Pin Wei sat on the edge of the empty stage quietly strumming her hand-harp, creating a soft tapestry of music that interwove with the hum of conversation provided by the tavern’s patrons. They were deep in an inane discussion about the level of truth contained in the old children’s tale about the minotaur and the labyrinth. Such conversations had ceased to surprise her some time back. The people Reaper gathered about himself were an unusual bunch with eclectic tastes and strange ideas and interests. Pin Wei wasn’t really paying all that much attention, having lost interest around the time that someone, quite ridiculously, had suggested that the minotaur himself had composed the tale. She glanced at Reaper from time to time, but he seemed more amused by than interested in the conversation. In fact, if not for the periodic movement of his hand that lifted ale mug to lips, he might have been sleeping.
“What about you, Hawk?” said one of his warriors. “You’ve been to that part of the world. What do you think?”
Pin Wei’s head jerked up. Reaper had never mentioned anything to her about crossing the ocean to the lands of the East.
Reaper blinked slowly. “I be thinkin’ ye’re all right.” He gave one of his rare smiles. “An’ wrong.” He took another sip of ale.
There were immediate cries of protest from several of the younger warriors. “You can’t go saying things like that! We can’t all be right and wrong at the same time. It’s not possible!”
“Be tha’ so? Ha’ any o’ ye been ta Cretia ta learn th’ truth, or be ye all dependin’ on th’ lies th’ minstrels sing?”
Pin Wei smiled. Only years of training kept her walk over to Reaper’s table from turning into a dance of excitement. She put the harp away, and, fingers almost stumbling in her haste, took out her writing tools while the other patrons called questions and shouted comments to each other. She glanced up as soon as she was ready and caught Reaper watching her, eyes twinkling. He gave her a wink, then, with feigned reluctance, agreed to tell the true tale of the Minotaur of Cretia.
This all happened a long time ago, back in the years before I met Galentin or my swords were cursed, back before I ever heard of Ishmek or met Orlena. I was out wandering the world seeking fun and adventure, staying away from D’vo and the price they had on my head, when I heard about the lands beyond the Endless Ocean from a Lugensian sailor. He was an entrepreneurial sort with light fingers, a quick knife, and a sharp wit. He, too, was constantly being bothered by D’nuran bounty hunters and it was probably this more than the rumours of wealth or monsters that drew him to the East. I was young and naive and thought monster hunting would be a good way to try my mettle, the bounty hunters having grown boringly predictable.
The east is full of people that the nations on this side of the ocean call monsters. I’d been warned as much by the captain of the ship we sailed in. He made pains to insist that though they had the appearance of monsters, they were intelligent beings. It was a shock nonetheless to see monsters walking the streets of cities alongside humans of every race and nationality under the sun. I learned to leave my swords in their scabbards and take people as they came. Just because they weren’t ravening in the streets didn’t make them civilised, or safe, a lesson my light-fingered friend failed to survive.
The minotaur wasn’t as famous then as he is now, and few of the stories I heard in the south described him in any detail. Those that did mostly got it wrong. It probably wouldn’t have mattered all that much if they’d gotten it right, though, as it took me longer than usual to learn their tongue. They had too damned many of them, each one more different than the last, and none in common.
When I set out for the north and the land of Cretia, two steps ahead of the criminal syndicate the Lugensian had run afoul of, I had only a vague idea of what I was getting into. I had been wandering around the wilds of Cretia for a quarter of a moon thinning out the wild boars which were causing havoc with the town’s farms. The boars had become a threat almost as serious as the monsters, their numbers having become unwieldy due to the reluctance of the native hunters to brave the monster-haunted woods. Boar hunting is dangerous at the best of times, but it’s even more so when you don’t know if the boar charging down on you is charging you or fleeing from something worse, and dozens of hunters had disappeared in the forest before I arrived.
Heraklea, the chief town of Cretia, was paying bounties on every head brought in, double if they belonged to monsters, which was why I was out in the forest roasting a boar over a spit and mulling over ways to lure monsters out of their lairs. The boar wasn’t but half-cooked when this tall fellow with a bull’s head, a man’s body, and a gittern slung over his back wandered into my camp looking rather bewildered. He told me my dinner smelled good and when I gave him my pleasant face instead of trying to kill him, he took as an invitation to join me. He sat down by the fire, said his name was Asterion, and offered me a bag of wild fruit and vegetables and a bottle of mead to go along with the boar. I was rather surprised, but, as he wasn’t attacking me, I thought I’d see where things went. Before the night was done we were laughing and telling each other tall tales and well on the way to becoming friends.
Sometime around the middle of the night, having bidden farewell to the first bottle of mead and given warm greetings to the second, he proposed showing me the local sites, the Temple of Poseidon, the Springs of Daphne, the Cave of the Oracle. Those all sounded well enough, if entirely boring, and I told him I was more interested in finding monsters. He looked at me as though I’d just slain his mother, so I filled him in on the details of the bounty the Herakleans were offering. He looked a bit disappointed but didn’t say anything so I dropped the subject. I preferred listening to him play his gittern anyway. He had an odd way of playing, laying it in his lap and dancing his stubby fingers over the strings, but the music he coaxed out of it was like liquid moonlight. He could make me want to weep or dance, depending on the tune he played.
The moons were far down in the sky when he suggested that he might be able to show me where some of the monsters laired. He warned me that he was a minstrel, not a warrior, and would be no help in a fight. I demurred, insisting that he was, if not a full bard, at least a journeyman. He seemed flattered by the suggestion. The conversation circled around for a while, and by the time it got back on the topic of monsters, I’d taken a shining to him, so I offered him half of whatever bounty money I made if he’d act as my guide. We shook hands on it, finished off the third bottle of mead, then went to bed.
I half expected him to be gone in the morning, but he was still there, snoring loudly and occasionally twitching. He woke as soon as I started moving about, stretched until his back popped, then gave me a big smile and asked when I wanted to leave. We spent the next couple of months wandering around the wilds, going from lair to lair. Asterion would find the monster then stand back and compose poems or sing to himself while I fought it. When the fight was over, I’d take the monster’s head and go off to Heraklea to collect the bounty while Asterion set up camp out in the woods. When I got back I’d give him half the gold and we’d share a bottle or two of mead then go out and do it all over again.
Reaper paused to take a drink and Pin Wei looked up. “Did you really not recognise him?”
Pin Wei nodded.
“I done tole ye that I weren’t gi’en a good descriptionin’ o’ him.”
“But you just welcomed a perfect stranger into your camp, let him sit down and started exchanging songs and stories with him!”
“Aye.” Reaper eyed her, an amused expression turning up the corners of his mouth. “Tis nay any more’n I did fer ye.”
Pin Wei paused, mouth open, and stared at him for a moment. “Didn’t you think it was strange that Asterion never went into the town?”
Reaper sighed. “How long d’ye think I usually spends in towns?”
Pin Wei thought about it. “Not more than one day in ten or fifteen.”
Reaper nodded. “An I be some’at accustomed ta th’ press o’ folks about me, ta their glares an’ stares an’ scurryin’ ways. Moreso now than I were then. I jus’ figured Asterion were like me, preferrin’ ta be away from th’ screams o’ th’ ignorant an’ cowardly.”
Pin Wei nodded and jotted down a comment in the margin of her notes.
Reaper took another sip of ale then launched back into his story.
We’d been working together for a number of weeks and I’d been killing a monster every couple of days and taking their heads to Heraklea. There hadn’t been that many of them in that part of the forest to start with, which was why I’d had trouble finding them before Asterion showed up. With all the success I was having with him as my guide, the monsters were starting to get mighty scarce, and we’d sometimes go four or five days without a fight. I figured Asterion would lead us somewhere else, but he seemed reluctant to go more than a couple of days walk from the place where we’d first met. I didn’t want to press him on the issue, not when we were starting to become friends, so the next time I went into Heraklea I asked around about monsters.
The only monster they wanted to talk about was the great and fearsome minotaur. He’d just demanded five virginal young women as tribute on threat of sending monsters to overwhelm the town. Their description left me scratching my head because, physically, it fit Asterion, but they couldn’t have been more different behaviourally. The Herakleans also said that the minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth, trapped there by a great wizard whose daughter the monster had defiled. Just the threat of his escaping was enough to make the townsfolk piss themselves. They were so terrified that the only question they asked when the minotaur’s demands became public knowledge was whose daughters were they going to sacrifice.
When I got back to camp, I asked Asterion about it. As soon as I asked the question, he sat down, his face the picture of misery.
“I knew it couldn’t last,” he said.
“What could nay last?”
“I knew you’d find out sooner or later that I was the minotaur.”
He looked up at me, face still mournful.
“Ye mean ye were nay jokin’?” I said, as soon as I could stop laughing.
He shook his head.
“But ye be nothin’ alike! Well,” I waved a hand at him, “apart from th’ general physic’l description. Th’ creature they be talkin’ ‘bout be fierce an’ terrible an’, no offence mate, but ye’d ha’ trouble scarin’ a mouse lets alone a grown man.”
He gave me one of his smiles. “No offence taken.”
“So what be wi’ th’ townie tales?”
“Oh, they’re twisted half-truths and misleading lies.” He snorted, and I got a glimpse of his angry face. Then he launched into his tale.
It was long and complicated, the way most poetical epics are. The long and short of it though was that he’d once been human but had been transformed into the creature he was now by the magic of a wizard. He’d been a cow-herd and spent his days wandering the woods tending the wizard’s herd of milk cows, bringing them in to the farm twice a day to be milked by Pasiphae, the most beautiful girl in the world. The two of them had fallen in love. Unfortunately for Asterion, the wizard had his eye on the girl too, and when he caught them enjoying conjugal pleasures in the barn, he tried to transform Asterion into a bull. He was only partially successful. He claimed the girl as his wife and took her off to his castle leaving Asterion to wander the woods. The girl had been able to see through the transformation to the man he was inside though, and they’d continued to meet beneath the wizard’s nose. Eventually he caught on and cast another spell that raised the great labyrinth beneath his fortress as a way of keeping the two lovers apart. He also spread the rumour that Asterion was responsible for the disappearance of a number of virgins from the town whose bodies had been found horribly mutilated and partially consumed. Since then Asterion had been wandering the wilds waiting for Pasiphae to break out of the labyrinth and join him.
“Wait! That’s almost entirely the opposite of every other version we know,” said Pin Wei. “Every other story says that the minotaur was imprisoned in the labyrinth to keep him from killing everyone.”
Reaper gave her a wry smile. “An’ what did ev’ry story say o’ me own exploits in D’vo?”
Pin Wei stared at him. The story he’d told about his first trip to the D’nuran Empire had contradicted in almost every way every other story or song about the event.
“Them what ha’ th’ power gets ta tell th’ tale they wants, lass. That dinna mean it be ha’in’ e’en a noddin’ acquaintanceship wi’ th’ truth.”
“But,” she said, “he could have been telling you a pack of lies to get you to help him.” It was more of a knee-jerk protest than anything else.
Reaper snorted. “Aye, ‘e coulda been. Ye be forgettin’ tha’ I’d spent th’ last sev’ral weeks wi’ th’ man, an’ I’d a pretty good readin’ o’ ‘im. ‘E were nay a killer. ‘E could na e’en kill a rabbit fer dinner let alone a young woman.”
Pin Wei frowned. “Just because he couldn’t kill a rabbit doesn’t mean he couldn’t kill a human. If he doesn’t eat rabbit, but he does eat human… or if there’s some geas or curse on him…”
“Aye, those be possibilitious, but that dinna explain the other things that were anacrynomius ‘bout th’ situation.”
It took Pin Wei a moment to parse that sentence. She hated it when Reaper made up words. “Like what?”
“Th’ minotaur were supposed ta be a ravagin’ ragin’ beast, killin any what come near it an’ eatin’ th’ virgins. I had na seen tha’. Asterion were one o’ th’ most peaceable folk I done e’er meet.”
Reaper shot her a smile. “Ye baint bein’ all that peaceable, lass. Ye done use words instead o’ swords, true, but ye slay just as many wi’ them as I e’er ha’ wi’ me blades.”
Pin Wei smiled at the compliment.
“Now, ifn ye be done wi’ yer interruptionin’?” He didn’t wait for an answer.