See part one for specific disclaimers.
Part 3 -- Conclusion
by J. York
The sun was nearly gone and the crowd had begun filing into the seats, slowly turning the gray hillside into a moving mosaic of people. The anxious man jumped up on a seat and scanned faces in the multitude. Finally, he saw what he had been watching for and sprinted to the amphitheater stairs. Iolaus neatly sidestepped the village elders, who blocked the entire aisle as they shuffled along with their entourage, and rushed to give the woman before him a quick hug.
"Sierra, glad you could make it!" The grinning man's embrace was so enthusiastic that Sierra squeaked out her own greeting in surprise.
"You couldn't have kept me away," she responded happily even as she was jostled by the crowd around her. "Apparently, I'm not the only one curious as to how this will all turn out." She laughed and shook her head at the slow lumbering foot traffic that kept pushing the two of them along. "How many more can they can pack in here?" she wondered aloud.
"Hang on there, let's not get separated," Iolaus cautioned as he put a hand against the small of her back and turned their progress toward the stage. As they emerged from the crowd of spectators, a stagehand directed the pair into the wings of the set.
"What did I tell you? Best seats in the house," he grinned as he swept his arm over a bench normally reserved for actors awaiting their cues.
She took the offered seat and then swept her eyes over the huge backdrop, the mechanical workings, and the stage itself. "Talk about getting up close and personal," she declared.
At about this moment, the ever fastidious Salmoneous made a quick pass by the duo on the bench as he rehearsed his opening remarks.
" ... yadda, yadda, pleasure to welcome you, so on and so forth." The promoter wrung his hands and peeked around a corner at the crowd. "Competition will be as follows, yadda, yadda, introduce Hercules, introduce Xena, introduce Gabby," he smiled as he ticked off a quick head count of spectators. The longer he calculated, the broader his smile became until he finally clapped his hands in excitement.
"Looks like a hit! Smells like a hit!" he proclaimed. Turning about he saw Iolaus and his friend. The little promoter set aside his enthusiasm for an instant as he admonished the couple.
"Miss, do me a favor? Don't let this guy touch ANYTHING back here, okay?" the salesman intoned ominously. He executed a quick wink to Sierra and waggled his eyebrows for effect.
"Pardon me?" she straightened slightly and squinted at the moderator.
"Just watch his hands, all right? And, you..." he wagged a finger at the fellow on the bench, "try to stay out of trouble! Gotta go, it's almost showtime!"
Sierra watched Salmoneous tear his way past them and disappear into the set. She turned a pair of suspicious eyes toward Iolaus, who was already readying his defense.
"Now, wait just one minute. That sounded like, well, we know what that sounded like but..." he began clumsily but he stopped talking altogether when she gently touched his chin.
"Just tell me one thing. Do I need a chaperone?"
"No! I wouldn't, ah, what I mean to say..." he stammered, searching for the right words.
"Drat," she commented mischievously, while letting her shoulders droop in disappointment. "I was hoping I would."
Iolaus' head raised with a start, and his worries receded immediately. Smiling, he made a mental note to try and be a little nicer to Salmoneous in the future.
"Let's take a look at the categories, shall we?" Salmoneous said. The little windows plopped open as he read them aloud to the crowd.
"'Famous Folk,' 'Where We Get Things,' 'Tough Luck,' 'Places and Things,' 'Foreign Gods,' and my personal favorite, 'Poets of Today.' Hercules, you won the chance to go first, so pick a category and let's get started!"
"Uh, right. Okay," Hercules scanned the board, secretly pleased that it seemed a pretty general mix of topics. Maybe this won't be so bad after all, he thought. He positioned his hand on the chime button and responded, "How about, 'Famous Folk' for 50?"
The panel dropped and revealed the clue that Salmoneous dutifully repeated.
"This hero, half-god and half-mortal, completed a famous series of twelve labors," the moderator grinned. A deep chime rang out, signaling that Hercules had rung in first.
Sierra and Iolaus clapped loudly. "It's a gimme! Go get it, big guy!" the blonde man coached from the sidelines.
The tall man shrugged and looked a bit embarrassed as he answered, "Me."
Salmoneous waved his cue cards in a slightly beckoning manner, as if trying to draw more from the respondent. Hercules frowned and looked at Gabrielle for help. She offered a noncommittal shrug. Xena simply drummed the fingers of one hand impatiently against the edge of her podium. Iolaus, stared open-mouthed from the wings and looked for all the world as if he were strangling.
Snapping his fingers in understanding, the demi-god tried again. "WHO IS me." Once again, the moderator looked less than receptive. From his vantage point just off stage, Iolaus uttered a stifled groan.
A double chime sounded from the opposite end of the panel and Salmoneous turned expectantly toward the source.
"Who is Hercules," Xena said confidently.
"Correct! Fifty points to Xena for the appropriate response! Remember panel, the phrasing is important and the questions will get harder, so it's important to stay alert," the moderator explained as the crowd applauded politely.
"I'd like to try 'Where We Get Things' for 50, please," the warrior stated calmly as if she played this game every day. Salmoneous beamed as he received a captivating smile from the former warlord.
Not a brigand in sight, but the bard recognized the hallmarks of the warrior at work. It was after all, a competition. Gabrielle took a deep breath, leaned forward, waited on the clue and made up her mind to win.
Many questions later, the contestants were becoming more at ease and even Hercules was beginning to enjoy himself somewhat. Salmoneous was a perfect moderator, always keeping the mood light and interjecting just the right witticism. The crowd began to root for their favorites, cheering one instant and then sighing in sympathy the next.
Gabrielle had just gained 200 points for correctly identifying an answer under the 'Famous Folk' category. As the audience applauded, she grinned and took a breath. The hard part was chiming in ahead of the other competitors, she decided. She rubbed her hands together and poised them over the bell button.
"'Places and Things' for 200, please," she requested as she squinted toward the answer board.
As the hidden answer was revealed, Salmoneous repeated it aloud. "This rock on the shore of Cyprus is said to mark the birthplace of Aphrodite." In a fraction of a second, the bard regretted her choice. Oh great, she thought, a question about Hercules' sister. As this notion flashed through her mind, a familiar double chime rang to her left.
"What is Petra Tou Romiou," said the warrior, with a tiny shrug to the bard.
"That's right!" shouted Salmoneous. Gabrielle looked down at the chime button on her lectern. Okay, so I didn't know that, she reflected with a heavy exhalation. But then, neither did Hercules, she thought and that somehow made her feel better.
Hercules shook his head and applauded with the crowd. Learn something new every day, he chuckled to himself.
The responses came fast and furious over the next few minutes as each contestant rang in with the correct questions.
"Who are Naiads," said Hercules.
"Who is Thoth," replied the bard, as she answered her second question in a row correctly.
"What is the sacred grove of Dodona," Xena answered with a satisfied smile.
Salmoneous beamed at his competitors. It was obvious that they had a hit on their hands, he thought as he listened to the now thunderous applause from the audience. Being a promotional genius, he just had to milk it for all it was worth.
"Aren't they doing a marvelous job?" he asked the crowd who cheered in response. "The scores are so close, it's going to be hard to say who will win!"
Certain voices carried above the others, as onlookers cried out the names of their favorites. To his right, he could plainly hear a chorus of young voices breaking the bard's name into a chant of syllables. The salesman's gaze swept over the enthralled audience once more before it settled back on the contestants.
He thought the warrior's bearing was typical Xena: indomitable and regally self-assured. At that instant, her eyes zeroed in on him and the promoter swallowed nervously. Apparently, the warrior noticed the wobble of his adam's apple as she chuckled and shifted her gaze toward the audience.
Within a few moments, she leaned gracefully toward the bard's podium, caught her friend's eye and then directed it in the area that had been cheering so loudly for the Poteidaian. Gabrielle's golden head nodded in wonder as she grinned and then indicated a particularly riotous group that had unfurled a banner in honor of the warrior princess.
Salmoneous decided that the extra dinars spent blanketing the stage in light had been well spent. The added illumination made both women utterly incandescent. The burnished light didn't do Hercules any harm either, as the hero appeared even larger than life, awash in a glow that would rival Apollo's finest handiwork. As he watched, Hercules shyly waved at a cluster of female fans who where signaling wildly that he was their favorite.
The promoter's face split with a broad smile. "Let's have another round of applause for the Trebek Council of Elders, everyone!" He announced as the leaders stood once again to bask in the glow of the crowd's adulation. The spectators cheered politely, saving their strength to root for their contestant of choice. "It's been a pleasure to be a part of their event tonight. Let's let them know what a great idea this was and that we hope it becomes an annual occurrence at the festival!"
At the mention of this, the crowd went wild and the leader of the council, an imperious man named, Griffinus, flashed the promoter a vigorous thumbs-up signal. Salmoneous recognized the man with a point and returned the gesture.
That's right, enjoy it, buster, he thought. All evening he had given the council full credit for the contest -- something that would normally pain the promoter to no end. True, it had been their idea, but they lacked the salesman's flair for fanfare and pageantry. Enter Salmoneous and suddenly the whole province was flocking to the city.
Therefore, the council's popularity was running at an all time high. The men had even gotten into the spirit of the game enough that oddsmakers revealed that some members had made sizable wagers on the contest. As long as the cheering continued the council seemed oblivious to the open nature of the contest and the effect it could have on the listening spectators.
It was a sneaky start, but it was a start nonetheless, mused Salmoneous. Still, getting the implacable men to even consider revising the laws would take a miracle. Or two, or three, noted the promoter with a grin as he directed his gaze back toward his competitors.
"We've reached the mid-point in our competition, so we'll be taking a short break before beginning our next round of answers and questions," he announced in his typical flamboyant manner. Stepping away from his podium, he pretended not to hear the groans and growl that issued forth from his contestants.
The orchestra had barely gotten through the introduction of their selection when Salmoneous exited the stage. The stout little promoter had just made it down the stairs and into the darkened wings when he felt the floorboards vibrate behind him. Uh oh, he thought as his mind rapidly began formulating an explanation. As he turned about, two iron-like bands closed about his arms and he felt himself hoisted into the air.
He rose high enough and quickly enough that his stomach flip-flopped and he screwed his eyes shut. He relaxed only when his back came to rest against the rough framework of one of the walls of the unused sets. The vise-like grip shook him until he tentatively opened his eyes and looked down at a trio of perturbed faces.
"Our NEXT round? I don't recall hearing anything about two rounds of competition, do you, Xena?" Hercules asked as he shook the little man again just to be sure he had his attention.
The warrior splayed her fingers against the wall behind the promoter and leaned toward the dangling man. "No, I can't say that I do." Salmoneous gulped at her menacing tone. "What about you, Gabrielle? What do you think?"
Salmoneous waggled his feet helplessly in the air as Hercules effortlessly held him aloft. The salesman looked down at the bard hopefully.
Green eyes appraised him coldly. "I think," she began, then stopped as one of Salmoneous' sandals flopped down onto her feet. She scooped up the shoe in irritation and heaved it over her shoulder without a single look or regard. The salesman's sad eyes followed the arc of his footwear until it left his view.
The bard draped an arm around Hercules trim middle and steadied herself as she raised herself up enough to peep over the demi-god's upraised arms. "I get the distinct impression that someone's changing the rules to suit their own purposes. We agreed to play the game and now Mister Moderator here is taking advantage of our good natures," she fumed.
"Oh, please. You're breaking my heart," Salmoneous rolled his eyes. "Don't you think that's a little overstated?" the salesman sputtered. "I mean it's not as if..."
Xena looked at Hercules who answered her questioning look with a nod. The warrior grabbed a fistful of the front of Salmoneous' robe, pulled him slightly forward and then shoved back hard. The false wall rattled and amplified the sound as his back and shoulders connected solidly.
The promoter wheezed, trying to get air back into his lungs as Hercules jostled him again. Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle waited for the latest explanation from the shrewd salesman.
The first full breath was put to good use. "Okay! Okay! I give! Maybe I got a little carried away, but this thing is HUGE! Did you see those people out there? They love it. So they get a few minutes more, so what? We could go on the road, we could play the Parthenon, we could ..." he was so enthralled with the proposition that he didn't notice that Hercules had released him until he landed on his backside. Later, Gabrielle would've sworn that the man bounced when he hit the ground, as he was on his feet again so quickly.
"Everyone expects us to keep playing," Hercules conceded. A gloomy silence settled amongst them as the heroes resigned themselves to their situation.
"We might as well get it over with," he suggested as the trio turned to make their way back toward the stage.
Salmoneous cringed at the parting glare he received from the woman in the armor. "Right, right. I saw that look, Xena, and I know you're thinking that I've lost focus. Well, there's no harm in doing two things at once, is there?" he rattled quickly.
The warrior wheeled about and backed the salesman up a full three paces. "Oof, hey careful, don't break the promoter!" he joked nervously.
"This is our last round, Salmoneous."
"True, well, except for ..."
She shook her head slowly. "Last one," she grunted. "Ever."
Salmoneous' eyebrows nearly hopped off his forehead. "Not a problem," the slightly paler promoter squeaked.
Gabrielle covered her mouth and looked up at Hercules. The bard never ceased to be amazed at what an effect her friend could have when she put her mind to it. The tall man rested his hands on the bard's shoulders as they waited for Xena to catch up.
The promoter frowned as he flexed the toes of his newly bared foot. As the contestants left the hallway, Salmoneous massaged a particularly tender area of his rump and flinched as he recalled the last few moments. "All in all, I thought that went rather well," he quipped aloud.
Abrat tracked his way back toward the stage entrance for the third time. What was taking so long? They should be here by now, he fretted. He removed his turban and rubbed a hand along the back of his head, skillfully rearranging the hair he had left. He fingered the edge of the turban, revolving the hat as he listened to the competition. The agitated scholar had arrived several candlemarks ago and his composure was dissolving with each outburst of the crowd.
The level of difficulty had increased after the intermission and he was surprised at the ability of the contestants to rise to the challenge.
His hands twisted the material as a clue was revealed that only a man such as himself could possibly answer. Abrat smirked as he smoothed the bottom of his elegant chapeau before replacing it upon his head. It was becoming more and more apparent to the Parnassan that his superior intellect was sorely missed. That was when the tinkling of a high pitched chime rang out and soon his small dark eyes began to burn with a malevolent intensity.
The little amazon had just correctly identified Kottos, Gyes and Briareus as the hundred armed, fifty-headed sons of the Earth who existed in the time before the gods.
The audience cheered as the moderator summarized the scores. A loathsome thought pricked at his ego. Was it possible? Had the volume intensified when the bard's score was revealed? He could hear the difference immediately and no amount of rationalization could explain it away. The spectators loved her.
Her! A nobody with a trumped-up title. An insignificant woman with no formal education. He thought about the apology she made to him on the roadway -- so much warmth and sincerity -- it made his skin crawl. He ground his teeth and stalked angrily about. The rancor he felt surging in his system was overpowering.
Closing his eyes, he wished every conceivable curse upon the woman. May the Fates reward her with madness for her pride. May that warrior that she trusts so much turn on her and destroy her. May she die without a funeral, he giggled, imagining the soul of the tiny bard wandering the banks of the river Styx for one hundred years as punishment.
His mental tirade was interrupted by yet another explosion of laughter and applause from the crowd. He sneered as he scaled the first of the steps toward the entrance. Of course they would adore her; she was just like them. Small, stupid and careless.
He looked back toward the hillside as two armored men emerged from the crowded aisle and sauntered up to the scholar. "Lord Abrat, sir, we've come to arrest the criminal," the burly guard announced ceremonially.
Abrat smiled. His charges had been explicit, well researched and meticulously presented. It wasn't difficult to get the magistrate to see things his way.
Salmoneous wouldn't present much of a problem, he was a small man who was most interested in protecting himself.
Hercules and his friend were just the do-gooder types to contain Xena if she felt compelled to revert to any of her old ways. The scholar chortled confidently. Could these virtuous heroes be any more predictable?
The essential component of this scheme was delivered by the bard herself and Abrat found that to be infinitely appropriate. He could guarantee that she would get exactly what she deserved.
Small, stupid and careless, indeed. The scholar looked toward the narrow hallway that extended beyond the stairs. The contest was nearing its conclusion on the other side of the theatrical set.
The Parnassan thrust out his chest proudly. "Right this way, men, I'll take you to her," he proclaimed as he led the charge toward the stage.
"Oh, you have just got to be kidding." Gabrielle looked back and forth between the soldiers, her forehead wrinkling as a thin worry began to take hold.
"You're serious?" she asked. As if in reply, one soldier began to pull his dagger, the blade pulling free of the leather with an unmistakable sound. Without even having to see it, she knew that her warrior friend had silently crossed the distance between them.
"Woah, hey, okay, I get it!" the bard smiled and raised her hands trying to defuse the situation. Her tone became much more serious as she continued, gesturing to the partially drawn weapon, "You don't have to do that." She looked both guards in the eyes and then let her gaze drift in the direction of her taller friend.
"And more importantly, you don't want to do that. Trust me."
The hand on the dagger twitched as the soldier mulled over the consequences. He swallowed as nonchalantly as he could. The warrior hadn't said a word, nor had she moved. Instead, she just watched him with the coldest expression he had ever seen. He tried to match her stare but the longer he locked eyes with her the more his doubts grew into apprehension, and that apprehension in turn became a palpable fear. After a few seconds, he pushed the blade back into its scabbard, and removed his hand from it entirely.
"See there? You're calm. I'm calm. I know we can straighten this whole thing out, I just need to understand what it is you think I've done," said Gabrielle in an amicable tone. "What are those charges, again?"
"Violation of the codes prohibiting lectures, lessons, parables or any other narrative information being passed on to those without nobility or rank," the second of the soldiers replied firmly. "The offense occurred yesterday on the floor of the amphitheater at which time you described in detail a legend to a group."
As he spoke, Gabrielle's features hardened. Her eyes snapped as she realized what was happening.
"Do you deny your involvement in the described crime?" the guard asked.
"No," the Amazon replied in a firm and unapologetic manner. Unbelievable, she thought. One little story for children and I'm being arrested.
"Then you will accompany us to the dungeons to await punishment," the soldier stated as he and his partner moved to stand on either side of the bard. The sight of the tiny bard flanked by the armored men as though she were the most dangerous of criminals was a compelling one and Iolaus jumped hastily to her defense.
"Punishment!" he cried. "Hold it! Wait a second, pal, we've got a trial to go through first." His agitation was apparent as he took up a place between the warrior and his best friend.
"The accused has just freely admitted her guilt. There is no need for a trial," the armored man grunted as he began to usher Gabrielle away.
The golden hunter's face fell as he watched the storyteller's shoulders rise and fall as a huge breath left her body. Her green eyes were focused somewhere away from the trio as she took a modest step forward. For Iolaus, the moment seemed frozen in time as he scanned the faces of those around him for an indication of how they were going to keep this from happening.
Iolaus gave Xena a shove as he brushed past her to bar the soldiers from taking the bard. Executing a swift turn, he scolded Hercules and the warrior sharply.
"What's wrong with you people? Why are you just standing there?" he shouted.
"Iolaus, let them go, it's the law," came the dispirited reply from Hercules. He tried not to notice as one soldier grabbed the bard roughly by the upper arm. She squirmed in his grasp and muttered something about not having to prove he was a tough guy. The demi-god's fists clenched in reflex, causing the gauntlets at his wrists to creak as the muscles beneath them flexed. He watched the scene with a somber helplessness. The crowd murmured uneasily as the two men began propelling the girl between them to the stage exit.
"Your law allows the accuser to impart the first of the punishment, correct?"
A vibrant voice laced through heavy evening air with such sharpness that the whispers of the crowd fell silent. The rich contralto belonged to the warrior. It caught the soldiers completely unaware and they paused to consider the question, as well as the speaker. For the moment, their attention was focused on Xena rather than the bard who balanced on her toes between them.
The taller guard scowled at the tall woman in armor. "That's right," he answered crisply.
"And does the severity of the punishment increase if more people are involved in the crime?" she pressed, her tone was clipped.
The soldier frowned and looked puzzled. He was grateful when Abrat stepped onto the dais to answer the warrior's inquiry. The smug Parnassan strolled leisurely to the center of the stage to address the group.
"Yes, it most certainly does, Xena," he smiled. "In fact, it allows the accuser, in this case ME, the first five lashes per violation," he giggled. "In case you have trouble with numbers, Gabrielle's count will go something like this: five lashes per child at the recitation. We've determined that about twelve children were present, though no one will admit to it, so that means your friend is due sixty strikes by my hand," he triumphantly explained.
The acoustics of the theater were phenomenal and as soon as the pronouncement left Abrat's lips, it was carried to the furthest seats on the hillside. The people sitting in the dark tensed. Some gasped at the judgment while others shook their heads sadly. Several brave youths went as far as to decry the turn of events before their nervous countrymen convinced them to be silent.
It didn't take a particularly well educated person to see that this pudgy little man was consumed with spite and hatefulness. Neither did it take a genius to see that he had manipulated the situation to meet his own ends. What was horrifyingly apparent was that the smallest of the panelists was to suffer a dreadful punishment at Abrat's discretion.
The scholar felt positively giddy with his triumph. The threat didn't seem to bother his nemesis, the bard, though she did at least acknowledge him with a flint-like glare. Abrat was equally disappointed when the warrior seemed indifferent to his dissertation on the severity of the punishment -- after all this was his moment of victory -- the least they could do was acknowledge it. Meanwhile, Iolaus lobbied Salmoneous, begging him to intercede on the bard's behalf. The promoter was practically undone with worry and shakily explained that it was out of his hands.
Abrat's beady eyes surveyed the dark hillside beyond the glare of the stagelights. He knew how many people sat as witness to his skillful outmaneuvering of the Amazon and her warrior friend. Another vainglorious look was bestowed upon the mighty Hercules. The scholar snickered at the sight of history's strongest man reduced to spectator by words upon a piece of parchment.
This moment was too glorious and far too fleeting, he decided. There has to be a way to prolong this accomplishment. An idea rumbled though his head and he waddled over to the soldiers holding the bard. After a quick exchange of words, the men tugged Gabrielle back toward center stage. She didn't hear what had been said, but gathered that it wasn't exactly in her best interest.
The little Amazon stumbled along and then gingerly fingered her biceps when one guard abruptly released his hold on her. The remaining soldier gave her a rough shake to hammer home the point that she was still in captivity. Gabrielle frowned up at the man who would not meet her gaze. Her former captor's hands reached toward the equipment he carried strapped to his armor and for the first time she noticed the thick whorls of a well-oiled whip. Reflexively, she gasped and shied away from the object.
It was a small sound, just a sharp inhalation of breath and as soon as she had made it, she regretted it. It was her intention to show no fear and deny Abrat his satisfaction.
One of the bard's sorrows was that she was virtually incapable of keeping her emotions under wraps. If she felt something -- anything -- it was reflected in her whole being. It played across her face, manifested itself in her stance and body language. So unlike Xena, who could effortlessly cloak even the most stirring emotions behind an impenetrable veil.
The surge of adrenaline that had accompanied Gabrielle's first reaction, that first burst of temper, was ebbing away now and was being replaced by a deep foreboding. Had that lapse in control given the scholar everything he wanted? She looked up anxiously and saw that Abrat had been far too entranced with the crowd to notice.
Further to the right, something tugged at her attention and she looked toward her assembled friends. Salmoneous, Hercules and Iolaus' faces were constricted with worry. She could tell how much they wanted to reassure her and she recognized the pain they felt at being unable to do so. There it was again, a subtle pull at her concentration, and she squinted slightly as she sought out the source.
The motion was insignificant, just a flutter of fingers against the polished edge of the disk, but their motion across the weapon's surface allowed the bright lights to find the object. The gesture was repeated and the chakram glimmered once again. The bard stared at her friend as an understanding passed between them. The glacial gaze of the warrior lingered only a scant few heartbeats but that was all that was necessary. Gabrielle felt the assurance and allowed it to bolster her courage.
Hercules heart lurched as the guard freed a set of manacles from his belt and handed them to his partner. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Abrat's chubby fingers twiddling together in glee. Next, the guard's hands revealed a bullwhip which unfurled to strike the stage with a slithery sound.
This situation is going from bad to worse, the son of Zeus grimly admitted to himself. Salmoneous swept past the others to hop down into the audience and propelled himself into the section filled with the governing council. Hercules hoped the talkative man could at least force a halt to the proceedings for now, so that they might work out some sort of compromise.
And then there was Xena. Frightfully calm and infinitely focused, the warrior's demeanor was puzzling to the demi-god. He beheld the coiled readiness that simmered within the dark woman and marveled at her control. Another part of him wished she'd vault over the guards and break that troublesome Abrat's jaw. He certainly had it coming, he mulled angrily.
Obviously, the scholar expected him to help enforce the law. He surmised that he was the intended failsafe against Xena, should she decide to take matters into her own hands. She was the unpredictable one, after all. While he, on the other hand, was held to a moral code to respect this law, no matter how flawed and pointless it seemed.
No matter who got hurt.
Yeah, right. Not hardly, fat boy, he decided as he further closed the distance between them to assume a defensive position at the warrior's side. She raised her eyes for an instant to meet his own, gave Gabrielle a quick nod and then turned her attention to the elders.
Xena strode purposefully to the edge of the stage and positioned herself directly in front of the council. Salmoneous looked up with a start, freezing in mid-sentence as her imposing presence loomed above them. The council members, who had been summarily dismissing the promoter, gaped at the dark woman with a nervous respect.
She addressed the elders in her loudest voice, in a tone and manner that had been honed by years of command.
"I accuse the council of elders of sponsoring an event in which knowledge has been freely shared with people of all ranks," she called to the men. An audible gasp arose from the crowd, as the leaders of the province squirmed uncomfortably beneath the cold glare of the warrior princess.
"By your own laws, I invoke my right as accuser to deliver the punishment to the guilty," she paused and allowed the weight of her words to sink in. "You gentlemen might want to look behind you. Your law sentences you to five lashes per each villager here," she intoned in a sinister purr.
"Xena! No! That would kill them," cried an insistent Hercules as he scrambled to the front as well.
"Only if I do it right," she replied menacingly, her narrowed eyes never left the council members as a slow dangerous smile crept across her lips.
"But it's wrong, you don't want to do this ..." he shouted. A wash of understanding penetrated and dissolved the uneasiness in the big man's heart. She had them and she knew it. Clever and calculating, she had outwitted them all.
"It isn't up to me -- it's their law." She gestured at her friend still held fast by the guards. "If it applies to her then it applies to them," she growled.
"I can't let you do this, it would be murder."
"It will be the appropriate sentence under the law," she retorted derisively.
"Then the law needs to be changed!" shouted one of the council as he jumped to his feet. The idea was greeted with a chorus of agreement from the rest of the elders. A hasty discussion led to the head of the council stepping hesitantly onto the stage. Salmoneous urged the fellow along, taking his elbow and leading him toward the moderator's podium. As much as the man trembled it was a wonder that he could stand at all. He shuffled quickly over to Hercules, hoping the demi-god had the council's best interests at heart.
Griffinus cleared his throat and looked up the hillsides at the thousands who sat awaiting his decree. "It is the decision of this council that the laws that curtail the free dissemination of knowledge are hereby rescinded. Any and all statutes that apply are to be stricken from the scrolls... immediately."
The most amazing rolling applause began rumbling from the seats. It swelled into a roar of cheers and whistles as the populace celebrated the victory. The elders turned to see what could cause such a tremendous noise, at once frightened and overwhelmed by the response to their decision.
A satisfied look passed among the heroes. Hercules watched as Gabrielle grinned up at her former captors. An irritated Iolaus stood apart with his arms folded as a pretty young woman tried to console the hunter, clearly he had not appreciated the ruse.
The Poteidaian cleared her throat in an exaggerated fashion, causing the council spokesman to turn to her and dismiss her guards with a wave of his hand. "Yes, yes, you too. You are free to go," he muttered wearily. The nobleman wiped his face on the sleeve of his robe while the rest of his contemporaries began to breathe once again.
The guards moved away quickly, putting as much distance between themselves and the bard as possible. Gabrielle was busy enjoying her reprieve and called airily after them, "Goodbye! Don't forget to write!" She chuckled as she fluttered her fingers in a semblance of a wave.
Xena watched the activity around her with delight. The seats of the amphitheater were buzzing as people acquainted themselves with their new freedoms. Gabrielle had gone over to attempt to explain things to Iolaus, though it didn't seem to be working. She looked at the warrior and shrugged in an amused fashion as Iolaus waved both she and Sierra away.
A warm presence settled next to the warrior. "Enjoying yourself?" inquired the tall man in the buckskin.
"I am now," Xena replied, across the stage she could hear Iolaus reprimanding the bard for the trickery. "Do you think he's going to forgive us anytime soon?" she asked Hercules.
He scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. "Probably, as soon as he realizes he wasn't the only one here who didn't have a clue as to what was going on. Pretty sneaky stuff," he remarked.
"Yeah," the warrior smirked happily. "And look... " she held up her hands and then indicated the floor of the theater, "... no blood! No broken heads. I think I'm getting better at this," she added conspiratorially.
Hercules laughed and agreed.
Over her shoulder, he could see Abrat as he berated the elders for their decision. Finally the group of men escaped the windbag, leaving him standing enraged with no outlet for his anger. He paced about and cast several hateful remarks in the direction of the bard. Angrily, Abrat advanced quickly toward the spot where Gabrielle stood with Iolaus and Sierra. The pudgy scholar had his momentum worked up as he approached Xena and Hercules. He was so intent on reaching the bard that he didn't even see the fist that Hercules extended into his path.
The impact dropped him in an instant. The forgotten audience erupted with enthusiasm as the rotund form thudded noisily to the amphitheater floor. Abrat's charms had failed once again -- no one lamented his fate.
Xena's expressive brow arched as she prepared to ask Hercules what could warrant such behavior on his part.
"Forget about it, this one's on me," grinned her friend. "What? Oh, like you didn't want to hit him!"
"Yes, but if I hit everyone who irritated me ..." she clamped down on the thought before it escaped.
Too late. "I'm listening, 'if you hit everyone who irritated you,' what?" he prodded. The blue eyes narrowed and fixed themselves on Hercules.
Xena took a breath. "Half of Greece would be bruised, you might be a little worse for wear, and Salmoneous would be unconscious," was her smooth reply.
"That's what I thought," he chuckled. "Well, at least we agree on Salmoneous."
"All right, already," Iolaus stated in defeat. He wiggled his fingers in the air, emphasizing certain words. "I get it. You didn't let me in on 'The Plan' because there was no plan until the giggling genius had you arrested."
Gabrielle laid her head over on his shoulder playfully and grinned at him. "Does that mean we're forgiven?"
"Maybe, how'd you figure out what was going to happen? Do you guys have hand signals or something?" He reached under the bard's elbow and tickled her waist. "That's it, isn't it? Some secret Amazon chick thing, I'll bet," he teased as she twisted away from him.
"No-o-o, it's just that we've learned to improvise," she answered through her laughter.
"Weren't you frightened, at all?" Sierra asked. The competition itself had cast light on the various shades of all the contestant's personalities and she found herself wishing she had time to know them better. In truth, she had really enjoyed watching the bard reason and banter her way back into Iolaus' good graces. It had shown that everything she had heard about the young woman was true -- Gabrielle was as formidable as her warrior friend. The only difference being the weapons they used.
The bard reflected upon the question for a moment. "Actually, it made me furious," she recounted with a scowl. "It seemed so foolish to arrest someone for entertaining a group of children," she noted with exasperation. Sierra nodded in agreement.
Green eyes flashed with a hint of devilishness as she mulled over her thoughts. "I was so busy formulating revenge plans against Abrat, I didn't have time to get worried," the Amazon admitted. "Besides, there are far worse situations to be in."
"And she should know, having seen most of them from the wrong side," quipped Iolaus.
"Oh, like you've never run into any trouble before," Gabrielle countered immediately. "Let me remind you, bub, our job descriptions aren't all that different," she said as she fixed the blonde haired fellow with a knowing look. "The way I figure it, you've got about three seconds to change the subject or I start telling Sierra about some of your lesser known adventures..."
Iolaus laughed somewhat weakly. "You wouldn't..."
Gabrielle turned to the other woman and raised her hands as she prepared to deliver a dramatic tale. "Once Iolaus and Autolycus, the king of thieves, were enchanted and turned into ..." she began.
"Gabrielle! Did I tell you what a fantastic job you've been doing in the competition?" Iolaus blurted in a rush. He eyed the bard to see if he had appeased her.
The Amazon's mouth twisted into a tight lipped smile at her easy victory. "Why, no, I don't believe you have." She paused, laced her hands together and leaned forward. "You were saying?"
Iolaus stretched and extended one fist and then the other high over his head. Next he let his arms fall to his sides with an accompanying groan.
"Late night?" Salmoneous asked.
"Hmm? Nah, not really. I just can't seem to get going this morning," the hunter shrugged. His eyes crinkled at the edges as he looked out along the sunny street. "At least you picked a good spot for this game of yours, Sal," he confessed as he watched a group of children gather on benches in the shade. There would be many such congregations in the city, and in the whole province for that matter, now that the laws had changed.
A dark haired young woman knelt down to address the child that yanked at her skirt. Iolaus watched the exchange with pride as Sierra's head nodded encouragements to the little boy. Apparently she said the right thing as the child thrust himself into her arms and delivered a mighty hug. She gasped and chuckled at the response, never imagining that Iolaus watched as she returned the embrace and the ushered the tike to a seat down front.
"Yeah, this place really has a lot going for it," he said almost to himself.
"So? What's your hurry? Hang around a while," the salesman inclined his head toward the group of children and smiled. "I'm sure they could use a guest lecturer."
Iolaus shook his head and crossed his arms. "She never said a word, you know? Defying the council, living this whole secret life of teaching in secret and do you know how I found out about it? From Gabrielle!"
The man in the purple vest paced to the corner and back again. "And she knew because Xena knew and so once again -- I'm the last one to know!" he wailed. Drawing very close to the promoter, he shook a finger between their noses, "I just don't understand it, do you?"
"I mean, who else knew, right?"
"Well, somebody must have told Xena," Salmoneous reasoned.
"Xena. Right," Iolaus agreed. "But that doesn't count. Xena's XENA for gods sake, she probably just sensed it or pinched it out of someone," he rationalized.
"She's really good at that," admitted Salmoneous to the man who was invading his personal space.
Iolaus rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Yeah. Maybe I'm overreacting."
"You think?" the promoter asked, he looked down, one step further and they would be standing on the same spot. He tapped a finger lightly against his beard and raised his eyebrows as he stared eye-to-eye with Iolaus.
After a instant of contemplation, Iolaus took a step backwards. A mildly irritated Salmoneous swept his hands rapidly over his collar, "Thank you! Whew, one more moment of your breath up close and I'd mildew!"
Iolaus winced and apologized. "Sorry. Don't know why I'm taking this out on you -- it's not like you were in on it," he guffawed.
"Ah ha, yeah," Salmoneous fidgeted, frowned and raised a finger to signal he wanted a chance to speak. "Actually, you see, well, it's kind of a funny story when you think about it..."
Xena raised her head and looked over the saddle. Iolaus was illustrating something loudly to Hercules. Hercules shook his shaggy head and tried to interject something. She felt bad for the big guy, he appeared to be trying to appeal to his friend and it was only making things worse. The calmer Hercules approached the subject; the more agitated it made Iolaus.
"...and I'm telling you for the last time, I had no idea that Sierra was involved," the taller of the two grunted in exasperation. Iolaus opened his mouth and the demi-god continued before the rebuttal could begin anew. "There was no conspiracy. You weren't any further out of the loop than the rest of us. If you won't believe me then ask her." He gestured with an open hand in Xena's direction. As if on cue, the warrior's head dropped out of sight.
"Go on, obviously my word isn't good enough for you anymore." Hercules looked over toward the golden warhorse and rested a fist against his hip. The rider continued to lash belongings to the steed in a methodical manner.
Iolaus appeared to be taking the suggestion to heart. He looked up with an expression of pure resolve and took a step toward the warrior, then he hesitated and turned back around. He banged his fisted hands against his thighs as he prepared to speak. "I could, you know, but I'd only get told the truth," he mumbled. "Again."
Hercules folded his arms. "Which truth would that be?"
"That I'm acting like an idiot," the smaller man muttered in apology. He cast a quick look upwards to see if his friend agreed with the statement. Hercules' mouth quirked upward at one corner but he refrained from nodding. He kept his eyes on the warrior at her task.
Iolaus took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. "The way I figure it, it wouldn't take Xena long to remind me that none of this is about me and that I should get over it. Of course, she'd do it in seven words or less, but you knew that already," he added breezily.
"Sounds about right," said Hercules. He clapped one of his huge hands to Iolaus' back and then raised it again to offer a quick greeting to Gabrielle. He was rewarded with a brilliant smile and the bob of her head, both of her hands being occupied carrying her satchel. It looked as if it were filled to bursting and from the bard's ungainly steps he surmised that it was heavy as lead.
His gaze flicked back to the warrior and her horse. As he saw the bard approach the animal, he felt a twinge of sympathy for both the women. One, a hopeful idealist, who was no doubt sure that there was room aboard Argo for her new treasures, and the other a pragmatic realist who knows they must travel light.
At about this time, Salmoneous wandered into the conversation in his usual jaunty fashion. He was twisting a scroll absently in his hands, winding it tighter and tighter against its wooden stave.
"So, you guys getting back on the road today, too?" he asked.
"I think so, we're due in Corinth in a few days," Hercules replied offhandedly as he squinted at the sun. "I hope this weather holds on through our journey."
"Beautiful, isn't it? This little place has a lot to offer," replied the promoter. Salmoneous talked on about the people, the land, the customs while the demi-god listened half-heartedly. His attention was back on the women beside the pale horse. Too bad they were headed in the opposite direction, he thought, it might be fun to team up for a while longer.
"There you are!" the bard said happily as she dropped the bag with a thump that raised a tiny billowy cloud of dust. Xena gave the stuffed satchel a decidedly arch look.
"Gabrielle..." her friend drawled in a warning tone.
The bard laughed. "It's not what you think." She looked down, frowned and brushed the dust from her skirt.
"Really? And what, pray tell, do I think?" the warrior asked as she ducked under Argo's head, and pulled the horse around.
The Amazon eased forward and poked a knuckle into Xena's leather-clad stomach, expertly finding a niche below the armor. "You're thinking you should've never told me about the scroll merchant," she smiled and watched Xena's reaction.
"Pretty good, that's one down. What else?"
"What, there's more?" the bard countered as she stepped playfully out of range. It never hurts to take precautions, she thought to herself.
"Hey, you started it," fired back her friend. The long warrior's fingers worked their way up her horse's jaw, giving a scratch here, a firm pat there. Gabrielle took a cautious step back toward Xena, then another. The warrior was relaxed and it showed, she turned her untroubled gaze toward the Amazon and waited.
Gabrielle's pensive expression indicated she was giving the matter serious thought. One coppery brow rose precariously as she pondered causing her taller friend to shake her dark head at the familiar display.
"Okay. You're thinking 'Argo is not a pack horse,' and 'I wonder if she's had breakfast yet,'" the bard declared with a flourish. She grinned in delight at the throaty chuckle that emanated from the normally stoic warrior.
"You know, funny how food found its way in there," Xena commented dryly.
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "I know! I thought the same thing -- but since you were wondering -- no, I haven't eaten yet. Maybe we could grab something on the way out of town?"
The warrior gave her friend a genial nod and let her eyes drop to the bag on the ground. "Sure, but you know we can't ..." the warrior began as she walked around to face the Amazon.
"I mean, after I give these scrolls to Sierra. For the teachers and the kids," the storyteller proclaimed brightly.
"I think that's a splendid idea," Xena replied, feeling a familiar warm surge of pride at her friend's gesture. She bent over and gripped the satchel with one hand, raising it with ease.
Gabrielle placed her fist on a hipbone and narrowed her eyes. "Show off," she whispered. Xena ignored the remark and shifted her gaze down the long boulevard toward the inn where she first met the courageous teacher. The crowds were beginning to thin out as the festival drew to a close, but the narrow streets were far from empty.
The bard squinted along the same route. "She was going to use the inn as a sort of headquarters until they got all the academies set up," she said thoughtfully. "Do you think she's still there?"
The warrior transferred the bag of scrolls to her opposite hand. "There's one way to find out," she suggested. "Lead on, this is your parade."
The two women had only taken a few steps when a thought struck Gabrielle. She smiled and shook her head, causing Xena to give her a sideways glance. A moment later, she had raised her hand to her mouth to muffle a chuckle.
Xena's lips pursed in slight irritation. "Something you'd care to share with me?" she enticed.
"I was just thinking. Here you are carrying a whole library with one hand! Wouldn't that make a great story?" the bard answered cheerfully. She raised her fingertips to her temples, blinked and smirked up at Xena. "What a mental picture I'm getting here!"
The warrior groaned in reply and shook the bag. "Doesn't feel like a library," she said. "Doesn't look like one, either."
"So? That's the point of poetic license!" Gabrielle exclaimed, obviously enjoying herself.
"Uh huh, great," grunted the warrior. Bard humor, I should've known, she thought as she picked up the pace. The truth was, apart from Gabrielle, no one else dared to provoke her -- even in fun. Pulling pranks on warlords, even reformed ones, wasn't a hobby most had the courage to pursue. The pale blue eyes glanced at the profile of the storyteller walking beside her. From the look of things, the blonde's imagination was still in high gear as she had a certain distracted expression that kept shifting to one of utter amusement.
Xena took an even breath to still the boisterous urges she felt. It worked too, for about a half a second. Effortlessly, she lengthened her stride again and soon had Gabrielle struggling to keep up.
"Hey, notsofast! Do we have to run?" The smaller woman pleaded. She had expected some retaliation, knowing how Xena hated being cast in the role of hero. Gulping in a lungful of air, the Amazon hurried to meet the new pace.
The taller woman spun about and jogged backwards just in front of the bard. "Come on, race ya!" she taunted. A slender ebony brow arched mischievously. "Just think what a good story it'll make!"
The challenge took hold and the bard scrambled to get ahead of her friend. People scattered as the two thundered headlong toward the tavern, Xena ribbing her companion for taking too long and Gabrielle tossing in some pithy comments of her own. Across the square, Hercules watched as a battered soul took another step toward learning how to fly again. Hard to believe this was the same woman who had once plotted so deviously to kill him.
"Somebody in a hurry over there, or what?" asked Iolaus. He saw Gabrielle stumble around a slow moving fishcart, utter an oath and tear after Xena.
"Looks that way," commented Hercules. The dark head of the lead figure whipped around again to check on her competitor's progress and the demi-god caught a glimpse of her even white teeth bared in a smile. Meanwhile, the blonde haired runner laughed and sprinted to within an arm's reach of the Lion of Amphipolis.
"So who's gonna win?" Iolaus' eyes narrowed as he watched the runners' progress.
Hercules tilted his head slightly and considered the question. It was a simple playful act, this race, and it said more for the warrior than she would ever freely admit on her own. "I think we all do. More and more everyday, my friend," was his enigmatic reply.
Xena dug her heels in and skidded to a halt. Two heartbeats later, she allowed herself to take another step as her friend crashed into her back. The warrior's nose wrinkled at the jarring impact. She was sure that a face had just welded her armor into her shoulders.
"Oww! What are you trying to do, kill me?" the sound behind her was muffled. Gabrielle stamped a foot in frustration and bent at the waist. The stinging pain had her breathing through her mouth, eyes watering and sinuses blazing. She tentatively felt around her smashed nose, hesitantly checking her fingers for traces of blood.
The warrior looked toward the open door of the inn. No sign of Sierra, but she could just make out the puzzled face of Merv, the barkeep, as he walked toward them. She grunted a quick explanation and thrust the parcel containing the scrolls into his arms.
Xena turned about to see the bard's head bent forward, face downturned and completely hidden behind a curtain of golden hair. The storyteller saw the toes of her friend's boots inch closer and she flailed one hand toward the warrior to keep her away.
Xena allowed that hand to land few hits before she caught it and placed one of her own hands on the back of the bard's neck.
"Woah, here, let me see..." she entreated. The warrior rubbed a gentle pattern across the injured woman's shoulders urging the Amazon to raise her face. Slowly, the storyteller complied, though her right hand still cradled her nose and cheek. "There you go," the warrior murmured as she took in the red rimmed eyes and the glistening cheeks. The bard hissed as the change in position brought a whole new feel to the injury.
"A little warning would've been nice." Gabrielle sniffed and blinked, but allowed Xena to move the hand away and examine the damage.
"I know, I know, it hurts," the warrior frowned in sympathy at the welt that was appearing across the bridge of the bard's nose. She guessed that a companion swirling bruise would appear along the girls' cheek. Carefully, she spread her fingers across the storyteller's flushed face and felt gently along the bridge of the small nose.
The bard bit her lower lip, her eyes watching Xena's face for the prognosis.
If it were broken, that would be bad enough. But if it were broken badly, then it would have to be re-aligned. The storyteller swallowed hard. That would hurt -- a lot. Worse than it does right now, the dismal thought made her nauseous.
"Is it ..."
"... really, really bruised? Oh yeah, definitely," the older woman readily completed the thought. Xena's expression softened as she answered, a telltale sign that prompted a relief filled exhalation from the bard. The girl had been holding her breath awaiting bad news. The Amazon flattened her palms over her eyes, savoring the coolness for an instant before she wiped away the last of her tears.
"You're going to feel it for a couple of days. Listen, if we act fast, there may not be much swelling," Xena added hopefully.
"Cold compresses, huh?" Gabrielle sighed.
"Lots of 'em, starting now," replied the warrior as she pulled her friend inside the tavern.
Galton's bare feet swung to and fro as the cart lumbered along the pitted roadway. He cast an affectionate look toward his little sister, Layla, who was dozing contentedly on a hay-stuffed pallet beside him. It had been an exciting few days for the little girl, culminating in the competition last night at the amphitheater. It was hard to imagine the family's surprise when they discovered that the storyteller their child had become acquainted with was the Amazon Queen.
The boy rubbed his own sleepy eyes. The exhilaration of the contest and everything that went along with it had ruined any hope of rest. After all of yesterday's revelations, it was no wonder he'd watched the sun come up. He recalled the force of the realization when he first saw the contestants come to the stage. At the first glimpse of the tall warrior, his memory of the encounter in the marketplace flashed across his mind.
It had never occurred to him that the woman was Xena. To his thinking, Warrior Princesses had much more important things to do than rescue Layla and himself. Battle ruthless warlords? Sure. Save whole cities from Titans? Naturally. Stop civil wars in their tracks? No sweat. Those tales were just legends about impossible things until a few days ago.
Now he had faces, personalities and qualities to flesh out the stories. Amazing, he thought to himself as he clutched the document Xena had helped him purchase. Galton scooted backwards a bit until he was stretched out alongside his sister.
He yawned and watched the road behind them. Most visitors to the city had chosen this day to set out for their own villages. No way will anyone at home believe that we met them, he frowned. The cart jostled about as his father steered away from the other travelers.
He smiled unconsciously, remembering the power of the warrior as she threatened the council. He didn't doubt her resolve for a minute. Even though he sat a great distance from the stage, he knew instantly the intensity that shone in those sky blue eyes. He had seen it before -- felt it before -- and would remember it all the remaining days of his life.
Galton's chin dipped to his chest as the arms of sleep enfolded him. So real was his dreamlike recollection that he could almost hear the warrior's voice rumbling again in his ears.
The traveler's stepped onto the roadway and began their journey. The soft earth of the highway would chronicle their passage. Two sets of bootprints, one set larger than the other, accompanied by the impressions made by a well shod horse.
Xena's suggestion of a short cut put most of the road traffic behind them, and at least for the present, the only vehicle near them was a humble village cart. The warrior noticed a certain familiar pair of siblings asleep among the family's possessions. Her eyes twinkled at the sight of the lad's hand wound firmly around his new scroll.
The road followed the natural rolling nature of the terrain and they drew abreast of the cart as it slowed in its climb up a long hill.
"I was so close and I blew it," she muttered under her breath.
"Huh?" The bard's head whipped around, unsure she had heard anything at all. She rotated the pear in her hand, still looking for the perfect place for the first bite.
"I promised not to bust any heads on this mission."
"But you didn't ..." replied the storyteller as she prodded the fruit with her thumb.
"Just yours, Gabrielle."
"Oh yeah," the bard conceded. "Well, this was an accident. It doesn't count."
Xena frowned. "Does it feel like it doesn't count?"
Gabrielle tentatively touched the bride of her nose. "Actually, it feels as big as a house. Are you sure it hasn't swelled?"
"Nah. Can't hardly tell the difference," the warrior lied.
"Between what?" Gabrielle's puzzled expression wrinkled her nose and she grimaced.
"Before and after."
"Oh great! Thanks! So, I've always had a honker the size of Mount Olympus?"
"I didn't say that..."
"It sure sounded that way to me."
"Maybe I should've checked your ears instead of your nose."
"I heard that!"
"Good! I guess we can rule out hearing problems."
"Funny. Hilarious." Gabrielle deadpanned.
"So glad you think so," the warrior smirked. "Say, who won that silly game of Salmoneous' anyway?"
"Nobody won because we didn't finish."
"You think you won because you were ahead, don't you?"
"Nope, I just wondered. Did he ever think of a name for it?" Asked the warrior as she smoothly changed the subject.
Gabrielle shook her head. "He was tossing a few ideas around before we left. They all had his name prominently featured, of course, but they seemed kind of lame to me, so I made a suggestion or two."
A lopsided grin edged its way onto Xena's face. "I'll just bet you did," she laughed.
At this remark, the bard smiled and one eyebrow disappeared under her golden bangs. Shaking her head, the storyteller fished a hand through her travel sack, grabbed a second pear and pitched it to the warrior. Xena nodded her thanks and tugged Argo's lead toward the left fork of the highway.
Gabrielle munched her breakfast happily, secure in the knowledge that even if it didn't seem that way right now, she and her friend were well on their way to their next adventure.
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