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Argonautica Pt 2: Journey To Aea

The days passed. Heracles was sometimes amused and sometimes disappointed, and often at the same time, though he would have told you it was all good.

“Peleus! Hold your sword high. Strike from the sky. A dead man cuts from below,” he shouted, “Castor! Get rid of the pole; the Grove of Ares has no wall to vault. Orpheus! A harp is not a weapon lest it cleave the skull like a hammer. Telemon! Footwork. Footwork.”

“How goes it?” asked Jason, coming up from the docks.

“They are heroes to a man,” replied Heracles, “but as an army they are the shits.”

“There is time,” Jason told him, “It will be months before we get to Colchise.”

“The provisions?” asked Heracles.

“Will be stowed by week’s end,” answered Jason.

“Any chance of taking more than forty-eight?” asked Heracles.

“Every extra man shaves a day off our rations,” advised Jason.

“We’re being rationed?”

“With forty-eight crewman we can travel forty-eight days on a full tureen of water. You do the math.”

“Let’s see, that’s one day of water per crewman…”

“Add a crewman, lose a day,” suggested Jason.

“Not exactly,” Heracles told him, “What you mean to say is that the ration would be reduced by one forty-ninth. Three heroes added…”

“I will not add more,” insisted Jason, though he was pleased that Heracles wasn’t just another stupid hero, “Don’t let them know you’re smart. They’re envious enough.”

The last slot was given to the ship maker himself, Argos of Argos, almost by demand. Heracles expressed, in private and as strongly as he could without seeming insubordinate, that not taking the man who knew the ship better than anyone else could ever hope to know it was unforgivable folly.

In the end Jason agreed; someone already assigned had to stay behind. It was almost Hylas, but Jason had taken a liking to the boy. It was almost Atalanta, though he feared to be without her steel core arrows. In the end it was a youth called Theseus, an untested hero who was said to be the son of King Aegis of Athens. Cursing at his fate, the young man made his own journey into the underworld which has been chronicled elsewhere and in much detail.

The day came and they were ready to sail. The fierce mountain river was a long haul even for big men with mighty oars and a strong wind, but after only seven days of rowing they made it to the Marmara Sea.

Heracles watched in awe as the peak that crowned the mountains belched ash and fire and rolling clouds of smoke into the air. A red sun hung in an orange sky and the water itself was aflame. Jason could do nothing but pray to the gods as Tiphys steered them around the known dangers, buried now, or under the sea, and almost impossible to locate.

“Jason, I beg you, turn back,” warned Meleager, “Naught is to be gained by sailing into the mouth of Hades.”

“And lose our shot at glory?” scoffed Atalanta, “Did we not vow to kill dragons? My suitor shows his true heart.”

“There is as ruinous a dragon as ever loomed ahead,” agreed Acastus, pointing at the fiery peak, “We need but portage around it to claim our victory!”

“Portage around that?” laughed Argos the shipbuilder, “It is madness!”

“It is madness to be here,” spoke Jason, “and greater madness to sail into Hades, and still greater madness to return to Iolcos, so we shall strip the Argo of it’s mast, keel, rigging and rudder and carry them up the mountains. We shall build a new Argo at the shores of the Euxine Sea. That, my friends, is the least of all madness.”

The mountain that threatened was Scylla. She was angry and she had always been so.

She marked the end of passage east, not only because the headwaters of the Marmara river were born in her bosom, but also for the dense, steaming forest over which she ruled. It was there, in the insect ridden kingdom of Berbrycia, on the shore of the dwindling Marmara river, that the argonauts hauled their great ship ashore.

Berbrycia was ruled by a ridiculous man named King Amycus. Amycus fancied himself a boxer. He had no love for strangers, preferring to drive them away, or failing that, to bind them in service somehow.

A few days into their labor King Amycus approached the Argonauts. He had brought with him an army of poor farmers; their weapons were forks and scythes, slings and arrows, and the odd Sarmatian sword.

The pompous King Amycus did not see his disadvantage, or if he did he chose to ignore it. He told the Argonauts to choose a hero and that he would meet the hero in the ring. If their hero won they could take everything they needed from his forest. If he lost they must all serve him for one year, or something like that. No one was really listening.

The Argonauts chose Polydeuces. He was pumped up and feeling his rage and maybe he was too heroic. He killed King Amycus with one punch to the jaw, breaking his neck and sending the Berbrycian farmers away in horror.

They were not bothered again so the Argo was rebuilt in only three months. Her keel was extended by thirty feet. They made rope, a mast and a tiller, and a second sail because Jason demanded they be ready for anything. At summer’s end they would sail east on the Euxine Sea, far from the southern shore and the Queens of Anatolia.

Jason laughed loudly as the Argo was rechristened. Three months in the steaming forests of Anatolia had produced a wonder. Even the builder, Argos of Argos, had not seen anything like it before. It bobbed in the water like Poseidon’s yacht; aloof, unconcerned, caring only to speed it’s makers across the bloated Euxine Sea.

They weren’t long sailing when Tiphys complained of discomfort.

The air was hot. Summer had extended to fall. Insects harassed them wherever they went. Not an Argonaut was free of bites. After one week their remedies were gone so Jason thought to go ashore in the land of the Mariandynians.

It was not known to Jason, but King Lycus of Mariandynia had been at war with King Amycus of Berbrycia for as long as anyone could remember.

Word of Amycus’ death at the hands of the Argonauts had reached Lycus weeks before. He was grateful and wary, ecstatic and desperate, secure in the moment but fearful for his life. By his calculation he could only agree to Jason’s requests and be thankful they weren’t demands. He had little to give, but he gave it all in the hope that it wouldn’t be taken by force.

“It is yours!” he said, “Take it! It is no good to us dead!”

Asclepius tended Tiphys but he died of fever, and so did Idmon the seer. Jason was so distraught by the death of his friend he could not command the ship, so Heracles took charge. They sailed away with a growing reputation as thieves and murderers.

The sea had risen dozens of feet and flooded the coast to fifty miles inland. Hastily built shelters littered the hills. A forest of treetops poked from the water and an oily soup of debris fouled the sea for miles. Bloated bodies of men and animals floated by and the stench was horrific. Jason listened in spite of himself to an eerie chorus as corpses hissed methane or burst spontaneously into flame.

Days later they crossed into the waters of Colchise. The city was days ahead but the countryside had changed with the border. The shacks in the hills were replaced by villas built behind walls that were already holding back the sea.

They found the Phasis river. It flowed from out of the red grove and it was dredged of the debris that choked all the others. The Argonauts braved the seaway but kept to the middle of the Phasis, even though it meant fighting the current. They rowed the entire day until every muscle on every man and Atalanta as well was exhausted of its strength.

Jason meant to go first to the Court of Aites but Colchise was abandoned. Farther up river was Aea. They knew it by the trains of carts traveling both sides of the river.

The Phasis could hardly be called a river. It was more like a lake or a flooded delta, but they were so far inland it wasn’t a delta and what it flooded was barren earth. Treacherous sailing in other words.

The saw a warship coming from afar. Another was approaching from behind and more from all sides. Jason cursed himself for not flying the herald of Iolcos.

On his order the Argonauts feathered their oars. It would do no good to appear hostile while flying an unknown sail. The Colchiseans relaxed when they saw the gesture.

Their admiral was Perses, brother of King Aites, the agent of Circe. He escorted the Argonauts upriver. Fields of grain blew in the wind and people were about their tasks. It didn’t appear that much was amiss except for the flooded City of Colchise.

They sailed very far inland, beyond remote villages and into the Caucasus Mountains. Just as they thought the canyon walls would crush them the river widened to become a lake. On it’s shore was the shimmering summer palace of the richest king in the world.

Behind it was the door to Hades. The smell of sulfur was nauseating and a mist blew from geysers and pots. This was the red grove, named for the color of the water that flowed out of it. The gold colored it. From a distance they were like rivers of wine. It was beautiful and terrible, but a journey for another day. A slip was prepared for them at the palace docks. Ancaeus steered them expertly alongside a sturdy new pier.

Jason had thought of many ways to greet the king, though his sail announced that he was Jason, Prince of Iolcos, an almost unbelievably stupid move because Aites was sure to have put two and two together and come up with pirates.

He could be the son of old king Aeson, who once said that Aites was his best friend in the world, but Jason wasn’t sure if it was true or a euphemism for his friendlessness.

In the end it didn’t matter. Whether he was a friend of Aeson’s or not, Aites was more likely to welcome the old king’s son than any other man he might be, so it was fortunate he sailed under his own banner. Jason decided to stop second guessing himself.

Prince Apsyrtus was the first to greet him as he disembarked. After pleasantries and before the presentation of gifts they relaxed to a point of merriment. King Aites remembered Aeson and had a fondness for him. Relieved to have made the right choice, Jason walked with Apsyrtus to the great hall, talking and joking as if they were the best of friends.

King Aites daughter Medea was a priest of Cybele. She was also, said some, the most beautiful woman in the world. Others said the honor went to Cytherea, Queen of Cyprus. In any case, Medea was told of Jason’s coming and had told no one else, not even the king.

For reasons having little to do with the fleece she was told to seduce the young prince of Iolcos and have a child by him. It was not an unreasonable request. It was done all the time. It was an honor to serve Cybele in this way and the rewards were bounteous.

It was expected she would fall in love with Jason and that’s what she did. As the hero was introduced to the king her heart jumped into her stomach.

Aites was not an old man. Somehow, Jason had gotten the idea that he was decrepit. Nor was he a barbarian.

It was fashionable to consider Caucasian men uncivilized. Some supposed they loved their horses more than their wives. By the evidence of the Sarmatian Wars there was much to support that supposition.

It was a wonder that Colchise was settled at all, so close was it to the endless war. The Caucasus mountains separated them from Sarmatia, a vicious land swimming in hate, but Aites was a jovial man who loved his charmed and princely life.

“Young Jason,” greeted the king, “The last I looked you were knee high to a bug. Now you are a despicable pirate. What do you say for yourself?”

“My lord,” spoke Jason, hoping it was a joke, “I have brought you gifts from the King of Iolcos.”

Jason spread his arms and Argonauts, acting as bearers, brought them into the room.

“From the gardens of the Lasithi Valley,” said Jason, “The best olives in our lands.”

Aites received them with glee, but Jason wasn’t finished.

“From my private reserve, I bring you three year casks of our finest red wine. There are few in the world that are as good and there may be none better!”

Aites bowed his head and marveled at the young man’s diplomacy. He had avoided saying the wine was better than his own.

“From the plains of Iolcos,” continued the hero, “I bring you lamb skin.”

Aites pleasure turned to dismay. There was only one reason to give fleece to the King of Colchise.

“It is a gift from King Pelias,” said Jason, “He asks that it open your heart to the favor we ask of you.”

“We ask?” repeated the king, “On whose behalf have you come, Jason son of Aeson? I will know your intentions or you will not leave our sight.”

“Great king,” Jason replied, “I am a poor speaker. I was chosen for this journey as I am a fair sailor. Our lands are overrun with refugees. We cannot feed nor house them. We ask that you share your great wealth with those who must feed the poor!”

It wasn’t at all what he meant to say. How could he be such a fool, rambling on about food and shelter? Everyone knew that such sentiments fell upon the king’s deaf ears, but as he thought it the anger fell from the king’s face.

“Son, you are a far better speaker than your father ever was,” he said, “Had he used such words he would still be a king. I guard my wealth like a dragon because the red gold is power. There is none like it and all wish to have it. If I give you the fleece, how do I know it will not fill the coffers of the usurper Pelias?”

“I will give the fleece to whomever you ask,” answered Jason, blinded by the offer.

“Take as much gold as you will harvest in a week,” said Aites, “on these conditions. You do the work yourselves, you harvest the hard to reach places and you give the wealth to Dalius, Steward of Antallis. He is the one man I trust in the west.”

“As you wish, my lord,” agreed Jason, because he did not know that Dalius was dead.

“Let’s eat,” said Aites, “Jason, I’d be pleased if you’d sit with my daughter.”

Jason tried to become engaged in the small talk though his eyes were drawn to Medea.

“It is not out of spite that you harvest so high up the mountain,” explained the king, “It is a measure of how badly you want the wealth, and there is an advantage. The high places yield more gold.”

Jason tried to listen. Atalanta, however, was taking it all in. She imagined the journey they must make through the boiling rocks of the grove.

“I only ask that you do what I have done,” continued Aites, “If it goes well I will even consider a wedding. There is royal blood in your veins. It would be a pity to waste it!”

Prince Acastus was mute. Aites had called his father a usurper, but he didn’t know his son was an Argonaut. Acastus was hoping Jason was friend enough to say nothing about it.

As the evening passed Acastus relaxed and drank some wine. Just as it hit his head the king addressed him.

“You are known in my court, young prince,” Aites told him, “I am pleased to meet a hero of the Antallean dance!”

“Thank you my lord. I am pleased to meet you as well,” Acastus managed to say.

“You don’t look it, and you haven’t spoken all evening,” observed Aites, “You won’t make much of a king if you can’t get past your father.”

It wasn’t a joke but he said it like one. Those not listening closely thought it hilarious and went on with the party.

“Yet you aren’t your father,” continued the king, “You are the best bull dancer since Taros of Antallis. That takes courage; a thing your father lacks. You are friends with Jason, though how you have managed it is a story worth telling.”

“I have no quarrel with you, but my sister has a great quarrel with your father,” Aites concluded, “She may cause him to die.”

“Then I will avenge him!” vowed Acastus.

Aites smiled.

“Spoken like a king,” he said, “More evidence that you are not your father.”

It was clear to the Argonauts that Aites belied his reputation. He was not a barbarian, and it was clear to Acastus he was being manipulated, but it was not clear to anyone else that it was clear to him, except for Atalanta because they were heroes of the dance and she kind of liked him, and to Medea because she was an expert mind reader.

The court was the picture of civilization. Everyone was healthy and everyone had a job to do. Atalanta commented on how happy a place it seemed to be.

“It’s quite easy that,” laughed Aites, “I give them money. Seriously, I built shelters on every part of the south shore. Perhaps you saw them as you sailed east.”

“We did,” affirmed Peleus, “And we wondered what you charge for their use!”

He said it like a joke and Aites graciously took it like one, but he knew the stories told about him in the west.

“What do I charge the gods?” he asked, “My fee is the same for all creatures.”

“You give them away?” wondered Atalanta.

“And maintain them as well,” he replied, “but there is enough for my cousin Dalius.”

“We heard that you charge what the market will bear!” she challenged.

Aites smiled broadly at the woman.

“That is true,” he said gracefully, “I charge a high price to those who can afford it. I give them value and I use the wealth to dig wells. I buy food to keep the poor from starving. In this way even those who don’t want to help are doing something.”

Jason announced he was retiring for the night. Medea watched him go, convinced he was hers for the taking.