BabelFish42 - Foolish “Don’t do this, I’m warning you,” I muttered to Hippomenes as we approached the starting line side by side. “I’m not worth it.” “But I love you,” he replied simply. I scowled as bent down to tighten the straps of my sandals. “That is a deadly mistake. Once we begin, I will not allow you to forfeit.” I was carefully avoiding eye contact with him, choosing to concentrate instead on making sure my tunic was tied comfortably above my knees, the way Artemis wears hers. “I know the rules of the contest,” he replied calmly. “Runners, take your marks,” a deep voice boomed behind us. We both sank into a crouch. “You have all your life ahead of you,” I begged. “Don’t be a fool and throw it away. Leave while you still can. Forget me.” “I’d rather die.” “Very well. As you wish.” “GO!” I sprang up and flew across the course! Already, I had pulled ahead my young opponent. I shot across the ground, faster than an arrow from Apollo’s bow, arms pumping, feet flying, kicking up pebbles in my wake! I leapt over a gully in a single bound, agilely wound my way through a particularly thick patch of trees, all the while doing my best to ignore the other set of footsteps echoing behind mine. Pity was not in my nature. Pity didn’t help you survive after being abandoned as a child. Feeling sorry for your opponents did you no good in a contest that would claim the life of the loser. Besides, this was all his doing, that young fool! I had warned him, hadn’t I? I sprinted across a grassy field towards the foothills of a craggy mountain range, my hair streaming out behind me. There was an enormous cage pursuing me, with bars of iron; I must outrun it. Just who did they think they were, anyway, these men constantly chasing after me? They must have heard the stories. Surely they knew how many other suitors had tried and failed to win my hand in marriage by beating me in a footrace. Surely they’d heard how each and every loser was slaughtered afterward. So what part of me, exactly, did they find attractive? My utter lack of mercy? My reputation as a murderer? The dark prophecy hanging over my head? I was a cursed woman. Marriage was the last thing I wanted. But did any of them care who I was, or what I thought? Of course not. They simply saw a pretty face and chased it. No concern whatsoever for what might happen to me, or even to them. I didn’t regret sending them to Hades. Their blood was on their own heads, not mine. Though the man I raced today had seemed somehow different than the others, and he was so young… No. Both my freedom and my life were on the line. The Oracle does not lie; marriage would be my doom. I must not lose this race. Suddenly, a something golden flashed through the air ahead of me. The shiny projectile arched through space and crashed to the ground a good hundred cubits or so to my right. What on earth…? Was he throwing things at me? That was a new tactic. I skidded to a stop in the middle of the trail and glanced back at Hippomenes, who was running across the grassy field far behind me. He noticed my shocked expression, and his own beardless face broke into an amused grin. No, he wasn’t trying to hit me. He wanted to distract me. He assumed I was an idiot girl who would chase after the shiny object, like a dog retrieving a stick, allowing to him to reach the finish line first. I bet he thought he was clever. Well, if he thought he could win, either by outsmarting me or outstripping me, he was sadly mistaken. I raced off the trail and towards the grove of trees where the object had landed. It didn’t take long to spot the glint of gold next to the root of a gnarled tree. An apple? I picked it out a let out a gasp of surprise. So heavy! It must be solid gold! Where on earth did he get this? By now, my opponent was far ahead of me, making his way up a craggy hillside. Clutching the small apple in my hand, I ran after him, my sandals drumming rapidly against the ground. I caught up to him easily as he crested the top of the hill. Though he was breathing heavily, he stride was still strong. I expected him to look angry, or at least surprised, when I passed him, golden apple in my right hand. Instead, he gave a warm smile. I quickly averted my eyes and quickened me pace even more, leaving him in the dust. Why did he affect me this way? Why was it so hard to imagine sending this particular man to his death? He didn’t deserve my pity, I reminded myself as we approached a meadow full of tall grass swaying gently in the breeze. I had told him to find some other girl, and the fool refused. He must die. I raced through the meadow, crushing stalks of grass and wildflowers beneath my relentless feet. Die for what crime, though? For loving me? Another apple flew through the air, shining brightly under the noonday sun. Really, this was just insulting! How stupid did he think I was? Did he honestly think that I would stray from the path unless I was certain I could catch back up? Did he expect me to willingly exchange my freedom for a piece of metal? I clenched my fists and turned sharply off the footpath into the field of waving grass. I was both smarter and faster than he’d anticipated. I’d win the apples and the race to prove it. It took only a few minutes to find the apple amid the tall grass, and even less time than that to catch back up to Hippomenes. Sweat was dripping down his face as he glanced at me. “I believe these apples are yours,” I said, matching my pace to his. “Not so,” he panted. “I gave them up.” “Why? Did you perhaps think me a foolish girl who would chase after them and lose the race?” “Certainly not. You could – retrieve a hundred apples – and still outrun me.” I snorted. “I suppose a man who would throw away his own life for nothing wouldn’t hesitate to waste his gold as well.” “I do not – think it a waste. Everything worth having – comes at the expense – of something else. Some prices – are worth paying.” “I am not an item to be bought, nor a prize to be won,” I spat. “Of course not. That is why – all those who have tried to win you – have lost. You are – whatever you choose to be – Atalanta.” With that, he flung his third apple into the air. It landed with a thud next to a shallow stream. He was offering me a choice, I realized. This man, alone of all the suitors, acknowledged that I had a mind of my own. The others were all proud and haughty, each and every lustful one of them so sure that he could outrun me. A humble Greek man was about as rare as… well, a golden apple. And yet this newcomer willingly admitted that a mere woman could be not only his equal, but his better. Oh, why did he ever agree to this race? He knew I could beat him. Why risk his life? I had sent so many to their deaths without flinching, but somehow I couldn’t bear to do the same to this one. But it was my life or his. “I choose to live,” I replied softly. “I choose to remain free. I’m sorry. Goodbye.” With a burst of speed, I flew ahead of him, away from the cage, away from the prophecy. But as my feet sprinted up the rocky slope, my thoughts trailed behind, still attached to the young man. I had to leave him, surely he understood that? Marriage would destroy me. That was the curse that had haunted me all these years. And even ignoring the prophecy, who would want to be chained to someone else? I needed no one. I had always taken care of myself, and I intended to keep it that way. And yet… were some things more valuable than freedom? More precious than life itself? I paused halfway up a long hill. At the top of this rocky hill, the finish line was in sight. Just ahead of me, I could see victory. Waiting for me on the hillcrest was a long life of racing the wind, unfettered by stifling marriage and dark prophecies. A long life… but an empty one. To my left, the golden apple lay gleaming on the grassy banks of a shallow stream. To my left I could see defeat. Waiting for me at the waters’ edge was a short life, a cursed life. A life that was as brief as it was full. Suddenly, my decision was made. I turned away from the finish line and raced downhill as though both our lives depended on it. I had always assumed the arms of a man would feel like the bars of a cage closing around me. Yet when I ran across the finish line into Hippomenes’s embrace, I felt anything but trapped. Instead, I felt as though, for the first time, I had won. Was I foolish? Perhaps. The thought certainly crossed my mind, I assure you, especially when the prophecy eventually caught up with me. Maybe it was foolish to sacrifice my entire life for a few fleeting months of happiness. Then again, maybe everyone who loves is a fool… for when does love not require sacrifice? What relationship does not end, sooner or later, in loss and heartache? Maybe I was foolish. Or maybe what I gained, however brief, was much more valuable than what I lost.