Another centaur, with a long gray tail, caught up with Admetus and cuffed him on the back of the head, knocking him flat. Admetus scrambled desperately away, got up, and staggered back toward Jason.
The two brothers were cut off as well, by a trio of dark-bodied centaurs who herded them toward the rest.
“You didn’t even try to get away,” Acastus said, sneering at Jason.
“I stood my ground,” Jason retorted. “All you did was give them some sport. And showed them how weak we are.”
Now the centaurs had formed a loose circle around them and were whirling their weapons in the air. Occasionally one would rise up on his back legs, front feet pawing the air. They shouted back and forth to one another, mocking the boys with their neighing laughter.
The boys pressed together, back to back, as the centaurs drew closer.
“What do we do now?” Acastus whispered to Jason.
“I wish I knew,” Jason said, his voice cracking on the final word.
THE BIG CENTAUR NESSUS fixed Jason with a contemptuous glare. “Look, here’s Chiron’s pet boy.”
“So, are you all pupils of the good and wise Chiron?” sneered a centaur to his right, whose eyebrows met in the middle, which only added to his bestial appearance.
“What are you doing out here in the wild? Hunting monsters?” cried a third. His horse body was spotted, as if with some terrible disease. “Perhaps you’ve found them!” He beat his fists on his chest.
All of the centaurs seemed to think this was outrageously clever, and they laughed loudly.
“But wait!” said Nessus. “They have no weapons. What’s the matter, little warriors? Forget your swords and spears?”
“We’ll have them next time!” Acastus burst out.
Jason wanted to knock him flat for being so stupid. The last thing they wanted to do was antagonize the centaurs. He stepped forward. “Chiron sent us to fetch herbs for a healing draught,” he said quickly. “We’re not hunting.” He held up empty hands. “As you noted—we have no weapons.”
“A huntsman once tried to kill me!” Nessus roared in sudden anger. “Tore me up with his spear. But I survived.”
The other centaurs applauded and several laughed again, a long neighing sound.
“Yes, I remember,” Jason began in a soft voice. “I helped Chiron heal—”
Nessus did not hear, or deliberately wished not to hear, interrupting Jason. “I tracked him down later. He claimed when he threw his spear he thought he was aiming at a deer. A deer!”
The centaurs laughed and called to one another: “A deer! He thought Nessus was a deer!”
“Well, he won’t be hunting deer again,” Nessus shouted above them, “because I cracked his skull open—like this!” He lashed out with his club, and Jason had to duck to keep his own head from being smashed.
The others centaurs apparently thought this looked like fun, for they lunged forward, swinging at the boys with their clubs. The boys had to duck and dodge for all they were worth, and still some of them took blows to the back or shoulder.
Finally the centaurs were laughing so hard they had to stop their game so they could catch their breath.
Admetus, who had taken at least one blow—for his shoulder was already purpling—whispered to Jason, “We could make a dash for it. Maybe some of us could get away.”
“You tried that already,” Jason reminded him. “There’s nothing the centaurs like better than chasing running prey.”
“So what do you suggest?” Acastus snapped. “That we just stand here and take more blows?”
“Yes,” Jason answered firmly, “if we have to. Stand here until they get bored. They’re not really very bright and they’ll leave soon, as long as we don’t provoke them.”
“They don’t look bored to me,” Lynceus muttered, nodding his head at the centaurs, who were still laughing and slapping their hands together.
Just then the centaurs all looked up.
“Look at them, Nessus! Not much sport here,” called out the spotty centaur.
Another pointed at Idas. “That one at least seems big enough for a fighter,” he said. “But I doubt he has the spirit.” He trotted over to Idas, presented his rear to the boy, and whipped his tail across Idas’ face.
Idas clenched his fists and started forward.
“Don’t move,” Jason warned.
Idas clenched his jaw and stood his ground, though there were welts across his cheek where the tail had struck him.
“These are women, not warriors,” Nessus agreed. “Let’s go … and leave them to their pretty flowers.”
“There’s still some fun to be had,” cried a centaur who wore a necklace of bear claws around his neck. “Let’s chase them across the valley and then hunt them.”
Nessus walked over unhurriedly and grabbed hold of the bear-claw necklace, twisting it so tightly it choked the centaur till his face turned purple. “Have you forgotten what we’re really after, Hylaus?”
Hylaus raised a hand, signaling his obedience, and Nessus released him. Then, lofting his club high above his head, Nessus galloped off across the meadow and into the trees. The others followed, shouting and whistling and waving their clubs.
Idas picked up a rock and was about to throw it after them, but Acastus grabbed his wrist and held him back. “There’ll be another time,” he promised through gritted teeth. “Another time when we’re armed. With bows as well as swords. Let that rabble try us then!”
The boys shouted their agreement.
“For now can we finish what we came here for?” asked Jason.
Halfheartedly, the boys returned to their work. Even Acastus helped to gather some herbs. It was as if the meeting with the wild centaurs had given him some sense of comradeship with the others.
By the time they had filled all the herb bags, the sun was sinking to the west beyond the Bay of Thessaly and Acastus’ city of Iolcus.
“Maybe we should find someplace to sleep for the night,” said Lynceus, stifling a yawn. “Chiron is probably still mad at us anyway.”
“If we don’t go back he’ll be even madder,” said Jason.
“We could just not go back at all,” Acastus suggested.
“That’s very well for you, Acastus. Your home is just down there.” Lynceus waved a hand vaguely toward the west. “But some of us have a long way to travel, and we’d have to do it without food or drink or weapons or coins.”
“Hold on,” said Admetus. “Look at Melampus.”
The gangly Melampus was standing up straight and staring fixedly at the sky. He’d gone as rigid as a spear shaft.
“What is it, Melampus?” Jason asked. “What’s the matter?”
Melampus pointed to a flock of birds wheeling across the sky, filling the air with their piercing cries.
“They’re upset,” he said. His brow wrinkled in concentration. “They’re speaking about Chiron.”
“Oh, he’s not listening to the birds again, is he?” Idas groaned. “I swear the gods stole his wits when he was in the cradle. I mean, who can believe that story about the grateful snakes?”
“What story?” Jason asked.
“You must have slept through it, Goat Boy,” Acastus said with a sneer. “He’s told the rest of us often enough.”
“But I don’t know …” Jason began before Idas interrupted him.
“Well, Melampus claims that as an infant he helped some snakes and they licked his ears and after that he could understand the language of animals.”
“I can believe that,” Jason said quietly. “He’s very good.”
“And I,” Admetus said.
Acastus laughed. “If you believe that rubbish, you’re as mad as he.”