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Argonautica Pt 1: A Surfeit Of Heroes

Heracles came to Iolcos directly from Tiryns. These were the days before the flood when the Aegean Sea was still a river and the Gulf of Corinth a gorge. Tiryns was built on a mountaintop as were most city states, though Iolcos stood on the wide plain of Thessaly.

The road to Iolcos was long and beset with robbers. It was folly to walk alone on the roads of ancient Greece unless you were a hero. Everyone else was advised to take their chances on the mighty mountain rivers.

Heracles came to the city and discovered the way to the docks. The docks were not at Iolcos, but a fair distance to the west and down a winding cliff-side path. After breeching the cliffs he first saw the harbor. It was nestled in Sycamores by a quiet lagoon and safe from a current that could reach fifteen knots per hour. It was a good speed if your destination was down river but returning was a different story.

Heracles marveled at the solution. A cable line was hung on the far side of the water. It ran from the harbor all the way to the delta of the Aegean and Nilos rivers. It was a distance of nearly three hundred miles.

Iolcos was the seat of the Temple of Cybele. There the rulers of the world met to issue their decrees and conduct their business at the behest of Circe. Circe was the temple’s most powerful priest, and she was the sister of the even more powereful King Aites.

Circe would have no queen in her realm but she was not the ruler of Iolcos; she gave that job to a succession of kings who could do little more than drink without her permission. Faced with awesome responsibilities and no authority the kings were a sorry lot who passed their days reeking of wine.

For this reason the crown prince of Iolcos, a young man named Acastus, had stayed as far away from home as he could yet there he was on the docks. At his side were Castor and Polydeuces of Troy, the brothers of the beautiful Helen.

Heracles frowned. How many heroes would be making the voyage and would there be a place for them all? He found his smile at the sight of Telemon. It meant his brother Peleus might be close by.

“Heracles!” came a voice from behind.

He turned to see the Prince of Doris, a small town in the mountains west of Thebes.

“Hylas,” greeted the hero, “Has the dream of gold ensnared you as well?”

“I thought maybe I’d see you,” said the young man, “and here you are.”

“You’re not angry about my knocking your father around?” asked Heracles warily.

“It does him good to get beat up once in a while,” replied Hylas angelically.

He was a handsome young man. His jaw was strong, his chin was full and his eyes were the rarest blue. His brown hair curled at the ends. He was tall but not towering, full but not fat, strong but not muscular. He looked as much like a girl as he did a boy, but not effeminately so, and he was starstruck for the hero who kicked his father’s ass.

“You like that I fed the old pirate to the pigs?” asked Heracles.

“He wasn’t the first to take a bath in that sty,” laughed Hylas.

“Is that so?” wondered Heracles, walking on, “Come along. Tell me all about it.”

It had been years since he’d seen the boy; six years and he’d grown like a weed. His blue tunic was wrapped in the style of the north: one and half times around his waste, tucked and pulled between his legs and up his back, over his left shoulder and back again around his waist. In this way one piece of cloth became a shirt and a serviceable skirt.

His dress was complete with leather sandals laced to his knees and a leather belt harboring weapons, tools and vanity items. His cocked hat looked much like a beret. He was seventeen, smart and as sexy a young man as Heracles had ever seen.

“There’s not much to tell,” explained Hylas, shrugging his shoulders, “One day I was cleaning out the stables and the next I was on the road to Thessaly.”

Where is your purse?” asked the hero, “Or do princes now travel without gold?”

“I have gold,” said the boy, cautiously, so as not to be overheard.

“And your bag? Do princes now travel without a change of clothes as well?”

Hylas was a little less quick to answer that one.

“Has your guard left you to go pirating with the son of Aeson?” queried the hero.

Hylas heaved a heavy sigh and decided to tell the truth.

“My father is dead and I am exiled from Doris,” he confessed.

“That explains your jollity,” replied Heracles, “I need an armor bearer. Interested?”

“I…yes…but, you have no armor,” observed Hylas.

“And yet I have the most handsome bearer of it,” smiled Heracles.

Then they were at the waterside.

“Heracles!” came a shout from a nearby vessel.

Bobbing on the deck was Ancaeus of Samos, captain of the guard at the western most edge of the Khurrite empire. King Kirta and his neighbors had been friends for generations so Ancaeus was a gentleman soldier. He was also the finest shallow river pilot in Anatolia.

“Ancaeus!” he shouted back, “Cybele has truly blessed this voyage.”

“How do you mean that, Master Heracles?” asked the sallow cheeked soldier, “Jason has chosen another. Tiphys is his name.”

“I have not heard of such a man,” remarked Heracles.

“Neither had I until yesterday,” admitted Ancaeus.

“Is he a decent pilot?” asked Heracles, dismayed.

“No one seems to know, though he has a book that amazes all who see it,” explained the old helmsman, “I have been invited to be his second.”

“And you refused,” deduced Heracles.

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I haven’t even been asked to join,” laughed the hero.

“It’s just as well,” advised Ancaeus, “Jason is all about the new ways of doing things. He writes out, like it was a play of some kind, exactly how he wants a voyage to go.”

“And you object to that?” wondered Hylas.

“Young bearer watch your tongue, and be sure not to wag it after my nemesis here. Heracles can be a monster of a man but I suppose you know that already.”

It was a tense moment. Ancaeus was so disgusted he wasn’t laughing at anything.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” bowed the hero.

“I mean no offense, but Jason has denied many for lesser crimes than yours.”

“For which I have been cleansed by Eurystheus himself,” claimed the hero.

“Is it true? In that case,” declared Ancaeus, visibly perking up, “I’ll introduce you to that fool of a man they call Jason. Perhaps you can sway his mind on the matter.”

The great hall of the Kings of Iolcos was packed to overflowing. Nobles and priests, paupers and pirates, all were in a frenzy over the Golden Fleece.

“Young son of Aeson,” said the King of Iolcos to Jason, “I hold you to be the hero your father never was! I charge you with a duty: to gain for Thessaly the Golden Fleece from Aites, King of Colchise, and to return ere the year is out.”

The roar of his name and pounding of hearts obscured all; even Jason’s recollection of arriving, just six weeks before, penniless, anonymous and missing a shoe.

His uncle King Pelias was quick to recognize his young enemy. Jason was a thick but nice young man whose first inclination was to believe what was told to him unless he had a reason to doubt it. He now knew that King Pelias wanted only to get rid of him and he knew that his cousin Acastus was loathe to join him on the journey, but it was too late.

The boast was made, the heroes assembled, and King Pelias had made it clear that his son, Prince Acastus, was going. Jason and the prince weren’t on speaking terms so it was bad news from the start. No hero wants to appear a coward, especially to other heroes, so no one let it sway their decision. The biggest problem was there wasn’t enough room on the Argo for everyone who wanted to go.

One who wanted to go was Atalanta, the Princess of Arcadia. She was even willing to resign her commission with the Antallean Archers but it hadn’t come to that. Faced with the prospect of losing her for good, King Prosus of Antallis wisely granted her an extended leave of absence. Her escort to Iolcos was Cheiron the Sword Master and his booming voice was heard around the hall.

“How is it reasonable that Heracles and Hylas count as one?” asked the Sword Master.

Each hero was his own man and only a few had sidekicks. Normally a sidekick didn’t count in the totals, but the Argo was a ship, not a tournament, so controversy had erupted.

“We have already decided, Sword Master,” reminded Pelias, “If they are chosen as Argonauts they will count as two persons.”

But Cheiron wasn’t finished.

“If it is not reasonable for Hylas to be counted as half a person,” he asked, “how is it reasonable that the Princess of Arcadia be counted as half a person?”

It was a blow to Atalanta because the curious suggestion had been made by those sympathetic to her cause. It was a way to squeeze her in under the totals. The reasoning went that if forty-eight heroes was a full complement, there could only be too many if forty-nine were chosen to go. Forty-eight and a half was a reasonable compromise. The Sword Master had his own reasons for dissenting and Atalanta was staring daggers through his heart.

“Cheiron does not wish to lose his best archer,” chuckled King Pelias, “That is reason enough right there to chose her as an Argonaut.”

The overflow crowd hollered and cheered the king for his wit.

It was not true that all the seats were up for grabs. A few had already been assigned but Heracles had made a promise to Ancaeus. He was trying to sway Jason from his decision to employ Tiphys as the Argo’s pilot.

“Lord Heracles,” spoke the king, “Again, we have decided the issue of who will pilot the Argo, but as you are late in arriving I will ask Lord Jason to list his reasons at this time.”

Heracles, chagrined, could do naught but listen.

Jason saw many new faces so he decided to tell it from the beginning.

“Before I was revealed to be the son of old king Aeson I wandered the roads of Aegea. I survived by guile and by cheating the hearts of winsome strangers. I dreamed of ways to quit the treacherous highway but I found no ways as safe.”

“By chance I met Tiphys and he turned me to the rivers of Aegea. Furious they are and beset with hazards, so we embarked upon a study of their course. We followed the water that flows from the mountain finding every fork and charting every turn. We noted the location of every rock, fall and bar. No one knows the rivers of Aegea as well as I, save Tiphys. I will have no other.”

Heracles thought a moment, and then he knew what to say.

“I applaud your choice but consider this. If Tiphys is lost or the rivers changed, who among you will pilot the ship?”

It was a good question, and sobering, and it brought the great hall of Iolcos to a near riot. Only the king’s wit and gravitas kept the heroes from each other’s throat. Pelias hoped Heracles’ presence might calm the tide, but it did not and it was the great man’s own fault.

“Heracles is a murderer!” shouted a voice.

“Who says this of me?” growled the hero.

“Young prince of Ithaca!” barked Pelias. His name was Odysseus, “Another outburst like that and you will be banished from this hall.”

“What sort of a hero must be ‘cleansed’?” shouted Meleager, Prince of Calydon.

“A guilty one,” snarled Nestor.

He was the King of Pylos, a mountaintop near Argos. Heracles had made him king of it by killing all his family.

“I have paid for my crimes,” was all that Heracles could say, so Hylas spoke for him.

“This man threw my father to the pigs, and I thank him for it…” began the boy, but the shouts and the condemnations that he condoned such a thing drowned out his reasons why.

Seeing failure written in the stars, Heracles turned to leave the great hall and Hylas turned away with him.

“Wait!” cried Jason, his voice a shout over the din, “I did not say you are not welcome on this voyage.”

Jason stood to his full height on the table of kings. He looked over the hall and saw a hundred faces, maybe more, that were the faces of the world’s great heroes. From Troy, from Argos, from Calydon, from Samos, from Thebes they had come. He had not the time nor the desire to judge each man on his merits. Heracles provided a way to thin the crowd.

“Hear me!” he shouted, “All who object to sailing with Heracles will leave my sight.”

Many did, cursing and shouting under the baleful eye of the king’s guard. Nestor was not among them.

Heracles had stopped at Jason’s command. He saw many, and some he thought were his friends, leaving the hall on his account.

“Heracles!” said Jason, “Pay no heed. If Eurystheus says you are no longer possessed, you are no longer possessed.”

It was a bold decree from the captain of the Argonauts and the exodus slowly fizzled.

Jason stood tall on the king’s table. The heroes were thinned to less than sixty. There were fewer who would not sail with a woman than who would not sail with Heracles.

A bale, a post and three hoops were set up in the great hall. The distance was only ten yards but it was not a contest of accuracy. It was a contest of power.

“The game is over when the pole is split down the middle,” said Jason, “You may use any weapon you like but it must pass through each hoop without so much as grazing the edge, and don’t get any unheroic ideas. We have many, many poles.”

Jason’s laughter was infectious but the seriousness of the game won out.

Atalanta was first and she chose the bow.

“I will split the pole with two arrows,” she announced.

Objections mounted as the great men thought. No one had said split it with the first blow, but most had surely assumed it. The hoops were spaced so that a poorly thrown knife would not pass through, and a lance poorly heaved would foul itself in the hoops. An arrow wouldn’t even see them.

Then again, no one had seen a three inch thick post split in half with only two arrows.

“I allow it,” said Jason, “but on this condition: I will toss a coin over the rafter at my head. Both arrows must be loosed before it hits the ground.”

“Agreed,” replied the Princess of Arcadia.

Atalanta made a show of it by moving her quiver up her back. She tightened the laces of her sandals and billowed her blouse so that it hung more loosely on her shoulders.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Jason tossed the coin and she loosed the first of her state of the art, steel core, armor piercing arrows. It sang an eerie song as it danced in the air, unlike that of a wooden arrow. This was due to carbon fiber fletching Daedalus had made from caramelized sheep gut. Two seconds later she loosed a second, identical arrow; well before the coin hit the floor. Only then did she look to see if she’d hit the post.

The silence should have told her, but it was so short she might have missed it.

The first arrow went halfway through the post. The second hit an inch below the first, exactly where she meant to put it. Not only did it split the post, it knocked it to the bale and part of it was lying on the floor. The applause began and it grew to a hero’s roar.

Jason ran to inspect the arrows. They should have shattered on impact but they had not. The wooden sheathing had peeled from their steel cores, exposing their design; the core flared to become a viciously pointed head, and the carbon fletching made the heavy arrows fly straight. Wonder turned to amazement as they were passed around.

“Who has made these?” asked the king.

“Daedalus, the learned man from Athens,” she replied, “He also made the bow.”

She held it high so all could see it, though Jason alone she let test the pull.

Jason pulled it once and was surprised at her strength. He pulled again so all could see and he nocked an arrow from Atalanta’s quiver. He pulled it half way before the heavy arrow came loose from the string and fell to the floor.

As the laughter died he jumped back atop the king’s table.

“She’s going!” he declared, and it seemed that all the heroes agreed.

Atalanta didn’t see Cheiron waiting at a servant’s entrance. With the announcement the Sword Master pulled his cowl over his face and silently slipped away.

Twenty heroes remained and Jason could not decide who would take the last twelve places on the Argo.

Competition had been fierce and Jason expected one or two might become exuberant and disqualify themselves by death or injury. Some might reconsider as the provisions were loaded, realizing they would be gone for the summer, the autumn, the winter, the spring and half the next summer as well. Those who remained were invited to prepare for the voyage. Eight of them wouldn’t be going but that choice could wait for the equinox; that was the day Jason had set as the date of their departure.

Both Heracles and Hylas were going. It wasn’t a two or nothing deal; Heracles would have cut him loose. What bought him passage was the fact that the mountain bred boy knew the name of every mast, sail and rope that made up an Argo. Jason was so impressed that if Hylas had any sailing experience he would have made him an officer, and it didn’t hurt that he was the sidekick of Heracles.

Atalanta, of course, was everyone’s sweetheart. Her steel core arrows and iron biceps didn’t hurt either. When she couldn’t find Cheiron she asked around. The kitchen staff had seen him going to the stables.

That fox, she thought. He never expected her to go back with him. It was all a show.

Jason was captain so he was obviously going.

Tiphys, his best friend and pilot was going, and if not, Jason wasn’t.

Acastus was going, against his will and better judgment, because his father the king had insisted. His reluctance was his saving grace as far as Jason was concerned.

Castor and Polydeuces were going. Relations with Troy were strained already. If he denied their two greatest heroes a place on the Argo there would probably be war.

Ancaeus was going because Heracles was right. Tiphys was a by-the-book sailor. He couldn’t pilot the ship past the Marmara Sea. It was a mystery why anyone thought he could, so it was agreed that Tiphys would pilot the Argo to Mount Scylla and that Ancaeus would take her across the Euxine Sea and up the River Phasis.

Asclepius was going because he was a healer.

Idmon was going because he was a seer.

Orpheus was going; he was the bard.

And so on and so forth. Thirty-five crewmen and one crew woman in all. The last dozen crewmen would be announced over the next two weeks.