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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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Four

Woodland and Hills

Not For Everyone

Amin sat on the edge of a large, crumbling log and bathed a red scratch on his arm with a wet leaf. He tried to organize his thoughts. A faint noise disturbed his concentration. He tilted his head. The sound of feet thrashing through the woods sent a chill over his arms. His mouth dropped open, and his heart began to pound.

Either a troop of men or a family of wild bears headed in his direction.

A long, wailing screech jerked Amin to his feet, his gaze darting all around.

Soaring low over his head, an owl forced him into a crouch.

Panting, he scurried behind a tree.

Heavy breathing and a grunt drew closer.

Terror ripped through Amin as he sprang to his feet and sprinted away.

Bouncing off a solid body, Amin fell backward and knocked the air out of his chest. Choking, he sat up and considered the large figure before him. He blinked.

A large disheveled man peered down, a wide grin spreading across his face. “Amin?”

“Luge?”

“So we meet again, faithful son!” Luge hefted Amin back onto his feet. His smile turned to a puzzled frown. “But why are you so far from home? This is no place to hunt.” He glanced around. “Have they started the migration yet?”

Amin swallowed. “N-no. I mean, yes. They’re preparing, but Lydia wanted to wait for you.”

A tall, thin but well-muscled man near Amin’s age stepped closer and stared through wide gray eyes.

Luge tousled the boy’s hair. “Here is my son!” He peered at the boy, his face aglow with happiness. “Lufti, this is Amin, the boy I told you about.” He waved his hands in emphasis. “It’s because of him that I found you.”

Amin blinked. “You found your son? But how—?”

Luge leaned forward as if sharing a secret, his grin wider than ever. “I stole him back!”

A spark of hope ignited in Amin’s chest. “And my father?” He peered at Luge’s men, staring at their impassive faces. “Barak? Obed…Eoban?”

“Brave men, they are.” Luge laid a firm hand on Amin’s shoulder. “But I never saw your father.” He glanced at his son. “It wasn’t safe for us to linger. Still” —he shrugged— “I trust your friends will return with him soon.” With a frown, he waved an open hand. “But why are you here?”

As if he had swallowed a rock, Amin’s throat closed tight. He tried to clear it. “I-I angered your brother…and he sent me away.”

Luge’s eyes narrowed. “Rueben sent you into the wilderness—unprotected?” His jaw hardened. “What happened to my wife? Had she no say?”

“Lydia was busy preparing for the move.”

“What was Rueben doing?”

Amin bit his lip and stared at the ground.

“Why was he angry with you?”

Amin shrugged. “I spoke out of turn…Lydia was already doing so much…” He sighed.

Luge’s eyes narrowed. “I understand.” He turned to his men. “We need to hurry.”

Amin stepped in his way. “But they’ve left by now…on their migration.”

“I know where they’re going.” He glanced at his son. “Lufti, you keep Amin company at the end of the line.” He pointed ahead. “The men and I have much to discuss.”

Nausea wormed into Amin’s stomach as they turned down a well-worn path, away from the mountains.

The two youths marched through the humid forest in silence as the sun climbed to its peak and began its descent. Finally, Lufti nudged Amin and pointed to a snake dangling from a high branch.

Amin veered to the side, his gaze fixed on the snake.

Lufti shrugged. “It’s not poisonous.”

Amin shuddered. “But it’s big enough to strangle me in my sleep.”

Lufti chuckled. “Now I won’t rest tonight.”

Glancing out of the corner of his eyes, Amin studied his companion. “It must’ve been terrible—being captured and made a slave.”

Lufti nodded. He glanced at the men, talking up ahead. “But it’s over now.” He stepped over a fallen log. “My father told me about you and your search for your father. You’re very brave.”

Choking, Amin staggered before he righted himself. “I’m not brave…just desperate.” He glanced aside. “But you…living in a city among palaces and temples! You must have incredible stories to tell.”

A soft smile wafted over Lufti’s face. “I saw some very beautiful people and places—” His smile vanished, and he closed his eyes. “But terrible things too.”

Amin nodded, swallowing back a gnawing fear.

~~~

Luge jerked awake from a nightmare of temple gods in the shapes of men and animals clawing at his chest. He scrambled to his feet in the early morning light, blinked, and gained his bearings.

The sun barely crested the horizon, but the rays sent golden beams through the woods, highlighting dew- speckled spider webs and emerald leaves.

Lufti and the other men rose and gathered their things.

Groaning, Amin stretched and fell in line behind the men, with Lufti at his side.

After heading to the front, Luge rubbed his belly and glanced back. “We’ll eat when we meet up with the clan.” An anxious sickness hurried his steps. In silence, he began the final march home.

Amin peered at Lufti and tapped his arm. “How does he know where to go? They could’ve stopped anywhere.”

Lufti shook his head. “They have a set arrangement about where they go each season.” He peered around. “It would never do to trespass over another clan’s migration path.”

“Ah.” Amin sighed.

By late morning, Luge slowed at the sound of voices ahead. Stopping, he held up his hand in warning. “I want to go alone and see what is happening.”

Lufti and Amin exchanged glances.

Luge frowned. “I fear my brother rules with a heavy hand while I’m gone. I’ll see for myself.”

After pacing ahead, Luge stopped and crouched low. His eyes narrowed as he parted the thick foliage.

In the shade of a temporary shelter, Rueben reclined on a soft pallet while his wife bustled about, offering food and drink, snatching at bits as she did so.

Lydia trudged back and forth across the compound, with her children in tow, clutching a large bundle. The rest of the clan set up shelters and arranged cooking materials.

One man cleared a space for a central fire pit.

A hot flush working up his face, Luge charged from the hedge and marched to his brother, his jaw clenching too tight for words.

Lydia glanced over and gasped. She dropped the blankets in the dirt.

The two children called, writhing in joy, and scampered toward him, their arms outstretched.

Without a word, Luge sidestepped his wife and children and gripped Rueben by the collar. He lifted him off his pallet and forced him to stagger backward until his back slammed against a large tree. Luge pinned his brother against the bark with a tight grip.

Ulla screamed, throwing her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide in terror.

Racing forward, Lydia ran to her husband’s side and tugged on his arms. “Luge? What’re you doing?”

Luge peered at her, his throat tight, and his arms shaking. “I’m helping my brother get to work!”

Amin appeared at his side along with Lufti.

Lufti laid his hand on his mother’s shoulder. “Mother.”

Lydia turned and met Lufti’s gaze. She froze. Then her eyes grew round as her hands rose to caress his face, her lips trembling. “My son?”

Lufti wrapped his arms around his mother and hugged her tight, murmuring over her shoulder, his eyes filling with tears. “Father brought me home.”

Luge dropped Rueben unceremoniously and joined the embrace of his wife and son, the entire village watching, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

Out of the corner of his eye, Luge saw Rueben scamper aside, practically crawling on all fours. He struck out and grabbed Rueben again and shook him.

Whimpering in terror, Rueben reached for his wife.

Ulla scrambled forward and clung to her husband. “He’s a good man, Luge! He’s been ill.” She glanced around at all the wary faces. “You know the truth of it! He suffers so, and no one helps him.”

Amin backed away.

Focusing her gaze, Ulla pointed at Amin. “There’s that treacherous child. He dared to challenge Rueben, making accusations, stirring up trouble.” She glanced at Lydia. “Some people will trust a fool and leave an honest man to—”

Darting from under Lufti’s arm, Lydia charged between Ulla and Amin. “How dare you?” She ran to Amin, gripped his arm, and pulled him forward. “He helped me more than anyone else! And he never once complained.” She appealed to her husband. “He told me that you went to look for Lufti, but I had no hope left. I doubted…” Her gaze fell on her son, and she swallowed a sob before returning to her husband. “But he did not doubt. He acted like another son, caring for me as he did.”

Stiff and hunch-shouldered, Amin stared at the ground, his face flushing.

Burning rage erupted from Luge as he clasped Rueben by the shoulders and thrust him to the ground. He shook his fist at Ulla. “If you interfere again, I’ll throw you both out of this village!”

Rueben cowered, and Ulla fell to her knees wailing.

Turning, Luge faced his people, his arms spread wide. “My people! I’ve come home, and I bring back our own. I found my son who was stolen from us, and I bring back every man who served me.” He swept his gaze over the assembly, avoiding the figure of his brother huddled at his feet. “I’ve traveled to distant lands and seen great and terrible things.”

The clan shuffled closer, their eyes flittering between Luge, Lufti, and Rueben.

Luge lifted one arm. “How is it that no man here protected my wife or this boy?” He pointed at Amin.

Gazes shifted and dropped to the ground.

Lydia wrapped her arms around her husband. “Please, Luge! Don’t blame them.” She dropped her head on his chest and closed her eyes. “Don’t blame anyone. It’s over now.”

Smoothing back Lydia’s hair, Luge peered into her eyes and the fiery knot in his stomach settled into a rough sea. He wrapped his arms protectively around her. “You’re right.” He glanced aside and nodded to Lufti. “It’s over now. We have a reason to celebrate and stories to tell.”

Luge and his family stepped around the cowering figures of Rueben and his wife and entered the joy of their reunited village.

~~~

Amin stepped back and folded his arms over his chest. He blinked away tears. The strain in his throat made it difficult to get out his words, even in a whisper. “Not for everyone.”

“Loyalty is a decision, a resolution of the soul.” ~Pascal Mercier

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)