The bull snorted and somehow that one sound was louder than all the noise of the crowd in the arena. The animal tossed its head and snorted again, looking around to choose its next target.
“Come on Pythagoras. It’s your turn. Don’t let us down.”
Jason smiled encouragingly, but Pythagoras could see the look was fake. The truth was in Jason’s eyes, and Jason’s eyes said he thought Pythagoras was going to fail them.
The bull snorted again and began to move towards him. Pythagoras froze. The bull quickened its pace until it was in a full out charge right at him and still Pythagoras could not move. Jason had left his side, they had all deserted him.
He didn’t even know who had shouted but the words broke through his paralysis. He lurched forwards when every instinct in him was screaming at him to turn and run the other way. He started to run towards the bull.
He knew immediately that he left it too late. The bull was too close and he did not have enough of a run up to gain sufficient momentum. In one final, desperate attempt, he launched himself into the air, higher than he had ever jumped in his life.
He almost made it. The bull tossed its head and if he had just leapt a fraction higher he would have cleared it, but the bull’s horn caught his foot and it was enough to send him into an uncontrolled spin in mid air. He bounced off the bull’s thick hide and crashed to the ground in a spray of sand. For a second he could neither see nor breathe, and when he did finally drag a breath in, his chest burned with the pain of what he suspected were cracked ribs. He blinked the sand and dust out of his eyes in time to see the bull skid to a halt and turn around to face him again.
The crowd had become strangely quiet. Not even his friends were shouting any more. He didn’t want to look at them. Especially not Jason. The bull began to charge again.
He had failed. They would all die because of him.
He closed his eyes and prayed to the gods until the very last second when he felt the bull’s hot breath on his face, and knew that of them all, he would be the first to die.
Pythagoras’ eyes snapped open and for several seconds he could only stare into the darkness, listening to the sound of his own quick, ragged breathing.
Another nightmare. Shit.
He sat up and dragged his hands over his face, trying not to think about the images that were still so clear in his head.
There was a quiet sound somewhere not far off to his side and he looked up to see Shabaka watching him. The man held his gaze for a few moments and then he shifted on his blankets as if to turn over, and Pythagoras saw him wince. He had been hurt in today’s practice; Pythagoras had bandaged the wound himself when they had all been returned to the cells.
He got up and went over to Shabaka.
“Are you alright? Do you need me to look at your arm again?” he whispered.
Shabaka turned back towards him and propped himself up on his elbows.
“I am fine. There is nothing more you can do that you have not done already.” He hesitated. “It is you I am worried about.”
Pythagoras shook his head and tried to move away, but Shabaka grabbed hold of his arm and stopped him.
“You have been having nightmares every single night since you arrived.”
He had hoped no one had noticed that.
“We are to face the bull in front of the king in two days time. I’m sure we are all having nightmares.”
“Not all of us lie there murmuring the word ‘fail’ in our sleep.”
His gut clenched and Pythagoras tried to move away again, but Shabaka would not let go of his arm.
“In all the days we have been practising, Pythagoras, you have not jumped the bull. You jumped the mock-up at the beginning, but since we have faced the real bull you always put yourself at the back of the group, and as soon as someone is hurt you run to their aid and stay with them until the practice is over.” He glanced down at the bandage around his arm. “Your desire to help people is appreciated, but it will not save us when we must all leap the bull in the arena.”
He had hoped no one would have noticed that as well. Apparently Shabaka was more observant than he had given the man credit for.
Pythagoras glanced back at the others to reassure himself that they were all still asleep. Then he sighed and sat down beside Shabaka. The other man sat up properly and leaned back against the wall.
“The bull is frightening,” Shabaka observed.
“It is, but that is not the problem.” Pythagoras looked down at his hands. “I fear that I will fail, and that everyone else will die because of it.”
“Then surely the answer is to practise harder, not to avoid it.”
Pythagoras glanced back at his friends again and tried to work out how to say what he had been thinking ever since Minos had decided their fate.
“Do you remember what the team was like when we first arrived? You and Cyrus were at each other’s throats, Elpis had lost hope before we even began. Jason has given us all hope.”
“I don’t understand-”
“I am not Jason. Jason is fast and brave and athletic. Jason makes everyone around him believe that they can do anything, and right now that hope is the only thing that is keeping everyone together. As you so rightly pointed out, we must all leap the bull; if just one of us fails then we will all be killed.”
“I still don’t-”
“Look at me, Shabaka. I am not Jason. I am slow and clumsy. If everyone was to see how bad I am...”
“Then you fear we will all lose hope and the team will fall apart.”
Pythagoras nodded. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the other man. He wasn’t even sure why he was telling him all this. He hadn’t been able to admit it to Jason, or even Hercules, but it seemed he could not stay silent any longer.
“What makes you so sure that you will fail?” Shabaka asked. He sounded honestly confused.
“I am the academic one, the one who would rather spend hours studying in the library than having adventures. I am not like Jason.”
Compared to Jason, Pythagoras knew he was nothing.
“None of us are anything like Jason. I have only known him for a few days and even I can see that he is something special.”
“But you don’t have to be as good as Jason,” Shabaka continued. “You only have to be good enough to jump the bull once.”
Pythagoras was about to protest but Shabaka’s words made him pause. He frowned. He looked up at Shabaka.
“You weren’t too bad when you jumped the mock-up. And if Hercules can jump the bull, surely anyone can.”
Pythagoras felt himself smile at that.
Shabaka was right. People, ordinary, normal people, successfully jumped the bull all the time. Jason made it look easy, but that was because Jason was, indeed, very special. Pythagoras couldn’t remember when he had started comparing himself to Jason, but he needed to stop because it was stupid and pointless, and the only thing it seemed to have achieved was to destroy his own self-confidence.
“I am an idiot,” Pythagoras said, still smiling a little.
“Not according to Jason. He says you’re a genius.”
“Jason sees the best in people.”
Even as he spoke, though, Pythagoras’ mind was already getting to work. He began to wonder if he had been approaching this all wrong. Perhaps he needed to think of it in terms that played to his strengths, not his weaknesses.
It was undoubtedly true that he was not physically strong or fast, but perhaps if he were able to calculate the necessary velocity and the best trajectory for his leap... yes, it was all about finding the right angle, and angles were very much his speciality.
Shabaka must have seen the change in his demeanour, because he gave Pythagoras an approving nod.
“Tomorrow, when we have our final practice, you must be the first to face the bull. Put yourself to the front and show everyone that you can do it.”
Pythagoras found himself nodding before he realised quite what he was agreeing to.
“No excuses,” Shabaka said before he could protest.
“Fine,” Pythagoras agreed. “And then all we need to worry about is how to stop Pasiphae putting a curse on Jason.”
“One thing at a time, perhaps.” Shabaka reached out and squeezed his shoulder.
“If we are to stand any chance against the bull tomorrow, we should probably try to get a little more sleep.” Pythagoras got up, and then hesitated and looked back at him. “Thank you.”
“Do not thank me until we are all free of this place.”
Pythagoras returned to his spot on the floor and settled back down. For the first time since Minos had passed sentence on them, he allowed himself to think there was a chance they might win their freedom. He allowed himself to believe that he would not fail.
There were no more nightmares that night, and the next day, when Shabaka gave him a gentle shove, Pythagoras took the first place right at the front of the group.
And he even let Shabaka say ‘I told you so’ after he successfully leaped the bull.