Ariadne

bySabledrake©

Author's Note: this story is a sequel to "Pasiphae" and derived from the Greek myth of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur.

"How unfair," I said, "that a princess of Crete should be less free than the lowliest slave."

I was chin-deep in my bath as I said this, the oiled and scented water laving my skin like a caress. Had my servant not been in the other room readying my garments for the feast that night, no doubt she would have laughed.

Many a slave would have been glad to take my place. Life in the palace, with fine clothes and jewels and luxuries, was a fate that even freeborn women would have wished for. If it meant that I had no choice in my future, but must abide by the king's choice of a husband for me, well, what of it?

I knew that my wealth and prospects were good – my husband would succeed my father as king of Crete. Even were I hideous as a Gorgon, my station alone would have made me a valuable bride.

Where, then, were my suitors?

Their absence should not have bothered me. I had often bemoaned the fate that took my choice of love from my hands, and set my future in the dynastic whims of kingdoms and princes. I loathed the idea of being a piece in such a game. Trade goods in woman form.

I should not have been bothered.

And yet, I was.

If my only destiny was to be married to a strong man who could rule Crete capably when my father no longer could, where was that strong man? Minos was not young, and suffered bouts of ill health. If he should die before I was safely wed, the kingdom might be torn apart by struggle and unrest.

Too, and perhaps more importantly, I was weary of being treated like a little girl. I was a woman grown, and age-mates of mine were already wives, mothers. They enjoyed the bountiful gifts of Aphrodite, gifts that remained largely a mystery to me.

Oh, I knew something of them, of course. The palace held many fine pieces of art celebrating the joys of the goddess of love. Sculptures and painted vases showed mortals, nymphs, centaurs and gods alike cavorting in carnal abandon. Men and women, men and men, women and women, entwined in ways I might never have imagined.

Nor was I a stranger to the solitary pleasures of my body. I had explored its contours and crevices with hands first curious and then urgent. I knew of the tender little nub that afforded such rapture when gently teased with saliva-slick fingertips. I had felt within my snugly clasping passage, barred by Hymen's gate to which only my husband should ever have the key.

These thoughts led me to action, there in the bath as the water slipped and lapped so comfortingly around me. My breath quickened, a flush broke over my face, my eyes drifted closed. In my mind I saw the husband of my dreams. He was the very ideal of perfection, the form and visage of Adonis.

In my imaginings, this nameless stranger saw beyond my title and fortunes, saw only Ariadne whom he would cherish and love. He would, on our wedding night, take me passionately into his arms and shower kisses on my lips, my throat, my breasts ... he would undress me as he murmured his adoration … he would be exquisitely proportioned, lean thighs, flat belly, a phallus that might have been lovingly crafted by the whim of Aphrodite herself.

He would bear me down upon our connubial bed, part my legs, guide himself into me with devoted gentleness. I knew from the talk of the servants that the first time, as that gate was breached, would be a moment's pain, but my dearest love and husband would kiss me and whisper reassurances until the discomfort had passed. And then, with slow and careful strokes, he would move back and forth within me until we dissolved in bliss together.

I would sleep that night in his arms, whole and fulfilled. I would wake to find him smiling at me, and no more would I be the shy bride by the knowledgeable wife … I would pleasure him with my hands and my mouth until he was aching with the need to sink once more into the warmth of my body.

Ecstasy flowered sweetly within me. I pressed my thighs together, trapping my hand between them, and arched my back as sweet ripples raced outward from my core to tingle across my skin and curl my toes. Dimly, as though from far away, I heard myself gasp and sigh.

When I opened my eyes, it was to find my servant standing before me with a clean white drying cloth. I was abashed, but she wore a look so bland and uninterested that I could not sustain my embarrassment.

With her assistance, I dried and dressed in a long flowing tunic of sea-green, clasped at the shoulders with gold and emerald brooches. She arranged my hair in a coronet of braids, with long dangling curls to brush at my collarbones.

I tried to hide a sudden upswelling of excitement as these preparations neared completion. My parents were finally treating me as an adult and not as a child to be protected. I was not to remain alone in my chambers tonight while the feast went on and the tribute was presented.

Errant eddies of wind through my window brought me tantalizing hints of the delicacies being prepared in the royal kitchens. From my window, I could see the unfamiliar shape of the Athenian ship in the harbor. Its sails were black, and this struck me as a strange showing.

Once, so they said, Minos of Crete had been a man of imposing stature and strength. It was hard to see any vestige of that man in the one who wheezed and lumbered into the banquet hall that night. My mother had chosen not to attend, so I was granted her seat at the high table

At last, it came time for the tribute to be presented. I sat up straighter, wondering what manner of prize it would be. Gold and silver? Precious jewels? Rare spices and oils?

Several Athenians filed into the hall. They came two by two, escorted on both sides by my father's guards. Seven youths and seven maidens, none of them much older than myself.

I saw such terror in their eyes that my heart quailed.

Minos swilled wine, wiped his mouth, and regarded them.

"The majesty and victory of Crete must be honored," Minos said. "Let these offerings be taken, as the others have five years before them, below into the labyrinth. Let them be given unto the Minotaur!"

The assembled crowd gasped, but it was an eager gasp full of bright-eyed anticipation. The Athenians clung to each other in despair.

The labyrinth! I had heard only rumors of a dungeon maze hidden beneath the palace. It had been built by Daedalus, the master inventor who had, when I was barely old enough to remember, committed some offense that angered Minos. As punishment, he and his young son had been exiled to a barren and rocky island. I had been distraught, for Icarus had been one of my few playmates, almost as an elder brother to me.

Of the Minotaur, I had heard even less. A monster, sometimes called the Bull of Minos, was said to dwell in the darkness of the maze. Until now, I had not believed it. But, hearing its dire name from my very father's lips, I could no longer doubt that it was true.

My father's people surged to follow the guards as the prisoners were ushered from the hall. Minos joined them, and after a hesitation, I followed.

We entered a part of the palace previously forbidden to me. Its entrance was a tall arch, at the keystone of which was a gilded image of a bull's head with wide curves of horn and eyes made from rubies. The door, stained black, stood open. A chill breeze, dank as the very breath of three-headed Cerberus, issued from it.

Beyond the door was a long and narrow room of rough-hewn stone. Its walls were lined with tiers of bare, hard benches. The Athenians were herded into a group at the center. Minos' attention was fixed on them. At their feet, a massive trap door was set into the floor. Its bolt was as thick as a man's forearm.

At a signal from Minos, two of the guards undid this bolt. Then, as their fellows waited tensely with spears angled for attack, they raised the trap door.

More dank, cold air gusted forth. The hole in the center of the stone floor was a pit of darkness.

"Quickly now, quickly," barked Minos. "This shall give warning to all others who might think to challenge the power of Crete."

The guard nearest the prisoners gave a jab with his spear. Its bronze point did not pierce Athenian skin, but the threat was enough to make them begin descending a ladder into the pit. Their plaintive voices echoed hollowly. I heard prayers, final messages to loved ones, sobs.

Then one of them screamed.

It was a high and shrill sound, purely born of terror. The crowd sucked in its collective breath. The guards slammed shut the heavy door and threw the bolt, and stood ready with their spears.

A scrabbling noise was followed by the frantic sounds of fists hammering at the underside of the trap door. A voice screeched to be let out, in the name of the gods. Then came a deep grunting, a final shriek, and a wet thud that was audible even through the thick planks. The fists ceased their battering.

Sick knots had tied themselves in my throat and stomach. The rich feast churned violently in my belly. My palms stung where my nails had cut them, so tightly clenched were my fists.

Five years? This had gone on for five years already? I could not believe that my father would do this. It tore at my heart, sickened my soul. I fled, heedless now whether anyone saw me or not.

When I reached my room, I took to my bed for the next several days. The merest thought of food nauseated me. How could I eat when I was haunted by those horrible sounds? How could I sleep when my nightmares plunged me into a world of utter darkness and dripping stone, with the pungent reek of the monster choking my every breath?

On the fifth night of my illness, my mother came to me.

They said that in her day, Pasiphae had been a woman of stunning beauty. A prize for which many worthy men had vied and Minos had won. Her waist and hips might have thickened some over the years, her breasts might have lost their firmness, but she remained a striking figure of a woman.

Often, growing up, I had looked with envy on my mother and wished that my looks were more in her image. Her eyes were as blue-green as the gown I now wore, while mine were dark. Her skin was fair, mine dusky. Her hair had been burnished gold, now dimming into pewter, while mine was black as the River Styx.

Now she had become less lovely in my sight.

"What is the Minotaur?" I asked. "What manner of beast lives down in that miserable pit? How can Father be so heartless as to send so many to their deaths? I will speak to him –"

"He will not listen to you, of all people," she interrupted. "You have seen what happens to those who cross Minos. He suffers your presence, just as he suffers mine, just as he has suffered us these nearly twenty years. Do not give him more cause to hate you."

"Hate me!" I gasped. "Why should he hate me?" A possibility struck me then with the force of one of Zeus' own thunderbolts. A flash both hot and cold raced through me. "I … I am not his daughter, am I?"

Pasiphae's hand snapped out against my cheek. I fell sideways, stunned more by the fact of the blow than by any pain it caused, though it did sting.

"You dare to suggest that I would cuckold the king with any other man?"

"Mother –"

"Enough!" She seized my hair and dragged me from the bed. "Up, wretched girl. Wash and dress yourself. It is time that you earned your place here. You are old enough to bear some part of the duty. I have been lax with you, coddled you, kept you blind and deaf to any unpleasantness, but I will do so no longer. Up, at once, I say!"

Coddled me? Despite her words I could remember no instances of coddling. She had always kept me at an aloof distance, no true mother-daughter warmth between us. But even then, she had not been unkind.

This was no longer the Pasiphae that I knew. This was some harpy, some Fury, with a wild and deranged light shining in her eyes.

I scrambled to my feet and obeyed. I had no idea what I could have done to cause this wrath. Yet I dared not even speak, lest she descend on me in a further violence.

"Well, Ariadne," she said when I had finished combing my hair. "Do you like being princess? You would not care to be exiled from Crete and doomed to wander, making your way where and how you can, selling your body for bread on the streets?"

"No!" Shocked, confused, I fell to my knees before her. "Please, Mother, what is the meaning of all this? What have I done?"

"It is not what you have done, Ariadne, it is what you are. You wonder, perhaps, why Minos has not found a husband for you."

"Yes," I said, though I now felt I had a better idea. Her heated denial aside, I knew in my very bones that I was not the true child of Minos after all. My father was someone else, some other man, and Minos knew the truth. That was why he hated me.

She stalked from my chambers without further reply. I trailed after her, so bewildered that it did not immediately dawn on me where Pasiphae was going. Only when I saw the gilded bull's head above the black-stained door did I understand. I faltered in my steps.

The door was supposed to be guarded, yet no guard was in attendance. The hour was late, the palace quiet with sleep. I had seen no one in our trip through its rooms and corridors. When Pasiphae led me inside, I also saw that the heavy bolt had been drawn back.

"Mother … I do not like this place."

"Help me with the trap door."

"Please, no! Whatever I've done, I'm sorry, forgive me, I'll do whatever you ask, but please, please, do not send me down there in the dark!"

"Do you think I mean to let you die?" Pasiphae asked scornfully.

I did not know what I thought anymore. I only knew that I wanted to be away from here, back and safe in my own chambers, with all of this no more than a dream that would melt away upon my waking.

"We cannot go down there," I said. "It is a maze, a labyrinth. Even if we elude the Minotaur, we'll surely be lost."

"Minos hates you because you are not his daughter," she said.

The harsh words, though I had already suspected, hit me like another slap. I flinched.

"The very sight of you reminds him of his greatest shame," she went on, her expression hard as the stone benches around us. "He despises the thought of you being the next queen of Crete, unavoidable though he knows it is. That is why he has not married you off. He cannot bear the humiliation, even if no one else in all the world knows."

"Who … who is my father?" I asked in a weak and tremulous voice that did not seem like my own.

"He who built this selfsame labyrinth," Pasiphae said.

"Daedalus?!"

Ignoring my shocked outburst, she said, "Minos agreed to raise you as our own, to conceal the shameful curse his pride had brought down upon us. But Daedalus grew dissatisfied. He wanted you to know the truth, and threatened to reveal it. To reveal everything. For that, Minos exiled him to his lonely island."

I thought of Icarus, who had been so like a brother to me. Now I knew that he was my brother, and lost to me forever.

"As for his labyrinth," Pasiphae continued, "I know it well." She went to the bench, where a candle in a dish rested beside something that sparkled gold in the flickering firelight. "This ball of twine is endless. I tie it to the ladder when I enter the maze, and it always guides me safely out again."

"But the Minotaur!"

"Yes, the Minotaur." She exhaled softly. "It is time for you to know of that, Ariadne, so you will know of your duty. The pride of Minos was a white bull. It came to him as a sign from the gods, and he swore to sacrifice it to Poseidon. But he delayed and delayed, not wanting to part with such a magnificent creature. In the end, he disguised one of his other bulls and slew that one, keeping the white bull for his own."

My teeming thoughts and emotions aside, I hissed in a breath at this dangerous deed. Oaths to the gods were not broken lightly.

"The gods were angered," Pasiphae said. "They saw in the wife of Minos the instrument of their revenge, and cursed her with an overpowering, unnatural lust for the white bull. She bade Daedalus craft a wooden cow, within which she hid, and had this construction led into the pasture. There, the bull mounted her and serviced her. Sating her lust. And filling her belly with a monster."

Revulsion must have shown on my face. Her smile was bitter.

"It burned all desire from me," she said. "Never again did I hunger for the touch of any man, woman, beast, or object. Minos dared not risk the anger of the gods further by killing the infant, so he had it imprisoned instead in this dungeon beneath our feet. There, in the Stygian darkness, he lives and he hunts and he feasts on the flesh of our enemies. There he has been for almost twenty years."

"That … that thing, then, is my … my brother?" In my mind, I heard again the low animalistic grunt, the screams of the Athenian who had scaled the ladder to pound against the trap door.

"No," Pasiphae said. "He is my child. You are not."

The room dipped and swayed around me. I sank onto a stone bench, unsure if I were about to faint or not.

"My pregnancy could not be hidden," she said. "Yet neither could we present a bull-headed beast as the son of a queen. I had importuned my maidservant to lay with Daedalus and earn his cooperation in my plan. When she bore you, we took you for our own and let it be believed that Ligia's babe had been stillborn. You are the daughter of a servant and a prisoner, Ariadne. That is why I ask how well you enjoy the comfortable life of a princess, and how badly you wish to keep it."

I lowered my head into my hands. Tears pricked my eyelids. I felt everything I'd ever known crumbling around me, my world turning to ash and ruins. Not a princess, but a servant's bastard. I had never even known my true mother, barely remembered my true father. It was a lie, all a lie.

"I know this must distress you," Pasiphae said. "Think, though, of how my son must feel. He has lived all his life in darkness, a filthy reminder of my lust and Minos' greed and pride. He will never see the sun, never feel the fresh wind on his face, never walk free. You have wealth and luxury and a future. He has nothing. He is alone except for those rare occasions when I dare to visit him."

This was all too much for me. I could not even raise my head to look at her. In her voice, which was calm despite the unimaginable things it said, I heard a motherly affection that I had always yearned to hear her direct to me. Now I knew why.

"Well, those occasions and every year when Minos sends those poor foolish Athenians to him," Pasiphae amended. "He has learned that they are our enemies, to be brought down and savaged. But he is not entirely an animal! Now, rise, girl, and quit that pathetic bleating. Help me lift the door. I am growing too old and frail to do it myself, and there is no one else in whom I can put my trust."

I joined her at the edge of the trap door. "Why me?"

"Someone must look after him when I am gone," she said. "He is not a dumb and unthinking brute. He cannot speak, but he can hear, he can understand."

I wanted to abandon her to this madness, but knew that if I did, she would see to it that Minos did send me away. The fetid smell wafted up as we opened the door, worse than before, a hundred times worse as it was now rife with the decaying corpse-stink of murdered Athenians.

Candlelight pierced the black. I saw a ladder stretching down to a stone floor strewn with hay. The hay was clotted here and there with dried blood.

Pasiphae felt compassion, even love, for the hideous denizen of this dungeon. A mother's love, doomed, perhaps, but potent. I was shocked to catch myself envying the Minotaur. For all his imprisonment, he at least had a mother who cared for him.

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