Laertes stood shivering downstream of Autolycus' house. An owl swooped overhead almost silently, diving rapidly on silent wings and snatching an unsuspecting and reckless field mouse, carrying its prey off to certain death. Laertes watched, sympathising with the poor mouse. Normally he would have applauded the owl for its cunning and stealth, but tonight's events had left him feeling as vulnerable as the mouse. Even the most witless fool could not doubt that Autolycus meant him to fail. If the base thief's nefarious reputation was to be believed, his agents would probably be on their way either to Sparta to warn Tyndareus of an attempt to steal his prize or, more probably, to another allied state to carry the shocking news to Tyndareus on Autolycus' behalf. The reputation of the Spartans for the severity of their punishments was renowned. If Laertes could not evade detection, there would be no way to evade death. And were Laertes able to succeed in the quest, Autolycus would doubtless delight in proving his theory correct, a theory which Laertes admitted to himself was more than plausible. In which case Autolycus would probably declaim Laertes' stupidity and attempt to block the marriage on those terms. But should the fragments disprove Autolycus' theory, he would almost certainly claim they were faked themselves. He would argue that the real fragments resided still in Sparta's Temple of Hera. For how could the egg be transported from Sparta without being missed by Tyndareus. Regardless of all this, Autolycus would have the real fragments and he would boast about this fact to all and sundry, undaunted if anyone should bear witness against him. For his skills at concealing his ill-gotten gains were legendary. Tyndareus would find no sign of the stolen goods, no matter how he hunted through Autolycus' house and territory. But first Laertes must evade the guards, infiltrate Tyndareus' city, steal his prize, escape Sparta's lands before the theft should be detected, and return to Parnassus so far distant without incident.
As he gazed into the black water gurgling past he fought against an instinctive depression, focussing on the wavering belief that he would be able to reassert control over the situation and recover his accustomed composure. He tried to convince himself that his innate skills would overcome the challenges currently besetting him. Perhaps Anticleia had some plan in mind. At that moment he heard a rustling from the springy grass and withdrew into the shadows of an ilex beside him. "Evidently this is the task you intended for me," Laertes whispered sternly when he recognised the approach of Anticleia. "Certainly your father expects me to fail. How do you intend me to succeed?"
Anticleia responded, not disguising the disappointment in her voice, "You are presumptuous to assume I intend you to succeed, particularly when you address me in such an unfriendly tone and show such minimal intelligence."
"I am sorry," Laertes replied contritely, feeling suitably abashed. "Please forgive me. I know I must ensure Tyndareus does not suspect me, that he must not realise the theft has taken place. The method currently eludes my mind. Your father admitted he had discussed Tyndareus' kingdom with you. I would welcome your insight into the plans he conceived and dismissed for stealing the egg's fragments. And if you have any ideas you have not revealed to your father, they would be gratefully received. I expect Autolycus to disclose to Tyndareus that a thief intends to steal the relic, if indeed he does not name me explicitly. Perhaps he might lay an ambush for me. Any advantage your unique viewpoint can provide will be accepted and augmented by my own intellect."
"So, you do have a modicum of cunning," Anticleia commented playfully. Recognising true concern in Laertes' eyes, she continued with sincere sensitivity. " I do intend you to succeed, my darling, but I do not intend you to succeed without effort. I have little doubt my father will send some anonymous missive to Tyndareus. Even an anonymous warning will have the desired effect upon the king, perhaps a greater effect than if the true source were known. My father's plots are irrelevant for you. He would not have entertained the idea of concealing the theft. That is not his way. By theft he seeks to belittle his hosts. Moreover, his abilities to conceal his ill-gotten gains leave him unafraid of attempts to prove his guilt. But you have correctly deduced the approach most suited to you. And if you reconsider your words to my father, you have already identified the solution for that aspect of your trial. In terms of the manner to complete the theft, if you can conceal the fact that Tyndareus has been robbed, you need not conceal the act of theft: an open hand best belies suspicion. Seek merely the means to visit him without arousing mistrust." Anticleia kissed Laertes quickly on the cheek and turned on her heel, giggling. "Now, I must go. Good luck, though the best luck is procured by oneself." Laertes considered her words for a few moments, a frown clouding his face. He shook his head in frustration as enlightenment eluded him, and trudged off southwards. A warm bed and a good night's sleep would be his best allies.
Copyright Paul S. Withers © 2010