Theseus and the Minotaur, Part Two

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This week I’m posting the second installment in my retold story: Theseus and the Minotaur. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

In this section, Ariadne enters as a full-fledged supporting character. She may be the most intriguing figure in the myth in that, unlike the famous romances of Paris and Helen, and Perseus and Andromeda, her relationship with the hero Theseus is curiously unfulfilled. Did she help Theseus because she loved him? If so, why didn’t she continue with him to Athens? Did he abandon her at an island along the way to get rid of her, or thinking he would protect her (as described in conflicting stories, neither of which seems true to Theseus’s character)? Or did something happen to sour their relationship? The accounts of that part of her story are strangely unclear, and good fodder for the imagination.

Theseus and Ariadne by William Pogany

Illustration by William Pogany, from “The Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived before Achilles” by Padraic Colum, retrieved from Wikipedia Commons

THAT NIGHT, a troop of slaves brought a feast on railed beds down to the beach where the Athenians had decamped. A man in officious robes preceded them to say the meal was courtesy of the king.

The prince’s countrymen sneered at first as they looked upon the many platters of foods that had been carted down from the palace. Theseus beseeched them to forsake their doubts and prejudices, to enjoy the king’s bounty. Minos had no reason to poison him. If he did, he would not enjoy the spectacle of sending Theseus to his labyrinth of death. Besides, he told them, there was no dishonor in helping themselves to what the king had provided. True, it as a false gesture of friendship designed to show off his wealth, to rub their noses in it. But never did a starving man avenge a richer enemy by starving himself.

Theseus said it in a jolly way. It had never been in his nature to play the cynic, but the dilemma he had created was peeling open layers of himself, or perhaps forcing a rapid maturation of his sensibilities. The sailors, who looked to the prince with perhaps more deference than was his due, shrugged and peeked at the meal. The truth was: they would otherwise be dining on ropes of salted meat and stale bread.

They brought the foods to their bonfire and gathered round, reaching over one another to grab at dishes of fish in sauce, roasted lamb, ears of fried breads, pickled vegetables, olives, nuts, and candied dates. There were even urns of a light red wine, which they all agreed was inferior to that of their homeland, but they drank it anyway.

The mood turned merry in the manner of bested men who could do no more than laugh about their misfortune. They joked about the pompous king, his tiresomely grand reception, and his queen who favored sharing her bed with a bull rather than her dull, bombastic husband! They even laughed about the king’s feast being a ploy to fatten up Theseus for the Minotaur’s dinner, and then they jested over which parts of Theseus the monster might prefer to devour first and which parts they might bring back to Athens (his cock and balls were the most popular guesses in both cases). Some wondered aloud if they all might be sent back to their country as charred corpses or odd and ends from a butcher’s table. Who could trust a man who hurled firebombs at fishing villages for fun?

Theseus chuckled along with his shipmates while the sand crusted cold, the night air turned crisp, and a universe of stars twinkled overhead. He would never have imagined he would feel so loose and gay the night before he was to be thrown into a pit to fight a man-bull to the death. Yet why should it not be so? He gained nothing by sulking or pacing about with worries.

In quieter, somber moments, his companions suggested strategies – dodging his opponent until it tired out, aiming his blade for the brisket, which was known to contain the bovine heart – but no man among them had ever fought such a beast. Would it charge at him on all fours or would it stand as a man in hand-to-hand combat? They could only speculate. No man who had faced the Minotaur had lived to speak of its nature, its tendencies, its weakness.

Theseus figured he would use his speed and his dexterity as he did with any martial challenge. In his brief time in Athens, he had outfought most of his contemporaries in skirmishes, and around the gymnasium, he was praised as a fine boxer and a wrestler. Though he had never seen battle. He did not know how it felt to be face-to-face with man who sought to kill him, nor how to steel his heart to strike out for death. It was said that instinct was borne in every man, that it would come to him when he needed it. Theseus surely hoped it would be so. He knew of hunting and had not hesitated to slash the neck of an arrow-struck stag, at least after the first time his father had urged him forward to do so. But that was hardly the challenge he could expect with the Minotaur.

Yes, he would need to be quick and clever and merciless, and otherwise, he imagined he would need some luck, which only the goddess could provide.

The men called out for him to challenge Kallinos, a veteran in their company and the tallest and thickest-built man among them. Theseus had spent day and night in practice bouts ever since he had declared himself to face the Minotaur. Only a fool would not. One last exercise to sharpen his skills certainly seemed advisable. The two men gathered wooden swords and walked up the beach into a pool of shadow, which might in some respect simulate the contest the prince must win in the darkened passages of King Minos’s battleground.

Theseus tried to hone his vision, hold back the bigger man’s attack, and Kallinos did not spare the prince any pity, quickly bullying him farther down the beach, forcing him to exert all of his strength. It was not enough. A series of clashes enfeebled Theseus’s wrists and had his legs wobbly from absorbing the assault. He tried to back away and lost his balance, toppling on his bottom. Kallinos pounced upon him, socking the breath from his lungs, pressing the length of his blade into his neck.

Kallinos helped him to his feet, and they sparred a second and then a third and a fourth time. The results were the same by and large. Theseus could not find a way out of a defensive posture, batting back the bigger man’s thrusts and swipes, ceding ground, wearing through his limbs’ endurance. If there was a lesson to be learned, he would have to avoid challenging the beast directly. His only chance was to use the creature’s habitat to his advantage: find hiding places, stalk the predator and ambush him. Yet how to do it when the beast knew those hiding spots much better than he?

He would need every gift the goddess could grant him.

They returned to the center of the camp, and Theseus called everyone together. He led his company in lifting their goblets of wine and spilling a bit onto the earth before they drank in tribute to wise Athena. Afterward, they tossed branches of her sacred olive tree into the fire and sang the anthem of their country with hearty voices to be heard far inland, hopefully as far as the king’s bedchamber.

The hour was late. Theseus told the men he needed sleep lest he be crawling to the labyrinth in the morning, though truly he was not tired. Each man came around to grip arms with him, look him grimly, firmly in the eye, share words of encouragement. Then Theseus went to bed himself in his captain’s tent.


HE HAD just stripped off his cuirass and shoes when he hearkened to a curious commotion around the camp. Voices travelled in a mixture of tones, some defensive, some ribald and taunting, but too indistinct to decipher the words. Theseus drew up to the flap of his tent, endeavoring to overhear what drunken intrigue had broken out.

It sounded mild and light-hearted at first. Then the voices, the heckling fell away, and he heard instead a scuffle of footsteps in the sand. Hairs stood up on his neck. Unless he was mistaken, that footfall was gaining up on his tent. It was one steady plod through the sand and then a lighter patter. Some of his sailors trying to catch him by surprise, to play a prank? Though they could see he had not yet extinguished his lamp for the night. An enemy instead?

Theseus thought about retrieving his blade from the floor, but before he could do so, he heard the voice of Padmos, first admiral in the company, just beyond the lip of his tent.

“You’ve a visitor.”

The man sounded sober. Resigned? Who would visit him? He was a stranger in a foreign country.

Theseus shook out his tunic, tried smoothing it out. The garment was gritty from his spar with Kallinos on the beach and soaked through with his sweat. There was no method to amend that. He wiped his hands, drew open the flap of the tent, and peered into the night.

He perceived the silhouette, the dutifully bowed head of the admiral. There were two others. Each one scarcely decipherable. They were shorter than the admiral and covered from head to toe in hooded cloaks.

Padmos gestured to one of the hooded strangers. “The Princess Ariadne,” he said.

Theseus was deeply astounded. He was astounded even more to see the foreign princess curtsey and to hear her lovely voice.

“May I come in, Your Grace?”

She barely waited for him to nod and make way for her. Her covered head turned to her companion, who must have been her lady escort, and she told the woman to wait for her. Then she brushed past Theseus and went into his tent. Theseus and his admiral exchanged sheepish shrugs. Certainly he could handle himself alone with a young woman.

He followed her into the tent, let the flap resettle behind him. His reckoning of the situation was several steps behind the shock of the king’s daughter abandoning the palace in the middle of the night to walk among enemies, the respect that was due to the daughter of a king who held the future of Athens in his hands. She pulled back her hood, removed her veil, and unfastened the collar of her bounteous cloak. Her thick, dark brown hair had been pulled back and braided so as to be concealed in her hood. She was fragrant with violet and some kind of appealing, musky spice. She wore just a touch of onyx on the lashes and brows of her warm, chestnut colored eyes, and a hint of some rare cosmetic that brought a sheen to her cheeks. He liked her this way more so than when he had seen her on the king’s stage.

“It must be true that Attica breeds the most brave and honorable men,” she told him.

This, another surprise from the princess. Theseus did not know what to say.

“Do not be humble on my account,” she said. She eased up closer, leaving only a narrow gap between them. “I saw how you stood up to my father. I have never seen a man be so bold.”

“I had no choice,” he told her. “Your king would have my country hand over children for slaughter.”

His pointed declaration returned no rebuke. Instead, Ariadne gazed at him with admiration.

“Yes, you are a man of valor and nobility. You must have no shortage of women vying for your companionship. Even more so when you return to Athens, a savior of the children.”

Theseus was not sure what she meant. He was only eighteen years old. Female companionship had only crossed his mind in a distant, hypothetical manner. He supposed, like all men, he would marry some day and raise sons, though it was hard to picture it for himself. The princess confused him. Her people had declared war on Athens, yet her bearing, her words were kind and adoring, almost making him forget they stood on separate sides.

The princess closed the space between them, clasped one of his hands to her bosom and groped to find him between the legs. She breathed in his ear, “Would you take me with you before you leave?”

Many things happened to Theseus at once. He gasped and squirmed from her touch, and his face broke out in a searing blush. He had no experience with women. No hand had ever touched him there besides his own, and then, well, this situation thrust upon him had not been what he had pictured in those private moments.

Though while her warm body was pressed against his, he felt like he was melting, and his worries scattered from his head. His body responded on its own volition. He cupped her breast, squeezed gently, merely because he could, and it did feel nice. Then the strangeness of it all halted him.

He quieted her hand, backed away, made her raise her eyes to his. “What did you say?”

She held his shoulders, stepped closer, jostled her hair. “Take me with you. You have captured my heart.”

He snorted absurdly and steadied her hands before she could go at him again. He told her, “That presumes quite a lot, don’t you think? I’m to face the Minotaur in the morning.”

Ariadne picked at the frayed collar of his tunic. A coy glance. “I can help you,” she said. A firmer look. “But you must promise you will take me away on your ship.”

Help was useful. That was certain. Though was this some kind of trick? A plot she was enacting for her father to hamper his performance at the contest? It occurred to him, later than it should have, the king would surely have him killed if he discovered him carrying on so intimately with his daughter.

Theseus drew a breath and backed away from her. He needed to understand.

“We’ve just met. Why would you want to run away with me?”

Ariadne’s expression shifted. Perhaps she had seen he was too smart to be plied by her advances. “Because I must,” she said. She skirted his gaze. “My father is a monster.” Her pretty eyes returned to him. “You stand for justice. You stand for those, like the children of your country, who haven’t any way to avoid their plight. I am no more than my father’s prisoner. You have doubtless heard the stories of what goes on in his palace, and you can believe they are only fragments of the truth. Help me escape from this place of madness.”

He could see her point. Her father was a cruel tyrant. Her mother was unspeakably deranged. Her half-brother was a man-beast. Yes, she had perceived he had a sympathetic heart, but he sealed himself in stone. He owed her nothing. They were from warring countries, sworn to different gods. Her misfortunes were her own.

His doubt must have shown on his face. She fixed on him again. “Take me away. If not for me, then to save your own life. You will not survive my brother’s lair on your own. No man ever has.”

This he had heard many times, though to hear it spoken by the princess, who must have seen scores of men sent to their deaths, it gave the words a crushing weight. Theseus did not want to be eaten alive by a man-beast. For a delicate moment, he thought it might be best to sit down on his bed.

Ariadne pried out his gaze. “Yes, you want to live. Let me help you. All I ask in return is my safe passage. To another land. I care not where.”

Well, what harm in listening? He swiped his face, which had begun to perspire. He nodded to her eagerly.

“The labyrinth is vast, and it is not only my brother you need to mind. The passages are riddled with many dead ends and trap doors to deeper pits where a man can fall and break his limbs, or land on a bed of nails. Many have perished in its deadly snares or simply gotten lost in its cold, dark veins, sealed forever beneath the ground at nightfall. My father sent his engineer through a secret hatch this night to make sure all of the labyrinth’s devices were oiled and armed to entrap you.”

She reached inside her cloak, brought out something fist-sized from her pocket. Theseus could not see it clearly at first in the dim light of his tent. She took his hand and placed the item in his palm. “I have brought this to help you.”

He raised his hand to his face and beheld a bobbin of string. Useful for fishing. Theseus looked back at the princess blankly.

“It is a method for minding your path, finding your way out,” she explained. Theseus blinked, following now. “Keep to the sides of the walls.” The princess added: “Mainly. There are spikes and traps on every surface of the maze, but not as many on the walls as on the floor. The Minotaur keeps to the very heart of the maze. You will find it there.” A moment’s hesitation, and then her expression hardened. “Kill it, and you will be able to retrace your way back to the entrance.”

The Minotaur, she called it. Not her brother as she had said before. Their kinship counted as a flimsy allegiance, which Theseus supposed he could not fault her for. Or had she just now forsworn their bond in resignation to her brother’s fate? She believed he could kill the monster? That was the most encouraging news he had heard all night.

“And how am I to repay you?” he asked her. “To smuggle you aboard?”

She glanced over her shoulder, came back to him. “There is a cave on the north side of the beach. Go there before you launch to sea. I will be waiting, hidden in a cedar chest. You will receive a bounty of them when you win the contest. You only have to load the chest on your boat as though it were another trove of gifts for your victory.”

A daring ploy. He wondered how she would accomplish it, but he decided he did not need to know. There was however a stark flaw in her plan.

“Your father will send his warships after me as soon as he discovers you’re gone,” he said.

“No. He will never notice.”

Theseus screwed up his face. Her gaze drifted away, and she held herself speechless for a private moment. He sensed there were grave thoughts on her mind, not merely lies to lead him into doing a foolish thing. Yes, something grave had overcome her, something that brought her shame.

At last, she asked him. “You have heard of moppets?”

He had. In stories. They were dolls, which could be inspirited by dark magic. He had never seen one, only heard of them from sailors who had travelled to the Orient. Though sailors spoke of many outlandish things.

“My father’s high priest has created one of me,” Ariadne said. “So that my father will believe I have taken ill and cannot leave my bed.” She impressed on him in her assured manner, “It is a powerful sorcery. Though the moppet is only wood and cloth, my father will believe it is me, languishing, beyond the cure of medicine.”

Theseus remembered Minos’s priest. He had certainly looked capable of sorcery, and in a house that worshipped a dark god, in which a queen had been enraptured to lie with a bull and bear a monster, well, it did not seem so hard to believe such magic could be done. Theseus was afraid for a moment to be part of it. Would the goddess damn him for consorting with such dark arts?

On the other hand, the circumstances tempted a more benevolent superstition. He had prayed to wise Athena to provide him with some way to survive the contest. And now the princess had materialized to offer him precisely that, just hours before dawn.

He looked to the bobbin of string, and then he faced Ariadne. “If I survive, I will bear you away.”

She smiled and pulled him into an embrace again, burying her head in his chest. Theseus found himself less enchanted on the second round. However just her cause, however generous she had been with him, he could not help but wonder if she might try enticing one of his countrymen in the same way. She had, after all, approached him, a stranger, and she might buy herself insurance from another man if he should not survive tomorrow.

Maybe it was unfair to despise her for that, yet he did for a moment, like a child who demands the sole attentions of his mother. And his desire for the princess was all vanity, not love nor lust, whereas a different kind of man, like many of his sailors to hear them talk, would want to horde her for her plunder.

What a strange world he had entered. Ariadne in her own way no less dangerous than her father or her brother. She could lead his crew into a mutiny, killing one another to claim her. Theseus gently broke off their embrace and sent her out into the night.



Introducing…Theseus and the Minotaur (Part One)

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If you saw my earlier post this month, my New Year’s resolution is to share more of my work with my website visitors. I also started a project to create short stories based on classical mythology, which might some day parlay into a collection. My first piece is ready to share with you.

I’ve always loved the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, which is credited to second century B.C.E. historian Apollodorus of Athens in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and Plutarch and Ovid elsewhere. It’s so imaginative, and it’s been an enduring inspiration source for artwork, fantasy, and gaming. I remember walking through Tuileries Garden in Paris and stopping in my tracks when I discovered a nineteenth century neo-classical statue of the two, and naturally I had to take some photos of it. Years before that trip, I confess I was briefly addicted to the RPG Neverwinter Nights, which includes a labyrinth filled with stalking minotaurs. The story is so irresistible, I suspect it figured into just about every Greek mythology-based TV series, from Hercules to Xena to Olympus. I know it was in an episode of the BBC’s short-lived Atlantis series. Given that wide access point, I thought it was a great place to start with my project.

Here, I hoped to give more dimension to the characters, and some spin. I had always thought of Theseus as a pretty dull, do-gooder, the archetypical, epic hero like Jason and Perseus, admirable but not so relatable to the reader. He certainly was depicted that way in the big screen bomb Immortals. But when I re-read some of the classical myths about him to reorient myself, I found a hint of personality. Theseus used his brains as well as his gods-given physical abilities. I wanted to expand on that, in addition to how he might have truly felt about his heroic quests as well as his unusual origins.

I had no idea it would turn into such a long, short story. It’s really just five scenes, but I found myself digging pretty deep with each of them. I was entranced by how Theseus might have experienced his trip to Crete, and I hope you will be too. So I’m going to release the story here in three, fairly long installments. The entire story is a little over 16,000 words.

Now, without further ado, here is Theseus and the Minotaur, Part One.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Illustration by Willy Pogany, from “The Golden Fleece and the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles” by Padraic Collum; retrieved from Wikipedia Commons

THE GREAT hall of the king’s palace was vast enough to house a fleet of double-sailed galleys, and its grey, fluted columns, as thick as ancient oaks, seemed to tower impossibly beyond a man’s ken. Prince Theseus had been told, he had been warned of the grandeur of the Cretans, how it was said they were so vain, they forged houses to rival the palace of Mount Olympus. Yet to see was to believe. For a spell, the sight of the great hall stole the breath from his lungs and made his feet drag to a stagger. Should not he, a mere mortal, prostrate himself on his knees in a place of such divine might, such miraculous invention? It felt as though he had entered the mouth of a giant who could swallow the world.

No, he reminded himself: this was all pretend, a trick to frighten him and his countrymen, though he only half-believed that. Silenos, an aged tutor who Theseus’s father had hired to teach him all things befitting a young man of the learned class, had cautioned him not to trust his eyes, that these pirates of Crete used their riches to build a city of illusions so any navy that endeavored to alight at its shores would be hopelessly confounded and turn back to sea in terror.

Theseus forced a dry swallow down his throat and retook his steps to keep pace with the soldiers who escorted his party into the hall. He had brought two of his father’s naval captains to accompany him, and the king had sent three men for each one of them to meet them at the beach where they had rowed ashore. From there, they had been conveyed up a steep, zigzagging roadway to the palace. The armored team looked like an executioner’s brigade rather than a diplomatic corps. They were hard-faced warriors with spears and clad in bronze-plated aprons and fringed, blood red kilts.

He tried to look beyond many wonders and train his gaze on the distant dais where the king and his court awaited him. Yet curiosity bit at Theseus. Oil-burning chandeliers seemed to hover in the air, hung from chains girded to a sightless ceiling. No terraces had been built to bring in daylight, nor doorways to other precincts of the statehouse, unless they were hidden. The walls shimmered with a metallic reflection of the room’s massive columns, affecting the appearance that the hall went on to infinity. The diamond-patterned carpet on which he trod was one continuous design stretching from the vaulted doorway where he had entered all the way to the other end. Such a carpet was surely large enough to cover the floors of every house in Athens!

As he neared the stately dais, he beheld the king’s high-backed throne of ebony, and he glimpsed very briefly the man himself along with the shadowy members of his court. Theseus lowered his gaze to disguise his impressions. He supposed it also counted as a gesture of respect. He followed the soldiers into a lake of light which glowed from thick-trunked braziers on either side of the hall’s carpeted, shallow stage.

Their steps ended some ten paces in front of the room’s dignitaries, including of course the king himself. The armored men knelt on one knee, drummed down the handles of their spears on the floor, and bowed their helmet-capped heads as one company.

That left Theseus and his consorts standing and wondering what to do with themselves for a worrisome moment. To kneel to the king was to surrender Athens’ sovereignty, and that had not been his father’s bargain. Though his princely leather cuirass and his laurel crown felt countrified, almost absurd while he stood before the king, Theseus did not break. He glanced to each of his companions so they would know they should neither kneel nor bow.

Righteousness grew inside Theseus, arisen from the unsurpassed conviction of a youth of eighteen years whose dealings in the world thus far had not acquainted him with indignity, the shock of being cut down to size. As an infant, he had been sent to live in his mother’s village, which was countries apart from the political fray and urban discontents of Athens. This, no excess of fatherly protection, but a testament to his father’s severity, later spoken of in the ennobling light of superstition, an augury of the night sky or some such. Aegeus had decreed: if his son was worthy to succeed him, he must earn the right on his own terms.

For most of his life, Theseus had not known his father. He had not even known of his paternity, though he had lived quite well as a handsome, rugged lad among country folk who required no more than that to smile upon him, fetch him apples, give him a rustle on the head when he passed by, a proud acknowledgement he was one of their own. Then came his mother’s confession, and his storied trek to present himself at his father’s court, which he had made on foot across Arcadia, an ungoverned, forested land that had been said to be rampant with all manner of bandits, ogres and mythical beasts. In Athens, he had been a newcomer, an adventurer, and a fawn-haired swain, all of which had earned him magnanimous gossip. Men made way for him, and women smiled and idled when he passed by.

Naturally, young Theseus was aware of none of this as a favored flower does not question why it thrives in sunlight, has a gardener always at the ready for its succor, while others of its kind turn spiny and dull from negligence. Or, it should be said, a glimpse of his place in the world, past and present, was only just then taking form while he stood in King Minos’s great hall. He did not like how it made him feel.

He shook off the sinking sensation. He would be bold, for he alone stood for Athens in this house of tyranny. These foreigners had butchered his countrymen, raped their women, taken their daughters and sons as slaves, and burned their fields. He alone would end the war, and in truth it did not matter if he returned to Athens on a white-sailed galley to herald a hero’s return or if a black-sailed ship should come back to his father, signaling that Crete had been his final resting place. So had he decided. He looked to King Minos to begin.

The Cretan king returned his gaze, appraising, taunting, and then he perched in his seat and craned his neck to see beyond the prince, to turn a querulous eye at the head men of his squadron. “Where is Athens’ tribute?” he spoke. He looked to be no more advanced in years than the prince’s father, a sturdy, dispassionate age. The similarity wore through at that. The king’s dark brown beards were plaited and shone with oil, and he wore a miter banded with red-gold. He was clad in raiment of deep cerulean dye and a draped, red stole, all adorned with fine embroidery and fringe. Theseus had never seen a man so richly clothed and groomed. His father, the wealthiest man in all of Attica, had only a sheep’s fleece and a laurel crown to say he was king.

“King Aegeus has sent me, his son, Theseus of Attica, to answer your request,” Theseus spoke.

Minos pursed his lips, sucked his teeth. “I asked for children.”

Such had been the compact signed by Theseus’s father to end the war: seven boys and seven girls surrendered to Minos in return for nine years of peace, during which the Cretan king had pledged he would call back his warships.

It was a war begun while Theseus still lived with his mother in the countryside, years before his mother had taken him to an unfarmed field outside the village and shown him his father’s buried sword, from which he came to know his origins. Theseus had only arrived in Athens one season past and been apprised of the history. This heartless war borne from a tragic misunderstanding.

Two years ago, Minos had sent his son Androgeus to Athens on a friendly embassy, and while Theseus’s father had taken the youth on a hunt to see somewhat of his country’s pastimes, Androgeus had been thrown from his horse, and landed headfirst on a rock. No physician nor priest could restore him. His spark of life had been extinguished all at once.

Aegeus had returned the prince’s body to Crete with all due sacraments and compunctions. His priests had washed Androgeus to prepare him for his passage to the afterworld, and the king had sent him across the sea on a bier of sacred cypress, ferried on his finest ship, oared by his best sailors, and with a bounty of funereal offerings, gold and silver, which was many times more than his kingdom could afford. Yet Minos declared treachery and turned fire and fury against Athens.

Three seasons the war had raged, and after a decisive battle on the Saronic Gulf, Minos had claimed that vital sea passage and installed a naval blockade, robbing Athens of her trade routes, slowly starving her. Aegeus had appealed to the Cretan king for an armistice. An emissary from Crete had returned with the tyrant’s reply: fourteen innocent lives for the price of his son. This, after Crete had already extracted the lives of hundreds of fighting men in payment for his one son, whose death could only be blamed on the cruel, mysterious Fates. Would Minos continue his assault until every man and woman of Attica had been exterminated? Who could stop an army empowered by the God of the Sea?

Aegeus had decided he had no choice but to agree to the king’s terms, and his council, one and all, had supported him. The Athenian navy was no match for the foreigners by the numbers nor by the craftsmanship of their vessels. The Cretans flung barrels of fire from catapults. Their triremes were faster and their battering rams were more potent, carving apart a galley on a single run. The Athenian fleet had dwindled to a dozen vessels. Their forests were stripped of lumber, and even if they had the resources, their ship builders could not assemble new warships fast enough. Food shortages had depleted their force of able-bodied men to defend the city. Without a reprieve from war, the next attack on Athens would be the last.

But after the lottery had been held, and weeping fathers from all parts of the country brought their sons and daughters to the naval pier where they would be ferried across the sea, Theseus could not bear it. He looked upon the children, who were as stunned as lambs without their mothers, and he had wept for them, and wept for his country, and wept for the shame of being part of this abomination.

Then, in a rush of rage, Theseus had attacked the sailors who would lead the children to the ship. He had come to know them as friends, yet all he saw were blank-faced monsters. By grace, he had only had his fists, and no man had raised a blade to stop him. Theseus had shoved, struck, and menaced perhaps a dozen before they overtook him and held him fast by his neck and arms. A terrible blackness ate up his vision, and inspirited with a daemon’s strength, Theseus had thrown off his captors. He turned his fury at his father who stood at the landside end of the quay with his councilors.

Theseus had shouted at them vicious oaths he had not known were in his vocabulary, and he spat at them. Did they not know what they were doing was an offense to the goddess? It was a betrayal of every free man of Attica. His throat was scorched from shouting, his voice hoarse, and he fell to his knees, dropping his bonnet, weeping and pulling at his thick, curled hair.

He looked up at his father. “Please, send me.”

Now Theseus faced King Minos intrepidly. “I have been chosen to stand for the children. I have only eighteen years, turned just this past season, and I am my father’s only son. I will face your contest.” He realized only then he had forgotten the honorifics, which Silenos had taught him. In Athens, men spoke to their king as freely as they spoke to their own fathers, and for the prince, that person was one and the same. No matter. It was never a mistake to put one’s enemy off balance. He could see the king was alarmed, as though his lack of manners had been intentional.

Theseus continued, “Accordingly, should I fail, you shall grant Athens nine years without hostility so that my country may grieve my death. And, should I succeed, no man of Crete shall sail upon Athens’ seas within the same period of time. This has been sworn to in your covenant with my father. This is what I have come to do.”

The hall fell as silent as a winter forest. Only the king’s courtiers shifted a bit like the stiff branches of February trees. They were wondering no doubt what reckoning the king would make of this prince, offering himself in defiance of the terms of the compact. It had to make for a tempting proposal. How better for Minos to show off his might and humiliate Aegeus? He could say he had coerced the great king of Athens to sacrifice his beloved, only son, and kings from around the world would rush to pay him tribute lest he demand the same of them. Theseus needed it to be so. Nothing from the man’s history suggested he could be persuaded by mercy. It was said that when he had sacked the wealthy trade-city of Khirokitia on Cyprus, he had ordered his sailors to rape every one of the Cypriot king’s eleven daughters, some as young as five, and then to bind them to the hull of their ship so the girls would drown on the voyage back to Crete.

Theseus felt the cruel king’s eyes upon him. He scrutinized the sword holstered from the prince’s belt, the broadness of his shoulders, the musculature of his arms and legs, which showed outside his short-sleeved, thigh-length chiton. The prince was still a thin-hipped youth, though his limbs had hardened from martial training. The whiskers of his cheeks and chin remained downy, and his face had not yet fully shed the glow, the plumpness of boyhood.

You will face my stepson in his lair?” Minos spoke, a glint of humor in his eyes. “With only a blade to defend yourself?”

The prince nodded. The Minotaur. Sired by the snow-white bull that pulled the god Poseidon’s chariot, and borne from the king’s mad wife Pasiphae. The legend held that Minos kept the creature in a subterranean labyrinth, and it only fed on the flesh of men.

Theseus noticed a strange man who stood aside the king’s throne taking account of him. The gruesome fellow was nearly naked and glistening with oils. His grey skin hung from the bone and was creased with age. He wore a feathered headdress, a swath of fabric as a pagne, and a heavy necklace of horns draped on his flat chest in tribute to the fearsome god he worshipped: Poseidon, Roiler of the Sea.

On the other side of the king was a woman dressed in a layered gown of widow black, and with a veil covering her face. The king’s queen, Theseus guessed. Still in mourning for the death of Androgeus.

He turned to a fair girl on the stage who stood beside the queen. She had vigorous locks of black hair heaped upon her head, and her face had been painted in ochre and rouge in an Asiatic style. Her clothes were colorful and immaculate, entirely foreign to the young prince. She wore an elegant corselet that pushed up her modest breasts and bell-shaped skirts, which widened her hips, affecting the proportions of a fowl though he could see she was slimly built.

Their eyes met, and the girl’s expression was restrained, perhaps even sympathetic. Theseus had only hatred in his heart for any man or woman of Crete, but he felt himself veering toward her for a moment. She looked to be his contemporary. Minos’s daughter Ariadne, whose beauty was hailed around the world?

The king glanced at his priest, a silent exchange, and the horrible savage made an arcane gesture with his bony hands, grinned thirstily at Theseus, and bowed.

Minos declared, “If this is King Aegeus’s will, so shall it be done.” He gazed at Theseus like a lion with its prey beneath its paw. “But the terms of our agreement shall stand. You are but one son. Tomorrow, should you not emerge from the labyrinth with the beast’s collar by nightfall, it shall be sealed and your father shall owe me six sons and seven daughters of Attica to try the contest. I will not be denied what was promised to me. Or else I will turn my armada against Aegeus once again.”

In truth, the possibility of not surviving the contest had never lingered in Theseus’s head. His cause was just, and that was all. But now he pictured a black sailed ship wallowing through fog-banked waters toward harbor. Fathers huddled with their children on the pier, turning their heads away from the sight. His own father taking in the knowledge his son had failed and sentenced innocent children to certain deaths. His claim to save Athens no more than a foolish boast.

Theseus grasped for some counteroffer to the king. He could think of nothing.

The greedy king looked like he might break out in laughter. He knew Theseus had no leverage to negotiate further, and now that he had the king of Athens’ son in his clutch, he would likely devise more treachery to ensure the prince would not survive the contest.

~ ~ ~

Stop back on February 20th for Part Two of the story.


Coming soon: Retold Classical Shorts

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It can now all be revealed. The reason I haven’t posted in a while is that I’ve been working on a super sekrit project. Very soon I’ll be sharing that project with you, dear reader.

Here’s the story: a little bit before the new year, I was puzzling to myself (does one puzzle to oneself? I don’t know. That sounds like sloppy wordsmanship, but I’m going with it), anyway, I was thinking: it’s awfully hard keeping this website fresh and dynamic when I’m publishing like one, or maybe two novels per year. Those new releases are exciting (to me at least), and I’ve shared some excerpts and book extras over the years. But the sad truth is I don’t have a ton of creative content for visitors to get to know my writing.

That’s actually an easy fix if you click on one of my buy links and click through to make a purchase, which you totally CAN DO if you haven’t tried it. Really. But that’s not the main point I’m trying to make here.

So back to the origins of this project, it occurred to me:

A. What about writing some short stories and posting them on my website?


2. How about doing something I love, like retelling stories from classical mythology, most likely from a queer POV?

which led to,

III. Herm…if that goes well after a couple of stories, maybe I can take requests from readers on what myths or legends they’d like to see me rewrite.


dd. Well, if that goes super well, maybe some day I can package the stories together in a Super Sekrit Classical Mythology Short Story Collection!


v. I’m going to do this goddamn it and it’s going to be Awesome, or maybe awesome with a little a, or maybe awesome said in a tiny, quivering voice that you think is coming from your floorboard, but you can’t be sure, it might just be the heat coming up the pipes.

Yep, that’s my thought process from alpha to omega, and you’ll just have to tune in and see how it turns out.

First up will be a retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur. I won’t reveal too much of where I’m going with the story since that would kind of kill the super sekritness. But I can report that I’ve been working on it for the past three weeks, and it’s morphed into a longish short that will probably require releasing it here in segments.

The story is presently with beta readers, and I’m hoping, really hoping to have it out in February. It’s written in a classical style and a classical time period, but I’m thinking about experimenting in the future with some contemporary retellings and maybe even some humorous retellings. I’m looking forward to sharing how that turns out.

Meanwhile, if you’re dying, really dying to ask me to slash your favorite classical myth, for christ’s sake, just ask me. I’m totally reasonable about things like that.


2017 in Books

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I was inspired to write this post by Goodreads’ Your Year in Books feature, which is a really nice way of cataloging your reading, and is this the first year they did that for users? I hadn’t noticed it before. Though I am known to be unobservant at times!

Anyway, here’s my year as tricked out and analyzed by Goodreads. My less tricked out summary: I read thirteen books in 2017, which is strangely the exact same number I had for 2015 and 2016. So I’m pretty solidly a one book per month reader. I don’t know how I’d find time to do more than that without sacrificing my writing time.

This was probably my most purposeful year reading-wise. I wanted to read as many gay fantasy books as I could to expand my cred as somewhat of an authority in that genre. For a rather specific niche, there’s a huge universe of gay fantasy titles, but when you start digging into it, it’s kind of like nine out of ten are really romance, and really formulaic MM romance, where the story is about a relationship between two guys, with lots of titilating scenes, and the fantasy world and whatever quest the guys have to accomplish are much, much, much in the background.

Those kind of stories are not my scene, so the real challenge for me is finding gay fantasy titles that aren’t first and foremost romance and erotica. I get recs from Goodreads and Amazon and awards programs and LGBT sci fi/fantasy blogs, though it does take some additional research to try to gauge whether a title is going to be up my alley.

I didn’t read gay fantasy exclusively in 2017, so I’ll start with the non-fantasy titles.

I picked up Geoffrey Ryman’s Was because I thought it might be a bit like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked series (also based on The Wizard of Oz). Turned out: not so much. The story is reimagined and speculative for sure, but from the point-of-view of a realistic Dorothy Gale in late 19th century Kansas, as well as a young Judy Garland and an invented character who is a washed up actor, obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, and dying of AIDS. If all of that sounds depressing, you are right on the money! It’s a book with three, interwoven tragic stories, but I found it to be definitely worth the read. Ryman is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the history of Kansas, Judy Garland, and the filming of The Wizard of Oz. He’s an excellent writer, and the details about all three of those topics were engrossing. The characters — none of which could be described as likeable on the surface — have important stories to tell, and I love flawed heroes.

I also read Rahul Mehta’s realistic No Other World for personal reasons. It’s a coming of age story, set in upstate New York, in the 1980s, with a gay, Southeast Asian lead! Ding, ding, ding! You may not know this about me, but I’m really fond of Southeast and Near Eastern authors. Hanif Kureishi and Shyam Selvadurai are two of my very favorites. So, Mehta had big shoes to fill so to speak, and I ended up digging the book. Not a fan of the narrative structure (does every work of literary fiction have to play around with fractured storylines?), but overall, I thought it was quite a poignant and illuminating portrait of growing up with intersecting identities.

I had one oddball, esoteric title on my list: a translation of Petronius’ 1st century A.D. novel The Satyricon. From its description and the literary criticism I read about it, it looked like another ding, ding, ding! for me; really compulsory reading for any writer who espouses to have any gay fiction cred, or ancient world historical cred. And it’s described as high satire – the author’s irreverent answer to the treacly romance novels that were popular at the time. (Another disclosure: I have a book coming out that is a gay re-telling of Chariton’s 1st century A.D. Callirhoe, which I sped through while bursting with ideas for bringing the story into the 21st century).

For me, lightning did not strike twice. The Satyricon is a strange story, and it feels even strangely modern with its focus on a group of marginal, vagrant characters who drift from one illicit situation to the next, like drug addicts from the 1960s in a William Burroughs novel, or even a bit thematically like the work of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerny and Joan Didion, a story of apathetic excess. That would seem to be perfect for me, but I just couldn’t get into the story. Similar to Callirhoe, and–from what I’ve read about the style of the era–most ancient Greek and Roman novels, there was very little development of the characters, and they didn’t hold my interest. I’m embarrassed to say I gave up on it less than halfway through.

Now, the gay fantasy titles I read in 2017…

Hands down, my favorite discovery was Daniel Heath Justice’s The Way of Thorn and Thunder. Epic fantasy inspired by Indigenous American folklore! Amazing stuff. I wrote a lot more about it on Goodreads which you can check out here.

Chaz Brenchley’s The Tower of the King’s Daughter was another happy find. I had to track it down through inter-library loan as it’s out of print. A punchy, high stakes adventure in a medieval, Crusades-like world. I liked it so much, I added it to my Intro to Gay Fantasy list.

I continued with Samuel Delaney’s Neveryona saga, whipping through Return to Neveryon and confirming that my literary life was nothing until I discovered Delaney.

And I read Steven Harper’s Iron Axe, two sci fi titles: Carol Holland March’s The Tyro and Hal Duncan’s Vellum, and a trio of books I wanted to read to see what all the hoopla was about: Jesse Hajicek’s The God Eaters, Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn, and C.S. Pascat’s Captive Prince.

Plus one non-gay fantasy title. I had been wanting to read Guy Gavriel Kay for a while, and I dug in with Sailing to Sarantium this year.

I have a lot more gay fantasies on my TBR list, so I’m going to be staying with that genre in 2018. I’m always looking for epic fantasy and ancient world historicals with gay themes, so let me know about any books you think I should be reading!

Happy Holidays and Reflections on 2017

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It’s been such a busy time of year, I’m not going to do any better than putting up one post this month. It’s my annual Happy Holidays post, and I’m reminded of how much I have to be grateful for this year. As a writer, I could not keep at it without my family, friends, readers, writing colleagues, and publishing house staff cheering me on. I am incredibly fortunate to have so many supportive people behind me!

2017 has also been a difficult year for many of us, but I’ll focus on the good stuff first.

In late 2016, my novel The City of Seven Gods came out, and–as humbly as I can say–2017 was the year when I could add: “award-winning author” to my biography. Early in 2017, The City of Seven Gods was shortlisted for 2016 Sci Fi/Fantasy Book of the Year in the Foreword INDIES, and then, in August, it won Best Fantasy/Horror in the 2017 Killer Nashville Awards. On a night I will always remember, I attended a literary awards program for the first time in my life, and was called up to the podium to accept the prize and give a victory speech.

Another big highlight of the year was the release of The Sim Ru Prophecy in June, the fourth and final book in the Werecat series. It was gratifying to bring Jacks’ story to completion, a project that began in 2012 and was brought to life by Vagabondage Press. Working with VP publisher Fawn Neun and my editor N. Apythia Morges, we put together a new marketing plan that reinvigorated the series, including re-releasing the first installment The Rearing as permafree. The books soared in the charts throughout the last half of the year with The Rearing holding a spot on Amazon’s top ten best sellers in gay fiction for several months.

I also placed a new novel with a new publisher, to be released in late 2018. I’ll have more news to share about that in the coming months! Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a follow-up to The City of Seven Gods. I hope to have that out in the world in 2019.

Personally, it was also a great year for friend reunions and celebrations. In July, Genaro and I visited our good friend Jorge in Mexico City, and he hosted us at his fabulous B&B The Red Tree House. We celebrated Genaro’s big 5-0 just a few weeks back on a Caribbean cruise with some of our closest friends, including Jurgen and Thorsten from Germany. 🙂

I do have to acknowledge that in the background, from start to finish, 2017 has been harrowing, surreal, and at times terrifying with respect to the political climate, the erosion of civil rights, under the U.S. President’s regime and our Republican-controlled Congress. Nearly every week, there has been an assault on human dignity and social justice. Many of us have felt it personally. With the president’s nationalistic rhetoric and posturing, and the spectre of so-called “Religious Freedom” legislation, I have never felt less safe in America as a gay man. I have also been anxious and angry on behalf of the many women in my life as well as friends and colleagues who are transgender, or undocumented, or Black, or Muslim, or assumed to be Muslim by their skin color. To describe our national climate as hostile would be an understatement.

There have been bright spots with the failures of Trump’s immigration ban on Muslims and his attempted ban on transgender servicemen and women as well as the defeat of the Republican-led repeal of affordable health care. We have been mobilized as #TheResistance and created the largest worldwide political demonstration in history: The Women’s March. We successfully preserved progressive legislation in many cases and even won elections for fair-minded candidates. We have supported women and men coming forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment vis-a-vis the #MeToo campaign and held perpetrators accountable for their actions across the film industry, the halls of government, and many other sectors.

The fight goes on, and here’s to hoping that 2018 is the year when defense turns to leadership. Wouldn’t it be great if we weren’t reacting every day to some outrageous attack on fairness and human dignity and instead had leaders who were guided by those values? I think the tide is turning. I cannot shake my belief that there are more Americans who believe in the promise of a diverse, pluralistic, democratic society than those who seek to destroy it. Anyway, that’s what’s been getting me through the day.

My very best wishes for a happy, peaceful, joyous holiday season, and my deepest gratitude.