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“Perhaps I’d better stay, too,” said Melampus.

“You’ve already done all you can,” Jason reminded him. “I’ll fetch you if he needs you.”

Melampus raised an eyebrow at the brusqueness of Jason’s tone.

“We can all stay a bit longer,” said Admetus. “I know that I—for one—don’t feel much like sleeping.”

The others quickly agreed.

In fact, none of them could sleep. Instead they squatted by the fire and discussed what must have happened.

“It was those centaurs!” said Idas, smacking a fist into the palm of his hand.

“Of course it was those centaurs,” Acastus said, leaving his post by the cave door. “No one else could have inflicted such wounds.”

“I’ll bet Chiron put up a fight,” Lynceus added.

“He would have been magnificent,” Melampus said.

Admetus shook his head. “It’s amazing they didn’t kill him.”

“Not for want of trying,” Jason called to them, for he’d been listening to the conversation from his place by Chiron’s side.

“Well, it’s his own fault,” Acastus said, shaking his head. “If he hadn’t sent us off on that fool’s errand, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“If only we hadn’t ridden the pigs …” Admetus began, then stopped when the others glared at him.

“What could we have done to stop the centaurs?” Idas asked. “You saw how big and wild they were.”

“At least we would have had our weapons here.” Acastus sounded angry and bitter, but there was something else underneath his anger. It took Jason a minute to figure it out, and then he had it. The prince was frightened.

I wonder why? Jason thought before turning back to Chiron and putting a hand on the old centaur’s cheek. He was cool, but not cold.

The boys talked wearily for another few minutes before getting up and walking outside to their own, smaller cave, where their straw pallets and blankets awaited them. But they were each careful to collect a weapon first.

Jason knew he’d been curt with them all, especially with Melampus, who deserved better for his help, and Admetus, who had at least tried to place the blame where it truly belonged. But Jason didn’t have the heart to talk to them now. He wanted to be left alone with Chiron, his foster father, his teacher, his friend.

More than that, something had been nagging at the back of his mind. He’d been trying to figure out what had driven Nessus and the centaurs to this particular violence, and a possible answer had occurred to him.

Before telling the others, he needed to check it out. Taking the little bronze oil lamp, he pressed deep into the cave, past the chests and cupboards in which Chiron stored his possessions, all the way to the solid wall at the back. He remembered the first time he’d explored this wall, imagining that there might be a secret way through it into the heart of the mountain. He’d been about eight years old and alone, for Chiron had gone down into the valley on some errand. By sheer chance he had happened upon a hinged section of rock that swung open when he pressed against it. It exposed an alcove, two feet high.

Bending down now with the lamp, he found it again, the secret doorway, only this time it was lying wide open. He stretched an arm into the dark alcove and felt all around.

The alcove was empty.

There had been two clay jars in there before. A red one and a blue one.

When Chiron had found him on that earlier occasion, Jason had been trying to pry the lid off one of the jars. The centaur had snatched it away with a mixture of anger and fear. “Never, never, never touch those jars again, boy,” Chiron had shouted. “Swear this on your life.”

Eight years old and he’d sworn the oath. Had kept it, too, till this very moment.

“And swear you’ll never speak of this to a soul.”

That was easier. Who did Jason at age eight know but the old centaur? He’d sworn that, too.

But when Jason had asked innocently what was in the jars, Chiron’s face had become as dark as a storm cloud. “Do not even think about asking,” the centaur had ordered.

Is it too late now to find out the secret of the jars? Jason wondered. Tears prickled in his eyes, and he willed himself not to let them fall. Chiron will live. He has to live.

Jason spent a fitful night, starting awake every time Chiron twitched or groaned. Near morning, when the old centaur seemed the worst, breathing out in long, rattling rales, Jason went to the door of the cave and got down on his knees. He’d never prayed to the Fates before, though Chiron had taught him many prayers, yet this prayer seemed simply to breathe from his lips.

“O Moirai, allotters of life, of death, hear me.

Clotho holding the distaff, hear me,

Lachesis drawing the thread, hear me,

Atropos with the abhorred shears, hear me,

Do not cut short this good creature’s time.

He is a teacher whose students need him.

He is a healer whose patients need him.”

Here Jason took a deep breath, then ended:

“He is a father whose only son needs him.”

This time the tears fell unchecked from his eyes and left streaks along his cheeks. He didn’t bother to brush them away.

“Jason …” It was scarcely a whisper. It sounded more like a feeble breath of air hissing through a crack in a wall.

Jason scrambled back to Chiron on his hands and knees and put his ear close to the old centaur’s mouth.

“Jason …”

“I’m here, Chiron, I’m here.”

“The jars …” Chiron croaked. He made a movement as if trying to get up.

Jason put a hand on his shoulder to hold him down. “They’re gone.”

Chiron’s eyelids drooped wearily, and he nodded. “Of course, you thought to look. You remembered after all this time.”

“The door is open,” Jason said. “Nessus didn’t even bother to close it back up.”

“He knew I had the jars,” Chiron wheezed. “Demanded I give them to him. I refused. Tried to stop them but could not. Now the power is his.”

“What power? What’s in those jars?”

“Gorgon’s blood.”

Jason sat back on his heels. “I don’t understand. What would the centaurs want with Gorgon’s blood?”

“The power of life and death.”

Jason shook his head. “I still don’t …”

“Surely you remember the story I told you.”

Jason said softly, “Forgive me, master, you have told me many stories.”

“Of the great hero Perseus.”

“Ah,” Jason said, nodding. “Perseus. How he hunted down Medusa, the most fearsome of the three Gorgons.”

Chiron smiled and pushed up to a sitting position despite Jason’s protests.

“Of course I remember,” Jason said. “Her hair was made of snakes and her face was so ugly, the sight of it turned men to stone.” He also remembered shivering in fear when Chiron first told him the story. He’d only been six years old then. “But what about the blood?”

“When Perseus cut off her head,” Chiron said, “there were two veins in her severed neck. The blood that flowed from the left vein is the deadliest poison in all the world. The merest drop of it can kill a man instantly.”

“And in the right vein?”

Chiron struggled to his feet. “The blood from there is a medicine that can heal any wound or cure any sickness.”

Jason caught his breath. It took a moment to digest all this. But then he asked, “How did the Gorgon’s blood get here?”

Chiron gave himself a shake all over before replying. “Long before you ever came to Mount Pelion, another child was put in my care. Asclepius, the son of the god Apollo.”

“You have said that name to me before, master.”