Outside the Walls
Eoban stood on a hill outside the city walls and watched flames flicker from distant hearths. He rubbed his growling stomach.
With a smile plastered on his face, Obed jogged forward and glanced aside at Barak. “I spoke with a family at the bottom of the hill.” He pointed to a small assembly stationed around a stew pot that hung over a modest blaze. “I told them that we’re travelers in search of a lost clan member, and they’ve agreed to let us spend the night. They have plenty of stew, Eoban, and they’re willing to share with us.”
Shoving off from an ancient tree, Barak rubbed his hands together. “I could certainly use a home-cooked meal.” He started after Obed and called back. “Hurry up, Eoban. We’re not waiting for you.” He and Obed loped down the hill.
Eoban frowned and hesitated. His stomach rumbled again. He blew air between his lips and jogged forward.
As they assembled around the fire, everyone gave way so the three men could partake of the offered stew and fresh bread. Soon, a strong drink was passed around, and in little time, Eoban’s mood expanded. After eating and drinking his fill, he flopped on the ground and stretched out between Obed and Barak, who sat cross-legged.
Various community members sat on the ground or on benches drawn back from the fire. Muted conversations flowed in all directions.
Propping himself on one arm, Eoban’s only discomfort lay in questions nagging his mind. He licked his tingling lips and launched his words like rocks. “So, how is it that a people who cook so well also ravage and enslave others?”
Deafening silence filled the air. Faces froze and limbs stilled.
Obed whacked Eoban on the side and muttered. “You repay their hospitality with an insult?”
Barak jerked to his knees, scanning the crowd. He met an old man’s gaze. “I’m sorry for my rude friend. Clearly, Eoban’s had too much to drink. You see, we’ve been traveling, and he’s had many—”
Stumbling to his feet, Eoban waved his arms, cutting off Barak’s conciliatory speech. “I can’t stand brutality! That’s my grievance. It makes me sick. It should make you sick—but you’ve thrived.” He jutted his arm toward the main gate. “Your whole city—”
The old man rose steady and clear-eyed. “My name is Daniel, it means judge. I am the one who settles arguments in our community.” He stepped closer to Eoban and fixed his gaze. “You have judged us before knowing the truth.”
Moving off to the side and crossing his arms, Obed shook his head. “So often the case with him.”
Daniel stepped around Eoban, returning to the central fire. “Perhaps, it’s your heart that speaks and not your reason.”
A low murmur rumbled through the crowd.
Daniel stared at the flames. “Those who live outside the walls are not the same as those who live inside.” He exhaled a long breath. “We are not much better than slaves ourselves. Chains do not bind us, but we’re held captive nonetheless. Having no voice, we have no strength to change the laws or fight the armies that protect them.”
Barak nodded, his eyes downcast.
Obed glared at Eoban with a told-you-so look.
Eoban returned the glare, his voice rising. “You know the laws are wrong, yet you don’t fight them?”
A youth sprang up from the circle. “Knowing something is wrong doesn’t put a spear in your hand. They’d kill us—”
Disgust welled inside Eoban, and his words rose like a snarl. “So, not brutes but cowards, then?”
As if in slow motion, Obed marched forward, clenching his fist.
Before he realized what happened, jolting pain seared through Eoban’s head, and he felt himself spinning. Darkness swallowed him.
Barak sat before a waning fire in the early morning light, watching the last stars fade into the brightening sky. Obed slumbered at his right, and Eoban still lay sprawled on the ground where he fell.
After much grunting and groaning and several vain attempts to sit up, Eoban gave a mighty roar and rolled to his knees and then staggered to his feet. He peered around, rubbing his jaw. “I know what happened, so don’t pretend.”
Barak closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest, smothering a groan.
“Try as you might, you can’t excuse him! Such behavior must be roundly condemned. I hope you did me justice and kept our clan’s reputation intact.”
Choking, Barak stared wide-eyed at Eoban.
Eoban leaned in, gazing into Barak’s eyes. “You and Obed did do me justice—didn’t you?”
After rising and stepping a safe distance away, Barak peered into Eoban’s bloodshot eyes. “It was Obed who knocked you out.”
“Obed?” Eoban smoothed his rough chin. “I’ll have a word—”
Frustration seizing him, Barak stomped close, gripped Eoban’s arm, and tugged him to the summit of the nearby hill.
The glorious white city spread before them, encircled by a wall with tall and short gates facing each direction. Guards marched along the wall, while merchants and villagers started their daily routines. Women opened shops, old men swept dirt from their steps, mothers bustled children to the well with empty jugs, and boys chased flocks into open fields.
Eoban peered at the view and then glanced aside. “What?”
Pointing to a temple roof rising high above the wall, Barak barely controlled his temper. “There! The inhabitants of this metropolis worship a figure that has a man’s head, the body of a great cat, and the wings of an eagle. It needs daily sacrifice to keep the city flourishing. Sound familiar?”
Eoban scowled. “Haruz must have studied here. But if Ishtar is in residence, I’m not sure we’ll ever get him away.”
Clapping his hands together in mute fury, Barak turned away. “Who accused our hosts of being cowards?”
“I’ve been talking in my sleep…?”
Scrambling footsteps turned their attention.
A twinkling smile in his eyes, Obed sauntered forward. “Have a good sleep, Eoban?” He winked at Barak.
Barak took a step backward.
Returning the smile, Eoban chuckled. “Oh, yes, slept like a baby. Blazing stars exploded in my head when I hit the hard ground—what more could a man ask?” Eoban clenched his fist. “If only you could share my joy.” He landed a heavy blow on Obed’s chin.
Obed spun backward and sprawled in the dust. He glared at Eoban, his eyes blazing.
Barak stepped over with a hand out, but Eoban blocked him and gripped Obed by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “Now, we’re even.”
After spitting on the ground, Obed rubbed his jaw, the fire in his eyes dying to embers. “Someone had to shut you up. Or do you think it’s generous to insult the people who feed you and treat you with kindness?”
“It was not their kindness I objected to but rather their weakness.”
Barak lifted his hands and stepped between the two men. “Enough!” He glanced from Eoban to Obed and then pointed to the city. “Or I’ll leave you two to kill each other while I go search the temple for Ishtar.”
With a snort and a dismissive wave, Obed surveyed the glinting white temple. “Ought to be interesting.”
Eoban scrambled down the hill. “Ishtar would end up in a place like that. Let’s go.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Try not to be too impressed, Obed. We can’t bring any of it home.”
With a storm cloud rising in his stomach, Barak followed the two men.
“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” ~James Baldwin
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