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Editor's Choice Award

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


Part I

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 ..."

Continued in part 2


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