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Authors: Mary Renault

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BOOK: The King Must Die
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I have seen her hold a leopard alone upon her spear. But me she never harmed after that javelin wound when first I took her, which I am glad to carry since it is all of her I have. Then, and once more unknowing, when she gave me a son six feet and three fingers high. But the Maiden Goddess, whom she had served in arms, and the gods below were good to her; before she could see the end, they closed her eyes with darkness.

But all this was still unspun upon the distaff. If I had known, perhaps it would have pulled me by the foot, and one day the bull would have been faster. Or maybe not For your own bull will always have you, he is born knowing your name. So we all said in the Bull Court.

When we had finished beginners' lessons, we could do a handspring, and somersault forward or back, and some of us could run at the vaulting-horse and swing ourselves over straight-standing on our hands. Iros and I could do it every time, Chryse quite often, and sometimes even Nephele. The Corinthian had judged her shrewdly. Her finicking was a show put on for men; she had deceived even herself with it, but when in the Bull Court she found it not admired, no girl in the team was tougher. As for Helike, the trainer saw at once that she knew it all, and sent her off to practice with the bull-leapers on the wooden bull.

From anywhere in the Bull Court, you could see the Bull of Daidalos. It was called so after its first deviser, though since then every part of it had been renewed a dozen times, save for the fine bronze horns worn smooth with unnumbered hand-grips. Everyone said the horns were Daidalos' own handiwork. There was a perch in the hollow body, between the shoulders, where the trainer's boy would sit to work the levers which made the head swing or toss. We would dance and sway out of the way, while Aktor shouted, "No! No! Move as if he was your lover! You lead him on, you give him the slip, you make him sweat for you; but it's a love-affair and the whole world knows it." It was the youths he thus exhorted, rather than the girls; for this was Crete.

Every day, in those first weeks, I looked for Asterion to send for me, and give me my punishment. But he never came, and I was treated like all the others.

After the dancing came the bull-leaping. Here on the wooden bull it was a mime, a shadow of what only the living beast gives meaning to, and few of us would achieve. No team had many bull-leapers; some only one; but of such were the princes of the Bull Court. At our first lesson, Aktor sent for the Corinthian. He strolled up idly, sparkling and tinkling, and gave a loose seal-bracelet on his wrist to someone to hold. Then he ran to the lowered bull horns and, as they tossed up creaking, swung himself to a handstand. At the height he let go, his bird-like flight still curving on, till his toes touched the bull's back. Then he bounced off, light as a roebuck; and Aktor, showed us how the catcher should steady him down. When the bull is alive, the leaper may fall less neatly; and if he wants to live too, he had better land on his feet.

That is the bull-leap. But every great bull-leaper had tricks of his own; these were what he was known by. The names of such men and girls (there had been girls among the greatest) were remembered for generations. Old men would make light of the present dancers, saying you had not lived if you had not seen So-and-So fifty years ago. Such a one was the Corinthian. They said he had learned how to make the bull toss high or low; on a high toss he could turn a half-somersault in the air, landing on the bull's back hands down and back-springing to the catcher.

The leaper is the glory of the team, but the catchers are life to him; each of the team is life to all the rest. There were no cowards in the Bull Court, or not for long. Once people guessed you would fail them at the pinch, they took care you should not live to do it. In the bull ring that is easy. Nor did it do to make many enemies. Even one could be enough.

We learned on the Bull of Daidalos how dancers can save each other and themselves: how to twine the bull's horns with your legs and arms so that he cannot gore you; how to grasp the horns from before and from behind and sideways, in leaping on and in getting away; how to confuse him by covering his eyes. You are not allowed to harm him, even to save your life; he is the dwelling place of the god.

At first I did not see how such things could be possible with an able-bodied bull. But in Crete they have been bred to the bull-dance for a thousand years. They are splendid to look at: huge, strong, and with great godlike heads; but they are slow, and the wits have been bred out of them. One that was brisk and busy, like the bulls at home, and would make his kill before there had been a show, was used for sacrifice. Still, Cretan bulls are bulls when all is said; you can never be sure of them. When they grow helpful, and seem to know the dance as well as you do, that is the time to beware.

In the second month of our training, we saw the bull-dance for the first time.

We had wanted to go before, but Aktor forbade it. He said if beginners saw it before they had learned some skill, they despaired of themselves, and it spoiled their nerve.

The bull ring stood on the plain east of the Palace. It was built of wood, for Crete is a land of timber. The bull-dancers had their own gallery, just over the dancers' door, and facing the bull gate. It faced the King's box too; but it was a long time, people said, since Minos had seen the bull-dance. The chief priest of Poseidon hallowed the bull. For the rest, the rite is ruled by the Goddess-on-Earth.

In the chief place of the ring stood a gilded shrine, upheld by crimson pillars and crowned with the sacred horns. On either side were seats for the priestesses, and all around sat the Palace ladies. As we sat down they were coming in from their litters, their slaves spreading cloths and cushions for them to sit on, and giving them their fans. Friends greeted friends, and kissed, and called for their seats to be moved together; soon it was like a spreading tree in which a flock of bright birds has settled, cooing and twittering and preening. Massed like dark leaves, the little russet Cretans filled the upper tiers.

Horns blew. A door opened behind the shrine. There she stood; I remembered the shape of her, like a field lily, upright and small, round breasts and thighs, a waist to snap in your fingers. But now she was stiff with gold; you could only see the red of her dress when the flounces stirred. Her foot-high diadem was crested with a golden leopard. If she had not moved, I should have taken her for jeweller's work.

The men all stood, laying fist on breast; the women touched their foreheads. She took her tall throne. There was a music of harps and flutes.

The bull-dancers came in from the door below us. They stepped slowly but lightly, two by two, a girl and a boy, in a solemn dance-step. Their lovelocks sleeked and combed bounced on their smooth shoulders, their arm-rings and necklaces caught the light; the girls' young breasts, and the backs of their little loin-guards, jigged prettily in the dance. They all had their hands and wrists strapped round to strengthen their grip; boots of soft leather were laced up to their calves. In the first couple was the Corinthian, blithe as a bird.

They circled the ring, and fetched up in one row before the shrine, with the Corinthian in the middle. There they all stood, and made the signs of homage, and spoke a phrase in old Cretan. I tapped the shoulder of the dancer who sat in front of me, and asked, "What do they say?" She was a black girl from Libya, and had not very much Greek. She said slowly, thinking it out as she spoke, "Hail, Goddess! We salute you, we who are going to die. Receive the offering."

"Are you sure?" I said, for the words had shocked me. "Have you got it right?" She nodded her head, which had blue and gold beads plaited into the black wool, so close to the scalp that they looked to have been sewn there. Then she said it again.

I made no answer, but shook my head, thinking, "Truly and indeed, for all their great cunning works these Cretans are ignorant. That lady there may be the greatest priestess in the world, the highest born, the nearest to the Goddess. But she is a woman. I don't care if ten thousand Cretans deny it. She is a woman, as sure as I am a man. I know."

I looked up at the shrine. She had sat down again, and once more was still, as if made of gold and ivory. I thought, "What is coming to her? She has done what the ever-living gods don't permit to mankind. Nor will they forgive her youth, it is not their way. But who can save her? She is too high to reach."

The dancers had turned, and strung themselves in a circle round the ring. A trumpet sounded. In the wall facing us the great bull gate opened, and out came the bull.

He was a kingly beast, white spatchcocked with brown; thick-barrelled, short-legged, wide-browed, and, like all his breed, very long-horned. The horns curved upward and forward, then dipped and rose again at the tips. They were painted lengthwise with stripes of red and gold.

The Corinthian stood facing him across the ring, with his back to us. I saw him lift his hand, saluting; a noble gesture, graceful and brave. Then the dancers began to move around the bull, turning in a circle as the stars do round the earth, far off at first, but getting nearer. At first he did not take much notice; but you could see his big staring eyes following them round. He switched his tail, and his feet fidgeted.

The music quickened; and the dancers closed in. They swooped round the bull like a flight of swallows, nearer and nearer. He put his head down, and his forefoot raked the ground. Then you saw what a fool he was. The bull at Troizen would have singled someone out and made a race of it. This one, as each dancer flew past his head, would look, and get ready with a lumbering scrape of his feet, and then say to himself "Too late," and look sheepish and start again. Now the dancers slowed their spinning, and started to play the bull. First one and then another would pause till they had drawn him, then skim or sway out of his path and leave him for the next. The more daring the dancers are, the more they work the bull, the better for them in the end. He is the stronger; but he is one to their fourteen. He may tire first, if they keep him at it.

So it went on, till the first edge was off him, and he seemed to say, "After all, who is paying me for this?" Then the Corinthian ran round to face him, and held out both arms; and the circling stopped.

He ran smoothly up to the sullen bull. It was the leap I had seen often in the Bull Court. But that was a shadow; now, he had a living thing to dance with. He grasped the horns, and swung up between them, going with the bull; then he soared free. The beast was too stupid to back and wait for him. It trotted on, when it felt him gone. He turned in air, a curve as lovely as a bent bow's, and on the broad back his slim feet touched down together; then they sprang up again. He seemed not to leap, but to hang above the bull, like a dragonfly over the reeds, while it ran out from under him. Then he came down to earth, feet still together, and lightly touched the catcher's hands with his, like a civility; he had no need of steadying. Then he danced away. There was a joyous screaming and cooing from the bird tree, and shouts from the men. As for me, I stretched in secret my right hand earthwards, and whispered under all the noise, "Father Poseidon! Make me a bull-leaper!"

The dancers circled again. A girl paused on tiptoe, arms lifted, palms outspread; an Arabian, the color of dark honey, with long black hair. She was straight as a spear, with the carriage of women used to carrying their burdens on their heads; big disks of gold hung from her ears and threw back the sunlight. Sometimes in the Bull Court I had seen her white teeth flashing. She was a haughty, mocking girl, but she looked grave now, and proud.

She grasped the horns, and pressed upward. Perhaps something had been going on in the bull's dull mind; or perhaps her balance was less true than the Corinthian's. Instead of tossing up his head, he shook it sideways.

The girl fell across his forehead. Yet she had somehow kept her hold upon the horns. She hung on them like a monkey, riding the bull's nose, her feet crossed on his dewlap. He started to run round and round, shaking his head. I heard a deep mutter from the men's seats, and from the women's a high breathless twittering. I looked up at the pillared shrine. But the golden goddess sat unmoving, and her painted face was still.

The dancers swooped about, clapping their hands and flipping their ringers to confuse the bull. Yet I thought it was mostly show and they could have done more. I hammered with my fist muttering "Nearer! Nearer!" till the next youth said to me, "Keep your hands to yourself, Hellene"; I had been beating him on the knee. "He will have her!" I said. "He is going to the barrier to beat her off." The youth muttered, with his eyes upon the ring, "Yes, yes; they won't go in for her. She has been insolent and made enemies." The bull was trying to find the barrier, but the girl's long hair was in his eyes, and she kept twisting her shoulders to blind him. I said out of breath, "The Corinthian, can't he help?" He answered leaning forward in his seat, "It's work for the catcher, not the bull-leaper. Why should he? He never worked with this team before."

Just as he spoke, the Corinthian leaped forward. He ran at the bull from its left side, and caught the horn and hung on it swinging. The girl, whose strength was finished, dropped off and scrambled to her feet and ran.

Before he jumped, I had seen the Corinthian look swiftly round and beckon. The youth beside me had leaped to his feet and was shouting in his native tongue, which I think was Rhodian; I could tell he was cursing. I was shouting myself. No one can last long as the Corinthian was, unless someone comes up to pull on the other horn. He had counted on that; but no one had done it.

One of the youths came running at last, and made as if to leap and catch the horn. But I could tell it was from shame, and his heart was not in it. So he was too late. The bull swerved from him and put its head down sideways, and scraped off the Corinthian with its foot. Then I saw him rise in the air again; but he soared no longer. He was speared on the horn, which had pierced his midriff, just above the belt. I don't know if he cried out or not. The din was too great to hear. He was tossed and flung down with a great red hole in him. The bull trampled him, then trotted away. The music ceased. The dancers stood still. A deep sigh and murmur ran round the galleries.

BOOK: The King Must Die
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