It was very dark inside the tunnel. Only a little moonlight came in through the holes in the roof. It was cold, too. Theseus shivered. Already, he could hear the monster, Minotaur, roaring and stamping inside the labyrinth. It sounded hungry and angry. But there were so many tunnels in the labyrinth that Theseus could not tell where the sound was coming from. He would have to go deeper into the labyrinth if he was going to find the monster and kill it.
Deeper into the labyrinth! What a frightening thought! No one who had entered the labyrinth had ever found the way out again. All had been killed and eaten by the Minotaur.
Theseus' fingers closed tightly over the ball of thread in his hand. His other hand gripped hard on the hilt of his sword. A sword, a ball of thread and, in the pocket of his tunic, a small golden phial. That was all he had to fight against the mighty Minotaur. The Minotaur was a bloodthirsty creature. It had the body of a man, but the head and the strength of a bull and fangs as sharp as a lion's.
No wonder Theseus' father, King Aegeus of Athens, had wept when he learned that his son was going to Crete to try to kill the Minotaur. "I shall never see you again, Theseus," the King had said, tears streaming down his face. "Must you go? I am an old man. I need you here, to help me govern my kingdom."
Theseus was very sad to see his father so upset, but he could not do as he wanted. "If I don't kill this monster, " Theseus told Aegeus, "you will have to send more and more young Athenians to provide it with food every year. Just think how many have already died!"
King Aegeus sighed deeply. Theseus was right. The young people of Athens had paid a dreadful price. Years ago, King Minos' son had been killed in Athens. In revenge, Minos demanded that fourteen Athenians seven young men and seven young women should be sent to Crete. There they were fed to the terrible Minotaur. If this was not done, then Minos threatened to attack and destroy Athens with his powerful army. However, if the young Athenians managed to kill the Minotaur, then Minos promised to stop demanding the yearly sacrifice.
'Oh, King Minos is cunning and cruel,' thought King Aegeus. 'He makes it impossible for anyone to kill the Minotaur by forbidding them to take weapons with them into the labyrinth.'
From the window of his palace, Aegeus could see the great ship with the black sail which made the sad journey to Crete every year. Aegeus saw fathers like himself weeping with terrible grief as they watched their sons and daughters climbing into the ship. Sadly Aegeus knew that Theseus must go with them.
"See how my people suffer!" sighed Aegeus. "If their children have to face the Minotaur, it is not right for their King to keep his own son safely at home."
Aegeus turned away from the window and said to Theseus, "We must say farewell, my son. I shall pray to all the gods on Olympus to protect you."
Aegeus picked up a small, golden phial that lay on the table nearby and gave it to Theseus. "This is from your stepmother, Medea. She says it will help you fight the Minotaur. As for me, I have one request to make of you."
"What is it, Father?" Theseus asked.
Aegeus gave him a large red square of material. "If you return safely from Crete, hoist this red sail from your ship when you come within sight of our shores."
Theseus smiled at his father, hoping to comfort him with cheerful words. "My ship will have no black sail, Father," he told Aegeus. "This red sail will be flying from its mast when I return."
The voyage to Crete was a very sorrowful one. The fourteen Athenians could think only of the Minotaur and the terrible fate which awaited them. They wept and trembled. They grew more and more terrified as the ship approached its destination.
Theseus, however, was determined to show King Minos a brave face when he confronted him at his palace.
"What is the Prince of Athens doing here?" Minos demanded, recognising
Theseus at once. "Surely King Aegeus has not sent his son to be sacrificed to the Minotaur?"
Theseus looked at Minos defiantly. "I have not come to be eaten by the monster," he answered. "I have come to kill it. Only then will my people be free from your terrible revenge."
At this, there was a great buzz of talk among the courtiers and nobles who surrounded Minos.
The King smiled a cruel smile. "Brave words, young Theseus," he said. "But the Minotaur is not so easy to kill when you have no weapons."
"I shall find a way to kill it," Theseus replied in a firm voice.
Princess Ariadne, King Minos' daughter, had been watching Theseus closely.
Theseus was young, brave and strong, that was easy to see. Even so, he would need help if he were to succeed.
Ariadne made up her mind there and then that she would help Theseus in this difficult and dangerous task.
That night, Ariadne stayed awake for many hours until she was sure her father and his courtiers were asleep. Then she picked up a large vessel of wine and a ball of thread and crept from her room. Quickly and quietly, Ariadne passed along the corridors which led to the rooms where Theseus and his companions were staying. The sentries outside the doors were surprised to see Ariadne, but when she offered them some wine, they were pleased.
"The night is long and there are cold winds blowing here," Ariadne said, smiling graciously. "Some wine will warm you."
The sleeping drug which Ariadne had put in the wine took a little while to work. A few minutes later, all the sentries were lying on the floor fast asleep.
Ariadne knocked quickly on the door of Theseus' room. He was surprised to see her and amazed when he heard what she had to say.
"I have come to help you, Theseus,"
Ariadne whispered. "Here, take this ball of thread, and a sword from one of the sentries."
"But why are you doing this?" Theseus asked in surprise. "Are you not afraid to anger your father?"
"My father is a cruel man," sighed Ariadne. "He feels no pity for those who die in the labyrinth! The only way to stop his cruelty is to kill the Minotaur... but we must not waste time! We must get to the labyrinth as quickly as possible."
Quietly, Theseus took a sword from one of the sleeping sentries and followed Ariadne out into the palace gardens and across the courtyard to the labyrinth. By the time they reached the entrance, Ariadne had told Theseus all he had to do.
A few minutes later, Theseus was inside the labyrinth. As he moved along the tunnel, Ariadne's ball of thread unrolled slowly on to the floor. The other end of the thread was tied to the inside of the door at the labyrinth entrance.
Theseus had not gone far before he heard the Minotaur roaring. He crept along a little further, letting the thread unravel in his hand. The next time he heard the roaring it was much nearer.
Theseus' heart thumped violently. 'Any moment now I shall see it!' he thought. Quickly, Theseus tucked the ball of thread behind a rock. Then he took the stopper out of the golden phial his stepmother had given him, and pressed himself back against the wall of the tunnel.
Suddenly the Minotaur was before him. It was roaring, stamping and shaking its great thick fists at the roof of the labyrinth which imprisoned it.
"Ugh! It's horrible!" Theseus murmured in disgust. In the dim light, Theseus saw the Minotaur's wide shoulders, the sharp horns in its bulls head and its wide glaring eyes.
The eyes were glaring straight at Theseus. With a tremendous howl, the Minotaur leapt at him. But before the monster could seize him Theseus threw the powder from the phial into its face. The Minotaur bellowed as the powder filled its eyes and mouth. It staggered back; coughing. It pounded its eyes with its fists. For that moment, the Minotaur was helpless.
Theseus sprang forward. He swung his sword and slashed at the monster's legs.
The Minotaur crashed to the floor, roaring in pain. It clutched wildly at the walls of the tunnel trying to push itself on to its feet again. All the while, its jaws were snapping at the attacker it could not see.
Theseus stayed back and waited until the Minotaur had exhausted itself. At last, the monster lay gasping and panting on the floor. It's arms flopped motionless beside its hairy body.
Again Theseus leapt forward. He held his sword above his head. With all his strength he plunged the sword down and buried it in the Minotaur's heart.
The Minotaur shrieked. Then the wild glare in its eyes faded. It was dead.
"The great gods be thanked!" cried Theseus, as he knelt beside the body of the monster. Suddenly Theseus felt pity for it. "It was not its fault it was born half-man, half-bull," he said. "Perhaps it is better for it to be dead than to live imprisoned in the labyrinth."
It was time to leave and join Ariadne, who was waiting outside. Theseus picked up the ball of thread from behind the rock where he had placed it. He walked back along the tunnel following the line of thread lying on the floor. Gradually, Theseus wound up the thread until at last, he reached the entrance of the labyrinth.
When Theseus stepped out into the fresh, cool air of the night, Ariadne nearly cried with joy to see him.
"We must get away from Crete as fast as we can," Theseus told her. "You must come with us, Ariadne. If it became known how you helped us, you would be in great danger."
Ariadne nodded in agreement. Swiftly, Theseus and Ariadne ran back into the palace, where the drugged sentries were sleeping. They roused the fourteen young Athenians and together they crept down to the harbour. When they ran on board the ship, the captain was amazed to see them.
"Get out to sea at once!" Theseus ordered. "Hurry! Hurry!"
It was still dark when the ship sailed out to sea and headed back to Athens but it was a joyful voyage, quite unlike the one that had brought the ship to Crete.
A few days later, Athens harbour came into sight. In the excitement of his victory over the Minotaur, Theseus forgot his promise to his father. When King Aegeus saw the ship flying the black sail, he thought Theseus was dead.
"I cannot bear to live any longer," he cried.
King Aegeus threw himself into the sea and was never seen again.