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.

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