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Authors: Fred Saberhagen

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BOOK: The White Bull
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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 now 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 Pasiphaë'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 fountain-head. 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 acqueduct, 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 were 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 sandalled 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 sea-coast, 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 signalled 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.

BOOK: The White Bull
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