OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?

A chime rang.

Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”

The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”

Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”

Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”

A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”

Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”

“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”

Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”

Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”

Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”

Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”

“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”

“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”

“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”

A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”

Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”

With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”

Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”

—OldEarth—

Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”

Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”

Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”

“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”

Ark glanced at Zuri.

Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”

Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”

His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”

In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.

Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.

Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”

Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.

Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”

Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”

His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”

Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”

Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”

Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”

A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”

Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”

Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.

Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”

Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”

Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”

~~~

Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.

Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”

Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.

Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”

Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”

Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.

Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”

A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.

A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.

Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”

Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”

Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”

“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”

Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”

Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”

On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.

“What then?”

“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Five

—Stone City—

Outside the Walls

Eoban stood on a hill outside the city walls and watched flames flicker from distant hearths. He rubbed his growling stomach.

With a smile plastered on his face, Obed jogged forward and glanced aside at Barak. “I spoke with a family at the bottom of the hill.” He pointed to a small assembly stationed around a stew pot that hung over a modest blaze. “I told them that we’re travelers in search of a lost clan member, and they’ve agreed to let us spend the night. They have plenty of stew, Eoban, and they’re willing to share with us.”

Shoving off from an ancient tree, Barak rubbed his hands together. “I could certainly use a home-cooked meal.” He started after Obed and called back. “Hurry up, Eoban. We’re not waiting for you.” He and Obed loped down the hill.

Eoban frowned and hesitated. His stomach rumbled again. He blew air between his lips and jogged forward.

As they assembled around the fire, everyone gave way so the three men could partake of the offered stew and fresh bread. Soon, a strong drink was passed around, and in little time, Eoban’s mood expanded. After eating and drinking his fill, he flopped on the ground and stretched out between Obed and Barak, who sat cross-legged.

Various community members sat on the ground or on benches drawn back from the fire. Muted conversations flowed in all directions.

Propping himself on one arm, Eoban’s only discomfort lay in questions nagging his mind. He licked his tingling lips and launched his words like rocks. “So, how is it that a people who cook so well also ravage and enslave others?”

Deafening silence filled the air. Faces froze and limbs stilled.

Obed whacked Eoban on the side and muttered. “You repay their hospitality with an insult?”

Barak jerked to his knees, scanning the crowd. He met an old man’s gaze. “I’m sorry for my rude friend. Clearly, Eoban’s had too much to drink. You see, we’ve been traveling, and he’s had many—”

Stumbling to his feet, Eoban waved his arms, cutting off Barak’s conciliatory speech. “I can’t stand brutality! That’s my grievance. It makes me sick. It should make you sick—but you’ve thrived.” He jutted his arm toward the main gate. “Your whole city—”

The old man rose steady and clear-eyed. “My name is Daniel, it means judge. I am the one who settles arguments in our community.” He stepped closer to Eoban and fixed his gaze. “You have judged us before knowing the truth.”

Moving off to the side and crossing his arms, Obed shook his head. “So often the case with him.”

Daniel stepped around Eoban, returning to the central fire. “Perhaps, it’s your heart that speaks and not your reason.”

A low murmur rumbled through the crowd.

Daniel stared at the flames. “Those who live outside the walls are not the same as those who live inside.” He exhaled a long breath. “We are not much better than slaves ourselves. Chains do not bind us, but we’re held captive nonetheless. Having no voice, we have no strength to change the laws or fight the armies that protect them.”

Barak nodded, his eyes downcast.

Obed glared at Eoban with a told-you-so look.

Eoban returned the glare, his voice rising. “You know the laws are wrong, yet you don’t fight them?”

A youth sprang up from the circle. “Knowing something is wrong doesn’t put a spear in your hand. They’d kill us—”

Disgust welled inside Eoban, and his words rose like a snarl. “So, not brutes but cowards, then?”

As if in slow motion, Obed marched forward, clenching his fist.

Before he realized what happened, jolting pain seared through Eoban’s head, and he felt himself spinning. Darkness swallowed him.

~~~

Barak sat before a waning fire in the early morning light, watching the last stars fade into the brightening sky. Obed slumbered at his right, and Eoban still lay sprawled on the ground where he fell.

After much grunting and groaning and several vain attempts to sit up, Eoban gave a mighty roar and rolled to his knees and then staggered to his feet. He peered around, rubbing his jaw. “I know what happened, so don’t pretend.”

Barak closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest, smothering a groan.

“Try as you might, you can’t excuse him! Such behavior must be roundly condemned. I hope you did me justice and kept our clan’s reputation intact.”

Choking, Barak stared wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban leaned in, gazing into Barak’s eyes. “You and Obed did do me justice—didn’t you?”

After rising and stepping a safe distance away, Barak peered into Eoban’s bloodshot eyes. “It was Obed who knocked you out.”

“Obed?” Eoban smoothed his rough chin. “I’ll have a word—”

Frustration seizing him, Barak stomped close, gripped Eoban’s arm, and tugged him to the summit of the nearby hill.

The glorious white city spread before them, encircled by a wall with tall and short gates facing each direction. Guards marched along the wall, while merchants and villagers started their daily routines. Women opened shops, old men swept dirt from their steps, mothers bustled children to the well with empty jugs, and boys chased flocks into open fields.

Eoban peered at the view and then glanced aside. “What?”

Pointing to a temple roof rising high above the wall, Barak barely controlled his temper. “There! The inhabitants of this metropolis worship a figure that has a man’s head, the body of a great cat, and the wings of an eagle. It needs daily sacrifice to keep the city flourishing. Sound familiar?”

Eoban scowled. “Haruz must have studied here. But if Ishtar is in residence, I’m not sure we’ll ever get him away.”

Clapping his hands together in mute fury, Barak turned away. “Who accused our hosts of being cowards?”

“I’ve been talking in my sleep…?”

Scrambling footsteps turned their attention.

A twinkling smile in his eyes, Obed sauntered forward. “Have a good sleep, Eoban?” He winked at Barak.

Barak took a step backward.

Returning the smile, Eoban chuckled. “Oh, yes, slept like a baby. Blazing stars exploded in my head when I hit the hard ground—what more could a man ask?” Eoban clenched his fist. “If only you could share my joy.” He landed a heavy blow on Obed’s chin.

Obed spun backward and sprawled in the dust. He glared at Eoban, his eyes blazing.

Barak stepped over with a hand out, but Eoban blocked him and gripped Obed by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “Now, we’re even.”

After spitting on the ground, Obed rubbed his jaw, the fire in his eyes dying to embers. “Someone had to shut you up. Or do you think it’s generous to insult the people who feed you and treat you with kindness?”

“It was not their kindness I objected to but rather their weakness.”

Barak lifted his hands and stepped between the two men. “Enough!” He glanced from Eoban to Obed and then pointed to the city. “Or I’ll leave you two to kill each other while I go search the temple for Ishtar.”

With a snort and a dismissive wave, Obed surveyed the glinting white temple. “Ought to be interesting.”

Eoban scrambled down the hill. “Ishtar would end up in a place like that. Let’s go.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Try not to be too impressed, Obed. We can’t bring any of it home.”

With a storm cloud rising in his stomach, Barak followed the two men.

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”  ~James Baldwin

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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.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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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 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

New chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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Milestones

Milestones mark my place in life. I’m X many years old, graduated from such-and-such, married to so-and-so on a specific date and watched him die so many years later, gave birth to my children on appointed dates, grieved the loss of loved ones when and where, washed and dried twenty ka-billion loads of laundry, launched three careers, and savored countless peanut M & Ms.

Guess I’m done, eh? No need for another resolution. The umpteenth—“I’ll eat better, exercise more, practice charity, humility, self-control,” (We’re not referring to those M & Ms) or any other “I’ll-become-a-better-person-as-soon-as-I-get-it-planned-out-and-written-in-non-erasable (PDF?) format.

I sit in the park with this thought for a total of fifteen seconds and wonder why I’m not hyperventilating with joy. Doing Free-To-Be–Me cartwheels. Ignoring the indisputable fact that I’d appear deranged to the innocent folks walking their dogs.

Maybe because I’m not completely happy with the thought?

Err…that’s hardly in tune with the Love-Yourself-As-You-Are-So-You-Can Love-Others theme song I hear reverberating across the universe these days.

But then… (Yes, I am chatting to myself, and no one has said anything, so I think I’m okay for the moment.) I’m hardly ever completely happy. Really.

I have yet to become or meet anyone I think is absolutely perfect in every way, who can forgo the next life lesson stomping into the kitchen in the form of a confused child, or a comeuppance, appearing a lot like an irate boss with a hidden agenda, or the glory of a forgiving friend who remembers your birthday when you totally forgot theirs.

My life has always been about moving forward. Even when that “forward” ends up being a circle that meets up—a little chagrined—a couple of millimeters ahead of where I started.

Last year, I started dating for the first time since my husband died. Several dates and one almost relationship later, I’m only slightly wiser. I did learn some things. Some good. Some not so good.

Mostly, I realize once again that anything real comes in stages. Slowly. In relation to other things growing alongside, so everything can grow together in a healthy manner.

Like tomatoes for salsa. You have to start the seeds at the right time so they don’t get all spindly before the last frost signals real spring. And it’s a darn good idea to plan them so that the peppers ripen about the same week, or the tomatoes will rot, waiting for their culinary complements.

As a woman with kids, family connections, and life commitments, there is more to every human relationship than attraction, common interests, and shared goals.

Lots of people and circumstances to consider. And then there’s the reality of timing and hiking up that steep learning curve. Did I get an A+ on the last relationship lesson, or should I take remedial classes in self-awareness?

Allowing other people to have their say in the conversation makes what might otherwise seem impossible, quite possible. It’s the best defense before the big guns—I-got-to-get-it-done-by-this-date and it-should-look-like-this-when-I’m-done mentality shoots down relationships and ends conversations before they really get started.

So, my life is made of milestones. Resolutions. Learning curves. Timing and openness. If next year, I’m only a couple of millimeters ahead…again… Well, a step forward is a step forward—no matter how small.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Fifteen

—Mountains—

What Have You Done?

Tobia leaned against a fallen log and closed his eyes. The hot sun sent beads of sweat dripping down his face. Images of the villagers he had met and the trades he had made brought a smile smuggling up from his middle. He pictured Obed’s surprised expression when he returned home with a bag stuffed with noteworthy goods.

Someone nudged his foot. He opened his eyes.

Vitus peered down at him, a sour expression making crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes. “Where’s the bread?”

With a grunt, Tobia rose to his knees and fumbled through the smaller of the two bags at his side. He found a healthy chunk of bread and tossed it into Vitus’ hands. “Here. But eat slowly. We won’t get any more until we find the next village.”

Tearing into the loaf, Vitus sank to the ground and leaned against a tree trunk. He chewed noisily and wiped the crumbs from his face with the back of his hand.

Swallowing back disgust, Tobia plucked another piece from the bag and took a sensible bite. Alternating bites of bread with sips of water from his skin bag, Tobia stared at the lush green valley spread before them.

Vitus rolled his finger around his mouth to clear out the last vestiges of his meal. He rose and tromped to the gurgling stream and splashed water on his face.

With his eyes, Tobia followed the man’s every move.

Returning, Vitus plopped down and stared at Tobia. “Tell me about this God of yours.”

Tensing, Tobia ran his tongue over his teeth and waited.

“I’m not teasing.” Vitus shrugged. “I’d like to know where you get your power.”

Tobia tilted his head and considered the man before him. “What makes you think I have power?”

“You make deals faster than anyone your age has a right to. Villagers fall under some kind of spell the moment you walk near.”

“I’m just kind and honest.”

Vitus shook his empty water skin and frowned. Scrabbling to his feet, he returned to the stream and filled the bag. He peered over at Tobia. “There’s more to it than that. Your God aids you.”

“I won’t deny that’s true. But only because…” Tobia’s gaze wandered to the valley. “I don’t know why. He just does.”

Vitus lifted the dripping bag, tied a leather thong around the neck, and hooked it to his belt. Then he eyed Tobia. “I’d like some of that power myself.”

“God does what he wants.”

Vitus sat down and folded his hands over his knees. “I’d like to speak to Him face-to-face, as a man who contracts with a man.”

His heart thudding in his chest, a hollow sensation shot through Tobia’s middle. “I don’t think you can do that. God is…big.”

Vitus waved Tobia’s concern away and snorted. “I have plans. Good plans.”

“I’m not sure. I mean, you might offend Him and—”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Vitus snapped his fingers at Tobia. “Just tell me where He lives.”

After sipping the last drops of water from his bag, Tobia squeezed it flat. He glanced at Vitus, stood, and ambled to the stream. He laid his bag in the flowing water. “I don’t really know. I’ve heard that He resides on the high mountains.”

Peering into the distance, Vitus stared at the chain of mountains. He grinned.

Tying the mouth of the water skin-tight, Tobia clenched his jaw. “We need to get to the next village.”

Vitus rose and shoved Tobia in the shoulder. “We need to understand each other.” He bent in closer, his eyes narrowing to angry slits. “I’ve let you lead because everything seems to work in your favor. But that’s going to stop—today. I’ve been trading longer than you and if you’ve received help, I deserve the same assistance.” He pointed to the mountain. “Since He lives there, that’s where we’re going.”

Tobia gathered his bags and shoved them over his shoulder. Anxiety boiled in his stomach and dread weakened his knees. But as Vitus headed for the mountain, Tobia followed.

~~~

Tobia’s shaky legs slowed to a crawl. The mountains loomed closer and more forbidding as the evening wore on.

Glancing back, Vitus frowned and stomped back to Tobia. He shoved him hard and knocked him backward. “Listen, idiot, we’re not going anywhere else until after I get up that mountain and speak to your God. So you might as well move a little faster.”

Evening turned to twilight and soon faint stars appeared between wispy clouds. They trudged on until Vitus’ steps stumbled, and Tobia felt like he would collapse in an exhausted heap.

After dropping his bag beside a boulder, Vitus rolled into a ball and slept.

Dizzy and weak from hunger, Tobia crept to a tree and laid his bags aside. He rested his head on his knees. A black hole of depression swallowed him.

A sharp pinch on his arm forced his heavy eyes open too soon. Swallowing a sour taste and feeling like rocks were tied to his arms, he peered at the sky. A clear expanse of glorious stars twinkled down and a chill rippled over his body.

“Get up. We still have a long way to go.”

Tobia shook his head and rubbed stinging sleep from his eyes.

“If you’re hungry, good. All the more reason to move.” Vitus stumped away. “You won’t eat again until I say.”

As the sun broke over the horizon behind them, the mountains loomed straight up ahead. Like a man possessed, Vitus climbed the nearest slope.

“Oh, God.” Tobia’s head swam. “We can’t get up to the top. It’s too high. We’ll never make it.”

“Who said we have to go to the top? You just said He’s on the mountain. I can talk to Him when we get high enough. A God as powerful as yours will be able to hear me.”

“He won’t hear you! Or even if He does—”

Vitus climbed faster.

Scrambling for handholds and footholds, Tobia followed. His fingers tore against the rough surfaces and bled. His aching head threatened to burst.

As the sun climbed, dark clouds rolled in. A rumble in the distance warned of an impending storm.

Tobia stopped on a ledge about a third of the way up and wiped his sweaty brow. He peered up at Vitus. “It’s almost noon. How long before we stop?”

“There’s a wide space just ahead. We can climb up there and rest a bit. It looks like the perfect spot for a private conversation.”

As he scrambled over the lip of the edge, Tobia felt a dream-state block his vision. The eerie green expanse swirled into a nightmare, wavering and hovering like a roving monster.

Vitus dropped his bags and chuckled. “At last!”

Tobia fell to his knees and dropped his bags at his side. Hanging his head, he sucked in long draughts of air. A gust of wind whipped through his hair, sending a chill over his body. He glanced up.

Mountainous dark clouds roiled overhead.

Vitus peered at the sky and laughed. He pointed to the dreadful storm. “I think someone is waiting for me.”

With a whimper, Tobia crumpled on the ground, his gaze riveted on the man before him.

Vitus threw his arms straight into the air, his wide eyes glaring like a madman at the turbulent sky. “Oh, God, I’m here! Listen to me!”

A zigzagging flash of lightning exploded from the sky. Enveloped in brightness too intense to stand, Tobia covered his face. A crack of thunder split the air and rumbled across the firmament.

Tobia rolled onto his face and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

Even with his hands over his face, Tobia saw another bright flash and heard another crash of thunder. He curled into a tight ball and rocked, moaning apologies.

After the third flash of light and deafening crack, silence fell.

Tobia stopped rocking and waited.

A pounding rain lashed his body. He lay still, exhausted, and frozen with fear.

When the downpour decreased to drizzle, a cool wind swept through and caressed him. Tobia relaxed and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

~~~

Tobia awoke with a neck ache and tasted grit between his teeth. Sitting up, he stretched and glanced around. The sun, rising in the east, pinked the mountainside. He looked around. “Where—?”

Only a few feet away, Vitus lay face up with his arms outstretched. His eyes stared without moving.

Tobia shuddered. He scrambled to his knees and scuttled closer.

Vitus lay frozen.

Poking Vitus’ shoulder, Tobia tensed. “Vitus?”

Not a flicker.

Climbing to his feet, Tobia hovered over Vitus and tapped his face. His skin felt warm to the touch and there was a faint blush on his cheeks. But not a hint of movement.

“Vitus? You all right?”

Nothing.

Tobia surveyed the land before him with a sweeping gaze. Not a cloud in sight. He stepped to the edge of the path they had climbed. He shook his head and glanced aside.

A rocky ledge edged around the mountain. A goat trail? He trotted over and peered along the distance. It sloped downward. With a sigh of relief, Tobia returned to Vitus. He knelt by the man’s side and shook his shoulder. “You’ve got to get up, Vitus. We need to get down the mountain.”

Vitus rolled like a ragdoll. When Tobia pulled on his arms, he slumped to a sitting position, but his eyes remained fixed and unnaturally wide, staring at nothing.

A chill prickled Tobia’s arms. He croaked his words, his throat dry and scratchy. “Oh, God, Vitus. What have you done?”

~~~

“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Alexander Pope

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