OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Nine

No Doubt At All

—Lux—

Teal stared at a cluster of luminescent red blossoms in a field of yellow stalks and shook his head. Why? Who planted them didn’t bother him so much as why they planted them. He lifted his gaze and considered the expanse before him. A whole field of Calif, enough to feed the entire Luxonian capital, stretched out before him. Then, in one corner of the field, a bunch of unrelated red flowers—as unexpected as a fully armored Ingot in a Crestonian pool.

He bit his lip and started down the path that led back to the bustling city and Sterling’s high-rise. Loneliness enveloped him. In such a busy world, no one would even notice such an oddity. And if they did…no one would care to wonder why.

With his head bowed, he trudged along and hoped the suffocating ache in his heart would lighten and allow him a little breathing room.

~~~

Teal’s gaze flickered to the purple vine on the windowsill as he entered Sterling’s office. He froze. The effervescent fronds had grown to a mammoth size and fluttered in a gentle breeze. When he bypassed Sterling standing at his white oval desk and strode to the window, the plant seemed to wiggle its stalks in welcome. A tiny spark of joy kindled deep within him.

Sterling stopped at his side, nearly touching his elbow. “Oh look. She’s happy to see you. Waving like an old friend.”

Teal glanced aside at Sterling. Irritated or pleased? Irritated. Teal patted the fronds, shouldered his duty, and faced his superior. “You asked to see me, sir.”

“I had to. It’s been over three cycles, and you’ve hardly spoken to me.”

“There didn’t seem to be anything to discuss, sir.”

“Stop with the sir. I’m rising but not so high that you can’t talk to me without using a formal address to punctuate every sentence.”

“Yes, s—” Teal swallowed and peered at the frond. He could swear that it humped in indignation. “So, is there anything to discuss?”

“You need to go back to work.”

A lightning bolt of hope shot through Teal. “I can return to Earth?”

Sterling waved his hands as if terrified by hasty assumptions. “Now, don’t zip off just yet. I told you that this whole Crestonian cold war was a mere bluff, but even bluffs can have disastrous consequences if not treated respectfully. In order to settle matters to our satisfaction, we need a few friends on our side first.”

“Friends?”

“As in a certain Uanyi representative who just happens to enjoy OldEarth delicacies—delicious broiled vegetables with cracked wheat bread and virgin olive oil.” Sterling licked his lips, emphasizing his point.

An involuntary cringe curled inside Teal. “Uanyi are insectine, correct?”

Sterling waved a hand over his desk console and a holographic image of a large-chested, small-waisted Uanyi male dressed in a white one-piece bodysuit rotated on the surface before them. “They have rubbery exoskeletons and internal bones.” He leaned in, enlarged the face, and glanced at Teal. “How do you like those eye bulbs? Bigger than Cresta orbs aren’t they?”

“I can see why certain races use them in precautionary tales to scare their young into good behavior.” Teal envisioned a particularly gruesome large-eyed arachnid that tormented his dreams as a child. He shivered.

Sterling chuckled. “Those mandibles aren’t for eating people, my friend. They’re nearly all vegetarians, though some have adapted to a more varied diet. I’ve heard they’ve taken a liking to boiled sea urchins.”

Teal winced. “And the breathing mask?”

“After so many civil wars, they’ve nearly decimated their homeworld, certainly the air. So breathing masks are a part of everyday wear at home or off-planet.”

Teal flicked a glance at his superior. “So why are you show—?”

“Because I need you to go to Sectine and make friends with the Ultra High Command.”

“Why would they listen to me? I’m hardly an expert on their culture, and I have no associations with any of their kind.” Teal shrugged. “I don’t even know one word of their language.”

“Ah! Don’t worry about that. Despite their appearances, Uanyi are exceptionally bright and have a gift for communication. They’re highly proficient in every known language this side of the Divide.”

“Speaking of the—”

“We weren’t—so drop it. Focus, would you?”

Teal worked his way around the desk and returned to the window. He stared at the glorious Luxonian sunset. “I still don’t see how I’m going to convince them to work with us.”

“You probably won’t, but I’m sending Ark with you. He can be very persuasive.”

Rounding on Sterling, Teal stomped back to the desk, his mood rumbling like an active volcano. “He’s still on Lux?”

“You think he wants to return to Crestar for execution?” Sterling held Teal in a steely gaze.

Teal broke away first. “Fine. Ark and I’ll go to Sectine and try to negotiate an agreement. You have any idea of the conditions for this supposed treaty?”

Sterling tapped the console and drew up a holographic document image written in five languages. “Certainly. Zuri has it all written down and translated perfectly.”

“Zuri?”

“Only fitting, since you three were best buddies on Earth. Besides, he can represent Ingilum interests, and Ark can work in possible arrangements for Crestar that might allow him—one day—to live among his own kind again.”

“And Kelesta?

“The Bhuaci spy?”

“She wasn’t a spy…for long.”

Sterling chuckled and ambled away. “We’ll see about her…but in the meantime, let me tell you a little story.”

Teal squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands.

Sterling stepped to a desk drawer, opened it, and made a snipping sound.

Teal opened his eyes.

Waving a scissors, Sterling chuckled. “A few days ago, I went to the open-air Bhuaci music festival. I thought a little amusement after all that brouhaha with Crestar would do my circulatory system good.” He ambled to a large wall cabinet, flung open a large door, and started shuffling about, pulling red and green objects aside and shoving something decidedly pink to the back.

“I missed the first song, but the second…do you know what the gloriously handsome Bhuaci lead sang?”

Teal sighed and continued to watch Sterling’s haphazard trail through the cabinet.

“Well, it started…‘I woke up and my head was a mess, so I combed my hair. Then I felt my insides rumble, so I drank some Shang Slew.’” Sterling frowned like a seriously disturbed beverage authority. “Do you have any idea what Shag Slew will do to a person early in the morning?”

Teal swallowed back bile.

“I doubt he’d live to see the afternoon. Not sober and alert anyway. That stuff will muddle the mind no matter how carefully you try—” Sterling waved the thought away. “And then another singer started in. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can only pray that there’s a point—somewhere.”

“Ah-ha!” Sterling lifted a white pot from the cabinet and cradled it in his arms like a newborn. He grinned. “There’s always a point to my stories.” He strolled to the window. “Despite the absurdities, I couldn’t stop myself. I tapped my toes and swayed to the rhythm. I was taken in. Completely. I adored those singers.”

“But you hated the lyrics?”

“Every nonsensical word.”

Halting before the window, Sterling drew a small table close and placed the pot in the center. With precise movements, he cut a slender rectangle of dirt from the windowsill pot.

The purple plant practically stood up as its more- developed tendrils swung like enraged trees in a hurricane.

Alarm ripped through Teal’s body.

Sterling dug out tiny clusters of roots and gently nestled them in the bowl. He smiled like a loving father. “Sweet thing. But you’ve got to let your little ones go, so they can grow big like you.”

With a choking gasp, Teal peered at Sterling’s handiwork. “What are you doing?”

Sterling pressed the white pot into Teal’s hands. “It’s a parting gift.” He led Teal to the door. “Humanity will be fine while you go to Sectine and find a way to protect Earth from a universe they’re not ready for.”

“And the Bhuaci singers?”

“Oh, that. Yes.” Sterling swayed his hips and hummed. “Just remember, your words won’t convince an audience as much as your passion.”

~~~

Teal strode along the Sectine walkway with Ark on his left and Zuri on his right.

A brilliant orange sun hung in the pale green sky, without a cloud in sight. Huge reddish anthill-like buildings rose from the sand-colored environment.

Uanyi bustled from one establishment to another over well-trod roads, scampering on their long legs or using scooters that hovered just over the hard-packed surface.

Zuri wiped beaded sweat from his reddened face. “It’s dry, but the heat’s enough to kill me.”

Teal considered Zuri’s beautiful shoulder-length locks of blond hair, his ocean-blue eyes, and the mechanical outerwear ending in sandaled feet. “You’re still going forward with the return-to-nature scheme?”

Ark gurgled. “Kelesta convinced him to hold on to what technological advantages he has.” Ark peered around Zuri as he padded forward, his eyebrows wiggling, and his words laden with heavy emphasis. “Her entire family has a thing for mechanical exoskeletons.”

Teal snorted. “That’s so counterintuitive, I don’t even know where to start.”

Zuri shrugged. “She’s a good woman, working from home to convince the Regent of Song that Lux has a more sensible plan than Crestar. After all, quarantine only lasts as long as everyone obeys the rules. But without the mystery race in the game…there’s no telling.”

Teal sidestepped a mother Uanyi pushing an infant in a stroller. He glanced at the baby, frowned, and blinked back to Zuri. “So you and Kelesta are still together?”

Ark rolled his eyes. “Like stanzas of Bhuaci poetry.”

Zuri shoved Ark off the path and glanced at Teal. “You and Sienna?”

Teal picked up his pace. “Don’t ask.”

Zuri pulled a tottering Ark back onto the path and held his gaze.

Ark nodded.

Teal glanced from one to the other. “What?”

Zuri ducked his head and nudged Ark.

Wrapping his tentacles behind his back like a well- behaved pod, Ark shrugged. “Nothing. Especially. We’re just glad to be with you on this mission.”

Teal stopped and glared from the Cresta to the Ingot. “What?”

“Well, we happened to get a little, tiny—” Zuri pinched two slender fingers within millimeters of each other— “preview of the Uanyi representative we’re meeting today.”

“How’d you manage that? Sterling wouldn’t give me anything but her name. Jasmine. Of all the ridiculous—”

Ark slipped his tentacle around Teal’s arm. “You never know what’ll happen when you open negotiations. Things can get interesting. Very interesting, indeed.”

Exhaling a long, drawn-out sigh, Teal fell in step with his two friends. “With you two along, I’ve no doubt. No doubt at all.”

—The End—

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anais Nin

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Eight

If You Dare Enough

—Grassland—

Namah watched a spider weave its web in the corner of her home while the sun set in crimson and gold. A conviction that she would never see such a sight again spread through her.

After an uneventful night’s sleep, she stood in the doorway and watched the morning’s sunrise, feeling mildly surprised that she had lived to see a new day. She glanced in the corner. The spider was nowhere in sight, but the web sparkled in a shaft of a sunbeam.

She stepped outside and began her morning routine. Pouring water from a large basin, she washed her hands and face and then stirred the outdoor fire and added kindling to the pink-centered coals, drawing life from the gray heap.

After a simple breakfast of mixed grains and goat’s milk, she called next door for her daughter, Gizah, to attend her. Living with her sister, Bethal, and her brother, Bararam, Gizah fit herself to the role of servant to all. She hurried to her mother with a beaming smile and clasped her hand. “Morning!”

Namah’s heart clenched and then expanded as she smiled back. Squeezing her child’s hand, she peered into the young woman’s laughing eyes. “You are the treasure of the family, child.”

Gizah giggled. “Treasure that some lucky man is just waiting to possess, no doubt!”

“No doubt, indeed. Your line will prosper like no other. I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye.” A return of foreboding clutched at Namah’s chest. “Tell your sister and brother I want to see them. I have things to give them before I go.”

All hint of laughter fled from Gizah’s face. “Why? Where are you going?”

“Not for me to say or you to know just yet. Do as I say, girl. Tell them to come before sunset, or it’ll be too late.”

A frown flittering over her face, Gizah turned and entered her sister’s home.

Namah returned to her own home and poked among the shelves. She found a clay pot with an intricate design fashioned along the sides. She laid it aside and then tugged at her finest cloak until it fell free from a high hook and landed softly in her hands. Caressing the fine fibers, she eyed the bright colors and detailed edging that made it one of the finest wraps in the whole village. She had made it for Aram. He had told her to keep it for her burial.

Shaking her head, she mumbled under her breath, “And you were buried in nothing but your tunic and that old wrap with the torn edging.” She sniffed and chuckled. “I wanted to disobey you, but I didn’t. I loved you that much.”

Rubbing her back, she rifled through her possessions again, fingering toys for the children—and grandchildren—she hoped. She set certain objects to the left and others to the right and only two lay on the ground before her feet.

When the sun had risen to its peak, Bethal and Bararam appeared in her doorway.

Namah beckoned them forward, her gaze darting to Gizah, who shuffled in behind them. Stepping back, she opened her arms to the objects laid before them. “Today you must take what I give you so there will be no confusion after I’m gone.”

Tall and muscled with a head of rich black hair, Bararam towered above the women, but his surprised grin hinted at his mischievous side. “Where are you going, mother, that you offer us such gifts?”

“I go where you cannot follow…at least not yet.” She pointed to the pile on the left. “These are for you two and your families when you have them.”

Bethal gasped and knelt before a decorated pot, a pile of colored beads, and a sharp knife. Picking up the child’s toy, she caressed it in her fingers. “I remember this. It was my favorite.” She glanced up. “Why give us these now? Why not wait until I’m married and settled?”

“I may not be here then. And I want you to know…I offer these with all my love.” She nodded to the right. “And you, Gizah, will take this house and these other things: the pillow, the blanket, and my best rope for your own.”

Opening her mouth but unable to speak, Gizah stepped toward her mother and stopped suddenly at the middle pile. Her eyes widened as she stared at the fine cloak and the carved figure of a man.

Namah lifted the cloak and the wooden figure and pressed them into Gizah’s hands. “Wrap me in this, as was your father’s wish, and lay Tobia’s gift in my hands when you bury my body.” A smile quivered on her lips. “I know well enough that it is not my husband but only a likeness of his figure. But Tobia comforted me during my loss, and I want to comfort him. We will always be together like good friends.”

Voices rose across the village, and mothers called little ones to supper.

Bethal glanced at her brother.

Bararam gathered the objects in his arms and shook his head. “There’s no hurry. You’ll live many long years yet. But we’ll keep them safe in our house—until you wish them back again.”

Namah raised her eyebrows in command to her youngest daughter.

In shy obedience, Gizah bundled her gifts in her arms and followed her sister to the doorway.

Stopping on the threshold, Namah called after them. “Remember, the greatest treasure I have given you—is each other.”

Namah watched them pace to their home next-door and returned to her own abode. Fixing a light supper, she sat outside and enjoyed a cool breeze that rose with the night. A distant bird warbled and two owls hooted back and forth as in their usual evening conversation.

Memories of her first journey to the lake made her gaze shift over the water. Twinkling lights flickered in the last sunbeams as they slanted across the rippling surface.

When her chest tightened, as it usually did at night, Namah pulled herself to her feet and dragged herself to her bed. Laying her weary head on her pillow, she remembered Aram’s face, Barak’s stern countenance, Irad’s last words, her fall from the cliff, meeting Jonas for the first time, her daughters’ births, her son’s laughter, Aram’s hand clasping her own, and her trust in the unseen God. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment.

~~~

Gizah tiptoed into her mother’s house with a bundle in her arms. She laid it aside and knelt at the bedside. She clasped the old woman’s cold hands and pressed them to her cheek. Then she kissed the gnarled fingers and held them against her breast. “Best of mothers, I will miss you forever.”

Namah did not stir.

Bowing her head, Gizah reached back and tugged the cloak free. She unfolded the cloth and laid it gently over her mother’s body. Then she reached deep into a pocket of her tunic and drew forth the wooden figure. She kissed it and laid it on her mother’s breast.

~~~

Barak exhaled a long breath and wrapped his arm around his wife as they lay in bed.

Milkan rolled onto her side and peered into Barak’s eyes. “You miss her so very much?”

“I miss many people.”

Milkan snuggled closer, drawing the blanket over her shoulders. “I wonder…is she with Aram now?”

His eyes widening, Barak stared at the thatched ceiling. “I don’t know.”

Milkan laid her head on his chest. “I wonder which of us will die first.”

Spluttering, Barak coughed. “I can’t say.”

“Well, anyway, I’m glad I knew Aram and Namah, and I’ll always miss them, but I can never be too sad when you’re with me.”

As if grief had been shoved to the side, Barak’s heart stirred with overwhelming love. Warmth spread through his body. He wrapped his wife in his arms. “I am blessed among men.” He leaned down to kiss her.

A baby cried out and an older child whined, “Mama!”

With a low groan, Milkan threw the blanket aside, heaved a deep breath, and rose to her feet.

Barak watched her, his heart swelling.

Milkan turned back and laughed. “You’re much too comfortable!”

“I will be—as soon as you return to bed.”

The cry rose a decibel to a high-pitched shriek.

Milkan stumbled away.

The crying stopped abruptly.

Milkan plodded back to bed and plunked the baby on Barak’s chest.

A whimper broke the still air.

Milkan paced away and returned with a whimpering little boy. She tucked the child under Barak’s arm, swung the baby to her chest, and lay down in bed, nudging Barak over a bit. She glanced at him. “Comfortable?”

“Not in the least.”

Milkan stared and opened her mouth.

Barak leaned over and kissed her. “But happy nonetheless.”

~~~

Jonas watched Onia saunter out of the village with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder, and her heart soared. No anxiety tugged at her heart as he wandered away to trade among their neighboring clans. He was so well-liked and trusted that Obed said he could trade a sunbeam for a loaf of bread. Jonas didn’t doubt it.

Laughter turned her attention. Mari helped one of Ishtar’s men string the day’s catch of fish on the line. The girl was always laughing—too spirited for her own good. Jonas shrugged. She had her father’s nature.

Her gaze wandered to the edge of the village, to where her first husband’s grave had melted into the earth and could only be seen by the mound of stones on top. “You are not there, love.” She placed her hand on her heart. “You’re right here.”

An arm slid around Jonas’ middle, and she shivered. She peered into Obed’s alert, sober eyes.

Obed glanced from the grave to Onia. “He’s off again?”

Jonas nodded. “He’s taking some of Tobia’s carvings this time. Said there’s a growing market for such things.”

With his shepherd’s staff clutched one hand, Obed led Jonas toward the shady side of their house. “Sit and rest a moment. You rose before the sun.”

Jonas perched on the edge of a bench. “Only to catch up with you.”

His gaze traveled around their neat and prosperous village, Obed sighed as Tobia strode toward him with Kamila walking at his side. “I’m glad that Tobia’s settled into married life and started carving again. He seems too old for one so young.”

Tobia stopped before his mother and nodded respectfully. Kamila did the same but with a smile spreading across her face.

Obed scrunched his brows together. “Where’s that figure of Caleb you made? I want Jonas to see it.”

Tobia shrugged. “I gave it to Ishtar.”

“Oh.” Disappointment washed over Obed’s face as he leaned on his staff.

Her heart bursting with joy, Jonas clasped Obed’s hand. “But I did see it. Ishtar carries it everywhere, and he showed it to Eoban. Eoban told me about it, and when I saw Ishtar, I asked about it.” Pride swelled in Jonas as she nodded at her son. “It’s your finest work yet.”

Obed glanced from his wife to Tobia. “I never saw a man change as much as Ishtar. I thought that once evil had hold, there was no turning back.”

A hot flush worked up Jonas’s cheeks.

Obed pressed her hand playfully. “But I’ve learned.”

Jonas peered into her husband’s eyes. “What have you learned?”

Obed gripped his shepherd’s staff and looked to the hills. “If you dare enough—there’s always hope.”

~~~

Lud paced silently through the wheat field, slicing weeds at their roots. As sweat poured down his face, he straightened, wiped his brow, and glanced at Dinah and the children working in their garden patch. He smiled.

The sun blazed with mid-day strength. Thirst stung his throat. Time to go home and rest. Swinging his hoe over his shoulder, he started down the incline.

A flock of birds sailed before him, twisting and turning, and then fluttering high into the sky.

Lud shook his head. The vision of Pele’s face as she peered at the wide blue expanse flashed before his eyes. He never could see what she saw. He stopped and wiped his brow again. He didn’t have to. He had seen her, and that was enough.

Gilbreth called, Dinah grinned, and Lud’s heart soared like the birds.

~~~

Eoban perched on the edge of a log as a full moon floated overhead, shrouded in wispy clouds. A fresh breeze rustled the high branches of distant trees. Lud and Gilbreth sat cross-legged on each side, while Deli dangled on his left knee, and Ham nestled contentedly in the crook of his arm.

Dinah bustled before the fire, preparing a dinner of spiced rice and rabbit with vegetables and fresh bread.

Eoban’s mouth watered.

Gilbreth glanced over. “Any stories to tell, Eoban?”

Shifting to keep his blood in circulation, Eoban met the challenge. “Well, once on a night very much like this one, there was a boy about as big as Gilbreth there, named Kilbreth.”

Deli gasped and turned wide-eyes on her brother.

Eoban patted her arm reassuringly. “Yes, similar names. Hadn’t realized. Anyway, this boy was brave and strong, but no one knew it because he never left his parents’ sides. He pined to see the world, so he left home and traveled far and wide. Time passed quickly—as it does in stories—and after many years, Kilbreth returned home much bigger and swaggering with a bounty of knowledge. The whole village welcomed him with a grand feast.”

Deli wiggled. “Like we’re going to have?”

Eoban nodded and pressed on. “But tragically, he’d forgotten everyone. His mother and father tried to pretend it wasn’t so, but he called everyone by the wrong name and, worst of all, he spent the whole night telling his family about all the fine people he met, and he never once asked about his own clan.”

Ham yawned, and Deli kicked her legs.

Lud shook his head in definite admonishment. “Foolish boy.”

Gilbreth peered through the darkness. “What happened to him?

Eoban straightened up. “Well…one dark night, he fell into a hole. He called and screamed, but no one came—remember—he had forgotten all their names.”

Deli smacked her hand against her cheek. “Uh-oh.”

Eoban shifted. “Right. Eventually, his father heard him, got the neighbors, and they hauled him out.”

Gilbreth’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Did Kilbreth learn his lesson?”

Eoban laid Deli in her brother’s arm and scooted Ham to the ground. “From then on, Kilbreth traveled the world, telling everyone about his own marvelous clan—and he called them each by name.”

Dinah raised her head and smiled. “Supper is ready.”

Shuffling to his feet and rubbing his back, Eoban glanced at Gilbreth. “Thank the stars above. I’m about worn out. Now let’s do justice to your mother’s cooking. There’s no one who can make a feast as well as she.”

Dinah waved Eoban along. “Come eat then.”

As they crossed the threshold, Lud chuckled. “And no one tells a tale like Eoban!”

As he stepped inside, Eoban grinned. “And later, we’ll all sing!”

~~~

Ishtar stripped to the waist and wrapped a cloth tightly around his head, holding his hair away from his face.

In the pre-dawn light, a fire blazed before him with a tripod fixed over the flames. Nearby, perched on a flat rock, sat bowls filled with different colored substances. A cauldron hung from the center of the tripod.

Working methodically, Ishtar sifted the ingredients and poured a little of each into the pot. After it melted, he tugged a mold into place and poured the mixture into it. Then he added another substance, waited for it to melt, and poured the thick liquid into a second mold. After he had several molds lined up beside the fire pit, he sat back and wiped his forehead.

The sounds of the waking village drew his gaze. Two of his men passed and nodded. He nodded back.

When the first mold cooled, he took a hammer and knocked the frame away. Then he peered at the metal piece narrowly, looking for tiny bubbles and weak spots. Satisfied, he laid it on the flat rock and hammered it until it fell apart. He gathered up the pieces and threw them back into the cauldron. As he reached for one of the bowls, Amin shuffled by.

Ishtar sucked in his breath. “Amin, come and help me a moment.”

With his head down and his shoulders drooping, Amin took the necessary steps and halted before Ishtar. “Yes?”

“Help me sift the ore. I’m trying different kinds and amounts…your sharp eyes would—”

“I’m not a metal worker, Father.”

“You could be.”

“I don’t care to be.”

“What do you care to be?”

Amin shifted from one foot to another and glanced aside.

Concerned, Ishtar stood and motioned his son to the fire pit. “Sit with me and watch awhile. You might find it interesting.”

“I won’t find metal work interesting any more than I found trading and traveling interesting.”

Ishtar’s jaw clenched. “Why are you still angry at me?” He swallowed hard and blinked as he stared at the glowing horizon. “He was my son as well as your brother.”

“You’ve found other things to interest you. I’m not so easily amused.”

With a swift motion, Ishtar swept up a handful of the dirty ore. “Do you see this?”

Stiff and unyielding, Amin merely raised an eyebrow.

“It’s what the Creator gives us to work with. Dirt. And with this dirt” —Ishtar snatched up a metal tray behind him and held it out— “we can make beautiful things.” He tossed the dirt and tray aside. “But it’ll never happen without a willing mind and a dedicated heart to shape it.” He peered into Amin’s eyes. “The tray is worth nothing if no one cares for beauty.”

Amin spat his words. “Caleb was worth more than a tray!”

Ishtar leaned in. “But Caleb would’ve seen the beauty and cared.” Ishtar waved a broken piece of metal before Amin’s face. “Impurities must be driven out by fire and hammer.” He turned and peered at the mountains “Like ore, we are shaped by things that burn and beat us, and we think we’ll never recover. But in the end, we’re transformed.”

Amin closed his eyes, his lips trembling. After a moment, he met Ishtar’s gaze. “Without Caleb, I feel so…dead.”

Ishtar gripped Amin’s shoulder. “Hold on—even in the depths of despair. Only then can true faith be born.” Wrapping his arm around his son, Ishtar turned the boy from the mountains and the fire. Together, they faced the rising sun.

“Time heals some wounds, but love heals them all.” ~Matshona Dhliwayo

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Seven

For The Sake of Your Son

—Grasslands—

Ishtar tossed the last shovelful of earth aside and stared at the long, deep trench. He wiped sweat from his brow, laid the shovel aside, and plopped down, leaning back on his hands.

A glorious breeze ruffled his long hair, and children called in the distance. He glanced up. Eoban and Obed marched toward him with Barak trudging along behind.

Ishtar scrambled to his weary feet, his gaze level as the men approached. “To what do I owe this honor? Three dignitaries coming to view my” —he glanced aside and shrugged— “ditches.”

Obed laughed. “That’s why we’ve come. Word reached us that you’re digging canals to carry water to your village.”

“It’s just an idea…something I saw while traveling.”

Barak shaded his eyes and surveyed the long trench meandering from the base of the hill to the edge of the village. “You saw this?”

“I saw how water travels down from the hills. And sometimes it reaches the people. Sometimes not.” He rubbed his chin. “It seemed that a little assistance might give us what we need in dry spells.”

Eoban glanced at Obed. “It’s a brilliant idea. Surprised you didn’t think of it.”

“Wish I did.” Obed turned to Ishtar. “But it’s all yours. Except…” He laughed. “I might steal it and do something similar in my village.”

“Feel free. I’m too—”

Amin sprinted into view, jogged around stray sheep, and stopped with gasping breaths before his father.

Eoban gripped the young man’s shoulder. “What in the world are you eating, boy? Whole hogs? You’ve grown twice your former size!”

Ishtar’s smile broadened.

Obed nodded his agreement. “You’ll be ready to take the mantle of leadership off Ishtar’s shoulders soon.”

Barak frowned. “What is the matter, Amin? You look upset.”

Gulping his breath, Amin gazed from one man to another. “It’s Caleb. He’s not feeling well.” He turned to his father. “I told him to rest. I’ll do his work today.”

With a nod, Ishtar’s joy dimmed. “Fine. It was good of you to think of it.” He pointed to his efforts. “I’ll show them my grand scheme and come home in a bit.”

Amin glanced at the field and nodded. “I’ll get to work but keep an eye on Caleb too.” He stepped away.

Ishtar waved toward the base of the hill. “Let’s go. I can show you what I’ve done. You might have ideas to add.”

Eoban and Obed fell in line behind Ishtar.

Barak stopped and peered back at Amin. “You think he’ll be all right?”

Ishtar grinned. “Caleb is a wonderful child…but sometimes he doesn’t like to work, and Amin is more than generous.” He bit his lip. “I’ll have a talk with the boy.”

The three trudged upland to a natural land basin where Ishtar had enlarged the width and depth and added a channel leading toward the village.

As the sun descended, Lud and Gilbreth joined them, and they followed the trench into the village, making suggestions and exchanging ideas.

As he loped along, Eoban scratched his head. “Looks like Gilbreth has grown as much as Amin. What do you feed your children these days?”

Barak chuckled. “Anything and everything. Boys are always hungry. Ask Milkan.”

Rubbing his stomach, Eoban winced. “Speaking of food…”

Glancing from Eoban to the other men, Lud laughed. “That’s why I was sent…to tell you that a repast awaits at my home if you’d like to join us.”

Eoban leapt ahead like a yearling goat. “Don’t be sluggards! The boys will eat it all if we don’t hurry.”

~~~

Ishtar reclined on the ground after the repast, and everyone grew quiet as they sat around a modest fire. The warm evening air stilled, and songbirds settled in for the night.

Eoban glanced at each of the men. “So much has changed since we first met.”

His eyes widening, Lud sucked in his breath. “More than words could ever say.”

Barak nodded. “Aram has been gone for so long, I forget his face but never his strength. I only hope that the future will bring us more peace and less anxiety.”

Ishtar watched the flames flicker and the sparks intertwine as they rose into the sky. “I, too, hope we will know peace, but I wouldn’t wish to live without burdens or trials. It was a heavy burden that brought me to a place I could not run from. It was a painful trial that forced me to face the spirits that haunted me.” He sat up. “We must continually strive to become better than our former selves, or we stagnate and corrupt. I pity the man who is satisfied with himself.”

Barak shifted, his voice dropping low. “Even Aram struggled to become a better leader. He never really knew how good he was.”

Lud dropped another log on the fire. “As a father, I agree. One is never done learning.”

Stretching, Eoban yawned. “Since I am neither married nor have children, it seems that I have an easy life, but I tell you—in truth—I’m married to the entire village. I’m father to the young, brother to my men, servant to every woman who needs an extra hand, and uncle to the children near and far. I am the most married man I know!”

Chuckles rose with Eoban as he staggered to his feet.

The setting sun spread a pink and lavender glow over the village. The rest of the company stood, said their goodbyes, and started to their homes. Silence, the companion of each, framed the village in quiet slumber.

Ishtar strode along the trail with his heart at peace and knew that, for once, joy united them.

~~~

Amin raced up to Ishtar in the darkness outside his house, his heart clenched into a tight ball both furious and afraid. “Caleb is worse. I’ve done everything I can think of. Water, wine, broth, food…but nothing helps. He vomits everything.” He wrung his hands as he trotted at his father’s side. “He said his belly hurt, but I can’t see any wound.”

Ishtar peered through the darkness as he stopped before the doorway. “Did you call for the healer?”

Amin nodded. “She made him swallow an herbal brew, and he fell asleep.”

Ishtar paced to Caleb’s side and knelt on the hard ground.

Sweat beaded Caleb’s forehead. His cheeks were flushed an angry red, and he tossed with his arms flailing.

Ishtar stroked his son’s head, but Caleb brushed his hand away. Swallowing hard, Ishtar turned to Amin. “I’ll get Jonas. If anyone can understand what’s wrong, she can.”

Amin nodded, terror biting at his insides as Ishtar hurried outside. He dropped to his knees, clasped his little brother’s sweaty hands, and watched his every move.

Time slowed to a standstill. An owl hooted in the distance and a wild dog howled.

Caleb fell into a deep slumber, his body stilled, and his skin paled to a deathly white.

Amin’s eyelids grew heavy. His head dropped onto the edge of the bed and exhaustion took him.

When a bird chirped, Amin jerked awake and rubbed his eyes. A sliver of gold-edged the horizon and the sound of shuffling feet drew him upright. He stood and faced the door.

Ishtar ushered Jonas inside.

Striding to Caleb’s side, Jonas touched the little boy’s face and arms, and then carefully worked her way down his body, peering intently at each limb.

Ishtar tossed kindling onto the dying fire, flaring it into renewed life.

Jonas beckoned Amin closer. “Did he fall? Any accidents?”

Amin shook his head, his stomach churning. “He was fine up until a couple days ago. Then he said he felt sick and didn’t want to eat. After a time, he said his side hurt…and then his middle. He got so weak he could hardly stand.” Amin glanced at the rising sun, tears filling his eyes. “The more I tried to get him to eat, the sicker he got. Once the fever set in, he didn’t even know me.”

Jonas rose, soaked a cloth with cool water, and sponged Caleb’s head and wiped down his body.”

Ishtar crouched at her side and watched her every move. Amin paced away and added fuel to the fire.

As brilliant rays of light streaked over the horizon, Caleb awoke. Appearing calmer, he peered through red-rimmed eyes.

Jonas backed away and let Ishtar kneel closer. “Caleb?”

With a weak smile, Caleb grinned as his father took his hand. “I felt terrible. But I’m…better now.” He glanced aside. “Amin?”

Amin shifted near, kneeling by his father. “I’m here.”

Caleb blinked and frowned. “It’s so dark, I can’t see you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But I can hear you.”

Choking on strangling grief, Amin stifled a sob. Tears flooded his eyes. “I’m here, Caleb.”

Caleb closed his eyes, murmuring. “Father’s back, you know… So glad.” He gasped a rattling breath and exhaled slowly.

Amin squeezed his brother’s hand, but it felt cold and lifeless.

Caleb’s head drifted to the side, his whole body falling limp.

Amin shrieked. “Caleb!”

Trembling, Ishtar wrapped his arm around Amin and held Caleb’s fingers in his own.

Jonas nudged in closer and pressed her ear to Caleb’s chest, her eyes wide and staring.

Tears rolled down Ishtar’s cheeks, as a low groan escaped. “Please…”

Jonas blinked back tears. “He’s gone.”

Dropping his head onto Caleb’s chest, Ishtar sobbed.

A stabbing pain pierced Amin’s chest. He rose and fled into the searing light of day.

~~~

Ishtar sat outside his dwelling staring at a gray fire pit mounded with dead ashes. Beyond that, in the distance, a small grave lay covered with large flat stones.

Footsteps shuffled near and a shadow crossed over him.

Tobia knelt at Ishtar’s side. “May I sit with you?”

Hollow as a drum, Ishtar didn’t care who came or went.

“The wedding ceremony was beautiful. Obed outdid himself. Even Eoban behaved well.” Tobia crossed his legs. “Wish you’d been there.”

With a feeble effort, Ishtar waved him off. “Kamila was with you. That’s all that matters.” He closed his eyes. “I’m very tired.” He stretched out on the bench and clasped his hands over his chest, lying like a dead man. Something small and hard pressed on his chest.
Ishtar opened his eyes and peered down.

A little wooden boy with his arms outstretched lay over his beating heart. Ishtar choked and struggled for control as he sat up and clasped the figure in his hand.

Tobia peered into the distance, his voice as steady as if he were telling an evening story by firelight. “Long ago, Eymard told me that our mighty Creator made this world and took all life back to Himself when he willed it. It sounded good and made losing my father easier to bear. But when Vitus died, and I saw so much death and horror, I shoved Eymard’s story away and grew angry at God.”

He paused as if the words stuck in his throat. “Did our Creator have the right to punish Vitus for his foolish pride? Did the elders deserve to see the last of their line suffer imprisonment and death? Who was this terrible God I prayed to?”

Ishtar peered into the azure sky and blinked back tears.

Tobia’s voice rose. “But then someone told me that I was thinking like a man and not like God. Someone said that no one knows what goes on between a soul and his Maker.”

Dropping his face onto his hands, Ishtar rocked in misery.

“Pele lives beyond our sight. The same is true for Aram. Is it not true for Caleb too?”

Dragging his fingers down his face, Ishtar lifted his gaze and met Tobia’s honest eyes. “Caleb showed great promise. He would’ve grown up to be an honorable man— perhaps a leader among men. Why was he taken and not I?”

Tobia peered at the horizon. “I can’t answer your question. And neither can you.” He glanced aside. “Repentance brought you home, Ishtar. Let hope keep you here, for your sake and the sake of your other son.”

Straightening, Ishtar nodded. “You are honest and true, my friend. I’ll be a man again, but—”

Tobia turned to leave. “God did not abandon Matalah. He will not abandon you.” With a nod, Tobia paced away. Rising, Ishtar gripped the figure in his hand and let the sun pour over him as fresh tears fell.

“The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it…” ~Nicholas Sparks,

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Six

A New Light

—Grasslands and Hill Lands—

Tobia sat next to Remy before a glowing fire with Remy’s men, Jonas, Obed, Onia, and his little sister, Mari, seated in a semicircle on the other side.

A full moon rose in the evening sky. Birds sang their goodnight songs from nests built among the swaying grasses as a refreshing breeze swept through.

Laughter erupted between Remy’s men as they discussed their return trip home the next morning. Remy listened and laughed along with them, sampling from various platters of barley bread, roasted quail, wild rice, and early onions. Flasks of thick mead sat within arm’s reach.

After swigging down a bowlful of mead and eating enough to fill his belly, Remy tapped Tobia playfully on the shoulder. “So, when will you come to visit me and my sister, eh?”

“I’m not at my full strength yet.” A blush burned in Tobia’s cheeks. “And my family needs me…”

Remy’s men chuckled, sweeping glances between Remy and Tobia. One man spoke for the rest. “If Remy had his way, he’d race us all home. But since he’s so old and worn out now, we’ll have to carry him the distance.”

Flicking a twig at the man, Remy laughed. “I’ll have had a long night’s rest by the time you stagger in.”

Obed snorted and took a swig from his bowl.

Jonas frowned and turned to her guest. “I want to thank you again for all the aid you gave Tobia. You’ve been a valuable friend. More than we can ever repay.”

A sly gleam entered Remy’s eye as he focused his gaze on Tobia. “Oh, he can repay our kindness any time he wants.”

Obed wiped his mouth, his eyes narrowing. “How?”

Tobia stiffened.

“I happen to have a very beautiful and good-hearted sister…and she’s taken a liking to your son.”

Tobia glanced around and met a dozen eyes staring at him. He sighed, his shoulders slumping as he stared at his scarred hands.

Obed reached over and teasingly smacked Tobia on the shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I hardly know—”

Obed rose shakily and swung his bowl into the air. “I propose that we invite Remy and his sister to return for a feast in three months—”

Jonas tugged on Obed’s legging. “Stop! You can’t do that. It’s rude to ask them to travel here again so soon. They’ve already done so much.”

Obed swayed, his voice slurring. “You’re right!” He glanced at Tobia. “Stand up, son.”

Tobia swallowed back a bitter taste rising in his throat and stood beside Obed.

Obed flopped his arm around Tobia and gazed into his son’s eyes. “She’s beautiful?” he asked, his breath pungent.

Tobia clenched his jaw and looked down as the men around him chuckled and his little sister giggled. “Yes, and kind. And I’d like to see—”

“Then the next full moon, we’ll visit Remy’s village! As your father, I should meet the family.” He nudged Tobia in the chest. “That’ll give you cause to rebuild your strength.” He refilled Remy’s bowl.

Remy rose and saluted Obed, sloshing the mead. “I look forward to that day. The preparations shall begin the moment I get home.” He beamed at Tobia. “Kamila will rejoice.”

Remy’s men stood and cheered, pounding their spears.

Jonas climbed to her feet, gripping Tobia’s shoulder. Her eyes locked onto her son.

His heart tearing in pain, Tobia clenched his hands at his sides and forced a smile.

~~~

Eoban shrugged. “Whatever makes you happy, Jonas. I’ll do my best.” A dead weight settled in his gut as he watched her hurry back to her dwelling in the bright light of a new day.

Heading home, Obed strolled by, glanced in Eoban’s direction, and changed trajectory, intercepting his friend.

A flock of geese flew overhead in perfect formation, honking as they went.

Eoban exhaled, threw back his shoulders, and mentally prepared himself. He muttered under his breath. “Should’ve gone hunting.” He acknowledged Obed’s nod with a nod of his own.

“What did Jonas want?”

“She wants me to go with you to Remy’s village.”

His eyes still bloodshot from the previous night’s revelry, Obed’s jaw clenched as he flashed a glance at Jonas hanging fish on a line. “Why?”

“You know Jonas. She worries.”

“She thinks I’ll get lost or captured?”

Eoban rubbed his neck and wished he could fly away with the geese. “I think she’s worried about Tobia, and that—”

“His father will push him into something he’s not ready for?”

Eoban held his tongue in check.

Obed’s eyes traveled to the hills where dots of black and white sheep grazed and stick-like boys played on the grass. “In that case, I’ll take Onia with me. Perhaps I can be trusted with one of my sons.”

Two emaciated dogs quarreled over a bone, creating a racket.

Eoban frowned and raised his voice. “Listen, Obed. Jonas loves you. She worried the whole time you were a prisoner. She’s a mother too, and she can’t divide her emotions up into reasonable parts. She’s been afraid for so long, it’s become a way of life. Don’t be angry that she wants an extra man to help out in case there’s trouble.” He shrugged. “There could be trouble.”

“Barak isn’t coming?”

“No sane man would ask Milkan to let him go.”

With a snort, Obed nudged Eoban. “You’re right. I’m being unreasonable.”

Eoban dropped his gaze. “Truth is…you and Tobia may behave yourselves on this trip…but I don’t know about Remy.”

Obed scowled. “Why? He’s an exceptional fighter and a strong leader.”

“Yes, but he’s a terrible singer.” Eoban whapped Obed on the back and called over his shoulder as he strolled away. “It’ll be up to you to lead the chant during the wedding ceremony.”

~~~

Tobia woke early on the morning of their departure and forced down a breakfast of roasted fish, rice, and toasted grains mixed with fruit and nuts.

Onia stood near, shuffling from foot to foot.

Tobia swallowed his last bite and wiped his mouth.

“What’s wrong with you? Aren’t you going to eat?”

Onia shook his head, one hand gripping his lean belly. “I can’t.” He glanced toward the hills. “When are we going to start?”

With a bulging bag slung over his shoulder, Obed marched toward them.

Tobia wiped his hands and stood, willing himself strength he did not feel. The thought of Obed meeting Kamila turned his legs to water. One sidelong wink and Kamila would know what his father really thought of him.

Grim-faced, Jonas paced close at Obed’s side.

“We’ll leave soon enough.”

Tobia dropped his tone to a whisper. “You’ll soon wish you were home again.”

Onia frowned and stepped aside.

Obed stopped beside his brother and nodded at the crumb-strewn tray. “You’ll get a stomach ache walking off all that food.”

Jonas squeezed her husband’s arm and peered at her son. “He’s young. He could eat a whole hog and then run till the sun sets.” She glanced from Onia to Tobia. “You’re ready?”

Onia’s legs jiggled in the anxious waiting.

Obed frowned. “Calm down. You’ll wear yourself out before you even leave.”

From the far side of the village, Eoban hustled forward. As he neared, the glint in his eye shone brighter. “Everyone ready?” He jutted his chin at Obed’s bulky bag. “What’ve you got there?”

“Just a few items to trade, if they’re interested.” Obed nudged Onia. “Get that other sack I filled.”

A frown deepened between Jonas’s brows. “I thought this was just a friendly visit?”

“Trade is friendly.” Obed pulled her close, kissed her cheek, and whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.” He glanced up as Onia jogged forward with the second, larger bag. “Come on; the sun won’t wait, and Remy will think we’ve forgotten our promise.”

Eoban snorted. “Once he sees those bags and Tobia’s smiling face, he’ll forgive any delay.”

All eyes turned to Tobia.

Forcing a grin, Tobia nodded and pointed to the hills. “Let’s go.”

Eoban tapped Onia on the shoulder. “Get in front. Might as well learn how to lead when you don’t know where you’re going. I do it all the time.”

Jonas stared at Tobia, their gazes joined in understanding. She kissed his cheek and let him go.

Tobia stepped forward, glancing back at Obed’s bulging sack, feeling the weight of it on his shoulder. “We’ll take a direct path this time and perhaps we won’t lose anyone.”

~~~

Tobia saw Kamila first. Though the journey had been swift and direct, the return to a site associated with so many painful memories wearied him. Only her smile encouraged his lagging feet the last steps.

Remy sprinted to him, his arms wide in welcome. The whole village surrounded the visitors, grins on every face.

Thrusting his bag into Eoban’s arms, Obed jogged forward and gripped Remy’s hand. “Well met!” He surveyed the crowd and stopped at Kamila who stood at Remy’s side. “This must be the beauty everyone told me about!”

Standing next to Eoban and watching the scene, Tobia clenched his jaw.

Eoban pressed the young man’s shoulder. “Obed is just showing off. Don’t get impatient.”
They waited and watched.

As Obed chatted with Remy, Kamila peered around his shoulder. She met Tobia’s gaze.

A flush worked over Tobia, embarrassment fighting with irritation. He marched to Obed’s side and nodded to Remy first. “Good to see you again.”

Remy laughed and pulled him into a bear hug. “Well met indeed!” He turned to the watching crowd. “Let the feasting begin!”

Tobia’s attention shifted to Kamila, and their eyes met.

Twisting her hands, she blushed and glanced at the villagers. Everyone scurried to attend to food-laden tables and a dressed goat roasting over an open fire pit.

Tobia shuffled in place and bit his lip.

Eoban shoved Onia toward the tables. “Go help out and get me a snack. I’m famished.” He strode to Tobia, nodded at Kamila, and grinned. “You two take a walk somewhere. Find out if there are any enemies ready to attack.”

Kamila’s eyes widened.

Tobia snorted and took Kamila’s hand. “We better go before my father and Remy take notice and—”

Kamila gripped his hand, and they darted into the woods.

~~~

Tobia’s spirits rose to new heights and his full stomach settled in contentment as a full moon rose in the night sky. Kamila grinned at him with her usual confident composure, and Obed had not touched his trade goods.

After helping the women clear the dishes and trays away, Kamila returned and perched on a log next to Tobia. She pointed to three new huts on the west side of the village. “Remy and the men built homes for our new elders. They’ve earned their keep in a hundred ways since they came, watching the children, nursing the sick, assisting new mothers.”

Tobia shook his head in wonder. “I’d never have thought they had it in them to be helpful. They were so anxious and troublesome on the journey.” He glanced at her. “I felt terrible leaving here…just dropping them into your hands for safekeeping.”

Kamila tilted her head, her dark eyes sparkling in the firelight. “You’ve had troubles of your own, Tobia. Too many troubles for one so young.”

Sudden tears startled Tobia. How could she see into his heavy heart and understand his grief? He swallowed and took a firm grip on his emotions. “I’m not young…not really. My mother said I grew old the day my father died.”

Reaching out, Kamila placed her hand over Tobia’s. “I lost my parents at a young age, too. I understand.” She nodded at Remy, who laughed at something Obed said. “He’s been father, mother, as well as brother ever since they died.”

Tobia laced his fingers into Kamila’s. “I’m sorry. I forget that others have lost more than—”

Sliding off the log and sitting next to Tobia, Kamila leaned in. “It’s not like that. There’s no comparison. We all grieve our losses and endure painful trials. But helping others makes us less lonely along the way.”

“Can I help you, Kamila?”

A smile twitched on her lips. “I think so—”

A shout turned their heads.

Onia stood hunched with both trade sacks over his shoulders.

Obed nudged his youngest forward while glancing at Remy. “See what I’ve brought, my friend.” He turned and waved the crowd closer. “Come and see if there’s anything you’d like to trade for. My clan wants to embrace you all as brothers and sisters. Let’s exchange goods.”

Tobia dropped his head to his chest. “By the stars. He’s becoming more like Eoban every day.”

Eoban stepped up and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “I was never so obvious.”

With a shrug, Kamila laughed. “He’s happy. Making deals and showing off his wares is like medicine to a man. Besides, trade with the wider world will do us no harm. And it’s a natural preparation for the wedding exchange.”

Cold fear swept over Tobia. He glanced at Kamila’s serene face. How does she do it?

Obed’s face glowed, reflecting of the firelight, and Remy laughed uproariously at a joke Onia cracked. Obed clapped Onia on the shoulder and never once looked at Tobia.

Kamila peered through the dim light. “You don’t look well.” She stood and tugged Tobia’s hand. “You need a different kind of medicine.”

Glancing at Eoban, Tobia’s heart jumped to his throat as he climbed to his feet.

Eoban nodded to an empty hut on the edge of the village. “A little hug won’t hurt. Mind you, I said a little hug. Go on. Take your time. I’ll make sure they stay occupied.”

Stepping into the shadows, Kamila grinned and beckoned Tobia to follow.

Tobia halted and glanced from his father and the villagers clustered together, to Eoban who crossed his arms and turned away, to Kamila who waited with one inviting hand extended. Warmth spread over his body, and thunder, like an impending storm, roared in his ears. He gripped Kamila’s hand.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~Rumi

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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 Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

Zuri stood on the hilltop and inhaled a deep breath of air, then exhaled slowly. Exhilaration spread through his limbs. Happiness? Joy? Ecstasy? He couldn’t define the emotions soaring like twittering birds through his body. He peered at his tanned, slender fingers. Though they weren’t nearly as strong without the mechanical gloves, their sensitivity sent shivers of delight to his brain. He wiggled his toes and shrugged. Not much joy there. Couldn’t have everything.

Kelesta sauntered close and wrapped her arm around his waist. “The boy is home now, reunited with his papa, so why don’t we do something interesting?”

Peering down at the petite human form, beguiling but deceptive, an image of his previous mate passed through his mind. Jeni used to ask innocent questions when she wanted something. Zuri narrowed his eyes, focusing his lenses. Peering through the human façade, he stared right into the Bhuaci essence.

Kelesta flared and swung away. “If you’re going to take x-rays…you should ask permission first.”

A hot blush worked up into his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s an Ingot defense mechanism.”

“You’re afraid of me?” Kelesta slapped her hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, her eyes unnaturally wide.

“Not afraid…just—” He turned away from Ishtar’s village and stomped down the hill. “After Jeni chose another, I always wonder what she wanted from me in the first place.”

Practically dancing alongside, Kelesta flung her arms out wide like a butterfly, each nimble foot bouncing from one spot to the next. “She’s the one who wanted you to go primitive, right?”

“She said she wanted me to experience life without all the mechanical hindrances. Talked a lot about freedom and unique personal expression.”

“So you do it, and she dumps you?” Kelesta shook her head. “Some beings are brutally cruel.” She glanced aside. “But you’re left rather naked, aren’t you?”

Slipping his datapad from his arm holster, Zuri tapped the keypad. “Turns out, she was doing research. She wanted to gain a position at the Ingoti Magisterium Laboratory. Quite a leap for a fourth tier.”

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

Zuri frowned as he scanned the area. “No. Her mother was actually a reject that slipped through the system but managed to make good by inventing a better detector so other rejects would be caught at an earlier stage.” He pointed north. “Chai is that way.”

Her mouth hanging open, Kelesta stood frozen a moment before she leapt ahead and grabbed Zuri’s arm. “But then she’d be killing others like herself…the ones who might prove the system wrong!”

Zuri nodded. “That’s why I found her fascinating.” Turning, he stomped northward.

Kelesta crossed her arms high on her chest and scowled as she marched at Zuri’s side. “But you still liked her?”

“Not in the least. Fascination is a different experience altogether.” He slapped an insect on his neck and wrinkled his nose. “Though I do enjoy the myriad of skin sensations and the exhilaration of freedom from certain mechanical bio-ware, I must admit, coverage had definite advantages. ”He held a dead wasp by the wing. “Stings hurt.”

Kelesta stopped short. “So why did you stay with her?”

Halting, Zuri took another scan of the area. “Choose her as a mate, you mean?” He glanced at the flat horizon. “You don’t understand Ingoti culture. Since we are conceived and developed in laboratories, we don’t consider relationships to be anything more than temporary arrangements for emotional, psychological, and physical pleasure.” He snorted. “It’s not like I needed her. Or she needed me. Except…as a test specimen for her lab experiment.”

“You used each other?” Kelesta swallowed and started forward, her gaze sweeping the ground.

Zuri shook his head and paced after her. “Yes. And I don’t see why you’re upset.” He gripped her arm, coming to a standstill. “You’re using me right now.”

Kelesta jerked her arm away, fury flooding her glinting eyes. “How dare you!”

Zuri lifted his arms to the sky beseechingly. “May the Magisterium send me home this very day if I’m wrong. But—” he peered down and zeroed in on Kelesta. “But aren’t you using me to get to Chai? Isn’t that what Ungle asked you to do?”

A hawk soared overhead, and Kelesta followed it with her eyes. “Originally, yes. But I told Sienna the truth. I told everyone the truth. I was being used to get information because I was desperate to protect my people.”

Zuri glanced at his datapad and pointed. “Chai isn’t far.” He shrugged. “When I scanned you, I saw your heightened energy levels. You’re hiding something.”

Kelesta dropped her head onto her chest and closed her eyes. “You’re right.” She peered up and met his gaze. “Even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” She sniffed and tapped his naked hand. “Even without all your filters, I wonder if you can ever really love anyone.” She started forward. “Come on! Let’s go study a man possessed by demons.”

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

Sitting on a rock ledge, Sterling glanced at the Cresta beside him and slapped his forehead. “If I’d known you were so emotional, I would’ve taken the Ingot. He may have a fascination with children, but at least he can hold himself together at a family reunion.”

Wringing his tentacles in his lap, Ark felt like a chastened pod. “I just didn’t think he had it in him…to be so repentant.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It takes courage to ask for forgiveness.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ark lumbered to his booted feet, a flash of enlightenment clearing his weary brain. “That may be quite significant!” Waddling down the stony path, he sniffed the air. “There’s water near, and I’m desperate for a dunk.” He peered at Sterling. “I believe a swim would do us both good.”

“Luxonians hardly need—”

A sudden strong wind swirled around them, choking the air with thick dust.

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

When the air cleared, the two stood frozen, covered in dirt, appearing like mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sterling cleared his throat and wiped grime from his eyes. “Where’s that pool you mentioned?”

~~~

Sterling dropped the second boot and watched Ark lumber into a murky green pool surrounded by tall boulders and flimsy grass stems. He wiped his slimy hands on his tunic and stared at the water. I couldn’t possibly. It’s much too disgusting. Besides, I can just as easily—

“Hurry up! It’s glorious. Don’t be frightened of innocent liquids.” Ark splashed a tentacle as he swished from one end of the pond to the other, flipping like an Ingoti eel at each turn.

Thinks I lack courage—eh? Blast him! Taking short, determined breaths, Sterling tiptoed into the water. He winced at the slimy green surface and wrinkled his nose. “Don’t take offense if I just bathe my toes.” He fingered his long tunic and robe. “I’m hardly dressed for full immersion.”

“Toss your robe next to my boots and slip in!” Ark giggled, watching Sterling’s every move. “You’ll regret being a coward when I tell Teal that you stayed on the edge like a frightened—”

“Oh, shut up!” Sterling flung his robe aside, pinched his nose, and dove into the pond.

Ark rose, his tentacles on his thick middle, his eyes wide, watching bubbles surface.

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

The pond stilled, the surface smoothing to reflect the sky.

Ark took a step and leaned forward, anxiety riding like ridges over his skin.

Sterling broke the surface, laughing. Genuine amusement cascaded throughout his whole body. He stared at Ark’s open mouth. “I saw everything! You were worried about me, poor dear.”

Falling backward and paddling with his arms, Ark maneuvered to the other side. “Was not.”

Sterling stood and wagged a wet finger at Ark, drops of water cascading before him. “Oh, please. For all your talk of courage and cowards, you certainly refrain from admitting an honest weakness.”

Ark banked against the sandy shore and sat up. “What weakness?”

Sloshing out of the pond, water plants trailing behind, Sterling padded to a smooth boulder. He sat down, letting the water drip onto the sand. “I’m not nearly as obtuse as you think me, Cresta.”

Ark leaned back and folded his tentacles over his ample stomach. “Tell me.”

“You think that Ishtar’s strength lies in his ability to humble himself.” Sterling shrugged. “From Teal’s early reports, there does seem to be a pattern.”

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

Sterling clasped his hands together and stared at a flock of birds soaring across the sky. “When Ishtar accepted Eoban’s assistance, he broke free from his father’s stranglehold. When he accepted Pele’s witness, he found the strength to fight the giants.”

Ark nodded. He glanced at the whirl of birds and frowned.

“But when his pride was hurt, and he accepted the glory of wealth and a woman who offered an escape from shame, he fell into madness.”

The birds flew away, becoming mere specks in an endless horizon.

Ark rose and shook himself free of pond plants. “I admire your perception.” He waddled closer and crouched by his boots. Snatching them up, he padded to Sterling. “But that’s not what I meant by courage.”

Sterling stared at the offered boots, pursing his lips, disgust rising from his middle. “What then?”

“When Ishtar met Matalah, he met a new father figure. He could’ve rejected the very idea. After what he’d been through, I wouldn’t have blamed him.” He dropped the boots at Sterling’s feet. “But he accepted Matalah’s kindness and, as we’ve seen, returned to his own sons.” Lifting one of his four-toed feet, Ark balanced himself by gripping Sterling’s shoulder. “It takes great courage to trust again…to risk caring. To allow oneself to be helped…to love and be loved.”

Lifting his gaze, Sterling met Ark’s golden eyes. He swallowed. “By the Divide, you’ve got me beat, Cresta.”

~~~

Teal crouched low in the tall grass and swore under his breath. He fixed his gaze on Obed as he stumbled at the end of a long line of prisoners. Teal turned to Sienna, who crouched next to him and pointed north. “Go and follow Eoban’s trail. See if he found the child and made it home.”

Sienna glanced from the ragged throng of slaves to the marching warriors and beyond to the stalwart figure leading the assembly. She hissed. “I don’t remember pledging obedience to you.”

“Remember your promise to Sterling?” He peered into her eyes. “You told him that you’d do whatever it took to become the best healer Lux has ever known.”

“To do that, I need to stay close to Chai—not chase after a fool who thinks he can save his people through daring exploits.”

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

“All right, maybe he is—sometimes. But he’s also brave and resilient. And he knows a thing or two about dealing with injuries and healing emotional wounds. There is a great deal you could learn from him.”

“What I need to learn, only Chai can teach me.”

His colors flaring, Teal bit off his words. “How to succumb to evil?”

“How evil holds a person in its grip.” Sienna shook her head. “Luxonians were once very sheltered. You know what exposure to the outer world has cost us. We’re losing our traditions, our values, our political framework—even our fertility.”

Teal dropped his gaze.

Clasping his hand, Sienna shifted closer. “You’re one of the last of the old guard, a Luxonian with ambition but without guile. You’re so honest, I don’t think you’re capable of seeing Chai and the power that rules him for what they really are.”

“But you can?”

“Let’s just say that I’m more ambitious than you.”

Teal shook his head. “I’m not about to let you get one step closer to that monster. Even Sterling fears the power it wields.”

Sienna sucked in a deep breath. “Have it your way.” She nodded decisively. “Someone should check on Eoban, and someone must keep an eye on Chai.”

Relief surged through Teal’s body, surprising him. He stood and pointed south. “Eoban knows his way around. He probably brought the boy home already. Start at the grassland village and work backward if you have to. If they’re there, stay and wait for me.”

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

Teal turned and faced Chai. He took two paces before searing pain crashed into his skull and blackness took him.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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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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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

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 grinned.

~~~

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.

He ran faster.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter —Chapter Thirty-Five

—Grassland—

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?”

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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