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How Atalanta Kept the Bridge - Part 1

Written by argonaut :: [Friday, 04 March 2005 22:29] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:52]


By Argonaut


This story is dedicated to Larafan, for his prodding and encouragement with my fledgling effort in the “genre.”

Feedback is welcome. Email me at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the second chapter of what could become an extended series. It’s an attempt to set a super-girl story in a locale drawn from myth, legend, folklore, or fantasy – in this case, the world of classical mythology. The story takes place in ancient Greece; its heroine, Atalanta, is contemporary with Hercules (whom she may encounter in a later chapter). Atalanta was the name of a legendary runner and huntress; it seemed a fitting name for a super-heroine (and besides, I like the sound of it). I have taken the names of her parents, and a few other names, from classical sources; but my character has little in common with her legendary namesake. Interested readers can find the story of Atalanta in any good book on classical mythology, such as Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable or Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.

Here’s a synopsis of the (unwritten) first chapter:

Atalanta is a princess of Arcadia, a small and peaceful kingdom surrounded by larger – and increasingly aggressive – neighbors. While all the able-bodied men of Arcadia are off defending its western border from an invading army, a messenger brings word that Egeus, a warlord of Arcadia’s eastern neighbor Argolis, intends to take advantage of the situation by invading from the East. The royal tutor Thales proposes an unusual course of action: he has recently perfected an elixir that will endow its recipient with superhuman strength and speed, invulnerability, and enhanced senses. It can be safely consumed only by a young person in good health – and since all the young men of Arcadia are far away at the moment, he suggests that Atalanta be the one to drink it.

Transformed into a super-girl, Atalanta is dispatched to the Tyndarean Bridge, on Arcadia’s eastern border, which Egeus’ army must cross on its march into Arcadia.

 Swifter than arrow, Atalanta raced across Arcadia. There was no moon, but her keen vision enabled her to see the path before her as clearly as if it were broad daylight. The soles of her sandals had long since worn out under her rapid, untiring footfall – but she found that she could run just as easily in her bare feet. Intent on reaching the Tyndarean Bridge before Egeus’ army, she leaned forward and lengthened her stride, trying to imitate the runners she had watched at the Olympic Games. On and on she sped, a blur across the nocturnal farmlands of Arcadia, her ponytail streaming behind her like a pennant in a strong wind.

So swiftly did she run that she arrived at the great stone bridge well before sunrise. She hurried across it and paused at the other end. Behind her was the Inachus River and the steep slope that led to the western ridge of the valley. Beyond the ridge lay the farms and villages of Arcadia, and the walled city of Calydon, her home. Before her, a darker shadow against the dark sky, rose the eastern side of the valley. Over that rise Egeus’ army would soon arrive, intent on pillaging Arcadia and laying siege to Calydon.

Not if I can stop them, thought Atalanta. She removed her woollen cloak. Clad only in a short, sleeveless tunic, she felt no discomfort from the nocturnal chill, nor she was at all fatigued after running the sixty leagues from Calydon. Turning one ear to the east, she listened intently. She could hear the sound of tramping feet, but – not yet accustomed to her preternaturally acute hearing – she could not estimate how far away the army was.

They’ll be here soon enough, she thought. Egeus is probably planning to cross the bridge at first light. And again she thought, Not if I can stop them.

She felt a cold, tight knot of apprehension in the pit of her stomach – like the fear she always felt before going onstage during the winter theatricals at the palace. Sometimes her voice would fail her altogether; at other times, her words would come out in a high, quavering squeak.

As she thought back over the events of the past few hours, the absurdity of her situation nearly overwhelmed her. I’m one girl, she thought, about to confront an army of a thousand men or more. True, I’m a princess of Arcadia – and I now possess powers and abilities far beyond those of ordinary mortals. But how can I possibly face an entire army? It’s hopeless!

Suddenly she remembered an afternoon when she was a child, and had gone riding in the forest with her mother. Just around a bend in the path, they came upon a fearsome-looking bandit, who brandished a knife and demanded that they hand over their jewelry. While Atalanta quivered in fear, her mother, calm and regal, told the bandit to put his weapon away and let them pass … and much to Atalanta’s astonishment and relief, the fellow stuck his knife in his belt and slunk off into the forest.

Later, she had asked her mother whether she hadn’t been afraid. I would have been afraid for myself, her mother had replied. But for you, I had to be brave.

Standing now by the bridge under a lightening sky, Atalanta took a deep breath. Well, she thought. I can be afraid for myself – but for my father and my mother and my brothers and Hippomenes and Thales and all the people of Arcadia, I have to be brave. Standing up straight – she had almost forgotten that she was now a foot taller than she had been a few hours ago – she turned her gaze toward the eastern ridge.

A dozen or so men, dark against the dawn sky, were just coming over the rise. Atalanta concealed herself behind a boulder and watched as Egeus’ army – five hundred men or more – swarmed down the slope and began to march across the stretch of level ground separating the hillside from the river.

This is it, she thought. I’ve got to go out there and stop them. But how? This is like one of those dreams where I’m about to go onstage but I don’t know what part I’m playing or what I’m supposed to say.

Heart racing, she stepped out from behind the boulder. Shoulders straight, head held high, arms at her side, she took a position in front of the bridge and let her gaze move from left to right across the front rank of the approaching army. Don’t blink, she told herself, remembering how her mother had confronted the bandit. Don’t look aside. They mustn’t see that you’re afraid.

“HALT!” she said. “STOP WHERE YOU ARE!”

She was surprised by the sound of her own voice. Though still unmistakably feminine, it was now deeper, more resonant – and more forceful. She could hear her words echoing from the hillside.

Many of the men in the front ranks had already stopped, looking with curiosity at the spectacle before them – a girl, tall and slender, wearing a scanty tunic, bare-armed and bare-legged in the crepuscular chill. Within moments, the entire army had shuffled to a halt, and the murmur of several hundred voices filled the air. Listening to their coarse guffaws and lewd whistles, Atalanta wished that she could turn, run, hide from the gaze of these men – but she held her ground.

A man in a bearskin cloak had pushed his way forward through the throng. Now, facing the army, he held up a hand for silence. “Quiet, all of you!” he commanded. Then he turned and approached Atalanta.

This must be Egeus, she thought. She was surprised at how … well, ordinary he looked – not at all like the fearsome ogre she had imagined.

He was a short man – barely shoulder-high to Atalanta – though his heavy cloak did not conceal his broad shoulders and brawny arms. Looking up at Atalanta, he grinned affably, displaying a mouthful of crooked teeth through a grizzled, unkempt beard.

“Good morning, miss,” he said with brusque courtesy. “I’m afraid we can’t stop just now, as my men have a busy day ahead of them. But if you’re still here when we return, I’m sure that many of them will be happy to avail themselves of your services!”

Atalanta was puzzled for a moment; then she felt her face burning with indignation. What impertinence! She thought. Why, he thinks I’m a … a camp follower!

She stamped her bare foot – not very hard, but it sent a slight tremor along the ground. “I am not a …” she declared heatedly; then she took a deep breath and tried to speak in a calm, level voice. “I am not … what you think I am,” she said. “I am Atalanta, daughter of Iasus and Clymene, princess of Arcadia and … and chosen champion of its people. And in the name of King Iasus and the assembly of Calydon, I order you to turn around and return to Argolis!”

There was a moment of silence as Egeus stared up at her, slack-jawed; then a roar of derisive laughter arose from the army and echoed from the sides of the valley.

Egeus frowned. I’m not going to stand here and argue with this … this prostitute or lunatic or whatever she is, he thought. He knew that a commander cannot afford to look ridiculous in the eyes of his men. I could carry her off by force, but she’d probably kick and scratch, and that would make me look even sillier. Well, what’s the good of being in command if you can’t delegate?

He turned around and shouted, “Eumongus! Front and center!”

The ranks parted as a giant of a man came lumbering forward. Atalanta was taller than most of the men in Egeus’ army, but even so she had to tilt her head back to look this one in the face. He was seven feet tall, she guessed, with thick muscles that reminded her of the statue of Atlas in the palace courtyard. He had a ponderous lantern jaw and a nose the size of a potato; and he carried a massive oak club.

Egeus gestured toward Ataklanta. “Eumongus,” he said, “escort her highness off the bridge.”

The giant walked up to Atalanta and bobbed his head, smiling bashfully.

“It’s like the captain says, miss,” he said. “We’ve got to get across this bridge, and we wouldn’t want to trample a pretty lass like you.” He raised his club and placed the end against Atalanta’s shoulder. “So if you wouldn’t mind stepping aside …” And he gave the club a gentle push.

“Huh?” Eumongus frowned. He’d only given the girl a slight nudge, but even so, it ought to have made her step back a pace or two. Yet there she stood as if she’d felt nothing at all. Eumongus pushed a little harder – but it was as if he was pushing against the face of a cliff. What in the name of Orion …?

He grunted in bafflement; but before he could try again, the girl had grasped the end of his club with both hands … and the next thing he knew, he was spinning through the air like a stone in a sling. Instinctively, he held on to his club for dear life as the damsel whirled him around and around as if she were a contestant in a hammer-throw … and he were the hammer.

Egeus and his men stared in disbelief. Eumongus weighed nearly twenty stone – yet this slip of a girl was flinging him around as if he were a rag-doll. In truth, Atalanta was nearly as surprised as they were. She had only meant to toss aside the club; but misjudging her own strength, and the giant’s grip, she now found herself spinning him around like a whirligig. What do I do now? She thought desperately. If I let go, there’s no telling where he’ll land … and I don’t want to hurt him.

About a hundred yards upstream, she had noticed, there was a wide, slow-moving stretch of the river. Kind Hestia, guide my aim, she prayed – and released her grip on the club.

Five hundred pairs of eyes followed Eumongus as he traced a graceful upward arc, remained poised for an instant a dozen yards in the air, and fell with a resounding splash in the river. Oh dear, thought Atalanta, I hope he can swim. A moment later, to her relief, she saw the giant make his way, gasping and spluttering, to the riverbank.

Atalanta turned to face the army. She could see amazement and fear in the men’s eyes as they stood staring at her. Well, she thought, it looks as if I’ve got their attention. Thales says that’s the first thing a teacher has to do. Now for their lesson.

An enormous beechwood log, evidently carried downriver by the spring floods, lay on the riverbank near the bridge. A yard in girth and at least twelve feet in length, it would have been beyond the strength of twenty men; yet Atalanta picked it up as if it were a reed. A gasp arose from the army as she lifted it over her head with one arm; then she stepped back in front of the bridge and held the log lengthwise before her, barring the way.

“Go back,” she said. “Turn around and return to Argolis, and leave Arcadia in peace. For I swear by bountiful Demeter that not a single one of you shall cross this bridge!”

Atalanta saw several of the men glance apprehensively at Egeus. Clearly, they were unwilling to risk their commander’s wrath by turning back; but neither did they seem eager to approach the bridge. Egeus frowned, weighing the situation in his mind. Obviously, there was more to this girl than he had realized. He recalled hearing stories of the Amazons, a tribe of warrior women who lived somewhere in Thrace, to the north. By some accounts, an Amazon possessed the strength of ten men. Egeus had always dismissed those stories as mere campfire tales … but now he wasn’t so sure. No matter. Even if this girl did possess the strength of ten men – why, even if she possessed the strength of a hundred – he’d stake his reputation that she was no match for five hundred of his soldiers.

“Forward!” he bellowed. “Over the bridge! This girl may be strong, but by Ares, she’s no match for an army!”

Atalanta watched in dismay as the army, trained to obey, surged toward her. She braced herself as eight men threw their shoulders against the log she was holding, and another dozen men just behind them added their strength to the onslaught … but to no avail. Atalanta held her ground even as more and more men crowded behind those already trying to force her back.

Atalanta’s trepidation vanished as she began to realize just how strong she had become. Why, the huge log she was holding seemed to weigh hardly anything, and it took no effort on her part to hold off a throng of men. I think it’s time to go on the offensive, she thought, recalling a phrase she had heard her brothers use during the rough-and-tumble games they used to play on the palace lawns. Tensing her muscles, she gave the log a sudden push forward – and sent a dozen soldiers falling backward against the men behind them. Within moments, forty or fifty men had toppled to the ground like so many ninepins.

Despite the urgency of her mission, Atalanta could not help laughing at the sight of the fallen soldiers scrambling to their feet. It’s marvelous to be so strong, she thought. Why, I’m beginning to enjoy this!

Suddenly she felt an almost imperceptible tap against her shoulder. Glancing down, she was startled to see an arrow clatter to the ground at her feet, its bronze point mashed flat by its impact against her invulnerable body. A second arrow had already hit her just below her neck, and then another struck her thigh; but like the first, they bounced harmlessly off her. Looking up, she found herself confronted by six archers preparing to send another volley at her. As they drew their bowstrings, Atalanta dropped the log she was holding and stood there in front of the bridge she had sworn to defend. Don’t flinch, she told herself. Remember – you’re invulnerable. Those arrows can’t hurt you …

She put her hands on her hips and tossed her head back in what she hoped was a confident pose. But as the arrows sprang from the bows and flew directly at her, she instinctively squeezed her eyes shut.

A moment later, she opened them again – and giggled with relief when she saw half a dozen blunted arrows lying on the ground before her. Her giggle was cut short, however, when she saw another flight of arrows following closely on the first. I’ve shown these men my strength and my invulnerability, she thought. Now for a demonstration of my speed.

Faster than any human eye could follow, Atalanta sprang forward and snatched up the arrows in mid-flight. So great was her speed that everything around her seemed to have slowed to a standstill; and she seized the flying arrows as easily as if she were plucking apples from the lowest branches of the trees in the royal orchards. To the soldiers, she had become a blur, like the spokes in the wheels of a racing chariot.

A moment later, she was visible again, triumphantly clutching six arrows in her left fist. As the men stared in amazement, Atalanta took one of the arrows and brandished it like a dart between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand. Taking aim at a stout oak tree a dozen yards away, she drew her arm back and sent the arrow flying with such force that it went deep into the trunk, as if the wood were soft clay. Four more arrows followed; and the last arrow she threw with such might that it actually went all the way through the trunk and fell to the ground on the other side.

By now, panic had seized the army. Disregarding Egeus’ bellowed orders, men were fleeing in all directions – some upriver, some downriver, and some back toward the eastern slope of the valley. Watching them scatter, Atalanta allowed herself a smile of satisfaction. She had actually done it: She had single-handedly turned aside an entire army. Arcadia was safe …

Or was it? Atalanta thought quickly. For years, Argolis had pursued a policy of conquest – invading smaller kingdoms, seizing their lands, and subjecting their people to Argolian rule. Now, Argolis sought to add Arcadia to its empire; and a single defeat would hardly induce it to abandon that goal. No, sooner or later another Argolian army would march on Arcadia; and brave Arcadian men would have to fight and die to protect their homeland – her brothers, Hippomenes …

No! thought Atalanta. It wouldn’t be enough to allow the army to retreat, even in its disordered state. She would have to capture it and make sure that Argolis would never again threaten Arcadia – or any other kingdom.

Pausing only to pick up the beechwood log she had dropped, she raced downriver at full speed, easily outrunning the soldiers who were fleeing in that direction. She turned and held the log lengthwise before her, blocking their retreat and forcing them to turn back. Then, like a shepherd’s dog, Atalanta began to run in narrowing circles around the scattered army, herding them into a tight cluster at a spot about a league downriver from the bridge.

Many of her captives threw themselves to the ground, exhausted; others stood dejectedly, realizing that flight was as futile as resistance. Some, however, persisted in trying to flee; and no sooner had Atalanta prevented one of them from escaping than she had to intercept another who was running off in the opposite direction.

Exasperated by their foolish persistence, she decided that rougher measures were called for. She seized the next fugitive by his belt and flung him back toward his comrades with a snap of her wrist; lifting another over her head, she heaved him into the midst of the captive army like a farmer tossing a bale of hay onto a cart. Every man she tossed back knocked over six or eight others; and before long the once- formidable army of Argolis was a writhing, grunting, cursing heap of flailing arms and legs.

It’s time to bring down the curtain, thought Atalanta. Picking up a spear that one of the soldiers had dropped, she drove its point into the ground and traced a large circle around her captives.

“ALL RIGHT,” she said. “LISTEN TO ME, ALL OF YOU!” It was her voice, vibrant and commanding, as much as her words that cowed the men into silence. Atalanta glared at them for a moment, then pointed at the circle she had drawn on the ground. “The first man who steps over that line,” she declared, speaking slowly and distinctly, “I will throw into the river. Do I make myself clear?”

And she pointed to where the Inachus, squeezed into a narrow channel between two great boulders, rushed with irresistible force before plunging into a turbulent pool twenty feet below.

Nobody moved. Little though they enjoyed their captivity – mortifying though it was to be defeated by this slip of a girl – they knew that being tossed into the river meant certain death at the bottom of the waterfall.

Atalanta suddenly noticed that a number of the men were staring at something behind her. Turning around, she beheld the giant Eumongus. Gone was his slow, bashful demeanor; he was dripping wet and his eyes were full of rage. A berserker fury had come upon him, and he rushed toward Atalanta, his club raised high with murderous intent.

Roaring like a bear of Thessaly, Eumongus brought down his club with all his strength. So surprised was Atalanta at his unexpected reappearance that she didn’t think to step out of the way. Even the most hardened of the onlookers winced and looked away as the club struck the girl’s skull and a resounding crack rent the air …

But when they opened their eyes again, they saw Eumongus staring confusedly at the few inches of the club that remained in his grasp. The rest of the mighty cudgel had split lengthwise against Atalanta’s head, and its two halves lay on either side of her. Atalanta’s heart was racing, but she forced a nonchalant smile to her lips.

“I thank you, friend Eumongus,” she said. “This will make fine kindling for the great hearth in the royal palace at Calydon!” And picking up first one half of the club and then the other, she snapped each of them in two as easily as if they had been twigs.

Atalanta pointed at the men huddled inside the circle. “Get in there and behave yourself,” she said, as if she were speaking to an unruly child. Eumongus, his rage spent, meekly obeyed.

Atalanta surveyed the captive army. Most of the men had extricated themselves from the pile, and sat nursing their bruises in silence, not daring to look at her. “Let me speak to Egeus,” she said.

The commander of the army rose to his feet and stepped forward, limping slightly. Atalanta had to give the man credit: He had just suffered an unexpected and humiliating defeat, he probably expected to be thrown over the waterfall – yet he approached her with as much dignity as a bloody nose would permit.

“Order your men to line up,” Atalanta told him. “There’s an abandoned marble quarry about half a league downriver. The pits should be large enough to hold you all until the assembly of Calydon decides what to do with you.”

Egeus, his face expressionless, turned to his men. “You heard … what she said,” he told them. “Single file, no talking, and don’t try to run away.”

“And drop your weapons,” Atalanta added. Actually, most of the men had already discarded their weapons during their flight; the ground was littered in all directions with swords, spears, bows and arrows. A few soldiers removed swords or daggers from their belts and let them fall to the ground. Lining up under Egeus’ direction, and Atalanta’s stern eye, the captive army began to move downriver.

Within an hour, Atalanta’s captives had arrived at the quarry and began climbing, one at a time, down an old ladder into one of the pits. It was sixty feet square and thirty feet deep; it would be crowded and uncomfortable, Atalanta reckoned, but it would hold them well enough for the time being. She would see to it that they had food and water, and physicians to tend to their wounds – though none of them appeared to be seriously hurt.

The last of her captives – except for Egeus – descended the ladder. Hooking a finger under its top rung, Atalanta yanked the ladder up and flung it aside. She turned to Egeus and drew a deep breath. She had had plenty of time to plan what she was about to say to him …

But just as she was about to speak, her ears picked up a strange commotion coming from some distance downriver. She turned in that direction, but the source of the noise was too far away for her to see –

Atalanta blinked. Something strange was happening to her vision. A pine tree, tiny in the distance, suddenly seemed to be standing just a few feet away. Atalanta could clearly make out the needles on its branches, the patches of lichen on its bark, the ants crawling up its trunk. She squinted slightly, and an entirely new scene came into view. Atalanta realized that she was looking at a spot several leagues downriver, and seeing it with perfect clarity. With a little concentration, she found that she could see farther and farther into the distance …

Why, it was like looking through one of those polished crystal discs that Thales was always experimenting with. I’ve got … what’s the word he uses? … “telescopic” vision, she thought. Now let’s see where that commotion is coming from …

League after league, she cast her gaze forward, until … Yes! That must be it! It took her a few moments to bring the scene into focus – and then her heart sank at what she beheld.

To Be Continued

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