A Terrible Mistake
Amin sat on a log before a dead fire and watched Luge’s wife, Lydia, trot across the village with an armful of kindling and two children tugging at her skirts.
He whiled away his boredom imagining what he would say to his little brother when he returned home. He pictured Caleb’s surprise—his eyes round and wide—as the boy ran into his arms as he always did. Caleb would want him to repeat his adventures over and over and would probably brag to everyone about Amin’s journey.
Amin shook his head. What do I have to brag about? He stared at the humble village, the rough men and women who hunted and gathered, eeking out an existence from the scrubby wilderness. He closed his eyes and pictured his own well-organized village—the craftsmen’s homes, women chattering as they spun and wove cloth on looms, children leading herds into distant green hills.
Opening his eyes, he sighed; his shoulders drooped in idle weariness. Scanning the crowd, he saw an old woman scrape a hide with a worn paddle, a man hang strips of meat on a line to dry, and children huddle in a circle before an old woman who held at a bowl of nuts in her lap and picked out the shells.
One man attached a sharp stone tip to a long wooden shaft with leather ties. He glanced up and met Amin’s gaze.
Amin looked away, a tightening in his throat choked him.
Striding near with hurried steps, Lydia called. “Come, boy. Eat now.” She pointed to the table placed outside her tent. “We must get everything packed for the move tomorrow.”
Frowning, Amin rose and padded to the table. He peered at the tray piled with roasted meat, nuts, and mixed berries. “How can you leave? Luge isn’t back yet.”
After placing an earthen jug on the table, Lydia wiped the back of her hand over her brow. “I hardly want to.” She glanced aside, her brow wrinkled with worry. “But I have to.”
Amin tilted his head and peered at her, a spark of interest igniting. “Have to…why?”
Stepping closer, Lydia leaned in, one hand shadowing her mouth as if to hide their conversation. “My husband’s brother…” She nodded at a fat, indolent man lying on a soft pallet outside his tent. A man Amin had learned to avoid early on.
“Rueben?” Amin frowned. “He should be helping you.”
Snorting, Lydia turned her back to the village and arranged the tray and the jug in perfect symmetry. “He does not work. It’s not his way. Nor his wife’s.” She glanced over her shoulder.
A tiny woman with a tight, flushed face hovered over her husband, flapping her hands like fans, chattering like a child.
Scowling, Amin stared boldly at the man. “In my clan, if a person does not work, he does not eat.”
Idly scratching her head, Lydia surveyed the village. “You must be a wise and prosperous people then.”
Amin chuckled and shook his head. “If only that were so.” His grin faded as Rueben rolled off the pallet and swayed to his feet, his glaring eyes fixed on Lydia.
Amin straightened, annoyance warring with anxiety.
Lydia backed against the table as Rueben drew near.
“Why aren’t you seeing to the packing, woman?”
Lydia frowned, wringing her hands. “I’ve just finished my morning work and made the rounds, telling everyone your plan.”
His eyes narrowing, disgust enveloped Amin. The man’s stench was unbearable. He flashed a glance at Rueben’s wife, who scurried in the background, still fluttering like a leaf in high winds.
Rueben shook an admonishing finger at Lydia. “You know Luge’s directions were as clear as the morning sun. He said to move at our appointed time, no matter what.”
Amin turned to Lydia. “Why? What harm would it do to wait a little longer?”
Glaring, Rueben grabbed Lydia’s wrist and tugged her toward his tent. “The whole clan will starve if we delay. Once the rains come, the roads will be impassible, and winter will have its way with us.”
Lydia jerked free and returned to Amin, staring into his bright eyes, leaning in as if to emphasize her words. “It’s true. It’ll grow cold here soon, and animals will be hard to find. We’ve already outstayed our welcome.” She glanced at the main path leading out of the village. “I was hoping” —she shook herself— “but there’s no sense waiting now. Luge will follow us. He knows the way.”
Ruben gestured to his wife. “Ulla will help you.” He limped to the outdoor pallet and flopped on the ground with a loud, lingering groan.
Lydia lifted her hands in apparent surrender, her gaze sweeping the interior of the tent. “Don’t worry, Ulla. You take care of your husband. I’ll manage.”
As Ulla scampered to her wifely duty, Amin stepped into the tent behind Lydia. He gasped. Discarded clothes, half-eaten food, dirty cups, and sticky jugs, ornate decorations, a broken spear, three mangled baskets, and an assortment of other detritus lay strewn about in haphazard fashion. “They’re worse than pigs.”
Clamping her hand over Amin’s mouth, her eyes widened. “Shhh! He’s a difficult man when he’s feeling well but now that he’s sick—”
Amin lifted a jug, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. His voice dropped low. “Sick or stupid?”
Her hands flashing right and left, Lydia straightened the baskets and tossed salvageable goods into them. The rotten food and broken pottery shards, she threw into a central pit. “His bowels bother him…sometimes he writhes in agony.” With a yelp, she jumped back.
Leaning forward, Amin followed her wide-eyed stare and peered in the dark corner where a heap of old clothes lay in a shredded bundle. He gripped the corner and tugged.
Out leapt a litter of rats, which scattered in all directions.
Slapping his thigh, Amin knocked one off his legging and then spat on the ground. “Ugh! Filthy people!”
With a shudder, Lydia grabbed a staff from the corner and swung it at the departing rodents, her own rage flushing across her face. “Luge should never have left me like this! He knows how much I have to do—”
Shocked, Amin froze and stared at her. “He’s looking for your son!”
Lydia exhaled a long breath and began tossing articles in the basket again. “I know what he’s doing.” She glanced at Amin. “But I’m long past such hope.”
Using his feet, Amin nudged garbage into the pit. “Still, the boy—”
“I have more than one child, and I must care for those left to me as best I can.” Straightening, she rubbed her back. “Besides, I have another coming, and Luge knows how Rueben acts. Impossible man.”
For the first time, Amin gazed at the swelling in Lydia’s middle. A memory of his mother’s rounded belly as she carried Caleb flashed through his mind. He rushed to Lydia’s side. “You should be resting. I didn’t realize.”
Lydia smiled. “I have time yet, but it’s too much work for one woman.”
Rueben called from outside. “Lydia, bring me fresh water.”
Lifting his hand, Amin rolled his eyes and stepped outside. He glanced from Rueben’s supine form to Ulla feeding berries to her husband. Closing his eyes, Amin snatched the empty jug from against the wall and strode to the stream.
Lydia’s two children toddled across his path, calling for their mama.
By the time he returned, Amin’s gut churned in fury. He plunked the jug down and perched his hands on his hips.
Lydia stepped out of the tent with one child on her hip, another tugging at her skirt, and a large basket in her other arm. She glanced at Amin. “I need to feed them and then perhaps—”
Amin folded his arms. “I’ll help get everything ready.”
Blinking back tears, Lydia hurried away with her children clinging to her.
Rueben took a long lingering swallow and then handed the jug to his wife.
Amin glared from one to the other. “What kind of a fool leaves his brother’s wife to tend to everything?”
Spluttering, Ulla choked.
Rueben jerked upright, his eyes glassy. He staggered to his feet and towered over the youth. “How dare a mongrel talk to me like that!”
“I’m no mongrel.” Amin flapped an open palm at Lydia’s tent with her children whining at the door. “She’s exhausted, and you don’t lift a finger to help!”
Raising his arm, Rueben swore to the sky. “By the gods, you have overstayed your welcome! Go and do not follow us on our journey.”
Cold fear enveloping him, Amin stiffened. “Luge told me to wait here, so he could find me—”
“Luge is dead, idiot! No one enters the stone city and lives to tell of it.” His eyes narrowed. “Leave now before I see fit to beat you and throw you out.”
Curling his fingers against the desire to shred Rueben’s face with his nails, Amin turned on his heel and stomped to Lydia’s tent. He plucked his spear from the wall.
Lydia frowned. “What’s happened?”
“Rueben has sent me away.” Without another word, Amin charged back into the sunlight, sweeping along the main path toward the edge of the village.
Stepping out, Lydia gasped and peeled herself away from her children. She trotted to Rueben’s side, her tone imploring. “Amin is just a boy! You can’t send him into the woods unprotected.”
Rueben jerked her clutching fingers off his sleeve. “Since my brother is no longer here, I’m the leader. I do what I think is best for the whole clan.” He glared at his wife and gestured to Lydia. “Every moment we waste in idle chatter costs us dearly. Hurry and see to the packing, woman.”
Amin stopped and met Lydia’s frightened gaze. “I’m not unprotected.” He lifted his spear. “I wish I could’ve helped you.” He glanced aside at Rueben. “You’re making a terrible mistake.” Fury twisting his insides, Amin pounded onto the main path that led into the surrounding woodlands.
Once well outside the village, he stopped and considered his options. Back toward home…or to the mountains? He turned and faced the mountains.
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