Winner - #15
"I’m a Hero, get me out of here!"
A grumble came from the mounted warrior ahead. Gabrielle frowned and let out a sigh, digging her staff into the dirt as she skipped to keep up with Argo. The bard frowned again this time when she caught the end of the muttered curse from her friend.
No answer returned, just another muttered grumble. This one made Gabrielle slightly blush and briefly wonder if Ares did indeed feel that way about Centaurs. The thought quickly vanished when she heard her own name muttered into the wind. Taking a long breath, the bard tried again, coming to a stop.
Xena turned quickly, her hand going to her chakram, surprised eyes darting around. "What?" Making sure everything was ok, she relaxed and scowled at the bard. "What the Hades did you yell like that for?"
Gabrielle ignored the dark look her friend threw at her, keeping her own temper under control. "Because I’ve been trying to get your attention for the last candle mark and all I get is ignored. You can’t ignore me all the way to Amphipolas, you know."
Xena bit the inside of her cheek. "Who says I can’t?" With that, she clicked her tongue, starting Argo off again.
Gabrielle threw her eyes to the gods and took off after the departing warrior, coming to a stop in front of Argo, her hand going to rest on her hip. "I said I was sorry."
Xena looked away, taking a deep breath. "Yep, so you did." Kicking her right heel into Argo’s flank, she started to move the horse around the human roadblock.
Gabrielle took a sideways step, stopping the horse again. "I honestly didn’t think you would have a problem with it."
Xena bit her cheek again, this time counting to ten before speaking. "I haven’t."
An amused eyebrow rose. "You don’t?"
"Nope." Xena forced a smile. "Why on earth would I have a problem with going to an invitation from Salmoneus to take part in a degrading show he’s putting on? Of which the profit is going straight into his purse. Nope, no problem at all."
The eyebrow fell, along with the growing smile on the bard’s face. "Xena, I’ve already explained that it isn't going to be degrading and the money is going to the orphans."
Xena scoffed. "Orphans. Yea, right." She pulled Argo’s rein, trying to go around the bard again. But once again Gabrielle sidestepped. Argo snorted. Xena looked down at her, this time barely controlling the temper in her voice. "Will you please move. You said we had to be there by sundown today."
"If you didn’t think this was for the orphans, then why agree to take part?"
Xena didn't miss the upset tone coming into the bard’s voice. Taking a long inhale, she swung her leg over the saddle, dropping her feet to the ground, using the time to settle her temper, striding until she drew level with the bard.
"Because I didn't have a say in it, remember? You already agreed for me."
"But that didn't mean you had to." The bard looked puzzled.
Xena turned away, muttering again.
Gabrielle followed, reaching out to grasp Xena’s arm to pull her back around. "What?"
Xena turned suddenly, making the bard run into her. "I said, yes it did."
"Because you told them I’d be ok with it, right?"
Gabrielle nodded quickly.
"Then I am. And if you think it’s a worthy cause and it is for the orphans, what I think doesn’t matter." Xena paused, running her hand through her hair for a moment, then her eyes gentled as they returned their gaze to her friend. "What they think of you matters to me. Just put it this way - I wouldn’t like what I’d have to do when they started mouthing off about the fact you let them down after promising them me."
Gabrielle blinked, her mouth falling open. Finally she swallowed. "Oh."
"So would you please just let’s go and get this over with."
Gabrielle just nodded, stepping back to let Xena mount again. As Argo moved away from her, a smile crept on to her mouth. She did it for me. When blue eyes shot around to her, Gabrielle’s smile dropped and she skipped to catch up.
"So, tell me again, Gabrielle, what exactly this is?"
"Well, Salmoneus wants people to see that heroes are normal."
Gabrielle coughed as Xena locked her gaze on her. "I mean, well, you are normal, but you know how it is, people get the idea that heroes and warriors and such like, are somehow…." Gabrielle fought for the word. "Xena, you know what I mean, ok?"
Xena let out a small grunt along with a nod. "And this is supposed to help how?"
"Well, Sal wants people to see that you’re all like the rest of us."
A dark eyebrow rose.
Gabrielle let out an exasperated breath. "Oh, you make this sound so complicated, it isn’t. All he’s doing is showing the real side to you and people like you. You know, doing day to day things. You do them, and Sal is charging a small fee for them to watch and to see that all of you are just like us - people too."
Xena pulled Argo to a stop, her voice suspicious. "What sort of day to day things does he expect them to watch?"
Gabrielle bit her lip, scratching her temple nervously. "Um, well, I’m not sure on that one. When I talked to him last, he hadn’t worked out all the details. He just said he’d let me know when and where. But I told him, Xena, I made him damn sure that I wouldn’t let you enter if I thought it was going to embarrass you in any way."
Xena looked and stared at a branch off to the left, resisting the urge to just throw the bard over the saddle and head east, away from what she was now getting the feeling was going to be a very bad idea. Taking a breath, she looked down at the bard.
"Who else has he roped into this scheme?"
Gabrielle tutted, "It’s not a scheme, and I know Hercules is going along with Io…." She stopped, looking up to find Xena smirking. Correcting herself, she continued, "I meant Hercules is taking part and so is Iolaus, and I’m sure others will be."
"Ahuh, and I'm sure Hercules is having this very same conversation with Iolaus right about now."
Gabrielle had the good grace to look sheepishly at the ground.
Xena let out a laugh, causing Gabrielle to look up at her, grinning. "What?"
"Who knew sidekicks had this much control of their warriors?"
Gabrielle blushed. "Well, I know I didn't."
Xena shook her head, offering out her hand. "Come on, we’ve lost too much time. Let’s get to this Real Show, even if it’s just to stop Herc damaging Iolaus when he finds out what he’s gotten him into."
Without another word, Gabrielle took the hand and pulled herself behind Xena, shoving her staff into the leather straps on the side of the saddle, holding on as Xena clicked Argo into a trot.
"Just as long as Sal doesn’t make me farm. I hate farming."
A long silence followed, pinpricked only with the sound of birds and Argo’s hooves striking the earth as she ran. Until finally, the bard’s unsure voice joined those sounds.
"Um, Xena, I think he mentioned something about sheep."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, wincing as the mutters returned, this time in full force. And once again, the bard was left wondering about the private lives of gods, centaurs and sheep.
Argo snorted and sidestepped as another bystander nudged into her flank. The man turned, about to let loose a barrage of abuse. For some reason all coherent thought left him as his eyes locked onto a very muscled thigh right in front of him. A smirk came to his lips. Licking them, his eyes traveled further up the limb, higher and higher, until they came to rest at the edge of the leather skirt. It was then he realised someone was clearing their throat. He blinked, looking up, the smirk dying on his lips as two not so happy blue eyes stared at him. He swallowed, his eyes darting left to the green eyes also watching him, and the look in those made him swallow harder.
"Ex… excuse me." With that, he turned and fled back into the crowd.
Xena snorted in amusement, offering her hand back to the bard. "Come on, we need to walk from here, it’s too busy to ride."
Gabrielle’s narrowed eyes followed the fleeing man for another heartbeat, then taking Xena’s hand, she jumped down.
"I don’t think I’ve seen this place so busy." She smoothed down her skirt, letting her gaze move over the market place, picking out the new vendors amongst the older ones.
Xena pulled Argo’s reins over the mare’s head, giving her a quick scratch behind the ear, her eyes taking in the changes to her hometown. She noticed the two soldiers at the centre of the town, along with the militia guards spotted throughout the crowd. "Yea… kinda busy."
She pulled on the reins, letting the mare walk behind them as both headed towards the tavern.
"Do you think it’s got something to do with Sal’s show?" Gabrielle smiled as two men parted to let them through.
Xena just glared at them as they passed, seeing where their eyes were planted. As soon as they had gotten the message, she returned her own gaze to the swaying hips of the bard. Can’t say I blame them, at least they’ve got good taste.
Xena’s head snapped up, "Yes? What?" she inhaled slowly, relieved to see that the bard’s head was still fixed forward.
Gabrielle looked back over her shoulder. "I said, do you think this has something to do with Sal’s show?"
"Probably." She made herself smile, inwardly kicking herself that she’d nearly let herself get caught. "But either way, it’s good trade for the town, so that can’t be a bad thing."
Gabrielle beamed a smile, "See? I told you it wouldn’t be so bad."
Turning back to the path ahead, her smile froze, her eyes locked onto something swaying in the wind above the inn, her mouth falling open slightly as she read the words printed out in large red letters. She blinked, unsure of what she saw, reading them again. "Oh… my...Gods."
Xena drew level, looking at Gabrielle’s shocked face. Turning her head, she followed the bard’s gaze, her own mouth falling open briefly before it slammed shut enough to tense all the muscles into a jerk of movement.
"I'm going to kill him. No, no, wait, first I'm gonna torture him, then I'm gonna kill him."
Gabrielle finally tore her eyes away from the banner, just in time to see Xena stride towards the flowing cloth and give it a big yank, bringing it floating down over the market area, giving the bard another view of the writing.
"XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS PLACE OF BIRTH. TEN DINARS TO SEE THE BED SHE WAS FIRST NAKED IN."
Gabrielle began to laugh, which turned into a snort and a cough as Xena strode towards her.
"I’ll get a hot poker and shove it right up his ………"
"XENNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" A strong voice bellowed into the square.
Gabrielle found it hard-pressed not to just lose it right then and there, but years of traveling with Xena had taught her to hide her emotions well. By the time she turned to Salmoneus as he approached, she just had an amused smile on her face.
Sal moved through the crowd, his eyes dipping in surprise to the banner on the floor as he stepped over it. He looked down, then back up to the roof. "Well, how did that hap…….." His words were cut off as he found himself off the ground.
"What did you think you were doing?"
He nervously looked down at the warrior holding him aloft. "Why, hello, Xena," his eyes looked over to the not-laughing-at-all bard. "Hello, Gabby."
Gabrielle bit her top lip. "Hi, Sal."
A shake brought his attention back to the somewhat irate warrior. "Um, is there a problem?"
Xena tightened her grip, lifting him a little higher. "Why would you think there was a problem?"
His face paled a little as he caught the blue eyes darken just a little. "Did you... pull the banner down?"
"Oh, yea, and that’s not all I'm going pull."
His hands came up as he felt the grip shift, knowing it meant he was about to take a flight he really hadn’t planned for. "Now, Xena, I asked your mother and she didn't have a problem with it."
Blue eyes widened. "She didn’t?"
"No, no, none at all." He swallowed, forcing himself to smile.
"Xena, put him down, people are staring." Gabrielle looked around, trying to give the gathering crowd a reassuring smile. She stepped forward, laying her hand over her friend’s arm.
"You can’t kill him here, anyway."
Sal’s eyes darted to the bard then back to Xena in alarm. "Kill me?" He let out a nervous laugh, then swallowed as the blue eyes locked on him again.
"Yea? Give me one good reason why I can’t."
Gabrielle rubbed the arm, giving it a gentle pat. "Because you know how your mother feels about cleaning up blood outside the inn."
Sal’s eyebrows shot skyward, he wasn’t at all sure if Gabrielle was kidding, but one thing he was sure of was he wasn’t ever going to play poker with her again.
Xena thought for a moment. Then, sighing, she lowered him back to earth.
The crowd around exhaled in one joined breath.
Sal immediately began to straighten his tunic. "Well, I must say, that was entertaining."
"Don’t push it, Salmoneus." Xena moved past him, grabbing Argo’s reins and heading right for the inn’s stables.
He laughed nervously and smiled at the crowd. "Go about your business, nothing to see here." Brushing the last of the tunic in place, he turned to find non-amused green eyes. "Why, Gabby, it’s good to see you." His smile faltered a little.
"You told me you wouldn’t embarrass her." She folded her arms in front of her chest, her eyes darting briefly to her departing friend, before returning to settle on him.
"Embarrass her?" he laughed, his head turning to watch the warrior princess move into the stables. "Oh, come on, Gabrielle, I don’t think she even knows what that is anymore. Besides, I asked her mother first." He turned back, his face going slightly white as he now came face to face with blazing angry green eyes. He grabbed his chest as a finger was poked into it. "Ow."
"Don’t you ever say something like that again, and make sure whatever other banners you have up around town are gone by the time we go out tonight. Or we are gone. No show, Sal, no dinars. Understand?"
He tried to slap the poking finger away as it hit him again. "Ow… Ok… ow…. Ok, I said ok." He quickly rubbed the sore spot. "How was I to know she’d have a problem with it?"
Gabrielle stepped forward, the anger leaving her eyes, her voice losing it as well. "You knew she would. You of all people know her, Salmoneus," she took a breath, beginning to walk away. "I'm disappointed in you."
He swallowed hard. "Ah, come on, Gab." As he reached out to grab her, she pushed away his hand from her shoulder, giving him a sad look before she followed the course of her friend. Then he gave a shrug, bending down to start pulling the banner into his arms.
"People just don’t understand how hard it is to make an honest dinar."
Xena stepped into the inn, moving back slightly as a man ran past her into the street. Glancing around, surprised at how many people were actually in there, she’d seen the place busy before, but not like this.
She felt the bard’s hand touch her arm then quickly withdraw. Looking down, she found concerned eyes regarding her. "Hey."
"You ok?" Gabrielle gave a not so sure smile. "I mean... I didn't know he was going to do that, you know. And if you want to just turn around and leave right now, I understand."
Xena pulled Gabrielle into her as two others moved past them to the door. Realising what she done, she stepped back a little. "I know you didn't, and well, we’re here now so might as well get a meal and a room for the night at least."
Gabrielle smiled. "You sure?"
Xena answered the smile. "Yea, I'm sure."
Both of their grins widened at the sound of the shout. Giving the bard’s shoulders a squeeze, Xena turned away just in time to catch her mother’s hug.
"Hello, Mother." She returned the embrace before stepping away.
Cyrene stepped back, looking her offspring up and down, smiling. "You look good as always. Lost too much weight again, are you eating right?"
Xena just rolled her eyes. Causing Gabrielle to laugh.
Cyrene chuckled, turning her attention to the bard, opening her arms. "What, no hug? Has time around this warrior made you forget how to do it?"
Gabrielle laughed, moving into the space. "Hello, Cyrene."
They broke the embrace, but not before Cyrene gave Gabrielle the same treatment.
"Oh, I like the new outfit, green suits you, and you’ve changed." Her face broke into a larger grin. "I like it."
Gabrielle’s face blushed as she tucked her hair back behind her ear. "Um, thanks, I think."
A genuine grin broke out on the warrior’s face, which didn't budge at all as Gabrielle looked over to her, it only grew as Gabrielle backhanded her in the stomach.
"Xena, shut up."
Xena snorted a laugh, grabbing a port off a passing tray, taking a sip, her blue eyes shining over the top of the tankard in amusement.
Cyrene looked at the two of them, then over to her daughter. "Am I missing something?"
Gabrielle blushed again, seeing Xena rise an eyebrow. "Gods, tell her, I know you’re dying to." She flushed again.
Cyrene’s own eyebrow rose a little, now truly interested, her eyes went back to her daughter. "Tell me?"
Xena chuckled. "When Gabrielle brought the outfit, Mother, she said it would scandalise you."
Cyrene laughed, then looked Gabrielle up and down again, till the point the bard began to squirm and place her hands over her exposed stomach. Cyrene grabbed them, pulling the bard closer. "Oh, honey, I'm not scandalised. In fact, truth be told, I'm envious. Wish I could have gotten my stomach muscles to stand out like that when I was younger. I’d have been wearing less than you are now."
At which point, Xena sprayed port over the seated customers in front of her. "Mother!"
Salmoneus approached the inn, part of him was telling him to not to, while the other part that kept count of how many dinars were riding on this spurred him on. Entering, he looked around, seeing the dark figure and the blonde one seated at the far side of the tavern.
"Xena." He nodded to her. "Gabrielle." He nodded to her. "I’ve come to apologise."
Xena’s spoon stopped for a mere second before continuing the stew on its way to her mouth. "You have?"
Gabrielle kept silent, concentrating on the bread she was using to clear up the gravy in her bowl.
"Yes, I have. I shouldn’t have done that. It seemed a good idea at the time, but, I … well, I can see how that… I mean…" He took a long breath. "…to be honest…"
He ignored Xena’s raised eyebrow at him as he said the word ‘honest.’
"Well, to be honest, I think if I had thought about it, I would have known you’d be embarrassed by what I did, but I didn't stop and think… and your mother thought you knew about it. I may…" He scratched the back of his neck as he felt a trickle of sweat creep its way down, as Xena’s eyes locked on him again. "…I led her to believe I’d already asked you. So, I'm sorry for that too."
He waited, his eyes going to Gabrielle for some help. The bard dropped her gaze, it went up occasionally to see what Xena was doing, her eyes darting to Salmoneus as he started talking again. "If you want to leave, I’ll understand, and won’t hold it against you. I’ll explain to the people and give them refunds. I’ve already removed the other banners."
Gabrielle looked up, wondering what they were, but seeing Xena’s scowl she quickly looked back down.
He stared at Xena for a while longer, then briefly to the bard. Then inhaling, he let out a long sigh. "Well, I just wanted to say sorry." He turned to leave.
"Sit down, Sal."
He turned back, looking to Xena in surprise. "Really?"
Xena shifted over, moving her plate with her. "Tell me about this show."
His face broke into a huge grin as he sat. "Oh, Xena, you’ll love it."
Blue not so sure eyes locked on him.
"Oh, you will, really…. " He snagged a piece of bread off the plate in front of him. "You see, I came up with the idea last fall." He shoved a piece in his mouth. "I mean, well, it’s heroes and warriors doing real-life things, everyday things. People want to see that, Xena, they want to know that, well…. people like you are just human too."
"Ahuh. Well, I’ll give it some more thought, ok?" Xena returned her attention to her stew. Feeling Gabrielle kick her under the table, she looked over to her. The bard just grinned, mouthing the words, "Thank you."
Salmoneus continued, unaware of the exchange happening next to him. "Gabrielle and I came up with the name The Real Hero Show."
Xena nearly bit through the spoon in her mouth, her eyes snapping up to give the bard a glare; who didn't see it as she was already up and walking to the kitchen.
"I’ll just see if your mother needs some help."
Hercules stood waiting for Iolaus to stop pacing. Reaching over, he pulled a piece of straw free from the hanging bale next to him and started chewing on its end, smiling to the stable boy as he led their horses into their stalls.
"I'm gonna find him and I'm gonna kill him."
Herc smiled again as the stable boy looked over nervously to the pacing, ranting, curly haired man.
"Then I'm gonna kill him again slowly."
The stable boy stumbled into the stall as a bucket was kicked across the floor.
Sighing, Herc pushed his shoulder away from the wall, throwing the straw away as he walked over to his friend. "Sal isn't a god, Iolaus. Killing him the first time is gonna do it."
"How can you be so calm? Didn’t you read what it said in those scrolls?" A leathered boot shot out, sending a puff of dirt and hay into the air.
Hercules grinned. "Yes, I did. Thought it was kinda funny."
Iolaus stopped pacing. Turning around slowly, his eyes widened. "Funny? You think it’s funny that they think that about you and the gods and me?" He stuttered on the last word, his face flushing slightly.
Hercules inhaled. "No, I don’t. But come on, we’ve heard worse. At least animals weren’t involved this time."
Iolaus’ mouth fell open, then a small smile crept over his face. "Yea, that’s true, still don’t really know how they think you’d fancy a Minotaur anyway."
Hercules snorted a laugh. "Yea, well, what about the one with you and the flying horse?"
Iolaus’ grin widened for a while then it faded. "I'm still gonna kill him, he promised me that he wouldn’t embarrass you, Herc. Otherwise I wouldn’t have agreed to get you to come here."
Hercules stepped forward, slapping his friend on the shoulder. "I know, but we both know Sal is in it for profit. As long as the orphanage gets enough of it, I'm happy. And it’s not like I'm not in scrolls already, and some of those we have found have us doing all sorts of things which aren't true."
Iolaus flushed. "Yea, well, those… well, those are …"
Hercules’ laugh was deep. "Oh, come on, I'm thirsty. Besides, I think those scrolls are way below a line even Salmoneus would cross. I think it’s others making profit off the fact we’re going to be here, it’s happened before, my friend."
"Well, if it is him, I'm still going make him pay for it. It isn’t right, Herc." Iolaus easily fell into step with his friend. "Ya know what I'm worried about?"
Hercules looked over in question. "What?"
"What Xena’s gonna do when she finds out about the scrolls, or even Gabrielle, for that matter."
Hercules stopped dead. "Which scrolls?"
Iolaus shifted from foot to foot. "Well, you know the scrolls where you and I are, well…" Iolaus shifted again, this time a blush creeping up his face. "Aw, come on, Herc, you know which scrolls."
Hercules’ eyes widened. "You mean they got alternate scrolls like that about Xena and Gabrielle?"
Iolaus just nodded.
"Do I want to ask how you know that?" a smile twitched on the demigod’s face.
Iolaus’ blush deepened. "I, well, I was offered some, and well, I thought they were hers. It was only when I was reading it I realised, there was no way Gabrielle wrote those adventures."
Hercules coughed a laugh. "Well, for one, if Salmoneus had something to do with those he’d better pray to any god listening Xena doesn’t find out."
They fell into step together again, heading towards the tavern.
"Oh, and Iolaus?"
"I wouldn’t mention you’ve read them. Because I can see Xena hunting down anyone who has a copy and we both know how relentless she is." His eyes shifted slightly to his friend.
Iolaus stopped in his tracks, then turned and fled back to the stable. "Be right back. I forgot my dagger."
Hercules chuckled as he moved to open the inn door.
"I don’t know why we are doing this." Eponin threw a look at one of the men who were looking her up and down, holding his gaze until he stepped backwards and fell over something onto his back.
Ephiny let out a snort, seeing the whole thing. "We’re doing this because Gabrielle asked me if we’d like to take part."
They made their way through the crowd. Ephiny had to hide the smirk on her face, understanding how much of an imposing sight her small group was. Amazon warriors in their full attire, she was surprised more weren’t fainting dead away - or worse, running for the militia.
Eponin grumbled, kicking out at the dirt in front of her. "Well, it didn't mean we had to come. She only asked. It wasn’t like it was a royal order or anything."
Ephiny turned her eyes to the goddess. "Give me strength."
Pony looked back. "You say something?"
Ephiny faked a grin. "No, nothing at all."
Pony held her gaze for a moment, then shrugged. "I’m not even sure what the Hades we’re doing here anyway. Gabrielle’s scroll didn't give much detail. In fact, if you ask me…"
Ephiny rolled her eyes.
"…that makes me suspicious. You ever read one of her scrolls, Ep?"
Ephiny’s attention came back to her lover. "Yes, of course I have. Why?"
"Well, normally she goes on and on in them."
Ephiny stopped. "Are you saying our Queen rambles?"
The two-woman guard came to a stop behind them, both keeping their gaze on the surrounding area. However, their hearing had now gone to the conversation of their regent and weapons master.
Pony stopped, swallowing slightly. "Aw, come on, Ep, admit it, usually Gab…" she stopped herself as Ep’s eyebrow rose at her. "I mean, our Queen’s scrolls to us are long, too longgggggggggg."
"So? Your point?" Ephiny continued walking.
The guards let out a sigh, falling into pace. Pony turned, skipping a step to catch up.
"That’s what I mean; this time it was short, to the point. If I didn't know better, I’d have thought Xena wrote it. Our Queen is not telling us everything… I mean, this show? Real heroes… Real what? What the Hades is that? How can a hero not be real? I mean, we’re real, aren’t we?" she scratched her head for a moment. "It’s not like someone made us up? Ep, come on, you must be curious as Hades, too?"
Ephiny mounted the three steps to the inn, waiting for her guard to fall into position just outside. "Yes, I'm curious, but I also trust Gabrielle enough to know it isn't going to be a trap."
The weapons master’s face fell, along with her voice. "I didn't think that."
Ephiny kept her gaze locked but didn't speak.
Letting out a sigh, Pony finally looked up again. "Ok, at first I thought it might have been. Well, damn it, Ep, that scroll was just plain weird, even coming from Gabrielle."
Ephiny’s face softened. "I know, so let’s go and find out why." With that, Ephiny opened the door and entered.
Pony ground her jaw, then briefly sucked her front tooth, glaring at the two guards, who both cleared the smile off their faces and snapped their eyes forward.
"Make sure there’s no trouble."
They both nodded.
Pony then glared at a passing man who wolf whistled. Resisting the urge to practice dagger throwing on him, she turned and quickly ran to find her regent.
The inn now was quiet; the patrons for the day had either left or retired to their rooms. The fire crackled in the fireplace and a heavy scent of wine filtered into the wood-smoked atmosphere.
Six people all sat in various chairs around the inn, but each of them were focused on the white-robed, robust figure that was Salmoneus.
"Well, all I can say is, thank you. Thank you, my friends, for coming to do this." His eyes looked around each of them in turn, his smile fading bit by bit as he met each glared response. He cleared his throat, taking a sip of wine before continuing.
"Tomorrow, the show will begin."
"You still haven't told us what it is?"
Salmoneus’ smile increased as he met Hercules’ eyes. "Oh, it’s nothing to worry about, honestly."
Hercules’ eyes met Xena’s and both had the same look.
Xena lent forward slightly. "Salmoneus, tell us, or we’re out of here."
Salmoneus looked around to find all six of them nodding in agreement. He pulled up one the chairs, sitting. "Well, it’s simple really, it’s a kind of competition, of sorts."
Gabrielle looked at Iolaus who now had the same weary look that Xena and Hercules had earlier. Gabrielle turned her attention to Salmoneus. "You didn't mention that part. Is this just an excuse to cover bets, Sal?"
Sal’s mouth opened, his hand going to his chest, his face filling in mock shock. "Gabrielle, you wound me."
"You better start explaining or she ain’t the only one."
His eyes nervously snapped to the Amazon, who was now playing with her dagger. He swallowed. "Wait… wait, this isn't that sort of competition. Please let me explain. In fact, it’s more a show, a show that gives us all the chance to see that you’re real."
Pony muttered, Ephiny sighed, Hercules raised an eyebrow, Iolaus crossed his arms, Xena laid out her long legs to get comfortable, and Gabrielle frowned. "Salmoneus, we are real. I don’t understand."
"Well, yes, but even you must see it better than anyone, your stories are more seen as…" his eyes nervously jumped to Xena’s. "What I'm trying to say is, I know Xena is just really good at what she does, but a lot of people believe you make those stories up, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle’s eyes widened and a look of anger crossed. "I so do not do that."
His hands came up defensively. "Now, Gabby, I know that, it’s the same with Hercules too. Also, welllllll…." He swallowed as he looked over to the two Amazons glaring at him. "Well, the Amazons have their own reputation, shall we say."
Pony smirked. "Yea." Her eyes danced with pride.
Salmoneus pulled his gaze away, looking around. "Do you get what I'm saying now?"
After a brief moment, all of them nodded reluctantly.
"I don’t judge this Real Hero Show. In fact, this is going to be about the peoples’ votes." He grinned, pleased with himself.
Xena shifted uncomfortably. Gabrielle caught it out of the corner of her eye and laid her hand over the warrior’s leg under the table. Xena resisted the urge to jump out of the chair. Sipping her drink, she kept a sideways glance on the profile of the bard. As if sensing it, Gabrielle turned her head slightly, flashing her a smile before returning her focus back to the conversation. Xena looked up to catch Hercules staring at her with a wry smile on his face. She held his gaze until his amused eyes turned away.
"And what exactly are they voting on?" Ephiny finally had enough of Pony playing with her dagger and reached over, snapping it from her hand. Pony just glared at her, then sat back, folding her arms, and humpppppppffffftt.
"Tasks, the people set tasks." Salmoneus grinned, looking around the room, wondering why everyone wasn’t as excited as he was. This was a good idea. Admittedly, it had taken a bottle of wine and a dodgy boar pie to find it. But it was. He was sure it was.
"What sort of tasks?" Iolaus stood, moving to refill his tankard.
"Oh, don’t worry, nothing that you haven’t done before, I assure you."
Pony sniggered, shutting up when Hercules, Ephiny and Gabrielle glared at her. Xena just smirked.
Iolaus gave his glare to Salmoneus. "What tasks?" he sipped his wine
The big man fidgeted. "Well, I can’t tell you that."
All sets of eyes swung round to him again.
"And that would be why?" Xena’s voice had dropped an octave, even Iolaus swallowed at it.
"Well, because I don’t know." The grin on his face twitched. "You see, the crowd have been voting for different things for each of you to do. Well, tonight was the last of the voting. In the morning, they will give me the scroll."
Pony stood up. "No way. Are you crazy? Do you know what you’ve done?"
Salmoneus sat back fast at the Amazon’s approach. "Um, well, yes, I think I do."
Eponin ignored the warning tone of her regent. "This crowd knows who we are, right?"
Salmoneus just nodded, suddenly finding that his throat had constricted to the point his brain was telling him he was now being throttled.
"And you asked a bunch of unknown people to choose what we do. Don’t you see anything wrong in that?"
Salmoneus managed to swallow enough to squeak out an answer. "Wrong? What could… be wrong?" his eyes looked around to each of them in genuine question.
Pony threw up her arms before turning away. "You idiot. You just put our fates in the hands of the public, a public which can be bought for any price."
"Bought?" he blinked, looking over to Gabrielle. "I don’t understand?"
Gabrielle sighed as she rose. "Sal, there are a lot of people out there who would pay to see any one of us injured or killed."
Salmoneus’ eyes widened. "No, I…." He stopped as his eyes met serious returned gazes.
Hercules sat back, scratching his shoulder. "Hate to say it, Sal, but she’s right and so’s the Amazon. This could end up backfiring on each of us. What sort of tasks are we talking about here?"
"I… honestly don’t think that’s going to happen. The people who are voting are mostly from here." His eyes went to Xena. "Amphipolas."
All eyes in the room followed his. Xena crossed her arms.
"I mean, if she or any of you can’t trust the people of her home town, who can you trust?" He tried to smile, but it seemed to fade under the glare of the warrior princess.
"You have a short memory, Salmoneus." Xena felt the bard’s hand slightly squeeze her leg under the table, but this time she didn't look, she kept her gaze locked on the fire.
He quickly rose. Stroking his beard, he paced as he thought. He stopped, this time a genuine smile coming to his face. "You each have the right to refuse a challenge."
All eyes went to him again, this time it was Gabrielle who spoke. "We do?"
Salmoneus nodded. "Oh yes, it’s in the rules." He moved over, pulling out scroll after scroll from his bags until he found the one he wanted. "Here.." He handed it to the bard.
Gabrielle untied the string and read. When she looked up, all eyes were now on her. "Well, it says that each of us will be set challenges to complete, the crowd will vote on who did the best." Her eyes scanned the scroll again. "And here, it says that we can each refuse a challenge." She looked up, her eyes going to Salmoneus who was already shifting. "It does say we can refuse a challenge, but in doing so, it means elimination from the rest of the show."
All eyes now swung around to him.
"Elimination, that means death, don’t it, Ep?" Pony kept her voice low, her hand already going to her sword.
Ephiny bit her lip. "No, it means you can no longer take part."
Pony relaxed her hand, her face taking on a confused look. "Oh, right, ok."
Hercules crossed his arms. "Seems fair enough, if we do choose to take part. At least we are the only ones entering, it’s not as if we are up against an unknown opponent."
Gabrielle looked over to him, slightly surprised. "You don’t have a problem with refusing a challenge?"
Hercules laughed at the expression on the bard’s face. "Of course I do, I’m just as competitive as the rest of us." He laughed again. "What I mean is, if at some point we come across a challenge which we all see isn't something we want to do or is too dangerous…" His eyes jumped to Salmoneus. "…we all step down."
Salmoneus blanched. "You… you can’t do that, it will stop the show… " He swallowed again. "It would end. No winner."
Xena smirked, looking over to Hercules, giving him a nod to acknowledge she approved and was thinking the same thing.
"Yep, and no winning bets."
Salmoneus paled again. "Now, I didn't say there weren’t going to be bets, I have no control over what goes on outside of the show." He nervously looked over at Hercules, who was still sitting with a smirk on his face.
Gabrielle couldn’t hide her own smile. "So, we are agreed; if we are asked tomorrow to do something that we deem unworthy or dangerous, we all back out?" She looked to each of them in turn, receiving a nod from each in agreement, that was, until she reached Pony’s eyes.
Ephiny looked to her left in surprise. "Pony?"
The weapons master shifted slightly. "I’ve never…. well, I’ve never…" She chewed her cheek, her face flushing.
"You’ve never what?" Ephiny tilted her head in question.
Xena’s voice came from across the room. "She’s never quit anything, is what she’s trying to say."
Pony’s eyes narrowed. "No, and I'm not going to start either. If I'm in this thing, I'm in to win."
Xena just raised her tankard and took a drink.
"Oh, goddess, now you take a stand." Ephiny rose. "After everything I’ve heard between here and the village about how this was sooooooo not a good idea, you now decide to make a point. Gods." She moved away, taking a tankard off the tray and knocking it back.
Pony slightly winced at the action. "Well, yes. When it comes to backing out of something, I guess I have to make a point."
Ephiny’s mouth opened to speak, but instead she downed the rest of the tankard.
Gabrielle wiped a finger across her temple, deciding that now was not a good time to have a headache. "Pony, but don’t you see? It gives us protection against anyone trying to abuse the challenges."
Pony’s eyes darted to Ephiny, quickly lowering when angry hazel ones bored into her. "Yea, I see that, but…. it’s … well, it’s about honour."
"Gods." Ephiny downed another gulp of wine.
Gabrielle refused the urge to roll her eyes. "Pony, it’s not about honour, it’s about keeping alive."
"Yea, well, better to be a dead hero then a live coward."
This time everyone in the room groaned. The tankard being slammed down on the tabletop stopped everyone talking at once.
"Pony, as your regent you are now dismissed from the challenges and will not be taking part."
Eponin’s mouth fell open. "You…what? You can’t do that."
Ephiny took three strides to reach the seated Amazon. "Oh, yes, I can. Do you forget who I am, Eponin?" her voice lost all humour.
The weapons master stiffened and rose slowly. "No, Regent."
Gabrielle made a move forward towards them, only to find Xena’s hand pulling her back. She looked back to find Xena shaking her head.
"If you wish to take part in this, you will obey by the rules that we all agree on. Is that understood?" Ephiny stiffened to her full regent height.
Pony kept silent, her jaw tensing.
"If you can’t, you are no longer able to enter. Eponin, do you understand?"
Inhaling deeply, Pony nodded. "I understand, Regent."
Ephiny closed her eyes briefly as she felt the word Regent spat at her for the first time ever from her lover. "Good. Which is it?"
Pony’s pained eyes came up, then they were covered by a deeper colour; anger. "I'm out." With that, she turned and left, slamming the door so hard, Iolaus had to catch the falling vase from above the fireplace.
The room was in silence, until a snap of burning wood from the fire made Gabrielle jump. "Gods."
All eyes found something interesting to look at in their tankards. Until finally Ephiny moved to leave, her eyes fixed sadly on the tavern door. "I won’t apologise for her actions, she is an Amazon and it’s hard for her to step down without losing face." Taking a breath, she straightened, her eyes going to Salmoneus. "But it’s about time people stopped seeing us as unruly barbarians. The Amazon nation needs that to change, the years of keeping ourselves to ourselves have only produced hatred and enemies."
Salmoneus twitched an understanding smile.
"Ep, maybe I can talk to her." Gabrielle came over, placing a hand on her friend’s arm.
Ephiny petted it, a gentle smile coming to her face. "No, it wouldn’t do any good, I embarrassed her. But she forgets sometimes who I am." Her eyes went briefly to the door again. "This was one time too many. Besides that, she doesn’t like the thought of change from the old ways." Sighing, she inhaled, giving each of the people around her a smile. "So, I will see you tomorrow for the challenges. Good night."
Hercules rose, offering his arm. "To the challenge, may the best warrior win."
Grinning, Ephiny grasped it, returning the shake. "Yes." With a nod to the rest, she turned and left.
Soon, both Hercules and Iolaus said their goodnights, along with Salmoneus, leaving the bard and warrior sitting in front of the fire.
The fire crackled.
"They won’t vote against you, just because of who you were, you know."
Blue eyes reflecting firelight blinked. Then after a long pause, she finally turned her head. "You sure of that?"
Smiling, the bard nodded. "Yes. What’s past is past, especially here. These people have seen how much you’ve changed, and tomorrow they will prove that."
The corner of Xena’s mouth twitched into a smile. "Always so sure that people see what you see." Without thinking, she reached out, pushing a strand of sunbleached hair back behind the bard’s ear, her hand holding there as blue and green locked.
"I only see what’s there, Xena." Green eyes fluttered as a thumb caressed her cheek, before refocusing enough to smile.
This time, Xena genuinely smiled, rising as she did so. "Come on, it’s going to be an early start and I know how much you love those."
Grinning, Gabrielle rose, following the warrior up the stairs.
Amphipolas pulsed, both in sounds and colours, flags of blue, red and orange danced in the wind. People laughed and talked, while street players performed their songs and dances. Smells of meat and wine peppered the air, filling the whole town with a joyous aura of life. In the centre of the town, laying in the square, a raised platform was erected, towering over the heads of the spectators below. The crowd encircled it completely, children jumping to get a better look at their own special hero of choice.
On the platform stood the five in a line.
"I feel like I'm on trial." Iolaus spoke through a forced grin, waving back at the crowd’s waves and calls of his name.
Hercules was doing the same waving and keeping a steeled grin on his face. "Me too. Could be worse though."
Xena stood, her arms crossed, her eyes darting around the crowd for any sign of danger. She overheard the demigod. "Yea? How could it be worse?"
At that, a fan fair sounded, stilling the noise of the crowd. Five sets of eyes locked onto the approaching figure of Salmoneus sat on the back of a black horse that was covered in ribbons.
"That." Hercules spoke out the corner of his mouth.
Once again, Xena resisted the urge to grab Gabrielle and head east.
Salmoneus gracefully slipped from the saddle as the horse came to a stop, waving at the now cheering crowd as he climbed the steps to the platform. Holding the now unrolled scroll as he came to a stop at the edge, looking down at the people, he held up his hand to quieten them, clearing his voice before continuing.
"People of Amphipolas…" A cheer went up. "And of Greece." Another cheer went up. "Welcome to the first Real Hero Show." Salmoneus ignored the muttered, "And last." from behind him.
The cheer now rose enough to send vibrations through the wood of the platform.
"I present to you…" he turned, sweeping a gestured hand towards the five in line. "…The great Hercules, son of Zeus, defender of the people. Slayer of monsters, hydras, lions and Titans."
The crowd went wild. Hercules stepped forward, waving, throwing Salmoneus a glare at his choice of words. He stepped back.
"Iolaus, his loyal and trusted friend, also defender of the people."
Iolaus stepped forward with a raised hand, slightly blushing. Stepping back, he heard Hercules’ comment, "Well, at least he didn't use the word sidekick."
Salmoneus moved up the line, stopping in front of Ephiny, who gave him a glare.
"Ephiny, the Regent of the Amazons, warrior woman."
The crowd’s cheer stuttered a low response. Then over the top of it, a shrill yell rang out.
The crowd all turned to find another Amazon standing on the railings, yelling. The Amazon raised her sword along with the two Amazons beside her, continuing the cheer. Slowly, the crowd picked up on it, and soon the entire square was chanting.
Gabrielle lent closer to Ephiny, trying to hide her smile. "Isn’t that Eponin?"
The regent blushed, a warm smile coming to her face. "Yea." Her eyes went up to the Amazon in question, twinkling in love.
Salmoneus, caught unawares for a moment, pulled himself together, moving towards the blue eyes that were now locked on him.
"I give you Xena of Amphipolas, Warrior Princess and defender of the people, fighting against injustice, warlords and tyrants for the greater good."
Xena blinked the surprise in her eyes quickly away, stepping forward as the crowd roared a cheer that made Xena actually feel the hairs on her skin stand to attention. Stepping back, she found a grinning bard looking up at her. The warrior ducked her head to talk to be heard over the crowd. "Why do I get the feeling you had something to do with the choice of words he used?"
Gabrielle increased the level of her grin, shrugging.
Salmoneus stopped in front of the bard. "I also give to you, the great bard Gabrielle, student of the Academy of Athens. Travelling companion and friend of the warrior princess, writer of her adventures and truths. Amazon Queen and fighter for the greater good."
Gabrielle’s mouth fell open, Xena gave her a nudge to step forward. Stumbling, Gabrielle took a step, nodding to the cheering crowd before stepping back and seeing the grins on all four of her friends watching her. The biggest grin was Xena’s face. She nudged Xena with an elbow, the blush still on her face. "Now, why do I get the feeling you had something to do with his choice of words?"
Xena flashed an even whiter toothed grin, before shrugging.
Salmoneus waited a few heartbeats before raising his hands again and opening another scroll. As the crowd quietened, he spoke, his voice clear and strong. "I now pronounce this first Real Hero Show started."
This time, the crowd went wild.
Gabrielle could feel it; the adrenaline start within, the crowd touching that part in her that came alive inside. Xena watched her friend’s face, inwardly smiling. She too could feel a different adrenaline moving through her, the one of anticipation of a coming fight.
Salmoneus waited again until the crowd calmed enough for him to be heard. "As you know, the votes for tasks have been counted and the booths are now open at each corner of the square for the votes of your choice. At each candle mark the votes will be counted and the least votes will mean that person is eliminated."
Xena’s eyes darted to the booths in question, seeing the soldiers standing at each of them. She turned, catching Hercules doing the same thing. They each returned a smile at having been caught out.
Salmoneus’ voice continued on. "The tasks in question are everyday things. At no time will a task include any form of combat. As each task is called and the contestant is elected, we will all move to the area. The flags and fences will show you where you, the people, can stand to watch. Please read the larger scrolls which contain the rules and areas you are allowed to go."
He turned to the line of five. "At any time, each of you may choose not to enter a task. If this is done, you will step out of the Real Show. However, if you take part in a task and simply cannot continue it, it will be deemed up to the votes of the crowd to judge the outcome. Is that understood?"
All five nodded. The crowd mumbled a response.
Grinning and slightly relieved, he turned his gaze back to the crowd. "Without more of ado, I will open the first scroll. Taniatha, if you please."
A young, pretty woman walked up the stairs, causing various members of the crowd to cheer and wolf whistle. She moved, swinging her hips as she walked past Xena, throwing her a wink. Xena smirked, which vanished as she caught green eyes beside her glaring up at her. Both Hercules and Iolaus snorted then looked away as blue eyes flashed at them.
Salmoneus took the scroll, giving Taniatha’s butt a gentle pat as she walked away. "First is…"
From the corner a drum roll sounded.
A roar erupted. Salmoneus motioned for Hercules to take the stage to the left, which the demigod did.
"To join him in this task isssssssss…"
Again the drum roll sounded.
The crowd erupted again.
"Why aren’t I surprised?" Xena threw Gabrielle a look on the way to join Hercules as she heard the bard’s mutter.
"And the task is…" he opened the smaller scroll, his eyebrows rising. Nervously, he briefly looked over at the glaring two waiting. He swallowed before addressing the crowd again. "…sheep shearingggggggggggggggggggg."
Gabrielle’s eyes jumped wide, going to her friend. Not needing to hear the muttered curses that were forming on the warrior’s lips to know what they were. Iolaus bit his lip, while Ephiny had to look down to keep from laughing.
The crowd roared, with intermitting, "baaing," punctuating the cheer.
Salmoneus opened the other scroll. "The next is…"
Drum roll again.
Gabrielle smiled nervously, moving to the right side of the stage.
The regent kept her head tall but flashed Gabrielle a smile as she stood next to her, which Gabrielle answered.
Iolaus jogged over to stand next to his friends, smirking over to Hercules and Xena.
Salmoneus opened the smaller scroll. "And the task isssssssss…" His eyebrows rose again. He swallowed. "…milking a cowwwwwwwwwwwwww."
Ephiny’s eyebrows shot skyward. Which were soon joined by an open mouthed Iolaus. While Gabrielle just gave a pleased grin.
Both Xena and Hercules exchanged looks before bursting into laughter. The crowd cheered, this time punctuated with various "moo’s"
"We will now make our way to the barn for the sheep shearing." He made sure not to make eye contact with either of the participants, he didn't need to look to know that all eyes were boring into his back.
"Please move in an orderly fashion."
At those words, the crowd started running for the best views. Salmoneus used the chance to make his escape and quickly descended into the crowd, merging with it.
Xena looked over at Hercules as they started down the stairs. "You ever done this before?"
Hercules flashed her a grin. "Have you?"
Xena just raised an eyebrow.
The people filled every known hole and gap to get a look at the interior. Xena stood, now only dressed in her leather battle dress, all her weapons and armour gone. Hercules stood to the right of her, his bare chest visible, his gauntlets removed. Two baaa’s filled the air, causing the crowd to murmur a laugh. Xena took a long breath, looking over her shoulder at the sheep staring back at her from the stall, its eyes narrowing.
Ephiny nudged Gabrielle in the ribs. "Is she ok with this? I mean they’re kinda laughing at her."
Gabrielle kept her gaze locked on Xena, trying to read her emotions. Xena looked up and flashed her a smile.
"Yea, Ep, she is." Gabrielle returned the smile.
"What about Hercules?" She looked over to Iolaus who was chewing a straw and swinging his legs over the edge of the loft.
"Herc? Yea, he’s fine, he likes this kinda thing, makes him feel like one of us again."
All three fell silent, as did the crowd, as the fan fair sounded, which of course startled the sheep into shrill, panicked bleats.
Salmoneus rose from his chair in the loft. "At my command, both Xena and Hercules will enter the stalls and start."
All eyes went to the two waiting.
"I don’t like the way that sheep is looking at you, Xena." Hercules rubbed his hands together, getting ready to vault the fence and begin. He gave Xena a smirk.
Xena had also noted the stare she was being given from the said animal. "I’d be more worried about the way yours is batting its eyelids at you, Herc. It could be love."
Before the demigod could register surprise and check out the look, Salmoneus let out a yell of, "STARTTTTTTTT!"
Both warriors sprung into action, easily clearing the fence, which of course sent the sheep to run in any direction away from them. Hercules dodged left, then suddenly changed direction, catching the running sheep by surprise. With one quick flick, the blinking, surprised sheep found itself on its back, trapped between Hercules legs. It let out a long bleat, fanning its eyelids up as the demigod crouched over her.
A voice rang out from the cheering crowd. "I can tell you’ve done that before, Herc."
The crowd erupted into laughter, while Hercules sent an unamused look over to his friend, Iolaus, knowing full well who the voice had been. Iolaus just smiled sweetly back.
Xena was having a harder time. Each time she fanned left, the sheep would wait and move right. The warrior waited, her eyes boring into the boring eyes of the staring-back sheep. Xena relaxed slightly, giving a smirk, then shot forward, catching the sheep by the scruff of its neck. Letting out an angry bleat, the sheep, instead of moving forward, moved backwards, throwing its body between the open legs of Xena. Blinking in surprise, Xena recovered, then winced as she felt a hind leg smack into her ankle.
"Oh, my," Gabrielle winced, her eyes darting up to see the anger growing on her friend’s face.
"Um, Gab? She wouldn’t kill it, would she?" Ep winced this time, as the sheep butted Xena in the stomach.
The crowd let out various cheers of oooooo and aaaaaaah.
"What? No, of course not." But the bard’s tone wasn’t too sure as she watched the sheep turn in the warrior’s hands and let out a long shrill baaaaaaaa before evading yet another grab for her.
Hercules was already beginning to part the wool and start shearing, sweat running down his temple. He blinked, looking down, then blinked again, as he was sure he saw the sheep wink at him. He returned his concentration to the task at hand, clipping away.
Xena gritted her teeth, ignoring the throbbing pain on her shin, her eyes narrowing. The sheep stood in front of her, her front hoof hitting the ground. "Baaaaaaaaaaaa."
Blue eyes shot open in surprise as the sheep charged. Quickly recovering, she sidestepped, using the sheep’s momentum to let it carry itself past her. Then at the last moment, Xena grabbed it again, twisting in the air and turning it on to its back, bringing it down between her legs and locking it there. With a flick of her fingers, the sheep stopped struggling.
The crowd stopped cheering, suddenly unsure.
Gabrielle choked on the drink she was sipping, knowing full well what had just happened.
Ephiny closed her open mouth with a snap. "I can’t believe she just used her nerve pinch on a sheep." She started laughing.
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the sheep, letting out a sigh of relief as Xena took off the pinch. But not before picking up the warrior’s voice giving the woolly animal a warning. "Keep it up, woolly, I got some mint that wants to meet you."
The sheep let out a sigh and kept still. The crowd returned to its cheering as Xena picked up the shears and began to make quick work of the fleece. The sheep chose wisely to just lay there and take it. But to the other animals in the barn, the small muttered sounds coming from their prone friend told them she was not amused. That, and the fact most of them had at some point in their life also called into question the true heritage of humans.
Shears worked away. Clip... Clip. The crowd cheered, "Xena… Xena…"
Gabrielle bit her lip, her eyes darting from Hercules to Xena, her fist clenching by her side, willing her friend on.
Sweat dripped from both the competitor’s temples. The crowd cheered, "Hercules… Hercules…"
Iolaus jumped to his feet, yelling out for his friend.
Fleece began to come away. The sheep bleated, "Baa, baa."
Then in a rush, both Hercules and Xena stepped back, letting the sheep go, both holding their cut fleeces in front of them. The crowd stopped, all eyes looking at each other in question.
Ep looked quickly over to Gabrielle. "Who won?"
Gabrielle blinked, it had happened so fast. "I'm not sure."
Everyone turned their heads to Salmoneus. Salmoneus rose. "The task was both finished at the same time by Xena and Hercules, it is up to you all how to vote."
Xena grinned over to the demigod, who was already grinning in response. He held out his hand, which Xena immediately grabbed in a shake. Hercules felt something on his leg. He looked down, only to be met by dark eyes and batting eyelashes looking back up at him.
From the crowd a young girl’s voice was heard. "Mamma, why is the naked sheepy wubbing Hercuffles’ leg like thaft?"
Hercules blushed, Xena snorted, Gabrielle giggled, Ephiny chuckled, Iolaus fell off the loft laughing, and the crowd all joined in the laughter.
Salmoneus cleared his throat of laughter, needing to get everything back under control. "Please go and make your votes, after which, return to the barn area where the second task will begin."
The crowd, still tittering and laughing, began to make their way out of the barn to go and cast their first public votes. Echoing over the top of them, a deep male voice was heard… "Get off!" "Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa."
The people returned half a candle mark later; the barn full, once again, to the brim. Xena sat next to Hercules, both sipping from their cups, their eyes looking over the area before settling on their partners. Gabrielle bit her lip, nervously looking at the cow in front of her. Iolaus shifted even more nervously as he dipped his head to check out the undercarriage of the cow. Ephiny met the gaze of the cow that was chewing its cud lazily, conveying through her Amazon stare that she wasn’t going to take any trouble.
Salmoneus rose. "Let the task begin." All eyes shot to the three as they moved forward.
Gabrielle took up her place on the stool, rubbing the cow’s leg briefly before putting her hands to work. Taking the teat in between finger and thumb, she began to gently squeeze and push down, her face breaking into a grin as a steady stream of milk began to fill the pot below.
The crowd cheered.
Xena had to smile at the look of concentration on her friend’s face, which turned into a scowl, her head whipping around when she heard a snort of laughter and a comment from the left of her.
"Bet that ain’t the only teat that bard has had hold of." The laughter snorted again.
Hearing that, some of the crowd began laughing, while others nervously chuckled. Gabrielle’s hand paused on their movements, then blushing bright red she made herself continue. Xena began to rise, only to find Hercules’ hand on her arm. "Would hitting them really serve any purpose other than to embarrass Gabrielle further?"
Xena’s eyes glanced over to the bard who was still concentrating hard on her task. She sat back down, but not before hitting the side of the barn hard with her elbow. Hercules glanced back over her shoulder to see a bale of hay come down onto of the man who had made the comment and his companion.
Ephiny was now seated on her stool, staring at the teats in front of her. Taking a breath, she sent a silent prayer to Artemis, and grabbed the hanging teats, moving her fingers over them, surprised when a trickle of warm milk flowed over her hand. Gaining confidence, she added a little power to it, grinning more as milk spurted into the pot below.
"Ephiny, go girl!" Pony let out a whoop, looking around in pride. The crowd cheered again.
Iolaus was sweating. He licked a bead of sweat off his top lip as the cow turned its head to stare at him. He gave it a not so sure smile, shifting on the stool to get comfortable. The cow looked away, continuing to chew its cud. With surprise, he realised his hand was shaking. Pulling it back, he made a fist then reached forward, grabbing the teat. The cow’s eyes shot wide and it let out an ear splitting, "Mooooooooooooooo." Iolaus jumped back and up in surprise.
The crowd broke into laughter and over the top of it a voice rang out. "Gently, Iolaus… I know you know how to do that." The crowd erupted again, while a few parents quickly covered their offspring’s young, innocent ears.
Iolaus narrowed his eyes, re-sitting, sending a dagger look straight at Xena, who simply smiled sweetly then began to pat Hercules on the back to help him cope with the fact he was choking on his water. Gabrielle nearly fell off the chair when she heard the comment, and for a moment she shot Xena a look of her own. This one, Xena didn't smile sweetly back at. In fact, the returned one was slightly sheepish.
Fingers stroked and gently pinched. The crowd chanted, "Gabrielle… Gabrielle…"
Milk began to fill each pot. The crowd chanted, "Ephiny… Ephiny..."
Iolaus huffed and tried again. The crowd chanted, "Iolaus… Iolaus..."
Cows rolled their eyes and chewed the cud.
Xena smirked as she saw a grinning Gabrielle rise and hold out the full pot. The crowd went wild. Ephiny stood next, with a slightly amazed look on her face. The crowd cheered. Iolaus bent closer to see why nothing was happening, at which point a teat decided now was a good time to provide the milk. The crowd roared in laughter.
Xena laughed. "Ya know, I could see that coming."
Hercules chuckled. "Yea, me too."
Wiping the milk from his face, Iolaus stood up and admitted defeat, making a bow to the other two and clapping. The crowd joined in. Salmoneus rose.
"The winner of the task is Gabrielle, but it up to you all to vote for your favourites. You have half a candle mark to place your vote. After a candle mark for lunch, we shall all meet at the stage to find out the two who will be eliminated."
With a round of cheers and applause the crowd moved towards the booths.
The sun was now high in the sky, and once again the five stood on the platform which was once again surrounded by the crowd. Salmoneus took the voting scroll from the soldier who had mounted the stage. The crowd held its breath.
"The first person to be eliminated isssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss…"
The drum roll sounded again.
A few cheers went up, but in between, a collective, "awwwwwww," was heard.
Iolaus shook the hands of each of the remaining friends, slapping Hercules on the shoulder before moving to leave the stage, waving to the crowd as he went.
Salmoneus looked down at the scroll again. "The second person to be eliminated is…"
The drum roll sounded again, the only sound that could be heard as the crowd held its breath.
The crowd was a mixture of awwwwwwws and cheers, and as the regent moved to shake hands and embrace her friends, a few wolf whistles rang out. One of which was cut off in mid-whistle with an "owwww." Ephiny glanced over in the direction it came from as she descended the stairs, to see an innocent looking Pony standing next to a crumpled man.
Salmoneus quietened the crowd down. "Now, if Taniatha would bring the next task forward."
Once again, wolf whistles sounded. However, this time, Xena made sure not to make eye contact, and took to looking at her boots. The bard, however, aimed her glare at the passing woman. Hercules just chuckled.
Salmoneus took the scroll. "All three will take part." He unrolled it.
The crowd waited.
He looked up. "The task voted by the public that they most wanted to see issssssssssssssssssssssssss..."
"…feeding and changing a child."
The crowd exploded.
Three sets of eyebrows shot up, along with three mouths falling open. Ephiny was standing at the back of the crowd, next to Iolaus and Eponin. All of them looked at each other then back up to the stage, then again at each other. Ephiny lost it first, she started laughing.
Iolaus looked back up at the stage, a grin breaking across his face. "Oh, this ought to be good."
Pony bit her lip, seeing Xena shifting uncomfortably. "Ahuh, this I gotta have front row seats on." Laughing, all three started to work their way through the crowd.
Salmoneus moved towards the stair, stopping to address the crowd once more, one eye on the three who were now shifting nervously. "The task will take place in the cleared area to the left."
Before he had even finished, people started running and pushing to get the best seats. Salmoneus was about to say more, then he noticed a certain warrior princess stomping towards him. He gave her a grin then legged it down the stairs.
Gabrielle drew level with her friend. "He can’t be serious? Can he?"
Hercules stopped next to them. "Oh, he is, look." he pointed. From their vantage point on the stage, they could look across to the area that was cleared. Sitting in the middle were three children playing.
"Oh, gods." Gabrielle swallowed.
Xena took a breath, shrugging. "How hard can it be?"
Hercules gave Gabrielle a smile, seeing she was thinking the same thing. Xena looked at both of them. "What? Well how hard can it be? They’re not babies."
Hercules slapped Xena on the back. "You, my friend, are about to find out." Then, laughing, he took the stairs two at a time down off the platform.
Gabrielle bit her lip, her focus fixed on the three children playing in the distance, then began to follow her friend down the stairs. "Um, Xena?"
"Yea?" Xena narrowed her eyes at two men blocking the bottom of the stairs; they quickly moved.
"You’re not going to use your nerve pinch in this task, are ya?"
Xena came to a halt, spinning around. "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle grinned, ducking past her. "Just checking."
Three four-year-old children stood in a row, their heads tilted back. Each were staring up at the tall people in front of them. One’s bottom lip started to tremble, blue eyes filling with tears. One chewed the corner of its cuddly donkey, big round eyes not sure at all. While the other one wiped a hand up and across its nose and sniffed.
Xena looked down at the sniffing one, locking eyes with him. She made her face relax and gave a smile, which faltered as the boy stuck his tongue out. Gabrielle kept a warm smile on her face as she gazed down at the little girl who was chewing the edge of the cuddly toy. The girl’s eyes shot wide as the bard grinned at her, and the chewing on the donkey’s ear increased tenfold in speed. Hercules grinned at the boy who was now starting to cry, his grin fading as the child’s eyes suddenly opened, tears free like floodgates.
Salmoneus stepped forward. "As this challenge is with the children, I will ask you all to keep your cheers and yells down. We don’t want to scare the little things."
The crown rippled a laugh.
"At my say so, each of you will step up to the child and introduce yourself. Then, when each are ready, you can start to feed them their meal." He gestured with his hand to three child’s chairs all set up. "After that, the children must be bathed, changed and then returned to their mothers." His hand swept left to three baths and changing rolls, then in the direction of the three anguished women standing just out of sight of their children.
Salmoneus continued, "If at any time the mothers think their child is upset too much, they may enter and remove the child."
For some reason, everyone looked at Xena. She chose to ignore it. Besides, she was more worried about the boy who now was picking his nose and wiping it on his tunic. Xena winced.
"Start." The crowd let out a brief cheer, which faded as they realised what they had done. Now they watched in silence.
Xena twitched a smile, coming closer to the boy, who stood his ground. She knelt down onto one knee. "Hello, what's your name?"
"My pa tolf me not to tfalk to stwangers." He puffed his little chest out in pride.
Xena’s mouth this time quirked in a genuine smile. "Good, it’s good that you listen to your pa. Did he tell you to help me in this game?"
He thought for a moment, his tiny face creasing in concentration. "No."
Xena's eyebrows went up. "Ok, then what about your mother? Did she?"
The boy chewed his lip then grinned. "Ahuh." He stuck a finger in his mouth and began to suck.
Xena winced as she realised the finger the boy was now sucking had not long ago been up his nose. "So, can I now know your name?"
The frown came back onto his face. "No, cof you is a stwanger."
"Zeus." Xena took a breath. "Ok, my name is Xena."
The boy’s eyes widened, his finger coming free from his mouth with a pop. "The waffior pwincesssesss?"
Xena made herself relax. "Yes."
"Oh, wow, weallyyyyyyyyyyyyy?" The boy started jumping up and down. "I know bout you, mommy tells me stories, you fight with a horsy. Can I see the horsy?"
This time Xena let out a laugh. "Yes, really, and if your mommy says it’s ok, I’ll show you my horse later…"
The boy jumped up and down again.
"So, can I know your name now?"
He nodded. "Stefeen."
Xena blinked, a perplexed look coming to her face. "Steffennn?"
The boy giggled. "Nooooooooooo. Stepffeenn."
"Oh, you mean Stephen?"
Stephen’s eyes sparked in anger. "That’s whaft I said."
"Yes, yes, sorry, my fault. We big people can’t hear things right sometimes, it’s because we…. um, so tall." She scratched the back of her neck.
Stephen gave her an understanding look, remembering that big people sometimes did a lot of silly things. He had already guessed it was to do with the height, to him it didn't seem natural at all.
Xena rose, holding out her hand. "Well, Stephen, how about something to eat?"
"Oktay." He took her hand and popped his finger back into his mouth and followed his new found friend. As the warrior and the now chattering child walked past the fence line, Xena sent a smirk to the three surprised filled faces of her friends.
Ephiny was the first to snap her mouth shut. "Well, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised she’s good with children."
Iolaus finally pulled his eyes away from the sight of the great warrior princess now giving the boy a shoulder ride. "Huh, why aren’t you? ‘Cos I know I am."
Pony gave the same look to her lover. "Yea?"
Ephiny shrugged, her eyes now going to the kneeling bard and her child. "Well, you’ve heard the tales of Xena and her conquests of men right?"
Iolaus blushed and looked at his shoes, causing Ephiny and Pony to send each other brief questioning looks.
"Yea, I’ve heard of that." Iolaus coughed, looking over to Hercules and making damn sure he didn't meet the eyes of the two staring at him.
Ephiny raised an eyebrow at Pony, who shrugged. "Anyway, Eph, what’s Xena’s conquests got to do with how good she is with kids?"
Ephiny’s face broke into a larger grin. "It’s just about different types of toys, is all."
Iolaus chose that moment to swallow his Adam’s apple. Pony roared with laughter.
Gabrielle was sat crossed legged, smiling at the little girl in front of her who was chewing the Hades out of the donkey’s ear. She kept her voice low and friendly.
"Hi, my name is Gabrielle, you can call me Gabby if you like?" She smiled again. The girl’s mouth paused on the ear for a moment, then continued faster. Gabrielle’s eyes went to the donkey. "I used to have a real donkey, his name was Tobias." Her eyes came back up, smiling at the girl. The girl still chewed away, but it had slightly slowed.
"Does your donkey have a name?" Gabrielle folded her hands in her lap.
The girl nodded, then continued chewing.
Gabrielle thought for a moment, then smiled again. "Let me guess. It’s Rabbit, isn’t it?"
Behind the ear, a smile twitched. Then the girl shook her head.
"Oh, right, let me see. Oh, I know, it’s fish?"
The little girl giggled, her chewing covering most of the sound. She shook her head again.
Gabrielle rubbed her head, putting on her best confused look. "No? Not fish? Oh, my goodness. Well… it just has to be pig, then?"
The little girl giggled again, this time louder, removing the ear briefly. "Nooooo, not piggy, dat silly… it’s Matfhew." The ear was quickly replaced and chewed on.
This time, the confused look on the bard’s face was real. "Ok, well, that would have been my next guess. Why Matthew? Is that your favourite name?"
"Nu uh." The little girl shook her head. "My daddy told me." She chewed the ear again.
"Your daddy named your donkey for you?"
"Ahuh." The girl this time started sucking the sopping wet ear. "I asked my daddy what to call him. My daddy said, call it Matfhew, cos he’s an ass too."
The crowd, overhearing this, started laughing, while off to the left a sound of a palm hitting a forehead was heard along with, "Oh, my god."
Gabrielle had to bite her lip to stop herself laughing out loud. She coughed to clear her throat. "Really? And who is Matthew?"
The girl grinned. "He Daddy’s boss."
The crowd roared with laughter again, all eyes turning and looking to a red-faced man standing by the water trough.
"And what’s your name?" Gabrielle shifted a little closer, the laughter now filling her voice.
The girl began to chew the ear again. "Isabelle."
"Oh, that is so beautiful."
Isabelle nodded. "I know, just like me." Then she rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle grinned, biting her lip. This child was adorable. "Heard that a lot, have you?"
"And you don’t like it?" Gabrielle tilted her head.
"No, cos if I beautiful, I a girl, and I don’t wanna be a girl."
Gabrielle’s eyebrow shot up. "You don’t?"
The girl shook her head fast. "Nu uh. If I a girl, I no allow go whiff my daddy to black smifff, and I want to."
The crowd went, "awwwwwwwwwwww."
Gabrielle stood up. "I tell you what, Isabelle, how about something to eat and we can talk some more, ok?" She held out her hand.
Isabelle looked at the outstretched hand, then up at the nice lady. "Will you tell me why I no allow to go whiff my daddy?"
Gabrielle grinned. "Yes, honey, I will."
Isabelle chewed the donkey’s ear again and took the outstretched hand into her smaller one. "Is it because my daddy’s boss is a donkey?"
Gabrielle chuckled and started them both walking towards the chairs. The crowd roared with laughter.
Hercules stared down at the crying boy, he didn't think he’d seen that many tears come from one child. As he moved to bend down, the child backed up and let out a long wail. Without stopping, Hercules ran over to the fence line, stopping in front of a young woman, who flushed red and slightly swooned.
"Hi." Hercules grinned at her, he pointed to her head. "Can I borrow that?"
The young woman’s mouth worked but nothing came out.
Hercules gave her a patient smile. "Your head scarf… can I borrow it?"
The woman just nodded. Hercules reached up, untying the scarf. When it was free in his hands, he flashed a smile of thanks and ran back towards the boy, not seeing the woman faint dead away behind him.
He sat down far enough away from the boy so as not to start the wailing again. With a grand flick of his hands, he flashed the red scarf out in front of him, then caught it in his left hand, pulling the top up enough to form a peek. Out of the corner of his eye he watched the boy step a little closer to see. Hercules reached back into his pocket, pulling out a pretend pack. Between finger and thumb he picked up a pretend needle. The boy again sniffed and moved a little closer.
Taking the pretend thread with his other hand, Hercules licked its edge, then holding the pretend needle up, he started to thread the thread through the eye, glancing quickly to check if he had the attention of the boy. The boy’s eyes were locked on to what Hercules was doing and so were the crowd’s. Hercules lifted the peeked scarf and pushed the pretend needle through as far as it would go into the cloth, then reaching over, he grabbed the other end to pull it all the way through. Then he looked up. The boy’s eyes shot wide in alarm at being caught so close.
Hercules waited, not moving, he offered over the invisible needle. The boy looked first at him then down at Hercules’ hand, his face showing he couldn’t see anything. "It’s a magic needle. It was given to me by Zeus."
The boy’s eyes shot wide again.
"Only a true warrior can use it." Hercules held it out again. "Take it." The boy swallowed, his lip trembling again. Hercules smiled. "Here, take it."
A tiny hand reached out, and grasped the empty air, but as the boy pulled his hand away, the scarf’s peek bent towards him as if being pulled by some unseen thread. The boy gasped. Then he tugged it again. Again, the scarf bent. Slowly, a small smile began to creep across his face. Hercules kept very still. The boy moved closer, tugging and tugging.
The scarf bent backwards and forwards. The crowd let out an "ooooooooooooooooooooo."
The boy started giggling as he tugged and pulled. Hercules’ face broke into a grin. "That means I'm a warrior?" the little boy blinked in amazement at Hercules.
"Sure does. What’s your name?"
The boy tugged the pretend needle again. "Atrium. My mamma calls me Arty." He giggled as the scarf bent again.
"Well, Arty, I’m Hercules."
Arty stopped pulling and looked up, his mouth falling open. "Her.. Hercules?"
Hercules smiled. "Yep."
The boy fell back onto his butt. "Wow."
The crowd burst into laughter. Hercules chuckled as he scooted over, gently lifting the little boy back to his feet, brushing the dirt off his pants. "So, you’ve heard of me, then?"
The boy swallowed, nodding.
"So, one warrior to another, how about you and I go and get something to eat?"
Arty nodded again, his whole face filling with awe and hero worship. Hercules held out his hand, but Arty held up both arms. Laughing, Hercules reached down with one hand, and with a pull and a twist, the young warrior found himself on the shoulders of the son of Zeus and towering above every man, woman and child of Greece. But the grin that adorned the boy’s tiny face was bigger than anyone’s in the known world.
The crowd cheered.
Iolaus let out a mutter, causing Ephiny to look over to him. "What?"
"I taught him that trick. Now in every damn scroll from here to Athens, he will get the credit." A pout was produced.
The two Amazons rolled their eyes at each other, muttering, "Men!"
For those people in the town who couldn’t get close enough to see the enclosure, or those who had to work and miss the unfolding events live, a serious of reporting bards was set up in a relay. The one closest would write down what he saw and it would be passed down the line to the bard who would tell the tale as it happened to each group sat waiting for the news. One such group had gathered in Cyrene’s Tavern. She had wanted to go, but the money she would make by staying open would get her the new roof that was needed. So, like the rest, she now sat waiting for the news. Her blue eyes watched the runner come in and hand over the scroll to the young man, who stood. The group fell silent.
He took a bow, unrolling the scroll. "Hi. My name is Chrisus Wallaces, and I'm here to bring you the live news, as it happens, when it happens."
Cyrene’s eyebrows shot up, doing a good imitation of her famous daughter’s. "Well, that’s different."
The bard continued. "All the warriors have convinced their small charges to go for food. Now I will read the updates." His eyes fell to the scroll.
The people sat forward, waiting.
"After Hercules wowed the crowd and Arty with his amazing skill at needle point…"
A few of the patrons looked at each other and shrugged.
"…the son of Zeus, after much negotiation, persuaded Arty that greens were indeed good for him and managed to get him to eat at least four of his brussels sprouts. The first part of the task was completed. However, rumours have started that blackmail and cookies were involved and the judges are looking into it."
The patrons stuttered a laugh, while Cyrene chuckled and continued to wipe down the bar.
"Next, we move to Gabrielle, the bard. After a good start, she and her ward made their way to the eating area. However, things seemed to have hit a problem very early on into the meal. Our reporter there was very impressed at Gabrielle’s ducking reflexes, and of course we are putting that down to the time on the road and training by a certain warrior princess. However, our reporting bard was more impressed by the fact that Gabrielle knew how to take out a beetroot stain from her top; and that, we are told, is down to her mother. After getting as much food into her ward as possible and removing from herself what wasn’t, they completed the task."
Cyrene grinned, shaking her head, while the people around laughed again.
"Finally, we come to our own home girl. Xena."
The patrons all lifted their tankards to Cyrene, who grinned, lifting her own in salute before drinking.
"Xena’s start surprised even our most hardened know world reporters. At first, a battle of wills seemed to set in between the warrior princess and her ward. Right off, Stephen used an old attack method of coming at the warrior princess from behind. Xena at once sensed the attack and blocked and deflected the flying pudding. Reports have come in from various witnesses that an Amazon was hit in the crossfire, but as of yet, that hasn’t been confirmed pudding casualties."
A few patrons snorted. Cyrene rolled her eyes.
"However, the warrior princess offered a truce right after Gabrielle was hit by a wayward potato, and from then on in, Stephen and the warrior princess enjoyed a full meal together, completing the task."
Cyrene beamed in pride.
"The contest now continues on to the bathing and changing, and updates will be read as soon as they come in …" He bowed. "The is Chrisus Wallaces reporting the live events of the Real Hero Show. Thank you." He retook his seat.
Cyrene frowned, watching the young man sit. "Yep, definitely different."
Iolaus was biting his lip, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his feet. But he couldn’t keep the silent chuckling from making his shoulders shake.
"I'm warning you for the last time, sidekick, shut up."
His eyes flicked briefly left to the wet haired Amazon whose eyes were flashing anger. His eyes fell to a blob of pudding on the woman's chest. Biting his lip harder, he looked away.
Eponin coughed to cover the fact she was still laughing. Ephiny’s head snapped around to her. "Don’t you start."
Pony shook her head. "No, course not."
Ephiny tangled her finger in her hair, pulling out another gooey piece. "Centaur crap, how the Hades am I supposed to get this out?"
Iolaus’ eyes flicked to Eponin’s, who shook her head and looked down, biting her own lip now.
Ephiny glared at each of them in turn. "I wouldn’t be wearing this if you hadn’t ducked, Iolaus."
He looked over, a smile filling his face. "Well, I did say duck."
Ephiny’s eyes narrowed. "Yea, right, about the same time it hit me, I believe."
Eponin folded her arms, trying to use that motion to stop her laughing, but the look on Iolaus’ face was making it very hard.
Ephiny looked at each of them again. "Oh, shut up." She tried to flick the gooey pudding from her fingers, but it wouldn’t budge, so she tried harder, which only caused it to flick off and come right back to land where it had been in the first place.
A total moment of silence followed, which shattered as laughter and spluttered breathing came from both Iolaus and Eponin losing the last of the their control.
Ephiny just growled. "Oh, for Zeus’ sake. Just watch the damn show." Pushing past the two completely laughing friends, she made her way back to the enclosure.
Xena wasn’t at all sure how she was standing there with water running down her face. All she knew was, one minute she had soap in one hand and a squirming four year old in the other, now all she had was soap in her eyes and through it a blurred outline of a tiny naked butt retreating across the compound. The crowd around her roared in laughter. Blinking the soap clear, she grabbed the towel and gave chase.
Gabrielle was watching Xena take off after the running giggling boy, a huge smile coming to her face.
"Gabby, whatcha smiling at?"
A little hand reached up, tracing her lips. Gabrielle looked down, adding more bubbles to the bath, kissing the fingers on her lips and blowing into them, making the girl erupt in laughter.
Isabelle turned her head to watch the big woman in leather running after the boy. She giggled. "Is dat her?"
Gabrielle started washing under Isabelle’s arms. "Ahuh, that’s her."
Isabelle turned back, sucking the ear of her donkey. "She pwetty."
"Yes, I know." Green eyes briefly flicked up again to Xena, her smile spreading as she watched Arty throw himself into a muddy puddle, throwing dirt all over the warrior princess. Gabrielle chuckled.
"What her name, Gabby?"
Gabrielle lifted the other arm and washed underneath, making Isabelle squirm with giggles.
"Her name is Xena."
The little girls eyes widened. "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, she bad."
Gabrielle stopped in mid wash of a tiny hand, looking directly at Isabelle. "Who told you that? And no, she isn't."
"My daddy told me. Yesssssss, she is… she did bad fings."
Gabrielle continued her washing, well aware that this conversation was being overheard. "Yes, she did. That was a long time ago. But now she’s good. She doesn’t hurt people anymore."
Isabelle thought for a moment, then turned her gaze back to the woman who now had the squirming little boy slung over her shoulder and was stomping back to the bath. Frowning, she looked back up at the nice lady. "She not bad no more?"
Gabrielle washed along the little girl’s back. "No, honey, Xena isn't bad anymore."
After thinking for a long time, she looked back over to the bath and the lady in leather. The little boy was laughing, throwing bubbles and water at the big lady. Xena was splashing water back and chuckling. Finally, Isabelle looked back, tugging on a bit of Gabrielle’s hair for attention.
"Yes, honey?" Gabrielle stopped, reaching back for the towel, turning back.
"I fink you right, I don’t fink she bad no more."
Gabrielle looked into the child’s eyes that were filled with a serious expression. "Why don’t you think that, Isabelle?"
Isabelle pointed. Gabrielle followed the digit, her green eyes coming to rest on Xena, who was pulling the boy from the water and wrapping him in a blanket. She smiled, then turned her eyes back to Isabelle, waiting for her answer.
"Why is she good, Isabelle?" Gabrielle suddenly wanted to know what a truly innocent child thought of Xena.
"Cos bad people don’t laugh like dat. Bad people no care about happy. Bad people just mad all the time. Lady not mad no more."
Gabrielle blinked, her eyes going quickly over to Xena and watched as indeed Xena laughed, not just once but twice. Laughter that she had very rarely seen, it made her smile inside. Breaking her eyes away, she looked down at Isabelle who was once again chewing on the edge of the donkey’s ear. Reaching for the towel, she lifted Isabelle into it, wrapping the soft cloth around her. "You know, Isabelle, not only are you beautiful, you are very wise." She planted a kiss on the little girl’s cheek, which sent her into giggles.
"If I wise, does that mean I go black smiff’s whiff my daddy?"
Gabrielle laughed, pulling the girl into her for a hug. And as she turned, she caught Xena looking back at her with Stephen wrapped in her arms, with the exact same grin on her face that she was wearing.
The crowd cheered.
Hercules coughed a bubble. Arty laughed, slipping enough so that the demigod reached out and sat him straight. He started cleaning behind the boy’s ears.
"Hercules, is it truw you killed the big lion?"
"Yes, I did." He scrubbed some more.
"Was de lion bad?"
Hercules changed ears. "Yep, he was eati…" he stopped himself, thinking he didn't want to give the boy nightmares. "…um, well, he was scaring a lot of villagers and was going to hurt them."
Arty’s eyes went wide. "And you kill…killed him, right? He not going to come here?"
Hercules grinned. "Yes, I did. I have a nice big rug at home that can tell ya that."
Arty giggled again. "When I grow up, I want to be like you."
Hercules grinned, but for a moment sadness came into his eyes as he remembered his own son saying that. Clearing it, he ruffled the boy’s hair. "Ok, hero, let’s go get dressed and get you back to your momma."
The boy’s eyes fell. "Do I hafff to?"
Hercules lifted the boy free, then wrapped him in the towel, pulling him closer. "Yes, but I'm gonna ask your momma if it’s ok for my friend Iolaus and I to come over and play. How’s that?"
The pout disappeared on the boy’s face, to be replaced by a huge grin that filled his eyes into sparkles. "Reallllllllllllllllllly?"
Hercules twisted him around in the air, putting him back on his shoulders. "You betcha. Iolaus’ favourite game is horsy rides."
Hercules started walking towards the changing mats. Arty starting moving up and down on his shoulders.
"I love horsyyyyyyyy rides."
The crowd cheered.
Xena wrestled Stephen into his clothes, wiping a bead of sweat off her face as Stephen yet again put his arm in the neck.
"Stephen, stop squirming." She sighed, readjusting the tunic yet again.
"Can’t ….. itches."
Holding onto his head, she pulled an arm through its proper place. "Stephen, you can’t ride my horsy naked, now, can you?"
A flustered head came through the neck. "Why can’t I?"
Xena stopped, looking up. "Well," she had to think, "well, your mother wouldn’t like it."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "My momma don’t like me doing lots of fings. Why she not like that?"
Xena bit her lips, throwing a curse at the gods. "Because it’s mothers’ jobs to not like a lot of things." She stood the boy up, meeting his gaze. "And we have to obey our mothers, right?"
He scowled. "You obey your momma?"
Xena scratched her neck. "Oh, yea."
"Does she spank you if you don’t?" He lifted his foot up as Xena pushed on his boot.
Some of the crowd who heard this sniggered.
Xena shot them a look. "No, she doesn’t smack me, Stephen, but she sends me to my room."
A few of the crowd laughed.
Stephen’s mouth fell open. "Rweally?"
All finished, Xena stood the boy up, checking him up and down to make sure she got everything in the right place. "Yea, really. Usually without my supper too."
Stephen blinked, his mouth falling open. Then, reaching out, he tugged on Xena’s tunic, making the warrior princess turn her full attention to him. He lowered his voice, looking around briefly before speaking. "When she sends you to room, Zenna, you sneak out, I hide you in spffecial place. You can haf some of my food, kay?"
Xena, for the first time in a long time, was caught speechless. She swallowed the lump in her throat. It struck her so deep, the simple offer, that it threw her completely. "I… I…" She swallowed, suddenly aware of where she was and who she was. "Thank you, Stephen." She gave him her best grin.
His face creased then he blushed. "You my fwiend."
Her smile deepened. "So are you. Come on, let’s get you back to your momma so we can go ride Argo."
Before she even had time to reach for Arty, he was already jumping onto her back for a piggy back.
The crowd cheered.
Gabrielle and Hercules had an easy task of dressing their wards, and before long, all three of them were standing ready for the parents to come and claim their child. Once each was returned, the crowd now let out the cheers they had been holding back, and let loose a volume of shouts for their hero of choice. Salmoneus stepped into the enclosure, rising his hand for quiet.
"This is the final task of the day. Now is the time for you to all vote for your favourites, please go to the booths. You have half a candle mark to cast your vote. In one candle mark we will meet at the centre stage for the eliminations, and the first ever winner of the Real Hero Show."
The crowd began to move away, but a few of them took courage in hand to approach the three. Scrolls were signed and tablets were engraved. The half candle mark passed and the booths were closed, the votes being carefully counted. As the sun crossed the sky and began its journey down to cast evening colours across the horizon, the crowd returned to the stage.
Hercules stood with Xena to the right of him and Gabrielle to his left. All three sets of eyes watched Salmoneus take the stage.
"Good luck, Gabrielle. You too, Xena." Hercules put an arm around each of their shoulders, pulling them into a hug.
The crowd cheered and a few wolf whistles sounded.
Gabrielle blushed, elbowing the demigod in the ribs. "You knew they would do that."
He laughed, giving one more squeeze before releasing them. "Ahuh."
Xena just smiled. "Good luck to you too, Herc, but it ain’t like you gonna need it."
Hercules turned at the comment. "What’s that supposed to mean?"
Xena didn't answer, she just folded her arms. Gabrielle heard the comment and sighed, giving Xena an exasperated look. "Good luck, Hercules."
Hercules was about to ask again, when a huge fan fair blared, drawing his attention away. Salmoneus stood at centre stage. "Today, I’d like to thank all the people of Amphipolas and people of Greece. We have raised over five hundred dinars towards the orphanage here."
A huge cheer rang out.
Gabrielle’s eyes lit up. "Oh. Wow."
Xena just scowled, reminding herself later to have a talk to Salmoneus about his mathematics skills. Hercules turned to her with the same look on his face.
"But now we have come to the moment we all have been waiting for, to see who is the winner of the first Real Hero Show."
The fan fair sounded again. He took the scroll from the soldier, turning to the crowd once again. "In third place, with over two hundred and ninety seven votes, issssssssssssssssssss…"
The drum roll sounded. "…Herculessssssssssssssssssssssssssss."
Xena’s eyes popped wide. "What?"
The crowd roared a mixture of awwwwwwws, FIX and cheers.
Gabrielle grinned at the look on Xena’s face. She gave Hercules a big hug as he came up to her. He moved over to Xena, offering out his hand, seeing the look on her face.
"Got something wrong, didn't ya, miss know it all?"
She blinked, regaining her composer, taking his arm and shaking, her eyes now going to the bard. "Yea, guess I did."
Gabrielle just smirked at her.
Hercules turned, waving to the crowd as he descended the stairs, heading over to where he could see Iolaus waiting for him.
Salmoneus quieted the crowd, then motioned for Gabrielle and Xena to step forward. They did so.
"Good luck, Xena," Gabrielle whispered as they drew level with the edge.
Xena turned, smiling. "Good luck, Gabrielle."
They both took a deep breath and turned their gaze to Salmoneus.
He looked down and then over to them, smiling, before turning his eyes to the crowd. "One of the two standing here has over four hundred and twenty three votes, while the other one has a massive six hundred and eighty nine votes. This is who the people of Amphipolas and Greece have voted for. This is your choice."
The crowd fell silent. Xena felt the bard’s hand slip into hers. She smiled, giving it a squeeze.
"The hero with the most votes isssssssssssssssssssssss…"
The drum roll sounded. Salmoneus waited.
The drum roll continued. Salmoneus waited.
Xena looked over at him, narrowing her eyes. He smiled sweetly and still waited.
The drum roll continued.
Xena's mouth fell open and she found herself with a jumping happy armful of bard. "Oh, my god, Xena, yes… yes!"
The crowd went wild, chanting, "Xena…Xena…Xena…Xena."
Iolaus slapped Hercules on the back and they both looked at each other grinning. Ephiny clapped her hands together, yelling out the warrior princess’ name. Pony was standing on the railing with her sword drawn, yelling it in gusto.
In Cyrene’s tavern, the place went wild. Cyrene started crying. Without waiting, she ran out of the tavern, heading towards the square.
Xena was standing in shock, feeling Gabrielle’s kisses on her face and the crowd yelling so loud she couldn’t hear anything other than her heart beating fast. "I … I..."
Gabrielle grabbed her, pulling her towards the edge, pushing her forward. "Say something." She had to yell to be heard.
Xena's eyes widened, this time in fear. "Oh, no." She started backing away.
But Gabrielle caught her, this time keeping her hand in hers. The crowd quietened as Gabrielle raised her hand.
Xena swallowed, looking to the bard in panic. Gabrielle gave her friend’s hand a squeeze. Xena faced the crowd. They waited. Out of the corner of her eye, Xena saw her mother come into view, seeing the tears in her eyes. Taking a breath, Xena held out her hand. Cyrene didn't needing asking twice; she ran up the stairs, only stopping when she was close enough to give her daughter a hug.
The crowd went wild again.
Then, with Gabrielle on her left, and Cyrene on her right,, she stepped forward, clearing her voice of emotion. But it still slightly cracked as she spoke.
"Most of you know who I was."
Some of the crowd looked at each other knowingly, some nervously and others smiled, remembering the child.
"All of you know what I became."
This time, all in the crowd shifted with a murmur.
Xena held her stare for a long moment, meeting as many people in the crowd as she could see. Then she turned her face to Gabrielle, smiling briefly before looking back.
This time, the emotion was rich in her voice. "Thank you for seeing who I am now."
The crowd, unsure for a moment, murmured a cheer. Until, from the back, four friends stood tall and began the chant, "Xena…. Xena…..Xena." The crowd soon joined in.
The wind chose that moment to pick up, and ebony locks were thrown into a dance as Xena stood tall, not turning away this time from the chant around. She let it flow over her, it wasn’t like anything she heard before. It pushed away the old rage of blood chant of the warlord, it repaired the part that hurt all those years ago at the loss of her home and her brother. Within, she felt a small tear appear in the guilt she carried for past wrongs. It seeped in and pushed more light into that darkness she carried.
Gabrielle cried, watching what was happening. Blue eyes locked on to hers, each one laced with the mist of tears. Gabrielle stuttered a breath as Xena kept all the walls down enough to let the bard finally see it all. They stared at each other, until Xena broke the gaze and returned her eyes to the crowd.
Feeling a tap on her shoulder, she broke her eyes from Xena, to find Cyrene holding out a handkerchief with an understanding look in her eyes. Gabrielle took it, hugging Cyrene, whispering, "this means so much to her."
Salmoneus’ voice rang out over it all. "I Give You Xena Of Amphipolas! The Winner Of The First Ever Real Hero Show!"
If it were possible, the crowd roared louder in a cheer.
Cyrene gave Gabrielle another hug, her eyes going to the woman in front of her who was waving and grinning at the crowd.
"My daughter is finally home…"
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