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In the early morning, just before dawn, the captain sprang aboard his ship, and woe betide anyone who was late! He might have to swim a bit, yelling for mercy, before he was thrown a line and dragged sopping aboard!

The ship did not have to sail far. Honan pointed to his "humble hut" on a high ridge just beyond the forest's edge. Off to one side they could also see the king's mount, where his palace and fortress had stood, but were now in ruins, Honan said to Jason.

He explained further as the ship moved past the mount, and the once thriving city and port.

"Once the Fleece was hung in the sacred tree in the holy wood, the king found he could not sleep as well as before. This was the father of the one who took the throne, the treasure, and the army and navy away--leaving the people to fend for themselves. Many followed the king, the others tried to stay here, but the city dwindled day by day without the king's trade and the ships that came to do business with him. Finally, no one was left but my household."

"But what about the Fleece of Prixus?" Jason prompted him. "And tell me what happened to the hero and his sons, if you please!"

This seemed a hard question for the woodsman. He started on first one thread of it, then another, but finally settled on a way to tell the story. "As I said, Phrixus made his sacrifice of the winged ram which had carried him hither in safety from certain death in his own country. But this Fleece did not set well somehow in our kingdom. Our king could not sleep while it hung in the boughs of the sacred oak in the forest. He also began to see how Phrixus's family was growing apace, with new sons being added to his family yearly, like so many vigorous beansprouts, while he had only one son of his own..."

Honan paused, scratching his beard, and shaking his head as if in amazement over things he only could see.

Jason, quick-witted and hot-blooded like most all his fellow Achaeans, was growing impatient with the woodsman's not getting to the point. He was about to say something when the man resumed, more quickly this time, as if he were anxious to quit the story and return home, which was now drawing close to them all as they were looking up toward the high ridge on which it could be plainly seen for miles around.

"Forgive me, sire, I am old now, and my teeth are loose. These things took place so long ago--only my mother is alive to tell of them fully. I was only a boy at the time. Well, as I said, the old king could not sleep. Finally, he decided. Phrixus went hunting, as he liked to do, and he did not return from the mountains. His sons fled, perhaps fearing they too might disappear in the same manner. The Fleece, we all thought, was forgotten. But no, men came hunting it, having heard of it, its fame being spread all across the wide world by traders. Everyone had the name of Phrixus on their lips--wishing to see him and hear him tell the grand story--but he was not to be found. They were all very disappointed, hearing how he had vanished hunting, killed and eaten by some wild beast perhaps.

The braver ones wanted to go and see the Fleece for themselves--and the king let them go with his good wishes, knowing that a great serpent had lately made its den near by the Fleece hanging in the sacred oak.

Where had the serpent come from? No one could say for sure. It was sent by the gods, the folk thought. It was the divine guardian of the Fleece, so that profane hands, could not sully or taint the holy thing from heaven. That seemed reasonable to most people. Others, however, said the serpent was an evil thing--and ought to be slain and the Fleece regained. If they were brave and had the courage, the king encouraged them to just try it. He was sick to death of the Fleece by this time, and wanted to get rid of both it and the serpent and these foreign "looky-yous" to boot.

One after the other took the old king's offer and went--and never came back to brag about it. The Fleece remained right where it was--to the king's disgust. He could not sleep--no sleep potion sufficed to bring him a night's peaceful repose. Haggard and dark around his eyes, he could scarcely drag himself to the throne for each day's business.

At this point the king's son, now grown the age when a young man might take his aging father's scepter (willingly given him or not), intervened. The king was found dead in his royal bed, a pillow nearby with the king's own features impressed into it. Some said the pillow's image was a sign of the gods, that this king's fame would live forever, with his image breaking forth everywhere, just as it had in the cloth of the pillow.

The new king, Aeetes, did not like the Fleece in his vicinity any more than his father had liked it. He up and moved his throne and kingdom treasure, taking his navy and army, downriver to a new site closer to the river's mouth...

By this time, the ship was at the shore edge, with the men poling for depth as they maneuvered to the best, sheltered place to anchor the ship.

Jason turned to the business at hand. "Thank you, woodsman! But now, what is your wish? Do we let you go, and we continue on our way seeking the Fleece? Or will you guide me to it?"

Jason had said the wrong thing here, evidently, by the woodsman's expression. "No, sire, I do not dare do such a thing. But I will take you close by, where the serpent begins his tunnels. From there you must go on your own!"

"Agreed!" Jason said. "But I will give you a reward for all your troubles."

The woodsman bowed. "Please come now with me, sire, and bring your men, and I will give you quarters for the night, and perhaps something to eat, and a pillow for your head?"

That sounded very fine to Jason's ears. He nodded, and the woodsman beamed to think he would be the host for such a fine hero as this one--whom he had almost despaired of every seeing. None of the other claimants of the Fleece had filled the discription Phrixus had given him of the glorious One who would come to liberate the Fleece and set free the men of earth from all the shackles of fear and sin with it--no one but this One-Sandalled, had even come close to the vision given him as a boy by the noble hero Phrixus.

Beside himself with excitement to think that the vision given him as a boy by Phrixus was now coming true before his eyes, Honan scrambled from the ship and dropped into the shallow water at the river's edge. Climbing up to the bank, he waved to the Argonauts to follow. But he was not going to wait long, as he began moving up toward the house on the ridge. The Argonauts, as they completed their duties, were given leave by Jason. He set a guard at the ship to await him, and he was last to leave of those going to stay with the woodsman in his house.

The woodsman had evidently sounded the news before the Argonauts reached the house, which was really not a hut but a number of rather large earthen rooms, some reaching to a double height, with log and thatch roofs, and all wood-plank floors. The woodsman met them at an outer gate and drew Jason into the compound which was ringed by thatch and timbered outer walls.

"My family lived here a long time--and I am the last, though I have this one son who may live here when I am gone. Here he is, with fresh water from the brook that runs from the ice on the mountains above. I named him Anakreon, which you might like--being an Achaean name."

Honan turned to his son. "Show our honorable guests what the vase you carry can tell us about Phrixus and the One he spoke of to me as a boy!"

Anakreon seemed very pleased to do this. He set the vase down and ran off. A short time later he returned with a hand of grapes from the vines that grew round the sides of the house and compound. He rubbed them on the sides of the vase, and suddenly pictures formed. Jason gazed at scene after scene, showing Phrixus flying with his sister Hele across the waters between Europe and Asia the Lesser--and then Helle falling off into a channel and perishing, while Phrixus clung to the winged Ram of Heaven all the more and continued safely to the land of refuge, far Colchis. Here he sacrificed the Ram out of gratitude for its service in saving his life from the wicked king of his country.

All this Jason recognized from the vase's grape-tinted pictures as he turned it slowly round in his hands. Finally, he came to the One promised by Phrixus, pictured as a man with one-sandal and one bare foot, just as he had chosen to go shod and unshod in the wide world on his quest.

"See, you, you are the One the vase of Phrixus speaks of in the oracle!" shouted the woodsman, unable to contain his joy. He shouted again, and there was a commotion inside the house. Jason saw someone coming out of the dim interior of the main dwelling, a very old woman.

Jason, sensing her great age and dignity, rose, wiping the grape stains from his hands as best he could.

Hobbling with a burl-headed stick clutched in one hand, she made her way toward him as he waited.

She stopped a few paces away, fixed her one good eye on him, and seemed to be thinking or meditating on things few people could know.

Since she seemed to sway on her feet, perhaps fearing a fall on the hard stones, Honan reached out to steady her, but she was sharp in her remaining eye, for she flicked her stick at his hand and he withdrew it quickly.

"I will speak to this One privately--you all go away!"

Evidently, this old woman ran the place, or thought she did--Jason observed--as Honan retired a few paces off without protest, and Anakreon also left with the vase, carrying it to one of the outbuildings and going into it.

Jason bent low to hear the old woman, who was speaking to him in a measured, slow, but understandable Achaean speech, though it sounded terribly barbarous as she remembered it from the day of Phrixus.

"Greetings, I am your humble servant, Bagdiela, born in the city to Tammod the tanner. He worked for Phrixus, preparing him clothes and armor and such, for a good price too! Phrixus always paid us well, and we never cheated him, nor did he cheat us! Phrixus was my father's friend, and I was my father's favorite, marriageable, and liked him very well, but he had a wife, and his sons too took other wives. So I married one of my own people--and he was not so good as Phrixus and his sons--but he brought me to this place, and I have lived her all my days since we were made man and wife.

Her eye brightened as she turned from the dim shadows of the past. "But that is like a leaf blown away by the wind of winter--it will not come back to the tree from which it sprang. I wish to tell you something more! Please hear your daughter, noble Stranger! I am free to tell you!"

A tear began forming from the old mother's good eye, even as Jason watched.

"I have gone grey at the temples, yes, my head is white, there's nothing of the grace of youth that's left to me, and my teeth are like an old woman's. Life is lovely. But the lifetime that remains to me is little. For this cause I mourn. The terrors of the Dark Pit never leave me. For the house of Death is deep down underneath, the downward journey is to be feared, for once I go there I know well there's no returning..."

Jason, impressed by the old woman's profound wisdom, did not know what to say to comfort her. What she said and described was true--true for all mortal men! All men were enslaved by one thing: the fear of death. How could he help her, when he too had to admit he was a slave to that fear--despite his youth and strength. Someday too he would find himself turned old, and hobble like a bent old woman a stick in her hand, poking at the ground to steady her! Such was a fate no one could escape, if he lived long enough! And death--that was the end of all lovely things--it was the Dark Pit that he had to look forward to as his destiny, in the utter end! It was enough to make him too mourn, even as he was on the verge of finding and winning the Golden Fleece of the Heavenly Ram!

Compassion for the frail, old one, who no doubt would sink into the Dark Pit soon, swept over him, and he forgot about himself. "Please, old mother, do not trouble your mind so! You have your sons and family--a roof and house to shelter you from the evil winds and ice and snow of winter, even those that you feel now are chilling your bones. Is this not favor from the high God? He has been good to you, has He not?"

She seemed not to have noticed his interruption as she gathered her breath and energy. Still swaying on her feet, she eyed him even more keenly with her one good eye. "Noble Youth! Hear me on this other matter. I am not worthy to tie even the lachets of your sandals (she had not noticed he wore one sandal and it had no companion), but permit me this much.

"Good men, I have observed a few such in long life, are those who keep good faith and keep their souls from sin. They say, among the wise of my people, and yours too, as Phrixus told my father and me, that such good men do not go to the Dark Pit below as slaves forever to darkness and fire forever, suffering their desserts without release. No! They sail in the ship of the gods to the tower of Cronus, where the winds sweep from the Ocean across the island of the blessed."

She lifted her walking stick, as if to strike Jason in his chest. "Tell me the truth now! Is there such a place as that? Is that the end of good men who do not sin and who keep good faith in heaven's will for them? Speak!"

Jason's thoughts whirled. Put on the spot like that, he was helpless to think of a way to comfort the old seeker and yet tell the truth, as far as he knew it. He had his doubts, that any man could be so good as that: to deserve to sail on the heavenly ship to the isle of the blessed on which the wondrous Tower of Cronus climbed all the way to heaven's height.

"No," he said, truthfully. "Yes, there is such a place, but it is not gained by any of us, for our fathers and we have sinned against one another and not kept faith enough to earn a sailing to the lovely island of the blessed." He was not surprised when his reply was not what she wished to hear, though she had demanded the truth from him, not the humoring of an old woman turned toothless and witless.

Her shoulders sagged as he finished speaking, and he saw she was slowly collapsing, as she was losing her grip on her stick and was about to topple over.

He quickly added, reaching out his hand in case she did fall, "But do not despair, dear mother! I've come to tell you something almost as good. Even if we fail to be chosen to sail to the island of the blessed and live forever in the Tower of Cronus, there is another place we might still find for our future home..."

Surprising Jason, she reached out and caught his offered hand, and as she leaned on him, he felt her whole weight was as light as feather!

"Yes, what place is that?" she whispered, as if it were her dying gasp.

"My father told me before I set sail for this land. He said the singers had told of it to his forefathers. There is a city below this wide and green earth, lit with a sun of its own, and there scarlet roses bloom year round, fragrant as frankincense, and the trees are heavy with golden fruit. In this place the best of men can go and be at peace and be comforted for their troubles in life. Here you will find your rest, good mother!"

There was a pause, and it seemed chilling to Jason. The hand in his was like a bird'[s claw, only icy. She witdrew it sharply. "No!" she hissed at him. "I won't be held worthy of even that place! It is the Dark Pit for the likes of me, for I once killed a rival for my husband with poison in her wine! I know there is no hope! I had hoped that You, the One that Phrixus promised, would say a word or two that might guide me rightly."

She turned and started to hobble off back to the doorway of the house, then stopped. "But you don't know? Why is you cannot tell me what I need to know? I do not have any time left to wait for another to tell me. It must be you--or I am lost! Lost forever! I shall not escape the Dark Pit after all!"

Jason, forgetting that his Argonauts were staring at the both of them, wondering how long the private interview might continue, went and knelt down at the old mother's side. He grasped her hand gently as he could, the bones might break, they were so thin and brittle with advanced age and long wear.

He gazed into her good eye, and said, "No, I cannot help you this moment, but I am going to get the Fleece. It belonged to the Ram of Heaven. I believe it is the answer for you, and me too in my time when the darkness comes to claim me. What will I have to answer the darkness of death? It will be the Golden Fleece, shining of heaven's glory in my dying grasp. That too will be yours to grasp, old one! I will bring it to you--only do not breathe your last before I return! Promise me this, old mother!"

The words poured straight from his heart. They would have raised a smile from any other person, particularly those from the great cities of the earth, where such questions are laughed at as trivial concerns and nothing that need concern a busy, learned man of the world and its affairs. But this simple old woman heard Jason's words gladly, drinking them in without any doubt, and trusting him unreservedly, as he could tell by the wave of gratitude that shone so brightly in her one good eye.

She seemed to relax, and he then helped her into the house where she sat down on a large pillow. There, Lyssa, a daughter of Honan, met them, carrying clean, woven cloth for their heads to lie upon at night and also keep off the night chill from their bodies.

Honan gestured to Anakreon who had returned. "Show our honored guests their room, and then lead them back here when they have washed and refreshed themselves a bit, for we will have a meal prepared by then!"

Jason thanked his host, then with his men followed Anakreon to their quarters in the newly swept outbuilding. Lyssa also followed discreetly, keeping her eyes averted, as she lay out the cloths for them, and then swiftly left to go for more from the big wooden trunk that her father had made.

Jason, seeing his men begin their washing, stepped outside for a moment. He glanced up into the heavens, and struck his thigh with his fist. How could he have been so presumptious as to promise the old woman all that? It was enough to promise the Fleece, or at least the sight and the touch of it--but that she should escape the clutches of the Dark Pit below on her dead soul? Was he a god to promise her life among the blessed? He struck his thigh a second time.

Disgusted that he had mislaid his sense and been so careless with his tongue, he gazed toward the river, beyond the ship, and then across it to the deep forest where the Fleece was hidden somewhere in a grove of ancient oak trees. There the tapestry of his life would be woven afresh, the threads of the Fleece, the serpent, and whatever he did there to take the Fleece from its guardian, all drawn together in a pattern he could not see now, but which all the world might look upon later, when he was long gone from the earth. That much he knew for certain.

More than anything, he wanted to go immediately off someplace and think through the issues that had been stirred up in his heart and soul when speaking to the old woman. But first he had to attend to urgent business. He hurried down to the ship, the dogs following him half-way down the steep slope.

He found Mopsos and the boys eating a fish they had caught and roasted over a fire Mopsos had made on the beach. Jason took the seer aside for a more private talk--and they sat down on a large rock. Jason began.

"I am free to tell you this as a friend, no longer a captain over you. I make you master of the ship and the expedition, for I give my authority to you. Though you are not a man of war at heart but a man of peace, I trust you will love these men and lay down your life for them--as a captain sometimes must if he is to lead them worthily..."

Mopsos, gazing at Jason with widening eyes, said nothing, but his eyes were saying much to Jason as he continued with his message.

By now the boys had finished the fish and were playing small lengths of cast-off ropes, tieing knots that Mopsos had taught them. The eldest, Piros, was trying to catch a fish with a noose tied at the end of his rope that he threw into the water--while the others were laughing as he only got sticks and reeds for his trouble.

"Will you take this ship and the men back to their homes for me, should I not return?"

Mopsos did not respond for a few moments, his face full of questioning, but then he nodded, and Jason, relieved, went on.

"Very good! I know that much needs to be explained, but that is the most important matter. If I do not return, you may go and find out what has become of me. If you find my bones, burn them, or bury them beneath a pile of stones to keep the wild animals from gnawing them. Then take the Argo and sail her back to Iolkos. My effects are yours, but this is the disposition. First, do not tell my uncle the king in my place anything. He will want to interfere, if you do. Do no accept any favors or advice from him either. Conduct your business swiftly, and then depart without informing him of anything. His spies are everywhere, so they will bring tales to him anyway of your actions--that is why you must be swift to do them before he can divert or stop you.

Jason paused, gazing at Mopsos, and again Mopsos, knowing the ways of kings, nodded.

"Go and speak kindly to the widows of all the Argonauts we have lost, and do what you can for them and their families. Sell the ship for a good price (and it has many years of sailing left in her!). Give a fair part to the widows, and to the widows of Phrixus's sons if you can find them, and to my aged parents. There should be enough for them all in the ship's sale--for she is Argus's craftsmanship, highly valued by those who know fine work. As for the men who have served me so faithfully, give them my belongings, whatever I have left with my parents that they do not wish to keep, and also whatever I have left on the ship."

Jason smiled, and paused. He reached and unstrapped his one sandal. He handed it to the amazed seer. "This is yours. Its mate I left at the Mountain Gate of my city to await my return as I promised it! A beggar there saw me leave it--he may still be there, so greet him in my name and give him a silver piece! But you take it as a token remembrance of me. I would gladly give you my sword and shield, my friend, which are my best things, but you are not keen on such things, so I thought my sandals--which my father made carefully for me and this journey--might be of more value to you."

He then told Mopsos about the jeweled casket. Taking the boys, they returned to the ship, where the boys continued fishing with their knotted ropes.

Jason got the casket and removed the lock of hair. Tieing it to a lock of his own, he handed the casket to Mopsos. "Whatever you get for it in the jewelers' lane, take some gold or silver pieces for your own journey in life, and give the rest to the poor and the aged widows."

After he got out his cape, Jason turned to go, putting his hand on Mopsos's ox-like shoulder. "I will need this for the night chill, so I will take it along with my weapons."

Mopsos was glad he took it along. It would help to identify Jason's bones beyond doubt, as it was dolphin-fringed, of a kind only an Achaean prince or king would own.

Now that the business was finished, Jason was more sad than excited. He might be seeing Mopsos and the grandsons of Phrixus, not to mention his Argonauts, for the last time. Despite this strong chance, he did not look back.

Grasping his shield, as sword strapped to his side, he went over the side, dropped into the shallows, and climbed out on to the shore.

Mopsos and the boys stood watching him go as he climbed the ridge. He vanished from sight just as they heard the first yips and barks of Honan's guard dogs.

Recognizing his scent, they did not rush at him as before, but rolled on the ground, baring their throats and their bellies to him in friendship. Only the black one, half a wolf, growled and while not running silently at him as before moved slowly away up the trail ahead of him. She paused, glancing back at him, and Jason met her eye.

"That one I would like to have given me by Honan if he would part with her," he thought. "She has an unchained spirit I like in her--much freer than the dogs!" At the moment their eyes met, he felt she had some liking for him, despite her growls and show of unfriendliness. Why was she leading him like that, if not because she were drawn to him despite ancient distrust of man woven into her?

The boys were full of questions for Mopsos, who at first seemed distracted and was not hearing them. When Jason was out of sight, only then did he turn back to the boys and try to answer them.

As children do, they had sensed something serious had happened, and wanted to know exactly what it was.

"Where is the captain going? Can we go too? Why doens't he take us with him? Why do we have to stay on the ship when the others can go free as they please? This is no fun, we want to go with him! Father Mopsos, let us go! Please!"

"All these questions!" Mopsos chided them, pulling them to him with his big arms. "I will tell you the answers, one by one--but not now. Wait a bit. We have something better to do first--a new game you all can play!"

Their eyes brightened. Despite some Colchian ways, they were easily diverted, like all high-spirited Achaean children, with the possibility of some new toy or new game.

Mopsos did not know what to do when he promised it, but fortunately he thought of a game he had played as a child with his brothers and friends. Would they know it? He took a chance, offering "Hide and Seek a Cowardly Barbarian." He showed them how to play it, as he was too big to hide himself on the Argo. None of the boys had been taught it in either Trapesos or Colchis, so it was a delight for them. Scattering to hide themselves as cowardly barbarians would, while the seeking Achaean "champion" waited until they were out of sight, they soon had forgotten Jason's strange leave-taking.

As the boys slept that night, Mopsos remained awake, looking out and up toward the house of Honan on the high ridge. Where was Jason, and was he staying the night with Honan? Would the Argonauts return in the morning. They had to wait to see if Jason would return or not from his solitary quest of the golden Fleece--for he understood fully that Jason would go alone to complete the king's tasks and not put any of his men at risk--that was the reason for his last testament and will.

Finally, after seeing the stars of Orion the Hunter begin to rise above the snow and ice-crowned crags of Colchis, he lay down with his cloke over him. It was very quiet and still under the stars--with little wind. He began to drift into sleep when he felt "Bump!" on the hull. He thought nothing of it--a floating log perhaps--which would do no damage in the shallows.

Bump! Mopsos felt it more than the first one, and even heard a swishing sound, as if a big fin had clove the water. Bump! This third time, the bump on the hull came from the opposite side of the hull.

Alerted, Mopsos sprang silently to his feet--which was a little amazing, considering his size. Grabbing a sword, he carefully moved over to the side and vicinity of whatever or whoever had bumped the ship's hull.

What could it be? he wondered, as he peered into the dark. The moon and stars were verhy bright, and the water like glass, but a shape of something rose in his vision, parting the waters with s knobby snout and big paddle-like fins.

Astounded, Mopsos realized what it might be. The dolphins had followed them all this way?

To make sure, he went and got a left-over roasted fish and threw it into the water. Immediately, a dolphin leaped out, grabbed the fish, and enjoyed its tasty, fried snack.

Three other dolphins appeared for their snacks, circling round and waving their snouts at him.

Mopsos wanted to get the boys up, he was so delighted, but he decided to let them sleep. There would be enough excitement in the morning. The dolphins would not leave them now--they had come a long way.

Taking a parting look at his friends after throwing the last scraps of the fish meal to them, he went back and lay down.

After leaving Mopsos and the boys at the ship, Jason reached the house of Honan and paused for a moment at the entrance of the main, timbered room where the family gathered to eat.

The door had been left open for the fresh air of the early evening to enter. Inside he could see his Argonauts (not in Mopsos's charge) sitting at the low table, filling themselves to their hearts' content with the good Honan's gracious hospitality.

He put a sandalled foot up and the instant it touched the step he knew he was not going in. He also knew what he had to do. He set his foot down and knocked on the lintel to get the men's attention, and Ancaeus came out, his face showing his surprise that Jason was remaining outside.

"Tell the others for me, and our host, that I will be going to complete the task set for me by the king--and you are to wait for me--and Mopsos is put in charge of you in my place. If I cannot return on my own, or have been slain by the dragon, you are all to return home under his leadership as captain. Serve him faithfully as you served me!"

Ancaeus nodded, his eyes grave and his jaw firm. "I will tell them all what you said, captain!" "That is all," Jason said, turning. "Mopsos will tell you all he has been given to tell you--and please do not remain here at Honan's and eat him out of house and home! Hunt and fish, and share with this family what you have--will you? And thank Honan for me! I will bring the Fleece here, as I promised the old woman of the house and gave her my pledge, when I return--if I return, God willing."

Jason patted the trustworthy Ancaeus on the shoulder, then left, taking a path that lead up to the mountain slopes above. Safe for the night, the goats of Honan were all in wattle-enclosures, guarded by the dogs, he noticed as he passed by.

He did not see Honan or his son or daughter or wife. No doubt they were busy preparing a second course for the Argonauts' fine dinner--for he knew that Colchian dinners could go on for hours, course after course!

As for himself, he did not want to eat anything now. He had to get himself alone, as far from people as possible, and deal with the things storming inside him--things he could not even tell Mopsos.

Climbing as far as he could in the remaining light, he stopped on a ridge of level ground where many small streams of water from the snow and ice crags came running together and made a single brook. Here he could rest his thoughts a bit within sight of the playing water, he thought, as he sifted through them and tried to understand certain things better.

cloak With his cloak around him, he sat on a smooth stone, and tried to rest, but his thoughts continued to whirl round inside him despite the peaceful setting.

He rose up restlessly, looking out over the wide world spread beneath his high perch, while his hair blew back, releasing the red-gold lock of Medea's hair from his own black mane.

The stars shone like lustrous jewels, shining particularly bright in the sign of Orion the Hunter, which he, like any Achaean worth his salt, always loved to see greeting him from the heavens.

The troubles of his heart and mind--they did not go away because he was able to see the beauty of the world so well from his vantage--so he sat back down.

It was high time he sought the counsel of high heaven! he thought. How rarely he had done that, he considered. Being a busy man, he was most at ease with action, not reflectin and meditation. Few men were like Mopsos--very few, indeed! But that did not mean Mopsos was to be pitied. Indeed, kings sought him ought for his rare wisdom--even though he was yet so young a man that his wisdom shamed the white-bearded counsellors of many kings.

But Jason knew it was not Mopsos's destiny that was at issue that night--nobody's but his own, he realized. Suddenly, he burst out like he had never before done--speaking his mind and heart freely to the heavens and the God of the heavens and the earth. Would God hear him, the words of a mere mortal? He did not stop to wonder about it, he was so full he had to speak, believing he would be heard even though no one among his people could have assured him that his words would reach as far as the windows of the palaces of the Most High God.

The Most High God? That was the God, he knew from his father who had spoken of Him. His people no longer regarded him, but they had run after many gods, offering them bribes for this and that favor--but he did not want to think about such foolish people. The priests of the temples were greedy for people's offerings and money--that was the reason for the whole thing. Not one priest could get the ear of the Most High God--they would scoff at such a thing. But this god's image, with a suitable bribe, would not disappoint a man!

Pfaugh! What pig slop this was! How ugly the whole religion of the Achaeans had become! Jason thought. He agreed totally with his father and Mopsos and Orpheus. It was a depraved, selfish religion--and fooled nobody. Why had they forsaken the Most High God, the Father of All which their forefathers knew, and chosen all these pitiful, bribe-taking gods and their oily, palm-itching, gold-grubbing priestlings?

Jason had no answer for his people's whoring after other gods. All he knew for sure was that the gods now worshipped by the Achaeans did not suit him--not in the least. He despised them all. They behaved worse than most men! Immoral, cruel, changeable, selfish--only their strength and beauty were admirable things--but all the rest was not worthy of heaven. So why should he respect them? Did they even exist? He had never seen any of the gods--but he could see the Father of All existed, in the existence of the world and its shining beauty and wonderful order. All creatures testified that the Father of All existed in all-powerful majesty and glory. But did the Father of All care for his creatures?

Jason had thought about that before. Yes! He saw how the creatures themselves cared for their own young so tenderly, giving up their own lives as parents to protect their young if necessary. How much more would the Father of All, who put such love in mere creatures, be loving and careful and tender toward the creation of His hands!

He could love such a merciful, kindly Father of All, and he did love him. He also wanted to live worthily as a son would want to do with such a Father as this One. He had always sought to please his earthly father, and he did please him, but had he pleased the heavenly Father?

Jason had to think about this. He could not tell. He thought instead of the task set for him. He had chosen to go and fetch the Golden Fleece, not knowing all that was going to be added to it. Just the voyage was test enough for him and his champions! But the king Aeetes had made it doubly hard, with his set of tasks and labors, which were impossible for any man to complete.

Was he a god or half a god like the fabulous, storied Herakles? No! He did not presume to be a Herakles or an Orion the Hunter, or a Perseus, or any other great and glorious Hero whose sign shone forever in the stars of the heavens. But he did think that a man of strong heart and body might be enough to regain the immortal Fleece of Phrixus. As a youth with his heart beating with the love of adventure and boundless life, he had eagerly accepted the challenge, and laughed forth. Other men might prefer the quiet, safe shallows, but he was not such a man. His spirit felt free when he was launched forth on the deep, his course set for the trackless unknown--with glory perhaps gleaming on the far horizon.

Was it glory or fame attached to his name the reason for his taking the Quest of the Golden Fleece upon his shoulders? Was that all?

Yes, he was like Achaean youths all over the cities of the Achaean realm--glory and fame were uppermost in their minds and hearts. They preferred them, indeed, to long lives spent without luster or renown. They would rather risk their lives than plow their fields like dumb cattle, without prospects of ever finding anything better to do with their lives! They wanted to make a difference in the world--not walk in the tracks of other men, eating their dust!

So, in this way, he was the same. But getting this far to his goal was telling him something more. He sensed futility in the questings of most youths--what if they got what they sought--what then? What was left in life--once they won what their thirsty hearts desired so greatly? What did they do with the glory and fame they gained from doing great exploits of one kind or other? How many songs of praise could they hear the pretty maidens sing of them in the street festivals without their ears burning and their cheeks blushing with the extravagance of the ceaseless praises? Heroes were but men--after all. They coughed, spat, fell ill, made water, ate, loved a woman, begot offspring, grew old, and died like any ordinary man, sooner or later. The fool and the wise man, his father said, go down into the same dark earth when they breathe their last.

Jason sat quieted like a weaned child leaning against his mother, trying not to think, but the issues kept bubbling up like a quenchless spring. He thought of his promise to the old woman, who feared death's soon approach. How many days did she have left in the warm sunlight? Not many, it was plain. Not many! And she had said she had murdered a rival--no wonder she had reason to fear death. Her rival was turned a vengeful soul, waiting for her no doubt in the fires of the Dark Pit, to vent on her all her hate the moment she appeared down there!

It was a terrible thought! And how about himself? he wondered. He was a young and randy buck, at his peak of strength, but now he faced certain death when he went to fight the dragon. Would he fare any better than the others who tried the same thing? What made him any stronger, or better with a sword, than his predecessors? They had all perished-- so how could he escape the same fate? Did he have something they did not have that would give him the advantage they all lacked?

He could think of no advantage. Yes, he was full-blooded Achaean--and the Achaeans were supreme masters of the sea and also more free and brave in spirit and mind than all other peoples of the wide earth--but there was some immodest pride, he sensed, in his people's view of their race and its achievements, and would a man's pride be a help to him when the dragon attacked him in the grove of oaks?

He knew that overweening pride, or hubris, came before the fall of many great men--who had trusted in themselves too much--so pride would be his undoing too, if he let it be. But how was he to proceed? He needed a word from heaven now more than he had ever needed it before. He had accomplished much in his life--and could be proud of it if he chose, as other men would be proud--but what if he failed now? What would happen to all he had achieved? It would dissolve to dust and whirl away in the wind! That was all it really meant! It had no more substance, really, than that!

So what was the worth of pride, or the worth of great achievements--they all dissolved to dust, when a man perished.

Troubled, Jason drew his cloak closer around his shoulders in the growing chill of the night. Even though the aspen grove that surrounded the little brook kept off the wind and protected him, it was cold, and his hungry body felt it all the more.

The old woman's questions haunted him all the more, as it grew colder and darker in his heart and spirit. Her questions became his own--how would he face his own plunge into the Dark Pit? What was that going to be like? He had not done evil deeds such as she had intimated, and so did not fear the retaliations of wrongful deeds done against other men, but had he "kept faith," or done no sin?

How could he presume to be sinless? No man alive or dead could presume to be sinless. But, though not sinless, would not his good deeds outweigh his bad deeds when set in the scales of divine justice? That is what most all men hoped would happen to them. "I haven't murdered a man unjustly," one would say. That man might have been a thief or a liar, but he thought murder was worse a crime in degree. Was it worse in God's eye? And then another rascal, who had murdered a man, would find some excuse for the murder because of some injury the victim had done him prior to the murder, or think that because he hadn't been a liar and a thief or betrayed his city to its enemies that Heaven would let him off somehow!

But what certainty was there that they would see themselves weighed in the balance of God and not found wanting to some degree or other? They just hoped they would weigh in to the good, then gave it no thought any longer--not, that is, until Death the Reaper robed in black garments with the scythe in his boney hand was knocking at their door! He had seen such people--even as this old mother of Honan--in life's extremity--fearful of death, clutching at the least possible hope to escape what they knew was coming for them.

Fools did not bother to think of their coming death until the last moment--and then they were altogether consumed with it--but unable to accept their death peacefully, being totally unprepared. What a miserable death fools had. And most all men were such fools! Even this poor old mother of Honan's--she too was such a fool. But he did not despise her for that--nor could he despise any man in such a state. They were to be pitied. But helped? If he could give hope to them, he could give hope to himself! And what hope did he truly have?

Thinking this way, he felt so ashamed. Feeling such overwhelming compassion for the old woman, he had foolishly given her hope that things might turn out differently for her, despite her murder of a rival for Honan's love. He had promised that she would be the first after him to grasp the Golden Fleece of Heaven's Ram. He might as well as promised the sun, moon, and stars with it!

The task of obtaining the Fleece and wresting it away from the dragon was impossible! He didn't even have Medea's potions to cast sleep upon the dragon or serpent or whatever it turned out to be. How could he have promised the old, dying mother such a thing! How?

He sprang up in his agony, unable to sit any longer. Besides, he felt dirty, not having bathed that day. He went to the brook and when he was through and wrapped himself in his warm cloak, he felt clean--at least on the outside of his body. But how could a man clean the inside? How could a man clean his own spirit, he had to wonder.

He started pacing, unable to keep still. How long he paced like that, he did not take any notice. Was it one watch? Was it two watches of the night?

While he was in that state, and the sweat was raised on his brows, thickly beaded like big drops of dew that tumbled down into his eyes and down his cheeks, a stealthy thought slipped seductively into his mind. "Why not end it all here, my friend? Just throw yourself over the cliff--and all your pain will swiftly end! You won't feel a thing, other than the first rock on which you land at the bottom! Quick! Don't be a fool, risk everything you've accomplished, and fail! Die like a hero, by your own choice! Don't risk failure and disgrace! Why suffer the rest of your life when you fail as you surely will fail? Use your wits, man! Jump! Jump!"

The alluring thought actually drew him as he followed it, right out to the cliff's edge. The darkness was fathomless beneath the edge--just one sudden leap, and he wouldn't have to worry about anything ever again! Right?

The voice had grown almost thundering--it was so loud in his soul's ear--but though he was leaning forward, about to obey the "Jump! Jump!"--something else composed of his father and mother's love and counsel, his friends, the Argonauts, Mopsos and the orphan boys, even his promise to the pleading old woman down at Honan's house--formed a mighty hand that pressed him back from the cliff's edge. He would not do it! He could not do it. He made his choice!

Failure or not, he wasn't going to take the easier way, he decided. Immediately, the tempting voice died away, dwindling to a whisper in the aspen leaves as they whirled round in a breeze. "You fool!" it whispered. "You'll fail now for sure, and have only the rags of disgrace to wrap round your wretched bones when you grow old, forgotten and lonely, in some dirty hut in the countryside. You had your chance to die gloriously now, in the flower of your youth, at the very peak of your immortal fame, but you've chosen to throw it all away for nothing, you fool!"

"I don't care if I do die poor and forgotten!" Jason thought. "I want to live and see what gracious Heaven can do to help me-- for I need Heaven's help to do this impossible thing. How will I know what Heaven's God, the great and merciful Father of All, will do for me, if I don't go on with this Quest to the end?"

In the first morning light, Jason, his ordeal of a night of inquiry and temptation over, made his way down the mountain to the river, to see where he could best cross it, without having to involve Mopsos and the ship.

Honan's dogs did not even bark as he made his swift way past the house and its goat enclosures and vineyards--and he would have regretted that most of all.

Going to the shore where he was out of sight of the Argo, he paused to look out to the opposite shore. He thought it looked close and easily within his power to reach by swimming--and he knew he was an excellent swimmer.

The only thing amiss was that he would have to leave his weapon and shield behind. The cloak was enough weight to pull, but he could manage it well enough. Could he fight the guardian of the Fleece without a sword? Should he go for help from Mopsos? He still did not want to do it--but unstrapped his sword. Laying his princely sword and shield in full sight where they could be found by Mopsos or his Argonauts or even Honan and his son, he left them and strode down into the water.

As he pushed off into the deep channel, he had woefully misjudged the river, he soon discovered. He had swum many brooks and rivers in Achaea's lands, but this one was different--it was so cold and icy in the main current. The shallows had fooled him completely. Out in the main current, which was very strong, he was soon numb, and his limbs moved with the greatest effort. He felt his strength go out of his body. Would he drown? He thought he was drowning already, as he sank further and further down in the water as he lifted his ice-cold arms out and tried to pull himself forward against the surging current that defeated every effort of his and swept him down the channel.

For all its gold and treasure, it was a merciless, man-killing river, and it was determined to kill him! No one would know what happened to him, except that he had put aside his weapon and his shield on the shore and foolishly tried to swim across a river that would let no man boast of doing it.

He felt utterly helpless, as he struggled in the icy waters.

As he could not move any more, he felt he was lost and his face was slipping beneath the dark wave when a nudge from beneath pushed him back to the surface. The nudge was stronger the next time, lifting him half-way out. Numb as he was, he realized it had to be a fish. Then he knew it was a dolphin! The dolphin let him grab hold of it, and it quickly swam toward the shore, three others escorting them.

Thanks to the dolphin's powerful, threshing flukes and tail, they were soon there, and Jason let go of the dolphin and staggered up out of the water and fell on the warm shingley beach, soggy cape and all. Saved! Rescued by dolphins!

Gasping more from shock of his rescue than the water's cold, he didn't know whether to laugh or cry! What would the maidens in the festivals of his people make of this latest exploit of his! A fish had saved the mighty hero Jason from certain drowning!

He was so grateful, he turned around, to see his rescuers, but they were gone--was it a dream? But he knew it was no dream. He had really been drowning like a ship's rat fallen off the boat--and would be a body floating down the river if not for the dolphins coming to his aid!

Then the truth struck him! Heaven, and Heaven's God, had sovereignly come to his aid and sent the merry-hearted, clever-headed wonders of the seas and rivers called dolphins--the very ones the ingenious Mopsos had trained, he now realized.

Encouraged greatly, he no longer regretted leaving his weapon and shield behind. He had hope now, thanks to his miraculous rescue, that even more favor from Heaven would be his as he continued to "keep faith" and not quit. Who knows? he thought, growing excited again. "Who knows if high Heaven will smile on me and the glorious golden Prize will be all I had hoped in my heart it would be--conferring eternal happiness and Immortality on the blessed isle for all who possess it?"

What he found not far from the shore on which he landed, however, dashed his hope of immortality and chilled him even more than the glacial river that ran down from the sharp-scizzored peaks and moated the gates to the forest and the sacred oak grove.

As Jason viewed the dozens of swords and shields, and the skulls and rib carriages, of the many challengers who had come seeking the Fleece before him, he could not go any further.

Who many wives, mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, grandparents, and friends, were now grieving in cities and islands all over the world, never able to hear a word or know what had happened to their sons, brothers, husbands, grandsons, and friends? Their bones would lie here in this oak grove gnawed by the wild animals, like the bones of cattle out on the pastures of the mountains where the wolves roamed freely!

Jason thought of how many long stretches of sea they had crossed, so that they could win the Golden Fleece of Phrixus, only to end here as a pile of gnawed bones! He too had come a long way at considerable cost. His comrades had lost their lives--many of them. They had all been through storms, hardships, fights with monsters, terrors, and dangers, all to gain this chance at glory, for when he stood in the sacred grove, the Golden Fleece hanging in a tree somewhere just beyond him and calling to someone to come and pluck it down from a bough.

But the others too had stood here once, and then been utterly destroyed! How would it fare any better for him if he took a step further in the grove? No doubt each man, seeing the bones and swords and shields lying strewn on the ground, had thought it would go differently with him. But it hadn't! He knew it was so, for no man had returned, to boast of his exploit and show the gleaming Fleece to all the cities of the world as proof he was telling the truth!

Jason put his hand over his face, he could not think of a worse thing than to come so far--for this scene! He was thinking of everything the Argonauts had suffered and sacrificed--and for what? For what? Last of all, the old woman, Honan's poor, aged mother, was waiting for a last, fleeting glimpse of the Fleece before her eyes closed and she slipped into the dark halls of Thanatos the Grim Reaper and sank to the dread depths of Hades. Thanatos was bad enough (though a sensible man could resign himself to it, as the end of all things that lived and breathed and moved on the wide earth)--but Hades--that was the one place that gave Death its sting and terror--alas! alas! What help was there for a soul when it entered that place?






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