Mortal Judgement: Episode 3
by Ian Taylor
Kadmos took another bite from the hunk of wild boar that his father had killed and cooked. It was tough. About as tough as the unforgiving land they had just journeyed through. Frankly he was surprised that Tartessos had wild animals of any kind, let alone ones that were edible. Growing up in Parthon, you heard a lot about Tartessos, and none of it was good. But that business with the Golden Pear had shown him that most of his prejudices may have been unfounded.
Most, but not all.
“How much further?” asked Kadmos, just as his father took a large bite of boar.
Lysander wiped his greasy, dripping mouth with the back of his hand and sped up his chewing, the mouthful of meat gnashing between his yellowed teeth. Even the Champion of Light was not above a display of road manners. It wasn’t pretty, and Kadmos couldn’t help but smirk at his excellent timing.
“I’m not sure,” his father finally answered, swallowing hard and stifling a belch. “Hard to tell with no sunlight. I feel that we’ve traveled for about a day. We should be reaching the Path of Swords soon. Then we turn left and follow that to T’artess.”
Kadmos glanced at the permanent eclipse that had turned the land to an unending darkness. “Father, I must know something,” he said, finally broaching the subject that had occupied his mind for some time. “You tried to prevent Thaeriel from being chained…but once he was, you empowered the glyph that Pallas created to lock them in place. Why?”
Lysander paused for a moment, staring into the fire. “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Valka’s thirst for blood was…unnerving.”
“You’ve seen so many battlefields,” said Kadmos. “How did this unnerve you?”
“The night before the gods were chained, Auros came to me in a dream.” Lysander shifted a little to get more comfortable. “Or maybe it was my mind betraying me.”
“What did he say?”
“Nothing,” said Lysander. “We were standing on opposite sides of a battlefield. He was larger than two garrison watchposts. I was alone, but so was he. We just stared across the field at each other. Auros looked proud, as though this was exactly what he wanted. War without end.”
“I see,” said Kadmos. “You wanted to make sure Auros was chained.”
Lysander nodded. “Because I’ve seen so many battlefields.”
Kadmos didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.
“But that may have been a mistake,” continued Lysander. The sun is gone from Eucos. The people speak of ghosts appearing. Echoes of people, some of whom are still with us.” Lysander looked up from the fire. “We need the gods back. Eucos is dying.”
The crackle of the fire replaced the rest of the conversation. Kadmos waited until he felt that a new conversation could begin before clearing his throat. “How soon before Neferu marches on Parthon?”
“That’s anyone’s guess,” said Lysander. “She plans to liberate the four port cities on the way, and each may take her longer than she expects.”
“How so? Each city hardly has a patrol, let alone a garrison.”
“Neferu thinks she’s doing the right thing. I suppose we all do, in the end. But Neferu believes she’ll be welcomed as a liberator, instead of resented as an invader.”
Kadmos snorted. “Then once she figures out nobody wants her there, she’ll take the Anubian army to Parthon?”
Lysander shrugged. “That’s my guess. The only way to save face is to completely destroy Olympia, and razing Parthon is the best way to start.”
“And we’re here to ask Tartessos for help?”
“Something like that.” Lysander wiped his hands on his tunic, which was already filthy from the journey. “Are you ready to continue?”
Kadmos nodded and got to his feet. He blinked up at the sky to clear his sight of the fire’s glow. “There are clouds,” he said. “I can’t see the stars.”
“No problem,” said Lysander.
“Do you remember which direction we came from?” Kadmos asked, squinting hard, as if doing so would magically reveal the stars to him.
“Yes, but there’s no need.” Lysander stood and retrieved his spear. “Two groups of Tartessian farmers have been watching us since we started eating.”
Kadmos looked around but could see nothing in the darkness. “Where?”
“The light reveals,” said Lysander. He held his golden spear to the sky and light exploded from the tip. The land was bathed in the light of the world, but Kadmos noted that the sudden illumination wasn’t blinding. It was as if the light had always been there and his eyes were just used to it.
“Auros’ beard!” yelled one of the nearby farmers. There were indeed two groups of them. They had circled around the campfire in a way that would satisfy anyone with military training.
“Men of Tartessos!” started Lysander in a loud, clear voice. “I come to your lands with a message of peace for Grand General Proteus.”
“You are under arrest,” said one of the bolder farmers. “In the name of General Proteus.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Lysander. “We should leave at once for T’artess.”
The leader stopped. Evidently he was about to suggest the same thing. Kadmos noted that the farmers all held very well-worn military weapons and armor. No doubt artifacts from their time serving in the Tartessian army.
The Champion of Light extended his arm towards the leader. “Lysander is my name,” he said. “Of Parthon. What may I call you?”
“Nunden,” said the man. He eyed Lysander’s outstretched arm for a moment or two before grasping his forearm in the universal gesture of friendship between soldiers. Nunden seemed to relax a little. Lysander had that effect on people.
“This is my son, Kadmos. Also of Parthon.”
Kadmos bowed. “My respect, sir. I am a captain of the Golden Garrison, and you and your men took me by surprise.”
The farmers responded to this with a roar of laughter. “My grandson could sneak up on the Golden Garrison,” said one. “Too busy looking at their reflections!” said another.
One of them jutted a chin in Kadmos’ direction. “Has that shield ever seen a drop of blood?”
“Would you like it to?” replied Kadmos hotly.
Another roar of laughter. “Easy there young pup!” said Nunden. “We have no wish to test you. Aye, we’ve heard of you both. A brave man, your father. I reckon the apple doesn’t fall too far.”
Lysander smiled. “It does not.”
“But you’re still both enemies of Tartessos,” said Nunden. “So you’ll hand over your weapons, and we’ll take you to T’artess. It’ll be up to them to know what to do with ye both.”
Kadmos took a defensive stance at this news, but Lysander simply handed over his spear.
“Heavier than it looks,” said Nunden, weighing the weapon in his palms.
“I prefer it that way,” said Lysander. “Nice heft.”
Kadmos handed over his sword, shield, and daggers to the eager hands that awaited them. He wasn’t so much unhappy with the situation as he was deeply confused.
The group found the Path of Swords not long after. Lysander had stopped projecting light from his spear at Nunden’s request. The men of Tartessos preferred to travel by the light of many torches, as opposed to a magic spell cast by a prisoner. The captives were allowed to walk together, surrounded by the rest of the group.
Kadmos leaned in to whisper. “Father, why do you trust them?”
Lysander smiled. “They have yet to give me a reason to distrust them.”
“Can you see into their hearts?”
“No,” murmured Lysander. “I cannot do everything Thaeriel could.”
Kadmos glanced around, then lowered his voice even more. “These are the people that betrayed Parthon.”
Lysander shook his head. “That was many generations ago. It’s a dangerous thing to link the past to the present.”
“They still march under the red banner!” Kadmos hissed. “A clear sign they embrace their abhorrent history.”
“Alright you cake-eaters, let’s stop to eat!” bellowed Nunden. “And maybe one o’ye can tell me what abhorrent means!”
The men laughed at Kadmos’ indignant reaction. “Eavesdropping?” he said.
Nunden scoffed. “You’re prisoners! Y’ave no secrets.”
Kadmos looked at Lysander. “Without honor.” he said with a note of finality, as though resting his case.
Nunden found a suitable rock and eased himself down on it. His knees weren’t what they once were, and they didn’t always bend in an agreeable manner. “D’they still tell the story about brave Stelios and cowardly Artess?”
“In litterarius,” said Kadmos. “One of my earliest memories.”
Nunden scowled. “What’s litterarius?”
“School,” said Kadmos, mocking. “Do you not have school in Tartessos?”
“Aye, pup. We do,” said Nunden. “We call it ‘school’.”
More laughter. Kadmos narrowed his eyes.
“I learned that story as well,” Lysander declared, perhaps louder than necessary. Nodding, he turned to Nunden. “I found it troubling, but I don’t blame any of you—”
“Blame?” interrupted Nunden. “Y’have no clue as to your own history, lads. General Artess did nothing except disobey orders.”
“Artess was a coward,” Kadmos scoffed. “He took the army of Parthon and flew the red banner. The Gara’Nu were slaughtered. Do you deny this?”
“See…I heard it different,” said Nunden. “You were taught that General Artess were ordered to chase the Gara’Nu tribes back into the mountains, and he had the choice of two banners: The blue, which told his men to take no lives, and the red which told his men to take no prisoners.”
“Yes,” said Lysander.
“And then Artess was ordered to fly the blue but chose instead to march under the red, which meant they would kill any Gara’Nu they found.” Nunden shifted a little and settled back down. “Is that right?”
Yes,” said Kadmos. “And then he took his army to the white mountain and founded Tartessos, because he could not return home to face justice for what he did.”
Lysander sat on the ground near Nunden. “What do your people teach?”
“Father!” said Kadmos.
Nunden eyed Kadmos, then Lysander. “Why do you ask?”
“The light seeks the truth,” Lysander offered.
“Very well,” said Nunden. “Much of the story is the same, except Artess was ordered to exterminate the Gara’Nu and he refused. Y’see, Stelios wanted the Gara’Nu wiped out.”
“Stelios would never do such a thing,” said Kadmos. “He was Minister Excelsus. His name is honored.”
“Aye son, and we honor General Artess the same way.” Nunden held up both hands in a rather clumsy calming gesture. “But put yourself in the boots of Artess. Wouldn’t leaving be the only honorable way out?”
“Father, he’s lying.”
Lysander shook his head and looked at Kadmos. “He had his truth, as we have ours. He believes what he was told. You believe what you were told. But the light seeks the truth.”
“The light IS the truth!” said Kadmos. “If his story was true, why did Thaeriel let us believe a lie?”
Lysander stared at the ground. He had no answer. As a parent, Lysander had a large stock of ready phrases that would serve to deflect difficult questions from a curious child. But not this time. The question was good. The answer was impossible.
The tension was broken by the clatter of wood as the other Tartessians returned with the makings for a campfire. One of them had been lucky enough to bring down a large boar, which turned the meal into a minor celebration. Kadmos and Lysander sat in silence while the party sang at least nine tavern songs (three of which were extremely rude).
Neither of the prisoners had ever seen the city of T’artess. It would have been an impressive sight during the daylight, but T’artess at night had a glory of its own.
The city was built into the caldera of the White Mountain of Artes. At night the entire mouth of the caldera was lit by torches in a spectacular display of excess. Kadmos was caught up in the wonder of the whole thing. In front of the entrance to the caldera was an urban sprawl of Olympian architecture in disrepair. Once the party got closer, Kadmos could see inside the mountain. The inside walls were a lattice of walkways that connected small pockets of habitants. These were tiny houses, most not much larger than a bed, that hung from the rocky walls. The walkways were lit by hundreds of torches, giving it the appearance of an artificial night sky.
Once the group was past the gate captain, Lysander and Kadmos were given back their weapons. “You’re inside the city now,” explained Nunden. “The only ones allowed to hold your weapon is you. That’s the law here. If you die, you won’t be unarmed.”
The path they took looked like it cut through the central part of the city. It was wide enough to take two or three carts side-by-side. Arterial paths led from this one and snaked their way through shacks of wood and stone. There were no crowds of which to speak. Mostly just pockets of folk gathered around various fires.
As they walked, Kadmos noted the walls of the caldera were steep and lined with various hanging wooden structures. He couldn’t make out what they were but there were definitely people up there. Dwellings? These people certainly had an odd existence.
“What happens to us?” asked Kadmos.
“Y’ll go before the Council of Scars,” said Nunden. “Some call it The Six. They’ll decide what to do with you.”
“What if they don’t listen to us?”
“Then we leave,” said Lysander. “Return to Parthon and prepare to defend the city.”
Kadmos glanced around. “I don’t think they’ll let us leave.”
“I wasn’t planning to ask,” said Lysander. “But I trust they will.”
Six warriors stood around a large stone circle. The Council of Scars, also known as The Six. They made decisions for the city, often arriving at these decisions after a night of drinking and violence. Each of The Six had the look of bored stoicism. Despite their high office, their clothing lacked the uniformity that usually came with such roles, and each warrior looked as though they’d dressed for battle in a hurry.
A seventh warrior, Grand General Proteus, observed the proceedings from a crudely carved throne set just outside the circle. Despite his seated position, he was clearly larger and more imposing than any of the Council members. His armor had once been quite spectacular, but a number of years and a number of battles had taken their toll, told through the scuffs and dents that now marred the metal. Proteus also wore a full-faced helmet that only showed his eyes through narrow slits.
Lysander stood in the middle of the circle. He held his spear in the friendliest way possible.
“My lords,” he said in a crisp, clear voice. “I am Lysander of Parthon.”
“State your purpose,” said one of The Six.
“I came to your city in peace. I wish only to talk.”
“Talk? Talk is for lovers,” said a different voice. “Did you not come here to fight?” The room echoed with laughter from The Six. Lysander waited for it to stop before he continued. He needed to get them on his side.
“I came to talk, but if it’s battle you crave, I can offer that too. The Champion of Death, Neferu, is right now gathering the largest army Anubia has ever seen. She plans to take back her people’s ancient lands, and then she plans to march on Parthon. Neferu intends to kill every Olympian on Eucos.”
“Why should that matter to us?” asked yet another voice.
“Because she will also march on Tartessos,” said Lysander. “She does not view you as different from us. She considered you all children of Parthon. As do I.”
Kadmos could tell that his father immediately regretted that last bit, and the angry shouting from the Council of Scars told him they weren’t happy with it either.
Kadmos drew his sword and strode forward. He pointed it at one of The Six who had started to approach Lysander. “Sit down,” he yelled, swinging his sword to point it at each of The Six in turn. “All of you. This man has risked the safety of his home to try and save your lives.”
“Why should we listen to lies?” shouted the one that Kadmos originally threatened. He had yet to sit down.
Kadmos unstrapped his shield from his back. “The words of an imp. Take them back or defend yourself, coward!”
The man drew his own sword and took up a defensive stance. “Hulles of T’alon does not back down from a fight. This is a face that has seen a hundred battles!”
Kadmos snorted. “By the looks of it you lost them all.”
Other members of The Six laughed at that, but Hulles was not amused. A huge, knotted fist gripped the hilt of a chipped and unkempt sword, and that sword swung with alarming speed at Kadmos’ head. Kadmos was barely able to bring his shield up to deflect the blow, but he was lucky enough that Hulles’ momentum gave him an opening. He slashed at the strip of flesh that poked out between Hulles’ tunic and kilt, and opened up a superficial wound on the warrior’s hip.
Enraged by this, Hulles started hacking away at Kadmos. His shield absorbed every blow, though every time sword and shield connected, the captain of Parthon took another step back. He did not want to get too close to any of the other Six. Knowing Tartessians as he did, he expected it would lead to a knife in the back.
Instead, Kadmos took advantage of the regimental sword swings. Hulles did not care about finesse or tactics. This was an absurd show of strength for his fellow councilmen and his General. Kadmos held his breath, dropped his sword, and timed his next action just as Hulles’ sword arm had started another swing. Kadmos drove his shield into Hulles’ face as hard as he could, and the warrior fell.
Kadmos kicked away Hulles’ sword and kneeled on his chest. The man could do nothing but look at him through a haze of gushing blood and the promise of revenge..
He offered a hand to Hulles, and the Tartessian took it more out of spite than anything else.
“The Champion of Light does not lie,” said Kadmos.
“And what of his son?” came the voice of General Proteus. It was an old voice. A steely, sharp-edged voice. One that was not accustomed to diplomacy. Proteus rose from his throne and walked into the circle. He clearly was once a giant of a man, but his stature had been cut down through age, drink, or injury. Perhaps a combination of all three, and then some.
“I honor my father’s ways,” said Kadmos, now slightly less defiant.
“Very good. Now put your sword away boy,” said Proteus. “It’s harder to clean up blood at night.” After Kadmos had sheathed his weapon, the Grand General continued. “Let me speak with your father.”
Lysander watched as Proteus removed his helmet to reveal a scarred and burned face. Lysander recognized a man broken in battle. A kindred spirit. Hope.
“You wish for us to join your army?” said Proteus.
“No,” said Lysander.
“Good,” said Proteus. “Because I was going to refuse.”
“The army of Tartessos is a grand one,” said Lysander. “I have never met tougher foes on the battlefield.”
Proteus snorted. “I know all that,” he said with an odd smile. “I do not need compliments like a perfumed Lady of the Sanctum.”
“We need to stop Neferu,” said Lysander. “She has powers from Malissus. She will pull dead soldiers from the earth and send them into battle against Parthon. The screams of the forgotten will echo all around you. All around us.”
“We can handle the dead. We put them in the ground once. We can do it again.”
Lysander sighed. “Then you refuse to unite with us?”
“I don’t see the need to abandon our ways,” said Proteus. “If the dark champion does come for Tartessos, she will find the death she loves so much.” Behind him, the Council of Scars murmured their agreement.
Lysander closed his eyes and bowed his head, defeated. “I wish I could remain here to try and persuade you otherwise, but I do not have the time. Neferu marches on Olympian ports as we speak.”
“I wish you good fortune in the battles to come,” said Proteus.
Lysander shouldered his spear. “Come Kadmos. We have a long way to travel.”
“Father, I would prefer to stay.”
Both Lysander and Proteus stared at the young Parthon captain. Neither expected this.
“For what purpose?” Lysander asked.
“I may be able to convince these people that the threat is real,” said Kadmos. “I would like to try. Perhaps if I understood them more, I would be successful. But I have much to learn.”
Lysander smiled. “You appear to be learning just fine.”
“Perhaps I can bring them to the Light.”
“Not bloody likely,” Proteus said, his voice somewhere between a laugh and a sneer. “But if you wish to stay in T’artess, I am willing to permit it. Any warrior able to best one of my Council in fair combat has proven themselves worthy to remain among us.”
Lysander turned to Proteus. “May I have your guarantee that no harm will come to him?”
“I make no such guarantee.” Proteus shrugged. “He will hunt for his own food. He will fight his own battles. If he dies here, it will be with a weapon in his hand and a curse on his lips. He will have the same guarantee that all have here in Tartessos.”
Lysander bowed his assent to Proteus, and embraced his son.
“I have never been prouder of you, Kadmos,” he said. “You are the very best of your mother.”
“I will see you soon, father. When the Anubians attack, I want to be by your side.”
Lysander took one last look at the White Mountain of T’artess before resuming his journey.
“He’ll be alright,” said Nunden, who had agreed to accompany Lysander back to the Olympian border.
“I know,” said Lysander. “Kadmos is a little impulsive, but he can handle himself. I’m more worried about the rest of you.”
“Aye,” Nunden nodded solemnly. “Me too.”
To be continued in Mortal Judgement Episode 4: Remedial Chaos Theory.