OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Four

—Desert—

God Help Me

Tobia watched Ishtar lead the sheep to their watering hole. Exhaustion sapped his strength and sorrow confused his thoughts. A faint light of hope tried to spark, but he could not keep it alight. He glanced down. The pain in his chest should show through…somehow. “Ishtar?”

With his gaze fastened on the sheep, Ishtar coaxed them to the waterhole. “Yes?”

“What happened to Vitus?”

Once the sheep began to lap at the water, Ishtar halted, propped his arm on his staff, and looked at Tobia. “When he lost his mind or when he lost his way in the desert?”

“Both.”

A grimace spread over Ishtar’s face. “I’m the last person you should ask.”

Tobia’s eyes glimmered. “But he’s dead now—gone forever. I should’ve kept a closer eye on him.”

With a quick shake of his head, Ishtar motioned toward a rocky outcropping. He waited for Tobia to shift into the shade and leaned against the cool wall. “When I first came here, I was a shell of a man, not unlike Vitus. I had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. I was dead inside. But Matalah’s kindness rekindled a spark of life within me.”

“Was I not kind enough to Vitus?”

Waving as if to dismiss the thought, Ishtar glanced away. “Matalah gave me the freedom to decide—but I had to make the choice myself. In time, I decided to live and pay back his kindness. Only then could hope flourish.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Apparently, the Creator still has use for me.”

Tobia plopped down on the ground and sat cross-legged. “But it was God who struck down Vitus.”

“Are you sure?”

“Vitus called—demanded—that God speak with him and then lightning struck…”

Ishtar shook his head. “But He did not kill him, did He? Vitus followed in your footsteps for many a day after that.”

“But no one saved him when he wandered into the night. I didn’t even know he was gone until—”

Ishtar’s expression softened. “Tobia, you’re asking what happened between God and Vitus.” He peered over the horizon. “I can’t say and neither can you. All I know is— Matalah could not have saved me unless I wanted him to, and you could not save Vitus for the same reason.”

Pain tightened Tobia’s throat, and tears stung his eyes. “Ishtar?”

Ishtar met his gaze. “Yes?”

Longing tore through Tobia. “I want to go home.”

As a frolicking lamb nuzzled Ishtar’s hand, he patted it. “I’ll show you the way.”

~~~

Ishtar entered Matalah’s tent and bowed low.

Taking Ishtar’s hands, Matalah peered into his eyes, his face haggard and lined, looking older than his years. “Though my sons turned to evil, still, I pray on their behalf. May your fortune be better than mine.”

Ishtar blinked back tears. “I love you as I could never have loved my own father.”

Matalah nodded. “God knows…for I surely needed your love, my son.”

~~~

Ishtar and Tobia marched out of the tent, into the searing rays of a hot sun.

As they crossed camp, Matalah’s wife hurried forward, her long dress rippling at her sides. She called Ishtar’s name.

Ishtar and Tobia stopped and turned.

Gripping Ishtar’s arm, the petite, gentle woman bowed low. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our family in our time of distress. I know that you leave with sorrow, but I pray it is not with regret. My husband will never understand his loss, and I’ll never stop grieving my sons, but still, we are grateful for your kindness.”

Ishtar dropped his gaze, a throbbing ache welling inside.

The woman straightened and her grip tightened. “Evil did not conquer you, and it will not conquer us. Go home now and take our blessings with you.”

Ishtar kissed her hands.

With another bow, she turned and hurried away.

Tobia sighed and started forward.

Ishtar circled around the blazing campfire, only glancing at the flames. He turned his gaze to the mountains.

~~~

Lud crushed his son in a tight hug, swallowing back a lump in his throat.

Gilbreth reciprocated the hug with equal intensity.

The two younger children whined and cried, scrambling to get a hold of Lud’s arm.

Women worked distractedly in the background, their eyes darting about, their foreheads wrinkled with anxiety.

The men huddled in groups, murmuring in low voices, sharpened weapons in their hands.

Facing his wife, Lud set his jaw against the pain clenching his heart. Unloosing his hands from his children, he wrapped his wife in a gentle embrace and peered over her head. “I was left in charge, and that means in bad times as well as in good. I’ll not let these people fall to slavery and death. I must lead them in this fight.”

Pulling away, Dinah wrung her hands, her eyes imploring. “We could all flee to the caves.”

Lud shook his head. “No, they’d only come looking for us. And I’ll not have our warriors backed into a corner.”

“I won’t go without you.”

“Be strong, Dinah, for my sake. Gilbreth will be at your side to help you.”

Pounding forward, Gilbreth gripped the knife tied at his waist. “But I’m old enough to fight.”

“Then fight selfish desires and learn the power of obedience.”

Dinah stared at the distant mountains and clasped her son’s shoulder. “Where are they coming from?”

Lud ran his fingers through his hair. “No one knows for certain…but rumors say they started from a city on the other side of the mountain.”

Dinah squinted. “That is a very long way.”

“They must be strong people.”

Turning, Dinah met her husband’s gaze. “Strong once…but the further they get from the mountains, the weaker they become.”

Lud considered her words, one eyebrow rising. “They’re far from the source of their strength.”
Lud nodded, admiration for his wife’s thinking growing by leaps and bounds.

A large gathering of clansmen marched forward, heading straight for Lud.

Taking a deep breath, Lud turned to them. He murmured under his breath. “God, help me.”

“You can turn your troubles into trust when you choose worship over worry.”
~Rosette Mugidde Wamambe

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No Reasonable Cause

“What the hell just happened?” Joe knew his blood pressure had risen to dangerous heights, but there was no way he was going to back down. He had to have an explanation, even if there was no reasonable cause in sight.

“Well, sir…” The younger, slimmer man, somewhere in his twenties, rubbed his gloved hands together, probably attempting to maintain circulation in the biting January wind. He looked at the overpass. “Looks like some ice just flew off and smacked into your windshield.”

Joe returned his gaze to his minivan packed to the brim with his family, an insanely hyperactive dog, and two miniature palm trees his wife, in a spirit of well-I-can’t-just-say-no-now-can-I? had accepted from her grieving sister who was inundated with funeral plants after the untimely death of her husband in a railroad accident.

“I have a cousin who’ll come out and fix that windshield in a jiffy. He’s pretty close by, and his rates are reasonable.”

A throb jumped from Joe’s heart to his head. His wife looked like she had been turned to stone, and the dog, with his tongue hanging out, scrabbled at the back window like a deranged con artist trying to escape a long prison sentence.

Joe jogged forward, slid open the back door, and barked at his eldest son. “Cody, take him for a walk but don’t go too far.”

Slowly, one lanky jean-clad leg appeared, quickly followed by four shaggy doglegs, and then the rest of the desperate hound. The complete boy followed in due course. The boy stood on the roadside wide-eyed but calm. The dog, wild-eyed, lunged against the restraints of the synthetic blue leash.

The boy swept his gaze up and down the busy highway and then looked at his dad. “Where?”

Joe pointed to the metal rail dividing the opposite lanes of traffic. “Walk along that, but stay close. Don’t let Hunter go, or it’ll be the end of him.”

Joe ducked his head in through the open doorway and tapped the other two kids on their respective knees. “It’ll be okay, guys. No problems.”

His wife, Mary, sat stiff, facing forward, her shoulders rigid. The cracked windshield seemed to accent her solid form. He patted her shoulder and felt her collarbone. When did she get so thin? Joe spoke to the back of her head. “The guy outside said he knows someone who can fix the windshield, but it’s only broken on your side. I can see well enough to make it home.”

He wanted confirmation— “Yes, honey, that sounds good to me.” —would have been music to his ears. But she didn’t say anything. What? Like a big chunk of ice blowing off an overpass and smashing their windshield was his fault?

“It wasn’t my fault, you know.”

“We know, dad.” It was his middle kid, Taylor. She always took his part. Even when he didn’t deserve it. Like the time he forgot the roast in the oven, and Mary came home to a smoke-filled house with a cinder block for dinner. Taylor had insisted that it was roasting pan’s fault.

Mary had tossed both the blackened pan and the burned dinner in the trash and made peanut butter jelly sandwiches with tomato soup for dinner.

Joe considered her now. She didn’t need explanations, just the next step.

He, on the other hand, wanted to smack something. Or someone.

He looked back at the skinny guy still rubbing his hands together, closed the car door, and stepped over. “Look, I think we’ll be okay.” He felt for his keys in his pocket and then remembered that they were still in the ignition. “It’s not like the car is out of commission or anything. It just cracked the windshield. We’ll make it home. I’ll have our guy in town take care of it tomorrow.”

The skinny guy seemed disappointed. He really wanted to help? Or did he get paid for referrals? Joe scratched his head. “I appreciate your stopping to check on us.” He stuck out his hand.

Skinny guy glanced aside, blinked, and then clasped Joe’s hand. “No problem. My sister was in a car accident last month. She and her husband. Dead. Newlyweds, too.” He shrugged. “Some things can’t be explained. But people can help. Sometimes.” He bobbed his head and jogged back to his car. With a quick wave, he darted inside and drove off.

Hound and boy reentered the family minivan, and Joe, with a last surveying glance at the cracked windshield, threw himself into the driver’s seat.

Relief flooded his system as the car rumbled to life. He glanced in the rearview mirror, offered a brave smile to his kids and the relieved hound, waited for an opening, and then merged into the late afternoon traffic. He ignored his wife.

As the last rays of the sun faded, and he made the turn onto the lane leading home, Mary’s voice startled Joe out of his reverie. He glanced into the rearview mirror. The kids seemed to have fallen asleep. Even the dog was snoring.

“He was right.”

Joe slackened the pressure on the gas pedal and let the car coast the last bit to their driveway. “How’s that?”

“The guy who tried to help. He couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t explain why the ice fell on our car, why his sister was killed. Why Kelly’s husband died.”

Joe frowned. “He didn’t even know—”

Mary turned and faced him. Speared him with her gaze more like. “I have a point, here.”

Joe knew perfectly well that he wasn’t the sharpest blade in the cutlery drawer. His wife often sighed and merely shook her head when he missed some metaphysical point she was making. He needed to try to understand. He let the car come to a smooth stop in their driveway and squinted with intellectual concentration.

“You wanted to know what happened. Remember?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, we’ll never know exactly how the ice came to hit our car. But we do know that some decent guy tried to help us.”

Joe swallowed. “Yeah?”

“And perhaps that’s enough.”

For her, maybe. But he had every intention of starting an investigation of overpasses and the number of icicles that fell and hit passing cars. Still, if it worked for her… “If it makes you happy, honey.”

She shook her head and smiled as she unbuckled. “You may figure out how to stop icicles from falling from overpasses…but you won’t figure out why bad things happen.”

Joe flipped his seat buckle off his shoulder and glanced back at his kids waking from sleep. He chewed his lip and then leaned over and spoke in a soft undertone. “No. But my job is to keep my family safe. And your job—” he stepped out and pulled open the back door, moving aside for the dog’s explosion from the car.

Mary emerged from the passenger side and peered at her husband. Waiting.

“You make the best of the situation. No matter what.”

The kids straggled to the house. A tired yawn escaped the youngest as she leaned on Taylor. Cody chased the dog to the backyard.

Myriads of stars twinkled from a black sky. The frozen air tingled Joe’s fingers and nose. He exhaled a frosty breath as he met his wife in front of their minivan. He wrapped his arm around her waist. “You need to eat more. You’re getting thin.”

She snuggled into his shoulder. “I’ll make dinner tonight, and you can deal with the car—and underpasses—in the morning.”

Joe’s heart settled into a peaceful rhythm. “Makes sense to me, honey.”

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-One

A Natural Part of Motherhood

Namah smiled at Milkan and patted the wooden bench next to her. The sun shone hot, though a cool wind ruffled her hair as she leaned against the woven reed fibers making up the wall of her home.

Milkan settled down, perching her youngest child, Rula, at her side. “I wish I brought news, but we’ve had no visitors.”

Namah exhaled a slow breath. “Nor us.” She closed her eyes. “I’m so tired.” She shifted her weight, straightening. “I shouldn’t complain. It’s Jonas we should think of. She’s been having a streak of ill-luck, the like of which she’s never experienced before. Though she hates to admit it, she misses Obed as much as you miss Barak and I miss my Aram.”

Milkan surveyed the yard, counting her children on her fingertips. She frowned. “I’m one short.”

Rula climbed into her nap and pulled at a bag slung around Milkan’s neck. She reached in, drew out a piece of dried fruit, and chewed it lustily.

Milkan peered ahead and started a recount.

Jonas strode into view with Onia following behind.

A burst of pleasure swept over Namah. She nudged Milkan. “See who’s coming.”

Milkan smiled and moved aside to make room. “Good morning, Jonas! We must all be feeling weary and bored.”

Jonas stopped and motioned for Onia to join the other children. She faced the two women, a frown etched into her forehead. “I wish I had good news, but—”

Milkan clutched Rula. “Why? What’s happened?” She stood up. “Barak? Obed?”

Jonas shook her head. “No, not them.”

Namah rose to her feet. “Let’s go inside where it’s cooler.”

The three women trailed into Namah’s dwelling. The space between the wall and the overhanging ceiling allowed a slight breeze and a slanting light to filter through.

Before anyone sat down, Jonas faced her friends. “Runners came late last night to warn us—invaders are destroying villages to the north and west.” She squeezed her hands together, her face pale and pinched. “They’re taking slaves.”

Namah closed her eyes. “Not again!”

Trembling, Milkan clutched Rula to her chest, forcing the child to whimper in reaction. “But what about my children? What protection do we have?” Milkan stepped to the threshold and started counting again.

Jonas laid her hand on Milkan’s shoulder. “Stay calm. The runner said they’re still some distance away and may decide to go another direction.”

After ticking the last number off her finger, Milkan nodded, satisfied, and motioned for the children to continue playing.

Jonas smiled at Onia as he led a chase across the village. She glanced back at Milkan. “We won’t allow our children to be enslaved as long as we have breath in our bodies. I spoke with Lud this morning. He’s organizing the men to watch for trouble from every direction. We’ll also send scouts north and west to discover news. Men from all three clans will prepare their weapons. We must trust in Lud’s wisdom and direction.” She sighed and glanced outside. “But I had to warn you.”

Namah wrapped her arm around Milkan. “We’re not alone.”

Jonas pointed out one window. “There are caves in the north. We could find shelter there—if need be.”

Milkan clutched the table edge as she slid onto the bench. “I feel sick. I’ve been dreading something like this ever since Barak left.”

Namah and Jonas smiled at each other. “A natural part of motherhood.”

Jonas turned to the door. “We will not be defeated. For our own sake and those who return.”

Milkan drew Rula back into her arms. “I just want Barak home again.” After rising, she stepped out into the sunshine, slung her bag over her shoulder, and clapped.

Her children turned and gathered before her.

Her head down, Milkan started away with her throng trailing behind her. She turned. “Send word—anything—so I know.”

Jonas nodded and waved. She stepped outside and faced Namah. “I must go too.”

Onia stepped patiently to his mother’s side.

“I’ll send word if I hear anything.” Jonas peered around the village and sighed. “It’s at times like these that I miss Aram the most.”

Namah clasped her hands before her. “Yes, he was a wise man—more so than I gave him credit for while he lived.” She peered at Jonas. “Time helps us see more clearly.”

Jonas patted her friend’s arm. “Lud will be a good leader. We must not be afraid.” She turned and started away with her son following in her footsteps.

After watching her friends traipse out of the village, Namah glanced at the sky. “I’m not afraid.”

“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 Twenty

To Be The One

Amin squeezed his eyes shut. Crack! The sound of wood smashing against a skull was as distinct as it was nauseating. He turned to see a towering figure swaying like a tree in a mighty breeze clutching his wrist.

Obed, sprawled on the ground, lay stunned.

Eoban, rearing back for a swing, soon became pinioned by three of the largest men Amin had ever seen.

“Stop!” Amin tried to wrench free.

A new figure lumbered forward. “Enough!” The stranger stood a head taller than Eoban, but he made no attempt to physically interject. Slewing his gaze from Obed’s still form to Barak standing behind Amin and then to Eoban, he merely shook his fist like an angry parent. “You’re trespassers here! By all rights, I should put you to death!” He dropped his hand to his side. “But that is not my way.”

Grumbling erupted from the other warriors.

“I am Luge. I decide!”

Obed roused and shook his head. Eoban marched to his side and pulled him to his feet.

The stranger propped his hands on his hips. “Leave these mountains. If you disobey, my men will have their way.”

Obed staggered, rubbing his head with one hand and lifting the other in apparent surrender. “We’ve no wish to offend. We’ll leave.”

Enraged, Amin’s body trembled, his voice dropping to a growl. “I won’t go.”

Luge grabbed Amin’s tunic and shook him. “No?”

A wall holding back fear and fury burst, flooding Amin’s system. “I can’t leave! I’ve come so far to find my father— I won’t turn back now.”

The giant warrior’s eyes narrowed as he studied the boy in his grip. “You’re looking for your father?” Another shake, gentler this time, followed the question.

Amin nodded and sniffed, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

Freeing Amin, Luge glanced at Eoban. “Who is this man you seek?”

Eoban rubbed his jaw. “Neither friend nor enemy. He’s this boy’s father—the leader of a neighboring clan.”

Luge scowled at Amin. “Why did he leave? Why do you seek him here—in the mountains?”

Amin shrugged. “He was lost—out of his mind…”

Barak stepped forward. “Why waylay us? We’ve done you no harm.”

His gaze still fixed on Amin, Luge tilted his head as if appraising the boy. “I had a son about your age.” His voice grew thick. “We were attacked by raiders from over the mountain. Now my boy is gone—forever.”

Eoban leapt forward. “Have you seen a man with long black hair, slender body, and dark haughty eyes?”

Luge shrugged. “That describes many men.” His gaze slipped from Amin to Eoban. “If I found such a man, I’d send him home. This is no place for strangers. Treachery is afoot.”

With a snort, Obed glanced from Barak to the giant. “Is that what you fear? Why you attacked us?”

Luge stepped over to the smoldering fire, grunted, and gestured to one of his men.

The warrior squatted before the fire and blew the feeble flames to life. Another warrior gathered kindling and twigs and arranged them, building the flames into a small blaze.

As the fire grew, Luge crouched before it and studied the flickering light. “Few of us are left. Once we were a mighty clan, fierce hunters and warriors. Our leader was a brave man, much revered by all, near and far. But he fell at the hands of the enemy.”

Eoban stepped closer and squatted on the other side of the fire. Barak followed, sitting on his left while Amin crouched on Barak’s right. Obed remained standing, a shadow among the other men.

Luge rubbed his forehead. “They attacked at night, killed four men, and took two women and three children as slaves. We tried to follow, but they went into the desert and disappeared in the distance.” He closed his eyes. “A kingdom lies beyond the desert—I traveled there and saw it for myself.” He dropped his head to his chest. “They are like gods—living in a world beyond description.”

Obed shuffled near, his face unnaturally bright in the firelight. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that for myself.”

Luge shook his head. “Not if your son was there— forever beyond your reach.” He glanced around. “Now, we wander, aimless and hopeless. We treat all strangers as enemies because we have no friends. Our days draw to a close. We’ll pass away with no sons to mourn our loss.”

Eoban sighed. “I knew a mountain man once—a great man among great men. Gimesh led a large and vigorous clan. I cannot imagine he would let things come to such a pass. You know him?”

“These mountains are vast, but I have heard the name. As far as I know, he too bowed to this superior race. The days of the mountain men have come to an end.”

An owl hooted in the distance.

Amin twisted his hands together and peered at Luge. “My father would’ve fought. He fought against slavery and freed innocent people. He’d help you, too, if he knew your troubles.”

Obed snorted. “Your father was deranged. He couldn’t even help himself.”

Eoban glared at Obed as he stood up. “You talk too much, Obed.” He turned and rubbed his stomach. “I’m starving. What if we get some food, Luge? We could help each other survive the night at least.”

Rising, Luge meandered to Amin and tapped him on the shoulder. “I’d like to meet your father.” With a sigh, he glanced at the uneasy assembly. “As for food, yes, there is plenty—if you have the skill.”

Chuckling, Eoban slapped Luge on the shoulder. “Skill? Barak and I are two of the greatest hunters in the grasslands.”

Barak choked.

Eoban’s eyes widened, staring hard at Barak. “Barak even fought two man-eating cats and has their skins hanging in his dwelling to prove his worth.” He flexed his arms. “And I certainly never come home empty-handed.”

Barak and Obed stared at Eoban. Amin’s mouth dropped open.

Eoban grabbed his spear. “Let’s go. I’ll wither to a mere shadow of myself.”

After Eoban, Barak, and a few of Luge’s men started away,

Amin stretched out before the fire, his head heavy with exhaustion. He closed his eyes and let sleep steal every worry from his mind.

~~~

Amin felt rested as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

After a night of indiscriminate gorging on undercooked venison, the two groups assessed each other groggily in the early morning.

Obed staggered up to Luge. “Where are you going from here?”

Luge shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll live as best we can until our end comes.”

Eoban slapped his hand over his bag. “Wouldn’t it be better to attack your enemies and release the prisoners? Perhaps you could get your son back.”

Luge crossed in front of Eoban, waving his hand. “You’ve never seen this enemy. The vastness of their fighting force is beyond—”

Barak propped his hands on his hips. “Perhaps that’s your problem. If you would stop thinking about your doom and death and think about your life and what it means, then you could do something useful.”

Luge closed his eyes. “Our people were defeated. You have yet to experience that.”

Obed rubbed his chin. “Could you bring us to that land—the one you described last night?” He glanced at Eoban. “We’ve come this far—there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see this through. Show us your enemy—then we can talk of death…or glory.”

As Luge’s men broke into a discussion, Luge lifted his hand. “You have no idea what you are saying!”

One of Luge’s men strode over to him and argued in a husky undertone.

Luge glanced from the speaker to his other men, who waited expectantly, eagerly. Then his gaze rolled over Obed, Eoban, and Barak. Finally, it rested on Amin.

Anxiety twisted his innards, and Amin’s heart pounded so hard he grew dizzy.

Luge lifted his voice. “You want to see the enemy? We’ll take you, but we won’t engage in battle. We’d be slaughtered.”

With a grin spreading wide across his face, Eoban sauntered forward. “Who said anything about an attack?” He shrugged. “It’ll be enough to see this amazing city as you described at our hasty—though delicious—dinner. Besides, Ishtar may be among the slaves.” He glanced at Amin. “No turning back now.”

Luge swiveled around and glared at the boy. “No, he must not go! They would see a healthy boy and steal him away.”

Amin gripped his spear, squashed the tumult in his stomach, and pointed at Luge. “I won’t abandon my father. If you tie me up and drag me away, I’ll escape and follow you.”

One eyebrow rising, Eoban glanced at Barak.

Barak lifted his hands in appeasement and stepped over to Amin. “Luge is right, Amin. We’d get sidetracked trying to keep you safe.” He glanced at Luge. “I’m sure you could stay with his clan until we return.”

Panic flooded Amin, making it hard to breathe. A cold sweat broke over his skin. “But you could be killed, and I’d be left alone! Besides, I know my father better than anyone, and he’d do for me what he’d never do for you.”

Obed nodded. “If Ishtar is alive, he may not want to come with us. But if he sees Amin…” He shrugged. “It’s the boy’s life.”

Spluttering, Eoban jabbed Obed in the shoulder. “His life? Obed, take a closer look! He is a child! Children don’t think things through. That’s what adults are for. If Ishtar is alive and we find him, having Amin away will be the greatest inducement for drawing Ishtar out—assuming that’s what we want. We don’t know what he’s like now.”

Amin pounded his spear on the ground. “No! I won’t—”

Luge twisted the spear out of Amin’s grasp.

Amin clawed at Luge, wrestling for his weapon.

Barak grabbed Amin from behind and pulled his arms behind his back in a tight grip. “Stop it, Amin! You’re behaving like a spoiled child.”

Amin spat his words, his whole body trembling. “You’ll regret this, Barak.”

Reaching around, Barak grabbed Amin and turned him so that they stood face-to-face. “Only a child would put his pride above the safety of one he professed to love. You came all this way to find your father and for once we have a real lead, but now you stand here threatening us and making demands.”

Tears started in Amin’s eyes, his heart contorting as if it was being torn to pieces.

Barak loosened his grip. “A lot of good men are going far out of their way to help a man who doesn’t deserve such kindness. For love of you and your little brother, we’re risking our lives to find your father.” His jaw clenched as he gave Amin a slight shove. “A little cooperation would be helpful.”

Heaving sobbing breaths, Amin hung his head and tears coursed down his cheeks.

Luge strode over and laid his massive hand on Amin’s head. “A son’s love for his father goes beyond reason. And so should a father’s love for his boy. I’m ashamed. I’ll go with your friends. You wait for your father, and I’ll look for my son.” He called two of his men. “You two take him home. My wife will watch over him and await our return.”

The men packed the leftover venison into skin bags and filled their water pouches.

Amin sat against a tree and watched through a glassy stare. The familiar feeling of abandonment swept over him. First, his father…now this.

Before leaving, Barak crouched at Amin’s side and squeezed his arm. “Don’t be angry. We’ll return soon.” He stared at the boy’s unwavering expression. “You’re still mine by adoption. Whatever happens, you and Caleb are dear to me.”

Swallowing back the ache in his throat, Amin nodded. “I wanted to be the one to find him.”

Barak sighed. “It is every son’s wish—to do something wonderful for his father. That may yet come to pass. But for now, use this time well. Learn from these people. New experiences are worthy teachers.” Rising, Barak shouldered his pack.

Amin stood and watched the men assemble with Luge in the lead.

Obed sauntered close and ruffled Amin’s hair as he went by.

Eoban stopped and knelt before him. He held out a bone spear tip. “I was working on this, but now I don’t have the time to finish it. Perhaps you could do the job for me?”

Taking the piece, Amin studied the carved point. He nodded.

Grinning, Eoban patted Amin’s shoulder. Then he started away, whistling a happy tune.

Luge turned and frowned.

Eoban stopped abruptly. “Oh, you don’t like whistling? Well, if that’s no good, I can always sing.”

A glint of joy sparked in Amin’s middle as he watched his only hope traipse into the wilderness.

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.” ~Anonymous

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nineteen

—Mountain and Desert—

Bury the Dead

Tobia glanced over his shoulder and shuddered.

As if tied to an invisible thread, Vitus traipsed blindly behind Tobia’s footsteps. It appeared as if he had no other purpose in life than to keep in step with his companion.

Tightening his jaw, Tobia changed direction suddenly, but Vitus, apparently seeing through his unseeing eyes, stuck close, like a chick to its mother. “Seven days of this. I’ll soon go mad.” Tobia stopped and shaded his eyes, surveying the mountainous landscape. He licked his parched lips. A sound turned his gaze.

Trickling water gurgled over the never-ending buzz of insects.

Tobia sighed and closed his eyes a moment in relief. “Thank God.” He rushed forward, scurried around a boulder, and encountered a tiny waterfall and a thin green patch growing from the mountainside. After slapping water into his parched mouth, he unslung his water bag from his shoulder and laid it on its side. Still licking his lips, he watched fresh clean water flow into it. Then he fell back against the white cliffside and drank a long slurping draught to his heart’s content.

After wiping his mouth, he peered up.

There stood Vitus, heaving deep breaths, stoop-shouldered, his clothes stained with sweat. His lips cracked.

“Oh, God, yes.” Tobia led Vitus to a shady spot and pulled the water bag from the man’s shoulder. After filling it, he put it to Vitus’ lips, praying that he’d drink willingly. Some days, Vitus let the water pour down his chin like a naughty child.

With his trembling hands limp at his side, Vitus tipped back his head.

Tobia directed the water into his mouth.

Vitus slurped and drank readily, an occasional grunted moan escaping his lips.

Tobia eyed the man. “That enough?”

Vitus didn’t answer. He never answered. He just stood and stared vacantly ahead.

With a quick shake, Tobia lifted the waterskin again and held it against Vitus’ mouth, but this time Vitus didn’t respond. The water merely dribbled down his chin. In resignation, Tobia slung the water skin bag over Vitus’ head and laboriously gathered his own bags. He didn’t have much left. Just a few trade items and what scraps of goat meat he had saved from their last meal.

Trudging along an animal track, they wound northward. When they finally reached the other side of the mountain, Tobia felt relieved, as if he had actually accomplished something. “There’s surely a clan around here somewhere…”

But there never was. Another bend, another vista, another trail to follow. But no sign of another clan.

Struggling forward, they passed between the mountains and wandered downward into a drier, desolate land where fine sand shifted underfoot.

Tobia stopped and wiped his brow. “The blind leading the blind.”

The land stretched before him as a vast panorama of open space. The intense blue sky spread wider than he had ever imagined possible.

In exhaustion, they stopped in the shadow of a high slope and ate the last of their food. They soon gulped the last of their water. Tobia’s heart clenched. He searched but found no stream or watercourse in sight.

With no other options, Tobia rose and started forward, always toward the falling sun.

Soon, his tongue felt thick and his lips bled. He glanced aside at Vitus. The man drooped like a wilted flower, his eyes as vacant as ever. “At least, he’s not complaining.” But a headache pounded in the back of Tobia’s head, and he groaned.

A dark speck in the distance caught his attention. Bracing his hand on his forehead as a shield against the light, he squinted. He knew it was useless, but he felt the need to speak out loud as if it might light the spark that would ignite Vitus’ intelligence. “What’s that?”

Forms wavered ahead.

Tobia forced himself to stand, though his legs begged to crumple. Dread warred with excitement, raising nausea from his middle. He glanced at Vitus. “How am I going to explain you?”

The shapes of men on plodding camels grew larger and more distinct, heading slightly to the north of his statuesque-like position, but suddenly they altered course and headed directly toward him.

Sweat trickled down Vitus’ flushed face, his back bent low, and his hands hung limp at his sides.

Draped from head to foot with a thin white material, the figures appeared to be heading someplace but not anxious to get there.

Tobia stepped closer to Vitus.

A tall, thin man with a dark complexion and black hair halted before them. “Hail, stranger. My master would like to know what brings you out in the heat of the day without beast to carry you or friends to protect you.”

Tobia cleared his parched throat, but his voice sounded raspy even to his ears. “We’re lost. My guide here” —he pointed to Vitus— “has been injured, and I am not fit to lead anyone—even myself.” He tried to smile but failed.

The men, looming so high above him, exchanged amused glances. The old man beckoned another to his side. This companion, his lower face covered in a cloth, appeared younger and more robust, though from his narrowed-eyed expression, Tobia sensed the wariness of an experienced warrior.

Tobia offered a respectful bow and nearly tumbled over with the effort.

The shrouded figure spoke in a husky voice that tingled in Tobia’s ears. “You’re not the first to get lost in these lands. But don’t despair; it’s possible to survive and even grow stronger through the journey.” He waved with a light flit of his hand to the north. “We’re meeting the sons of my patriarch here, but it may not be a happy reunion, or we’d take you with us.”

Desperation rose to a shriek in Tobia’s mind.

The man leaned forward. “Perhaps we could direct you home again. Where do you live?”

Griping Vitus’ arm, Tobia struggled to stay on his feet. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. Please, we’re exhausted and near death. Take us as slaves if need be, but don’t abandon us here.”

The old man nudged his mount forward. “We’ll assist you then, for it would be offensive to God to do any less.” He commanded his men to assist Tobia and Vitus to mount.

Like a weak child, Tobia straddled the camel behind the shrouded figure, and Vitus was set behind the old man.

As they started forward, the old man turned to Tobia. “Your name?”

“I am called Tobia, son of Obed of the Grassland, though we are now in alliance with the clan of Barak.”

The shrouded figure turned suddenly, his eyes widening.

Tobia frowned, and his pounding head swam in the heat. He closed his eyes and prayed for mercy.

~~~

Tobia awoke to a delicious coolness caressing his aching body. He propped himself on one elbow and glanced around. In the darkness, the light of a full moon slanting into the tent aided his sight. Sleeping forms lay near. He leaned closer and recognized Vitus’ emaciated frame and his familiar snoring broken by short bursts of blowing air.

After throwing off the light blanket, Tobia rose and started toward the open flap. He stretched and licked his dry lips. Rubbing his arms, he emerged from the tent into the chilly night air.

A silent figure stood alone, peering into the starry sky.

Stepping quietly, he made no discernible noise, yet the still form shifted as he drew closer. They stood together for a moment in silence. The stars, clustered in milky splashes, spread wide across the sky.

Without turning, the figure spoke. “I was hoping you’d awake before the others. The sun will rise soon, and then we must accomplish our journey.”

“You wish to speak to me?”

“I do, very much, though I doubt you’ll feel the same.”

Tobia swallowed a sudden fear.

The figure turned and faced Tobia. “Don’t you know me?”

Tobia stood his ground though his legs trembled. “Your voice sounds familiar, but so much has happened in these past months—I might not recognize my own family.”

The figure unwrapped the cloth that hid his face. Ishtar opened his hands, palms out, as if in surrender.

A jolt surged through Tobia’s body. “I thought you were dead.” He choked. “I didn’t mean—” He clenched his hands. “But no one could survive—”

Ishtar placed a gentle hand on Tobia’s shoulder and steadied him. “I did die. At least the man you knew died.” He let his hand drop to his side. “I am not the man I was.” His gaze returned to the horizon, now turning rosy with the hint of day.

Following Ishtar’s example and facing the new day, Tobia shuddered. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I couldn’t manage—” He glanced back to the tent where Vitus lay sleeping. “Another problem.”

“I didn’t say your problems are over. By coming with us, you join a doomed expedition—a father facing death by his sons’ treachery.” A bitter chuckle rose in Ishtar’s throat. “Fate never ceases to amaze me.”

Tobia’s eyes widened. “I once believed that growing up meant I would have more say over my life, but I was wrong.” He pointed to the tent. “But what about Vitus?” Stepping closer, he gripped Ishtar’s sleeve. “He can neither run nor fight. He’s as helpless as a child. Is there no safe place for him?”

Ishtar glanced aside. “I’ve prayed for an escape, but I’ve found no other path than the one we’re on.”

The murmuring of men’s voices turned their attention. Matalah’s men pointed to the horizon.

Tobia and Ishtar stared as a cavalcade of hazy silhouettes rose into view.

Ishtar licked his lips, and Tobia held his breath. “Who?”

Suddenly, from the right and left, armed warriors sped into view, surrounding the approaching group, thrusting their spears and swinging clubs.

Matalah’s men shouted and chattered, pointing at the battle playing out before their eyes in the distance.

Tobia frowned. “Are those men being attacked?” He swallowed hard and peered at Ishtar. “Are we being attacked?”

Folding his arms, his legs spread and braced, Ishtar watched the scene. A slow smile crept across his face.

Shouts rang through the air.

Matalah sprang from his tent and gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Must they rush the hour? Is there not time enough for our destruction?”

His voice low and controlled, Ishtar glanced at his patriarch. “They are the ones being destroyed.”

Matalah leaned forward, squinting into the rays of the rising sun, his lips compressed and his jaw ridged.

Suddenly, the lead rider turned and faced his pursuers. The pursuers encircled their quarry. A quick spear thrust missed its target. More spears loosed as camels were driven into the fray. Warriors swung clubs with abandon, many finding their mark and sending men tumbling from their mounts.

Tobia, Ishtar, Matalah, and his faithful men watched in heart-stopping silence.

Men and beasts lay sprawled on the desert floor. Only the loudest shouts and clinks of battle could be heard as the shapes rose and fell.

Matalah’s face drained of all color. “My sons! Are they among them? I must know!” He staggered toward his camel.

Ishtar gripped his arm, holding him back. “This morning your sons wanted to destroy you, but now you to rush to their rescue?”

Matalah tried to shake free. “They are flesh of my flesh. I cannot stand by and watch them be murdered.”

Ishtar glanced from Tobia to Matalah. “I’ll go. Stay with the boy.” Without waiting for further argument, Ishtar swung on his mount and trotted into the distance.

The battle appeared to end as quickly as it had begun. Ishtar approached slowly. A thick man from the second group advanced and a discussion ensued.

After a few moments, Ishtar broke away and turned back, though now the thick warrior followed close beside him.

Tobia rubbed his dry lips. “What does it mean?”

The old man stared in mute misery.

Ishtar drew near with his companion close behind.

The tall, heavyset man wearing a blood-smeared cloak stopped before the small group. As he descended from his camel, he nearly slipped but jerked himself upright. He strode straight to Matalah and bowed his head in respect.

His whole body trembling, Matalah returned the bow.

“My friend, it is my sad duty to report the death of your eldest son at my hands. I did not wish it but was forced to such action. If I did not act, your sons planned to kill me and my family.” He took Matalah’s hand in his own, pressing it firmly. “I do not hold his crimes at your door. I feel only your shame and loss.”

Matalah’s head dropped to his chest, tears trickling down his burnished cheeks. “I’m glad it was you who administered justice, for you would be neither weak in the face of a necessary duty nor excessive in revenge.”

Tobia stepped into the background.

Ishtar reached out and gripped his shoulder, holding him steady. He looked to the warrior. “Where are the others?”

“They, too, were set upon by neighboring clans.” He shook his head in shared sorrow and glanced at the old man. “I do not believe you have many sons yet alive, Matalah. I am truly sorry for your loss.”

Matalah choked out his words. “They met their chosen end.”

~~~

Ishtar stood aside as the body of Matalah’s eldest son was brought and laid before them.

As the young man stained his garments with his own blood and his head lay twisted at an unnatural angle, so Matalah seemed to bleed tears while his body contorted in agony. “Take me from this earth! I no longer wish to inhabit the land of the living. I have failed, and my sons will not join us in the place of rejoicing.”

Ishtar nudged Tobia forward. “Come, we’ll do this together and bury those past healing.”

~~~

Tobia swept his sweaty hair out of his eyes and leaned on his shovel.

Ishtar set a marking stone in place before the grave mound and stepped back. His long black hair clung to his cheeks and neck as drops of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

“What next?”

Ishtar glanced at the high sun. “We’ll take Matalah home.” He shrugged. “His wife and surviving children await his return.”

“If I knew nothing of you, I’d think you a marvel among men for what you’ve done for your friend. Because I know what you’ve been through, I’m even more amazed.”

Ishtar turned and stared at the flames of a fire that still burned in the remains of their camp.

Tobia followed his gaze and grew uneasy as Ishtar walked to the fire pit, seemingly entranced by the colorful flames. With his foot, he scattered the coals. “Don’t be impressed with me, for I’ve given back but a tiny portion of the kindness Matalah has shown me.”

Tobia peered back at Vitus, who stood aside staring vacantly into space as Matalah’s men readied for the return journey. “We buried the dead. But what will I do with the living?”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
~Mother Jones

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eighteen

—Wilderness—

A Sinking Feeling

Eoban laughed as he slapped Barak on the back. “Just like old times! I remember hearing stories about the great cat hunt—” He yanked a tree branch out of his face. “And I’ve always wondered how you managed to survive. You must carry some special charm to keep you free from harm.”

Barak frowned and hoisted his pack over his shoulder as he climbed over a fallen log. “You hardly know the whole story, or you’d never say that I stayed free from harm. On that particular occasion, I was mauled by a ferocious cat and abandoned by my friends. Hardly a charming experience, I assure you.”

Eoban winked at Obed. “I’m sure that if Aram were here, he’d have a few details to add.”

“If Aram were here, he’d probably knock you on the head.”

Eoban burst out laughing. “Oh, how I wish he were here. He’d add a dash of excitement to our dreary wanderings.” Eoban turned just in time to have a branch slap him in the face. He swore, bringing a smile to Barak’s face.

Obed hustled past Eoban and gripped Barak’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “Don’t let him bother you. I remember the time I took Onias to the wilderness for a cure. It wasn’t easy, but we both returned better for it. There’s a great deal in the natural world that can benefit us.”

Amin jogged along behind, a frown building between his eyes. “You told Jonas that you didn’t believe—”

Obed turned around and walked backward, his eyes narrowing. “What?”

Amin quickened his step and brushed past Obed. “Oh, nothing. Just, Jonas told Namah that you couldn’t see anything beyond your reach.”

Obed swiveled around, his gaze following the boy. “You shouldn’t listen to women’s gossip. It’ll lead to something unpleasant.”

Silence ensued as the three tromped through the tree-filled hillside.

Amin bent his head and pursed his lips tight.

Eoban broke the heavy silence with a chuckle. “You remember Gimesh, Barak?” He gave Obed a friendly shove. “There’s a story worth retelling.”

Barak picked up speed.

They broke free of the trees and turned straight toward the summit of the hill. Eoban panted as he climbed. The air grew heavy and moist, sending perspiration slipping down his face.

Barak pointed ahead and nodded. “Eoban’s right. I’d never seen a man like Gimesh before.” He glanced aside. “You may not believe in unseen powers and miracles, Obed, but I don’t know how anyone could explain Gimesh’s sudden appearance. It was more than mere luck.”

Obed rolled his eyes. “I beg you, please don’t start. So a man appeared at an opportune moment and decided to help you. What’s so strange about that? It doesn’t take an act of God to have good luck, surely.”

Barak grinned. “If only you saw Gimesh!”

Once they reached the top, Eoban threw down his walking stick, bent over, his hands on his knees, and took long, slow breaths. “There’ll be time enough to chat about mysteries and miracles, but right now, let’s eat.” He glanced aside. “Obed hurried us on so this morning that I barely got a morsel in my poor, parched mouth.” He flopped onto the ground.

Amin laughed and then dropped to the ground in a fair imitation of Eoban.

Obed glanced at Barak and shook his head.

Sitting up and leaning against a tree, Eoban sighed in contentment. So far…so good.

Barak stood with his hands on his hips, much like a mother hen ready to scold her unruly brood. “I suppose it won’t do any good to mention that the sun will set soon, and there is no decent shelter around.” He swept his hand from side to side as if to emphasize his point. “No rocks or caves or—” Barak’s scowl deepened. “What’s that?”

Obed placed his packs in a neat, orderly pile. “What’s what?”

Barak pointed into the distance; a plain lay before them with the mountains as a backdrop. “Look over there. Is that a migrating tribe?” He glanced aside. “You know the people in these parts, Eoban?”

Amin’s eyes widened as he peered at Eoban.

Eoban slapped his forehead and ran his fingers down his face. “I knew people in these parts a long time ago, but things change. By the blazing sun, even the hills seem to move around. It could take weeks to locate a friendly clan.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “If they’re migrating, they have bigger worries than we do.”

Obed studied the distant tribe. “It might be wise to know who is traveling so close, especially as we have no real defensible—”

Eoban rummaged through his bag. “Defensible? What’re you worried about? You think someone’s going to attack us? Here?”

Obed shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.” He glanced at Barak. “And I doubt any miracle would save us.”

Amin turned on his side and perched his head on his hand, a scowl darkening his face.

Eoban rose with a groan, munching on a piece of stale bread. Sweaty and feeling rather put out by their attitude, he strode to Obed’s side overlooking the plain. “If Barak thinks a bird from the sky will rescue us from danger, I say good for him as long as he lets me sharpen my spear. After all, he might be right. But unless you see—” Scanning the horizon, every muscle in Eoban’s body froze. “You idiots! That isn’t a migrating clan—that is a war party!”

All eyes turned toward Eoban.

Obed lifted his hands. “We tried to tell you.”

Barak nodded. “We did.”

Amin scampered to his feet.

“Stop blathering and get your stuff. This is no place to stop and rest. What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear Amin sigh in consternation when you fools started complaining about your bellies? Act like men, would you?”

The war party below turned and started up the hill.

Eoban thrust his bags over his shoulder, helped Amin load up, and gripped the boy’s arm.

They all scrambled around to the far side of the hill and then slid their way down to the dusty plain.

Stark mountains rose up in the distance.

As they hurried across the barren land, long shadows loomed on their left. Dust rose in the wake of their footsteps. All afternoon, they trudged—marching, walking, stumbling, and limping. As the sun dropped near the horizon, they began to climb the slow, winding way up the mountainside.

At a steep juncture, Amin slipped backward, rose too quickly, offset his balance, and fell on his back. He cursed under his breath.

Hustling forward, Eoban extended his hand. “Hold on, Amin. You’re moving too fast for your elders. We don’t want anyone to think we’re running away.” He hefted Amin to his feet, but the boy jerked his arm free.

“I’m not running away. I am running to something.”

Obed pivoted on his heel and scowled. “Don’t take that tone—”

Barak lifted his hand in concession as he laid his bundles on the ground. “We all need a rest. Besides, we should discuss where we’re heading. Last I heard we were just going to look around these hills and perhaps up in the mountains a little way.” He glanced at Eoban. “You’re not thinking about going all the way to the mountains, are you?”

Obed stowed his things in a pile next to Barak’s and sat down. “We’re liable to kill ourselves, running around out here in the dark. We need a fire and some food. I’ll get a blaze going if we call it a night.”

Eoban nodded. “A fire out here won’t alert anyone. Make it a modest blaze, Obed.” He dug a stone out of his sandal and glanced at the boy.

Amin stood stoop-shouldered, still frowning, his bags high on his back.

“What’s bothering you, Amin?”

“We can’t go back until we find my father.”

Barak shook his head. “We don’t know when or if we’ll find him.” He waved Amin closer. “You know as well as anyone, Ishtar may be dead—”

Amin grimaced. “I know. But Caleb needs to know the truth.”

Obed snorted. “Oh, Caleb needs to know.”

Eoban flicked the stone at Obed. He turned and beckoned Amin closer. “A good meal will make us all feel better.” He glanced up. “Obed, start a fire, and I’ll take a look around. Maybe some delicious dinner is traipsing around these woods just waiting for us.” He squeezed Amin’s shoulder playfully. “You gather wood while Barak and I see what we can find.”

With a shrug, Amin nodded.

Barak ran his fingers through his hair as he surveyed the dim twilight. “It’s pretty dark out there. What do you think we’ll see besides glowing eyes surmising whether we’d make a decent meal?”

Eoban snorted. “Barak! You are embarrassing yourself.” He glanced at the boy. “Amin, don’t listen. Any animal that wants to come my way is welcome. I love meat of all kinds.”

Barak chuckled and rubbed his tired legs. “All right! But please don’t attack anything bigger than the two of us combined.”

Eoban snatched Obed’s spear and handed it to Amin. “I’ll leave you in charge.” He nodded, one warrior to another. “Protect those that need protecting.”

Amin took the spear with the hint of a grin.

Obed waved Eoban away and proceeded to clear a space for the fire.

Barak nudged Eoban with his spear. “Come on, Brave Hunter! It’s nearly dark, and every animal with decent hearing knows we’re here.”

The two moved into the twilight.

~~~

Amin watched Eoban and Barak traipse away with a sinking feeling in his chest. He shook himself and turned his attention to Obed.

After gathering a handful of tinder, Obed pulled out his flint and forced a spark. After a moment of smoldering, a flame broke to the surface.

Amin scampered to the edge of the small circle of light and gathered twigs. He bundled them into his arms and started back to the small blaze when a large, bronzed hand gripped his arm. Thrashing, he tried to escape but the hand gripped tighter. Suddenly, he found himself facing the torso of a giant. With a quick thrust, he was forced to turn around. He called out, but it was too late.

Not all those who wander are lost… ~J.R.R. Tolkien

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