How Atalanta Kept the Bridge - Part 3 (Conclusion)
Written by argonaut :: [Tuesday, 27 September 2005 00:22] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:53]
HOW ATALANTA KEPT THE BRIDGE: Conclusion
WRITTEN FOR SGI WORKSHOP 1.5
This chapter is dedicated to Ultragirl.
As the powerful current of the Inachus bore five hundred men back to Argolis, swift-limbed Atalanta raced back upriver. Easily, confidently, she leapt from bank to bank, making her way back to the quarry where another five hundred men lay captive.
The sun was not yet at its zenith, and Atalanta thought with wonder of all that she had done in the past few hours. She had run sixty leagues from Calydon to the Tyndarean Bridge; she had single-handedly defeated one army and taken it captive; she had put another army to rout and sent it back to Argolis.
How strange it still seems, she thought, and yet how marvelous – to be so swift … so strong! To be without fatigue and impervious to the deadliest of weapons! To see so keenly … to hear so acutely! And best of how, how wonderful to be able to use these powers to defend my homeland and protect its people!
She paused by a pine tree that lay athwart the river bank – a fallen titan of the forest, nearly thirty feet long. Smiling at this opportunity to put her newly gained strength to the test, she strode to a spot halfway along the trunk and, stooping, slid her hand beneath it. Raising her arm, she found that she could lift the massive tree as easily as if it were a stick of kindling. She held it over her head for a few moments; then she lowered her hand to the level of her shoulder, balancing the tree on her palm. With a gentle upward thrust, she sent the tree a dozen feet into the air, spinning like a baton; and she caught it deftly as it fell.
Suddenly she remembered a geography lesson from her childhood, when Thales had told her of the Hyperboreans – fierce, brawny men with fiery red hair who lived on an island far to the north where the sun never set in summer, never rose in winter. Proud of their immense strength – and inspired by a strong amber-colored beverage called whisky – they would vie to see which of them could toss a heavy log the farthest, and great honor went to the victor.
Once again, Atalanta thrust her arm straight upward; once again, the great tree went sailing into the air; but this time – just as she had intended – it fell in an upright position. She caught it on the fingertips of her outstretched hand; then, balancing it carefully, she brought her hand in toward her waist. Trying to remember how Thales had described the log-tossing contests, Atalanta held the tree upright in the palms of both hands; she squatted; then she straightened her legs and thrust her arms upward, hurling the tree into the air with all her strength.
With a great whoosh the tree flew upward. Higher and higher it rose, until it was only a speck in the clear blue sky, nearly invisible even to Atalanta’s far-seeing vision. Atalanta waited, holding her breath and counting off the seconds, until at last a snapping, crashing noise came to her ears from a great distance, telling her that the tree had landed somewhere in the forest far downriver.
Well! She giggled, brushing a few chips of bark off her hands, I wonder what the Hyperboreans would think of that!
She shook her head, frowning. Enough of these games, she told herself severely. You have captives to attend to, and news to bring back to Calydon. Leaping from bank to bank, she continued to make her way upriver. Soon the stony, uneven ground gave way to level turf; and a final sprint brought her to the quarry where only an hour ago she had made half the army of Argolis her prisoners.
A quick glance into the pit revealed that the soldiers were still safely captive. Most of them, exhausted from their overnight march and their rout at the bridge, were resting as best they could on the stone floor of the quarry, kerchiefs over their faces. Some were conversing in low, dejected tones, passing around one of the water-skins that Atalanta had left with them; and in one corner, a half-dozen soldiers were throwing dice in a bored, apathetic manner.
Satisfied, Atalanta turned around – and panic took her breath away.
Egeus, their commander, was gone.
Atalanta stamped her foot in annoyance, recalling that in her haste to intercept the second army she had simply lifted Egeus up and left him dangling by the collar of his cloak from a branch of a nearby oak tree, sputtering at the indignity of his situation. Evidently the warlord, more agile than she had given him credit for, had managed to get down. Careless fool! Thought Atalanta. Why didn’t I take the time to imprison him properly? At last I had the forethought to toss the ladder across the river, or else he’d have freed his men by now. As it is, he’s escaped – run off to who knows where … or else …
Of course! The ladder! Egeus was no doubt making his way back to the bridge, so that he could cross the river, retrieve the ladder, and return to free his army …
Swift as an arrow new-sprung from the bow, Atalanta was running upriver, scanning both sides of the river with her keen vision, alert for any sign of the fugitive. Wind rushed against her face, brushing away the tears of shame that sprang to her eyes. How can I return to Calydon, she thought, and tell my parents – my brothers – Thales – that I captured Arcadia’s most dangerous enemy, only to let him escape? She ran through sunny glade and shady grove, the murmur of the Inachus in her ears, determined that the would-be conqueror of her homeland not slip through her fingers …
In the event, Egeus was not difficult to find. Atalanta’s path took her through a copse of beeches, and as she emerged she saw the warlord sitting in plain view on a rock by the side of the trail, not far from the waterfall where she had taken his army captive. Evidently he had been awaiting her, for he rose quickly and held up a hand.
“Greetings, Princess,” he said with rough formality. “Please, do nothing hasty, for we have something of importance to discuss.” He displayed a row of crooked teeth in a wolfish semblance of a smile.
“We have nothing to discuss, Egeus,” retorted Atalanta. “Half your army are my prisoners. As for the other half – even as we speak, the Inachus is sweeping them back to Argolis. If you don’t believe me – “
“Oh, I believe you,” said Egeus, and for all his brazen insolence there was a note of sincere respect in his voice. “After all, I’ve seen your amazing abilities at first hand.” He smiled again, gazing at Atalanta appraisingly. “I suppose there’s no point in trying to persuade you to join with me? Just think – with my strategic brilliance and your incredible strength, we’d be unstoppable! Why, I’m prepared to offer you a full third of our spoils … and you could have a kingdom to rule as your own – a wealthy kingdom with fine cities, and riches you could make your own. Arcadia is pretty, my dear, but surely it’s a little on the … dull side? Not interested? Well, you can’t fault me for trying.”
“It’s over, Egeus,” said Atalanta. Despite herself, she found the warlord’s cool bravado somewhat unnerving. “You might as well – “
“With all due respect, Princess, you’re wrong. The game isn’t over – and the next move is mine.” He gestured toward the top of the eastern ridge, behind which lay Argolis. “Look up there!”
Atalanta’s eyes widened as she looked in the direction that Egeus was pointing. A dozen Argolian soldiers were tending to an enormous wooden contraption of unfamiliar yet ominous design. Presumably they had been in the rear of Egeus’ army; it must have taken them all morning to push the huge object, whatever it was, up the side of the ridge. It consisted of a wheeled wooden platform, longer and wider than a hay-wagon, surmounted by a wooden scaffolding and an assemblage of levers and winches. Thick ropes, stretched nearly to the breaking point, strained against a horizontal oaken beam held down by a wooden bracket. And attached to the end of the beam was a strong canvas sling cradling a boulder that must have been four feet in diameter.
Atalanta continued to stare at the strange device. What could it possibly be, and what purpose could it serve? It reminded her of the mechanical toys that Thales used to make for her brothers when they were children – but grown to monstrous, cyclopean proportions. In the late morning sun, it cast an ominous shadow down the slope in the direction of Arcadia …
“Behold the latest in Argolian military technology,” said Egeus with satisfaction. “My engineers call it a catapult; I just call it a rock-thrower. It’s quite simple, actually. Do you see that brawny fellow with the sledgehammer? Well, if he were to knock aside the bracket holding down that beam, those ropes would yank the beam upright with enough force to send that boulder flying for a distance of several hundred yards. Just imagine what would happen if the boulder were to hit the wall of a city! It would make a breach large enough for an entire army to rush through. No need for a long and costly siege – “
Shuddering, Atalanta tore her eyes away from the terrible war-machine. “You’re forgetting something, Egeus,” she said. “You no longer have an army … and Calydon is twenty leagues away – far beyond the range of your little plaything.”
“True,” conceded Egeus. “I’ve had to abandon my original plans for this machine – but a good commander needs to be … adaptable.” He pointed toward the western side of the valley. “Tell me – what lies just over that ridge? The Temple of Demeter – the most ancient, the most sacred shrine of Arcadia – am I right? And over the past few days, as word of my army’s approach began to reach Arcadia, I’m sure that dozens of your people have been seeking refuge there – women, and children, and men too old to fight … Now imagine what would happen if four tons of Argolian granite were to come crashing down onto the temple. Think of the shattered roof, the splintered beams, the screams of terror and agony as the temple collapsed, snuffing out the lives of those who had sought safety within … That’s called irony, I believe.”
Atalanta’s face reddened. “Is this Argolian honor, Egeus?” she demanded. “To threaten innocent people – “
Egeus held up a hand, a pained expression on his face. “Please, Princess – don’t think of this as a threat. Think of it as a … negotiation. I will spare your precious temple and the lives of those within it – provided you release the men imprisoned in the quarry and allow us to return to Argolis unmolested.”
Egeus’ face was an expressionless mask from which two cold grey eyes gazed evenly at Atalanta; but he permitted himself an inward smirk of self-satisfaction. More than once in the course of his career, finding himself outnumbered or outmaneuvered, he had managed to bluff his way out of danger. He doubted, frankly, that the catapult was capable of sending the boulder even as far as the opposite ridge – let alone the temple, whose location, in fact, he knew but vaguely. But Egeus fancied himself a judge of character – and he reckoned that this girl, for all her amazing strength, shared the weakness of all her sex: compassion. He had observed her reluctance to kill her adversaries – or even hurt them. No commander worth his salt would consider letting a captive army free for the sake of a dozen inconsequential lives – but he was certain that this soft-hearted damsel would agree to his terms. He and his men would return to Argolis, free to fight another day …
But Egeus had not reckoned on the exhaustion of Atalanta’s patience. She had spent the entire morning running up and down the Inachus, capturing one army, turning back another … and now to hear Egeus demand that she free her captives, to hear him coolly threaten the lives of innocent Arcadians – enough!
Anger flashed in her eyes like summer lightning in a clear blue sky. Her hand shot forward and seized the warlord by the front of his cloak. Lifting him effortlessly off his feet, she brought her face, coldly furious, close to his. “Listen to me, Egeus – “ she began
Startled, Atalanta and Egeus turned their heads in the direction of the sound. What they saw, atop the eastern ridge, froze their hearts with horror. The soldier with the sledgehammer, alarmed by Atalanta’s rough treatment of his commander, had knocked aside the bracket holding down the throwing-arm of the catapult. Instantly, the arm sprang upright; and Atalanta and Egeus watched, aghast, as the boulder began to trace a deadly arc across the valley …
No! With a sinking heart, Egeus beheld the wreckage of his stratagem. That dim-witted oaf of a soldier had ruined his bluff; worse – he now realized – this girl might, in her anger, take vengeance against him on the spot …
But Atalanta had already released her grip on Egeus’ cloak. As the warlord tumbled to the ground, he saw his golden-haired adversary crouch low, then spring into the air. Her long legs straight back, her arms flat against her sides, her pony-tail streaming behind her like a pennant in the wind, she flew like a javelin toward the boulder.
For the second time that day, it suddenly seemed to Atalanta that the world had gone silent and that everything had stopped moving. The boulder appeared to be suspended in mid-air as the force of her leap brought her closer and closer to it. She felt the immensity of the sky around her; and looking down, she beheld the terrain below her spread out like one of the colored maps in her old schoolroom, with the Inachus River tracing a thin blue path through it. Higher than the ridges that hemmed in the valley, she could see, off to the west, the farms and villages of Arcadia – and straining her far-seeing vision to its utmost, she caught a glimpse of the rooftops of Calydon, her home …
She turned her attention back to the boulder. She was closing in on it; she stretched out an arm, but it was just beyond her reach. Drawing up her knees, she twisted her torso sideways, presenting her shoulder to the enormous rock that still seemed to hang motionless before her … Suddenly the sound of rushing wind returned to her ears and the world resumed its normal pace. Atalanta squeezed her eyes shut at the instant of impact; she felt a tap against her shoulder; and opening her eyes, she saw that the great stone was falling downward and carrying her with it. Instinctively, reaching out for something solid to hold on to, she had wrapped her arms around the boulder; and now they were plummeting together, with terrifying speed, toward the valley below. The boulder spun around as it fell, with Atalanta now on top, now underneath. Panicking, she released her grip and began to thrash her arms and legs, desperately trying to move out of its shadow as the ground rushed toward her …
With a resounding splat, the boulder plunged into a patch of soft, marshy ground on the eastern bank of the river, sending a shower of mud a dozen yards in all directions – and burying Atalanta beneath it. Egeus blinked. The events that had unfolded at such a leisurely pace for Atalanta had, for Egeus, happened within a few heartbeats. Slowly, he exhaled; slowly, he began to realize that the girl who had single-handedly defeated both his armies now lay buried by the Inachus, a boulder her tombstone.
A jubilant grin spread across Egeus’ face. Once again, fortune had smiled upon him, turning a near-disaster into victory. Already he was thinking of how he would tell the story to his men – how, with a few subtle alterations and embellishments, he would make it seem as if this was the outcome he had planned all along. And now, instead of a strategic retreat, his men could retrieve their weapons, revive their fighting spirit, and march into Arcadia unopposed, confident that this thrice-accursed female now lay securely beneath four tons of Argolian granite …
No! He stared, incredulous, as the massive boulder began to … move? At first it shifted, ever so slightly; then it began to wobble. Within a few moments, it was rocking back and forth; and finally, with a loud squelching sound, it leapt into the air and landed several yards away.
From the crater where it had rested crawled a figure covered thickly in mud from head to foot. Standing upright, it shook some of the muck from its forearms, then wiped the back of a hand across its face, exposing a pair of blue eyes that Egeus could tell, even at a distance, were blazing with indignation. It was – of course – Atalanta.
“Ewww!” she wailed. “My hair! My tunic!”
A dozen long, purposeful strides brought her to the spot where Egeus stood rooted with astonishment. “You wait right here!” she commanded. “Don’t move! Don’t you dare move until I get back!”
Egeus knew that tone of voice. He had heard it more than once from his wife over the years, and he knew better than to disobey. He stood where he was, absolutely motionless, while Atalanta strode off in the direction of the river.
Atalanta stepped down a stony incline to a spot near the foot of the waterfall. The river was still swollen from the spring floods: forced through a narrow channel twenty feet above, it plunged with a steady roar and relentless force into a pool below. The pool seethed like a cauldron, churned into ceaseless, turbulent motion by the cataract that fed it. Heedless of the deadly torrent, Atalanta stepped into the pool and waded through its surging, waist-deep water toward the waterfall. As if she were merely standing beneath the gentle sprays of a fountain in the palace courtyard at Calydon, she untied her pony-tail and let the mighty downpour wash the mud from her body and hair and tunic; and then she waded back to the river bank, greatly refreshed.
Her wet hair gleaming like burnished gold along her back and shoulders, her wet tunic clinging to her body, she strode back to the spot where she had left Egeus. The warlord was still standing there, with downcast eyes and stooped shoulders, bewildered by the latest turn of events, stunned by the dawning realization of his utter defeat. Now he raised his eyes, trembling in apprehension, and marveled at the vision that stood before him. Atalanta’s tunic displayed the soft contours of her hips and bosom; the water tricking down her limbs made her lithe muscles glisten in the midday sun. She was a statue of Athena brought to life, or of Aphrodite, a statue not of cold marble or unyielding bronze but of supple flesh; and for the first time in his life, gazing upon a woman, Egeus felt the stirrings of awe.
Atalanta regarded Egeus for several minutes in thoughtful silence. At last, the corners of her mouth twitched slightly – as if she were suppressing a smile – and she spoke.
“All right, Egeus,” she said. “First, I’m going to take apart your little plaything. And then we’re going back to the quarry.”
* * * * * * * *
“Hear me, men of Argolis!”
Five hundred faces looked up; five hundred pairs of wondering eyes stared at Atalanta, who stood, tall and regal, at the edge of the quarry. Her golden hair tumbled in loose profusion about her shoulders; her left hand rested lightly on her hip; her right arm was extended over the pit; and from the tip of her forefinger their commander Egeus dangled by the collar of his cloak like a gaffed fish.
“You know who I am – Atalanta, daughter of Iasus and Clymene, princess of Arcadia and chosen champion of its people. This morning I single-handedly turned you all away from the Tyndarean Bridge and made you my prisoners in this quarry. I have scattered the other half of your army and sent them weaponless back to Argolis. I have smashed your war-machine into kindling and strewn its fragments along the banks of the Inachus. And now … now I have something to say to your commander, and I want you all to hear it.”
Egeus squirmed. He had watched Atalanta tear apart his catapult with her bare hands, littering the hillside with its pieces. Then she had lifted him up by his belt, holding him at arm’s length as she began running back to the quarry at terrifying speed. He was dizzy and breathless, and his stomach felt as if it had just endured a rough crossing from Crete. But worst of all was the sheer ignominy of his situation. He didn’t know what to do with his arms. He tried crossing them in front of his chest, then putting them behind his back; finally he let them hang by his sides and tried to assume a dignified expression as Atalanta addressed him in a voice loud enough for all his men to hear.
“Egeus,” she said, “I offer you a choice. You, and one or two of your officers, may proceed to Calydon under escort. There, you will present yourself to King Iasus and offer to enter into a treaty of peace between Argolis and Arcadia. My father will look to Arcadia’s safety; but he is a just man, and his terms will be fair. In any event, you will agree to them.”
Atalanta paused. “If this is not acceptable, I offer you an alternative.” She noted with satisfaction that her five hundred captives were raptly attentive. “I will personally conduct you, and all these men, back to Argolis – I will march you from one end of your country to the other, and let your people see that their mighty army has been defeated …”
She paused again, scanning the faces below her, prolonging the moment …
“… by a girl!”
Five hundred pairs of eyes widened in terror; five hundred jaws dropped in consternation. Soldiers shook their heads at Egeus in mute entreaty, or shouted “No!” at the top of their voices. Atalanta suppressed a giggle. Not for nothing had she grown up with four brothers …
Egeus groaned. An army is not a democracy – as he never tired of reminding his soldiers – but he clearly had no choice but to submit to the first alternative. Oh well, he thought resignedly, I’ve had a good run. My wife keeps telling me I’m getting too old for this anyway. Maybe I can wangle a few concessions from King Iasus … return to Argolis and dictate my memoirs … let posterity know that it was I who made the peace between Argolis and Arcadia …
Atalanta waggled her finger, shaking Egeus from his reverie. “Well, Egeus?” she demanded. “What is your decision?”
Egeus forced a smile to his lips. “You do me an injustice, Princess,” he replied. “We Argolians wish only to live in peace with our neighbors. That has always been our policy, and always will.”
“Good,” said Atalanta, drawing her arm back and setting Egeus down beside her. “Then you and Daddy – I mean, you and King Iasus – will find that you have much in common.”
* * * * * * * *
The late afternoon sun sent long shadows westward over the rolling farmland of Arcadia as Atalanta raced back to Calydon. She had done much that day, and had much to tell. An elderly farmer bringing his cows home squinted quizzically at her as she ran past. Atalanta smiled and waved, then quickened her pace. On and on she ran – swift-limbed Atalanta, princess of Arcadia, and protector of its people. She could hardly wait to get home; she could hardly wait to announce that she had been faithful to her charge, that she had been true to her word … that she had kept the bridge.