One Lump or Two

by Ceallach

Many thanks to Klio for suggesting the title for this story and to Adrianne for her patient editing.

"Need someone to look after me.. HAH!" Iolaus grumbled as he limped along the path. "I'll show him. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself.. It's only a fishing trip, anyway.. You'd think I said I was going after a monster or something the way he was acting..."

"I can just hear him now.. You should stay in bed, Iolaus.. It's only been three days, Iolaus... You'd think he was my mother!" Iolaus paused for a moment, wincing as he tried to draw a deep breath; the cracked rib in his side sending a sharp pain through him. As soon as the pain had abated a bit he doggedly started on again, deliberately ignoring the little voice in his head that said maybe Hercules was right, maybe he wasn't ready to make this trip by himself.

Three days of what he considered overly solicitous concern on the part of Hercules had been driving him mad. So what if he'd been bruised and battered by that rockslide? He'd been in worse shape before. For Herc to insist that he stay in bed and miss a festival all because of some bruises and one little cracked rib was too much.

When the farmer had shown up seeking Hercules, he'd never been so happy to see someone asking for help in his life. He'd been all set to go off and take care of those bandits, anything just to be out of bed and moving again. He'd been flabbergasted when Herc had told him he couldn't come along. Upset and a bit angry Iolaus had told Herc that if he couldn't go with him then he was going fishing. Hercules had muttered and remonstrated with him but Iolaus thought he'd finally given up. Then he'd found out that Herc had paid the innkeeper to make sure Iolaus stayed in bed and was taken care of. That had been the final straw. He was so lost in his thoughts and grievances that he jumped and yelped when something tapped him on the shoulder.

"Excuse me, young man," a feminine voice spoke from behind him.

Iolaus spun around and blinked dazedly at the woman before him. He would have sworn he'd passed no one on the trail and yet here she was. 'I must be more tired than I thought,' Iolaus told himself. 'I don't know how I could have missed her.' He'd never seen anyone like her.

She was dressed in a style he'd never seen before; a tight-fitting tunic with long sleeves was fastened closely over a long plain skirt. A ridiculous hat with a single flower on it, was perched on top of her head and her shoes looked like some kind of boots with a pointed toe. Iolaus stifled a giggle as an irreverent thought crossed his mind, 'I wonder if her feet are pointed too.'

"Please do me the courtesy of paying attention, young man," the woman poked him with the long stick-like thing she was carrying.

"Uhmm, sorry, what can I do for you?" Iolaus tried to pull his thoughts together and answer her.

"Can you tell me if you are.. oh bother.. what was that name?" Stamping her foot, the woman pulled a piece of parchment from a pocket in her tunic, "Ah yes.. Yolas?"

"Uh, that's Iolaus," he flinched at her pronunciation of his name. "Err, I'm Iolaus, and you are?"

At his confirmation the woman tucked her stick-thing under her arm and walked around him, studying him carefully and ignoring his question. "Well, you are a bit older than I usually accept, however I do see there is a desperate need for my services here," she stated primly, then sighed. "I suppose an exception must be made in this case."

"Exception?? Case?? Accept??" Iolaus' mind whirled, trying to figure out what in Tartarus she was talking about.

Seeming to ignore him for the moment the woman marched over to what appeared to be a small bag and began rummaging through it. Iolaus felt his mouth drop open in amazement as she picked up the bag and stuck her entire arm inside. Before he could question her, she gave a small cry of triumph and drew her hand out clutching something. Iolaus watched warily as she advanced on him. Something about her manner was bringing to mind memories of Chiron bearing down on him when he'd done something wrong and he began to shift away from her.

"Hold still, young man, we'll have none of that fidgeting about," she ordered. "Now, stand up straight. I want to see how you measure up."

"Measure up?" Everything about this strange woman was making his head swim and Iolaus began to wonder if he had a fever. 'Maybe this is all a really strange dream,' he thought. He nearly convinced himself of that as the woman unrolled a small strip of cloth beside him.

"Hmm.. just as I suspected," she pronounced.

"What?" Iolaus' curiosity got the best of him.

"Too stubborn for your own good but you do mean well," she told him.

"Huh? You got all that from holding up a piece of cloth?" Iolaus didn't bother to hide his skepticism.

"See for yourself," the woman sighed and handed him the cloth.

To Iolaus' amazement the little strip of cloth actually had words written on it at the spot where the woman's fingers marked his height. It took him a moment to decipher the slightly strange letters enough to read: Too stubborn for own good, but means well. He blinked at it and then rubbed his eyes, but the words didn't change.

"Well this definitely won't do." He looked up to find the woman surveying the area around them. "We must find a better place." She sighed and then began to advance on him. "I suppose it's too much to hope for a decent dwelling with running water, so we'll just have to make do with what we find."

"Find?? We?? " Iolaus yelped in surprise as she grabbed his ear and began tugging him along the path. "Ow! Look, Ma'am, ow.. I think.. ow.. that there's .. ouch.. been some mistake..."

"Nonsense, young man, I never make mistakes," she blithely waved aside his protests. "Now come along and quit dawdling."

Before Iolaus quite realized what was happening, he found himself being herded down the path; all of his protests falling on deaf ears.

"I suppose this will have to do." Iolaus blinked dazedly around him as the woman spoke. They were standing in a small clearing on the bank of a stream. At any other time he would have been excited to find the place, as it looked like a great spot to fish, but now, with this strange woman as a companion, he felt a bit less enthusiastic.

"Do? What do you mean do?" he asked tentatively, not entirely sure he wanted to know the answer.

"As a place for me to look after you, of course," she replied, giving him a look that implied he should have known what she was talking about. Even as he opened his mouth to protest that he didn't need looking after, she swatted him on the rear with her stick-thing and ordered, "Off with you now. Get down there and wash up while I set out the things for tea."

Iolaus gaped at her for a moment and had to jump quickly to avoid another swat. Reluctantly deciding that it might be best to humor the woman for the moment, he headed for the stream. He was finding it very hard to argue with her when he couldn't seem to get a word in edgewise and anything he did manage to say was ignored.

He had rinsed his hands in the cold water and was about to wipe them on his pants when he heard her call, "Be sure you do a proper job of it. I expect clean hands and face when you return, or no tea." Iolaus heaved a large sigh as he dipped his hands in the water again.

When he was as clean as he thought he could get, he stood up and turned around. For a long moment he simply stared at the sight before him, before turning around and splashing more water on his face. "None of this can possibly be real," he muttered to himself. "I must be dreaming it all." He snuck another peek over his shoulder then splashed more water. "That's it, I'm delirious.. I'm actually still lying in bed at the inn and Herc is here just waiting for me to wake up. So how do I wake up?" He thought for a moment, then closed his eyes and pinched himself.

He groaned when he opened them again; nothing had changed. He was still squatting by the river, behind him he could hear the sounds of the strange woman setting out her tea. "Ok, so, either I'm still dreaming," he reasoned, "or this is real. In which case, who or rather what is she? All right. Enough is enough. Time to get some answers." Determinedly, he stood up and slowly turned around, wincing as his rib protested the movement.

Iolaus blinked. It was all still there. He could see several dishes that seemed to hold some type of food, plates and some kind of small mug, plus a tall container that looked something like a jug, all spread out on a large blanket in the afternoon sun.

"Well, come along, young man," the woman called impatiently.

"Are you a goddess?" Iolaus finally managed to ask as he stumbled dazedly towards her.

"Such nonsense," the woman huffed. "Do I look like a goddess?"

"Well, no," Iolaus admitted, "but you don't look like anyone else I've ever seen before either. As far as I know only the gods can make things appear out of thin air."

The woman stared at him for a long moment and then sighed. "I can see this is going to be more difficult than I thought. Well, soonest begun is half done as I always say." She motioned him closer, "Let me see your hands."

"Huh?" Iolaus blinked at the sudden command.

"Come, come, hold out your hands," the woman said impatiently. Reluctantly Iolaus held his hands out to her and found himself subjected to a thorough examination. "I suppose they will have to do," she sighed. "All right, sit down and we shall have our tea."

Warily, Iolaus sat down where she indicated and watched as she picked up one of the small mugs and the jug-thing. "Sit up straight," she ordered him as she poured something from the jug. "I won't have any slouching just because we don't have a proper table." Iolaus did his best to straighten up, wincing as his rib sent another sharp pain through his chest. "Now, will that be one lump or two?" the woman asked.

"Lump?" Iolaus blinked at her. The woman's question made no sense to him but after a quick glance at her face he answered as best he could. "Uh, I think I've had enough lumps lately," he told her. Then, with a tentative smile, he added, "Thank you."

His grin faded as she solemnly handed him a mug balanced on a small plate. Carefully he took them from her and then raised the mug, sniffing cautiously at its contents. It smelled like something he'd had in the East so he took a drink. This was stronger than what he'd had before, with a bitter aftertaste to it, he noted, then quickly realized something else. It was also scalding hot. He hastily swallowed and felt it burn all the way down to his stomach. Eyes watering he quickly set down the mug to let it cool a bit.

As he looked up he saw the woman was holding out a plate with several different things on it that he assumed was food. After his experience with the drink, he was a bit reluctant to try anything else. One glance at the woman's face was enough to convince him that he should at least accept the plate, even if he didn't eat the food. Setting it down next to his mug he tried once again to get some answers. "So, uh, where did all this come from?" he asked tentatively.

"Silly question, I brought it with me, of course," the woman replied. "A proper British nanny is always prepared."

"Nanny?" Iolaus couldn't stop his giggle. "You don't look much like a goat."

"Really! Such impertinence!" the woman exclaimed. Whatever else she might have said was silenced by the sound of something crashing through the brush nearby. Iolaus silently breathed a prayer of thanks to whatever god or goddess had sent this distraction as he readied himself to protect the woman.

Iolaus stared at the man who came stumbling out of the woods. For the second time that day he found himself facing someone the like of which he'd never seen before. Tall and stick thin, the man was covered in some kind of black dirt from head to toe. Only his face showed signs of a half-hearted attempt to wipe any of it away. Over his shoulder he carried what Iolaus first took to be a small tree.

"Burt!" the woman exclaimed and Iolaus groaned. 'It figures,' he thought resignedly. 'She knows him.'

"Well, as I live and breathe, it's Mary Poppins!" A huge grin lit the man's face and he ambled over to the blanket. "What brings you all the way out here?"

"Duty of course, Burt," she replied, smiling for the first time. "My services were desperately needed here." She turned and Iolaus found himself under her stern gaze again. "Yolas, say hello to Burt," she ordered.

"Uh, hi!" Iolaus smiled tentatively and held out his hand. "It's Iolaus by the way."

"Pleasure is all mine," the man said giving his hand a vigorous shake. Burt's smile faded a bit as he turned to the woman. "Uh.. isn't 'e a bit old to need your services, Mary Poppins?"

"This is a special case, Burt," she answered seriously. "One does have to make exceptions in the event of emergencies."

"Awwhh, roight, Oy can see that." From the look on his face Iolaus surmised that Burt really didn't understand it any better than he did but was willing to accept whatever the woman said.

"We were just having tea, Burt," the woman smiled. "Would you care to join us?"

"It would be me pleasure, Mary Poppins." As Iolaus watched Burt set down the long pole/tree thing he was carrying and folded himself up on the ground.

"Sit down and finish your tea, Yolas," the woman ordered before turning back to her friend. "Now Burt, what brings you here?"

"I'm not rightly sure how Oy got 'ere, Mary Poppins but Oy'm thinkin it must be fate," he answered her seriously. "There's great opportunities 'ere for a man a me skills."

"Opportunities?" Iolaus couldn't resist asking the question. Burt seemed to be more of a talker than the strange woman perhaps he could get some information that would make sense of all of this.

"Chimneys," Burt answered. Seeing the puzzled look on Iolaus' face he continued, "This place 'as lots of chimneys and not a sweep about to keep 'em proper."

Iolaus raised a hand to his face to cover his grin and tried to look serious. This man was beginning to remind him of Salmoneus.

"Sit up and finish your tea, Yolas," the woman interrupted. "Burt, I will not have you spoiling his tea with your stories. Yolas needs to eat. He has not been taking proper care of himself."

"Well, Oy'm sure you'll change that roight quick, won't you Mary Poppins." Burt reached over and slapped Iolaus' arm. "No worries, gov, Mary Poppins will 'ave you fixed up in no time!"

Under the woman's stern gaze, Iolaus tried to smile at Burt. Before she could give him another order he quickly picked up the plate of food she'd given him before. Grabbing the first thing off of it he stuffed it in his mouth. To his surprise it was actually quite good and he examined his plate with more interest. He quickly picked out something else to try and stuffed that in as well.

"Really! Such manners!" Mary Poppins exclaimed.

Iolaus looked up in surprise as she took the plate away from him. "I wasn't finished," he complained.

"Don't talk with your mouth full," was her reply. "You shall have the plate back when you have finished what you have."

Morosely, Iolaus looked over at Burt. The man was unsuccessfully trying to hide a grin and responded to Iolaus silent plea by agreeing with the woman. "Don't worry, Yolas," Burt tried to reassure him. "You just do what Mary Poppins says and you'll be right as rain in no time. You'll see."

Iolaus started to answer but a glare from the woman made him swallow quickly first and grab the now luke-warm liquid to clear his mouth before he said anything. "I really don't need anyone to look after me," he tried to explain.

"Pish posh!" Mary Poppins interrupted. "It's obvious you require someone to take care of you, otherwise I wouldn't have found you wandering through the woods when you should be in bed."

"I'd listen to 'er, if I was you, gov. Mary Poppins is the best nanny in Britain," Burt smiled. "Why, I wouldn't mind 'avein 'er lookin' after me, meself."

"Go on with you now, Burt, such nonsense." The woman began to busy herself clearing up. "It's time for Yolas to get some rest," she said, clearly indicating the subject was not up for debate.

"Oh, roight, got to let the lad get his rest." Burt smiled and stood up, gathering his things. "Thank you for a lovely tea, Mary Poppins. Guess I'll be on my way now. Lot's of chimneys in need of sweeping here-abouts."

"Good day to you, Burt," Mary Poppins paused in her packing long enough to see him off properly.

"And to you, Mary Poppins," Burt replied with a smile. Then with a wink at Iolaus he went off down the path, whistling merrily.

Iolaus could only stare after the strange man. This was certainly his day for meeting some very odd people. He was brought back to the immediate situation by the woman shoving dishes at him and ordering him to clean them in the stream.

He was in for another shock when he completed that task. Mary Poppins had removed all traces of their impromptu tea. In its place was a large, well, the only way he could think of to describe it was a bed. Not just a simply blanket rolled out on the ground, but an actual pallet of some kind, with blankets and even a pillow. Beside it was the strangest chair he had ever seen. It's four legs ended in curved wooden sticks and he stared at it doubtfully. It looked as if it would tip over at the slightest provocation.

How long he stood there, gaping at the scene he wasn't sure but the woman's voice ordering him to come to bed immediately quickly brought him out of his stupor. "Uh, look, Ma'am," he tried to reason with her as he slowly approached. "Really, you've made a mistake." He set down the plates and mug and straightened up just in time to receive another whack on the bottom from her stick-thing. "Ouch!"

"That is quite enough back-talk from you, young man. Now, into that bed immediately," she ordered once more brandishing the stick-thing.

One look at her face, told Iolaus he wasn't going to have any more luck convincing her this time than he had before and with a resigned sigh, he allowed himself to be chivvied into bed. Once there he watched as she settled herself in the ungainly chair, stick thing close at hand. Deciding to venture one more question, he tentatively asked, "Just what is that thing you keep hitting me with anyway?"

"Goodness," she exclaimed. "Haven't you ever seen a proper umbrella before?" As Iolaus shook his head, she sighed. "Well, enough talk. It's time for you to rest. Close your eyes and go to sleep."

Sighing, Iolaus obeyed her, though he was convinced he'd never fall asleep. The sound of her voice softly singing was the last thing he remembered.

Iolaus groaned and rolled over, slowly opening his eyes. He was reluctant to wake up and face another day with the strange woman, Mary Poppins. He blinked at the rough boards in front of his face for a long moment, wondering if she had pulled those out of her magic bag too.

"It's about time you woke up, buddy!" For a moment he thought he must still be asleep and only dreaming that Hercules was here. "Come on, Iolaus, I know you're awake." The rough jostling and teasing voice, made him finally turn over and open his eyes. To his great surprise he was back in his room at the inn and leaning over his bed, grinning at him, was Hercules.

"Herc! It's really you! You don't know how glad I am to see you!" Iolaus bounced out of the bed, grabbing his boots and starting to pull them on. "Come on, Herc. Don't we have some bandits to take care of?"

"Whoa, slow down, Iolaus!" Hercules was laughing. "I took care of those bandits yesterday."

"Yesterday?!?!" Iolaus sank down on the edge of the bed, holding a boot in his hands. 'Maybe I wasn't dreaming,' the thought ran through his mind. 'But I have to have been dreaming. Otherwise, how did I get back here?'

"Iolaus? What's wrong?" Hercules was looking at him, a concerned expression on his face.

"Uh, nothing, Herc," he wasn't quite sure what to tell Hercules so he tried to brush it off. "I just had a really strange dream that's all."

"Ok, well, if you're sure," Hercules sounded a bit doubtful. "Why don't you tell me about it over breakfast?"

"Breakfast sounds good!" Iolaus finished pulling on his boot and bounced to his feet. "Come on, I'm starving!"

Shaking his head and laughing, Hercules followed his irrepressible friend out of the room and down the stairs.

They'd been halfway through their meal before Hercules had finally gotten Iolaus to tell him about his 'dream'. Now as they walked through the village square, he could only shake his head at Iolaus' vivid imagination. "Only you, my friend," he laughed placing a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "Only you could come up with something as wild as that."

Iolaus shrugged and grinned at him, but Hercules noticed there was still a trace of uneasiness in Iolaus' eyes. He was about to question him further when a shout caught their attention.

"Hercules! Iolaus!"

Hercules looked over and stifled a groan. Salmoneus was hurrying towards them. From the large smile plastered on his face, Hercules surmised that the intrepid salesman had another scheme in mind. Salmoneus first words seem to bear out his suspicions.

"Hercules!" Salmoneus repeated with undisguised pleasure. "Just the person I wanted to see! You must be the first to try out my new invention!" Grabbing Hercules arm, he proceeded to drag him in the direction of an odd bundle of sticks. Hercules glanced over at Iolaus, his eyes pleading for help but the hunter was convulsed with mirth and totally ignored his silent pleas.

"I got the idea from this lady I met on the way into town this morning," Salmoneus told them. "Very strange woman," he added distractedly. Brightening he continued, "But very bright. She was carrying this stick-thing and being the astute person I am, I naturally asked her about it. She gave me a demonstration and it's going to be hot, I tell you, hot!"

"So.. what is it, Salmoneus?" Hercules asked patiently.

Salmoneus drew out one of the stick-things and presented it to Hercules with a flourish. "It's the very latest in modern conveniences, Hercules! Everyone is going to want one!"

"I'm sure they will, Salmoneus," Herc replied soothingly. "So, what do you call this thing?"

"It's an umbrella!" Salmoneus answered proudly.

Iolaus gulped and began nervously scanning the crowded square. "Umbrella?" he repeated tentatively, hoping he'd heard wrong.

"Yes! Isn't it great?" Salmoneus beamed at him.

"Sure Salmoneus but what does it do?" Hercules noticed that Iolaus was starting to shift around nervously and he wondered what was going on.

"Do?? Do???" Salmoneus exclaimed indignantly, taking the stick thing back and starting to do something to it. Hercules stepped back cautiously as the thing began to expand. One could never be too careful around some of Salmoneus' great inventions. Before long Salmoneus was holding something that looked like a giant-sized mushroom over his head. "There," he said with satisfaction. "You see? Open it up and hold it over your head in a rainstorm and you'll never get wet again! No more trying to find shelter, you're carrying your own with you!! And on a hot day you never have to look for shade as long as you have Salmoneus' handy Umbrella with you! I tell you, Hercules, it's going to be a gold mine!"

Still slightly doubtful, Hercules smiled at Salmoneus anyway, "Well, it does sound like a good idea."

"Good?? Good?? It's a great idea!!" Salmoneus cried, waving his umbrella around wildly.

Hercules ducked a wild swing and then had to hide his laughter as the umbrella collapsed over Salmoneus face.

Iolaus stifled his own giggles at the sight presented by the salesman. "Uh, Herc, we've got to be going. We've got an appointment remember? See you later, Salmoneus."

Hercules raised his eyebrows questioningly at Iolaus but the pleading look from his partner made him quickly give in and go along. "Oh, yeah right. I'd forgotten." Turning back to Salmoneus, he helped the man untangle himself. "Sorry to run out on you this way, Salmoneus, but it's very important."

"Yeah sure," Salmoneus waved him off, all his attention on his umbrella. "Must need a small adjustment," he muttered as he wandered off. "You just go on, Hercules. By the time you get back, I'll have this working perfectly. Then we can discuss your endorsement contract, right?"

"Uh, sure, Salmoneus," Herc waved him off, glad the salesman had been diverted before he'd had time to start his endorsement pitch. He turned and hurried after Iolaus who was already halfway across the square. He caught up to Iolaus just as they left the square and the two walked in silence for several minutes. Hercules thinking about what had happened.

"Hey, Iolaus, didn't you tell me the woman in your dream was carrying a stick-thing?" Hercules asked curiously.

Iolaus quickened his pace as he answered, "Don't ask, Herc. Just don't ask."

The end.

1998 by Ceallach

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