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As I have already said, there was nothing remarkable to be detected at first sight in any of the valleys and dells that lay among the precipitous heights of the mountains—nothing at all, unless, indeed, it were three spires of black smoke which issued from what seemed to be the mouth of a cavern and clambered sullenly into the atmosphere. Before reaching the mountain top these three black smoke-wreaths mingled themselves into one. The cavern was almost directly beneath the winged horse and his rider, at the distance of about a thousand feet. The smoke, as it crept heavily upward, had an ugly, sulphurous, stifling scent which caused Pegasus to snort and Bellerophon to sneeze. So disagreeable was it to the marvelous steed (who was accustomed to breathe only the purest air) that he waved his wings and shot half a mile out of the range of this offensive vapor.
But on looking behind him, Bellerophon saw something that induced him first to draw the bridle and then to turn Pegasus about. He made a sign, which the winged horse understood, and sunk slowly through the air until his hoofs were scarcely more than a man's height above the rocky bottom of the valley. In front, as far off as you could throw a stone, was the cavern's mouth with the three smoke-wreaths oozing out of it. And what else did Bellerophon behold there?
There seemed to be a heap of strange and terrible creatures curled up within the cavern. Their bodies lay so close together that Bellerophon could not distinguish them apart; but, judging by their heads, one of these creatures was a huge snake, the second a fierce lion, and the third an ugly goat. The lion and the goat were asleep; the snake was broad awake, and kept staring around him with a great pair of fiery eyes. But—and this was the most wonderful part of the matter—the three spires of smoke evidently issued from the nostrils of these three heads! So strange was the spectacle, that, though Bellerophon had been all along expecting it, the truth did not immediately occur to him that here was the terrible three-headed Chimera. He had found out the Chimera's cavern. The snake, the lion, and the goat, as he supposed them to be, were not three separate creatures, but one monster!
The wicked, hateful thing! Slumbering as two thirds of it were, it still held in its abominable claws the remnant of an unfortunate lamb—or possibly (but I hate to think so) it was a dear little boy— which its three mouths had been gnawing before two of them fell asleep!
All at once Bellerophon started as from a dream, and knew it to be the Chimera. Pegasus seemed to know it at the same instant, and sent forth a neigh that sounded like the call of a trumpet to battle. At this sound the three heads reared themselves erect and belched out great flashes of flame. Before Bellerophon had time to consider what to do next, the monster flung itself out of the cavern and sprung straight toward him, with its immense claws extended and its snaky tail twisting itself venomously behind. If Pegasus had not been as nimble as a bird, both he and his rider would have been overthrown by the Chimera's headlong rush, and thus the battle have been ended before it was well begun. But the winged horse was not to be caught so. In the twinkling of an eye he was up aloft,
halfway to the clouds, snorting with anger. He shuddered, too, not with affright, but with utter disgust at the loathsomeness of this poisonous thing with three heads.
The Chimera, on the other hand, raised itself up so as to stand absolutely on the tip end of its tail, with its talons pawing fiercely in the air and its three heads spluttering fire at Pegasus and his rider. My stars! how it roared and hissed and bellowed! Bellerophon, meanwhile, was fitting his shield on his arm and drawing his sword.
"Now, my beloved Pegasus," he whispered in the winged horse's ear, "thou must help me to slay this insufferable monster, or else thou shalt fly back to thy solitary mountain peak without thy friend Bellerophon. For either the Chimera dies, or its three mouths shall gnaw this head of mine, which has slumbered upon thy neck."
Pegasus whinnied, and, turning back his head, rubbed his nose tenderly against his rider's cheek. It was his way of telling him that, though he had wings and was an immortal horse, yet he would perish, if it were possible for immortality to perish, rather than leave Bellerophon behind.
"I thank you, Pegasus," answered Bellerophon. "Now, then, let us make a dash at the monster!"
Uttering these words, he shook the bridle, and Pegasus darted down aslant, as swift as the flight of an arrow, right toward the Chimera's three-fold head, which all this time was poking itself as high as it could into the air. As he came within arm's length, Bellerophon made a cut at the monster, but was carried onward by his steed before he could see whether the blow had been successful. Pegasus continued his course, but soon wheeled round at about the same distance from the Chimera as before. Bellerophon then perceived that he had cut the goat's head of the monster almost off, so that it dangled downward by the skin, and seemed quite dead. But, to make amends, the snake's head and the lion's head had taken all the fierceness of the dead one into themselves, and spit flame and hissed and roared with more fury than before.
"Never mind, my brave Pegasus!" cried Bellerophon. "With another stroke like that we will surely stop either its hissing or its roaring."
And again he shook the bridle. Dashing aslantwise as before, the winged horse made another arrow-flight toward the Chimera, and Bellerophon aimed another downright stroke at one of the two remaining heads as he shot by. But this time neither he nor Pegasus escaped so well as at first. With one of its claws the Chimera had given the young man a deep scratch in his shoulder, and had slightly damaged the left wing of the flying steed with the other. On his part, Bellerophon had mortally wounded the lion's head of the monster, insomuch that it now hung downward, with its fire almost extinguished, and sending out gasps of thick black smoke. The snake's head, however (which was the only one now left), was twice as fierce and venomous as ever before. It belched forth shoots of fire five hundred yards long, and emitted hisses so loud, so harsh, and so ear-piercing that King Iobates heard them fifty miles off, and trembled till the throne shook under him.
"Well-a-day!" thought the poor king; "the Chimera is certainly coming to devour me."