OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nine

—Amin’s Village—

You Meant Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flapping footsteps stopped at his side.

Amin clenched his jaw tight against a scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But many of your people supported Ishtar.”

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

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

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

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

Amin crossed his arms and glared.

A tear slipped down Namah’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ll be furious.”

“Not as furious as Barak will be.”

A splutter of relief surged through Amin’s middle.

“Maybe you need my help?”

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

Beyond Mortal Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He staggered on.

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

Tears trickled down his face.

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

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

Thirst tormented him.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

It would not budge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.

Ishtar stumbled inside.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar frowned.

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

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

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

He trembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

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

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

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

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

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

Lud smiled and waved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

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

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

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

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

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

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Six

—Grassland—

That God of Yours

Jonas stood outside her dwelling and hugged Tobia in a tight embrace, an ache building behind her eyes.

Vitus, dressed in a short gray tunic, matching leggings, and with a dark red cloak flung over his shoulders, stood aside, tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his walking staff. As he looked to the sky, he exhaled a long-suffering sigh.

Tobia, wearing a new long-sleeved white robe over tan leggings pulled back and chewed his lip. His gaze flickered to Obed out of the corner of his eyes.

Jonas glanced from her son to her husband and back to her son. Her stomach clenched into painful knots. She caressed the side of Tobia’s face, letting strands of his fine brown hair stream through her fingers. Staring into his eyes, she tried to memorize every feature.

Obed turned away.

Like children at play, birds swooped and circled in the sky above.

Vitus drummed his staff faster, louder. His sighs turned to huffs and were not encouraging.

Pulling away, Jonas released her boy. “I’ve lost one son—and your father. I cannot bear—”

Vitus lifted his hand. “We’re not going to the earth’s edge, woman. Just the trading circuit.” He slung a limp bag over his shoulder and peered at Tobia’s bulging bag. “We have a long road before nightfall, so if you don’t mind?”

Jonas forced a smile despite impending tears. “I’m sure you’ll do well.” She smashed down rising nausea. “Vitus is a good man of business, and he’ll teach you a great deal. And” —she dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in— “you’ll teach him a thing or two, no doubt.”

With a grunt, Vitas whapped Tobia on the back and looked up. “The sun is far higher than I intended for our leave-taking. Come now, you’ve said enough farewells for six sons.” His scowl swung from Tobia to Jonas. “Let’s go!”

Tobia nodded and shifted his bag over his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.”

Vitus stomped off in haste.

Tobia trotted after him.

Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Jonas glanced around. Villagers scurried in their daily duties, no one noticing a mother’s tears. Her shoulders sagged under a hidden weight as she turned to her dwelling and stepped into the cool interior. Slicing roots and vegetables for the mid-day meal, she muttered under her breath. “If that man—”

“Talking to someone?” Obed stood in the doorway, his face draped in shadow.

A stream of light broke through the window and fell across Jonas, making her blink.

With a headshake, Obed grinned and strode to her side. He sniffed the pot. “I hope you’re making something good. I’m starving.”

Her irritation frothing into righteous indignation, Jonas scowled. “Everything I make is good.” She swept the sliced pieces into a pot. “And yes, I am talking to someone. And no, I’m not overprotective.” She sloshed water from a pitcher into the pot and plunked it on the table.

Obed lifted his hands. “I didn’t say anything.” He snatched a date from a bowl and chewed.

Pulling a tray close, Jonas flipped a cloth off a rounded ball of dough. She flattened the dough with her fist and began kneading it with her palms. “You don’t need to say anything. The look in your eye is enough.”

Obed’s eyes widened. “What look?”

“The look you gave me when I hugged Tobia goodbye. The look you make every time Tobia and I pray to God.” She laid the dough aside.

Shaking his head, Obed retreated to the other side of the room, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall. “I won’t deny that your private conversations do seem rather childish, and you did act like Tobia was being sent to his death this morning.”

With deliberate jerks, Jonas wiped the dough off her fingers and rinsed them under a stream of water from the pitcher. “First things first. Our prayers are childish?” Jonas dropped the washcloth on the board. “How about Eymard? Was he a foolish old man? Or Pele? Was she being childish when she appeared out of nowhere and stopped the sacrifice?”

Pushing off the wall, Obed sauntered to a corner and plopped down. He plumped the pillow beside him and peered at Jonas. He waved her over. “Let’s talk without all the dramatic fury—if that’s possible.”

Her shoulders drooping, Jonas stepped over and plunked down stiffly at his side.

“I’m willing to consider what you have to say, but it’d help if you weren’t bristling like a pine tree in high wind every time I talk to you.”

Tears threatening, Jonas closed her eyes and clasped her hands. After a deep breath, she opened her eyes and met Obed’s gaze.

Obed wrapped his arm around her and drew her to his chest.

“I’m sorry I insulted your faith. I shouldn’t say anything”—he grinned— “even with my eyes.” He peered at her. “But you know perfectly well that Tobia’s journey will be good for him. You were suffocating him, treating him like a child.” He squeezed her shoulder playfully. “I bet that God of yours would agree.”

Her stomach unclenching, Jonas relaxed and sighed. “You might be right, but I wish you’d talk to Tobia about his beliefs—and his work. It means so much to him.”

With a chuckle, Obed pulled his arm free and laced his fingers together. “What’s there to talk about? How to hoe a field or watch over a flock?”

Her chin hardening, Jonas nudged away. “I mean his carvings. Tobia’s art speaks to the human spirit.”

With a grunt, Obed shook his head and rose. “Men don’t need to trouble themselves with spirits. I have no wish to become like Ishtar—or any of his kind.” He took Jonas’s hand and pulled her to her feet.

Jonas slapped dust off her dress. “I’m not asking you to become like Ishtar—God forbid. But don’t you ever wonder where the soul goes at death? What other world we might enter? What happened to Onias and Aram?”

Clenching his jaw, Obed slapped a post. “Onias is dead. Aram is dead. Ishtar might as well be dead. It’s time you moved on.” He swung around. “I can’t live in two worlds. One is quite enough for me.” He glared at Jonas, his nostrils flaring as his breathing quickened. “There is no other world.” He bent over and pinched a smidgen of dirt, sifting it through his fingers. “After death, there’s nothing more than this.”

Jonas stomped across the room and stared Obed in the eye. “How can you be so blind? Don’t you see that we have a Creator—a great being beyond us?”

A grin played on Obed’s lips as his gaze roamed over Jonas. “I see greatness before me. I don’t need to look beyond.”

Blushing, Jonas dropped her gaze. “You’re just being stubborn.”

“No, I’m being honest. I’ve more useful things to do than worry about other worlds and gods beyond my sight.”

“Aram believed in God. He told Tobia so.”

Obed grabbed another date and studied it as if it contained a secret. “When a man is dying, it’s comforting to think such things—great banquets in the sky, meeting old friends. I’ll probably want the same comfort when I’m on my death bed.”

“Why wait till then? Talk to God now. Just once—pray.”

With a groan, Obed popped the date in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I’d feel like a fool.”

Defeat bowing her shoulders, Jonas dropped her head.

Obed rolled his shoulders. “All right. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll try.” He blew air between his lips and peered at his wife. “But you’ve got to stop babying Tobia. He’s a man, and he must grow up. Carving is fine—but he needs to support his family and this clan.”

Jonas nodded.

Stepping forward, Obed ran his fingers over her hair, caressing her neck.

A pleasant shiver ran down Jonas’ back.

Obed whispered in her ear. “I’m still hungry. You won’t let me starve?”

Jonas rolled her eyes. “If you catch a couple fish, I’ll do my best to keep you alive another day.”

“Now I can thank your God.”

Jonas returned to the lump of dough, her stomach still in knots, but her shoulders relaxing. “Poor man, I should’ve sent you on a journey.”

With a chuckle, Obed started for the doorway. “Not a bad idea. You think Vitus would wait up while I got ready?”

Jonas watched her husband, with his broad shoulders and straight back, saunter into the sunlight. She glanced up at the rafters. “You may have created him—but I have to live with him.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy,

Ann

“Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” ~Anonymous

 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Five

—Amin’s Village—

My Enemy’s Sons

Amin, with his sharp, chiseled chin and pointed nose, stood in front of a grave mound with his hands clasped behind his back. Tears clouded his vision.

Villagers strode by—unaware or uncaring—never once looking in his direction.

Shuffling footsteps neared.

Amin scowled.

A small brown hand clasped his. Amin peered down and met the sad-eyed gaze of his little brother, a red-cheeked child losing his bloom too early. He swallowed back a lump and cleared his throat. “Caleb. What’re you doing here?”

A slight shrug hinted at a deeper ignorance.

“Did you eat yet?”

Caleb drew one hand from behind his back. A half-eaten piece of bread crumbled beneath his grasp. “It’s all she could spare—at the moment.”

Amin nodded. “Finish it.”

Caleb frowned. “Half’s for you.”

“I already ate. Got some broiled fish off one of the men. Threw it at me like I was a dog.”

Caleb’s eyes widened, his tone a pitch higher. “Fish?”

“I would’ve saved it for you, but it fell in the dirt—wasn’t more than—” He shrugged, clasped his brother’s shoulder, and turned away from the grave.

Caleb turned back, staring at the mound. “Hagia would want flowers.”

An ache throbbed in Amin’s middle. “If she were alive. No need of flowers where she’s gone.” He pulled his brother along.

Caleb followed with a sigh. They wandered to the center of the village.

A young couple bustled in serious industry outside a large, sturdy dwelling. The woman shifted a bench from the right to the left, while the man strung a rope taut from one pole to another. They stopped and peered with sour expressions as the two boys shuffled closer.

The woman waved toward a boulder surrounded by rank grass. “Go over there. That woman left you a tray. Eat the leavings and move on.” She glanced at the hills as if indicating the way.

On the boulder, a tray of gruel lay broiling in the hot sun.

Amin’s frown deepened as he stared back. “What woman?”

The man marched forward, his face flushed, and his brows arched. “Namah. But why she should care for you— after what your father did—is beyond me.” He spat on the ground. “I’d have slaughtered my enemy’s sons. Not fed ’em.”

Caleb trotted over to the food and sniffed. The gruel had jelled into a thick gelatinous mass.

Amin peered over his brother’s shoulder. “Disgusting.”

The woman’s hand fluttered like a garment in a strong breeze. “Not so loud. She’s over there. Discussing you two, no doubt.”

After settling on the ground cross-legged, Caleb pulled the tray onto his lap and shoveled the messy mixture into his mouth with his dirty fingers. He glanced at Amin while dribbles leaked down his chin. “Want some?”

Amin’s gaze fixed on Namah’s back as she stood across the village chatting in a company of other women.

“Wonder what she’s saying.”

The woman straightened a blanket on the line. “She wants someone to adopt you.” She thwacked the heavy cloth with a stick.

Amin whirled around. “Adopt me?”

The woman pounded in a steady rhythm, sending billows of dust into the air. “You and him.” She gestured with her chin. “You’ve got to live somewhere.”

Amin glanced at the dwelling, fury rising like hot liquid in his stomach. “This used to be our home.”

Dropping an ax on the bench, the man turned around, glaring. “Not anymore. Ishtar’s disgraced himself—exiled to his doom, far as I care.” He slapped the doorpost. “But it’s a solid house. I’ve as much right to it as anyone.”

Caleb peered up, licking his sticky lips. “Why?”

With two strides, the man leaned forward and cuffed Caleb on the head. “No more questions. Be on your way now. You’re lucky I didn’t let the dogs have that mess.”

Whimpering, Caleb dropped the tray in the dirt and covered his head.

Growling like a chained animal, Amin gripped his brother’s hand and lurched him to his feet. Tugging him along the path between the buildings, he glanced around. No Namah. “Curse that man! He’s no right to hit you. Or order us away.”

Caleb sniffed as he rubbed his ear. Tears welled in his eyes. “Everyone hates us.”

Amin lead Caleb to a grove of trees beside a rushing stream. “Not everyone.” He frowned and glanced at Caleb as he settled him under the shade of a large tree. “Rest. We’ll sleep here tonight.”

Caleb’s eyes rounded. “But animals come at night.”

Amin tugged a piece of flint from a small wallet tied around his waist. “I can make a fire.” He glanced around. “There’s plenty of tinder, and we can gather bigger pieces before dark.”

Caleb’s sniff turned into a shudder. “I wish Hagia were here. She loved us.”

“She did. But” —Amin shrugged away his helplessness— “at least Namah and Jonas leave us food.”

“Why? I mean, why do they?” Caleb peered up, squinting into the light filtering through the branches.

“Barak probably tells them to. He’s a good man. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hagia said Namah would follow Aram to the grave. How can she?”

“It’s just a saying.” Tousling his brother’s thick, curly hair, Amin worked up a crooked grin. “No more questions, all right?”

Caleb ran a filthy hand over his sweaty face, smearing streaks of dirt over his head and neck.

Amin’s stomach churned. “Go wash in the stream. I’ll get some wood.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Maybe I’ll even catch a fish for tonight, and we can roast it.”

A new light entered Caleb’s eyes. Turning on his heel, he scampered away.

Amin watched the boy leap like a frisky puppy into the bubbling stream. He sighed and turned to the woods. As he stepped into the cool shade, he glanced back at his old dwelling. Setting his jaw, his eyes narrowed.

 

*A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed week.

Ann

“A home is made of hopes and dreams.” ~Anonymous

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

Ark sat on a log next to a rippling stream and slapped his fleshy, three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Three

—Hill Land—

Not Set In Stone

Lud, skinny but stalwart, watched his eldest son, Gilbreth, as they trudged over flat grassland.

Though small for his age, Gilbreth’s heavy frame gave him a robust appearance. His little brother, Ham, bumped into him and fell backward, sprawling flat on the green expanse. Gilbreth stared at his brother and smiled. He plucked the little boy out of the grass, easily swung him onto his hip, and continued his march. “Ham, look where you’re going. This is the third time you have run into me.”

As his little brother’s dark eyes filled with tears, Gilbreth’s voice softened. “I can’t be picking you up all the time. We have to travel far today.” By the last word, Gilbreth’s tone had lifted to a gentle croon.

Lud stifled a laugh. He dared not look at his wife.

Dinah clasped a hand over her mouth while a grin peeked out from her eyes. She carried her baby, Deli, in a sling wrapped over her shoulder.

Lud wrapped his arm around his son. “You’ll make a good father someday.”

Gilbreth rolled his eyes. “More than that, I hope! The new boys will think I am a nursemaid.” He met his father’s gaze. “Please, keep Ham and Deli away from me when we arrive.”

Lud grinned. “You think I’d be so cruel? When the others see what a good-natured boy you are, the whole community will speak of it. They’ll say, ‘Gilbreth is a boy to be trusted!’” Lud pointed from Ham to Deli. “Besides” —he cringed in mock fear— “what would they do to me if I kept you away?”

Gilbreth pursed his lips, set Ham on his feet, and readjusted the bag slung over his back. “You can at least tell me why we’re leaving. Did we do something wrong?”

Lud glanced at his wife, the dull thud of reality dragged his soaring spirit back to earth.

With an understanding nod, Dinah strode ahead. A sack strapped across her back bounced with each step. Deli swayed on her hip, and she gripped Ham’s small hand.

Lud cleared his throat and clasped his staff tighter. “My father thinks I’m soft in the head because I’m so friendly with everyone. I told him that we want to see the world, but that’s not the whole reason we’re leaving.” He peered into the distance. “My people won’t last much longer. They’ve refused visitors, and they view every new idea with suspicion. They cloud their minds with doubt and fear. Even their blood grows weak because they allow no new members to replenish the spring. They’re dying.” Lud sucked in a deep breath and hurried his pace.

Gilbreth frowned, gazing at his feet as he kept pace with his father.

“That’s why your mother and I decided to leave—so we could join with a different clan. They’re kind, like to travel, and they’re willing to learn about the world. Despite her upbringing, your mother has an adventurous heart. Look at her. Does she seem in the least bit afraid?” A warm burst of joy spread over Lud as he stared at the woman marching before him. “With each step, she soars—an eagle on an updraft—like an old friend I once knew.”

Gilbreth bit his lip. “But will I never see my grandparents or the rest of my family again?”

Lud glanced away and picked up his pace. “I can’t say. The future is not set in stone.”

Gilbreth glanced from his mother to his siblings, grief entering his eyes.

Lud pressed his son’s shoulder gently. “It is hard, but we must grow into a new life or die in stagnant waters. I’d not have you endure such a fate.” Hurrying forward, Lud caught up to Dinah and grinned in her direction.

Dinah smiled back.

As Gilbreth ran ahead, Lud watched him. “You’ll enjoy meeting Eoban. He came to visit just as your mother and I made our decision. I never saw a man so well pleased.”

When Ham tripped and squalled, Lud scooped the little boy into a comforting embrace.

With a harrumph, Gilbreth lifted his arms like a bird with wings slicing through the air. His bag bounced across his back.

Lud murmured under his breath, “Nothing is set in stone.”

 

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Enjoy,

Ann

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11

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