Written by argonaut :: [Tuesday, 29 March 2005 23:53] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:52]
This chapter is dedicated to the unknown but discerning reader who voted for the first part of this story in the last Workshop poll
The terrain grew rougher as Atalanta raced downriver. Level turf gave way to irregular outcroppings of stone, strewn with fallen trees and massive boulders. Atalanta darted between the boulders as nimbly as a fish among reeds, and leapt over the fallen trees as gracefully as a deer. From time to time, seeing smoother ground on the other side of the river, she jumped across, hardly breaking stride as her leap carried her effortlessly thirty feet or more to the opposite bank.
Atalanta’s strides were long and confident, and the wooded slopes on either side seemed to flash by in a blur. Only once did she hesitate, when she found herself at the edge of a sheer rock face higher than the royal palace at Calydon. Ever somewhat fearful of heights, Atalanta heard a voice within her urging her to stop; but it spoke too late – she had already sprung from the cliff’s edge. Her heart froze as she looked down and saw the stony ground rushing closer with every passing instant. Instinctively, she squeezed her eyes shut and began counting off seconds: one … two …
A sound like the crack of a sledgehammer filled the air as she came to a sudden stop. Opening her eyes, she found herself standing at the foot of the cliff. Looking down, she saw that the impact of her invulnerable heels had opened a fissure in the hard granite, and sent broken chips of stone flying in all directions. Atalanta brushed a strand of hair from her face and let out a lungful of air, marveling at the height she had fallen and wondering again if she would ever become used to her newly-gained invulnerability. Quickly, she put such speculations aside as she turned around and resumed her race downriver.
Atalanta’s thoughts ran as swiftly as her legs as she recalled what her far-seeing vision had revealed to her. A dozen leagues downriver from the quarry, where the Inachus flowed wide and slow between high, steep banks, several hundred Argolian soldiers had been busily at work. The wooden bridge that had once spanned the river near this spot was gone; it had been torn down the day before by the small Arcadian garrison still posted on the eastern border. But these soldiers were laying down a makeshift bridge in its place, hastily constructed from felled trees lased together with ropes. At this very moment, Atalanta thought anxiously, they might be crossing the bridge and advancing toward Arcadia.
She recalled what the messenger had told her father yesterday – a thousand Argolian soldiers were on the march. The army she had just captured numbered barely five hundred. Egeus must have divided his forces in two. One half, under his command, had intended to cross the Inachus at the Tyndarean Bridge; the other half, at this spot farther downriver. No doubt the two armies planned to cut separate swaths of destruction across Arcadia, then join forces to lay seige to Calydon.
A final, desperate burst of speed brought Atalanta to the spot where the soldiers had been at work. With a sinking heart, she saw that she had arrived too late – for the last of the soldiers was stepping off the bridge onto the opposite riverbank and hurrying after his comrades, who were already swarming toward the slope beyond which lay defenseless Arcadia …
No! she thought. I’ve stopped one army – I can stop another.
She recalled the advice Thales gave her whenever she found herself struggling with a problem in geometry: Look at the givens … consider how they’re related … then devise a strategy.
Atalanta paused, watching the soldiers begin to toil up the steep slope on the other side of the river. Egeus had chosen this spot for good reason – it was one of the few places where the hillside was unforested, making it easier for the army to advance. Two steep ridges, half a league apart, ran down from the main ridge all the way to the river – effectively confining the soldiers within that range.
Casting her gaze up the slope, Atalanta spotted a grove of tall, stately hardwood trees spread along the top of the ridge – and at that moment, a plan took shape in her mind. Her eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face as she saw how she could turn this army back from the very border of Arcadia. Wait till I tell Thales how I solved this problem, she thought. Won’t he be proud of me!
Atalanta crouched, then sprang. Her leap carried her easily across the river, and she landed gracefully on the opposite bank – arms forward, knees bent, just like the long-jump competitors she had watched at the Olympic Games.
She turned her attention to the bridge that the soldiers had just crossed. It was a makeshift affair, consisting of half a dozen enormous logs – about four feet in diameter and thirty feet long – lashed together with ropes. Stooping, she slid her hands under the bridge; and then, hardly daring to believe that even her great strength was equal to the task, she began to stand up. To her amazement, the bridge rose with her. It seemed to weigh no more than one of the wooden benches in the royal schoolroom; and a gentle sideways push sent it tumbling with a great splash into the Inachus River twenty feet below. The ropes snapped under the strain, and Atalanta watched with satisfaction as a flotilla of logs began drifting lazily downriver.
Turning, she saw that the soldiers – most of them weighed down with helmets, breastplates, shields, and weapons – were making but slow progress up the steep slope. Another mighty leap carried Atalanta halfway up the hillside, where she landed just a couple of feet to the left of one of the foremost soldiers. Startled by the sudden appearance of the tall, golden-haired damsel, the fellow stopped and stared at her, open-mouthed. Atalanta hardly paused; a light backhanded sweep of her arm sent him tumbling back down the hillside, knocking down several of his comrades along the way.
But Atalanta did not stop to watch. She had to turn back five hundred soldiers, not three or four; and for that, more effective measures were called for.
One more leap brought her to the top of the ridge. She took a moment to survey the scene below her. From this height, the soldiers toiling up the slope looked like a swarm of ants – and she was pleased to note that they had not spread out much across the width of the hillside. That would make her task easier.
She strode to a tree at the edge of the grove – a stately beech, some sixty feet high. Squatting, she wrapped her arms around its trunk and dug her powerful fingers into its bark. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath; and then she began to stand up.
There was a sound like the rending of a bolt of canvas as the thick, gnarled roots of the tree relinquished their grip on the soil. Leaves rustled high overhead as the uprooted tree swayed in Atalanta’s embrace, and a clatter of wings filled the air as a flock of starlings that had been roosting in its branches flew off, chirping indignantly.
Atalanta set the lower end of the tree on the ground. Keeping it supported in her hands, she moved backward along its length until she came to the midpoint of the trunk. Then, raising the massive tree over her head with both arms, she carried it to the edge of the slope.
“LOOK OUT BELOW!” she called; and with a mighty heave, she hurled the tree down the hillside. Startled, the soldiers looked up and beheld the most astonishing sight any of them had ever seen – a tree, hurtling through the air like a stick tossed by a giant … and about to come crashing down on their heads.
Panicking, the soldiers turned and fled down the slope. Many of them stumbled and fell; others were knocked down by their fleeing comrades. With a great crash, the tree landed where the front rank of soldiers had stood just moments before.
Atalanta had already uprooted another tree and sent it flying down the hillside after the first. A third tree followed, then a fourth … Each tree she aimed so as to land just behind the fleeing mass of soldiers, making them scramble ever more desperately down the slope, away from this terrifying bombardment.
Within minutes, the army had reached the bottom of the hill and began swarming across the stretch of level ground between the hillside and the river. Still standing at the top of the ridge, holding an enormous oak tree over her head, Atalanta paused to survey the scene. The terrain was strewn with uprooted trees lying every which way, like a gigantic set of jackstraws. The soldiers were crowded along the riverbank, shoving and jostling; Atalanta smiled, imagining the consternation they must be feeling at the discovery that their bridge had disappeared – and the realization that their only means of retreat was the river itself.
Hmmm, she thought. They seem to be hesitating – perhaps they need a little … encouragement. Snapping her arms forward, she heaved the massive oak toward the foot of the hill, where it landed with a crash that shook the ground. Scanning the riverbank with her far-seeing vision, Atalanta watched as the soldiers, startled into action, began shedding their armor, dropping their weapons, and leaping into the Inachus. Within minutes, the entire army was being swept downriver by the strong, smooth current.
Atalanta hopped up and down, clapping her hands with glee. Everything had gone exactly as she had planned it. She knew that the banks of the Inachus would be too steep to climb until the current had carried the men well inside Argolian territory. With no armor and no weapons – and, she guessed, pretty thoroughly demoralized by their rout – they were unlikely to try another assault.
Atalanta saw that several dozen soldiers – either unable to swim or unwilling to jump – still lingered on the riverbank. Some stood at the very edge of the bank, gazing apprehensively into the strong current; others were staring into the sky, fearful – she guessed – that another tree might come crashing down on them at any moment. I’d better go down and introduce myself, she thought. I’m sure they’d like to meet the girl who single-handedly put their entire army to flight!
A few light hops brought her to the bottom of the hill. The riverbank was several hundred yards ahead, and as she took a moment to smooth her hair and straighten her tunic, she realized that the prospect of confronting these hardened soldiers was bringing back some of the nervousness she had felt earlier that morning, facing Egeus’ army at the bridge.
She knew that she had no reason to fear these men – quite the reverse, in fact. Why, I could easily fling the lot of them into the river, she told herself, and let them fend for themselves. For that matter, I could kill each of them with nothing more than a light tap – and why shouldn’t I? She began walking forward, with slow, purposeful strides. After all, they were going to invade my homeland – ravage its farms and destroy its villages – kill innocent Arcadians …
With each step, she imagined how she might take the lives of these would-be conquerors of Arcadia. She pictured herself smashing their skulls with her fist … strangling them with one hand as they begged for mercy … flinging them high in the air and letting them fall screaming to their deaths on the hard, stony ground upriver …
She saw that several of the soldiers had spotted her by now. She was still too far away for them to make out clearly, but they were shading their eyes and squinting in her direction, wondering – she presumed – who this solitary figure might be, striding toward them across the scene of their rout.
Scanning their faces with her far-seeing vision, Atalanta felt her desire for vengeance falter. These men were not the fearsome, invincible warriors of her imagination. They looked quite … ordinary, she thought – not unlike the farmers and merchants and artisans of Arcadia. One of them – a wiry veteran with a bald head and graying beard – even reminded her of Thales. And the younger ones – why, they couldn’t be any older than her brothers …
She thought of her brothers, fighting on Arcadia’s western border. For all she knew, while she had been turning back the Argolian invaders, the Arcadian army in the west might have met defeat. Any of her brothers might be a captive right now – or a corpse on a battlefield …
Tears sprang to her eyes. With a pang, she recalled a summer afternoon seven or eight years ago, when the royal governess was indisposed and her mother had asked her to look after her brothers for a few hours. How she wished, now that she could return to that afternoon – even though, at the time, she had complained about having to look after a bunch of unruly children …
Unruly children, Atalanta thought. Yes … I have some experience in dealing with unruly children. And, straightening her shoulders and brushing a tear from her cheek, she quickened her stride.
By now, all of the soldiers had turned to watch her approach. Unconsciously perhaps, they had drawn together in a close knot, and stood in wary silence as this mysterious – but now unmistakably female – figure drew near.
Several of the uprooted trees still lay between Atalanta and the soldiers. Without breaking stride, Atalanta reached out and grasped a recumbent larch by one of its branches. A flick of her wrist sent the great tree spinning off to her right. She stooped to lift an uprooted beech; holding it over one shoulder like a javelin, she threw it easily – albeit a trifle clumsily – across the river. Forty heads turned in unison as the tree landed on the opposite bank amid a snapping of limbs and a shower of turf; forty heads turned back to gaze in wonderment at Atalanta.
Only the uprooted oak now lay between Atalanta and the men on the riverbank. It was nearly four feet in diameter, and Atalanta recalled that she had barely been able to wrap her arms halfway around it. Striding toward it now, she glanced down and scanned the trunk with her keen vision. Sure enough, she could see the gouges in the bark where her fingers had gotten a purchase. Raising her right foot, she brought it down sharply against the trunk. With a crack like a thunderclap – which made the men jump in unison – the huge tree snapped in two. Atalanta bent over and dug her fingers into the fissure. The tough fibers groaned and creaked in protest as she pulled the two halves of the tree apart, then stepped through the gap she had made.
Atalanta’s acute hearing picked up half a dozen splashing sounds. Evidently several of the men had decided to take their chances with the river.
The rest of the men stood transfixed, silent, immobile. But as she drew nearer, one of them – a short red-haired man with a long scar down one cheek – stepped forward warily and drew a knife from his belt, never taking his eyes off Atalanta for a second.
Recalling how her mother had addressed the bandit in the forest, Atalanta raised one eyebrow and tried to speak in the same calm yet commanding tone. “Put your knife away, sirrah,” she said. “It will do you no – “
With a swiftness that took even her by surprise, the red-haired man lunged forward and thrust his knife against Atalanta’s midriff. As Atalanta stood, frozen with astonishment, the fellow grinned up at her triumphantly, his eyes and teeth gleaming white against his grimy face. For a long moment, nobody moved – not Atalanta, not her assailant, not the three dozen men watching with bated breath.
Then, very slowly, Atalanta raised her left hand and grasped her assailant’s wrist between her thumb and forefinger. Very slowly, she drew his hand away from her abdomen. As the knife emerged from the gash it had made in her tunic, its owner saw that it was now a twisted, mangled scrap of bronze that bore little semblance to a blade. His grin faded as he stood blinking stupidly at what had once been a weapon.
Atalanta exhaled slowly, her heart still racing. Trying to appear nonchalant, she fixed her assailant with a cold glare. “That,” she said evenly, “was a new tunic.”
Still holding his wrist, she reached forward with her free hand and drew a sword from the scabbard that hung by his left thigh. Releasing his wrist, she held the sword upright in front of her.
“Perhaps you’d like to try your luck with this?” she asked.
The man stood before her, trembling. He probably thinks I’m going to kill him on the spot, she thought. Instead, she turned and, with a swift, sudden motion that made her assailant jump, plunged the sword – all the way to its hilt – into the trunk of the recumbent oak, penetrating the strong wood as easily as if she were sticking a penknife into an apple.
“Go ahead,” she told him. “Pull it out.”
Shaking, the man stumbled forward and put a trembling hand on the hilt of the sword.
“Go on,” Atalanta prompted him. “Pull.”
The man tugged tentatively at the sword. It did not move. He pulled harder – to no avail. He pulled until the veins stood out on his knotted biceps and his face was as red as his hair. He pulled with both hands, he pulled with one foot planted on the trunk for leverage – but his utmost exertions were all in vain.
Atalanta leaned over his shoulder and murmured in his ear. “Keep trying.” Then, arms folded across her chest, she turned to the other men.
“I am Atalanta,” she announced, “daughter of Iasus and Clymene, princess of Arcadia and chosen champion of its people. I – “
She paused to frown at the red-haired man, who had given up tugging at the sword and stood dejectedly by the uprooted oak.
“Did I tell you to stop?” she inquired, arching an eyebrow.
The man hastily wiped the palms of his hands on his cloak and resumed his fruitless struggle with the sword.
Atalanta turned back to the other men. They stood as if rooted to the spot, their eyes, unblinking, fastened on her. She took a deep breath and began to speak, trying to find the words a princess ought to use in addressing a vanquished enemy. “I have sworn by bountiful Demeter, patroness of Arcadia, that today not a single Argolian soldier would cross our border. I have kept that vow. Early this morning, I turned back half your army at the Tyndarean Bridge. They are now my prisoners in a quarry upriver.”
She surveyed their faces. “Do any of you doubt the truth of what I say?” she asked. No one spoke.
“Just now,” Atalanta went on, “I have put your comrades to rout and scattered them like … like chaff in the wind.” Oooh – that’s good, she thought. “Even as I speak, the Inachus is sweeping them back to Argolis. I could throw you after them – or I could tear you all from limb to limb as easily as I tore yon oak asunder.” Seeing their eyes widen with fear, she softened her tone slightly. “But Arcadians show mercy to their foes.”
Turning, she strode several yards downriver, where an uprooted beech lay on the bank. Hoisting it over her shoulder, she carried it back to the goggle-eyed soldiers.
“But remember this,” she said. “We Arcadians are merciful, not because we are weak” – and she raised and lowered the massive tree half a dozen times, her slender arm pumping up and down in a smooth, rhythmic motion – “but because we are just.”
She set the tree upright at the edge of the bank. A gentle push made it sway, then fall; its upper end came crashing down on the opposite bank, spanning the strong current below. Satisfied with her handiwork, Atalanta turned back to the soldiers.
“Drop your weapons,” she told them, “and you are free to go.”
Quickly, lest she change her mind, the men obeyed. For several moments, the air was filled with the thud and clatter of discarded knives, swords, and spears. Then, lining up by the recumbent beech, one by one the men straddled the smooth trunk and inched across to the opposite bank.
The red-haired man, his muscles aching and exhausted from his efforts to extract the sword from the oak trunk, began to shuffle after his comrades; but Atalanta reached out and laid her hand on his shoulder.
“Not so fast,” she said.
She stood, arms folded, as the last of the soldiers made their way to the opposite bank and ran off downstream. The red-haired man stood dejectedly beside her, his sore arms hanging limply at his sides, wondering what dire punishments lay yet in store for him.
Finally, Atalanta reached over and grasped the hilt of the sword. With a smooth, effortless motion, the blade slid free from the relentless grip of the oak. Facing the man, she held the sword upright in front of her and smiled enigmatically.
“And now, sirrah,” she said, “I have a special gift for you.”
The man squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that his death might at least be swift and relatively painless.
“Open your eyes,” Atalanta commanded. Trembling, the man obeyed. He watched as Atalanta raised her left hand and placed the tip of her forefinger against the end of the sword. With a gentle downward push, she bent the blade double. Smiling, she handed the mutilated weapon back to its speechless owner.
“Keep it,” she said. “Take it home with you. And years from now, show it to your grandchildren when you tell them how you came face to face with Princess Atalanta at the Battle of the Inachus River!”