OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Six

A New Light

—Grasslands and Hill Lands—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obed snorted and took a swig from his bowl.

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

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

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

Tobia stiffened.

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

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

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

“I hardly know—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

“What did Jonas want?”

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

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

“You know Jonas. She worries.”

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

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

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

Eoban held his tongue in check.

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

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

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

“Barak isn’t coming?”

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Onia stood near, shuffling from foot to foot.

Tobia swallowed his last bite and wiped his mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll leave soon enough.”

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

Onia frowned and stepped aside.

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

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

Onia’s legs jiggled in the anxious waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes turned to Tobia.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobia shuffled in place and bit his lip.

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

Kamila’s eyes widened.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I help you, Kamila?”

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

A shout turned their heads.

Onia stood hunched with both trade sacks over his shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We’re Not Neanderthals

Sydney knew he faced mission impossible, but he had to try. She’d never be a fully functioning human being until she joined the ranks of millions—no billions—who had gone before her and embraced the brave new world.

He felt the gravel crunch under his tires as he turned into the driveway. The back gate was closed, which meant that the goat was probably in the barn, safe and sound, thank God. He’d spent the entire weekend either catching up on house repairs, work reports, or alternating with his wife at one of the kid’s weekend games. What idiot scheduled soccer practice twice a week and games on Sunday?

He took the key out of the ignition. Four o’clock. He might as well get this over with. Mom and dad ate a formal dinner at noon and a light supper at six. Promptly. He hardly wanted to try squeezing the whole technological world in between the early news and grilled cheese & tuna sandwiches.

But try he must. He grabbed the Kindle from the passenger seat and lumbered from the car, huffing with the exertion. Darn, but he should’ve had another cup of coffee before coming. He felt in his pockets. A handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans ought to do the trick.

Munching, he climbed the steps up to the porch and pressed open the door with a “Hey, anyone home?”

“Sydney!”

As if she didn’t expect to see me. Hah! Sydney felt a rush of guilt. For what, he wasn’t sure and wouldn’t stop to think about it. Roll away, guilt. Just roll away.

“Hey, mom.” The hug. The warm kitchen. The sense that nothing ever changed. Though she was a bit older. Moved slower as she crossed the room. “Dad here?”

“Oh, he’s out back with the dogs. Taking care of one of the Kerns’ pups. It got injured, and he’s nursing it back to health.”

“Nice of him. Never could say no.”

His mom shook her head, smiling the way she always did. “Why would he? He likes dogs. You know that.” She peered at her son.

Sydney felt like he time-warped back to yesterday’s airport security. What a horrible flight. The baby crying, the guy snoring, the storm clouds looming.

“You okay, son?”

Sydney shook himself. “Sure.” He laid the Kindle on the counter. I brought it like I said I would.

A combination of fear and distaste flickered over his mom’s seventy-year-old face. “That was nice of you. But I don’t really need it. I’ve got two library cards and that flip phone you gave me last year.”

“But, mom, this is so much easier. You won’t have to get out in the weather to go to the library. Books come to you. Right here. In your hands.” He lifted the Kindle like a car salesman showing off his latest option. He shrugged the image away.

With a long sigh, his mom picked up a long-handled spoon and stirred a pot bubbling on the stove. “I made chili—used up the last of the frozen, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I even tossed in a can of homemade salsa for zest. We’ve got enough hamburger to last into May, but dad says he’s gonna butcher that old cow. She’s never recovered since the fall she had, and he figures she’d be enough to give you and Heidi some and still last us until next year.”

Sydney pictured the last package of hamburger he bought at the store—unnaturally red and outrageously priced. Had a strange taste too. “Well, I never say no to your food. The kids love your cooking more than me, I think.”

“Oh, honey. Don’t be silly. It’s just that we spent so much time with them when they were little.” A wistful expression spread over her eyes. “It’s good that they’re involved in so many activities now, but I hope they won’t forget grandma and grandpa…”

As if he could stop a knife twisting his innards, Sydney clutched the Kindle harder. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

A defeated damsel, his mom laid the spoon aside, pulled out a wooden kitchen chair and sat down. “You can show me, but I can’t promise I’ll remember…”

“Just try, ma. It’s all I ask. Do it for me. This way I don’t have to worry about you going out in all kinds of weather just to get to the library. Or doing so many things you don’t have to do. There are more than books on here. You can get music and movies. You can look up—”

Like a zealot cajoling a wayward member of the flock back into the fold, Sydney showed off the cyber universe with finesse and confidence.

The back door slammed. Dad strode in, slightly bent, but grinning from ear to ear. “Got that pup fed, its leg splintered, and now she’s sprawled out with the hounds like she’s never known any different.”

Looking up like a drowning woman begging for a lifeline, his mom stared at her husband through a plastered smile. “Look what Sydney brought us.”

Discomfort sent prickles over Sydney’s spine. “Oh, dad don’t care about this stuff. He’s told me so a hundred times.”

With a snort, his dad splashed his hands under the tap, scrubbed vigorously with soap, then rinsed and dried like a professional hand washer. He sniffed the chili, hobbled to his chair, and plunked down with a happy sigh. “You make it sound like I hate what you do, son. I don’t hate it.”

“You’ve never taken any interest in it, that’s for sure. Every time I try to show you what I do for a living, you turn away. Or say you don’t understand. When I know you could—if you wanted to.”

Dad and mom exchanged a quick glance, understanding each other in a way that strangled Sydney’s heart.

Sydney closed the Kindle. Defeat weighed a couple of tons at least. Mission impossible. I knew it.

Nudging him in the shoulder, his dad offered an encouraging smile. “You’re not listening, son. I appreciate what you do. You’re technology skills amaze me. Your mom and I are very proud of you. We just have better things to do than join in on everything.”

“Join in? What are you talking about? I’m just offering a Kindle devise so she can get—”

Mom placed her hand over Sydney’s and patted with maternal tenderness. “I like to go to the library. My friends are there. We chat and share what we’re reading, tell about things going on in town, the latest news. Last week when I wanted a new way to fix venison, Jan found a great recipe online. She even identified that weird bug your dad found in the woodpile the other day from some etymologist in India.”

She gazed into her memory. “Interesting man. Wish India were’ so darn far away.” She glanced at her husband and once again they agreed in a silent conversation. “Your dad got his email address and is thinking of writing and asking how the bug managed to find its way into our backyard.”

Sydney swallowed. “You’ve been on the web?”

Bernie grinned, leaning back against the sink, one brown gnarled hand propped on the counter. “Of course. We’re not Neanderthals. We just don’t want to get all caught up in that stuff. It’s fine now and again. But when Jill and the kids come over, they spend more time looking at their phones than talking with us. It’s like they can’t put the things down for even a minute.” He shrugged. “Your mom and I have other things we like to do with our time.” A twinkle entered his eyes as he met his wife’s gaze.

A shocking, mischievous spark danced from husband to wife. Thankfully, mom recovered quickly and swung her full attention to her son.

“You understand?” Mom’s eyes pleaded.

Sydney heaved his body from the table. “So you don’t want this?”

“It’s just—we’d rather not be tempted.” Dad clapped his hands together. “Now when are we going to have that chili? I’m as hungry as a bear after a long winter.”

Mom hopped up and flipped open the cabinet. She grabbed bowls and charged into the utensil drawer, gunning for action, “Can you stay and have some, Sweetheart? I’ve got garlic bread warming in the oven.”

Sydney pictured the scene at his home. His kids would each be in their room staring at their computers…or Kindles. Jill would be slouched on the couch—maybe playing a game or binge-watching her latest TV obsession. He’d walk in, say hi, no one would respond. He’d go to his room and turn on his computer.

He peered down at the eager, alive faces of his parents and sat back down.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-One

Ancient Enemy

Obed peered across the horizon in the morning light and pictured his daughter’s face at their parting. Mari had stood tall, her long black hair blowing in the wind and tears streaming down her face.

His son, Onia, had begged to fight at his side, but the expression on Jonas’s face convinced him otherwise. He sent his son to the caves to protect the women and children.

Obed swallowed back fear and hate and looked to his men as they lined up ready for battle.

He had limped alongside Ishtar into the village, and a shout rang out that warmed Obed’s heart. When he realized that as many men were shouting for Ishtar’s safe return as for his own, he had to stifle his irritation. But watching Ishtar work with the men, making plans, calling for weapons, encouraging the fearful and directing the overzealous, soothed Obed’s raw emotions. Ishtar was not the same man who had fallen so far from grace.

Eoban gripped Obed’s shoulder as he stood next to him. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re still alive?”

Choking on something between a snort and a scream, Obed peered aside at Eoban. “You said, ‘Told you so,’ and plodded by as if I had simply missed dinner.”

“You acted like an idiot, and I won’t let you forget it.” Eoban’s gaze roamed to the distant hills. “I wish I knew where Barak ended up.”

His stomach tightening, Obed bit his lip. “You should never have left him.”

“Don’t blame me if the man can’t find his head in the dark.” Eoban pointed to the hills. “He probably got confused, circled around a few times, and met Luge. He might’ve decided to rest a few days.”

“Sounds like Barak. A man of leisure.”

“Given time, I’ll forgive him for being an even bigger idiot than you, but this—” Eoban waved his hand at the sight of a massive assembly drawing near. “I’ll never forgive.” He spat on the ground.

A shout rang out.

In the distance, a wall of ragged prisoners appeared on the hillside. Most of them were children, and they scuttled forward, prodded from behind.

Obed’s stomach turned sour, bile rising.

The enemy was using human beings as shields—to be slaughtered in the first approach.

Ishtar trotted forward. “Everyone’s in place.”

Eoban glanced at Ishtar. “Your men will circle around?”

With his gaze locked on the approaching enemy, Ishtar nodded and waved to the assembly behind them. “The central throng will meet these children with tenderness. But Lud will approach from the east with his men, and I’ll lead mine from the west. Between us, we’ll destroy the enemy.” He darted away.

As cold hate penetrated Obed’s body, he leaned forward, ready to leap ahead. To no one in particular, he said, “Once they’re exposed, we rush in and kill them all.”

~~~

Eoban wiped sweat from his eyes, huffed deep breaths, and clashed spears with one of the enemy, a short, stocky man who, like the others, wore a knot of black hair on a shaved head.

Wielding swords and shields with harsh motions and hostile calls, the enemy gained ground. Something aided them that went beyond the realm of mere luck. Most of the children had been spared, but as Ishtar and Lud circled around, the enemy seemed to expect the maneuver and turned with great skill to meet the challenge.

Lud’s men were speared and stabbed like sheep led to slaughter.

Ishtar met with little more success. His warriors were more experienced, but time had blunted their abilities.

Screams and shouts filled the air. Carrion circled overhead, and some even landed on the dead and those not yet dead but wishing to be so.

Swallowing back bile, Eoban stared at the descending sun and pleaded like a needy child. “Please, God! Aram, hear my cry…the cries of your people…your friends.”

A stout figure with moves quick as lightning came from out of nowhere, pounding toward Lud.

Lud no sooner turned than the man’s knife pierced his side.

With a choked breath, Eoban screamed, “No!” and rushed forward, his bloody knife clenched in his hand. Before he made four steps, a new enemy jumped in his path and barred his way.

~~~

Chai chuckled as he stepped back and let the youth fall to his knees before him. This day had been too easy! Tales had been told about this clan, this gathering of clans, and all they had achieved through long years together.

He licked his lips and tasted blood. He peered at Lud, hesitating. “You a man or a boy?”

Grimacing, Lud lurched to his feet and aimed his knife. His hand trembled, and his voice rose to a reedy whisper. “I am Lud, the leader of this clan.”

Chai grinned, tapping his chest. “I’m Chai. Your leader now.” He stepped forward. “Bow before me.”

Lud stumbled backward.

The sound of a ram’s horn tore through the village, stilling the cries and screams in a hundred throats.

Chai frowned, gazing around, puzzled.

A man bounded to a halt on his right. Swinging around, Chai faced the blood-splattered warrior.

Lud screamed. “Eoban! Watch out.”

The ram’s horn sounded again and a dark-haired warrior charged into the confused melee, leading a fresh host of men. A giant man loped alongside at his right hand.

Shock drenched Chai like cold water. Stiffening, he glanced around. His men looked to him for direction, their eyes asking if they should retreat. He shook his head. He never retreated.

Suddenly, a tall, sinewy man with long black hair trailing down his back and blazing eyes turned and stared directly at Chai. Their gazes locked.

Chai blinked. He knew those eyes. He knew that expression. A familiar terror seeped into his bones, and he trembled. He lifted his bloody knife and held it high. “Retreat!”

~~~

Ishtar confronted the mighty invaders, fighting hand-to-hand, stabbing, hitting, and twisting his own body out of harm’s way while other horrors rose in his mind. The sightless eyes of countless victims, his father’s blood on his hands, and the ghostly apparition of his grandfather crowded him like cavorting devils.

When he saw the enemy leader, he knew with uncanny certainty that this man was not merely a battle-hardened warrior or even an intelligent slave trader. An ancient force ruled the mortal before him. Ishtar watched the stalwart leader swoop forward like a bird of prey, his arms outstretched practically enveloping his men in his mighty will—win at all costs.

They retreated now. But they would be back.

~~~

Eoban plunked down on the hard ground before a hut and propped his head on his splayed hands.

An old man fed kindling to a central fire, murmuring a chant under his breath.

A hand pressed Eoban’s shoulder. “Resting?”

Eoban stared at Barak in blank amazement. “I always rest after battle—especially after I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about my friends.”

The old man stepped back from the flickering flames, light chasing shadows across his wizened face.

Barak leaned casually on his spear and shrugged. “I met travelers in the north gathering men to assist us. When Luge heard of our need, he decided to join in. As we approached the village, I saw the danger of a direct attack and decided it was best to come in late and confront the enemy when they were exhausted.”

Eoban tilted his head at the irony of Barak’s thinking.

Barak nudged him in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. “It worked to good effect, don’t you think?”

Pursing his lips Eoban nodded. “Just about killed us, but yes.”

His arm bleeding and his clothes ragged, Obed limped forward. Without a word, he dropped to the ground, leaned against the shed, and shut his eyes.

Ishtar strode up, pointing north. “They’ll hide in the hills for a few days…but they’ll return.”

A man called. “Ishtar! Come!”

Without hesitation, Ishtar sprinted away.

Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. He waved his fingers airily. “Some of us are much too clean.”

His eyes widening, Barak sat next to Obed. “You think I should’ve rushed in to look heroic and been overwhelmed with everyone else?”

Eoban raised his hands in protest. “I’m too tired to argue. Wait till later.”

Obed groaned. “It’s like being back in the wilderness with you two all over again.”

Ishtar hustled back and stood before them, his eyes grave and serious.

Sitting up, nauseous and weary, Eoban lifted his gaze. “What?”

“The healers can’t stop Lud’s bleeding. We need Jonas and the other women.”

Barak slapped Eoban’s leg. “Let’s go.”

Struggling to his feet, Eoban glanced around. “Where’s Tobia?”

Turning in a circle, Ishtar’s eyes widened in alarm. “Last time I saw him, he was running—” He glanced north.

Obed moaned. “Could he have run into the enemy line?”

Barak shook his head, frowning. “He’s too smart for that.”

Bouncing a glance off Obed, Eoban looked away.

Ishtar stepped aside, gazing at the hills. “He must have had a reason.”

Trying to rise, Obed faltered. “I’ll go after him.”

“Sit still.” Eoban pressed Obed back to the ground. “You need to recover your strength.” Grimacing, he rubbed his back and faced the hills. Night slowly turned light into blackness. “I’ll be back before morning.”

“Barak’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t look too good yourself.”

“I never look good.” Eoban sucked in a deep breath and patted Barak on the back. “You’re a decent man, Barak. Remember I said that. It may come in useful. Besides, you and Obed need to get the women.” He waved his finger at them admonishingly. “No one is to follow me.” Hunch- shouldered and sick at heart, Eoban plodded away.

Ishtar stepped beside Eoban and matched his pace. “Except me.”

Eoban nodded in exhaustion. “Except you.

”We are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.” ~David Benioff

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

The Delete Button

“Modern technology is decimating my literary prowess as well as my love life.”

Evangeline held her gaze steady, refusing to give in to an auto-eye-roll. I love my cousin. Mom loves her. Dad loves her. I can’t kill her without due process of the law. She snatched a pecan from the trail mix bag and eyed it carefully.

“What? You think a nut can explain my life?”

There were so many possible responses—Eva’s head swam. She popped the dainty morsel into her mouth and crunched. She peered over the top of her reading glasses at her DNA-sharer and wondered how any one human being could get so thoroughly confused on a daily basis.“What has the computer done to you now, Tracy?”

“The blinking delete button!”

Another pecan followed the first. Eva glanced at the car’s dashboard. Six minutes to go. Once the kids were out of school and slumped into the back seat, they all could race to the store, pick up the cake mix and two kinds of frosting for the bake sale, plus three kinds of sprinkles because kids these days won’t shell out their parent’s money without sprinkles, speed home, get the girls on baking duty, let the dog out…no, definitely let the dog out first. Then preheat the oven. Then get the girls baking…

“Don’t you want to know about the delete button?”

Eva propped her head against the warm car window. Four minutes. She could live through four more minutes, surely. “So what evil has the delete button been perpetrating upon you, my dear?”

“I don’t have one when I talk.”

Eva groaned.

“You know, I’ve won awards for my writing. I’m considered one of the most professional science journalists out there. But heck, put a mike in front of my mouth or perch a good looking guy on the stand, and I’m a babbling idiot.”

A tiny piece of pecan had wedged itself behind one of Eva’s front teeth and it was worth more than the cost of her new couch to get the thing into a more approachable position. She took a sip of water as the school bell buzzed.

Kids swarmed like bees in springtime. The two second cousins, Kala and Marci bustled along bumping shoulders, as if they had just shared a joke or were in on a secret together.

At least, they looked like they are having fun. Eva pressed the unlock button. The kids tumbled in. End of conversation. She hoped.

Tracy dashed such dreams to smithereens without conscious thought. “My theory is that human beings are going to kill each other before the century is out because we’re used to editing our words with the ease of a delete button, and we’re slowly but surely losing the ability to speak coherently face to face.” She turned and squinted at the girls with a two-fingered wave. “Hi, beautiful babes.”

Eva didn’t have to look in the rearview mirror to see the eye-rolls. The car nearly lurched into oncoming traffic with the force of them.

Marci patted her mom’s shoulder. “Hi, pretty mama.” She nudged Kala. They both grinned.

Eva made a slow turn into the store parking lot, which happened to be conveniently located between the grade school and the high school.

“Some city planners in cahoots with local business interests.”

“What?” Tracy’s wide-eyed expression left no doubt that the delete button was missing in action again.

Eva shook her head and darted from the stopped car like a puppy off its leash. “Sit tight. I just have to grab a couple things—”

No such luck. Tracy flew to her side and flung her purse strap over her shoulder. Soldiers had been known to carry injured buddies off the battlefield with less drama.

Speeding down the baking aisle entertaining fantasies of finding both frosting and sprinkles on a half-off sale kept Eva’s mind so busy she didn’t hear a word her cousin said. Not until the babbling stopped short, and the woman’s steely grip yanked her sleeve off her shoulder. “There he is! The guy I was interviewing today. He’s a scientist. But you’d never guess, would you?”

With slow, nonchalant dignity, Eva redressed her shoulder and slid a glance at the scientist in aisle two. Indeed. He did not match any stereotypes currently running around Eva’s married head. Except perhaps about some childish long-forgotten barbarian king with long, wavy, hair, intense brooding eyes, broad shoulders and mighty biceps, who swept her off… Whoa—

Tracy strode forward and thrust out her hand.

Eva closed her eyes and thanked God that their innocent daughters were still in the car.

Tracy babbled. The man nodded.

Repeat.

Eva debated the need for Confession if she just slinked to the bakery aisle, retrieved her much-needed items, and then scraped her cousin off the floor after the fact. She turned, prepared for flight.

“Eva!” Tracy grabbed the man’s hand and attempted the yank maneuver.

Eva froze, wondering if spontaneous combustion was a legitimate option.

By some kind of supernatural Grace, which apparently altered the known universe, the man grinned and allowed himself to be towed across two aisles.

Tracy beamed. Seriously. Beams of happiness shot from her eyes nearly blinding Eva. “Guess what? I bet you’ll never guess!”

Eva considered the guy. He appeared to be amused. Tickled even. His gorgeous physiology only accented his apparent joy.

Eva slapped her hand against her cheek.

The man laughed, pulled his hand free, and held it out. “I’m Kendrick and work at the state forensics lab. Your cousin interviewed me for—”

“He doesn’t think I need a delete button!”

Eva shook her head. “But I do. Let the man finish his sentence.”

Tracy blushed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

Kendrick’s smile didn’t waver. “It doesn’t really matter. I was just glad we bumped into each other. I was rather short with her today, and I wanted to apologize. One of my kids has been sick, and I’ve been up two nights in a row helping my wife take care of him.”

Without looking, Eva knew that Tracy’s beam had faded into shadow. She offered the father a comforting shoulder pat. “Oh, been there, done that. Hope your boy gets better soon. Our girls are waiting for us in the car—we better run.”

With a gentleman’s nod, he returned to his niche aisle. Cold remedies and vitamins.

By the time they had returned to the car, Tracy had rediscovered her voice. “I didn’t see a ring on his finger. So I just figured…and when he recognized me and said—”

Eva stopped beside the car and gave her cousin a one-armed hug, the other hand clutching the baking supplies. “Listen, honey, it isn’t that you need a delete button—so much as a listening ear. Just give other people a chance to show you who they are before you decide you know them. Okay?”

Tracy nodded, yanked open the passenger side door and slid in with a harrumph.

Eva pulled into traffic, trying to decide if she should preheat the oven or hug her husband first.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

You Never Know

As Lucy stared at the wafts of steam spiraling up from her cup into the frosty air, a bittersweet pang fluttered in her chest. So like the incense they use at Mass. Frankincense clouds rising toward the heavenly beings painted on the ceiling. She always felt like she was being left behind somehow.

She tapped her numb fingers on the mug to ensure circulation. It wasn’t right, sitting here in the truck, out of the blasting wind, while the men dug the hole. Granted, they had a huge machine to do the digging. She only had to record the fact that the deed was done in the right place and mark it on the map. Perhaps she didn’t need to be here at all.

But no. It was her job. Had been for years and everyone trusted her to do it right. No one was ever buried in the wrong plot under her watch. A couple of families squabbled about who would go where, but that was quickly settled with cheerful tact and abundant patience.

But this time? There certainly were no squabbles. Even the deceased didn’t specify exactly where he wanted to be buried. Only “in his home town.” He could have wanted to be buried in someone’s basement for all she knew. Why didn’t anyone ask him to clarify his wishes before it came to this? And put some money down while they were at it?

Lucy placed the cold mug in the cup holder and clapped her gloved hands together, sending prickling stings along her fingers. She could turn on the engine and warm up…but that’d be like telling the guys she was tired of waiting. Or too cold to stand it. They’d turn her way, looking apologetic. But then, they’d still have to get back to work and open the grave before it got any darker. Bothering them wouldn’t make this go any faster.

With a sigh, her exhaled breath clouded the scene. She glanced at the folder in her lap. Might as well open it and appear to be doing her job. She flipped the thick, stapled papers to the last page. Section P. There were really only seven sections, A through F, and by all rights, this one ought to be labeled G, but someone around 1902 must’ve thought that future generations needed a little help keeping things straight. So he or she labeled this section P. For pauper.

She didn’t know much about Mr. Keelson. Oh, there were Keelsons living throughout the county. But this particular twig must’ve snapped off long ago since no one knew him or his history. When the funeral home called and said that a Mr. Thomas J. Keelson had left a scrawled note in the hospital, requesting to be buried in his hometown, she had recorded all the relevant info sure that, in time, some knowledge of him or his family would surface.

But no.

Mr. Thomas John Keelson was born in the town as the records stated, but not one person claimed him or his family. The Keelsons that lived over on Six Sisters Road had no idea who he belonged to. And Velma, the patriarch of the country, said she’d never clapped eyes on the man. It was a mystery. A sad one, at that.

A knock on the glass startled her. She looked up. Glen waved a couple stiff fingers with his dirty-gloved hand. His tight smile tried to appear cheerful, but his frosty white cheeks and squinting eyes bore testimony to a north wind that just wouldn’t quit. He shouted through the glass as if the cold had made her hard of hearing. “We’re ready.”

She nodded and flipped the book back into her folder. She knew the lot number by heart. Seven-two-three. Block P. Three from the top. Three from the right. Nestled between Mrs. Eula Patel and open ground. There was an oak nearby. With an iron bench situated just under the heavy boughs. In the springtime, it looked picturesque. Today it sat between forgotten and forlorn. Her heart throbbed more painfully than the rheumatism in her joints. She climbed out of the truck and braced herself against the wind. She didn’t even notice that she let her muttered thoughts loose as she tugged on her cream-colored crocheted mittens and then stuffed them into her oversized coat pockets.

“Why don’t people think about the future? Surely…”

“What’s that?” Glen, huffing through his scarf, still shouted. He tucked his hands under his armpits. His coat, as well as his frame, was so thin, she imagined that if the wind grew any stronger, it would surely knock him back all the way into block A.

“Oh, nothing. Just wondering why no provisions were made. It’s not hard to pick out a plot, and they’re not expen—”

“Family is probably all dead. Maybe he had one but gave it away like that Joseph guy in the bible did for Jesus.”

Lucy shook her head and felt the wind bite her ears. She yanked her hood tighter around her head. Glen’s gentle heart always looked for the best in folks.

Once she reached the graveside, she nodded to Paul. Short and stout to Glen’s tall, lanky build, the two made a study of contrasts. Paul hardly ever said a word. Just did his work as carefully as ever a man could. A state inspector might review every grave dug in the last thirty years under Paul’s watch but would never find a single fault.

The movement of the hearse backing up caught her attention. It stopped with the flash of the brake lights, and then the engine died. The door swung open and Berta swung out. The woman practically sprang from the front to the back like a released rubber band.

Being a funeral director, Berta had a certain gift for dramatic style. Despite the fact that there was no real assembly to speak of, the power of her movements retained their usual vigor. The back doors swung open, and the two men stepped forward in lockstep. The king’s guard would’ve been impressed with the stately manner in which they carried the cheap wooden coffin from the hearse to the plot.

It took a bit of managing to get everything lined up just so, and the box down smoothly, but despite the wind howling in her ears, Lucy felt warm relief flood her whole body as Mr. Thomas J. Keelson was finally laid in his eternal resting place.

Once the process was completed to Berta’s satisfaction, she grinned, waved, and then retreated from whence she had come like a motion picture star going off stage.

Glen and Paul began to fill in the hole. There was nothing left but to wait in the truck. Lucy climbed in, shoving her notebook and papers aside. It was too cold. She eyed the key in the ignition.

They won’t mind.

The truck roared to life, and Lucy turned the heater on full blast. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes to the sound of the tractor shoveling dirt into the hole. She tried not to imagine it in her mind.

Her phone chimed.

After yanking off one mitten, Lucy tugged her phone from her coat pocket and smacked it against her ear. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Lucy Harden?”

“Speaking.” Lucy felt her heart constrict. She didn’t recognize the voice, but who on earth would be calling her this late on a Friday evening?

“Sorry to bother you, but I just discovered that my dad’s body was taken to your cemetery to be buried.”

“Your…dad?” A chunk of ice caught in her throat.

“Yeah. He’d been ill for some time and couldn’t remember things so well. I’ve been living on the west coast. There’s no one else. When he was sick, I made sure that the funeral home would do right by him…but I never actually specified where he was to be buried.”

Lucy shook her head. Tears sprang into her eyes. “He left a note saying he wanted to be buried in his hometown. So we did.” She grabbed a breath and choked it down. “Just now.” Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you existed, or I would’ve let you know. The funeral home never told me—”

“Oh, they didn’t know. See, my dad and I didn’t get along. He was a terrible dad, as a matter of fact, and a worse husband, if you know what I mean.”

Lucy’s gaze drifted to the two men adding the final touches to the grave, piling on the last of the dirt and rounding the edges. Their backs were bent and the oak’s black branches seemed to claw the air above them like a menacing monster.

She made a proper grieving sound. As she must.

“But despite everything…I knew my dad was terrified of being cremated. He thought it was a prelude to hell. Used to say that if we had him cremated, he’d come back and haunt us. I figure he won’t have any say in the matter…but still. I can’t explain. I made sure he wasn’t cremated. But I just couldn’t bury him.”

Lucy couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her nose and ears burned like hellfire.

A knock on the window nearly wrenched her out of her skin.

“Done!”

Glen looked so happy through his dog-tired eyes, and Paul waved as he hustled to his own dirt-splattered truck.

Lucy nodded. To no one in particular.

Glen climbed in the driver’s side, slapped his hands on the wheel, and grunted. “Thank God!” He saw her frown and froze.

Lucy spoke into the phone. “Sorry. But, what did you say your name was?”

“Oh, yeah. Thomas, like my dad. Though everyone just calls me Tom. Named my son is Thomas too. Tommy. My wife insisted; she loves the name…”

A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek, and she couldn’t for the world explain to Glen why she was crying. I did my job, after all.

 “Well, Mr… I mean Tom. You can rest assured that your dad is buried properly. If you ever want to visit him, he’s in section P.”

“Thank you, mam. I just wanted to know. I doubt I’ll ever come.”

Lucy could hear Tom shift the phone against his ear.

“Maybe my boy will, someday. Never know.”

Another tear followed the first.

“But I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can forget it all. Thanks…Bye.”

Lucy stared at the silent phone as if it might dissolve in her hand.

Glen sniffed. “He had a son? Sorry he wasn’t here to say a few words over his dad, I suppose. Poor guy. But he can come in the springtime—Memorial Day. We get a real crowd then. Maybe he’ll even meet up with some long lost family members.” Glen put the truck into gear and headed onto the main road.

Lucy dropped her hands, still holding the dead phone, onto her lap. She stared at the houses with lit windows shining onto Main Street. Each a personality unto itself. Miniature little worlds.

Glen cleared his throat and jutted his jaw as if to defend a point of honor. “Well, you never know.”

Lucy nodded. “You’re right. You never know.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter —Chapter Thirty-Five

—Grassland—

A Steadfast Heart

Lud sat on a high ridge overlooking the great lake and scanned the environment. Movement caught his gaze.

A man scrambled among the brush along the eastern edge.

Lud stood and peered down, shading his eyes. He called to one of his clansmen, Jude, who sprinted over and followed the line of his gaze.

The figure worked his way around the lake.

Jude squinted. “A spy?”

Lud shook his head.

The suspect scrambled up the cliff face and slipped twice before he proceeded more slowly.

Rubbing his neck, Lud frowned. “Brave fool maybe…but not necessarily a spy. Could be running from danger or looking for help.” Lud scanned the horizon.

Nothing but birds in the air and a few animals scampering about.

The stranger heaved himself onto a thin ledge and rested, sucking in draughts of air.

Jude smirked. “A fool, sure enough. That’s no place to hide.”

The stranger glanced from side to side, his shoulders squared and his chin sharp and determined.

As his eyes widened in alarm, recognition shuddered through Lud’s body.

~~~

Ishtar surveyed the land. He smiled at the memory of his four-footed friends who had accompanied him along many trails. He glanced at the mountains in the distance. The combination of blue sky, mountains, hills, open grasslands, and a sparkling lake refreshed his weary soul.

But in a flash, he saw the view from a different cliff, one where his bleeding feet clutched the edge and a rocky bottom beckoned. He could see Pele’s figure floating before his eyes, swaying like a leaf in a gentle wind. He heard her soft words: “Begin again.”

A hawk cawed in the distance, a shrill cry, demanding and powerful.

Ishtar closed his eyes. “I yet live.”

When he peered up, the bird had retreated into the distance, appearing now as nothing but a speck. With a stretch, he took a deep breath and reached for the next handhold.

As he neared the top edge, he felt eyes watching him. Above, shadows of men waited. Ignoring the sweat pouring into his eyes, he made a final heave and clutched the rocky edge. His foot slipped and in panic, he scrambled for purchase, digging his torn fingers into the stony surface.

A hand clasped his…gripping his wrist.

Taking a deep breath, Ishtar gathered his courage, steadied his footing on the wall face, and leveraged his way up the last few feet.

Another hand reached down and grabbed him by the arm, heaving and pulling him to safety.

When he lay safely on top, he breathed in the scanty grass and the damp earthy dirt.

Two pairs of feet waited near at hand. Lifting his head, Ishtar peered up.

Lud stood over him, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He shook his head like a man trying to get his senses to work.

“Ishtar?”

Ishtar climbed to his feet, fixed his attention on Lud, and gripped his shoulder. “I’ve come home.”

Lud stood frozen.

Jude slapped his thigh, a half-smile forming on his lips. “Well, I never—”

Lud reached up and clasped his hand over Ishtar’s. “I thought perhaps you—but they thought—so they went looking—but now—you’ve returned.”

Jude thrust his hands on his hips, a puzzled frown puckering between his eyes. “You didn’t meet up with the others, then?”

Grinning, Ishtar led Lud and Jude away from the cliff’s edge. “I see we have some catching up to do.”

As they crossed the plateau, Lud glanced at Ishtar. “Where’ve you come from? Eoban, Barak and Obed went looking for you with Amin months ago.” He paused and glanced back, pointing to the distance. “Toward the mountains. Did you cross paths?”

Searing alarm spread over Ishtar. “Amin went to the mountains…looking for me? When?”

Lud frowned at Ishtar. “Why? What’s in the mountains?”

Exasperation eating at his insides, Ishtar raised his hands. “Under the great sky, will you stop asking questions and answer me? I’ll tell you my story later, but where are my sons?”

“Amin left with Eoban and the rest, but Caleb is with Milkan and the women at the caves.” Lud sighed. “We have troubles of our own.”

Swinging his gaze from the village site in the distance to the path leading to the caves, Ishtar chewed his lip. “Before anything else, I must see Caleb.”

Lud swallowed and stepped closer. “Certainly. But I have to warn you: an enemy marches near.”

“That’s why I returned. By the will of God, I met Tobia in the desert lands, and as we journeyed home together, we discovered a ruined village. I left the remnant of the clan in his care, while I ran ahead to warn our people. We must make preparations quickly.” He started for the caves. “But first, I’ll see my son.”

Running to keep in step, Lud motioned to Jude to return to his post. He called back, “We’ll return soon.”

They turned north and strode side by side as long afternoon shadows stretched to impossible lengths.

Lud glanced aside, his face flushing. “You seem better…than you were.”

Without breaking his steady pace, Ishtar nodded. “I’m a new man—a better man—I hope.”

“How did you survive?”

“A nomadic patriarch took me in and cared for me.” Ishtar peered into the golden horizon. “In ironic justice, I had a chance to do reparation for my sins when his sons attempted a rebellion. I stayed at the old man’s side and comforted him as I could never have comforted my own father.” He sighed. “But Tobia and the memory of my sons beckoned me home.” He stopped and peered into Lud’s eyes. “I want to be the man I never was…the leader I should’ve been.”

With a strangled voice, Lud pounded forward. “Please, do so! I certainly never wanted leadership.” He sliced his hand through the air. “Barak took good care of your sons, but they couldn’t rest easy not knowing what happened to you. Eoban set his heart on finding you, and Obed sent Tobia with Vitus to—”

Lud halted, his eyes widening. He stopped and turned his full attention on Ishtar. “What happened to Vitus? You said you met Tobia in the desert lands. What about—?”

Ishtar glanced away. “Vitus died in the desert.”

Lud’s eyes narrowed. “Died—how?”

“It’s a long story—one that Tobia can tell better.” Grief clutched Ishtar’s chest. “Please, it’s a haunting memory, and Tobia has suffered more than I can explain.”

Rubbing his temple, Lud started away again. “No one is safe from suffering.” He shrugged as he jogged over the hard ground. “Truth is…I’m not a leader. I don’t know what I’m doing.” He blew air between his lips. “It was easy when we were at peace, but now—”

Stepping faster, Ishtar scrambled over the rough terrain. “I’ve seen the enemy, and it won’t set your heart at ease if I describe them to you.” Slowing as he neared the triangular cave entrance, Ishtar glanced at Lud. “In order to survive—we need more allies. Many more allies.”

Lud dropped his gaze. “I was afraid of that.”

Ishtar started to the cave, which opened at the side of a sheer cliff with a heavy mat of moss at the entrance, but Lud lifted his hand, blocking him. “Wait. Let me go first and explain. Your arriving like this…it’s a bit of a shock.”

Ishtar took two steps back and watched Lud disappear inside the cave. As he paced some distance away, he pictured Caleb’s babyish, tear-stained face from the last time he had seen him. The little boy had stood aside, his shoulders shaking, watching his father bury his mother. The bitter image sent Ishtar’s heart hammering against his chest. He bit his lip as a film of tears spread over his eyes.

Lud called and waved as he stepped into the light with a tall boy at his side.

A stinging fury enveloped Ishtar. Why does he bring out his own son? He called as he pounded forward. “Where’s Caleb?”

“Father!” Running full speed with his arms stretched out, Caleb plowed into his father.

Jerking backward on impact, Ishtar choked on a sob and fell to his knees. He wrapped his arms around his son, who stood taller and stronger than he remembered. Then he shook his head in amazement, his vision blurred. “Caleb?”

Glancing over his shoulder, Caleb shouted to Dinah and Milkan, who also stepped into the light, “Look! My father’s home!”

Dinah and Milkan stood at a respectful distance while Lud stepped to the boy’s side.

Ishtar composed himself and rose to his feet, his hand firmly on his son’s shoulder. He met Lud’s gaze. “Thank you.” He peered down at the boy. “I can see he has been well cared for.”

A scout called from the distance.

Lud and Ishtar jerked their attention to the distant figure of a warrior racing into the village. Lud swallowed hard.

Ishtar exhaled a deep breath. “I will not let us to suffer the fate of other ravaged clans. We must prepare for battle.”

Caleb peered up at his father. “But what about Amin? When is he coming home?”

Ishtar glanced from Lud to Milkan and Dinah. “I don’t know, but as soon as we defeat the approaching enemy” — he knelt and peered into Celeb’s eyes— “you and I will find him together.”

Caleb’s lips wobbled. “You won’t leave me?”

Ishtar stroked the side of his boy’s face. “Never again.”

~~~

Ishtar perched on a rock as the stars appeared in the night sky, and he waited while Namah, Jonas, Milkan, and Dinah settled in a circle with Lud and other clansmen before a flickering fire.

Lud opened his hands and nodded to Ishtar.

Fixing his gaze on the flames, Ishtar retold his adventures from the day he left the clan until he met Lud on the cliff.

Milkan and Dinah nodded alternately, glancing at Ishtar with sympathy in their eyes.

Namah glared at Ishtar, her jaw clenched and her hands in frozen stillness on her lap.

As Jonas focused on the outer darkness, she listened without comment.

When the recital ended, Ishtar peered from one woman to the next. His gaze stopped on Namah. “I have done great evil in my time, and I regret many things, but one of the worst is knowing that I can never make amends to Aram, a man I should’ve treated as a friend and mentor.” His throat tightening, Ishtar all but crawled to Namah’s side and bent his head. “I beg your forgiveness.”

Slowly, Namah’s hand rose, flat palmed as if she would strike.

Ishtar remained in place, humbly waiting, his gaze scraping the dust.

Lifting her hand higher, Namah turned it and let it fall gently on Ishtar’s head. “I forgive you, Ishtar, for in my heart I know that is what Aram would ask of me. I don’t know how you can make up for your evil deeds, but—” She dropped her hand to her side. “You’ve made a good start by returning to your sons.”

Ishtar raised his head, tears burning.

Jonas sighed and faced Ishtar. “I can do no less than my friend and forgive you. However, I will watch and see. A tree is known by its fruit.” She sighed and stared at the black horizon. “But for now, a new enemy approaches.” She met his gaze. “Will you lead your men into battle?”

Ishtar rose and stood before Lud. “You are the leader now. Tell me what you’d have me do, and I’ll do it.”

Lud stood and clasped Ishtar’s arm. “As you said, we need more allies.”

Nodding, Ishtar faced the small assembly. “I have learned through great trial that our best ally is a steadfast heart.” A glimmer of hope sparked in his soul. “We already have that.”

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~Desmond Tutu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Four

Woodland and Hills

Not For Everyone

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

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

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

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

Panting, he scurried behind a tree.

Heavy breathing and a grunt drew closer.

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

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

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

“Luge?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lydia was busy preparing for the move.”

“What was Rueben doing?”

Amin bit his lip and stared at the ground.

“Why was he angry with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lufti shrugged. “It’s not poisonous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin nodded, swallowing back a gnawing fear.

~~~

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

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

Lufti and the other men rose and gathered their things.

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

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

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

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

“Ah.” Amin sighed.

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

Lufti and Amin exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

One man cleared a space for a central fire pit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin appeared at his side along with Lufti.

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

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

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

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

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

Whimpering in terror, Rueben reached for his wife.

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

Amin backed away.

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

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

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

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

Rueben cowered, and Ulla fell to her knees wailing.

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

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

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

Gazes shifted and dropped to the ground.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

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