Forever in Your Debt
Ishtar stared at the bleating herd of sheep and sighed. “Move on, you stupid—” He glanced aside. Not another soul on the horizon. Three distant tents, green fields, and plenty of rocks.
He set his jaw. “Not your fault.” A memory flashed through his mind. His warriors lined up at his command as they faced the giants from the north…he and his men hunting for game…his men lounging around a sizzling fire, laughing, teasing, eating…” He closed his mind.
Still, memories tore through his brain, searing all other thoughts.
He could feel his sweaty body steaming in passion as he and Haruz embraced on their first night together…the birth of his son with his head full of black hair…the ore-empty earth slipping through his fingers…the glinting knife in Haruz’s hand—
He screamed. “Noooo!”
The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.
His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.
Matalah stepped outside his tent and glanced up, shading his eyes from the sun.
Ishtar unclenched his hands and sucked in deep, calming breaths. He dropped his voice to a coaxing whisper. “Come, sheep. Green pastures…just ahead.”
A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.
Running his fingers along its back, Ishtar surveyed the landscape. All lay quiet. No Matalah. No memories. For the moment.
He struck the ground with his staff and started climbing. The sheep trailed along behind.
Ishtar stopped for a rest and stretched across a level spot. He opened his satchel, and slowly chewed his bread and cheese. Watching the rosy sunset deepen to black night, he battled every memory of his father. Neb in battle, jabbing a man with his spear…Neb sneering at Haruz, shoving her into a corner with an angry retort…Neb grasping Ishtar’s knife and plunging it deep into his own breast.
Ishtar choked, his head dropped to his chest, and his bread crumbled in his fisted hand.
A lamb rose and sauntered near, butting its head into his arms.
Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.
Ishtar led the sheep to greener pastures as days passed uncounted. The tents moved with them. He ate his allotment of bread and cheese and sipped at the single stream that gave life to this barren land. His tears joined the stream.
One hot day, two lambs frisked in innocent joy and bumped into each other. Their collision sent them careening backward where they sat down hard.
Ishtar laughed. “You are like Caleb and Amin—children at play with no notion of—” A burning flush worked up his cheeks.
Fresh tears flowed.
Ishtar stood on the top of a hill and glanced at an approaching figure. He swallowed back a sour taste and tried to ignore a disconcerting tightening in his stomach.
The eldest son of Matalah wound his way toward him. Ishtar tipped his head in courtesy. “Abdul.”
“Ishtar.” Abdul did not incline his head but, instead, folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve been watching you.”
Ishtar waited. He squinted in the bright light, watching the sheep, wary.
“You know your way in the world.” Abdul turned his focused gaze to the east. “Tending animals is hardly a fitting occupation for a man of your skill and intelligence.”
Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.
“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to insult you, but he doesn’t understand the greater world. He travels but never goes anywhere.” A grin quirked on Abdul’s lips. “I’m a more fortunate man.”
“Fortune can be deceiving.”
A twinkle sparkled in Abdul’s eyes. “I’ve seen glorious horizons. There is a great deal to desire in this world.”
Swallowing, Ishtar shifted. He glanced at the three tents at the bottom of the hill.
“My family served you well in your hour of need. Perhaps you could render us assistance in return.” His broad smile flashed and disappeared.
A lamb butted Ishtar’s hand. He stroked its soft head.
“Of course, this is just between us.”
Ishtar glanced at Abdul. Their eyes met and fought for supremacy. Neb’s gaze glowed through Abdul’s eyes. Ishtar stiffened.
“Accidents happen. You understand.” Without another word, Abdul turned and strolled down the hill, his garments billowing in the stiff breeze.
Ishtar led the sheep back to the Bedouin’s camp, the cool evening air tingling over his arms. After washing at the well and nodding to the brothers around the fire, he made his way to the central tent.
Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.
Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.
Matalah’s eyes lit up with an inner fire. “Ah, my adopted son. Come, sit, and enjoy a well-earned rest.”
Ishtar offered a deep bow and sat by the old man. He leaned back on a firm pillow and stared at the array of food. “You are ever a kind host.” Ishtar clasped his hands in his lap and looked down. “I was never so good to my guests…not even to my own family.”
Matalah pressed his hand over Ishtar’s. “Kindness is a gift, given to me, which I pass on to you.” He smiled and met Ishtar’s gaze. “Share it well.” His smile vanished, replaced by a shadow of doubt.
As they ate, Ishtar peered out of the corner of his eyes at his host’s worried face. His stomach clenched even as the good food nourished his exhausted body.
When they leaned back and sipped wine, Ishtar wrapped his fingers around the vessel and lifted his eyes from its depths to Matalah. “My friend—for so I dare call you— it’s clear that something weighs heavy on your mind. If there is anything I can do—”
“I thank you, Ishtar. You’ve become like a son, though I hope not like some sons I must claim, though I’d rather not.”
A murmured conversation passed outside the tent flap, and Ishtar glanced over. The voices faded into the evening.
Matalah dropped his tone and leaned forward, tapping Ishtar’s knee. “You’re a more honest man, despite your troubled past, than my sons who, though they have been raised with love and security, are little less than cheats and thieves.”
Ishtar sat up. “I’m here to listen…though I may know your story in part.”
“My sons plan to gather men and take by force what would have been theirs if they had but waited for the proper time. I am not yet dead, but they wish me in the ground.”
Ishtar shook his head. “Why? They are free men in charge of a prosperous territory.”
“They wish to acquire more land and grow rich and mighty.” He spat to the side. “It is no use telling them that a man’s wealth grows cold and more heartless over time.”
“They’re willing to battle for more territory?”
“It’s what they look forward to the most.” He gulped the last of his wine and placed the cup aside. “My two eldest, Abdul and Wasim, asked permission to scout out the weakest tribes in the area, gather a strong force, and put our friends and neighbors to flight. Once the land is abandoned, they’ll claim the herds and servants for their own.”
Like a man witnessing before God, Matalah waved his hand high. “It is an evil plan, which under any circumstances would be difficult, but as they have little experience in battle, it’s preposterous. They received no permission from me.”
Closing his eyes, Ishtar clenched his cup. “But they did not listen?”
“Worse. They convinced my third son, Assam, to join them, and they’re gathering such a force that it makes my blood boil. Every day they bring in strange men, insisting that I am too feeble to manage matters. They invent troubles that never existed.”
Rising, Ishtar paced before the old man. “Your sons can’t control what they are setting into motion.”
Matalah waved to the doorway. “I told them—no one would be left unscathed by their evil ambition.”
Ishtar stopped and stared at Matalah. “Such was my father. A curse he passed to me.”
A shadow wavered at the door.
Matalah frowned. “Come!” His youngest daughter scampered forward with a full carafe of wine. Matalah gestured toward Ishtar, but Ishtar refused with a soft smile. Sending the girl away, Matalah wrung his hands. “Everyone must endure the battle between good and evil.”
Kneeling before his friend, Ishtar peered into his eyes. “But you don’t deserve such a fate. You are innocent.”
Using Ishtar’s arm as a brace, Matalah rose and strode to the doorway. He stared at the starry sky. “Innocence does not protect us. It only offers alternatives.”
Standing aside with his hand on Matalah’s shoulder, Ishtar gazed upon the same sky. “I will do anything you ask. Such ambitious plans take time. Perhaps your God will intervene in some way we can’t yet see.
Matalah turned and stared into his eyes. “If you don’t side with them, they’ll turn on you.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You must leave—soon.”
Weaving around his friend, Ishtar crossed the room and turned at the doorway. “I’m not dead—thanks to your kindness. If it’s not disagreeable to you, I’ll stay a little longer. Let’s see what the future brings.”
Lacing his fingers together before his face, like a man in earnest prayer, a tremulous smile crossed Matalah’s face. “God sent you.” He peered at the twinkling sky. “My kindness has been repaid a hundred-fold.”
“Yet I am forever in your debt.” With a nod, Ishtar padded into the dark night.
“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.”
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