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Argonautica Pt 5: 25 Percent Of Nothing

The windless sea was an omen. To the east the Colchiseans sailed from view. To the south stood the mountains of Kriti. Forty-two oars rippled the water. They made the largest ripples upon it.

As Acastus rowed he pondered what to do. Most of the kings and princes of the age were aboard the Argo. If he were to rule Thessaly he would need their help. Somewhere on the water he made his decision. He would not tell his father about the gold not given.

In time they made it the highlands of Kriti.

A quarter of the gold lay on the Argo, though most of the Argonauts were not aboard. They had taken their hoard to the White Mountains; to the inn called Grapes In A Bed. They saw many beasts tied to the railings so they first thought to find another hiding place for the gold, but Jason and Peleus took a closer look. They assured everyone that those in residence were a blind man, a young girl who might be his daughter, and Menjik, whom they knew not to trust. There was no one else and the detached cottages were empty as well.

“Good sirs,” greeted Menjik as they came through his door, “How may I serve you?”

The room had recently hosted a party. A harp sat on stage and a drum leaned against it. Tankards of ale and mead gone stale fouled the tables and food littered the floor. Menjik himself looked hung over.

“Tell me,” commanded Jason, “Who has been here?”

“Who is asking?” replied Menjik, a bit too nervously, “My patrons are of a sort who do not like their names pronounced. I’m sure you understand.”

To Jason’s left was a half full tankard of ale.

“Do I look like I understand?” he asked, while holding the ale over Menjik’s head.

“If I tell you who has been here do you promise to leave me alone?” quaked Menjik.

“Not only that,” he promised, pouring a trickle onto the innkeeper’s head, “I will give you riches the likes of which you have never dreamed.”

The stale brew found it’s way into Menjik’s open mouth. Before could he spit it out Jason shut his jaw.

“Swallow it,” he demanded, “Show me I can trust you.”

Menjik swallowed the horrible tasting malt though it made his stomach turn.

“Good,” smiled Jason, “Go out back. We’ll follow.”

His stomach roiling, Menjik lead them out back and there he saw many more ruffians lurking in the shadows. He lost the contents of his stomach, missing Jason’s boots by a hand. Instead of anger, Jason replied with laughter before introducing the poor man to his wife.

“You are the famous Menjik,” she said, “I expected someone larger.”

“F..famous?” stammered the innkeeper.

“Through-out Colchise every soul knows your name,” she told him.

“I’m f…flattered,” he whimpered, trying to bow in spite Jason’s grip on his arm.

“Don’t be,” Medea replied, “The best that is said of you is that you are a snake.”

A small whine passed Menjik’s lips.

“Shall I say the worst?” she asked, her sea-colored eyes burning him like the sun.

“If you m…must,” he managed to say.

The frightened mind easily gives up it’s secrets. It was an adage as old as the temple and a useful tool, but after it’s secrets are revealed the frightened mind is no longer useful, so fear must be supplanted by trust.

“The worst that is said of you is you sadden my lady, Cybele,” spoke Medea.

“I…I don’t see how, m…m…”

She raised her hand and his stammering stopped. Menjik could no longer speak.

“You sadden my lady because she gave you this wonderful inn at this beautiful place and you have made it a dump. You sell whatever will sell without regard for the rightness of things. What is worse you return nothing to my lady,” accused Medea.

Menjik still couldn’t speak, but he could fidget, moan and kick the dust.

“You are a better man than that,” she told him, loosening his jaw.

“Y…yes, m…my lady, w…whate…e…ever you say,” pleaded the innkeeper.

“We shall leave before dawn,” she told him, “We will return. You will not recall that we were here. Heed my words: do not disturb the earth in the darkness of your cellar. If you do, you will find a death most horrible.”

“I promised you riches, didn’t I?” said Jason, rooting around in his bag, “I have here the eye of the dragon.”

He showed him a blue gem from the mines of Colchise. It was a large lapis lazuli, so valuable it had just a small market among the rich; people like Minos, the Lord of the Lasithi Valley, who was known to be a sucker for things shiny and expensive.

“M…my lord, you are much too generous,” complained Menjik, holding out his hand.

“Let’s go inside and do this properly,” said Jason.

Menjik followed, wondering all the while if he was going to be clubbed from behind.

As Menjik went to the bar he forgot why he’d been out back, and he forgot the eye of the dragon, but he recalled the three sailors waiting for their drinks.

“I don’t know what’s come over me,” he confessed, “What were your orders again?”

“Mead,” said Jason, and a dram for yourself, innkeeper, for we may not pass this way again, nor can it be said our lives are not in danger. If we are to be remembered it may be for you alone to say the gallant deeds of the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece.”

“I’ve heard about that!” exclaimed Menjik, “So you must be Jason, son of Aeson, and erstwhile heir to the throne of Iolcos.”

“Shhh!” shushed Jason, “Don’t tell anyone,” but there was no one to tell.

The innkeeper poured three measures of mead and a half measure for himself. He led them to the least foul of the tables.

“I am Menjik, the poor owner of this dismal place. I regret I cannot…”

“It is a palace compared to the dark digs of King Aites! Acastus, am I right?”

“Right.”

Acastus thought it disgraceful to be using the man like they were, and he was insulted that he was not allowed to see where the digging was going on in the basement. All in all he was even less trusted than the man who was being so artfully manipulated.

“Peleus, what do you say?” inquired his captain.

“Never was a place so foul,” sneered the Argonaut, “Were the Red Grove not guarded by dragons it would sink into the bowels of the earth.”

“For there the gods take revenge upon the living,” added Jason, “and from there we have returned with the fabled Fleece of Gold.”

“By deeds so glorious they shout down the corridors of time,” finished Peleus, and he took a long drink of his mead.

Acastus stared ahead and said nothing.

“Tell me these deeds, so I might praise your names, my lords,” pleaded Menjik.

Jason sat back, tankard in hand, and looked warily at the innkeeper.

“Why should I tell you?” he wondered, “What does an innkeeper trapped in a lonely valley such as this know about heroes?”

“I know many heroes,” replied Menjik, leaning in and speaking softly while eying the empty room suspiciously before abruptly changing his tune.

“Their mounts!” he cried, “O my goddesses! I forgot to stable their mounts. Good sirs, you must excuse me…”

Jason caught Menjik’s arm as he rose.

“Innkeeper,” he said, “I shall stable them under your watchful eye, but first, who are these heroes who strike fear into your heart?”

“Don’t tell him!” spoke a blind man standing at the foot of a stair, “I say to you, Jason son of Aeson, the gods look woefully upon your face!”

“Silence, old man, or I’ll make you into a sightless corpse,” promised Jason.

“Forgive my captain,” added Acastus in a hurry, “He does not know the voice of the King of Antallis!”

Peleus froze. Foremost in his mind was the fear of killing another royal personage. Foremost in Jason’s mind was the gold being buried in the basement at that very moment.

“Forgive me, great king,” said Jason, humbling himself before the blind man, “King Aites sends his greetings. How fortunate I am able to say his words to you. They burn in my heart with such passion they must be revealed or I will be a wretch.”

“What could Aites say to engender passion in a pirate?” asked Prosus, “Gold alone will do such a thing! Your business here is to distract my host from the holes you are digging on his property! Stand down, son of Aeson, or you will face the Sword Master Cheiron.”

Jason could kill everyone but Peleus or he could stand down, because if the blind man really was King of Antallis, Cheiron’s pursuit would only end with one of them dead. He was trapped and he knew it and the one way out was to tell the truth, or at least the part of it that didn’t make him sound like a scoundrel.

“You are right, great king,” agreed Jason, bowing deeply, “We were given the gold in trust by the King of Colchise. He extracted from me an oath that I would give the fleece only to the Steward of Antallis, yet how can I return empty handed to the King of Iolcos? I bury the greater portion in the basement of Grapes In A Bed until such time as it can be given to your steward, my lord.”

Prosus believed it because it was just what Aites would do and because Jason’s words revealed he did not know Dalius was dead. It would serve no good purpose to enlighten him.

“Prince Acastus,” addressed Prosus, “Your silence implies your captain tells the truth. I would hear it from your mouth. Come here, lad. Tell me if the pretender lies!”

“Great king,” replied Acastus, stepping forward a few steps only, “The son of Aeson is not like his father. Jason is an honorable man, and though he may think he is a pirate he is in the service of my lady Cybele and her handmaiden Medea, who is newly made his bride. If this were not so I would not be sailing with him.”

“You know of my service to Cybele?” asked Jason.

His surprise was so obvious it had to be the truth, but Acastus would not elaborate.

“Son of Aeson, your secret is safe with me,” Prosus told him, “and I pray you tell no one what you have done here.”

The hero stood as if he were listening, but his mind was on the gold.

“Jason,” barked King Prosus, clapping his hands but once, “Forget about the gold. It was not meant for you. Leave with your portion.”

“Jason,” counseled Peleus, “Let’s do what he says.”

“Good advice,” agreed Acastus, “Jason, let’s go.”

“Wait!” commanded the king, “Don’t you have something for Menjik?”

Of course, thought Jason, old blind Prosus was listening at the window as they spoke.

“The eye of the dragon,” said the Argonaut, reverently taking the gem from his pouch, “It is worth a small fortune to the right buyer. If I were you, I’d start with Lord Minos.”

Menjik took the offered gem with a definite rush of deja vu.

“With your leave, my lord,” added Jason, “My duty here is done and I must return to Iolcos with the king’s portion.”

“Sit!” commanded Prosus, “Don’t give your friends reason to be anxious. Drink while I play a few tunes on the harp and tell no one my name lest they know where you have been.”

Late that night the Argonauts finished their task. Jason left the innkeeper to his guest, the King of Antallis, and he knew better than to tell anyone about it. He only hoped his wife would heed the old king’s warning after she had availed herself of his secrets.

Once on board, Acastus demanded to know how Jason would keep his promise.

“I will find Dalius and give him a map,” Jason told him.

“Draw it for me.”

Jason drew on a leather pouch. A knife was his stylus and flame his ink.

“Give it to me,” Acastus demanded again.

Jason balked.

“I only want to see it,” promised the Prince.

It might have been an innocent design etched by a tinkerer. A half circle at the bottom was a sea, though it looked like a moon, and it’s beams fell up a mountain. A curvy line was a road to a house at the center, which was Grapes In A Bed.

A garden was etched behind the house, and an X to balance the moon at the bottom of the pouch. If one knew the garden was really the basement one knew where to dig.

“You’ll give it to Dalius?” pressed the prince.

“When I find him,” agreed Jason, “though I fear Antallis may be gone.”

“Perhaps the valleys fill more slowly in the south,” suggested Peleus.

“Perhaps,” repeated Jason, “We must go.”

Ancaeus was anxious because the water was a turgid, swirling soup. A rock bounced on the deck and then several more. Seconds later they were being pelted by stones.

“Cast off!” shouted Jason, “Oars down. Pull!”

The hail of rocks was furious. Ancaeus steered with one hand so to protect his head with the other, as did the oarsmen, but they pulled away with speed.

Asclepius ran madly from one wounded Argonaut to another. Many heads were open and there were other injuries too.

Calais was dead. A rock cleaved his head and his brains spilled across the deck.

Dread fell back upon them. First Tiphys, and then Idmon, Apsyrtus of Colchise, then Butes and now Calais. It was a voyage of death.

“Pull back!” shouted the watch, “Pull back!”

They retreated as a new hail began, because a pile of debris so large the water dammed behind it was forcing them close to shore. Ancaeus steered for the far side of the jam just as the hail of rocks ended. Medea took the credit for it.

“I have bought us some time,” she said, “but only a little.”

“Pull!” ordered Jason, “Pull you pirates, pull!”

“There,” pointed Lynceus, “Eyes in the water.”

Scores of men were staring at them. They stood waist high in the river and their eyes glowed in the torchlight.

“Bronze men,” gasped Orpheus, “They once held the pass. Now they hold the sea.”

“Men made of bronze?” asked Ancaeus, his knees shaking.

“They are statues of men made of bronze, my nervous friend,” said Acastus.

“Then who threw the stones?” asked Ancaeus again.

“Their makers,” replied Jason.

“They must think us demons,” said Orpheus.

“Go quickly,” Medea advised, “They will soon be themselves again.”

Ancaeus maneuvered them around the massive jam. He was at his best when shaking at the knees. They heard rocks hit the water and then all was quiet. Every once in a while a bronze statue of a man looked at them.

“Heading?” asked the nervous helmsmen, “Jason, where are we going?”

“North,” replied his captain, “Sail north.”

Anceaus steered them by shallow water. In the north, Euboea had become an island. It’s eastern edge was a canyon, perhaps an ancient river gorge. It had filled again and water lapped against Mount Parnassus. East from there was passage to the Aegis, but it was not a river anymore.

That evening a fog descended. The sound of birds faded and was gone.

“Hard to port!” cried the watch, “Anceaus! Hard to port!”

A dark wave broke and it nearly swamped the Argo. The Aegis river had swelled to the height of the Euxine Sea. It had become a lake and was threatening to spill into the valleys south of Kriti. In the north it had made Iolcos a city by the sea, but if it rose any higher Iolcos would be still be dry because the plain of Thessaly is a high one.

As it was, Anceaus could almost bring them to the city gates, or so it looked from afar. As they approached they saw it was a long climb to the top.

The exploits of the Argonauts were known in Iolcos. Poets wrote weekly rhymes for the people to remember them by; rhymes which bore scant resemblance to the truth of things but which managed to capture the heroism of the heroes.

Cybele was known in Iolcos also; and she was called Hera, goddess of Argos, and she was treated accordingly, especially by Circe because Argos was the seat of her one peer, Cydippe, Queen of the West. The fact was that Cybele had disgraced Circe by identifying herself with a rival’s goddess and changing her name to Hera. It had caused a maelstrom in Thessalonian politics.

The immediate problem for Circe was that it emboldened the petty little king she kept on throne. As has been said before she would have no queen in her realm, and the kings of Iolcos were pathetic things addicted to drink. King Pelias had sobered up.

“Where is the gold from the mountains of Colchise?” he demanded to know.

“It is given to you,” pleaded Jason, feigning innocence.

“I have here a handful of letters from my spies in Aites’ court,” said Pelias, furiously, “All say you left with five hundred and sixty-eight skins of the red gold.”

“We lost it,” said Acastus, though he had not been addressed.

“We lost it?” repeated his father, “When did you and this pretender become a we?”

“When you bade me become an Argonaut, my lord,” replied the prince.

“All right then,” conceded his father, “How was the red gold lost?”

“To Charybdis,” lied Acastus as he stared into the eyes of the court psychic, the lanky Lapraxus, “We were lucky to get out with our lives. Had it not been for the heroism of my cousin Jason all would be dead, and yet he saved not only our lives, he saved a quarter of the gold as well. That entire quarter is taken to the vaults of Iolcos. There is no treachery here.”

“If you were not my son I would call you a fool,” answered the king, “If you stick with this story others will call you such and I will have no reason to judge it differently.”

“Why not?” asked Atalanta, “The word of prince counts as the word of a king.”

“Who are you?” he demanded to know.

“I am the Princess of Arcadia, my lord,” she replied, “And an Argonaut.”

“You are who Cheiron was loathe to leave,” he recalled, “Do you speak for my son?”

“He speaks honorably, my lord. His words are not trifles. It was not by Jason’s guile that we survived the Red Grove. It was by your son’s unerring diplomacy we were allowed to leave at all. Most of Colchise thought us pirates.”

“The murder of Apsyrtus confirms their fears, Princess of Arcadia,” replied the king.

“Is that what they said?” asked Atalanta, her indignation overflowing, “It was Peleus who slew Apsyrtus and at the behest of Circe!”

“Be careful,” warned the king, “Even the Princess of Arcadia can commit perjury.”

“Ask her,” insisted Atalanta, “Ask my lady if she wanted him dead.”

Though Apsyrtus was her nephew Circe had indeed wanted him dead; not from some misguided fear that he would betray her. Apsyrtus was a bleeder. As king he would invite intrigue for the fact of his disease. For the good of the realm she allowed his death, but it did not ease her grief.

“The Princess of Arcadia speaks the truth,” confirmed Circe.

The king considered the new information.

“I want to believe you,” he said, “but how can I know you have my interests at heart?”

“If I were to marry Acastus would that quell your fear?” she asked him.

Circe, seeing her plans blooming to fruition, nodded her approval.

“Yes,” agreed the king, “I believe that it would.”

One week later King Pelias of Iolcos was dead by the hands of his daughters. They accused Medea, but the charges didn’t stick thanks to their brother, the new king.

Two weeks after that Atalanta looked anew at herself in the mirror. She was not the fleet footed maiden who had vowed never to marry. She was bedecked in wedding floral and happy for it. Downstairs, her husband-to-be was receiving a visitor.

“I couldn’t leave without saying goodbye,” said Jason. Medea had advised against it, but he considered Acastus a friend, “I will not forget what you have done for me.”

“See that you don’t,” said the new King Acastus, “When I have need of you, you will come. Swear it!”

Jason was startled, but he remembered that Acastus was now a king. Finally it dawned on him what their relationship really was and why it could be no other way.

“I do not covet the throne of Iolcos,” he said, “Neither does Medea.”

“Then leave as a friend,” said the king, “Do not return unless I invite you to my court.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the son of old king Aeson, before leaving Iolcos forever.

© Mikkel McDow 2008