Wood scraped against Theseus's leg. He caught the wreckage as a wave pushed it into his face. His legs shook as he stood. The sun stung his eyes.
The shipwreck lay two thousand paces east, its smashed hull washed onto the beach where the tide would gnaw it. A palm forest rose from the sand. Beyond, steep crags covered in brush jutted above the thick canopy. All was silent save for the rushing of the waves.
The sea stretched into the northern horizon.
Theseus pulled one of his legs up and stepped towards the beach. The splash resounded over the bay. Theseus curled like a startled cat. He scanned the forest. Every shadow, every shift of a leaf could be a savage denizen. The canopy stirred. Theseus yearned for a weapon. A red parrot flew away and the silence returned. He let his breathing slow, focused on the rush of the waves. He walked in rhythm, his ankles pushed and pulled by the tide until his feet touched hot sand.
All the islands in the Mediterranean looked alike to him. This one could be small and deserted, like the islands in Homer's tales, or there could be cannibals awaiting him under the canopy. At least the ship's carcass was in sight so he wasn't totally lost. He might find a weapon there. He might even find another survivor, but he doubted it.
Poseidon had seethed the previous night. Theseus remembered leaping from the ship when the storm toppled her. The sea had been liquid ice. The waves had risen around him like black giants. That was his last memory.
Theseus crept to the forest. He pulled some ferns aside and glared into the shade, fist ready to fly. There was nothing. The forest was as still as the beach. He stepped into the shade.
He slipped around palm trunks with bark like armor, over ferns that tickled his legs. As he neared the ship, he could see where the reef had torn her belly like a blunt sword. It should have been a simple job, just looking tough for some merchant, who'd kept saying that cow's leather could be traded for saffron and varicolored silks that would make an Athenian throw his purse. Theseus thought bitterly of the second half of his fee. Without his wife there was nothing to live for but food and wine, and that meant money.
Beyond the forest's edge, a trail wound south through the crags. He crouched low. Humanity was here. He needed a weapon. He braced himself to sprint for the ship.
People crested the hill and Theseus sank behind a thick fern, pulse drumming in his neck. He watched through the leaves. There were twelve. He had never seen people dressed in such rich colors: kilts blue like the sky, women in robes red as rose, men wearing jerkins orange like sunset. He supposed the ship's corpse had finished the merchant's journey. Only now could he understand the merchant's praise for the varicolored silks of Crete.
They were beautiful, but still his enemies. The men dismantled the craft while the women inspected the cargo. They were tawny-skinned, flat faced with dark hair, smaller than most Greeks. For a moment he considered attacking them. If he died, he would meet his wife again in Elysia. Malaria would not exist for her there. Theseus pushed the thought from his mind. Hades would never let him past the gate if he died like an idiot. He couldn't risk revealing himself. It was enough to know where the village lay.
He moved back through the forest. His fists were clenched. He needed to find food, or hunger would begin to impair his judgment. He kept alert for something he could forage while he made for the southern crags. The berries were unfamiliar, and he didn't trust them. Hunger and disappointment had begun to drain his strength.
When the forest thinned before the incline Theseus saw a pomegranate tree. He lunged toward it, gripped the hard red ball and ripped it free. He crushed the pomegranate in his hands and tore it apart, devouring the sweet pulp and licking his fingers clean of the sticky juice. None of the other fruit seemed ripe, but he plucked two and hid them in his tunic.
“Dionysus be blessed for this fruit, and praise Artemis for guiding me to it,” he whispered, feeling the sustenance empower his limbs. The crag looked impossible. The bracken that embowered it were covered in thorns. Still, he would crest it. Theseus grabbed a thorn branch and pulled himself up. The climb was slow. The thorns stabbed and scraped him, and his limbs were bloody, but it was only pain. Finally he caught the ridge of a rock overlooking the top of the slope and pulled himself up to lie on his back, exhausted, sweating and blinded by the sun.
He pulled the pomegranates free, but his arm was so tired that he lost his grip and one rolled over the edge.
He wanted to sleep.
“Artemis, lend me strength,” he mumbled, tearing open the pomegranate and stuffing the halves into his mouth. It was bitter, but he didn’t care. He rolled onto one side and managed to his knees, unsure which hurt more between the sting of the thorns or the ache in his thews.
To the west and south mountains blocked his view of the horizon. In a valley to the southeast stood a lone mountain, bearing such a likeness to the countenance of Zeus, Theseus knew in his bones this was a hallowed land.
“Praise the Olympians,” he breathed, touching his chest with his fist. “I have no beast to sacrifice in your honor, nor have I a sword with which to draw my own blood. I have only my life, which is yours.”
A vast palace rested in the shadow of the god. From a distance, it seemed a work of art, rising from a wide hill like a marble sculpture. A holy city, for what else could it be?
He would traverse the valley and reach the city of gods. Few Greeks revered all the gods. Spartans had Artemis. The Athenians had Athena. All feared Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, but only Theseus prayed to them all. Fate had conspired to make him weaponless, befitting the holy land. Poseidon had destroyed the ship to bring him, the faithful, before Zeus to be judged. Theseus wondered if he gazed upon Elysia, if he would be reunited with his wife, Lylia.
He’d spent one night in the valley, under the watchful eyes of Zeus. The sun was in the west by the time Theseus reached the city.
The denizens were wrapped in finery: silks of rich purple, violet like sunrise, green like the rolling fen of Sparta. Rivers flowed within the city along small channels carved out of stone. Vast clay pots stood in the street. Theseus couldn’t fathom the craftsmanship necessary to make them.
Sparta was built of rough lumber, mud and conflict. It existed for Ares to test the mettle of men. These people wanted for nothing. From the east Zeus’s countenance seemed an ordinary mountain. It stared to the west like a ward.
People stopped and stared as Theseus walked the steps into the city. Theseus stared back, seeking his departed wife, his brother, his father among them, but he saw no faces he knew. A short woman brought him water in an astonishingly fine jug, and there was no malice in her smile, so he drank deep. Never in all his life had he tasted water so pure.
Soon a dozen men in light armor approached, armed with thin swords. The crests of their bronze helms bore the likeness of a bull. They beckoned for him to follow, but seemed devoid of violent intentions.
“Is this Elysia?” Theseus asked. “Do you take me to my wife?”
They said nothing. Theseus was led along a white street to a courtyard that stretched like an ocean of stone, the palace in the centre like an island. The city fell silent and watched as Theseus was led up the steps.
They stopped in an antechamber. Spirals were carved into the walls. One of his escorts gestured him through the door with a curt nod.
A man in white robes took him by the shoulder and led him to the throne room. Theseus struggled to contain his anxiety as he hastened to bow. The king perched upon a marble throne. He wore a towering crown of bronze inlaid with jewels that glittered in the waning light. At its tip was a bull’s head. Beside the king was an aged priest, who held a staff of solid white, a bull’s head at the apex.
The king spoke in a language Theseus could not understand, and the priest whispered in his ear.
“What brings a Greek to kneel before king Minos?” the king said with a sweep of his hand. Theseus noticed a bulky gold ring on his finger.
“The rage of Poseidon, good king,” Theseus said.
“Please tell me,” Theseus continued, “is this a city of the gods?”
Minos gave a slow smile. “I am the son of Zeus, who took the likeness of a bull when he revealed himself to my mother, centuries ago. I am immortal,” he said in a lolling tone, and Theseus believed. Minos’s jaw was superb. His body was lean and well muscled, his skin tanned. His face was gifted with perfect symmetry and his eyes were large and knowing. “I protect these people, the Minoans,” Minos said, “but there are no other gods here.”
“I am blessed by your presence,” Theseus breathed.
“Speak your name.”
“Theseus of Sparta, your reverence.”
The king grinned as the priest spoke in his ear.
“We offer our hospitality,” Minos said. “The wonders of Knossos are yours. Indulge yourself and be at peace. You have suffered a long journey.”
A single guard led Theseus through the city under a sky scorched red by sunset. The people seemed relaxed as they finished their daily routines. He came to a chamber with a sturdy table and a soft bed. The escort gestured to a chair and left the room as Theseus sat. Soon, girls came with bronze trays bearing fruit, wine and warm meat. They were beautiful, clad in bright silk skirts, and robes open to the belly button.
The Minoans had gentle faces. Their entire culture seemed devoid of violence.
“Welcome to the holy city of Knossos,” one girl said in his ear, and the three began to dance.
Theseus laughed heartily, enjoying the show as he ate and drank. He was starving, and parched, and the food was delicious.
Time became a haze. It must have been weeks he remained an honored guest of king Minos. Girls danced for him every night, and rich conversation greeted each afternoon as he drank red wine and feasted on roast meat and fresh fruit.
These Minoans claimed not to believe in war, though their weaponry was fairly advanced. Still, they wanted for nothing, so it was possible they lived in perfect tranquility. Theseus supposed the gods might have given them weaponry out of respect for Ares, even if the war god could not affect their mentality.
Theseus awaited his wife, allowing himself to feel at peace. When king Minos deemed it time, Lylia would be returned to him. That promise came from the lips of a demi-god.
She came to him while he slept.
“Lylia!” he gasped. Her smiling visage melted in and out of existence before his eyes. “Lylia, my love!”
“It warms my heart to see you well, husband.” Her voice echoed in his mind.
With swelling tears he saw her hair of golden curls, skin like milk, eyes of crystalline blue and soft, pink lips. He had not forgotten her beauty, but still he was struck.
“I have been lonely,” he confessed.
“As have I, and a warm bed awaits you in the palace of the Unseen One, but it is not your time.”
She began to fade.
“Lylia! My love, don’t leave me again.”
“You must wake, Theseus!” And her face blazed heat like the naked sun. “Wake and be ready!”
“We offer to Zeus a traveler from a distant land that he might amuse the gods,” chanted an ancient voice, gleaned through ringing ears. The sunlight made Theseus wince. “We pray for good harvest, pure water. May we live free from your mighty wrath.” The bull staff clinked in the stone courtyard amidst the trampling of many feet. Theseus attempted to rise, but his limbs were chained.
His scream was muffled by a gag.
“Deliver his soul!” the priest thundered as Theseus’s chains were cut and he was pitched over a ledge.
He landed like a cat, all fear and fury. So he was to be a blood sacrifice. What proud creature would these people of the gods choose to kill him?
Lylia had said this was not his time.
High walls surrounded him. He moved cautiously through cool, deep shade. The turns were frequent, and many archways led to empty rooms. It was like a maze.
A rumbling laugh echoed nearby. Theseus rushed toward it, Spartan instincts intent on meeting his foe, but he found nothing. The walls were endless.
An Athenian merchant had once told of blood sacrifices sent to a kingdom over the southern sea. It was said that a demi-god ate their flesh and delivered their souls to Zeus. Theseus wondered if the city of the gods was the city of blood.
Loud clanging, as of metal hitting stone, attracted his attention. Again he ran to the sound, but found only an empty room, larger than the others.
A whistle in the wind, and he instinctively ducked. A weapon smashed into the wall where his head had been. Theseus leapt back, avoiding a downward hack. He faced a monster.
It had the body of a man, naked save for a metal harness and a loin cloth. It was tall and broad, with the burly frame of a warrior. At its waist was a sheathed short sword. In his hands was a twin bladed great-axe. A labrys. Theseus could see the blades were sharp by how the light glinted off their edges. On its shoulders was a black bull”s head.
Proud horns reared and inscrutable eyes surveyed him as the monster screamed a battle cry. Theseus readied himself. He was weaponless.
The monster rushed forth in fury, swinging its blade in a horizontal arch that Theseus barely avoided by leaping back. A wall blocked his retreat and the Minotaur attempted to pummel him with a thrust of his weapon. Theseus dodged aside and landed a stiff jab on the beast’s muzzle as he moved behind it. It spun, swinging the labrys horizontally, but Theseus caught the Minotaur’s heavy arms and threw him forward. The Minotaur managed to keep his feet. He turned and seemed more wary.
Suddenly it stood upright, nodded its head as a sign of respect. It removed the short sword and tossed it on the ground at Theseus’s feet. Theseus cautiously bent down, eyes locked on his opponent, and gripped the hilt.
He adored the familiar feel of a sword. The blade whispered as he pulled the scabbard free and tossed it aside. The Minotaur allowed him to test the weight. This was a good sword, but it could not block the heavier axe. Even if the blade didn’t break, his arms would. Theseus knew the key to winning this fight was to be quick and clever, to strike when his opponent was off balance.
The Minotaur attacked, wary not to let Theseus close the distance. Theseus ducked and weaved away. He retreated into the narrow hallways where the labrys would be useless.
The Minotaur followed, hacked downward. Theseus side-stepped. As the axe chipped the floor, his blade found Minotaur’s throat.
It’s scream was human. The hairs on Theseus’s neck stood on end.
“What are you?” Theseus whispered.
His heart nearly stopped as the Minotaur spoke.
“I am nothing.” The voice was resonant, though muffled, and Theseus realized the bull’s head was a mask.
He stepped back, livid. Were the gods testing his faith?
“Remove it!” he barked, gesturing to the bull’s head.
The Minotaur raised his hands to press against the black bull’s neck. He gripped and strained.
“It has been a long time,” he intoned. With a long grunt of exertion, finally the head came free, and Theseus looked on the countenance of a man, surrounded by matted brown hair.
He thought of the Athenian’s tale, of the many Greeks sent to the slaughter: men, women and children alike.
“You are a murderer,” Theseus said. “I’ll cut out your black heart today.”
“I do what must be done to protect my father’s kingdom,” the man said.
Theseus was taken aback. In that moment he noticed the resemblance. The wretch’s countenance was an almost exact likeness of Minos’s.
“Then you are king Minos’s son? A demi-god?”
“I am nothing, the son of a whore, and my father is not the first king Minos. There have been hundreds before him! He is only a man, and a puppet of the priesthood.”
Theseus was silent, dumbfounded.
“I am an insult to the Earthshaker,” the man said with disgust.
“But do the people not realize his appearance changes?”
“It is a demi-god’s prerogative to alter his appearance, but if there were the child of a whore who bore his likeness, the people might doubt. I was a convenient lie. The myth of the Minotaur held the Greeks in check.”
He pointed an accusing finger.
“But you fight like the devil.”
“I am a Spartan,” Theseus said, and his hands went limp. So it was all a lie. There was no monster. There was no god-king Minos. He would not meet Lylia. She was dead, lost, for there was no divinity in the world to bring her back.
“The priests underestimated you, or you would have been drugged more heavily.”
“I was drugged?”
Minos’s son laughed.
“Did you not see visions?” he said.
Theseus hung his head.
“I saw... my departed wife.”
Tears formed in his eyes.
“What is a Spartan?” Minos’s son asked.
Theseus gripped tightly on the hilt. It represented his only remaining certainty. The old strength slowly seeped into his limbs.
“A Spartan,” he said, “is a warrior of whom Ares is proud. We are trained from the moment we can walk. The weak of us die. We battle each other even for our food as children, and as men, we make the world shudder in fear.”
Theseus spoke of his old life, of the way of the warrior. He spoke of blood sports for amusement, squalor, and pride found underneath all decadence, the pride of one who has become strong: the pride of a warrior. He was electrified by memory, and Minos”s son was awed.
“What do you want, Spartan?” he whispered.
Theseus quaked in rage. His voice trembled as he spoke.
“I want what your people have been denied. Blood.”
Minos’s son frowned.
“Then I was a fool to give you a sword.”
“You showed me honor, and it is the sole reason you still live!” He aimed the sword. “I will take Minos’s blood today, not his son’s. I know you Minoans live in decadence. I am a wolf on a sheep’s pasture.”
Minos’s son’s gaze hardened.
“I will serve my country to the last, as a prince.”
Theseus knew he might yet have to kill, but he grinned.
“Then, Minotaur, we might assist each other.”
Theseus screamed, and a cheer rose from the audience above the maze. They could not see him, and they thought him dead.
“So,” Theseus said, “how do we escape?”
“Hadn’t you thought of that?”
“I had planned to prop your corpse upright with your axe, and reach the top of the wall by standing on your shoulders.” He gave a bark of laughter. “Don’t look so shocked. I’ve done worse.”
Minos’s son, who had revealed he’d never been named, for Minos had killed his mother when he was born, looked thoughtful.
“Much of this maze is simply where the poor among us live,” he said. “My home is separated by a single gate, through which I am brought food each night. The priest’s bring it. They know my identity and do not fear me.”
“Then we can escape through the poor quarters.”
“Yes. By night.”
Good, Theseus thought. They would reach Minos undetected. No one would expect the Minotaur and a dead Spartan to assassinate an immortal king.
“I must ask a favor,” the nameless prince said.
“I will take your father’s life,” Theseus retorted.
The prince nodded. “You may kill my father, but I must speak with him first. And let me kill the priests.” He looked at the wall, as if gazing a far distance. “It was all their idea. I see the faces of those I’ve killed. It is not only men who have been offered to the Minotaur.”
“Poets might sing of the glory of battle,” he said, “but a warrior’s pride is won by overcoming, not by killing.” His tone became gentle as he said, “We are all haunted.”
They awaited nightfall. The nameless prince was fascinated by Spartan life. It was the perfect opposite to the Minoan way. He seemed to have an endless supply of questions, but Theseus silenced him. He closed his eyes and spoke to his wife, then to Hades, asking him for a warrior”s death. His answer was always the same: the hard silence before battle, and he knew that he had to die fighting his hardest to win the favor of Hades. And Theseus was difficult to kill.
In the heart of night when Knossos was silent, the nameless prince donned the bull helmet. He was again the Minotaur.
Theseus looked at him quizzically.
“None must see my face,” he said, voice muffled by the bull”s head. “I will become Minos tonight.”
Theseus pressed himself close to the wall by the gate while the Minotaur waited. Soon two priests came. One nodded to the Minotaur, asked, “Where is the body?”
The Minotaur pointed down one hallway of the maze. The gate clicked open with an echo. Theseus rushed forward. One saw him, and Theseus clasped the nape of his white robe and crushed his neck with his forearms, pressing him against the wall.
“Not a sound, priest,” he whispered as the prince slit the other’s throat.
The Minotaur handed Theseus the short sword and lifted his labrys. Theseus stepped back and watched the ruination of the priest’s skull.
They crept silently through the city’s poor quarters. It was a maze of variegated marble. The Minotaur led the way by markings on the walls in an alphabet Theseus couldn’t read. Finally they came to a ramp, and emerged on the open courtyard of central Knossos.
Theseus caught the glint of a guard’s axe in the moonlight. The sky was dark, but there were no shadows. Theseus crouched, kept his sword in the darkness of the ramp, but the prince made no effort to hide. Theseus followed, as dumbfounded as the guards who watched the Minotaur stride through the courtyard towards the palace, the dead Spartan shuffling behind, sword ready. In moments, the prince pushed the palace doors wide.
“Kill!” he thundered. He smashed the belly of one guard with his labrys.
Theseus burst into the room like a starved wolf, battle lust overcoming all thought. He slit a guard’s throat before they could react. The fight was brutal, swift. The Minotaur swung his mighty axe, killing all who came near, and Theseus saw fear naked on the guards” faces. The Minotaur was a demi-god, and Theseus was a vengeful ghost. He fought with the ferocity of hate and the efficiency of a Spartan. He dodged a hacking axe and turned a desperate thrust of a dagger that was in the attacker’s other hand. His blade found the guard’s throat and Theseus leapt upon another even as the first’s body went limp. Soon all were dead. The Minotaur smashed the door to the king’s chambers with a kick.
The priests slept in a chamber before Minos’s bedroom. Theseus kept his promise. He stood back and watched the slaughter. The prince screamed like a beast as he slew, and it lent the illusion that he was, indeed, the Minotaur. Some priests struggled to fight back, but they were powerless against the prince’s ferocity. Even Theseus, who had danced with death all his life, had never seen more terrible hatred unleashed.
In the end, the prince dropped his weapon, red with the blood of holy men. Panting, he whispered, “My father is in the next room. His life is yours to take.”
Theseus found Minos awake. He stood at the end of his bed, sword lifted, shining white in the moonlight.
“So my son has come for me at last.”
“Your son came for the priests. I have come for you, paltry king. In a nation without war, you were the fangs of the snake called peace. I will cut out your heart for what you have denied me.”
Minos touched his forehead with the tip of his blade in salute. Theseus could see finality in his eyes. The king knew this was his death.
Theseus thought of Lylia and Minos’s broken promise. Rage boiled in him and he waited, perfectly still. Minos’s thrust was desperate. Theseus’s reaction was instantaneous. He smashed the blade aside to create an opening, and leapt upon the king. He rammed his sword into Minos’s sword arm so the hand went limp and dropped the blade, then placed a foot behind Minos’s legs, threw him to the ground, and pinned him. Minos gritted his teeth as he met Theseus’s glare.
“Do not sever his head,” the prince’s voice boomed from behind. “I am Minos upon his death, and he will be the Minotaur.”
Theseus grinned as he understood. “Legends will say the Minotaur could not be killed save by removing his heart.”
The prince said nothing, and neither did Minos.
“For your son,” Theseus said, and raked his blade across Minos’s chest. “For me,” and he rammed his sword into the flesh over the heart. “And for Lylia,” and he began the grisly task of removing Minos’s heart. When it was over, he let the organ beat twice in his hand before casting it to the floor. His right arm was covered in blood.
He looked through the window.
“Is there no immortal in this world?” he asked the sky in a whisper.
When the guards poured into the chambers, they saw the Minotaur dead upon the floor, and Minos stood above it, next to the Spartan they’d thought a blood sacrifice. All guards fell to their knees and bowed as Minos spoke.
“The priests set the Minotaur upon me, thinking to trade a god of justice for one of violence with which they could subdue my populace,” he intoned. “I watched as Ares lent this Spartan power, and he cut out the Minotaur’s heart. Together, we slaughtered the priests. Does anyone dare deny my right?”
Theseus joined the prince, now named Minos, in glaring upon them. None spoke.
That night, they traveled to the mountain bearing Zeus’s countenance, and buried the priests and the Minotaur as a blood offering to the gods. “There will be no more sacrifice,” Minos said, and Theseus alone could hear the heavy weight behind the words. “This will satisfy Zeus.”
Morning, and Theseus knelt before the throne.
The prince filled the role of Minos perfectly. He appeared as a younger version of his father, with the same regal eyes, the perfect symmetry of face.
Theseus’s heart was heavy. He did not wish to return home.
“I thank you for your help, and for sparing my life, Theseus,” Minos said. “You will always be a friend of the Minoans.”
“Now? I will rebuild the priesthood, though they will not be involved in matters of state.”
Theseus watched the sunlight glint on the bulky golden ring, the symbol of Minos.
“Can you make me see my wife again, with the drug?”
Minos frowned deeply, shook his head. “You cannot live your life in a dream, my friend Theseus. You must live well, for you are a great man.”
Two tears streamed down his face. One for Lylia, he thought, and one for himself.
“Then, you will return me to Greece?”
Minos looked solemn. “Of course, my friend. Each of our fates must be forged anew after last night.”
Minos cut his palm on the edge of his ring and held it before Theseus, who understood. He pulled the short sword free and cut his own, and the two clasped their hands together.
“We are now brothers,” Minos said, “united by blood. Know that life goes on, and we must always strive in the face of it, without regard for the cruelty of fate.” He gripped Theseus”s hand tightly. “Swear to me a blood oath that you will live well!”
Theseus was silent. I can not, he thought.
Meeting Minos’s eyes, Theseus could not help but feel strength enter his heart. The gaze was easy to read: fierce in its belief that life was a gift not to be wasted.
“I swear,” Theseus finally whispered.
“Good. Know that it was your pride in Sparta that inspired me to live well. Those who do not fear struggle can triumph over anything. You taught me that, by the way you fought in spite of being weaponless, and facing a creature you thought to be a demi-god. Why do you think I gave you a sword? Now I will send you to Greece to start life anew, friend Theseus. Remember, the blood of kings now runs in your veins,” he said with a grin.
“The blood of Minotaurs.”
They laughed. Minos, Theseus realized, truly was a great king. He would remember his blood oath. He would strive to live well.