18. THE WINNING OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE
They took the ship out of the backwater and they brought her to a wharf in the city. At a place which was called “The Ram’s Couch” they tied up the Argo. Then they marched to the field of Ares, where the king and the Colchian people were waiting.
Jason, carrying his shield and spear, stood before the king. He took the gleaming helmet that held the dragon’s teeth from the king’s hand. This he gave to Theseus, who went with him. Then with the spear and shield in his hands, and with his sword across his shoulders, Jason looked across the field of Ares.
He saw the plow that he was to yoke to the bulls as well as the yoke of bronze near it. Then he saw the tracks of the bulls’ hooves. He followed the tracks until he came to the lair of the fire-breathing bulls. Smoke and fire belched out of that lair, which was underground. He set his feet firmly upon the ground and he held his shield in front of him. He awaited the charge of the bulls. They came clanging up with loud bellowing, breathing out fire. They lowered their heads, and with mighty, iron-tipped horns they charged to gore and trample him.
Medea’s charm had made him strong and his shield impregnable. The rush of the bulls did not harm him. His friends cheered to see him standing firmly there, and the Colchians watched him in wonder. There was smoke and fire all round him, like a furnace,.
The bulls roared mightily. Grasping the horns of the bull that was on his right side, Jason dragged him until he had brought him beside the yoke of bronze. Striking the knees of the bull suddenly with his foot he forced him down. Then he hit the other bull as it charged at him, and it too he forced down on its knees.
Castor and Polydeuces handed the yoke to him and Jason placed it on the necks of the bulls. Next he fastened the plow to the yoke. Then he took his shield and set it on his back, and grasping the handles of the plow he started to plough the field.
With his long spear he drove the bulls before him. They breathed out fire and raged, furiously. Theseus walked beside Jason holding the helmet that held the dragon’s teeth. The hard ground was torn up by the plow of adamant, and the clods groaned as they were turned over. Jason flung the teeth into the freshly ploughed field, often turning his head in fear that the deadly crop of the Earth-born Men were rising behind him.
By the time that a third of the day was finished the field of Ares had been plowed and sown. As yet the furrows were free of the Earth-born Men. Jason went down to the river and filled his helmet full of water and drank deeply.
He saw the field rising into mounds. It seemed that there were graves all over the field of Ares. Then he saw spears and shields and helmets rising up out of the earth. Then armed warriors sprang up with a fierce battle cry on their lips.
Jason remembered the Medea’s advice. He raised a boulder that four men could hardly raise and with arms hardened by the plowing he threw it. The Colchians shouted to see such a stone thrown by one man. The stone landed right in the middle of the Earth-born Men. They leaped upon it like hounds, striking at one another as they came together. Shield crashed on shield, spear rang upon spear as they struck at each other. As fast as they arose the Earth-born Men went down before the weapons of their brothers.
Jason rushed at them with his sword in his hand. He killed some that had risen out of the earth only as far as the shoulders. He killed others whose feet were still in the earth and others who were ready to spring on him. Soon all the Earth-born Men were dead, and the field ran with their dark blood as channels run with water in springtime.
The Argonauts cheered loudly for Jason’s victory. King Æetes rose from his seat that was beside the river and went back to the city. The Colchians followed him. Day faded, and Jason’s contest was ended.
But Æetes did not want the strangers to be allowed to depart peaceably with the Golden Fleece that Jason had won. The king stood in the assembly place, with his son Apsyrtus beside him, and with the furious Colchians all around him. On his chest was the gleaming armour that Ares had given him, and on his head was the golden helmet with its four plumes that made him look as if he were truly the son of Helios, the Sun. Lightning flashed from his great eyes and he spoke fiercely to the Colchians, holding in his hand his bronze-tipped spear.
He wanted them to attack the strangers and burn the Argo. He wanted the sons of Phrixus executed for bringing them to Aea. There was a prophecy, he declared, that warned him to be watchful of the treachery of his own offspring. This prophecy was being fulfilled by the children of Chalciope. He feared, too, that his daughter, Medea, had aided the strangers. As the king spoke, the Colchians, hating all strangers, shouted around him.
Word of what her father had said was brought to Medea. She knew that she would have to go to the Argonauts and tell them to flee from Aea. She knew they would not go without the Golden Fleece so she would have to show them how to get it.
After that she could never again go back to her father’s palace, she could never again sit in this room and talk to her handmaidens, and be with Chalciope, her sister. Forever afterward she would be dependent on the kindness of strangers. Medea wept when she thought of all this. Then she cut off a lock of her hair and left it in her room as a farewell from one who was going far away. She whispered farewell into the chamber where Chalciope was.
The palace doors were all heavily bolted, but Medea did not have to pull back the bolts. As she chanted her Magic Song the bolts softly drew back and the doors softly opened. She went swiftly along the path that led to the river. She came to where fires were blazing and she knew that the Argonauts were there.
She called to them, and Phrontis, Chalciope’s son, heard the cry and knew the voice. He told Jason, and Jason quickly went to where Medea waited.
She clasped Jason’s hand and she drew him close. “The Golden Fleece,” she said, “the time has come when you must pluck the Golden Fleece off the oak in the grove of Ares.”
Medea led Jason along a path that went away from the river. They entered a grove and Jason saw something that was like a cloud filled with the light of the rising sun. It hung from a great oak tree. In awe he stood and looked at it, knowing that at last he looked upon the Golden Fleece.
His hand slipped out of Medea’s hand and he went to seize the Fleece. As he did he heard a dreadful hiss. Then he saw the guardian of the Golden Fleece. Coiled all around the tree, with outstretched neck and keen and sleepless eyes, was a deadly serpent. Its hiss ran all through the grove and the birds that were wakening up squawked in terror.
Like rings of smoke that rise one above the other, the coils of the serpent went around the tree—coils covered by hard and gleaming scales. It uncoiled, stretched itself, and lifted its head to strike. Then Medea dropped to her knees in front of it, and began to chant her Magic Song.
As she sang, the coils around the tree began to relax and the serpent sank down on the ground. But still its jaws were open, and those dreadful jaws threatened Jason. Medea, with a small newly cut branch of juniper dipped in a mystic brew, touched its deadly eyes. Still she chanted her Magic Song. The serpent’s jaws closed, its eyes deadened and far through the grove its length was stretched out.
Then Jason took the Golden Fleece and gathered it all up in his arms. With Medea beside him they swiftly left.
They came to the river and down to the place where the Argo was moored. The heroes who were aboard started up, astonished to see the Fleece that shone like the lightning of Zeus..
“Friends,” he cried, “the quest on which we risked our lives is accomplished, thanks to the help of this maiden. Now may we return to Greece with the hope of seeing our families and friends once more. And in all honor will we bring this maiden with us, Medea, the daughter of King Æetes.”
Then he drew his sword, cut the ropes of the ship, and called on the heroes to drive the Argo on. There was a din and a strain and a splash of oars and the Argo sailed away from Aea. Medea stood beside the mast, the Golden Fleece at her feet, and her head and face covered by her silver veil.