OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nineteen

—Mountain and Desert—

Bury the Dead

Tobia glanced over his shoulder and shuddered.

As if tied to an invisible thread, Vitus traipsed blindly behind Tobia’s footsteps. It appeared as if he had no other purpose in life than to keep in step with his companion.

Tightening his jaw, Tobia changed direction suddenly, but Vitus, apparently seeing through his unseeing eyes, stuck close, like a chick to its mother. “Seven days of this. I’ll soon go mad.” Tobia stopped and shaded his eyes, surveying the mountainous landscape. He licked his parched lips. A sound turned his gaze.

Trickling water gurgled over the never-ending buzz of insects.

Tobia sighed and closed his eyes a moment in relief. “Thank God.” He rushed forward, scurried around a boulder, and encountered a tiny waterfall and a thin green patch growing from the mountainside. After slapping water into his parched mouth, he unslung his water bag from his shoulder and laid it on its side. Still licking his lips, he watched fresh clean water flow into it. Then he fell back against the white cliffside and drank a long slurping draught to his heart’s content.

After wiping his mouth, he peered up.

There stood Vitus, heaving deep breaths, stoop-shouldered, his clothes stained with sweat. His lips cracked.

“Oh, God, yes.” Tobia led Vitus to a shady spot and pulled the water bag from the man’s shoulder. After filling it, he put it to Vitus’ lips, praying that he’d drink willingly. Some days, Vitus let the water pour down his chin like a naughty child.

With his trembling hands limp at his side, Vitus tipped back his head.

Tobia directed the water into his mouth.

Vitus slurped and drank readily, an occasional grunted moan escaping his lips.

Tobia eyed the man. “That enough?”

Vitus didn’t answer. He never answered. He just stood and stared vacantly ahead.

With a quick shake, Tobia lifted the waterskin again and held it against Vitus’ mouth, but this time Vitus didn’t respond. The water merely dribbled down his chin. In resignation, Tobia slung the water skin bag over Vitus’ head and laboriously gathered his own bags. He didn’t have much left. Just a few trade items and what scraps of goat meat he had saved from their last meal.

Trudging along an animal track, they wound northward. When they finally reached the other side of the mountain, Tobia felt relieved, as if he had actually accomplished something. “There’s surely a clan around here somewhere…”

But there never was. Another bend, another vista, another trail to follow. But no sign of another clan.

Struggling forward, they passed between the mountains and wandered downward into a drier, desolate land where fine sand shifted underfoot.

Tobia stopped and wiped his brow. “The blind leading the blind.”

The land stretched before him as a vast panorama of open space. The intense blue sky spread wider than he had ever imagined possible.

In exhaustion, they stopped in the shadow of a high slope and ate the last of their food. They soon gulped the last of their water. Tobia’s heart clenched. He searched but found no stream or watercourse in sight.

With no other options, Tobia rose and started forward, always toward the falling sun.

Soon, his tongue felt thick and his lips bled. He glanced aside at Vitus. The man drooped like a wilted flower, his eyes as vacant as ever. “At least, he’s not complaining.” But a headache pounded in the back of Tobia’s head, and he groaned.

A dark speck in the distance caught his attention. Bracing his hand on his forehead as a shield against the light, he squinted. He knew it was useless, but he felt the need to speak out loud as if it might light the spark that would ignite Vitus’ intelligence. “What’s that?”

Forms wavered ahead.

Tobia forced himself to stand, though his legs begged to crumple. Dread warred with excitement, raising nausea from his middle. He glanced at Vitus. “How am I going to explain you?”

The shapes of men on plodding camels grew larger and more distinct, heading slightly to the north of his statuesque-like position, but suddenly they altered course and headed directly toward him.

Sweat trickled down Vitus’ flushed face, his back bent low, and his hands hung limp at his sides.

Draped from head to foot with a thin white material, the figures appeared to be heading someplace but not anxious to get there.

Tobia stepped closer to Vitus.

A tall, thin man with a dark complexion and black hair halted before them. “Hail, stranger. My master would like to know what brings you out in the heat of the day without beast to carry you or friends to protect you.”

Tobia cleared his parched throat, but his voice sounded raspy even to his ears. “We’re lost. My guide here” —he pointed to Vitus— “has been injured, and I am not fit to lead anyone—even myself.” He tried to smile but failed.

The men, looming so high above him, exchanged amused glances. The old man beckoned another to his side. This companion, his lower face covered in a cloth, appeared younger and more robust, though from his narrowed-eyed expression, Tobia sensed the wariness of an experienced warrior.

Tobia offered a respectful bow and nearly tumbled over with the effort.

The shrouded figure spoke in a husky voice that tingled in Tobia’s ears. “You’re not the first to get lost in these lands. But don’t despair; it’s possible to survive and even grow stronger through the journey.” He waved with a light flit of his hand to the north. “We’re meeting the sons of my patriarch here, but it may not be a happy reunion, or we’d take you with us.”

Desperation rose to a shriek in Tobia’s mind.

The man leaned forward. “Perhaps we could direct you home again. Where do you live?”

Griping Vitus’ arm, Tobia struggled to stay on his feet. “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be here. Please, we’re exhausted and near death. Take us as slaves if need be, but don’t abandon us here.”

The old man nudged his mount forward. “We’ll assist you then, for it would be offensive to God to do any less.” He commanded his men to assist Tobia and Vitus to mount.

Like a weak child, Tobia straddled the camel behind the shrouded figure, and Vitus was set behind the old man.

As they started forward, the old man turned to Tobia. “Your name?”

“I am called Tobia, son of Obed of the Grassland, though we are now in alliance with the clan of Barak.”

The shrouded figure turned suddenly, his eyes widening.

Tobia frowned, and his pounding head swam in the heat. He closed his eyes and prayed for mercy.

~~~

Tobia awoke to a delicious coolness caressing his aching body. He propped himself on one elbow and glanced around. In the darkness, the light of a full moon slanting into the tent aided his sight. Sleeping forms lay near. He leaned closer and recognized Vitus’ emaciated frame and his familiar snoring broken by short bursts of blowing air.

After throwing off the light blanket, Tobia rose and started toward the open flap. He stretched and licked his dry lips. Rubbing his arms, he emerged from the tent into the chilly night air.

A silent figure stood alone, peering into the starry sky.

Stepping quietly, he made no discernible noise, yet the still form shifted as he drew closer. They stood together for a moment in silence. The stars, clustered in milky splashes, spread wide across the sky.

Without turning, the figure spoke. “I was hoping you’d awake before the others. The sun will rise soon, and then we must accomplish our journey.”

“You wish to speak to me?”

“I do, very much, though I doubt you’ll feel the same.”

Tobia swallowed a sudden fear.

The figure turned and faced Tobia. “Don’t you know me?”

Tobia stood his ground though his legs trembled. “Your voice sounds familiar, but so much has happened in these past months—I might not recognize my own family.”

The figure unwrapped the cloth that hid his face. Ishtar opened his hands, palms out, as if in surrender.

A jolt surged through Tobia’s body. “I thought you were dead.” He choked. “I didn’t mean—” He clenched his hands. “But no one could survive—”

Ishtar placed a gentle hand on Tobia’s shoulder and steadied him. “I did die. At least the man you knew died.” He let his hand drop to his side. “I am not the man I was.” His gaze returned to the horizon, now turning rosy with the hint of day.

Following Ishtar’s example and facing the new day, Tobia shuddered. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I couldn’t manage—” He glanced back to the tent where Vitus lay sleeping. “Another problem.”

“I didn’t say your problems are over. By coming with us, you join a doomed expedition—a father facing death by his sons’ treachery.” A bitter chuckle rose in Ishtar’s throat. “Fate never ceases to amaze me.”

Tobia’s eyes widened. “I once believed that growing up meant I would have more say over my life, but I was wrong.” He pointed to the tent. “But what about Vitus?” Stepping closer, he gripped Ishtar’s sleeve. “He can neither run nor fight. He’s as helpless as a child. Is there no safe place for him?”

Ishtar glanced aside. “I’ve prayed for an escape, but I’ve found no other path than the one we’re on.”

The murmuring of men’s voices turned their attention. Matalah’s men pointed to the horizon.

Tobia and Ishtar stared as a cavalcade of hazy silhouettes rose into view.

Ishtar licked his lips, and Tobia held his breath. “Who?”

Suddenly, from the right and left, armed warriors sped into view, surrounding the approaching group, thrusting their spears and swinging clubs.

Matalah’s men shouted and chattered, pointing at the battle playing out before their eyes in the distance.

Tobia frowned. “Are those men being attacked?” He swallowed hard and peered at Ishtar. “Are we being attacked?”

Folding his arms, his legs spread and braced, Ishtar watched the scene. A slow smile crept across his face.

Shouts rang through the air.

Matalah sprang from his tent and gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Must they rush the hour? Is there not time enough for our destruction?”

His voice low and controlled, Ishtar glanced at his patriarch. “They are the ones being destroyed.”

Matalah leaned forward, squinting into the rays of the rising sun, his lips compressed and his jaw ridged.

Suddenly, the lead rider turned and faced his pursuers. The pursuers encircled their quarry. A quick spear thrust missed its target. More spears loosed as camels were driven into the fray. Warriors swung clubs with abandon, many finding their mark and sending men tumbling from their mounts.

Tobia, Ishtar, Matalah, and his faithful men watched in heart-stopping silence.

Men and beasts lay sprawled on the desert floor. Only the loudest shouts and clinks of battle could be heard as the shapes rose and fell.

Matalah’s face drained of all color. “My sons! Are they among them? I must know!” He staggered toward his camel.

Ishtar gripped his arm, holding him back. “This morning your sons wanted to destroy you, but now you to rush to their rescue?”

Matalah tried to shake free. “They are flesh of my flesh. I cannot stand by and watch them be murdered.”

Ishtar glanced from Tobia to Matalah. “I’ll go. Stay with the boy.” Without waiting for further argument, Ishtar swung on his mount and trotted into the distance.

The battle appeared to end as quickly as it had begun. Ishtar approached slowly. A thick man from the second group advanced and a discussion ensued.

After a few moments, Ishtar broke away and turned back, though now the thick warrior followed close beside him.

Tobia rubbed his dry lips. “What does it mean?”

The old man stared in mute misery.

Ishtar drew near with his companion close behind.

The tall, heavyset man wearing a blood-smeared cloak stopped before the small group. As he descended from his camel, he nearly slipped but jerked himself upright. He strode straight to Matalah and bowed his head in respect.

His whole body trembling, Matalah returned the bow.

“My friend, it is my sad duty to report the death of your eldest son at my hands. I did not wish it but was forced to such action. If I did not act, your sons planned to kill me and my family.” He took Matalah’s hand in his own, pressing it firmly. “I do not hold his crimes at your door. I feel only your shame and loss.”

Matalah’s head dropped to his chest, tears trickling down his burnished cheeks. “I’m glad it was you who administered justice, for you would be neither weak in the face of a necessary duty nor excessive in revenge.”

Tobia stepped into the background.

Ishtar reached out and gripped his shoulder, holding him steady. He looked to the warrior. “Where are the others?”

“They, too, were set upon by neighboring clans.” He shook his head in shared sorrow and glanced at the old man. “I do not believe you have many sons yet alive, Matalah. I am truly sorry for your loss.”

Matalah choked out his words. “They met their chosen end.”

~~~

Ishtar stood aside as the body of Matalah’s eldest son was brought and laid before them.

As the young man stained his garments with his own blood and his head lay twisted at an unnatural angle, so Matalah seemed to bleed tears while his body contorted in agony. “Take me from this earth! I no longer wish to inhabit the land of the living. I have failed, and my sons will not join us in the place of rejoicing.”

Ishtar nudged Tobia forward. “Come, we’ll do this together and bury those past healing.”

~~~

Tobia swept his sweaty hair out of his eyes and leaned on his shovel.

Ishtar set a marking stone in place before the grave mound and stepped back. His long black hair clung to his cheeks and neck as drops of sweat trickled down the side of his face.

“What next?”

Ishtar glanced at the high sun. “We’ll take Matalah home.” He shrugged. “His wife and surviving children await his return.”

“If I knew nothing of you, I’d think you a marvel among men for what you’ve done for your friend. Because I know what you’ve been through, I’m even more amazed.”

Ishtar turned and stared at the flames of a fire that still burned in the remains of their camp.

Tobia followed his gaze and grew uneasy as Ishtar walked to the fire pit, seemingly entranced by the colorful flames. With his foot, he scattered the coals. “Don’t be impressed with me, for I’ve given back but a tiny portion of the kindness Matalah has shown me.”

Tobia peered back at Vitus, who stood aside staring vacantly into space as Matalah’s men readied for the return journey. “We buried the dead. But what will I do with the living?”

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
~Mother Jones

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

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

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

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

Wasim nodded and turned away.

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

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

~~~

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

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

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

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

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

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

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

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

Assam turned and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

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

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

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

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

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

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

“Just so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

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

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

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

“The sheep are mine.”

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

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

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

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

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Your Prayer

Kelog chewed his lip as he watched an oversized gnat circle the room. Why didn’t someone smash the blinking thing into oblivion? He would. Certainly. If it got close enough. But it never did. Fury seethed through his whole system. Gnats shouldn’t be flying about on a frozen December day. They had no right to exist. Not here. Not now.

A gale wind struck the windowpane. Dang! Driving home will be hell. Not as bad as the drive here though. That’s not possible. He wiped sweat from his hands, rubbing them along his jeans. He glared at the fake poinsettia, the cheery signs on the wall with comforting platitudes, the assembly of grey humanity sitting hunched over their phones on lounge chairs that no one ever lounged on. Kelog loathed waiting rooms.

He peered at the doorway. He wanted to be in there. With his wife. But given the fact that he had carried her into the emergency room screaming for help, medics had promptly laid her on a stretcher, and then—in no uncertain terms—ushered him out, he figured he shouldn’t distract them from their primary concern. Laurie. And the baby.

How could such a wonderful day have gone so wrong?

They had snuggled in bed, comforting each other. Calm. Loving. The grey skies only highlighted the red and green decorations hanging in ornamental beauty along the porch railing. Quickly dressed. A strong cup of coffee. A kiss goodbye that hinted of pleasures intended for after work hours.

The day had flown by. “Any day now…” everyone had chanted with twinkles in their hope-filled eyes. And they weren’t talking about Santa and a new train set.

He had come home early. A surprise. He knew how tired Laurie had been, and he wanted to help clean the house before the big family gathering. She had probably done most of it, he knew. But in her condition, she never got as much done as she intended. And he was going to be her knight in shining armor and come to the rescue. He even brought home a new mop!

But after a twenty-minute drive against a roaring wind, parking in the snug garage, whistling his way into the kitchen armed with his playful sword-mop, he glanced around.

Somewhere in the universe, a sorceress plucked a low, vibrating chord. An oddity jumped at him from the corner of his eye. His morning coffee cup sat unwashed in the sink. Perplexity somersaulted right into anxiety.

“Laurie?” He laid the mop with a bow wrapped around it on the kitchen table where she couldn’t miss it. “Hey, honey! Guess what?”

Silence swept over his arms and chilled his bones.

“Laurie?”

He could hear his own footsteps as he pounded upstairs two at a time to their bedroom. Horrible images filled his mind. And then his heart.

She lay in bed, still as stone. Cold to his touch.

Calling for an ambulance never crossed his mind. The hospital was down the street, and his car was warm and close. Without conscious thought, he bundled her into his arms, her snoopy pajamas flaring and her arms flopping to the sides, and he trotted downstairs with the two most precious people in the universe.

“Mr. Jones?”

Kelog peered up. The gnat swirled in the air before him. He stood.

“The doctor will be here in a moment. Have you called anyone?”

Kelog blinked. His mouth dropped open. He knew he looked stupid. He felt stupid. Not idiotic just unable to think. Unable to process her words. “Call? Who?”

The nurse pressed his arm, gesturing back to the chair. As if sitting might help him think. “Your family? Her family? Parents?”

Yes. Of course. He should call someone. But who? And say what? He glanced at the nurse. Her uniform tag said “Beatrice.”

Nothing mattered. Except his wife. And the baby. “How are they?”

Beatrice had perfected the non-committal smile. “I really can’t say too much. The doctor will be here in a moment. I just came to check on you and see if you want me to call anyone. If you need anything?”

An award-winning android could not have moved more precisely. Kelog pulled his phone from his shirt pocket, hit the contacts list, pointed to Nestly Smith, and cleared his throat. “My sister. She’ll know what to do.”

With a compliant nod, Beatrice rose, tapped the phone and put it to her ear. She strolled a few feet away, stopping in front of a crucifix hanging on the wall.

Kelog blinked. I should be praying. I should’ve called mom. I should have…done something.

But nothing mattered. Time had stopped when that dark chord had struck. Life had ceased to exist as he knew it. Was he even breathing?

“Sir?”

Beatrice held out the phone. “She wants to talk to you.”

Kelog pressed the phone to his ear.

“I’m coming. Tom’s getting the car, and we’ll be there in about twenty minutes. Hang on, sweetheart. She’ll be okay. Everything will be all right.”

Tears flooded Kelog’s eyes. A million gnats swarmed around him. “But I didn’t call an ambulance. I forgot to pray. Never thought to call mom…”

“I’ll call mom. We’ll all be there. Soon. Hang on! Don’t give up.”

“She was cold. Really cold, Nes.”

“I’m praying, Kelly. Tom’s praying. Everyone who knows us will be praying.”

“I even brought home a mop.”

Kelog felt the shadow stop before him. The phone slipped from his fingers. He stood and faced the doctor.

“Mr. Smith, your wife had slipped into a coma—but she’s recovering now.”

Kelog heard himself whisper. “The baby?”

“She’s fine. Probably didn’t notice a thing. Just thought her mama was resting all day. Which, in a way, she was. Diabetic shock. It could’ve been worse. But she came out of it, and they’ll both be fine. We’ll just have to keep a close eye on them.”

The rest of the doctor’s words blurred as Beatrice, with a surprisingly firm grip, directed him to his wife’s bedside.

Laurie’s pale face broke into a sheepish grin when their eyes met. “I didn’t follow the doc’s directions last night…you know…I had other things on my mind.”

“Oh, God. I thought I’d lost you.”

Beatrice and the doctor meandered to the far side of the room.

Laurie’s grin widened. “You can’t lose me, love. Your prayers probably saved me.”

The gnat darted in front of Kelog’s eyes. He slammed his hands together, making everyone jump. When he spread his hands wide, a black smear decorated his palms. “Damn bug.” He glanced at his wife. “It distracted me; I forgot—”

A lightning bolt of sisterly anxiety sped into the room and catapulted into her brother’s arms. “I got here as soon—” She glanced over to the bed and shrieked. “You’re okay!” Veering from brother to sister-in-law, Nestly flung herself into Laurie’s arms.

Tom sauntered up and pressed Kelog ‘s shoulder. No words needed.

~~~

An hour later, after a fast-food run, Kelog stepped through the waiting room with two paper bags loaded with a selection that would ‘ve sent his high school health teacher into a panic attack.

Beatrice stood before the crucifix. Staring.

His mood leaping amid moonbeams, Kelog hardly missed a beat as he changed his trajectory and stopped beside the middle-aged woman. “Thank you. For today. For thinking of me and calling my sister.”

Beatrice looked over. She wiped away an errant tear. “I was glad to help.”

Kelog pointed to the cross and shrugged, unable to comprehend his lapse. “I forgot to pray.”

Beatrice shook her head. “No. You didn’t. Your love is your prayer. I only wish everyone prayed as much.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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

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

Short Stories

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

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Fifteen

—Mountains—

What Have You Done?

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

Someone nudged his foot. He opened his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just kind and honest.”

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

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

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

“God does what he wants.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vitus climbed faster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountainous dark clouds roiled overhead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobia stopped rocking and waited.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Vitus lay frozen.

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

Not a flicker.

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

“Vitus? You all right?”

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirteen

—Desert—

Forever in Your Debt

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

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

No!

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

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

He screamed. “Noooo!”

The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.

His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.

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

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

A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.

~~~

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

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

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

Fresh tears flowed.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.

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

“Fortune can be deceiving.”

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

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

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

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

“Of course, this is just between us.”

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

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

~~~

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

Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.

Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shadow wavered at the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

Beyond Mortal Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He staggered on.

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

Tears trickled down his face.

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

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

Thirst tormented him.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

It would not budge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.

Ishtar stumbled inside.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar frowned.

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

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

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

He trembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Trying to Be a Hero

Susanne shivered. Rain had settled into a steady drizzle, and dark clouds hid any vestiges of the evening sun. One of the very last pink and golden leaves of the season fluttered in a gentle breeze and then, without warning, careened from the heights to land on her head. She tried not to take offense as she plucked off the ragged symbol of autumn beauty and held it before her eyes. She glanced up. “Trying to tell me something?”

Her car, tilted at an odd angle sat before her like a shopping cart that had lost a wheel. Without premeditated thought, she kicked the flat tire and immediately regretted her actions. “Oh, holy cow, that wasn’t so smart!”

“I’d say not. It might decide to kick back, and then where’d you be?”

Susanne glanced across the road and met a strange woman’s gaze. Embarrassment and a tinge of fury ran laps around her insides. She knew perfectly well that she looked pathetic. She certainly felt pathetic. But heck, no one need make snide comments. Widening her stance like a prizefighter preparing to enter the ring, she ignored her toes yelping for immediate attention and faced the stranger. A scene from the OK Corral flashed through her mind.

Apparently, the strange woman had never seen the movie, didn’t comprehend body lingo, or she simply didn’t care how terrible Susanne’s day had been since she breezed across the street as if it were mid-summer and the sun was shining.

“Flat, eh?”

Susanne peered at the outstretched hand. Like now was a perfect time to say howdy and make friends!

“I’m Georgia. Visiting my niece this week from Michigan. I saw the flat and hoped the owner might be some muscled guy who worked for an auto station.” Her eyes roved over Susan’s petite form and shrugged. “Guess not.” Her eyes continued their stroll and landed on the elementary school. “You’re a teacher?”

Mental fibers started to snap, but with a mighty yank, Susanne gripped her emotions and demanded that they stay in line. “Office secretary. Terrific job. Just, I can’t get home with a flat tire.”

Georgia pointed to the trunk. “You got a spare in there?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually changed one myself, but I watched my sons do it three or four times. How hard can it be?”

Bundled in a winter coat over a thick sweater, it was hard to tell Georgia’s body build, but Susanne guessed it to be somewhere between a heavyweight wrestler and Highland Dwarf. “Well, we can try, I guess. I hate to call the service station. So bloody expensive just to take it a few miles.”

In the style of a Commander and Chief taking charge of his army, Georgia flipped open the trunk, swept back the cover, lugged out the spare, dropped it handily on the ground, snapped open the enclosed tool kit, and plopped down on the wet ground, fitting the crank under the car. “I think it goes here.”

The word “think” sent another shiver down Susanne’s spine. But since Georgia seemed to be on a roll, she had no desire to interrupt. When it came time to unscrew the bolts, Susanne regained a modicum of self-respect by remembering “lefty-loosey” and thus saved her rescuer heaps of time.

The sudden downpour didn’t seem to affect Georgia like Susanne thought it would. In fact, it appeared to have no effect on her at all. The gray-headed woman unbolted the flat, switched out the tire, and then bolted on the spare with the same calm composure one would expect from a surgeon doing his fiftieth appendectomy. The painful tangle in Susanne’s middle began to loosen. Just a bit.

Once everything was put away and Georgia slapped her hands free of street grit and broken leaves, Susanne felt her newly assembled composure disintegrate. “Can I pay you for your—I would’ve—”

Georgia waved the suggestion away. “You would’ve called a tow truck and paid a bundle. How far you live from here?”

“Oh, just a few miles. It’ll be fine. I really…” As Susanne pictured her empty apartment, loneliness galloped over confusion and ran it into the ground.

“Well, before you go, I want you to come in and have a hot cup of tea. My niece is off on one of her trips. God knows where this time. That’s why I’m here. I saw her for a few hours and off she ran. I stay and watch the house for a week. She’s got an old Tomcat that can’t find his way from the yard to the food bowl without help. So I got the job.” She shrugged. “At least it’s something to do…” She grinned at the replaced wheel. “In my declining years.”

~~~

Embracing a hot cup of tea like a rescue buoy and ensconced on a very comfortable chair, Susanne wondered why this stranger felt like the best friend she never had.

Georgia plunked down, set her cup on a side table and leaned forward, clasping her hands over one knee. “Seems to me that you’d already had a bad day before you even saw your flat tire.”

Susanne’s sudden tears surprised her. But it was her own wracking sob that unhinged her.

Georgia sat comfortably in her chair, waiting, not cajoling or trying to hurry the process. She simply let the strange woman before her cry her eyes out.

Susanne could not have been more grateful. After she wiped her eyes with a tissue that seemed to spring out of thin air, she sat back, took a long sip of her lukewarm tea, and sighed. She lifted her gaze.

Georgia munched a fig newton. Completely at ease. No agenda. No tapping foot or imploring expression. Just calm acceptance, as if to say, “So this is how today is going. Huh.”

Susanne exhaled, pulled her feet onto the couch, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I lied today. Have you ever lied?”

Georgia grunted. “Oh, yeah. Of course. We all do. Sometimes on purpose with lots of planning. Sometimes on the spur of the moment without thinking. We usually have a fairly good reason. Or at least, we think we do.”

“Well, I lied for one simple reason. To get back at someone who hurt me. I wanted her to feel bad. The details don’t really matter. Maybe she deserved it for the way she treated me. But the lie was all mine. I knew it was wrong. But I did it anyway. And what’s worse, I did it over and over again so that this woman’s reputation will now be forever shattered. Or at least, questionable.” The tears started again. “I wanted to punish her, but I punished myself far worse.”

“And then you got a flat tire.” Georgia snorted. “Bet you thought Someone was trying to tell you something, eh?”

Nausea rose and started an open rebellion in Susanne’s stomach. She couldn’t look up.

“Listen. You did an awful thing. No matter why, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. So deal with it. You admitted it to me. So tomorrow, go tell the people involved that you lied. Apologize to your enemy, regain your self-respect, and stop hating yourself.”

Susanne blinked, her eyes stinging with the effort. “It’s not that simple. I’m the nice person. Everyone looks up to me. They trust me. She’s the witch everyone hates. If I do that, they’ll think I’m some kind of blithering idiot trying to be a hero.”

“Well—in a way—you are.”

A cat appeared on Susanne’s right. It crouched, sprang, and landed on her lap. She yelped in surprise. And then, as the truth of Georgia’s words hit home, she laughed.

Georgia grinned “You like cats?”

“Not usually. But this one—” She peered into the orange-eyed calico as he kneaded his paws into her lap and started his engines full throttle. “He’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll leave him in your care while I go warm up the kettle. I think one more cup is in order before I send out into the rainy night.”

Susanne leaned back against the chair and felt the cat curl up in a contented ball. Her shoulders relaxed and warmth spread throughout her whole body.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction

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

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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

Inspirational Non-Fiction

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