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Authors: Robert Silverberg

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BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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The wind was strong behind us and our oarsmen enjoyed a holiday as the breezes carried us along. To Sinope in Paphlagonia we went, where Jason recruited the brothers Deileon, Autolycus, and Phlogius to fill three of the empty seats on our benches, and then past the river called the Thermodon, that has only four branches short of a hundred, and amidst whose headlands the Amazon women are said to dwell, and after that to the land of the Chalybes, who dig iron from the ground and refine it in an everlasting cloud of black smoke to sell to neighboring tribes. Phineus had advised us to halt next at the Isle of Ares, which we found to be a place infested by huge swarms of such fierce predatory birds that we had to drive them off by pounding on our helmets and shouting with all our might. This we did, and the birds fled, but we wondered why Phineus had told us to put in at this inhospitable site. Soon we had our answer when we came upon four castaways, who said they were brothers, the sons of Phrixus, he who had been carried to Colchis on the back of the ram that bore the fleece of gold. They had been shipwrecked here, they said, while attempting to return from unfriendly Colchis to the land of their grandfather Athamas in distant Thessaly. 

Jason, greatly surprised, let them know that he was the grandson of Athamas’ brother Cretheus, and therefore he and they were cousins. He explained that we were even then en route to Colchis to bring home not only the Golden Fleece but the troubled wandering spirit of his uncle Phrixus, their father; and we took them aboard to swell our number. 

Now our goal was within reach. Nightfall brought us to an island called Philyra, which had its name because the centaur Cheiron was engendered there long ago by Cronos, king of the Titans, deceiving his wife the goddess Rhea with Philyra, the daughter of Ocean. Cronos, surprised by Rhea in the very act, transformed himself into a stallion and went galloping away, leaving Philyra impregnated with a strange creature that took on half the form of the stallion itself. Or so the story goes. I have never asked Cheiron about the truth of it. At any rate, we passed Philyra and several countries upwater from it, traveling now at great speed before a friendly wind, and saw the lofty peaks of the Caucasus before us, where the Titan Prometheus was chained after his defiance of Zeus and suffers the eternal torment of having an eagle gnaw at his liver, and then the Euxine came to its end. 

In front of us now was the mouth of the broad swift-flowing river called the Phasis, which is the river that waters Colchis. We wept with joy, knowing that our quest was nearly done. Jason poured out a libation of wine and honey in gratitude to the gods who had carried us this far, and then up the river we sailed, until the city of Aea, capital of the land of Colchis, lay before us on the left. On our right was the sacred grove of great close-ranked trees where the serpent-guarded Golden Fleece was hanging, as it had hung since the arrival of Phrixus in Colchis, on the branches of a leafy oak. It was the fiftieth day since we had set sail from Pasagae. 

Of our arrival in Colchis, of Jason’s involvement with the witch Medea, and of our theft of the Golden Fleece itself, I will try to make a brief telling, since the tale is all so familiar. You will already know how cautious Jason decided not to approach King Aietes at once, for the sons of Phrixus had advised him that Aietes was a dark-souled, dangerous man. Instead Jason ordered us to put the
into a sheltered marshy backwater while we discussed the strategy he had in mind. And so we lowered and stowed the sail and yard, and unstepped the mast and lay it beside them, and amidst that reedy, stinking, sweltering marsh we came together in council to hear our captain’s plan. 

Trying to seize the wondrous Fleece by force was obviously impossible. It would be just a sparse handful of us against a whole city. What Jason proposed to do was to take the same simple, straightforward approach with Aietes that he had taken in Iolcus that time when, placing his trust in the gods, he went before his usurping uncle Pelias and asked that he restore the rightful king Aeson to his throne. He meant now to go to Aietes and request that the Fleece be given to him as a sign of favor, because he was the kinsman of Phrixus who had brought the Fleece to Colchis in the first place and an oracle had foretold that it was his destiny to return the Fleece to the land of Phrixus’ people. 

It was a simple plan indeed, too simple, and there was no reason why it should succeed. Hera, Jason’s patron goddess, had indeed caused Pelias to greet Jason pleasantly and pretend to accede to his request, but then Pelias had sent him off on this voyage, where he might have lost his life a hundred times. Aietes, I knew, would do the same. To me, for whom the future is an aspect of the past and the present is an eternal reality, the outcome was clear: Jason would gain the Fleece, yes, but not in the easy way he hoped for. But I kept silent and the men voted their approval of Jason’s scheme without hesitation. 

So Jason, with the four sons of Phrixus as his guides, went unarmed from the
into the city of Aea and presented himself before Aietes, King of Colchis. With them also went the wise Peleus and his noble brother Telamon. I was not there; what I know of Jason’s first audience with the king, I know only by the reports I had from others. But I think it is a fair rendition of the things that took place. 

This Aea was then among the greatest of cities. A high wall surrounded it, fashioned of smooth well-squared stones of such immense size that only giants or gods could have hoisted them into place, and within it stood a royal palace as grand as any that any king had ever had. Indeed it was as splendid as the palace of Pharaoh in sun-smitten Egypt, where I had spent so many years learning the ancient magic of that land. Egyptian sorcerers had come long ago to Aea, too, bringing their wisdom and teaching it, and in front of Aea’s palace, an imposing marble structure with cornices of bronze, were great pillars inscribed with long passages in the secret writing of Egypt, though I think that in Aietes’ time no citizen of Aea still remembered how to read them. Behind them stood a row of white stone columns entwined with vines, and four awesome fountains, which, so the people of Colchis firmly maintain, had been built for some ancient king of their land by none other than Hephaestus. Indeed they were godly in their majesty, those fountains, one giving forth clear water, and the next one milk, and another oil, and the fourth one wine, gushing freely into basins of iron, bronze, silver, and gold. 

Jason and his companions were met first, as he told us afterward, by Chalciope, the king’s daughter, who had been the wife of Phrixus. She was surprised to see her sons returning so soon from their voyage to Thessaly; but they simply told her that they had come back to aid Jason in his quest for the Fleece, and forthwith she brought Jason before the king to make his request. 

Aietes was then a man of great age, white-haired and bent, but his green eyes were unfaded and keen, and they had a tiger’s ferocity. Beside him on his throne was his second wife, Eidyia by name, with her son the prince Apsyrtus at her side. Also there was the witch-priestess Medea, who like Chalciope was Aietes’ daughter by his dead first wife. This Medea was a golden-haired woman, very beautiful, with skin of a dark olive hue very strange for one so fair-haired; she had her father’s penetrating green eyes, and her brows were heavy and closely knitted together, as though some hidden anger forever raged within her. 

The sight of Phrixus’ sons back at his court once more drove Aietes instantly to fury. He thought that they had returned with the intent of seizing his throne, bringing some dangerous stranger with them, and coldly ordered them gone, telling them that he would have had their tongues torn out and their hands lopped off, but that they once had dined at his table. Jason, though, stepped calmly forward. You are in no peril, neither from the sons of Phrixus nor from me, is what he said, for they are merely acting as my guides and I have come here only to fulfill the decree of the oracle concerning the return of the Golden Fleece. He told Aietes also that he had brought with him a band of heroes. Peleus and Telamon, here, were just two of them, and they both could trace their ancestry back to Zeus; and many another man of his company was of godly descent as well. He and those who had come with him would perform any service Aietes might require of them by way of compensation for the Fleece—for example, subduing some hostile tribe that stood in need of conquest.

As Jason should have understood, Aietes had no more desire to hand over the Fleece than he would have had to offer his crown to the first passing beggar who asked for it. But the king kept his own counsel and, though I suspect he was tempted to have Jason taken off and slain on the spot, he assumed an amiable guise and told him that he might well bestow the Fleece upon him if Jason and his band would first carry out one or two little tasks for him. It was much the same tactic that Pelias of Iolcus had adopted when Jason had come to him to ask him to abdicate. The little tasks Aietes had in mind were as hazardous as the voyage to Colchis was—not only the conquering of nearby troublesome tribes, but also some things involving fire-breathing bulls that needed to be yoked to a plow, and the slaying of certain invincible warriors spawned from dragons’ teeth, and other such well-nigh impossible enterprises. Jason maintained a sturdy facade, though surely his heart must have been downcast upon hearing of all that Aietes required of him. 

Well, you know the story. That day Eros had struck Jason with his shaft at his first view of Medea, and had smitten Medea in the same way; and what had passed between them in that moment was the same fiery thing that had passed between Eurydice and me, a burning pain so sweet that the heart overflows with it, a force so great that it cannot be withstood. Jason had felt that force more than once before—you will recall that when we were at Lemnos he had nearly let the whole purpose of our voyage slip from his mind, so infatuated was he with that island’s queen—but for virginal Medea all this was new, and it took full possession of her soul. Of Jason’s manly magnificence—and he was, in truth, a man of great and heroic beauty, almost godlike in his strength and splendor—she would from that moment on think day and night, to the exclusion of all else. And he too became obsessed with her: by a mighty oath he swore to make her his wife once he had succeeded in his quest. But he respected her maidenhood and did not at that time let the overwhelming desire he felt for her carry him away. There were great tasks to be done first, and they both understood how risky it would be to let Aietes perceive that Jason and his daughter were forming a league against him. 

For then and there, linked as they were by the sudden bond of passion, Medea and Jason had silently made a compact with each other to work together to fulfill Aietes’ requests, and to take the Fleece from him after that. I have said that she was a witch and a priestess of mysterious Hecate, and indeed she was. All manner of skills were at her command, the use of magical herbs, of poisons, of spells. Then, too, not only was her heart consumed with love for Jason, but it had long been full of hatred for her father Aietes and his city, for he had neglected her grievously after her mother’s death, and she had lived in his palace almost as a maidservant might, embittered and forlorn, a lonely, forgotten woman whose only solace lay in the dark cult of her mistress the moon-goddess Hecate. So with her sister Chalciope’s help she had herself secretly conveyed to Jason a little while afterward, and offered him the aid of her witchcraft in performing the tasks that Aietes had laid upon him, and so it
was agreed. 

When Jason had dealt with the fire-breathing bulls and the magical warriors who had to be overcome, and so forth, making use of a potion Medea had brewed from the blood-red juice of the crocus flower that blooms in the Caucasus in the places where the blood of the tortured Prometheus has spilled, he ordered the
brought from its hiding-place in the marsh. That was no easy task for us, pulling the vessel free of the heavy muck into which it had settled. We anchored it at a wharf in the city harbor in a place called “the Ram’s Couch.” 

BOOK: The Last Song of Orpheus
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