At noon the next day, the guards opened the cell again. The king’s steward stepped inside. Theseus was waiting for him, resting one shoulder against the column closest to the door. He was too far away to touch the man, but closer than any of the others. They looked at each other. Theseus gave him an ungentle smile.
The man cleared his throat.
“Who will come first?” he asked. He glanced at the others, ranged around the room with their heads bent or their jaws clenched.
“I will,” Theseus said.
The man looked to him sharply. He looked him over from head to toe, then gave a jerky nod and spun back the way he had come. The guards watched Theseus follow, hands on their swords. When he stepped through the door, they locked it tight. One of them stepped in behind him in the prison hallway.
The three of them tramped up the stairs, through another heavy door, and into the daylight of the palace yard. The paving stones had been scrubbed to a gleam in the sunlight. Yards away, on the right, the palace sprawled, stacked limestone boxes, painted and plastered in red and gold and blue. On the left, the carved doors to the maze were shut tight in a perfect wall twice as high as Theseus’ head.
King Minos waited at the top of six stairs that ran the length of the yard. His retinue ranged around him, glittering under the sun. The queen held his right shoulder. Princess Ariadne stood on his left, eyes rimmed with kohl, lips painted red. At the bottom step, a line of bowmen waited, arrows hung at their hips.
The guard motioned Theseus to stop in front of them, then pushed his shoulder down into a bow.
Theseus knelt, but kept his head high.
“Do you have anything you wish to say in the presence of gods and men before you die?” the king asked.
Theseus met his eye. And shook his head. Last words took decades to find. He had barely begun to think about them.
“What is your name?” King Minos asked.
“Theseus, son of Aegeas,” Thesus answered.
King Minos’ eyes narrowed for a moment. “We will pay your passage across the Styx, Theseus,” he said flatly. “The gods grant you safety on its waters.”
The steward gave him two gold coins.
It took four men to pull the heavy stone doors open, and the maze opened on the other side, first a long flight of stairs bent twice to reach a deeper floor, then three open hallways set corner to corner against each other. The stairs were open to the sun. The mouths of the halls were striped with shadows.
The guard nudged Theseus forward. The bowmen beneath the king’s dais nocked arrows in an instant, bent their bows back, ready to shoot him if he didn’t pass through the doors. He glanced over his shoulder once, nodded to King Minos, or to Princess Ariadne, or both, and ran into the maze.
He was down the stairs before the doors clapped shut. A fourth and fifth hall were tucked into the high wall, facing the wrong way for him to have seen them before. He picked the first hall that showed a jagged stone to catch the thread.
Sliding the knife out of his tunic first, he tested the weight. Then he pulled out the golden spool, tied it to the stone, and started running. The thread burned his finger as it unwound, but he didn’t slow. The hall split into two. He turned to the left. It split again, and twisted down another set of stairs. He followed it until it ended in another hall that was all gray shadow, then climbed back up into sunlight, and tripped into a small room with two halls on every wall. He chose the one straight ahead and almost tripped down another flight of stairs. Columns sprang up. Walls hemmed him in. Stairs twisted him around. He ran until the sunlight had dulled, turned to narrow strips along the floor and scattered.
In the dark, he picked his steps more carefully, and listened closely.
His own feet echoed. Every wall bent sound a different way, every corner bounced it in the wrong direction.
After half an hour, he swore he was being followed. He stopped, waited breathlessly for the thing to catch up with him. Nothing came. On his next step, it seemed to move with him, and he hurried into the next hall, only to swear the thing had gotten ahead of him.
Without meaning to, he laughed, knowing full well he shouldn’t have.
Then he laughed again, hearing the echo of it come perfectly back to him.
He dug his way deeper. The spool grew thinner in his hand. He held his knife a little higher in his hand.
When finally heard something else between the walls, it was like being clapped on the ears. His heart hammered in his chest. Something shuffled ahead. Something snorted.
Theseus froze where he was. He listened hard to pin the direction of the sound. It was coming toward him, just on the other side of the wall, perhaps.
Theseus picked up one foot and eased to the side, carefully silent as he pulled in his next breath. King Minos’ bull was a shadow in the next hall, white horns over a broad head and thick body. It snorted, once, and moved, bare feet thudding against the stone floor. It didn’t have hooves. It didn’t have clothes. The thin light traced long hair on head and neck that scattered down into bare skin over two arms and two legs. It snorted again, huffed in a breath, and turned its head the other way.
It was head and shoulders taller than him. Each horn was longer than the sword in his hand. He could smell the damp and oil of it from where he was.
He had expected nothing less monstrous. Resettling his grip on the knife, Theseus steadied himself with one hand to the wall, and he waited.
The bull came two steps closer. Turning its nose down another hall, it snorted. It shook the fur at the back of its neck. Then it took a heavy stride forward – slow, uncertain perhaps – and put its back to him.
Theseus rushed out. His feet slapped the floor, and he gasped, but drove the tip of the knife down toward the back of the thing’s right leg.
It bit skin.
The thing roared, bellowed, caught halfway around as it had twisted toward the sound of him. Theseus ripped the knife free before he lost his grip on it as the thing fell, and it screamed. Theseus stumbled back a step, sure he needed to be out of the creature’s reach. He dropped the spool of thread. Holding the knife high, he looked at the heavy body, half-bent to the floor, searching for his next strike.
The thing’s head came up. Two black eyes blinked at him in the near dark. They focused on him, too intent for cow’s eyes.
Theseus hesitated. Then, horrified, he bent, ready to drive in low under the horns, and dashed forward.
The thing met him halfway, rolling up off the floor as lightly as Theseus might have, and bent as well. One horn caught him under the arm. The other slammed into his ribs, bruising, and pushed him so hard his feet left the floor. His back and then his head clapped into the wall behind him.
His lungs petrified for just a moment, bones too tight in his chest.
The bull grabbed him by the neck with five thick fingers. Its other hand locked around his wrist and beat it back into the stone. Once, twice, three times, four. The knife fell out of Theseus’s fingers, the bones of his wrist burning.
And the thing stared at him over a long muzzle, hot breath rolling down Theseus’ chest. Its eyes were narrowed. Cow eyes, narrowed, and it was so wrong it made Theseus’ skin crawl.
He kicked out with both feet, aiming for the tender places low on the thing’s stomach, and screamed into its face. When it dropped him, he rolled to the floor, spreading his hands to find the knife.
Then he felt it, cold and duller than he would have imagined, buried between his ribs. It took a moment for his blood to warm it, for it to well out and seep into his tunic, hot against his skin. He coughed, throat full of something even hotter.
The bull growled above him and twisted the knife deeper.
Theseus gasped. And spat blood.
He lost the weight of his arms first and collapsed forward, half dragging himself off the blade. He heard the thing move behind him, slip back, but couldn’t kick his way forward. His feet were very far away. He blinked and he coughed, trying to clear his throat. More blood on his tongue. He could smell it more than he could taste it, too thick in his mouth.
He couldn’t breathe.
The maze, he realized, wasn’t really pitch black. Pitch black was creeping across his eyes.