It Never Fails

Takes place shortly after the events in Who's Gurkhan

While the midday sun scorched both man and breast with it's fiery touch, a fortunate few had found refuge within the confines of an old tavern. Within the tavern candles lit the back corners driving away the shadows where sunlight could not reach, several open windows offered a nice cool, cross breeze through the well worn building.

Seated in the rear of the room a small group of travelers welcomed the cool air and a well earned moment of peace.

"Hungry are you?" quipped the small blond with a crooked grin as she watched the large dark haired warrior tear a piece of meat from a rib bone with her teeth.

"Starving." Xena answered as she chewed the roasted meat.

"So I noticed."

Xena paused to cast a sideways glare at the younger woman. "What?"

"Nothing." Gabrielle shrugged innocently as she turned back to her plate. "That's just your second helping of ribs I figured you'd be full by now."

"Yeah, well ya figured wrong." Not waiting for a response she tore into the meat again.

Virgil, who was seated to Gabrielle's right exchanged an amused look with the two young women seated to his right, but all withheld any comments.

Virgil leaned forward resting his forearm's on the table. "So when do you think we'll reach Potidaea?"

"About three more days." Gabrielle answered as she raised her fork for another bite.

"Three days." Sara repeated softly, staring off into the distance. She flinched slightly as Eve touched her hand.

"Are you alright?"

"Yes," She ducked her head unable to face the compassion in the other's woman's eyes. "I'm just…"

"Nervous?" offered Eve.

"Yes, and a bit scared."

"You have nothing to be scared of." Gabrielle assured her. "Everything will be fine, I promise."

The firmness of her aunt's conviction brought a smile to Sara's lips. "I just can't believe it's over. It seems like..."

"XENA!!!"

All eyes turned to a tall, slender, young man dressed in black leather that appeared two sizes to big for him. A battered silver helmet rested low on his head nearly covering his eyes and a wide, worn black belt held a short sword low on his left hip. Moving to the center of the tavern he planted both feet in a wide stance then pushed back the helmet with one hand while gripping the sword handle with the other. "Xena, Warrior Princess! I've been looking for you!"

Eying the young man from head to toe Xena raised an indifferent eyebrow then turned back to her meal. "Well, you've found me."

The young man's pimpled face flushed at the warrior's dismissive attitude, clutching the sword hilt tighter he moved several steps closer. "Do you know who I am?"

"Nope, don't know, don't care." She picked the last bit of meat from the bone. Tossing the bare bone aside she reached for another.

Vigil leaned back and slowly reached for his sword, but Gabrielle nodded for him to stop.

Drawing another step closer the man waited a moment for the warrior to acknowledge him. She never turned from her meal. Swallowing a growing scene of frustration the man turned to the small crowd and raised his voice for all to hear. "I am Mendel the Merciless and here and now before all of these witnesses I challenge you Warrior Princess to a duel! A fight to the death!" Turning back to face Xena he drew his sword with theatrical flare before leveling the blade in her direction. "What say you, Warrior Princess?"

"No."

Mendel lowered his sword certain he'd misunderstood. "What?"

"I say no." Xena was working her way through another rib and did not bother to meet his stunned gaze.

"I challenged you to a duel, you must accept." A whining tone slipped into the last few words.

"No, I mustn't."

"But ...but it's a matter of honor, surely you are not going to let your repetition be ruined by refusing to fight?"

Xena licked some sauce from her fingers. "I've got more repetition than I know what to do with, one more story ain't going to hurt it."

Eve smirked slightly at Sara who found herself struggling to contain a smile.

Seeing there would be no midday entertainment the other patrons returned to their meals and conversations.

Mendel felt his moment of glory slipping away, this was not the response he had expected. "I was going to kill you in battle, everyone was going to know me as a great warrior."

"Not happening." The warrior assured him.

"huh, Xena," Gabrielle handed her a napkin. "you've got some sauce on your chin."

"Thanks." She wiped the cloth across her chin. "You know I think these are the best ribs I've ever had."

"Really? I hadn't noticed." Smirked the bard.

"Hey, you're not the only one entitled to a healthy appetite."

Mendel watched the exchange with disbelief. "What's wrong with you people? I just made a challenge to the death!"

Xena glanced sideways at the frustrated young man. "Are you still here?"

"Of course, I'm still here! I want to fight you."

"Why are you so eager to die?" asked Eve as she laced her fingers together atop the table.

Pushing back his helmet Mendel straightened up thrusting out his chest. "What makes you think I'll be the one that dies?"

"Because, you will." Eve replied matter-of-factly.

"Enough of this, Xena you will fight me!" He stepped closer and waved the sword in her direction. As the blade swung over the table it struck Gabrielle's mug overturning it. Dark red wine spilled over the table and into the bard's lap.

With a surprised yelp Gabrielle jumped to her feet wiping at the liquid soaking into her skirt.

Xena arched an eyebrow and whistled softly. "Now you've done it."

Throwing the damp cloth on the table Gabrielle turned on the young man, thrusting a finger into his chest. "You know I've had just about enough of you! Now take your 'challenge' and get out of here before someone takes you up on it!"

"You can't speak to me like that I'm Mendel the Merciless."

"You're Mendel the Moron, now go!"

Mendel's face flushed bright red. "You…you just watch yourself or when I'm finish with her I'll take care of you."

"That's it." Gabrielle snatched her sais in one fluid motion. "I am sick and tried of every little wannabe in Greece interrupting my meals. You want a fight you got one!"

"Gabrielle." Virgil started to rise.

"Sit down!" She growled without looking him. "I'll handle this."

Mendel stepped back. "I…I don't want to fight you, I want to fight Xena."

"Well, too bad cause you're going to have to deal with me first." She stepped closer and he retreated a step. "I thought you wanted a fight, stop running."

"I'm not running." Mendel held his blade up and she batted it away with enough force to nearly knock it from his hand. He swallowed hard and retreated another step. From the corner of his eye he could see a table of old men smirking at him, it was enough to draw his ego out. Straightening he flexed his shoulders and attempted a smug look. "Fine, if you wish to die first so be it. I can use the warm up."

"Warm up with this." Growled the bard as she charged him full speed, her sais a blinding flash of metal.

Mendel managed to block several of the blows but many more slipped through leaving a growing collection of bruises and whelps. Each blow drove the young man back, slowly moving him across the tavern floor.

Virgil and Eve exchanged concerned looks. Sara turned to Xena and pleaded "Aren't you going to do something?"

Xena turned to watch the melee for a moment then returned to her meal. "Nah, she just needs to blow off a little steam. She'll bruise him up a bit but she won't kill him."

"What if he kills her?" Sara couldn't tear her eyes from the fight.

Xena chuckled. "That little twerp? Please Gabrielle has fought fish more dangerous than him."

"Well if you're not going you help her I will." Virgil started to rise reaching for his sword.

"I wouldn't do that." Xena warned without looking up from her meal.

"She needs our help."

"No, she doesn't" Xena caught his gaze and held it firmly. "and all you're going to do is make her mad. She's been through a lot lately she just needs to work off some stress."

From across the room a sharp ding ran out as the bard snapped a sai against the boy's helmet causing it to ring like a temple bell. Dazed by the blow he staggered a step but she allowed no quarter. In between blows she barked questions at the young man. "What is it with all you warrior wannabes that you make up names like merciless and destroyer? Can't any of you come up with anything original? And just once couldn't you be Mendel the Merciful or Jason the Just?" She kicked him in the chest knocking the wind from his lungs.

"And another thing I'm sick and tried of you punks targeting Xena for your little glory hunts. What right do you have to challenge her?"

"She's the Warrior Princess," he managed to gasp between blows. "killing her means taking her place."

"Taking her place?" The bard's voice was low and dangerous. "You're not worthy to clean her boots much less take her place. How old are you anyway?"

"I'm nearly twenty summers." He managed to answer between blows.

"Twenty summers? I've got callouses older then you. And you think you can fill Xena's boots? You stupid little... I ought kick your butt all the way to Athens." For enthusiast she swept his leg causing him to stumble backward over a chair.

Xena chuckled as he landed squarely on his rump. "That a girl."

As Mendel staggered to his feet Gabrielle kicked the sword from his grasp, then drove the heel of her boot into his chest. The force of the blow lifted the young man from his feet and slammed him against the wall. Before he could take a breath he found a sai protected forearm across his throat which pinned him to the wall. "Now what were you saying about fighting to the death?"

"Just kidding?" he chocked out. Fear sent a cold chill down his spine as he found no humor in the emerald eyes glaring at him.

"Too bad." She raised the other sai over her head.

Mendel's eyes followed the metal blade's downward arch as it rushed toward his skull.

As it drew near Mendel closed his eyes and cringed waiting for the strike.

Eve, Sara and Virgil all rose as one as the sai sank deeply into it's target.

Waiting a heartbeat Mendel opened one eye to look at the weapon planted in the wooden board just a hair's breath from his right cheek. Letting out a held breath he would have crumpled to the floor if it hadn't been for the strong forearm still holding him in place. Slowly he became aware of another sensation and his gaze traveled to the floor.

Gabrielle's gaze followed. "Oh, that's just great."

A small yellow puddle was growing at the man's black leather covered feet.

"You'd better not get my boots wet." She warned stepping back. "Now go home to your mother before you get yourself in some real trouble."

"GO!" She demanded when he failed to move.

Scrambling for the door Mendel stumbled over the overturned chair and ended up half crawling, half running for the door.

Gabrielle did not wait to see him stumble out the door, retrieving her sai she holstered the weapons. Returning to the table she sat down and motioned to the innkeeper. "Can I get another drink over?"

The man smiled and quickly moved to fill the order.

As she settled into the chair the others slowly returned to their seats.

"Are you alright?" Sara asked.

"Never better." She smiled broadly reaching for her fork.

"Want a rib?" Xena held one out to her.

"Thanks." She smiled as she took the offering.

Xena grinned. "So, you feeling better?"

"Much."

"Glad to hear it." Xena picked at the rib without looking at Gabrielle. "I was thinking we would wait till later this afternoon before moving on."

"Sounds good, I don't think we'll have anymore trouble." Gabrielle bit into the rib.

Xena chuckled softly. "No, I think the word will spread quickly."

"What that the Warrior Princess is in town?" asked Virgil.

"Nope," Grinned the large woman. "that the battling bard of Potidaea is in town and she's in a bad mood."

"Very funny." growled the bard. "Give me another rib."

"Yes, ma'am." answered Xena raising her hands in mock surrender as the younger woman snatched the food from her plate.

The tension of the fight quickly faded and they slipped into light hearted conversation. Once more they enjoyed the cool breeze and a well earned moment of peace.

The end