OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Four

You’re Not God

Ishtar entered Jonas’ dwelling and peered through the slanting rays of golden light. His attention wandered from a half-eaten meal of barley bread with roasted fish to a sharp carving knife resting on a piece of wood. No wood shavings littered the floor.

Tobia slept curled up on his pallet, his chest barely stirring, though his bruised face still showed the marks of recent events. The bandages wrapped around his hand and arm told the tale of wounds he took in the battle.

Jonas tiptoed up to Ishtar and lifted a finger to her lips.

With a nod of understanding, Ishtar backed over the threshold.

Jonas followed.

Strolling to the shady side of the house, Ishtar perched on the bench. “Where’s Obed?”

Flicking a glance to the distant hills, Jonas wrinkled her brow. “He’s helping a shepherd who can’t keep track of his sheep.”

Amusement coursed through Ishtar as he remembered his own flock on the other side of the distant mountains. “Sheep are not always as compliant as one might think. There are some…” His gaze drifted away.

Jonas drummed her fingers on the stout framework of the house. “Something is upsetting Tobia.” She jutted her chin toward the hills. “Anxiety weighs him down.”

“Even when we live beyond a trial, the horror still clings to us.”

Squinting, Jonas shaded her eyes from the bright sun. “But you defeated your enemy when you killed your father and again when you killed Chai.” She bit her lip. “Tobia suffers from an enemy he can’t defeat.”

Irritation flushed through Ishtar. “I didn’t defeat my father or Chai. They succumbed to the evil fate they created for themselves. I merely endured their self-destruction.” He rose and paced in front of Jonas. “Tobia faces the same enemy we all face: despair.”

Coming to a halt, Ishtar pointed to fresh grave mounds. “Men died defending us. Women lost their husbands and children lost their fathers. Though slaves were freed, many have no families to return to.” He glanced at Jonas. “Homes and villages can be repaired, but lost innocence can never be found again.”

Setting her jaw in a firm line, Jonas scowled. “You think I don’t know that?” She pointed to the great lake. “I lost Tobia’s father and my eldest son in the battle with the giants. Tobia was there. He’s known both evil and courage.” She shook her head and turned away. “But this time…”

Ishtar frowned. “What about his carving?”

Jonas shrugged. “Obed gave him a new knife and a beautiful piece of wood, but Tobia hasn’t touched them.” She flung her hands in the air. “He seemed so excited when he heard that Remy was here, asked to see him and smiled when they met. But then—”

A sudden memory riveted Ishtar in place—the first time he beheld a beautiful woman. He pursed his lips. “Tobia once mentioned that Remy has a very kind sister.”

Jonas met Ishtar’s gaze. “A woman?”

“Tobia is a man.”

Swallowing, Jonas leaned on the wall and slid onto the bench. “You think—?”

A shout in the distance turned their attention.

Eoban stood between Obed and Barak, calling, “Ishtar, Jonas, come say goodbye to Luge, the man who made our success possible!”

Ishtar held Jonas’s eye a moment and tipped his head.

Sucking in a deep breath, Jonas marched forward.

~~~

Tobia stirred and rubbed his bleary eyes. His stomach rumbled, and as he scratched his head, he became aware that someone else was in the room.

Ishtar sat in the doorway, carving a piece of wood. His piece of wood. Tobia sat up and frowned. “Obed gave that to me.”

Nodding, Ishtar’s gaze fixed on a long wood shaving that curled around the knife. “Jonas told me.”

Tobia bit his bottom lip. He glanced at the dish of bread. “I’m hungry.” He licked his lips. “And thirsty.”

With a shrug, Ishtar continued his work. “There’s wine in the jug and bread on the table.”

Mild complaints issued from his joints as he stood, but Tobia ignored them and hobbled to the food. He swiped the jug from the shelf, pulled out the stopper, and took a long swig. He eyed Ishtar. “What’re you making?”

“A boy.”

After smacking the jug on the table, Tobia ripped off a broken piece of flatbread and took a bite. He talked around a chew and stepped closer. “Why?”

“I am going to replace the son that Matalah lost.”

Tobia stared at Ishtar’s bowed head of shining black hair and snorted. “Matalah won’t laugh at your joke.”

Ishtar glanced up, his eyes wide with wonder. “I’m not joking.”

Tobia scowled and bit off another piece.

“I only want to heal a terrible injury. Is that wrong?”

Dropping the bread, Tobia slapped the wood out of Ishtar’s hand. “You can no more make a man than I can.”

“I made my sons.”

“Not from wood! And you didn’t make them. Your wife conceived them by the will of God.”

Picking up the wood with a disinterested shrug, Ishtar appeared to inspect it for flaws. “After I make Matalah a son, I’m going to make a new Vitus.”

Hot fury flushed Tobia’s face. “Damn you!”

After laying the wood and the knife aside in slow, precise motions, Ishtar stepped into the evening air.

As if pulled by a cord, Tobia followed. His breath jerked at the coolness, and he flushed with hot shame. “I—I didn’t mean that.” He stopped on the threshold. “You don’t understand. Nothing is funny to me. Everything hurts too much.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll never laugh again.”

A hand pressed on his shoulder, and Tobia opened his eyes.

Ishtar met Tobia’s gaze. “You’ll never love again?”

Shoving off the frame, Tobia hobbled across the compound toward the grave mounds by the rolling river.

Ishtar followed at an even pace.

When Tobia halted, a shiver spread over his body. “I’ve died inside. I’m old. Too old. I can’t marry and have children…because I already know how it’ll end. Some invaders will come. I’ll do battle and die. My sons will die. My wife and daughters will become enslaved or die of sickness or starvation—”

Ishtar clapped his hands together and gasped. “Tobia! Stop. You’ll depress the fish in the river, and I’ll want to kill myself before nightfall.” A grin played on his face.

Burning in rage, Tobia flung himself on Ishtar and beat his chest. “It’s not funny! Damn you—I mean it now. How can you joke?”

Ishtar grappled with Tobia. Clutching his arms to his chest and shoving Tobia’s back against a tree, he stilled his raging fury. “I’m not laughing at you, Tobia. Only at the horror that you must leave behind.”

Tobia writhed, attempting to free himself. “It won’t leave!”

“It will—if you let it go.” Ishtar held Tobia’s gaze and tightened his grip.

Gulping air, Tobia calmed into a shaky acceptance. “Let me go.”

“Stop fighting your pain. It’s making you mad. You think you’re doomed because pain blinds you to any other possibility.”

“What other possibility is there?”

“Evil is only one option, Tobia.” Ishtar let go and turned away. “I know what you fear, for I’ve feared it too. Even when I turned from Neb’s evil ways, I could not really succeed because I never accepted the truth.”

Rubbing his arms, Tobia spat his words. “What truth?”

“That there’s more to life than this world and the evil we must endure here. I’ve passed through madness into a new hope. Life does not end there.” He pointed to the grave mounds. “Aram does not live in the dirt. There are more worlds than the ones we see.”

Burning indignation rose from Tobia’s middle. “I never deserved to suffer like I did.”

“And I never deserved forgiveness.”

Tobia’s rage tripped and fell, but questions still pounded his mind. He looked Ishtar in the eye. “And Vitus?”

“How do we know what he deserved?”

Tobia dropped his head onto his chest with a sigh.

“The beginning of wisdom is to realize—God exists—but you are not Him.”

Ishtar stepped over to the doorway and picked up the piece of wood and the carving knife. He held them out.

With the last flicker of his anger dying like a flame in summer rain, Tobia accepted them.

“Darkness is part of this life, but so is light.” ~Millie Florence

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Three

To Your Heart’s Content

Tobia scanned the sky as a vulture swooped down upon an unlucky prey, a victim of the dwindling battle. He surveyed the area and frowned. Sharp black mountains loomed on the horizon while blue foothills softened the landscape. Short grass with tufts of weeds covered the ground, but rocks and boulders broke through the surface, refusing to be forgotten and ignored. This was a hard land no matter how green the foliage.

A familiar figure appeared in the distance. Tobia’s voice dropped to a husky whisper. “Remy?”

Remy?

Springing forward, Tobia squinted. How could Remy be here? Three warriors surrounded the man, knocking him to the ground. Tobia’s heart tightened into a painful knot.

A yell scattered Tobia’s attention. He glanced aside.

The enemy leader called for a retreat. A thrill ran through Tobia. He glanced at Remy, who now lay defenseless on the ground. Tobia choked and sprinted faster, his whole body aching and his heart pounding.

Tobia rushed between Remy and the three warriors, his pent-up fury exploding from his body as he jabbed his spear wildly at the three men.

Taken aback, the warriors glanced from the whirlwind before them to their retreating clansmen. After venting their frustration with bone-crushing blows to Tobia’s head and chest, they abandoned the immediate fight.

As the warriors loped away, Tobia staggered and felt every bit of strength leak from his body. He collapsed into a black pit of despair beside the body of his friend.

~~~

Obed limped among the hundreds of dead and wounded, calling Tobia’s name. His head ached and his stomach churned. Where could the boy be? Two figures lay separate from the main battle. Clenching his jaw into a tight grimace, he hobbled to the site. Bile rose in his throat as he knelt down.

The man beside Tobia lifted his head. “I’ll be all right, but Tobia needs help. He saved my life.”

Swallowing back a sob, Obed bent low and pulled Tobia’s limp form over his shoulder. He bit back the pain in his shoulder and faced the stranger. “I’ll send help soon.”

“Tell him—Remy will be waiting for him.”

With a curt nod, Obed staggered away.

~~~

Tobia awoke to the blurry image of his mother staring down at him.

With a smile, Jonas whisked a stray lock of hair from Tobia’s eyes.

Tobia tried to speak, but a searing ache stabbed his throat, and he grimaced.

Jonas turned away and soon returned with a cup of water. Lifting his head with her hand, she helped him sip more than he spilled.

With a satisfied nod, Tobia lay back against the thick pillow. Weariness weighed on his body and squeezed his heart. Using determination and will power, he lifted an arm and rubbed a raw spot on his temple.

Jonas wrinkled her nose and tried to brush his hand aside. “Leave it so it can heal.”

“I don’t even know where I’m injured.” Tobia peered at his mother, irritation warring with pain. “You probably know every bruise and cut on me.”

Wringing her hands in her lap, Jonas nodded. “They’re not so very serious…just numerous.”

“So, did we win?”

Jonas’s smile faltered. “Of course. The battle is long over, and the enemy is defeated.” Rising, she retreated to the other end of the room and straightened a line of towels and bowls. “They didn’t find their efforts well rewarded. Even their slaves are freed.”

Despite the cheerful news, Tobia felt a black hole beckoning to him. “I never received any reward for my efforts either. Vitus is dead. All our goods are lost. I left a whole company of old people at the door of a friend who later came to rescue me but only met death in the end.”

Turning abruptly, Jonas frowned. “Your friend is not dead. Remy is resting nearby, and you can see him when you’re well-rested. Besides that, you came home alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

Tobia heaved a long sigh, relief flooding his body as he remembered Remy with his arm around Kamila. Thank God. “I’m glad. That’s good news.” His gaze roved to his mother. “But there is much that isn’t good. Your husband was made a slave, and innocent men, women, and children are now dead. And for what reason? Evil has had its way with us. Where is the good in that? I gained nothing.”

Sitting at his side, Jonas clasped her son’s hand. “Neither Vitus nor Obed was your responsibility. Wars and battle are part of life, and evil hounds our steps.” An exhausted smile wavered on her lips. “But evil is only one choice. Ishtar has returned home a new man, and your old people have found a fresh start, thanks to your efforts. You, like Ishtar, chose a different path.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Tobia shook his head. “My path has led me here—weak and injured.”

Jonas patted her son’s hand. “But you’re not dead. You’re a young man with your whole life ahead of you.” She touched his chin and lifted his face.

Reluctantly, Tobia opened his eyes.

“You said I could see all your wounds, but that’s not true. You’re wounded in places I can’t see. So I can’t heal you. You must heal on your own.” Standing as if ready for the next task, Jonas clasped her hands. “The truth is, Tobia, I need you. This clan needs you…and apparently, your friend, Remy, needs you. He hasn’t stopped asking after you.”

A spark ignited in Tobia’s middle. “He wants me?” A weak hope flared to life. He threw back his blanket and tried to rise.

Rushing to his side, Jonas pushed him back onto his pallet. “Not yet!” She flicked the blanket over his legs. “When you can smile again, I’ll send him in.” She waved an admonishing finger. “But not a moment sooner.” She picked up a tray and turned to the door.

His heart tightening, Tobia called out. “And Obed?”

With a tilt of her head, Jonas stared at her son. “He’s fine. He’s changed too.” She bit her lip. “He left a piece of wood for you on the bench…with a new carving knife.”

A shiver ran down Tobia’s spine. “For me?”

“He said there are worse things than dreams….” A smile played on her lips as she shook her head. She stepped over the threshold. “I’ll get your supper.”

After Jonas left, Tobia settled back on the pillows. His body ached and his head hurt, but his heart unclenched.

“Our brokenness summons light into the deepest crevices in our hearts.” ~Shauna L Hoey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Two

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.”

“Please!”

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.” ~Bangambiki Habyarimana

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-One

Ancient Enemy

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.” ~David Benioff

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty

What Evil Can Do

Obed felt sharp knots chafing his raw skin, burning like fire. Darkness and hot, moaning bodies surrounded him. Dried sweat mixed with dirt stiffened his face into a tight mask. His legs ached and his head throbbed. The hard ground pressed into his buttocks, while pinpricks of stars flickered in a cold, distant sky. He closed his eyes, resting his forehead on his knees.

The stone city and its shimmering temple rose in his mind’s eye, sending a chill over his arms. He thought of Ishtar, images flashing like lightning in a summer storm: Ishtar sitting with Joash around an evening fire, Ishtar standing over Neb’s bloody body, Ishtar helping to evacuate the burning village, Ishtar with crazed eyes holding a knife over Aram’s daughter. Obed’s throat tightened. “Oh, God! Ishtar, what possessed you?”

A woman’s cry startled him into wakefulness. He lifted his head and stared across the motley throng. A limp child lay like a discarded piece of clothing over the woman’s lap. She peered with her head bent low, murmuring soft words.

Another woman leaned in close, attempting to touch the child.

The mother jerked the baby away with a screech.

The child’s head lolled to the side, his eyes unnaturally wide, and his body unresisting.

Obed swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

The second woman made another attempt to rouse the infant and the mother slapped her hand. They quarreled. An interested guard sauntered near. Crouching on his haunches, deep ravines furrowing his brow, he tapped the baby’s cheek. Pursing his lips, he shook his head and muttered sharply at the woman.

She hugged the baby closer, wrapping the ragged cloth tighter around it.

Rising, the guard called to an older warrior who limped over. He scowled at the two women, plucked the baby from the startled mother, and carried it away.

With an animal-like howl, the mother jerked up, but the ropes crippled her. She fell to the ground, screaming.

The other woman, crying, patted the mother’s arm and pulled her into an embrace.

Obed watched the limping man drop the baby beside another unresponsive body and hurry to a cluster of warriors clamoring for strong drink.

The mother crumpled, burying her face in the other woman’s lap.

Curling into a ball, Obed rocked like a child, wishing for the comfort of his mother…or his wife. Or death itself.

~~~

Ishtar perched on the cliff edge and watched the yellow- pink sunrise. His whole body relaxed between the cool morning air and the smooth rock under him. Though his eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the enemy, gratitude suffused his heart. He replayed the reunion between Amin and Caleb in his mind and smiled at how they both stood awkwardly for a moment before Caleb rushed into his brother’s arms. Nodding, Ishtar applauded his eldest son’s nature, especially when the boy’s sensitive heart broke all restraint and responded to undiluted love.

Ishtar sighed.

Footsteps padded near.

Ishtar waited.

Tobia circled around, plunked down on his right, and stretched out. He sniffed in a long breath and exhaled. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”

A grin bubbled up from Ishtar’s insides. “You’re in a good mood—better than I expected—considering everything.”

Staring straight ahead, Tobia shrugged. “I’m not in a good mood, just accepting things as they are. Mother is sick with worry over me and Obed.” He rubbed his nose. “But there’s little anyone can do until the enemy gets here.” He blinked. “I don’t even know if Obed is still alive, or if I’ll survive…”

Ishtar glanced sharply aside. “You’ll survive. The clan needs you, Tobia.”

Tobia met Ishtar’s gaze and held it a moment. With a shiver, he returned to the sunrise. “I wish they’d come, and we could get this over with.”

“The scouts say they are still almost a full day away. They won’t attack until they’re closer and have had a chance to rest before battle.”

Running his fingers through his hair, Tobia lurched forward. “I don’t know what I’ll do till then.”

With a grunt, Ishtar rose and stretched. “Well, I have something to do. I’ll leave you to coordinate with Lud and the rest of the clans.”

Frowning, Tobia climbed to his feet. “What’re you going to do?”

“Free Obed.”

Tobia choked. “You can’t! There isn’t time. You’ll be caught, and then the clan will only have Lud and me.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Let me go instead.”

Ishtar peered into Tobia’s eyes. “You’ve been prepared through great hardship for this trial. Think, Tobia. Your brother died because he chose what he thought was the braver path. But the bravest path of all is the one ordained through circumstance.” Ishtar sucked in a deep breath and stepped away from the cliff’s edge. “Stay here and be the leader your people need. I must free an innocent man.”

~~~

Ishtar crawled on his belly to the border of the enemy camp. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away.

The sun shone bright but clouds hovered in the west. No hint of wind stirred the surrounding grasses.

Three hundred battle-hardened warriors hitched their gear together and strapped weapons to their belts, lacing them tight against the coming march.

Ishtar nodded, muttering under his breath. “You’ll arrive at twilight. Very clever.” He glanced around.

When his eyes fell on Obed, he sucked in a breath and a whirlwind of emotions struck him: shock, fear, and anger over what had been done to the man. The image of Obed in his prime—a strong and proud warrior—wrestled in his mind with what he saw now. Filthy and hunch-shouldered, Obed sat less than a stone’s throw away from Ishtar, but he would not be easy to rescue. He sat with his legs splayed out, his hands tied behind his back, and a rope strung between him and a line of men, women, and children.

Crawling on his elbows and knees, Ishtar slithered forward.

A man on Obed’s right glanced over, his eyes rounding at the sight of Ishtar.

Ishtar glanced from the guards only a few feet away to the man and lifted a finger to his lips.

The man continued to stare, his mouth dropping open. Without further thought, Ishtar scampered over the broken grass and hard-packed earth, wedging himself between the man and a drooping boy and pressed his knife against the ropes. “Please, make no sound. I’m here to rescue those I can.”

Closing his mouth and swallowing, the man glanced at the boy leaning on his arm. “Him first.”

Ishtar nodded. He scuttled closer and sawed at the boy’s ropes. The man watched, his gaze darting up and around every few moments like a sparrow. When the ropes fell slack, the man grunted and held out his hands. Ishtar gritted his teeth and maneuvered the knife into position.

As the last threads broke, Ishtar gripped the man’s arm, squeezing it hard and hissing his words. “Do nothing just yet. Pretend you’re still tied and don’t watch me. Keep your attention on your boy.”

The man nodded.

Crawling to Obed, Ishtar lifted his knife.

Obed glanced at Ishtar, his eyes widening in shock, and jerked away, pulling the ropes attached to his neighbor tight. Yelps of anger and distress rippled along the line.

His mind nearly numb with fear, Ishtar dropped and flattened his body into the crushed grass.

A warrior sauntered by, grunted, and moved on.

Lifting his gaze, Ishtar met Obed’s anxiety-ridden face. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to free you. The whole clan is ready for attack.”

Licking his cracked lips, Obed’s eyes narrowed. “What clan?”

A frustrated whimper escaped Ishtar as he clenched the knife tighter and began sawing the rope fibers. “Your clan…my clan…our people.” He glanced at the warriors and then back at Obed. “This must be confusing, but please—by God—trust me and let me cut your ropes.”

Shouts rang through the camp, and the warriors began assembling into groups. Guards marched along the line, kicking the prisoners. “Get up! Time to move on. Hurry, you lazy mongrels.”

Fighting a cramp in his hand, Ishtar sawed the rope around Obed’s waist faster.

As the rope fell free, a warrior stomped by, flailing his arms. “To the fires with you! Get moving!”

Obed and Ishtar rose together, their gazes cast down.

As the guard turned to the next group, Ishtar pressed the blade against the ropes binding Obed’s hands. The prisoners shuffled forward. Ishtar kept pace, his eyes down, working frantically to break the fibers.

They passed over rough terrain dotted with rises and huge rocks. Ishtar cut the last remaining strings and yanked Obed aside, dragging him into the shaded crevice between two boulders.

Obed fell flat on his face and curled up into a ball.

Ishtar crouched close, shielding Obed’s body with his own and prayed for rain.

~~~

Obed started at the sound of drops splattering on the hard ground. He looked up and met Ishtar’s gaze. Then he rubbed his eyes. “I can’t believe—”

Ishtar grunted. “There were a few clouds on the horizon when I came. I’m grateful for the storm; it’ll help hide us…and our footsteps.”

Closing his eyes, Obed groaned, stretched, and rubbed his arms and legs. “That’s not what I meant.”

Darting a glance at the backs of the departing enemy, Ishtar pointed south. “If we head for the cliffs, we can hide in safety, and when they’re taking their rest, we can finish our journey and warn Lud and the others.”

Heavy with sarcasm, Obed chuckled. “Great plan.” With a grimace, he staggered to his feet.

Ishtar scanned the area again and started forward.

Watching Ishtar, memories flooded Obed’s mind: Ishtar holding a knife over Aram’s sleeping daughter, his death struggle with his wife, Haruz, and her bloody body lying in the dirt. Fury flushing through his aching body, Obed gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Wait! I’m not going anywhere until I understand how you, of all people, happen to be the one to rescue me.”

His eyes flashing, Ishtar glared at Obed and waved toward home. “You want me to explain—now? My sons, your wife, and children, Barak’s family—the whole clan is about to be attacked, and you want me to—”

Obed slammed Ishtar against the rock wall, blind fury burying all reason. “By the devil, I’ve been through too much to trust you now.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar lifted his hands in an attitude of surrender.

Jerking away, Obed faced the rain.

Dark clouds rumbled overhead, but patches of blue broke through in the west.

Opening his eyes, Ishtar shoved off the wall and spoke to Obed’s back. “I slipped into madness, encountered a nomad who cared for me better than I deserved, and regained a sense of decency.” Ishtar shrugged. “Perhaps I discovered a decency in me I never knew was there.”

Curling his lips through a sneer, Obed turned around and stared Ishtar in the face. “You didn’t have to sacrifice anyone?”

“I protected a father from the evil deeds of his sons.”

With his eyes fixed on Ishtar, Obed snorted. “Fate or justice?”

“It doesn’t matter. I did it for one simple reason.”

Obed waited, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw hurt.

“I loved the old man.”

A miserable chill seeped through Obed’s body.

“I understand your mistrust. But you have no idea what evil can do to a man—if he gets too close.”

A sob rose in Obed’s chest. “But I do.” Relaxing his fists, he straightened and started forward. “Let’s go home.”

“…the Dark cannot claim what Light does not surrender.” ~C.L. Wilson

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Eight

For All the Trouble You’ve Caused

Eoban wiped his sweaty brow and came to a dead halt. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What?” Tromping in front, Barak waved an insect away.

Eoban cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “I made a mistake!”

Barak stopped and turned around, frowning. “About what?”

“I should’ve gone with Obed. He won’t be able to find Amin. He’ll wander around the hills for years if I don’t help him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been traveling for hours! Obed is long gone in the opposite direction. Besides, what if there’s trouble at home?”

Eoban shook his head, feeling very much like a disgruntled bull. “You’ll find the way easily enough from here, and we’ve plenty of warriors to hold off an enemy until I get back.” He peered at the sky. “I’ll find Obed and get the boy.”

Barak snorted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Eoban shrugged.

“Oh, all right, go on then. But look for Amin first. Frankly, I’ll be relieved if you do. I haven’t been so sure of Obed ever since he stepped out of that temple. In the meantime, I’m making a beeline for home.” Barak sighed as he shoved his bag high over his shoulder. “I’ll hold everything together until you return. Lud is probably ready to take my head off for being gone so long.”

“Jonas and Milkan, too, I imagine.”

“Always ready to offer a bit of comfort, aren’t you?”

“It happens to be the truth.” Eoban stepped forward and pounded Barak on the back. “Get going! I’ve lost enough time. It’ll be dark soon, and you know what happens in the dark.”

Barak swung his staff at a trailing vine. “Sing and nothing with any sense will bother you.”

Eoban turned away, muttering. “Who has sense these days?”

Eoban had not traveled far and wide for so many years without learning a few things. The next day, he found Luge’s new settlement. When he walked into the village, Luge strode forward, arms extended, ready to greet him.

They embraced like brothers, their eyes dancing in mutual amusement.

Luge called over his shoulder. “Lufti! Go find Amin. Tell him he’s finally going home.”

Eoban nodded at the boy. “There’s a tall handsome youth!”

Luge led the way to his hut, grinning. “Like his father, no doubt.”

As Lydia stepped outside, Luge waved at Eoban. “Meet the man who led me to my son!”

Wide-eyed, Lydia wiped her hands on her skirt and glanced from her husband to Eoban, her face flushing. “I owe you my life.”

Eoban gripped Luge’s shoulder. “Not at all. Your husband did the hard part. I just wandered where wise men wouldn’t go.” He met Lydia’s gaze. “I’m glad my foolishness paid a good return.”

Amin raced forward and skidded to a halt in front of Eoban, water dripping down his body.

Luge laughed. “You could’ve dried yourself!”

Amin grabbed Eoban’s arm, glancing around. “Where’s my father? Did you find—?”

Rubbing his forehead, the joy in Eoban faded like a plucked flower. “I’m sorry, Amin. We looked for him in the Stone City and even in the temple…but he wasn’t to be found.”

Frowning, Amin dropped Eoban’s arm. “Where’s Obed…and Barak?”

Eoban shrugged. “Obed was supposed to be here—to collect you.” He shook his head. “But, as I suspected, he must’ve gotten lost.”

Worry lines formed around Luge’s face. “And Barak?”

“He was in a hurry to get home…so he went on ahead.” He shifted his gaze to Amin. “There’s still light to see by, and I want to find Obed before he’s eaten by squirrels. So we best—”

Amin dug his toes into the dirt. “We’ll go home without my father?”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest. “Listen, I’ve lost just about everyone on this journey.” He looked up. “Now I want to find Obed and get you home safe.”

With lips pursed tight, Amin nodded.

As they turned to go, Lufti stepped up and handed Amin a beautifully carved spear. “I would not be free today had you not convinced my father to enter the Stone City.”

Clasping his fingers around the ornate weapon, Amin’s eyes shone. “I didn’t do anything except act as a pest.” He smiled at Lufti. “But I’m glad you’re home safe” —he glanced from Luge’s kind face to Lydia’s gentle smile— “with your father and mother.” He faced Eoban, squaring his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

Eoban lifted his hand in salute to Luge. “Keep the enemy at bay and prosper on your next hunt.”

Luge’s eyes clouded. “There are rumors that the enemy is heading into new territory.” He frowned. “Watch your back.”

“If I can find my clansmen, I’ll die a happy man.”

“You do know where you’re going?”

“I know the way home. Surely, Obed’s headed that way by now. After all, he has eyes and can find the sun, can he not?” Turning, Eoban shifted his bag over his shoulder and flung an arm over Amin’s shoulder. “So, my boy, you ready to sing?”

~~~

Eoban marched into his village scowling. “Where is everyone?”

Amin trotted at his side, also scowling. “It’s much too quiet.”

Suddenly, Tannit pelted across the compound at full speed, shouting. “Eoban, you’re home! We’ve been worried sick.”

Dropping his bag to the ground, Eoban crossed his arms like a barricade as the boy skidded to a halt. “What’s happened? Where’s—?”

Tannit heaved a deep breath. “Enemies are on our doorstep, and the women and children have fled to the caves.” He glanced at Amin. “Hi, Amin! Glad you made it home safe.” His grin widened. “Your father’s been so anxious—”

Eoban choked. “Tannit? Do you realize who this is?”

Pursing his lips primly, Tannit glared at Eoban. “Of course! It’s Amin, Ishtar’s son.” He tipped his head toward the center of the village. “Ishtar’s been helping with preparations and watching over Tobia, who’s had a rough time of it. What, with Vitus getting himself killed and all. And then Obed being taken captive—”

Amin’s mouth dropped open. He glanced wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban, hot, frustrated, and confused, wondered if he would, in fact, boil over like an overheated stew. “Tannit, sometimes you—”

Amin cut in front of Eoban and grabbed Tannit’s arm. “Ishtar is here?”

Pointing, Tannit nodded. “Just over there, taking council with Lud.”

Eoban wrung his hands like a man practicing to wring a neck. “You said something about Obed?”

“You’d better ask Tobia. He saw Obed trussed up beside other prisoners taken by the enemy.”

Gripping Amin’s trembling shoulder, Eoban stared hard at Tannit. “Take us to Lud and Ishtar.” He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “Then find Barak. I might need to apologize…”

Tannit waved as he turned. “Lud and Ishtar are over there.” He glanced back. “But no one’s seen Barak.” He winced. “I’m afraid Milkan will have strong words for you two.”

Eoban closed his eyes and stomped forward, gripping Amin hard enough to keep the boy from flying ahead.

At the sight of Ishtar and Lud standing together in conversation, Eoban felt the ground shift under his feet. His vision blurred. He gripped Amin’s shoulder tighter and leaned down to eye level. “Wait a moment. I want to speak to Ishtar alone first.”

Crossing his arms and clenching his jaw, Amin stood his ground. “Make it fast. I have something to say too.”

Eoban threw back his shoulders and strode forward.

Ishtar and Lud glanced over. Both sets of eyes widened. Lud exhaled a long breath and grinned.

Ishtar stood ramrod stiff.

Stepping up, Eoban met Lud’s eyes, his tone as dry as parched corn. “Glad you kept things well in hand while I was gone, Lud.”

“I hardly—”

Eoban turned his attention to Ishtar. “Ishtar, I’ve been looking for you.”

Ishtar nodded, his gaze fixed on Amin standing in the background. “So I heard.”

Like a dry stick about to snap, Eoban clenched his jaw, his teeth ready to crack under the pressure.

Ishtar turned his full attention to the warrior before him. “Do with me as you will.”

Lud stepped back and beckoned to Amin.

Amin ran to Lud’s side.

Swallowing, Eoban glared at Ishtar. “What under the sun does that mean? I’d like to beat you to a bloody mess for all the trouble you’ve caused.”

Maintaining their locked gaze, Ishtar nodded, his voice low and humbled. “And well I deserve it.” He stepped forward, his arms at his sides. “Beat me.”

Flinging his hands in the air, Eoban turned and pounded a few paces away. “By all that is decent and right in the world—do you have to take that tone?” With his head pounding and tears burning, Eoban glanced from Ishtar to Amin. “Do you know what you’ve done to your sons?”

His jaw clenching into a tight line, Ishtar shook his head. “I’ll regret my mistakes for the rest of my life, knowing that I never really can make up—”

Amin leapt forward. “I forgive you, father.” Halting right in front of Ishtar, he sucked in a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that I don’t need you—”

Lud, Eoban, and Ishtar stared at the boy.

Amin swallowed and hung his head. “But it’s not true. I can’t manage on my own. I needed Barak and Luge…and—” He glanced up and met Eoban’s eyes. “Even Eoban.”

Eoban winced.

Amin peered at his father. “But I need you too. So does Caleb.” He glanced around, a frown building. “Where is he?”

Lud gripped Amin’s shoulder. “He’s safe in the caves with the women and children.” Glancing from Ishtar to Amin, Lud smiled. “You must have incredible stories to tell—”

Eoban snorted. “Stories? We’ve both seen too much!” He pounded his chest. “I don’t know about Amin here, but I’m thinking of settling down…maybe with a wife.”

Lud choked.

A hint of a grin broke over Ishtar’s somber face.

Eoban pursed his lips. “I’ll make an excellent husband.” He peered at Amin. “Didn’t I take good care of you?”

Amin glanced from Eoban to his father. “He tried. It’s not his fault that he lost his entire company at one time or another.”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest, exhaling a long, ragged breath.

With a snort, Lud patted Eoban’s back. “Don’t worry, Eoban. You can regain your honor by leading us to victory.” He gestured to the caves. “Jonas and Milkan are waiting. They’ll want to know what happened to Obed and Barak. Let’s go.”

Eoban lifted his head, all strength draining from his limbs. Shuffling along, he muttered. “Couldn’t we just go straight into battle?” Glancing aside, bittersweet grief made Eoban shake his head.

Ishtar clasped Amin’s shoulder and led his son home.

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.” ~Mother Teres

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Seven

You Can Only Endure

Ishtar walked among his people again. After visiting his son, he returned to the village and sat with the five members of the leadership council.

They welcomed him with smiles.

Perplexed by their obvious joy, Ishtar launched into a full recital of his adventures—including his madness—and concluded with a declaration of his healing through the kindness of Matalah.

The council members continued to smile, their eyes twinkling, their backs straights, and their chins up.

Ishtar considered the line of old men. No deceit there. He dropped his gaze and raked his hand through his hair. “Why do you smile?”

The eldest, Amos, grinned and lifted his hand as if in blessing. “We are glad to see you home safe.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing mysterious in a clan welcoming their leader—”

Jerking to his feet with a grunt, Ishtar paced away, his voice falling to a whisper. “But I betrayed you.”

Amos rose and clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Some may see it so…but not all do.” He gazed around the circle and then met Ishtar’s wide eyes. “We are warriors and conquerors, descending from a long line of such men. Your father, though he strayed from decency when he lied to us, maintained a close tie to his heritage. When you offered— ” He cleared his throat and glanced away. “Attempted to offer a child to the gods, you followed not the will of a woman but the call of our ancestral spirits.”

His jaw clenching, Ishtar swallowed and glared. “Spirits I no longer obey.”

Amos tipped his head. “You are now your own man.” When he lifted his eyes, he took one step closer. “Ishtar, we need your leadership. Now, because of the battles you have fought, you’re a stronger, wiser man.” A grin reappeared, brightening his face. “And that’s why we’re glad of your return.”

Peering up at the wide blue sky, Ishtar paused. Finally, he sighed, dropped his eyes, and met Amos’s unwavering confidence. “May you remain so.”

~~~

Ishtar met with leaders from neighboring clans the next day, and they discussed their plans in council with Lud.

Lud approved the plans, and after sending out scouts and closing the meeting, he stared at Ishtar in silence.

Distracted with his plans and anxieties, Lud’s fascination merely brushed Ishtar’s consciousness. But after a moment, he frowned and met Lud’s hard stare. “What’s wrong?”

“I think I know what’s so different about you. Even when you’re worried, you’re controlled. Almost at peace.”

With a snort, Ishtar snatched up his spear and a whetstone. He ran the stone along the spear tip. “I know now that I can survive madness.” He glanced at Lud. “Hope beyond despair is the best kind.”

A figure in the distance jogged toward. Ishtar shaded his eyes with his hand. “Who’s this now?”

Lud frowned and stepped beside Ishtar.

The sweaty, exhausted young man stumbled to a halt, bent over, and gasped heaving breaths.

Ishtar leapt forward. “Tobia!” He gripped his friend’s arm and glanced around. “Where are—?”

Tobia lifted a hand and huffed his words. “They’re with…Remy’s clan…safe. But—”

Lud stepped closer and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “Catch your breath. There’s no news that can’t wait a moment.” He glanced aside at Ishtar.

Tobia shook his head and straightened with a wince. “The enemy is at hand, and they’ve—”

Ishtar shouted to men in the distance and a crowd hurried near. He drew Tobia forward. “Come, sit. Tell us everything.”

Tobia lifted both hands. “Listen! There’s no time! Obed has been taken. He’s tied like a hog ready for slaughter in the midst of a great host.”

Warriors with weapons in their hands jostled each other as they closed in, grunting and leaning forward, scowls on every face.

Lud blinked, his face draining of all color. “Where are Barak and Eoban?”

Tobia shook his head, a bewildered expression in his eyes.

Ishtar gripped Tobia’s shoulders and stared hard into his eyes. “Where’s Amin?”

Tobia’s eyes filled with tears. “Isn’t he here?”

~~~

Tobia sat before trays piled with bread, fruit, nuts, and berries. He set a bowl of sharp wine aside, feeling bitterness slide down his throat.

After nightfall, Ishtar, Lud, Jonas, Namah, and an assembly of councilmen and warriors huddled in Namah’s home and watched his every move.

Closing his eyes, Tobia sat back and sighed. “I can’t eat…I’m not strong enough yet.”

Namah patted his hand. “Take your time. You’ve been through a great deal.”

Tobia opened his eyes and stared at his mother’s anxious face. “Obed is still alive…that’s the good news.” He sniffed and dragged his fingers down his face. “But how he became a prisoner, I have no idea.” He sucked in a deep breath. “For a moment I thought that all of you had been— ” His lips quivered.

Ishtar nudged the bowl closer. “Take more drink and get some rest. Your descriptions of the host will better prepare us. It’s best we know the truth.” He sighed and met Tobia’s gaze. “I’m glad you made it home alive.”

Staring blankly at the back wall, Tobia shrugged. “I don’t feel alive.”

Namah and Jonas exchanged glances.

Namah rose first. “He’ll never sleep with a crowd watching.” She started for the door. “You’ve done well, Tobia. Surviving is no small thing in this world.” She crossed into the night air.

The councilmen and warriors rose and followed her example.

As Lud stood in the doorway, he turned and glanced back. “Death is like slavery. You can’t stand it, yet you can’t escape it.” He nodded at Tobia. “You can only endure.”

Ishtar climbed to his feet and peered at Tobia. “I’ll be just outside…if you need me.”

Jonas accompanied Ishtar to the door and dropped her voice low. “He told me about your journey together. I thank you for your service. It wasn’t what I looked for—”

Ishtar glanced over Jonas’ shoulder and met Tobia’s eyes. “He’s an extraordinary man.” He peered at Jonas. “God asks much of extraordinary men.”

As Ishtar passed over the threshold, Jonas stood silent, staring at the night sky.

Tobia rubbed his aching eyes. “Get some sleep, mother. We’ll need you fresh in the morning.”

Jonas padded to his side and kissed his cheek. “I’m so relieved you’re home.” Her voice caught. “I know Obed will be too.”

Only the sound of her footsteps fading into the next room told Tobia that he was finally alone. Shoving the trays aside, he pulled a blanket close, bundled it under his head, and curled into a ball. Shuddering in the evening air, he closed his eyes and finally let his tears fall.

“Survival is a privilege that entails obligations.” ~Simon Wiesenthal

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