“You almost were,” said Lynceus. “Luckily Idas just had time to reach down and grab you before the current carried us off.”
Jason was sitting upright now, still dizzy. Idas passed him a water skin, and he drank thirstily.
“I’m surprised you didn’t have your fill of water when you went under,” Idas joked.
“Thanks—thanks to you I didn’t.” Jason’s voice was still raspy.
Idas shrugged. “We’d all have gone under if we’d hit that rock, but you managed to turn us just enough to keep the boat safe.”
Jason blinked and looked around him. Things were still spinning. “Where are we?”
“Soon after we got you back aboard, things started to calm down on the river,” said Acastus. “By nightfall we’d managed to reach the northern shore of Lake Boebis, so we stopped here to make camp.”
“Rather than risk getting lost,” Admetus added.
“We need to get moving again,” Jason said. He stood up, only to find the earth swaying.
Idas jumped up and helped him sit down again. “Easy, easy, you’re no use to us in this condition.”
Reluctantly Jason agreed. He drank a bit more of the water and, after a while, even ate some of the bread that Alcestis had crumbled and made into a paste. Only then did he feel better.
“We’ll grab a few hours’ sleep and start up again before dawn,” Acastus said.
Even a few hours made a difference to them all, though Lynceus insisted that Jason take the stern seat for the rest of the trip. During their brief stopover, Idas had cut down a sapling to replace the broken oar.
The fresh air gusting up from the lake helped to clear Jason’s head as they moved swiftly over the calm water. They spotted several fishing boats out for an early catch, and the fishermen waved to them as they sped past.
There was a village on the far side, and as soon as they had dragged the Swift ashore, Acastus called together some of the locals.
“I am your prince, Acastus, son of Pelias,” he announced to them, “and I need your help.”
“He’s the prince, sure enough,” one old farmer told his friends. “I saw him last year, standing beside his father when those bandits were being condemned to death.”
“Has anybody here seen any sign of centaurs?” Acastus asked.
A murmur went through the little crowd, and a man stepped forward. “I was out in my boat about twilight,” he said, “off the western shore of the lake. I heard the noise of horses’ hooves, and I looked out for chariots. Instead I saw a couple of centaurs, though it sounded like more. They disappeared into the trees, and I saw no more of them.”
“They’re here!” cried Jason. “Assuming they stopped for the night, we may just have got here in time.”
“Is there a wagon around here?” Acastus demanded.
“Laentes has one,” somebody called out.
“But you’d be as quick pulling it yourself as trusting that old nag of his!” another said with a laugh.
“Someone fetch this Laentes,” Acastus commanded. “We have to get to the city as fast as possible.”
“The rest of you need to go on to Iolcus,” said Jason. “I’ll try to find out where the centaurs have gone.”
Acastus shot him a sharp look, but there was understanding in his eyes.
“What? In your condition? And alone? You can’t be serious, Jason,” Admetus said.
“I’m fine now,” Jason assured him quietly. “Chiron told me to recover the Gorgon’s blood, to keep it from being used. That’s what I have to do.” He didn’t dare tell them that he’d no intention of entrusting himself to King Pelias’ protection. Once he was in Pelias’ court, the story of his birth would be revealed and his life would be forfeit. More than that, Chiron had made it clear that under no conditions should King Pelias have the Gorgon’s blood.
“Look,” he added, “what good is it for all of us to go to Iolcus? King Pelias has an army. He doesn’t need us. We don’t even know yet where the centaurs are, or what their plan is. Somebody has to track them down.”
Jason took a swallow from his water skin and wiped his brow.
“Won’t they just be going straight to Iolcus?” Lynceus asked.
Acastus gave a short snort. “There aren’t enough of them to take a whole city,” he said slowly while Jason nodded. “Not a city like Iolcus.”
“Don’t forget the poison,” said Jason.
“No one is forgetting the poison,” Acastus retorted. “I was just pointing out—”
“How could they use the poison in battle?” Idas asked.
Lynceus said quickly, “Poison their arrows?”
“I don’t remember seeing any bows at Mount Ossa,” said Jason.
“Or arrows,” Acastus added. “And we were a lot closer than you two.”
“They might have hidden the bows and arrows someplace,” said Lynceus.
“Even poison arrows wouldn’t make a decisive difference in a battle,” said Jason.
Acastus agreed. “My father’s warriors outnumber them four to one.”
“And the centaurs know it,” Jason said slowly. “Which means it’s not a battle they’re looking for. At least not until after the poison’s done its work.”
“What work?” Idas exclaimed in exasperation. “You can’t just throw the jar at your enemy. And if the wind shifts—”
“They could ride into the city,” mused Alcestis, “pretending friendship, have dinner with my father and all the nobles, and poison the wine. That way—”
“They’re not exactly built for stealth,” Admetus pointed out. “And not bright enough to pretend a friendship. Even if your father would let them in the gates.”
Idas smacked a fist against his thigh. “For all the ideas we’ve come up with, we might as well all have drowned in the river!”
His words jolted Jason’s mind back to the rapids. For a moment he’d believed he was going with Charon across the Styx, the poisonous river that wound its way seven times around the Land of the Dead.
“Poisonous river,” he murmured.
Acastus’ eyes narrowed. “What?”
“They’re going to poison the water!” Jason cried. “Nothing could be faster. Or more deadly.”
“Of course!” Acastus looked grim.
Jason turned to him. “What’s the most important water source for Iolcus?”
Without hesitation Acastus answered, “The spring of Melokrene to the northwest of the city. It flows into a pool called the Pool of Demeter.” His eyes were wide. “From there it feeds into every underground stream and well for miles. Every year our priests offer sacrifices there to purify the water.”
Jason leaned forward, put his hand on Acastus’ shoulder. “That’s it! From that one place the Gorgon’s blood could spread throughout the whole country. Demeter’s Pool. Hundreds would die before they realized the danger.”
“And if the water’s poisoned, it would seep into the land,” added Admetus.
“Crops would fail,” said Alcestis in a stricken voice. “Our herds would die, too.”
“Wait a moment, wait a moment,” Idas said. “No poison could do all that.”
“No ordinary poison could,” said Jason, “but the blood of the Gorgon Medusa is deadlier than anyone can imagine.”
Acastus jumped up. “We have to go straight to the spring,” he said. “It shouldn’t take us more than a couple of hours to get there from here. Alcestis can take the wagon to Iolcus and warn Father.”
“It looks like the five of us have a bit farther to go yet,” said Admetus with a weary grin.
“Admetus, I want you to go to the city with Alcestis,” Acastus said.
“Me? Why me?”
Acastus laid a hand on his cousin’s arm. “Because I need someone I can trust to protect her. There’s no telling what dangers may still lie between here and the city.”
Admetus glanced at Alcestis and gave a nod. There was a flush to his cheeks.
“And I need someone my father will listen to,” Acastus added. “Tell him to arm his men and prepare his chariots.”