By Janet Morris and Chris Morris
This is a complete work of fiction presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Janet Morris and Chris Morris, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2017 by Janet Morris and Chris Morris.
My ancient incantations are too weak,
And hell too strong for me to buckle with:
— Shakespeare and Marlowe, Henry VI, Part 2
“Come ye, Fates of untamed mind,
Purpose sure and lo! unkind.
Fateful sisters, dark and bright
Revenge me of this awful slight.
In freezing cold, thy wrath unfold.
Speak prophecy resounding, bold!
Dread apportioners of doom,
Now take my part, now spin and loom.
Fair daughters of necessity,
Come mete out surest destiny.
Keepers of the mother thread
Which binds the living and the dead,
Bring fools remorse, bring hubris shame!
By thy law and by thy names:
Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos,
Uncaring whether friend or foe,
I supplicate on bended knee:
You three, I hereby summon thee!”
Medea, oldest witch in hell, thus convoked the timeless Fates, the Moerae: three ancient sisters who spin and spindle, measure and assign the threads not only of life, but of existence itself, even in infernity.
In answer to her call, around Medea’s ridgetop the wind blew cold, bearing balls of ice to shape its blasts.
First revealed stood Clotho, the spinster: “Loose havoc upon what heads?”
“Make cowards of what loathsome dead?” Atropos, eldest, unveiling from the frigid air, worked her shears that scissored death from life.
“What dead? Those!” Medea pointed downslope toward the harbor where a single storm-tossed ship bobbed amid the shallows. “See! Vile pirates infest the shoals below! Sisters, teach these sinners to rue this day and slight no woman evermore.”
Death in hell cut torment short, brought undeserved relief to serial sinners, if fleetingly. The damned soon learned to cheat perdition: to die and die and die again. Medea, the punisher, longed to orchestrate what more enduring tortures Fates could bring.
On a throaty gust Lachesis sniggered: “Their alloted time is nearly up. I apportion suffering to each.” She waved her rod.
“I cut their threads with my abhorred shears, choose the manner and the time of their unraveling.” Atropos scissored her blades open and shut.
“From distaff onto spindle, all is spun and done. I card their souls like wool. I frame their warps and wefts. I knot their destinies. I mind the weave’s design and bring it hither,” soughed Clotho.
“My thanks to Mother Hekate,” said Medea. “Your task is all but done, till the next reckoning should come.”
With no more needed from the Fates, the ancient sisters swirled and whirled away.
Medea raised her arms and conjured an osprey, sent it flying to the ship with her message: “Come ye, and parley — if you dare.”
With the ghost of a smile on her lips, she watched the osprey swoop onto the galley’s tallest mast, convey her invitation and flap home to oblivion.
On the water in the harbor, ice floes arose, colliding with groans and moans and cracks. Wind blew the lone ship toward shore. Its hull grated like gnashing wooden teeth, pushed and shoved and squeezed by ice on every side. Slushy water surged beneath the surface of the sea, a leviathan that ebbed and swelled and undulated with the waves.
There icy air cut sailors deep. Jason’s warship, Argo, first listed in the shallows, then floundered and nearly foundered. Heroes dashed about her decks, clothed for milder climes and unprotected from the sudden biting cold. The mighty galley creaked, freezing in sheet ice as sailors shipped her brittle oars and furled stiff sails while icebergs crowded round.
Argo was a craft for war and plunder, armed with rams meant for piercing hulls, not for breaking ice.
Above this abysmal bay, satisfaction warmed Medea’s heart at the plight of her faithless lover and his storied crew.
She’d warned him, from bygone days to these, how he would pay for what shame he’d brought her. He never listened. Men seldom do. Jason had wronged her, deserted her in a blink when Corinth’s King Creon offered him a new wife to seal a treaty. Had Jason known the bride-price for betraying a witch in the bargain, he might have chosen differently.
But that bargain further damned this adventurer who’d pirated her heart. And for his fickle loins he’d now pay Medea even more. She would see to it; she’d followed Jason to this forgotten coast to exact her price.
And if she, too, would suffer for wreaking vengeance, what of it? Woman is born to suffer, heir to a life of pain; to carry child after child in a womb bloody and distorted. She’d bought her own damnation by dismembering two children Jason put in her and strewing their pieces in his path.
Tartaros always lay in her future, this she knew.
She shrugged his Colchian fleece around her, the golden one she’d helped him steal. If once she’d been a naïf to her ‘hero’ Jason, now she was no dupe, but hell’s canniest mistress of magic and guile.
Medea was history’s archetypal sorceress. Jason, rightful king of Iolcos, well knew her mythos and his peril in betraying a niece of Circe and daughter of Hekate, mother goddess of sorcery. As royal as he, she was granddaughter of the sun-god Helios, daughter of King Aeetes the Eagle, and thus princess of Aea. To make Jason king and become his wife, thence queen of Iolcos, Corinth and Aea, her father demanded only the Golden Fleece. But the gods and Furies required blood sacrifice. Her crowns dripped gore before their passion ebbed, the blood of her half-brother Absyrtus on Jason’s hands, the blood of the two sons she’d borne him on hers. Sometimes, she could still taste the coppery blood of her boys, spattering her lips as she cut their sons to bits.
Medea’s lineage ranked her a queen among witches. Without her potions and prophecies, Jason never could have yoked fire-breathing oxen or routed an army grown from dragons’ teeth, turned that army upon itself, or chosen herbs to make a dragon sleep.
If Medea first stepped beyond the pale by murdering their sons, then Jason bought his passage to Hades’ by killing her half-brother for trying to repatriate the Fleece.
She pulled the golden mantle tighter about her and stroked it, blowing on the fleece until its gold hairs jingled. The wind picked up that sound, carried it down to the Argonauts as they sloshed and trudged ashore.
Retribution postponed is retribution all the sweeter. Today this bit of shoreline on the abyssal sea would strand her lover and his plundering crew. And what the Fates had decreed, not even gods could keep at bay.
Once ashore, the accursed heroes began scaling her ridgetop. On they came, slipping, sliding, stumbling in the snows of a twilit hell where no glint of Paradise relieved the gloom. Souls stranded here had named this spot the Bay of the Pit. On the edge of the Deep, its devilish cold could turn the weak to ice and the strong to contrition.
Up the steep the crew of the Argo must climb to attend her parley. Any who faltered would freeze solid on the slope, languish ice-bound for a hundred years — time aplenty to think things over.
“Come ye, bloody Argonauts, and meet your fated punishment,” she whispered, as if Jason’s shipmates could hear her.
Come one, come all, and let demons devour the hindmost.
Medea set the scene about her with a Colchian standard flapping on a pole, a rallying point fit for such a parley, a solemn conference to discuss terms for the Argo’s surrender. Beneath her fleecy mantle she invoked a robe of snowflakes; on her head she made a three-spoked crown. That done, with her fingertip she kindled a fire on her peaty peak, then summoned a brace of gray and stinking fiends and gave them orders.
As the crew of the Argo ascended and the fiends descended to devour any laggards, Medea spotted her quarry: Iolcian Jason still looked twenty; hell so far had been easy on this son of Alcimede. But not much longer would it be so . . .
Screams of the hindmost, being torn asunder by fiends, sounded a welcome fanfare in her ears. In response, the landing party’s rear-guard turned back to help their brethren, while those in the forefront quickened their ascent.
Alongside Jason hurried Argos, shipwright of the Argo; behind him, Meleagros and his beloved Atalanta, a sometime lioness and fleet-footed virgin huntress whom Medea once healed.
Despite the rear-guard’s swords and spears and best efforts, ravenous fiends grabbed stragglers in their jaws.
The luckless begged the icy wind for help or speedy death. But fiends always take their time, torturing their prey before tearing it limb from limb and sitting down to feast.
The sailors in the lead scrambled faster.
Of all those come ashore, nearly a third would never crest the ridge. The remainder plowed on grimly, taking no backward looks.
Many of these heroes Medea knew. Hadn’t she sailed with them to the Colchian grove to steal the fleece of the golden ram, the very mantle she now wore? She thought she spied Zeus’ son Herakles and man-slaughtering Peleus, climbing to either side of Theseus, founder of Athens. Her eyes lingered on Orpheus, Thracian poet, prophet, and father of songs. But those voyages, those feats, belonged to another time — to life, not afterlife. She banished any thought of glad reunion.
Were it not for Jason and his crew and this damnable fleece forever wrapping her shoulders, she might have spent her afterlife in Erebos, officiating as a priestess of Hekate, sending sinners to Tartaros and innocents to the Elysian Fields. Jason! Every wrong, every ill, every misery, every blot began with Jason. Jason it was who’d ruined Medea in life . . . and haunted her ever since. Mad with love of him she’d been, that fateful day she killed their children.
Vengeance, love’s antidote, always comes hard. And costly.
Watching the Argonauts climb, she recalled that few had treated her as equal. But then, she wasn’t equal: she was superior. If among this damned crew a few were female, a few unknown, then hell maketh bedfellows undreamt in life. She had punishments aplenty to dole out to those who’d top the ridge, fit for one and all.
Dark and frowning, Jason gained the summit first and paused, breathing hard, followed closely by four souls new to her.
Who are these?
One was slight-bearded, auburn-haired and tender-mouthed, sloe-eyed and lithe in a leather jerkin, breeches and hose. By his side came a goat-bearded fellow with fleshy cheeks, one sparkly earring, sloping shoulders and puffy pants. In their wake followed a woman lit with a loveliness otherworldly, which swaddled her better than her simple shift and somehow kept away the cold. This woman got help to top the final rise from a big soul robed in brown, stalwart, hirsute and resolute, who used a knotty staff.
Not one of the four had the seafarer’s eye, the windburned lips, the leathern skin earned by facing hellish weather. Nor were they flowing-haired Greeks or tattooed barbarians.
Medea waved a hand at her fire-pit of peat, and it roared high; in the light from its flames she could see the strangers better. “Pirates, are ye? Come to parley for passage out of the Abyss? No intruders do I welcome here.” Before the strangers could respond, she whipped her gaze across them, to her erstwhile lover: “Jason, whom have you brought me? And why?”
“You! You called us here?” Jason rummaged through her soul with wide, reproving eyes. “Pirates, are we, Mother?” He sighed. “Heroes, while we lived. You know the truth, helped make us what you see. In those days, what we took by force and guile we won honorably, not by theft or piracy, but by deeds done to please our gods. And you know it. As for whom we brought — we brought those we need.”
“You’re pirates all, you and yours, Jason: robbers on sea or shore — of goods and hearts and souls.” In that distending moment, Medea wrestled her fatal flaw: she yet found Jason fetching; as much as once she’d loved him, she loved him still: an infuriating weakness, a wound within her riven breast that would not heal. In hell’s own time, that love would turn to hate. Must. For his fate — and his crew’s — she had predestined.
Behind, a shuffle in the crowd of sailors begat Orpheus, elbowing his way to the fore as the sloe-eyed creature by Jason stared hard at her and asked, “And now? Pirates still? Or is it something else? I’ve often said, ‘Where both deliberate, the love is slight.’”
The goat-bearded soul with him added: “And I, that ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet/ Are of imagination all compact.’ Pirate once is pirate forever, good for our purpose and for the lords of hell. Orpheus, what say you?”
Medea blinked, dumbstruck by these brazen strangers, so full of themselves and obscure pontifications.
Orpheus, red-haired master of music and poetry, wizardry and augury, unslung a lyre from across his back, then glanced from Jason to Medea to the strangers, and said:
“You ask what I say? I say, beware this sorceress, her caustic hate. One who tears her family to shreds cannot be trusted.” Curling around his lyre, Orpheus plucked one string, one chord, and strummed another. “Set your terms for this parley, old shipmate. Say what you want.”
From the lyre of Orpheus, a theme surrounded the Argonauts. Tones to make Sirens coo, teach trees to dance and rocks to sing, set about seducing Medea’s heart.
“Stop that music, Orpheus! Put by thine instrument of fell design. I know your fey tricks of old. Stay your hands. Part from that lyre. There’ll be no sorcery here but mine.”
The lyrist palmed his strings. Music died a death too curt.
Without a word Jason signaled his crew, opening one fist at thigh-height, fingers splayed.
Ready to face more fiends or death itself, hard-fighting Argonauts, who’d sworn in life to follow him to hell and made good, now clustered as one, reforming their ranks. Blades rasped as sailors cleared their scabbards, attention riveted on their captain.
“Hold, Argonauts.” Jason never took his eyes from Medea as he slowly shook his head, clenched his fist, and all his crew stood tall with weapons at the ready.
At that, her thumping heart found fury’s voice: “Hear my music: Complete surrender, utter and abject. Unhand your weapons, repent your perfidy. Gag your foolish pride. Jason, cede me the Argo and all your crew — what’s left — and ride an eon of eternity as figurehead on that ship, sailing where I may, when I wish.” So good, to say those words to you at last. How often have I rehearsed this speech? Often enough to know it’s right.
As if she hadn’t spoken, the goat-bearded man clapped his hands once and cleared his throat: “Ahem. Jason, will you not introduce us to your famous wife?”
“‘Infamous,’ more like,” Jason muttered. “Medea, meet William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, bards from an era after ours. And one Solomon, a desert king; and J, a scribe: both from antiquity. Strangers or no, pirates or no, these four come to learn our trade. Now, as Orpheus bids, state the full terms of this parley; say what you offer, including what you’ll take to leave us be. Unless your conditions are fair, you need know nothing more from mine or me.”
His dismissive tone, his disrespect, mocked her. “You say they’re yours, these interlopers?” Medea sniffed. “Mind you where you stand, and at whose pleasure, leader of Argonauts. Here I ask the questions. Here you bow your heads if you hope to unfurl those frozen sails again.”
Jason stared at her from a distance that might have been the length and breadth of never. “Wife, let go these ancient slights. Hell-born incantations, have you now? Worse than what you did in life, you’ll never do to me. In how long, you’ve learned nothing?”
Wife? Through gummy lips, she tried to speak. Faltered. She knew precisely what to say to wound him, but from her mouth no words would out.
So she reached deeper inside herself, where wrath yet ruled. She could not say to Jason that he must love her once more, forgive her and enthrone her as queen of his heart. Damned Fates, most unkind. She should have realized that she’d pay a price too dear for what she’d asked of the Destinies.
For Medea, hope upended, satisfaction died. She saw no route to what she now wanted most: to reunite with Jason as lovers do, not as enemies. “Conditions? Conditions be damned. Surrender: complete, abject. Forfeit all you hold dear. Such are my conditions. On your knees, then, Jason. Strangers. Orpheus. All of you. To make amends, you must apologize — each and every soul — or my minions will pluck out your hearts and livers, and we’ll have Orpheus read the truths therein —”
“Sorceress, belay your poison,” boomed the goat-faced man with the martial name. “We’re here on the Adversary’s business.”
As if to caution her, the sloe-eyed one spoke up: “Excuse my friend, envenomed witch, but we have no part in your quarrel with Jason and his seafarers. Yet we do need them, whole and sound, not ice-bound. We’re playwrights on the track of our next tragedy; we write for our patron, who rules more of perdition than you know. Buckle not with us, or lose your lover and your self.”
“Put words where weapons be, Enchantress,” enjoined the light-limned J. “What you want you cannot win through strife, daughter of Hekate. So why fight?”
How dare she invoke my mother? Who is this mouthy callet? Medea meant to summon her fiends but, distracted by these interlopers, failed.
The burly king pointed his staff at Medea as if leveling a spear: “Shall I give you what you crave, Witch?” Oh yes, do. “Shall I slice this Jason apart as you dismembered innocents, and strew his pieces in your path?” My dream comes true. “Why not? rather than kill these others, one by one, till he capitulates?” Now you tease me. “How many more souls in torment will it take to appease you?” Every last deserving one. “Because you suffer, must you call down hellfire upon us all?” ’Tis my fondest wish. “Must you do it? And in so doing, ensure that throughout infernity, none will love you?” Who loves me now? “Remain bereft, alone, friendless, with only curses in your bed?” Oh, please. “And for what?” For a balm to my abused soul, old fool.
Aloud Medea said only, “Down on your knees and beg, every one of you.”
The goat-beard made a weary sound. “No, no, no, no, no! No love can come from hate, nor peace from hearts irate.” He clapped his companion on the back. “As my friend Kit once warned, ‘Love is not full of pity (as men say)/ But deaf and cruel where he means to prey.’”
Out in the harbor, ice began to crack; in Medea’s heart, resolve began to ebb. Her eyes filled with tears. If she could, she would have unsaid that ancient incantation by which she’d called the Fates: “Purpose sure and lo! unkind.”
But she couldn’t. Like breaths, words cannot be taken back, nor deeds undone, nor hearts unbroken. She stiffened her resolve, glanced at Jason one more time, and said, “Down, before you’ve nothing left to save.”
Far below her, the ice upon the ship’s hull began to grumble. It fractured. It grated. It creaked, loosing its hold. The imprisoned galley broke loose and, with groans and rumbles, drifted shoreward, then ran aground: The Argo beached herself.
Sheathing their weapons, Jason’s remaining crew dropped as one to their knees, some with tears sparking in their eyes, some wailing low, some moaning deep — all but for those nearest the shore, who shot upright and ran downslope, back the way they’d come. These sprinted past sailors’ corpses and fiends lounging in gory torpor, and on, toward their beloved Argo to save the ship, to crew her one more time or salvage what they could.
Medea yet stood atop the ridge, opposing Jason and his freakish foursome: the goat-beard who claimed patronage from the lords of hell; his sloe-eyed friend; the woman licked by light; and the burly monarch, leaning on his stave.
Behind her, Orpheus picked up his lyre and began to play, a song to coax tears from stones.
The sloe-eyed playwright looked at her as if pitying a cornered animal and said, “My friend Will says ‘There is no evil angel but Love.’ Seeing you, I do now believe him.”
“Then believe this, writer of fables: Evil is no myth, but part of every soul. And make no mistake: damnation hurts!”
Medea raised both her arms above her head.
In the harbor, ice began to move again like destiny foretold. Up from the frigid Deep arose a great tumult, and the tide itself drew back.
Born of the briny depths, a leviathan breached: a monster made of slush, as tall as Medea’s ridge, its mouth agape, with icicle teeth and chunks of glaciers for its face.
A sound like shattering came with it, as the surf rolled under its belly and heaved.
Rearing high above the combers, it towered, a tidal beast that arched itself, then plunged upon the Argo, swallowing ship and sailors whole.
One baleful orb of blackest ice blinked like an eye. Rising anew, its mouth dripped chunks of seafarers and splinters of the Argo’s hull.
The leviathan swept its head from side to side, as if browsing. Its maw gaped wide. Its neck arced down, obscuring the entire ridge with inky shadow.
A thundery roar like the sea enraged came from that throat and stunned those yet standing. All tried to flee, the four strangers and Medea in the lead. Some screamed. Some dropped their puny weapons to the ground and crawled the turf.
But leviathan gaped once more, as if it would eat the ridge entire and all upon it. That maw from the Deep quested, then snapped shut, swallowing Jason and his crew with weapons bristling, the fire-pit, the Colchian standard, and nearly the sorceress as well.
Again the beast rose high, its head swinging left, swinging right, before it sank back into its own churning wake and disappeared.
Medea looked about her, back the way she’d come. Her ridgetop had become an empty crater.
On the crater’s rim she saw only the four strangers, staggering and cleaving to one another as they stared from the sea into the crater, and then to her.
The daughter of Hekate glared at each interloper in turn. Her breath came ragged. Her chest heaved. Her limbs shook. She turned once full about, wary of the abyssal waters of the Bay of the Pit.
“Witch,” grated burly Solomon. “Come closer.”
Clearly this antique soul had no idea what it meant to invite a witch into your midst.
So she went to him, in the twinkling of an eye, and faced him nearly nose to nose.
“What have you to say for yourself?” demanded the desert king. “What have you done, but heap more sins upon your wicked head? Where is your vengeance now?” And as the woman J hushed the monarch, and the goat-beard scribbled with a quill on a scrap of parchment, and his sloe-eyed friend whispered in his ear, Medea shrugged:
“What do I say, intruder? I say to you that in the underverse, all heads are wicked, all sins multiply, and vengeance breeds its like. Before you presume to indict me, look well at yourself, false prophet. And remember: in hell, no plan is a good plan.”
Medea decided in that instant not to help these miscreants find their way.
They’d have a long walk to reach warmer climes, where revenges tasted not so bitter and fools were thick as thieves.
You must walk while I will fly. Arms raised to the vault above, she called her familiar osprey to wing her home. And quickly now . . .
For tears were coming fast upon her, tears she could not stay for long.
And Medea would not let these simple souls see her weep for Jason — or for herself.
Was she not Hekate’s daughter, Circe’s niece, granddaughter of Helios, and the oldest witch in hell?
“Goat-Beard the Pirate, Part 2: Evil Angel” is just one story from
Pirates in Hell, edited by Janet Morris and Chris Morris
Learn more here