Two weeks later a dusty Laertes marched grimly into Autolycus' palace carrying a wooden casket. True to his promise to Ischepolis, Polydeuces had met them at sunset some leagues east of Sparta. With him he carried the sacred relic, the swan's egg that allegedly had surrounded him at birth. Such had been his gratitude at the balm he had received and with which he had coated his back, though he would not admit as much. Daedalus' fake remained on display in Hera's temple. Laertes had remained barely one day in Megara after returning with Ischepolis. Alcathous' fury at Laertes seemed boundless. After hearing how the king's eldest son and heir had died Laertes could not meet his gaze and meekly pledged a lifelong alliance to Alcathous and Megara. Now as he marched into Autolycus' palace he felt no joy at impending nuptials, he felt no triumph at his cleverness. His youthful arrogance had killed Megareus and cost a king his son. Laertes had not been clever enough.
As Laertes approached the main chamber Autolycus' aged herald moved to bar his way. But Laertes was resolute and strode past him without acknowledging his presence. He marched into the chamber where Autolycus was eating. Without swallowing his mouthful of bread and cheese Autolycus chirruped dismissively, "Ah, so you have chosen to return. Eurystheus' messenger reported how you had escaped execution in Sparta, fleeing like a common criminal. And by all accounts you left empty-handed. Tyndareus' holy relic remains in the Temple of Hera. Eurystheus reported that Tyndareus went immediately to the temple and verified that his 'authentic' wonder was still there." Laertes had continued striding towards Autolycus. He deliberately slammed the casket onto Autolycus' plate, turned, then walked away without deigning to offer an explanation. "What is this?" Autolycus asked indignantly, both because of Laertes' impudence and disrespect.
Laertes turned volte face and answered with a voice full of cold menace. "That is Tyndareus' sacred egg, as promised. I have delivered it. How you return it to him is your challenge. I am taking Anticleia as my bride back to Ithaca."
Autolycus laughed in a hollow guffaw mocking Laertes' fury. "Return it? Oh no. If this really is what you claim, I will not return it. Nor will you return to Ithaca. Eurystheus' men will declaim your theft to Tyndareus. I will make sure Eurystheus admits having seen it himself. Meanwhile I will delight in keeping his prize here. You will be hunted throughout Greece and finally executed." Laertes strode towards his adversary reaching for something under his cloak. "Guards! Guards!" Autolycus screeched in cowardly terror, falling off his chair in his desperation to save himself.
Laertes stood over his gutless foe sprawled on the floor. He withdrew a milky fragment of pottery and threw it onto Autolycus' chest. "Read," he said, scowling at the thief. Too much grief had been caused by his frivolous escapade for Laertes to accept anything less than his due. Autolycus stared at the fragment, reading the words eiÃmi Au)tolu/kou– I am Autolycus' property – etched into the surface. "Those same letters are etched in miniature on the fragments in the Temple of Hera, one on each piece. Together they attest to your involvement in this affair. Condemn me and you condemn yourself. Tyndareus' son will be waiting at the northern limits of Spartan land twelve days from today, two hours before sunrise. If he does not receive that casket and its treasure, he will reveal the fraud in Hera's temple, testifying that the real egg was there a week before. He will name you as the thief and your reputation will bear witness against you. You will be hunted down and slaughtered, if not guilty of this theft then guilty of the many others. Return it and know that I have been more merciless than my confederates would wish. Now I am leaving for Ithaca with Anticleia. Farewell forever."
Copyright Paul S. Withers © 2010