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The Labors of Atalanta: Prologue

Written by argonaut :: [Tuesday, 29 November 2005 23:44] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 16:03]


by Argonaut

King Iasus stood on the portico of the royal palace, a sheaf of parchments in one hand and a thoughtful expression on his face. Summer sunlight warmed the flagstones of the courtyard, glistened on the water of the fountain, and bathed the fields and orchards beyond. King Iasus shut his eyes for a moment, listening to the sprightly melodies of songbirds and the drowsy hum of locusts, savoring the mingled aromas of newly-cut grass, apple blossom, and hyacinth.

Then, remembering his errand, he stepped out of the shade of the portico and strolled round to the south side of the palace, where he found the royal gardener kneeling by the flower beds.

Excuse me,” he said. “Have you seen Princess Atalanta?”

The gardener scrambled to his feet, brushing dirt from his knees and bobbing his head.

Good morning, your majesty. The princess? Yes, indeed – she was here just an hour ago, helping me put up the fence around the new vegetable garden.” He shook his head in wonderment. “She just set each fencepost upright, then she laid her hand on top of it and pushed it into the ground as easily as I’d push a stake into the flower bed here. Saved me a whole morning’s work, she did. Now I can start putting in these rose bushes like her majesty was asking.”

Good, good,” said King Iasus absently. “Do you happen to know where she went?”

Off toward the blacksmith’s shed, your majesty, last I saw.”

King Iasus took the path that led to the royal smithy. Peering inside, he saw the blacksmith laboring at his bellows, fanning a bed of red-hot embers. “Excuse me,” he called out. “I’m looking for Princess Atalanta.”

The blacksmith turned round, scowling; but when he saw that it was King Iasus, he stepped forward hastily, wiping the sweat from his face with a grimy cloth.

Good morning, your majesty. Yes, your daughter was here, right enough.” He pointed into the shadowy recesses of the shed, where the royal chariot was standing. “I’d just finished repairing that broken wheel, when the princess stopped by and offered to hold up the chariot while I set the wheel in place. Why, it would have taken five or six strong men to lift the chariot off the block, but your daughter, she just raised it up with one hand as if it were a child’s wagon. As soon as I put these last few bolts in place, it’ll be as good as new.”

Er – splendid,” said King Iasus vaguely. “Do you happen to know where she went?”

Thales came by – said he needed her help with one of his crack-brained projects. They went off to the field on the other side of the brook.”

King Iasus shook his head in bemusement as he walked toward the footbridge spanning the brook. His daughter never passed up an opportunity to use her great strength to help others, and there never seemed to be any shortage of tasks for her to do. Not a bad arrangement, I suppose, he reflected, as long as nobody’s just taking advantage of her good nature.

Stepping off the footbridge, he shaded his eyes and squinted toward the far end of the field, where a number of large stones lay scattered. Thales, the royal tutor, was moving briskly among them, measuring off distances with a taut cord attached to a stake that had been driven into the ground several hundred feet away. After each measurement, he made a careful note in one of the little bundles of bound papyrus sheets that he always carried around with him.

Thales, my good fellow!” King Iasus called, striding across the field. “I’ve been looking everywhere for my daughter.”

Thales looked up from his notebook and waved. “The princess was just helping me with my latest investigation,” he explained as King Iasus drew near. “I’m trying to find a relationship between the angle at which an object is thrown” – he gestured at the heavy stones scattered around him – “and the distance it travels. The book of nature is written in the language of number, you know.”

I’m sure it is,” King Iasus declared reassuringly. “But, as I was saying, I need to find my daughter. I have something rather important to discuss with her. Do you happen to know – ?”

She went down to the duck-pond a few minutes ago,” Thales told him. “A dozen or so young men from the royal guard came by and challenged her to a tug-of-war.”

Ah. Well, with any luck, I’ll find her there. Join us when you’re finished here, would you? It has to do with that matter we were discussing yesterday.” King Iasus turned and trotted off toward the row of poplars that separated the field from the duck-pond.

Sure enough, as soon as he emerged on the other side of the windbreak, he caught sight of Princess Atalanta standing on the south bank of the pond. He paused, gazing at his daughter with pride, marvelling at the transformation she had undergone. Three months ago, Atalanta had been a slip of a girl – kind of heart and strong of spirit, but shy and full of self-doubt. Now, she was the champion of Arcadia – dauntless, confident, and immensely powerful. Her golden hair tied in a simple pony-tail, clad in the short sleeveless tunic she insisted on wearing – despite her mother’s disapproval – she stood with one hand resting lightly on her hip, her other hand grasping one end of a stout rope that stretched across the pond. On the opposite bank, ten or twelve brawny young men were pulling on the rope with all their strength. Some, facing Atalanta, were leaning backwards, their heels digging into the soft ground; the others, facing away, were straining like oxen in a yoke, the rope taut over their shoulders. All of them were red-faced with exertion and perspiring freely; a chorus of grunts and groans testified to the futility of their efforts.

Atalanta, however, was not exerting herself in the least. From time to time, she would extend her arm, like an angler playing a fish, allowing her opponents to gain a few paces; then, barely suppressing a giggle, she would pull back, and her opponents would be drawn even closer to the edge of the pond. How long this might continue King Iasus could not say; but catching his daughter’s eye when she happened to glance in his direction, he indicated that he wished to speak with her. Atalanta smiled and nodded, then gave a sharp tug at the rope in her hand. Her opponents flew into the air, yelping with surprise, and landed in the pond, splashing loudly, while its rightful occupants flapped their wings noisily and quacked in annoyance.

Atalanta began pulling in the rope. When it seemed to offer some resistance, as if it had caught on something, she pulled harder. A sharp crack resounded from a grove on the far side of the pond; and a moment later, amid a snapping of branches and rustling of leaves, a young beech came crashing to the ground.

Frowning, Atalanta drew in the remaining length of rope and held up a dripping noose that had been knotted in its other end. “All right,” she demanded, “which one of you tied the rope to that tree?” A gleam of amusement in her eyes belied the severity of her tone. But none of the youths answered her – except for a couple who began flicking water in her direction. “Hmph!” Dropping the coils of rope and flipping her pony-tail back over her shoulder, she turned and ran up to her father.

Good morning, Daddy,” she said brightly, stooping to kiss him on the cheek. King Iasus smiled, reflecting that not so long ago she had had to stand on tip-toe to give him a kiss. Atalanta turned and bowed slightly as Thales joined them. “Good morning, Thales.” She revered her old tutor, considering him to be the wisest man in the world – and next to her father, the kindest.

Good morning, Atalanta,” King Iasus replied. “Don’t you think you may have been a little … rough with those fellows?”

They’re fine, Daddy. It’s a hot day; they were probably hoping for a swim. Besides,” she added indignantly, “you saw what they did. They were cheating.”

Yes, well, we have more important matters to discuss right now.” He glanced at Thales. “Why don’t you explain it to her, my good fellow?”

As you wish, your majesty.” Thales paused, rubbing his bald head as he arranged his thoughts. “Well, Princess, it’s been three months since you turned the Argolian army back from our eastern border and obliged its commander to make peace with Arcadia. We all hoped that Arcadia might at last enjoy a respite from the shadow of invasion and war. Unfortunately, it seems that our hopes were … premature.”

Why is that?” asked Atalanta, frowning.

Well, for one thing, few people outside Arcadia – except, of course, for the soldiers you defeated – believe the reports of your strength and prowess. For every Argolian soldier who gives a truthful account of that day, there are a dozen who denounce him as a liar. It seems they wish to avoid the mortifying reputation of having been beaten by a girl.”

Atalanta nodded. Having four brothers, she was well acquainted with that element of male psychology.

And then there’s the matter of our treaty with Argolis. I maintain that in the long run, the lenient terms your father offered will prove to have been a wise policy. But it has created something of a problem. Our neighbors to the west suspect that we’ve actually formed a military alliance with Argolis – and some of them are talking of attacking us before we can attack them.”

How can they think such a thing?” demanded Atalanta indignantly. “Arcadia has never threatened them. Why, they’ve always threatened us.”

Nations, no less than individuals, tend to ascribe their own motives to the actions of others,” replied Thales. “Ah – excuse me for a moment.” He extracted his papyrus notebook from a pouch in his cloak and jotted down a few words. “I can use that in a little treatise I’m writing on the subject of politics,” he explained, shutting the notebook and putting it back in his cloak. “Now where was I? Oh, yes. Our problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, we must show those beyond our borders that the reports of your mighty strength are no wild fancies, but solid fact. Second, we must convince them that our intentions are as they always have been – entirely peaceful.”

Quite so,” said King Iasus, picking up the thread of the old tutor’s discourse. “Thales and I thought of having you compete in the next Olympic Games –”

Atalanta’s face lit up. Ever since she was a little girl, she had loved the Olympic Games – sitting with her family in the special section of the amphitheater reserved for royalty, watching the runners, the jumpers, the javelin-throwers, the weight-lifters. For weeks afterward, back in Calydon, she would try to mimic their feats of speed and strength and skill. It had been childish play-acting back then, of course, but now she could out-run, out- jump, out-throw, and out-lift any athlete from Phaeacia to Ilium. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself outdistancing the fastest sprinters, hurling a javelin farther than the eye could see, lifting weights that a hundred strong men together would be unable to budge. She saw herself crowned with the laurels of victory, acknowledging the thunderous acclaim of the crowd, carrying an armful of golden trophies back to Calydon. How splendid they would look, displayed in the throne-room …

“– but unfortunately,” King Iasus continued, “the next Olympic Games are three years away.”

Atalanta’s face fell.

So we came up with the idea of sending you on what you might call a ‘good-will tour.’ You’d travel from kingdom to kingdom, using your strength to perform … well, some sort of special service at each one.”

Atalanta was intrigued. “What kind of services?”

King Iasus glanced at the sheaf of parchments in his hand. “Well – just for instance, mind you – King Augeas of Elis needs his stable cleaned …”

Atalanta frowned. “Isn’t that a task for a stable-boy?”

Mmmm … ordinarily, yes … but there are, ah, special circumstances in this case. Apparently King Augeas has, ah, three thousand oxen – and his stables haven’t been cleaned for … well, for thirty years.”

Ewww!” Atalanta wrinkled her nose in distaste.

If I may interject,” said Thales. “It could be an interesting project in hydrodynamic engineering. The Alphaeus River runs by King Augeas’ estate.  By digging a channel from the river to the stables, you could divert a portion of its current and, ah, cleanse the stables in a matter of minutes …”

Atalanta raised an eyebrow. “So instead of a stable-boy I’m to be a ditch-digger? No, Daddy. What else did you have in mind?”

Well, let’s just table that proposal for the time being,” said King Iasus, selecting another parchment. “Here’s something – it seems that the land of Nemea is having some trouble with a … a lion of unusual size and ferocity …”

My dear, are you insane?” Queen Clymene, out for her morning walk, had come within earshot and now approached, a look of alarm on her face. She was tall – though not so tall as her daughter – and regal in her bearing; and despite the streaks of silver in her golden hair and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, it was obvious whence Atalanta had inherited her beauty.

Have you taken leave of your senses?” she demanded. “And you, Thales – I thought that you, at least, had some common sense. The idea of sending my little girl against some horrible beast –”

Mother!” Atalanta rolled her eyes. “In the first place,” she said, drawing herself up to her full height, “I’m not such a little girl any longer. And in the second place, I have nothing to fear from any lion, no matter how big and ferocious it may be. Remember that bear?”

Queen Clymene shuddered. “As if I could forget!” A month ago, the royal family had been picnicking in the woods beyond the palace grounds when an enormous bear came rushing toward them from its cave. Before their bodyguards had time to draw their swords, Atalanta had stepped forward and wrapped her arms around the lumbering beast. Spinning it around in her embrace, squeezing the breath out of its body, she had held on – disregarding its roars, impervious to its teeth and claws – until it went limp in her arms and slumped to the ground unconscious in a great shaggy heap.

Queen Clymene reached out and smoothed back a few strands of hair that had fallen across Atalanta’s face. “Oh, I know you’re – invulnerable, dear,” she said. “But you can hardly blame a mother for worrying. The thought of you off in some faraway land … fighting lions and who knows what else – “ She couldn’t help glancing with disapproval at her daughter’s bare legs as she added, “And wearing that most improper outfit-”

Please, Mother,” said Atalanta gently, hoping to avoid another quarrel on this subject. “You want me to put my powers to good use, don’t you – to protect Arcadia and to help those in need? Well, I need to be able to move about freely. The clothes I used to wear just aren’t practical for – for running and lifting and throwing – “

Queen Clymene sighed. “I know, dear. But still-”

Thales cleared his throat. “May I suggest that we go back to the palace to continue our conversation? We have much to discuss and many arrangements to make.”

The foursome began strolling back to the palace. “Just remember, Daddy,” said Atalanta. “No stables!”

Mmmm …”

I mean it! Tell King Augeas to clean the stalls himself. No stables, no ditches, and no … manure!”

We’ll see, my dear. We’ll see …”

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