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Authors: Robert Silverberg

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BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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Aietes, ever suspicious, was dismayed at the sight of the great craft and its formidable band of heroes. He was certain now that Jason had come to Colchis to overthrow him. When the news was brought to him soon after that Jason had achieved all that he had been ordered to accomplish, the king was consumed by a high fury and resolved that he would put the
Argo
to the torch and slaughter all her crew, rather than keep his promise to surrender the Fleece. 

Unaware, though, of all that had passed betwen Jason and Medea, Aietes was injudicious enough to let slip something to her concerning his intentions. Hastily Medea carried word of that to Jason, telling him that he must seize the Fleece that very night—she would aid him in that, she told him, using one of her potions to lull the serpent that kept watch over it—and then he must set out to sea immediately thereafter. She would, she said, leave Colchis with us, for she was confident that Jason would make good on his pledge to take her as his wife once the expedition had returned to the Hellene lands. 

“So be it,” said Jason, buckling on his sword. 

Then Medea turned to me and said, “You must come along with us today, Orpheus. My drug alone will not be sufficient to close the serpent’s eyes.” 

I understood. Indeed, I had been expecting the request. 

So we set out together in the darkness, Jason and Medea and I, toward the sacred forest called the Precinct of Ares, some six miles away from our mooring-place. There the fabled Golden Fleece hung all agleam from a bough of a gigantic oak tree. It was near to dawn when we got there; and when the first pink glow fell upon us out of the east, we beheld not only the tree and the wondrous dazzling Fleece, so bright even in that early light that the eye could barely stand to look upon it for long, but also saw the terrible guardian of the Fleece, lying coiled in casual heaps about the base of the tree, a monstrous mottled green-and-gray thing so thick around that I doubt that even Heracles could have encompassed its girth with
his arms. 

The snake was sleeping when we approached. But it sensed us quickly, opening first one chilly red-rimmed eye and then the other, and lifted its enormous head and hissed a warning to us to be gone. “By Hera,” said Jason in a hoarse whisper, “it would be greater in length than the
Argo
itself, if it uncoiled,” and I looked at him and saw him pale and bloodless, with unmistakable terror showing on his face, a thing which I had never seen before. I realized that he must believe now that everything he had struggled for all these many months was slipping from his grasp in this one moment, for surely it would be impossible to gain the mastery over this stupendous monster. 

But Medea showed us then, as she would on many occasions thereafter, that she was a woman born without any sense of fear. She went forward until she stood face to face with the beast, so close that she could almost have reached out and tapped it on its scaly snout. It hissed once more and, slowly, almost lazily, drew its huge jaws apart as though it meant to devour her at a gulp. Medea, weaving from side to side very much as if she were a serpent herself, murmured an incantation of some sort, a low rhythmic chant in a language I had never heard before. From the bosom of her gown she drew a small green phial sealed with a waxen stopper and broke the seal, and with a quick gesture splashed the potion that the phial contained across the serpent’s slitted nostrils. 

A different kind of hiss came from the serpent then, a muzzy soft-edged sound that seemed almost like one of bafflement. A mist came over those hard ophidian eyes and the great eyelids began to grow slack and the beast’s head swayed sleepily from one side to the other. But its fanged jaws were still gaping, and even as the creature struggled against the power of Medea’s drug it thrust its head malevolently in Jason’s direction as though it meant to snap him in two if it could manage to reach him. 

“Now,” she cried. “Play, Orpheus! Play!” 

Yes. I played. 

There is music to stir the soul and make a man leap forward eagerly to his death on the battlefield, and there is music to spur the oarsmen of a great ship to pull against the angriest of seas, and there is music that can soothe any creature into the trance of utmost peace. I knew my task and I had the skill. I took my lyre in my hands and from it came such tones as even a monster like this could not withstand. The shallow drowsiness that Medea’s potion had induced became deep slumber. The ponderous jaws slowly closed and the huge head sagged and sagged again, until it fell nestling into the creature’s tangled coils. I swear by bright-eyed Athena and her father the lord of thunder that the thing had begun to snore. 

Quickly Jason broke free of his terrors, sprang forward past the helpless serpent, reached up and pulled the Fleece from the tree. In that same moment the dawning sun came fully into the sky and its brilliant radiance, striking against the Fleece like a bolt of lightning, lit Jason from head to foot so that he seemed to shine with a golden flame. For an instant it seemed that I was looking not upon the mortal son of Aeson but on Apollo himself. 

“Come,” he cried hoarsely, and we fled from that grove and hurried back to the
Argo
where it lay in harbor. There Jason displayed his glittering prize to our astonished comrades, who gathered round, murmuring in awe. Medea came aboard with us, as she had said she would. We said the words that we hoped would bring the restless spirit of dead Phrixus on board too, for that was part of our task. That having been done, we cut our hawsers then and there, and with a furious splashing of oars we pulled out into the open water.

13

It was not so much in our seizing of the Fleece but in our homeward journey to Hellas that we felt the full weight of the test that the gods had devised for us. Nothing we had suffered on the outward trip, however grueling it had seemed at the time, appeared in hindsight to have offered any real difficulty at all when placed against what we had to contend with on the voyage home. 

You may think that all we had to do was reverse our track and sail back through now-familiar waters, down the Euxine to the Bosphorus, down the Bosphorus to the Hellespont, and quickly onward by way of the ports we had visited on the way out to our starting-point at Pasagae. But that was not to be. The seer Phineus had advised us to take another route, going counterclockwise around the upper end of the Euxine and down a large unknown westward-flowing river that we would eventually come to, and thence onward by a roundabout course into our native seas. For the current and the winds would be against us if we attempted to sail southward through the Euxine, he warned us, and, what was even worse, all the nations that dwelled along that route were subject in one way or another to King Aietes of Colchis. The enraged Aietes was sure to send out messengers to them, ordering them to intercept us and take us, along with his traitorous daughter and our stolen booty, back to Aea. 

In fact Aietes, driven not merely to rage but almost to madness when the news of the theft of the Fleece was brought to him, lost no time sending a fleet out in pursuit of us, an armada of many swift warships headed by his son the prince Apsyrtus, Medea’s half-brother. While we were groping our way slowly and uncertainly westward through the upper waters of the Euxine, with our helmsman Ancaeus hard pressed to navigate in a sea where neither he nor any of the rest of us had had any experience, the fleet of Apsyrtus, traveling in its home territory, was making haste to overtake us. Hardly had we reached the entrance to that great river of which Phineus had told us but we saw his ships coming up to surround us. There were Colchian vessels all about us, fifteen or perhaps twenty of them, blocking our access to the river and cutting off our access to the sea as well. We stood on the verge of a one-sided battle, the slaughter of many men, unburied ghosts left to wander in these strange seas. Surely that was not what the gods had had in mind when they sent us on this journey; but wherever we looked we could see the spears of Apsyrtus’ multitude of warriors bristling in the sun. 

Here Jason demonstrated what manner of man he was, and then Medea showed what sort of woman she was, and Apsyrtus revealed his nature as well, and the gods who have made us all surely took pleasure in watching them work out the destinies that had been designed for them. I knew, after a fashion, what was about to happen, but I could not have intervened. The tragedy had to occur. It is always my fate to be a spectator at such events as the one that would now entwine these three people and send them all spinning off to different, but terrible, destinies. 

Jason, ever cautious and prudent to a fault, sent word to Apsyrtus that he had an offer to make, and asked for a brief truce while he prepared his message. To this Apsyrtus, young and naive, unwisely agreed. Then Jason called us together and told us of the compromise that he planned to offer the Colchian prince. The Fleece, Jason was going to say, unquestionably belonged to him: King Aietes had promised it to him if he performed certain tasks, the tasks had been performed, and he meant to hold the king to his pledge. But Medea was a different matter. Jason appeared to regard her as a negotiable commodity. He planned to tell Absyrtus that he was willing to put her ashore on a nearby island where there was a shrine of Artemis, and would leave it up to the ruler of that island to decide whether she should be turned over to her brother or allowed to go on to Hellas with him. 

Why Jason believed that Apsyrtus, however callow he might be, should have accepted any such offer, is nothing that I will ever understand. Plainly Aietes had charged him with regaining the Fleece, and he could not trade it away. But that Medea would lightly go along with the thing that Jason was suggesting was even less likely. Another woman, I suppose, might have heard Jason’s words without demur, thinking that it was her role as a woman to accept in placid fashion whatever fate might befall her. But Medea, that dark and ruthless woman, surely would not permit herself to be trifled with this way. Nor did she. 

Angrily, her eyes ablaze with green fire, she drew Jason aside and reminded him of the oath he had sworn to take her to wife. Did he now mean to break that oath? Was he so meek and fearful that he was ready now to hand her over to her brother with nothing more than a shrug, merely to save his own neck, if some local king should rule that he must do so? She would set fire to the
Argo
with her own hands before she permitted that, and would call down such vengeful curses on Jason and all his kind for generations to come that he would bemoan the day he had ever been born. 

She was a frightening woman when angered, was Medea. And the savage words that she spat at him left the heroic Jason well and truly frightened. 

He did what he could to pacify her, vowing that he wanted above all else to live with her as man and wife. But he tried to persuade her that he had no choice but to offer Apsyrtus at least a portion of what he had come here to take. There was no way that Medea could remain with him, he said: either she went peacefully, or Apsyrtus would seize her by force. Jason pointed to the vast armada confronting them, and Apsyrtus’ great horde of warriors. Any battle between the men of Colchis and the Argonauts could end only in the total destruction of Jason and all his shipmates, and in the end Apsyrtus would regain not only the Fleece but Medea herself, whom he would take back to Aea to face the dreadful wrath of her royal father. 

“It will not happen that way,” Medea said coolly. And she told Jason of the strategem that she intended to follow. She would send a messenger to her brother, informing him that she had been abducted by Jason against her will and yearned to be rescued and restored to her native city and her beloved father. “If you will go to your sister secretly by night on shore,” the messenger was to tell Apsyrtus, “she will surrender both herself and the Fleece to you, and you will return in triumph to your father with them both, having lost not so much as a single man of your force.” 

“And if he does come, what then?” asked Jason. 

“You will be waiting in hiding for him, and you will kill him,” said Medea, with not the slightest quaver of emotion in her voice. “When they learn of his death his men will be thrown into confusion, and we will be able to escape and go safely onward together to your country.” 

And so it occurred, and all the dark things that were to happen afterward as well, for the gods had designed all this to occur in just such a way. And what the gods design for us must of necessity come to pass. 

I know that philosophers will arise in years to come who will claim that we and we alone are masters of our fates, shaping all events of our lives by our own decisions. They are undoubtedly sincere in this belief; but what chagrin they would feel, if only they understood that the very ideas they espouse were put into their minds by Father Zeus, as part of his great plan for the cosmos and all creatures that dwell within it? 

So the foolish Apsyrtus went unescorted to the temple of Artemis on shore, where Medea had said she would be waiting for him with the Golden Fleece. She came forth to meet him in the darkness; but as brother and sister stood there quietly talking, Jason emerged from his hiding place behind the temple and struck Apsyrtus dead with his sword. His spurting blood threw a crimson stain over the silvery veil Medea had donned. But grim Medea, unmoved, took the sword from Jason, cut the dead man’s body in pieces, and cast his sundered limbs into the sea, where the Colchians would find them drifting in the morning; and she and Jason returned in silence to the
Argo

As Medea had foreseen, the Colchians lost all heart after the death of their prince. Fearing the fury of Aietes if they returned empty-handed to Aea, they set sail for the farther shores of the Euxine and built new settlements there for themselves and never were heard from again. We, meanwhile, entered the great river unhindered and traveled onward toward the west. 

But the gods in their mysterious wisdom often lead us into preordained inevitable sin and then implacably demand atonement. Hera still looked kindly on her beloved Jason, but Zeus, who had never shown any friendship for Jason, was of another mind entirely. And so, the goddess aiding us as best she could but the angry father-god insisting that a proper price be paid for the crime that had made possible our escape, the rest of our journey was one torment after another, by way of punishment for Medea’s crime and Jason’s acquiescence in it, until Medea was deemed cleansed of her brother’s blood. 

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
6.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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