Argonautica Pt 3: In The Grove Of Ares

In the morning, but not early, the Argonauts followed Apsyrtus and his men into the boiling red grove.

The grove was a riot of color and sound as far as you could see in any direction but behind. From mountaintop to mountaintop it was land of calderas and volcanoes. It was so large that three rivers came together there: the head waters of the mighty river Phasis.

They rode mules and carried hooks on long poles to grab the fleece, and shovels to lift them from the water. They had tents and food for a week, and water because you didn’t want to drink from the grove no matter how safe a spring might look. They were told not to touch the white water that spewed from the ground. It could take the flesh off your hand.

Holes hissed as they passed and the bubbling pots played melodies that went on for ages. The earth moaned as they approached. Vents in the stone hid the boiling mud below, but they often belched their displeasure onto the rocks that grew nearby. Once the earth split and a column of steam shot up from the pock marked trail. Had it happened a second before, Atalanta might have been killed.

They walked all morning and around the mountain but they hadn’t climbed very high. It was a treacherous road to begin with and had become very dangerous. The smell of sulfur was overpowering but the angry earth would not let them hurry.

Peleus swore that he heard the dragon.

“He never sleeps,” laughed Apsyrtus, “Take heart! I do not lead you to slaughter.”

“What dragon?” asked Jason.

“There is a story,” explained Prince Apsyrtus, “We would have you believe that a ram with a golden fleece deposits our wealth effortlessly upon this very ground. As you can see, there is nothing easy about harvesting the red gold.”

“But what of the dragon?” asked Jason again.

“Part of the tale concerns a dragon,” added the prince, “It can be heard in the vents where the rocks are boiling. As a result, very few people venture here.”

“There is no dragon?” asked Jason a third time.

Gold was not all they harvested. They passed sulfur mines, quartz quarries, granite works and even observatories. Terraces of steaming mud grew spores that can only thrive in poisonous places. These were algae and molds used not only as medicine, but as a means to speak with the gods.

Across a steaming slab of rock were the iron works. It was a wonder of the Caucasus. The road they traveled was at the top of an ancient ribbon of lava. It was black magma high in concentrations of magnetite.

Streams and springs in the grove were high in salts. The salts combined with sulfuric acid in the water to form hydrochloric acid. It ran in rivers over the black rock. Care had to be taken not to breathe the fumes it produced.

Centuries of scouring had stripped the impurities from the magnetite in the lava. The result was a naturally made ore high in carbon and suitable for making weapons. All that was needed was a hot fire, which Cybele conveniently provided. Their jaws dropped at the sight. So this was the secret of Colchisean steel.

It was late afternoon when they saw the fields. Hot water flowed everywhere through it and steam shrouded everything.

“You want us to go in there?” complained Peleus.

“If you want the gold,” replied the prince, “I’ll be coming. Someone has to teach you how to harvest it without losing it all downstream.”

They did not go unprepared. Medea had given them a salve of succulents that would keep them from getting burned. She instructed them to apply it on their naked bodies and to reapply it every few hours. She gave them many barrels of it.

Atalanta wouldn’t hear it when Jason said she didn’t have to join them in the grove.

“And give you all the glory!” she cried, “Get out of my way!”

They harvested very little that afternoon, but they did learn to use the tools.

It took six people to harvest a fleece. Four grabbed the corners with their pikes while two carefully pushed their shovels along the watercourse. All six must lift together. Just the slightest cant in any direction could waggle the fleece and cause it’s gold to be lost.

“We risk our lives to lay these skins,” said Apsyrtus, “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

It wasn’t enough to harvest a fleece. Another had to be put in it’s place. It was a dangerous job fraught with peril. The water was often boiling and the fumes were sometimes sickening. Lowering a fleece meant putting one’s face right over the boil, an act that was somehow easier when lifting the fleece out of the water.

Few got a good night’s sleep. The sounds of the grove scared even the Colchiseans. It could and did spout geysers anywhere that struck it’s fancy.

Morning came and work began in earnest. The Argonauts labored from dawn until dusk and lost some gold to the mountain. They were forgiven because it was lost early on. By the third day the Colchiseans were impressed by their skill.

Prince Apsyrtus was pleased. The new fleece was expertly laid. He could already see tiny flakes accumulating there. If this continued it would be a very good harvest next year.

By week’s end they had taken a lot of gold; far more than any Colchisean had thought they could. It was a problem and Apsyrtus knew it but he did not let on his concerns.

Burned and boiled, but in high spirits, the Argonauts wound down the mountain laden with just their success.

While loading their haul onto the Argo Jason was called to see the king.

“I regret that I must renegotiate my offer,” Aites told the hero.

“For what reason must you renegotiate?” asked Jason in reply.

The king was not alone. Medea was with him and his brother Perses, the admiral who had escorted the Argo upriver.

“I did not know you had such skills with the fleece,” said the king, “My son tells me you are born harvesters and you use techniques unknown in Colchise. My offer assumed you would spend days learning the craft. I do not accuse you of lies, though I believe you did not bargain in good faith. I insist that you leave with just one third of the gold you have taken.”

Jason was speechless. He had not expected this and his anger began to grow. Medea, knowing his mind, could see the danger coming.

“Father,” she said, “there is no treachery here. He did not mean to deceive us.”

“Silence, daughter,” commanded the king because he felt his brother’s eyes upon him.

“If I tell them they’ll tear me apart,” said Jason, “You must tell them.”

Well done, thought Aites. Perhaps this hero wasn’t as thick as he let on.

“Agreed,” said the king and they left the palace for the lakeside docks.

When they reached the Argo the loading was well under way. Almost half the gold was stowed so Aites thought it generous when he allowed them to keep every flake not still on the dock. It was Peleus who complained the loudest.

“I knew it!” he shouted, “Treachery!”

A few shared his feelings, but half the haul was still a great fortune and most of the Argonauts thought the arrangement fair.

Peleus had drawn his sword. So had Apsyrtus. King Aites was kept safe behind a wall of soldiers while the prince and the sailor stared each other down.

Medea was disgusted because her plans depended on trust between her father and the Argonauts. If that trust were to fail she might not easily travel to Iolcos with Jason, which is what her superiors in the temple had told her to do.

Medea knew Peleus was acting alone and the Argonauts would not commit without a word from their captain. At the right moment Medea ran screaming at Jason.

Fearing for his captain’s life, Peleas lunged and found her brother’s sword blocking his way. She embraced Jason and kissed him, raising her brother’s ire. Seeing his chance Peleus swung his sword with the anger Medea knew was in him.

Peleus ran for the safety of the Argonauts as Apsyrtus fell. The heir to the throne was bleeding heavily from a gash in his side. Medea screamed again, causing Jason to loose track of the moment as the Argonauts drew their swords.

War was averted when Medea ran to her brother’s side and put a dagger to his throat.

“Nobody move!” she commanded with a voice she was taught by the temple.

She lifted her brother to his feet. His wound was life threatening.

“I’m going with them, father,” she said, “I’m taking Apsyrtus!’

She walked her wounded brother up the dock with a knife to his throat. She brought him aboard ship as the Argonauts watched and then she commanded them to sail.

“If I see pursuit,” said Peleus, seizing the day, “I’ll kill him myself.”

“Cast off,” ordered Jason, glaring at Peleus because it was a stupid thing to say.

Jason steered the Argo downriver before giving the helm to Ancaeus. They had seen no one on the water. It didn’t mean they weren’t out there.

“He will die!” warned Asclepius.

“Yes,” agreed Jason.

Asclepius had tried everything. Still the wound wouldn’t close.

“Is he a bleeder?” Asclepius had asked.

“We must see my Aunt Circe,” was all Medea would say so Jason gave in to her plea.

“He may die before we reach her,” he cautioned.

“Yes,” she agreed, “Only Circe may cleanse us of his death.”

“To where shall I sail?” asked the hero.

“To the Sardinis river,” she said, “Go south, but not as far as Nilos. Stop where water falls from the rock. There is Aeaea. It is a peak crowned by Circe’s mansion.”

Jason gave the choice to the Argonauts. Peleus was loudest declaring his agreement. If the witch said he needed cleansing he wasn’t going to say no.

Heracles agreed because Hylas was dying. He breathed the fumes as they all had, but perhaps he breathed more deeply. He was coughing black spittle and wheezing like a cat.

Apsyrtus died with Medea’s name on his lips.

Acastus found Atalanta after a considerable time. He had seen her come aboard so he made it his mission to know why she was hiding. He found her where the second sail was stowed. It was almost enough room for a child, but not a wounded warrior.

“What happened?” asked the prince, “Where are you hurt?”

Atalanta opened her eyes. They were swollen and glazed.

“Acastus,” she said, and then she remembered, “How long…”

“Have you been here?” finished the prince, “We’re two days at sea.”

“Two days,” she repeated, finding her wits. No wonder her head hurt.

A pool of dried blood lay at her side. It had come from her sliced and twisted arm.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he demanded.

“What would you have done if you knew a Colchisean had cut me?” she slowly asked.

“I’d have killed him on the spot!” he replied.

“There you have it,” she told him, “It was either this or die with the rest of you fools.”

“You could have died right here!” exclaimed the prince.

“From this?” she scoffed, “It’s a flesh wound.”

“I’d let Asclepius make that call,” advised Acastus and he went to find the healer.

“It’s a deep one,” said Asclepius after a thorough inspection, “and infected.”

He went in search of the bone saw. First he would try cauterizing the wound. With luck she could keep her arm.

The ship was small and the Argonauts had gathered by the fallen hero.

Her presence explained to Medea a mysterious business at the edge of her mind. She couldn’t get a clear head because there was another, and injured, witch aboard the Argo.

“Atalanta, Princess of Calydon,” she stated formally, “It is your good fortune to make my acquaintance.”

Medea made tea and a poultice from the herbs she carried. She made incisions across the wound so healing might happen quickly. She silently asked to know Atalanta’s mind.

Atalanta never dreamed such a thing was possible.

Medea’s mind took hold of her. Unknown memories came unbidden before calm settled in. She failed to move her wounded arm. Medea’s voice spoke clearly in her brain.

“The pain is gone,” said Medea and then it was.

Asclepius had heard of such things but not thought them possible. The wounded limb lost it’s bruises right before his eyes. The swelling left and color returned to Atalanta’s face. A few minutes later she was hungry.

But Medea was ill. She fell into Jason’s arms as Acastus put Atalanta to bed. What shocked him the most was that Medea’s own arm was twisted and red with blood, yet it was not cut and there was no wound to be seen.

Two days later their enemies found them. Three Colchisean warships sailed out of the drowned forest at the water’s edge.

“How did they get here before us?” barked Jason, “I saw no one on the sea!”

“Horses most likely,” answered Argos.

“I’ll wager Lycus has told them all about our thieving ways,” added Acastus.

“If he had a navy here, why didn’t we see it before?” queried Jason skeptically.

“Maybe we weren’t looking,” offered Peleus.

“We’re looking now!” exclaimed Ancaeus as they made for deeper waters.

Mount Scylla was directly ahead. She was huge, and huger seen from the east where she spread out in all her glory. Colchisean ships were nearly upon them. In desperation they threw the dead body of Prince Apsyrtus overboard.

Their pursuers stopped to pick up the corpse. With nowhere else to run the Argonauts sailed straight for the belching mouth of Mount Scylla.

They watched in fear as mountains shook. Cliffs moved in all directions as if a giant was slapping them around. A crack opened in the Hellespont and boulders fell like pebbles to the surf. The Argo was being swept into a maw of stone and all they could do was pray.

“Woman!” shouted Jason, “Where is your goddess now?”

“There!” she told him, “In the fires of the angry mountain!”

Cybele answered like she always does. Mount Scylla erupted in a fury of flame. She heaved, her flank exploded and a pyroclastic flow spread out across the sea.

They rowed in fear of the gods as hot the gas rode over the waves. The cloud passed behind them, cooling as it slowed. When it had cooled enough it hit the water and a thick fog of steam boiled out of the sea.

With their pursuers blinded Jason saw his chance. He steered for the Hellespont as the wall collapsed and the sea roared into the valley below. A thousand feet it fell as the mighty cliffs scissored, dropping boulders into an abyss. Moments later the cliffs themselves plunged over the top and the Argo along with them.

Steam scalded their faces as they rode a thousand-foot wave. Down they fell with rocks and trees and other things to a raging pool of debris.

They pool took them in and tossed them out, leaving not a rope nor plank the lesser for it. As they fell the sail was filled by a gale of embers. They gained speed and it caught fire, tossing the remnants of their herald into the blackening sky.

When they hit bottom it was like Charybdis had swallowed a sea. A clash deafened as water shot hundreds of feet into the air. They flew from crest to crest on Scylla’s fiery breath and they saw their pursuers crushed by rock. Then the water at the Hellespont turned to a boil and a river of lava poured over the dwindling falls.

“Pull, you nomads!” shouted Jason, “Pull for your lives!”