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 Eleven

—Mountains—

Providence of God

Tobia tried to sound curious. “So, where do we go next?” Peering blankly ahead, Vitus frowned. “I’m thinking, you stupid oaf! If you’d be quiet, I might be able to come up with a solution to this problem!”

Tobia bit his lip. I knew it. We’re lost.

Vitus tapped his foot and scratched his head. “I’ve been through here before, but someone’s changed things.”

Choking on a snort, Tobia clenched his hands. Changed what? The trees? He exhaled a long breath and stared at the woods before, beside, and behind him. No path. No village. No sign that a human being had ever trekked through this wilderness before. “Maybe we should go back to the last village and—”

Vitus swung around and glared at Tobia. “Those idiots don’t know anything. Scoundrels. Worse than slinking wolves. They would’ve robbed us if given a chance.”

Tobia closed his eyes to the memory of Vitus shuffling up to the village leader, his gaze darting every direction, and stumbling through a request to speak to the clan. A shiver ran down his spine. A rough shake made him blink back into the world.

“Don’t think you can take a nap. We’ve got a long way to go today.”

Always a long way. But we never get anywhere.

Vitus swung his loaded bag over his shoulder and started tromping to the right. He stopped short and turned to the left.

Tobia lopped along beside, peering out of the corner of his eye at Vitus. He’s more than lost. He’s terrified. He ducked under a hanging branch.

“Ouch!”

Tobia stumbled to a halt and looked up.

Vitus stood frozen in the middle of a briar patch. A vine of sharp nettles clung to his hairy arm.

Tobia swallowed. A veritable wall of needles blocked their path in nearly every direction. “I guess we’d better —”

With a grunt, Vitus slipped his knife from his belt and began hacking.

Tobia’s throat went dry. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Vitus grunted and swore as he hacked right and left, sweat dripping down his arms and legs.

Tobia stood his ground. “You’ll only get—”

“Oh, by the gods! It’s got me.”

After inching forward, Tobia stopped behind Vitus and peered over his shoulder. “Oh, Creation of God.”

Blood seeped from uncountable scratches and cuts as thorns and vines gripped Vitus’ arms and legs. “Demon woods!” Vitus tried to shake loose but screamed with the effort.

“Stop! You’re only making it worse.” Tobia carefully and painstakingly pinched each vine and tugged it to the side.

Vitus fumed and whimpered.

Finally free, Tobia gripped Vitus by the arm and helped steer him backward, clearing the way as they went.

Once out of the brambles, Vitus threw himself on the ground and covered his face with his hands, groaning.

Tobia’s gaze lifted from the pathetic figure to the glimmers of the sun through the branches. The sun had lowered considerably since they halted for their mid-day meal. He sighed. “I think I left something back at the last village. Would you mind if we retraced our steps, so I could enquire about it?”

Vitus lifted his arm and peered at him in a grieved manner as if Tobia were the stupidest boy on the earth, but he rolled to his side and staggered to his feet.

“It is getting late, and I don’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere with you crying your head off over some little thing.”

Tobia grimaced and turned around.

After some time, they ended up back in the village they had left that morning. Tobia strode to a woman he recognized. “Hello, my name is Tobia. We were here this morning, offering trade goods.” He flashed an embarrassed smile. “I accidentally left something behind. May I look for it?”

The woman nodded. “Certainly, Tobia. My name is Kamila. I’ll help you look. What was it?”

“Oh, uh…something my father made for me before he died. My mother will be so—”

Kamila smiled and lifted a hand. “Say no more. I understand.”

As they searched across the village and in the various dwellings they had visited that morning, Kamila asked Tobia about his family, and he described the members of his clan like warriors from songs of old.

When they came to the end of their search, Kamila perched her hands on her hips and frowned. She stood before Tobia in the village center and shook her head. “I hate to say you’ve lost it for good, but it’s certainly not here.”

Tobia shrugged. “It may turn up yet.” He glanced at Vitus sitting under a tree in the distance, chewing moodily on a crust of bread. “Perhaps Vitus packed it up with the trade goods and forgot.”

Kamila squinted at Vitus. Her mouth pursed in distaste.

Tobia stepped between Vitus and Kamila, blocking her view. He peered into her lovely eyes. “You know, Vitus has had a very hard life. He lost his wife and entire family to sickness some years ago, but he’s carried on the trade despite his loss and suffering.” He glanced at the sky. God forgive me.

Kamila tipped her head and leaned so as to peer around Tobia at Vitus. She smiled.

Tobia glanced over his shoulder.

Vitus met Kamila’s gaze. He sat up straighter.

Kamila swung around Tobia and sauntered over to Vitus.

Vitus scrambled to his feet.

Kamila extended her hands. “I’m sorry we were not more welcoming to you this morning.” She glanced aside and frowned. “There’s been trouble in the area, and it’s hard to know who to trust.”

Vitus, appearing very much like a rat caught in a trap, stared wide-eyed.

Tobia stepped to his side and locked on Kamila’s face. “It’s getting late. Is there any hope you could direct us to a safe place for the night?”

Kamila shifted her gaze to Tobia and smiled. “You’ll stay here, certainly. My family and neighbors would enjoy hearing about your people and adventures.”

Vitus’ mouth dropped open. His eyes shifted from Kamila to Tobia.

Tobia clamped his hand on Vitus’ shoulder as he spoke for both of them. “We’d be very happy to accept your invitation.”

~~~

Tobia sat next to Vitus as dusk settled into night. He rubbed his hands against the evening chill.

A short, stocky man with a thick beard and gray eyes, wearing a sleeveless tunic and a wide belt, sauntered near. He crossed his arms over his chest and peered first at Vitus and then at Tobia.

Tobia held his gaze.

“I’m Kamila’s brother, Remy.” He gestured to three other men assembled a short distance away. “We were hunting earlier. She told us about you.” His gaze swept over Vitus again, and he scratched his chin. “She’ll bring dinner out soon, but in the meantime, you can tell us about yourselves and your people.”

Vitus lifted his head and opened his mouth, but Tobia gripped his hand, squeezing hard. “I’d be happy to.”

Describing the best parts of their clan’s nature and leaving out everything to their disadvantage, Tobia retold the story of Neb’s invasion, the great drought, the terrible fire, and Ishtar’s madness and exile.

The entire village assembled in a ring around the flickering fire as Tobia regaled them with the tales. Kamila brought venison, fruit, and stewed roots.

Vitus ate with alacrity, only glancing up now and again to grunt in agreement with something Tobia said.

His belly full and his story told, Tobia wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, sighing in gratitude and relief.

Remy chuckled. “You’ve told a wonderful tale, young man. Any ancient would be proud of such a recital.” He glanced at the throng, his gaze lingering on his sister, Kamila, longer than the rest. “But I should warn you, there’s been trouble around here of late.” He wiped his hands on his tunic. “There’re men who say they’ve come to trade, but instead they observe and later return to steal what they could not obtain through honest means.”

Tobia looked at the assembly. Weariness and sadness enveloped him. “I’m sorry. I can see why you didn’t trust us at first.” His gaze wandered to Vitus who was now leaning on a larger man, snoring in a deep slumber.

He rose and edged Vitus to the side so the villager could slip out from under Vitus’ weight.

Remy shook his head and wandered over. Together Tobia and Remy led the sleepy Vitus to a grassy spot under a tree.

Vitus grunted and curled up, laying his head on his arm.

After plucking Tobia’s sleeve, Remy gestured back to the circle of firelight.

Many clansmen and most of the women shuffled off to their evening duties and their own beds.

Remy perched on a log next to Tobia. “That sleeping fool can’t help you through your travels.” He glanced at Vitus slumbering form, little more than an outline of a shadow in the darkness. “Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it behooves me to tell you that you have aligned yourself with either a wicked deceiver or an incompetent idiot.” He clasped his hands over his knees. “That man knows nothing about trading.”

Tobia sighed. “I realize that—now.”

Remy shook his head. “How could your father let you go with such a fool?”

“He believed his wonderful stories. Somehow, Vitus managed to succeed when he followed in the footsteps of other clansmen. But this time, he thought he’d find his own way and start his own trade routes.”

“That man” —Remy pointed to the snoring figure— “is no more capable of good business than a fish of walking about on land.” Remy shook his head. “Take a word of advice. Go home and leave him to find his own way.” He shrugged. “He might live.” Remy met Tobia’s eyes. “But at least, you’ll survive.”

Warm gratitude flooded Tobia. Someone actually cared about him. After Vitus’ abuse, it felt like a gentle rain after a severe drought. He stood, stretched, and peered at Remy.

“I trust in the providence of God. We’ll make it home again. I agreed to this journey, now I must see it through.”

Remy glanced into the night sky. “Perhaps your coming was ordained from on high.” He stood and pressed Tobia’s hand in his own. “I hope we meet again.”

Tobia nodded and glanced at Kamila’s dwelling in the distance. “Me too.”

~~~

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
– Confucius

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