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When Proteus crawls from the sea, brain damaged in a fight with a terrible giant, all he can put together from his shattered memory is that he was sent to aid Jason and the Argonauts on their perilous mission. As he joins them on their quest, Proteus soon discovers that he is not like the other members of the crew. He is capable of inhuman strength; he seems never to grow tired; he has unexplainable control of the sea that surrounds him, and he is able to see things that no one else can. But there seems to be a dark side to his past that he still can't remember, for a number of enemies sent by Jason's archnemesis, King pelias, seem to recognize Proteus as being one of them.
As Proteus struggles to discover the truth about his past, he and the Argonauts embark on a series of phenomenal adventures. From fighting terrifying creatures to encountering a score of intriguing characters both friend and foe. Jason and the Argonauts search for the elusive and mysterious GOLDEN FLEECE, and Proteus for an astonishing truth behind his real identity.
With the style and skill that distinguieshes him as a master of the genre, Fred Saberhagen translates a classic myth for the new millenium.
----From the cover blurb of the TOR hardcover edition.
The story of Jason and the Argonauts provides the basis for this fourth myth-based novel (after 200's THE ARMS OF HERCULES) in which a naked man staggers out of the sea, shipwrecked and amnesiac. . . . hints of hidden motives and secret powers are intriguing enough to keep fans alert for the next book in the series. ---Publishers Weekly
Fred Saberhagen's Book of the Gods series offers a unique blend of myth and modernity, with plenty of new takes on ancient themes and exciting narrative. GOD OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE, the latest, is a worthy continuation. -- Poul Anderson
In GOD OF THE GOLDEN FLEECE, Fred Saberhagen again shows his remarkable talent for being exotic, exciting, and comfortable all in the same work. -- David Drake
An ingenious reworking of the myth of the Golden Fleece. -- Walter Jon Williams
Saberhagen offers classical scholarship, wit, and a brisk sense of pacing in this coming-of-age story that should appeal to readers unfamiliar with the Swords books and attract Swords familiars in swarms. -- Booklist
Saberhagen is a master storyteller . . . He has given us a rich new world. -- Absolute Magnitude
The winning end of a bitter and deadly struggle brought him up thrashing and splashing in salt water, stumbling waist-deep through the warm sea, emerging under a clear sky from which the light of sunset was fading fast. Leftover rage and fear poured fierce energy through his veins, but the memory of the disaster that he had just survived was fading faster than the sunset. Something had hit him in the head, and only fragments of what had just happened were still clear in his mind.
He had a vivid memory of a head as big as a farm wagon, two arms the size of massive trees, mounted on shoulders to match. One of the sea-going type of Giants, almost human above the waist in shape if not in size; but from the hips down, no real legs, only a pair of huge, twisting fish-tails, ending in something like whale-flukes instead of feet. The thing would never be able to walk properly, but it sure as all the hells could swim.
He had been on a ship, and the Giant had come swimming after it like a whale, bent on destruction. The deck and hull crushed in by blows from those tree-trunk arms, the vessel capsized, and everyone aboard had gone into the deep blue sea.
He couldn't remember how he had got away, but here he was. Now if only his head would cease to hurt . . .
When the Giant had reared up out of the sea, throwing everyone into a panic, the ship had been carrying its passengers to . . .
The survivor began to feel a new terror now, subtler than the fear of Giants, but equally unpleasant. It came with the realization that he could no longer remember why he had been aboard the ship, or where it had been taking him.
Or even who he was.
Start again. When the vessel broke up, when the monster sent it to the bottom . . .
No, start yet again. He was going to have to start much earlier than that. But he could not. Because he could not even remember who he was.
The man who waded might have broken out in a cold sweat, but it was hard to tell, when every inch of his skin was already soaked by the Great Sea. He could find not a single scrap of memory before his presence on that doomed ship. So, start with the ship, and try to work from that.
He could recall only a few more details, all trivial. Besides one or two clear images of the attacking Giant, there were only some additional colors, shapes, certain ugly noises . . .
The left side of the man's head, where his exploring fingers now discovered an aching lump, still throbbed from the savage impact of something hard. Turning to look backward as he moved, even as his feet kept taking him toward the land, he scanned the empty watery horizon in the direction opposite the sunset. Night was gathering out there, and stars were beginning to appear over the endless sea. Darkness was advancing from the east, but nothing else. There were no monsters in pursuit.
It was horrible that he could not remember where he had been going. Or why he had been on the ship. Or who he was . . .
A helpless groan came welling up, and the wader had to fight down panic. It seemed that virtually a whole lifetime had been swept away. There was almost nothing left of himself at all, no solid identity anywhere. Who was he? What was he doing here, in what looked like and felt like, and so had to be, the middle of the Great Sea? There ought to be, there had to be, more to him than this, a naked wading body with an aching, almost empty head, laboring under a burden of fear and rage, a terror that wanted to hit back with murderous fury.
Damn the Giant! Could a man's whole self be erased by one medium-hard knock on the head?
Turning his back again on the empty, darkening east, he kept on trudging shoreward in the gentle surf. He was praying now, to every god and goddess he could think of, that his memories, his vanished life, would suddenly come back to him--and it had better happen soon. There were two small fires on the beach some sixty or seventy yards ahead, and a beached ship, with people milling around, and instinct warned him that before he met those folk, whoever they were, he had better have some idea of who he was and what he was doing in the world.
Looking down at himself, he realized that he was wearing nothing that might provide a clue to his identity, carrying nothing--not even a ring on a finger or in an ear. Not even an amulet hung around his muscular neck. The man paused in his wading, suddenly puzzled by his utter and complete nakedness. As if he had just left his clothing on a beach somewhere, and gone in for a casual swim.
All this time he had been making steady progress toward the shore. Now the gentle waves surged up no higher than the wader's thighs, and every step forward raised him another inch on the sandy bottom's shallow slope. When his thick brown hair and beard had shed their weight of water they would be curly, but right now they were still almost straight, streaming and dribbling little threads of ocean. The unclad body gradually revealed as the water shallowed was no bigger than average, and looked to be in its youthful prime, no more than thirty years of age, strong and slightly rounded toward chubbiness.
Again he looked back into the darkening east, this time over one shoulder, as he kept wading forward. But still there was only watery emptiness to see, shrouded in advancing night.
What kind of reception he might get from the people on the beach ahead he could not guess. But he had nowhere else to go.
What had he been doing on that boat or ship, just before he was almost killed? It seemed unbearable that he did not know.
Going somewhere, trying to accomplish something terribly important, yes . . .
A certain great purpose, having some connection with a ship, yes, that was it! Not the vessel whose sinking had almost taken him down with it, but a totally different one. With a flash of disproportionate relief he realized that the ship he had been trying to find was doubtless the very one drawn up on the beach ahead.
Eagerly, now, the man emerging from the sea pressed on. The careened vessel was a new-looking bireme, lean and straight, and big enough to carry forty oars, two banks on each side. The new wood of her hull, except for the spots where it was brightly painted, glowed almost golden in fading sunset light.
One more slender shard of memory fell into place. It was a woman who had imbued him with the sense of purpose, maybe given him his orders --it might have been as simple and direct as that.
It was a blessed relief to feel that things were at least starting to come back. But what exactly the nameless woman had been trying to get him to do remained a mystery. Whoever she was, the man could almost see her face in memory, almost hear her exact words--almost, but not quite.
Still he kept wading forward almost automatically, toward the beached ship and the men around her, a sizable group on a long shoreline otherwise deserted.
It looked a pleasant enough place, and the wader somehow assumed it was an island, rather than a mainland shore. Bathed now in fading sunset light were green palm trees, pelicans, and other signs of peaceful nature . . . all reassuring. One last time he looked back over his left shoulder, seeing only the straight line of the horizon, and the gathering of night. The Giant that had almost killed him was evidently miles away by now.
His rage and fear were not gone, far from it, but now they had subsided, enough to be kept out of sight. Now he was close enough to see, in declining sunlight, the name on the ship's prow, above the painted, staring eye. And the word when he could see it-- Argo-- made a connection, established a faint link with all the memories that he had almost lost.
Overhead a gull was screaming, as if in derision, finding rich amusement in the way the world went on, how human beings and others managed their affairs. The Argo was long and narrow, with two banks of oars on each side, the outer row of seats on each side slightly raised. The central deck, barely wide enough for two human bodies to edge past each other, was raised a little higher still, so the two inboard rows of oarsmen would actually sit beneath it, less exposed to sun and rain. In the middle of that raised deck would be a hole to hold a mast, whose foot would nestle snugly in a notch in the bottom planks below. And in fact a suitably long pole had been unstepped and laid aside, and a new-looking linen sail more or less neatly furled. No one was now aboard the ship, which rested tilted sharply sideways on the sand.
Every line of the long ship breathed adventure, and the man approaching could see a great, challenging, staring eye, blue with a white rim, and a thin black outline surrounding that, bigger than his whole head, painted on the near side of the prow, just forward of the name. The other side, of course, would bear another symmetrically positioned eye.
Right now the oars had all been shipped aboard. There was every indication that the rowers were all finished with their labors for the day. Half of them were swimming and plunging naked in the shallow water, mock-fighting with splashes like small boys, uttering rowdy yells, washing away the day's heat and the sweat of rowing. Their bodies were of all human colors, from tropical black to sunburnt blond, except that none of them were old. No gray hair was immediately visible.
The remaining half were up on shore, some clad and some not, mainly clustered around a couple of brisk small fires, from which a smell of roasting meat came wafting out to sea. A meal was in the middle stages of preparation. Someone had been butchering small animals on the beach, and had started the process of tidying up, bundling bones and offal and fat together, into packages that would soon be burned as offerings to certain gods. Meanwhile the humans as always were claiming the good meat as their share, a state of affairs to which no god ever seemed to raise objection.
It was hard to tell if any of the men up on the beach were servants; certainly none of them, at the moment, were wearing the fine robes of aristocrats. There were no women or children anywhere in sight, but plenty of weapons, a good variety of spears and bows and swords; it seemed a very military kind of expedition, or maybe a band of high-class pirates. The man just arriving felt a soothing, baseless certainty that he had come to the right place.
What now? It seemed to him that there was one man in particular he ought to find. The woman responsible for his being here had told him--had practically commanded him --something . . .
And as the newcomer drew ever closer to the gathering, he saw what he had somehow expected, that this was no crew of ordinary sailors. Youth and health and strength were everywhere, along with a kind of inborn arrogance. There was not a single metal slave-collar to be seen, though more than a few magic amulets hung on slender chains round muscled necks. Where scars showed on the hard bodies, they suggested the impact of weapons or claws rather than the lash.
A couple of men had turned now and were watching with interest the newcomer's arrival. But neither of them was the one man he had really come here to find.
Another of those ahead, standing knee-deep in the water at the center of a small circle of attention, had an air of leadership. For one thing he was very tall, and a kind of dominance showed in him, even in this superior company, even unclothed as he was. The newcomer changed the course of his steady, splashing advance to head directly toward this individual.
When the tall man turned his head to look in his direction, the man from the sea stopped a few feet away and said in a clear, determined voice: "Sir, if you are the famous Jason, captain of the Argo, I have been sent to join you." The name had popped into his head at the precise instant when he had to have it.
The leader's whole head seemed a dark, luxuriant mass of hair and beard. The closer the newcomer got to him, the stronger his arms and shoulders looked. He said: "My name is Jason." The dark eyes studied the man before him with fatalistic calm. The voice was mild but authoritative. "Where do you come from?"
The nameless stranger had lost his own identity, but he still knew who Jason was. He thought that name would mean something to almost everyone in the world. It was a relief to discover that certain parts of his memory were still intact, things a man would have to know about to function in the world. Jason's fame as a warrior, and particularly as the heroic slayer of the Calydonian boar, had spread swiftly during the last few years. It had been no trouble at all for Jason to recruit forty volunteer adventurers to accompany him on a special quest, even if they had no certainty of what its object was. As soon as the word spread that he was undertaking a great adventure and wanted followers, hundreds of men had come from everywhere, seemingly from every corner of the earth, certainly from as far away as the news had had time to travel. Very few were accepted, of those who applied without a special invitation.
"Out of the sea, Lord Jason."
The leader's voice was still mild. "No need to address me as if I were royalty. I do not--yet--sit on a throne or wear a crown. And I suppose, from the way you look and the manner of your arrival, that you have some tale to tell of shipwreck?" Suddenly Jason's tone became more casual, less interested, as a new thought struck him. "Were you sent to us as a servant? Our original plan was to have several attendants meet us on this island. But I sent word many days ago to cancel that arrangement. What's your name?"
"Proteus." This answer, too, came automatically, for which the man who gave it was deeply thankful; he took the timely access of memory as a hopeful sign that other essential facts might come popping back as soon as they were absolutely needed. Immediately his aching head began to feel better.
Jason was looking directly at him, but still Proteus had the feeling that the leader was giving him only a fraction of his attention. The big man said, as if he did not much care: "I don't remember anyone of that name applying to join my company. Then you are one of the servants who were originally to meet us here?"
Up on the beach, one of the young men had picked up a conch shell and was trying to blow it, just for fun. But he had no idea of how to do it properly, and was producing an ungodly noise, making Proteus uncomfortable.
Before he was forced to find an answer for Jason's question, another tall youth came splashing up to the leader and started talking to him about someone called Hercules, who, it seemed, had been a member of the company of Argonauts when they began their voyage a few days ago. Proteus, still distracted by his own secret problems, had some trouble making out just what the difficulty was now. As nearly as he could tell, this fellow Hercules and his nephew, named Enkidu, had been somehow stranded yesterday, left behind either by accident or design, when the Argo had put in along the shores of the river Chius, in the land of Mysia.
Other members of the crew of Heroes were now listening in, even as they boyishly traded splashes or just stood around nearby. Some of these made comments indicating they hadn't realized that two of their shipmates had been missing for a day. Evidently, out of this group of some forty young men, many were still largely unknown to one another, though they had been crammed together on a ship for several days.
Meanwhile, Proteus felt a growing certainty that the purpose, the compulsion, that had brought him here required, as a next step, that he find some way to join this noble crew. She, the nearly-forgotten but commanding woman, must have ordered him to join the Argonauts. More and more Proteus wanted to know just who that woman was, what had made her think she had a right to order him around. Also he wanted to find out why he felt it necessary to obey--he would be almost afraid to know the answer to that one.
Meanwhile, he was going to do his damnedest to keep secret his weakness, the fact of his ruined memory. Once he admitted that, why would they believe him about anything? And Jason and his crew must not know why he was here. Because it was a matter of life and death, that someone should not find that out . . . come to think of it, it was the nameless woman who had commanded secrecy. With an inward sigh Proteus acknowledged to himself that whatever secret she wanted kept was safe enough for the time being, since he himself could not remember what it was.
And then he was brought back, with a start, to his immediate situation. Jason had just said something that required a response, and was looking at him expectantly.
"I would like to know," repeated the leader, in a tone of patient tolerance, "just what happened to the boat? The one that must have brought you somewhere near this island?"
That question he could answer. "A Giant came up out of the sea, and broke it into bits. I fear that no one else survived."
Naturally enough, this produced immediate consternation among the men who heard him. Some of them went running for their weapons--as if such human toys would help them against that enemy--while others pressed closer to the source of news, urgently demanding more details.
Proteus needed only a couple of dozen halting words to give them all the additional information he had available. Sudden, inexplicable disaster, splintered planks and terrified, howling faces, people drowning. Now surrounded by a ring of intent listeners, he explained that the boat had been sunk, he thought about a mile from the island--of that much at least he felt confident--and that unfortunately he seemed to be the only survivor. He'd had a good long swim to get here. It was faintly encouraging that as he spoke of the disaster, a few more of its details--screams for help, and thrashing human arms and legs-- took shape in his mind. But nothing that answered any of his own urgent questions.
Several men, speaking at the same time, asked Proteus where he thought the Giant might have gone.
"I have no idea." Probably not to the nearest land; monsters like that one were as much at home in the sea as whales, but with their fish-legs had a hard time getting about on land. He shrugged. Trying to force his memory meant standing in front of a hideous, frightening void, big enough so that it seemed he might fall into it and be lost.
By now all of the men had heard his story, and none were more than moderately surprised. Giant attacks on ships were fairly rare, but certainly not unheard of. Vessels were lost at sea all the time, from a variety of causes, and people went down with them--servants were people, of course, even those who were slaves. But when you came right down to it, they were only servants. Too bad that useful workers had suffered and died tonight, but there were plenty of replacements to be had, and it was no great loss to the world, not to the important people in it. Jason, like his shipmates, frowned on hearing the unpleasant news, but it was not going to change his outlook or his plans. Whatever they might be.
One of the figures standing in the background observed: "Well, that settles one problem for us. There'll be no hangers-on or attendants on this voyage."
"That had already been decided," said another man, a trifle sharply.
"My name's Meleager." This change of subject came from yet another member of the crew, a big man, almost as large as Jason, who stepped toward Proteus with a hand stuck out in greeting. Plainly the kind who is anxious for you to know his name, and find out who you are, what kind of story you have to tell about yourself.
"Those who know me well call me Mel." His great hand swallowed the hand Proteus put out. "I've been keeping Jason out of trouble since we both were lads."
Mel turned to gesture to another. "And this is Haraldur." A grinning nod from a powerfully built, hairy man who was wearing a horned helmet, though at the moment nothing else.
How long the chain of introductions might have gone on there was no telling, for it was interrupted. Now one of the other men, somewhat older than most of the others, who had been standing by with folded arms and listening, spoke up and reminded Jason that some of the crew seemed to think the problem of whether or not there were going to be servants still had not been finally settled.
"I would remind you, sir, that as matters had stood when we left Iolcus, some of the Heroes enjoyed such a luxury and others did not."
"Yes, Idmon," said Jason patiently. "I understand that."
"Wouldn't have been much luxury for anyone, with half again as many people as we have now crammed aboard the ship," put in another who had been listening.
There arose a weary murmur, suggesting that this debate had been going on for a while and many were tired of it.
Jason looked vexed. "I think you are mistaken. I think all servants and companions have already left us." He looked around, as if his forty--if that was actually the right number-- shipmates might be an unruly mob of strangers. "If there are any such still here, it is against my orders."
No one responded to that directly. But a voice from the background said: "If half of the intended servants were sent back days ago, and the other half have just been drowned, it seems to me there's not a whole lot left to discuss."
Someone poked the butt of a spear in Proteus's direction. "No survivors, this man was saying?"
But before Jason or anyone else could insist that Proteus provide more details of the disaster, another man, one of those who had been on shore, came wading briskly up to the leader, who still stood waist deep in the lapping waves. Urgently this latest supplicant began haranguing Jason about the apparent absence of certain supplies. Someone should have thought to stow caulking materials aboard, and something to use for pitch! Sooner or later all ships leaked and required fixing.
Meanwhile, the news that a whole boatload of servants had been lost was spreading slowly through the ranks of Heroes as they splashed or lounged or worked at getting dinner. Proteus could see them frowning, shaking heads, murmuring. A bad omen, certainly. Probably those who had still been hoping for servants were upset because they would certainly have to do their own cleaning and cooking.
Jason's patience was unruffled. Maybe, thought Proteus, patience was the virtue a leader needed, above all else. Now the leader was trying to explain to his latest questioner about the caulking materials, and other spare parts. The Argo, like most ships built for other purposes than carrying freight, suffered from a lack of storage space in general, and not much could be done about it. There were a couple of lockers, fore and aft under the narrow fighting deck that ran down the center of the vessel. Those important spaces had been packed full of necessary stores of one kind or another.
There was talk of the spare sails. Proteus nodded to himself, unsurprised. Some fund of practical experience, though he could recall nothing of how he had obtained it, assured him that on a voyage of any length at least one spare was practically essential, unless you would really rather row. And if you got the finest, most expensive fabric and workmanship--which Jason ought to have done to match the quality of his ship--you could roll and fold the sail tightly enough to stow it away in an amazingly small space.
Jason was going on with his inventory, and now it sounded as if there were as many as two or three spare sails. There were also some caulking materials, but you would have to dig them out.
All this was fine with Proteus. He and whatever other news he might have been able to provide had to wait again. The expedition seemed anything but well organized, and for the moment that was all to the good, because it had spared him any probing, difficult questions.
Somewhere inland beyond the wavering spread of firelight, a male voice suddenly began to moan in pain. Or more likely in passion, as Proteus suddenly realized. None of the men around him were paying any attention to the sound, so he decided to ignore it too. He supposed it was possible that at least one woman had come along on this expedition--but on second thought, it was more likely that there were some in this large crew of Heroes who found the absence of women no detriment to their love lives.
Now one of the figures in the loose gathering around Jason, the slightly older man addressed as Idmon, had turned the conversation back again to the absent Hercules. It sounded to Proteus like this Hercules was a mere youth and a stranger who in a trial of strength had somehow managed to make them all look like weaklings, which in this company would be quite a feat. Inevitably more than a few of the chosen Heroes would have considered him an offensive upstart, and probably out of jealousy or resentment they had somehow arranged for him to be left behind.
Proteus thought that a firm, decisive leader would not tolerate such goings-on among his followers, and he was waiting for Jason to call someone to account for this, try to determine the truth of what had happened.
Large Meleager and horn-helmed Haraldur were shaking their heads, looking vaguely embarrassed. But at the moment Jason seemed anything but firm or decisive. He seemed not the least bit eager to call anyone to account for anything. Watching him curiously, Proteus thought he gave the impression of wishing that all these splashing fools around him would simply go away, taking their worries about their spare parts and their servants with them, and let him get on with his private meditations.
Such an attitude made the newcomer uneasy. This was not the way a captain should behave at the beginning of a serious enterprise. Any voyage on the Great Sea was dangerous, and there was no doubt that Jason was intending a long voyage. Anyone who equipped himself with such a ship, such a crew, and such a plenitude of extra stores, certainly had in mind more than a brief and sunny cruise along the coast. If their leader showed no more enthusiasm for his task than this, Proteus foresaw a hard time ahead for the voyagers at best, and more likely real disaster.
The ongoing discussion soon degenerated into pointless wrangling. Standing by, now and then rubbing his aching head, occasionally looking back at the darkening sea from which he had mysteriously emerged, the new arrival was glad that the argument diverted attention away from him.
He had about decided that it was time for him to casually begin to move up on the beach, and get in line for some dinner, when suddenly there was splashing confusion around him, men crying out in alarm or excitement, everyone looking up. Jason, along with several others, was suddenly ducking and dodging, and Proteus raised his eyes.
A flying shape loomed close overhead, zooming over the waves at no more than treetop height. For a moment, fear of the monstrous in a new form gripped Proteus with paralysis. Screaming gulls darted out of the path of a figure that was much too big to be a bird. The sky was still bright enough to let him see that it was a man flying up there, or at least a figure that looked entirely human, except for the wings of magic sprouting from each ankle.