He Ran Faster
Eoban’s legs wobbled. He called for a halt and dropped to his knees before a broken tree trunk and gulped warm, stale water from his skin bag. After wiping his mouth, he glanced from Obed to Barak. “I’m not sure, but Luge’s clan might’ve left for their migration by now. It’s past their usual time.”
Barak guzzled his water, scowled, and tossed his empty bag aside. “It’s past time we went home.”
Eoban frowned and took another long drink.
“I think we’re close enough now. We could go in either direction.” Barak shrugged. “I’m ready to go home.”
Obed stepped forward, wiping his lips as he held his bag in a tight grip. “But what about Amin? Surely, you’re not suggesting that we leave him behind?”
Barak shook his head. “By no means! I want to find him, but I’ve a clamoring in my mind, insisting that I go home.”
Eoban waved Barak’s words away though his stomach twisted, anxiety churning the fluids in his middle. “You worry too much.”
Barak slapped his thigh and looked to the sky as if beseeching the heavens for strength.
Obed raised his hand. “I’ll find Amin. You two return home and make sure everyone is safe.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Barak. “I’m learning to trust your instincts.”
A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.
With a dizzy sensation and a feeling that his world was swiftly falling apart, Eoban pounded over to Barak and shook a finger in the direction of Obed. “You really believe that man can find Amin and make his way home again before the season turns?”
Barak met Eoban’s gaze, steady and unblinking. He crossed his arms high over his chest.
Turning, Eoban glared at Obed. “You’ve never traveled alone! You prefer to sit around and think—”
A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.
Eoban turned and caught Barak’s hard gaze and his fingers still in the flicking position.
Barak dropped his hand and faced Obed. “It’s a workable plan. We’ll split up. You find Amin. I’ll take Eoban, and we’ll meet at home.”
With a quick nod, Obed turned and began clearing a spot for their evening fire.
Eoban threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh, of course. I’m talking nonsense, just being difficult as usual.” A flush worked up his face as he indulged in a righteous pout. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve half a mind to go off on my own.”
Snorting, Barak bundled kindling into his arms. “And where would you go?”
Eoban ripped into his bag and pulled out a handful of shriveled berries. “I could go anywhere.” He tossed the desiccated fruit into his mouth and chewed vigorously. “I could visit friends. I could find new trade routes. I could —”
Barak looked at Obed. “Take him if you want, or he’s welcome to come with me, but I think you’re right. I can’t ignore this inner turmoil any longer. I must get home.”
“Inner turmoil?” Eoban rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Now I’ll be worried about you, Barak. Obed might get lost, but you’ll make yourself sick.” He blew air through his teeth. “I’ll go with you for Milkan’s sake. She’d be devastated if you perished—even though you’re enough to drive any man mad.”
Obed rose at daybreak refreshed and ready for adventure. Springing to his feet, he relished the very thought of traveling alone, with its unparalleled level of freedom. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. At the sound of footsteps, he flicked his eyes open.
Eoban stood three feet away, staring at him through narrowed eyes.
Obed waited, dreading an announcement.
In an unexpected move, Eoban threw his arms out and enveloped Obed in a bear hug. “Since I may never see you again—”
Relief flooding his senses, Obed shoved Eoban away with an awkward laugh. “Likely, I’ll make it home with Amin before you and Barak even get out of this trackless wilderness.”
Eoban lifted his hands in defeat. “If you say so.” He lifted one eyebrow. “I’ve gone over the directions to Luge’s place. Any questions?”
Chuckling, Obed stepped around Eoban and slapped Barak on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend, for your loyalty to the clan. Best of luck on your return journey.” He glanced aside. “I surely have the easier task.”
Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.
Pursing his lips, Eoban clapped his hands. “Enough blathering.” He swung his bag over his shoulder and stomped away.
As Barak trailed after Eoban, he glanced back, met his friend’s gaze, and rolled his eyes.
Obed sauntered over the rough woodland, his arms swinging at his sides, whistling a jaunty tune. Sweat trickled down his back as he swatted insects beyond all possible count. Three times he circled around prickly thickets, and twice he forded meandering creeks and joyfully splashed himself as he went. He reveled in his slow pace and the exuberance of running down an incline with his arms spread wide to catch the breeze. When his stomach rumbled, he stopped to gather berries. By noon, he came upon a large tree with branches hanging low from an abundance of nuts. He pawed through his bag and drew out an empty leather pouch.
He scrambled up the lowest branches and picked to his heart’s contentment. When the bag was bulging, he dropped to the ground, toed through the foliage, and found a rock of sufficient size. After smashing a handful of nuts, he rested against the firm, smooth trunk and enjoyed the crunchy, meaty insides.
The filtered sun speckled the ground around him, light and dark dancing like children at play. Birds chirped and flew from branch to branch overhead. A rodent scampered near, sniffed the broken shells, then rose on its haunches and peered at Obed through tiny black eyes.
Grinning and satiated with simple pleasures, Obed relaxed in weariness and closed his eyes. Pleasurable rest spread through his whole body and cast pretty images of woods and streams in his mind…
Sometime later, strange shuffling, huffing sounds stirred, disturbing Obed’s rest. He rubbed open his eyes, yawned, and climbed to his feet. Glancing at the sky, he squinted at the bright rays of sunlight. He gathered his bag and spear and stumped forward. In bemused exhaustion, he trudged across a wide, meandering stream and circled around large boulders.
By late afternoon, the air grew thick and his feet dragged. He stumbled twice and then stopped to catch his breath.
Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.
Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.
Twilight descended behind him.
Frowning, he turned and peered at the low, western sun before him. He rubbed his jaw, his confusion ending in a bemused chuckle. Obed crouched beneath a large spreading tree and murmured, “I can’t be lost. It’s too ridiculous.” He pointed at the sun and grinned, wondering if he was drunk on innocent pleasure. “You’re supposed to be behind me.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I—”
A blurred force of wind and a stone sped by, nicking his face. Confused, he slapped his cheek and glanced aside.
A spear embedded in the tree wavered like an insect tail. Cold shock drenched Obed.
Crashing, pounding footsteps accompanied by grunts and yells drew close.
Without thought, Obed rushed madly into the woods. As the voices grew more distinct, all strength drained from his limbs.
A gruff voice rose behind him, and a sharp pain on the back of his head sent brilliant lights flashing before his eyes. He fell into blackness.
Obed awoke with a throbbing headache, barely able to recognize the moon shining down from a star-studded sky. When he tried to rub his stinging neck, he found his arms bound tight. Groaning, he realized that he lay among a crowd of people all trussed up like pigs fit for a feast.
His cramped legs ached, demanding a stretch, but when he tried to straighten, his ropes jerked a heat-laden, stinking body close to him.
A groan swelled on his right.
Obed twisted and peered at a scrawny, filthy boy with a rope strung around his neck and waist. When he twisted to the left, his mouth fell open at the sight of half-starved men, women, and children tightly packed all around him.
Sour body odor, stomach leavings, stale urine, and excrement dragged a retching sensation from his stomach. He heaved and realized that there was no place to throw up except upon another person. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought the upheavals through gritted teeth.
Once he gained mastery over his stomach, he turned his attention to the hot, smothering camp. Flickering flames danced amidst a huddle of armed warriors, who stomped and pounded their spears in rhythm to a low, incessant drumbeat.
In the distance, a whimper rose, followed by a skirmish of shuffling feet and flailing arms.
A murmur flittered among the prisoners, then a gasp and a stifled cry.
The beat grew stronger and more insistent.
A shriveled, ragged figure was dragged before the fire, pleading and whimpering.
A new figure appeared following the first, short-sleeved, muscled, straight-backed, and pointing a glinting knife.
Nausea again erupted from Obed’s middle, spreading acid through his mouth. He dropped his head to his chest, gasping short breaths. Fear closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against his ears.
A scream tore through the night air.
Arrows of agony ripped through Obed. Everyone stiffened. Even the air held its breath.
The cry faltered, slipped to a groan…and died.
Tears flooded Obed’s eyes and slipped down his cheeks.
Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.
A giggle passed on and then a cry, a jerk, and another giggle. Obed swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth, glancing at the dripping figure beside him. He wanted to wipe his own face, but since his hands were restrained, he couldn’t reach it.
The man on his left scuttled to a sitting position and wiped his face against his shoulder, peering from the passing guard to Obed. “He generally do like that. Funny he thinks it. Giggles like a maniac every morning. Always the same.” He shook his head.
Obed pictured Luge’s anxious face when he’d mentioned his lost son. He blinked the drips away and met the other man’s gaze. “Where are they from…these slavers?”
Jutting his chin outward, the man glanced away. “Over the mountain some say. Talk of a stone city and glories beyond description.” He shrugged. “Demons of hell more like.”
Obed peered at the well-armed warrior who stalked among the captives drenching the sleepers, kicking those who didn’t budge, and giggling like a fool. Demons of hell…indeed.
Tobia strode with purposeful concentration, relieved of his burden yet anxious to get home. With his back to the setting sun, he charged ahead with dexterous steps, paying little heed to his surroundings.
As evening fell, a strange silence caught his attention. No birds flittered about, as if an unseen warning held every animal at bay.
Slowing, he turned aside and noticed broken branches and a beaten path across the woodland floor. He crouched low and examined the ground, tracing the prints of feet shod in soft leather and the marks of numerous bare toes.
He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.
A scream ripped through the air.
Scuttling like a crab, Tobia made his way forward and stopped on the edge of a large assembly gathered around a central fire. His innards twisted into a hard knot.
He circled around the gathering, freezing when the scream rose and fell in torment and finally faded in a pitiful death. After a silent moment, he crawled forward. When his muscles contracted, he stopped before a ragged throng of prisoners. Studying the assembly, his throat tightened and his stomach lurched.
He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Surely his eyes were deceiving him. There, tied to a long line of men, women, and children sat a filthy man with a bowed head. Shadows covered the man’s face, but still, Tobia recognized him. “Obed?”
Tobia tried to swallow. Had Ishtar failed? Had his people been attacked and overcome? Cursing himself for his stay at Kamila’s village, he leaned forward and studied the group. Tears filled his eyes as he frantically searched the crowd for familiar faces.
He frowned even as relief poured over his body. He recognized no one except Obed.
Shaking, he scuttled backward slowly to avoid any undue noise. Stopping some distance away, he crouched on his haunches and considered his options. He glanced back the way he had come. Remy was too far away and unprepared for such a situation. Only the united clans with Eoban and Barak in the lead could hope to make a successful attack.
Scowling, he positioned himself like a man prepared to race like the wind. He turned toward home. A question haunted his mind. What happened to Ishtar?
With narrowed his eyes, he darted ahead, his whole body screaming. Run!
As he picked up speed, tears blurred his vision. He had not saved his first father or Vitus, and most likely Ishtar had come to a bad end. But still, he had a slim chance of saving his second father and his village. His heart hammered against his chest, ready to burst.