Obed peered across the horizon in the morning light and pictured his daughter’s face at their parting. Mari had stood tall, her long black hair blowing in the wind and tears streaming down her face.
His son, Onia, had begged to fight at his side, but the expression on Jonas’s face convinced him otherwise. He sent his son to the caves to protect the women and children.
Obed swallowed back fear and hate and looked to his men as they lined up ready for battle.
He had limped alongside Ishtar into the village, and a shout rang out that warmed Obed’s heart. When he realized that as many men were shouting for Ishtar’s safe return as for his own, he had to stifle his irritation. But watching Ishtar work with the men, making plans, calling for weapons, encouraging the fearful and directing the overzealous, soothed Obed’s raw emotions. Ishtar was not the same man who had fallen so far from grace.
Eoban gripped Obed’s shoulder as he stood next to him. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re still alive?”
Choking on something between a snort and a scream, Obed peered aside at Eoban. “You said, ‘Told you so,’ and plodded by as if I had simply missed dinner.”
“You acted like an idiot, and I won’t let you forget it.” Eoban’s gaze roamed to the distant hills. “I wish I knew where Barak ended up.”
His stomach tightening, Obed bit his lip. “You should never have left him.”
“Don’t blame me if the man can’t find his head in the dark.” Eoban pointed to the hills. “He probably got confused, circled around a few times, and met Luge. He might’ve decided to rest a few days.”
“Sounds like Barak. A man of leisure.”
“Given time, I’ll forgive him for being an even bigger idiot than you, but this—” Eoban waved his hand at the sight of a massive assembly drawing near. “I’ll never forgive.” He spat on the ground.
A shout rang out.
In the distance, a wall of ragged prisoners appeared on the hillside. Most of them were children, and they scuttled forward, prodded from behind.
Obed’s stomach turned sour, bile rising.
The enemy was using human beings as shields—to be slaughtered in the first approach.
Ishtar trotted forward. “Everyone’s in place.”
Eoban glanced at Ishtar. “Your men will circle around?”
With his gaze locked on the approaching enemy, Ishtar nodded and waved to the assembly behind them. “The central throng will meet these children with tenderness. But Lud will approach from the east with his men, and I’ll lead mine from the west. Between us, we’ll destroy the enemy.” He darted away.
As cold hate penetrated Obed’s body, he leaned forward, ready to leap ahead. To no one in particular, he said, “Once they’re exposed, we rush in and kill them all.”
Eoban wiped sweat from his eyes, huffed deep breaths, and clashed spears with one of the enemy, a short, stocky man who, like the others, wore a knot of black hair on a shaved head.
Wielding swords and shields with harsh motions and hostile calls, the enemy gained ground. Something aided them that went beyond the realm of mere luck. Most of the children had been spared, but as Ishtar and Lud circled around, the enemy seemed to expect the maneuver and turned with great skill to meet the challenge.
Lud’s men were speared and stabbed like sheep led to slaughter.
Ishtar met with little more success. His warriors were more experienced, but time had blunted their abilities.
Screams and shouts filled the air. Carrion circled overhead, and some even landed on the dead and those not yet dead but wishing to be so.
Swallowing back bile, Eoban stared at the descending sun and pleaded like a needy child. “Please, God! Aram, hear my cry…the cries of your people…your friends.”
A stout figure with moves quick as lightning came from out of nowhere, pounding toward Lud.
Lud no sooner turned than the man’s knife pierced his side.
With a choked breath, Eoban screamed, “No!” and rushed forward, his bloody knife clenched in his hand. Before he made four steps, a new enemy jumped in his path and barred his way.
Chai chuckled as he stepped back and let the youth fall to his knees before him. This day had been too easy! Tales had been told about this clan, this gathering of clans, and all they had achieved through long years together.
He licked his lips and tasted blood. He peered at Lud, hesitating. “You a man or a boy?”
Grimacing, Lud lurched to his feet and aimed his knife. His hand trembled, and his voice rose to a reedy whisper. “I am Lud, the leader of this clan.”
Chai grinned, tapping his chest. “I’m Chai. Your leader now.” He stepped forward. “Bow before me.”
Lud stumbled backward.
The sound of a ram’s horn tore through the village, stilling the cries and screams in a hundred throats.
Chai frowned, gazing around, puzzled.
A man bounded to a halt on his right. Swinging around, Chai faced the blood-splattered warrior.
Lud screamed. “Eoban! Watch out.”
The ram’s horn sounded again and a dark-haired warrior charged into the confused melee, leading a fresh host of men. A giant man loped alongside at his right hand.
Shock drenched Chai like cold water. Stiffening, he glanced around. His men looked to him for direction, their eyes asking if they should retreat. He shook his head. He never retreated.
Suddenly, a tall, sinewy man with long black hair trailing down his back and blazing eyes turned and stared directly at Chai. Their gazes locked.
Chai blinked. He knew those eyes. He knew that expression. A familiar terror seeped into his bones, and he trembled. He lifted his bloody knife and held it high. “Retreat!”
Ishtar confronted the mighty invaders, fighting hand-to-hand, stabbing, hitting, and twisting his own body out of harm’s way while other horrors rose in his mind. The sightless eyes of countless victims, his father’s blood on his hands, and the ghostly apparition of his grandfather crowded him like cavorting devils.
When he saw the enemy leader, he knew with uncanny certainty that this man was not merely a battle-hardened warrior or even an intelligent slave trader. An ancient force ruled the mortal before him. Ishtar watched the stalwart leader swoop forward like a bird of prey, his arms outstretched practically enveloping his men in his mighty will—win at all costs.
They retreated now. But they would be back.
Eoban plunked down on the hard ground before a hut and propped his head on his splayed hands.
An old man fed kindling to a central fire, murmuring a chant under his breath.
A hand pressed Eoban’s shoulder. “Resting?”
Eoban stared at Barak in blank amazement. “I always rest after battle—especially after I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about my friends.”
The old man stepped back from the flickering flames, light chasing shadows across his wizened face.
Barak leaned casually on his spear and shrugged. “I met travelers in the north gathering men to assist us. When Luge heard of our need, he decided to join in. As we approached the village, I saw the danger of a direct attack and decided it was best to come in late and confront the enemy when they were exhausted.”
Eoban tilted his head at the irony of Barak’s thinking.
Barak nudged him in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. “It worked to good effect, don’t you think?”
Pursing his lips Eoban nodded. “Just about killed us, but yes.”
His arm bleeding and his clothes ragged, Obed limped forward. Without a word, he dropped to the ground, leaned against the shed, and shut his eyes.
Ishtar strode up, pointing north. “They’ll hide in the hills for a few days…but they’ll return.”
A man called. “Ishtar! Come!”
Without hesitation, Ishtar sprinted away.
Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. He waved his fingers airily. “Some of us are much too clean.”
His eyes widening, Barak sat next to Obed. “You think I should’ve rushed in to look heroic and been overwhelmed with everyone else?”
Eoban raised his hands in protest. “I’m too tired to argue. Wait till later.”
Obed groaned. “It’s like being back in the wilderness with you two all over again.”
Ishtar hustled back and stood before them, his eyes grave and serious.
Sitting up, nauseous and weary, Eoban lifted his gaze. “What?”
“The healers can’t stop Lud’s bleeding. We need Jonas and the other women.”
Barak slapped Eoban’s leg. “Let’s go.”
Struggling to his feet, Eoban glanced around. “Where’s Tobia?”
Turning in a circle, Ishtar’s eyes widened in alarm. “Last time I saw him, he was running—” He glanced north.
Obed moaned. “Could he have run into the enemy line?”
Barak shook his head, frowning. “He’s too smart for that.”
Bouncing a glance off Obed, Eoban looked away.
Ishtar stepped aside, gazing at the hills. “He must have had a reason.”
Trying to rise, Obed faltered. “I’ll go after him.”
“Sit still.” Eoban pressed Obed back to the ground. “You need to recover your strength.” Grimacing, he rubbed his back and faced the hills. Night slowly turned light into blackness. “I’ll be back before morning.”
“Barak’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t look too good yourself.”
“I never look good.” Eoban sucked in a deep breath and patted Barak on the back. “You’re a decent man, Barak. Remember I said that. It may come in useful. Besides, you and Obed need to get the women.” He waved his finger at them admonishingly. “No one is to follow me.” Hunch- shouldered and sick at heart, Eoban plodded away.
Ishtar stepped beside Eoban and matched his pace. “Except me.”
Eoban nodded in exhaustion. “Except you.
”We are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.” ~
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