He trudged along the trail, head down, ears flat, there had been such hopes at the magnificent hospital, so different from the one in New Babbage, yet in the end it had been little different. The heat of the day had just started to beat down, and all around people were finding shady spots for a quick nap, but the boy walked on.
He was hot and bothered when he came over a rise to see the sea in front of him. There was a small harbour, just large enough to shelter two tiny fishing boats, a cluster of single story buildings, and off to one side a massive old tree with spreading branches, under whose shade a man in red robes rested on a stone bench.
Tepic strode crossly through the village to the tree and examined the sleeping man. He didn’t look like the healers in the hospital, he had a large head framed by thick, white curly hair at the sides, running down his cheeks to join in a formidable beard and skin a deep brown with weathered wrinkles, much like a dock worker or farmer. His robes, though pristine, were worn and in places patched, and he had no sandals on his feet.
“Oy, mate, where’s the healer then?” he asked, rather gruffly.
The old man opened on eye, glanced over the boy and said “Nap time now, consultations later, water from the spring at the end of the bench, have a drink, settle down for a sleep, and get your manners back, foxboy!”
With that he closed his eye, settled back and began to snore, though Tepic was almost certain he was faking it. What really unsettled him was how with a single glance the man had known he was a fox, so with nothing better to do he sipped at the spring, which was wonderfully cool and refreshing, leant back against the base of the bench, and closed his eyes…..
A strange, irregular pinging noise roused him, and a glance showed the man now sitting up and eating something. Every now and then he would spit a pit in the direction of a pottery jar on the ground, the sound being the ricocheting off the edge and into the waiting mouth. Tepic was impressed, this was not a skill seen amongst most adults, though one highly prized by the urchins during cherry season. Before he could move, the man spoke.
“You awake then? How did you lose your tail?”
There was something about this man, the way he cut to the chase and seemed to know things so quickly that reassured Tepic, surely this was someone who could help him, so he made himself comfortable, sitting cross legged in front of the chap and began his tale.
As he spoke, he became so engrossed, the man’s attention seemed so firmly on him, with sounds of encouragement and a gentle nodding of his head, that he did not notice the chap wave away some people who approached, or those who were beckoned forward and bid sit and listen. It wasn’t until he stumbled on relating what the priest had told him, his voice petering out, that he became aware of those sitting around.
“So,” the man said, “my friends and students, you have all heard this young foxes dilemma, is there anything we who have studies medicine can do for him?”
All around the listeners looked to the ground or sadly shook their heads, and one young student spoke up.
“No, Teacher, once cut from the body a limb can not be reattached.”
“You are right, my friend, as were the priests at our hospital, for all that they are still stuck in ritual and certain of their own superiority.”
Tepic’s head dropped again, and a small sob could be heard.
“However,” continued the man, “what course of action can we advise our young fox to take, since no man can help him, and a fox without a tail is a dreadful thought?”
There was a silence from the audience that drew on for a short while, then the man impatiently asked “Come on now, think!”
A lad on the edge of the group, no more than a few years older than Tepic, raised his hand tentatively and spoke “The gods?”
“Well done lad! But which ones will we suggest, and whom shall we name as guide for our young fox here, as one can not just go calling on the gods themselves!”
This seemed to be a cue for the gathered people to break into small groups and discuss the matter among themselves. Tepic had looked up during the exchange, a light of hope rekindling in his eye, and now the man beckoned him forward and offered him some of the small fruit he had been eating earlier. They were the same odd, bitter things he had tried earlier from a tree, but these were plumper and covered with a sheen of oil. He tried one, it was salty and still slightly bitter, but not bad, and with a glance at the man, turned and spat the pit expertly into the waiting jar.
The two of them continued the contest until they were approached by a small delegation from the assembly. They stood waiting until the man turned to them and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Master, we have considered the question and have come to the following conclusions..”
Between them they spoke of Asclepius, the God of Healing, but had discounted him and his followers as they concerned themselves mostly with the correct application of earthly medicine. Apollo had been considered, the fox being one of his sacred animals as well as being a patron of healing. As he also sponsored Asclepius, he had also been discounted. Instead, looking at the background of Tepic as a city fox, and from a city where mechanics and clockwork were revered, they suggested he visit Hephaestus, the Smith of the Gods, renowned for his intricate and wonderful mechanical creations. If he could be found, Chiron would be the idea guide, for the centaur was at ease with both mortal and god, and was known for teaching and raising children as well as having extensive healing skills.
The master nodded, then added that after seeing Hephaestus, Tepic should also call on Dionysus and pay his respects. He asked if the boy could play a musical instrument, and Tepic proudly drew forth his flue, playing the tune the Morlocks had so enjoyed. As the last mournful notes died away, the man smiled at him, nodded, and said “That will do!”
Telling the boy he would have to travel to Mount Pelion, and pointed to a path that wove along the shore and behind a cliff.
“Take that path, that will take you there!”
The boy waved to his new friends, and strode jauntily in the direction of the bluffs. As he left earshot, one of the students leaned forward as spoke to his master.
“Master Hippocrates, the mountain is on the mainland, far away, that path just leads to the next bay, why did you send him that way?”
“As you will have noticed, he’s a fox, so for him, that is the path, if he so believes!”