A Steadfast Heart
Lud sat on a high ridge overlooking the great lake and scanned the environment. Movement caught his gaze.
A man scrambled among the brush along the eastern edge.
Lud stood and peered down, shading his eyes. He called to one of his clansmen, Jude, who sprinted over and followed the line of his gaze.
The figure worked his way around the lake.
Jude squinted. “A spy?”
Lud shook his head.
The suspect scrambled up the cliff face and slipped twice before he proceeded more slowly.
Rubbing his neck, Lud frowned. “Brave fool maybe…but not necessarily a spy. Could be running from danger or looking for help.” Lud scanned the horizon.
Nothing but birds in the air and a few animals scampering about.
The stranger heaved himself onto a thin ledge and rested, sucking in draughts of air.
Jude smirked. “A fool, sure enough. That’s no place to hide.”
The stranger glanced from side to side, his shoulders squared and his chin sharp and determined.
As his eyes widened in alarm, recognition shuddered through Lud’s body.
Ishtar surveyed the land. He smiled at the memory of his four-footed friends who had accompanied him along many trails. He glanced at the mountains in the distance. The combination of blue sky, mountains, hills, open grasslands, and a sparkling lake refreshed his weary soul.
But in a flash, he saw the view from a different cliff, one where his bleeding feet clutched the edge and a rocky bottom beckoned. He could see Pele’s figure floating before his eyes, swaying like a leaf in a gentle wind. He heard her soft words: “Begin again.”
A hawk cawed in the distance, a shrill cry, demanding and powerful.
Ishtar closed his eyes. “I yet live.”
When he peered up, the bird had retreated into the distance, appearing now as nothing but a speck. With a stretch, he took a deep breath and reached for the next handhold.
As he neared the top edge, he felt eyes watching him. Above, shadows of men waited. Ignoring the sweat pouring into his eyes, he made a final heave and clutched the rocky edge. His foot slipped and in panic, he scrambled for purchase, digging his torn fingers into the stony surface.
A hand clasped his…gripping his wrist.
Taking a deep breath, Ishtar gathered his courage, steadied his footing on the wall face, and leveraged his way up the last few feet.
Another hand reached down and grabbed him by the arm, heaving and pulling him to safety.
When he lay safely on top, he breathed in the scanty grass and the damp earthy dirt.
Two pairs of feet waited near at hand. Lifting his head, Ishtar peered up.
Lud stood over him, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He shook his head like a man trying to get his senses to work.
Ishtar climbed to his feet, fixed his attention on Lud, and gripped his shoulder. “I’ve come home.”
Lud stood frozen.
Jude slapped his thigh, a half-smile forming on his lips. “Well, I never—”
Lud reached up and clasped his hand over Ishtar’s. “I thought perhaps you—but they thought—so they went looking—but now—you’ve returned.”
Jude thrust his hands on his hips, a puzzled frown puckering between his eyes. “You didn’t meet up with the others, then?”
Grinning, Ishtar led Lud and Jude away from the cliff’s edge. “I see we have some catching up to do.”
As they crossed the plateau, Lud glanced at Ishtar. “Where’ve you come from? Eoban, Barak and Obed went looking for you with Amin months ago.” He paused and glanced back, pointing to the distance. “Toward the mountains. Did you cross paths?”
Searing alarm spread over Ishtar. “Amin went to the mountains…looking for me? When?”
Lud frowned at Ishtar. “Why? What’s in the mountains?”
Exasperation eating at his insides, Ishtar raised his hands. “Under the great sky, will you stop asking questions and answer me? I’ll tell you my story later, but where are my sons?”
“Amin left with Eoban and the rest, but Caleb is with Milkan and the women at the caves.” Lud sighed. “We have troubles of our own.”
Swinging his gaze from the village site in the distance to the path leading to the caves, Ishtar chewed his lip. “Before anything else, I must see Caleb.”
Lud swallowed and stepped closer. “Certainly. But I have to warn you: an enemy marches near.”
“That’s why I returned. By the will of God, I met Tobia in the desert lands, and as we journeyed home together, we discovered a ruined village. I left the remnant of the clan in his care, while I ran ahead to warn our people. We must make preparations quickly.” He started for the caves. “But first, I’ll see my son.”
Running to keep in step, Lud motioned to Jude to return to his post. He called back, “We’ll return soon.”
They turned north and strode side by side as long afternoon shadows stretched to impossible lengths.
Lud glanced aside, his face flushing. “You seem better…than you were.”
Without breaking his steady pace, Ishtar nodded. “I’m a new man—a better man—I hope.”
“How did you survive?”
“A nomadic patriarch took me in and cared for me.” Ishtar peered into the golden horizon. “In ironic justice, I had a chance to do reparation for my sins when his sons attempted a rebellion. I stayed at the old man’s side and comforted him as I could never have comforted my own father.” He sighed. “But Tobia and the memory of my sons beckoned me home.” He stopped and peered into Lud’s eyes. “I want to be the man I never was…the leader I should’ve been.”
With a strangled voice, Lud pounded forward. “Please, do so! I certainly never wanted leadership.” He sliced his hand through the air. “Barak took good care of your sons, but they couldn’t rest easy not knowing what happened to you. Eoban set his heart on finding you, and Obed sent Tobia with Vitus to—”
Lud halted, his eyes widening. He stopped and turned his full attention on Ishtar. “What happened to Vitus? You said you met Tobia in the desert lands. What about—?”
Ishtar glanced away. “Vitus died in the desert.”
Lud’s eyes narrowed. “Died—how?”
“It’s a long story—one that Tobia can tell better.” Grief clutched Ishtar’s chest. “Please, it’s a haunting memory, and Tobia has suffered more than I can explain.”
Rubbing his temple, Lud started away again. “No one is safe from suffering.” He shrugged as he jogged over the hard ground. “Truth is…I’m not a leader. I don’t know what I’m doing.” He blew air between his lips. “It was easy when we were at peace, but now—”
Stepping faster, Ishtar scrambled over the rough terrain. “I’ve seen the enemy, and it won’t set your heart at ease if I describe them to you.” Slowing as he neared the triangular cave entrance, Ishtar glanced at Lud. “In order to survive—we need more allies. Many more allies.”
Lud dropped his gaze. “I was afraid of that.”
Ishtar started to the cave, which opened at the side of a sheer cliff with a heavy mat of moss at the entrance, but Lud lifted his hand, blocking him. “Wait. Let me go first and explain. Your arriving like this…it’s a bit of a shock.”
Ishtar took two steps back and watched Lud disappear inside the cave. As he paced some distance away, he pictured Caleb’s babyish, tear-stained face from the last time he had seen him. The little boy had stood aside, his shoulders shaking, watching his father bury his mother. The bitter image sent Ishtar’s heart hammering against his chest. He bit his lip as a film of tears spread over his eyes.
Lud called and waved as he stepped into the light with a tall boy at his side.
A stinging fury enveloped Ishtar. Why does he bring out his own son? He called as he pounded forward. “Where’s Caleb?”
“Father!” Running full speed with his arms stretched out, Caleb plowed into his father.
Jerking backward on impact, Ishtar choked on a sob and fell to his knees. He wrapped his arms around his son, who stood taller and stronger than he remembered. Then he shook his head in amazement, his vision blurred. “Caleb?”
Glancing over his shoulder, Caleb shouted to Dinah and Milkan, who also stepped into the light, “Look! My father’s home!”
Dinah and Milkan stood at a respectful distance while Lud stepped to the boy’s side.
Ishtar composed himself and rose to his feet, his hand firmly on his son’s shoulder. He met Lud’s gaze. “Thank you.” He peered down at the boy. “I can see he has been well cared for.”
A scout called from the distance.
Lud and Ishtar jerked their attention to the distant figure of a warrior racing into the village. Lud swallowed hard.
Ishtar exhaled a deep breath. “I will not let us to suffer the fate of other ravaged clans. We must prepare for battle.”
Caleb peered up at his father. “But what about Amin? When is he coming home?”
Ishtar glanced from Lud to Milkan and Dinah. “I don’t know, but as soon as we defeat the approaching enemy” — he knelt and peered into Celeb’s eyes— “you and I will find him together.”
Caleb’s lips wobbled. “You won’t leave me?”
Ishtar stroked the side of his boy’s face. “Never again.”
Ishtar perched on a rock as the stars appeared in the night sky, and he waited while Namah, Jonas, Milkan, and Dinah settled in a circle with Lud and other clansmen before a flickering fire.
Lud opened his hands and nodded to Ishtar.
Fixing his gaze on the flames, Ishtar retold his adventures from the day he left the clan until he met Lud on the cliff.
Milkan and Dinah nodded alternately, glancing at Ishtar with sympathy in their eyes.
Namah glared at Ishtar, her jaw clenched and her hands in frozen stillness on her lap.
As Jonas focused on the outer darkness, she listened without comment.
When the recital ended, Ishtar peered from one woman to the next. His gaze stopped on Namah. “I have done great evil in my time, and I regret many things, but one of the worst is knowing that I can never make amends to Aram, a man I should’ve treated as a friend and mentor.” His throat tightening, Ishtar all but crawled to Namah’s side and bent his head. “I beg your forgiveness.”
Slowly, Namah’s hand rose, flat palmed as if she would strike.
Ishtar remained in place, humbly waiting, his gaze scraping the dust.
Lifting her hand higher, Namah turned it and let it fall gently on Ishtar’s head. “I forgive you, Ishtar, for in my heart I know that is what Aram would ask of me. I don’t know how you can make up for your evil deeds, but—” She dropped her hand to her side. “You’ve made a good start by returning to your sons.”
Ishtar raised his head, tears burning.
Jonas sighed and faced Ishtar. “I can do no less than my friend and forgive you. However, I will watch and see. A tree is known by its fruit.” She sighed and stared at the black horizon. “But for now, a new enemy approaches.” She met his gaze. “Will you lead your men into battle?”
Ishtar rose and stood before Lud. “You are the leader now. Tell me what you’d have me do, and I’ll do it.”
Lud stood and clasped Ishtar’s arm. “As you said, we need more allies.”
Nodding, Ishtar faced the small assembly. “I have learned through great trial that our best ally is a steadfast heart.” A glimmer of hope sparked in his soul. “We already have that.”
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~Desmond Tutu
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