The springtime came again. The black-sailed ship was rigged for another voyage. The rude Cretan soldiers paraded the streets; and the herald of King Minos stood at the gates and shouted:
“Yet three days, O Athenians, and your tribute will be due and must be paid!”
Then in every street the doors of the houses were shut and no man went in or out, but every one sat silent with pale cheeks, and wondered whose lot it would be to be chosen this year. But the young prince, Theseus, did not understand; for he had not been told about the tribute.
“What is the meaning of all this?” he cried. “What right has a Cretan to demand tribute in Athens? and what is this tribute of which he speaks?”
Then AEgeus led him aside and with tears told him of the sad war with King Minos, and of the dreadful terms of peace. “Now, say no more,” sobbed AEgeus, “it is better that a few should die even thus than that all should be destroyed.”
“But I will say more,” cried Theseus. “Athens shall not pay tribute to Crete. I myself will go with these youths and maidens, and I will slay the monster Minotaur, and defy King Minos himself upon his throne.”
“Oh, do not be so rash!” said the king; “for no one who is thrust into the den of the Minotaur ever comes out again. Remember that you are the hope of Athens, and do not take this great risk upon yourself.”
“Say you that I am the hope of Athens?” said Theseus. “Then how can I do otherwise than go?” And he began at once to make himself ready.
On the third day all the youths and maidens of the city were brought together in the market place, so that lots might be cast for those who were to be taken. Then two vessels of brass were brought and set before King AEgeus and the herald who had come from Crete. Into one vessel they placed as many balls as there were noble youths in the city, and into the other as many as there were maidens; and all the balls were white save only seven in each vessel, and those were black as ebony.
Then every maiden, without looking, reached her hand into one of the vessels and drew forth a ball, and those who took the black balls were borne away to the black ship, which lay in waiting by the shore. The young men also drew lots in like manner, but when six black balls had been drawn Theseus came quickly forward and said:
“Hold! Let no more balls be drawn. I will be the seventh youth to pay this tribute. Now let us go aboard the black ship and be off.”
Then the people, and King AEgeus himself, went down to the shore to take leave of the young men and maidens, whom they had no hope of seeing again; and all but Theseus wept and were brokenhearted.
“I will come again, father,” he said.
“I will hope that you may,” said the old king. “If when this ship returns, I see a white sail spread above the black one, then I shall know that you are alive and well; but if I see only the black one, it will tell me that you have perished.”