“You can trust me, cousin,” Admetus said.
“But I have as much right to find the centaurs as any of you,” Alcestis said.
Jason moved smoothly to her side. “If your father isn’t warned, none of what we do matters here. You have the more difficult task. If you don’t make it through …”
She nodded. “All right, Jason. But I don’t see why I need a companion.”
He said carefully, “If one of you doesn’t get through, there’s hope the other can.”
“Ah.” She seemed happy with that explanation.
By now the wagon had appeared. Alcestis and Admetus climbed up beside Laentes the farmer and set off on the track to Iolcus.
“If we’re right, we’ll find the centaurs at the pool of Demeter,” said Jason.
“And what do we do then?” Lynceus asked warily. “There are only four of us now.”
“Do whatever we can to delay them until my father catches up with us,” said Acastus
“And get that jar of poison!” Jason added.
THE VILLAGERS PROVIDED THE boys with fresh supplies of water and food and wished them well on their journey. As they set off, Jason was grimly silent. He knew that whenever King Pelias appeared, it would mean the end of his fragile alliance with Acastus.
He had faced so many dangers already, and yet one of his own companions was still the deadliest threat of all.
By midday they had reached a group of rocks, like the building stones of giants, piled one atop the other. They decided to take a break and rest for a few minutes in the shade.
Lynceus clambered to the top of the highest boulder and, shielding his eyes from the sun, scanned the surrounding countryside. “I can’t see anything but more hills and more trees.”
“But we are within an hour of Demeter’s Pool,” Acastus proclaimed. “I know this place. I have camped here with Father. Take heart. It is not long now.”
Jason was surprised at Acastus’ speech. It was the first time he’d sounded like a leader.
The boys responded to his words. A new sense of purpose lent them all strength. They stood and went forward and, though little was said over the next several miles, there was energy in their walking.
When at last they spotted the gleam of water through the trees below them, Acastus—who had been brooding the whole way—spoke up.
“Lynceus, you and Idas get up to the top of that hill over there!” he commanded, pointing to a small hillock on the top of which was a white marble shrine. “See if there’s any sign of the centaurs. Jason and I will keep going on toward the lake.”
The two brothers followed his orders at once.
Acastus strode off quickly through the light foliage so that Jason had to hurry to catch up.
“There’s something else on your mind, isn’t there?”
“Of course there is,” Acastus replied abruptly. “Hasn’t it crossed your mind that the centaurs may already have come and gone? The water may already be carrying its poison to my city.”
“You’re right,” Jason admitted.
“And there’s only one way to find out for certain,” Acastus said grimly.
“You’re going to drink the water!” Jason exclaimed.
“Do you have a better plan? We don’t have any time to waste. If the water’s safe, we’ll know the centaurs haven’t arrived yet. If not, you will have to make sure that the news of the danger is spread as quickly as possible. Thousands of lives will be at stake.”
“You may be right,” Jason admitted hesitantly, “but there’s no reason the drinker has to be you.”
“There’s every reason!” Acastus increased his pace. “I am the prince of Iolcus!”
Jason matched him step for step. “That’s no reason to kill yourself. After all, I’m the one Chiron charged with bringing back the Gorgon’s blood. It’s my fault we didn’t get it.”
Acastus rounded on him, his face twisted with anger and pain. “Back at Mount Ossa, I almost had the poisoned blood in my hands,” he said, his voice tight and strained, “but I missed my chance. If this land is to die because of my failure, then I should die with it.” He turned back to the path and rounded a final turning.
There ahead lay the Pool of Demeter, shaped like a silver shield.
Jason grabbed for Acastus, but at his touch, Acastus rounded on him and whipped out his sword.
Without thinking, Jason leaped back and drew his own sword, his hand trembling with shock.
“I told you it would come to this, Jason,” said Acastus. There was a quiver in his voice that he was trying hard to control. “I told you we’d settle matters with swords, warrior to warrior.”
Jason could feel the pulse pounding in his temple, the sun beating hot on his face. Both Gorgon’s blood jars lost, the prince of Iolcus dead—could he go back to Chiron with news like that?
“No, Acastus. If Chiron were here, he’d take the test himself, and I must serve in his place.”
Rage flared in Acastus’ eyes. “Why? Because you think that you are the true prince of Iolcus and not I?”
He lashed out with his sword, but Jason blocked the blow. The bronze blades clanged together, the sound echoing through the trees.
“That’s got nothing—”
Before Jason could finish, Acastus struck again. And again. With each new blow Jason was driven farther back up the path.
Acastus paused, his face red, his chest heaving. “Don’t you see that this is your chance, Jason? If I drink the poisoned water, then you will be prince of Iolcus. It will be a blighted land filled with withered crops and dead cattle, but still you will be its prince.”
“Is that what you’re so afraid of?” Jason asked. “Can’t you see how much your people will need you if the worst happens? How much your father will need you?”
“You know nothing of kings, Jason!” Acastus yelled. “I would be a shame to my people, a weakling. No one could rule that way.” He attacked again, bronze ringing on bronze. One blow, two, then a third.
For a moment, they paused again, both boys exhausted and sweating.
“You can’t beat me with a sword, Jason,” Acastus said, gulping air. “I’ve trained an hour each day with my father’s royal guards since I was six years old.”
“Then why are you so out of breath, mighty prince?” asked Jason, though he, too, was gasping.
Acastus slashed at him.
As Jason stepped back to avoid the blow, his foot slipped on damp leaves. He stumbled to his knees, shoving the edge of his blade up before his face. The impact of blade on blade jarred the sword from Jason’s fingers, and it fell onto the ground.
Looking up, Jason saw the prince looming over him, poised for a killing thrust.
In the back of his mind, Jason heard Hera’s laughter.
“SEE TO IT THAT MY people are warned,” Acastus said.
He tossed the sword aside as if the hilt burned his fingers, then turned and ran toward the pool.
Jason jumped up. “You may be better with a sword,” he muttered, “but I’m the faster runner.” He raced off in pursuit, and—at the last second—Jason threw himself at Acastus, wrapping his arms tightly around the other boy’s legs.
Acastus toppled to the ground, and they rolled together in a flurry of kicks and punches.
“The gods damn you, Jason!” Acastus cried. “Do you want to die?” He jammed a knee into Jason’s belly and made a grab for his throat.
Jason shifted his weight and flipped the prince onto his back, pinning his shoulders to the ground.
“No more than you, Prince Acastus.” He was panting. There was a sharp pain under his breastbone. His arms ached. “But if you want a witness to your sacrifice, you should have picked somebody more obliging.”