It wasn't defeating cyclops or outwitting malevolent deities which was so tough, Hercules mused, but the itinerant lifestyle that accompanied such deeds. One more night sleeping on the damp earth, and his shoulders would be so stiff Asclepius himself wouldn't be able to stave off arthritis. Still, Coveda was just ahead, and there was an inn there with soft beds, decent food, and --

Hercules' pleasant thoughts were interrupted by a commotion in the city below. He peered down from the bluff overlooking the town, his attention caught by a large crowd near the side of the city where the inn was located. It would be just his luck if the inn were on fire.

He frowned, trying to see more clearly, and then his mouth tightened with distaste. It was something worse than a conflagration: a slave market. Hercules set his jaw and quickened his pace, moving forward with new purpose.

A crude platform had been set up among the stalls in the town marketplace, and the auction was already underway as Hercules entered the outskirts of the village. Several unfortunates huddled against one side of the stage, weighted down with chains and guarded by several large, armed men.

The slave merchant addressed the sizable crowd, his mind already tallying his profits. "Come and see what wonders the king's guards have obtained for you! Look at these marvelous specimens of strength, beauty ..."

The crowd waited politely as he motioned for one of the guards to bring the first slave forward. The man grabbed the nearest one, a terrified-looking young woman who instinctively cringed back. The guard, angered by the apparent show of resistance, raised his club, but before he could bring it down, he was knocked off balance by a shove from another prisoner. He staggered, then furiously spun to confront his attacker.

The guard was momentarily nonplused to find that his assailant was a tall woman who glared at him contemptuously, seemingly oblivious to the slave collar and chain adorning her neck. Arms akimbo, she looked him over, her voice dripping scorn. "Why don't you attack someone your own size, you fat coward? Or are there no giant slugs in this barbaric backwater?"

Predictably, the guard was not over-pleased by this characterization, and he swung at her with a bellow. Although the other prisoners drew back with cries of alarm, the tall woman smoothly blocked his punch with her forearm. then, closing the distance between them, kneed him in a sensitive place. The guard doubled over, temporarily disabled, and the woman used his arm to drive him into an onrushing colleague. The men went down in a heap, and the prisoner stomped on their heads, decisively ending the fight. The other guards exchanged uncertain glances. Slaves weren't supposed to act this way.

The slave merchant, spying his remaining guards' understandable hesitation, flushed. "Have you lost your wits? Get her!" he ordered angrily, his voice little more than a hiss and his eyes nervously assessing the effect this contretemps was having on the potential buyers.

The guards obediently lurched into action, but they prudently chose to move more cautiously than had their predecessors. The woman watched their tentative approach with narrowed eyes, then as soon as they were a pace away, she exploded into action, meeting the first one with a heel strike to his head. He tumbled backwards, and she twisted the next one's arm, throwing him off the platform into the crowd. Another grabbed her from behind, and she instantly dropped to one knee, hurling him over her head.

She regained her feet just in time to be tackled by three more. They rose, grinning triumphantly and holding her between them. One had her feet, while the others each held one arm. The woman immediately slid one leg along the other, scraping off the guard's hands, and then kicked him in the chest. The other two were jerked to a halt by her feet thudding to the ground, and the woman began struggling to free her arms.

The crowd watched with mingled astonishment and amusement, and as the fight wore on, a member of the audience decided to chaff the seller. "Gee, I bet you'll have no trouble selling that one," he called out, his mouth twisted sardonically behind a black beard.

The slave merchant forced a smile. "Now, now, don't jest, sir. Anyone can see she's a lovely woman. Surely you can think of many uses for such a slave."

The man hooted derisively. "Go to bed with that one and you'll wake up dead."

"Are you saying you can't handle a mere woman?" the merchant inquired with feigned amazement, trying to ignore the guards' grunts of pain which were audible behind him. "You? One of the leading businessmen of the town?"

His target was not the least deterred, and hooking a thumb at the stage, replied, "Your guards can't, and they have weapons."

The merchant realized that he would make no sales until the matter was finished and, dropping all pretense nothing was amiss, he stalked back to the still-ongoing fray. The woman's arms were still held by two men, but by using her body weight to drive them into the other guards who are trying to help restrain her, she was able to frustrate their efforts very effectively.

The seller snatched up a fallen sword and, elbowing his minions aside, ended the struggle by digging the point of the sword under the woman's chin. She froze, a drop of blood trickling down the blade.

"What in Hades is wrong with you idiots? Hold her!"

"But you said not to damage the merchandise!" one guard protested.

The merchant shoved the sword at him with a muttered curse, then returned to the front of the stage, resuming his pleasant manner. "There, you see? All she needed was a slight adjustment in her attitude."

His heckler was unconvinced. "That's great. Do your guards come with her? How else are we supposed to protect ourselves?"

"Ha, ha. Very amusing, sir. But surely a man of your wits can devise ways to show her the error of her ways."

The townsman turned away dismissively. "Who needs that much aggravation?"

Others in the crowd moved to follow and the slave merchant called out desperately. "Wait! Wait a moment, sir. I see your point. After all, do I not have the reputation of selling the best, most well-trained slaves in all of Coveda? Tell you what I'll do: I'll take care of her temper for you."

The exodus paused as the first man turned back with a skeptical expression. "How?"

Caught, the merchant thought furiously. "Ah... Well, let's see... She can hardly fight with two broken arms."

"Can't do much work that way either. Besides, did you see her kick? Your men certainly felt it."

"Right you are! Okay, how about this -- I'll break one arm and one leg for you. Surely that will cool her ire, and by the time she heals, well, you'll have broken her spirit by then, no doubt!"

"I don't know... The leg will probably heal crooked out of pure spite, and then a lot of her value will be gone."

The merchant's tone held increasing desperation. "Look, what about the lash? Nobody cares if a slave girl has a scarred back -- you'll never see it. Just make me an offer. We can work something out."

For the first time, the woman spoke, yelling over the conversation. "The man who comes near me won't live out the night!"

"That's your idea of an adjusted attitude?" the heckler asked pointedly.

The merchant spun back to his prisoner, enraged at the loss of a sale and determined to end this. "That's it. At least you can serve as an example to the others. Hold her!"

He grabbed a whip from the guard, and the woman's attempts to wrest free of her captors halted abruptly as pressure was applied to the sword at her throat. The crowd watched, mildly interested and commenting upon the seller's style, while he shook out the whip and brought it down across her back.

By the third blow, the woman had stopped fighting, but she clenched her jaw, refusing to give anyone the satisfaction of hearing her cry out. The audience began to wager on how long she would last, but their gambling was interrupted when a large, booted foot stepped on the end of the whip as the seller swept it back for another blow.

When he encountered unexpected resistance when trying to bring his lash forward, the slave merchant turned to encounter Hercules, arms folded implacably.

"Excuse me," the man said with some annoyance, jerking meaningfully on the whip, "but if you haven't noticed, you're in the way."

"I did notice, and you're through," Hercules retorted, his implacable tone slightly marred by the fact that he was out of breath from hurrying to arrive as quickly as possible.

The merchant sighed impatiently. "Look, I don't want to be rude, but this is none of your concern. The slave has proven to be a lot more trouble than she's worth, and the least she can do to make up for the trouble she's caused is to provide the rest of us with a little entertainment."

Hercules didn't move. "The 'entertainment' is over."

"I don't know who you think you are, but --"

"They call me Hercules."

The merchant rolled his eyes. "Oh, Gods, not one of those. Boys, take care of this would-be hero."

Eager to redeem themselves, the guards obligingly rushed Hercules. He snatched up a nearby tent pole and used it to catch the approaching mob across their chests. Although they tried their utmost to push him off the platform, he overcame their resistance with minimal effort, and it was they who fell to the earth below. Hercules then turned back to the gaping slave merchant, alone on the platform except for Alteira and the guard who still held the sword to her throat.

Realizing his error, the merchant rushed forward to pump Hercules' hand. "You really are Hercules! What an honor this is! What can I do for you?"

Hercules extricated his hand with difficulty. "You can stop beating this woman."

The man grimaced apologetically. "I'd love to oblige, Hercules, but she's impossible. No one is crazy enough to buy her until the fire's knocked out of her, and -- or did you mean you wanted her?"

Hercules recoiled with a look of revulsion. "I don't own slaves!"

This enlightened attitude failed to impress the slave merchant, who turned away with a dismissive sniff. "Yes, well, that's very trendy of you and all, but I have a business to run. Now, will you be purchasing someone or can I get on with my work? The soldiers will be happy to show you off."

He pointed to where a group of local militia had gathered, attracted by the ruckus. Hercules frowned down at them. Tossing a few goons off a platform was one thing, but taking on an entire city's military quite another. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Hercules grudgingly nodded to the merchant. "All right, fine, I'll buy her."

The merchant beamed with delight. "What an excellent choice! A mere -- er -- five dinars!"

"Here's two."

He didn't hesitate. "Sold! She's all yours, mighty Hercules. Now kindly take your property off my stage."

Although the two men were satisfied with the denouement, they had forgotten to consult the object of their discussion. As soon as the guard removed his blade from her throat, the woman drove her elbow into his face, and spun on Hercules, blazing mad. "No one owns me! I'll -- "

Her graphic threats were cut off when the slave merchant slammed the pommel of his whip against her skull. She dropped to the ground like a sack of meal.

He met Hercules' outraged glare with an innocent shrug. "Please, get acquainted on your own time. I have an auction to hold."

Realizing this is a battle he wouldn't win, Hercules gathered the woman onto his shoulder and set off.