When I was a child, I would peer across the sea to Knossos and tell myself I could see the Labyrinth. I thought of walls impossibly high, impossibly black. Of a great stone door that six hoplites strained to open. Of jaws, to swallow those who ventured within.
Fate determined that I never saw these things, for they led me inside blindfolded. When the cloth fell away from my eyes, I was a blind, defenseless creature scrabbling in the dirt. I heard retreating footsteps, a thud in the distance. And then: nothing but the ragged whistle of stale Labyrinth air filling my lungs.
When my eyes adjusted, I found my spear lying beside me and took it up with both hands. The wood was solid, comforting, an anchor that settled my quickened heart. I touched Mother’s ribbon for luck. When I found Aspasia, she could use it to tie her hair.
There is dim light in the Labyrinth. Many believe it to be a place of foreboding, oppressive darkness, but they have not been inside. Torches burn in sconces on the walls, affixed at regular intervals to light the path ahead. They offer no warmth, but they keep the shadows at bay. Yet perhaps one of my childhood fantasies was true: above the torches the walls grow upwards into an unfathomable void.
I advanced slowly with my spear trained in front, and my first decision loomed. Identical paths stretched away left, right and straight into the distance. I continued forward without breaking my stride.
The ground was hard packed earth, sloping downwards. My feet were bare and my tread was light; it would not do to announce my presence to what lurked unseen. On occasion I could hear bats skittering somewhere high above. But in truth there was little more to hear than the earth, my breath, and the silence of the Labyrinth. That was, until memories rose to the surface unbidden.
“Aspasia will not return,” said Father. He sighed, leaning heavily on his sickle. “She will not return, and you must forget her.”
“You sent her to die,” I said.
“She was taken,” he replied, following my gaze to Knossos. The lines on his face deepened. “I could not defy the King.”
At last, I came to another fork. There was no middle path this time; it was left or right. I thought then of Aspasia: how we sparred with sticks torn from a maple tree, imagining ourselves great hoplites and not the impoverished children of a farmer. How she was always greater than I; stronger, more beautiful. She would rain down blows with her strong left arm until my stick was splintered and bent.
The leftward passageway burrowed still further into the earth. I could feel the weight of the island pressing down on me, forcing the air out of my lungs as if it were not mine to borrow. More forks; I took another right, a left, and a middle path, each time touching the ribbon and whispering a soft prayer. I was sure my eyes had adjusted to the darkness of the Labyrinth now; the torches seemed to grow dimmer, the path ahead a little less clear. More than once it curved suddenly just ahead of me, and each time my spearhead would graze the wall with a dull thump.
The incline steepened now, and the air around me changed. The staleness grew thicker in my nostrils. A hint of sickly sweetness lay underneath. Then I paused, suddenly unsure of what I had heard. I thought it was a thud, not unlike when the Labyrinth door was closed behind me. But this was not possible - I was much deeper than where I had entered. Could I have circled back to the entrance?
I stood rooted, ears straining to sense what my eyes could not. I glanced back along the passageway from where I had come, but there was nothing to see but softly flickering shadows. I gripped my spear ever more tightly and ignored my heart pounding in my ears.
“Do not be afraid, dear Lykos,” said Aspasia. Her hand trembled against my cheek. She hugged me tightly and pressed Mother’s ribbon into my hand. “I will return.”
I shook my head, swatting away tears. “None return from Knossos. Please do not go.”
She said nothing, instead looking over her shoulder in a silent plea to the crested hoplite standing behind her. My father stood dejected beside him.
“Take me,” I pleaded. “Leave my sister, take me instead. Or if you must take her, I will follow. We have shared a womb. I beg you, we cannot be apart.”
The hoplite shook his head, horse-plume flowing through the air. “She has been deemed one of the seven fairest maidens in the kingdom. Thus, we take her to Crete. The King favours you - it is a great honour for one’s kin to be sent as tribute.” His eyes gleamed brighter than the bronze of his helmet as he looked at Aspasia. Then they shifted to me, narrowing. “But you, boy, are neither beautiful nor strong. What use will the Minos have for you?”
I heard it again, unmistakably. Another thud, this time from the path ahead. Then another, echoing throughout the passageway, as if something heavy had struck the ground. I felt waves of dread crawling across my skin, stifling my breath, quickening my heart. My every sense strained against the darkness, trying in desperation to bring shape to the terror ahead.
I leveled my spear upwards. With each flicker of torchflame I waited for it to emerge; a being of muscle, horns and fury. For all know the Minos to be strong and quick as a bull, yet with cunning to match Herakles himself. It was watching, I knew; it watched for my spear to falter, for my first sign of weakness. At that thought, I touched the ribbon again, as I had a thousand times before. My grip on the spear tightened and a sudden courage took me.
“I do not fear you, Minos!” I called. “Come and meet your death!”
A heartbeat passed with no response. Then it came: thud, thud, THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD. Something approached at alarming speed. I was assailed by waves of the same sickly stench; sweet enough to be unsettling, sticking to the back of my throat and forcing me to cough. THUD. THUD. THUD. THUD. I blinked through tears and ignored the taste of salt. I could not relinquish my focus. The first spear thrust would be vital.
The beast was close, now, I was sure. THUD. THUD. Sweat trickled down my brow and I frantically searched the darkness. I could not see it, not even now. THUD. THUD. To thrust my spear blindly would be leaving my fate to pure chance.
THUD. THUD. There! Something unfathomably large loomed before me to fill the hallway.
“Die, Minos!” I screamed, thrusting with all of my desperation, my fear, my pain for Aspasia.
It was all I remembered before the sickly smell overwhelmed me, and I succumbed to the darkness of the Labyrinth.
The King of Crete leaned forward and stamped his foot in irritation. “Why do you waste my time?”
“I would enter the Labyrinth, O shining anax. I seek my sister,” I said. I was kneeling at the foot of his throne.
“Is your sister the Minos?” the King replied. The hall echoed with laughter. Then his brow furrowed and his face grew serious. “None return from the Labyrinth. This is known.”
“I will go nonetheless, O great-hearted anax,” I replied. “I need only my spear.”
“Very well. Perhaps you shall kill the Minos,” said the King. He paused. “If it is still alive.”
To my utter surprise, oblivion did not take me. I did not wake astride the River Styx - fortunate, perhaps, for I could not have paid for passage aboard Charon’s ferry. My first thought was not of the Minos, nor even of Aspasia, but of the Labyrinth. It occurred to me that perhaps I had already crossed into the Underworld, that the Labyrinth was where the dead wandered aimlessly and alone. Men would often say that to enter was certain death; perhaps those words held more meaning than even the wise could fathom.
I pulled myself into a crouch, groaning. My limbs burned, as if I had been running or climbing, and my hair was slick with sweat. I suddenly recalled the shadow I had seen, the overpowering stench, and whirled around to face an unseen threat.
But all was now quiet. The torches burned lower, it seemed, as their light was too weak to illuminate the centre of the passageway. It was narrow, much narrower than where I had been earlier. I fumbled for my spear, floundering senselessly in the dirt, but it was nowhere to be found. Cold terror gripped me, then. I had lost my bearings in the Labyrinth. And I was defenseless.
I stood unsteadily using the wall for support, and forced myself forward. The passageways closed in around me. I took turns at random - no longer thinking of which might lead me to Aspasia fastest, no longer steeling myself for my next encounter with the Minos. I thought only of my spear, of the trusty, solid wood beneath my hands, and of the decisive thrust that would pierce its throat. Deep inside my mind, a voice - ever louder - asked how Aspasia could survive in such a place. And the child, that innocent child who looked each day to Knossos, would always reply with hope.
Preoccupied as I was, I only became aware of how dark it had become when I slipped and fell. I landed heavily on my side, and felt something crunch beneath me as I flung my arm backwards. Panting, I slowly regained my breath and pulled my hand away, feeling all around with blind fingers. I grasped a thin, brittle object and held it before my eyes. It was a bone.
I jumped up with a yelp and fell against the wall. There was a torch, so dim that it provided almost no illumination at all. But I could see something on the floor of the passageway. Something huge.
It was at that moment that I beheld the Minos.
Its bones were immense; the skeleton stretched across the length of the passageway. Its ribcage rose from the ground to the height of my waist, though the bones of the chest had been shattered and crushed. Its skull - so large I might have worn it as a helmet - lay face-up, the dead eye sockets dark and unmoving. One of its great horns was in pieces in the dirt. Its teeth remained, however: they were bared in a grotesque leer.
My breath came in short gasps. How was this possible? It was dead. The Minos was already dead. I felt the air changing again; my nostrils began to protest, my lungs burned. Something was sweet - too sweet.
Then I heard it again. Thud. Thud. THUD.
“Aspasia?” I whispered.
“Lykos!” she said. She emerged from the dark, older than I remembered, but just as beautiful. Her hair was bound behind her head with Mother’s ribbon. “Lykos, I have missed you. Come, let me see your face.”
“Aspasia,” I repeated uncertainly. I felt my legs weaken. The sweetness gripped my heart in a cold embrace.
“Yes, I am here,” she smiled. She drew closer. Bones crunched beneath her feet. “You were so brave to come so far. Here. I have found your spear.”
She offered it to me, right arm outstretched. The ribbon hung limply from the end where I had tied it.
“You are not my sister,” I said.
Her smile grew wider. “No,” she said. “But you have found her.”