—Mountains and Grasslands—
Madness Will Take Us All
Ishtar ran under a warm sun at an even pace for much of the day, stopping every now and again to rest, gain a view of his surroundings, and get his bearings. He wound his way down a mountainside populated with cedars and pines. The ground, spongy and matted with brown needles, softened the blows to his feet, and the boughs overhead blocked the harshest rays of the sun. The ancient trees comforted him but with a reserved, haughty demeanor.
By late afternoon, the trees, held back by an invisible command, gave way to scrublands and rounded hillsides. When Ishtar reached the top of one, he considered his surroundings and tried to puzzle out where the raiding clan had come from. He glanced back at the distant mountains and frowned. Even if they managed to cross the distance, how would they ever get their slaves home safe? He shook his head. They’d be mad. A stab of fear plunged into his gut.
By evening, he spied a group of stocky, muscular hunters passing into the open grasslands. He followed as they chased a fat stag. After a successful kill, they grinned in mute joy and pounded each other on the back. Sucking in a deep breath, Ishtar straightened his shoulders, rose from his grassy shelter, and approached. He lifted his hands high, signaling his peaceful intent.
Frowning and circling their kill, they huddled close.
Ishtar spoke slowly, gesturing with each word. “I’m Ishtar from the grasslands. I’m returning home from a long journey.”
Allowing him to step nearer, the shortest and thickest man in the group addressed him. “Ishtar, I’m Butros. We come from the south.” He gestured in the general direction, and then swept his hand at the stag. “We return home, too.”
Clasping his hands, Ishtar bowed in a sign of respect. “You are skilled hunters.” He motioned back the way he had come. “I found a village devastated by raiders. My friend is helping the survivors. But I must warn my people.” He stepped closer. “And warn you too. They are a dangerous enemy.”
“We’ve heard of their approach. We hide in the woodlands, and when necessary, we move again. In this way, we keep safe.”
Ishtar nodded. “Very wise. But have no other clans been attacked? Were none of them your friends?”
Butros glanced at his men before fixing his gaze on Ishtar. “We’re too few to fight such a powerful enemy. Their leader is intelligent but mad.”
Stiffening, a cold shock ran over Ishtar. “Why do you say so?”
Butros shrugged. “His success declares intelligence, but his ambition demonstrates madness.”
Rubbing his temple, Ishtar tipped his head. “You are wise indeed.” He glanced toward the setting sun. “I must go and warn my people.”
Glancing aside, Butros nodded to the stag. “It was kind of you to stop to alert us. Take some meat. You must arrive strong enough to fight…if need be.”
Blinking at this unexpected generosity, Ishtar waited while they cut a section of the rump and wrapped it in skin. When he accepted the gift, he bowed low. “If ever the need arises, send a runner to the western grasslands. Call for Ishtar, and I’ll come to your aid.”
Butros smiled. “If ever the need arises.” He titled his head. “I pray it will not.”
Ishtar turned, but Butros called after him. “Beware of their god! It eats men, devouring them whole.”
Bile rising, Ishtar froze, stunned. He glanced back wide-eyed. “You know this?”
“I know the sound of a man in torment, and I have seen the sacrificial fire.” Butros shook his head. “That’s why we stay far from them.” Peering through haunted eyes, he crossed his arms over his chest. “The danger is too great.”
Turning, Ishtar sprinted away.
Ishtar rose early the next morning from a short sleep and started again. He soon discovered a wide, beaten trail of travelers who had no desire to hide their steps and held in contempt those who might follow. Under a glaring noon sun, he arrived at an abandoned encampment. Stepping around the remains of an enormous blackened ring, he toed the remains of a feast.
He crouched low, frowning. They had enjoyed roasted deer; the bones and hide scraps lay scattered about. But in the fire pit, the bones did not match the meal. Fresh blood stained a circle of blackened stones. Ishtar’s nose curled, and his stomach squirmed. When he found the remains of a hand, his insides revolted, and he retched in the grass.
With sobbing moans, he wiped bile from his mouth and rose on his haunches. Pounding the dirt, he rocked like a child in torment. Lifting his gaze to the sky, he raised his fist. “Oh, God! How could this happen—again? Is there no evil men will not commit?” He staggered to his feet and stared wild-eyed at the scene. “Madness will take us all.”
A huge black raven flew in low, snatching at the remains. In fury, Ishtar swatted the air, flailing his arms and attempting to drive it away. Three more birds arrived, and Ishtar leapt at them, flinging insults and fury.
More birds darted into the pit, and Ishtar, with tears streaming, snatched the hand and what bones he could find. Bundling them in his arms, he ran some distance away, and, using his body as a shield, he dropped the remnant in a heap. He yanked his knife from his belt and scoured the ground, loosening the earth and scrabbling a shallow hole with his fingers. After placing each bone and fleshy piece into the hollow, he covered them dirt and grass.
The birds, unaware or uninterested in his work of mercy, circled above the remaining feast, quarreling for their share.
His hands black and bleeding, his face sweat-and-tear- streaked, Ishtar stepped back and stared from the tiny grave to the angry birds, his mood as black as their feathers.
Ishtar—exhausted but resolute—loped through the swaying grass and detected a flicker of firelight in the distance. Crouching low, he crept over the uneven ground, his gaze fastened on the assembled throng.
A waning moon rose as one by one, stars blinked into existence. Low clouds spread across the sky like a frayed shawl.
Studying his enemy, Ishtar peered at the beardless, stocky warriors in the bright moonlight. They wore colorful robes dirt-stained and ragged but clear reminders of a proud history.
Sentries paced the perimeter and stalwart guards stood at fixed points before a huddled cluster of wretched women and children. The women clutched babies and small children in their laps, while adolescent girls and boys huddled with their arms wrapped around their middles, crouching low, their eyes blank and unseeing. On the edges, a few male survivors sat hunched-shouldered, bruised and filthy. The guards smacked them without cause whenever they strode near.
A single tent dominated the scene. Two guards, still as stones, stood on either side of the entrance.
As the glowing moon rose higher, Ishtar’s eyes drooped with exhaustion. He dropped his head over his arms, which were wrapped around his knees. His eyes closed.
Suddenly, a commotion jerked him awake. Craning his neck, he peered over the tops of the swaying grass.
A heavyset man, short and broad, with a beardless white face that practically glowed, marched stiff-shouldered from the tent to the center of the assembly. His iridescent robe, thrown back from his shoulders, rippled in the evening breeze. He stood in the center of the assembly and spoke in a confident, commanding tone, all eyes fixed on his face.
Ishtar could not hear the words, but he understood their instructional intent.
The leader pointed, his voice rising.
The assembled warriors lifted their arms, their fists raised to the night sky, chanting, demanding, and affirming. Among raucous sounds, only one resolved itself into a clear word. “Chai.”
Sheltered by blackness, Ishtar half-rose and growled in an undertone. “Chai? You and I must meet.”
Chai turned and peered in Ishtar’s direction, his eyes glowing like a cat’s.
A chill racing through his body, Ishtar turned south and fled.
It is not enough for us to restrain from doing evil unless we shall also do good. ~St. Jerome
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