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A MATTER OF PIGS
The centaur was angrier than Jason had ever seen him before. He was so angry, he didn't just stamp his hooves and make the earth shake like a drum or roar till all the caves of Mount Pelion echoed with the sound.
No, he was far too angry for that.
He lined up the six boys and paced up and down before them in threatening silence, his hooves padding softly on the grass, his fists clenching and unclenching in a broken rhythm. His unspoken disapproval was like a heavy boulder pressing down on all of them, and Jason most of all.
Especially, Jason thought, because my mouth is so parched and there is a dull throbbing behind my forehead and my limbs ache and I have bumps like small hillocks all over my body. He shook his head to clear it, which just made things worse.
Why can't I remember why I feel this way? Something about the night before. A revel? He had never been to a revel before.
"Chiron, master ..." Prince Acastus began. He always used the centaur's title when he wanted to wheedle his way out of trouble.
But Chiron was not to be cozened. He was simply too angry.
"Silence!" Now he roared, and the sound of his voice shattered a small birch in two.
And my head, Jason thought.
Prince Acastus was smart enough to shut up, moving back behind his cousin Admetus.
Jason wondered who would be the first of the boys to crack. Since Chiron had raised him from infancy, and he was used to the centaur's ways, he knew he would not be the one. But these other boys had been on the mountain for only a matter of weeks, sent by their fathers to be trained as hunters, as warriors, as heroes. Sent to the master of all masters, the burly old centaur who was now pacing so angrily before them.
Jason smiled at the thought. As quickly, he stopped smiling. Smiling hurt.
At last the centaur halted in front of them and arched an accusing eyebrow. Jason hated that look most of all. It signaled some awful punishment was going to follow. And soon.
"Pigs," Chiron said, his voice throbbing and low, like a toothache. "Let us talk about pigs."
The centaur was intimidating enough even when he was not angry. With the body of a wild stallion, all sinewy strength and animal speed, crowned by the torso of a heavily muscled man, he radiated raw power. His bearded face had all the majestic grandeur of the mountain that reared up over their heads.
"I say 'pigs,' and how do you answer?"
Idas, the strongest of the boys, stuck out his chest and set his square jaw in defiance, trying hard to show that he wasn't afraid, but nobody was fooled. They were all afraid of Chiron. Centaurs were, after all, bigger and stronger than any human adult. And unpredictable. Though Chiron was different from the rest of his breed. Different, apart—and a master teacher.
Idas' brother, wiry Lynceus, who swore he could spot an ant crawling up a tree trunk clear across the valley, right now had eyes glazed over in panic, as if he'd gone blind.
Tall, gangly Melampus of Pylos had a reputation as a seer. He boasted he could foretell the future by the movements of the birds, and indeed his mind always did seem to be drifting among the clouds. But a single glare from Chiron and he came crashing to earth, taking a nervous step backward.
Admetus didn't even attempt to put on a show. His round, freckled face drooped, and he shuffled his feet nervously.
Behind him Acastus crossed his arms, trying—Jason supposed—to look heroic. Hard to do, Jason thought, while hiding behind someone else. Acastus kept up the charade for almost five whole seconds before bowing his head under Chiron's relentless gaze.
Will he be merciful? Jason wondered. He knew Chiron had a tender heart under that brawny chest. How often had he seen the centaur stop to tend an injured bird, splinting a broken wing or applying a healing salve.
But do we deserve his mercy? Desperately Jason wished he could remember what it was they had done.
Chiron turned his dark-eyed gaze down to the valley below. "I should have known from the sorry state you were in when you dragged yourselves home last night that you had left some sort of trouble behind you."
"Home!" Acastus whispered contemptuously to Admetus, though Jason overheard. "What kind of home is a cave in the side of a mountain?"
Suddenly Chiron passed behind the boys and without warning swerved his massive body. His rump barged into Acastus, knocking the boy flat on his face. The others began laughing, but one glance from Chiron snuffed out their mirth.
"A prince," Chiron said in his teacher voice, "should be noted for the respect he shows others, not his insolence."
As Acastus clambered to his feet, Jason thought, He must have forgotten how sharp Chiron's ears are. For an instant, rebellion flickered in the young prince's eyes. Then he lowered his gaze, fixing his eyes on the ground as he fingered the golden amulet that hung around his neck, a symbol of the royal house of Iolcus.
"Pigs," Chiron said again. "They did not escape their pen without help. Now whose idea was it to set them loose?" He scowled at them, but no one spoke.
"Pigs!" Chiron boomed. Another tree on the edge of the clearing shivered, lost its leaves.
Silence fell again like a smothering blanket.
It was Idas who spoke up at last. "We can't remember," he said sullenly. "Whatever punishment is due, inflict it upon us all equally."
"Idas is right," Lynceus chimed in after his brother. "Except maybe for the part about punishment. If you choose to leave me out, I promise not to complain."
Chiron turned the full force of his eyes upon him. Lynceus seemed to shrivel up as though he were trying to shrink to the size of a dust mote.
"And if setting the pigs free weren't bad enough," the centaur continued, "you decided to climb on their backs and race them through the streets of the village. A terrible sight, I am sure."
Hoi! Jason thought. So that's what we did! He was beginning to remember it now, as if through a haze.
The boys stared down, scuffing the earth with their sandals.
"And the result of this rampage? Three fences knocked down, ten clay pots smashed, a cauldron of soup overturned, chickens set to flight, and women and children terrified out of their wits."
As far as Jason could recall, most of the village children had been laughing at their antics. He could still feel the bruise in the small of his back where he had landed on a rock when his pig threw him off, to gales of laughter and applause. Surely our escapade wasn't as bad as all that.
He was about to say so when Chiron added: "Two elders from the village visited me this morning while you were still sleeping off your folly. They wanted to flog you in the village square."
"Flog us!" Acastus blurted out. "Admetus and I are princes."
Chiron looked at him under beetling brows. "I persuaded them to leave your punishment to me."
The boys let their collective gaze fall on Jason, as if begging him to say which would be worse—the flogging or Chiron's choice.
"I had to give them one of my best goats and five jars of honey by way of compensation," Chiron added.
Jason winced. He'd been on good terms with the people of the village and could always count on them for something to eat and drink when he was running an errand for Chiron. Now he wondered if he could ever go back there.
"So whose notion was this barbaric race?" Chiron demanded.
Like water gushing from a smashed jar, the boys all started talking at once.
"Somebody said something about the S-Scythians and the Amazons," Admetus stammered.
"Yes, about how they ride on the backs of horses instead of using chariots like civilized folk," Lynceus added.
"It seemed like a test of skill," Melampus finished lamely, "at the time."
Jason cleared his throat. "The truth is, master," he said, "we're not sure whose idea it was. I ... we don't remember it very well. Except"—he rubbed his back—"some of the bumps."
Chiron nodded somberly. "Yes, I can believe that. And why?"
The boys were silent again.
"Because of the wine." The centaur's mouth curled around the final word as if it were distasteful.
Hoi, Jason thought, the wine! He'd never had any wine before. And now he couldn't even remember what it tasted like.
"The jar was lying unattended," said Acastus.
"We left two rabbits we'd killed to pay for it," Admetus added.
"Rabbits I shot," bragged Idas.
"You missed the second one," Jason reminded him. "I shot that one."
"I wounded it," said Idas, "leaving you an easy target."
"Enough!" Melampus complained, clutching his skull. "You're making my head hurt all over again."
"Was that all you caught?" Chiron asked disdainfully. "Two small rabbits? You were supposed to be on a hunting expedition."
"We got close to a deer," said Idas.
"But there was a big argument over who should fire the first shot," said Lynceus. "The noise scared it off."
Jason remembered that part. And how no one would listen to him when he warned them to be quiet. How they laughed at him. How they called him Mountain Boy and Chiron's Slave.
"So," Chiron concluded solemnly, "instead of carrying on with the hunt, you got drunk on wine and behaved like barbarians."
"You never let us have any wine," said Idas sullenly. "Is it any wonder that it goes to our heads once we drink some?"
"At my father's palace I can drink all the wine I want," said Acastus.
"Let your father teach you to drink wine, then," said Chiron. "My task is to teach you to be strong adults, to hunt like a man, to be a virtuous hero."
All down the line noses wrinkled at the word, except for Jason. He alone nodded. Yes, he thought, that's what Chiron always says.
"A virtuous hero," Chiron repeated. "And how can you remember what is virtuous or honorable when you cannot think straight?" He tapped himself on the forehead to emphasize the point.
"Do you mean a virtuous man cannot drink wine?" Idas asked.
"A virtuous man knows when to drink and when not to," Chiron answered gravely. "He knows when it is appropriate to celebrate a victory or toast the gods, but he also knows when wine will lead to disgrace. One day you may know this, too, but until that time, I forbid wine to all of you."
Melampus rubbed his brow. "That doesn't help my head right now," he complained.
"I have a cure for that," said Chiron. "However, before I can brew it, you will have to fetch special herbs from the valley of Daphnis."
"What—all of us?" Acastus exclaimed. "Why not just send Jason?" He said it with a straight face. "He'll be swiftest. And surely swiftness under these circumstances is a virtue."
Jason gave him a sidelong look that was as sharp as a dagger but bit back any other response.
Chiron observed his restraint and gave Jason a barely perceptible nod of approval. "As you have been partners in folly," he said, "so you will be partners in the cure. I will need eyebright, pennyroyal, feverfew, and—rarest of all—bawme. So the more of you there are to search, the quicker you will be. If you set out now, you can be back by sundown."
He began chivvying the boys down the slope, and they complained loudly because of their hurting heads and aching limbs.
"Do you mean us to go without weapons?" Idas was aghast.
"Weapons are for warriors and hunters," said Chiron icily. "You have proven yourselves to be neither." He stomped his feet. "The weapons will remain in the back of my cave until you are ready for them."
"But if we can't hunt, what will we have to eat?" Melampus asked.
"There are wild fruits and berries aplenty," replied the centaur, waving at them with a dismissive hand.
"But suppose we run into trouble?" asked Admetus.
"That is the very point I am trying to make," said Chiron. "For once in your thoughtless lives, I expect you to avoid trouble."
"That's fine as long as trouble avoids us, too," Lynceus murmured.
Melampus trudged up to the centaur and pleaded, "Could we at least take some water?"
Chiron leaned his bearded face close to the boy. "No, Melampus, you cannot. This is supposed to be a punishment. Though I suppose you could go into town and beg for the flogging instead." He waved them away but signaled Jason to hang back.
Reluctantly, Jason remained as the others trudged downhill.
The old centaur's face grew thoughtful. "I am disappointed in you, Jason," he said as soon as the others were out of hearing. "Those boys were sent here to be trained precisely because they are so undisciplined, but you are not. I have raised you myself. I expected better."
"I just want to be one of them," Jason said. He hated that his eyes were tearing up. "For the first weeks they would hardly speak to me, treating me like a servant. Last night was the first time—"
"Better you be thought a servant than a fool."
"If a person is of royal blood, he can be a fool and no one will ever dare call him one," said Jason bitterly. "But I'm only an orphan, so people can call me anything they like."
A curious expression flickered in Chiron's wise eyes, and his voice softened. "Is that all you think of yourself? A worthless orphan? Have I not taught you to take pride in your skills and talents?"
Jason turned away to hide the misery in his face. "What use are those skills and talents if I spend all my days here tending goats and growing vegetables? There's nothing heroic in that. Or virtuous either."
"A time will come when you will need everything I have taught you," Chiron assured him. "More than that I cannot say."
Jason felt the old centaur's familiar, reassuring hand rest on his shoulder, but for the first time in his life it didn't help. He shrugged it away.
"You'd best hurry after them," the centaur said, removing his hand, "before they get irretrievably lost."CHAPTER 2
THE WILD BAND
Jason bounded down the slope after the other boys, his long blond hair flying about his face. "Hold up! Wait for me!" Melampus stopped and looked back. "Here he comes, nimble as a goat."
"Yes, and almost as clean," Lynceus said.
"What kept you?" Admetus asked as Jason arrived, puffing, in their midst. "Has Chiron been giving you last-minute instructions?"
"Like don't get into trouble," Idas mocked.
"And be sure to be back by sunset," said Melampus, imitating the centaur's deep voice.
Lynceus sneered. "And remember to wash behind your ears." He stuck out his tongue.
"He was probably told to spy on us," said Acastus, "so that he can bring back a lot of tales to his master."
"I'm no spy!" Jason declared hotly. "I'm as much under Chiron's discipline as you are."
"Well, it's a bit different for you, isn't it?" said Acastus witheringly. "You aren't used to anything better." He turned his back on Jason and started on down the mountainside.
Jason understood that they were all taking their aching heads and humiliation out on him. He understood—but that didn't make it any easier to bear, so he stayed well to the rear of them the rest of the way. After all, in a few days' time, these well-bred pupils of Chiron's were due to return home to their families. But Jason had no family and no home other than Chiron and the cave.
The valley of Daphnis was on the far side of Mount Pelion, and the trek took them a long way from the village, just as Chiron had intended.
They walked for about an hour before stopping at a stream Jason knew of. It was icy cold, for it came tumbling down from the snowcapped heights of the mountain. After the long hike, the water was especially sweet; the shock of it first in their cupped hands, then in the mouth, was delicious.
"Look, I'm going to stop here and take a nap," said Acastus, wiping his palms on his tunic. "I'll meet up with you all on the way back."
"Who said you were exempt from Chiron's orders?" Admetus challenged him.
"Don't you think you can manage without me?" Acastus smiled slowly.
"That's not the point." Admetus' homely face was stern and his lips were set together in a hard, thin line.
Fearing a fight, Jason said quickly, "Chiron expects us to work together."
"He probably expects to live forever, too, but that's not going to happen, is it?" Acastus retorted. "This moss over here looks too soft and comfortable to pass up."
Excerpted from Jason and the Gorgon's Blood by Jane Yolen, Robert J. Harris. Copyright © 2004 Jane Yolen and Robert J. Harris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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