OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

Ishtar stood, using his advantage in height, and bore down on Matalah’s second son, Wasim, staring fixedly into the hard face and squinted eyes. “I understand your position, but I accept it only on my terms. I’ll not oppose you, on the condition that you leave your father in peace. Keep your conquests to yourself and don’t lure your sisters and younger brother with stories of power and wealth. Stay away and keep your glorified visions far from here.”

Puffing out his chest, Wasim crossed his arms. “The power and wealth you speak of will be mine—and no illusion.” His eyes wrinkled in amusement. “All my brothers and I ask is that you keep father from opposing us. Will you do this little thing?” All amusement died. “Consider your answer carefully.”

Anger coursed through Ishtar’s blood as he bit off his words. “I will stay at your father’s side and do nothing to stop your treachery.”

Wasim nodded and turned away.

Ishtar called after him. “Others may oppose you, though.”

With a disdainful wave, Wasim paced away. His figure shimmered into the scorching heat.

~~~

Ishtar, calm and free from terrifying memories and having put all thought of Wasim from his mind, climbed the hills to greener pastures. As the days slowly passed, he watched the lambs frolic in innocent abandon. One persistent yearling butted against him repeatedly.

“All right, you win!” Ishtar bent down and rubbed her thick fleece.

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

Ishtar threw up his hands. “So like a child! You plague me for attention, and when I’m finally willing—” His gaze fell on a group of men climbing the hillside. He braced himself.

Matalah’s third son, Assam, strode at the head of the assembly and stepped up to Ishtar with a hand extended.

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

Unruffled, Assam grinned. “My eldest brother, Abdul, requests a meeting before we begin our conquest.” The lines of his face tightened into dread seriousness. “You must come. We’re not far.”

Ishtar nodded, and using his staff, he descended the hillside. As he glanced back, his eye caught the lamb that had nestled in his arms and was only now beginning to make forays into the wider world. He felt a pang in his chest as he considered her response when she came seeking him, and he was no longer there. Caleb’s face floated before his eyes. Ishtar stumbled.

Assam turned and frowned.

Irritation washed over Ishtar, and he waved the man on. The group wound down the hillside onto the barren plain.

Ripples of sand and dots of desert weeds covered the landscape. No insect or animal movement caught his eye, except a large bird soaring above. What could it possibly hope to find here? Ishtar shook his head and dropped his gaze as they marched along.

As the sun began its descent, Assam’s voice rose in a business-like tone. “We’re making our final plans, and we’ll leave as soon as everyone is ready.”

Ishtar squinted in the afternoon sunshine, using his hand to block the blinding rays. Like a splash of cold water, the sight before his eyes sent a rippled shock over his body.

A large assembly of men busied themselves in battle preparations. The sight of so many weapons and hardened men stole Ishtar’s breath away. This was hardly the idle fantasy of mere boys. Matalah had been right—his sons were the tools of a much greater force.

Assam flashed a grin and gleefully shouted a battle cry as he lunged forward to greet his comrades.

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

In the center, dressed for battle with a long sword hanging at his side and knives tucked in his belt, stood Abdul.

Ishtar halted on the periphery, watching the excited men boast and gesture, building themselves into a fever pitch. Pounding blood coursed through his own veins. Faces floated before his eyes—Neb, Hagia, Aram, Obed, Tobia, his wife, and sons—as if there were no past but only a great muddle of present moments involving all the people who had been important to him. How could a man build a future when the past would not leave him be?

Abdul peered at Ishtar, and for a moment, they were alone in the world, staring at each other, taking one another’s measure. A gleam entered Abdul’s eyes. “So, my father’s friend has joined us at last. Good of you to come.”

Ishtar inclined his head. “Your invitation could not be ignored.”

Abdul gestured curtly. “Come then; we’ll get started. I have a few men I want you to meet. They’re assembled in my tent.”

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

Abdul plunked down on a pile of pillows, leaving Ishtar to stand. He waved to the assembled men, hardened warriors every one of them. “Our plans are complete, except for one small thing. We’d like your cooperation in a simple matter.”

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

“Your part is most important, for it will help us in all our future plans.” Abdul waited.

Ishtar pursed his lips. “Speak plainly. What is it you want from me?”

“Lead my father into battle against us.” Abdul grinned, apparently amused by Ishtar’s frozen reaction.

His throat tightening, Ishtar swallowed against a choking sensation. His words dropped to a whisper. “You want your father out of the way.”

“Just so.”

Ishtar’s hands trembled. “In this, I am your equal at least.” He clenched his jaw. “But I never wanted my father to die—only his evil to end.”

A scowl rode across Abdul’s forehead, one eyebrow rising. “There is no other way. If you lead him into battle, he’ll have the honor of a valiant death. If you abandon him, it’ll be a mindless slaughter. Which would you have? Honor or disgrace?”

Ishtar’s voice rose to a fevered pitch. “Is it your father’s disgrace to be murdered by his son?”

Abdul poked the air before Ishtar. “Unless my father confronts us honestly, our mission cannot succeed. I wouldn’t be a worthy son if I didn’t give him the opportunity to defend himself.”

Ishtar unclenched his teeth and sucked in a deep breath. “He is no threat to you! Why must you make such an evil choice?”

“The future is unforeseeable. I cannot always watch my back, uncertain of his loyalty.”

“You can speak of loyalty? You, who have none?”
“My father must see—he has no choice. He can’t remain hidden in the folds of his tent, embraced in self- righteousness. We are the heirs of this land. We must decide the future. I am not content to die as I was born.”

“You want me to convince your father to go into the open battle and be killed by your men?”

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

“How does an old man wish to die? No valiant tales are told of quiet lives endured in peaceful times. Better to die in a struggle for home and position than to die mourned only by the plaintive wailing of a few old women.”

“Even when that struggle is against his own son?”

“We are all brothers…or sons under the same sky.” Ishtar shook his head. “I could reason better with the sheep.”

“The sheep are mine.”

All emotion burning into ashy cinders, Ishtar squared his shoulders. “I will tell your father what you’ve said. Whether he comes to offer battle or self-sacrifice is more than I can say.” Ishtar turned to leave.

Abdul called after him. “Ishtar! You’ll ride out with him.”

The flap fell back into place as Ishtar stepped into the dim light.

~~~

Ishtar rose from his bed of softened earth in the crook between two sheltering boulders, blinked at the rising sun, and dusted off his tunic. He tromped over the hillside while the sheep gamboled along behind. Once on the plain, he blocked the hot sun with his arm and directed his steps to Matalah’s tent.

Outside, a low fire smoldered under an empty pot. Camp activity had stilled to a deserted silence. Only one attendant came and led the sheep to their enclosure.

Ishtar passed around the fire and entered the tent. Matalah, in his usual place, sat still and quiet. His shrunken frame bowed as if to reflect the breaking of his heart.

After embracing the old man, Ishtar stood aside and told his dreadful news.

Matalah’s head dropped lower on his chest. His eyes were open, but his gaze remained unfocused.

Pacing closer, Ishtar crouched and peered into the old man’s face. “So, what now, my friend? Will we go out together and meet the enemy?”

Matalah lifted his head and raised his hands in as if in supplication. “Against my own sons? My flesh is taken from my frame and attacks me! Those I held as babes and loved as boys now hate me as men.”

Swiveling on his heel, Ishtar turned and pounded to the other side of the tent. “But they’ll destroy you if you do nothing.”

Matalah rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his middle. “My heart beats by some command that is not my own. If I could fight a heartless enemy, I would be satisfied, but how can I wish to murder a part of myself?” Peering up, Matalah locked his gaze on Ishtar, and tears filled his eyes. “I love them—even yet. They are my second self. They look like me; they sound like me. Though they have forsaken me, they cannot forget me altogether. They, too, will grow old and have sons, and my countenance will accuse them through innocent eyes.”

Ishtar bowed his head, pain searing through his middle. “Your words ring truer than you know. My sons will inherit my guilt without knowing the reason or the price paid for my pride and ambition.”

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

Returning to Matalah’s side, Ishtar gripped his friend’s arm. “But I have outlived my horrors, and the shadows of the past no longer claim me.”

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

“It was your goodness that set me free. If I can offer my life to you in gratitude for your generosity, I only help myself to decency and peace.”

Matalah groaned. “It is my hour to wish for a quick death.”

Ishtar strolled to the doorway, lifted the tent flap, and peered out. “Death will come soon enough.” He glanced back. “Let’s go out and discover what awaits us.”

Matalah’s hands spread wide. “I have nothing to offer that will gain us time or strength…or imbue them with forgotten decency.”

A strange, unexpected peace settled over Ishtar. “There are things your sons do not know. Even things that you do not know. The goodness you bestowed on your neighbors—even on your herds—will return to you in the end.”

“What you say may be true, but my sons won’t care for such philosophy. They want a quick gain, no matter what the cost.” He rose and tottered to the opening, standing next to Ishtar. “All my life is to be thrown to the wind.”

“You were brought into the world for a purpose and shall be held accountable for your part only.”

Matalah’s arms reached into the air beseechingly. “But they are my sons. Surely, I share the guilt in what I have helped to create? Has my life not been made worthless?”

Ishtar clenched his hands and stared at his friend. “You are not worthless.”

Matalah closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest. He murmured under his breath and then opened his eyes. Straightening, he started forward. “I still have a few attendants and camels; they will lead us to my sons.”

Ishtar laid his hand on Matalah’s shoulder. “You have less to regret than most mortals.”

Matalah sighed as he stepped outside. “But my heart is broken, nonetheless.”

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

“It takes a strong heart to love, but it takes an even stronger heart to continue to love after it’s been hurt.” ~Anonymous 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Sixteen

—OldEarth—

Your Intensity Disturbs Me

Ark crouched over Ungle’s sprawled, green-splattered body and checked for life signs. One of Ungle’s tentacles ended in messy pulp. Ark snatched a tube from a bag slung over his shoulder and tore off the seal. Lifting Ungle’s unconscious head from the ground, Ark pulled on the breather helm and carefully poured the murky green liquid into the repository.

Standing beside Ark, Teal peered down at the scene, tense and waiting. Nearby, Zuri paced before a large boulder next to a winding stream. Sterling sat limply on the boulder, his head propped in his hands, looking sick and weak.

With a jerk and a snort, Ungle’s eyes fluttered open. He stared at Ark, a puzzled frown rippling across his face. “What’re—” Wincing in pain, he writhed, groaned, and lifted his injured tentacle. His eyes widened in obvious disbelief. “How—?”

Glancing aside, Ark barked an order at Zuri. “Get that medical kit you always carry around.”

Zuri froze, peering at Ark. “It’s for Ingots, not Crestas.” Glancing at the writhing tentacle, he shook his head and swallowed. “But I’ve got a decent sickbay onboard. Let’s go.” He glanced at Teal. “It’s not far, hidden in a cave.”

Ark backed out of the way as Zuri and Teal lifted Ungle’s body and half-led, half-carried him over the stream to a large cave.

Sterling followed, his head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back.

Snug in the cave, the ship gleamed like an oval blue-black jewel. The dripping walls housed colonies of bats and lichen. A few stalactites hung from the ceiling on the right, while broken stems showed where the ship had barreled through.

After tapping a key code, Zuri stood aside and the shiny bay door rose from the cave floor. A bright shaft of light directed their steps to the interior.

Once inside the Ingot ship, Zuri pointed to a small niche in the rear. A reclining chair with armrests embedded with wires, tubes, and assorted medical gear stood prominently in the center. A large console with three colored panels arched from the left wall.

Zuri adjusted the seat, and he and Teal dropped Ungle in place, directing his tentacles to the side and laying the injured limb on a rolling side table. Zuri waved Ark to the console. “It’s set up for Ingots, but there are overrides so it can be adjusted for the needs of other species. He glanced at Teal. “Though, I don’t know if we’ve ever used it on a Cresta before.”

Ark nodded, his gaze sweeping over the instrument panel. “I’ll make do.” He glanced up with a wavering smile. “We scientists are ingenious at this sort of thing.” He locked eyes with Zuri. “Don’t worry. It’s not as bad as it seems. Our tentacles grow back.”

Zuri closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath. “Yes, of course. I should’ve remembered.”

Teal strode up and peered at Ungle’s closed eyes. “I think he’s out again.”

Ark nodded. “Certainly hope so. I gave him enough painkiller to knock out the entire Cambial Zoo.” He rubbed two tentacles together and scanned the console. “I’ll just trim off the nasty bit, and in a few days, he’ll feel as good as new, though a little off-balance until it grows out again.”

Sterling plopped down on a swivel chair near the front and called back. “So, you want to explain what happened?” Zuri ran a hand over his gleaming helmet and sighed. “I didn’t know what he was doing. At first, I just figured he was another Cresta scout…odd after everything, but then I’m not always kept informed of changes. Still, he was out of order.”

Ark glanced up.

Frowning, Teal stepped over to Zuri, his hands on his hips. “So you blasted him? Why?”

“He kept shooting at birds. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. But then I remembered that your friend, the cute little Luxonian, liked to transform into an eagle—”

Ark dropped the scalpel, and it clattered onto the tray. “Oh blast!”

Teal pounded the wall console with his fist and the bay door slid open.

Sterling jogged forward. “Wait! You don’t even know if he actually hit her or where—”

Teal swung around, his eyes glowing in rage. “Then where is she?”

Sterling clutched his arm. “I’ll come with you.”

Teal shook Sterling away. “Not likely. You’ll only slow me down.” He swung out the door and charged into the glaring sunshine.

With an explosive huff, Zuri slapped his hand against his thigh. He glanced back at Ark. “I’ll go. You stay and keep an eye on these two.” His gaze swiveled from Ungle to Teal. “We’ve had enough accidents this cycle.”

Ark retrieved his scalpel and started trimming. “I’d say.”

~~~

Teal lifted Sienna’s limp body off the dusty ground and followed Zuri back to the ship.

As the two crossed over the threshold, Ark closed his eyes and muttered a long slew of Crestonian curse words.

Sweat poured down Teal’s face as he stumbled forward.

Sterling jumped in to assist.

Zuri jogged to the right and pointed. “Here’s another pullout chair—for emergencies.” He gripped a red handle and yanked it down. A smaller version of the chair Ungle occupied unfolded from the wall.

Cradling Sienna, Teal laid her down and brushed strands of hair from her face. “I don’t see any injury, but she won’t wake up.”

Sterling placed his hand on her forehead, closed his eyes, and frowned in concentration. With a long exhaling breath, he opened his eyes. “She’s still alive.” He nodded while his gaze rolled over her. “It’s good instinct to maintain the shape of your host environment.” He glanced at Teal. “She’s clever; I’ll give her that. Most would’ve panicked—but she knew it would be safest to appear human if she was injured and couldn’t travel.”

Teal glanced over at Ungle’s slumped form. “Is he going to live?”

Sitting in a padded chair against the wall, Ark waved a tentacle in droopy-eyed weariness. “Of course. It’s not a life-threatening procedure, just rather painful.” He yawned. “And tedious.”

Zuri fell into a chair on the opposite wall. “My body can take almost anything but—by the Divide—I’m emotionally exhausted.”

Sterling glanced at Teal. “Go pace around the ship or something. Your intensity disturbs me.”

Teal stalked over to Ungle and glared at his sleeping form. “I ought to kill him.”

Ark leaped to his feet. “Oh, no, you don’t! Not after I just spent worthy corpuscles keeping him alive.”

Zuri’s eyebrows rose.

Ark puckered his lips. “I had to give him a transfusion—to counteract the shock.” He blinked. “We’re a brilliant race but not terribly resilient.”

Teal nudged Ungle’s shoulder. “Wake up, Cresta. I have questions you need to answer.”

A long, drawn-out sigh from across the room turned their heads. Sienna whimpered and shivered.

Teal raced across the room and gripped her hand. “Sienna?”

Sterling stepped out of the way.

Her eyes blinking open, Sienna swallowed and opened her mouth to speak. No sound came. She frowned.

Sterling shrugged and glanced at Teal. “She’ll be fine. She had a hard landing but no serious injury. She’ll mend.”

A rush of relief flooded Teal as he caressed her hand.

“You understand, Sienna? You’ll be all right.”

Sienna stared at Teal as if she had no idea who he was, her puzzled frown etching deeper into her forehead.

Sterling laid his hand on her forehead and whispered under his breath.

Sienna closed her eyes, and her head fell gently to the side. “Let her rest. She’ll tell us what happened when she’s feeling better.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “I want answers—now.”

Ungle’s ragged voice rose like a cracked flute. “And you shall have them.”

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
~Voltaire

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Fifteen

—Mountains—

What Have You Done?

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

Someone nudged his foot. He opened his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just kind and honest.”

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

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

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

“God does what he wants.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vitus climbed faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountainous dark clouds roiled overhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobia stopped rocking and waited.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Vitus lay frozen.

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

Not a flicker.

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

“Vitus? You all right?”

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Fourteen

—Grassland—

Insecure, Hesitant and Unwilling

Lud sat hunched on a bench next to Obed, in the center of the village. He glanced at Eoban who stood before them. They’re going to fight. I know it. He scooted to the edge of the bench.

Eoban faced Obed with his chest out, head up, and feet firmly planted on the ground. “I’m not going to continue in the trade business, and I never travel for fun. I plan to settle down. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get married.” He glanced at a group of women off to the side and grimaced. “Jonas will be so happy.”

Obed rose, slapping his hands to his sides, and faced Eoban. “So why—?”

“I must.” Eoban glanced around and met Lud’s gaze. “You understand, don’t you, Lud?”

Obed stomped closer. “Why are you asking him, since I’ll have to bear the burden—”

Eoban nudged Obed in the shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “A little adventure wouldn’t do you any harm, either.” He turned away. “I don’t trust things as we left them, and besides, Barak has taken responsibility for Ishtar’s sons. They have the right to know what happened to their father.”

Obed’s eyes narrowed as he placed his hands on his waist. “I never had much faith in Ishtar, and his degeneration merely proved his real quality.”

A memory flashed through Lud’s mind…Ishtar patting his arm, comforting and encouraging him on the day they walked away from bondage. Lud straightened and refocused his attention. “It’s true, Ishtar did disgrace himself. But Eoban has a point. When Ishtar helped free the slaves, he defied not only his father but also an evil within that would’ve doomed a lesser man. His bravery and decency saved my life.” He dropped his gaze. “The fact that he fell to the charms of an enchantress was partly my fault. My family rejected him. The insult was more than he could bear.”

Obed flicked his fingers dismissively. “From father to son. Who could trust such a man? I know I can’t!”

Exploding into wild arm waves, Eoban pounded forward. “Obed, you don’t have to trust Ishtar! I just want to find him, and if he’s alive, learn his plans. We’ve got to forge a new future without the fear that he might return someday. Certainly, his sons need to know the truth.”

Obed tilted his head, a wary expression in his eyes. “I never noticed you giving them much attention.”

“I’ve watched and listened. They’re better boys than I had dared to hope. They must’ve inherited their temperaments from their grandmother. They’re nothing like Haruz or even Ishtar, for that matter, though Amin does tend to brood at times. Who wouldn’t under such a cloud? That’s why I must go.”

Obed shrugged. “It’ll be a waste of time, but let’s tell Jonas and see what she has to say.” He strode sedately across the village, toward his wife.

Locking his hands behind his back, Eoban paced before the bench.

Lud glanced at Eoban. “You knew he wouldn’t like the idea. Why didn’t you just go alone on one of your famous journeys? You’re a free man.”

Bending low, Eoban met Lud’s gaze. “Because I don’t know what I am getting myself into, and I’d like traveling companions.”

Lud’s heart lurched into his throat and lodged there.

Obed followed behind Jonas. She marched up to Eoban, her brows furrowed, and her arms swinging like scythes ready for harvest. “What madness! You want to look for Ishtar? A risk for no gain—it’s not like you.”

Standing his ground, Eoban drummed his fingers on his leg. He turned to Obed. “If you’re going to call in Jonas, I’m calling in Namah.” He huffed, clearly put out. “While we’re at it, we’ll call in Barak and Amin…and Caleb too.”

Lud dragged a hand over his mouth, smothering a sigh.

Eoban swung his glare from Obed to Jonas. “What do you say? I’ll gather everyone, and we’ll meet tonight.”

Jonas nodded.

Eoban nudged Obed. “Mind if we convene at your place?”

Obed shrugged. “You’re playing with fire, Eoban. But fine. The outcome will affect us all.”

Lud slipped off the bench and watched as Obed and Jonas strolled away. He turned to Eoban. “Why make this even bigger…and harder?”

Eoban sighed. “It’s not going to get any easier for a long while yet.”

Lud lifted his hands in surrender. “Long as I don’t have to join in your madness.”

~~~

Jonas peered at a spectrum of colors ranging from pink to purple. She exhaled a long, slow breath. Tree branches stretched into the sky, creating a vision of contrasts. The black horizon etched the contour of the low hills, while the world around blended all the hues of the universe into one vast sheet of darkness. She murmured under her breath. “If other beings do exist, we’ll learn the truth of it…whether we hope to or not.”

Obed strode up from behind and squeezed her shoulders.

“Chatting to your invisible friend again?”

Jonas stiffened and faced her husband. “A blind man doesn’t know what he can’t see.”

~~~

Barak stood outside his house, his thoughts trailing into the distance.

Eoban, silhouetted against the dark sky, strode forward. “Contemplating your existence?”

Barak rubbed his jaw. “As a matter of fact, I was just wishing for warriors.”

Eoban grinned. “Now you’re speaking my language!”

Pointing to the bench, Barak paced before his house. “Sit down, and we can discuss the foolishness of being unprepared.”

Eoban clapped his hands. “You’ve spoken the desires of my heart! But I know a better place…with an appreciative audience. Come, let’s go!”

A sudden pain twitched. Barak rubbed his neck and rolled his shoulders. “What’re you talking about?”

“I am talking about whatever it was you were talking about—but with more details. Don’t argue. Come on! Namah is already waiting, and it’s getting dark.”

“Eoban?”

“Don’t ask! Just call those two boys. Where are they?” He cast his gaze around the village. “Amin and Caleb?”

“What do you want with them? They’re fine. I’ve never seen them so happy.”

Eoban lifted his hands. “Don’t worry. I’m not about to put them in any danger. We just want to speak with them about their father.”

A rock settled in Barak’s stomach. He glanced at the children playing in the distance. “Amin! Caleb! Hurry up, boys! We have business to attend to.”

Amin and Caleb raced forward, grinning. “Hello, Eoban! Yes, Barak?”

Eoban’s voice boomed. “We have a long journey before us, boys, adventure!”

Amin’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll explain later. If I don’t gather everyone now, it’ll never happen, so hurry.”

The three traipsed to the lake.

Namah sat in a small boat gripping the edges. Eoban ushered the rest in and rowed across the lake at an alarming speed. By the time they reached the shore, the sun had set, and the glowing full moon rose.

Jonas laid wooden trenchers of minced goat meat, bread, honey, olives, dates, cheese and vegetables on a spread cloth. Carafes of spiced wine stood at the center.

Amin and Caleb dispensed with all formality, gathered what they could hold, and ate to their heart’s content. Eoban followed, gesturing for Barak and Obed to hurry.

When everyone had eaten their fill and became acquainted with Eoban’s plan, they fell into silence.

Pacing before them, Eoban clasped his hands behind his back. “So, who will come with me in search of Ishtar?”

Amin stood, his gaze following Eoban. “I will.”

“Then I go too.” Caleb gripped the edge of Amin’s tunic. “To keep you safe.”

Amin pried his brother’s fingers off. “No! You can’t. You’re too little.”

“Don’t leave me!” Caleb broke into sobs.

Jonas hustled closer and wrapped her arms around the child. “Don’t worry, Caleb. You must act like a man now and help keep the home fires burning. Milkan will need you more than ever if Barak is going away.”

The settled rock exploded in Barak’s stomach, and his eyebrows shot up as he glanced around. “Am I going somewhere?”

Jonas peered at Eoban. “If you’re determined to go, then you must take Barak along.” She looked Barak full in the face. “I know you have a lot to do, but please—” She glanced at Eoban. “He might wander places where wiser heads would avoid.”

Eoban winced and snapped a piece of thatch from the low roof. “Thanks for your confidence.”

“Oh, Eoban, you know you want Barak to go. Obed would be of no use. He’d think too much and drive you mad.”

Eoban tapped his fingers together, nodding. “I have no objection to Obed joining us. It might be good to have a thinking man along.”

Rising, Barak tossed a branch on the fire. “Thanks for your confidence.”

Eoban rolled his eyes and threw a stick at Barak.

Obed chuckled. “Contrary to all expectations, I’ll take up the challenge and go with you, Eoban.”

Jonas stared at Obed, her mouth dropping open.

Nausea rising, Barak folded his arms over his chest. “With Ishtar gone, I’ve been the leader of two clans. Would it be right for me to leave? And if Obed leaves…”

Eoban leapt forward. “No better time! Things are peaceful. Harvests have been good. We’re doing well.”

Obed nodded. “We’ll have to appoint someone to lead in our absence.”

Barak wiped sweat off his brow. “Who’s strong enough to manage three clans, wise enough to keep everyone calm, and completely trustworthy?”

All eyes swiveled toward Lud.

Lud raised his hands in protest. “Oh, no! I’m a former slave, and I have no experience. Please, you’d be mad to leave me in charge!”

A gleam sparkled in Eoban’s eyes. “Insecure, hesitant, and unwilling? You have all the qualifications, Lud. Congratulations!”

Lud glanced around with imploring eyes. “Eoban? Obed? Barak! You can’t be serious. Think what this could mean?”

Eoban patted his shoulder. “Lud, can you honestly tell Amin and Caleb that we can’t go in search of Ishtar because you’re afraid of managing things for a few days?”

Lud glanced from Amin’s sober face to Caleb’s red-rimmed eyes.

“Oh, all right.” He shot a glance into the darkness. “But I won’t know what I’m doing.”

Straightening, Barak heaved a long sigh.

~~~

The adventure begins where your plans end.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirteen

—Desert—

Forever in Your Debt

Ishtar stared at the bleating herd of sheep and sighed. “Move on, you stupid—” He glanced aside. Not another soul on the horizon. Three distant tents, green fields, and plenty of rocks.

He set his jaw. “Not your fault.” A memory flashed through his mind. His warriors lined up at his command as they faced the giants from the north…he and his men hunting for game…his men lounging around a sizzling fire, laughing, teasing, eating…” He closed his mind.

No!

Still, memories tore through his brain, searing all other thoughts.

He could feel his sweaty body steaming in passion as he and Haruz embraced on their first night together…the birth of his son with his head full of black hair…the ore-empty earth slipping through his fingers…the glinting knife in Haruz’s hand—

He screamed. “Noooo!”

The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.

His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.

Matalah stepped outside his tent and glanced up, shading his eyes from the sun.

Ishtar unclenched his hands and sucked in deep, calming breaths. He dropped his voice to a coaxing whisper. “Come, sheep. Green pastures…just ahead.”

A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.

Running his fingers along its back, Ishtar surveyed the landscape. All lay quiet. No Matalah. No memories. For the moment.

He struck the ground with his staff and started climbing. The sheep trailed along behind.

~~~

Ishtar stopped for a rest and stretched across a level spot. He opened his satchel, and slowly chewed his bread and cheese. Watching the rosy sunset deepen to black night, he battled every memory of his father. Neb in battle, jabbing a man with his spear…Neb sneering at Haruz, shoving her into a corner with an angry retort…Neb grasping Ishtar’s knife and plunging it deep into his own breast.

Ishtar choked, his head dropped to his chest, and his bread crumbled in his fisted hand.

A lamb rose and sauntered near, butting its head into his arms.

Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep to greener pastures as days passed uncounted. The tents moved with them. He ate his allotment of bread and cheese and sipped at the single stream that gave life to this barren land. His tears joined the stream.

One hot day, two lambs frisked in innocent joy and bumped into each other. Their collision sent them careening backward where they sat down hard.

Ishtar laughed. “You are like Caleb and Amin—children at play with no notion of—” A burning flush worked up his cheeks.

Fresh tears flowed.

~~~

Ishtar stood on the top of a hill and glanced at an approaching figure. He swallowed back a sour taste and tried to ignore a disconcerting tightening in his stomach.

The eldest son of Matalah wound his way toward him. Ishtar tipped his head in courtesy. “Abdul.”

“Ishtar.” Abdul did not incline his head but, instead, folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve been watching you.”

Ishtar waited. He squinted in the bright light, watching the sheep, wary.

“You know your way in the world.” Abdul turned his focused gaze to the east. “Tending animals is hardly a fitting occupation for a man of your skill and intelligence.”

Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.

“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to insult you, but he doesn’t understand the greater world. He travels but never goes anywhere.” A grin quirked on Abdul’s lips. “I’m a more fortunate man.”

“Fortune can be deceiving.”

A twinkle sparkled in Abdul’s eyes. “I’ve seen glorious horizons. There is a great deal to desire in this world.”

Swallowing, Ishtar shifted. He glanced at the three tents at the bottom of the hill.

“My family served you well in your hour of need. Perhaps you could render us assistance in return.” His broad smile flashed and disappeared.

A lamb butted Ishtar’s hand. He stroked its soft head.

“Of course, this is just between us.”

Ishtar glanced at Abdul. Their eyes met and fought for supremacy. Neb’s gaze glowed through Abdul’s eyes. Ishtar stiffened.

“Accidents happen. You understand.” Without another word, Abdul turned and strolled down the hill, his garments billowing in the stiff breeze.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep back to the Bedouin’s camp, the cool evening air tingling over his arms. After washing at the well and nodding to the brothers around the fire, he made his way to the central tent.

Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.

Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.

Matalah’s eyes lit up with an inner fire. “Ah, my adopted son. Come, sit, and enjoy a well-earned rest.”

Ishtar offered a deep bow and sat by the old man. He leaned back on a firm pillow and stared at the array of food. “You are ever a kind host.” Ishtar clasped his hands in his lap and looked down. “I was never so good to my guests…not even to my own family.”

Matalah pressed his hand over Ishtar’s. “Kindness is a gift, given to me, which I pass on to you.” He smiled and met Ishtar’s gaze. “Share it well.” His smile vanished, replaced by a shadow of doubt.

As they ate, Ishtar peered out of the corner of his eyes at his host’s worried face. His stomach clenched even as the good food nourished his exhausted body.

When they leaned back and sipped wine, Ishtar wrapped his fingers around the vessel and lifted his eyes from its depths to Matalah. “My friend—for so I dare call you— it’s clear that something weighs heavy on your mind. If there is anything I can do—”

“I thank you, Ishtar. You’ve become like a son, though I hope not like some sons I must claim, though I’d rather not.”

A murmured conversation passed outside the tent flap, and Ishtar glanced over. The voices faded into the evening.

Matalah dropped his tone and leaned forward, tapping Ishtar’s knee. “You’re a more honest man, despite your troubled past, than my sons who, though they have been raised with love and security, are little less than cheats and thieves.”

Ishtar sat up. “I’m here to listen…though I may know your story in part.”

“My sons plan to gather men and take by force what would have been theirs if they had but waited for the proper time. I am not yet dead, but they wish me in the ground.”

Ishtar shook his head. “Why? They are free men in charge of a prosperous territory.”

“They wish to acquire more land and grow rich and mighty.” He spat to the side. “It is no use telling them that a man’s wealth grows cold and more heartless over time.”

“They’re willing to battle for more territory?”

“It’s what they look forward to the most.” He gulped the last of his wine and placed the cup aside. “My two eldest, Abdul and Wasim, asked permission to scout out the weakest tribes in the area, gather a strong force, and put our friends and neighbors to flight. Once the land is abandoned, they’ll claim the herds and servants for their own.”

Like a man witnessing before God, Matalah waved his hand high. “It is an evil plan, which under any circumstances would be difficult, but as they have little experience in battle, it’s preposterous. They received no permission from me.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar clenched his cup. “But they did not listen?”

“Worse. They convinced my third son, Assam, to join them, and they’re gathering such a force that it makes my blood boil. Every day they bring in strange men, insisting that I am too feeble to manage matters. They invent troubles that never existed.”

Rising, Ishtar paced before the old man. “Your sons can’t control what they are setting into motion.”

Matalah waved to the doorway. “I told them—no one would be left unscathed by their evil ambition.”

Ishtar stopped and stared at Matalah. “Such was my father. A curse he passed to me.”

A shadow wavered at the door.

Matalah frowned. “Come!” His youngest daughter scampered forward with a full carafe of wine. Matalah gestured toward Ishtar, but Ishtar refused with a soft smile. Sending the girl away, Matalah wrung his hands. “Everyone must endure the battle between good and evil.”

Kneeling before his friend, Ishtar peered into his eyes. “But you don’t deserve such a fate. You are innocent.”

Using Ishtar’s arm as a brace, Matalah rose and strode to the doorway. He stared at the starry sky. “Innocence does not protect us. It only offers alternatives.”

Standing aside with his hand on Matalah’s shoulder, Ishtar gazed upon the same sky. “I will do anything you ask. Such ambitious plans take time. Perhaps your God will intervene in some way we can’t yet see.

Matalah turned and stared into his eyes. “If you don’t side with them, they’ll turn on you.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You must leave—soon.”

Weaving around his friend, Ishtar crossed the room and turned at the doorway. “I’m not dead—thanks to your kindness. If it’s not disagreeable to you, I’ll stay a little longer. Let’s see what the future brings.”

Lacing his fingers together before his face, like a man in earnest prayer, a tremulous smile crossed Matalah’s face. “God sent you.” He peered at the twinkling sky. “My kindness has been repaid a hundred-fold.”

“Yet I am forever in your debt.” With a nod, Ishtar padded into the dark night.

~~~

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.”
– Unknown

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twelve

—Lake Land—

Do the Right Thing

Barak stood outside his home and stared at the mountains in the distance. Bright sunlight glinted off the peaks and colored the crevices with a blue tinge. Pointy evergreens lined the west side. He could almost feel the breath of the big cat, as it chased his clan from their ancient homelands, curl up his nose. A mad desire to run into the mountains shivered down his spine.

His shoulders slumped. “Do Aram and I share the same fate? I can’t make sense of anything, but I’m supposed to lead others! Hah!”

A high, childish voice echoed. “Hah!”

Barak spun around so quickly he tripped over a root and fell backward. He searched wildly for someone to fix upon, but all he saw was the same thin air he had been talking to a moment before. Rising, he tapped his ears and shook his head.

At the base of the tree in front of him, a brown foot gripped an exposed root as if clinging to it for dear life.

Relief flooding his body, Barak heaved a sigh and grinned. “All right. Who are you? Heath?”

Silence.

“No? Then Lamech. Come on out, son.” Barak took a step closer.

A whimper.

Barak stopped. “Eber? You know I’m not really mad.” He frowned. “Yet.”

Silence.

“All right, Shad? Rula? Come out here, or I’ll come get you.”

The foot retreated behind the tree.

Barak tiptoed forward and leaned around the tree.

The child backed up and bumped against Barak. He screamed.

Barak clutched his chest and spun around, ready to grab his miniature tormenter. He froze. His mouth fell open. “Who are you?”

The little boy wrapped his arms over his head and burst into sobs.

Barak closed his eyes, mumbling, “I will be calm,” and then inhaled a deep breath.

Continuing to cry, the child’s whole body shook.

Barak laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him to a bench. He went inside, poured a cup of water, returned, and put the drink into the child’s hands, guiding him to drink between sniffles.

A few hard sniffs jerked the boy into apparent calmness.

Barak crossed his arms. “So tell me…who are you?”

“I’m Caleb.”

“And why have you come, Caleb?”

“My brother told me about you. He wants to talk to you.”

Barak rolled his eyes skyward and rubbed his forehead. “And who is your brother?”

“Amin. He’s older than me and very wise. He’s talking to Namah. He wants to work everything out, but I want to talk to you first.”

Barak tapped his fingers to his lips, holding onto his calm demeanor by sheer force of will. “So, what do you want to tell me?”

Caleb laid his cup aside and propped his head on his hands like a weary old man on the brink of despair. “Amin and I should go far away—maybe follow our father into the mountains. When everything is better, we can come back. But for now, we should leave.”

A sharp pain stabbed Barak’s chest as he plunked down at Caleb’s side. “By Aram’s soul—you’re Ishtar’s son.”

Caleb blinked. “Father left. Mother died. Only Hagia wanted us—” He swallowed and shivered.

Barak rubbed his eyes. He patted Caleb’s shoulder. “Well, about your leaving… Ishtar might come looking for you. Or you could get lost…or hurt…or something.”

Caleb peered at his feet dangling over the edge of the bench.

Barak glanced into the blue sky. Help me. He tapped his fingers together. “Listen, Namah is a good woman, and perhaps she and your brother will—”

Caleb shook his head. “Amin said that Namah wants to sell us into slavery. Not everyone is nice, you know. Some people are very bad. Amin told me.”

Stroking his short beard, Barak’s eyes narrowed. “But not everyone is evil. Many people will do the right thing if given the chance.”

“Do you?”

“What?”

“The right thing.”

Barak opened his hands expansively. “I do pretty well. My family seems to think so.”

“And your clan made you their leader.”

Barak ruffled Caleb’s hair and grinned.

Two voices meandered close.

Barak and Caleb turned.

Namah and Amin strode around the dwelling ignoring the mother who suckled her baby, a young girl tending a stew pot, and four men who hefted a boat on their shoulders and headed toward the lake.

Amin stopped in mid-motion and scowled at Caleb. “What’re you doing here?”

“Talking to Barak.”

After offering Amin a reassuring pat on the shoulder, Namah strode forward and met Barak’s gaze. “I know you’re busy, but we need to discuss something important.”

Barak glared at Namah and snorted. “I’d say we do. The last I heard, you were bringing food to these two. Now, I hear they’re being sold into slavery?”

A rather alarming smile spread across Namah’s face. “Yes, you’re right. I admit my mistake. I apologized to Amin for my interference, and I ask for your forgiveness as well. As clan leader, you should’ve been consulted. These boys need a home, but very few people—”

His pent-up frustration flaring into rage shot Barak to his feet. “What? One can never have too many sons! Any man would be blessed to have these boys at his side.” He patted the top of Caleb’s head.

Caleb grinned.

Amin leaned against a post and folded his arms.

Barak puffed out his chest. “Tell me. Who’s the lucky man to inherit such stalwart sons?”

Namah pointed at Barak. “You!”

Barak froze. He glanced from Amin’s cold stare to Caleb’s beaming face.

Caleb’s eyebrows lifted as he stood and clasped Barak’s hand. “So? Will you do the right thing?”

Barak closed his eyes. After a long silent moment, a chuckle bubbled up from deep within.

He opened his eyes. Without warning, two boys raced around the dwelling and careened into Barak.

The first boy, laughing, pointed at the second. “I won!”

A sudden, surprising joy flooded through Barak. He tousled the two boys’ heads.

Milkan strode into view, caught Namah’s eye, and nodded. “My friend, how good to see you.”

Namah smiled and bowed her head.

The first boy shuffled over to Amin. “Are you hungry?” His gaze remaining steady, waiting,

Amin glanced at Barak.

Barak locked eyes with the boy.

Milkan gestured to the door. “There’s food enough for all. Go inside, and I’ll arrange things.”

Still gazing at Amin, Barak cleared his throat. “Take Caleb and get something to eat.”

Amin nudged his little brother and the two boys followed the others inside.

Milkan watched the children tromping into her house.

“Will they stay long?”

“As long as need be.”

Patting Barak’s arm, Milkan followed the boys. “We’ll need more fish.” She stepped into the house.

Exhaling a sigh of relief, Namah clasped Barak’s hand. “You don’t know what this means to me. My heart can rest easy tonight.” She waved goodbye.

Barak watched Namah stroll away and listened to the happy chatter inside the house. He glanced into the bright sky and shook his head. “Hah!”

Thanks.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eleven

—Mountains—

Providence of God

Tobia tried to sound curious. “So, where do we go next?” Peering blankly ahead, Vitus frowned. “I’m thinking, you stupid oaf! If you’d be quiet, I might be able to come up with a solution to this problem!”

Tobia bit his lip. I knew it. We’re lost.

Vitus tapped his foot and scratched his head. “I’ve been through here before, but someone’s changed things.”

Choking on a snort, Tobia clenched his hands. Changed what? The trees? He exhaled a long breath and stared at the woods before, beside, and behind him. No path. No village. No sign that a human being had ever trekked through this wilderness before. “Maybe we should go back to the last village and—”

Vitus swung around and glared at Tobia. “Those idiots don’t know anything. Scoundrels. Worse than slinking wolves. They would’ve robbed us if given a chance.”

Tobia closed his eyes to the memory of Vitus shuffling up to the village leader, his gaze darting every direction, and stumbling through a request to speak to the clan. A shiver ran down his spine. A rough shake made him blink back into the world.

“Don’t think you can take a nap. We’ve got a long way to go today.”

Always a long way. But we never get anywhere.

Vitus swung his loaded bag over his shoulder and started tromping to the right. He stopped short and turned to the left.

Tobia lopped along beside, peering out of the corner of his eye at Vitus. He’s more than lost. He’s terrified. He ducked under a hanging branch.

“Ouch!”

Tobia stumbled to a halt and looked up.

Vitus stood frozen in the middle of a briar patch. A vine of sharp nettles clung to his hairy arm.

Tobia swallowed. A veritable wall of needles blocked their path in nearly every direction. “I guess we’d better —”

With a grunt, Vitus slipped his knife from his belt and began hacking.

Tobia’s throat went dry. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Vitus grunted and swore as he hacked right and left, sweat dripping down his arms and legs.

Tobia stood his ground. “You’ll only get—”

“Oh, by the gods! It’s got me.”

After inching forward, Tobia stopped behind Vitus and peered over his shoulder. “Oh, Creation of God.”

Blood seeped from uncountable scratches and cuts as thorns and vines gripped Vitus’ arms and legs. “Demon woods!” Vitus tried to shake loose but screamed with the effort.

“Stop! You’re only making it worse.” Tobia carefully and painstakingly pinched each vine and tugged it to the side.

Vitus fumed and whimpered.

Finally free, Tobia gripped Vitus by the arm and helped steer him backward, clearing the way as they went.

Once out of the brambles, Vitus threw himself on the ground and covered his face with his hands, groaning.

Tobia’s gaze lifted from the pathetic figure to the glimmers of the sun through the branches. The sun had lowered considerably since they halted for their mid-day meal. He sighed. “I think I left something back at the last village. Would you mind if we retraced our steps, so I could enquire about it?”

Vitus lifted his arm and peered at him in a grieved manner as if Tobia were the stupidest boy on the earth, but he rolled to his side and staggered to his feet.

“It is getting late, and I don’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere with you crying your head off over some little thing.”

Tobia grimaced and turned around.

After some time, they ended up back in the village they had left that morning. Tobia strode to a woman he recognized. “Hello, my name is Tobia. We were here this morning, offering trade goods.” He flashed an embarrassed smile. “I accidentally left something behind. May I look for it?”

The woman nodded. “Certainly, Tobia. My name is Kamila. I’ll help you look. What was it?”

“Oh, uh…something my father made for me before he died. My mother will be so—”

Kamila smiled and lifted a hand. “Say no more. I understand.”

As they searched across the village and in the various dwellings they had visited that morning, Kamila asked Tobia about his family, and he described the members of his clan like warriors from songs of old.

When they came to the end of their search, Kamila perched her hands on her hips and frowned. She stood before Tobia in the village center and shook her head. “I hate to say you’ve lost it for good, but it’s certainly not here.”

Tobia shrugged. “It may turn up yet.” He glanced at Vitus sitting under a tree in the distance, chewing moodily on a crust of bread. “Perhaps Vitus packed it up with the trade goods and forgot.”

Kamila squinted at Vitus. Her mouth pursed in distaste.

Tobia stepped between Vitus and Kamila, blocking her view. He peered into her lovely eyes. “You know, Vitus has had a very hard life. He lost his wife and entire family to sickness some years ago, but he’s carried on the trade despite his loss and suffering.” He glanced at the sky. God forgive me.

Kamila tipped her head and leaned so as to peer around Tobia at Vitus. She smiled.

Tobia glanced over his shoulder.

Vitus met Kamila’s gaze. He sat up straighter.

Kamila swung around Tobia and sauntered over to Vitus.

Vitus scrambled to his feet.

Kamila extended her hands. “I’m sorry we were not more welcoming to you this morning.” She glanced aside and frowned. “There’s been trouble in the area, and it’s hard to know who to trust.”

Vitus, appearing very much like a rat caught in a trap, stared wide-eyed.

Tobia stepped to his side and locked on Kamila’s face. “It’s getting late. Is there any hope you could direct us to a safe place for the night?”

Kamila shifted her gaze to Tobia and smiled. “You’ll stay here, certainly. My family and neighbors would enjoy hearing about your people and adventures.”

Vitus’ mouth dropped open. His eyes shifted from Kamila to Tobia.

Tobia clamped his hand on Vitus’ shoulder as he spoke for both of them. “We’d be very happy to accept your invitation.”

~~~

Tobia sat next to Vitus as dusk settled into night. He rubbed his hands against the evening chill.

A short, stocky man with a thick beard and gray eyes, wearing a sleeveless tunic and a wide belt, sauntered near. He crossed his arms over his chest and peered first at Vitus and then at Tobia.

Tobia held his gaze.

“I’m Kamila’s brother, Remy.” He gestured to three other men assembled a short distance away. “We were hunting earlier. She told us about you.” His gaze swept over Vitus again, and he scratched his chin. “She’ll bring dinner out soon, but in the meantime, you can tell us about yourselves and your people.”

Vitus lifted his head and opened his mouth, but Tobia gripped his hand, squeezing hard. “I’d be happy to.”

Describing the best parts of their clan’s nature and leaving out everything to their disadvantage, Tobia retold the story of Neb’s invasion, the great drought, the terrible fire, and Ishtar’s madness and exile.

The entire village assembled in a ring around the flickering fire as Tobia regaled them with the tales. Kamila brought venison, fruit, and stewed roots.

Vitus ate with alacrity, only glancing up now and again to grunt in agreement with something Tobia said.

His belly full and his story told, Tobia wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, sighing in gratitude and relief.

Remy chuckled. “You’ve told a wonderful tale, young man. Any ancient would be proud of such a recital.” He glanced at the throng, his gaze lingering on his sister, Kamila, longer than the rest. “But I should warn you, there’s been trouble around here of late.” He wiped his hands on his tunic. “There’re men who say they’ve come to trade, but instead they observe and later return to steal what they could not obtain through honest means.”

Tobia looked at the assembly. Weariness and sadness enveloped him. “I’m sorry. I can see why you didn’t trust us at first.” His gaze wandered to Vitus who was now leaning on a larger man, snoring in a deep slumber.

He rose and edged Vitus to the side so the villager could slip out from under Vitus’ weight.

Remy shook his head and wandered over. Together Tobia and Remy led the sleepy Vitus to a grassy spot under a tree.

Vitus grunted and curled up, laying his head on his arm.

After plucking Tobia’s sleeve, Remy gestured back to the circle of firelight.

Many clansmen and most of the women shuffled off to their evening duties and their own beds.

Remy perched on a log next to Tobia. “That sleeping fool can’t help you through your travels.” He glanced at Vitus slumbering form, little more than an outline of a shadow in the darkness. “Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it behooves me to tell you that you have aligned yourself with either a wicked deceiver or an incompetent idiot.” He clasped his hands over his knees. “That man knows nothing about trading.”

Tobia sighed. “I realize that—now.”

Remy shook his head. “How could your father let you go with such a fool?”

“He believed his wonderful stories. Somehow, Vitus managed to succeed when he followed in the footsteps of other clansmen. But this time, he thought he’d find his own way and start his own trade routes.”

“That man” —Remy pointed to the snoring figure— “is no more capable of good business than a fish of walking about on land.” Remy shook his head. “Take a word of advice. Go home and leave him to find his own way.” He shrugged. “He might live.” Remy met Tobia’s eyes. “But at least, you’ll survive.”

Warm gratitude flooded Tobia. Someone actually cared about him. After Vitus’ abuse, it felt like a gentle rain after a severe drought. He stood, stretched, and peered at Remy.

“I trust in the providence of God. We’ll make it home again. I agreed to this journey, now I must see it through.”

Remy glanced into the night sky. “Perhaps your coming was ordained from on high.” He stood and pressed Tobia’s hand in his own. “I hope we meet again.”

Tobia nodded and glanced at Kamila’s dwelling in the distance. “Me too.”

~~~

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
– Confucius

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”

Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.

“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”

Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”

Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark snorted.

With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.

Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”

Ark harrumphed.

“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”

Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”

“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”

“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”

Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”

Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.

Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.

Oh hell.“

~~~

Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” – Santosh Kalwar

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth 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?”

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

“I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
– Ernest Hemingway

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

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.

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

The ache for home lives in all of us…

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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