The King Must Die is the story of Theseus, hero of Greek myth, but addressed through the lens of the real-world archeological record. The story removes the mythical elements of Theseus's journey and substitutes a more realistic narrative without monsters, gods, or supernatural events. It follows Theseus from his childhood in Troizen and throughout his life as a wandering soldier, sailor, and merchant until he reaches Naxos where he reigns as king in his prime.
The story is told by Theseus, looking back on his life from his vantage point as an adult. The novel opens with Theseus as a six-year-old child in the household of his grandfather, King Pittheus of Troizen. His mother is a priestess; his father's identity is unknown.
Theseus recounts an early experience that made a great impact upon him and which contains some of the key themes running throughout the book. He recalls the rite of the Horse sacrifice; he is shocked and saddened when he sees the "King Horse", whom he considers a noble beast and his friend, killed in front of him as a sacrifice to the gods. However, this leads to a conversation with his grandfather the King who tells him how the King used to be sacrificed with the Horse and how even now a true king of the Hellene people, whose duty is to look after his people, may need to make the ultimate sacrifice. His grandfather discusses the role of "moira" or fate in their lives but also emphasizes that in order for a king to lead his people, he must consent to the risk of sacrifice, in order that "he can walk with the god". This becomes a recurrent theme in the story as, time and time again, Theseus is faced with the choice of choosing a safe course of action over one where he places his faith in the "god" and his skill and where he consents to what he sees as the will of the god. It is during the horse sacrifice that he first hears a surging sea-sound in his ears that he identifies as the voice of his god.
After the horse sacrifice, he serves at Poseidon's temple for the next three years. While serving at Poseidon's temple one day, he senses that something is wrong and at that moment an earthquake shakes the temple. Theseus is told by his grandfather that his ability to sense earthquakes is a warning sent to him by the god so that he can protect the people.
Cretan ships come to Troizen to take away young boys and girls as tribute to Minos for the bull dancing in Crete. Theseus asks his grandfather why he doesn't fight the Cretans. His grandfather tells him that the Cretans control the essential sea trade routes and that they could bring 5,000 men to Troizen in a day. He sends Theseus into the hills so that he is not chosen for the bulldance.
Theseus becomes frustrated because he is shorter and lighter than most Hellenes his age. As a result, he fails at the traditional wrestling style that relies just on weight and strength, though he is an excellent archer, javelin-thrower, and runner. As time goes on, Theseus figures out how to compensate for his lighter build by learning to defeat his wrestling opponents through agility, using special holds and throws, some taught to him by two Egyptian boys and others formulated by his own ingenuity.
When Theseus turns seventeen, his mother takes him to the sacred Grove of Zeus in the hills and explains that his father made her swear an oath not to tell him who his father was unless he could pry up a certain heavy stone. Theseus tries again and again to lift up the stone, but fails. His failure haunts him for 2 weeks or more but, after listening to a harper tell of the mechanisms used to hoist stones for a great temple he realizes that he can use a lever to raise the great stone. He recovers a man's sword and sandals from beneath it. His grandfather explains that Theseus is the only son and heir of King Aigeus of Athens. Theseus is to travel to Athens and join his father at once. Theseus decides to go to Athens via the bandit-infested land route: the Isthmus of Corinth.
In Eleusis, a matriarchical and non-Hellene society focused on worship of the Earth mother goddess,it is the custom to kill their king each year, as a sacrifice to the Earth mother goddess.
As Theseus enters Eleusis, he is halted on the road by the 27-year-old Eleusinian Queen, who is the priestess for the mother goddess and whose sacred name is Persephone. She tells him he must wrestle her husband, Kerkyon, the year-king, in single combat, since this is the "day when the King must die". He believes that the Eleusinians may kill him if he refuses or the priestess may curse him and in any event he decides that fate has set this battle in his path and that he must trust in the gods.
Theseus begins to wrestle Kerkyon; it turns out that Kerkyon is, like Theseus, a good wrestler and is also older and stronger than Theseus. The Queen as priestess begins to beat upon a loud gong while the women of Eleusis chant in order to diminish the spirit of Kerkyon and help Theseus win. This is illustrative of a repeated theme in this book where an action or event occurs that is interpreted by some or all of the characters as having a supernatural element but can also be read as having a naturalistic explanation, e.g., purely as the natural consequence of the beliefs of the people. Theseus pins Kerkyon to the ground but, before he kills him, makes sure he is ready to die and asks Kerkyon to discharge Theseus of his death.
Once he kills Kerkyon, he becomes the year-king and husband of the Queen in his stead.
But he soon learns that the Queen rules in Eleusis and the King has no real power. The people shower love and gifts on the King but that is because he is expected to die in one year's time. Theseus soon becomes restless after he tries to participate in governing with his Queen and is rebuffed. He begins to plan to build a base of support amongst the Eleusinian youths who accompany him around Eleusis. He takes them away on hunts to build some sense of independence and camaraderie amongst them. His shows his strategic gifts by giving thought to how he can build an alliance with neighboring Megara since he does not wish to die at the end of his one-year reign. With his companions, he hunts the great she-boar Phaia and kills the beast. Pylas, prince of Megara, is impressed by this feat. Theseus,persuades Pylas to ask the Queen's brother to undertake a joint war to eliminate the bandits that infest the Isthmus of Corinth.
Xanthos, the brother of the Queen, agrees to go to war with Megara and further even agrees to let Theseus lead, given his experience in the Isthmus. He does not suspect that his wife and lover, the Queen, has asked Xanthos to take this opportunity to have Theseus killed. Persephone correctly anticipates that Theseus is trying to overthrow the established order and change the custom that the King must die.
The cleansing of the Isthmus of bandits is a complete success and the two attempts by Xanthos to kill Theseus through the covert efforts of others fail. Theseus learns of the treachery of Xanthos and confronts him, challenging him to fight. Theseus strikes Xanthos with a mortal blow. Theseus retires to bed that night with his new won slave girl, Philona, who dresses his wounds. She asks him to promise to never separate her from his household. He keeps this promise and later in life, he has two sons by her, Itheus the shipmaster and Engenes, commander of the Palace Guard.
With the excuse of wanting to be purified of Xanthos's blood at the Athenian shrine of Apollo, Theseus finally goes to Athens. But his aged father Aigeus, who fears the powerful young king (whom he quite fails to recognise as his son), would have poisoned Theseus on the urging of his lover Medea, who wants the Athenian throne for her sons. But Aigeus recognises Theseus's sword just in time, and knocks the poisoned goblet from his son's hand. Medea escapes. Aigeus proclaims Theseus his son and heir.
When a Cretan ship comes to collect a yearly tribute of seven boys and seven girls from Athens, Theseus offers himself in one boy's place. He insists, despite his father's pleas, claiming that it is what his patron god Poseidon has asked him to do. Theseus becomes a Cretan slave.
The boat makes for Crete, and Theseus is content with the idea that he is to be sacrificed to Poseidon. When a fight occurs between an Eleusinian and Athenian boy, Theseus stops it and realizes he must do something. He becomes king of the victims, and makes them swear an oath that they will be together, not Minyans or Hellenes, but one group. They call themselves the Cranes. One of the girls, Helike, is a tumbler, and can dance very well.
Bull dancers train for three months in Knossos Palace before they go and get their bull. Then the bull has to catch them; they are not sacrificed to him. The bull-dance began as a sacrifice to Poseidon, whom they believe lives beneath the Palace and causes earthquakes when he is angry. Over the ages the bull-dance developed into an art form, and those who survive the dance teach their art to the newer ones. They go in teams in front of the bull and sometimes, with a good team, the bull tires before someone is killed. In older days noble Cretan youths did it themselves for honor, but those days are gone, and they bring in slaves now. They learn that teams of fourteen dance, but are not usually kept together. To show that they are a team, they perform the Crane dance when they come into port. A crowd of Cretans is there, and larger, fairer people who are from the Palace. The court of King Minos is of Hellene descent and speaks Greek.
Among the courtiers is a large man who is greatly respected, so that one of the Cranes speculates that he might be the King, but Theseus says that he isn't kingly before realizing that they'll understand what he says. The large man slaps Theseus, and then slaps him again after receiving a curt answer to a question. The man throws a gold ring in the water and tells him to find it if he is Poseidon's son. Theseus prays to Poseidon, finds the ring, and comes up with it. The man asks for it back, but then Theseus says it was offered to Poseidon and throws it back in. The man is Asterion, son of Minos.
They see Knossos Palace, the hugely impressive House of the Axe. The walls of Crete are the seas that the King's ships control. The Cretans call the palace the Labyrinth, and the Cranes see the King in a brief ceremony.
In a room with a huge statue of the Mother, a priestess accepts tokens from the nobles, who point to members of the group. She is "Ariadne the Holy One, the Goddess-on-Earth." She cleanses Theseus, because he has shed the blood of kinsmen. Theseus desires her and has to keep himself calm.
A man named Aktor comes to take them into the bull court and is told to train them as a team. One boy, clearly the leader of them all, called the Corinthian, sizes up the Cranes and talks to them. They learn that they are the first team to be kept together and that only the King had ever dedicated an entire team before Asterion did it.
The bull-dancers all live and eat together. The boys are allowed to roam the Palace at night, while the girls are kept securely in a separate dorm. Although he never sleeps with the girls of the Bull Court, Theseus learns it is not hard for a bull-dancer to get a woman. Other dancers are in homosexual relationships with each other.
They practice using the Bull of Daedalus, named after its original designer. The bronze horns were supposedly his own handiwork. The bull-leapers are respected athletes, for they grasp the bull's horns and fly off them when his head rears and are caught by other dancers when they land. Each member of the team is critical to the life of everyone else. The Cretan bulls have been bred for the dance, and the intelligent and quick ones are used for sacrifice. The ones in the dance are slower, but still dangerous. But they cannot be harmed, for the god lives inside them.
At the bull dance performance, everyone addresses Ariadne as the Goddess, saying "We salute you, we who are going to die." The Corinthian tries to help another dancer who is disliked by her own team. They would not help her, but the Corinthian does and is killed for it. Theseus makes the Cranes swear a new oath to hold the life of each as precious as their own. A boy gives him a bracelet that the Corinthian wanted him to have.
They go get their bull in the pasture, and name him Herakles. They learn that Asterion is not really the King's son but the Queen's, by a bull-leaper, and the King has treated him poorly so there is no love between them.
Theseus becomes consumed by the bull dance, feeling that being a bull-leaper is all one could ever ask for in life. The team survives for three months without a single member dying, which is unheard of.
Theseus receives a summons to a party given by Asterion, where he is patronized and treated like a prize horse instead of a person. Asterion makes even Theseus' honor an object of amusement. The other lords are kinder to him. They no longer think much of the gods and their honor does not mean much to them. Adultery means little to them, and they hold no grudges. The Cretan nobles are weary of life the way it is, because things have been so easy for them. Another sign that Crete is falling into decadence is their art. Cretans are the best potters in the world, but they have gotten bored with the beauty of their pottery and begin constructing crude things, simply because they are new.
One day he is taken to meet ten-year-old Phaedra, the King's daughter, who says she is in love with him. He tells her that if he lives he will be a king, and says she can marry him then. (This is an unconscious prophecy as it actually will happen later in their lives.) Theseus dreams of conquering Crete and knows that the native Cretans would help him. Helike's brother shows up as a traveling performer, whose secret purpose in coming is to make offerings for his sister in the next life. Theseus explains that she is still alive and tells the boy to give a message to Aigeus, saying that Crete is ripe for the plucking. With the Cranes he begins to plan an uprising.
Theseus is taken by an old woman to a trapdoor in the Labyrinth. Underneath he finds a passageway, and she instructs him to follow a thread that is tied to a column. Theseus walks along, with jars of grain all around him, and eventually sees a store of old weapons. He notes the spot and continues to follow the thread. He comes out underneath the large statue of the Goddess. There he meets Ariadne, who has perceived his kingly qualities starting with the incident at the harbor, and is in love with him. He sleeps with her and returns to the Bull Court before morning. They spend their nights together, and she tells him that her father, Minos, is sick with leprosy and that Asterion is responsible. Asterion has been gathering power while the king wastes away so that none will dare oppose him when Minos dies. Many are loyal to Asterion, and he rules already as king in everything but name. This state of affairs horrifies Theseus, because a ruler needs to be dedicated to the gods in order to properly lead the people. Cretan tradition requires a new Minos to throw a ring into the sea, "marrying" it. Asterion tried to do so, but Theseus unknowingly thwarted him and then threw the ring himself.
Theseus tells the Cranes what he knows, without mentioning Ariadne, and he begins moving the old weapons to an easily accessible spot. The Cranes have been together for three seasons, and they do their best to keep fresh and ready all the time. Ariadne takes Theseus to speak with King Minos, following threads through the underground maze. Minos wishes him to marry Ariadne, and Theseus agrees. Minos does not believe in the gods. He warns that Asterion wants to marry Ariadne in order to keep his power, for the Cretans respect the Goddess. Theseus tells the King of his plan to get help from his father, although in his heart, Theseus does not think ships will come. He tells Minos that Poseidon will send a sign.
Ariadne makes up ahead of time what she will prophesy in her oracles; she can no longer hear the voices of the gods. With a trustworthy noble and other bull dancers, Theseus plans a revolt. They begin to bring arms into the Bull Court. Spring comes, and soon the winds from the south begin to blow, and they know that this means there will be no help from any foreign ships. Perimos' son, Alektryon, plans on picking a fight with a member of Asterion's guard because the household would all attend the funeral and they could attack then.
The next day, Alektryon comes to get Theseus in the Bull Court, and tells him to go see the King. Minos wants Theseus to kill him, with the ax Labrys, the ancient guardian of the house. Theseus sacrifices the King, after promising to care for Ariadne, and then returns to the Bull Court and sleeps.
Theseus tells Amyntor that the King is dying, but he is surprised that no noise has been made about the dead king yet. When they have their bull dance that day, Herakles has seemingly gone mad and almost kills Theseus before falling dead. With the King dead, Asterion needed more money to buy troops to take power, so he drugged the bull and bet on Theseus to die, at great odds. They swear they will have vengeance. Theseus feels strange before falling asleep, later finding out that he slept right through an earthquake.
Theseus feels strange again the next day, and when another earthquake occurs, people around him realize he can sense them. The Cretans believe the poisoning of the bull offended Poseidon. Theseus feels so sick he knows there is going to be an immense earthquake soon. Poseidon is angrier than any of them could imagine. He says they must break out because the house will collapse around them. He yells out that Poseidon is coming and that the House of the Axe will fall. The revolt begins, and the dancers nearly panic before Theseus rallies them. They break out of the bull court using Daedalus' model.
As the earthquake strikes and the palace crumbles, Theseus saves Ariadne, and is cheered by the bull-dancers and the native Cretans, who heard his warning and fled the palace in time. Asterion is already taking part in the ritual to make himself the new Minos. They charge at the guards while a fire rages through the ruined Labyrinth. While the others fight, Theseus goes with the Cranes through a secret passageway, and they find Asterion wearing only the bull mask of Minos. Theseus charges him, interrupting the rite, and after a battle he stabs Asterion with his dagger. Seeing that Asterion had already been anointed with oil, Theseus puts on the mask, raises Labrys, and sacrifices the King.
Nearly all the bull-dancers, plus Ariadne, whom Theseus intends to marry, take a ship and sail for Greece. On the way, they find what is left of the island of Kalliste, just destroyed by a colossal volcanic explosion. They wonder what impiety provoked the gods into causing such destruction.
They land on the island of Dia, whose capital city is Naxos. The people there, who worship the Mother, are amazed by Ariadne, and carry her in a litter to the Palace. The Queen welcomes them, and Theseus looks at the King, who seems distracted, and then realizes that he will be killed the next day at the feast of Dionysos. The Queen invites them to stay for the feast, and Ariadne accepts, although Theseus wishes that she had not.
The next day the king is brought in a ship onto the sacred island, and goes up into the hills. Everyone is drunk, and all of the women go along to the island. Everyone begins going off into the hills. Theseus waits for Ariadne but she does not return. He learns that she is with the Queen in the front. Theseus runs up into the hills, and looks for her. Some of the women begin dropping away from the carriage and finding men, and Theseus drinks more and searches for Ariadne. He soon sleeps with a girl. He sees another girl watching them, and the three of them stay together for a while.
The day goes by, and people begin returning from the hills. Theseus waits for Ariadne, and finally the procession passes by, looking tired and stained with blood from the sacrifice. He waits until the chariot goes by, and then turns to go back, but he sees Ariadne inside. He runs up to the chariot, which is pushed by two priests. She has passed out, and Theseus thinks that the older priest slept with her on the mountain. Ariadne is unharmed, but there is blood all around her, and when she opens the hand that lay on her breast Theseus sees something that causes him to be sick.
The older priest talks to Theseus and tells him he cannot understand some things, but Theseus feels that he cannot bring her back to Athens after what he has seen.
Theseus makes sure that Ariadne will be honored there and then tells the priest to explain to the Queen why they leave that night. Theseus feels sad to have left Ariadne, but that he cannot do otherwise. After gathering his companions, they set sail that night.
They reach Delos the next morning, and rejoice to be so close to home. They bathe in a sacred lake, and Theseus asks a priest about the harper whom he has heard at Troizen. He learns that the harper was killed in his native Thrace, and the stories and songs about him are many after his death. Some stories are recognizable as the basis of legends about Orpheus.
They sail on the next day, and see a fire burning far in the distance. Theseus knows it is the beacon his father had put up, and he remembers Aigeus's request that he paint his sail with white. But Theseus is conflicted, because he cannot be sure what his father meant. Aigeus had said that the god would have a message for him with the painted sail, and Theseus thinks that if he paints it then his father will read it as a sign to sacrifice himself to the god.
Theseus wades into the water and asks Poseidon for a sign. The god responds, and Theseus knows that he should not paint the sails. He says that he never anticipated that his father would die. He is sure the god did not lead him incorrectly. He believes that perhaps, since his father jumped from a balcony high up, he was called by the god; otherwise he could have fallen on his sword or taken poison.
Theseus becomes King and we have hints of what is to come in later years.