Ishtar By God
Ishtar crawled to the edge of a clearing surrounded by distant trees and stared at the flickering flames of a huge central bonfire. Images of the many fires he had watched flashed before his mind: Neb’s elaborate feasts to celebrate victory, the humble cooking fires he sat around with friends and family, the fire that had reflected his wife’s blood, the fire pit burned to embers outside Matalah’s tent…
Eoban grabbed Ishtar’s shoulder and hissed in his ear. “I said you could come with me, not run ahead and throw yourself at the enemy.”
Ishtar glared at Eoban.
Eoban glared back.
A large ornate tent was pitched before the huge fire and slump-shouldered warriors sat like thick, sallow-faced mounds. They chomped on their rations and murmured a few words back and forth, their gazes glancing nervously at the tent. The surviving prisoners huddled in a ragged line to the west as guards strode along the perimeter, grunting and swearing.
As a figure exited the tent, all conversation stopped. All motion halted. A lone man strode to the fire, holding an ornate bowl above his head. He chanted in a hoarse voice. “Chai calls, spirit. Be our guide. Lead us to victory. Burning flames engulf us; take us! Make us yours. Forever yours.”
Ishtar stood up, a surprising calm embracing his body.
Clawing at Ishtar, Eoban tugged on his tunic. “Get down, idiot!”
Shoulders back and head high, Ishtar stepped into the flickering firelight.
Eoban’s smothered groan followed him.
Ishtar stopped before the fire and peered through the flames at his enemy. “I am here, Chai.”
Roused out of their stupor, every warrior focused on Ishtar, their hands clenching their weapons.
After lowering the bowl, Chai took a slow sip and peered over the rim. He tossed the bowl aside and grinned. “You know me?”
Eoban scuttled forward and nudged between the prisoners as if he were one of them. He slipped his knife from his belt and cut the bonds of the nearest prisoner.
Once freed, the prisoner motioned for Eoban’s knife. Quickly, Eoban slipped an extra knife into the man’s hands.
Glimpsing Eoban’s actions out of the corner of his eye, Ishtar refused to be deterred and focused his attention on Chai. “Lud told me about you.”
“The boy?” Chai laughed. “Did he die with my name on his lips?”
“Lud lives, but the dead cry out.”
A myriad of eyes shifted away from Ishtar and landed on Chai.
Striding around the fire, Chai chuckled. “The dead do not cry out. Their voices are stilled. They are consumed by the spirit who offers us victory and life.”
Ishtar matched Chai’s stride and kept the fire between himself and his enemy. He peered through the flames. “Your spirit offers only lies, not life.”
As if annoyed that Ishtar had matched his pace, Chai stopped and thrust his hands on his hips. “I know the god I worship. He has led me here. He will consume you before the break of dawn.”
“Does your god serve you…or do you serve your god? Pass through the fire, and we will see.”
The watching crowd of warriors stiffened.
Freed prisoners shuffled forward. A child cried out.
Still cutting bonds, Eoban sucked in a deep breath.
His eyes fixed on his opponent; Chai stepped closer to the fire. “Who are you to direct me?”
Ishtar paced away, turned, and crouched low. “I am Ishtar, by God!” He sprang forward and leapt through the flames.
Startled, Chai stumbled and fell on his back.
Landing solidly on his feet, Ishtar stood over Chai, his heart exultant. “I have passed through fire and am not consumed.”
Scrambling to his feet, Chai eyed his men.
In a lightning-fast move, Ishtar gripped his enemy by the arms and whipped him around to the very edge of the flames.
Chai fought and writhed.
Eoban leapt forward and stood at Ishtar’s back with his arms wide, blocking any interference. “Take one step, and he’ll feed your master to the flames.”
A shadow loomed.
The crowd shrunk back from the sight.
Chai called out as he struggled. “My men will follow me to death and beyond!”
Ishtar glanced at the hesitating throng. “Will they?”
Like a dam freed from all restraints, an enraged thickset man barreled in from outside the circle and thrust every person aside, Obed’s knife in his hand. Screaming, he leapt on Chai and stabbed him repeatedly. “My wife! My children dead—to hell with you!”
As if waking from a stupor, a warrior started toward the attacker but two freed prisoners stepping from the shadows held him at bay.
More warriors advanced, shock blanching their faces, but the ragged, inflamed prisoners advanced too. Shrieking, shouting, and darting erratically, the prisoners attacked.
Ishtar caught Chai’s body as he slumped to the ground.
Bursting from the darkness, Barak with Luge and their men pounded into the fray and fought the bewildered, furious warriors who were now backed against the flames.
Nearly collapsing, Ishtar pulled Chai away from the flames. He stared into the unfocused eyes of his enemy…a stark reminder of his father as he lay dying.
Chai’s head dropped onto Ishtar’s arm, like a child cradled in his mother’s embrace. Swallowing convulsively, he stared at the star-strewn sky before riveting his gaze upon Ishtar. “I came to conquer.” He choked and blood trickled from his mouth. “You defeated me.”
Tears filled Ishtar’s eyes. “You gave me little choice. Evil devours itself…in the end.”
Chai shuddered and cried out, clutching Ishtar’s arm. “Don’t let the demon take me!”
With his emotions breaking like shattered pottery, Ishtar gasped. “I have no say over such things.”
Screams and grunts of fighting men and women swirled all around them. A young warrior fell into the fire and the flames flared.
The shadow grew, blocking the moon and twinkling stars.
Chai whimpered and clutched Ishtar tighter. “Not me!”
Ishtar slipped free of Chai’s grip and whipped off his cloak. He flung it on the fire and smothered the flames enough to grab the fallen warrior and pull him free. He bit off his words, glancing at the shadow, “No more—victims—today.”
Eoban ran forward and tossed a bowlful of water on the young man, sending an angry hiss into the air. He shook his head as he stared at the unconscious warrior who was little more than a boy. “What a waste.”
After a last mighty shudder, Chai lay still, his arms flung out, and his eyes glassy, staring sightlessly at the brilliant night sky.
Ishtar watched the defeated enemy shuffle to one side of the smoldering fire and drop their weapons.
Luge strode before them and ordered his men to tie them together.
Kneeling beside the body of Chai, Ishtar wept.
“What is important is not to fight, but to fight the right enemy.” ~
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