My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
She was nursing her fourth-or was it her fifth-tankard of ale as she sat at one of the wooden tables in the kitchens. Servants silently went about their work, occasionally glancing covertly in her direction. Most of them avoided the brooding woman slumped in their midst.
"Go to bed, Xena," Cyrene walked up and put a hand on her daughter's back. "You need to sleep this off. Gabrielle will be fine. I'm sure she found a guest room to spend the night in."
"There aren't any left," Xena mumbled. "All full."
"She's a smart young'n," Agatha commented as she passed by the table on her way to the wash tub with an armload of dirty pots. "She'll find somewhere to bunk down for the night. Probably already fast asleep, by now."
"Should be in our bedchamber," Xena downed the rest of her ale and slammed the tankard on the table.
"Xena," Cyrene chided. "Must you?"
"'Nother, Mom," she couldn't help slurring her words.
"I think you've had quite enough for one night, young lady," replied Cyrene and got a warning growl in return. "And I don't care if you are the crowned Queen of Greece. You don't need to drink yourself into a stupor just because you and Gabrielle had an argument. That's no way to deal with your problems."
"She thin's I'm a mo'ster," Xena rested her chin on top of her folded arms on the table and let her eyes drift shut.
"No, she doesn't," Cyrene sat down next to her daughter and brushed the hair back from Xena's forehead. "She was just upset. That's all. People say things they don't mean when they're angry."
"She thinks I made her a puppet monarch," Xena grumbled. "She said I did it to boost my popularity-make ever'one see that I'm not the mo'ster ever'one thin's I am."
"She loves you, Xena," Cyrene said. "Why would she think you're a monster?"
"'Cause," Xena's lower lip poked out in a pout.
Xena glanced at her mother with bleary, bloodshot eyes. "Just 'cause. I don't wanna talk 'bout it." Her tone was that of a petulant child.
"Xena, look at me," Cyrene waited for those stark blue eyes to turn toward her. When they finally did, she was a little taken aback by the despair she saw there. "The two of you need to talk through your differences. Don't shut each other out. That's no way to build trust and it's no way to cultivate a healthy relationship."
"That what happened with you and my father?"
"My relationship with your father was…er…complicated," Cyrene replied. "He was more interested in going off to war than sticking around to run the inn and raise children."
"Twas an idiot, he was," Agatha put in, as she walked past the table again. "Didn't have the sense the gods gave a goat. Always doing drills out in the yard and scaring the chickens until they stopped laying. Good riddance. Hope he's enjoyin' eternity in Tartarus for all the pain he put this family through."
Cyrene just rolled her eyes and ignored her sister's comments. "Gabrielle is nothing like your father, Xena," she added. "And neither are you." She placed a hand on top of Xena's head. "I raised you to care about family. Right, Aggie?"
"Harrumph," was Agatha's only response.
"What are you saying, Agatha? Do you really think the only reason she took you into her home was because she needed a housekeeper?" Cyrene scowled.
"I did it 'cause I needed someone to whip the servants into shape," Xena muttered with a wry grin.
"Yeah, right," Agatha dropped into a chair across the table from them. "You weren't the one who made the suggestion, as I recall. 'Twas my idea after I saw how things were going there at the keep. The place was a disaster of epic proportions when I arrived. A pig stye with servants who didn't care a wit about you or how things looked. And you were too busy conquering to pay much mind to what was happenin' around ya. Always riding out for days on end with that worthless pack of wolves you called an army. Comin' back with more hungry mouths to feed nearly every time." She huffed and shook her gray head. "Twas a wonder no one starved."
"Wasn't my fault there were still idiots left out there who wouldn't accept defeat," Xena defended. "Not to mention the small bands of resistance who fancied themselves rebels fighting for the greater good. It's not like I was bleeding the villages dry asking for tribute. I barely took anything from them, except what food and supplies they could part with. I had an army to feed."
"True," Agatha agreed. "But while you were busy with all that, someone had to take care of things at the keep."
"Traecus had things well in hand…"
Agatha snorted. "Yeah, and pigs fly. Traecus had about as much sense when it came to managing a household as an innkeeper who volunteers for war."
"That's not the point, you two," Cyrene interceded.
"Then what is the point, Mother?" Xena was instantly sober.
"You're not a monster, Xena."
"No, you're not," Agatha agreed. "You did what you had to do. And you're still doing it. But sometimes you need to realize that others don't see things the same way you do."
Xena sighed heavily. "I had the foreign dignitaries executed during the coronation."
A stunned silence hung over the room, as Agatha and Cyrene got up and left Xena alone. They went back to their work without another word and Xena went back to nursing her ale in silence. The only sounds in the kitchens came from the occasional banging of a pot or pan. No one else had the courage to speak to the queen sitting there drowning her sorrows in ale.
"Mmmmmmm…" Zea sighed in contentment as she stared up at a hole in the ceiling just above her head. "That was amazing."
She turned her head and looked at the woman lying next to her. Then she rolled onto her side and propped her head on her hand. Gazing at Briesse's features, she reached out and began gently tracing them with a finger.
Starting with one ear, she moved down the angular jaw line and up to full lips slightly swollen from their recent kisses. She then traced a line up the aquiline nose, around both closed eyelids and then to the other ear. When she was finished, she placed her palm on Briesse's cheek and gave her a quick peck on the lips.
Briesse opened her eyes, reached up and picked a piece of straw out of Zea's hair, absently tossing it aside. "You look better without the horse feed in your hair, love."
Zea chuckled and picked several pieces of straw out of Briesse's hair. "You, too." She stuck a piece between her lips and chewed on it. "I really thought we were going to be on guard duty all night."
"I'm glad Ephiny let us off the hook when she did," she reached up and brushed Zea's cheek with a finger. "This is a lot more interesting than standing in the hall watching everyone else have fun."
"Yeah, definitely," Zea took Briesse's hand in hers and kissed her palm. She then trailed featherlight kisses along the inside of Briesse's arm until she reached her bare shoulder.
Any further conversation was forgotten as the two women resumed their lovemaking high above the horses in the stables. The loft was piled high with straw, but they had managed to dig out a nice, cozy space that afforded them more privacy than they had in the barracks. And the body heat from the horses made things nice and warm for two completely naked bodies.
Of course, the lovemaking helped, too.
"Have you seen Gabrielle?" Ephiny stormed into the kitchens and caught Cyrene as she was just sitting down to a simple meal of freshly baked bread and cheese.
It was really late, or early, depending on how one looked at it. Dawn was about three candlemarks away and the celebration was slowly winding down upstairs. More than half of the guests had either retired to their rooms or passed out in the hall. The rest had wandered outside to the festivities still going strong in the city proper.
"No," Cyrene replied over a mouthful of bread and cheese. "Did you check the royal suite? Maybe she and Xena finally made up and went to bed."
"Neither one of them is up there," Ephiny replied. "I asked the guards and they said they haven't seen either of them for candlemarks."
"Well," Cyrene let the hint of a smile touch her lips as she took another bite. "Maybe they found a more private place to escape to for a while."
"Did they have an argument or something? You keep saying they need to make up."
"Yes, they did. But I'm not at liberty to discuss details. Suffice it to say, those two need time together to work out their differences."
"Does it have anything to do with Xena ordering the execution of the foreign emissaries at the coronation?" Ephiny watched Cyrene's features closely and wasn't disappointed by the reaction she got. "I thought so. Gabrielle was pretty upset about it."
"Yes, well, now Xena is upset with Gabrielle," Cyrene added. "It's just so pointless, if you ask me."
"I'm sure they'll eventually work it out on their own," Ephiny said, as she put a hand on top of Cyrene's on the table and squeezed. "If I know Xena and Gabrielle, they're probably already kissing and making up as we speak. I just wish I knew where they wandered off to. I really need to find Gabrielle and give her a piece of my mind for taking off without her escort. That wacko who tried to kill her is still out there somewhere and we have no idea if or when he'll strike again."
"The one who shot her horse with a crossbow bolt?"
"Yeah," Ephiny plopped down in a chair across the table from Cyrene with a heavy sigh. "One and the same."
Cyrene pushed the loaf of bread and wedge of cheese across the table. "Have something to eat, dear. What would you like to drink?"
Ephiny cut a generous slice of bread and a thick slab of cheese. "Got anymore of that cider from last night?"
"I sure do," Cyrene went to the other side of the room and tapped a keg, filling a pitcher with hard apple cider and returning to the table. "Here you go."
Ephiny filled a mug and downed the cider in several gulps. She then filled her mug again and nibbled her bread and cheese while sipping the cider.
"Thanks," she said over a mouthful of food. "We still haven't found any sign of who it was that shot at her or why. It's as if the person just vanished into thin air."
"Oh, I'm sure whoever it was will turn up," Cyrene said. "And when he does, he'd better be prepared to face the wrath of Xena the Conqueror."
"Oh, I'm sure that's why he hasn't struck lately," Ephiny nodded. "I just hope he doesn't make another attempt before we figure out who it is and why he's targeting the queen. It could be just about anyone."
"Maybe they're not after Gabrielle," Cyrene suggested. "What if he was actually after Xena and was only using Gabrielle as a diversion?"
"It's definitely a possibility. Don't think we counted that one out. After all, Xena made more than her share of enemies when she became Conqueror of Greece. And now with the both of them crowned queen there will be no end to the enemies who will come crawling out of the woodwork to target them."
"Hm," Cyrene considered that thoughtfully for a moment. "I think you're right. And my daughter's actions earlier sure won't earn her any allies abroad, especially when word spreads that she executed the lot of them without a trial."
"Xena mentioned the emissaries from Chin brought assassins with them," Ephiny commented, then realized who she was talking to and hurried to remedy the situation. "Not that Xena's in danger from assassins or anything."
"My daughter can take care of herself," Cyrene smiled confidently. "Besides, Xena always had a kind of sixth sense when it came to danger. She had it before Cortese attacked our village. She even tried to warn us about the attack."
"And?" Ephiny was all ears. She hadn't heard why Xena left home to become the infamous Conqueror and wanted details.
"The elders refused to listen to a mere child," Cyrene smiled wistfully. "She was only thirteen at the time and they adamantly refused to take her warning to heart. Two days later we were fighting for our lives against more than a hundred heavily armed and battle trained men. Xena's small army of misfit warriors did their best to drive Cortese and his men out of the village. But our villagers are just simple farmers with very little skill in battle. We lost a lot of good people that day, including my youngest son, Lyceus. Xena blamed herself for his death. She left Amphipolis shortly after that and it was years before I saw her again."
"Must have been tough to lose your son and daughter at the same time," Ephiny put a hand out and smiled when Cyrene took it in her own.
"Those were very trying times," Cyrene agreed with a wan smile. "But we did our best and eventually we managed to rebuild. Fortunately for me, the inn was left unscathed during the attack. It was used as a hospice for a time, until the injured fully recovered. Then it became a central meeting place for the elders who survived the attack. Eventually, things returned to normal and I had paying customers again. But it was a long and difficult road to finally reach that point."
"And in the meantime, Xena was out conquering Greece," Ephiny added.
"Yes, she was," Cyrene smiled wistfully. "I heard rumors about a woman who was ruthlessly wiping out warlords and raiding villages. I just never imagined that the conquering heroine of legend could possibly be my Xena."
"Did I hear someone say my name?"
Xena walked in and plopped herself into an empty chair, then propped her feet on the table. The latter earned her a glower from her mother and she promptly lowered her boots to the floor, much to Ephiny's amusement.
"Laugh it up, Amazon," Xena growled.
Ephiny sobered. "So, where'd you leave Gabrielle? I really need to talk to her about something."
"Funny, I was gonna ask if either of you had seen her, lately," Xena replied. "I can't find her anywhere in the palace."
"Did you try the stables? I saw her there the other day. Asked her why she was sitting all alone and she said she was just enjoying some peace and quiet," Ephiny said.
"I was headed there next," Xena stood up and started for the outside door.
"I'd like to go with you, if you don't mind," Ephiny followed. She then paused in the doorway on her way out. "Thanks for the meal and conversation, Cyrene."
"You're welcome, dear," Cyrene smiled warmly. "Anytime."
Ephiny then followed Xena outside and quickly caught up to her. They walked past the area behind the kitchens where the supplies were delivered. A large pile of garbage sat to one side and gave off a distinctive smell that had both women silently holding their breath.
"I've never been this way before," Ephiny commented, once she was able to breathe again. She glanced around at the boxes and crates piled neatly all around them.
"Shortcut," Xena said as she walked with purpose.
They crossed an open area large enough for the army to assemble in, then headed straight for the stables a short distance away. They could both hear the revelry still going on in the city streets beyond the palace walls. There was music and laughter that carried over the walls, as well as a general air of celebration.
"Sounds like the festivities are in full swing out there," Ephiny said, as they ducked inside the quiet darkness of the stables.
They moved along the aisle with stalls on either side. Only a few stalls were occupied. Xena planned to remedy that, eventually. She wanted to recruit a cavalry to add to the ranks of the army. Mounted warriors were something of a rarity, but she knew she was up to the task of training men to fight on horseback. She also wanted to increase the size of the army by at least a thousand men. But first she had to find ways to beef up the treasury. She had already spent quite a bit on the new armor and leathers the men were wearing.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called out. "Gabrielle, are you in here?"
Ephiny lit a lantern and held it high above her head. "Gabrielle? If you're here, please come out. I have something I need to talk to you about!"
"What the…" Briesse sat bolt upright and quickly scrambled into her leathers.
"Wha's going on?" The sleepy voice next to her said, as Zea lifted her head.
"It's the queen," Briesse whispered. "And the…er…"
Startled by the shout just below them, Zea quickly sat up and awkwardly wriggled into her own leathers. She was just fastening the clip on her top when Briesse plowed through the straw toward the ladder on the other side of her. They were both covered from head to foot in straw.
"I think someone's up in the loft, Xena," Ephiny said, just as a blond head peeked down at them from above. "Briesse? What in hades are you doing up there?" Zea chose that moment to make an appearance with straw sticking out every which way from her dark hair. "Never mind. Don't answer that. I really don't want to know what the two of you have been up to."
"What's going on, my queen?" Briesse quickly scrambled down the ladder, with Zea following close behind.
"Have either of you seen Gabrielle, lately?" Xena impatiently asked.
"No," Briesse replied with a shake of her head. "She isn't here. We've been here for a while and no one has come or gone.The last time I saw her was in the throne room during the coronation feast."
"Yeah, me too," Zea agreed with a nod as her tanned cheeks darkened with a blush.
Xena and Ephiny exchanged worried glances.
"So, where else could she be?" Ephiny asked.
"I don't know," Xena put her hands on her hips as she considered the question.
"She wasn't anywhere in the palace?" Briesse put in.
"No," Xena replied. "Besides, I have the servants keeping an eye out for her. If she shows up there, someone will come find me."
"Maybe she went into the city," Zea suggested. "It's been kinda loud with all the partying going on out there. I know some of our Amazons decided to join the party when things died down in the hall earlier."
"Without her escort?" Ephiny frowned at Xena. "I know she was upset over the argument you two had, but do you really think she would venture out into that crowd this late and with no one to protect her?"
"You had an argument?" Briesse added.
Xena sighed and rolled her eyes. "That's not important, right now."
"No, it's not," Ephiny said. "What's important is finding Gabrielle before something terrible happens."
Xena nodded. "We're going to need help."
"I'll gather the Amazons who are still within the palace walls," Ephiny said.
"Zea and I will ask around inside the palace to see if anyone saw her leave and, if so, which way she went," Briesse volunteered. "I'm sure someone saw her before she disappeared."
"Right," Zea nodded.
"I'll gather a search party together, and we'll meet just outside in the assembly area," Xena turned to Briesse. "You have a quarter candlemark to see if anyone knows where she went or at the very least in which general direction. I'd rather not raise an alarm by announcing to the entire city that their queen is out there among them somewhere, which is exactly what will happen if the entire army has to go searching door-to-door looking for her."
"Understood," Ephiny said. "Let's go, you two."
The Amazons hurried away, leaving Xena in the stables with only the horses for company. She walked over to the closest horse, a bay gelding with a white star in the middle of his forehead. He lifted his head and put it over the stall door for her. Xena humored him by giving his chin and cheeks a good scratch. She reached up with both hands and scratched behind his ears, then rested her forehead against his nose. She waited for the wave of panic to subside before lifting her head from his. He seemed to sense her distress and merely waited for her to finish.
"Thanks, boy," she said quietly as she scratched him one last time, sighed heavily and then left.
Ephiny returned to the room she shared with the weapons master and found Eponin exactly where she had left her earlier-passed out on her stomach in the middle of their bed. Eponin was wearing nothing but a light blanket draped over her hips. She was also snoring so loudly that Ephiny had heard her long before she entered the room.
"Wake up!" Ephiny threw a pillow and hit Eponin squarely on the head.
The weapons master jumped up onto all fours and was off the bed with her sword drawn in less than a heartbeat. She looked around in confusion and spotted Ephiny casually leaning against the door frame with her arms crossed over her chest and a wry grin on her features.
"Wha'ja do that for?" Eponin's voice went up an octave, as she lowered the sword.
"Nice outfit," Ephiny made a point of slowly surveying her partner's nude body.
Eponin looked down at herself and sighed in exasperation. "You suck, ya know that?"
Ephiny leered. "Oh, I most definitely suck…and blow," she finished with a cocky grin.
Eponin blushed to her roots, but didn't bother to cover herself. "Why'd ya wake me?" She ran a hand through her sleep-tossled hair and only managed to mess it up more. "I was havin' a really good dream, Eph. We were all back at the village and I was…"
"You were snoring," Ephiny reached down and picked up Eponin's discarded leathers off the floor. "You might want to put your clothes back on. We have a problem." She tossed the garments to Eponin.
Awkwardly catching her leathers in one hand while still holding her sword with the other, Eponin looked at Ephiny with concern. "What's up?"
"The queen is missing."
Ephiny gave Eponin an incredulous look. "Really, Eponin?"
The weapons master quickly donned her leathers. "Well, there's two of 'em now, ya know. Maybe the Big X decided to skip out on her responsibilities and go bash some heads." She finished with a shrug as she adjusted her top. "Ya never know with her."
"Gabrielle is missing, you…" She just shook her head in exasperation. "Why do I even bother?"
Eponin walked up and gave her a hug from behind. "'Cause you love me more'n apples?" She said against Ephiny's ear.
Ephiny chuckled then sobered. "You did hear me. Right? Gabrielle is missing."
"I heard ya," Eponin released Ephiny and turned her so they were face to face. "How do you know she's missing?"
"Xena has no clue where she is," Ephiny answered flatly.
"Ah," Eponin nodded. "Good a reason as any, I suppose. So, what's the plan?"
"We need to gather all the Amazons who are still in the palace and meet Xena out in the assembly area behind the kitchens," Ephiny replied. "Briesse and Zea are going around the palace trying to find anyone who saw Gabrielle leave."
"You thinkin' foul play?"
"Well, it's not like Gabrielle to just wander off without an escort. But, then again, she and Xena did have an argument earlier, so…" She finished with a shrug. "Or maybe she was just overwhelmed by being crowned queen. I don't think she knew that was coming."
"Her maj and…er…her maj…" She shook her head in confusion. "I'm just gonna keep callin' her Xena. Too confusing otherwise. They had an argument?"
"We're wasting time, Pon," Ephiny glared at her impatiently.
"Yeah, okay," Eponin grabbed her sword and headed out with Ephiny close on her heels. "You wanna tell me what they argued about?"
"If I know Gabrielle, it probably had something to do with Xena's order to execute the foreign emissaries during the coronation ceremony. I don't think Gabrielle was very happy about it."
"Oh, crap. Forgot about that."
They reached the stairs and descended in silence.
After changing out of her coronation garb into a pair of leather pants and a white shirt, Gabrielle left the palace and went roaming through the streets of Corinth. Her heart was heavy as she walked among the crowd of excited revelers. No one recognized her in the clothing she wore. Why should they? As far as they were concerned, the monarchs of Greece were safe inside the castle enjoying the celebration that was still in full swing in the main hall.
With her blonde hair pulled back into a single braid down her back, a plain brown cloak over her shoulders and the hood pulled up, she looked like anyone else. No one bothered to look at the expensive calf-skin boots Xena had given her, and she wasn't wearing the gold circlet on her head. That was safely tucked away in the royal bedchamber-the one she couldn't bear to stay in longer than it took to change her clothes. Gabrielle knew that particular piece of gold would be a dead giveaway if she were to wear it outside the castle.
She just wasn't in the mood to be recognized.
She passed a huge bonfire with several people dancing around it to the beat of a jaunty tune. One of the dancers was so far into his cups that he staggered more than he danced. He moved into Gabrielle's path as she tried to sneak by without being noticed.
"Hey, there, swee'ie. Give us a kiss?" He puckered his lips and leaned close. When she immediately back away, he raised his tankard toward her. "Wan' a little nip? I's strong enuff ta take the chill off o' this chilly ev'nin'."
Gabrielle side-stepped him as best she could and nearly collided with another man. He steadied her before she fell into the musicians who were playing nearby.
"Leave the missy be, ya lout!" He barked at the drunken man. He then turned a warm smile on Gabrielle. "Sorry, miss. Didn't mean ta nearly knock ya down."
"It's okay," Gabrielle moved back several steps. "No harm done. I'll just be on my way, if you don't mind."
"Not a good night ta be wanderin' the streets alone, missy," he grabbed her arm and stopped her. "The party's in full swing and there's those who ain't adverse ta takin' advantage of an attractive young woman such as yerself."
"I'll be fine," Gabrielle yanked her arm free of his grasp and moved past him as quickly as the crowd would allow. "Thank you for your concern," she called over her shoulder.
He made to tip a non-existent hat toward her retreating figure. "Don't say I didn't warn ya, miss!"
Gabrielle pulled her hood lower as she continued on her way with her head down. She hurried through several more crowded streets and past a marketplace full of drunken revelers. She then turned a corner and found herself at the edge of a crowd watching the same tumblers and jugglers who had entertained those gathered in the main hall.
Not wanting to be recognized by any of them, Gabrielle ducked down a side alley that was as dark as pitch. She nearly tripped over a chicken that was startled enough to flap its wings and gain enough air to claw at her hood with its feet. As the chicken flew past her head, one of its claws caught in her hood and yanked it from her head.
"Well, well, lookey what we have here, boys."
Gabrielle whirled around and came face-to-face with six brutes blocking the alleyway. She could see in the light from one of the bonfires on the street beyond that the leader was dressed in black leather. He had a patch over one eye and held a club in one hand that he slapped into his other palm.
A shiver of dread raced down her spine, as Gabrielle backed up several paces. She looked around for a weapon to use against them. Their intentions were clear as they moved toward her, even if she couldn't see their faces clearly in the shadows. She knew they intended to do her harm. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with a means of escape.
She spotted a broom several paces to her right. The handle was just long enough for her to use it as a staff. The only problem was she couldn't quite reach it without giving away her intention.
"She's a little small for all of us to share," one of the leader's companions commented. "Don't look like all that much, either. Why's she dressed like a boy?"
"Kinda scrawny, if'n ya ask me," another man added. "I like a little meat on the bones of my women. This'n got more bones than meat, far as I see."
"A woman's a woman," a third man piped in. "Don't matter none what she looks like. Remember them ladies in that village t'other day? Not a one of 'em was perty. They was all hags. But we had some fun just the same. Didn't we, boys?"
The leader chuckled. "Right you are, Gustias. Right you are."
He motioned for his men to surround her, but Gabrielle jumped into action. She grabbed the broom and held it up in front of her.
"I'm sure your other conquests didn't fight back when you went after them, either," she hissed in her most intimidating tone. "Don't think that will be the case with me."
The leader stopped his advance, crossed his arms over his chest and laughed a gap-toothed laugh. It wasn't long before his companions were laughing outright along with him. Then he stopped and held his arms out for his men to do the same.
"You really think you can stop us with a broom, girlie?" He glanced at his companions, then raised his club for her to see. "I got ten dinar says your broom don't stand a chance against my club."
"No, but I will stop you with an arrow through the heart, you dog."
They all looked up to find a shadow armed with a crossbow on the rooftop above them. Gabrielle looked up, too. She couldn't see her rescuer and didn't really trust the men in front of her. So she backed up slowly until she was standing with her back against several crates piled on top of each other.
"See here, now!" The leader raised his club to the roof where the shadow sat. "This one's spoken for. She's ours, ya dog!"
"She's mine," replied the shadow in a gravelly voice. "I already laid claim to her when I spooked her horse and sent them both on a headlong flight through the woods. Besides, you dogs have no clue who you have here, do you?"
A chill of foreboding raced through Gabrielle. So, this was the person who was responsible for the death of her beloved mare. She wanted the shadowy figure to come down from the roof and reveal their identity to her. But she was also concerned about the men still blocking her exit to the alley.
"We got here first. She's ours," the leader said. "Get him, boys!"
The alley suddenly erupted in chaos as the men bolted in different directions. An arrow whizzed through the air and narrowly missed the leader, grazing his cheek and embedding in a crate to Gabrielle's left. She decided to duck for cover behind the crates and wait out the scuffle that followed. She held on tightly to her makeshift weapon and used it when one of the brutes made a grab for her.
With a quick swing, Gabrielle connected with the man's jaw and sent him flipping backwards to the ground. That's when one of the men who had climbed up onto the roof came crashing down onto the empty crates and sent splinters flying everywhere. Gabrielle narrowly escaped and tried to sneak by the men in the shadows. But someone grabbed her hood and violently yanked her back.
"Oh, no you don't!"
It was the leader. He wrapped an arm around her and pinned her against his chest. She nearly gagged from the smell of him. Instead, she let instinct take over and slammed her booted foot down on his. He yelped loudly but didn't let go. Actually, his arm around her slid up to her neck and cut off her air. Jabbing with her elbows and trying desperately to break free, Gabrielle saw stars of yet another kind that night as her world narrowed to a pinprick.
She scratched at his bare arms with her fingernails and continued to squirm frantically. As she felt unconsciousness rapidly closing in, Gabrielle made one final effort to free herself by biting down hard on the bare flesh in front of her. Her teeth sank into his arm and she tasted the salty tang of blood almost instantly. The blood and the smell of him made her gag, but she held firm and continued to bite down as hard as she could.
He released his hold enough for her to take a deep breath, spin and punch with all her might. Her fist connected with his nose and blood sprayed everywhere. He howled in pain and then doubled over as her knee came up into his groin. Still reeling from her near-death experience, Gabrielle managed to bring her arm down on the back of his head before she pitched sideways and stumbled out of his way.
The leader crashed to the ground in an unconscious heap and another of his companions went sailing off the roof and crashed into one of the supports of the overhang. A loud crack rent the air around her as the entire roof seemed to crash down on top of her.
And then everything went still and silent.
Gabrielle lay beneath the rubble and tried to get her bearings. She was completely covered by boards and heavy timbers. The lower half of her body was pinned beneath something that wouldn't budge. No matter how hard she tried to pull her legs free she couldn't. Something poked into her side and she felt a warm, sticky substance run down the side of her face.
In the next instant, everything around her was moving and shifting. Then something was lifted off her head and the world came back in a rush of sound and light. A dark shadow lifted off more of the rubble and Gabrielle coughed as dust and dirt billowed up around her.
"Almost there," that gravelly voice from the roof said, as the weight on Gabrielle's legs suddenly lifted.
She was free. The shadow moved to her side and held out a hand to her. Gabrielle took the hand and felt the world spin as she was pulled to her feet. She nearly went down again as her head protested the sudden movement.
"A little banged up," Gabrielle replied with a wan smile. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me just yet," the shadow paused for a moment. "Your majesty."
"You know who I am?"
"I do," the dark head nodded once. "Unfortunately…"
Gabrielle was trying to make sense of the cryptic conversation she was having with this dark stranger. But her head hurt too much. Not only that but all the aches and pains from being buried under the rubble were suddenly making themselves known. She really wanted to go back to the palace and soak in a nice hot bath to ease the aches and pains. Better yet, crawl into bed next to Xena and sleep until late in the afternoon.
"What happened to those guys?" Gabrielle asked her companion.
"Dead," the gravelly voice replied. "And now is not the time to worry about that, your majesty. Someone is probably already missing you back at the palace. They'll be sending out a search party…"
"Yeah, I really should get back," Gabrielle stepped over some of the rubble toward the exit to the alley, but was stopped in her tracks when her arm was grabbed in an iron grip. She turned around and came face-to-face with her shadowy companion. "Who do you think…" Her eyes widened in confusion. "Feurouge?"
"Afraid so, your majesty," he nodded with an apologetic smile. "But I can't let you go, just yet."
Gabrielle never saw the blow coming. Fireworks suddenly exploded in her head and her last thought was of Xena as darkness engulfed her.