“We could pull ashore here,” Lynceus said, “and make the rest of the journey on foot.”
“And find Iolcus a dead city?” said Acastus. “Never! We go on to the lake.”
Now they fell under the shadow of the cliffs, and the air grew suddenly darker and colder.
“I hope we’ve made the right choice,” Admetus worried. “None of us are sailors.”
“Argos said the boat could make it,” said Jason.
Lynceus sighed. “You’re putting a lot of confidence in him. He’s only a ferryman.”
“I think he’s a lot more than that,” Jason said.
“Rock dead ahead!” Alcestis shrieked, pulling herself back from the front of the boat.
Lynceus half stood, then sat down abruptly, screaming, “Pull left! Hard left!” He signaled with his hand and shouted again, “Left!”
The rowers dug their oars into the water and tried to drag the Swift from her course, but it was too late. The prow glanced off the rock, and the boat jerked aside as if she had been punched in the jaw. She spun around in the churning water, then righted herself and slipped back into the center.
“What’s happening?” Alcestis called out in a quavering voice. “Are we sinking?”
Jason leaned over, quickly examining the hull. “No, there’s no damage,” he assured her. “Argos built her to handle rough waters.”
Now they used the oars only to fend off the approaching rocks.
Suddenly Jason felt a chill mist at his back, like a puff of icy breath. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw a cloud of spray filling the canyon ahead.
“Listen to that noise!” Acastus cried.
The rush of the water was getting louder, booming off the canyon walls. Lynceus was peering through the mist, straining his eyes to the utmost.
“Hang on tight,” he warned. “All that spray can only mean one thing.”
“Waterfall,” Jason said under his breath.
“What?” Admetus, his seat partner, strained to hear.
“Waterfall!” Jason shouted.
The sound of crashing water was almost deafening now, and the little boat was completely engulfed in spray.
“Hang on!” Lynceus cried again.
Alcestis began uttering a steady stream of prayers, calling on Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, and every other god she could think of to protect them. A gut-jarring lurch cut her off as the boat launched into the air.
For a few breathless seconds the Swift really was flying: down, down, down the side of the falls. The boys and Alcestis had to hold on to the sides of the boat in order not to be thrown into the roiling river.
Then the Swift hit the water again with a sickening smack that pitched her little crew flat on their faces. The boat spun helplessly in powerful eddies as one by one the boys scrambled back to their places, grabbing at the oars that threatened to slide out of their locks. Alcestis alone remained where she’d been thrown.
“Grab your oars and try to steady her!” Jason yelled above the noise of the river, and the boys were quick to do his bidding.
They stabbed the oars into the water, using them to resist the whirling currents. Gradually they gained control of the Swift and managed to aim her prow directly downstream once more.
“To the right!” Lynceus yelled.
Ahead of them, a round boulder rose out of the water like the humped back of a giant serpent. The rowers tried to turn the boat, but the rapids had them completely in their grip. Idas tried to fend the boulder off with his oar, but the impact knocked the oar out of his grasp.
“Look out!” he yelled, leaning into the water and retrieving the oar.
Now the driving current slammed them against the rock, and they were jolted to the right. The boat shivered and bounced on the water.
“It’s all right!” Lynceus exclaimed with a nervous laugh. “We’re still afloat.”
“Hold on to your oars!” Acastus ordered. “There are plenty more rocks ahead!”
The Swift swerved and tilted, the prow rising suddenly upward, then dipping sharply away.
“More spray ahead!” Lynceus warned.
They held tightly to their oars. This time Alcestis was not alone in her prayers.
The next waterfall was bigger and higher. The rushing torrent threw the Swift into the empty air. Screams erupted all around. Idas, forgetting his prayers, hurled a bitter curse at the gods for their indifference.
This time when they came down, it was with a smack that threw them to the floor of the boat in a tangle of limbs. A huge plume of water erupted from the stern and crashed down on them.
“We’re going to sink!” Admetus cried.
“There’s a jug here somewhere.” On his stomach still, Lynceus scrambled about, looking for the jug.
“I’ve got it!” Alcestis called, and immediately started bailing by scooping up water and flinging it over the side.
Jason pulled himself onto his knees. Gazing in horror through the spray, he saw that they were headed straight for a rock as sharp as the beak of a monstrous bird. Clearly it would stab right through the hull and smash the boat to splinters. Leaping to his feet, he seized his oar and lunged, driving the oar at the rock. The wood snapped in two under the impact, and Jason was thrown off his feet. His arms flapped uselessly, and he toppled over the side into the churning water.
Lost in the chaotic flood, he kicked upward with all his might. His head broke the surface and he coughed, spitting out water. The eddies twisted him giddily about; the river spun around him in a blur of silver-and-white foam.
Then he saw the keel of the Swift veering sharply toward him. He tried to grab a breath and dive under it, but too late. The edge of the wood smacked him in the head. Pain lanced his skull. Blackness closed over him, and he was sucked down into the hungry waters.
IS THIS WHAT IT’S LIKE to be dead? The thought seemed to come to Jason from nowhere, and that was exactly where he was—nowhere.
All around him was a darkness so complete, it was as if he were in a bottomless pit of tar. He could feel nothing of his own body: not an arm or leg.
Is this is how the spirits of the dead are supposed to be, he thought, like a thin, drifting shadow? Chiron had taught him that spirits could be summoned back briefly to the upper world by a sacrifice of blood to speak their secrets to the living. Will anyone ever bother to summon me back, or does my story die with me?
Then, suddenly, he saw a glimmer of light, heard the slap of water on a nearby shore.
Now he knew exactly where he was. The light was the lantern of Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld, who was waiting to carry him across the River Styx to the Land of the Dead. The sound he was hearing was the murmur of that poisoned river.
That voice. How strange that the ferryman of the dead should address him in a young girl’s voice.
“What’s happening? Is he waking up?”
That voice sounded familiar, too. Lynceus? Admetus? Idas?
“Open your eyes, Jason!” There was no mistaking that tone. Acastus!
He forced his eyes to open, and now the light was growing stronger, spilling over him, warming him. Flames, a campfire. He tried to sit up, and immediately pain and nausea overwhelmed him.
A hand on his shoulder. “Steady, Jason. You’ve taken a bad hit.”
He touched his fingertips to where the pain was worst and found that a bandage had been wrapped around his head.
“It’s as clean as I could make it,” said Alcestis, “and I found some agrimony growing nearby. I ground it with a rock and used it to treat the wound.”
“You can stop fussing over him now,” said Acastus. “He’s going to be fine.”
“What happened?” Jason’s voice was a dry rasp. “I thought I was dead.”