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He began chivvying the boys down the slope, and they complained loudly because of their hurting heads and aching limbs.

“Do you mean us to go without weapons?” Idas was aghast.

“Weapons are for warriors and hunters,” said Chiron icily. “You have proven yourselves to be neither.” He stomped his feet. “The weapons will remain in the back of my cave until you are ready for them.”

“But if we can’t hunt, what will we have to eat?” Melampus asked.

“There are wild fruits and berries aplenty,” replied the centaur, waving at them with a dismissive hand.

“But suppose we run into trouble?” asked Admetus.

“That is the very point I am trying to make,” said Chiron. “For once in your thoughtless lives, I expect you to avoid trouble.”

“That’s fine as long as trouble avoids us, too,” Lynceus murmured.

Melampus trudged up to the centaur and pleaded, “Could we at least take some water?”

Chiron leaned his bearded face close to the boy. “No, Melampus, you cannot. This is supposed to be a punishment. Though I suppose you could go into town and beg for the flogging instead.” He waved them away but signaled Jason to hang back.

Reluctantly, Jason remained as the others trudged downhill.

The old centaur’s face grew thoughtful. “I am disappointed in you, Jason,” he said as soon as the others were out of hearing. “Those boys were sent here to be trained precisely because they are so undisciplined, but you are not. I have raised you myself. I expected better.”

“I just want to be one of them,” Jason said. He hated that his eyes were tearing up. “For the first weeks they would hardly speak to me, treating me like a servant. Last night was the first time—”

“Better you be thought a servant than a fool.”

“If a person is of royal blood, he can be a fool and no one will ever dare call him one,” said Jason bitterly. “But I’m only an orphan, so people can call me anything they like.”

A curious expression flickered in Chiron’s wise eyes, and his voice softened. “Is that all you think of yourself? A worthless orphan? Have I not taught you to take pride in your skills and talents?”

Jason turned away to hide the misery in his face. “What use are those skills and talents if I spend all my days here tending goats and growing vegetables? There’s nothing heroic in that. Or virtuous either.”

“A time will come when you will need everything I have taught you,” Chiron assured him. “More than that I cannot say.”

Jason felt the old centaur’s familiar, reassuring hand rest on his shoulder, but for the first time in his life it didn’t help. He shrugged it away.

“You’d best hurry after them,” the centaur said, removing his hand, “before they get irretrievably lost.”

CHAPTER 2

THE WILD BAND

JASON BOUNDED DOWN THE slope after the other boys, his long blond hair flying about his face. “Hold up! Wait for me!” Melampus stopped and looked back. “Here he comes, nimble as a goat.”

“Yes, and almost as clean,” Lynceus said.

“What kept you?” Admetus asked as Jason arrived, puffing, in their midst. “Has Chiron been giving you last-minute instructions?”

“Like don’t get into trouble,” Idas mocked.

“And be sure to be back by sunset,” said Melampus, imitating the centaur’s deep voice.

Lynceus sneered. “And remember to wash behind your ears.” He stuck out his tongue.

“He was probably told to spy on us,” said Acastus, “so that he can bring back a lot of tales to his master.”

“I’m no spy!” Jason declared hotly. “I’m as much under Chiron’s discipline as you are.”

“Well, it’s a bit different for you, isn’t it?” said Acastus witheringly. “You aren’t used to anything better.” He turned his back on Jason and started on down the mountainside.

Jason understood that they were all taking their aching heads and humiliation out on him. He understood—but that didn’t make it any easier to bear, so he stayed well to the rear of them the rest of the way. After all, in a few days’ time, these well-bred pupils of Chiron’s were due to return home to their families. But Jason had no family and no home other than Chiron and the cave.

The valley of Daphnis was on the far side of Mount Pelion, and the trek took them a long way from the village, just as Chiron had intended.

They walked for about an hour before stopping at a stream Jason knew of. It was icy cold, for it came tumbling down from the snowcapped heights of the mountain. After the long hike, the water was especially sweet; the shock of it first in their cupped hands, then in the mouth, was delicious.

“Look, I’m going to stop here and take a nap,” said Acastus, wiping his palms on his tunic. “I’ll meet up with you all on the way back.”

“Who said you were exempt from Chiron’s orders?” Admetus challenged him.

“Don’t you think you can manage without me?” Acastus smiled slowly.

“That’s not the point.” Admetus’ homely face was stern and his lips were set together in a hard, thin line.

Fearing a fight, Jason said quickly, “Chiron expects us to work together.”

“He probably expects to live forever, too, but that’s not going to happen, is it?” Acastus retorted. “This moss over here looks too soft and comfortable to pass up.”

“I think you should come along,” Idas said very deliberately. “I don’t see why the rest of us should do all the work.” Hands on hips, Idas was like a small mountain, and not—in Jason’s opinion—someone to make mad.

Acastus gave him a big grin and shrugged. “You can take a nap, too, if you like. Four is more than enough for this little errand. Especially with goat boy to lead the way.”

“I think we should all go,” said Idas, glowering at the prince.

“Idas is right,” put in Lynceus. “We wouldn’t want to leave anyone behind. Besides, who knows what dangers might be lurking around here?” He looked over his shoulder as if that danger were right behind him.

Acastus shrugged again and held up his hands. “Well, if you all insist, I guess I’ll forget about my nap. After all, I am your leader.”

“Some leader,” Admetus muttered, though only Jason heard him.

They all bent for one last drink of the cold mountain water and then, following Acastus, continued along the mountain path.

The valley of Daphnis was crisscrossed with many tiny rivulets, most no more than a trickle or a boggy spot, for it was high summer now and the smaller streams had dried up. Still, the valley was one of the most fertile areas for miles and so a good place to gather plants and herbs.

While the others knelt on the ground, plucking bits of possible greenery, Acastus perched himself on a rock and rested his chin on his fist, humming some bright tunes. All the while he toyed with his amulet. It was molded in the shape of a stag’s head, with finely wrought antlers and red eyes cut from rubies. More than once Acastus had told the other boys how his father had given him this royal symbol so that, even when he was living rough on Chiron’s mountain, he would always remember that he was a prince.

As if he lets us forget that for a moment, Jason told himself. Acastus was a braggart who held his rank above his head as if it were a tent to keep him from all ills. Ignore him. Jason knew that if he wanted to become friends with the others, he’d have to accept Acastus, too. Despite his boasting, Acastus really was the group’s head, for his rank as prince of the great city of Iolcus was the highest of them all.

For an hour Jason was able to do just that—ignore Acastus, who made a point of lolling about. Most of Jason’s time was spent teaching the others which green sprigs were herbs and which were weeds or—worse—which were poisonous. He showed them bawme, with its dark, squarish leaves, and feverfew, which usually grew by low hedges.