Clenching his fist, he smacked Acastus across the jaw, hard enough to leave him stunned. Pushing himself up, he staggered the last few yards to the lake and dropped to his knees.
To his right several sparkling streams were pouring down a series of high, rocky tiers to splash into the pool. The water looked pure and clear.
Innocent, he thought. But he knew that if the Gorgon’s blood had already been poured in, the running waters would have long since diluted its crimson color. Yet it would still be just as deadly.
Jason had not been raised as the prince of Iolcus, but he had been raised with a sense of duty. It was clear to him that his duty was to protect the land and its people just as a shepherd protects his flock—even at the risk of his life. Taking a deep breath, aware that it might be his last, he cupped his hands and dipped them into the pool. He lifted the water to his lips and swallowed. As he did so he was aware of a sudden splash to his right.
Acastus had caught up, thrown himself flat on the bank, and plunged his head into the pool. He came up, choking on the water he had swallowed, his face dripping. Coughing three times, he rolled onto his back.
“So now we die together, eh?”
“Or live,” said Jason. The water had tasted normal, but what did normal mean? Each beat of his heart seemed to measure out a vast distance of time, like the slow boom of a far-off tide.
Acastus sat up. The boys looked at each other.
Three … four …
“Are we dead yet?” Acastus asked.
Jason squinted about him. “The sun’s too bright and the grass too green for this to be Hades’ realm.” He sighed. “I think … we’re alive.”
“That’s good news,” Acastus declared. All at once he began to chuckle. Then he threw back his head and laughed long and loud.
Jason flopped onto his back and dissolved into laughter as well. It sounded rich, foolish, and wonderful.
Eventually they calmed down and remembered why they were here and how much they still had to do.
Just then, Lynceus and Idas came charging through the bushes. “Dust,” Lynceus gasped. “To the southeast.”
“Great clouds of it,” Idas confirmed. “Could be horses.”
“It’s coming from the direction of the city,” said Acastus. “The centaurs wouldn’t be coming that way.”
“So it must be—” Lynceus began.
“Chariots!” Idas finished for him.
Acastus nodded. “Warriors from Iolcus,” said Acastus. He turned to Jason. “My father’s horses are the swiftest in Thessaly.”
“We still can’t wait around for him,” said Jason. “We have to guard the spring.”
“You’ll need these,” said Idas, tossing their swords at their feet. “I found them lying on the ground. Is there any point asking what’s been going on?”
“We were having a race,” Acastus replied. He snatched up his sword and sheathed it. “Lynceus, go and meet the chariots. Tell them where we are and that they need to hurry.”
“Won’t you need another sword at your side?” Lynceus asked.
“We need reinforcements even more,” said Idas, clapping him on the back. “Go, fetch them.”
Lynceus gave his brother a stern look. “You take care of yourself till I get back,” he warned, wagging his finger at him.
As Lynceus ran off through the trees, Jason retrieved his own sword and the three boys started up the stony slope, working their way around the shoulder of the crag. They peered down through the rocks and beheld an awesome sight.
On the plain below, the centaurs were approaching from the north. They were waving clubs over their heads, whooping and yelling.
Jason jerked back and signaled the others to keep low.
Below them, the centaur host had come to a halt. They formed a broad crescent around Kentauros and let out a ragged cheer. Wedged under Kentauros’ muscular arm Jason could see the red jar containing the Gorgon’s blood.
“There may be hundreds of them,” Acastus said, “but no more than two or three of them at a time can climb up here to the spring. That evens the odds a bit.”
“Maybe long enough for Lynceus to bring up your father’s troops ….” Idas said. But the three looked at one another, all thinking the same thing.
“Only if we can get our hands on that jar,” Jason said at last.
“The important thing is to keep the spring safe,” said Acastus, “even at the cost of our lives.”
Just then they heard Kentauros bellow, “My brothers, now we shall have our vengeance. Ages ago we were driven from this land by the hordes of man. Now we shall turn this stolen country into a wasteland. The survivors will become our slaves and our prey! Onward … on to the source of Demeter’s Pool.”
A huge cheer went up. The centaurs drummed their hooves on the ground and chanted, “KEN-TAU-ROS! KEN-TAU-ROS!”
“We need a place for an ambush,” said Idas. “Surprise is the only advantage we’ll have.”
They climbed up the slope, scrambling over rocks to where the spring gushed out of a hole in the crag before splitting into several lesser streams on its way down. They found a stony outcropping where, crouched in the shadows, they waited.
Jason drew his sword and ran his thumb lightly over the edge to assure himself of its sharpness.
“What do you think old Chiron would say if he could see us now?” Idas asked.
“He’d probably say we’d come poorly equipped,” said Acastus, “that we should have planned better.”
“No,” said Jason, “I think he’d be proud, proud of all of us for making it this far together.” He stretched his sword out before him and the others laid their blades on top of it.
“We are bound together now,” said Jason, “sworn comrades in the battle to come.”
“Comrades,” said Idas, voice harsh.
“Comrades,” said Acastus, his face suddenly serene.
Now there were hoofbeats approaching from below. Jason peeked around the rock and saw Kentauros coming up the slope with Nessus right behind him. Kentauros looked bigger than ever, his skin even paler in the sunlight than in the cave. It was pulled so tight, his bones were visible beneath it, as if he were still partly dead.
Kentauros paused and turned to face his followers, who had spread out below, surrounding the pool. He raised the jar of Gorgon’s blood above his head, and a cheer went up that chilled Jason to the bone.
“Idas, can you distract Nessus?” he asked.
Idas grinned. “I’ll try to do more than that.”
“Acastus, you and I will tackle Kentauros.”
“You go after the jar,” said Acastus. “I’ll try to kill Kentauros. Let’s pray one of us succeeds.”
Meanwhile, Kentauros had trotted up to the spring, pausing there as if to savor his moment of cruel satisfaction. His grin was a skeleton’s. He was about to pull the stopper from the jar when the three boys jumped from their hiding place and came skidding down the rocky slope, yelling a war cry.
BLOOD AND WATER
ACASTUS CHARGED THE HUGE centaur with his sword, screaming curses as he ran. At the same time, Jason leaped off the slope, landing on Kentauros’ horse back. But he had overshot his mark and began to slip off the other side. Frantically he hooked his left arm around the centaur’s waist, where the two parts of the body joined together.
From the corner of his eye Jason saw Idas ducking—barely in time to keep Nessus’ club from smashing his skull like an eggshell. As Idas pressed forward, he cut a gash in the centaur’s foreleg.
Just then Kentauros reared up, pounding his hooves at Acastus like a pair of hammers. Jason felt himself falling off, and he made a desperate grab for the centaur’s shaggy mane. Twisting his fingers in the thick, tangled hair, he hung on as Kentauros bucked and kicked.