Claiming the Crown Series
Theseus travels to Crete to stab the Minotaur's heart only to have the half-bull shifter lay claim to his heart instead.
After King Minos' death, Theseus travels to Crete to slay the Minotaur and end the Athenian tribute to the monster. His plans are cut short when he meets Asterion and finds out that he is not the monster everyone claims the Minotaur to be but a wronged, demi-god bull shifter.
Asterion was cursed by Poseidon because of his parents' offenses. Trapped in the labyrinth when he was sixteen by his step-father, he's waited three years for his freedom. When Theseus enters the maze, he sees his chance for a normal life.
But can a demi-god live a normal life with the Athenian prince?
Asterion sat back against the cold stone wall. It chilled his bare back, the cold matching his black mood, his heart shriveling in his chest. Once again the circumstances of his birth played in his mind. He was an imprisoned prince. Why did he have to suffer for his parents’ wrongdoings? He was not responsible for his step-father trying to cheat Poseidon out of his prized white bull, and he was not responsible for his mother seducing the white bull which, with the aid of Poseidon’s power, rendered his birth part human and part bull.
At first he’d railed against his step-father and against the gods, but then his anger had simmered to sour frustration. Shouting until he’d lost his voice had not gained him a thing. Being locked up had a way of eroding a man’s spirit, and his future seemed as hopeless as when his mortal mother had died. His mother had been his protector. A single tear rolled down his cheek. He had loved his mother very much. She saw him as her son and nothing less. On the other hand, his step-father saw him as a monster and a reminder of both of their indiscretions. He should have fought the man when he had the chance. Even at sixteen he had the strength to snuff the life out of the king with a few blows. He glanced down at his massive hands, examining his dirty palms. They were weapons, weapons he’d use if he received another opportunity. He had always been conscious of his super-human strength, and despite being part beast, he never wanted to hurt anyone, so he had let his step-father trick him into the Labyrinth.
He formed a fist and struck the ground, hand molding into the dirt floor. A familiar rush of heat warmed him from the inside out. He had been young, naïve, and distraught over his mother’s sudden passing. Afterward it was too late to fight for his freedom. Asterion let out a sigh from deep in his gut. At first he thought it would only take a few weeks for his step-father to have a change of heart. He was grieving over Pasiphaë’s death, too. Then after that time had passed, he hoped after a year his step-father would change his mind. It had not happened.
After his mother died, his step-father had railed against him, showing all his ugly colors. Asterion had stood there, braving the man’s hate and fury, thinking all the time that King Minos was the actual monster. His step-father had said he did not want to look at him any longer, said he did not have a son who could shift his head into a white bull. He made it clear that Asterion was a disgrace to the crown.
Asterion remembered returning to his room after that encounter, trying to cry, but all his emotions had dried up. A stark numbness had worked its way down from his shoulders all the way to his feet. Over the following few weeks, he had tried to stay out of his step-father’s way. With his large body, it was hard to hide, but he learned to excel at blending into the shadows. If his step-father did not realize he was near, then he could not yell at him anymore or call him names or hurl threats.
The heat building inside Asterion fanned to a blazing fire. He let out a roar, the stabbing pain of betrayal as fresh as it had been the first day he had been thrown into this pit. When the famous artificer, Daedalus, came to the castle, he had been excited. He even followed the man around the castle, peering over his shoulder at the building plans. Whatever Daedalus was constructing took many weeks, longer than Asterion had expected. He never had any clue that the great structure would be a maze and his future prison.
Three years he’d been here, three long years when he often daydreamed about what his life used to be in the palace with his mother. Closing his eyes, he recalled the beautiful royal garden and the marketplace bustling with merchants and artisans selling their wares and skills. In his gray world, he remembered the colors of the sky, of sunsets, vibrant flowers and painted pottery.
He jumped to his feet and sprinted through the twisting tunnels. He was being treated worse than a murderer, and he hadn’t even hurt a fly. How he wished for even one breath of fresh air! His mixture of emotions propelled him around in a winding circle, and then the numbness returned. Legs turning to cloth beneath him, he wobbled. His burst of energy gradually faded, and he crumpled to the floor, breathing hard. He blinked, eyelashes wet. At times like that, he wished for death. Death would be a relief from his miserable existence.
Life in the Labyrinth was lonely except for one time a year when seven boys and seven maidens were lowered into the labyrinth. This tribute was his step-father’s demand for retribution. His older brother, Androgeos, had died while in Athens, and King Minos held their king Aegeus and all the Athenians responsible. The blood-thirsty bastard! He understood the sacrifice of one man to make up for the death of another, but why demand fourteen deaths a year? He would stop the madness if he could. He knew the ruler of Athens would stop it as well if he had a large enough army. Alas, it was out of their control. All Asterion could do was wait for the youths and greet them kindly.
It is why he had retained his fully human form lately. It was hard to keep exact time in the darkness of the maze, and he did not want to scare his guests by being in half-bull form.
Not a single torch lit the walls. There was not even a rug or a painting to adorn his dwelling. He deserved much better. Resting his head against the wall, he focused on breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. Calm brushed over him like a gentle wind. As soon as his step-father saw his half-man, half-bull form, he did not want anything to do with him. Not once did he try to get to know him. If he had, he would have learned that he did not hunger for blood and bone. Apparently he thought all monsters devoured humans. What a foolish notion!
Asterion stretched his muscular arms above his head. Guilt slithered through his veins, dampening his eagerness for the company. Melancholy pressing like a mantle upon his shoulder, he meandered his way through the maze to the large circular center.
He had properly buried every corpse in the earthen floor, the center serving as the graveyard. It was the least he could do to thank them for their sacrifice. It was terrible that they tried to feed him children. They probably thought the youths would be tastier and tenderer than adults. Had his step-father ever eaten a human? His step-father had many faults, but he highly doubted the man had turned into a cannibal. If only he could get out of the Labyrinth and get his hands on his step-father, he would threaten the man and make him stop the barbaric practice.
The children brought joy into his bleak existence. Their innocence alone was like a breath of fresh air, rejuvenating his prison. They told him what they knew about daily life in Knossos, Crete. He tried to keep apprised of what was happening above ground, but it was hard to do when he only received news once a year. The youths told him jokes and sang songs. Although they tried their best, they weren’t the best at conversation. He longed to talk to an adult! Closing his eyes, he waited for blessed sleep. Often he spoke to his mother in his dreams or to a man hidden by shadows. He never saw the man’s form and did not recognize his voice, but this man brought him a sense of peace.
Prince Theseus hesitated to approach his father. The man had been in a sour mood of late, because the tribute to Crete was approaching. It was unfortunate that Prince Androgeos died in their capital. King Minos was far from forgiving. He demanded a blood price as a form of punishment.
Like the two years before, lots had been drawn, and the seven girls and seven boys moved into the palace. They were given a week of pampering before their demise as food for the Minotaur. Theseus hoped that none of them would have to die at the hand of the monster. That morning they’d learned of King Minos’ death. Still his father hadn’t sent the fourteen youths home. Since the threat to Athens had disappeared, there was no need to continue to keep their bloody agreement. King Minos could no longer send his superior army to conquer the land and claim his father’s crown.
Theseus knocked on the door to his father’s private chamber. “Who is it?” his father barked.
“Your son,” Theseus replied. “May I come in?”
Theseus’s stomach knotted. That single word gruff response didn’t bode well. Why was his father not happy that their enemy had died?
Theseus opened the door and stepped inside the richly decorated room. His father stood at his large window and looked to be contemplating as he gazed out at the palace grounds. Theseus joined him at the window. The sun shone in their faces, the heat pleasant.
“We must talk about Knossos.” Theseus was not one to tiptoe around an issue. Leaders took charge.
“King Minos died at the table. If they think the food was poisoned, and we are blamed, their army could still attack Athens.” Ever since the tribute began, each king regarded the other with suspicion, and their people followed.
Theseus chewed on his bottom lip. He had not considered this possible turn of events. It would be a long time before he felt he possessed enough wisdom to take over rule of Athens. Now he understood his father’s silence. “They think you sent a spy to Crete?”
King Aegeus shook his head. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know. The murderer will have to blame someone.”
“Who is going to assume the throne in Knossos?” Theseus asked.
His father shrugged, not taking his eyes from the window. “A distant relative perhaps, or, if no relative is found, likely the head of his army.”
The man leading the Minoan army was a bloodthirsty bastard. Likely it is why King Minos had made him general. Anyone would be a better ruler. He knew the general would demand that the tribute continue just for his own personal enjoyment, to feel his power.
There had to be someone else to claim King Minos’ crown. An anxious feeling crept under his skin. He lowered his voice, not really wanting to say his thoughts out loud but knowing he needed to. “Father, King Minos had another relative.”
King Aegeus turned toward him, one bushy eyebrow raised. “Who?”
“He had another son, well step-son, the Minotaur.”
“Ha! The Minotaur.” His father let out a belly laugh. “They keep the beast locked up in the Labyrinth. They will not let that creature rule the kingdom.”
“No, the people won’t let him rule the kingdom, but it doesn’t mean he won’t forcefully assume the throne.”
His father turned back to the window. “He’d have to escape the Labyrinth first. It has been nearly three years, and he has yet to do so.”
“I think the Minotaur should be killed just to erase that remote possibility. And without the Minotaur, the general will be unable to continue the tribute.”
“Hmm.” King Aegeus stroked his wiry beard. “And how are we going to kill the Minotaur?”
Poison seemed the easiest option, but if he used poison, then it might shed more suspicion on Athens for King Minos’ possible murder. “I will defeat him in battle.”
“No, son.” His father spoke firmly. “I know you are young, and you want to prove yourself. You should do so on the field against an opposing army with our soldiers following your lead. You do not need to fight a monster.”
“I can defeat him, Father. None of the sacrificed youths have been lowered into the labyrinth with any sort of weapon. He isn’t a centaur or part dragon. I can defeat a bull.”
“I’m not sure how a bull is easier to fight than a centaur.”
“We have games. Men face off with bulls. I’ve watched them since I was a boy. I know what to do.”
A tense silence followed.
“Your argument is weak. You do not know what kind of enemy the Minotaur will be. We’ve all heard stories about his strength, his ferociousness. You can’t compare him to a regular bull.”
Theseus shoved out a breath. “Someone must face off with that monster. If not me, then who?”
King Aegeus shook his head. “No one. Let the Minotaur remained trapped for eternity.”
“Just because he is trapped doesn’t mean the people of Knossos or the people of Athens are safe.”
“If he was going to breakout from his prison, he would have already done so. Perhaps the bull is strong but not so smart.”
Theseus resisted rolling his eyes. If the Minotaur was not smart, then he could easily outwit him in battle!
His father had yet to give him permission and his blessing. Theseus decided to change the subject. “What about the youths who drew lots as tribute? Are you still going to send them to Knossos?”
“I do not know, son.”
“It will be the time of the yearly sacrifice soon. You do not have long to decide.”
“I do not know who is going to assume the throne. I’d rather have Knossos with their powerful navy as an ally than as an enemy.”
“And you think killing fourteen more youths will accomplish that?” His words dripped with bitterness.
“It is a nasty business, I know, but it is not easy ruling a kingdom.”
“Those boys and girls are terrified. Send them home. Return them to their families, and announce that Athens will no longer pay tribute.”
“And then what?”
“I alone will sail to Crete and journey to Knossos. I will kill the Minotaur. After I do so, I will gain much fame. It will go a long way to courting the favor of the next ruler, and once I find out who that will be, I can personally court his favor as well.”
“You have a death wish, son. I cannot approve of your actions.”
Theseus’ stomach tightened. He knew defeating the Minotaur was in Athens’ best interest. Dare he go against his father’s wishes?
“If you are determined to travel,” his father began again, “then go to Crete and court the favor of the next king. You do not need to fight the Minotaur to protect the future of our kingdom.”
“I will indeed court the favor of the next king,” Theseus promised. He wasn’t about to give his word about not fighting the monster, though.
“Good.” His father clapped him on the shoulder. “Sometimes victories are won with political maneuvers not battles.”
Theseus nodded. His father always went to war as a last resort.
“We will prepare your ship and armor at once. You can set sail in the morning.” He reached up and touched one of Theseus’ blond curls. “I wish I could go in your place. Poseidon is a moody god. The sea alone can be dangerous.”
“I am not ready to rule, father. The people need you.”
His father offered him a weak smile. By the look in his eyes, Theseus realized his father knew he would fight the Minotaur anyway. “You are a man now. I cannot protect you from all the evil in the world.”
“I can fight the evil, father. I can protect myself.”
“Yes, and I must remember that, or I will not be able to sleep at night. Athens needs you too, son. You will be ready to rule when the time is right.”
The ceiling groaned as one square tile slid to the left a fraction at a time. Asterion sprinted around the maze and peered around a stone pillar and up at the door. He had often considered trying to escape once there was an opening. However he’d been born with fingernails, not claws. It was impossible for him to scale the smooth stone walls. He’d tried many times and failed. A candle flickered near the opening. Was his step-father present when the children were offered? Could he shout out and speak with him? Likely he had his servants do the dastardly deed, and he knew, if he tried to talk with his step-father, the man would refuse to reply, would try the best he could to forget his existence. Asterion couldn’t help that seeing himself reminded his father of how he cheated Poseidon out of his best bull and how his wife had seduced the prized animal.
While Asterion wanted to glimpse the faces of those entering the labyrinth, he had learned from experience it was best to wait. He slunk back, disappearing back into the darkness. He’d stay close to the center and let his visitors adjust to their fate. The maze had many confusing twists and turns. It had taken him weeks to learn the maze himself. Now, of course, he navigated it with ease. He could get anywhere in the blink of an eye—anywhere but out of his prison.
He exhaled and dropped to his knees next to one of the graves. Without markers he’d long forgotten their names. Every youth knew his name, though, and he hated seeing the fear in their eyes when they first met face-to-face. His heart skipped, and he strained to hear any voices. None. Complete silence. What was it? It was time for the yearly tribute, the door had been opened, and he did not hear one soul in the Labyrinth with him. Without a bit of joy, without something to look forward to, he would go mad. One of his hands itched to form a fist. He did not know the extent of his strength. He’d never tried to be destructive. Perhaps he could break through the stone walls, except then the palace would collapse on top of him. Many more innocent humans would die or be injured in the process. The last thing he wanted was to hurt any man. He just wanted someone to share his bed, someone to love.
The sound of sandals landing on the ground sent his spirits soaring. Someone had come! He held his breath, the anticipation eating him from the inside out. The sandals slapped the stone in a confident stride. Only one set of footsteps. They sounded heavier than ones to belong to a child, and this visitor was far from timid. Who had entered the Labyrinth this time?