"When you notice a cat in profound meditation
The reason, I tell you, is always the same
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name."
-Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot
The darkness was impenetrable, it surrounded and suffocated him. He lay where he fell and concentrated on simply inhaling and exhaling. His body felt on fire, the flames radiating outward from his abdomen. For a moment he allowed the darkness to engulf him whole. He knew he needed rest. He had to make it home, then he could rest and be safe. Valiantly, he fought back the darkness and rolled to his side, hauling his body up before opening his eyes a slit. Any further and the brightness overwhelmed him. He'd never felt so sick in his life. The nausea was unbearable. Sliding one foot forward at a time, he again, began lurching haltingly toward Thebes and home. It couldn't be much farther, he had to be close, he'd come so far, hadn't he? Soon, soon he could rest.
Iolaus jerked open the door and ran into the house shouting, "Jason! Jason! I know you're here, wher--"
Jason emerged from the back room, "Iolaus, I wasn't expecting you until next week at the academy. Did you finis...What's wrong?"
"We have to send out search parties. I can't find Hercules."
"Whoa! Slow down. Tell me what's happened."
"I don't know. Herc didn't meet me in Mycenae. So I backtracked the direction he was coming from. I found a tavern in Tegea where he had a meal two days ago and then he vanished. He might be hurt. We have to get some help."
"You think he would head this way?"
Iolaus shrugged, "I don't know his situation but if he needed help, well, this is where I would head."
Jason smiled, "Ok, let's go into town and see who we can round up. I've got an extra horse here you can use."
"Good, come on."
Word spread quickly and the men of Thebes turned out to help one of their own. Search teams scoured the countryside for any sign of the demigod. At sundown they returned to town, dejected and disappointed. No sign of Hercules had been found.
Warm stew was served at the tavern for those with a stomach for food. Iolaus stirred his bowl and idylly picked up spoonfuls and watched them slid back into the bowl as he twirled his spoon.
Jason put a hand under his arm and lifted slightly indicating that he should rise from the table, "Come on, Iolaus, you're exhausted, we'll start again in the morning. Maybe he's not even around here. Maybe he was stopped by a messenger and went to rescue a beautiful princess somewhere."
Iolaus shook his head stubbornly, "No, he'd have sent someone with a message for me. He wouldn't have left me waiting."
The two Argonauts wearily climbed onto their horses and set out for home. The moon shown full, it's brilliance lighting their way.
"Jason, it's light enough, we can see, we can keep looking."
"Iolaus, you need to rest."
"And what if Herc needs us now?"
"We'll start in the morning. You couldn't even walk straight from the tavern to the horse without weaving, Iolaus. You ran all the way from Tegea today, then continued searching, how are you going to help Hercules when you're unconscious? Do you really think you can track effectively in your condition?"
The hunter sighed and slumped further in his saddle, "No, but I can't rest knowing he might need me either."
It was Jason's turn to sigh, "Let's cross that bridge when we get to the house."
Hercules staggered out of the woods into a field and fell again, face first into one of the furrows. He was already covered in dirt and bruises from the many times he'd been unable to maintain his balance. At least the pain had subsided somewhat. The steady ache was still there but the stabbing waves of agony had ceased. Too weak to bother wiping the dirt from his face, Hercules lifted his head and tried to rise. His arms and legs wouldn't work. Why wouldn't they do what he wanted them to? He could barely turn his head enough to see the house on the far side of the field. Home, he was home, now he could rest. His head fell limply back into the furrow.
Jason and Iolaus kept their thoughts to themselves for most of the ride. The hunter kept a watchful eye on the roadside but his attention kept wandering. Jason was right, he was no good out here.
Iolaus looked up at the house. He was hoping to see lights and a fire burning but he was disappointed. The windows were dark. He wasn't here. They rode into the barn and dismounted. Jason took the lead from Iolaus' horse.
"I'll take care of this, you go on inside and clean up. You'll feel better."
Iolaus nodded silently and left the barn. He didn't go inside. Instead, he walked around the barn and gazed into the woods on the far side of the field. He and Hercules spent a great deal of their youth in those woods. A cat followed him out of the barn and leaped onto a barrel beside him. She pushed at him with her head and Iolaus automatically began to stroke her soft fur.
"Hello, where did you come from pretty one? Do you live around here?"
The cat replied with a loud rumbling purr. After a few moments Iolaus felt calmer, more centered. The hunter turned his attention back to the woods. He willed his tired eyes to see as far into the trees as the moonlight would allow. He slowly scanned them for any sign of his lost friend.
"Herc, where are you?"
His eyes fell on something at the far edge of the field. It was white heap in the moonlight. Suddenly, Iolaus began running, "Jason! He's here! Jason! Bring a horse!"
Iolaus reached the fallen demigod first and gently rolled him over. He began feeling for injuries. Jason came more slowly, leading the horse carefully across the plowed rows.
"How is he?" Jason called when he was close enough.
"He's out cold. I can't find anything broken, no lumps on his head. He's got a few bruises but they're not serious. He's got a fever, Jason. He's burning up."
Between them, they managed to lift Hercules and balance him across the horse's back. Iolaus walked alongside to steady him while Jason led the horse back to the house. It took both of them to manhandle the unconscious demigod through the house and into a bed.
"He's gotten heavier over the years, hasn't he?" Jason commented between breaths.
Iolaus nodded his agreement as he leaned against the bed, resting a moment, "I need cold water from the well and blankets and you have to resaddle that horse and go for the healer."
"This isn't something I can bandage. He's sick, Jason. He needs a healer."
"Right, I'll get you the water first."
Iolaus sat on the edge of the bed and watched his friend. Hercules moaned and tossed his head from side to side. The cat leaped onto the bed and sniffed at the demigod in concern, Iolaus swatted her away. She retreated to the hearth and made herself comfortable washing her face as she watched the proceedings with interest.
The hunter laid his palm against Hercules' cheek and spoke softly. "You're going to be fine, Herc. You're home and we'll take care of you. Rest now. Rest."
Hercules quieted and leaned into Iolaus' hand.
The hunter started by removing Hercules boots. Then, moved up to his belt. Jason arrived bearing a bucket of water, a basin and a couple of clean cloths in time to help Iolaus slide Hercules out of his heavy leather braided pants.
"Thanks, I don't think I could have managed that on my own. I can take it from here."
"I'll go get Laodice," Jason turned toward the door.
"She's still around?" Iolaus shuddered at the memory of the old village healer, old in his mind when she tended him as a child. She must be ancient by now.
"Yep, I think she's going to out live us all. I'll be back as quick as I can."
Iolaus rolled his friend out of his shirts. He set the clothing aside for washing and retrieved a heavy blanket from the cupboard. He covered Hercules making sure that the blanket was tucked in on all sides of him.
The hunter poured water from the bucket into the basin and dampened a cloth as he again perched himself on the side of the bed.
Gently, he washed the demigod's face and rinsed the cloth before laying it across his forehead. He dunked the other cloth and pulled back the blanket as he began to wipe the dirt from his friend's body.
"Herc? Can you hear me? No? Well, I'm going to talk anyway. You're scaring me here, buddy. I'm not sure what else to do. I know you don't like to be dirty so we'll clean you up and you can concentrate on getting better. You just rest."
Jason and the healer arrived just as Iolaus was tucking the covers around his friend. The older woman, funny, Iolaus didn't think she looked as old as he remembered, pulled the bag with her supplies over her head and set it on the floor before moving to Hercules' side.
"Jason told me how you found him. Has he woken at all?"
"No, still out cold."
She pulled the covers back to his waist, "You've washed him, good. Have you found any marks or bites anywhere on his body?"
"Only a few bruises. I put ointment on them," Iolaus pointed them out.
"Looks like he fell, more than once, something's affected his balance, might be the fever, might be the exhaustion of getting here, might not." She lifted Hercules' eyelids and looked at his eyes. She felt the fever burning behind his forehead. "Well, it doesn't look like he's going to wake up and tell us where it hurts. We'll have to see if we can figure it out for ourselves."
She traced his ribs with her fingertips. Finding nothing amiss, she moved to his abdomen and began gently probing it, eliciting a low moan from the patient.
"His stomach's tender, something he ate, perhaps? Did they say what he had to eat at that tavern?"
Iolaus shrugged, "I don't know. They said he was fine when he left."
She continued her exploration but kept returning to the same spot, "There's definitely something bothering him here. Only one way to find out." Pulling Hercules into a sitting position she ordered Jason to hold him up. "Iolaus get that bucket over here." She dug around in her bag finally settling on a small vial which she waved several times under the demigod's nose.
Hercules moaned and tried to pull away. She continued forcing him to breathe the fumes until he gagged. She jerked her hand away as he brought up the contents of his stomach into the bucket. Jason eased Hercules back into the pillows as the healer wiped his face with a cool cloth.
"Whew! I don't know what this is but it's sour." Iolaus exclaimed holding the bucket an arms length away from himself.
Laodice took the bucket and examined the contents, her nose wrinkling at the stench, "It started out as stew. I don't see anything lethal except the smell, I think you can go bury this outside somewhere." She handed Iolaus back the bucket which he dutifully removed from the area. The healer resumed examining her patient. Again, her seasoned fingers probed Hercules stomach, she nodded, satisfied with what she found, " I think it's safe to say that it was something he ate. Hopefully, now that we've gotten the worst of it out of his system the rest will work through on it's own. He seems stable enough." She moved back to her bag as Iolaus returned to Hercules' side with a fresh bucket of water for the basin.
"I'll leave some tea to settle his stomach and herbs to help him fight the poison but you won't be able to give it to him until he wakes up."
"Poison? Someone was trying to kill him?" Iolaus hovered protectively over his friend.
"I don't think so. Though I can imagine many would like to try. It was probably unintentional, I've heard that there's a new cook at the tavern in Mycenae. The other healers in the area have been mentioning him, someone named Falafel. He's making quite a name for himself among the healing society. I think there was something gone bad in the stew, probably the possum. I imagine that his taste for possum stew has been completely eradicated."
"I can imagine. Herc must not have known Falafel was there or he wouldn't have ate."
"Know of him, do you?"
Iolaus nodded, hand unconsciously moving to his own stomach, "First hand."
"Nice to know you'll still eat anything, Iolaus." She smiled at him knowing it would unnerve the hunter, then turned her attention back to her patient. "Stubborn demigod that he is, he exhausted himself trying to get home instead of riding it out where he was. He's weak but I don't imagine that will last long once he starts to feel better. This one always has been strong as a horse, it's that divine blood. Keep him in bed and warm. Keep using the cool cloths against the fever, if nothing else it will make him feel better. I'm going home to my bed. I'll be back in the morning to check on him. Fluids only until then."
She caught Iolaus' chin and raised his eyes to look into hers, "You're exhausted. Worrying takes it's toll, you get some rest tonight, too. And I mean that, if you don't look rested in the morning, I'll put you to bed myself and you know first hand that I can, right Iolaus?"
Hercules stirred and opened his eyes, it was dark. The room was lit by the glowing embers in the fireplace. Where was he? Smelled like home. A purr sounded in his ear as a cat rubbed against the top of his head and mewed into his other ear. The animal flopped down against his arm and began licking his fingers. He flexed them and automatically began scratching the cat's head. Where ever he was, he was safe. The rhythmic purring of the feline lulled him back to sleep.
Mid morning Jason led Laodice back to Hercules' sickbed. Iolaus was sprawled in a chair beside the bed, snoring. A blanket had been draped over him.
"And what time did he go to sleep?"
"Not long after you left. He wanted to make sure Hercules was all right first."
"Of course he did, this one's the same way. Birds of a feather at worrying over each other, always have been. And how was my patient's night?"
"Quiet. Early this morning he started shivering, so I added another blanket."
"That do the trick?" She asked as she absently reached down to scratch the head of the cat curled up at Hercules' feet.
"It seemed to but his fever hasn't broken yet."
She felt his forehead, "But it's down some, don't be surprised if it goes back up before it breaks. Then again, given his parentage, I've learned not to be surprised. His sleep is lighter, he'll wake soon." She pulled back the covers to examine her patient.
"Still a little tender but not as bad as last night. I think he'll recover without difficulty. He needs rest. When he wakes give him tea and weak broth only, you know how to make that?" At Jason's nod she continued, "He can have soup this evening if he feels up to it. I'll be back tomorrow to talk to my patient. Send for me if you need me."
"We will, thank you."
She smiled and patted Jason's shoulder, "Birds of a feather, see if you can get that one in a bed tonight."
Hercules' eyes fluttered but remained closed. Iolaus put down the cat and called his name softly. He was relieved to see his friends head turn toward him. Hercules tried again to open his eyes and though the light was bright he managed to keep them open. The demigod swallowed with difficulty, his throat dry.
"Want some water?"
Iolaus helped him sit up and steadied the cup in his hands. Hercules took in the room and it's occupant. "Jason?"
"Sleeping, he sat up with you most of last night. How are you feeling?"
Hercules waited to answer until Iolaus had helped him lie back down, "Shaky, I feel so weak. What happened?"
"We don't know for sure. We've got a theory. Why don't you tell me what you remember and I'll tell you if it fits."
Hercules reflected, "The last clear memories I have are lunch at a tavern. The special was some sort of stew, I didn't ask what, just ordered it. It was different for stew but it was pretty good and I was hungry. Then, I headed back out on the road, I was going to have to push it to meet you on time. I guess lunch didn't set very well, my stomach was upset and it kept getting worse so I stopped to rest. It hurt so bad, I didn't think I'd be able to get up again. Then it got better for awhile. The pain came in waves. I knew I couldn't make it to you, there were no villages around, no where to go. I headed for home. Everything gets blurry after that. I vaguely remember falling into a brier patch, bumping into a tree, tripping over a furrow in a field."
Iolaus offered him a cup of broth. Hercules waved it off, "Better stay with water, still feeling a little queasy. Does any of that fit with your theory?"
"Yeah, Laodice thinks you had some bad stew. Herc, did you happen to see who the cook was at that tavern?"
"No, he stayed in the back, the innkeeper mentioned that he was new to the area, why?"
"Any chance it could have been Falafel?"
"Seems that the healers in Greece keep tabs on where Falafel is working and he's pretty famous among the healing population. Laodice thinks he got you."
"That would explain the weird taste of the stew. I just figured it was the possum. Is she sure it was him? That stew didn't taste as bad as his stuff usually does."
"Sounds like it was pretty deadly to me. She said that's where he was working. I'm certainly not going to question her information. She scares me."
Hercules chuckled and held his sore stomach, "That's only because you didn't stay in bed like you were supposed to and ended up pulling out your stitches. You didn't complain at all about being in bed for a solid week after that. What'd she do to you?"
"I don't wanna talk about it, Herc, ever. You need to rest. Why don't you get some sleep, you've still got a fever."
Hercules woke to the sound of rain pattering on the roof. He closed his eyes and sighed as thunder rolled through the valley. It was a good day to be home. From the light filtering through the shutters, he must have slept most of the afternoon. His stomach rumbled with the thunder.
Hercules pushed himself up against the headboard and listened to the familiar noises of the house. Iolaus and Jason were in the kitchen. Hercules swung his legs off the side of the bed. Not seeing his clothes anywhere, he gathered the blanket around himself and rose on shaky legs. He rested a moment and found his balance before proceeding slowly into the kitchen.
Jason saw him coming out of the bedroom, "Well, you must be feeling better,"
Hercules nodded yes and slid onto the bench next to Iolaus, "Who's winning?" He gestured to the playing pieces in front of them.
"I have a comfortable lead," Jason commented smugly.
"You cheat. You must be cheating. You've been cheating for years, I just haven't figured out how yet."
"That hasn't changed." Hercules scratched the cat that was curled up on his end of the table. "Who's this?"
"That's Jason's new girlfriend," Iolaus replied.
"Oh?" Hercules questioned. An eyebrow raised toward the former king of Corinth.
"A few months ago I started finding dead mice on the doorstep. For the longest time I couldn't figure out where they were coming from. Then I started seeing her around the barn. I couldn't catch her, she was wild. So, I started leaving out a little milk here and there, a few scraps, and eventually she learned to trust me. I guess she decided to stay."
"Looks like she decided to move in," Hercules remarked.
"She's not left your bed since we found you in the field yesterday. She likes you," Jason commented.
"You know, Jason, she was providing for you when she brought you those mice. Cats do that. Ania and I had one that would drag in all sorts of things for me to bury in the back yard later. "
The cat leaned into Jason's hand as he scratched her cheek. He smiled as she began to purr. "She provides more than that, she's a good friend. Always seems to turn up when I get lonely around here. I'm about ready for some soup. How about you?"
"I can always eat."
"That's what Laodice says."
"Herc, don't start. I don't wanna talk about that ever!"
The cat moved to a safer perch on a chair near the warm fire and purred as she enjoyed the brotherly bickering.
6 July 00
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