Melampus already knew most of the herbs, though even he did not know bawme, which could only be found in really wild places. The other boys had to be watched constantly, for they seemed incapable of remembering for more than a moment the difference between herbs and weeds.
The worst was Acastus, who didn’t pick a single thing nor move from his perch. Finally Jason could stand no more. Striding over to the rock, he stood right in front of the prince.
“I suppose you expect even tiny plants to come running in answer to your royal decree,” he said. He could feel the heat rising to his cheeks.
“What a strange idea,” said Acastus, raising an eyebrow, “that plants should come running.” He laughed. “Have you been at the wine again, Jason?” He tutted disapprovingly. “No virtue in that, you know.”
“Well, what do you think you’re doing?” Jason persisted.
Acastus put his head back on his hands in an exaggerated manner, as if giving this much thought. Then he looked up and yawned. “I’m working out our route back to the cave. The way you brought us was far too long and arduous; too many boulders. There must be an easier way.”
The other boys had all stopped their work and were listening to the exchange, their hands full of greenery.
“There’s going to be a fight,” Lynceus said.
“Good,” said Idas. “I was getting bored. I bet you that onyx necklace of yours that Acastus wins.”
“And what do I get if I win the bet?” Lynceus asked.
“You get to keep your onyx necklace.”
“I think Jason will win,” said Admetus.
The others laughed.
“And those pigs we rode last night will sprout wings and fly,” Lynceus said. “Acastus has him in both weight and height.”
Jason barely heard this exchange, for he was fully concentrating on Acastus, who seemed determined to bait him.
“Surely,” Jason said slowly, “you can think and gather herbs at the same time.”
Acastus stretched his arms and straightened his back. “When we get back, you can tell Chiron what a bad boy I’ve been,” he drawled.
“I won’t tell him anything,” said Jason. “I’m not a tell-all.” There, that should do it. Now we can both claim victory. But then he added, “Still, I expect you to do your share.”
“You expect?” Acastus laughed. “And who are you? A peasant boy whose parents threw him out to make room for more goats.”
That was so close to what Jason feared, he shot back without thinking. “And what did your father throw you out for?”
This obviously hit too close to the bone. Acastus jumped to his feet and shoved Jason backward with both hands. Jason staggered and only narrowly avoided tumbling into a pricker bush.
“If Chiron is such a wise teacher, he should have taught you to know your place, Goat Boy. Be careful what you say to princes. Don’t raise your voice to them, don’t talk back to them, and never … never … presume.” Acastus’ face blazed red. “If this were my father’s palace, you’d be whipped for saying such a thing.”
Hoi, Jason thought, and what a sore spot that is! He suddenly realized that another word on the matter and he would provoke Acastus beyond any kind of apology. Then a fight between them would be inevitable. Chiron had warned him repeatedly that the virtuous man does not fight unless there is no other choice. And while Jason knew he could probably hold his own in a fight with Acastus—despite the prince’s greater height and weight—he immediately lowered his voice. “Do what you like, Prince Acastus. We need to be finished here before it gets dark.”
He turned to rejoin the others as they finished gathering the herbs.
“So you’re afraid of the dark as well,” said Acastus, his voice like a sting.
Jason felt his fingers curl into fists, all of Chiron’s words of wisdom drowned out by the drumbeat pounding in his head.
“What’s that?” Admetus exclaimed suddenly.
In the distance Jason could hear an ominous rumble. So the drumbeat wasn’t just in his head.
“Is it thunder?” Melampus rubbed his brow and squinted at the sky.
Admetus looked up as well. “No, the sky is clear.”
“It sounds like horses,” said Idas.
“Idas is right,” said Lynceus. “Maybe it’s chariots.”
Acastus kicked a stone. “That would be just our luck, running into a raiding party of Thracian charioteers. May the gods curse Chiron for sending us out here in the middle of nowhere without our weapons!”
“A lot of use weapons would do the six of us against a Thracian war band,” said Admetus.
Jason listened carefully to the sound. He knew he’d heard it before. Then he had it. Turning to the others, he said, “That’s not thunder or horses or a war band of charioteers. It’s something much worse.”
“What are you talking about, Goat Boy?” snapped Acastus.
Before Jason could answer, Lynceus was pointing to a cloud of dust at the far end of the valley. “There!”
“What is it?” Idas demanded. “What do you see?”
Lynceus strained his sharp eyes to identify the forms emerging from the dust. “Horses,” he said.
“Hah!” That was Idas.
“But I see men as well.”
“Chariots, then,” said Admetus.
Lynceus shook his head. “No, Jason is right. It’s something else.”
By now they could all see what was approaching—a band of centaurs, a dozen of them at least, their long hair flying as they galloped down the valley.
“What do you think they want?” Melampus asked.
“Maybe to lecture us on knowledge and virtue,” drawled Acastus.
“These centaurs aren’t like Chiron,” Jason warned. “They’re wild.”
“A bit like us,” Lynceus joked, “except with twice as many legs.”
Before anyone could laugh at his joke, the centaurs were in the clearing, brandishing wooden clubs over their heads and whooping ferociously, heading straight for the boys.
Jason recognized the leader. His name was Nessus, and about a year before, he’d staggered into Chiron’s cave, his flank ripped open by the spear of a Thessalian hunter. Pale and shaking, he’d collapsed on the floor before Chiron could catch him. In spite of the awful wound, Chiron had cured him, and Nessus had left a few days later. And without a single word of gratitude, Jason recalled.
Nessus wore what looked worryingly like a human skull suspended from a leather cord around his neck. The others sported necklaces and bracelets made from bones, claws, and horns. They’d painted the human parts of their bodies with streaks of dark blue and bloodred, which gave them a savage, warlike appearance.
“Not like us at all,” Jason told the boys quickly. “Chiron calls them a ‘rough and careless breed.’ They live on raw meat, are usually drunk, and filled with rage. Chiron says they fight all the time, even among themselves.”
“They do look dangerous,” Admetus whispered.
“They are dangerous,” Jason said. “Chiron told me they kill humans who annoy them. He said that if I see any of them to just get out of the way.”
“Then why are we just standing here?” Acastus demanded. “We need to get to a spot we can defend.” He started toward a cluster of rocks, waving to the others to follow.
“No, this way!” shouted Admetus, dashing toward a stream. “The water will slow them down.”
Melampus started to follow him, then hesitated, torn between the two princes.
“Stop!” Jason cried. “We have to stay together.”
But it was too late. Idas and Lynceus had already bolted off in a third direction of their own.
At the sight of the boys fleeing, the centaurs redoubled their whoops and galloped even faster to intercept them. Two with dappled bodies pulled ahead of Acastus before he could reach the rocks. He stumbled back, arms shielding his head as the centaurs trotted around him, shaking their clubs.