OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Seven

For The Sake of Your Son

—Grasslands—

Ishtar tossed the last shovelful of earth aside and stared at the long, deep trench. He wiped sweat from his brow, laid the shovel aside, and plopped down, leaning back on his hands.

A glorious breeze ruffled his long hair, and children called in the distance. He glanced up. Eoban and Obed marched toward him with Barak trudging along behind.

Ishtar scrambled to his weary feet, his gaze level as the men approached. “To what do I owe this honor? Three dignitaries coming to view my” —he glanced aside and shrugged— “ditches.”

Obed laughed. “That’s why we’ve come. Word reached us that you’re digging canals to carry water to your village.”

“It’s just an idea…something I saw while traveling.”

Barak shaded his eyes and surveyed the long trench meandering from the base of the hill to the edge of the village. “You saw this?”

“I saw how water travels down from the hills. And sometimes it reaches the people. Sometimes not.” He rubbed his chin. “It seemed that a little assistance might give us what we need in dry spells.”

Eoban glanced at Obed. “It’s a brilliant idea. Surprised you didn’t think of it.”

“Wish I did.” Obed turned to Ishtar. “But it’s all yours. Except…” He laughed. “I might steal it and do something similar in my village.”

“Feel free. I’m too—”

Amin sprinted into view, jogged around stray sheep, and stopped with gasping breaths before his father.

Eoban gripped the young man’s shoulder. “What in the world are you eating, boy? Whole hogs? You’ve grown twice your former size!”

Ishtar’s smile broadened.

Obed nodded his agreement. “You’ll be ready to take the mantle of leadership off Ishtar’s shoulders soon.”

Barak frowned. “What is the matter, Amin? You look upset.”

Gulping his breath, Amin gazed from one man to another. “It’s Caleb. He’s not feeling well.” He turned to his father. “I told him to rest. I’ll do his work today.”

With a nod, Ishtar’s joy dimmed. “Fine. It was good of you to think of it.” He pointed to his efforts. “I’ll show them my grand scheme and come home in a bit.”

Amin glanced at the field and nodded. “I’ll get to work but keep an eye on Caleb too.” He stepped away.

Ishtar waved toward the base of the hill. “Let’s go. I can show you what I’ve done. You might have ideas to add.”

Eoban and Obed fell in line behind Ishtar.

Barak stopped and peered back at Amin. “You think he’ll be all right?”

Ishtar grinned. “Caleb is a wonderful child…but sometimes he doesn’t like to work, and Amin is more than generous.” He bit his lip. “I’ll have a talk with the boy.”

The three trudged upland to a natural land basin where Ishtar had enlarged the width and depth and added a channel leading toward the village.

As the sun descended, Lud and Gilbreth joined them, and they followed the trench into the village, making suggestions and exchanging ideas.

As he loped along, Eoban scratched his head. “Looks like Gilbreth has grown as much as Amin. What do you feed your children these days?”

Barak chuckled. “Anything and everything. Boys are always hungry. Ask Milkan.”

Rubbing his stomach, Eoban winced. “Speaking of food…”

Glancing from Eoban to the other men, Lud laughed. “That’s why I was sent…to tell you that a repast awaits at my home if you’d like to join us.”

Eoban leapt ahead like a yearling goat. “Don’t be sluggards! The boys will eat it all if we don’t hurry.”

~~~

Ishtar reclined on the ground after the repast, and everyone grew quiet as they sat around a modest fire. The warm evening air stilled, and songbirds settled in for the night.

Eoban glanced at each of the men. “So much has changed since we first met.”

His eyes widening, Lud sucked in his breath. “More than words could ever say.”

Barak nodded. “Aram has been gone for so long, I forget his face but never his strength. I only hope that the future will bring us more peace and less anxiety.”

Ishtar watched the flames flicker and the sparks intertwine as they rose into the sky. “I, too, hope we will know peace, but I wouldn’t wish to live without burdens or trials. It was a heavy burden that brought me to a place I could not run from. It was a painful trial that forced me to face the spirits that haunted me.” He sat up. “We must continually strive to become better than our former selves, or we stagnate and corrupt. I pity the man who is satisfied with himself.”

Barak shifted, his voice dropping low. “Even Aram struggled to become a better leader. He never really knew how good he was.”

Lud dropped another log on the fire. “As a father, I agree. One is never done learning.”

Stretching, Eoban yawned. “Since I am neither married nor have children, it seems that I have an easy life, but I tell you—in truth—I’m married to the entire village. I’m father to the young, brother to my men, servant to every woman who needs an extra hand, and uncle to the children near and far. I am the most married man I know!”

Chuckles rose with Eoban as he staggered to his feet.

The setting sun spread a pink and lavender glow over the village. The rest of the company stood, said their goodbyes, and started to their homes. Silence, the companion of each, framed the village in quiet slumber.

Ishtar strode along the trail with his heart at peace and knew that, for once, joy united them.

~~~

Amin raced up to Ishtar in the darkness outside his house, his heart clenched into a tight ball both furious and afraid. “Caleb is worse. I’ve done everything I can think of. Water, wine, broth, food…but nothing helps. He vomits everything.” He wrung his hands as he trotted at his father’s side. “He said his belly hurt, but I can’t see any wound.”

Ishtar peered through the darkness as he stopped before the doorway. “Did you call for the healer?”

Amin nodded. “She made him swallow an herbal brew, and he fell asleep.”

Ishtar paced to Caleb’s side and knelt on the hard ground.

Sweat beaded Caleb’s forehead. His cheeks were flushed an angry red, and he tossed with his arms flailing.

Ishtar stroked his son’s head, but Caleb brushed his hand away. Swallowing hard, Ishtar turned to Amin. “I’ll get Jonas. If anyone can understand what’s wrong, she can.”

Amin nodded, terror biting at his insides as Ishtar hurried outside. He dropped to his knees, clasped his little brother’s sweaty hands, and watched his every move.

Time slowed to a standstill. An owl hooted in the distance and a wild dog howled.

Caleb fell into a deep slumber, his body stilled, and his skin paled to a deathly white.

Amin’s eyelids grew heavy. His head dropped onto the edge of the bed and exhaustion took him.

When a bird chirped, Amin jerked awake and rubbed his eyes. A sliver of gold-edged the horizon and the sound of shuffling feet drew him upright. He stood and faced the door.

Ishtar ushered Jonas inside.

Striding to Caleb’s side, Jonas touched the little boy’s face and arms, and then carefully worked her way down his body, peering intently at each limb.

Ishtar tossed kindling onto the dying fire, flaring it into renewed life.

Jonas beckoned Amin closer. “Did he fall? Any accidents?”

Amin shook his head, his stomach churning. “He was fine up until a couple days ago. Then he said he felt sick and didn’t want to eat. After a time, he said his side hurt…and then his middle. He got so weak he could hardly stand.” Amin glanced at the rising sun, tears filling his eyes. “The more I tried to get him to eat, the sicker he got. Once the fever set in, he didn’t even know me.”

Jonas rose, soaked a cloth with cool water, and sponged Caleb’s head and wiped down his body.”

Ishtar crouched at her side and watched her every move. Amin paced away and added fuel to the fire.

As brilliant rays of light streaked over the horizon, Caleb awoke. Appearing calmer, he peered through red-rimmed eyes.

Jonas backed away and let Ishtar kneel closer. “Caleb?”

With a weak smile, Caleb grinned as his father took his hand. “I felt terrible. But I’m…better now.” He glanced aside. “Amin?”

Amin shifted near, kneeling by his father. “I’m here.”

Caleb blinked and frowned. “It’s so dark, I can’t see you.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “But I can hear you.”

Choking on strangling grief, Amin stifled a sob. Tears flooded his eyes. “I’m here, Caleb.”

Caleb closed his eyes, murmuring. “Father’s back, you know… So glad.” He gasped a rattling breath and exhaled slowly.

Amin squeezed his brother’s hand, but it felt cold and lifeless.

Caleb’s head drifted to the side, his whole body falling limp.

Amin shrieked. “Caleb!”

Trembling, Ishtar wrapped his arm around Amin and held Caleb’s fingers in his own.

Jonas nudged in closer and pressed her ear to Caleb’s chest, her eyes wide and staring.

Tears rolled down Ishtar’s cheeks, as a low groan escaped. “Please…”

Jonas blinked back tears. “He’s gone.”

Dropping his head onto Caleb’s chest, Ishtar sobbed.

A stabbing pain pierced Amin’s chest. He rose and fled into the searing light of day.

~~~

Ishtar sat outside his dwelling staring at a gray fire pit mounded with dead ashes. Beyond that, in the distance, a small grave lay covered with large flat stones.

Footsteps shuffled near and a shadow crossed over him.

Tobia knelt at Ishtar’s side. “May I sit with you?”

Hollow as a drum, Ishtar didn’t care who came or went.

“The wedding ceremony was beautiful. Obed outdid himself. Even Eoban behaved well.” Tobia crossed his legs. “Wish you’d been there.”

With a feeble effort, Ishtar waved him off. “Kamila was with you. That’s all that matters.” He closed his eyes. “I’m very tired.” He stretched out on the bench and clasped his hands over his chest, lying like a dead man. Something small and hard pressed on his chest.
Ishtar opened his eyes and peered down.

A little wooden boy with his arms outstretched lay over his beating heart. Ishtar choked and struggled for control as he sat up and clasped the figure in his hand.

Tobia peered into the distance, his voice as steady as if he were telling an evening story by firelight. “Long ago, Eymard told me that our mighty Creator made this world and took all life back to Himself when he willed it. It sounded good and made losing my father easier to bear. But when Vitus died, and I saw so much death and horror, I shoved Eymard’s story away and grew angry at God.”

He paused as if the words stuck in his throat. “Did our Creator have the right to punish Vitus for his foolish pride? Did the elders deserve to see the last of their line suffer imprisonment and death? Who was this terrible God I prayed to?”

Ishtar peered into the azure sky and blinked back tears.

Tobia’s voice rose. “But then someone told me that I was thinking like a man and not like God. Someone said that no one knows what goes on between a soul and his Maker.”

Dropping his face onto his hands, Ishtar rocked in misery.

“Pele lives beyond our sight. The same is true for Aram. Is it not true for Caleb too?”

Dragging his fingers down his face, Ishtar lifted his gaze and met Tobia’s honest eyes. “Caleb showed great promise. He would’ve grown up to be an honorable man— perhaps a leader among men. Why was he taken and not I?”

Tobia peered at the horizon. “I can’t answer your question. And neither can you.” He glanced aside. “Repentance brought you home, Ishtar. Let hope keep you here, for your sake and the sake of your other son.”

Straightening, Ishtar nodded. “You are honest and true, my friend. I’ll be a man again, but—”

Tobia turned to leave. “God did not abandon Matalah. He will not abandon you.” With a nod, Tobia paced away. Rising, Ishtar gripped the figure in his hand and let the sun pour over him as fresh tears fell.

“The emotion that can break your heart is sometimes the very one that heals it…” ~Nicholas Sparks,

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Three

To Your Heart’s Content

Tobia scanned the sky as a vulture swooped down upon an unlucky prey, a victim of the dwindling battle. He surveyed the area and frowned. Sharp black mountains loomed on the horizon while blue foothills softened the landscape. Short grass with tufts of weeds covered the ground, but rocks and boulders broke through the surface, refusing to be forgotten and ignored. This was a hard land no matter how green the foliage.

A familiar figure appeared in the distance. Tobia’s voice dropped to a husky whisper. “Remy?”

Remy?

Springing forward, Tobia squinted. How could Remy be here? Three warriors surrounded the man, knocking him to the ground. Tobia’s heart tightened into a painful knot.

A yell scattered Tobia’s attention. He glanced aside.

The enemy leader called for a retreat. A thrill ran through Tobia. He glanced at Remy, who now lay defenseless on the ground. Tobia choked and sprinted faster, his whole body aching and his heart pounding.

Tobia rushed between Remy and the three warriors, his pent-up fury exploding from his body as he jabbed his spear wildly at the three men.

Taken aback, the warriors glanced from the whirlwind before them to their retreating clansmen. After venting their frustration with bone-crushing blows to Tobia’s head and chest, they abandoned the immediate fight.

As the warriors loped away, Tobia staggered and felt every bit of strength leak from his body. He collapsed into a black pit of despair beside the body of his friend.

~~~

Obed limped among the hundreds of dead and wounded, calling Tobia’s name. His head ached and his stomach churned. Where could the boy be? Two figures lay separate from the main battle. Clenching his jaw into a tight grimace, he hobbled to the site. Bile rose in his throat as he knelt down.

The man beside Tobia lifted his head. “I’ll be all right, but Tobia needs help. He saved my life.”

Swallowing back a sob, Obed bent low and pulled Tobia’s limp form over his shoulder. He bit back the pain in his shoulder and faced the stranger. “I’ll send help soon.”

“Tell him—Remy will be waiting for him.”

With a curt nod, Obed staggered away.

~~~

Tobia awoke to the blurry image of his mother staring down at him.

With a smile, Jonas whisked a stray lock of hair from Tobia’s eyes.

Tobia tried to speak, but a searing ache stabbed his throat, and he grimaced.

Jonas turned away and soon returned with a cup of water. Lifting his head with her hand, she helped him sip more than he spilled.

With a satisfied nod, Tobia lay back against the thick pillow. Weariness weighed on his body and squeezed his heart. Using determination and will power, he lifted an arm and rubbed a raw spot on his temple.

Jonas wrinkled her nose and tried to brush his hand aside. “Leave it so it can heal.”

“I don’t even know where I’m injured.” Tobia peered at his mother, irritation warring with pain. “You probably know every bruise and cut on me.”

Wringing her hands in her lap, Jonas nodded. “They’re not so very serious…just numerous.”

“So, did we win?”

Jonas’s smile faltered. “Of course. The battle is long over, and the enemy is defeated.” Rising, she retreated to the other end of the room and straightened a line of towels and bowls. “They didn’t find their efforts well rewarded. Even their slaves are freed.”

Despite the cheerful news, Tobia felt a black hole beckoning to him. “I never received any reward for my efforts either. Vitus is dead. All our goods are lost. I left a whole company of old people at the door of a friend who later came to rescue me but only met death in the end.”

Turning abruptly, Jonas frowned. “Your friend is not dead. Remy is resting nearby, and you can see him when you’re well-rested. Besides that, you came home alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

Tobia heaved a long sigh, relief flooding his body as he remembered Remy with his arm around Kamila. Thank God. “I’m glad. That’s good news.” His gaze roved to his mother. “But there is much that isn’t good. Your husband was made a slave, and innocent men, women, and children are now dead. And for what reason? Evil has had its way with us. Where is the good in that? I gained nothing.”

Sitting at his side, Jonas clasped her son’s hand. “Neither Vitus nor Obed was your responsibility. Wars and battle are part of life, and evil hounds our steps.” An exhausted smile wavered on her lips. “But evil is only one choice. Ishtar has returned home a new man, and your old people have found a fresh start, thanks to your efforts. You, like Ishtar, chose a different path.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Tobia shook his head. “My path has led me here—weak and injured.”

Jonas patted her son’s hand. “But you’re not dead. You’re a young man with your whole life ahead of you.” She touched his chin and lifted his face.

Reluctantly, Tobia opened his eyes.

“You said I could see all your wounds, but that’s not true. You’re wounded in places I can’t see. So I can’t heal you. You must heal on your own.” Standing as if ready for the next task, Jonas clasped her hands. “The truth is, Tobia, I need you. This clan needs you…and apparently, your friend, Remy, needs you. He hasn’t stopped asking after you.”

A spark ignited in Tobia’s middle. “He wants me?” A weak hope flared to life. He threw back his blanket and tried to rise.

Rushing to his side, Jonas pushed him back onto his pallet. “Not yet!” She flicked the blanket over his legs. “When you can smile again, I’ll send him in.” She waved an admonishing finger. “But not a moment sooner.” She picked up a tray and turned to the door.

His heart tightening, Tobia called out. “And Obed?”

With a tilt of her head, Jonas stared at her son. “He’s fine. He’s changed too.” She bit her lip. “He left a piece of wood for you on the bench…with a new carving knife.”

A shiver ran down Tobia’s spine. “For me?”

“He said there are worse things than dreams….” A smile played on her lips as she shook her head. She stepped over the threshold. “I’ll get your supper.”

After Jonas left, Tobia settled back on the pillows. His body ached and his head hurt, but his heart unclenched.

“Our brokenness summons light into the deepest crevices in our hearts.” ~Shauna L Hoey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Two

Ishtar By God

Ishtar crawled to the edge of a clearing surrounded by distant trees and stared at the flickering flames of a huge central bonfire. Images of the many fires he had watched flashed before his mind: Neb’s elaborate feasts to celebrate victory, the humble cooking fires he sat around with friends and family, the fire that had reflected his wife’s blood, the fire pit burned to embers outside Matalah’s tent…

Eoban grabbed Ishtar’s shoulder and hissed in his ear. “I said you could come with me, not run ahead and throw yourself at the enemy.”

Ishtar glared at Eoban.

Eoban glared back.

A large ornate tent was pitched before the huge fire and slump-shouldered warriors sat like thick, sallow-faced mounds. They chomped on their rations and murmured a few words back and forth, their gazes glancing nervously at the tent. The surviving prisoners huddled in a ragged line to the west as guards strode along the perimeter, grunting and swearing.

As a figure exited the tent, all conversation stopped. All motion halted. A lone man strode to the fire, holding an ornate bowl above his head. He chanted in a hoarse voice. “Chai calls, spirit. Be our guide. Lead us to victory. Burning flames engulf us; take us! Make us yours. Forever yours.”

Ishtar stood up, a surprising calm embracing his body.

Clawing at Ishtar, Eoban tugged on his tunic. “Get down, idiot!”

Shoulders back and head high, Ishtar stepped into the flickering firelight.

Eoban’s smothered groan followed him.

Ishtar stopped before the fire and peered through the flames at his enemy. “I am here, Chai.”

Roused out of their stupor, every warrior focused on Ishtar, their hands clenching their weapons.

After lowering the bowl, Chai took a slow sip and peered over the rim. He tossed the bowl aside and grinned. “You know me?”

Eoban scuttled forward and nudged between the prisoners as if he were one of them. He slipped his knife from his belt and cut the bonds of the nearest prisoner.

Once freed, the prisoner motioned for Eoban’s knife. Quickly, Eoban slipped an extra knife into the man’s hands.

Glimpsing Eoban’s actions out of the corner of his eye, Ishtar refused to be deterred and focused his attention on Chai. “Lud told me about you.”

“The boy?” Chai laughed. “Did he die with my name on his lips?”

“Lud lives, but the dead cry out.”

A myriad of eyes shifted away from Ishtar and landed on Chai.

Striding around the fire, Chai chuckled. “The dead do not cry out. Their voices are stilled. They are consumed by the spirit who offers us victory and life.”

Ishtar matched Chai’s stride and kept the fire between himself and his enemy. He peered through the flames. “Your spirit offers only lies, not life.”

As if annoyed that Ishtar had matched his pace, Chai stopped and thrust his hands on his hips. “I know the god I worship. He has led me here. He will consume you before the break of dawn.”

“Does your god serve you…or do you serve your god? Pass through the fire, and we will see.”

The watching crowd of warriors stiffened.

Freed prisoners shuffled forward. A child cried out.

Still cutting bonds, Eoban sucked in a deep breath.

His eyes fixed on his opponent; Chai stepped closer to the fire. “Who are you to direct me?”

Ishtar paced away, turned, and crouched low. “I am Ishtar, by God!” He sprang forward and leapt through the flames.

Startled, Chai stumbled and fell on his back.

Landing solidly on his feet, Ishtar stood over Chai, his heart exultant. “I have passed through fire and am not consumed.”

Scrambling to his feet, Chai eyed his men.

In a lightning-fast move, Ishtar gripped his enemy by the arms and whipped him around to the very edge of the flames.

Chai fought and writhed.

Eoban leapt forward and stood at Ishtar’s back with his arms wide, blocking any interference. “Take one step, and he’ll feed your master to the flames.”

A shadow loomed.

The crowd shrunk back from the sight.

Chai called out as he struggled. “My men will follow me to death and beyond!”

Ishtar glanced at the hesitating throng. “Will they?”

Like a dam freed from all restraints, an enraged thickset man barreled in from outside the circle and thrust every person aside, Obed’s knife in his hand. Screaming, he leapt on Chai and stabbed him repeatedly. “My wife! My children dead—to hell with you!”

As if waking from a stupor, a warrior started toward the attacker but two freed prisoners stepping from the shadows held him at bay.

More warriors advanced, shock blanching their faces, but the ragged, inflamed prisoners advanced too. Shrieking, shouting, and darting erratically, the prisoners attacked.

Ishtar caught Chai’s body as he slumped to the ground.

Bursting from the darkness, Barak with Luge and their men pounded into the fray and fought the bewildered, furious warriors who were now backed against the flames.

Nearly collapsing, Ishtar pulled Chai away from the flames. He stared into the unfocused eyes of his enemy…a stark reminder of his father as he lay dying.

Chai’s head dropped onto Ishtar’s arm, like a child cradled in his mother’s embrace. Swallowing convulsively, he stared at the star-strewn sky before riveting his gaze upon Ishtar. “I came to conquer.” He choked and blood trickled from his mouth. “You defeated me.”

Tears filled Ishtar’s eyes. “You gave me little choice. Evil devours itself…in the end.”

Chai shuddered and cried out, clutching Ishtar’s arm. “Don’t let the demon take me!”

With his emotions breaking like shattered pottery, Ishtar gasped. “I have no say over such things.”

“Please!”

Screams and grunts of fighting men and women swirled all around them. A young warrior fell into the fire and the flames flared.

The shadow grew, blocking the moon and twinkling stars.

Chai whimpered and clutched Ishtar tighter. “Not me!”

Ishtar slipped free of Chai’s grip and whipped off his cloak. He flung it on the fire and smothered the flames enough to grab the fallen warrior and pull him free. He bit off his words, glancing at the shadow, “No more—victims—today.”

Eoban ran forward and tossed a bowlful of water on the young man, sending an angry hiss into the air. He shook his head as he stared at the unconscious warrior who was little more than a boy. “What a waste.”

After a last mighty shudder, Chai lay still, his arms flung out, and his eyes glassy, staring sightlessly at the brilliant night sky.

Ishtar watched the defeated enemy shuffle to one side of the smoldering fire and drop their weapons.

Luge strode before them and ordered his men to tie them together.

Kneeling beside the body of Chai, Ishtar wept.

“What is important is not to fight, but to fight the right enemy.” ~Bangambiki Habyarimana

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-One

Ancient Enemy

Obed peered across the horizon in the morning light and pictured his daughter’s face at their parting. Mari had stood tall, her long black hair blowing in the wind and tears streaming down her face.

His son, Onia, had begged to fight at his side, but the expression on Jonas’s face convinced him otherwise. He sent his son to the caves to protect the women and children.

Obed swallowed back fear and hate and looked to his men as they lined up ready for battle.

He had limped alongside Ishtar into the village, and a shout rang out that warmed Obed’s heart. When he realized that as many men were shouting for Ishtar’s safe return as for his own, he had to stifle his irritation. But watching Ishtar work with the men, making plans, calling for weapons, encouraging the fearful and directing the overzealous, soothed Obed’s raw emotions. Ishtar was not the same man who had fallen so far from grace.

Eoban gripped Obed’s shoulder as he stood next to him. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re still alive?”

Choking on something between a snort and a scream, Obed peered aside at Eoban. “You said, ‘Told you so,’ and plodded by as if I had simply missed dinner.”

“You acted like an idiot, and I won’t let you forget it.” Eoban’s gaze roamed to the distant hills. “I wish I knew where Barak ended up.”

His stomach tightening, Obed bit his lip. “You should never have left him.”

“Don’t blame me if the man can’t find his head in the dark.” Eoban pointed to the hills. “He probably got confused, circled around a few times, and met Luge. He might’ve decided to rest a few days.”

“Sounds like Barak. A man of leisure.”

“Given time, I’ll forgive him for being an even bigger idiot than you, but this—” Eoban waved his hand at the sight of a massive assembly drawing near. “I’ll never forgive.” He spat on the ground.

A shout rang out.

In the distance, a wall of ragged prisoners appeared on the hillside. Most of them were children, and they scuttled forward, prodded from behind.

Obed’s stomach turned sour, bile rising.

The enemy was using human beings as shields—to be slaughtered in the first approach.

Ishtar trotted forward. “Everyone’s in place.”

Eoban glanced at Ishtar. “Your men will circle around?”

With his gaze locked on the approaching enemy, Ishtar nodded and waved to the assembly behind them. “The central throng will meet these children with tenderness. But Lud will approach from the east with his men, and I’ll lead mine from the west. Between us, we’ll destroy the enemy.” He darted away.

As cold hate penetrated Obed’s body, he leaned forward, ready to leap ahead. To no one in particular, he said, “Once they’re exposed, we rush in and kill them all.”

~~~

Eoban wiped sweat from his eyes, huffed deep breaths, and clashed spears with one of the enemy, a short, stocky man who, like the others, wore a knot of black hair on a shaved head.

Wielding swords and shields with harsh motions and hostile calls, the enemy gained ground. Something aided them that went beyond the realm of mere luck. Most of the children had been spared, but as Ishtar and Lud circled around, the enemy seemed to expect the maneuver and turned with great skill to meet the challenge.

Lud’s men were speared and stabbed like sheep led to slaughter.

Ishtar met with little more success. His warriors were more experienced, but time had blunted their abilities.

Screams and shouts filled the air. Carrion circled overhead, and some even landed on the dead and those not yet dead but wishing to be so.

Swallowing back bile, Eoban stared at the descending sun and pleaded like a needy child. “Please, God! Aram, hear my cry…the cries of your people…your friends.”

A stout figure with moves quick as lightning came from out of nowhere, pounding toward Lud.

Lud no sooner turned than the man’s knife pierced his side.

With a choked breath, Eoban screamed, “No!” and rushed forward, his bloody knife clenched in his hand. Before he made four steps, a new enemy jumped in his path and barred his way.

~~~

Chai chuckled as he stepped back and let the youth fall to his knees before him. This day had been too easy! Tales had been told about this clan, this gathering of clans, and all they had achieved through long years together.

He licked his lips and tasted blood. He peered at Lud, hesitating. “You a man or a boy?”

Grimacing, Lud lurched to his feet and aimed his knife. His hand trembled, and his voice rose to a reedy whisper. “I am Lud, the leader of this clan.”

Chai grinned, tapping his chest. “I’m Chai. Your leader now.” He stepped forward. “Bow before me.”

Lud stumbled backward.

The sound of a ram’s horn tore through the village, stilling the cries and screams in a hundred throats.

Chai frowned, gazing around, puzzled.

A man bounded to a halt on his right. Swinging around, Chai faced the blood-splattered warrior.

Lud screamed. “Eoban! Watch out.”

The ram’s horn sounded again and a dark-haired warrior charged into the confused melee, leading a fresh host of men. A giant man loped alongside at his right hand.

Shock drenched Chai like cold water. Stiffening, he glanced around. His men looked to him for direction, their eyes asking if they should retreat. He shook his head. He never retreated.

Suddenly, a tall, sinewy man with long black hair trailing down his back and blazing eyes turned and stared directly at Chai. Their gazes locked.

Chai blinked. He knew those eyes. He knew that expression. A familiar terror seeped into his bones, and he trembled. He lifted his bloody knife and held it high. “Retreat!”

~~~

Ishtar confronted the mighty invaders, fighting hand-to-hand, stabbing, hitting, and twisting his own body out of harm’s way while other horrors rose in his mind. The sightless eyes of countless victims, his father’s blood on his hands, and the ghostly apparition of his grandfather crowded him like cavorting devils.

When he saw the enemy leader, he knew with uncanny certainty that this man was not merely a battle-hardened warrior or even an intelligent slave trader. An ancient force ruled the mortal before him. Ishtar watched the stalwart leader swoop forward like a bird of prey, his arms outstretched practically enveloping his men in his mighty will—win at all costs.

They retreated now. But they would be back.

~~~

Eoban plunked down on the hard ground before a hut and propped his head on his splayed hands.

An old man fed kindling to a central fire, murmuring a chant under his breath.

A hand pressed Eoban’s shoulder. “Resting?”

Eoban stared at Barak in blank amazement. “I always rest after battle—especially after I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about my friends.”

The old man stepped back from the flickering flames, light chasing shadows across his wizened face.

Barak leaned casually on his spear and shrugged. “I met travelers in the north gathering men to assist us. When Luge heard of our need, he decided to join in. As we approached the village, I saw the danger of a direct attack and decided it was best to come in late and confront the enemy when they were exhausted.”

Eoban tilted his head at the irony of Barak’s thinking.

Barak nudged him in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. “It worked to good effect, don’t you think?”

Pursing his lips Eoban nodded. “Just about killed us, but yes.”

His arm bleeding and his clothes ragged, Obed limped forward. Without a word, he dropped to the ground, leaned against the shed, and shut his eyes.

Ishtar strode up, pointing north. “They’ll hide in the hills for a few days…but they’ll return.”

A man called. “Ishtar! Come!”

Without hesitation, Ishtar sprinted away.

Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. He waved his fingers airily. “Some of us are much too clean.”

His eyes widening, Barak sat next to Obed. “You think I should’ve rushed in to look heroic and been overwhelmed with everyone else?”

Eoban raised his hands in protest. “I’m too tired to argue. Wait till later.”

Obed groaned. “It’s like being back in the wilderness with you two all over again.”

Ishtar hustled back and stood before them, his eyes grave and serious.

Sitting up, nauseous and weary, Eoban lifted his gaze. “What?”

“The healers can’t stop Lud’s bleeding. We need Jonas and the other women.”

Barak slapped Eoban’s leg. “Let’s go.”

Struggling to his feet, Eoban glanced around. “Where’s Tobia?”

Turning in a circle, Ishtar’s eyes widened in alarm. “Last time I saw him, he was running—” He glanced north.

Obed moaned. “Could he have run into the enemy line?”

Barak shook his head, frowning. “He’s too smart for that.”

Bouncing a glance off Obed, Eoban looked away.

Ishtar stepped aside, gazing at the hills. “He must have had a reason.”

Trying to rise, Obed faltered. “I’ll go after him.”

“Sit still.” Eoban pressed Obed back to the ground. “You need to recover your strength.” Grimacing, he rubbed his back and faced the hills. Night slowly turned light into blackness. “I’ll be back before morning.”

“Barak’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t look too good yourself.”

“I never look good.” Eoban sucked in a deep breath and patted Barak on the back. “You’re a decent man, Barak. Remember I said that. It may come in useful. Besides, you and Obed need to get the women.” He waved his finger at them admonishingly. “No one is to follow me.” Hunch- shouldered and sick at heart, Eoban plodded away.

Ishtar stepped beside Eoban and matched his pace. “Except me.”

Eoban nodded in exhaustion. “Except you.

”We are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.” ~David Benioff

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty

What Evil Can Do

Obed felt sharp knots chafing his raw skin, burning like fire. Darkness and hot, moaning bodies surrounded him. Dried sweat mixed with dirt stiffened his face into a tight mask. His legs ached and his head throbbed. The hard ground pressed into his buttocks, while pinpricks of stars flickered in a cold, distant sky. He closed his eyes, resting his forehead on his knees.

The stone city and its shimmering temple rose in his mind’s eye, sending a chill over his arms. He thought of Ishtar, images flashing like lightning in a summer storm: Ishtar sitting with Joash around an evening fire, Ishtar standing over Neb’s bloody body, Ishtar helping to evacuate the burning village, Ishtar with crazed eyes holding a knife over Aram’s daughter. Obed’s throat tightened. “Oh, God! Ishtar, what possessed you?”

A woman’s cry startled him into wakefulness. He lifted his head and stared across the motley throng. A limp child lay like a discarded piece of clothing over the woman’s lap. She peered with her head bent low, murmuring soft words.

Another woman leaned in close, attempting to touch the child.

The mother jerked the baby away with a screech.

The child’s head lolled to the side, his eyes unnaturally wide, and his body unresisting.

Obed swallowed a hard lump in his throat.

The second woman made another attempt to rouse the infant and the mother slapped her hand. They quarreled. An interested guard sauntered near. Crouching on his haunches, deep ravines furrowing his brow, he tapped the baby’s cheek. Pursing his lips, he shook his head and muttered sharply at the woman.

She hugged the baby closer, wrapping the ragged cloth tighter around it.

Rising, the guard called to an older warrior who limped over. He scowled at the two women, plucked the baby from the startled mother, and carried it away.

With an animal-like howl, the mother jerked up, but the ropes crippled her. She fell to the ground, screaming.

The other woman, crying, patted the mother’s arm and pulled her into an embrace.

Obed watched the limping man drop the baby beside another unresponsive body and hurry to a cluster of warriors clamoring for strong drink.

The mother crumpled, burying her face in the other woman’s lap.

Curling into a ball, Obed rocked like a child, wishing for the comfort of his mother…or his wife. Or death itself.

~~~

Ishtar perched on the cliff edge and watched the yellow- pink sunrise. His whole body relaxed between the cool morning air and the smooth rock under him. Though his eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of the enemy, gratitude suffused his heart. He replayed the reunion between Amin and Caleb in his mind and smiled at how they both stood awkwardly for a moment before Caleb rushed into his brother’s arms. Nodding, Ishtar applauded his eldest son’s nature, especially when the boy’s sensitive heart broke all restraint and responded to undiluted love.

Ishtar sighed.

Footsteps padded near.

Ishtar waited.

Tobia circled around, plunked down on his right, and stretched out. He sniffed in a long breath and exhaled. “Refreshing, isn’t it?”

A grin bubbled up from Ishtar’s insides. “You’re in a good mood—better than I expected—considering everything.”

Staring straight ahead, Tobia shrugged. “I’m not in a good mood, just accepting things as they are. Mother is sick with worry over me and Obed.” He rubbed his nose. “But there’s little anyone can do until the enemy gets here.” He blinked. “I don’t even know if Obed is still alive, or if I’ll survive…”

Ishtar glanced sharply aside. “You’ll survive. The clan needs you, Tobia.”

Tobia met Ishtar’s gaze and held it a moment. With a shiver, he returned to the sunrise. “I wish they’d come, and we could get this over with.”

“The scouts say they are still almost a full day away. They won’t attack until they’re closer and have had a chance to rest before battle.”

Running his fingers through his hair, Tobia lurched forward. “I don’t know what I’ll do till then.”

With a grunt, Ishtar rose and stretched. “Well, I have something to do. I’ll leave you to coordinate with Lud and the rest of the clans.”

Frowning, Tobia climbed to his feet. “What’re you going to do?”

“Free Obed.”

Tobia choked. “You can’t! There isn’t time. You’ll be caught, and then the clan will only have Lud and me.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Let me go instead.”

Ishtar peered into Tobia’s eyes. “You’ve been prepared through great hardship for this trial. Think, Tobia. Your brother died because he chose what he thought was the braver path. But the bravest path of all is the one ordained through circumstance.” Ishtar sucked in a deep breath and stepped away from the cliff’s edge. “Stay here and be the leader your people need. I must free an innocent man.”

~~~

Ishtar crawled on his belly to the border of the enemy camp. Sweat dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away.

The sun shone bright but clouds hovered in the west. No hint of wind stirred the surrounding grasses.

Three hundred battle-hardened warriors hitched their gear together and strapped weapons to their belts, lacing them tight against the coming march.

Ishtar nodded, muttering under his breath. “You’ll arrive at twilight. Very clever.” He glanced around.

When his eyes fell on Obed, he sucked in a breath and a whirlwind of emotions struck him: shock, fear, and anger over what had been done to the man. The image of Obed in his prime—a strong and proud warrior—wrestled in his mind with what he saw now. Filthy and hunch-shouldered, Obed sat less than a stone’s throw away from Ishtar, but he would not be easy to rescue. He sat with his legs splayed out, his hands tied behind his back, and a rope strung between him and a line of men, women, and children.

Crawling on his elbows and knees, Ishtar slithered forward.

A man on Obed’s right glanced over, his eyes rounding at the sight of Ishtar.

Ishtar glanced from the guards only a few feet away to the man and lifted a finger to his lips.

The man continued to stare, his mouth dropping open. Without further thought, Ishtar scampered over the broken grass and hard-packed earth, wedging himself between the man and a drooping boy and pressed his knife against the ropes. “Please, make no sound. I’m here to rescue those I can.”

Closing his mouth and swallowing, the man glanced at the boy leaning on his arm. “Him first.”

Ishtar nodded. He scuttled closer and sawed at the boy’s ropes. The man watched, his gaze darting up and around every few moments like a sparrow. When the ropes fell slack, the man grunted and held out his hands. Ishtar gritted his teeth and maneuvered the knife into position.

As the last threads broke, Ishtar gripped the man’s arm, squeezing it hard and hissing his words. “Do nothing just yet. Pretend you’re still tied and don’t watch me. Keep your attention on your boy.”

The man nodded.

Crawling to Obed, Ishtar lifted his knife.

Obed glanced at Ishtar, his eyes widening in shock, and jerked away, pulling the ropes attached to his neighbor tight. Yelps of anger and distress rippled along the line.

His mind nearly numb with fear, Ishtar dropped and flattened his body into the crushed grass.

A warrior sauntered by, grunted, and moved on.

Lifting his gaze, Ishtar met Obed’s anxiety-ridden face. “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to free you. The whole clan is ready for attack.”

Licking his cracked lips, Obed’s eyes narrowed. “What clan?”

A frustrated whimper escaped Ishtar as he clenched the knife tighter and began sawing the rope fibers. “Your clan…my clan…our people.” He glanced at the warriors and then back at Obed. “This must be confusing, but please—by God—trust me and let me cut your ropes.”

Shouts rang through the camp, and the warriors began assembling into groups. Guards marched along the line, kicking the prisoners. “Get up! Time to move on. Hurry, you lazy mongrels.”

Fighting a cramp in his hand, Ishtar sawed the rope around Obed’s waist faster.

As the rope fell free, a warrior stomped by, flailing his arms. “To the fires with you! Get moving!”

Obed and Ishtar rose together, their gazes cast down.

As the guard turned to the next group, Ishtar pressed the blade against the ropes binding Obed’s hands. The prisoners shuffled forward. Ishtar kept pace, his eyes down, working frantically to break the fibers.

They passed over rough terrain dotted with rises and huge rocks. Ishtar cut the last remaining strings and yanked Obed aside, dragging him into the shaded crevice between two boulders.

Obed fell flat on his face and curled up into a ball.

Ishtar crouched close, shielding Obed’s body with his own and prayed for rain.

~~~

Obed started at the sound of drops splattering on the hard ground. He looked up and met Ishtar’s gaze. Then he rubbed his eyes. “I can’t believe—”

Ishtar grunted. “There were a few clouds on the horizon when I came. I’m grateful for the storm; it’ll help hide us…and our footsteps.”

Closing his eyes, Obed groaned, stretched, and rubbed his arms and legs. “That’s not what I meant.”

Darting a glance at the backs of the departing enemy, Ishtar pointed south. “If we head for the cliffs, we can hide in safety, and when they’re taking their rest, we can finish our journey and warn Lud and the others.”

Heavy with sarcasm, Obed chuckled. “Great plan.” With a grimace, he staggered to his feet.

Ishtar scanned the area again and started forward.

Watching Ishtar, memories flooded Obed’s mind: Ishtar holding a knife over Aram’s sleeping daughter, his death struggle with his wife, Haruz, and her bloody body lying in the dirt. Fury flushing through his aching body, Obed gripped Ishtar’s arm. “Wait! I’m not going anywhere until I understand how you, of all people, happen to be the one to rescue me.”

His eyes flashing, Ishtar glared at Obed and waved toward home. “You want me to explain—now? My sons, your wife, and children, Barak’s family—the whole clan is about to be attacked, and you want me to—”

Obed slammed Ishtar against the rock wall, blind fury burying all reason. “By the devil, I’ve been through too much to trust you now.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar lifted his hands in an attitude of surrender.

Jerking away, Obed faced the rain.

Dark clouds rumbled overhead, but patches of blue broke through in the west.

Opening his eyes, Ishtar shoved off the wall and spoke to Obed’s back. “I slipped into madness, encountered a nomad who cared for me better than I deserved, and regained a sense of decency.” Ishtar shrugged. “Perhaps I discovered a decency in me I never knew was there.”

Curling his lips through a sneer, Obed turned around and stared Ishtar in the face. “You didn’t have to sacrifice anyone?”

“I protected a father from the evil deeds of his sons.”

With his eyes fixed on Ishtar, Obed snorted. “Fate or justice?”

“It doesn’t matter. I did it for one simple reason.”

Obed waited, his teeth clenched so hard his jaw hurt.

“I loved the old man.”

A miserable chill seeped through Obed’s body.

“I understand your mistrust. But you have no idea what evil can do to a man—if he gets too close.”

A sob rose in Obed’s chest. “But I do.” Relaxing his fists, he straightened and started forward. “Let’s go home.”

“…the Dark cannot claim what Light does not surrender.” ~C.L. Wilson

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Eight

—Stone City—

Heart Sick

Obed’s mouth fell open as he tilted back his head and stared at the enormous, ornate structure. Guards stood posted at the entrance, letting him, Eoban, and Barak pass through without comment.

Inside, carvings covered the walls and statues populated the corners. Strange forms, various mixtures of human and animal, glared down at them. Murals decorated the ceiling and geometric tiles under their feet dazzled their eyes.

Sucking in a deep breath, Obed savored the experience. “Master craftsmen beyond imagination—”

Eoban tapped Obed’s lower jaw. “You’re drooling. Close your mouth before someone takes you for an idiot.” He nudged Barak. “Come over here. I think I see Haruz’s god.”

Heat flushing over his face, Obed pointedly ignored Eoban and Barak as they strolled out of sight.

As the afternoon sunlight filtered through the elongated windows near the ceiling, Obed wandered from room to room, his attention rapt and his admiration reaching new heights at every turn.

~~~

Barak’s hair prickled as he stared at one particularly grotesque figure, a man’s lower body attached to a scorpion’s upper half. He swallowed back bile and imagined his children’s terror. Murmuring under his breath, he came up beside Eoban. “Thank the stars we didn’t bring Amin to this place.”

Images of Ishtar and Haruz’s failed sacrifice flashed through Barak’s mind. Then, like waves on a stormy lake, memories of every battle he had fought thrust bloody gore before his wide-awake eyes. Shivering, he rubbed his clammy arms. He peered at Eoban. “I need air.” Hoping he didn’t look as terror-struck as he felt, Barak moved from room to room, zigzagging through the maze-like structure. Once beyond the guards and stepping into the bright sunshine, he gulped fresh air.

~~~

Eoban wandered aimlessly. He watched Barak hustle out, glad the man left before he turned any greener. Eoban started for the next interior entrance and hesitated, doubt clawing up his spine. He scowled. It’s not like I’ll get lost. He glanced at the guards wearing long colorful tunics on each side of the doorway. Must say, they dress well. He sighed and peered around. No sign of Ishtar.

Entering the next room, Eoban’s stomach plummeted to his toes. Around the room, larger-than-life stone carvings depicted half-human, half-animal beasts devouring grimacing human victims. Their silent screams sent terror shivering up his spine. His heart hammering, he glanced around. No table. No altar. No weapons. And most importantly, no victims. Eoban closed his eyes and muttered under his breath. “Time to join Barak. Sensible fellow.”

Bumbling passed a guard, he smacked into the wall.

The guard peered at him, irritation drawn across his furrowed brow.

Eoban lifted his hands. “Sorry. No harm done.” He hurried into the bright sunshine and pounded down the steep steps as fast as his legs could carry him.

~~~

Obed meandered in blissful silence, barely noticing the increase in activity and a chant wafting ever closer in a serpentine fashion through the temple. When horns blasted their shrill notes, he stopped and looked around.

The last of the visitors bustled through the doorway leading to the exit. He pursed his lips. An evening ceremony, perhaps?

With his hands clasped behind his back, Obed sauntered to the guard. “Can I stay and watch?”

Saying nothing, the guard merely retreated to a deeper interior.

Unruffled, Obed wandered back to a strange mural on the back wall and studied the interplay of colored stones and paint with the fading light.

Before he was done inspecting the mosaic, a tall elderly man with a thin beard padded toward him. Obed turned, ready to beg leave to watch to the ceremony.

“We’ve noticed your rapt attention and obvious admiration, so though we do not usually admit visitors, we’ll allow you to stay if you will do as you’re told.”

A sensuous pleasure swept over Obed.

The old man motioned ahead, and they paced through a series of doorways and down a long, dark hallway lighted only by torches fastened to the walls. At the end of the hall, a reflection of the setting sun poured into a huge interior room, sending shivers of delight over Obed. Seven men, including the old man, stood around the lip of a stone circle. He leaned forward, but in the fading light, he could not see what was in the center of the circle.

Chiming bells, unrecognizable chants, groans, gestures, flowing robes, and burning incense formed the bulk of a ritual Obed could not grasp. Confusion and weariness muddled his brain. Finally, an ornate goblet was passed and when it was offered to him, he took a tiny sip, swallowing a grimace from its bitter taste.

Unable to account for his reaction, a skin-crawling terror worked through Obed’s body. He shifted a step toward the entrance, panic pounding in his chest.

An undulating shadow rose from the circle, summoning Obed. In a dizzy half-awake stupor, he stepped forward, a deep hole, a cavernous death beckoning. Someone gripped his arm. Sweat dripped down his face. He could hear Jonas beseeching him, calling his name, “Obed!” Jerking, he flailed his arms.

As his grip slipped, the old man demanded, “Obey!”

A searing headache blinded him, but even without sight, Obed knew the distance to the door. He sped through the entrance, crashed against the wall, scrambled upright, and like a wounded animal, limped and clawed toward fresh air.

~~~

Eoban sat on the bottom step, his head in his hands. When Barak plunked down beside him, he sighed. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”

Barak nodded and peered over his shoulder. “How long before he comes out?”

A sour taste made Eoban wipe his lips. “So long as he doesn’t trip over a guard, turn into a statue, or fall into a black hole…” He shrugged and staggered to his feet, rubbing his back.

Barak rose and pointed to a public well and a cluster of food-sellers. He shuffled through the bag wound about his waist. “I’ve got a little to trade with.”

Eoban nodded. “Food and” —he pointed to a distant tree— “a rest.”

“Will Obed find us?”

Eoban chuckled and started forward. “After I get some sleep…I hope.”

Soon clouds rolled in and rain fell in sheets.

Eoban cursed under his breath and edged closer to Barak who slept peacefully under the spreading oak tree.

~~~

Obed scampered down the temple steps, his heart pounding, and raced across the city, zigzagging through the narrow streets like a wounded animal fleeing for its life. Sweat and rain poured down his face and into his eyes. He collided against a stone wall and fell in a heap. “Oh, God…oh, God.” Rain blanketed him as darkness swept all fear from his mind. Murmuring, he curled into a tight ball and fell into a tormented sleep.

~~~

Eoban, wet and exhausted, opened his blurry eyes and blinked.

Obed stood over him, swaying like a tree in a high wind.

Eoban slapped Barak’s sleeping form next to him. “Look who’s returned from his midnight merry-making with his temple brothers.” Clasping his hands over his knees, he peered up at Obed. “What? No festival leftovers? No tidbits for your hungry, wet, lonely friends?

Obed pointed to the main gate. “Let’s go.”

Groaning, Eoban stood, his mood turning as nasty as a wounded boar. “Couldn’t you even send a short message telling us you would be out . . . or rather in all night? I thought we meant more to you than to be left on the wayside by the first religious ceremony that came along.”

Rubbing the small of his back, Barak climbed to his feet and grimaced through a smile. “Glad to see you alive, Obed.” He shrugged. “I started to worry.”

Eoban rolled his eyes. “I was more worried we’d—”

Obed trotted away. “Ishtar’s not here. If he ever was—he’s dead now.”

Eoban leapt ahead and gripped Obed’s arm. “Wait a moment! We deserve an explanation.”

Glancing back at the temple, Obed shivered. “I have to leave—now!”

Smacking Eoban’s hand off Obed, Barak met Eoban’s gaze. “Let’s go.”

The three men trudged along the outer wall until they came to the main gate. Without ceremony, they passed through with a throng of merchants and herdsmen. As they reached the summit of the first hill, Barak peered over his shoulder at the stone city glinting in the morning sun. He glanced at Obed who had halted, his hand tapping nervously at his side. “They perform sacrifices there—don’t they?”

Obed swallowed and stared ahead. “Yes.” He turned and sprinted in the direction of the mountains.

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, and they started after Obed shoulder to shoulder.

Eoban shook his head as he ran, his eyes burning and his heart clenched tight.

Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. ~Mahatma Gandhi

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Three

—Mountains and Stone City—

Beyond Mere Barbarism

Eoban plodded behind Luge. Two of Luge’s men flanked him on either side, while Obed and Barak trailed behind. Dark pine trees shaded their path, though bright sunlight filtered through in splotches and slashes. Shadows and light chased each other among the overarching branches. Suddenly, the line of trees stopped abruptly as if a decree had forbidden them beyond an invisible point.

The men crossed the line in silence, leaving the cool green ceiling and the soft mats of brown needles behind.

Obed hissed a deep breath between his lips. “Here comes the hard part.”

Luge tromped ahead over gravelly soil, his gaze cast down, his brows wrinkled.

Barak, too, strode forward but looking ahead, not down. A scowl rose across his forehead, warning of unnamed trouble.

As they wedged themselves between great shoulders of the mountains, Eoban noticed every detail of his surroundings. The sun grew bright and hot, and he wiped away the sweat beading on his face. All bird song faded into the background, leaving an oppressive silence, except for the scuffling of their feet over loose sand. Vultures circled overhead, sending a shiver over his arms. He swallowed. We should go back. But he knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

Barak stumbled.

Eoban turned. “You all right?”

“Thinking of home.”

Frowning, Eoban waved a dismissive hand. “Not a good idea.”

Obed jogged forward, a flush rising over his face. “Not a good idea?” He jabbed Eoban’s shoulder. “You’d advise a married man not to think about his wife and children?”

Eoban picked up the pace, nearly running into Luge. He shrugged Obed away. “No use tormenting himself. He’ll get home when he gets home.” Eoban stopped short. “Besides, I thought you wanted to see fresh lands…experience new things.”

A sparkle glinted in Obed’s eyes. “I do. But that doesn’t mean I’m rude to others.”

Eoban glanced and held Barak’s gaze. “You’re really all right?”

Barak shrugged. “I was tormenting myself.” He wiped his brow and glanced ahead. “How much further?”

Luge, flanked by his men, stopped in the distance. He pointed ahead.

Eoban, Obed, and Barak hustled closer.

They stood, enchanted, and peered over a valley shimmering white and gold in the brilliant summer light. A vast blue expanse stretched over rippling waves of sand.

Set on a distant hill, a walled stone city rose into the sky like a child’s toy ready to be plucked from the earth.

Luge set his jaw, his gaze never straying from the city. “Let’s eat before we seal our fate.”

~~~

Eoban patted his contented stomach as he padded over the sand to the main gate.

Crowds bustled through the narrow entrance with guards asking questions and checking wares. Thick, rectangular open windows in the upper stories built directly into the wall allowed Eoban to perceive new depth to the city. Flashes of colored clothing swept beyond the gate. Glimpses of tables piled high with trade goods set his heart pounding.

Like an exuberant child, Eoban led the way, with Luge and his men falling behind Obed and Barak.

Armed soldiers dressed in long tunics and carrying spears strutted down narrow alleyways crisscrossing the main artery through town.

A cacophony of voices—men calling their wares, women hustling noisy children, goats bleating, birds squawking—tingled Eoban’s ears.

Luge’s labored breathing warned of his anxious state of mind, so Eoban stopped and waited for him to catch up.

Obed hurried next to his clansman and clutched his sleeve like an over-excited child.

Eoban pulled free. “Would you let me be? I feel like my mother is trying to keep me tied to her skirt.”

Obed released Eoban’s sleeve, his wide eyes roaming the scene. “Sorry, I didn’t—It’s just . . .”

“You’ve hardly ever traveled, remember? I’m the one who talked you into this.” A chuckle bubbled inside. “Think of what you’d have missed if you stayed at home.” Eoban surveyed the bustling crowds. “It’ll take every bit of our skills to describe this.”

Obed shook his head. “No one’ll believe us.” He turned in a circle, his arms flapping at his sides. “We’d have to invent new words.”

Barak swung his bag high over his shoulder and leaned toward Eoban. “Question is—how are we going to search this city and not attract attention to ourselves?”

With a splutter, exasperation killed Eoban’s joy. “Do I have to show you everything? Come on. Do what I say and don’t talk too much!”

Obed exchanged an uneasy glance with Barak.

Luge dropped his gaze, groaning.

A burly guard started forward, his eyes narrowing into hard glints. “Where’re you from, and where’re you bound?”

Huffing like an overwrought trader ready for hearth and home, Eoban threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest. “I’ve been in the mountains and am returning home with my goods.” He waved at Luge, his men, Obed, and Barak.

The glint in the soldier’s eyes testified to his suspicious nature. “Why aren’t they tied?”

Eoban leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re terrified of me. Already whipped one for rudeness.” He tilted his head in Obed’s direction.

The guard chewed on this, glanced at Eoban’s empty hands, and considered the assembly. “They hardly look fit to trade—much less escape.” After scratching the side of his jaw, he spat on the ground not far from Eoban’s feet.

Eoban clenched his jaw.

Another guard ambled near and called out. “Better hurry or Gerard’ll give your rations to the dogs.”

With a quick wave, the guard sent Eoban on his way and marched along the wall.

Eoban marched forward, grinning. He glanced at Obed. “See that wasn’t so—”

Suddenly, a piping voice called out from among the raucous din. “You’re too late if you want to sell your wares today!” A chubby, red-cheeked youth weaved through the crowd, a grin plastered on his round face.

Turning to his new advisory, Eoban thrust his palm over his heart. “Me? Sell? Oh no, I’ve just bought these prizes. I’m looking for a place to rest for the night. You wouldn’t know of any decent accommodations?”

The boy’s eyes widened. “They aren’t even bound. How are you going to keep slaves all night?” He glanced around. “Where’re your men?”

Eoban attempted to pat the boy’s head, but the youth kept his distance. “I know how to manage my own property. I’ll tie them up good and tight.”

“With what?”

A storm brewing in his chest, Eoban boomed a hearty laugh. “Stop worrying! I’ll manage.” He glared at the boy. “Now, what about a place to rest?”

“You’ll pay?” The boy’s gaze measured Eoban appreciatively.

“Everything you deserve. I assure you.” Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. “Just point me in the right direction.” The boy led them through crooked passages to a wide street and a wine seller’s door. “My father lives here. He’ll put you up for the night if you have something worthy to offer.” His gaze roved over the assembly. He pointed at Barak. “How about that one there? My father needs a new man, someone who’ll survive his beatings.”

Barak glared in mute fury.

Eoban rubbed his hands together and offered his most ingratiating smile. “Well…that might be a possibility. If he gives me any trouble tonight, we’ll work something out.”

Barak lifted his hand. “I’m not going to—”

Luge suddenly lunged forward. “My son! I see my son!”

Eoban twisted around, scanning the bustling throng.

Barak unceremoniously shoved the boy to the side and nudged Luge forward. “Go! Follow him.” He glanced at Eoban. “Find you later.”

Eoban spluttered.

The youth’s face blazed.

Luge and Barak darted into the crowd.

The boy cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed. “Runaway! Runaway!”

Plastering his hand over the boy’s mouth, Eoban waited until Luge and Barak were out of sight. He pulled his hand away and wiped it on his tunic, peering at the boy. “Sorry, but I’d rather you not tell anyone about my…embarrassing situation. I know those men. They’ll be back.”

The boy glared, a flush working up his face and his hands perched on his hips.

Eoban leaned in and met the boy’s glare head-on. “They want to see their families again.” He shrugged like an old hand in the slave business. “The big man often thinks he sees his son, but the other one knows to bring him back.” Pursing his lips, he glanced at sign decorated with purple grapes hanging over the wine seller’s door.

The boy’s eyes narrowed, but he bowed in exaggerated friendship. “Certainly. Let me introduce you to my father. He’ll enjoy hearing all about your adventures—and slaves who run away and come back of their own accord.”

~~~

Eoban awoke from a deep slumber, scratching his tousled hair and rubbing sleep from his eyes. By the stars, I thought I’d died and— A cooing sound turned his attention. He rose from his pallet and peered at the nearby figures. Snoring affirmed what he already suspected. The father and son were sleeping. Tiptoeing, he slipped out of the wine seller’s house.

After rounding the corner, he called. “Barak?”

Barak hissed. “Here.”

Like a blind man, Eoban reached out and slapped Barak’s arm. “Where’ve you been? I had to make up a thousand tales to tell that fool of a boy and his father. I thought they’d get tired and fall asleep like normal people, but no. They wanted nothing more than to stay up half the night and hear me tell one lie after another.”

Barak snorted. “Should’ve felt right at home.”

“On the contrary. I wanted to bolt out their hospitable door and save my sanity. I’ve never been asked so many stupid questions in all my life.” Eoban’s voice simpered as he clasped his hands. “‘How many wives do you have? Where do your ancestors sleep? Have you built your tomb yet? What artisans do you employ?’ I would’ve liked to build their tombs—”

“Shhh!” Barak waved like a bat ready for takeoff. “Thank you for sharing. I’m fine. Your concern for my welfare is heartwarming. So glad you enjoyed yourself while I risked my life reuniting a father and son.”

Mild surprised caught Eoban off guard. “Luge found his son?”

“Not at first. He did see a boy about the right size and age, but when we caught up, he realized it wasn’t the right boy. The boy did, however, know of a training ground. He’d also been taken from his family and was inclined to help us. At the training ground, we found a group of slaves, and Luge’s son was among them. We managed to get near enough to speak to him. It took an ingenious plot on my part and a great deal of luck, but we got his son separated from the others, and Luge stole him back. They’re heading to the mountain pass.” Barak gestured to the inn. “Tell his men to go after them.”

Muttering under his breath, Eoban returned inside, tiptoed to the back of the dwelling, shook Luge’s men awake, untied their ropes, and hustled them outside to Barak, who gave them instructions.

Returning to Barak’s side, Eoban propped his hands on his hips.

Barak stroked his chin. “You’ll have to come up with a few more lies to explain the loss of your slaves.”

Eoban clapped Barak on the shoulder. “Not if we leave now. I’m in no mood—”

“You’re forgetting someone.”

With more muttering, Eoban traipsed inside, untied Obed, and shoved him awake.

Once outside, the three jogged away.

Obed huffed as he trotted. “There’s a certain ironic freedom in being a slave, but would you mind telling me what’s going on? I’ve been tied up for hours.”

As the three men hurried along an empty thoroughfare, a streak of pink light appeared on the horizon. They turned right on a side street, jogged between myriad closed shops, and then at a wide intersection, turned left, searching for the main gate. Eoban clenched his jaw at the sight of people stirring at their doors.

Lanky dogs slunk to the shadows, as pigs, a loose goat, and a variety of scrawny hens scuttled out of their way.

As they entered a rougher, older part of the city, they slowed to a gentle amble.

Half-naked children appeared and stared through wide eyes. The stone streets turned to hard-baked clay, and the homes diminished to nothing more than waddle huts thrown up against the walls of the city.

Peasants in simple wool and leather garments shuffled by with downcast eyes.

Barak sighed. “I can breathe again.”

Eoban nodded through a huff. “I’ve been living in a nightmare. That father and son—”

Obed turned, his mouth dropping open. “You think you can judge them? I heard a great deal as I sat there tied up like a sack. These people have rituals for everything— traditions that go back through generations. Men support more than one wife, they make wonderful trade goods, and their building skills surpass—”

Eoban halted and stared at Obed.

Obed stared back.

Averting his gaze, Eoban pointed to a grove of trees hovering on the edge of a meandering stream, which flowed down a gentle slope. He started away. “There’s a good place. I’m going to get a drink and a rest before I deal with you.”

Obed laughed. “Everyone who doesn’t see the world through your eyes needs to be dealt with, is that it?”

Barak groaned under his breath.

Each man took a long drink and soon found a soft spot under a large spreading tree.

Obed propped his head on his arm and stretched his legs. “I heard what you told Eoban about Luge, but tell me, Barak, how did you manage to get the boy away?”

With a grin, Barak shrugged. “I hate to say. It was nothing really. I just asked him where we should meet, and he pointed out a place. As the moon rose, we went to the spot and waited. When he reappeared, we walked away.”

Obed frowned. “No one was watching?”

“No one dares to cross the desert. After a time of mourning, most people simply accept their fate. The chains weren’t so strong—just never tested.”

“You mean other slaves could have walked away, but they never tried?”

Barak nodded. “The strongest chains are in the mind.”

Shoving himself upright, Eoban clapped his hands free of dirt. “Well, that’s a good deed done. Now, Obed, I’ve a few words—”

Obed waved his hand in protest. “Spare us your judgments. So, you’re blind to the magnificence all around you, who cares?”

Feeling like he’d been slapped, Eoban rubbed his jaw. “You have a way of saying things that make the most peaceable man want to knock you down. I wonder how Jonas stands it.”

Obed grinned, darting a glance from Barak to Eoban. “She loves me.”

Eoban snorted. “That’s about what it would take!” He rose and stretched. “Still, I think it’s you who are blind.

These people are not great—”

Shooting to his feet, Obed jerked his hand in the direction of the city. “Have you no eyes?”

Eoban crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “The people who live there now are the recipients of other men’s intelligence and hard work. Slaves’ sweat and broken backs make their lives possible.” He stepped closer and peered narrowly at Obed. “They spend time comparing the softness of their clothes, how the colors strike their eyes, and how they feel when reclining on one pillow rather than another.” He lifted his hands as if imploring the sky to bear testimony. “Weak with madness, they are.”

“The city is well managed. There are guards and warriors in numbers beyond count defend them. They have a well- developed system of trade, buildings for communal storage, magnificent homes for the rulers, and—if you didn’t notice—an ornate temple for their god.” Obed shook his head. “I doubt our clans could do as much over generations.”

Eoban dismissed Obed with a wave. “Why would I want to be like them? Did you learn nothing from Neb and Ishtar? No society can live long when it’s built on cruel force.”

“Cruel force? You know how many clans live in idle waste and make useless war on each other. Here, at least every man builds to some purpose.”

Eoban shook his head as if to clear water from his ears. He turned, peering at Barak while pointing at Obed. “Who am I talking to?”

Barak frowned at his clasped hands. “I’m not sure.”

Obed laughed and stomped away. “Stop! So, I’m impressed with these people! I’m amazed that you two are too blind to appreciate the grandness of their design and execution. This city values its artists. They can ponder such novelties such as clothing design and pillow comfort because they have time to do so. They’re not sweating for every mouthful or worrying about how to keep their children alive. They’ve moved beyond the barbarism of mere survival.”

Barak straightened and stared at Obed’s back. “There is much to be said for the ‘barbarism of mere survival.’ I work hard to feed my children, but I still have time to think. Is it acceptable to you that this city’s grandness is paid for by the forced separation of a father and son? Would you let Onia be taken so that others might enjoy their art?”

Obed leaned on the tree and chewed his lip. “You’re right in this point, of course. But you can’t deny—they’ve built some marvelous works.”

Eoban snorted. “Anything built on blood is bloody, and I don’t admire bloody things!”

Barak lifted his hands. “We have yet to look earnestly for Ishtar in the city. One more day, and we’ll head home.”

Obed glanced at the towering temple that rose above the city walls. He sighed. “Agreed.”

Eoban felt his stomach fall into a black pit. “Agreed.”

“They have a Right to censure, that have a Heart to help: The rest is Cruelty, not Justice.”  ~William Penn

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