OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Seven

You Can Only Endure

Ishtar walked among his people again. After visiting his son, he returned to the village and sat with the five members of the leadership council.

They welcomed him with smiles.

Perplexed by their obvious joy, Ishtar launched into a full recital of his adventures—including his madness—and concluded with a declaration of his healing through the kindness of Matalah.

The council members continued to smile, their eyes twinkling, their backs straights, and their chins up.

Ishtar considered the line of old men. No deceit there. He dropped his gaze and raked his hand through his hair. “Why do you smile?”

The eldest, Amos, grinned and lifted his hand as if in blessing. “We are glad to see you home safe.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing mysterious in a clan welcoming their leader—”

Jerking to his feet with a grunt, Ishtar paced away, his voice falling to a whisper. “But I betrayed you.”

Amos rose and clasped his hands as if in prayer. “Some may see it so…but not all do.” He gazed around the circle and then met Ishtar’s wide eyes. “We are warriors and conquerors, descending from a long line of such men. Your father, though he strayed from decency when he lied to us, maintained a close tie to his heritage. When you offered— ” He cleared his throat and glanced away. “Attempted to offer a child to the gods, you followed not the will of a woman but the call of our ancestral spirits.”

His jaw clenching, Ishtar swallowed and glared. “Spirits I no longer obey.”

Amos tipped his head. “You are now your own man.” When he lifted his eyes, he took one step closer. “Ishtar, we need your leadership. Now, because of the battles you have fought, you’re a stronger, wiser man.” A grin reappeared, brightening his face. “And that’s why we’re glad of your return.”

Peering up at the wide blue sky, Ishtar paused. Finally, he sighed, dropped his eyes, and met Amos’s unwavering confidence. “May you remain so.”

~~~

Ishtar met with leaders from neighboring clans the next day, and they discussed their plans in council with Lud.

Lud approved the plans, and after sending out scouts and closing the meeting, he stared at Ishtar in silence.

Distracted with his plans and anxieties, Lud’s fascination merely brushed Ishtar’s consciousness. But after a moment, he frowned and met Lud’s hard stare. “What’s wrong?”

“I think I know what’s so different about you. Even when you’re worried, you’re controlled. Almost at peace.”

With a snort, Ishtar snatched up his spear and a whetstone. He ran the stone along the spear tip. “I know now that I can survive madness.” He glanced at Lud. “Hope beyond despair is the best kind.”

A figure in the distance jogged toward. Ishtar shaded his eyes with his hand. “Who’s this now?”

Lud frowned and stepped beside Ishtar.

The sweaty, exhausted young man stumbled to a halt, bent over, and gasped heaving breaths.

Ishtar leapt forward. “Tobia!” He gripped his friend’s arm and glanced around. “Where are—?”

Tobia lifted a hand and huffed his words. “They’re with…Remy’s clan…safe. But—”

Lud stepped closer and pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “Catch your breath. There’s no news that can’t wait a moment.” He glanced aside at Ishtar.

Tobia shook his head and straightened with a wince. “The enemy is at hand, and they’ve—”

Ishtar shouted to men in the distance and a crowd hurried near. He drew Tobia forward. “Come, sit. Tell us everything.”

Tobia lifted both hands. “Listen! There’s no time! Obed has been taken. He’s tied like a hog ready for slaughter in the midst of a great host.”

Warriors with weapons in their hands jostled each other as they closed in, grunting and leaning forward, scowls on every face.

Lud blinked, his face draining of all color. “Where are Barak and Eoban?”

Tobia shook his head, a bewildered expression in his eyes.

Ishtar gripped Tobia’s shoulders and stared hard into his eyes. “Where’s Amin?”

Tobia’s eyes filled with tears. “Isn’t he here?”

~~~

Tobia sat before trays piled with bread, fruit, nuts, and berries. He set a bowl of sharp wine aside, feeling bitterness slide down his throat.

After nightfall, Ishtar, Lud, Jonas, Namah, and an assembly of councilmen and warriors huddled in Namah’s home and watched his every move.

Closing his eyes, Tobia sat back and sighed. “I can’t eat…I’m not strong enough yet.”

Namah patted his hand. “Take your time. You’ve been through a great deal.”

Tobia opened his eyes and stared at his mother’s anxious face. “Obed is still alive…that’s the good news.” He sniffed and dragged his fingers down his face. “But how he became a prisoner, I have no idea.” He sucked in a deep breath. “For a moment I thought that all of you had been— ” His lips quivered.

Ishtar nudged the bowl closer. “Take more drink and get some rest. Your descriptions of the host will better prepare us. It’s best we know the truth.” He sighed and met Tobia’s gaze. “I’m glad you made it home alive.”

Staring blankly at the back wall, Tobia shrugged. “I don’t feel alive.”

Namah and Jonas exchanged glances.

Namah rose first. “He’ll never sleep with a crowd watching.” She started for the door. “You’ve done well, Tobia. Surviving is no small thing in this world.” She crossed into the night air.

The councilmen and warriors rose and followed her example.

As Lud stood in the doorway, he turned and glanced back. “Death is like slavery. You can’t stand it, yet you can’t escape it.” He nodded at Tobia. “You can only endure.”

Ishtar climbed to his feet and peered at Tobia. “I’ll be just outside…if you need me.”

Jonas accompanied Ishtar to the door and dropped her voice low. “He told me about your journey together. I thank you for your service. It wasn’t what I looked for—”

Ishtar glanced over Jonas’ shoulder and met Tobia’s eyes. “He’s an extraordinary man.” He peered at Jonas. “God asks much of extraordinary men.”

As Ishtar passed over the threshold, Jonas stood silent, staring at the night sky.

Tobia rubbed his aching eyes. “Get some sleep, mother. We’ll need you fresh in the morning.”

Jonas padded to his side and kissed his cheek. “I’m so relieved you’re home.” Her voice caught. “I know Obed will be too.”

Only the sound of her footsteps fading into the next room told Tobia that he was finally alone. Shoving the trays aside, he pulled a blanket close, bundled it under his head, and curled into a ball. Shuddering in the evening air, he closed his eyes and finally let his tears fall.

“Survival is a privilege that entails obligations.” ~Simon Wiesenthal

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

Eoban’s legs wobbled. He called for a halt and dropped to his knees before a broken tree trunk and gulped warm, stale water from his skin bag. After wiping his mouth, he glanced from Obed to Barak. “I’m not sure, but Luge’s clan might’ve left for their migration by now. It’s past their usual time.”

Barak guzzled his water, scowled, and tossed his empty bag aside. “It’s past time we went home.”

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

“I think we’re close enough now. We could go in either direction.” Barak shrugged. “I’m ready to go home.”

Obed stepped forward, wiping his lips as he held his bag in a tight grip. “But what about Amin? Surely, you’re not suggesting that we leave him behind?”

Barak shook his head. “By no means! I want to find him, but I’ve a clamoring in my mind, insisting that I go home.”

Eoban waved Barak’s words away though his stomach twisted, anxiety churning the fluids in his middle. “You worry too much.”

Barak slapped his thigh and looked to the sky as if beseeching the heavens for strength.

Obed raised his hand. “I’ll find Amin. You two return home and make sure everyone is safe.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Barak. “I’m learning to trust your instincts.”

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

With a dizzy sensation and a feeling that his world was swiftly falling apart, Eoban pounded over to Barak and shook a finger in the direction of Obed. “You really believe that man can find Amin and make his way home again before the season turns?”

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, steady and unblinking. He crossed his arms high over his chest.

Turning, Eoban glared at Obed. “You’ve never traveled alone! You prefer to sit around and think—”

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

Eoban turned and caught Barak’s hard gaze and his fingers still in the flicking position.

Barak dropped his hand and faced Obed. “It’s a workable plan. We’ll split up. You find Amin. I’ll take Eoban, and we’ll meet at home.”

With a quick nod, Obed turned and began clearing a spot for their evening fire.

Eoban threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh, of course. I’m talking nonsense, just being difficult as usual.” A flush worked up his face as he indulged in a righteous pout. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve half a mind to go off on my own.”

Snorting, Barak bundled kindling into his arms. “And where would you go?”

Eoban ripped into his bag and pulled out a handful of shriveled berries. “I could go anywhere.” He tossed the desiccated fruit into his mouth and chewed vigorously. “I could visit friends. I could find new trade routes. I could —”

Barak looked at Obed. “Take him if you want, or he’s welcome to come with me, but I think you’re right. I can’t ignore this inner turmoil any longer. I must get home.”

“Inner turmoil?” Eoban rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Now I’ll be worried about you, Barak. Obed might get lost, but you’ll make yourself sick.” He blew air through his teeth. “I’ll go with you for Milkan’s sake. She’d be devastated if you perished—even though you’re enough to drive any man mad.”

~~~

Obed rose at daybreak refreshed and ready for adventure. Springing to his feet, he relished the very thought of traveling alone, with its unparalleled level of freedom. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. At the sound of footsteps, he flicked his eyes open.

Eoban stood three feet away, staring at him through narrowed eyes.

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

In an unexpected move, Eoban threw his arms out and enveloped Obed in a bear hug. “Since I may never see you again—”

Relief flooding his senses, Obed shoved Eoban away with an awkward laugh. “Likely, I’ll make it home with Amin before you and Barak even get out of this trackless wilderness.”

Eoban lifted his hands in defeat. “If you say so.” He lifted one eyebrow. “I’ve gone over the directions to Luge’s place. Any questions?”

Chuckling, Obed stepped around Eoban and slapped Barak on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend, for your loyalty to the clan. Best of luck on your return journey.” He glanced aside. “I surely have the easier task.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

Pursing his lips, Eoban clapped his hands. “Enough blathering.” He swung his bag over his shoulder and stomped away.

As Barak trailed after Eoban, he glanced back, met his friend’s gaze, and rolled his eyes.

Obed grinned.

~~~

Obed sauntered over the rough woodland, his arms swinging at his sides, whistling a jaunty tune. Sweat trickled down his back as he swatted insects beyond all possible count. Three times he circled around prickly thickets, and twice he forded meandering creeks and joyfully splashed himself as he went. He reveled in his slow pace and the exuberance of running down an incline with his arms spread wide to catch the breeze. When his stomach rumbled, he stopped to gather berries. By noon, he came upon a large tree with branches hanging low from an abundance of nuts. He pawed through his bag and drew out an empty leather pouch.

He scrambled up the lowest branches and picked to his heart’s contentment. When the bag was bulging, he dropped to the ground, toed through the foliage, and found a rock of sufficient size. After smashing a handful of nuts, he rested against the firm, smooth trunk and enjoyed the crunchy, meaty insides.

The filtered sun speckled the ground around him, light and dark dancing like children at play. Birds chirped and flew from branch to branch overhead. A rodent scampered near, sniffed the broken shells, then rose on its haunches and peered at Obed through tiny black eyes.

Grinning and satiated with simple pleasures, Obed relaxed in weariness and closed his eyes. Pleasurable rest spread through his whole body and cast pretty images of woods and streams in his mind…

Sometime later, strange shuffling, huffing sounds stirred, disturbing Obed’s rest. He rubbed open his eyes, yawned, and climbed to his feet. Glancing at the sky, he squinted at the bright rays of sunlight. He gathered his bag and spear and stumped forward. In bemused exhaustion, he trudged across a wide, meandering stream and circled around large boulders.

By late afternoon, the air grew thick and his feet dragged. He stumbled twice and then stopped to catch his breath.

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

Frowning, he turned and peered at the low, western sun before him. He rubbed his jaw, his confusion ending in a bemused chuckle. Obed crouched beneath a large spreading tree and murmured, “I can’t be lost. It’s too ridiculous.” He pointed at the sun and grinned, wondering if he was drunk on innocent pleasure. “You’re supposed to be behind me.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I—”

A blurred force of wind and a stone sped by, nicking his face. Confused, he slapped his cheek and glanced aside.

A spear embedded in the tree wavered like an insect tail. Cold shock drenched Obed.
Crashing, pounding footsteps accompanied by grunts and yells drew close.
Without thought, Obed rushed madly into the woods. As the voices grew more distinct, all strength drained from his limbs.

A gruff voice rose behind him, and a sharp pain on the back of his head sent brilliant lights flashing before his eyes. He fell into blackness.

~~~

Obed awoke with a throbbing headache, barely able to recognize the moon shining down from a star-studded sky. When he tried to rub his stinging neck, he found his arms bound tight. Groaning, he realized that he lay among a crowd of people all trussed up like pigs fit for a feast.

His cramped legs ached, demanding a stretch, but when he tried to straighten, his ropes jerked a heat-laden, stinking body close to him.

A groan swelled on his right.

Obed twisted and peered at a scrawny, filthy boy with a rope strung around his neck and waist. When he twisted to the left, his mouth fell open at the sight of half-starved men, women, and children tightly packed all around him.

Sour body odor, stomach leavings, stale urine, and excrement dragged a retching sensation from his stomach. He heaved and realized that there was no place to throw up except upon another person. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought the upheavals through gritted teeth.

Once he gained mastery over his stomach, he turned his attention to the hot, smothering camp. Flickering flames danced amidst a huddle of armed warriors, who stomped and pounded their spears in rhythm to a low, incessant drumbeat.

In the distance, a whimper rose, followed by a skirmish of shuffling feet and flailing arms.

A murmur flittered among the prisoners, then a gasp and a stifled cry.

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

A shriveled, ragged figure was dragged before the fire, pleading and whimpering.

A new figure appeared following the first, short-sleeved, muscled, straight-backed, and pointing a glinting knife.

Nausea again erupted from Obed’s middle, spreading acid through his mouth. He dropped his head to his chest, gasping short breaths. Fear closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against his ears.

A scream tore through the night air.

Arrows of agony ripped through Obed. Everyone stiffened. Even the air held its breath.

The cry faltered, slipped to a groan…and died.

Tears flooded Obed’s eyes and slipped down his cheeks.

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

A giggle passed on and then a cry, a jerk, and another giggle. Obed swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth, glancing at the dripping figure beside him. He wanted to wipe his own face, but since his hands were restrained, he couldn’t reach it.

The man on his left scuttled to a sitting position and wiped his face against his shoulder, peering from the passing guard to Obed. “He generally do like that. Funny he thinks it. Giggles like a maniac every morning. Always the same.” He shook his head.

Obed pictured Luge’s anxious face when he’d mentioned his lost son. He blinked the drips away and met the other man’s gaze. “Where are they from…these slavers?”

Jutting his chin outward, the man glanced away. “Over the mountain some say. Talk of a stone city and glories beyond description.” He shrugged. “Demons of hell more like.”

Obed peered at the well-armed warrior who stalked among the captives drenching the sleepers, kicking those who didn’t budge, and giggling like a fool. Demons of hell…indeed.

~~~

Tobia strode with purposeful concentration, relieved of his burden yet anxious to get home. With his back to the setting sun, he charged ahead with dexterous steps, paying little heed to his surroundings.

As evening fell, a strange silence caught his attention. No birds flittered about, as if an unseen warning held every animal at bay.

Slowing, he turned aside and noticed broken branches and a beaten path across the woodland floor. He crouched low and examined the ground, tracing the prints of feet shod in soft leather and the marks of numerous bare toes.

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

Scuttling like a crab, Tobia made his way forward and stopped on the edge of a large assembly gathered around a central fire. His innards twisted into a hard knot.

He circled around the gathering, freezing when the scream rose and fell in torment and finally faded in a pitiful death. After a silent moment, he crawled forward. When his muscles contracted, he stopped before a ragged throng of prisoners. Studying the assembly, his throat tightened and his stomach lurched.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Surely his eyes were deceiving him. There, tied to a long line of men, women, and children sat a filthy man with a bowed head. Shadows covered the man’s face, but still, Tobia recognized him. “Obed?”

Tobia tried to swallow. Had Ishtar failed? Had his people been attacked and overcome? Cursing himself for his stay at Kamila’s village, he leaned forward and studied the group. Tears filled his eyes as he frantically searched the crowd for familiar faces.

He frowned even as relief poured over his body. He recognized no one except Obed.

Shaking, he scuttled backward slowly to avoid any undue noise. Stopping some distance away, he crouched on his haunches and considered his options. He glanced back the way he had come. Remy was too far away and unprepared for such a situation. Only the united clans with Eoban and Barak in the lead could hope to make a successful attack.

Scowling, he positioned himself like a man prepared to race like the wind. He turned toward home. A question haunted his mind. What happened to Ishtar?

With narrowed his eyes, he darted ahead, his whole body screaming. Run!

As he picked up speed, tears blurred his vision. He had not saved his first father or Vitus, and most likely Ishtar had come to a bad end. But still, he had a slim chance of saving his second father and his village. His heart hammered against his chest, ready to burst.

He ran faster.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter —Chapter Thirty-Five

—Grassland—

A Steadfast Heart

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

A man scrambled among the brush along the eastern edge.

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

The figure worked his way around the lake.

Jude squinted. “A spy?”

Lud shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Ishtar closed his eyes. “I yet live.”

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

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

A hand clasped his…gripping his wrist.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ishtar?”

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

Lud stood frozen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you survive?”

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

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

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

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

Lud’s eyes narrowed. “Died—how?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A scout called from the distance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Lud opened his hands and nodded to Ishtar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar raised his head, tears burning.

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Four

Woodland and Hills

Not For Everyone

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

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

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

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

Panting, he scurried behind a tree.

Heavy breathing and a grunt drew closer.

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

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

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

“Luge?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lydia was busy preparing for the move.”

“What was Rueben doing?”

Amin bit his lip and stared at the ground.

“Why was he angry with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lufti shrugged. “It’s not poisonous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin nodded, swallowing back a gnawing fear.

~~~

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

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

Lufti and the other men rose and gathered their things.

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

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

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

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

“Ah.” Amin sighed.

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

Lufti and Amin exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

One man cleared a space for a central fire pit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin appeared at his side along with Lufti.

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

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

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

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

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

Whimpering in terror, Rueben reached for his wife.

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

Amin backed away.

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

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

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

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

Rueben cowered, and Ulla fell to her knees wailing.

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

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

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

Gazes shifted and dropped to the ground.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Two

—Woodlands—

The Heart

Tobia never before realized how difficult it could be to lead a group of distraught, opinionated old people through the wilderness. If he had, he would have insisted more vehemently to be the one to run ahead.

As he led his unhappy flock, he longed for the days of Vitus’ simple obvious insults. These people knew how to provoke each other with color, stealth, and flourish. Olna needled Wael with hints of his past prowess, and he, in turn, badgered the others about their former laziness.

Weary after wandering through summer woodlands, Tobia began to sense a familiarity that made his heart leap. Pleasant memories stirred as his gaze wandered. Like after a spring rain, joy flowered. This was the area he and Vitus had circled when Vitus was trying to expand his trading routes. When they were thoroughly lost, they had retraced their steps to a clan in the area who had treated them with exceptional kindness.

Tobia closed his eyes. Thank God.

Once he found the path into the village, so little had changed that he recognized everything.

The six old people traipsed along behind like bedraggled children, limping and hunch-shouldered, wilting in body and spirit.

Glancing around, Tobia swallowed back embarrassment as a flush crept up his cheeks. This was awkward, showing up again in more desperate need than ever.

Like an old acquaintance, Kamila called his name and raced across the village. She stretched out her hands, her face alight and her eyes sparkling. “Tobia! You’ve come back!” She glanced aside at the old people and her smile vanished. “What’s happened? Where’s your friend?”

Without actually giving her a hug, Tobia managed to clasp her hands and grin in relief so palpable he feared his pounding heart might burst through his chest. “There’s much to tell.” He sucked in a deep breath and waved to the broken assembly. “But first, these are the last survivors of a once noble clan that has been ravaged by raiders.” He peered into Kamila’s eyes. “Can anything be done for them?”

Blinking and turning to Olna, Kamila clasped the old gnarled hands. “Most certainly.” She glanced around. “I’ll call my brother. He’ll know what to do.”

A fresh wave of relief flooded Tobia. “I have a strange story to relate. May I speak with Remy, please?”

Kamila nodded, her face sober, and an apprehensive frown wrinkling her brow. “Of course.” She met Tobia’s gaze. “He’s been ill but getting better.” She glanced at a central hut. “He’d like to see you.”

She led the assembly to the hut, stopped before the door, lifted her hand in signal to wait, then darted inside.

Tobia and the ancients stood in the warm sun, peering aside at the adults setting about their business and at a passel of children chasing each other in the afternoon sunshine.

After a few moments, Kamila returned smiling. “He told me to take the women to my home and arrange for the men to lodge in the storage hut until something better can be arranged. There’s enough room for all, and they’ll be well cared for.”

Tobia scratched his head. Images of the old men eating through Remy’s winter supplies flashed through his mind.

Chewing his lip, he led Kamila aside and dropped his voice. “They’ve been through a great deal…uh…and they tend to…horde things.” He swallowed. “And possibly argue…on occasion.”

Laughing, Kamila patted Tobia’s shoulder. “You underestimate my experience.” She glanced at Wael who was wagging his finger in Olna’s face. “These aren’t the first villagers to be ravaged by disaster. We’ve taken in others.” She grinned. “But thank you for the warning.”

Tobia’s shoulder tingled at her touch. Without thought, he clasped her hand and met her gaze, his heart pounding. “Thank you, Kamila.”

Blushing, Kamila tilted her head toward the open doorway. “You better go in. Remy is waiting.”

As Tobia turned to the doorway, he glanced back.

Leading her charges, Kamila wrapped an arm around Olna and listened with a focused gaze to Wael’s complaints.

A rush of admiration flowed over Tobia. Swallowing, he hurried inside. The dim interior appeared black for a moment. Tobia froze. “Remy?”

“I’m here. Come in.”

As his eyes adjusted, Tobia scanned the room and found Remy sitting on a woven pallet against the back wall. He appeared thinner and his face haggard, but when he smiled, a sparkle in his eyes reassured Tobia.

Remy pointed to another pallet and a folded blanket. “Please, sit. I’ve thought of you often these past months.” He glanced aside. “What happened to your guide—the one who could hardly find his way among the trees?”

With a sigh, Tobia sat against the wall and stretched his legs. He glanced up and met Remy’s gaze. “Do you want the whole story…or just a summary?”

Remy waved his hands to encompass his small abode. “I don’t have much…but I’ve got plenty of time.”

Clasping his hands, Tobia rested his head against the wall, stared up into the rafters, and told everything that had happened from the morning he stepped out of their village with Vitus to this afternoon when he clasped Kamila’s hand.

Never interrupting, Remy sat forward in an attitude of deep thought. After the story, he rested his chin in his hand, his eyes wide with wonder. “You’ve told me the most remarkable tale I’ve ever heard, and I don’t doubt a word of it.” He waved to the door as villagers shuffled passed. “As for the old people, they’re welcome. We always take in those in need, though we’ve become more suspicious of late, as you noticed when you first arrived. We do not suffer fools gladly.” He shrugged. “But ancient rules of hospitality demand that we assist the helpless, especially since sickness and old age haunts all our steps.”

Leaning forward, Tobia ventured to make his next desperate request. “Could you give me directions home? I’m not sure I know the way.”

Remy shook his head. “We’re not travelers, and we only met Vitus that one time.” He struggled to his feet and limped across the room. “No one has come looking for you, if that’s what you hoped. I am sorry.”

After a stretch, Tobia sighed and climbed to his feet. “Well, even if you can’t give me advice, you’ve relieved me of a heavy burden.” He glanced out the door at the setting sun and snorted a laugh. “Now I can make haste and lose my way that much faster.”

Grabbing a pitcher, Remy poured a pink liquid into two wooden bowls. “I never said I wouldn’t give advice.” He grinned and handed a drink to Tobia. “You’re exhausted and confused. Stay with us a few days and regain your strength.” He lifted his drink and both he and Tobia sipped from their bowls at the same time.

Remy wiped his lips. “I’ll speak to my men and see what they’ve heard.” His gaze narrowed. “I want to warn them about the threat you’ve seen.” He pointed a finger. “They’ll want to hear your story themselves.”

Tobia drank the last sip from his bowl and licked his lips, his gaze darting to the door. “I’ve been gone for so long, and I hate to impose—”

Remy waved his hand and poured more refreshment into Tobia’s cup. “There’s no imposing. You’re our chosen friend.” He pressed Tobia’s shoulder. “You did a noble thing, caring for the survivors. Many would’ve let them die.”

Kamila strolled by the open doorway, chatting with Olna and another old woman. She darted a glance inside Remy’s hut.

Remy grinned and glanced at Tobia.

Tobia hurriedly finished his second drink.

Remy pointed to the pallet. Sleep here tonight. In the morning, we’ll talk again.” He stepped to the doorway. “I’m going to see to a few things.” His gaze swept across the village. “You can take your supper outside with the villagers, or rest and eat alone. Whichever you prefer.”

Tobia bit his lip and peered out. “I’d like to join everyone.”

Remy stepped aside, smiling. “I thought you might.”

~~~

Tobia remained with Remy and his people for two days, resting and regaining a measure of his spent strength. Memories of his travels with Vitus haunted his steps as he remembered things Vitus had said and done, his sneering contempt, his impatience, his complete disregard for other people’s feelings. Guilt washed over his mind, clawing at his heart.

Strolling to a large spreading tree by the stream, Tobia hunched his shoulders and bowed his head.

Splashing across the shallow stream, Kamila called, “Tobia?” She stepped to his side. “Why the sad expression?”

Tobia exhaled a long breath and leaned on the tree. “I feel so old now. So many things have happened. I can’t understand…Vitus struck witless and dying in the desert, the nomad family whose sons betrayed their father, the ravaged villagers, and the old ones who nearly worried me to death.”

“You’ve lived lifetimes already. Adventures, some would call them.”

With a shrug, Tobia pushed away from the tree and strolled with Kamila along the shore. “I would say so too, except it was too painful. My heart hurts, and my stomach ties itself into knots.” As Kamila kept his pace, he met her gaze. “And the worst part is yet to come.”

“How so?”

“My friend, Ishtar, was exiled because he offered a human sacrifice—or tried to.”

Kamila’s eyes rounded in horror.

Tobia fluttered his hands. “He’s not that man anymore. His father was—” He shook his head. “Never mind. That’s in the past.” He peered across the stream. “But few will forget—or forgive. They don’t know the man returning to save them from yet another clan of slave raiders.” He kicked a stone. “They’ll only see the outer face and not the inner heart.”

“That’s why you must leave—soon?”

Tobia stopped and nodded. “That’s why I must leave—tomorrow.”

Kamila stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tobia and stared across the water to the woodland beyond. “I would not have you stay, knowing that your people need you.” She glanced in his direction. “Though I wish it were otherwise.”

Turning, Tobia met her gaze. He clasped her hands. “You’ve offered me what few ever would—true friendship. My mother sees only her son, and Obed sees a useless child. Vitus and Ishtar—”

Kamila shook her head. “Their vision does not define you.” She glanced away. “Not unless you want it to.”

Straightening, Tobia led Kamila by the hand toward the village, his gaze lighting on the horizon. “I do not know what the future holds, but—I want to return.” He turned and met her eyes. “And see you again.”

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-One

—Woodland—

My One Blindness

Eoban trudged through the wilderness with Barak on his right and Obed in the lead. He muttered, swapping leaves out of his way. “How does he know where he’s going? Luge only gave me—”

Barak stepped over a log. “Are we going in the wrong direction?”

Eoban shrugged. “Not too much. We might stumble somewhere near it—eventually.” He waved at Obed’s straight, uncompromising back. “He won’t stop to rest…or let us rest. Under the great sky, what put him into such an ugly humor?”

Barak squeezed his eyes shut a moment. “Don’t ask.”

Nudging Barak’s shoulder, Eoban forced him to blink. “Easy for you to say. You don’t have to live under his authority. He’s the leader of my clan, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Obed halted and faced the two men. “I won’t be the leader much longer. As soon as we return, I’m giving up leadership. Any man with the desire may take up my role.” He stared pointedly at Eoban. “Even you.” With a sharp turn, he marched away.

Like an angry stag, Eoban dropped his head, charged forward, and gripped Obed’s shoulder. “Oh, no, you don’t! You were chosen as the leader, and you’ve managed your position well enough except for a few lapses when you’ve contradicted me.” He stuck out his chin and peered at Obed. “Why are you acting like a cat caught in a thorn tree? We” —he gestured toward himself and Barak— “don’t even know what happened.”

As if he had been struck, Obed rotated his chin and rubbed his hand over his face. “Everything has changed—for me.”

Turning his head and glaring out of one fixed eye, Eoban spat his words. “But not for us? You’re going to abandon leadership and hope everything just” —he flailed his hands— “works out?” He snorted as bitterness rose in his throat. “We’re supposed to let you stew in anger while you lead us?” Eoban waved empathically. “Where are you leading us? Do you even know?”

Startled, Obed licked his lips. “Luge said that he lived on the eastern side near a waterfall. You said there was a waterfall above the foothills on the eastern mount.” He glanced from Barak to Eoban. “We’re going in that direction. Right?”

Eoban sighed, shaking his head. “For the most part, but I think we need to start coming down a bit.”

Obed and Barak nodded, and they trudged on in heavy silence.

~~~

Eoban led the way across the rough terrain, but as the sun lowered, Barak waved a limp hand. “I surrender. Let’s rest.”

When each man had drunk their fill from a stream and eaten a few morsels from their bags, Barak slumped under a large spreading tree and met Obed’s gaze. “I’m afraid this has been a doomed adventure. We certainly didn’t find Ishtar, and now you’re thinking of—”

Resting against another tree, Obed raised his hand. “I’ll explain.” He shifted, his gaze sweeping over the ground. “I’ve been wrong…about many things. I don’t know where to begin.”

Eoban plunked down between them and chuckled. “Oh, well, if that’s all—”

Barak kicked Eoban’s foot and glared a silent shut-up.

Shaking his head, Obed staggered back to his feet and paced before the two men.

An owl hooted in the distance and a breeze stirred the leaves.

Obed exhaled a long breath. “You’re right. I’ve always been so sure of myself…so certain—”

Barak rubbed his head. “Just tell us what happened that night.”

Obed swallowed and stared at the ground. “The temple priests assembled for one of their rituals…and they allowed me to stay.”

Eoban shrugged. “That was generous. I wouldn’t have thought they’d let an outsider watch.”

Obed nodded. “I should’ve been suspicious.” His eyes gleamed in the evening light as he glanced aside. “I should’ve had you with me, Eoban.”

Eoban sniffed and rubbed his nose. “Then neither of us would’ve been there.”

Turning away, Obed strangled a laugh. “Right again.”

Barak searched through his bag. “Was it interesting? Did they do anything…?”

“They offered a sacrifice.”

Barak froze and Eoban leapt to his feet. “By God, you didn’t stand by and watch—”

Sucking in a sobbing breath, Obed tottered close and gripped Eoban by the front of his tunic, his eyes bloodshot and glimmering. “They tried to sacrifice me! By all the devils of hell!” He jerked away and pounded to the shadows. “They gave me a drink… it was drugged. I got confused…and weak.”

Obed’s breathing grew labored, and his face dripped with sweat. “Before I knew what was happening, this…thing.” He heaved and bent double. “A shadow…a beast…rose from a pit…strong arms pushed me…I almost got pulled into a damned hole.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and closed his eyes.

Eoban’s mouth fell open. With a shake, he stomped forward and peered at Obed’s bent head. “How did you get away?”

“I’m not sure.” Obed straightened. “I fought them…and I ran. Like a scared rabbit. I ran out of that stone hell and hid in the woods.” Shuddering, tears ran down Obed’s cheeks. “I’ve never been so ashamed.”

Barak gazed at Obed. “There’s no shame in saving your skin.”

Obed opened his mouth but no words came.

Eoban placed a gentle hand on Obed’s shoulder. A piercing shaft of understanding melted every shred of his anger. “Someone else had to be sacrificed…is that it?”

Dropping his head onto his hands, Obed wept, his shoulders heaving. “God, help me. I knew such things were possible…Neb, Ishtar…Haruz.” He wiped his face and straightened, his whole body stiffening. “But I never really felt the evil before…and saw my own blindness.”

Obed retreated to a spot under a tree and plunked down.

After a few moments, Eoban rubbed his face and chuckled. “Well, if this doesn’t make me happy, nothing will.” He stepped over to Obed, crouched before him, and stuck out his hand.

Obed stared, a perplexed frown crowding his forehead.

Eoban’s hand remained open and steady. “I want to welcome the new man to the clan. You’ll do rather nicely as our leader. Just wish you had turned up ages ago.”

Obed bit his lip and glanced aside at Barak.

Barak grinned.

Obed clasped Eoban’s hand, and Eoban pulled him to his feet. “Now, let’s get something to eat.”

You can best fight any existing evil from the inside. ~Hattie McDaniel

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty

—Woodland—

A Terrible Mistake

Amin sat on a log before a dead fire and watched Luge’s wife, Lydia, trot across the village with an armful of kindling and two children tugging at her skirts.

He whiled away his boredom imagining what he would say to his little brother when he returned home. He pictured Caleb’s surprise—his eyes round and wide—as the boy ran into his arms as he always did. Caleb would want him to repeat his adventures over and over and would probably brag to everyone about Amin’s journey.

Amin shook his head. What do I have to brag about? He stared at the humble village, the rough men and women who hunted and gathered, eeking out an existence from the scrubby wilderness. He closed his eyes and pictured his own well-organized village—the craftsmen’s homes, women chattering as they spun and wove cloth on looms, children leading herds into distant green hills.

Opening his eyes, he sighed; his shoulders drooped in idle weariness. Scanning the crowd, he saw an old woman scrape a hide with a worn paddle, a man hang strips of meat on a line to dry, and children huddle in a circle before an old woman who held at a bowl of nuts in her lap and picked out the shells.

One man attached a sharp stone tip to a long wooden shaft with leather ties. He glanced up and met Amin’s gaze.

Amin looked away, a tightening in his throat choked him.

Striding near with hurried steps, Lydia called. “Come, boy. Eat now.” She pointed to the table placed outside her tent. “We must get everything packed for the move tomorrow.”

Frowning, Amin rose and padded to the table. He peered at the tray piled with roasted meat, nuts, and mixed berries. “How can you leave? Luge isn’t back yet.”

After placing an earthen jug on the table, Lydia wiped the back of her hand over her brow. “I hardly want to.” She glanced aside, her brow wrinkled with worry. “But I have to.”

Amin tilted his head and peered at her, a spark of interest igniting. “Have to…why?”

Stepping closer, Lydia leaned in, one hand shadowing her mouth as if to hide their conversation. “My husband’s brother…” She nodded at a fat, indolent man lying on a soft pallet outside his tent. A man Amin had learned to avoid early on.

“Rueben?” Amin frowned. “He should be helping you.”

Snorting, Lydia turned her back to the village and arranged the tray and the jug in perfect symmetry. “He does not work. It’s not his way. Nor his wife’s.” She glanced over her shoulder.

A tiny woman with a tight, flushed face hovered over her husband, flapping her hands like fans, chattering like a child.

Scowling, Amin stared boldly at the man. “In my clan, if a person does not work, he does not eat.”

Idly scratching her head, Lydia surveyed the village. “You must be a wise and prosperous people then.”

Amin chuckled and shook his head. “If only that were so.” His grin faded as Rueben rolled off the pallet and swayed to his feet, his glaring eyes fixed on Lydia.

Amin straightened, annoyance warring with anxiety.

Lydia backed against the table as Rueben drew near.

“Why aren’t you seeing to the packing, woman?”

Lydia frowned, wringing her hands. “I’ve just finished my morning work and made the rounds, telling everyone your plan.”

His eyes narrowing, disgust enveloped Amin. The man’s stench was unbearable. He flashed a glance at Rueben’s wife, who scurried in the background, still fluttering like a leaf in high winds.

Rueben shook an admonishing finger at Lydia. “You know Luge’s directions were as clear as the morning sun. He said to move at our appointed time, no matter what.”

Amin turned to Lydia. “Why? What harm would it do to wait a little longer?”

Glaring, Rueben grabbed Lydia’s wrist and tugged her toward his tent. “The whole clan will starve if we delay. Once the rains come, the roads will be impassible, and winter will have its way with us.”

Lydia jerked free and returned to Amin, staring into his bright eyes, leaning in as if to emphasize her words. “It’s true. It’ll grow cold here soon, and animals will be hard to find. We’ve already outstayed our welcome.” She glanced at the main path leading out of the village. “I was hoping” —she shook herself— “but there’s no sense waiting now. Luge will follow us. He knows the way.”

Ruben gestured to his wife. “Ulla will help you.” He limped to the outdoor pallet and flopped on the ground with a loud, lingering groan.

Lydia lifted her hands in apparent surrender, her gaze sweeping the interior of the tent. “Don’t worry, Ulla. You take care of your husband. I’ll manage.”

As Ulla scampered to her wifely duty, Amin stepped into the tent behind Lydia. He gasped. Discarded clothes, half-eaten food, dirty cups, and sticky jugs, ornate decorations, a broken spear, three mangled baskets, and an assortment of other detritus lay strewn about in haphazard fashion. “They’re worse than pigs.”

Clamping her hand over Amin’s mouth, her eyes widened. “Shhh! He’s a difficult man when he’s feeling well but now that he’s sick—”

Amin lifted a jug, sniffed, and wrinkled his nose. His voice dropped low. “Sick or stupid?”

Her hands flashing right and left, Lydia straightened the baskets and tossed salvageable goods into them. The rotten food and broken pottery shards, she threw into a central pit. “His bowels bother him…sometimes he writhes in agony.” With a yelp, she jumped back.

Leaning forward, Amin followed her wide-eyed stare and peered in the dark corner where a heap of old clothes lay in a shredded bundle. He gripped the corner and tugged.

Out leapt a litter of rats, which scattered in all directions.

Slapping his thigh, Amin knocked one off his legging and then spat on the ground. “Ugh! Filthy people!”

With a shudder, Lydia grabbed a staff from the corner and swung it at the departing rodents, her own rage flushing across her face. “Luge should never have left me like this! He knows how much I have to do—”

Shocked, Amin froze and stared at her. “He’s looking for your son!”

Lydia exhaled a long breath and began tossing articles in the basket again. “I know what he’s doing.” She glanced at Amin. “But I’m long past such hope.”

Using his feet, Amin nudged garbage into the pit. “Still, the boy—”

“I have more than one child, and I must care for those left to me as best I can.” Straightening, she rubbed her back. “Besides, I have another coming, and Luge knows how Rueben acts. Impossible man.”

For the first time, Amin gazed at the swelling in Lydia’s middle. A memory of his mother’s rounded belly as she carried Caleb flashed through his mind. He rushed to Lydia’s side. “You should be resting. I didn’t realize.”

Lydia smiled. “I have time yet, but it’s too much work for one woman.”

Rueben called from outside. “Lydia, bring me fresh water.”

Lifting his hand, Amin rolled his eyes and stepped outside. He glanced from Rueben’s supine form to Ulla feeding berries to her husband. Closing his eyes, Amin snatched the empty jug from against the wall and strode to the stream.

Lydia’s two children toddled across his path, calling for their mama.

By the time he returned, Amin’s gut churned in fury. He plunked the jug down and perched his hands on his hips.

Lydia stepped out of the tent with one child on her hip, another tugging at her skirt, and a large basket in her other arm. She glanced at Amin. “I need to feed them and then perhaps—”

Amin folded his arms. “I’ll help get everything ready.”

Blinking back tears, Lydia hurried away with her children clinging to her.

Rueben took a long lingering swallow and then handed the jug to his wife.

Amin glared from one to the other. “What kind of a fool leaves his brother’s wife to tend to everything?”

Spluttering, Ulla choked.

Rueben jerked upright, his eyes glassy. He staggered to his feet and towered over the youth. “How dare a mongrel talk to me like that!”

“I’m no mongrel.” Amin flapped an open palm at Lydia’s tent with her children whining at the door. “She’s exhausted, and you don’t lift a finger to help!”

Raising his arm, Rueben swore to the sky. “By the gods, you have overstayed your welcome! Go and do not follow us on our journey.”

Cold fear enveloping him, Amin stiffened. “Luge told me to wait here, so he could find me—”

“Luge is dead, idiot! No one enters the stone city and lives to tell of it.” His eyes narrowed. “Leave now before I see fit to beat you and throw you out.”

Curling his fingers against the desire to shred Rueben’s face with his nails, Amin turned on his heel and stomped to Lydia’s tent. He plucked his spear from the wall.

Lydia frowned. “What’s happened?”

“Rueben has sent me away.” Without another word, Amin charged back into the sunlight, sweeping along the main path toward the edge of the village.

Stepping out, Lydia gasped and peeled herself away from her children. She trotted to Rueben’s side, her tone imploring. “Amin is just a boy! You can’t send him into the woods unprotected.”

Rueben jerked her clutching fingers off his sleeve. “Since my brother is no longer here, I’m the leader. I do what I think is best for the whole clan.” He glared at his wife and gestured to Lydia. “Every moment we waste in idle chatter costs us dearly. Hurry and see to the packing, woman.”

Amin stopped and met Lydia’s frightened gaze. “I’m not unprotected.” He lifted his spear. “I wish I could’ve helped you.” He glanced aside at Rueben. “You’re making a terrible mistake.” Fury twisting his insides, Amin pounded onto the main path that led into the surrounding woodlands.

Once well outside the village, he stopped and considered his options. Back toward home…or to the mountains? He turned and faced the mountains.

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