OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Five

We All Make Choices

—OldEarth—

Sienna watched Kelesta out of the corner of her eye as she stood at the control dashboard and tapped the directional sequence for planet Helm. “Would you stop pacing? I’m getting dizzy.”

Kelesta swung around, crossing her arms over her chest. “You don’t have to watch me like a hawk.”

“Not a hawk…more like an interested bystander.”

Clomping forward in oversized sandals, Kelesta shook her head. “Bystander? I hardly think that’s a fit description. Not after you zapped Teal and practically stole a place in the inner ring.”

With a shrug, Sienna stepped to the holograph pad and tapped in new coordinates. A swirling universe appeared before her eyes. She grinned. “I did get a nice view.” She peered aside. “I must say, Ishtar’s daring rivals Teal’s.”

“Teal would probably like to see you evaporate.”

“You mean disintegrate?” Sienna laughed. “He’s angry, but he’ll get over it, and Sterling was seriously impressed. I’ll have no problem getting sixth-year status now.”

“And I thought I was ambitious!” Kelesta stomped to the door. “At least when I use someone, I still care about them. I don’t knock them unconscious to get what I want.”

“Like you used Zuri?” Sienna licked her lips. “He told me all about your interest in his previous relationships and how you feigned personal interest, so he’d take you to observe Chai.”

“It wasn’t feigned! I actually like Zuri.”

“But you like Chai better.”

Narrowing her eyes, Kelesta marched to Sienna, flung her hands on her hips, and stared her in the eyes. “Chai wasn’t really Chai. He allowed himself to become used by a force he couldn’t control. We never actually encountered Chai…we only perceived a man wearing his skin.”

Sienna nodded. “I agree. Though he was a free man when he let it take him.” She swished the hologram around and pointed to a dark sector. “Not to change the subject, but our mysterious friends—the ones who nearly decimated Crestar—have been adding to their black hole.”

Kelesta frowned. “I’m not sure I’m done arguing with you about Zuri and Teal.”

The door swished open, and Sterling swept onto the bridge. “Ah, I thought I’d find you two here. Playing nice, I hope.”

Kelesta met Sienna’s gaze. She whispered under her breath. “I’m not done—”

Sienna waved the comment away and strode around the hologram. She beckoned Sterling forward. “I found something I believe you’ll find interesting, Judge Sterling.”

“Using formal titles, are we? Impressive.” He grinned. “Though I always find you impressive.”

“Except when you’re trying to kill her.”

Sterling flicked a glance at Kelesta. “Especially then.” He focused his attention on Sienna. “What are you so eager to show me?” He stepped closer but kept one hand raised in a defensive posture.

Startled but unwilling to lapse into rude curiosity, Sienna focused on the elongated black hole. “It’s growing. Getting longer.” She bit her lip. “If it keeps going at this rate, it’ll” —she tapped the console and the holographic image reshaped. Now the black hole appeared as a thick black line in space— “divide us from a large portion of the universe.”

“They must be on the other side.” Kelesta glanced at Sterling.

Sterling tilted his head. “Perceptive, my Bhuaci friend.” He glanced from one woman to the other. “I’ll call you Impressive and you Perceptive from now on, so I don’t get mixed up.” He peered at Sienna. “Promise not to stun me, so I can put my hand down?”

Sienna rolled her eyes.

Swinging his arm, Sterling gestured to the door. “Where’s Teal?”

“He’s avoiding me.”

“Wise man.”

“He’s a fool. I would’ve missed seeing the greatest exchange of wills since Arkolopus and Hugunt battled for supremacy on Ingilium.”

“A mere folk tale, nothing more.” Sterling frowned. “As a sixth-year, you should know better.” He strode around the hologram. “Besides, Teal was my choice for guardian on Earth.” He tapped the black hole, and his finger went right through it. “You overstepped the line, and I’m afraid there will have to be consequences.”

A hot flush burned Sienna’s face. “I did what I thought was best for all concerned!” She chortled in his face. “You know what Ungle would’ve done!”

Kelesta shook her head and stepped away. “Ungle was there. Well—as good as.” She tapped the console, and the universe vanished. In its place, the scene between Ishtar and Chai replayed in all its fire-lit glory.

“Zuri informed Ungle when we arrived on the scene, and the wise Cresta insisted on a direct feed.” A grin brightened Kelesta’s eyes. “Zuri’s good about that kind of thing—set it up so no one was the wiser. They thought we were prisoners along with all the rest.”

Sterling snorted. “No one followed directions. You were supposed to watch Amin.”

The door swished open, and Zuri stepped in. He peered from Sienna to Sterling, and then his gaze wandered to Kelesta. With a smile, his attention flickered to the holographic image. “Like it?” He strode forward and waved a hand. “Saved for further study. Ungle’s idea—”

A ka-boom blasted eardrums and fragments of the door exploded through the air. Zuri dropped to the ground, pulling Kelesta with him. Sterling toppled over. Sienna crouched under the main console.

Ark stood in the broken doorway with a Dustbuster held limply in one tentacle, his bulbous eyes huge and frightened.

A gray cloud of dust and tiny debris floated through the air, and a sharp stench curled up Sienna’s nose. Swallowing her disgust, she crawled to Sterling who lay face down on the floor and placed her hand on his back. “Are you—?”

Sterling lifted his head. “Alive…for the moment.” He peered back, and Sienna followed his gaze.

Zuri had thrown himself over Kelesta, protecting her. They both stirred.

Sienna snorted, rose, and wiped her hands on her long dress. “So he does care.”

Sterling stomped toward Ark and snatched the Dustbuster from his tentacle. “What are you doing?”

Ark shuffled forward, his head hanging low. “Ungle ordered me to. He wants you all dead before the sun sets.”

Choking, Sienna yanked the Dustbuster from Sterling’s grip and pointed it at Ark. “Why?”

Ark lifted his tentacles helplessly. “I wasn’t aiming to kill. I shot high so as to make it look good. Though, I’m sure Ungle is monitoring us…” His gaze swiveled around the deck.

Zuri scrambled to the main console, and his fingers flew over the board. He glanced up. “Not anymore!” Crossing his arms, he glared at Ark. “You mind telling us why Ungle wants to kill us…especially after we fulfilled his every request?”

Sterling glanced at Zuri. “I suspect that’s exactly why.” He returned his attention to Ark. “He got what he wanted, and now he’d like to clear the planet of unnecessary elements—perhaps?”

Shuffling to a wide chair, Ark plopped down and dropped his tentacles in his lap. “Truth is, we’re at war.”

His eyes widening, Zuri stepped forward and leaned in toward Ark. “Crestar is at war with—?”

“Ingilium and Lux.” He glanced at Kelesta. “Sorry, the Cresta Ingal do not consider the Bhuaci a sufficient threat to declare war on them. Though if you interfere…they may change their minds.”

Sienna gripped the railing that led to the upper deck. “If we’re at war…then you’re” —she clenched her jaw— “the enemy.”

Sterling stepped between Sienna and Ark. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Teal were here.”

“I am.” Taking each step slowly and deliberately, Teal descended to the central floor. “I’ve seen everything.”

Heat worked over Sienna’s body, and she glowed at the edges. “I wondered where you’d got to.”

Sterling cleared his throat as he glanced from her to Teal. “You could’ve warned us about Ark and his dramatic entrance.” He turned and peered at Ark. “I read Ungle’s transmission. You’re a master liar.”

Ark bowed as if accepting a compliment.

Zuri tapped his fingers together nervously. “So are we really at war with Crestar?”

Sterling nodded. “Crestar has sent out a formal declaration that all foreign elements are to leave Earth immediately or be eliminated.”

Sienna flashed a frown at Ark. “Crestonians are as foreign as the rest of us.”

Sterling waved his hands. “That’s beside the point. What Ungle hopes to achieve is more to our interest.”

Ark sighed. “He was severely disappointed with Ishtar— and Chai for that matter. He was hoping that Ishtar would destroy the thing that controlled Chai. But Ishtar not only ignored it, he appeared to grieve the loss of a thoroughly despicable man.”

Zuri wrapped an arm around Kelesta and leaned on the wall, pulling her close. “What did he think Ishtar would do? He doesn’t have a Dustbuster or advanced weapons. Obviously, a force that strong couldn’t be destroyed through primitive means.”

As Kelesta nestled comfortably in Zuri’s embrace, she frowned at Ark. “Bhuaci may not be a match for Crestonians, but we’ll see the annexation of this planet as an act of aggression and fight to maintain our interest here.”

Ark pointed to the hologram. “If you’d be so kind, refigure that thing to focus on the growing Divide between us and our mystery friends.”

Sienna tapped the console and brought up the same image she had used earlier. “It’s still growing.”

“That’s what frightened Ungle and our entire planet into a panic.” Ark rose with a groan. “I don’t agree that abandoning Earth will save us from the evil that beset Chai and almost destroyed Ishtar. That same force can bedevil the heart of every being this side of the Divide…and perhaps the other side as well.”

Sienna shook her head. “So what are we going to do?”

Sterling stepped to the blasted door—nothing more than a ragged frame. “I need to discuss the matter with the Supreme Judges.” He peered from Sienna to Teal. “Make ready to leave as soon as possible.”

Zuri glanced from Sterling to Ark. “You aren’t going to take your enemy as a hostage?”

Sterling grinned. “I don’t see an enemy, do you?” He started to step through the door and shook his head. “By every star in Heaven, I almost forgot…never mind.” With a flick of his hand, he flashed out of sight.

Kelesta peered up at Zuri. “What are you going to do?”

Zuri caressed her cheek and peered into her eyes. “I’m going to do my duty and report home.” His thumb ran under her chin. “Just like you’re going to do when you return to Helm.”

Kelesta’s voice rose in panic. “You’re going to leave me?”

Teal cleared his throat. “Could you two have that discussion somewhere else?”

Sienna glanced at Teal. “We could be having the same discussion.”

Teal shook his head. “No. We couldn’t.” He nudged Ark. “You’ll have to return to Lux with me. I hardly think your misfire today will go unnoticed.”

Zuri glanced over. “We’ll bring Kelesta to Helm first and then swing by Lux and drop you two off before I head home.”

Like a body blow, Sienna suddenly understood what the term heartbreak meant. Her mouth dropped open. “You mean you’re not going to forgive and forget? Like Ishtar? Like Aram and all your wonderful human heroes?”

Teal frowned. “Forgiving doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to reality. I hold no animosity toward you. I just can’t trust you.” He turned away and nodded to Zuri. “I’ll study the Divide phenomena on the upper deck. Call me if you need anything.” He turned and ascended the steps.

Zuri took Kelesta’s hand and led her through the blasted doorway. “We’re going to be—”

Ark waved them on. “I don’t need the details.”

Sienna watched Teal’s booted feet disappear on the upper landing. She plunked down on a chair before the main console.

Ark reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulder. “We all make choices.”

Sienna blinked, her heart falling to the ground. “Apparently, I’ve made mine.

”“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” ~William Shakespeare

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Eight

For All the Trouble You’ve Caused

Eoban wiped his sweaty brow and came to a dead halt. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What?” Tromping in front, Barak waved an insect away.

Eoban cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “I made a mistake!”

Barak stopped and turned around, frowning. “About what?”

“I should’ve gone with Obed. He won’t be able to find Amin. He’ll wander around the hills for years if I don’t help him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been traveling for hours! Obed is long gone in the opposite direction. Besides, what if there’s trouble at home?”

Eoban shook his head, feeling very much like a disgruntled bull. “You’ll find the way easily enough from here, and we’ve plenty of warriors to hold off an enemy until I get back.” He peered at the sky. “I’ll find Obed and get the boy.”

Barak snorted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Eoban shrugged.

“Oh, all right, go on then. But look for Amin first. Frankly, I’ll be relieved if you do. I haven’t been so sure of Obed ever since he stepped out of that temple. In the meantime, I’m making a beeline for home.” Barak sighed as he shoved his bag high over his shoulder. “I’ll hold everything together until you return. Lud is probably ready to take my head off for being gone so long.”

“Jonas and Milkan, too, I imagine.”

“Always ready to offer a bit of comfort, aren’t you?”

“It happens to be the truth.” Eoban stepped forward and pounded Barak on the back. “Get going! I’ve lost enough time. It’ll be dark soon, and you know what happens in the dark.”

Barak swung his staff at a trailing vine. “Sing and nothing with any sense will bother you.”

Eoban turned away, muttering. “Who has sense these days?”

Eoban had not traveled far and wide for so many years without learning a few things. The next day, he found Luge’s new settlement. When he walked into the village, Luge strode forward, arms extended, ready to greet him.

They embraced like brothers, their eyes dancing in mutual amusement.

Luge called over his shoulder. “Lufti! Go find Amin. Tell him he’s finally going home.”

Eoban nodded at the boy. “There’s a tall handsome youth!”

Luge led the way to his hut, grinning. “Like his father, no doubt.”

As Lydia stepped outside, Luge waved at Eoban. “Meet the man who led me to my son!”

Wide-eyed, Lydia wiped her hands on her skirt and glanced from her husband to Eoban, her face flushing. “I owe you my life.”

Eoban gripped Luge’s shoulder. “Not at all. Your husband did the hard part. I just wandered where wise men wouldn’t go.” He met Lydia’s gaze. “I’m glad my foolishness paid a good return.”

Amin raced forward and skidded to a halt in front of Eoban, water dripping down his body.

Luge laughed. “You could’ve dried yourself!”

Amin grabbed Eoban’s arm, glancing around. “Where’s my father? Did you find—?”

Rubbing his forehead, the joy in Eoban faded like a plucked flower. “I’m sorry, Amin. We looked for him in the Stone City and even in the temple…but he wasn’t to be found.”

Frowning, Amin dropped Eoban’s arm. “Where’s Obed…and Barak?”

Eoban shrugged. “Obed was supposed to be here—to collect you.” He shook his head. “But, as I suspected, he must’ve gotten lost.”

Worry lines formed around Luge’s face. “And Barak?”

“He was in a hurry to get home…so he went on ahead.” He shifted his gaze to Amin. “There’s still light to see by, and I want to find Obed before he’s eaten by squirrels. So we best—”

Amin dug his toes into the dirt. “We’ll go home without my father?”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest. “Listen, I’ve lost just about everyone on this journey.” He looked up. “Now I want to find Obed and get you home safe.”

With lips pursed tight, Amin nodded.

As they turned to go, Lufti stepped up and handed Amin a beautifully carved spear. “I would not be free today had you not convinced my father to enter the Stone City.”

Clasping his fingers around the ornate weapon, Amin’s eyes shone. “I didn’t do anything except act as a pest.” He smiled at Lufti. “But I’m glad you’re home safe” —he glanced from Luge’s kind face to Lydia’s gentle smile— “with your father and mother.” He faced Eoban, squaring his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

Eoban lifted his hand in salute to Luge. “Keep the enemy at bay and prosper on your next hunt.”

Luge’s eyes clouded. “There are rumors that the enemy is heading into new territory.” He frowned. “Watch your back.”

“If I can find my clansmen, I’ll die a happy man.”

“You do know where you’re going?”

“I know the way home. Surely, Obed’s headed that way by now. After all, he has eyes and can find the sun, can he not?” Turning, Eoban shifted his bag over his shoulder and flung an arm over Amin’s shoulder. “So, my boy, you ready to sing?”

~~~

Eoban marched into his village scowling. “Where is everyone?”

Amin trotted at his side, also scowling. “It’s much too quiet.”

Suddenly, Tannit pelted across the compound at full speed, shouting. “Eoban, you’re home! We’ve been worried sick.”

Dropping his bag to the ground, Eoban crossed his arms like a barricade as the boy skidded to a halt. “What’s happened? Where’s—?”

Tannit heaved a deep breath. “Enemies are on our doorstep, and the women and children have fled to the caves.” He glanced at Amin. “Hi, Amin! Glad you made it home safe.” His grin widened. “Your father’s been so anxious—”

Eoban choked. “Tannit? Do you realize who this is?”

Pursing his lips primly, Tannit glared at Eoban. “Of course! It’s Amin, Ishtar’s son.” He tipped his head toward the center of the village. “Ishtar’s been helping with preparations and watching over Tobia, who’s had a rough time of it. What, with Vitus getting himself killed and all. And then Obed being taken captive—”

Amin’s mouth dropped open. He glanced wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban, hot, frustrated, and confused, wondered if he would, in fact, boil over like an overheated stew. “Tannit, sometimes you—”

Amin cut in front of Eoban and grabbed Tannit’s arm. “Ishtar is here?”

Pointing, Tannit nodded. “Just over there, taking council with Lud.”

Eoban wrung his hands like a man practicing to wring a neck. “You said something about Obed?”

“You’d better ask Tobia. He saw Obed trussed up beside other prisoners taken by the enemy.”

Gripping Amin’s trembling shoulder, Eoban stared hard at Tannit. “Take us to Lud and Ishtar.” He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “Then find Barak. I might need to apologize…”

Tannit waved as he turned. “Lud and Ishtar are over there.” He glanced back. “But no one’s seen Barak.” He winced. “I’m afraid Milkan will have strong words for you two.”

Eoban closed his eyes and stomped forward, gripping Amin hard enough to keep the boy from flying ahead.

At the sight of Ishtar and Lud standing together in conversation, Eoban felt the ground shift under his feet. His vision blurred. He gripped Amin’s shoulder tighter and leaned down to eye level. “Wait a moment. I want to speak to Ishtar alone first.”

Crossing his arms and clenching his jaw, Amin stood his ground. “Make it fast. I have something to say too.”

Eoban threw back his shoulders and strode forward.

Ishtar and Lud glanced over. Both sets of eyes widened. Lud exhaled a long breath and grinned.

Ishtar stood ramrod stiff.

Stepping up, Eoban met Lud’s eyes, his tone as dry as parched corn. “Glad you kept things well in hand while I was gone, Lud.”

“I hardly—”

Eoban turned his attention to Ishtar. “Ishtar, I’ve been looking for you.”

Ishtar nodded, his gaze fixed on Amin standing in the background. “So I heard.”

Like a dry stick about to snap, Eoban clenched his jaw, his teeth ready to crack under the pressure.

Ishtar turned his full attention to the warrior before him. “Do with me as you will.”

Lud stepped back and beckoned to Amin.

Amin ran to Lud’s side.

Swallowing, Eoban glared at Ishtar. “What under the sun does that mean? I’d like to beat you to a bloody mess for all the trouble you’ve caused.”

Maintaining their locked gaze, Ishtar nodded, his voice low and humbled. “And well I deserve it.” He stepped forward, his arms at his sides. “Beat me.”

Flinging his hands in the air, Eoban turned and pounded a few paces away. “By all that is decent and right in the world—do you have to take that tone?” With his head pounding and tears burning, Eoban glanced from Ishtar to Amin. “Do you know what you’ve done to your sons?”

His jaw clenching into a tight line, Ishtar shook his head. “I’ll regret my mistakes for the rest of my life, knowing that I never really can make up—”

Amin leapt forward. “I forgive you, father.” Halting right in front of Ishtar, he sucked in a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that I don’t need you—”

Lud, Eoban, and Ishtar stared at the boy.

Amin swallowed and hung his head. “But it’s not true. I can’t manage on my own. I needed Barak and Luge…and—” He glanced up and met Eoban’s eyes. “Even Eoban.”

Eoban winced.

Amin peered at his father. “But I need you too. So does Caleb.” He glanced around, a frown building. “Where is he?”

Lud gripped Amin’s shoulder. “He’s safe in the caves with the women and children.” Glancing from Ishtar to Amin, Lud smiled. “You must have incredible stories to tell—”

Eoban snorted. “Stories? We’ve both seen too much!” He pounded his chest. “I don’t know about Amin here, but I’m thinking of settling down…maybe with a wife.”

Lud choked.

A hint of a grin broke over Ishtar’s somber face.

Eoban pursed his lips. “I’ll make an excellent husband.” He peered at Amin. “Didn’t I take good care of you?”

Amin glanced from Eoban to his father. “He tried. It’s not his fault that he lost his entire company at one time or another.”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest, exhaling a long, ragged breath.

With a snort, Lud patted Eoban’s back. “Don’t worry, Eoban. You can regain your honor by leading us to victory.” He gestured to the caves. “Jonas and Milkan are waiting. They’ll want to know what happened to Obed and Barak. Let’s go.”

Eoban lifted his head, all strength draining from his limbs. Shuffling along, he muttered. “Couldn’t we just go straight into battle?” Glancing aside, bittersweet grief made Eoban shake his head.

Ishtar clasped Amin’s shoulder and led his son home.

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.” ~Mother Teres

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Seven

You Can Only Endure

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

They welcomed him with smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lud frowned and stepped beside Ishtar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namah and Jonas exchanged glances.

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

The councilmen and warriors rose and followed her example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

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

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

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

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

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

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

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

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

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

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

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

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

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

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

Obed grinned.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

A groan swelled on his right.

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

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

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

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

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

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

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

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

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

A scream tore through the night air.

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

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

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

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He ran faster.

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Four

Woodland and Hills

Not For Everyone

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

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

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

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

Panting, he scurried behind a tree.

Heavy breathing and a grunt drew closer.

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

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

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

“Luge?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lydia was busy preparing for the move.”

“What was Rueben doing?”

Amin bit his lip and stared at the ground.

“Why was he angry with you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lufti shrugged. “It’s not poisonous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin nodded, swallowing back a gnawing fear.

~~~

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

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

Lufti and the other men rose and gathered their things.

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

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

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

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

“Ah.” Amin sighed.

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

Lufti and Amin exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

One man cleared a space for a central fire pit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin appeared at his side along with Lufti.

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

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

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

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

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

Whimpering in terror, Rueben reached for his wife.

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

Amin backed away.

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

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

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

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

Rueben cowered, and Ulla fell to her knees wailing.

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

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

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

Gazes shifted and dropped to the ground.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Three

—OldEarth—

Intercept Course

Teal leapt over a boulder, scrambled up a rocky incline, and frowned at a loud gasp behind him. He peered over his shoulder.

Sterling lay sprawled on the ground like a broken toy.

Turning on his heel, Teal doubled backed, lifted Sterling by the arms, and dragged him to the shelter of an overhanging cliff. He dropped the ragged figure in the shade without ceremony and fell on his knees, heaving gasps of air.

Sterling sat up and rocked back and forth like a frightened child. “I can’t do this anymore. I really will disintegrate.”

Falling back on his haunches, Teal leaned on the shaded rock face, his heart pounding, his mind frozen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Never.”

Sterling lay spread-eagle and sucked in deep draughts of air. “For once…I can write an interesting report…and I won’t…have to embellish…a bit of it.” He shook his head. His white hair splayed in the dust. “Too bad…it’ll be my last.”

Disgusted, Teal spared him a glance.

Rising with a groan, Sterling sat up, heaved a deep cleansing breath, and clapped his hands free of dirt and pebbles. “We’re not going any further with this study.” He shook his finger at the stone city in the distance. “You saw its power. Bothmal! It could’ve eaten us!”

Clasping his hands steeple-style before his face, Teal stared into the distance. “I don’t think it could sense us as clearly as we could sense it. Certainly, the guards only saw us as men…not Luxonians. I doubt it could know—”

“By all that is good and holy, I’m not about to find out what it knows.” Climbing to his feet, Sterling ran his hand over his hair and smoothed down his rumbled rags. “You saw them…once they lost the chance to toss Obed into that pit, their eyes fixed right on yours truly.” He tapped his chest. “I would’ve become nothing more than an evening snack for that beast.”

Teal rose with a grunt. “Surely, it would’ve spit you out.”

Glaring, Sterling huffed and squared his shoulders. He shimmered and reappeared in his immaculate white tunic and leggings.

Leaning forward, Teal surveyed their desert surroundings. “No one followed. All’s clear.” He glanced back. “We can leave and meet up with the others— Luxonian-style of course.”

Sterling’s eyes drooped to half-mast. “I wasn’t about to tip-toe over that blasted desert.” He shook himself. “I still can’t believe I saw an honest-to-goodness demon.”

A flush worked over Teal’s face. “Honest-to-goodness? You’re delirious. Besides, we don’t even understand what humans mean by a demon. It’s a catch-all term to explain any terrify—”

“Annihilate! Do you deny that fiend was anything but what humans refer to as a demon?”

Startled, Teal drew back. He ran his fingers through his ruffled hair. “I’ll never understand you—sir.” He met Sterling’s gaze. “I thought you considered humans little more than barbarians.”

“Even barbarians can be right sometimes. They happen to be right about demons.”

Rubbing his chin, Teal considered the rock ceiling.

“How would you define it? Spirit energy? Light force? Dark matter? An unreported—?”

“Oh, it’s been reported—by almost every race in the universe. Demons may have different names and come in various forms, but they all inflict the same horror and spread the same destruction.” He shuddered. “You and I wouldn’t have disintegrated exactly—we would’ve become subservient to it. Slaves. Dead to ourselves and all free people.”

Teal closed his eyes. “I’m glad Obed escaped.”

Sterling bobbed his head up and down. “I’m glad we escaped!” He stepped forward. “I’m going to recommend that a quarantine be placed around this planet as soon as possible.”

Teal gripped Sterling’s arm. “But humanity isn’t demonic!”

“You saw those men. They are serving it innocent victims every pitiless day.”

Pounding into the light, Teal faced the sun. “But not all humanity does so. Some people resist evil.” He glared at Sterling. “You said it yourself, Obed escaped. And Ishtar escaped.” He exhaled and folded his arms. “Ungle has a point. We have to find Ishtar and watch what happens when he meets Chai.”

Sterling snorted. “So we can see him get devoured?” He curled his lips in obvious distaste. “I thought blood-sports disgusted you.”

Teal stepped up the rocky incline and pointed west. “As much as any decent being. We can’t defeat evil, but at least we can learn from those who resist it.”

~~~

Ark stood at the ship’s helm and hid a spreading grin behind a well-placed tentacle. A bubble of enjoyment tickled his insides as he watched the drama unfold before his eyes.

Zuri swaggered on deck, explaining with chest-thumping pride each and every instrument panel.

Kelesta practically purred, her eyes glued to Zuri’s every move.

Sienna stood near the open bay door, frowning. “Sterling and Teal should return any moment.” She glanced at Ark. “Are you quite done?”

Ark cleared his throat, sending bubbles to the surface of his breathing helm. “Oh, yes!” He turned and offered a generous smile. “Young love—I could watch all day and never get bored.”

Sienna’s gaze shifted to Zuri, roving from his spiked blond hair to his sandaled four-toed feet. “He almost appears human now.”

Ark snorted. “That’s the idea…or rather to look more Old-World Ingoti.”

Sienna crossed her arms and glared at Ark. “So are you going to tell me—or do I have to guess?”

“Zuri’s lady friend likes her mates au-naturale.”

“Zuri has a mate?” Sienna’s gaze darted to Kelesta.

Unconcerned, Ark waved a tentacle. “I don’t suppose it’s terribly serious, considering how much time he spends away.”

Pursing her lips, Sienna frowned. “Some people are faithful no matter the distance.”

A bright light blinked, and Sterling appeared in the middle of the deck with Teal standing behind him.

Zuri turned sharply, and Kelesta tripped, gripping his arm for support.

Without ceremony, Teal glanced around. His eyes stopped on Zuri, and he stepped forward. “Where’s Ishtar?”

With a by-your-leave grin, Zuri slipped from Kelesta’s grasp and met Teal in the middle of the deck. “He saw the ravages of Chai’s conquests and is hurrying home. Why? What’s happened?”

Sterling sauntered closer and shrugged. “We met a demon from hell.”

Everyone froze.

Ark giggled and flipped a tentacle over his breathing helm, a flush working up his face. “Sorry. Such a blatantly vivid image—”

Teal stomped to an instrument panel and scanned the surface. “Hardly a laughing matter.” He glanced at Zuri.

Zuri padded to the central computer and tapped the surface. A holographic image appeared in the middle of the room.

In colorful detail, Ishtar appeared to be working his way around the coast of a large lake.

Zuri peered up. “He’s near home. The women have hidden in caves. He might run into them or someone from his clan soon.”

Ark shuffled closer, rubbing two tentacles together. “Bet that’ll be fun.”

Teal swallowed. “Where’s Chai?”

Zuri tapped the console again, his slender fingers flying over the flat surface.

A holographic image showed Chai leading a large band of warriors, with a ragged line of slaves struggling behind, north of Ishtar’s position.

Zuri faced Teal. “They’re on an intercept course.”

Sterling leaned forward scowling. “Who’s that coming up behind Chai?”

Teal slapped his forehead. “Oh, the fools. That’s Eoban, Barak, and Obed.”

Ark frowned, his lips pursed into flabby tubes. “They have no idea what they’re about to run into.”

The image blurred, and Teal shouted at Zuri. “What’re you doing?”

Zuri shrugged. “I want to know what happened to the boy—Ishtar’s son.”

Ark snorted.

Zuri tilted his head, his eyes wide. “What? So I have a soft spot for children.”

The image refocused on Amin. Sweat poured down his thin face as he struggled through a thick forest, brushing thorns and vines out of his path.

Sienna blinked and shook her head. “Poor thing.”

Kelesta squinted at the scene. “There’s something following him.”

Ark, turning green, glanced away. “I can’t watch.”

Sterling snarled at Ark. “You’re a Cresta scientist—you dissect specimens all the time.”

“After they’ve died!” Ark swiveled about, his tentacles flying in all directions. “Get it through your Luxonian filters—Crestas have to study everything. It’s what we do. How we survive. But that hardly makes us cold-hearted.”

Teal tapped his fingers together. “Can we debate this another time?” He turned to Zuri. “Want to split up?”

Kelesta’s eyes widened as she wiggled next to the Ingot.

Zuri peered down at her hope-filled eyes and rubbed his beardless chin. “Fine. We’ll follow Amin.”

Teal swiveled toward Ark. “Take Sterling and keep an eye on Ishtar.”

Ark grinned, his golden eyes gleaming. “It’ll be my pleasure!”

Sterling raised his hand. “When—exactly—did I get demoted?”

Scowling, Teal turned away. “You’re doing what Ungle asked—keeping an eye on Ishtar. There’s no other place for you to be.”

Sienna sauntered over to Teal and wrapped her arm around his. “And we’ll follow the three fools?”

Teal shook his head. “They barely escaped the temple demon, and now they’re bumbling right into Chai.” He exhaled. “I can only pity them.”

Ark stood back and appraised the gathering. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans…”

All eyes fixed on the Crestonian.

Ark grinned. “Nothing ever goes as planned.”

Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.~ PRISON CHAPLAIN, A Clockwork Orange

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Two

—Woodlands—

The Heart

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

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

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

Tobia closed his eyes. Thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Tobia turned to the doorway, he glanced back.

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

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

“I’m here. Come in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remy grinned and glanced at Tobia.

Tobia hurriedly finished his second drink.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How so?”

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

Kamila’s eyes rounded in horror.

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

“That’s why you must leave—soon?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-One

—Woodland—

My One Blindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They offered a sacrifice.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obed opened his mouth but no words came.

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

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

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

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

Obed stared, a perplexed frown crowding his forehead.

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

Obed bit his lip and glanced aside at Barak.

Barak grinned.

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty

—Woodland—

A Terrible Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amin straightened, annoyance warring with anxiety.

Lydia backed against the table as Rueben drew near.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spluttering, Ulla choked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia frowned. “What’s happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Nine

—Mountains and Grasslands—

Madness Will Take Us All

Ishtar ran under a warm sun at an even pace for much of the day, stopping every now and again to rest, gain a view of his surroundings, and get his bearings. He wound his way down a mountainside populated with cedars and pines. The ground, spongy and matted with brown needles, softened the blows to his feet, and the boughs overhead blocked the harshest rays of the sun. The ancient trees comforted him but with a reserved, haughty demeanor.

By late afternoon, the trees, held back by an invisible command, gave way to scrublands and rounded hillsides. When Ishtar reached the top of one, he considered his surroundings and tried to puzzle out where the raiding clan had come from. He glanced back at the distant mountains and frowned. Even if they managed to cross the distance, how would they ever get their slaves home safe? He shook his head. They’d be mad. A stab of fear plunged into his gut.

By evening, he spied a group of stocky, muscular hunters passing into the open grasslands. He followed as they chased a fat stag. After a successful kill, they grinned in mute joy and pounded each other on the back. Sucking in a deep breath, Ishtar straightened his shoulders, rose from his grassy shelter, and approached. He lifted his hands high, signaling his peaceful intent.

Frowning and circling their kill, they huddled close.

Ishtar spoke slowly, gesturing with each word. “I’m Ishtar from the grasslands. I’m returning home from a long journey.”

Allowing him to step nearer, the shortest and thickest man in the group addressed him. “Ishtar, I’m Butros. We come from the south.” He gestured in the general direction, and then swept his hand at the stag. “We return home, too.”

Clasping his hands, Ishtar bowed in a sign of respect. “You are skilled hunters.” He motioned back the way he had come. “I found a village devastated by raiders. My friend is helping the survivors. But I must warn my people.” He stepped closer. “And warn you too. They are a dangerous enemy.”

“We’ve heard of their approach. We hide in the woodlands, and when necessary, we move again. In this way, we keep safe.”

Ishtar nodded. “Very wise. But have no other clans been attacked? Were none of them your friends?”

Butros glanced at his men before fixing his gaze on Ishtar. “We’re too few to fight such a powerful enemy. Their leader is intelligent but mad.”

Stiffening, a cold shock ran over Ishtar. “Why do you say so?”

Butros shrugged. “His success declares intelligence, but his ambition demonstrates madness.”

Rubbing his temple, Ishtar tipped his head. “You are wise indeed.” He glanced toward the setting sun. “I must go and warn my people.”

Glancing aside, Butros nodded to the stag. “It was kind of you to stop to alert us. Take some meat. You must arrive strong enough to fight…if need be.”

Blinking at this unexpected generosity, Ishtar waited while they cut a section of the rump and wrapped it in skin. When he accepted the gift, he bowed low. “If ever the need arises, send a runner to the western grasslands. Call for Ishtar, and I’ll come to your aid.”

Butros smiled. “If ever the need arises.” He titled his head. “I pray it will not.”

Ishtar turned, but Butros called after him. “Beware of their god! It eats men, devouring them whole.”

Bile rising, Ishtar froze, stunned. He glanced back wide-eyed. “You know this?”

“I know the sound of a man in torment, and I have seen the sacrificial fire.” Butros shook his head. “That’s why we stay far from them.” Peering through haunted eyes, he crossed his arms over his chest. “The danger is too great.”

Turning, Ishtar sprinted away.

~~~

Ishtar rose early the next morning from a short sleep and started again. He soon discovered a wide, beaten trail of travelers who had no desire to hide their steps and held in contempt those who might follow. Under a glaring noon sun, he arrived at an abandoned encampment. Stepping around the remains of an enormous blackened ring, he toed the remains of a feast.

He crouched low, frowning. They had enjoyed roasted deer; the bones and hide scraps lay scattered about. But in the fire pit, the bones did not match the meal. Fresh blood stained a circle of blackened stones. Ishtar’s nose curled, and his stomach squirmed. When he found the remains of a hand, his insides revolted, and he retched in the grass.

With sobbing moans, he wiped bile from his mouth and rose on his haunches. Pounding the dirt, he rocked like a child in torment. Lifting his gaze to the sky, he raised his fist. “Oh, God! How could this happen—again? Is there no evil men will not commit?” He staggered to his feet and stared wild-eyed at the scene. “Madness will take us all.”

A huge black raven flew in low, snatching at the remains. In fury, Ishtar swatted the air, flailing his arms and attempting to drive it away. Three more birds arrived, and Ishtar leapt at them, flinging insults and fury.

More birds darted into the pit, and Ishtar, with tears streaming, snatched the hand and what bones he could find. Bundling them in his arms, he ran some distance away, and, using his body as a shield, he dropped the remnant in a heap. He yanked his knife from his belt and scoured the ground, loosening the earth and scrabbling a shallow hole with his fingers. After placing each bone and fleshy piece into the hollow, he covered them dirt and grass.

The birds, unaware or uninterested in his work of mercy, circled above the remaining feast, quarreling for their share.

His hands black and bleeding, his face sweat-and-tear- streaked, Ishtar stepped back and stared from the tiny grave to the angry birds, his mood as black as their feathers.

~~~

Ishtar—exhausted but resolute—loped through the swaying grass and detected a flicker of firelight in the distance. Crouching low, he crept over the uneven ground, his gaze fastened on the assembled throng.

A waning moon rose as one by one, stars blinked into existence. Low clouds spread across the sky like a frayed shawl.

Studying his enemy, Ishtar peered at the beardless, stocky warriors in the bright moonlight. They wore colorful robes dirt-stained and ragged but clear reminders of a proud history.

Sentries paced the perimeter and stalwart guards stood at fixed points before a huddled cluster of wretched women and children. The women clutched babies and small children in their laps, while adolescent girls and boys huddled with their arms wrapped around their middles, crouching low, their eyes blank and unseeing. On the edges, a few male survivors sat hunched-shouldered, bruised and filthy. The guards smacked them without cause whenever they strode near.

A single tent dominated the scene. Two guards, still as stones, stood on either side of the entrance.

As the glowing moon rose higher, Ishtar’s eyes drooped with exhaustion. He dropped his head over his arms, which were wrapped around his knees. His eyes closed.

Suddenly, a commotion jerked him awake. Craning his neck, he peered over the tops of the swaying grass.

A heavyset man, short and broad, with a beardless white face that practically glowed, marched stiff-shouldered from the tent to the center of the assembly. His iridescent robe, thrown back from his shoulders, rippled in the evening breeze. He stood in the center of the assembly and spoke in a confident, commanding tone, all eyes fixed on his face.

Ishtar could not hear the words, but he understood their instructional intent.

The leader pointed, his voice rising.

The assembled warriors lifted their arms, their fists raised to the night sky, chanting, demanding, and affirming. Among raucous sounds, only one resolved itself into a clear word. “Chai.”

Sheltered by blackness, Ishtar half-rose and growled in an undertone. “Chai? You and I must meet.”

Chai turned and peered in Ishtar’s direction, his eyes glowing like a cat’s.

A chill racing through his body, Ishtar turned south and fled.

It is not enough for us to restrain from doing evil unless we shall also do good. ~St. Jerome

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