PART II. The Return To Greece
16. KING ÆETES
They 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, it was said, that had existed before the moon had come into the sky. It is true that when the great king of Egypt had come so far, he found in Colchis the city of Aea with a wall around it and with pillars on which writings were engraved. That was when Egypt was called the Morning Land.
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 control 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 for his protection. Medea, too, his wise daughter, knew the secrets taught by those who could sway the moon.
But Æetes frightened 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 after he had had this dream Æetes called Medea, his wise daughter, and he asked 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, were visited by two youths. They were in a broken ship, and they had one oar only. After Jason, gave them food and clean clothes, he talked to them and found out that these youths came from the city of Aea, and that they were none others than the sons of Phrixus who had come there with the Golden Ram.
The youths, Phrontis and Melas, were as amazed as Jason when they found out whose ship they had come aboard. Jason was the grandson of Cretheus, and Cretheus was the brother of Athamas, their grandfather. They had ventured from Aea, where they had been brought up, in an attempt to reach the country of Athamas and claim his possessions. But they had been wrecked at a place not far from the mouth of the Phasis, and with great difficulty they had made their way back.
They were fearful of Aea and their uncle King Æetes, and 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 of them to King Æetes. Phrontis and Melas would also go. They planned to ask the king to give them the Golden Fleece and to offer him some compensation. Jason took Peleus and Telamon with him.
As they came to the city a mist fell, and Jason and his friends with the sons of Phrixus went through the city without being seen. They reached 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, with 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, 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 when the mist lifted suddenly and she saw three strangers in the palace courtyard. One had a crimson robe on and 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. Then a dove flew toward her being chased by a hawk. Medea saw the hawk’s eyes and beak. As the dove lighted upon her shoulder she threw her veil around it, and the hawk crashed into a column. As Medea, trembling, leaned against the column she heard a cry from her sister, who was inside.
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 a 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 in all he did. Jason saw Apsyrtus too. The son of Æetes looked like a Phoenician merchant, wearing a black beard with rings in his ears, and a hooked nose.
Phrontis and Melas went from their mother’s embrace and bowed to King Æetes. Then they spoke of the heroes who were with them, of Jason and his two friends. Æetes asked them all to enter the palace, 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, 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 are, these men who come with you?”
As Æetes spoke,he looked sharply at Phrontis and Melas, because he suspected them of having returned to Aea, bringing these armed men, with evil intentions. Phrontis looked at the King, and said,”Æetes, our ship was driven onto the Island of Ares, where it was almost destroyed on the rocks. That was on a murky night, and in the morning the birds of Ares shot their sharp feathers at us. We pulled away from that place, and after 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 on a ship that was made by the command of Hera, the wife of Zeus, a ship more wonderful than mortals ever sailed on 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 he wouldn’t take the Fleece without compensating you. Already he has heard of your bitter foes, the Sauromatae. He and his friends would defeat them for you. If you want to know the names of the heroes who are with Jason I shall tell you. This is Peleus and this is Telamon.They are brothers, and are the sons of Aeacus, who was a descendant of Zeus. All the other heroes who have come with them are descendants of the gods.”
However 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 overthrow him, or, failing that, plunder the city. Æetes’s heart was filled with anger as he looked at them, and his eyes shone like a leopard’s.
“Get out of my sight,” he cried, “robbers that you are! Tricksters! If you had not eaten at my table, I should have had your tongues cut out for speaking lies about the 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 attacked King Æetes but Jason held them back. Then speaking to the king in a quiet voice, Jason said,”Believe us, King Æetes, I pray you. We have not come with such evil intentions as you think. It was the evil command of an evil king that sent me here with these companions of mine across dangerous seas, and to face your anger and the armed men you can bring against us. We are ready to return any favour you show us. We will defeat for you the Sauromatae, or any other enemies that you have.”
But Æetes was not persuaded by Jason’s words. His couldn’t decide whether to summon his armed men and have them killed on the spot, or put them in danger by the test he would give them.
At last he thought that it would be better to give them the test that he had in mind, killing them afterward if need be. Then he spoke to Jason, saying, “Strangers to Colchis, it may be true what my nephews have said. It may be that you are truly the descendants of the immortals. It may be that I shall give you the Golden Fleece to carry away after I have given you a test.”
As he spoke Medea came into the chamber, brought there by his messenger so that she might observe the strangers,. She entered softly and she stood away from her father and the four who were speaking with him. Jason looked at her, and even although his mind was filled with the thought of forcing King Æetes to his will, he saw what kind of maiden she was, and what beauty and what strength she had.
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 seem like an opening rose. But her brows were always furrowed as if there was some secret anger within her.
“I have no quarrel with brave men,” said Æetes “I will test your bravery, and if your bravery wins through the test, be very sure that you will have the Golden Fleece to bring back in triumph to Iolcus.
“But the test that I will give you is hard even for a great hero. On the plain of Ares 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 plain of Ares. Then I sowed the field, not with the seed that Demeter gives, but with teeth of a dragon. From the dragon’s teeth that I sowed in the field of Ares armed men sprang up. I killed them with my spear as they rose around me. If you can accomplish this that I accomplished in the past I shall give you the Golden Fleece. But if you cannot accomplish what I once accomplished you shall go from my city empty-handed.”
Then Jason, utterly confounded, looked at the ground. He raised his eyes to speak to the king, and as he did he found the strange eyes of Medea on him. With all the courage that was in him he spoke,”I will accept this test, 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 field of Ares, and fight 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 prepare for the test.” 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 at 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 test.” Medea turned away from her father’s eyes, and went to her room.