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The Maiden

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The Maiden

 

60 miles south of Cairo, October 1922

 

“Can you swim?”

The dark water closed over Evie’s head; she sank into the Nile, her skirts tangling about her legs. Knowing better than to struggle while falling, she let herself go still and in moments had bobbed to the surface. The Sudan burned above her and Evie kicked away from it, striking out into the river. Treading water, she looked back at the river cruiser, anxiously scanning the burning deck for any sight of Jonathan or Mr. O’Connell. Bangs and crashes and bellows filled the air; men and animals going over the edge, then O’Connell pirouetted over the Sudan’s side, his kit bag full of guns slung over his shoulders. 

“O’Connell!” Evie shrieked as he surfaced. 

“Swim!” he barked, and his voice was so serious that Evie struck out alongside him, pressing further into the river. 

“Where’s Jonathan?” she yelled. 

“I’m here!” 

The hail came from not far away; shouting back and forth the Carnahans found each other in the fire-filled darkness. They found the Warden, too, which was a relief if not a joy. Following O’Connell, they swam towards the bank and staggered into the shallows. O’Connell clambered upright and caught Evie’s arm, pulling her to her feet. 

“Are you all right?”

“Do I look all right?” Evie cried, stumbling a little in the shallow water as she slogged towards shore. “We’ve lost everything , all our tools, all the equipment. All my clothes.”

O’Connell grunted, tossing his duffel bag down on the dry sand and pulling his pistols out of their holsters, shaking the water out of them. Evie stood on the bank, panting. Perhaps she was being churlish when he had, in fact, just saved her life, but she was close to tears. The expedition was over before it had even begun. 

From far across the river came a shout. “Hey! O’Connell! It looks to me like I’ve got all the horses!” 

O’Connell turned and bellowed back. “Hey, Beni! It looks to me like you’re on the wrong side of the river !”

It was such a childish interaction that Evie forgot herself and stared at him. O’Connell turned his back on the river and caught her eye. To her amazement, he grinned. “Well, he is. Come on.”

He was good after that, inexplicably, unbelievably good. Evie had rather believed, when she sprang him from Cairo Prison and left him puking in the gutter, that Rick O’Connell was a drunk and a thief and possibly a liar. She had been unprepared for the handsomely dressed and surprisingly knowledgeable man who presented himself on the docks that morning, and she was certainly unprepared for how he took charge now. O’Connell marched them higher up the bank and had them sit down on dry sand. He opened his duffel and dug out a pocket torch and a clean shirt. Of course he has spare clothes , Evie thought, nonsensically, and started when O’Connell tossed the shirt at her. 

“Put that on; you’re shivering,” he said. “Jonathan, any injuries? Warden?”

“No,” came the chorus.

“Are you hurt, Evie?” Jonathan asked. 

“I’m fine,” Evie said. She stood there looking over their motley party, clutching O’Connell’s spare shirt. She didn’t think she was shivering; it wasn’t cold out and she was entirely too old to have a fit of the vapours like some wilting violet in an adventure story. The Sudan was still burning out there on the river; gazing out at it, Evie was suddenly gripped by the horror that there had been people unable to escape the blaze. There hadn’t been many passengers, though, and there were lights blazing and people shouting on the far side of the river--

“Evelyn,” Rick O’Connell said, so forcefully that she looked at him. He took the shirt out of her hands and wrapped it around her shoulders. “Jonathan, I think your sister needs a slug of brandy.”

Jonathan materialized at her side, holding his pocket flask. “Drink up, old mum.”

“I would also like a slug of brandy,” the Warden said, his voice petulant. 

Evie took a mouthful and felt warmth licking down her insides. She passed the flask back to Jonathan; it made the rounds among the men, but she noticed that O’Connell didn’t drink any. Instead he stood scanning the riverbank, pocket torch in one hand and pistol in the other. For a moment, Evie couldn’t imagine why. Then she realized that there were lights coming towards them--people-- attracted by the burning boat out on the river. 

“Min hunak?” a man shouted. Who’s there?”

“Nahn musafirun,” O’Connell called. We are travellers. “Nahn bihajat lilmusaeadat! Kunna ealaa matn alqarib.” We need help. We were on that boat. 

Evie stared at him. “You speak Arabic!” 

“Yeah,” O’Connell said, shoving his gun back into its holster. “Can you walk?”

“Yes,” snapped Evie. “I’m not a china doll!”

“Good,” O’Connell said, and he flashed her a grin. “Come on.”

The men coming towards them were from a small village, one of hundreds along the Nile. They carried with them torches and blankets, prepared for some kind of calamity, and in short order Evie found herself walking alongside Jonathan back to the village. The evening’s events were taking on a surreal quality, as though they had happened to someone else: the man in her cabin, the gunfight, O’Connell nearly getting his head blown off, the unceremonious way he had thrown her into the river. Evie shivered. Jonathan looked at her. 

“You all right, old mum?”

“I don’t know.” Evie swallowed; her throat suddenly tight. “It’s over before it even began.”

“I know,” Jonathan said wearily. “Hell and damnation. I really thought we were on to something.”

Tears pricked at Evie’s eyes; she was so angry. “And we lost the map, and the puzzle box, and now I’ll never find the Book of Amun-ra--”

“Hey, who said we were quitting?”

The voice was O’Connell’s; Evie and Jonathan turned to stare at him. He looked perplexed, as though this were a small set-back instead of a calamity. “We’ll rest up here tonight, find some more tools, and head out tomorrow. No big deal.”

O’Connell’s voice was calm, in command; he wasn’t kidding. Hope began to bubble in Evie’s chest. Maybe this wasn’t over, after all. 

They made it to the village, a motley collection of stone houses and canvas awnings, where a handful of veiled women descended upon Evie and bore her off, exclaiming over her. She was led to one of the small houses and through to the modest womens’ quarters, where her filthy, soaked nightgown and O’Connell’s shirt were removed. She was briskly bathed, dried, wrapped in a blanket, and put to bed on a divan by a couple of clucking Egyptian women, clearly members of a family. A mug of broth was pressed into her hands. 

“Where is my brother? My companions?” Evie asked.

“They are in the next house, sitt,” said the lady of the house, a small, round woman with smile-lined eyes. “Your husband, he asked that we look after you and tell you to get some sleep.”

“My husband?”

“Yes, the big man,” the woman said. “Would you like me to bring him to you, sitt?”

Evie shook her head, amused, and lay back on the divan. She wondered what O’Connell would say if he knew that the women thought they were married. Probably he would be horrified. Still, for the first time on this adventure she was glad that he was there. What might have happened if O’Connell hadn’t come bursting into her cabin right when the villain had his hook to her face? Evie shivered. The lady of the house reached to steady the mug in her hands. 

“I’m not sick, sitt,” Evie said, but the woman shook her head. 

“Your boat sank and you had to swim in the river. It is the same thing.”

Evie smiled and submitted. When the broth was gone she lay back and closed her eyes. In minutes, she slept. 

Dawn brought with it a flurry of activity. Waking, Evie was momentarily displaced: what was she doing in a small house, not in her cabin aboard the Sudan . Then she remembered and groaned. In the cool light of morning, memory and common sense reasserted itself and her hopes were dashed. How could they possibly get to Hamunaptra now?

Around her, the lady of the house and her assorted female relatives were rising and making their beds. Evie sat up and asked after her clothes. She couldn’t very well check on Jonathan and O’Connell dressed in nothing but a blanket. Her nightgown was unfortunate, but it was all she had. And besides, O’Connell would want his spare shirt back. 

“You cannot go out in that,” she was informed. “You would bake in the sun.”

Instead, they presented her with a new set of Egyptian clothes: thin cotton trousers and undershirt and a flowing black yelek robe trimmed in silver that buttoned up the front and had split skirts for riding. 

“I cannot accept this,” Evelyn said, “It’s too beautiful.”

The lady smiled. “It was arranged for by your menfolk. They asked that we find clothing for you.”

“Oh.” Evie rubbed the soft cotton between her fingers and smiled. “In that case, thank you.”

She donned the outfit and a pair of black riding boots. The outfit reminded Evie of the single photograph she had of her mother taken before she had married Alexander Carnahan and foregone Egyptian dress. Salwa Carnahan had been beautiful, and it pleased Evie to be dressed as her mother had in her youth. The effect was furthered when one of the young women painted a layer of kohl onto Evie’s eyes and draped her hair in a soft veil. 

“Come, your menfolk are waiting. They are buying camels and supplies to carry you into the desert.”

“They are?” Elation filled Evie ; she wanted to scream and jump up and down. They were still going to Hamunaptra! Just as O’Connell said they would. 

As Evie walked out into the village with her benefactors, she saw Jonathan and Rick O’Connell standing by the well, each holding the reins of two camels. Saddlebags of food and supplies were being loaded onto the animals’ back. O’Connell was staring at her. 

“Good morning,” Evie said, smiling rather shyly at him. 

“Morning,” O’Connell said, flashing her that charming grin. “You sleep well?”

“Oh, yes, very well, thanks.” 

O’Connell made a gesture at her. “They got you your clothes all right?”

“Yes,” Evie replied, and wondered with a thrill of disbelief if he had been the one to “arrange” things with the ladies. It seemed a stretch to think that Jonathan would do that. She hid her sudden embarrassment by looking past O’Connell to where Jonathan and the Warden stood bickering. “We’re really carrying on, then.”

“Yeah, I told you,” Rick said. “You do want to, don’t you?”

“More than anything,” Evie said, and winced internally at how eager she sounded. She couldn’t help it. “I’m ready to go at any time, Mr. O’Connell.”

He grinned at her again and drat him , he really was handsome, with those blue eyes and that tousled hair falling over his forehead. 

“You’d better check over the supplies; make sure I got everything right,” he said. 

Evie did as he suggested, looking through the bags and baskets while O’Connell trailed behind her. Two canvas tents, blankets, enough food for two weeks, water skins, cooking gear, two shovels, a pick ax and a crowbar made up the lot. It wasn’t as comprehensive as what she had bought in Cairo and lost aboard the Sudan , but it would more than do. O’Connell had even gotten hold of a couple of cheap paper notebooks, which boggled Evie’s mind. 

“It’s a shame I lost my tool kit, though,” she said, closing the flap of the last saddlebag and standing. She brushed her hands on her skirts. “We’d have to return to Cairo for a new one, or sail all the way down to Luxor.”

O’Connell looked curious. “What difference does it make?”

“Oh, a world of difference!” Evie said, archeological fervor taking hold. “I had brushes, and picks, and all of the things I would need to really dig into tiny little crevasses and the like. But it’s lost now. I suppose I’ll just have to make do.”

She glanced at O’Connell; he was looking at her with an odd expression on his face and Evie turned away, embarrassed and annoyed with herself. He clearly thought she was in over her head, some kind of silly girl, even if he had almost single handedly saved the Carnahan Expedition. Why did she care what he thought of her? Evie was a Bachelor Girl and had been since the War. She was a scholar and a librarian and, now, an archeologist. She had long decided to stop caring what men thought of her. Besides, she reminded herself, O’Connell was only in it for the money; he had no interest in her beyond that, even if he had kissed her. Come now, girl, enough of these thoughts . The morning was beautiful; they were safe and well and they were going to find the City of the Dead, and she would finally become a real archeologist. Evie checked her camel’s girth and sprang into the saddle. 

“Are we ready, chaps? Forth the Carnahan Expedition!” she called, laughing. “To Hamunaptra!”

 

 

Author's Note: This is a companion piece to "The Hanged Man". The Maiden isn't a tarot card, but I like the sound of it. The closest card to describing Evie is, I think, the Strength card or possible the Queen of Wands. Anyway. The Arabic here comes courtesy of Google Translate (*hangs head*) so if anyone knows Arabic and wants to correct me, I'd be grateful. I hope you like the story! Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!