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 Twenty-Six

—Mountains and Valleys—

Following in Their Footsteps

Ishtar and Tobia climbed hills, trudged through mountain passes, and marched day after hot, sticky day, rarely talking and never smiling.

When the outline of a village rose in the distance, Tobia pointed and cleared his throat. “Maybe, we’ll finally enjoy a little hospitality.”

A memory of the reception he received from Lud’s clan flashed through Ishtar’s mind. He stumbled, righted himself, and swallowed. “That’d be a welcome change.”

As they drew near, Tobia wrinkled his nose. “What’s that awful stench?”

Ishtar froze, then his arm jerked out and he gripped Tobia’s sleeve. “Wait here a moment.” He jogged ahead and circled the first hut. Oh, God! Bile rose in his throat as he stared at the remains of a massacre.

Stagnant blood pooled on the ground and splattered across the dwellings. Snarling dogs chewed on unnamed bones.

His stomach heaving, Ishtar ran to a grassy bank and soon retched the contents of his stomach.

Tobia jogged forward, laid his hand on Ishtar’s back, and turned away. His voice fell to a whisper. “I would too—if I had anything in me.”

Wiping his mouth, Ishtar clenched his jaw and straightened. “Sorry. I should be stronger—with all I’ve seen.” He shook his head. “But it was a shock.”

Tobia crept forward, his hand over his mouth and nose. “You think anyone’s still alive?”

Ishtar moved stealthily into the village. “There’s only one way to find out.”

As they searched through the primitive village, a groan rose in the air. Ishtar quickened his pace.

A skinny, toothless old man lay near a grass hut. A bloody cut on his leg, purple bruises on his face, and the way he cradled his left arm told the tale of recent events.

Tobia glanced around. “You know more about healing, so you can tend to him while I see if I look for others.”

Ishtar knelt at the old man’s side and helped him to sit up.

The old man snatched at Ishtar’s sleeve. “Water!”

A jug near a doorway caught Ishtar’s eye. He grabbed it and jogged around the village, a sour taste still burning in his mouth. A creek bubbled in the distance. He filled the jug, slaked his own thirst, and returned to the old man.

The old man’s hands shook as he slurped great mouthfuls. He wiped his lips with the back of his trembling hand and nodded. “Thank you.”

“What’s your name?”

“Wael. I was the patriarch of this ruined village.”

Leading a dark-skinned, wrinkled old woman and another old man, Tobia wandered back to Ishtar. “I found a few others too weak to rise, but with water and food, they’ll soon recover.”

Ishtar passed the jug to the newcomers and stood, surveying the scene. “Raiders must’ve killed the men and taken the women and children.”

Tobia pointed to the rummy-eyed elders crouching near at hand. “Why leave them?”

Ishtar shrugged. “They’re no threat and no use. It was easier to get what they wanted and leave.”

One old woman groaned. “I wish I were dead.”

Wael shook his head as he surveyed the bodies shriveling in the sun. “Who’ll bury them?”

Ishtar glanced at Tobia, and they shared an understanding gaze.

~~~

Tobia relished the cool breeze of evening. Rubbing his aching back, he returned from the burial duty and stood before the strongest of the old women. He wiped his sweaty brow. “We need something to eat.”

Her limbs shaking, the old woman rose and limped to a ramshackle hut on the outskirts of the village. Glancing aside, she peered at Tobia. “My name’s Olna, and I be the oldest living member of the clan…not much to boast of now, I know. But—” She ambled inside.

Tobia waited, rubbing grit from his eyes.

Wood scraped across dirt and a labored grunt rose.

“If you want to eat, come help me, boy.”

Tobia crossed over the threshold and found Olna leaning on a sturdy table.

“Move it over there.” She pointed to the east wall.

Dutifully, Tobia shoved the table aside and watched Olna rip a covering of wood from the back wall. From a deep hole, she tugged a large, tightly woven basket. Tobia gripped the handle and pulled it into the light. “What’s this?”

“Our salvation.” Olna grinned a nearly toothless smile. “I’ve seen my share of attacks, and we old women know to keep precious things well hidden.”

Flipping back the basket lid, Tobia’s heart sang. Uncounted packets lay before his eyes like a sparkling stream to a thirsty man. He lifted one and unwrapped the leaves. Inside, grain the color of honey glistened, sending his stomach into spasms and his mouth-watering. “Thank God.”

Olna nodded. “And you can thank me, too, while you’re at it. No one remembers the old ways and tucks good food aside for bad times—no one but Old Olna.”

Tobia wrapped his arm around the old woman and gently hugged her shoulder. “I thank you, indeed.”

~~~

Ishtar clasped his hands before his face and pondered the melancholy assembly before him. They were fed for the moment. But their slim resources would not last long. He peered at Olna as she perched on a bench outside her family hut, her hands still, and her gaze unfocused. “What’ll you do now, Olna?”

Olna’s head lifted a fraction. “What is there now but to die?”

Three old men and two other women crouched around a meager fire. Wael shook his finger at her. “Die then, old woman, but the rest of us” —he waved at other survivors— “we’ve a mind to live yet a little longer.”

Shrugging, Olna turned her gaze to the food basket. “You go on then, Wael, and farm the land, scare up some meat, and pick rations to last us through the season.”

Frowning, Wael rose and shuffled to a hut. He grabbed the shovel leaning against the wall. “I’ll start now. Don’t think I can’t.”

Ishtar rose and glanced at Tobia, who wrapped a wet cloth around the injured arm of one old man. “You won’t survive here, alone. You’ll have to come with us.”

Olna shook her head. “I don’t know that I can leave them…” She peered at the mounds in the distance. “You buried them, but someone should watch over their remains and pray for their spirits.”

Wael leaned on the shovel, his eyes glistening. “They would want us to survive.” He slapped the shovel. “What else did they fight for…but to have someone live…and remember them?”

Tobia stepped forward. “We’ll place markers around the mound so that anyone coming through will know of them. Though many perished, they were not forgotten.”

Ishtar rose and stepped toward the first hut. “We’ll leave tomorrow. But before then, let’s gather everything useful—anything you wish to take.” He glanced at the setting sun. “Time passes, and we need to move on.”

Tobia bit his lip. “Where do you think the raiders have gone?”

Ishtar sucked in a deep breath. “That’s what I’m afraid to find out.”

~~~

Tobia shared the last of the grain with Olna and the assembly on the third evening of their journey. Everyone settled around a small fire, exhausted after a hard day’s march through thick grass under a warm sun.

Olna chuckled as she swished the grains in her mouth, softening them before swallowing.

Startled, Tobia nudged her with his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

After wiping her lips, Olna smiled and stared at the pink horizon. “My granddaughter loved to sit in my lap and hear the old stories. She was never content until I told at least three.” She lifted three fingers to clarify and shook her head, her grin fading. “Ay, but there’s no one to remember them now.”

With a sigh, Tobia shrugged. “Perhaps you can tell them to our children. Though they belong to another clan, we’re all related in some measure, created by the same God. The stories belong to all of us—do they not?”

Tears slipped down the old woman’s face. “But there’s few of us old ones left. Those brutes will attack the next village soon.”

Jerking upright, Tobia glanced from Ishtar back to the woman. “You know where they’re heading?”

“Though they spoke poorly, they questioned us about the nearest clans. We refused to answer…until forced. But the dogs learned what they wanted. This final conquest will be their greatest triumph, they said—”

Rising, Ishtar stepped closer, knelt, and peered into the old woman’s eyes. “What direction?”

Olna shrugged. “We’re following in their footsteps, I think.” Heaving a miserable sigh, she shuddered. “They’re far from their homeland…but the leader said they’d soon turn back.” She wiped away her tears. “Won’t be soon enough for those in their path.”

Tobia gripped Ishtar’s shoulder. “Could they be heading—?”

Ishtar shook his head. “There’s not much between us and home—nothing to turn them aside.”

Tobia leapt to his feet, his stomach churning. “We must warn them!”

Meeting Tobia’s gaze, Ishtar nodded. “Yes, we must.”

Heart pounding, Tobia reached for his staff. “I’ll leave right away.”

Ishtar grabbed his arm. “You were lost and starved, wandering in the desert not long ago.” He glanced at the old people hunch-shouldered and clearly afraid. “They trust you—they need you.” He retrieved his own staff. “I’ll go.”

A ripple of terror washed over Tobia. “But, Ishtar, you’re the enemy—remember?”

With a clenched jaw, Ishtar faced the setting sun. “Not anymore.”

Barely controlling his trembling limbs, Tobia watched Ishtar sprint into the diminishing horizon. Vitus’ face rose like a specter in his mind. Tears blinded him.

Olna patted his arm. “He’s a strong man, that one. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe.”

Tobia’s throat constricted. “It’s not him I’m worried about.”

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” ~T. S. Eliot

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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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