—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.
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.”
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.”
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.” ~
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