The Bull – a short story

The Bull

The first person the bull killed was his mother. He tore his way out of her womb and she died hoemoraging blood on a wooden table while the midwife screamed with horror at the sight of the creature she had helped bring into this world. No one knew, or no one was saying, who the bull’s father was, and his dead mother had left no instructions and certainly no money for his care. The midwife didn’t even clean off the afterbirth. She dropped the creature on the floor and fled. If he hadn’t been so strong he would have died beside his mother, but he was vigorous and he crawled from the table and found his way into the barn with the livestock, drawn by the soothing sound of their breathing, deep and vital.

The humble farm animals accepted the infant almost as one of their own and he was allowed to suckle milk from the docile female cows. He began to walk days later, but was too small to oppose the midwife’s brother who appeared to lay claim to the dead woman’s belongings. There was no one to give him pause, save the young bull-boy, and the midwife’s brother drove him off with the end of a shepherd’s crook. His sister had told him of the horrific birth and so forewarned and forearmed, he had arrived steeled to chase the abomination away. The bull-boy ran far enough to hide, then followed the man as he led the creature’s surrogate family back to his farm. In the months that followed, the youth would creep into the barn at night to suckle at one teat or another, before crawling away again at dawn. Each night he drank his fill, but it was not long before the man noticed that his cows were dry when he came to milk them in the mornings. He waited in the barn one night with a heavy club and when the creature appeared, he was sent mewling back to the forest.

He was hungry for a day or two then found his teeth had grown enough to graze and he had no more need of milk. As he grew in size, the bull occasionally wandered into the village, through the farms or to the edge of the town walls, perhaps looking for companionship or warmth as the nights grew colder. He found no welcome but was stubborn by nature and no matter how often he was driven away, he returned sooner or later. One or two of the farmers, those who had known his mother and heard the midwife’s tale, occasionally left him bags of grain at their gates when mercy moved them, but they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Thirteen years came and went and the creature grew to a size far outstripping that of any boy his age. With puberty, horns grew on his head, longer and sharper with each week, and his shoulders and chest were broad and strong. His neck was as thick as the waist of most men and when he paused to scratch himself against a tree his horns cut deep grooves in the bark. It was at this time that he became a cause of genuine concern amongst the farmers living around the town. When one such man, Demetrios, tried to drive the creature off his land as the sun was setting one evening, the farmer found his wooden staff no protection against the creature’s furious charge. The man was hurled to the ground, his left side pierced, his ribs crushed. He died two days later, the bull still on his land.

The farmers held a meeting to decide what to do. Some argued that the beast deserved a quick death and nothing more, but no one was willing to volunteer to try to perform such a perilous venture. Those who had sometimes left grain for the creature suggested that it might be possible to tame the bull, perhaps even civilise him, arguing that he had been born of a human mother after all. Surely there was some trace of humanity beneath his hideous surface? There was no resolution to be found, so a petition was sent to the King requesting his assistance.

However, when the farmers’ plea was delivered to the palace the King was otherwise occupied, with a young maiden who had taken his fancy, and it was his daughter, Ariadne, who heard the petition. She too was in her thirteenth year, a child of wealth and privilege, albeit the daughter of a man whose attentions were neither kind nor respectful. When Ariadne had reached puberty, she had learnt the nature of her father’s lustful character. She listened to the petition with keen interest then summoned a palanquin and left the palace for the farmlands.

The bull was being tormented by a group of boys who took turns throwing rocks at the creature from different directions. He would turn to confront one miscreant when a rock would strike the back of his head and he would turn again in search of the new source of discomfort. Soon he was breathing in short, shuddering bursts, stamping his feet and shaking his ungainly head, consumed with a fury that he did not know how to vent. The boys, filled with the false invincibility that so often leads youth astray, pushed their luck too far and the bull charged at the one he judged closest at hand. The boy scarcely had time to half turn in the thought of flight before the bull was upon him, his hot breath steaming from his nostrils as the boy died in a torrent of slashing horns and ripping flesh. His companions fled back to their mothers as the bull vented his fury upon the mangled corpse that had once been a young man. When his anger was spent, the creature sat back on his trembling haunches then lay down and collapsed into unconsciousness at the flies began to gather in the blood that covered boy, bull and ground.

He awoke to the sound of footsteps approaching and the bull sat up groggily, shaking a cloud of flies from his head, to see a girl calmly walking towards him. He stood up, still encircled by the plague of hungry insects and regarded the newcomer warily. The fury that had consumed him when he killed the boy still flickered within him, ready to catch light should anyone dare so much as strike a spark. He pawed the ground with his foot. The girl stopped and looked at him. Her black hair blew into her face in the breeze and she brushed it aside. She looked into the bull’s eyes and he snorted. She turned her gaze away and sat down. Behind her he could see a group of men standing around a palanquin, watching the girl with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. “Hello” she said, without turning to look at him. He kicked up some dirt and lowered his head, threatening to charge, but she still looked away towards the horizon. He shook his head and bellowed. “I won’t hurt you”, she said softly, “I won’t hurt you.” He advanced towards her slowly, but she didn’t flinch as he came within arms length. He stood beside her, uncertain. After a moment, when his breathing had become slower, she turned and looked up at him. “My name is Ariadne,” she held out her hand and gave the creature a pear. He took it from her in one ungainly fist and bit it in half. She smiled. “You’re hungry.”

She came to visit him every day, bringing with her an assortment of fruits and food the beast had never eaten before. For the first few days she had to approach him with her eyes averted, measuring each patient step but, as the days went by, he began to trust her and she could look him in the eyes as she pleased. She spoke quietly to the creature and cleaned the blood and gore from his horns. She never left until he had eaten his fill and the villagers steered clear of the strange pair.

After several weeks, Ariadne led the creature away from the village where he had been born, towards the palace. He followed her without hesitation as they passed along the road, her palanquin following behind, and wound through the hills. Travellers stepped to the side of the road as they approached, the girl and the bull, and all fell to their knees at the sight of the palanquin. Ariadne led the creature to a cave entrance at the foot of the hill on which the palace was built. He paused for a moment outside the opening, but she entered first and beckoned for him to follow. He went into the cave, which was illuminated by a handful of openings in the ceiling high above. Ariadne, still smiling, took the creature’s hand and led him around a corner, then another, and another, and the beast was soon lost. Still she led him on, never faltering, through twists and turns until they came to a small chamber lined with straw. There was an underground stream running through the room, a basket full of fruit and the straw was fresh and clean. Ariadne lay down in the straw and motioned for the creature to sit beside her. He did so and she placed her head in the crook of his arm. He fell asleep breathing in the wonderful smell of the girl, a heady mixture of jasmine and honey, and the beast knew a moment of happiness and peace for the first time in his life.

When he awoke she was gone. He drank from the stream and then decided to find the girl. He tried to keep track of where he was in the underground maze but was lost as soon as he was out of sight of the chamber where he had slept. Ariadne found him the next day, moaning to himself in a little visited corner of the maze. She led him effortlessly back to his chamber and sang to him until he was calm enough to eat the food she had brought.

The months passed and inevitably, having sated his appetite for new pleasures, one evening the King tried to force himself upon his daughter. She managed to fight him off long enough to lead him on a desperate chase into the maze beneath the castle. “Daughter!” called the King, breathless with the thrill of the hunt, “Where are you going? I’ll find you wherever you run!” “Catch me if you dare!” she called back, turning around another bend in the subterranean corridors. His Majesty smiled as he rounded the corner, before frantically sprawling to a halt. Before him stood his daughter, her nightgown torn from their struggle, but she was no longer running and certainly no longer scared. Beside her was a beast of massive proportions, almost seven feet tall, with shoulders twice the width of any normal man’s and scarcely any neck to speak of. Yet it was the sight of the creature’s monstrous head that turned the King’s blood from fire to ice in an instant. He tried to speak, but the words died in his throat. The creature gazed at the small man before him and blew a blast of steam from its nostrils. It took a single step towards him then Ariadne laid a hand upon the beasts’ arm and it turned to look at her. “No”, she said, “Don’t kill him.” Then Ariadne turned to her father and spoke clearly and simply as if to a child. “Father”, she said, “If you ever touch me again I shall summon my protector from the bowels of this cave, and I shall ask him to rip your beating heart from your chest. Will you ever touch me again?”

“No, never”, came the whispered reply.

“Then you may go.”

The King fled the cave and returned to his quarters where he did not fall asleep for several days. He never dared so much as look at his daughter again and his appetites, both culinary and otherwise, seemed much diminished in the weeks that followed. However, on the eve of Ariadne’s next birthday, when she had come of an age to be married that a male heir to the throne of Crete might be assured, the King issued a proclamation inviting the eligible men of royal blood to seek his daughter’s delicate hand.

The first to answer the call was a lesser member of the royal house of Ithaca, a prince by the name of Pericles. An unfortunate fellow, Pericles came from a line blessed with the most remarkable longevity. His father, the King of Ithaca, was still going strong past his seventieth birthday and showed no signs of handing over the throne in the foreseeable future. Compounding Pericles’ unhappiness was the fact that he was not even first in life to the throne – he had two elder brothers. So, aged forty-one and hungry for the feel of gold on his brow, Pericles requested Ariadne of Crete’s hand in marriage. Her father welcomed Pericles to his palace and bid him stay with them while Ariadne, who seemed to Pericles to have the run of the house, weighed his suitability.

After a fortnight had passed in good food and pleasant conversation, the King took Pericles aside one evening and spoke to him in hushed tones. “My Prince”, began the King, “My daughter is a beauty, is she not?”

“Beautiful”, Pericles agreed.

“Well,” continued the King, “I have a handsome dowry for the man who weds her, but before I can part with either daughter or gold, there is a task you must perform for me.” “Name it”, said Pericles, and the King told him a little, but by no means all, of the creature living in the catacombs beneath the palace. “Rid my house of this monstrosity and Ariadne is yours”, said his Majesty.

The following day Pericles girded himself with a fine suit of armour, inlaid with gold and jewels, took a firm grip of the hilt of his sword, the blade of which proudly bore the crest of Ithaca, and ventured into the maze beneath the castle. He was quickly lost but pressed on regardless. The King has described a bull of some kind living in the corridors, although why a mere bull should set the King’s hands trembling was a mystery to Pericles. He had slaughtered a bull himself every summer since his fifteenth birthday as a sacrifice to the gods and they held little terror for him. After over an hour in the twists and winds of the caverns, Pericles paused to rest. He removed his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was high summer and the cave was close and humid. Pericles spied a stream running along the cave floor and bent down to quench his thirst. He was beginning to wonder if the King was mad and had sent him on a fool’s quest. How would a bull live underground where there was no grass for grazing? He drank deeply from the stream, then cupped the water in his hands and washed the back of his neck. He heard something breathe heavily behind him.

Pericles turned and saw the creature. His mind went blank for a moment. He had killed many bulls in his time, but never anything like this. The creature regarded him with its black eyes, then an enormous tongue flickered around its’ mouth and the spell was broken. Pericles drew his sword and charged the monstrosity, screaming the war cry of the Royal House of Ithaca. He died shortly thereafter, but not before he had watched his own stomach been torn open by one of the beasts’ jagged horns. No one ever came to claim the corpse and the prince received no burial. His elder brother inherited the throne aged sixty-one, died aged sixty-two and Ithaca plunged into civil war.

Still, no one knew of Pericle’s unhappy fate and more suitors arrived for the winsome Ariadne. They were the finest of their royal lines, meaning that to a man they were inbred, self-important dullards who thought women only good for providing male heirs. Ariadne watched with a mild amusement as one by one her father sent them underground, desperate to be rid of her protector, and none ever returned. She would wait for a day then find the bull herself, clean off the gore of battle and sing him to sleep as he grew dizzy with the smell of jasmine and honey. So the months slipped by.

Shortly before she turned sixteen, a new suitor appeared at the court, wishing to lay claim to the hand of a Princess. He had no royal lineage, but instead declared, with a bold rashness that Ariadne almost admired, to be the son of Poseidon, the sea god, and a mortal woman. The Princess was familiar with such outlandishness, since her father often boasted that he had been sired by great Zeus himself, but something about this young man, Theseus, took her fancy. She walked with him in the royal gardens and listened to his views on music, theatre and his ambitions to make a name for himself. His eyes were blue, his skin golden and his hair a handsome mass of curls. Best of all, he was just bright enough to recognise that Ariadne was at least his equal in wits. She easily bested him in games of cunning and found him eager and able to do her bidding.

She let Theseus into her bed shortly thereafter and did not find him wanting and her only disappointment lay with the young suitor’s sense of honour. He refused to elope with her and insisted on requesting her hand from the King, who in due course asked Theseus to venture into the tunnels below and face the bull. The boy, a little overly impressed with his own athleticism, accepted the challenge. Ariadne lay with him the night before and took her satisfaction from the young man, but she knew as the sweat cooled against her skin that as fine a specimen as Theseus was, he had not the measure of the bull.

The creature awoke when the smell of jasmine and honey reached him in his dreams and he sat up to see Ariadne approach. He rose to his feet and she touched his face in greeting. “Hello, my protector,” she said, “Are you rested?” She sat down in the straw, he sat beside her and she fed him from the basket she had brought. The bull ate his fill and was about to doze off again when footsteps sounded in the cavern. He rose and looked at the girl, but she simply smiled. A young man, wearing an inexpensive suit of leather armour and carrying a plain, un-embellished sword, rounded the corner and stopped dead, staring up in disbelief at the bull as so many had done before. “Theseus”, said Ariadne, “Keep your wits about you!” The bull snorted and moved towards the young man, waiting for the desperate charge that would begin another short and violent battle. The man raised his sword unsteadily, his eyes still wide with terror. “Theseus!” hissed Ariadne, “Steel yourself!” The bull felt something sharp bite into the back of his ankle. He roared and turned to see Ariadne with a blood-stained knife backing away from him. He’d been cut deeper before, yet swayed unsteadily. Theseus chose this moment to charge, but opted to swing his sword rather than thrust directly at the bull. The blade slashed across the creature’s shoulders and he whirled as the fury came upon him, his confusion at Ariadnes’ attack forgotten. Theseus slashed again, drawing a line of crimson across the bull’s chest before the monster lowered his head and charged. The impact was diminished by the proximity of the combatants but Theseus was thrown to the ground. He scrambled backwards as the bull advanced, finding himself trapped against the wall of the cave. The bull charged a second time and Theseus twisted desperately to avoid the tearing horns as they bore down upon him. The cavern shook with the force of the bull’s charge and Theseus struggled to find room to stab as the bull gored at him. The creature was breathing in hot, thunderous bursts as Theseus felt one horn pierce his armour just below his rib cage. He was bleeding and in danger of being crushed by the monster’s sheer strength. The bull inhaled sharply, ready to break Theseus against the cold cave walls, but then the creature stopped. Theseus shook with fear, but the fiend was still, save for its gaping nostrils that sniffed at him. The bull breathed in deeply, noting the distinct odour of Theseus, a pungent blend of sweat and terror, but mingled in were two other scents that he knew, honey and jasmine. The bull turned away to face Ariadne, watching from the other side of the chamber. He walked slowly towards her. “Keep back!” she said, “Keep away!” but he did not charge. The bull sank to its knees before Ariadne, the girl of honey and jasmine, and all the fire within him faded to oblivion. He felt something eat into the back of his neck as Theseus drove his sword home with all his remaining strength and the bull tipped forwards, coming to rest on the chamber floor. With all that he had endured in his ugly life, the beatings, the taunting, the fear and hatred, the bull had no response to this betrayal and devoid of the will to fight, death claimed him. This time Ariadne did not clean the blood from his horns, but left him in the cavern, by the stream and the chamber that had been his home.

Ariadne departed Crete with her lover, who was hailed by one and all as a hero when bards and poets spread the news of his mighty victory throughout the islands of Greece. In these tales Theseus was a conquering hero, strong and fearless, the warrior who had slain the creature that had tormented the King of Crete and it was a role he readily accepted. When her husband became King of Athens, Ariadne forbade any in her household from ever reading such poems or singing the songs concerning the monster in the maze, but she listened willingly enough to other stories of his exploits since then. Some in the royal court said that from time to time, the Queen would wander down to the fields and sit with the livestock, watching them graze, and stroking their necks. The matter was reported to the King, who dismissed it as inconsequential, but those who ventured close enough to Ariadne during her sojourns in the fields reported that she sometimes sang to the animals. Apparently, the songs varied from day to day, but they were all melancholy and if the King knew the reason for his wife’s strange moods, he kept such knowledge to himself. There was some suggestion that she missed her father back in Crete and everyone remarked that the Queen was as sensitive as she was beautiful, and she was very beautiful indeed.

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