said. "There's something I have to do."
"The ships?" asked the scribe.
"Yeah," she quietly answered.
"Come with me," he pleaded.
"Then please be careful."
"I will," the bard assured him. "Now go!"
He watched her turn and break into a trot and as the brave young woman disappeared into
the thick shroud of smoke he said under his breath, "May our blessed Amen keep you
safe, little one," Like everyone else he had grown extremely fond of the ebullient,
fair haired Greek.
Reaching the river, Gabrielle was aghast to find the quay already engulfed in flames. Worse, she saw that one of the two ships moored there was already afire. The bow was covered in flames which were now rapidly spreading amidships and were almost to the mast. Gabrielle realized it was already too late for this one.
Only two days before Xena herself had knocked loose the great wedges holding the vessel in place and Gabrielle still remembered the look of pride on Sennefer's face as the ship slipped down the runners and into the Nile. Now it was soon to be nothing more than blackened bits of wood.
While disheartened by this Gabrielle nevertheless remained undaunted by her task. By now the quay was completely covered in flames. In just a few short minutes they would be licking against the second ship. For her there was only one thing to do. She had to get that ship off from the quay. It dawned on her that if she could somehow get the ship free the river currents might be strong enough to pull her away from her moorings. But how? The burning quay made it impossible to board the ship or even to slip the mooring lines. What could she do?
There was one chance--a slim one, but a chance nonetheless. Late last evening she had seen two men working on a scaffold on the other side of the ship applying pitch to the outside of the ship's hull. She remembered one of the men casting the excess length of rope off the scaffold, down into the water. If that rope was still there...
Circling around the quay, Gabrielle raced down the bank to the water's edge. Without even stopping to remover her boots she dove out into the water and began swimming around to the far side of the ship. Would the rope still be there? Gabrielle prayed that it was. Rounding the vessel's stern she saw the eerily beautiful image of the fire reflection upon the water. When she was about midship she pulled up and began to tread water, her eyes desperately searching for the rope.
There it was!
"Yes!" the bard triumphantly hissed, and she made for the rope.
Ten paces may not sound like much but it is a very long distance when one is climbing straight up an unsecured rope. For Gabrielle it was made even more difficult by her wet clothes and her water--logged boots. Fortunately the scaffolding was still in place about two thirds of the way up the side of the ship and once she was safely on it she was able to pause and rest for a moment before gathering herself for the final ascent.
A few moments later she was bellying over the gangway and falling onto the deck with a thud. Instantly the nimble bard was on her feet and racing across the deck to the other side of the ship. Leaning out over the gangway, she saw the fire was almost lapping against the side of the ship. While swimming out to the rope the thought had occurred to her that the fire might in fact burn the mooring lines in two thus freeing the ship in that way. However she had quickly decided that was a risk she was not willing to take. The seams of that ship were full of fresh pitch and if it were to catch fire it was likely that by the time all three of those big mooring lines were burned away the hull of the ship might be as well.
Casting her eyes about in the wildly fluctuating firelight, Gabrielle looked for something, anything, with which she could cut the lines. She saw nothing. Angrily she cursed her lack of foresight. "Damn it!" she growled, kicking in frustration at the gangway. Gabrielle, you idiot! she silently raged. You should have brought a knife with you. It was a mistake that she knew Xena would not have made.
Come on, Gabrielle, she urged herself. Calm down. They're still doing work up here. Look for something you can use.
Down the starboard side of the ship at a trot she went. There must be something, she thought. There must be, Sure enough, back near the quarterdeck she came across an adz left behind by one of the men. Snatching it up, Gabrielle bolted to the nearest mooring line and began hacking away. All too soon she discovered that cutting it was going to be harder than she expected. After all, this was not rope of ordinary thickness but mooring rope, as thick as Xena's arm. Gabrielle herself had helped fashion some of it. As she whaled away she wondered when was the last time somebody had bothered to sharpen this cursed adz of hers.
After several blows Gabrielle stopped and, quickly fingering the rope to check her progress, found she was about three quarters of the way through. Taking a deep breath, the bard returned to her assault on the rope. Finally the last strand gave way and the line fell into the water with a quiet plop!
However Gabrielle was not around to hear it because she was already on her way to the next line. The old adz was not exactly Xena's razor edged sword but it was doing the job. Soon enough the bard had the two remaining lines falling away. Now there was nothing left to do but hope the Nile did its part.
Leaning again over the gangway, Gabrielle's heart leapt with joy as she saw the stern began to pull away from the quay. With a chortle she pitched the adz to the deck but not before giving its handle a big kiss. By the time she mounted the quarterdeck the ship was at least a couple of paces from the quay and gently floating out into the Nile.
She had done it.
Holding her nose, Gabrielle jumped feet first off the stern off the ship and into the Nile's warm waters. On the way back to shore she thought of Xena and wondered how she was doing. There was, however, no time to dwell on this because her work was not yet done. Sitting upriver on launching runners were two more ships. These were not quite ready yet but Gabrielle knew they float because she had heard Xena say they would.
Back on shore, she raced to the first set of launching runners. This time she had no trouble finding the proper tools because right there beside on of the great wedges lay the big mallet that had been used to drive them in. Quickly she snatched it up and began to hammer away at the wedge. When Xena had launched the first ship two days before she had knocked out each of the wedges holding the ship in place with one massive blow. Unfortunately the scrappy bard was not capable of such feats of strength nor did she care. She was going to knock those wedges out if it meant breaking her arms. Swinging the big mallet with all her might, Gabrielle pounded away at the wedge. At first it seemed hopeless but she would not allow herself to give up.
It was then she heard a loud crash. Looking up, she saw what was left of the quay collapse into the river. By the light of the fire she watched for just a moment as the ship she had cut loose went floating down the Nile past Coptos and into the darkness. There was no time to celebrate, however, for the flames were still inexorably moving her way.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and returned to her labors, grunting loudly with each blow on the mallet. At last she felt the stubborn wedge give just a little. Encouraged by this she redoubled her efforts. The nerves in her arms were screaming in agony but she was past pain now. There was only her goal.
One more blow fell and suddenly the wedge popped out of the hole. This time there was no exultation forthcoming from the bard, only grim satisfaction. One down, three to go, she thought. Ignoring her fatigue and the blisters forming on her hands, Gabrielle immediately began to rain a series of blows down on the second wedge with all her might. I will do it! she chanted, over and over again in her mind. I will do it!
Like a demon she worked, hammering away at the obstinate block of wood. Her cutting the ship loose seemed like a dream now. All there had ever been in the entire universe, was her, this mallet, and that damn block of wood. So focused was she on swinging the mallet that when the wedge finally broke free she still hit the spot where the wedge had been one more time before realizing the stop was no longer there.
Soaked with perspiration, Gabrielle stood back and watched as the ship, free now, groaned and slowly, quietly slid down the greased runners and out into the river. Wearily she now turned and made off in the direction of the last assembled ship. Farther down lay the two remaining ships in differing stages of assembly but there was nothing the bard could do regarding them. It was her hope that the fire would burn itself out, or the wind would change direction or something.
Stumbling to the runners, Gabrielle doggedly began to slam away at another one of the wedges. Suddenly, from out of the smoke and shadows there emerged a dark figure.
Thinking it one of the soldiers, Gabrielle beckoned to him with a blistered hand. "Come on!" she yelled. "Help me!"
Turning back to her work, she did not see the figure reach into his tunic and pull out
a long dagger.
Three hundred paces away, Xena paused and wiped the back of her hand across her sweaty brow, black with soot. They had been lucky. Yes, they were going to lose the warehouse and the surrounding structures but it turned out these were built largely out of stone. Except for parts of their wooden rooftops falling away, igniting the quay, most of the fire was being contained by those sturdy walls. Just to make sure Xena had positioned hundreds of men around with shovels ready to pitch dirt on the fire if it tried to spread and with that Hudsped had formed not one, but two bucket brigades that were now all filled and ready. As it looked now they were not going to be needed. The fires were still burning high but there was no wind to speak of to carry its embers beyond the walls.
Now that she had time to think on it, Xena began to suspect a sinister hand at work here. She could have understood one fire in one building but all the buildings, apparently at once? Not a chance. As Gabrielle would say there was something smelly in Sparta. Those fires had been set.
It was then she heard a commotion down by the river. Walking down to the bank, she looked out in the direction where several members of the bucket brigades were staring. There, illuminated by the flames of the warehouse, floating ever so peacefully past them, was one of the ships.
Instantly a single word popped into Xena's head. Gabrielle!
Approaching the young woman straining under the mallet, Sefron recognized her as Xena's friend. She had seemed like a nice person and he did not want to kill her but now he had no choice. She was ruining his master's plan. The whole purpose of the fire had been to destroy those ships without arousing suspicion and here she was working feverishly to defeat that.
Once more Gabrielle smashed the mallet against the wedge. Looking up to see where the dark figure was, she saw him running toward her. In his hand she saw he was holding something that was glinting in the firelight. She recognized that it was a knife.
Gabrielle was hardly in a position to defend herself. Why this man had chosen to attack her she did not know. All that mattered was that she made sure he failed. Nearly exhausted from her heroics, she tightened her bleeding hands around the mallet and marshalled all her remaining strength for one last blow. When she judged her assailant was at the right distance she gritted her teeth and swung as hard as she could. The big mallet arced upward and as it struck the man on the side of the head Gabrielle heard a sickening crunch. Later, Gabrielle would not be able to remember whether she had heard the man cry out or even if he had made any sound at all. All she would remember was that deadly sound of heavy wood crushing bone.
The momentum of her swing was such that it sent her sprawliong right over the top of her would be attacker who was now crumpling to the ground. Both of them went down in a heap with the bard landing hard on her left shoulder. It hurt like Tartarus for a moment but again, it was as though she were now somehow inured to pain. For a few eon-like moments she lay there gasping for breath, her face practically buried in the sandy bank. Finally, after much effort, she was able to struggle up on her knees.
The ship! she thought. Gotta launch the ship! With all her strength she then staggered to her feet. Wearily she looked down at this man who had just tried to kill her. She did not know who he was and at the moment she did not care. All that mattered to her was to somehow, some way, launch Xena's ship.
"Gabrielle!" It was faint at first, like the soft coo of a distant dove.
"Gabrielle!" Again she heard it, louder this time.
"Gabrielle!" The bard made an attempt to turn her neck to look but it was so stiff she found herself forced to slowly turn her whole body around. Up by where the quay used to be she saw, running toward her with that familiar lope, Xena.
"Xena!" she breathlessly whispered.
Just then the little bard's knees began to buckle but fortunately the warrioress was able to catch her in those strong arms in the nick of time. Looking down at the dead man with the crushed skull, she anxiously asked "Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"The ship," Gabrielle mumbled. "The ship."
"Shhh," Xena cooed. "It's all right. The ships are all right."
"I...." Gabrielle's head sagged down onto Xena's shoulder and her body went limp in Xena's arms. The bard had fainted.
Xena swept the brave young woman up into her arms and began to carry her back to their tent. It was a slow trip and every time Gabrielle groaned or stirred, Xena softly, lovingly assured her, "It's all right, Gabrielle. It's all right."
And as long as her true love, this precious life whose ka was so irrevocably interwined with her own was there to share all the joys and sorrows of a lifetime together with her how could it possibly be otherwise?
Three weeks later it was done. All the remaining five ships and been completed, assembled, tested, disassembled, and were now loaded on the great wagons that would take them east to Quseir. Sennefer and his men would be going along to re-assemble them with the help of that part of Hudsped's garrison which had been selected to go along. The men who were to sail them were already on their way there and just as Hudsped had predicted Hatshepsut had indeed asked Xena to lead the expedition. True to her word, Xena had declined and so it fell once more to Neshi, much to his chagrin, to carry out his king's wishes.
On the day Xena and Gabrielle were set to depart for home they assembled one last time one the shores of the Nile for a meeting with Hatshepsut.
"Until the day I die I the two of you will hold a special place in my heart," said the pharaoh. Looking up at Xena she said, "You not only built my ships..." She paused and with a mischievous grin asked, "I can say my now, can't I?"
With a big smile Xena said, "Yes."
"As I was saying, you not only built my ships, but saved my city as well."
"The people saved their own town," said Xena.
"Modest to the last," teased Hatshepsut. Shifting over in front of the bard, she said, "And you! You saved my ships."
"Well I couldn't let Xena get all the glory," cracked the bard.
"Uhh huhh," retorted Xena. "What you almost got, was killed." Since that night she had tried to find out who had been behind the fires without any luck. She rather doubted the man who attacked Gabrielle had acted alone. She had her suspicions of course, with Senenmut holding down at least the first five places on her list. But any chance of pinning it on him had died with the man named Sefron. Naturally she had spoken her mind to Hatshepsut about it but had found the pharaoh strangely uninterested. It seemed as if she operated by a different set of rules where Senenmut was concerned.
"At any rate," said Hatshepsut, "I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Umm, well there is one thing I'd like to ask," said Gabrielle.
"Name it and it is yours," said Hatshepsut.
"Ankarad," said Gabrielle. "Xena says he dreams of being a sailor. If you could, you know..."
"I will personally appoint him as one of the official chroniclers for the trip to Punt," Hatshepsut assured her.
"Thanks," said the bard.
It was here the captain of her bodyguard eased up next to the three women. "Great Pharaoh, their barge is ready."
"Very well." After he had departed Hatshepsut said, "And so we now say good-bye then."
"Not good-bye," said Xena. "Until later."
"Yes," said Hatshepsut, approvingly. "I do like that better."
"Good luck on your expedition," said Gabrielle. "May your ships always sail to a fair wind."
"And may your heart always glow with that incandescent light of love that now fills it," said Hatshepsut. One last time she cast her dark eyes upon the Warrior Princess and just for a moment allowed herself to think of what might have been."Until later, friends."
With that she turned away from them and walked to her own barge. Not once, Xena noticed, did she look back.
"You know, Xena, come to think of it..."
Not taking her eyes off the king, Xena answered, "Yeah?"
Furrowing her brow, the bard said, "Maybe you should have taken that job. I'm kind of getting to like boats."
With a faint smile Xena turned to her and said, "Let's go home, Gabrielle."
Three weeks later their longboat gently kissed up against the wind swept shores of the Arcadian Peninsula. With a cry of delight Gabrielle hopped out of the boat and gleefully ran through the surf into shore. There she threw down her bag and, dropping to her knees, scooped up a big handful of the dark sand. Holding it to her cheek, she lovingly crooned, "Mmm, I've missed you."
Moving in beside her, Xena looked up the shoreline in the direction of Haliesis. There her beloved Argo was patiently waiting for her mistress. Standing there beside her lover, she closed her eyes and smiled as she felt the cool breeze dance through her raven hair. No more boats, no more barges, no more burning hot sand, no more muddy Nile, and best of all no more barley bread.
They were home at last.
There is some evidence to suggest that Senenmut, "Greatest of the Great," fell from favor with his king sometime around the sixteenth year of her reign. Much speculation surrounds this but the dominant theory seems to be he finally went too far and arrogantly took for himself privileges that were reserved for the king alone. Whatever the case, his body has ever been found.
Neither has Hatshepsut's. The circumstances surrounding her death are unknown and again are the subject of much debate. There are those who believe her vengeful nephew was responsible, others are of the opinion she died of natural causes. What is certain is that some time after her death an effort was made to erase the memory of her as king. Indeed her name was not to be found on any of the surviving king lists. Most of these attempts occurred during Thutmose's long reign so the natural conclusion one might draw is the new king, filled with hatred for the powerful woman who had for so long kept him from his rightful place, ascended to the throne determined to obliterate her name from Egyptian history for all time. However there is now evidence that this campaign was not begun until Thutmose III had reigned for twenty years or more. As for myself I am of the opinion the Thutmose's motive for this was not spite, but political expedience. I think he felt it would simply not do for succeeding generations to know that Egypt had once been successfully ruled by a female pharaoh. To him this might have seemed a direct challenge to the Egyptian concept of maat--very, very loosely defined as "the proper way of doing things." To the ancient Egyptians nothing mattered more than continuity and it is not hard to see how Hatshepsut's ascension to power could have upset many. We have found unflattering doodlings made by laborers who worked on Hatshepsut's temples which seem to suggest that even these common people sensed this.
Fortunately for us Thutmose's attempts were half-hearted at best and it is significant to note that only references to Hatshepsut as king were defaced. Those of her as the queen consort were left untouched. If Thutmose III had really despised her why did he allow these images to remain? Whatever the case, after thirty-five centuries, the proud name of Hatshepsut is once again alive and this new awareness seems especially appropriate in this day and age when women are continually soaring to ever loftier heights.
An inscription found in her unused tomb reads:
|"The King's Daughter, God's Wife, King's Great Wife, Lady of the
Two Lands, Hatshepsut, says, 'Oh my mother, Nut, stretch thyself
over me, that thou mayest place me among the imperishable stars
which are in thee, and that I may not die.'"
She never will.
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