Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

Part II

The Return to Greece

King Æetes

T HEY had come into a country that was the strangest of all countries, and amongst a people that were the strangest of all peoples. They were in the land, this people said, before the moon had come into the sky. And it is true that when the great king of Egypt had come so far, finding in all other places men living on the high hills and eating the acorns that grew on the oaks there, he found in Colchis the city of Aea with a wall around it and with pillars on which writings were graven. That was when Egypt was called the Morning Land.

And many of the magicians of Egypt who had come with King Sesostris stayed in that city of Aea, and they taught people spells that could stay the moon in her going and coming, in her rising and setting. Priests of the Moon ruled the city of Aea until King Æetes came.

Æetes had no need of their magic, for Helios, the bright Sun, was his father, as he thought. Also, Hephaestus, the artisan of the gods, was his friend, and Hephaestus made for him many wonderful things to be his protection. Medea, too, his wise daughter, knew the secrets taught by those who could sway the moon.

But Æetes once was made afraid by a dream that he had: he dreamt that a ship had come up the Phasis, and then, sailing on a mist, had rammed his palace that was standing there in all its strength and beauty until it had fallen down. On the morning of the night that he had had this dream Æetes called Medea, his wise daughter, and he bade her go to the temple of Hecate, the Moon, and search out spells that might destroy those who came against his city.

That morning the Argonauts, who had passed the night in the backwater of the river, had two youths come to them. They were in a broken ship, and they had one oar only. When Jason, after giving them food and fresh garments, questioned them, he found out that these youths were of the city of Aea, and that they were none others than the sons of Phrixus—of Phrixus who had come there with the Golden Ram.

And the youths, Phrontis and Melas, were as amazed as was Jason when they found out whose ship they had come aboard. For Jason was the grandson of Cretheus, and Cretheus was the brother of Athamas, their grandfather. They had ventured from Aea, where they had been reared, thinking to reach the country of Athamas and lay claim to his possessions. But they had been wrecked at a place not far from the mouth of the Phasis, and with great pain and struggle they had made their way back.

They were fearful of Aea and of their uncle King Æetes, and they would gladly go with Jason and the Argonauts back to Greece. They would help Jason, they said, to persuade Æetes to give the Golden Fleece peaceably to them. Their mother was the daughter of Æetes—Chalciope, whom the king had given in marriage to Phrixus, his guest.

A council of the Argonauts was held, and it was agreed that Jason should go with two comrades to King Æetes, Phrontis and Melas going also. They were to ask the king to give them the Golden Fleece and to offer him a recompense. Jason took Peleus and Telamon with him.

As they came to the city a mist fell, and Jason and his comrades with the sons of Phrixus went through the city without being seen. They came before the palace of King Æetes. Then Phrontis and Melas were some way behind. The mist lifted, and before the heroes was the wonder of the palace in the bright light of the morning.

Vines with broad leaves and heavy clusters of fruit grew from column to column, the columns holding a gallery up. And under the vines were the four fountains that Hephaestus had made for King Æetes. They gushed out into golden, silver, bronze, and iron basins. And one fountain gushed out clear water, and another gushed out milk; another gushed out wine; and another oil. On each side of the courtyard were the palace buildings; in one King Æetes lived with Apsyrtus, his son, and in the other Chalciope and Medea lived with their handmaidens.

Medea was passing from her father's house. The mist lifted suddenly and she saw three strangers in the palace courtyard. One had a crimson mantle on; his shoulders were such as to make him seem a man that a whole world could not overthrow, and his eyes had all the sun's light in them.

Amazed, Medea stood looking upon Jason, wondering at his bright hair and gleaming eyes and at the lightness and strength of the hand that he had raised. And then a dove flew toward her: it was being chased by a hawk, and Medea saw the hawk's eyes and beak. As the dove lighted upon her shoulder she threw her veil around it, and the hawk dashed itself against a column. And as Medea, trembling, leaned against the column she heard a cry from her sister, who was within.

For now Phrontis and Melas had come up, and Chalciope who was spinning by the door saw them and cried out. All the servants rushed out. Seeing Chalciope's sons there they, too, uttered loud cries, and made such commotion that Apsyrtus and then King Æetes came out of the palace.

Jason saw King Æetes. He was old and white, but he had great green eyes, and the strength of a leopard was in all he did. And Jason looked upon Apsyrtus too; the son of Æetes looked like a Phoenician merchant, black of beard and with rings in his ears, with a hooked nose and a gleam of copper in his face.

Phrontis and Melas went from their mother's embrace and made reverence to King Æetes. Then they spoke of the heroes who were with them, of Jason and his two comrades. Æetes bade all enter the palace; baths were made ready for them, and a banquet was prepared.

After the banquet, when they all sat together, Æetes, addressing the eldest of Chalciope's sons, said:

"Sons of Phrixus, of that man whom I honored above all men who came to my halls, speak now and tell me how it is that you have come back to Aea so soon, and who they are, these men who come with you?"

Æetes, as he spoke, looked sharply upon Phrontis and Melas, for he suspected them of having returned to Aea, bringing these armed men with them, with an evil intent. Phrontis looked at the King, and said:

"Æetes, our ship was driven upon the Island of Ares, where it was almost broken upon the rocks. That was on a murky night, and in the morning the birds of Ares shot their sharp feathers upon us. We pulled away from that place, and thereafter we were driven by the winds back to the mouth of the Phasis. There we met with these heroes who were friendly to us. Who they are, what they have come to your city for, I shall now tell you.

"A certain king, longing to drive one of these heroes from his land, and hoping that the race of Cretheus might perish utterly, led him to enter a most perilous adventure. He came here upon a ship that was made by the command of Hera, the wife of Zeus, a ship more wonderful than mortals ever sailed in before. With him there came the mightiest of the heroes of Greece. He is Jason, the grandson of Cretheus, and he has come to beg that you will grant him freely the famous Fleece of Gold that Phrixus brought to Aea.

"But not without recompense to you would he take the Fleece. Already he has heard of your bitter foes, the Sauromatae. He with his comrades would subdue them for you. And if you would ask of the names and the lineage of the heroes who are with Jason I shall tell you. This is Peleus and this is Telamon; they are brothers, and they are sons of Æacus, who was of the seed of Zeus. And all the other heroes who have come with them are of the seed of the gods."

So Phrontis said, but the King was not placated by what he said. He thought that the sons of Chalciope had returned to Aea bringing these warriors with them so that they might wrest the kingship from him, or, failing that, plunder the city. Æetes's heart was filled with wrath as he looked upon them, and his eyes shone as a leopard's eyes.

"Begone from my sight," he cried, "robbers that ye are! Tricksters! If you had not eaten at my table, assuredly I should have had your tongues cut out for speaking falsehoods about the blessed gods, saying that this one and that of your companions was of their divine race."

Telamon and Peleus strode forward with angry hearts; they would have laid their hands upon King Æetes only Jason held them back. And then speaking to the king in a quiet voice, Jason said:

"Bear with us, King Æetes, I pray you. We have not come with such evil intent as you think. Ah, it was the evil command of an evil king that sent me forth with these companions of mine across dangerous gulfs of the sea, and to face your wrath and the armed men you can bring against us. We are ready to make great recompense for the friendliness you may show to us. We will subdue for you the Sauromatae, or any other people that you would lord it over."

But Æetes was not made friendly by Jason's words. His heart was divided as to whether he should summon his armed men and have them slain upon the spot, or whether he should put them into danger by the trial he would make of them.

At last he thought that it would be better to put them to the trial that he had in mind, slaying them afterward if need be. And then he spoke to Jason, saying:

"Strangers to Colchis, it may be true what my nephews have said. It may be that ye are truly of the seed of the immortals. And it may be that I shall give you the Golden Fleece to bear away after I have made trial of you."

As he spoke Medea, brought there by his messenger so that she might observe the strangers, came into the chamber. She entered softly and she stood away from her father and the four who were speaking with him. Jason looked upon her, and even although his mind was filled with the thought of bending King Æetes to his will, he saw what manner of maiden she was, and what beauty and what strength was hers.

She had a dark face that was made very strange by her crown of golden hair. Her eyes, like her father's, were wide and full of light, and her lips were so full and red that they made her mouth like an opening rose. But her brows were always knit as if there was some secret anger within her.

"With brave men I have no quarrel," said Æetes. "I will make a trial of your bravery, and if your bravery wins through the trial, be very sure that you will have the Golden Fleece to bring back in triumph to Iolcus.

"But the trial that I would make of you is hard for a great hero even. Know that on the plain of Ares yonder I have two fire-breathing bulls with feet of brass. These bulls were once conquered by me; I yoked them to a plow of adamant, and with them I plowed the field of Ares for four plow-gates. Then I sowed the furrows, not with the seed that Demeter gives, but with teeth of a dragon. And from the dragon's teeth that I sowed in the field of Ares armed men sprang up. I slew them with my spear as they rose around me to slay me. If you can accomplish this that I accomplished in days gone by I shall submit to you and give you the Golden Fleece. But if you cannot accomplish what I once accomplished you shall go from my city empty-handed, for it is not right that a brave man should yield aught to one who cannot show himself as brave."

So Æetes said. Then Jason, utterly confounded, cast his eyes upon the ground. He raised them to speak to the king, and as he did he found the strange eyes of Medea upon him. With all the courage that was in him he spoke:

"I will dare this contest, monstrous as it is. I will face this doom. I have come far, and there is nothing else for me to do but to yoke your fire-breathing bulls to the plow of adamant, and plow the furrows in the field of Ares, and struggle with the Earth-born Men." As he said this he saw the eyes of Medea grow wide as with fear.

Then Æetes said, "Go back to your ship and make ready for the trial." Jason, with Peleus and Telamon, left the chamber, and the king smiled grimly as he saw them go. Phrontis and Melas went to where their mother was. But Medea stayed, and Æetes looked upon her with his great leopard's eyes. "My daughter, my wise Medea," he said, "go, put spells upon the Moon, that Hecate may weaken that man in his hour of trial." Medea turned away from her father's eyes, and went to her chamber.

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