Laertes' eyes were drawn to the stunning raven-haired girl bathing naked in the pool at the foot of Mount Parnassus. The chirruping cicadas almost lulled him to sleep with their rhythmic buzzing in the blazing heat of Hecatombaion, as did the gentle rippling of the water. Were he credulous enough to believe such follies, he would have believed her a nymph sacred to Artemis, whose brother dwelt nearby at his temple in Delphi. But Laertes knew Apollo did not live in Delphi and he knew this was no naiad. He knew exactly who the nubile maid was, knew she would be there, knew what the outcome would be.
For her part, the girl showed no sign of having noticed the bearded youth lurking in the foliage. She seemed unconcerned by the shrill birdcall that issued from the wood and did not see her admirer turn with a puzzled expression. She rose from the waters without any feeling of modesty appropriate to one who was aware of being observed. Her gaze was fixed for some moments on a point to the east, allowing her nude body to remain fully on view to her admirer. Only after squeezing the water from her glossy hair and running her hands sensuously over her curves to wipe off the excessive moisture, only then did she saunter coquettishly across to a fallen laurel tree to retrieve her diaphanous robe, wrapping it around herself and tying it delicately above her left breast. Only then did she glance towards the glade and gasp, looking away in apparent shame as the young man strode forth boldly towards her, playing the part of a startled deer caught unawares by a hunter.
"Anticleia, daughter of Autolycus and Neaera, be not afraid or ashamed," Laertes encouraged warmly. "I have only just arrived here just this moment. I assure you that your modesty is intact." Though he lied, the confidence of his eyes was matched by a soothing tone in his voice and a winning smile. His heart was emboldened as Anticleia visibly relaxed. "Your beauty is famed beyond Parnassus, throughout Greece to the southern realms. You must already have many suitors petitioning your father, such that less self-assured princes would be fatally disheartened. Yes, many suitors but few if any, I would wager, worthy of your intelligence." Laertes smiled to himself as he laid particular stress upon the final word and paused with casual intent to allow his subtle barbs to find their mark.
Anticleia allowed the silence to settle between them, before looking deep into Laertes' grey eyes and responding with a gently lilting voice, shielding her heart from his sight. "You certainly know how to flatter, sir. But you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but have not introduced yourself."
"I am Laertes, son of Arceisius of Cephallenia. Perhaps you have heard something of my reputation."
"No, I have not," Anticleia replied with amused surprise, permitting the smile to evaporate from Laertes' face, the young man utterly disarmed. With his shield of confidence lowered she aimed a deadly sword-thrust at his pride. "Perhaps you should tell me a little about yourself, Learchus."
"Laertes," he corrected Anticleia, crestfallen and failing not to display his emotions. He paused for a few moments, considering the most prudent course of action. Was the girl truly so foolish that she had not heard of him, that she could not recall his name? Surely not. No, she must be feigning ignorance to catch him unawares, to establish an advantage over her would-be suitor, to prove she was superior in wit and intelligence. But how best to recover his own advantage? How to ensure his foray was not in vain? "Forgive me, daughter of Autolycus," he responded at length, composure permeating his limbs. "It is evident that reports of your intelligence were wildly exaggerated. I shall leave you to your own girlish pleasures, dreaming of handsome princes who will sweep you off your feet." Laertes turned to leave. Despite Anticleia's deliberate silence he did not hesitate. He walked away without glancing behind, confident in the accuracy of his thrust, straight to his opponent's heart.
Anticleia sighed, shook her head, admitted defeat in this round but not the overall contest. She called, "Let us both be honest, Laertes." The girlish tone she had initially employed was gone, replaced by the tone of a herald treating with an enemy. "You know I am not a witless fool, just as I know you are not some innocent passer-by. You stood apparently concealed in the foliage watching me as I swam and emerged from the pool. Just as I willingly exhibited my body for your pleasure." Laertes laughed loudly, pausing but not yet turning back to face his opponent. "Theodora, leave us." To Laertes' right, from where the birdcall had issued, a richly dressed slave-girl rose from the undergrowth. Laertes was grateful for not having turned. He was unable to disguise the faint look of surprise on his face. He was rather nonplussed that even Theodora could see it. Theodora smiled at him triumphantly, but merely nodded at her mistress and ran back towards Parnassus. Anticleia continued, "Come, Laertes, we both stand disarmed by the other. Let us continue our sojourn without dissimulation and in more amenable surroundings. I promise no more eavesdroppers."
Laertes, his pride placated by Anticleia's conciliatory overtures of truce, turned and walked back towards her, ensuring his step was neither halting nor too eager. "I accept your proposal," he replied, deliberate in his choice of words. He offered her his hand, acknowledging her as his equal. But as Anticleia reciprocated his gesture, Laertes grasped her hand forcefully and pulled her towards him, boldly kissing her passionately. Anticleia's lips responded while Laertes' tongue probed her mouth insistently.
As Laertes grew complacent at the cunning of his approach, Anticleia suddenly pulled back and slapped him firmly. "Do not believe I will be manipulated or easily yield to any man. If I accept your proposal, it will be a marriage of equals. I do not intend to submit to the mastery of a husband. My father cannot control me, neither will you."
Laertes nursed his reddening cheek. "That much is certainly evident. But you intrigue and attract me. We are well-matched, in intellect and emotion. What would be your opinion if I approached your father and asked to marry you?"
Anticleia considered his words carefully. Though seven years her senior, the young man was certainly handsome – not that she would openly admit as much. But her father was strongly pressing for a match with the Mycenaean weakling king Eurystheus. Autolycus had recently fallen foul of the aged wretch Sisyphus, king of Corinth, so sought powerful allies. Laertes was much more attractive than even Eurystheus' own exaggerated claims. He also demonstrated a wit that would undoubtedly keep their relationship fresh and exciting. Yes, Laertes was infinitely more preferable. But Anticleia did not want to make herself easy prey for Laertes. The challenge of the pursuit needed to be commensurate with the trophy. With her father's predisposition for Eurystheus, his desire to vaunt his power over others and a little manipulation on her own part, Anticleia was confident she could engineer an appropriate hunt with the desired outcome. "Forgive me, Laertes," she replied with well-feigned insecurity. "You see my father intends a union for me with Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. He will not take kindly to the approaches of a backwater yokel who rules an insignificant rock in the sea – my father's assessment of your worth, you understand. He is a thief and a manipulator. He would claim and take pleasure in proving that white were black and black were white, that a god-fearing man is a scoundrel and that a thief were the most virtuous creature under Olympus' aegis. Your intelligence will be perceived a threat to him, any success in your quest an insult, at least initially. Of course I could elope with you, ensuring that I disappeared so completely even Zeus could not locate me. Though you endeavour to conceal your emotions, I recognise the vestiges of doubt in your face. You should know that at the tender age of seven I left home cloaked from head to toe and concealing myself beneath a cow. The herdsman could not discern me, for the cloak was wrapped around the middle of the beast, hiding me within. It was patterned in such a way as to be virtually indistinguishable and for several days had secretly borne three melons, to accustom the beast to weight and prove the success of the stratagem. Once in the fields I released myself, removing the cloak to help further ensure a stealthy flight. After two weeks' adventure in the wilds I returned home to immense relief and admonition. My parents had been incapable of discovering where I had gone, whether alone or captive, and feared they would never see me alive again. So do not doubt that I could elope, should I so wish. But I would hope that you would be keen to pit your wits against my father. If you are willing to prove yourself, to battle wills with one older and more experienced than yourself, I may be amenable and able to plead your cause."
"Of course I am not ashamed of proving my worth," Laertes replied with a bravado that was, at least, a little exaggerated.
"So be it," Anticleia responded. "Present yourself to my father this evening, petition for my hand. I shall ensure I am present to support you."