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Melampus hissed and waved his hand irritably for silence. “Let me listen!”

“Listen away if you will, but I’ll tell you what they’re saying: ‘Worms, flies, barley seed,’” Acastus said in a high-pitched voice. “They’re saying: ‘Hawks, owls, foxes, look out!’”

“No, they’re not,” Melampus said. “They’re saying there’s been trouble … a fight … in Chiron’s cave. They’re saying that if we knew any better, we’d be heading right back there now.”

Jason grabbed Melampus by the arm. “What about Chiron? What are they saying about Chiron?”

Melampus shook his shaggy head. “I don’t know. They’ve gone silent.”

“Convenient.” Acastus gave a short, sharp bark of a laugh, but the boys were no longer paying any attention to him.

“Do you think those centaurs we met had anything to do with the fight?” Admetus asked.

The boys looked at one another fearfully, for Chiron—much as they begrudged his hard ways—was their teacher.

Finally Admetus said, “Surely they wouldn’t hurt a fellow centaur.”

Jason shook his head. “He may be of the same race, but he’s nothing like them.”

“Oh, this is stupid,” said Acastus. “Some birds start twittering overhead and you all panic as if Pan’s pipes were ringing in your ears.”

“Melampus has been right before,” Lynceus pointed out. “Remember when he warned us about that storm.”

“The skies were warning enough,” Acastus replied, both hands held up in exasperation.

“And there was the time he convinced that mouse to find my lost ring,” said Admetus.

“He probably dropped it himself so he knew where to look,” Acastus said. “Ignore him.”

“Are you calling me a thief?” Melampus’ face was beginning to purple in anger.

“I’m saying there are many explanations for what happened,” Acastus answered. “And understanding the speech of animals is the least of such explanations.” He turned to the others. “So I say again, ignore him.”

“We can’t afford to ignore him, if there’s even the slightest chance Chiron needs our help,” Jason said. “We have to get back to the cave as fast as we can.” He started across the meadow at a lope, thinking that Chiron was not only his teacher, he was the only real friend—the only family—he had in all the world. And even if the other boys didn’t want to come along, he’d go without them.

He’d gotten halfway across the meadow when Melampus caught up.

“Jason, wait!” he cried, his voice coming out in spurts. “It’s getting dark! You have to help us find the way back. We’ll never make it without you.”

Jason paused and chewed his lip in frustration. Chiron would have said never to abandon the others, no matter what his hurry.

“All right, but we have to move quickly,” Jason called back, and waited till they all caught up.

By the time the cave mouth came into sight, they had only the stars and a half-moon to light their way.

“Stay here,” Jason said. “Let me see if there’s anything wrong.” He already knew something was not right, had known it from the moment he’d realized the cave was unlit. There was no fire, not even a torch burning in the holder. In all the years he’d been with the old centaur, the lights had never gone out completely.

He’d realized that same moment that the safest thing was for him to go on alone. His stomach wasn’t happy about that; it felt cold and heavy. His cheeks went red-hot. But he didn’t dare risk all their lives.

When he got to the entrance, he was forced to halt because the cave was pitch-black and he had to feel his way inside.

“Chiron?” he called softly. “Chiron, are you there?” Then he was silent, listening. He heard a low, ragged breathing coming from somewhere inside. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could just make out the shapes of the centaur’s spare furnishings: some tables, cooking pots, a pair of barrels. And there beyond them, a crumpled form lay on the straw-covered floor.

Jason darted forward, tripping on the way, and fell on his knees at Chiron’s side. Running his hand over the centaur’s head, neck, torso, he came at last to the bulk of the horse body. He put his head down onto the torso and could feel the labored breaths passing like tremors down that mighty frame.

At least he is alive, Jason thought, and aloud whispered, “Chiron, can you hear me?”

A long, drawn-out rasp was the only reply.

Something made a scratching sound behind him, and he looked over his shoulder just as a sudden light flared. Melampus had struck a pair of flints and sparked the kindling heaped up inside the circular stone hearth. Quickly the flames gained strength, bringing a much-needed warmth to the cave and casting a flickering illumination over the stricken centaur.

Jason was horrified. Chiron’s face and arms were dappled with livid bruises and one of his legs seemed bent at an unnatural angle.

Sweeping Chiron’s long hair back from his brow, Jason saw that the old centaur’s eyes were firmly shut and blood had dried around the sides of his mouth.

The boys crowded into the cave, lending Chiron more warmth but fast using up the air. For a second Jason thought to throw them all out, then reconsidered. They needed to see, to understand.

“Is he alive?” Acastus asked, voicing the fear for them all.

Jason bit his lower lip. “Yes. But only just.”



THE BOYS QUICKLY COVERED the old centaur with a woolen blanket and put a sackcloth stuffed with straw under his head. Melampus tore strips of linen to make bandages and, with a long stick, set Chiron’s front leg.

Carefully they fed Chiron a warm broth cooked over the now-roaring fire. They couldn’t move him onto his straw bed, for he was much too heavy, but instead brought the bed to him, rolling him onto his side and tucking the straw under him.

In the light of the fire they could see the marks of fists and hooves on his body, so purple that the human part was almost as dark-colored as the horse part.

“Jason, go to Chiron’s cupboard and get me some mint and angelica—tops and seeds—plus wormwood, oil of juniper, and …” Melampus put his finger to his head as if that could aid memory. “And rosemary.”

Leaping up, Jason took a branch from the hearth fire. He lit the taper in the little bronze oil lamp that had been overturned in the fight. Then he went back into the drying alcove where Chiron kept his herbs. Quickly gathering the ones Melampus had asked for, he returned with them clutched in his hand.

“Ground together,” Melampus was telling the others, “and mixed with fresh spring water and spirits, they will make a salve for his cuts and bruises.”

“How do you know all that?” Idas asked.

“I worked with my old nanny to heal the little snakes who—”

“Yes, yes,” Acastus said in disgust, “the little snakes who licked your ears and taught you animal speech. Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, Chiron is no little snake.” He stood up and went to the entrance to the cave. The moon and stars now being hidden behind clouds, he could see nothing in the impenetrable dark. So he simply stood, one hand on his spear, gazing out and trembling slightly.

Meanwhile, deep inside the cave, Melampus mixed and spread the salve. Then, sighing, he stood. “There’s no more we can do until the old man wakes.”

“If he wakes,” said Admetus.

“Of course he’ll wake! How can you say such a thing?” Jason was taken aback by how shrill his own voice sounded.

“Admetus only says what we’re all thinking,” said Melampus.

“Don’t blame the messenger. The rest is in the hands of the Fates.”

“Then we’d all better get some sleep,” Idas said, yawning.

“You can go back to your own cave,” said Jason. “I’ll stay here with Chiron.” It was his way of apologizing.