Part 1: That is the Light
By Kelly Digges
The man with golden scars emerges from the forest, weary but content. He is Lysander of Parthon, sole champion of the God of Light, and he is carrying a writhing, reeking goat on his shoulders. He grunts with effort as it struggles, but he is strong enough to hold it.
The gnarled old goatherd lets loose a cry of delight at the sight of him, and Lysander smiles. He sets the goat down and shoos it into the pen, which the goatherd closes behind it.
“That’s the last one, isn’t it?” asks Lysander.
“That’s all of them, praise the Light!” says the goatherd. Temmos, his name was. “Thank you, Champion. Likely would’ve lost a few to the wolves overnight if you hadn’t come along.”
“Of course,” says Lysander. “Kadmos, ready to go?”
Lysander’s son is grimy and bruised, having gone after a few of the goats himself, but he must have arrived with his last charge well before Lysander did. He has his own armor back on and Lysander’s prepped and ready.
“I’m ready,” says Kadmos. He is a man now, too proud for childish outbursts, but Lysander recognizes the irritation in his tone.
Lysander dons his armor as Temmos thanks them both again.
“Please,” says the goatherd. “How can I repay you?”
The man already fed them a lunch of fresh roasted shanks from one of the more cantankerous escapees. He called it “a warning to the others,” and swore that goats were smart enough to get the message.
“Pray,” says Lysander. “That’s all I ask. If we had not been here, no doubt Thaeriel would have sent another to aid you.”
“I’ll give proper thanks,” says Temmos. “Goodbye, and good fortune in your quest.” He turns to lecture the goats about their wickedness as Lysander and Kadmos walk away.
Kadmos is restless, his pace quick, but he says nothing.
“Go on,” says Lysander finally. “Let’s hear it.”
“It’s just…” Kadmos shakes his head in frustration. “I don’t feel like you’re taking this seriously.”
“What makes you say that?” asks Lysander.
“It’s late afternoon,” says Kadmos. “We’ve barely gone three miles today. At this rate we’ll be to Tartessos by springtime, if we’re lucky.”
“It’s not as bad as that,” says Lysander. “We’ve made a few extra stops, that’s all.”
“A few,” snorts Kadmos. “Father, you’re the Champion of Light, but you spent most of today chasing goats through the woods. Plus half of yesterday rebuilding a stable, and the day before that resolving some ridiculous village dispute—”
“People look to me for guidance and aid,” says Lysander. “That’s to be expected, surely.”
“Is your duty that onerous?” asks Kadmos. “Is that it? Do you wish you were back in the hinterlands, scraping wolf pelts and harvesting wild honey and wearing that hideous beard?”
“Sometimes,” says Lysander. He rubs his hand along his bare jaw. “Well, not the beard. But I do miss the simplicity of it all. Today was a taste of it, that’s all.”
“A taste that cost us nearly a day of travel,” insists Kadmos. “You said yourself that if we hadn’t been here, Thaeriel would’ve sent someone else.”
“But we are, and he didn’t,” says Lysander. “He sent us, to this place, on this day. We can’t look the other way when people need help.”
“Thaeriel didn’t send us,” says Kadmos. “Auros gave you your trial, and you know damn well he doesn’t give two figs about that man’s goats.”
The booming voice of the God of War still echoes in Lysander’s head. Your trial is to retrieve the Golden Pear of Tartessos and bring it here. It is guarded, but that should be no problem for a man of your capabilities. You have fought Tartessians before, after all. Does that mean the Tartessians themselves guard it? Or one of their monsters, like the one that killed him once before? Lysander does not know, and will not know, until they reach the village on the outskirts of Tartessos where the Pear supposedly waits.
“It was Thaeriel who proposed the trials in the first place,” says Lysander. “But the philosophers can debate who moved who. We were here. We had a choice. I chose. And as for the delay, nobody in that arena said anything about hurrying. We don’t know whether finishing our trial first has any bearing on the outcome.”
“That’s my point,” says Kadmos earnestly. “We don’t know. You’re the greatest of the champions, serving the greatest of the gods.” Lysander frowns at that, but Kadmos presses on. “You’re on a divine quest. Surely that’s more important than stopping to help every goatherd and stablehand along the way.”
Lysander stops and lays a hand on Kadmos’s shoulder.
“Son,” he says, “I am the Champion of Light. My duty is to spread the Light in the world. To heal, to defend, to teach, to help. To lift people up and show them what we can do for each other. That is the quest. That is the Light. I’m more worried about one man’s livelihood than I am about some golden fruit, no matter who told me to go get it. Clear?”
Kadmos nods, though his face is still clouded with doubt.
“Come on,” says Lysander, clapping him on the back. “Let’s get moving. You’re right, we do have some time to make up. Race you to Lemythia?”
“Lemythia!” says Kadmos. “Father, that’s got to be twenty miles from here—hey, wait up!”
Lysander smiles as he sets a steady pace, his son’s footfalls following close behind.
Part 2: No Friends in Tartessos
Lysander and his son Kadmos pause on a ridge overlooking a small settlement of ramshackle structures.
“I’ve heard of places like this,” says Kadmos. “They call them farming camps. Tartessian soldiers who get too old or injured to go to war get sent to grow food instead. Half the time they don’t even know how.”
“Looks like this particular settlement is getting along fine,” says Lysander, nodding at lush fields of barley and well-tended orchards. One large tree at the center of the orchard looms above the others, and Lysander nods toward it.
“That’s where our Golden Pear is waiting, I’d wager.”
“Do you really think it’s here in this little place?” asks Kadmos. “Along with these ferocious guardians it’s supposed to have?”
“That’s what the stories say. Wish we knew more about the guardians, though.”
The two men make their way down the ridge, to a building marked by a cracked jug swinging from a rope.
Lysander steps inside the little canteen, Kadmos clanking behind him. Conversation stops as scarred Tartessian men and women look up from their bowls of watery stew and stare at him through the dimness.
Lysander ignores them and sets his spear in the rack by the door. Kadmos stands by the door for a moment, stricken, but Lysander stares him down, and Kadmos deposits his sword and shield as well. When Lysander turns back from the weapon rack, no one is looking directly at him, but their conversations are hushed and tense.
Lysander walks up to the bar and sits at a stool, gesturing for Kadmos to sit beside him. The woman behind the bar pauses in her work—chopping vegetables, from the sound of it—but does not turn.
“Excuse me,” says Lysander. His voice is too loud in the hushed little room.
The bartender grudgingly turns to look at him.
“Some lunch for my son and I, please,” says Lysander. “The stew looks good.”
The bartender nods and turns to get it, but she looks over his shoulder before he departs. Someone coming up behind him. No doubt Kadmos sees them.
“You’re Lysander,” says a gravelly voice behind him. “Lysander of Parthon.”
Lysander turns. The man is clearly a veteran, stiff and war-wounded, with one arm hanging limply at his side. He invokes the name of Parthon with the venom of a grave profanity.
Kadmos tenses, and Lysander puts a steadying hand on his shoulder.
“That’s right,” says Lysander.
The man regards him quietly for a moment, his eyes following the tracery of golden scars that criss-cross Lysander’s body, a gleaming mortar filling the cracks where a daemon’s weapon broke him. A Tartessian daemon.
“I was there,” says the man at last. “At Parthon. At the Battle of the Broken Gate.”
“Is that what you people call it?” Kadmos asks sharply. “We call it the Daemon Siege.”
The man shrugs.
“Then I greet you as one veteran to another,” says Lysander. He glances at Kadmos and smiles. “As does my son, in his own way.”
“Listen, I…” says the man. He rubs his limp arm with his good hand, as though trying to work the life back into it. “I saw what you did, at the battle. You faced down that daemon all alone, and… I don’t think there was another soldier on that field who would’ve done the same. I know I wouldn’t have.”
“I did what I had to do,” says Lysander. “What my soldiers needed me to do. And as I’m sure you’re aware, it was only by Thaeriel’s intervention that I survived.”
The man nods. Perhaps he is thinking of Tartessos’s patron god, Auros, who would never rob one of his champions of a violent death.
“Anyway,” says the man. “You’ll find no friends in Tartessos, but anyone who was there that day… Well, you’ve earned our respect, at least.”
“Your soldiers fought just as bravely as ours,” says Lysander. “And no doubt we both lost many friends that day.”
The man nods, hesitates, and says, “Name’s Matygus.”
“Well met,” says Lysander, and the man returns to his seat.
Kadmos shoots Lysander a disbelieving glance. Respect, in Tartessos! Lysander shrugs at him as the bartender arrives with two wooden bowls of greasy mutton stew
“Thank you,” says Lysander. The bartender nods and turns back to her chopping. Lysander appreciatively slurps a bite of hot stew. It is bland, but hearty. He sets down his bowl and turns back to Matygus.
“I’m here looking for something,” says Lysander. “I was hoping you might answer a few questions.”
The man looks to his companions, and one of them gives a barely perceptible nod of encouragement.
“Depends what it is,” says the soldier. “But you can ask.”
“I have come on a divine quest from Auros himself, in search of the Golden Pear of Tartessos,” he says. Behind him, the bartender stops chopping, and the patrons all grow still. “Legend places it very near this village. I’m told it’s guarded—”
“Father!” grunts Kadmos. Lysander whirls.
Kadmos has the bartender by the arm, her knife held back a few inches from Lysander’s neck, a fresh cut welling up on Kadmos’s arm. Red, fiery light spills from the woman’s eyes.
Lysander turns back to the other patrons to find them rising from their seats, gripping cutlery and furniture, eyes aflame.
“War’s blood,” swears Lysander. “They’re the guardians. Kadmos, come on!”
Kadmos knocks the knife out of the bartender’s hand.
“Lysander,” hiss the patrons of the bar in unison. “The God of War offers you this challenge. Defeat the guardians and seize the Pear.”
Then, as one, they lunge forward.
Lysander and Kadmos fumble for their weapons and rush outside, but more red-eyed townsfolk are already converging.
“Come on!” barks Lysander, and charges back up the ridge. He and Kadmos shelter behind the top of the ridge, and Kadmos looks back on the village.
“They’re not following,” he says. “Guarding the Pear, I’d guess.”
“Good,” says Lysander. He crouches and pulls a cloth robe from his traveling pack. “Remember, you’re not allowed to help. No matter what happens, you have to stay up here.”
Lysander begins to wind the robe around the blade of his spear.
“There are at least fifty people down there,” says Kadmos, not looking back. “They’re not in their prime, but they’re soldiers, and they’re under some kind of battle trance. This won’t be an easy fight.”
When Lysander has wound the entire robe around the spear’s blade, three layers thick, he begins to bind it with leather cords.
“Father, they’re getting out their old weapons,” says Kadmos, finally looking back. “You should get down there before—what are you doing?!”
Lysander stands, holding a spear that is now little more than a badly weighted staff.
“I will fight them, and I will win,” says Lysander. “But I won’t kill them.”
“They will fight until they are dead, or you are! It’s despicable that Auros has done this to them, but I don’t see how he’s left you any choice.”
“I will not murder innocent people,” says Lysander firmly.
“There are no innocents in Tartessos,” says Kadmos, his eyes full of remembered rage.
“We can talk about that later,” says Lysander. “Now give me your shield.”
Kadmos hands over his shield, but keeps a grip on it for a moment.
“Father. There are too many of them. If you pull your punches out there, you’ll die.”
“Then I’ll die in the Light!” says Lysander, wresting the shield from Kadmos’s grip. “Now get out of my way.”
He shoulders his son aside.
“Father,” says Kadmos, his voice gone quiet. Lysander turns. “I’ll… I’ll pray for you.”
Lysander nods, then turns and breaks into a charge.
Part 3: No Matter How Righteous
Lysander twirls his staff to sweep an assailant’s legs out from under her, turns to block another’s rusty sickle with his shield, takes a cudgel blow to the back from yet another. He gasps and grunts with exertion and pain. His opponents, their eyes blazing with the red light of the war god’s blood rage, fight in eerie silence.
He turns and keeps moving, still outnumbered ten to one. The dozens of combatants he’s knocked out of the fight litter the ground of the little village. Some of them are unconscious, others still trying to drag themselves toward him. There will be bruises and broken bones, but Lysander does not think any of them are dead.
The enemies still standing are a mix of those too tough to go down easily and too slow to catch up with him earlier. He dodges the tough ones, big farmhands and agile hunters, and takes down a few more of the slow, the old and infirm, with swift strikes to the knees or ankles. He winces at the crack of bones. They’ll live, he reminds himself. Gods willing, they’ll live.
At last there is only one combatant facing him, a massive man in a blacksmith’s apron who has taken a dozen blows from Lysander’s staff. Lysander is bleeding from several wounds, his right foot dragging, numb from the knee down after a hard hit from the blacksmith’s hammer. Lysander backs up desperately, looking for anything that might help.
He bumps against a wall, then ducks as the blacksmith punches. The man’s huge fist tears through the wooden slats.
Lysander spins and backs inside the building—the smithy. He limps into the forge, knocking over tools to slow the man down. Lysander crouches behind the anvil and begins to push. Gods, it’s heavy!
The man walks up, hammer in hand. He sees Lysander behind the anvil, grins wickedly, and raises his hammer.
Lysander pushes hard, and the anvil tumbles off its little plinth and onto the man’s leg with a clear and sickening snap. The man howls in rage, but the leg is quite broken, and he can’t get the anvil off.
Lysander edges around the fallen smith and limps back out into the village square, supporting himself with his staff. Some of the townsfolk still try to crawl toward him, but he shoves them away and makes his steady, painful way to the orchard.
In the middle of the orchard, in a little clearing, is a large, gnarled old tree. As Lysander draws closer, he gasps. The tree’s bark is burnished bronze, its leaves delicate silver foil with a tracery of organic veins. And there, nestled in the branches, is a single large pear, supposedly made of pure gold. The tree’s bronze branches bend under its weight.
Lysander reaches up and plucks the Pear. It comes away as easily as any ripened fruit, though it is far, far heavier in his hand.
He walks back to the village slowly and cautiously, unsure if the blood rage will persist now that he has the Pear. But the villagers in the square are groaning and crying out. The madness of Auros has lifted, and only pain remains.
Lysander waves for Kadmos to come down from the ridge, and the younger man does so at a run, bringing their packs with him.
“Father, you’re hurt!” he says. “The Pear…”
“I’ll be fine,” says Lysander. “And… yes. I have it. I think I’d better carry it, in case that counts as part of the trial.” He takes a pack, puts the Pear inside, and slings it over his shoulder. “Help me tend to these people, will you?”
“Tend to them?” says Kadmos. “You’re serious.”
“Son, I just walked into this village and incapacitated every person in it,” says Lysander. “They need medical attention, and we’re the only ones who can provide it.” He nods to the field of groaning wounded. “Focus on the least injured first, especially anyone conscious who says they have healer’s training, so they can help with the rest.”
Kadmos sets his jaw, but nods.
By late afternoon the village looks less like a battlefield and more like a military hospital. The walking wounded help those whose recoveries will be more protracted. Hopefully by harvest most of the farmers will be back on their feet.
Lysander grimaces as he splints the barkeep’s broken leg. He does not look at her. As he finishes his work, she nods coolly to him. Lysander stands to find the man from the canteen standing behind him, fresh bruises and a black eye on top of his older war wounds. Matygus, his name was.
Matygus pulls Lysander to the side of the village square, his face serious. Lysander waits for him to speak.
“Why did you do that?” the man asks at last. “Why spare us? Why stay to help us? You must have no love for Tartessians, and we… we tried to kill you.”
“You were not in your right minds,” says Lysander. “Killing you would have been a crime.” He sighs. “Thaeriel is not Auros. No offense to you or your patron, but the Lord of Light asks that his followers walk a narrower path.”
The man nods, still looking troubled.
“You have the Pear?” he asks.
“Good,” says the man. “The tree grows one each year. Usually the priests of Auros come and harvest it, and thank us for our pious contribution.”
“I hope that won’t cause a problem this year,” says Lysander. “Auros himself charged me to retrieve it, but I can try to return it if you think his priests won’t understand.”
“No, no,” says Matygus. “I don’t think that’s necessary, but…” He hesitates, looks around, and lowers his voice. “It is not lost on us that Auros would have condemned us to die in its defense, while the Champion of Thaeriel spared our lives. When the priests come to take next year’s Pear… perhaps we’ll remember that.”
“Please, don’t borrow trouble on my account,” says Lysander. “And if you do find yourselves suffering because of what I did here, if there’s anything I can do to help, you may reach me by sending word to Parthon.” He smiles. “Or by praying, I suppose.”
Matygus shakes his head, though Lysander cannot tell whether it is because he will not pray to Thaeriel, or because they must not speak of it.
“I said earlier you would find no friends in Tartessos,” says Matygus. “Well. Next time I think you might.”
“I would be honored,” says Lysander. He glances around—at the fresh wounds the villagers bear, the dark looks some of them shoot his way, the sun creeping lower in the sky. “Nonetheless, I think it would be best if I were on my way.”
Matygus nods, lips pursed, and clasps Lysander’s arm. Lysander gathers up Kadmos and sets off, with no other goodbyes to say.
The two men walk in silence for some time, Lysander still limping and leaning on his spear. He wants nothing more than to rest, but he cannot stay in that village after what he has done. Kadmos helps him where the road gets rough, seemingly lost in thought.
They stop for the night, only a mile or two down the road, and it is only after Kadmos has caught a rabbit for dinner and gotten it roasting that he says more than a word or two.
“What you said on our way here, about the Light…” says Kadmos at last. “I think I understand now. It’s not about glory. It’s about integrity. About doing the right thing, even when it’s not easy. Especially then. Thank you, and… I’m sorry for not seeing it sooner.”
Lysander claps him on the arm.
“You see it now,” says Lysander. “That puts you ahead of most people, no matter how righteous they may seem.”
Later, as the sun sets, Lysander sits alone by the fire and prays.
“Lord Thaeriel,” he murmurs. “I have done as Auros demanded. I have the Pear.”
Then the Light consumes him, and his god’s voice chimes within him.
“YOU HAVE DONE WELL. RETURN, AND CLAIM YOUR REWARD.”
“My lord, I…” He falters. “I must confess, there is doubt in my heart. All this violence, for a golden fruit? For glory? It seems… petty.”
“IT IS VITAL. RETURN. HAVE FAITH. IN TIME YOU WILL UNDERSTAND.”
“I’ll return as fast as I can,” says Lysander. “But I’m afraid I’m in rather bad shape.”
“I WILL SET THE LIGHT UPON YOU. YOUR WOUNDS WILL HEAL.”
“Thank you, lord,” says Lysander. “And if you could—that is, if you see fit—set your Light upon those villagers as well.”
“IF THAT IS YOUR WISH.”
The booming voice pauses, and for a moment Lysander imagines that he hears a hint of rebuke.
“THEY ARE AUROS’S CREATURES, LYSANDER. YOU NEED NOT HAVE RISKED YOUR MISSION ON THEIR ACCOUNT.”
Then Thaeriel himself steps out of the Light, a gentle smile on his face, shining like the sun. He lays a hand on Lysander’s shoulder, spreading healing warmth.
“Mercy is laudable,” he says. “Pity is not. Do not confuse them.”
Then the Light fades, and the sun sinks below the horizon, and Lysander is alone with his thoughts.
He sits for some hours afterward, watching the fire dwindle to embers.