FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
In the reign of Minos, King of the Cretans, the gods gave proof of their existence: a bull-headed man accompanied by his bronzen servitor strode forth from Neptune's realm. At last the gods had removed the veils that separated them from their worshippers . . . or had they?
Strangely enough, the Minotaur forswears all claim to divinity -- and his metallic servant cannot speak at all. Instead, he comes to the Greeks bearing gifts of alien knowledge. But Daedelus at least will have cause to beware the teachings of . . . THE WHITE BULL.
-----Join Daedelus, Icarus, Theseus, Ariadne, Minos and other immortal figures from Greek legend as they seek to penetrate the truth -- in the lair of the minotaur.
In the THE WHITE BULL Fred Saberhagen again shows his prowess at giving a fascinating new spin to an old story. The narrator of this tale is Daedalus, the Greek inventor famous for the creation of human wings - in the legend his son Icarus perished while misusing them.
In Saberhagen's version, Daedalus has recently had a misunderstanding with the King of Athens, so flees to the court of King Minos of Crete. He has been working for the king for a short time when a white bull, subject of an old prophecy, comes out of the sea onto the shores of Heraklios. [Amazon, McCauley]
Like the original, this story involves tragedy as Daedalus just tries to be free. Based on a short story that I haven't read, I found this to be one of Saberhagen's better novels. If you can find a copy you should give it a look. [Amazon, Koppel]
The White Bull tells the story of Daedalus and the Minotaur, with science fiction elements replacing the acts of the gods. It was fun to see the author stick to the mythology while coming up with explanations for the fantastical elements.
I enjoyed the book and will read others by Mr Saberhagen. I already have a couple of his Berserker books and his Empire of the East trilogy lined up. [goodreads, Jseger9000]
I, Daedalus the artisan, having learned late in life the Egyptian way of writing, take up my reed pen (one day perhaps I will design a better writing instrument) and my papyrus to try to recapture something of the truth of my own history. It is high time that the truth about me, and about the strange beings with whom I have dealt, was known.
Scarcely a month passes that I, Daedalus, once the famed maker of wings and currently the manufacturer of terra cotta plumbing, do not encounter some version of the blasphemous rumors about myself: they say that I have somehow become a god, or that in some incomprehensible way I have always been one. Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the truth in itself is quite strange enough. I have been the shipmate and the counselor of kings, and once I was the comrade of heroes and of gods.
Let me not begin this testimony, as do so many writers of memoirs, with a tedious recounting of the sweet memories of my childhood and the mistakes of my callow youth; it will be enough to say here that that epoch of my life was fully as human as your own—and I should add that to the best of my knowledge neither of my parents had any trace of deity about them.
Let me also pass over in silence the early years of my manhood and increasing fame, ending with the time I spent in the court of King Aegeus of Athens; if it is true that I built marvels there—and perhaps it is—those marvels were not so great as the rumors of the present time would have them. And they were as nothing to the prodigies that I later beheld, and those I was later able to create—having in those later days the help of the gods, for which there is always a price to pay.
Let me begin my story instead with my arrival upon the island of Crete—then and now a most beautiful and accursed place. Looking back to that day from this, I can see my earlier self almost as a stranger, connected only by the thread of memory to the old man I have become. He was an ignorant stranger in the world, that younger Daedalus, though he counted himself knowledgeable—or perhaps he had already begun to suspect that he was not really wise.
Let us observe him, then, this rather self-satisfied fellow, in the middle—so he thought—of a successful life. Though as he approached the island of Crete he was coping with an episode of turmoil, he was indeed managing to cope, as he thought, rather well.
See him, I say, this tough-looking man, of medium size with already graying hair who stands on the raised stern of the small ship. He is dressed in the fashion of an Athenian gentleman: tunic, trousers, and sandals. Standing close beside him is a young woman, and between them is a child, a small boy of about six. The child is almost invisible, because all three people are wrapped together in a wool blanket, tightly-woven in some highland village of mainland Greece.
The man stands with his left hand holding a taut rope for balance. It is a strong, callused hand, as practical as one of the tools that it so often held—the hand of a workman or a soldier, despite the gentlemanly clothes of its owner. His right arm is holding the upper edge of the blanket around the woman’s shoulders, while the boy peers out from between its edges in front.
All three people are peering silently forward between the two ranks of rowers, six or seven men on a side, and past the raised, fish-headed prow of the Phoenician trader in which they ride.
The sun was almost down now, muffled and dim behind fog-banks off to starboard; the captain had pushed his luck, but the gods had favored him this time. Landfall, though partially obscured by autumnal mists, lay close ahead. Torches outlined the still-distant shapes of quays and docks, and the last rays of direct sun played on the snow-touched mountain peaks not far inland.
The man’s right hand squeezed tightly on the woman’s shoulder, working the blanket a little more snugly into place. Just beside her the ship’s captain was keeping his own balance by holding another rope, while he called sharp orders to his rowers.
“So huge a place,” the woman murmured, pushing strands of wet hair away from her eyes so they could rove unhindered over the mountains, the harbor, and the dusky shoreline. She was some fifteen years younger than the man beside her. Her voice, always soft, was almost lost beneath the captain’s bellowing. “You told me that Crete is an island,” she said uncertainly.
“And so it is.” The voice of her companion, that clever fellow, Daedalus, was—and still isdeep and harsh. “A very big island. So big that the only way to demonstrate the fact would be by sailing around it. Shall I ask the captain to do so for you?” I teased her gently. Despite its natural harshness my voice was really gentle, like my strong grip, aimed at protection. At least I like to think so.
What with the spray on my woman’s face, and the deepening dusk, it was hard for me to tell whether she was reassured or not. She asked: “And what are all those lights halfway up the hillside?” More bright little torch-specks, considerably more distant than those along the waterfront, were irregularly clustered there.
I did my best to sound completely confident. “That’ll be King Minos’s palace, I suppose. The famous House of the Double Axe. I’ve heard that it sits not far inland above the port. One of his palaces, actually; they say he has others scattered up and down the island.”
“I fear to see him.”
“Well, you who have served the royal family of Athens should not fear that.” I suppose that the confidence in my voice took on stern undertones. “Minos has told a number of people that he’s anxious to see me, that he would like me to live here and work for him. And what if he is a greater king than Aegeus of Athens? You and I have both seen kings before, haven’t we? At close range, too. They’re only men, when it comes right down to it. They need to eat and sleep, like any other men, and to have their backs rubbed sometimes, I suppose.”
That last small effort at humor drew a wan smile. I went on: “Here, Kalliste, do you want to sit down? There’ll be a little time yet before we dock, though we’ve got safe in the harbor now.”
The young woman nodded in agreement. When she moved to sit down on the edge of the raised planking that made the small deck at the stern, the blanket fell away from the front of her body. Under a plain slave’s tunic her belly bulged with six months’ pregnancy. The child who was already born tried to squirm into her lap when she sat down, while I, crouching beside my family, readjusted the warm covering round my woman’s back and shoulders.
The oars stroked and stroked. The oarsmen mumbled prayers and curses. Now and then the captain cried out a sharp command, while dark water gurgled musically beneath the hull. Other traffic in the harbor glided past our ship, the steersmen on all vessels doing their jobs well. And now docking was imminent. Out of the dimness of mists and twilight just ahead the docks and the nearby buildings were taking firm shape, as were the masts and hulls of fully a score of moored ships. Even Piraeus, the chief port of Athens, was small compared to this.
The ship’s captain, who had been friendly and helpful toward his passengers all the way from mainland Greece, was smiling at us more broadly than ever. In an interval between his shouting orders he turned to me. “When we dock, sir, just wait on board if you will. I’ll be back in a moment with someone to see that you’re welcomed properly.”
Now that land had appeared in easy swimming distance, I, the distinguished passenger, grew somewhat bold. “We’ll wait on shore, captain, if it’s all the same to you. I’d prefer to have solid ground under my feet.”
“Of course. But—”
“Don’t worry, we aren’t going to wander away. You’ll get the credit for bringing me here, if there is to be any credit.”
Almost immediately after I said that there came the gentle bump of docking, the terse exchange of command and acknowledgment as the ship tied up. Then the captain was gone, leaping away into the twilight dimness along the quay. One or two curious onlookers strolling there stopped to stare at the new arrivals, but at this hour of the evening there were few people on the waterfront; who would be mad enough to begin a voyage at night?
The distinguished passenger carefully helped his beloved slave and their child ashore, and saw the weary young woman seated there again, upon a baulk of timber someone had misplaced. Meanwhile the crew of the ship, working under shouted orders from the mate, was unloading their vessel’s small cargo from the small cabin in which it had been sheltered. The few idle onlookers on the dock were already drifting away—in the port of Heraklion, the arrival of one more ship from anywhere was hardly noteworthy.
Looking around, I thought that even at midnight this waterfront would probably never be completely deserted. There would always be someone—and here came a pair of women, elegantly dressed but walking freely, unaccompanied, bare breasts showing under winter capes.
“Are they prostitutes?” Kalliste asked me in a whisper when they had passed.
“I don’t know. Quite possibly not. I have heard many times that customs here are not what we are used to on the mainland, though the language is almost the same. But wait: here comes our noble captain. He’s bringing someone with him.”
As soon as he was back aboard the captain busied himself in some discussion with the mate, while the well-dressed newcomer proceeded to where I stood with my family.
Bowing slightly, he said, “I am Hecateus, harbormaster of Heraklion. And you are—?”
I returned his greeting in kind. “Daedalus, artist and artisan formerly in the employ of Aegeus, king of Athens.”
“It is a pleasure to welcome you. What stroke of fortune brings you here, sir?”
“I have heard that King Minos of Crete is generous to artists, and appreciative of cleverness and skill. I am here to offer him my services.”
The harbormaster bowed again—actually it was more like a thoughtful nod—and considered this. “And the lady?” he asked.
I turned to look at her, an immigrant trying to see her through a stranger’s eyes. Yes, she might well have been a lady, seated and resting, wrapped in fine wool for warmth. I said: “I am sorry. This is my slave, named Kalliste; my well-loved concubine. And this is Icarus, our freeborn child.”
What might have developed into quite an awkward social moment on the mainland was passed over as a trivial error by this Cretan harbormaster. “I see … by the way, do you come here direct from Athens?”
“From Piraeus; yes.”
“And did you by any chance sail near Thera?”
I was not surprised at the question. There had been stories about strange happenings on Thera since the days of my childhood, and I supposed that there were new stories now. “No, our course lay well to the west of that island.”
“I see. Thank you. Well, welcome to Crete, eminent Daedalus. You’ll be wanting to go up to the palace right away I suppose, to the House of the Double Axe.” He eyed Kalliste’s pregnancy; she was standing now. “If you wish to spare yourself and the woman a long walk, you could ride—either on donkeys or in a wagon. The road is good.”
“The wagon, then,” I said with gratitude. “And my thanks for your assistance, worthy Hecateus.”
The other shrugged. “It is little, but you are welcome. Remember me when someday you are influential in the House.”
* * *
In less than half an hour the arrangements for our ascent to the palace had been completed. The ship’s captain and I rode ahead on horseback, escorted by a few of the soldiers who had appeared from somewhere at the harbormaster’s bidding, while Kalliste and Icarus and some miscellaneous baggage followed in a creaking wagon, escorted by a few more soldiers.
My first real surprise in Crete, a pleasant one, had been the harbormaster’s casual courtesy. The second surprise that I experienced was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It had to do with the House of the Double Axe, and came when I obtained my first look at the great palace at close range, in the light of the nearly full and newly risen moon. It was not the vast size of the House that was startling; I had expected that. Rather what astonished me was the builders’ obvious indifference to defense. There were outer walls, and in places those walls were high enough to make them difficult to climb, but they were certainly not of sufficient height or thickness to offer a serious impediment to an attacking army. There was a town here too, but it was hard to tell where the town ended and the sprawling complex of the palace began.
It took that younger self of mine a moment to understand: the sea, and his navy upon it, were all the walls that Minos needed.
The town adjoining the House was easy enough to enter, but the sentries stationed there were efficient enough when at last our little procession came to the gate in the palace wall. In a few moments the horses we had borrowed had been led away, and I, along with the ship’s captain and one escorting military officer, were entering an anteroom, where we were told to wait.
So far all the walls that I had seen inside the House were red with horizontal stripes, and a carefree pattern of symbolic fronds, added in cream color. Never before had this Athenian artisan seen art that looked like this, and I was interested. Either the decorations were more familiar to my companions, who ignored them completely, or else such matters did not interest them.
After a little while a small and inconspicuous door opened softly, and a pair of well-dressed little ladies silently appeared, evidently come to satisfy their curiosity about visitors. The two men with me stood at attention, and I took my cue from them. The Princess Phaedra—though I did not then know her name—was about ten years of age; her sister Ariadne, taller and fairer, was a little older, perhaps thirteen. These children inspected us solemnly for a moment or two, and then were gone, without having spoken to us. The military officer then explained to me in a whisper who they were.
Presently a pair of anonymous officials, also given to whispering, came in through another door to lead the distinguished newcomer away alone. They led him deeper and deeper into the House, past row after row of black, downward-tapering columns supporting a roof of gleaming tile. The visitor noted with approval the economical construction of the arches.
The palace was nowhere more than two stories high—but from the outside I had not been able to appreciate its full size. It seemed to go on forever. The floor level was forever rising or falling by means of stairs or ramps, and so probably staying in rough congruence with the level of the hilly ground upon which it had been built, while a prodigality of oil lamps, torches, and even candles testified that this imperial domicile was occupied by no stingy monarch.
My escort, certain of their route, proceeded, and I followed. Now, somewhere not far ahead though still unseen, a celebration was in progress. As we approached, voices raised in song broke off at frequent intervals to indulge in laughter. And there was music, made by two pounding drums, not always in consonance, along with wind instruments and strings that I could not at once identify.
Another door was opened before me, and I was ushered into a hall, vast even for this building. It was by far the biggest room that I had ever seen; King Aegeus had nothing in his palace that could match it. Here the lighting was different. Oil lamps were clustered near the middle of the vast space, abandoning the outer precincts to the night. Above, a high-arched ceiling vanished into shadow.
There were nearly a score of people gathered in the center of the enormous room, most of them performers of one kind and another: musicians, dancers, acrobats. Meanwhile, seated on plain, hard-looking couches were the high-born celebrants, men and women together, enjoying their wine and entertainment. One of these, a weighty, masculine figure, surged to his feet so promptly as we entered that he might have been watching for the door to open. Having arisen, this man set down a golden cup upon an inlaid table, and strode toward me with the unmistakable confidence of majesty.
As my escort stepped back, I began to make obeisance; but this was cut short by the rumble of King Minos’s voice, for King Minos it was, urging me to stand up straight and have a drink. A youthful cupbearer and wine-pourer, looking like twins, were standing beside me almost instantly.
The king’s voice rumbled. “You must be Daedalus.”
“Yes, sire. I had heard that you wanted—”
The hair on the king’s head, glossy with oil, was raven black, as was the matted growth on his bare chest and arms, the latter adorned by circlets of heavy gold. He squinted at me closely; we were very much of a height, neither of us more than ordinarily tall. “It’s really you. Yes, yes indeed, I’ve heard your description several times.” Minos reached out to pinch my shoulder with a large, strong hand, adorned with many rings. To me it felt like a hand accustomed to assessing horses and draft animals as well as humans for their potential value to the throne. “Come to work for me, have you?”
“Yes sir, that is, I hope so, sir. That’s what I want to do.”
“Good, good!” The king stood back a step, his fists on hips. “What made you finally decide to leave Athens?”
Certainly the king was going to hear the full story from someone, sooner or later. Almost certainly he would also hear exaggerated and distorted versions. During the voyage, in consultation with Kalliste, I had made up my mind to simply tell the truth when this moment came.
I said: “What with one thing and another, sire, I had been falling more and more out of favor with King Aegeus. Things came to a head a few nights past. My nephew Talus—I suppose you will have heard of him—paid me a visit when I was working alone in my workshop, late at night.”
Minos rumbled: “Talus—yes, I’ve heard of him—some say that his skill as an artisan rivals yours.” He watched me carefully for my reaction.
“I think, sire, that it never really did. But however that may be, Talus is now dead.” Becoming suddenly aware of thirst, and of the full cup in my hand, I gulped wine, then let the emptied vessel hang at my side. “We quarreled that night, my nephew and I. Then we fought. When he entered my studio that night I had no intention of killing him; but when I left it, he was dead.”
“I see. And Aegeus—?”
“Talus was related by marriage to the king of Athens, Your Majesty. I thought that if I stayed to try the king’s reaction, I would be lucky to escape execution.”
“I see,” said Minos again. He gestured, and both our wine cups were refilled. There was a burst of noise, laughter and music, from the happy group still gathered in the center of the hall, who were determinedly going on with their revel. Glancing in that direction, I caught a glimpse of a woman I supposed must be Queen PasiphaŽ. She was a large, dark, still-beautiful woman of about the same age as her husband, who I supposed to be a few years younger than myself. She was wearing a great amount of jewelry, and a blond wig.
It was at about this moment that her royal husband clamped his hand upon my neck, rather like a farmer about to lead a young bull-calf to be gelded, so that for a moment I feared a fit of royal jealousy. But the king was not jealous—not then. He only wanted to lead me with him, into another and much smaller room where we would be able to talk in greater privacy.
The small room held a table with a lamp already lighted on it, and two chairs. Minos did not carry his friendly and informal approach so far as to invite me to sit down at table with him. Instead Minos sat, while I was beckoned to stand close across the inlaid board. An open window high in one wall let in some of the misty night.
The king started to say something, was struck by a second thought, and voiced that instead: “Your ship came here direct from Piraeus?”
“Pass anywhere near Thera, did you?”
I remembered the harbormaster’s asking the same question. “No, sire.”
“The strange stories, the rumors, keep coming out of that island, Daedalus. Some of the original population must still be living there, because people seem to keep fleeing the place in small boats, and some of them end up here. Each refugee brings with him wilder tales than the last. None of my captains will go ashore on Thera, and I don’t suppose I blame them. I don’t even ask them to land, only to sail near the place and reconnoiter. When they do that, or say they do, they come back with more wild tales of their own. Reports of gods flying over the cliffs of Thera, and monsters waddling on the beach.”
“Sire, in Athens I have several times spoken to some of the refugees you mention. Even if one discounted nine-tenths of their stories, something extraordinary indeed must be happening on Thera. And whatever it is must have been going on for more than twenty years.”
“Do gods dwell there, Daedalus?” the King of Crete asked me flatly. “In the sense that I and you dwell in this room? And might a man who went to that island find himself confronting them face to face?”
“Majesty, I am no philosopher or seer. And it seems to me that only one who—”
“I have seers and philosophers at my call. A whole stable of them. And they can tell me nothing, really. But you are famed as a practical man. What can you tell me? What do you think?”
I hesitated to answer, but I had to at last. “Sire, I deal with practical matters, as you say. I know nothing about the gods. To my knowledge no outsider has visited Thera in the past twenty years or longer—of course I would not be surprised to hear that there had been a few Phoenicians, who will go anywhere. But that last is only my surmise.”
The king considered my reply. Then for a time he sipped absently at his wine, gazing at the painted wall as his thoughts led him elsewhere. But presently his attention came back to me. “I question every intelligent traveler on that subject, Daedalus, when I have the chance. I suppose there is no reason to expect you to be able to provide answers where others have failed. You are, as you say, only an artisan.”
“Indeed, sire, that is what I am. I find that my own field of endeavor offers more than enough problems for me to solve. My thought is that if there are gods, on Thera or elsewhere, I will leave them alone, and hope that they will do the same for me.”
The king smiled. “Most men are content to think of the matter that way. And most of the time I agree with them.” Then Minos shook his massive head, like a man emerging from water. In a brisker and more businesslike voice he said: “I would like some plumbing installed in my palace. I’ve heard there are some great Greek houses where fresh water, good to drink, runs in through pipes, while other pipes carry off the sewage.”
I nodded. “I have seen one or two such on the mainland, sire. They are very convenient though for some reason there is no great demand for them over there. And I think I can improve on the ones I’ve seen. Much depends, of course, on the ready availability of water,” I added cautiously, though it seemed a safe assumption that no palace this size would have been built far from a good source.
“Of course, of course—you can look over the whole place tomorrow. By the way, did anyone come with you?”
“Only one concubine, sire, a girl I dearly love. And our child. Kalliste’s half a year into her second pregnancy, and I—”
“Hah, concerned about her, are you? Never mind, I’ll make sure a good physician looks at her tomorrow. You’ll want her with you tonight, I suppose. So, let that be enough discussion for tonight. Get a good night’s rest, and we’ll work out the details for your employment in the morning.” The king got to his feet, frowning at his wine cup as if surprised to see that it was empty.
That night I slept snugly, installed with my woman and my child in quarters even finer than those we had enjoyed in Athens, when I had been at the peak of my favor at the Athenian court.
Kalliste and Icarus were both exhausted, and they were still fast asleep when I arose shortly after dawn. Three or four slaves had already been assigned to serve us, and these servants came in at first light to introduce themselves, bowing and scraping and bringing new clothing, gifts from King Minos for their new master and his woman.
One of these slaves was a calm and rather deaf old man, another a dull boy. I have forgotten their names. The third was a red-haired barbarian girl of about sixteen, who, in response to my curious questions, told me that she had been brought as a small child from some distant land to the far north. She was called “Thorhild,” a barbaric sound indeed.
I questioned Thorhild further while I splashed my face with water. “Is His Majesty still sleeping? I was to speak with him this morning.”
She was moving about the apartment, cleaning and arranging energetically. “Sir, His Majesty has been up for half an hour, and has gone, as he often does, to a shrine by the sea, to offer sacrifice to Poseidon.”
“Then let me hurry after him. I wish to appear alert and ready to serve him.”
One of my servants provided me with a mount, and another informed me as to which path I should take. The shrine was on a rugged crag overlooking the sea, a brief walk along the coast from Heraklion. I left my horse, borrowed from the king’s stables, with the man who was holding the king’s own mount, and walked on slowly toward the place where Minos was standing with only three or four attendants.
A young spotted bull was about to be sacrificed, and, looking down at the sea, I decided that those making the offering were probably waiting for what they judged to be the moment of high tide. While gulls wheeled and cried above, waves mumbled and spoke around the rocks below, a voice-like roar resulting from the recurrent drainage of water between two sharp angles of rock. A man determined to hear some message from a god, I thought, could hardly fail to perceive words in that noise.
On a crag overlooking the tidal vortex of the waves, two priests held the bullock bellowing, while the king with an ancient obsidian knife managed with three stabs to open one of the great blood vessels in the side of the beast’s neck. I observed this bloodiness with respectful attention, but mild distaste. Nor did it appear to me that Minos was enjoying himself, but he pressed on with the butchery. When it was done he accepted a white towel on which to wipe his hands, then submitted to a more thorough cleansing. One helper provided more towels, while another poured water into a silver basin.
Turning his head at last, he saw me watching and called to me: “I do what you see me do here, Daedalus, because of an old prophecy. You’ve probably heard it.”
I approached the royal presence respectfully. “I have heard one, sire, about a bull, a gift from the gods, coming to this island from the sea.”
Minos nodded. “I suppose no one on the island any longer really expects the sea to cast up a white bull on our shores. Now it’s enough for the people that the king discharge his obligation to Poseidon by a regular performance of the sacrifice.” And now the dead bullock was being pushed into the sea, which I had never known to be significantly reddened by any amount of blood, animal or human.
Not knowing what comment I ought to make, I remained silent, until the king threw down the towels, which were no longer white, and started to talk about the plumbing system he wished to have.
* * * * * *
After conversing on that subject for half an hour with the king while we rode unhurriedly back to the House of the Double Axe, I spent another hour in a preliminary survey of the present water supply serving the palace and the town. When I got back to my new quarters I found a physician examining Kalliste. I had been in Crete less than a day, but I was no longer in the least surprised to see that the physician was a woman. Beginning to feel rather secure in the king’s favor, I said as much to her when we were talking.
“Women are not property here, sir, unless of course they are slaves.” As the doctor spoke, her bare breasts were aimed at me as boldly and provocatively as any courtesan’s. “Your girl here is doing fine. I’ll be back to see her in a month.”
* * *
That evening, Kalliste and I had our first real chance for a private conversation since our arrival. Little Icarus had already made friends with a steward’s children, and the three of them were playing together on a patio nearby.
Kalliste had already heard the rumors of Queen PasiphaŽ’s lustfulness, which was said to know no bounds, and now she spoke about them worriedly. “They say she can be very cruel to those she takes as lovers.”
I was amused, and tried to relieve her fears, which seemed to me then endearingly unreasonable. “I doubt the king would put up with her taking lovers. He doesn’t seem the type to stand for that kind of nonsense. And I haven’t even met the queen officially as yet. Anyway, I doubt she’s going to be very interested in me. I’m an old man, with failing powers.”
“You’re not yet forty! And, anyway, you’re a famous man, and that intrigues some women greatly.”
I grunted noncommittally, having long ago had reason to know the truth of that.
“And you are—as I have reason to know—a very strong man still. Stronger than some of these young athletes, I’d wager.” Kalliste’s eyes flashed wickedly. “In some members of your body, anyway.”
“Come here. At last you need have no fear that I am going to want the queen. Or any other, while I have you with me.”
* * *
In designing the new waterworks, the first part of my job was to make sure of the fountainhead. At present, several sources were in use, with water being hauled by wagon to the town and palace. I went up into the foothills, where there were springs here and there, if you could find them among the rocks. I looked into the highest valleys, where lay well-nigh permanent snows, whose melting through the long summer provided another possible fount. Any of these supplies would be hard to tap. And it was going to be a long pipeline indeed from here down to the palace—long, but not impossible.
Having decided to use the springs, I needed a few days to draw up a plan for the new works, and a few more to design clay pipe in different diameters and lengths. Each length of terra cotta pipe was to be made flared at one end, narrowed at the other, so that several lengths, or hundreds if need be, could be sealed together into one long conduit with a minimal prospect of leakage.
I was surveying my way back down from the springs one day in late afternoon, deciding on the best path for the long aqueduct, when my life changed forever. Someone—I shall never know who—went hurrying past me, headed uphill. As this man or youth passed me, he called out in a choked voice that a white bull had just come out of the sea.
For a moment I did not even look up from my work. Then I did, and stood staring after the messenger in silence. By now I had been well over a month in Crete, more than long enough to begin to appreciate the local power of the ancient prophecy.
Next I turned to my assistant who had been working with me, meaning to leave this man in charge of the surveying while I myself went down to the shore to investigate this strange report. But my assistant was already gone; I was just able to see him in the distance, bounding down the hillside.
* * *
By dint of walking quickly, and trotting a little now and then, I was soon approaching the shoreline, and in less than half an hour I had got close enough to see that a strange kind of confrontation was going on. Presently I was running forward in my eagerness to see more.
I did not slow to a stop until I was within a stone’s throw of the principals. These were arranged in two small groups, one to my left and one to my right. And the pair who stood on my right was the most outlandish sight that I had ever seen in all my life.
The group on my left was much more ordinary, consisting only of a king and a small handful of high counselors, including a couple of soldiers—the queen was absent, for whatever reason. Minos and the men and women with him were standing so close to the waves that sometimes their sandaled feet were wetted. The two military officers were gripping the hilts of their bronze swords, and as I watched them I had the feeling they wanted to draw their weapons but the king had already ordered them not to do so.
On my right, also at the very water’s edge, and facing the king and his entourage, stood the two figures who were so much more remarkable than mere royalty.
The least astonishing of this pair appeared to be a man, somewhat deformed perhaps in the proportions of his body, and outfitted from head to toe in a marvelously smooth and seamless suit of bronze armor. Actually the color of the metal was odd for bronze; it was far from matching that of the swords and breastplates opposite. But on Crete a hundred shades of bronze alloy were in common use, some of them containing traces of substances other than tin and copper, and so the color in itself was not so strange. Wondrously stranger was the way in which the armor had been made, with scarcely a seam or a joint visible, amazingly sexless and still extremely well-fitting. At the moment the man—or woman—who must be inside the armor was standing almost perfectly still. Only a slow movement of the figure’s head, turning to aim a glassy visor at some of the gathering spectators, showed that it was not a statue.
And yet it was the other figure, the bronze man’s companion, that drew my gaze almost immediately, and held it. There was no question of this one’s being a statue; still, my first reaction on beholding it was simply: That cannot be.
Yet there it was.
Not a man, woman, or child, but a two-legged beast, though the arms and shoulders and torso were strongly human. No human legs, however deformed, could have fit into those shaggy, lean, mis-jointed looking lower limbs. No human feet were hidden inside those undoubted hooves. And the head—the head was somewhat human, somewhat beastlike, the factors of inhumanity strongly emphasized by the hornlike projections that curved up from the temples on either side.
And the creature, whatever it was, was white, white all over, or at least an off-white, mottled gray. Whitish fur grew in a mane down even the most human portion of the back, and from the bottom of the back there sprouted a very bull-like tail. Between the legs in front the growth of fur was at its thickest, but there was movement there among the hair, a faint but heavy swaying when the thing’s hips moved, suggesting a bull-like potency.
In its two not-quite human hands, the Bull was holding something, some small object whose nature, I, from my little distance away, could not quite make out.
At the moment of my arrival on the scene, the king was talking and the two strange figures opposite him were listening, or at least so their attitudes suggested.
All up and down the visible stretch of seacoast, other human onlookers besides myself had appeared and were still appearing. These made up a representative assortment of Minos’s subjects, from naked fisherboys to bewigged matrons. Singly and in small groups these folk appeared and began to approach the place of confrontation. Always they would stop before coming too near, struck by the strangeness of what they beheld. Then sometimes they moved again, in silence, creeping yet a little closer, their curiosity proving stronger than their fear.
All these other people must think, I said to myself, that we are beholding a visitation of a god. The gift of Poseidon, the answer to our monarch’s patient prayers, the White Bull from the sea. But in my own mind I was not at all sure. For whatever reason, I simply did not know what to think. I had long been skeptical of gods, but at the moment I had before me a sight most skeptics would have accepted as persuasive evidence.
“Where did they come from?” I whispered, to someone’s slack-jawed slave who had come to stand beside me, goggling at the spectacle.
“There was a small boat,” the man responded, whispering also. He made a gesture that expressed confusion. “A strange-looking boat. It brought them, the bull-god and the bronze man, to the beach. But then the boat went out again, with no one in it, and now it’s gone. I saw it sink beneath the waves.”
“Brought them to the beach? From where?”
But the slave had already moved away from me, and I had no answer.
Again I focused my attention on what the king was doing. At the moment Minos was speaking, to his peculiar visitors and the world in general, pronouncing reverent generalities about the gods in general and Poseidon, lord of the sea, in particular. To me it sounded as if the king never doubted that in his strange visitors he was addressing some kind of god, or gods, but was at a loss to know their identities or how to deal with them. One thing the king would never lose sight of, I was sure, was that he was a king now performing in front of his subjects, who must never be left in the least doubt of his right to rule.
Minos was saying loudly: “Oh Bull, it seems then that you have come to me from Poseidon himself. He has sent you to me in answer to my long-repeated prayers.”
“But I have not come as a sac-ri-fice, King Min-os.” The bull-creature’s voice, which I heard now for the first time, was appropriately deep; it was nothing at all like the lowing of cattle. But also it differed greatly from any human utterance that I had ever heard. On certain sounds that voice reverberated with a kind of internal echo, and on long words it tended to break, as if the mechanism of the throat in which it was produced was unable to slide easily from one syllable to another.
“For what, then, have you come?” the king asked.
“App-roach me close-ly, King Min-os. In-to your ears alone I will speak the truth.”
No king has ever come to power or maintained his power long by behaving timidly in front of his people. Unhurriedly Minos made his decision. Then, moving slowly but without the least outward show of fear, he signaled his supporters to stay back, and walked majestically toward the pair of monsters who stood facing him.
The beast, the breathing, fleshly creature, was perhaps half a head taller than the man, as I could see when the two were standing close to each other; and Minos was a man of ordinary height.
Just at this point I was distracted by the arrival of Kalliste; she slid so gently and silently into her established place beside me, that my arm had gone automatically around her almost before I realized that she was there.
“What is it?” she whispered, quietly marveling at the amazing scene before us.
“Wait. Watch and listen. I don’t know yet what it all means.”
Whatever secrets this Bull-man had brought with him from the sea, they did not take long to impart to the king, or else this revelation was only partial. In another moment Minos had turned away again from that strange figure and was walking back toward his men, meanwhile signaling to them to stand easy. The king’s face had a new look of contentment.
A faint, uncertain murmur ran through the rough ring of fifty or so onlookers. Gradually the small gathering had molded itself into a semicircle, and this formation was still thickening with the trickle of new arrivals. A formal addition of military strength, some twenty or thirty men, had been brought up by now, but one of the officers at the king’s side ran to intercept the marching formation and post it behind a hillock, where it remained out of sight of the chief participants in the discussion on the beach.
Only now did the king appear to become fully aware of how great an audience had gathered, and was still gathering. He scanned the rows of faces on the upper edge of the beach, and his own face lighted up when his gaze fell upon his new artisan.
“Daedalus! Come down here. There are matters we have to discuss at once.”
I gave Kalliste’s hand a squeeze, and obeyed at once. In a moment the king was leading me forward to confront the Bull from the Sea. And then I found myself for the first time looking closely into those large, brown cow-like eyes—I could not help that the comparison occurred to me immediately. In those eyes I beheld considerable intelligence, which I assure you is frightening the first time it is seen in a non-human face.
“Dae-dal-us,” drawled the Bull’s low voice. “That is the name of the famed art-i-san of Athens.”
“I am Daedalus the artisan, oh god-sent one. Formerly I was of Athens. For the past several months, King Minos here has been my most generous patron.” In my words and actions I was careful to take my cue from my king; I would not treat this being, whatever and whoever it might truly be, as if it were a god. There would be no falling down to worship it—not unless my king bent his knees to it first. But at the same time I could not keep from wondering. Certainly this bull-thing was no human artist’s trickery, no disguise. The hair, the horns, the face, the inhuman shape—these were all unarguably real.
But the Bronze Man, now … when I got my first close look at that, I was left only more impressed and mystified than before. Seen at close range, that figure was certainly not a human being in armor. The whole shape was subtly, impossibly wrong for that. There was a visor over the Bronze Man’s eyes, reminding me of a small bright mirror in the sun.
I remembered to bid both creatures welcome to Crete, having heard King Minos do as much.
Only the Bull-man answered me. “I thank you for your wel-come.”
“Daedalus.” The king had business to discuss, and beckoned me to step back with him, until we were a dozen paces from the visitors. “Our guest is going to remain with us indefinitely, and he requires special lodging—indeed he tells me that a certain kind of housing is very important to him. So I want you to design a house, to be constructed in the close vicinity of the House of the Axe at Knossos. This new house is to be a …” Minos, using both hands to grope for words, turned back to his monstrous guest for help.
“A maze. That is the clos-est de-scrip-tion in your lang-uage. A large maze. This will be ne- cess-ary for the health of my soul.”
“Then a large maze you shall have. Hey, Daedalus?”
“Just as you say, sire.” And I wondered about the Bronze Man, whose wishes were not being consulted. Was he merely a servant, perhaps? A device given life by true magic? Or—?
All my life, like everyone else, I had been hearing stories of gods and other prodigies visiting the earth. But over the years I had grown skeptical, because never until now had I seen for myself anything that might represent such a reality. Now, however…
There came a renewed murmuring among the spectators, and their rough ring parted. Queen PasiphaŽ, with a few female attendants, came sweeping upon the scene. Already I had learned that the queen was shrewd enough when there was need to be. Now she observed her husband carefully as she approached, and took her cue from him as to exactly what her own demeanor ought to be in this unprecedented situation. Still I thought she could not refrain from staring for an extra moment at the white matted hair that bushed between the Bull-man’s thighs, and at the bullhood only partially concealed there.
* * *
Half an hour later, the whole official party was climbing the hill on foot toward the House of the Axe, followed by a constantly increasing horde of spectators. En route the king still hovered round his chief guest, treating him as he might have treated some visiting monarch paying an unexpected visit. Some monarch of great importance, Pharaoh himself, perhaps, if any visit of that kind was conceivable.
In a hasty and informal conference we had come to an agreement with our guest the White Bull—some kind of temporary maze shelter was to be thrown up for the night. The visitor insisted that he would much prefer that to being lodged in any ordinary room, even as he preferred walking to any other kind of available transportation.
The Bull had shown no evidence of concern at being thus separated from the sea—which was presumably his home, if he were indeed sent from Poseidon. Still, at the moment of sunset, he did pause in the long climb to look back at the sea from which he had come, and to stare into the distance to the north. Then I saw him put back his head and gaze for a time up into the night sky, as if he were looking for something there, or merely wondering as a man might wonder at the stars. But in a few moments he went along meekly at the king’s courteous urging.
Meanwhile, in haste and confusion, the temporary housing project was already being begun. Squads of workmen, impressed at a moment’s notice from other tasks, were approaching through the dusk, converging on the palace. They were talking among themselves about the rumored wonders, then falling silent when the true wonders came in sight. Someone handed me a lantern, and I waved it back and forth to signal the workmen on their way.