DISCLAIMER: The characters described herein are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. This is a work of fan fiction and there is no intention to profit from the use of these characters. The same may be said of any references to a particular entertainment, its format or its creators.
GENRE: A lighthearted homage, as the series itself is wont to do, devoid of any darker elements of the series mythology.
VIOLENCE: Nothing more severe or threatening than you might expect from an average episode.
TIMELINE & SPOILERS: These events might take place anytime between the episodes entitled "The Quest" and "Deliverer." There are some references to the episode, "Prometheus."
If any of these notices distress you, please, read no further.
by J. York
The two women made their way along the roadway, one sitting astride a tall pale horse, the other busily spinning a staff as she walked. Gabrielle flashed a quick grin up at her friend Xena and transferred the twirling quarterstaff into her left hand. The warrior nodded in silent response to her friend's skillful maneuver while she watched the travelers ahead of them.
Gabrielle's flaxen hair shone brightly in the morning light, making it easy for Xena to watch over her without appearing to do so. The former warlord had gotten so used to traveling with the bard that it just didn't seem right unless there was a familiar blonde head somewhere in her field of vision. The dark haired Thracian pursed her lips and raised her head slightly, feeling the weight of a great many sets of staring eyes.
Time and time again, she was surprised to find that when she met the gaze that was directed at her that it had been intended without malice. Far from being hateful glares, the looks carried an admiration for the Warrior Princess. Sadly, she was never quite sure how to respond to such warm regard.
Their journey had been rather uneventful; no scrapes, no stitches and no major two-legged difficulties along the way. The warrior hoped this peaceful trend would continue for a bit.
Both women were in good spirits, though one seemed a lot more comfortable in displaying her cheer. The storyteller stepped along briskly, commenting occasionally to her friend and greeting unfamiliar faces with her warm smile.
Won't be long now, thought the bard to herself as she rotated her wrist and moved the ends of the staff in tight figure-eights. We'll be to the village before mid-day and then we'll find out who sent that message. Until then, might as well get in a little more free-form practice, she decided as she felt the heft of the staff in her hand. Feeling confident in her control of the weapon, the bard whipped the rod over her left shoulder and felt it connect solidly with the turbaned head of a passerby.
"Oops, sorry! Sorry! My fault, are you okay?" the bard asked quickly, as she stared at the well dressed villager who draped one arm over his head and raised the other defensively. His face was nearly scarlet with irritation. Glancing up, Gabrielle saw her friend trying hard to look disinterested. The bard, on the other hand, was mortified.
Terrific, she cringed inwardly, whacking an innocent bystander on a crowded roadway in broad daylight. An Israelite verse from an ancient scroll kept ringing in the bard's head. She frowned, regretfully admitting to herself that her own pride brought about this circumstance. Taking a deep breath, the bard set about making things right. Turning on the charm, she apologized profusely but the traveler would hear none of it.
Instead, the man stepped quickly around Gabrielle, nervously watching both her and her staff. In his hurried state, he stumbled over his own toes and fell down with a crash. His brightly colored tunic and robes fluttered about him as a regretful bard stepped in to help him stand. The warrior urged her horse along, coughed into a fist and turned her face away before she laughed out loud.
Hesitantly accepting her arm, the man allowed the young woman to help him up. As he regained his footing, the two of them heard an resounding ripping sound that drew both sets of their eyes down to its source. The traveler's outer robe was torn, top to bottom, shredded to bits from where Gabrielle inadvertently stood on its hem. Smiling weakly, the bard swallowed, and removed her boot from the edge of the garment. She reached again for the man's arm and began to offer yet another apology when he interrupted her.
"You are a menace!" he sputtered. "Don't... I said DON'T touch me! You've helped quite enough already," he bellowed as he slapped at her hands. Xena watched the scene from a few yards away. She had swiveled about in the saddle, and now leaned leisurely forward and rested an elbow on the saddlehorn. The warrior shook her head in bemusement.
The man fixed the blonde Amazon with a stare, pointed at her, and then pointed to a spot beside the road several yards away. Gabrielle blinked in surprise. The irate traveler trembled with fury, stamped his foot ferociously and repeated the gesture. Okay, thought the bard, okay, I get the message. With a small sigh, she raised her hands in an appeasing manner and stepped to the place he indicated.
The storyteller watched forelornly as the man stooped and gathered up his torn robes, repositioned his turban and set off again down the road. He had taken only a few steps when he turned back, jutted his jaw out angrily and said something Gabrielle didn't quite catch.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked to Xena for a translation. "What'd he say?"
"Don't worry about it, I'm pretty sure it's not the truth," the warrior teased.
"Oh, great," the bard exclaimed with an expansive wave. "Guess I should be grateful I didn't hit him too hard," she wondered aloud as she fingered her quarterstaff.
"He should be grateful you didn't try to help him too hard," the warrior grinned.
"Very funny. You're a comedian, now?" The storyteller tried to sound angry. She didn't quite succeed: the flash of a smile was already breaking through her melodramatic pose.
"I have many skills," Xena replied with a smirk that caused her friend to chuckle.
The Amazon rolled her eyes. "Okay, fine. I guess I asked for that," the bard admitted. Warrior wit, she thought genially, got to watch out for that. Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked around. They were nearing the village of Trebek and the roadway was bustling with more and more activity. She leaned on the staff and watched the boisterous people pass by.
"You will have to admit this is a nice change of pace," the bard said brightly, eagerly shifting the focus away from her mishap. She gestured toward the flood of people heading for the settlement. "Everyone's going to the same place. I mean, usually, when we're headed somewhere... everyone else is going the other way. Usually the villagers are fleeing from some warlord, slaver, angry god ..."
"Don't forget giants."
"...right, giants..." the bard repeated.
"Reckless staff wielding Amazons..." Xena added smoothly.
"...staff wielding Amazons -- hey, no fair!" the bard laughed. She wandered over to Xena's warhorse and caught Argo's bridle. Standing still made Gabrielle aware of all the motion around her. She turned to her friend on horseback, "It's just nice that no one is running past us -- warning us to turn around. For once, a nice quiet trip with no murder, no mayhem -- yeah. I could get used to this," she said wistfully.
"Mmm hmmm," Xena murmured as her eyes settled on the lone figure that was moving against the tide of people headed to Trebek. The man waved happily at the warrior and continued weaving his way toward them.
The warrior princess drew a deep breath and sighed. "Gabrielle, I think maybe we're the ones who should be running the other way," she said.
The little Amazon turned her head about in time to be clasped in a huge bear-hug by a swirl of purple silk. Xena watched her friend be hoisted by the rotund little man until her toes barely touched the ground. The warrior thought to herself, if aggravation had a human form it would be Salmoneous.
"Gabrielle! So good of you to come!" Salmoneous released the startled bard with a thump and turned his best salesman's smile at the woman on horseback.
"Xena!" he exclaimed, throwing his arms open wide only to be caught by a steely stare from beneath an arched eyebrow.
"Uh, oh right," he coughed, abashed that he had actually thought to hug the warrior princess. Still, he was genuinely fond of the warrior and wasn't about to be outdone. He gave her stirruped foot an affectionate pat, raised his eyes in supplication and waited for her reaction.
"Hello, Salmoneous," she said in her trademark low register. "You sent that message, didn't you?" The man flinched a little under her scrutiny, and tugged his collar away from his throat, a thin smile perched on his face.
Xena pulled a long leg up over the saddle as she prepared to dismount. Extending her slender hands, she counted off phrases on her fingers. "Your message said 'villagers are losing hope' and 'the torture continues daily'," she growled. Taking a dramatic perusal of the merriment in the roadway, the warrior doubted that anyone was in serious trouble in Trebek. Anyone besides Salmoneous, that is, she speculated.
Gabrielle gaped at her friend as she stepped down from the horse. She blinked and gnawed momentarily at her bottom lip. This didn't exactly sound ... good.
"Torture? Ah, um, okay. Now, by torture, you would mean exactly... what?" the bard queried, suddenly not nearly as happy with this adventure as she had been moments earlier. The Amazon looked back and forth between the two figures. The stoic leather clad warrior stood with arms crossed waiting for an explanation from the flashy over-exuberant salesman.
"Oh, that," the man shook his head in a dismissive manner. "Well, you might say I took a lesson from our little bard here and tried my hand at creative writing..." Salmoneous' hands fluttered about nervously as he talked.
Xena's right hand flashed out faster than his eyes could register. She didn't cuff the man, but instead her fingers jabbed firmly at his sternum, jarring his whole body. Salmoneous gasped as his breath was dispatched by the blow.
As the salesman wheezed, she looked at him in mock concern. Then she cocked her head slightly, smiled a lopsided grin, and brushed some imaginary dust off of his tunic. Then she patted his chest with three vigorous thumps. Gabrielle's nose wrinkled as she imagined the contained fury of the gesture.
Salmoneous' eyebrows had nearly jumped off his head when Xena struck him. Gods, but this woman is strong, he thought. Powerful and seriously angry with me, he gulped as his mouth became as dry as the parched roadway. Luckily, he'd been able to pull some air back into his lungs and he began to try to explain.
"Now, now wait! It wasn't really a lie, more like an elaboration of the truth. You see there really is a problem here and you are one of the only people who can help." Sensing the warrior was going to let him live to see another day, the salesman's eyes widened with the anticipation of telling his friends his latest discovery.
"You were saying about the torture..." Gabrielle interjected. Salmoneous whirled about to face the bard.
"Relax Miss Sunshine, it's not what you're thinking. You kids today take everything so literally!" He put one hand on his hip and continued, pantomiming broadly, "If I said, 'Gee, it's hotter than Hera's hatband today' I suppose you wouldn't understand what I ..."
"Salmoneous?" Gabrielle asked, trying to get a word in edgewise, finally waving a hand in his face to dissuade him from his discourse. "Salmoneous? Save it. You don't have to convince me." She then cast a rather obvious glance over in the direction of the silent warrior princess.
"Huh? Oh, of course. Where was I?" stuttered Salmoneous, as if he could actually see Xena's patience shearing away.
The warrior shifted her stance, casually centering her weight over her right leg. Fastening a hand over one of her gauntlets, she twisted and repositioned the ornate brace. Leather creaked slightly as she re-folded her arms in front of her. She drew a tightly controlled breath and gave Salmoneous a stony glare. Shifting only her blue eyes to Gabrielle, the warrior asked expectantly, "Can I kill him?"
"Well, you haven't really seriously injured anyone in a day or two..." Gabrielle countered, as she suppressed a grin. Salmoneous giggled nervously. The bard kept her face straight as if considering her friend's request. She was pretty certain that Xena was kidding, but Salmoneous had a way of creating trouble out of nothing. His energetic pursuit of the almighty dinar had put both she and Xena in harm's way repeatedly.
A cascade of sun-gold hair draped over her shoulder as the bard tilted her head in deliberation. "Nah, don't kill him, just put the pinch on him till he tells you what we're here for." Salmoneous shuddered and blinked surprisedly at Gabrielle's decision.
"Good idea. You want to say the speech this time?" The warrior's smile was borderline evil.
The storyteller's blonde head bobbed excitedly. "You mean the 'I've just cut off the blood flow' and so on, 'dead in thirty seconds' and so on? You bet! I know it by heart." The salesman squinted at the bard. Was this the same Gabrielle he remembered? He looked up with a start as he realized Xena had moved silently to his side.
"That's the one. Ready?" Xena's hands raised over the speechless Salmoneous, fingers poised for the strike.
"Wait!" cried Salmoneous. "Why didn't you say you were in a hurry?! Of course I'll tell you why I sent for you!"
Gabrielle stepped between the warrior and the portly salesman. Her expression was firm and indicated that she and her taller friend were through waiting. "I believe you could say you have our undivided attention," she said dryly.
"Salmoneous?" Xena's voice rumbled, a threat hiding in the intonation. "It had better be good," the warrior remarked as she glared at the perspiring man in purple.
"Why is it every time you find a new way to get rich you end up trying to find me?" Xena hissed as she walked angrily toward the village. Argo's head bobbed along just over her mistress's shoulder and Gabrielle stepped quickly to their left to keep up with her long legged friend. Just off the warrior's right, Salmoneous jogged to keep up and plead his case.
"That is NOT my fault! When you're an entrepreneur like myself, eventually you're going to step on some toes," he huffed.
Gabrielle quickened her pace a bit so she could look back at Salmoneous and asked, "You ever think about trying some honest work? Something that won't tick someone off?"
"Honest work?! With these hands?!" The man stopped dead in his tracks and looked stricken at the mere thought. Gabrielle grinned as Salmoneous explained. "I mean... I ... I blister so easily and the sun," he raised a chubby fist to shade his eyes, "I'm very fair skinned."
The talkative bard and the enterprising salesman continued their debate as Xena walked ahead of the duo, unimpressed.
As they approached the center of the village, it became obvious that a festival was underway. There were vendors everywhere. Bright colored pennants swirled from tent tops and minstrels strolled along the narrow roadways. Having put quite a bit of distance between herself and her companions, Xena stopped at an apple cart to wait. Choosing three ruddy apples from the topmost pile, she showed them to the merchant and reached into her waist purse.
"Half a dinar, miss."
"Here you are. Thanks." Finding a bit of room beside the vendor's cart, the warrior clucked softly and the war horse backed into the patch of shade cast by two large tents. From here, Xena could watch the activity of the townsfolk undisturbed. The next cart over was tended by a scroll merchant, and Xena rolled her eyes thinking how difficult it will be to drag Gabrielle away from all that parchment. That is, if there are any left to sell for at that moment a nobleman was purchasing an armload of scrolls, handing them one at a time to his servant to carry.
Looking back along the roadway, she saw Salmoneous and the bard are still actively arguing. Gabrielle must be winning because the salesman's face was beginning to match his robes.
Xena rubbed the creamy nose of her horse as she fed the first of the apples to Argo. A loud crash and thump at the next stand drew her attention away from her mount. The scroll merchant had just shoved a teenage boy backwards into the street. The boy was on his feet in an instant, demanding that the man sell him the scroll he had chosen.
"There is nothing here for you! Get away, now!" the merchant bellowed as he snatched the scroll from the youngster's hands and gave him another hard push.
The boy hopped a bit sideways, but managed to stay on his feet this time. "But, look! I've got the money! I can pay ..." his face was upturned and earnest. The boy's clothes were clean and well made. Even in the face of the ill treatment, he was holding his temper. His hair was about the color of Gabrielle's and his face was deeply tanned. Most likely a farm lad in the city for the festival, Xena surmised.
"I said there is nothing here for you to buy," sneered the merchant as he moved to stand between the lad and the scrolls. The man tossed the scroll back into the cart, and then he fished around with his hand until he pulled a driver's whip from beneath the mounds of scrolls.
A little girl about five summers old ran up and wrapped both arms around the boy's right leg. With the same blond hair and same eyes as the teenager, she looked up at her brother with the trust that he can move the world.
"Can't I just buy the one little picture scroll? Please, for my sister?"
"You slow witted slag, I told you twice! Here's something you can understand!" bellowed the merchant as he swung the whip backwards to issue a stinging strike at the helpless children.
The man's arm froze in motion on the forward swing, his elbow jerking awkwardly. He looked back at what had caught the whip in time to feel it jerked from his hand and then felt it lash quickly about his boots. Some tall woman in leathers had taken it from him and was using it against him. Another commoner who doesn't know her place, he seethed. His anger was overpowering and took control of his better senses.
"Mind you own business, bitc..." is all he got said before the woman yanked hard on the whip and pulled his feet out from under him. The merchant crashed backwards onto his shoulders and backside with a groan. He didn't see the vault that allowed the woman to land with both feet on his chest and then, he didn't see anything for several seconds.
Feeling someone taking his hands, he opened his eyes to see the woman binding his fists together with the remainder of the whip. She pulled the knot tight and leaned down close to his watery eyes.
"I really hate that word," she sneered. Standing up, she walked purposefully to the cart and retrieved the scroll the boy had wanted.
"Where's the other one? The picture scroll?" she asked.
The boy who had stood dazed throughout the fight, shook his head as if unsure the woman was talking to him. She cocked her head slightly toward the cart, waved a parchment in one fist and passed her other hand back over the mounds of scrolls. Yes, he gulped, she was talking to him.
"Over there, it's... it's that small one, bound with the pink tie," he pointed and patted his sister on the head. The little girl peered up at her brother as his fingers absently tousled her hair.
Picking up the tiny scroll, Xena looked at the seal and frowned. Only a dinar. The merchant refused a sale of only one dinar. This doesn't make sense, she muttered silently.
Moving back to the immobile merchant she asked, "Three dinars for the larger and one dinar for the smaller. That sound about right?"
Seeing a defiant look return to his eyes, Xena placed a foot against his shoulder, calmly reached down to the whip that was pulled tight between his feet and hands and drew it up like a bowstring. The increased pressure on his wrists seemed to do the trick, the merchant swallowed his comment and nodded. When he relented, the warrior released the whip letting it snap back against the merchant as he relaxed.
"I thought so," Xena remarked casually as she sauntered away. Her eyes then settled on the farm lad and his sister." Boy, it's time to pay the man," she thrust her chin in the direction of the prostrate merchant.
"But, I ..." he held out his palm showing three coppery coins.
"Don't forget your sister's money," the woman in the armor said as she knelt in front of the little girl.
"Layla, have you got any money?" the boy asked, knowing what the answer would be. His sister, looked from Xena to her brother quizzically, before finally shaking her head.
"You sure? Is this your shoe, Layla?" Xena asked softly, as she rubbed two fingers along the top of the little girl's sandal. The tousled haired child stared at the woman speaking to her and then grinned and buried her face in her brother's pantleg. Feeling a little bolder, she took another look at the warrior, and then nodded brightly.
Xena stood up and leveled her vibrant blue gaze at the boy. "Well, some big brother you are, I suppose you're going to let your little sister walk around all day with a stone in her shoe, aren't you?"
"What?" the boy stammered. "How'd you know... Layla, why didn't you tell me?" he was already on one knee, steadying the girl against him, as he pulled off her sandal and brushed the bottom of her little foot. Giggling, the child wriggled against his chest. No rocks to be found, he began to unlace the sandal to replace it when a coin slipped from the bindings into his hand. Disbelieving his eyes, he rolled the ingot in his fingers.
Both he and his sister stared at the thin piece of metal. The little girl squealed and her brother grinned as he stood to face the woman warrior. But both she and the war horse were gone.
Salmoneous and Gabrielle had finally caught up with Xena. The warrior could hear the last shred of their argument as they approached.
"... you can't farm, you can't bake, you can't work with animals, you're hopeless with a forge... what else is there for you to do?" Gabrielle sounded exasperated and Salmoneous looked smug. Guess the tables have turned, thought the warrior.
"There are only two jobs left for me. What I do now, which is promote new enterprises, or of course, king," the salesman said confidently. The bard rolled her eyes and sighed loudly.
"Xena, are you ready to get out of here? I can't take much more of him," the Amazon said as she swung a thumb at Salmoneous. The salesman gasped and pretended to be wounded by the remark, grasping the folds of silk over his heart.
"Actually, I think we're going to stay and help," Xena said.
Salmoneous beamed and clasped his hands together with a loud clap. Gabrielle just groaned and rubbed her forehead where she felt a headache forming.
"I saw it firsthand, Gabrielle. He was telling the truth. There's a prejudice against anyone not of noble blood having access to scrolls."
The bard blinked slowly, trying to understand what Xena was saying. They were seated in a busy roadhouse, awaiting their lunch. The inn, "The Silent Maiden," was highly recommended by Salmoneous. The crowd seemed a general mix of village folk, Xena and two other diners were the only patrons carrying weapons. The great room was large, well lit, and lined with long tables set lengthwise in rows. The crowd was raucous, but good-natured, and laughter spilled over from conversations on all sides. The atmosphere reminded Xena of another tavern in Amphipolis.
The duo had chosen a spot on the aisle, in the last two seats of a table. The warrior was perched on the edge of her bench, leaning over the narrow tabletop to speak privately to her friend who sat opposite her. She was about to continue when a fellow stopped by with a huge pottery pitcher full of cider and began refilling their tankards. Gabrielle smiled at the server, enjoying his attentiveness, as she broke another corner from the small loaf of honey bread in front of her. Xena drummed her fingers impatiently as he fiddled with the pitcher and mugs, but managed to smile sweetly at the fellow as he finally finished and started on his way.
After popping the bit of bread in her mouth, the bard dusted her hands together and then leaned forward on her elbows to hear the rest of the report.
"It gets worse," the warrior said sadly. "It is forbidden for any villager to possess parchment or writing implements. Any scholars found teaching to those in the lower castes are punished. The only facts they know come from experience." She paused briefly as a server passed close by with a precariously stacked tray. Gabrielle fidgeted as she listened. She and the warrior had discussed the value of knowledge gained from life versus knowledge gained academically. Both are invaluable, they could agree; however, the bard refused to grant that Xena's extensive life experiences would be equal to the rigorous teachings of an Athenian Academy.
The warrior disagreed. To make matters further infuriating for the competitive Poteidaian, Xena refused to debate the bard on the matter.
"The knowledge these people have of the world comes from oral history passed from generation to generation," she said quietly. "Even poets and bards are forbidden from performing for the villagers."
The warrior watched her friend absorb the news. Gabrielle's mouth was set in a thin line. As if some law could mandate whom she could tell her stories to, she thought angrily.
"Are you certain? It sounds so horrible, maybe you misunderstood..."
Xena shook her head firmly. "A farm boy was about to be whipped by a scroll merchant for wanting to buy a picture scroll for his sister." The warrior's teeth clenched involuntarily at the memory, the slight twitch in Xena's jaw was instantly noticed by the bard.
Gabrielle raised a coppery eyebrow, "How involved are we, Xena?" The warrior's choice of words told the bard that the whipping never took place and that the scroll merchant was probably very upset with a certain warrior princess.
"Quite," the warrior answered smoothly.
In another part of the village, in another tavern, a girl was yanked roughly to her feet. The metal tray she was filling clattered to the floor, spilling the tankards and sending loaves of bread rolling under nearby tables. She winced at the hard hold the bearded man had on her upper arm and then pivoted her body sharply, pushing her captured elbow into the man's gut.
He groaned in mock agony, watching as his captive's eye's brightened with the hope of release. Then he fastened his other unwashed hand around her throat and watched as her brown eye's registered the panic and futility of her situation.
The fellow was well over six feet tall and burly. He had been in a foul mood from the moment he had entered the tavern. A sturdy bow and quiver draped over one of his shoulders. His dress indicated that he was most likely a hunter for hire, as he wore a cape of many skins fashioned into intricate designs. If that was indeed the case, then there were few men who would could challenge him, this was a valley of farmers and herders. Sierra pulled at the wrist that threatened to lift her off the ground and felt herself being shoved backwards toward the door.
"Patra... G-Guntar... s-s-somebody," she gasped as she continued to push and fight the enormous man. "Don't let this h-happen. H-help me!" the pretty brunette rasped. The other patrons stared either at their drinks or the floor. Few could bear to watch as the man abducted the young woman.
As they passed the bar, Sierra's frantic fingers grabbed a metal pitcher and slammed it against the hunter's head. He paused a second and laughed, the dark stubs of his teeth showing against his gums.
"Fight all you want, wench. But you should know ... where you're going... you're gonna need your strength," he breathed against her cheek as released the choke hold and spun her about to get a better grip on her arms.
"Umm, excuse me, sir. I don't believe the young lady wants to leave."
The hunter turned abruptly at the voice that came from behind him. There, leaning casually against one of the tavern's wooden pillars was the speaker. He rested one foot on a small keg and watched the hunter intently. The smaller man had raffish shoulder length blonde hair and carried no weapons that the hunter could see.
"I think she does," the hunter boasted, releasing one of Sierra's arms as he did so. She moved as far away from the man as she could, though he still held her right upper arm firmly.
"I disagree," the blonde haired man replied evenly. He raised and lowered his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. "But, if it's all the same to you, I'll let it go if you'll answer a question for me..."
The hunter sneered. Just as I thought, he snickered internally, no belly for battle. Sierra struggled in his grasp again, but he wasn't particularly interested in her at the moment. Instead, this chatty fellow in the purple vest had his attention.
"Ask, little man, and be quick about it," the hunter growled as he squared his shoulders to the other man.
"Well, you see... it's about your clothes and where you got them," Iolaus paused for effect before continuing.
"Do they sell men's clothes there, too?"
The crowd in the tavern, that had been so silent and unmoving throughout the whole encounter, began to snicker. The hunter glared at the fair haired man for several long seconds as the patrons laughed louder.
He rotated his mammoth bearded head as realization about the remark sunk in and then he growled, shoved Sierra away and launched himself headlong at Iolaus.
The hunter took perhaps three quick strides toward Iolaus, before the smaller man kicked the small keg into the hunter's path. Blinded by rage, the hunter didn't even see the barrel coming. It caught his feet and swept them out from under him, allowing his murderous momentum to carry him headlong into the pillar where his foe stood.
Iolaus sidestepped the assault easily and watched the hunter's head strike the beam hard enough that debris filtered down from the building's thatched roof. The dust settled along the unconscious man's shoulders.
Iolaus knelt and quickly gathered up the hunter's weapons and delivered them to the barkeep.
"I think we'll all feel a little safer if you hang on to these," he explained with a smile. Two men stepped in to remove the man from the tavern, dragging him unceremoniously into the open square toward a sentry post. The toes of his boots left little trails in the tavern's dusty floor.
Sierra had gathered herself to her feet and was fending off help from the other serving girls.
"I'm fine, I'm fine, and no, I don't want a drink of water, Midge. Thanks anyway," she answered as sweetly as she could manage through her gritted teeth. She rubbed away any trace of tears with quick swipes of her hands, closed her eyes and sighed.
"How are you feeling?" A gentle voice asked while she had her eyes closed.
"I'll tell you how I'm feeling..." she began, letting the anger creep into her voice for the first time. Okay, so you want to know, she thought. Fine. By the gods, I'll tell you and you won't like it one little bit. She opened her eyes expecting to see one of the bystanders who sat there and watched as she fought for her life.
Instead, there stood the man who had helped her. Up close, he had kind-hearted eyes and a warm smile. The anger in Sierra's brown eyes dissipated quickly. She laughed softly and shook her head.
"What?" Iolaus asked, he was feeling a bit conspicuous and confused. Maybe I should've left her alone, he wondered.
The woman raised her eyes to meet his, the deep brown gaze held a subtle unspoken apology. "You are the only person in here that I don't want to yell at," she smiled.
He nodded slowly, realizing she hadn't been disappointed to see him. "Everyone wants to come to your rescue now, huh?" Iolaus asked as he took her elbow and led her to a table.
"Of course! Great timing, don't you think?" she answered as they sat down. "Five minutes ago, when things weren't going so well, that might have been more helpful," Sierra said loudly, watching as her point hit home with several tavern regulars. The men shuffled away from where she sat, watching their own feet as they went, averting her angry eyes.
She shuddered a bit and rubbed her hands over her arms as though she were cold. She stopped when she noticed the blonde stranger staring at her arms. There were angry bruises already forming were the hunter had hauled her about by her upper arms. Concern was etched all over his face.
Sierra ducked her head a little to cut into Iolaus' line of sight. She reached hesitantly across the table and touched one of his suntanned arms. "Thank you... for what you did. I'm okay, really." She laughed a little self-consciously. "I don't even know your name..."
"Iolaus," he answered flashing a dazzling smile.
"Very pleased to meet you, Iolaus, I'm Sierra." She folded her hands on the table and returned his grin. "I know it won't be a proper tribute for your help, but I'd love to buy you lunch."
"Sounds terrific," Iolaus beamed. Meanwhile, a tall man entered the inn and scanned the patrons looking for his friend.
"Iolaus!" Hercules called from the entryway. Iolaus' head shot up, and he threw up a hand to beckon his friend to the table. Hercules weaved his way though the tavern, smiling and excusing himself as he eased past the other patrons. Upon seeing that his friend had made a new acquaintance, the noble demi-god grinned good-naturedly. Some things never change, he thought offhandedly.
"Hiya Herc, did you find Salmoneous yet? Did you eat already? Oh, and I'd like you to meet a new friend of mine..." Iolaus didn't miss a beat as Hercules arrived at the table.
"Hi yourself," said the legendary strong man. "Let's see, the answers are: no, but I've got a lead on him; no, not yet; and any friend of yours is a friend of mine." He extended his hand to Sierra. "Glad to know you, I'm Hercules. I hope this fellow here hasn't been trying to charm you out of a free lunch," he said as he poked Iolaus firmly in the shoulder.
"Hey, cut that out!" Iolaus wailed, as he rubbed the impact point. He inclined his head toward the girl, "Sierra, did I mention he's a lot stronger than he looks?"
"No, but I believe you," she answered brightly. "About lunch, Iolaus earned it. In fact, he earned enough for two if you'd care to join us."
"Oh did he, now?" Hercules face carried a incredulous grin that brought out the color in Iolaus' cheeks. The smaller man coughed and tried to hide his embarrassment.
"It was no big deal really, well, he was a really big guy with a awfully bad attitude," said Hercules' best friend. Noticing that he had Sierra's full attention, Iolaus' bashfulness faded away. "But Herc and I've seen worse. Oh, there was this one time in Thrace ..."
"Sorry, you know how I hate to interrupt when you are talking about yourself," the tall man interjected, "...but my source told me if we wanted to catch Salmoneous we'd have our best luck at midday." Hercules raised his hands, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness.
Iolaus groaned in disappointment. "That doesn't give us much time, Sierra. I'm afraid we'll have to pass on your invitation."
The brunette smiled and nodded her understanding. "Okay, you're off the hook -- for today anyway." She stood up and grasped one of Hercules' enormous hands, giving it the best squeeze she could. "Good to meet you, friend," she said earnestly. Turning again to face Iolaus, she entreated, "Stop back by if you can."
Iolaus stared at Sierra, as if memorizing her face. "We will, thanks" he answered quickly as he jumped to his feet to follow his friend out the door.
As soon as the duo emerged into the bright sunlight, Iolaus bumped into Hercules and gave him a push, soundly and on purpose. Of course, it had about as much effect as shoving a mountain.
"Hey, what was that for?"
"We have really got to work on your timing," muttered Iolaus. "Besides, what makes you think that this information is reliable? For all we know it could be a lie or a diversion of some kind."
"Relax. I think it's the real deal," replied Hercules as he pointed down the crowded street to a weathered sign hanging outside another tavern. "There. That's the place."
"Okay, what gives?" The fair haired man scowled, more in puzzlement than displeasure, as he looked up at his friend. "This is Salmoneous we're talking about here," Iolaus proclaimed. The two men settled into an easy pace as they navigated the busy streets.
Hercules thought of their past dealings with the flamboyant entrepreneur. An alliance with Salmoneous didn't exactly inspire his confidence either. The larger man shifted his steady gaze over to his partner for an instant.
"The information wasn't just about Salmoneous. I mean, he's part of it, but I trust the other parts more."
"What other parts?"
"The parts about a woman warrior and an little Amazon meeting him at "The Silent Maiden" at midday." Hercules stopped and grinned at his friend.
Iolaus paused and pushed his hair out of his eyes. He laughed and nodded. "I see what you mean," he pondered out loud, as they began walking again.
Soon they arrived at tavern. It seemed to be a popular place, people were milling about in the doorway and you could hear laughter ringing on the inside of the building. They surveyed the establishment in silence for a moment before entering, and Iolaus chuckled a little too loudly.
"What's so funny?" asked Hercules as he held the door open for a departing elderly couple.
"This!" Iolaus said as he pointed at the nameplate above the doorway. "This just doesn't sound like the place to find Gabrielle," he grinned as they ducked into "The Silent Maiden."
She sat with her back as straight as an arrow, her elbows on the table and cast another glance at the tavern's activity over the top of her tankard. Xena was watching Salmoneous as he charmed the chubby fellow at the bar. Must be the owner of the place, she thought, given all the attention that the salesman was lavishing upon him. Salmoneous had only just arrived and already he had admonished two servers, glad-handed the owner, and introduced himself to a wealthy woman who seemed to be traveling alone.
The warrior took it all in, casually monitoring their surroundings for any sign of threat. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was swirling her last swallow of cider about in her mug. With her stomach full, the bard was secretly wishing she could find a shady place for an afternoon nap. Even now, it required concentration to keep her eyelids from closing.
The storyteller propped her chin in her hand. The tavern was a little warm and the voices of the other diners blurred into a happy buzz. The bard drew several deep breaths in an effort to stave of an attack of yawns. She blinked rapidly and opened her green eyes wide trying to shrug off the laziness brought on by overeating. At a table a few feet away, a young mother was balancing a toddler on her knee and singing softly to the child.
"Gabrielle?" the warrior coaxed. Nothing. The bard's eyes were closed and her head rested in her hand.
Xena watched her young friend sleep. Sound asleep in the middle of a crowded, noisy tavern, Gabrielle's face was a portrait of contentment. No strain at all displayed on her features. What a marvel it is to rest so easily, thought the warrior, whose own sleep was splintered through with remorse and sadness. Shades of regret passed over the blue eyes of the warrior -- she had to wake her up.
"Gabrielle..." she tried again, leaning across the table near the bard's ear. She decided the tried and true method would work best. "Gabrielle, come on, wake up. It's time for breakfast."
Sure enough, the green eyes snapped open. Then as her vision focused, Gabrielle glanced about and blushed.
She covered her eyes with her hands. Hesitantly parting her fingers, the bard peeked up at Xena. "Nooo-oo," she pleaded quietly, "tell me I didn't just do that!"
"Is this your subtle way of telling me I need to work on my conversational skills?" Xena deadpanned. She chuckled softly at the thought, as it wasn't all that far from the truth. "Relax, nobody noticed," the warrior grinned good-naturedly.
Gabrielle's nose wrinkled as she grimaced again in embarrassment. She shook her head, sighed, and began to feel more at ease. "Pretty lousy behavior on my part. I can't believe that happened -- sorry," she said quietly.
Xena grabbed a nearby water pitcher and re-filled Gabrielle's tankard. The bard watched as her friend smiled again and pointed discreetly to her right. "Forget about it. That lullaby was pretty contagious, see..."
A portly gentleman napped against the wall, his head slumped forward, muffling his snores. His eating area was littered with trays and platters. Resting on the table before him was a leg of mutton still clutched in his hand.
The Poteidaian's eyes glittered with amusement and she stifled a small giggle. Her face changed however as she watched the salesman turn and begin winding his way toward them. "Uh oh, here we go. Here comes Salmoneous," she said with trepidation as the little man approached. Xena was watching something behind the bard, her expressive brows arched as she took in the scene.
"What?" inquired the bard as she turned about to look back toward the door of the establishment. The bright sunlight outdoors cast everyone in the doorway into sharp silhouette. She squinted, but couldn't make out anyone clearly against the glare. "Okay, what am I missing here? Bad guys? Good guys?"
"Good guys. Looks like we weren't the only ones caught in Salmoneous' little scheme," Xena reported.
The stout salesman reached their table with his usual flourish. "Good! Now that you're all here, we can get down to business... " Catching a withering look from the warrior, he hesitated. "O-o-okay! Poor choice of words. Right. I've got to watch that. But this isn't just about money, Xena..."
"Right. There's your fame to consider, too," the warrior stated matter-of-factly as she stood and extended her arm across the table to a man behind Gabrielle. The bard's eyes widened at Xena's gesture and then tracked upwards and over her own shoulder towards the new arrival.
"She's got a point there, Salmoneous," interjected Hercules, as he clasped the warrior woman's forearm with his own. The half-mortal son of Zeus swallowed hard as he was caught by Xena's brilliant blue gaze. The warrior princess commanded attention in a manner that the gods could envy. She smiled warmly and rested her other hand on his where it gripped her elbow.
Reluctantly he turned away from the warrior. "What's this all about, anyway?" he asked as he stared down at the bearded man in the gilt stitched purple robes.
"Yeah, let's hear what you've got cooked up this time," Iolaus added gruffly as he dropped into the empty space beside Gabrielle. He gathered the bard's shoulders into a tight hug and was pleased to hear her chuckle in his ear. "So short stuff, how have you been?" he asked.
"Good. Really good, um, well a lot has happened since I saw you last." The bard flashed her winning smile at a friend she saw far too infrequently.
"I can tell," the blonde haired fellow grinned at Xena. "Good to see you up and around," he declared, knowing the warrior and bard would understand.
Xena nodded slightly, a subtle tip of her head. "Thanks. You always know just what to say, don't you?" she teased.
It was Hercules' turn to be confused. He turned to look at Gabrielle who had wriggled playfully under his arm. Seeing the questions forming on his face, the bard waved a hand and shook her head.
"Long, and I mean REALLY long, sad story. Tell you all about it sometime. It turned out okay in the end, though," she chirped. Hercules squeezed the little Amazon in an affectionate bear-hug.
Salmoneous stood in awe of the heroes' affinity for one another. He daubed quickly at his eyes and then pulled himself together, stiffened and asked indignantly, "Why aren't any of you ever this glad to see me?!"
There was a subtle squeak of pulleys followed by a enormous thump as a small wooden door banged open. Xena cast a dubious glance over her shoulder in time to see Iolaus rush around the corner of the set. Hands on hips, he stared up at the opening he had created in the colossal structure. The little window revealed a piece of blank parchment. Scanning the structure, he counted thirty identical little compartments, arranged in rows six across and five down. He estimated the size of the windows at around a cubit square, just big enough for your head and shoulders if you were to stand behind one.
What is he doing now, wondered the tense storyteller. "Iolaus, stop it, okay?" the bard pleaded softly. Iolaus had been in constant motion since they arrived at the stage. She swallowed her irritation and strained to hear what Salmoneous was explaining to Xena and Hercules. Undeterred, Iolaus reached for another rope. This one acted as the first, opening another little door on the huge backdrop.
Iolaus rubbed his chin and looked over at his friend Hercules, whose face seemed to growing longer by the second. A quick scan of Xena's features told the fellow he was glad he wasn't in on the discussion. Even in profile, the warrior princess's dissatisfaction was evident. Salmoneous, on the other hand, was as animated as a feather in a whirlwind. Apparently, the pitch has begun, Iolaus thought to himself.
An exasperated sigh drew his attention to Gabrielle who sat cross-legged on a stout wooden crate nearby. Elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands, she frowned. This can't be good, she thought. First of all, we were summoned on false pretenses. Secondly, Salmoneous is involved. She cast her eyes heavenward at that consideration. And now, this. What did he say it was? Her teeth ground together unconsciously as she remembered: "... a briefing session with the talent." Translation: no sidekicks allowed. Gabrielle's expressive eyes narrowed. I should have let Xena kill him, she decided.
Movement over her head startled her out of her reverie. Iolaus had found a ladder and had scaled the side of the large display board. He scurried along a fragile looking catwalk that disappeared behind the structure. Standing at it's top, he surveyed the amphitheater. The mechanized backdrop on which he stood was placed at the center of the theater floor, which stretched out in a circle toward the limestone seats. Shading the sun from his eyes with a forearm, the man let out a slow whistle as he counted the rows of gracefully ascending bleachers ringing the stage. The seats progressed, at ever higher levels, back into the hillside from which they had been carved in a semi-circle with aisles running along the sections. All in all, it was very similar to the theater at Epidaurus, though maybe not quite as large, he speculated.
Turning to return to the ladder, he jostled a mallet loose from where it rested on the catwalk. The tool slammed into a tin of pegs on the ground, upending them and sending them clattering along the stage floor. The unexpected noise provoked reactions from both of Salmoneous' heroes.
Hercules stepped back and squared his shoulders, his head snapping back and forth as he searched for the threat. Meanwhile, Xena executed a quick turn and spun her broadsword in agile arcs as her ice blue eyes scrutinized the area. The salesman covered his head and ducked, sure of only one thing: being caught between the known world's strongest man and a testy former warlord was a most unprofitable situation.
As the final rattles of tin died away, the son of Zeus looked to the Amazon for explanation. Gabrielle cleared her throat dramatically and pointed up at the man on the catwalk.
Wincing from four sets of reproachful eyes, Iolaus raised a hand and wiggled his fingers hesitantly in a timid wave. "Oops," he wisecracked. The salesman grimaced at the mess and shook a fist in the direction of the perpetrator.
Hercules shook his head slowly as a grin overtook his face, the big man's posture relaxed as he crossed his muscular arms. Xena slid her sword back into its scabbard and pushed her dark bangs out of her eyes with a noticeable degree of irritation. Gabrielle just buried her head in her hands.
"Okay, let's try this again," Salmoneous' voice was rising and falling for emphasis, as he placed another card in front of the duo. Hercules and Xena stood behind two podiums at the right hand side of the set. An empty podium stood between the heroes.
"I don't see how this is going to accomplish anything," Xena muttered across to Hercules. She fidgeted behind her lectern, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Leave it to Salmoneous to complicate even the simplest things, she thought as she ran her hands along edges of the podium.
She shuddered at the excess of it all. The things were garish, painted a bright blue with golden accents. The warrior surmised that you could easily see one from a league away. Inside the lectern, where the orator's materials would usually lay, a saucer-sized rounded button had been installed. A quick inspection showed the button was attached to a lever and spring system that manipulated a hefty bronze hammer against two chimes. Xena arched a dark brow in suspicion at the contraption.
She looked over her shoulder at the rows of seats that filled the hillside. "There has got to be a better way," she said in an undertone.
The demi-god shrugged. "There may be, but this is the idea he wants to try first." He paused, and then looked at her hopefully. "Got a better plan?"
The warrior frowned and looked around the theatrical display, taking in the huge structure before them, the ornate lanterns, and the overwrought podiums. A half dozen or so artisans were putting the finishing touches on the set. Her eyes settled finally on Gabrielle who sat at the edge of the amphitheater stage. The bard was nodding and talking with a group of children who had gathered to see what all the excitement was about. Apparently, the little Amazon was being peppered with a chorus of questions.
A boy extended a little brown fist and pointed in the direction of the podiums. Gabrielle cast a glance back over her shoulder and grinned at her friends. The warrior's expression softened at the sight of the cheerful display. As tedious as the afternoon had been for the Thracian, she suspected it had been even worse for her friend. Xena knew the Amazon had been hurt by Salmoneous' insistence on a closed rehearsal.
However, at this very moment, it seemed that the bard couldn't care less about the bearded little man and his games. Gabrielle smiled brightly at the group of youngsters, and settled her arm around a little girl who sat down beside her. Another nod from the bard and all the little eyes were back on Hercules and Xena.
The warrior couldn't hear what was being said, but it didn't matter. She knew what would come next. Sure enough, the bard held up a hand and made a patting motion toward the ground. The warrior smiled at the sight of every child plopping down, settling in and turning all their attention to her friend.
It was a simple thing. Something that Gabrielle did as second nature. And here, in Trebek, it was illegal.
Xena sighed. She turned and Hercules watched as vibrant blue eyes locked with his own. A slow smile crept across her face as she replied, "Nope. No better ideas, not yet, anyway. Guess we'll just have to go with it, huh?"
"I was afraid you'd say that," Hercules responded with a grimace.
"People! People! Work with me here!" Salmoneous whined, a look of near desperation pinching his features. He banged the placard against the empty podium until he drew their attention. The tall man took a deep breath and rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the muscles that had wound themselves into knots. Perfect, he thought disgustedly. Dragons, avalanches, and all of Hera's plots combined can't make me as tense as a single encounter with Salmoneous.
The salesman was prattling on about rules and points, hardly pausing for breath, pointing back at the huge backdrop on occasion. Hercules stole a sideways glance at Xena. Wait a minute, he pondered, she's listening to him. Worse than that, she now seemed completely relaxed. He squinted at her. How does she DO that? he marveled.
The warrior's head nodded resolutely as the salesman's spiel ended. Hercules watched her gaze sweep the amphitheater again and then he coughed somewhat nervously when she caught him staring.
She flashed a dazzling smile up at the son of Zeus.
"So..." he drawled slowly, "you... understand what he's talking about?" Hercules' unguarded features allowed the warrior to see in an instant that he hadn't heard a word of the salesman's lecture.
"Yes..." she mimicked his slow delivery perfectly, humor twinkling amid the silvery blue of her eyes. "And just so you'll know -- I have to kick your butt," she affirmed mischievously.
Hercules allowed a lengthy exhale to slide from between his clenched teeth. "I was afraid you'd say that, too," the big guy groaned.
Across the amphitheater floor, Gabrielle leaned toward her audience. She fairly beamed in the welcome and warmth offered by the bright, upturned faces. "This is the story of Hercules and Xena and how they came to save Prometheus' gifts for all of mankind ..."
"Right!" she laughed, loud and heartily. "No problem!" she punched the salesman lightly in the chest. "Sure thing!"
With the sound of Gabrielle's guffaws still ringing in his ears, Salmoneous waited. He swatted at a night bug that had been drawn to the torchlight. He had caught up with her just outside the tents behind the amphitheater stage. The sun was nearly gone and a slight cooling breeze accompanied the shadows that had begun to drift along the theater floor. The bard wrapped an arm around his shoulders, leaned toward him and shook her head slowly.
"Not even on a bet," she growled sternly with a finality that was evident in her eyes. Behind the entrepreneur, the tent curtains fluttered silently. Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle recognized the tall silhouette instantly. Perfect timing. Again.
Salmoneous pulled himself free of the bard in irritation. He slapped at his own forehead, and flinched as the blow snapped loudly. Rubbing his fingertips over the insect bite, he frowned and cast one more pleading look at Gabrielle.
The bard was unmoved by the pout. "Why me? Why don't you ask her?" she countered, folding her arms nonchalantly as she did so.
"It's just that, well ... being the way she is... " he threw his shoulders back, drew his fists up and struck a solemn expression. Gabrielle covered her mouth with a hand and fought back another laugh. This is priceless, she thought.
"....and I hardly know her. Not nearly as well as the rest of you, anyway, so I just thought it would work better if you suggested it," he stammered.
"In other words, if somebody has to get killed, you'd rather it be me?"
"Exactly!" the salesman offered honestly before thinking. "I mean, uh, no, of course not! Silly girl, whatever made you think that?"
The bard's eyes danced with delight as the salesman squirmed. "Just a hunch," she sniffed. "That, and the fact that you're scared."
"Me? Scared?" He looked at the Poteidaian and played his last card. "Okay, maybe for the sake of argument, I am a teensy, weensy bit intimidated by our own favorite surly Swordstress. That's fine for me. But what about you, Sunshine? She's your best friend and you're afraid to ask her one little ..."
"Ask me what?" came a resonant voice from directly behind Salmoneous.
"Xena!" he exclaimed as he shot the foulest of looks at the bard. Gabrielle's coppery brows arched beneath her bangs. She raised her chin. That was a cheap shot and he knew it and he said it anyway, she thought.
Shaking off the sting of the manipulative remark, she quickly recounted the earlier conversation to her friend. "Salmoneous wants me to suggest something to you. He thinks your battledress is 'too severe' and he would like you to wear something different during the contest."
Salmoneous closed his eyes, I wonder if the Elyssian Fields needs a good promoter, he pondered with a gulp.
"Really." the warrior clapped the man on the shoulder and spun him about face. His sandals bumped painfully against the toes of her boots.
"Yup, in a nutshell, he thinks you need to look a bit more feminine," the bard explained as she took up a spot to Xena's left.
The salesman screwed his eyes even more tightly shut.
"I can do that," the warrior said lightly. Salmoneous cautiously opened one eye, Xena wasn't looking particularly grim and she wasn't even paying that much attention to him. She seemed to be looking into a memory, her thoughtful expression turned slightly away from her friends.
"Actually, a change might be nice. Maybe the red dress from my time on the seas..." her voice trailed off as she noticed the storyteller's incredulous expression.
"I still don't see how you can call that a dress," the bard rolled her eyes. "A kerchief, maybe. But a dress? Xena, in order for it to be a dress there has to be enough there to completely wrap around you at least once."
"It covers what it has to," the taller woman said confidently.
At that remark, Salmoneous opened his other eye, and blinked. Gabrielle gave the salesman a little nudge. "Wait till you see it. She'll catch her death in the thing. It's little more than silk and a few strategically placed golden chains..." she pointed a little too indiscreetly at her friend.
"Let's put your hair up, too? Okay?" Impulsively, the bard grabbed the heavy ebony tresses at the back of the warrior's head and twisted them into a loose knot. Xena smiled indulgently as Gabrielle stood on tip-toe and combed through her dark bangs with her fingers, rapidly arranging a new hairstyle.
Swallowing hard, the promoter straightened the front of his shirt and watched Gabrielle's work. Pulling up the warrior's hair up revealed a long elegant throat that the salesman had never really noticed before. That combined with the way the bard was reshaping the dark locks around her face made her already vibrant eyes even more pronounced. Then of course, there were her shoulders... Salmoneous cleared his throat. Oh my, he thought. Still it could be worse, he decided.
"Well?" Xena peered down at her friend who still had one hand at the back of the warrior's head holding the loose twist in place. "What do you think?"
"I think you'll knock 'em dead," Gabrielle grinned. "So to speak," she laughed. "Still..." she paused, and considered Xena thoughtfully. "The only thing that could make it better is..."
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" the warrior asked.
Gabrielle nodded quickly, pausing a beat and then the women replied in unison: "The blue one!"
"What?!" Salmoneous sputtered, realizing he was way too caught up in the costuming discussion.
"Same dress, different color. They matched the silk to her baby blues, if you can believe that," the bard replied with a shake of her head. "Well, that and the chains are silver -- and it might be a little more transparent than the red."
O-o-o-okay, thought the suddenly distressed man. Transparent. It just got worse. Salmoneous brushed his palms along the sides of his robes, gratefully drying the perspiration from them. It felt as if his mouth were full of cotton. After two stammering attempts he squeaked out his final thought on the matter.
"I've changed my mind. Why mess with a classic?" he squeaked. "Your leathers will be fine. See you later," and with that said, the little man hurried away.
The bard relinquished her role as hair clasp and watched Salmoneous' hasty exit while Xena shook a hand through the tangles in her hair.
"Would you have worn the blue thing, really? I mean, it's not as if you'd have anywhere to put your weapons, you know," the Amazon commented thoughtfully.
"Gabrielle, in the right time and place, that outfit is all the weapon I need," the warrior grinned. "I think Salmoneous figured that out."
"I'd say you're right about that one, o' surly Swordstress," the bard ribbed good-naturedly.
The women had the presence of mind to wait until the little salesman had cleared the theater floor before erupting in laughter.
I knew things were going too smoothly, thought Gabrielle. She raised her hands and tried to calm the learned gentleman down. In response, the fellow just increased the volume of his tirade and threw in some even more disparaging remarks.
She closed her eyes. Patience, Gabrielle, patience, she reminded herself. The Amazon tried again, stopping only when her soothing voice was drowned in a torrent of slurs. She was shocked. Granted, things hadn't gotten off to a good start between them, but, after all, she had apologized.
The rest of the guests were distancing themselves from the outbursts, trying to continue their polite discussions and ignore the tantrum. That was far from easy, as the angry scholar was intent on being the center of attention. Finally, even Hercules and Iolaus turned away from their own conversations to see who was causing such a commotion.
Iolaus looked through the crowd in time to see Gabrielle throw up her hands and whirl about, obviously having had enough. There was no way for him to mistake the subtle slump of her shoulders, she was troubled by the things the man had said. The golden hunter shook his head and sighed. Poor kid, that loudmouth doing all the yelling was a real piece of work. Some people don't know how to quit when they are ahead, he thought.
For what it was worth, Hercules was beginning to feel somewhat sorry for Salmoneous. The wily promoter had intended this reception to be a kick-off for tomorrow evening's contest. A chance for the nobility and common folk alike to acquaint themselves with the game, its rules and the like, he had said. It didn't take a genius to realize it was also a great opportunity for oddsmakers to scope out the contestants. The demi-god sniffed his chalice of wine and tried not to think about who would be the favorite.
The final competitor, Abrat, had arrived and was busy imposing his will on all those around him. First, he complained about his accommodations; next, the stage area was unbefitting a man of his importance; and on and on. Then, after Salmoneous had exhausted every attempt to please him, Abrat found a new target and bellowed at the promoter for yet another concession.
His shrill voice cut through the now quiet room, "I repeat: I will have nothing more to do with this competition until she is removed from the arena." He pointed dramatically toward the center of the room.
"Come on, now. Listen, I'm sure we can work this out," entreated the salesman to the third contestant. "See, we all want to get along, don't we, Xena? Xena?"
Salmoneous took a quick appraisal of the warrior princess. Her gaze had narrowed into a hawk-like glare and was fixed firmly on the newcomer. She stood, with Gabrielle, in the middle of the floor. The bard eased in front of Xena and turned her back to Abrat.
The Amazon was addressing the warrior in her typically animated fashion, though she kept her voice purposely low. The salesman could see her hands rising and falling illustrating her points and pausing occasionally to touch the warrior's arm. At first, he struggled to hear what was being said, but decided it made little difference, as the blue eyes that were visible just over the top of the bard's head told him that the warrior had already made up her mind.
Abrat sauntered closer to the women. He stared at the back of the blonde head with devious glee and then patted his foot impatiently.
The heavy footsteps behind her alerted Gabrielle to Abrat's presence, and she made one last attempt to reason with Xena. "It's okay. I'm okay with this. Salmoneous' plan is silly but it just might work, the important thing is to see it through, agreed?" whispered the bard. Her eyes swept over her friend's face, willing her to agree and stand down.
Abrat smiled smugly at Salmoneous who then cast a nervous glance at Hercules and Iolaus for help. "Guys?" the salesman whined, inclining his head in several quick tic like motions toward the action.
The tall demi-god leaned back against a table while his partner chewed noisily on a chunk of bread. "This is your party, Salmoneous. You can handle it," Hercules offered. Iolaus pondered the statement for an instant, not trying to mask his puzzlement at all, then nodded in agreement.
The pompous scholar took another couple of steps toward Xena and her friend. He hooked his thumbs in the silken sash about his waist and called to the salesman, "Salmoneous, are you going to get rid of this trash or not?"
Xena's glare became glacial. Iolaus gulped down the last bite of his bread and whispered to Hercules, "Smartest guy in all of Parnassis, huh?"
"Enough! That is completely out of line!" Salmoneous yelled. "Xena is an honored guest of the festival and she is staying right where she is!"
The warrior princess' discipline had reached its limit. She tilted her head slightly to one side and smiled. There was no warmth or humor in the action.
"Apologize. Right now, you smug little toad," she seethed.
Salmoneous bounded between the two of them. "That sounds fair, don't you think?" the salesman cajoled the scholar. "I think we'd all agree that perhaps you went a tad overboard with a couple of remarks -- so how about you apologize to Xena and we can get back to the party, whaddayasay?"
Abrat gave the salesman a bored look. "Your barbarian is not the issue."
Gabrielle turned about and smiled sadly at Salmoneous. The salesman's mouth dropped open. He looked from Xena to Gabrielle and back again as understanding took hold.
The arrogant contestant began to snicker. "That's right. The boorish bovine with the sword can stay. She's relatively comely and of course, a man can always stay upwind," he sneered. "But under no circumstance will I remain in the same arena as this little menace." He pointed a well manicured index finger at Gabrielle whose face was now darkening in anger.
The Amazon reacted on impulse, snatching the scholar's finger and wrenching it backwards. Abrat fell to his knees in shock and pain as the bard adjusted her hold, shifting her grip so that the man's entire wrist was flexed in an impossible twist. She bent over to look him in his watery eyes, noting that his face was turning the same shade of purple that it had that morning when they had met by accident on the roadway.
"Listen, pal..." she hissed, "I'm going to make this real easy for you to understand. Are you listening?" She increased the pressure on his hand and wrist until he nodded. "Good. For starters, you can't demand respect -- you have to earn it -- and to keep the respect of others you have value them. So, that pretty much rules out temper tantrums and name calling."
Xena folded her arms and listened to Gabrielle's sermon as Salmoneous grinned in relief. The warrior smirked, she couldn't have said it better herself.
"All those rotten things he said earlier -- they were about HER? Not you?" The salesman pointed at the warrior, and then thought better of it and withdrew his hand. The warrior shot him a sideways glance that ended his discussion of the matter.
Gabrielle pivoted her locked hands and her captive grunted in pain and frustration. "Now I couldn't care less what you think of me, but if you EVER say anything like that about one of my friends again -- I guarantee you will be sorry," she snarled. Abrat whimpered as perspiration dripped into his eyes.
"Okay, smart guy, think fast. What should a gentleman say to Xena right now?"
"I-I-I'm sorry, I apologize, my remarks were uncouth a-a-and without provocation," he groaned from between his teeth.
The bard glanced up at her best friend with an impish grin. The warrior nodded once as a corner of her mouth quirked up into a crooked smile. "Good enough," the storyteller declared and released her hold allowing the subdued man to collapse into a heap of bright colored silk.
Abrat watched the duo's boots as they walked away. Iolaus handed a chalice to Gabrielle as she and Xena approached the table while Hercules thumped his large hands together in applause.
"I knew that guy was in WAY over his head," he chuckled lightly.
"Yeah, and all this time I thought Xena was the one with the temper!" quipped Iolaus as Gabrielle turned up the cup for a long drink.
"I have a temper?" the warrior princess asked in feigned surprise.
Across the room, Salmoneous had just finished relieving Abrat of his responsibilities when he heard the heroes laughing. He looked over at the quartet. Iolaus was busy wiping tears from his eyes. Hercules was trying to muffle his guffaws behind a fist while steadying Gabrielle with his other hand. The bard was intermittently giggling, coughing and shaking her head at Xena. The warrior was chuckling and patting the little Amazon on the back.
The promoter sighed. He was one contestant short for tomorrow night's competition. He drummed his fingertips against his beard. Ruminating over what he had advertised, the salesman pondered who he could find on short notice. A philosopher? A prince? A poet? Too far away, too costly, too undependable. They need to be smart and it would help if they were royal, he decided.
Suddenly, his eyebrows nearly sprang off his forehead. Of course! A lazy smile crept across his features. This was good. This could work. Combine that with the fact that it could repair the PR problem caused by Abrat -- and it was genius!
He crossed the room, excused the interruption, and took the petite blonde by the arm.
"Gabrielle, could I talk with you for a minute?"
The heels of the ruddy leather boots banged against the wall in a nervous cadence. Their wearer had hopped up on the low stone barrier to try and calm herself before returning to the reception. Gabrielle spread her hands behind her and leaned back, turning her face up toward the star lit sky.
The cool evening breeze felt wonderful as it lifted her golden bangs away from her forehead. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to regain some composure. Her features relaxed and she closed her eyes. Another deep breath and the jangle of excitement that had been loosed when Salmoneous made his offer began to fade. Her feet swung noiselessly now, the drumming had stopped.
A tiny self satisfied smile broke though her tranquil facade. Me, she giggled, Salmoneous needs me to make the plan work. Boy, that feels good! she thought happily. Especially after the shoddy way I was excluded at the rehearsal, she observed wryly. Serves him right -- good thing I'm not one to hold grudges, she smiled. Well, not for too long, anyway.
Her reasonable side told her that she was merely filling an administrative need for the salesman. He needed someone with literary knowledge, a tie to royalty, and the availability to compete. One Amazon Queen and first-rate bard at your service. Being a sensible person, she had even realized when the sales pitch had gotten a little out of hand. She seriously doubted Salmoneous' depiction of Xena as lost without her help. Yeah, right, she scoffed. Although, she guiltily admitted to herself, the idea of being a valuable part of the partnership was important to her.
The bard ran her fingers over the stones beneath her, feeling the faded remains of the day's warmth in their solid strength. Salmoneous was a charmer, of that she was certain. Her emotional side reacted in typical Gabrielle form. An opportunity to share the spotlight with Hercules and Xena? A forum where the battle field was stacked in her favor? A chance to show all the nobility in Trebek that knowledge isn't something you can stifle or hoard? Leading with her heart, she leaped at the chance to compete.
The notion still made her want to laugh. She pondered what the people in her home village would think if they knew what she was about to do. The little feet began thumping again, causing tiny bits of masonry to trickle down the wall.
She sighed and pondered the pin-pricks of light against inky heavens. Something pulled at her memory as she stared at the serene sky, and the edges of her mouth turned upwards ever so slightly. Raising a hand, she closed one eye and sketched imaginary lines between the stars. I don't believe it, she reflected cheerfully, there it is -- a dipper!
"So, this is all right. You're okay with this," Gabrielle stated cautiously. "Truly? I mean, you'd tell me if it bothered you, right?"
"Yes," the warrior affirmed as she went about her task. She lifted Argo's foreleg and bent the hoof back for inspection.
The bard ruffled her fingers through the tufts of ivory mane between the horse's ears and patted the animal on the jaw. Catching a bit of laughter on the evening breeze, she turned and looked back toward the tents at the entrance to the amphitheater. The merry euphony of the music blended wonderfully with the twinkling of the torchlights that ringed the reception tent. She stared at it all for long seconds, willing herself to remember the smallest details so that she could capture it on parchment someday.
Finally, a short snort from the warhorse pulled the bard's attention away from the scene across the pavilion. She patted the animal on the nose and considered her friend who was now inspecting a rear hoof. The warrior ran a rasp along the edge of the hoof in quick deliberate motions and the ran her thumb along the edge of the shoe. When Gabrielle had returned to the reception she wasn't surprised to learn that Xena had slipped out of the festivities.
The Amazon wrapped a fist around a length of unused tether and tugged on the restraint as she spoke. "This is beginning to become a habit."
Xena eased the horse's leg back to the stable floor and wiped her hands on a nearby rag as she returned the farrier's tools. She eyed her friend somewhat suspiciously. "What? Argo gets pretty neglected when we travel, I just thought I could ..."
"Xena, there are kings that don't have the care and attention this horse has -- on the road or off!" the bard smiled. "No offense, Argo." She patted the animal again. "Besides, you know that's not what I'm talking about."
The warrior had begun arranging the steed's tack on the nearby wall pegs, feigning apathy toward the entire conversation. Bridle, blanket, saddle, cinch -- item after item was scrutinized and added to the wall while Gabrielle continued.
"Every time there's a celebration; you head for the stables. It's gotten to the point I don't even wonder about where you've gone. I know exactly where to find you." The bard gestured with the leather strap, flicking it back and forth in time with her words. "Banquet. Stables. Reception. Stables, again," she recounted. "In every single instance I can remember that's the way it goes."
Though her eyes were on the wall, Xena cast them heavenward all the same and let go a long breath. "What is it with you bards, anyway?" the warrior whirled about and countered. "Is exaggeration a job requirement? I do not disappear to the stables every time there is a party. What about the solstice celebration in Utara? Remember that?"
"Yes, that time you went to the river instead."
"See! There went your pattern theory!" Xena snapped her fingers for emphasis.
"Hardly, Utara is a centaur village, the entire stable was the celebration!" chuckled
the bard. A smattering of applause drifted to her ears and she couldn't help a quick glance at the reception tent. In a few moments the players would take up their instruments again and there would be more laughter, talking and dancing.
The warrior saw the wistful expression on her friend's face as Gabrielle leaned a shoulder against a stall support. The Amazon's hands busied themselves rolling up the leather strip into a tight coil before depositing it on a nearby peg.
"Anyway," she grinned, "I didn't come out here to try and drag you back inside."
Xena folded her arms and waited, pouting slightly from the effort of suppressing a chuckle. The slant of her brows showed she had trouble believing that last statement.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she raised her hands in mock surrender. "I came out here to tell you my news, " she asserted as the warrior nodded in agreement.
"Right," Xena declared as she gripped the bard's shoulder with a firm hand, "You're a good choice. He did well to ask you." The Poteidaian's face lit up at the endorsement even as her conscience got the better of her. She laced her fingers together and studied them a moment before peering up at her taller friend.
"Okay, there is a slight possibility that I intended to talk you into returning to the reception," she offered with a shrug. Another slow nod from the warrior.
"You don't enjoy them, do you? Parties, I mean," she said thoughtfully.
"Gabrielle, I really wish I could." Xena knew her friend reveled in the atmosphere of celebrations. Her cheerful manner made the bard everyone's favorite guest. The day after such events would be passed as the bard brought the warrior up to date on all the interesting people, customs and stories that she had missed.
The rear door of the stables burst open with a clatter, and a disheveled woman raced in followed immediately by a man, his steps heavy and careless in his intoxication. The woman squealed as he lumbered into a stockpile and heavy bags of oats thudded against the floor. He approached his intended victim slower now, as she had blundered into a stall and was cornered.
Gabrielle heard the ring of the clasp on her friend's waist as the chakram was yanked free. The warrior's arm stopped in mid-throw, muscles tightened almost painfully, her fingers wound fast around the disk. The bard looked on thunderstruck as Xena did an abrupt about-face and refastened the weapon. Only then did the Poteidaian hear the giggling and murmuring that was emanating from the stall that held the new arrivals.
"Oh," the embarrassed bard muttered as she turned away and joined her friend as they made quick strides toward the front door. Once outside, Xena shut her eyes, rubbed her forehead and concentrated on allowing the tension of her reaction to dissipate. She inhaled deeply and looked at the bard with a gaze that was tinged with regret.
"Once a warrior, always a warrior. It isn't something I can turn off or choose to ignore for an evening," she sighed. "Too much wine has a way of bringing out the lion or the jackass in people," she looked back at the stables and then at the unconscious fists her hands had formed. The fingers unfurled slowly and flexed; the final remnants of the pressure released.
"I just don't want anyone to get hurt."
The bard shuddered. She thought it over for a moment and realized that there were few times that the warrior was at ease. Most people wanted to praise her or kill her, and Gabrielle was sure the warrior was more comfortable with the latter of the two options. They took a few steps in silence until they entered the center of the pavilion.
"I hadn't seen it from your side," the bard admitted. "Here all this time I thought you were just painfully shy," she quipped. Xena raised an eyebrow and smirked at the thought.
"Okay, so it wasn't one of my better theories. Thanks, by the way, for the explanation."
"Don't mention it," Xena answered good-naturedly. She stopped as they began to exit the coliseum pavilion. "Hey, you hungry? Let's get something to eat," said the warrior as she grabbed the bard's arm and tugged her back toward the reception.
"Oh, so now you like parties?" Gabrielle shook her head with a laugh.
"Mad about 'em. Who said I wasn't?" the warrior wisecracked.
Gabrielle had just opened her mouth to protest when Xena chuckled lightly and explained, "One more thing: warriors aren't designed for small talk. I'm good for ten minutes -- tops. Three if I have to talk to Salmoneous. Let's go!"
"And, and, and then..." the little girl's arms waved excitedly. "And then, the big old evil bird began flummeting out of the sky."
A soft voice asserted itself from the other side of the fire. "Plummeting. Not 'flummeting', the word is plummeting," her brother corrected gently.
Layla folded her arms and awarded him a stern look. She drew in a irritated breath and turned back to her audience. "I know what I mean, and I think they do, too," she huffed. Sure enough, everyone waited on the conclusion of the tale.
Even people outside the circle of the firelight listened. The family was camped amid other festival-goers in a glade just outside the city walls. The festival in Trebek was legendary, but this year the contest had made it even more noteworthy. Every generation felt a compulsion to attend and so whole families from grandparents down to babes in arms were on their way to the coliseum.
At the adjoining site, an elderly couple curled up after bidding their guest goodnight. They had felt sorry for the woebegotten traveler and had asked him to share supper and the fire with them. He was quite the talker and the old woman was relieved that he had finally hushed when the little girl had begun her tale.
"You see, dear," she whispered to her husband, "I knew he was a good man. Watch how much attention he pays to the child." The man nodded in agreement as the traveler's eyes brightened at the sound of the little girl continuing her tale.
"As the big bird began its death plunge, the warrior princess shoved herself away from the beast and called to her friend below. Now, Hercules had his hands full fighting the green slimy guys that protected Prometheus but he heard her call and he started getting ready."
"Getting ready for what?" her mother prodded. She couldn't believe this was her daughter, her bashful little girl commanding the entire family's attention at their campsite.
"Why to catch her, of course. And that's just what he did," her small hands rose dramatically in the air as she spoke. "Hercules just reached up caught Xena. So, um, and the two heroes watched as Prometheus finished the work they had begun and freed himself of Hera's chains."
The tiny orator wrapped up all the elements of the story and finished with a nearly word-for-word recitation of the conclusion she had heard earlier at the amphitheater. The entire group applauded and cheered as the little girl curtseyed wobbily and smiled broadly.
The mother looked over to her son, "Did she get all of that out of a picture scroll?" she asked. The boy grinned, stretched and leaned back against the wheel of the cart.
"Not exactly," he answered and he began a recount of their afternoon of adventures in Trebek.
"Oooh, I think I 'm going to like this," said Gabrielle as the bard's eyes swept over the lavish room. She rushed over to the cushion covered bed and vaulted into its middle, sinking into the plush softness. Stretching out on her back she extended her arms as far as she could and wiggled her fingers in the coverlet. Raising up on her elbows, she noted that she couldn't touch the edges of the bed. Grinning, she looked up and noted the fragile netting draped elegantly about the canopy. The rest of the room was similarly attired. Massive furnishings and frills abounded. A overstuffed chaise sat along one wall and faced an ornately carved wardrobe. A fire had been neatly laid in the hearth, though it was far too warm to need it, and the rear wall held an enormous window with pivoting panes of glass.
"Not too shabby, huh?" remarked the bard as she tapped the toes of her boots together excitedly. "I can't believe Salmoneous didn't keep this room for himself!"
Whistling softly, Xena stepped over to the end table that accompanied the chaise and plucked a pear from the platter of fruit that was displayed there. Rolling it in her hands she did her own quick appraisal of the room and replaced the fruit on the pile.
"I think he intended to, at least until Abrat had that fit about his accommodations," Xena mentioned as she walked to the windows and surveyed the streets below. "Seems to have worked out for the better, wouldn't you agree?"
"Mmm hmm," the happy bard answered as she sank back down with a sigh. "I will endeavor to make do with these humble quarters," she proposed dramatically, raising the back of her hand to her forehead.
"Aw yeah, go on, make me feel guilty about leaving you in all this squalor," quipped the warrior.
"It's all part of the plan, Xena, and if it means enduring a little discomfort..." Gabrielle snickered and executed another exaggerated selfless pose, "then so be it." She folded her hands behind her head, smiled in contentment and closed her eyes.
"Right," drawled the warrior. Moving to the side of the enormous bed, the former warlord repositioned the bard's quarterstaff to where it could be easily retrieved --even by a drowsy Amazon. "Well then, I'll see you in the morning."
" 'kay," answered the bard with a yawn. "Good night, Xena," she added as she snuggled down.
Shaking her head the warrior crossed the room silently, opened the heavy door to the hall and then leaned back inside.
"Gabrielle, how do you like being a celebrity so far?"
"Well, it's the ..." the bard began when a small round cushion thumped her squarely in the nose. "Hey!" she exclaimed, scrambling into a sitting position just in time to see a grinning warrior princess wave and close the door.
"Herc?" Iolaus watched as his friend cupped the water in his hands and then splashed it on his face. The demi-god paused holding his hands over his eyes for a moment, fingers pressed against his forehead, as droplets fell back into the wash basin.
"Hey, Herc" he tried again, "Are you feeling okay? You seem a little down in the mouth."
Hercules turned and stared at his friend. Hair dampened by the splash clung to his tanned face as a few wayward drops of water cascaded from his chin. He pointed a finger as though he was going to respond then waved off the thought and snatched a towel from the stand.
Iolaus began to walk back and forth across the room, scratching his head as he played the part of detective to the hilt. "You didn't have that much to drink, I know 'cos I was there. So that's not it." Hercules tried to ignore the rambling but found himself stifling a grin beneath the drying cloth.
The blonde haired man sidled over and scrutinized his tall partner. "However, you do look awfully grim," he stated as a matter of fact. "Hmm, if you had a scruffy goatee you could pass for the Sovereign." Hercules snapped the towel at Iolaus, barely missing the retreating man.
"Woah, take it easy, just trying to get to the bottom of this mystery!" he laughed as he circled the room again. "If I didn't know better I'd think you were nervous about the competition."
"Since when have you ever known better?" joked the damp demi-god as he settled onto the reclining couch and stretched his long legs out before him. "So, you think it's foolish for me to dread the thought of a public battle of wits with Xena?"
"Don't forget Gabrielle," Iolaus offered congenially holding up two fingers. "Both of 'em. Sal won't let them gang up on you, will he?" He shivered at the thought.
Hercules groaned. "Is there a purpose to this... um, what is it you're trying to do anyway?"
"It's a pep talk," his friend commented with a grin. "How do you like it so far?"
"I hate it!" bellowed the son of Zeus.
"Oh, but next is the part where we work on your positive thinking," Iolaus said as he turned a chair around and straddled it, leaning his muscular forearms on its back.
Hercules regarded his friend with a cautious glare. "You're right. I should be thinking positively," he agreed. "How's this? I'm positive I'm gonna kill you if you don't shut up!" he growled.
Completely unfazed by the threat, Iolaus propped his head up on his fist. "You intellectuals sure are a temperamental lot!" he observed dryly.
The old man across the campfire had begun to snore as the little girl finished her monologue. The cacophony of wheezes threatened to completely drown out the youthful voice that the traveler strained to hear. No sooner had she completed her story than her brother began describing a most interesting set of circumstances. The snoring quieted briefly before the elderly farmer grunted, grabbed a lungful of air and then resumed the disagreeable racket. It made it more difficult for the traveler to hear as he tossed and turned in irritation on his borrowed blankets. Still, he managed to pick up enough of the details.
My dear lad, you do tell the most wonderful stories, thought Abrat. How incredibly unfortunate that dear young thing, Gabrielle, had broken one of Trebek's most sacred laws. Reciting before a group, in effect practicing the trade of a bard! So what if the audience was children? It didn't matter in the least, he decided. Obviously, she had quite an impact on the kids as the little whelp gave a wonderful retelling of the story, he fumed silently.
This just added to the information he had amassed following his rude dismissal from the contest. How dare they, he seethed. Replace me with an ignorant peasant girl who has some ridiculous tacked-on title and we'll see what happens, he sneered. For a while it had seemed to him that the best course was to have the fraudulent "Queen" exposed before the contest and retake his position on the dais. But this boy's tale of the bard in action at the rehearsal gave him opportunity to plot something on a grander scale.
She had embarrassed him painfully, twice. He had endured a scolding at her hands before the elite of the province. A public reprimand was due for the little menace. He lazily twirled a scroll around his finger, recalling the harsh punishments it outlined for breaking the laws of the city.
He rolled over onto his back and folded his hands across his portly stomach. He discounted Xena from the equation as his research had confirmed that she would not interfere with the codes of the city. Too bad that warrior has such a noble streak, he giggled. Let's see, he thought, tomorrow I have much to do. His thoughts turned to Gabrielle as he deviously wondered if she knew this was her last night of freedom. He smiled again as he recalled the passage of the law that entitled the accuser to the first five lashes of the convicted before imprisonment. He couldn't believe his good fortune. This little trip to Trebek was going to be worthwhile after all.
The lithe form descended the staircase without a sound. Her fingers smoothed the edge of the royal blue tunic where it met her belt and drifted over to where her chakram hung at her hip. The leather skirt was a deep midnight blue, in the same style and length that she was accustomed to, but this one was trimmed with silver highlights as were the matching boots. She adjusted the short braces that circled her wrists, smiling at the hidden reinforcements they carried.
A little change is a good thing, she thought to herself. According to Salmoneous, a precious few brave scholars had been teaching in secret and she planned on briefing them on the full extent of the plan. In order to accomplish that goal, she would need to move inconspicuously through the busy streets and simple fact of the matter was her armor and sword drew attention. Therefore, a change of wardrobe was in order.
Stopping on the bottom stair, she looked around the vacant tavern and admitted to herself that the bittersweet emotions she felt weren't just in her imagination. It was remarkable how much the inn and tavern felt like her mother's in Amphipolis. Right down to the hurried yet hushed bustle in the kitchen, the aroma of bread baking, and the sandy haired lad busy scrubbing the tabletops with mint.
Feeling her watchful gaze, the youth paused and raised his head, smiling broadly. "'morning! You're up awful early, is there anything I can do for you?"
Returning his smile, she shook her head. "I'm fine, thanks." The rosy light of dawn streamed through the window panes and tinted the room in a blush. She was sure this was the youngest of the innkeepers children, the one she had yet to meet.
"So, Jarron, how'd you get table duty?" she asked casually as she navigated her way through the tables. She wondered how many mornings of her youth were spent with her brothers in similar pursuits before Cortese came and changed their lives forever.
The boy shrugged and dusted a few spent leaves into the palm of his hand. "Mother says I do the best job of it," he grinned. Inside his heart was hammering. It was her. He was sure of it, and she knew his name!
She paused at the table where he stood, bent slightly at the waist for a better look and slid her hand along the freshly cleaned surface. The boy swallowed hard, he hadn't bargained on an inspection by the warrior princess. His brown eyes grew wide with worry as she turned to address him again.
"Your mother is right," she declared, noting immediately the effect of her praise as he beamed up at her. She clapped his shoulder as she passed, "Good job."
"Thanks, Xena!" he fairly shouted before remembering that the rest of the customers probably wouldn't relish the early hour. He lowered his voice considerably, "I just know you're gonna win tonight!" he blurted impulsively.
"We'll see. You know, I've got a couple of friends who are going to be pretty tough competition," she admitted. Then she considered the sweetest part of the whole scheme. It was so simple and yet none of the nobles had caught on to it. A forum for the exchange of knowledge right out in the open disguised as a game. Everyone listening would remember the questions and answers. They could master new ideas and facts.
"I think we'll all learn something by the time it's over. Are you going to be there?" she prodded.
"You bet! Me and the whole province, too!"
"Glad to hear it," she grinned. Something at the corner of the bar caught her eye. Scooping it up she assessed its size and strength. Perfect.
"Say, mind if I borrow this?"
"Help yourself, princess," he answered. For long moments after she'd left, the boy wondered what in all of Greece the warrior could want with an old stock crate.
Gabrielle paused in the doorway, leaned into the heavy frame and yawned for the third time. She looked wistfully at the huge bed and then squinted at the vivid streaks of sunlight that were creeping across the wall. She inhaled deeply and crossed to the wash basin.
After a healthy splash of water and a quick scrub, she felt a little more invigorated. Another stretch and she padded barefoot to the tray of food, plopped down cross-legged on the chaise and selected breakfast. It's already pretty light out, she thought as she munched on the pear. I bet Xena's already been over the whole city, she speculated as she dabbed her chin with the back of her hand.
She leaned back and looked around the room. It was really way too large for one person. Maybe even for a family of five, she snickered. If the ceiling were a little higher, there was even room for Argo.
"Hey, you know what ..." she began, then stopped short. Think, Gabrielle, who's going to answer you? Okay, this stinks, she frowned. She tossed the soggy core toward the pail near the hearth and jumped up in celebration when it went into the receptacle.
The bard rubbed her hands together for an instant and then steepled her index fingers under her chin. I think it's time to see the sights, she decided as she grabbed her boots from the floor.
A soft, unobtrusive knock sounded at her door, followed by a young female voice. "Queen Gabrielle, are you awake? I have a note here for you."
"Yeah, I mean come in," the storyteller responded as she tied off the leather fasteners of one ruddy boot. She grimaced at the title. It was hard enough to endure it from her Amazon sisters, and it sounded downright silly here.
The door opened and revealed a thin slip of a girl, whom Gabrielle guessed was hardly eight summers old. She had dark hair and eyes and was dressed in a brown linen skirt that stopped just above her sandals. I remember those, thought the bard as she saw the hand embroidered cuffs of the child's creme colored blouse.
"'Morning!" she commented brightly, and watched as the child flashed a gap-toothed grin in return. The girl took a few cautious steps toward her, a folded scrap of parchment in her hand, and then stopped and stared. She looked a little frightened and swallowed hard before she tried to speak.
"Thank you, Queen... " The girl's eyes widened as the Amazon walked to her and knelt down, raising a gentle hand to interrupt her speech before it got too far along.
"Please, call me Gabrielle," she said. "Just Gabrielle." The child's eyebrows pulled downward in puzzlement.
"The queen part makes me sound sorta scary, don't you think?" she asked and then chuckled when the child's head bobbed in enthusiastic agreement. "Right, and it isn't easy to make new friends if people are afraid of you, so we'll just forget about that 'Queen' part, okay?"
"Okay!" the girl responded quickly.
"So, you said something about a note?" Gabrielle prompted and received the parchment. She scanned the page quickly. "When was Xena here?" she asked.
"Xena, my friend who brought the note." She looked at the scrap of parchment again, no doubt about it, the precise tight hand belonged to the warrior.
The girl giggled and stared at her anew. "You know XENA?!" This was a day of wonders. First, actually seeing someone make the little marks on the parchment then getting to deliver the words personally to the Amazon Queen.
"You could say so, we're best friends." The storyteller flexed the thin material between her fingers and offered the child a look at the text. "This is a message from her."
"Nuh uh," the little girl shook her head. "I saw the lady who made it. She looked regular, not like Xena at all," she responded defiantly. "She was pretty and tall and stuff, but not near big enough, and she didn't have no sword." The Amazon's features showed her curiosity plainly.
"Dark hair, right?" Gabrielle fingered a section of her own pale hair as she asked. She tapped at her shoulder indicating the appropriate length.
The bard's brow furrowed in thought. "Blue eyes, too, I bet."
The messenger thought back over the early morning visitor. "Umm yeah, same color as her outfit."
Xena. It had to be. Gabrielle twisted her mouth into a wry grin. Without the weaponry and armor, Xena could make her way unheeded through the crowded city. Salmoneous had outdone himself with publicity for the event and the crafty warrior was hiding in plain sight. Brilliant, she smirked.
"She said you'd sleep late and to give you this when you woke up."
Definitely Xena. "You don't say?" the bard supposed aloud.
The boisterous crowd was making quite a racket in the little tavern. The bar was packed and long moments passed as she waited to ease into a spot at the counter. Finally, a groggy fellow stepped away and she slipped into his space. A burly bunch of men along the bar were singing a drinking song with so much vigor that their rhythmic swaying intermittently bumped into the stranger in their midst.
Undeterred, she leaned forward to address the barkeep. "I'm looking for someone, maybe you can help me," she began as the vocalists swayed dangerously close to her shoulder.
"Sorry, dear, what didja say?" he countered genially before giving the singers a withering glare. "Will you tone-deaf harpies just please SHUT UP! You're running off the paying customers!"
The one nearest her shoulder ignored the bartender and banged his fist against the countertop as a call to pump up the volume.
Xena frowned as the quartet continued their atonal assault. The owner tried again. "Come on now, you've had your fun, let's call it a day --"
The singer's fist pounded against the bar again, once then twice, and on the third beat he smacked the barkeep forcefully between the eyes. Propelled backward by the blow, the smaller man staggered into his wares and several bottles crashed about his feet.
A very grim warrior shook her head. She whirled about and delivered two stiff fingered jabs into the attacker, whose voice suddenly left him as the pressure points were activated.
The man's mouth moved soundlessly as he tried to face the warrior only to find that his legs wouldn't respond. He watched as she took the tankard from his left hand and set it on the bar. Then she turned him about, pivoting his bulk on one of his immobile legs.
"Are your friends any good at playing catch?" she asked as she flattened her hand against his chest. His eyes mirrored his confusion until he felt the push that sent him falling, stiff legged toward the floor.
"Guess not," she quipped as she turned nonchalantly back to the counter. The resulting crash quieted the room substantially and she went back about her business. The dazed fellow on the floor reached for his comrades as the paralysis faded away, they hoisted him to his feet and fled the establishment without a look back at the tall woman now standing alone at the bar.
The barkeep smiled and extended his hand in gratitude. "Much appreciated, miss, that tune lost its appeal for me some twenty verses ago," he admitted. "Say, what was it you were needing, then?"
"I'm looking for someone named Sierra," the warrior explained. The man's face clouded apprehensively, a clear signal to Xena that she was close to meeting her contact.
"What would you be wanting with her?" he responded a little too quickly.
"It's all right, Merv. I'm Sierra," announced the waitress who had just deposited an empty tray on the countertop. She squinted at the warrior and then smiled. "Merv, I've got some stuff to take care of, be back soon, okay?"
He regarded the waitress with a somber expression. She waved off his concerns.
"Relax, this is the cousin I told you about," she said as she untied the short apron from her waist. Deftly, she folded the item and stretched across the counter to stash it beneath the bar. She rested on her forearms for a moment and grinned up at her boss, letting her feet dangle before sliding down until her toes touched the floor again.
"We haven't seen one another for, what has it been, ages?" she inquired as she moved to meet the warrior.
"Seems like forever to me," Xena commented brightly as the woman grasped her hands in greeting. That prompted a genuine laugh from her 'cousin' who then addressed her employer in an airy, carefree manner.
"We're just going to take a walk and get re-acquainted. Ready?"
"Ready," the warrior answered. "Nice to see you, Merv," she added as a final gesture of goodwill toward the barkeep. He gave her a slight smile, having decided that he could see the family resemblance after all.
Sierra lead Xena through the tavern and onto the street. She indicated the direction and soon they were well away from her place of work.
The waitress took a deep breath. She was having trouble believing the "Warrior Princess" of legend was the same woman who walked in companionable silence beside her. Of course, the more recent stories painted a far more favorable picture. She snuck a sideways glance at Xena. The woman in blue just seemed to radiate confidence. Somehow, she had no doubt the warrior and her friends were capable of extraordinary things.
"Sorry about the confusion, but Salmoneous said that I'd probably be meeting with your friend, Gabrielle," she explained. "He also described you very differently."
The warrior smiled at the remark. Still, she thought, Gabrielle would've been the one taking this little walk if the bard hadn't been lured into the proceedings. She decided to give the guy a little credit, it seemed he was thinking ahead and not just about his own profits.
"At least he got that thing right," Sierra said pointing to the gleaming disk at the warrior's waist. "That's what finally tipped me off."
Xena brushed her hand over the chakram. "Some things just never go out of style," she said with a smile. "I've heard that you've made some plans to improve things around here."
The waitress stopped short at the warrior's observation. They were still on a Trebek street during the festival, it was impossible to know who was listening. "Many of us see the need for certain, improvements, as you say," she answered carefully. "Yes, there are plans but without the council's permission all our ideas are good for is a stay in the city dungeons," she reported.
"We'll see about that," Xena said dryly. "Get your people ready, there's going to be a lot of work to do." She smiled warmly to alleviate the fear she saw gathering on the other woman's face and extended her hand.
"Relax, this is where the fun begins," the warrior proclaimed in a calculating fashion. The taller woman's eyes reflected a cool, perceptive intelligence that the waitress found comforting.
Sierra's worried expression faded in the face of the warrior's certitude. Taking Xena's hand in her own, she sealed the new partnership with a hearty handshake.
"Does this place seem, oh, I don't know, BIGGER than it did last night?" the bard asked nervously.
"That's just your imagination, Gabrielle, it's the same size."
The two friends had made an early afternoon stop at the amphitheater so Gabrielle could get accustomed to the set. The Poteidaian made a small revolution on the dais and stared at the receding rows of seats that filled the hillside. One hand rested for an instant on her abdomen, an unconscious effort to still the dread that was beginning to thrash in her stomach.
"I'm sure I don't recall it being this large," she whispered to herself.
One of Salmoneous' stage hands rushed over and hurriedly escorted the bard to one of the enormous blue podiums, urging her to become more familiar with the props. Standing on her tip-toes, she could just see over the huge lectern and, with effort, she was able to reach the button that worked chimes. Forget about seeing the board or the moderator, she decided glumly. They have got to be kidding, she thought. Who did they have in mind when they built these things anyway? The bard let her head thump against the lectern in frustration.
A hand shot up and waved wearily above the podium. "Here! I'm over here, not that you could tell," she answered dispiritedly. "This is never going to work."
Xena leaned an elbow on the lectern and tapped the Amazon on the shoulder. The bard scowled up at her Thracian friend in blue.
The warrior patted the podium. "This one's mine. Hercules is first, I'm last, that one in the middle is yours," she pointed.
"Oh, like it's going to make one bit of difference..." the bard raised up with a flourish and stepped over to her lectern, stumbling a bit when her toes bumped into a platform. Stepping up onto the box, she began to grin, her golden head bobbing happily. "Oh yeah, better. Much better," she declared as she punched the bell button with ease. She gripped the sides of the lectern and sized up the mammoth board that would be filled with clues.
"I'll take 'Little Known Facts about the Warrior Princess' for 100, please," she joked brightly as Xena rolled her eyes.
Concluded in part 3
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