Friday, 18 January 2008

For the Trees

This story should have been published in Mam Tor's Event Horizon No 3, but unfortunately EH folded before it could see print.

James was woken that morning by an insistent tapping on his window. The image of someone standing on the roof of his extension, drumming against the glass, came unbidden into his mind. Of course it couldn’t be, that was just his paranoid imagination talking. Birds, it had to be birds, he tried to convince himself. Yet, even with this rational explanation in mind, he still could not completely dispel the notion from his head.

There was only one way to persuade himself that this was not the prelude to his home being invaded by some demented psychopath. He eased himself from his bed, squeezing out from beneath the duvet and crept across to the window, careful not to alert whomever or whatever was tapping.

He flattened his cheek against the wall beside the window, trying to peer out without disturbing the curtain. Unfortunately, it lay flush against the wall, so he was forced to twitch it back, just a little. Hopefully the slight movement would be taken for the stirrings of a breeze within the room.

Peering out of the crack, he jumped as a gnarled finger hit against the glass. He steadied a hand across his chest, as if he could force his heart to return to a slower rhythm. The finger had been thin and brown. It was no bird. It wasn‘t a person either. The cause of the tapping was a the narrowest point of a branch, swaying against the window.

He should have been relieved. He might have been, had it not been for the simple fact that the only tree in his garden stood next to the back fence, well outside reaching distance of his bedroom window.

He jerked back the curtain, so hard that one of the plastic hooks snapped off the rail. Upon seeing the source of the questing branch, he was almost certain that he was still in a half-doze, improperly awoken. It had to be a remnant of his dream, his befuddled mind misinterpreting the play of shadow and light upon the glass.

Except the fast beating of his heart, the cold rush of adrenalin through his veins were assuring him that he was more awake now than ever. What he was seeing was real, no figment of his imagination.

There was a tree, spouting through the roof of his extension, bursting out like a fairy tale beanstalk.

The branches filled his view, making it impossible for him to see beyond the tree.

Was this some freak occurrence, a stray incident of nature gone insane? He would not put it past his bad luck to have such a thing happen only to him, to his house, but somehow he doubted that this unnatural occurrence would be restricted just to his home
James backed out of the room, quite unable to take his eyes away from the sight. He fumbled for the door behind him that led into the spare bedroom. Opening it, he backed into the room, only turning his gaze away from the tree when he was well inside.

He went over to the window, pulling back the curtains to look outside.

James lived in an end of terrace house in the centre of town. Outside lay Camberley Street, a fairly busy thoroughfare, lined by terraced houses, behind which lay yet more terraced houses. That was the view that greeted him every time he looked out of his window.

Not today.

Today, Camberley Street no longer existed. At least not in any form that James recognised.

The houses opposite were still there, although many had been overgrown with ivy and other green climbing plants. The road on the other hand had disappeared completely, replaced by trees, bushes, grass. An entire forest had grown up overnight, outside his front door.

After staring at the trees for long enough, he went downstairs and did what anyone would do when faced with a mysterious forest on their doorstep; he turned on the TV.


It was only a few moments later that the power went out.


James did not know his neighbours, except to acknowledge them with a nod whenever they passed going in or out of their respective houses. Some of them didn’t even merit that, just an embarrassed meeting of the eyes every once in a while. Still they said there was nothing like a crisis for bringing people together. James decided to put that axiom to the test and walked next door. When he opened his front door, he half expected the forest to have vanished as suddenly as it had appeared, but it was still there.

During the short walk to the house next door, he felt as if he was being watched, a sense of eyes fixed firmly upon the back of his head. He peered into the tree line, but could make out no presence there, human or otherwise. Yet the feeling persisted.

The front door to his next-door neighbour’s home was ajar. He resisted the temptation to barge straight in and rang the doorbell instead. As the seconds passed with no response, he grew increasingly uncomfortable under the imagined gaze of the watcher in the trees. Persuaded forward by this fear of what lay behind, he pushed the door open and called inside.

“Hello, is anyone there?”

A cry from inside provided the answer.

“I can‘t get up!”

It was not the most auspicious response, but it was something, a sign of life. James stepped cautiously inside, prepared to run at the slightest provocation. The call had come from the upstairs floor. He proceeded up the stairs, each step carefully taken, trying to make as little noise as possible, as if he might alert some terrible thing to his presence.

“I can’t get up!”

The second cry, as plaintive as the first, provided James further guidance once he had reached the top. Drawing a deep breath, he pushed down the handle of the door from behind which the cry had come. He threw it back, ready to fight or flee, depending on what he found there. The sight that met him caused him to freeze on the spot as conflicting signals to his brain denied him movement forward or back.

A tree grew in the centre of the room, having pushed its way through the lacquered floorboards. It had pierced the wooden slats of the bed, shredding the mattress, to continue its growth through the ceiling.

James’s neighbour had met with a similar fate to the bed‘s. He hung in mid-air, impaled upon the branches of the tree. The wood threaded through his arms and legs, twisting around them, bound so tight that where blood covered flesh and wood, it was impossible to spy where one began and the other ended.

A further three spikes of wood punctured his torso. Only a little blood leaked around the edges of the wounds, as the wood worked to plug the holes. A final spike had entered his left ear and exited through the top of his skull. For all that, he was still alive, although what sort of life was left was open to debate. Brain damage, madness brought on by his predicament, or a combination of the two had left him in a drooling, unfocused state.

“I can’t get up!” he cried again.

It was enough to snap James out of his frozen reverie. He stumbled from the room, promising to return with help. Little caring of the terrible state in which he left the man, he fled the house, all rational thought gone.

He stumbled, blind with fear, through the very forest that had brought this end to his neighbour. He tried not to dwell on the image of him hanging there, tried not to think of those four desperate words that were all that remained of the man’s vocabulary, yet he could not get them out of his head.

It was instinct that took him to the local railway station. The steps he took every weekday morning as he commuted to work were those that he now followed, his mind incapable of conscious thought while those memories continued to terrify him. The station was surrounded by trees, but the building itself appeared untouched.

The automatic doors to the station opened as he approached, the power outage having not affected them; presumably the station‘s electricity supply came from a different circuit. That there remained vestiges of civilisation might have consoled him, had he been in a state to be consoled.

The ticket hall was empty, the barriers open. Not following any particular plan, but instinctively seeking an exit, a means to escape this nightmare, James walked onto the platform. It too was deserted.

His senses returning, he thought to see if anyone else was present.

“Hello?” he called.

There came no response. If there were any people within hearing range, they were not ready to make themselves known.

Something squished underfoot. He jerked his foot back, faintly nauseated by the squelching sound that accompanied this withdrawal. He looked down at the glistening brown substance that had invaded the platform. Mushrooms!

There was something decidedly unhealthy about them. Moist, patulous in form, they appeared as a disease infesting the surface of the platform. As he backed away from them, James became aware that the shape they took was not entirely random. It almost appeared to be clustered in the form of a body, two arms, two legs and...

A face, part of a cheek, an eye and a nose, protruded from a clump of mushrooms. The eye stared blindly, the life gone from it.

It was not the only cluster of mushrooms to have infected the platform. All along its length, body-shaped groups littered the ground.

Even now the fungi were creeping towards him, intent on making him the anchor for their mycelium; the mushrooms he had pulled his foot from had closed the gap between him and them. James turned and ran for his life.

Reaching the ticket hall, he stopped to consider his options. He had left the mushrooms far enough behind to be safe for the moment. The way ahead, on the other hand, looked far from safe. Leaving aside the trees’ propensity to impale sleeping neighbours, there remained the question of what further horrors sheltered beneath their canopied boughs. James was certain he did not want to find out. Unfortunately, the way behind was closed to him, leaving only one other direction he could take.

He supposed that he could remain in the ticket hall and wait for help to arrive. How long it would take and whether there were any rescue services intent on scouring the forest for survivors would depend on how far the forest had spread. Which meant that he could be waiting anywhere between a couple of hours and forever. If the experience of other countries dealing with disaster relief was anything to go by, the last thing he should do was trust the authorities to provide a timely solution. He decided to brave the trees after all.

Presumably there must be others like him who had not woken up impaled on a tree and who had not succumb to carnivorous fungi. While some would still be holed up in their houses, some must have ventured out into the forest in search of food, assistance, safety. Strength in numbers, that was the key.

The question of where he might find these others was answered by a thick cloud of smoke drifting above the trees. It could have been a fire generated by no human intervention, but he chose to believe otherwise. It was the clearest suggestion of other living people he had yet seen. He had his direction, so he set out towards it.

Leaving the station, it was impossible to be unaware of how quiet the world had become. All the sounds of everyday life had vanished: no cars, no trains, no people. He almost wanted to cry out, just so he could be assured that he had not gone deaf. His instincts, however, told him to remain quiet. The last thing he wanted was to draw the attention of some predatory organism intent on stripping the flesh from his bones.

Among the trees, something stirred, rustling through the undergrowth. James took a step back, prepared to return to his shelter in the station. He caught glimpses, between the greenery, of dirty brown fur moving low to the ground. Rats!

James steadied himself, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. Despite the feelings of fear and disgust that the thought of rats brought, he could not afford to become paralysed by the fear of a few over-sized rodents. Unlike the trees, there need not be anything unnatural about the presence of the rats. They were probably just survivors, emboldened by the presence of all this extra cover. Still, it unnerved him to think of them moving unseen through the forest.

He made good headway through the trees. At times the branches occluded the sky so he couldn’t see the smoke. He worried that he might become disorientated and wander off in the wrong direction. Certainly there was no use relying on the buildings as reference points; most of them were made unrecognisable by the vegetation that surrounded and engulfed them. He could have been walking past his own door, unable to recognise it.

Fortunately, the lack of recognisable landmarks did not prove a real threat to his navigational abilities. Each time the sky made its reappearance, he found he had not veered too far off course. At least his sense of direction was unaffected by the bizarre events of the day.

As he drew closer to the smoke, he discovered he no longer need to rely on keeping it within sight. Its smell conveyed its location just as effectively. He felt his heart quicken as he considered what he might find. There just had to be people, holding back the forest using one of mankind’s oldest tools. The thought that this might be an accidental fire was so bleak as to not warrant consideration.

The atmosphere thickened. Smoke particles, caught in rays of sunlight, crafted a ghostly atmosphere to the forest. James worried for a moment that the fire would provide an impassable barricade, that he would come so close to finding other people, only to be turned away at the last.

He need not have worried. Ahead he caught sight of a most welcome figure. Silhouetted against the smoke, a man stood, waiting. James felt the muscles in his chest unclench; it was as if he could breathe again.

“Hello!” he cried out.

The figure did not turn. For a horrible moment he though that like his neighbour, this ‘survivor’ was just another pin cushion for a tree, only one caught standing rather than sleeping.

“Hello?” he called again, more hesitant this time.

The man turned and waved. A tremendous weight passed from him. James hurried over, the forest a peripheral image in his rush to reconnect with humanity. He had almost reached the man when a hurtling form crashed into him, knocking him to the ground.

His head smacked hard against a tree root. The pain was intensive; it felt as if a spike had been driven through his temples. The world grew dim around the edges; unconsciousness beckoned.

He could still see the man who had waved to him. Two other figures had come upon the man, attacking him. Helpless, James watched through the fog of injury as the newcomers raised shovels and hacked into the man. The blades of their makeshift weapons lopped off his arms, split open his torso.

Then they decapitated him.

Even then they weren’t finished. They continued their attack on the separate pieces of the man’s fallen body.

Although he knew he had to be next, James found he could do nothing to halt his slide into darkness. Consciousness slipped from his grasp. His final thoughts as the light fled were of the irony of the situation. Threatened by the dangers this green Armageddon had thrown his way, it was his own species that would see him dead.


He wasn’t dead.

He had a splitting headache, but he most certainly wasn’t dead.

He cracked an eye open, by way of a test. Light flooded in, hammering all the way through to the back of his skull. He instantly screwed the eye shut again.

The next time, he pulled a hand up to shade his eyes before opening them. The pain was still there, only not so intense. A watchful face looked down upon him, made indistinct within the light.

“Sorry about that. I didn't know you'd go down so hard.”

Female. The voice was female. He had been shoved over by a girl?! Memories of his childhood escapades on the school playground came flooding back inappropriately .

He took a moment, before responding, to study the owner of the voice. His initial impressions, formed by her soft girlish tones were swiftly disproved. Her build was what might be termed solid. She was tall with muscles that would put most men to shame. Not that she could be called manly by any stretch of the imagination. He had heard the terms ‘statuesque’ and ‘Amazonian’ being applied to women in the past; this was one occasion where it was truly deserved.

It took James another couple of seconds to notice the two figures lurking behind her. His eyes widened in nervous recognition. There was no doubt in his mind that these were the two who had been hacking the man...

“It wasn’t a man.”

The woman’s statement interrupted his train of thought so neatly that he wondered if she was reading his mind.

“That was what you were thinking, wasn‘t it?” she asked. “That we’d killed him and then we’d start on you, yes?”

“It had crossed my mind,” James muttered, feebly.


The line of people - what used to be people, James corrected himself - stood at the edge of the trees, just beyond the reach of the flames. They made no menacing overtures, but they didn’t have to; their mere existence was menace enough.

“And they’re all dead?” James had to ask the question again. It was proving too much for him to accept, despite all he had already seen.

“All of them,” Ruth confirmed. “Just puppets.”

“Pinocchio‘s Revenge,” Tony added, unhelpfully.

Not satisfied with staking people to death, or letting them be consumed by mushrooms, the trees had sent roots into the dead bodies, reanimating them. The gusto with which Tony and his accomplice, Paul, had attacked the waving man had been necessary to ensure the corpse remained dead.

“We learned the hard way with the first one,” Paul explained. “Cut his head off and he still got back up, grabbed Allan and...”

He pointed to where one of the trees stood, a maw in its trunk wide-open, awaiting sustenance.

“You’ve either got to sever all the tendrils inside them,” he continued. “Or the main root. But that’s a lot thicker and by the time you’ve cut it, you're already fertiliser.”

They stood in the grounds of the local cathedral. Mercifully they were free from plant infestation. The trio of survivors had been working hard to keep it that way, hence the fires.

“There’s not enough soil for the trees to take root, what with all the crypts and passageways under the cathedral,” Ruth explained. “So they sent the bushes in.”

“You make it sound like a war,” James mentioned, watching Paul uproot a newly sprouted shrub.

“The war’s already over. We lost while we were sleeping. This is just survival.”

“Looks like we’ve got a lively one,” Tony announced.

James looked to see where he was pointing. One of the people-puppets had made it through a gap in the fires. A long, dark toot trailed after it, the string of its puppeteer. Tony picked up a spade and charged it.

“He’s very enthusiastic,” James commented.

“He told me he’d seen Dawn of the Dead seventeen times,” Ruth replied.

They watched in that awkward silence that near-strangers know best, as Tony dismantled the corpse.

“How long do you think it’ll take for them to rescue us?” James finally asked, by way of making conversation.

Ruth looked at him uneasily.

“What?” James asked.

She opened her mouth, as if to reply, but decided against it. She shook her head instead.

“It’s better you see this yourself.”

She led him into the cathedral and up a tightly spiralling staircase within one of the edifice’s two towers. They progressed in silence. James considered trying to elicit more information from her, but decided that it would be more productive to save his breath for the climb. Halfway up he developed a cramp in his leg and had to stop, leaning against the side of the stairwell.

“Is this really necessary?” he asked. “Couldn’t you just tell me?”

“You won’t accept it until you see it with your own eyes,” she said. “I didn’t.”

The cramp eased somewhat, so they continued. James had already figured out what Ruth was going to show him; he hoped that it wouldn’t be as bad as he feared.

It wasn’t.

It was worse.

They exited onto the flat roof of the tower. From their vantage point, they could see across the whole of the town and some way beyond. The villages that stood across the river estuary from them should have been visible from where they stood; they were gone, swallowed up in the green that covered practically everything within sight. Not even the water had survived the green taint; the river mouth was choked with vegetation.

“It’s everywhere!” James said, unnecessarily.

Ruth nodded.

“No one’s coming to rescue us, are they?”

“Probably not.”

James looked over the side of the parapet. It was a good distance to the ground. Idly, he wondered how long it would take a falling object to hit the paving slabs below.

“The cathedral has a well,” Ruth said. “The water’s still fresh. Some of the trees have fruit. The ones that aren’t trying to kill us.”

“You think we can survive here?”

“I think we could try. There’s really only one other option.”

She looked over the side of the tower.

It was a wrench for James to move away from the edge. The scale of the drop was hypnotic.


“Apples. At least. And I’m sure there’s more we can eat.”


As night approached, they took refuge inside the cathedral, staking out their space in one of the upper galleries. While they didn’t expect to see any trees growing out of the cathedral floors, they weren’t prepared to take any chances.

Sleep took its time coming and when it did, it was a fitful affair. At times it had the consistency of a fever dream, when James could not tell the difference between waking moments and nightmares. The rumbling of his stomach did not help either. Despite being famished, he could not bring himself to eat any of the apples that had been gathered. They were just too green.

When he first heard the noise, the wet bursting sound, he couldn’t be sure whether he was dreaming or not. At least not until the screaming shocked him fully awake. Which was when he realised that the screaming was coming from his own throat.

The trees had been unable to gain root within the cathedral grounds because of the paucity of the soil. They had found a way around that restriction by seeking root in a different type of soil. A miniature tree, about three foot in height, more red than green, had taken root in Tony’s stomach. The bursting sound had been its sudden and forced passage from his gut into the open air.

Tony’s body writhed about on the floor underneath the weight of the tree. It was impossible to tell if he was still alive, or just moving about as a result of misfiring nerve impulses in his cooling body. At least it was impossible to tell until he sat up.

His eyes were wide open, but vacant. Nobody was home, at least not in the conventional sense.

“It’s the tree!” Ruth said. “It’s doing this.”

Tony’s mouth flapped open noiselessly, as if he was attempting to talk by the mere effort of moving his lips.

“He’s trying to say something,” James said.

A rustling came from deep within Tony’s throat, shakily resolving itself into something not too dissimilar to words, although they made no sense and only approximated human speech in the most rudimentary of fashion.

“Asht... col...”

A spade, thrust into Tony’s chest, ended the attempt at communication. James scrambled back to avoid the spatter of blood and sap.

Paul pulled out the spade and chopped down again... and again... and again.

“What did you do that for?” James shouted. “He could have told us...”

“That we were going to die?” Paul screamed back. “We know!”

“They might have been willing to negotiate.”

It was a stupid thing to say, but even so James found he couldn’t stop himself voicing the thought. He wondered if this was the start of some bizarre form of Stockholm Syndrome. Was thinking he could reason with the trees the early signs of a downward spiral into madness, or was he exploring a real possibility?

Paul turned the blade of the shovel to point at James.

“They ripped him open!”

“Paul,” Ruth spoke calmly. “Put it down.”

Paul looked at the shovel in his hands, noticing his friend’s blood painted across the handle and blade as if for the first time. He dropped it as if it had scalded him, before collapsing to the floor. He wept.

“You,” Ruth turned on James. “Shut up! If you want to talk to the trees, go outside and do it.”

None of them returned to sleep after that. Keeping vigil until dawn, they watched each other for any sign of change. Even when daylight arrived, their worries still remained.

“Did he eat anything yesterday?” James asked.

He had been mulling over the sudden appearance of the tree. He was sure it hadn’t just miraculously sprouted from thin air.

“Apples,” Paul moaned. “Both of us. We were hungry.”

James looked across at Ruth. She shook her head; she hadn’t eaten them. He persisted with questioning Paul.

“Did you eat the cores? The pips?”.

Paul miserably shook his head.

“Did Tony?”

Paul nodded this time. Realisation dawned.

“You think I‘ll be all right?”

James didn’t want to raise false hope, but trees grew from the seeds, not from the flesh of the fruit. It seemed a fair conclusion to reach.

“If nothing‘s grown yet...”

Relief flooded Paul’s face.

“Well thank...”

He convulsed. Clutching at his stomach, a look of panic invaded his eyes...

...and he threw up the half-digested remains of the previous day’s meal. He groaned. Wiped his face.

“Thought I‘d had it there for a moment,” he muttered.

Which was when his head exploded in a mess of red and green.


James stood at the edge of the forest. After the tree had taken over Paul’s body it had tried to speak to them. As before the words had not been ones they could understand. It was clear that they formed part of a language of sorts though. Sentience lay behind the actions of the forest. Whether each plant acted as an independent agent, or as part of a collective mentality remained to be seen.

What James was about to attempt terrified him, yet he didn’t see that they had any alternatives. The idea that they might be able to reason with the trees had not left him, if anything it had grown stronger with seeing the Paul-puppet struggle to communicate. Ruth had tried to talk him out of this. Standing there, he was beginning to wish that she had succeeded. It was not too late to turn back, but it seemed now he had come this far, he might as well see the experiment through.

“I‘ve come to talk,” he whispered to the trees.

The rustling in their leaves carried echoes of his words deep into the forest. After a while, James felt a rising pressure, an awareness of an unseen presence, something huge beyond his understanding. He felt his bladder go, but he was beyond embarrassment; it was simple acknowledgement of the overpowering terror.

Yet somehow he managed to remain upright, his knees trembling, but not buckling.

The leaves in the trees rustled again, in unison this time, as if the whole forest was shivering. They seemed to be saying... yes.

One of the trees bent over, bowing down as if to examine James. In turn he looked up at it, waiting. It reached out a branch. James responded in kind by reaching out his hand, palm extended to show he meant no harm. He tried to not shake too much.

The branch touched James’s hand, almost gingerly as if afraid it would spook him. He watched with a sense of wonder, the terror dying down to a more manageable level. Here he was making contact with an alien intelligence, even though it was one of terrestrial origin. It was a moment that would, under any other circumstances, have gone down in history. As it was, it would be left forgotten, unless the trees themselves carried memory of times long past.

“I wanted to -- ”

A spike of wood shot through his hand, the contact changed from tentative to forceful. Reflexively, James tried to pull away, but couldn’t. Tendrils of wood wrapped around his wrist, trapping him there as the tree forced its way inside him.

The initial sharp pain was replaced by a creeping numbness as the tree seeped into his body, chloroplasts and corpuscles mixing in a union of sap and blood. James felt the anaesthetic infusion spread to his head and as sensation left him, so did the world.

Cut off from his senses, he felt his mind expanding, spiralling out into patterns strange and wonderful. He floated through a dreamscape of disconnected shapes and colours. The forest was present as a single entity, enveloping him, whispering to him in the voice of the leaves. He heard the words and couldn’t understand them, yet he knew the meaning laced between them, knew exactly what he was being told.

The forest burned. Not with the pitiful fires lit by the human survivors, but with the memory of all the burning of all the forests across the Earth. It had burned since man first set out to tame the world he infested. It burned with the destruction of the ancient European forests, reduced in size until they were little more than scruffy parkland. It burned with the razing of acres of woods, as corporations cleared grazing land for beef cattle. It burned with the forests poisoned by defoliants during war and toxic waste dumped during peacetime.

Trees died and with each one the forest died all over again.

James felt humbled, overwhelmed with the shame that he was part of this.

“But we’re not all like this,” he tried to tell it.

The forest understood.

It just didn't care.

"We can change."

Disbelief. James was not sure that he believed that either. There had to be hope though, didn’t there?

"Some of us can?"

Why should the wood offer mercy?

"We can be useful."

The forests survived long before man. What use to a tree is a walking piece of meat?

James had no answer to give. He was no diplomat, no wise negotiator. There might have been words to sway the trees, but if such words existed, they did not lie with him. What could he possibly offer the trees?

Then he realised, he had already offered it.

"Without us, who is there to worship you?"

The forest considered this.

Ruth ran to meet him halfway across the cathedral grounds. She stopped short of embracing him. He saw her reaction to the changes made to him. His skin was a darker hue, its texture rougher, harder. His hair had changed too, tinged with green, it had thickened, become more feathery.

"What happened to you?"

She could not hide the horror in her voice. He found that he couldn’t care less.

"The forest and I managed to come to an agreement."

"What do you mean?"

"We have to leave this place now."

"And go where?"

James pointed into the forest.

"There are other survivors."

"How far? Will we need supplies, food?"

"The forest will provide."

She was already jumpy. Something in the tone of his voice, his choice of words, must have alerted her to the danger. She ran, heading back to the safety of the cathedral.

James sighed. It would have been so much easier if she had just come with him. For a moment he considered not pursuing her. After all, she had saved his life. But it was only a moment he hesitated. Really he had no option. The trees had told him to do this; his agreement with them was conditional upon it. She had been party to the burning of trees; she could not be part of the bargain.
So he followed. Somewhere along his path he picked up a shovel. It wasn't necessary for what he had to do, but it would make an easier ending.

"I don't really have a choice," he told himself. “I have to do this.”

For the trees.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008


The ship held the future of Athens in its wooden embrace. Theseus, Prince of Athens, heir to the throne, rode in the prow. The salt-laden air stung his face with its furious lash, but he refused to turn his gaze away. There it lay, the island of Crete. A peaceful coast have the lie to its true nature, the doom of all Athenians. If events continued as they had the past twenty years, Athens would be sucked dry of its youth, all victims to the appetite of the beast that lay inside the palace labyrinth.

Theseus had barely become acquainted with his father before volunteering to join the cream of Athenian youth travelling to Crete. Born to a woman of ignoble birth, the result of one of his father’s legendary dalliances, Theseus had come forward to claim his birthright a scant matter of months before the departure. Having only female progeny by legitimate alliances, King Aegeus had welcomed Theseus with open arms. Medea, Aegeus’s paramour of the moment had been less than enthusiastic. After a poisoning attempt failed, she had fled with Medus, her wretch of a son, for parts unknown.

Ironically, her actions had cemented Theseus’s position at court. From usurper, he had swiftly moved to blameless victim. The forgiveness he had then offered Medea, when his father had given her life over to him, had seemed magnanimous in the extreme. It had therefore been all the more shocking to the court when Theseus had volunteered to be among the annual sacrifices Athens offered.

Aegeus had been distraught to say the least, suddenly gaining a son, only to lose him almost as fast. Theseus had persuaded his father that not only was the mission necessary, but that it was survivable, if among the youth that were sent to Crete were those trained in the art of war. He was not sure Aegeus had been convinced entirely, but he had been granted permission to travel to Crete.

Theseus had been unsure of what welcome would be awaiting them on the island’s shores. Whatever he might have guessed, the welcome they did receive was completely unexpected. From the moment the ship put in at the harbour, they were treated as honoured guests. Crowned with garlands of flowers, they were carried to the palace in litters. There, in the central palace courtyard, they presided at a great feast. Tables were filled to overflowing with fruits and meats and the bounty of the sea. When they were sated, they leaned back on cushions and watched as the entertainment began. Dancers and musicians filled the square with colour, movement and song.

After they were done, two handlers led a young bull into the centre of the square. Silence descended on the Athenian youths as they considered their own fate. An insult? Theseus wondered. Yet why the charade of exalting them above all others at the feast? It must instead be tradition, he decided. A symbol of the festival’s purpose.

The handlers left the bull in the centre of the courtyard, while they retreated to its peripheries. Four Cretian youths, two male, two female, devoid of all apparel, sprinted out to take up positions around the bull. A server leaned over to explain the purpose to Theseus.

“They will leap the bull to tire it out before carrying out the fatal blow. It requires great skill to avoid being trampled or gored to death.”

Theseus barely took in the man’s words. Instead he found his attention drawn to one of the bull-dancers. There was a poetry to the way she moved that he had never seen before, each step a sensuous exercise, delicate yet assured.

“Who is she?” he asked the server.

“Ariadne. King Minos’s daughter.”

The following moments were ones Theseus experienced in a haze approaching delirium, yet which he would recall in his dreams until his dying days. The male bull-dancers wrestled with the bull, while the two women took it in turns to leap over the beast, somersaulting across its back. The other woman was competent and certainly attractive enough, if the lewd remarks from the other Athenian men were anything to judge by, but Theseus paid no attention. The fearless lithe movements of Ariadne hypnotised him so that he was deaf and blind to the rest of the world.

His attention did not go unremarked. One of the male bull-dancers murmured something to Ariadne. She glanced Theseus’s way. Their eyes met and he felt himself falling into the depths of those vertiginous brown orbs. A smile, a flick of the hair and she danced off to throw herself across the back of the bull once more.

The Athenians were housed in one of the palace’s towers, ahead of their descent into Minos’s labyrinth the following day. As befit the son of a king, Theseus had a room to himself. The bed was so luxuriously soft, he found himself asleep almost as soon as he lay down.

He dreamed of Ariadne, which was why when he awoke he first thought he was still dreaming. She stood in a shaft of moonlight, just as naked as she had been when leaping across the bull. Wordlessly she slipped underneath the covers of Theseus’s bed.

“How did you get here?” he asked.

“The gods sent me.”

Theseus awoke just ahead of the dawn, the sun still below the horizon, but already lightening the darkened sky. There was a space in the bed where she had been, the impression a physical memory of their night.

A skittering noise from outside drew Theseus to the window. Looking below, he saw a monstrous shape climbing down the wall. The body was that of a monstrous spider, but where the head should be, instead there was a human torso, a twisted centaur-like form. Theseus’s breath caught in his throat, only a rattling hiss escaping. The creature reacted to the almost imperceptible sound, turning its head sharply.

It had Ariadne’s features.

Turning away from him, the Ariadne-spider scuttled into the shadows and out of sight.

Overcome with... with what? Shock? Horror? Revulsion? Theseus sat down on the floor and stared at the wall, which was where the guards found him when they came for him at dawn.

The slab of stone ground into its place at the top of the stairs, covering the entrance to the labyrinth. The sacrificial victims carried torches to light their way, but nothing else that could be considered a weapon. Theseus cast his eyes around the tomb-like structure in search of anything that could be used for defence, but there was nothing but solid stone walls and bare sand. The hopelessness of their situation did not prevent him from bending over and picking up a fistful of sand.

“What do we do now?”

The question came from Tellus, one of the young soldiers Theseus had included in his party. Theseus thought for a moment before answering.

“We track the creature to its lair. If we die, it won’t be because we stood by waiting for our end.”

Finding the creature’s lair was not as easy as Theseus might have hoped. He had thought to track it by its spoor, but the passages of the labyrinth all appeared identically undisturbed.

“Perhaps it erases its marks,” Lydia, one of the seven maidens, suggested.

“Or if it’s so intelligent, perhaps it wears cloths on its hooves so it doesn’t leave a mark,” one of the men sneered.

Theseus considered the man. Cleon was his name, he recalled. Not one of the trained men Theseus had selected; Cleon was one of the few members of the party chosen by the lottery. Volunteers had been scant among the army, so their party had been bolstered by those picked by the Fates. Theseus could easily discern why the Fates were content to see Cleon meet his end in Minos’s labyrinth.

Theseus nodded at Lydia, acknowledging her comment.

“It has to be a possibility. Or perhaps you have a better explanation, Cleon?”

“That there aren’t any marks because this man-bull doesn’t exist. They probably dump us down her and let us starve to death.”

“And then come down to erase our tracks?” This time Lydia was the one doing the sneering. “Why bother?”

Unseen by any of them, a shadow detached itself from the wall and grabbed the nearest of the men. His abrupt cry drew the attention of the others just in time for them to see him being yanked back into the darkness.

“What in Hades was that?” Cleon’s face had lost all of its colour.

They swung their torches at the darkness, forcing the shadows to retreat.

Nothing but bare walls.

A clattering of hooves behind them caused them collectively to turn around.

Again, nothing.

“Not very bull-like, hiding in the shadows,” Theseus taunted.

A low grunting came from one of the darker parts of the passage.

“I think you’re making it angry,” Lydia said.

The creature charged at them, full pelt. Its sights set on Theseus, it lowered its head to gore him with a set of wickedly sharp horns.

Theseus raised his sand-filled fist and released, neatly stepping aside as he did so. The creature charged past him, through the cloud of sand. It pulled to a halt, rubbing furiously at its eyes.

“Take him now,” Theseus ordered.

The four remaining soldiers, Cimon, Tellus, Erastus and Hippias stepped forward. Reversing their torches, they hit the creature. Almost as soon as they had started, they were joined by Lydia and Meri, one of the other women.

Blinded, the creature stumbled in one direction then another, trying to fight its assailants, but only able to grasp empty air. Eventually the battering took its toll. The creature collapsed to its knees. Theseus stepped up behind it, grabbed its horns and yanked. The snap of the neck echoed across the walls.

The danger passed, Cleon’s recovery of his wits was rapid. “That’s the mighty Minotaur? Doesn’t look like much to me.”

“Which is why you were cowering behind everyone,” Lydia said.

“There wasn’t room around the thing with all you hanged up on it. If I’d had the chance...

“Handy that you won’t have to prove it as we’ve killed the only...”

“This isn’t the Minotaur,” Cimon announced.

“Bull head, human body, what else is it?” Cleon asked.

“This is only a juvenile. I grew up on a farm, I know cattle.”

“I’ll bet you do.”

Cleon’s comment earned him a sharp look from Lydia.

“If this is a juvenile, then the Minotaur must be breeding,” Theseus reasoned.

In the quiet that followed Theseus’s statement another sound could be heard - breathing. It had the heavy snort typical to livestock.

“We’re not alone,” Lydia said.

“Spread out,” Theseus ordered. “Form a circle.”

They did as they were bade, holding back the darkness by flickering torchlight. Around them shadows danced on the walls. Some were merely the result of the play of torchlight, others were much more sinister of appearance and intent.

“How many are there?” someone, one of the women, Theseus didn’t know which, whispered.

“What I wouldn’t give for a sword,” Cimon announced.

As if waiting for that cue, a heavy bundle hit the ground in the ground in the centre of their ring. The sound of metal clattering metal was instantly recognisable. A cloaked figure dropped down next to the bundle, startling the Athenians. The figure pushed back the hood that covered its face, revealing the features of Ariadne.
"It's all right, she's a friend... I think," Theseus said.

"I thought you might need these." Ariadne bent down to unwrap the bundle.

One of the shadows took that moment to charge at them, not willing to wait for Ariadne to reveal her gift.

Ariadne reached into the pack, drawing out a sword. She threw it to Theseus, who caught it by its hilt before turning to ram the point of the sword into the creature's chest.

While Ariadne passed out the rest of the swords, Theseus pulled his own from the chest of the creature. He swung it around to lop off the beast's head.

The remaining bull-men charged as one. What followed was a battle Theseus best remembered in fragments of action: swords hacking, limbs flying, horns goring, death and dying all around. At one point he thought Ariadne had reassumed her spider form to dispatch one of the beasts, but it could have just been a trick of the flames.

The battle over, they counted up the casualties. Erastus and Hippias were both dead, as were two of the women whose names Theseus had failed to learn. Lydia provided the answer to him.

"Paenoia and Salamia."

Theseus nodded his thanks; it was important to mark such things.

There were injured among them too. Most of the injuries were superficial. Tellus proved more of a problem. He had been gored through the chest. The injury had not proven instantly fatal, but judging from the ever widening pool of blood beneath him, he would not survive the day. The question of what to do with him hung on everyone’s lips, but all were unwilling to entertain the options they had open. In the end, Ariadne took it upon herself to provide the solution, but she would not carry out her self-appointed task with the others looking on. Theseus ordered them to turn away, but he kept his eyes on her.

Ariadne's legs thickened, transforming into the body of the giant spider. Her robe spread out so that the join between human and arachnid could not be seen. She opened her mouth, revealing a set of fangs that showed the changes were not limited to her lower body. With those teeth, she gently punctured the skin of Tellus's neck to inject what Theseus assumed was a swift acting venom. Certainly Tellus's relief from pain came immediately, the release into death following only a short while longer. Ariadne assumed human form and nothing was spoken of Tellus's end.

The journey into the labyrinth was smoothed by Ariadne's knowledge of its twists and turns.

"The labyrinth is much like a web," she told them. "And I have an affinity for webs."

As they proceeded, she told the tale of the Minotaur. She told of how her Pasiphae, her father’s first wife, had been cursed by Aphrodite with an insatiable lust for the White Bull of the Sea. She told of how the queen had ordered Daedelus, the inventor who would also design the labyrinth, to fashion a simulacrum of a cow, into which she climbed. She told of how a year later (the gestation time for god-bulls being different to humans), her baby had torn itself free of her womb with its prenatal horns.

"And what of your mother?" Theseus asked.

"It is said my father was seduced by Clotho, spinner of Fate's tapestry. Nine months after the seduction she returned and presented him with a child."


Ariadne nodded.

"The spider?"

"An aspect of the spinner."

By this time they had come to the centre of the labyrinth. Theseus determined that he should go on alone.

"If I should die, then you must take whatever steps necessary to defend yourselves," he told them. "But I have it in mind that I should face this Minotaur alone. He did not ask for this fate, this life underground, but suffers it because of the capriciousness of the gods. I will face him as a man and as a man I shall see him end."

He did not add that the wounds the others carried would only prove a hindrance. Nor did they confess they fully understood the reasons he had not spoken. The rest was welcome and none of them desired to meet the creature who had spawned the demons they had fought.

Only Ariadne continued on with him, telling him that she would not interfere with his plans.

"But there are others who would need my ministrations and I would not have that task fall upon you."

Unlike the rest of the labyrinth, the centre of the maze where the Minotaur dwelt was well furnished and full of light. Openings, placed in the ceiling high above, allowed the passage of the sun, creating shafts of light that punctuated the strangely opulent chamber.

Sitting in kingly fashion on a throne constructed from olive wood, red velvet and human skulls, the Minotaur regarded his visitors. Behind his throne, chained to the wall, sat seven women, all naked, all in the final stages of pregnancy. They looked up at Theseus with desperate eyes. A desperation born out of fear for this man-beast, no doubt, Theseus thought.

“So this is the man who would make an end of me, man-to-man,” the Minotaur said by way of a greeting.

“And who would free your captives.”

Theseus indicated the women behind the throne. The Minotaur laughed.

“They’re not my captives. They’re the prisoners of Minos, just as I am, just as you are.”

“Minos didn’t put them in chains.”

“The chains aren’t to keep them trapped here; they’re to keep them hurting their babies when the moment comes.”

“What moment?”

The Minotaur lowered his voice to a guttural growl. “When my children tear their way free from their mothers’ bellies as I tore free from my own.”

And Theseus understood the meaning that lay behind the women’s desperation. Not fear of the Minotaur, fear of his unborn progeny.

“Monster!” he snarled at the Minotaur.

“For doing what comes natural to me?”

“For tormenting them with their fate.”

“Oh, that.”

Without a word of warning, Theseus charged the Minotaur. The Minotaur leapt from his throne of skulls to meet the attack. Bone and metal clashed as the Minotaur used his horns to parry Theseus’s blow. Metal won out, as the sword cleaved the Minotaur’s left horn in two.

Bellowing in primal agony, the Minotaur reached out and grabbed Theseus. His thick fingers dug into Theseus’s chest. Crying out in pain, in anger, Theseus shifted his still steady grip on his sword and plunged it into the Minotaur’s side.

The bull-man threw Theseus to the ground and pulled the sword free. With it still dripping his own gore, he swung it overhead, intent on plunging it through the top of the human’s head.

He stopped, a look of surprise came over his monstrous features. A bruising pain inflicted his abdomen; his strength appeared to be leaching out of him. He looked down to see the cause. The broken piece of his own horn jutted out of his stomach, where it had been thrust by the human, tearing across his abdomen. The light grew dim, darkness swam across his eyes, as his viscera spilled out of him, along with his life blood.

Theseus rolled out of the way as the Minotaur crashed to the ground. Standing up, he surveyed his fallen foe, before retrieving his sword. He turned to the women, intent on finding a way of easing their journey into the next life, but the job had already been done.

“I have spared them the agonies to come,” Ariadne told him.

Theseus bowed his head in mournful acknowledgment.

They left the maze the same way Ariadne had entered it. An entrance had been installed by Daedelus, as insurance against the possibility that Minos might have him imprisoned within. From there they hastened to a rocky inlet where the ship that had brought them waited, unseen by any Cretian patrols.

Underway, Theseus stood at the prow, his bull-dancing, spider-princess at his side. He was unsure of how he felt about her now. Much of her allure had disappeared when her secret had become known to him. Still, there was plenty of time to come to a decision before they reached the shores of home.

He glanced at the sails, billowing darkly against the night sky. Black they were, to hide the ship’s presence as it sailed through the hours of darkness. He remembered the promise he had made to his father before departing for Crete.

Black sails, he thought. Must remember to do something about that.