OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Four

You’re Not God

Ishtar entered Jonas’ dwelling and peered through the slanting rays of golden light. His attention wandered from a half-eaten meal of barley bread with roasted fish to a sharp carving knife resting on a piece of wood. No wood shavings littered the floor.

Tobia slept curled up on his pallet, his chest barely stirring, though his bruised face still showed the marks of recent events. The bandages wrapped around his hand and arm told the tale of wounds he took in the battle.

Jonas tiptoed up to Ishtar and lifted a finger to her lips.

With a nod of understanding, Ishtar backed over the threshold.

Jonas followed.

Strolling to the shady side of the house, Ishtar perched on the bench. “Where’s Obed?”

Flicking a glance to the distant hills, Jonas wrinkled her brow. “He’s helping a shepherd who can’t keep track of his sheep.”

Amusement coursed through Ishtar as he remembered his own flock on the other side of the distant mountains. “Sheep are not always as compliant as one might think. There are some…” His gaze drifted away.

Jonas drummed her fingers on the stout framework of the house. “Something is upsetting Tobia.” She jutted her chin toward the hills. “Anxiety weighs him down.”

“Even when we live beyond a trial, the horror still clings to us.”

Squinting, Jonas shaded her eyes from the bright sun. “But you defeated your enemy when you killed your father and again when you killed Chai.” She bit her lip. “Tobia suffers from an enemy he can’t defeat.”

Irritation flushed through Ishtar. “I didn’t defeat my father or Chai. They succumbed to the evil fate they created for themselves. I merely endured their self-destruction.” He rose and paced in front of Jonas. “Tobia faces the same enemy we all face: despair.”

Coming to a halt, Ishtar pointed to fresh grave mounds. “Men died defending us. Women lost their husbands and children lost their fathers. Though slaves were freed, many have no families to return to.” He glanced at Jonas. “Homes and villages can be repaired, but lost innocence can never be found again.”

Setting her jaw in a firm line, Jonas scowled. “You think I don’t know that?” She pointed to the great lake. “I lost Tobia’s father and my eldest son in the battle with the giants. Tobia was there. He’s known both evil and courage.” She shook her head and turned away. “But this time…”

Ishtar frowned. “What about his carving?”

Jonas shrugged. “Obed gave him a new knife and a beautiful piece of wood, but Tobia hasn’t touched them.” She flung her hands in the air. “He seemed so excited when he heard that Remy was here, asked to see him and smiled when they met. But then—”

A sudden memory riveted Ishtar in place—the first time he beheld a beautiful woman. He pursed his lips. “Tobia once mentioned that Remy has a very kind sister.”

Jonas met Ishtar’s gaze. “A woman?”

“Tobia is a man.”

Swallowing, Jonas leaned on the wall and slid onto the bench. “You think—?”

A shout in the distance turned their attention.

Eoban stood between Obed and Barak, calling, “Ishtar, Jonas, come say goodbye to Luge, the man who made our success possible!”

Ishtar held Jonas’s eye a moment and tipped his head.

Sucking in a deep breath, Jonas marched forward.

~~~

Tobia stirred and rubbed his bleary eyes. His stomach rumbled, and as he scratched his head, he became aware that someone else was in the room.

Ishtar sat in the doorway, carving a piece of wood. His piece of wood. Tobia sat up and frowned. “Obed gave that to me.”

Nodding, Ishtar’s gaze fixed on a long wood shaving that curled around the knife. “Jonas told me.”

Tobia bit his bottom lip. He glanced at the dish of bread. “I’m hungry.” He licked his lips. “And thirsty.”

With a shrug, Ishtar continued his work. “There’s wine in the jug and bread on the table.”

Mild complaints issued from his joints as he stood, but Tobia ignored them and hobbled to the food. He swiped the jug from the shelf, pulled out the stopper, and took a long swig. He eyed Ishtar. “What’re you making?”

“A boy.”

After smacking the jug on the table, Tobia ripped off a broken piece of flatbread and took a bite. He talked around a chew and stepped closer. “Why?”

“I am going to replace the son that Matalah lost.”

Tobia stared at Ishtar’s bowed head of shining black hair and snorted. “Matalah won’t laugh at your joke.”

Ishtar glanced up, his eyes wide with wonder. “I’m not joking.”

Tobia scowled and bit off another piece.

“I only want to heal a terrible injury. Is that wrong?”

Dropping the bread, Tobia slapped the wood out of Ishtar’s hand. “You can no more make a man than I can.”

“I made my sons.”

“Not from wood! And you didn’t make them. Your wife conceived them by the will of God.”

Picking up the wood with a disinterested shrug, Ishtar appeared to inspect it for flaws. “After I make Matalah a son, I’m going to make a new Vitus.”

Hot fury flushed Tobia’s face. “Damn you!”

After laying the wood and the knife aside in slow, precise motions, Ishtar stepped into the evening air.

As if pulled by a cord, Tobia followed. His breath jerked at the coolness, and he flushed with hot shame. “I—I didn’t mean that.” He stopped on the threshold. “You don’t understand. Nothing is funny to me. Everything hurts too much.” He closed his eyes. “I’ll never laugh again.”

A hand pressed on his shoulder, and Tobia opened his eyes.

Ishtar met Tobia’s gaze. “You’ll never love again?”

Shoving off the frame, Tobia hobbled across the compound toward the grave mounds by the rolling river.

Ishtar followed at an even pace.

When Tobia halted, a shiver spread over his body. “I’ve died inside. I’m old. Too old. I can’t marry and have children…because I already know how it’ll end. Some invaders will come. I’ll do battle and die. My sons will die. My wife and daughters will become enslaved or die of sickness or starvation—”

Ishtar clapped his hands together and gasped. “Tobia! Stop. You’ll depress the fish in the river, and I’ll want to kill myself before nightfall.” A grin played on his face.

Burning in rage, Tobia flung himself on Ishtar and beat his chest. “It’s not funny! Damn you—I mean it now. How can you joke?”

Ishtar grappled with Tobia. Clutching his arms to his chest and shoving Tobia’s back against a tree, he stilled his raging fury. “I’m not laughing at you, Tobia. Only at the horror that you must leave behind.”

Tobia writhed, attempting to free himself. “It won’t leave!”

“It will—if you let it go.” Ishtar held Tobia’s gaze and tightened his grip.

Gulping air, Tobia calmed into a shaky acceptance. “Let me go.”

“Stop fighting your pain. It’s making you mad. You think you’re doomed because pain blinds you to any other possibility.”

“What other possibility is there?”

“Evil is only one option, Tobia.” Ishtar let go and turned away. “I know what you fear, for I’ve feared it too. Even when I turned from Neb’s evil ways, I could not really succeed because I never accepted the truth.”

Rubbing his arms, Tobia spat his words. “What truth?”

“That there’s more to life than this world and the evil we must endure here. I’ve passed through madness into a new hope. Life does not end there.” He pointed to the grave mounds. “Aram does not live in the dirt. There are more worlds than the ones we see.”

Burning indignation rose from Tobia’s middle. “I never deserved to suffer like I did.”

“And I never deserved forgiveness.”

Tobia’s rage tripped and fell, but questions still pounded his mind. He looked Ishtar in the eye. “And Vitus?”

“How do we know what he deserved?”

Tobia dropped his head onto his chest with a sigh.

“The beginning of wisdom is to realize—God exists—but you are not Him.”

Ishtar stepped over to the doorway and picked up the piece of wood and the carving knife. He held them out.

With the last flicker of his anger dying like a flame in summer rain, Tobia accepted them.

“Darkness is part of this life, but so is light.” ~Millie Florence

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We’re Not Neanderthals

Sydney knew he faced mission impossible, but he had to try. She’d never be a fully functioning human being until she joined the ranks of millions—no billions—who had gone before her and embraced the brave new world.

He felt the gravel crunch under his tires as he turned into the driveway. The back gate was closed, which meant that the goat was probably in the barn, safe and sound, thank God. He’d spent the entire weekend either catching up on house repairs, work reports, or alternating with his wife at one of the kid’s weekend games. What idiot scheduled soccer practice twice a week and games on Sunday?

He took the key out of the ignition. Four o’clock. He might as well get this over with. Mom and dad ate a formal dinner at noon and a light supper at six. Promptly. He hardly wanted to try squeezing the whole technological world in between the early news and grilled cheese & tuna sandwiches.

But try he must. He grabbed the Kindle from the passenger seat and lumbered from the car, huffing with the exertion. Darn, but he should’ve had another cup of coffee before coming. He felt in his pockets. A handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans ought to do the trick.

Munching, he climbed the steps up to the porch and pressed open the door with a “Hey, anyone home?”

“Sydney!”

As if she didn’t expect to see me. Hah! Sydney felt a rush of guilt. For what, he wasn’t sure and wouldn’t stop to think about it. Roll away, guilt. Just roll away.

“Hey, mom.” The hug. The warm kitchen. The sense that nothing ever changed. Though she was a bit older. Moved slower as she crossed the room. “Dad here?”

“Oh, he’s out back with the dogs. Taking care of one of the Kerns’ pups. It got injured, and he’s nursing it back to health.”

“Nice of him. Never could say no.”

His mom shook her head, smiling the way she always did. “Why would he? He likes dogs. You know that.” She peered at her son.

Sydney felt like he time-warped back to yesterday’s airport security. What a horrible flight. The baby crying, the guy snoring, the storm clouds looming.

“You okay, son?”

Sydney shook himself. “Sure.” He laid the Kindle on the counter. I brought it like I said I would.

A combination of fear and distaste flickered over his mom’s seventy-year-old face. “That was nice of you. But I don’t really need it. I’ve got two library cards and that flip phone you gave me last year.”

“But, mom, this is so much easier. You won’t have to get out in the weather to go to the library. Books come to you. Right here. In your hands.” He lifted the Kindle like a car salesman showing off his latest option. He shrugged the image away.

With a long sigh, his mom picked up a long-handled spoon and stirred a pot bubbling on the stove. “I made chili—used up the last of the frozen, tomatoes, onions, and peppers. I even tossed in a can of homemade salsa for zest. We’ve got enough hamburger to last into May, but dad says he’s gonna butcher that old cow. She’s never recovered since the fall she had, and he figures she’d be enough to give you and Heidi some and still last us until next year.”

Sydney pictured the last package of hamburger he bought at the store—unnaturally red and outrageously priced. Had a strange taste too. “Well, I never say no to your food. The kids love your cooking more than me, I think.”

“Oh, honey. Don’t be silly. It’s just that we spent so much time with them when they were little.” A wistful expression spread over her eyes. “It’s good that they’re involved in so many activities now, but I hope they won’t forget grandma and grandpa…”

As if he could stop a knife twisting his innards, Sydney clutched the Kindle harder. “Well, let’s get down to business, shall we?”

A defeated damsel, his mom laid the spoon aside, pulled out a wooden kitchen chair and sat down. “You can show me, but I can’t promise I’ll remember…”

“Just try, ma. It’s all I ask. Do it for me. This way I don’t have to worry about you going out in all kinds of weather just to get to the library. Or doing so many things you don’t have to do. There are more than books on here. You can get music and movies. You can look up—”

Like a zealot cajoling a wayward member of the flock back into the fold, Sydney showed off the cyber universe with finesse and confidence.

The back door slammed. Dad strode in, slightly bent, but grinning from ear to ear. “Got that pup fed, its leg splintered, and now she’s sprawled out with the hounds like she’s never known any different.”

Looking up like a drowning woman begging for a lifeline, his mom stared at her husband through a plastered smile. “Look what Sydney brought us.”

Discomfort sent prickles over Sydney’s spine. “Oh, dad don’t care about this stuff. He’s told me so a hundred times.”

With a snort, his dad splashed his hands under the tap, scrubbed vigorously with soap, then rinsed and dried like a professional hand washer. He sniffed the chili, hobbled to his chair, and plunked down with a happy sigh. “You make it sound like I hate what you do, son. I don’t hate it.”

“You’ve never taken any interest in it, that’s for sure. Every time I try to show you what I do for a living, you turn away. Or say you don’t understand. When I know you could—if you wanted to.”

Dad and mom exchanged a quick glance, understanding each other in a way that strangled Sydney’s heart.

Sydney closed the Kindle. Defeat weighed a couple of tons at least. Mission impossible. I knew it.

Nudging him in the shoulder, his dad offered an encouraging smile. “You’re not listening, son. I appreciate what you do. You’re technology skills amaze me. Your mom and I are very proud of you. We just have better things to do than join in on everything.”

“Join in? What are you talking about? I’m just offering a Kindle devise so she can get—”

Mom placed her hand over Sydney’s and patted with maternal tenderness. “I like to go to the library. My friends are there. We chat and share what we’re reading, tell about things going on in town, the latest news. Last week when I wanted a new way to fix venison, Jan found a great recipe online. She even identified that weird bug your dad found in the woodpile the other day from some etymologist in India.”

She gazed into her memory. “Interesting man. Wish India were’ so darn far away.” She glanced at her husband and once again they agreed in a silent conversation. “Your dad got his email address and is thinking of writing and asking how the bug managed to find its way into our backyard.”

Sydney swallowed. “You’ve been on the web?”

Bernie grinned, leaning back against the sink, one brown gnarled hand propped on the counter. “Of course. We’re not Neanderthals. We just don’t want to get all caught up in that stuff. It’s fine now and again. But when Jill and the kids come over, they spend more time looking at their phones than talking with us. It’s like they can’t put the things down for even a minute.” He shrugged. “Your mom and I have other things we like to do with our time.” A twinkle entered his eyes as he met his wife’s gaze.

A shocking, mischievous spark danced from husband to wife. Thankfully, mom recovered quickly and swung her full attention to her son.

“You understand?” Mom’s eyes pleaded.

Sydney heaved his body from the table. “So you don’t want this?”

“It’s just—we’d rather not be tempted.” Dad clapped his hands together. “Now when are we going to have that chili? I’m as hungry as a bear after a long winter.”

Mom hopped up and flipped open the cabinet. She grabbed bowls and charged into the utensil drawer, gunning for action, “Can you stay and have some, Sweetheart? I’ve got garlic bread warming in the oven.”

Sydney pictured the scene at his home. His kids would each be in their room staring at their computers…or Kindles. Jill would be slouched on the couch—maybe playing a game or binge-watching her latest TV obsession. He’d walk in, say hi, no one would respond. He’d go to his room and turn on his computer.

He peered down at the eager, alive faces of his parents and sat back down.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

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OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

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HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

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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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The Delete Button

“Modern technology is decimating my literary prowess as well as my love life.”

Evangeline held her gaze steady, refusing to give in to an auto-eye-roll. I love my cousin. Mom loves her. Dad loves her. I can’t kill her without due process of the law. She snatched a pecan from the trail mix bag and eyed it carefully.

“What? You think a nut can explain my life?”

There were so many possible responses—Eva’s head swam. She popped the dainty morsel into her mouth and crunched. She peered over the top of her reading glasses at her DNA-sharer and wondered how any one human being could get so thoroughly confused on a daily basis.“What has the computer done to you now, Tracy?”

“The blinking delete button!”

Another pecan followed the first. Eva glanced at the car’s dashboard. Six minutes to go. Once the kids were out of school and slumped into the back seat, they all could race to the store, pick up the cake mix and two kinds of frosting for the bake sale, plus three kinds of sprinkles because kids these days won’t shell out their parent’s money without sprinkles, speed home, get the girls on baking duty, let the dog out…no, definitely let the dog out first. Then preheat the oven. Then get the girls baking…

“Don’t you want to know about the delete button?”

Eva propped her head against the warm car window. Four minutes. She could live through four more minutes, surely. “So what evil has the delete button been perpetrating upon you, my dear?”

“I don’t have one when I talk.”

Eva groaned.

“You know, I’ve won awards for my writing. I’m considered one of the most professional science journalists out there. But heck, put a mike in front of my mouth or perch a good looking guy on the stand, and I’m a babbling idiot.”

A tiny piece of pecan had wedged itself behind one of Eva’s front teeth and it was worth more than the cost of her new couch to get the thing into a more approachable position. She took a sip of water as the school bell buzzed.

Kids swarmed like bees in springtime. The two second cousins, Kala and Marci bustled along bumping shoulders, as if they had just shared a joke or were in on a secret together.

At least, they looked like they are having fun. Eva pressed the unlock button. The kids tumbled in. End of conversation. She hoped.

Tracy dashed such dreams to smithereens without conscious thought. “My theory is that human beings are going to kill each other before the century is out because we’re used to editing our words with the ease of a delete button, and we’re slowly but surely losing the ability to speak coherently face to face.” She turned and squinted at the girls with a two-fingered wave. “Hi, beautiful babes.”

Eva didn’t have to look in the rearview mirror to see the eye-rolls. The car nearly lurched into oncoming traffic with the force of them.

Marci patted her mom’s shoulder. “Hi, pretty mama.” She nudged Kala. They both grinned.

Eva made a slow turn into the store parking lot, which happened to be conveniently located between the grade school and the high school.

“Some city planners in cahoots with local business interests.”

“What?” Tracy’s wide-eyed expression left no doubt that the delete button was missing in action again.

Eva shook her head and darted from the stopped car like a puppy off its leash. “Sit tight. I just have to grab a couple things—”

No such luck. Tracy flew to her side and flung her purse strap over her shoulder. Soldiers had been known to carry injured buddies off the battlefield with less drama.

Speeding down the baking aisle entertaining fantasies of finding both frosting and sprinkles on a half-off sale kept Eva’s mind so busy she didn’t hear a word her cousin said. Not until the babbling stopped short, and the woman’s steely grip yanked her sleeve off her shoulder. “There he is! The guy I was interviewing today. He’s a scientist. But you’d never guess, would you?”

With slow, nonchalant dignity, Eva redressed her shoulder and slid a glance at the scientist in aisle two. Indeed. He did not match any stereotypes currently running around Eva’s married head. Except perhaps about some childish long-forgotten barbarian king with long, wavy, hair, intense brooding eyes, broad shoulders and mighty biceps, who swept her off… Whoa—

Tracy strode forward and thrust out her hand.

Eva closed her eyes and thanked God that their innocent daughters were still in the car.

Tracy babbled. The man nodded.

Repeat.

Eva debated the need for Confession if she just slinked to the bakery aisle, retrieved her much-needed items, and then scraped her cousin off the floor after the fact. She turned, prepared for flight.

“Eva!” Tracy grabbed the man’s hand and attempted the yank maneuver.

Eva froze, wondering if spontaneous combustion was a legitimate option.

By some kind of supernatural Grace, which apparently altered the known universe, the man grinned and allowed himself to be towed across two aisles.

Tracy beamed. Seriously. Beams of happiness shot from her eyes nearly blinding Eva. “Guess what? I bet you’ll never guess!”

Eva considered the guy. He appeared to be amused. Tickled even. His gorgeous physiology only accented his apparent joy.

Eva slapped her hand against her cheek.

The man laughed, pulled his hand free, and held it out. “I’m Kendrick and work at the state forensics lab. Your cousin interviewed me for—”

“He doesn’t think I need a delete button!”

Eva shook her head. “But I do. Let the man finish his sentence.”

Tracy blushed. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

Kendrick’s smile didn’t waver. “It doesn’t really matter. I was just glad we bumped into each other. I was rather short with her today, and I wanted to apologize. One of my kids has been sick, and I’ve been up two nights in a row helping my wife take care of him.”

Without looking, Eva knew that Tracy’s beam had faded into shadow. She offered the father a comforting shoulder pat. “Oh, been there, done that. Hope your boy gets better soon. Our girls are waiting for us in the car—we better run.”

With a gentleman’s nod, he returned to his niche aisle. Cold remedies and vitamins.

By the time they had returned to the car, Tracy had rediscovered her voice. “I didn’t see a ring on his finger. So I just figured…and when he recognized me and said—”

Eva stopped beside the car and gave her cousin a one-armed hug, the other hand clutching the baking supplies. “Listen, honey, it isn’t that you need a delete button—so much as a listening ear. Just give other people a chance to show you who they are before you decide you know them. Okay?”

Tracy nodded, yanked open the passenger side door and slid in with a harrumph.

Eva pulled into traffic, trying to decide if she should preheat the oven or hug her husband first.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

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It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Eight

For All the Trouble You’ve Caused

Eoban wiped his sweaty brow and came to a dead halt. “I’ve made a mistake.”

“What?” Tromping in front, Barak waved an insect away.

Eoban cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, “I made a mistake!”

Barak stopped and turned around, frowning. “About what?”

“I should’ve gone with Obed. He won’t be able to find Amin. He’ll wander around the hills for years if I don’t help him.”

“Are you out of your mind? We’ve been traveling for hours! Obed is long gone in the opposite direction. Besides, what if there’s trouble at home?”

Eoban shook his head, feeling very much like a disgruntled bull. “You’ll find the way easily enough from here, and we’ve plenty of warriors to hold off an enemy until I get back.” He peered at the sky. “I’ll find Obed and get the boy.”

Barak snorted. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Eoban shrugged.

“Oh, all right, go on then. But look for Amin first. Frankly, I’ll be relieved if you do. I haven’t been so sure of Obed ever since he stepped out of that temple. In the meantime, I’m making a beeline for home.” Barak sighed as he shoved his bag high over his shoulder. “I’ll hold everything together until you return. Lud is probably ready to take my head off for being gone so long.”

“Jonas and Milkan, too, I imagine.”

“Always ready to offer a bit of comfort, aren’t you?”

“It happens to be the truth.” Eoban stepped forward and pounded Barak on the back. “Get going! I’ve lost enough time. It’ll be dark soon, and you know what happens in the dark.”

Barak swung his staff at a trailing vine. “Sing and nothing with any sense will bother you.”

Eoban turned away, muttering. “Who has sense these days?”

Eoban had not traveled far and wide for so many years without learning a few things. The next day, he found Luge’s new settlement. When he walked into the village, Luge strode forward, arms extended, ready to greet him.

They embraced like brothers, their eyes dancing in mutual amusement.

Luge called over his shoulder. “Lufti! Go find Amin. Tell him he’s finally going home.”

Eoban nodded at the boy. “There’s a tall handsome youth!”

Luge led the way to his hut, grinning. “Like his father, no doubt.”

As Lydia stepped outside, Luge waved at Eoban. “Meet the man who led me to my son!”

Wide-eyed, Lydia wiped her hands on her skirt and glanced from her husband to Eoban, her face flushing. “I owe you my life.”

Eoban gripped Luge’s shoulder. “Not at all. Your husband did the hard part. I just wandered where wise men wouldn’t go.” He met Lydia’s gaze. “I’m glad my foolishness paid a good return.”

Amin raced forward and skidded to a halt in front of Eoban, water dripping down his body.

Luge laughed. “You could’ve dried yourself!”

Amin grabbed Eoban’s arm, glancing around. “Where’s my father? Did you find—?”

Rubbing his forehead, the joy in Eoban faded like a plucked flower. “I’m sorry, Amin. We looked for him in the Stone City and even in the temple…but he wasn’t to be found.”

Frowning, Amin dropped Eoban’s arm. “Where’s Obed…and Barak?”

Eoban shrugged. “Obed was supposed to be here—to collect you.” He shook his head. “But, as I suspected, he must’ve gotten lost.”

Worry lines formed around Luge’s face. “And Barak?”

“He was in a hurry to get home…so he went on ahead.” He shifted his gaze to Amin. “There’s still light to see by, and I want to find Obed before he’s eaten by squirrels. So we best—”

Amin dug his toes into the dirt. “We’ll go home without my father?”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest. “Listen, I’ve lost just about everyone on this journey.” He looked up. “Now I want to find Obed and get you home safe.”

With lips pursed tight, Amin nodded.

As they turned to go, Lufti stepped up and handed Amin a beautifully carved spear. “I would not be free today had you not convinced my father to enter the Stone City.”

Clasping his fingers around the ornate weapon, Amin’s eyes shone. “I didn’t do anything except act as a pest.” He smiled at Lufti. “But I’m glad you’re home safe” —he glanced from Luge’s kind face to Lydia’s gentle smile— “with your father and mother.” He faced Eoban, squaring his shoulders. “I’m ready.”

Eoban lifted his hand in salute to Luge. “Keep the enemy at bay and prosper on your next hunt.”

Luge’s eyes clouded. “There are rumors that the enemy is heading into new territory.” He frowned. “Watch your back.”

“If I can find my clansmen, I’ll die a happy man.”

“You do know where you’re going?”

“I know the way home. Surely, Obed’s headed that way by now. After all, he has eyes and can find the sun, can he not?” Turning, Eoban shifted his bag over his shoulder and flung an arm over Amin’s shoulder. “So, my boy, you ready to sing?”

~~~

Eoban marched into his village scowling. “Where is everyone?”

Amin trotted at his side, also scowling. “It’s much too quiet.”

Suddenly, Tannit pelted across the compound at full speed, shouting. “Eoban, you’re home! We’ve been worried sick.”

Dropping his bag to the ground, Eoban crossed his arms like a barricade as the boy skidded to a halt. “What’s happened? Where’s—?”

Tannit heaved a deep breath. “Enemies are on our doorstep, and the women and children have fled to the caves.” He glanced at Amin. “Hi, Amin! Glad you made it home safe.” His grin widened. “Your father’s been so anxious—”

Eoban choked. “Tannit? Do you realize who this is?”

Pursing his lips primly, Tannit glared at Eoban. “Of course! It’s Amin, Ishtar’s son.” He tipped his head toward the center of the village. “Ishtar’s been helping with preparations and watching over Tobia, who’s had a rough time of it. What, with Vitus getting himself killed and all. And then Obed being taken captive—”

Amin’s mouth dropped open. He glanced wide-eyed at Eoban.

Eoban, hot, frustrated, and confused, wondered if he would, in fact, boil over like an overheated stew. “Tannit, sometimes you—”

Amin cut in front of Eoban and grabbed Tannit’s arm. “Ishtar is here?”

Pointing, Tannit nodded. “Just over there, taking council with Lud.”

Eoban wrung his hands like a man practicing to wring a neck. “You said something about Obed?”

“You’d better ask Tobia. He saw Obed trussed up beside other prisoners taken by the enemy.”

Gripping Amin’s trembling shoulder, Eoban stared hard at Tannit. “Take us to Lud and Ishtar.” He swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “Then find Barak. I might need to apologize…”

Tannit waved as he turned. “Lud and Ishtar are over there.” He glanced back. “But no one’s seen Barak.” He winced. “I’m afraid Milkan will have strong words for you two.”

Eoban closed his eyes and stomped forward, gripping Amin hard enough to keep the boy from flying ahead.

At the sight of Ishtar and Lud standing together in conversation, Eoban felt the ground shift under his feet. His vision blurred. He gripped Amin’s shoulder tighter and leaned down to eye level. “Wait a moment. I want to speak to Ishtar alone first.”

Crossing his arms and clenching his jaw, Amin stood his ground. “Make it fast. I have something to say too.”

Eoban threw back his shoulders and strode forward.

Ishtar and Lud glanced over. Both sets of eyes widened. Lud exhaled a long breath and grinned.

Ishtar stood ramrod stiff.

Stepping up, Eoban met Lud’s eyes, his tone as dry as parched corn. “Glad you kept things well in hand while I was gone, Lud.”

“I hardly—”

Eoban turned his attention to Ishtar. “Ishtar, I’ve been looking for you.”

Ishtar nodded, his gaze fixed on Amin standing in the background. “So I heard.”

Like a dry stick about to snap, Eoban clenched his jaw, his teeth ready to crack under the pressure.

Ishtar turned his full attention to the warrior before him. “Do with me as you will.”

Lud stepped back and beckoned to Amin.

Amin ran to Lud’s side.

Swallowing, Eoban glared at Ishtar. “What under the sun does that mean? I’d like to beat you to a bloody mess for all the trouble you’ve caused.”

Maintaining their locked gaze, Ishtar nodded, his voice low and humbled. “And well I deserve it.” He stepped forward, his arms at his sides. “Beat me.”

Flinging his hands in the air, Eoban turned and pounded a few paces away. “By all that is decent and right in the world—do you have to take that tone?” With his head pounding and tears burning, Eoban glanced from Ishtar to Amin. “Do you know what you’ve done to your sons?”

His jaw clenching into a tight line, Ishtar shook his head. “I’ll regret my mistakes for the rest of my life, knowing that I never really can make up—”

Amin leapt forward. “I forgive you, father.” Halting right in front of Ishtar, he sucked in a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that I don’t need you—”

Lud, Eoban, and Ishtar stared at the boy.

Amin swallowed and hung his head. “But it’s not true. I can’t manage on my own. I needed Barak and Luge…and—” He glanced up and met Eoban’s eyes. “Even Eoban.”

Eoban winced.

Amin peered at his father. “But I need you too. So does Caleb.” He glanced around, a frown building. “Where is he?”

Lud gripped Amin’s shoulder. “He’s safe in the caves with the women and children.” Glancing from Ishtar to Amin, Lud smiled. “You must have incredible stories to tell—”

Eoban snorted. “Stories? We’ve both seen too much!” He pounded his chest. “I don’t know about Amin here, but I’m thinking of settling down…maybe with a wife.”

Lud choked.

A hint of a grin broke over Ishtar’s somber face.

Eoban pursed his lips. “I’ll make an excellent husband.” He peered at Amin. “Didn’t I take good care of you?”

Amin glanced from Eoban to his father. “He tried. It’s not his fault that he lost his entire company at one time or another.”

Eoban dropped his head onto his chest, exhaling a long, ragged breath.

With a snort, Lud patted Eoban’s back. “Don’t worry, Eoban. You can regain your honor by leading us to victory.” He gestured to the caves. “Jonas and Milkan are waiting. They’ll want to know what happened to Obed and Barak. Let’s go.”

Eoban lifted his head, all strength draining from his limbs. Shuffling along, he muttered. “Couldn’t we just go straight into battle?” Glancing aside, bittersweet grief made Eoban shake his head.

Ishtar clasped Amin’s shoulder and led his son home.

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones—the ones at home.” ~Mother Teres

A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

You Never Know

As Lucy stared at the wafts of steam spiraling up from her cup into the frosty air, a bittersweet pang fluttered in her chest. So like the incense they use at Mass. Frankincense clouds rising toward the heavenly beings painted on the ceiling. She always felt like she was being left behind somehow.

She tapped her numb fingers on the mug to ensure circulation. It wasn’t right, sitting here in the truck, out of the blasting wind, while the men dug the hole. Granted, they had a huge machine to do the digging. She only had to record the fact that the deed was done in the right place and mark it on the map. Perhaps she didn’t need to be here at all.

But no. It was her job. Had been for years and everyone trusted her to do it right. No one was ever buried in the wrong plot under her watch. A couple of families squabbled about who would go where, but that was quickly settled with cheerful tact and abundant patience.

But this time? There certainly were no squabbles. Even the deceased didn’t specify exactly where he wanted to be buried. Only “in his home town.” He could have wanted to be buried in someone’s basement for all she knew. Why didn’t anyone ask him to clarify his wishes before it came to this? And put some money down while they were at it?

Lucy placed the cold mug in the cup holder and clapped her gloved hands together, sending prickling stings along her fingers. She could turn on the engine and warm up…but that’d be like telling the guys she was tired of waiting. Or too cold to stand it. They’d turn her way, looking apologetic. But then, they’d still have to get back to work and open the grave before it got any darker. Bothering them wouldn’t make this go any faster.

With a sigh, her exhaled breath clouded the scene. She glanced at the folder in her lap. Might as well open it and appear to be doing her job. She flipped the thick, stapled papers to the last page. Section P. There were really only seven sections, A through F, and by all rights, this one ought to be labeled G, but someone around 1902 must’ve thought that future generations needed a little help keeping things straight. So he or she labeled this section P. For pauper.

She didn’t know much about Mr. Keelson. Oh, there were Keelsons living throughout the county. But this particular twig must’ve snapped off long ago since no one knew him or his history. When the funeral home called and said that a Mr. Thomas J. Keelson had left a scrawled note in the hospital, requesting to be buried in his hometown, she had recorded all the relevant info sure that, in time, some knowledge of him or his family would surface.

But no.

Mr. Thomas John Keelson was born in the town as the records stated, but not one person claimed him or his family. The Keelsons that lived over on Six Sisters Road had no idea who he belonged to. And Velma, the patriarch of the country, said she’d never clapped eyes on the man. It was a mystery. A sad one, at that.

A knock on the glass startled her. She looked up. Glen waved a couple stiff fingers with his dirty-gloved hand. His tight smile tried to appear cheerful, but his frosty white cheeks and squinting eyes bore testimony to a north wind that just wouldn’t quit. He shouted through the glass as if the cold had made her hard of hearing. “We’re ready.”

She nodded and flipped the book back into her folder. She knew the lot number by heart. Seven-two-three. Block P. Three from the top. Three from the right. Nestled between Mrs. Eula Patel and open ground. There was an oak nearby. With an iron bench situated just under the heavy boughs. In the springtime, it looked picturesque. Today it sat between forgotten and forlorn. Her heart throbbed more painfully than the rheumatism in her joints. She climbed out of the truck and braced herself against the wind. She didn’t even notice that she let her muttered thoughts loose as she tugged on her cream-colored crocheted mittens and then stuffed them into her oversized coat pockets.

“Why don’t people think about the future? Surely…”

“What’s that?” Glen, huffing through his scarf, still shouted. He tucked his hands under his armpits. His coat, as well as his frame, was so thin, she imagined that if the wind grew any stronger, it would surely knock him back all the way into block A.

“Oh, nothing. Just wondering why no provisions were made. It’s not hard to pick out a plot, and they’re not expen—”

“Family is probably all dead. Maybe he had one but gave it away like that Joseph guy in the bible did for Jesus.”

Lucy shook her head and felt the wind bite her ears. She yanked her hood tighter around her head. Glen’s gentle heart always looked for the best in folks.

Once she reached the graveside, she nodded to Paul. Short and stout to Glen’s tall, lanky build, the two made a study of contrasts. Paul hardly ever said a word. Just did his work as carefully as ever a man could. A state inspector might review every grave dug in the last thirty years under Paul’s watch but would never find a single fault.

The movement of the hearse backing up caught her attention. It stopped with the flash of the brake lights, and then the engine died. The door swung open and Berta swung out. The woman practically sprang from the front to the back like a released rubber band.

Being a funeral director, Berta had a certain gift for dramatic style. Despite the fact that there was no real assembly to speak of, the power of her movements retained their usual vigor. The back doors swung open, and the two men stepped forward in lockstep. The king’s guard would’ve been impressed with the stately manner in which they carried the cheap wooden coffin from the hearse to the plot.

It took a bit of managing to get everything lined up just so, and the box down smoothly, but despite the wind howling in her ears, Lucy felt warm relief flood her whole body as Mr. Thomas J. Keelson was finally laid in his eternal resting place.

Once the process was completed to Berta’s satisfaction, she grinned, waved, and then retreated from whence she had come like a motion picture star going off stage.

Glen and Paul began to fill in the hole. There was nothing left but to wait in the truck. Lucy climbed in, shoving her notebook and papers aside. It was too cold. She eyed the key in the ignition.

They won’t mind.

The truck roared to life, and Lucy turned the heater on full blast. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes to the sound of the tractor shoveling dirt into the hole. She tried not to imagine it in her mind.

Her phone chimed.

After yanking off one mitten, Lucy tugged her phone from her coat pocket and smacked it against her ear. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Lucy Harden?”

“Speaking.” Lucy felt her heart constrict. She didn’t recognize the voice, but who on earth would be calling her this late on a Friday evening?

“Sorry to bother you, but I just discovered that my dad’s body was taken to your cemetery to be buried.”

“Your…dad?” A chunk of ice caught in her throat.

“Yeah. He’d been ill for some time and couldn’t remember things so well. I’ve been living on the west coast. There’s no one else. When he was sick, I made sure that the funeral home would do right by him…but I never actually specified where he was to be buried.”

Lucy shook her head. Tears sprang into her eyes. “He left a note saying he wanted to be buried in his hometown. So we did.” She grabbed a breath and choked it down. “Just now.” Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you existed, or I would’ve let you know. The funeral home never told me—”

“Oh, they didn’t know. See, my dad and I didn’t get along. He was a terrible dad, as a matter of fact, and a worse husband, if you know what I mean.”

Lucy’s gaze drifted to the two men adding the final touches to the grave, piling on the last of the dirt and rounding the edges. Their backs were bent and the oak’s black branches seemed to claw the air above them like a menacing monster.

She made a proper grieving sound. As she must.

“But despite everything…I knew my dad was terrified of being cremated. He thought it was a prelude to hell. Used to say that if we had him cremated, he’d come back and haunt us. I figure he won’t have any say in the matter…but still. I can’t explain. I made sure he wasn’t cremated. But I just couldn’t bury him.”

Lucy couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her nose and ears burned like hellfire.

A knock on the window nearly wrenched her out of her skin.

“Done!”

Glen looked so happy through his dog-tired eyes, and Paul waved as he hustled to his own dirt-splattered truck.

Lucy nodded. To no one in particular.

Glen climbed in the driver’s side, slapped his hands on the wheel, and grunted. “Thank God!” He saw her frown and froze.

Lucy spoke into the phone. “Sorry. But, what did you say your name was?”

“Oh, yeah. Thomas, like my dad. Though everyone just calls me Tom. Named my son is Thomas too. Tommy. My wife insisted; she loves the name…”

A tear rolled down Lucy’s cheek, and she couldn’t for the world explain to Glen why she was crying. I did my job, after all.

 “Well, Mr… I mean Tom. You can rest assured that your dad is buried properly. If you ever want to visit him, he’s in section P.”

“Thank you, mam. I just wanted to know. I doubt I’ll ever come.”

Lucy could hear Tom shift the phone against his ear.

“Maybe my boy will, someday. Never know.”

Another tear followed the first.

“But I’m just glad it’s over. Maybe now I can forget it all. Thanks…Bye.”

Lucy stared at the silent phone as if it might dissolve in her hand.

Glen sniffed. “He had a son? Sorry he wasn’t here to say a few words over his dad, I suppose. Poor guy. But he can come in the springtime—Memorial Day. We get a real crowd then. Maybe he’ll even meet up with some long lost family members.” Glen put the truck into gear and headed onto the main road.

Lucy dropped her hands, still holding the dead phone, onto her lap. She stared at the houses with lit windows shining onto Main Street. Each a personality unto itself. Miniature little worlds.

Glen cleared his throat and jutted his jaw as if to defend a point of honor. “Well, you never know.”

Lucy nodded. “You’re right. You never know.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

HeartBeats—Spiritual Being, Human Journey  https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter —Chapter Thirty-Five

—Grassland—

A Steadfast Heart

Lud sat on a high ridge overlooking the great lake and scanned the environment. Movement caught his gaze.

A man scrambled among the brush along the eastern edge.

Lud stood and peered down, shading his eyes. He called to one of his clansmen, Jude, who sprinted over and followed the line of his gaze.

The figure worked his way around the lake.

Jude squinted. “A spy?”

Lud shook his head.

The suspect scrambled up the cliff face and slipped twice before he proceeded more slowly.

Rubbing his neck, Lud frowned. “Brave fool maybe…but not necessarily a spy. Could be running from danger or looking for help.” Lud scanned the horizon.

Nothing but birds in the air and a few animals scampering about.

The stranger heaved himself onto a thin ledge and rested, sucking in draughts of air.

Jude smirked. “A fool, sure enough. That’s no place to hide.”

The stranger glanced from side to side, his shoulders squared and his chin sharp and determined.

As his eyes widened in alarm, recognition shuddered through Lud’s body.

~~~

Ishtar surveyed the land. He smiled at the memory of his four-footed friends who had accompanied him along many trails. He glanced at the mountains in the distance. The combination of blue sky, mountains, hills, open grasslands, and a sparkling lake refreshed his weary soul.

But in a flash, he saw the view from a different cliff, one where his bleeding feet clutched the edge and a rocky bottom beckoned. He could see Pele’s figure floating before his eyes, swaying like a leaf in a gentle wind. He heard her soft words: “Begin again.”

A hawk cawed in the distance, a shrill cry, demanding and powerful.

Ishtar closed his eyes. “I yet live.”

When he peered up, the bird had retreated into the distance, appearing now as nothing but a speck. With a stretch, he took a deep breath and reached for the next handhold.

As he neared the top edge, he felt eyes watching him. Above, shadows of men waited. Ignoring the sweat pouring into his eyes, he made a final heave and clutched the rocky edge. His foot slipped and in panic, he scrambled for purchase, digging his torn fingers into the stony surface.

A hand clasped his…gripping his wrist.

Taking a deep breath, Ishtar gathered his courage, steadied his footing on the wall face, and leveraged his way up the last few feet.

Another hand reached down and grabbed him by the arm, heaving and pulling him to safety.

When he lay safely on top, he breathed in the scanty grass and the damp earthy dirt.

Two pairs of feet waited near at hand. Lifting his head, Ishtar peered up.

Lud stood over him, his eyes wide and his mouth open. He shook his head like a man trying to get his senses to work.

“Ishtar?”

Ishtar climbed to his feet, fixed his attention on Lud, and gripped his shoulder. “I’ve come home.”

Lud stood frozen.

Jude slapped his thigh, a half-smile forming on his lips. “Well, I never—”

Lud reached up and clasped his hand over Ishtar’s. “I thought perhaps you—but they thought—so they went looking—but now—you’ve returned.”

Jude thrust his hands on his hips, a puzzled frown puckering between his eyes. “You didn’t meet up with the others, then?”

Grinning, Ishtar led Lud and Jude away from the cliff’s edge. “I see we have some catching up to do.”

As they crossed the plateau, Lud glanced at Ishtar. “Where’ve you come from? Eoban, Barak and Obed went looking for you with Amin months ago.” He paused and glanced back, pointing to the distance. “Toward the mountains. Did you cross paths?”

Searing alarm spread over Ishtar. “Amin went to the mountains…looking for me? When?”

Lud frowned at Ishtar. “Why? What’s in the mountains?”

Exasperation eating at his insides, Ishtar raised his hands. “Under the great sky, will you stop asking questions and answer me? I’ll tell you my story later, but where are my sons?”

“Amin left with Eoban and the rest, but Caleb is with Milkan and the women at the caves.” Lud sighed. “We have troubles of our own.”

Swinging his gaze from the village site in the distance to the path leading to the caves, Ishtar chewed his lip. “Before anything else, I must see Caleb.”

Lud swallowed and stepped closer. “Certainly. But I have to warn you: an enemy marches near.”

“That’s why I returned. By the will of God, I met Tobia in the desert lands, and as we journeyed home together, we discovered a ruined village. I left the remnant of the clan in his care, while I ran ahead to warn our people. We must make preparations quickly.” He started for the caves. “But first, I’ll see my son.”

Running to keep in step, Lud motioned to Jude to return to his post. He called back, “We’ll return soon.”

They turned north and strode side by side as long afternoon shadows stretched to impossible lengths.

Lud glanced aside, his face flushing. “You seem better…than you were.”

Without breaking his steady pace, Ishtar nodded. “I’m a new man—a better man—I hope.”

“How did you survive?”

“A nomadic patriarch took me in and cared for me.” Ishtar peered into the golden horizon. “In ironic justice, I had a chance to do reparation for my sins when his sons attempted a rebellion. I stayed at the old man’s side and comforted him as I could never have comforted my own father.” He sighed. “But Tobia and the memory of my sons beckoned me home.” He stopped and peered into Lud’s eyes. “I want to be the man I never was…the leader I should’ve been.”

With a strangled voice, Lud pounded forward. “Please, do so! I certainly never wanted leadership.” He sliced his hand through the air. “Barak took good care of your sons, but they couldn’t rest easy not knowing what happened to you. Eoban set his heart on finding you, and Obed sent Tobia with Vitus to—”

Lud halted, his eyes widening. He stopped and turned his full attention on Ishtar. “What happened to Vitus? You said you met Tobia in the desert lands. What about—?”

Ishtar glanced away. “Vitus died in the desert.”

Lud’s eyes narrowed. “Died—how?”

“It’s a long story—one that Tobia can tell better.” Grief clutched Ishtar’s chest. “Please, it’s a haunting memory, and Tobia has suffered more than I can explain.”

Rubbing his temple, Lud started away again. “No one is safe from suffering.” He shrugged as he jogged over the hard ground. “Truth is…I’m not a leader. I don’t know what I’m doing.” He blew air between his lips. “It was easy when we were at peace, but now—”

Stepping faster, Ishtar scrambled over the rough terrain. “I’ve seen the enemy, and it won’t set your heart at ease if I describe them to you.” Slowing as he neared the triangular cave entrance, Ishtar glanced at Lud. “In order to survive—we need more allies. Many more allies.”

Lud dropped his gaze. “I was afraid of that.”

Ishtar started to the cave, which opened at the side of a sheer cliff with a heavy mat of moss at the entrance, but Lud lifted his hand, blocking him. “Wait. Let me go first and explain. Your arriving like this…it’s a bit of a shock.”

Ishtar took two steps back and watched Lud disappear inside the cave. As he paced some distance away, he pictured Caleb’s babyish, tear-stained face from the last time he had seen him. The little boy had stood aside, his shoulders shaking, watching his father bury his mother. The bitter image sent Ishtar’s heart hammering against his chest. He bit his lip as a film of tears spread over his eyes.

Lud called and waved as he stepped into the light with a tall boy at his side.

A stinging fury enveloped Ishtar. Why does he bring out his own son? He called as he pounded forward. “Where’s Caleb?”

“Father!” Running full speed with his arms stretched out, Caleb plowed into his father.

Jerking backward on impact, Ishtar choked on a sob and fell to his knees. He wrapped his arms around his son, who stood taller and stronger than he remembered. Then he shook his head in amazement, his vision blurred. “Caleb?”

Glancing over his shoulder, Caleb shouted to Dinah and Milkan, who also stepped into the light, “Look! My father’s home!”

Dinah and Milkan stood at a respectful distance while Lud stepped to the boy’s side.

Ishtar composed himself and rose to his feet, his hand firmly on his son’s shoulder. He met Lud’s gaze. “Thank you.” He peered down at the boy. “I can see he has been well cared for.”

A scout called from the distance.

Lud and Ishtar jerked their attention to the distant figure of a warrior racing into the village. Lud swallowed hard.

Ishtar exhaled a deep breath. “I will not let us to suffer the fate of other ravaged clans. We must prepare for battle.”

Caleb peered up at his father. “But what about Amin? When is he coming home?”

Ishtar glanced from Lud to Milkan and Dinah. “I don’t know, but as soon as we defeat the approaching enemy” — he knelt and peered into Celeb’s eyes— “you and I will find him together.”

Caleb’s lips wobbled. “You won’t leave me?”

Ishtar stroked the side of his boy’s face. “Never again.”

~~~

Ishtar perched on a rock as the stars appeared in the night sky, and he waited while Namah, Jonas, Milkan, and Dinah settled in a circle with Lud and other clansmen before a flickering fire.

Lud opened his hands and nodded to Ishtar.

Fixing his gaze on the flames, Ishtar retold his adventures from the day he left the clan until he met Lud on the cliff.

Milkan and Dinah nodded alternately, glancing at Ishtar with sympathy in their eyes.

Namah glared at Ishtar, her jaw clenched and her hands in frozen stillness on her lap.

As Jonas focused on the outer darkness, she listened without comment.

When the recital ended, Ishtar peered from one woman to the next. His gaze stopped on Namah. “I have done great evil in my time, and I regret many things, but one of the worst is knowing that I can never make amends to Aram, a man I should’ve treated as a friend and mentor.” His throat tightening, Ishtar all but crawled to Namah’s side and bent his head. “I beg your forgiveness.”

Slowly, Namah’s hand rose, flat palmed as if she would strike.

Ishtar remained in place, humbly waiting, his gaze scraping the dust.

Lifting her hand higher, Namah turned it and let it fall gently on Ishtar’s head. “I forgive you, Ishtar, for in my heart I know that is what Aram would ask of me. I don’t know how you can make up for your evil deeds, but—” She dropped her hand to her side. “You’ve made a good start by returning to your sons.”

Ishtar raised his head, tears burning.

Jonas sighed and faced Ishtar. “I can do no less than my friend and forgive you. However, I will watch and see. A tree is known by its fruit.” She sighed and stared at the black horizon. “But for now, a new enemy approaches.” She met his gaze. “Will you lead your men into battle?”

Ishtar rose and stood before Lud. “You are the leader now. Tell me what you’d have me do, and I’ll do it.”

Lud stood and clasped Ishtar’s arm. “As you said, we need more allies.”

Nodding, Ishtar faced the small assembly. “I have learned through great trial that our best ally is a steadfast heart.” A glimmer of hope sparked in his soul. “We already have that.”

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” ~Desmond Tutu

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Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)