OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Four

—Desert—

God Help Me

Tobia watched Ishtar lead the sheep to their watering hole. Exhaustion sapped his strength and sorrow confused his thoughts. A faint light of hope tried to spark, but he could not keep it alight. He glanced down. The pain in his chest should show through…somehow. “Ishtar?”

With his gaze fastened on the sheep, Ishtar coaxed them to the waterhole. “Yes?”

“What happened to Vitus?”

Once the sheep began to lap at the water, Ishtar halted, propped his arm on his staff, and looked at Tobia. “When he lost his mind or when he lost his way in the desert?”

“Both.”

A grimace spread over Ishtar’s face. “I’m the last person you should ask.”

Tobia’s eyes glimmered. “But he’s dead now—gone forever. I should’ve kept a closer eye on him.”

With a quick shake of his head, Ishtar motioned toward a rocky outcropping. He waited for Tobia to shift into the shade and leaned against the cool wall. “When I first came here, I was a shell of a man, not unlike Vitus. I had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear. I was dead inside. But Matalah’s kindness rekindled a spark of life within me.”

“Was I not kind enough to Vitus?”

Waving as if to dismiss the thought, Ishtar glanced away. “Matalah gave me the freedom to decide—but I had to make the choice myself. In time, I decided to live and pay back his kindness. Only then could hope flourish.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Apparently, the Creator still has use for me.”

Tobia plopped down on the ground and sat cross-legged. “But it was God who struck down Vitus.”

“Are you sure?”

“Vitus called—demanded—that God speak with him and then lightning struck…”

Ishtar shook his head. “But He did not kill him, did He? Vitus followed in your footsteps for many a day after that.”

“But no one saved him when he wandered into the night. I didn’t even know he was gone until—”

Ishtar’s expression softened. “Tobia, you’re asking what happened between God and Vitus.” He peered over the horizon. “I can’t say and neither can you. All I know is— Matalah could not have saved me unless I wanted him to, and you could not save Vitus for the same reason.”

Pain tightened Tobia’s throat, and tears stung his eyes. “Ishtar?”

Ishtar met his gaze. “Yes?”

Longing tore through Tobia. “I want to go home.”

As a frolicking lamb nuzzled Ishtar’s hand, he patted it. “I’ll show you the way.”

~~~

Ishtar entered Matalah’s tent and bowed low.

Taking Ishtar’s hands, Matalah peered into his eyes, his face haggard and lined, looking older than his years. “Though my sons turned to evil, still, I pray on their behalf. May your fortune be better than mine.”

Ishtar blinked back tears. “I love you as I could never have loved my own father.”

Matalah nodded. “God knows…for I surely needed your love, my son.”

~~~

Ishtar and Tobia marched out of the tent, into the searing rays of a hot sun.

As they crossed camp, Matalah’s wife hurried forward, her long dress rippling at her sides. She called Ishtar’s name.

Ishtar and Tobia stopped and turned.

Gripping Ishtar’s arm, the petite, gentle woman bowed low. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our family in our time of distress. I know that you leave with sorrow, but I pray it is not with regret. My husband will never understand his loss, and I’ll never stop grieving my sons, but still, we are grateful for your kindness.”

Ishtar dropped his gaze, a throbbing ache welling inside.

The woman straightened and her grip tightened. “Evil did not conquer you, and it will not conquer us. Go home now and take our blessings with you.”

Ishtar kissed her hands.

With another bow, she turned and hurried away.

Tobia sighed and started forward.

Ishtar circled around the blazing campfire, only glancing at the flames. He turned his gaze to the mountains.

~~~

Lud crushed his son in a tight hug, swallowing back a lump in his throat.

Gilbreth reciprocated the hug with equal intensity.

The two younger children whined and cried, scrambling to get a hold of Lud’s arm.

Women worked distractedly in the background, their eyes darting about, their foreheads wrinkled with anxiety.

The men huddled in groups, murmuring in low voices, sharpened weapons in their hands.

Facing his wife, Lud set his jaw against the pain clenching his heart. Unloosing his hands from his children, he wrapped his wife in a gentle embrace and peered over her head. “I was left in charge, and that means in bad times as well as in good. I’ll not let these people fall to slavery and death. I must lead them in this fight.”

Pulling away, Dinah wrung her hands, her eyes imploring. “We could all flee to the caves.”

Lud shook his head. “No, they’d only come looking for us. And I’ll not have our warriors backed into a corner.”

“I won’t go without you.”

“Be strong, Dinah, for my sake. Gilbreth will be at your side to help you.”

Pounding forward, Gilbreth gripped the knife tied at his waist. “But I’m old enough to fight.”

“Then fight selfish desires and learn the power of obedience.”

Dinah stared at the distant mountains and clasped her son’s shoulder. “Where are they coming from?”

Lud ran his fingers through his hair. “No one knows for certain…but rumors say they started from a city on the other side of the mountain.”

Dinah squinted. “That is a very long way.”

“They must be strong people.”

Turning, Dinah met her husband’s gaze. “Strong once…but the further they get from the mountains, the weaker they become.”

Lud considered her words, one eyebrow rising. “They’re far from the source of their strength.”
Lud nodded, admiration for his wife’s thinking growing by leaps and bounds.

A large gathering of clansmen marched forward, heading straight for Lud.

Taking a deep breath, Lud turned to them. He murmured under his breath. “God, help me.”

“You can turn your troubles into trust when you choose worship over worry.”
~Rosette Mugidde Wamambe

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-One

A Natural Part of Motherhood

Namah smiled at Milkan and patted the wooden bench next to her. The sun shone hot, though a cool wind ruffled her hair as she leaned against the woven reed fibers making up the wall of her home.

Milkan settled down, perching her youngest child, Rula, at her side. “I wish I brought news, but we’ve had no visitors.”

Namah exhaled a slow breath. “Nor us.” She closed her eyes. “I’m so tired.” She shifted her weight, straightening. “I shouldn’t complain. It’s Jonas we should think of. She’s been having a streak of ill-luck, the like of which she’s never experienced before. Though she hates to admit it, she misses Obed as much as you miss Barak and I miss my Aram.”

Milkan surveyed the yard, counting her children on her fingertips. She frowned. “I’m one short.”

Rula climbed into her nap and pulled at a bag slung around Milkan’s neck. She reached in, drew out a piece of dried fruit, and chewed it lustily.

Milkan peered ahead and started a recount.

Jonas strode into view with Onia following behind.

A burst of pleasure swept over Namah. She nudged Milkan. “See who’s coming.”

Milkan smiled and moved aside to make room. “Good morning, Jonas! We must all be feeling weary and bored.”

Jonas stopped and motioned for Onia to join the other children. She faced the two women, a frown etched into her forehead. “I wish I had good news, but—”

Milkan clutched Rula. “Why? What’s happened?” She stood up. “Barak? Obed?”

Jonas shook her head. “No, not them.”

Namah rose to her feet. “Let’s go inside where it’s cooler.”

The three women trailed into Namah’s dwelling. The space between the wall and the overhanging ceiling allowed a slight breeze and a slanting light to filter through.

Before anyone sat down, Jonas faced her friends. “Runners came late last night to warn us—invaders are destroying villages to the north and west.” She squeezed her hands together, her face pale and pinched. “They’re taking slaves.”

Namah closed her eyes. “Not again!”

Trembling, Milkan clutched Rula to her chest, forcing the child to whimper in reaction. “But what about my children? What protection do we have?” Milkan stepped to the threshold and started counting again.

Jonas laid her hand on Milkan’s shoulder. “Stay calm. The runner said they’re still some distance away and may decide to go another direction.”

After ticking the last number off her finger, Milkan nodded, satisfied, and motioned for the children to continue playing.

Jonas smiled at Onia as he led a chase across the village. She glanced back at Milkan. “We won’t allow our children to be enslaved as long as we have breath in our bodies. I spoke with Lud this morning. He’s organizing the men to watch for trouble from every direction. We’ll also send scouts north and west to discover news. Men from all three clans will prepare their weapons. We must trust in Lud’s wisdom and direction.” She sighed and glanced outside. “But I had to warn you.”

Namah wrapped her arm around Milkan. “We’re not alone.”

Jonas pointed out one window. “There are caves in the north. We could find shelter there—if need be.”

Milkan clutched the table edge as she slid onto the bench. “I feel sick. I’ve been dreading something like this ever since Barak left.”

Namah and Jonas smiled at each other. “A natural part of motherhood.”

Jonas turned to the door. “We will not be defeated. For our own sake and those who return.”

Milkan drew Rula back into her arms. “I just want Barak home again.” After rising, she stepped out into the sunshine, slung her bag over her shoulder, and clapped.

Her children turned and gathered before her.

Her head down, Milkan started away with her throng trailing behind her. She turned. “Send word—anything—so I know.”

Jonas nodded and waved. She stepped outside and faced Namah. “I must go too.”

Onia stepped patiently to his mother’s side.

“I’ll send word if I hear anything.” Jonas peered around the village and sighed. “It’s at times like these that I miss Aram the most.”

Namah clasped her hands before her. “Yes, he was a wise man—more so than I gave him credit for while he lived.” She peered at Jonas. “Time helps us see more clearly.”

Jonas patted her friend’s arm. “Lud will be a good leader. We must not be afraid.” She turned and started away with her son following in her footsteps.

After watching her friends traipse out of the village, Namah glanced at the sky. “I’m not afraid.”

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty

To Be The One

Amin squeezed his eyes shut. Crack! The sound of wood smashing against a skull was as distinct as it was nauseating. He turned to see a towering figure swaying like a tree in a mighty breeze clutching his wrist.

Obed, sprawled on the ground, lay stunned.

Eoban, rearing back for a swing, soon became pinioned by three of the largest men Amin had ever seen.

“Stop!” Amin tried to wrench free.

A new figure lumbered forward. “Enough!” The stranger stood a head taller than Eoban, but he made no attempt to physically interject. Slewing his gaze from Obed’s still form to Barak standing behind Amin and then to Eoban, he merely shook his fist like an angry parent. “You’re trespassers here! By all rights, I should put you to death!” He dropped his hand to his side. “But that is not my way.”

Grumbling erupted from the other warriors.

“I am Luge. I decide!”

Obed roused and shook his head. Eoban marched to his side and pulled him to his feet.

The stranger propped his hands on his hips. “Leave these mountains. If you disobey, my men will have their way.”

Obed staggered, rubbing his head with one hand and lifting the other in apparent surrender. “We’ve no wish to offend. We’ll leave.”

Enraged, Amin’s body trembled, his voice dropping to a growl. “I won’t go.”

Luge grabbed Amin’s tunic and shook him. “No?”

A wall holding back fear and fury burst, flooding Amin’s system. “I can’t leave! I’ve come so far to find my father— I won’t turn back now.”

The giant warrior’s eyes narrowed as he studied the boy in his grip. “You’re looking for your father?” Another shake, gentler this time, followed the question.

Amin nodded and sniffed, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

Freeing Amin, Luge glanced at Eoban. “Who is this man you seek?”

Eoban rubbed his jaw. “Neither friend nor enemy. He’s this boy’s father—the leader of a neighboring clan.”

Luge scowled at Amin. “Why did he leave? Why do you seek him here—in the mountains?”

Amin shrugged. “He was lost—out of his mind…”

Barak stepped forward. “Why waylay us? We’ve done you no harm.”

His gaze still fixed on Amin, Luge tilted his head as if appraising the boy. “I had a son about your age.” His voice grew thick. “We were attacked by raiders from over the mountain. Now my boy is gone—forever.”

Eoban leapt forward. “Have you seen a man with long black hair, slender body, and dark haughty eyes?”

Luge shrugged. “That describes many men.” His gaze slipped from Amin to Eoban. “If I found such a man, I’d send him home. This is no place for strangers. Treachery is afoot.”

With a snort, Obed glanced from Barak to the giant. “Is that what you fear? Why you attacked us?”

Luge stepped over to the smoldering fire, grunted, and gestured to one of his men.

The warrior squatted before the fire and blew the feeble flames to life. Another warrior gathered kindling and twigs and arranged them, building the flames into a small blaze.

As the fire grew, Luge crouched before it and studied the flickering light. “Few of us are left. Once we were a mighty clan, fierce hunters and warriors. Our leader was a brave man, much revered by all, near and far. But he fell at the hands of the enemy.”

Eoban stepped closer and squatted on the other side of the fire. Barak followed, sitting on his left while Amin crouched on Barak’s right. Obed remained standing, a shadow among the other men.

Luge rubbed his forehead. “They attacked at night, killed four men, and took two women and three children as slaves. We tried to follow, but they went into the desert and disappeared in the distance.” He closed his eyes. “A kingdom lies beyond the desert—I traveled there and saw it for myself.” He dropped his head to his chest. “They are like gods—living in a world beyond description.”

Obed shuffled near, his face unnaturally bright in the firelight. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that for myself.”

Luge shook his head. “Not if your son was there— forever beyond your reach.” He glanced around. “Now, we wander, aimless and hopeless. We treat all strangers as enemies because we have no friends. Our days draw to a close. We’ll pass away with no sons to mourn our loss.”

Eoban sighed. “I knew a mountain man once—a great man among great men. Gimesh led a large and vigorous clan. I cannot imagine he would let things come to such a pass. You know him?”

“These mountains are vast, but I have heard the name. As far as I know, he too bowed to this superior race. The days of the mountain men have come to an end.”

An owl hooted in the distance.

Amin twisted his hands together and peered at Luge. “My father would’ve fought. He fought against slavery and freed innocent people. He’d help you, too, if he knew your troubles.”

Obed snorted. “Your father was deranged. He couldn’t even help himself.”

Eoban glared at Obed as he stood up. “You talk too much, Obed.” He turned and rubbed his stomach. “I’m starving. What if we get some food, Luge? We could help each other survive the night at least.”

Rising, Luge meandered to Amin and tapped him on the shoulder. “I’d like to meet your father.” With a sigh, he glanced at the uneasy assembly. “As for food, yes, there is plenty—if you have the skill.”

Chuckling, Eoban slapped Luge on the shoulder. “Skill? Barak and I are two of the greatest hunters in the grasslands.”

Barak choked.

Eoban’s eyes widened, staring hard at Barak. “Barak even fought two man-eating cats and has their skins hanging in his dwelling to prove his worth.” He flexed his arms. “And I certainly never come home empty-handed.”

Barak and Obed stared at Eoban. Amin’s mouth dropped open.

Eoban grabbed his spear. “Let’s go. I’ll wither to a mere shadow of myself.”

After Eoban, Barak, and a few of Luge’s men started away,

Amin stretched out before the fire, his head heavy with exhaustion. He closed his eyes and let sleep steal every worry from his mind.

~~~

Amin felt rested as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

After a night of indiscriminate gorging on undercooked venison, the two groups assessed each other groggily in the early morning.

Obed staggered up to Luge. “Where are you going from here?”

Luge shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll live as best we can until our end comes.”

Eoban slapped his hand over his bag. “Wouldn’t it be better to attack your enemies and release the prisoners? Perhaps you could get your son back.”

Luge crossed in front of Eoban, waving his hand. “You’ve never seen this enemy. The vastness of their fighting force is beyond—”

Barak propped his hands on his hips. “Perhaps that’s your problem. If you would stop thinking about your doom and death and think about your life and what it means, then you could do something useful.”

Luge closed his eyes. “Our people were defeated. You have yet to experience that.”

Obed rubbed his chin. “Could you bring us to that land—the one you described last night?” He glanced at Eoban. “We’ve come this far—there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see this through. Show us your enemy—then we can talk of death…or glory.”

As Luge’s men broke into a discussion, Luge lifted his hand. “You have no idea what you are saying!”

One of Luge’s men strode over to him and argued in a husky undertone.

Luge glanced from the speaker to his other men, who waited expectantly, eagerly. Then his gaze rolled over Obed, Eoban, and Barak. Finally, it rested on Amin.

Anxiety twisted his innards, and Amin’s heart pounded so hard he grew dizzy.

Luge lifted his voice. “You want to see the enemy? We’ll take you, but we won’t engage in battle. We’d be slaughtered.”

With a grin spreading wide across his face, Eoban sauntered forward. “Who said anything about an attack?” He shrugged. “It’ll be enough to see this amazing city as you described at our hasty—though delicious—dinner. Besides, Ishtar may be among the slaves.” He glanced at Amin. “No turning back now.”

Luge swiveled around and glared at the boy. “No, he must not go! They would see a healthy boy and steal him away.”

Amin gripped his spear, squashed the tumult in his stomach, and pointed at Luge. “I won’t abandon my father. If you tie me up and drag me away, I’ll escape and follow you.”

One eyebrow rising, Eoban glanced at Barak.

Barak lifted his hands in appeasement and stepped over to Amin. “Luge is right, Amin. We’d get sidetracked trying to keep you safe.” He glanced at Luge. “I’m sure you could stay with his clan until we return.”

Panic flooded Amin, making it hard to breathe. A cold sweat broke over his skin. “But you could be killed, and I’d be left alone! Besides, I know my father better than anyone, and he’d do for me what he’d never do for you.”

Obed nodded. “If Ishtar is alive, he may not want to come with us. But if he sees Amin…” He shrugged. “It’s the boy’s life.”

Spluttering, Eoban jabbed Obed in the shoulder. “His life? Obed, take a closer look! He is a child! Children don’t think things through. That’s what adults are for. If Ishtar is alive and we find him, having Amin away will be the greatest inducement for drawing Ishtar out—assuming that’s what we want. We don’t know what he’s like now.”

Amin pounded his spear on the ground. “No! I won’t—”

Luge twisted the spear out of Amin’s grasp.

Amin clawed at Luge, wrestling for his weapon.

Barak grabbed Amin from behind and pulled his arms behind his back in a tight grip. “Stop it, Amin! You’re behaving like a spoiled child.”

Amin spat his words, his whole body trembling. “You’ll regret this, Barak.”

Reaching around, Barak grabbed Amin and turned him so that they stood face-to-face. “Only a child would put his pride above the safety of one he professed to love. You came all this way to find your father and for once we have a real lead, but now you stand here threatening us and making demands.”

Tears started in Amin’s eyes, his heart contorting as if it was being torn to pieces.

Barak loosened his grip. “A lot of good men are going far out of their way to help a man who doesn’t deserve such kindness. For love of you and your little brother, we’re risking our lives to find your father.” His jaw clenched as he gave Amin a slight shove. “A little cooperation would be helpful.”

Heaving sobbing breaths, Amin hung his head and tears coursed down his cheeks.

Luge strode over and laid his massive hand on Amin’s head. “A son’s love for his father goes beyond reason. And so should a father’s love for his boy. I’m ashamed. I’ll go with your friends. You wait for your father, and I’ll look for my son.” He called two of his men. “You two take him home. My wife will watch over him and await our return.”

The men packed the leftover venison into skin bags and filled their water pouches.

Amin sat against a tree and watched through a glassy stare. The familiar feeling of abandonment swept over him. First, his father…now this.

Before leaving, Barak crouched at Amin’s side and squeezed his arm. “Don’t be angry. We’ll return soon.” He stared at the boy’s unwavering expression. “You’re still mine by adoption. Whatever happens, you and Caleb are dear to me.”

Swallowing back the ache in his throat, Amin nodded. “I wanted to be the one to find him.”

Barak sighed. “It is every son’s wish—to do something wonderful for his father. That may yet come to pass. But for now, use this time well. Learn from these people. New experiences are worthy teachers.” Rising, Barak shouldered his pack.

Amin stood and watched the men assemble with Luge in the lead.

Obed sauntered close and ruffled Amin’s hair as he went by.

Eoban stopped and knelt before him. He held out a bone spear tip. “I was working on this, but now I don’t have the time to finish it. Perhaps you could do the job for me?”

Taking the piece, Amin studied the carved point. He nodded.

Grinning, Eoban patted Amin’s shoulder. Then he started away, whistling a happy tune.

Luge turned and frowned.

Eoban stopped abruptly. “Oh, you don’t like whistling? Well, if that’s no good, I can always sing.”

A glint of joy sparked in Amin’s middle as he watched his only hope traipse into the wilderness.

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.” ~Anonymous

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To Be Content

Regina would rather face a mob of angry clowns than admit that she wasn’t partial to puppies. After all, what kind of lunatic didn’t like puppies? So, when her friend and (lucky for her brother) sister-in-law, Claudia, asked if she’d watch their puppy while they took a sneak trip to Chicago for a weekend of theater and dancing, who was Regina to say no?

“Suuure—” She tried to toss a happy exclamation mark into her voice, but it cracked at the crucial moment.

Claudia packed in such a hurry she wouldn’t have missed a question mark streaking through the room buck-naked.

“Should I check in on him—her?—a couple of times a day?”

If Claudia had slammed her chest any harder, cardiac arrest would surely have ensued. “Oh, no! That won’t do. Not at all. The Timster needs around the clock care. You’ll take him to your place for the weekend. After all, he’s our little baby!”

At that moment, said baby was snatched from happily chewing a pink slipper on the rumpled bed into mommy’s arms. And rocked.

To its credit, the mutt had sense enough to look sheepish.

“Honey!”

Regina would know her brother’s voice if he was a penguin returning from an iceberg in the frozen north. It was that distinctive. Rog didn’t so much call as bellow. She honestly didn’t understand it. No one else in the family bellowed. Must go back generations. She’d have to ask mom—without sending the woman into fits of my-family-is-perfect hysteria.

Rog’s eyes lit up like a master criminal sizing up a safety deposit box. He even rubbed his hands together. “Hey, Regina! Glad you could make it! We’ll head out before traffic gets crazy! Thanks for taking our little boy!”

Despite the contagion of exclamation points flung into the air, said boy was now transferred to daddy so mommy could slam her bag shut, snatch a faux fur coat off the chair, and toss a kiss in Regina’s direction.

“You’re a lifesaver, dear!”

Rog dumped his four-footed progeny into his sister’s arms before skedaddling out the door.

Regina held the squirming puppy and wondered what it ate besides slippers.

~~~

Safely ensconced in her favorite chair, a novel on her right, a half-finished ghostwriting assignment on her left, a cup of hot cocoa warming her hands, she watched the puppy chase a ball of colored yard across the floor. Regina decided that life—despite a twenty-minute I-will-be-calm-no matter-what-your-mother-says conversation with her dad—was pretty good. For her, at least.

A chime lifted her gaze from the miniature acrobat skidding into her coffee table to the green apartment door.

The rest of the apartment—painted Sahara tan—made the eye-catching door stand out like an oasis in the desert. Maybe that was the point? Dismissing the ever-present conundrum, Regina paced across the floor and peered through the peephole. “Yes?”

“It’s me! Goofy. Let me in.” Doing her signature cross-eyed, tongue out look, Janet wiggled two fingers.

Regina smothered a sigh, considered hiding the puppy in her bedroom, imagined her computer cords chewed to frazzled ends, clutched the door handle and let her friend in. “Hey, Janet.”

“Hey to you.” Janet paraded into the room. The woman simply could not walk normally. Her hips swayed, her shoulders danced, her eyes romped. Sexy coolness personified.

Then she saw the puppy and melted into a puddle. “Ohhhh…a puuupppyyy!!!” She scooped the suddenly terror-stricken critter into her arms.

Fear soon gave way to annoyance. The Timster squirmed like a child on a dentist chair.

“When did you get a puppy? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought I was your best friend—”

“It’s my brother’s and his wife’s. I’m baby—I mean—dog-sitting for the weekend. Don’t tell anyone. I’m not sure how my landlady would react since she enforces a No Pets law throughout the kingdom.”

Janet smirked. “Couldn’t get a date with a guy, huh?”

Regina dangled colored yarn in front of the frolicking mutt, making them both dance.

In an attempt to regain some measure of dignity, the puppy snatched the yarn and ran to the kitchen.

Regina returned to her chair and retrieved her cocoa from the end table. “I’m off the online sites, and I have no plans.”

If prohibition had made a comeback, Janet couldn’t have looked more horrified. “What happened? I thought you liked some of the guys.”

“Liking and making a life together are two different things.”

“So what do you want?”

“A friend first. Then we’ll see.”

“But you already got me.” Janet started for the kitchen. “Well, Tuesday through Thursday.”

Regina drained her cup and followed the swaying hips. “So, what are you doing here? It’s Friday. You should be out on the town with…”

“Yeah. I’m going. I just wanted to ask you something first.”

Regina set the cup on the kitchen counter, faced her friend, and raised her eyebrows

“Gerry asked me to marry him.”

Regina’s heart flipped. Jealous? Nope. Well, maybe. A little. “Yeah? So…?”

“Should I say yes?”

The puppy sauntered across the tiled floor, head up, chest out, clutching the skein of yarn in his teeth like a wolf carrying venison home to the pack.

Regina lifted her gaze to the older woman and for the first time, she really looked. And saw. The too-bright lipstick, the heavy makeup, faint shadows under her eyes, the long-suffering expression.

“What do you want, Janet?”

Janet shook her head. “I want what you got. With puppy. And your books. Work. Your bellowing brother, your persnickety mom and worn-out dad. Your damn—contentment.”

Regina laughed. It felt good to laugh. At her friend. At herself. At the silly puppy. “Goofy indeed, you are rightly named! Tell me, do you enjoy getting hungry?”

Janet turned her head, glaring from one eye. “Generally, before meals.”

“So being fed all the time wouldn’t suit you any more than being content all the time. You just haven’t learned to be content with periodic—”

“Discontent?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Gerry’s not perfect, but he loves me, and I—” The hips relaxed, her shoulders settled, and her eyes softened. “I rather like the guy.”

“Can you make a life with him?”

“We can try. If there’s a will—right?” She looked down as the doggy trotted near. “But what about you—and your temporary little friend?”

The Timster dropped the defeated yarn at Regina’s feet and peered up adoringly.

Regina scooped the puppy into her arms and chuckled all the way back to her chair.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

Ishtar stood, using his advantage in height, and bore down on Matalah’s second son, Wasim, staring fixedly into the hard face and squinted eyes. “I understand your position, but I accept it only on my terms. I’ll not oppose you, on the condition that you leave your father in peace. Keep your conquests to yourself and don’t lure your sisters and younger brother with stories of power and wealth. Stay away and keep your glorified visions far from here.”

Puffing out his chest, Wasim crossed his arms. “The power and wealth you speak of will be mine—and no illusion.” His eyes wrinkled in amusement. “All my brothers and I ask is that you keep father from opposing us. Will you do this little thing?” All amusement died. “Consider your answer carefully.”

Anger coursed through Ishtar’s blood as he bit off his words. “I will stay at your father’s side and do nothing to stop your treachery.”

Wasim nodded and turned away.

Ishtar called after him. “Others may oppose you, though.”

With a disdainful wave, Wasim paced away. His figure shimmered into the scorching heat.

~~~

Ishtar, calm and free from terrifying memories and having put all thought of Wasim from his mind, climbed the hills to greener pastures. As the days slowly passed, he watched the lambs frolic in innocent abandon. One persistent yearling butted against him repeatedly.

“All right, you win!” Ishtar bent down and rubbed her thick fleece.

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

Ishtar threw up his hands. “So like a child! You plague me for attention, and when I’m finally willing—” His gaze fell on a group of men climbing the hillside. He braced himself.

Matalah’s third son, Assam, strode at the head of the assembly and stepped up to Ishtar with a hand extended.

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

Unruffled, Assam grinned. “My eldest brother, Abdul, requests a meeting before we begin our conquest.” The lines of his face tightened into dread seriousness. “You must come. We’re not far.”

Ishtar nodded, and using his staff, he descended the hillside. As he glanced back, his eye caught the lamb that had nestled in his arms and was only now beginning to make forays into the wider world. He felt a pang in his chest as he considered her response when she came seeking him, and he was no longer there. Caleb’s face floated before his eyes. Ishtar stumbled.

Assam turned and frowned.

Irritation washed over Ishtar, and he waved the man on. The group wound down the hillside onto the barren plain.

Ripples of sand and dots of desert weeds covered the landscape. No insect or animal movement caught his eye, except a large bird soaring above. What could it possibly hope to find here? Ishtar shook his head and dropped his gaze as they marched along.

As the sun began its descent, Assam’s voice rose in a business-like tone. “We’re making our final plans, and we’ll leave as soon as everyone is ready.”

Ishtar squinted in the afternoon sunshine, using his hand to block the blinding rays. Like a splash of cold water, the sight before his eyes sent a rippled shock over his body.

A large assembly of men busied themselves in battle preparations. The sight of so many weapons and hardened men stole Ishtar’s breath away. This was hardly the idle fantasy of mere boys. Matalah had been right—his sons were the tools of a much greater force.

Assam flashed a grin and gleefully shouted a battle cry as he lunged forward to greet his comrades.

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

In the center, dressed for battle with a long sword hanging at his side and knives tucked in his belt, stood Abdul.

Ishtar halted on the periphery, watching the excited men boast and gesture, building themselves into a fever pitch. Pounding blood coursed through his own veins. Faces floated before his eyes—Neb, Hagia, Aram, Obed, Tobia, his wife, and sons—as if there were no past but only a great muddle of present moments involving all the people who had been important to him. How could a man build a future when the past would not leave him be?

Abdul peered at Ishtar, and for a moment, they were alone in the world, staring at each other, taking one another’s measure. A gleam entered Abdul’s eyes. “So, my father’s friend has joined us at last. Good of you to come.”

Ishtar inclined his head. “Your invitation could not be ignored.”

Abdul gestured curtly. “Come then; we’ll get started. I have a few men I want you to meet. They’re assembled in my tent.”

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

Abdul plunked down on a pile of pillows, leaving Ishtar to stand. He waved to the assembled men, hardened warriors every one of them. “Our plans are complete, except for one small thing. We’d like your cooperation in a simple matter.”

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

“Your part is most important, for it will help us in all our future plans.” Abdul waited.

Ishtar pursed his lips. “Speak plainly. What is it you want from me?”

“Lead my father into battle against us.” Abdul grinned, apparently amused by Ishtar’s frozen reaction.

His throat tightening, Ishtar swallowed against a choking sensation. His words dropped to a whisper. “You want your father out of the way.”

“Just so.”

Ishtar’s hands trembled. “In this, I am your equal at least.” He clenched his jaw. “But I never wanted my father to die—only his evil to end.”

A scowl rode across Abdul’s forehead, one eyebrow rising. “There is no other way. If you lead him into battle, he’ll have the honor of a valiant death. If you abandon him, it’ll be a mindless slaughter. Which would you have? Honor or disgrace?”

Ishtar’s voice rose to a fevered pitch. “Is it your father’s disgrace to be murdered by his son?”

Abdul poked the air before Ishtar. “Unless my father confronts us honestly, our mission cannot succeed. I wouldn’t be a worthy son if I didn’t give him the opportunity to defend himself.”

Ishtar unclenched his teeth and sucked in a deep breath. “He is no threat to you! Why must you make such an evil choice?”

“The future is unforeseeable. I cannot always watch my back, uncertain of his loyalty.”

“You can speak of loyalty? You, who have none?”
“My father must see—he has no choice. He can’t remain hidden in the folds of his tent, embraced in self- righteousness. We are the heirs of this land. We must decide the future. I am not content to die as I was born.”

“You want me to convince your father to go into the open battle and be killed by your men?”

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

“How does an old man wish to die? No valiant tales are told of quiet lives endured in peaceful times. Better to die in a struggle for home and position than to die mourned only by the plaintive wailing of a few old women.”

“Even when that struggle is against his own son?”

“We are all brothers…or sons under the same sky.” Ishtar shook his head. “I could reason better with the sheep.”

“The sheep are mine.”

All emotion burning into ashy cinders, Ishtar squared his shoulders. “I will tell your father what you’ve said. Whether he comes to offer battle or self-sacrifice is more than I can say.” Ishtar turned to leave.

Abdul called after him. “Ishtar! You’ll ride out with him.”

The flap fell back into place as Ishtar stepped into the dim light.

~~~

Ishtar rose from his bed of softened earth in the crook between two sheltering boulders, blinked at the rising sun, and dusted off his tunic. He tromped over the hillside while the sheep gamboled along behind. Once on the plain, he blocked the hot sun with his arm and directed his steps to Matalah’s tent.

Outside, a low fire smoldered under an empty pot. Camp activity had stilled to a deserted silence. Only one attendant came and led the sheep to their enclosure.

Ishtar passed around the fire and entered the tent. Matalah, in his usual place, sat still and quiet. His shrunken frame bowed as if to reflect the breaking of his heart.

After embracing the old man, Ishtar stood aside and told his dreadful news.

Matalah’s head dropped lower on his chest. His eyes were open, but his gaze remained unfocused.

Pacing closer, Ishtar crouched and peered into the old man’s face. “So, what now, my friend? Will we go out together and meet the enemy?”

Matalah lifted his head and raised his hands in as if in supplication. “Against my own sons? My flesh is taken from my frame and attacks me! Those I held as babes and loved as boys now hate me as men.”

Swiveling on his heel, Ishtar turned and pounded to the other side of the tent. “But they’ll destroy you if you do nothing.”

Matalah rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his middle. “My heart beats by some command that is not my own. If I could fight a heartless enemy, I would be satisfied, but how can I wish to murder a part of myself?” Peering up, Matalah locked his gaze on Ishtar, and tears filled his eyes. “I love them—even yet. They are my second self. They look like me; they sound like me. Though they have forsaken me, they cannot forget me altogether. They, too, will grow old and have sons, and my countenance will accuse them through innocent eyes.”

Ishtar bowed his head, pain searing through his middle. “Your words ring truer than you know. My sons will inherit my guilt without knowing the reason or the price paid for my pride and ambition.”

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

Returning to Matalah’s side, Ishtar gripped his friend’s arm. “But I have outlived my horrors, and the shadows of the past no longer claim me.”

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

“It was your goodness that set me free. If I can offer my life to you in gratitude for your generosity, I only help myself to decency and peace.”

Matalah groaned. “It is my hour to wish for a quick death.”

Ishtar strolled to the doorway, lifted the tent flap, and peered out. “Death will come soon enough.” He glanced back. “Let’s go out and discover what awaits us.”

Matalah’s hands spread wide. “I have nothing to offer that will gain us time or strength…or imbue them with forgotten decency.”

A strange, unexpected peace settled over Ishtar. “There are things your sons do not know. Even things that you do not know. The goodness you bestowed on your neighbors—even on your herds—will return to you in the end.”

“What you say may be true, but my sons won’t care for such philosophy. They want a quick gain, no matter what the cost.” He rose and tottered to the opening, standing next to Ishtar. “All my life is to be thrown to the wind.”

“You were brought into the world for a purpose and shall be held accountable for your part only.”

Matalah’s arms reached into the air beseechingly. “But they are my sons. Surely, I share the guilt in what I have helped to create? Has my life not been made worthless?”

Ishtar clenched his hands and stared at his friend. “You are not worthless.”

Matalah closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest. He murmured under his breath and then opened his eyes. Straightening, he started forward. “I still have a few attendants and camels; they will lead us to my sons.”

Ishtar laid his hand on Matalah’s shoulder. “You have less to regret than most mortals.”

Matalah sighed as he stepped outside. “But my heart is broken, nonetheless.”

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

“It takes a strong heart to love, but it takes an even stronger heart to continue to love after it’s been hurt.” ~Anonymous 

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Love Alone

My daughter showed me a YouTube video recently of a little girl meeting her adoptive parents for the first time. The child, about four, could not have been more adorable. Beyond her innate cuteness, her enthusiasm, her voice quality and mannerisms, which all personified the very best of child-ness, it was her words that rang in my ears long after the video segment fell silent. After a rambling intro, the little girl launched into the core of her happiness: “When I saw you, my heart just fell in love with you.”

It’s funny how easily those words tripped off the child’s tongue. I had to remind myself, she is an orphan. She has lost her parents. God knows how. I had no idea what her life had been like up to that point, but losing both parents isn’t usually the direct road to happiness. Losing loved ones doesn’t usually make a person more loving.

In fact, it’s darn hard for most people to ever say, much less intend the words, “I love you.” Of course, we do use the words in a variety of ways, adding a few extras. “I love you…r spicy chicken.” But it’s hard to tell someone, perhaps a parent who has rocked us through childhood illnesses but drank a bit too much at holiday parties, a sibling who teased us unmercifully but freely loaned a hundred bucks for car repairs, a lover who understood our dreams but couldn’t accept our lifestyle, that we care about them, much less admit that let our hearts fell in love with them. Even when our love isn’t so much about “falling into” but rather a slow awakening. Or an admission of the obvious. “Heck, do you think I’d do your laundry if I didn’t…?”

Declaring our love gives another person power. He or she can choose not to respond. Leaving an empty hole where “I love you, too” should have flowed naturally. Or he or she can reject our love outright. Hurt us. Hate us. Make love feel like a curse rather than a blessing.

Perhaps I don’t feel enough. Or I feel too much. But in the end, I find that saying the words, “I love you,” without expectations but simply because it happens to be true— even when I disagree with that person over politics, religion, and how to properly laminate the floor—is very freeing. I can love even though the other person has bad habits, is an unresponsive jerk or jerkette at times, and worst of all, might not love me back the way I want them to. My love, like my self-esteem, does not depend upon another person’s acceptance. It is a free gift. Even when it stands alone.

The adorable little girl had no idea that she was giving herself the greatest gift she could. As she offered her heart, she became love personified. When Christ admonished the human race to become like little children, I doubt he meant we should toss our vegetables off the dinner plate or elbow our way to the front of the line. I suspect He meant exactly what the little girl meant when she told her new parents that “her heart fell in love with them.” She had love to give. And she gave. Freely. Abundantly.

She will never love alone.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Five

—Amin’s Village—

My Enemy’s Sons

Amin, with his sharp, chiseled chin and pointed nose, stood in front of a grave mound with his hands clasped behind his back. Tears clouded his vision.

Villagers strode by—unaware or uncaring—never once looking in his direction.

Shuffling footsteps neared.

Amin scowled.

A small brown hand clasped his. Amin peered down and met the sad-eyed gaze of his little brother, a red-cheeked child losing his bloom too early. He swallowed back a lump and cleared his throat. “Caleb. What’re you doing here?”

A slight shrug hinted at a deeper ignorance.

“Did you eat yet?”

Caleb drew one hand from behind his back. A half-eaten piece of bread crumbled beneath his grasp. “It’s all she could spare—at the moment.”

Amin nodded. “Finish it.”

Caleb frowned. “Half’s for you.”

“I already ate. Got some broiled fish off one of the men. Threw it at me like I was a dog.”

Caleb’s eyes widened, his tone a pitch higher. “Fish?”

“I would’ve saved it for you, but it fell in the dirt—wasn’t more than—” He shrugged, clasped his brother’s shoulder, and turned away from the grave.

Caleb turned back, staring at the mound. “Hagia would want flowers.”

An ache throbbed in Amin’s middle. “If she were alive. No need of flowers where she’s gone.” He pulled his brother along.

Caleb followed with a sigh. They wandered to the center of the village.

A young couple bustled in serious industry outside a large, sturdy dwelling. The woman shifted a bench from the right to the left, while the man strung a rope taut from one pole to another. They stopped and peered with sour expressions as the two boys shuffled closer.

The woman waved toward a boulder surrounded by rank grass. “Go over there. That woman left you a tray. Eat the leavings and move on.” She glanced at the hills as if indicating the way.

On the boulder, a tray of gruel lay broiling in the hot sun.

Amin’s frown deepened as he stared back. “What woman?”

The man marched forward, his face flushed, and his brows arched. “Namah. But why she should care for you— after what your father did—is beyond me.” He spat on the ground. “I’d have slaughtered my enemy’s sons. Not fed ’em.”

Caleb trotted over to the food and sniffed. The gruel had jelled into a thick gelatinous mass.

Amin peered over his brother’s shoulder. “Disgusting.”

The woman’s hand fluttered like a garment in a strong breeze. “Not so loud. She’s over there. Discussing you two, no doubt.”

After settling on the ground cross-legged, Caleb pulled the tray onto his lap and shoveled the messy mixture into his mouth with his dirty fingers. He glanced at Amin while dribbles leaked down his chin. “Want some?”

Amin’s gaze fixed on Namah’s back as she stood across the village chatting in a company of other women.

“Wonder what she’s saying.”

The woman straightened a blanket on the line. “She wants someone to adopt you.” She thwacked the heavy cloth with a stick.

Amin whirled around. “Adopt me?”

The woman pounded in a steady rhythm, sending billows of dust into the air. “You and him.” She gestured with her chin. “You’ve got to live somewhere.”

Amin glanced at the dwelling, fury rising like hot liquid in his stomach. “This used to be our home.”

Dropping an ax on the bench, the man turned around, glaring. “Not anymore. Ishtar’s disgraced himself—exiled to his doom, far as I care.” He slapped the doorpost. “But it’s a solid house. I’ve as much right to it as anyone.”

Caleb peered up, licking his sticky lips. “Why?”

With two strides, the man leaned forward and cuffed Caleb on the head. “No more questions. Be on your way now. You’re lucky I didn’t let the dogs have that mess.”

Whimpering, Caleb dropped the tray in the dirt and covered his head.

Growling like a chained animal, Amin gripped his brother’s hand and lurched him to his feet. Tugging him along the path between the buildings, he glanced around. No Namah. “Curse that man! He’s no right to hit you. Or order us away.”

Caleb sniffed as he rubbed his ear. Tears welled in his eyes. “Everyone hates us.”

Amin lead Caleb to a grove of trees beside a rushing stream. “Not everyone.” He frowned and glanced at Caleb as he settled him under the shade of a large tree. “Rest. We’ll sleep here tonight.”

Caleb’s eyes rounded. “But animals come at night.”

Amin tugged a piece of flint from a small wallet tied around his waist. “I can make a fire.” He glanced around. “There’s plenty of tinder, and we can gather bigger pieces before dark.”

Caleb’s sniff turned into a shudder. “I wish Hagia were here. She loved us.”

“She did. But” —Amin shrugged away his helplessness— “at least Namah and Jonas leave us food.”

“Why? I mean, why do they?” Caleb peered up, squinting into the light filtering through the branches.

“Barak probably tells them to. He’s a good man. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hagia said Namah would follow Aram to the grave. How can she?”

“It’s just a saying.” Tousling his brother’s thick, curly hair, Amin worked up a crooked grin. “No more questions, all right?”

Caleb ran a filthy hand over his sweaty face, smearing streaks of dirt over his head and neck.

Amin’s stomach churned. “Go wash in the stream. I’ll get some wood.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Maybe I’ll even catch a fish for tonight, and we can roast it.”

A new light entered Caleb’s eyes. Turning on his heel, he scampered away.

Amin watched the boy leap like a frisky puppy into the bubbling stream. He sighed and turned to the woods. As he stepped into the cool shade, he glanced back at his old dwelling. Setting his jaw, his eyes narrowed.

 

*A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed week.

Ann

“A home is made of hopes and dreams.” ~Anonymous

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