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 Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

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

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

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

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

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

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

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

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

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

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

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

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

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

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

Obed grinned.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

A groan swelled on his right.

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

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

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

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

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

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

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

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

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

A scream tore through the night air.

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

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

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

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He ran faster.

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

Beyond Mortal Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He staggered on.

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

Tears trickled down his face.

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

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

Thirst tormented him.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

It would not budge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar closed his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.

Ishtar stumbled inside.

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar frowned.

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

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

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

He trembled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“

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

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