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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