OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirteen

—Desert—

Forever in Your Debt

Ishtar stared at the bleating herd of sheep and sighed. “Move on, you stupid—” He glanced aside. Not another soul on the horizon. Three distant tents, green fields, and plenty of rocks.

He set his jaw. “Not your fault.” A memory flashed through his mind. His warriors lined up at his command as they faced the giants from the north…he and his men hunting for game…his men lounging around a sizzling fire, laughing, teasing, eating…” He closed his mind.

No!

Still, memories tore through his brain, searing all other thoughts.

He could feel his sweaty body steaming in passion as he and Haruz embraced on their first night together…the birth of his son with his head full of black hair…the ore-empty earth slipping through his fingers…the glinting knife in Haruz’s hand—

He screamed. “Noooo!”

The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.

His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.

Matalah stepped outside his tent and glanced up, shading his eyes from the sun.

Ishtar unclenched his hands and sucked in deep, calming breaths. He dropped his voice to a coaxing whisper. “Come, sheep. Green pastures…just ahead.”

A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.

Running his fingers along its back, Ishtar surveyed the landscape. All lay quiet. No Matalah. No memories. For the moment.

He struck the ground with his staff and started climbing. The sheep trailed along behind.

~~~

Ishtar stopped for a rest and stretched across a level spot. He opened his satchel, and slowly chewed his bread and cheese. Watching the rosy sunset deepen to black night, he battled every memory of his father. Neb in battle, jabbing a man with his spear…Neb sneering at Haruz, shoving her into a corner with an angry retort…Neb grasping Ishtar’s knife and plunging it deep into his own breast.

Ishtar choked, his head dropped to his chest, and his bread crumbled in his fisted hand.

A lamb rose and sauntered near, butting its head into his arms.

Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep to greener pastures as days passed uncounted. The tents moved with them. He ate his allotment of bread and cheese and sipped at the single stream that gave life to this barren land. His tears joined the stream.

One hot day, two lambs frisked in innocent joy and bumped into each other. Their collision sent them careening backward where they sat down hard.

Ishtar laughed. “You are like Caleb and Amin—children at play with no notion of—” A burning flush worked up his cheeks.

Fresh tears flowed.

~~~

Ishtar stood on the top of a hill and glanced at an approaching figure. He swallowed back a sour taste and tried to ignore a disconcerting tightening in his stomach.

The eldest son of Matalah wound his way toward him. Ishtar tipped his head in courtesy. “Abdul.”

“Ishtar.” Abdul did not incline his head but, instead, folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve been watching you.”

Ishtar waited. He squinted in the bright light, watching the sheep, wary.

“You know your way in the world.” Abdul turned his focused gaze to the east. “Tending animals is hardly a fitting occupation for a man of your skill and intelligence.”

Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.

“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to insult you, but he doesn’t understand the greater world. He travels but never goes anywhere.” A grin quirked on Abdul’s lips. “I’m a more fortunate man.”

“Fortune can be deceiving.”

A twinkle sparkled in Abdul’s eyes. “I’ve seen glorious horizons. There is a great deal to desire in this world.”

Swallowing, Ishtar shifted. He glanced at the three tents at the bottom of the hill.

“My family served you well in your hour of need. Perhaps you could render us assistance in return.” His broad smile flashed and disappeared.

A lamb butted Ishtar’s hand. He stroked its soft head.

“Of course, this is just between us.”

Ishtar glanced at Abdul. Their eyes met and fought for supremacy. Neb’s gaze glowed through Abdul’s eyes. Ishtar stiffened.

“Accidents happen. You understand.” Without another word, Abdul turned and strolled down the hill, his garments billowing in the stiff breeze.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep back to the Bedouin’s camp, the cool evening air tingling over his arms. After washing at the well and nodding to the brothers around the fire, he made his way to the central tent.

Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.

Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.

Matalah’s eyes lit up with an inner fire. “Ah, my adopted son. Come, sit, and enjoy a well-earned rest.”

Ishtar offered a deep bow and sat by the old man. He leaned back on a firm pillow and stared at the array of food. “You are ever a kind host.” Ishtar clasped his hands in his lap and looked down. “I was never so good to my guests…not even to my own family.”

Matalah pressed his hand over Ishtar’s. “Kindness is a gift, given to me, which I pass on to you.” He smiled and met Ishtar’s gaze. “Share it well.” His smile vanished, replaced by a shadow of doubt.

As they ate, Ishtar peered out of the corner of his eyes at his host’s worried face. His stomach clenched even as the good food nourished his exhausted body.

When they leaned back and sipped wine, Ishtar wrapped his fingers around the vessel and lifted his eyes from its depths to Matalah. “My friend—for so I dare call you— it’s clear that something weighs heavy on your mind. If there is anything I can do—”

“I thank you, Ishtar. You’ve become like a son, though I hope not like some sons I must claim, though I’d rather not.”

A murmured conversation passed outside the tent flap, and Ishtar glanced over. The voices faded into the evening.

Matalah dropped his tone and leaned forward, tapping Ishtar’s knee. “You’re a more honest man, despite your troubled past, than my sons who, though they have been raised with love and security, are little less than cheats and thieves.”

Ishtar sat up. “I’m here to listen…though I may know your story in part.”

“My sons plan to gather men and take by force what would have been theirs if they had but waited for the proper time. I am not yet dead, but they wish me in the ground.”

Ishtar shook his head. “Why? They are free men in charge of a prosperous territory.”

“They wish to acquire more land and grow rich and mighty.” He spat to the side. “It is no use telling them that a man’s wealth grows cold and more heartless over time.”

“They’re willing to battle for more territory?”

“It’s what they look forward to the most.” He gulped the last of his wine and placed the cup aside. “My two eldest, Abdul and Wasim, asked permission to scout out the weakest tribes in the area, gather a strong force, and put our friends and neighbors to flight. Once the land is abandoned, they’ll claim the herds and servants for their own.”

Like a man witnessing before God, Matalah waved his hand high. “It is an evil plan, which under any circumstances would be difficult, but as they have little experience in battle, it’s preposterous. They received no permission from me.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar clenched his cup. “But they did not listen?”

“Worse. They convinced my third son, Assam, to join them, and they’re gathering such a force that it makes my blood boil. Every day they bring in strange men, insisting that I am too feeble to manage matters. They invent troubles that never existed.”

Rising, Ishtar paced before the old man. “Your sons can’t control what they are setting into motion.”

Matalah waved to the doorway. “I told them—no one would be left unscathed by their evil ambition.”

Ishtar stopped and stared at Matalah. “Such was my father. A curse he passed to me.”

A shadow wavered at the door.

Matalah frowned. “Come!” His youngest daughter scampered forward with a full carafe of wine. Matalah gestured toward Ishtar, but Ishtar refused with a soft smile. Sending the girl away, Matalah wrung his hands. “Everyone must endure the battle between good and evil.”

Kneeling before his friend, Ishtar peered into his eyes. “But you don’t deserve such a fate. You are innocent.”

Using Ishtar’s arm as a brace, Matalah rose and strode to the doorway. He stared at the starry sky. “Innocence does not protect us. It only offers alternatives.”

Standing aside with his hand on Matalah’s shoulder, Ishtar gazed upon the same sky. “I will do anything you ask. Such ambitious plans take time. Perhaps your God will intervene in some way we can’t yet see.

Matalah turned and stared into his eyes. “If you don’t side with them, they’ll turn on you.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You must leave—soon.”

Weaving around his friend, Ishtar crossed the room and turned at the doorway. “I’m not dead—thanks to your kindness. If it’s not disagreeable to you, I’ll stay a little longer. Let’s see what the future brings.”

Lacing his fingers together before his face, like a man in earnest prayer, a tremulous smile crossed Matalah’s face. “God sent you.” He peered at the twinkling sky. “My kindness has been repaid a hundred-fold.”

“Yet I am forever in your debt.” With a nod, Ishtar padded into the dark night.

~~~

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.”
– Unknown

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It Might Have Been

A wrong number. Not a scam. Just some innocent woman looking for her sister Pearl. Jason assured her that he wasn’t Pearl, hit the end button, and slid the phone across his desk. He dropped his head onto his hand and tried to concentrate.

Inventory. Yay!

Even mental sarcasm fell flat. He should be pumped. The holidays approached with days off for leisure time, sleeping in, parties with assorted junk food, and perhaps a chance to head out to the park for a little fun and games. The image of a woman clad in a tight winter sweater and black leggings danced in front of his eyes. Heat licked his body.

The phone chimed. Jason tapped his fingers. Answer? Not answer? Hardly a life or death decision. He tapped the green button and slapped the phone against his ear. “Dad?”

“Jas?”

Carol? Cold water doused the flames. Oh heck, anybody but his stepmother. He’d rather have a root canal. Not that she wasn’t a perfectly nice person. It’s just that with a root canal, you know what you’re getting into. With Carol, Russian roulette seemed tame. Besides, he hated it when anyone shortened his name. What? Two syllables asking too much? Ja-son. Oh, forget it.

“Hey, Carol. What’s up?”

“Jas, I don’t want to take up your time, so I won’t beat around the proverbial bush, but your dad’s not doing too well. He’s really struggling, and I just want to give you a heads up before you come visit.”

Very subtle. Okay. It had been a while. A few weeks. Jason rolled his eyes over to the wall calendar—the one his wife had bought for him. Landscapes with hymns scrolled over the top. Oh yeah. Something safe that would keep his mind on celestial matters. Instead of other things.

Pine trees and a little manger scene. Hmmm…that time already?

He leaned back and let his chair fall into the relaxed mode. His head tilted, he considered the state of his office ceiling.

“You caught me, Carol. It has been too long. Waaay too long. I need to get my bu—, I mean, I should get Dinah and the kids and head out your way. Christmas season and all.” He grimaced at the thought of driving through snow and ice into Wisconsin but then the possibility of escaping Dinah’s family…

Carol ran roughshod over his thoughts. “You know, your dad always said that nothing mattered as long as his kids were happy. He still knows who you are. He recognizes me. Most of the time. But if you wait…”

Jason’s feet hit the floor with a slap. “What do you mean? He didn’t have any trouble recognizing me or the kids last time we were there.”

“A year ago.”

Jason smacked his forehead. He leaned in, peered at the calendar, and squinted. Was it? “Hey, you know. You’re right. I need to talk with Dinah and set something in motion. I’ll call you back, okay?”

“You won’t forget, now, will you?”

The snarky tone mixed with anxiety roiled Jason’s stomach. “No. I won’t forget.”

Once home, Jason perched on a stool at the kitchen island and outlined a quick road trip. Dinah listened in empathetic understanding. Such a generous spirit. Of course. She visited her parents every month. Good woman that she was. He couldn’t go most of the time, despite the fact that they lived only twenty minutes away, because, well, you know. He had a hell of a honey-do list and getting older wasn’t a picnic; let me tell you. Hey, I need some me-time, too.

His mind wandered back to the woman he’d met at the park last week. Gorgeous. Funny. Didn’t quote scripture while they strolled along the path. She wore a ring. He wore a ring. But still…

Dinah rattled on. “It’s all settled then. Next weekend, we’ll leave early Friday and be back by Sunday night. I’m sure your dad will be pleased. He loves you, you know.” Her eyes lingered on his face like she was sending some kind of coded message.

Sheesh. Lay on the guilt with a trowel why don’t you?

All evening, images of the park woman meandered through Jason’s mind. In frustration, he cuddled up to his wife in bed, but she was already asleep. Or so she wants me to believe. Great. Now I got nothing but a lousy trip to look forward to. He yanked the blanket to his side of the bed, exposing his wife’s slumbering form to the cold night air. She probably doesn’t even notice. Martyrs never do.

Images of the park woman slithered through his mind. Her perfect form, flashing smile, the teasing glint in her eye. Then, out of nowhere, his dad appeared on the opposite side of a busy street. The old man tried to cross, but trucks and cars whizzed by in city traffic madness. The old man locked eyes with Jason, bewildered desperation peering from the depths. He waved and called, “Ja-son!”

Jason dropped the woman’s hand, his heart pounding. “Dad? Hey, don’t try to cross there. It’s crazy traffic. You’ll get—”

Dinah’s scream ripped through the air as she ran out from behind, shoving the park woman aside. She dashed across the street, stopping traffic like magic. She reached her father-in-law’s broken body. In true superwoman form, she carried the old man across the street, tears streaming from her disappointed, despairing eyes.

Her words shot Jason like bullets. “All yours.”

Suddenly another man, a shrewd well-dressed gent with clever eyes and high cheekbones stepped forward and swept everyone else away. He pointed toward a wide doorway. “If you please.”

Heat flickered through Jason’s body, but he shivered uncontrollably. “What’s this?”

“What you wanted.”

“Wanted?” Jason wrinkled his nose at a strange stink. “I never get what I want! Seems to me that I have to pay a pretty steep price for everything.”

The gentleman chuckled. “Think so? But it’s all free. Free will and all.”

Jason looked around for his father, his wife, his home, anything familiar and comforting. “But I wanted to see dad. I could’ve—”

Laughter rang in Jason’s ears. “The saddest words man ever penned, were the words…”

Jason bolted upright. Sweat beaded across his brow. He shivered. “Oh, God!”

Dinah murmured and rolled over. She reached out. “You okay, honey?”

The Sahara desert had filled Jason’s mouth. He couldn’t utter a word.

Dinah sat up and leaned in, her fingers stroking her husband’s arm. “Worried about your dad?” She cuddled closer, pulling the blanket around them both. “It’ll be okay. He’s a good man. He’s made his life and even if he doesn’t remember now, when he dies, he’ll know the truth. Besides, he’s not dead yet. You still have time.”

Jason hugged his wife, tears streaming down his face. The words, “It might have been…” rang in his ears.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”

Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.

“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”

Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”

Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark snorted.

With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.

Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”

Ark harrumphed.

“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”

Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”

“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”

“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”

Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”

Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.

Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.

Oh hell.“

~~~

Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” – Santosh Kalwar

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nine

—Amin’s Village—

You Meant Well

Amin stood in the center of the village with his hands on his hips and his mind reeling in fury. He squinted in the mid-day sun. If someone had told him that his father was living among nomads of the desert, he would have shrugged the information away. He had troubles of his own, and no one, especially not his father, could help him now.

Namah stopped in front of him. Her gaze surveyed his face, and she frowned. “Amin, may I speak with you?”

Clenching his hands at his sides, Amin turned abruptly and strode away.

With an intake of breath, Namah pattered after him, her feet slapping the dusty ground. “Amin! You know who I am and why I’m here. I’ve found a family—”

Amin halted and spun around, his whole body stiffening against the desire to strike. “Caleb is my family. I want no other.”

Namah panted, her face flushing and strands of loose hair falling into her face. “Jared and his wife, Lia, have agreed to adopt you. They’ll take—”

Amin’s rage burst from all constraints. “Take? Yes, they’ll take! Do you know how they treat us? Like dogs. They don’t care for us. They hate us.”

Namah shook her head, her eyes wide with wonder. “I just spoke with them this morning. Their parents are old, and they need help. Would it be so hard to assist—?”

“Who are you to give me away like a goat?” Amin growled deep in his throat. “You’re not even a member of this clan. You have no authority here. Leave me and my brother alone!” Jerking around, Amin sped toward the tree-lined stream. Clamping his arms over his chest, he stared at the foaming water as it crashed against rocks and gurgled through narrow channels.

Flapping footsteps stopped at his side.

Amin clenched his jaw tight against a scream.

Namah’s voice rose. “Like it or not, Amin, I do have a part to play in your life. Your father nearly murdered my daughter, but I have never blamed you or your brother. You’re victims of his madness as well.”

Amin turned slowly. “I’m not a victim! I take good care of Caleb, and we’re fine. We don’t need you. And we certainly won’t be enslaved by Jared and his wife.”

“But you’re living like animals!” Namah sucked in a deep breath and pressed her hands against her chest as if to alleviate a sudden pain. She breathed slowly, in and out, and straightened her shoulders. “What has Jared done so terribly wrong—?”

Smacking one hand against another, Amin stomped forward and glared into Namah’s eyes. “Jared hardly feeds his own father. He had him working out in the sun the other day until the old man collapsed. And Lia’s mother isn’t allowed to do anything without asking for permission first.” He swung his gaze to the village. “No one dares speak of it because Jared is a cruel man.” He swung around and faced the water again. “Even Caleb feels sorry for the old people. He wants me to free them from their misery.”

Namah padded around and faced Amin. “How could this be true and yet no one has warned me?”

“What happens to Caleb and me is of little consequence. Most of the clan wishes we were dead. They hate being reminded of my father’s disgrace.”

“But many of your people supported Ishtar.”

“They supported him when he made the clan rich. No one supports a man in exile.”

Clasping her hands over her mouth, tears swam in Namah’s eyes. “I only want to help.”

“By sending us to Jared, you’d send my little brother and me to misery and early death. For which of these expectations do you wish me to give you thanks?”

Namah backed up and plopped down on a log jutting into the water. “Am I so blind?” She shook her head and met Amin’s gaze. “I never thought to ask…you.”

Amin crossed his arms and glared.

A tear slipped down Namah’s face.

Scurrying up a tree, a squirrel waved its tail and clicked in warning. Two crows cawed and burst from the branches overhead.

Amin heaved a deep breath, his chest tight and painful.

Namah jerked to her feet, her eyes wide and anxiety wrinkling around them. “I should’ve asked Barak’s advice. He’ll be furious with me.”

Amin’s arms fell limply at his sides, his anger seeping away like the heat from a gray campfire. “Why do you care anyway? We’re nothing to you. Only a painful reminder.”

Namah turned to the bank and stared ahead. “A long time ago, almost a lifetime, I made a terrible choice. I regretted it—” She choked. “Aram forgave me.” She glanced back and peered at Amin. A bitter chuckle broke from her wobbling lips. “Everyone forgave me.” She wiped her face and stepped nearer. “I pity Ishtar. He fell, and no one cared to pick him up again.”

Amin dropped his gaze. A sharp pain lodged in his chest.

Namah laid her hand on his shoulder. “Though he’s gone into exile, I believe your father still cares for you.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “I do.”

Amin lifted his eyes. “Perhaps, if I speak with Barak, he’ll understand. Perhaps, he’ll think of a solution.”

One of Namah’s eyebrows rose. “You admit there is a problem?”

“I admit that Caleb needs more than just an angry older brother.”

A smile quivered on Namah’s lips. “First I must see Jared and his wife and rescind my agreement.”

“They’ll be furious.”

“Not as furious as Barak will be.”

A splutter of relief surged through Amin’s middle.

“Maybe you need my help?”

Namah patted his shoulder and grinned. “Caleb has a very astute brother.”

Amin shrugged and squinted through an upturned gaze. “I know you meant well.” He looked toward the mountains. “If my father still lives and learns of your kindness, he’ll be grateful.”

With a nod, Namah stepped away. “I’ll leave you for now, but we’ll meet again. In the meantime, keep your brother safe.”

Amin watched until Namah rounded a corner and was lost from sight. He scratched his jaw and glanced around, a dart of concern jabbing him. “Where is Caleb?”

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

“I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
– Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

Beyond Mortal Strength

Ishtar stumbled over the barren lands, sending stray pebbles skittering in all directions. He barely had the energy to lift his feet. Since there was no point in dying among the barren rocks, a life must be forged from the nothingness of his existence.

He traveled north over the great mountains. Ancient stories told of a great civilization that once built stone monuments to gods more powerful than any ever imagined. Rumors whispered that the inhabitants of a stone city knew the secret to immortal life and could help a man enter the world beyond in safety—and style—if he had the wealth to make it happen.

After ascending a steep rise, Ishtar crumpled to the ground in an exhausted heap while the sun beat upon his bare, blistered skin.

Pain woke him. He crawled beneath the shade of a boulder and closed his mind to all agony and thirst.

Dreams haunted him, filling his mind with horrifying images of his father and grandfather. The spirits of the dead called to him. Claiming him. I have nothing. I am nothing. But the netherworld did not take him. With eyes squeezed shut, Ishtar scoured the ground with his fingers as if digging his own grave, but he found neither death nor relief.

After the sun settled behind the mountain, a chilly wind sent dust rising into whirlwinds. Shivers wracked his body. Groaning, he sat up, leaned against the warm boulder, and rubbed his blistered face. He winced in pain.

Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tormented him. Staggering to his feet, he threw back his head and stared at the pink and golden firmament. As darkness descended, uncounted stars blinked into view and hung in the sky like bright jewels beckoning his soul. Bowing his shoulders, he dropped his gaze, fixed his eyes on the distant mountains, and let his feet lead the way.

When the pink rays of the sunrise once again shimmered over the horizon, he listened for signs of life. A faint birdsong twittered in the distance.

He staggered on.

The sun rounded and glowed in bright white glory, small insects flittered from boulders to thorny desert plants, and lizards and tiny rodents scampered under rocks. A scent of foreign blossoms floated to his nose, awakening his senses.

Tears trickled down his face.

When the sun’s heat burned too fiercely, he followed the lizards and small creatures into crevices and shadows. Scooping sand aside with his torn fingers, he smoothed a soft bed and rolled under a ledge, safely hidden for a few hours from the burning glare of the sun.

Beyond count of days and nights, he couldn’t remember how many rocks he crawled under or how many lizards he caught and ate. Ignoring his revulsion, he ground in his teeth and swallowed whatever he could catch.

Thirst tormented him.

In delirium, he reached a pass and scuttled into a valley where a strip of green broke the monotony of the scorched earth.

Three tents rippled in the evening breeze, sending shivers of expectation running through his worn and exhausted limbs.

Crouching low, and feeling more like a wild dog than a human, he limped to a watering hole.

A wide, stone well within a circle of palm trees and verdant grass appeared like a vision from another world. His cracked lips stung at the very thought of liquid.

As the sun descended behind the mountains, he felt his face break into a grimace. He searched for a bucket or a ladle of some kind.

Nothing.

Digging his toes into the shifting sand, he pressed on the heavy stone lid. His blackened arms splotched by scorched skin and shredded by fierce winds trembled when he tried to lift the lid.

It would not budge.

A moan escaped his lips. Madness gripped his mind. Fear and agony tore his soul. He would die of thirst beside a well. Would this be justice—at last?

A young girl in a long-sleeved embroidered dress humming a strange tune and swinging a jug in one hand sauntered forward.

He tried to rise, but his body shook so violently that he merely staggered and fell.

The child’s eyes widened in terror. She froze. Her mouth opened. Without a sound, she turned on her heel and fled, the sand spraying behind her.

Ishtar felt heaving sobs break inside him like waves on a distant shore. But no tears came. He could no longer even cry like a man.

A few moments later a brawny, dark-skinned man with curly black hair, wearing a white tunic with a gray robe thrown back over his shoulders, jogged forward. He halted when he met Ishtar’s gaze.

Ishtar closed his eyes.

A shadow covered the glare of the sun. A hand clasped Ishtar’s shoulder. Water brushed his mouth.

His eyes fluttering open, Ishtar opened his cracked, bleeding lips and, with the last of his strength, lifted his hand to direct the cup.

He drank until the man told him to stop and pressed his shoulder. “Come. I’ll take you to my father. He’s always glad to meet travelers and hear news.”

With the help of a pair of strong arms, Ishtar limped to the largest of the three tents. He stopped. Fear enveloped him. Choking him.

The girl stepped out of the tent and smiled. With a nod, she lifted the door flap wide open and stepped aside.

Ishtar stared at the child. His heart squeezed so tightly, he could not breathe.

The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.

Ishtar stumbled inside.

A thin, elderly man with piercing black eyes and a gray beard, wearing the long white robe of a Bedouin, stood in the middle of the tent straight and tall. His gaze scoured Ishtar no less than the brilliant sun.

A scent of stewed goat meat, spices, and something sweet almost overpowered Ishtar as he waited, trembling, just inside the doorway.

The elderly man drew near, one hand extended as if to catch Ishtar should he fall. “You’ve come at a good moment, my friend, for I have too much food for one man. My wife wishes to fatten me up, but I can never do justice to her ample portions. Perhaps you could assist me?”

Ishtar wasn’t sure if the quirk of a smile he thought in his mind actually appeared on his face. He followed the man across the room and nearly collapsed on a large comfortable pillow. He swallowed a sharp pain in his throat. “It—it’d be an honor to eat with you. Thank you.” He grimaced at the sound of his reed-thin voice.

The heavyset man who had helped him drink settled to his left and handed him a bowl of water.

Ishtar frowned.

The man laid the bowl on the pallet, dipped his fingers in, washed and dried them on a cloth. He gestured from Ishtar to the bowl.

After Ishtar washed, a dish of beans and rice with spicy meat was placed before him. He waited for his host to begin, and then dug in, pinching clumps of the savory food with his fingers and carrying it to his mouth. His stomach clenched, and he heard a whimper break from his throat in relief as the delicious food met his teeth and lips and traveled down his throat.

The girl sashayed into the tent again, balancing a tray of cups filled with wine. She placed one cup in Ishtar’s hands.

He trembled.

With a glance, the older man nodded to the girl. She knelt at Ishtar’s side and directed the cup to his lips. He sipped, peering over the rim into her wide black eyes. Warmth spread through his body.

The older man leaned back and gestured to Ishtar to keep eating. “Please, take your time. Enjoy. My wife will be pleased to have it so well appreciated.” He gestured from the young man to the girl. “You have met my eldest son and youngest daughter. We welcome you to our home. It’s clear that you’ve traveled long and hard. From some misfortune, perhaps?”

As Ishtar swallowed the last morsel, his whole body relaxed.

Undisturbed, the old man rested his hands on his lap. “My name is Alanah Matalah of the tribe of Sirah men Talah. I have the fortune of traveling the lands of my fathers and grandfathers, going back generations untold. We are a simple people who look for nothing more than to tend our flocks and care for our families in peace.”

Ishtar leaned back, his mind dizzy with the joy of food, wine, and comfort. He rested his gaze on his host.

“God-Above-All has been most generous. I have four sons and three daughters, all healthy and strong. They care for the flocks, and my sons travel to neighboring lands and trade and learn the news of the world. Many things have I seen, and many stories I could tell—” Matalah lifted his hand as in an invitation. “But if you have a story to share, I would gladly hear it.”

Ishtar peered down at his bruised, torn hands clasped on his lap. Peace settled over him. He lifted his eyes to his host. “I have lost my way in the wilderness. My story is a bitter one, which I’d rather forget. I can share nothing but the pain of my past and a future shrouded in darkness.” Without warning, Ishtar felt flames lick his body and searing pain stab his innards.

Matalah sat silent and still. His children’s eyes grew large and anxious.

Ishtar swallowed a lump rising in his throat. “If I told you what I’ve done, you’d gather your sons and throw me out your tent. I do not deserve to live.” Staring at the ground, his vision blurred, and his voice cracked. “I certainly do not deserve your kindness.”

Matalah motioned to his children, and the two rose and left the room.

A tear meandered down Ishtar’s cheek and slipped off his chin.

Matalah spread his hands wide. “I’m not a man of great wisdom, yet I believe in wisdom, and I know there is a force beyond mortal strength that calls each soul forward into the light of truth.”

The image of Pele flashed before Ishtar’s eyes, and he stifled a gasp.

“In truth, you may have done terrible wrong, but I suspect that there is more to your grief than your own chosen evil. I have learned that evil begets evil, and I acknowledge the source of all evil is a constant temptation to the soul of every man.”

Ishtar squeezed his eyes shut, and the face of his father appeared in his mind’s eye.

Matalah’s voice lowered to a gentle invitation. “Each man must learn where his evil comes from…and to whom he passes it.”

Like roaring waves, sobs crashed over Ishtar. Covering his face with his arms, he rocked back and forth. Grief and pain warred with shame and humiliation.

With a light touch, Matalah clasped his shoulder. “You are wounded. And true healing cannot be rushed. May I make a suggestion?”

Ishtar stopped, frozen, like a child awaiting his punishment.

“Stay with us for a time. Assist my sons for the season.” Ishtar glanced up, afraid to hope. Afraid to breathe.

A smile flashed over Matalah’s face. “No one in love with wisdom can ever have too many sons. My daughters enjoy fussing over strangers, and my wife lives to cook enormous meals. Rest, work, and grow strong again.”

As if rain fell on his blazing body, Ishtar felt relief wash over him.

“If a troubling memory disturbs you, come to me. I may not have a sagacious remedy, but perhaps that does not matter so much. Let the Lord God heal you.”

The memory of being rocked in his mother’s arms unclenched Ishtar’s body. Peace entered his soul. He met Matalah’s unwavering gaze. “You would let me stay…without knowing my past and what kind of man I truly am?”

“I will let you stay as long as you allow yourself to stay.”

As a hot flush burned his cheeks, Ishtar bowed. “I will do whatever you ask. I am your servant.”

Matalah rose. A smile hovered on his lips. “I consider you my guest. My sons will show you where to sleep, and they’ll assist you for the remainder of the evening.”

Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.

Matalah stepped to the doorway. “I must get an early rest for the Lord awakes me early with the quiet beauty of His creation.”

The son and daughter opened the flap and stood on each side.

Matalah gently gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You have nothing to fear.”

~~~

Ishtar lay awake while the four brothers slumbered in quiet repose. He could glimpse the starry sky through the open tent flap. Rolling on his side, he stared into the night and savored a sensation he could hardly recognize. Peace felt so strange and unfamiliar that he could not sleep for want of basking in its presence. The madness swirling in his mind had vanished like early morning vapor under a hot sun.

The image of Pele floated before him. Matalah’s gentle touch still tingled on his arm. The memory of the young girl’s piercing black eyes sent a pleasant shiver over his arms.

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“

One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.”
– George Santayana

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

Eoban’s booming laugh reverberated through the trees. He stood in front of a new dwelling and watched Gilbreth try to free himself from his two younger siblings who clung to him like creeping vines in midsummer. Eoban stepped closer.

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

Loping forward, Eoban scooped Ham into his arms and swung him high into the air.

Screaming bloody murder, Ham struggled for a handhold, using Eoban’s nose for support.

Eoban laughed louder. He flipped the child around to face his mother and father.

Lud smiled and waved.

Dinah held out her hands, ready to receive her baby boy. She grinned as she took him her arms. “Does Eoban the Giant scare my baby?” Standing next to Eoban, she tapped his arm. “He’s a good man.” She kissed the little boy on the nose.

With a new light in his eyes and mad glee in his heart, Eoban strode toward Deli.

The little girl scampered into her brother’s arms in a desperate attempt to flee from the approaching menace.

Lud laughed so hard, he bent double and lifted one hand in surrender. “Deli, don’t be afraid. He’s a friend. He wants to make friends with you.”

The little girl peeked around Gilbreth’s neck and pointed an accusing finger. “He’ll throw me up in the air and drop me!” She nuzzled her head against Gilbreth and murmured into his neck. “You won’t let him get me, will you?”

Gilbreth managed to gasp. “Don’t worry. But please, I can’t breathe!”

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

Gilbreth offered wide-eyed gratitude as his father pried his sister from his body.

Eoban pointed at Gilbreth. “You have a remarkable son, Lud. Few boys could take such treatment without complaint. I bet he’s as fearless as he is good-natured.” Leaping forward, Eoban grabbed Gilbreth by the waste and then swung him over his shoulder. He peered from Ham to Deli. “See, little ones. I swing children into the air.” He swung Gilbreth around and then placed him gently on his feet. “But I do not drop.”

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

Lud grinned. “You’re a man of many talents! As I remember, you used to tell entertaining stories, too. Maybe, if my children are very good, you’ll tell a few tales today?”

“To be sure!” Eoban smiled broadly. “Even if they are not so very good.” He stepped forward and waved to the dwelling before them. “So, how do you like the house?”

A rosy sun settling on the horizon, a cool breeze, and evening bird song set a peaceful scene.

“It’s beautiful.” Lud glanced at his wife. “We’d like to build one very much like it.”

Eoban rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Build? This one is vacant, and I know the owners. I’m sure they’d offer a fair deal.”

Dinah’s face lit up. “We’d be neighbors then?” She glanced at her children. “But we might get a bit noisy.”

Eoban ran his fingers through his wild, unkempt hair. “I’m easily bored. I enjoy hearing laughter—or screams—as the case may be.”

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

Stepping forward, Lud peered at the framework and slapped a post with a firm hand. “Could you introduce us to the owners tomorrow? We’ll make camp for the night and meet them in the morning.”

“Make camp? Perish the thought. I’ll introduce you to the owners tonight, though” —Eoban jogged a few paces away and waved at distant figures shuffling in the center of the village— “it might take me a few moments to gather them up.” He flung a grin at Lud. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be right back.”

~~~

Dinah sighed, strode to her husband’s side, and clasped his hand.

Carrying the little ones and with Gilbreth in tow, Lud and Dinah circled the dwelling.

Lud stroked his chin. “It’s new. A few rough spots but generally well-done.” He nudged his wife. “Eoban’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he?”

Dinah’s gaze roamed over two matching front benches. “I trust him. A man without guile.”

Lud nodded. “Honest to a fault. You’ll never wonder what he thinks.” He glanced at the sinking sun. “It’s getting late. Let’s get supper.”

Gilbreth jumped forward. “I’ll start the fire. Man’s work. Finally.”

Lud unrolled mats, and Dinah pulled provisions from their bags.

A rumble of murmuring voices rose in the distance. Dinah glanced up as Lud turned to face the approaching throng. She edged closer to Lud and gripped his arm.

A crowd of young men ambled forward chattering in high-spirited exuberance.

Eoban led the group, his voice rising above the rest. “Remember your manners. They’re new here, and their children are a bit skittish. Don’t talk too loud or make foolish jokes. Just smile a lot. Understand?”

The assembled heads nodded. One voice lifted above the rest. “Just don’t tell them who made the roof, whatever you do!” Laughter soared like a flock of excited birds.

Eoban tapped the speaker on the head. “You know who’ll be doing all the repair work if there are any problems, right?”

The boys chorused as one voice. “Eoban!” A roar of approval met this comment.

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

Eoban and his troop halted in front of the stupefied family. Silence ensued as the two groups stared at one another.

Lud laid a comforting hand on his Gilbreth’s shoulder.

Eoban nudged one young man forward. “Go on, Tannit.”

A handsome, dark-haired lad of fifteen stepped forward, his gaze skittering from husband to wife. “You and Dinah were expected, Lud, and your children too, of course. We wanted to make you feel welcome. It was Eoban’s idea, but he made us feel like it was ours, since we did all the work.” He blushed. “Though he worked, too. He had to tell all those stories!” Tannit grinned. “So, we built you this house. We figured it was something you’d need right away, and it wouldn’t spoil if you were late in coming.” He glanced at the house. “Hope you like it.” Biting his lip, he stepped aside.

Giving Tannit a firm pat on the shoulder, Eoban spoke up. “The boys worked very hard.” He flashed a grand smile.

Lud stood frozen and wondered if his heart had stopped beating.

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

Attempting to make his mouth work, Lud swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “You mean…this house is ours? It’s too much. How could we ever repay such generosity?”

A younger, slighter-built youth stepped forward and stared boldly at Lud. “My name is Onia, son of Jonas and Obed.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes. “Truth is, we’re only paying you back for all you’ve done for us. Didn’t you lead the slave revolt? Wasn’t it you who befriended Pele so she could warn us about the Giants? You helped a whole passel of children during the great fire and brought the vision that stopped Ishtar.” He shuffled his feet, his gaze dropping to the ground. “It seems to me that we’d have to build many houses—and better ones than this—to repay all you’ve done for us. We’re just being grateful…as all worthy people are grateful.” With a little shrug, he stepped back among his peers.

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

Tears ached behind Lud’s eyes. Straining, he swallowed and clasped his hands together. “I accept your gift then, and my family and I will treasure this house as a warrior treasures his finest weapon.” He glanced from one face to another, finally landing on Eoban. “We thank you from the depths of our hearts.”

His eyes gleaming, Eoban squeezed Onia’s shoulder. “Breeding is in the blood.” He glanced around. “Boys, show Gilbreth around while I help Lud and his family get settled. We ought to celebrate!”

Dinah’s face blanched. “I don’t have enough provisions to feed the whole clan.”

Onia turned on his heel and called back. “Don’t worry. Mother and the other women have been preparing a feast for days. It’s their surprise.”

The troop of boys galloped away, laughing and shouting. Looking like a proud father, Eoban stared after the boys.

Lud took his wife’s hand, and they laced their fingers together. His heart swelled, joy flooding his whole body.

“I want to see!” Ham scampered to the doorway and peered inside with Gilbreth holding Deli on the other side. Lud and Dinah stepped closer and leaned over them, glimpsing the dim interior.

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

Eoban nudged him forward, nearly tumbling the whole family. “Go on! It’s your house now. Make yourselves comfortable!”

Before stepping over the threshold, Lud glanced back at the glowing horizon. The same horizon he knew as a boy in captivity. The same horizon he shared with his family in the hills. The same horizon he shared with his wife and children while traveling. Tears slipped down his cheek. Forever, now, this horizon would glow in splendor…just outside his home.

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

The ache for home lives in all of us…

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter Two

—Grassland— Begin Again

Jonas, in a simple gray dress with her black hair flowing over her shoulders, cupped her hands around her mouth and called. “Onia! Where are you?” Anxiety fluttered in her chest.

No answer.

Curious villagers weaving baskets, stirring bubbling cooking pots, tending to lines of dried fish, and other daily tasks swung glances her way.

After circling around her large thatched dwelling, she heaved an exasperated sigh and brushed strands of hair out of her sweaty face. Strolling through the dusty village of rounded huts and storage sheds, she continued the hunt for her youngest son.

Several heads lifted. Smiles crinkled in the corners of eyes, and lips curved in response to her plaintive quest.

A short, plump woman straightened before her loom and rubbed the small of her back. “If you find your son, maybe, you could find mine also? Send him home if you do.”

One grandmother called out in cheerful teasing. “Lose that youngest one again?”

Jonas controlled an urge to roll her eyes and merely shrugged.

The old woman pointed south. “When Eoban returns, he’s like the rain after a long drought—they flock to see what he’s brought and hear the news. I’ve seen many pass by this morning.”

Turning her head aside, Jonas caught her loose hair and braided it into a tight bun. She wrapped it with a dark woolen tie she pulled from her belt, squared her shoulders, and trudged on.

As the sun beat down, sweat trickled down her back. Her irritation building to the breaking point, she scowled. When she reached the edge of the village, a cacophony of voices met her ears, deepening her scowl. What on earth—?

Numerous boys and young men bustled around the framework of a new dwelling. Each youth appeared busy with a task. Two stacked mud bricks by an unfinished wall, three thatched a low roof, one braced a stout door, while two others dragged a wooden bench to the shaded side of the house.

Jonas stared, and her mouth fell open. As her gaze wandered, she found Onia, high on a rafter, patting thatch firmly into place. Her lips pursed, and she glanced about. Where is—

Eoban’s voice rose above the tumult.

With a quick shake, Jonas marched around to the back of the dwelling. She blocked the sun from her eyes.

His broad muscular shoulders barely covered by a sleeveless tunic, one hairy arm akimbo, and the other waving like a leaf in the wind, Eoban’s bushy beard moved in time with his words. His face crinkled in a grin. “Keep working, boys. That roof won’t thatch itself. Watch yourself there, son. Lay those bricks carefully. They’re worth all the time and energy it took to make them.”

Jonas’s hand dropped to her side as tension seeped from her body.

“No, be careful there, Malib! If you don’t do it just right, you’ll end up like a man I knew in Asher.” Eoban scratched his beard and propped one hand on a post. “He built his house so quickly; he thought he was a god, and everyone spoke of the marvel. Until the rains came and woke him from a sound sleep.”

Eoban turned his voice high and squeaky. “‘Never mind, I’ll fix it tomorrow.’” His voice returned to its usual rumble. “Then a cold wind blew and his walls cracked.” High and squeaky again. “‘I’ll take care of that in the morning.’”

Eoban spat on the ground. “Finally, the ground shifted, and the fool was just about to close his eyes—when the house fell in.”

The boys chuckled, all eyes fastened on Eoban.

Jonas’s irritation vanished with a laugh. She strolled over to Eoban. “You’re a wise teacher, my friend.” She swept her hand in the direction of the new dwelling. “Have you decided to move? Or do you build with someone else in mind?”

With a teasing sneer, Eoban waved her questions away. “No and no.”

Jonas poked his arm in mock severity, her tension rising again. “Don’t make me angry, Eoban. Tell me, why is every boy, including my son, helping you make a new house?”

Eoban stared at the sky, shrugged, and clasped Jonas’s arm. He led her aside, out of earshot of the bustling workers.

A gentle wind rippled the grass, and the smell of ripening wheat filled the air. A hawk soared across the sky and screeched as it dove toward a grove of trees in the distance.

“All right, I’ll tell you, but I wanted it to be a surprise.” Straightening, Eoban met Jonas’s gaze and puffed out his chest. “Lud and his family are moving here. They’ll be my neighbors.”

Her skin tingling pleasantly, Jonas inhaled. “Lud? And his family? That’s wonderful!” She squeezed Eoban’s massive hand. “I am so glad!”

Eoban grinned, his eyes beaming with joy.

With a quick pat, Jonas dropped his hand and stared over the horizon. “I only hope—”

Images flashed into her mind: Ishtar struggling with Haruz, and then her bloody body sprawled on the ground. Jonas swallowed and wrapped her arms around her middle. “After that awful night, I was afraid he’d never return. You know he only came for Pele. He couldn’t reconcile himself to her death.”

Eoban’s gaze floated west, across the river toward Ishtar’s village. “I wonder where he is now?”

She shivered. “She’s dead, and he’s gone. That’s all we need to know. I’m still frightened by the memory of that night. I’ll never forget it.”

Eoban ran his hand through his thick, disheveled hair. “It still baffles me too. But then, I never pretended to understand such things.”

“I had hoped that Lud would help Ishtar, but he left as quickly as he came.”

Eoban snorted and glanced into the sky. “No one could’ve helped Ishtar. Lud was right to return home.” He shifted his gaze to Earth and squeezed Jonas’s shoulder. “Lud’s a smart man—even though he is too skinny.” A smile twitched his lips.

Rolling her shoulders to release the tension yet again, Jonas faced Eoban. “So why does he want to move here, so near you, of all people?”

Eoban rubbed his nose like an abashed child and glanced about. “He never fit in back home. He’s seen too much, been too many places. He likes to welcome strangers and travel. His people don’t understand. They’re so suspicious. Even when I visited, they glared at me—like I was a monster from the deep. Can you imagine!”

A villager strolled by and waved.

Jonas waved back, glancing at Eoban. “Well, you’ve been known to intimidate even—”

Eoban raised an eyebrow and turned back to the half-finished structure. “We’re lucky that Lud married well. Dinah is a sensible, hardworking girl. They have three children all ready. Lud wants to enjoy the world as a gift, not a threat.”

Jonas chimed in, “A gift from God.”

With a noncommittal shrug, Eoban lifted a load of thatch and balanced it over his shoulder. “They’ll be good neighbors. Obed agrees. He says Lud is a unifying force since he’s been the slave of one clan, the rescuer of another, and a friend to all.”

Dropping the thatch against the west wall, Eoban lowered his voice. “I’ll stay closer to home now anyway. There’s more to life than trading and riches.” His eyebrows danced as his head tilted toward the assembly. “Someone has to train up the youth. Good warriors are good workers first.”

A cool wind swept through, and relief spread over Jonas, relaxing every muscle in her body. Affecting nonchalance, she suppressed an exuberant smile and merely nodded.

A shout and a sharp yelp turned every head.

Eoban jogged forward as a crowd gathered under a hole in the roof.

Jonas skirted around with one trembling hand clasped over her mouth and the other over her pounding heart.

Onia lay on the ground, peering through a mask of straw and mud. He attempted a brave grin. “Just slipped through a little hole.”

Eoban cleared his throat as he glanced from the broken roof to the boy. “Tell me, Onia, do you remember what I told you about laying thatch?”

Onia blinked, his mouth dropping open.

Eoban waved a finger, his voice rising. “What happens to the foolish builder?”

Onia’s eyes screwed up as he recited from memory. “Without a strong frame, the builder builds in vain.”

“Yes, that’s right.” Eoban swiped straw from the boy’s hair and pulled him to his feet. “Now go make bricks.”

Onia glanced at his mother and shrugged helplessly.

Jonas sighed as she watched her youngest son amble off to his next duty, knowing full well that by the time he got home, he would be too tired to be of any use to her.

She gripped Eoban’s arm. “You may have him until noon, but then I need him back. I have work for him as well. And feel free to tell your workers a little story about boys who help their mothers being the best of sons.”

Jonas and Eoban locked eyes in a struggle for dominance. Eoban broke first, and they both grinned.

Jonas turned toward home and peered over her shoulder. “You might want to check this house before Lud moves in, or he’ll be in for a few surprises.”

Eoban folded his arms high across his chest and surveyed his confused crew. He called after Jonas. “They do great work—you’ll see!” He nodded to the boys and lifted his hands like a warrior readying his men for battle.

Jonas walked backward, watching and grinning.

A fresh smile broke over Eoban’s face. “Back to work, everyone. Did I ever tell you about the Sun Keepers? No? Well, there’s a lesson in perseverance, let me tell you! You see, long ago…”

Jonas turned and strolled toward home, her arms swinging at her side.

—Lake Land—

Barak clasped his hands around one knee as he sat on a bench leaning against the back wall of his dwelling. His work-worn, patched tunic and leggings rippled around his thick, muscled body. He tipped his head up.

Brilliant stars twinkled overhead in miraculous glory.

Inside a nearby dwelling, a child murmured plaintively, and a woman crooned a baby to sleep.

Barak sighed as his gaze wandered the heavenly sphere. He whispered. “Aram, where are you now?”

Stretching out, he sprawled on the bench, one leg hanging over the side. “There’s so much I don’t know.” His brows furrowed. “I’m not alone.” He waved a finger at the sky. “Your God follows me everywhere, but He won’t speak to me!”

Clasping his hands over his face, he groaned. “If your God spoke to Eymard and comforted you, why won’t He do the same for me?” Barak ran his fingers through his hair. “By the cat’s paw, can’t He choose someone else? Eoban would make a great leader. He’s forever telling me what to do.”

A soft wind with a spicy, resin scent stirred his hair, sending a chill over his body. Sitting up, he snapped a broken twig off the bench. “Eymard, can you hear me? I can’t lead all these people! If Ishtar can return to evil ways, who can I trust?”

Slumping in exhaustion, Barak lay back down, pillowing his head with his arm and closing his eyes.

In a dreamy haze, Aram appeared before him, standing with a lean, sober-eyed, black-haired man, who looked somewhat familiar yet unknown. The stranger reached out with his palm up.

Fear warring with excitement, Barak lifted his arm. He clasped the man’s hand, and lightning raced through his body.

Jerking awake, Barak bolted upright and opened his eyes.

A pinkish hue on the horizon signaled the start of another day.

—Grassland—

Obed stepped away from his rolled-up bed, pulled an embroidered tunic over his broad shoulders, and let it fall gently over his white leggings. With care, he slipped his feet into a pair of new sandals.

Jonas stood near the doorway, her arms folded. “And about Tobia—”

Rounding on his wife, Obed glared, hot fury flushing his face. He slapped the wall post. “Why are you bringing this up again? It’s the best thing for the boy, and well you know it. He’s too retired and shy. He’s a man now, but he doesn’t seem to know it.”

Jonas clenched her jaw, her lips in a tight line.

“He spends all his time carving figures and dreaming. I can’t find him when there’s work to be done, and when I ask why he’s not at the field, he shrugs. He doesn’t seem to know that we need to work…to build homes…to trade and acquire the items that we can’t make for ourselves.”

Jonas glared, her eyes narrowing as she gripped her waist.

Obed swiveled away and pounded to the other end of the room. He waved and knocked a bowl of fruit askew, spilling a cluster of grapes. Ignoring the mess, Obed refocused his gaze on Jonas. “He’s consumed with carving, and even when he makes something decent, he’s reluctant to trade it for anything useful. He needs to grow up!” Obed folded his arms over his chest in a precise manner, his heart pounding against his ribs.

Readjusting the bowl and settling the grapes in place, Jonas, stiff as a board, choked out her words. “He is doing something important—his carvings speak to the part of us that makes us more than beasts.” She closed her eyes and swallowed. “Onias believed in the value of art. Tobia is following in his father’s footsteps.”

Obed’s jaw clenched. “Since I’m not his blood father, I can’t see his worth—is that what you mean?”

Her anger flashing, Jonas plunged forward. “I never said that! You’ve been a wonderful father, but Tobia is different from you. Even from me. Is that wrong?”

A knot forming in his stomach, Obed shook his head. “You and I hold this village together. What’ll become of our people if Tobia dreams his life away—even in the noble pursuit of becoming more than” —he gritted his teeth— “a beast?”

Jonas lifted her hands as if in a truce. “Stop! Please.” She sucked in a shuddering breath. “You’re right. Traveling and trading will probably do Tobia good. I just don’t think that Vitus is the right man to lead our son into manhood. He’ll never confide in Vitus, and Vitus will never understand him.”

Sensing victory, Obed’s heart leaped. “My point exactly! Tobia has been coddled for too long. He needs a man’s influence. A man who will not coddle him. Vitus knows a lot of people along his trade routes, and that’ll force Tobia out of his shell. He won’t stand by and let him stare aimlessly with those sad eyes, carving useless pieces of wood.”

Jonas wrung her hands and meandered to the open window, staring ahead. “Vitus is not the man you think.”

Swallowing his doubts, Obed hesitated a moment. But as irritation welled, he leaned against the wall and struck again. “Vitus will do more good than you or I. We’ve almost ruined the boy.” He slapped his hands together, lacing his fingers in a stranglehold. “Boy! Why, he’s a man in size and strength, but we speak of him as a child!” Pushing off the wall, Obed started for the door. “No, my mind is made up. Tobia is leaving with Vitus in the morning.” Looking back, Obed felt his stomach crunch. Standing stiff and unyielding, Jonas blinked back tears. With a shake of his head, Obed charged through the doorway and sped through the village.

—Wilderness—

Ishtar halted and stared ahead at a barren landscape. His long, unkempt hair blew around his dirt-smeared face. A rough beard sprouted along his jawline, accenting the hollows of his cheeks.

The sun rose into a hazy sky. Clouds swirled through the red glow of an angry firmament that bespoke of troubles in the heavens. A sharp breeze blew, and a line of pine trees behind him groaned in warning.

His toes bled onto the hard rocky ground. Ishtar peered at his torn skin and clothes—a ragged loincloth and a sleeveless tunic—hung loosely about him as if they might sail into the wild wind. Long strands of hair obscured his vision, but his ears thrilled to the howling wind through the heavy pine boughs. His lean body, sunken to near emaciation, bowed to the tempest. Neither fear nor pain accosted him.

He waited. But death did not come. Pain did not come. Sorrow did not fill his heart. He felt nothing. He cared for nothing. He wondered if he had, in fact, become nothing. Was he a man or had mere shadow engulfed his very being?

Without thought, he strode on.

The sun crawled overhead as he paced out his measured steps. Slipping on an incline, he instinctively grabbed hold of a rock embedded in the dirt to steady his balance. He climbed for time uncounted and, without interest, crossed a flat expanse.

Finally, the fog-ridden landscape cleared. To his utter amazement, he peered across an enormous desert. After an entranced moment, he glanced down at his torn feet and realized with the first tremor of fear that he stood with his toes pointing over a vast and mighty cliff edge. If he took one more step, he would fall to a bone-crushing death.

In the distance, mountains dwarfed the hills he had already ascended. Purples, blues, and pinks vied with one another to create a rainbow landscape over the barren land.

He gasped, sucking in the breathtaking beauty. Tears coursed down his cheeks. Grimacing in pain, he curled his toes around the rocky ledge. Birds, swirling in the heights, crisscrossed one another in innocent delight, dancing for him alone.

Ishtar raised his hand to his face and brushed his hair behind his ear. He stared at the glorious sky, never looking down at the depths that beckoned.

A vision of Pele, her gentle eyes set in her perfectly oval face, wisps of hair swirling as if in the evening breeze, swayed before him. But unlike the birds, she gazed upon his troubled face. A faint message traveled through the harsh wind. “You live, Ishtar. Begin again.”

Ishtar’s heart pummeled his chest. Begin again? He was an exile, an outcast—no longer a man. Twice cursed. Was redemption possible after such a fall?

The birds faded like specks of dust into the horizon as his vision paled into vaporous clouds. He stared into the suddenly clear blue sky and wiped away fresh tears.

He took one step back.

 

Enjoy a new chapter from OldEarth Ishtar Encounter each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Blessings,

Ann

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
― Bill Keane

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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